Shades of Gray

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Sleep wouldn’t come and Cal finally gave up trying at around one o’clock in the morning. He and Michael had stayed at the barracks until almost eleven preparing for the meeting wit the FBI agents the next morning. The duty rosters for the next day needed to be amended, teams needed to be reassigned, a small complement of officers would be needed for this particular investigation and a separate briefing would need to be organized. Michael had coordinated investigations with the Feds before so he had a good idea of what kind of manpower they would request. Most of the decisions would be based upon how long they intended to be here and to what extent their victim was involved in the larger federal case. Obviously there was more to this than they realized. There were so many things about this case that didn’t make sense that it was actually a relief that to know that this murder was a part of something bigger.

It wasn’t like they were being cut out of the investigation all together, but it sort of sucked to just have a case yanked out from under them. The change in the course of the investigation was also going to mean that the State Police were not in control of procedures and once the local part of the task force was assemble his days would be occupied by whatever aspect of the case he was assigned. This was going to mean that he’d have to out the plans he had made with Jack to go to Lake George on hold. It seemed that over the past eighteen months, no matter what, it seemed like he simply could not get a handle on his personal life. Here was another disappointment, another time when work was going to have to come before his son and probably another fight with his ex-wife when he broke the news.

He grabbed a beer from the fridge and wandered out onto the deck of the cabin he and Stephanie had bought from a friend about five years ago as an investment. They had intended to use it as a sometime weekend getaway and holiday rental property. Stephanie had long out grown her interest in fishing and communing with nature sometime between puberty and college, so Cal got the cabin as part of the divorce settlement. It was a beautiful early spring night, unusually warm for late April with a bout a bazillion stars winking through the trees. Cal pulled one of the Adirondack chairs his mother had given him closer to the railing so he could prop his legs up. Sitting there in the quiet as night was giving way to the coming day, Cal allowed the tension in his body to drain away as he deeply inhaled the crisp night air and soon his mind began to wander as fatigue, frustration and beer weighted his eyelids and his consciousness gave way to dream.

Cal was seven and his mother was helping him with the tie that the sales lady at the mall had said would look very nice with the dark suit that they had to drive all the way to Plattsburgh to buy. They were getting ready for his father’s wake and Cal was confused about what exactly this process was all about. His mother had told him that he didn’t need to go in the room where his father was if it was going to bother him. He understood that his father, who had been sick a very long time, was gone. He had gotten to say goodbye to his father at the hospital before he died. He wasn’t a baby, he understood that dying was not sleeping so why did they have to go to the stupid funeral home and have people look at his dad lying in some box looking like he was asleep. When his mother had talked to him about what would happen during the ceremony, she started to cry and he remembered that he had promised his father, three days ago, the last time he visited him in the hospital that he would be brave and help his mother. Now, as they prepared to leave for the funeral home, his mother’s hands were shaking and she was trying very hard not to cry. In his sleep, Cal felt her arms pull him close to her body as if she was trying to pull him into the gaping hole that his father’s passing had left.

Still dreaming, when he pulled away from the embrace, he was twenty-two and he was looking into the still sleeping face of his best friend, Stephanie. They were in bed together in Stephanie’s bedroom in her parent’s house and he absolutely no idea how he had gotten there, where his clothes were or how he had ended up in bed with her. He had some vague recollection of some formal function that he was supposed to attend mixed up with an argument that apparently had led to a considerable amount of alcohol being consumed. Stephanie stirred in her sleep, pressing her body closer to his. Confusion started to give way to a strange kind of panic. This was not the woman he had been arguing with, nor was this the woman he had thought he was having sex with. This was his very best friend, his buddy, and his shoulder to cry on not his lover. Sure, he always knew that Stephanie’s feelings for him went in a different direction than his, but he’d always been honest with her.

They had known each other since they were eight. They had made mud pies together, hunted for bugs and bullfrogs together, played on the same teams for street football and back yard baseball. They had the “relationship discussion” in the eighth grade when someone had asked Stephanie why she and Cal, who were always hanging out, weren’t boyfriend and girlfriend. They had both said that it would be too weird, that it would be like kissing your sister. Cal had told Stephanie that if they dated and they broke up, they probably could never be friends again and that he couldn’t stand that happening. So how the hell did they end up here, like this?

As the alcoholic haze continued to lift and completely unsure how to proceed, Cal tried to stay still even though his heart was pounding against his sternum so hard he thought it might actually explode. What should he do, should he apologize or pretend that he was still asleep? He realized that his face was broadcasting his feelings as Stephanie lifted her face to his, and seeing what was there tried to fight the tears that were welling up in her eyes. She moved slightly way from his embrace and he felt her trembling beside him as she asked him if he knew that it was her he had made love to the night before. Cal snapped awake with the echo of Stephanie’s question ringing in his ears. He swore he actually heard her voice say ‘it’s me’ and realized it was his answering machine. He stumbled through the porch door and grabbed the receiver.


“Cal? I, I didn’t really expect you to pick up. I ‘m sorry to be calling you this late,” Stephanie’s voice sounded strange. “I really didn’t think you’d pick up or that you’d even be there.”

“Steph?” He looked at the clock on the mantle. “Jesus, its 2:30 in the morning! Is everything all right?”

“I couldn’t sleep. I just wanted you to know that I’m sorry about this morning,” her voice was a shaky as it had been in his dream. “I saw the story on the news and well I just wanted to apologize.

Cal couldn’t help it; a smile formed as a subtle, stress-relieving laugh escaped from his lips. They had been together for almost 15 years and during that time, their sleep patterns, like much of their habits, had fallen into sync. He found it ironic; after all they had been through, that his restless nights could somehow still be her restless nights.

“What’s so funny,” Her voice had found an annoyed confidence. In his mind he could see her eyes narrow and the crease appear in her brow whenever she thought he was mocking her.

“Nothing, nothing’s funny. I was asleep. I didn’t hear the phone.” Why did she always make him feel like he needed to apologize? “Steph, you have nothing to apologize for. This call is just a perfect kind of weird in a day that’s been loaded with weird. Don’t worry about this morning. We’ll figure out this thing with Jack,” he paused and then added, “Together.”

After a rather awkward silence, Stephanie apologized again and said good night. Now wide-awake and more restless than before, Cal wandered around the cabin. He had stayed here on and off since he and Stephanie had separated and moved in permanently about two years ago after all attempts to save their marriage had failed. There were still boxes containing pieces of in his life lurking in corners.

Described in the rental brochures as rustic chic, perfect for quiet weekend or holiday getaways, the cabin was open and airy, with vaulted ceilings and a large stone fireplace. The kitchen and living rooms accounted for most of the open space in the cabin. The living room was furnished in understated Adirondack mountain inspired pieces, a big over stuffed chair and sofa sat opposite each other at opposing ends of a coffee table, off set by carved wooden end tables at either end of the sofa. Two bedrooms, each with their own bathroom, completed the room count; one, off the living room, which had been Jack’s room, and the master suite in the loft. The loft had a nice porch that provided a view of the fishing pond across the road.

Even though Cal had moved his personal belongings into master suite, he usually slept on the sofa, on which he now slumped with too many things going though his head to sleep. As he lay staring at the ceiling, he heard an owl hooting somewhere in the trees near the cabin. After forcing himself to count the knots on the wood of the ceiling, fatigue won out and eventually Cal drifted into a fitful and restless sleep.

Twenty miles away, the lights of Michael’s SUV reflected off of DEC sign ironically proclaiming the site a “Special No Kill Area” sign as he pulled off the road and entered the parking area. He kicked at the crime scene tape that lay scattered on the ground as he got out of his vehicle. This case was starting to eat at him in much the same way as the St. Regis case did. For the past three hours, he had been pacing around his house trying to make himself believe that the two cases were connected in order to justify the feeling in his gut that he could not put any solid evidence behind. Finally he had decided to go to the crime scene itself for inspiration. The scene would have to be released in a day or two as fishing season was opening and with it the summer tourist season making it very difficult to keep the curious way from public lands.

Michael knew that this spot was destined to be the stuff of teenager’s ghost stories and tests of bravery for anyone who would spend the night on the same ground where someone was murdered. He took his Mag-lite out of the trunk and started to make his way to the crime scene. It was much colder now and the trail took on a grey and foreboding appearance with only the sound of his footsteps on the trail and the chirping of crickets as company The moon had risen high in the waning hours of the night and Michael thought he could sense some of the woods nocturnal creatures scurrying away as he made his way to the clearing.

He wasn’t sure why he was here or what he expected to find but something kept drawing his attention to the camping site. It wasn’t exactly a spot that you would just happen to see driving by and decide to settle. A person would have to familiar with this area, more than familiar; they would have to know the area to simply get here. It was the same gut feeling that kept the St. Regis file on his desk and the same something that made him study those crime scene photos. Michael wandered around the open space; all that physically remained to testify to the events that had occurred here were footprints of forensics technicians, more scattered crime scene tape and a slight trace of the blood pool left by the victim. He let his imagination replay the events as they were described and questioned them as they appeared in his mind’s eye. The choice of this particular fishing hole was what was puzzling Michael the most. Recreational fishermen did not frequently visit this particular spot. It was not on any specific guide maps and, although easily accessible, it wasn’t the type of spot someone would just stumble upon and set up camp. There were certainly more remote places in the area and certainly ones that would have concealed the crime far better than this one. Why pick one where the crime would be easily discovered?

He had asked a similar question two years ago looking at the ashes of a cabin, so remote that the odds of anyone discovering that crime quickly were as equally remote. Why did the killer set the cabin on fire? Michael began to inventory the facts of both cases, lining up the similarities in his head. There had been not evidence left at either scene that could be used to identify the killer. Both locations were easily accessible but also afforded a sense of privacy so that the killer would have ample time to commit the murder and clear up the scene so that crime would not be readily detectable. Neither victim had to be lured to the scene; each place was apparently somewhere they had felt safe being with the killer. There had been no witnesses for the St. Regis homicide; was the killer aware that there had been witnesses this time? The staging of the scene after the murder seemed to say ‘no’ but how could they be sure? Maybe this was a mistake that they could use to tip the momentum in their favor. Had this seeming flawless killer finally left a loose end?

A deer wading near the opposite side of the river spooked at the sound of Michael’s footsteps as he neared the riverbank and bounded into the woods. He caught a brief glimpse of movement and heard the sound of the deer’s escape snapping branches and displacing foliage as it disappeared in to the gloom. The deer knew where it was going and how to retreat into the safety of the wilderness. So did this killer. Staring at the water rushing through the rocks where the dear had been just moments before, Michael felt the same rush of exhilaration. He was now convinced that the cases were connected. The killer wanted the bodies discovered quickly. Why? Because these weren’t random murders; they were contract hits. The quick discoveries and subsequent news coverage possibly served as verification that the hit had been made. The clean crime scenes were the signatures. The same person was responsible for both murders.

By the time Michael arrived home from his field trip is was close to 3:30 and he saw little point in trying to sleep but his body was of a differing opinion. He decided that two hours of sleep would be sufficient to get him through to the meeting with the FBI; he’d survived on less when he was in the military. Moving to the kitchen, he reprogrammed the coffee maker for 5:30, and he began to feel the impending crash from the rush of adrenaline that had sustained him. Stripping down to his underwear, he didn’t bother with any other preparations for sleep other than turning down the bed; he simply surrendered to sleep as the sun struggled to burn away the grey of the dawn.

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