The Third Call

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Chapter 1

Deputy Marcus O’Connell took another swallow of Suzanne’s favorite local stout and wondered how his sister could drink the stuff. He’d never taken to heavy dark beer, preferring lighter lagers, and he was drinking it now only because she’d ordered two and slid one over to him just after he got there. Now, she was making her way over to one of the firefighters, Lieutenant Toby Chandler.

“Stop staring at them,” said Sheriff Osbert Berry, Bert for short, who was sitting on the same stool at the end of the bar where he always sat, nursing the ale on tap. Marcus hadn’t known he was paying attention.

“I’m not staring. I’m observing. There’s a difference.” He leaned on the bar, having to glance back over his shoulder to Bert, who seemed to have packed on a few more pounds as of late. He already had a hefty frame for a man in his sixties, and it appeared he hadn’t shaved in days.

“Bullshit, Marcus,” Bert said. “You’re staring them down with that look you have that makes everyone nervous. She’s flirting, blowing off steam. Let her have some fun, and remember, son, you’re talking to the man who wrote the book on staring down numbskulls whose asses you want to kick. I trained you. I know you better than anyone.”

For a second, Bert smiled almost fondly over at Suzanne, who he still couldn’t believe was making eyes at Toby. Why couldn’t she see that his only redeeming quality was the fact that he showed up for work? His sister was one of the best firefighters in Livingston, and if push came to shove, it would be her Marcus wanted saving his ass, not the asshole she was making eyes at.

“I mean, look at him,” Marcus said, “the way he looks down at her with that flashy plastic smile he puts on for every girl. Why the hell can’t she see the guy’s a player, shallow, got nothing going for him? Lost count of the number of times I’ve told her to look anywhere else. She’s been with the department longer, yet he got the promotion to lieutenant last week. Give you three guesses as to why he got it and not her.”

He dragged his gaze back down the bar as his sister tossed her hair over her shoulder and shrugged, flirting. He had to look away. The sheriff was softly chuckling under his breath, then polished off the pint in front of him and gestured to Ken, the bartender and owner of the Lighthouse bar, a silver-haired former golden-gloves fighter and someone else he had to keep an eye on.

“What, you mean just because he’s a strapping young white man who has the same last name as the former chief?” Bert said as Ken slid him another pint. He nodded in thanks, then lifted his gaze to Marcus, who was counting the number of pints he’d downed—five or six, he thought. “Take a look in the mirror, son. Some could say the same about you.” Bert’s blue eyes were bloodshot with the sorrow that seemed to be a part of him now, so many months since he’d put his wife in the ground.

“Seriously, what the hell does that have to do with anything?” Marcus said. “I’m fucking good at what I do, and I didn’t step over anyone or have anything handed to me. Doors weren’t all that open for me, if you recall.”

In fact, he was one of the six O’Connell kids, the brood who had been known as walking trouble—the kind of reputation their mom had warned them would be forever burned in the townsfolk’s minds. He had frequently found himself in trouble as a kid, so much so that Bert had taken to picking him up immediately whenever someone did something, just to save time tracking him down. Constantly being one step from juvie had made him pick up on the kinds of things everyone else missed. Whether at accidents or crime scenes, he now had a sixth sense, just knowing who had done what before anyone could even make notes or grab a coffee. Maybe he just knew exactly how someone living a life of crime would think. If he didn’t know the who, he just about always knew the why and the how.

The sheriff lifted his hand to stop him. “Just making a point is all, Marcus. You think I don’t know all that? Well, what I know doesn’t matter. People forget all that when shit hits the fan. We’re not all balanced and politically correct and everything—and that kind of thing now matters, as was pointed out to me this morning by the city council.” Bert gave him a significant glance.

Marcus gave everything to the old man he’d once looked up to. “What exactly was pointed out and by who?” he said, then looked down at the dark stout. He just couldn’t make himself drink it, so he pushed it away. What had his sister been thinking, ordering it for him? Oh, yeah, she’d been distracted over Toby at the other end of the bar. Just then, Toby lifted his chin to Marcus as if they were friends, so he dragged his gaze back over to the sheriff, who leaned on the bar and lifted his pint of ale to take another swallow.

“Oh, you know,” Bert said, “the same old crew, the mayor and all his cronies. Apparently, they want to see us more diverse and colorful. We’ve been told to hire a woman for the open deputy position.”

For a second, he wasn’t sure he’d heard correctly. “What open deputy position?”

Bert made a face. “The one the city council advised me of. Apparently, the backlog of paperwork and reports, budgets and stuff—ones I supposedly finished, signed, and submitted—showed that for the first time, the sheriff’s office is actually in the black when it comes to closing cases. In fact, we’re listed among the top fifty offices with the lowest numbers of unsolved crimes, or something along those lines, for whoever comes up with that kind of stuff. Funny thing is, though, I couldn’t remember submitting all that paperwork.”

Marcus wasn’t sure what to say. The sheriff seemed to consider something as he looked around the bar. “Look, Sheriff…” he started before the old man rested his beer on the bar and cut him off.

“I know you’ve been covering for me,” he said. “I know you’re the one who’s made sure everyone is getting where they need to be, getting the office staffed, giving tickets to keep the revenue coming in, making sure cases are being closed and lines aren’t being crossed so this place stays safe. You make sure all the Ts are crossed and no one fucks up anywhere. I knew it was you, always did. In case I haven’t said it, thank you. My head hasn’t been in it, you know…” He stopped talking, and that sadness returned. So did the knot in Marcus’s stomach as he thought of the day the call had come in. Peach Berry had had a heart attack at the hair salon while getting her roots done. The dye had still been in her hair. His sister had been first on the scene, and he’d been second. He didn’t think he’d ever forget the way the old man had cried.

“Stop it,” Marcus said. “It’s what we do. So we get extra help now? Good. I guess as long as it’s someone who can do the job and is qualified…”

Case in point in terms of a lack of qualifications, in his mind, was Toby Chandler at the end of the bar, who was not only flirting openly with his sister but also taking in every hot woman in the room.

His cell phone buzzed, and he pulled it out, seeing the sheriff’s office on the screen. “O’Connell,” he said. The sheriff was now giving him everything.

“Sorry to bug you, Marcus,” said Charlotte Roy, their dispatcher. “I know you’re off, but I got a call, a young kid, I think, probably horsing around and stuff. You know how kids get a hold of the phone and play when mom and dad aren’t looking. The kid hung up after a few seconds, no number or name. You said to let you know if anything came in.”

Charlotte had also been picking up on everything the sheriff had missed. Thirty years old, she was a good woman, a good friend. As a dispatcher, she was the best, but even she would admit that as a wife, she sucked.

“No, that’s totally fine, Charlotte,” he said. “Anything come up on call display, anything to give you an idea of who the kid is?”

The sheriff had picked up on what he was saying, and he seemed to be fumbling for his wallet, so Marcus quickly gestured to the barman to take his keys.

“Nope, nothing. It’s likely one of those burners. The kid was young, only said hi and then hung up. That makes me think it’s a kid playing around with the phone, you know?”

As he listened to Charlotte, he took in the back and forth between the bartender and sheriff and knew he was going to have to step in. “Okay, could be right,” he said. “Just keep an ear open and call me if anything else comes up. Would be ideal to find out so I can check in and at least give the parents a heads-up that the kid’s playing with their phone. You know what? I’ll pop back into the station.”

He hung up and pocketed his cell phone, then saw his sister making her way back over to him, so he tapped the counter and gestured to the pint of stout she’d ordered for him. “Hey, you can finish that,” he said. “I’ve got to go. You done down there, or you going to continue making a fool of yourself?”

Of course, what did she do but roll her eyes? “Oh, Marcus, seriously, keep your opinions to yourself and your nose out of my business,” Suzanne said, settling her own stout on the bar top. Marcus just grunted.

Just then, the sheriff stepped off the stool, and he swayed a bit, keys in hand, while Ken held his palm out, demanding the sheriff turn them over.

“Whoa, there!” Marcus said. “You just give those to me. You’re not driving anywhere.” He grabbed the keys one handed and tossed them to Ken behind the bar, who stuffed them under the counter. He reached for Bert’s arm, taking in the concern on his sister’s face.

“You got him?” she said.

In the buzz of the bar, he knew his sister understood everything. Just then, asshole Toby came up and joined her, so Marcus just said, “Yeah, yeah. I got him.”

But the sheriff pulled away, staggering to the door. “I can drive myself,” he said. “I’ve been driving myself everywhere for longer than you been born…”

Marcus watched a second, listening to the sheriff carry on, then tipped his chin to his sister before following Bert out the door. He grabbed his arm before he could fall over, preparing for the nightly routine: Bert would continue to argue the entire way home, even after he helped him inside the dusty small rancher, put him to bed, and pulled his boots off. He’d be snoring before Marcus left.

Then he’d stop back into the office and check on everything one final time before taking off for the night.

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