Marcus worked a piece of gum as he drove back toward the station, taking a second to really consider everything that had happened. With his job, he was the law in this town, running things, making decisions and taking charge. He took in the downtown streets and the passing people that he knew, in a part of the country he loved, surrounded by mountains.
At the same time, this place was filled with secrets, this town, these people, and somewhere out there was the key to the biggest secret of all, the mystery of what had happened to his dad. One day, he knew he’d find answers.
He didn’t nod to anyone, though he knew everyone saw him driving past. A wave here, a turn of a head there, even from people he knew had whispered that he’d never amount to anything. Now he was the one in charge.
Marcus took in the bustling parking lot as he drove back past the Lighthouse bar on his way to the station house. His sister was still there, and so was Toby, considering both their cars were still parked side by side in the parking lot. Maybe this weekend he’d take another crack at her, but then again, he needed to remind himself that Suzanne had never listened to anyone when it came to anything. Yup, a typical O’Connell, with a stubborn streak a mile wide.
Suzanne was deceiving. She gave the illusion of being mild mannered and quiet, as the youngest sibling, but that entire personality was a ruse for her rock-hard stubbornness. She did whatever the hell she wanted, contrary to anyone, and she generally got away with just about anything.
Marcus pulled into the spot marked “Sheriff,” taking in the setting sun. His stomach growled as he thought back on the possibility of the burger and beer his sister had promised if he joined her at the Lighthouse. Right, not happening now, considering she was preoccupied. Add in the fact that he couldn’t stop himself from triple checking things at the station, which he did every night since Peach, God rest her, had left all of them. Nothing was going to blow up in his face at the sheriff’s office, not on his watch.
He took in the parking lot, the old brick of the sheriff’s office, and the town hall across the street, then made his way up the steps and pulled open the front door. His boots scraped across the old linoleum as he took in the frosted door with “Sheriff’s Office” written in fresh black print, something else he’d taken care of.
Inside, Charlotte, the dispatcher, whom he’d known forever, was standing at an old five-drawer file cabinet. Her dark hair was pulled high in a ponytail, and her curves had distracted everyone, namely the male who was cuffed and parked at an empty desk.
“Hey there, Marcus,” she said. “You get the sheriff all settled at home?” There was something about the way she spoke, and her smile lit up her entire face and her hazel eyes. Without question, she always stepped in to cover for the sheriff when Marcus wasn’t there. Maybe because of that, he’d never been able to understand why her personal life sucked so badly.
“He was snoring Zs by the time I left. You think you can get that friend of yours who cleans houses to stop on over again? His place needs a good going-over. It’s a pigsty, and pretty sure there isn’t a clean dish or shirt left, the way everything is piled up.”
Charlotte paused as she sifted through the files, then stuffed a folder in the already overcrowded drawer. She wore the same brown deputy shirt he did, only he swore it looked better on her.
“You bet I can,” she said. “What excuse should I use this time?” She closed the drawer and wandered back over to her desk, which was neat and tidy. He took in the messages she reached for.
“I don’t know. What did you say last time?”
She handed him the notepad, covered in her neat penmanship. There were a lot of the same regular nuisance complaints, nothing urgent, all a pain in the ass. When he glanced up, he took in the frown on Charlotte’s face, a face that would never get lost even in a sea of pretty faces.
“That he entered some contest to win free housecleaning,” she said.
Right, that was easy. “Say it was a package, more than one. Just make up a number, and I’ll cover the cost.”
She simply nodded, and he knew she’d take care of it. “You know, you don’t have to pay it yourself,” she said. “Let’s pass the hat around. I’m sure both Lonnie and Colby would also pitch in. It’s not all on you to look after the sheriff.”
What could he say to explain the soft spot he had for a man who’d given him more chances than anyone to turn his life around? Then there was Peach, who had looked the other way when he lifted that pack of smokes. Instead of busting his ass, she’d simply driven up beside him, told him to get in, and taken him back to her place, where she had given him a slice of lemon meringue and some sweetened tea and shown him an old photograph of her brother, who’d done a nickel at Calhoun for theft and was now six feet under, having never gotten his shit together. Marcus had never stolen anything again. That was just one more thing he hadn’t shared with anyone in his family.
“That’s mighty nice, Charlotte, but let’s keep it under wraps for now. Bert just needs a little bit to find his feet again. I can do that much.”
Charlotte gave a soft sigh. “You’re an absolute gem, Marcus. If only I’d gone with you to prom and not Jimmy Roy.”
That was the what-if road, which he had no intentions of going down, considering way back then, Charlotte’d had eyes only for Jimmy. Taking a trip down memory lane was something he wasn’t going to do.
“So this is everything for tonight?” he said. “Nothing else has come in?”
She shook her head, gesturing with her chin. “Lonnie is out at the Miller place about a break-in on one of his sheds, some farm equipment taken, and Colby is pulling the night shift tonight, so he’s making rounds. No more kids calling for kicks, so you just may be in for a quiet night. Was about to head home myself.” She pulled her desk drawer open and lifted out her baggy purse, then rested it on the desk. “Unless you need me to stay and help with anything?”
She was so damn good. Why did she give everything to the job instead of making the tough decisions she needed to with the dickhead she’d married?
“Jimmy still won’t leave, huh?” was all he said, knowing there was only so much he could do to avoid the topic. She and Jimmy had gotten married eight years ago and had been separated for seven.
She just shrugged and looked away. She still shared a house with the man she was married to in name only, because neither one of them wanted to give it up. It was pitiful and one of her only flaws.
“What can I say, Marcus? He’s as stubborn as me. We’re each waiting for the other to blink and walk away so one of us can have the house, but hell will freeze over before I let that man have a house that has been in my family for two generations.”
That was why she would never be free.
“Any progress with the lawyers?” He didn’t know why he’d asked, as she only shrugged. He wanted to point out to her again, as he had a dozen times, if not more, that she was only making her lawyer wealthy, and she could have bought two houses by now if she’d only walked away.
“He keeps telling me the same thing as you, that it’s just a house and it’s not going to get me back my last seven years. Do I want to give away another ten, twenty, or move on and be happy? But I’ll tell you exactly what I told him: That was my grandparents’ house. I love that house and don’t want to live anywhere else, so he needs to do his job, get a court date, and get Jimmy the fuck out of my house. Jimmy’s lawyer has managed to do everything he can to delay every single thing all because of one mistake I made.”
He could hear her frustration, and boy, he felt the bite of her words. She was passionate about that house. He wondered why it was that some women held on to the most ridiculous things, and he thought about his sister Suzanne, too. Thankfully, the phone rang, so he didn’t have to think of something inspirational to say.
“Sheriff’s office,” Charlotte said, without the same sweet voice she normally used. Yeah, there was a side of her that just couldn’t be reasoned with.
Whoever was on the other end had her flicking those hazel eyes over to him and snapping her fingers to drive home the urgency and get his attention.
“Honey, can you give me your name?” she said, then allowed the phone to slide away from her mouth. “It’s that little kid who called before,” she whispered.
Marcus gestured for Charlotte to give him the phone, but she was listening to something.
“I’m sorry, I can’t hear you,” she said. “Is there somebody there? Someone’s trying to hurt you? Where’s your mommy or daddy? What…hello?” She held the receiver away. “She hung up again, but I think she said her name is Eva. A young kid, just like before.”
Marcus reached for the main phone and slid it around, trying to see the number, but all the display showed was the typical blocked number from a burner cell. Charlotte held out the receiver to him. Something about these calls was now bothering him.
“You know what?” he said. “If you don’t mind staying for a bit, maybe call Tulli at the state computer crime lab in Missoula and see if he can find a way back to that number.”
Charlotte gave a quick smile—of relief, he thought—and dumped her bag back on her desk. “You bet,” she said, once again sounding sweet, nice, likely because he’d just given her the one thing she wanted: a reason not to go home and hang out with the man she was still married to.
Yup, he liked Charlotte. Could even have found himself asking her out a time or two, but there was that little fact that she was still married. Taking her home to her place meant hanging out with her husband, who would likely be doing the same type of entertaining, all because neither could get along, and neither would give up the house.
There was something about relationships that sometimes had him wondering why anyone ever bothered.