The warm, humid air hit Taran the next morning, not quite suffocating him any longer but still feeling like a crowded, poorly-ventilated auditorium. The air smelled fresher, though, as if the everyday scents of the mountains had been tamped down by the excess water in the air. A bird chirped and then Taran heard the rustle of feathers against the last of the leaves on the tree when he came out of the house.
He was on his way to see Frank Nilsen that morning. Taran had called him the previous night to see if Blake had gotten around to talking to him, as a sort of warning. Frank said the sheriff had been there. He didn’t sound happy about it. Taran said maybe they should talk so he wasn’t out of the loop. Frank agreed easily enough, although Taran could hear something in his voice that suggested he disapproved of calling in the County.
Friday morning the streets of Corbin Meadow were quiet. Kids were in school, doing their work, wishing it were the weekend. Workers in town were wishing it was the weekend, and Taran was just late enough to miss the mini rush hour that went on first thing in the morning around town, when cars might actually back up a block or so down Main when the light wasn’t with them.
Taran took the road that wound around to Frank’s, dropping into the dip that was mostly clear of water, though the pavement was still wet. The orange cones Johnny had put out the other day were on the side of the road, waiting to be picked up. Taran could do it when he left Frank’s. Bobby Joe should have gotten to it, and Taran would have a word with him about it when he arrived for the evening shift.
Frank’s house was set back from the road, hidden by a copse of trees, mostly rather generic broad-leafed things that cropped up everywhere, plus a couple of evergreens that kept the house from feeling exposed during the winter months. The drive curved around towards a detached three-car garage that looked like it might tumble down in the next storm, though to its credit, it never had.
The house was nicer, all wood siding with a long front porch, the roof raised to a point in the middle like a witch’s hat stuck on the top of the house. Beneath the witch’s hat was a window that looked into the loft where Frank’s wife, Vi, painted. Not that she sold many paintings, but she enjoyed it and it allowed Frank to watch television as often as he wanted on the large screen television that sat in the front room of the house.
Frank was opening the solid wood door, carved with the image of a panther on it, not because he admired the creatures in the mountains but because Frank was a football fan. Inside, the front room, eating area, and kitchen were painted white and trimmed in panther blue. The tile backsplash was colored in that same light blue the Panthers used.
“Coffee?” Frank asked.
Taran agreed to coffee. Frank had a good coffeemaker, not a fancy one, just one that made a decent cup. The two of them took their mugs and sat in the big front room in recliners in blue—not quite Panther blue, but as close as you could come without special ordering fabric. Across from them was a sofa. The large television was mounted on the wall. The woodstove was angled in the corner behind the recliner that Frank had chosen. Taran’s was angled towards the eating area and the stairs that Vi would come down if she was upstairs painting.
“How’s Vi?” Taran asked conversationally.
“Off to some yoga class in Lenoir. Can you believe it?” Frank laughed.
The knot in Taran’s stomach eased a bit. At least he didn’t have to worry about her listening in.
They talked a little more about things in town—how Bobby Joe was working out, or not, and about Zoe Mason-Hyer Parker and how it was an interesting thing that the murders had started up just as she returned.
“I doubt it’s about her,” Frank said quietly.
“Why?” Taran asked. He had his own opinions but he wanted to hear Frank’s.
“You get a feel for things when you work policing as long as I did.” He sat there, rocking a little in the chair, eyes staring off at something behind Taran.
They sat in silence for a few minutes.
“Not everything makes sense in this world, you know?”
Taran nodded, agreeing with Frank.
“I had a feeling that this wasn’t about the kind of killer that the sheriffs would find and arrest. Having them come in would just make a mess. I can’t believe you didn’t catch that,” Frank said. He straightened up, looking at Taran, his eyes sharp as ever, demanding and a little accusing.
“I knew I was in over my head,” Taran said. “I thought they’d help.”
“And have they? Or are they out chasing down old men like me trying to suggest I didn’t do the job I was paid by the town to do all those years?”
“I have to admit, it may have been a mistake, but if there’s another murder, we’ll probably have the Feds in here.”
“We will now,” Frank said. “Because the sheriffs will call them and ask for their help for a profile that won’t work because the Feds haven’t ever seen what we have here in Corbin Meadow.”
Taran was about to say something, but Frank took in another breath like he was going to speak again, so Taran sat and watched.
“But you’ve got a different town than I had. There are people from the outside who don’t understand why we might want to keep our policing in town. And you kids, you don’t hear the call the way my generation did. We knew it was the land calling us. But your generation started going off to college, meeting other people and leaving, or bringing back an outsider to town. Then, the women started thinking it would be nice to have fancy coffee and more tax dollars for better schools. Suddenly we were overrun with outsiders. The outcry from the newcomers when you failed would have been too big for even the mayor to protect you.”
Taran waited, cup halfway to his mouth, his eyes watching Frank carefully. It was like he knew something, not just about the murders, but about what Taran had seen.
Frank said nothing more, looking away with a partial headshake.
“What did you tell Blake?” Taran asked.
Frank shrugged. “Just that I thought that I knew the town. Thought I’d be the one they’d open up to. I used their forensic analysis which turned up squat, not that I was surprised, not after the first one.”
“Why do you suppose it stopped it after Jodie Mason-Hyer?”
Frank smiled. “No one else pissed it off.”
It. As if it existed and was a thing.
“What pisses it off?” Taran asked.
“You know what it is?” Frank asked.
Taran shook his head. He desperately wanted to tell Frank what had happened, hoped to find a kindred spirit, but he wasn’t sure how far Frank would allow his belief to go. There was something cagey about the old man, like there were secrets or things that he wouldn’t talk about, wouldn’t admit to, not unless his own life, or perhaps Vi’s, was at stake.
Frank sighed. “Neither do I. But’s not quite human, I know that. Forgive me, Lord Jesus, but I think it’s a demon, drawn here to Corbin Meadow long ago and the town runs the way it wants it to. Maybe it hates women, or maybe just strong women. I don’t know. You think I’m a crazy old man, don’t you?”
Taran shook his head, not too quickly, didn’t want Frank to think he was humoring him, but not too slowly in case Frank thought he was thinking about the best way to respond. “I think you might be right. The forensics can’t explain some of what we have. I mean the trowels are identical, not even minor differences in the way they were made.”
Frank agreed quietly.
“I wonder if there’s someone who could talk to it?”
“Dixie Fulton could. Her mother, too, although her mother denied it. But I remember Dixie. I think it killed her son because she asked for something that pissed it off. Dixie did, too, I know. It’s why she was always at church doings for a while there and made sure Kay was brought up in that church. Did you know that?”
Taran shook his head. He hadn’t. Kay went to church because she felt she had to, as if she was terrorized by the thought of not going, though she seemed to hate every minute of having to go. Her faith, if that’s what it was, was built on fear, not devotion. He’d just thought it was all the fire and brimstone and she took things a bit too seriously. But this suggested something else.
“You aren’t arguing, though,” Frank said. “You know something or sense something and can’t put your finger on it. It’s why you’re here with me and not calling in the Feds. After talking to Blake, I was tempted to call myself just to put him in his place. He’s a piece of work, that one. I’d keep my eye on him.”
“I am,” Taran said. “But you’re right. There’s something off here. And I think it visited Zoe Mason-Hyer Parker but I don’t know why.”
“I wish I could help,” Frank said. “I never liked when people in my town died, but I could sense something. I just couldn’t understand it. I tried to enlist Kay, back when you were married, and I’m afraid that’s one reason she wanted to leave, didn’t like being thought of as her momma’s daughter, just when her momma had up and died…”
Frank let the sentence trail off, and Taran put together the timeline from that summer two years ago. Kay was pushing him to apply to the sheriffs when they were hiring. She thought that would be a step up and a potential way out of Corbin Meadow. Her momma had just died the month before and suddenly she was all gung ho to get out, as if her momma was the only thing tethering her to the land. And then Bethany had died and Kay had freaked out.
She’d lasted until Jodie Mason-Hyer had died and then she’d moved out of town. Because, she said, Taran cared only about himself and the town and not about her personally. She’d even filed for divorce, and Taran hadn’t had it in him to contest, not when he was reeling from the deaths and her leaving. And here was Frank suggesting that she might have known something more about what had been going on.
Just like the creature that he’d talked to in his imagination.
Chapter 31 will be coming next Friday. Don’t want to wait? Find the book here.