Jeff Tsuruoka’s Picture Choice: 2
Title: Redemption or Bust - Ain’t No Easy Way
Bacon and coffee.
Two of the most comforting morning smells out there. Doesn't matter if you got locked in a car and set on fire. If you wake up to the smell of bacon and coffee you're doing all right.
Pain cut into that sweet olfactory haze as consciousness made its slow return.
Both of my legs were dead asleep. They were still bent at the knee and my feet were on the floor, just like they were when I lay back to rest my eyes for a second the night before.
I sat up and gave my legs another few seconds of snooze time before I stood and lurched out of the room on feet I couldn't feel for the white hot electric shocks that ran through them with each step.
I bit back the cursing that might have taken some of the edge off because Santo was sacked out on the sofa in the living room. He was on his back and letting the drunk snores rip.
There was a little space left at the end of the sofa and I was tempted but the mingled aromas of bacon and coffee had me by the chin whiskers.
I could hear Evangeline moving around in the kitchen. Then she was talking. I stopped when someone answered her.
It was a male voice, deep and powerful. I squelched some more cursing and was on my way back to grab the Browning when I recognized the voice.
Sheriff Orion P. Jones.
I took a second to collect myself and got going again. The man had a perfect right to be in his own house.
By the time I got close to the kitchen I wasn't walking like Frankenstein's monster anymore and I could hear bits of their conversation.
“That man's gonna have to cooperate with me, Evangeline,” said the sheriff.
“What makes you think he's not?”
The air exploded with a loud sizzle and a fresh gust of bacon smell.
“He's holding something back and before you say anything else you should know that he admitted it to me. Swore it wasn't anything dangerous but I'm beginning to doubt Jake's judgment on danger.”
“I'm sure he has his reasons, Orion.”
“I'm sure he does. That doesn't mean I'm gonna let this situation get out of hand again. You, of all people, remember what my predecessor went through with Reubens.”
She didn't say a word in reply.
“And I'm telling you now, Evangeline, it's not gonna happen again.”
More silence, followed by the noise of a plate moving across the counter.
“I want you to go in the bedroom and get him up and moving.”
“That won't be necessary.”
A chair scraped.
“I don't like to be this way, not with you, Evangeline, but I'm the one who decides what's necessary.”
“All right. All right. Jake? Mind coming in here for a sec?”
Sheriff Jones and I exchanged glances and shrugs as I entered the kitchen and dropped into a chair.
“How long you been standing out there, Jake?” asked the sheriff. He resumed his seat at the table.
I shrugged again and blinked in the bright light.
The canary yellow blinds were open and the sunlight smacked me right in the face.
Evangeline slid a plate of bacon and eggs in front of me. She poured me a cup of coffee and sat down across from me.
“Will you at least let the man eat his breakfast in peace, Orion?”
He didn't answer her but he let me get most of the food down uninterrupted by anything but idle chatter.
I could feel his eyes on me while I ate, taking in the burns and scrapes and cuts on my shoulders and arms.
“If I'd seen all of those,” he said, “I wouldn't have let you refuse those paramedics.”
“It's all good, Sheriff.” I drained my cup in one swig. “I had Santo.”
I polished off my bacon and eggs and sat back.
“Okey, Sheriff,” I began. “Hit me.”
Sheriff Jones looked over at Evangeline.
She didn't move. The sheriff didn't push it.
“You're holding out on me, Jake. Whatever it is I want it. Now.”
I cleared my throat. “What's changed?”
“I'm not at liberty to discuss it.”
“Bullshit. You're top of the food chain. You can discuss anything you want to.”
“You gonna make me arrest you?”
“What's the difference? In a cell or in your cabin I'm sitting around doing nothing when I could be out there figuring it out.”
“I thought you weren't working the case.”
“I didn't start this but I intend to finish it. Quid pro quo, Sheriff. I'll give you what I have but you gotta cut me in.”
“I don't have to do anything, Jake. If-- and that's a big if that's getting bigger by the minute-- I decide to allow you to... assist this investigation it will be on my terms and my timetable. Is that clear?”
Sheriff Jones stared me down.
I stared back.
Evangeline shook her head at the both of us.
All three of us sat there and listened to the clock tick.
Evangeline broke the impasse.
“Jake, how many times do you have to get your head bashed in to realize you need help on this?”
I contemplated the grease on my empty plate.
Sheriff Jones cracked his knuckles.
They had me licked and we all knew it. I couldn't do this on my own. Not out here.
I straightened up in my chair and took Marisa's note out of my pocket. I unfolded it, read it over one more time, and slid it in front of Sheriff Jones.
He held his stare for another second and then looked down at the note.
“Jed Reubens' cabin,” he said. “You already told me about this.”
“Not everything. Just before Reubens shot Rosario she was trying to remind me that I had it.”
He read the note out loud. “Why? What am I missing?”
“That 'M'. At first I assumed Marisa just signed it with the initial. I'm not so sure of that now.”
“There's something there in that cabin,” said Evangeline.
“And you think the 'M' is a hint?” He wasn't buying it.
“You asked me what I was holding back. That's it. I don't know what it means either but Rosario died telling me I had it.”
Sheriff Jones read the note again. And again.
“I tried that, Sheriff. That's all there is, no matter how many times you look.”
His phone rang while he was reading the note yet again.
He checked the number and stood up. “Excuse, me,” he said as he left the kitchen.
We heard the front door close behind him as he went out onto the porch.
I slumped in my chair. The fatigue was back, despite the sack time I racked up the night before.
A bunch of things showed on Evangeline's face as she looked at me. Concern. Exasperation. Affection. Pity.
“You're broken,” she said.
“You think?” I pushed away from the table and wanted to leave the room but her eyes kept my ass in the chair. “Let's see. Since I got out here I've been in three fistfights, in a car wreck-- after the guy I had two of those scraps with got shot in the head, had to shoot another guy, steal a car, and go in for questioning. Then I got abducted by a rogue sheriff's deputy, got worked over twice, witnessed another murder, and got dumped in the trunk of my own car, which-- by the way-- was on fire!”
Evangeline sat up straight in her chair and folded her hands in front of her on the table. A dangerous calm spread over her face.
“I don't mean your body, tough guy.”
I felt like dropping my head down on the table. One good burst of energy and I wasted it on a hissy fit.
“What happened to you, Jake?” She put her hand down on my forearm.
“You really wanna know?”
She kept quiet and waited for me to begin.
“I was on the job. A straight protection job, something I almost never take. The woman came to me, said she was afraid for her and her teenage daughter's safety 'cause of her ex-husband.”
“How long ago was this?”
“Eighteen months. She didn't want to go to the police 'cause the guy was something of a local celebrity. Some rich hotshot with pull everywhere. Figured he'd have the police in his pocket. She was wrong about that but she wasn't thinking real clearly just then. She was in the process of packing up and moving out of state with her daughter but the guy wouldn't leave her alone. So she hired me to shadow her and keep him off of her when he showed up.”
I took a ragged breath and continued to look down at the table.
“After a week of this the ex-husband hated my guts but came around less. Then he stopped coming around at all. We relaxed. Then I got a frantic call. He was back and had a gun on him and was threatening to kill the both of them, mother and daughter.”
“Jesus....” muttered Evangeline.
“Yeah. I called up a guy I knew in the police department, a detective named McGinty. Good guy. Someone I trusted and who had reason to trust me. He busted my chops for not coming to him sooner but he arranged to get a team down to her apartment building and told me to wait for him so we could go over together.”
“But you couldn't wait.”
I didn't say anything for a moment. We could hear Sheriff Jones' voice bleeding through the front door.
“That's right,” I said. “There was something in her voice, panic maybe. I couldn't wait. I beat the cops there and went on up. I didn't have to break in. He'd already kicked in the door and when I got inside he had a gun to the woman's head. He started hollering at me and I started hollering back, all the time trying to edge in for a cleaner shot.”
Evangeline's grip on my arm tightened.
“The situation deteriorated and I knew I was going to have to take the guy out. We kept on jawing while I lined up my shot but he was moving, jerking her around. I hesitated. Two seconds, tops. He used those two seconds to murder his wife and daughter.”
Sheriff Jones walked back into the cabin and went into his office.
“I shot him dead. I don't remember doing it but I must've 'cause when McGinty and a bunch of SWAT guys got there I was standing over the guy's body still squeezing the trigger of my empty gun.”
Evangeline remained silent. Her hand slid down from my forearm and linked up with mine.
“It was not your fault,” she said. She meant it too.
“McGinty said the same thing. So did a bunch of other people. Half of me knows that. The other half talks louder and knows which buttons to push to maximize the guilt.”
Evangeline started to answer but choked it off as Sheriff Jones stepped into the kitchen. She did not let go of my hand.
“Bog Island's going to have to wait,” he said.
“Why? What's going on?”
“They found a body.”
Anger came up quickly. I felt my face go hot. Evangeline gave my hand a little squeeze and then let it go so I could get up.
“I hate to ask, Jake, but I need you to identify her, if you can.”
I nodded and shook off the rage. For the moment. I left the kitchen and went back to the bedroom. I chose a black t-shirt that wouldn't show stains if I bled through on it and pulled it on. I also put on the shoulder rig and slid the Browning into the holster.
Sheriff Jones and Evangeline were avoiding each other's eyes when I got back to the kitchen.
“Let's go,” I said.
Sheriff Jones didn't speak until we were out on the main road.
“Felt like I walked in on something heavy back there, Jake. Anything I need to know?”
I gave him a smile that felt wry to me.
“Don't shit me, Sheriff. You're not good at it.”
He nodded. “I'll take that as a compliment. And for what it's worth, I don't think you were at fault either.”
I didn't say anything but I knew he knew what I meant by it.
He let it go and made time through the county.
“What did you find out?” I asked after a while.
“Rosario Buendia is not-- was not currently associated with the Bureau. Whatever she was up to was on her own hook.”
“You actually got them to talk? I'm impressed.”
“It's amazing what not acting like an asshole can get a man in this world.”
“Every job has the proper tool, I suppose.”
I lost track of the turns but we eventually ended up on a long coastal road. There was no beach along this stretch, just reedy, marshy shore.
“And like I already told you, Vern wasn't on the job either.”
“Yeah. I got that feeling from him just before he bought it.”
“That means I've got two rogue law enforcement types running around my county involved in who knows what either with or against the brother of the biggest criminal these parts have ever known.”
“Had. They're both dead.”
“Don't try and cheer me up, Jake. You're not good at it.”
“Fair enough. How about telling me where the body was found instead?”
Sheriff Jones slowed the cruiser and took her off-road into the reeds.
“Right over here. A local out walking his dog found her half-buried. From what my deputy described it sounds like the guy doing the burying got interrupted.”
The sheriff parked next to another cruiser. The medical examiner's black cargo van was parked down closer to the water.
“Before we go any further I'm gonna remind you. You're here to identify a body. You're a witness, not an investigator. For now. Read me?”
“Loud and clear, Sheriff.”
We got out and walked over the rise.
It was a nice vista. Not as pretty as Bog Island but it wouldn't look out of place on a postcard if you took the deputy, the kneeling ME, and the corpse under a white sheet out of the picture.
The ME, a tall Asian woman with a bodybuilder's frame, held a corner of the sheet in the air and talked to a deputy, who wrote down whatever it was she was saying on a small notepad.
I didn't recognize the note-taking deputy. He had short red hair and was built like a linebacker.
Sheriff Jones introduced me to Deputy Marks and Dr. Monica Kamarasane.
“This is Jake Tunner. He's here to identify the deceased.”
Marks took it easy on me with the handshake. Dr. Kamarasane didn't know her own strength. Or maybe she did but was just used to dealing with people who didn't complain if she grabbed them too hard.
She had long hair she restrained with a bright red bandanna that seemed even brighter above the dark blue coveralls she had on. There was a shine in her eyes, something playful that warred with the air of complete competence she gave off.
“You up for this?” she asked me. “We can wait 'til I get her to the morgue and do it there if you're more comfortable.”
“It's all right. We weren't close.”
She looked me up and down for a second and then shrugged and knelt by the body.
“Okay then.” She lifted the sheet clear of the head. “Can you identify her?”
Sheriff Jones kept quiet.
The face was pale, except for the darkness surrounding the wound near her temple. I ran the shooting back in my head but it wasn't a clear image. The placement of the exit wound looked about right but I wasn't sure. I thought about that hooked nose, that smile, and was ashamed to admit I couldn't tell which sister I was looking at.
“It's one of 'em,” I said. “That's for sure.”
“Can you tell which one?” asked the sheriff.
“Let me see her feet.”
The ME raised an eyebrow at me. “Her feet?” The other eyebrow went up.
I hit her with a glass-eyed stare that told her nothing.
She shrugged and went to the other end of the body and lifted up the sheet.
“It's Rosario,” I said. “Marisa's got 'Fearless' tattooed on the same spot.”
The sheriff put his hand on my shoulder.
“All right. Monica?”
Dr. Kamarasane replaced the sheet and stood up.
“It's pretty much a case of what you see is what you get. I'll be shocked if the cause of death is anything other than that gunshot wound to the head. Time of death is between eighteen and twenty-four hours ago. I can be more precise when I get back to the lab.”
“She was not killed here, boss,” chimed in Deputy Marks. He pointed up the shore. “There are some drag marks and smeared footprints coming from that direction. I looked for tire tracks but there are so many it's impossible to determine what's what. You going to call in the state boys, Sheriff?”
“You think I can't handle this?”
I wouldn't have traded places with Deputy Marks for a million bucks right then.
“Get her to the lab, Monica, and let me know if you find anything worth ringing up the state police over. Deputy Marks? I want this scene photographed and mapped out. Your report will be on my desk before you go off shift.”
Deputy Marks let the breath he'd been holding go. “You got it, boss.”
Sheriff Jones turned to me.
“Let's get out of here, Jake.”
We didn't make much conversation in the car.
About twenty minutes into the ride to Bog Island Sheriff Jones turned to me and said, “You have any thoughts on this I'd sure like to hear them.”
“I got nothing, Sheriff. Less than nothing, actually.”
“Nothing,” he repeated.
He hit the gas. I rested my head against the window and let the rolling green landscape lull me into a stupor.
It took us a little over an hour to get to Bog Island.
I felt a little tug in my chest when we passed the pier where I parked my Olds for the last time.
Two fisherman in hip waders stood in the water, just off the pier. They turned to look as Sheriff Jones cruised on by.
“I guess we're not going for stealth,” I said.
“Stealth is overrated,” replied the sheriff.
He proved his point by parking his cruiser right in front of Cabin D.
Tire tracks from the earlier visit were still visible in the gravel and dirt.
Sheriff Jones gave them a cursory look as we went up on the porch. He knocked on the door in that way policemen have of knocking on doors.
Nobody answered the knock.
The place seemed as shut up tight as it was when I was there last. It was still and it was quiet. None of these facts explained why the hair on my arms was standing up.
Something was off.
“What's wrong, Jake?” asked Sheriff Jones.
“Dunno.” I leaned down to inspect the doorknob.
The marks were there. Small scratches all around the keyhole. I backed up and pointed.
“Son of a bitch,” muttered the sheriff.
He drew his service revolver and turned the knob. The door swung open before us.
We looked at each other and stepped inside.
“Sheriff!” he called out as we scoped out the empty living room. His voice bounced off of the walls. The room was empty. No furniture, no carpeting. The only thing on the floor was dust. And footprints. Two sets.
We followed them into a small bedroom that still had a few things in it.
A lavender easy chair occupied the corner by the window. A dust-covered end table sat next to it.
The footprints took us right to the end table.
There was a small stack of books on it. Girls books, complete with charms and pink fabric bookmarks still in them. The pink color on their bindings showed through the dust.
I picked up the book on top of the pile. There was a small rectangle in the middle of its cover without any dust on it.
“We missed it,” I said.
Sheriff Jones chewed on his lip and stared hard at the book.
“Could it be that simple?”
“I think it could. Hidden in plain sight.”
“You think Marisa told them about this?”
“We don't even know what, 'this', is, Sheriff. Besides, if Reubens came to take whatever this is why would he have to pick the lock on his own brother's house?”
“Who else knows to come out here to look around?”
I could only think of one person but I wasn't going to be the one to bring it up.
Sheriff Jones eyeballed me and then left the room.
We checked the other rooms just to be sure. Most of them were as empty as the living room. No drawers to search, no beds to check under.
The sheriff eyeballed me some more as we left the cabin and got back into his cruiser.
“Don't look at me, Sheriff. I'm pleading the fifth. You're intimidating. She's terrifying.”
He started the car and took off down the driveway.
When we passed the pier on the way out Sheriff Jones pulled up close to the shore.
“Stay here,” he growled as he got out of the cruiser.
I did as I was told.
He called the fishermen over and engaged in an animated discussion with them before returning to the cruiser.
“What did they tell you?”
He hit the gas and tore off down the road.
“I asked them if they'd seen anyone else heading that way. They did.”
“You already know the answer to that.”
“Silver El Camino.”
Jeff Tsuruoka is an author in search of a writing career. He has found a home in the Flash Fiction circuit and is grateful to the blog hosts that give him the opportunity to get his work out there. You can follow him on Twitter @JTsuruoka and be sure to keep tabs on his weekly contributions to Daily Picspiration.