THE silent witnesses lie everywhere, passing from one form of matter to another, gradually becoming unrecognizable to their nearest and dearest. Their bodies are rolled into gullies, shut in the trunks of abandoned cars, harnessed to cement blocks and thrown down to the bottom of lakes. Those more hastily discarded are tossed on the side of the highway - so that life, having swerved away, can swiftly pass them by without pausing to look.
Sometimes I dream I am an eagle. I soar above them, noting their remains, bearing testimony to their disposal. I spy the man who went hunting with his enemy - there, under that tree, in that thicket. I spot the bones of the waitress who served the wrong man - there, under the collapsed roof of an old shack. I detect the final destination of the teenage boy who drank too much in the wrong company - a shallow grave in the piney woods. Often, their spirits hover, clinging to the mortal remnants that housed them. Their spirits do not become angels. They were not believers during life, why should they be angels now? Even average people, people you think of as "good," can be foolish or venal or jealous.
My sister Cameron lies somewhere among them. In some drainage pipe or under some foundation folded into the rusted trunk of an abandoned car or strewn across a forest floor, Cameron molders. Perhaps her spirit is clinging to what is left of her body, as she waits to be discovered, as she waits for her story to be told.
Perhaps that's all they desire, all of the silent witnesses.
THE sheriff didn't want me there. That made me wonder who'd initiated the process of finding me and asking me to come to Sarne. It had to be one of the civilians standing awkwardly in his office - all of them well dressed and well fed, obviously people used to shedding authority all around them. I looked from one to the other. The sheriff, Harvey Branscom, had a lined, red face with a bisecting white mustache and close-cropped white hair. He was at least in his mid fifties, maybe older. Dressed in a tight khaki uniform, Branscom was sitting in the swivel chair behind the desk. He looked disgusted. The man standing to Branscom's right was younger by at least ten years, and darker, and much thinner, and his narrow face was clean-shaven. His name was Paul Edwards, and he was a lawyer.
The woman with whom he was arguing, a woman somewhat younger with expensively dyed blonde hair, was Sybil Teague. She was a widow, and my brother's research had shown that she had inherited a great deal of the town of Sarne. Beside her was another man, Terence Vale, who had a round face scantily topped with thin no-color hair, wire-rimmed glasses, and one of those stick-on nametags. He'd come from a City Council open house, he'd said when he bustled in. His stick-on tag read, "Hi! I'm TERRY, the MAYOR."
Since Mayor Vale and Sheriff Branscom were so put out by my presence, I figured I'd been summoned by Edwards or Teague. I swiveled my gaze from one to the other. Teague, I decided. I crossed my legs and slumped down in the uncomfortable chair. I swung my free foot, watching the toe of my black leather loafer get closer and closer to the front of the sheriff's desk. They were shooting accusations back and forth, like I wasn't in the room. I wondered if Tolliver could hear them from the waiting room.
"You all want to hash this out while we go back to the hotel?" I asked, cutting through the arguments.
They all stopped and looked at me.
"I think we brought you here under the wrong impression," Branscom said. His voice sounded as though he were trying to be courteous, but his face looked like he wanted me the hell away. His hands were clenched on the top of his desk.
"And that wrong impression was... ?" I rubbed my eyes. I'd come directly from another site, and I was tired.
"Terry here misled us somewhat as to your credentials."
"Okay, you all decide, while I get me some sleep," I said, abruptly giving up. I pulled myself to my feet, feeling as old as the hills, or at least far older than my actual age of twenty-four. "There's another job waiting for me in Ashdown. I'd just as soon leave here early in the morning. You'll owe us travel money, at the least. We drove here from Tulsa. Ask my brother how much that'll be."
Without waiting for anyone to speak, I left Harvey Branscom's office and went down a corridor and through a door into the reception area. I ignored the dispatcher behind the desk, though she was looking at me curiously. No doubt she'd been aiming the same curiosity at Tolliver until I'd redirected her attention.
Tolliver tossed down the aged magazine he'd been riffling through. He pushed himself up from the fake-leather chair. Tolliver's twenty-seven. His mustache has a reddish cast; otherwise, his hair is as black as mine.
"Ready?" he asked. He could tell I was exasperated. He looked down at me, his eyebrows raised questioningly. Tolliver's at least four inches above my five foot seven. I shook my head, to tell him I'd fill him in later. He held open the glass door for me. We went out into the chilly night. I felt the cold in my bones. The seat on the Malibu was adjusted for my legs, since I'd driven last, so I slid back behind the wheel.
The police department was on one side of the town square, facing the courthouse, which stood in the center. The courthouse was a massive building erected during the twenties, the kind of edifice that would feature marble and high vaulted ceilings; impossible to heat or cool to modern standards, but impressive nonetheless. The grounds around the old building were beautifully kept, even now that all the foliage was dying back. There were still tourists parked in the premium town square parking spots. This time of year, Sarne's visitors were middle-aged to old white people, with rubber-soled shoes and windbreakers. They walked slowly and carefully, and curbs required negotiation. They tended to drive exactly the same way.
We had to navigate around the square twice before I could get in the correct lane to go east to the motel. I had a feeling that all roads in Sarne led to the square. The stores on the square and those immediately off of it were the dressed-up part of the town, the part primed for public consumption. Even the streetlights were picturesque - curving lines of metal painted a dull green and decorated with curlicues and leaves. The sidewalks were smooth and wheelchair accessible, and there were plenty of garbage bins carefully disguised to look like cute little houses. All the storefronts on the square had been remodeled to coordinate, and they all had wooden facades with "old-timey" signs in antique lettering: Aunt Hattie's Ice Cream Parlor, Jeb's Sit-a-Spell, Jn. Banks Dry Goods and General Store, Ozark Annie's Candy. There was a heavy wooden bench outside each one. Through the bright store windows, I caught a glimpse of one or two of the shopkeepers; they were all in costume, wearing turn-of-the-century clothing.
It was past five o'clock when we finally left the square. In late October, on an overcast day, the sky was almost completely dark.
Sarne was an ugly place once you left the tourist-oriented area centered around the courthouse. Businesses like Mountain Karl's Kountry Krafts gave way to more pedestrian necessities, like First National Bank and Reynolds Appliances. The further away I drove from the square on these side streets, the more frequently I noticed occasional empty storefronts, one or two with shattered windows. The traffic was nearly nonexistent. This was the private part of Sarne, for locals. Tourist season would be over, the mayor had told me, when the leaves fell; Sarne was about to roll up its carpets - and its hospitality - for the winter months.
I was irritated with our wasted time and mileage. But I hadn't given up hope yet, and when I felt the unmistakable pull at a four-way stop five blocks east of the square, I was almost happy. It came from my left, about six yards away.
"Recent?" Tolliver asked, seeing my head jerk. I always look, even if there's no way I'll see a thing with my physical eyes.
"Very." We weren't passing a cemetery, and I wasn't getting the feel of a newly embalmed corpse, which might indicate a funeral home. This impression was too fresh, the pull too strong.
They want to be found, you know.
Instead of going straight, which would've gotten us to the motel, I turned left, following the mental "scent." I pulled over into the parking lot of a small gas station. My head jerked again as I listened to the voice calling to me from the overgrown lot on the other side of the street. I say "scent" and "voice," but what draws me is not really something as clear-cut as those words indicate.
About three yards into the lot was the facade of a building. From what I could read of the scorched and dangling sign, this was the former site of Evercleen Laundromat. Judging by the state of the remains of the building, Evercleen had burned halfway to the ground some years before.
"In the ruin, over there," I told Tolliver.
"Want me to check?"
"Nah. I'll call Branscom when I get in the room." We gave each other brief smiles. There's nothing like a concrete example to establish my bona fides. Tolliver gave me an approving nod.
I put the car into drive again. This time we reached our motel and checked into our respective rooms with no interruption. We need a break from each other after being together all day; that's the reason for the separate rooms. I don't think either of us is excessively modest.
My room was like all the others I've slept in over the past few years. The bedspread was green and quilted and slick, and the picture above the bed was a bridge somewhere in Europe, looked like. Other than those little identifiers, I could have been in any cheap motel room, anywhere in America. At least it smelled clean. I pulled out my makeup-and-medicine bag and put it in the little bathroom. Then I went and sat on the bed, leaning over to peer at the dial-out instructions on the ancient telephone. After I'd looked up the right number in the little area phone book, I called the law enforcement building and asked for the sheriff. Branscom's voice came on in less than a minute, and he was clearly less than happy to talk to me a second time. He started in again on how I'd been misrepresented - as if I'd had anything to do with that - and I interrupted him.
"I thought you'd like to know that a dead man named something like Chess, or Chester, is in the burned laundromat on Florida Street, about five blocks off the square."
"What?" There was a long moment of silence while Harvey Branscom let that soak in. "Darryl Chesswood? He's at home in his daughter's house. They added on a room for him last year when he began to forget where he lived. How dare you say such a thing?" He sounded honestly, righteously, offended.
"That's what I do," I said, and laid the receiver gently on its cradle.
The town of Sarne had just gotten a freebie.
I lay back on the slippery green bedspread and crossed my hands over my ribs. I didn't need to be a psychic to predict what would happen now. The sheriff would call Chesswood's daughter. She would go to check on her dad, and she'd find he was gone. The sheriff would probably go to the site himself, since he'd be embarrassed to send a deputy on such an errand. He'd find Darryl Chesswood's body.
The old man had died of natural causes - a cerebral hemorrhage, I thought.
It was always refreshing to find someone who hadn't been murdered.
T HE next morning, when Tolliver and I entered the coffee shop (Kountry Good Eats) that was conveniently by the motel, the whole group was there, ensconced in a little private room. The doors to the room were open, so they couldn't miss our entrance. The dirty plates on the table in front of them, the two empty chairs, and the pot of coffee all indicated we were anticipated. Tolliver nudged me, and we exchanged looks.
I was glad I'd already put on my makeup. Usually, I don't bother until I've had my coffee.
It would have been too coy to pick another table, so I led the way to the open doors of the meeting room, the newspaper I'd bought from a vending machine tucked under my arm. The cramped room was almost filled with a big round table. Sarne's movers and shakers sat around that table, staring at us. I tried to remember if I'd combed my hair that morning. Tolliver would've told me if I'd looked really bed-headed, I told myself. I keep my hair short. It has lots of body, and it's curly, so if I let it grow, I have a black bush to deal with. Tolliver is lucky; his is straight, and he lets it grow until he can tie it back. Then he'll get tired of it and whack it off. Right now, it was short.
"Sheriff," I said, nodding. "Mr. Edwards, Ms. Teague, Mr. Vale. How are you all this morning?" Tolliver held out my chair and I sat. This was an extra, for-show courtesy. He figures the more honor he shows me publicly, the more the public will feel I'm entitled to. Sometimes it works that way.
The waitress had filled my coffee cup and taken my first swallow before the sheriff spoke. I tore my gaze away from my paper, still folded by my plate. I really, really like to read the paper while I drink my coffee.
"He was there," Harvey Branscom said heavily. The man's face was ten years older than it'd been the night before, and there was white stubble on his cheeks.
"Mr. Chesswood, you mean." I ordered the fruit plate and some yogurt from a waitress who seemed to think that was a strange choice. Tolliver got French toast and bacon and a flirtatious look. He's hell on waitresses.
"Yeah," the sheriff said. "Mr. Chesswood. Darryl Chesswood. He was a good friend of my father's." He said this with a heavy emphasis, as if the fact that I'd told him where the old man's body was had laid the responsibility for the death at my door.
"Sorry for your loss," Tolliver said, as a matter of form. I nodded. After that, I let the silence expand. With a gesture, Tolliver offered to refill my coffee cup, but I raised my hand to show him how steady it was today. I took another deep sip gratefully, and I topped the cup off. I touched Tolliver's mug to ask if he was ready for more, but he shook his head.
Under the furtive scrutiny of all those eyes, I wasn't able to open the newspaper I had folded in front of me. I had to wait on these yahoos to make up their minds to something they'd already agreed to do. I'd felt optimistic when I'd seen them waiting for us, but that optimism was rapidly deteriorating.