What if you’re accused of a crime you didn’t commit, in a town that’s not listening ... and the ex you never want to see again is your only chance of escape?
Feeling like a dice tossed from the gnarled hand of a mad gambler, she wondered how she’d ended up here. She’d always taken the main route, the quickest road. Always. Just this once, for some stupid reason, she took the scenic route. Why? Well, here she was and no going back. She let her annoyance slide out under the door.
She knew she could have turned around and walked out. She could have, well, just walked round the corner, down the street, and found a shop or café with a toilet. Or she could have hopped right back in her car and driven to the next nowhere town, wherever it was. Or taken a drive and a walk and found some trees. Just have a pee somewhere else, like she’d never been here. No one had seen her come in. No one would notice her leave. No should haves. Just could haves.
Anyway, as it happened, she did none of those things. She just stood there, leaning back against the basin, looking at the person sitting on the floor. Straight, blonde hair slightly awry, like a breeze had played with it momentarily. One eye closed, the other glazed and staring at the grey, cinder-block wall opposite; the one Kristie had her back to. Her skin looked vacant, unlived in, like she had left without a note of goodbye.
Kristie stood there, looking and looking and not moving. Not in a trance or transfixed or anything weird and spooky. Just looking. Not shocked, just not expecting someone to be sitting there like that.
A red head haired young woman rushed into the toilet, slammed a cubicle door, breathed a loud relieved sigh, rustled clothes and paper and rushed out again, smiling uncertainly at Kristie as she left.
Kristie was reminded of why she came in here; remembered she needed a pee. She shut herself in a cubicle, out of sight, but it still seemed odd though, to be sitting in a public toilet with a woman, dead young woman, through the door. But she really, really needed to go and so she did, bidding goodbye to the sitting young woman, in her mind. Even that didn’t seem weird. Like the other lady smiling at her as she left didn’t seem weird to Kristie.
As she came out of the cubicle, she wondered what to do next. She almost turned to ask the sitting woman. She rinsed her hands under the tap and discovered there was no soap or towels so she shook her hands and rubbed them together as she contemplated the situation. She straightened the young woman’s simple, printed dress, pulled it down over her knees and sensed she didn’t mind either way. It now had her wet hand prints over it. The woman didn’t seem to mind that either.
Kristie shrugged and turned to more practical thoughts. Obviously, tell the police. As she turned to leave, an older woman tottered in, her cane clicking on the concrete floor. She stopped at the cubicle door, about to go in, and turned slowly, very slowly, as if disbelieving. The old lady stared at the dead woman and then at Kristie who smiled back awkwardly. The old lady looked back at the lifeless woman and then let out the most God awful scream. She dropped her cane and Kristie stepped over to retrieve it for her.
“No! No! Get away from me!” yelled the old lady as she snatched her cane back and scurried out the door. “Help! George! Help! There’s a murder here! A murder! Help!” She kept hollering till a silver haired man peered in tentatively and Kristie pointed dumbly towards the dead woman. He stared at Kristie, at the dead woman and back at Kristie, looking puzzled. You could understand shocked, given his screaming wife and a dead person in an isolated toilet you were just stopping off at. But he didn’t looked shocked. Just, well, quizzical.
“Why?” he asked.
“Why what?” asked Kristie, confused. “I think we need the police … to tell the police. Don’t you?”
“Police?” asked the old man, still looking quizzical. Then his brain fired up. “Hell yes, the police. We need to get the sheriff. Sure as hell need him!”
“I’ll go and get him, then,” suggested Kristie. “You look after your wife and I’ll go get the sheriff.” She was being gallant, thinking she was younger and fitter than the old people; that she’d be quicker.
“You’re going for the police?” asked the old man looking round furtively.
“Yeah, I’ll go and you can stay here. Look after your wife,” said Kristie.
“But we’re not from round here,” said the old man, backing away a little as Kristie came out of the building. “We’re heading home to Memphis.”
“Huh, that’s where I’ve just come from,” said Kristie, wondering what the hell that had to do with anything. Maybe she just needed to be conversational, convivial. “We’re both going to the toilet at the same time, just from the opposite way,” Then she wondered why she said that. Maybe she was more stressed than she felt.
“Well, hell yeah, you’re a gal and I’m a guy, I guess,” said the old man.
“No, different road, different way, is what I meant,” said Kristie, trying to explain while wondering what dumb thing was going to come out next. “You wait here and I’ll get the cavalry.”
“The cavalry?” asked the old man, looking startled.
“Sorry, figure of speech. The sheriff,” said Kristie, walking to her car.
“Hey lady, you can’t just do this and drive off!” said the old man suddenly regaining his senses … if he had any to regain.
“Do what?” asked Kristie as she opened her car door. “I’m just getting the police. Be back soon.” She noticed the old lady in the car, next to hers, staring wide-eyed and pointing at Kristie. She wondered if she should get the ambulance as the old couple certainly needed some treatment. If there was an ambulance in this wind-swept town.
Her steering wheel and seat were hot and she tugged at her knee-length, business skirt to reduce the burning at the back of her legs. She drove up the dusty street and figured, with only a dozen or so stores, the sheriff’s office wouldn’t be hard to find. It wasn’t. The sheriff was, though. His office was shut, with a notice saying he’d be back in five minutes. It looked like an old note. She went next door to a general store – more dust than stores but, thankfully, a man behind the counter.
“Excuse me, sir, do you know where the sheriff is, please?” she asked, as politely as she knew how.
“You not from here, are you?” asked the man, peering at her over his spectacles.
“Ah, no I’m not. I’m just passing through,” said Kristie, as patiently as she could. “Do you know where the sheriff is, please?”
“Not in here, anyways,” said the man, looking round the shop as he wiped sweat from his bald dome. “Could be somewhere else.”
“You’re sure right there,” said Kristie, smiling. “You know where I might find him? Or of anyone who might know where he is?”
“What you need a sheriff for?” asked the man, frowning. “Most folks need ice cream and soda on days like this.”
“Ah, just a little matter I need to talk to him about,” said Kristie, feeling her bile rising. Stay calm, stay calm, she said to herself. She reminded herself that she could just keep on driving and no one would be any the wiser. But something inside of her just needed to have the matter sorted. She never liked unfinished business, whether it was dead business or live business. That’s just how she was.
As she stood there staring back at the man, wondering what to do next, the sheriff strode in the door. He wasn’t dressed as a sheriff – unless sheriffs these days wore ripped t-shirts and baggy jeans – but he was the epitome of every pot-bellied, shaven-headed, droopy-moustachioed sheriff she’d ever seen on television.
“Excuse me, sir, are you the sheriff?” she asked in her most polite voice.
“Could be ma’am. Who’s asking?” asked the man, planting a foot on a box of apples and leaning his elbow on his knee. Perhaps it was an authority pose or something, she surmised.
“Aah, I am, sir,” said Kristie.
“Yes ma’am, of course you are,” said the man who could be a sheriff but seemed to be turning out to be someone who wasn’t. She kept imagining him chewing on a barley straw but double-checked and he wasn’t. “And you’re right. I am most certainly the sheriff of this ‘ere town, aren’t I George?”
“Yes, Chuck, you most certainly are,” said the store keeper.
“And what business do you want with the sheriff of this town, ma’am?” asked Chuck the sheriff.
“Ah, well, it’s a bit delicate,” said Kristie, feeling uncomfortable. “Can we discuss this in your office?” She was determined not to look at George in case he looked to be taking it personally.
“What? You’re not pregnant or anythin’, are you?” asked the sheriff, frowning as he pulled a stick of gum from his back pocket and popped it into his mouth.
“What? Oh, gosh, no! It’s nothing to do with me, sir,” said Kristie, realising that delicate wasn’t an oft-used word round here.
“Well then ma’am, you can tell me here. George and me’s been friends since we’s been nippers. No secrets here, aye, George?” said the sheriff, putting his left foot down and planting his right on the box of apples.
Note to self, though Kristie. Don’t buy your apples in this town. They’ve been stood on.
“Nope, none at all,” said George leaning over the counter to hear better … or maybe to see down Kristie’s blouse better, thought Kristie, noting the singular direction of his gaze.
“No secrets? Right,” said Kristie, her discomfort level rising, having to say this in public; even if public was only one sweating pervert. “Well sir, I found someone dead.”
“Dead? Someone dead?” asked the sheriff, taking his foot off the apples and standing up straight. “This, ma’am, is no matter for public discussion. You should have told me this beforehand.”
“Right,” said Kristie, smiling sweetly, ensuring she crinkled her eyes a little to make her smile look genuine.
“Let’s go to my office, ma’am, and we’ll start the investigation from there. See ya later, George.” With that he turned on his heel and was out the door and up the three steps to his front door before Kristie could draw breath. She ran to catch up with him.
“Jest wait here, ma’am, on the stoop, while I, aah, don the attire of an investigatin’ officer,” said the sheriff quickly. He slammed the door and Kristie turned to survey the street. An intermittent breeze picked up odd leaves, as if to investigate them, found them wanting and placed them back where they had been. Nothing much seemed to be moving anywhere in this town. A cowhand doffed his hat to Kristie as he clip clopped past her. Nothing much else to observe except a cloudless sky with a circling bird. Probably an eagle, though she knew little of circling birds … any birds, really.
“Right ma’am, come in here and we’ll take the necessary details,” said the sheriff opening the door. He was now in his uniform; a uniform built for a man thirty pounds lighter. He walked stiffly round to the other side of his desk – probably on account of the tightness of his uniform – and Kristie surveyed the footprints in the floor’s dust. Not many footprints. Not much dusting either. Kristie wiped dust from her chair and sat as Chuck fished round in his drawers. Eventually he came up with a clipboard to which he attached some forms. His pen was as determined not to work as he was determined to get it to work. The pen eventually won.
“Here, sir, use mine,” said Kristie, taking a pen from her purse.
“Thank you ma’am, most kind,” said the sheriff. He blew dust from the paper. “Now, ma’am, some details. Your first name?”
“Kristie,” said Kristie.
“I’n that a man’s name?” asked the sheriff.
“In Ireland it is, I think,” said Kristie.
“So you’re Irish?” asked the sheriff.
“No, I’m American.”
“Yeah, right, American,” said Chuck, writing her name on the form.
“Now Ma’am, your surname?”
“McKenzie,” said Kristie.
“That a Scottish name?”
“Don’t know, sir. I just know it’s mine.”
“You’re not Scottish?”
“No, I’m American.” I am not, not, not going to say ‘I just told you that’, thought Kristie. Resist the urge. She resisted.
“So, now, how do you spell that?” he asked. Kristie spelled it for him, slowly.
“Now, nationality?” he asked.
“American? What sort … aah, Caucasian?” asked the sheriff, obviously picking a likely word from a list in front of him.
“No sir, Caucasia is in Russia. I’m American,” said Kristie, remembering to crinkle her eyes as she smiled.
“You’re kiddin’? Caucasia’s in Russia? Well I never done knew that,” said the sheriff. Kristie was not surprised at this disclosure.
“Look sir, would you like me to fill in my own details and you can take the relevant details of the dead person up the road?” suggested Kristie, knowing it would be dark in about four hours. She strongly resisted the urge to swipe the pen and paper from him and kept her palms firmly on her knees in case they disobeyed her mind’s orders.
“Thank you ma’am, but this is an official form and gotta’ be filled out by an official, see,” explained the sheriff, patiently.
“Yes, yes, of course,” said Kristie. No point in objecting to the unobjectionable, she thought. Whatever that means.
“So, your address?”
Kristie gave him her address in Durango, Colorado.
“You’re not from round these parts, then,” said the sheriff, stating the obvious with reverence. She had to help him with the spelling and they eventually got through that, her phone number and to her occupation.
“Gynaecologist,” said Kristie.
“Gyna what?” asked the sheriff.
Kristie repeated herself and then spelled it out, slowly, for him.
“So what’s a gyna whatsit doin’ in these parts?” he asked.
“I have just been speaking at a conference in Memphis, Arkansas,” explained Kristie.
“But that’s not here either. Are you lost?” asked the sheriff, looking concerned.
“No, I’m passing through on my way home,” said Kristie, wondering just how much patience God had given her. She was bound to run out any time soon.
“Yeah, right, just as I guessed,” said the sheriff, looking as embarrassed as a florid man can. “Just checkin’. Sorta’ trick question. They taught us that in police school a while back.” He leaned back looking very satisfied with something. Kristie could not imagine what that something could be.
“Do you think, sir,” said Kristie, digging into the deepest part of delicate to find the right words. She’d had many a delicate conversations with her patients, over the years, but this was the most challenging so far. “There’s a dead person up the road. Do you think I could take you up there and show you the girl? You’ve got a lot of important investigation work to do and I’ve still got a long way to drive to get home.” And, at this rate, Armageddon will be upon us before we know it, she thought.
“Of course, ma’am, we’re done here,” said the sheriff handing her pen back.
“Now sir, I really need to call my mother to let her know I’ll be late picking up my son from her,” said Kristie. “So, just to give her an idea where I am, what’s the name of this town?”
“Called,” said the sheriff.
“Yes, what’s this town called, please?” asked Kristie, wondering if he was hearing impaired.
“It’s Called, ma’am,” said the sheriff, grinning.
“Yes, it’s called …” said Kristie, hoping he would finish her sentence.
“Aah, ma’am, the town is called Called,” said the sheriff, leaning back on his chair with the look of one who has just imparted deep and profound knowledge.
“What? You mean the name of this town is Called? It’s called Called?” asked Kristie, starting to wonder if she’d just stepped into a fairy tale. “Why that name … Called?”
“Well, ma’am, I hear tell that they couldn’t think what the town should be called, on account of all other names being taken in this ‘ere US of A. And everybody was sayin’, ‘what’s it called?’ and so some joker told someone it was called Called and the name kinda’ stuck. It became official,” said the sheriff, leaning forward, thick forearms on the desk. “That’s as how the story goes, anyhow.”
“Right,” said Kristie, at a loss for another answer. “Right. Called. I’ll call my mother, get some water from next door and join you at the scene. I won’t be long.”
“I’ll, er, come up with you, ma’am,” said the sheriff.
“But there’s a dead person in this town. Wouldn’t you want to go as soon as possible?” said Kristie. Then a chilling thought hit her, smack between the eyes.”You don’t suspect me, do you Sheriff?”
“Well, ma’am, we just have to tether all the horses, if you take my drift,” said the sheriff, looking a mite embarrassed. “We wouldn’t want you running out of town till we’d cleared this up.”
“Oh, come on, Chuck …”
“Sheriff, Thank you ma’am. Let’s keep this official,” said Chuck.
“Official? Right. Sorry sheriff,” said Kristie, wondering if the fairy tale was turning into a horror story. “Look sheriff, look at what you know. I’m passing through. I stop to use the toilet. I find a dead person in there. I drive down here to tell you. Right?”
“Absolutely right, ma’am, so far,” said the sheriff, looking as thoughtful as he was able.
“Now, if I killed her, I wouldn’t want to let you know about it. Right?”
“Probably right there, ma’am.”
“So, if I killed her, I would just sneak out of town and not tell a living soul,” suggested Kristie. “I certainly wouldn’t be alerting the authorities – telling you, would I?”
“Yes ma’am, you could be right,” said the sheriff, wiping beads of sweat from his shaven head. “But there’s no accounting for folks. No accounting at all. One thing I do recall from police school is that sixty eight percent of murders are reported by the murderers. Kinda’ strange, doncha’ think?”
“Oh hell,” said Kristie, feeling a dark chasm opening up in her stomach. “So am I under arrest?”
“Just, aah, under suspicion,” said the sheriff. “We’ve just gotta’ take precautions, you see.”
“Well, if I’m not under arrest then I can go, surely,” pleaded Kristie. “I do really need to go and pick up my son and I’ve got patients tomorrow …”
“Ma’am, if’n you wanna’ scoot outa town so quick, that could be seen as suspicious, see?” explained the sheriff.
“Look, you’ve got my details, you can get my car licence number; it’s outside. You can photocopy and check up on my licence,” said Kristie, feeling little, dark creatures climbing out of that chasm in her stomach. Then an idea struck. She fished in her bag and handed the sheriff her business card. “Here’s my card, I’m genuine, who I say I am.”
“Why didn’t you give me this before,” asked the sheriff. “Were you hiding it?”
“Hiding it? What?” asked Kristie, feeling the blood leaving her face. “I just didn’t think of it before. I guess I wasn’t thinking clearly. I don’t see dead people every day.”
“But you’re a doctor,” said the sheriff, smiling like he’d just caught an elusive fox.
“I’m a gynaecologist and, besides, no one – doctors or otherwise – sees dead people in public toilets as a matter of course.”
“Or murdered people either,” said the sheriff, the triumphant smile fixed to his face.
“Look, you haven’t even seen the victim. You don’t know whether it was murder, suicide or an accident,” said Kristie. “Don’t you think the first priority would be to investigate the victim?”
“I’m just about to do that, ma’am,” said the sheriff, standing stiffly. His clothes hadn’t expanded any while he had been sitting. “And you need to come with me.”
“Fine, I’ll call my mother on the way up there and I really do need some water. I’m parched,” said Kristie.
I’m sorry but I cannot allow that, ma’am,” said the sheriff. He put his hand out. “No phone calls till we have this matter sorted out.”
“What? I can’t even call my mother?” she asked, astonished. She was about to revert to her standard reaction – fighting, arguing, protesting – till she reminded herself that there was another way. She was reminded of her ex-husband’s favourite phrase: ride the horse in the direction it’s going.