The walk down to the boulder took much longer than it should have. The boys were quieter, and they walked behind the men. There was an energy in the air, part nervousness, part anticipation. The things the boys had been taught in school, the things they had been trained to do in the Scouts, the stories they heard the men telling, usually after a few drinks, they were about to see them up close. They were about to carry out their duty. They would soon take down a Regulation breaker.
Will leaned close to Henry. “You bring a gun up here?”
Henry nodded and patted the pocket of his thick jacket.
“I got mine too,” Will said.
“I’ve got plenty of rope. Enough to tie him up and also tie a lead around his waist for bringing him to town.”
The men had spent almost an hour talking to the boys on the summit of Rook Mountain. They had talked about the boys' responsibilities in capturing the Regulation breaker. They had told them to stay out of the hiker’s reach and to stay alert. It was all review, stuff they had heard a thousand times before in the classroom, but the boys had listened with focus. There hadn’t been any laughter or side conversations. Not this time.
Will held up a hand to stop the group before a curve in the road. He waived the boys in close. “The boulder is about a hundred yards ahead. From here on out, we are silent. Stay as quiet as you can and follow me and Mr. Strauss. Stay behind us and don’t do anything different than what we discussed. Nod if you understand.”
Will looked around the group, making eye contact with each boy. They all nodded when he looked at them, a silent vow that they understood, that they would perform their duties.
Will reached into the front pocket of his backpack and pulled out the pistol. It was a 9mm Glock. It had been a couple years since he had fired the thing at the range, but that was okay. He didn’t intend to use it today. He just wanted to have it ready in case things turned bad. There were six boys here to think about after all.
Will slung the pack onto his back and began creeping down the road, the gun held loosely in his right hand. He stepped lightly, but he knew any effort to be silent would have been futile. A group of eight was sure to be noticeable. They walked down the center of the road to minimize the noise, but bits of gravel still crunched under their feet.
It didn’t matter. Will could see the boulder. Most likely, there would be no one there. The backpack could have been abandoned, or its owner might have left it for the day while he went foraging for food. They would probably find nothing, the Scouts would file a report when they got back to town, and that would be that.
The lump of ice in Will’s stomach told him there was another possibility. There was a possibility that someone would be there, and it would fall to Will to take the lead. Scout leader or not, Henry had already shown that he didn’t have it in him. Try as he might, Will couldn’t help but hate Henry a little for that. The way things were, there was a burden that had to be borne. For every person like Henry, too squeamish or indecisive to do their part, there had to be someone like Will to pick up the slack. It wasn’t meanness on Will’s part; it was just the way it was.
Will was fifty feet from the boulder. Henry was a few steps behind him, and the rest of the group hovered back a bit farther. Will reached down and shifted the pistol to a two hand grip. He looked at Henry one more time to make sure the man was ready. Henry nodded.
“Step out from behind the rock,” Will said. He spoke in the calmest, most authoritative voice he could manage.
He was met with silence.
He tried again. “Come on out. We don’t mean you any harm.”
Another long moment of silence.
Henry spoke softly. “I don’t think—”
Will held up his hand to quiet him.
Will said, “I take your non-response as hostility. We are moving in.”
“Wait!” The voice came from behind the rock. It was a hoarse, throaty voice, but it was also higher pitched than Will had expected.
“Step out onto the road,” Will said.
A shadow moved at the edge of the boulder, then it grew until it revealed feet, legs, a body. The figure moved into the sunlight. Will heard a boy behind him gasp.
“Don’t shoot!” the woman said. Her eyes were glued to Will’s pistol. Her hair was a tangle of blonde and black. Her t-shirt featured the faded logo of the band Phish.
Will kept his gun trained on her. He concentrated on keeping it steady.
“Ma’am, you have broken Regulation 11. We need to escort you back to town.”
The woman’s voice trembled when she spoke. “Please. I haven’t hurt anyone. I just want to be left alone.”
“Jesus,” Henry said. “That’s Jessie Cooper.”
Will felt a surge of anger rising up. The last thing he needed was Henry complicating matters.
“Jessie Cooper,” Henry repeated. “She works at the Food City. And before...she was my accountant.”
“Henry Strauss?” the woman asked, squinting into the sun.
“I don’t care what she was in the Before,” Will said. “Get out your rope and tie her hands. Boys, go collect her things.”
Henry paused only a moment before reaching into his pack and pulling out a coil of nylon rope. He moved toward the woman.
Will kept his gun trained on her while Henry bound her hands.
“Mr. Osmond! Come here!” The voice came from one of the boys behind the boulder.
Will looked at Henry. “You got her?”
Henry nodded. “Go.”
Will pocketed his gun and trotted around the boulder. On the other side, he saw the boys huddled around something on the ground. They parted as he approached, and he saw the oversized piece of paper that held their attention.
It was a map. And not just a map of Rook Mountain. It was a map of the county. A red line had been drawn straight north from the town of Rook Mountain to Elizabethton.
Russ said, “Mr. Osmond, was she planning a route to leave town?”
Will didn’t respond. He stood up with a grunt and then took a deep breath. This was not good. He tried to steel himself for what was next. What had to be next.
Will walked back around the boulder. Henry stood a few feet away from the woman. Her head was down, and her shoulders were slumped.
“Ms. Cooper,” Will said. “Are you familiar with Regulation 1?”
She raised her head. Her face was a bitter mask of contempt. “Yes, I think I’ve heard of it.”
“Were you planning to leave Rook Mountain?”
She kept her eyes on him, but she did not speak.
“Ms. Cooper, were you trying to leave town?”
“It’s not fair what they’ve done to us,” she said. “It isn’t right and I'm done with it. Done with all of them!”
“Jessie, are you leaving Rook Mountain?” Will asked.
“Yeah,” she said. “I’m leaving. Now let me go.”
Will fired, and the sound echoed off the side of the mountain. The bullet hit Jessie Cooper in the chest, and she staggered backwards. She made it three wobbly steps before collapsing. She landed with a thud.
Will walked toward her, not rushing, but careful not to hesitate either. He couldn’t lose his nerve. He stood over her, staring into her vacant eyes. A sick wheeze came from her chest as the breath leaked out of her.
Will fired again, this time hitting her near the center of the forehead. There was no mistake now—the woman was dead.
He turned and saw the group staring at him. He looked from one to another, making eye contact with each of them just as he had done before they approached the boulder. He saw looks of shock, horror, revulsion, and terror. There was even a look of awe from Carl Strauss. But they were all present behind their eyes. Whatever feelings they had about what had just happened, none of them were going to lose it. At least not now.
Will spoke softly and calmly, as if his tone could counteract the violence. “We did what we had to do. This woman was a Regulation breaker. Not only that, she was a Regulation 1 breaker. She was going to leave Rook Mountain and go elsewhere. At best, she would have been killed by the Unfeathered. At worst, she would have led them back to Rook Mountain.”
The boys remained still.
“There was no shame in what we did here,” Will continued. “We protected ourselves. We protected our families. We did our duty, no more and no less. Everyone understand?”
The boys all nodded, some more enthusiastically than others. Things would be different now, for Trevor and for all of them.
“Don’t touch anything,” Will said. “Leave her things where they lay. When we get to town, we will report what happened. The police will come up here to investigate. They’ll want to ask you all some questions. As long as you answer honestly and tell them exactly what happened, everything will be fine.”
Will looked at Henry and waited for the man to say something. If Henry took charge, it would go a long way toward getting things back to normal. But Henry said nothing.
“We want to get to the ranger station before sundown,” Will said. “Let’s get moving.”
As Will turned, he heard Carl say, “Hinkle, your dad is a badass.”
“Don’t call him that,” Trevor said.
“Sorry,” Carl said. “Step-dad. Whatever. He’s still a badass.”
“Yeah,” Trevor said. “I guess he kind of is.”
Will angled his way through the group until he stood next to Trevor. He put his arm around his stepson’s shoulders and started down the mountain.
IN THE BEFORE (PART 1)
The first time Will met the Hinkles, Jake was sitting on the porch drinking beer and Christine was wielding a chainsaw. Over the years, Will often thought back to that day and considered it the perfect introduction to both their personalities.
Will was fresh out of college and in the state of Tennessee for the first time. He had grown up in the plains of central Illinois and driving a car, let alone a U-Haul, through the mountains was an adventure to him. He had been skiing a few times out west where the mountains were tall, jagged things that jutted proudly into the sky and dared you to summit them. They were mountains for extreme sports, ski lifts, and feeling on top of the world.
The Appalachian Mountains of Eastern Tennessee were different. They were much smaller, yes, but they were also sneakier creatures. They were round and tree covered. There would be no skiing down them. They clung too close to the Earth, and they wore a coat of dense forest. They were mountains where you could imagine Daniel Boone blazing a trail, and you could understand why it would have been such a big deal.
They looked like mountains that held secrets.
Will made it through the Cumberland Gap and the twisty ups and downs of Kentucky and Virginia, clutching the steering wheel of his U-Haul in a death grip for hours on end. He made it past the giant, illuminated roadside crosses of Bristol and into the beautiful valley that cradled Elizabethton. After surviving a winding state highway and passing countless roadside stands selling boiled peanuts and South Carolina peaches, he made it to Rook Mountain.
He pulled off the highway and onto the first side road. A man in an old Subaru passed him going the other direction and waved. Will hesitated, then waved back. You didn’t get much waving at other drivers in Illinois. Unless the wave featured only one finger.
After ten minutes on the country road, he saw the sign, ‘Hinkle Resort.’
He heard the distinctive buzz of a chainsaw as he drove down the driveway. A chainsaw wasn’t the most comforting sound that could have greeted Will on his first visit to the Tennessee mountains, but he pressed on nonetheless.
A few hundred feet down the driveway he saw her. A woman in a sleeveless t-shirt cutting into a pine log. A pickup truck was parked behind her just off the driveway. Will figured there was room for the U-Haul to get by if he drove tight against the trees on the opposite side of the path, but just barely.
Will pulled up alongside her and rolled down the window. She didn’t seem to notice. Up ahead, the driveway forked into four smaller paths. Will had no idea which way to go.
The woman shut off the chainsaw. Her long chestnut hair was pulled back in a loose ponytail. The look suited her. “You Osmond?”
Will nodded. “Are you Christine?”
She returned his nod. “Welcome to Rook Mountain.” She set down the chainsaw and marched over. Christine looked to be in her late twenties. She moved gracefully and with purpose. Will’s heart skipped a beat as she gave him the slightest hint of a smile and held her hand up to his open window. He took the gloved hand and shook it.
She pointed to the fork in the driveway. “Your place is on the right. My husband Jake is up there now. I’m sure he’ll be glad to help you unload.” She turned and walked back to the waiting chainsaw.
Will felt like he should say something else. “Have fun.”
She looked at him, gave a half smile, and fired up the chainsaw.
Will eased the U-Haul to the left, taking it as far off the gravel as he dared. He didn’t want to knock off the side view mirror of his new landlord’s truck, but he didn’t want to get stuck, either. After a bit of finagling, Will got the U-Haul past the truck, turned onto the right-hand fork, and caught sight of his new home.
What he saw surprised him.
Christine had accurately described the cabin over the phone. She told him that it was nothing fancy, that it was old but roomy and solidly built. He liked the look of it. The large and numerous windows. The stubby chimney shyly poking out above the roof. The large porch which stretched the length of the house.
What surprised him was the man sitting on the steps leading up to the porch. He was leaning back on the stairs and looking up at the sky, surrounded by a half dozen empty beer bottles. An oversized portable cooler stood behind him. The man sat up as the moving truck approached, gave Will a casual wave, and wobbled to his feet.
“You’re from Indiana or something, right? That’s a long drive in this scrap,” Jake Hinkle said.
“Nice to meet you. Illinois, actually. But yeah, it was a long drive.”
Jake was maybe twenty-five years old, at least a few years younger than Christine. He was average height and bulky without being either fat or too muscular. He was solid, the kind of physique that comes from heavy labor rather than hours spent in the gym. His most distinctive feature was his shaggy blonde hair. If this had been a coastal town, Will would have taken him for a surfer type.
“Want a beer?” Jake asked.
Will paused for a moment, then looked at the U-Haul and considered the work that lay ahead of him.
“Truck ain’t going nowhere.” Jake smiled and nodded toward the cooler. “Help yourself.”
Will grabbed a beer and took a long satisfying drink. It tasted mighty fine.
“So, listen,” Jake said. “I don’t want you to get the wrong idea.”
Will took another drink before answering. “About what?”
“You see a man sitting around drinking while his wife is hard at work, you might not think too highly of him. I want you to understand this is a special circumstance.” Jake gave Will a crooked smile. “I lost a bet.”
“Oh,” Will said. He took another drink and noticed the bottle was half empty.
Jake snorted and shook his head. “Dude, seriously? I tell you my wife is cutting down trees because I lost a bet and you’re not going to ask about it?”
Will shrugged. “Didn’t think it was any of my business.”
Jake roared with laughter. “Man, you see that house over there?” He pointed to another cabin just past a thin line of trees. “Me and Christine live there. Your business and my business are bound to get tangled up from time to time. Might as well start now.”
Will smiled. “What was the bet?”
“Christine’s dad, Clark, used to own this place. He’d rent these cabins out a week at a time to vacation people. Demand was so high that he’d occasionally rent out his own place and sleep in the tool shed out back. We bought it from him when we got married. 'Course, he couldn’t help but share his thoughts on the way we run the place. He lives in the cabin on the end. He didn’t much like it when Christine and I moved in as it meant there were only two left to rent out. Then we let my brother Frank move into the third cabin. He really didn’t like that. When we decided to rent this cabin out monthly rather than weekly, he had some thoughts on that as well. Needless to say, Clark and I have some communication problems.”
“So what was the bet?”
“That brother I mentioned? Frank? Christine has a couple issues with him. We knew they’d both be gone today, so we had ourselves a little bet. We shot darts. And I lost.”
Will heard the gravel crunch and looked at the road just in time to see Christine’s truck roll by, dragging a large log behind it.
“So if you lost, why is she cutting wood while you drink?”
Jake smiled again. “That’s her fifth trip. See, we had the bright idea that it might be fun to build a little blockade across either Clark’s or Frank’s driveway. She won the bet. God, she was on fire last night.”
“So when Frank comes home tonight...”
“He’s going to find his driveway blocked with at least five logs. My guess is that it will be more like ten before the girl runs out of steam.”
Will couldn’t help but laugh. “Remind me to never piss off Christine.”
Jake held up his bottle. “Cheers to that.”
Will raised his beer, and the two bottles clinked together.
“Welcome to Rook Mountain, Mr. Osmond, where we make our own fun. The great thing about this place is that nothing crazy ever happens.” He met Will’s eyes and that crooked smile reappeared. “The downside is that nothing crazy ever happens.”
CHAPTER TWO: SAME OLD TOWN
“If I had to guess the cause of death, I’d go with the two bullets,” Christine Osmond said.
The deceased woman, positively identified as Jessie Cooper, lay on the medical examiner’s table. She was stuffed into a black body bag, unzipped at the top. Her head and torso poked out like a candy bar from a peeled-back wrapper.
“Seriously, Doc?” the man in the police uniform asked. “That’s all you got?”
Christine sighed. “Sullivan, she’s been unzipped for about thirty seconds. Come back in an hour and I might have something a little more in-depth.”
Sullivan nodded. “I was hoping to get home tonight.”
“Very subtle.” She looked up at him. “So you don’t have any concerns with me doing the medical examination?”
Sullivan shrugged. “It’s not ideal. In the Before, we probably would have had to find someone else. But now… who else are we going to ask?”
Christine nodded. She’d grown used to that refrain over the last eight years. She was one of only two medical doctors in Rook Mountain, and the other one had just celebrated his eighty-fifth birthday. In the Before, most people had gone to Elizabethton for their medical needs.
In the old days, Christine had been a podiatrist. She had worked in a small but progressive hospital in Elizabethton, a tight-knit workplace high on results and comparatively low on drama. They were even starting to get some national recognition. A medical journal had written up their unique approach to cross-disciplinary teamwork. There had been talk of awards. Grant money.
It had been a good life. Work hard all day and sometimes all night at a job she was passionate about. Sure, it was stressful, but it was a good stress, an invigorating stress. When work was done, she drove to her beautiful home in the mountains and her amazing family.
Then the Bad Things had happened. The Unfeathered. Regulation Day. Jake’s disappearance. Now she might as well be one of two doctors alive.
“Anyway,” Sullivan said, “I don’t guess you’ll find anything unexpected. This couldn’t be any more straightforward. Ms. Cooper here was a Regulation breaker. Will took care of her, protected the town, and taught all those boys a thing or two at the same time. You should be proud of your husband.”
Christine smiled. “I am. Always.” Ever since she had married Will she’d never once been anything but proud of him. It was different than her marriage to Jake had been in many ways. She supposed no two marriages were exactly alike. She and Will had their ups and downs, but her trust in the man never wavered. The best part was that she knew he felt the same way about her.
“Man alive, I wish Peyton had been in that group,” Sullivan said. “His Scout leader hasn’t even taught him to start a proper fire. And he’s fourteen in September.”
Christine pulled on a pair of latex gloves. She reached up and hit 'record' on the video camera pointed at the table. Who the hell would ever watch this thing, she didn't know. But procedure was procedure. Christine made a point of following the rules. Trust was a must.
“I’ll leave you to it then.” Sullivan turned and sauntered out of the room, letting the heavy metal door slam shut behind him.
Christine dragged the zipper of the body bag down until the rest of the corpse was exposed. In spite of what she had told Sullivan, she didn’t want to be there all night, either. She wanted to get home to her family. She wanted to be with Will. And Trevor too. It wasn’t the first death that either of them had seen, and it probably wouldn’t be the last. But they both had to be going through some things.
Christine sighed and took a deep breath. She couldn’t think about any of that now. There was a dead woman in front of her who deserved the courtesy of a thorough examination. Like Sullivan, Christine doubted there was anything to find, but that didn’t mean she wouldn’t try.
Christine pulled the body bag away from the woman’s arms and legs. Jessie Cooper was forty-two years old, or so her records said. It was a little hard to tell on visuals alone with the distracting hole in her forehead. It was clear from her clothing that she had been out in the wild for some time. The denim of her jeans was hard with dirt. Her hair was tangled and uneven. Christine tried to picture the way she might have looked before she went into the wild.
Christine started with the hands. They were bound with rope but appeared uninjured. Her wrists showed no signs that she had struggled against the rope. Most likely it had been quick and her suffering had been minimal.
Where to go next? She could start from the bottom and work her way up. The feet would be in terrible shape, Christine knew. It was difficult to take care of your feet when spending any significant time in the wilderness. Christine had seen it on countless hikers in the Before, men and women passing through Rook Mountain on the Appalachian Trail who had finally given in to their screaming feet and come in for a checkup. The feet were always the first sign of a life hard lived, long before the teeth or the hands.
Not that the head was much prettier in this particular case.
The shot, Christine had to admit, was impressive. Dead center of the forehead. From the way Sullivan had told it to her, the woman had been lying on the ground with Will standing above her. Shooting down was more difficult than it might seem. It wasn't the way a weapon was meant to be fired and not the way anyone practiced shooting. It would have been easy for Will to take off the top of her skull, but his shot had been true. Steady hand, that one.
Not as steady as hers, of course, but she was a doctor.
Christine could have stopped there. But she felt it was her responsibility to check for any other possible injuries prior to death. That was when she noticed the necklace.
Jessie Cooper wasn’t wearing any rings, earrings, or bracelets, but she did have a thin gold chain around her neck. Christine slid a probing tool under the chain and lifted it, pulling it from underneath the woman’s shirt.
On the end of the chain, there was a key.
Christine took a sharp breath. It couldn’t be. Not on this random woman who had spent the last month hiding in the woods and planning her escape to Elizabethton. Christine unhooked the chain and held it up so the key dangled in front of her eyes.
It was an old-fashioned key, a long cylinder with dramatic teeth jutting out at the end. There was a symbol on the head of the key, and that symbol was what held Christine’s attention. It showed the face of a clock with a jagged crack running down its center.
Christine had seen the symbol before. She had spent much of the last eight years searching for something, anything, with the symbol. She’d searched until she had run out of places to look. No, that wasn’t accurate. There were still plenty of stones unturned in this little town. She had run out of something else. There was a word for it... Hope? Motivation? Some combination of those things.
Christine peeled the latex glove off one hand and reached for the key. She closed her hand tight around it, feeling the coolness of the metal against her skin. Then she opened her hand and traced the symbol of the clock’s face with her thumb.
It was real. She had found it.
Christine took a deep breath and tried to clear her mind. Keeping this key—keeping anything with the broken clock symbol—was a violation of Regulation 2. The rule was clear—she was supposed to turn the object over to the police immediately. Breaking the Regulation didn’t bother her, she had broken this one before, but it did complicate things. It put her and her family in danger.
She switched off the video camera. Then she took out the Mini-DV tape and put it in her pocket. Thank God for the old school video camera in the medical examiner’s room. She would burn the tape later. It wasn’t ideal, she knew, especially since Sullivan had seen her turn the camera on. Couldn’t exactly say she had forgotten. And since the shooting involved her husband, it was plausible that someone might review the tape to make sure she wasn’t covering anything up. It wasn’t likely in Rook Mountain, but it was plausible.
Christine, by her very nature, didn’t like dealing with this level of uncertainty.
Still, there was nothing she could do. She couldn’t risk someone reviewing the tape and seeing the key. If the wrong people saw it, things could take a very bad turn.
She would put another tape into the video camera, hit 'record,' and take the examination from the top. She would be thorough. Even though she desperately wanted to run home and show the key to Will, to celebrate the good news with him, she would force herself to complete the job. When Sullivan came back in forty-five minutes or so, she would tell him about the results of the examination. She would have an unhurried, casual conversation with him for as long as she could stomach. Only after all that would she go home. There was too much at stake for her to be anything but meticulous.
She slipped the necklace into her pocket and went to find another tape for the video camera.
Frank sat on a park bench in downtown Rook Mountain. He was eating a vanilla ice cream cone with sprinkles. It was the first time he’d tasted ice cream in over nine years. He was a free man.
The release from prison had been a whirlwind. Usually, the hours leading up to a prisoner’s release were an exciting but stressful time. Often the prisoner was given little information on the exact time of their release. But the main reason for the tension was the fear that something would go wrong. Maybe there had been a paperwork snafu. Maybe someone in some government office somewhere would review your file and have a change of heart. It was unlikely to happen, but that didn’t stop the fears from coming in those final prison hours.
Frank had been spared all of that.
After the meeting with Ms. Raymond and the warden, Frank had been taken to another office area and asked to sign a few pieces of paper. Rodgers then led him to a large room where he was given a set of clothes he’d never seen before, an envelope of cash, and a hearty handshake. With that, Rodgers had called for a prison transport van and sent Frank on his way.
Of course, Rodgers hadn’t been able to leave it at that. As Frank boarded the van, he heard Rodgers calling to him. “Maybe I’ll see you on the outside.”
Frank had no idea if that was a threat or the guard’s awkward way of saying that he considered Frank a human being again. Frank didn’t much care. He turned and gave Rodgers a tooth-baring smile that probably could have been interpreted as menacing. “Yeah,” Frank said. “Maybe you will.”
Frank asked the van driver to drop him off in downtown Rook Mountain. He wasn’t ready to head out to the cabin just yet. He wandered a few blocks, enjoying the freedom of not having his next move dictated to him. He didn’t have anywhere to be, and no one would yell at him if he wasn’t walking fast enough or on a straight enough line. He passed a few people on the street that he recognized. Some of them looked at his face for a little too long, as if trying to place him, but no one said anything. Thank God for that. He wasn’t ready for small talk. To say he was out of practice would have been a severe understatement. And he had no idea how he would explain his release from prison.
He spotted Grumpy’s Creamery. It had been one of his favorite places when he was a kid. He’d spent many happy hours there back in the days before he knew anything bad could happen. Before he knew how dark life could get. Back when the future was something to look forward to rather than something to dread.
So he took the envelope out of his pocket, peeled off a twenty, and walked inside.
After he got the ice cream cone, he wandered for a few more blocks, licking at it when it started to drip. He sat down on a bench in front of a small playground. It was only after he sat that he realized where he was.
It couldn’t be a coincidence. It had to be his subconscious that had led him there. Perhaps it had been leading him there all along.
Right there, right next to the swing set, was where he had killed Brett Miller almost ten years ago. It looked almost exactly the same as it had on that day. Frank could almost see Brett’s blood splattered across the ground and dripping from the park sign.
He looked hard and didn’t try to force the remembered blood out of his mind. He’d had a lot of time to think about that night, and he didn’t run from it anymore. The thought of it still made the guilt bubble up inside him, overwhelming all his senses, but he didn’t try to push it down. He had done something terrible. As the prison counselors would say, it was an event that defined his past, but it did not have to define his future.
So what did the future hold? Frank inspected his waffle cone, and then licked a drip running down the side. He bit into the cone, and it cracked with a sweet crunch. It tasted as good as he remembered.
There wasn’t much in this world Frank was good at. He’d messed up his life about as bad as was possible. Even before he became a killer, he’d been fired from about every reputable employer in Rook Mountain. Frank had never known his father very well, and his mother had died still worried about how her younger son would turn out. But there were three things Frank knew. He knew locks, he knew the people of Rook Mountain, and he knew his brother Jake.
The police had been searching for Jake for years, but that didn’t mean much to Frank. The cops never did really understand the Hinkle boys. Frank could do it. He could find his brother. And what would happen when he found him? Frank didn’t have it in him to turn in his own brother. But Jake needed him. And maybe he needed Jake.
Frank whipped his head toward the figure on the bench next to him. Damn it, he had been doing it again. Drifting.
The first thing he noticed about the man sitting next to him was the uniform. Then he saw the face. For a moment, Frank flashed back to the morning he killed Brett. He saw himself hitting Brett with the tire iron. He saw two police officers tackling him to the ground. Now, in the same spot ten years later, one of those officers was sitting next to him.
Sean Lee was one year younger than Frank. In their elementary school days, Sean had often come over to the Hinkle’s house to play basketball in the driveway. The kid had shot the ball pretty well and hit the boards with enthusiasm on offense, but his defining basketball characteristic was his complete lack of interest in playing defense. He just stood around and waited for his team to take possession of the ball again.
“You doing okay?” Sean asked.
Frank wasn't sure how to answer that question. How was he doing? He was ecstatic. He was confused. He was angry. “It’s been an odd day.”
Sean said, “You really put me through my paces in the last couple of hours. You know how many calls we’ve had to the station about you? Go ahead and guess.”
“I really don’t know.”
“Seven. We’ve had seven calls, and they were all pretty much the same. The murderer has broken out of jail. The Hinkle boy is out on the street. For some reason, even though they say your brother killed three people, you are the Hinkle everyone seems most afraid of.”
Frank sighed. “I thought maybe no one recognized me.”
Sean laughed. “You’re famous, buddy. Rook Mountain famous anyway. I called the prison and they confirmed that your release was legit. I told the next six people who called. It should be making its way around the gossip circuits. By midday tomorrow everyone will know. Then maybe people will start being a little friendlier. You got lucky today, though.”
“How do you mean?”
“You’re lucky people called us about you. Things have changed in Rook Mountain since you went inside.”
“So I keep hearing.”
“Yeah, well, it’s true. When folks see someone doing something illegal, they don’t always tip off the law. A lot of times they decide to take care of it themselves.”
That didn’t sound all that new to Frank.
“I’m not saying it’s going to happen,” continued Sean, “but if anybody starts harassing you, you come to me, understand? Or someone else in the department. Don’t try to resolve it yourself. Things can turn ugly fast that way.”
Another image flashed into Frank’s mind: the tire iron slamming into Brett Miller’s head, the head bending and then caving in. And Frank pulling back the tire iron, slick with blood and coated with chunks of what had been Brett.
“That I do know,” Frank said.
Sean frowned. “Yeah, I guess you do. What I’m trying to say is...well, you remember that nickname Jake had for me?”
Frank couldn’t help but smile. “Yeah. No D. Lee.”
Sean’s ears turned a shade of pink. “That’s the one. I never agreed with it. I played some top notch defense in your driveway. Still do every Wednesday morning down at the Y.”
“Sure. I remember your great defense. It involved a lot of standing behind your opponent and waiting for him to score, right?” It felt good to talk to an old friend, and it was surprising how quickly he fell back into the old pattern of giving Sean a hard time. It was like the last nine years had suddenly fallen away.
“Now’s the time for you to play some serious defense. Don’t get in anyone’s face. Go with the flow. It will take you some time to get used to things, but you’ll get there. Did they tell you not to leave town?”
Frank nodded. “Yeah, they made a big deal about that.”
“That’s the most important thing. As long as you don’t leave town, and you don’t start any trouble, you’ll get along fine.”
“Thanks,” Frank said. “Hey, can I ask you about something that’s been bugging me?”
Sean looked away. “Frank, I’m sure you’ve got lots of questions. But I’m not really the guy to answer them.”
“Just one. It’s about the cars.”
Sean paused for a long moment, then nodded.
“I bought a new Ford F-150 a couple months before the thing went down with Brett. I’d wanted one my whole life, and things were going well with the lock business, so I finally pulled the trigger. I thought about that truck a lot in prison. About how unfair it was that I’d finally gotten it and then had it taken away from me. Anyway, I can picture that truck almost perfectly in my mind.”
“So what’s the question?” Sean asked.
“I was walking down the street a little while ago and I saw an F-150 drive by. And it looked exactly like mine. Same color, same detailing, same new truck shine on it.”
Sean smiled. “That’s a popular truck, Frank. Yours wasn’t exactly one of a kind.”
“That’s not what I mean. The F-150 I saw had to be almost brand new, and it looked exactly like mine. Sean, I went to prison in 2013. Are you telling me Ford hasn’t changed one detail of the F-150 in the last nine years?”
The smile fell from Sean’s face.
“So then I started looking around at other cars. And you know what I noticed? They all look like they did in 2013. There weren’t any changes to the models I remember, and there weren’t any new models.”
“You’re right,” Sean said. He spoke slowly and carefully. “At least not in Rook Mountain.”
“What the hell does that mean?” Frank asked.
“When I said that you need to go with the flow, this is the type of thing I was talking about. This is one of the hundreds of tiny things you are going to notice in the next few weeks. Like I said, things have changed here. I don’t feel very comfortable talking about it, especially in public and even more so while I'm on duty.”
“That’s a pretty weird thing to lay on me and not explain, Sean.”
“I know. And I’m sorry about that.” He patted Frank on the shoulder and smiled. “Still, beats the hell out of prison, right?”
“Listen, if you still want to chat about this stuff, why don’t you come over tomorrow night? I’ll throw a couple of steaks on the grill and we’ll drink some beer. I won’t promise to answer all your questions, but with a couple beers in me I’ll be more likely to answer some of them.”
“Yeah, that sounds great,” Frank said. And did it ever. Steak. Beer. And to think, he’d been excited about the ice cream cone.
“Awesome. Come by around sixish. I’m still over on Maple Street.” Sean stood up.
“Thanks, man. I really appreciate it.”
“I’m glad to see you, Frank. I’ve missed you. Welcome home.”
Frank felt a lump growing in his throat. When was the last time someone had spoken a sincere kind word to him? He couldn’t remember. “Thank you.”
“Hey, you got a place to stay?”
“I was going to head out to my cabin. See if the place is still standing.”
Sean looked away again, the same as he had when Frank asked about the cars. “Yeah, of course. Cool.” Something in his voice made Frank think Sean did not consider it cool at all. “Just make sure you don’t sleep in the park or something. We’ve got these...regulations against that. We’re pretty strict about them.”
Frank nodded. “See you tomorrow night.”
Will stood in front of the open refrigerator for a few minutes, and then he shut it and wandered back to the living room. He couldn’t sit still. He couldn’t stop pacing, snapping his fingers, stretching. Anything to keep moving. He had too much nervous energy.
Up on Rook Mountain, killing Jessie Cooper had seemed necessary. Now he wasn’t so sure. He had taken the life of a woman who only wanted to be free of this town. He had added another name to the ever-lengthening list of Regulation casualties. And for what? Had it been worth it?
After the shooting, Will had led the boys down the mountain and joked with them a little bit, but not so much that it disregarded what had happened. At the police station, he had calmly given his statement. He hadn’t left anything out or held anything back. He had told the truth to the best of his recollection. After an hour and a half of questioning, the police had given him instructions to stay home tonight in case they had further questions and released him.
When he got home, Will had tried to talk to Trevor, but he wasn’t sure how much got through to the kid. No, Trevor wasn’t upset. No, he did not want to talk about it. Yes, he understood why it had to happen. Yes, he knew that he could talk to Will about anything. Will ended the conversation feeling ineffective and out of touch. The way his own dad had once seemed to him.
The pacing started after the conversation with Trevor. Will felt odd. Tired and hyper at the same time, and a little sick to his stomach. He felt like a hypocrite. He was still pacing almost an hour later when Christine walked through the door.
She stepped toward him and gave him a tight hug. “Are you okay?”
“I feel weird. It’s probably the adrenaline. I’m okay.”
She sighed. “Tell me what happened.”
“I thought the woman was camping, so I talked Henry into going after her. I figured it would look good to bring in a minor Regulation breaker, you know? As soon as we saw her map, every kid in the troop knew she was headed out of town. I couldn’t see any way out of it, so…”
He took a deep breath and continued. “Henry wasn’t going to pull the trigger. If we hadn’t executed her, the board of selectmen would have started an investigation. They would have looked into our lives more deeply than they have since right after Jake disappeared.”
“Honey, you did the right thing. You know that, right? We knew something like this could happen.”
Will nodded. Her hair tickled his face.
She pulled away from him and gripped his upper arms. “Will. I found something on the body.”
“They made you examine it? I thought they would have had someone else do it.” He noticed the intensity on her face, and stopped talking.
“It was hanging from her necklace. She was wearing it like a charm.”
She put her hand into her pocket, pulled it out, and slowly opened her hand.
Will’s breath caught in his throat. “Is it really one of them?”
Christine smiled. “It has to be, right?”
Will nodded. “Why would she have it? Where’d she get it?”
“I don’t know,” Christine said. “Here.” She placed the key in his open hand and closed his fingers around it.
Will shut his eyes and concentrated on the key in his hand. All the nervous energy drained away, and he enjoyed a moment of peace.
Will said, “This...this is huge. We have to be careful. We’ve waited this long. We have to make sure we don’t rush into anything.”
Christine looked at Will. Her eyes were shining. “I know we’re not there yet, but we're getting close to the finish line. If we can stay strong a little longer.”
Will nodded. Her excitement was infectious. He leaned toward her. His lips were almost touching hers when the doorbell rang.
Trevor lay on his bed, his earbuds in his ears, staring at the letter.
He still wore his clothes from the trip, and he stunk of sweat and campfire smoke. He needed to change and do it soon. Will had been too distracted to notice, but he would have no such luck when Mom got home. She could discuss the dangers of dirty clothes on a clean bed at great length and with deep passion. He should probably take a shower too, to be on the safe side.
Come to think of it, a hot shower sounded pretty good.
But he couldn’t stop looking at the letter. No one knew about it, no one but him, and that was part of what made it special. He would have to tell Will and Mom soon, probably that night. Tomorrow at the latest. He wanted to savor the secret for a little longer first.
What would Will and Mom say? Would they force him to accept? Would they say he was too young? Would they leave the decision up to him?
He read the letter again, probably for the hundredth time.
September 13th, 2022
1407 Riley Dr.
Congratulations! I am pleased to inform you of your acceptance to the Rook Mountain Beyond Academy for the Fall Semester of 2022. Your acceptance is evidence of our Board of Directors’ confidence in your potential as demonstrated by your academic achievements, your standardized test scores, and your unique personal qualities. You are now part of a select few, and you will be a part of the fifth graduating class in the Academy’s history.
RMBA is dedicated to providing the best education for our students. Our faculty strives to find new and innovative ways to prepare students for the challenge of leading our community. While some of our students will go on to careers in Resource Expansion, we expect others will follow other paths such as Law Enforcement, Medicine, and Business Administration.
Whatever path you choose to follow, we look forward to you starting it with us.
Dean of Students
At the bottom of the letter was a handwritten note:
Trevor, we are all very proud of you. You have overcome a lot in your life and we believe you can be successful here at RMBA. See you in October! —Janet
The board of selectmen had launched the Rook Mountain Beyond Academy three years earlier as a school for advanced students. They didn’t accept a set number of students each year, nor did they disqualify students based on age. They accepted eight students the first year, the second year only three. Most of the students were between fifteen and twenty years old. The youngest person ever accepted was thirteen. A full year older than Trevor.
Trevor would be the youngest ever. But would his folks allow him to go?
He felt anger building up inside him at the very thought that they might object. Trevor knew Will’s feelings on the school. The man wasn’t usually outspoken, especially when his thoughts went against the official stance of the Rook Mountain board of selectmen. But he couldn’t hold his tongue about the RMBA. He thought it was elitist. He thought it created an unnecessary class system. Most importantly, Will thought it unfairly bypassed the town’s Certification and Mentorship programs, programs which he happened to run.
Trevor knew that Will had applied to teach at RMBA and been rejected. Janet Miller had told Will he had the book learning but not enough real world experience.
It didn’t matter. His step-dad couldn’t tell him what to do. Sure, about little stuff. But something big like this? Something that affected his future? No way. Will Osmond had no say in that.
There was a lot to love about the RMBA. Some of Rook Mountain High’s best teachers taught exclusively at the RMBA. There were certain freedoms allowed to Academy students, certain Regulations they didn’t need to follow. They were all little things, sure, but it was the town’s nod of respect to its best students.
Those weren’t the reasons Trevor so desperately wanted to join the Academy. The real reason was that the Academy gave him his best chance, probably his only chance, of becoming a Resource Expansion Specialist. And RESpys were allowed to leave town. They hunted down citizens who ran. They gathered supplies for the town. They explored the unknown territories.
Carl thought Will was a badass. And for what? Shooting a defenseless woman who was sleeping in the woods? Compared with what the RESpys did every day, that was nothing. RESpys faced down the nightmares that wanted to eat the world, and they fought them back.
Trevor would be a RESpy someday. He knew it. He would leave this town. He would see the plains. Maybe even see the ocean.
Then he would find his father.
Frank walked the edges of the road, staying close to the tree line. Cars driving down the tiny road in the middle of nowhere didn’t expect to see pedestrians, and they drove accordingly. It wasn’t just the thought of cars that pushed him to the side of the road—his desire to be near the trees pulled him toward their shade. He had grown up playing in these woods. He’d climbed many of these trees and fallen out of a few of them. He’d camped out here. Played hide and seek. Drank his first beer and taken his first shot of moonshine. These woods were a constant presence in his life, and after so long away he wanted to be close to them. The crunch of pine needles beneath his feet and the rich scent of the woods in his nose just felt right.
Frank was walking home, walking toward the cabin he had lived in for six years before his incarceration. He had never owned the place, Jake and Christine had owned all four cabins on the property, but he had lived there long enough that he felt a sense of ownership. After Jake and Christine had moved into town to be closer to the schools for little Trevor, Frank had taken care of the property. And he had taken care of Clark, Christine’s father, until the old man had gotten too sick and spent the last two months of his life at Elizabethton Memorial.
In some ways, that had been the best year of Frank’s life. His lock business had been growing steadily, and there was plenty to do around the cabins when he wasn’t working. He’d been dating Wendy, and things had been getting pretty serious. He and Christine had patched up their differences—most of them anyway. He had the land to take care of, and he took great pleasure in doing so.
Frank grimaced as he rounded the bend and saw the driveway. Weeds as high as Frank’s knee sprouted through the gravel. He would have thought Christine would have kept the place up, or at least hired somebody to do so. He walked up the driveway, grabbing randomly at weeds and pulling them out as he passed. He knew he wasn’t doing any good. He wasn’t pulling up the root. But it still made him feel a little better.
He came to the four-way fork in the drive and took the one on the left that led to the cabin that had served as his workshop after Clark died.
Frank walked the remaining weedy stretch of the driveway slowly, taking in the sights and the sounds of the place. He climbed up the porch and looked out over the view. He had spent many a pleasant evening on this porch, sometimes strumming his guitar, sometimes sipping Tennessee whiskey, sometimes simply thinking. Or had he really been thinking? He remembered many hours spent out here, sure, but he couldn’t remember what he might have been thinking about so hard. Maybe he had been drifting a little, even back then.
Frank turned and pulled the keys out of his pocket. They had been in his possession when he was incarcerated, so they were given back to him when he was released. He paused before inserting the key, and took a look at the place. Not bad for nine years of neglect, he decided. The paint wasn’t exactly flake-free, but it wasn’t falling off the door either. Part of the benefit of a log cabin—the age didn’t show as quickly. If it wasn’t for the weeds growing in the driveway, you might not even know it was abandoned.
Frank reached out and gave the doorknob a wiggle. It turned freely in his hand. Damn, that wasn’t good. Not good at all.
He had left instructions with Jake and Christine. He had asked them to lock the cabin and leave his things untouched. That was all he had wanted from them. Jake had nodded, and even though he had been furious about what had happened between Frank and Brett Miller, it seemed like he had understood and that he would take care of it.
There was another possibility. Maybe Jake had followed through and left the place locked tight. Maybe someone had found their own way in. Maybe that someone was still there.
Frank wished he had thought to bring some sort of weapon. A gun would be ideal, but anything would do. A knife. A hammer. Anything but a tire iron.
Frank took a deep breath and pushed on the door. It was only open an inch when he heard a voice behind him say, “Don’t move. Put your hands in the air, please.”
Frank released the doorknob and raised his hands. He squeezed his eyes shut tight, as tight as he could, to clear his mind. Then he opened them. The man hadn’t said he had a gun, but he didn’t need to. In these parts, a man might not have a legal home, but he wouldn’t be caught without a gun.
Frank gritted his teeth in frustration. He hadn’t survived nine years in NTCC to get shot by a squatter the day he got out. He began turning toward the voice.
“I said don’t move!”
Frank froze. “Okay. Sorry. And I’m sorry if I frightened you. I’m—”
“Yeah, you’re gonna be sorry,” the man said. “You better tell me what you’re doing here, and tell me quick.”
Frank took a deep breath. “I...I used to live here. I’ve been away for a while.”
“Away? What the hell do you mean, away? You expect me to believe you’re a RESpy?”
“RESpy?” Frank asked. Sean’s words came back to him. Go with the flow. “No, I’m not a RESpy.”
“Okay, then I guess you’re a Reg Breaker. That means I could shoot you dead and be a hero. They might even give me these cabins legally. Put them in my name as a way of saying thanks.”
Frank’s jaw ached with tension. No way in hell was this asshole getting the cabins. He wasn’t about to say that now, though. “I don’t know anything about that. I’ve been in prison. Up at NTCC. Got out today.”
“Holy shit. You’re that Hinkle boy, ain’t you?”
Frank nodded slowly. “Yeah. I am.”
“Ha. I thought you looked familiar. It’s Gus Hansen. From 3rd Street Baptist.”
Gus Hansen. It took Frank a moment, but he finally placed the man. He had been an usher at church. Always sucking on mints. The man had always had a mischievous little smirk on his face. Frank had never really understood what the man did for a living, but he'd had the impression it was not exactly legal.
Frank lowered his hands. “Gus. Yeah, of course.”
“Keep them up!” shouted Gus. “The fact that I knew you in the Before don’t mean nothing.”
Frank put his hands back up. “Okay. Sorry.”
There was a long silence. So long that Frank began to wonder if the older man had nodded off or something.
Finally Gus said, “Frank, you’ve put me in a bit of a pickle here. I don’t want to hurt you, and I know you didn’t come out here with any ill will toward me and mine. You’re just a man enjoying his freedom.”
“That’s right,” Frank said. “I don’t mean you any harm.”
“At the same time, here you are, mucking up a nice situation for me. See, I lost my house in one of those goddamn property regulations. Thankfully, we found this place and made ourselves a nice little arrangement with the owner. Part of that arrangement is we don’t let people go snooping around on the property.”
The door in front of Frank swung open and Frank suddenly remembered the other important thing about Gus Hansen: his sons.
Ty and Kurt Hansen had been the scourge of Rook Mountain during Frank’s high school days. The brothers were both in the neighborhood of six foot seven and built like brick walls. In high school, they had helped put the Rook Mountain High football team on the map. By the time Frank was a teenager, the Hansens had graduated from high school and had moved on to bar fighting and general hell-raising.
Every time Jake and Frank Hinkle got into trouble, which was frequently, folks would say, “Well, at least they aren’t the Hansen boys.”
The Newg had run with the Hansen boys back in the day, so Frank had heard plenty of stories about them during his time in prison. Enough stories that he hoped he’d never again cross paths with either of them.
One of those Hansen boys was standing in front of Frank now, filling the open doorway so thoroughly that only a sliver of light managed to eke in around his edges. The man was as big and solid as Frank remembered. He grimaced at Frank, and then looked past him and noticed his father. Frank kept his hands in the air and waited.
“Dad, what’s going on here?”
“This here’s Frank Hinkle,” Gus said. “He’s a little confused. Ain’t that right?”
Frank nodded slowly. “You Ty or Kurt?”
The man in the doorway scowled.
“This is Ty,” Gus said. “And I think it’s time for you to be moving on, Hinkle.”
Frank started to go, but then stopped. Maybe he could still get something out of the long walk out here. Maybe he could get the one thing that mattered. “I don’t care about you living here. I’m going to be staying in town. And I don’t care about my stuff. You can have it for all I care. I only want my guitar case.”
There was a long pause. Gus asked, “Your guitar case? The locked one?”
Another long pause. “Boy, you don’t know how long I’ve spent trying to get that case open. My fingers have been itching to play that thing for years. I found those keys in the kitchen, but they didn’t work. I take it there’s a trick to it?”
“There is,” Frank said.
Gus sighed. “Been driving me crazy trying to figure it out. I could have smashed the hinges off and opened it that way. I came close to doing just that a few times. But I kept thinking some night it would come to me. I thought I would beat the thing somehow.”
Another long pause. Gus said, “Whoever heard of a guitar case with a puzzle for a lock? I take it you can open it? You remember how?”
Frank said, “Let me have the case and I’ll show you how to open it.”
Gus was quiet for a long moment, and then he said, “You used to make those, right? Trick locks?”
Frank couldn’t help but correct him. “Puzzle locks.”
“And people paid you for that?”
Frank nodded. It was a small market, but the customers paid well. He had spent years creating thirty original designs. And they were all in the guitar case. His life’s work was in that guitar case.
“So wait a minute,” Ty said. “You know so much about locks, how come you never broke out of that prison?”
Frank smiled. “They put pretty solid locks on prison doors. Besides, the guards kind of frown on lock picking. They knew I was a locksmith, so they watched me pretty close.”
Gus sighed. “Well, as much as I’d like the trick to opening that case, it ain’t gonna happen. Like I said, we got an arrangement with the owner. Ty?”
Ty smiled like he had been given the green light.
He moved fast for a big man. His fist hit Frank in the gut like a sledgehammer, driving the air from Frank’s lungs. Frank hit the ground with a thud.
He lay on the ground, gasping, his mind reeling. He had spent the past nine years successfully avoiding fights, and he had let his guard down the moment he got out. Stupid.
Ty grabbed a handful of Frank’s hair and pulled him up to his knees. He leaned close and whispered into Frank’s ear. “Don’t come back here. This place is off limits. You come back here, and I’ll have to get rough.”
It took Frank an hour to walk to the section of town where Christine lived. The sun was down now and he felt a slight sting of worry. Sean had said not to sleep in the park, but what about walking down the street at night? Was he asking for more trouble? And what if Christine wasn’t home? Or if for some reason she refused to let him stay with her? What would he do then?
He turned onto Riley Drive and slowed his pace. He hadn’t thought much about what he would say to Christine; he had only considered getting there. How much would he tell her? Would he admit he had been released to find her missing husband?
He paused for a minute in front of the tan, ranch-style home. It looked bigger than he remembered. More intimidating. The bushes were carefully manicured and the lawn was nicely hedged. No weeds growing in this driveway. Frank reached for the knob, then stopped and pressed the doorbell instead.
After a long moment, the door opened. The man on the inside squinted out into the darkness, trying to see Frank. Frank should have said something, but he was too surprised. Why was Will Osmond answering the door at Christine and Trevor’s house?
Will fumbled for the porch light and finally flipped it on. It was his turn to be shocked.
“Frank?” Will asked. “Frank, is that you?”
“Yeah. Hi, Will. I got out today and I was...well, is Christine here?”
Will’s mouth hung open in an expression that was half surprise and half confusion. Christine appeared, pushing past Will. “Frank?” She laughed and the sound was a balm to Frank’s soul. She looked older, but the years sat well on her. To Frank’s eyes, she looked prettier than she had a decade ago. “What are you doing here?”
She stumbled forward without waiting for an answer and threw her arms around him. He returned the hug, maybe a little too tightly. He wasn't accustomed to physical human contact these days—it was going to take some getting used to.
“I was wondering if I could stay here for a while.” The words felt awkward and dumb coming out of his mouth. What had he been thinking, showing up here after all these years? That he could sleep on the couch like some teenager crashing at a friend’s house? Maybe he should have stayed at Sean’s place.
“Of course you are staying here,” Christine said. “You’re welcome to stay as long as you like, right Will?”
“Yes, of course,” Will said. “We wouldn’t have it any other way.”
Frank looked at Will and then back at Christine. “Does he...live here too?”
Christine smiled. “I’m sorry. I forgot you didn’t know. So many things have happened. Yes, he lives here. Will and I are married.”
“Oh. Well, congratulations. Is this...recent?”
“Almost seven years,” Will said.
Frank blinked hard, trying to remember when Becky Raymond had said Jake had disappeared. Eight years ago? He wasn’t sure.
As if reading his mind Christine said, “We have so much to talk about. Please, come inside.”
Christine stepped back to allow him to enter. She was beaming. The look on Will’s face was less easy to read. He was smiling, but there was something else, something troubling behind that smile. Frank took one last look over his shoulder onto the emptiness of Riley Drive, and stepped across the threshold and into the house.
IN THE BEFORE (PART 2)
“Should we have brought wine? I feel like we should have brought wine.” Frank sighed. Why was he so nervous? He’d shared a bedroom with Jake for sixteen years. And he had lived next door to Jake and Christine for the last five. He walked into their house without knocking. He’d walked into their old house without knocking, anyway. This new place on Riley Drive, he wasn’t so sure.
Wendy reached across the car and squeezed his hand. “You’ll be fine. Stop stressing. You brought something.” She held up a package slightly smaller than a shoebox.
“I don’t know,” Frank said. “Maybe the gift wasn’t such a good idea.”
“Oh come on. I’ll bet all Christine’s doctor friends brought wine. I guarantee no one else brought one of these.”
“You’re right. Let’s go.”
Frank had to admit, Wendy looked great tonight. He might feel self-conscious around Jake and Christine’s friends, but one look at Wendy set things right.
They walked together toward the door, hand in hand. Frank had never been a big hand holder, but something about Wendy made it feel different. Even after almost a year together, he still wanted to touch her as much as possible.
Frank paused at the door and then tapped his knuckles against it. He heard laughter from inside the house. Sounded like the party was well underway. A woman he didn’t know opened the door and showed them inside.
The place was crowded. There must have been a dozen people crammed in living room with at least half a dozen more in the kitchen, and Frank recognized only a precious few of them. Frank was relieved to see that Will was there. Will was standing across the room engaged in conversation with an intense-looking pudgy little man. Frank nodded to Will, and Will motioned him over with the insistence of a man stuck with a conversational partner he is desperate to pass off to another unsuspecting victim.
Frank smiled, shook his head, and walked in the other direction. Will’s eyes shot daggers at him.
Frank looked around and saw Wendy was gone. How had he lost her already? It wasn’t surprising really. She was a great social mingler. He heard her distinctive laugh across the room, a lower pitched version of a schoolgirl’s squeal—all the delight but none of the ear-splitting.
He walked toward the group, the largest in the room. They all seemed to be listening to a story. As he approached he was surprised to find he knew the storyteller. It was Sean Lee, his childhood neighbor.
The group burst out in another fit of laughter. Jake spotted Frank from the bowels of the group. “Hey, man!”
“Hey! Nice party,” Frank said.
Wendy grabbed his arm. “Frank, you’ve got to hear this. You know that naked guy who was wandering around downtown yesterday? Sean was the one who arrested him.”
Sean nodded. “Yeah, it was pretty wild.” Sean turned back to address the group. “So Wes and I are still on the way downtown when we get the third message from dispatch. Seems he’s near the Post Office now.”
A woman Frank had never met before asked, “And did the dispatcher mention how, um, large the naked man was again?”
Sean laughed. “Indeed she did. In fact she seemed so obsessed with this central point that Wes offered to snap a couple of cell phone pictures for her. She shut up pretty quick after that.”
The group roared with laughter again.
“So we finally turn onto Main Street, and we see him standing there in front of the Post Office. He’s looking all around, up in the sky, down the street, not a care in the world. We get a little closer, and we see the guy a little more clearly. More clearly than either of us wanted to, I’ll tell you that.”
“So was he as big as everyone was saying?” Wendy asked.
Sean grinned. “He was, and not just the way you all are thinking but are too polite to say. He had to be six foot four or six foot five and he was completely bald. Pretty ripped, too. So Wes and I park the car and approach the guy. We start calling to him, saying, ‘Sir, we need you to come with us,’ stuff like that. But he doesn’t respond. He keeps looking around like he’s never seen a city street before. And he’s got something in his left hand.”
Frank glanced at Jake and Christine sitting together on the couch. Little Trevor slept in Christine’s arms with the kind of slumber that only babies know, the kind that occurs independent of location, body position, or the noise level around them. They looked happy, this little Hinkle family. Peaceful.
Frank didn’t know if he’d ever have anything like that. He wouldn’t mind settling down with Wendy, but sometimes he got the feeling she didn’t feel the same way. Sometimes he felt like she was passing the time with him, waiting for something better to come along.
“So we keep walking toward him,” continued Sean, “yelling to him the whole time. And he continues to ignore us. Finally, we’re right up next to him, and he is still in his own little world. Wes and I look at each other, trying to figure out how to proceed. So I decide, what the hell, and I reach out and put my hand on his shoulder. And as soon as I touch him, he gives me this look, and I’ll tell you what. In that moment I saw pure crazy. He looked like he wanted to eat me for dinner.”
A wise guy sitting in a recliner in the corner grinned. “I ate his liver with some fava beans, Clarice.”
“Something like that. He definitely gave off a Hannibal Lector vibe for a moment there. But then he smiled and said, 'I like your town. I think this will do just fine. I think I’ll live here for a while.’”
“Oh my God,” Wendy said. “'This will do just fine'?”
Sean shrugged. “We cuffed him and put a blanket around him. I didn’t want his naked ass sitting in my backseat, so we put another blanket down under him. We took him down to the station, and that was about the end of it.”
“Wow,” the smart ass in the recliner said. “So what was in his hand?”
“It was an old-fashioned pocket watch. The only time he got lippy with us was when we tried to take it away.”
“He still down at the jail?” someone else asked.
“No, they took him to the psych ward at Elizabethton Memorial. Makes you wonder what he was doing though. We tried to question him, but we never got farther than his first name. Zed.”
Wendy put a hand on Sean’s arm. “It could have been worse. At least you didn’t have to frisk him.”
The group burst out in laughter at that.
“Hey, thanks for your help back there.” The voice came from Frank’s right, close to his ear. He looked over and saw Will grinning at him.
“No problem. Least I could do.”
Will sighed. “The guy invented some new type of stucco or something. He talked about it for twenty minutes and I still don’t understand.”
“Poor communication skills,” Frank said. “I blame the educational system.”
“I blame the fact that the guy was a self-centered prick.”
Jake sidled up next to them. “Glad to see you two are branching out. You’re really mingling. Meeting new people.”
“Hey, we haven’t talked in like twelve hours,” Will said. “Lots of catching up to do.”
“That reminds me.” Frank handed the gift to Jake. “Happy house warming.”
“Aw, thanks, man. Christine, Frank brought us a gift.”
“Thanks, Frank,” Christine said. “Jake, can you open it? I’m kinda of tied up.” She gestured to the sleeping baby in her arms.
Jake nodded and tore into the purple wrapping paper. Frank felt a slight twinge of unease. The whole group was watching Jake open the present. Frank wished he had waited and given it to them privately.
Jake pulled off the last of the wrapping paper and lifted the lid off the box. “Huh,” he said. There was a perplexed grin on his face.
“What is it?” Christine asked.
“It’s a doorknob.” Jake lifted the brass assembly out of the box and held it up. It looked like an ordinary doorknob except for an ornate letter H engraved on the top of both knobs.
The group stared at the door knob. A few people nodded politely.
“That’s more practical than the traditional bottle of wine,” the man in the recliner said.
“I’m guessing that’s not an ordinary door knob, Frank?” Christine asked.
Frank smiled. “Yeah, I, uh, made some modifications.” He held out his hand, and Jake gave him the door knob. “You know how Jake is always losing things? His wallet, his keys, stuff like that?”
“Games of darts with his wife,” Christine said. The group laughed.
“This door knob will help with that. It’ll keep him from getting locked out. See, it works like a regular lock.” Frank turned the lock, and then reached into the box and pulled out a set of keys. He inserted one of the keys into the keyhole and twisted. The lock popped open.
Frank continued. “Let’s say you forgot your keys and you need to get inside to get Trevor’s diapers. With this you won’t have to call your wife at work and interrupt her in the middle of some foot-saving surgery or something. If you know the secret, you can open it without the key.” Frank turned the lock again and set the keys down. He grabbed the doorknob, twisted it a quarter turn to the left, putting pressure on a specific spot, and then he turned it hard to the right. The lock opened.
The group murmured and Frank felt his ears redden.
“Is that safe?” the man in the recliner asked. “With a baby in the house and all? Couldn’t someone just mess with the door knob a little and come right in?”
“Trust me,” Frank said. “You’d have better luck picking the lock than opening the door knob without knowing the secret.” He looked at Jake and Christine. “I’ll show you two how to open it later.”
“Thanks, Frank,” Christine said. “That’s sweet.”
Jake slapped him on the back. “That’s really thoughtful, man.”
Frank smiled. “I wanted to make sure you three are safe. Will and I sit around and worry day and night about you crazy kids.”
“I’ll bet you find time to fit a few beers in there somewhere,” Christine said.
Will laughed. “Occasionally. It gets lonely. All we have is each other.”
Jake and Christine exchanged a look. Jake turned to the other two men.
“Yeah, about that.” Jake spoke softly so the rest of the group couldn’t hear. “I’ve been meaning to talk to you two. We, uh, we rented out the other cabin.”
Frank tried not to let his disappointment show on his face. He was surprised at how hard the news hit him. He had always assumed that Jake and Christine would keep the cabin empty and use it themselves from time to time. Maybe move back out there full time when they got sick of life in town. It was a ridiculous notion.
“That’s great. Anybody I know?” Frank asked.
Jake shook his head. “It’s a guy Christine works with. Nice dude. We’ve gone out to dinner with him a few times and been to a couple cookouts at his house. He’s going through a rough divorce and he needs a new place.”
“Cool. We could use another bachelor,” Will said.
Jake waved to the guy on the recliner.
“Hey, I was telling Frank and Will that you're going to be their new neighbor.”
The man eased himself out of the chair and ambled over. He smiled and held out his hand to Frank. “Hey, nice to meet you, man. I’m Brett Miller.”