Henry stood in the locus of the flashing red and blue lights, tired and somewhat drunk. Some small part of his brain screamed at him to run, but he mastered the impulse—primarily by leveraging it against his desire not to do any more exercise. Whatever else his first night in Tortus Bay had been, it had also inarguably dragged on for too long. Now he ruminated on the prospect of it culminating in a cell.
The wailing of the siren ceased, releasing the night to its placid silence, but the lights remained. They cast forward the shadow of a figure wending its way through the trees, strobing left and right with the rhythmic flashing. Henry watched, conjuring different pictures in his head of what this approaching small-town sheriff might look like. None of them were quite right.
She was short, with an aquiline nose framed by voluminous sheets of black hair. Her uniform was plain and crisp, except for a pair of tattered leather boots. There was a sharpness about her, from her physicality to the manner in which her eyes focused in on him like prey. “Who are you?”
Her hand rested on her belt, beside her gun. “You been drinking tonight, Mr. Cauville?”
She nodded. “Got a call about a couple teenagers raising hell in the park.”
“Not a teenager.”
“And is there anybody else in here with you?”
He tried a shrug. “Don’t know anybody else around here yet.”
“Right. Just out for a midnight stroll.” She cast her eyes around the scene, as though willing one of the trees to step forward and admit to some sort of wrongdoing, but she relaxed when nothing was forthcoming. Her hand slid away from the holster. “You’re the new visitor everyone’s talking about.”
Henry wasn’t sure if that was a question, but he nodded to be safe. “Got in a few hours ago. Thought I’d take a look around.”
“Listen, folk around here don’t approve of people walking around their houses in the dark, and much less should they figure out it’s someone they don’t know—and not one of Harvey Bold’s delinquent brood.”
“I had no idea.”
“You must be staying at the hotel. Let me give you a lift back.”
He wasn’t being arrested. The realization washed over him. Still, he said nothing.
She clicked her tongue. “You can sit in the front, if that matters to you.”
For whatever reason, he found that it did. He followed her back through the trees and out of the park, where an old police cruiser had been parked over the curb. In the relief of the red and blue lights, he thought he caught flickers of movement from the second-story windows of the overlooking houses. Then the dark-haired woman hopped into the car, flicked a switch, and all was dark again. Nothing more to see.
“I’m sheriff Leia Thao, by the way,” she said, as soon as he climbed in beside her.
Sheriff. At least he’d been right about that. He wondered if that information had been contingent on his cooperation. Her ride was remarkable only in how plain it was. Only the bars that sequestered the back seat distinguished it from a civilian vehicle, and the only hint that it was anything other than a fresh lease straight off the lot was a half-empty bag of sunflower seeds laying on the dash.
“How long are you planning to stay in the village?” Leia asked. She kicked the car into drive and, with a lurch, peeled off the curb.
“I’m not sure yet.”
“Will you be looking for a job?”
“Job,” he said. “Apartment. A local cafe.”
“A whole new life. Well, here’s a tip: there’s only two ways people make money around here. Those are working at the fishery, or working at the orchards.”
“By any chance would I have to file a resume with the Brihtes for either of those gigs?”
She eyed him through the windshield mirror, then popped a seed in her mouth. “You didn’t do your research before you came, did you? The Brihtes and the Gauthes own just about all of Tortus Bay between them, one way or another. Old names. Deep roots.”
“Which is why what happened to this Mathas guy is such a big deal.”
Leia spit her shell out of the window. “Most of the village thinks that you’re some sort of journalist.”
“I know. We have a computer down at the station. But people love a rumor. And about all they can come up with that would warrant a journalist’s visit is this business with Mathas Bernard.” They pulled onto Main Street, where they were still the only source of movement. “He died of a heart attack. He’d been doing some gardening work when it happened. Tried to crawl inside, get himself to a phone, but he didn’t make it.”
They glided to a stop in front of the Tortoise Shell Inn. “Do me a favor, and tell people that you’re not here to write a story about it. Wouldn’t hurt if you kept your wandering to daylight hours, either.”
“I understand.” Henry stepped out of the car, but paused before closing the door. “Can I ask you an odd question?”
“You can ask,” she said, “but I might not answer.”
“Have you ever been shot?”
The expression that took her face wasn’t anger, or even shock, but curiosity. Her eyes widened, the narrowed again with that peculiar, sharp focus. “Never,” she said. “Nor have I ever discharged my firearm, for you information. And I don’t plan to.”
“Only a question.”
Leia looked like she had something to say to that, or perhaps had a question of her own, but she only leaned forward and swung the door shut for him.
Henry avoided the main foray of the Hell on a Shell entrance by ascending a wobbly wooden flight of stairs around back, which mercifully deposited him on the far end of the hotel hallway beside room number five. He fell immediately into bed.
He hadn’t undressed. He hadn’t unpacked. He’d made what he was sure was a bad impression on several important people. His mouth tasted like bar food and cheap whiskey. His head hurt, his arm was slipping into numbness, and as he nestled down into his pillow he couldn’t strike the broad smile from his lips.
When before had a night out drinking taken him on an adventure like that? When in his old life had he met anyone even half as interesting, or interested, as Clair or Jamal or even sheriff Thao? That night, Henry Cauville fell asleep feeling very hopeful about his upcoming time in Tortus Bay.