1.14: Digging Up Dirt

Henry tried to convince himself that the two drawings were not the same. The first he’d seen for only a second, while drunk and overwhelmed. The second, he could barely make out in the windowsill of the Bramble’s kitchen. They were only leaves, above all; but somehow he was certain. Teresa bustled around, still wrapped in her colorful quilt, asking seemingly disconnected questions while she pulled various ingredients down from her shelves. How old was he? Where was he born? What was his grandmother’s name? Did he enjoy the taste of peppermint?

He answered them all automatically, his mind occupied with a more important question: how could he have forgotten that he saw the journal of Mathas Bernard? At the time, it had been a half-interesting curiosity from a recently deceased public figure. Now, it seemed a lot more important. Clues to the man’s death—his murder, as it now seemed—might be within those pages. And Clair had mentioned nothing about it.

Sofia, the elder of the two Bramble daughters, re-entered the kitchen with a tub of translucent paste. She handed it off to her mother, then perched by the window once more. Teresa piled the salve and her gathered assortment of ingredients into a bowl, and began mixing it all together with a large wooden spoon. “I’ve never heard anything quite like your situation before,” she said. 

“Hm?” He pulled his mind back onto the topic at hand. “Oh, right. Do you think you can help?”

“Today, I’m going to give you something topical, to help with the discomfort, but you’ll have to come back to me so that we can reassess.”

“I appreciate it,” he said. In the windowsill, Sofia resumed flipping through her book, and try as he might to stop himself his eyes repeatedly strayed to those pages.

“I’m not promising any miracles,” Teresa said. “It might take us some time to figure out what makes this thing kick.”

He couldn’t contain his curiosity any longer. “What are you reading over there?”

The look the girl gave him suggested that he had failed in keeping his voice casual. She flipped the book over to display a brown leather cover, complete with an ornamental brass latch. “An old diary,” she said. “I like to draw.”

Lola looked back and forth from Henry to her sister, mouth slightly open. He coughed. “That’s great.”

Teresa scooped her mixture into a small container, and pressed it into Henry’s hand. “Apply this to the front and back of your wound, once in the morning and then once again before you go to sleep. Keep your bandages fresh, and it should at least ease the pain. We can go from there.”

“Thank you.” He pocketed the salve and pulled his shirt back on. “Do I owe you anything?”

She smiled as she took his elbow and guided him back through the hallway to the door. “The Brambles have lived here for a very long time, doing what we do. We have never charged for it. The village pays us back in different ways. Perhaps you will stick around long enough to see what those are yourself.”

***

The biggest advantage to having a cashier position at Horizon Foods was the unobstructed time if afforded Henry to think. At any given moment his job was to stand behind the register, and wait for a customer to appear. This was interrupted only ever briefly by the actual function of ringing someone up, taking their money, and engaging mild small-talk. The people of Tortus Bay, or at least that subset which came in to shop that day, seemed interested solely in sly remarks about how much nicer it was to pick up their groceries now that Howie wasn’t involved in the process.

Howie (or Howard, as he preferred to be called) was the biggest disadvantage to having a cashier position at Horizon Foods. The man made himself more scarce that second day, especially after learning that Henry had somehow figured out how to operate the register himself, but every five minutes in his presence felt like an hour. He’d given up the jabs at his new employee’s lack of intelligence, and moved on to self-congratulatory speeches—into which he inserted long pauses to allow his audience time to produce the appropriate verbal reactions.

“Never married, myself. Had plenty of opportunities, and plenty of committed women, but none of them were right. It takes a lot of experience, and a good lot of wisdom, to realize that the women around here will never be right. Out there in the world, things are different. You couldn’t imagine. Here, there are no more values. They want me to give them everything. And for what? Ah, it’s nice to have another guy around for a change. No girlfriend, right? I’m sure you’ll find a woman soon enough.”

Clair arrived a few hours earlier that day, and took over from Howard. Apparently she was trusted enough to deal with the keys and the inventory herself. She set to stocking and organizing the shelves, her demeanor so much different at work than in the bar, and Henry watched her while he chased his thoughts in circles about what to do.

Perhaps nothing at all suspicious was at play. Sure, Clair had access to the journal of Mathas Bernard—but there was nothing to tell him that she hadn’t already gone to the sheriff with what she knew. Moreover, maybe what she knew was nothing. The journal looked a lot like it may have been an art project, or a piece of fiction. On the other hand, she had admitted to stealing it. Plus she had more or less claimed to despise the man, on the evening of his funeral.

He could ask her, straight out. That would be the simplest way… but what if she did have something to do with the death? She wouldn’t tell him, and he honestly wasn’t sure if he would even want her to, but it would certainly get him involved either way. It would show his hand. At best, it would call into question one of the few friendships he’d managed to cultivate so far.

By the time he swiped out that afternoon he knew what he had to do, even if the idea still sounded insane in his own head. He had to see the journal again himself. That way, he would know what was happening without having to involve anybody else. And most likely, it would be nothing.

Henry whiled away time at the bar. He sat beside Clint, but the old man was in one of his gruff moods and didn’t want to talk. The action of repeatedly raising glass to lip consumed him. Jamal was still busily explaining to anyone who would listen how he was the first one in the village the sheriff trusted with important news. True dark fell outside, Henry made a point of excusing himself to his room, and then snuck out the back way.  

Few people roamed the streets at night, but his heart thumped in his chest regardless. Nobody could possibly know what he was doing. Except Clair. He made fast time stealing through the village, and entered the park with a few furtive looks back over his shoulder. If anyone in the surrounding houses noticed him, they would be liable to notify the sheriff. That was an incident he was keen to avoid a second time.

It took an hour for him to find the spot. His memories from that night were hazy, and crowded by more dramatic trappings. But by weak and occluded moonlight, tripping over exposed roots and repeatedly circling back on himself, he finally found that particular gnarled tree and the subtly displaced earth at its base. There he dug, and after a few minutes unearthed the old leather satchel.

Inside, there was only the locket. Plain silver, with an emerald inlaid where a picture might have been, and the name Emmaline Cass engraved on the case.

He dug a little deeper, meeting only worms and compacted dirt. He circled the tree, displacing bushes and removing sticks in the vain search for a second hiding place, but it was clear that Clair’s cache had been emptied. Had Clair herself done it? Was this proof that she had brought what she had to the sheriff? Or was it emptied to keep him from doing exactly what he’d just tried? Either way, why had the locket been the only thing left behind?

What had Sofia told him about the book she’d been reading? An old diary. Not necessarily her own. Henry tried to blink away his exhaustion. It was nearly one in the morning, and all he really wanted to do was sleep, but he knew that he couldn’t leave this unresolved. If he had stumbled onto something important, it was his duty to report it as quickly as he could.

Those were the things he told himself. They sounded logical. But as any night wears too long into morning, the power of the brain in the decision-making process weakens, allowing other entities to have their say.

***

Henry trudged up the walk toward a small, but respectable, single-story bungalow in the northernmost part of the village. He hesitated on the walkway. Some small part of him knew that he was being rash. Nothing would change, if he left it for tomorrow. Then a light came on in the window, the warm glow of a living room cast forward on the blinds, and he was knocking on the door.

The first reaction was the deep booming of a dog, followed by the scrabbling of nails on tile as it rushed to investigate the disturbance. A few moments later there was a voice, the sound of man and dog negotiating a small area, and then Niles’ face appeared through an opening crack in the door.

“I’m sorry to come over so late, but I needed someone to talk to.” Henry pulled the locket out of his pocket and held it out like it would be some sort of explanation.

Niles seemed to accept it, still wrestling with the dog behind the door. A slightly stubby snout made it out of the crack, snuffling madly. “Do you want to come in?”

“Is that okay?” he asked. “Would I be disturbing anyone? Wife? Girlfriend?”

He might have imagined it, but he would have sworn that Niles’ mouth brightened into a smile for some fraction of a second. “No. No wife, no girlfriend. Only me and Bruce here. Come on in.”

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