by Charles John Harper
Art by Ally Hodges
The four quick rings of the telephone party line startled him. A shrill jangling that broke an empty silence.
Pope County Sheriff Dan Parrish, standing in his unironed uniform at the front picture window of his house overlooking Lake Minnewaska, felt a stir deep inside, a tangle of anticipation and dread. He checked his watch, careful not to spill any coffee on the living room floor. Seven fifteen a.m. Calls this early meant only one thing: Death.
Someone had died somewhere in this rural farm and lake community, but not from old age or disease, the most common ways folks passed in Pope County. Those calls usually came in at the station and were handled by his deputies.
An early call to his house meant a different kind of death, one untimely or unnatural. A car crash, maybe, from teenagers driving too fast at night on gravel township roads or alcoholic adults falling asleep at the wheel. Or a farm accident, a tractor rollover, say, or suffocation in a grain bin. Or even a seasonal death, a drowning in Minnewaska in the summer or a hunting accident in the fall.
The four rings came again. Four rings because Dan and Mary’s house was at the end of the party line. The Anfinsons, three houses down the shore and a half mile to the east, answered to one ring, the McGoughs two, and the Reinhardts, just beyond the neighboring woods, three. Four rings had always sounded like an alarm to Dan, something he’d never quite gotten used to, but these four seemed to carry with them an extra note of gravity.
His dread grew as Dan moved toward the telephone stand—past the place at the dining room table where Mary used to read the Minneapolis Tribune in the mornings—and picked up the handset. “Dan Parrish.”
“Sheriff? Hank here.”
Hank Beaudry, his deputy. For some cops, law enforcement was little more than an income, but for Hank it was part of his soul. He had been a huge help to Dan throughout Mary’s cancer. Had run the show while Dan had been away, unwilling—unable—to leave Mary’s side.
“Yeah, Hank. What’s up?”
“Vernon Reinhardt just called. He found Nadine dead this morning in the stream by his house. The one on your land.”
A stretch of forest four hundred feet wide known as the Parrish Woods lay between the Reinhardts’ home and the compound of three houses owned by Dan and his relatives. The forest covered the sloping terrain of a broad ravine carved out over the centuries by a sharply winding, spring-fed stream that emptied into Lake Minnewaska.
Ever since he was a kid, Dan had often explored the Parrish Woods, sometimes traversing back away from the lake, following the half-mile course of the stream up and out of the woods into the treeless, cultivated fields to the south. Somehow, the thought of Nadine Reinhardt’s body lying dead in the ravine—his ravine—felt to Dan like some sort of trespass. A sacrilege. A crossing of boundaries. He knew that was a selfish way of looking at it, but he couldn’t deny the feeling.
“I’ll run over there right now,” Dan said, adrenaline spilling into his bloodstream, agitating the growing dread. “Call Ernie and have him take photographs and do an on-site exam.”
“He was going to be my next call.”
“And have Trevor come out too. We’ll need him to help canvas the area.”
Dan’s other deputy did not share Hank’s passion for justice. Trevor Griffin was the son of Walter Griffin, the mayor of Glenwood (Pop. 2,600), whose tenure had started in 1940. Nine years later, Walter’s power and influence had convinced the city council to hire his twenty-year-old son as a Pope County deputy. A job that the son, judging by his half-hearted attitude in the month since he’d started, did not like.
“I’ll make sure Trevor is there,” Hank said.
Dan dropped the handset into its cradle and returned to the picture window where he had stood before the phone had interrupted his thoughts. Despite the news, he wasn’t ready to leave the house.
He watched as the waves below rolled into shore with the steadiness of a heavy heartbeat. There were no whitecaps yet, it wasn’t that kind of wind. But it had the makings of something more as wraithlike gusts darted over the tops of the waves, darkening them, giving them a surly edge.
“Wind’s from the east,” he said, knowing no one else was in the room. It had only been four weeks since Mary’s funeral and hearing his own voice helped fill the emptiness. But the relief lasted only as long as the echoes of the words. After that, the same lifeless silence resettled itself into the vacuum of the vacant room.
“An east wind means things are changing.”
Mary wouldn’t have reacted to his comment on the weather. She would have heard the exact same line countless times in their thirty-five years of marriage. She would have continued reading the newspaper, something she did religiously up until the last few weeks before her death when what was happening in the rest of the world had ceased to matter to her anymore. When the universe of her curiosity gradually receded into herself. Into long, steady bouts of sleep. Into her last gasps for breath.
At times like this he felt as if the same thing was happening to him. He knew he’d been drawing inward from others, but he hadn’t expected the grief to be so debilitating. So deadening. And he knew he needed to “move on,” as some had suggested, but what was the proper period of mourning for a lifetime together? Four weeks of grieving would be less than one percent of that lifetime. How could that be enough homage paid to the woman he’d shared his life with? Or enough penance when his grief for Mary was seasoned as it was with so much defenseless guilt?
He glanced back at the dining room. When Mary had been alive empty chairs around the table hadn’t looked so empty. So hollow. As hollow as everything in his life: the house, the car, the days, the nights.
Dan looked out the picture window again. He didn’t like east winds. Warm winds came from the south, cooling winds from the north and northwest. An east wind only brought trouble. But it was hard to know when that trouble would come. An east wind could last for days or for half an hour depending on the approaching fronts.
But an east wind was better than no wind. At night, the steady sigh of the waves rolling into shore had sounded like breathing to him, filling the void in his bed left by Mary’s death. The nights where no wind came were the nights when Dan couldn’t sleep, haunted by the silence that lingered both inside and out. As if nothing else in the world, other than him, was still alive. A silence that seemed to echo in his head and in his heart.
Dan took a long, deep breath. Forced himself to turn away from the lake. To leave his coffee cup in the sink. To shut the back door behind him as he set out to find the lifeless body of Nadine Reinhardt.
The sky was overcast, the temperature cool. Not cool enough to see his breath, but cool enough for Dan to wear his patrol jacket. Fall had come. Had settled into the air and the trees and the water.
Dan walked east toward the Parrish Woods. Between his house and the forest sat his brother’s place. Ray’s cabin was an A-frame that Dan’s grandfather had built with lumber reclaimed from the old Swenoda church. A labor of love that Ray, a carpenter who lived in Benson twenty miles to the south, had maintained and improved over the years. It wasn’t winterized like Dan’s place or equipped with a telephone, but Ray stayed as late in the year as he could.
Dan saw smoke rising from the chimney. He spotted Ray in his tan hunting jacket and tan knockabout fedora at the edge of the woods splitting kindling with a small hatchet.
Ray looked up. His eyes were blue like Dan’s, but beyond that, there was little resemblance between the two. Ray sported a ragged mustache and several days’ growth of beard, while Dan was always clean shaven. Ray was five years younger and three inches taller than Dan, lean and light footed where Dan was thicker and moved more slowly. Maybe it was the difference in their jobs, Dan had thought, that made them move at their differing paces. Always creating something versus always picking up the pieces.
Ray gave Dan a halfhearted smile and said, “Wind’s from the east.”
Dan nodded. “Vernon Reinhardt found Nadine dead in the ravine this morning.”
Ray’s eyes hardened and his jaw muscles clenched. He pushed his hat back on his head and glanced around as if looking for something. Then his eyes came back to Dan. “Somebody killed the wrong Reinhardt. One less lawyer wouldn’t be a bad thing.”
“We don’t know yet if someone killed her. It could have been an accident.”
“Maybe. But I wouldn’t trust a thing Vernon Reinhardt says. He never appreciated what he had in Nadine. She was . . . special.” Ray looked down, away. Took long breaths to settle his emotions.
Dan was surprised by the depth of his brother’s reaction. Ray was usually as stoic as the hatchet in his hand, but with age it seemed that Ray had become more emotional. More sensitive to the human condition. Had even wiped away tears at Mary’s funeral, something he hadn’t seen Ray do when their mother had passed.
But when he looked up at Dan again, any tears had vanished. “Vernon had everything, but he still chased skirts.” Ray looked off toward the lake. “He’s happy she’s dead. That bastard’s capable of anything.”
Dan shrugged. “We haven’t had a chance to interview him yet.”
Ray wiped the edges of the hatchet on the hem of his worn-out hunting jacket. The same kind of worn-out that weighed on Ray’s weathered face. He looked a decade older than his age, some of which seemed to have shown up in the last month or two. His eyes looked as gray as the clouds that loomed over their heads.
“You got a job to do, I know that,” Ray said. “Just trying to give you a head start.”
“And I appreciate the help.” Dan slapped Ray’s shoulder as he started toward the path to the ravine. “See you, brother.”
A thought made Dan stop and turn back toward Ray. “Did Audrey come up with you?”
“No, she stayed in town. Too cold for her this late in the year.”
Dan cocked his head. “I thought I heard voices over here last night.”
Ray looked off toward his cabin. “Must’ve been Lux Radio Theatre.”
“Maybe that was it. I haven’t seen Audrey in a while. Everything okay?”
Ray shrugged. Used a knuckle to work over an itch just under his hat.
Dan nodded and wondered if Ray appreciated what he had in Audrey. He gave his brother a small wave.
Ray raised the hatchet in response, then bent down to address the kindling that had piled up at his feet.
Dan stepped into the Parrish Woods and began following a narrow, ageless dirt path, the same path Dan had followed as a kid in his countless adventures in the forest. A meandering scar that cut through towering stands of oaks and elms. Through patches of reddened sumac and prickly thornbushes. Through spots of poison ivy and burning weed and dozens of other species of plants Dan didn’t recognize.
As he followed the trail along the thirty-foot bank that was the precipitous south shore of Lake Minnewaska, Dan could smell the damp bitterness of decay. Could hear the endless thrum of the waves dying against the shore. High in the treetops, the leaves that hadn’t fallen yet rustled in the wind, clinging to all they’d ever known. He hated this time of the year and what it did to the forest. Hated watching the life slowly drain from it as the colors of heaven faded into the colors of the earth, leaving nothing but a stand of twisted, desiccated wooden bones.
Leaves and twigs crunched under the soles of his boots as he made his way east to the point where the path began a sharp descent, angling toward the lake and the mouth of the stream. As he neared the confluence of the two he spotted a pair of seagulls drifting above the lake, squawking out peevish cries. Beneath them a lone fishing boat bobbed on the waves, its anchor line straining against the force of the east wind, its two occupants sitting on opposite ends of the boat, hunched against the cold.
At the mouth of the stream, a weathered plank bridge spanned the eight feet of water flowing into the lake. It connected to the path on the opposite side that led to the Reinhardts’. But Dan didn’t cross the bridge. He knew he would have to approach from his side of the stream—the flatter, sloping side—because he knew where he would find Nadine’s body.
The Reinhardt place lay only forty feet to the east of the final bend of the stream on its course to the lake, a steep, ten-foot clay wall of erosion held together by a tangle of tree roots and stones. At the bottom of the bank was a broad, flat streambed of rocks and sand and twigs and leaves. Icy, spring-fed water rippled through the debris like cold blood through a cluttered vein.
The bank was about fifty feet from the lake, so Dan began to pick his way inland through the undergrowth. Ducked under branches. Stepped over fallen trees. Skirted thick patches of thornbushes. He crossed a small patch of matted grass as he neared the western, shallow side of the bend in the stream. Clumps of grass had been torn from the ground in several places. It looked as if an animal had been clawing at the earth.
Dan took a deep breath and waded through a narrow thicket. Then took something between a step and a jump onto the sand of the streambed.
Nadine’s body lay five feet from Dan, draped over the talus at the bottom of the bank, facedown in a pool of backwater. Her hair was wet and matted with ravine water and blood, but Dan still recognized its usual coloring, a lighter, more artificial shade than the auburn she’d had in her late teens when Dan had dated her. It was now a wispy, reddish blonde that in life had made her look both young and old at the same time.
Her clothes—a rust-colored floral print top and black slacks—were damp but not muddy. The only mud was on her bare right foot, a streak of black mixed with blades of grass that ran up her heel and over her Achilles tendon. Her left foot also had grass on it, but was free of mud.
Dan knelt in the damp sand beside the pool of water and lifted her head above the surface. A stiffness had begun to settle into her neck. The first stages of rigor mortis. Dan knew then that she had been dead for several hours.
Her eyes were open. Still a sky blue, but not the same eyes. Not full. Not vibrant or joyful. Just flat and indifferent.
The left side of her head near the temple was indented by a shallow crater about the circumference of a baseball. An obvious skull fracture. The skin inside the crater had been split open in the shape of a star and there were scrapes that had shredded parts of her forehead and left cheek. After hours in the water the skin near the wounds had turned gelatinous and gray, any blood long since washed away in the stream.
Dan lowered her head back into the water and stood up. He looked toward Minnewaska. Focused on long, deep breaths as he fought the urge to vomit. He’d seen numerous dead bodies in his twenty years of law enforcement—ten as a cop, ten as sheriff—but recently it had grown harder to stomach, as if his own mortality was beginning to manifest itself in the lifeless bodies of others. And when it was someone he knew the experience had become almost unbearable.
Movement on top of the ten-foot bank made Dan spin and reach for his gun. . . .
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The Echoes by Charles John Harper. Copyright © 2016 with permission of the author. All rights reserved.
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