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Bygones

Bygones
by Wayne J. Gardiner
Art by AJ Frena

Max decided to go back for the funeral.

He wrestled with the decision for a few days. Stayed up later than usual. Consumed more than a few Jack Daniel’s in the process. He lived a good two day’s drive away.

He and the deceased did have a history.

But finally, it just seemed like the right thing to do.

Let bygones be bygones.

 

It surprised the locals when they heard Max planned to be there. No one would have expected it. No one would have blamed him for not making an appearance. No one could remember the last time he’d been back this way.

The morning coffee crowd at the truck stop finally decided his last visit had been the occasion of his twenty-year high school reunion. That was a good twenty-five years ago.

Now he was a big-time homicide detective in Kansas City.

Some wondered if that had any bearing on his decision to show up, the circumstances of Lee Rosman’s death being what they were.

It had been a brutal crime. Joe Connor, the local chief of police, had never seen anything like it.

The coffee crowd hadwondered aloud if Joe would try to take advantage of the opportunity to pick Max’s brain while Max was in town.

Joe heard the scuttlebutt and thought it wasn’t a bad idea. And when he heard Max was definitely coming he decided it would be foolish not to chat him up, get the benefit of the man’s insights.

No one was sure how Max finally learned of Lee’s untimely demise. There had only been forty in their graduating class. Only a half dozen still lived in the area.

Someone probably gave him a call. Put a note on Facebook. Sent an e-mail to let him know an old classmate had met a violent end.

Something you might want to know, even if you hadn’t been the best of friends.

 

Max arrived in town just after dark the night before the funeral, staying at the nicest of the three local motels.

He called Scott Knox, another old classmate, to ask if he would be at the services the next day.

Scott was surprised to hear Max was in town. Surprised that the reason was to attend Lee Rosman’s funeral. Surprised Max called him.

“You’re here for Lee’s funeral?”

“I thought it was the thing to do,” said Max. “Wondered if you were going to be there.”

“Hadn’t planned on it.”

“Why’s that?”

“You mean besides him being a world-class prick?”

“Yeah . . . besides that.”

“I guess I thought that was enough.”

“I came all the way from Kansas City.”

Scott Knox thought for a moment. “I guess if I went it would just be to see the SOB put into the ground.”

Max chuckled. “That’s a valid reason,” he said.

There was an awkward pause. Max and Scott had never had much to say to one another.

“Can I buy you a beer?” Max finally asked.

 

It was an awkward reunion, Scott unsure why he’d even agreed to meet. But two beers into it, the rough edges began to wear off, the years falling by the wayside, and they were high school teammates again, one of the best football teams the town had ever produced. Lee had been on that team as well. Just one loss their senior year. An upset by an archrival. Max had later been named to the World-Herald All-State team, a knee injury preventing him from continuing his career at the University of Nebraska.

He and Scott laughing about some of the shenanigans they’d pulled over the years. Finally stumbling out near midnight, clearing their heads in the brisk night air, Scott then returning inside for one last visit to the john. Max waiting for him outside, admiring Scott’s big red Dodge Ram, opening the door to take a look inside.

Then, a handshake, a halfhearted attempt at a hug, and they were gone.

 

The day of the funeral was chilly, to be expected in November in western Nebraska, and the effect was heightened by a brisk westerly wind that cut through the large cluster of pines that made the cemetery a serene and restful site, the big boughs swaying and soughing in the wind, a solemn sound appropriate to the occasion.

Max had gone to the services at the Methodist church first. He wondered when Lee had last been there.

A larger crowd than Max would have expected turned out. Willing to overlook a lifetime of obnoxiousness, maliciousness, meanness. The great equalizer now enabling them to forgive these character flaws, offer solace to the bereaving wife, a skinny, abused woman Lee had met in Georgia when he was in the service, most likely feeling relief behind her mask of sorrow.

Max was happy to see the turnout. He hoped many of them would follow the hearse to the cemetery for the interment.

It was a nice service. A big man that Max didn’t know sang a stunning rendition of “Amazing Grace,” wearing a cowboy hat right there in the church.

 

On to the cemetery.

Joe Connor was there. He had his own big cowboy hat, stood six four, looking every inch a western lawman, still a formidable man all these years later, had the star pinned right there on his green Carhartt jacket. Max hadn’t seen Joe at the church service, no doubt tending to the community’s business, but taking time to pay his respects here at the cemetery.

Scott Knox was there too, another who had missed the church service, leading Max to believe he’d decided to skip the whole thing. But there he was, even though he stood on the periphery as if he still wasn’t fully committed.

Perhaps twenty people were gathered around the freshly dug grave, the vapor of their breathing rising visibly and intermittently from their midst, snatched away by the breeze almost as quickly.

The old saw about there not being a dry eye in the house didn’t apply at Lee Rosman’s funeral. Max didn’t see a tear shed among the entire assemblage. Not the man’s wife. Not even his mother.

The couple had never had children, that was a blessing.

Rosman’s boss was there. A few men in coveralls who may have been co-workers, the owner of the town’s most successful bar (here was someone who would actually miss the man), others who may have been cousins or neighbors or who may have had dealings with him in his job down at the grain elevator.

It was a short service, the usual scriptures read, not a lot to ad lib about a man like this, the wind whipping away the preacher’s words from all but those nearest to the grave.

And then it was breaking up. The preacher’s final condolences to the bereaved.

People shuffling off, stopping to exchange pleasantries with neighbors.

Max looked for Scott, but he was gone just that quickly. Max’s gaze was roaming over those making their way to cars parked along the narrow corridors providing access to the cemetery when someone reached out to tap him on the shoulder.

Joe Connor, extending his hand.

“Hello, Max. A long time.”

“Good to see you, Joe.” An enthusiastic handshake.

“You here for long?” Joe asked.

“I’ll be heading back tomorrow morning,” Max said.

“Got time for a cup of coffee?”

 

They were at the truck stop just west of town. Max set his cup back on the counter. “You can go a long way and not get a better cup of
coffee.”

“Yet it wasn’t enough to keep you here,” Joe said, and laughed.

“Well . . .” Max said.

They sipped their coffee and looked out the window at the trucks passing by on the highway.

“How much have you heard about this thing, Max?” Joe asked.

“Just what I’ve picked up in snatches.”

“You knew it was a murder?”

“Yes,” said Max. “I knew that.”

“It was a violent one,” Joe said.

“I’ve seen violent before,” Max said.

“I suppose so.”

“What was the murder weapon?”

“Sledgehammer.”

“You think it was a spur-of-the-moment thing?”

“No, sir. I don’t.”

Max waited for Joe to explain.

“Happened over in the parking lot behind the library.”

“Lee didn’t strike me as a guy who would frequent a library.”

“Or even be able to read, for that matter,” Joe said. “The location seems to be coincidental. No reason to expect him there.”

“So you think it was planned . . . not a reactionary thing.”

“How many guys you know carry a sledgehammer with them?”

“I guess that’d be a pretty short list.”

The teenage girl behind the counter came over and topped off their coffee.

“You know some people who might have a motive to have done it?”

“Now that’s not a short list,” Joe said.

“So Lee didn’t change much over the years,” Max said.

“If he did it was just that he got meaner.”

They reflected on it.

“So . . . a sledgehammer.”

“Left it right there beside the body. An eight-pounder. Not a brand the local hardware store carries. Once we got all the blood and gristle cleared off, it looked almost new.”

“It might have been used for just that one purpose.”

“Looks like it.”

“Any idea how many times he was hit?”

“I don’t know . . . a hundred? His head was pulverized, Max. Mush. Looked like something you’d see behind the meat counter at the Safeway.”

“It would have taken a few minutes to do that. There must have been some noise associated with it.”

“It’s a small town, Max. It was late at night.”

“How do you know the time?”

“Lee had left the bar at midnight. Last guy there.”

“So nobody heard anything? Saw anything?”

Joe shook his head. “Pretty sketchy at this point.”

“You might never find this guy, Joe.”

“Well, I’m two for two over the last twenty-five years,” Joe said. “I’d hate to see my record tainted.”

“Two murders in the last twenty-five years?”

“You remember how things are here. A domestic disturbance on the wrong side of town or a dispute between a couple of hardworking cowboys who had too much to drink. I suppose you see more than that on an average night down there in Kansas City.”

“Sometimes,” said Max.

To their right, the waitress was wiping off the tables along the far wall. Joe turned to her. “Cherrill, you got any more of that cherry pie you had yesterday?”

“Saved some just for you,” she said.

“Bring us a couple pieces, honey.”

The cherry pie was just as good as the coffee.

“I saw Scott Knox at the cemetery,” Joe said.

“Me too.” Max raised an eyebrow. “Any reason you’d mention that?”

“Him and Lee had a little run-in, maybe eight, ten years back.”

“What happened?”

“Lee was drunk one night down at Barney’s. Scott and his wife stopped in for a burger after the movie. Lee wanted to dance with Scott’s wife. Pawed her a little. They went out back to settle it.”

“How did it turn out?”

“Lee beat the hell out of him. Scott ended up in the hospital. Two broken ribs where Lee had kicked him. A dislocated shoulder too.”

“Did you arrest Lee?”

“Nah. You know how it is around here, Max. Just a bar fight. Both parties going out back of their own accord.” Joe took the last bite of his pie and wiped his mouth with a napkin. “I asked Scott if he wanted to file a complaint.”

“He wouldn’t do that, would he?”

“No, sir. No more’n you or me would in the same circumstance. Got his butt kicked in a fight. End of story.”

“Except you’re not so sure of that.”

“It makes me wonder.”

“Scott did stand back from the crowd,” Max said. “I noticed that.”

“Never said a word to anybody. Left as soon as the last word was
spoken.”

“Have you talked to him?”

“Not yet.” The inference obvious that he intended to.

“But he did come to the funeral.”

“Maybe just to rub salt in the wounds.”

“Could be. Or . . . sometimes they say a killer will do that. Come back to the scene of the crime.”

Joe shrugged. “You seen that happen?”

“I know for a fact it has.”

“In that case, I’d have to consider everyone who was at the funeral.”

“Nobody ever said it was an easy job. . . .”

###

Read the exciting conclusion in our current issue, on sale now. 

Bygones by Wayne J. GardinerCopyright © 2017 with permission of the author. All rights reserved.

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