“Tinker taking you out for Valentine’s Day?” John Biebe, Sheriff of Mystery, Alaska zipped up his Polartec® vest and slipped his arms into his down-filled parka. The winter was at its fiercest, but the days were lengthening. In a month, day would equal night. In a month after that, parents would have to coax their children to bed while sunlight streamed through double-paned windows.
“Yes,” replied Betty, his deputy. “And what about you?”
John smiled, but said nothing and walked into the anteroom of the police station, then opened the door to the street.
As he climbed into his Bronco, he reached into his coat pocket. He’d slipped the handcuffs there when Betty and Mirabelle were at lunch.
John Biebe sat in his Bronco, his engine running. It had been running it this past half hour. He might be a native of Alaska, but that didn’t mean he wanted to be an ice cube. The plane was late.
After I’ve dropped them off, he thought to himself, I’m filling the truck back up. StarOil can fucking well reimburse Mystery for the cost of this gas. He kicked his floorboard for emphasis, and cranked the heater up. Midafternoon brought night this time of the year. Temperature had probably dropped twenty degrees in the past thirty minutes. Damned fools, if they were planning on flying over the mountains after dark, when the wind rose.
As if hearing his warning, the corporate turboprop appeared in the sky, sleek and beautifully painted, unlike the typical dented Beechcraft and Cessnas that made their way onto the airstrip that constituted the Mystery, Alaska airport.
Deliberately, John turned the ignition off. By the time the passengers deplaned and entered his truck, it should be good and cold. They were from Outside so they should be really uncomfortable.
He looked at Judge Burn’s note. He’d be picking up a StarOil geologist and an attorney. A lawyer! Oh, so now the oil company had decided to station a lawyer in Mystery. If you can’t win the hearts and minds of the residents of Mystery through your public relations efforts, file enough motions and claims and other crap, and sue to get what you want.
The previous StarOil plane that had visited Mystery wore the company’s old, pre-merger logo on its tail. Biebe spat, bitter at how that plane had wrecked his life. Just then, the plane door opened. A nondescript, balding fellow exited first, his glasses fogging up as the cold air hit them. He lost his balance along with his eyesight — to regain it, he clutched at the handrail and the rolled up papers he was holding went flying. Survey maps, John observed, watching them roll about.
He could’ve bent to retrieve them, but somehow, he just didn’t feel like it.
Unlike the first, the second passenger wasn’t dressed for the Alaskan wilderness, although that mink she flaunted would certainly have kept her warm. John smiled as he looked at the high heels peeking from under the long coat, the lower half of which flapped open to reveal a short, pinstriped skirt. Those heels would sink right into the snow. Probably be ruined.
He turned away, but not before the thought ‘great legs’ crossed his mind. Furiously, he tossed it away, and composed himself into a model of official coldness.
“Evans and Lewis?” he asked the man and woman respectively. He deliberately stood several feet off the tarmac.
The woman eyed the snow, then bent down and pulled off her stilettos, placing each in a pocket of her fur coat. In stockinged feet, she walked over to the sheriff, ignoring the icy ground and snow on which she stood.
“Hello, you must be Sheriff John — Biebe; am I pronouncing that correctly, I hope? I’m Sophy Lewis. Glad to meet you.” Giving him a warm smile, she extended a small, long-fingered gloved hand. She barely comes up to my shoulder, realized John. With that thin leather, her hands must be freezing.
So what? He kept his hands stubbornly in his pockets. “Yes, that’s my name. Follow me,” he curtly replied, and spun on his booted heel towards the Bronco.
“Geez, Sophy, aren’t your feet turning into chunks of ice?” asked Brian. Seeing the unfriendly response Sophy received, Evans didn’t bother to offer a handshake and his first name to the sheriff. “How are you going to walk over to the truck? It’s all muddy from the chemicals that melted the snow on the tarmac.”
“Easy,” she replied, opening up her briefcase. She tossed out several reports, then used these as stepping stones over to the truck, picking up each as she stepped off it. Carefully, she held the now filthy reports away from her coat.
Irked by the woman’s ingenuity, John pretended to check his pager. His Bronco had a high ground clearance. Let’s see how you solve this one, honey.
She laid her rollaboard suitcase on its side and used it as a stepstool. The mink coat hid most of what she had to do to her tight skirt to enable her to traverse the final distance, but John thought he caught a glimpse of a shapely thigh as she hoisted herself up into the front passenger’s seat.
“Pat, would you be so kind as to hand me my suitcase?” She said this looking directly at John. “Thank you. You are such a gentleman.” Her voice dripped a warm, smoky accent — some southern state, John thought, recalling the speech of a couple of police officers from Georgia he’d met at a convention in Portland a few years ago. It wasn’t fair. Sarcasm in a southern drawl was infuriatingly charming, even if she had directed at him.
Oh yeah. The outside air temp had dropped to about zero; it wasn’t much warmer than that in his truck. How silly of him to have left the doors wide open, eh?
If she was suffering, the lawyer (with all those papers, she had to be the lawyer) didn’t let it on. She spread her coat open and crossed her legs. Her skirt stayed ridden up on her navy-stockinged legs.
She caught him looking at them. Damn!
“You must be very hot, Officer Biebe,” she murmured sweetly, smiling with everything but her eyes. “It is rather warm in here, I agree.” She unbuttoned the top two buttons of a cream colored blouse. John caught a glimpse of a very sheer ivory lace bra and cleavage as she bent down to pick up her ruined shoes from the floorboard and examine them.
“Well, I’m freezing back here,” complained the geologist. “Y’all must have a space heater up there. Can we go?”
“If the sheriff is — ready, I’m sure we can.” She tapped at the window glass; by mistake he looked towards the sound and was caught by her brown eyes. They glittered — she was obviously angry about the loss of her pumps. They were so new he could still read their inner label. Ferragamo. “Do you — come — here often, Officer?”
At a loss for how to reply without being obviously rude, John deliberately gunned the truck forward. The geologist swore — his precious maps rolled about the back seat of the Bronco. The lawyer just giggled in victorious satisfaction.
The quonset hut that doubled as the Moose Lodge and the town hall was New Year’s party-level full. Dr. Savage had rounded up additional chairs from the church office; now, even these were taken. John glanced at his watch. 8:05. Time for the boys to start taking their baths, followed by a bedtime story, followed by the usual excuses as to why bedtime should be postponed.
A gavel from the podium temporarily halted the chatter in the room. Judge Burns smoothed back his glossy gray hair and began to speak. For him, the microphone was unnecessary. He waved his hands, directing Connor to move it below the podium where it would be out of his way.
“We’ve received an offer from StarOil to explore for oil and natural gas within the vicinity of Mystery. StarOil doesn’t need our permission for this activity — they’ve purchased the acreage, but they are seeking our support in –”
“Sit down, Judge!” yelled Tinker from the back of the room. “You’ve already made it clear where you stand!”
Judge Burns continued, as if Tinker’s outburst hadn’t taken place. “I’ve asked for proponents and opponents-”
“That’s ‘for’ and ‘against'” explained Mrs. Heinz, popping out of her seat to address the crowd.
“For and against what?” asked David Whitewater, not even bothering to stand.
“Bias, that’s what!” Henry Beckett stood back up, his face now florid. John saw the whiskey bottle winking out of his pocket. Of course, a little liquid courage. Without it, Beckett the sometime carpenter, sometime trapper was the most soft-spoken resident of the little Alaska town. “‘For’ sounds better than ‘against,’ so StarOil makes supporting its planned rape a ‘for’.”
Judge Burns pounded his gavel so hard on the table that the water glasses three sitters down moved. John smiled — Walt had a long fuse, but it seemed to have finally ignited.
Sophy considered pulling out her well-thumbed Roberts Rules of Order, but decided against it. This crowd wouldn’t pay any attention anyway. If Judge Burns couldn’t control them, a hundred-plus year old book sure wouldn’t. They were a damn sight more ornery than any she’d encountered in the other areas in which Star drilled. Resting her chin on her hand as if she hadn’t a care in the world, she watched to see how order would be restored.
John, seeing her smile, scowled. StarOil must think it’s already won tonight’s vote. Nevertheless, when the judge mouthed “DO SOMETHING, DAMMMIT” to him, he stood up. A long, slow wave of his arm, and the place quieted- for the time being.
The StarOil public relation representative’s foot nudged Sophy’s. “Didja see that? They all respect the sheriff. We’ve got to get him on our side,” Craig whispered.
“Good luck,” Sophy murmured back to the PR rep. “One of the land parcels we first purchased was owned by his wife’s family.” She noted the sheriff was glowering at them, and switched to writing a note:
Should say his late wife. She was a guest passenger on our company plane that crashed heading to Anchorage late last year.
Sophy looked glumly at the sheriff, who was waving at some of the latecomers. After their first rocky meeting, she’d declared a truce, but he was still shooting. She’d stopped by the police station to obtain an Alaska driver’s license and tried to make small talk. She copied him on the e-mailed jokes her friends sent. She saw him in the coffee shop and asked him what she, a southern tenderfoot, needed to know to survive an Alaskan winter. She even asked him fairly competent questions about the Saturday hockey game. He’d either looked right through her, pretended not to see her, or gave the tersest possible answers. He was determined not to thaw. Even though the cause of the accident had been weather, John Biebe blamed StarOil.
Walter Burns cleared his throat and began again. “I’m giving five minutes to each side — Ernie, shut up!” He pointed to the red and black flannel-clad figure in the third row. “I’ll do a coin flip to decide which side goes first.” He pulled one from his pocket.
“How do we know it has a head and a tail?” roared Ernie, pulling his bushy, red-brown beard.
At this, the judge exploded.
“Shit, Macginnis! So you give me a fucking coin!” He stormed down the stage’s steps to the audience and held out his hand to the catcaller.
Sophy couldn’t resist a chuckle. The PR man turned pale. “Is it safe for us to walk around here?”
“Sure,” she smiled. “These folks have strong beliefs, but I haven’t seen anyone do anything more than just scream. ‘Though I heard one of these characters shot a Wal-Mart rep in the foot over a year ago. But let’s face it, would you want one of those in your back yard?” Sophy patted Craig on the back reassuringly. He wasn’t reassured.
“I’m walking back home with the judge.”
“Of course you are,” Sophy agreed, laughing again. “That’s where we’re staying until we find housing. I bought the old Bernhardt place, by the way. I’ll be moving into it next week.”
“Bought?” the PR rep was incredulous.
“Why not? The project will take at least three years to complete. It’s well-insulated, though I almost choked on all the dust, cleaning it out last weekend. It’s on a semblance of a road, and close to the school. If I have a problem, the sheriff doesn’t live far away.”
“Sophy, I hate to tell you, but when I walked over to the mayor’s office yesterday, to give him some talking points, I overheard Biebe telling lawyer jokes.”
“Really?” Sophy was interested. “Remember any?”
“Yeah, the one about the lawyer, the Texas Ranger, and the bandit.”
“Oh, good,” smiled Sophy. “He is reading the e-mails I’m sending him.”
More gavel pounding. A few stragglers had to be hushed by Sheriff Biebe’s glance.
“Against goes first, according to the coin toss,” said Burns tersely. “Margaret – ?”
Sophy directed her attention to the plump matron approaching the microphone. She ran the town’s small sporting goods store. We have to find a way to convince her that the increased population will lead to more revenue for her, Sophy thought, and jotted a note about the same, which she shoved in front of Brian.
She spoke earnestly against the exploration, then strode back to her seat. A buzz of discussion erupted within the crowd.
“What you got to say about that, Mayor?” taunted Henry, now completely looped. John folded his arms across his broad, sweatshirted chest.
He’d liked Scott Pitcher until the man had declared his support for StarOil. John suspected Mary Jane Pitcher had persuaded Donna to take StarOil up on its offer of a free flight, so she could visit her sister and new nephew, with their youngest son Bailey. John would never forgive her for that. Never.
“John!” Biebe was startled by the Mayor’s address to him.
“How many were in our high school graduating class?”
“Right. And how many of those are still here?” Scott didn’t wait for an answer. “Only half. That’s right, folks. And the number that left town last year was even greater — nine out of eleven.” The mayor turned his focus away from John, fuming at this statement. “There’s just no opportunity here. We’ll lose more. Face it, folks; it’s either Mystery this way, or no Mystery.”
“StarOil will bring jobs — so you won’t have to trip over Ernie anymore when you exit the grocery store.” A couple of laughs at this. “We’ve needed new water pipes for years. A sewer system would be nice too — unless you like the smell that comes out of the ground over by the old lumber mill every spring.” More laughs.
Despite his opposition to the oil company’s entry into Mystery, John found himself smiling at that.
Sophy tapped lightly on the table to gain the judge’s attention.
“Scott, you want to yield some of your time to Ms. Lewis?”
Sophy strode down the podium steps and over to the mike in anticipation of an affirmative. The mayor helpfully bent down the head of the mike to accommodate her stature. John noticed that she’d adopted clothing similar to that of the townspeople. The mink was nowhere in sight, nor was the thick gold necklace that had plunged into her décolletage. John tried not to think about what the lacy bra revealed. Instead, she was clothed in a worn pair of jeans. A navy turtleneck and the collar of a plaid flannel shirt poked above a baggy green sweater — was that Joanne Burns’s? It swallowed the petite lawyer, which made her appear very cute and non-threatening. The boots on her feet didn’t look much larger than Michael’s. She had taken his advice on which ones to buy.
“For those of you who haven’t met me, I’m Sophy Lewis. I’m StarOil’s legal representative for this partnership.” She smiled out at the crowd — some smiled back, some didn’t. The sheriff didn’t.
Disappointed by the sheriff’s continued enmity but unfazed, Sophy continued. “And it is a partnership too — we’re looking forward to working with you — all of you.” She paused for emphasis. “We appreciate your concerns. We’ve directed our engineers to consider Mystery their home — that’s why we’re moving them — and their families – up here. So they won’t build anything or do anything they wouldn’t want in their own back yards.”
There had been an influx of new faces in town. Deputy Fisher had been complaining since the beginning of the month she’d never issued so many Alaska driver’s licenses before. At the grocery store last week, he’d run into Michael’s teacher, Genevieve McCarthy, who doubled as the school’s principal. There were twelve new children at the school. And she’d just received word that nine more would enroll after the holidays. At this rate, she’d have to hire another teacher.
“As to the payment StarOil will make to property owners who permit our company to explore upon their land — I’m the person who drafted the lease. I wrote in it, at page six-” she held up the document and turned the pages “-‘StarOil shall re-negotiate the lease payment in year three.’ That word ‘shall’ means we have to sit back down at the table and talk to you.”
Skank Marden quietly sidled up to Biebe. “Boy, she is one hot chick.”
“In that sweater, how can you tell?” Biebe was curious.
“Saw her in the hot springs over by the Judge’s house a couple days ago, when I made that delivery for him. Man, wouldn’t I have liked to be the fabric on her bikini!”
“Skank,” John smiled, motioning for the fellow to speak more quietly, “you’d like to be the fabric on the underclothing of every woman in this town under the age of 50, eh?”
“Yeah, so what?” Marden admitted. “Hey, I like to fuck. What’s so bad about that? You did with Donna, or you wouldn’t have had four- whoa, man! What’d I say?” To the interest of the left front row, at least, Biebe had grabbed Marden by the shoulder and roughly pushed him out the side door of the sanctuary.
“You shut up about Donna.” John’s voice was a threatening rumble. His eyes burned. He blinked, to keep the tears back. Donna, Bailey and the baby — she’d been three months pregnant. The autopsy in Anchorage revealed she’d carried the little girl they’d always wanted.
“Sorry, John. I just thought — it’s been over a year; and Star paid you, though the FAA said it wasn’t their fault.”
“If you think,” said John, furiously, grabbing Skank by the throat, “-that money replaces my wife-”
“So you do a payback to Star,” Skank gasped, trying to wrestle free of the vise-like grip. “Let me work my magic on Miss Lewis.”
“No!” Skank blinked at the unexpected force of this reply. His face slowly assumed a leer.
“Then you do it. Think of all the fun you’d have, eh? She looks like the sort who’d enjoy it too.”
John snorted and pushed Marden roughly away. “Go back in there and be quiet, or I’ll lock you up for disturbing the peace.”
The voting was underway when, a few minutes later, John had composed himself and returned to the sanctuary. He noted the smiles on the StarOil employees’ faces. There must’ve been a lot more “yesses” than the “nos” currently being counted.
His vote wouldn’t even have made a difference. It was two to one in favor of the exploration.
The inhabitants’ dispersal was peaceable, considering. Just a few swings and punches; nothing that a night in his small jail wouldn’t cure. He gave a warning to Tinker and cuffed Ernie to take him off to the sheriff’s office.
Pitcher and Burns were deep in conversation, the last to leave. “Prepare yourselves,” he muttered to them both. “This will change Mystery far more than the hockey game ever did.”
John awoke two weeks later with his shoulder throbbing. The fall he’d taken on the ice last Saturday while refereeing the pickup game had pulled something, and the pain wouldn’t go away. In the sheriff’s office, after Betty noticed him grimace when he picked up his coffee cup with his left hand, she started to dial.
“You gotta see the doc.” Her expression brooked no argument, even if she was his subordinate. So at noon, John walked over to ‘Henry Savage, MD — general practice’ a small, white-shingled building at the end of the block.
The nurse smiled at John when he entered, and motioned him into one of the two examining rooms. She closed the door. John thought there must have been a mistake — this room contained an elegant burgundy leather briefcase; someone else must be occupying it. He opened the door to call to the nurse, down the hall.
Dr. Savage entered, hushing him. He shut the door and locked it.
“You know whose computer that is?”
Biebe shook his head.
“StarOil’s legal eagle. You know, Sally Loomis.”
“Sophy Lewis.” John corrected Henry quietly.
“She’s in my other room. One hell of a sinus infection. I’ve got her bringing in some medicine on an inhaler.” He pulled a laptop out of the briefcase. “I say we open this baby up and see what StarOil’s real plans are for Mystery, eh?” The doctor snapped the laptop open and pressed its start button.
“All right, people, we got alotta work to do!” the machine roared. The two men grimaced. Searching frantically for the volume control, Savage turned the sound down.
John rubbed his brawny shoulder. He started to take off his sweater and flannel shirt so the doctor could examine him. He wanted to be back at the office before 1pm. “I don’t think we should be doing this.”
“Oh, come on, Sheriff. Name me a law we’re breaking. She left it here, didn’t she? Assumption of the risk. All’s fair in love and war — and this ain’t love, eh?” Using the trackpoint, the doctor deftly aimed the cursor at the hard drive logo and opened it.
“I’ve been waiting for you,” responded an accented male voice, and two dozen folders splashed onto the screen. John found himself head to head with his doctor, scanning the folders for likely sources of interesting files. Of course. The one labeled ‘Mystery.’
The doctor clicked the folder open, then temporarily diverted his attention to Biebe’s shoulder while John looked at the file names in the folder. He pointed to “Memos” and clicked. A list of titles appeared, some bearing the names of Mystery residents. John clicked on ‘Biebe.’
“Whaddya think, God’s gift?” What was that accent, anyway — Cockney? ” Enter password to open file read the message on the screen.
“What dirt does she have on you, John, that she’s got it locked?” the doctor wondered. “Here, try ‘Savage.”
John clicked. “Whaddya think, God’s gift?” chirped the laptop. The same password entry requirement appeared.
The two men were about to try another file — John had poised the cursor over ‘Burns’ when a knock on the door and the nurse’s head disturbed them.
“Miss Lewis is finished with the treatment, Henry.” She looked at what they were doing. “You want me to delay her? She was starting to dress.”
“Hell, yes!” The sheriff answered for the doctor, frantically sliding the cursor to the ‘shut down’ icon.
The lawyer entered the examining room just after John had shoved her laptop back in the briefcase. She took in the scenery — the sheriff’s shirt was still off, displaying the results of great genes and years of chopping firewood and lifting weights. John thought he saw her smile before she turned away.
“I thought you said the lights weren’t working in this room, and that’s why I had to be treated in the other.”
Savage was a lousy liar during poker, and he was no better now. “Ah, well, Biebe — the sheriff, here, he fixed it.”
John saw a sparkle in Sophy’s brown eyes as she looked directly into his. “Oh, so you’re an electrician too? I can believe that Sheriff. No wonder the nurse left me and headed into this room — you turned her on.” She raked her eyes again across the broad chest. “Please; don’t dress on my account.”
Biebe tried to think of a cutting comeback, but Sophy was retrieving her briefcase and walking through the door.
That Donna was one lucky woman, she thought. I don’t blame him for his grief; I just wish he wouldn’t take it out on me.
Suddenly, she turned around. She removed her laptop from its pouch.
“Something else in this room is hot.” Sophy could feel the heat of her laptop through the leather of her briefcase. She pulled out her laptop from the case, popped it open and started it up.
“Ok, people, we got alotta work to do!” roared out again. She clicked open a program.
“Want to know what’s in your file, Sheriff?” John noticed that Sophy’s accent thickened as she bantered with him. “I see you tried to access it at 12:32pm.” She turned the laptop around so he could see the screen.
It was a scan of a letter on StarOil letterhead. The investigation team had found some of Mrs. John Biebe’s personal effects among the plane wreckage — a ring, a necklace, and a keychain with photos of her husband and sons. The writer was seeking the widower’s address so Star could send these items to him.
If you want, I’ll follow you back to your office and I’ll print it out.”
The lawyer couldn’t, however, resist one final gibe. “I promise not to try to look at any of your confidential paperwork while I’m there.”
After she left his office, he had to leave too, to clear his head. “Open the windows,” he growled at Betty as he stomped out. “It smells like, like-”
“She wore a lovely perfume,” Betty commented. John swore, leaving his deputy alone in the station. She promptly called Mary Jane Pitcher to gossip about the sheriff’s strange behavior.
He stirred his coffee so violently that the top third sloshed onto the table. “Damn her!” he roared, startling the waitress only momentarily — she’d heard worse, though it was odd to see the normally placid sheriff provoked. “That bitch knows everything, doesn’t she?”
Whether she knew everything or not, there seemed to be no way John could avoid the oil company’s lawyer. If a roughneck had too much to drink or took a swing at another denizen of Mystery and John had to take him back to the town’s small jail, Sophy was there to hear the story. Frequently, when John wandered into Scott’s office for a chat, Sophy was there, reviewing plans for new septic systems or streetlights, or the indoor swimming pool and recreation center Star agreed to build. He meant to change the time he stopped at the post office to pick up his mail, but somehow he was always there around two, when she came by. He would pretend to sort through his own mix of junk mail and bills, while she sifted through her envelopes and catalogs.
“Would you like to borrow my Victoria’s Secret catalog?” she offered once, seeing him staring at the filmy negligee on the cover model. “Too bad they can’t make something sexy and thermal; I have this –” she opened the document and pointed to a translucent gown slit to the thigh. The model’s breasts almost cascaded out of the bodice. “In red; it’s silk; Ray bought it for me.”
Even after a month, he couldn’t make himself throw the catalog away. He kept it in his nightstand, open to that gown.
He was cold; she tried to be friendly. He had two boys? She had two extra sets of Pokemon cards; would his sons be interested in them? She brought homemade mint chocolate brownies and a cheesecake to a bake sale the town held to raise money to buy new helmets for the participants in the Saturday game. He was surprised to see her with the ‘poker widows’ at the judge’s monthly poker night. Sophy sat and joked and knitted with the wives and girlfriends in Joanna’s kitchen. He never thought he’d see a lawyer knit, but there she was, and working with several different colors of yarn in something she called a ‘mosaic stitch.’
Whatever the circumstance, however, he went out of his way to talk to her as little as possible. So he grunted ‘thanks’ for the cards. After trying a bit of the brownie Michael bought with his allowance, John waited until Sophy left the sales table to buy the remainder of her desserts. And when Joanna called for the men to come in the kitchen for pizza and nachos, he’d set his plate on a counter as far away from Sophy as he could get without standing outside. There, he’d tease and flirt with all the other women. She was pretty, she had a great sense of humor, she held world views similar to his. He fought to remind himself of his mantra, that Sophy Lewis worked for StarOil, and StarOil had killed his wife.
It was just before Thanksgiving, and the days were growing short and cold indeed, even for a native. Wherever John turned now, he seemed to see a new face. Shiny SUVs, some still with Texas or Oklahoma license plates, were double-parked outside the general store and the coffee shop. The mayor was giving serious consideration to the installation of parking meters, even if there was a chance the moose wandering through town would use them as scratching posts.
Biebe’s simple wooden home had once been in a secluded, forested area. Now a third of the forest had been chopped down, and his morning alarm clock was unnecessary. Every morning this past month he’d been awakened by the sound of pile drivers laying pipe for the twenty new homes about to be constructed.
The pond seemed to be the only island of sanity/normalcy in his beloved town. Here, as it had always been, ever since he could recall as a toddler, the inhabitants of Mystery gathered. Among the many enjoying the pond this Sunday afternoon were Skank, skating with his latest conquest, a very giggly StarOil petroleum engineer. Stevie Weeks and Marla Burns, arm and arm, were drawing graceful Ss in the ice. His own two boys were out on the ice; the elder holding up his little brother, showing him how to skate backwards. John smiled proudly; in another eight or nine years, Michael would be a star in the Saturday game.
Mary Jane was teaching a child he did not recognize how to ice skate. In the cold, the little girl’s freckles stood out in stark contrast to her pale skin. She fell. John could see her lower lip start to tremble — was she hurt? Sympathetic, he started over — during yesterday’s pick-up game, he’d slipped himself -after Birdie had pushed him, he was convinced; the young Burns hadn’t liked his call on a play. No need. The mayor’s wife was consoling the child up. The little girl rubbed her knee and shot a brave smile off to John’s right — he could lip read her “I’m all right, Mommy.” Curious as to who was the maternal recipient, he looked.
And almost lost his balance again, right in front of every Mystery resident and visitor. The child’s attention was directed at Sophy Lewis, sitting on the benches. No wonder he hadn’t recognized her. She was wearing a serviceable navy parka and bright red mittens. Snow boots covered her feet and the lower calves of her jeans. She — was a mother? From her intense concentration on the little girl, that was clear. It was as if she thought by watching, focusing her full attention on the child’s form, she could hold her up, help her maintain her balance, encourage her on.
John skated over to the bench edge of the pond.
“Had enough John, eh?” teased Connor Banks, whizzing by.
Just you wait ’till I catch you hunting out of season, thought the sheriff, smiling back in satisfaction. He made his way over to the bench. Sophy was sitting alone — the pairs and triplets of conversationalists had left her in her own, private, melancholy viewing area. Looking at her brown eyes, despite his intentions to be merely inquisitive, he felt his heart stir.
“So why aren’t you out there showing her how it’s done, Mommy?” John sat down beside the pensive woman.
Sophy’s concentration was broken. Until he spoke, right in her ear, half exposed by the multicolored knit cap crowning her head, she hadn’t noticed Biebe’s arrival. She looked up, surprised to see who was talking to her. And in a friendly manner. This was a first. On any other day, she would have welcomed this, but today would have been Ray’s 40th birthday. That plane flight the spring before last had affected her life too.
“It may amaze you to learn, Sheriff, that there are a few things in the world I don’t know everything about.” John saw a flash of bitterness, in her brief smile — she’d obviously heard him ranting at the coffee shop last week. “Only one ice rink in my hometown and it was never cold long enough for pond ice to freeze thick enough for skaters. So you see, Sheriff, you were wrong at the coffee shop. This bitch doesn’t know everything.”
Her eyes were glittering dangerously even though, John noticed, she hadn’t shifted her focus from her daughter. “I saw you out there, Sheriff. Sort of skating. You’ve lived here all your life. What’s your excuse?”
That reposte was sharper than a skate blade, and clearly meant to be so. If she’d meant to arouse his ire, she’d done it.
“Why are you so hostile?” he demanded, in his best interrogation voice.
Sophy made a disgusted little snort. “Me? Moi? You’ve had it in for me since you parked your SUV in front of that mud puddle at the airstrip and didn’t even bother to keep the smile off your face when I had to ruin my shoes and my reports to walk over to your vehicle.”
“No one told you to play dress up,” he replied, dryly.
“No one told me I’d be flying to Mystery until I was on the plane,” she retorted. “I thought I was going from Anchorage to Juneau, and then back to Houston at the end of the week. Do you think I’m such an idiot that I’d intentionally wear $250 shoes and a designer suit into the middle of nowhere?”
“And the mink?” He felt his face burning at “middle of nowhere,” even if it was true.
“My mother’s. My father flew out to Houston to give it to me. What was I supposed to do in the airport, say, ‘sorry, Dad, I know it will keep me warm, but I’m not wearing that to my meeting in Anchorage?'”
She paused, trembling with emotion, allowing recollection of all the slights and snubs from the past three months to bubble up into her consciousness. “Did I repay your ‘favor’ at the airstrip by making snide remarks about you, or refusing to even respond with a ‘good morning’ when the sun finally decides to rise around here? Hell no! I’ve practically laid down in the street for you to walk all over me. Not only did I not report your trespass on StarOil property to Judge Burns-”
“What?” He didn’t care if his voice rose; that was a lie.
“My computer, remember? You and ol’ Doc Holladay decided to peruse my files.” She let her voice rise, too.
Scott Pitcher, seated a few feet away from the pair, looked over, curious as to the cause of the argument. John stared straight ahead, hoping it was too cold and he was too old to blush. Shit. He’d repressed the laptop incident.
But Sophy hadn’t. She took the point and bludgeoned him with it. Hard. “Did I file charges against you, then? Noooo. In fact, I brought my laptop over to your office, and downloaded the letter about your wife to your printer. I made sure the items mentioned were express mailed to you the next day. Oh, by the way, why don’t you ask your older boy who’s been helping him with his reading? Me and Taylor, that’s who. Michael is best friends with my daughter, but I know you didn’t know that. If you had, you’d probably have told him he couldn’t play with her. They come over to my office every day, after school. Skank comes over to my house and picks him up, them takes Michael home.”
She continued raving. “Skank told me Sarah Heinz clobbered him with a shovel once just for calling her a walrus. Big effing deal — you’ve called me any number of names in the book – at the coffee shop, at the grocery store, and of course, in the locker room. And then you have the gall to ticket my company truck the one frigging time I double-park outside the grocery store — don’t tell me you didn’t know it was mine, Officer.”
John recalled the glee he’d felt upon seeing the lawyer’s truck illegally parked. He’d slapped the maximum monetary penalty on her, figuring, what the hell. StarOil could afford it.
“I’ll have you know, Officer Biebe-” Somehow, Sophy made ‘Officer’ sound like ‘Dickhead’ “-The $100 fine came out of my pocket. Companies don’t pay tickets.”
“I thought lawyers made lots of money,” replied John, weakly.
“Not in corporate, they don’t,” she snapped. “And there’s a recession going on — I can’t persuade anyone to buy the Cessna my husband bought just before he died, so I’m still paying off the loan.”
Before John could reply, she stood up. She called to her daughter, who was sliding cautiously along by the pond’s edge. “Hey, Angel, Mommy’s getting really cold. How about continuing your skating lesson some other time and having a nice cup of hot chocolate now?”
At the word ‘chocolate,’ the little girl scooted gracefully off the ice and gave her mother a hug. Arm in arm, mother and daughter walked away to Sophy’s truck. John was left, frustrated and angry with himself.
Mary Jane, who’d been watching the fracas between the sheriff and the oil company lawyer out of the corner of her eye, dropped onto the bench beside John.
“Sarah and Janice will fill me in, I’m sure-” she waved at the two, a bench up from where Biebe sat. “But I can guess. That girl’s been pouring her heart out to me. She told me you’ve been meaner than the mosquitoes in June.”
John grumbled in self-defense. “She’s a lawyer. Except for Bailey Pruitt, since when did you feel sorry for any of them? Weren’t you the one who told me that twenty lawyers skydiving from an airplane were skeet?”
“You know, the trouble with you men is that God gave you a brain and a penis and only enough blood to operate one at a time.” She lowered her voice. “Admit it. You give her a hard time because Donna isn’t here and she is.”
Mary Jane ignored the scowl John threw at her. “And because you’re finding now that Sophy’s here, you’re not missing Donna as much as you did.”
“What makes you think that?” he asked, apprehensively.
“What you say at the monthly poker games,” she responded. “You correct Hank Savage each time he misnames Sophy. Last month, she was late coming to the poker widows’ party. Not only did you wonder where she was, you called your deputy to drive over to her cabin. The conversations you men have in the locker room about who you’d like to undress, and what you’d like to do next– Birdie’s a dreadful gossip, you know, he tells Joanna and she tells me. Really, John, I didn’t know you had a thing for red satin and high heels.”
John looked around warily — could the other townspeople hear this? Sophy had left her ruined stilettos in his Bronco. He’d tossed them into his closet. He must’ve talked after the game. He’d made the mistake of using several beers as a chaser for the muscle relaxant.
“The way you told Skank to stay away from Sophy — you never warned him off me.” She winked. “I would’ve preferred you to Skank, but you weren’t interested in anyone else then.” Seeing her husband waving, she stood up to leave.
“She wants to love you, John, but she’s afraid. You have more in common than you know.” With this oblique statement, Mary Jane left the sheriff to his own thoughts.
Am I so transparent? John wondered to himself. From what Mary Jane was saying, the sheriff’s interest in the StarOil lawyer wasn’t a mystery in Mystery, except for the sheriff.
“Moose in love with a truck,” Betty told the Sheriff before he had the chance to peel off his outerwear. The animals were unusually active for so early in the winter. Ben and Galin lost all their cedar wreaths and roping to an inquisitive cow the prior week. She’d gotten herself all tangled up and ran down the main street of the town howling and bawling. It had taken quite a bit of work — and courage — and a rifle shot of anesthesia — for John to calm her down and remove the greenery. Some wit suggested they leave the stuff on her and decorate her with lights.
Fresh snow was falling on last night’s powdery blanket as John returned to his SUV and disconnected the battery from the electrical charger keeping it warm. After placing the dart gun and a padded case containing his bolt action .338 Winchester magnum on the floorboard — using the latter would be a last resort- he flung himself back onto the seat of his vehicle and clicked on the radio. Music would make a pleasant counterpoint to any chatter on the police radio. No such luck. Apparently the southerners were flooding the school’s phone lines with queries about school closings. Jake, the radio host, was laughing about this.
“You, excuse me, y’all, close the schools in Tulsa when there’s an inch of snow on the road. We close when the snow’s an inch from the top of the flagpole. Bundle ’em up, mom and dad, and give ’em snowshoes, or better yet, a dogsled. The kiddies can make it to their classes.”
At the newly-installed traffic light on the only paved road leading out of town, John looked at the address. He smiled. Here was his chance to be neighborly. He drove along the path that substituted for a road, glad of his Bronco’s ground clearance and new tires — there were icy patches under the fluffy layer of white.
He could see the animal — a huge bull moose — before he arrived at the dwelling. It was between the back door and the StarOil truck. It looked cantankerous, unlikely to be frightened off by him honking his horn or slowly approaching it in his Bronco. This meant another dart gun-administered anesthetic. John raised the Fisheries and Wildlife rep on his police radio. There was always a danger that the animal would react unpredictably to the medication, and hurt itself, or die. Poor creature. Until this summer, no one had lived in the old Williams place for years. The moose could’ve wandered out here and had the place to itself, without alarming anyone.
Donna might have wanted civilization to come to Mystery, but he liked it the way it was, before the oil business threatened to double the town’s population.
The moose was determinedly standing its ground. Without any other recourse, John took a dart loaded with anesthetic from his pocket. He inserted this into the dart gun. Aiming for a non-vital area, he released the trigger, and waited.
After several minutes, the bull started to wobble. It reminded him of Henry’s alcoholic celebration dance after the University of Alaska Nanooks clobbered Washington State’s hockey team.
Fisheries And Wildlife drove up in his battered forest green “For Official Government Use Only” truck just as the beast started to kneel on its forelegs.
After reaching into the back seat for some rope, John opened his door and walked over to the ranger.
“Let’s get him stabilized before he nods off. Maybe we can coax him into those woods over there.” The ranger, saying this, cautiously led the way over to the animal.
This was the part that always made John queasy. You never knew how a wild animal would act. If it felt threatened, one kick could send him to the hospital — or worse.
The ranger had a well-developed lassooing style. After flinging his and John’s rope over the beast, the two, standing well apart, and well away from the moose, walked a slow, sideways course towards the fir stand. Already, the moose had arisen and was becoming less wobbly — the anesthetic was wearing off. No, thought John, watching the beady eyes of the huge creature — this was the part that always made him feel queasy. The earlier events were a piece of cake.
This ranger was good. One tug, and his slipknot released. He quickly edged over to John and did the same with the sheriff’s rope. The two then hightailed it in the direction of back door of the house. The moose turned and trotted menacingly, if groggily, towards them–
No, this was the queasy part, thought John. The earlier stuff was child’s play.
-and, thank goodness, decided neither the men nor their trucks were worth attacking. It cantered back into the forest, becoming hidden from view surprisingly quickly.
The house’s back door opened and a head peeked out.
“Thanks so much. I hope it was okay to call you? Of all days, this is the last one I can be late.”
The two men kicked the snow off their boots and trooped into the tiny mud room.
“Coffee?” She gestured to the kitchen table and two steaming mugs. “I’ll be right back; Taylor needs a little push in the morning to get ready.”
“Yes, please.” John removed his boots and left them in the mud room, as did the ranger. After stirring three teaspoons of sugar in the coffee, he looked around the room. She must like blue and yellow — the cafe curtains framing the kitchen windows were made of a white fabric with squiggles in the two colors. The placemats on the table were suns — someone, probably Taylor, had drawn smiley faces on them. The futon sofa and easy chair in the adjoining family room were blue denim, brightened with pillows in the same fabric as the curtains. The entire effect was casual, comfortable, and cheery.
She returned into the room as he was examining the photos in the entertainment center — that furniture had to be what had been airlifted in last month from IKEA.
Sophy saw him examining the blond wooden frame. “I put it together all by myself,” she said proudly. “Only two broken fingernails and ten swear words; not bad for a lawyer, huh?” She saw him looking at one photo in particular. It was taken at a beach — a turquoise ocean and white sand were visible in the background. Her hair was much longer, Taylor was years younger, and they were accompanied by a handsome, dark-eyed man whose dark brown hair was just beginning to gray. John scrutinized the image — why did the man look familiar?
“That’s Ray.” Sophy took the photo down from its perch. “March, just before he died. We went to Grand Cayman; it has a great beach, and wonderful scuba-diving and snorkeling.” She touched the glass covering the photo over the image of her late husband.
“How did he die?” John was curious.
Sophy stared back at him, not speaking for a moment. “I thought you knew. His plane crashed. Here, in Alaska.”
Now it was John’s turn to blink. “Oh.” He felt a rush of sympathy for the petite lawyer, a need to hold her close and tell her that her life hadn’t ended just because her spouse’s had. With a start, he realized that was also true for himself.
Fisheries And Wildlife, quietly listening to the conversation, spoke up before John could act. Sophy was in full legal regalia — a dark suit with a fitted jacket and a short skirt revealing a fine pair of legs, a high-collared ivory blouse, and pearls. Fisheries And Wildlife liked what he saw in the suit. Given the male to female ratio in these parts, any woman without a wedding band was of interest. If she was attractive, like this one definitely was, that was a plus.
“Give you a lift somewhere, Sophy?”
John frowned at the ranger’s use of Sophy’s name. Sophy saw the frown and bit back her smile. She felt like a doe being fought over by two bucks. It was an amusing sensation, but she didn’t want to be cruel. She’d made her selection long ago.
“That’s so kind of you,” she responded. “Taylor has to go to school, and I need to head off to the airport. Meeting in Fairbanks today.”
“You should see the corporate plane,” John said to the ranger. “Very plush.”
“Yeah, well, it won’t be seen in Mystery today,” smiled Sophy. Our accountants have decided that no one under the rank of executive can use the corporate plane anymore, so Charlie Findley’s taking me in his Cessna.”
Biebe turned to Fish And Wildlife in triumph. “I have to head over to the Aniats.’ Luke’s home, on parole. They’re only a mile from the airstrip, and that’s way out of your way, eh?” Before the ranger could counter, John picked up Sophy’s black leather briefcase and the yellow bookbag he assumed was Taylor’s.
“Taylor — come on, Angel!” The little girl appeared in response to her mother’s call. She was holding a plate bearing the remains of a grilled cheese sandwich — that must have been breakfast — and some brightly colored pages.
Sophy looked up, smiling. “No, Angel, it’s time to go to school. You can look at pictures of the telescopes later.”
Fish And Wildlife headed out the door. He couldn’t resist throwing Biebe a verbal jab.
“Put on a few pounds, haven’t you, now that you’re out of the Saturday game?”
John gave Fish And Wildlife a beatific smile. He might be slower than ranger on the ice, he might not have the ranger’s Pierce Brosnan-like good looks, but he had won the competition in the kitchen.
“Wait here,” he instructed Sophy, as he opened the back door. “I’ll drive my Bronco closer to your house, so you won’t have to walk in the snow.” He bent down to Taylor and chucked her under the chin. “And you can tell me all about that telescope Santa’s bringing you when we drive to your school, eh?”
John cast a mellow eye about the sheriff’s station and launched into a rumbling baritone rendition of “White Christmas.” He leaned over the divider and gave Betty a loud kiss on the cheek.
The deputy rolled her eyes. “Heck, around here, it’s white Columbus Day.” She sniffed the air as the sheriff walked past. Spiked egg nog this early in the day? Then again, the way he was acting, perhaps he’d just drunk the spike without the nog.
John had worried about a lull in the conversation after dropping the happily prattling Taylor off at the building that served as elementary, middle, and high school for the 55 square-mile area. But Jake had come through, playing some Celtic carols from a Windham Hill recording. Between songs, he and Sophy agreed this was the best music the DJ had played all morning. The conversational ice broken, they then had a pleasant chat.
Oh, it wasn’t anything profound; just kids, the upcoming holiday season, snow and Santa. It was a cosy little chat. Like he used to have with Donna, before the night he’d received the news of her demise. The companionship Sophy had provided in the ride to the airstrip hit a nerve and made it ache. It hurt so good. John closed his eyes, recalling her syrupy contralto. Damn — he should have given her a kiss when he helped her descend from the truck. And another one before she climbed into the plane. Her mouth looked so kissable. He groaned. All of her looked so kissable. He wondered if she was wearing that lace bra again today.
Ah, these thoughts weren’t getting him anything but hard. He picked up the receiver of his phone and dialed a number. Quickly, before he lost his nerve.
“Hello?” He could barely hear her on the cell phone over the sound of what must be the Cessna’s propellers. “Look, you don’t have a tree yet, and you left most of your ornaments in storage. I’ve got a tree, and ornaments, but the boys are better at throwing the ornaments than hanging them. How about-”
Sophy shouted out her approval of the idea and a quick “Gotta go, before the front moves in.”
Hanging up the receiver, John spun his chair around until he was dizzy, then giggled, and spun it the other way.
“Pizza, popcorn, chocolate milk…” John was making a mental list of all the foods Michael and Joey liked to eat. He was sure Taylor had the same tastes. Tomorrow he’d supplement his stock from the local market, then order the rest from Fairbanks and have it airshipped fourth class. Peanut butter, chicken nuggets, string cheese…
The phone rang. Hopping over the piled of dirty clothes that would lie in a corner of his bedroom floor until Saturday morning, when he’d do laundry, the sheriff wondered what Sophy would want to eat. When he saw her in the coffee shop, she was always having a salad, sometimes with meat, sometimes with tomato or chicken noodle soup. But that, he figured, was part of the constant diet most women complained they needed to stay on.
Damn! The cordless phone wasn’t on its cradle — where had he put it? He followed the fainter ring into the kitchen. Wine or beer? Sophy looked like a wine sort of female in her suits, but he could picture her in her jeans with a beer. In her jeans, with just a tight little turtleneck, curled up by his fire. Perhaps Taylor and the boys would wear themselves out from the excitement of tree decorating, and fall asleep. Then the adults could enjoy the firelight by themselves. Not that it hid much, but it would be fun to unsnap that lace bra.
Thinking of that distracted him from the ringing phone for a moment. Now where was it?
Sitting at the kitchen table, doing his homework, Michael gestured to the refrigerator.
“Why didn’t you pick it up?” he asked his eldest, and received a shrug as an answer. No time to give Michael a lecture on being helpful; he needed to answer the phone before the caller gave up. He reached into the refrigerator. He remembered now. He’d put it on the middle shelf when he pulled out the package of moose sausage for dinner the other evening. That was good sausage, even if it was so spicy he tasted it several times during the night.
“John? Maybe you can help me out.” It was Genevieve McCarthy, the school principal. He heard crying in the background. “I have Taylor Lewis here with me — Sophy never came by the school to pick her up. That’s not like her.” John heard muffled sobs and the sound of the receiver being set down. “Sssshh, Taylor, honey, it’ll be all right, why don’t you go and watch TV with Josh and Caitlyn? Go on now.”
John checked his pager. No messages. There hadn’t been anything out of the ordinary on the police band all afternoon, either.
“Sorry about that.” Genevieve continued. “Taylor told me you dropped her off at school today, and took her mom to the airstrip.”
Cradling the cordless against his neck, John climbed out of his sweats and into a pair of Thinsulate®-lined jeans. He asked the questions he already knew the answer to. “Did you check with the strip and Fairbanks airport? Were the flight plans closed?”
“Mystery’s was, but Fairbanks was still open fifteen minutes ago. Her plane was due back in at five o’clock. You know Charlie, he runs late, but never like this.”
The wall clock in the kitchen read six thirty. John looked at the kitchen window. The outdoor thermometer read –19� F. Not too cold, but it was supposed to drop to –35º F tonight, and the wind was supposed to kick up.
“You can keep Taylor tonight? And the boys? I’ll need to drop them baby-sat while I search. ” He rifled through a drawer to find his expedition weight undershirt. It was a trick to pull that on and hold the phone.
“Oh, yes, they’re all dears. But John,” the teacher lowered her voice, “Let me warn you; Taylor’s as smart as a whip. I told her that her mommy had an unexpected dinner meeting, and that she’d fly home tomorrow-”
“Good story.” He slid on an extra pair of thermal socks.
“Taylor didn’t buy it; she said her mommy always calls and tells her when she’ll be late.” John could hear the anxiety in Genevieve’s voice. This from a woman who’d stayed calm when a brown bear had invaded her school last March in search of the fragrant gingerbread the younger children had baked with seltzer water and vinegar.
“I’ll call out the search teams, and alert the folks in Fairbanks and the intervening communities. You hang tight.” He used his best ‘Officer Biebe here, Ma’am, nothing to worry about’ voice, though he wasn’t feeling that way anymore himself.
It was 130 miles to Fairbanks. The plane could be anywhere along that route, or veered off course.
Should I try to pull it off or leave it on, Sophy wondered concerning her right boot. Her foot and ankle hurt like the dickens, and she couldn’t feel her toes move, so something must be broken. Raising herself on her hands, she tried to slide another few inches towards where the front seats of the plane were crushed against the instrument panel. Her chest hurt when she moved, so did her back. She could feel a lump on her forehead. Would the two way radio still work? She hoped so. She thought she remembered its general location — she’d have to feel for it in the dark. Just ignore Charlie’s body when you touch it…or was that Ray?
Taylor. Think of Taylor, she reminded herself as the pain and the fear stabbed through her again. The pilot is dead, but you’re alive. There has to be a reason why you survived, and that reason is Taylor. Biting back tears, she shifted position again. If only there was some way to cover up the break in the fuselage so the wind wouldn’t whip in, so she wouldn’t shiver so.
It was amazing the Cessna hadn’t caught on fire- perhaps Charlie had jettisoned the fuel before the impact? Or maybe he ran out. She didn’t know. She couldn’t concentrate. The pilot had teased her on the flight to Fairbanks, deliberately cutting off the engine to show her how the little prop could glide.
A wind shear from that front must have nailed them. Or a goose, flying into a prop. She couldn’t recall anything other than looking out over the mix of fir trees and tundra-like fields barely visible in the early darkness as they flew north. The sun had set at three o’clock; how beautiful that had been when the last rays reflected in a blaze of golds and reds on the river below them.
Too bad Alaska had to be so damned cold and its winter months so dark. The landscape was spectacular, the people so open, friendly, and delightfully independent.
But it was so cold, so cold, and she was so tired. She closed her eyes for a minute, planning to ask Ray what she should do next.
“Found it.” The two way radio chirruped. John reached for the transceiver and responded to Skank’s words.
“Give us your GPS coordinates.” True to its name, the Bronco heaved and rocked as he invented a shortcut along the terrain.
“That’s not far from us at all,” commented the doctor. “Charlie always liked to fly above the river. Liked to see the moonlight reflecting off the water.”
John, tense, was more prosaic. “It was easier than flying by instrument. And in the daytime, he could see the schools of fish in the water below. That was my first hope — that they’d left early, he saw a promising school, and decided to make an unscheduled landing to catch dinner.”
Martin’s headlights illuminated the wreckage of the plane and Skank, who was waving his arms above his head.
The sheriff and the doctor ran over to the aircraft. They couldn’t have come in at much speed, or the Cessna would have totally disintegrated. So maybe there was a hope-
Aiming a flashlight, Skank was peering in a hole in the broken plane. “Charlie bought it. I can see him. Looks like his neck got broke.”
“Sophy?” John joined him to look through the shambles. He thought he saw a furry lump in the back. That could only be her mink coat. “Doc — get me that tire iron in the back seat, will ya, so I can pull back this metal?” She must still be in there, but no one was moving.
They’d been working on the fuselage for ten minutes when Tinker and Tree drove up. Tree peeled the metal back with his mittened hands as easily as if he was opening a sardine can. Sweating from his own prior effort, John bent over and crawled into the crumpled aircraft.
“That’s her coat,” observed Savage. He reached around John and pulled it back. Short, shallow breaths, but she was breathing.
“Don’t move her!” He pushed the sheriff aside and made himself some space so he could measure her vital signs.
“Taaaay.” The low, slurring sound was from Sophy; her lips, blue, barely moved. As Henry placed the stethoscope on her chest, she groaned and flailed her arms weakly. “Nooooo. Hurrs, go awaaaayy.”
“John,” said the doctor, somewhat irritated by the sheriff hovering over him. “How many years have you been involved with the rescue of someone who’s hypothermic? What’s the matter with you — go get the sleeping bag and warm it up.” The sheriff hastened back to the police vehicle.
Watching the semiconscious woman’s short, shallow breaths, the physician pondered what to do next. “I think she’s got a cracked rib or two, so it would be good if she could be stretched out flat. Tinker, I think your Expedition has the widest floorboard. You mind taking the back seat out?”
“It’s already done; remember I carry what I catch hunting back there. The bears can reach the top of the truck, so I gave up on the roof rack long ago.”
“Skank, Tree, help me slide this board under her and lift her out. Gently, gently. Good, now hightail it over to Tinker’s SUV before she gets any colder!”
John, having second-guessed the doc’s choice of transport vehicle for the hurt Sophy, had crawled into the sleeping bag to warm it. Skin to skin was what the State of Alaska Cold Injuries and Near Drowning Guidelines recommended. Anxiously he tore off his coat and Icelandic wool sweater. What was taking so long? He stripped off his flannel shirt, the one that was so old its blue had long since faded to gray, its purple to mauve. Had her heart stopped? As hypothermic as she was, it could happen. Watching Tree manipulate something — ah, he was taking out a plane seat, he pulled his turtleneck over his head. By the time the four other men brought the inert Sophy over to the Expedition, John had removed his undershirt and had buried himself in the sleeping bag, rubbing his hands over its lining material to warm it up.
“Leave the coat over her as much as you can until she’s in, then put it on top of the sleeping bag.” Even as he was providing this instruction, the doctor was unbuttoning Sophy’s silk blouse and placing heat packs under her arms. “John, here, put this heat pack in her groin. And warm breath on her face; that’ll help too.”
Biebe slipped the pack up Sophy’s skirt. The lawyer opened her eyes woozily and looked at the bare-chested sheriff breathing on her.
“Isss this Alasskn joke?” Her eyes weren’t quite focussed, but still conveyed her opinion of what was going on.
“Outrage,” observed Dr. Savage. “Good sign. I hope she stays angry all the way to the hospital in Fairbanks.”
“Yeah, John,” laughed Tree. “If she threatens to sue you, that’ll be an even better one.”
The sheriff turned his gaze back to the attorney. She was fading back out. He had only two ideas for how to keep her awake. Leaning his weight on his right side, he gently place his hand on her shoulder, near the collarbone, and started to caress her. Her eyes popped open and attempted to converge on his hand.
He placed his mouth against her right ear. “Now that I’ve got your attention, I’ve got one word to say to you. Taylor. You survived the plane crash for her. Now you’ve got to survive the cold for her too.”
Sophy tried to form the words ‘what’ and ‘why,’ but she was too woozy to produce much sound beyond the initial consonant.
“You’re hypothermic. I’m here to warm you up.”
A snigger came from the driver’s seat. John made a face.
“Mind out of the gutter, Tinker. I thought with Skank in the other truck, I’d be spared the commentary.”
He was very warm, mused Sophy, groggily. Deliciously so. She began to drift off again. It was summertime. It was warm, and she was at the beach; no, she felt movement beneath her; she must be on a boat. Ummm — John Biebe was here? She smiled at the blue-green eyes. The sheriff must’ve decided to leave the frozen north. Sophy closed her eyes, smiling. Thank goodness. It was a crime to cover up his chest with sweaters and coats. She hoped Ray wouldn’t mind her flirting with another man.
John nibbled her earlobe. “No sleeping allowed. To keep you awake, I’m gonna pester you all the way to Fairbanks.”
Tinker, eavesdropping from the Expedition’s rear view mirror, chuckled. “Biebe, I think you’re gonna deserve a naked slide into a snowdrift for this.”
That caught Sophy’s attention.
“Oh, so you like that,” John rumbled, pretending to be annoyed. “Let me explain in detail what happens. My dear friends compel me to strip down to a jockstrap and skates. Then it’s out to the river where I plow myself-”
“Yeah, Biebe, we’ll have to give you a push, ’cause you’ll go too slow!” Tinker giggled at his own joke and Tree joined him.
“And boy, will that hurt!” John deliberately ended his sentence in a falsetto, made a face and grabbed his balls.
It would have been worth a laugh, but her chest hurt too much. “Ribs,” she winced to her guardian.
“Can’t you tape her?” John recalled the time he’d caught a puck in his chest where his uniform’s padding hadn’t protected him. And the time the tree branch on which he sat waiting for a robbery suspect decided to break.
“I could,” came the response. “But if she starts to defibrillate and I have to take action, any wrapping will just get in the way.”
Drat, thought John. Tape would have covered up that bit of lace pretending to be a bra. Her large, rosy aureolae contrasted with the pale skin of her breasts under the delicate fabric. He could imagine the hard, sweet feeling of her nipples in his mouth… Reminding himself he was on duty, he dragged his mind to another topic.
“Let’s talk about Christmas. Tell me which telescope Taylor wants and I’ll order it for you.”
Was it the shock of coming so close to death, or the four hours of looking in those blue-green eyes? By the time Tinker’s SUV reached the stop and go traffic of the Alaskan city, Sophy knew she’d fallen in love. Hopelessly in love, for sure; after all, the man still carried a torch for his late wife, and a flame-thrower for anyone or anything owned by StarOil. She thanked every red light for the additional moment of time it gave her next to the man. If only the Fairbanks hospital were full and they had to drive to Juneau…
Bleary-eyed despite the half-quart of coffee he’d drunk, John was filling out the accident report when the stranger knocked on his door and invited himself into the chair across from the sheriff’s desk.
“So what does StarOil want from me today?” The suit and tie were a dead giveaway as to the outsider’s identity.
“Cleon Jefferson,” came the reply. The visitor displayed a set of very white teeth. When he extended his hand, John deliberately squeezed it just a tad too hard.
“I’m Ms. Lewis’s replacement.” There was that toothy smile again. John thought of a joke Hank had told him involving a lawyer and a shark and briefly smiled back.
“Replacement? But just until Sophy’s back on her feet.” John returned his focus to the paperwork on his desk. He looked forward to this guy leaving. Still, his presence offered some benefits. Sophy’s tentative discharge date was Christmas Eve. John planned on driving to Fairbanks to pick her up. She would probably take some disability leave. His planned Christmas trip to San Diego to see his sons had fallen through. Perhaps he could persuade Sophy-
“Oh, no Sheriff — may I call you John? Since we’ll be working together from now on. I’ll be her permanent replacement.”
Biebe responded with a fixed stare. Jefferson continued, oblivious to the thoughts roiling in his listener’s head.
“When a StarOil employee is injured in the line of duty, the company lets them choose their next assignment location. Ms. Lewis is from Virginia Beach. Her previous posting was at our corporate headquarters in Houston. We’ve moved our headquarters to Fairfax, Virginia, into Mobil’s old facility, that’s not too far from the beach — you’ve heard about our merger with EsOil? We’re now the third largest energy company in the world.” Jefferson was clearly proud of this. Biebe was disinterested, but nodded anyway.
“Forgive me if you’re a native, but neither I nor the General Counsel could imagine her wanting to stay in this icebox when she could return to the sunny south.” Jefferson gestured at the window; the sun still hadn’t risen.
“Icebox?” John was tiring of the Outsider, and annoyed by the cliché referring to his native state.
“Yeah.” Cleon grinned again. “Mystery’s not the company’s most popular assignment. The General Counsel wasn’t able to get any of us to volunteer, so we had a little office lottery. Sophy drew the short straw. Alaska was the last place she wanted to be, what with her husband dying here; but you’d understand that.”
His mood now thoroughly blackened, John pressed the intercom button on his phone. The dispatcher jumped when she heard it; using that telephone feature was something the sheriff almost never did.
“Mirabelle, could you please show Mr. Jefferson the way out? He’s in a hurry.” Biebe stood up and offered his hand again. The lawyer extended his reluctantly. To his regret, he received a second iron grip.
“I’d be glad to chat, but I have a police department to run. Oh, and you might want to order a heavier coat. The temperature’s dropping to minus 40 tonight.” Biebe relished the horrified look on Jefferson’s face as he heard that.
Taylor surveyed the remains of her dinner with pleasure — pizza crusts, several french fries, and a sip of chocolate milkshake. The brownie with vanilla ice cream had been reduced to a few crumbs and some ivory liquid. The sheriff’s meal hadn’t been much different, a cheeseburger instead of the pizza. Michael and his little brother were really lucky to have a daddy that gave them this stuff to eat. No nasty broccoli. So why wasn’t the sheriff happy too?
She tugged on his coat sleeve to get his attention — his mind had wandered off. That seemed to happen to adults a lot. The sheriff responded with a gentle smile.
“Thank you very much for the pizza and everything, Mr. John — did I say that right? Mommy always wants me to be polite.”
Her eyes were a hazel variant of her mother’s brown ones.
“You’re very welcome, and yes, you did.”
He still didn’t look happy. Taylor scratched her head. There was another thing adults worried about in restaurants. She reached into her pocket and withdrew four pennies, a nickel, and a quarter. John watched as she summed these out loud. Just like Michael, who momentarily stopped fighting with Joey long enough to practice counting change too.
Hearing the sheriff’s sigh, Taylor was sure she’d found the reason for his sadness.
“I have thirty-four cents. And twelve dollars and sixty-three cents in my bank, at home. Will that pay for my dinner?”
John chuckled and patted the child’s head. “You keep your money, Princess. My treat.”
Oh dear. The lower lip had started to quiver. Tears ran over the freckles. John felt the waitress’s stare. Joey, always the softhearted one, started to whimper too, in sympathy. John wracked his brain – what had he done to upset her?
Taylor spoke between sobs. “My daddy used to call me ‘Princess.’ Until he went to heaven.” John handed Taylor a paper napkin from the bunch the waitress had just placed on the table. She wiped her nose.
Without thinking, John gave the child a hug. She buried her wet face in his chest.
“I know just how you feel, Pr- Sweetheart. My wife left me and went to heaven too.” He felt a lump rise in his throat.
Taylor looked up, distracted from her mood by her interest in the adult’s story. “She did? Did she fly there? My daddy did. Do you think she knows my daddy?” The miniature Sophy was cross-examining him.
John rested his chin on his hand so he could approach Taylor’s eye level.
“Maybe she did fly there — she was in a plane and it crashed. I know she’s in heaven, so if your father is too, I bet they know each other.”
Michael tugged at his father’s arm.
“Dad. Dad! Could Taylor stay with us for Christmas? She doesn’t have a dad, but she has her mom. We don’t have a mom. Her mom could come over too.”
“And be like our mom?” Joey piped up. “Daddy, Daddy, please!” He bounced into his father’s lap and looked solemnly into John’s eyes. Being so very young, already Joey was starting to forget Donna. All he knew was that the other children in school had a mommy, and he didn’t.
Taylor picked up on the boys’ theme. “I could be your daughter for Christmas, and you could be my daddy. It would be good for Mommy too. Maybe she wouldn’t cry so much. And,-” Taylor added this last, conspiratorially, “you wanna know a secret? Mommy likes you and thinks you’re cute. I heard her telling Mrs. Joanna so. She thought I was asleep when she came upstairs to get me after the poker game, but I was just pretending.”
What luck — he had an ally on the inside. Maybe he could turn this into something more.
“Do you like to watch movies?” he asked the little girl.
The child nodded vigorously, her ponytail bouncing.
“I have a great Christmas movie at my house, about a little girl and her mommy. Remember it, Michael? Miracle on 34th Street.”
“Yeah, it’s a great movie!” the boy added enthusiastically.
“Yeah!” agreed Joey, anxious to copy his big brother in everything.
John continued. “The little girl in the movie wants something very special for Christmas. I’m sure Mrs. McCarthy will let you watch it. I’ll bring it over tomorrow afternoon. You can watch it after you finish your homework. Yes, boys, you can watch it again too.”
The nurse hung up the phone. “You should sleep now,” she ordered the patient. “Would you like some medicine to help with that?”
Forgetting that it hurt her chest when she raise her arm — how foolish, that was why the nurse had held the receiver for her- Sophy waved the nurse away. “No,” she grimaced. “I don’t need anything else for pain, either. I want to have a normal sleep. If you could pull the door closed, that would be great.” The nurse complied.
“Good night,” wished Sophy’s roommate on the other side of the curtain dividing the hospital room.
“Thanks,” Sophy replied. “Hope I didn’t keep you awake, talking to my daughter on the phone.”
“Not at all.” The other patient had taken a tumble in a dogsled race. She’d be discharged tomorrow. “It just reminded me of my daughter — she’s grown, now, with two girls. She lives in Skagway. They grow up so fast.”
The older woman changed topics. “You and your little girl are about to enjoy Alaska’s most beautiful season.”
Sophy raised her eyebrows. “Seeing as how I don’t ice skate, or ski, or snowboard, I’m not sure of that. Although your state is magnificent.” She hastened to add the latter, not wanting to insult her roommate. “And anyway, I’m not sure how much longer I’ll be here.”
“Why’s that?” Talking in the dark reminded the older woman of the chats with her schoolmates after the nuns called for curfew. The nuns didn’t like it. The nurses didn’t either — that made it so much fun.
“I wasn’t exactly thrilled when my company sent me here. And now,” she thought about Mystery’s long-haired sheriff for a moment, “another employee’s traveled here from Houston. He said he was sure I’d want to be replaced.”
“I heard that pause in your answer. Do you want to be replaced?”
Boy, thought Sophy, she is one sharp cookie.
“Sometimes you need to hear yourself think to figure out how you really feel about something,” the other patient urged. “But when you talk to yourself, you feel silly. At least, I do. And you can’t call your mother to ask for her advice, since you told me she died several years ago. So use me as your sounding board.”
Hesitantly, Sophy began. “There’s this man who lives up here. He’s everything Ray- my husband — my late husband — was. But he was married before too, and his wife died. He’s not interested in becoming involved with anyone else. And I think if he knew the truth about my family, I wouldn’t have a chance with him.”
“Ah,” answered the roommate. “Why do you think that? Did you ask him? Did he recently tell someone that’s how he feels?”
“Noooo,” Sophy confessed. “But I can’t just flat out ask him.”
“I’m surprised at you,” remarked her listener. “You’re an attorney. It’s part of your business to ask people questions, to encourage them to talk.”
“But those are clients,” Sophy protested. “Or customers, or vendors. Or other lawyers.”
“So what?” questioned the nurse, opening the door. “But you must agree with me- let me emphasize that ‘must’ — it’s time for you to sleep.”
John’s eyes popped open an hour before the alarm went off. It was Christmas Eve. He showered and dressed quickly, trepidation and hope mixing in him in equal measure. They had made a tentative start to friendship in the dark morning of the day her plane crashed. He hoped desperately it had ripened into more that night on the way to the hospital in Fairbanks. But what could he hope for during the few hours of midwinter daylight, when he’d be bringing her from Fairbanks back to Mystery?
Three and a half hours later, John pulled into the hospital parking lot feeling a little guilty. He’d been stopped by three state troopers on the way. He’d avoided three speeding tickets by showing them his policeman’s badge and saying he was headed to Fairbanks on official business.
He’d never lied like that before.
And he should have applied the cologne after he filled the Bronco’s gas tank. Tree had crawled out from under a brake job to chat and had inhaled a whiff of Obsession. Walter Burns brought his car over to have his headlights replaced just in time to see Tree sniffing the Sheriff’s armpits and howling with laughter.
Burns, maintaining amazing control over his emotions, simply hoped that Sophy wasn’t allergic to the cologne, like Joanna was. It was only when John looked in his rear view mirror as he drove away from the garage that he saw the Judge’s face twist into a grin.
In the bathroom of her hospital room, Sophy was attacking her scalp with the brush a kind nurse had bought her at a beauty supply house in Fairbanks. Of all the times to have a bad hair day! It was after 10 o’clock. John had said he’d pick her up at 11, and he looked like the prompt sort. As painful as it was to raise her arms to hold a hairdryer, there probably wasn’t time to wet her hair and start over. She just hoped that lock of hair at her nape, flipping up instead of down, didn’t look too goofy.
Sophy looked at herself in the mirror. The dark green wrap knit jumper and johnny collared wool sweater she’d purchased from her favorite mail order catalog had been bought with solely with comfort in mind. Was it too clingy? It would have to do. Her only other clothing was the suit she’d worn the day of the crash, and the jacket had been torn beyond repair.
Was John picking her up out of duty, or could she hope for something more? The sheriff’s friendliness the morning of the crash had surprised and pleased her. As a result, she’d been too busy daydreaming during her meeting in Fairbanks that day to pay attention to the agenda. Was it those daydreams she remembered during that crazy drive to the hospital, or had he really kissed her and held her? Or was it her body’s response to hypothermia and shock that made her imagine the same?
She heard the familiar rumble of his voice outside, in the hallway. A nurse had cornered him; she could tell by the treble counterpoint to his baritone. He was so early! Frantically she applied a bit of mascara and lipstick and tried to compose herself when she heard the knock at the door.
“Hi.” She smiled at him awkwardly. “Thanks for –”
“I’m sorry, I’m early. Traffic was lighter than I expected.” That wasn’t true. The truth was he couldn’t sleep. He wanted to see her, to be with her, as soon as possible. She was beautiful, even with that purple spot on her forehead and that brace on her neck.
“Oh, no, please, don’t apologize. I’m sure you’re very busy. I just need to throw my toiletries together and then we can go.” On her crutches, she hobbled back into the bathroom. Drat. The lipstick rolled onto the floor. Before she could figure out how she was going to bend down with two cracked ribs and whiplash to pick up the cosmetic, John had already done so.
“What else do you have for me to carry?” he asked, reasonably.
“Just my mascara, hairbrush, and skirt.” He placed the first two in the pocket of his black dress coat (oh, he looked so handsome in that, thought Sophy), and placed the third over his elbow, like a waiter carrying a napkin.
“Can you manage using your crutches down the hall, into the elevator and to the hospital doorway, or may I push you in a wheelchair?”
He sounds so practical, thought Sophy miserably. So business-like. I guess the love-dovey stuff was just my unconscious fantasies. At least the hostility is ended.
Sophy was relieved to see other passengers in the elevator. It meant she didn’t have to talk — at this point, she wasn’t sure what to say. There was something very important about her past that he needed to know, but she was terrified of his possible — no probable- response.
John had parked in front of the glass exit doors, under the building’s concrete and steel awning.
“I thought this was for emergency or official vehicle use only,” Sophy commented as she wondered how she was going to step up the several feet into the Bronco.
“This is a Mystery, Alaska official vehicle,” John reminded her. He crouched down and placed one hand on top of the other. “Step here, in my palms, with your uninjured foot, then swing your crutches up into the cab. I’ll be right behind you, so if you lose your balance, I can catch you.”
“You’ve given this some thought.” Sophy was touched by his thoughtfulness.
“I have. Figured your ribs still hurt, so picking you up wasn’t an option.”
It was too bad that neither the sheriff nor the lawyer knew what the other was thinking in response to John’s reply. Sophy would willingly have gritted her teeth to be in his arms, even for a moment. John would have loved to have held her body to his.
They left the city. John tried to distract himself by concentrating on making slow, smooth stops and starts at traffic signs so Sophy’s shoulder harness wouldn’t bite into her chest. Sophy watched the Alaskan landscape slowly replace the town’s architecture. It’s silly to think about, she instructed herself. He isn’t interested. But if he was, and he wanted me to stay, I would, long winter nights, mosquito-filled summers, and miles from everything but the Internet. She shivered with her wish.
“Cold?” The sheriff immediately raised the truck’s heater to maximum power, and pressed a button.
“That will warm up your seat. You may want to turn it off after awhile; it’s quite powerful. I’m sorry, I should’ve remembered; you’ll be cold sensitive ’till you’ve fully recovered.”
Oh, he sounded so damned official! Sophy retrieved her daydream of John wrapping her in his arms. She closed her eyes. Talk to me about Alaska, she told the sheriff silently. That makes my lovely daydream easier to remember.
“I’ll be quiet so you can sleep,” Biebe remarked, instead. Now the only sound was the road noise, and even that, thanks to the excellent insulation of the truck, was muted.
‘Ask him!’ the nurse’s and the other patient’s voices urged Sophy. Be quiet, she complained to the memory of their lecture. They would not stop until she fell asleep.
“Good nap?” asked John. From the corner of his eye, he could see Sophy rouse.
“Thank, yes. I haven’t been much of a traveling companion, I’m afraid. Didn’t sleep much last night. I hope I didn’t snore.”
“Like a foghorn,” he replied, deadpan. “No, not at all,” he hastily assured her, as she blanched. Why was it easier to tease than to tell her how he really felt?
‘Ask!” The voices in her head demanded again, now that she was wide awake.
“How about you? Do you snore?”
“Donna never told me that I did,” the sheriff replied.
“You still love her, don’t you?” whispered Sophy.
John was silent for a mile. Sophy was sure his pause wasn’t a good sign.
His voice was soft, but deliberate. “I do, though I accept now that she’s gone. She’d expect me to continue to live my life, and to find someone else to live it with. But I’ll never forgive the pilot who crashed the plane. Theo Something or other. He’s lucky he died, or I’d be after him.”
Sophy wasn’t sure if the blood was leaving her face or flooding into it. Her eyes felt hot, her mouth went dry, and her stomach twisted into a knot.
John’s attention was caught by Sophy’s sudden paleness. She looked ill. He slowed down and pulled the Bronco over to the shoulder.
“I’m all right,” she whispered, her eyes wet. “I’m sorry the plane crashed too.”
It was a muted Sophy who helped her daughter, Michael, Joey, and John decorate the Biebe tree. John noticed at once she only called him ‘Sheriff’ or ‘Officer.’ It was as if she’d forgotten his first name.
The myriad of tiny white lights John had strung along his roof line and around the spruce by his front door glowed in the Alaskan twilight. If Sophy had been in a better mood, she would have declared it charming. Similarly, she would have been impressed by the man’s effort at decorating his home’s interior. John had set a fragrant balsam wreath on the wall behind the sofa, and burgundy-colored candles in golden holders on the mantle. Under the mantle, he’d hung two large and one small stocking. He’d found a dark green runner in the box of Christmas ornaments, and set this on the table, under a cedar basket lined with greenery and topped off with burgundy and gold ornaments. On the stove, ready to be heated, he’d placed a pot containing the ingredients for wassail. A smaller pan held apple juice, orange slices, cinnamon sticks and cloves, to be heated into a drinks for Taylor and the boys.
Sophy hung the ornaments slowly, silently. She barely sipped at the wassail. Her mouth barely curved at the excited chatter of the youngsters. In fact, her longest speech was to comment about Michael’s black eye. The boy hadn’t told him who’d done it, observed John. Or whether he’d given one in return.
Recalling their conversation during the drive from Fairbanks, John thought he’d figured out what he’d said that had upset Sophy.
“I’m sorry,” he murmured, standing as closely behind her as he dared, ordering himself not to take her in his arms or kiss away her pain. “I shouldn’t have mentioned my wife. That made you think of your husband. Of course you miss him; it’s Christmas.”
Sophy nodded and smiled briefly. If you only knew, she thought.
“I think you have the kids under control,” she said quietly. “Would you mind terribly if I borrowed a bedroom and took a nap? Everything aches, and it’s a long time until midnight mass.”
“Not at all.” He followed her up the stairs, a safeguard in case her crutches slipped.
Sophy studied the well-swept floor, the neatly-made bed. The boys’ room was similarly orderly. This was not normal housekeeping for a single father with two active male children. She swallowed hard. It was so sweet — this was for her.
If only… but that was a silly wish. Things were the way they were. “Thank you so much,” she murmured, “for everything you’ve done.”
Then she gently closed the bedroom door.
The family room was a wreck. Scraps of paper and ribbon littered the floor, along with pancake crumbs and a small puddle of orange juice. John had let the boys eat breakfast while opening presents, and Joey had tipped over his cup. Thank goodness it wasn’t glass, they were all still in their pajamas and socks.
Michael was swinging his new hockey stick around the room, swatting anything that could roll, including his little brother’s Brio wooden trains, much to Joey’s displeasure.
John looked at the kitchen wall clock. Was 9am on Christmas morning too early to call Sophy?
The line was busy.
Sophy hit the ‘send’ button on her e-mail. There- her transfer request was on its way to the corporate office. She’d had a wonderful time at the Christmas Eve service, being so close to John. But her emotions were pulling her in opposite directions. Love for John. Loyalty to Ray. She and Taylor could take the next week to relax and pack. She decided to leave the house furnished for its next tenant. Even though the company would pay for shipping, it didn’t make sense. She sighed. Actually, her real reason was she didn’t want anything that would remind her of her time here. Best to leave Alaska in Alaska.
“Great game.” From Judge Burns, this was effusive praise. Sweaty and tired from his service as referee, John grunted his thanks and skated back into the rustic locker room. His right shoulder was hurting again.
Tinker saw Biebe’s expression and the gingerly way he removed his tunic. The snowball struck before the sheriff had the chance to duck. He roared and launched himself at the offender.
“Hey!” cried Connor, pinned against Biebe’s broad chest by his left arm. “I was just trying to help. Ice on an injury, y’know?”
John laughed. “It’s good for a swelled head too.” He began to drag the lithe player outside. Banks struggled, but the arm was a vise. For good measure, John crossed his other arm over the victim — it hurt like hell, but he wanted to be sure to toss Banks into the proper snowdrift.
“Go, go, go!” “Use your feet, Banks, to throw him off balance!” “Way to go!” “Watch out, Biebe!” “Wooohooo!” the Saturday team shouted and catcalled as the mock fighters lurched out of the building. Residents straggling away from the pond entered their cheers to the bonus entertainment.
“OoooooOOOFFF!” John pushed Mystery’s grocer into the pile of snow over by the bleachers. They both sunk into the cold mass.
“Oh, man,” giggled Banks. “Usually I don’t have a cold shower unless some girl turns me down. Biebe, sorry, but you’re not my type.” He said the last in a falsetto.
John whooped and tossed the hockey player back into the drift.
That was good. He felt better. The best he’d felt since a week ago, when Sophy boarded her flight for Juneau.
“‘Night, Daddy.” Michael shuffled into the den. John put down the pistol he was cleaning to give his eldest a hug. Joey had fallen asleep shortly after dinner; he’d carried the little guy up to bed. One night of not brushing teeth wouldn’t hurt, he hoped.
“What’s the matter?” The child was worried about something.
Michael’s face was a sleepy pout. “I dunno.”
Ah. So he was going to have to play Twenty Questions to lure the answer out.
Tomorrow was Monday, so John tried the most obvious reason first. “Everything ok at school?”
John saw the corners of Michael’s mouth droop with his answer. He rephrased the question. “Class ok?”
“How about after class — it’s not that kid who gave you the black eye, is it?”
Michael started to shake his head no, then stopped. He wiped his face with his pajama sleeve. He said something unintelligible. The sheriff assumed he’d heard a ‘yes,’ and continued the gentle interrogation.
“Why don’t you tell me about what’s happening.”
The boy sniffed loudly, then looked up. “Nothing! That’s just it. She’s gone.”
John turned down the volume of the game on ESPN. “She’s gone?’
“Yeah. Taylor. She hit me because I said girls couldn’t be in the Saturday game.”
John cupped his mouth in his hand to hide his smile. Miss Lewis was as tough a cookie as her mother.
“So I thought I’d get back at her,” mumbled Michael. “I stole Bert.”
“What? Who?” John was puzzled. His son took his hand. Silently the boy led the father upstairs to his room. Michael reached under the bed — I suppose we need to clean under there too, mused John — and withdrew a fuzzy, worn teddy bear. Its glass eyes were scratched to opaqueness. This was clearly a much-loved toy.
The robbery suspect looked really miserable.
‘This is Bert?” asked his father. “He’s Taylor’s bear?” Nods to both.
“We need to send him to her. I suppose you know where the payment to ship him will come from?”
“Yes, Daddy. My allowance.”
John nodded. It will probably cost more than the few dollars Michael had left after buying whatever trading cards and candy he did during the Christmas holiday, but taking that will teach him a lesson, he reasoned.
“Good boy. Thank you for telling me the truth. That’s a tough thing to do.” He gave Michael a kiss on the forehead and another hug.
“Can we e-mail her tonight, Daddy? To let her know? I mean, Taylor really loves Bert. She’s probably really sad ’cause she can’t find him.”
“Sure, and we’ll find a box for Bert and wrap him up too.”
Bert was now hibernating in a small cardboard box. John picked up a black felt-tip pen and started to write out the address:
Miss Taylor Lewis
“Daddy, stop, that’s wrong!” cried Michael. “Taylor’s last name is Theodoros. I don’t know how it’s spelled.”
“How can that be?” John asked, confused. “Her mother’s name-”
“Her daddy’s name was Ray Theodoros.”
Theodoros. Theo. John’s stomach lurched. Sophy told me her husband was a pilot. She even mentioned — now I remember — he’d been working for StarOil for years. The photo, on her entertainment center — that’s why the man in it looked so familiar. I saw that face at the memorial service the oil company held in Anchorage. All this time, I’ve been trashing her late husband, blaming him for the accident. No wonder she left.
“I’m an idiot,” he said out loud. “A fucking idiot.” He sat down heavily on the floor, his head in his hands.
“That’s not true, Daddy,” responded the little boy. “I can’t spell Taylor’s name either. Maybe Mrs. McCarthy can, or Skank; Taylor was in his class like me.”
The first e-mail was waiting for Sophy when she returned to the office after the Monday morning staff meeting. It was from Sheriff Biebe. Michael had confessed to robbery; his sentence was to pay a fine — the Federal Express charges for one well-loved and much-missed toy bear to travel to Fairfax, Virginia.
Oh excellent, rejoiced Sophy. There had been a lot of tears about poor old Bert’s absence.
The e-mail also teasingly charged Miss T. Theodoros with giving Master M. Biebe a shiner; however, since an initial investigation revealed the victim had made deprecatory remarks against women (inability to participate in the Saturday game,) Miss Theodoros was remanded to the custody of her mommy for trial, judgment, and sentencing.
Sophy raised her eyebrows. No wonder Taylor was desperate to take ice skating lessons. She was obviously planning to return to Mystery in eight or nine years and win a place on the team. But first she needs to learn a lesson in manners.
The e-mail continued with the hope that Sophy and her daughter would visit Mystery this summer. Sophy smiled at this. Perhaps. She’d become good friends with Joanna and Mary Jane, and was tempted by the thought of a day with 20 hours of light. And as for the sheriff…
He’d written at the end of the e-mail:
Sophy left the letter open while she wrote a memo. She returned to it again after lunch.
She caught herself analyzing the e-mail like a legal document- his mention of ‘Theodoros’ and ‘love’ in the same e-mail meant he’d forgiven Ray and loved her, right? This was crazy. It wasn’t a legal document; John himself had said he wasn’t good with words. But still…
The second e-mail arrived just as she poised a finger over the keyboard to shut down her system and go home. The sender was firstname.lastname@example.org.
“Smarden” — Skank? It was the Mystery school e-mail address. Well, this was unexpected. She took off her coat and sat on the edge of her chair to read it.
Deer Ms Lewus,
Hi Im Michael how are you. Dad said he was a fuking idiot last nite for being so mean about Taylers dad. He didnt no Taylers dad floo the plane Mom was in. Hes very sorry and nos its the weather that cossed the acsident. He loves you alot.
Please come back and be my Mom. And Joeys.
There were two more sentences at the end, obviously written by an adult:
Michael asked to use my e-mail account at school so he could send this without his father’s knowledge. I’ve left his spelling. Because Taylor’s is equally rotten, I know you can figure it all out; but ‘cossed’ means ’caused’ in case you can’t tell.
Please come back, John’s been a real bear,
Sophy jotted a quick e-mail to Skank, assuring him she’d never let the sheriff in on the secret. Then she sent one more note.
A Tennessee roughneck from the Smoky Mountains was finding out Alaska was much less forgiving than his hometown hills. Fortunately, he kept his cell phone charged and Star had built a microwave tower. John had spent the last two and a half hours waiting for the brown bear to leave so Tree could replace the flat on the pickup truck with a real tire, not one of those tiny spares people kept in their cars Outside.
“I’m a baby-sitting service for these southerners,” John complained, irritable and chilled as he returned to the station. He suspected the roughneck was out hunting — as everything was out of season, that’d be worth a stiff fine if it could be proven.
I’ll send an e-mail to Jefferson. Let him check it out.
The ringing tone from his computer told him he had mail. Slew.email@example.com — Sophy! He opened the message.
It said everything he needed to know. He touched the screen tenderly, as if it were her cheek.
He had some hunting of his own to do.
The day had dragged; the contract Sophy was reviewing had sprouted another schedule, the associate attorney assigned to her was just learning the difference between the lofty ideals of law school law and the meatball surgery of real life practice, and she’d only just finished the briefing paper for the General Counsel to take to the congressional hearing tomorrow.
Worse, she hadn’t heard back from John. She’d tried to call him yesterday. He left the station early on a personal errand, Betty told her. There was no answer at his house. As a last resort, Sophy called Genevieve McCarthy, figuring if John had left Mystery for the evening, he’d have asked Gen to take the kids. All Sophy reached was a busy signal. Genevieve must be on-line with her chat group again. Gen had shown her some of the fiction the group sent back and forth. Sophy had been impressed. Who knew the plain-featured principal of the Mystery school could write such great smut?
Great smut — that made her start thinking about John again, and the little she remembered about the night in the sleeping bag. Hell, this wasn’t getting the equipment lease schedule reviewed. Banishing the fun thoughts from her mind, she started to pore over the annual price adjustment calculations.
Sophy was so lost in the lease to purchase option she didn’t hear the door open. It was only when a shadow fell across her desk that she looked up.
It was thirty degrees outside, but John was in a T-shirt and an unbuttoned long-sleeved plaid flannel shirt and a light jacket. It was his expression, though, that held her attention. His eyes were holding her, caressing her.
Not taking her eyes off the man, Sophy dialed her admin assistant.
“Adrian? I’m busy the rest of the afternoon. Hold my calls, and tell Matt I want him to attend the four o’clock meeting with the geologists.”
John locked her office door, then walked behind the desk where Sophy sat in an enormous leather chair clearly ordered for someone twice her size.
“I’m so glad you’re here,” she began, until he hushed her by placing a finger on her lips before replacing it with his mouth. He kissed her softly, stopping every few seconds to look at her, until she sought his lips’ attention again. Rolling the chair in front of himself, John then walked Sophy around to the front of her desk, his kisses growing harder and more lingering as he formed his plan.
His prey was taken by surprise as he reached behind her to undo the zipper on her sheath. The dress fell to the floor, revealing his favorite bra and a bright red satin thong.
Sophy placed his hand on the lace. “When I wear this, it reminds me of you,” she breathed. John hesitated in his embrace just long enough to sweep his eyes over the sight. Then he wrapped her in his arms and placed her on the desk, all the while greedily exploring her mouth with his own, and reveling in the eagerness of her response.
Bending his head down to kiss Sophy’s neck, John placed his body between her legs, then pushed her back onto the desk, taking both of her wrists in one hand. He reached back into a jacket pocket with the other. Sophy gasped as the handcuffs were expertly slapped upon her. He clipped them to her desk drawer.
“I’m charging you with theft of my heart.” John shrugged off his jacket and flannel shirt while cupping her butt with one hand and using the other to play with a breast. He’d wanted to suck on those nipples that night in the back of the truck, now he was going to do it. His first touch was a delicate flicking of his tongue over her, enjoying the hardness of the rosy buds and the large, raised aureole in his mouth. Next he took as much of her into his mouth as he could, as she whimpered ecstatically.
“You have the right to remain silent only until I make you scream.” Sitting down in the chair, Biebe started to lick his way down her body, tonguing the undersides of her breasts, circling her navel.
“You don’t need a lawyer; I do — you.” John pressed Sophy’s legs further apart to nuzzle the inside of her thighs, first one, then the other, slowly, from behind her knee up to the point where her legs joined her body.
Taking the thong in his teeth, the sheriff began to play with it, licking just under the fabric. Sophy watched his teasing, entranced. She’d thought that under his placid exterior John had hidden fires, but he was revealing a side hot enough to melt a glacier. She was as wet as one — his hand had reached under the thong. Still kissing just beyond the boundary of the brown curls under the tiny covering, his fingers began to explore her sex. Her soft folds parted and trembled under his ministrations as he took her clitoris between his thumb and forefinger.
“Please,” Sophy panted, feeling herself tighten and throb, “let me go so I can hold you.”
John shook his head. He’d meant to remove the cuffs by now, but she’d as much as admitted she wanted him by wearing his favorite lingerie. He didn’t know exactly what he’d do next, but he knew he didn’t want to stop.
“I’m seeking the maximum sentence — life, with me.” Biebe pulled off his T-shirt. Sophy’d teased his bare chest with her eyes at the doctor’s office; he knew she was enjoying the view now.
Next he leaned over her, a mock serious expression on his face, his mouth just out of reach of hers. “Do you know what we do to robbery suspects? We make them come with us. First here, then back in Alaska.” He pulled her off her thong. “Evidence,” he smiled, tossing it onto the desk.
As slowly as he could bear, John drew his mouth back down her body, savoring the sight and feel of her soft flesh. He yielded to temptation and undid the belt and zipper of his jeans. His erection, still covered by his boxer shorts made a tent pole stretching towards her damp triangle. That was his next venue – he’d been wanting to taste her since Skank’s description of her at the hot springs.
Sophy felt her attention narrowing to the point where John’s tongue swirled around and within her. She arched her back as John wrapped his arms around her legs to prevent her from avoiding the delicious assault. Her ache returned, hotter and tighter than before, the pressure more insistent, the sensation heightened by the feathery touch of his whiskers on her thighs.
“Sweetheart, say you’ll come with me,” he urged her between his tongue’s caresses. Her bud began to pulse, the force of it making the rest of her shiver in rhythm.
“Oh, John, of course I’ll come with you,” she gasped. “I’m coming right now.”
Substituting his hand for his tongue, John stretched out beside Sophy on the desk so he could watch her response. She was flushed, her mouth parted. With an effort she forced her eyes to open and look into his.
John kissed Sophy hard as the scream welled up in her throat, removing his hand from her wetness to slide it along the length of her torso. Sophy’s tongue dove and re-dove into his mouth, urgently demonstrating what she wanted next from him.
He wanted it too. Using his last bit of self –control, Biebe reached for the handcuff keys at the edge of the desk and separated his body from its supine position against Sophy’s to unlock the cuffs from the desk.
Sophy sat up, panting. Placing her still-tethered arms around his neck, she levered herself over onto his lap and began to gyrate against his boxers-covered erection, eyes closed as she enjoyed the contrast of his hard shaft against her softness.
Cradling her ass in his hands, John stood up. Sophy locked her legs about his waist, still pressing against him.
“My love,” he whispered, over and over, gazing hungrily in her eyes as he carried her over to the leather chair. Once there, he pushed her thighs away just enough so he could pull off his shorts. Sitting down in the chair, he unhooked her bra.
“Oh, dear John,” Sophy replied, her eyes shining with tenderness and desire. “I love you too.”
Now totally skin to skin, each sought to meld into the other. Sophy, her legs locked about John’s waist, raised up only to come down again and again on his distended member. John lifted her only to drop her hard upon himself. Her wetness encased him, a luscious, tight channel. He groaned as his need for release surged through him. Unable to delay any longer, he held her down so she could feel the ripple of his climax begin, swell, and crest into her, setting off her mutual response.
His passion satiated, John covered Sophy’s face in whisper-soft kisses. Her mouth nuzzled the furry skin of his cheeks.
“Don’t ever leave me.” Each laughed — they’d spoken together.
“I can’t,” Sophy murmured, smiling and ruffling John’s hair with her hands. He felt the handcuffs press against his head.
“I got carried away,” he replied, sheepishly. “I’ll remove them.”
Sophy kissed her lover where his forehead wrinkled in embarrassment. “Oh, Sugar Pie,” she smiled. “I’m handcuffed to your heart. There’s no key for that lock. But next time-” she looked up at her wrists, winking, “I’m cuffing you.”
John kissed her back. “Let’s go home.”