Clinton Varne, ex-cop, meets a man he locked up years ago, and gets dragged into investigating more than few murders.
This is part one of an ongoing serialized novel. You can learn about the book and find links to all published parts by visiting Mr. V’s main page.
I’m in my living room and Deputy Neblett tells me I should get away for a while. After what happened with old lady Prideaux, he has a point.
He says, “There’s this exhibit, Clint. In the city, at the big museum they got there. Artifacts.” He looks around my living room. “The kind of stuff you like, right?”
I nod. Neblett had come over to give me a check from the county, payment for “consulting services” they called it. He could’ve mailed it, but that’s not Deputy Neblett’s style. He’s the hand-deliver sort. Likes to be old-fashioned.
Neblett continues, “I saw the flier, up at the post office, Clint. Real pretty flier. Full color, even. With pictures of spears and masks, all that.”
“Yeah?” I say. He hasn’t actually given me the check. Still has it and he’s gesturing with it. “Spears?”
“They got an admission fee?”
“Think so. You can pay it out of this,” he says, finally handing me the envelope.
I take it but don’t bother opening it, knowing it’ll be less than I’d like but as much as they can afford. “I just might,” I say.
“Bet you’re gonna love it, Clint. Masks and spears and artifacts. Bet you’re gonna split.
So that’s how I ended up driving three hours, stop to eat at a shitty diner growing out the side of a gas station, and then another two hours. Getting a hotel, because there’s no way I’m driving back, on those roads, at night.
And now I’m standing in front of the museum, the building looming, bricks covered in old soot stains from when the city burned a hundred years back, and I think maybe the dark stain there on the steps is blood.
A kid cracked his head skateboarding’s what it is. I don’t bother giving it another glance as I walk past. Up the stairs and through the front doors, propped open with a concrete planter full of half-dead geraniums, there’s a cramped foyer. A desk sports a bored security guard and a narrow hallway forces visitors single file if they want into the museum proper. I queue up, pull out my wallet, and pay fifteen bucks when I get to the front of the line. Which, Jesus, they expect kids to get an education in the ways of the past if it costs sixty bucks for a family of four?
Then I’m through and Neblet’s right. They’ve got spears and masks and all sorts of things, and I have to admit it was a good idea coming here. I think maybe I’ll tell Neblet when I get back, seeing how much he’s always after my approval. Kid never served under me — I retired from chief a couple of years before he showed up — but he’s trying to live up to my example is what he told me once. “You’re a legend, Clint. The best there was.” Which is another thing Neblet’s right about, mostly. I’m by no means a legend, but I probably am the best chief the little department ever had.
I wander. You always get the sense in places like this that the past knew something we don’t. That they cared about better things. More fitting things. Love and soil and hunting and gods. Simplicity and focus. I know I’m the one being too simple when I think that way. That I’m the one focusing on the stuff that’s survived, on the artifacts worth keeping and displaying. That most of the past was as much crap as most of the present. But still. One can dream.
I finish in the special exhibition and still have an hour or two before I’m going to feel like lunch. So I wander to the museum’s permanent collection and end up looking at the bones of the earth’s last rulers. I’m standing there, staring up at a skull the size of my bathroom, when I see him. Ricky Hepburn. I remember because that last name, who could forget? Kid used to live in my town, back when I was still a cop. Homeless most of the time, and rumor said he cooked meth up in the hills. Nobody knew for certain, and Ricky never went around saying it’s what he did out there, but it got to be an urban legend, and then assumed truth. Except you couldn’t find the place and Ricky never got caught selling.
But I found him eventually, found his little shack and his equipment and his drugs, and sent him away. For just three years on account of how young he was and how the judge had a son about the same age.
You want to think, when they’re as young and strung out as Ricky, that they’ll thank you for busting them. Like maybe it’s a state-funded intervention. Rehab. But it’s never like that.
Which is why when I see him standing close to the rope barrier, craning to look up the neck of the museum’s big tyrannosaurus rex, I don’t for a minute consider saying hi. Who wants to cause a scene? I’m on vacation.
But then Ricky, he’s still looking up, but he pivots, like he’s trying to make himself dizzy, and he’s staring right at me. Over the heads of a pack of school kids, I give him a tough nod and stroll in the direction of the pre-historic sea life.
Ricky shouts, “Hey, Mr. Varne! That you?” And I smell him behind me, knowing by that smell the kid’s still hooked on crank.
I turn. He’s got scars on his face and he’s skinny like a dead fashion model. He says, “Jesus, finding you here, what’re the odds?”
I say, “Ricky.”
He’s not smiling. Ricky always smiled. He says, “It’s fucking fate, Mr. Varne. Gotta be. Because I really need your help.”
“When’d you get out?” I’d put him away for longer than this. Even if he’s the good behavior type.
Ricky shakes his head. Dismisses my question. “Little ways back.” Then he’s glancing around, making sure nobody’s in ear shot even though of course there are, how crowded it is. Not going to stop Ricky, though. “Listen Mr. Varne,” he says. “We gotta talk. I’m serious.” He whispers, “It’s about murder.”
I think, Shit. I say, “You kill someone Ricky?”
A scrawny mom walking by with her fat kid goes wide eyed at me at me. Flashes irritatation. Ricky says, “Oh, Jesus, no. Not me. There’s been a murder. Murders, actually.”
“Who?” I ask. The scrawny mom pulls her kid close and shuffles him away.
“Dude I know, most recently. Some other people I know, too.”
He’s fucking with me. I don’t want anything to do with it, real or not. I say, “You should tell the police, Ricky. I’m retired. This isn’t even my town anyway.”
Ricky grabs my hand, starts pulling me. His grip’s cold. “Not here,” he says. “We gotta talk and it’s gotta be somewhere else. Here isn’t safe.”
That tug, the look on his face when he does it. His eyes. You’re a cop, you get a kind of sense about these things. You know when someone’s bullshitting you. Ricky’s not. He’s legit. Which means I can’t ignore him, even if It’s not my job anymore. People getting killed, the police here need to know. If Ricky’s not going to tell them, I need to know enough to do it myself. I’m stuck. Ricky’s dragged me in.
So I let him lead me to the front of the museum and then outside, telling myself the exhibits weren’t that good anyway. Saying again and again this is the right thing to do. Even if it’s Ricky. It’s the right goddamn thing to do.
Ricky says, “Place is just up the block.”