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A Bag of Rocks

“Jesus Christ, now what?” Terry Gray said to nobody, as the police cruiser crested the hill and nearly ran into an old man standing on the right tire track. Gray slammed on the brakes and put the car in park. Not like the old guy couldn’t have heard him, the damn ball joints had rattled their entire way up the dirt road.

The old man just stood there, staring at Gray and the cruiser like it was a three-legged bear. Gray automatically reached for the radio mic, then dropped his hand when he remembered he was still in the dead zone, out of reach of any of the state police repeaters. This raggedy corner was not the first in line to get gear, thus the cruiser with bum steering, and no radio coverage for a big patch. Granted, that patch was mostly lumber company land and mountains, but still. Be nice to hear Nora’s voice asking him when he would be coming back in for coffee.

The fresh air hit him as he opened the door and stood up. Early morning, the sun just rising, he could see the glint of snow on the north side of Mt, Menotaumee, the side that was all rock slab. He looked at the old guy. The old guy stared back with that confused look of a nursing home patient that’s wandered off the grounds. There was a canvas and leather rucksack at his feet, and he was leaning on a long stick.

Jesus, Gray thought. Helluva last shift.

He’d gotten the call around midnight, dispatch sending him out to Jake Oullette’s place. Again. But it sounded worse this time. Jake was a domestic abuser, and more than once, Gray had driven his tired ass up this dirt road right to the end, only to find a wife with fresh bruises denying anything had happened and holding onto her man like he was all that and a bowl of chips, too.

Things had been escalating though, and last time he’d been out, he’d decided to have a short chat with Jake, just man-to-man. It went about as expected, Jake leaving with a bloody nose and a broken finger, swearing that he was gonna sue Gray, the state, the governor, and everyone else. Gray knew he wouldn’t, though. That wasn’t how men like Oullette worked.

Hadn’t done any good. Dispatch had heard the shots fired, the phone dropped, then hung up. Nobody answered the callback.

Gray got there to find Oullette’s wife – Elizabeth had been her name – face down in a pool of drying blood, and Jake himself was nowhere to be found. There was a day that scene would have bothered him, but that was 20 years ago when he still gave a damn. Sure as hell not on the last shift before retirement. Nobody deserved to die like Elizabeth had, but she’d made her bed and slept in it. He’d done his best.

Gray used the house phone to call forensics, then spent the next couple of hours trying to scout out which direction Jake had scuttled off to. When the lab coats arrived, just before sunrise, Gray signed off on the scene and headed back to town. He’d kept an eye out for Jake, just in case, but that asshole wasn’t really his problem anymore. Gray would be heading off to the river for some fishing by this time tomorrow.

Now this guy. Gray got out of the cruiser, unsnapping his holster as he did so. He was alone, out of touch, and knew at least one loonytoon was wandering around loose with guns. He didn’t relish an ambush before breakfast.

“Hey, Sarge, thanks for stopping,” the old man said. “Guess you’re my ride. Been expecting one.”

He recognized the chevrons, Gray thought.

“Might be your ride, might not be,” Gray said, leaning on the door. He kept it in between himself and the old man while he sized things up. “Where you going?”

The old man’s eyes flicked to the side. He waved his hand. “Aww, just down the road a bit, need to get to town, get a bite to eat.”

Dementia, Gray thought. Remembered things like uniform insignia from his military days, but probably couldn’t tell me where he was yesterday. “So where are you coming from, anyway?” Gray asked.

The man’s head turned, slowly, like he was looking for an answer. He pointed to Menotaumee. “That up there,” he said. Then, more confidently, “Spent the night there. Pretty damn cold.”

“How’d you come down?” Gray asked. This would be the tell. There’s only one way off of Menotaumee, and it was pretty memorable.

The old man looked back at Gray, eyes narrowed.

“Knife edge ridge,” he said. “Glad there wasn’t any wind, I woulda gone off the bare side. From there, I dropped down below treeline. Six switchbacks later, I dropped off the trail, came straight down to the pond you just passed. Circled it, came here, waited for slowpoke you to show up.

“There’s some nice fish in that pond, by the way. You ever fish there, Sarge?”

Gray took his time in answering. The old man had given the exact same answer he would have. And yeah, he’d been fishing there, plenty of times.

“Yup,” Gray said. “Some nice pike.”

“Bullshit, pike,” the man said. “Trout and you know it. I also know what you’re doing, so cut the crap.”

Gray just smiled. Genuine, for once. “Maybe I should introduce myself, then,” he said. “Sgt. Terry Gray.” He stepped from behind the door, and reached out with his hand.

The old man took it, a stronger grip than Gray was expecting. Closer up, the man didn’t look like a nursing home refugee. He stood up straight, not crumpled like a man who spent time holding onto wall railings, and Gray could feel the strength of his muscles under the flannel shirt.

“Nice to meet you,” the man said.

“And you would be…?”

The man looked away. “Eh, names are bullshit. Call me whatever you want.”

“Mind if I look through your pack?”

“Go right ahead. Nothin’ but rocks.”

Keeping one eye on the old man, Gray knelt down and flipped the top off the rucksack. He peered inside. The old man leaned over from the other side, as if he, too, were interested.

Gray reached in, pulled out a small leather wallet, and flipped it open. Four 50s, a 20 and two 10s. In the credit card slots were a scrap of paper with a bunch of numbers on it and a social security card. The name on it said Asa Cire.

Gray flipped the card over, looked at the back. Looked real enough. “You Asa?”

“Wondered when you were gonna catch on,” the old man said.

“No driver’s license?”

“Nope. Had a car that woulda lasted forever, but I sold it to go traveling. Been all over.”

Gray reached back in, pulled out some rocks.

“See, I told you,” the old man said. “Rocks. Not too many, not too few. Just enough.”

Gray had seen – and heard – enough. The rocks were in the guy’s head. He dumped everything back in and flipped the top down. He’d take the old man into town, turn him over to Social Services, let them figure out the rest. Then he’d clock out and be done with this part of his life.

“Tell you what, Asa,” Gray said. “Hop in the car. I’ll give you a ride into town.”

“Took you long enough to ask,” he said. “And I’m not getting in the back seat.” More nimbly than Gray expected, the man picked up his pack, pulled the passenger door open, and threw it on the floor as he fitted himself and then his stick in the front seat. The stick was straight, not a knot to be seen, and smooth as a pool cue.

Gray got in and turned the key. “Gonna take a while,” he said. “Road’s bad and the ball joints are about to fall off this thing. Gotta go slow.”

The old man peered down the road, looking for the next bend. “K,” he said. “Not in a rush.” he leaned forward in his seat.

Gray thought. It would be about 10 miles until he got radio service again, and then two more until they hit the highway to town. Another hour to go.

The two men were silent for a bit, as they slowly bounced their way down the dirt road, the steering bitching about it the whole way.

“Grow up here?” the old man asked, bracing against the door for another jolt.

“Naw,” Gray said. “Grew up in a town about 70 miles downstate. Beautiful little town. See this creek right here?” he gestured at the stream running parallel to the road. “That water started on the mountain you just climbed off of, and just gets bigger and bigger, and by the time it hits my hometown Nemaseck, it’s a big ole’ river, barreling along.”

He didn’t like thinking about Nemaseck. He was already dreading the old man’s next question, and was about to ask his own, but was beat to the punch.

“Nemaseck. Now that’s a name. So beautiful, why’d you leave?”

Gray blew a breath out through pursed lips. He debated what to say. Hell, it didn’t matter. Never see this guy again. “My wife,” he said.

“Divorce?”

“Naw. Jenny died. We’d only been married a couple of years, I still loved her more than breathing. But she was driving on a winding road, late at night, went over the high side. Flipped the car and died.

“Girl who found her called me. She’d been with her when Jenny died. Said Jenny told her to tell me she loved me. With her dying breath.”

“Just about killed me too,” Gray said, and swerved to the right to dodge the worst of a pothole. “I couldn’t stay, it hurt too much. So I went to police academy, and then jumped at the first posting I could get in a different county. Haven’t been back in the 20 years since.”

“Harder to find a girl up here, I’d figure,” the old man said.

“Never did. And, honestly, I’m ok with that. Seen too many marriages go bad, in a big way. Coulda happened to us, you never know. And after Jenny…nobody could compare, you know? People talk about the love of their life, she was mine,” Gray said. He paused. “Guy like you, you know what I mean. Probably had one of your own.” Gray looked at the old man for his reaction.

The old man shifted uncomfortably in his seat. “Not really,” he said. “Known a few. Well, known a lot. But never met that one, no. You were a lucky man, even for just those couple years. If you asked me, I’d say you deserved longer, but – ” he paused, looking out the window – “the Universe has its own way about things.”

The road curved here, bending southeast and rising over a crest. Gray eased his way up, and when they got to the top, the sun momentarily blinded him.

That’s when the bullet hit the windshield. Without thinking, Gray threw the car in reverse and slammed the accelerator. As he turned to look behind, he saw the passenger door swing open and the old man tumble out. Halfway down the rise, Gray slewed the car to the left, planning to reverse direction and high-tail it back toward the Oullette place. Forensics ought to be heading this way by now. The old man would have to fend for himself. Gray had the sense that he could.

Half-way through the slide, the cruiser’s left front wheel hit a pothole, the car jerking to a stop broadside across the road as the ball joint broke and the wheel turned on its side.

“Shit! Damn!” Gray said, as he threw his door open and rolled out. At least he had the car in between himself and the shooter. He looked to both sides of him. No sign of the shooter or the old man.

No time for thought. Gray scrambled to the left, keeping low as he passed the car, and then crawled into the scrub on the side of the road. On all fours, he moved away until he put just enough space between himself and the crippled cruiser. Then he set himself up, comfortable, to wait.

And to think.

No sign of the shooter, but it wasn’t hard to guess who he was. No sign of the old man, either. Gray wondered briefly if the two were working together. The old man to soften him up, get him off his guard, make him an easy target. Then he dismissed the idea. Jake’s murder attempt wasn’t closely planned, and he wouldn’t work with a partner anyway. And the old man, he didn’t have enough mind left to do something complex like that. Hell, he’d forget what he was doing before he had finished doing it.

Gray sat still and waited. Oullette was anything but patient.

It wasn’t the wife-killer who showed up first, though, it was the old guy. He climbed up from the ditch on the other side of the road, then sauntered over to the cruiser like he had all the time in the world. The old man opened the door, pulled out his pack and walking stick, and let it slam shut. He unzipped the top pocket of the rucksack – Gray had forgotten to check that – and pulled out a scarred, bent-stem pipe and a pouch of tobacco. Working slowly enough to make even Gray anxious, he packed the pipe, tamped it down, and lit it with a lighter pulled from his jeans pocket.

It was another five minutes before Oullette came into view, holding a Smith & Wesson Police Special in his outstretched hand. Gray was close enough to hear their conversation.

“Who the fuck are you?” Oullette asked roughly.

The old man took a leisurely draw on his pipe, let the smoke curl out of his mouth, and put the pipe down on the hood of the car.

“Everybody asking me that today,” he said. “Does it really matter to you that much?” He leaned forward on his walking stick, bringing his back away from the car.

“You’re with that fucker Gray, aren’t you?” Oullette said.

“You mean Sarge? Yeah, he’s giving me a ride into town. Looking for a stack of pancakes and some coffee.”

“Hate to tell you old man, but this is as far as your getting.”

The old man laughed. “Hate to tell you, son, I’ve heard that line before, and you need some practice. Say it again, with conviction.”

“You’re dead, motherfucker,” Oullette said, and raised the gun toward the old man’s chest.

Before Gray could react, the old man flipped up his walking stick, knocking Oullette’s hand. The shot went wild, the man dropped his stick and moved to the outside. Oullette was bringing the gun back to bear on him when the old man grabbed Oullette’s wrist and stepped behind him, bringing the hand with him. Oullette pivoted to face him, and the old man slapped his other hand on Oullette’s gun, pivoting and twisting Oullette’s wrist back into him.

Gray was momentarily paralyzed by the old man’s speed, then stood up to run toward the uneven fight. “HEY!” he yelled.

Startled, both men looked at Gray. Oullette took advantage of the surprise to twist his hand away, and for a split second, Gray and the old man’s eyes locked. Gray gasped, as he was pulled forward into the man’s deep black pupils, speckled with stars.

It was the last thing Gray ever saw. Oullette, his hand half-twisted in the old man’s grip, pulled the trigger again, sending a bullet directly into Gray’s chest, in a shot too lucky to be believed.

“NO! NO!” the old man shouted. He pivoted with his hips, twisting Oullette’s hand again until the gun was facing Oullette. He pushed a little harder, Jake’s hand spasmed, and the gun went off again, this time directly into his own face. Dropping the lifeless hand to the ground, the old man sprinted to where Gray had fallen, but it didn’t take more than a glance to see that he was dead. The old man looked for a minute, then knelt beside the corpse. He reached forward, and gently closed the dead man’s eyes.

He began crying. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” he repeated, rocking back and forth on his heels. “God, I had no idea it would end this way, I’m so sorry, I should have walked. I should have walked.” His eyes filled with tears that trickled down the creased lines of his face. “I’m so sorry. I should have known. It always happens like this.”

Then he looked up and cocked his head, as if hearing something. The old man stood and looked around him, his face a grimace of fear. “No,” he whispered. “No.”

He felt, rather than saw, a great wind sweeping through the trees, blowing the the limbs about, and within seconds, even the trunks were rippling, as if he were looking at them through water. Then the ground beneath him began moving. The old man stumbled, and grabbed for a tree that suddenly wasn’t there, and the entire world began moving about him at dizzying, nauseating speed. He dropped to the ground, burying his hands in the dirt as if to hold himself in place, but even the earth beneath him turned into phantasm. He drew in a great breath, as if to scream, but before the scream reached his throat, the movement stopped. Everything was the same now, but different.

He blew out his breath, and blinked. And blinked again. Jesus, Asa, you’re in a mess this time, no doubt about it, he thought. He looked at the dead policeman, not crying this time, but a gentle smile on his face.

I’ll remember you, Terry Gray, he thought. Not for your bravery, not for dying trying to save me while I tried to save you, but for the love you lived for, and you never forgot. I’ll keep remembering that for you.

Asa didn’t know about the murder the night before, or the forensics vehicles on the road behind them, but he sensed that he didn’t have much time.

“I’d better get out of here,” he muttered under his breath. He looked around at the two dead men, the broken vehicle, the gun lying in Oullette’s hand, and back to Gray. It wouldn’t totally make sense, but if he didn’t move a thing, someone would be able to come up with a plausible explanation, especially if they were looking for one. He ran back to the car and picked up his rucksack and walking stick. The rocks were still in it, rocks sharpened and scarred by the work of a prehistoric Native American toolmaker. He’d found them next to him under the granite overhang where he’d waken up in the night, and brought them down the mountain without quite knowing why. He was pretty sure now that he could find a buyer for them.

Asa stood for a minute, wondering what to do. Then he knew. He’d get in the stream, and run a mile or so in its water, come out, and then make a track off to the southeast until he hit the highway. By the time he reached town, his boots would be dry and he’d be covered with road dust, like any other bushwacker that had gotten a little off course.

He threw the pack on his back, and headed off the road toward the little stream that was to become a big river. I wonder when the bus for Nemaseck leaves, he thought. And how much it will cost. Then he stepped into the water and began heading downstream.

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