Gray felt his phone vibrating against his chest inside his shirt, and he reached to draw it out while hitting the command to print out a report he'd just finished after a longer-than-usual shift at the department. He connected the call, saying automatically, "Sheriff Mecham."
He recognized John Kotter's voice instantly. Tired as he was, he grinned and asked, "Esme in labor?" John's wife was getting close to delivering their first child and stir-crazy with waiting.
"No. Not for another couple days."
Gray frowned, recognizing that John's tone wasn't filled with the underlying happiness, nor friendliness, it usually was. Any number of reasons he might call filled his head, but Gray didn't have the energy to shuffle through them tonight. "What's up, John?"
Gray went utterly still, his entire body seeming to solidify into solid stone at words he'd spent almost ten years longing to hear--and dreading what they could mean. "What's going on?" he demanded, not willing to wait another second. Not when it came to Twyla. There wasn't a reason in the world that John should realize it, but Twyla was a painful subject for Gray. Yet, in the last two years since John had moved back to Erie County permanently to take over his family campground, Bloodmoon Cove Park, he'd seemed to know it and didn't bring her up often. "Is Twyla all right?"
The pause the other man took sent Gray into a tailspin of insanity. He thrust himself out of the rolling wooden office chair he sat and it flew back from him at the strength he exerted.
"I don't know. I can't tell you. Her husband...is dead. They found his body yesterday. And she says the police seem to think she had something to do with his death."
"I don't have much by way of details. I had to go on the internet and look it up to find out what I did 'cause Twyla didn't wanna talk about it. The police just released the facts, without specific details, to the press."
"Wait, John. You said Twyla wasn't okay. Was she also hurt in whatever killed her husband?"
"No, no that way. I mean, she's in trouble, not that she's physically hurt. At least I don't think she's been hurt. I've never heard her sound like that, Gray. She was...lost...panicked--"
That John was searching for words and unwrapping a nasty package that was terrorizing him in the process set Gray's ire on overload. "Dammit, Kotter--"
"Look, I sent you the link for the news article. But there's almost nothing there. Maybe you can read between the lines 'cause you're a cop though."
Energized, Gray returned to his computer, putting his phone on speakerphone, and moving into his email. Luckily, the note from John was there, and he clicked on the link, even as John was talking, "I can't believe I'm even saying this out loud, but Twyla's husband was killed in what looks for the world like a BDSM scene. He strangled himself. Apparently didn't have a 'spotter' or whatever they're called. He asphyxiated."
Gray had already flown through the less-than-nothing news report that hadn't even named Twyla's husband, simply reported that it was an ongoing investigation, implying there might be foul play or that death was self-inflicted.
"You're not going to suggest Twyla participated in this perversion? That she was the spotter but didn't do her job?" he demanded when John paused.
"I'd never suggest something that ridiculous. As far as I know, she wasn't even there at the time. But I am telling you the police believe that's exactly what happened--that she let him die, let it go too far, failed to heed whatever the safeword was."
For all intents and purposes, Twyla Kotter or whatever the hell her married name is is a stranger to me now. I haven't seen or talked to her in years. But there's absolutely no way I'd believe that of the traditional girl I knew.
"She wouldn't tell me anything, Gray. Believe me, I tried to get her to admit the truth, but she kept saying you were the only person who could help her. She couldn't ask you herself, not with the way you two ended it." John made a noise that made Gray sit up straighter, anticipating the question that came. "I never got the impression you two left it badly. You were friends, weren't you?"
We were friends. Best friends. Neighbors all our lives until my Dad up and decided when I was sixteen that we needed to move to Grimoire. He got sick of making the drive from Bloodmoon Cove to the county seat an hour away, where the sheriff's department was, every day and sometimes at all hours of the day or night.
But I wasn't about to let that change that Twyla was the best part of my life. Even if I had to drive back to Bloodmoon Cove through the pouring rain or a blizzard, I was going to see her every damn day. Because, by then, I already knew I couldn't leave her alone. She was my whole life, the person who mattered the most to me.
I knew if I didn't keep it a secret--keep what we were doing quiet--someone would take her away from me. And that's exactly what happened.
Damn Larry Boucher and his meddling hide and old-fashioned ideas. He ruined everything. Sent the very first domino crashing down, and it wasn't long before they were all felled and we were done.
No matter what we vowed when her parents took her away from Wisconsin kicking and screaming, we were done that day and nothing could have stopped the inevitable conclusion.
Gray's tone was rougher than sandpaper when he muttered painfully, "We both burned our bridges long ago."
"I guess I knew there was something," John offered with clear sympathy. "Gray, I'm sorry if this was presumptuous, but...Esme will be going in labor soon. A day, maybe two. Twyla needs help, and I can't be the one to give it to her, much as I want to--"
"Give me her phone number and address."
"You'll go to her?"
Gray almost snorted in derision. There was nothing that could stop him. Did John even need to ask? "Tonight. Just as soon as I can."
John let out an exhale. "I was hoping you'd say that. So...I already booked you a flight. Since I had to ask you to take it, paying for it was the least I could do. At the end of my email, I included her phone and address."
"And the flight information is being sent to you now. I got the soonest flight I could, but it's on the red-eye. I'm sorry."
"Don't be. I'd change it if it wasn't that soon. And I'll probably check to see if I can find anything sooner anyway."
"Trust me, there isn't. You might have time to run home and pack a bag, since it's on your way, but not much else. The flight leaves Grimoire Airport at midnight."
Gray glanced at the clock on his basically-organized desk. It was well after nine as it was. John was right. Even if he could get a sooner flight out, he'd be pushing it to get to the airport much sooner than eleven. He kept civilian clothing and a toiletry bag here at the office since he doubled up shifts more often than he cared to. The budget was so tight after endless cuts in the last few years, the county relied on the loyalty of their very few officers to cover the shifts and get everything that needed to be completed every day done. Bloodmoon Cove didn't have law enforcement and relied on the Erie County Sheriff's Department to provide it. John, Rafe Yager and his great-uncle George Maulson, the local Mino-Miskwi Native-American tribe elder, volunteered as reserve officers without pay when necessary. Lately, that was often, too.
Bloodmoon Cove was small even by small-town standards, unincorporated, and it wasn't like other towns. Everyone born and raised there knew it was different, that there was something off, something haunted and cursed.
The trouble had started a hundred and twenty-five years ago, when the Mino-Miskwi tribe elders got involved in some bad magic--as one of the last descendants, the unofficial chief of the Nation, George, described it. They'd done some black magic ritual at their sacred place, Spirit Peak, at the top of Bloodmoon Mountain.
George's grandfather had been the medicine man in the tribe. He could feel and talk to spirits, and whatever he did during that ritual opened a door, a portal of some kind that'd ripped a massive hole between worlds.
The spirits have been pouring out of it, on the mountain, into the town and it'd spread to most of the appropriately named Erie County--Grimoire, in particular.
Overnight, all the Mino-Miskwi's men "of age" had disappeared without a trace. What was left of the band had scattered like sheep, many leaving behind both Bloodmoon Cove, Wisconsin and the Old Ways. George's grandmother had broken from them completely, taking the name of the tribe meaning "good blood" and calling it what she believed it really was: Maji Miskwi. Bad blood.
Since that time, those who remained in the town, whether part of the diminished Nation or not, had made leaving a taboo for all. As if by birthright, they were all conscripted to remain, keep the secrets, protect the town and the areas outside where the strangeness had spread like a disease.
Gray's father had felt the burden of responsibility when odd things started happening in Grimoire, and it was a small part of the reason he'd moved his family there and he'd instilled in his son that he needed to remain, to protect and serve, even before Gray took his oath and his badge. He'd never had so much as a vacation that meant leaving the borders of Erie County, but this wouldn't be a vacation and he fully intended to come back.
What he was most concerned with was leaving his sable, copper red Alaskan Husky, Beauty, alone when he didn't know how long he'd be gone. She'd be fine for a few days. The long hours he worked had him long ago setting up a system so she got the fresh food and water she needed and could leave his cabin through a dog flap from the mud room to do her business. Any longer than a few days, he didn't want her to be alone. He had to go get her, drop her off with his parents. If he had any time to pack an actual bag before that, well and good.
"Honestly, I don't know. I knew all these years since she married that bastard that things weren't good with her, but she kept pushing me out, and my life was complicated enough that I let her do it when I know now I shouldn't've. But I didn't know anything specific, just wondered. Twyla changed so much. But I haven't seen her since that one time I visited her in Portland or talked to her more than for a minute here and there, months between."
Her parents said the same. They never saw or heard from her anymore, not in years. They were worried, but she'd told them not to visit her. They believed she'd shut them out because she was still mad at them for forcing her to participate in their religion but mostly to leave Bloodmoon Cove--and Gray--when she was thirteen.
While he'd always wondered about that, he was too grateful to be in contact with Twyla's parents at all, given that he'd been forced to give her up by more than simply unfortunate circumstances. But, for the last three years, her parents called him if he didn't call them. Too little too late, they realized he was the best man for their daughter.
Damn Larry Boucher.
"We should talk more soon, John, but I wanna see if I can give the Portland PD a call. Maybe they'll share some details with me. What was Twyla's husband's name?"
"Okay. Thanks. I need to get going."
After John hung up, Gray looked up information about the Portland police precinct closest to the address John had given him for Twyla. He was directed to one of the detectives in charge of the investigation. He realized within a minute of the conversation that the guy didn't believe in professional courtesy, especially if it was a Podunk law enforcement agent asking for it. He asked out right if there were any charges against Twyla in the death of her husband, and the officer finally admitted none--yet. She refused to answer questions, or at least wasn't willing to answer them truthfully. He and his partner had already caught her in several lies.
The question was, why lie if you hadn't done anything wrong? Gray knew the perfectly good reason as well as the investigator did: Because the truth could easily make her look guilty, even if she wasn't.