Our story continues in the unincorporated community of Mio, Michigan. “Unincorporated” doesn’t ring as self-satisfying as village or kingdom or even town, but facts remain facts.
For the first time in decades—since the mysterious deaths of Brian Ognjan of St. Clair Shores and David Tyll of Troy—the Sabbath day was not only a celebration but also a day of mourning and, to a lesser extent, reckoning. While they celebrated the life and accomplishments of their Lord and Savior, the Mionites wept the brutal passing of two of the congregation’s own: Mr. and Mrs. Stillman.
By the light of the moon, someone murdered them. In the morning, Dolores Delilah D’Bouvier found their bodies lobbed over the top of the Our Lady of the Woods shrine. The culprits had vanished without a trace. A testament to the people’s devotion had been defiled, converted into a pillar of evil. Historically, Mionites hid from the sins of the outside world, but an atrocity so vile and senseless deserved that reckoning.
Despite the darkness within the human heart, love conquered. Mr. and Mrs. Stillman died holding hands at the apex of the shrine. Rigor Mortis Amore, everlasting.
“It’s almost sweet,” a volunteer firefighter said to herself.
“Even in death, Mary and Dave give us hope,” said another, who’d fawned after his female counterpart for far too long to still be considered “just a healthy crush.” He winked and put his arm around her, hoping for the best. His eyes watered when he did—not from sadness but from where she punched him in the nose.
The people observed the gruesome scene, some crying, others holding their loved ones, or whomever they could get their stubby arms around without earning a swift right-hook of their own.
Amid the sheep, Mio’s sheriff ran her fingers through graying hair. She moaned as her cracked nails drug across her scalp. Itch scratched, she got to work. She cocked her head and grumbled, shifting her weight between her feet. Preoccupied with the susurrus of confusion, no one was paying enough attention to notice her moment of indecisiveness. Murder was new to her and everyone else. The only place she’d seen a dead body before, outside old western films and daytime soap operas, had been a mercy in a nursing home.
Mionites didn’t kill. They weren’t capable of such a heinous crime. Her whole world would be turned upside-down if they were. Hell, Mionites didn’t as much as cheat on their taxes or swear at their neighbors.(1) They lived full, uneventful lives close to their families until they died in their sleep from heart attacks or from getting hit by a drunk teenager on a snowmobile. There was that one time with the opossum—poor, sweet Rico—but that sort of thing seldom happened.
But they didn’t kill.
“No,” Sheriff Grace said. “Not like this. Never like this.”
“What was that, ma’am?” Her lapdog, Deputy Lawson, rose his voice over the berp, berp, berp of the rusty, old cherry-picker.
It hadn’t taken long to realize no one in town owned a ladder tall enough to reach the loving, dead couple; if they did, they sure as God’s good grace weren’t willing to lend it out. In Mio, if you weren’t vigilant, “lend” turned to “borrowed indefinitely” which inevitably led to bad neighbors. There was no bad neighboring in Mio. Not with Sheriff Grace running the show.
To add to the woes of the situation, the town’s only fire truck lay dormant in a mossy grave at the local State Farm Insurance office. A relic at the best of times, it boasted being one of the few operational hand tubs left. Until the incident, of course. Like a lot of things in Mio, it appeared one day and became an integral part of the landscape. A beauty mark on the cheek of Mio’s hottest downtown strip…Mio’s only downtown strip.
Fortunately, the electric company had been working a blown fuse down the street. Sheriff Grace “borrowed” their rig “indefinitely.” When they asked for compensation for their time, she paid them by not shooting them in the feet with her ivory, throwback 36-caliber revolver—complete with gold-brush plating. They obliged, throwing in a couple cups of cold, black coffee as a consolation.
Unfortunately, the arm snapped at half its maximum reach, a few feet shy of the Stillmans. The machinations within the vehicle sputtered, smoked, and screeched to a grinding halt. Flummoxed, the driver reversed and hightailed it the hell out of there, hoping no one noticed. His colleague, cowering in the bucket, hoped the sheriff’s aim wasn’t half as accurate as her threats were terrifying. He sucked his thumb as they drove off towards the sunrise.
“Now what?” Deputy Lawson asked.
Sheriff Grace massaged her jaw. She scratched the nape of her neck where nervous sweat beaded, dripping down the small of her back to leave a nice puddle above her buttocks, and swore.
Clueless—his usual state of existence—Deputy Lawson mimicked his superior’s actions. He squinted hard in her direction, studying her every move with ape-like determination. He’d long since perfected her dumbfounded expression and summoned pure rote memory. He’d spent years mimicking the sheriff, yet still had a job—even earned himself a fat living-wage raise or two along the way—and saw no reason to suddenly start pursuing his own thing.
As his mother used to say, If it ain’t quite fixed, don’t break it.
A shrill, elongated scream—reminiscent of a 1970s science-fiction vixen tied as an offering to one island monster or another—broke both his concentration and the glass of Sheriff Grace’s shades. She removed them, inspected the lens, and tossed them into the grass before pulling another pair out of her shirt pocket.
Members of the congregation fought to restrain the newcomer, but the young woman’s grief proved stronger than their brawn. Tears streamed down her puffy cheeks. The jostling crowd bunched the back of her dress, but she either hadn’t noticed or didn’t care. Her disheveled hair made her look like a mix between a banshee and a mad scientist. She’d have been a handsome woman under better circumstances.
“Oh, good Lord,” Sheriff Grace said. “Go deal with the loon, kid. I think that’s Ms. Margaret Stillman. The granddaughter if memory serves.”
Distracted, Deputy Lawson “heard” the sheriff’s orders. His gaze followed the flight of a solitary black-and-white bird. It called to the crowd, haaaaa-oooh, haaaaa-oooh—an inappropriate response, considering the circumstances. The loon wanted people to acknowledge its presence. Satisfied, it alighted on the surface of the Au Sable River basin, using the bridge over the river as shelter from the sun.
“But, ma’am,” the deputy said, diverting the last sliver of his attention span back to his superior. “That loon ain’t botherin’ nobody. Just looking for a mate, I suspect. Like us all,” he added under his breath. “Besides, I can’t swim.”
“Nah. Never had lessons. I reckon we should focus on the Stillmans, though.”
Sheriff Grace smacked him upside the head. “The girl, you damned fool. Go check on the girl. She’s liable to start a riot.”
“Oh, that loon. I was gonna say…” he trailed off, knowing what was good for him.
“Say what, Deputy?”
“Nothing, ma’am. Yes, ma’am. Sorry, ma’am. Off I go.”
He scuttled off toward Ms. Stillman before the sheriff could reprimand him again. The fires of her wrath spread across the glossy surface of her eyes, fogging her aviators, and he refused to let her gaze burn him.
Sheriff Grace addressed the nearest poor sap who’d listen. “Where’s the damn mayor? What about Tony Dietrich? That S.O.B. said he wanted a more proactive role in this town! Well, here’s his chance. And somebody get a tall enough bloody ladder or there’s gonna be hell to pay. Does anyone have an aspirin? Where’d the deputy go?”
“Er, you just sent him off, Sheriff,” a fresh-out-of-training officer said, flinching as she turned her wrath on him.
“Yes, good observation. What’s your name, kid? Ever think of being a cop?”
“Miles, I’m in your depart—”
“Miles? Right, good name. Sign on with me, kid. You’ll go far.”
Sheriff Grace tipped her hat to the poor redhead. “Miles, go get me a coffee. None of this cold brew, hipster stuff they got at the Snowshoe. Folgers. Black. And kid? Keep up the good work. There might be a badge in it for you.”
“But, ma’am, I’m already—”
She held a finger to his lips. “Step on it, Miles. I need someone…er, something dark and strong to help me figure this one out. Those bodies will start stinkin’ soon.”
Officer Miles nodded and sprinted off. Several citizens and other anonymous police officers glanced from each other to the disappearing figure before running off with purpose in half a dozen directions. They’d heard the sheriff and wanted to avoid her wrath. Too bad the ladder guy ran off towards the coffee house, the mayor’s assistant ran towards Mackinaw Island, and Officer Miles ran straight home to his roommate (his mother).
At least they all ran; that was the important part.
Meanwhile, a group of surly, burly, sun-soaked men reeking of cigarette smoke and whiskey were struggling to hold Margaret. They were henchmen at Henchman’s Acres, a local tourist attraction and kayak launch settled on the bank of the Au Sable River. Thanks to a recent sewage spill of over 80,000 gallons of refuse, they hadn’t seen action in days. Surprise, surprise, this spill deterred the bulk of the recreational tourists. The henchmen spent the greater portion of last month swatting flies the size of finches and banging their heads to Five Finger Death Punch.
They looked like henchmen waiting for the right super villain to come along and bend them to his will. In reality, they weren’t much more than bald teddy bears. Their soft demeanors weren’t enough to console the disconsolate young woman. One of them had a black eye and a bloody nose. Another wore scratch marks across his cheek where she’d clawed him with her Dollar General talons. The third pretended to help the other two restrain her, working himself into near cardiac arrest. He came out of the ordeal unscathed, save the rolled ankle from sidling away from the scuffle.
All three flushed with relief when Deputy Lawson came to their rescue.
The deputy took young Ms. Stillman under his protective wing, whispered something to her, and they hobbled to the nearest curb. The henchmen watched, dumbfounded, as he calmed her with nothing but silken words and his charming, Northern grin.
“Was that a smile?”
“She laughed at that joke?”
“Can we get a burger yet?”
“S’only just after nine, ya great buffoon. Ten’s when the menu switches over.”
“Think they pushed it back to eleven.”
“Son of a…”
They argued as they disappeared into the crowd, leaving the deputy, the shrine, and their failures behind to swat more flies and wait for the lunch menu.
“My heart goes out to you,” Deputy Lawson said. “It really does. Sheriff Grace will do whatever’s in her power to find out who did this. I’ll do what I can to see you taken care of in your time of grief. If you need anything at all…”
“Thank you. That means so much to me,” Ms. Margaret Stillman said, allowing a faint smile to cross her face. She leaned towards him. “They were all I had here. Now, I don’t know why I’d stay.”
“Well, here’s my personal number. Call me anytime you need.”
The rest of the conversation trailed off as they spoke more intimately and as the crowd’s dull murmur grew into more of a riotous racket.
Even if the deputy was slow, even if he didn’t possess what most people considered common sense, he understood the ladies. They flocked to him. They swooned at the sight of him, melted at the slightest whiff of his princely halitosis. At the sound of his voice, women told him things—their life stories, their deepest regrets, the size of their…shoes. His innate talent saved what little dignity remained of the deputy’s day.
I’d be lost without him, Sheriff Grace admitted to herself. Lost, but saving a fortune on Advil… She resisted his charms, so far. She played a dangerous game keeping him around, so she kept her cards—and hands—to herself.
She sighed as the young woman giggled and rested her head on the deputy’s shoulder. He winked at the sheriff for validation. She waved him off; feeding the ambitious young man’s ego would make him weak. It was a risk she couldn’t afford.
The riotous racket erupted into a full-blown cacophony. Large crowds were always the best and most accurate predictors of disaster. She hoped they were wrong just this once. For the love of God, please be wrong.
The tires of a split-pea green, wood-paneled woody squealed around the corner, burning rubber across the pavement. The driver had seen too many Hollywood chase scenes. A trail of smog followed in its wake. The distorted wail of Swedish metal blared from the speakers, and cigar smoke seeped from cracked windows.
Nearby, a baby cried because its mother had seen the split-pea abomination tearing down M-33 and was in the fetal position, sobbing. Relentless, the woody barreled towards the crowd of people, none of which were gawking at the dead bodies hanging from the shrine anymore. 25 miles per hour. 30. 35.(2)
Time stood still in Mio; the crowd stood stiller.
Ms. Stillman peeled her gaze from Deputy Lawson’s long enough for her eyes to widen and her inflamed lips to drop. She stood, dusted the dirt off her dress, wiped the saliva off her face, and screamed. She quivered, clenched her fists, and gritted her teeth as the car rushed towards them.
In slow motion, Deputy Lawson stood, hands buried in his pockets, his stupid grin suspended in time. He looked around, trying to plan a good old-fashioned Great Escape, but only got as far as covering as much of himself with his arms as physically possible. Picture your grandmother that one time you accidently walked in on her in the shower, and you’ve about got it. Less wrinkles, but equal parts vulnerability and shame.
Sheriff Grace took off her new aviators in slow motion—one of her signature moves—and scrunched her upper lip. She’d seen it in a movie once—Dirty Harry or the Blues Brothers, she couldn’t remember which—and it stuck. She pointed at the station wagon in case anyone had missed it.
The crowd pointed with her. Mesmerized, the entire town of Mio held their collective breath. Their mouths dropped; their hearts pounded in their chests. Someone swooned. Someone else wet themselves, and it wasn’t the crying baby. Resigned to their fate, they left their lives in the hands of God. She hadn’t failed them, yet.
Mr. and Mrs. Stillman held their ground from the apex of the Our Lady of the Woods shrine, remaining as dead as before. The trifles of the living bothered them even less than the flies buzzing around their bodies. They were already dead, after all. How much worse could life get?
Father Time released Mio from its shackles. Lost seconds rushed back like water through a broken dam.
The woody became a green and brown streak. It jumped the curb, missing Ms. Stillman and Deputy Lawson by inches, slid and skidded through the stunned crowd, barreling sidelong up the concrete steps of the shrine. The shrine itself was there to bring its rampage to a swift and noisy end.
The Stillmans slid from their resting place like melted butter off the edge of a plate, landing with a thud on the roof of the woody.
The collection gasped.
Mr. Stillman let out a long, raspy wheeze before flopping off the car and onto the pavement.
The collection said, “Ope.”
Mrs. Stillman slipped after him and barrel-rolled onto the ground.
The collection said, “Oooh.”
Sheriff Grace sighed. She picked the wrong week to quit smoking. A slew of the usual woe-is-me-isms darted through her mind. Why’s this happening to me? How can this get any worse? When will I catch a break?
Aloud, she said, “At least the bodies are down.”
After what felt like a decade—the 2000s perhaps, or maybe the 80s—the driver’s door, rusted through in at least a dozen spots, swung open on creaky hinges. An avalanche of pop cans and greasy fast-food wrappers cascaded onto the concrete, burying the Stillmans. A can bounced down each individual step before coming to rest in the grass. Mildew from inside the car danced from nostril to nostril.
An enormous man got out, belly first. He wore a tweed jacket two sizes too small; his hair was slick and matted to his forehead. The presumed Evel Knievel of My 600 Pound Life rolled his neck from side to side, managed a few half-hearted jumping jacks, causing a small earthquake in China, and cracked his bulbous knuckles.
He beamed at the people staring at him. They beamed back. When he waved, they waved too. No one was sure why, but the newcomer captivated them.
Sheriff Grace and Deputy Lawson snapped free of his hypnotic grasp and drew their revolvers. Hunched in the proper cop-position, both holding their weapons with locked arms, they stared him down with cop-intimidation. Someone in the crowd played the Cops theme song on their phone and held it over their head. In unison, everyone started humming. You couldn’t not. It defeated the auditory laws of earworm physics.
“Hello, everyone,” the fat man said, nonplussed. “It’s nice to see so many new friends.”
“Get on the ground.” Sheriff Grace menaced him with her weapon.
She pulled back the firing pin and let it make that wonderfully unnecessary click sound they always made in the movies. Bad guys needed to hear it.
“Keep your hands where we can see ‘em,” the deputy added.
“No funny business. I will shoot you, new friend.”
“Do what she says,” Deputy Lawson said, as the fat man slid to his stomach.
The deputy fought the urge to drop to the ground himself. He knew what sort of justice the sheriff dished out in moments like these. It involved thresholds and pain and lots of extra paperwork.
The fat man wiggled into the sea of trash and put his hands on his head, once again causing minor seismic activity. He strained to look once more upon the crowd of gawkers and then down the barrels of two revolvers. Acquiescence was his best play here, so he put his head back down and kept quiet except for the faint whimpering. He couldn’t seem to help that part.
With cop-speed(3), the sheriff and her deputy tackled him, bouncing around as if he were a Magic Castle Bounce House, before getting him in handcuffs. They used zip ties to extend the range of the cuffs and grunted with effort until they clasped shut.
“I’m sure all of this isn’t necessary,” he said. “The brake pedal just moved on me.”
“If it’s all the trash, I’ll clean it up.”
“Shut up, please?” Deputy Lawson asked, reinforcing the sheriff’s command.
“Fine, fine. No worries. Name’s Chase Cross, by the way.”
“Good for you,” the sheriff said, roughing him up enough to get her point across while avoiding unwanted attention from citizen’s rights activists.
“Sheriff said ‘shaddup.’”
“I heard,” Chase said, dejected. His frown added three more chins to the three already there. “Just trying a bit of diplomacy. Might give it a try yourselves.”
Before they squeezed him into the backseat of their squad car, he mustered one last act of defiance. He expanded his chest, grasped the frame of the door in his pudgy hands, and pressed against the sheriff’s weight.
Chase saw the bodies of the Stillmans out of the corner of his eye. He’d first heard them as they collided with the roof of his car, but he wasn’t sure what—or who—the impactees had been. Chase Cross wasn’t one to squander an opportunity.
“Don’t you want to know why I’m here?”
“Nope.” Sheriff Grace threw her shoulder at his mass with all her strength, but she was met with an unopposable force.
“Not even a little bit?”
She sighed. “Fine. Why are you here?”
She didn’t care, but people were getting restless. She had a precedence to set. If she couldn’t get this man to cooperate with violence, she’d be forced to use—gag—Diplomacy.
“I’m, uh, here to solve the case. I’m one of those…whatchamacallit guys.”
“Case solvers?” someone offered, helpfully.
“No, not that.” He nodded toward the Stillmans. The word hit him in the face, along with a set of car keys someone had thrown; that last accusation had struck some nerves. “No, none of that. I’m a…detective. That’s right. Detective Chase Cross, at your service.”
He extended a hand to the sheriff, flapping it like a seal’s flipper. She took it and used it to leverage him into the backseat.
“You’re under arrest, Detective.”