By: Bob Kalkreuter
The shots were sudden and clear, crisp as breaking sticks.
Gary Eason flinched. For a moment Stewart’s lips got pale, his eyes went wild, and he muttered, “Goddamn…”
They were both in Gary’s boat. Gary was fishing, but Stewart was drinking beer. Actually, drinking alcohol of any kind was what Gary expected of his brother.
It was early autumn. A light breeze swirled shadows from the sunlight into the water below the trees that followed the shoreline to the end of inlet, blocking their view of the rest of the lake.
A flurry of birds scrambled into the north Georgia sky.
Stewart’s eyes darted around, not as if he might be looking for something, but hoping he wouldn’t find it.
“Hunters, sounds like,” said Gary, scanning the shore. “I saw some wild hogs last week.”
Stewart turned up the rest of his beer and gurgled it down. He leaned across the gunwale to heave it into the water.
“Hey. What’re you doing?” said Gary. “That doesn’t belong in the lake.”
The bottle arced and splashed.
“Damn,” said Gary. “What did you do that for?”
“You’re right, it’s just hunters,” said Stewart. “That’s okay.” He was a lean, unshaven man, seven years older than Gary. His thinning hair was long and unkempt.
“No, it’s not okay. They’ve got no business hunting around here. I live over there,” said Gary, pointing. “Hell, Suzanne plays in the yard.” He scanned the half-dozen docks that lined the shore like prehistoric lake houses. Several untended boats rocked slowly against their tethers, but he didn’t see any other movement.
Bastards, he thought. Sometimes, people pissed him off. People like Stewart.
It had been a long time since he and Stewart had been close. Before this weekend, Gary hadn’t seen him in ten years, although they’d lived no more than 100 miles apart the whole time. Some of the estrangement was a result of early friction, some of it was fear of dredging up old memories, but more, perhaps, came from Rita’s dislike of his brother.
Rita was Gary’s wife. Once, when Gary brought up Stewart’s name, Rita said: “Keep that drunk away from us, okay? I don’t want Suzanne thinking he’s part of the family.” Then she smiled as if she were trying to cajole him.
But Gary knew she wasn’t asking.
“Okay,” he’d said, hoping she’d drop the subject. Still, he knew better.
When Rita got something in her mind, she was hard to distract.
Rita decided that Stewart was unstable the first time she saw him. Actually, Gary agreed with her. Stewart was unstable. But Gary knew something Rita didn’t. He knew why.
Rita never forgave Stewart for coming to their wedding smelling of booze. She’d grown up in a strait-laced family where black and white weren’t the primary options, they were the only options. In her world, gray was only the color of her father’s hair.
Maybe that was what first attracted Gary to her. In his family, nothing was black or white. Everything was gray. He just hoped she didn’t find out how gray.
Although they’d been married ten years, Rita never suspected that his tales of family life were mostly concocted.
Since his parents were both dead, his grandmother was the only relative she’d ever met. And even though his grandmother lived in a nearby nursing home, she was constantly slipping in and out of reality. No one, including Gary, knew the difference between her fantasies and memories.
In the beginning, Gary figured that Rita rescued him from the swamp of his upbringing, and her standards quickly became the anchors he sought.
Later on, though, he wished she’d lighten up.
But this week, even Rita couldn’t bring herself to complain about Stewart’s first visit in ten years. Since he’d come to attend his grandmother’s funeral, Rita agreed to let him sleep in the unfinished loft above the garage.
“As long as you keep him away from Suzanne,” she told Gary.
“We’ll go fishing if we have to,” Gary told her.
So when some of Suzanne’s friends came over to play, Gary and Stewart retreated to the boat.
After listening in vain for more shots, Gary reeled in his fishing line. Diamonds of late sunlight sparkled on the water.
He started the engine.
“Hey, what’re you doing?” asked Stewart, his voice sounding tight. He sat up straight and ran his eyes along the shoreline.
“They’re not supposed to be shooting,” said Gary.
“They were hunting, like you said.”
“Maybe so, but they shouldn’t be doing it here.” Gary watched his brother. “What’s making you so nervous?”
Frowning, Stewart reached into the cooler stashed near the bow. He hauled another dripping beer from the ice. “I can’t get mixed up in anything,” he said.
“What do you mean, can’t get mixed up in anything? In what?” “Anything,” said Stewart. “Whatever it is.”
“What does that mean?”
“Nothing,” said Stewart, shrugging. “I just can’t get involved with anybody, whoever they are. I… I’m undercover.”
“Undercover?” said Gary. “What are you talking about?”
Stewart twisted off the bottle cap and took a drink. He shook his head. “I’m involved with some pretty nasty folks.”
“I thought you were working for a plumber. That’s what you said, right?”
Stewart stared at him.
“Undercover? What does that mean anyway?” said Gary.
“Nothing,” said Stewart. “I can’t say.”
Stewart had aged far more than his years. His eyes were sunk deep in their sockets. At the temples, his gray hair was recessed into deep, inverted U’s. Three days ago, when Stewart came to the door, Gary had barely recognized him. If it hadn’t been for Stewart’s voice, Gary might not have known him at all. Yet, right at this moment, as Stewart looked at him with that furtive grimace he used to use when he’d been caught in a lie, Stewart seemed to be exactly the same as he was years ago, when he and Gary were young.
“You’re a cop?” said Gary, shaking his head. As he steered toward the mouth of the inlet, the boat picked up speed. Wind raked his face and hair. Waves chopped the hull and spindrift scattered to the sides.
“I know,” said Stewart, snickering. “That’s some shit, huh?”
There was a moment of silence and Gary used it to concentrate on rounding the boat past the headland into the larger lake. “What about the Nichols girl?” he asked, cranking down the engine. “Do those cops of yours know about her?”
Around them, shore to shore, there was nothing but open water. Not a boat, barely a ripple. Even the leaves on the trees lining the shoreline weren’t moving. Overhead, clouds were darkening, and the air began to smell of rain.
“Hell, Gary, that record’s sealed.”
“Maybe so, but these are cops you’re talking about, don’t forget. They’ll find out what they want.”
“Well, it’s in your record too.”
“No it’s not, Stewart. Nobody said I was there.”
Sitting on the middle thwart, Stewart lifted the beer with both hands, trying to keep it steady. He stared at the bottle, as if it were a crystal ball. “Well,” he said. “I wasn’t there either.”
“I know,” said Gary, staring at the empty shore. “I know you weren’t.”
Later that evening, Stewart left for home without saying goodbye.
On Saturday morning hikers found her body. She was naked, no more than seventeen, a thin girl with a single, braided pony tail dyed a bright pink. She wore braces and a metal stud in the side of her nose. She’d been gagged, and her wrists were bound with cable ties.
She’d been shot three times.
Syd Jacobs, a neighbor who worked in the DA’s office, called Gary on his cell. “Be careful, she was found a mile from you, in the woods.”
“When was she killed?”
“The coroner hasn’t released his report yet.”
“Was it Wednesday?” asked Gary. He was sitting on the front porch. From somewhere amid the trees, he could hear the hoarse scream of a red-tailed hawk. A couple of crows swooped low, then high, cawing. Rita was inside cooking breakfast, and the smell of frying bacon was strong and mouth-watering.
“I don’t know. Why Wednesday?”
“We were on the lake Wednesday, and heard some shots. At the time, we thought it was hunters.”
“We?” said Syd.
“Me and my brother. We were fishing.”
“Your brother? I didn’t know you had a brother.”
Gary wavered, then said: “We don’t talk much anymore.”
“Well,” said Syd. “The sheriff will want to talk to you both.”
“We didn’t see anything.”
“They don’t have any leads yet, so anything will help. And if I were you, I’d keep Suzanne in the house, until they get this sorted out. Mary Ann’s taking Michael to see her mother in Asheville for a week.”
“Well, let me know when you hear anything else,” said Gary. After hanging up, he stared into the upper branches of the nearby trees, and only went inside after Rita called him a third time.
Even though Syd said there were no leads, Rita had already made up her mind when she approached Gary later in the day. “Stewart,” she said. “He’s mixed up in this. I know it.”
Gary was outside, washing his car in the shade of the garage. He was wearing jean shorts and flip-flops. He hadn’t heard Rita come up behind him, but when she spoke, he pretended to concentrate on spraying away the soap.
Finally, he said: “Mixed up in what, Rita?”
“You know what I’m talking about. That girl they found near the lake.” She leaned forward, trying to catch his eye. “So where was he?”
“Who? Where was who?”
“Stewart. You know who I mean. Where was Stewart?”
Gary held the dripping nozzle in his hand, pointed away. “Stewart? He was with me.”
“Well,” she said. “He’s involved, I’m telling you. Just wait. I don’t want him around here anymore.”
He hesitated, uncertain what he to say. “Where’s Suzanne?” he asked, hoping to change the conversation.
“Inside, watching tv.”
“She needs to stay close. I’ll talk to Syd tonight. See if he knows anything else.”
Rita stood behind him, fidgeting with a cell phone. “My mother agrees with me. You need to tell Syd about Stewart.” Rita was a small brunette and she smiled at him with her mouth, not her eyes, the way she usually did when she’d made up her mind about something.
“Tell him what about Stewart? That he drinks too much?”
“If you’re not going to do it, Gary, I’ll call Mary Ann.”
“Syd will call me when he knows something. Mary Ann won’t know anything until he tells her. Besides, Mary Ann’s out of town for a few days.”
“You need to tell Syd,” she repeated.
“Just what do you think he did, Rita?”
“Are you telling me you don’t think Stewart’s involved with that girl?”
Without looking, he swung the hose around to rinse a hub cap, but missed and squirted the fender instead. Hit by the ricocheting spray, he jumped back. “Stewart can’t have anything to do with that girl,” he said finally.
“What do you mean can’t?”
“We heard the shots, Rita. Stewart and I both. We were together, out fishing in the boat when she was shot.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Syd called me a half-hour ago. He says she was shot on Wednesday.”
“So, Stewart was in the boat with me Wednesday. We went out fishing, remember? We heard the shots that killed her, the two of us. He couldn’t have done it.”
“That doesn’t mean anything,” she said, turning away.
Gary sat in a small room and watched the sheriff scribbling notes. He was a gruff-looking man with a shaved head and drooping, gray mustache. “About what time did you hear the shots?” he asked.
“I’m not sure,” said Gary. “About five, give or take. It was still light.”
“You said there were three or four shots?”
“Three or four. Yes.”
The sheriff stopped writing and looked up. “Syd said your brother was with you.”
“Yes. He lives in Atlanta, but came up for our grandmother’s funeral.”
“Where is he now?” The sheriff returned his attention to the papers on the table.
“He went back to work.”
“I’ll need to talk to him.”
Gary nodded. “I’ll call him.”
The sheriff glanced at his notes again. “Did you see or hear anything, other than those shots?”
Gary shook his head. “We drove around the lake, but didn’t see anything. We figured it was hunters.”
On the wall behind the sheriff were several wanted posters, pinned to a cork board. Above him was a florescent light fixture with a pair of bulbs that were starting to flutter. “Mr. Eason, was your father’s name Norman?”
For a moment Gary didn’t trust himself to speak. His chair felt suddenly stiff and uncomfortable. “Yes,” he said, barely breathing the word.
“And your brother, is he Stewart Eason?”
Gary glared at him steadily. “He was with me on Wednesday,” he said. “We were in the boat together.”
“The shots you heard, you thought they were hunters.”
Gary sat up straight, feeling a flash of heat. “Of course I did. I didn’t know about the girl then.”
“But you didn’t see any hunters.”
“Because there weren’t any hunters.”
The sheriff frowned.
“The girl was shot on Wednesday, wasn’t she?” said Gary. “We heard the shots.”
“So far, it’s not official.”
“Official?” said Gary. “Syd said she was shot on Wednesday.”
“Syd said it was probably Wednesday. The final report’s not out yet.” The sheriff shuffled one of the papers to the bottom of the stack and looked up. “Why were you out on the lake?”
“Fishing. My daughter invited some friends over, so Stewart and I went fishing.”
“Where did Stewart stay, while he was here?”
“We have a spare room over the garage. What difference does that make?”
“I didn’t say it made a difference.”
“Then why do you want to know? What are you implying?” asked Gary, trying to keep his voice calm.
“I’m not implying anything,” said the sheriff. He propped his elbows on the table and brought his hands together, under, but not touching his chin. “I only asked where your brother stayed.”
“We didn’t have anything to do with that girl, either of us.”
“I didn’t say you did. I’m only trying to put together the facts.”
Somewhere down the hall a door slammed. Gary started, but the sheriff didn’t move or blink.
“Is there a reason your brother didn’t stay in the house?”
Gary started to stand up, but didn’t. Instead he shifted his feet, trying to make a noise to show his displeasure, or at least his impatience. “We’re renovating the guest room,” he lied. “There was no place for him to sleep.”
The sheriff nodded.
“Why are you asking these questions?” asked Gary.
“Didn’t your father commit a murder like this one?”
“My father’s dead!” snapped Gary. “You know that or you wouldn’t be asking about him. You think maybe his ghost came back to kill her?”
“Wasn’t there a witness who saw your brother in the car with your father?”
“The witness was wrong.”
The sheriff stroked his mustache. “Stewart was sent to juvenile detention, wasn’t he?”
“He’s been out twenty years.”
“The witness saw a boy in the car.”
Gary’s mouth felt dry. “Stewart wasn’t in the car. He was with me.”
“Why isn’t that in the report?” The sheriff tapped the papers.
“I was five, for God sake. Nobody asked me.”
“You were five, and you remember that particular day, after all these years?”
“My father dropped us at the movies, Stewart and me both.” Gary glanced at his watch, although he didn’t see the time. He stood. “Now, if you’re through, my wife and I are going somewhere tonight.”
The sheriff appeared to smile, although the movement of his lips was so quick, Gary wasn’t sure. He pulled the papers into a single stack, lifted them upright, and tapped the bottom edge of the stack on the table several times. He stared at Gary without blinking. “I’d appreciate it if you’d get your brother to come in tomorrow.”
Gary stood up. “Are you planning to charge him?”
The sheriff also stood. “I have a murder to investigate, Mr. Eason. Your brother may be a witness to a crime. That’s all.” He extended his hand. “Thanks for coming in,” he said.
Gary glared at the hand, then turned to leave the room.
“Does your wife know what happened?” asked the sheriff.
Gary swiveled back. “What?”
“Does your wife know about your brother? Is that why he stayed in the garage?”
Gary felt light-headed. Opening up his family history like this was already turning his stomach into knots. But telling Rita about it was unthinkable. For years now he’d grown used to his own patch-worked version of family history, almost to the point of believing it himself.
Damn this man and his accusations!
“That’s not why he stayed above the garage,” said Gary, trying to sound full of righteous anger. “I told you, we’re renovating the guest room.”
But the sheriff was already moving toward the door. “I’m looking forward to seeing Stewart tomorrow,” he said. “Otherwise, I’ll call the Fulton County sheriff and have him picked up.”
“He didn’t do anything,” said Gary. “Or does that matter to you?”
The sheriff didn’t respond, and Gary left the room, unable to feel his feet touch the floor.
It was long past suppertime when Gary came through the garage into the laundry room. Rita was folding clothes on top of the washer. The dryer was running, and the moist, cloying odor slammed him like a wall.
She glanced up, startled. Her eyes were small and searching. “Where were you? Suzanne and I ate two hours ago.”
“I’m sorry. I…”
She sniffed. “Have you been drinking?”
“A beer, that’s all. I ran into somebody from work.”
“You’ve had more than a beer,” she said, looking him over.
She was right, of course. He’d had several beers, and he’d drunk them alone in a dark corner of a bar he’d never visited before. But he didn’t want to talk to her now. Not until he figured out what he was going to say, and dredged up the courage to say it.
“There’s chicken in the frig,” she said, still watching him closely.
“I already ate,” he lied. He wasn’t hungry. He tried to push past her, but she put down the laundry and held out her arm.
“Gary,” she said, her eyes narrowed and assessing. “Stewart’s dead.”
He stopped in mid-step. “What?”
“The sheriff’s office called at six. I tried to reach you, but you didn’t answer your phone.”
“Dead? Stewart’s dead?” Gary felt gut-punched. “What happened?”
“I’m sorry,” she said. “He wasn’t a good man, but he was your brother…”
He whirled to face her. “What do you mean ‘not a good man’? What do you know about him, if he was good or not?”
“I didn’t mean… well, I didn’t want him to die, but… they found him in his apartment. He’d been shot.”
Gary shook his head, feeling woozy. “I should’ve listened, he was afraid of somebody.”
She came closer, touching his arm. “Afraid? Of who? What do you mean?”
“I don’t know. Somebody, that’s all. He was jumpy.”
“Of course he was jumpy. Don’t you think, when somebody lives that kind of life, he’s going to be jumpy?” She eyed him steadily. “Who does that, Gary, who lives like that, I’m asking you?”
“Okay, he drinks too much. But damn, maybe he had a reason.”
“Reason? What reason?”
“Maybe things haven’t gone so well for him. He’s had a hard life, a lot of bad luck…”
“Bad luck?” she said. “He drinks too much and probably takes drugs too. What’s that got to do with luck?” She faced Gary, her eyes hard. “I can’t believe you brought him into our house, not with Suzanne living here.”
He reached out and touched her arm. “I wouldn’t do anything to hurt you or Suzanne. Don’t you know that?”
She nodded. “Yes. I know that,” she said.
Then he stepped back. “But you don’t know what he’s been through. Nobody does, really. Not even me… maybe…” He hesitated. “Maybe me especially.”
“I know he’s a drunk.” She frowned at him, indignant.
“You have no idea who he is.”
Behind her, the dryer began beeping to a halt. “Then who is he, Gary?”
Gary’s mind whirled. “He saved my life,” he said.
She studied him, cocking her head, her lips tight.
He took a deep breath, feeling the alcohol stirring in his blood and brain. Thoughts he’d held in for so long, loosened: “My daddy murdered a young girl, Rita. She was ten.”
“What?” she gasped.
“He was supposed to take us to the movies, me and Stewart. Instead he bought us tickets and sent us in by ourselves. I was five and Stewart was twelve. I don’t know what happened, but they say he picked her up and killed her. When he got to the theatre, there was blood on his shirt.” Gary squeezed his eyes shut, but the images that came to him made him open them again. “Later, a witness said Stewart was in the car. But he wasn’t. The one thing I remember most clearly is that Stewart sat right next to me in that movie theatre.”
Rita didn’t respond, only stood there with her mouth dropped open.
“Daddy had a bad temper when he was drinking, and that day he’d been drinking a lot, so we didn’t say anything to him about the blood. You know, we were just kids and we didn’t question anything, like kids do. But when we got home, my mother saw the blood. The best I can remember…”
At this he stopped, feeling his throat tighten. When he spoke again, his voice felt different. “The best I can remember, she said something or did something, and it happened so fast I still can’t piece it together. She was in the garage when we got in, and I think Daddy hit her with a hammer or hatchet, something.” Gary shook his head and his voice changed again. “She died the next day.”
“My God,” muttered Rita, grabbing her face in her hands.
“I screamed, I remember that, and he turned on me then, and probably would have killed me next. But Stewart hit him in the back with a hoe. Severed his spine.”
There was silence, a long interval that was as loud as any great noise.
“I…Gary… I didn’t know,” she said. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
“I’m sorry, Rita,” he said, taking a long, shaking breath. “I should have told you. I meant to, but I… I couldn’t.”
The following Saturday, Gary went to see the sheriff again. This time the sheriff sat at the desk in his own office, behind a pc and a triptych of his wife and two sons. Except for a cup of coffee, the rest of the desk was clear.
“Thank you for seeing me,” said Gary, trying to hold down his emotions.
“You bet,” said the sheriff.
“Syd called this morning,” said Gary. “He said it’s now official, the girl died on Wednesday.” Saying this, Gary didn’t want to appear insensitive to the girl’s death, but he did want to see the sheriff squirm. “You know who she is?”
The sheriff nodded. “I can’t say, just yet.”
“Well, my brother’s dead now, but I want to make sure his name is cleared. The last time, you thought he was involved. But now the coroner’s report proves we did hear the shots, both of us.”
Gary looked at the sheriff’s desk, as if studying it for blemishes. “For years, I kept him away from me… and my family,” he said. “I regret that now. I suppose I just wanted to make it all disappear, you know, the history, our history.” He took a slow, noisy breath. “But now, I’ve got to stand up for him.” He hesitated, then looked directly at the sheriff. “Even if it’s too late.”
The sheriff stroked his mustache. “I understand,” he said. “And I’m sorry for that. We’ve had a break in the case. Do you want to see?”
The sheriff gripped the pc in both hands and turned it slowly, so the screen faced Gary. “This was taken Wednesday night by the security camera at the Shell station on 3rd.”
The picture was grainy, and showed a black and white image of the gas pumps. A large man wearing a doo-rag left the store and got into an SUV. He drove away. Into his place pulled a smaller car, what looked to Gary like an ancient Honda. From the passenger’s side jumped a thin girl with a single, braided pony tail. She headed toward the store and disappeared inside just as the driver got out and walked to the pump.
Gary wanted to say something but couldn’t find his voice.
The driver was Stewart.
“I’m sorry,” said the sheriff quietly. “I wish I had better news. She was killed Wednesday night, long after you heard the shots from the boat.”
Gary closed his eyes and tried to push away the thoughts and images that roiled against the edges of his mind, whether they were trying to escape or enter, he didn’t know. He grimaced.
“Mr. Eason, are you okay?” asked the sheriff.
Gary opened his eyes. “Suzanne,” he said. “What do I tell her?”
“Is Suzanne your wife?”
“My daughter. She’s my daughter.”
“Is she okay?”
Gary nodded. “Yes, she’s okay. Now. But… But I brought him to the house. What if…”
The sheriff glanced at the triptych on his own desk. “What if doesn’t count. The only thing that counts is what happened. Is she okay?”
“She’s okay,” said Gary, stirring. “Thank God, she’s okay.”