WHEN STAN Leach’s alarm clock went off at three thirty that December afternoon, he shivered and tried to burrow farther into his blankets. He’d been dreaming he was making out with someone in the front seat of his patrol car, but he couldn’t see who. His unseen partner was a very good kisser and mighty handy with their hands, and when the alarm went off, Stan allowed himself the luxury of cursing.
“Son of a bitch!” Another good dream gone.
He slid out of bed reluctantly and turned the thermostat up. The ancient furnace shuddered to life, forcing warm air through the ductwork. Stan didn’t relish going outside today, but there was no help for it. He’d pulled the night shift this week in order to let Darryl Courtney and some of the other married guys have time to finish their holiday shopping and spend a few days with their wives and their kids. He neither needed nor wanted the holidays off. Stan had no family and few friends outside of the people at work. He had no real home to go to, no surviving relatives to cook for or eat with, no dead bird defrosting in the kitchen sink. He told himself he liked it that way. If he felt lonely, he’d go over to Libby’s Kitchen, the local diner, and treat himself to something hot and tasty, maybe with a side of fries. There was always somebody in Libby’s place who didn’t mind jawing about sports or the weather.
Stan ran the water as hot as it would go and stood under the shower, letting the heated water soak into him. He lingered as long as possible, soaping himself carefully, rinsing the lather from his skin, but eventually he could delay it no longer. He stepped out, dried himself, and combed his hair into place. He shaved, swallowed some coffee, and dressed in his uniform. Then he reached for the dark blue shearling jacket that had been issued to him when he’d joined the Morristown, Mississippi police force. Tonight would be the first time he had ever worn it.
Stan drank his third cup of coffee standing in front of the kitchen window. The outside thermometer read a frigid negative four Fahrenheit. It hadn’t been that cold in Mississippi for a hundred years.
“Goddamn,” Stan muttered. No, he did not relish the idea of going outside. He did not relish it at all, but that was beside the point. Serve and protect, that was what he got paid for.
His patrol car, which had been parked outdoors in Stan’s drive, hesitated and groaned before it finally started, and the front wheels slid a little as he pulled into the street. The cold weather had kept most of Morristown indoors, but Stan saw one ragged old man in a torn cardigan sweater huddled over an air vent in front of Hampson’s grocery store.
He pulled close to the curb and got out. “Hey there, Jacob.”
The old man raised his head and nodded. “Stan.”
“Kinda cold to be out here with just your sweater on.” Stan gestured at the torn cardigan. “Got a warm coat to put on?”
“No, I had one, but I gave it away.” He looked at Stan’s face, as if seeing something no one else could see. “Never been much call for a winter coat in these parts.”
Stan gestured to the patrol car. “Can I give you a lift to the shelter?” It wasn’t far away, and the shelter was a lot warmer than it was out here. All the volunteers there knew him, and maybe they could fix him up with some warm clothes. “Get yourself something hot to drink and a wedge of pie.” He didn’t give Jacob time to think about it. “Come on, hop in.”
The old man slid into the passenger side of the car. “You ain’t gonna put no handcuffs on me?” He looked disappointed.
“Sorry, Jake. You know I’m not supposed to use them except when it’s official.” Stan got behind the wheel and shut the door. “How come you’re not over at Miz Betty’s today? I thought she always made soup when the weather got cold.” Miz Betty was Elizabeth Grayle, the wife of local landowner, Stockwood Grayle. She lived in a huge antebellum mansion on the top of a hill overlooking her husband’s property. She was a socialite by trade, the original Southern belle with a heart of gold and a core of steel. She’d graduated from Vassar with a degree in sociology and was a member of the Daughters of the Confederacy. She also had a burning desire to do as much good as possible for her fellow man. Soon after marrying, she’d taken a look around Morristown and its environs and decided there were simply too many people going without proper food and a place to rest. On Wednesdays and Fridays, she opened her home to whoever felt like coming for a visit, and there was hot soup or coffee and Danish, or whatever anybody wanted to have. She was real good like that, and the news of her kindness grew over the years until she was pretty much a Morristown institution. There were a lot of people who depended on Miz Grayle when times got hard. For some people, times were never anything but.
“Miz Betty’s sick these days,” Jacob said. He kept his cardigan sleeves drawn down over his hands, which were clenched together in his lap. “She ain’t been able to receive.” He shook his head. “Never thought a lady like Miz Betty would be so stricken.”
“Sick?” Stan swerved gently to avoid a patch of ice. The last thing he wanted was to roll the patrol car. Gallagher would never let him hear the end of it. He’d be in for the same old harangue he got every time he stepped even an inch out of line. What the hell is the matter with you, son? Ain’t you got no brains? I can’t have men on this force who don’t know their way around. You need to buck up. You think I like to hear myself talk? Well, I don’t. I am only telling you this because—
At that point Stan usually tuned out. Gallagher was real nice to look at, but when he got himself all steamed up, he was torture to listen to.
“Gord Wainwright over at the hardware store said she’s got cancer.” Jacob sighed. “Miz Betty is a great lady. I don’t know why such things happen to good people.” He glanced over at Stan, who was busy steering the patrol car through a section of road rutted with potholes, some of them frozen solid. “What do you think, Stan?”
“Can’t say I have any idea, Jacob.” Stan stopped in front of the Heavenly Light homeless shelter. “There you go. Now you get on inside and get a hot meal.” He leaned over as Jacob got out of the car. “Don’t let me catch you standing on that air vent, you hear? Last thing I need is to be hauling your frozen ass to the morgue.” He waited till Jacob went inside before pulling away from the curb.
He took a detour through Hillsville, the part of Morristown inhabited by people in the lowest of all income brackets. This section of town was bordered on one side by the Valley Wells Creek and on the other by the railroad tracks. Back in the 1940s, there had been a thriving shoe factory just off Cooperton Road, employing maybe a thousand people—but it shut down after the war, and Hillsville went back to being what it always was: dirt poor. Most of the houses on the main drag were clapboard shacks held together by paint and prayer, or tumbledown shotgun houses, some with broken windows. In the midst of this colossal cold spell, most had old blankets nailed over the holes to keep the wind out. Stan didn’t have to go inside to know how the inhabitants lived. It was a damn shame.
He stopped at a crossroads to let three kids and a skinny dog go by. The children yelled insults when he waved, but the dog wagged his tail. Stan made a mental note to come back later and see whether the dog had proper shelter. Most people in Hillsville figured as long as an animal had a bowl of water and a rope tying him to the fence, he was okay. Stan couldn’t count the number of times he’d called the SPCA in nearby Antrim and had them come to confiscate a starving or mistreated animal. It was something he could never overlook, no matter what.
The patrol car bumped over the tracks, and Stan was back in the midst of civilization. He drove a slow circuit around town, peering into alleys and doorways, but there was nobody around. No wonder, he thought. It was too damn cold.
“HEY, STAN.” Darryl Courtney was in his usual place behind the front desk of the small police station. He was wearing a sweater over his short-sleeved shirt and sipping a cup of coffee. “Cold, ain’t it?” Courtney was approximately fifty and comfortably padded, with rolls of fat hanging over his belt buckle and a sizeable flesh cushion on either hip.
“Colder’n a well-digger’s ass,” Stan replied. He nodded toward Eli Gallagher’s closed door. “Chief in?”
“Yeah, but he’s talking to somebody on the phone.” Courtney made a face. “Caught me listening. I thought he was gonna tear my head off.” He leaned forward. “I think he’s got a sweetheart,” he said, in an exaggerated stage whisper. “Judging by the way he’s talking.”
“Really?” Stan’s interest was piqued. “Who is it?” He couldn’t imagine their grumpy, acerbic police chief allowing anybody to get close enough to be a sweetheart. Shit, Stan thought, his dick is probably made of ice. He probably gets frostbite trying to jerk off.
Courtney shrugged. “No idea. Not local—he asked me to get him long distance.” He giggled. “He’s been on there for almost an hour. Who’s ever on the other end don’t say much—leastways, not so I could hear.”
Stan rolled his eyes. There were times when Courtney behaved like a ditzy teenage girl. His penchant for eavesdropping, especially on private conversations, had gotten him suspended more than once, but no matter how many times he was warned, he kept doing it. He seemed to regard the police station as his own personal soap opera.
Courtney went to refill his cup, and Stan went and stood next to Gallagher’s door, which was slightly ajar. He wasn’t eavesdropping, not really. He was simply waiting to talk to Gallagher, which he couldn’t do while the Chief was on the phone. It made sense to wait, didn’t it?
“I know you do,” Gallagher murmured. Stan leaned closer to the door. “I miss you too. Well, that’s what I am trying to do. I am never going to get my train if you keep me hanging on this here phone….” A pause, and Gallagher chuckled. “Mm-hm. I bet you think you’re real smart, huh? All right. I’ll be there.” Another, longer pause. “Oh come on now. What you trying to do to me, huh? All right. Bye.”
“Chief—” Stan was already in the room.
“Goddammit, Leach!” Gallagher, startled by Stan’s sudden appearance, shouted. “Don’t you ever knock?” He was a handsome barrel-chested man of about forty-five with curly dark hair going gray at the temples, and big brown eyes that should have belonged to some classic Hollywood movie star. He had the longest eyelashes Stan had ever seen.
“Sorry, Chief… I was just…” What was it about Gallagher, Stan wondered, that made him feel like he was five years old? “I wanted to ask…” He noticed Gallagher wasn’t wearing his usual uniform, but a smart blue suit and a dark tie. “You, uh….” Stan shifted from one foot to the other. “You going somewhere, Chief?”
Gallagher raised an eyebrow. It occurred to Stan that Gallagher was trying his best not to smile. “What if I am?”
“Well, I was only saying… seeing as how you, uh, you got your suitcase right there.” Stan nodded at it.
“Mm-hm.” Gallagher sat back on his chair and clasped his hands over his stomach, a gesture that usually meant he was in a good mood. “I’m fixin’ to take me a little Christmas vacation.”
“Uh-huh.” Stan nodded. “You goin’ up to see Mr. Nees?”
Gallagher shot forward in his chair, eyes narrowed. “Who said I was?”
Stan’s mouth opened and closed a few times before he got his voice working. “I, uh… now look here, Chief, ain’t nobody said nothing. I was just—” He hated the way Gallagher could so easily unnerve him, send him straight back into the confused stuttering he thought of as Yokel Mode.
But Gallagher was laughing. “Leach, you just might make a proper police officer one of these days.” He stood up and came from behind the desk. “Yes, I am going to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania to see that wise city boy Mr. Gilbert Nees. Now what do you think of that, Leach?”
Gilbert Nees was a detective from a busy city precinct up in Philadelphia, a man whose specialty happened to be “money” crimes, like extortion and bank fraud. Last year, he’d come down to help investigate a complicated extortion ring with ties to organized crime. At first Gallagher had resented the hell out of him, yelling about how he could manage crime in his own jurisdiction, and he didn’t need a stranger—a Northerner—coming down to hold his hand. But Nees was exceptionally good at his job and wise enough to treat Gallagher as a partner in the investigation, rather than a subordinate. By the time the case had tied up, Gallagher and Nees were, if not best friends, no longer hating each other’s guts, and there were some who theorized—never within earshot of Gallagher—they were substantially more than that.
“I think you better bring warm clothes, sir. Considering what the temperature is outside today.” Stan shivered reflexively, remembering. “Took me a couple tries before the car’d start.”
Gilbert. Gallagher was going to see Gilbert. Then it must have been Gilbert that Gallagher had been talking to on the phone just now, and that meant Gallagher….
…and Gilbert Nees were very good friends indeed. So the rumors were true.
Stan blinked. Gallagher and Gilbert. Of course. And then it all solidified in his mind: Courtney’s comment about Gallagher, Gallagher’s murmured conversation on the phone, his holiday visit to see Gilbert Nees in Philadelphia—and something Stan had seen one day last summer while Gilbert was in town.
He’d been on his way to the recycling bin with a crate of empty soda bottles. He’d passed by the Chief’s half-opened door and seen Gilbert Nees and Gallagher talking. Nees was standing in front of Gallagher’s desk, one long-fingered hand resting gently on the scarred wood. Gallagher was sitting on the desk as he often did, listening to something Nees was saying, and he was smiling. It was so unlike Gallagher that Stan stopped, his crate of bottles temporarily forgotten. Then Nees leaned in and cupped Gallagher’s cheek in his hand, so briefly that for a long time afterward Stan wondered if he’d imagined that caress.
What else went on between them when the door was closed? Did they meet outside of work or drive up into the hills during their lunch break? Did they sneak off to Gallagher’s rented house to fuck away the lunch hour? More to the point, which one of them topped? He couldn’t imagine Gallagher letting anybody take the superior position. Come to that, he couldn’t imagine Nees bottoming for Gallagher, either. But thinking about the two of them together gave him a raging hard-on, so he tried not to think about it at all.
“Yes, well, I will take the temperature into account,” Gallagher said. He glanced at his watch. “Boy, I got to go, or I am going to miss my train.”
“You, uh, need a ride to the depot, Chief?”
“Already taken care of, thank you.” Gallagher lifted his suitcase. “Bye-bye.”
The front door banged shut behind him. Stan stood for a moment, temporarily at a loss. Gallagher and Gilbert Nees. Well, weirder things had happened.
Stan stopped by Courtney’s desk on his way out the door. “I’m going to take the first lap around town, see if anything’s up.” You never really know, he thought, shrugging into his shearling jacket, what you’re gonna find when you get to turning over rocks. No, sir. You just never know.