Sheriff Evelyn Hartley sat at the desk in her humble office after finishing up a long shift. A shift that was almost one day too long. She got up and stretched and as she walked to the door, she rubbed her eyes.
It was six in the morning on a Monday and Evie was very unhappy that her day was already out of sync. Over the past two months, she had become accustomed to a new routine of waking up and showering. Going through the McDonald’s drive-thru, ordering a Bacon Egg & Cheese Biscuit, and then sitting in the parking lot while eating it. She waited until she got to the station for her first cup of coffee, usually done up by her secretary, Mabel. Evie had been Sheriff of Joliet, Nebraska for years but it was more important to her now, more than ever, that things go the way they are supposed to.
Deputy Hager almost knocked the diminutive Sheriff into her oak wall as he brought Officer Bowman and Office Yoli into her office.
“Sorry about that. The reinforcements are here.”
Deputy Ken Hager was in his late twenties and had Dumbo ears, a cavernous voice, and a shag haircut he kept tucked under his hat. He was so tall that the top of his head could hit door frames so he had trained himself into leaning over a bit, giving him awful posture. Ken was pale and skinny as a rail. So skinny that Sheriff Hartley insisted he see a doctor every six months to make sure he was eating well but he never complained. Something Evie considered his best trait.
Ken had this way of speaking where he emphasized certain words in a sentence. Like he was dragging the word out or hitting the consonant especially hard, without realizing it. No one pointed it out. Since he was originally from Michigan, he had this okey-dokey, Canadian accent some of the people up there have. He was amiable, lumbering, and oafish but Evie found him valuable when times were tough.
She gave less thought to Officer Bowman and Officer Yoli who stood professionally, waiting for her update.
“Pretty nice marijuana bust last night.” Evie handed Bowman the file. “Been doing paperwork for five hours now. I’m going home. Going to bed. Ken can handle anything you need.”
“The perp shit himself as we were taking him to the jail!”
Ken was so excited he seemed agitated as he pulled his black hair out of his eyes. The other officers shared a look. They never understood how he became a deputy. One rumor was that Ken and the Sheriff had a thing going, despite the fact that she was about ten years older. No one really believed it. Evie had always been unemotional, sexless, and a by-the-books-cop. Even so, Ken’s nicknames of “Officer Dewey” and “Barnie Fife” or jokes about his eyebrows, which looked like they were made of black pubic hair, were common behind his back.
Mabel Chambers stuck her head through the door and kept her mouth open, ready to speak as Ken’s hyena laugh made the other guys laugh. Evie just shook her head at them and put on her brown work jacket. Mabel made little noises.
“I’m sorry to do this but there’s a 911 operator on the phone for you. She says that there’s some mailman from Calliope calling her and reporting a murder. She’ll only talk to you.”
“Who’s ‘she’?” asked Evie.
“Calliope doesn’t have a post office,” Officer Yoli said, rolling his eyes. “They probably share one bathroom.”
“They use one of our post offices. Joliet picks up from them every day.” Evie raised her eyebrows at Mabel. “Calliope has a police station. Tell her to call them.”
“I did, Sheriff. I even offered them our EMTs. They only want to talk to you. It sounds urgent.”
“Aaaand so it goes.”
Evie picked up her receiver and told the men to quiet down.
“Hello. I’m Nancy Cornett, the manager at 911 station number 18. I have a gentleman here named John Butler. He’s a Joliet mailman from the post office on High Street. He’s telling me there’s an emergency in the town of Calliope. You’re the closest county….”
“I’m sorry to interrupt, Ms. Cornett, but there’s a substation down in Calliope. I believe there are two officers….”
“He thinks they’re dead, Sheriff. That’s what I’m trying to tell you. At least one of the officers in Calliope is dead, according to Mr. Butler, and….”
Evie stopped pacing and stared out of the window, past her reflection, at the parking lot full of cruisers. Policemen streaming in and out of the building. She could hear a man squawking in jibberish on one of Ms. Cornett’s phone lines.
“I’m sorry,” Evie interrupted again. “I thought you just said that both officers might be dead.”
“Yes. Shot, apparently. Mr. Butler is just beside himself. I can’t calm him down and this is pretty serious if it’s true.”
“Agreed.” Evie sighed and put her radio back on her jacket. “I’ll take care of it. Tell Mr. Butler to stay put. We’re leaving now.”
The conversation must have been tantalizing from her end because her officers were standing still with expectant faces. She heaved a heavier sigh.
“This just isn’t our day. Sorry, guys.”
“I’m trying not to be nosy,” Deputy Hager warned her.
“One of our mailmen, John Butler, was picking up in Calliope when he apparently ran across two officers down.”
“Holy shit,” whispered Ken.
“Calm down.” Evie held her palms up to the stricken men. “We don’t know if this is a false alarm or not. I’m going to call Carl.” Carl was her homicide detective. She buttoned her collar and held the phone between her chin and shoulders. “Damn it. Got his voicemail. Hi, Carl, this is Sheriff Hartley. I need you to call me immediately. It’s urgent. Thank you.”
“Good luck.” Officer Yoli chuckled. “He’s probably in bed. I hear he’s doing some chick he met at a fish fry in Allama.”
“Don’t go there, Yoli,” Bowman snapped. He was a family man with four kids and sometimes hearing his partner’s talk about disposable women really pissed him off.
Evie hardly noticed it.
“Bowman, can you and Yoli go on ahead? Ken and I will catch up with you. I don’t know how long I’m going to have to be in that town. I want to go home and change my clothes and wash up. Ken - ?”
“I’ll stay here, Chief.” Ken saluted her and started on his portion of the stack of paperwork.
“Now, this is probably nothing. If this John Butler seems to be a danger or overly medicated don’t hesitate to restrain him until we get there. I’ll be right back, Ken.”
Joliet was much larger than Calliope with its over 5,000 citizens and some semblance of a downtown but compared to most states, this wasn’t much. It only took ten minutes for Evie to drive from the station to her home. She pulled up to the garage and parked while noticing, for the first time, buds on some of the trees in her neighbors’ yards.
Evie walked into her home through the back door and made her quick, deliberate movements throughout the house. The sound of the heat kicking on made her pause before climbing the stairs towards her bedroom. She shook off her coat, changed her shirt, and looked out of her window as she put on some deodorant and one of her clean, tan work shirts.
It was a beautiful house, built in the 1920’s. It had old crystal light fixtures and high ceilings that made Evie feel like a millionaire. However, it wasn’t this or the original wooden floors that had won her over. The willow tree in her backyard was the reason she bought the house, five years earlier. She was talking to the realtor on the back porch when her daughter, Grace, had run, screaming towards the tree and chattering on about how much she wanted to climb it and how much she loved the draping strings, covered in thin leaves. Sometimes Grace sounded like Alvin and the Chipmunks, especially when she wanted something.
Nowadays, the tree was the most important thing to Evie. As long as she could open her eyes in the morning and see it facing her window then she knew she would be alright. As long as that tree was standing. It faced both of the upstairs bedrooms but one of those bedroom doors had closed two months ago and Evie had no plans to open it again.
Evie washed her face and stared at herself in the mirror. Her hair had always been a light shade of orange. She was used to assholes from grade school to adulthood calling her “Red”. In photos of her as a baby or toddler, it was actually blonde. Now she usually had it pulled up in a short, haphazard ponytail. Her daughter, Grace, was born with blonde hair, too.
Even though Evie was now in her late 30’s, she still appeared young. She was small and short with fair skin. She was liberal with the sunscreen. There were a few crow’s feet in the corner of her eyes and she rubbed them and pulled her cheeks back to get rid of the barely noticeable laugh lines. She felt sorry for all the women out there who insisted on wearing makeup or spent hundreds of dollars a year on skin cream. Evie saw this as a waste of money.
It amazed Evie that no matter what happened to her throughout life, she always looked the same. When she looked in a mirror. She didn’t know what she expected.
The sound of kids playing somewhere outside, past her chain link fence, made her hurry it up and grab her sneakers.
Evie drove back to the station and picked Ken up in her cruiser. He jumped in like a clumsy puppy who doesn’t know its own strength.
“Man, it’s a little stinky in here, Chief.”
To Evie, one of the perks of being Sheriff was not having to worry about riding around with a partner all day long. Knowing that she was stuck in a car for thirty minutes with Ken made her exhausted before even hitting White Bog Road.
A lot of people disrespected Ken but Evie always believed that you ignore other people’s incorrect opinions of you. She promoted Ken because he was a sort of savant during tough crime scenes. He had a way of dealing with the relatives, a way of calming them. His tall and lanky frame was always hunched over as if he were only interested in you. He had good instincts when it came to the important things. He may have appeared dumb but he was a good cop.
Evie pulled into a gas station that she hadn’t seen in a decade and it was still owned by the same old man who never looked like he aged past seventy. It stood on the lonely highway exit off of White Bog Road. A beacon for travelers who were lost.
She took her key out and opened her door. “Hap’s is the last stop before a long ride to Calliope. Do you need anything?”
“Naw. Thanks anyway.”
Evie got Ken some jerky and Cheetos despite what he said. It was her motherly instinct. She knew he wasn’t hungry now but he would be and it was a long ride. When she reached the counter she smiled at Hap.
“Hap, do you remember me?”
“Eh?” He squinted at her like he squinted at the cash register before pressing a button. “Are you that girl who got knocked up by that married lawyer?”
“What? No. It’s me, Evelyn. Evelyn Hartley. I used to sell you cans a long time ago.” No recollection. “My aunt was Lelia Bryan of Calliope. Short lady. Curly brown hair? She always carried around this purse made of sequins, even during the day?”
Hap thought a minute.
“Drove a Pinto? Yeah, I knew Lily, God rest her soul. She passed a few years ago.”
“Ten,” Evie said as she packed the snacks in her arm. He hadn’t asked her if she needed a bag. “The last time I was in Calliope was for her funeral.”
“She was an awful nice lady.” Hap nodded. “She used to make those angel pins. Gave me one a long time ago.”
As Evie walked back to the car, she couldn’t help but feel a little hurt that Hap hadn’t remembered her. Aunt Lily used to drive Evie all the way up there so she could skateboard in the parking lot because, at that time, Calliope only had dirt roads. Aunt Lily and Evie also used to get their root beer floats at Hap’s. A treat when the welfare check came in.
As Evie buckled in and tossed Cheetos to an eager Ken, he shook his phone and wiggled his eyebrows. He had plugged it into the dashboard.
“Guess what I have?” he teased.
“I don’t guess,” Evie replied, never taking her eyes off the road.
“Oh yeah. Sorry. I got me some Hank Williams.”
“I have Hank Williams.”
“Don’t say, ‘I got me some’. You sound like you were born and bred in Calliope.” Evie adjusted her seatbelt as they went past the five-mile marker. “Oh, and by the way, no Hank Williams in this car.”
“You wouldn’t happen to have some Randy Travis on your phone, would you?”
“Who’s Randy Travis?
“Oh, for the love of….” Evie shook her head. “Please tell me you’re joking. Our generations are not that far apart.”
“What? Was he a big star?”
“Big star? I remember when I was a little girl, playing outside and listening to my Aunt Lily singing to Randy Travis on her radio in the kitchen. She was in love with Randy Travis,” Evie mused. “And you say that you’re country.”
“I am country. I grew up in Michigan.”
“Most people wouldn’t consider Michigan, country.”
“It has wilderness. Big wilderness. Just covered in pine trees, that’s all.” Ken stared down at his phone and poked at it. “I have…Kenny Chesney, Blake Shelton, Regina Spektor. Madonna. ‘Vogue’?”
Evie just looked over at him.
“How about Johnny Cash?” he offered.
Evie gave Ken a slight smile. “I think everyone can agree on Johnny Cash.”
The sound of “God’s Gonna Cut You Down” filled the car and then Evie turned the volume down. Ken could tell she didn’t want to talk about work.
“So,” he said, “I’ve been at this place that looks like a store but it’s a dance studio. I thought it was for ballerinas and stuff. It was not.”
“I’ve been swing dancing.”
“Swing dancing?” Evie glanced at the hulking figure in her passenger seat.
“Yeah. Only I’m so tall it’s hard to find a partner so they set me up with this guy who doesn’t mind being the girl. I’m getting really good at throwing him around.”
“Why doesn’t Sandy go with you?”
Ken had a very sweet girlfriend, a little blonde who worked at Target. Her retail schedule had been the cause of most of the fights Evie had heard about.
“Oh, she never has the time.” Ken shrugged. “I sometimes think she parties too much with her Target friends but maybe she’s just young.”
“You’re not that much younger than her.” Evie almost laughed but didn’t want to hurt his feelings. “You’re right. Young people do tend to party too much. Most of our calls are breaking up underage parties.”
“Did you party a lot when you graduated? When you became a cop? You said that you were really young.”
“I was a newlywed when I graduated from the Academy so,” Evie glanced with tight lips that were meant to be a smile, “no partying for me.”
“That’s right. You told me you’ve never left Nebraska. Weird.”
As much as Evie preferred brevity, Ken was the opposite. Once he got started talking, he couldn’t stop and during the entire car ride he went on about how Sandy’s new cat hated him, how he had waited in line to see the first showing of the new Superman movie and still didn’t get a ticket, and the disgusting things he had seen on the job. Evie wasn’t really listening, just enjoying the forest on both sides of the road until she realized it was about time to respond.
“The worst thing, though,” Ken was animated, “was when I got called in a few weeks ago on that wife who shot her husband. Remember that one? The lady who stuck the shotgun in his mouth while he was sleeping. I mean, who does that? How did he not wake up? Judge set her bail at a million, by the way. Anyway, the guy’s eyeball had just…popped out. Ugh.”
“Oh, really? That happens.” Evie realized she sounded like a mom.
“What’s the worst thing you’ve ever seen on the job? Like, body wise. The condition of the deceased.”
“Me? What an odd question.” Evie thought a minute. “Vehicle fatalities are always pretty bad but…I remember this one call I got. About twelve years ago. It was a suicide, a young girl, a young woman. She was draped over her bathtub, half in half out. I was only there to get statements so I was in and out but I think they told me later that she had been dead a week. That,” Evie shook her head, “that was…evident. Her bathtub had been running. I don’t remember if she had drowned herself or what but there was a radio or cd player next to the tub so maybe she electrocuted herself. Anyway, her bathtub had been running and kept running so it had covered the floor and gone into the basement. But,” Evie said harshly, “you could only tell she was human because her legs were on the floor but her upper body had been in…mush. Gray mush like…thick gruel.”
“Ew.” Ken laughed and snorted.
“For all of that time. She had been wearing these little, red shorts and this tank top. I just remember this tank top was lying on top of the mush and there was really nothing else left in there that looked human except her clump of black hair. It was a ponytail lying on top of it all. Skin slippage… That was by far the worst scene I’ve been at. As far as body condition goes. The smell was beyond decomp. They had all of the windows up and we had masks but nothing was going to help. Boy, was I glad to scoot. I never ate sausage gravy again. I promise you that.”
“Well, thanks, Chief. Now I can’t eat it either.”
Ken switched topics and continued on about his love of dance right up to the moment White Bog Road turned into Main Street.
“Everyone’s welcome in Calliope,” Ken read the aged ivory sign on the side of the road. “Pop 81. Wow. 81 people. I feel like we’re on Mars.”
“Have you never been here?” Evie asked him as she parked in the gas station parking lot.
“No. Never had to. Man, there’s not even a light here?”
“No stoplight. Only five stop signs.”
Deputy Hager looked less than impressed as he got out of the car. Evie, on the other hand, was feeling a strange delight as she recognized the images of her youth, frozen in time as most small towns are.
“The gas station is locked,” Ken called out at the doors. “Nice old pump, though.”
“Built with the station, I would guess. You’ll see a few pretty old buildings here.” Evie realized that what Ken said should have made her pause. “Wait. The door is locked?”
The window said the station opened at 9:00 AM but Evie checked her watch and it was almost noon.
“First sign that something is off,” mumbled Ken.
Evie pointed straight ahead.
“You’ll eventually hit the only other two roads, Red Bluff Road and Cattle Drive. Red Bluff used to be called Coyote Trail when I was a girl. White Bog Road turns into Main Street turns into Butler Way which is a straight shot to Great Prairie. Near Little Elk Creek. About three miles down.” Evie locked the cruiser and they started to walk around. “Main Street keeps going east, that way. The last business you hit, before a couple of houses, is the substation. I think the officer lives behind it. Office Horst, that’s his name. Older man. I’ve spoken on the phone with him a couple of times. He was here when I was a girl.”
The two of them looked around as the treetops rattled.
“You feel that?” she asked.
“Yeah. Those Cheetos aren’t sitting well at all.”
“I mean the street.” Evie listened as the wind picked up on the seemingly deserted road. “It’s so quiet.”
The clouds had disappeared and now the sky was white and it carried with it a rough, chill. There weren’t even any spring birds singing. Dirt swept across the only paved road in town. The two short rows of flat-faced buildings, most having been built in the early 1900’s, had darkened windows and locked front doors. Evie tried a few with Ken by her side. There was no way she was going in without a warrant.
I might have to call in a favor to the Prosecutor’s office. Shit. I might even have to call Sheriff Tammen for help.
“Maybe everyone’s sick?” Ken suggested half-heartedly.
“It’s morning in a farming community,” Evie motioned towards the few businesses, “and a street with a grocery store and doctor’s office. No cars. Nothing. Where is everybody?”
She didn’t like making judgments until she had facts but it was looking like Ken might be right. Maybe the residents were sick and not wanting to catch it or spread it. Maybe John Butler was scaring people by running around.
“It’s just like one of those horror movies.” Ken pulled his hat tighter onto his head. He was very aware of the heaviness of the gun on his hip. “You, know what I mean? It’s like aliens sucked everyone up.”
“I need mature Deputy Hager with me right now,” Evie said quietly, snapping Ken back to earth. She pressed the radio on her coat. “Bowman, this is Sheriff Hartley. Do you read?”
“Where is Mr. Butler?”
After a long pause, Bowman replied, “He’s near us. In our cruiser.”
“Bowman, we’re on Main Street. Did you get these business buildings?”
“Main Street? Uh. No. We got two more houses left.”
“You and Yoli?”
“Ok. Deputy Hager and I will be looking around Main Street. Come here when you’re done. Oh. Make sure you don’t enter any home we’ll need a warrant for.”
“We’ll be there in a minute.”
Harold’s Bar and Restaurant was locked like the others. Then they around to the back of the building and found its back door unlocked. Evie shrugged at Ken as she pushed it open and went in first. Ken put his hand on his gun and followed her.
After moving through a narrow hallway lit only by an EXIT sign, they found themselves in the restaurant. Even though the windows hid the light with closed blinds, Evie could see that it was exactly as she remembered it. The same rust colored plastic, covering the booth seats. The forest green, stained glass light fixtures hanging from the ceiling. Cheaply framed front pages of the old newspaper and posters of Roosevelt School musicals from long ago, when it was Roosevelt High School The jukebox in the corner.
Ken moved towards the video games near the front doors.
“Ooh! Centipede!” He calmed down when he saw the look on Hartley’s face. “It’s really rare,” he whispered at the ground.
The flat brown carpet appeared fairly new and Evie looked for any sign of violence on it. Nothing appeared to be disturbed. The glasses were stacked neatly behind the bar. The table tops were clean and silverware was set up in a crate, ready for the day.
“It looks exactly like it did when I last saw it.” Evie was amused. “Looks like the eighties.”
“Smells like it too.”
After checking out the main floor as well as the area behind the bar and both bathrooms, the two officers made their way to the darkened back rooms. Evie took out her gun and held it down which led Ken to do the same.
Before she went into the office she whispered to him, “Be careful. Remember what you touched.”
By the light of Evie’s flashlight, they crept along the wall until they found the light switch. Evie flipped it with the back of her wrist and the fluorescents above hiccupped as they came on. It was a simple office with one chair and a desk covered in paper, office supplies, calculators, and other small machines. Two large file cabinets took over one wall and dozens of cubbyholes took up another. Boxes were stacked on shelves near the ceiling and were labeled “taxes” and were organized by year, starting with 1989. Evie browsed a form on the wall and noted that Harold’s was still owned by the Baker family.
“Well, whatever happened, it was between nine o’clock last night and the time the mailman made it here this morning,” Evie said, rifling through the desk’s paperwork.
“How do you know that?”
“The books have yesterday’s sales in them.” Evie leaned over and tugged at the safe. “Safe locked.”
“Did you hear that?” whispered Ken.
Evie stopped moving and listened. After a few seconds, she heard the slightest rattle. Like someone was running on their tiptoes and then stopping.
She nodded to them and they held their faces to the floor as they trained their ears. No, it wasn’t the wind. It wasn’t a car. They moved towards the noise.
Now Evie knew she didn’t have a wild imagination, by any standards, but in that dark hallway with a small flashlight’s circle on the ceiling, and the knowledge that the town’s populace seemed to have disappeared, she thought back to the story she had to read in high school. The one about the Tailypo, the creature that would hide under your bed so it could scratch open your stomach. Evie had no idea where on earth this memory had come from but she soon realized that she had stopped breathing.
“Maybe it’s a cat?” Ken offered.
Being cops, they knew that they had to be brave when no one else was so they nodded to one another in an unspoken agreement and kept their guns down, trying to follow the sound.
They thought they had cleared the kitchen but didn’t think about checking the walk-in fridge.
Its large silver door was caught in the flash of Evie’s light but she was certain that in this darkness came the tapping. She and Ken crept up to the door and Evie could hear her heart in her ears before opening it. The movement in the dark corner, made them jump.
“Oh my God.” Ken let out a massive breath.
The freezer was kicking on and off as its old, tired generator was trying to keep up. Evie was angry at herself for letting go of her common sense.
“All right. Let’s wrap this up.” She opened the freezer and gave it a once over. Nothing but meats and frozen veggies. “Let’s try to find Bowman and Yoli. I’m interested in what that mailman has to say.”
As Evie and Ken walked farther down Main Street, they kept an eye on the second and third floors of the stores and abandoned buildings on both sides. The other cruiser was up ahead, in front of the Calliope substation.
Something was moving inside the back of it and Evie motioned to her Deputy to follow her lead and get his gun out. They kept them down as they approached the vehicle only to see a very twitchy black man wearing a postal uniform and hugging himself. He had a shaved head and sweat was dripping off of it. They put their guns back in the holsters.
“Hello, Mr. Butler? I’m Sheriff Hartley and this is Deputy Hager.” Evie approached the suspect who seemed to be both frightened by her and relieved to see her. “Since Officer Bowman and Officer Yoli are looking around, I wanted to ask you a few questions.”
“They’re all dead.”
John was sniveling and if there was one thing Evie hated, it was a man sniveling.
“Who’s all dead?” She opened her flipbook and clicked her pen.
“Everyone? What do you mean by everyone?”
“Everybody!” cried out a voice.
Evie and Ken snapped their heads up to see a red-faced Officer Yoli running towards them. He had to grab his hat to keep it from falling off.
“Yoli, what’s the matter?” Evie was stern.
“Every single person is dead. Their front doors are all open.” Yoli leaned forward to catch his breath, his hands on his knees. He spit a couple of times. “Bowman’s just clearing the last one. I’m sorry I left him but he said to. To tell you. No one left to get us anyway.”
Evie was still having a hard time processing what all of these men were saying. In his seat, John Butler blew his nose and ran his hand over his head.
“I need to know what you know, Mr. Butler.” Evie leaned towards him.
“I already told them.”
“That’s fine. Now tell me.”
The man looked back and forth at Evie and Ken and then started tugging at the buttons of his postal worker’s uniform.
“I, I run my truck from High Street to Calliope every morning. I mean, the post office on High Street. In Joliet.”
“Calm down, Mr. Butler. We’re here to help you and keep you safe.” Ken’s voice was soothing. “Calm down and think before you speak.”
“Ok.” The older man took a breath. “I’ve been picking up mail and packages from Calliope for the last four years. At five in the morning, I mean, I leave Joliet at five in the morning and it takes me about thirty minutes to get here. Monday through Friday. They couldn’t afford to add someone for a Saturday pick up.”
Evie listened impatiently and watched Bowman and Yoli break open the front door to Sugar Pharmacy. At this point, she allowed it.
“So, I got here this morning. By the way, I know just about everyone here. Except maybe for the kids. People, especially people on Monday, see me and want to talk but I can’t talk that much to them because I have to work, you see?”
“Tell me your exact movements this morning. Did anything stand out?” Evie asked.
“It’s the same thing every day. I get out of my vehicle, take the dolly out of the passenger seat. Walk to the drop-off. Over there.” John pointed to the back of Harold’s Bar and Restaurant, “Mr. Baker’s back hall is the drop-off spot for the town. He has a weight and meter in his office. So, um. I, this morning, I used my key to get in the back door there and cut the plastic off the plat and piled the boxes. There were three of them on my dolly. Big ones. All from Mrs. Smith. She has an Ebay business. Sells doll clothes. So, I wheeled the dolly to the back of my truck and opened it. Piled in the boxes. Like every day.”
“What was different about today? Why were you looking for the police?”
“I knew something was wrong. I mean, look around. There’s nothing. Nobody driving on the road and Dr. Peel would be jogging all over the place, every morning. I would usually see Tammy Akers driving feed and Sugar Pharmacy’s lights would be on. The grocery store was usually open because Mr. Gaffney would drop off corn. Everyone was just gone.”
“Okay.” Evie slowed him down. “Tell me what you did next. Don’t forget anything. The smallest detail could be important. Did you see anybody?”
“No one.” Mr. Butler started to get weepy again. “I felt like the last man on earth. I decided I’d just go to Officer Horst‘s house. It’s right behind the station. Nobody’s ever at the station. Anyway, I knew he was up early and sometimes I’d see him in uniform, getting coffee at Harold’s. So, I knocked on his door and it opened right up. I walked in and, he has a ranch so it’s not that big. I walked in and, and called out for him because it was quiet and I didn’t hear him or his wife. It was dark, too. I got to the bedroom,” John put his face in his hands, “and I ain’t seen anything like that before. There was this red spray on the wall by the bed and two people in the bed. I didn’t check to see if it was him. I was just out of there. I guess it was him. Who else would it be?”
“We’ll check on that,” Evie said quietly as she saw Bowman shake his head at her as he and Yoli made their way back. “What happened next?”
“Nothing. I ran around and banged on a few doors but no one showed up. I ran back to my truck and called 911 on my cell phone. I locked myself in there too. I still don’t know what’s going on. What happened? Where is everybody?”
“I’m not sure. That’s what I’m trying to find out. I’ll be right back.”
Evie formed a huddle with her Deputy and officers, a safe distance from the mailman.
“I need to know what you know,” she said to Bowman and Yoli who both looked disturbed.
Yoli let out a breath. “We’ve only found dead bodies. No one’s alive. We checked vitals.”
“No one alive?” Evie looked over at the car where Mr. Butler seemed to be hiding. She still didn’t understand what was going on. “How many deceased?”
“I would say,” Bowman looked to his partner, “over fifty for sure? We lost count and started running from house to house, looking in the bedrooms. It looks like just about everyone had fatal heads wounds. We think gunshots. All in their beds…well, most of them. Every house had an open front door or a screen taken off a front window. I don’t know. We cleared the rooms in each house so….”
“So, we have an active shooter?” Evie raised her hand to her radio, unsure of whom to call.
“I don’t think so,” Yoli piped up. “We didn’t hear or see anyone else. I never felt like we were in danger.”
Bowman interrupted, “This had to have happened in the middle of the night. Hours ago. Had to. Whoever did this is long gone. You could tell that rigor was setting in. In everyone.”
“How many houses?” Evie could feel her neck getting hot.
“24. I counted 24.” Bowman looked to Yoli who nodded in agreement.
“Yeah, 24. There were two dead babies. Right in their cribs. I ain’t ever seen anything so fucked up.”
Evie felt like she had been thrown in the dryer. She was already sleep deprived and now she had what may be the worst terrorist attack on U.S. soil since 9/11 on her hands. Dozens dead and she was in charge. She bit her lip, wondering how on earth someone could have pulled this off.
Terrorists have nothing else to do. Nothing to do but plan.
“Ok, everyone calm down.” Evie felt anything but calm. She stared at the ground and thought for a minute. “I’m going to have to call Shawnee County and get some help. We don’t have the resources for this. I’d need all my people to leave Joliet. We have…too many crime scenes to secure.” Evie motioned to the squad car. “Bowman, take Mr. Butler to the substation and see if there’s coffee or water there. Mr. Butler, just relax with Officer Bowman and I’ll get back with you after I discuss this with my deputy.”
John Butler crept out of the car while looking fearfully in all directions.
“You’ll be safest at the station,” Evie assured him. “Yoli, go ahead and turn off the electricity. Gas too.” Yoli was known around the station as their go-to handyman. “If I remember correctly, the electrical grid is right behind the station. We don’t need an oven blowing up one of the houses.” Evie leaned into Bowman and whispered, “Try to get more information out of him, if you can.” She gave him a knowing look. “Come on, Ken.”
“You’re calling Tammen?” Ken asked, chasing Evie.
“He’s totally going to call the Attorney General,” he warned her.
“I doubt it. You don’t know Sheriff Tammen like I do. He’ll want to be in charge and get all the glory. Never met a man who loved giving a press conference like he does.”
Evie was rushing back to their car at the gas station. When they got there, she remembered with relief that she had the shotgun in the trunk. She rummaged for her phone in the pile of junk in her backseat.
“You know what I just realized?” Her voice was muffled in the car. “That our first lead’s over and done. The mailman was the one who opened the back door to Harold’s. Not our perp.”
“That’s right. Hey, you have the other guys busy with something. What I can do?”
“Just stay here with me. I might need you.” Evie let the phone ring in her ear. A pleasant woman answered. “Hello? I need to speak to Sheriff Tammen. Is he in?”
“Who’s speaking, please?”
“Sheriff Hartley from Joliet. Pike County.”
“One moment please,” replied the lady before the waiting music popped on, mid-song.
Evelyn pictured Sheriff Ronald Tammen as she last left him two years ago. At a police ball in Great Prairie with a big toothy grin under his 1970’s mustache. Big and tall and sort of fidgety and wearing a cowboy hat because his daddy had worn one when he was a cop in Missouri.
“At least I forgot my bolo tie,” Sheriff Tammen had said, laughing.
In fact, he found something funny about everything. Even when they were looking at a crime scene which had ended just beyond her jurisdiction. It was the one time their departments had teamed up when a police chase went through most of the state of Nebraska and ended up wrapped around a tree in Joliet.
“Some crash, huh?” Sheriff Tammen poked her shoulder as she tried to see her paperwork in the siren lights, leaning over the hood of her cruiser. “I guess a BMW’ll squish you just as good as a KIA.”
As Evie waited to the sounds of an elevator version of “Mustang Sally”, she dug through the car, through her cardboard boxes of folders, dirty clothes, and McDonald’s bags, looking for her notepad. She opened her glove compartment and loose papers fell out everywhere. She could hear Bowman calling out to her that they turned off the electricity. A sudden roar in her earpiece almost had her dropping the phone. It sounded like there was a party going on.
“Evie! How the hell are you?”
“I, um, have a problem.”
“A problem, huh?”
“I need you to keep this under wraps.”
“Under wraps?” Ronald repeated, shooing his officers out of the room.
One of his officers who was sitting on the desk leaned forward. “Under the covers? That’s Hartley, right?”
“Now, now.” Ronald hoped Evie had not heard that. “She’s as cold as an Eskimo in a freezer. Ain’t ya, girl?”
“I am asking you for help. Can you do that for me?”
Ron held the phone between his cheek and his shoulder as he peeled the plastic off his new iPhone. He closed his office door so he could be alone.
“Sure, sure. Hey.” He looked up. “What’s all this about helping the great and mighty Sheriff Hartley? You never need help. Now I know something’s going on. What? Did one of your drunks escape or something? Somebody’s fence get knocked down?”
Evie had found the notebooks she needed but knew it wasn’t enough for her usual routine. 81 people. I need 81 notebooks. One per person. I need that many file folders. Ken stood next to the cruiser awkwardly, trying to stay out of her way.
“Ron, just listen to me.” She lowered her voice. “I’m going to need your most trusted guys at St. Luke’s Hospital.”
Ron softened. “Yeah, sure.” Joliet often needed helicopters for car crashes. So that wasn’t so bad. “You sure you don’t need med vacs?”
“No one is going to need a hospital. I have…a massive crime scene down in Calliope. Multiple 10-45 code 1’s. I need this to stay quiet. I wish I had enough time to tell you. Anyway, I need about 81 bags from the hospital and your best homicide detective. If this gets out, I don’t think we would be able to catch who did it. I think it would harm the investigation.”
By then, Evie noticed that she was breathing heavily. Ron paused for a few seconds before bursting out laughing.
“Evie, that is the damn funniest thing I have ever heard. Damn.” He chuckled. “It’s not like you to be funny. What is this? April fools?”
“Ron.” Evie closed her eyes and breathed through her nose. Her deputy saw that and high-tailed it down to the substation. “You need to listen to me right now. I am asking you for help. Can you do that?”
“Okay.” Ronald smiled.
“I have a major crime scene down here.” Evie was repeating herself as she stuffed her bag with what she thought she needed. “I have one witness or suspect. We have him up at their station. We need someone to interrogate him.”
Evie stopped moving after hearing a long silence on the other end. Ron finally spoke up, “Are you serious?”
“Wait. How many bags did you say you needed?”
“Shit, Hartley. What the hell did you get yourself into? Was there a bombing?” Ron grabbed his remote and turned on the news.
“It’s not for me, it’s not Joliet. It’s Calliope.”
“Aren’t 81 people all they got living down there?”
“Ron, please. I don’t have time to talk about this. Especially over the phone –.”
“You don’t even know how to work a cell phone.”
“- just get your guys here with the body bags and bring your best detective and…I need a few crime scene people. I’ve never dealt with something like this before and I’m the closest county so this is my responsibility. Their two officers here are dead. This…is just out of my league.”
“Didn’t you grow up in Calliope?”
Evie could hear a bunch of people barge into Ron’s office.
“You know my number. I have my phone on me. Get to Calliope this afternoon. I need you and your deputies to help mine seal off the town.”
Before Evie hung up, she could hear a man ask a question and Ron answer him.
“What was that?”
“A shit storm if it’s true.”