CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 License.
The smell is overwhelming. It’s not precisely bad—it doesn’t smell of rot or filth—it’s simply so strong it almost burns.
“You all right, son? Come on now. Open them eyes.”
Matthew gags and turns his head, trying to get away from that scent. He opens his eyes, blinking rapidly. The smell is very strong; the room is very bright.
“There we go.” A blurry green shadow squats down to his left. It slowly resolves into a heavyset, balding man in a cheap green suit, peering down at him. “Welcome back son. You sure are a sight.”
Matthew coughs one last time, then tries to lift his head. The room swims a bit, and when the heavyset man extends a hand he grasps it gratefully. The man grips him firmly, pulling him upright. Seconds later Matthew finds himself leaning against a table, one elbow propping him up as he waits for his vision to clear.
He’s in a diner. The floor is blue-and-white checked tile; the tablecloth on each table has matching blue-and-white checked patterns. Most of the booths are white with blue padding on the bench and back, but the table in front of the main window—the one where he currently sits—is actually a picnic table, painted white, picnic table benches, also painted white. The name “Sally’s” is stenciled on the other side of the window. Through the window, he sees a moderately busy town street.
The heavyset man has short gray hair around his temples and no hair at all on top of his head. His two-piece suit is the kind of green that was popular in the 70s and never popular since. In his right hand is a small, slender, paper-wrapped packet, torn down the center and emitting that powerful smell.
A smaller figure steps up next to the man—a boy, not much older than nine or ten, with a shock of white-blonde hair and wide green eyes. The boy stares down at Matthew in unabashed interest.
The boy looks up to the heavyset man, eyes wide.
The heavyset man holds out the small torn packet. “Why don’t you be a good boy and throw that away for me. Now don’t go sniffing it—I don’t want you to fall and crack your head open, and I know your mamma wouldn’t be too keen on it either.”
The boy nods wordlessly, takes the packet, and moves out of view.
As the last traces of that pungent smell finally clear away they’re replaced with something far more pleasant.
“Is that coffee?” Matthew asks.
Scattered laughter fills the room. He notices people for the first time—aside from the man in the green suit, about twelve men are scattered across three of the ten tables, a woman in business suit sits on a blue-cushioned stool at the counter in the front, and another woman in a blue-checked apron stands behind the counter, wiping part of it down. There is also a sheriff standing by the door.
The man in the green suit beams. “Coffee sounds like a good idea. Sally, do you mind? He looks like he could use it.”
Matthew sneezes, once but violently. He starts to shiver, and realizes his clothes are soaking wet. He draws his legs up on the bench, hunching over for warmth, and wonders where his leather jacket went.
The man in the green suit frowns, then turns to the sheriff. “Nate, you got a blanket in your car? Be good if you could get it for him. He might go right back into shock.”
The sheriff nods and tips his hat. “Don’t let him wander off.” His voice is dryly amused. The front door jingles at his exit.
“Shock?” Matthew manages to speak without chattering his teeth.
The woman in the checkered apron—Sally, he assumes—sets a steaming mug in front of him. “You want anything with that, hon?” she asks, smiling.
Matthew shakes his head, mumbling thanks as he clutches the side of the mug, feeling warmth spread through his fingers.
“Shock, yes sir,” the balding man says. “Nate found you just outside town, soaking wet and collapsed in a heap. You must have been caught in the storm last night.”
Matthew nods and sips his coffee. It’s strong and bitter—not usually what he likes, but he can’t think of anything better in that moment.
“Anyway,” the man continues, “he found you, put you in the back of his car, and drove you here. He knew I’d be having breakfast, see, so it was faster. Pleased to meet you. I’m Henry Lancie.”
“He’s a doctor,” Sally chimes in.
Henry extands his hand. Matthew shakes it.
“Pleased to meet you, Doctor Lancie.” Matthew’s voice is a little stronger now, and he’s a little more aware of his surroundings. The woman at the counter is ignoring him completely. The men at the three tables are all leaning in to their respective tables, heads together, talking in low voices. A few break off to glance his way occasionally, then lean back in and murmur some more.
“Henry will do fine. Anyway, I didn’t do much. Just took that jacket off—it’s on the chair over there—and waved those smelling salts under your nose. I, ah, think it’d be a good idea if we went to my office, though. You could do with a once-over. Doesn’t look like you took to being in that storm very well.” Henry winks good-naturedly. “I think you’ll be fine, but it’s safer to be sure.”
The front door jingles again, and the sheriff enters carrying a heavy, coarse brown blanket. He walks over to Matthew and offers it up. “Here you go, son. It’s a bit warm for blankets usually, but it looks like you’ve had a time of it.”
Matthew puts down the mug and takes the blanket, awkwardly wrapping it around his shoulders. It’s heavy, and it helps. Henry fusses with it as Matthew takes back his coffee and sips.
The sheriff looks him over. “Hungry? When’s the last time you ate?”
Matthew starts to say no, but his stomach rumbles. He frowns. “What day is it?”
The room falls silent again. The sheriff stares at him thoughtfully. “Thursday.”
It takes a moment for Matthew to think back. “Day before yesterday. Late lunch.”
“I expect a meal would do you some good, then,” the Sheriff says. “Sally, could you—?”
“Way ahead of you, Nate,” Sally says, carrying a plate of eggs and bacon and setting it front of Matthew.
Matthew’s stomach growls again. “Thank you, ma’am,” he says. He sets his coffee down and starts peeling off the paper ribbon that keeps the napkin wrapped around the knife and fork. When he gets his fork free, he reaches for the eggs, then hesitates, glancing up at the sheriff.
“Tuck in,” the sheriff says, waving him on. “I have questions, but we have time.”
Matthew doesn’t need additional encouragement. He sets to with a will, and when he’s finished he feels much better. As he pushes the plate away and reaches for the rest of his coffee, the sheriff slides on to the bench opposite his. Matthew’s grip tightens on the mug, and he feels his stomach tighten.
“You ready to answer some questions now?” the sheriff asks.
He’s a tall, lean man, with a long face that gives him an air of long-suffering patience. He has light brown hair that’s in the middle of turning gray, and a thick mustache that has is completely gray. His badge is dented, but well-polished. Above his badge is a label with the name NATHAN DOBBS stitched into it.
“Uh, Nate…” Henry coughs uneasily. “I don’t know if this is the place.”
Sheriff Dobbs looks around the diner, taking in the people who have stopped whispering and now stare at Matthew with open interest. Even the woman at the counter has stopped ignoring him, turning in her stool to watch him out of the corner of her eye.
“Got anything to hide?”
“Plenty,” Matthew says, deliberately keeping his voice light. “Depending what you ask me. Nothing about last night, though.” The image of hooded figures crowded around the bridge gate flashes through his mind, and he wonders if he’s lying.
The sheriff’s mouth quirks into something that’s almost a smile. “Fair enough. This is a small town, son, so I know it won’t do any good to take you to my office to keep things private. Eventually some story is going to spread, so I figure it might as well be our actual conversation, in front of witnesses.
Henry chuckles. Sally tsks disapprovingly, but moves over to an empty stool to listen.
Matthew thinks it over. He can almost hear Randy now:
Don’t ever talk to cops, Matt. Not without a lawyer! Not a word, Matt! Cops lie. They lie all the time, it’s part of their job. Any time you try to talk to a cop on your own you’re automatically in over your head.
He always thinks it’s good advice until those last six words. Then he just gets mad.
“It’s fine,” Matthew says stiffly.
Sheriff Dobbs raises an eyebrow, noting the sudden increase in tension. “Good.” He reaches into his jacket pocket and pulls out a wallet—his wallet, Matthew realizes. He almost opens his mouth to protest, but forces himself to nurse his coffee instead.
Sheriff Dobbs opens his wallet, pulls out his driver’s license, and compares him to his picture. “Name?”
Matthew sets his mug down on the table and straightens, pulling the blanket a little tighter around him. “Matthew Alexander Garret.”
“Where are you from, Mr. Garret?”
“Stafford,” Matthew says.
The sheriff glances up and him, then returns to examining the license. “This is pretty far from Stafford.”
“I was driving back from Richmond,” Matthew says.
Sheriff Dobbs frowns and places the license on the table. “This is pretty far from Richmond, too. And pretty out of the way if you’re going from one to the other.”
Now it’s Matthew’s turn to frown. He had been driving from Richmond, hadn’t he? He remembered the driving. And the trees…”
“Yes…” Matthew’s frown deepens as he tries to remember, then clears when he does. “Sorry. It was a little more involved. I stopped at Charlottesville first, then took 29 to Culpeper.”
One of the tables breaks into a quiet argument about the most direct way to get from Richmond to Culpeper.
“Friends in Charlottesville?” the sheriff asks.
“Can they confirm this?”
“No,” Matthew says. “They weren’t home. Think I have a gas receipt in my car, though. I filled up there.”
“Good,” the Sheriff says. “That’ll help. Where’s your car?”
“It’s…” Matthew’s voice trails off. “I pulled over on 29. I’m… not sure where, exactly. You know where that broken-down manor house is, past the bridge?”
The argument at the other table falls silent. Matthew finds himself resisting the urge squirm under all that silence. Almost everyone is gaping at him in astonishment. Sally’s astonishment is mixed with curiosity, the other woman’s astonishment is mixed with fear. The men at the table aren’t afraid as much as they’re alarmed. The only people who aren’t astonished are Henry, who looks exasperated, and Sheriff Dobbs, who doesn’t visibly react at all.
“I know it,” the sheriff says. “Mind telling me what you were doing there? Other than trespassing. It’s private property, you know.”
Matthew imagines Randy screaming YOU’RE AUTOMATICALLY IN OVER YOUR HEAD and wishes the man weren’t so damned perceptive. “I… don’t really know,” Matthew says. “I was pretty sick yesterday. I guess that’s why I pulled over the night before. Next thing I know I’m wandering through some trees, then I’m on a field, then I’m at the Manor. I passed out in a shed, I guess. That’s where I woke up.”
The sheriff looks at him steadily. Matthew feels heat creeping up his neck.
“I wasn’t high, and I wasn’t drunk.” He can’t keep the defensiveness out of his voice. He kicks himself mentally for not demanding a lawyer.
The tables start murmuring again.
Sally leans forward a little, eyes bright with curiosity. “What’d you see?”
“Sally,” the sheriff warns, and Sally sits back, not quite abashed. “I’d like to remind the room that I’m asking the questions—and Mr. Garrett, I’d be much obliged if you’d leave that one alone for now.”
I should ask for a lawyer before this gets worse, Matthew thinks. But he just nods.
“Much appreciated.” Sheriff Dobbs adjusts the belt of his holster as he stands. “You don’t have your car, and I have your wallet, so I guess there’s no point arresting you. I would like to have Henry give you a once-over and draw some blood. Just to make sure you weren’t drunk, or on drugs. Obviously I can’t legally compel you, but you’re in a classic stranger in a small town situation. The odds do not favor you in this.”
Matthew actually snorts at that—it’s almost refreshing to hear Dobbs go ahead and say it out loud. He looks at the sheriff, who stares back with no malice that he can see, then sighs.
“Well, you did buy me breakfast.”
The sheriff’s mustache twitches once. “I suppose I did. Sally, put it on the department’s tab. Henry, can you see Mr. Garrett sooner than later?”
“Sure,” Henry says. Some of his cheerfulness is forced, but not all of it. “We can leave after he finishes his coffee. Maybe we’ll see about cleaning him up a little. Getting him something clean to wear, too.”
“Huh.” One one the men sitting at the tables, a wide-shouldered man with a thick, curly blonde beard, squints at Matthew, sizing him up, then grins in a surprisingly friendly manner. “My oldest is about his size. I can probably drop something by.”
“Thank you, Buck,” the sheriff says. “Mr. Garrett, I’m going to hold on to your license for a bit to make a few calls. You can pick it up this afternoon.” To Matthew’s surprise, the sheriff returns his wallet, without the license. “I expect this is not your favorite day. I apologize for it. But only a little bit.”
Matthew looks around the room and shrugs. “It could have gone worse.”
“Well, that’s sensible of you,” the sheriff says. “A lot more sensible than I’d expect from a man who pulled over to the side of the road on a whim, trespassed on private property, got caught in a rainstorm, and collapsed in the middle of the road.”
Matthew colors slightly.
The sheriff’s mouth twitches again. “Don’t worry, Mr. Garrett. We all have our off days.”
The door jingles as he leaves.