The cold, crisp wind that blows down off the plains beyond the bluffs to the east this time of year always sneaks up on me, even after all these years. I’m never quite prepared for it when it comes, and I always kick myself for not paying enough attention this time around.
That morning, three days ago, was no different. A few miles down the road from home I had to turn the truck back around, head back to the cabin, and fetch my winter coat, scarf and hat. I also kicked myself, again, for not fixing the heater in the old truck. Maybe I’ll get to that before the next time.
Lucky for most, depending on who you ask, it doesn’t last long; only about six weeks. But those six weeks can be some of the most unlivable you could ever imagine. And they bring with them the knowledge that someone will die. Some one, or some many.
During the first time the phenomena came upon the little valley tucked away beneath the bluffs, the bitter cold only took one life. That was long before my time, but the story is near legend around here.
Carl Durant was the town sheriff back then, and he was responding to a call about a herd of cattle on the loose.
The cattle had broken through the fence on the west side of their grazing pasture. The rancher told Sheriff Durant that it was against their normal behavior. The last reported sighting that had come in had them making great time for the outskirts of town, away from those eastern slopes. Maybe they knew what was coming before anyone else did.
So out there he was, at the grazing pasture, walking back to his Bronco, when this howl whooped up from all around him like a pack of banshees. Or so the story goes. It was like nothing anyone had ever heard before. With it came that cold wind. And with that cold wind went Carl. It came so hard and fast that he dropped straight to the ground, mid-stride, frozen dead.
When nobody had heard from Carl for some time that afternoon, one of his deputies drove out to the ranch to check up on his whereabouts. The rancher said he hadn’t seen the sheriff since earlier that day when he drove out to the grazing pasture to investigate the prison break.
The deputy followed suit and eventually came upon the Bronco. And then Carl. He was sprawled out like he was making snow angels. But there wasn’t any snow, and Carl was face down. Cold as frozen beef, and just as hard. Just then, the howls kicked up again and the deputy hightailed it out of there.
And so it goes, every year. The banshees let loose, the cold sets in, and someone ends up not paying attention and pays the price for it.
I don’t plan on ever being one of those that go with the wind. But, I also never get around to fixing the heater in the truck, so who knows.
Maybe someone should look into that. Investigate the origins and if it happens to any other towns over the bluffs. Maybe it’s just nature doing its thing. Or maybe there is some kind of paranormal explanation. Not for me to find out or decide. I’ll leave that up to the local constabulary.
Once I had my winter protection on, I climbed back in the truck and headed for town.
I was looking forward to a hot plate of eggs and veal, like only Margaret, the proprietor of the Ruby-Dee, can make. And an even hotter cup of cocoa. Then it would be into my office to see if there were any cases needing to be dealt with. You’d be surprised just how much work a private eye can find themselves with in such a small town, where everyone already knows everyone else. Or at least they think they do.
I’ve even had to hire a part-time assistant just to keep things moving along smoothly, when requests just pile up. If I didn’t know any better, I’d venture to guess that the hell-freezing cold that comes through is nature’s way of clearing out some of these nutters that keep me gainfully employed. How ever so much drama and intrigue could plague such a small little corner of the world is beyond me. But, it keeps the lights on, food in the stomach, and gas in the truck so I don’t do too much looking into the mouth of the gift horse.
Any purchase against the chilling environment outside was being undone by the driver’s side window. The rather dilapidated roads I had to travel on into town created such a melancholic, vibratory drum beat as the old truck bounced along them that the window had rolled itself down and then refused to roll back up. Its track frozen where it had stopped. Just like Sheriff Carl Durant.
Once in town, I made a left from Grange onto Main, cruised the old beast down the two blocks to the Ruby-Dee and parked the truck in front. My left side was more numb than should be humanly possible, but my left inner ear was starting to ache something awful. I cursed the driver’s side window as I shut the door and walked across the sidewalk to the diner.
As I sat at the counter in the Ruby-Dee, I had my hands wrapped around the cup of hot cocoa in front of me. It was giving off steam like Old Faithful and was quite competently doing its job in thawing out my digits. I was thankful to be inside where it was warm, out of the confines of the truck and its broken heater, and now broken window track. The ear ache was starting to go away, as well.
My stomach had started to rumble, waiting for my eggs and veal, when a woman walked into the diner. She looked vaguely familiar but I couldn’t quite place her in any scenes from my past. She carried herself with an elegant presence and with an almost pre-determined intent, made a beeline straight for me and took the stool next to mine.
As I looked around at all of the open stools at the counter, in either direction from me, she spoke. Softly.
“I need you to find someone for me.”
I swallowed the cocoa I had just sipped before I cleared my throat and replied. “Do we know each other?”
She slowly turned her head from side to side like she was checking to see if the coast was clear enough to dish her secret. “Yes, Jericho Barnswiggle. I was your fourth grade math teacher.”
I still couldn’t remember her name. I was never really good at math, and I rarely ever paid attention in math class. I don’t know if I didn’t pay attention because I was so bad at math, or if I was so bad at math because I didn’t pay attention. Either way, it explains why she cast off some alarm bells of recognition, but not enough for me to actually remember her.
I did remember the ruler, though. We all remember the ruler.
The ruler was the preferred punishment in her class when one would spectacularly fail a test. After one particularly horrible test where I earned the distinction of having the lowest score over the previous several years, it was my turn for the ruler.
The punishment consisted of the student being forced to stand at the front of the class, holding the ruler above their head with both of their hands while, Ms. Thompson… that was her name… would tell the class that this was a lesson to prepare the punished for such endeavors because without a solid grasp of math, this was all they would be qualified to do in life. After that experience I started paying for the answers. Lesson learned.
She tapped her nails against the Formica counter top to bring me back to the here and now. Memories can be wonderful places to escape to, but sometimes they can also dump us back into the pits of desperate nightmares. Like having to hold that damned ruler. I wondered if she could see me visibly shaking as I came back to the present.
I turned to face Ms. Thompson, my fourth grade math teacher, who taught me the importance of knowing from whom to get what you need. And here she was, needing something from me.
“What can I do for you, Ms. Thompson?”
“As I said, I need you to find someone for me, Mr. Barnswiggle.”
“It wouldn’t be someone the wind took, would it?” Even I knew how crazy that sounded as soon as the words left my mouth.
“The what, Mr. Barnswiggle?” It was the tone and the way she looked at me with that disappointed and confused expression, and I was right back in the fourth grade; in Ms. Thompson’s math class, ready for the ruler.
My mind wandered outside to the truck and its frozen driver’s side window track. “Never mind. Was just out on a lark. Please, go on. Who are you needing me to find?”
She clasped her hands together in front of her and straightened her posture, her chin turned up slightly. She turned her head to me by a quarter and continued.
“Someone has broken something very dear and important to me and I need to find out who broke it and why. Breaking this item was a specifically nasty and personal thing to do to me and I need to know why.” She dropped her head and closed her eyes; the pain of the situation clear on her face.
With a side glance, I kept a focus on her without making it too obvious. “I can come by your home after I eat my breakfast? It’s probably almost ready and, while I can definitely appreciate your urgency, cold eggs and veal are not something I want to deal with after the morning I have had.” I looked at her for some sign of understanding, and surprisingly to me I found it.
She lifted her head, turned to me, slowly opened her eyes and in them I could see that she clearly understood the imposition of interrupting my meal.
“That is perfectly acceptable, Mr. Barnswiggle.” She took a small notepad out of her purse and a pen, wrote down her address and tore the sheet off, folding it before handing it to me. “I lead a very private life, Mr. Barnswiggle, so please do not share my address with anyone, even those in your employ.”
I nodded my agreement, took the piece of paper, and bid her farewell… for now.
I watched Ms. Thompson as she walked to the front door of the diner, not meeting the gaze of any of the eyes that followed her.
There was something sad and lonely in her eyes there at the end of our conversation. Something I couldn’t quite put my finger on, but sorrowful and painful, nonetheless. The dreaded reign of The Ruler weighing on her after all these years, perhaps? Maybe I could help her ease it. Maybe not. But right now, I was all about Margaret’s eggs and veal.
After breakfast, I thanked Margaret for the delicious meal, left a healthy tip, and walked back out into the frigid wild of Main Street. I climbed into the truck without delay so I could make my way to my office and be back in the warmth of a place with a heater. And closed windows.
My assistant, a personable young woman named Felicia Pennyfarthing, was recommended to me by the local librarian, Jennifer Parsons. Jennifer and I had grown close over the years since high school and ours was a friendship borne out of the love of magazine covers. The kind with the clear plastic on the front and a colored plastic spine and back, where the magazine, opened to the center, slides in under a bar.
I always had fun coloring in mustaches and the like over people’s faces, or other fanciful things over cars and buildings. Jennifer loved how they helped the magazines last longer on the racks.
It was Jennifer that opened my world to the magic of the dry-erase marker instead of my old go-to, the Sharpie. I think it was after the tenth or eleventh cover she had to replace. My only defense at the time was that at least I wasn’t doing it on the magazines themselves; that would just be wasteful.
There was one really tough month that had me questioning my own sanity. The growing pile of cases was becoming a weight on my chest. So I did the only thing I could think of to relieve some of the stress. Go to the library.
Here is what my daily routine would generally look like during that time. I would arrive at the office in the morning, spend fifteen minutes listening through voicemails, another fifteen reading through emails, then throw my hands up in the air and head for the comforting silence of the library. Seriously… there’s what… three thousand people, tops, in this town and all they can find the time to do is try to spy on their neighbors?
At the library, I would catch up on the news in the papers, check up on a few online news sources, then grow bored by ten and start bugging Jennifer.
At the heart of it, I truly believe Jennifer suggested I hire her friend Felicia as much to relive the stress of my workload as to get me out of her hair. In the end it was a win-win, anyway. All swell that ends well, as I like to say.
When I walked through the door of the office, Felicia was already well into the day’s to-dos and only briefly glanced up at me as I closed the door and made for my desk.
The office was a comfortable size, with an open front entry hall with chairs on either side with another door at the far end leading into the back rooms. Just inside the second door were our desks. Felicia’s to the left and mine to the right.
On Felicia’s side of the room is a door leading into the kitchenette area where we have a sink, coffee maker, small fridge, electric hot plate, microwave and a round dinette table with two chairs. The table set was a kitschy fifties-style, speckled Formica table top edged in rolled aluminum. The chairs were a matching speckled pattern in vinyl with shiny aluminum frames. Felicia found it cheap at a yard sale a couple of years ago and I thought it was perfect for the office.
There is a door on my side of the room that leads into the restroom. It’s not nearly as kitschy as the kitchenette, but then again, bathrooms should probably just be as no-frills and utilitarian as possible, given the tasks that go on in there.
The whole office has a beautiful hardwood floor. Although it had obviously seen better days, it has a well-worn, lived-in look that is warm and inviting. It was one of the more enduring qualities that turned me onto the space. I did buy a couple Turkish rugs, though. I put one in the front entry hall and one in our room, between our desks. Some would say it really ties the room together.
The whole aesthetic I managed to create with Felicia’s help in the office has been quite conducive to helping me stay focused. And she’s a great taskmaster when I really need it. Plus, I think she’s really keen on earning her P.I. card one day.