Next to Die – T.J. Brearton

Harriet never liked working late, but it was nearly eight o’clock and the sun was almost down as she crossed the parking lot to her car. The Department of Social Services, or DSS, was on the outskirts of town, tucked against the forest. The day’s heat radiated off the asphalt, the evening breeze stirred scents of pine, and the distant mountains blushed with alpenglow. She didn’t like working late because she didn’t like being here alone. She was the last to leave and her vehicle was the only one left in the lot, so she hurried to it. Though Child Protective Services worked hard to keep families together, sometimes the children needed something better, and that could upset people, including the parents themselves. Threatening phone calls were not unheard of, and occasionally a disgruntled parent would show up at the clinic riding a wave of emotion. She opened the door, flung her bag inside, and lowered herself into the driver’s seat. It was breathlessly hot inside and stinky, too – leftover coffee from that morning sat in the console, the milk soured. She started up the engine and cranked the AC. She sat for a minute, catching her breath, letting the air get cool. It had been a while since she’d done this kind of direct casework, and she was no spring chicken; she felt tired in her bones. But she was grateful that little Grayson Fuller, just four years old and the child of drug addicts, was going to be spending the night in the home of a decent foster family. Her husband Terry had been urging her to join him in retirement. Maybe he was right.

Maybe it was time to spend a summer like this one on the back porch, playing with the dogs, watching the bugs dart over the dandelions. The air sufficiently cooler, she reached for the shifter, but as she did, a hand clamped down on her arm. Harriet sucked in a breath and tried to jerk away, but they were holding tight. She saw the flash of a knife. In the next moment, she stared in shock and incomprehension as the blade sliced across her flesh. Still stunned, she turned to look at her attacker. The knife slashed again, this time across her face. The sensation was so unexpected and strange, that when she recoiled she blurted, “What are you doing?” The figure in the back seat was darkened by the sun setting behind him, just a pair of gleaming eyes. Harriet screamed and fumbled with the door handle, smearing blood. She tried to pop the lever but her vision was blurry.

Blood dripped onto her lap – it looked so wildly red. She kept blinking, groping blindly, her mind racing. The pain took shape: Her sliced arm felt stung and heavy, her face turning numb save for the sensation of a hot slash. The blade struck again, a quick gash from her shoulder to her lower back, and she panicked. Couldn’t catch her breath. Finally, she got her fingers behind the lever and pulled. The attacker grabbed her by the hair and yanked her against the seat. Harriet reached back, tried to free herself, but he dragged the blade across her armpit. She screamed, and kept screaming. The blood was everywhere now – a fine spray of it arcing out after her attacker went for her neck.

Her mind flooded with unexpected memories. She saw her son Victor as a little boy, perched on his tricycle, a smear of chocolate ice cream around his lips as he smiled. “Stop,” she gasped. “Stop… why… what are you doing…?” Her words were just a whisper. The blood spurted; a bright splash across her white coffee cup. Each pulse of her heart jettisoned more. The attacker reached for her head. Hands clamped over her mouth and she tasted oily leather. The life was draining from her; she could feel it going. Then there was Terry, sitting on the porch with the warped floorboards.

Little Victor would ride the tricycle over the floorboards, the sound like a drum roll. The dog back then was their husky, a female, and she would watch Victor, guard him like an angel. Terry liked to sit in the wicker rocker with the paper and his gold-rimmed glasses. He had that bend to his nose; he had that mustache for years until she asked him to shave it off and he did. Her mother showed up next, wearing a white sundress, on the farm in Gloversville, and her father in his black suspenders, the two of them dressed like it was 100 years ago. They were standing with their backs to the sun, watching her as she struggled, as if waiting patiently for it to be over. Rita, Terry whispered. He was in bed beside her. Rita, I love you. The life drained, she blinked at the fluid in her eyes.

Through the blood-splattered windshield she looked down the road leading away from the parking lot as a car rolled by at the far end, headed up toward River Street. “Help…” The car was gone. There came a heavy longing – all the things left undone or unsaid. She tried to speak, to reason with her attacker, but her voice was now locked in her throat. The iron, musty smell of raw blood overwhelmed her. He was still using the knife on her. He cut across her chest and stomach – she felt the blade slip over her thighs – but it was a distant sensation. There was no pain anymore, just the beat of her heart in her ears. And it was slowing, it was slowing. ONE Bobbi stopped at Dunkin’ Donuts for her coffee.

She hoped she could stomach it because otherwise she’d develop a headache from the lack of caffeine. On the other hand, she’d been wiped out by some kind of virus. It had run its course, but she hadn’t eaten anything in twenty-four hours. Maybe coffee was a bad idea. “Caramel latte with cream,” she said into the drive-thru speaker. Then she closed her eyes and leaned her head back on the seat. Screw it. She was young, she thought. She could handle it. Beverage in hand, she got back on the road.

Lake Haven was a charming village in the Adirondacks, a place she was still getting used to. No strip malls, no Walmart shopping center, just a beautiful pristine lake in the middle of things, houses with big, creaky porches, all surrounded by steep mountains and endless woods. Sometimes she felt cut off from the rest of society, but maybe in today’s world that wasn’t such a bad thing. Plus, there was Facebook and Twitter and Instagram – she kept tabs on all her friends from back home. Her phone vibrated with an incoming text. She risked taking her eyes off the road and gave it a glance. How are u feeling? Connor. She’d respond to him once she got to work. For now, she drove alongside the sparkling lake, happy for it to be a Friday. She’d met Connor at her karate class.

Well, sort of – he’d come into the dojo to sign up his six-year-old son, but they’d eventually admitted to recognizing each other from DSS, when he’d worked as a surveyor determining property boundaries. For just a second, she thought it had to be a ploy; no guy as good-looking as Connor had a kid as cute, named for a fictional character from The Adventures of Tintin. And little Jolyon was a charmer – sweet and bashful. But it was all true, and when Bobbi had learned that Jolyon’s mother had moved far away, she’d given Connor her number. Two dates later – one with Jolyon, one without – she knew she was falling. But she’d had to cancel on Connor the night before. As soon as she settled into her office she’d text him back, inform him yes, thank you, done puking my guts out and ready for dating to resume as scheduled. Past the lake, she drove through the main intersection and headed out the back of town. Emergency vehicles were parked around the DSS – an ambulance, three cop cars and a handful of others: pickup trucks with dashboard lights and a big white van, yellow crimescene tape cordoning off a chunk of parking lot. A policeman waved his hand at Bobbi and she rolled down the window, feeling tight in her chest.

“Morning, ma’am. You work here?” “What’s going on?” “Ma’am, I’m going to ask you to pull over here, okay?” Bobbi glanced at a large tent that seemed to be the center of attention – or really two tents pushed together and covering a section of parking spaces. She followed where the policeman pointed, driving slowly toward a second cop waving her forward. She tried to focus on him but couldn’t stop staring at the people in white jumpsuits now getting out of the van. Or the conjoined black tents they slipped into. “Hey!” She jolted and realized she’d almost run into the other cop. He aimed a finger at a parking spot and she pulled in. Bobbi got out and started toward the scene. The cop stopped her: “Hold on, ma’am. Please stay right here beside your vehicle.

” “What happened?” She gaped at the commotion, spotting EMTs, state troopers and local cops among the group, plus two cops in plain clothes. “Ma’am, just sit tight. Someone will be with you in a few minutes.” He added, “There’s been a crime.” It didn’t look like a “crime” – it looked like a bomb scare. One of the jumpsuits exited the tent, and Bobbi glimpsed the vehicle inside. It looked like it could be Harriet Fogarty’s car, which was a similar model to hers, same color. Another vehicle arrived. The policeman at the lot entrance guided the driver in as he had Bobbi, and the second cop directed parking. Rachel Watts got out, hurried to Bobbi’s side.

“What the hell is happening?” “I don’t know.” “What’s in there? Is that someone in there?” Rachel moved for a closer look but the local cop stopped her, said the same things he’d said to Bobbi. “I think a car,” Bobbi said. “I think someone’s car is in there – it might be Rita’s.” “Oh, Jesus – we’re just supposed to stand here?” Rachel had been working for DSS for just a couple of months longer than Bobbi. Bobbi liked her. It took a person with chutzpah to hold her own in a department like Adult Protective Services, which some dismissed as superfluous. She stared at Bobbi, wide-eyed. “Have they said anything to you? I’m going over there.” “Ma’am,” the cop warned again.

“You need to stay put.” “Well, what are we supposed to… Is that Harriet Fogarty’s car in there? Where is she?” “I can’t say anything else right now, ma’am. I’m sorry. I’m going to need your phones, though, please.” “Our phones?” Rachel asked. “Just for a short time, ma’am.” “Why?” “Ma’am, please.” Bobbi had met most of the local police through her job, but the cop standing with them was an unfamiliar face. His name tag read Mullins. Rachel didn’t seem to know him either, and it fueled her frustration.

But both of them turned over their phones, and Mullins stuck them in the bag he was holding. Rachel asked, “Just tell me if that’s her car. Has someone called her? Or Terry?” The cop frowned. “Who’s Terry?” “Her husband. Can we talk to someone who knows what’s happening, please?” She was getting loud, drawing attention from one of the plainclothes investigators. He started over, then stopped short to let another vehicle drive in from the road. Bobbi recognized Lennox Palmer behind the wheel. She’d been the first to arrive for the day, then Rachel, now the others were drifting in, filling up the back lot. The investigator resumed his approach. He wore a gray suit and had a headful of wavy dark hair.

“I’m Investigator Nelson with the state police.” “What is happening?” Rachel was about to jump out of her skin. “You all work here?” “Yes,” Rachel said impatiently. “I’d like to wait until everyone arrives, then I can speak to you all as a group.” “Can you just – can you tell us what’s going on at least? And why you need our phones?” Nelson held his gaze on Rachel. “Were you working here last night?” “When? What? What do you mean ‘last night’?” “Were you working late? Were either of you?” Bobbi spoke up. “I was sick yesterday. Rita was covering for me.” She felt her cheeks warm as Nelson studied her with intense blue eyes. “There was an emergency placement.

” “I went home at five,” Rachel said. He pulled a small notepad and pen from his suit pocket and jotted something down, looked at Bobbi again. “Can you tell me about the emergency placement?” “Lake Haven Police called us when a child’s parents were both arrested. The child had no other family in the area and needed to be taken into temporary foster care. I wasn’t feeling well, so Rita was handling it.” Bobbi started to feel sick again. It sounded like that was definitely Harriet’s car. If so, where was she? More cars were arriving, the employees all rubbernecking the scene as they lined up to park where Mullins directed. Lennox Palmer approached from his car, his face full of the questions they all shared. “Would anyone else have stayed to work on this?” Nelson asked.

“I don’t think so,” Bobbi said. “But maybe Jessica Rankin, the other supervisor. It was my case, Rita was helping me out.” “How was it your case if the call just came in yesterday from Lake Haven? You’re not the only caseworker here?” “No. Um, it was my case already. I’d been working with the family.” Rachel stepped toward Nelson. “What happened to her? Why aren’t you saying what happened to her?” Nelson ignored Rachel, looked at Bobbi. “Your name?” “Roberta Noelle. With two Ls and an E.

” The sickness worsened, like she was going to throw up after all. The people in white suits were still swarming the tent, going in and out. Bobbi leaned a little to the side, trying to see around them, trying to see inside again. Then she did. A crime scene technician entered, the flap open just as a camera flashed. It was definitely Rita’s car, and something horrible had happened. Like something had exploded against the windscreen… The flap closed. “Okay, Ms. Noelle,” Nelson said. “If you could just wait right here…” Blood was what it was.

There was blood all over the inside of Harriet’s car. A lot of it. Bobbi turned away and ran toward the woods. She dropped to her knees as the coffee came rushing back, splattering against the green.

.

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