Damp cartridges. What a thing to have saved her life. Jessie had woken up in a hospital bed with a bunch of battered yellow flowers on the table beside her. Left by the sheriff, as she found out when Tom came in to check on her. No memories of what happened after she got out of her car.
His eyes were downcast, fixed on a sheet of paper in his hands. Apology written in his lined face. A fax from the state capital. Dangerous, do not approach. Melcom had been talking the big talk in prison. The “I ain’t going back inside” talk. Shooting his mouth about how he planned to go down fighting if they tried to take him in again.
It was just a routine check. Driving out to a tin-roof shack to look in on an newly released felon. Nothing serious. Nothing dangerous. Deputy work. And Tom had sent a special agent out there, waving her bureau I.D. in a paranoid ex-con’s face.
‘Don’t beat yourself up about it,’ she’d said, meaning it. ‘I volunteered.’
He puffed out his grey-stubbled cheeks and frowned. Looked like a kid taking courage before admitting to some minor offence. Hoping he wouldn’t get grounded for it.
‘Thing is,’ he began, pausing to grope for better words. ‘You shouldn’t be out here. There’s nothing here for the FBI to do.’
Earlier that day, Tom would have been right. But things had changed. Someone had tried to kill a special agent. If Melcom hadn’t been keeping his shotgun shells under his floor. If the damp hadn’t gotten in and compromised the shot’s velocity. Jessie might have taken serious damage.
I should be dead right now. True, I shouldn’t be here. I should be in a pine box six feet under. But there’s nothing for the FBI to do? Someone tried to kill me and I’m the only person in a hundred miles with jurisdiction. Like Hell I’m going home now.
That brought her back out to the dirt track through the woods. Pacing over the twin bloodstains where she and Melcom had gone down. Scuffed earth where Deputy West dragged Mrs Melcom away in handcuffs, kicking and biting like a she-wolf. An accessory to attempted murder, at least.
What’ll happen to all that beautiful golden hair in prison?
Jessie knew she was being tough on the sheriff. Even though she told him not to worry about it, he had his share in the blame. Tom and his deputies had raced out as soon as the second fax came through and gunned Melcom down as he slotted two fresh cartridges in his gun. Just in time.
Better if I’d never been here in the first place. Well, I’m here now and there’s a job to do.
Brave words to think, harder to act on. Jessie was rooted to the spot where she’d fallen. Her mind couldn’t comprehend what her eyes were seeing. How could it be her blood spread on the ground? Not hers, surely?
‘The house is clear. Nothing worth seeing,’ Tom said, strolling down from her murderer’s hovel.
No, not my murderer. He’s dead and I’m alive. Focus on that. You survived.
‘I‘d still like to have a look,’ she said, forcing herself to take a step towards the shack.
She was afraid of what she might find there. Signs of a real life. Real people. Coffe pot, wireless radio and all the other things which made up a person’s life. Melcom had tried to kill her. Now he was dead and his wife in custody. Somehow, knowing even a small part of their lives was normal would make it harder to come to terms with.
Even so, a part of her wouldn’t be satisfied until she saw inside. An ugly, angry thing inside her. It wanted to find a stash of marijuana or Marxist propaganda which would feed her hate for them. Justify how she felt. They had tried to kill her. That should have been enough, but it wasn’t.
‘There’s no need. I reckon I checked it pretty thoroughly,’ Tom said.
He wasn’t blocking her way, but he hadn’t moved aside either. Was there something he didn’t want her to see? No, he was wishing she would go home and get some rest. Like the doctor said before she discharged herself. Stay home. Men had been telling her the same thing since she was born.
‘Don’t play in the yard or fight the local boys with sticks. Stay home and help your mother in the kitchen.’
‘Don’t go to college. Too many strangers, too much drugs and drinking. Stay home and find a husband.’
‘Don’t join the bureau. Do you even know how dangerous criminals are?’
‘Don’t go listen to Dr King, there’ll be all sorts of troublemakers there.’
Stay at home. As if.
Home was a thousand miles away from Roiville. Her whole life Jessie had refused to follow people’s advice when her gut said different. She played at cowboys and Indians with the neighborhood boys, and she thrashed them. She went to college and got her degree, never stepping a foot out of line or becoming one of the burn-outs her mother was so scared of. She joined the bureau. Heard Dr King speak.
Now it was her gut telling her ‘Go home, Jessie’ and a small voice in the back of her mind demanding answers. Had her instinct learned its lesson? The throbbing in her shoulder and right breast, the prickling sweat under her bandages. They were proof her father could be right sometimes. Criminals were dangerous. She would’ve been safer if she’d never left Washington.
‘You going in?’ Tom asked after waiting while she fought a silent war inside her head. Instinct versus whatever sick curiosity was trying to drive her.
The easiest answer to give, but who knew if it was the right one? Instantaneous regret weighed down on her shoulders. She wanted to throw open the door of Melcom’s shack and let the whole world see whatever he had fought to keep hidden. Better yet, burn it to the ground.
Jessie could feel her mind begin to change. Gut instinct being overwhelmed by internal revolt. It was now or never. If she stayed on the driveway any longer she could see herself curling up on the dirt ground, breaking down like a frightened child.
I can’t do this now. It’ll have to be another time, when I’m stronger.
Her pickup was where she left it that morning. The revolver cold to the touch as she felt inside the driver’s side compartment. Promising not to leave it behind again. Knowing it would be resting under her pillow while she slept, for who knew how long.
Tom wasn’t looking, so she gave herself a moment to rest. Closed her eyes and tried not to think. Let her mind wander wherever it chose to go. Green fields and tumbledown farms in the countryside back home. Strolling through town looking for a bite to eat. Melcom’s face as he drew out the shotgun.
No. Don’t think about that.
Before her thoughts grew any darker she was distracted by a loud crunch of tyres on gravel. Deputy West pulled up in his squad car and sauntered over to the sheriff. He seemed relaxed, unhurried as ever, but whatever news he had must be urgent or why would he have driven all the way out of town? He saw Jessie and his face drooped into something like pitying distaste. He nodded to her. Touched the brim of his hat.
Is that it? I take a bullet and he still can’t say one word to me? Damn him.
West muttered something to the sheriff and he waved her over. As soon as he did, the deputy started back towards his car. Weaving so their paths wouldn’t cross on the way.
You’re a backwoods pig. I swear, if you tip your hat to me again I’ll rip it off your head and cram it so far up…
‘You’ll want to hear this, Jessie,’ Tom called, interrupting her thoughts as though he knew what she had been thinking.
‘The doc just finished his autopsy on Melcom. He found something peculiar we can take a look at.’
Something peculiar? What is this, a whodunit party game? We know who done it. Sheriff Tom on the driveway with a .40 revolver.
‘Why does he think we’ll be interested?’ Jessie asked.
‘Well, I don’t know if I’m honest,’ He shrugged and spat on the rear wheel of his car. ‘But in thirty or more years I’ve never had the doc want to show me anything. It could be worth a look.’
The sceptical expression remained fixed on Jessie’s face all the way to the door of her pickup. A mask to hide her thoughts from the sheriff.
Get a grip. He’s not a mind reader.
The truth was she wanted to go see ‘the doc’. Although it wasn’t him she wanted to see. It was Melcom. Jessie wanted to look at his lifeless corpse and forget the man he’d been. The living, breathing man who pointed a shotgun at her chest and pulled the trigger. He was her murderer. Only a small part of her, but he killed it.