Death Lives In The Water – Snippet 02


Harper’s Landing sat at the juncture of Deer Pass Highway and County Road 22.  The Martin’s Way River was on the west, and the Mississippi was about fifteen miles east. It had once been a thriving mill town, but now the Harper’s Landing Textile Mill was shuttered, its great looms gathering glistening cobwebs.  The giant water wheel that once powered the mill sat silent as the Martin’s Way flowed around and through it.

The Harper’s Landing Gazette offices were on First Avenue across from the courthouse. At one time the paper had flourished along with the town, publishing daily and even had colored comics on Sundays. Now it published once a week, with an occasional special edition if something of note happened.

The sheriff’s office occupied the entire ground floor of the County Courthouse. It was a large open space with ancient black and white shots of the Harper’s Landing Textile Mill and its large water wheel decorating pale green walls.

Jim Burch sat at his desk, not even pretending to look busy. Instead, he fixed his gaze on the window of the Harper’s Landing Gazette’s offices, which were directly across the street. Linda, the publisher and editor, was no longer a young woman, but she was still easy on the eyes. Jim wondered, not for the first time, why she never remarried after Joey died in that mill accident. He also wondered why he hadn’t asked her out to dinner yet.

Jim was six feet two inches tall and strong as an ox, with a head of dark curly hair and steel blue eyes. While not exactly handsome, there was something in his bearing that naturally caught the eye of every woman who met him. Even Linda Collier, the current subject of his gaze, had cast a few flirtatious looks his way. He was forty-eight, settled, and sexy as hell. Jim was impervious to the come-ons, believing that he would remain a widower forever. Most of the single women left in Harper’s Landing were either widows or bitter divorcees unable to scrape together enough money to leave. Jim Burch wasn’t the kind of man to take on the burdens of others. He was content to do his job and leave well enough alone. Nevertheless, he did feel a bit of a pull where Linda was concerned.

Maybe I’ll ask her to join me for a drink at Happy Time, he thought. That should be safe enough. Be nice to have some female conversation for once.

Jim Burch was not a native of Harper’s Landing. In fact, he might be the only sheriff they’d ever had who wasn’t.  Jim had been seeking the peace and quiet of a small town after being passed over for promotion again in the big city police department he had called home for nearly twenty years. He was not a politician or glad-hander. That, coupled with his penchant for speaking truth to power, had kept him at Detective Third Grade long after friends, partners, and even trainees had gone on to lieutenant and captain. The Chief was only too happy to grant his request for early retirement and had even suggested to the Police Commissioner, who was equally happy to say yes, that Burch be retired at full pay although he wouldn’t qualify for it by the rules for another year and a half.

“Let’s just call it an early disability retirement,” said Chief Halsey. “That way you get your full retirement pay and medical until you hit sixty-five and can get Medicare.”

Jim shook hands on the deal, signed the necessary paperwork, and put his house up for sale. It was a Craftsman house, built at the turn of the century, with all the features typical of that style. Jim and spent hours restoring the floors, the ceiling beams, and woodwork. The original leaded glass had been encased in double panes for insulation. It would undoubtedly sell quickly and at a good price.

At the time of this early retirement, he was forty-five, tough, heavily muscled, and handsome in a rugged don’t-mess-with-me way. Beth, his wife of twenty years, had died two years earlier after a short battle with pancreatic cancer. They had no children, and his only sibling, Sylvia, lived in Malaysia, where she worked with an international refugee organization providing legal assistance to those wanting to seek asylum in the US. Jim considered it gut wrenching work, but she seemed to thrive under the challenge. Her husband was equally happy working for Doctors Without Borders. They, too, had no children. He called Sylvia late one night, shortly after retiring, knowing that it was early morning there, and told her of his decision. They chatted briefly about what she and Brandon were doing–apparently, there was no shortage of a need for doctors at the refugee camps–and about his own plans. He had none–except to leave the city and move somewhere quieter.

“Are you sure you will be happy in a small town? You’ve lived in the city for so long.” Doubt tinged Sylvia’s voice.

“I’m long past loving the city,” he replied. “Perhaps after I’ve gotten my fill of fishing and local diner conversation I’ll move on, maybe not. But for now, I’m ready for a simpler life.”

The house sold the day of the open house. Jim accepted the first offer since it was fair, and the couple who made it seemed to have genuinely fallen in love with the place. They had a three-year-old daughter who had immediately claimed for herself the room originally intended as a nursery. After touring the rest of the house, the couple found her sitting on the window bench, entranced with the view of the backyard. Escrow closed swiftly. Jim put everything in storage, except his immediate clothing, personal item needs, and the box of books he had not yet read. He packed up his Explorer, handed the house keys to the new owners after the interminable document signing was done, and headed south on Interstate-35 toward Missouri.

That was three years ago.

Jim arrived in Harper’s Landing and liked it immediately. The downtown was neat and clean, and although there were several empty storefronts, nothing seemed neglected or shabby. It was as if the town had suffered some sort of middling calamity and was now holding its breath, waiting to come alive again. He pulled to a stop in front of Morey’s Diner.

“Best Hamburgers in Missouri!” The sign was inviting, as were the bright blue awnings and the large windows facing the street. Through his dusty car window, Jim could make out red checkered tablecloths, and suddenly his stomach growled massively.

He entered the diner, looking for a place to sit. A tall, lean man with a head of snow-white hair and an equally white beard motioned to Jim to join him at his booth. His skin was sun-dried and brown as shoe leather. His eyes were a striking shade of blue, and Jim immediately recognized “cop” although the man wore no uniform. He approached the man, stuck out his hand, and grinned.

“You must be the chief of police here,” he said.

“Nope. Sheriff. No money left for local police, so the county pays me to glare at folks. And you have the look, too. Care to sit? I’m gonna be here a spell.”

Jim gratefully lowered his large frame onto the well-padded booth bench. The Explorer was great for back road travel or long trips, but it was not designed for comfort. Before he could reach for a menu, a cup of coffee and a tall glass of ice water were set in front of him. The waitress was tiny, muscular, and exuded an earthy sexuality she wore as naturally as her long auburn hair. The ring on her left hand gave him a momentary twinge of envy. His Beth had this same kind of earthy appeal, and he knew that whoever this woman was married to was among the lucky ones.

“What can I get for you?” she asked.

“I know I’ll want more, but for now can I have some apple pie,” Jim asked, surprising himself. He hardly ever ate sweets, yet he suddenly felt an intense craving for apple pie.

“And with a wedge of cheddar if you have it,” he said, again feeling a strange compulsion for something he never ate. He knew people ate apple pie with cheddar, but he had never tried it.

“Happens every time,” the sheriff chuckled as the waitress left to get his order.

“What does?”

“Jen decides what will be best for you, and you find yourself ordering it. Dunno how she does it, but I guarantee you will love that pie.”

Jim took a bite and nearly choked. It was pure ambrosia. The apples were soft with just a bit of crunch; the crust was flaky yet moist. And the sharp cheddar cut right through the sweetness. He let the forkful lay on his tongue for a while, savoring the myriad flavors until he realized that he was about to start drooling. He quickly swallowed and looked up to see the laughter in his dining partner’s eyes.

“John Hartley,” said the long lanky man. “Sheriff Hartley to some; John to most. Been in Harper’s Landing since I was born, sheriff for the last fifteen years. Reckon I’ll die here too.”

“Jim Burch. Former detective third grade from a big city I’d rather not remember.”

“You planning to be here long?”