The sun beamed directly into Ash's eye and woke him out of a drunken stupor. He remembered waking up at three am, laying there until four am. Finally to restless to stay, he went down to the kitchen and grabbed some more pills to add to his collection, and washed them down with another mixer. The walk down stairs had fully aroused what was left of his sleepy brain, but his body was still sore from the tussle with crazy old Frank.
He eventually found a comfortable spot on the couch and turned on re-runs of Star Trek. The last thing he could recall was Warf fighting in a Jem'Hadar prison camp... vague images of colored dust clouds coming rising from him, out of the television, and then he woke up, sun beaming through the open window. Did I leave the window open? I usually shut that... hmm.
Judging from the position of the sun over the mountain, he guessed it was late morning. Ash rolled over and pulled his hand out of the couch cushion, arm asleep and tingling with pins and needles. His watch read 11:00 hours. He rolled off the couch onto his knees, and glanced around the house. Everything was in order... but... wait... the kitchen drawer was slightly open. He managed to stand to his feet and limp to the drawer. The Glock 9mm was gone, clips, holster, and all. "What the... you've got to be kidding me!"
After a quick sweep of the house things were in order, alarm still set, nothing unusual. The weapon was not in the safe and not in the drawer. Could he have put it somewhere else, somewhere closer, when he was half asleep? Not that he recalled.
The phone rang three times before he finally heard "Ashland PD, this is George." The officers voice sounded stressed.
"George, this is Ash. I need to report--" he said.
"Hey buddy, sorry to cut you short but we got a mess down here. Can I call you later?"
"Anything I can do?" Ash asked.
"Not at the moment, maybe we can grab a beer tonight. You know that old guy, Frank, that attacked you yesterday?"
"Oh yeah, I remember. Still feeling it," Ash said.
"Somehow the old coot escaped last night. We didn't even know he was missing until someone reported the incident. A hiker found him a mile up Newmans' Ranch road. From the looks of things, someone unloaded two clips into the old guy. Then the news media swept-in from Portland, I have no idea how they found out already. It's a nightmare down here, I'll get in touch later ok?"
"Wait, did you say---" *click. The phone went dead, George was gone. Is that even possible? "No, it can't be. The alarm..." Ash's mind ran through darker and darker scenarios. Could someone have been in the house while he was passed out? How would they get in without tripping the alarm, and how would they have set it again? Could they have come through the open window? But that's ten feet off the ground. Surely they didn't get in through the balcony, it's a one-hundred foot drop from the balcony straight down to the canyon floor, he'd made sure it was inaccessible when he added the second story to the old family house. Could someone have repelled down through the roof? No, what is this some black ops mission? Besides all that, who would know he had guns, or that he'd pulled one out that very night. He hadn't touched them in months. Was he being watched? Ridiculous--
Then a thought rose to the front, and it made him nauseous. What if it was me? What if I went out, sleep walking, and killed that guy? I've had some serious black outs before, but nothing that serious. I've never been caught sleep walking before. Then again, if I was, my training-- No. That's not possible. His heart was racing, his mind went numb at the thoughts and possibilities. He hadn't killed for just over eight years, and only then on sanctioned missions. Training was thorough for Spec Ops, muscle memory was built that would never really go away. Even so, he couldn't imagine that he did it while sleep walking. No delusion had ever been that bad before. Then again, he did take more pills that usual.
He picked up the phone to call George again, he needed to report the incident as related. Before he could hit the speed dial there was a knock at the door, he placed the phone on the counter. He wasn't expecting anyone. George made it clear he was busy and he was the only person that'd been up to the house in three years. Could be a sales person, they came around from time to time. Then again...
The chef's knife range in the air as it was pulled from the block on the counter. He tucked the handle in his palm, thumb covering the bottom end, blade flat against his arm.
The peep hole revealed a woman in jogging pants and red hoodie. A red dust cloud wrapped her shoulder, but no creature that he could currently see. She had a mileage counter on her right arm, and the face of someone trying not to look to awkward. He waited a moment to see what she'd do. She reached out and knocked again, his body jerked a little at the sudden noise. Satisfied that she was harmless, he released the breath he didn't realize he'd been holding, and opened the door.
The shrill of the alarm pierced Ash's ears and he slammed the door without thinking. That must seem rude. His pulse which had started to drop when he found a harmless lady at his door, shot up again. He ran to the alarm and punched the code as though it were a bugler out to steal what was left of his sanity- the shrill stopped. Silence. Inhaling, he closed his eyes and tapped his leg to ten holding the breath, and release. He opened his eyes, checked his hair in the mirror. The sides had turned fully gray, but he still managed to keep a decent amount of brown up top. He pulled up his collar to hide the three inch scar on the left side of his neck, and walked back to the front door.
"Sorry about that, Ma'am," Ash said as he opened the door. "I don't get many visitors up here. The hoodie was down now, allowing the suns shadows to accentuate her softer features, deeply tanned skin, soft brown eyes with a touch of hazel.
"Oh that's alright," she replied. As she rocked back and forth from heal to toe the red dust cloud wafted in the wind like a fog around her. Vanilla filled the air every time she rocked forward.
"Hello Ms.-" Ash motioned for her name?
"Scriven. Grace Scriven," she said. "But you can just call me Grace, that's what momma always called me."
"I see," Ash replied. "How can I help you, Grace?"
"May I-- Listen to me, so formal. May I. Momma always said not to say 'can I'... sorry.... you don't want to know that." She stopped, shook her head, and put her hand over her mouth.
Ash thought, keep going, you can do it.
She pulled back her head a bit and tensed her jaw when she looked him in the eye again. She took a deep breath and blew it out quickly. "Let me start over. I'm sorry to bother you, but my car broke down on the road about a mile up the hill from here, dang BMW's. I couldn't get any cell reception, and no one ever drove by. You were the first house I found. May I use your phone?" She held his eye for a moment, and turned her head down to glance at the ground. Her finger fidgeted with a strand of curly black hair that had fallen from an otherwise tightly wrapped pony tail.
"Sure," Ash glanced back into the house. Images of police tape and finger printing that would need to come later that day rolled through his mind. "I'd invite you in, but I actually had a break-in last night and I need to preserve the place for finger printing and evidence, you know? Let me go get the phone and bring it out here to you?"
She smiled for the first time since he'd seen her. It was a nice smile, not false or pretentious. "Oh that would be great. Again, really sorry to bother you."
"No problem," Ash said. He glanced at the patio and motioned to the outdoor table set. "Go ahead and grab a seat, I'll be back in a minute." He turned back down the hallway, and found the phone still on the kitchen counter. A creaking noise from the top floor made him pause. He glanced up the stairs, no shadows. He waited a moment and didn't hear anything else. You're going nuts solider, get it together. Taking the phone from the counter he suddenly felt something cold on his forearm. Then he realized that he was still holding the concealed kitchen knife. Not wanting scare a poor young lady looking for a phone, he put it back and headed for the front door.
"Here you go," Ash said. Their hands briefly touched as he handed her the phone. A shudder ran through his arm, and up into his skull. He hadn't touched a woman in a long time. He'd forgotten how smooth they could be, especially compared to the hands of a wood craftsman. The sanding and carving made for callouses that never disappeared.
He gave her some space and walked to his truck. He didn't really need anything from there, but he pretended he did. It felt right, better than leaving her on the porch while he went back inside. Then again, maybe he shouldn't go back inside. He really did need to preserve the scene, and he needed to file that report. Maybe he could go into town and get some groceries or supplies, find some reason to get out of the house for the day.
"What?" Grace yelled from behind him, "You've got to be kidding me. Never mind. No, just forget it. I'll figure it out."
Ash sauntered back to the porch, "Everything OK?"
"No, not really." She said, pressing the hang up button and setting the phone in her lap. Grace ran her hands through her hair, and glanced at the sky, eyes darting back and forth as though she were searching for an answer.
"What's wrong?" He probed.
"Well... it turns out my triple-A membership is worthless out here in the boondocks of southern Oregon. No offense to your town." She shrugged. "The closest driver is several towns away and has several calls ahead of me. It could be between 2-6 hours before they can get someone out here." She snorted a laugh.
"No offense taken, these small towns are different." Ash replied. The thought of keeping her around a little longer didn't bother him as much as he thought it would. People made him skittish, but this wasn't people. This was Grace. He'd known Grace a whole ten minutes now. He knew her name, she was easy on the eyes, no creepy creatures staring him down, and she smelled like vanilla... Ice Cream, I should go to town and get Ice Cream, he thought. Besides, the red dust cloud matches her outfit, that's nice too.
"I was thinking of heading to town anyway." Ash half offered. "I could give you a ride into town. You could wait there, or maybe we can get Faustino to take a look at your BMW. He's a classic-car restore guy, not a traditional mechanic, but I've never seen anyone better with a wrench, especially if you buy him a six pack to sweeten the deal."
"If you really don't mind, and it's not too much of a bother, I'd be very grateful." Grace smiled again, he liked it when she smiled. She'd done it twice now. Both times her smile elicited the sensation of a summer sun warming his chest. He'd forgotten what it was like to be this close to another human besides George. And George... well she wasn't George.
"Alright, do we need to drop by your car for anything important?" He asked.
"No," She replied. "I locked it up before I walked off. I didn't know how long I'd be walking. Everything I need is right here." She pointed to a modern style fanny pack that was hugging one leg.
There could be a weapon in there, idiot. How did you miss that? You're slipping. Calm down, she's just a lost lady. Not a serial killer. Ash brushed off the paranoia, waved her over, and opened the passenger door. "After you."
The engine roared to life like The Beast it was, as the blue F-150 was so named. It's mascot, a Beast X-Men action figure, was mounted prominently on the dashboard. This truck was a reflection of his soul; blue, rusted, old, and roaring like a monster inside.
Grace said that she bantered when she was nervous and she proved it all the way to town. She was a reporter passing through small towns writing puff pieces for the travel sections of The Oregonian, LA Times, and just about any other paper that would pick her up as a freelancer. The killing in town had given her the opportunity to be front and center of a real story, but she'd missed the site by going up the wrong mountain road, landing her on his front door when the car broke down.
They pulled up to Faustino's at just passed 12:00 hours. A sign on the door read "Out for lunch from 1:00-2:00... ish."
"Well, you can come with me if you'd like. I'm headed to get Ice Cream." Ash shrugged, "My treat?"
"I can't pass up an offer like that. Maybe I can interview you for the travel article." She said, and smiled again.
"I'd be happy to tell you anything I can. But I'm on the private side if you couldn't tell, so I'd prefer to stay anonymous." Ash said as they walked across the one busy street in town.
"I understand," She said, and followed. "I can respect that."
They were only at the Ice Cream shop for a few minutes when George rolled up in the patrol car. He rolled down the window and tipped his hat to Grace, "Ma'am. I'm afraid I'm going to need to bother Ash here, you mind?" Then he glanced up and locked eyes, his look stern.
"I don't mind at all, he was just telling me about your lovely town here." She said and nodded as she started writing down notes from their meeting. "I'll be fine, thanks for the ride and the talk and the Ice Cream."
"No problem, just see Faustino when he gets back." Ash said. She nodded her agreement, then went back to her notes.
Ash walked over to George and got in the passenger seat. When the door was closed he took one last glance at Grace, and said, "I haven't seen that look often, what's going on?"
"Ash-" George started, but stopped. "The forensics came back from Medford a few minutes ago. The gun that killed old Frank was a 9mm round, and it's a match to a Glock registered in your name. What the heck's going on, and what have you gotten me into?"
"Me?" Ash asked, and pulled back. "I'm nearly positive it wasn't me, George. I tried to tell you this morning, the Glock was in my kitchen drawer and it was missing this morning. The window was open too, which I didn't recall doing. I know we both know what I'm capable of, and what condition I'm in, but I was passed out all night. I'm nearly positive I've never sleep murdered anyone. That's not even possible, is it?"
George let out a slow sigh, "Come on, let's get up there and check out the house." George called in his assistant to run prints on the house. When they got to the house, the front door was open. "I didn't leave it like that." George didn't see his deputy's car yet. He pulled his side arm, "All things considered, stay here for the moment, OK?"
"Roger," Ash replied. Truth be told, he wanted to rush in ahead of George, but he knew what lines he could cross with his friend and what lines he couldn't. It was best to let cop George be cop for the moment.
After a few moments of pregnant silence, George walked out. Gun holstered. "Nobody in there," he said. "Come on in."
Ash got up, knees killing him again. They walked into the house, everything was in place. George stood back and let him take it all in. Nobodies eyes were better trained to notice something out of place than Theron "Ash" Ashland's. He better know that after all these years. The picture of his father and him fishing, baby sister in tow. Check. The knife still on the kitchen counter, unmoved. Check. Ash said, "Nothing out of place, it's all here."
Ash walked over to the kitchen drawer and pulled it out. He turned to George, "Like I said it was here and now it's missing."
"Ash," George had a confused look on his face and pointed down. There it was. The Glock, two clips, now empty, and the holster.
"What the-" Ash replied. "That's not even possible." The deputy walked in and had the look of a kid who just walked in on his parents fighting. He just stood there, eyes darting back and forth between the two. Finally he asked, "Can I come in?"
"Wait here Bobby," George replied. And he motioned Ash outside.
"I'm sorry, you are my friend. But you know what I have to do now." George pulled his cuffs, eyes drenched in apology.
"I get it, it's what I would do," Ash said. He turned and let George cuff him, fighting every soldierly urge to defend himself against his captor. A sinking feeling hit his stomach, Maybe I really am finally cracked. He let George usher him into the car and heard him through the window. "Bobby, take as long as you need. This house just became priority one. I want every finger print on every wall and window, even windows you don't think a normal human can reach. Call Medford, we need experts down here, now!"
The drive back to town was quick and silent. He'd never seen George drive that fast, or manage to balance worry and anger in one expression. When the bars shut on the small make-shift prison, his heart shut down with them. He sat on the bed, put his head in his hands, and tried to cry, but there was nothing.
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