At sixty-three years young, Maude Fleming was Cole’s trusty right hand. She typed, dispatched, took messages, cooked, cleaned, sewed – she did it all. She was never without her old, tattered gray sweatshirt. She wore that mess for so long that no one was able to remember her wearing anything else. Meanwhile, she’d given up the battle with her hair a long time ago, opting to wear a blue baseball cap instead.
Maude was live streaming Network News One’s wall-to-wall coverage of the Countess Cucamonga murder and crocheting a mitten at the same time. Knitting mittens was one of her favorite pastimes. In theory, it made her happy. In reality, the mittens were useless. She had hundreds of pairs at home. Occasionally, she’d give them out as gifts but seeing as how she lived in Florida, no one really had any use for them.
A cigarette dangled out of Maude’s mouth. Pieces of ash fell into her yarn but she didn’t pay them any mind. She just kept working her needles.
Around dawn, an exhausted Cole stumbled through the door of the rundown Sitwell Police Department building.
“Long night, Chief?” Maude asked with her raspy smoker’s voice without taking her eyes off of her mitten.
“Ergh,” Cole grunted.
“That bad, huh?” Maude asked.
“Harumph,” Cole replied.
Cole walked on over to the coffee machine and fumbled with the filter. Maude jumped out of her chair, put down her mitten, and gently guided her boss away from the machine.
“I’ll get that,” Maude said. “You take a load off.”
Cole rubbed his bloodshot eyes and headed for his office. “Thanks.”
Walking into the Chief’s office was like stepping into a rustic hunting lodge. High up on the wall behind the desk were three mounts, the heads of a grizzly bear, a large antlered buck, and a lion that he bagged while he was on a safari vacation.
Cole put both legs up on his desk, then turned on his radio. The dial had been set on one and one station alone for twenty years – WRDNK aka, “The Redneck – Grover County’s Number One Country Western Station.”
As luck would have it, Cole’s favorite song was playing again:
“Will I drink myself to death?
Because without her, I got nothin’ left.
Will I ever rev my life up to full throttle?
I doubt it, cuz without her, all I got is the bottle…”
Cole opened up an old cigar box on his desk. He pulled out a good stogie, chomped off the end, then spit it into the trash barrel. He lit up and puffed away.
The Chief relaxed in his chair, allowing his personal sense of ennui to flush through his body. He’d learned long ago it was easier to embrace the sadness and let it run its course rather than try to pretend its not there like the rest of the world usually does.
Minutes later, Maude bursted through the Chief’s door. Her appearance startled Cole, because for the first time ever, there was a plastic tube up her nose. It was attached to a small, portable oxygen tank that the old lady carried by a handle held by her left hand. In her right hand, she carried a cardboard box with a notebook balanced on top.
“What the hell?” Cole asked.
“What the hell, what?” Maude asked.
Cole pointed to the tube in Maude’s nose. “What the hell, that!”
“Oh,” Maude said as she set her tank and cardboard box down on the Chief’s desk. “My doctor says my lungs are no good. I’m not getting enough oxygen, on account of all the smoking.”
Cole puffed on his cigar, then pulled it out of his mouth. “Then what the hell are you smoking for?”
Maude shrugged her shoulders. “What? I’m going to quit down? Screw that. The time to quit was twenty years ago. Now I might as well enjoy it until I die.”
Cole coughed and choked at the same time when he heard that news. “You’re dying?”
“We’re all dying, hon,” Maude said. “I can’t imagine I’ll be around a whole helluvalot longer with this condition but no one’s put an expiration date on me yet.”
Cole breathed a little easier. “Thank God.”
“Why?” Maude asked. “You’d miss me or something?”
Cole flashed a rare smile. “Nah. It’s just, who would get my coffee?”
“What I wouldn’t give to have a time machine so that I could go tell my younger self to give up smoking for good,” Maude said. The old lady and the young man then had a stare off, until Cole gave in and stumped out his cigar into an ashtray.
“Anyway,” Maude said as she flipped open her notebook. “Enough sentimentality. The phone’s been ringing off the hook. You’ve gotten so many calls that I have half a mind to ask for a raise.”
“That sounds like a good idea, Maude,” Cole said. “See if the town will give me one while, you’re at it.”
“Apparently everyone has flipped their lids over this Countess Cooky-Booky, Wooky-Nooky, whatever the hell her name is. The famous girl with the fat ass,” Maude said.
“Right,” Cole said.
“I’ve got a call from the Mayor asking for a status report on the investigation,” Maude said.
“Tell him to look for it up the deepest, darkest regions of his cavernous asshole,” Cole replied.
Maude jotted repeated a more diplomatic response as she jotted it down in her notebook with a pencil. “The Chief is working diligently on the matter and there are no new developments at this time.”
The old lady read another message. “The Sheriff would also like an update.”
“It’s also up his ass,” Cole said.
“The Chief is always happy to collaborate with other law enforcement agencies and will gladly update you when he has new information,” Maude said as she jotted the reply down.
“Come on, Maude,” Cole said. “Time’s a wastin’.”
“Tell me about it,” Maude said. “It seems like it was just yesterday I was able to shit without three different medications.”
“TMI,” Cole said.
“I’ve got a bunch of messages from wackos claiming to have tips on the killer,” Maude said. “One guy insists the killer is a space alien, but he sounded like he was calling from a bar. One guy says Elvis is alive and well and murdering people on the toilet. One woman who sounded like she was abusing one substance or another is sure that this is the handiwork of the government and that they’re trying to scare people into not using toilets. Something about a vast conspiracy against the toilet industry.
Maude tore out several pages of her notebook and plopped them on the Chief’s desk. “I don’t know. I’ll let you sort through all that B.S. I just take the messages.”
“Sounds like a plan,” Cole said.
“Thirty calls from various federal officials,” Maude said. “Lab technicians, forensics analysts, investigators and so on. They’re all calling to let you know that they’ll be setting up shop here.”
“Yeah,” Cole said. “The FBI’s taking over. Just give them whatever they want.”
Maude closed her notebook. “Umm…”
“What?” Cole asked.
“I couldn’t help but notice they all said that if you have any questions, you should refer them to Agent Sharon Walker,” Maude said.
“Yup,” Cole said.
Maude shook her head. “God. That’s not good.”
Cole clasped his hands together behind his head and leaned back. “Eh, it’s no big deal.”
“No big deal?” Maude asked. “You nearly drank yourself to death when she left. Why, if I see that dirty, no-good skank I have half a mind to…”
“Just pay her no mind,” Cole said.
“Pay her no mind?” Maude asked.
“Ignore her,” Cole said. “I already saw her tonight.”
Maude gasped. “You did?”
“Yeah,” Cole said.
“I hope she got old and fat,” Maude said.
“Nope,” Cole said. “Looks better than ever.”
“Damn it,” Maude said.
“It was hard seeing her again,” Cole said. “But I got through it. I was a professional. I listened politely to her FBI bullshit. I’ll soldier through her being her until this thing is over and that’s all there is to it.”
“If it were me I’d tell her to go to hell,” Maude said. “What with everything she put you through.”
“Nope,” Cole said. “I didn’t mean anything to her. I’m not about to let her know she means anything to me.”
Maude sighed – loudly and discernibly, almost as if she were asking Cole to ask her about her sigh.
“What?” Cole asked.
“It’s none of my business,” Maude said.
“You’re right,” Cole said. “It isn’t.”
“But women always know,” Maude said. “Men try to hide things, but women always know, and sometimes a woman will use that to a man’s disadvantage.”
Cole smiled again. Most of his smiles were reserved for Maude these days. “I will try not to let that shatter my faith in the female of the species, Maude.”
“Good,” Maude said as she opened up the cardboard box. Inside, there was a homemade cake. It appeared to be the product of several hours’ worth of work. The white icing had been meticulously applied, with blue trim around the sign. Written in red icing on the top were the words, “Happy 40th, Chief.”
“Oh shit,” Cole said as he glared at the cake. “I was hoping no one would remember.”
“Why the hell would you hope for that?” Maude asked.
“Because I don’t want to remember,” Cole said. “Jesus Christ, Maude, I can remember being a young buck like it was yesterday. Thought I’d be on the top of the world by now but here I am, babysitting my ex-wife while she investigates the murder of some girl with a fat ass.”
Maude laughed. “Well, you know they say life isn’t about the destination. It’s about the journey.”
“Yeah,” Cole said. “Find the guy who put that in a fortune cookie and tell him to…”
“Shove it up his ass?” Maude said. “Got it.”
Cole looked at the cake again. “It’s very nice, Maude. Thank you.”
Maude headed for the door. “Yeah, well. Taking care of you is a tough job, but someone’s got to do it. I’ll get your coffee.”
Cole took another peek at the cake. As he looked closer, he noticed little pieces of cigarette ash in the frosting. He chuckled, then closed the box. It didn’t matter. He wasn’t going to eat it anyway. The fewer reminders of his forty years on the planet, the better.
Along the right hand side of the wall, there was a tall metal gun cabinet. Cole found the key for it on his ring and opened it. Shotguns. Rifles. Handguns. He was well stocked.
He reached into the bottom of the cabinet and pulled out a bright orange box. He set it on his desk and unlocked it as well. He then opened it up to reveal one of the biggest revolvers on the planet, the Angry Barracuda .500 Caliber. Better known as, “the Hunter’s Helper,’ it was heavy, but the weight felt good in Cole’s hand. The barrel was long. The bullets were enormous.
The piece had been designed as a backup sidearm for hunters whose rifles had jammed. No one wants to be staring down an angry beast with a bum rifle and not another gun to reach for. The force it brought was so powerful that it knocked Cole on his ass the first time he used it at the local gun range years earlier.
“Oh boy,” Maude said as she returned with her oxygen tank in one hand and a mug of coffee in the other. “You’re playing with your big gun. This can’t be good.”
“Everything’s fine,” Cole said. “It’s just at times like these, I feel like shooting something.”
“Well,” Maude said. “As long as you’re not drinking anything, it’s fine by me.”
Maude left the office. Cole put the gun back in its box, then locked it up in the cabinet. He returned to his chair and rolled up the right leg of his pants to reveal a prosthetic leg. The flesh of his real leg ended just below the knee. The stub was secured in a metal socket. The prosthetic itself was metal connected to a hard plastic foot inside his shoe.
Cole removed his stub from the socket and propped the prosthetic up against his desk. He then rubbed his aching knee.
The Chief was exhausted after a long night. He closed his eyes and was about to drift off to sleep when his cell phone rang. He pulled his old flip phone out of his pocket.
“Cole!” came the surly voice of Mayor Dufresne. “Why in tarnation is my town all over the news? You think anyone’s gonna wanna do business in a town where people are getting killed while they’re sitting on the shitter?”
“Wrong number,” Cole said.
“Don’t you wrong number me, you son of a bitch,” the Mayor said. “Now I wanna have a big pow wow with Floyd and see if we can’t nip this thing in the bud. I been calling you at the station all night and I demand to know why you haven’t been returning my phone calls. I own your ass, Mister, and I will…”
“No hablo Ingles, Senor,” Cole replied. Flip. In that moment, Cole decided that he would never upgrade to a smart phone. Not only did he not need all of that Internet mumbo jumbo clouding his mind, but it was much more satisfying to hang up on an unwanted call with a flip than a swipe.
The land line on Cole’s desk rang this time. It was Maude.
“Chief? Got the Mayor on the line. Should I put him threw?”
“No,” Cole said. “Tell him he’s an asshole, then slam the phone down hard.”
“You’re not in because you’re working diligently on important law enforcement matters. Got it. ” Maude and Cole hanged up.
Ring! Another call on Cole’s desk phone. “Hello?”
“Chief?” Maude said. “Got a reporter on the line from Network News One. She identifies herself as quote, ‘A Hot Ass Blonde Chick with Big Titties,’ unquote. She wants to know if you’ll be interviewed on air.”
“Tell her that her titties look lopsided,” Cole said.
“You’re not available at this time,” Maude said. “Got it.”
Cole leaned back in his chair. He cranked his radio loud. A new song was on. It wasn’t his favorite, but it was about a man who turned to drinking after his wife ran out on him so it worked in a pinch.
“Drownin the pain away,
Cuz I didn’t get to see my baby today.
Yeah, I’m drownin’ the pain away.
Oh, there’s gotta be a better way…”
“Chief,” Maude said. “It’s Rusty. He’d like a word. He sounds mad.”
“Tell him to blow it out his ass,” Cole said.
“The Chief is indisposed,” Maude replied. “Got it.”
Cole closed his eyes again.
“Damn it!” Cole shouted out as he picked up his phone. “What?!”
“Well, hello to you to, Mr. Snooty Britches,” Maude said.
Cole rubbed his face. “Sorry Maude. Who is it now?”
“Bitchface McGee,” Maude said.
“Who?” Cole asked.
“Sharon,” Maude said.
“Oh,” Cole said.
“She wants to know if she can recruit some of your officers to canvass the college campus for clues,” Maude said.
“Sure,” Cole said. “As many as she needs.”
There was a brief pause.
“What?” Maude asked. “No snappy comeback?”
“No,” Cole said.
“You don’t want to tell her to blow anything out of her ass?” Maude asked.
“Nope,” Cole said.
“I’m worried about you,” Maude said.
“Don’t be,” Cole said.
“Your pushing all your emotions about her down and that’s going to get you started drinking again,” Maude said.
“Not gonna happen,” Cole said.
“So why the kid glove treatment with Miss Prissy Pants?”
Cole sighed. “Because it accomplishes nothing and I’ve wasted as much sorrow as I can on her. She’s a grown woman. She wanted out. She got out. End of story. I’ll treat her like any other suit the Feds want to jam down my throat.”
“Hmm,” Maude said. “OK then.”
Cole was frazzled. In the lower left hand drawer of his desk sat a flask, half-full with a perfectly aged scotch. It had been sitting there untouched for eight years. For a long time, Cole thought about throwing it away, but after awhile, he grew so proud of his ability to have it around without drinking it, that he just kept it.
But now, he figured he was cured of alcoholism. Surely, one little sip to calm his nerves wouldn’t hurt. He opened the drawer and unscrewed the top of the flask. Slowly, he raised it up to his mouth and then…
Cole lowered his hand. He took a deep breath, then answered the phone. “Hello?”
“The Mayor again,” Maude said.
Cole’s face turned bright red as he shouted, “Tell him to blow it out his ass!”
Slam! Cole bashed the phone down on his desk. He looked at the flask in his hand and strongly considered guzzling the whole thing. Instead, he opened up the cardboard box and poured the booze all over the grim reminder that he’d been around for forty years. He then threw the flask and the cake into his trash can.
He needed a jolt. A took a big swig of the coffee Maude had brought him, only to choke and sputter. He coughed and coughed until one of Maude’s cigarette butts popped out of his mouth.
“Son of a bitch,” Cole said.
It was clear there was no peace to be had in his office. Cole reattached his leg and rolled down his pants leg. He returned to his gun cabinet and retrieved his orange gun box. He opened up the door and stormed past Maude.
“Where are you off to?” Maude asked as she worked on her mitten.
“I need to shoot something,” Cole said. “Hold my calls.”
“Will do, Chief,” Maude said.