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Winter, Part Two
A Solstice story
Start at the beginning of the Solstice series
The faint light of an overcast afternoon filtered through the office, turning the warm colors of the wall into muted shadows of themselves. A white bag sat untouched on the desk, already turning translucent from the grease it contained - as grey and pearlescent as the ghastly light of midwinter.
Mayor Nathaniel Long stretched back on his chair, his pianist's fingers interlocked behind his head, thick black locks peering between the delicate knuckles of his hands. His eyes were on Corbin, whose eyes were on the bag of takeaway.
"What do you mean, she won't come out?"
"Just what I said. She won't come out." Corbin shrugged. "It's a minor miracle I got her to move at all."
"It didn't occur to you," said Long slowly, "that someone who communicates entirely via the internet might be somewhat reclusive?"
"Everyone under thirty communicates mostly via the internet, and most of them aren't."
"Your logic is abominable."
"So's your hospitality. Are you actually going to eat these gyros or just let them rot?"
"We're having a third for lunch, and we will wait until she arrives."
Corbin cocked his head to the left. "I already told you, she won't come out. I don't think even a side of Nick's fries will change that fact."
"It's not Ms. Soon we're waiting for."
"Christ," muttered Corbin as he stood. "What's Stephanie going to bring to the table? A steaming platter of I told you so? I could have provided that with less difficulty and we'd already be eating."
"Eat," came a voice from the door. "Don't mind."
Sheriff Stephanie Macintyre filled the doorway. Not physically - the sheriff was a short and stout woman, with cropped copper hair hidden underneath her official cap. Her presence, however, could never be denied. Something in those iron eyes commanded the attention of everyone present, innocent or guilty. Corbin's eyes shifted to Long, seeking some form of ground.
"Hello, Sheriff," said Long genially. "You're not hungry?"
"No," she replied gruffly. "Eat."
"Finally you make sense," said Corbin with a half-smile. "Give, Mayor."
The foil-wrapped lunch was passed over, and Corbin happily leaned against his employer's wide desk, plucking fries and strips of lamb from the shining container. Long himself joined Stephanie in abstention, turning his attention fully to her.
"I know you're busy, Stephanie. Thank you for making the time. You already know a bit about our situation with Ms. Soon ..."
"Don't blame her."
"I'm sorry?" It was scarcely a question - rather, an invitation to continue.
"Bad piece of work in Duffy." She shook her head impatiently at the uncomprehending looks. "Her ex. She's scared. Don't blame her."
"For not leaving your house once in ten days?" Corbin shook his head. "That's not caution, it's psychosis."
The Mayor shot a glance back at Corbin. "Technically it's a neurosis, which I would have thought you'd pick up on in a few years of surveillance."
"You wanted me to bring her back. I did. My part of the bargain's done."
"What good is she to Solstice if she never shows her face?" Long's eyebrow rose, though his voice remained still and steady. "I did not bargain with you for a housebound invalid."
"Like Heather Riley," Stephanie shot back, and Corbin grinned at the unexpected assistance.
"She's right. You wanted Heather to stay indoors forever, you want this one dragged bodily out? Give me a little consistency and you'll make both our lives a little easier."
Long folded his hands together. "I'm sorry. You are eating my food, aren't you? Living in an apartment the town pays the rent for? While I'm stuck with thirty days of flurries and skies that would make a corpse seem lively. Whose life is easy?"
"It isn't like the old days," Corbin sighed, reluctantly setting the food to one side. "I can't just pry her out of this clamshell. I've called and introduced myself as a friend of a friend, I've stopped by with a welcome basket, I've put on a UPS outfit and done the sign-your-name and would-you-like-to-have-dinner-shuffle. I've done everything I can, but she won't so much as open the door to anything carrying a cod and cabbages between their legs."
"Speaking of cabbages and clamshells, is anyone following up on our favorite delinquent?"
"Sleeping," said Stephanie. "Likely for good."
"Good. The last thing I want is to see her open her eyes."
"And the last thing I want to see is this endless cloud coffin-lid over the bright and blue," said Corbin. "So here's what I'm thinking. Sheriff, if you pulled together the usual suspects and told Soon she has to come identify this Duffy ... you caught someone peeking in a window ... "
She said nothing, staring flatly at her opposite. With a sigh, he dropped both shoulders. "Just a thought."
"Won't bring him into it," she said slowly, "but a wellness check would work."
"Stop in on your own behalf," nodded Long. "Give her your card, ask a few questions. Get inside and make sure she understands you're on her side in this matter."
"I'll need to know what lies you've told her." Her voice was flat. "All of them."
Corbin unwrapped the second gyro. "It'll take some time if I'm going to explain them all."
"Time which I, unfortunately, cannot give you." Long stood. "It's a busy life, you know. Sheriff, if you'd take Mr. Byrne with you, he might be able to explain things more effectively on the trip to the apartments." He turned his back just long enough to allow the two to exchange glances, then held the door open. "I'll expect some news before the week's out. Thank you both for your time."
The cruiser had been left idling, warm and comfortable against the chill. Despite that, Corbin found himself shivering against the stiff passenger's seat which saw so few inhabitants. He rapped the bulletproof glass behind his head with an attempt at a smile. "Ever tested this?"
"Oh ... so, yes, then."
Stephanie turned her head, looking his long face up and down appraisingly. "Why do you do it?"
Corbin shook his head. "You know as well as I know why you do. It's natural, isn't it? He's a force unto himself and I'm sure as hell not standing against him."
"Why this way?"
"What do you mean?"
"You're smart. Why this way?"
That brought a grin, though her expression had remained stony throughout. "Compliment received and understood." He relaxed a bit, settling into the passenger side as she pulled out of the Solstice Municipal Complex. "Maybe I'll tell you sometime. I know why you do it, though - it's natural to you. The same holds true for me. It's just not true in the same way."
She nodded, flicking a finger across the police scanner. It was quiet - it generally was, in Solstice proper. The rest of the county saw its share of vandalism and drunken drivers, but the town itself returned little enough official work for its law enforcement community. It made more time for these unofficial errands on behalf of the Mayor and his friends.
"So lie to me."
Corbin took a breath. "You're not going to like it."
"I never do."
"Okay. Condensed version. Hi, my name is Margaret Shure, and I've started a successful online community for battered women."
The car stopped as the sheriff turned to regard him.
"Look, think of it like the irritant that causes a pearl. I may not be who I say I am, but Margaret's courage and experience has encouraged more and more women to come together and form a real community. She's faded more or less into the background these days, letting other women - real women, mind - take on running the works and offering their own support."
"That makes it okay?"
"That made it work," said Corbin as they locked eyes. "They gathered. They organized. I offered support and stories and eventually left them more or less alone, once I'd made sure that Soon was brought into the community."
"More or less."
"Well, yeah." He broke eye contact at that. "Green light."
A breath passed before Stephanie stepped on the gas. "Go on."
"More or less ... because someone had to let her know about what Solstice had to offer. Elected officials who ran tough on crime. A good place to start a new life, and stay in the upper Midwest where she'd feel at home. And a sympathetic law enforcement community run by a champion for women. "
"Received and understood."
Corbin turned back. "Was that a joke, sheriff?"
"More or less."
The silence stretched a few minutes before Corbin rapped at the window with a knuckle. "At any rate, Margaret passed the information on. She'd come here to live after running from her husband, got inspired, got strong, set up the site and got comfortable enough in her skin to move to Portland."
"What's it called?"
"Meg's List. I couldn?t help it."
"Course not. Who runs it now?"
"There are three of them, but Rose takes most of the community work. Merry Weather runs the legal side and Angeline manages technology."
"Rose. Merry. Angel. Sure they're real women?"
"They're handles, but yeah, tracked and verified. Do you need their real names and locations?"
Stephanie shook her head. "Posted as me?"
"No. I know better than that. Some of your campaign literature's been passed around and the television appearances you had last year from the video share sites, but I haven't tried impersonating you."
"Good. Do I know Meg?"
"Yes, from when she lived here." He closed his eyes and began to spin a life out of words. "Husband's name was Jersey, naturalized Russian. He's in jail now in Detroit for assault, not against her. She's tall, too thin by half, blonde hair in a queue, loves Mexican food and Jack Black movies."
"The type whose photo came in a picture frame I bought. She works in computers, obviously. Doing software and website design with a small outfit in Portland called Solas - the contact number on their site goes to a cell phone back at my apartment. Soon called it once or twice after moving but I just let the message pick up and then respond by instant message the next hour or so."
Stephanie rolled her eyes. "And you wonder why she stays in. No friends, new town, psycho on her heels."
"If he finds her here I'll face him down myself."
Something in her tone told him to tread lightly. "Maybe. Do you know something I don't?"
"I know that one of his friends is doing time. Knows computers."
Corbin shook his head. "I'm pretty good at what I do. I don't think he'll track me."
"Not you I'm worried about," said Stephanie, pulling into the apartment complex. "So, Meg and her red dirtball. We ate at Del Norte once a month before she moved to Portland. She asked me to check in on Soon after the second phone call."
"Perfect. You're a natural at this."
"No. I'm not," said Stephanie, stepping out of the car. "I hate everything about it, but she's going to need someone watching over her who actually gives a damn."
"You think I don't?"
"I don't think you can." She spoke harshly, but without malice. "Get out. I don't need to explain her UPS driver in my car."
"It's below freezing, Stephanie."
"Then get in the back. I'll call you a drunk and disorderly. But if I were you I'd head back home in case Long needs you to see her again."
Corbin shook his head. "Heartless."
"Close enough. Now get."
Story and image by Ivan Ewert, Copyright 2009