The exploring heart
Regardless of how cute firemen were, they were absolute shit at keeping secrets. And that, Hildy had long realized, was not only an undesirable attribute for a companion—a workplace relationship more or less hinging on the man’s ability to keep her high ranking police official’s cup size out of the emergency services newsletter—it was a liability at a crime scene.
Though, Hildy also believed, it wasn’t like they could help it.
Statistically, ninety-six out of every one-hundred firefighters were men. So, unless you had twenty of them in a room, which no station on the coast housed, any given company was likely all male. The job then demanded those men spend their days together; cooking, cleaning, sleeping, showering, and heroically risking their lives with each other, two to three times a week, depending how twenty-four on and forty-eight off fit the calendar.
You had to accept that those things in combination perpetuated a sort of battle buddy, locker room, auto shop, slumber party atmosphere. And that those boys were just going to tell each other everything.
So, however frustratingly fruitless any early attempts at romance might have been for Hildy with the all-American, muscly crew-cuts, it was just as well. And her current observations on the bluff were all but expected.
The somewhat sensitive information—the identity of the former sheriff’s department captain, Birch Riley—had spread from first responder to first responder with embarrassing speed. Eventually, she suspected, even making its way into the cabin of the fire truck where the three teenaged witnesses had been asked to wait. And, if even one of them had a cellphone, in a matter of hours the entire coast would know who the dead man was. But, heartbreaking as the situation was, the breach wasn’t that dire.
Each year between five and ten people washed up on shore, and all of them were accidents. All of them just tourists who didn’t know any better, or thought it couldn’t happen to them.
And, the truth was, nothing could be helped now.
A Bayocean police officer had brought up Mr. Riley’s pants and wallet from down on the beach, retrieved from half a mile north of where the body had been found. And Craig Allman, the Bayocean chief of police, had simply walked back to his rig, radioed dispatch to run the driver license number, and waited. The old man’s ears had obviously begun to fail him, his volume turned up, and the return call was overheard by far too many people not to have leaked.
All it ever takes is one little mistake.
Despite her lacking confidence in anyone who couldn’t remember to shut their car door when using a radio at a possible crime scene, and Hildy having seriously considered taking over right then and there, her job was to support local teams like this. Not to step in and just do it for them.
She tempered herself, allowing the chief to continue the all-important legwork without reprimand; valuing his self-confidence much more than exacting a teaching moment that could happen just as meaningfully at the end of her visit. And passively observed as the Bayocean Police Department attempted to find where Mr. Riley had been staying—the address on his license was more than sixty miles inland—looked for his car, and began discerning who he might have been in contact with over the last forty-eight hours.
On top of that, her presence here was all but superfluous, and would soon be unnecessary altogether. The coroner, the medical examiner, and the sheriff from Tillamook County were on their way. And, if they finished quickly enough, after she listened to their speculations, and gently lectured the chief for his carelessness, she’d enjoy the slow drive down the coast to Mo’s. With any luck, she’d make it to Lincoln City just in time for lunch. She’d have clam chowder in a sourdough bowl, to-go, and walk down the sand to a nice pile of driftwood she knew of, where she’d sit and stare at the trees that grew out of the rocks in Siletz Bay. There was something about them that spoke to her soul. Maybe it connected her to the earth and the unity of all living things; or maybe there was an easy correlation there to some calming childhood memory; or it just reminded her of the bonsai in Karate Kid III. She didn’t know.
“I’m going to take a look around,” she said to Craig Allman, the grey-haired chief, breezing past him without waiting for an answer. She clenched her jacket tight at the collar with her free hand, blocking her neckline from the breeze, and marched around the body bag, North through the sand. “If the medical examiner gets here before I’m back,” she called over her shoulder, waving with her leather-bound notepad, “call me before they finish.”
She didn’t totally hear what the nearly deaf police chief had mumbled to her in reply. But a sergeant nodded as she passed him, obviously comprehending, and that was good enough. Someone would call her.
It was late morning in summer on the coast, and just the feeling of the beach air on her neck, in her ears, was plenty motivation to take a long walk on a seaside cliff like this one. Not to mention the view. There was a breeze, cold under the clouds, but everything felt so full of life, so sweet and thick; she felt, if she was brave enough, she could reach out into the air and touch it with her fingers.
Touch the spirit in the wind.
It was a ridiculous idea that she was too mature and accomplished to be having. It all stemmed from too many lonely nights of mindless television before bed, she had no doubt. It seemed only seconds earlier that all she had wanted in the world was someone’s hand to hold. And where had that idea gone? That sounded wholly easier and more natural than reaching out and grabbing God. But now she suddenly wanted to try. And, she supposed, sometimes, especially when she felt this alone, the more whimsical thoughts were the ones that kept her going. And, understandably, could feel the most pressing.
She looked over her shoulder. Hildy had already walked a hundred yards, but there were men milling around behind her all the way up to the road. She’d never be able to walk far enough away from them not be visible to someone. She sighed and smiled and let go of her jacket collar. She continued to walk away, as casually as possible, and reached her hand out in front of her as she went; doing her best to ignore her instincts, the ones begging her to be cool.
The breeze floated through her fingers and over the back of her hand. It filled the green canvas sleeve of her jacket and she shivered. But only for a moment. The cloudbank, having been drifting all morning in what could only be described as a more-east-than-north sort of direction, had just drifted far enough to reveal the sun.
Steadily, more and more warmth blanketed Hildy, starting on her shoulders.
On her back.
Through her coat.
Through her hair.
The backs of her legs.
She walked on with one hand stretched out in front of her along the sand trails, weaving around low knolls of thick beach grass and hummocks of lavender with wild strawberry borders.
Then, two hundred yards away from her job, from the men, from death, she wandered in front of a small cypress, dwarfed by the sandstone on which it grew, and was totally hidden. She looked around, dropped her notepad into the soft sand, reached both hands high in the air, took the deepest breath of her life, and closed her eyes.
Everything but the breeze and the sun and the rolling roar of the ocean ceased to exist. She wasn’t happy. She wasn’t sad. She wasn’t anything. There wasn’t anything to be. Not worried or afraid. Not fulfilled or wanting. She just was. Quiet and still.
Which, when she eventually opened her eyes, made the large, well-groomed, fluffy black cat appear even more out of place than it might normally, or otherwise, have been.
It sat unmoving, staring at her, standing in the sand with its head cocked slightly to one side. Like it had been enjoying a leisurely stroll of its own moments before happening upon some crazy person with her hands stretched to Heaven.
Hildy put her arms down.
The cat sat.
She bent over, keeping her eyes suspiciously on him, found her note pad by her feet and stood up again.
For a long moment neither of them moved.
The breeze shifted.
The cat’s attention suddenly turned to the shrubs around them, then to the tree behind her. It lifted its nose and searched for something in air.
It went rigid.
Quickly, it lowered its body to the ground, looked up at Hildy, then darted straight past her and disappeared through the cypress to the south. For a moment, Hildy couldn’t help but feel that it had wanted to tell her something important. A thought that was all but lost as she once again dropped her notepad and pulled her gun, the one that lived sheathed against the small of her back, to point it at the wolf in front of her.