Laying Ghosts

an excerpt

Chapter 1

The insistent ring of my cell phone made me pull it off my hip and glance at the face. I knew that name, and, honest, seeing it...well it was like a sunrise after a rain. I hit accept as I got up from my desk and ducked back into the break room. "Joe's Pizza." Hadn't clocked back in from lunch yet, so I could take a personal call, and it's not like I was all that busy right then anyhow.

Of course, I'da taken this call even if I'd been in the presence of Heavenly Father himself.

A lot of static cut across Kabe's words. "Holy shit, dude, same suck-ass joke as always." I didn't care about the tease. I didn't care that I could hardly hear him. That voice was the best darn thing to hit my ears in what felt like a million years. "You're such a dork." He might have razzed me, but I could suss out the slow, deep current of warmth under what he said.

I hadn't seen Kabe in over a week. "Guilty as charged."

I wondered if he could tell how big my grin was just by my tone. Lord I'd missed him, more than I really wanted to admit. I'd gotten used to the warmth and the smell of his body next to mine at night. I'd roll over and the absence of him would wake me up. Just coming home to an empty house, hearing my boots echo...I don't know, it dropped my heart more than I ever thought possible.

"It's been kinda, ah, quiet around without you." Never, ever thought I'd have a life like this, with someone, and I liked it more than I believed possible.

"Hey, I haven't even had time to jack-off," he laughed, "so don't tell me who's missed who."

Trust Kabe to take the conversation down to the lowest point in the stream. "So how much longer until the forestry service cuts you loose?" Mother bear, Ranger Nadia Slokum, prodded Kabe into applying for a fire crew back in February. My boy'd gone and landed himself a job—he finished up his EMT certification in early spring, got his fire-fighter's ‘red card' by completing a few weekend courses and passing the final exam: hauling fifty pounds of gear through three miles of wilderness in less than forty-five minutes. His probation officer, being on board with the whole idea, gave him a letter saying that he could travel outside the county, and the state, so long as he was working a fire and checked in by phone when he was able.

"Dork." He repeated the barb, but added a laugh. "We're in Milford." Milford? That put him about an hour and a half away. "Stopped to gas up the truck and get something to drink."

"You're on your way home?" His training, plus being an experienced rock junkie and back-country camper, qualified Kabe for a minimum wage job digging fire breaks, clearing dead wood, back-cutting brush and risking his life to fight wilderness blazes. Up until now he'd logged a lot of blisters, pulled muscles and about a dozen hornet stings. Then his crew got called out for the first real fire of the season up in Great Basin National Park. He got tapped and he went: brave, gung-ho and ready for action.

"Yep. They declared hundred percent containment at about two in the morning." He sounded downright exhausted. "Started cutting crews loose just before dawn."

"Well." All of a sudden I got excited, and not just south of the border. "I'll see you when I get off work then." Boy, I sounded like a kid who found out they canceled school for the rest of the year.

"We got to put shit away in Cedar, but, yeah, our bed tonight." Oh, Lord, that sounded like one sweet promise. "Got to run." He huffed it out like he didn't much want to get off the phone either. "See you."

"Hold you to it, boy." My way of saying, I've missed you more than I can really put into words. "Drive safe up the mountain."

"You got it," Kabe answered before clicking off. We never actually said good-bye. That's what folks said when you didn't expect to see the other again. As first responders, nobody ever wanted to jinx nothing.

The news, though, put a bit of bounce in my step as I headed back to my desk. Made everything just a little more bearable knowing Kabe'd be home before sundown. I sat down in front of the computer. A dozen old folders were stacked in front of me and I entered the data from the open one into the national databases. Although I was back at work, Doc Snow had me on light duty. He didn't want me chasing after deadbeats on foot or jumping off walls. I understood that he needed to make sure my knee was stable after my accident, but still, my Lord, this duty equaled boring. I did get that it had to be done. Clear old cases. Link some crimes to others out there.

Still, it made me feel like a secretary not an officer.

"Hey, Peterson." The new Watch Commander came up behind me. "How are you doing on the cold cases?"

That was one of the main reasons I needed Kabe around to make things more bearable. I rolled my neck a couple of times before answering. "I'm almost caught up on what we have." I'd like to say I rose above my situation, but I really couldn't. Diamond had resigned, her kid needed twenty-four-seven home care after release from the hospital and she had to step up. I'd lost a year of pay and a rank over my relationship with Kabe. Before that, I'd been a sergeant, and the Watch Commander; all of it got pulled from me when I'd consented to my boss' discipline for messing with a guy on probation—legally in custody. But that meant they needed someone to fill my slot and I got Diamond's job.

Lt. Jared Lowell, formerly of Orem PD, took a cut in pay, and gained a lot better hours, to take my job. "Okay, what year are you back to?" While it was my own damn fault that gave him the opportunity, it didn't mean I had to like the man for it.

Even if I felt sore, I wouldn't change the turn my life took when I met Kabe.

And while Lt. Lowell didn't hit the top of my list of favorite people, I knew better than to piss in my own back yard. I made an effort to play nice. "Once I get these in," I thought a moment, "we'll have everything from about eighty-two on in all the national databases." Not like we had thousands of cold cases. Most of what I'd been reviewing were old burglaries, assaults and property crimes where the statute of limitations had run out long ago. We had a few murders, where the officers knew who did it, but just couldn't prove it. Then there were the nameless ones: the Johns and Janes buried by the county under the last name Doe who died alone in the forest or along the highway. Someone out there loved them, though, and deserved to know what happened to their kin. "Already cleared half a dozen or so cases with dental/tattoo hits and the like." Most, so far had been through the missing persons clearing houses. I suspected that the likely matches I'd gotten back would resolve a lot more in time. Then there were the few felons serving time that popped on DNA hits.

Mostly, though, this duty gave me a lot of time with my own thoughts. I'd be playing hunt-n-peck on the keyboard and my mind would drift off to imagining what Kabe was up to. Cooked up a lot of ways to have fun with him, you know, like we tended. This past week rubbed really raw, me missing him more than usual. I couldn't wait to see him, wrap him up in bed and forget the rest of the world existed. Well, except for tomorrow, ‘cause my folks were coming home after two years in Russia serving the Church and I had to go get them from the airport.

But before and after...yeah, a lot of nekkid consumed my dreams.

Lowell's voice called me back to the here and now. "Only to eighty-two?" He settled his weight on the edge of the desk I'd been assigned to. Thick arms folded across a barrel chest, he stared down at me from beneath bushy white brows. Even his red-tinged, but grayed out, mustache seemed to twitch with irritation.

I'd pulled every old file outta the storage cabinets in our current building. "Well, that's all I've found files for." Honestly, there were a lot more boxes in evidence storage than I had files to match...most of them pressed up against the very back walls in dingy brown boxes. And look, I knew I needed to get to those, but the farther back you went, the cases meandered from slightly frostbitten cold-case to down right freezer burned. Twenty-five years ago meant locked in permafrost.

"The department goes back longer than that," Lowell reminded me.

"Yeah." I almost managed to not sound snotty with my response.

"There's got to be older files."

I knew he was right, but I protested all the same. "That's more than thirty years ago." I wanted to be out on patrol, making a difference, doing what I did best. This duty made me feel like some clerk. I hadn't spent my life training for data entry.

"And if we can clear them though the Fed's combined indexing systems," he let a heavy pause settle down between us before he finished his thought, "it's out of the unsolved and into the solved files."

"Well, I'm having trouble with some of the older stuff because we have the old style info on it and not the new format. And a lot of it is backlogged at the OME's office." The Office of the Medical Examiner for the state, where new cases took six to nine months to process. Ice cold cases, yeah, they got shelved towards when there was a bit of time when nothing much else was happening. Like maybe when Hell froze over. "It'll be a while before anyone can enter final details on those."

"Okay, but the department has existed more than thirty years." He repeated it with a little more aggravation than the first time he said it.

I tried not to let my own issues mess with trying to live with my new boss. "Yeah, and?" Cain't say I was too successful.

Again, Lowell insisted, "Where are those records?"

"They ain't here." I huffed and pushed back from the computer. "I ain't found them yet."

"Well." He stood, tapped the desk and leaned over me. "Find them."

I couldn't quite let it be. "Why? Thirty plus years...everybody's dead or long gone." I wasn't like this normally. But this was not doing. This was just waiting. Cooling my heels while someone else decided if I could go back to working at what I loved. It drove me nuts.

"Because your purpose right now," he glared, "deputy on disability Joe Peterson, is to enter all of our cold case files into the databases." He rapped a meaty set of knuckles near my keyboard. "I will drag this department, kicking and screaming, if I have to, into the twenty-first century. Where do you think old files might be?"

"Ah." I backed down a little, sorta. "Okay, up until, maybe twelve years ago, the sheriff had the old offices and county jail had cells in the new county courthouse." I probably sounded as bored as I was. "That was built in the early eighties. Maybe at the old cells in the courthouse. I think some stuff was moved into storage there along with a lot of the old county records."

"You got a phone, deputy, get on it." He ordered as he started to walk away.

There's protesting and then there's banging your head against brick walls. This argument, for me, headed towards the latter. "Yessir," I muttered, not quite giving up my attitude even if I abandoned the fight. Took me five or six different times striking out with folks who had no more clue than I did before I really thought about it. Picked up the phone one last time and dialed the maintenance office over at the county building. If anyone would know what lurked in the musty, dusty corners of the courthouse, it'd be the janitors.

Had a nice long talk with the head maintenance guy. Took a bit of cajoling to convince him why my boss' do now should become his problem. I finally got him to ask around his crew while I waited on hold. When he came back on the line, I got a definite maybe on whether they knew where those files were. It equaled better than a sharp stick in the eye.

By then it was time for me to clock out. I'd never been much of a clock watcher before I got injured. But, honest, this current assignment couldn't hardly get more boring. A few cases I reviewed caught my attention, got me lost in the reading of them, trying to think ‘em through. Besides being few and far between, they tended to be solved when I entered the right data in the right place. That gave me a momentary thrill. A few others, well, I could see likely as clear as the officers handling them had as to who done it...those though, they just needed the technology to catch up to the evidence. Waiting a few more months for the old blood and other fluids to run through the DNA wringer weren't going to make ‘em any colder.

The rest of the lot seemed only slightly more interesting than watching grass grow.

I shut down the computer, stacked the files on the edge of my desk, before I headed over to where Lt. Lowell sat filling out some sorta paperwork. I knew he saw me. I'd come up on him just so he could see me. He didn't, however, seem to be in any rush to acknowledge that I existed, much less waited on him. Shuffled my feet a bit, picked at a bit of lint that somehow attached itself to my sleeve and basically fussed, without really fussing, while he seemed bent on ignoring me. I'da never done that to one of my men...make ‘em wait without even the courtesy of asking for a moment. And I know that what I worked on didn't rate too much on the scale of urgency, still a little courtesy never hurt.

Probably payback for my bit of lip earlier.

Finally, he scribbled his name on the bottom of the paper and grunted out a, "Yes," as he stacked it with the other sheets in his out-box.

Took a couple deep, but not obvious, breaths before I figured I could say anything without coming off all bitter and put out. "Talked to some folks at the courthouse, they think they might have some old boxes and such belonging to us." The lieutenant nodded like he listened, so I figured I'd just rush it on out. "They ain't sure, but someone seemed to recall coming across them."

"Okay." That came with him starting to write on the next form. "Head over there and see what you can find."

I didn't even rate a look. I guess neither of us was too keen on the other. Still, he outranked me and I had to explain myself. "The head maintenance guy's going to meet me day after tomorrow." When I saw his lip tighten up, I cut Lowell off. "He's got guys out sick. It's his schedule not mine. I'm going to come in part of my day off to go take care of this." Figured reminding him that I usually wasn't a thorn in folks' sides might not hurt right then. Wouldn't quite make up for some of my attitude from earlier.

"You're off tomorrow and the next day?"

"Yessir." Reminded him about that too. "It's the end of my work week. My folks are coming home from overseas. I got to go pick ‘em up in Salt Lake." Just for good measure, I threw in an excuse. "Since I'm not on patrol it's not like I'm leaving y'all hanging."

"Don't have to explain." He grunted. "You're finished with your shift. I don't expect you to live here." What little of his attention I'd had up ‘till then pretty much evaporated. Felt it like a slow fizzle of heat being wicked off my chest. Guess that meant I was dismissed, so I didn't even bother to say good-bye as I headed out.