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A shiver rattled from the back of Gabe’s neck all the way to the soles of his feet and back again. “He’s going to give it to the reporter.”

Cathy nodded agreement. “Uh-huh. Do you really think the reporter would be sitting there if he didn’t already know the picture was coming?”

Gabe pushed his head into the pillow. The cotton pillowcase brushed his ears, the pointed end of a feather ticked his skin. “Oh, no.” He sat upright and blinked at the dizziness. “We have to stop him. Cathy”—he pleaded for her help with his eyes—“that picture could destroy Charlie as well as the mayor.”

Her brow drooped. “What’s so important about this picture?”

He kicked off the covers. Cathy quickly pulled the hospital gown to his knees.

“Charlie and the mayor had an affair during the war. The picture is the two of them kissing.”

Her mouth hung open, her eyes glazed. Fingers twisted his gown.

“I’m serious, Cathy. Charlie flipped a coin last night and told the mayor he’d lost Charlie. Later he told me that what the mayor lost was Charlie’s loyalty. Charlie’s sacrificing himself to take down Roger Black. Help me, please.”

Cathy stood and pressed a hand on the bed to steady herself. She massaged her eyes before answering. “I’ll talk to the nurses. Then we’ll get you dressed and out of here.”

Gabe swung his legs over the side of the bed and waited for Cathy’s return. Each passing minute had become a precious commodity he couldn’t afford to lose. Charlie Harris and his life decisions by coin toss wasn’t someone he could build a future with, but that didn’t mean he didn’t still love the man and wanted him safe. And a newspaper-headline homosexual, probably an Indian on top of it, could never be safe. Unless….

Gabe rubbed his brow. He’d heard there was a community of homosexuals in San Francisco somewhere. Supposedly, they even had their own magazine, and nobody had burned the place down yet. If he could convince Charlie to go there, maybe he’d be safe. He clamped his hand over his forehead and squeezed. “Is there anybody who could convince Charlie Harris to do anything?” he mumbled to the white walls.

Cathy hustled into the room. “The nurse is calling the doctor to authorize your discharge. I’ll help you dress.”

A pang shot through his chest. He clenched his teeth and scrunched his face. Tears flowed down his cheeks.

Cathy put an arm around him. He buried his face in her shoulder.

“Gabe, what’s wrong?”

He sought the comfort of her soul. His words fell out in a heavy, painful breath. “We’re too late.”

 

 

C
ATHY
sped along the street and let the car plunge like a boulder down hospital hill into the blanket of fog covering the town below. Gabe’s eyelids sank back in his skull. Tires screeched at every sudden curve in the nearly perpendicular route.

“Don’t kill us, Cathy.” Terror vibrated his throat, trilled his words.

“Oh, shut up, Gabriel,” she growled.

He snapped her a look. Cathy had never, ever told him to “shut up” before. “What’s going on with you?”

Her hands strangled the steering wheel of the old Ford. “Lester didn’t come by to take Richie to school. I tried to call him again from the hospital, but there’s still no answer at his house. When I called his folks’ house, his mom said she hadn’t heard from him or Carl. I’m worried.”

Gabe rubbed his boots over the metal floorboard. Yeah. Something
was definitely wrong, but Lester’d been on a crusade about Perkins last night. Hard to say what could have happened. No better time to find out the possibilities. “What’s Lester so mad at Perkins about?”

She tugged at the blue lace scarf around her neck. Her left hand jerked the steering wheel into an S curve that exploded out of the mist. Gabe fell over the seat. She jerked the wheel the opposite direction, and he flopped against the door.

“Jesus, Cathy. You’re not a stunt pilot.”

The car plummeted the remainder of the steep hill. Her foot slammed down the brake pedal. Brakes ground, metal on metal. The stink of burning rubber filled the car’s interior. The car lurched to a halt at the stop sign for Main Street.

She hesitated at the intersection. A shaky hand wiped her eyes.

“I never told anyone who Richie’s father was….” Her voice dripped into sobs. Her body shook. “He said he’d kill my baby if I ever did.”

“Oh, no.” A flashbulb of comprehension popped in Gabe’s brain. “Perkins. But not by choice. He raped you. And now, for whatever reason, you told Lester.”

Her head barely moved from side to side. “I didn’t want any secrets between us. Lester needed to know. Now I’m scared he might have killed Perkins.”

He had no idea how to answer. Yeah, given this news, the possibility was very real.

Swiping at her tears, she eased her foot off the clutch and turned the car onto Main. Cathy clicked on the wipers against the wet gray cloud engulfing them. The blades thumped a beat as unsteady as Gabe’s worried heart. Beads of water slithered up the sides of the windshield. Two of his few friends were in trouble—he chewed his lip—and he didn’t know how to help.

The corner of the hotel and metal L hanging from an iron bracket broke through the dense fog. Cathy pulled the Ford into a parking space and turned off the engine.

Gabe sucked in two quick breaths, followed by a long, slow, even one to calm fraying nerves. He opened the door.

Chapter 25

 

B
ETTY
stood waiting at the hotel’s entrance. The forlorn look etched on her face told it all before she said a word.

“They’re gone. I tried to stop Charlie, but he walked out of here with the reporter. I don’t know where they went. They disappeared in the fog. I’m sorry, Gabriel.” She gently placed her arms around him and pulled him to her. Her fingers stroked his disheveled hair. “I am so sorry.”

He was too late. But he’d sensed that at the hospital. Gabe’s heart twisted, and a tear rolled down his face onto Betty’s dress. She patted his back.

“Come with me. You need to eat something. I made sure a table was ready for us next door.”

“I’m not hungry.” He stood straight. Cathy grabbed his arm and pulled while Betty gently pushed him from the other side.

“It’s not open for discussion, young man,” Betty said.

Cathy looked around him at Betty. “Has anybody heard anything about Lester or his dad?”

Betty clicked the thumb latch on the door handle and opened the door. “He was here.”

Gabe stopped in mid-step and stared at Betty. “Lester?”

“Lester?” Cathy echoed. Her voice rose an octave. “At the hotel?”

“Yes. He left with Charlie and the reporter.” She snickered. “If you don’t mind my saying so, the man looked a fright. Soaked to the bone he was, like he’d been swimming.”

Cathy threw herself into Gabe’s arms. His chest and shoulder shrieked pain. Cathy immediately pushed away.

“I’m sorry, Gabe. Did I hurt you?”

He shook his head. “Nah. I’m just glad Lester’s all right.”

Cathy bounced on her toes. A smile parted her lips. “My teddy bear’s alive.”

Gabe glared at her from under lowered brows. “Teddy bear?”

She slapped his arm and wagged a finger at him. “Don’t you dare tell him I told you I call him that.”

He didn’t fight the grin. “What do I get if I don’t?”

“You don’t get beat. Let’s go eat. I’m suddenly hungry.” Cathy led the way out the door.

The restaurant was filled with the usual railroaders and a few locals. Smoke drifted in a cloud at the tin ceiling. A collage of voices melded to a din of sound mixed with silverware ticking on plates. A table for four near the entrance sat awaiting guests. A “Reserved” sign hastily scrawled in black marker on an index card leaned against the sugar shaker. The trio pulled out chairs and sat.

The waitress, Freda, scurried to the table, her face a carnival of emotion. “Did you hear the news?” she gushed out in a torrent of tobacco breath. She repeatedly tapped the tip of a pencil on her order pad. “I just got off the phone with Becky. Everyone’s talking about it.”

Gabe sighed and shook his head. He didn’t know how much more news he could handle.

“What news?” Betty asked.

“Some commercial fishermen found Chief Perkins washed up on a river bank about twenty miles south of here.”

“Oh, God, no,” Cathy cried. “No!” The room fell silent as stone.

Betty leaned over and hugged Cathy. “Shh. It will be all right.”

Cathy broke out in body-shaking sobs.

Freda scowled. “It’s not like he’s dead or anything, Cathy. Jeez. When did you care so much about Chief Perkins?”

“He’s not dead?” Gabe quirked an eye at Freda. “But you said he was washed up on a bank.”

Freda stuck the pad and pencil in her apron. “Yeah, he was. They found him with his feet tied to the back of a rowboat caught in a snag of driftwood.” She giggled. “They say he was plum naked as a jaybird, his hands handcuffed together over his head with a rope strung from the cuffs down his back to his feet, and begging for somebody to turn him loose.”

Gabe cringed. “So, he’ll be coming back to Whistle Pass.” This wasn’t good. Perkins would declare war on the whole county for this. Lester and his dad had screwed up big time.

Freda stroked her chin. “Mmm. Doubt that. They say somebody carved
RAPIST
on his forehead.” A chuckle caught in her throat. “Bet that leaves a mark. If it’s true, and Becky would be the one to know, her working at the phone company and all—you know she listens in on everything everybody says. That woman gossips more than—”

“Freda!” Betty barked. “Stick to the story.”

Freda glared at Betty. “I’m just saying, if it’s true, the man would be a fool to come back here, what with the vigilantes.” She leaned over the table. A wash of toilet water rolled off her skin. Gabe’s nose burned against the olfactory onslaught. The waitress’s voice dropped to a whisper. “You heard the vigilantes ran that jerk Officer Austin out of town? They say he was caught doing the Sugar Plum Fairy dance on Main Street, naked as the day he was hatched. Who would have guessed? It just goes to show, you never know these days.” She glanced at Gabe. “No offense, hon. You’re not like them queers we hear about. You’re one of us.”

Gabe rolled his eyes. The whole danged town
did
know he was a homosexual.

“So, Perkins is alive?” Cathy shivered.

Freda slapped her hands to her waist. “Yes, sweetie. What is it with you? I’ve never heard you utter one kind word about the police chief in all the years I’ve known you.”

“Yes!” Cathy played the table like bongos. Her feet stomped accompaniment. “Hee hee! He’s alive!” She stopped abruptly and glared at the room. “Eat your breakfasts and mind your own damn business.”

Forks and knives clattered on plates. Grumbles evolved into muttered conversations. The din quickly returned to normal volume.

Gabe looked at Freda. “It’s a long story.”

Freda scoffed. “Well, I don’t have time to listen right now. What’ll you have?” She pulled out the pad and pencil. The pencil lead left yet another smudge on the stained cotton.

In his heart, Gabe was thrilled for Cathy and Lester, but none of the news about Perkins changed Charlie’s situation. He massaged a subtle throb in his temples.

Oh, Charlie. I wish there was something I could do
.

A hiss of hydraulics leaked through the seams in the doorway. Gabe looked out the window. The ribbed metal side of a bus scattered the sodden fog. The black wheels rolled to a stop. The back of the bus sat visible out the window. The diesel engine hummed. Dense black exhaust mingled with the fog’s gray.

“Coffee for me, is all,” Gabe said.

“Bring him a sliced orange too ,” added Cathy.

“And buttered toast.” With a pat to his hand, Betty snagged his attention. “Farm butter’s good for the digestive tract.”

Gabe sniggered. “I have two mothers now?”

“If necessary.” Cathy turned to Freda. “I’ll have the farmer’s plate. Extra sausage. And a large orange juice.”

“Aren’t we the little pig this morning?” Freda scribbled the order. “Betty?”

“Grape juice, a bran muffin, and extra butter. I’m trying to watch my weight.”

“Right,” Freda said and walked away.

Dejected, Gabe slumped in his chair. Betty rubbed his arm. “It will work out, Gabriel. Whatever path Charlie is supposed to travel, that’s what will happen. God has a plan for every one of us.”

“Yeah, right.” He reached out and adjusted the salt and pepper to equidistance from the sugar shaker. Then he adjusted the containers to align with the chrome napkin holder.

“Maybe if you came to church with me some Sunday, you would learn these things, Gabriel.”

Gabe snorted. “Please, Betty, I’m not really up to this right now.”

The hum of the motor outside built to a crescendo. Black residue overpowered the fog. A hiss of air, and the bus pulled away. Gray mist quickly reclaimed the empty curb line.

“Think about it. That’s all I ask, Gabriel.”

He pouted his lips. “Yeah, okay. I’ll think about it.”

The door opened. Cathy shrieked and jumped so hard, the chair tumbled over. Then she launched herself at Lester. She hung like a human necklace around Lester’s thick neck, her knees bent and swinging back and forth. Lester planted a kiss on her that made Gabe flush with heat and look away. A scrape of chair legs, and Gabe returned his gaze to Lester. Lester sat at the table. Cathy, though in a separate chair, refused to let loose of the man’s arm. She glued her head to his shoulder.

BOOK: Whistle Pass
9.23Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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