Shoeshine Drop

Soseby's Story

"I'd been patrollin' a double shift, helpin' out Deputy Collins so he could be with his wife, who'd just had another young'un. We were all puttin' in extra hours. You know – sharin' the load.

   "I was feelin' right good about myself too, because Collins' wife had sent a fruit basket to the station with a thank you card. It sorta put me in a good enough temper that I ordered myself a second beer when I stopped in for a break at Shiner's like I always did."

   I cocked an eyebrow at that, but I can't say I was surprised. Times had changed since then.

   "I reckon I know what you're thinkin', sheriff, and you'd be right. That kind of behavior wouldn't fly nowadays. Shouldna then, but nobody ever said boo so long as you didn't get buzzed and I never did.

   "Anyhow, I ought to have thought about leakin' out before I left Shiner's, but I didn't. I got back in the squad car, thumbed the volume up on my scanner, and started out again on my patrol.

   "God only knows why I decided to roll out to windy old Priddis Mill Road. They say He puts folks where He wants 'em and there ain't nothin' to be done, 'cept go along with it – like a dang puppet. You ever heard that, son?"

   I agreed that I had. Every Sunday morning at First Baptist Church.

   "It was plum foggy that night – badder'n I ever seen it before or since – and the drivin' was slow on account of it. By the time I got out there, I had me a squirrel in my britches wanted let out somethin' awful. I wasn't a stranger to makin' water off the side of the road if'n I had to, but I wasn't too keen on pullin' over next to Shoe-..."

   Soseby cut himself off and started to shake. His eyes watered and he picked up his mug to drink, sloshing coffee on the table. "I'm sorry, Sheriff."

   "It's okay. You don't have to say it."

   "No, I'm a man and I ought to be able to at least handle that. A man!"

   I didn't know anything else to do but sit there and wait for the old fellow to compose himself. Finally, he did and taking a couple of napkins from the chrome dispenser under the window, he began wiping the table while he continued.

   "Shoeshine Drop, they call it now."

   "I know."

   "Of course, it didn't come to bein' called that till after that night. It was too foggy and there ain't enough of a shoulder for nothin' anywhere along that road, 'cept right there where there's a sort of look out spot, you know, but it ain't a whole lot of nothin', either. Just a thin little strip of gravel. It's the only place I could've stopped, really, and I got to where I didn't have no choice. It was either that or go in my uniform. That wouldn't do and I'da never heard the end of it. I was still nervous about it though, 'specially in all that fog, and I hoped there'd be time enough for somebody to see me. In any case, I went ahead and turned on my bulb for extra measure, just before I rounded that sharp curve that's there right before you get to the Drop. It levels out a piece after that.

"I got right up on top of 'em before I was able to make out the tail lights of the Mustang over across the lane. I knew somethin' was wrong and I knew it had to be bad because like I said, ain't much of a shoulder to speak of and the way them tail lights was arockin' up and down meant that car had to be hangin' nose-first over the edge of the cliff."

   He stopped to drain his cup, then tipped the open end toward me to show there was a solution to be had, so I waved a finger in Rita's direction.

   "I forgot all about havin' to pee and pulled Belinda over into the little clearing, as far out of the road as I could."

   "I thought you said you were alone on patrol."

   "I was."

   "Then who's Belinda?" I thought I had an idea, but I wasn't going to leave a single stone unturned. Some of the old timers were fond of giving their cars a name.

   "You never named your chariot, Sheriff?" Soseby laughed. It was good to see that out of him.

   "Can't say that I have, but I figured that's what you meant. Just crossing T's."

   "Named her after my first lover. They were so much alike – cold and hard, but easy to get good and revved up if'n ya knew how to turn her key." He lifted his cup in a toast to Belinda, but Rita took it that he was putting the rush on her.

   "Comin', Sose! Don't git-cher panties all tangled," she snuffed at him from behind the counter where she was furiously mopping at a spill somebody had left for her.

   The misunderstanding made Soseby laugh again and he waved Rita off. "It ain't no problem, Rita honey, I ain't pickin' on ya. I was just raisin' a glass to the most dependable woman I ever knew."

   "Officer Soseby, you were saying you pulled the car over."

   "Belinda."

   "Yeah, Belinda. You pulled her over to the side."

   His smile faded.

   "That's right, only don't call me that no more, son. Officer Soseby died that night along with that young girl. I'd thank ya to keep it to just Arnold or Soseby. You can tack Mister to the front of it if'n it suits ya, but that ain't necessary neither."

   "Yes, sir."

   "That's where I trailed off, ain't it? Pullin' over. There's a wall of bare rock on the right side of the road if'n you're drivin' north like I was and in my poor vision I thought I'd scrape up Belinda if I tried to pull over there. That's how come I crossed the lane to the little clearin' where the accident was. Soon as I radioed it in, I opened the door of the squad car and heard her callin' out. I reckon she heard the car through the fog and knew somebody was there. "Help!" she hollered and I shot out of that car 'cause I could tell she was young.

   "I still couldn't see nothin' but tail lights at first, but I knew whoever was hollerin' might not know where the edge was herself."

   Rita was back with a pot of coffee in her hand and apologized as she first poured his, then topped off mine. "Sorry I snapped atchya, Sose. It's been one of them nights."

   He waved her off again without saying anything and she turned to see if any of the other guests needed a fill up. There were only a few stragglers in the diner anyway – a trucker at the bar wearing a greasy baseball cap that said IT AIN'T THE SIZE OF THE TRAILER, IT'S THE WAY YOU HANDLE THE RIG, two men in suits who'd taken a table in the back next to the bathrooms to conduct a meeting of their own that was important enough that neither of them loosened their ties, and a local homeless man - Ol' Freddie - you could find there every night because they gave him a hot meal. I deduced that Soseby and Rita must have the kind of familiar relationship where too many words were unnecessary. The kind that said we'll do our business the way it's expected. You take my order and I'll pay for it. Just let me sit here for another day and think about the girl, the animal that was with her, and the apology I never got to make for not doing my duty the way I was trained to. And Shoeshine Drop. Don't interrupt me thinkin' about that place because it's always there and it lives with me and I live with it.

   "I pulled my light, but it didn't help much," Soseby continued. "My hands were ashakin' too much to handle it right and that struck me as odd. The whole scene hit me that way, like there was somethin' more weaving through the fog – somethin' I could'na seen even if it'd been clear as a bell – controllin' things. I remember feelin' dizzy as I approached and the tail lights connected to the bulk of the car. I shook my head to rattle everything back into place in there and called out. 'Where are ya, ma'am? Are ya alright?' That was a stupid question. The girl was screamin' like the flesh was bein' torn right off her bones. Of course she wasn't alright. You say things in moments like that what don't make a lotta sense, but I suppose you do it because you got to do somethin'.

   "She didn't hear me over her own screamin', but I kept hollerin' for her and she finally took a breath and caught my voice. She started crowin' even louder and more desperate, 'Help me! Please help me!' I'd made it to the car, but couldn't see past it. I mean she was right there, but I didn't have the slightest idea how to help when I still couldn't see her.

   "Some folks say voices carry in the fog, so when I looked at the car and noticed the passenger door open, I went over to it to see if she was stuck in there. It was slow goin' because I knew two things right then. One, the edge of the cliff had to be real close, and two, the Mustang was hangin' half off it. I told ya I'd seen them tail lights bobbin' up and down. That car was balancin' over the edge at the middle and it might go on over into the water if even a mosquito lit on it just right. You ever seen how far that drop is?"

   "I have." I'd gone straight there when I decided to look into this, but I'd also seen it more than I ever cared to on those occasions that had spurred into the investigation in the first place. All of them stayed with me. The drunk college kid two years ago. That story teller who wanted to write a book about it. That one had made the six o'clock news on the Atlanta station. And the teenager who committed suicide last year. Todd something. I'm ashamed that I can't remember his last name. He deserves better than that. And now this most recent one – a young boy from the high school.

   I get the psychology of this last one hitting me hard and lighting a fire under me. It was a dare, the same kind of thing that almost saw me standing at the edge of that cliff. In those days you didn't capture photos or video on a palm-sized device and upload it for the whole world to see. Back then if it was going to be documented, it was because your friends were there to see it and would talk. That was all. There were two boys there for the latest disaster and one of them – the one that lived – caught it on his camera phone.

   I had a few seconds to think about all of those things while I waited for Soseby to continue. He took those few seconds to nod his head and stare into his cup. There were forty years of torment he had to sort through that night in the diner and I got the feeling this was the first time he'd mentioned any of it to anybody since the day he made his statement and turned in his badge. I'd let him have all the time he needed, but it didn't take long for his mind to figure out how it wanted to proceed. I thought he must be made of tougher stuff than me. They say he barely missed the draft to Nam. I sort of think we might've won that one if he'd gone.

   "You're wonderin' if she was in the Mustang once I finally got over to it."

   "Ayuh."

   "She wasn't." His voice quivered and he cleared his throat. "Soon as I registered that the passenger seat was empty, I heard her again from behind me, beggin' for help. That girl was hangin' on to the side of the cliff for dear life. I knew it 'cause her voice wasn't just comin' from behind me. It was also below me, close to my shoes."

   "I yelled back to let her know I was there, but I still couldn't see her. Then I heard another voice – a man's voice – comin' from the Mustang.

   "He hollered, 'Get me outta here' and I looked back in the car. I couldn't say why – probably 'cause I was focused on findin' the girl – but I hadn't noticed him the fist time I looked in there. Now he was lookin' right at me. He had a knot the size of my fist swellin' up on his forehead and a gash in the middle of it to boot. He'd smacked the steerin' wheel at some point durin' the wreck. I reckon he musta passed out until then ' cause it was the first time I heard a peep from him.

   "You might suppose I worried over who to help first, but you'd be wrong. I'm a gentleman, Sheriff. There ain't many of us left, but there'll always be one so long as I'm suckin' air."

   "You help the girl," I said. Besides, she was the one hanging from a cliff by her hands. The car might have been teetering, but if the man was still, the better odds were on him having the most time to spare. So you help the girl.

   "You help the girl. Darn right, you do. There wasn't any other choice, the way I see it. I told the man in the Mustang to sit there and don't move a muscle. It'll tip over for sure if you do, I told him. 'I'm comin' for ya soon as I get this young lady back on solid ground.' I turned to go toward the cliff and Mr. Renault commenced to cussin' me."

   I shook my head. I had to look comical, but I wasn't expecting Arnold to say that. Clear minded people say all kinds of wild things when they're facing the prospect of their death. I've had them cry like babies, plead for forgiveness, even scream at me to do my job, but I've never once had somebody cuss me for doing the right thing. From what little I'd learned so far about Mr. Renault, I guess it shouldn't surprise me at that. I asked him what he said.

   "I ain't gonna repeat it. I don't exactly remember anyhow, 'cept it was as bad – or worse – as that Stern fella on the radio.

   "I tried to ignore him as best I could and looked for the girl through that fog, hopin' I'd see the edge of the cliff before there was two of us hangin' there. But it was so thick. I couldn't see my hand in front of my face. I was about to go to my knees when she hollered again. 'Shoeshine! Shoeshine!'

   "I didn't have the slightest what she was yellin' about at first, but then I looked down and caught the faintest glimmer comin' from my shoes. The beam of the headlights on my squad car were lightin' up the ground under the Mustang and glarin' through to the other side. They were reflectin' off my standard issues. I wouldn't have thought that was somethin' you'd see through all that fog, but my brights were on and I always kept my shoes as polished as a mirror. That's all I can figure."

   I think he could see the amazement in my eyes. It hadn't occurred to me about origin of the word Shoeshine. I knew the place from the legend of a ghostly voice, but I never guessed it started with Arnold Soseby's own shoes. This case was getting more interesting by the minute and I imagined tomorrow wouldn't dawn before I'd been wakened from a dream that culminated in the soft, sweet voice I'd heard about for so many years, tickling my ear on the breath of a spirit.

   "That's right, Sheriff. It was my shoes what gave that cursed piece of road its name."

   "What did you do then?"

   "Got down on my knees and reached around the edge of the cliff till my hand found something that felt like a young lady, all the while she's ayellin', 'Shoeshine! Shoeshine!' over and over like it was the last thing she had left in her. My mind knew all along that she was already over that cliff, but until then, I'd held out a little hope that maybe she was just right at it and too scared to move. But her voice was comin' from below and there ain't nothin' there but two things: The cliff and the drop. She wasn't on top of the cliff and she hadn't fell yet. Only one conclusion, you see.

   "I'd holler and she'd holler back those same words, 'Shoeshine! Shoeshine!', and I holler back again to hang on. I still wake up at night in a full-on sweat, hollerin' for that girl to hold on and not to worry."

   I nodded. It seemed to confirm what I was already thinking about the state of my own sleep later that night.

   "Don't worry. Don't worry? Why'd I tell her that? Hang in there, I'ma comin'. I'll be there, right as rain. That's the sort of stuff she needed to hear, not some half-drunk lawman tellin' her not to worry when worryin' is exactly what a body ought to do at a time like that."

   Soseby's voice had gotten steadily louder until he caught the attention of the rest of the diners, the cook, and Rita. They all paused to stare at our table. He punctuated the rant by slamming his mug on the table. There'd been just enough coffee left in it to slosh out and make a new puddle in front of him.

   That seemed to bring him around and he looked around the diner. Even the two businessmen had put a hold on their meeting to gawk. The rig handling truck driver adjusted his cap and turned back to his plate to concentrate on some smoked sausage. Soseby picked another napkin or two from the dispenser and mopped it up, then wiped a tendril of spit he'd worked up from his mouth. He was visibly shaking again.

   "Sorry, folks," he said with no small amount of shame and somehow became smaller, like a child who's just wet himself in front of a crowd.

   Rita bustled over with a rag to wipe down the table for him, but she didn't say anything. She did offer a soft smile that told him it was okay.

   "Sorry, Rita. I'm sorry,' he apologized again.

   Rita laid her hand gently on his shoulder. She knew the silent rules and kept to them.

   As much as I wanted to hear the rest of it, I figured it might be a good idea to let him rest and pick up the remainder of his story another day. It wasn't like the Drop was going anywhere and I still didn't know what I planned to do to stop the madness once I got down to the bottom of things. Legends don't die easy and when they do go down, they go down swinging.

   I offered to let him stop there, but he put up his hand and shook his head.

   "No. I appreciate it, Sheriff, but if'n I don't have it out now, I might never."

   "You sure?" I asked and put my hand on his to steady it, thinking maybe it'd make a point.

   "I never told this to nobody else. Ever. Especially what happened next. But before I do, can I ask you somethin', Sheriff?"

   I said that he could.

   "In a nutshell, what do you think happened that night?"

   I'd read the reports in the file and every article I'd been able to dig up at the library. The net was no help at all. And everything I was able to find told pretty much the same story with the same details.

   "In a nutshell? Case seems cut and dry as far as the accident goes. Curvy mountain road, middle of the night, rock wall on one side, a steep drop to the river on the other side, and fog so thick two friends standing close enough could pick each other's noses and not know if they'd found their own. That about it?"

   "Yep, at least as far as all the reports say. It don't take a genius to figure out that with all those things put together, it's bound to wind up the way it did. But you don't believe that's all there was to it, do ya?"

   "There are a few unanswered questions, yes," I agreed.

   He nodded. "Otherwise, I wouldn't be here flappin' my gums."

   I squinted my eyes at him. I was glad he'd not taken me up on the rest because it was obviously about to get weirder.

   "Why did Tom Renault have a sixteen year old girl in his car who wasn't related to him and at that time of night?" I asked.

   "Oh, that riddle got answered pretty quick, but the lawyer representin' Tom's wife had it redacted. A friend of mine from the office kept me up to date for a while, but there was a private settlement by the Renaults and it didn't take long before the whole case was buried and forgot."

   "Had what redacted?"

   "There was a report. Tom's daughter was Regina's best friend and she fessed up about things that went on when Regina was over for spend-the-nights."

   "And you're saying it was covered up?"

   "I imagine you might find it if'n ya dig deep enough in the right place, but it ain't gonna be easy. One thing I do know is that the Sheriff at that time – Cromer, his name was – didn't like it bein' swept under the rug, but the Renaults knew important people and there wasn't nothin' he could do about it. He never threw nothin' away, though, and like as not, you'll find it tucked somewhere in a separate file under a tag that don't make no sense. Sheriff Cromer woulda kept it safe thataway in case he ever needed to come back to it.

   I made another note in my pad.

   "Still," he said, leaning in close so I could hear him whisper, "that ain't your concern, either, is it?"

   I squinted at him again and he sat back laughing. This time it was nervous laughter that lilted slightly up and down. It sounded like something you'd hear coming from a padded room down to Milledgeville, as Arnold had put it. I hadn't decided yet if I was irritated or intrigued by the way he was getting all mysterious about it and the questions had all of a sudden started being directed at me. That wasn't the way I'd intended this to go.

   "Sheriff, you're aimin' to figure out if'n there's anything to the legends about Shoeshine Drop." Soseby lifted his hands and wiggled his fingers, mocking, like he was telling me to look out for the boogey man.

   "I don't know," I told him, looking into my cup. "I guess that's right."

   "It's all true."

   I looked up from my cup and into his eyes. He was telling the truth, or at least he thought he was. There was no smile in his voice and looking at the absolute certainty in his face made my skin crawl with chilly fingers that ran like ice from the top of my head and out through my toes. His skin had lost all of its color. He was the image of a man who'd been haunted and survived it. Whether or not what he had left to say would clean it out and give him some peace, there was no way to know until it was done. Probably not. But he was getting ready to lead that haunting into the life of someone new and that came with a price as well. His face told me that he thought he'd be culpable for whatever happened to me after we paid the bill and parted ways.

   "Go on, then," I managed, but it barely came out.

   Soseby called out to Rita, who was just finished settling the bill with the two business men.

   "Gonna need another refill, darlin'. One more oughtta do."

   We waited until Rita poured his cup and warmed up mine too, then Soseby continued on.

   "Renault finally kept quiet while I felt around for the girl, but I think that's only 'cause he was still out of it from hittin' his head.

   "Where was your flashlight then?"

   "On the ground beside me. I laid it there to have my hands free. Wasn't doin' me no good anyway."

   "Makes sense."

   "When I found the flesh of her arm, I felt my heart jump up into my throat. It was good that I'd found her and all, but the way her muscles felt so tight, I knew that was all that was holdin' her there. There wasn't a thing under her feet but air."

   "Oh God!"

   "She said the exact same thing, only she was thankin' Him. 'I'm gonna fall,' she screamed. 'No, you ain't,' I hollered back and told her not to kick her feet, but to let me drag her back up and over the side. I pulled that girl up like she was a rag doll. I reckon my adrenaline had somethin' to do with that, but man, was she tiny!" He choked up and had to swallow hard. "She was so little. So little."

   I needed to hear the rest. I handed him a napkin from the dispenser, which was getting low, and he wiped his eyes with it.

   "I don't do too good when I think about that part. Never have and I don't know why; I suppose it hits me I never had a daughter or granddaughter of my own, but she was somebody's. And if'n they loved her half as much as I woulda loved mine, well ..."

   "Take your time," I said.

   "Thank ya. I got her up there on top of the cliff and she was safe. She collapsed and fell around my feet, cryin' and huggin' my legs like she thought if'n she let loose, she might go right back over.

   "I tried to get her to tell me if she was okay. Was she hurt? She wouldn't say, but she just stayed there around my ankles, shakin'. I could see the beam of my flashlight castin' out into nothin' and fadin away, so I bent and picked it up. I needed to do somethin' to get Renault to safety.

   "I pried her arms from around my legs so I could get to him and helped her away from the edge enough that we'd both be comfortable. 'Don't move till I get back,' I told her, but she didn't listen."

   "How could you tell?," I asked.

   "You'll see. I'm getting' to that."

   "Sorry. I'll hush and let you tell the story."

   "You need to pay attention now. If'n you'll remember, I never gave this stuff in my report. It's all up here." He tapped at his temple with an index finger that was impossibly bent from arthritis. "I went over to the Mustang, but Renault wasn't in it. I started callin' for him and lookin' around all crazy, but you know ..."

   "The fog."

   "You got it. I had my bearin's enough by then to know about where the drop was by the lights I could see from the Mustang, but that was all. Regina was over to my right, still asquallin' and I wanted real bad to get things squared away, but with a man unaccounted for, I couldn't do that just yet. That's when it dawned on me there might be others. I'd assumed it was just the two of 'em, but that mighta been wrong, so I picked my way through the fog back to where Regina was sittin' and asked her was there anybody else in the car besides her and the other man.

   "She answered me this time. No, there wasn't. And of course there wasn't. It was a middle aged man – at least that's how old he'd looked to me sittin' there behind the wheel with blood all over his face – drivin' hell's bells around the mountains with a minor child in the passenger seat of his mid-life crazy Mustang and she wasn't his daughter. It had already occurred to me the Mustang might belong to Tom Renault. I'd seen it around town, but the fog made it impossible to tell the color of it. And with the blood covering him, I couldn't tell if it was him, neither. I did know that's a joyride you don't invite young company on.

   "She'd no more give me her answer than I heard the sound of metal whinin' and tearin' behind me. That Mustang was goin' over and I remember hopin' to God Mr. Renault hadn't got stupid and crawled into the back seat. I hadn't seen him there when I looked before, but that didn't keep my mind from firin' on that cylinder.

   "Both me and the girl held our breath while we listened to one of the most expensive toys a person can buy go atumblin' to the rocks and river below the drop. That's when I realized where Mr. Renault had got to, 'cause he commenced to screamin' and carryin' on. 'My car! You hussy, you sent my car over the cliff!'

   I realized another thing, too. The fog was liftin' 'cause I could actually see him walkin' toward us. He was still just a shadow, but I could see his form. He was broodin', head hung low, what you'd call menacin', like one of those fellas that comes after the girls in the slasher flicks. You know, they run as fast as they can, usually trip on somethin', then get up and keep arunnin', all the while, the fella with the axe or the chainsaw or whatever blame thing he means to kill 'em with, just keeps walkin' slow, but somehow keeps up. That's the only way I can relate to ya how it felt. There was somethin' wrong with that man.

   "I got between 'em and when I glanced behind me to make sure I wasn't about to barrel over the poor girl, I saw one of the straps of her blouse was tore. It was the kind of tear caused by a man what gets too handsy and wants to get a feel of the other side of the creek, but the lady ain't willin' let him cross that partic'lar bridge – you get my meaning."

   "Loud and clear. So my assumption about his intentions was right."

   "No ass to be made out of ya this time," Soseby said, then drank a long gulp from his cup.  I wondered if he might've been a bit quick on the trigger when he told Rita it was the last one he'd be needing.

   "Nothing was in any of the reports that suggested he intended to molest Regina. Do you know why?"

   "Dang skippy, I know why. It's 'cause I never told nobody. By the time I gave my official account, they was both already dead and I didn't see no reason to bring that up and make it worse. It got settled for well and for good at the bottom of the Drop, didn't it? Why should I be the one to bring more hurt on either of those families and for nothin'? He got his justice."

   I needed another top-off and I signaled Rita over. She didn't try and hide that she was weary of the dance. She rolled her eyes and made an audible show of her irritation with a sigh. I remarked to myself that I'd never hire someone like Rita if I ran the place, and in her defense, this was where folks came when they wanted to drink away their sorrows with coffee instead of something more potent. I'd be leaving her a decent tip, regardless.

   After she did her job filling my cup, I drank deep, ignoring the burn, and lifted my eyes to Soseby.

   "I guess it would have made things worse. Did you see any other signs she'd been assaulted?"

   "No, she didn't look any worse for wear. No more than anybody else would under the circumstances. When he'd got close enough for her to make him out, she got up and hid behind me, though. She started pleadin' with me to keep him away from her. 'No, no, no," she whimpered like a child who sees the dentist comin' with one of them big 'ol horse needles they used to stick in your gums. She was shakin', too. I could feel it in her hands. She had gripped me around the waist just below my ribs. Any lower and she'da been holdin' my sidearm.

  "She was beggin' by then and I said to myself, Sose, this is somethin' bigger'n you thought it was and you ain't gonna be able to handle it by the book.

   "I turned and laced the girl up close to me with my left arm to protect her and stuck out my right one to keep him at a distance. 'You just hold on right there – don't come any closer,' I told him and when he stopped at my command, I let down my guard. That was a mistake. 'We need to get both of ya to the hospital. You've been traumatized. Let's deal with one thing at time.'

   "He pointed at the girl. 'The whore made me wreck my car! Made me run off the road and now it's DOWN THERE!'

   "I stepped back a little when he screamed that last part, I admit it. But they never covered nothin' such as that in basic trainin'. I had to holler back at him. 'You settle down, mister!' and he did.

   "I reckon it woulda been alright then if'n that'd been the end of it, but the girl, bein' sixteen and you know how teenagers are, didn't see the wisdom in what I'd said about dealin' with one thing at a time. 'He tried to touch me,' she said. 'He ripped my shirt and lost control when I wouldn't let him!'

   "That set him off. He called her a liar and stormed toward us. I had to adjust my stance to keep him from getting to her and when I did, her feet went out from under her. I didn't realize we'd backed up that close to the edge. She screamed and that made him stop, but when I turned around, she was hangin' again, just like she had before, only she'd caught hold of a big root that was growin' out the side of the cliff. She had a better grip than she did the first time, but it didn't do no good. I assumed he'd stay put while I pulled her back up, but this time the assumption acted the way they normally do. Soon as I turned my back and stooped to help her, Renault ran up and stomped her hands."

   Soseby fell silent again and I let him.

   "It ain't like it is in the movies where you can keep changin' your hands to buy yourself some time if you're hangin' on to somethin' for dear life and somebody comes along to stomp on 'em. All it took was one hard smash from his boot and she was gone, screamin' the whole way down, exactly like it sounds in the movies."

   "Renault killed her to shut her up. He would have had to kill you to make it worth his while. None of this was in the reports. How much of the real story has anybody ever heard? Because the way I see it, the reports are as much of a fairy tale as the legend ought to be."

   "I told you. You're the first person to hear about this. I'll swear it on a stack of bibles." He looked like he'd spent a lifetime trying to cast out the images and voices from that night and knew he never would. I figure that was true.

   "I made it that way on purpose," he said. "And I left the force after that on account of I couldn't live with myself knowin' I coulda – shoulda – stopped it if'n I'd been better, but also because I lied about it all. It was for a good reason and I stand by what I did, but I still lied. And a deputy without integrity ain't no deputy at all. I believe that. I suppose knowin' that now gives you even more of a right to arrest me. Wasn't no evidence to tamper with, but I tampered with the truth."

   "Anybody ever tell you you're just about as country as cornbread, Sose?" That made him smile, which was what I'd hoped it would do.

   "You ain't a far cry from cornbread yourself, but yeah. The boys used to poke fun at my way of talkin' and say things like mama musta licked a possum while she was cookin' me up. I acted like it hurt my feelin's, but I missed it soon as I left." His face melted back to serious. "We ain't done, though, Sheriff."

   "I know," I sighed. "I just thought we might use a breather. What'd you do once Renault had killed her?"

   "Pulled my sidearm, obviously. Fog was still dense, but he was close enough that I could see him. I pointed my revolver at him and told him to stay put. 'You just stay right where you're at,' I said. But they don't prepare you for such as that in basic trainin' – I think I said that before."

   "You did."

   "He put up his hands right off and I thought he'd be easy enough to get cuffs on, but he could tell how nervous I was too, the way my gun was arattlin' around in my hand. I went to fumblin' for my cuffs with my other hand and for some reason, probably because that one was shakin' just as bad, I couldn't get 'em out. All the while, I was quotin' him his Miranda rights like a good little soldier and havin' a hard time of it with everything goin' on all at once. That's when he bull-rushed me. Came right at me. He'd backed up a spell when I pulled my piece on him, so he got a runnin' start. The cliff's edge was to my left – his right – and I might not have seen him comin' 'cause I'd looked down for a second to see why my cuffs were givin' me s'much trouble. But he let out a primal kind of yell when he rushed toward me and when I heard that, I came to my senses and looked up just in time. If I'da pulled the trigger, I'da shot him center of the chest. Instead, the one thing I did seem to remember from my trainin' kicked in and guided my body.

   "It's a good thing I didn't pull the trigger, though. I'da played hell explainin' why and how the man at the bottom of the Drop had a bullet hole in him from my gun. As it turned out, I shifted my body to the right and blocked him, makin' him careen away from me in the direction of the edge. We were too close for him to stop and ..."

   "Over he goes and the monster is vanquished." I won't deny the thought gave me something to be happy about.

   "That's one way to put it. And you know what? He never made a peep goin' down, like he knew well and good it was what he deserved.

We sat in silence a minute. That was the story and he knew I needed to process it. I guess he needed to process that he'd finally told it, too.

   "I don't remember anything between then and wakin' up in that amb'lance. When I come to in the hospital, I give my statement, the one that tidied up the whole thing and made it look like less than it was. Investigators are the ones what said they was thrown out during the tumble. And you want to know what else haunts me – what's so blame stupid, but haunts me to this day?"

   "Whats that, Sose?" I spoke to him as gentle as I would have a small child.

   "Pissed myself. I don't remember doin' it, but they don't wash your clothes when they give 'em back to ya at the hospital. I smelled it on my uniform britches. Whether I did it while everything was goin' on or after I passed out, I don't know. I just know I pissed myself."

   I laughed when he said that. I actually el-oh-elled and I'm still not certain he meant for it to be funny, but when he saw me laugh, he started cackling too. We sat there allowing ourselves to relieve the burden of the conversation we'd just had with good, old fashioned humor. If anything will cure a soul, I think it might be laughter. And I know that while to Soseby it was citizen to Sheriff, finally giving a full, undoctored statement after all these years, to me it was deputy to Sheriff, enjoying a cup or several of coffee after the shift is done. Because integrity or not, Arnold Soseby was a good man with good intensions.

   Once a law man, always a law man, I say.

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