In the days that followed, chaos was the norm, but things settled down quickly enough that I was able to get a clear picture of life in Waterman returning to its comfortable, country slow pace.
The investigation around the events that transpired that night at Shoeshine Drop wrapped much easier than I thought it would with Deputy Clark getting tagged as the bad guy. It was assumed that something had happened to his mind while he was checking in on Mrs. Henley. He was the grandson of one of the unfortunate ladies who had been a part of the visitation committee and they figured she had called him to help. He'd then for some reason no one could figure out, done the gruesome murders and had taken Mrs. Henley with him to the Drop and his correspondence with dispatch had been a false narrative.
I hated putting the whole thing on him. He'd been good to me and his memory didn't deserve that, but it turned out to be in everybody's best interest. My saying anything different would have only complicated the investigation, which I was not in charge of anyway. When officers die and officers kill, the GBI is quick to take over.
We managed to keep Megan safe and sound and out of the story, recovering from sickness at home during it all. A conversation with Ella, separate from the one I'm about to recount, took care of that and she was happy to go along with it.
As for Ella, she underwent some mandatory psych therapy after delivering the shot that saved Megan and me, but I think the following interview we had in my office with the door closed probably served her better than anything else.
"Sit down," I said, pointing to the chair Jarreth had used when he came into my office and threw gas on this whole thing with his phone video.
I sat in mine and laced my fingers while I stared at her, trying to decide where I ought to start and wondering how far into La La Land she would be willing to go with me by the time we were through.
"All due respect, sir, but I won't speak until spoken to," she said after staring back at me for a while.
"You just did," I cracked, but she didn't return my smile. So much for lightening the mood, but I couldn't blame her. She had to have been dreading this meeting as much as I did.
"I mean about specifics."
"That under advisement from an attorney?"
"No, sir. But I'm an open book if it means getting some answers."
"You told me you had questions."
"I do," she said and looked nervously at the door.
"It's closed. This is just you and me. We've got a lot to discuss and I imagine your questions will lead us right to it, but first, let me say thank you propoerly."
"It's not necessary. I was just doing my —"
"You saved our lives. Did you know she's pregnant? Megan and I weren't the only loves you saved, so don't be so humble."
"I didn't know that." She glanced around the office, hoping I wouldn't notice the tiny pools of water filling her eyes.
"Let's do away with rank and file, shall we? At this moment, I'm not your boss and you're not my subordinate. In fact, we can do this somewhere neutral if it suits you better. I only want you to know that we're friends, at least I hope so. You wanna go somewhere else?"
"You don't have to call me 'sir' today. Call me Marty."
"I'm not calling you that."
"Because tomorrow it'll be back to 'sir'. I'd prefer to maintain continuity, if it's all the same to you. I mean no disrespect - it's just how I was raised."
I couldn't argue with her. It was fine to like my crew, to have fun together when we could, but the position didn't call for me to manage a group of buddies. We were a unit - a force, however small - and it's.m not a smart idea to blur the lines. "Okay. I can go with that and I appreciate your candor. I'll tell you what ... let me ask the first question and then we'll go from there."
Ella nodded that she agreed and cleared her throat.
"How did you manage to not be in the squad car when it went over the cliff and where were you the whole time before you appeared and stopped Clark?"
Ella shifted in her chair and looked at the ceiling, then closed her eyes. It looked like she might have lifted up a little word, probably a plea for the strength to get through reliving out loud something she had surely replayed a thousand times. When she opened her eyes and fixed them on me, I saw the woman at the Drop. The one that used her pistol with ironclad surety. It was the part of her that made her right for the job - more right than most of us, even me. She began.
"Before anything started, Rose and I were on watch like you ordered. We'd already been out there for around three hours and it had been as quiet as it always was. I'd held my bladder for as long as I could. I wanted to keep quiet except for the scanner, but Rose insisted on playing NPR to keep from being bored. He wasn't much of a talker in the field. Did you know that about him?"
I shook my head.
"Well, he got mouthy around here when he had an audience of his boys, but my only experience in the field was with him on those Shoeshine Drop posts and it was pulling teeth to get him to talk. At least, that was my take. Maybe because I'm just a rookie - maybe because I'm a woman under my badge."
"Let me stop you there." I leaned forward and fixed her sternly. "You're right. You started out that night still a rookie, but you're no rookie now. You've payed your dues by performing them way you did and I suspect what you're about to tell me is going to plant that flag even deeper. But more than that, there are two things I never want to hear from you again. Number one, you are to never describe yourself as 'just' anything and number two, being a woman has nothing to do with who you are as a deputy. You are one of us. Special and unique with differences, yes, but equal and every bit as valuable to our team as any man here. Continue."
"Thank you, sir." I caught the slightest hint of appreciation, but I didn't call attention to it. "Eventually, NPR had nothing Rose was intersected in, so he flipped off the radio and instead of having a conversation with me, he started singing under his breath. Old country - stuff like Conway Twitty and Dolly Parton."
"I think I'm insulted. I like Conway and Dolly."
"Not when Rose sang it, you wouldn't." There was actually a laugh in there, which was a welcome sign. "I actually like it too, but with him singing it under his breath - off key, I might add - when we could have shown each other some respect and talked a little bit ... I mean, I know girls put more importance on that kind of thing than guys, but come on.
"It was a good excuse for me to empty my bladder, so I told him I was going to step into the trees to our left - he had parked us facing the cliff so we could enjoy the view - and I told him I'd be back in a sec. You told us not to do that sir, I know, but there are some things —"
I held up my hand. She didn't need to explain it.
"I admit I took linger than I should have, but I needed some peace to shake some of the bad singing out of my head and so I stood there in the trees for a minute until I heard something. I grew up a county over and I knew about the legend of Shoeshine Drop - I even went out there to try and experience it when I was a teenager and didn't know better. I never heard the ghost and I never believed it until then, but soon as I heard it that night, I knew. It was like the sound was not just around me, but also inside of me. Does that sound crazy.?"
"Not. At. All."
"Anyway, I heard what everybody used to talk about. Shoeshine. That's what it said, over and over again, picking up intensity, as if whatever made the sound was in a panic or even afraid. I lost myself for a second and everything went to jelly. My knees buckled and I nearly fell, but I was able to grab a branch and steady myself. I wheeled around to hightail it back to the car and when I did, there was Rose, standing about ten yards from me."
"Had he been watching you pee?"
"No, I faced the car while I did that, or the direction of it. I'd have seen him coming. So he must have snuck up while I was taking a breather."
"What happened next?"
"I jumped out of my skin and laughed. I mean, it was creepy, but I figured he was only following orders; staying close. And once my heart came out of the canopy, I was glad he was there.
"'Oh man, you got me,' I told him and took a step, but then I stopped. My senses were on high alert by then and I could make a note of everything - sounds, which way the wind was blowing and how hard, the crunch of dead leaves under my feet, and smells. There was a rotten, dead smell all of a sudden that hadn't been there before, surprising me like when you let the dishes pile up and there was some meat or something you forgot to scrape until you move a plate and the odor hits you. But even with all that, I didn't need my senses to be heightened to recognize that something was wrong with Rose."
I had still been leaning forward on my elbows, but now sat back and folded my arms together. I knew where this was heading. "Tom got to him."
"Yes. Is that what you call it?"
I nodded. "I'll tell you all about it someday, but not today." That seemed to suit Ella just fine and she went on.
"He smiled at me, but it wasn't really him. It was like his light had gone out - his normal light - and it was replaced with something else. He was under something else's control. Something old, but powerful.
"He said my name - 'Ella' - and took a step toward me. I had noticed the branch that had helped me keep my balance was old, dead pine and would break easily, so I backed up and put my hand on it again. I don't think he paid that any attention. I thought maybe I could talk him back to himself.
"'Rose, you in there?' I asked him. 'Somewhere,' he says and takes another step forward.
"'What do you want?'
"'You, Ella.' He licked his lips in a sick way. It felt sexual to me, but I pushed that thought away thinking that the bottom line was that my life was at stake. Unfortunately, my inclination had been correct because he told me I was going to die, but first he wanted to try something new. He said, 'I fed the other one's blood lust, but never his lust for flesh. I'd like to know what that feels like before I kill you.'
"Then he took another step and told me to lie down. That's when I broke off the branch. It was long enough that when I swung it, really only as a warning for him to keep away, it caught him across the face and gashed it open. It surprised him and he threw his hands to his face to cover the wound. I could see that it was a pretty bad cut because a little blood trickled between his fingers and over the back of his hand.
"He screamed, but not in pain, I don't think. I think Rose was too far gone by then to feel any pain. It was anger and frustration and I took that as my opportunity to run. I broke to my left, through the brush. It was only a few feet to the car, but he'd been quicker than I expected and cut me off. I found him standing between me and the car."
"That how you got those scratches? Running through the brush?" I pointed to her cheek. There were a couple of fine marks there that could have been made by small branches.
She touched a finger to them, almost as if she'd forgotten they were there. "Probably. I guess so."
I motioned for her go on.
"I started to panic again because Rose had this horrible, evil grin on his face. I backed up all the way to the guard rail, right to the edge of it where it ended and I realized I was trapped between Rose and the cliff.
"I pulled my pistol and drew it on him and for a brief second, I thought it was over. He threw up his hands, still grinning, like he was kicking me, and his face dripped all down his neck, onto the front of his uniform. He seemed not to notice anymore.
"Then without saying a word, he opened the car door and got in. The headlights flickered when he started the car and I expected him to back out and leave. He didn't. He shifted into drive and floored the cruiser directly at me. I only managed to dive out of the way by an inch or so."
"The report says you only fired one shot during the whole ordeal. Why didn't you shoot at the car?"
"It happened so fast and I knew that as fast as he was coming toward me that he wouldn't be able to keep from going over anyway. And that's what he did. Cracked right through the guardrail and over the Drop. After that, I guess I was in shock for a while and stumbled back to the spot just inside the tree cover where it started. I sat down in the leaves and prayed at first, making the shakes subside for the most part, and I had at least had the sense to holster my gun. Then I blacked out until I heard yelling. Two women - one old, one young.
"Did you see what happened?" I already knew from Megan's recap and it was uneventful compared to the stuff that went on after I got there.
"No. I closed my eyes as tight as I could and prayed it was only a dream. I could hear it all, though. Mostly pleading on your girlfriend's part and vile trash from the old woman. I could tell that whatever had been inside of Rose had also gotten inside of the old woman, there was no doubt about that. But it seemed to have forgotten about me and I wanted to keep it that way.
"I remember it didn't need the old lady long after they arrived and it made her jump. Clark got there a little after that and hadn't been on sight too long before you got there. Until then, it was basically him begging Megan to come away from the edge and her telling him she couldn't. I tiptoed through the brush and hid behind a bigger tree to watch when I heard Clark. I was going to try and help, but when I saw that he was unable to cross over the rail, I thought it might be best to lay low and undetected. The more I go over it in my mind, the more I'm convinced it was cowardice that kept me hiding in the woods."
"Don't do that. You were strategically placed and you had a working knowledge of the enemy's playbook. You used that to your advantage. When the time came, you acted and that's all that matters."
"I never hesitated, sir."
"Well, there ya go."
Ella nodded that she accepted my approval of how she had handled things and wiped at her eyes with a thumb. She was one though cookie, but she was still human and this would be an unwelcome companion to her for a long time. "Thank you, sir."
We sat in the quiet stillness of my office for a piece, neither knowing how to continue from there. I wanted to discuss deeper things now and I suspected so did she. The past few minutes had been backstory, but she had told me she had questions and I reckoned we ought to get to those. There was no body language now, like glances toward the door or fidgeting her legs up and down, letting me know she wanted to leave, so I could tell we were of the same mind on that point. In fact, she placed her hands in her lap and except for a look to the side to break the awkwardness, fixed me with a stare that said she was there for the long haul. Finally, I showed her some mercy.
"You said you had questions. You've been gracious enough to answer mine, so now you can ask me yours."
She shifted forward in her seat, resting her elbows on her knees. "I couldn't hear everything that was said out there because it was obvious that whatever had Rose and the old lady was also in your head - I could only hear you talking to it, then it eventually took over Clark like it had the other two."
"What exactly were we dealing with, sir? And is it gone for good or just scared off for a while? I mean, I have my own theories, but I want to hear it from you."
"Isn't it clear what it was - or is - by how it was finally driven out? If you heard anything, then you know it was the power and the name of Christ that it couldn't handle. Wouldn't you agree that we were dealing with a demon?"
"That's my theory as well, yes."
"Theories are just well reasoned suspicions. When they become substantiated by concise, unmovable fact, they cease to become theories. They simply are."
Ella gathered her thoughts, then squinted up at me. "Why didn't it take you or me like it did Clark? Why take some and not others? It could have had total control."
"I've thought a lot about that one over the past few days. I think there's a reason it chose not to and a reason it couldn't have if it wanted to." I paused a second and Ella was impatient for me to keep going. She gestured that I shouldn't stop there. "Tell me something and I think the answer will present itself. Are you someone who goes to church on the regular?"
"Almost every Sunday."
"Good. Are you a Christian? I don't mean do you think Jesus was a nice guy and you go to church because your parents did and you always have. I mean have you accepted that Christ died for us and is the only way to salvation?"
Ella didn't answer at first, but reached into her front shirt pocket. My heart sank for a moment, partly because I had hoped her answer would be as positive and fast as mine had been when Megan had asked if I believed in God and partly because it might mean I didn't have everything right. My spirits lifted when she brought out a weathered little testament bible from behind her badge, the kind they give out in bible school and the Gideons offer for free at the fair.
"This never leaves me," she said. "I got saved when I was a young girl and I've sought a close relationship with my Savior ever since." She shook the tiny book back and forth in the air. "Not only do I believe every single word of this, but I try my best to live it."
It was difficult to hide my joy. I had a sister on my force. I had already suspected it, but now it was a solid truth and I couldn't help but to feel stronger as a unit for it. Megan and I would be careful to try and cultivate a friendship with this woman, whether she thought it a good idea or not.
"Did you have that bible with you that night at the Drop, Ella?"
"Right here in my pocket," she said and stored it safely back behind her badge. "I hope it's okay that I keep it there, sir."
"I never wanna find out it's not there, deputy."
"I thought you wanted to keep this informal," she joked.
"Well, that's an order." I wasn't joking. "I'm inclined to think that even if Rose had gotten the jump on you in the woods, he would have been helpless to do anything to you as long as you had that so close to you. Just a theory," I smiled.
"I think we've answered that question, haven't we? You and I have a power that's impenetrable to evil. It can mess with us, but it can't indwell us. Rose, Clark, even Mrs. Henley, who attended church all the time and was someone I would have staked my lot on being a believer - they didn't have that saving grace because either they never believed or never believed fully."
"Depart from me, for I never knew you," Ella quoted a piece of scripture that references those who would one day meet Jesus having operated their lives in His name, but not truly submitting to Him.
"What about Megan? Is she saved?"
"She is now. It would have been kind of hard to deny Him in the position she was in. It was her choice, but she might have had the most seeing-is-believing moment since Thomas doubted."
"Are you saying she had it easy? I bet she'd argue with you on that."
"No, not easy. Not by a long shot."
The day was coming to a close and the station was quiet. All traces of Jarreth's video had been destroyed as far as I knew. There was no reason to keep something like that. the investigation was pretty much over and Waterman looked something close to familiar again. For the moment, my conversation with Ella was all that was left of the events of Shoeshine Drop. Even the funerals were done and the dead laid to rest.
"Do you think it's gone for good, sir?" Ella asked. I hadn't answered that part yet.
"Who knows? Maybe, maybe not. I hope so. We drove it off that night, for sure, but I didn't see any herd of pigs jumping off the cliff into the river. I guess we'll have to keep a close eye on it."
"Count me in. Unless you still want me behind my desk for a while."
"That would be a no, deputy. I need my best people in the field and you're at the top of that list. I'll get a couple of replacements for Rose and Clark, so they can ride a desk for a while and I've already requisitioned a car for you."
Ella smiled brightly, for the first time dropping her official stiffness, and straightened up with pride.
"At ease, soldier," I said and she obeyed dutifully.
The rest of the story is pretty boring. As expected, Ella has become my best deputy. She's my number two and we've gotten close; you might even say we've become friends. In fact, she, Megan, and I meet for breakfast every Sunday morning at Clem's before church for a little pre-service bible study and fellowship and when there's nobody in there to serve, Rita has even taken to sliding in beside Ella to put a little sugar into her spiritual coffee.
Megan and I go to First Baptist of Waterman and I'm happy to report that Pastor Ford has kicked his Coke habit. He's looking much healthier these days. We rarely miss a service and sit in a pew I never knew had been dedicated in mama's memory several years ago.
I drive over to pick up Megan on Sunday mornings and we've tried unsuccessfully to get Regina Two to tag along, but she's not ready yet. I won't have to make that drive much longer, though. I bought a ring and I'm fairly certain she'll say yes.
The pebble turned out to be a girl and while Megan went back and forth between two names, she finally decided there were enough Reginas in the family. So the pebble became Ella Carol and my deputy was delighted.
Aunt Carol, I'm sad to say, passed away before little Ella was born, but I reckon she'd have loved the name, too. We placed a bag of Lindor's in her casket to send her off right so she'd have the good stuff for the trip.
So now we wait. We continue to daily arm ourselves with the power of God, but we do it with one hand hovering just above our sidearms. We're hopeful it's over for good, but we're ready if it's not.
By the way, people did talk, but that didn't last long.
As for Shoeshine Drop, we didn't do a whole lot. Waterman doesn't have the funding for a wall or a gaudy, enormous net, so we took down the old, torn guardrail and put up a new one. We also gave the spot a new, official name: Soseby's View. We figured if it were going to draw visitors, at least we could give it a positive spin. Waterman owed him that much.
Oh and one more thing ... we put three small signs on the guardrail - one in the middle and one on each end.
Danger Zone, they read.
You can never be too careful.