The sun was high and blazing over the cemetery when Maggie and Sky got out of the Cherokee and walked across the brittle, late summer grass. There was a decent breeze off the Gulf, and it rattled the fronds of the date and Sabal palms scattered amongst the Live Oaks.
Maggie led Sky over to the headstone at the edge of the nearest section, the simple bouquet of flowers in her hand. They stopped before the small marker. Grace Carpenter, 1996-2015 was all that was engraved there, and Maggie felt it left so much unsaid.
Back in June, Maggie had shot and killed Grace’s boyfriend, a local meth dealer, just as he was about to shoot her. Grace had been trying to help Maggie and Wyatt put Ricky Alessi away, so that she and her young children could have a better, safer life. But Children’s Services had taken her children away, and Grace had fluttered into the Gulf from atop the bridge that crossed over to St. George Island. Maggie saw it in her dreams.
“Was she pretty?’ Sky asked beside her.
“No,” Maggie answered. “But she was beautiful anyway.” She laid the bouquet on Grace’s grave and straightened back up. “You would have liked her, I think, even though you weren’t very much alike.” She looked over at Sky. “You’re tougher than she was; you don’t scare easily. She was terrified, but she was brave.”
Sky nodded and took a sip of her coffee. “Really sad.”
Maggie looked at her daughter’s profile a moment. “Sky, I know you’re really smart, and you have great friends. But you’re almost seventeen. Pretty soon, you’ll be off at college, out on your own. Please don’t ever fall for some ‘bad boy’ because you think he’s kind of cool.”
“Mom. I can barely talk to a guy,” Sky said, with a slight eye roll. “Unless we’re talking about cars or guns or music, I don’t have anything to say.”
Sky was right; she had a Victoria’s Secret face and body, and the soul of a forty-year old redneck.
“I get that, Sky, but that’ll change,” Maggie said. “Just be careful. Don’t let some guy start controlling you or turning you into something you’re not.”
“Dude. Not gonna happen,” Sky said.
“I’m just saying.”
“Me, too.” Sky looked at the phone that never left her hand. “It’s time to go pick up Wyatt.”
Maggie nodded, and looked down at Grace’s headstone one more time before turning around to head back to the car. Sky followed.
Halfway back to the Jeep, Maggie looked up and across the cemetery, and saw Bennett Boudreaux standing beneath a Sabal palm near his son Patrick’s grave.
He was a good couple of hundred yards away, but he was standing there with his hands in his trouser pockets, looking right at Maggie. Her steps slowed as their eyes met, an uncomfortable moment, even at that distance. His face was almost blank, unreadable.
“Is that Bennett Boudreaux?” Sky asked beside her.
Maggie broke her gaze from Boudreaux’s. “Yes.”
“Awkward,” Sky said quietly.
Maggie glanced back over at Boudreaux one more time as they made their way to the Cherokee. He was still watching her.
She was tempted to walk over there and say something, felt as though she should. She hadn’t seen or spoken to Boudreaux since the shooting. But what could she say? I’m sorry I killed your stepson. It would be a lie. He’d had her ex-husband killed. He’d shot Wyatt. He was going to kill her. She wasn’t truly sorry, and Boudreaux knew her well enough to see through the nicety.
What she was sorry for was his pain, and the fact that their odd relationship was no doubt over, but that was probably for the best. She wasn’t sure she would have ended their strange, budding friendship on her own.
Sheriff Wyatt Hamilton thumped somewhat awkwardly down the hallway at Weems Memorial Hospital. At six-four, he was uncomfortable hunching over the aluminum walker, which seemed like it was built for a geriatric dwarf. Unfortunately, despite the fact that he’d gotten fairly good at using his cane, hospital regulations decreed that it was either the walker or a wheelchair. He supposed they were afraid he’d face-plant in their hallway and sue.
It had been almost a month since he’d been shot by Patrick Boudreaux. He’d cursed the smarmy cokehead through two surgeries, one on his lower intestine, one on his left hip, and through two weeks spent going bat-crap crazy in a hospital bed.
He’d been released almost two weeks ago, but had come to the hospital for one more scan of his hip before heading to Orlando for another surgery, this time with an orthopedic surgeon who was considered one of the best in the state.
Apparently, everything looked as it should, and he’d been given the green light to go ahead with the surgery that just might allow him to get by without the cane, and with perhaps just a slight limp to show for his experience.
Now, he had a few minutes before Maggie would be there to pick him back up, and he was headed over to the lobby to grab a Mountain Dew out of the machine.
He rounded the corner into a wide vestibule off the lobby, where there were four elevators, some restrooms, and two vending machines that promised him happiness and sanity for a dollar a pop. As he thumped his way toward them, the ladies’ room door opened, and another aluminum walker thumped through it. The heavy swinging door started to close on the walker, and Wyatt reached out and grabbed it before it could crush the tiny old woman in its path.
She looked up at Wyatt, looked a great distance up, as she couldn’t have been more than four foot ten. She was mulatto, maybe Caribbean, and looked to be about a hundred and fifty years old, but her eyes were sharp and huge behind lenses as thick as his pinky finger.
“Thank you,” she said, in a voice that reminded Wyatt of sandpaper on wood.
“You’re welcome,” he said, and let the door close once she’d cleared it.
She looked him up and down, and he suddenly felt like he should have worn something more businesslike to the hospital, instead of cargo shorts and a Hawaiian shirt. He smiled politely and waited for her to proceed, but she just stood there, so they faced each other, walker to walker. He tried not to loom over her, but he felt like a Sandhill crane staring down a baby flamingo.
Finally, she moved aside, her walker gliding smoothly on the tile, and he began thumping past her toward the vending machine. When he got there, he looked over to find her still standing there watching him.
“You need get you some tenny ball f’your walkie talkie,” she said to him. “Make for go better.”
It took Wyatt a moment to translate that in his head, and he looked down at his walker. “Oh, well, it’s the hospital’s,” he said.
He dug out his wallet and pulled out a dollar bill. As he stuck his wallet back into his pocket, she spoke again.
“Why a big strong young man usin’ that thing?”
“Oh. Uh, I got shot,” he said. He slid the bill into the slot.
“Who shoot you?” she asked, as though she were planning to give somebody a good talking to.
“A bad guy,” he said simply, sliding his bill in a second and third time.
“Why he shoot you?”
“I’m the Sheriff,” Wyatt answered, as though that by itself was a reason.
The bill finally went in, and Wyatt almost wept with relief as he punched the correct button and heard the plastic bottle thunk down into the bin. He reached down and grabbed it, and when he straightened up he saw her staring at him, a frown creasing her forehead. He looked down at his clothing, then back up at the old woman.
“No, really,” he said.
The old woman looked at him a moment longer. “Juju got that one.”
“Done him in.”
He was about to ask her what she meant when a tall woman of about fifty stepped up behind the old lady. Her skin was just a shade darker than the older woman’s, but she had the same high cheekbones. Wyatt knew her from somewhere, but couldn’t place her.
“Mama, you went the restroom yet?” she asked.
“I went,” the old lady said, craning her neck to look up at the younger woman.
“Come on, then,” the younger woman said. She looked at Wyatt blankly as she helped her mother turn around and head toward the lobby.
Wyatt looked after them a moment, then focused on unscrewing the cap to his soda and taking a long pull. Then he sat down on a padded bench in the lobby to wait for Maggie and hopefully drink most of his Mountain Dew before she could whine at him about drinking antifreeze. He didn’t end up with that much time.
He looked up to see Maggie and Sky approaching.
“Hey,” he said.
“Hey, Festus,” Sky said with a slight grin.
Wyatt threw her a look. “You remind me so much of your mother,” he said. “You’re both adorable when you’re not talking.”
“So how’d it go?” Maggie asked.
“It went fine,” Wyatt answered. “I’m good to go.”
He stood up, then faltered for a moment as he tried to figure out what to do with his soda. He handed it to Sky. “Here, hold this for me.”
“Mom says this stuff has flame retardant in it,” Sky said.
“I know,” Wyatt said as he started moving along on his walker. “It’s part of my safety regimen.”
They stopped at the receptionist’s desk, and Wyatt grabbed his cane from where it hung on the walker, and turned the walker back in. Then they headed for the front door.
“I just met a Martian, by the way,” he said to Maggie.
They got to the air taxi hangar at Apalachicola Regional Airport with a good twenty minutes to spare. Wyatt checked in and gave them his overnight bag, then he and Maggie and Sky sat down on the front porch of the “terminal,” which looked like a beach cottage more than anything else. Wyatt’s plane, a six-seater, was running on the tarmac while the pilot and co-pilot went through their pre-flight checks.
“Dude, you sure you want to get in that thing?” Sky asked, jerking her head toward the plane. She was holding her phone, one earplug in her ear, leaving the other dangling on her shoulder in an effort to be polite.
“What?” he asked defensively. “It flies.”
“Yeah, but does it keep flying?”
“It’ll get me to Orlando,” he said. “Smarty.”
He opened his Mountain Dew and finished it off, then tossed it in a waste can beside him.
“I feel bad that you’re going to be by yourself until Thursday,” Maggie said. Today’s flight was the only one the charter company had available this week, and Wyatt was supposed to meet with the surgeon and anesthesiologist early tomorrow morning. His surgery was scheduled for 7am on Thursday.
“Well, quit it,” he said. “I’m going to spend lots of quality time with myself at the hotel, eating things that are bad for me and watching ESPN.”
“Well, Mom and Dad and the kids are gonna spend the day at Aquatica Thursday, while I wait for you,” Maggie said.
“You should go to Aquatica, too,” Wyatt. “They said I’ll be in surgery for at least four hours, and I’ll be out of it for a while after that.”
“I prefer to wait,” Maggie said.
“Okay, good,” he replied. “I prefer it, too. But I had to be polite.”
Maggie smiled at him and he gave her one of his winks.
The young, blond man who served as the flight attendant came out of the office, trailed by a middle-aged couple in matching red polo shirts. “We’re all set, Sheriff,” he said, as he led the couple down the steps.
Wyatt leaned on his cane and stood, and Maggie and Sky stood up as well.
“I’m gonna go wait in the Jeep so you guys can do your thing,” Sky said. She stepped over and gave Wyatt a one-armed hug. “See you, Lurch.”
“See you later, Wednesday,” he answered.
They watched her jump down the steps and head to the Jeep, tucking her other earplug back in on the way. Then Wyatt turned back to Maggie.
“Well. I guess I’ll see you in a couple days,” he said.
Maggie leaned over to kiss him, and he started to bend down, then put a hand on her shoulder to stop her. “Hold on,” he said.
He went down the steps, then held out a hand to her. She took it, and he pulled her down to the next to last step so that they were eye to eye.
“There we go. Leaning’s still not my best thing,” he said. He ducked his head and kissed her, slow and sweet and tasting faintly of mint and Mountain Dew. “I’ll see you Thursday,” he said when he lifted his head. “It’s the Quality Suites next to the hospital. They’ve got your rooms reserved.”
“Maybe when you wake up we can watch a movie in your room and share your morphine drip,” Maggie said. “We can call it our second date.”
“Crap no,” he said. “No more second dates. Let’s skip the second date and go for a third date instead.”
The first time they’d tried to have a second date, Maggie had been shot. The second time, Wyatt had been shot. “That sounds like a good plan,” Maggie said. “I’m tired of waiting for an asteroid to hit me.”
She stepped down to the tarmac and gave Wyatt a hug. “I’ll see you.”
“See ya,” he said, and started toward the plane. Halfway there, he stopped and turned around. “I think I look pretty cool with a cane, don’t you? Kind of dapper, like a retired secret agent or something.”
Maggie grinned at him. “Yep, dapper’s the word I was searching for.”
He waggled his eyebrows at her, then turned and headed for his plane.