Serial: "The Cold Slope Incident" - Part 7

Part Seven Where It Hits 


She'd found the necklace in his coat. He had it draped over him as he slept - tried to - in the chair in the living room. He couldn't have been asleep for more than two hours, and he slept light, but it was gone just the same.

"Goddamnit." He'd scared her off. He'd gone into her room and taken it from her. And she took it back. She hadn't left any sign that she'd been there, except the other things she had needed that were also gone. Booze. His gun. His silver cigarette case he never used except when meeting Birkman. A long strip of his licorice . . . that's all that he could remember.

He saw her again the morning of the rockslide. When the contents of the mine had been carved from the mountain.

Woodson drove Larbett back to the shipyard and they called Birkman and put him on the speaker.

"I expected this." His voice was a whisper. Like he was leaning back in his brown leather chair with his eyes towards the ceiling, his neck taut like a cord on a crane. "When she disappeared. When you couldn't find her . . . this is what it comes to."

"You-" Someone-else's voice, hanging in static. Birkman cleared his throat. The rest of them didn't know what to say.

"Come over in the afternoon. I have something I need to show you. It's important. That's all."

Birkman's big black car was parked in front of his house, and behind it were three others. The news had spread fast.

Woodson looked up at the facade of the house, the white painted brick sprayed clean every week by the caretaker, all three floors of it, including the underside of the upper balconies that flanked the triple set of double wide maroon doors. He was at the bottom of the elliptical stairs, those balconies casting square black shadows to either side of him.

"Oh!" He clutched at his chest, tearing away the tie and the buttons of his shirt to claw at the flesh as a ragged ache paralyzed him. He stumbled to one knee, the second-to-the-bottom step, still prying at his chest, fingernails catching his stringy hairs and plucking them without feeling.

"Oh God," he said, crumbling.

The caretaker found him and brought him inside. He gave him some water and let him rest in one of the parlors or drawing rooms. Whatever the fuck they're called, Woodson thought as the smell of the fresh flowers on the coffee table assaulted him. Birkman came in after a few minutes. He had a tall glass of something brown in one hand, gripped from the top with two fingers and his thumb.

He stopped in the doorway and scowled at Woodson, his thick black cotton robe making him seem smaller, shrunken into himself. He wore shaded glasses, which Woodson hadn't seen before.

"So," Birkman said, sitting on a lounge across the room from him and resting his glass on his knee. "We're all quite shocked, you understand. To find her like this." The old man stared at him - his face was pointed at him rather, those dark glasses hiding his gaze - with an unmoving scowl that showed a red gloss inside his bottom lip. At first Woodson couldn't tell what this meant; an accusation, or something else. The squeeze in his chest was beginning to fade but it had been replaced by a sick feeling, a twisting nausea that dried his tongue.

"Even to you?" A woman came into the room. She wore dark green slacks that were wide at the cuff and a white blouse that darkened to pink in the folds of the collar. Woodson recognized her immediately. Her brow was furrowed in as deep a misery as could be collected on someone's face without it splitting into tears or raining down judgement.

"You." It was the woman he'd known as JoAnne. "What is all this?"

"Won't you tell him? Won't you give your hired man some piece of mind, at least. You're about to take everything else . . . Father."

"You're being preposterous." Birkman tried to lift the glass casually, but his hand had started to shake. The tremor extended up into his face and his lips pressed back onto his teeth to steady his cheeks.

"Tell him or I will." She had been crying, he could tell the longer he looked: trying to find it, the resemblance, anything at all that he should have seen before that would have told him this was Megan's sister. But there was nothing. Just the expression, that insistent hardness they all had. That was part of it, somehow, that was the key that unlocked other people. That made them do what they wanted.

Other than that they didn't look related at all.

"It was a setup," she said, walking between us with one arm strident at her side and the other behind her back like a concealed weapon. "He wanted to get rid of her, and you were instrument of this particular . . . lucrative venture. You see everything is a game for him. Money. Lives." Her gaze never wavered from her father. But Woodson felt it reflected back at him by in a beam from Birkman's quivering face.

"And he knew how. You were the gun, but you weren't ever supposed to be the bullet."

"You're crazy."

She finally turned to him when he spoke. She wasn't look at him. More, above him like where he should be if her weren't laid out on that couch, huffing through that terrible dryness.

"I'm afraid not. He found you're associates."


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