We flew into Manchester, New Hampshire, and the trip wasn’t bad at all. The TSA Gestapo jackboots were doing their thing at every checkpoint, no question about that, but none of them messed with either Judi or me. Not once. Neither Judi nor I had ever flown before, but we watched the rest of the sheep moving through the line and shuffled right along with the rest of the flock.
My girl swore it was because I was big and black, and she was with me. She might have been right. We saw white people pulled out of line several times, and a Native American man once, but we weren’t even asked to shuck our cowboy boots. The only way we could have been afforded any more deference would have been to don traditional Muslim garb.
Still, I swore never to fly again; one cross country jaunt was enough. The whole experience made me uneasy, the aircraft and the government ambience combining to produce a vibe I could only think of as evil.
Why people continued to fly, and in ever increasing numbers at that, was beyond me.
The air sickness was settling down by the time our luggage hit the carousel. Both of our bags had been tossed, the luggage padlocks apparently cut off and discarded. Could be the baggage goons didn’t know I was a black man and thus not to be messed with. Should have pasted my photo on the sides of the darned things.
“Everything there?” I asked Judi, closing my suitcase. The luggage rapists had stirred my shirts and underwear around and dumped the contents of my Dopp kit loose in the bottom. Good thing our people had warned me to travel light.
“Looks like,” Judi muttered, “but I’d love to be able to shove a rusty curling iron up somebody’s backside. Smells like they sniff tested my White Shoulders; everything reeks.”
I tested the air and agreed. “Whoa! Good thing that’s a perfume we both like!”
“Yeah, but not this much of it. Ready?”
“Ready.” We grabbed the pull handles and towed the bags on out of the terminal, into the airport parking lot. No need to try for a cab or a rental car, at least not yet. We began touring the long term parking rows, looking for a green 2010 Kia Soul. Took us a while, but the other travelers were used to people who’d forgotten where they parked; nobody looked at us twice.
It took us 13 minutes by my watch. “This looks like it,” Judi said quietly.
I grunted in agreement. We walked up to the vehicle like we owned it, getting a look inside while trying not to stare. Judi, being smaller and less conspicuous by default, scooted around back, feeling under the left side of the rear bumper where Gary Jellison had told her he kept a spare key in a magnetic case. He’d planned to be here a week ago today, doing exactly what we were doing now, before he’d dropped dead in Jack Hill’s bathroom, pitching forward off the toilet, gone before his face hit the floor.
We’d moved his body to the spare bedroom where he’d been staying, letting the EMT’s and deputies believe he’d been found dead in bed. The man had overcome impossible odds, surviving the Bob Marshall Wilderness in the dead of winter, starting out stark naked without even a clue as to his exact location. He’d deserved a bit of dignity.
Judi didn’t say a word, just straightened up and handed me the key. Relief surged through both of us, though. We desperately needed to search this SUV, just in case Gary had left a clue or two behind that might help lead us to the Snow Snuffers responsible for his death.
The Kia started right up. Smooth as silk; Jellison had been a perfectionist when it came to vehicle maintenance, as with so much else.
Flipping open her phone, Judi called Karina Fay in Bulwer Falls, bringing her up to date as I wheeled toward the exit.
“Karina? It’s Judi. We’re in Manchester, and guess what? We were coming in for a landing when I remembered Gary saying he’d left his Kia in this lot. He’d lost his keys, but he had a spare–you knew about that? Yeah, under the back bumper. I found it, so hey, if it’s okay with you, instead of renting a car here, we’ll bring Gary’s back to you in the morning. What? No, we’re thinking it’s going to be dark before we could get up there, and with the weather–yeah, better we make the drive in daylight. …Sure. We’ll be there well before the memorial starts. Yes, we’ve got the ashes. Cremains, they call ’em, did you know that? I didn’t….No, the ashes came through the flight okay. The bugger TSA went through our suitcases, though, sprayed my perfume all over mine…yeah. Just for meanness, has to be…wow. All that? Amazing…okay, see you by noon then. ‘Bye.”
Tucking her phone back in her purse, she stared out through the windshield. “Now, let’s hope we’re not lying. How far to the FedEx terminal?”
“Not going to the terminal, remember?” I grinned, perversely amused at the way we’d set it up. “Kinko’s. They’re a drop off point for packages. Jennifer arranged for the cremains to be received there. I happened to walk in while she was on the phone with them, and believe me, the widow Trace can sell a sob story like nobody’s business. So hopefully….”
No way in Hades were we going to try to fly with cremains aka dead person ashes on a commercial flight these days.
Fortunately, FedEx and Kinko’s were both on the ball; the package was there, none the worse for wear. We paid the bill and boogied on.
“Let’s do it at Concord,” I told the little hottie riding shotgun, and we did. We stopped at the first motel we came across on the way into Concord, which happened to be a Best Western. Checked in and, before going back out to give the Kia a thorough going over–it was parked in a blind spot where that shouldn’t be a problem–we unwrapped the package containing the box of cremains. The box was heavier than it should be for one human’s ashes, mainly because of the weapons secreted in the big Ziplock bag.
With my Walther riding in the small of my back where it belonged and a small Colt revolver tucked in each of Judi’s boots, we didn’t feel so naked.
After all, we were in New Hampshire, where the state motto is Live Free or Die. Just a hop-skip across Massachusetts from my old Hartford, Connecticut, stomping grounds, but a different state of consciousness altogether, especially up north, where we were headed.
I checked the trunk of the Kia and found nothing except the spare tire and jack. Judi went straight for the glove box and hit pay dirt immediately. Mr. Perfectionist had printed out a copy of the Craigslist ad that had led him to his doom…and like all Craigslist ads, it provided a wealth of information for those with eyes to see. The date Gary had seen the ad (noted in his precise, fussy handwriting). How long the ad had been running at that time (28 days). A phone number to call.
We stared at the piece of paper. The tremble in the sheet wasn’t an earthquake; our hands were shaking. My voice was a mere whisper. “My God, Jude, do you realize what Jack’s hacker contacts can do with this much data?”
“I’ve got a pretty good idea,” she whispered back. “If they can’t hack into the Craigslist database and find out exactly where that ad came from, I’d be surprised. Bet they can pin it right down to the computer that did it.”
“Uh…why are we whispering?” I asked stupidly.
Her blue eyes twinkled. “Got me, big man. You started it!”
Whereupon we both busted out laughing. We couldn’t help ourselves; just when one of us would start to get control, we’d look at the other and lose it all over again.
By the time we managed to wind things back down to normal, my stomach hurt from laughing so hard. I wasn’t going to ask Judi if hers did. After we’d found ourselves a restaurant and gotten something to eat, I’d be wanting some romance, and I was pretty sure a woman announcing a stomach ache would put the kibosh on that sort of thing as surely as if she had a headache. Not that this little package of dynamite had ever been one for making excuses in the passion department, but a guy can never be too careful.
Karina was overcome when we handed her the key to the Kia. She cried some, right then and there, hanging onto Judi for dear life.
The woman got hold of herself pretty quickly, though. Dried her eyes, sniffed, blew her nose with a sound that reminded me of the Canadian geese honking overhead during migration. “I really am his siter, you know.”
I arched an eyebrow. “Didn’t know he had any siblings.”
“Oh, he doesn’t…on paper. I’m his half sister. Same father, a rounder who never could keep it in his pants. I’d been working for Gary a couple of years before we figured it out. Just in time, too; we were getting pretty close to hopping in bed together. I would have even after,” she admitted with a wry smile, “but he was hell on wheels when it came to morals.”
“Drove you nuts?” Judi asked.
“Sometimes. Other times, it just made me admire him the more. We’ve never told anybody we’re related. Don’t know why I’m telling you guys. Peggy doesn’t even know. But he took our family ties seriously. Bought himself a duplex, rented one side to me for almost nothing. He lived in the other. He cut in a connecting doorway between, put in a door with a lock but we both had keys. We spent a lot of time together. Half the town of Bulwer Falls thought we were sleeping together. The other half thought he was gay. In truth, he was neither. Just found it hard to trust, and I blush to think maybe he kept comparing other girls to me and they came up lacking.”
I took a deep breath. “Yet you’re talking to us. Because we were the last to see him alive? Or maybe ’cause were from out of state and it feels safer, knowing we won’t be gossiping to your neighbors behind your back? Either of those reasons, or both, would be okay, you know.”
“Well…I’m not sure of the why of it. You don’t mind?”
“Not in the least,” Judi assured her. I just smiled encouragingly.
There wasn’t much more time for conversation. People were starting to trickle in for the memorial, and then the trickle became a flood. Before we knew it, it was starting time. The Community Room was packed, eight hundred people at a guess, forty percent of the town’s population. Gary Jellison had been the town’s only CPA, drawing clients from all over northern New Hampshire, a point made by one of the speakers. There’d been no preacher; 26% of New Hampshire residents claim no religion at all, and Gary had been one of the 26 percenters. Karina had spoken first, briefly but eloquently, then thrown the podium open for anyone else who might have something to say in honor of the man’s passing.
The first fellow to his feet, a right bear of a gentleman in a suit that looked two sizes two small for him, looked around the room for a moment before speaking. “You prob’ly all heard this from Gary a bunch of times. I know I did. But when he’d stop in for a drink, if he had maybe one more’n he meant to, he’d hoist his glass and announce, ‘I’m the best damn CPA in this town!’ Then he’d pause just a beat or two, every time, and then say, ‘Hell, I’m the only damn CPA in this town!’ And we’d all hoist our glasses back and agree with him, ’cause he was right on both counts.”
He sat down to thunderous applause.
I suddenly had to blink to make sure I wasn’t seeing things. That was my Judi, striding up there like she meant it. She had to reach up and haul the microphone down about a foot before she started talking, quietly but strongly, her clear, amplified voice carrying to every corner of the building.
“My name is Judi Minske, from north of Ovando, Montana, next to the Bob Marshall Wilderness. The Bob is a lot like this part of your state, plenty of trees, only the mountains are taller. Our winter has been a little less wicked than yours this year, but certainly no walk in the park. And on February 13, around 6:00 p.m., not quite dark but getting there, I was the first one to see Gary come stumbling out of the treeline. It may never be known how he came to be lost, ’cause from all we’ve learned, Gary Jellison was not a man to get lost in the woods. But he’d been out there with almost no survival equipment–just a folding knife and a Bic lighter and a thin pair of gloves and a little roll of cord–for eleven days.
“Think about that. Eleven days and ten nights. Daytime temperatures were never more than in the mid-thirties during that time, not in the high country, and the nighttime lows were dropping into the single digits, or close to it. In some areas, the snow was belly deep. He’d had nothing to eat but what he could snare, nothing to add to his clothing but the uncured hides from those same snare catches–and one of the animals he caught, killed, skinned, and partially ate to stay alive was a wolf. A big, gray timber wolf, one of those the environmentalists have insisted be reintroduced in western Montana. That wolf could have ate him, but he ate the wolf, or part of it, and wore the hide.
“Sadly, Gary did not live long enough to tell us all the details of how he managed to snare that wolf. He was going to, without a doubt, but the blood clot got him out of nowhere, he passed on exactly 41 hours and 23 minutes after we first met each other, and he never got the chance to tell that part of his story. He was resting up, gaining his weight back, looking better hour by hour, and then boom!
“I realize that some of you have known the man for years, some of you from the day he was born. In that sense, perhaps I have no right to grieve for a stranger I’d just met…but I can tell you this. He impacted my life. He had courage, fortitude, endurance the likes of which you seldom see–and he never once lost his sense of humor. The frostbite alone, especially on his face, had to hurt like Hell, but he never once gave a sign. Gary Jellison was a man, and I’m grateful to be here today to honor his passing.”
With that, she left the podium and walked back to her seat beside me, moving more slowly now, tears streaming down her cheeks so that she could barely see. Or perhaps that was the fog in front of my own vision. There was stone silence in the building, not a single cough or even an asthmatic breath interrupting the quiet. It reminded me of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, how the silence after he delivered those famous words had convinced him he’d failed when in fact the opposite had happened.
Judi had not failed. For nearly a minute by my estimate, no one moved because no one could move.
I thought about adding a few words of my own, but what could I say? Judi had said it all.
Eventually, another woman did break free of the spell, found her feet, made it to the podium, and said…something. Several more followed, a couple of them with what must have been funny stories. At least, they got laughs from the crowd.
But I didn’t hear any of them. Judi had blown me away; there wasn’t any room for any more words in my head.
Afterward, at the reception, an endless stream of people made their way to our table to thank us for coming, to thank Judi for her powerful eulogy, and in one case, for an elderly gentleman to say a few words I could and did remember.
“Mr. Jackson,” he began, squinting up at me through his one good eye, “I’m an old man. Fought in Korea. Didn’t have much use for Negros back then; saw too many of ’em that came from the wrong side of the tracks, if you get my drift. Nor would my parents have laid still in their graves to see these mixed marriages that are all the rage these days. But you and your woman here, you made a difference today. None of us could get our arms around losing Gary; we couldn’t get the feel of it till–what’s your name, honey? Judi? Judi here, she brought Gary’s last days to life for us, made us see him, just the way we all knew he was. So you must be all right, and I almost wish he’d of had a coffin burial, ‘stead of a cremation.”
“Why’s that, sir?” I asked politely.
He grinned impishly, showing a ragged row of yellowed, snaggly teeth. “Why, ’cause then Miss Karina could have asked you to be one of the pallbearers!”
That caught me off guard, but I recovered quickly. “I’d have been honored,” I told him, and I meant it.