“I dread it,” Ethan said. “If that’s what you’re asking. I loved her once. But after last night, I understand the need for what’s going to happen.”
The muscles in Pilcher’s face seemed to relax.
“To hear you say that, Ethan… nothing would make me happier than for you to be fully on board. The three of us working together. For me to have your complete loyalty and trust. It’s so important, and there’s so much I haven’t told you. So much I want to share. But I have to know you’re really with me.”
“The Ballingers have to be taken alive,” Pam said. “You have to make that clear from the start to the officers or our guests will be killed in some alley. In light of the message we’re trying to send, they need to die in the circle on Main Street. It needs to be bloody and awful so all the people in their group understand the price of their disobedience.”
“I’ll be watching how you run this fête,” Pilcher said. “Your performance tonight can go a long way toward building some real trust between us.” Pilcher finished off his coffee and stood. “Go home, get some sleep, Ethan. I’ll send Dr. Miter into town this afternoon to sew your chip back in.”
Pam smiled. “God, I love the fêtes,” she said. “Even better than Christmas. And I have a hunch the townspeople do too. You know some of them keep costumes in their closets for the big night? They decorate their knives and rocks. We all need to go a little crazy now and then.”
“You consider killing two of our own just going ‘a little crazy’?” Ethan asked.
“At the end of the day, it’s what we do best, isn’t it?”
“I hope that’s not true.”
Pilcher said, “Personally, I hate the fêtes. But then again, those are my people down there, and as hard as it is, I know what they need. Perfection all the time would drive them mad. For every perfect little town, there’s something ugly underneath. No dream without the nightmare.”
Ethan walked into his dark house.
He ran a bath downstairs and went up to his bedroom.
Theresa was sleeping under a mountain of blankets.
He leaned down and whispered in her ear, “Come join me in the bath.”
The water in the tub was the only hot thing in the house, but it was gloriously hot.
The room had filled with steam by the time Theresa wandered down.
It coated the mirror over the sink, the window above the tub. Made the plaster look as if it was perspiring.
Stepped into the water and eased down between his legs.
With the two of them in the water, there was only an inch between the surface and the lip of the clawfoot tub. The warm mist so thick he could barely see the sink.
With his foot, Ethan turned the knob just enough to fill the bathroom with the noise of running water. He pulled Theresa back into his chest. Even in the heat, her skin was cool against his. Her ear was right at his lips, and it was such a perfect position to talk to her that he didn’t know why it had never occurred to him before.
Steam enveloped them.
He said, “Kate’s people didn’t kill that woman whose murder I was investigating.”
“Then who did?”
“Either Pam, someone else under Pilcher’s employ, or the man himself.”
“His own daughter?”
“I don’t know that for sure, but regardless, there’s going to be a fête tonight.”
“Kate and Harold.”
“Jesus. And as sheriff, you have to run it.”
“Can’t you stop it?”
“I don’t want to stop it.”
“Ethan.” She turned her head and looked up at him. “What’s going on?”
“Better if you don’t know.”
“You mean in case you don’t pull it off?”
“How real is that possibility?”
“Very. But we talked about it last night. I promised you I’d fix this, even if it meant we took the risk of losing everything.”
“I know. It’s just…”
“A little different when the rubber actually meets the road. Pam knows about us, by the way. That we went out last night.”
“Has she told anyone?”
“No, and I’m betting that she won’t, at least not before the fête.”
“But what happens if she says something after?”
“After tonight, none of this will matter anymore. But look, I don’t have to do this. We could fall in line. Live out the rest of our days as good little townies. I’d be sheriff. There’d be perks to that. We have no mortgage here. No bills. Everything provided for. I used to work late every night. Now I’m always home for supper. We have more time together as a family.”
Theresa whispered, “There’s a part of me that wonders if I could buy into it, you know? Just settle. But it wouldn’t be a life, Ethan. Not on these terms.” She kissed him, her lips gone soft from the steam and the heat. “So do whatever you have to do, and just know that no matter what happens, I love you, and I’ve felt closer to you in the last twenty-four hours than in the last five years of our marriage in Seattle.”
The snow was gone by midafternoon.
Under a blue winter sky, Ethan stood just beyond the fence that encircled the school.
Children streamed out of the brick building and down the steps. He spotted Ben walking with two friends, backpacks hanging from their shoulders, talking, laughing.
How normal it all seemed.
Kids getting out of school for the day.
Ben reached the sidewalk. He still hadn’t noticed his father.
Ethan said, “Hey, son.”
Ben stopped and so did his friends.
“Dad. What’re you doing here?”
“Just felt like picking you up from school today. Mind if I walk you home?”
The kid didn’t look like he wanted to be walked home by Dad, but he hid the embarrassment with grace.
Turning to his friends, he said, “I’ll catch up with you guys later this afternoon.”
Ethan put his hand on Ben’s shoulder.
He said, “How about we go to your favorite place in the world?”
They walked four blocks down to Main Street and crossed to a candy store called The Sweet Tooth. Some of the school kids had beaten them there—clusters of boys and girls grazing the hundreds of glass jars filled with gumballs, Spree, Sweet Tarts, Pixy Stix, Cry Baby bubble gum, Jolly Ranchers, Jawbreakers, M&M’S, Starburst, Pez, Skittles, Sour Patch Kids, Nerds, Smarties, Atomic Fireballs—no staple of teeth-rotting goodness absent from the collection. Ethan knew that, like everything else, it had all been stored in suspension. But he couldn’t help thinking that if anything could last unchanged for two thousand years, it had to be a Jawbreaker.