Hunter took a step back, welcomed the man with the badge. Pointed toward the sofa across from the mantle. A crackling fire radiated heat to counter the plunging temperatures outside. Always colder out here in the valley.
“I didn’t catch your name,” Hunter said.
“It’s Smith, sir. Investigator Smith.” He pulled off winter gloves, curled his hands in front of his face, and blew on his fingers. His eyes swept the room. “Nice collection.” He nodded at the animals on display and mounted on the wall. “From around here?”
“All of them. I do the taxidermy myself.”
The man drifted toward the fire, rubbed his hands.
“I’ll put on some coffee, and then we can discuss your questions. Can I offer you something to eat? You’ll need energy.”
The investigator shook his head. “No, thank you.” He patted his stomach, beneath a red flannel shirt and above a hard-working belt. “I’m stuffed.”
Under his breath, Hunter muttered, “Now, now, getting a little ahead of things.”
In time, Hunter returned with a coffee pot and poured into a tall mug for his guest. The investigator took a sip and gave a heavy sigh, compliments to the barista. He explained to Hunter why he was out on such a horrid night.
“Two people gone missing. Last seen near your acreage. Usually I tell folks just sit a spell, people wander back where they came from. But two separate people? That’d be a coincidence, and I don’t like coincidences in my business. Don’t believe in ‘em.”
Hunter mentally measured the man, saw him as a good fit in the parlor. Nodded as the man spoke, chimed in with an occasional “hmm” or “oh, dear”. Encouraged his guest to add details. Also encouraged him to warm up with more coffee.
The investigator provided additional facts about the two missing individuals. Description of the clothes they were wearing. How they came to be wandering around the area before they got lost. Hunter already knew these details, of course. He waited patiently as the investigator revealed his theories. Eventually the man worked around to his line of questions. He inquired about ordinary things. Did Hunter know anything about the missing persons? Were the animals acting strange? Anything of consequence like that, anything else that might come to Hunter’s mind?
Silence hung in the air after the litany of questions. The investigator sipped from his mug. At length, Hunter shook his head.
“Ain’t seen anyone matching your descriptions around these parts. I do a little hunting back in the woods. Been out the last couple days. You don’t see humans roaming around here.”
“Thing is,” Investigator Smith said, “there are hiking trails nearby. Snowdrifts cover ’em and no telling where someone is wandering. If someone strays off the trail…”
He let the thought dance along like a snowflake. Hunter allowed it to dance, said nothing. The man swallowed more coffee.
“The woods south of here?” the man wanted to know. “That’s the area you’re speaking about? Directly behind your house?”
Hunter stood silent again, sensing it was awkward for his guest. The man sipped more coffee, filled the space.
Hunter nodded finally. “Yeah, those are my woods. Know ’em like a kid knows his back yard.”
“Had any luck?”
“With the hunting? Bow season right now. I’m just tracking.”
The investigator raised his mug. Gazed into it. Blinked his eyes rapidly to bring it into focus. “Odd, your coffee gives a taste of bitter almonds.”
Hunter lifted his own cup, filled with warm whiskey, and took a generous pull. “Thought it wise to sneak in a shot of courage. My friend Jim Beam distills some smooth courage.”
“No.” Investigator Smith shook his head. “Not bourbon.” The room getting blurry. His eyelids falling like a curtain.
Hunter decided against the parlor. The walls were already too crowded. There was a more fitting spot in the guest room down the hall, vacant space on the wall.
A knock at the door broke Hunter’s reverie. Strange for this time of night. This time of year. Hunter stifled a smile. The rich get richer. He opened the wooden door, let in the wind but blocked two men from gaining entrance.
“Evenin’, sir.” The man on the right tipped his Stetson. “With a search group, we’re wrapping up for the night.” Showed his badge. “My name’s Investigator Wesson. Checking on my partner.”
John writes mystery and suspense short stories. He’s currently working on a novel-length story of suspense where he’ll seek an agent for representation. You can read some of his flash fiction on his blog at JohnDavisFrain.com or follow him on Twitter @Frainstorm.
Copyright © 2017 John Frain. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without express written permission of the author is prohibited.