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Title: Unraveling, Interlude 9
Author: dragontatt
Rating: NC-17
Disclaimer: Neither Shelter nor Without a Trace belong to me. No profit is being made from this work of fiction, and no disrespect is intended.
Word Count: 3214




In the end, of course, it’s all a matter of perception. What people think of you, what you think about other people, matters so much more than the truth or the law or even morality ever could. For instance, Sheriff Tucker just knew Jessie was a troublemaker who’d run off with her boyfriend, trying to ruin two lives for the price of one in his point of view, so he didn’t bother to look for her, didn’t bother to do anything more than have one of his deputies fill in a cursory missing persons report which he then threw on top of a pile of other perpetually-open cases that he perceived were unsolvable in one way or another.

And then when she turned up dead, well initially the sheriff was certain that her boyfriend Jeff had done it, and so he’d done nothing more than put out an APB with the state police. He knew Jeff personally, knew most of the time he was the sweetest kid you’d ever want to meet, but he sure wasn’t the sharpest knife in the drawer and he figured somehow Jeff had just had enough – Jessie had mouthed off one too many times or something, and their romance had gone wrong in a bad way. Just like he also knew that sooner or later, and more likely sooner than later, Jeff would make a mistake, he’d wander into the wrong town or call the wrong old high school friend for help and the Highway Patrol would pick him up and then all this mess would be over with.

So at first Sheriff Tucker didn’t really bother too much about reading the results of Doc’s initial examination of the body, and he really didn’t want to read the deputies’ report that would no doubt include several grammatically questionable sentences and an overabundance of just-not-quite-in-focus photos paper-clipped to it.

After all, it was a simple thing, sad yes, for everyone involved, but still simple.

Until all of a sudden, it wasn’t so simple anymore.

He threw the reports he’d been reading down on his desk with a huff. The pages landed near a stack of glossy photos – these particular pictures were all in dazzlingly obscene focus, close-ups of bruises and bloody wounds that would have made for great horror movie special effects – and scattered them across the blotter. He leaned back in his chair, laced his hands behind his head and gazed obstinately at the ceiling. He always had a good feel for things in this little town, had a firm grasp on how all the different people acted and reacted, and that was one of the reasons he’d been Sheriff for so long. He took pride in the fact that when he ran unopposed most elections, it really meant that no one else thought they could do a better job. And that’s why he knew that Jeff and Jessie had run off together when they’d first disappeared - whether to get married or find her an anonymous clinic somewhere he wasn’t quite sure , but he’d damn sure heard all the rumors flying about how Jessie’d caught pregnant, on purpose most people said – and also why he knew that when Jessie’s body had turned up, battered, bruised and naked as the day she was born, well he just knew Jeff had done it, the kid had finally cracked for whatever reason and taken it out on that poor girl with his fists.

There were two problems with this simple equation – boy + girl + unexpected pregnancy = disaster waiting to happen – that threw it way out of whack. The first was a single word – Negative - scrawled in a slanting hand on the preliminary report that Doc had sent him. Jessie Crocker was not in fact pregnant, no matter how many rumors had been swirling around. So whatever reasons Jessie and Jeff had run off together, an illegitimate baby hadn’t been one of them.

That was an interesting fact, admitted Sheriff Tucker to himself, but its significance was surely overshadowed by the fact that on the evening of the day after Jessie’s body had been found, Jeff was also found. Or his body rather, in a rest area off Highway 87, near a hundred miles further south, hanging from a tree. Could be considered the final unknown in the equation, the Sheriff reckoned -x = suicide - except for another couple minor, unexpected variables.

First was the fact that Jeff’s hand were tied firmly behind his back, wrists bound together with several feet of stiff baling wire – there was no way he coulda done that to himself, even if you ignore the physics of exactly how, after trussing himself up so handily, he’d clambered up several feet in mid-fucking-air to tie the rope around the tree limb with nothing to stand on, or jump off of. Tucker had looked at the photos the state police had rushed over time and again, and he couldn’t see any way that Jeff could have killed himself like that without at least a little help from somebody else.

Probably that very same somebody that Sheriff Tucker now thought of as yet another variable, in fact. Whether or not Jeff could wrap his wrists with wire securely behind his back before stringing himself up on a tree limb that was at least four feet in the air and jumping off of some non-existent perch to break his neck, well, you had to admit there was just no way he could have stabbed himself in the heart with a six-inch Bowie knife after he was dead.

One close look at the photos and Tucker didn’t even have to read the preliminary report from the Staties…Jeff hadn’t been stabbed until after his heart had stopped pumping or else there would have been a massive blood pool on the ground underneath where he swung. But even though his shirt had bloodstains – his own or Jessie’s wasn’t certain yet - the dirt underneath his body was dusty and dry and clean; well, clean as dirt could be anyway, and damned if that didn’t screw with all his preconceived notions.

It seemed certain there was at least one other person involved in this whole mess, hell maybe more than one, but he sure didn’t know how they were gonna figure out who that person was. Of course the Staties were in on the case now, but they’d graciously, in their minds anyway, granted him full access to everything they had, giving him unofficial free rein to work on the case from Jessie’s side of it as long as he kept them up to date. Ah hell, maybe they are being gracious about it. But it grated on his conscience, knowing he screwed it up somehow, but not knowing exactly what he could have done differently.

There was still one part to this incomprehensible equation, one random outlier that skewed the data away from the norm, and he wasn’t sure what to make of it. The Sheriff sat upright, unfolding his hands from behind his head and reaching for an object that sat perched on the corner of his desk. It was the one thing that had jumped out at him from the very beginning, the one niggling little doubt he’d had beyond all the certainties he’d perceived - a faded baseball cap.

It looked pretty old, well worn and scuffed. It had faded to a dirty maroon-ish color, but if you flipped it over and rolled back the inner hem a bit you could tell it used to be a bright red. The letters on the front had faded as well, now they were light yellow – almost tan - but they’d probably been gold at one point. ‘USC’ they read, and Sheriff Tucker was smart enough to know that was a college in California. What he didn’t know was what it had to do with Jessie or Jeff’s murders, and that bugged him – it bugged him a lot. Was there any possible way those two had made it all to California and back during the two weeks and some odd days they were gone? Why on earth would they do that? Just so Jeff could buy an old baseball cap at a thrift store somewhere?

The Sheriff smirked to himself and turned the cap over once more, peering closely inside like it was a crystal ball that would reveal the answers to all the mysteries of life if only he looked deeply enough. Whoever had left the cap perched so insolently on the boulder at Jessie’s crime scene – in such a way that it couldn’t have been unrelated to the murder - had left no real evidence. There was no way to get fingerprints off of fabric, and there were no bloodstains to process, no convenient ‘If lost, please to return to’ label. No one he knew of having anything to do with any of this shit storm had any connection to any school in Los Angeles and it was the not knowing that pissed him off.

He sighed and tossed the cap back onto his desk, on top of the open case files he kept on the corner, and he wondered just how he’d be able to break this case.


----


Martin sat idly on the cracked leather couch in Tommy’s office, chewing on the side of his thumb and staring off into the distance. Even if one of the deputies hadn’t given him –
and all the restaurant employees to be truthful about it – a stern yet cursory ‘Don’t any of you even think about leaving town until we get a chance to talk to all y’all. You hear me?’ Martin wouldn’t have been able to leave anyway. Not without finding out what the hell was up with his baseball cap.

Last time he knew for certain he’d had it was in Jerry’s truck, that uncomfortable shit heap that he’d ridden in most of the day before hopping out in whatever tiny town that had been in New Mexico. He vaguely remembered tossing it on top of his backpack inside that cheesy little diner. That was…what…late last Wednesday evening when he’d carried his backpack into the Men’s room to have a quick wash and change his shirt after finishing up the last of his apple pie.
A shy, half-smile appeared on the corners of Martin’s mouth – it really had been a pretty good piece of pie. In fact, now that he thought about it, that piece of pie was close to being the best thing that had happened to him in the past seven days.

He closed his eyes, and tried to picture it. He could see himself washing his hands at the sink, giving them a quick shake to dry them mostly off and shouldering his way out of the restroom. He smiled at the waitress on his way to the door, and once he crossed the threshold, he smoothed his hands over his hair, drying them off and grooming himself a little bit at the same time - no sense looking too sloppy. So that means…

No cap. I didn’t have it when I walked out of the diner.

Huh.

Well, shit. Now what do I do?


----

Tommy, Sr. sat down awkwardly on the wooden chair in Sheriff Tucker’s office. He wasn’t real sure why he was here to begin with and then when his gaze flickered down to the desk, he could see there was a jumble of photos half hidden among a pile of papers, like a puzzle just waiting to be solved. He perked up a bit, he loved puzzles, and he squinted involuntarily, trying to make out what he was looking at upside-down. Sheriff Tucker cleared his throat loudly as he sat down across from him.

Tommy jumped, and raised his eyes guiltily. Damn him for still making me feel like some stupid kid. Tommy had only been two years behind the other man in school after all. “Why am I here, Preston?”

The Sheriff smiled tightly – he’d always hated his first name - and said in a controlled voice, “Well, I just wanted to make sure you were up to speed on everything, Tommy. Jessie’s body was found on your property after all.”

And damn you for that too. “My property, yes, but you know how easy it is to get to those trees, the restaurant being right off the highway like that. Anybody could have put that poor girl there. And does this mean you don’t think that Jeff did it anymore?”

Preston pressed his lips together and tilted his head slightly to one side - conceding the point, Tommy thought. “I don’t think I’d be wrong in saying near everybody thought Jeff did it when Jessie turned up dead. But now, with those teenagers down south finding Jeff hanging from a tree in what was definitely not a suicide, but a murder…well, I figured I needed to look into things a little bit more before the state police come and take over completely.”

He looked down at his desk – he didn’t have to squint to figure out what those photos were pictures of, but he wasn’t surprised Tommy couldn’t tell. Close-ups like these, with the blood and the bruises everywhere, they didn’t even look like people anymore, let alone someone you used to know.

“So I need your help, Tommy. Not only was one of our victims found on your property – through no fault of yours, I know – but the other one worked at the very same place. There’s gotta be some sort of connection there, besides the fact that they’d been dating for so long.”

Tommy stared at Preston for a long moment. “I’m not sure I like what you’re thinking. It was bad enough when we all thought Jeff had killed Jessie, but at least a love affair gone wrong is something everybody can understand. But now you’re saying, what, that somebody else, somebody connected to my place somehow killed the both of them? Is that right? And just – dumped her there, like garbage? Who could do that?”

“I don’t know, but I aim to find out. Tell me this, Tommy. You know anybody around, maybe somebody who’s new in town, who’s got any connection with Los Angeles? Or California, maybe?” His glance swept to the corner of his desk, at that damned variable that had unbalanced the whole equation in the first place, even before Jeff’s body had turned up, and he grimaced. When he looked back up, he saw Tommy’s eyes widen, just the littlest bit and he thought gotcha.

----

Martin was still sitting on Tommy’s couch when his boss got back from wherever he’d been all morning. He’d just been thinking that at some point he should thank Tommy for keeping him on the payroll this long, cause at least he’d end up with something good after having to hang around this tiny town for so long, and for such a terrible reason. But now wasn’t the time. He cleared his throat and stood abruptly when Tommy walked in the door, and said in a voice that didn’t really sound as calm as he might have hoped, “Tommy, I need a favor. I was hoping you could drive me to the Sheriff’s office, there’s something I really need to talk to him about.”

Tommy came to an abrupt stop just inside the office door and looked at Martin in disbelief.

Martin gave him a nervous half-smile and said, “I swear it’s not what you’re thinking.” But he could tell the other man didn’t really believe him, and his heart sank.

“Is that so? And just how do you know what I’m thinking, son?” said an unfamiliar voice beyond the open door, and Sheriff Tucker stepped inside, a stern look on his face.

Martin’s eyebrows went up and his glance flickered quickly over to Tommy’s face.

Tommy had the good grace to look at least a little guilty as he said, “I don’t really think you’re involved, Martin. At least I hope not, but the Sheriff asked me if I knew any –“

“All right, that’s enough,” the Sheriff broke in. “Thank you, Tommy but I need to talk to Martin here back at my office. Get your things together son, no matter what happens I doubt you’ll be working at The Smoke Shack anymore.”

Martin rose from the couch and grabbed his backpack from against the far wall of the office. He started to swing it onto his shoulders, but the Sheriff took it from him and said, “Let me carry that for you.”

As the two men left the office, the Sheriff with one hand firmly wrapped around Martin’s upper arm, Tommy said, “Martin, you call me when you’re done talking with him and I’ll bring you your pay.”

Martin must have looked surprised because Tommy just smiled and said, “Hey, you worked hard like you promised and I’m no welsher. I pay my debts.”

----

Martin wasn’t really sure what to expect at the Sheriff’s office. He had vague worries of being arrested immediately, but he wasn’t quite sure whether the worst part of that would be being thrown in a cell with some violent monster or having to call his parents to get a lawyer. So he was relieved when the Sheriff escorted him into his personal office, just gonna have a little friendly chat, gesturing him to sit in the chair in front of the big wooden desk.

Martin sat, and his gaze swept reflexively over the desk in front of him, and all his relief swirled away like water down a fast-moving drain. Right there in front of him, square in the center of the blotter like it was in a place of pride or something, sat his baseball cap. He stared at it, and swallowed hard before glancing up at the Sheriff who was watching him closely with eagle-sharp eyes.

“That’s what I wanted to talk to you about, you heard me tell Tommy I wanted a ride, right?” He felt a small twinge of pride on hearing the steadiness in his voice, but his heart felt like it was going to pound its way out of his chest.

The Sheriff sat down slowly in the chair on the other side of the desk, gazing at Martin curiously. Finally he nodded slowly and said, “I did hear you say you wanted to talk to me, that’s true. But I don’t know what it was about. So, Mr. Fitzgerald, I think this might be a good time to read you your rights, just so everything is all squared away. Don’t want anything you say next to be disallowed in a courtroom if it comes down to it, you know?” Sheriff Tucker stared at Martin, one eyebrow raised questioningly over his steel-grey eyes.

Martin stared back a moment before nodding slowly. He knew he’d done nothing wrong and hoped innocence itself would be enough to keep him out of trouble. But in the back of his mind, he knew he had an ace in the hole, a secret card that no small town Texas sheriff would ever be expecting. He just hoped he wouldn’t have to play it.

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