Literary Thriller by C. Matthew Smith
After a week of long nights at the hospital and early mornings dedicated to work, Tsula allows herself a luxury. She sleeps in until 6:30. She thinks about visiting the dojo in Waynesville — she hasn’t been in two weeks — but decides she’s too tired. Instead, she takes a leisurely shower and drives to a restaurant along Cherokee’s commercial corridor for breakfast. She orders her egg-and-cheese biscuit and coffee to go, crosses over the Oconaluftee River using the pedestrian bridge, and sits in the grass on the opposite bank.
The temperature is no more than forty degrees, though Tsula knows from the quality of the sunlight — a wide and burnished yellow, unimpeded by looming clouds — that the day will warm quickly. Her arms shiver from shoulders to wrist now, but by mid-day she’ll be thankful she opted for only a fleece vest over her flannel shirt.
October color still hangs in the trees, though much diminished from its peak. Yellow birch and crimson maple leaves give way overhead and carousel slowly to the ground. Nearby, anglers wade into the river and cast lures in search of skittish trout. Tsula closes her eyes and takes in the susurrus of the stream as it flows around smoothed rocks rising up from the riverbed.
In anxious periods, Tsula takes an odd comfort in those stones. One can find them throughout this slice of western North Carolina — some small, like these, and others the size of small homes. They were formed primarily from ocean sediment a billion or more years old and rendered strong and compact by heat and pressure. Continental collision excavated them from below the Earth’s surface two hundred million years ago, leaving them to be worn smooth by water, wind, and time. They’d seen whole continents drift apart. They’d been stepped on and climbed over when her Cherokee ancestors arrived on this land ten thousand years ago. And in their presence, new people — different people — had hunted whole species to extirpation, stripped forests bare, and demonstrated a capacity for cruelty in all its forms. Slavery. War.
Yet the stones remain, and will remain longer still after Tsula and everyone she knows is gone. On the scale by which geologic time is measured, her brief life is imperceptible. On the spectrum of calamity to which these rocks and boulders have borne witness, her own worries would hardly register. It soothes Tsula to think that her troubles, in the literal grand scheme of things, are nothing. Why, then, should she allow them much sway?
This is the conclusion she always reaches, though putting it into any meaningful practice is another matter. Her resolutions to take bad news in stride usually are forgotten as soon as the next bad news presents itself. Burned away like August dew, and just as quickly.
Her cell phone vibrates in the pocket of her fleece.
“How’s your mom?” asks Brian Batchelder, Assistant Special Agent in Charge of the ISB’s Atlantic Field Office. “She out of the hospital yet?”
“Not yet. Looks like later today.”
“You there now?”
“No. What’s up?” she says. Batchelder is a decent man and a good boss, but he is not someone who simply calls to check in. He wants something from her, and she fears what it might be.
“I know this isn’t great timing,” he says. “But I need your help. It’s close by.”
Tsula rests her forehead in her hand. “Definitely not good timing. How close?”
“Twentymile Ranger Station,” he says. “Over near Fontana.”
“I know it. What’s going on?”
“A visitor found a body a couple hours ago. They’re thinking suicide. But it looks like it’s a park employee, so the chief ranger has called and asked us to take lead.”
“There isn’t anyone else in the Field Office who can take this?”
“The others are spread out all over the region right now. So no. I’d be happy to help out, get out of my office for a bit. But I currently have the boots of several superiors firmly implanted in my ass. You wanna know why?”
“Brian — ”
“Because one of my agents was involved in a simple apprehension last week that ended with a suspect turned into hamburger. And now that the local press has picked up on it, people in Washington are starting to use words like ‘accountability.’”
“What people?” Tsula asks.
“Pack-your-bags type people.”
Her chest tightens. “Brian, we didn’t make them run.”
“But you did give chase.”
She sighs. They have already been through this, more than once. “They didn’t wreck because anyone was chasing them. They wrecked because they had a shitty driver. I’m sorry, but — ”
“Sorry,” he says. “Well, that makes two of us. We were supposed to have someone to question. The whole reason I agreed to you getting on that investigation was the promise that we would get information on the distribution. But that dipshit y’all hauled in was clearly not the brains of the operation, and now . . .” He pauses, and when he speaks again, his voice is quiet. “You should be glad this request for help came in when it did. Otherwise, you’d be driving up here to take the abuse with me. I told you to take some time off, but you wanted to keep working, remember? So here’s your chance.”
Tsula looks down at her lap, and suddenly the sight of her breakfast makes her nauseated. “Mom’s getting out of the hospital later today, Brian. I really need to be there.”
“Look, they described a pretty basic scene. Dead guy, gun nearby. If it’s that simple, you’ll have plenty of time to finish up and meet your mom.”
“It’s never that simple, and you know it.”
“Well, hope springs eternal,” he says. “But it’s an outdoor scene, so tick-tock.”
She exhales noisily through flaring nostrils. In the distance someone hoots, and she looks up to see a fisherman thigh-deep in the river, holding his bowed fly rod steady as the line dances and darts. A companion nearby gives him a thumbs-up.
“Yeah, okay,” she huffs. “I’m jumping in the truck now.”