The Ridge — Excerpt

1

KEVIN KIMBLE MADE THE drive to the prison before dawn, as he always did, the mountains falling away as dark silhouettes in the rearview mirror. In the summer the fields below had been rich with the smells of damp soil and green plants reaching to meet the oncoming sun, but now the air was cold and darkness lingered and the scents were of dead leaves and wood smoke.

It was an hour-long trip through winding country highways, traffic almost nonexistent this early, and he could feel the familiar weight of a sleepless night as he drove. He was never able to sleep the nights before the visits.

A steady rain was falling when he left Sawyer County, but down out of the mountains of eastern Kentucky and into the fields in the north-central portion of the state the rain tapered off into a thick fog, the world existing in gray tendrils. Foreboding, but peaceful and silent.

Shattered by a cell-phone ring.

He looked at the display, expecting to see his department’s dispatch number, but was instead faced with one he didn’t recognize. He considered letting the call go to voicemail, but it was 5:35 A.M. and even wrong numbers deserved to be answered at such a time, just in case.

“Chief Deputy Kimble,” he said, putting the phone to his ear.

“Good morning. I hope I didn’t wake you. I had a feeling I wouldn’t.”

“Who’s speaking?”

“Wyatt French.”

Kimble shifted his hand to the top of the steering wheel and swung out into the next lane, away from a semi that was casting a thick spray back into his windshield as it chugged northbound, toward the Ohio River.

“How’d you get this number?” Kimble knew Wyatt French through one thing only—police work, and it was not as a colleague. He wasn’t in the habit of giving out his personal number to the people he arrested or interviewed, the two roles Wyatt French had occupied in the past. Kimble had done such a thing just once, in fact, and endured eight months of physical therapy after that decision.

“I have a question for you,” French said.

“I just asked you one of my own.”

“Mine’s a little more important.” The man’s voice sounded off, something coming up from beneath rocks or behind a sewer grate, someplace home to echoes and faint water sounds.

“You’ve been drinking, Mr. French.”

“So I have. It’s a legal enterprise, chief deputy.”

“Conditionally legal,” said Kimble, who had arrested Wyatt for public intoxication on three occasions and once for drunk driving. “Where are you?”

“I’m at home, where it’s absolutely legal.”

Home. Wyatt French’s home was a wooden lighthouse he’d built with his own hands. When he wasn’t causing trouble in the Whitman town streets, a bottle of cheap bourbon in hand or tucked into his mouth between a bristling gray mustache and an unkempt beard, the department still had to field complaints about the man. The strange, pulsing light that lit the woods in the rural stretch of abandoned mining country where he lived drew curiosity and ire.

“You’re on the road,” French said. “Aren’t you? Early for a drive.”

Kimble, who had things more personal weighing on his mind than this old drunk in the lighthouse, said, “Go to bed, man. Get some sleep. And however you got this number? Delete it. Don’t call my private number again.”

“I would like a question answered!”

Kimble moved his foot to the brake, tapped gently, dropping the speed down below the limit. French’s voice had gone dark and furious, and for the first time, Kimble had a sense of real concern over the man’s call.

“What’s your question?”

“You’re in charge of criminal investigations for your department,” French said. “For the whole county.”

“That’s right.”

“Which would you rather have: a homicide or a suicide?”

Kimble had a vision of Wyatt as he’d seen him last, weaving down the sidewalk outside a liquor store in the middle of the day. Kimble was on his way to buy a sandwich for lunch and Wyatt was on his way back from having attempted to buy a bottle of bourbon for the same. They bounced him out when he tried to pay with quarters, dimes, and nickels. That had been a few months ago. Since then, Kimble hadn’t seen the old degenerate around any of his usual haunts.

“Mr. French,” he said. “Wyatt? Don’t talk like that. Okay? Just put the bottle down and get into bed.”

“I’ll get more than enough rest once I’ve had an answer. It matters to me, Deputy Kimble. It matters a great deal.”

“Why?”

Silence, then, in a strained voice, “The question was simple. Would you rather have a—”

“Suicide,” Kimble interrupted. “There, you happy? I picked, and I was honest. But I don’t want either, Wyatt. I hate them both, and if there’s some reason for this call beyond alcohol, then—”

That provoked a long, unsettling laugh, the tone far too high and keening for Wyatt’s natural voice.

“There’s a reason beyond booze, yes, sir.”

“What is it?”

“You said you would prefer a suicide. I’m of a mind to agree, but I’d like to hear your reasoning. Why is a suicide better?”

Kimble was drifting along in the right lane, alone in the smoky fog and mist. He said, “Because I don’t have to worry about anyone else being hurt by that particular person. It’s always tragic, but at least I don’t have to worry about them pointing a gun at someone else and pulling the trigger.”

Exactly. The very conclusion I reached myself.”

“If you have any thoughts of suicide, then I’ve got a number I want you to call. I’m serious about this. I want you—”

“Now what if,” Wyatt French said, “the suicide victim wasn’t entirely willing.”

Kimble felt an uneasy chill. “Then it’s not a suicide.”

“You say that confidently.”

“I am confident. If the death was not the subject’s goal, then it was not a suicide. By definition.”

“So even if a man killed himself, but there was evidence that he’d been compelled to in some way—”

“Wyatt, stop. Stop talking like this. Are you going to hurt yourself?”

Silence.

“Wyatt?”

“I wanted to know if there was any difference in the way you’d investigate,” the man said, his words clearer now, less of the bourbon speaking for him. “Do you pursue the root causes of a suicide in the same manner that you would a homicide?”

Kimble drove along in the hiss of tires on rain-soaked pavement for a time, then said, “I pursue the truth.”

“Always?”

“Always. Don’t give me anything to pursue today, Wyatt. I’m not joking. If someone has been hurt, you tell me that right now. Tell me that.”

“No one has been hurt yet.”

Yet. Kimble didn’t like that. “If you’re thinking about suicide, or anything else, then I want—”

“My thoughts aren’t your concern, deputy. You have many concerns around you in Sawyer County, some of them quite serious, but my thoughts aren’t the problem.”

“I’m going to give you a number,” Kimble said again, “and ask you to call it for me, please. You called me early, and on a private line, and I’ve given you my time and respect. I hope you’ll do the same for me.”

“Certainly, sir. If there are two things I’d hope you might continue to grant me in the future, it is your time and respect.”

French’s voice was absent of mockery or malice. Kimble gave him the number, a suicide assistance line, and he could hear scratching as Wyatt dutifully wrote it down.

“Take care of yourself,” Kimble told him. “Get dried out, get some rest. I’m worried about the way you’re talking.”

“What you should be worried about is that I’ll choose to live forever. Then you’d really have your work cut out.”

It was the first time any of Wyatt’s traditional humor had showed, and Kimble let out a long breath, feeling as if the worst of this strange call was past.

“I’ve dealt with you for this long,” he said. “Wouldn’t be right not to keep at it.”

“I appreciate the sentiment. And deputy? You be careful with her.”

Kimble was silent, lips parted but jaw slack, and didn’t realize he’d let his foot off the accelerator again until a minivan rose up into his mirror with an accompanying horn, then an extended middle finger from the driver who swerved around him. Kimble brought his speed back up and said, “Who do you mean, Wyatt?”

“The one you’re going to see,” Wyatt French told him. “Be very careful with her.”

His voice had the low gravity of someone speaking at a wake. When Kimble finally got around to responding, offering up an awkward attempt at denial, he realized that the line was dead.

There was no time to call back from the highway, because the exit for the women’s prison was just ahead, and Kimble had no desire to hear the old drunk’s strange voice again anyhow. Let him sip his whiskey inside his damned lighthouse in the woods. Let his disturbed mind not infect Kimble’s own.

He set the phone down and continued up to the prison gates.

2

A LONG, SINISTER BRICK STRUCTURE, the women’s prison had been built back in 1891, a hundred and twenty years before it would house an inmate of interest to Kimble. Approved adults could begin arriving at 6 A.M., but the parking spaces were empty when he pulled in. Kimble was always the first one in the door. He liked to be alone in the visiting area, and he liked making the drive in the dark.

They checked him in with familiarity and a quiet “Morning, deputy” and then escorted him into the visitation room. He was afforded privileges here that others were not, a level of privacy and trust that others were not, because he was police. And because they all knew the story.

She was alone in the room, waiting for him at the other end of a plastic table, and when he saw her his breath caught and his heartbeat stuttered and he felt a fierce, cold ache low in his back.

“Jacqueline,” he said.

She rose and offered her slim, elegant hand. Warm, gentle fingers in his cool, callused palm, and he found himself, as he always did when they touched, wetting his lips and looking to the side, as if something had moved in the shadows at the edge of the room.

“Hello, Kevin.” She took her seat again, and he pulled up a plastic chair that screeched coming across the floor and sat beside her. Not all the way at the opposite end of the table, but not too close, either. Purgatory distance.

“Are you well?” he said.

“Yes.”

Her voice took that distance between them and melted it like ice in a fist. It was so knowing, so intimate, she might as well have been sitting in his lap. The ache in his back pulsed.

“You look good. I mean… healthy.”

Looked healthy. Shit. If all she looked was healthy, then there were starlets all over Hollywood who looked sickly. She was the kind of beautiful that scorched. Tall and lean, with gentle but clear curves even in the loose orange inmate garb, cocoa-colored hair that somehow held an expensive salon’s sheen after five years of prison care, cheekbones and mouth sculpted with a master’s touch. Full lips that looked dark against her complexion, which had once been deeply tanned but was now so white he could see the fine veins in her slender neck. Blue eyes that he could not, even after several years, meet for more than a few seconds.

“They treating you okay?”

“Yes, Kevin. As well as a place like this ever can treat someone.”

Kevin. She said it in the sort of voice that should carry hot breath against your ear. Nobody called him Kevin. He was Kimble, had been since childhood, one of those boys who inexplicably becomes identified by his last name.

“Good,” he said. He was staring at the floor to avoid her eyes, but now he saw that she had hitched those loose prison pants up slightly, so that her ankles were exposed above the thin sandals. Her ankles and a trace of legs. Long, sleek legs. She leaned back in the chair now and crossed her feet, pushing them closer toward him, which made him flush and lift his head.

“How is your back?” she said.

He was silent for a moment. His jaw worked, but he didn’t speak, and this time he was able to meet her eyes.

“Fine,” he said.

“I’m glad.”

“Sure.”

She smiled at him, rich and genuine, a smile you were never supposed to see in a place where faces were so often dark and threatening or unbalanced and psychotic.

“I’m so glad. I always worry, you know. I worry that it pains you.”

“Yes,” he said. “I know.”

This was the game. This was the perfected exchange, performed each month as if they were rehearsing for some stage show and needed to keep sharp. Why did he drive up here? Why in the hell did he make these visits?

“I’m sorry, I don’t remember,” she said, and he wondered how many times he’d heard those five words now. First in a handwritten letter to him in the hospital, then in interview rooms, then at the trial and every visit that had been made since. She was always sorry that she didn’t remember.

“You’ve told me, Jacqueline,” he said, his voice stretched. “Let’s not worry about that.”

“You know how badly I wish I could, though. For you.”

“I know.”

She smiled again, this time uncertainly. “I appreciate you making the trip. I always do.”

“It’s nothing.”

“You’ve been so good to me. The one person above all others who shouldn’t be, and you’re the one person above all others who is.”

“You don’t belong in here,” he said.

She sat up straighter then, sat up with excitement, and said, “Didn’t they tell you I get to leave?”

He cocked his head and frowned. “Leave?”

“I thought for sure they’d tell you,” she said. “I mean, I’m always sure they talk to you about me. Don’t they?”

If there was one date Kimble knew absolutely, knew surer than Christmas or his own birthday, it was the scheduled parole hearing of Jacqueline Mathis. She was not leaving this prison. Not yet.

“Jacqueline, where are—”

“I’ve been approved for work release. It might not seem like much to you, but still… you can imagine how exciting it is for me. There’s not much change around here.”

“What? Where?” He was embarrassed by the evident concern—check that, evident fear—in his voice. He liked to know where she was. He needed to know.

“It’s a thrift shop,” she said. “Some little store just down the road. I don’t care where or what, though—it’s not in this place! I’ve made the petition three times. They finally approved it.”

“Why did they now?”

“Because I’m so charming,” she said, and laughed. He waited, and she said, “Oh, take off the cop eyes, Kevin.”

She sat up straight now, dropped her voice into a low, formal tone.

“They approved me, officer, because I’ve shown myself to be nonthreatening and of sound mind and character.”

He stared at her, rubbing one hand over his jaw. It wasn’t an abnormal decision, not at this stage of her incarceration. They’d be readying her for release, assuming she made parole. She would make parole—there had been no problems and many were sympathetic to her—but that was still a year away. He had thought he had another year to get used to the idea of her being free. Why hadn’t he thought of work release?

“So you’re happy,” he said finally, just to say something.

She laughed. “Of course I’m happy. You think I’d prefer to stay in here?”

“Probably not.”

“Probably not. Master of the understatement.” She shook her head, then said, “I’ll be working the mornings, though. That will change my visitation hours. I hope that wouldn’t stop you, if you had to visit later in the day? I’ve always wondered if you’re ashamed of me after the sun comes up.”

“No, Jacqueline. It’s just… well, you know, it’s a long drive. If I come early, I beat the traffic.”

“The Sawyer County traffic,” she said. “Yes, that area around the courthouse gets pretty gridlocked for about two minutes each morning. Particularly now, with the students home for the holidays? Why, you might have to sit through one entire red light.”

He didn’t answer.

“You don’t like the idea,” she said. “Do you? Me being out of here, even for a few hours.”

“That’s not true,” he said, and maybe it wasn’t. Maybe he liked the idea an awful lot.

“Well, I like it,” she said. “Out of these walls, out of these clothes. Do you know how long it’s been since I wore something other than this?”

She grasped her orange shirt between her thumb and index finger and tugged it away from her body. He got a glimpse of her collarbone and below it smooth, flawless skin.

“You could drop by there sometime,” she said. “You know—see me on the outside.” She shifted her tone to a theatrical whisper and capped it off with a wink. He could feel his dick begin to stiffen, performing against his will, his own body laughing at him. He got to his feet abruptly, making his arousal evident.

“Kevin?”

“I’ve got to get started back,” he said. “It’s a long drive. Too long.”

“Why are you leaving so early? Did I say something—”

“Be safe,” he said, the same thing he always said, and walked to the door, using his hand to adjust himself within his pants, not wanting the attendant CO to see that development.

“I thought you would be happy for me. I thought if there was one person in the world who’d be happy for me, it would be you.”

“I am happy for you, Jacqueline. Goodbye.”

By the time the guards opened the door, he had his police eyes back.

It had been a long drive for a short visit. That was how it went with her. He could never stay too long.

Be careful with her, Wyatt French had told him.

Yeah, buddy. Listen to the old drunk. Watch your ass, Kimble.

Be very careful with her.