Hunt was, frankly, pretty damn pleased with his personal situation. Sure, he didn’t have solar or gas and lived by the candle, plus he had just the one goat. But he had a hell of a garden and a bioswale just a couple of blocks off, with the river just beyond, if he needed it. There was none of the push-shove you got living right along the river, which was perfect. Hunt liked to keep to himself.
That was another plus to the whole thing. There were only a couple dozen families in a five-block radius, living a happy limbo between the clannish western hills—with their lumber and salvage—and the weird, half-dead downtown. Even after everything, one thing held true about folks: despite the various pros to a neighbourhood, only trashers and the young wanted to live under the god-damn interstate.
Kneeling in his tomatoes, with their summer-warm smell, Hunt looked up at the beautiful eyesore of an overpass. It was too big, too much for even the blackberries and ivy to entangle. It would exist forever, like the Roman aqueducts, a symbol of civilisation past. Unlike its predecessor, however, the interstate would not remain unused and beyond common man, mocking his decline. The Five Cities were going to put their stamp on it, building a sort of welcoming district for émigrés from the eastern desert.
There would be shops, inns, entertainment (of the skirted variety, Hunt presumed) and city quarters up there; with plenty of space for carts and people on both levels. Hunt was proud of the whole thing in a vague sort of way, like when the Hives won a basketball game. He might personally have nothing to do with the achievement, but it was his people doing the achieving.
Peering, Hunt could just make out black specks of a construction team leaning on the barriers for a smoke. Hunt was prevented from further expansive meandering by a glance at his watch. He had a date and that tail would not wait.
The tail was, in fact, getting ready to leave when Hunt cycled up and he got stern looks softened by sunlight through the little bistro table’s umbrella. Hunt had suspicions that she’d waited until he was in sight before gathering up her things.
The waitress came over as the two sat down, confirming that they were getting their usual—mushrooms, goat and sharp, briny cheese for Hunt; for her walnuts, soft cheese and apples if they had them—plunked down a water pitcher and vanished back inside. Hunt smiled.
“Why didn’t you just order for me?” He got an eyeroll for that.
They made small talk and ate the crêpes, paid, then went back to her place and kept themselves busy until the late summer moon was fully out.
Lazily pedalling home, Hunt drank in the warm, layered blacks of trees against the overpass, overpass against the sky.
“Hey, falling star!” A bird scolded him for breaking the night’s quiet. It took a moment to realise the star’s colour was wrong, as well as its path, not falling where the sky peeped through the support pillars at all. Because he was thinking, Hunt didn’t register the wet thump until well after it sounded and the bird scolded once more.
Nobody wanted the body brought into their home. In the end, the dead stranger was laid out in an enclosed courtyard, so the animals couldn’t get at it but it wasn’t really inside anywhere. Hunt, having found the body and being the most awake, sat up with it. Dawn didn’t make the face any more familiar.
A little after sunup, the sheriff brought tea and got Hunt to tell her again what he’d seen, taking more time over the details than when he’d spilled it out in a panic the night before.
“It was maybe ten, fifteen minutes after I left you. I was within a block of my place.”
“Shit, it doesn’t take you that long to bike home.”
“I was goin’ slow, it was a beautiful evening and everything, up until—y’know.” Hunt frowned over the steaming cup. Could he be forgetting anything? There wasn’t much to it, just a pleasant night ride home and a dead stranger. He looked up in surprise at her sudden laugh.
“You had reason.” Hunt’s frown deepened. The sheriff shook her head and elaborated, “For taking your time going home.” Hunt smiled then, too. And he remembered something.
“He didn’t make a sound going down. I thought he was a comet or something.” Hunt shuddered. “I can’t imagine going that quietly.”
“He mighta already been dead. That’s something there—wait are you saying he was lit?” There it was, what he’d forgotten.
“Shit, yes. Faint flicker like a star.” The sheriff handed Hunt her empty mug and stood up.
“The guys examining the scene down here need to know, there wasn’t anything that could light up on the body, whatever the hell was doing it. Probably flew offa him as he dropped.”
After she left it was just Hunt and the stranger again. They sat there companionably for a while, then Hunt drained the last of his tea and left.
Sitting on his heels in the garden, weeding and fussing in the afternoon sun, Hunt has more or less moved on from the dead stranger. He’d found the guy, he hadn’t married him. The gate of the little wood fence clicked bringing Hunt’s attention from the carrots and chives to a much more aesthetically pleasing set of stems. Before he could get a good leer going, she shut him down.
“This is business, Hunt.” With a sigh he turned back to the plants.
“I was just about officially done forgetting the guy. Do I have’ta tell you the story again?” There was a soft rustle as the sheriff kneeled down next to Hunt.
“No, I need a set of ears that’ll keep to themselves.” Brown hands like spices and clay joined his, pulling soft green weeds from between the rows. “We’ve been able to identify the body, more or less.”
“More or less?”
“Exactly. New-blood drifter from the east. Sheep and machine tending background, been in North for a while, almost drafted into the Hares, but decided to come down and join the bridgework crew instead.”
“No shit, better pay. Any name?”
“Shep.” Hunt laughed at her and glanced over to catch a compressed smile before she went on. “Yeah, like I said, more or less. Anyhow, we also ID’d the light you saw. Thing was shattered to pieces. It was one of those old hand-pump emergency gimmicks.” Hunt nodded and moved to the next row.
“So, you think he was poking around up there, torch on—and gets jumped, or pushed, or whatever—and down he went with the light in hand.”
“Pretty much. It means it wasn’t a body dump.”
“That seems pretty neat. Tidy.” The sheriff moved up to Hunt’s row. They worked side by side for a while longer.
“This Shep was a cypher that either brought trouble from the desert or grew it here. There’s practically no physical evidence. Those lights are uncommon, but not rare enough to give us any information. Tomorrow we have to return the scene to the build team and we’ll keep questioning and asking around, but I don’t see this ever being finished. He might well have just fallen from the stars.”
Sitting back, Hunt watched the sheriff work, brow creased, aggression flowing to the weeds. He saw that she wasn’t getting the roots when she pulled, but didn’t point it out.
“Sure is bothering you.”
“One more unsolved case file.”
“It’s not just the case.” He saw her shoulders hunch. He wanted to smooth them out, tell her it would be totally cool, what was one dead new-blood cypher. He sighed. That was not how this lady worked. Hands off, tell her the truth that she already knew, how much it sucked to be sheriff.
“The more they develop the overpass, the more strangers filter in, for work and shit. More trouble, more unknowns, more unsolved cases.” Hunt gave her a light punch in the arm before adding, “but Babe, they ain’t all gonna fall in your jurisdiction. Most of those poor fuckers will end up in the river.”