After Stevie took off for school that morning, Cork O’Connor left the house. He headed to the sheriff’s department on Oak Street, parked in the visitors’ area, and went inside. Jim Pendergast was on the contact desk, and he buzzed Cork through the security door.
Cork crossed the common area and approached the office that not many years before had been his. The door was open. Sheriff Marsha Dross sat at her desk. The sky outside her windows was oddly blue for November, and sunlight poured through the panes with a cheery energy. He knocked on the doorframe. Dross looked up from the documents in front of her and smiled.
“Morning, Cork. Come on in. Shut the door behind you.”
“Mind if I hang it?” Cork asked, shedding his leather jacket.
“No, go right ahead.”
Dross had an antique coat tree beside the door, one of the many nice touches she’d brought to the place. A few plants, well tended. Photos on the walls, gorgeous North Country shots she’d taken herself and had framed. She’d had the office painted a soft desert tan, a color Cork would never have chosen, but it worked.
“Sit down,” she said.
He took the old maple armchair that Dross had picked up at an estate sale and refinished herself. “Thanks for seeing me so early.”
“No problem. Jo get off okay?”
“Yeah, yesterday. She and LeDuc flew out together. They stayed in Casper last night. Due in Seattle today.”
“You and Stevie are bachelors for a few days, then?”
Dross folded her hands on her desk. “I don’t have an application from you yet, so I can’t really consider this a formal interview.”
“You know those exploratory committees they form for presidential candidates? This is more like that.”
Cork had hired her years ago when he was sheriff, and she’d become the first woman ever to wear the uniform of the Tamarack County Sheriff’s Department. She’d proven to be a good law officer, and when the opportunity had come her way, she’d put her hat in the ring, run for sheriff, and won easily. In Cork’s estimation, she’d filled that office well. She was in her late thirties, with red-brown hair, which she wore short, no makeup.
“Okay,” she said. “So explore.”
“Would you consider me seriously for the position?”
“If you apply, you’ll be the most experienced applicant.”
“And the oldest.”
“We don’t discriminate on the basis of age.”
“I’ll be fifty-one this year.”
“And the man you’d replace is sixty-three. Cy Borkman’s been a fine deputy right up to the end. So I’m guessing you might have a few good years left in you, too.” She smiled, paused. “How would you feel taking orders from an officer you trained?”
“I trained that officer pretty well. So no problem there. How would you feel giving orders to the guy who trained you?”
“Let me worry about that one.” She lost her smile and leveled at him a straight look that lasted an uncomfortably long time. “You told me a year and a half ago, after the shootings at the high school, that you would never carry a firearm again.”
“No. I told you I would never fire one at another human being.”
“Does that mean you’d be willing to carry?”
“The job definitely requires it.”
“In England the cops don’t carry.”
“This isn’t England. And you carry with the understanding that someday you might have to use your firearm. That’s why all our deputies certify on the range once a year. Your rule, remember?”
“How many times since you put on that badge have you cleared your holster and fired?”
“Yesterday is no predictor of tomorrow. And, Cork, the officers you work with need to believe you’re willing to cover their backs, whatever it takes. Christ, you know that.” She sat back, looking frankly puzzled. “Why do you want this job? Is it the litigation?”
“The lawsuit’s draining me,” he admitted.
“You’ve built a good reputation here as a PI.”
“Can’t spend a reputation. I need a job that brings in a regular income.”
“What’ll you do about Sam’s Place?”
“Unless I win the litigation, there won’t be a Sam’s Place. And unless I can pay for it, there won’t be a litigation.”
“And if you win the lawsuit, are you out of here again? I’ve got to tell you, Cork, you’ve been in and out of uniform more times than a kid playing dress-up.”
“I was never playing.”
She looked away, out her window at the gorgeous November sky and the liquid sun that made everything drip yellow. “I’ve got a dozen qualified applicants wanting Cy’s job, young guys itching for experience. I hire one of them, he’ll be with me for years. I can start him out at a salary that’ll be healthy for my budget. I can assign him the worst shifts and he won’t complain.”
“Did I ever complain?”
“Let me finish. The feeling around here is that I ought to hire you. You’re clearly the popular choice. Hell, you brought most of our officers into the department yourself. These guys love you. But I have to look beyond the question of how well you’d fit in here. I have to think about the future of this force. And I also have to think about the welfare of the officer I hire.” She gave him another long, direct look. “What’s Jo think about this?”
“That it’s not the best idea I’ve ever had.”
“An understatement on her part, I’m sure.”
“This is between you and me, Marsha.”
“Until I run into Jo in the produce aisle at the IGA. I can’t imagine that would be pretty.”
“You’re saying you wouldn’t be inclined to hire me?”
“I’m saying we both probably have better options.”
It was Cork’s turn to eye the promising blue sky. “I don’t know anything but law enforcement.”
“I heard the new casino management firm might be looking for someone to head up security.”
“All paperwork,” Cork said.
“Sixty percent of what we do here is paperwork.”
“I guess I have my answer.” Cork stood up. “Thanks for seeing me, Marsha.”
They shook hands without another word. Cork headed out, passed the contact desk, where Pendergast gave him a thumbs-up.