I’m really pleased to be sharing an extract from Children of the Valley a ‘fast-paced, sharply observed novel of rural suspense’, by award-wining writer Castle Freeman.
Sheriff Lucian Wing goes to the aid of a pair of young runaways, Duncan and Pamela, who have fled to his backwoods county jurisdiction in Vermont. The girl’s powerful stepfather New York has set a smoothly menacing lawyer and well-armed thugs on their trail.
At the same time Wing must deal with his wayward wife’s chronic infidelity; the snobbery of Pamela’s cosmopolitan mother; the dubious assistance of a demented World War Two enthusiast – and the climactic, chaotic onset of a prodigious specimen of the local wildlife.
Amidst it all, can Wing bring Duncan and Pamela to safety?
The De-Escalation of Rhumba
Nine – no, ten – vehicles were parked in front of Krugers’, on the grass, in the road, around back in the lane: two deputies, four Staties, including a command car, two ambulances, the Cardiff Fire Department’s second-best pumper, and a line truck from the telephone company. The first to arrive had been here for half an hour. Nothing had happened, nothing had changed. So now they were waiting. They were waiting for something to move. They were waiting for me.
I left my truck in the road and walked to them, keeping the cruisers between the house and me. A small house, needed a coat of paint. Needed a coat of paint and a rich owner; wasn’t going to get either one. We called the place Krugers’. It had been Krugers’ at one time. I didn’t know whose it was now; it was rented out. Storey-and-a-half, so hard to see what’s going on upstairs. Not good. Tiny yards in front and behind, then woods all around. So no near neighbours. Good.
Dwight Farrabaugh, the state police captain in charge of this action, and the Cardiff fire chief were standing behind the pumper in the road. Normally, an officer of the grade of captain wouldn’t turn out for what looked like another no-frills domestic dispute, but in this case firearms were reported to be involved, and so were minor children.
Guns and kids get everybody wound up – everybody, including the press. Therefore, Dwight had favoured us with his presence this morning.
Wingate was there, too. Evidently he had busted out of the old-folks’ home and hitched a ride to the action with the chief. I joined them.
‘Well, if it ain’t The Chill,’ said Farrabaugh. ‘Where the hell have you been?’
‘Goofing off,’ I said. ‘Like you. Hello, Chief. Where’s the new rig?’ Cardiff Fire had recently purchased a new pumper. Usually, the volunteers were eager to take it to calls to show it off to the townspeople, who had dug deep to pay for it; but today it had been left at the station.
‘Don’t want no holes in my brand new truck,’ said the fire chief. ‘Specially not on account of a piece of shit like Rhumba.’
‘Good idea,’ I said. ‘Thought you’d retired,’ I said to Wingate. Wingate shrugged. ‘Like you see,’ he said.
I looked around. I could see the three Staties just inside the woods. They were watching the house with binoculars. The deputies would be doing the same on the other side. ‘So?’ I asked. ‘What have we got? Rhumba again, I guess?’
‘The very same,’ said Dwight.
‘Rhumba and who else?’ I asked.
‘The missus. Three of her kids, maybe more. Three we know of: two little, one medium.’
‘We’ve got eyes?’
‘Sure. Missus has a shiner on her as big as a golf ball. She’s scroonched into a corner. Kids are under the bed.’
‘Smart kids,’ I said. ‘And Rhumba?’
‘Downstairs. He’s shoved a big old couch against the front door. He’s behind it or near it. He moves around.’
‘Back door?’ I asked.
‘Kitchen. We can be through it and in there in ten seconds. ’Course, that’s going in with weight.’
‘Right,’ I said. ‘Let’s just take it slow for now. Okay?’
‘Here you go again,’ said Dwight.
‘Just for now,’ I said.
‘Now means not long, right?’
‘Of course,’ I said. ‘Equipment?’
‘Shotgun,’ said Dwight.
‘He says,’ said Wingate.
‘You’ve seen it?’ I asked.
‘Negative,’ said Dwight. ‘He had one last time. If you recall.’
‘I recall,’ I said. ‘We’ve got sound?’
‘Over there,’ said Dwight, and he pointed to the telephone company’s truck.
‘Well, then,’ I said.
I sat in the cab of the line truck waiting for Rhumba’s connection to patch through and drinking lukewarm coffee from a paper cup. Somehow Wingate had found a coffee pot. Forty years in law enforcement, you may not always get your man, but you always get your coffee. Wingate sat in the cab beside me, listening for the call.
‘Hello?’ Rhumba’s voice came in.
‘Earl?’ I said. ‘Earl, this is Lucian Wing. How are you doing in there?’
‘Fuck you,’ said Rhumba. He didn’t like you to use his real name.
‘Okay, Rhumba,’ I said. ‘Who have you got with you?’
‘All of them,’ said Rhumba. ‘The slut, the brats, the whole nine yards.’
‘Three kids, then?’ I looked at Wingate. He drank his coffee.
‘You’re asking me?’ said Rhumba. ‘You got your assholes falling out of the trees, here, spying around. You tell me who I’ve got.’
‘We see three kids.’
‘Ha-ha, then,’ said Rhumba. ‘There’s four. Four and the whore. Ha-ha.’
‘Good one,’ I said. ‘What are you going to do?’
‘What do you think?’ Rhumba seemed to clear his throat.
‘Rhumba?’ I pushed him.
Rhumba made a little sound, might have been a cough, might have been a sob. ‘I’m going to kill them all,’ he said.
‘Okay,’ I said. ‘Okay, Rhumba. Ten-four. You’re coming through loud and clear. But nobody’s in a hurry, here, right? Let’s slow it down. Let’s take a breath.’
‘You take a breath,’ said Rhumba. ‘I’ve told you: this time, I’m doing it.’
‘I know you don’t want the kids hurt,’ I said.
‘You’ve got no fucking idea what I do or don’t want,’ said Rhumba. ‘You say you do, but you don’t. You don’t know.’
‘You’re right,’ I said. ‘I don’t know.’
‘I’ve had enough with this thing,’ Rhumba went on. ‘I have fucking had enough.’
‘I know you have, Rhumba,’ I said. ‘We all know you have. What you’ve put up with? Anybody would have snapped.’
‘I’m snapping now,’ said Rhumba. ‘I am fucking snapping.’
‘I know you are, Rhumba. We all know you are… Uhh … Hang on a second.’
I turned to Wingate. I covered the phone with my hand. ‘He ain’t drunk,’ I said. ‘Don’t sound it, anyhow.’
‘No,’ said Wingate.
‘I wish I knew if he’s really got something in there, like the other time,’ I said.
‘I wish you knew, too, sheriff,’ said Wingate. ‘Young Dwight will be getting restless. Pretty soon, time to guess and go.’
‘Guess and go,’ I said.
‘My guess?’ said Wingate. ‘He’s got nothing.’
‘How do you know?’
‘I don’t know. I knew, it wouldn’t be a guess.’
‘Well,’ I said, ‘I’ve got to go someplace with him.’
‘Try a new deck,’ said Wingate.
‘I could do that,’ I said. ‘But would it work?’
‘One way to find out.’
‘Earl?’ I said into the phone. ‘You there, Earl?’
‘Fuck you,’ said Rhumba.
‘We’ve been talking, out here, trying to recall. That place?’
‘Place? What place?’
‘Your place, there. Where you’re at. You rent, right?’
‘Your place. Your house. Where you live. You rent it, right? From – is it still Krugers?’
‘What are you talking about?’ Rhumba asked. ‘Did you hear me? I said – I said I’m going to kill them all. I’ve had enough, and I’m going to do it.’
‘I got that, Earl,’ I said. ‘But I’m asking you about your house. Are you renters? Who’s your landlord? Is it still Krugers?’
‘No,’ said Rhumba. ‘The landlord’s Brown.’
‘Brown?’ I asked him. ‘Is that the same Brown had the camp up on Diamond? His brother was killed in Vietnam? Wendell Brown?’
‘Your landlord, Earl,’ I said. ‘Help me out, here, can’t you? Wasn’t he the one whose brother was killed? They had that camp. Brad McKinnon got a ten-pointer up there years ago?’
‘That’s right,’ said Rhumba. ‘My dad was there. Said it was the god damnedest buck he ever saw. But his name’s not Wendell. It’s Wayne.’
‘Who is?’ I asked him.
‘The guy that had the camp, where McKinnon—’
‘The camp we’ve been talking about,’ Rhumba said. ‘The camp on Diamond.’
‘Oh,’ I said. ‘That camp.’
‘What other camp is there?’
‘Quite a few.’
‘Fuck you, Lucian,’ said Rhumba.
‘I was just asking,’ I said. ‘Just trying to get us clear. You know me: I like things clear.’
‘Lucian?’ Rhumba asked.
‘This is a pretty fucked-up situation, here, you know it?’
‘Sometimes,’ Rhumba said. ‘Things get pretty fucked up.’
‘They do,’ I said. ‘Listen: you ready to step out here? See what we can do? Talk a little, here? You don’t feel right, you can always go back inside. No funny stuff.’
‘Just fucked up,’ said Rhumba. ‘Hang on a minute, Lucian.’ The phone clicked off. We could hear bumping and scraping from inside the house as Rhumba moved his barricade couch out of the way of the front door. Wingate dumped the remains of his coffee out the window of the telephone company’s truck. ‘Done deal,’ he said. ‘I saw it, too, you know. That buck. That was a hell of an animal. Where are you headed now?’
‘Back to the office, I guess,’ I said.
‘Drop me at the place?’ Wingate asked me.
‘The Chill Rides Again,’ said Dwight Farrabaugh. ‘Another satisfied customer.’
Rhumba sat in the back of one of the Staties’ cruisers being interviewed. Two deputies had gone over the house: no shotgun. No other firearms. Good. A couple from the state’s Department of Children and Families were talking to Mrs. Rhumba and the kids. Four kids, as Rhumba had said. All of them apparently okay. Good, again.
Dwight was wrapping up. He slapped me on the back. ‘Thanks, Lucian,’ he said. ‘I don’t know how you do it.’
‘Natural gift for improvisation,’ I said.
‘Natural gift for bullshit, more like,’ said Dwight. He turned to his command car, ready to be on his way.
Well, he’s more right than wrong, Dwight, ain’t he? But the bullshit ain’t the main thing. The bullshit is a means to an end. The end is boredom, and the end is impatience. The end is fatigue. People backed right up to the wall, like Rhumba, expend a lot of energy. They tire quickly. They want above all for something to happen, anything. They’ve climbed up to the top of the flagpole, and now they don’t know what’s next. They don’t know where to go. All they know is, they want action.
They want decision. They want an event. My job is to see they don’t get one. Instead, they get the bullshit. They get irrelevance. They get talk. The talk wanders around from no-place to no-place and back again. Pretty soon, your subject is so bored, so dazed by the storm of bullshit, that, to stop it, he climbs down from the flagpole. He goes quietly. It’s a method. It ain’t exciting, but it often works, and, when it works, everybody walks away.
De-escalation is what scholars of law enforcement call the method. Dwight Farrabaugh and others call it chilling. Wingate don’t call it anything, but it was Wingate who taught the method to me. He’s still teaching it, as you can see, and, although I’m glad to have his advice, I’ll admit sometimes I wish he’d leave off. Wingate was sheriff of our county forty years. He hired me for a deputy, and I took over for him when he retired ten–twelve years ago. Pretty soon, I learned Wingate had his own ideas on retirement. Retirement was a state of mind, not a fact, and it was a state of mind Wingate was never in. Wingate has retired more times than Frank Sinatra. The more he retires, the more he comes back. And who’s going to tell him he can’t? If Frank Sinatra shows up in Las Vegas and says he’d like to sing a couple of the old favourites, is Las Vegas going to tell him to go away? Frank built Las Vegas. Frank owned Las Vegas. He’ll sing if he damned wants to. Same with Wingate in our valley. Now, inability to retire may be the only way Wingate’s like Frank Sinatra, I guess. I can’t think of any others. But, then, I don’t know Frank. Maybe there’s more.
I left Wingate at the entrance to Steep Mountain House. He got down out of the truck and stood for a minute with his hand on the door.
‘How’s Clementine?’ Wingate asked me.
‘Tip-top,’ I said. ‘Never better.’
‘Uh-huh,’ said Wingate. ‘Well, keep your spoon clean, young fellow. Good job on Rhumba. We’ll see you.’ He turned and walked toward the building. He went slowly, and I saw he was using his cane today. Wingate’s not a kid.
Castle Freeman is the author of seven novels, including the critically acclaimed Go With Me, which has been made into a film starring Anthony Hopkins, as well as two short-story collections. He has lived in rural Vermont since 1975.