“Glad to know we’re not the only ones,” the sheriff said.
Cam wasn’t surprised the sheriff tried to put the young woman at ease, but the normally congenial man couldn’t even muster a smile.
After another brief conversation, the vans pulled away. No sirens. No flashing lights. No hurry.
Darkness had fallen. Cam wasn’t a believer in ghosts. But if any apparitions or memory echoes were to appear, it’d be on a night like this. Pitch black. No moon. Wisps of snow clouds scuttled across the dark sky with wraithlike fingers.
They’d opted not to drape the house—or the access to it—in crime scene tape. Locals knew where Jeff and Angela lived. They’d drive by out of morbid curiosity and disbelief.
News crews from Cheyenne, Casper and Denver would figure out the location—no need to make it easy on them. Guaranteed this case would become newsworthy. Local couple found in a murder/suicide on Valentine’s Day. He just hoped some of the details would be kept private.
Details like Jeff’s military service? Which you hadn’t known about?
He tuned out Bob Wingate’s accusation and checked his phone. Six messages from Domini. His wife’s escalating concern drove home the point that he couldn’t face his family in his present dark mood.
Their brood—six kids adopted over the course of the last three years, ranging in age from two to nine—was loud, messy, fierce, loving, joyful and determined. Going home to the family chaos that defined his life was his favorite part of the day. He knew the scene that would greet him. His youngest son, Markus, would be in meltdown mode before supper. His youngest daughter, Sasha, would be watching Dora the Explorer for the umpteenth time. The twins, Dimitri and Oxsana would be fighting over the dog. Anton and Liesl would be talking about their classrooms’ Valentine’s Day parties after finishing chores.
Cam closed his eyes. Had it only been last night he’d sat at the kitchen table with his oldest son and daughter supervising Valentine preparations? Anton finished his Transformers cards in less than twenty minutes, while Liesl had painstakingly written out every classmate’s name in red marker. And she’d added a pink squiggle of glitter glue to each paper heart she’d created. By the time Liesl had finished her valentines, she’d been covered in red marker, glue and glitter. She claimed her tongue hurt from licking envelopes, and he’d slipped her an ice cream bar to soothe the sting.
His wife had smiled at them indulgently as she’d directed the twins’ placement of candy hearts atop the pink and white frosted cupcakes.
Such innocence didn’t need to be tainted by the black cloud surrounding him. Cam texted Domini not to wait up.
Back in Sundance, he parked his patrol car behind the sheriff’s office. Both he and the sheriff wrote their reports while the horror was still fresh in their minds. Then they headed to the Golden Boot bar and attempted to dull those too-sharp edges of shock.
Before they’d finished the first beer, people wanted to know what’d really happened with the Wingates. Some even offered hypothetical motives. As an elected official, the sheriff couldn’t be rude. He answered questions with grace and ease that looked completely effortless, but Cam could see it was taking a toll on the man.
Finally, Lettie, the bar owner, spirited them to the back, away from continual interruptions. She dropped off a round and said, “I don’t know if this is useful information, but Jeff and Angela were in here three days ago.”
“And how did they seem?” the sheriff asked.
“Jeff looked a little rough around the edges. Angela kept fussing at him. Urging him to eat. Touching him.”
“Did that irritate him?”
“On the contrary. It appeared to soothe him.”
“So they weren’t fighting?”
“No. They even danced once before they left. It was sweet. They only ever had eyes for each other as teenagers.” She looked at Cam with sad eyes. “Don’t you remember they were crowned king and queen of the winter formal in their junior year? We were all so happy they reconnected after Jeff moved back home a few years ago.” She clucked her tongue. “Those poor families. Left to wonder why. I don’t envy you guys your jobs.”
“Me neither,” Cam mumbled into his beer.
The sheriff sighed. “There goes the jealous rage theory.”
They drank in silence until a shadow fell across the table. Cam looked up as Doctor Joely Monroe, a feisty redhead with gamine features and a brusque manner, scooted next to the sheriff in the booth.
“Hey, Doc,” Cam said. “I imagine it’s not a coincidence that you’re here?” As the only physician in the area, chances were good she’d treated the victims at some point in the last few years.
“I’m meeting some folks later, but I figured I’d find you guys drinking after the day you’ve had.” She lowered her voice. “So it’s true? About Jeff and Angela?”
“Shit.” She sighed and shoved her hand through her hair, making the short red tresses stick straight up. “I don’t know if it matters, but Angela was my patient.”
“No.” Doctor Monroe motioned Lettie over to the table. “Two lemon drop martinis, each with a lemon vodka chaser.” She gestured to them. “You guys want anything?”
Sheriff Shortbull shook his head.
Cam said, “Ah, no. I’m good.”
They waited in silence until Lettie returned with the drinks. After the doc upended her first martini, she asked, “Can you tell me what happened?”
“Damndest thing. We’re not exactly sure,” Sheriff Shortbull said and relayed the events. “Do you know anything that could shed light on this case?”
Her shrewd gaze winged to his. “Who will hear this?”
“I’d like to assure you that it’ll stay between us, but these things have a way of getting out. You know that. Especially in this case, because everyone is trying to make sense of… something in this fucked-up situation.”
She nodded. Fiddled with the stem of her martini glass. “I can tell you that I recently found out Jeff suffered from PTSD.”
Cam’s gut clenched for the second time at the reminder he’d had no idea Jeff had served in the military, let alone in a combat unit. As Cam tried to think back to the past few years and whether he’d simply forgotten that piece of information, Bob Wingate’s accusations pushed front and center. You should have reached out to him.
“Angela came into the office last week for her annual checkup. She had bruises on her arms and legs. When I asked why, she said Jeff had been suffering from more combat nightmares than usual. He thrashed around a lot at night and she bore the brunt of it.”
Cam felt himself nodding. Those types of flashbacks were so real he woke covered in sweat, his throat raw from heat and sand, feeling like he’d been in the desert fighting for his life.
“Was Angela concerned for her safety?” the sheriff asked.
Doc Monroe shook her head. “She swore she knew how to handle it. Handle him. I had no reason not to believe her or I would’ve suggested she stay someplace safer.” She drained the vodka shot. “I see abused women in my practice far too often. I never would’ve put Angela in that category.”
“Can you back up?” Cam said. “Bob Wingate said something to me earlier, and you just confirmed it, but I had no idea Jeff was a combat vet.”
“Me neither,” Sheriff Shortbull added. “And I’ve bowled with Jeff the last few years.”
“My understanding is he was a supply clerk in the National Guard. His unit, based out of Laramie, where he joined during college, got called for Operation Iraqi Freedom. They saw the worst of the initial resistance. Jeff was stationed over there about… a year, I guess.” Doc Monroe looked at Cam. “You weren’t around then.”
“Because I was also in Iraq.”
“Angela said he wouldn’t speak of that time. Like it’d never happened. As soon as he’d fulfilled his enlistment requirements, he moved back to Sundance from Laramie. She knew he’d been diagnosed with PTSD, but his family had no idea. He refused counseling or medication. And ninety-nine percent of the time he was fine.”
But that unstable one percent was the unknown—and in this case, a real killer.
Cam ordered another round for himself. Much like Jeff, he didn’t talk to his family about being a combat survivor. If he hadn’t needed his prosthesis checked twice a year, he’d probably never step foot in the VA. After he’d lost his leg, part of his hand, and received an honorable medical discharge, he’d cut himself off from everyone in his former military life except for a couple guys from his unit.
“I don’t mean to be gross, but Jeff really… offed himself with a chainsaw?” Doc Monroe asked.
The sheriff nodded. “The modern day method of falling on his sword. Except he turned it on and…” He drained his beer. “Evidently, it was an older model with no safeguards. It stayed on and kept cutting through everything in its path until it ran out of gas.”
Both the sheriff and Cam shuddered at the gruesome mental image of the carnage left in the wake of a runaway chainsaw.
Doc Monroe polished off her second martini. “I’m not a detective, but do any of the pieces fit together yet?”
“More now than they did before you joined us. So thanks, Doc. I’ll have to add the supposition to my report.”
“The supposition being…” She paused and then said, “That Angela must’ve startled Jeff during one of his combat nightmares and he emptied his handgun into her. When he realized what he’d done, he killed himself in a manner which he knew he wouldn’t survive.”
“That’s probably as close to the truth as we’ll ever get,” Cam said. “No one will ever really know what went on.”
She looked at them, her brow furrowed, and Cam knew she’d gone back into doctor mode. “But it’s not like either of you can easily forget it. Since you have access to a top-notch counselor through the sheriff’s office, I recommend you both take advantage of it. This has the potential to haunt you and affect your job.”