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From A Cup of Hemlock

“Toussaint removed a pair of rubber gloves from his pocket, pulled them on, and reached in and lifted the box. He flipped open the catch and opened it slowly. Two 9mm clips rested on the bottom. The rounded brass heads of bullets obtruded from the business end of each magazine. Toussaint had spent his entire working life around guns. Every morning when he left the house for work, he loaded his own Glock 26, shoving the clip firmly into place and, every morning, checking the trigger safety lever to be sure it was in its exposed position. Nevertheless, the sight of the bright brass bullet cartridges secured in their black casing caused quick prickles to dance across the back of his neck. He could not get used to seeing this—the banal agents of death at the service of their executor, whoever that might turn out to be.”

“Missy had seen true grief before in this job, but she was fully aware that she had yet to experience it herself. The deaths of horses and pets on the farm, yes. Her parents had taught her to look death in the eye. She knew that Toussaint had for years been managing a grief of staggering proportions—but then he was an adult. But children? How did they cope? One thing Missy felt instinctively: They needed the truth. No fairy tales. No figure of authority standing before them saying it would be all right. It would never be all right—except to the degree that each person made his own peace based on his or her own terms.”

“Aaron Bernstein fitted the key into the door of Room 112 and opened it. Although two people behind him were waiting to enter, he found himself caught up in fragments of yellow police tape still taped to the doorjamb. He tore the pieces free, balled them up, and dropped them into the garbage can by the door, then took a step inside and switched on the classroom lights. The room had been his home away from home for four months, but it had been Nick Lehrer’s native land, his kingdom, for years. When he had first walked into this room back in the fall to begin the observation period of his internship, Aaron had felt, oddly, that he might be challenged to produce a passport. Then, it had been an alien landscape. Now, it was a commonwealth to which he had been admitted as a naturalized citizen.”

“Tony sat on the edge of the bed for a long time. What did his sister mean about becoming an adult? Sitting in the dark, he grappled with the question for a long minute. One thing about adults. They made decisions kids didn’t have to. So what did Brenda know? What decisions was she faced with? Had she made some kind of decision right then and there? Tony got the feeling that something momentous had just taken place, but he had only a glimmer of what that thing was. And the glimmer that did reveal itself was so troubling that he pushed it back into the dark, where he figured it belonged.”

“And DeVon had that big, shiny gun with him. LaVonna knew, because as she and Mama had approached the house they had heard it fire twice. In the gathering twilight, they saw the lights of the police cars blocking the streets and the men and women behind other police cars parked in front of the house, rifles pointed at the windows and front door. It had occurred to her immediately that if she didn’t do something, those police would shoot her brother. Her only brother, whom she loved, big old gun or no big old gun.”

“The investigation had hardly gotten off the ground. And now this martinet masquerading as an investigating detective was insisting that Toussaint take this critical moment in the investigation to sit in an office and help shine apples for his boss. Tell me what you have, Sergeant. Here’s what I think you should do next, Sergeant. Oh, and by the way, Sergeant, do check back in by the end of shift. The Chief is being flooded with phone calls. Worried parents. Concerned officials at the school district. The jackals over at the paper and the TV stations. We need bones, Sergeant. Bones to throw them.”

“Molly Easley looked wildly into Missy’s eyes. ‘Listen. I ain’t been using for more than two months. My dealer, that asshole, he got snatched up by you people, and you goddamn well know it.’ The woman’s mouth was nearly barren. What teeth showed were broken off and brown with rot. Her skin was pale, nearly white. Scabs covering over recent sores marked her temples and lower jawline. Her long hair, which had been dyed jet black by a cheap product that left it dull and deadened, stood in stark contrast to the face whose features had been contorted, twisted, and tortured into that of an old woman. But she was not an old woman. Missy knew from the file on Molly Easley that she was thirty-four years old. She could have been Missy’s older sister.”

“Toussaint heard a voice coming from his right. He looked into the pedestrian tunnel that ran under the Burlington Northern Railroad track paralleling the road. Officer Raul Vasquez stood with his body pressed against the cement wall. In one hand he held his service weapon. In the other he held a leash, the leather wrapped firmly around his wrist. At the end of the leash a Belgian shepherd police dog pulled at it with focused intent, ears cocked in the direction of the Oaks Bottom Wildlife Refuge lake that filled the depression on the other side of the tracks. The animal trembled with anxious pleasure, anticipating what he clearly hoped he would presently be asked to do.”