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Chapter I – A Sign Of Things To Come
Officer Hugh Owens tried to rub the exhaustion from his eyes and face as he entered the police station. His brown hair looking fresh off the pillow and tanned face heavy from fatigue, nobody would mistake him for anything other than exhausted. He offered brief eye contact and a worn smile to Janet at dispatch, all too aware that he carried the charms of a caveman. Janet responded with a pleasant “Hey, baby,” that was lost on Hugh as he lumbered on toward the back room. His keen sense of smell picked up hot coffee the moment he opened the door, and the next cup was his no matter what. “Hugh, you look tired,” Sheriff Dale Lowry said in full sincerity from a metal-framed plastic chair in the back room. Dale let his friend step into the room and grab a cup. “Rough night?” After a sigh, Hugh looked toward his boss and nodded slowly. “Didn’t get a lot of sleep. Kinda late night, yeah. Coffee fresh?” “Janet made it just a bit ago,” Dale answered quickly before standing up and approaching. “You wanna talk about something?” Hugh took a deep breath, using the silence to ponder the sheriff’s energetic appearance. They were both the same height but Dale, older by a dozen years, looked taller because he always stood up bolt-straight, a misplaced youthful energy covering his face and coursing throughout his body. Dale’s thick frame had no room for a slouch, just like his baby face had no
space for wrinkles and his black hair lacked even one gray follicle. The sheriff had no right being forty-four but looking like he was dressed up as a policeman for the high school Halloween dance. Did he even have whiskers? Looking at the sheriff made Hugh feel well older than his own thirty-two years should be. “Just some sleeping troubles, that’s it,” Hugh answered in a tired, noncommittal voice. Nothing made him feel more awkward than talking to someone who was older yet showered in the fountain of youth. “Well, you know,” Dale said, moving side-to-side to put a friendly arm around Hugh’s shoulders and adopting a mentoring tone, “when I first got out of the service, it took me some time to get used to being back in Michigan. Mind you, I didn’t even enter hostile territory, but it still took time getting used to coming home. I know you’ve been back for three months, but I can only imagine how long the change from Baghdad back to Sloughton might take. I know it isn’t just gonna happen all of the sudden.” “Four months come Tuesday,” Hugh added. He could not admit that being back in central Michigan still felt awkward. And ever since he came home, only Baby-Face Dale had mustered the courage to say it. The only man with the balls to show an interest did not even look like he had pubic hair. But hearing the sheriff voice concern over his situation made him long to just have someone to talk with who had some concept of what time in the service can do. He wanted to tell someone about Iraq and not see a response of blank, clueless eyes. Anyone in the service would be perfect – anyone but Dale. Not Dale.
Despite Dale’s time in the service, Hugh could not look at the sheriff and see anything other than a boy – a forty-four year-old boy. “It’s tough coming home,” Dale added with a nod. “I don’t know if it’ll be easy for you someday…but it’ll be a little easier every day.” Hugh turned to face his boss directly, Dale’s arm still hanging on his trooper’s jacket. “I appreciate that. Those are some nice words. I…I just…I just get restless, and end up spend half the night in my garage or the shed or something. Busy hands, y’know. Busy mind. When the breezes hit the trees, the rustling leaves get me edgy. Too noisy, but too peaceful, y’know?” Catching his thoughts in mid-ramble, he made an effort to get back on track. “But, well, yeah, I guess I’m still not quite home yet.” Dale patted him twice on the shoulder before removing his arm. “For the first week after I got back home I slept on a cot in the garage. Mattress was too easy, sheets were too soft. My wife wasn’t too happy about that, but she understood.” Switching from his friendly voice, Dale adopted his seriousthough-still-relaxed Sheriff Lowry tone. “Now, we got a call ten minutes ago that might be the kind of thing that eases you into the day. I’m heading out to see it in a minute, so if you wanna come along then come along.” “Situation? Did the McCulsky kid break his foot again climbing those abandoned silos?” “I thought Eddie McCulsky still has a boot cast on his leg, but it’s nothing urgent like that. This isn’t something I’d call a big problem. It’s just
something that needs assessing out on Route 58, just outside the border.” Suppressing a yawn, Hugh put down his unfilled mug and reached for something with a traveling lid. “Then let’s see it. You drive, Sheriff.”
The thin pine woods grew more dense and the houses became rare along the three-mile ride north from the police station on Route 58. By the time the sheriff’s cruiser reached the Sloughton border, the state highway was only an asphalt trench cut through thick evergreens dominating the horizon. The lightly-trafficked two-lane road became irrelevant in the distance, swallowed up by the rolling hills and forests of central Michigan. Route 58 was a major thoroughfare that stretched through the heart of the state, but ‘heart’ was not a major organ in this state. In the winter, snowmobiles were just as common as cars on the road. Dale drove a half-mile north of the town border into unincorporated territory before taking a slow u-turn and pulling onto the shoulder of the southbound lane, just in front of today’s situation. Turning off the engine, he took the keys while looking at Hugh and smiling. The situation in front of the car needed no introduction. On the side of the road, high atop two sturdy supports, stood a large sign that had not been there yesterday. The four-by-six foot horizontal sign, painted white with black trim and lettering, was easily readable for all the cars heading into Sloughton:
SLOUGHTON SPEED TRAP AHEAD – ½ MILE JUST PAST THE NEXT HILL PLEASE REDUCE SPEED TO 40 MPH OR GET A TICKET
Stepping out of the car to admire the sign, Hugh took a sip of coffee and leaned against the passenger side of the cruiser. “Pretty elaborate for a prank, huh, Dale?” Dale smirked, an amused tilt to his mouth while looking up at the sign. “Not what I was expecting. Molly called this in this morning on her way to the diner. Said there was a big old distracting sign out here that just shouldn’t be lying around. I sure wasn’t expecting this – I was thinking like one of those little ‘free kittens at next left’ placards or something.” “What’s wrong with free kittens?” “Nothing’s wrong with kittens.” “But you get worried about a sign about them?” Hugh liked poking at Dale, little off-track comments to egg him along until the sheriff finally realized he was being way too serious. “I wasn’t worried about a kitten sign,” Dale said. “Just worried about someone giving them away?” “I’m not worried about no damn cats!” Dale caught himself then shook his head while looking at the ground, caught once again. “Fine, Hugh. You got
me. But this sign is sure not some ‘free kitten’ sign.” Hugh walked slowly toward the sign, looking at the posts in the ground and kicking fresh clods of dirt at the base with his unpolished boot. “I’m thinking someone mounted these supports kind of deep. Didn’t want it to tumble over when a semi whipped by. Maybe one, two feet deep you think?” Walking behind the sign, Dale reached to the top of one support, measuring the proportions against his own body. “Well, if these are the usual two-by-fours, they’d be eight feet long. The sign looks about four feet off the ground, and these posts go not much more than a foot over my head, so I’m thinking maybe about a foot-and-a-half sunk into the ground. That’s a bit of work digging holes and burying beams like that. More of a job than just sticking a board in the ground.” “Fresh dirt,” Hugh added, mindlessly kicking another clod through the grass. “So, what you think?” “I think someone really thought this out,” Dale answered thoughtfully, turning to look down the road. “This thing’s far enough back from the road so it doesn’t legally constitute an obstruction, and this being unincorporated land means the state would have to handle this – according to the rules and all. This thing’s even better than a ‘free kittens’ sign because it’s technically not illegal.” Hugh stepped toward the road’s edge, sipping coffee and looking for any traffic before returning to face the sheriff. “You know what this is then, don’t you?”
“It’s interference against writing speeding tickets for one.” “Not that,” Hugh said with a pause. “This big sign is a statement. Someone went out of his way to do this. It’s a declaration about obeying the law.” Dale nodded in agreement while grabbing a support and trying to shake it. “Sounds about right. Or, more like someone got caught along here but couldn’t just let it go after paying seventy bucks. That’s reasonable.” “Not quite where I was headed.” Hugh rubbed his chin in thought, looking at the sign again. “Effort went into this. Like you said, it ain’t just a ‘free kittens’ sign. The words look stenciled on, the grammar’s nice, and there’s no anger in it. The guy said ‘please’ for Pete’s sake. I think whoever did this was serious.” Dale’s shoulders sank and he rolled his head back, groaning toward the sky. “You aren’t referring to our M ‘n’ M friends, are you?” “Could be them.” “What’s got them all fired up again?” Hugh shrugged. “You’re asking the wrong guy. I’ve been on the dusty side of the world until four months ago. You’ve been here on home soil – you tell me what’s been happening to get Leonard and the Michigan Minuteman Militia all hot and bothered.” “I can’t tell you, Hugh,” Dale said as he walked quickly back toward the cruiser. “But I think we should pay old Leonard a visit before heading back. I
only like him when he’s not trouble, so let’s see if I like him anymore.” With a relaxed turn and half-smile, Hugh went back to the car and stepped in, giving the sign one last look before they pulled away. He put down another sip of coffee and peacefully watched Dale throw on the siren and lights as they turned back on to Route 58. The sheriff no longer wore a smile as he drove. Dale looked as if someone just picked a fight with him, and the battle was officially on.
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