Sampson Sloane stood a few feet in front of Ransom Miter. Both men were squinting into the rising sun. Miter flicked his cigarette butt on a snowdrift against the side of the ramshackle house. He nudged Sloane. “Remember, you do the talking. I’m just along for the ride.” He pulled the collar of his coat around his neck and glanced back at the rusty Chevy truck parked next to the house. “It’s freezing out here.”
Sloane nodded. The door opened slowly, and a man peeked out. "What do ya’ want?”
“Mr. Maast,” sputtered Sloane, surprised by the sudden appearance of the man. “My name’s Sheriff Sloane. This here’s US Deputy Marshall Miter. Can we come in? Should only take a few minutes.”
The man grunted. “If you’re looking for Cyrus Maast, he ain’t here.” He shut the door and turned the lock.
Sloane knocked and shouted. “Then we’d like to talk to you.”
Lock turns, door opens. The man wore an open terrycloth robe spattered with stains. A pandemonium of food stuffs. Boxer shorts only. Black, grizzled, fur-hair carpeted his chest. Thick, uneven shoulders, a block of wood for a neck, a small head with wire-thin lips, and blue, vacuous eyes. “Gonna get a coat,” he growled. The door slammed. Several minutes later, a different man walked out and stood with his back pressed firmly against the door. He was dressed in jeans and a sweatshirt, long ponytail, unkempt beard, taller and thinner than the other man. “What can I do for you, Sheriff?”
“What’s your name, sir?” Sloane asked.
“Are you related to Cyrus Maast?”
“He’s my father.”
“So you’re T-Bone Maast?”
“Very good.” Maast scoffed.
Sloane’s face reddened. “Is Cyrus here?”
“Do you know where he is?”
“Nope.” T-Bone grinned. “Doesn’t tell us his whereabouts.”
“The man who answered the door, that your brother?”
“Yep.” T-Bone aimed his head slightly right and spat.
“What’s his name?” Sloane asked, “he didn’t give me a chance to ask.”
“Razer. Not much of a talker.” T-Bone dragged his fingers through his beard, catching a fingernail, yanking his finger free.
“Can we come in for a minute?” Miter asked, poking his head around Sloane.
T-Bone looked over Sloane’s shoulder and glimpsed at Miter. "Thought I recognized that name. Believe we met in Duluth a while back. I recall you weren’t very friendly then."
“Friendly had nothing to do with it,” Miter replied casually. “I told you I wasn’t sheriff here anymore.” He stepped away from Sloane and stood in front of T-Bone, the slates of wood creaking under his weight, vaporized breaths from the cold air condensing into ribbons of fog between them.
T-Bone bristled. “Can’t invite you in. Not inclined to visitors.” He took a deep breath. Cunning half-smile.
"Any news about your missing brother?" Sloane asked in a rushed voice.
“Nope. Nothing. Been gone almost three months now." T-Bone looked down, then lifted his head to look at Sloane. "We figure he's dead.” He snickered. “Razer never missed Christmas.” T-Bone glimpsed at a pot balanced on the railing with an emaciated evergreen donning an ornament.
Sloane glanced back at Miter. “Longer he’s missing, smaller the chances that he’s still alive.”
T-Bone pulled his ponytail and draped it over his shoulder. “So, what else? Can’t be the only reason you’re here?”
“Have you been doing any traveling lately, Mr. Maast?” Miter asked.
“It’s T-Bone.” He spat again. “And, no.”
Miter stiffened. “Any of your brothers traveled recently?”
“Nope. Is traveling against the law?"
"Just inquiring." Miter nodded at Sloane, and they stepped off the porch. "We’ll be going. Took enough of your time."
T-Bone followed them. “What are all these questions about?” He glanced back and forth at Miter and Sloane. “And why are you here?” He fixed his eyes on Miter. “Figure I got a right to know.”
Sloane didn’t volunteer an answer. Miter waited a moment, then said in a hoarse, composed voice, “Just visiting my friend here,” Miter replied, glancing at Sloane.
T-Bone’s hostile stare settled on Miter’s placid expression. “Well, let us know how your investigation goes,” T-Bone added, looking back at Sloane. “And I’ll let Pa know you paid us a visit today.” He walked into the house, tipping over the potted evergreen.
When they got into the car, Miter said, “check your rear-view, see if he’s looking out the window at us.”
Sloane started the car and backed up slowly. “No, don't think so." They pulled onto the freeway. “I’m guessing he knows where his father is but not what happened to his brother," Sloane said. He looked over at Miter for confirmation, then continued. “Pretty sure he runs the show in the family. That other guy doesn’t --- what a moron.”
Miter looked out the window. Sunlight ricocheted off miles and miles of fresh snow. Infinite shades of white, like a lunar landscape. He put on his sunglasses and opened a pack of cigarettes. “Cyrus and T-Bone were in Anchorage about two weeks ago. Don’t know what they were doing, but we know they were there.”
“What?” Sloane shifted in his seat to glance at Miter. “Why didn’t you call him out on lying?”
“No need to give him that.” Miter took a long drag on his cigarette.
“Don’t give them what you know?” Sloane asked.
“Something like that.”
Do we have time for lunch before your train?” Sloane asked.
Sloane chuckled. “Can’t think of the last time I dropped someone off at a train station.”
“Write about it your diary."
“Guess the rumors are true,” Sloane ventured, “afraid of flying?”
"Fond of my feet close to the ground," Miter muttered, jamming the cigarette butt into a partially crushed Coke can.
They turned into the Red Raven Café along Highway 61. It was a two-story building in animated states of disrepair and one of the best views of Lake Superior northeast of Duluth. The owners, TulaToo and Pye-Dog, and their three children lived on the second floor of the restaurant and souvenir shop. Known for good food, friendly atmosphere, and fast service, the Red Raven Café enjoyed a steady stream of locals and tourists.
The restaurant buzzed with conversation. Waitresses flew out of the kitchen with sausages and eggs, dishes of high-stacked toast and bowls of sweetened berries. Sloane and Miter sat at a small table in the middle of the room and studied the menu. “No ashtrays,” Miter mumbled, “lucky I’m hungry. Rather eat than smoke.”
“I’ll have the Nome Special please," Sloane announced to the waitress.
She looked at Miter and smiled. “What would you like, Sir?”
Miter pointed. “I’ll try the Point Hope and hope I can finish it.” He handed the menu to her and smiled.
The girl laughed. “Portions are big here, that’s for sure.”
“We’ll have to leave a big tip then,” Miter added. The young girl blushed and hurried off. Within a minute, she returned with a pot of freshly brewed coffee and refilled their cups. Sloane leaned back in his chair. “Great coffee.” He smacked his lips with each sip. “Glad we stopped here. Can’t wait to try one of their Eskimo specialties.”
“I think the owners prefer the term, Native Alaskan.”
Sloane startled. “Didn’t know that. Sure didn’t mean to insult anybody.”
“Didn’t insult me. I’m Norwegian,” Miter quipped. He enjoyed teasing Sloane. “So, what do you have on this case so far?”
Sloane shifted his weight. “This chair’s uncomfortable,” he complained, “feels like it's going to collapse under me." He reached for his notebook. “Name of missing guy is RibEye Maast, age 20, 5’9”, 170 lb, long brown hair, brown eyes, eagle tattoo on his left shoulder. No criminal record, no job history. Father is Cyrus Maast. His family is French Canadian from Gambier Island, just northwest of Vancouver. The first wife, Heron, died in a climbing accident. Five kids, all with her. T-Bone, Ribeye, Mace, Razer, and a girl, Beane. The family moved around a lot, Alaska, Canada, Washington. They’d been in Harborre about a year when RibEye disappeared. Nobody knew him around town. Hung out at the bar and played pool. About all we’ve got.”
Coffee cups fill up again, and two plates arrive, heaped with eggs, sausage,and hash browns. A minute later, dishes of skyscraper pancakes with tunnels of melted butter oozing between the layers. Berries decorated the top. Miter looked at Sloane. “How many people are supposed to eat this?”
Sloane laughed and spooned some berries into his mouth. “I’ll finish what you don’t,” he chided.
Back in the car. Miter lit a cigarette and cracked the window open. Sloane’s third chin peeked out over his collar. He groaned as he tightened his seat belt. “I gotta lose some weight, start a diet.”
“Doesn’t look like you started it back there.”
Sloane chuckled.” “You sound like my wife.” He rolled his eyes. “On me all the time about how much I eat.”
Miter craned his neck to watch a white-tailed buck bound into the woods. Sloane’s voice seemed far away. Like always, out of the blue, the first wave of anguish washed over him, stirring up pools of gloom to elude.
“Hey, Miter, you listening, or am I talking to myself again?" Sloane was looking at him.
“Sorry, got distracted for a minute,” replied Miter, “just a little tired.”
“I was saying that it’s strange that this missing man is related to your person of interest.” He unwrapped a piece of gum and popped it in his mouth. “What are the odds?”
“Yeah. Cyrus Maast ‘s been on the FBI’s radar for a while. At least that’s what they told me when they assigned the case.” He lit a cigarette and opened the window. Frigid air whipped around the interior of the car.
“Have you got a team ?” Sloane asked.
“Yeah, two detectives, investigative and forensic experts all over the place. But I’m still just poking around, getting a sense of things.”
They pulled into the Amtrak station. “Thanks for the ride. I’ll let you know when I’m in Duluth again,” said Miter. He stepped out of the car and grabbed a small leather bag from the backseat.
“How long will you be in Minneapolis?”
“Just a few days. Meet with the team, get my report in.”
“Then what,” Sloane asked, leaning across to the passenger window.
Miter was already walking away. “Don’t know,” he replied with a dismissive wave, “they don’t tell me much.” He disappeared into the station.
The ground rumbled as each train rolled in. The giant engines heaved and hissed, spitting smoke, lumbering like weary mammoths approaching their resting place. Then the whish and gasps as another train pulled out, groaning into motion, fat with passengers. Rows of neon lights hung from the ceilings and dotted the passenger platforms. Yet, even in broad daylight, the huge train station seemed a caliginous cave.
Miter stood near his train, studying its surface --- layers of soot and rust from miles and miles of track. He finished his cigarette, watching people hurry in all directions. Crowds depressed him. Couples holding hands, fathers pulling recalcitrant children, mothers crying. Hugs and tears and farewells. All humanity amassed here at this single moment. To what end? He crushed the cigarette butt in a dish of sand and dropped it into the small can, then stepped into the train car. It was already half full. He scanned the cabin and noticed an open row halfway down. Two men behind it, an elderly woman in front. No screaming kids across the row. Perfect. Coffee and this report to finish. It had been four busy days in Duluth.
The train lurched a few feet, stopped, then crawled forward, gathering momentum. Miter took off his hat and looked out the window as the downtown Christmas lights wakened and glowed. How fast can this train accelerate to its speed limit, he wondered. He turned over the napkin under his coffee cup and wrote: mass of entire train, Fmax, tractive effort, maximum force going forward before reaching full speed. Simple physics distracted him from the rancor of his thoughts. Speed as a function of time, then the distance traveled as a function of time. What’s the numerical model to plot this? He looked out the window again, stretches of snow-covered fields and forests. Still an hour before the next stop. His pen dropped off his lap and rolled backward. He pulled out another from his bag and wrote on the corners of the napkin: train at full acceleration, large frictional forces on wheels: traction, braking, curve negotiation. Depends on the wear of the wheel --- flange and tread. Dozing to the cadence of the train’s wheels on iron rail.
“Mind if I sit here?”
He startled and looked toward the aisle. A pair of long, slender legs. He looked up. He’d seen her before. "Not at all. I don't own the train."
“Lucky for me,” she quipped. Her coat opened as she leaned forward to place her valise in the overhead cabinet. She was wearing a red cashmere sweater and a beige skirt. A small pearl necklace, no earrings. No ring. She sat down in the aisle seat and glanced about the car. "Your coffee smells wonderful,” she said in a quiet voice.
“Do you want mine?” Miter lifted his cup toward her. Something so familiar about her.
“Oh no.” She laughed lightly. “I’ll order some. But thank you.”
Then he remembered her voice. “I know you,” Miter said, “we met across martinis in Duluth a few months ago.”
"Oh yes," I remember." She brushed her hair out of her eyes, smoothed her skirt, and gazed out the window across the aisle. He watched her. Perfectly sculpted profile, waves of umber-brown hair. Every move, self-possessed and composed.
Plan your move, he thought. He’d already misread her once; she had walked out of that bar without looking back. The train was at least an hour from Minneapolis, so he had time. Unlikely that she’d move to a different seat unless he offended her. He opened his file on his lap and pretended to read.
She ordered another coffee, a droplet of cream into the cup. Silent sips. She reached into her briefcase and pulled out a bulky, hard-covered book, and opened it halfway at a marker. She turned towards him. "You're Ransom Miter, right?" Satin voice.
“That’s right,” Miter replied, keeping an even tone. "Good memory. Didn't get your name, though, before you walked out on me.” He smiled.
She smiled back. “Blaise Monroe.”
"I should call you Blaise?”
“Of course.” She hesitated. “But I shouldn’t call you Ransom?”
A lilt in her voice. Luminance fills the space between them. “Right again. I go by Miter.”
“Very well, Miter.” She leaned back in her seat and closed the book balancing on her lap. “Are you open to a little conversation?”
Miter chuckled. “Anything to distract me from this report. Boring work, especially on a Friday afternoon.”
“What do you do?”
Play the card, he thought, she’s worth it. “I’m a Federal Deputy Marshall.”
“Oh, my,” she said. Fingers fidgeted on her lap, tapping the book. "That doesn't sound like boring work." She shifted her body toward him, smoothing her skirt again.
“You’d be surprised how boring it can be. A lot of long hours, paperwork, leads that lead nowhere.” He looked straight ahead.
"Are you on a case right now? Is that why you're in Duluth?" A pause. "Oh, I'm so sorry. Perhaps I'm not supposed to ask that. I'm sure your work is very confidential." Her cheeks reddened. She leaned back but kept looking at him.
“Third time you're right,” Miter replied. “Thanks for understanding that.” He turned and faced her. Deep, enigmatic almond-brown eyes.
“What about you?” Miter asked. “At least I got your name this time,” he teased. “You must live in Duluth?”
“Yes,” she said. “For now.”
“What do you do?”
“I teach at the University.” She kept her eyes fixed on him.
“You’re a college professor?”
“Yes, why are you so surprised?” Blaise brushed his arm playfully.
“Just that you’re so young and you don’t …. .“
“Look like a college professor?” She interrupted, folding her hands on her lap. They studied each other. Then Blaise smiled and patted his hand. “That was quite an expression on your face,” she whispered, “but it happens to me all the time. Never quite sure why.”
Pressure tightened, encircling his rib cage. “What do you teach?” He asked with counterfeit nonchalance.
I need a cigarette and a drink, he thought, soon. He raised his coffee cup toward her. “Love to see your arithmetic sometime.”
Blaise laughed. “Looks like you need more coffee. Can I flag someone down for you?”
“I think I’ll go have a cigarette in the smoking car. You want to join me?”
“No, thank you. I’ll try to get a little work done.” Her lips curved upward into a slight smile.
Blaise stood in the aisle to make way. For a second, unaware, within inches of her, he paused. A hint of perfume and white flawless skin. “You’re stunning," he whispered. The words came out unexpectedly. Blaise looked away and stepped back. “See you in a little bit,” he mumbled, recalibrating. His pen was on the floor just behind her seat but he decided against picking it up. He sauntered down the aisle toward the adjoining car and checked his watch. Should arrive just in time to invite her for a cocktail. Redeem myself. I know what she likes to drink. He straightened his shirt and tucked his collar down.
“Hey, watch where you’re going, buddy,” a man shouted as they bumped into each other between cars. Miter ignored him. He entered the smoking car, a haze of cigarette and cigar smoke wafted in the air. He ordered a scotch, leaned against the bar, sipping slowly, and lit a cigarette. Don’t want to stay long, he thought. He already felt better, his disquietude evaporating into the smoke around him.
He started back to his seat picked up his pen on the floor behind her just as the train decelerated. He bumped forward into the back of her seat. Blaise startled. “Sorry, didn’t mean to frighten you,” Miter said hurriedly.
“Oh, that's all right. I scare easily." She stepped into the aisle to let him pass, then sat down. Her textbook was open on the middle seat between them. She put it on her lap and began reading. A surreptitious glance at her as he leaned back into his chair.
“Arriving in Minneapolis, Minnesota in fifteen minutes,” boomed the conductor.
So, what brings you to Minneapolis?” Miter asked, mobilizing pursuit. “Conference, visiting someone?”
Blaise closed her book and crammed it back into her briefcase. She pulled her coat around her shoulders and a silk floral scarf around her neck. “No, just a little break and some shopping. What about you?”
“I’ve got a meeting on Monday with my boss, decided to get into town early and see some friends over the weekend.”
Blaise smiled. “Sounds like more fun than I’ll be having.”
Miter laughed. “Why? Don’t mathematics professors like to shop?
She laughed. “Well, I don’t know about all the rest of them, but this one doesn't."
“Fair enough,” said Miter. “Well, how about a quick drink before we head our separate ways?” He looked directly at her. Those eyes, he thought. Blaise stared at the back of the seat in front of her. "Stores will be closed soon anyway,” he added, suddenly feeling rushed.
Blaise’s face tightened. “Thank you, Miter, but I don’t think that’s a good idea.”
“Why not?” He touched her arm. “Just one drink?”
She stood, buttoning her coat, and hesitated. “I’m shopping for a wedding dress. I’m getting married.”
Miter’s eyes widened, his face tightened. He stood and leaned against window. “I’m sorry. I should never have assumed you were … .”
“No, Miter, it’s my fault,” she interrupted. Uneasy, tense tone. “I didn’t mean to mislead you.” She tucked her hair behind her ears, and straightened her scarf, crossed her arms in front of her. Nervous energy for distraction. “I kept thinking I should say something.” She glanced out the window across the aisle. “Seemed presumptuous at the very least. I’m sorry.” The train stopped with a sudden lurch. She clutched the back of the seat and glanced again out the window. A man was standing apart from the crowd on the platform. He smiled and waved. Blaise waved back, a faint, half-gesture, then turned to Miter.” I do hope things go well for you.” She turned and walked down the aisle.
Miter didn’t watch her leave. Didn’t see her embrace her lover or walk away with him hand-in-hand. He sat back in his seat and tossed his notebook and pens, reading glasses, and pack of cigarettes into his knapsack. He stepped off the train. People mulling about, loud voices, a bellowing loudspeaker. She was gone, nowhere in sight. He walked toward the station, his body weighed down as if dragging a boulder behind him. And yet, an eerie lightness from his hallowed-out insides. The cocktails-for-one will help, he thought, along with the single malts. Monday was far away and no one would miss him. He'd lied to her about meeting friends.