Gary and the Sheriff's deputy arrive
The crushed rock in the driveway crunched under Brent's work boots as he trudged through the shadows toward the house. His muscles ached from unaccustomed labors, but at least the chores were done. A grim smile tugged at his exhausted features. His father would be pleased he'd taken care of the animals. Then he remembered his father was missing, and a ball of ice chilled his insides. He emitted a shuddering sigh and he slumped on the back steps of the house. His feet ached and his sweat-soaked work shirt clung to his body. He thought about his mother's clean floors, and wiped the manure from his boots onto the grass.
For what seemed like the tenth time, he pulled his cell phone from his pocket and stared at the screen. No messages, no missed calls. It had been almost two hours since he'd talked to the sheriff's dispatcher at the county seat, and still no one had followed up. The continued silence from his parents worried him even more.
His gaze jittered across the farmyard. This was so like a normal night, back before he moved away to college. He cast a nervous eye over the homestead as he sought comfort in familiarity. Overhead, feathery clouds drifted over the Big Dipper. Lightning bugs flickered over the pasture. The light in the eave of the barn cast an amber glow across the ruts of the driveway and shimmered off the windshield of his pickup.
Yes, this was just like any night at home. Except, tonight his parents were missing.
He pressed "talk" on his cell phone. It dialed the sheriff's emergency number, just as it had the last six times he'd called.
The woman's voice at the other end managed to be chipper and bored at the same time. "Jackson County Sheriff's Office. What's your emergency?"
"This is Brent Hyde. I called earlier about my parents. You said a deputy was going to stop by later tonight. Just 'anytime now' was what you told me."
"Yes sir, I see your calls on the log. I dispatched Deputy Purcell to your location ten minutes ago. He should be there in an hour or so."
"Another hour. Dammit, it's been at least two hours since I called." He gritted his teeth and fought against the anger that throbbed inside.
"I realize that, sir. This is a big county, and we've only got four deputies on duty tonight. We've had two accidents and a drug bust to handle. He'll be there as soon as he can."
"Meantime, what about my parents? They could be injured or who knows what."
Icicles seemed to sharpen her words and stab at him. "All I can tell you is that the deputy will be there soon, sir. He'll take your information."
"Right." Brent regretted snarling at her. "Look, I'm sorry. I know you're following protocol. I'm just so worried about them."
"I understand." Her voice softened. "I've taken lots of these kinds of calls, sir. It'll probably turn out to be a simple misunderstanding. It usually does." She hesitated. "Maybe they're visiting relatives, or neighbors."
"We don't have any relatives. It's just us. The only neighbor who's anything like close isn't answering his phone." Despair sucked at him and he leaned against the wall, but then headlights flashed over the hill and headed toward the farm. "I think I see him coming now. Thanks for your help." He broke the connection and stood, waiting.
Instead of a patrol car, though, he recognized his boyfriend Gary's blue sports coupe pulling into the drive. At least he wasn't alone anymore.
At the sight of his lover's lithe frame and lanky, ebony hair, relief flooded through Brent. Gary hopped out of the car and sprinted the dozen or so paces to his waiting arms. Brent melted into his muscular embrace and inhaled in his fresh, masculine scent. "God, it's good to see you. Thanks for coming." His chin trembled and he was grateful that his lover couldn't see the sudden tears that pooled in his eyes.
"Where else would I be, Babe?" Gary's voice, husky and reassuring, caressed Brent's ears. He pulled away and stroked Brent's cheek. "I'm sorry I couldn't come as soon as you called. The important thing is, I'm here now. We'll figure this out together. That's what we do."
"I'm so worried. I called the hospitals in Maquoketa and Bellevue. Thank God they're not there. But where could they be?" He choked back a sob.
"Hey, if they're not in a hospital, that's good news, right? I called Middleton, and Dr. Athair Googled the ones in Dubuque, Iowa City and the Quad Cities. No reports there."
"Thanks for checking. I'll have to thank Dr. Athair, too."
"She said she'd cover for you at the lab if you need to spend some time here. We care about you, man." A drifting cloud exposed the moon, and for a moment his eyes shone with a crystalline gleam. "Maybe they just went shopping, or on a quick vacation."
Brent shook his head. "But dinner was in the oven. And no one did the chores. Dad would never have left the animals unattended." Fatigue pulled at him and he collapsed onto the steps.
Gary nodded. "Well, there is that. We'll figure it out, though. Count on it." His nose wrinkled and a grin toyed with his lips. "What's that smell?" He leaned forward and sniffed. "Have you been rolling in pig shit?"
Despite himself, Brent smiled. "We don't have hogs. Someone had to do the chores. Dad would have had a fit." He looked down at his grimy, sweat-soaked t-shirt and blue jeans. "I guess I don't smell so good."
"That's an understatement. Have you had dinner?"
"No. The animals came first. I took Mom's roast out of the oven, changed clothes, and did the chores."
Gary leaned over and started to kiss him before pulling away. "I don't want to get foot-and-mouth disease, or whatever that vile smell is." He fell into a corny mock-cowboy twang. "Why don't you shower and get cleaned up, pardner, while I whomp up some vittles for you?"
A laugh bubbled up in Brent's throat. He fought it back, lest it turn to hysteria. "Purcell, the sheriff's deputy, is supposed to be here. 'Soon,' the dispatcher said. I should be here to meet him."
"I'll meet him and hold him off while you scrape the manure off your body." He held out his hand. "Give me your cell phone, in case your parents call, or this guy Purcell."
Brent reached into his pocket and handed it over. "Thanks. Come get me if it's my folks."
"Will do. Now Git! A shower will do your body good, and my nose, too. That'll give me time to fix us both some chow."
Brent let Gary pull him to his feet and he stumbled inside. "You remember where Mom keeps stuff in the kitchen?"
"Yeah. She even let me help with the dishes last time we were here, just like I was family. Go on, now. Get yourself all prettied up for the deputy and I'll fix you a sandwich."
The steamy shower turned the aches in Brent's muscles to an enervated languor. He toweled dry and sudden hunger seized his body. He slipped into clean blue jeans without bothering with underwear, socks or a t-shirt and headed to the kitchen. Gary stood at the counter building a huge sandwich with Mom's homemade bread, lettuce and tomatoes from the garden, and fresh cheese from the dairy in Bellevue.
Brent snatched up a stray slice of pork roast. "Mmm. This is wonderful." He peered at the sandwiches. "Those about ready?"
Gary finished off two towering stacks with a flourish, sliced each diagonally, and put them on plates on the table. "All done. You want beer or coffee?"
The chair creaked when Brent collapsed into it. "I better have coffee, at least until after I talk to Deputy Purcell. No sign of him yet?"
"Not yet. You know this guy Purcell?"
"Don't think so. I wonder where he's at. Maybe I should call the sheriff again." Worry gnawed its way back into his consciousness, and he returned his sandwich to the plate.
"Have dinner first. Take care of yourself, or you won't be any good to anyone else." Gary set a steaming cup of coffee in front of him and doused it with cream. "This is the best stuff I've ever had. You can't get this in stores."
Brent nodded and spoke through a mouthful of Dagwood. "Fresh from our cows."
Gary cocked an eyebrow at him. "Really. So is one teat for cream and another for skim? Is there one for chocolate milk, too?"
"Don't be silly. You watched me separate the milk when you were here last summer. It's just fresh, and we keep the best for here on the farm."
Headlights flashed through the open window, followed by the crump of tires of tires in the driveway.
Brent looked up. "Well, that's got to be the deputy. About time." He glanced at the cuckoo clock that hung over the table. "It took him over three hours to get here. I called it in before seven." A heavy hand rapped on the front door. Brent looked down at his naked torso. "Shit. Would you get it? I need to put a shirt on."
"I'll get it, but stay where you're at and finish your dinner. I'm sure he's seen a guy without a shirt before." He left to answer the front door.
Purcell swaggered into the kitchen, all six feet four and three hundred pounds of him. He sat in Brent's Dad's chair and thumped his notebook on the table. Handcuffs and a .45 dangled from the belt at his waist. Well, from below where his waist would be, if he had one. Sweat sheened on his bald head when he removed his Smokey-the-bear hat and put it on the table.
Gary served him coffee without asking, and then settled into the guest chair.
Purcell heaved a sigh and opened his notebook. "Which one of you's Hyde?" The pungent aromas of cigars and Old Spice cologne hovered about him.
Brent spoke. "That's me, officer." He pushed a snapshot across the table. "Here's a recent photo of my parents."
Purcell's eyes narrowed, and Brent thought of Officer Wiggum on The Simpsons. "Deputy. I'm a deputy." He pulled a form from his notebook and slipped the photo underneath it. "So your parents is missin'?"
"Yes sir. I was supposed to come home for dinner tonight, from college, but when I got here no one was home."
"Uh huh." He made another note. "So how you know they didn't jest forget?"
"Dinner was in the oven, the table was set. And no one had done the evening chores. Dad would never have left without arranging for the animals to be taken care of."
"Uh huh." More notes. "Anything missin'? Cars, money, jewelry?"
"Both their cars are here. They don't keep money in the house, and Mom doesn't own any jewelry."
"Any sign of foul play?" His eyes roamed over the kitchen, lingered for a moment on Gary, then a moment longer on Brent.
Brent wished he'd put on a shirt after all. He felt like a bug exposed under a microscope. "What do you mean, 'foul play?'"
The cop gave him a disgusted look. "Doors smashed in. Broken windows. Furniture fucked up. Don't you watch TV?"
Brent shook his head. "No, nothing." He thought for a moment. "The front door was ajar. That was kind of unusual."
"Nothin' else? Maybe neighbors saw strange cars or somethin'?"
"The nearest neighbor is over a mile away." Brent thought for a moment. "An SUV almost ran me off the road on the way here, over by Ruby's."
Purcell rolled his eyes. "You want me to investigate traffic violations, too? I ain't got all night. Let's keep this to just the facts about your parents."
Brent flushed. "Sorry."
Purcell glared at him for a beat before continuing. "All right then. Your parents got any enemies? Use drugs? There was that bunch over by Monticello what was raisin' marijuana. Maybe gambling debts? Any reason why anyone would want to hurt 'em?"
Gary scowled and fidgeted in his chair. He seemed about to speak, but Brent beat him to it. "No. They're just plain folk. Dad works for a software firm in Dubuque. The farm is just kind of a hobby for him and Mom."
"Uh huh." His gaze raked over Gary. "Who are you, bud?"
Gary's eyes seemed to throw daggers, and his voice dripped with venom. "I'm a friend of Brent's, from college. He called me when his parents turned up missing, and I came to support him."
Purcell snorted. "I'll bet." He made another note. "You and your folks get along okay. No conflicts over your...friends?"
Gary shoved his chair back and leaned forward. His jaw muscles jerked like they were spring-loaded. "What the fuck's that supposed to mean?"
Brent's face heated, but he held up a hand. "This is a loving family, Deputy. Gary's only visited a couple of times, but my parents went out of their way to make him feel welcome."
"Huh." Purcell closed his notebook. "Look, son, they've not even been gone four hours. I'll have Beulah call the hospitals, but there ain't nothin' we can do tonight. It's not illegal for folks to disappear."
Frustration boiled in Brent's chest and his throat tightened. "But they're missing. What if they're kidnapped?"
"Now why would anyone want to do that? You jest told me they didn't have no enemies." He stood. "I've been on dozens of these calls. In every case, the so-called missing person jest turned out to be out visiting, or on joy ride, or some other misunderstandin'. They'll turn up, probably later tonight or tomorrow."
Brent scowled and snapped, "This isn't a misunderstanding."
The deputy pulled a card from his pocket. "Tell you what, son. If they don't show up in a couple of days, you call me back and we'll talk. Right now, I got real crimes to investigate." His boots clumped against the linoleum and left black heel marks on Mom's immaculate floor as he left.
Brent slouched at the table, his mouth agape. "What the hell was that?" He felt as though his last hope departed when the deputy's car pulled out onto the gravel road and sped away.
Gary stroked his hand. "Babe, I more or less expected this. Let's get a good night's sleep, and tomorrow we'll figure out what to do. Some of my trainers at Grace Development have contacts with law enforcement. Maybe they'll have some ideas." A tight grin played across his features. "And who knows? Maybe it'll turn out that asshole's right, and your parents will show up."
"I don't think so. I'm telling you, there's something about this that doesn't add up."
They both jumped when a heavy hand rapped at the front door. Brent frowned. "Who's that? It can't be Purcell. Did you hear a car drive up?"
Gary shook his head. "I thought I heard thunder. I suppose it could have been a car. Maybe the deputy forgot something. Stay put. I'll check." He pulled a cleaver from the rack on the counter and winked. "Just in case." Then he headed to the front door.