by Sean Manseau
He climbed the steps to the two-story cabin, stamped the snow off his boots on the welcome mat, and then paused before the porch’s storm door. His reflection in the window gave him a little shiver, like a suddenly remembered bad dream.
Something was different about his slate blue and charcoal gray Trooper’s uniform. Somehow it made his shoulders broader, his hips more narrow. Shep rubbed the crease of his trousers between his thumb and forefinger. The material seemed softer, too, slicker. Shepherd suddenly remembered a moment from a few weeks before, Nicholas standing before Shep's open closet, looking at the duty uniforms hanging there.
“I bet I could make your suit bulletproof,” the boy had said.
Shepherd laughed it off, told him no offense, he'd stick with his Barrier Vest. But maybe the kid had gone ahead with some unauthorized alterations. Out in the shed, where he kept his workshop. Thinking of the shed gave Shep another little bad dream jolt. When was the last time he’d been out there to see what Nicholas was up to?
The boy’s projects had started small. He had found Shep’s Time/Life how-to guides and begun fixing things around the house, rewiring outlets and resurrecting a broken radio. He asked for books, and soon June, the town librarian, was bringing him three or four a day. Electrical Engineering: Principles and Applications. Topics in Modern Cosmology. Human Molecular Genetics, Problems and Sets. A biography of a man named Tesla. A very strange book called The Philadelphia Experiment and the Ontological Implications of Time Travel.
Then Nicholas had rewired their TV so Shep could watch the second rematch between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier. This was back at the beginning of October; he’d called Shepherd out of the tub, dragged him into the living room. “Thrilla in Manila,” the boy had said to the TV, as if he were a spy expecting a countersign, and the screen had flickered to life, Ali in the ring, shuffling and shadowboxing. It shouldn’t have been possible, because that fight was only broadcast on cable, and cable hadn’t come to Ruidoso yet, but there it was. A little scary, if you stopped to think about it.
Why was this the first time he’d stopped to think about it?
Shepherd turned the doorknob and pushed his way into the living room, an airy lodge-space with stairs up to the bedrooms and his study. In front of the fireplace, where a fire burned against the November chill, a leather sofa and loveseat faced each other across a rosewood coffee table, and a gangling, pimple-faced young man in baggy black coveralls was standing on their sofa cushions to wave a silver wand over the collection of Old West daguerreotypes hung along the pine board walls. He was noisily jawing a wad of pink gum while studying the readout of a little black box cradled in his huge hand.
Another worker in coveralls, a young woman with bright pink hair shaved, incredibly, into a tall stripe, like a Mohawk brave, was intently examining June’s antique player piano with a similar device. A hearing aid studded with blinking green lights was wedged in her ear, and she tapped it and murmured something.
Shepherd had just opened his mouth to say, What the hell do you all think you’re doing? when the two workers noticed him standing in the doorway. The girl froze. The kid didn’t put his gadgets down, but his eyes widened and he chewed even faster. “Hey Cosmo,” he called, “Lyle—uh, Trooper Shepherd just showed up.”
In the dining room, past the upright piano and the Christmas tree, June, in a pair of Shep’s old jeans and untucked shirt, her honey blond hair spilling from under a red bandanna, stood with a very tall, stovepipe thin black man, also in black coveralls. She was frowning at a wallet open in her hand.
At the gangling boy’s alert she and the tall man spotted Shepherd at the same moment. She looked relieved. The stranger seemed to blanch with fear for an instant, before recovering an expression of calm regard.
The workers could wait. Skinny over there with June was obviously their supervisor. Shepherd reached them in three long steps. “Hey sweetheart,” he said, giving June a one-armed hug and kissing her hair, but not taking his eyes off the man, to whom he said, “You mind explaining who you are and what you’re doing here?”
“Lyle,” June began, “these people just came barging in—”
“My name is Dr. Cosmo Price, Trooper Shepherd,” the tall man said. “Lincoln County Youth Services. Your wife holds my identification. I trust it will prove adequate?”
Shep took the billfold from her, examined the photo. Price had close-cropped graying hair, and outlandish, Civil War-era whiskers that bracketed his gaunt cheeks like hedges. But despite that hippyish affectation, he was an official of the State of New Mexico. Shepherd’s gut tightened. Once the government got involved, unless you were willing to hole up in the mountains with a rifle, there was usually only one outcome. “The ID’s fine,” Shepherd said, handing it back. “Now let’s see your search warrant.”
Price cleared his throat as he pocketed his wallet. Underneath the coveralls he was wearing a black suit and an oddly old-fashioned tie, a cravat. “This isn’t a criminal investigation, Trooper Shepherd. The CYFD had a report of an undocumented juvenile living at this residence. By law we’re obligated to investigate.”
Shepherd and June exchanged a look. They had a story prepared, but telling it to a state official... He said, “You’re talking about Nicky? Nicholas is my godson. My sister and her husband were killed earlier this year in a fire.”
“Such a terrible shame,” Price said. “Obviously this is simply a bureaucratic snafu. Easily cleared up! May I make a copy of his birth certificate for our records?”
“The house was gutted. Nicholas’s birth certificate was destroyed. His social security card too. We’re waiting for replacements.” There were certain advantages to being a member of law enforcement. Thanks to the arrest, for possession of marijuana, of the teenage son of a certain local public official, Shepherd expected to have a completely official birth certificate for Nicholas within a couple of weeks. “When we receive them, I’ll be happy to drop off copies at your office.”
“I see, I see,” Price said. “Trooper Shepherd, by law, undocumented minors are wards of the state and must be remanded to the Department of Youth Services. However my position does afford me a certain amount of latitude in my decisions. No one wants to remove a child from a safe environment. If we find the child has been well-cared for, we see no reason why he couldn’t remain here while the necessary paperwork is filed. Where is the boy now?”
“He’s upstairs,” June said.
“May we speak with him, please?”
“I’d rather you not,” Shepherd cut in. He’d never gone over the cover story with the boy, hadn’t wanted to give him the idea it was okay to lie to those in authority. But it was more than that. This man made his cop sense jangle. He seemed just a little too eager. “I don’t want you to scare him. He’s been through enough. In fact, it’s better if you go.”