Fiction: Ice on the Feathers

We're up to day six in our series, 25 Christmas Eves. For those of you just tuning in, I'm posting a new piece of genre fiction every day until Christmas, and every damn one of them is about a Christmas Eve. This one's a fantasy piece.

By: Erin L. Snyder

Toby’s Bridge isn’t called Toby’s Bridge, at least not officially. It’s called something else. No one gives a damn what that is, cause it’s on Toby’s land. Sure, it’s not really his bridge. It’s the town’s bridge. Town’s bridge, town’s road, and all that. Town’s river. But everything all around it - the forest the road cuts through, the old mill (that hasn’t been up and running in twenty years), the marsh... all that really is Toby’s. People in Renville are fond of calling Toby the poorest rich man in America. Might be something to that. Just might.

Toby’s is one of them old covered bridges. Sturdy, good build and all that. Don’t really make them that way much anymore. Not in Renville, anyway. Everyone wants bridges you can go over two cars at a time. In such a damn hurry, I guess.

Like I’m one to talk. The snow’s coming down faster than the damn wipers can wipe it off. Not smart, I know. Speeding in a storm, late at night. Good way to add another obituary on Monday.

But I know these roads well as anyone. When you’re sheriff in a town like Renville, you know every road, don’t matter the weather. I’ve done this job for fifteen years now. Before that, I worked homicide in New York. I was good, too. But after awhile, you get tired of the bodies. Then, it’s either the desk or something else. Never much cared for desks.

Decided to settle down. Nice, quiet place where the people are good. Course, there’s no such place. Not really. The people of Renville cheat, steal, and fight. One man in three drinks too much, and I’d wager half of them hit their wives. Way I see it, there’s one difference between most of this town and the murderers I used to hunt down: people of Renville don’t generally kill each other. Just doesn’t get that far. It’s not so comforting as you’d think: just means the worst of them stay out of jail and the cemetery. Just linger.

Of course, when someone does die, it’s a circus. The whole town knows in a few hours. People barge into the station demanding answers. And God help you if it is a murder. When Joe Caringer shot Buck Smith six years ago, we had people standing up in church proclaiming the end of days was upon us.

Course, Joe had the common decency to kill Buck in the middle of October. This - whatever it is - had to happen on Christmas Eve. In the middle of a snowstorm. The one silver lining I can find is that news of this shouldn’t spread for a few days. Country store’s closed till the 26th, and Maggie shut down her restaurant until two days before New Year’s.

Can’t imagine that’s much consolation to my deputy, who should already be at the farm. Course, having James on the scene isn’t much consolation to me: guy’s just about the dumbest man I’ve ever worked with. Which is a good part of why I’m not taking my time. Give James twenty minutes and he’ll touch every damn thing in the area, move the evidence into a pile, and stand there smiling like he’s a goddamn genius.

I slow down when I reach County Road #4. Like hell. Toby’s Road. It’s dirt from here on out, anyway. There’s a good six inches of snow on the ground with more piling on every minute. It takes some time - bridge is a good half mile down the road - but I make it without any real trouble. I park behind James’s truck, and he’s there to greet me before my door’s even open.

“Kip,” he says. “You ain’t going to believe this.” He’s pale, save for a nose turning pink. He looks scared and excited at the same time.

“Easy,” I say. “Do you know him?”

“Know who?” James asks.

“The body. Stacy called, said there was a body.”

“Oh. No, it’s... it’s not like that. It’s not even....” he trails off.

“Not like what, James?” I’m snapping at him now, but you got to be that way with him sometimes.

“You just have to look,” James says. Then he motions for me to follow and hurries up ahead to the bridge. I pass his truck and see Toby inside with the motor running. He’s wrapped in a blanket and shivering. I nod to him, but he just stares back.

I hurry up ahead to see what all the damn fuss is about. What I see has me as pale as James.

“Human,” I whisper. Not sure why I say it aloud. It’s what James was about to say a minute ago, and I guess I just need to hear it finished. It’s not even human.

“It’s an angel, ain’t it?” James asks, quietly. “I mean. I never thought....”

Hearing James stuttering like a toddler might be the only thing keeping me from the doing the same. But it snaps me back to reality, or at least whatever’s left of it. Far as I can see, though, that’s exactly what this is. A dead angel lying on the ground, his head mostly smashed in. Two white wings lying underneath his folded form. The wings have ice on the feathers. Like a giant version of some damn ornament hanging from a tree.

“What happened? Was he lying here?”

“Yeah. No. I mean, he was here when I got here, but Toby found him in the river and called us out.”

I send James to find a decent size stick, while I go see Toby. I open the door and find him wet and shivering. The heat’s escaping, so I climb in and shut the door behind me. “What happened?” I ask.

“I was out here, for a walk. I looked down in the water and... and I saw someone down there. Just a body, floating. I ran down, waded in, and started pulling him out. Thought... thought maybe he was unconscious until I grabbed him. There were these things on his back. Thought I was going crazy from the cold. God, Kip. It hurt so much, like my legs were burning off. How strange is that? Burning off from the cold. I don’t know, but it seemed that way.”

“It’s okay. You’ve been through a lot.”

“There were... there were wings. I kept rubbing my eyes, just waiting for them to vanish. But they just stayed there. I dragged him up onto the bridge. Was afraid he’d fall back into the water if I left him on the bank and just wash away. Then I ran home, called the station.”

“What were you doing out here without your truck?”

“Just going for a walk,” Toby say. But he didn’t seem keen looking me in the eye, so I asked again. “It’s nothing. I just... the holidays and all. I was feeling cramped in that place alone. Thought some fresh air might do me good.”

“Middle of a storm?” I ask.

“I... look. It’s the truth. I mean. It’s most of it. I don’t want to....”

“I need it all,” I say. “Look, Toby, I’ve known you for a long time, and I know you’re a good man. If this were anything else - hell, if that were the body of a human being, I’d nod and let this go. But, things being what they are, I need it all.”

Toby wipes a tear out of his eye. “Since Gretchen left, I’ve been low. You know that, don’t you, Kip?”

“It’d be hard on any man,” I say.

“Well, I didn’t think I could take Christmas alone. So. I don’t know. I was going out to think some things over.”

“You were going to jump.”

“I don’t know, Kip. I’ve been to that bridge a lot of times. Thought about it more than once.”

“It’s okay. I mean, I’ll need to put you in touch with some people, but we can be discreet. I’m sorry for pushing, but I had to understand. This one... it’s going to be too big.” I pat him on the shoulder and step out of the truck to greet James.

“This one good enough?” He hands me a branch.

It’s birch, and it’s long enough. I test it to make sure it’s sturdy then nod. “Good job, James.” Then I head back to the body.

“What are you doing?” James asks, while I wedge the branch under the angel’s back.

I push up slowly. “I have to know,” I say. “Got to make sure these aren’t glued on. Have to make sure they’re not fake before I call anyone.”

Unfortunately, the wings are real. Also, I learn something else: they’re cut up pretty bad. There are twin gashes about four feet apart. Pretty deep, too. I run back to the Jame’s truck, pop open the door and stick my head in. “Did anything happen to the angel while you were getting it up?” Toby shakes his head. I thank him and shut the door.

“This was murder, wasn’t it?” James asks. “Someone killed that angel.”

“I don’t know,” I say back. “But I’d rather have something to tell the bureau when they get here. Hand me your flashlight.” James does as told, and I walk off the bridge, moving alongside the bank. I shine the light up until I find what I’m looking for: a smashed in section of the bridge’s cover.

“What happened there?” James asks.

“The angel happened,” I say. “While it fell. It was hit from behind. Maybe it was an accident, maybe not. We’ll never know. No way we’ll ever know. Broke its wings - God knows how high up it was when it happened. It came down hard on the bridge. Maybe it was already dead. If not, that sealed the deal. Then it slid off, dropped into the river, and got stuck near the bank where Toby found it.”

“But... what hit it? I mean, you think it was a plane?”

“A plane? If it had hit a plane, it’d be a bug on a damn windshield. No, this wasn’t no plane.”

“Then what?”

“What else? The gashes on its back were about four feet apart. Almost certainly metal. Only one damn thing it could have been,” I say. “He got hit by a sleigh.”