Zachary Smith frowned as he listened to the news, dusting off the top of the TV. It was cleaning day, and he wore his usual, ratty blue jeans and dusty polo shirt for the job. It would take him most of the day to get the house cleaned right, and there were times he wondered why he did it. His mother had passed away last year, in her own house, just like she'd wanted. She was the one he cleaned for more than himself, and with her gone, it seemed like maybe he should quit.
But that would mean leaving her house dirty, and even now he couldn't do that. Not to his mother. She'd scrimped and saved and done everything she could for him. And all he'd been able to do was be here for her. After his father had died, he'd taken a job with the local coal mine to support her rather than go to college with his friends. He didn't regret it, not for a moment, but it wasn't very much. She'd died where she'd wanted to, with her son at her side, but what was that, really. She'd spent years raising him, teaching him Right from Wrong. Maybe he could count that as another thing he'd done for her; even though his friends had all called him a 'little goody two-shoes' he'd always done what was right, even when it was hard to figure out.
Zachary sighed as he carefully placed the ceramic figurines back on their places on the shelf he'd just dusted. That had always been so difficult. Only Robert had ever seemed to understand why Zachary didn't break the rules. It wasn't that Zachary was afraid to. It was about respect. Respect for himself, respect for others. Sure, some of the rules they had to live by were rather inane, stupid, sometimes even outright insane. Who cared if you didn't have a shirt on when you swam at the local water hole? Sure, girls needed a top, but it wasn't like guys had anything to hide up there. But the rule was you wore one, so he always had. No one ever enforced the rule, not really. No one cared. But it was a clearly posted rule, and respect for the rules was important.
Zachary had never been able to put why into words, until Robert of all people explained it. Robert, who seemed to break rules just for the sake of breaking them. Robert who, unlike Zachary's mother, had taught him to think about the why of the rule, not just the what. Oh, Mother was so pleased when Zachary started thinking about the why's as well as the what's; when she'd learned that Robert was who taught Zachary about that she'd practically adopted him as a second son!
In retrospect, Robert snorted at the irony of that.
It had never been about the rules themselves. It was because you needed to respect the authority behind the rules, the reasons behind the rules, and the possibility that you didn't know everything. You followed the rules firstly because they were set by people you trusted, people who presumably had good reasons for setting them. You followed them because there was usually a good reason, of some kind, behind the rules. And you followed them because even if you didn't understand that reason, even if you didn't actually know what that reason what, it might just be important. Maybe the sign telling you not to enter the fenced off area was a silly idea. Maybe someone had put it up just because they felt like keeping people out of their yard. Or maybe, as some teenagers had discovered a few years back, it was there because the ground was unstable. Maybe the local mining company was in the process of mining deep underground, and had discovered a sink hole forming under that section of ground. Maybe, just maybe, there was good reason to pay attention to that sign, and ignoring it could cost you your life when the ground fell out from under your feet, tumbling hundreds of feet into a deep, dark chasm.
Zachary had warned Ashley and Alex not to jump that fence, had screamed at them that it was a bad idea. Had told them that the mining company didn't put fences like that up for no reason, didn't put up signs explicitly prohibiting entry to an undeveloped field without a very good reason. It cost money, money the company was loath to spend. But they'd ignored him, ignored the warnings.
It had been a closed-casket funeral.
A knock at the door distracted Zachary from his reverie, and he straightened up and stretched, hands pressing against the small of his back as he arched backwards. "Just a moment!" he cried out as the pops and cracks worked their way up his spine in a rush, sounding almost like a machine gun going off. Tilting his head left and right to get the few remaining kinks worked out triggered a few more, as did lifting his arms up over his head and pulling them as far back as they would go.
Zachary checked himself quickly, but he wasn't too terribly dirty. The one advantage of cleaning the house every week was that you didn't get too dirty when you did clean it. Despite his tracking in coal dust from the mine every work day, it simply didn't have time to build up, and neither did the regular dust. Moving to the door, he bent down to use the peephole.
Quickly he undid the deadbolt and opened the door. "Sheriff Johnson!" he said pleasantly. "What an unexpected surprise!"
"Zachary Smith," the sheriff inclined his head in greeting, "may we come in please."
"Of course!" Zachary exclaimed, almost offended. "You know you're welcome anytime, sheriff."
"I'm afraid this is a business call, not pleasure," the sheriff frowned. "This is Officer Cathy O'Brien, she drove in from the city today."
The lady nodded politely, a frown on her face. "I know this is unexpected, but we need to talk to you."
"Business or pleasure, you are always welcome here sheriff," Zachary said firmly as he held the door wide open, hand gesturing to the living room. "Please, come in." The sheriff and the officer shared a long look before they entered. "Please excuse the mess, I was in the middle of my weekly cleaning when you showed up," Zachary apologized as he showed them to the living room.
"Before we get started, may I use your restroom?" Officer O'Brien asked.
Zachary nodded graciously. "Of course, I'll show you where it is."
"Oh, no need, I can find it myself," Officer O'Brien smiled disarmingly.
Zachary frowned slightly. "Very well. And in case you happen to need it, I give you permission to check the house out."
"Excuse me?" the officer asked, surprised.
"What are you looking for, contraband, a fugitive, evidence of a crime?" Zachary said, still very pleasant. "You won't find it, but I'd be glad to help you look."
Officer O'Brien licked her lips. "I see."
"I told you officer, he doesn't have anything to hide," the sheriff laughed. "There's no point in looking, or hiding the fact that we are looking for-"
"Fine," Officer O'Brien snapped. "We'll do this your way. Zachary Smith, have you recently seen or heard from Robert Mallory?"
"Robert?" Zachary blinked. "I haven't heard from him... What is this about?"
"Answer the question," O'Brien snapped.
"Sheriff, what is going on?" Zachary looked directly at Sheriff Johnson as he asked the question.
"We are asking the questions here," the woman snapped angrily.
"Robert has been accused of raping and murdering his landlady," the sheriff shrugged. "Have you seen or heard from him lately?"
For a moment, Zachary was completely still, caught in stunned disbelief. "He what?" He heard the words, but they just didn't make sense.
"Raped and murdered his landlady," Officer O'Brien sneered. "Now, where is he? We know he was-"
"Officer O'Brien!" Sheriff Robert's snapped, and the officer's mouth snapped shut. "Zachary, please. Tell us what you know."
"I haven't seen Robert since the funeral. Last I heard from him was a letter a few weeks back."
"We'll need to look at that," Officer O'Brien ordered, "along with any other correspondence you may have from him."
"Get a search warrant and ask again. Maybe then," Zachary came to a snap decision. "Now, I think you need to leave."
"Not until I have searched the house," O'Brien said firmly.
"Sheriff," Zachary said angrily, "does she have a warrant?"
"No," the sheriff shook his head sadly, understanding exactly where this was going.
Turning back to Officer O'Brien, Zachary nodded sharply. "Ma'am, you are no longer welcome in my house. Please leave immediately or I will be forced to ask the sheriff to escort you from the premises."
"Robert is here, isn't he?" she asked nastily. "Where is he? You can be accused-"
"Sheriff!" Zachary broke in, pointedly not looking at... at the officer. Even in his own mind he wasn't quite prepared to curse her. "You may search the house if you want. Robert isn't here, but I have no objection to you checking. But first, I would like to report a trespasser."
"Come along Cathy," Sheriff Johnson said. "I'll check the place out, but for now you need to go back to the car."
"What?" she screeched. "You're-"
"I don't know how you do things in the city," Sheriff Johnson said angrily, "but out here we take due process quite seriously. He is protected against 'unreasonable search and seizure', and you don't have a warrant."
"But he has given permission for me to search, after you leave," Sheriff Johnson said firmly. "That is more than he is required to do."
Zachary waited patiently by the door as the sheriff did a quick, but thorough, check of the house. "Sheriff," Zachary asked as the sheriff prepared to leave, "can you tell me anything more?"
The sheriff sighed. "I've seen the evidence son. It's pretty damned convincing."
"How convincing," Zachary asked. "I know Robert. I know him. He liked to cause trouble, but we both know that for every rule he broke, he never actually hurt anyone. Hell, in case you've forgotten, when your son-"
"I know very well what he did for my son," the sheriff snapped. "But whatever Robert was like, the evidence against him is damned strong. Damned strong. They have him on camera, fleeing from the scene of the crime. No DNA evidence, but they did find a condom wrapper."
"A condom wrapper?" Zachary's head shot up.
"Yeah, so they aren't expecting any DNA evidence," Sheriff Johnson shook his head. "The evidence is strong, Zachary. I have a hard time believing it, but..."
"A condom wrapper..." Zachary almost whispered. That just didn't make sense.
"Is something wrong?" the sheriff asked, and Zachary shook his head to clear it.
"Nothing I'd care to discuss at this time, Sheriff," Zachary told him uncomfortably. "I... I need some time to think. This is all so sudden, and I'm..."
"It's a shock, I know," the sheriff nodded. "Listen, call me if you hear from him. He's considered armed and dangerous, so call me right away. Or even if you just remember something that might help."
"Cell or office number?" Zachary asked, opening the door for the sheriff.
"Just call, Zach. If Robert shows up, or even if it's just to chat," the sheriff told him. "Whatever you need, just call. Anytime. You have my home number if it comes to that."
"I'll see you at church tomorrow," Zachary said by way of farewell, opening the door for the sheriff.
"See you tomorrow," the sheriff nodded as he turned around. Zachary didn't watch as he walked away, simply staring into space.
Robert, a murder? A rapist? Zachary just couldn't see it. There was no way... Robert had been gone for years, but there was no way he could have raped and murdered his landlady. Zachary just couldn't believe it. Armed and dangerous... possibly, if something came up that Robert thought was important enough. But criminal? No way.
Zachary shoved his hands into his pockets as he paced the hallway. It didn't make sense. It just didn't make sense! Just as he always did in times of stress, he fiddled with the ring he kept in his left hand pocket. Normally it helped calm him, focus his thoughts. Tonight he had no such luck. Rather like his mother's take on the ring, he supposed: she'd hated what it represented, even as she'd loved what it meant for him. She had been just as conflicted as he found himself.
Zachary moved back to the living room and picked up where he'd been interrupted. Cleaning was a rather mindless activity, and at the moment that suited him just fine. The routine helped him calm down a little, however much he hated the actual cleaning. He didn't believe it. Not Robert. Not only was it absurd to think that Robert could possibly have done anything like that, but the details just didn't add up. Zachary wasn't certain if Robert was being framed or the cops had just made a mistake, but he was sure of that much at least. It'd get sorted out in time, of course. That was the reason behind the rules 'innocent until proven guilty' and 'beyond a reasonable doubt'. Zachary could provide the reasonable doubt in about five seconds, if he had to.
Still. Something was wrong with the whole situation.
Zachary was halfway through cleaning when there was another knock at the door. The back door, this time. The door that faced the woods behind the house. And this knock wasn't as strong, more of a dull thud that spoke of exhaustion and weakness than the determined strength of the sheriff.
"Robert," Zachary whispered as he opened the door. "What the hell?"
"Help," Robert managed to force out with a gasp. He was leaning against the side of the house, hand pressed against his side to hold a white cloth in place. A white cloth that was stained a dark, terrible red. "They're after me," he added, as Zachary moved to help him. "Trying to kill me."
"What happened?" Zachary asked. "The cops-"
"Cops?" Robert asked in shock. A wet, painful cough had him curled up against himself, preventing the rest of what he was going to say. "They'll.. don't let them..." Another wet cough interrupted him, and Robert started to sag forward. Zachary instinctively grabbed him, holding him up as Robert began to collapse.
"Come on, lets get you inside," Zachary told him. "I'll call an ambulance-"
"No!" Robert forced out. "Can't. Kill me."
"You need a hospital," Zachary told him. "I've had basic first aid training. You need a doctor. A real doctor."
"They'll kill..." Robert managed to cough out before finally passing out. Zachary frowned as he helped his best friend into a bed. He had to call the cops, and Robert needed a hospital. Bad. Zachary pulled the cloth away from Robert's side to confirm, and unfortunately he was right. The wet cough was his first clue; the red froth coming from Robert's side, and deep, agonized breathing was confirmation. Zachary couldn't decide, couldn't focus, not right now. So he bought time, running from the room and grabbing his first aid kit. Halfway back he frowned, looking down at the kit, before running upstairs to look for some more supplies. His first aid kit was pretty well stocked, far better than most home first aid kits, but it didn't have everything he needed. Sucking chest wounds were bad news. Really, really bad news.
Grabbing a file out of his filing cabinet, Zachary dumped the contents of the folder all over his desk and ran off with the actual plastic folder. It wasn't perfect, but first aid was about doing what you could until you could get the individual to the hospital. Zachary didn't waste any time and simply cut Robert's shirt right off him. The only major injury he could see was the chest wound. Zachary hissed as he realized it was actually two wounds, one in, one out. And it was big. The wound in the back wasn't that bad, no wonder he'd missed it, but the one in the front... Definitely a gunshot wound. Only thing he could think of that would have a larger exit than entrance.
Zachary cut the plastic folder up with quick, precise snips. Taking his rubbing alcohol, he wiped both sides of it down and placed it against the wound. He had to wipe the edges off to clear the skin before his medical tape would stick, but he quickly had the plastic taped down on three sides. And only three sides. He wasn't sure about how to deal with the second wound, but figured three sides was right there too. Sure, the blood and air could vent through the other end, but...
All too soon Zachary had done everything he could. He wasn't a doctor, and his knowledge of medicine just wasn't enough. Maybe Robert would live. Maybe he wouldn't. Zachary just didn't know enough about anatomy to be sure. And he didn't have the equipment to make a genuine one-way valve to replace the folder, either.
Zachary found himself pacing back and forth in the hallway again. He needed to call the cops. Robert had begged him not to, was convinced they were trying to kill him. Robert needed to go the hospital, or he might die. Robert was convinced that if he went to a hospital, he'd die. For the second time in his life, Zachary found himself caught between two different 'right' things. Either way he turned, he betrayed a trust. Either way he turned, his friend could die. Either way he turned, he was doing something wrong. Cooperate with the authorities, or help Robert. Robert, to whom he owed so much.
"To thine own self be true," Zachary whispered. Robert had pointed that out, and it had solved Zachary's problem the last time. But this time... the conflict was internal. Zachary was at war with himself, rather than with people's expectations, and Shakespeare's advice was worthless. Zach found himself staring at the phone. To call, or not to call. He had to make the choice. And he couldn't. He had to support and aid the law. He had to protect and help Robert. He had to get Robert medical attention. He had to keep Robert hidden. Secret. Safe.
Zach's hand was on the phone as his mind raged. He had to choose. Eventually, failing to choose would be the exact same thing as choosing, and time was of the essence. He wasn't going to get caught out by default, that was the coward's path out. He had to choose. Taking a deep breath, he laid all the arguments out one more time. The ones in favor of calling, the ones against. He added them up in his mind, he weighed them out. Nodding, he forced himself to chose.
In the end, he chose to do the right thing.