Juno looked up from her desk and instantly recognized Deputy Freya Heimdall when she came into the office: a tall, broad-figured woman only a few years her senior, face lightly dusted with freckles, eyes cold and hard no matter her expression. She held up her hand dismissively when Juno stood at attention.
“No need for all that, Juno,” said Heimdall. “Officers don’t need to act formal when they’re off duty.”
Juno blinked. “Who’s off duty, Ma’am?”
“You are. Effective immediately.”
Heimdall smiled sadly. “My condolences about your mom,” she said. “I suppose I should’ve opened with that. In any case, it’s customary to give a grieving soldier time off to get her affairs in order, and you’re overdue a vacation. You’ve got two months’ vacation time you haven’t used yet.”
Juno cleared her throat. “I’ve already given Vice Warden Dahl two weeks paid leave, Ma’am. There won’t be anyone to hold the fort.”
“Jensen isn’t up to the task?”
“No, Ma’am. I mean, yes, Ma’am, she is, but–”
“Then it’s settled. You’re on leave as of right now.” The Deputy Freya turned and headed to the door, casually holding her hands behind her back. “Be sure to fill Jensen in on the situation.”
Juno clenched her fists. “Ma’am, I’m fine. Really.”
Heimdall stopped and turned back to the warden. “You’re fine?”
“Your mama committed suicide forty-eight hours ago. Picked a messy way to check out, too.”
A bitter taste molested Juno’s tongue. “We weren’t close.”
Heimdall shrugged. “She’s still your mama.”
“If your little girl got laid up in the hospital with a broken leg, would you rush to her side?”
“’Course. Any mama would do the same.”
“Mine didn’t even realize I was missing for two days. We were more like housemates than mother and daughter.”
Heimdall chuckled. “So who’s taking care of the funeral arrangements?”
Juno swallowed. “My sisters can handle it.”
Heimdall looked up at the ceiling and sucked her teeth for a moment. “So you had several traumatic experiences in the past year, at home and abroad, some of which you survived by the skin of your teeth. Now your mom killed herself, and your sisters are gonna have the funeral without you. All this, with no vacation time taken, and you’re just fine.”
The Deputy Freya looked down her nose at Juno. “Lemme put it this way: if anyone under my command fit the profile of someone who might go postal in the next six months, I’m lookin’ at her right now. You can take one month paid leave, or one month unpaid suspension — your choice. After that you can decide when you’re ready to come back.”
“Ma’am, I really don’t–”
“End of discussion,” said Heimdall as she walked out.
Juno huffed and plopped back into her seat. She glowered at the six inch stack of paperwork she’d already put off for several weeks, sitting on her desktop like a sleeping cat. She picked up her pen and bounced it angrily off the desktop, not bothering to watch where it went.
It soared just past Warrant Officer Jensen’s platinum blonde head as she skittered into the office. “Ma’am, is everything–?”
“I’m fine,” snarled Juno.
Jensen took the hint and hastily skittered out the door.
The image of Opis Radcliffe’s smugly grinning face hovered before Juno’s eye. It should have angered her just to think of it. It did bother her, but for reasons nearer the neighborhood of bafflement. She had expected her mother to drop dead years ago, veteran carouser that she was in life, even in her old age; but she had been blessed with the usual longevity of the world’s biggest assholes. The closest Opis Radcliffe ever came to entertaining suicide was a fantasy involving death by cocktails, cannabis, and a field of dicks.
Her suicide — by poison of all things — piqued Juno’s curiosity, loathe though she was to admit. The note, too, which said simply, “I’m sorry for everything.”
She had plenty of her own notes back home: discarded letters that never quite sounded right, most of them dripping with anger and accusation. She wadded them, tore them, but never threw them out. Every year or so she unraveled them, or pieced them back together, and used them to write a new draft which inevitably joined the rest. She kept them all in a white envelope, the edges wrinkled and creased from age, buried in a small drawer filled with other forgotten junk.
The envelope was addressed to Opis Radcliffe in faded ink.
Her thoughts turned to her hometown. The thought of returning there made her nauseous. On postcards it seemed like an idyllic vacation spot — as idyllic as any frozen New World location could be, anyway. Tear off the postcard imagery and underneath you would find the rancid flesh of a community blighted with famine, corruption, and violence. That was the Heorot Juno knew: a place where people happily went to jail if it meant a hot meal and a bed to sleep in, and maybe settled a personal vendetta on the way in.
She dialed the Heorot Gendarmerie and waited on hold for fifteen minutes before a husky-voiced operator answered. Juno identified herself, gave her badge number, and requested to speak with Deputy Addams about Opis’s suicide. She was put on hold for another five minutes, then a surprisingly young and girlish voice said, “Addams. Is this Warden Radcliffe?”
“Didn’t you get my report?”
“The incident report, yes, what little there was. I was hoping you could give me details on the coroner’s report.”
Two minutes passed in silence.
“I’m still here.”
“Cause of death was arsenic. Considerable traces found in the digestive tract. She’d been drinking her moonshine at around Nine PM and mixed in enough to kill a horse. Took effect pretty quickly. She wouldn’t have suffered long.”
Addams almost added “unfortunately” to the end of the sentence. Juno wouldn’t have believed her anyway, any more than she believed death by poison to be quick and painless.
“Where were my sisters during all this?”
“Minerva was home with her son. Diana was at a club with her girlfriends. Venus was in the company of a registered male whose name she preferred not to disclose.”
“You wrote that a neighbor said she heard someone shouting around the same time.”
“Nothing conclusive. It’s a noisy neighborhood, lotsa older folks with their TVs turned up loud. The case was as open-and-shut as they come.”
“I can tell. You coulda written this report on a napkin.”
Juno exhaled like a leaky steam pipe. An anticlimactic end to a rotten relationship.
“My condolences, Miss Radcliffe,” said Addams. “Your mom was pretty famous in these parts.”
She didn’t say it in a flattering tone. Juno thanked her and hung up. She leaned back in her chair and squeezed her stress ball for a half hour, turning her thoughts over and over. Trying to think of anything in the world she could do with her month of paid leave other than going to Heorot.
She went back to the shooting range, but she couldn’t hit anything. Her vision kept fogging up.
Devon was surprised to find Juno outside her apartment door, and didn’t stammer too noticeably when she invited her in.
The apartment was lonely, disheveled, and not quite as small as a shoebox. She was kicking laundry out of sight and gathering empty beer cans as she and Juno talked.
“Is something up, Ma’am?” said Devon.
Juno sighed. “The DF politely encouraged me to take a month off in light of my mother’s death. Skye’s gonna have her new promotion cut out for her while we’re both gone. You’ll have to talk to her about looking after your nephew ‘til you get back, since I won’t be able to.”
Devon nodded meekly. “Yes, Ma’am.”
“We’re not on duty. You don’t have to be formal.”
“Yes, Ma’am.” Devon looked at her feet. “Sorry. Sure.” She looked up as a thought suddenly struck her. “Condolences, by the way. About your mom. I never said before.”
Juno nodded, hiding her exasperation.
“Are you going back home?”
Juno thought on it a moment. “My sisters might need help with the funeral. Suppose I oughta be there.”
She said it like they were talking about a surgical procedure with a six month recovery time.
Devon shrugged. “Well…I don’t have any plans yet, for what it’s worth.”
Juno looked at her. “Are you requesting to come along?”
Devon’s cheeks flushed pink. “Yes, Ma’am.”
Juno folded her arms. “I’d rather have you at Valhalla, if I hadn’t just given you leave. You keep the girls in check better than I can.”
“That’s a bold faced lie, Ma’am.”
Juno laughed. She shook her head. “I’ll only be there a couple of days.”
“Can I ask a personal question?”
Juno gave it considerable thought before finally saying, “Go ahead.”
“I was under the impression you didn’t like your mom. What made you decide to go home after all?”
With a long sigh, Juno stared at a beer stain on the carpet and wondered about that herself.
“When I was a kid,” said Juno, “Aunt Clovis said that hatred is when you drink poison and wait for the other person to die.” She shifted in place uncomfortably. “I keep thinking of that phrase and how ironic it is now.
“Opis never made an effort to patch things up, so I guess I got the crazy notion that it’s up to me now. That…maybe it was up to me all along.”