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To each there comes in their lifetime a special moment when they are figuratively tapped on the shoulder and offered the chance to do a very special thing, unique to them and fitted to their talents. What a tragedy if that moment finds them unprepared or unqualified for that which could have been their finest hour.

 - Winston Churchill

Chapter One


Jim Sweet loved small towns. There was something very democratic about such places. A little town out in the country had no large mansions, but also contained no ghettos. The men who ran things were very close to the men who didn’t. They were quite egalitarian in their own way.

The town of Bole had boasted a couple thousand residents at one time, and came very near to being incorporated a decade or two ago. A few of the citizens still organized for it from time to time, but quickly lost interest. There were now around a thousand people in Bole, give or take a couple hundred.

Main Street was where the state highway passed through town. Roughly two blocks of Main Street, was what passed for a downtown area. There was Resler’s grocery store, and Ben’s cycle and machinery, as well as a lawyer, a dentist, and the hardware store. There had been a doctor; but he died years ago and no one came in to take his place.

There was also a school, built decades ago when it appeared the town might get larger instead of smaller. It was of two stories, and was half closed up now. It went from Kindergarten to the eighth grade. After that, the older students were now sent to the high school in town.

Up the road a bit was the gas station, Linda’s Café, and the feed and seed store. A rail line ran past the granary here; but there was no regular train service. The line was a spur off of the main line, and a freight train special might come up once or twice a year to collect what crops the farmers had to sell, and to bring in a load of seed for the next crop.

Jim was here on a service call for the local propane company. He drove up just past the hardware store to a large old house that had been turned into a funeral parlor. A wiry sharp featured man stood on the porch and glared at him.

                Jim got out of his car, went up to the man, and nodded in acknowledgement. “Good day Mr. Clement. What can I do for you?”

“Never mind that. C’mon.”

Clement took Jim around back and pointed accusingly at a propane tank, like an old time preacher pointing out sin. “This damned thing’s leaking again.”

“OK, I can take a look at it.”

“You better do more than that. You better fix it. I know your ways. Your company sends out leaky equipment so that I have to pay through the nose for more of your propane.”

Jim looked over the lines, the jets, and the regulator on the tank. He could find nothing wrong. Old man Clement was adamant, and would not accept his findings.

Clement complained, “Nothing happens in this old town any more. People aren’t even dying these days. There’s been no cremation in months, and yet half a tank of gas is gone. And this isn’t the first time either. The crematorium is the only thing I use gas for. The rest of the house is all electric.”

Jim suggested, “Well, we can try putting in new lines and a new regulator.”

Clement looked at him suspiciously. “And how much is that going to cost me?”

“I can do it for $1500.”

“Not on your life mister. This is a defective product, and your company needs to fix it.”

“Well, let me take a look at your crematorium. Maybe the problem’s there.”

“How can it be the crematorium when it aint been used in months?”

Jim Sweet shrugged. “I really don’t know, Mr. Clement; but I need to check it over.”

Clement looked at him and shook his head in disgust. “Well, c’mon then.”

Clement led Jim Sweet down to the basement, and back past the casket showroom, and the workroom where bodies were prepared. The crematorium itself looked like a large oven of firebrick with a heavy metal door and a small observation glass. Jim checked the lines, and looked over the connections, before opening the fire door and looking inside.

Jim looked at Clement in surprise and announced, “This thing’s been used within the last month, probably within the last week.”

Clement shook his head fiercely. “The hell it has. I may be getting a bit old and forgetful; but I haven’t lost it so’s I wouldn’t remember doing a cremation.”

Jim pointed, “Look at the soot on the walls, and the residue left on the metal grates. These are all fresh.”

“So now you’re an expert on crematoriums. You know more about them than an undertaker.”

“I don’t claim to be an expert on these particular units; but I have a lot of experience working with furnaces, boilers, and particularly with incinerators. Let’s fire this thing up, so I can check the gas flow.”

“And who’s paying for the gas?”

“You are.” Jim held up his hands to hold off a sputtering Mr. Clemet, “In all fairness, Mr. Clement, if there is something wrong with your crematorium, we can hardly be held liable. Anyway, it won’t take long, and won’t use up much gas.”

When the gas flow was within spec, no leaks could be found, and no other problems presented themselves, Jim Sweet considered a moment. “Are you sure you don’t use this for anything else- burning garbage or leaves, or maybe heating the basement?”

Clement looked shocked. “Mister, this is a crematorium used for the respectful interment of human remains. It would be a sacrilege to burn anything else in there.”

“Is it possible someone is coming down, without permission, and using it for something?”

“My hearing’s not so good these days; but if someone were down here running the crematorium I would have heard.”

Jim looked the premises over. “This basement looks pretty solid, and so does the ceiling. It appears to be insulated. You sleep up on the second floor, don’t you?”

Clement nodded, “Sure; but this thing is noisy. The door is heavy and clangs like a suit of armor when it closes. I may not be able to hear a pin drop anymore; but I still notice when a truck goes by, or the train comes through. I got a hearing aid that makes me hear as well as anyone.”

“From what I can see here, there are only two explanations. The first is that you are burning things in here and don’t remember. The second is that someone else is doing it. Do you wear your hearing aid to bed?”

Suddenly, Clement could not meet Jim’s eyes. “All right. Well somebody has to pay for all the gas being burned up, and it aint gonna be me. Let’s go talk to the Sherriff.”

The Sherriff station was technically a substation established because Bole had no police department of its own. It resided in an old house formerly owned by the Waite family. It was sometimes jokingly referred to as the wait station. A big wooden “Sherriff” sign was hung from a post out front. There was a swing, a couple chairs and a soft drink machine on the front porch.

Jim got himself an orange soda out of the machine, and offered one to Clement.

Clement gave his head a shake. “I don’t drink that crap. I’ve seen too much of what it does to people’s insides.”

Jim looked at his own bottle suspiciously, and then shrugged and took a healthy swallow.

Inside, Leroy was watching television and sitting at the big old desk that served as his office. A couple of local boys were reading comic books, and sprawled on a large sofa. Leroy had long been retired; but made a few extra dollars watching the station and was allowed to live upstairs as part of his pay. He was still considered a sworn peace officer, though for any real trouble he would have to call in to the regular Sherriff station up the highway.

Clement stomped up to Leroy and pounded on the desk, saying, “Someone’s been stealing my gas”

Leroy looked away from the television, in annoyance, and responded, “You have more than enough to spare, you old windbag. I’m surprised you notice any missing.”

Clement turned a gaze on Leroy that could scorch a cinder block. “Damn your eyes boy; don’t you dare make fun of me. This is official business. Just because you have that badge doesn’t mean I won’t box your ears.”

“Settle down Clement. Lord you’re ornery today. Now what happened?”

Clement began to curse and bluster, so Jim laid a hand on his shoulder and took over, explaining what he had found.

Leroy took careful notes, and filed an official report. He then looked at Clement apologetically, and advised, “I don’t see that we can do much Clement. I mean it’s not like someone stole your gas and has it hidden away someplace where you can identify it as your property. It’s probably some kids screwing around.”

“So that’s it? That’s all you’re going to do?”

“I’m filing a report and if there’s cause, someone will be down to investigate. I mean we’re talking theft and trespassing, and maybe vandalism, so the department will look into this.”

Clement said nothing, and stormed out of the station, mumbling to himself.

Jim Sweet looked at Leroy, and asked, “Do you suppose the Sheriff will do anything?”

Leroy nodded, “Oh, yeah. I suppose in a big city back east, this wouldn’t count for much; but out here in Bole, this may be the crime of the century.”

The two men laughed, and Jim Sweet repeated, “The crime of the century.”