Copyright (c) 2017 by Randall R. Peterson ALL RIGHTS RESERVED This is a work of fiction. All persons, locations and actions are from the author's imagination or have been used in a fictitious manner.
By R. Peterson
Louise Porter managed the best she could to combat loneliness after her husband John succumbed to a fatal heart attack in early March. Nights were the worst. Most days the sixty-six year old woman kept busy readying her garden for spring planting behind the house on Garlow Street in Cloverdale and she did weekend volunteer work at several civic organizations including the Red Cross and a local group associated with the High School PTA – L.S.D. (Ladies for Student Development.)
Her interest for television shows vanished, likewise her energy whenever the temperature rose above seventy degrees. It was late on the night of April nineteenth as Louise sat reading a novel by Nicholas Sparks with a Jazz radio station playing softly in the background when a loud knock came on the door. At first, something about it sounded recognizable, but then Louise’s mind went suddenly blank. She’d lived long enough not to trust anyone who came calling after ten o’clock and it was almost midnight. She tuned on the porch light and looked through the peep-hole in the door.
“Anybody home?” Louise gasped and felt blood drain from her face when she heard the familiar voice call. This had to be an illusion, conjured up by her loneliness. She stepped back, blinked and then looked again. John stood on the porch with one hand stuck in the pockets of his favorite patched bib-overalls and the other holding his father’s canvas creel and his favorite pole. He was grinning and raising one eyebrow the way he always did when he teased her. The floppy golf-hat she’d given him for his sixty-eighth birthday with trout flies stuck around the brim perched jauntily on his thinning hair. “I know you don’t like it when I go fishing and then arrive home after dark but by golly this time they were really biting. Don’t worry, I won’t ask you to clean them but I would be much obliged if you’d unlock the door.”
“I don’t know you … go away!” Louise stammered.
“It’s me, Lucky!” John bent down and peered through his side of the peep hole. John was the only person in the world who called her Lucky. He’d used that nick-name for her since High School when he’d made eight for eight at the foul line during the championship game with Butte while wearing a bobby-pin from her hair attached to the sleeve of his basketball uniform.
“You’re dead, John … go back to heaven,” Louise pleaded. Her words sounded silly even to her own ears.
John made a show of sniffing under his arms and then wrinkling his nose. “I know I smell bad,” he said laughing. “But by golly I ain’t dead yet … although with this breeze coming up it is getting deathly cold out here.”
The wind blew the parting in his hair to the opposite side showing the receding hairline that he was always trying to cover-up and suddenly Louise felt sorry for him and was tired of being alone.
“If you’ve got mud on your shoes leave them on the porch,” she scolded. “I just mopped this floor this morning!”
A hundred thoughts were running through her head tugging and pulling on her subconscious trying to get her attention but she pushed them away. It was so good to have John home … she had missed him so badly. “I’ll run you a tub while you clean the fish,” she said. He kissed her cheek as he took fish out of the bag.
Louise hummed a song as she filled the old claw-foot tub upstairs with water and added John’s favorite bath oil. Please don’t let this just be my imagination or a dream she closed her eyes and said a silent prayer. When she went back downstairs the house was empty and John was gone … if he had ever been there.
Louise cried herself to sleep weary of a grief that could so cruelly distort even the most cherished memories of a dearly departed loved one. It was 4:19 AM when she opened her eyes. John stood over the bed staring down at her. There wasn’t time to scream.
Sheriff Walker turned his head as the second deputy in less than ten minutes ran down the stairs from the bedroom and out the back door of the Porter residence. All the bedroom windows were open fresh air seemed to help. John felt queasy himself. Mrs. Porter had been his best friend’s widow. Seconds later, the sheriff could hear Trent Wilson stumbling and throwing-up in a pristine bed of marigolds and pansies. “Who the hell would want to butcher an old lady like that?” Chet Hunting, the Comanche County Coroner, asked. He and two assistants had just finished gathering up all the recognizable pieces of the woman and placing them in carefully labeled Ziploc freezer bags.
“That’s what we are going to find out,” the sheriff responded.
The first deputy who had recovered somewhat from his sickness returned from inspecting the bathroom. “The bathtub was full but nobody ever climbed into it,” he said.
“How do you know that?” Sheriff Walker knew Jimmy Chong was a born detective and was always amazed at how his simple but brilliant mind worked.
“There were fresh towels on the rack next to the tub and none had been used, also the carpeted floor mat was dry if anyone wet had stepped on it, it should have been a little damp.” Jimmy shook his head. “It’s a shame to waste all that money.”
“Run that past me again!” The sheriff was interested.
“The tub was full of Diptyque bath oil, at least twenty dollars an ounce I figure Mrs. Porter must have planned on soaking in a hundred dollars’ worth of designer suds mixed with Epsom salts.”
“Louise never had any trouble with her arthritis,” the sheriff considered. “It was John who liked to soak his feet and fall asleep in a hot bath.” After a moment he walked into the bathroom to check for himself. “I wonder who she filled the tub for.”
There wasn’t a day that went by that Mary Joe Carlson didn’t think about that awful day at the end of March, and each time, she did she hated and despised herself. Timmy Johnson was just four years old and Mary had agreed to watch him while his mother went to a sewing class. He called her Maw-ree in an adorable child’s voice. It was a warm day for March and Mary watched as Timmy played with toy trucks in a sandbox her own children had long since outgrown. It was expected to be a hot summer and the irrigation company had turned the water into the canal that crossed the back of the yard the week before. The water was only three foot deep and Mary wasn’t worried even though there was no fence to keep toddlers away. Timmy was making motor sounds with his mouth and tongue as he drove the toy truck across a small mountain of sand and Mary laughed remembering her own children doing the same. She heard the phone ring inside the kitchen and decided to let Timmy play … she’d call back whoever was on the phone.
Elisabeth Manning was sobbing. She’d just found a woman’s phone number in her husband’s wallet when she was doing laundry. Mary tried her best to console her best friend. “Don’t jump to conclusions, Beth,” she said. “Has Frank ever given you any cause to suspect that he might be having an affair?”
“That’s just it,” Liz sobbed. “Lately he’s been dropping into the Red Rooster after work and I’ve smelled perfume on his collar several times.”
“Did you ask him about it?” Mary decided to invite Liz over and filled a pot with water for coffee.
“He claimed he stopped to help a drunken woman change a flat tire and she slobbered all over him while he was jacking up her car.”
“Who was this woman?”
“He said he didn’t know her, but the first time he tells me the story she was driving a car and the next time it was a pickup … you’d think if he spent all that time jacking up a vehicle he’d remember what kind of outfit it was!”
The coffee was done perking and Mary poured herself a cup while she listened to Liz describe other unusual things in her husband’s behavior … suddenly she remembered Timmy! “Liz I’ll call you back!”
The rest of the memory was a nightmare complete with echoing sounds and flashes of chilling light.
She ran outside and Timmy was not in the sandbox. Neither of her next door neighbors had seen him. Mary had run up and down the canal bank calling his name before someone finally called the sheriff’s office. First she feared he might have been abducted and then later prayed that he had been. Sheriff Walker and two volunteers pulled Timmy’s body from a culvert pipe where Vineyard Road crossed the canal just a hundred yards from her house.
No one, not even Timmy’s grieving mother blamed her and that somehow made it even worse. There were times that Mary wished she could die, but then that would be too easy … she needed to suffer for her negligence. She wanted to contract some horrible disease that would disfigure her face and leave her in terrible pain but sometimes she wondered if even that would be enough.
Mary walked out back past the sandbox with a basket of laundry ready to be hung on the line. Life has to go on … even for those who are not worthy. Suddenly she heard Timmy’s voice calling. “Help me!”
Mary dropped the basket of clothes on the grass and nearly fainted as blood rushed out of her head. “The voice came again. “Help me Maw-ree!”
Mary ran down the canal bank, her heart thumping wildly with cold terror and a kind of irrational second chance answer to her nightly prayers. She plunged into the water and swam into the culvert opening even though there was less than six inches of air-space as the water swept under the bridge. There was more room once the water passed the inside edge of the pipe and the bridge supports. Timmy clung to a piece of rebar jutting out from a concrete wall. “Hang on!” Mary screamed. “Don’t you dare let go!”
Timmy’s fingers slipped off the iron rod just before Mary reached him and he sank into the dark rushing water. “No,” Mary shrieked as she submerged and tried to locate him.
Ten minutes later, it felt like hours, Mary dragged herself out of the pipe wishing she had the guts to stay there and die. She was standing in rushing water up to her waist and moving toward the canal bank when she felt something grab her leg and pull her under. “Maw-ree,” a cold voice bubbled.
Sheriff Walker couldn’t believe it; two murders in less than a week was a push even for Cloverdale. “You sure this wasn’t just an accident?” he asked Chet Hunting as they recovered Mary Joe Carlson’s body from a pool of flotsam and driftwood near a washed out bank.
“No way,” the County Coroner said. “Mrs. Carlson didn’t drown she was strangled … even though the marks on her neck came from an awfully small person.”
“How small?” Sheriff Walker was almost afraid to ask.
“It couldn’t be a midget,” Chet said, “because their hands are near normal size. I’d say these marks came from a child three or four years old!”
“What the Hell is going on in Cloverdale?” The sheriff took off his hat and slapped it against his leg like he was trying to rid himself of some kind of clinging dust.
“I don’t know but I think you’d better be finding out,” the coroner said. “Plenty of people are going to be asking you that same question.”
Leston Neville gripped the steering wheel tightly to keep the old Dodge truck from creeping into the borrow-pit as he bounced along the back-roads of Comanche County. It was past four AM. There was a time when he had made modest money repairing autos, now he just didn’t give a damn and he let his own vehicles fall into pathetic disrepair. The one-gallon ceramic containers filled with homemade corn-whiskey in the back rattled together each time he hit a bump in the road. Life wasn’t worth living without Wendy and Leston drank as much moonshine as he sold. There were three more stops to make and he could go home … but home was just a place to sleep out of the rain … a place to cry without being seen.
Even though they barely made enough money to pay taxes on the forty wooded acres and somehow feed themselves he and Wendy were thrilled when they found out she was pregnant. Wendy scoured the second hand stores and gathered enough material to make several baby outfits hand-sewn by candlelight after her chores were done. Leston made a cradle out of un-split lengths of kindling wood and even though one of the rockers was off center, Wendy had tears in her eyes when she told him he was going to be the world’s best daddy.
Leston was beginning to nod off and he jerked the wheel sharply when he felt the right front tire leave the gravel. The truck skidded sideways but he got things under control. There was no money for a doctor and Wendy had decided to have the baby at home. “It’s the most natural thing there is,” she’d told him. What she didn’t say was that it was almost as natural as dying.
Leston knew something was terribly wrong when after a full afternoon and one whole night of agonizing labor Wendy still hadn’t delivered. At 3 AM when she finally began to scream and he saw all the blood he loaded her into the truck and drove hell bent for town. It was the first of March and the last snowstorm of the winter was raging across Western Montana. The belt that ran the generator for the truck lights broke and Leston frantically made one out of twisted twine. When that broke with less than nine miles to go he decided to drive by moonlight. The truck tires were bald and snowdrifts were beginning to cover all the open areas between the clumps of trees.
Leston didn’t see the fleeing deer until it was too late and the truck hit one and skidded off the road. He tried frantically to push the truck from the deep snow with his bare hands all the while listening to Wendy scream and knowing there was no way he could help her. Then like a miracle that comes out of the sky with a host of singing angels, car lights appeared in the distance. Leston wrapped Wendy in a blanket and stood in the center of the road waiting for the vehicle to arrive.
When the car, a forty-something black Ford coupe with one downward pointing headlight began to slow Leston moved off the side of the road and was horrified when instead of stopping … it sped up. Leston was so distraught that he began to run after the car with Wendy in his arms. He ran until his lungs felt ready to burst and then he ran until he coughed up blood. At least Wendy had stopped screaming. More than an hour later he saw lights from a house and somehow struggled up to the door. He was delirious and later learned the farmer and his wife had to use warm water to pry Wendy’s frozen body out of his arms. The baby had tried to come out the wrong way and had gotten caught. It would have been a boy.
There was no money for the funeral or the two coffins … so the church took up a collection. A month later Leston was still climbing out of a hellishly deep canyon of depression and decided to sell his mechanic tools, buy alcohol distilling equipment from Fred Hicks and keep steady company with the comforting spirits. They’d been together morning, noon and night going on three weeks. Like all good marriages this was till death do we part. He could still hear Wendy’s screams when he closed his eyes but they weren’t as loud.
Leston was beginning to nod off again. He forced his eyes to open wider. Off in the distance he could see car lights. Something about the way they shined looked familiar … he felt his teeth grind together hard enough to chip the enamel. A black Ford coupe with one downward pointing headlight rounded the bend and came right toward him. This time it didn’t thunder on past but stopped dead in the road.
Fiery rage swept over Leston as he stopped and reached for the sawed-off ten-gage shotgun he kept behind the seat. The door to the Ford opened when he was still two yards away and bringing the barrel up level. Wendy leaned out and stared at him with black lifeless eyes. “Hurry,” she said. “We’ve got to get our baby to town to see the doctor.” Something about her smile made his blood run cold.
Leston could see a blood smeared newborn infant wrapped in a tablecloth on the seat next to her. He wasn’t completely out of his mind. It wasn’t alive … and neither was she. He knew it was wrong as he threw the gun over a fence and walked around to the passenger side of the Ford and climbed in … there was still no money for a funeral … but he just didn’t care anymore.
TO BE CONTINUED …