Unlike many mornings in the Little Gray Town, Rusty found a bright and clear blue sky upon exiting the bungalow front door.
It was like a morning-after-the-storm scene in a Hollywood movie: bright and crisp with not a hint of last night’s torrent, save for a few fresh sprigs from the old walnut tree and a dozen or so drying puddles.
Rusty stooped to pick up the Sunday Oregonian from the moss encrusted front walk as two pre-teen boys peddled by on Schwinn five-speeds. “Hey mister, your house is haunted!” cried the braver of the two as they sped up West Clay Street. Rusty righted himself and watched the kids disappear into the long shadows of the tree-covered street and the safety of the city park beyond. This wasn’t the first time his new neighbors felt obliged to paint a less than positive picture of his new home. He didn’t mind so much, just didn’t understand why they’d even care.
Stepping back into the warm gloom of his new home, Rusty paused, realizing he hadn’t once checked on his new housemate since depositing the box in the living room closet. Considering he never once heard a stirring or was roused by an alarmed squawking of a trapped animal, he now assumed the worst. Well, at least she had a quiet and comfortable place to pass on, he thought as he neared the closet door. He had to admit, it was a puzzle as to why the poor thing came barreling out of the sky and hit the ground all faint and limp without a mark on it. Maybe it was startled into palpitations by the sudden clap of thunder, Rusty mused. But when Rusty opened the door, it was his turn to be thunderstruck, thunderstruck all to hell and back.
It wasn’t a big closet, maybe wide enough for a half-dozen coats and enough overhead space for a handful of baseball caps, shoeboxes of old photos, and a few tins of shoe polish. The floor had enough room for a few pairs of beat-up tennis shoes and rubber boots. The fact that the naked woman curled in a fetal position on the floor could do so without being too cramped was an indication she simply wasn’t a very big gal.
Rusty stood with the closet door cracked wide enough to bump up against his shoulder, the only thing preventing him from falling face first into the naked woman’s curled form.
Her only movement was the rise and fall of her sides where the light from the living-room painted the smooth outline of her ribs. Her arms were crossed gently over her breasts and her head tilted delicately against the carpeted floor. Her hair was long and dark, at least that was the final point of detail Rusty took in before he rocked back on his heels and ever-so-carefully closed the door.
Turning about and backing himself up to the wall, Rusty slid himself down with a certain silent care. He checked himself. No, he wasn’t dreaming. His heart was beating too hard for that–he’d be sitting bolt upright in bed about now if that were the case. Besides, the wall was too firm at his back, the carpet under his ass soft and pliant, the smear of black newsprint on his fingertips from the morning paper was vivid and obvious. Nope. Not a dream.
But where did she come from? Maybe she was a drunken college student who’d wandered into his house during the night and passed out in his closet? Sure. She must have stumbled into the back yard sometime after he went to bed and finding the back door unlocked crept into the living room and squirreled herself away in the closet.
Sure. That was it.
And God only knows why she was completely naked and wandering around at all hours in a torrential rainstorm. Maybe she’d been assaulted or maybe she was on drugs or maybe she’d been assaulted while she was on drugs…or maybe she was one of those wiccans…
He needed to call the police but first–
“Oh my God,” said Rusty, “What about that owl!” If it’s still alive, it’ll sure as shit wake up in terror and tear that poor naked girl apart with its talons, he thought. And how the hell was he going to explain to the cops how he came into possession of not only a legally protected species, but also how said bird of prey was now in the process of lacerating a completely innocent but naked and intoxicated college girl in the little house in which he’d been a resident for barely 48 hours.
Struggling to his feet with all rational thought now presiding on some vacant atoll in the Solomon Islands, Rusty gripped the closet doorknob and pulled the door wide.
She stood so close to him, he could feel her warm breath on his nose. Her startled eyes were large and brown and her long dark hair cascaded down over her bare front.
A startled gust of air issued from her open mouth, and in that second everything in Rusty’s world went black and he toppled over backwards in a dead faint.
From a corner of the living room the girl-sized shadow peeped a single word: “Mommy?” The naked woman cocked her head at the sound before glancing back at the fallen young man and then, stepping over him, made her way into the light of the room.
Outside Milwaukee, WI
Former Coroner Ron pulled his car into the suburb cul-de-sac. The semi-circle of tract houses had changed little since the late 1970s: nearly identical designs, their low-sloped roofs, the rectangular front room windows, the two-car garages, the low hedges along the front walks. All quietly dozing under the cobalt-blue skies, content in their conformity save for one draped in yellow police tape and bright fluorescent warning stickers. At 3 am the street was motionless, but Former Coroner Ron doubted any of the neighbors were sleeping soundly.
The crime scene was days old, but Former Coroner Ron was confident once inside he would learn what he needed to learn. Reaching into his glove box he removed his lock kit and Maglight and from his backseat he removed one of the few souvenirs he’d taken from his former career, a plastic film window tag reading COUNTY FORENSICS. He ran his tongue briefly over the front of the window tag and deftly adhered it to the interior side of his windshield just where it met the dash.
If the neighbors were to notice the strange, albeit rag-tag vehicle, the sticker would at least give him a buffer of some sort. The local constabulary was another story. They’d most certainly increased their patrols through the neighborhood. He’d have to work fast.
Trotting with as much stealth as the bulk acquired from ten years worth of meals consumed at truck stops, Denny’s, Farroll’s and Carroll’s would allow, Former Corner Ron made for the narrow sideyard that ran between the north side of the house and the neighbor’s privacy fence.
Shuffling along, his head ducked low, Former Coroner Ron made for the backyard gate. Reaching up and over the top he flipped the metal latch and swung the gate wide. The unkempt grass was moist with dew and soaked the cuffs of his worn Dockers. From the artificial moon-glow of the streetlamp the next block over Former Coroner Ron could make out a cheap aluminum swing set, once dappled in brightly colored circus balloons, now darkened with blooms of deep red rust. A bright yellow plastic dump truck lay on its side nearly engulfed in the damp grass and a sandbox of pale, clumped sand took up the far southern corner of the yard.
Former Coroner Ron turned and quietly padded over the bare cement patio past the curtained sliding glass doors. The slider was out. It had no exterior keyhole and the owners were likely well-seasoned suburbanites and knew to fill the empty track with the requisite four-foot length of wooden doweling.
Better to pick the back door lock, than get his fat ass snapped while he hunkered before the front door, he thought.
The door into the dark garage stood ajar, an empty hole where the knob had been. Upon entering the cold interior he learned why the door remained lock-less. There really wasn’t much to steal. He spied a lone, weathered Previa van, a single child’s car seat in the back. Against the wall to his left stood a cluttered workbench sporting a hammer, a fresh box of nails, but no power tools in sight. Beneath the bench stood a stack of old paint cans and on the floor beyond a battered lawn mower kept strange company with a new child-sized bicycle. The bicycle was haphazardly propped against the grass-encrusted mower, it’s bright pink plastic seat standing out in high contrast to the dingy canvas catch-bag. Former Coroner Ron’s eyes dropped to the tiny training wheels still attached.
Had he not already learned the details from the Sentinel article, the silent garage would tell him all he needed to know. A single, middle-income mother, no male partner present. One child. A girl. How long had she saved for that tiny bicycle, he wondered.
Former Coroner Ron made his way between the white stucco wall and the van, finding the door to the house proper just to the opposite side of an old standing freezer. As he expected, he found no signs of forced entry. Had he the time to survey the periphery, he knew he’d find each door and window intact.
Crouching, he reached into his coat pocket and removed two old friends: a pair white of latex surgical gloves. He stuck the narrow haft of the Maglite between his teeth and aimed the light into the lock. Pulling on the surgical gloves, he extracted the lock pick kit from his hip pocket. He selected two thin-pronged instruments from the black pouch. Sliding them into the lock he commenced to twist and jiggle the tiny tines until the tumblers fell into place.
Rising to the sound of his popping knees, Former Coroner Ron hiked his baggy pants back over his plumber’s crack, turned the knob and pushed open the door. The dark kitchen was small and conservative and the aging linoleum popped as he crossed to the dining room.
While rounding the corner from the dining room to the den, he instantly caught the familiar taste of aging copper on the back of his soft palate. Panning his light over the room, he found what he’d expected, two sprawled outlines of white tape, one form less than half the size of the other. The dried blood was almost black against the carpeting and God there was a lot of it. He directed the light up onto the northern wall. The large earth-tone tapestry depicting white stallions fording a tumbling river was nearly obscured by the deep crimson streaks.
Former Coroner Ron had never visited the Cromwell murder scene and by the time he’d regained consciousness following the event that exploded his every conscious thought and pre-existing worldview, the bungalow had been processed and scrubbed. But he had read the report and glanced over the black and white glossies. He knew what to expect. What he didn’t anticipate was how in returning to the cold and silent final scenes of total strangers’ lives he would feel so very empty.
Ten years chasing ghosts and long-legged beasties had taken Former Coroner Ron away from the realm of cold hard science and into a world where intuition meant more than a fingerprint or a flake of dandruff. He’d learned to take up the chase based on his guts alone.
Turning away from the spattered wall, he looked around the room and saw here where the little girl must have sat enrapt before the television and over there the table where her mother sat her down before a bowl of Spaghetti-O’s. He looked down and back at the kitchen entry and saw faded horizontal pencil strokes running up the wall with tiny notes jotted beside them in mother’s delicate hand:
Connie, age 4 1/2, 3 feet, 8 inches.
Connie, age 5, 3 feet, 9 inches.
Connie, age 6, 4 feet, 1/2 inches.
There was more, but he couldn’t follow the progression further.
He closed his eyes for a moment, and felt for the lives of the two beings that once lived and loved in this ticky-tacky little house. Breathing deeply, he saw them in the sunny back yard, the mother on the lawn chair in denim cut-offs, the daughter squatting in the sandbox, sifting sand into a bright orange plastic bucket.
“Fuck me,” said Former Coroner Ron to no one but the gathered gloom, “I think I went and grew myself a soul.”
He opened his eyes once more and took in the bloody scene, cocking his head at the silent outlines on the floor, then rotating his view to the great swaths of crimson. There was a strange precision to each of the killer’s gestures. Field splatter analysis was not his forte. He’d dabbled in it a little bit as a med student, but following his rookie years, lab work became more his wheelhouse. But then Coroner Ron was still Coroner Ron, and he did do his homework.
Former Coroner Ron shuffled closer to the wall, running his Maglite over the dried streaks and runnels. Poised like an archaeologist surveying a cave painting, the image of this particular artisan began to take shape in his mind. He tilted his head left and right. He let his eyes dance over the large coupling of stains. He turned, back to the wall, and scanned the floor searching for where the killer stood. He lifted his empty right hand and gestured up and over his head, torqueing himself at the waist in an effort to mime his way through the assailant’s moves.
That the killer was squat and low to the ground was made evident by the spatter pattern that began just above baseboard. Oddly, the blood had traveled up the wall with great force, reaching all the way to the stucco ceiling as though guided by the killer’s hand rather than flung from an instrument.
“Now that can’t be right,” Former Coroner Ron mumbled to himself.
The voice from behind Former Coroner Ron struck him like a cross-bolt before the flashlight beam turned his world to white. “Sir, I need you to drop the flashlight and put your hands atop your head.”
Former Coroner Ron heard his Maglite drop and bounce on the carpet. While one kept him blinded by the flashlight glare, the second police officer pushed Former Coroner Ron to the blood-encrusted floor, twisting his arms behind his back and snapping his wrists into a pair of very cold, very sharp-edged handcuffs. While the other began the Miranda Rights sing-song, Former Coroner Ron felt his face pressed into the carpet and tried not to breathe in too deeply the saturated fibers.
In the darkened backyard, the rain-pocked sandbox suddenly found itself impressed by the indentations of two feet, each made of four splayed toes. A squat and hunkered outline appeared and began to solidify, its form filling in whorls like milk pervading an empty fish tank. The Razor Baby watched, silent, as two of Wawautosa’s finest led Former Coroner Ron from the crime scene to the waiting squad car.