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These Truths

 

These Truths

By: R.M. Haig

 

 

 

© R.M. Haig 2017

Published by: Valhalla Earthrise

 

 

 

Dedication:

For my wife, Amanda

And my son, Aidyn

For standing by my side when

double indemnity made

perfect sense to me

& Brandon Messerschmidt,

without whom none of

this would’ve been possible

 

 

 

Authors Note:

Since there has been some confusion on

the origin, nationality and pronunciation

of the Giguére, the last name of our

protagonist, I feel it necessary to clarify.

Giguére, pronounced Zhig-gair, is a largely

French Canadian surname, and our

friend Jacob is of French Canadian

descent.

 

 

 

“Tonight, we run.

We’ll hide in the dark

When the moon steals the light

From the dying sun.

Oh, run.

It’s a better thing

Than we have ever done”

-Dio

 

 

“You don’t know my mind,

You don’t know my kind.

Dark necessities are part of my design”

-The Red Hot Chili Peppers

 

 

“There’s no such thing as nothing.

There’s no such thing as nothing at all.

There’s no such thing as nothing.

But my finger’s on the trigger,

And I’ll turn off the world”

-Chris Cornell

 

 

Before…

In The Depths Of Booger Woods

 

 

August 12th. 1991. 2:00PM

Burlwood, Indiana

 

“Are you ready, Chucky?” Darkwing asked.

Chucky wasn’t ready… he was scared, just like he had been every other time the boys pressured him into playing manhunt in Booger Woods. It was dark in there, and Chucky didn’t like the dark.

“I dunno guys,” he objected, his voice shaking. A red plastic flashlight slipped forward in the sweaty palm of his tightly clenched hand, forcing him to loosen his grasp enough to adjust his hold on it.

What if he dropped it while they were in there? What would he do then?

The midday sun was high, bearing down on them with its fiery rage like the glowing element of an electric oven overhead as they stood at the mouth of a small patch of wilderness that served as the southern border of Burlwood Meadows; the trailer park in which the three of them lived. The woods weren't very deep -- Route 4 was only a few hundred yards from where they stood on the other side -- but they were untamed and dense.

Once the boys crossed the tangled threshold of vines, the forest’s canopy would choke off most of the light cast down by the fire in the sky, swallowing them up and wrapping them in the suffocating arms of what amounted to, so far as Chucky was concerned, nearly total darkness. It didn’t seem that bad to the other boys, but when the wind was blowing and the greenish-black shadows of leaves danced around him, Chucky felt there was no darker place in all of the world.

If he dropped the flashlight, he wouldn’t be able to see the monsters that lived in there coming if they snuck up on him. The monsters were in there; that he was sure of. He didn’t know which monsters, but he knew there was at least one -- and probably more -- that called Booger Woods home.

Perhaps it was a mummy, or a wolfman. Maybe a zombie, or a murderous scarecrow that had escaped the post to which it had been lashed. Scarier yet (if that were possible) would be if it was that damned clown that lived in the storm drain… the one he had seen in the TV movie his mother insisted on watching last winter… the one that eats children. What was that clown’s name?

Pennywise… that was it.

Pennywise terrified Chucky, especially when his teeth somehow changed from what looked like normal ones into rotten fangs. Fangs that seemed specifically designed for chewing on the flesh and bone of little boys, like him.

Chucky figured it was Pennywise that had killed little Gary Duncan last year, even though Momma said that was impossible. The movie had aired just a week before the police found Gary in the woods behind the horse track, just a mile east up Route 4. The news said he had been taken by a kidnapper, but Chucky knew that wasn’t the case. That was just what they told everybody so people wouldn’t be scared that Pennywise had come to Burlwood after the boys in the show had chased him away from Derry.

That’s Tim Curry,” Momma said between sips of her cocktail. She tried to tell him that Tim Curry was an actor who had been in another movie called Rocky Whore Picture Show or something like that. The fangs were fake, she said, and the clown suit was just an outfit. Some people (including Chucky) were afraid of clowns, and they would get a cheap thrill out of being scared by Tim Curry pretending to be a monster. It was silly, and Chucky was silly for believing it was real.

Still, he knew Pennywise was out there; waiting for some little boy or girl to come along so that he could eat them up like The Big Bad Wolf had eaten up Little Red Riding Hood. And where had that wolf caught her? In the woods… possibly right there in Booger Woods, right behind their very own trailer park.

Darkwing and Launchpad thought Chucky was silly for believing in monsters, too. They were only nine, though... so what did they know? At thirteen, Chucky knew better than to believe everything a grownup said -- especially if that grownup had been drinking cocktails, like Momma was when she tried to convince him that Pennywise and the boys who fought him were all make-believe.

Sesame Street was make-believe, she said, because birds don’t get as big as people and can’t talk. Star Trek was make believe, because there’s no such thing as a Klingon or a transporter room. Even Darkwing Duck (his favorite show) was make-believe because the characters are all cartoons; just made of drawings. In fact, most of the scary things he saw on television, in movies or in comic books were make-believe. Make-believe things only existed in someone’s imagination and, therefore, couldn’t hurt him.

What was left of Gary Duncan in the woods behind the race track wasn’t make-believe, though, despite the fact that he had heard about it from the television news. Chucky knew it wasn’t, because he had seen the flashing lights of police cars all the way from his bedroom window, and the track was a mile up the road; that’s how many cars there were. They don’t send that many police cars to a place for make-believe, they only send them when there’s something very wrong. Gary Duncan himself certainly hadn’t been make-believe, Chucky had seen him at school before he went missing and then turned up in those woods. He had been happy, healthy, alive and all put together… things that he wasn’t anymore.

“Whoever it was that put him in those woods must’ve been some kind of monster,” Momma said when they heard about it on the news. “Whoever it was must’ve been almost purely evil…” like Pennywise.

Pennywise wasn’t a bird as big as a person, nor was he a Klingon, nor did he travel by transporter, and he certainly wasn't made of drawings. He was a clown, and clowns were real -- Chucky had seen some of them when the circus came to town. Pennywise wasn't like them, though... he was a monster. It was a monster, and it was just as real as Gary Duncan had been… Chucky knew it was.

“Come on, Chucky!” Launchpad snapped. “Stop being such a pussy!”

“Shut up, Launchpad!” Chucky whined, flipping the flashlight to his left hand so he could wipe his clammy palm on his shorts.

“I told you not to call me that, retard!”

“Hey!” Darkwing barked, jumping to his defense. “Don’t you call him that either!”

“Don’t argue, guys! Please!” Chucky begged.

Chucky hated it when Darkwing and Launchpad argued. He hated when his parents did it, too, back before Papa moved home to Tennessee. Arguing was loud and mean, and those things were almost as scary as monsters to him.

Usually, when Momma and Papa had fought, it was about whether or not Momma needed any more cocktails that day. Darkwing and Launchpad didn’t fight as often as his parents had, but when they did, it was usually about him. That made him feel bad.

Launchpad was always saying that Chucky was stupid, or an idiot, or -- if he got really mad -- that he was retarded. Darkwing didn’t like for him to say those things, and had told him so. Those were bad things to call someone, especially when those things weren’t true.

Chucky wasn’t retarded; he was just special. Momma said so -- even when she hadn't had any cocktails yet -- so he knew that it was true. Papa used to say that it was all of the cocktails Momma drank while she was pregnant that had made him so special. This seemed like it should've been a good thing to Chucky... that Momma had done something to make him special, like Darkwing Duck is special (the cartoon, not his friend -- though he thought his friend was pretty special, too), while most of the other kids in the world were just normal. For some reason, though, it made Momma cry every time Papa said it.

That didn’t make any sense… why would she be sad that her boy was special? Drake-El and the lady duck, whose name Chucky had never heard, didn’t cry when they thought about their son being special. Why should his Momma cry when she thought about him being special? He didn’t know… but he wished one of his special powers would kick in and make him as brave as the other boys, he needed to find a way to be brave now.

"That's not cool, though, Chucky," Darkwing objected. "Calling him Launchpad isn't mean -- calling you that is!”

“Calling me Launchpad is mean!" Launchpad replied. "Launchpad McQuack is stupid... I'm not stupid! If anyone should be called Launchpad, it's him -- because he's the one that's stupid! That's why we're standing here instead of playing manhunt, because he's stupid and scared to go in the woods!"

“I’m not scared!” Chucky lied. “I’m just deciding which way I’m gonna go!”

“Well then decide, and let’s go!”

Of course, there was only one way that Chucky would even consider going once inside Booger Woods. There was a natural path that broke diagonally to the left from where they stood which would lead him, eventually, to a small vernal pond. He knew because, when he was younger, he and his mother would sometimes go there to have a picnic. Afterwards, she would watch him swim in the water there. It wasn’t swimming, really, because the pond was only about two feet deep, and even that was only in the spring. Sometimes there would be no water at all in the pond, Momma said it depended on how rainy it had been lately.

He was never scared of the woods back then, but that was because Momma was with him and he was too young to appreciate the true dangers that monsters represented. It was also before Pennywise came to Burlwood and did what he did with Gary Duncan’s parts.

Plus, back then, he and Momma just called it the woods. It had been Darkwing and Launchpad that christened it Booger Woods, after a scary place they heard about in a Charlie Daniels song. Chucky didn’t like that, because according to the song there were [_ things that crawl, things that fly, things that creep around on the ground -- and they say the ghost of Lucius Clay gets up and he walks around _]. Chucky didn’t like to go to places where ghosts were known to get up and walk around. Especially when the place was so dark that a ghost, or Pennywise, could be hiding anywhere… just waiting to snatch him up and tear him to little pieces.

“Okay,” Chucky finally conceded, realizing that his friends would only argue more if he told them he didn’t want to play manhunt anymore. Moving the flashlight back to his right hand and pushing the switch forward to turn it on, he took a deep breath and prepared to run. “I guess I’m ready…”

“Okay,” Darkwing declared. “Remember, we get a full minute this time so we have a chance to find a really good spot… that’s sixty seconds.”

“I know how many seconds a minute is,” Launchpad said, “I’m not the one that’s stupid.”

Darkwing didn’t acknowledge the comment this time, and Chucky was glad. His mind was already racing about the things that could be waiting for him in the cool shade beneath the trees of Booger Woods. He didn’t want to have to deal with their arguing again.

“Okay, then. Ready,” Darkwing began. Chucky nodded to him, taking another deep breath. “Set… go!”

One, two, three,” Launchpad began, counting way faster than real time. That wasn’t fair, but there wouldn’t be time to get upset about it.

At three, Darkwing sprung forward and started hauling balls into the forest. Chucky let out a yelp with that big breath he had taken and forced his shaky legs across the threshold of brush -- into the darkness of Booger Woods. He followed the path, his heart pounding like a kick-drum in his chest as shadows raced by, each of them looking like a monster in the periphery of his vision. To his horror, Darkwing darted to the right -- off the path, and into the wild.

Alone, now, each step he took propelled him deeper and deeper into the horrific place. With every inch, he moved further and further away from Darkwing… away from Launchpad… away from Momma, and away from the safety of his house, where he wished he could be. He wanted to stop and race back, but his body was on auto-pilot, now, running at full bore in desperate strides that he wouldn’t be able to control until he was clear of the woods altogether. He wouldn’t be safe until he broke free of the shadows and ended up on Route 4, just a mile from where the police had found Gary Duncan… Gary Duncan, who had been all chopped up and spread around in the woods by the old horse track.

Distantly, Chucky heard Launchpad counting. He was at nineteen, now, though it certainly hadn’t been that many real seconds.

The fact that he was alone started to sink in, and he was scared -- so scared that he started to scream the biggest scream he could ever imagine making. He screamed so loud that it hurt to do it; hurt his throat, hurt his ears, hurt his chest and the lungs inside. It sounded ridiculous; a girlish wail in soprano with a fine vibrato brought on by the bouncing of his stomach with each hurried step. Interspersed with it was the manic rustling of last year's leaves, crunching under foot as he ran. That sound seemed like snarling to him... the snarling of hell-hounds hot on his trail, and closing.

In his mind, he saw all of the monsters he had feared were there; the zombies, the vampires, the werewolves, the mummies, the ghouls and the ghosts… Lucius Clay, up and walking around. Then, there was that goddamned clown… Pennywise… showing its awful teeth and reaching for him with its white-cotton-gloves. Gloves that were stained with the blood of little Gary Duncan… Gary Duncan, whom it had torn to shreds and left in little piles in the woods behind the horse track just a mile up the road.

Stop screaming, Chucky!” Darkwing ordered from somewhere off to the right. “He’ll be able to find you just by following the noise!

Chucky didn't care, he wanted Launchpad to be able to find him; wanted this stupid game to be over so they could go far, far away from this place and play something less scary. Basketball, baseball, football or tag -- anything but manhunt, and anywhere but Booger Woods. Launchpad was at forty, soon the manhunt would be on and this game would be closer to being over.

Still screaming, Chucky blew passed the place where the pond used to be. It was dry, now, in the heat of this rainless summer, save for a patch of muddiness that felt like quicksand underfoot. Thinking it would swallow him, he ran harder, even though it felt like his lungs were going to explode. Eventually, his screaming stopped because he simply could not spare the air for it to continue. He coughed and wheezed, his cardiovascular system not accustomed to such sustained periods of effort and panic.

Before long, the path dissolved around him and he was charging through a maze of brush and vines, shoving stray branches out of his path as he zig-zagged around trees and ducked under hanging brambles. Still, he ran, charging forward without a thought or plan as to where he might be going, certain that the monsters were about to catch him and tear him limb from limb. They would take off his arms, split his legs at the knees, separate his waist from his torso and saw off his head -- just like they had done to poor little Gary Duncan. Gary Duncan, whose parts had been all together and alive when Chucky had seen him at school, but were now all taken apart and dead... dead, like Chucky would be when Pennywise caught him.

60!” Launchpad’s voice emphasized in an echo, barely audible now through the thick blanket of forest between them. “The manhunt is on!

Chucky wondered where Darkwing was… wondered where he was, and how long it was going to take for Launchpad to find him. His run had slowed to a jog, his body unable to maintain its frenzied flight thanks to the steady diet of Coca-Cola and Twinkies he had forced upon it in days prior, when he had no notion that he would have to flee through the wilds for his life this afternoon.

It was just as he was realizing that he couldn’t keep up this running for much longer that Pennywise finally got him! He felt the clown’s arm wedge between his legs; his right foot catching it near the elbow as it came up to take another stride, the wrist slapping against the back of his left ankle, tripping him up. His upper-body, captive to the inescapable forces of inertia, careened forward as his tangled legs folded underneath him. The Earth seemed to race up to meet his face, slapping him hard with its leafy palm as he crashed and slid several feet through the burs and twigs.

Finally grinding to a stop in a crumpled heap, he became aware that he had lost hold of his flashlight. A bolt of pain in his right wrist accompanied the realization, prompting him to grab it and squeeze it tightly. A tingly and warm sensation came over it, masking an undercurrent of agony that froze him in place on the ground.

D-W!” He bellowed, gasping and writhing. “Help me, please!

No one came immediately, and Chucky worried that Pennywise would have him eaten up before they got to where he lay. He pictured the clown looming in the distance, blood dripping from its fangs like molten rubies as it approached. The sound of its footfalls sent chills through his body, each chill traveling a circuit that led to his throbbing wrist where they all collected and climaxed in pulsating explosions of unbearable pain.

Time seemed to drag out and stretch into infinity, the clown probably taking pleasure in seeing him lay there in mortal terror and pain… waiting for it to come and rip his cock off, just like it had done to Gary Duncan. How long would it let him live? Where would it spread his parts when it was eventually through with him? Tears streamed down his face as he started to sob in fear and pain for what felt like forever before --

Gotcha!” it bragged, in a voice that sounded much like Launchpad’s. Chucky summoned the courage to look up to the sound, squeezing his wrist as tightly as he had squeezed the red plastic flashlight before.

Instead of Pennywise, he saw Launchpad’s small and wiry frame… frozen in place near a tree. He was just standing there, silent, his face showing the same terror that Chucky felt. He was paying no mind to Chucky’s crying, staring down at something on the ground. It was something that frightened him, and it was right there… just a few feet away.

Silently, Darkwing emerged from the woods behind him. He stepped slowly and cautiously, also staring toward the thing -- whatever it was. He stopped and lingered, his eyes wide and unblinking, his mouth hanging open in a way that only added to Chucky's sense of foreboding. Bending at the waist, he reached out and grabbed hold of the thing half-buried in the brush and leaves. Chucky's heart was booming, now, even louder than before, in a deafening and uneven rhythm. It was so loud that he could hear nothing else as Darkwing lifted the thing from the ground and held it in the waving rays of light breaking through the dense forest canopy.

There, in the depths of Booger Woods, stood the leader of their group… clutching in his hand a small, pale and bloodied arm.

 

ONE

 

 

September 8th, 2016. 1:00PM

Indianapolis, Indiana

 

 

LeTonya Hughes sighed and shook her head as the short arm of the Jaeger-Lecoultre Atmos clock on her desk swung into the territory beyond the “I”. Her husband was running late, and that meant more work for her… as per usual.

When he eventually sauntered his portly frame through the door and into the lobby of his office, he would claim that his case was called last -- or that the judge was long-winded, or that there was bad traffic, or some other damned thing. She wouldn’t believe anything he said, but she would have to accept whichever he claimed as his excuse this time, because it really didn’t matter anyway.

All of the extra work it would mean (for her) would have to be done regardless of what had detained him. Whether the excuse he invoked was valid (and it generally wasn’t) or whether he had just decided that life should operate on his time, at his whim, she would just have to smile and do the work… as per usual.

Miraculously, though, somehow -- in the face of what he would claim were the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune -- he would have found the time to waltz his big black-ass into the deli on 5th and Main to pick up a couple of Reubens, which he would be carrying with him in a greasy paper sack. She would remind him that he's supposed to be on a diet, per his doctor’s orders, and he would smile and admit that he did need to be on one, but it would have to start tomorrow, as he had already purchased the sandwiches. Waste not, want not, he would say. Then, in an attempt to deflect her attention, he would stop to admire the seven-thousand-dollar clock on her desk (which she thought was garish, by the way) and marvel at the fact that it required no winding or electricity to operate.

Thinking only about himself and how much time he could devote to those sandwiches, he would ask her what his afternoon looked like. As she rattled off all of his appointments -- appointments that he himself had scheduled -- he would act like she must be crazy for having so terribly overbooked his day.

At his request, she would push back all of the appointments scheduled before two-thirty -- cancelling those that couldn't be adjusted -- and the day that had been slated to end at five o'clock would stretch on until at least seven or eight… as per usual.

On most days, that was fine… this was, after all, his practice; his business. It put good food on the table, nice clothes on the children’s backs and that god-awful looking Atmos paperweight on the rich mahogany desk at which she sat.

On those days, though, they didn’t have an invitation to what promised to be the most incredible, sensational, absolutely fabulous dinner party that Indiana had ever seen at eight o'clock. On those days, there was no plan to visit the exclusive estate of Forrest and Chantel Woodard -- a grown-up's Neverland.

LeTonya had met Chantel at the nail salon (where she went every week, despite her husband’s never ending chagrin at the mere suggestion that she might spend a whole fifty-bucks on something so trivial), where the two commiserated for the better part of an afternoon on the inherent suffering of the working lawyer’s wife. They proved to be soul-sisters; kindred spirits who were completing each-other's sentences within minutes of meeting and swapping stories that were all too familiar to both of them. Now, they met regularly just to talk -- and talk they did.

The stories Chantel told were much more interesting than those that LeTonya had, however, because Forrest Woodard worked in entertainment law. As a result, Chantel could drop the names of NFL, NBA and R&B music personalities into her anecdotes with an ease that left LeTonya seeing stars.

The party this evening was to celebrate something big -- maybe it was the couple's anniversary, or Forrest's birthday, or some holiday that only the super-rich know about -- she couldn't remember, she had been so excited about it that the occasion had slipped her mind. Whatever it was, the date had something to do with it because it was a Thursday, and who the hell has a massive dinner shindig on a Thursday? Whatever it was, it was gonna be big. So big, in fact, that a whole roster of the who’s who in the entertainment industry was going to be there -- including Diana F’ing Ross who was in town to perform a show this weekend!

Well Touch Me in the Morning, It’s My Turn Love Child, and Ain’t No Mountain High Enough ‘cuz I’m Coming Out my Endless Love! The Hughes’ weren’t going to miss this party, no sir! They were going to roll up on that big house at eight o’clock sharp, no matter what excuse Donnell tried to cook up to get out of it. Come Hell or high water, LeTonya Hughes was gonna meet Miss Ross and sip Cristal from diamond-studded Calleija flutes before the sun went down this night!

She was gonna do the Electric Slide side-by-side with Paul George and Kobe Bryant, rub elbows with that gorgeous corn-fed white boy Eli Manning and sing Take Me To The River with R Kelly. She was gonna eat crab, fresh fruit, prime rib and the finest collard greens that money can by until she felt like she might burst at the seams. It would be her reward for all the hard work she put in... dragging Donnell through law school, slaving over a hot stove to build up his rotund physique, and for making all of those goddamned phone calls to adjust his schedule so that he could coast through life on his own timetable -- as per usual.

…and anything he would try to do, or to say, that might make them arrive even a single, solitary second after the hands of his hideous, useless, self-indulgent clock clicked into place over the hour of eight PM? Well… like her coffee mug says, ain’t nobody got time for that!

The office phone rang as she took a sip from the aforementioned mug, the display flashing restricted caller with no number underneath. Little did whomever it was know, today, restricted caller was French for go take a hike, because she wasn’t trying to hear anything but grab your purse, honey, and let’s get on down the road. Restricted Caller would just have to call back later, because LeTonya was already at the party munching on Club crackers piled high with Petrossian Imerial Special Reserve Persicus Caviar and chasing them with pork rinds.

It was probably just another dead-beat criminal calling, anyway. He would say he still couldn’t send a payment towards his overdue balance, which was probably already in collections. If not that, it would be a prospective client… one with bad credit, no collateral and no hope in Hell of ever paying a red cent for the services he sought from her husband. She hated those people… hated that Donnell always took them on, knowing full well that they couldn’t afford a court-appointed public defender who was free, let alone a well-respected homicide lawyer whose wife had aspirations of some day hosting such hedonistic parties as the one they were going to attend this evening.

How would they ever get the keys to that ten-million dollar mansion on the lake if he kept taking cases that cost hundreds of hours of work and paid in no more than a modest stipend of twenty or forty dollars a month? Shit, cases like that were gonna buy them a one-way ticket back to the trailer park her husband had grown up in… and ain’t nobody got time for that for sure. She was doing the two of them a favor by not answering that phone, Donnell just didn’t know it.

It was almost one-thirty according to that shitty clock (which she swore was slow, sometimes) before the door to the hallway finally swung open and all five feet, nine inches of her husband’s three-hundred pounds marched in. His bald head was glistening with sweat, which he promptly wiped away with a handkerchief retrieved from a pocket inside his suit coat. If he had an inhaler in there, he would’ve taken a puff at that, too, because the walk in had obviously been an effort based on his labored breathing. He seemed to be making a show of putting the hanky back where it came from, as though to seek her approval of the fact that the hand not carrying his attaché case was otherwise empty.

“Mmmm hm,” she declared matter-of-factly. “That’s all well and good, but there’s a trail of Thousand Island running down each side of your jacket -- so I know you already ate at least two of those sandwiches!”

The man stopped where he stood, setting down his briefcase and smiling an I’m busted smile. "Wow," he said, pointing to her desk. "Isn't that an Atmos clock? The kind that runs on atmoshperic pressure -- no batteries, no plug? Gee, that clock is out of sight, where’d you get it?”

“You’re running behind… again,” she admonished.

“Yeah,” he sighed. “The judge spent all morning meeting with somebody in chambers, so my case didn’t even get called until it was almost lunch.”

“Did your client take the plea they offered?”

“What’s that, sweetie?” Donnell asked, moving to the water cooler in the corner.

“The plea-bargain you worked out for him, did he take it?”

“Oh, no,” he explained, filling a paper cup. “He wants to try for an insanity defense.”

She shrugged. “He seemed pretty sane to me when he was in here whining about how he would still be loose if his buddy hadn’t sold him out!”

“Yeah, you know these guys,” he said, taking a sip. “Facing life without parole, any opportunity for a break seems like a good one.”

“Did his mother give you a check for the retainer?”

Oh,” he chirped feigning ignorance, the way he always did. “We didn’t get the retainer from them at consultation?”

Noooo, I told you that this morning, before you left. They claimed they didn’t have it just then, but they were supposed to have it today!”

"Well, I'll just get it from them at the jury selection -- which is set for November 1st, by the way."

“Nine AM?”

“You know it, sugar!” he smiled, winking at her as he pitched his cup and retrieved his attaché.

She swirled the mouse around on her desk to wake up her computer, then opened his calendar to make an entry -- and to get a look at which appointments she would have to adjust due to his having spent so much time wolfing down seven-dollar sandwiches that his blood-pressure couldn't afford.

“What’s the rest of my day look like?” he asked, right on cue.

"Well," she replied, scrolling through the listings. "You've got a consultation at -- now, but apparently they’re not coming since I don’t see them around here anywhere… a teleconference with Wilmer Laporta at two, a consultation at two-thirty and another at three, then depositions in the Omar Timlin case down at county at four, four-thirty and five.”

Timlin, Timlin,” he muttered in a feeble attempt to jog his memory.

“He’s the one that beat his mother to death with a garden spade.”

Donnell winced, raising his eyebrows and cocking his head to the side. “Allegedly beat his mother to death with a garden spade,” he corrected her.

Right,” she conceded, rolling her eyes. “Could be he used a full-size shovel.”

Donnell frowned, both at her response and at the schedule she had laid out for him. “See if you can reschedule those consultations, Wilmer and I need to talk about the witnesses he wants to call, and I don’t know how long it’s going to take. Maybe we can push those depositions back to start at four-thirty, just in case.”

Nuh-uh,” she exclaimed, knowing just what this would lead to. “No, no, no -- not today, no sir!". Her husband's face was overcome with surprise at her outburst, which only angered her further. "You know we need to be across town by eight, and we need time to get dressed! With traffic the way it’s been, that means we need to be leaving here by six o’clock, no later!”

“Across town by eight? What’s at eight?”

LeTonya threw up her palm (talk to the hand) in frustration. “Donnell,” she began, trying to keep cool. “You know we've got that dinner party tonight --"

Whoa, he tried to calm her, raising his own hand as though to signal her to stop and waiving it towards the ground in a futile effort to get her to step it down. It was too late, he had already started her going.

“…and we’re gonna get there right—on—time!”

Okay,“ he tried again.

“Now I don’t wanna hear no guff, no bull, no but h[_ oneys, no -- _]” she continued, counting her charges out on her fingers.

Okay!“—

“…excuses, no nonsense, no flak out of your mouth! You know how important this is to me, and I’m not gonna be late on account of your foolery!”

Okay, honey,” he continued once she’d stopped, still waiving like he was trying to cool her jets with his fanning. “Just calm right down, forget I said anything, and e-mail me the information for the telecon and I promise we'll get there right on time -- okay?

She said nothing; just glared at him. He took the cue, lowering his hand one last time and inching his way towards his office carefully, cautiously… never breaking eye-contact with her in case this was the time she decided to jump him. Once he crossed the threshold, he closed the door behind him and collapsed against it. Relieved at having escaped, he drew the handkerchief again and dabbed it on his brow.

Who the hell has a dinner party on a Thursday?” he wondered, reasonably.

Taking no chances, he flipped the lock on the doorknob up and jiggled the handle to be sure it was secure. Convinced he was safe, for the moment, he set his briefcase on his desk and melted into his plush leather computer chair.

Tapping the space bar lit his monitor, revealing his crowded and unorganized desktop. He scanned the icons for the beige one marked Outlook and double-clicked to open his mail-box. There were many bold entries that indicated new messages he needed to sift through before he had to dial into the telecon.

Spinning the wheel of his mouse, he tried to triage those that needed his immediate attention and those that he could try to read while Wilmer was rambling about why he felt it was important to put his former supervisor on the stand as a character witness for him. It wouldn’t matter much anyway, Wilmer was guilty as sin, but the detectives working his case had botched it. A t not crossed here, an i not dotted there, leading a witness and an unlawful search and seizure -- nothing too terribly out of the ordinary, but enough. Their mistakes would prove fatal to the prosecution, it was a shoe-in. Wilmer would walk even if they didn’t call anyone to the stand, it was all just window-dressing in the grand scheme of things.

A win on a technicality wasn't necessarily ideal in Donnell's eyes, but he would take it... had taken it on several occasions before. To him, such things were simply the inevitable hallmarks of the justice system as it is designed. All else being equal, the burden of proving guilt was supposed to rest squarely on the shoulders of the district attorney and the state -- and there was a clearly defined set of rules under which they were expected to carry out that duty.

Perhaps there would be greater justice in a society that shoots first and asks questions later; a world that would do away with the pseudo-wins he had enjoyed so many of throughout his career. In a society such as that, though, sans due process, the blood of the innocent and the guilty alike would be on the hands of every citizen -- and they would have to be comfortable with the blood's existence. In the out, damned spot world that men have built, however, the gloves of those charged with prosecuting the accused must be squeaky clean and beyond reproach.

As it happened, in the case of Wilmer Laporta, that simply wasn't how it had gone. As a result, a killer would go free... but perhaps, thanks to the diligence of Donnell and attorneys like him in making sure the process was followed just as it was designed, the next guy -- who was truly innocent -- would be free of the shackles that a persecutory justice system would otherwise place him in. Clinging to that notion allowed him to sleep at night... he hoped it wasn't contrived.

When it came to the e-mail, he could tell right away that there wasn’t much of substance to see in his box. There was one message, though, buried deep among the clutter, that caught his attention; sitting wedged between spam that warned it was the last day for him to save up to eighty-percent on Viagra and a message from his mother. The subject line read URGENT: Donnell please call, and an L in a blue circle appeared next to text that said the message was from Louis.

Louie Rambo?” he wondered aloud, clicking to open the message. When a window expanded to show the entirety of the text, he saw that his feeling had been correct. At the bottom, the message had been signed Deputy Louis Rambo, Elsmere CPD, and it was not the sort of wordy legal mumbo-jumbo communique he typically found in his inbox.

DONNELL, it read in all caps. I THOUGHT YOU SHOULD SEE THIS. I TRIED TO CALL JAKE BUT HIS BUSINESS NUMBER IS DISCONNECTED. MAYBE YOU HAVE HIS PERSONAL CELL? PLEASE CALL ASAP.

Below the text was a blue hyper-link, referencing the Elsmere Monitor -- a newspaper that served the county of his hometown. He clicked it, Firefox opening in response and splashing an article across his screen. At the top was a headline in bold, dramatic type declaring Police make arrest in murder of local boy; claim correlation with “Butcher Of Burlwood” killings unlikely.

“Ho-ly shit,” he mumbled to himself, a flood of memories rushing through his mind at the sight of a phrase he hadn’t considered in nearly twenty years. Shaking off his momentary distraction, he began to read the article, which had been posted the day before.

Elsmere County Sheriff Ronald Boudreaux announced yesterday that his office had served a warrant for the arrest of a suspect in the murder of William Marsh, 9, of Burlwood. Marsh was last seen on July 24th, and his dismembered remains were discovered floating in a pond behind the Burlwood Meadows trailer park on the 26th.

[_ The suspect, Charles Murphy, 38, also of Burlwood -- _]

“Chucky?” Donnell gasped, continuing.

was arrested at his home in Burlwood Meadows yesterday morning in the culmination of an investigation that Boudreaux says has been his department’s “number one priority” since the remains were discovered.

The murder touched a raw nerve in the small town of Burlwood, rekindling the fear that gripped residents in the period between 1990 & 1994, when a string of grisly murders were committed by a killer dubbed “The Butcher Of Burlwood”. All of “The Butcher’s” victims were between the ages of 8 & 12, and their remains similarly dismembered.

In a special address, Boudreaux acted to assuage fears that “The Butcher” has resurfaced to continue his bloody reign by stressing his belief that this was a one-off crime not connected in any way to those of the past. Murphy is being held at the Elsmere County jail and is expected to be arraigned on charges of 1st degree murder, kidnapping, torture and mutilation of a corpse within the next several days.

Sheriff Boudreaux also renewed his call for anyone with information pertaining to the case to report it to either his office or to crime-stoppers, no matter how insignificant the details of that information may seem.

Barely believing what he read, Donnell went through it all again… trying to absorb and process the words that seemed so entirely surreal and abstract to him. Reaching for his phone with his eyes still glued to the screen, he knocked the handset from its cradle. Yanking at it blindly to untangle the cord, he minimized Firefox and scanned the original e-mail for Louie’s number.

Before he could dial it, though, he pressed the Intercom – Lobby button and made a pre-requisite declaration. “[_ LeTonya -- clear my schedule. _]”

 

TWO

 

 

September 8th, 2016. 2:30PM

Detroit, Michigan

 

Three hundred miles away, Jacob Giguére took a long drag on his cigarette. The glowing ember was perilously close to his finger, which could feel its heat as his lungs felt the Newport cool that they craved. It’s the menthol, he thought, not the nicotine, to which he was addicted. This was probably a ridiculous notion, and he knew it… but it seemed more plausible than anything else in his life at that moment, so he clung to it.

The furious orange of the smoldering tobacco caught his attention, so he gazed into it after he drew the filter away from his mouth. The lambency fascinated him. In it, he saw chaos, rage, insanity and animosity… all were very familiar to him. He felt the fervor and bridled torment of the flame desperately seeking birth, bound in chains and irons from which it could not possibly hope to escape without some foreign intervention. He understood its longing for birth, its begging for some loosely wadded paper on which to feed or for a sip of some invigorating accelerant to set it off… anything to quiet its insatiable thirst; to set it free and further it along in its epic quest for ruin and for destruction.

There would be no relief for the fire this day, though, and none for him, either. It would die a slow and lonely death, fading out with no pomp and no circumstance atop a pile of recently deceased comrades on a filthy slab of concrete just outside of his car. Perhaps it would shine its brightest in the moment before it disappeared forever; or perhaps that honor is reserved solely, in antithesis, for the cold and damning power of the dark before the dawn. Would he fade so uneventfully, too?

Fearing the loss of himself to its depths and feeling the sting of searing flesh upon his fingers, he dropped it lazily out the slightly lowered window of his Chevrolet sedan. It fell with little inspiration, and was thus cast out of his life forever… cast out, as he had been from the world at large.

With nothing on which to dwell, now, his mind resumed its frenzied churning… dark thoughts pulsing in fits and starts that were jarring and disconcerting. Feelings and emotions cycled without pattern or definition… swirling, swirling, swirling, in confusion and discord. Over clouds of black and shades of gray he teetered, his psyche breaking down in cascading faults and failures like tepid plumes of water spilling over the thunderous crest of mighty Niagara. Hopes that had long since turned to ash stirred and coalesced, cremains of dreams and broken promises bequeathed to none and promised to all.

Through the cold and musty void spun those words; those spears of pride and honor that refused to settle with the dust. Those two words that twirled, sparkled and pierced the veil. Sinister and cruel, they stalked him in the dusk of all he was like demons out for blood… stalked and caught him now, when life had forced him to his knees, and preached to him a dark parable of rest and resignation. They called to him from the abyss, from the tomb of what could be and what had been, in tongues of fire billowing smoke. Silent and vociferous in thunder and quiescence… immortal and surcease in triumph and in tragedy…

Double indemnity, they cried… the aphasic scream of sorrow… the sullied virgin of virtue… the rusted glitter on the gold… double indemnity

The rain sounds nice on the windshield and double indemnity… strangers wandering by and double indemnity… the reels of a slot machine spinning on his phone and double indemnity… seven, seven, seven and double indemnity… arbeit macht frei and double indemnity… the power of Christ compels you and double indemnity… the goddamned bitch and the papers and double indemnity in the darkness and fire burns double indemnity the fucking whore and what an excellent day for double indemnity I can’t believe it’s real in double never wanted this to happen indemnity smell gin and piss with double indemnity watch for the sounds moving through double an albatross, by God indemnity hate slow moving in motion double crutch like wasted away indemnity filing island in the woods double indemnity in the trunk with -- fuck.

Have to stop… have to focus.

He ran his fingers through his greasy hair, feeling the filth in it -- smelling the smoke in it. Smoke, menthol and he wanted another smoke. He took one from his pack, which was running low, and lit it before the last one had a chance to burn out. Looking at his phone, above the spinning reels, he noted the time... two-thirty PM... a half hour, he'd been awake, now, double indemnity… a half hour spent treading water on the cusp of madness.

Where the fuck was he? Looking around, he saw nothing that he recognized. He had woken up sprawled out in his fully reclined driver's seat -- at least it was his car, double indemnity -- his head pounding, his eyes burning.

In a momentary lapse of judgement, he made the mistake of looking at himself in the vanity mirror. The man he saw in it looked pathetic; pale, slimy and unshaven. Inflamed and irritated blood vessels in his eyes confirmed his suspicions that he had been drinking last night. Based on how he felt, he had drank a lot… he was dizzy and nauseous still, and there was an odor wafting through the window that he was quite certain must be coming from a pile of vomit on the concrete where his cigarette butts were stacking.

Apparently, he had passed out with his keys in the ingnition and the car running. Perhaps he had the intention of driving away in a drunken stupor… thank the gods, he hadn’t done that… at least he hadn’t done that.

Upon waking, he had quickly turned the vehicle off and pulled the back seat forward, stashing the keys and other items that would spell trouble if a police officer happened by in the trunk. Then, he moved into the passenger seat and double indemnity. Still, he was worried that a cop would happen by… was surprised that one hadn’t already while he was sleeping.

While he wasn’t sure exactly where he was, it was quite obvious that he was in the parking lot of a seedy-looking dive bar, probably the one in which he had spent the prior night. Vaguely, he could recall loud country music and rock… could taste the pungent flavors of Jaegerbombs and Martinis… could smell gin, in fact, though this was a mystery because he hated gin with a passion. Slowly, though, double indemnity, details started coming back to him.

There had been a woman… a chubby woman, no less. She was drinking gin and -- shit, had he been sucking face with her? He wiped his mouth and came back with rouge on the back of his hand... that's why he tasted gin, shit. That's why his shirt was all disheveled and half-unbuttoned, too, the skank had run her hands all over him.

Suddenly, he wanted a shower. How long had it been since he’d had one, he wondered? Two days? Three? Four?

That’s right , he thought -- she jammed her hand up my shirt and felt my gun in the shoulder holster. Did she jam it down my pants as well? She thought I was a cop... a very drunk and sloppy cop, I guess, and she bailed out and ran. Maybe because the baggie belonged to her? Christ, he hoped the baggie had belonged to her. It was on his dash when he came to, empty, save for the powdery white residue that stuck to its sides. Certainly, it was hers... he hadn't fallen so far -- had he?

Either way, the damned thing was in the trunk, now, with his keys and his Beretta 92. He had a permit to carry, of course, and the gun was legal -- but better not to have to explain all of that if a cop came asking why he was loitering around some seedy country-western bar with a firearm while probably still drunk in all the ways that count. If he had the keys on him or in the ignition, that amounted to physical control, and physical control amounts to driving while intoxicated -- even when there's no driving involved. Even with them in the trunk, there could still be questions.

There wouldn't be any questions about the baggie, though, just the popping of a test capsule and a sudden rush of blue before a nice long stay as a guest of the county -- or the city, depending on where exactly he was . All in all, everything added up to gotta get the fuck out of here as soon as possible.

That wasn’t advisable in his condition, though, he would have to wait it out just a bit longer, double indemnity. He was a prisoner to his thoughts until such time as he felt comfortable to drive, and his thoughts were wholly unkind to him, now, as usual.

In an effort to quiet the screaming in his head, he tried to reconstruct the past several days, which were all a blur to him in the hazy afterglow of liquor and God knows what else. He remembered the padlock on his office door… remembered getting the papers… remembered punching a hole in a particularly fragile wall… remembered going to the bank and draining his account, the account of his business not his wife’s… remembered making it rain on some whore with no top on… remembered slamming shots like they were water… remembered wishing it would stop, remembered putting the Beretta in his mouth, remembered pulling back the slide, remembered clicking off the safety, remembered his racing heart and sweat running down his face, remembered… remembered wanting to run away.

The sound of a slamming door jarred him, his heart falling at the thought that it was his imaginary cop finally happening by. It wasn’t, but that made the moment no less sobering. It turned surreal when he realized the face of the man getting out of the car a few spots away was very familiar to him, indeed.

Shit,” he chuckled quietly, “It’s Dan Tripp!”.

He lowered himself in his seat a bit, an attempt to make himself inconspicuous born of habit and of instinct. In another time, he had invoiced Misses Tripp for six hours of surveillance -- many of which were spent melted into his seat with a pair of binoculars to his eyes, waiting for Dan to leave work and travel to a place just like the one at which he sat now. She was sure he was having an affair… coming home late, smelling of cigarettes and booze, spending inordinate amounts of money and generally acting out of character.

Jake had staked out his office, followed him from there to a bar -- where he was going -- but not to meet with any secret concubine of the female predilection. It had been a male colleague, and the conversations he had listened-in on, posing as a fellow patron, were about financial troubles and not illicit sexual desires. They were about the hell that would be paid when Misses Tripp learned of the money they had lost in the market, about divorce born of disappointment instead of infidelity. He had told her about this, as it was what he had been hired to do, and she had gone ghost-white pale with embarrassment and shame before cutting a check against an account with insufficient funds, perhaps to her surprise.

That was long ago, though, and it was obvious that this visit to the local honky-tonk wasn’t related to the vicissitudes of Wall Street. Dan Tripp was nervous, fumbling his keys as he tried to lock his car and looking over his shoulder constantly as he hurried his way into Bottoms Up, a name as rich in double-entendre as the establishment was in vice.

If he had his camera, he would've taken a picture of the man serruptitiously sliding the golden band off his left ring-finger as he marched -- a courtesy to a former client of Giguére Investigative LLC, no charge for this coincidental service. As it happened, though, he didn’t have it with him… and Giguére Investigative was as good as defunct, anyway, so fuck it.

He supposed he could’ve taken a picture with his phone, but the man was inside before this occurred to him. Plus, that would’ve meant exiting out of his slots game, and he was winning for a change. If only he had such luck with the ones that took real money…

The momentary thrill of catching a philanderer in the moments before his pants would be down, literally and figuratively, having passed, Jake realized he wasn’t feeling very much better with the passage of time. How long until he would eventually feel up to driving? Even when he did, where the hell was he gonna go?

What the hell was he gonna do?

What becomes of the broken-hearted?

Where do broken hearts go?

To double indemnity, he imagined… it seemed the last viable option. A sad realization, but one achieved through a logical process of thought and reasoning (depraved though it may be) that satisfied all of the prerequisite conditions and wrapped everything up in a convenient, bite-sized morsel with a pretty little bow and glittery ribbon on top.

[_ Selfless, noble, honorable, charitable, merciful -- _] necessary…

Now there was only to decide where, and to flesh out the background a little bit. Shit, he had that covered pretty well as it was with the apparently wild night that had delivered him to this place… maybe he shouldn’t wait, maybe he should go now -- before his blood-alcohol content dropped any further.

Did his BAC negate double indemnity, though? Fuck, he didn’t know… did anything other than .00 make it gross negligence? That would sure screw the pooch… would change everything… make it selfish instead of selfless.

As he considered this, he felt the strange sensation he realized was that of his lap vibrating. It took longer than it should've for his clouded mind to piece together the fact that it was his slot machine ringing -- his phone, rather, ringing. Looking down, he saw a number he didn't recognize... an Indianapolis number.

Puzzled, he thought for a moment -- or tried to think, it was tough against a backdrop of double indemnity. The reality of the happening seemed to thrust him back further into the haze… back into confusion.

Unable to reason anything out, he simply swiped the screen to answer. Should he answer Giguére Investigative? No... this was his personal phone... the business phone was shut off, probably because he hadn't paid the bill in, well -- a while.

Hello? " he offered quizzically. There was silence for a moment, then --

Jake,” a familiar voice… deep and full.

“Speaking”…

Jake, it’s Donnell… Donnell Hughes.”

Launchpad?” he replied, memories circling… swirling together with the shadows of drunkeness with double indemnity, forming an abstract like the inept doodling of an autistic child on a perpetually moving canvas made of fluids mounted in nothing.

Chucky’s in trouble, Jake,” the disconnected voice replied sternly. “They found another body in Booger Woods.

Booger Woods, " more memories... memories of the sun, of the heat, of the running... running... memories of the cold, dead and clammy flesh... memories of the slipping skin, the smell of rot, the dried blood... the thumb -- oh God, it’s missing its thumb and I can see the bone in there

They arrested Chucky, Jake, they think he did it.

Chucky?” more memories…

He’s being arraigned tomorrow morning in Garthby, I’m going up there to represent him… can you come?

Jake didn’t answer immediately, still lost in the afterimage… lost in the fog of liquor and depression, the fog of desperation and resignation. The world seemed to be flying by him, now, in contrast to the slow motion in which he had lived just moments before his slot machine rang… moments of double indemnity, and what am I gonna do about the baggie, and Dan Tripp and why the fuck do I still taste martinis?

Then, the answer came to him -- plain as day, obvious... obligatory... "Of course," he said. "Yeah, of course, Donnell."

Good… at the courthouse, ten o’clock… I plan to get there at eight, you should come early too. I’ll meet you there, Louie will be there as well.”

Louie…” more, swirling…

We’ll talk more then, I’ve got some loose-ends to tie up and then I’ll be on my way.

Loose ends, he thought… loose ends and double indemnity… it would have to wait… have to wait until after…

Jake?” Launchpad asked… Donnell asked… “Are you okay, buddy?

“Yes,” he answered, snapping himself back into reality by sheer force of will. “Yeah, Donnell, I’m good… I’ll see you in the morning.”

Great…

“Donnell?” he said, more swirling.

Yeah?

"Look, I know the last time we --"

Don’t mention it, Jake,” he interrupted, “it was a long time ago… we were just kids…”

Swirling, swirling and relief… “Thanks, Donnell… Chucky will appreciate it, too…”

This time, the pause was on the other end of the line, then, “Yeah, no problem.”

Then, the tone… call ended… the slots were back… the cobwebs were back… The Butcher was back…

…and double indemnity? It would have to wait… have to wait until it was over… he needed to go home for a few things…

Fuck, that would mean having to face her again… he hadn’t wanted to do that

 

 

 

THREE

Joshua Banks

 

 

August 12th, 1991. 10:30PM

Burlwood, Indiana

 

Darkwing?” Chucky’s lightly slurred speech called through the speaker. Then there was static… a pause… the voice again. “Darkwing, are you there?

Jacob hurried into his room, blue and red lights painting his walls as he kicked his die-cast DeLorean and sent it tumbling into the corner along the way. Diving into his Batmobile car bed, he grabbed for the blue walkie talkie near its foot.

“Yeah, Chucky,” he replied, depressing the button on its side. “I’m here.”

Are they still out there?

Looking out his bedroom window, the one that faced Booger Woods, Jacob could see that they were. Floodlights lit the forest brightly, now, erasing all traces of the darkness that had frightened Chucky; erasing the darkness of the night itself, painting the world with the whitewash of high-pressure sodium lamps. Yellow tape cordoned off the entirety of what had been their playground, men and women -- some in uniforms, some in suits -- ducking underneath it from time to time.

Some of the men Jacob knew. Clyde Rambo, the town sheriff, had gone in early in the day and had yet to come back out. Ron Boudreaux, the deputy, had come and gone a few times. Father Lovett went in, too, but only for a minute. It was quiet when he did; no one moving, no one rustling, no flash-bulbs flashing. When he left, it all resumed -- and it continued, now, in the wee hours of the night.

There were many others throughout the evening, people Jacob didn’t know but had seen around town at some point or another. Most everyone was carrying something with them into the woods. Pads of paper, cameras, briefcases, shovels and digging tools, mostly. One group had pulled up in an ambulance and tried to push a rolling stretcher in, but there was no use with the tangled brush. Instead, they took a board off of it and turned it on its side, weaving it through that way.

There was a television news crew with a camera set up facing the scene as well, a sharply dressed woman speaking loudly into a microphone and pointing into the trees. She said the same things over, and over and over again, saying them in different ways and different tones of voice each time. Sometimes she would stress one word -- like child, then the next time it would be murdered or dismembered. Then, she started saying things like molested, sodomized and predator... things Jacob didn’t understand. The only predator he had ever heard of had been an alien in an action movie, and he knew that couldn’t be what she was talking about. At one point, not long after that, he heard her say the word butcher with a great deal of emphasis. Thus, a nickname was born… entered his lexicon, and began its haunting of his childhood.

He had watched for hours, fascinated and curious, but had grown tired of the activity as the evening stretched on. Rambo and Boudreaux had come by earlier and asked him questions. Questions about what they were doing in the woods, what they had seen and what they had done once they found Joshua Banks’ arm.

Joshua Banks, that’s whose they said it was. He had been nine years old and gone to school in Garthby, where he lived; had been missing for two weeks, since his mom and dad had a big fight and he ran outside to get away.

They asked if Jacob had seen any grownups in the woods through his bedroom window… asked if he had heard any noises out there in the recent days or weeks. He hadn’t, and he told them so as his mother cried and hugged him tight. They asked him lots of things, and the whole time he just wished that they would stop… stop, so his mother would stop with the crying.

She was always crying, always upset about something -- and Jacob hated it. She had barely stopped since that Christmas, two years ago, when they found his dad out hanging in the shed, wearing a sign on which he'd written I’m Sorry. Sheriff Clyde and Deputy Ron had come out then, so had Father Lovett. Having the policemen in the house probably reminded his mother of that day; that cold and wrenching Christmas, which had started off like any other Christmas and ended up in such life-changing despair. All she had done was cry since then… cry and take her pills.

Now, she was crying for Joshua Banks; crying for her son and what he’d seen. “So much death,” she sobbed… “Why should my little boy be exposed to so much death?

He told her it was okay... told her it hadn't bothered him, that he could deal with it like he had before. It was true, mostly -- he could cope. It had scared him just a bit… holding a dead arm, an arm that was cold and stiff and just a little bigger than his own. Seeing the missing thumb had turned his stomach, and the print his own fingers left in the gooey flesh had almost made him puke… but he could cope. He had experience… he knew how to do it.

Telling her these things only made her more upset, though, and he couldn’t understand why, no matter how he tried. He just wanted her to stop… to take her pills and stop.

The police gave her their cards when they left, told her to call if he remembered anything else that could be important. Once they were gone, he got her medicine from the cabinet and sat with her until it made her fall asleep. When she was sleeping, she wasn’t sad… so Jacob liked it when she slept.

What are they doing now?” Chucky asked through the static.

He watched for a moment and saw people coming back out of Booger Woods, carrying small yellow bags at arm's length. He wondered why they hadn't used the board they took in earlier, but figured it was probably too much of a maze to get through with it flat. The woman with the microphone tried to stop some of them, but they just kept on walking... as though she wasn't there. Eventually, a police officer shooed her away -- like you would a dog. She was from the city, that was probably why... one of the city people who only come to Burlwood to make fun of the backwoods rejects, that's what his mother said about them.

“I think they’re bringing him out,” he explained. “They’re carrying bags… lots of them.”

Do you think they found more of him? More than his arm?”

“I guess so, Chucky, there are lots of bags,” he replied.

Looking closer, he thought he could see the vague outlines of what were probably Joshua’s body parts, pulling at the bottom of each bag. One had a sharp ridge hanging down, like the point of a knee or an elbow, with the plastic tracing a form at forty-five degree angles around it. Another was bigger and had a person carrying it at each end… probably his torso. Yet another was almost perfectly round… that must be his head, he thought.

Doctor Loomis said my wrist is broken,” Chucky recounted. “It’s all big and swollen, and it hurts really bad. I have to wear a cast for six weeks, then I can have it off.” a pause. “I guess we can’t play any more sports this summer.”

“I’m sorry, Chucky,” Jacob said. “Sorry that we made you go in there… sorry that you got hurt… sorry that you had to see—” his speech trailed off into silence, so he released the talk button and let the silence say the rest. Silence was the answer he got, too, for a reasonably protracted period, before Chucky finally spoke.

Do you think it was Pennywise that did it?” he asked. “Do you think he’s here, and out to get us?

No, Chucky,” he said assertively, “Pennywise is just pretend!

More silence, then “I’m afraid, Darkwing…

Don’t be, Chucky!” Jacob ordered, trying to send his strength over the air to comfort his frightened friend… the way he comforted his mother when she was feeling low. “You know I won’t let anything hurt you… I’ll never let anything hurt you, Chucky, because we’re blood brothers -- remember?"

Chucky thought about it for a moment… remembered the day last summer, when he cut his hand on broken glass buried in the sand around the swing set at Memorial Park. He was crying, squeezing his bleeding palm like he squeezed his flashlight when it was dark at bed time. There was so much blood… he thought losing so much meant that he was going to die. Jacob told him he was okay and hugged him, then picked up the piece of glass and cut himself… on purpose. Then, taking his dripping hand, he told him that he was giving Chucky his blood… that he wouldn’t die, because his blood would make up for that which he had lost.

Looking at the scar on his left palm, Chucky remembered that Darkwing had been right… he didn’t die… Darkwing had rescued him and kept him alive. Afterwards, Darkwing said that sharing each other’s blood meant they were brothers now… blood brothers… inseperable, together and with each other forever. Plus, he had strong blood in his veins, now… blood that would help him be less afraid of scary things.

He called on the power of that blood as he lay wrapped up tight in his sleeping bag -- a new, blue, flashlight clenched tightly in his sweat-lined right hand. He wondered if he would have nightmares... nightmares about Pennywise, or about Joshua Banks' parts. Joshua Banks, who had been all put together before but was all taken apart now... taken apart and dead, dead like Gary Duncan, and spread all over Booger Woods... Booger Woods, just two streets down and around the corner from his house.

I promise, Chucky,” Darkwing said through the crackling walkie talkie. “I won’t let anything hurt you… ever.

These were words spoken to comfort, but also spoken as a pact… words he would have to live up to, time and time again.

 

 

 

 

 

 

FOUR

 

 

September 8th, 2016. 9:30PM

Sterling Heights, Michigan

 

Tracy took a sip of Chardonnay, emptying her glass. Her nerves were still raw, so she reported promptly to the fridge and drew another from the box. It was running low itself, but in the garage were plenty more -- a Rhine, a Pinot Grigio, the Blush and Chillable Red -- should it become necessary to restock. She wasn't a lush, nor a wine connoissuer by any means; but she thoroughly enjoyed drinking a nightly glass, just to take the edge off.

Having gotten through another day with Garrett -- another day with autism -- was cause for celebration and justification for decompression in the arms of the very-slightest wine buzz, and she needed it. It was a full-time job keeping up with him; ensuring he ate when he was hungry and drank when he was thirsty, that he made it to the bathroom when he needed to go, that he didn't hurt himself. Therefore, the period from nine o'clock until bed was Tracy Time... time to be spent with a nice glass of vino and the quiet.

One glass would suffice on a normal day, but it was bound to take more -- perhaps several more -- on days like this one had been, but it was the exception to the rule, so she had no qualms with drawing another. As much as she wanted -- as she needed -- to unwind, she checked her cell phone constantly, nervously, for an e-mail or a text. She hadn't heard from Jacob in three days and two nights, and that wasn’t like him at all.

She had long since begun to worry, and worrying seemed to be all that she could do, outside of tempering the nerves with ever increasing amounts of Franzia’s finests. Jake had no friends that she could call to track him down, no family still alive that he would be likely to reach out to, and nowhere he would likely go for such an extended time if he had simply decided he needed to get away for awhile.

She had considered phoning the police, but that wouldn’t go over well at all… her husband was a big boy; a big, independent boy who could handle himself and wouldn’t look kindly on being hunted down like a fugitive.

She thought about calling the hospitals, but Jacob hated doctors with a passion and would've stormed out at the first opportunity. Besides, he keeps a card in his wallet, with his private investigator's badge, that lists her as his emergency contact -- and she would've heard something by now if he had been hurt.

There was the morgue as well, of course, but she didn't even want to consider that possibility... surely, they would have called her, too -- unless he had lost his wallet. Perish the thought...

He would have told her if a case had called him away… if he needed to comb the underbelly of the city or to stake out some seedy motel in search of a runaway addict. He always had before, even when things were at their worst. No heated argument or screaming fight, no matter how severe, had kept him from at least telling her where he was going.

Besides, there had been no screaming fight, no ugly spat to drive him off as of late. In fact, they had barely spoken at all the last time he was home. He had gotten out of bed at two AM, again, and said he was going to work on something for a client. When he came back home at noon, she knew that he had, in fact, spent the morning at the casino instead. He stank of cigarettes and Red Bull, hallmarks of his nights at Greektown Of Detroit. He looked deflated and depressed, which meant he had a losing night -- again. Really, though, he always looked deflated and depressed anymore... it was just his thing.

He spent a few hours home, with Garrett, barely acknowledging her existence, and left again just after two, saying he was going to catch up on paperwork at the office. That was the last she’d seen of him… the last she’d heard from him, as well. That was most unusual, and the revelation that he’d emptied the business’ bank account was most alarming.

“What the hell could’ve happened?” she wondered aloud, taking another sip. She didn’t swish the wine around as she would when trying simply to relax. Instead, she gulped it down, and chased it with more.

Two-thousand dollars is what he’d taken from the bank… two thousand and change, almost the entire payment he’d received from State Farm for investigating a case of suspected insurance fraud. That was a rare case; one that he actually completed, which had become unusual. He worked very sparingly anymore, even though he wanted her to believe that he was at it all the time. He was always going to work, but the nearly complete lack of checks and deposits to the account of Giguére Investigative told another tale.

Two-thousand dollars… just enough to pay the arrears owed to the landlord for his office. She had logged into the account with the intent of setting up the transfer when she discovered he had emptied it, and that’s when the worry really started. It wasn't enough money to fuel his habit for more than half a day at Caesars, though, so he should've been home by now -- all else being equal.

Unless he'd finally won a bit, she thought, but even his winnings were usually gone fairly quickly. A couple of extra hours at a slot machine, or one big hand at the blackjack table -- potentially over in a flash. No, even if he’d won a little, he should’ve been home by now. He never stayed out overnight without telling her where he'd be -- if nothing else, in case something happened with Garrett. He never ignored his phone when she called, either, but she was unable to reach him now.

It didn’t make any sense… was not at all normal.

Of course, she thought, if he got the papers… another swig of wine, a voluminous one at that.

What did he expect? He must have seen it coming…

He had laid the foundation for what was happening between them… gradually, over five or six years. He had pulled away from her almost entirely, in body, mind and spirit. He had become so distant lately, in fact, she often wondered if he had found someone else… another woman to soothe his mind.

Plus, he was in some kind of tailspin -- gambling away money like he could print it; could swim in it, like Scrooge McDuck. First it was the money from his business -- then the money set aside for bills, the mortgage payment, the money on the credit cards... now, the money from the state meant for Garrett's care. As a result of his recklessness, they were teetering on the brink of bankruptcy, the debts piling up while the money was leaking out.

And the drinking, God, the drinking… he was drinking like a fish. Not a glass of wine here and there like her, he was hitting it hard -- and often. His eyes were constantly bloodshot, his speech constantly slurred. He never drank in front of her, though, and went to great lengths to hide the fact that he was doing it at all. Chewing Altoids, spraying himself with Old Spice, drinking more coffee than is probably healthy and using red-eye-relief eye drops that never quite seemed to do the trick. Still, it was plainly obvious, she could smell the liquor oozing from his pores.

Then there was the sex… the lack of sex, that is, which was completely out of character for him. He was a man of raging libido; completely insatiable and always eager. That had waned slowly, over the past two years or so, but was completely absent, now. Six months it had been since he touched her… hadn’t even asked for a blowjob, which had been his bread and butter from the beginning. That, above all, led her to believe that there could be someone else…

Suspecting infidelity, she sniffed his clothes constantly for hints of perfume… checked his cell phone while he slept for secret messages or calls, checked his underwear for signs of come. No matter how she tried, she had never found anything to suggest his guilt. He was clever, but she doubted he could cover all the bases as well as they were covered if it was really going on. Her heart told her he would never cheat anyway… he just wasn’t the type. He was surrounded by cheaters in his work, and he looked upon them with disdain and contempt. It’s the ultimate betrayal, he often said. The ultimate dishonor, to everyone involved. The territory of the dregs.

If it wasn’t that, though, what was it?

Depression was a suspect; had always been a suspect... he was a very depressive person. His mother had been a poster child for it, and his father -- well... that went without saying. Fearing it was coming for him, like a curse bestowed upon him in his blood, Tracy had scheduled a series of appointments with a counselor and psychiatrist several years ago for him. He went, but only because she made him... and when they prescribed him Zoloft, he had taken it -- but not for very long. Makes me feel like a zombie was his primary objection… then there was the bit with the orgasms, that had struck the death blow. He assured her he was fine without it… and she accepted that on his word.

Regardless of what it was that came between them, he couldn’t expect that she would ride along with him on the kamikaze trail that he was blazing. She had Garrett to think about, and that was a lot in-and-of itself. The collection calls, the bounced checks, the forclosure notices -- the food from Hospitality House lately… how could he think that she would stay the course with him while he pulled them all down into the gutter?

She had consulted an attorney in the spring, and thought it over all summer long… deciding only recently it was the final recourse. Talking about their troubles clearly wasn’t on the table, she had tried and tried for months. When she did, he always went to work… though there would be no invoice to draw up for his time.

At best, the shock of such a drastic step would serve as a scare-tactic to make him open up… to tell her what was happening, so that they could work together to fix it. At worst, she would have to see it through… to cut the cord, as it were, so that they could all move on with their lives, if that’s the way he wanted it.

Whichever way it went, she supposed she would be okay... beaten, battered and bruised -- but okay, whatever the outcome.

Resigned to not knowing where he was for another restless night, she let herself sink into the supple arms of their Natuzzi leather couch and exhaled as much of the tension as she could. She clicked on the television and took another sip of wine, then set everything down on the end table and removed the scrunchie from her hair.

When the dirty-blonde locks tumbled down in front of her face, she saw more gray in them than she wanted to believe was real. Just thirty-four years, she thought, not even half-way through, and I feel like the tank is running empty. She saw every one of those years in the fine and thinning strands, felt the weight of them on her shoulders despite the alcohol’s intervention. She felt them each upon her face, tugging at it and leaving marks despite the efforts of Olay. She felt them gnawing at her soul, wearing her down despite her prayers for strength.

Part of her hoped he would just stroll through the door and pick back up where they’d left off… before the trouble started. They’d been together for eighteen years… it would be a shame to throw all of them away. Garrett needed full time care, would need it for the rest of his life. That was a daunting hill to climb, and she’d rather not have to climb it alone.

If he just walked in and said he was sorry, she thought, that he knows he dropped the ball… we could just put the pieces back together and carry on.

Even as she thought it, she knew it couldn’t be real. She recognized that there would be no catharsis, no mea culpa in the cards. That just wasn’t him… wasn’t in his nature, not with all his stubborn pride. She had knocked the first domino, and there would be no stopping the cascade.

The rollercoaster was moving, now, though she had no idea just why. She could only ride the ride, holding on and checking Garrett’s restraints to be sure that he made it back to the station unharmed. As she closed her eyes, exhausted, she saw the crest of the first hill approaching; heard the chain lift clicking faster, preparing to disengage the car. The drop would start any time, now -- the only question was how long the drop would be.

 

FIVE

 

 

Jake’s throat objected to the onslaught of another Newport with an irritation he likened to that which one would experience while gargling broken glass. The moon was full over the colonial ranch he once called home, and the hush of the suburban evening was well set-in. Scanning the house, he saw no sign of light, save for the flickering of the television in the living-room window.

It was a quarter to eleven when he first dimmed the headlights of his Malibu and pulled into the driveway, and nearly midnight as he smoked his cigarette, idling there. Tracy was probably sleeping, likely passed out on the couch after her nightly glass of wine. Garrett was certainly sawing logs, charging up his batteries for the bedlam of the morning.

Try as he might -- and oh , how he tried -- he couldn't piece together a feasible plan to avoid going in the house. He would need clothes, at least several days worth, maybe more. He would need toiletries; a toothbrush, a comb, deodorant, contact solution, a razor, shaving gel, his Brylcreem. He would need a charger for his phone, a notepad, some pens, fresh socks, a tie, a tie-clip, his dress shoes and, perhaps, his camera. He would need more bullets for his Beretta, just in case.

Tabulating in his mind, which was an effort in the shadow of his brutal hangover, he figured the cost of purchasing these things would easily approach a hundred dollars… plus, it would require effort, which he wasn’t keen on making. Having counted the cash in his wallet several times, each time hoping it would count up to more, he was sure it amounted to just five hundred and fifty three bucks. With that, he couldn’t figure a way to start from scratch and still get by.

He would need a hotel room for at least one night to get cleaned up for court, perhaps more if sleeping in his back seat seemed as unappealing when the time came as it did while he sat there thinking about it. There were toll roads on the way to Burlwood to consider as well, though the total cost was negligible in the grand scheme of things. He would also need fuel, which is tantamount to rape when working on a budget. It didn’t seem to matter how he sliced it, five-fifty-three minus give-or-take a hundred just wasn’t enough to last.

He found it stunning that he had burnt through so much of his initial two-grand in such a short period of time. Maybe the chubby woman had robbed him while she was feeling him up… maybe her hands had strayed into his wallet on their quest to find his cock, which he was increasingly confident that she had never quite discovered. There was that to be thankful for, at least, he wouldn’t end up with Herpes to show for his adventure.

It was possible that he dropped a few bills on the contents of the baggie, the remnants of which he had since pitched out the window along the interstate. Perhaps a few hundred bucks? More? He had never done the stuff before -- had certainly never purchased any before -- so he wasn't quite sure just how much a sample might have set him back, if it was his to begin with.

Either way, he couldn’t waste a hundred smackers on things he could secure for free by just swallowing his pride and walking into what was still his house -- for the time being, at least. It just wasn't feasible. He wanted desperately to avoid facing his wife -- his soon to be ex- wife -- but there didn't seem to be a way out of it.

What would he say?

What would she say?

Well, hopefully she’d be asleep… that would make it easier.

Hoping that was the case, he laid out a plan of attack in his foggy mind. He would go through the side-door, as far from the living room as was possible, and slink through the kitchen as quiet as a mouse. Once he was in the main hallway, he would hit the bathroom first, pitching the toiletries he wanted into his shaving bag. With those in hand, he would press on to the master suite, taking care not to disturb Garrett as he passed by his room. He had a duffle bag in there for cases that took him out of town, so he would stuff a few sets of clothes in it -- not taking time to fold them -- making sure to grab his shoes as well. While in the closet, he would open up his gun safe and grab a box of ammunition. There were notepads in his bedside table, so he might as well grab a few. With everything together, he would creep back down the hall and out the door he came through. If all went well, he could be in and out in less than three or four minutes, with Tracy none the wiser.

His fingers started to burn again as he realized he’d smoked another cigarette all the way down to the butt. There would be a tremendous callus soon, if he kept this habit up. He almost chucked the smoke out the window, but caught himself in the nick of time… what would the neighbors think of butts all over his lawn? Trying to find the car’s ashtray instead, he discovered that he’d never looked for it before, because the car didn’t seem to have one at all. Cursing modern sensabilities, he rolled down his passenger window and gave the nuisance a mighty flick into the Peters’ front yard instead… fuck the Peters, he never liked them anyway.

Dreading the five-hour drive ahead of him, he decided he couldn't wait any longer. With a mighty sigh of resignation, he stepped out of the car -- but left the engine idling. Hit and run, he thought, hit and run.

Marching with purpose, he made his way to the side door, only considering when he got there the fact that it would be locked… and a lock requires a key.

Fuck…

Back to the car…

Key in hand this time, he approached again. He ran through the steps in his head once more before setting his plan into action. Things went swimmingly from there, all the way up to the point at which he opened the door and… the alarm sounded.

Bemoaning his lack of forethought with another heavy sigh, he punched in his code to disarm the system, but it was too late. The living room lamp came on immediately, Tracy’s exhausted and concerned face appearing around the corner thereafter.

“Jacob?” she asked, seeming remarkably coherent considering she had just been roused so rudely.

He said nothing in response, moving somewhat less silently than he had planned towards the hallway and the bathroom. She paused for a moment where she sat, then followed him, her white silk nightgown trailing behind her.

“Christ, Jacob, where the hell have you been?” she asked in a hushed but frantic tone, presumably trying not to wake their son. “It’s been three days, do you have any idea how worried I was?”

Still, he said nothing, an unexpected and intense anger building in him that he only hoped he could control. He reached the bathroom and retrieved his shaving bag from underneath the sink, then had to open all three compartments of the vanity in search of his contact solution and case -- he never removed his lenses nearly as often as he should. Upon closing the last of the mirrored doors, he saw his wife standing in the doorway. The glaring eyes of her reflection froze him for a moment, her visage an odd hybrid of the angelic and the demonic in this moment.

“Jacob?” she said again, more a demand for acknowledgment than a question this time.

Trying to avoid making eye contact, he brushed her out of his way and moved towards their bedroom. The scent of her floral perfume and lotions as he passed gave him pause; a comforting aroma that reminded him of Halston, the lingering scent of his childhood. For a moment, he longed to hold her… to take her in his arms and cry like a toddler whose balloon has floated off into the sky at large. Then, her gown brushed against the flesh of his arm, calling him to her embrace… but he would not succumb to these temptations. He could not follow that path of least resistance, for that path required a wrenching departure of pride that he couldn’t imagine swallowing.

Once he’d made it to the bedroom, he tossed his duffle bag onto the bed and started blindly yanking clothes down from their hangers. Thankfully, Tracy kept the closet organized in clearly defined hers and his compartments, so he didn’t pack any blouses by mistake. As he turned toward the bed to begin the stuffing process, he caught another glance of her in the hallway. She was watching his every move, her mouth agape in confusion.

“Jacob,” she said quite assertively this time, “what the hell is going on?”

When he failed to respond yet again, she stepped into the room. Still paying her no mind, he fetched a notepad from his nightstand. Moving hurriedly, he returned to the closet and punched the code into his gun safe.

Goddam it, Jake!” she snapped now, still maintaining a spirited hush. “Talk to me!

Again, he gave no notice, and it was infuriating to her. His insolence, his gall in ignoring her. Who did he think he was? Who did he think she was? Some doormat to rub the shit from his shoes on? Some throw-away hussy to whom he owed nothing? No explanation of where he’d been, of where he intended to go?

She stormed toward him, now, and reached for him as she spoke. “You owe me answers, Jake, just where the hell do you think you’re going?

He felt her hand upon his shoulder, and something exploded inside of him at her touch. The feeling was inexplicable; a rush of hot and cold agitation that baffled him entirely. As if by reflex, caught in the throes of this new emotion, he immediately swatted her away. He was angered by the imposition, angered at her supposition that, after what she’d done, he owed her anything at all. A white-hot rage clenched his jaw tightly, and spittle flew from his mouth as he snarled “don’t you fucking touch me!

She gasped and recoiled from him, pulling her hands away as she would from a dog prepared to bite. There was a momentary fear in her face, but it quickly dissolved to loathing and spite as he spoke his next words at her, thrusting an accusatory finger as he barked.

You don’t get to touch me and I don’t owe you shit, not anymore! That’s what ‘petition for divorce’ means, Tracy! I don’t have to answer to you anymore!”

She was frozen for a moment in shock and a fury of her own. She felt her fists spasm and clench, her uneven nails digging deep into the tender flesh of her palms. Once his words had registered, once she’d processed what he’d said, her venom peaked and she lashed out. “Oh, so that’s how you want it to be?

Feeling the tension ready to explode out of her, he dialed his code again and opened the gun safe, withdrawing two boxes of nine-millimeter rounds. Jamming them into his overstuffed bag, he took a frenzied inventory; trying to check off the pertinent items so he could bid a quick retreat, before things got really ugly.

Fine, then!” she continued, her voice raising now. It was loud and shrill, shaking with rage and sorrow both. “You wanna get nasty? Well I can get nasty too!

“Oh, I know,” he quipped back. “Believe me, I know!”

What was I supposed to do?” she shouted, all regard for quiet gone as her arms darted out to her sides in frustration. “Let you destroy us like you’ve destroyed yourself? Let you take us down with you?

Destroyed myself?” he reeled, a nervous chuckle escaping that only served to escalate her anger. “What the fuck does that even mean?

“Yes! Destroyed yourself!” she cried. “[_ You've destroyed yourself! Destroyed your business, destroyed your credit, destroyed US -- probably destroyed your liver for Christ's sake! _]”

Right,” he snapped, wrestling with the zipper to get his bag to close. “You’ve got it all figured out, don’t you? You’ve got all the answers!”

“And now, you’re gonna do YOU!” She took a nasty tone and moved closer to him, nearly in his face. “You’re gonna run away, just like you do! Just like you’ve ALWAYS done!

What?” he asked in an intentionally snotty cackle, this time, as he finally managed to zip his bag, which was bulging at the seams. He swiveled around to face her, only realizing how close she really was when their noses nearly brushed. “What the fuck are you even talking about?

Further irritated by the dismissive tone he took, she leaned in closer to him -- close enough for him to feel the heat of anger on her breath. " Well go ahead, you coward!” she yelled, pushing him away and stepping between him and the bed -- between him and his bag. " Go ahead and run away! Run like your fucking father did!!

Suddenly, Jake’s world turned to red and he was absorbed in a blinding fog of rabidity. He felt completely detached from his body as his possessed arms rose and shoved her with every bit of force they could muster. It was enough to lift her from her feet, sending her careening to the matress where she landed on her back.

She flipped the wild hair from her eyes and looked up, seeing him standing there above her, fuming. His right-hand was pulled over his shoulder, as though he was preparing to place a backhanded slap across her face.

In this moment, they locked eyes for the first time in what seemed like forever. She stared into his green depths, the eyes that had looked upon her with such tenderness in days passed; with such passion and such caring. In the clouded, glassy, windows to his soul, she saw none of those things, now… saw nothing of the man she loved… nothing of her husband.

Summoning a false bravado, she addressed this intruder, this stranger in her home. “Do it!” she said resolutely, though her voice was trembling. “Go ahead and do it, Jake! God knows it’ll make everything easier on me!

Seeing the fear in her eyes -- the fear of him , whom she had loved so unconditionally in days not long ago -- he shuddered and recoiled his anger. Reclaiming his body, he lowered his raised hand and sheepishly turned his gaze away. Shaken in the turbulence, he tried to extricate himself from the moment and erase it before it had a chance to take hold in the catacombs of his memory. Disgusted with himself, feeling he deserved pain as punishment, he bit his lower lip so hard he was amazed to taste no blood.

As Tracy watched him stand down, the words you don’t have the balls were on the very tip of her tongue. She wouldn't say them -- couldn’t say them -- though. The sum of all the turmoil that had existed between them, in their eighteen years and in this moment, was not enough to dissolve the predicate fact that she loved him… had always loved him, through all that came before. In this moment, he was not himself -- and he may never be himself again. That changed little on the whole, even though it changed everything. Considering every bump they’d hit thus far, every mountain they’d climbed together, she choked back tears and asked sincerely “What happened to us? What have we become, Jacob?”.

He paced back and forth toward the closet frantically, running his hands over his brow and through his hair as he exhaled all the tension of the argument. When he finally stalled and summoned the courage to face her, he stood as far from her as he could possibly be without leaving the room entirely. His eyes burnt through her head this time, cold, intense and detached… tearless, but red and swollen.

Time,” he answered softly, almost tenderly. “Time happened, Tracy, that’s all…

Finally, as though sensing the waning of hostilities, Garrett let out a cry. A call too deep to be a child’s, yet too juvenile to be a teen’s. She started to rise instinctively, pausing when her thoughts caught up and begging one last answer from this man, who had once been her husband.

“Jacob,” she said quietly now, her voice gentle and pleading. “Where will you go?”

He considered for a moment, then replied sedately. “Burlwood.”

“When will you be “ she paused, decided to rephrase. “Are you going to come back?” Watching for a hint in his mannerism, she waited an eternity for his response.

He thought longer, harder, now, than before. His mind said double indemnity, and that answer was the most truthful he could’ve given. Knowing she wouldn’t understand, wouldn’t allow him to leave if he elaborated, he spoke one final lie to end the chapter.

Softly, almost sweetly, he replied “I don’t know, Tracy.

 

SIX

 

 

White lines sped by in blurs, racing at him out of the black then trailing off to die behind as reflective glimmers in his mirrors. Words etched in glass marked their departure, and the words dug into him like the claws of a frightened cat desperate to escape the clutches of an overzealous child. Objects in the mirror are closer than they appear, an eternal warning so profound to him, now, that the phrase screamed all throughout his mind… screamed and chanted incantations with the chorus of double indemnity, you goddamned fool.

He was numb and cold, shell shocked and distraught in the hazy fallout of emotion in excess. The colonial ranch was far away, now, though the events which had transpired seemed to linger in the ether… traveling with him in his flight.

The mental recording played in his mind from beginning to end on a constant loop, from the sounding of the house alarm to the squealing of his tires on the pavement of Atlas Avenue East, with every excruciating moment in between brought to him in high definition with Dolby THX surround. The moments of rage and ire, the moments of agony and torment. The seconds that seemed like hours after he dropped his bag on the passenger seat of the Malibu and waited for the tears to come. Those lonely, desolate seconds in which crying seemed like the only logical thing to do -- but in which he had discovered that he simply couldn't cry anymore.

Perhaps he’d gone to the well too many times, perhaps he hadn’t gone enough to keep the pressure up and the reservoir filled. Perhaps, with the final gasps of hope and promise, his tears had simply willed themselves to die and in so doing had left him forever. There had been a stinging sensation for a moment, but nothing more… and soon, even that had passed, leaving anesthesia in its wake.

He drove for hours in silence, cruising through the night like a torpedo fired at the ghostly images of warships scuttled long ago. The roads were empty, as vacant as his spirit, and he felt the plight of the Mary Celeste in his heart… the futility, the absence of purpose, the cessation of responsibility. Perched on every concrete barrier and overpass were sirens, singing their sweet siren song of double indemnity in tones of peace and tranquility that beckoned him to come… to come crashing into their arms like the haggard sailors of old, who met their fate on the rocky shores of Anthemoessa in answer of their call. Their voices were so sweet, singing their aria of respite and repose so clear and strong… singing for him and him alone, in the cold, anonymous embrace of this dark and stormy night.

When the sign declaring Indianapolis – 160 Miles floated by him on the concrete ocean, he felt the hands of sleep and death pulling at his eyelids with their soft and bony fingers. With hours left to ride, he turned the radio on to stimulate his mind.

The first station to tune in was Young Country , and that simply wouldn't do. He was a hard rock man at heart, but any port in the storm -- just so long as the natives don't speak in drawls and twangy notes. The next played the rock of yesterday... close enough, he figured. As if by design, the playlist of the auto-shuffle DJ seemed perfectly synched-in to the events and mood of the evening... the rhythm of the state in which he lived.

First, it was The Doobie Brothers telling him that What a fool believes, no wise man has the power to reason away. Then it was Lou Gramm declaring in my life, there’s been heartache and pain. I don’t know if I can face it again. Soon after it was Golden Earring and I’m fallin’ down a spiral, destination unknown. Then Queen, you can beat him, you can cheat him, you can treat him bad and leave him while he’s down. That one was a conundrum…

She hadn’t beat him, or cheated him -- or even treated him bad.

What had she done? Left him while he was down? Was that all?

Before he had it figured out, the most damning tune yet came through the speakers in the plaintiff wail of Steve Perry, telling of his torrid affair with Sherrie and how it holds on… holds on. You should’ve been gone. Yes, he thought, she should’ve. Knowing how he made her feel, she should’ve been gonelong ago, far away.

Oh Tracy, our love… holds on… holds on… double indemnity and it holds on… holds on…

Christ, he wondered, what did happen to us?

Where did we go so wrong?

It had all started out so perfectly; so sweetly, so innocently, and now… [_ now -- _]

None of it made any sense… none of the causes were clear, none of the root problems, none of the intentions…

Oh, I wanna let go… you’ll go on hurtin’ me… you’d be better off alone, if I’m not who you thought I’d be

He wasn't who she thought he'd be -- wasn't who he thought he’d be… who the fuck was he? Christ, he didn’t really know… didn’t really want to know, didn’t think it was possible to know… didn’t think it made much difference anyway.

Cut… and that’s a wrap, it’s in the can

It’s over…

It’s done…

It’s all been done…

Why?

Who threw in the towel?

Or was this a knockout?

A doctor’s stoppage?

A win, a loss or simply a declaration of no contest?

Nolo contendere?

Was he persona non grata?

Ego te absolvo?

Quod nomen mihi est?

Double indemnity, motherfucker, double indemnity…

No -- not now -- not yet... but soon... soon enough, indeed.

Occasionally, the emaciated hand of the reaper tugged at his steering wheel… pulled him in the direction of the rocks, of the sirens singing on them… but he counteracted the action each time… difficult though it was.

He just couldn’t understand… couldn’t figure out how he’d ended up this way, how he ended up in this place… this dark and lonely place…

Destroyed, Tracy said… he’d destroyed himself… destroyed his business… destroyed his credit… destroyed his marriage… destroyed his family… had he? If so, how? If so, why?

Shit, he didn’t know… didn’t remember, at least, if he had known before… did he know before?

With nothing to do but think as the white lines passed him by, he decided this was his chance to figure that out once and for all. He mulled it over -- and over -- and over... but he still couldn't come up with any answers, couldn't come up with any hints as to why he'd done the things he'd done.

What had he done?

Nothing… was that the problem?

He hadn’t done anything?

Had just checked out?

Well, there was the money… he did do that… threw it away, basically… but he had good intentions, that nice vacation was always just a spin away… that fancy necklace for his honey was just a roll of the dice from being under the Christmas tree… the nice new floor for the bathroom just a double down from being real… but then, the 7’s landed just out of alignment… but then, he crapped out… but then, he was dealt a king and, fuck , that's 23... he was in the hole, and they needed that hundred bucks to meet the mortgage... he would have to win it back, so another hundred on the pass-line to recover... split the sevens, because I can't leave until I've won that fifty back... change that twenty for more quarters, because I can't leave without that money... where's the ATM, because Tracy's gonna have a fit... but there's nothing left in the bank, so I'll just take a cash advance off the Visa -- I'll pay it right back, though, once I've won enough...

That he did… he did ruin his finances, his credit…

…but, so far as his marriage was concerned, he never raised a hand to her, never let her go without, never lied about anything besides the money, never confided in another, never put his dick somewhere it didn’t belong, never told her how important she was to him…

Fuck , he did pull away from her... but not because she did something wrong, just because he realized he wasn't living up to her expectations. Because he didn't earn enough, didn't provide enough, because he was selfish in bed, because his love handles were getting bigger while their bank account was getting smaller, because their house wasn't as nice as her friend Ellen's was, because their car wasn't as new as her friend Tina's was, because they didn't have a boat like her friend Linda had, because they couldn't go to the fancy restaurants that her friend Sue went to, because -- because he just wasn't man enough for her... because he didn't deserve her...

It was easier to hide from her… easier to make her hate him, the way he hated himself, because he did hate himself and, therefore, she should hate him too -- because he was a failure...

That he did, too… he did ruin his marriage, his finances, his credit…

…but, so far as Garrett was concerned, he never yelled at the boy, never denied him any toy he wanted, never spanked him, never belittled him, never missed a milestone, never failed to recognize his progress, never helped Tracy take care of him…

Fuck , he made her bear that cross alone... made her change his diapers, made her cook his meals, made her take him to his appointments, made her worry about his schooling, made her manage his medications, made her -- made her do it all...

Why?

Because she would?

Because she could?

Because she did?

Because he was ashamed of the boy…

Because he was disappointed in the boy…

Because he wanted a normal boy…

Because he wanted a boy that could talk, that could use the bathroom on his own, that could read and write and control himself, that he could teach to hit a baseball, that he could teach to catch a football, that he could teach to shoot a puck, that he could teach about girls, that he could teach to be a man, that he could show off to his friends…

Because he was pissed at fate for having done that to the boy… for having done that to him.

That he did, too… he destroyed his family, his marriage, his finances, his credit…

…but, where his business was concerned, he never failed to work a case, never turned down a client, never charged a dollar more than was justified, never cheated to get ahead, never really gave a fuck about it to begin with…

Yeah, he had kind of let it go… it was boring, it was tedious, it was menial, it was not what he had expected, it was beneath him, it was all about who was fucking who when they weren’t supposed to, and who was milking the insurance company for money they didn’t deserve, and where the punk teenager that couldn’t stand to be around his parents anymore had run off to, and stupid shit that doesn’t make a lick of difference in the grand scheme of things… so he quit trying… let everything go to pieces…

That he did, as well… he destroyed his business, his family, his marriage, his finances, his credit…

...but when it came to himself, he never --

Fuck, there’s no use…

That he did, just the same… he destroyed himself, his business, his family, his marriage, his finances, his credit…

Oh, and his liver… yeah… can’t forget the liver… it could well be shot… he’d drank enough whiskey to float a battleship around, as Lynyrd Skynyrd once said…

What a fucking heel, he thought… what a heel am I for doing things so terrible… what a heel is the universe for setting me on this path… what a heel is life…

You don’t deserve to live, he thought, [_ because you're a fucking asshole... because you're a piss-poor husband, you're a piss-poor father, you're a piss-poor person, you're a piss-poor man, you're -- you are just not good enough... at anything... you never were... you never will be... you never could be, because -- because... because... _]

Because what?

That was presumably the question… presumably the secret… presumably… presumably…

Just because?

Double indemnity, that was presumably the answer… presumably the key… presumably… presumably… definitely..

Eventually, he was in Garthby… at The Best Western…

A hundred and ten fucking dollars for a night…

The desk clerk explained that since it was after midnight -- four-thirty AM, to be exact -- the room would be his until Saturday at noon, so there was that at least. He would've foregone it all together if not for the horror he saw when he caught a glance of himself in his rear view mirror. He didn't look at his face, he couldn't stand the site of himself, but the scraggly black hair standing up all over told the tale of how he looked... not fit to see his friends -- not Donnell or Louie, at least -- whom he hadn't seen in, Christ, was it sixteen years or more?

Chucky wouldn’t care how he looked, he wasn’t one to judge… wouldn’t judge Darkwing, his blood-brother… his most beloved friend for life… his idol… his best and treasured pal… shit, how could he have just left Chucky behind? Left him to rot in that trailer park? How could he have just shirked him off, cast him away like so much garbage? Just let their bond fade to black, shrivel and die entirely?

What was more important than keeping the promise he made?

The promise to keep him safe?

Tracy

Tracy was more important… and boy, how he’d taken care of that relationship… how he made it sparkle and shine…

It was time to make it right, though, to live up to his word -- at least one time -- before... before...

Shit, shave and shower , first... shit, shave and shower, and then -- tying up loose ends... at least this one loose end... and then, double indemnity…

 

SEVEN

Nathan Dawson

 

March 16th, 1992. 6:00PM

Burlwood, Indiana

 

Who is she?” Darkwing asked, spinning the focus wheel of his binoculars to get a better look.

Chucky didn't know, Launchpad didn't care. The blonde girl in the distance was just another kid to them -- a girl no less -- and she was probably crawling with cooties. Chucky didn’t like cooties, he had them once before. The principal at school had found them in his hair when he dug through it with those toothpicks. Darkwing and Launchpad didn’t know about that, though, and Chucky wasn’t about to admit it.

“We’re wasting time, Jake,” Donnell objected. “We’re never going to find the Dawson kid if we sit here all day staring at that chick.”

“But she’s beautiful,” Jake replied, tracking her every move as she carried a box that was way too big for her down the ramp of a U-Haul truck. “Do you think she’s gonna live here?

“Duh!” Donnell said. “Why else would she be helping carry all that shit in?”

Chucky grimaced. Launchpad swore a lot -- too much, really. More than any grownup he had ever met. Momma said that was because his family was low class. Chucky didn’t know what that meant, but he thought maybe it just meant that they were black, which he knew already. There were other black people in Burlwood, but not many… one of the teachers at his school, a guy who worked on horses at the race track and another family in the trailer park. None of them besides Launchpad’s parents had any kids, though, so Chucky didn’t know whether they were low class or not.

"Look," Launchpad continued, "are we gonna go look for Nathan Dawson or are we gonna stand around with our thumbs up our asses? Because if we're gonna just stand here, I'm going home -- it's too fuckin' cold for that!"

Darkwing didn't say anything, he just kept watching the girl. She was going in and out of the pink trailer on the corner of Applewood and Oakwood, doing her business with no idea that she was being watched. The trailer, which was just up the road from Chucky's, where they stood, had been empty for quite a while. That wasn't unusual, though, there were lots of empty trailers in Burlwood Meadows since they found Joshua Banks. They had all been full, once, but people were moving out all the time. Momma said that was because they were scared and there was nothing in Burlwood worth staying for -- just the horse track, and even that was in decline.

Some of the empty trailers weren’t very nice, but neither were some of the ones that had people living in them anyway. Chucky’s wasn’t very nice… it was small and dirty, and sometimes the toilet overflowed and water got all the way to his bedroom. Momma said they had to stay there, though, because she didn’t have much money since Papa moved back to Tennessee and stopped sending her any. They didn’t have much money before he moved, either, but at least Papa always knew how to fix the toilet so that it wouldn’t spill all over the floor.

“I agree with Launchpad,” Chucky said timidly, drawing shapes in the snow with his foot. “It is pretty cold out here.”

“The Dawson kid is probably dead anyway!” Launchpad added, but Darkwing never took the binoculars from his face.

“Like Gary Duncan and Joshua Banks?” Chucky asked. That made his heart beat faster, even though the thought had occurred to him before.

“He’s been missing for two weeks!” Launchpad said. “That’s way longer than the other kids lived after they went missing! The Butcher probably cut him up days ago!”

Chucky thought this over, and realized it was probably true. Nathan Dawson, who was ten, had disappeared thirteen days ago from the Citgo by the horse track. His mom had left him in the car while she went in to pay for gas -- she shouldn't have done that -- and when she came back out, he was missing. The television news said she saw a blue car speeding away, but she couldn't tell what kind or who was in it.

The whole town had been looking for him ever since, trying to figure out where he was. Darkwing had decided the three of them should try, too, because every set of eyes would help. Chucky didn’t like that idea… he hadn’t liked finding Joshua Banks at all, so he figured finding Nathan wouldn’t be very much fun either. Donnell didn’t seem to care either way, but he said his parents argued a lot, so anything was better than being home.

“If we’re gonna be outside in this cold,” Launchpad continued, “we should at least go sledding down Muddlefoot Hill!”

No!” Chucky blurted out. “We’re not going sledding on Muddlefoot Hill!”

The hill, named by Chucky after the neighbors on The Darkwing Duck Show, was a small knoll at the back of the trailer park, not far from Darkwing's house. Sledding down it wasn't scary -- it wasn't high enough to be scary -- but the good side to sled down faced the trees of Booger Woods. That made the idea of sledding down it very scary to Chucky, especially after what happened there last year.

What if he got going too fast and couldn't stop before he was in the woods? What if Pennywise saw him come sledding in and decided to grab him, like he grabbed Joshua Banks? Like he probably grabbed Nathan Dawson from that gas station... grabbed him and ripped him to little pieces, then tore his cock off -- just like he did before.

“Relax, guys, we’re gonna look for Nathan!” Darkwing said. “Just let me watch for another minute…”

Launchpad rolled his eyes and cursed, but Chucky didn’t hear exactly what he said. Whatever it was, Chucky kind of agreed with him… he was getting tired of just standing around outside in the snow. They were supposed to be walking the neighborhood, looking for blue cars and trying to see who they belonged to. Darkwing said he had seen lots of blue cars around, and some of them belonged to people who were speficious, or something like that. He thought one of them could be the person who took Nathan Dawson, and he wanted to figure out which one it was.

It was getting late, though, and Chucky wondered if they would have a chance to look at all before it got too dark. Darkwing had been worried about time when they had to wait for Chucky to get his boots on, but now it was him wasting time, by looking at that girl. That was irritating to Chucky, but he wasn’t brave enough to say anything.

He always had a hard time getting his boots on so it took a few minutes, so what? Launchpad said it took so long because he was too fat. That if he lost his gut it would be easier for him to reach his feet. That hurt his feelings almost as much as being called stupid or retarded, but Darkwing didn’t stop him because the girl and her family were unloading boxes from their truck and taking things into the pink trailer. Watching her was more important than defending his friend… that made Chucky sad.

“Look, they are moving in,” Launchpad snapped. “She’s gonna be there every day, you can look at her more later!”

Okay,” Darkwing conceded, “okay.”

Even after he said it, though, he didn’t lower his fancy binoculars. They were really powerful, and probably too expensive for a kid to be playing with. They had been his dad’s binoculars, actually, but he had taken them over, now. He always seemed to be looking at things with them; looking at people he thought were speficious or at things he thought were strange. Chucky thought that was because Sheriff Rambo had asked him to keep an eye on Booger Woods after they found Joshua Banks' parts there. Darkwing seemed to like Sheriff Rambo -- wanted to help him out by seeing something -- by seeing [_ anything -- _] that might help them crack the case of The Butcher.

Chucky liked Sheriff Rambo too, who wouldn’t like to have Rambo as their sheriff? He couldn’t figure out why he didn’t look the same as he did in his movies, though… that didn’t make any sense. He had a big belly, now, and his hair was short and blonde instead of being long and black. He never showed off his bazooka either, which Chucky really wanted to see. Every time he asked about it, Rambo just laughed and said It’s in the trunk, Chuck.

When Launchpad cursed again and announced he was giving up, Darkwing finally stopped looking at the girl. Of course, he tried to lead Donnell and Chucky in the direction of the pink trailer when they started to canvas the neighborhood, but Donnell insisted that they go the other way, instead. Darkwing didn’t like that, but he followed when Launchpad started storming towards his house.

They walked around the park for hours, sneaking and creeping through the crunchy snow and dropping prone on their bellies every time they saw a car that was even remotely close to blue. They would lay as flat as possible to avoid being seen, then Darkwing would look through the binoculars to see if anything speficious was going on. Chucky would try to crane his head to get a look as well, but Launchpad kept yelling at him -- telling him to hold still or saying he needed to hide behind something because he was too chunky to blend in just by laying in the snow.

They found three cars that Darkwing decided were interesting enough to tell Rambo about, and he got a chance to do so just a few minutes after the street lights had come on. They were walking along Tikiwood near Pikewood when he drove up, flashing his police lights and chirping with his siren to get their attention.

Boys,” he said sternly, “what in Sam’s Hell are you doing out at this time of night? Don’t you know there’s a curfew on right now?”

“Hi, Clyde,” Darkwing said.

That mortified Chucky. Momma told him to respect the law, and calling an officer by his first name -- calling any adult by their first name -- was something that you just shouldn't do. It didn't seem to bother Sheriff Rambo, though, if anything it made him nicer.

"Hello, Jacob," he replied with a smile, then nodded at Launchpad and Chucky. "Donnell, Chuck," he said. "Look, I'm not trying to bust your chops, boys, but it's dangerous for you to be out here -- what, with everything that's been going on."

Launchpad nodded back cautiously, his parents had told him to be careful of the police, too.

“But we’re all together!” Darkwing answered. “We’re not alone, just like you said! You said we shouldn’t be out alone, that we had to look out for each other!”

“That’s true,” Rambo explained, “but you can’t be out after dark, even if you’re all together… it’s just not safe.”

“We’re looking for Nathan Dawson, though!” Darkwing said. “We’re trying to help you find him!”

For some reason, hearing that made all the color run out of Sheriff Rambo’s face. Chucky saw it happen, his smile falling slowly to a look that reminded him of his own face after he had a tooth drilled by the dentist. It looked like Rambo went numb, like someone gave him that shot they give so that the drilling doesn’t hurt. The drilling hurts anyway, and Sheriff Rambo looked just like that. Like a person who just had his tooth drilled and it hurt, even though it wasn’t supposed to. He didn’t say anything at first, just sat there looking at them with his after-drilling face. Nobody said anything, actually, and there was what Momma would’ve called an awkward silence for a little while.

Get in, boys,” he finally said, looking numb and as though the drilling hurt.

Since he was the police, they listened -- they didn't want to get arrested. He said he was going to drive them all home, each to their own house, where they had to stay until at least the next morning. Along the way, Darkwing asked about the family they saw moving into that pink trailer.

Oh,” the Sheriff said, coming back to life. “That’s the Swete family. They just moved from Ohio and they’re a very friendly bunch.”

“They have a daughter,” Darkwing replied. “A girl our age, with blonde hair.”

“Yes, Tracy is her name, I think.”

Tracy,” Darkwing said dreamily.

“Yep, Tracy Swete… she’ll be going to school with y’all starting next week.” Rambo took his serious tone, his police voice, as he said “I want you boys to keep an eye on her. She doesn’t know anybody around these parts, and she’s gonna need some friends. Can you promise to look out for her?”

Darkwing promised eagerly. Chucky and Launchpad did too, but not as excitedly as he did.

They were closest to Launchpad’s house, so he got dropped off first. Darkwing’s should’ve been next, but that would mean going close to Booger Woods. Chucky didn’t like to go anywhere near Booger Woods after the sun went down, even with a grownup -- even with Rambo, who had his bazooka in the trunk. Darkwing knew that, so he asked the Sheriff to take Chucky home instead.

When they got there, Rambo made Chucky promise not to go back outside at night. That would be an easy promise to keep, since Chucky was afraid of the dark -- even when he had his flashlight. When he got inside, the television said that Nathan Dawson wasn't missing anymore...

Nathan Dawson, who had been alive and all put together just two weeks ago, but was all taken apart now… taken apart and dead, dead like Gary Duncan and Joshua Banks…

Nathan Dawson, whose parts were found frozen in the snow… frozen and spread all around, behind the old church in town.

 

 

EIGHT

 

 

September 9th, 2016. 8:15AM

Garthby, Indiana

 

The Circuit Court was bustling, attorneys and defendants scurrying around everywhere, making preparations for their cases and their weekends in a frenzy that was familiar to Donnell Hughes. He was amazed as he stood, though, that there was so much activity in this particular building.

Elsmere had always been considered backwoods country, a quiet place with a minuscule population as compared to the neighboring counties of Grant and Howard. The fact that there were so many cases pending was startling to him, as was the nature of those he overheard whispers of.

Prostitution, armed robbery, organized retail crime, home invasion, aggravated assault, assault with a deadly weapon… these were city cases, things that he would expect to hear adjudicated in his home county of Marion, where the decay of Indianapolis exerted its pull to delinquency and called the depraved out to play. He remembered none of these things being major problems during his youth in Burlwood, where it was liquor, meth and The Butcher that ruled the roost of crime.

Those things had been issues, sure -- the murders were certainly an issue -- but they were problems largely dealt with in, and kept confined to, a family's home or trailer. They were certainly not pulled out and brandished in the public light of day, never ended up in court as these people were now. Even The Butcher was only spoken of in whispers within the limits of Burlwood, it was the voyeurs from out of town who had given him so much pomp and circumstance in the past.

Seeing so many accused lingering around this morning, seeing that they looked much the same as the people he’d grown up with, was staggering to him. These were not the faces of crime as he knew them, certainly not of crimes on the scale of those which they spoke of. He saw the faces of single mothers, unemployed or underemployed fathers, outcast siblings, underprivileged youth, the faces of his friends from another life -- from another place in time. They were him, just without the William Fiorvanti suit and Christian Louboutin shoes. Without the Hublot watch or the Jacob & Co. cuff links. Without the drive and determination, without the advanced degree from Purdue paid for with -- well... with things he wasn't proud of.

These weren’t the foreign city folk he was used to seeing in court halls, the type that looked as though they’d just as soon shoot you as let you stand underneath their umbrella in the driving rain… the ones he tried so hard to assimilate with, largely at the behest of LeTonya. These were his people, black and white alike, and they didn’t look the part of the charges they were facing.

Perhaps most disturbingly, many of them were familiar to him, too… maybe even most of them. They were the ones left behind; the ones who couldn’t escape Burlwood Meadows, couldn’t escape the liquor, the meth, the spousal abuse, the neglect, the deviance, the shadow of The Butcher and his damning of the town.

He felt pity for them… pity and sympathy both. They were victims as much as they were perpetrators, that much they did share with many of the city folk he’d represented in his career.

The evident spike in their numbers, this increase in crime per capita, wasn't something that had happened overnight or without a tangible cause. It had built slowly, brewed for many years in a stew of depression and depravity, seasoned by their parents -- by his parents -- and held in a rolling boil with the nocuous passage of time until the double distilled hot-load of criminality bubbled over. The malevolence of this generation was no more than a symptom of the sickness that had ravaged the one that came before. The wasting disease that had slowly gnawed away at the notion of taboo until it was absent entirely, toppling the walls of decency and unleashing a torrent of pent-up debauchery that had festered inside for years.

Well, that and the work of Ron Boudreaux, that is…

How apropos, Donnell thought, that he heard no talk of drug-related cases in the chatter of those around him. No possession, no under the influence, no manufacture of or intent to distribute was on the menu.

In Donnell's experienced life, he observed that narcotics generally fuel the engines of crime. Illicit drugs stoke the flames and raise the ante, giving birth -- after limited gestation -- to felonious behavior that results in the listing of an otherwise innocent name after the threatening words The People Of Indiana Versus. All else being equal, drug charges typically go hand in hand with indictments as serious as those on the docket in the quiet town of Garthby this morning.

When it came to the man Donnell had known as Deputy Ron -- now Sheriff Boudreaux, in all his glory -- all else was far from equal. The people of Elsmere County wear blinders, though, not unlike those sported by their champions of the dirt at Burlwood Downs. The shady deeds in the periphery are, and had been, apparently unimportant, so long as the track ahead is clear and fast. Gathered at the wire would be an eager crowd; a frothing electorate, ballots and bet slips in hand, cheering for their hometown hero, their prized stallion of virtue. Each of them gathered there, in their fervor, were either unaware of, or unconcerned with, the dangerous levels of Aminorex in the bloodstream of their victor. They stand indifferent, so long as the payout odds are slanted generously in their favor.

Even the finest thoroughbreds, born of pedigreed blood, are known to shit upon the grass beneath their hooves from time to time. And even as steaming heaps of manure begin to mount, the legacy of a champion is held beyond reproach. A king will not be perceived as any less a god in shitting, even as the flies begin to circle and congregate, even as the odor becomes noxious and suffocating to all who behold it. Such is the legend of Sheriff Ron Boudreaux… such is the blessing, such is the curse.

The fruit of all his labor was in bloom and ripe throughout the court house, plump and juicy and sweet, all prefaced with that immortal and condemning phrase -- The State Of Indiana Versus.

The State Of Indiana Versus Charles Edward Murphy, read the one-sheet indictment provided to Donnell as Chucky’s counsel. The Grand Jurors of the state of Indiana, for the County of Elsmere, upon their oaths, present that CHARLES EDWARD MURPHY, on July 24th, 2016, in the city of Burlwood and/or other municipalities within the County of Elsmere, within the jurisdiction of this court, did purposely, knowingly, wilfully and feloniously abduct a minor child, one William Marsh, to-wit, with malice aforethought, in violation of Title 35-42-3-2 of Indiana Code, a Level 4 felony, hereto referenced as count 1. It is further alleged as to count 1, that on or between July 24th, 2016 and July 26th, 2016, the aforesaid did purposely, knowingly, wilfully and feloniously kill William Marsh, a human being, without authority of law, with malice aforethought, in violation of Title 35-42-1-1 of Indiana Code, a capital crime, murder in the first degree, hereto referenced as count 2. It is further alleged as to count 2, that the aforesaid did purposely, knowingly, wilfully and feloniously mutilate the corpse of William Marsh, a human being, in violation of Title 35-45-11-2 of Indiana Code, a Level 6 felony, hereto referenced as count 3. The Grand Jury, taken from the body of good and lawful men and women of Elsmere County, in the state of Indiana, elected, impaneled, sworn and charged to inquire in-and-for said County in said State, in the name of and by the authority of the State of Indiana upon their oaths return this, a true bill, and request and require that CHARLES EDWARD MURPHY, a citizen of Burlwood in the County of Elsmere and the State of Indiana, be apprehended and dealt with in a manner accordant with the law. Presented by the Foreperson of the Grand Jury, in the presence of the Grand Jury, in open District Court of the County of Elsmere, in the State of Indiana, and filed as a record in said Court this 5th day of September, 2016.

The words made his blood run cold, the mere idea that Chucky could stand accused of such a heinous crime sending chills up his spine. He had seemed so gentle, so harmless in the days and years they spent as children and adolescents at large in Burlwood Meadows. When life was new, and the atrocities of The Butcher so difficult to comprehend.

He checked his watch nervously, aware of time more acutely now than LeTonya would believe was possible as he wondered why no one had come to speak with him yet. No district attorney had appeared, no bailiff instructing him where to find his client. It was eight-thirty and there had been no sign of Jake, who had promised to be there, nor of Louie Rambo, whom he had expected to meet with a half an hour ago. He was frustrated beyond belief that -- on this occasion, when he had finally taken control of his day and exercised a degree of punctuality -- no one seemed concerned with the seconds that were so hurriedly and futiley ticking away into the realm of The Langoliers.

Surely, he thought, it can’t be this maddening to LeTonya.

Louie Rambo eventually appeared, shucking and jiving his way through the gathered masses, and met Donnell with a half-smile. Under different circumstances, the grin of reaquaintance would’ve been complete. The inner satisfaction of laying eyes on an old friend who appeared to be doing so well in life had coaxed the side of Rambo’s mouth that was rising, with only the turmoil of the past several days holding the other in paralysis.

There was much more of Donnell Hughes to see than had existed in 2000, when graduation had sent him off to college and Louis to Fort Wood for basic training two years later. The Donnell of old -- Launchpad , as it had been -- was a thin and lanky young man with aspirations that fully dwarfed his stature. The husky definition of his curves at present told a tale of perseverance, and the annihilation of obstacles and limits that demographics had bestowed upon him. Those limits were dead and dismembered, now. Their remains cast aside, left to decompose in the billowing trail of smoke that was his wake. He was larger than life, in stature and in standing, and Louie was proud to behold the man Launchpad had grown to be.

Louie Fuckin’ Rambo!” Donnell chuckled through a wide, full smile.

Watching his old pal approach, he subjected the officer to a similar assessment. There was no surprise on his part, though, as Rambo was exactly what Donnell had always known he'd be. A tall drink of water, thick and solid in his crisp khaki uniform with a glistening golden badge upon his breast, as was predestined from the moment of his birth. His light brown hair was tight to his head, just as it had been in days of old. The only visible difference was that its neatly cropped outline was pulling back from his forehead a bit -- exactly as his father's had. His mustache was standard-issue highway-trooper, a carbon copy of his father's just the same. The rattle of cuffs and keys on his belt announced his authority as he approached, an authority he carried with honor, reverence and distinction.

Donnell!” Rambo returned, reaching out his hand as he broke free from the crowd. “Or should I call you Launchpad?

Do it and die,” Donnell laughed, being swallowed up in Rambo’s firm and authoritative handshake. “How the hell ya’ been, buddy?”

“Been good, man, I’m good,” the deputy replied. “How’s the murder business been treating you?”

“Killin’ me, man, it’s killin’ me,” he quipped. “Say, how’s the old man been? Still busting up all the teenaged parties at the park?”

“He would if we let him,” Rambo acknowledged with a smile. “He’s on a garden detail lately, and God help any weed he catches trespassing since he doesn’t have to worry about pulling warrants anymore!”

“Glad to hear it, glad to hear it,” Donnell returned, still beaming.

“Did you catch up with Jake?”

"Yeah, I tracked him down -- said he's coming, should be here any minute, I imagine."

“Good! Chucky will be excited to see him!”

Donnell finally lowered his smile, shifting his attention to the business at hand. “So what’s going on here, man, how’d Chucky get caught up in this?”

Rambo’s face changed immediately and drastically, a flummoxed grunt marking the moment. “I don’t know exactly, man, but it’s not a good deal… not a good deal at all.”

“What’s the story?”

“Well,” he began, taking a deep and long-winded breath as he gathered his thoughts. “Chucky had been working at Our Mother Of Sorrows, still, with Father Lovett.”

“Right,” Donnell responded.

"A few months back, we got a call at the office from Sally Marsh -- that's Billy Marsh's mother."

"Billy Marsh, that's the vic -- right?" Donnell asked, pulling a legal pad from his attaché and making a note.

“Right,” Rambo nodded. “She and her family are parishioners, been going to Our Mother since they moved here last January. Billy went to Sunday School while the Marsh’s were at mass, and they started to notice that Chucky was always talking with him when they went to fetch him from the class.”

“What kind of talking?”

“They didn’t know exactly, partially because Chucky always shied away when they turned up. They asked Billy about it, and he told them that they talked about cartoons.”

Donnell acknowledged this, making more notes. “They thought that was strange, right?”

"Right," Rambo agreed, "they found it hard to believe that a full-grown man had any interest in Phineas and Ferb. Naturally, they wanted to know if Chucky had any kind of record. He's not the cleanest cut guy -- kind of looks like the type that could be trouble."

"Can't blame them," Donnell said, "I imagine I'd be pretty suspicious too -- if I didn't know Chucky."

“They were very suspicious,” Rambo emphasized. “I talked to them myself, tried to explain to them that Chucky’s…” he paused, struggling for the proper word. “Challenged? " he offered as his first instinct. Donnell nodded, accepting that phrasing. "But they didn't want to hear it. They insisted we do something -- even though I told them there wasn't anything to be done... he hadn't committed any crime, didn't present any imminent danger."

“Then what happened?”

“Nothing, for a while,” Rambo continued. “About six weeks ago, there was an incident…

“What kind of an incident?”

Well,” Rambo winced, as though pained by what he would have to say next. “They claimed that Billy told them Chucky took him to the maintenance room, wanted to show him something.”

“Okay?” Donnell asked apprehensively, not sure exactly what to expect was coming next.

Apparently,” another hesitation, "according to the boy, at least," he qualified, "Once he was in there, Chucky closed the door -- and tried to kiss him.”

What?” Donnell gasped. “You don’t think he’d do anything like that, do you?”

Rambo considered, his eyes wandering with his thoughts. “I don’t think so… but I guess I really don’t know. I haven’t really talked to the man much since we all went off our separate ways, just in passing… we were never really close like that anyway.”

“Did you go talk to him about it?”

“Yeah,” Rambo explained, “we had to, we couldn’t just let that drop.”

“What’d he say?”

“He said he did take the boy to the maintenance room, but insisted he only wanted Billy to watch SpongeBob with him. He said he was lonely, that he didn’t have anyone to talk to or spend time with since his mother died in 2012. He thought Billy would be his friend, and he was just inviting his friend to pass some time watching cartoons with him.”

Donnell raised an eyebrow.

“Before you jump to any conclusions,” Rambo continued, “there was a TV -- and a SpongeBob DVD was in a player connected to it.”

“So, what? The kid made the whole kiss thing up?”

"If you believe Chucky, yes... he said Billy skipped the lesson -- which the teacher did confirm -- and spent the hour watching with him. When it was time to go, the teacher saw Billy, so the kid was scared that his parents were gonna be mad at him. They’d told him he wasn’t allowed to talk to Chucky, and he thought the teacher was gonna narc him out. I guess throwing in the bit about the kiss could’ve just been an effort to deflect their anger.”

“Sounds feasible,” Donnell noted.

“That’s what we thought… so we let it go, again. The Marsh’s were pissed, they went to Father Lovett and demanded that he fire Chucky. He wouldn’t, came to us for advice. I talked it over with him, then the two of us had a conference with The Marsh’s to see what we could hammer out. If it were me, if I was concerned about someone at the church, I think I would've just found somewhere else to go. They didn't want to hear that, though -- said they were good Catholics who refused to be driven away from worship, and there's not another Catholic Church within thirty miles of Burlwood. They also insisted that having Chucky around the other children presented a danger they couldn't turn their backs on, so they kept working Father Lovett until they got him to agree it would be best to keep Chucky away from the Sunday School altogether. So, he told Chucky to keep away from the church until three PM -- when everyone would be out the door."

“How’d he take that?”

“He was hurt, but he agreed… figured it wouldn’t last too long, that things would settle down and go back to normal. Then, on the 24th, the shit really hit the fan.”

“What exactly happened then?” Donnell asked emphatically, knowing full well that any details he gleaned from his old friend were in excess of what he was owed. The full details of the evidence on which The State staked their case were not due him until the furnishing of a discovery packet, which they had two weeks to deliver.

“I don’t know all of the details, Donnell,” Rambo prefaced, knowing just as well what the man was after. “All I can really tell you is that when the Marsh’s went to fetch Billy, the teacher said she hadn’t seen him.”

“They didn’t deliver him directly to the class?” Donnell asked.

“They say they did,” Rambo replied, “but the teacher was running late, so they just left him in the room with the other kids.”

“Did you talk to any of the other students?”

Rambo nodded.

“And?”

"They said Billy left to use the bathroom, then they heard the church van start up outside, it's that same old Dodge Ram van, loud as hell. Then, it sounded like it drove away. Nobody knew anything was wrong until The Marsh's were out of mass and went to get Billy, which is when the teacher told them he hadn't been in class. When the other kids told them about him going to the bathroom -- about hearing the van, they called us. We responded to the church when their call came in, and found no sign of the boy or the van. They suspected Chucky right away, of course. We went to check his trailer, but it was almost three by that point and he just strolled into the church -- acting perfectly normal, perfectly fine."

“And the van?”

“Still no sign of it… not at the church, not at his place.”

“Did it ever turn up?

“Not yet,” Rambo said, perplexed. “We’ve had a BOLO out on it since the minute it happened, and nobody’s seen it, like it disappeared off the face of the Earth.”

“What did you do about Chucky?”

Rambo sighed heavily. "Boudreaux had us take him down to the station -- and he interrogated him personally for six hours! Probably gave him the works, you know how Ron is!”

Donnell returned the sigh, his in frustration and disgust. “Any idea what he had to say for himself?”

“Not much, from what I understand.” Rambo answered. “Apparently said he was home the whole time, had no idea anything was wrong”

“And how did you get from there to arresting Chucky?”

The officer swallowed hard, as though he were choking back a nauseated urge to vomit his next revelation. “Chucky gave Boudreaux permission to search his trailer… we found the keys to the van on his kitchen table.”

Shit!” Donnell gasped in dismay. “Shit, are you serious?

Rambo simply nodded again, several times, his eyes closed and solemn faced.

Fuck me runnin’,” Donnell shook his head and reached into his attaché again, retrieving a bottle of Tums this time and chewing several at once. “That’s obviously bad news, but not enough to arrest the man…”

“No,” Rambo agreed, “and Chucky said it was a spare set that he always kept, with The Father’s permission, when Boudreaux pressed him.”

“Father Lovett confirm that?” Donnell hoped aloud.

Another set of nods, this time more positively. "Boudreaux couldn't get him to cop to anything, either, so he put him on a 72-hour hold and had us tear the county apart in search of that van -- or for anything else that might link Chucky to what happened. We searched his trailer again, searched the church, searched his Buick, went over his phone records, went over the activity on his bank card -- hell, we spent so much time digging into Chucky we barely had a chance to actually look for Billy Marsh! Then, of course, we found the remains… that’s when Boudreaux really lost his shit. He took the whole thing pretty personally, people were starting to point fingers, thinking it was the return of the fabled Butcher -- the one that got away. I’ve never seen anything like it, Donnell, he was like a rabid dog. He had us working around the clock trying to convict Chucky. He wasn’t happy at all about the press -- he was pissed, frankly, that something like this happened on his watch. He wanted this thing squashed, and quickly. He was out to get Chucky, determined to pin this on him. When we couldn’t find the van or any other smoking gun, he had to let Chuck go.”

“Right,” Donnell grunted, “with a perpetual tail from the moment he walked out, if I know Boudreaux at all. What happened?” he asked, as though expecting bad news to come of it.

Nothing,” Rambo said. “He didn’t do anything that was remotely suspicious -- until this past Monday. He apparently had a tire blowout on the way to work, and stopped to change it. Some wiseguy private eye claimed he saw some kind of discoloration in the liner of his trunk.”

“Through a glass, darkly,” Donnell snarked.

"Yeah, basically!" Rambo concurred in frustration. "So, Boudreaux got another warrant for the car -- and of course, lo and behold, they find a patch of fabric that looks like it's been shampooed. Nobody noticed the first time, conveniently." More obvious frustration. "They cut a swatch out, and there were -- stains, I guess, that Boudreaux suspected were blood.”

“Dried or wet?”

“Dry.”

“They test it?”

“They sent it off, we don’t have a lab here in Elsmere.”

“Is that all they’ve got?” Donnell asked, trying to piece it all together in his mind. “The keys and what they suspect is blood? That doesn’t seem like enough to charge him if they haven’t linked it to the kid.”

“I don’t know, Boudreaux’s playing everything close to his chest, suddenly.” Rambo asserted, “I agree, that doesn’t seem like enough. I don’t know what else there could be, though. Unless, of course, Ron knows what will come back from the lab… it’s hard for me to say that, I have my issues with Boudreaux, but I don’t know if he’d go that far.”

Donnell mulled this over for a moment, tried to read between the lines. “Yeah, I dunno about that either. Do you think it’s possible he just jumped the gun on it? Charged him on a whim?”

Rambo shrugged half-heartedly, sighing as he did. “I dunno, maybe , I guess," he admitted. "To get things to quiet down, maybe, you know how these things go -- path of least resistance, right?"

Donnell knew, nodded to show he did. "Chucky's an easy guy to pin it on -- especially since he obviously had a connection to the boy. What else could they have?” he probed, wondering if Rambo was holding anything out on him.

“I wish I knew, Donnell, but I really mean I don't." the officer said convincingly, knowing just what Donnell was hinting at. "And I don't know whether Chucky did this or not -- that's why I called you, why I tried to get in touch with Jake. It sure doesn't sound like the Chucky I know.”

“Yeah, it would be a stretch.”

“If he did, then justice should take its course. If he didn’t, though…” he trailed off.

“You don’t want him to be the fall guy,” Donnell concluded.

Right. Boudreaux doesn’t seem to care either way, just wants it over.”

Donnell scanned his notepad, examining what he’d written and trying to extrapolate anything he could from the words. “Were you able to get me what we talked about?” he asked, nearly in a whisper.

Rambo scanned the entirety of the hall, peering over the heads of the people around them cautiously, before surreptitiously reaching into the pocket of his pants and withdrawing a tightly folded packet of papers. Donnell took it, stuffing it into his attaché with practiced discretion.

The deputy was obviously uneasy, even once the transaction was complete. “Donnell, if Boudreaux ever found out I gave that to you…”

“I know,” Donnell interjected, fanning him as he often fanned LeTonya when she became agitated. “It’s cool, I’ve got you, don’t sweat it.”

In a forced whisper, nearly inaudible over the din around them, Rambo elaborated. “I got the coroner’s report, redacted versions of the reports from the old murders, the log Deputy Marx took in Booger Woods and a redacted version of the arrest warrant, but I couldn’t get anything else -- you'll have to wait for the discovery packet for anything else."

“It’s a start,” Donnell replied. “I appreciate it.”

Checking his watch again, he wondered what was keeping Jake. Past experience suggested he wasn’t the type to flake out, especially when it came to matters involving Chucky. He wouldn’t be able to wait, though, if much more time ticked by. Preparing himself to go it alone, he asked one final question of his old friend.

“Well, when do I get to see him?”

 

NINE

 

 

More broken glass, more gargling, more nicotine, more menthol… menthol, precious menthol, Jake’s throat was tired of all the rest, but it still craved that soothing cool of Newport’s menthol. He’d spent all of three hours at the Best Western of Garthby, a good portion of that time simply standing in the shower beneath a refreshing cascade of cleanliness.

Enriching the experience was the fresh scent of a complimentary bar of soap, insignificant though it was in size, which had triggered an epiphany when he found it on the bathroom counter. There were two of them, one labeled cleansing and the other exfoliating, right next to tiny bottles marked hair purifier and hair protector. Nearby was a similarly puny flask of mouthwash with a folded card declaring that toothpaste, a toothbrush and shaving supplies could be had by simply calling down to the courtesy desk.

Fuck, why hadn’t he thought of that… perhaps subtracting the cost of those items from his mentally tabulated flight package would’ve allowed him to avoid the disastrous encounter with his soon-to-be ex-wife. Still, there would’ve been no time to shop for a replacement wardrobe suitable for court, and the investigation that would follow.

There hadn't been time for sleep either, but that was okay -- he wasn't tired, not yet at least. His mind had been racing for the entirety of his drive, and it still refused to slow down as he sat in the parking lot of the courthouse. He still heard the call of double indemnity , felt a strong desire to go there -- for a long and lonely vacation, in the oblivion of the abyss. He drank the complimentary Best Western coffee just in case, though it was more a choking down than a drinking because it tasted like day old liquified shit -- warm and rancid, with notes of hazelnut creamer and corn.

His eyes were dry and bloodshot, tired of being subjected to the open air and crying out for relief in the shelter of their lids. As it happened, he was never without an elixir to mend that omnipresent problem. Fishing through his cluttered glovebox, he found the bottle of Rohto Maximum Cooling Relief eye drops that lived inside, buried under enough Burger King napkins to make the fearless warrior known as seasonal allergies quake in its boots. Two drops in each eye, then blink repeatedly… simple and familiar, soothing and resolving.

When he checked Rohto’s work in his vanity mirror, he saw a man much more recognizable to him staring back than the imposter of the night before. The onyx strands of his hair were tamed and gleaming, swept back from his face dramatically with the aid of Brylcream and a fine toothed comb. His pale white flesh was clean and rid of the oils that often plagued it, likely because the exfoliating soap cake was a fountain of wonders he wished he could’ve discovered before now, when his life was in its dusk. His eyes were sparkling and clear, thanks to the drops. The influence of excessive alcohol consumption had passed, with the crimson vessels that had risen in objection to his lack of sleep under siege and fading.

A glowing red zit had erupted on his neck, a byproduct of his oily skin, but it was the only visible blemish on his otherwise pristine and put-together appearance. It resided just above his collar, which was crisp and starched to perfection under the expert tutelage of Tracy Swete Giguére; master housekeeper and steward of her husband and his son. The shirt he'd chosen was a dark navy blue -- he never cared for white dress shirts, they made him look washed out -- and was complimented well by the pinstriped black suit coat he wore over top of it. A black silk tie made everything pop, a sterling clip just below his chest fixing it in place along its plunge and making it sparkle. His pants matched the jacket and were as crisp as the shirt, pulling everything together in a flattering and sharp package.

He looked like a million bucks… if only he felt that way.

Much to his dismay, however, he felt the clothing touching his left ribs and torso. That meant he wasn’t wearing his Beretta, and that was unsettling given his predilection to carrying it at all times while out amongst the people of the world beyond his home. He wouldn’t be allowed to have it on him in the courthouse, so it would be stashed under his seat until this portion of the affair was over, at which time he would promptly unbutton his shirt and strap it back on.

His fingers sensed that heat again, though it stung less than it had before, so he disposed of his cigarette butt and resolved to finally make his entrance. There were a lot of people loitering about inside the court -- more than he expected to see -- but he gave them little consideration as he scanned their faces cursorily in search of the one belonging to Launchpad. His highly polished dress shoes made adamant click clack noises on the marble flooring as he strode briskly across it, and the heads of several women snapped up to take him in feverishly with their eyes as he passed.

Donnell saw him in the crowd, recognizing his distinctly chiseled face immediately. In the days of old, Darkwing had been the alpha pretty-boy of all Burlwood Meadows -- a crown he could be heir to just the same at present. There was a rugged edge to him now, which he had earned with age, but it suited him well. The epitome of tall, dark and handsome, he was every bit the heartthrob he had been before. He looked so confident, so self assured -- almost cocky. There was no outward indication of the total mess he was inside, which is just the way he wanted it.

Jake!” Donnell beckoned over the noises of the crowd, throwing up his hand since he was too short to be seen over the heads of those around him. “Over here!

Jake saw the hand, a solitary flash of black standing out amongst the sea of whiteness that represented the constituency of Elsmere County. Apathetic with lack of sleep, his face was as stoic as his mood when he finally caught sight of his old friend. They shook hands when he was close enough to do so, but made no small talk in their meeting. Time was becoming an issue, and he wanted to get right down to business irregardless.

“So, what’s going on?” he asked plainly, no inflection in his voice.

Donnell told him about his discussion with Deputy Rambo in as much detail as he could remember, referencing the notes he’d taken to be sure he didn’t leave key information unaddressed. Jake simply nodded with understanding as he summarized the events concisely, showing no bias in favor of or malice against the accused, their mutual friend.

Of all the talking points conveyed, only one stirred something in him. When Donnell revealed the fact that Chucky had allegedly asked Billy Marsh for a kiss, memories started breaking through the fog of physical exhaustion in his mind. Memories of tears and of crying, of tight hugs and Chucky’s trembling voice. Will you give me a kiss, Darkwing?

Wearing a thousand-yard stare, Jacob stopped Donnell to offer his only counter-commentary. “He was scared,” he said, memories swirling, swirling. Memories of begging, of pleading… memories of compliance. “He likes people to kiss him when he’s scared… it makes him feel better.”

Donnell paused, thinking. Contemplating and piecing together.

"We don't even know for sure that it happened," he finally said. "They can't prove it did. They can't prove a whole lot of anything, really, at least until the blood results come back. Even then, I can discredit those if I need to, based on the way Louie says Boudreaux had a hard on for Chucky. I'll go full Steven Avery, if I have to -- they could've planted that shit, it's suspect that they didn't see anything wrong the first time they searched the car. Didn't see anything until they needed to. So far as Rambo knows, there’s not much more to this case. We’ll know for sure when we get the discovery packet… they’ll have to show their hand.”

“How long will that take?” Jake asked.

“They’ve got fourteen days from today to turn it over. They’ll probably use up all of them, too, they usually do.”

Jake considered this, deciding immediately that two weeks was too far out. He’d be in the land of double indemnity by then -- he would have to find the answers on his own, working blind and uphill. Hoping for a leg-up, he asked if they had any information to set a foundation on which to build. Scanning the crowd almost nervously, Donnell revealed the packet Rambo had given him.

“It’s a start, I figure,” he said. “I’ll have LeTonya scan it when I get back to the office this afternoon, and then I’ll email you a copy. Other than that, we’ve only got the indictment to work with, and it says a whole lot of nothing.”

Jake still wanted to see it, so Donnell retrieved it from his attaché and gave it to him. He read it, and seeing it in print was much more sobering and surreal than he expected.

“Jesus,” he said, “these are serious charges.”

Donnell shrugged. “We’re talking about a murder here, Jake, murder is pretty serious. If he’s covicted on all three charges, they could execute the man.”

This made Jake shudder visibly, he'd forgotten that the death penalty was still on the table in his home state of Indiana. "They would do that?" he asked. "Even though he's --"

“Retarded,” Donnell finished for him, when it was obvious he either couldn’t or wouldn’t say it. “We could argue against it,” he explained. “The Supreme Court ruled that executing a mentally handicapped person is cruel and unusual punishment… but the threshold is extremely low, Jake -- we might have a hard time proving that he's challenged enough to earn that protection. Generally, it's only afforded to those whose IQ tests at 70 or below, and I'm not sure Chucky's would come back in that range. I'll ask the judge to have him evaluated to determine if he's competent to stand trial, that'll let us know where we're at... what our chances are of sparing him that way. It's a tough hurdle to jump, though."

“So,” Jake wondered, surprised, “they’ve executed people like him before?”

Ricky Ray Rector,” Donnell replied in a sing-song and matter-of-fact manner. “For his last meal, he requested pecan pie as dessert. He didn’t eat it, and when the guards asked him why he said he was saving it for later… for after the execution.”

Jake looked disgusted. “And they killed him?”

“With 100 mEq’s of potassium chloride, yes sir they did! I mean, there were a lot of extenuating circumstances in that particular case. He had been of sound mind when he committed the crime, essentially lobotomized himself in an attempt at suicide before he was arrested. He was definitely incapable of understanding what was happening when they killed him, though, and they did it anyway. I doubt they’ll think twice about executing Chucky, if they decide he did this to Billy Marsh.”

Jake stood stone-faced, witnessing the final moments of Rector's life in his mind, then imagining Chucky in his place. He saw the nurses set the picc line, dipping the needle in alcohol and swabbing his arm, as though infection was of any concern. He watched them flush it with saline, blood and water racing into the convicted's veins. He imagined the executioner, a highly educated and distinguished professional, to meet with modern sensabilities -- not the barbarian of antiquity, not wielding an axe or wearing a sackcloth hood to mask his identity. He envisioned the pressing of the button, heard the gasps of pneumatic machinery answering. Saw the plungers driving a deadly cocktail of poisons into the condemned’s veins, and considered what the doomed man would be thinking. Was he looking forward to that piece of pecan pie he had saved? That last dessert, intended for him, that would end up, instead, being the bounty of the rats that called the prison’s dumpster home. Now becoming the condemned, he felt the cool rush of chemicals in his bloodstream, the sting of impending death and the cessation of breathing as his systems began to shut down. He lived the death, experienced the fear that came when a low-functioning mind finally realized the end was imminent. Only when the attending physician had made the final declaration did he reply.

“We can’t let that happen.”

“Well, that’s the goal,” Donnell replied. “If Boudreaux is as determined to stake a claim with this case as it seems, he’s probably going to urge the district attorney not to offer much in the way of a plea bargain. We’ll probably be facing either life without parole as a deal, or the risk of execution if we take it all the way through trial.”

Jake was obviously disturbed at what he heard, looking down into Donnell’s eyes with conviction and confidence. “Chucky didn’t do this, Donnell,” he said. “He couldn’t have done this.”

“That may be true,” Donnell replied, “but in this country, it’s almost always guilty ‘til proven innocent, you can take that from me. It sounds like Boudreaux is pretty hot-and-bothered, he’s gonna give us a hell of a fight. I know Louie isn’t sure, but I can’t imagine he’d risk bringing this to court if he didn’t have some pretty serious and compelling evidence that Chucky did it. Shit, it would be a disaster if he did… if a not guilty verdict came back, that would be a hell of a blow to his career. It’s gonna take a lot of effort to get Chucky clear of this, that’s what my gut is telling me… and my gut is usually right.”

“We’ll figure it out,” Jake said, still confident. “I will figure out who really did this. I owe the man that much.”

Donnell nodded, impressed at his conviction. “Okay,” he said simply. “They’re supposed to be bringing him to a conference room to meet us, then we’ll be headed in to face the judge. It’ll be quick and painless, just the reading of the charges and setting of bail.”

“We could bail him out?

“No, it’s just a formality… bail is automatically denied in murder cases contested here in Indiana. I’ll ask for the psych evaluation, they’ll agree to have it done, and we’ll be in standby mode until I get the discovery packet.”

No,” Jake said in retort, “I’m gonna go to work right away!”

Donnell nodded again. "I understand -- but it's still gonna be a long process, Jake. Could be up to a year before it's all been said and done."

“I’ll find the answer,” he replied, resolute. “He’ll be out before you get the discovery papers, trust me.”

 

TEN

 

 

It was almost nine-thirty before a bailiff finally appeared to take Jacob and Donnell to see Chucky. He led them to a small conference room just next to courtroom 2-A, gaining entrance with a large key chained to his belt.

Ten minutes,” he advised coldly as he swung the heavy door open.

The air of the room that met them was filled with a familiar musk. The smell of old sweat and body odor seemed to emanate from Chucky’s flesh, accompanying him constantly, traveling on the wind everywhere he went throughout his life. It was born of a general lack of hygiene, spurred along by the accumulation of moisture in folds of flesh from his neck down to his knees, which had always carried ample extra weight.

Jake entered first, laying eyes on the man his friend of old had become for the first time since 1997, when he was sixteen and Chucky nearing twenty. The person in the bright orange jumpsuit shackled to the table inside this conference room was a man of thirty-eight, now, but he looked much the same as the boy Jake remembered.

His shaggy brown hair was matted and filthy, but was otherwise just as it had been before. It was thick and full, cut just below his ears and even all the way around -- as though it had been clipped around the lip of a bowl placed atop his head. The head itself was small in circumference, looking almost too small for his body. Skin folds at the corners accented his similarly small eyes, a low nasal bridge, the complete lack of a philtrum and a thin upper lip completing the picture of a soul who was the innocent victim of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. He looked as though he hadn't shaved for weeks, but it seemed likely in the shag that he had worn a mustache and some semblance of a goatee when fully groomed. This may have been an effort on his part to hide some of the abnormalities of his face, but it was futile in light of the other inconcealable evidence that something just wasn't right with him.

The manacles on his wrists were heavy-duty and serious, perhaps a larger set than normal to accommodate his thick and hulking wrists. A similarly heavy chain was wrapped around their center, then passed through an eyebolt that was protruding from the stainless steel table at which he sat. The contraption forced him to lean forward in his seat, the chain not allowing enough slack for him to assume a more natural and comfortable posture.

It appeared he hadn’t grown much beyond the 5’5” of his youth, and his weight was even more out of control than it had been before. He looked every bit of a soft and doughy two-hundred-fifty pounds, if not more. His weight had stood in contrast, in the days of old, to Jake’s toned and defined musculature, and Donnell’s thin and wiry frame.

It blew Jake’s mind to consider the idea that, at least so far as overall physical condition was concerned, he had the most to show for the eighteen plus years that had separated the three of them. His six feet was still firm and toned, two hundred and twenty pounds of well maintained humanity born of only sparse and limited periods on weight machines and treadmills. It hadn’t required the level of effort that many have to devote in order to maintain such a physique, he seemed predisposed to athleticism and fitness. He was a perpetual Vetruvian Man, no matter how many calories or carbohydrates he subjected his body to, no matter how haphazard his training regime became in the face of other things to tend to. If the physical were an expression of overall wellbeing, he stood head and shoulders above the others and was the healthiest of the three of them.

Sadly, of course, that was not the case… beauty is only skin deep, as is physical conditioning, and beneath his skin was a cesspool. His friends would plunge directly into fits of nausea should they catch a whiff of it, and all would point and laugh at what he had become. Their roles would be completely mirrored opposites, he thought, if the contents of their souls and psyches were on display on the surface. Chucky would stand out as the most beautiful of them all, in all likelihood.

The prisoner’s childish brown eyes lit up with recognition as Jake stepped inside, his sullen face transforming to a glowing, wide and beaming smile.

Darkwing!” he exclaimed, his crooked teeth showing through his lips.

“Hi, Chucky,” Jake replied with shame. Shame in the knowledge that he hadn’t met the obligations and requirements that were implicit with their friendship, shame in the fact that he hadn’t kept his oath.

Launchpad?” he said after, surprised at the mass of manhood that was now Donnell.

Goddamn it, Chucky!” Donnell smiled. “I told you not to call me that!”

Jake’s trademark grimace broke into the slightest grin as the two of them laughed, Chucky more exuberantly and enthusiastically than Donnell.

“Oh my gosh!” Chucky exclaimed, overcome with joy. “I’m so happy you guys finally came back!”

Across the small table from him were two rather spartan chairs, institutional and minimal in appearance -- and perceived comfort. Jake sat to Chucky's right, Donnell to his left as he set his attaché on the table and opened it wide.

“Chucky, Chucky, Chucky,” Donnell shook his head. “You really got yourself in deep this time, didn’t you?”

Chucky sheepishly lowered his head, looking ashamed and frightened. “I don’t understand what happened,” he said. “I’ve never been in trouble before, guys, not since Momma used to get mad at me for leaving the toilet seat up. She grounded me that one time, when she fell in, and I haven’t been in any kind of trouble at all since then!”

“What happened, Chucky? Jacob asked. “Tell us what they did to you.”

Chucky's seemed to zone out and disassociate as he recounted the tale. "I dunno, guys, I just went in to work -- there were lots of police there, like when they found Gary Duncan behind the track, and they took me to the kitchen and started asking questions about my friend Billy."

“What kind of questions?” Donnell asked.

Lots,” Chucky replied emphatically. “They asked if I’d seen him that day, if I took him away in the old Dodge van. I told them no, but they wouldn’t believe me. Then, they took me to the station, and Deputy Ron got really, really mad… he yelled at me a lot, said he was gonna put me in jail and do all kinds of bad things to me.”

Donnell and Jake exchanged a pained glance, knowing plenty about Ron Boudreaux’s temperament and full well how he operated in his craft. They commiserated in silence, hating the idea of anyone being subjected to what must’ve been an intimidating interrogation.

Chucky's eyes widened as he thought, looking up to his friends with tears welling as he spoke. "He said they're gonna put me to sleep -- like Doctor Morris used to do to stray dogs he found in the park. Is that true, guys? Are they gonna put me to sleep, like Doctor Morris did to old sick dogs?"

Deep and agonized breaths were the initial response offered by Darkwing and Launchpad, each of them exhaling loudly and through pursed lips.

“We’re gonna do everything we can to make sure that doesn’t happen, Chuck,” Launchpad offered. “But we’re gonna need you to help us, okay? And to help us best, you need to be one-hundred-percent honest with everything you tell us -- no matter how bad you think something might be. The only way we can help you is if you tell us the truth about everything, okay?”

Chucky nodded, though he was visibly nervous about the idea. He had a habit of painting half-truths to lessen the impact of things he had to say when he thought something was bad or would lead to trouble. He was apologetic in every matter, even when he bore no fault or malice to justify guilt.

“The first thing I need to know, Chuck,” Donnell continued, articulating the importance of the question with hand gestures as he stared intently into Chucky’s eyes. “So that I can decide what route is best to take, which way we want to go,” he paused, consciously slowing the dialogue to avoid losing Chucky in the words. “And remember, we’re on your side, here. What you say in this room will never leave this room. I will never repeat what you say to anyone, it’s for my information only,” another pause, time to let it all absorb. “Chucky, I need you to tell me,” he resumed, “did you kill Billy Marsh[_?_]”

Jake flinched at the question, reeling, and assaulted Donnell with a glare of disgust. “What?” he cried in objection. “Of course he didn’t, Donnell! What the hell kind of question is that?

Donnell noted the outburst with a calm and collected nod, then a hint of his fanning, but remained focused on Chucky, who seemed perturbed at Jake’s irritation. “Is that right, Chucky?” he asked.

“Mm hm,” Chucky replied, his anxiety obvious.

“Okay,” Donnell resumed, “then there’s no sense in talking about a plea, we’ll focus on fighting this.”

Jake calmed himself outwardly, though he was infuriated on the inside. Donnell had never really liked Chucky, that made him angry -- had always made him angry. The implication of the question sickened him.

“Now that we’ve got that out of the way, we need to talk about what Sheriff Bo—” he stopped, modified for Chucky’s level of understanding, “what Deputy Ron said when he talked to you.”

“He talked to me a lot,” Chucky said. “For hours and hours. I can’t remember everything, it was too much.”

“That’s fine, Chuck, I don’t need to know everything. I just need you to try to remember anything he said about evidence… anything he said linked you to the crime… anything he said that he knew.

Chucky considered this at length, his eyes rolling up and to the left as he was scanning his memory banks. “He said he knew I drove the van. That’s true, I do sometimes drive the van. And that he knew I wanted Billy to kiss me.”

“Is that true?” Donnell asked. “Did you ask Billy for a kiss?”

Chucky looked embarrassed, his head dropping in shame. “He tripped on my broom in the maintenance room,” he explained. “I thought he got hurt, that he was gonna tell people I hurt him.”

“You got scared?” Jake interjected. “You just wanted him to kiss you, like I used to, because you were scared?”

Chucky nodded. “That’s all.”

“What else, Chucky?” Donnell asked.

More long thought, then “he said there was blood in my trunk… that they found blood under the fabric.”

“Is that possible?”

“Not Billy’s blood!” Chucky insisted. “I did put a deer in my trunk a few moths ago. I found it by the side of the road, and it made me think of the venison sausage Mister Lane used to make when we were kids! I wanted more of that sausage, so I took the deer to Mister Lane’s butcher shop. You remember Mister Lane, right? Timmy’s dad?”

Memories swirling, swirling. A nod. “Yeah, Chucky, we remember.” Jake said.

Donnell took a note, scribbling madly on his legal pad and changing to a new page when he’d exhausted the first.

“Mister Lane said the deer wasn’t any good,” Chucky noted with disappointment. “He said it had been dead too long, that it was in decay or something like that… like Joshua Banks was when we found his arm. Boy, did it stink bad! He helped me throw it out, then gave me some venison jerky he had in his shop. That was good, but not as good as the sausages we used to eat.”

“That’s where you think the blood came from, Chuck?” Donnell inquired. “Did you notice that it left blood in there?”

"Well, yeah -- probably... and it smelled so bad in there, even when the deer was gone, that I went to the old car wash and tried to clean it with that vacuum that uses water and soap.”

Donnell nodded, more notes. “Did Deputy Ron say anything else?”

“Just that he knew I did it… knew I killed Billy and ripped him up to little pieces, then dumped his parts in Booger Woods by that pond where Momma and I used to have picnics. I told him I didn’t do that, but he wouldn’t listen.”

There was a loud and sudden set of raps on the door to the courthouse lobby, an authoratative voice calling two minutes thereafter. Donnell scanned through his notes and asked one final time if there was anything else Chucky could remember. There wasn’t, so he repacked his briefcase and snapped it shut. He told Chucky about what would happen in the courtroom, how he should behave and what he should say if the judge asked him any questions.

Jake told him he knew everything was very scary, and Chucky agreed that it was. In an attempt to comfort him, he assured him everything would be okay, just like he always had before. The words brought the tears down Chucky’s face, childish sobbing following in short order. Jake hugged him as best he could, given the fact that he was chained to the table, and placed a friendly, though awkward, kiss on his forehead.

The sound of keys rattling in the door announced the arrival of an officer. When the door swung open quickly, a man they hadn’t expected to see appeared on the other side. Despite the knowledge that they were law-abiding citizens, a cool chill swept through each of them when they were met with the cold and accusing stare of one Sheriff Ron Boudreaux.

 

ELEVEN

Kirk Wade

 

October 20th, 1992. 5:35PM

Burlwood, Indiana

 

Darkwing spun the focus adjustment of his father’s binoculars to sharpen the image of a building in the distance. It was a small store, built of white concrete blocks that looked like the walls of the classrooms at his school. Protruding from its rear, visible from the sideways angle at which they surveiled it, was an even smaller metal-walled enclosure with refrigeration units on the roof.

That’s where I think he is,” Darkwing declared confidently. “In that big refrigerator.”

Chucky exhaled heavily, trying to steady his nerves. He didn’t want to be in this place, didn’t want to be watching Butcher’s Lane Provisions for signs of anything speficious. This had been all Darkwing's idea, with Launchpad simply playing along so he could get away from his arguing parents. Chucky wanted to listen to the advice of Deputy Ron and stay close to home. To stay within the limits of Burlwood Meadows, so he didn't end up missing -- like Kirk Wade was missing.

“This isn’t a good idea,” he objected fearfully. “Kirk Wade probably isn’t in there anyway, we should just go home!”

Kirk Wade was twelve years old, just a little younger than Chucky, who was fifteen now. Darkwing and Launchpad were eleven, old enough to know that you should listen when a police officer tells you not to do something… when he tells you to stay inside. That’s exactly what Deputy Ron had done, too, told them not to go out looking for Kirk Wade or trying to solve the case of The Butcher Of Burlwood anymore.

Sheriff Rambo would’ve said the same thing, if not for the fact that he was at home recovering from a heart attack he suffered when Kirk Wade disappeared from Burlwood Downs. Kirk’s parents had taken him there and hadn’t been watching while they cheered for their horse during the seventh race. They were worried right away when they couldn’t find him, because they knew about The Butcher… knew about what happened to Gary Duncan, Joshua Banks and Nathan Dawson.

Chucky wasn't sure why they only worried when he went missing -- Momma was worried about him all the time. She was always telling him he couldn’t go out to play because The Butcher might snatch him up, like Pennywise snatches up children. Once the day was wearing on, though, and she had enough cocktails to drink, she stopped caring whether he went out or not. Darkwing and Launchpad knew he could usually play after three or four o’clock, so that’s when they came to get him.

Usually, they played sports or games -- never manhunt in Booger Woods, though, not anymore -- and generally behaved like young boys. When it was cold and snowy, it was almost always hockey, which Chucky didn't care for. He couldn't skate very well, not nearly as good as Darkwing, so he had to just glide along the ice in his shoes. Launchpad couldn't afford skates, so the two of them couldn't keep up with any of the other boys in the game, and that made hockey boring.

Since Kirk Wade had gone missing last week, though, there was no hockey being played. There wasn't any snow, just crisp autumn cold, but that wasn't the only reason. Really, it was because most of the other children were confined to their trailers, their parents sick with worry and afraid to let them go outside because it seemed The Butcher was back -- seemed Pennywise was hungry again.

Darkwing and Launchpad were always out, though, because Darkwing’s mom was always sleeping after taking her pills, and Launchpad’s parents didn’t seem concerned about him or what he was doing much at all. Of course, all Darkwing wanted to do was to try and find Kirk Wade, since Sheriff Rambo had asked him to keep an eye out after the incident with Joshua Banks in Booger Woods. He seemed to think he was a member of the police or something, like he was supposed to be helping them solve the case.

Kirk's story had been on the television news a lot, and the news always blamed The Butcher when a kid went missing -- not Pennywise, whom Chucky suspected was really the kidnapper and killer. They showed lots of pictures of Kirk, and everybody was trying to find him before The Butcher cut him all up.

Momma said they used the nickname The Butcher because of the way the previous children had been torn apart, and hearing that name made Darkwing wonder if it was Mister Lane who was doing the killing.

Mister Lane owned Butcher’s Lane Provisions, a small shop off Route 4, not far from Burlwood Meadows. Chucky had been in there before, there were lots of good kinds of jerky and sausage for sale inside, which he enjoyed eating. Mister Lane himself was a very nice and gentle man, and he sometimes let Chucky taste samples for free when he didn’t have any money. One time, he brought a box of hamburger meat to Chucky’s house when Momma said they were too poor to afford any food. Momma burnt the burgers, she had too many cocktails that night, but they were still juicy and tasty once you scraped off the black parts.

Knowing Mister Lane, knowing how nice he was, Chucky didn’t think there was any chance he was the one who killed Gary Duncan, Joshua Banks or Nathan Dawson. Nor did he think he had taken Kirk Wade, so watching his shop seemed like a stupid idea, so far as he was concerned. He tried to tell Darkwing that Mister Lane was too nice to do such terrible things, but Darkwing insisted he was speficious anyway.

“One of us has to go in there,” Darkwing decided, still looking at the big refrigerator behind Butcher’s Lane. “One of us has to go see if Kirk Wade is in there, so we can be a witness!”

Chucky was looking away, staring down Route 4 towards Booger Woods to be sure that Pennywise wasn’t coming after them. He could feel eyes upon him, though, as Darkwing made his suggestion… could sense that Darkwing and Launchpad both were staring at him. Feeling their gazes, he wrestled his eyes away from Booger Woods and saw them smiling at him.

Oh, no!” he blurted out, “no, no, no no NO! I am not going in there, guys, there’s no way I’m going in there!”

“Well somebody has to,” Darkwing said, “and it can’t be me, because I have to keep a look out with the binoculars!”

“Then it should be Launchpad!” Chucky argued.

Launchpad frowned, but not in fear or sadness. It was more of an are you kidding kind of frown. “Chucky,” he said, “just look at me. I’m black! Do you have any idea what they do to little black kids who break into places where they don’t belong? It’s not gonna happen, it has to be you!”

“Why me?” Chucky begged of Darkwing. “Why do I have to do it?”

“Think about it, Chucky,” Darkwing began. “If you get caught, we can just say you got confused… that you didn’t know what you were doing, didn’t mean to go in there at all! It’s perfect, they’ll just take you home, they’ll feel sorry for you! Either one of us will get in trouble if we get caught, but they’ll just tell you to be more careful!”

Chucky didn’t like this idea, didn’t like it at all. It was obvious they weren’t going to drop it, though, so all he could do was start preparing himself.

“You just go down and find a door,” Darkwing explained. “You walk in and look around, check for any signs of Kirk Wade, then come right back out. You’ll be a hero if you find him, Chucky, they’ll put you on the news as the boy who caught The Butcher!”

Being on the news did sound like fun -- and Momma would be proud to see her boy on TV. That wasn't much consolation, though, in the face of such a scary mission. What if he did find Kirk Wade in there? What if he was just in little parts, like Gary Duncan, Joshua Banks and Nathan Dawson? What if all he found was his arms or legs, or his ripped off cock? That wouldn’t be very good at all, would be very scary, in fact… would give him more nightmares.

“You have to do it, Chucky -- it's the only way!" Darkwing ordered. "We'll be here watching, we'll see if anyone is coming, and we'll warn you if they are."

“How will you warn me?” Chucky asked.

Darkwing thought for a moment, trying to come up with a plan. Eventually, something came to him and his face lit up. “I’ll hoot twice like a barn owl, once like a screech owl!” he decided. “Just like in that book I’ve been reading to you!”

“Just like Dildo Baggins?” Chucky asked.

Donnell shook his head, laughed.

“It’s Bilbo Baggins, Chucky!” Darkwing advised. “But yes, just like Bilbo Baggins!”

This made Chucky think of something else from that book, about an ugly creature named Gollum. What has it got in its pocketses, he remembered Darkwing saying in a scary, whispery voice. What if Gollum was in the refrigerator?

That made his heart beat even faster than it was already, but he knew he didn’t have any other choice. His friends would pressure him until he agreed, just like they had pressured him to play manhunt in Booger Woods, so he might as well prepare himself for whatever he might find.

“Did you bring your walkie-talkie, like I said?” Darkwing asked.

Chucky had, so he pulled it from his pocket and turned it on.

“Testing, Testing,” he spoke into it.

His voice came back to him a second later, through the speaker of Darkwing’s paired device.

“I’ll talk you through it, the whole way!” Darkwing promised.

He was terrified and his legs were shaking, but he agreed to go because he was afraid his friends would get mad if he didn’t. If Kirk Wade was in there, maybe he was still alive… if he was alive, Chucky would really be a hero for finding him -- like Chip N' Dale, The Rescue Rangers are heroes when they rescue somebody. He tried to focus on that idea as he cautiously started to crawl along the tall and frosted grass, inching toward the building slowly.

“Chucky,” Launchpad’s voice called through the walkie-talkie a minute later. He was so close, he could still hear Launchpad’s real voice. “You can’t just crawl the whole way, we’ll be out here until it’s dark! Get up and walk!”

That was a scary thought -- both getting up to walk, with no cover, and being there until it was dark. He didn't much like either option, but when Darkwing spoke through the speaker and agreed that he should walk, he finally had to stand up. He crouched as low as he could, though, slinking his way along until the grass turned to gravel and he was in the parking lot of the store. It took him nearly five minutes to creep all the way up to the building, his heart thudding away in his chest the whole time.

When he finally reached the concrete pad on which the refrigeration building stood, he scanned along the metal wall in search of some kind of door.

“I don’t know how to get in!” he called through the walkie. “I don’t see a door!”

Darkwing scanned the building with his binoculars, looking for an entrance. “It must be around the back,” he said in a whisper, “or on the other side, where I can’t see.”

“If you can’t see the door, then you won’t be able to see me!” Chucky worried. “I’m coming back!”

No!” Darkwing ordered. “We’ve got to know what’s inside! Just go around the back, I’ll still see you!”

Chucky did, but he wasn’t happy about it. His heart was pounding, just as it had when he raced through Booger Woods trying to find a place to hide before the Manhunt would be on. Darkwing watched him round the corner of the metal building, then noticed action inside the store that made him nervous.

“Uh oh!” he said to Launchpad, not keying up the mic of his walkie-talkie. “Something’s happening!”

The sound of tires crunching down the dirt and gravel surface of Route 4 told them that there was a car coming. It was approaching from the other side of Butcher’s Lane, dust billowing up behind it. Checking with his binoculars and dialing in the focus, Darkwing saw that it was a police car… it was Deputy Ron, in his cruiser.

“Chucky!” Jacob called into his walkie. “You have to hurry up!”

Chucky was fully panicked when he heard that, not knowing what was happening or why Darkwing suddenly sounded frightened. Stepping lively, he walked around the back of the cooler in search of the elusive door. It wasn’t there, either, so he hurried around to the other side. He disappeared from Darkwing’s line of sight as Deputy Ron pulled into the lot and parked. Jacob watched through his binoculars as the officer stepped out of his car and walked casually toward the entrance of the store.

Oh boy!” Darkwing exclaimed to Launchpad. “This could be bad!

“It’s over here! I see it!” Chucky called into his walkie as he rounded the far corner of the building, his signal breaking up in static as he approached the limits of the toy’s effective range.

Woot woo! Woot woo! Scraaaaaw!” Darkwing called, trying to warn his friend. Only static answered back, meaning Chucky wouldn’t be able to hear him. He was out of range, out of touch… on his own.

His entire body trembling, Chucky crept up to the swinging door he saw on the far side of the cooler, almost all the way up to the concrete brick of the store. Trying to steady himself, he flattened out against the cold metal wall. It felt hot instead of chilled, its strange bumpy texture feeling as though it was searing his flesh as he pressed against it. There was a heavy metal handle he had to pull to release a lip that kept the door closed and sealed. He pulled it slowly, frosty air spilling out along the sides as he did.

"I'm going in!" he whispered into the walkie-talkie, having no idea that Darkwing couldn't hear him anymore -- couldn't warn him of Deputy Ron's presence.

The inside of the cooler was totally dark, even the daylight refusing to go in as a result of shadows and naked tree limbs rustling, filtering out the distant sun. He had forgotten his flashlight at home, a fact he realized only now -- realized in fear and anger at himself.

“It’s really dark!” he said, fighting the reluctance of his feet to cross the threshold, the objections of the monsters in his mind. He hoped to hear Darkwing advise him to retreat, to instruct him to abort the mission, because Darkwing knew Chucky was afraid of the dark and wouldn’t force him to go into it.

No such word came, so he assumed they must want him to press on -- assumed they wanted him to be brave. Summoning all of his courage, all the power of the blood that Darkwing had transfused into him through his hand, he slid his feet across the damp concrete just inside the dark cavern. He felt along the walls for a light switch, but could find none. He instinctively started humming rock-a-bye-baby, the lullaby that Momma often sang to soothe him when he was frightened. He pressed on, through the darkness, through the horror.

The place seemed massive once he was in, like a giant cave that went all the way through a big mountain. He walked slowly forward, still scanning for a light switch or anything the break the darkness. In the black, he felt something brush against his arm as he moved. Something big, with wiry hairs, like the body of a werewolf or a Bigfoot. The sensation froze him there, and whatever it was he touched seemed to move away from him. Then, with a frightening metallic clink clank, whatever it was collided with him hard, pushing him back and almost knocking him down.

Terrified, he turned to run back toward the daylight of the entrance. After only a few strides, he felt an incredible impact as he smashed into another heavy, wiry-haired mass. This one did knock him clear off his feet, sending him flying backwards and crashing into yet another furry creature. His feet trailing him in the air, he crashed down to his bottom on the hard and wet concrete floor. His wrist hurt again for a moment, like it had when he broke it in Booger Woods.

He heard another clink clink, like the sound of chains clattering around him, and felt the frigid air billowing and swirling. Sensing things swinging around him, he realized that the monsters were dangling from the ceiling! Hanging above his head, like giant spiders spinning their webs! In his mind, the webs were thick, sticky and dense -- and they were holding, in suspension, all the parts of Gary Duncan, Joshua Banks and Nathan Dawson! Gary's leg, Joshua's arm, and Nathan's missing cock!

Kirk Wade was there, too, still all put together and alive, begging to be rescued from the terrible creatures that left him there! Once the giant tarantula -- or whatever it was -- saw Chucky, a delicious thing to eat, it would swoop down and bite him! It would kill Him, like it had killed the others before!

Fearing he was about to die, he felt another terrible scream building in his lungs. Almost without his consent, without his pushing it out, the scream broke free and echoed in the dank world around him. As he cried, a sillhouette appeared in the glowing light near the door of the cooler. It looked like a giant to Chucky, even though it was, in reality, a person smaller than himself. Its black arm reached inside the room and felt along the wall, finding and flipping some recessed lever that made bright halogen lamps ignite overhead.

When the blinding rays struck his eyes, Chucky covered them by instinct. The sudden illumination made his head ache for a moment, but soon the feeling of a cold hand on his shoulder forced him to look despite his discomfort.

Expecting to see Pennywise, the master of the spiders, he screamed out again -- louder and more frightened than before.

What he saw, instead, was the disarming visage of a little boy, no older than nine or ten. His face was kind and gentle, though concerned and a bit on edge. Looking at it closer, Chucky saw a resemblance in it to Darkwing, his best and treasured friend. The boy's hair was black like DW's, and it was slicked back -- just like his friend wore it. This wasn't Darkwing, though, the boy was just a bit too small to be Darkwing.

It’s okay!” the little boy said comfortingly. “There’s nothing to be afraid of!”

Chucky caught his breath as best he could, shell shocked and disoriented in the suddenly brightened room. The space seemed much smaller, now, than it had just moments before. Pulling himself together, he wrenched his eyes away from the boy and examined the ceiling, looking for the spiders that had scared him so badly. What he saw was almost worse -- was almost more frightening, even, than seeing a giant black widow would've been.

Swinging above him, all around him, were the dead and bleeding carcasses of disemboweled deer! The sight caused another scream to come, a terrible and shrill cry that spooked the little boy standing near him.

Freeze!” Ordered a distinctly southern voice, deep and full of authority, from the direction of the door.

Chucky shut up immediately, looking toward the sound to see Deputy Ron. His legs were spread wide, his arms locked out in front of him and clutching a large caliber chromed handgun. Fear in his face, he held the gun trained on the children -- trained on Chucky.

That was the last image Chucky remembered before waking up inside the storefront of Butcher’s Lane Provisions. In this new, blurry world, Mister Lane was standing above him while Darkwing and Launchpad sat on a bench across from the deli case.

“Are you okay, Chuck?” Mister Lane asked tenderly, leaning close to where he lay on some sort of cot. “You had a heck of a scare!”

“Did I die?” Chucky asked, groggily.

“No, no,” Mister Lane chuckled. “You just fainted is all. Guess all the deer scared ya’, either that or Deputy Ron here, with his gun out and staring down the sights at ya’!”

Deputy Ron was pacing around the shop, sweat beading all over his bald and distinctly Creole head. The rolls and loose flesh on his olive-colored neck looked like a pack of hot dogs, and his saggy face reminded Chucky of a bulldog, though the countenance it wore was much more grumpy looking than any pooch he'd ever met. It didn't help that he was visibly angry, now, and maybe even frightened -- like Chucky had been -- by all of the excitement.

No business, they’ve got no business out here!” he barked with his Louisiana drawl. “What in the name of Jesus Christ did you boys think you were doing out here? Sweet Santa Muerte, shit!

“Trying to help find Kirk Wade,” Darkwing explained in a muted, depressed voice. “We didn’t mean to cause any trouble, we just thought Mister Lane might be The Butcher.”

Lane laughed, Daryl Lane, that is. He had been the literal butcher of Burlwood for nearly twenty years. His nine year old son, Timothy, was assisting today, learning his father’s trade.

“I guess I am the butcher,” he said, “I can’t fault your logic, kids!”

“You coulda’ been shot, I coulda’ shot you dead, son!” Deputy Boudreaux lamented. “Coulda’ shot all of y’all dead, and been justified to do it! Scarin’ me like that, Jesus! Got no business out here, these punk kids, got no business whatsoever!”

“It’s okay, Ron,” Daryl Lane offered. “Nobody got hurt, and they didn’t mean any harm.”

“Are you okay, Chucky?” little Timmy Lane asked, brushing his hands over Chucky’s head gently. “You looked really afraid!”

“I think so, now,” Chucky replied, still breathing heavily. “Will you give me a kiss?”

Seemingly not offended at the suggestion, Timmy obliged without apprehension. Feeling the tenderness in his expression of sympathy and caring, Chucky’s heartbeat slowed. A wave of calm swept through him, a physical sensation that swept from his head to his feet and worked to ease his fears.

“I should take them all downtown, all three of ‘em!” Boudreaux continued, venting his frustration. “Should take ‘em in and make their parents come pick ‘em up, maybe that would teach ‘em! The punk brats!”

Darkwing and Launchpad looked like they were scared too, looked like they were afraid of Deputy Ron and what he might do to punish them. They were both staring down at their feet as the officer continued his frenzied pacing, purging his adrenaline like a steam locomotive blowing off excess pressure.

“Punk kids,” he continued, “little snot-nosed brats, sticking their snotty noses in places they don’t belong! I told you boys to stay in the park, told you not to come out at all! Then I find you here, trespassing at the butcher shop! Trespassing in places where you have no business being at all! Scared the Holy Ghost out of me, mother of God! Scared me, and almost got shot dead for their efforts!”

"Look, Ron," Daryl Lane tried to calm him. "It's no big deal, really -- it's not. I think what we need to do is just to catch our breath, let this thing settle down and then take all these boys back home to their parents. Nobody will be served by dragging them down to county, not with everything else we’ve got going on in this town!” He turned his gentle eyes to Chucky. “Chuck, how would you like some of that venison sausage you seem to care for so much? You see I’ve got plenty of deer hanging in the cooler, I think I can spare a pound or two for you and your Momma to enjoy!”

“I would like that,” Chucky said tentatively, his mouth watering at the suggestion. The sausages would be delicious, once he peeled away the black where Momma would surely burn them.

“Let’s do that, then!” Lane concluded, moving behind his counter. “Let’s all calm down, I’ll put together some care packages for the boys, and we’ll just take them home to their parents! Does that sound good to you, Ron?”

The deputy didn’t respond, still pacing back and forth and muttering under his breath. Wiping sweat from his brow, he considered the idea between curses.

“If I catch ‘em out again, I’ll take ‘em in!” he insisted. “If I catch ‘em sticking their little bratty noses where they don’t belong, I’ll haul ‘em all down to county and book ‘em into juvie! Lock ‘em up like little pups, lock ‘em up and hold ‘em! Christ, what if they’d stumbled into some kind of trouble? I have enough trouble to worry about, don’t need these kids seeing things they shouldn’t see!”

“Don’t worry, boys!” Lane responded. “It’s over now, all over.” Rolling meat in butcher’s paper, his voice lowered with concern and sadness. “Besides, you won’t have to worry about them being out looking for Kirk Wade anymore, rest his soul. That ship has sailed… oh merciful Lord, that ship has sailed and gone away…”

 

TWELVE

 

 

September 9th, 2016. 9:20AM

Garthby, Indiana

 

“Get him out of here!” Boudreaux ordered, pointing his pudgy finger accusingly at Chucky.

At his command, two officers entered the small room and unlocked the chain that bound the prisoner to the table.

“Hey, take it easy with him!” Jacob snapped as the men unceremoniously yanked Chucky to his feet. He stumbled, nearly falling, which led the bailiffs to tug him up by his jumpsuit. “Is that really necessary?”

Boudreaux said nothing to modify his officers’ handling of their quarry, just stood smugly in the door, looking like he truly believed that he was king shit of all the world. Chucky grunted and groaned at the rough treatment, crying ow as the handcuffs tightened around his wrists in the jostling. Seeing this happen broke Jacob's heart, his friend was such a gentle soul -- he didn't deserve this treatment.

“Come on, guys, he’s special!” Jake offered, hoping to persuade them with that knowledge. “He doesn’t pose any threat to you, you don’t have to be so fucking rough!”

“That man,” Boudreaux began, pointing that chubby finger again, “is a vicious, savage and calculated baby killer!” He paused for drama’s sake, chopping Chucky in two with his razor sharp eyes. “If you had seen what he did to little Billy Marsh, I promise you, you would want us to handle him harder!

Donnell was shaking his head, trying to support Chucky with his hands so that the arms of the bailiffs wrapped around him wouldn’t exert full pressure in pulling him up. Once they had him squarely on his feet, they practically dragged him from the room. The shackles around his ankles didn’t allow him to take strides wide enough to match the frenetic pace of his escorts, so he staggered and tripped with every step.

“Jesus Christ, Boudreaux!” Jake condemned the man. “What the fuck is wrong with you?” He asked, realizing finally why it was a good thing that his gun was back in the car.

The bailiffs pulled Chucky passed the sheriff, the man not moving an inch -- forcing them to push and shove the prisoner around him, manipulating him as though he were a piece wedged in an awkward spot at the narrow mouth of a klotski puzzle. The contempt in Boudreaux's eyes was palpable as they passed, and for a moment it looked as though he would spit in Chucky's face. When they were gone, his lips broke deviously into some semblance of a grin, his coffee and tobacco stained teeth glimmering devilishly behind his dark lips.

The smile didn’t last for long, the Sheriff snatched it back the very moment he realized it was showing. The squeaks of Chucky’s sneakers trying to keep up on the marble floor trailed off to silence, Boudreaux just staring at them menacingly until it was inaudible entirely.

Donnell seemed reluctant to pay the man the courtesy of looking at him, focusing, instead, on the surface of the table at which he sat. Jake, on the other hand, was glaring at him with a heavy loathing stirring in his guts.

Ron Boudreaux’s was a face he’d never wished to see again. One he was glad to have forgotten and had hoped would remain sealed away forever. He had worked long and hard to see that the face and the deeds of Deputy Ron would exist as no more than ghostly apparitions, barely latent prints on brittle sheets of parchment, bound loosely in a musty and decaying volume. By force of will, he kept that volume stored away in a dark, forbidden chamber of painful memories in his mind… memories he never wished to relive or to remember. Memories which he tried consciously to banish into dust and remove from his reality entirely.

Every one of those intrusive anamneses came swirling back at the sight of the man, swirling, swirling madly in ashen afterimages of pain and sorrow… of betrayal and injustice, of lies and wanton destruction. His face projected all of this to Boudreaux, a look of disdain and disgust that Jake thrust at him like a razor sharp rapier in the hands of a champion duelist.

He piled upon Boudreaux’s fat face the sum of all the general rage and hate felt by his whole race from Adam down; and then, as if his chest had been a mortar… as if his chest had been a mortar… as if his chest had been a mortar…

“You son of a bitch!” he fired his heart upon him. “You low-life fucking son of a bitch!

Boudreaux was unmoved by the outburst, not phased by the glare or the feelings Jake poured out behind it. With his hands clasped behind his back, he casually waddled his way into the room and assumed the chair where Chucky had been seated. With his weary ankles relieved of the burden his girth placed upon them, he groaned with satisfaction that he surely didn’t deserve.

“I think y’all need to listen to me for a minute, boys!” he said snidely. He took note of Donnell, still staring down at the table, and addressed him. “Donnell, I’m surprised at you! You ain’t even gonna look at me, boy? Is this the thanks I get? The thanks for all the good things I done for you? This is how you repay me? Surely, I deserve at least to be acknowledged!”

He frisked Donnell with his eyes, and the frisking was an unwelcome violation. It sent a chill through him that was almost visible, coaxing him to take several labored breaths as he continued to focus on the tabletop.

“If not for me, boy” Boudreaux continued, “if not for what I done for ya’, you wouldn’t be sitting in that chair right now! Hell, you’d probably be sitting in this chair -- probably be chained up to this table, like an animal!" he paused to frisk some more. "If not for what I done for ya', I doubt you'd be wearing all of those fancy clothes that you're wearing... wouldn't be wearing -- this fancy watch!

He fondled the golden band on Donnell’s wrist, Donnell pulling it away sheepishly at his touch.

My lord, son,” Boudreaux exclaimed, “that’s a twenty-thousand dollar watch! I know you didn’t have things like that when you were growin’ up back in Burlwood! I know your daddy didn’t have anything like that! I would stake a bet that you still wouldn’t have anything like that, if not for me and what I done! Now, given what I done, I should think that a man who’s been as good to you as I been deserves -- deserves... oh, I dunno, perhaps a modicum of respect from somebody like you! From somebody who had nothin' -- wouldn’t have nothin' -- if not for the kindness of someone like me!"

Still, Donnell didn’t look up.

“I figure that someone like me is at least due the courtesy of a kind and reverent glance from somebody as indebted as you are! Don’t you think that’s right, Donnell?”

Knowing he wouldn’t stop, that he would persist until he finally gave in, Donnell raised his eyes slowly, though his head remained down in shame and disgust. He made eye contact with the man, but only as much as would be considered enough… enough to make him drop it.

Theeeeerrrrre it is,” Boudreaux said, dragging the words out sarcastically. “And you, Jake,” he continued, shifting his stare to the face of loathing he saw beaming back. “I didn’t think I’d ever see you again.” He paused, let it simmer for a second, took a deep breath and sighed. “Probably would’ve been better that way, wouldn’t it?” he concluded.

The room was uncomfortably silent, the droning forced air of the cooling system not enough to break the tension.

“Now, I don’t have a lot to say,” Boudreaux said, “but I want you to listen very closely to the words I do speak.”

Donnell was looking back to the table already, Jake still watching with disgust as the Sheriff put exclamations on his next sentence, jabbing out each word by pounding his stumpy finger on the table.

“[_ This -- investigation -- is -- closed! ]” he said. “I have _everything I need, I know exactly what happened, and there’s nothing here that concerns either one of you! The two of you need to go home and go about your lives, because you have no business getting involved in what’s going on here!”

The insinuation angered Donnell, and his frustration was evident as he spoke, though he didn’t lift his eyes again. “Chucky has a right to an attorney,” he said, “I am licensed to practice law and in good standing with the Bar, you cannot restrict my access to my client or hamper my efforts to --"

“To what?” Boudreaux interrupted. “To what, Donnell?”

The immediate answer was silence, so Boudreaux let it fester before he filled it in with his own assertion.

“To defend a guilty man? To look into a crime that’s already been solved? To stick your nose somewhere it doesn't belong? To shove it way up my ass, right here -- in my yard? To shit on my investigation? Oh, no -- no, no, Donnell, that's not a very good idea at all.

"Guilty or not, he --"

“This ain’t your playground anymore, boy, you left this place behind!” Boudreaux interrupted, yelling now. “And you need to keep it there, behind you! Believe me when I say that this deal is signed, sealed and delivered!” He gave three more exclamatory jabs at the table with this, then calmed and resumed in a normal tone. “All that remains, now, is to close the book and throw it at that no good piece of shit that you called your friend in another life! You can’t help that man, Donnell, nobody can! He’s going up the river, and he’s going for a long, long time! If I have it my way, he’ll never see the ocean because he’ll have those lines in his arms and that burnin’ in his veins! This is not a case for you, Donnell, this is a prime-time, grade-A loser! Being associated with it will only soil your good name, son, and you don't need it soiled -- not like this!"

Donnell said nothing, just kept staring at that table. Finished with that portion of his tirade, Boudreaux turned his attention to Jake.

“And you,” he said damningly, pointing again. “You have less business here than this boy does!”

“Chucky’s my friend!” Jake snapped. “I have every business being here!”

Boudreaux was silent for a moment, a look of surprise on his face. Then, he let out a congested, half-hearted laugh before responding. “Your friend? " he asked. "Your friend -- whom you haven't talked to or seen in almost twenty years? What kind of friend are you, Jake? What kind of friend of his are you[_?_]”

“I’m also a private investigator,” he retorted, “bonded and licensed, and I intend to look into this investigation of yours and figure out exactly what you’re up to here, Ron!”

“A private eye?” he laughed again. “By God, Donnell, we got us a regular old Richard Diamond here! A Philip Marlowe, a Rocky Fortune, a Johnny Dollar, a Sam Spade! A regular gumshoe, I bet, a hundred dollars a day plus expenses!” He laughed even more heartily this time, breaking out of it only when a cough born of many bourbon-dipped Backwoods cigars took over and sent him into a choking fit. Once recovered, he produced a hanky from the breast pocket of his uniform and spit a wad a phlegm into it. Wiping his lips, he put the hanky back and continued. “You say you’re bonded and licensed, Jake, did I hear that right?”

“Yep!” he replied confidently. “You got it!”

“Well, tell me, Jake,” he said condescendingly, “when you’re travelin’ around, peepin’ on cheatin’ husbands and watchin’ people fake a limp as they walk into the chiropractor’s office, what state are you generally in? Geographically, that is, in what state, exactly, are you licensed, bonded and, presumably, insured?”

Jake didn’t reply, he knew what Boudreaux was getting at… knew that he was right, and that there was no way around it.

“Is it Indiana, Jake, because I sure didn’t see your name in the database when I checked it this morning!”

There came no reply -- there wouldn't be a reply. Jake knew there was no reciprocity between Indiana and his adopted state of Michigan, and he knew Boudreaux was well aware of that, too. Legally, his license wasn't anything more than a piece of paper here. It was useless, powerless, and to use it in practice in Burlwood would be completely illegal. He was a private citizen here, no more, no less.

That’s what I thought!” Boudreaux smiled. “And believe me when I tell you, son, if I hear anything about you digging any dirt in Burlwood -- God as my witness, Jake, I will have you arrested and charged with obstruction of justice and tampering with evidence! If you don’t believe me, just try it… try it and see what happens!”

“So, what?” Jake asked accusingly. “Chucky doesn’t get a chance to defend himself? Nobody can investigate his innocence, because you already decided he is guilty? Is that what you’re trying to say, Ron?”

Not at all!” The Sheriff disagreed gleefully. “That’s not what I’m saying, Jake, not at all! If Chucky’s counsel, whomever it may be once Donnell sees the light and runs off, if he decides that there’s any shred of merit in examining the evidence we put forth, he’s free to hire an independent investigator to check it all out… an investigator licensed to practice in this state, that is.”

Jake stewed for a moment, calculated his response. “What is it this time, Ron?” he snapped. “What are you hiding now? What are you afraid I’m gonna dig up this time?”

At this, Boudreaux’s eyes exploded wide open, his face was overcome with rage. His fingers stretched apart, widening as far as they possibly could, and dug into the stainless steel tabletop as though they were prospecting for gold that lay just below its surface. If it had been constructed of any other material, Jake believed his clawing hands would’ve broken the entire table to little bits and crumpled it as he clenched his teeth and glowed with anger.

You listen to me, Jacob!” he barked through his tightly locked jaw. “You keep away from Burlwood, goddamnit, you keep FAR away! You’ve got no business there, you worthless fuck! No business there at all!”

You’re right,” Jake chuckled, amused at his ire and the turning of the tables. “I have no business there.” Now it was his turn to pause for dramatics. “I’m just going home to see a few old friends, that’s all!”

He stood forcefully, his chair rocketing out from under him and slamming into the nearby wall as he did. Reaching out, he brought his hand down hard on Boudreaux’s shoulder and squeezed it tight, as he would do to share his strength and show appreciation of a close and trusted friend.

“…and I think I’ll start with Clyde Rambo!

Boudreaux was fuming, his fingers still trying to mine their way into the table as hatred bubbled inside him and seemed to spew exhaust from every orafice of his body. Without another word, Jake turned and stormed out. Donnell followed quietly, taking his briefcase gingerly to avoid rousing the angered giant.

When they were gone, Boudreaux cursed in fury, sweat dripping down and stinging his widened eyes. Paying it no mind, he shouted with all his being to the hallway beyond the door.

Louie! Gitch’yer narrow ass in here! Now!

 

THIRTEEN

 

 

Directly from the conference room, Jake and Donnell marched into courtroom 2-A. Soon after they were seated, Judge Eldon Casella took the bench and called the proceedings to order. Two cases were heard before Chucky’s, both involving matters related to prostitution. They were only initial hearings as well, so the Judge breezed through them in no time at all.

“Next before the Court is the matter of The State Of Indiana versus Charles Edward Murphy,” Casella said, stone-faced.

Doors on the far side of the court swung open, Chucky emerging and being pulled along by the same officers that had extricated him from the conference room. A cacophony of clicking and popping erupted, a myriad of flashbulbs exploding around the room the moment he appeared and continuing as he was led to the defense table. Photographers and videographers bobbed and weaved to get a better angled shot of the alleged savage, the vicious child killer who stood before them now as a powerless, downtrodden defendant bound in chains and painted with the scarlet letter of inmate orange.

Jake was stunned at the outburst, amazed that so many members of the press had turned out to witness this event. They were rabid in their determination to snap that perfect shot, as rabid as any of Chucky’s imaginary monsters lurking in the depths of Booger Woods, as rabid as any Butcher who preyed upon the children of Burlwood past, as rabid as Ron Boudreaux behind the facade of a badge.

Seeing the intensity and purpose with which they operated erased any lingering illusion that this wasn’t as much of a witch hunt as it seemed. Boudreaux sought nothing less than Chucky’s head, to jam it upon a pike and put on display, perhaps right next to the Elsmere County Welcomes You Home sign… a sign on which the population of Burlwood could be indelibly declared as two thousand five hundred and seven minus one. Minus Charles Edward Murphy, minus the Butcher Of Burlwood, past and present, minus the shadow of any doubt that Sheriff Ron Boudreaux always gets his man and rules his roost with an iron fist.

Casella pounded his gavel futily, pounded the drum of justice in absentia. He called for order where none was present, called for the uniformity and procedure of practiced law in a courtroom filled with people of the opinion that the verdict was already decided before a single witness had been deposed, before a single expert gave his testimony, before a single objection to the proceedings had been raised by the counsel for the defendant. Before anyone had a chance to figure out that Chucky just wasn’t capable of doing a thing so heinous.

The bailiffs positioned Chucky at the table reserved for the defense, a table that was rather dull and simple as compared to the glorious wooden lectern and desk, carved brilliantly of maple or some other richly textured wood, which would serve as the hub for the prosecution -- for the almighty State. The desk from which the hammer of the gods would pull back and strike the molten steel of public opinion, would forge a sword as magnificent as Excalibur for the hooded executioner to wield in the public square, was a hub of power with District Attorney Richard Hagan manning the helm with visible pride.

Donnell approached his client, pushing and shoving his way through the press, and sat beside him as chaos ensued around them, Casella ceaselessly hammering his gavel with growing sincerity. The atmosphere was such that Jake expected to hear a rousing chorus of boo exploding from those gathered, expected to see thumbs turning down and jeering those who would stand side by side with the monster as he was paraded around the gallows.

Jake stayed in the last row of spectator benches, barely able to see anything as the gathered masses swirled and swirled, swirled like memories of better days, swirled like hope and promise around the bottomless drain of damnation that would swallow them whole.

Eventually, the passionate pounding of Casella's gavel won the day and brought an orderly hush over the room -- though the reporters still held their microphones high in the air to record any words that might be spoken into the annals of history.

When Casella called for the parties to identify themselves for the record, Richard Hagan declared himself as appearing on behalf of the people of Indiana. Donnell answered the charge and declared himself as Chucky’s counsel. It would’ve come as no surprise to anyone if, at that moment, Michael Buffer had appeared from the Judge’s chambers to announce that it was time to rumble, but Casella spoke instead in language suited to the situation, reading the indictment aloud and in excruciating detail.

As Donnell had said, the judge recounted the fact that bail was off the table and asked if either side had anything to say in answer to the charges. Donnell raised his concerns with Chucky's competency to stand trial, asking politely and professionally that the court assign specialists to evaluate his mental faculties. The prosecutor fired a salvo back, citing Chucky's independence in living alone and holding a job at Our Mother Of Sorrows for nearly two decades. Donnell reminded him, in response, that Chucky was merely a part-time custodian -- his role limited to the polishing of pews and cleaning of floors. Undeterred, Hagan argued that the request for evaluation was no more than an effort to stall the wheels of justice and cause an unnecessary delay. Casella sided with the defense, ordering psychiatric testing to remove any shadow of doubt in the matter. Donnell seemed to take this as a minor victory, as hollow as it may be, and thanked the court.

With that out of the way, the Judge issued an Omnibus date of October 31st. A quick Google search revealed to Jake that this was the date on which all evidence -- that presented by the state to implicate and that by the defense to absolve -- must be declared and admitted or challenged by either side. Casella explained that he had allowed extra time for the competency evaluation, apparently more time than Hagan felt was reasonable, which he noted in an objection. Casella overruled immediately, announcing his intention to see that a case as serious as this be adjudicated with due diligence, whether the timeline was satisfactory to the prosecution or not. With a final strike of his gavel, he closed the hearing and remanded Chucky to the custody of The Elsmere County jail.

Everything was over just as quickly as it had begun, the bailiffs seizing Chucky from the table again and leading him back out the door he had come through initially. There was another blitz of photography, this one not nearly as intense as the first, and Donnell marched his way back to Jake. With a nod, he led him out of the courtroom -- then out of the building altogether.

Once outside, in the blinding light of day, Donnell sighed heavily in decompression.

“I’ve been involved in some high profile shit, Jake,” he said. “But I’ve never seen, felt or heard of anything like the charade I witnessed in that courtroom today in all my life! This is crazy, man, it’s crazy! They’ve got Chucky’s cell ready for him in the death house, and they’re in a hurry to see him file a change of address card and move in. I’ve never heard a prosecutor object to a minor delay like that, it's usually the other way around! It's usually the defense arguing against a delay while the state tries to flesh out their case -- is very rarely the opposite. We're gonna need some kind of a miracle here, man, this deck is stacked! The only reasonable person in that whole courtroom was Judge Casella, and I’ll bet dollars to doughnuts that Boudreaux tries to have him recused before it’s all said and done!”

Jake considered this, recounted in his mind everything he had witnessed since walking into the courthouse. It was overwhelming, but seemingly not insurmountable. There was evidence of Chucky’s innocence out there, somewhere, he knew there was. There had to be. Maybe Hagan feared a delay because, with time, that evidence could come to light -- could cloud the matter, make it more difficult to secure a conviction. Murder will out, that’s what they say… that’s what he hoped. The real child killer was still out there, The Butcher Of Burlwood was still at large... and it was incumbent upon Jake to find him before -- before -- before double indemnity, for himnot for Chucky.

“You hungry?” Donnell asked.

“A little,” Jake lied. He hadn’t been hungry since he’d woken up in the parking lot of Bottoms Up, even though he knew he needed to eat… would eventually have to force himself to eat.

“Let’s go to lunch, then… my treat.”

 

FOURTEEN

 

 

Jake followed Donnell’s silver S-Class Mercedes a few miles up the road, towards Burlwood, to a small restaurant called Uncle Jim’s Pancake House. He assumed Donnell hadn’t sought this particular establishment out, he had simply driven until they were clear of Garthby’s Main Street district and then pulled off at the first quiet, backwoods looking diner he spotted.

This place looked like home, looked like their childhood. Stopping there was like making a symbolic return to innocence, a return to a time and place they had occupied before plunging themselves headlong into adulthood. A time before they dove into the rat race, so eager to take the world by storm and leave Burlwood Meadows behind them.

In their hearts and minds, both of them wished they could wind back the hands of time… wished they could return literally instead of symbolically to where it all began. Each of them longed for an opportunity to do things just a bit differently than they had, but each for distinctly different reasons. For Donnell, the wish was born of guilt and shame at the things he had done to claw his way out of the gutter, into a better life. Born of regret of the means, even if they justified the end. For Jake, the wish was born of confusion alone. Confusion about where things had gone so wrong, why things that started out so purely had become so tarnished as to be unrecognizable to him now.

A bell mounted over the door announced their arrival when they stepped inside, a sweet aroma of cheap coffee and high fructose corn syrup masquerading as maple greeting them and calling them to sit. Bacon grease popped and crackled in the open kitchen behind a stool-lined counter, egg whites wheezed and bubbled on a hot plate and grungy looking cooks dipped bread in bowls of batter then sprinkled cinnamon recklessly. The air was full of smoke, the blue-haired patrons all around the place puffing madly on sticks of cancer as they sipped from dark brown mugs with spoons swiveling around the rims.

All of the pressure and stress melted off their backs as they inhaled the calm air, air that was free of the madness and desperation that permeate the very stratosphere of any metropolis under the sun. Casting their burdens aside like Atlas simply stepping away and standing erect, they chose a booth in the far corner of the diner, as far from the heat of the kitchen as they could get. Jake assumed the seat facing the door, as was his routine, and they settled in the comfort of the plushly padded booth. The tabletop was grimy, sticky with the residue of syrup wiped away with filthy wet rags, leaving the stink of lemon disinfectant and mildew behind.

Donnell rolled his head around his shoulders, cracking his neck and releasing all the tension of the day, of the week, of the years he had spent living amongst people he did not know and could not identify with. He had been a stranger in a strange land for many moons, but he sat now -- upon torn pleather mended with duct tape -- as the prodigal son returning home, at long last. He melted in repentance into the welcoming embrace of the country, melted and begged forgiveness for having stayed away so long.

Jake was almost absorbed as well, but as he teetered on the precipice of peace, the balance was disturbed by the appearance of their waitress. The girl sauntered up with natural seduction, a force she was probably apt to wield but which occurred organically, whether she was trying to apply it or not. Her nametag read Nikki, and immediately the voice of Prince was in Jake’s ear.

Met her in a hotel lobby, masturbating in a magazine.

Prince’s description of his Darling fit her perfectly, as did the tight top and skinny jeans she wore underneath the faded white apron, emblazened with Uncle Jim’s near her left breast. If asked to describe the girl, Jake’s breathless response would’ve been that she looked like sex… like a connoisseur of it in all of its forms, like a master of it and all of its techniques, like an experienced practitioner who had been around the block and had cul-de-sacs scattered along it named in her honor. She looked like a girl who knew sex well, who thrived on it and sought it out with every breath she drew.

She was young, maybe old enough to buy herself a beer, which she would never have to do because there would always be some drooling man nearby with a rock hard cock begging to buy it for her. She was petite, maybe 5’2” and an ounce or two over a hundred pounds, if she wet her long black hair and wore heavy shoes, that is.

Despite her apparent frailty, her body was curvy and an hourglass to perfection. Her perky, firm breasts were obvious but not obtrusive, her waist bold but not overstated, and her juicy little ass -- well, it was equally perfect. Her legs were thin as toothpicks with a wide clearance between them, surely more than adequate spacing to allow for the mounting of any man's saddle, upon which she could ride comfortably and sink in with ease.

Her face was china-doll white, the skin upon it clear and free of defects. Perfectly applied eye-liner, shadow and mascara accentuated her almost inhumanly smoke colored eyes. She wore just the right amount of blush too, and her luscious lips glistened in a brilliant and glossy red that cried out to be sucked.

As she approached, menus in hand, she met Jake's gaze and was as visibly rocked in locking eyes with him as he was in seeing her. She stalled mid-stride, a smile she probably greeted any old customer with collapsing on itself and transforming to a gaping awe. The look did wonders for Jake's ego. He knew he was blessed to be an attractive man, but for his appearance to have such a profound effect on someone was still something he couldn't quite wrap his mind around. Nikki was probably used to the roles being reversed -- was probably more accustomed to being the subject of prying eyes than she was being the one doing the prying.

They exchanged all the secrets of their souls in the moments that they spent with their pupils fully engaged, sharing a spectacular osmotic symbiosis beyond anything he had ever experienced in all the days of his life. He felt her tenderness, felt her passion, felt her lust... felt everything that lived inside her, including -- to his surprise -- a deep and profound intelligence that one wouldn't necessarily expect to find dwelling within a shell that seemed more suited to embracing the pleasures of the flesh than those that could be shared with the mind.

On the surface, she was shallow. Vain, promiscuous, desperate for attention and affection. Underneath that armor -- that facade -- though, he saw a glimmer of something else all together. Something that he recognized at once. It was a glimmer of understanding… of insight and introspection. A sign that, beneath the mask of sexuality and sleaziness that she wore, she was a highly cerebral creature.

She was the type that would be stimulated just as deeply by the recited verses of Rumi as she would by a practiced hand gently massaging her clitoris. It was more the former that appealed to him than the latter… though the latter wasn’t without its charm.

Perhaps subconsciously, perhaps intentionally and provocatively, she licked and bit her lower lip. In all likelihood, he figured, this was the side of her that she found most men responded to. It was the ice breaker, the sizzle as opposed to the steak. Most men probably didn't care about the steak at all, that's what it usually boils down to. He wasn't most men, though, not now -- perhaps not ever. If she was absorbing as much of him in their encounter as he was of her, she should've sensed that. The fact that she didn't was a bit disappointing, but he couldn't blame her for defaulting to the lowest common denominator. For succumbing to the standards of society at large, trying to conform to the basic rules of the game, as it's played by most.

The intensity of her stare and the disappointment in her falling back on physicality jarred Jake into looking away -- into looking toward Donnell. In the corner of his eye, though, he could see her gray pupils scanning down the length of his torso and then further along. Undressing him with her eyes, tracing his form and feeling him up. Suddenly, his left hand was ablaze as her fiery eyes locked on it where it sat atop the table. She was examining it, studying each finger and probably wondering if they were trained and practiced in that secondary stimulation. Eventually, her focus settled on the titanium band he wore to signify his commitment to Tracy Swete and his family.

Feeling her dismay at discovering it, realizing that there wasn't much purpose in his wearing it, given the events of late, he snatched both his hands from the sticky table and placed them on his lap -- where things were stirring... things that hadn't stirred at the sight of a woman other than his wife for many years, things that hadn't stirred at all at the sight or thought of anything as of late. Things that certainly hadn’t stirred when that chubby woman with the baggie ran her hands across his flesh less than thirty-six hours ago.

He was embarrassed, was disgusted with himself for having such feelings in thinking of a woman that wasn't Tracy. He had been hers and hers alone, in body and in spirit, since the two of them became one for the first time when they were just sixteen years old. She had been his first, his one and only, and he was proud of that fact. His eyes had wandered occasionally, sure, but never his mind -- never his body. They were soul mates, that had never been in question. They were destined for each other, drawn together and held that way, without remorse or regret, for eighteen years. The thought that all of that was over still hadn't sunk in entirely, and the idea that he should be sitting here -- in a ratty diner -- with a throbbing erection brought on by what amounted to a [_ girl -- ] one _at least eleven years his junior -- was something he just couldn't allow himself to accept. Ashamed of himself, he tried to think of anything he could say to spark a conversation with Donnell. Thankfully, it looked as though he was oblivious to all that was happening, was probably still mulling over the case, which is what they needed to be doing anyway.

Nikki either registered his discomfort or had become uncomfortable herself for one reason or another, so she seemed to clear her mind and simply strolled to the table, placing the menus down in front of them before reciting the script that she was trained to deliver.

“Welcome to Uncle Jim’s!” she declared in a warm, unintentionally sultry voice. “My name is Nikki, I’ll be taking care of you today! What can I get the two of you to drink?”

“Coffee,” Donnell answered swiftly, hardly looking up at the girl and taking no notice of her raw appeal.

Jake’s mind called for a Jack and Coke, his system longing for and missing the influence of the liquor on which it had become dependent in days past. Realizing that this wasn’t the time nor the place for such indulgences, that alcohol probably wasn’t on the menu anyway, he simply muttered water with no further acknowledgment of the succubus or her charms. She moved away just as casually, Jake’s body tense with desire and fighting the temptation to look and study her backside as she went. Overcome with lust and feeling the lack of sleep catching up, he buried his face in his hands and rubbed as though to coax another couple of hours out of his reserve.

“So,” he said, pushing aside the fantasies that tried to hijack his barely rolling train of thought. “Let’s talk about how we’re going to do this.”

Donnell sighed again, exhaling the last of his pent-up frustration with the fast-paced world of city life. “Before we get into that, Jake, there’s something I need to say.”

Jake pulled his face from his palms, lowering them slowly and folding his arms on the table top, the ring he still wore clicking against it.

“Yeah, shoot,” he said.

Donnell took a breath, long, deep and contemplative before continuing. "When we talked on the phone yesterday, you tried to apologize for what happened last time... for what happened between the two of us. That was wrong -- it's not you who needs to apologize.”

"Oh, Donnell," he objected, "let's just leave that --"

“No, no,” Donnell replied, fanning in full force. “We [_ can't -- I ] can’t just let it sit, not anymore. It’s been on my shoulders for almost twenty years, Jake. The memory of that day… the memory of her face… it took up permanent residence in my head, man, I see it _every fuckin’ time I close my eyes!”

Jake just stared at him, reluctant to rip off an old scab. Reluctant to open that musty volume of tattered parchment and look upon the words written inside. It seemed important to Donnell, though, so he knew he would have to endure it -- if only for the sake of his friend's peace of mind.

"It wasn't your fault, Donnell," he said. "It was bound to happen -- had almost happened before you got involved. If not you, it would've been someone else... could've been anyone, had nothing to do with you specifically."

Donnell’s head snapped back, his eyes darting up to the ceiling and burning through the fiberboard like x-rays to expose the heavens and whomever or whatever resides above the clouds. It looked as though he were begging the sky for words… begging for the proper verbiage to articulate his sorrow. To Jake’s surprise, a single tear spilled out and plunged dramatically down his cheek. He cleared his throat, choking back suppressed emotion in an attempt to maintain his dignity as he spoke.

“But it was me, Jake.” he said simply. “I was there, I was doing what I did, and I played my part.”

“You don’t have to do this, Don.”

A tear fell from the other eye, now, which was one more than he could allow to show through. He wiped the both of them clean, sniffling once -- and only once -- reasserting his control and looking deep into the soul of his friend.

I’m sorry, Jake.” he declared. “I wish I could take it back… I wish I could take everything about it back -- but I can't."

Jake raised his eyebrows and they hung high, memories swirling, swirling. Frozen there, he let them remain fixed as he shook his head solemnly. “The genie never wants to go back into the bottle, Donnell.” he said, reflecting. “I’ve let a few of them out myself, I know how it goes. I don’t blame you, brother, I really don't. I did at first, it was my first instinct to blame you -- but I didn't know shit back then... didn't know shit about life, didn't know shit about struggle, didn't know shit about what it means to be desperate... to be backed into a corner. We're all just products of our environment -- you, me, Rambo, Chucky -- every one of us. We're just the sum of all our parts. In your shoes, I probably would've done the same things you did... and look what you turned it all into, Donnell, you took a shitty hand and made it pay out in spades."

Donnell considered this, saw the logic in it, it did make sense. There was no absolution in it, though, no justification for what went down… but there was understanding, and perhaps that was the best that a man in his position could ever hope for. Still swimming in regret, still caught up in the undertow and drowning, he closed his eyes with the hope of seeing something new behind their lids. Nothing had changed, however, and he knew to desire any change, to see anything different, was to make a wish that Jake’s genies would never see fit to grant him.

"Thank you, Darkwing," he answered, grateful for the gesture despite the lack of resolution it provided. "Your mom would be proud of what you've done with your hand, too -- I know she would. She was a good woman, Jake... I'm sorry for the part I played in what happened, for my role in the events that took her away from you."

This time, it was Jake who closed his eyes. He sought no comfort in the darkness, no change in his perception -- and there would certainly be no tears, that well was just as dry now as it had been during his final flight from Tracy. For him, it was simply an escape... simply a cop out. If Donnell only knew the state his life was in -- if he only knew of the turmoil... he didn't, though... and he didn't need to.

“She took herself away, Donnell,” he said. “She just used you to help her.”

Nikki brought the conversation to an abrupt end when she appeared with one of Uncle Jim’s brown mugs and a translucent plastic amber cup of water.

“Do you take cream?” she asked, clutching a flask of half-and-half in her hand.

“No,” Donnell answered. “I like it black, like me!”

This made Nikki chuckle, and her laugh was as angelic as her smile. “How ‘bout you, honey?” she asked Jake. “Would you like a lemon for that?”

Jake shook his head, refusing to meet her eyes again for fear of getting lost inside them, as he nearly had before. She asked if they were ready to order, which brought the realization that neither of them had so much as opened their menus.

A creature of habit, Donnell simply asked if they served reubens, which they did. He ordered two, putting Jake on the spot to decide what would fuel his body for the remainder of the day. He settled on three eggs, sunny side up, with white toast and hash browns. Nikki asked if he’d like bacon or sausage links for only a dollar more, so he took the bait and specified that he liked his bacon soggy. She nodded silently, apparently deciding that the favor of his dismissive attitude toward her should be returned in kind. Once she’d sauntered away again, the conversation turned to the more pressing matter at hand.

“Where do we go from here?” Jake asked, his own ideas already in mind. “How do you figure we should go about this?”

Donnell gazed into his coffee, trying to scry something in the blackness of its depth. The image that came to him was of the Dodge van -- the vehicle labeled Our Mother Of Sorrows in sun faded blue lettering. The answers they sought lie in the physical evidence that could be recovered from inside… the finger prints upon the steering wheel, the stains of blood and tissue cast off by the potentially unwilling passenger, the secret of where it sat in wait and who had put it there, the things they could infer from determining where it had been stashed.

“Find the van,” he answered plainly. “If we find the van, we find the answers.”

Jake nodded, this had occurred to him too. He had a few notions, a few suspicions in regard to where it could be hiding. "If it's gone, though," he propositioned. "If it's been -- disposed of…”

Donnell considered, calculated. “Without it, without what we could find in it, we might have to rely on tying Billy’s death to the deaths of the boys who came before him. I mean, Chucky was just a kid when the others were killed… no one would believe that he was some kind of Michael Myers, racking up a body count when he was no more than a little boy himself.”

Jake agreed. If he could link Billy Marsh’s death to that of Gary Duncan… of Joshua Banks, Nathan Dawson, Kirk Wade and all the rest… if he could prove that The Butcher was back on the prowl, that he had returned to continue his reign, that would all but exonerate Ron Boudreaux’s chosen fall guy of the more recent crime. There were likely similarities between the way in which Billy Marsh was dispatched and that of the boys who proceeded him in death, there were certainly similarities in how his remains were discovered. Some basic link was evident in the limited details he gleaned from Donnell’s recounting of the facts that Louie Rambo had relayed to him.

The autopsy reports would reveal more, perhaps enough to seal the deal if the stars and planets were aligned just right. Donnell held some of those answers in the packet given him by Rambo -- a packet that would require much scrutiny in the hours and days to come.

“Make sure you get those papers scanned and sent to me ASAP,” he said. “I’ll dig into them as soon as I get them, perhaps consult with Clyde Rambo about them.”

“Yeah,” Donnell concurred, “I’m sure he had his thoughts about the identity of The Butcher, and we know what his relationship with Ron Boudreaux was like… I’m sure he’s not intimidated or a subject to the tyranny of the man, if I know old Sheriff Rambo at all.”

“I guess that’s the foundation, then,” Jake surmised. “Look for the van, find the link that relates Billy Marsh to all the others… figure out who was stalking the cradle back in the day, and put this one on his ass just the same.”

“If we can get that done, we’re home free,” Donnell concluded. “Sounds easy to sit here talking about it, but I doubt it will be that way in practice.”

Jake shrugged. "Well, I'm game. With the two of us working together, I'm sure we can run the table pretty quickly. I'll work the van, you get on the old cases and --"

"Wait, wait, wait," Donnell interrupted. "Jake -- you don't think I can stay here, do you?” he asked, perplexed. “I mean, we’re not little kids with nothing better to do anymore, you know that, right? You know I can only help from afar this time?”

"But --" he began, confused. "I thought that's why we came? I thought we were here to clear Chucky, to figure out what we couldn't back when we were kids? What do you mean you can only help from afar?”

Donnell shook his head as he said "It's not like it was before, man! I'm not on the run from my parent's trailer, free of responsibilities and eager to get out of the house! I have a practice, Darkwing, a heavy load of cases pending -- a bunch of people counting on me to help them out just the same as Chucky. I came here to represent the man -- pro bono , no less. That's gonna be tough as it is, putting time in for nothing at all... I've got bills, man! That's all I can commit to do, to represent him! I can't go galavanting around Burlwood, digging into shit like it's nineteen ninety three and I'm a twelve year old Launchpad McQuack who doesn't have obligations and children to raise! I mean, I'm here to help you out -- I want to help you out -- and I'll do what I can... but I have to do it while living the rest of my life, I can't just turn my back on everything else and dive right in!"

Jake seemed dissapointed -- was disappointed. He had hoped to take the town by storm, the [_ Burlwood Boys -- _] reunited and coming to the defense of one of their own. He was supposed to be the leader, the one to call the shots just as before -- not to be a solo act. He expected more of Launchpad, expected a full partner in this affair. The revelation that this wasn't in the cards changed things... made things that much more difficult.

Let down as he was, he understood Donnell's plight. The fact that he, Darkwing, had no irons in the fire -- had no greater calling beyond double indemnity -- didn't mean that everyone else's circumstances were the same as they had been so long ago. Launchpad had a career, so did Louie Rambo... Chucky was in bondage and Timmy Lane -- well... Timmy was indisposed.

There was no Burlwood Boys anymore, that team was now defunct. There was only him… there would be only him . He would bear the full weight of the cross. He would have to shoot the moon, to go it alone and hope he held enough trump to turn the tricks. He held neither of the bowers, no one to his left or right anymore. There was no partner across the table, no table talk to make in earnest whispers, no signals to be flashed in inconspicuous hand gestures. It was Jake Giguére against the world -- against Ron Boudreaux, against The Butcher... against the odds, and against time itself.

When was the insurance premium due? Tracy didn’t even know about the policy, she wouldn’t pay the bill, wouldn’t receive a paper statement anyway.

How long was the grace period?

When did double indemnity lapse, how long could he dedicate to this solo venture?

The food arrived, Nikki delivering it with loaded arms and suggesting that they enjoy.

How could they enjoy?

How could he enjoy? He wasn’t capable of enjoying, not anymore… not like before, not now… not ever again. That ship had sailed… oh merciful Lord, that ship had sailed and gone away.

They ate in abject silence, Donnell certainly realizing that Jake was disappointed… was angry at him for speaking his peace, for speaking the truth as it was in this time and place. When they finished, Donnell paid the tab. As a token of appreciation, Jake insisted on covering the tip. Feeling guilty for having essentially ignored Nikki after their initial exchange, he left a healthy twenty-eight percent -- just to prove he wasn't a total and unconditional dick.

Three hundred and fifty seven dollars, that was the figure he was left to contemplate. Three hundred and fifty seven dollars to cover the rest of his expenses… not a good look.

Wishing Donnell well and reminding him to scan and send the packet from Rambo as soon as he could, he climbed into his Malibu and drove back to the Best Western. He was feeling the strain of over thirty hours without sleep on the heels of a dreadful hangover, so he collapsed directly into the foreign queen sized mattress once inside the room.

The emptiness of the space to his right weighed heavily on him as he lay there, much more so than he would’ve expected. He’d slept alone before, in hotels much like this one, when a long-distance case took him far from home for a night or two here and there. The vacancy beside him hadn’t seemed so big a deal back then, perhaps because he knew it was only temporary… that Tracy would be at his side, draped across his naked body, when his business was concluded and he found himself back in the familiar comfort of the luxurious colonial ranch they shared between them.

Knowing now that he would never feel the plush memory foam of their King Koil Supreme beneath his back again tugged at the strings of his fatigued heart. Knowing that he would never feel Tracy’s warm breasts pressed against his chest made him want to throw in the towel immediately, with extreme prejudice.

How am I supposed to live without you, now that I’ve been loving you so long? How am I supposed to carry on, when all that I’ve been living for is gone?

He had no answers, no plan in mind for that… he had no desire to consider it, no desire to acknowledge that her intent to leave him was real and true. It was a published and filed fact, though, spelled out in plain English on the petition for divorce he had crumpled and pitched into his backseat.

Irreconcilable differences… that’s what stood between them. That blanket excuse, that one size fits all complaint. Irreconcilable differences and double indemnity… a marriage made in heaven, a perfect pair, perfect pattern.

Expelling those thoughts from his mind, he reminisced about the moment he shared with Nikki. Trying to feel the comfort and longing he caught a glimpse of, tasted a sample of in her gray eyes. When he brought it all back to the surface, he allowed himself to imagine her sprawled out beside him. As things started to stir, as blood started to flow, he briefly considered masturbating. There was no time for that, though, no energy to see it through. In all the hate he felt for himself, now, he had lost sight of even the most primal urge… even the most basic desire… even the most natural instinct to partake in physical pleasure, the motivation to jack himself off and achieve a measure of spiritual release.

He didn’t deserve it anyway…

He went to sleep instead, and his sleep was filled with the dreams of better days gone by... of a time when Tracy Swete still loved him, still cared about him -- still wanted him.

 

FIFTEEN

Ricky Marshall

 

April 3rd, 1993, 4:00PM.

Burlwood, Indiana

 

The civic center was filled beyond capacity with a good percentage of the three thousand residents of Burlwood Township gathered there, called to an emergency meeting organized by Sheriff Clyde Rambo. The auditorium they crowded into generally received only a dozen or so diehard denizens for the quarterly meeting of the township board of trustees. It was not designed to host, nor prepared to accommodate, the number of people that turned out to hear from the Sheriff this evening.

Volunteers and Deputy Boudreaux raced to keep up with the crowd, bringing in folding chairs, constantly feeding a popcorn machine and mixing batches of orange drink to fill almost perpetually empty dispensers. Bagels and donuts donated by a local bakery had long since been exhausted, leaving only dwindling sleeves of Chips Ahoy and the small sacks of popcorn to compliment the libation being sucked down by the masses.

Darkwing, Launchpad and Chucky were there, hanging out in the back corner of the room with Timmy Lane, their new friend. Louie Rambo was there too, wandering around trying to acclimate and familiarize himself with his new community. His mother, who raised him in Ohio, had recently decided she didn't want to be a single parent anymore. Resolving to change her life, she had flown the coop and moved to California -- dropping Louie off with his overworked father and vowing never to return to claim him. He was ten, just two years younger than Jake and Donnell, the same age as Timmy.

Eager to assimilate, he lingered around the boys and tried to hear what they were saying. They were wary of him, at first, because he was the new kid on the block and was unfamiliar to them. They didn’t know who he was, weren’t aware that he was Sheriff Rambo’s son. Shy and feeling isolated, he listened to them from a distance.

“I think we should look in Booger Woods,” the older looking of two blackhaired boys suggested. “Since he was swimming at the trailer park pool when he went missing.”

“That’s fuckin’ dumb,” a black kid replied. “Why would The Butcher hang around the place where he took him from, knowing people would be looking for him? He would take him somewhere farther away! We should look around the horse track or down Main Street, that would make more sense.”

“I’m not going in Booger Woods, guys! I told you I won’t go in there!” the oldest looking one insisted, his voice a little slurred. “And the track is too far away, how would we get there?”

Listening intently, Louie wondered if the boys were making plans to look for Ricky Marshall. Surely, they knew that the police were on the case -- that his dad was on the case. Why would they look for him when the police were already doing it? How could they possibly help? The police were grownups and had all of the resources and information that was available -- these kids didn't. There was also a new dog, one who was specially trained to smell for dead bodies. A cadaver dog, that had already done its job for the missing boy.

The idea that a group of kids could investigate a murder or a kidnapping was crazy to Louie. They didn’t know what they were doing, didn’t have any experience or training to know how to do it… but boy, did it sound like fun!

“Are you guys talking about Ricky Marshall?” he asked shyly, keeping his distance.

The boys all stopped talking and looked at him, examining him. For a moment, no one said anything. He wasn’t sure whether that was because they were irritated that he interrupted their conversation, or if they just thought he wasn’t cool enough to be a part of their group and planned to simply ignore him altogether.

“Yeah,” the older black haired one finally answered. “Why?”

"He's dead," Louie declared plainly. "My daddy found his body, it was in a culvert off Route 4 -- up by the butcher shop."

“Is that what that smell was?” the youngest one with black hair asked. “We smelled it this morning, when my dad and I opened the shop. It smelled awful! We thought somebody ran over a raccoon or something and left it by the road to rot.”

“My dad says it hadn’t been there for long, it was probably put there sometime last night.” Little Rambo explained.

The group went silent, as though they were trying to solve a riddle in something he said. They looked to the older black haired one, the one that seemed to be the leader, and waited to see if he would ask the question they were all considering.

“Who is your dad?” the boy eventually asked.

“Clyde Rambo,” Louie answered, proud to declare it.

“Sheriff Rambo is your dad?” the black kid asked. “Oh shit, that’s cool!”

Suddenly, the group warmed up to him. They were excited to meet the son of a police officer, the son of Rambo. Smiling, they introduced themselves.

The leader said his name was Jacob, but that everyone called him by his nickname, which was Darkwing. The black one, who looked about the same age as Darkwing, was named Donnell. His nickname was Launchpad, but he insisted that Louie should not call him that. The youngest one, who looked a little like Darkwing, said he was Timmy Lane -- the son of the man who owned the butcher shop. He explained that the boys called him Drake, which was the real name of Darkwing Duck on the Darkwing Duck show.

The fourth boy, the one who seemed to be the oldest, looked a little strange to Louie. There was something about his face and eyes that made him seem -- defective. Louie figured that was why he wasn’t the leader, since it’s usually the oldest member of a group that takes command.

Louie looked at him, waited for him to introduce himself as well, but he just stood there seeming shy and nervous. Darkwing spoke up and said that his name was Chucky, and that he was sometimes scared of strangers -- but would be friendly, once he felt more comfortable.

“We call ourselves The Burlwood Boys,” Darkwing said. “We’re kind of a club, I guess.”

“A club that investigates things that are speficious!” Chucky blurted out.

Launchpad shook his head and covered his face with his hands, as though he were embarrassed.

“He means suspicious,” Darkwing explained.

"So -- what?" Louie asked. "You guys search the town and try to figure out who The Butcher is?"

“The butcher is my dad, silly,” Timmy laughed. “We try to figure out who the killer is… try to find clues and put them all together.”

“That sounds like fun!” Rambo added. “Can I join?”

The Burlwood Boys looked at each other, checking with one another to see if adding a new member was a good idea. After a bit of whispering, they turned to Darkwing for his decision.

“If you want to!” he said enthusiastically. “We could use someone who knows a real cop -- who can give us information we don't already have!"

Great!” Louie exclaimed in celebration.

“We’ll have to get you a nickname,” Chucky said. “Do you have any idea what kind of nickname you might like?

“Well, I dunno…” Louie said. “I’ve never really thought about it.”

Darkwing asked what his real name was, suggesting that they might choose something with the same initial or basic sound. When Rambo told them it was Louie, Chucky’s face lit up.

Cool!” he exclaimed. “That’s just like Scrooge McDuck’s nephew! There are three of them, they’re called Huey, Dewey and Louie! That’s what his nickname should be -- Louie! Like Louie McDuck!”

That seemed odd to young Rambo… the idea that his nickname would just be his real name. Nobody else seemed to have any other suggestions, though, so he accepted it at face value and simply said sure.

"Awesome!" Timmy -- or Drake, actually -- added. "Now that Louie's in the club, we'll be able to know everything the police know!"

“Well,” Louie replied, “probably not everything. My dad doesn’t talk about work a lot, only when he’s giving me advice on how to stay safe. I’ll tell you anything he does say, though… that will help us investigate.”

Chucky looked like he was thinking, looked disturbed about whatever it was that he was considering. When he finally summoned the courage to ask, his voice was raised with fear. “Was Ricky all torn to pieces too? Like Gary Duncan, Joshua Banks, Nathan Dawson and Kirk Wade?”

Louie lowered his head, knowing what he was going to say was bad. “Yes, he was,” he explained. “And he was sodomized, too… just like all the other kids.”

There was another moment of silence, the Burlwood Boys looking at each other, puzzled. None of them had ever heard the word sodomized before, except for Jacob. He heard it when the news reporter was outside Booger Woods after they found Joshua Banks, and also on the TV every time a new body was found. He didn’t know what it meant, though, he just assumed it was a word used to describe that someone had been murdered and cut into little pieces.

Louie hadn’t known what it meant when his father first said it, either. He explained that he couldn’t play outside alone because there was a maniac on the loose that kidnaps, sodomizes and kills little boys.

When Louie asked what that word meant -- what being sodomized was -- his father blushed. He explained it gingerly, not in too much detail... just enough to make Louie understand.

“I don’t get it,” Launchpad said, breaking the silence. “What does being sodomized mean?”

Louie felt a blush come over him, just like his father had, and tried to recall the words as they were told to him, “It means…” he began, hoping no grownups would hear him say something he shouldn’t. “It means somebody had butt sex with him.”

The other boys flinched when he said it, with the exception of Timmy. His dad hadn’t told him about the birds and the bees yet, so he had no idea what sex was at all. The other boys, the ones who did know what sex was, were surprised to find out that it could be done that way… that a boy could do it with another boy, and that it would involve someone’s butt. It was a new concept, a disgusting idea that they had never considered.

To think that The Butcher wasn't just killing children -- to think that he was having butt sex with them too -- made them all feel a little sick. It was a new dimension to add to the nightmares that already plagued their sleep at night. Being caught by The Butcher was no longer just a sentence of death and dismemberment... it was something more. Something disturbing, something beyond anything else they ever imagined. This made their fear even greater, made the threat of being a victim even more horrific.

Rocked with this new knowledge, the group went silent completely -- each of them processing things in their own way. The conversation died like Ricky Marshall had, like all of the others had as a result. Darkwing was the first to walk off, heading toward the refreshment table for a drink to rinse the bitter taste of new ideas from his mouth. The others followed, and when they arrived Deputy Ron was filling the Gatorade cooler with the latest batch of orange drink. They fell into a single file line and each took a small paper cup to fill from the spigot.

Darkwing would be the first to have his chance, just as soon as a blonde girl in front of him was finished. When she had taken as much as she wanted, she turned to see who had come up behind her.

Jacob felt butterflies dancing in his stomach when he realized it was Tracy Swete, and the butterflies danced a jig when she swiveled around and met him with her beautiful sapphire blue eyes.

“Hey Jacob!” she smiled, her brilliantly white teeth catching the light and glimmering.

“H—hi,” he replied nervously.

Much time had passed since he’d watched her and her family moving in to the pink trailer up the road from Chucky’s. The two of them sat next to each other in Misses Brault’s sixth grade English class and, in his mind, they talked the entire period away from bell to bell. They spoke about themselves, about their lives, about their feelings for each other. When the class would come to an end, though, he would realize that they hadn’t said a single word to each other the whole time.

There was so much he wanted to say to her… so many questions he wanted to ask her about herself, so many things he wanted to know about her life and her family. He wanted to share his thoughts with her, too, and to grow closer to her in the sharing. He wanted the two of them to be best friends, to be boyfriend and girlfriend, even -- but he could never summon the courage to say anything more than hi to her, and he usually stuttered and stammered just to get that much out.

Every time the class bell rang and he left his desk without having grown a spine and tried to engage with her, he would vow to man up and take action next time... that he would make his fantasies become a reality by simply opening the flood gates and letting his words spill out when he had another chance to do so. He never did it, though, because every time he found himself in her presence -- when he found himself face to face or side by side with her -- all of the words that he had spoken to her in his daydreams left him. His mind went blank, his preconceived talking points fleeing like mourning doves taking flight and sailing away into the expanse of the horizon on the wind. Their verbal exchanges were always limited to the same hi and bye, stuttered and stammered, no matter how determined he was to make it more.

Occasionally, though, when he was struggling with an answer on a quiz or homework assignment, she would tap his arm with the eraser of her pencil and slyly tilt her paper. With a smile, she would let him take a peek and copy. He always felt a warmth sweep over him when this happened, because it meant that she must be watching him… must be looking at him, realizing he was stuck on a question.

Gosh, she was looking at him… the way he often looked at her. The difference was, of course, that she wasn’t spying on him -- spying like he did on her, with binoculars, from Chucky's porch. Since she had moved to Burlwood, he made a point of spending even more time than before at Chucky's, just so that he could have a chance to watch her playing outside.

What would she think if she knew about that? About his spying on her? What would she think of him then? That was something that a creep would do… something that someone bad would do. If she knew that, maybe she wouldn’t be so nice to him anymore… maybe she would think he was weird, or some kind of stalker. That would be terrible, but he just couldn’t resist… couldn’t keep his eyes off of her, so long as she didn’t know.

If she did know he was looking -- if he tried to look at her while they were in class -- he would freeze. He would lock up, be unable to speak... just like he was now, as she was staring into his eyes with her orange drink clutched in her sweet little hand.

“Okay, honey,” a kind and feminine voice called from behind her. “It’s time to go sit down now.”

Jacob pried his frozen eyes away from his crush and looked up to the woman, looked to see who it was standing behind Tracy. She looked like Helen Hunt, the actress in Mad About You, a show his mother watched all the time. Jacob thought Helen Hunt was beautiful, and he felt the same way about the woman standing behind Tracy now. Examining her closer, he realized that the woman looked a lot like what a grownup version of Tracy might look like, too.

“Oh!” the woman said, taking note of Jacob. “I see you’re talking to someone! So sorry to interrupt!”

“It’s okay, mom,” Tracy said. “We were just saying hi!”

“I see! Tell me, sweetie, who is this good looking young gentleman?” her mom asked gleefully.

“It’s Jacob!” Tracy explained. “He sits next to me in Misses Brault’s class!” She looked to Darkwing, then motioned her hand towards the Helen Hunt woman. “Jacob, meet my mommy!”

“H—hi, ma—ma ‘am,” he stuttered in reply.

She smiled, and as she did a friendly looking man approached the two of them and wrapped his arm around her.

“Are we ready, babe?” he asked before realizing he had barged into their conversation. When he figured out what was happening, he looked down at Jacob as well. “Oh! Who’s this?” he asked.

“This is Jacob,” Tracy’s mom said, smiling. “He sits next to Tracy in English class!”

The man gave Darkwing a once over with his eyes, scanning him up and down with a glimmer of recognition showing in them.

Ohhhhh,” he said. “This is Jacob… the boy with the binoculars!

Mortified, Jacob froze. How could her dad have seen him? Had he only seen him once, or did he know he did it all the time? Was he going to be angry? Was he going to yell at him, tell him to knock it off? To stay away from his house, from his daughter?

“Well, it’s nice to meet you, Jacob!” he said, warmly and with a smile. “If you’re ever in the neighborhood, " he continued, emphasizing this, "feel free to drop by and say hello! Tracy hasn't made a lot of friends since we've been here -- she would probably like someone to hang out with from time to time. Maybe we can have you over for dinner one night or something?"

Tracy’s mom raised her eyebrows. “Over for dinner?” she asked, slyly. “A boy?” she paused, feigning surprise. “I dunno, Bob, this boy looks like he could be trouble!”

“No sweat!” Bob replied. “I’ve got my rifle, if I need it!”

The both of them chuckled and smiled, Bob ruffling the hair on Jacob’s head with his hand.

Seriously, Jacob,” Tracy’s dad said. “It was nice to meet you. Please, don’t be afraid to swing by. We’d love to have you, you’re welcome any time!”

Tracy smiled at this, then smiled at Jacob. His heart was afire, even though he was irritated that his hair was messed up now. The three of them walked off as he watched, walking hand in hand like the happy family they were. He wanted to go with them… wanted to be a happy family, like they were… to be together with Tracy, and to be a part of a happy family.

Meanwhile, Timmy Lane ended up as the last in line. As he stood waiting patiently, he felt a leg crash against him from behind. It was a long leg, this he could discern, because he distinctly felt the knee strike not far below his buttocks.

Oh,” a deep and gravelly voice said after the collision, which almost knocked Timmy down.

Staggering to catch his balance, he felt the dry and rough skin of a hand grasping his shoulder firmly and tightly. Once recovered, the boy turned and tilted his head far, far back to meet the face of a stranger who was reaching out to help steady him.

“I’m sorry, son!” the man said.

He was a black man, very tall and lanky. He towered above Timmy, like a giant sequoia over a bonsai tree. His eyes were a thick burnt sienna, even the scleras looking tan instead of white. They were warm and kind, even though their darkness was intimidating.

His head was bald and egg shaped, curving up from his chin and then rounding out around his ears, rising in an ellipse at the crest of his great height. The tight and bumpy flesh of his cocoa colored brow was cleft almost perfectly in twain, a long and depressed scar originating just below where his hairline would be and diving down vertically until it was interrupted by his nose, From there, it diverted to the left and continued almost all the way down to his thick upper lip.

It was frightening to Timmy… ghastly and horrific. It looked like it should hurt, like whatever happened to make it had probably hurt really badly.

“Are you okay, son?” he asked softly, warmly. He had a mild accent, one that Timmy didn’t recognize. It smoothed the coarseness of his voice, but did nothing to temper Timmy’s fear.

Timmy didn’t respond, his mouth agape in shock at the sight of such a menacing person… such a frightening scar. The man smiled in response, trying to soothe the child with a display of kindness and friendliness.

Deputy Ron, who was stirring up more orange drink, turned when he heard them and looked up. He recognized the voice of the man, one that was an old acquaintance of his.

“Well I’ll be damned! Sarge!” the Deputy exclaimed, interrupting the stranger’s attempt to make a friend of Timmy.

“Ron!” the man responded. “Long time, no see, my brother!”

Launchpad, who was just in front of Timmy, took note of the exchange. Looking to the adults, he wondered if they were really related or if this was just a term of endearment. He decided that they couldn't be family, because Deputy Ron wasn't black -- just olive skinned. He wasn't what his father would call a brotha’ at all, so he was utterly confused about what Sarge meant. He decided it was just an expression of fondness, because Sarge seemed like a kind and friendly man to him.

“How the hell ya’ been, buddy?” Boudreaux replied, reaching out a hand to shake enthusiastically.

“I’ve been good brother, life is good!” Sarge answered with a glowing smile. “I’m afraid I almost knocked over this little boy, though!”

Timmy was still in shock, still staring at the scar on the man’s face. Boudreaux looked at him and laughed, finding the expression of terror humorous somehow.

"Relax, Timmy!" he said. "This is Mister Simmonds -- everybody calls him Sarge. He's a good guy, I promise!"

This didn’t ease Timmy’s anxiety at all. He was still frightened, still transfixed.

“They been treatin’ you okay over to the downs?” Deputy Ron continued, turning his attention back to Mister Simmonds.

“Yeah, they treat me fine!” he replied. “Keep me workin’ like a dog, though, keep me doing my thing! Even in the off season, they keep me runnin’!”

“I’ve been meanin’ to get down there and play the ponies myself, but it seems like every time they’re runnin’ there’s somethin’ else I got to tend to, some business I’ve got to mind instead!”

“The trotters are runnin’ tonight, brother, I’m absconding as we speak!” Simmonds replied. “Be headed down there after this, though, you should tag along!”

"Ya' know," Boudreaux replied, "that might not be a bad idea at all! I'll have to ask Clyde, of course, but it's not out of the question! A man deserves a break, once in awhile, right? Tell me, though -- If I do go -- what's the smart money bet, in your expert opinion?"

“Well,” Simmonds chuckled, “you know they won’t let me bet, seein’ as how I’m on the rolls. If I could, though, there’s a colt on the loose that I would pick to win every time!

“Which one is that?”

“His name is Sweet Peter Jeeter, and he's got the heart of a champion, so far as I'm concerned. Won his first four starts, lookin' to make it number five! It's like he's made to pull the sulky! Strong legs, solid hooves, and I put the shoes on him myself -- so you know he can get on the good foot and go!”

“Is he runnin’ tonight?”

“Number six in the third race!”

Boudreaux smiled, already counting his winnings. “If I make it down there, I can put a bet in for you by proxy if ya’ want!”

“Oh no!” Simmonds laughed again. “I’m not tryin’ to get caught up in any trouble like that, it’s just not a good idea! Keepin’ my nose clean, brother, it’s the only way to go! Tough enough out here as it is, I don’t need no trouble like that!”

“Well, if there’s anything I can do for you, Sarge, you just let me know!” Boudreaux replied.

“Will do, friend, will do.” Sarge answered. “Say, have you seen Rusty Parker running around here anywhere? I’ve got a question for him, if I can find him in this crazy mass of folks.”

The other boys had filled their cups, now, only Timmy was without orange drink. He just kept staring up at that scar on Simmond’s face, like he was in some kind of trance. Realizing this, Jacob drew a cup of drink for him and grabbed an extra sack of popcorn before taking his hand and pulling him away. Everyone else was taking their seats as well, because the meeting was about to start.

 

SIXTEEN

 

 

As Darkwing scanned the room, it seemed to him that everybody from town was there; his mom -- half way to cloud nine under the influence of her Xanax -- , Chucky's mom, Timmy Lane's parents, Tracy and her family, the parents of other kids from around Burlwood Meadows. Even the Duncan's, Dawson's and Marshall's were there. Then there were the teachers from school, Father Lovett and Rusty, the maintenance man from the church, and people he recognized from Burlwood Downs. Just about everybody he could imagine, except for Launchpad's parents. For some reason, they hadn't seen fit to come.

No sooner were the boys settled into a group of plastic folding chairs in the back row, munching their snacks and drinking their sweet drinks, Sheriff Clyde Rambo approached the podium at the front of the room. He tapped the microphone mounted to it a couple of times, dull thumps booming through loudspeakers positioned to his left and right as he did.

“Okay, folks,” he began, clearing his throat. “If everybody can find a seat, we’d like to get this thing underway. I know it’s Saturday, everybody probably has things they want to be doing, so we’ll try to keep it short and sweet.”

The few stragglers that were still standing closed in and hurried around, as though the song had stopped and a game of musical chairs was afoot. Fellow citizens scooted towards the center of the rows they sat in to open up seats by the aisles, trying to be sure that everyone had a chance to find a place to sit. When it seemed they were all settled, Rambo continued. Deputy Ron was standing not far from him, just a bit behind him and to his left.

“Before we begin, I’m going to invite Father Lovett up to say a little prayer for us. Father, come on up.”

On command, the priest took over the lectern and asked those gathered to bow their heads. Nearly everybody did, including most of The Burlwood Boys. Jacob didn’t, though, he didn’t like to pray… didn’t believe there was any God listening anyway.

What kind of God would’ve taken his father away from him the way he had?

What kind of God would let his mother suffer in such misery, now that her husband was gone?

What kind of God would let The Butcher do what he was doing to so many little children?

If there was a God, he wasn’t the kind of person Jacob wanted to have a conversation with. He was a person Jacob didn’t like at all, so why would he offer prayers to him?

Watching with his eyes open, his head held high, Darkwing listened as Father Lovett prayed for the souls of Gary Duncan, Joshua Banks, Nathan Dawson, Kirk Wade and, now, Ricky Marshall. He prayed that God reach out to their families, to their friends and their neighbors. He prayed that God watch over Burlwood in the challenging days to come, that He bless everyone and keep them. He prayed for Sheriff Rambo and Deputy Ron, that He might guide them and steer them in the right direction to bring an end to this terror.

When he was finished, he cried amen in a voice that was obviously fraught with emotion. Those gathered uttered a similar amen, then opened their eyes on a world that was much the same as it had been before they offered their prayer.

Nothing had changed, in fact, as a result of their efforts. The dead were still dead… the evil was still alive… the killer still at large… the children were still in danger.

God had apparently not heard their appeal, that’s all that Jacob could assume. He was apparently out of the office, apparently otherwise engaged. More likely, he figured, God wasn’t there at all. Perhaps he was dead, like Jesus, who hadn’t risen from his grave because coming back from the dead is impossible.

Or, perhaps, there had never been such a creature as God to begin with. Perhaps he was make-believe, just like the monsters Chucky thought were lurking in Booger Woods. Maybe it was all just a fairytale, a fantasy -- like he figured the place called Heaven was.

His mother insisted that her husband, his father, was looking down on them from this glorious place… looking down and watching over them. Jacob knew he wasn’t looking down, not from Heaven, at least. If he was looking down at all, it was from the rafters of the shed… swinging at the end of a noose he’d tied around his neck. His shoes were dangling over the ground, hanging halfway off his feet because he’d been kicking his legs around after he pushed the ladder out from underneath him. He was wearing a sign that said I’m Sorry, even though he wasn’t. If he was watching them at all, it was with his dead and bulging eyes… with his pants filled with shit and blood dripping from his mouth, just as he had been when Jake found him that cold Christmas morning.

He wasn’t guiding them or protecting them, either… not the way she said he was.

His father would never have allowed her to spend so many nights crying until her face was swollen, until she was having a hard time breathing because she couldn’t keep up with her sobbing. He would never have allowed her to curl up in a little ball, to pull her knees to her chest and wrap her arms around them so tight that it seemed it would take the jaws of life to tear them apart.

He wouldn’t have allowed Jacob to feed her little pills, like they were Pez candy, until she was so stoned that she eventually forgot why she was crying to begin with.

He wouldn’t have allowed her to call her son by his name when she was so high… wouldn’t have allowed her to take off her shirt, her bra, and then ask Jacob to touch her… wouldn’t have allowed her to run her hands up his leg until he had to pull away because, Jesus, she was going after his private parts… wouldn’t have allowed him to have to sit and watch her chest to make sure that she was still breathing when she finally passed out… wouldn’t have allowed her to exist in a drug induced stupor.

Garrett Jacob Giguére -- his father, after whom he and his son, in turn, were named -- would never have allowed them to live the way they were living. They would be better off dead, like him, than living the way they were living.

Even his mother realized that, and she talked about it all the time… said she wished she was dead, wished that she could die. Wished that she could take Jacob with her, so that they could be together… so that the three of them could be a family again, in Heaven… a place that Jacob didn’t believe was real.

His father was not looking down on him from Heaven…

God was not looking down on him from Heaven…

If He was, He was the worst, most frightening, most deranged, most depraved boogeyman of them all.

To pray to God was to waste breath… to waste energy… to waste hope, to waste faith on a deadbeat fantasy that never failed to break its promises. Our father, who art in Heaven… hollow be thy name, and hollow be thy heart.

Thanking Father Lovett, Sheriff Rambo returned to the podium and took over the proceedings.

“First of all, I want to thank all of you for coming out,” he said. “I also want to thank everyone for their kind wishes and for the outpouring of support I was blessed to receive after my recent cardiac episode. I want everybody to know that I’m doing much better, and my doctors tell me this was an isolated incident. They say I’m in fine condition, and I have nothing to worry about moving forward.”

There was a round of applause, which made the man smile. The cheering was in celebration of a white lie, nothing too severe or egregious. He needed to shed some weight, watch his diet and pop blood pressure pills a few times a day. There would come a time to consider a pacemaker soon, but that was down the road a ways. It was nothing terminal, so long as he was careful.

Nodding and smiling, he waited for the cheering to quiet before continuing. “I know you’re all concerned, and I hope you know I’m the most concerned of us all. As you’ve probably heard by now, we found the remains of Ricky Marshall near Butcher’s Lane Provisions early this morning. Based on the evidence we have available to us, we’re convinced that the perpetrator or perpetrators were the same as those that killed the other children.”

There was no collective gasp, no surprise among those gathered at this revelation. They were used to this sort of news, they knew how things would end up when a child went missing. The Sheriff had refrained from using the sinister moniker issued by the press, The Butcher Of Burlwood, to identify the assailant, which was also no surprise.

The phrase had become taboo, they didn’t care to hear it uttered by the man in charge any more than they liked seeing it in print or hearing it on the television. Refusing to embrace it made it easier to pretend these things weren’t happening here… that they were things that only happened in other people’s cities. To invoke the name The Butcher Of Burlwood was to acknowledge that this was their problem… to fully accept the crisis that was percolating in their town.

“I’ve consulted Sheriff Dickinson of the Elsmere County PD, who’s been working with us since Gary Duncan’s murder, and he’s suggested that I seek the assistance of state and federal authorities to help us get through this.”

This bit of information did illicit a response, a chorus of whispers that swept the crowd as they discussed the ramifications amongst them. Sheriff Rambo had expected this reaction, he knew the mindset of the populace he served. The people of his town would lament the decision to reach out to higher powers, it was just their way. To bring them in was to invite prying eyes into their humble and otherwise quiet neighborhood… to bring judgement and subjugation.

The State Police had assisted in the investigation of every slaying since Joshua Banks, but the people of Burlwood were largely unaware of that fact. They may not have minded, even had they known -- the state police were still Hoosiers, still of a similar creed. What was coming now, though, was something much bigger. Something much more intrusive.

Now that the tally of the dead had reached five, all of them having been boys between the ages of eight and twelve, all of them having been sexually assaulted and dismembered, there was no denying the fact that a serial killer was at large. One that had an affinity for the young boys of Burlwood.

A serial killer on the loose represents a major threat to society, that alone can draw attention. The fact that he preyed sexually upon children sealed the deal. It meant that reports filed at the local level were escalated and reviewed all the way up the chain of law enforcement. These facts combined, this equation that was not singularly unique in the greater scheme of The United States as a whole, set in motion a series of events that culminated in the ringing of Sheriff Rambo’s phone late the night before.

When the fact that Ricky Marshall was missing had traveled the circuit, all the way to the top, Special Agent Gomez was obliged to call… to cast his hat, the biggest hat of them all, directly into the very center of the ring where a championship fight was imminent.

There was no choice, no decision to be made regarding the involvement of the Federal Bureau of Investigations. Not on the part of Sheriffs Rambo or Dickinson, at least, and not even Commisioner Dix of the Indiana State Police had any real voice in the discussion. The arrival of the Fed was compulsory and inevitable, whether any of the officers or citizens involved liked it or not.

They would turn the town upside down and shake it, like an old couch that had swallowed up a bounty of coins that they intended to retrieve. They would pull back all of the veils, rip down all of the curtains and peek through all of the windows. What's more, they would huff and puff and blow a house in -- if it looked like something inside could be of any consequence.

No proud person likes to concede that they can't take care of their own business, that they can't clean the messes within the four walls of their own house. To call a maid -- to call the FBI -- is, so far as most proud people are concerned, an admission of incompetence... of unwillingness or incapability. An acknowledgement of the fact that they are unable to handle things on their own.

Clyde Rambo didn’t feel this way, though, he was glad that help was coming. He needed help, this train was getting away from him. The last thing he wanted was to be forced to see more innocent children lose their lives.

He was tired of trying to suppress the memories, the photographs and blood spattered canvases of murder done in portrait. He was tired of smearing Vicks Vapor Rub under his nostrils to mask the stench of death, tired of looking upon the tortured and bloodied faces of kids he had watched grow up -- until their right to continue growing was taken away from them so brutally. He was tired of seeing them end up in little pieces, torn asunder and spread around like so much trash out by the curb.

If Agent Gomez could close this case -- if he could find the killer and bring an end to all of this -- that would be just fine by him. He didn’t need to claim the glory of catching the bad guy. He didn’t need to be remembered as the hero of the day. He didn’t need to be remembered at all, he just needed this madness to stop… before he lost hold of it entirely.

Knowing that the community he policed was sensitive, though, that they were independent to a fault, and that they wouldn’t appreciate the arrival of people they considered outsiders, he presented this information in a manner that he hoped would help to soften the blow. He would paint it as a choice. As a decision he made, of sound mind and with good intentions, as a plea on their behalf.

“I know this might not be a popular decision, folks,” he said, “but I find that I must agree with Sheriff Dickinson. There’s too much at stake here! Too much to lose, if we don’t take action. As a result, based on that conclusion, I’ve contacted the FBI. I’ve spoken with Special Agent Alberto Gomez, who will be personally managing the case and assisting us in investigating the murder of Ricky Marshall. Together with him, we will examine all of the murders, including those of all the other children we’ve lost in days gone by.”

The whispers continued, growing in volume and liveliness, as the people expressed their concerns and discontent among themselves. In the back row, Darkwing and the gang didn’t understand why this troubled their parents and neighbors. They weren’t the ones in mortal danger. What did it matter to them if city folk swept through the town in search of answers? What did it matter if the cavalry conquered the villain instead of The Lone Ranger. What difference did it make if it were Sheriff Rambo or Agent Gomez that caught The Butcher, so long as he was caught?

The intensity of the audience grew and doubled, people shouting out their objections and cursing the Sheriff for taking such unilateral action. They cried this is a democracy, this is our town, and keep Uncle Sam off my property until they were blue in the face. What does the FBI know about us? What does the FBI care about our kids?

This isn’t about the FBI!” a sobbing woman cried from among them.

As she jumped to her feet, everyone saw who she was… knew who she was. She was Penny Marshall, mother of the most recent decedent, Ricky. Her face was fiery red and painted with tears, snot dripping from her nose as she pointed accusingly and damningly at Rambo upon the stage.

This is about YOU, Clyde!” she shouted. “About YOU and how you can’t handle it! About YOU and how you’ve failed us!

Another citizen stood and rushed to Penny’s side. It appeared to be Rita Duncan, Gary’s mother, but she moved so quickly that it was hard to tell. She grabbed hold of the distraught woman, trying to calm her and return her to her seat. Her efforts were in vain, Penny wasn’t finished yet… hadn’t spoken her peace yet.

“It’s YOUR fault!” she howled, as loud as any person has ever howled upon this Earth. “You told us you would take care of this! You told us you were gonna make this right! YOU were supposed to be protecting our kids! YOU were supposed to be finding this monster! Where the fuck were YOU when my little boy was being killed, Clyde? Where were you when he was scared and crying out for help? When he was being raped like some kind of dog? Where were you and your fucking badge when he was being chopped into little pieces? What good was your fucking investigation to him? How could YOU let this happen? How can you sleep at night, how can you live with yourself? How can you live with the knowledge that YOU let this happen? Fuck you, Clyde! Fuck you and damn you, you bastard!”

Rambo offered no rebuttal, made no attempt to settle her. He looked defeated on the stage, defeated and deflated. Had the audience started casting stones at him, he would’ve stood right behind the podium and accepted his fate with shame. Had they built a crucifix in the hall, he would’ve carried it up to the stage and laid down upon it, spreading his arms and crossing his feet to accept the nails. Had they declared that he should draw his service revolver and fire a bullet through his brain, he would’ve done so to appease them. If the spilling of his own blood would’ve washed clean the blood of the children slaughtered on his watch, he would’ve slit his throat over a trough and let it fill until there wasn’t a drop left in him.

He was at a loss… a loss for words, a loss for answers, a loss for hope and for comfort to give.

Seeing this, Deputy Ron asserted his authority and used his heavy hand to regain control. He waived to a few Elsmere County PD officers that had been stationed in the back, instructing them without words to remove Penny Marshall from the room. She kicked and screamed the whole way, Rita Duncan still trying to comfort her with tears of sympathy and understanding.

“Okay, people, settle down!” Boudreaux barked, brushing Rambo aside and laying claim to the microphone. “Now this ain’t helpin’ nothin’, all y’all’s hootin’ and hollerin’! It is what it is, and there ain’t nothin’ we can do about it, so let’s not dwell on it! The dead are dead and gone, there ain’t a thing we can do to bring them back! This man has worked day and night on this case, he eats No-Doze like it’s candy! Taking it out on him is not what we do, not here, not in Burlwood! When it comes to the Fed, The Sheriff has made his decision, and he’s right! Now let’s hush up and let the man speak! Have some dignity, people, let him speak!”

The crowd quieted at his urging, at his order. Without a word, he backed away and let Rambo continue. The Sheriff seemed to appreciate what Boudreaux had done, signaling him with a nod of approval and thanks. He was still shaken, though… still troubled.

“I’m sorry,” he said, a weakness in his voice that no one present was used to hearing. “I’m sorry that I don’t have all the answers… sorry that I can’t bring back the dead… sorry, that I’m failing you in your time of need. Like Ron said, I don’t get much sleep… I can’t sleep, even if I wanted to, because when I close my eyes all I see is… all I see is the kids…”

The hush that had swept the crowd deepened, the people moved by his display of emotion and regret. Not another word came from their lips for the remainder of his speech... not a shout, not a peep, not a whisper. Darkwing looked over to Louie, the son of the man who seemed to be losing himself before them. Remarkably, the kid was stone-faced... looked strong and brave, unshaken in seeing his father struggling. This could've been the product of a great internal strength and fortitude -- or simply a result of a lack of understanding of the gravity of recent events unfolding in the township of Burlwood.

Sheriff Rambo steadied himself, clearing the lump from his throat and trying to grab hold of the reigns of control for what was left to say. “All I really want to accomplish here,” he continued, “is to make sure everyone knows we’re doing all that we can to keep our children safe. When the FBI shows up, I urge you to cooperate with them fully. If they want to question you, talk to them openly and freely... if they want advice on where to look, tell them what's on your mind. If you see something, say something -- that's all."

Continued silence was the response, so he resumed.

"There are a few other things I want to say -- things that you need to be aware of. The curfew for children under sixteen has been rolled back another hour, it's six PM now. I don't want to see any children outside after six unless they are accompanied by their parents. You’ve all been pretty good about that lately with the seven o’clock restriction, so I don’t expect this adjustment to be a painful one. Also, I suggest that you keep close eyes on your children at all times, especially if they're boys and fall into the age range that has been an issue. This isn't to say that girls or children younger or older than the others are in any less danger, we can't say that as a fact. Know where your children are, be there with them whenever possible. Please, please don't let your child go far from your home alone. That can't lead to anything good at all -- even if we weren't having these difficulties. I've tasked Deputy Ron Boudreaux with organizing a community watch force... a group of volunteers to help those of us who can't be home with our children all the time. I'm going to turn the podium over to him now to explain, so please listen and do all you can to remain vigilant and mindful of what's going on at all times. I know this is all very tough, but I'm confident that we can come through it -- if we all pull together like the community that we are... if we work together. If we take care of each other. Thank you for your attention and attentiveness, and thank you for your understanding and patience. Now, let's hear from Ron Boudreaux."

Deputy Ron took the floor eagerly and laid out the details of his plan. The town was to be divided into sectors, a concept he explained with the aid of a map projected on a screen hanging from the ceiling. Each sector was identified by a color and a number, and each would be overseen by someone called a [_ block captain -- ] even though Burlwood was a town that didn’t have what would generally be accepted as blocks. The roads were curved and winding, the neighborhoods amorphous and not well defined. Some of the sectors seemed too big, others too small and insignificant. They weren’t all just squares, either, making the _block terminology even more confusing.

Boudreaux explained that these block captains would have direct access to him via a mobile phone, a concept that was new to them. They were to call him twice a night, every night. First, they would make a quick patrol of their sector when the curfew commenced, ensuring there were no children lingering on the streets. When that was confirmed, it would be communicated to him with the first call, this one at around six thirty. A second patrol was to be made around nine o'clock, another call communicating anything suspicious thereafter. If anyone who wasn't a block captain saw anything, they were to report it to the block captain -- who would then relay it to Boudreaux, immediately and urgently, no matter what time of day or night it was.

This didn’t seem like a bad idea to young Jacob, except for the simple fact that most of the disappearances hadn’t occurred after dark at all. It was futile, in his mind, to police this curfew so diligently, when the curfew couldn’t have done anything to save the children who’d been killed anyway.

This was a bandaid on a bullet wound, not an answer to anything at all. The concept appeased the citizens, though, gave them some sense of control and security. If that was the case, it couldn’t be a bad thing, he supposed.

What was a bad thing, though -- something that made his stomach drop when he discovered it -- was the listing of a name that appeared on the projection as the block captain of sector seven in the portion of the map marked G. The sector itself was fairly large, covering the territory between Ashwood and Ledgewood, from Eastwood to Driftwood, and including the small patch of forest he knew as Booger Woods.

There beside the map -- in plain text, for everyone to see -- was the name of a person he knew was not suited to do the job as it should be done. In bold, black, Times New Roman print, appeared the familiar letters... the ones that spelled out the name of one Janet Giguére... Jacob's mother.

 

SEVENTEEN

 

 

September 10th, 2016. 10:00AM

Garthby, Indiana

 

Jake had slept long, but not hard -- not without interruption. He passed out almost immediately upon falling into the hotel bed, before it had reached seven o'clock, in fact. He woke several times in the hours that followed, though, and the waking wasn't subtle. Each time it happened, his heart would be racing and he would be sweating profusely. He would smell the perspiration, feel it dripping from him and soaking the sheets he was wrapped up in. Terrified, he would shoot up in the bed. Shaking, panting and frightened of something, having no idea of what, no clue as to why he was so alarmed.

Most of the episodes subsided quickly, once he’d scanned the room and realized there was nothing out of the ordinary. He would chalk the whole thing up to some forgotten nightmare, some terrible dream that left his mind the moment he opened his eyes, leaving no trace of a memory behind. As the night progressed, the episodes became more intense, his fear more palpable.

Then, at two thirty in the morning, came the first of the things ... the terrible, horrific things that weren't nightmares -- weren't dreams at all. His eyes opened when he heard a rustling in the room, so he resisted the urge to sit up as he had when he’d awakened before. He did nothing at first, stirring only slightly in the bed to convince himself that he was utterly and totally awake. Before he reacted to the noise, he needed to be sure that he wasn’t teetering on the realm of a dream, not lingering in the ignis fatuus of some alternate reality.

When he was positive that the sound was real, he carefully and cautiously peered to his right, in the direction of the rustling. There, as plain as day and as real as real can be, he saw a man crouched on the floor… the intruder was clothed in black from head to toe, and he was rummaging through Jake’s duffel bag as though there was something inside he intended to find, something that was important and valuable, something that he was determined to have and take.

In as fluid and sudden a motion as he could manage, Jake ripped open the drawer of the bedside table and snatched out his Beretta, sending the Giddeon Bible under which he’d hidden it flying. Moving as quickly as a bolt of lightning cracking the sky, he slammed in the clip and pulled back the slide. Releasing the safety, he trained his sights on the spot where the man had been and nearly squeezed off a round before he realized that there was no one there… nothing there… nothing at all. His bag was on the floor, right where he had left it… zipped up and intact. There was no indication that anyone had been tampering with it, no sign that it had been disturbed in any way.

He wanted to be relieved that there was nothing, but the fact that there was nothing meant that something was wrong. Something was happening to him, something happening to his mind, and this might only be the beginning.

He locked the safety of his gun again and returned it to the drawer, not bothering to fetch the tossed Bible or to release the clip, nor to eject the bullet that was now ready in the chamber. This incident may have been no more than a night terror, but he wasn’t taking any chances. It took him a bit to get back to sleep after all of this, enough time that he had to get up and take a piss before finally settling back in and dozing off once more.

The second episode came at about a quarter to four, and it led him to leap clear out of the bed. Having felt the mattress rock, as though someone had climbed onto it with him, he threw back the covers and laid eyes on Nikki -- the waitress from Uncle Jim's. She was stark naked, positioned at the foot of the bed on all fours, with her rear pointed towards him -- presenting to him. Her anus was mutilated and gushing like a fountain of blood. It was a deep red blood, and it poured from her like water from a faucet, racing down her leg in a grotesque crimson cascade.

There was a constant deluge of it, heavy and profuse, and it seemed as though she would fully exsanguinate in seconds based upon the volume she was losing. A deep puddle had pooled on the sheet below her and was dripping to the floor, soiling the carpet as well. Slowly, menacingly, she swiveled her head around to face him -- showing no distress in her countenance, no fear or emotion of any sort. Her mouth hung open and loose, the teeth inside black and brown as though decayed by years of death and decomposition.

Her eyes weren’t gray anymore, they were glowing red… ablaze with torment, hatred and hunger. He could see her longing in them, could see that she was as desperate as Tantalus in the land of Tartarus, desperate for the fruit that was just beyond her grasp. Her hunger was not for any sustenance that was on offer at Uncle Jim’s Pancake House, though, she was hungry for him. Hungry for that throbbing erection that she knew damned well she’d coaxed from him. Hungry to have every last inch of him jammed inside her, jammed like a finger in the dyke to stem the flow. Hungry to have him pump and thrust with all the lasciviousness of his lust, hungry to have him grab hold of both her shoulders with his firm hands and pull her into him with all the effort of his might. Hungry for him to fill her, for him to lay claim to her bloody bounty.

What’s wrong, baby?” she asked in a demonic cackle. “Don’t you want to take me? Don’t you like it in the ass?

He gasped in horror, physically grabbed his chest to keep his heart from bursting out of it like the creature in Alien, which it felt as though it was making preparations to do. He felt faint and nauseated, a foul odor of rot and iron cycling through his sinuses and causing him to gag. Just when the horror was coming to a climax -- when it seemed his chest would finally pop, when he felt certain that he would simply go vasovagal -- as mysteriously as she had appeared, she simply vanished into nothingness.

There was no blood, no warmth on the bed where she had been. The smell was gone, the terror was gone, the succubus was gone.

It was extremely difficult for him to climb back into the sack, but he needed to sleep. His system needed rest, there was no way he could function effectively if he didn't get more sleep. If he couldn't function, he couldn't be of any use to Chucky -- couldn't be a thorn in the side of Ron Boudreaux.

Shortly after he finally managed to return to the realm of Hypnos, he opened his eyes once more to see a giant, furry spider, dangling just above his face. Its legs were twitching and rolling around, clinging to a thin strand of silk that held it suspended from the ceiling above him. It wasn't there either, of course, but he would've sworn that it was completely real. It was spooky, it was disgusting -- but it was nothing compared to the other things he’d experienced this night, so he calmly blinked his eyes until the creature was gone.

His fear of the terrors diminished with his realization that they were only delusions, that there was nothing in the dark that hadn’t been conjured up in some dank chamber of his mind. Suppressing the anxiety with the knowledge that this was the case, he had an opportunity to contemplate what he was going through. It didn’t take long for him to reach a sensible conclusion, either, once the fear was gone.

The most logical explanation for the events of the evening, he decided, was that he was experiencing the side effects of alcohol withdrawal. Hallucinations brought on by detox… hallucinations that were terrifying, but had no basis in reality, no substance in the real world. He longed for pink elephants, wished for dancing munchkins or Oompa Loompas spilling out of the closet instead of the horrors he was being subjected to. Anything but what he was seeing… anything at all.

He hadn’t consumed a drop of liquor in over forty eight hours, at this point. That was a good deal longer than he had abstained from hitting the bottle in the months of the recent past. He never would’ve thought that things could get so bad from staying dry for just two days. Apparently, he was so dependent on it that, now, in its absence, his brain chemistry was thrown totally askew.

Trying to tough it out, resisting the urge to race to the nearest liquor store and drop five percent or more of his remaining three hundred and fifty bucks, he laid back down after each successive incident. Willing himself to sleep, he managed to make the periods between waking longer -- the visions subsiding in severity with each occurrence.

He could sleep it off, he figured… could wrestle it into submission, if he could just get over the initial hump… if he could just hold on through the initial detox.

He woke for good when the courtesy desk rang his phone at eight AM, per his request. Even knowing that he needed to get up, knowing that there was work to be done, he was tempted to hang up the receiver and pass back out until his body decided it was ready to be awake.

He was still tired, but he had to get moving. He needed to put his shoulder to the wheel and push, no matter how hard that might be. Shaking off the cobwebs, he choked down another cup of complimentary caffeinated shit water, cursing the Best Western brass and their coffee supplier of choice.

It helped him wake up, but just barely.

He was functioning, but hardly.

He was determined, but not really.

Checking the inbox of the Giguére Investigative Services email account, he saw a message from LeTonya Hughes. There was one from Dianna Tripp, too. One that probably said she had renewed suspicions about her husband and wanted to retain his services. This time, those suspicions were almost certainly justified. Mister Tripp seemed to have developed a taste for the chubby country-western women that hang out at a seedy dive called Bottoms Up in downtown Detroit. He probably liked to snort coke off of their tits, too, coke that he purchases from a bitch who drinks martinis and likes to jam her hands up strange men’s shirts.

That was none of his affair, though, not anymore.

Opening the message from LeTonya, he was greeted by nothing more than the auto-populated signature of Hughes At Law. Underneath it, though, was a PDF attachment… the only thing that really mattered.

He downloaded it and took a look immediately, trying to zoom and pan around the documents on the small screen of his Galaxy phone. It was futile, there was no way he would be able to soak everything in by fiddling with it in miniature. It didn’t help that large swaths of the text looked to be redacted, blacked out as though someone had pressed a broad-tipped Sharpie over the words and covered up entire sentences and then made a photocopy.

Deciding it was time to checkout, he picked up his duffle bag and gave it a quick once over -- just to be sure that the creeper in the night was truly just a figment of his alcohol-starved imagination. Unzipping it just a bit, he somehow found room to pack what remained of the small bottles of toiletries scattered about the room. Even though they claimed to be complimentary, he was confident that he'd paid triple their value under the umbrella of the exorbitant nightly rate he'd shelled out the morning before. The shitty coffee probably came at a premium of six bucks a cup to boot.

He'd be damned if he was going to leave them behind... if he wasn't going to get every dime of his money's worth. He was going to ask the courtesy desk for the promised shaving supplies and toothpaste as well, he'd paid for them. He considered borrowing a towel or two -- perhaps a washcloth to make it a set -- but decided that his bag would likely burst if he tried. Strapping on his piece and getting dressed, he prepared to make his departure.

He checked out at nine thirty, requesting and receiving his razor and shave cream. They claimed to be out of toothpaste, but that was probably bullshit. He suspected they would find some in the back if he plunked down another hundred bucks for a second night… fucking leeches.

As he was preparing to walk out of the lobby, a bit irritated about the toothpaste, he heard a pattern of clicks and clacks that he immediately recognized as the sounds of a copying machine at work. Stopping mid-stride, he turned and asked if they offered printing services. They did -- and he could print as much as he wanted, for the low-low price of fifty cents per page.

Deciding it was worth it, that it had to be done anyway, he beamed the PDF via Bluetooth to their laser printer and waited for the twenty pages of reports to print. Ten bucks later, he had a manila envelope containing the hard copies in hand.

When he climbed into his Malibu and pitched his bag onto the passenger seat, the thud it made on the leather transported him back in time to the night on Atlas Avenue East. He remembered the screaming fight, remembered Tracy’s tearful rage… remembered the squealing of tires, remembered his desperate retreat from the train wreck that his life had become.

He didn't dwell on it -- couldn't afford the time or emotional energy to dwell on it -- so he simply closed his door, started the car and pulled the papers from their envelope. Not taking time to organize them or pick and choose which ones to read first, he simply began thumbing through the pages of reports and making quick scans of each of them.

On the crisp white pages, he saw diagrams of body parts and crude sketches of crime scenes. He saw words, both typed and written by hand, and he saw lots and lots of blacked out redactions.

Trying to decipher what little print wasn’t covered up, he wondered what he might be able to see… what he might deduce. He tried hard, as hard as he figured he possibly could with the current chemical imbalance of his brain, but he slowly started to realize that he couldn’t see anything in the reports that would be of use to him.

It was all Latin to him, and some of it was literally Latin. Descriptions of the human anatomy postmortem, descriptions of defects and wounds, measurements, weights and remarks about the condition of tissues and organs. They could have been described as perfectly normal, or their condition might be entirely suspicious and some sort of smoking gun that had been overlooked, he didn’t know.

Was a liver supposed to be smooth, reddish-brown and weigh 1.44 kilograms, or was that an anomaly? Was the thymus gland supposed to be pinkish-gray, soft and lobulated with a weight of 38 grams, or was that a sign that something had been done to it? Without the prerequisite knowledge of how dead, decaying organs and tissues should appear, he could make no assumptions as to what was relevant and what was not in these clinical descriptions.

The only thing that jumped out at him immediately, the only thing that was plainly obvious, was the fact that the entirety of the sections labeled Toxicology and Trace Evidence had been redacted from every report he had. Every one except for that of Billy Marsh, that is, which simply declared results pending. It was a small wonder that even that statement wasn’t redacted, considering how heavy handed the censor seemed to be. It was just as useless being printed there as it would’ve been if they had blotted it out with a marker, though, because no results means nothing to go on.

Since the information had been concealed in the findings of all the other reports, it seemed likely that the facts contained in those sections must be of some significance. Even if they weren’t of consequence, the administrators who had chosen to redact them had certainly done so with the feeling that it was in the best interests of their investigation to keep the results a secret. That made the facts curious, if not pertinent… if not crucial.

In all of the other sections, the ones referring to the individual organs and limbs, the redactions were more sporadic, more hit and miss. There would be a word crossed out here, a sentence blacked out there, a diagram off in the margins of the page covered up. Just bits and pieces missing, but it seemed as though they were the corner pieces… those segments of the puzzle that make up the border and the edges. The ones that any wise and experienced dissectologist lays out and assembles first, to set a foundation around which to fill in the center and complete the picture.

The drawings of the scenes at which the victims had been discovered -- all of which looked like they'd been sketched by his autistic son -- had similarly blocked out segments near what he assumed were supposed to be body parts. It was hard to tell, since the artist who had created them was certainly no Da Vinci. Pablo Picasso himself would've likely struggled to discern anything that resembled a human form in these drawings. He could be looking at arms, legs and heads -- or they could be abstract depictions of trees, twigs, fallen branches or patches of grass -- there was simply no way to tell.

Examining all of the pages which seemed to depict the places bodies were found, he noted that the diagram of Booger Woods drawn to show what detectives saw when they recovered Billy Marsh’s remains did not have any sign of redaction upon it. This was curious, since the drawings of every other victim did have at least one redacted section in the diagram.

Was this because Louie Rambo got his hands on the diagram before the censors had a chance to have their way with it? Or was it, instead, because something was missing… something that had been present at the other scenes, but wasn’t found at this one at all?

The knowledge available to him being only that which was depicted on the pages, in toner black and Hammermill Bond white, didn’t allow him to speculate as to which answer was correct. He would need to know what had been excised from the blacked out maps to make that determination, would need to know what was drawn beneath the scribbled patches of erasure and was being held as a secret. Being denied to, and concealed from, inquiring minds that wanted to know.

The toxicology results for Billy Marsh would likely take weeks, if not longer to come back. He knew that much, based on his experience when he was curious to know how a particular celebrity had died when drug abuse was a probable culprit. Even when they did come in for Billy, that information may be deemed as privileged as well… subjected to the same redaction process.

Frustrated at the way these censored documents paralyzed him, how they hampered his investigation, he scrolled through his phone log to find Donnell’s number. Copying it to his dialing screen, he turned the radio up so that he could hear the audio through his vehicle’s hands free system.

“Hughes at law, it’s Saturday -- we're closed." a snotty, feminine voice answered.

“Um, hi,” Jake began, “this is Jake Giguére, I’m trying to reach Donnell.”

“Hold,” she replied… no please, no hi Jake, I’ve heard a lot about you, it’s a pleasure to speak with you, no how’s the family… nothing.

“Donnell speaking, how can I help you?” Launchpad’s voice announced shortly thereafter.

“Donnell, it’s Jake,” he said. “Hey, I’m looking over these reports… I can’t make heads or tails out of them! There’s stuff blacked out, redactions all over the place! I have no idea what the hell I’m looking at! Is there a way we can get clean copies of this stuff?”

Donnell grunted, thought for a moment. "We can," he advised, "but we'll have to get a court order, and they'll want to know why we need it. I imagine I can tell them that we're looking into whether the crimes are related, whether evidence from the old cases could be exculpatory and, therefore, covered under Brady. If it could exonerate our client, we could get it -- but it's gonna be a pain in the ass, man, and it's gonna take time."

Jake didn’t know what Brady was, didn’t care to know. It didn’t matter. “What kind of time?” he asked.

“Well,” another grunt, “considering it is Saturday, I can't even make a motion until Monday -- which is a bad day for me as it sits already. I figure I could get it filed on Tuesday. Hagan will probably make a fuss, either him or Boudreaux. They'll probably request a hearing, where we'd have to explain why we think it's important and get a ruling on it from Judge Casella. He could deny our motion, shut us right down. Even if he agreed with us, it could be weeks... maybe a month. That's the straight dope, no bullshit."

That wasn’t soon enough, not nearly. Double Indemnity could be in danger of lapsing by then, he couldn’t wait. He needed to know now, right now -- not in a week, not in two weeks, certainly not in a month.

This made him mad… pissed him off, actually. “Christ!” he barked. “There’s no way to get it faster?”

"Nope," Donnell answered without hesitation. "We'll get the Marsh stuff within the two weeks as part of discovery, that much we're entitled to. All that extra shit, though, the stuff about the old murders, that's another matter altogether. They're not linked, not so far as The State is concerned, so we haven't got any right to see those reports -- to see what they were trying to protect. We can make a request under the Freedom Of Information Act, which would result in us being furnished exactly what you're holding now." He paused, realizing they were in a pickle. " Fuck, now that I think about it, we shouldn’t even have what we do yet! Rambo snuck it to us on the down low, so I actually have to make a FOIA request to get the same shit we’ve got, then make a special request to get access to what’s been redacted. We’re talking at least a month now. Maybe two, if we don't wanna risk getting Rambo's ass in a sling -- which we can’t do -- I promised him that. The man has to work with Boudreaux every day, that's tough enough without us revealing that he's sleeping with the enemy."

Two months?

Donnell chuckled a bit. “That’s nothin’, Jake, the wheels of justice turn slow as a motherfucker. The court moves at a glacial pace, that’s just how it is. Like I said, we could be talking about a year before we get a verdict in this case… nothing is gonna happen fast, you’re just gonna have to learn to accept that.”

“There has to be another way, Donnell!” Jake insisted. “There’s got to be a way to figure this out faster than that!”

There was a pause, Launchpad was thinking. What came to him was a shot in the dark, but it was a chance -- more than they had before.

“You can try to beat it out of Clyde,” he suggested. “If anybody’s gonna know what’s written in those reports, it’s old Sheriff Rambo… he probably wrote up half of them himself, is probably the one who decided what was kept secret and what was released to the public and the press. If I know Clyde, he’ll remember every word of those reports, redacted or not. Try him, that’s the only shot we’ve got.”

Upon hearing this, Jake became even more enraged. It wasn’t anger directed at the system, this time, nor at Donnell. He was furious with himself, now, for his failure to figure this out. Hell, he had used the threat of talking to Rambo to twist the knife in Ron Boudreaux's heart just the day before -- how could he have forgotten about that? Why did it take Launchpad's help to figure out something so elementary, so basic and remedial?

Shit, what kind of help could he possibly be to Chucky if he was functioning at such a low level? If his body’s refusal to operate up to spec because he had spent so many nights poisoning it caused his friend to spend a single day, a single hour, a single minute, a single second longer in bondage than was absolutely necessary, how would he ever be able to forgive himself? The stakes of this game were too high, the antes too rich and the penalties too severe for him to limp through this thing like some hack rookie detective leaving all of the important stones unturned. He needed to get a grip on himself, and he needed to do it fast… perhaps faster than he could.

“Do you think he’ll tell me?” he asked, not letting his frustration speak out in his voice.

“He shouldn’t,” Donnel said, “he isn’t supposed to. If he does, nothing he says will be admissible in court, because he’s not at liberty to divulge that information anymore. We’ll have to go through the process if we want to use anything we find to defend Chuck, so I’ll plan to get it started anyway. If you choose to go talk to Clyde before the stuff comes in, that’s on you. I can’t really be too involved in all of that, I’ve got my license to consider, bro. Do what you’re gonna do, but play it on the QT. You heard what Boudreaux thought about the idea of you diggin’ up his backyard. It’s a dangerous game, Jake. You’ll have me driving back to Garthby to represent you if you’re not careful.”

"I've gotta do what I've gotta do," Jake answered. "I want this over -- quickly."

“Yeah, I’ve noticed,” Donnell remarked. “I’m tempted to ask you why you’re in such a hurry, but I have this strange feeling in my gut that I’m not gonna like the answer that you give me.”

“Let’s just say that I don’t like the idea of Chucky sitting in a jail cell and leave it at that,” he replied. “I can’t imagine he’s enjoying himself in there.”

“Oh, of that much I’m sure. He’s gonna be there for a minute though, man, no matter what we figure out. Do what you’ve got to do, what you feel like you need to do… just do it carefully, step lightly. Tampering with evidence and obstructing justice can be serious charges, Boudreaux could saddle you with a third degree felony if you play your cards wrong. Thirty six months, Jake, he could put you away for three years if he got charges like those to stick.”

Jake appreciated his friend’s concern, but he couldn’t care less about Boudreaux or his threats. Dead men can’t be sent to prison, that was the least of his worries.

“Alright, Don,” Jake concluded. “I’ll be in touch if I need anything.”

“Sounds good, thanks,” Donnel replied.

Without saying bye, he pressed the end call button on his steering wheel. It was a preemptive measure, because he was inclined to thank Donnell in return… to thank him for nothing, which was what he had contributed to climbing the mountain in front of them thus far. He seemed completely unengaged, entirely indifferent to what was happening and what needed to be done.

Perhaps he had been right about Launchpad after all... perhaps he should've left things where they landed when the dust settled after their last encounter -- when Deputy Ron had to step in to peel them off of each other and nearly taser the both of them. Maybe it would've been better that way... if they'd stuck to their shouted oaths to never look upon one another again.

Confident that looking through the reports would do no more to serve him, he stuffed them back into their envelope and pitched it unceremoniously to his passenger seat. It was time to go back home, to return to the scene of the crime that was his childhood. He wasn’t thrilled about the idea, wasn’t eager to see the sights… to rekindle the emotions, to relive the nightmares.

There were things living on the streets of Burlwood that were more horrific to him than any withdrawal-induced hallucination he’d experienced during the night gone by. They were more lurid, more ghastly, more obscene and more revolting than any of the images that had been conjured by the changing chemistry of his brain. They were morbid, they were depraved, they were flagitous and perverse. They were shadows, they were specters, they were ghouls and they were wraiths. They were memories, and they were real

I wear the chain I forged in life… I made it link by link, and yard by yard. I girded it on of my own free will, and of my own free will I wore it…

…except he hadn’t forged it, others had forged it for him. His father, his mother, The Butcher and Ron Boudreaux… Launchpad…

There’s more of grave than gravy about you, whatever you are… not the other way around… not at all, not in his case… there was more of grave, for sure.

 

EIGHTEEN

 

 

September 10th, 2016. 1:00PM

Burlwood, Indiana

 

God, I hate that fuckin’ tree!” Clyde Rambo remonstrated.

His lumbar region objected to the angle at which he leaned to take in the entirety of the oaken monster despite the supplemental support he provided by pressing his hands against it as he looked up to the leaves hanging high in the sky. The tree was a giant, nearly a hundred feet tall and at least as many years old, and it rose up from the Earth just ten yards beyond his property line.

Just ten yards, just thirty goddamned feet beyond his jurisdiction. Thirty feet to the north, as fate would have it. As a result, it cast a thick and heavy shadow across the entirety of his largest, most fertile garden. The soil was perfect, moist and rich in nutrients, just begging to take in bulbs or bushes and furnish them with everything they needed to live long, happy, healthy lives. The only thing missing was sunlight, thanks to the influence of that godforsaken tree.

When he called the first surveyor to determine whose tree it was -- whether it was on his plot of land or that of Zack Brown, his neighbor -- the fool tried to say it was twelve yards on the wrong side of the line, the side that belonged to Zack Brown. That was crazy. Ludicrous, really.

A second surveyor concurred with Clyde in the fact that he had mismeasured, determining that it was, in fact, only ten yards that kept that blasphemous tree alive. Ten yards might as well have been ten miles in the scheme of it all, though, he couldn’t touch the dastardly thing. Couldn’t do anything about it.

Rambo’s relationship with the tree had started out peacefully enough, he actually found it rather majestic. Thought it added character to his retirement estate when he purchased it in 2005, when he finally had to have that pacemaker put in.

Ron Boudreaux had been elected to fill the position vacated by Sheriff Dickinson in 2004, and had thus taken his seat upon the throne as ruler of all law enforcement in Elsmere County. He was all but shouting gimme the loot when he started urging the citizens of Burlwood to dissolve their cumbersome and meager police department. His campaign was successful, of course, largely because Clyde Rambo was too tired to put up a fight. He found he just didn’t care enough anymore, he wasn’t interested in trading blows with his former partner. With the big six-zero closing in quickly anyway, he figured it was just time to hang up the gloves and put the past to rest, to be interred with the remains of those poor young souls that were murdered so brutally while he was at the helm.

He stood relieved of his duties on the first day of January, 2005, and purchased his sprawling retreat in February. It wasn’t until the spring that things went sour with the tree. Taking up an old hobby, one he’d neglected for the duration of his tenure as sheriff, he planted two hibiscus bushes in the patch of land that seemed eager to make their acquaintance. Within a month, that beastly tree had brutally murdered them by starving them of sunlight.

Deciding that some modest concession to the shade was obligatory, he’d tried a set of peonies thereafter, only to have them slaughtered just as viciously. Still trying to maintain order, trying to see that cooler heads prevailed, he resolved to settle for butterfly bushes. They had made a valiant effort, had held on for several months, determined to persevere. The task was beyond them, though, and they eventually succumbed to the stranglehold of that infernal tree, just as those that went before them.

Now it was after his hydrangeas, and it was winning the war. The leaves of this, his bush of last resort, which had struggled to thrive for nearly three years now, were beginning to turn yellow. The blooms were withering and looked pathetic, like discarded scraps one would find in the dumpster behind a florist’s shop. For them, the end was extremely nigh. All four of his bushes were obviously making amends and coming to terms with their pending demise.

The damned tree wouldn’t be happy until he was reduced to planting hostas, a level to which he refused to stoop. Something had to be done about that tree. Something drastic, something final.

It didn’t respond to being shot, he’d tried that on several occasions. Many a miniature bonfire had witnessed him sucking down Budweisers to drown out the whispers of the ghost of murders past, the flames just crackling away indifferently as he emptied all fifteen rounds from the magazine of his Glock 22 into the trunk of his archenemy with malice and premeditation.

Zack Brown didn’t much like it when he did that, and he once threatened to call the cops if he heard shots ringing out in the middle of the night again. He really lit the tree up that evening, and -- surprise, surprise -- there wasn't a flashing light bar to be seen. No beat cop had the balls to reprimand Sheriff Clyde Fucking Rambo, he could pop off as many caps as he wanted without fear of redress or recompense.

It's not as though Brown's person or property were in any peril, his home was nearly fifteen hundred yards removed from the damned menace. That put it well beyond the effective range of his former service weapon. The horses Zack had purchased so much land to raise had all been sold off and divested -- probably because they proved to be the drizzling shits, once they hit the dirt of the downs -- so there would be no innocent bystanders to speak of, either.

Bearing this vacancy in mind, Clyde had made an offer to purchase the southern tenth of an acre that was now no more than wasted space. He had no interest in the property, really, beyond his desire to bask in the pleasure of cutting that fucking tree down and watching his garden spring to life in the golden rays of the sun. It was a generous offer, too, one almost too good to refuse. No reasonable man would’ve walked away, leaving more money on the table than the land could ever possibly be worth.

Knowing what he was after, though, knowing how badly he wanted it, Brown had turned it down just to spite him. He was a vindictive bastard, he probably loved the fact that his tree was such a curse to Clyde and his chosen hobby. He probably laughed every time he rode by smugly on his tractor, probably reveled in being an accessory to murder most foul, the rotten cocksucking hick.

Since there was nothing else to be done, Clyde resigned himself to the fact that this particular garden was simply doomed to be the domicile of coral bells, ferns and astilbes. The dregs of all foliage and flowers, those which can survive and flourish in the cover of suffocating shade. With those things taking residence, the patch would be of very little appeal to him. Who would care to sit and read a good book in the dark shade of an old oak amongst the bottom feeders of all flowering plants? He’d simply plant them and write them off, pay them little attention… simply walk away, as he did from the case that was just too big for him to handle so many years ago.

Determined to fight it out until the last, though, to try for the win all the way to the wire, he stalked the struggling hydrangeas with his trimming snips in hand. The blossoms that were beyond salvage would soon be laid to rest. Amputated with surgical precision, they would be collected in a plastic shopping bag and pitched into the inferno as he sipped his brew and smoked his Marlboro later in the evening. Perhaps he’d take more target practice then as well, if the spirit happened to move him. After all, who knows just how much lead is too much for an old and well plugged tree to endure? There’s always that last straw to be placed upon the camel’s back, the one that would prove one too many to bear.

Having found a particularly wilted stem, he crouched down and prepared to start his pruning. Just as the sounding of a snip had marked the death of another friend, the approaching clicks of lifters begging for oil announced the arrival of an uninvited visitor.

His body sore and stiff with age, Clyde swiveled his head as far as his arthritic neck would allow without requiring any other joints to pivot or flex. He saw a beige sedan pulling up his gravel drive with only the very corner of his eye, not bothering to determine the make and model as he would’ve been inclined to in days gone by. Whomever it was, they were a stranger to him, because this car was unfamiliar. He disliked even visitors he did know, when they showed up unannounced. He didn’t take kindly to strangers at all, not anymore.

Returning his attention to the patient, he waited to hear the car’s door open and then close to signal the emergence of the intruder as he made a few additional snips. The sound of footfalls that came next were far off, at first, since his garden was a good distance from the spot where the grass began. When they grew near enough to him that his voice could cover the distance, he made his declaration with no qualms and no ado.

“Whatever you’re selling,” he said expressly, “I’m not interested in buying it.

The visitor, who was really no stranger to him at all, continued his approach. Taking in the man he’d idolized in his youth, Jake felt his heart warming in the moment. Rambo’s hair was white in its entirety, and long locks of it spilled from underneath a distressed canvas sun hat he was wearing. He was still tall, but his huskiness was new. What had been a potbelly in the past was now a full grown barrel, extending all the way up to his chest which was thicker and more burly than before. He had himself crammed into a set of denim overalls that were perhaps a size too small, and it looked as though they were begging to split as he knelt in genuflection. His face was filled out now as well, Jake could see his puffy cheeks with wrinkled skin upon them protruding from the sides of his head as he looked upon him from the rear. They were accented with snow colored curly hairs, indicative of a thick and scraggly beard that hadn’t felt the shearing of a razor or a clipper for the passing of many moons. From his vantage point, Jake would’ve sworn it was Uncle Jesse of Hazzard that he was visiting instead of Clyde Rambo.

“I’ve got nothing to sell you, Sheriff,” he replied, nearly shouting to be sure that he was heard.

This gave Rambo pause, he hadn’t been referred to by that title in over a decade’s time. He didn’t hesitate for long, only halting his trimming for a matter of five or six seconds before he continued with the work.

“If you want to talk about Jesus, you’re barking up the wrong tree just the same,” he advised.

Jake smiled, drawing leisurely closer. “Nope, not here to preach about The Lord either.”

“What, then?” Rambo asked. “Wanna tell me about Jehovah? It’s certainly not Allah, you’re definitely in the wrong neighborhood for that!”

“None of the above, sir!”

"Then you want to tell me how to vote, right? Want to peddle the bullshit rhetoric of Hillary or The Donald? Abortion, gun control, gay rights or immigration? What's your poison, pal? Either way, I should tell you up front that I don't vote -- not anymore."

“I’m not much interested in politics either,” Jake remarked with less volume in his voice, since he was now within ten yards of the man.

"Well, unless I pulled a Rip Van Winkle, it isn't 2020 -- so I know it isn't time for the census yet."

“That’s true,” the visitor agreed, stopping just a few feet behind the gardener.

“Then excuse my Swahili, son,” Rambo began, taxing a few additional joints to rotate ninety degrees toward the man accosting him. “But [_ what the fuck do you -- ]” he stalled mid sentence, his crow’s feet fading slightly as his eyes widened in surprise. “[_Jacob!]” he exclaimed in immediate recognition and delight.

Jake smiled a grin far beyond anything he’d worn in quite some time. “Howdy, Clyde!” he said with glee. “How the hell ya’ been?”

Getting a full look at the man’s face, he realized that he was, indeed, a doppelgänger of Uncle Jesse en toto. In his old age, he was as far from the Sylvester Stallone of Chucky’s imagination as he could possibly be. He looked worn down and overcome by the years, as though the rest of his retirement had done nothing to soothe his soul. His face showed fatigue, as though he were still caught deeply wrapped up in the tumult and commotion of a full blown inquisition, an inquest into matters of murder and mutilation. He looked as though he was haunted by The Butcher… by the victims, by the struggle, by the malignancy of Burlwood itself, circa 1993.

Oh my God,” Rambo exclaimed in disbelief, never taking his eyes from Jacob’s as he pushed off of his knee with both hands to force himself erect. “What in Sam’s Hell are you doing back here, son?” Looking him over further, he saw what only a cop would notice and addressed it immediately. “What the fuck kind of gun are you wearing, boy? What, you couldn’t anything bigger?

“A Beretta 92,” Jake answered with his smile. “Never leave home without it!”

A smile broke through Rambo’s whiskered lips, a hint of his elation in a reunion long overdue. The man he saw hovering over him as he struggled to his feet looked strong and proud. He was a victor, a triumphant survivor of dark days and long odds. He was thriving, unlike his embattled hydrangeas, and he came as a delegate of the children he hadn’t failed to protect and save from the demons of the past. The pleasure of seeing him in full bloom was tempered, though, by the thought that he might’ve been Gary Duncan coming home to roost instead. He could’ve been Joshua Banks, Nathan Dawson, Kirk Wade or Ricky Marshall. Or, it could’ve been the last of them… oh God, the last of them…

Any one of those boys standing in his presence, returning home after so much time away, would look vastly different than the man representing their legacy now. Their flesh would not be so vibrant and full of life. Their limbs would not move so freely, would not be so loose and unincumbered. They would not smell so fresh and manly, the wind around them would not carry the luxurious fragrance of Acqua Di Gio.

They would be a rotten shade of purple, showing signs of lividity well set in and festering. Rigor would be in full effect, their bodies fixed and rigid, stiff with atrophied finality. They would stink of rot and decay, of maggots and formaldehyde. Glutaraldehyde, methanol and phenol, the serum of death and preservation. The juices of pickling and mummification.

These thoughts, these images in his mind's eye, wrenched the smile from his face and returned the scowl -- the atrophy of his own, the atrophy of shame and failure.

“I’m here for Chucky,” Jake replied. “Came to make things right.”

Clyde’s face didn’t change any further at that, it remained fixed and frozen, but his eyes were overcome with a hint of concern and worry.

“What’s wrong with Chucky?” he asked, fearing the worst.

Clyde knew the man was unhealthy, was unsupervised an ill prepared for self reliance and independence. He was supposed to be watching over him, was charged by his Momma from her deathbed with helping to maintain and monitor him, was enlisted to be a caretaker and steward. He had neglected that duty, had disavowed his responsibility in the shadows of his own struggles.

Was he responsible, now, for the death of another son of Burlwood? Had he failed Chucky, like he’d failed the others? Had he delivered another soul unto the void in his ineptitude?

Jake’s face was the one to change, now, taking on a look of befuddlement. Surely, old Sheriff Rambo was aware of what had happened… of what was transpiring in the town he’d taken an oath to serve and to protect.

“You don’t know?” he asked, confused. “You haven’t heard?”

Rambo’s eyes widened further and lost focus, clouding over and drifting off.

“How did he die?” he asked in a cracking voice, preparing himself to bear another heavy cross.

No no!” Jake cried, trying to spare the man the torment of the thoughts stirring in his mind. “He’s not dead, it’s not that!”

This brought an obvious relief to Clyde, seemed to lift a weight from his chest and shoulders. Still, it was amazing to Jake that he hadn't heard... an outlandish idea that word had not spread. There had been enough of a media presence in the courtroom to tell all of the world about the stirrings of suspicion, about the verdicts rendered prematurely and judgements passed hastily. Surely, the small town of Burlwood -- the epicenter of the quake -- was enraptured with speculation and gossip. The rumor mill must be cranking and chugging along at full bore, spewing out its toxic cocktail and inviting all to drink of the Kool-Aid.

How would it be possible that Rambo didn’t know about Billy Marsh? About Boudreaux’s campaign to take down Chucky? About the possibility that The Butcher was back in business…

“What’s wrong with him, then?” Rambo asked, angered at having been alarmed by the implication.

“You don’t know about Billy Marsh?” Jake asked. “Don’t know anything about what’s going on? It must be all over the news out here, Clyde, how could you not know?”

Relieved of the immediate anxiety, Rambo rubbed his hands together to clear them of the soil and floral debris, to wash them of the garden as he had washed them of society and the world at large.

“I don’t have a television, Jacob,” he began, tying off his plastic bag of dead blooms once his hands were as clean as he could get them, as clean as Pontius Pilate’s were of the blood of Christ. “I don’t subscribe to any newspapers, to any periodicals or digests. I don’t have a computer, I’m not on the web . I do not own a cellphone, and I do not talk to my neighbors -- who are all a good distance from me anyway, as you can see. I have a radio, but I rarely turn it on. I stay away from town most of the time, would do so altogether, if it were feasible and possible. I spent thirty seven years of my life knee-deep in the shit and dirty dishwater of this town! When I turned in my badge -- when Ron Boudreaux saw to it that The Burlwood PD was dissolved so that he could seize the throne -- I also turned my back on this place, on this world. These eyes have seen enough, Jake. Seen enough of the refuse, enough of the tailings of vice and perversion. I’ve seen enough of the entrails, both the figurative and the literal. I don’t desire to be involved, to be complicit -- not any more. All I want is to be alone, young Jacob, to convalesce in my solitude. I come out here, I tend my gardens and I read my books, and I keep to myself. I’m out of the shadows, now, save for that of this one goddamned oak tree… the last villain of my life, one that refuses to step aside just as vehemently as the ones of old, the ones of my antiquity.”

Turning to face the criminal topiary, Rambo seemed to cast the aggregate of all the hate and despair in his heart toward it with the fire in his eyes. With a heavy grunt of pain and displeasure, he spun the plastic bag containing the most recent of the tree’s victims, like a softball pitcher winding up, and chucked it at the beast in the distance. It fell well short… as he himself had fallen short in his quest to bring an end to the bloody reign of The Butcher.

“It lives to kill!” he cried. “It exists only to remind me of my failings.”

Uncomfortable and uneasy under the heavy weight of Rambo’s sorrow, Jake examined the garden near which he stood and looked for any sign of goodness, for any hint of brighter things.

Those are pretty,” he said plainly, pointing to a patch of umbels that seemed content in their earthen home. “Those white flowers, there. What are they?”

Rambo pulled his gaze from the tree, looked to where Jacob was calling his attention. He stared for a moment, then spoke with unchanged inflection.

Daucus carota,” he explained. “Better known as Queen Anne’s Lace… and it’s a fuckin’ weed.”

Jake curled back his finger in submission, let his hands drop to his sides in resignation. There was nothing he could say, nothing he could do. He understood the man’s state of mind, knew what it was like to live in that cold and lonely place… that mausoleum… that crypt reserved for the cremains of hope and peace, where all optimism goes to die and rot in solitude.

“That’s all that remains anymore, Jacob!” Rambo continued. “All of the flowers are dead in this world, in this time. It’s only the weeds that survive. Masquerading, deceitful, pretentious weeds that have no value and nothing to add. Just a bunch of fucking Queen Anne’s Lace and Poison Hemlock. Just the Masque of the Red Death! Toxic, mephitic and virulent! Contagious and consuming, decimating and disastrous! I don’t associate with weeds anymore, son! I don’t look at them and I don’t hear their whispers! I exist for me, now! To Hell with all the rest… to Hell with it all.”

Jake didn’t respond, let the silence do the talking. This was something he did often, because the silence usually said all there was to be said. Eloquently and fluently, too… in a language that most people can easily comprehend.

Rambo looked up to his face and locked eyes with him, and their eyes were brethren in their awareness. There was another osmotic symbiosis -- one similar to that he'd shared with Nikki -- but one that covered different territory, different emotions altogether. Without a word, Rambo understood the nature of the problem... the crux of the matter... the bodies that would need to be unearthed.

When the exchange was complete, the transaction fully processed, Jake placed his hand upon Rambo’s shoulder as he had done to Boudreaux before. His grasp wasn’t the tight vice that it was in that instance, nor was it acrimonious or sarcastic. It was benevolent and comforting, loving and philanthropic.

“I need your help, Clyde,” he said softly. “Chucky needs your help.”

Rambo sighed and quailed, not eager to wade in the dark waters once again… not inclined to tread there, where wise men feared to be. Through his mind ran the voice of Father Carl Lovett and verses that lingered in his ears for all the years gone by. Just as double indemnity called to Jake, the words written in The Book called to Clyde. Those words, so cold, that were given unto Man as Revelations. Revelations that brought fear to his heart and anxiety to his mind:

And I saw the dead, small and great, stand before God; and the books were opened. And the sea gave up its dead, and Hell delivered up the dead which were in it. The kings of the earth hid themselves in the dens of the mountains and said to the rocks “Fall on us! Hide us from the face of him that sitteth on the throne! For the great day of his wrath is come!”.

Now, the great day of wrath had come for him… the wrath of Gary Duncan, Joshua Banks, Nathan Dawson, Kirk Wade, Ricky Marshall… and the last one, merciful lord, the most painful of them all… little Timothy Lane.

Let’s go inside,” he said, choking back his tears and drawing from the strength of Jacob’s hand to steady him. “We’ll have some tea, and we’ll talk.”

 

NINETEEN

Timothy Lane, Part 1

 

September 24th, 1994. 4:30pm

Burlwood, Indiana

 

Darkwing, Launchpad, Drake and Louie sat in the nave of Our Mother Of Sorrows, the church of Father Lovett and the only house of worship in all of Burlwood. Darkwing and Launchpad settled in the second pew from the pulpit, Drake and Louie in front of them, in the first. The hall was wondrous and glorious, the ceiling vaulted in a tremendous arch over the chancel. Every square inch of the place was ornate and magnificent.

Behind the regal walnut lectern at the ambo was a towering effigy of Christ upon the cross. To its left was a colorful stained glass depiction of The Annunciation, to its right the same of The Pietá. Along the periphery of the apse were frescos of The Adoration Of The Magi and The Coronation Of The Virgin.

Not far from the lectern was the holy altar on one side and the baptistery on the other. Icons decorated the walls on either side of the nave, adorning them in sacred images that stretched all the way back to the narthex, except where interrupted by the entrance to the confessional.

On the whole, this building seemed much too elegant for a town as backwoods and reclusive as Burlwood. The citizens were very reverent, though, very spiritual and engaged with their faith. They filled this hall to capacity on any given Sunday -- most Wednesday's as well -- and made the compulsory tithes, even when doing so strained their finances direly. Cognizant of the hardships that many of his parishioners endured, there were often masses at which Father Lovett called off the deacons when they took up their long-handled offertories, intending to collect the alms. When the cup of the diocese runneth over, Father Lovett stopped demanding water... it's just the kind of man he was.

As they waited for Chucky to be released from his duties, the boys sat silently and patiently.

Darkwing was thinking about Tracy, about a conversation they’d recently had upon returning to school. They shared many classes this year, and always chose adjoining desks when the seating chart wasn’t assigned by the teacher.

He had overcome the nerves that kept him from speaking with her in the seventeen months since the meeting at the Civic Center, the meeting at which he’d been embraced by her parents as a potential friend for their daughter. They chatted regularly, now, though usually not about anything of substance. He often told her about his experiences playing hockey in a local youth league, and she generally spoke of music she liked or things that happened on her favorite television program, Blossom. More profound issues, like his continuing struggle to maintain the sanity of his mother, Janet Giguére, were usually not topics that came up in their conversations. .

With her ongoing responsibilities as the block captain of sector 7, Jacob’s mother was required to call Ron Boudreaux on his cellphone twice each evening. She was in much more regular contact than that with him, however. They often spoke for hours on end, and talking with him seemed to cheer her up a bit. As a result, he hadn’t heard things like touch me, Jacob spilling from her stupefied lips in the days of the recent past. She hadn’t asked him to fondle her, hadn’t tried to grope him like she did in the past. Thank God for that, he didn’t think he could deal with that anymore.

Deputy Ron was a stand-in for him when it came to that, now… one that was happy to oblige when she wanted someone to touch her… one that was happy to have her touch him… one that spent the night at their house quite frequently, in fact, and didn’t seem to mind when she cried out harder, Garrett, harder -- apparently thinking it was her long dead husband riding her -- in the heat of their passion. Nor, apparently, did he mind that a thirteen year old boy could hear every sound they made.

That made Jacob sick… the fact that Deputy Ron, a righteous man of the law, would take advantage of a woman who was clearly vulnerable. That he would do so knowing that her young son was listening in an adjoining bedroom. What a man of scruples he was, this high and mighty officer. What a winner, what a role model… what a creep.

If he made her happy, it was fine… the problem, though, was that he sometimes seemed to do her more harm than good. If he snubbed her or rushed her off the phone before she was satisfied, if he decided not to come jump in the sack with her when she wanted him, she would melt down instantly.

The resultant episodes were similar to the ones she’d always had, the ones that required Jacob to feed her pills until she passed out, but these new ones were much darker -- the bottom much deeper. There were moments at which Jacob felt she was headed for the rubber room -- that she needed to be carried off by the men in the white coats, to protect her from herself. She spoke of suicide regularly when her relationship with Boudreaux ebbed, spoke of her desire to just give up when things weren’t going the way she thought they should. There wasn’t any more mention of taking Jacob with her, presumably because she thought he was old enough now to take care of himself, if she decided to see it through.

Watching her ride this rollercoaster, seeing her rise and fall with the tide of Deputy Ron’s treatment of her, he prepared himself to find her dead every day when he arrived home from school or after visiting with his friends prepared himself to become an orphan, to be alone. He didn't want that to happen, but he sometimes wondered if things would be better that way -- for the both of them. It weighed heavily on him, brought him down -- made him depressed, just like she was.

He tried to put it out of his mind -- tried to focus on better things, happier things... like his shallow conversations with Tracy. She could always bring him up, elevate his mood, so he leaned on her a bit. Doing so scared him a little, though, because he understood what it meant to be leaned on. He didn't want to be a burden to her, as his mother was to him.

Launchpad wasn’t thinking about anything as they waited, he just sat with his face rested in his hands and his elbows digging into his knees. Nothing had really changed, for him. Life was pretty much just as it had always been. His parents still fought a lot, still smoked cigarettes like they were going out of style and drank malt liquor like it was an elixir to cure all ills. They were smoking something new now, too, something he hated the smell of even more than the cigarettes. The odor was slightly sweet, but there was another layer to it that wasn’t pleasant in the least. To him, it smelled like cleaning chemicals. Sometimes it was like nail polish remover or cat piss, it seemed to evolve and revolve from time to time. Whatever it was, it usually gave him a headache when he smelled it. That gave him all the more reason to find things to do away from home.

Louie Rambo was just relaxing as well, thinking about how much he'd enjoyed his second summer vacation in Burlwood. This one, which had just recently expired, had been much more laid back and gratifying than that of 1993. Coming on the heels of Ricky Marshall's murder -- and marking the beginning of a very taxing time for his father -- that respite from study had been spent much more sedately and nearly in seclusion.

In those days, the FBI was everywhere you looked around town. Wearing their fancy suits and patrolling in their unmarked cars with the deeply tinted windows. They were omnipresent and dictatorial, especially when it came to matters that concerned young males like him and his friends. That meant there was little chance for The Burlwood Boys to do their thing, they were on a tight leash, that summer. Kept close to the heel, they were essentially confined to their homes, with only limited opportunities to get together and play outside. Even when it was allowed, it could take place only under the watchful eye of Big Brother, of the Federal Agents.

Since Louie's father was the sheriff and an adult, he could move around a bit more freely. Sensing Louie's loneliness, he often drove his cruiser around Burlwood Meadows to pick up Jacob, Donnell, Chucky and Timmy so that they could just hang out at his house. The boys always enjoyed that, since Louie was the only one of them that had cable television -- the only one who could get Cartoon Network. They spent many an evening laughing and talking, growing closer and cementing their bond.

With seventeen months separating them from the last murder committed by The Butcher, things had lightened up a bit as of late. The Feds were still around, but not nearly as many of them. They were more inconspicuous, now, and mostly unobtrusive. They hadn't cracked the case -- hadn't captured the killer -- but keeping him at bay was a small victory in and of itself. With the matter still unresolved, they would not be leaving town entirely, not just yet. There was a little more slack in their bridle, though, and the minor concessions they made allowed boys to be boys. Allowed the children to enjoy their break from school as they desired.

Special Agent Gomez had taken up residence in the town, and nothing happened in Burlwood without his permission. Sheriff Rambo seemed surprisingly okay with that, apparently at peace with the fact that he wasn’t the king of the hill anymore.

When Gomez insisted that they cancel the annual Our Mother carnival in ’93, Clyde essentially said so let it be written. That was a major disappointment to The Burlwood Boys and all of their contemporaries, because the carnival was the most exciting event of the year for them. Everyone loved the rides, loved the games, loved the fried food and the small circus that accompanied it all. As the time to plan for the festivities of ’94 approached, Gomez wanted to call it off again. He claimed it was still too risky, that it would be difficult to manage and patrol with their sizably reduced resources. This sparked a rare disagreement between the agent and the sheriff, a contest of wills that Rambo had eventually won after much debate and rumination.

As a result, the sounds of the midway were echoing through the hollow expanse of the chantry around them. They were eager to join the fun, to see the sights and partake in the conviviality. To do so without Chucky -- their brother in arms, investigations and amusements -- would be wrong, though, so they simply sat and waited.

He had taken a job at Our Mother Of Sorrows when the latest summer vacation began. His Momma insisted that, since he was sixteen now, he needed to contribute to the family and help to carry the load. She had gone to Father Lovett seeking advice on where to find a job that he was capable of doing, and he had smiled in saying look no further, Misses Murphy!

The church had only one employee besides the priest, a man called Rusty who was in charge of making repairs and keeping the facility maintained. He was overworked with those duties, had no extra time to clean and make things as presentable as Father Lovett believed that they should be -- the way that his parishioners deserved them to be.

As a result, he offered Chucky a job on the spot. It paid minimum wage, $4.25 per hour, and would amount to no more than twenty or thirty hours a week during the summer. When school resumed, they would meet to discuss how things were working out and how they would proceed moving forward. When Momma drove him back to the church on the eve of the new school year, Father Lovett praised Chucky’s work and begged him to remain in his employ.

That was excellent news, because the extra money was really helping out, and having a job bolstered Chucky’s self esteem. Working with the staff at Burlwood High, the Father was able to hammer out a co-op arrangement under which Chuck could leave class three hours early three days a week and spend that time working at the church. He would earn credit and money both, helping prop up the household and learning what life would be like beyond graduation all at once. He loved the job, and he took pride in the work he did there.

Occasionally, though, he would arrive home in the afternoon and not go out to join in the playing of Darkwing and the other Burlwood Boys. They thought, at first, that this was due to his being tired and worn down from a hard day spent polishing the pews. When they were together, as a group, and asked if this was the case, he told them that it was. Only when he was alone with Darkwing did he reveal the truth… the real reason that he sometimes just wanted to be alone.

“It’s Rusty,” he said tearfully. “Sometimes he’s really mean to me!”

Jacob asked him why, asked him how he was mean. Asked what he did or what he said. Chucky couldn’t explain, really, not in a way that made much sense to Darkwing. It seemed that it wasn’t so much his words or deeds that were malicious, it was more his general temperament on certain days that bothered him.

Some days, he would be nice. He would praise Chucky for his work and thank him for his help. On other days, though, he seemed totally different. Grumpy and dismissive, rude and unfriendly. He would yell at things -- at nails that bent while he was hammering them, at drills that lost hold of their bits while he was using them -- and just be crotchety in general. It scared Chucky when he was like that, made him uncomfortable and nervous.

Sometimes, Rusty would yell for no reason at all, would shout things that didn’t make any sense. He would say things like FALL BACK! or THEY’RE IN THE TREES! Once, he started yelling at people when there was nobody in the building besides the two of them. He would bark orders at the invisible people, warning them that others named Victor or Charlie were coming. That really scared Chucky, because it made him think there were ghosts in the church that were coming for him… the ghosts of Victor and Charlie, whoever they were.

Knowing that his not coming to hang out meant it had been a bad day with Rusty, Darkwing would always leave the group and go to Chucky’s house to comfort him. He gave lots of hugs and kisses on those days, which was starting to get a little weird considering Chucky had the beginnings of a beard coming in and Darkwing was thirteen years old, now. He obliged him anyway, because it was the only thing that seemed to make him feel any better and get him to go out to play.

Darkwing had met Rusty, and he didn’t seem scary to him at all. He was a short man, not terribly much taller than Chucky, and was as skinny and wiry as Launchpad. His hair was short and messy, as was a full beard that he wore. Both were blonde with a tinge of red, which could’ve explained why he was called Rusty. He looked to be in his mid 40’s, and had lived in Burlwood for only a few years. Based on the slight twang in his voice, Jacob imagined he was from somewhere in the south.

He’d been perfectly kind to Darkwing, had shook his hand and smiled when Chucky introduced them. This side of him that Chucky described, this crazy side was in no way evident on the occasions that they ran into each other in passing. It seemed like Chucky was speaking of someone else entirely when he sobbed and begged for kisses, like there was a completely different Rusty that came to work sometimes than the one that Jacob knew.

Darkwing didn’t believe that Chucky was lying , he had never known him to lie before -- not about something serious. Little things, maybe, like whether he'd remembered to put on his deodorant or to wear a fresh pair of underwear when his Momma asked him, but nothing on such a grand scale.

He did wonder, though, if he was, perhaps, misinterpreting the man… was filling in the gaps of actions or behaviors he didn’t understand with trumped up notions or assumptions. He hadn’t spent much time with anyone besides his tight-knit group of friends, didn’t fully appreciate the diaspora of quirky personalities that was the small town of Burlwood. He had been sheltered, not exposed to the people of the world at large. That combined with his unique psychological challenges could certainly lead to misunderstandings, to misgivings and uncertainty. He hoped that was what was happening… hoped that it was all in his head, that he wasn’t really being subjected to the things that he perceived.

Expecting him to be done for the day at any minute, anticipating their opportunity to go enjoy the carnival, The Burlwood Boys just waited in silence in the nave as the muffled sounds of people laughing and screaming in joy outside echoed all around them. Time seemed to creep by once four-thirty had passed, once Chucky was overdue.

The only one of them who didn’t seem irritated with the passage of time was the one they called Drake. Timmy was in a trance, not unlike the one he’d experienced when he first met Mister Simmonds and was stricken with fear by the scar upon his face. This time, though, it was the giant effigy of Jesus upon The Cross that kept him transfixed.

This particular depiction, the largest in all of Burlwood, was the most gruesome and grotesque that he had ever seen. Most of the households in town had a small one hanging over their door, Timmy’s father actually had [_ two -- _] one at Butcher’s Lane and one in their modest trailer in The Meadows. Those idols, which still depicted either a dead or dying Christ, were tame and serene as compared to the one in the hallowed hall of Our Mother Of Sorrows.

The alabaster man upon this cross, who was much larger than life, didn’t look like an exalted deity or glorious figure at all . He looked, instead, like a tortured victim of The Butcher -- covered in blood and ghastly wounds -- from the top of his drooping head to the bottom of his awkwardly contorted feet. His ribs were bruised and emaciated. His left wrist was pulled far from his body and driven through with a giant spike, his right arm held at more of an angle and similarly tacked to the dogwood from which he hung. His chin was pressed fully to his chest, as though he were utterly and completely deceased, and his hair seemed to be wilted around his head. The skin on the right side of his abdomen was sliced open and gaping, the majority of the blood upon him leaking from it and soaking the white drapery he wore around his pelvis. His knees were dirty and black with soil and blood, his ankles cocked unnaturally to position his feet one atop the other, a third large nail piercing them and locking them in place.

And that plaque over his head… that one that read INRI… that was a mystery to him. He didn’t know what the letters stood for, Father Lovett was probably the only man in town who knew they stood for Isvs Nazarenvs Rex Indaeorvm, words Timmy didn’t know and wouldn’t understand. What he did know, though, is that the letters were supposed to declare the man Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews. That was the mystery… what sort of king could he be, looking like that?

If the crown of thorns upon his brow signified his position as the King of the Dead, that could make sense. If he was alive as he hung there, he was in torment and begged for death. If he was dead, he had suffered a miserable passing and was relieved to meet the end when it came. He could, therefore, be the king of those who have passed on so brutally… the King of the Tortured… the King of the Descecrated… the King of the Damned.

If he was the king of anything besides those things, he didn’t look it… if he was a god, he didn’t resemble one… if he was a lamb, he was the type that his father had hanging in the cooler… one that was bound to meet with the saw of The Butcher, and then to be consumed… to be eaten… to be destroyed…

After what seemed an eternity to the other boys, their friend finally emerged from the door that led to the sacristy with Rusty by his side. Timmy wrestled his eyes from the statue to see him, still feeling detached and entranced by what he’d been studying at length.

Hey guys!” Chucky shouted, his voice booming through the empty space.

Rusty laughed and smiled, wiping grease from his hands with a dirty rag.

“Maybe a little louder next time, Chuck,” he said, chuckling. “I’m not sure that Father Lovett heard you all the way in the rectory!”

Thinking this was an instruction instead of sarcasm, Chucky repeated his greeting in a considerably louder voice. This made Rusty laugh harder, almost as loudly as Chucky had called to them the first time.

All four of the others stood and stretched their legs, eager to get on the Tilt-A-Whirl and Ferris Wheel. When they did, Rusty realized that the shirt Jacob was wearing wasn’t just a plain blue short-sleeve. Emblazoned in white on its front was the design of a leaf, the outline of inflammatory words knocked out of it and showing proudly.

Ohhhh shit!” Rusty cried, his face pulling down in a frown. “Please tell me that you’re not standing in my church wearing a Toronto Maple Leafs shirt!”

Jacob looked down at the emblem on his chest, smiling slyly and declaring that The Leafs were his favorite team. His father had been from Ontario and was a big fan of the club, so he figured he was paying homage to him by becoming one himself.

“This is Blackhawk country, boy!” Rusty joshed spiritedly. “Don’t nobody around here like The Leafs! Blasphemy! Right here, in the house of God! Blasphemy, I say!”

Jacob laughed, but then poked back by citing the six game conference quarter-final series of the previous season -- the one in which The Leafs had knocked The Hawks out of Stanley Cup contention.

A fluke!” Rusty rebutted. “It won’t go that way this year, just you wait and see!”

Hearing the rides spinning and twirling outside, hearing the people having fun and devouring funnel cakes, the boys made it clear with non-verbal cues that they weren’t interested in Darkwing and Rusty’s conversation. As a result, Jacob let the comment stand, despite his desire to express his conviction that Toronto would go all the way this season.

Chucky unbuttoned his khaki over shirt and ditched it on a pew, an action that displeased Rusty and brought a mild scolding.

“After all the cleaning we did today, Chuck, you’re just gonna pitch that dirty shirt onto the pews and leave it?”

“No sir,” Chucky replied politely. “I’ll come back in and get it before I go home, I promise!”

“Be sure you do!” Rusty advised, “Because it’ll be hell to pay if the father finds it there in the morning while he’s preparing for the mass!”

“We’ll make sure he gets it,” Darkwing replied. “We’re just excited to get out there.”

Rusty smiled and nodded, putting aside their difference of opinion as relates to the politics of the National Hockey League and taking him at his word.

“Behave yourselves out there, guys!” he said more seriously. “I don’t want to see any of you in the paper tomorrow morning as suspects in a case of stuffed-animal-napping! And be careful! Above all else, by God, be careful! Look out for each other, just like Sheriff Rambo told you!”

 

TWENTY

 

 

September 10th, 2016. 1:30PM

Burlwood, Indiana

 

“You’ve got two choices,” Clyde explained as a teapot whined on the flaming gas burner of his stove. “Will it be Earl Grey, or Darjeeling?”

Jake wasn’t much of a tea drinker, so he had no idea what either of the options were. Had Rambo asked him to choose between Jack and Jim Beam, or Bacardi and Captain Morgan, he could’ve offered a response immediately. The look of uncertainty on his face illustrated how much of a conundrum this was to his host, so Rambo tried to better define the options.

“Do you want a womanly tea or a manly one?” he offered.

“Manly,” Jake replied confidently, figuring it to be the most reasonable answer.

“Then it’s Earl Grey,” Rambo said, pulling a tall square tin from a cabinet.

The process Clyde undertook from there was fascinating to Jake, because he always thought that tea was simply prepared by putting a bag containing leaves into a cup of hot water and then dipping it in and out. He had never known anyone to do it in what Rambo said was the traditional manner, the only way to do it, in his opinion.

When the man opened his tin, the air was filled with smells that were as foreign to Jake as this new technique. It was rich and heavy with notes of citrus, perhaps licorice as well. It smelled quite good, actually, which led Jake to wonder if this tea business was something worth looking into. It was a fleeting curiosity, an idea that was quashed by the ever present imperious cry of double indemnity before it had even the slightest opportunity to germinate and bloom.

Clyde dipped a spoon into the container and came out with a scoop of black swirls and things that looked like twigs. Unceremoniously and without a hint of grace, he flung the first of several heaping spoonfuls into the pot, then replaced the lid to let it steep once he felt it was metered out to taste..

While the roots infused the boiling water with their flavors, he retrieved two teacups, complete with saucers, and placed them on the dining room table at which Jake was seated. Using an oven mitt to protect his garden-savvy fingers, he brought the teapot over and set it at the center, where steam billowed from around its lid as it sat. Reaching into a drawer and digging through what sounded like an incredible stash of silverware, he produced two wire-mesh baskets with handles. He placed one over the top of each cup before finally taking a seat across from his guest.

Jake had placed the manila envelope full of reports on the table when he’d sat, waiting for the former sheriff to be settled in before he broached what could be a tender subject. He knew that he would be asking a lot when he exposed the papers and begged for answers, knew that he would be putting Rambo in a tough spot by requesting information to which he was not entitled. Part of him was nervous about the endeavor, afraid that he was asking too much of an old man who wanted nothing more than to mind his own business and enjoy the serenity of his gardens.

It was crucial, though, that he at least try to get the answers he was after… that he make every effort to learn as many details as were possible. The reports gave him nothing to go on, no logical arc to follow in pursuing an investigation. The redactions were standing between him and a thorough understanding of the cases of old with impudence, refusing to reveal the similarities between the murder of Billy Marsh and the children of the past, like a villain twirling his Sharpie-black mustache with a mischievous grin. A malefactor flying under the tattered flag of The State, the seditionist held valuable clues as hostages… clues that would exonerate Chucky once Jake liberated them and paraded them around in the open light of day.

“So, Clyde,” he began shyly.

Rambo threw up his index finger, demanding one last moment of peace before the orb of sanctuary that was his retirement would be torn asunder and obliterated . Reaching for the teapot, he twirled it in the air slightly to ensure a thorough distribution of the flavors inside before he began to dole it out.

Jake marveled at the hot liquid pouring from its spout in a bit of awe -- seeing a much darker looking concoction than he expected emerge from it, bearing bits of debris and smelling like heaven in libationary effluence. The black swirls and twig-like miscellany collected in the strainer over his cup, allowing only the glorious juice to trickle through and prepare to please his palate. Once his cup was filled, Clyde pulled the pot to his side of the table and drizzled the brew into his own mesh basket. Watching for guidance in how he was expected to proceed, Jake studied Clyde's lifting of the strainer from his cup. He saw the sage and learned master whirl the colander around a bit, presumably coaxing the most delectable drops of tea from the leavings in the basket. With a final set of taps of the handle against the cup's rim, Rambo lifted the strainer over the table and placed it on an empty saucer at the center. Trying to duplicate each of his motions exactly, Jake whirled his own strainer and tapped it as well, placed it down on the empty saucer just the same.

The Sheriff was the first to take a sip, wincing at the temperature as the liquid met his lips. Eager to share in the pleasures of this ritual, Jake mirrored his old friend and cautiously slurped just the slightest bit into his mouth. When the tea hit his tastebuds, he cringed as well -- but not because it was too hot... it could've used another minute or two to cool down, of that there was no doubt. That was not the problem, though, not even just a little bit. The real problem, the true cause of the grimace he must certainly now be wearing, was the fact that this particular nectar of the gods -- delicious as it smelled -- tasted to his mouth like so much sewage, filtered through twice used potting soil and left to brew in kettles filled with moth balls.

Clyde laughed heartily at this, at the face Jake was making, and grabbed hold of his large belly as it jiggled.

“I told you it was a manly tea, Jacob!” he chuckled.

Jake set the cup back on the saucer and pushed it away as politely as he could. Apparently, he should've chosen the womanly concoction -- Earl Grey sucked ass. Rambo took another sip, as though to show off just how much more manly he was than the little boy who sat across from him.

Probably has a chest covered with thick and curly hair, that one, Jake thought… could probably bench-press the Colossus of Rhodes and take his showers in the plunge pool of Niagara, that supreme lord of masculinity. To enjoy a taste like Earl Grey, he must have balls of polished brass and a cock that drags under foot as he walks, that champion gladiator of Valhalla.

“Here’s what’s going on,” Jake started again, tempted to spit the tainted saliva from his mouth to aid in cleansing his palate.

As he began uncoiling the red string that kept the envelope sealed, the table suddenly shook. A loud whomp sounded out in unison with the tremor as Clyde slammed his hand down on the packet, stopping Jake’s attempt to open it and startling the hell out of him all at once.. That awful tea swirled in the cup he’d pushed away, spinning in a cyclone that made a good amount of it spill over the rim and collect in the saucer underneath it.

Jake’s hands instinctively pulled back and froze out in front of him, palms down and fingers spread wide. Shocked and surprised at the seemingly angry outburst, he raised his eyes with his head still bowed and saw Rambo glaring at him ferociously. His eyes were flared and fiery, the intensity of them sending a hot flash through Jake’s body.

“Do you know Holmes, Jake?” Clyde asked curtly and mysteriously.

Jake sat still for a moment, confused and mortified. “What?” he asked. “You mean, like, Sherlock Holmes?”

Rambo nodded, then recited from memory. “It’s a capital mistake to theorize before one has data. Insensibly, one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts.

Jake wasn’t sure what he meant by that, wasn’t sure how it pertained to his trying to open the packet. His hands still held out in consternation, he tried to reason out what the former sheriff was getting at. The man still held the envelope pressed to the table, still scowled at him as though he was incensed.

Insistently, Rambo elaborated. “I don’t want to hear anything from you about what you think is going on! What you think, feel or believe is irrelevant! All that matters is what’s in black in white, what’s on the record!”

"Sooooo --" Jake said, cautiously. "You don't want any of the back story?"

“Did you witness the backstory?” Clyde asked.

Jake shook his head, he hadn’t… had only heard it from Donnell, who heard it in turn from Louie. Perhaps Clyde figured it would work out like those games of telephone played in elementary school, where a sentence ends up twisted and disjointed as it’s whispered around the circle. He didn’t have an opportunity to ask, though, Rambo didn’t give him the chance.

“Then it’s hearsay!” he exclaimed. “It doesn’t mean shit. If you tell me what you want me to see in these papers, I’ll mold my opinion either around it or against it subconsciously. I can only give you a true opinion if I’m taking everything at face value. Unobjectified, uninterpreted, unprofaned!”

Jake nodded slowly, finally lowering his hands from their bewildered hovering and resting them on his lap. Whatever Clyde was insinuating, it was obvious that he didn't want Jake to touch the envelope -- didn't want him to pull the papers out or explain what they were.

Rambo slid the packet across the surface of the table, dragging it closer to him before reaching for his tea with his opposite hand. He took a long sip, then wiped his lips. After rubbing the moisture from his fingers onto his overalls, he finished uncoiling the red string that kept the envelope sealed. Opening it wide, he pulled all of the papers from it at once and set them down in front of him.

Reaching into the front pocket of his overalls, he retrieved a pair of glasses and fixed them over his eyes. When he looked down to examine the first page, his brow furled -- as though he were perturbed at what he saw. He lifted it from the others and set it to his left, then scanned over the second page through his spectacles. The sight of this one apparently even more shocking to him than the first, his mouth dropped open in what could only be described as astonishment. His brow still rippled, he ripped the glasses from his face briskly and recklessly. The arms hyperextended with the violence of the action, the frames only being spared destruction by spring hinges, purpose-built and specifically installed to protect themselves in the event of just such an occurrence. Holding the bifocals between his thumb and index finger, he looked up to Jake with contempt.

“Where the hell did you get these reports?” he asked bluntly.

Jake didn't respond immediately, his mind racing in a tizzy of conflicting thoughts. Donnell had spelled out the risk Louie was taking in producing them pretty explicitly, he didn't want to get his old friend in any trouble -- even if the trouble was only with his father. Thinking back on Launchpad's description of the proper way to get them, he fibbed a bit to keep things on the legal side.

“Donnell filed a Freedom Of Information request, that’s what we got back.”

Bullshit!” Clyde declared in a combination of a chuckle and a firm assertion. “These records are sealed, son!”

“Well, yeah!” Jake stammered. “That’s why they’re all redacted!”

“Redacted and sealed are quite different, Jake!” Rambo barked. “Sealed means you get nothing! These reports are only available to law enforcement personnel, even the redacted versions! You didn’t get these through any FOIA request, there’s no way in Hell!”

The man’s glare was angry, and Jake was immediately unnerved. He felt backed into a corner, trapped with no clear path of egress.

“Did Louie give these to you?” Clyde deduced, fuming.

Jake remained silent, which was answer enough. The old sheriff snorted, threw up his hands in exasperation. Shaking his head, he drew a deep breath to steady and calm himself.

“You know this is a crime, right?” he asked, bordering on belligerence. “These papers, even in this form are essentially classified! Shit, if Boudreaux knew you had these…”

“But he doesn’t know!” Jake answered provisionally. “And I’m certainly not gonna tell him!”

Rambo ruffled through the rest of the packet, trying to determine exactly how deep they were in the shit by ascertaining how many restricted documents they were looking at. When he’d scanned them all, he posed the twenty-five thousand dollar question.

“What exactly are you thinking I’m gonna do, Jake?” he asked. “How many laws do you expect I’m going to break here?”

“As many as are required in order for you to tell me what’s been redacted from those papers!” Jake suggested. “You’re a smart man, Clyde, you’ve probably figured out that Billy Marsh is dead! I need to tie his murder to The Butcher. If I can figure out who that was along the way, all the better.”

This made Clyde laugh heartily again, made him grab hold of his jiggling belly to steady it just as before. It wasn’t clear to Jake which part of his statement was so funny to the man, which part he found so ridiculous. He realized there were several portions that were subject to dissection, and the old man was sure to vivisect each of them.

“You think it’s just that easy, huh son?” he snickered. “That is why you came back to Burlwood? To make a name for yourself? You think you’re just gonna roll into town twenty two years after the fact and crack a case that professionals couldn’t break? A case that some of the most superb detectives in the country spent years trying to solve? What, you think you’re gonna track down The Butcher and shoot him a couple of times with that big old gun of yours, like you’re the Lone Ranger of 2016? That’s the goal?”

Jake didn’t find this funny in the least, and he made it obvious in his facial expression. Seeing the affront in his countenance made Rambo giggle more, and he wasn’t inclined to make an effort to stifle his laughter. He folded his glasses dismissively as he chuckled and stuffed them back into his pocket, then offered his thoughts as a final declaration.

"I can't help you, son, I don't think it would be wise to encourage you in this endeavor. I'm really sorry to hear about Billy Marsh, I met the kid once at Our Mother -- he seemed like a wonderful boy. Frankly, though, I find it very hard to believe that his death was in any way related to those of the other kids -- The Butcher is retired, quite possibly dead to boot.”

How can you say that?” Jake asked incredulously. “If you didn’t know who the man was, how can you assume that he’s retired or dead?

Rambo settled into his chair a bit and tilted his head back, as though he was relaxing in consideration of how he would respond. Taking another long breath, he ran his hands through his scraggly beard contemplatively. Reaching a conclusion of some sort, he eventually answered the charge. “Knowing who committed a crime doesn’t necessarily equate to proving who committed a crime, Jake. I’m going far beyond my purview in confessing that I have very strong suspicions about who the legendary Butcher Of Burlwood was -- but I can say quite certainly that the men who were the prime suspects are either dead or very old at this point. I doubt highly that they’ve decided to reignite the fire twenty two years after they retreated with their tail between their legs, under the pressure we applied to them. And on that note, trust me when I say that we applied a lot of pressure.”

“So, what then?” Jake asked cantankerously. “You won’t even look at the report on Billy Marsh to see if it fits the pattern? You won’t even consider the idea that this is somehow related? You’re just gonna let Ron Boudreaux crucify Chucky?

Clyde recoiled and balked just as he was preparing to rebut Jake’s argument. His eyes bolted open, wider even than they had when he first caught sight of and recognized the visitor in his garden earlier in the day. There was no conflict in his oculi any longer, no sign of any apprehension. He gawked stupidly at Jacob, now, his mouth falling agape once again.

“They think Chucky did it?” he asked, dumbfounded.

Jake was as flabbergasted as Clyde, now, but his bewilderment was simply at the fact that Rambo hadn’t pieced that much together. He prefaced this entire meeting with Chucky needs your help, it doesn’t get much more plain or obvious than that. He had invoked the name of Sherlock Holmes just moments ago, a man who would certainly have deduced this basic premise upon consideration of their dialogue. Shit, Watson probably would’ve picked up on it.

Giving the man -- the very old man -- the benefit of the doubt, he simply expounded upon the fact more explicitly. "He's facing kidnapping, first degree murder and mutilation of a corpse, Clyde! Boudreaux wants to see him get the death penalty! That’s why I’m here, Clyde, to clear Chucky! That’s why I need to tie Billy into the old murders, why I need to figure out who The Butcher was, so I can pin this on his ass!”

Rambo seemed to ponder this for a moment, seemed to be calculating and computing the odds. He didn’t figure there was much chance that The Butcher would’ve crawled out of the shadows he’d hidden in for two decades, but he suddenly wanted to believe it was somehow possible. Twisting facts to suit theories, he put his glasses back on and started sifting through the reports again.

Jake watched as he cursorily scanned each of the papers, setting one pair to his left and then riffling through the others until he found another in particular that he was looking for. Once he found it, he placed it just to the right of the first. After more riffling, he pulled several sets of papers from the pile and placed them to the right of the second set. Having only a few pages left, he set one pair to the right of the third -- making four distinct piles -- and then gathered what was left into a small packet that he held in his hands.

Clyde studied that set carefully, his eyes scanning the words and images slowly as wheels turned in his mind. He gave no outward indication of what he saw, allowed no muscle to move on his face that might give away what he was discerning. After a few tense and silent moments, he pulled one paper from the group and turned it in Jake’s direction.

“Did you read this report?” he asked categorically.

Jake looked at the page, realized it was the coroner’s report for Billy Marsh. This gave him pause, made him think. He had looked at it… but did he read it?

Clyde saw his hesitation, jumped all over it.

“Look here,” he said, pointing to a typed sentence. “Read that, will you? Read it out loud.”

Jake focused his eyes where Rambo was pointing and did as instructed. “The penis is normally developed and unremarkable,” he recited.

Rambo stared at his face, waited for him to make the connection. It took a few seconds, but he eventually figured it out. It came as a memory, swirling, swirling… it came in Chucky’s voice, saying why do you think Pennywise rips their cocks off, Darkwing?

See?” Clyde put on the exclamation point with the question. “Now look at this part…”

Jake followed his finger, read aloud again.

“The left hand is normally developed and unremarkable.”

Swirling, swirling… oh God, it’s missing its thumb and I can see the bone in there!

“If you read the rest, you’ll find other things, too,” Rambo explained. “Shit, I see a ton of things… things you won’t see, because you don’t know… things that are redacted in the other reports you’ve got… things that we managed to keep out of the press. We tried to keep a lot out of the press, in order to protect our investigation. Some of it leaked… some of it always leaks. Look closely, though, and you’ll see that Billy Marsh was not sodomized, either.”

Trying to pry himself away from the swirling, Jake considered what this meant -- what it could possibly mean. "You're saying this isn't related to the others?" he asked. "You're saying this is entirely different?”

Rambo sighed, rubbed his forehead. “It’s not entirely different,” he conceded. “There are some things in this report that raise my hackles, I can’t deny that.”

“What kinds of things?”

“Things that worry me,” he replied vaguely. “Let me start by saying that my first impression, upon looking at this report, would be that this was the work of a copycat killer. Our troubles here were well publicized, you know that. The public at large knows the basics -- the ages of the kids, the circumstances of their murders and the manner in which they were disposed. The thing with the missing thumbs we managed to keep quiet... you knew, because you saw the Banks boy's arm. The press never got a hold of that, so it would make sense that a copycat killer would just not know that he was supposed to take the left thumb. It was, however, publicly known that they boys had been molested, and that they had been castrated. I'm not too sure how that got out, but it did. Some asshole CSI tech probably took the chance to have his fifteen minutes of fame, I don't know, but it doesn't matter anyway -- it was out there. Most copycat criminals try to duplicate the crimes exactly as they had been done -- try to recreate history, as it were. Therefore, I have a nagging doubt that this was just an homage to a serial killer of old.”

“Then don’t you think it’s possible that it was The Butcher. That he just changed things up a bit? Just threw in a curve, to confuse things?”

Rambo considered this, but dismissed it quickly. “There are too many differences.” he explained, volunteering no additional examples. “I mean, I guess maybe he got lazy… sloppy in his old age… hell, maybe his dick doesn’t work anymore, that could explain the lack of sodomy. It doesn’t explain the other things, though, the other differences.”

This confused Jake. If things were so remarkably different, what had raised Rambo’s hackles? What troubled him, worried him, as he said? It must've been that there was some other similarity -- something that a run of the mill copycat wouldn't have known, wouldn't have done.

“What are you holding back from me, Clyde?” Jake probed, trying to be as gentle about it as he could. “What do you see on that paper that worries you?”

Rambo spun the report so that he could read it himself again, scanned it once more just as thoroughly as he’d scanned it the first time. He seemed hesitant to speak, hesitant to reveal anything crucial -- as though he were still trying to protect some investigation that was covered with twenty two years worth of dust. A case that was as cold as ice, its file still guarded with all the secrecy of 1994.

Come on, Clyde!” Jake begged. “Help me, here!”

Running his hand over his brow, pulling it down through his scraggly beard again, Rambo took arms against all of the training he had ever received. He struggled to suppress his better judgement, struggled to force himself to confide secrets that he had guarded for so long that they seemed locked away even from him… locked away tightly, filed in a musty volume and forbidden to his lips. Wrestling with it, wrestling with himself, he cracked the book carefully.

“Do you have any idea what kind of trouble I could get into if I tell you what’s under the black on those reports of yours?” he asked. “When I say that shit is sealed, I mean it is sealed! To get a peek under those redactions, you need the expressed permission of the FBI -- of Alberto Gomez himself!

“I don’t have time for that,” Jake said. “Chucky doesn’t have time for that! You’ve got to do this, Clyde, you’ve got to help me, here!”

Rambo thought more, thought harder... tried to think of any alternative. None came to mind, none that solved the riddle -- none that would be of any use to Chucky.

They sat in silence, but this wasn’t that vociferous silence that spoke so freely in Jake’s previous experiences with it. He couldn’t infer anything from it, had no idea what Clyde was thinking. He cogitated as thoroughly as he could, turned it over and over in his mind -- for what it was worth, in his withdrawal -- and could only hope the old sheriff would show his hand.

Making his decision, locking in his answer, Rambo postulated a scenario. “Let’s pretend for a moment, Jake,” he began, illustrating with bizarre hand gestures. “Let’s make believe that you were some kind of maniac psycho… that you were out for a cheap thrill, that you wanted to get off on an act of depravity.”

Jake absorbed his words, not having to stretch his imagination far to meet with Clyde’s machinations. Given his behavior of late, he might be diagnosed with ill-repute if subjected to the examination of a psychiatrist.

“Now,” Rambo continued, framing things with more gestures. “Let’s imagine you decide that you want to recreate a murder of the past, that you want to follow in the footsteps of The Butcher Of Burlwood and duplicate one of his crimes.”

“Okay,” Jake acknowledged.

“You pick a kid, you take him… and then what? Based on what you know about the murders -- based on what the public knows about the murders… what do you do?

Jake wasn’t sure exactly what he was supposed to describe, which aspect of the affair he was expected to outline. He held his hands out as if to ask what do you mean, needing further instruction before he responded.

Clyde picked up on the signal and articulated in response. “How do you actually kill the victim? Specifically, what do you do?”

This furled Jake’s brow, his eyebrows raising in realization. As familiar as he thought he was with the atrocities committed by The Butcher, he discovered that he couldn't answer this seemingly fundamental question. He knew the children were sodomized, he knew they were dismembered, he knew they were castrated -- but he wasn't sure exactly how they were murdered… exactly what had brought about their deaths.

The silence that followed this inquiry did speak to Rambo… it answered his query just the way he expected it to.

“There were only five people on the face of this planet that knew everything that is redacted from those reports! That includes the details of exactly how they were killed, and how they were dismembered. Only five people who knew precisely how those things were done. You’re talking to one of them now. The others were Agent Gomez, Ron Boudreaux, Doctor Felton and The Butcher Of Burlwood. Doctor Felton passed away three years ago… so there should be only four, now.”

The way he spoke those words led Jake to believe Rambo wasn’t sure that was the case… that something on the coroner’s report had him questioning that theory. The old man steepled his fingers and bowed his head to them, closing his eyes and retreating from the suspicion he was still struggling to utter aloud.

Seeing his struggle, Jake let him think about it for a moment. When he felt the time was right, when it seemed the soup was ready, he opened his mouth in anticipation of the spoon. “Are there only four?” he asked.

Clyde looked up and gazed deeply into his eyes. Jake could see a certainty in the old man’s expression that was immutable and intense. Not relying on the osmotic connection between them to communicate the answer, Rambo destroyed the chains that had kept his musty volume of secrets sealed with a savage blow of mighty revelation.

Not unless one of us killed Billy Marsh!

 

TWENTY-ONE

Timothy Lane, Part 2

 

September 24th, 1994. Time Unknown

Location Unknown

 

Clink, clank, twirl…

Click, clack, sway…

Clank, click, twirl…

Clack, click, sway…

Around and around, side to side, forwards and backwards… over, and over, and over…

Timmy was so tired. His eyelids were heavy, as though they had weights lashed to them somehow… holding them closed as he tried to pry them open. Even when he managed to force them, his eyeballs rolled back into his head and tried to return him to a deep, dark sleep… a sleep deeper than he’d ever experienced, darker than he knew to be possible.

Why was he so tired?

Where was he?

He didn’t remember going to bed… didn’t remember going home… didn’t remember leaving the carnival.

His thoughts were sluggish and confused, his memories hazy and seeming to trail behind him as he struggled to recall them. He remembered leaving Our Mother with Chucky and the rest of the boys… remembered buying an armband with the money his father had given him, remembered the person in the ticket booth strapping it around his wrist…

He remembered riding the Ferris Wheel, wishing Darkwing and Launchpad wouldn’t spin their gondola so fast when they got to the top. It was scary when they were at the top, and the spinning was making him dizzy. He remembered them laughing, remembered Chucky screaming like a girl.

He remembered strapping himself into a bumper car, remembered crashing into the wall and not being able to figure out how to get his vehicle turned around… remembered the car with Darkwing and Chucky coming at him way too fast, crashing into the side of him and spinning his car free.

Clink, clank, twirl…

Click, clack, sway…

He still couldn’t keep his eyes open, still couldn’t figure out where he was… he wasn’t in his bed, he could tell he wasn’t in his bed…

Was he on another ride?

It sounded like he was… felt like he was. He was disoriented and dizzy, and more than that, he was just so tired.

Trying to piece things together, he struggled to free his thoughts from the confusion they were in. The fog was clearing, but only slightly -- only very slightly, and very slowly.

Thinking hard, trying to think hard, he remembered the boys wanting to go on The Ring of Fire. He was afraid of that ride, it was too big and too loud… looked too scary for him. It was a giant circle, rising high into the darkened sky of the evening. Colorful lights flickered and strobed on the sides of the track, red, yellow, pink, green, purple, orange, blue… the colors of fire, the colors of flame… they were mesmerizing to him… hypnotizing to him… the name of the ride flashed in fiery red and orange bulbs, [_ Ring of Fire -- Ring of Fire -- Ring of Fire -- _] until he was in a trance… until he felt like he was feeling now, dazed, distant and confused.

He remembered watching a train of caged cars starting at the bottom of the ring, watching it being pulled by a big cable halfway up the circle and then rolling back... going halfway up the other side, in the opposite direction. The noises got louder, the rumbling and roaring more intense -- like metallic thunder -- until it was almost deafening. The train raced back to the bottom of the circle, went farther up the other side than it had the first time... the people in the car screamed, the noises growing louder still, more intense still. The train raced back down to the bottom of the ring and rocketed up the other side until it was all the way upside down, where it stopped and hung… just froze there, upside down… like he was now… hanging, like he was now… the people screaming… screaming like he wanted to. Then, the enclosed cars shuddered and roared down around the other side, clicking, clacking, clinking and clanking so loudly as it plunged down and back up… back around the entire circumference of The Ring of Fire… Ring of Fire… Ring of Fire… Ring of Fire… flashing, flashing, flashing, flashing…

Clank, click, twirl…

Clack, click, sway…

Was he on the Ring of Fire? Did he get on The Ring of Fire and faint, because he was so terrified?

No… no, he didn’t…

He remembered saying no… saying he wasn’t going on that ride… remembered the boys teasing him, calling him a pussy… all except Chucky, because he was scared too. And Darkwing, because Darkwing was nice… he remembered going to another ride, a different ride… what was it?

The Matterhorn… that’s what it was. He remembered climbing into a car on The Matterhorn, remembered the car swinging as Louie climbed in with him… remembered Launchpad whining that he had to ride alone because Chucky insisted on riding with Darkwing… remembered Louie telling him there was room in their gondola, remembered Launchpad climbing in and remembered feeling squished like a sardine in a can.

Clink, clank, twirl…

Click, clack, sway…

He remembered The Matterhorn starting, remembered rolling forward slowly… spinning slowly around a circle, going up and down over humps, picking up speed and the car rocking back and forth… centrifugal force, that’s why the car started to sway up into the air… he remembered thinking about science class, remembered learning about physics and centrifugal force, remembered thinking that’s why the gondola was fully parallel with the wooden slats of the ride’s platform as they spun, and spun, and spun…

Clank, clink, twirl…

Clack, click, sway…

There had been loud music, he remembered the music... he could hear the music in his head, still, over the strange ringing in his ears, he could hear it... he could hear the words, but he couldn't understand what they were... it sounded like he was in a tunnel, sounded like the music was muffled and echoing around him in a tunnel... the words were being sung fast, but they were slow to him, now -- like time was slowed down... still, the words ran together... still, they didn't make any sense... why did he hear them, still? Was he still on The Matterhorn? Was he losing consciousness because he was being squeezed too tightly in the car with Launchpad and Louie?

Prettylittlethingletmelightyourcandlecausemamaimsohardtohandlenowyesiam…

Clink, clank, twirl…

Click, clack, sway…

No… he wasn’t on The Matterhorn anymore… he remembered getting off, remembered being dizzy and feeling like he wanted to throw up… he needed to eat, he remembered needing to eat… wanting to eat to settle his stomach…

Funnel cakes… that’s what they got, with the rest of the money his father had given him, he got a funnel cake… Launchpad didn’t have any more money, so Timmy told him he would share… he did share… shared his funnel cake and his Coke… shared them with Launchpad…

Clank, clink, twirl…

Clack, click, sway…

Then what happened?

The Gravitron… that’s what happened next. He remembered getting on The Gravitron… remembered leaning against a smelly pad on the wall, remembered starting to spin… faster and faster, round and round, clockwise with a bullet, he remembered more centrifugal force… too much centrifugal force… overwhelming centrifugal force… he remembered his chest feeling heavy as he was pressed into the smelly red pad… remembered a click and clack, remembered a clink and clank as mechanisms were released and the wall he was being held against rose up from the floor and he was floating… floating, like he was now…

Was he still on The Gravitron?

No… he remembered the rest of the ride…

He remembered feeling sick, remembered his funnel cake wanting to come back up... remembered tasting it again, the fried dough and the powdered sugar together with stomach acid and burning as puke sprayed out of his mouth and the centrifugal force made it spread all around his face... remembered the operator stopping the ride, remembered the chunky remnants of the funnel cake coming down off of the red pad and settling on his shoulders, running down the chest of his shirt and getting everywhere... remembered not wanting to wear the shirt anymore, remembered taking it off and throwing it away in a big fifty-five gallon drum... remembered the boys laughing at him -- all except Darkwing, who was really nice to him about it... remembered Darkwing telling the other boys to shut up... remembered the shirt...

Clink, clank, twirl…

Click, clack, sway…

He remembered going to the area with the porta-potties, remembered going inside of one… remembered how bad it smelled remembered crying just a little, but not about the smell… crying because he was embarrassed, because he was humiliated. He remembered taking a leak… remembered going back outside, remembered the whoosh and the sound of the plastic door slamming shut… remembered looking for the boys, remembered… ouch!

My neck! Something happened to my neck! It hurt! It feels like a bee stung me on the neck… where did the bee come from? There are no bees here… and it burns… why does it burn so bad?

That’s where it all trailed off… that’s where the haze began, where the path ended… now, he was here… here and so tired…

Clank, clink, twirl…

Clack, click, sway…

A voice… he could hear a voice… it wasn’t a memory, wasn’t the screaming of joy and terror of people at the carnival, wasn’t the voice of any of his friends… it was strange, deep and slow… a man’s voice, but it was distant, it was disjointed… it was angry… it was arguing… what was it saying?

Wrong… same… fucked… blue… black… close… fault… late… anyway… finish…

What did that mean?

What was going on?

Where was he?

Why was he upside down?

Why was it so cold?

Why did it feel like he wasn’t wearing any clothes?

Why did his behind hurt?

Clink, clank, twirl…

Click, clack, sway…

A dark figure moving towards him… a shadow… a silhouette… something in its hand… a familiar figure… a familiar outline… a familiar face… but a shadow…

Clunk…

No more swaying, no more twirling… hands on his torso… cold hands… something pressing against his neck… pressure… swift motion… wetness… lightheadedness… black…

Nothing…

 

TWENTY-TWO

 

 

September 10th, 2016. 2:15PM

Burlwood, Indiana

 

“The Jews call it Shechita,” Clyde explained, pouring Jake a glass of lemonade since Earl Grey was out of the question. “Muslims call it Dhabihah. It’s essentially the same thing either way, a ritual slaughter to make meat either Kosher or Halal, pick your God, pick your poison.”

Jake listened intently as Rambo finally confided the secrets hidden beneath the redactions of his illicitly obtained reports. He was familiar with the terms Kosher and Halal, but didn’t really know what either meant. They certainly weren’t considerations in his diet, which had largely consisted of Whoppers and Big Macs as of late. He took a sip of the lemonade and found it incredibly sour, incredibly tart. Apparently, the old man’s tastebuds required strong flavors to be stimulated. It would do, though, so he drank and clung to every word spoken.

“Traditionally, it’s done with an animal either standing or laying on its back. That wasn’t the case with the children, they were all hung upside down. Quite obviously with a chain, wrapped around their ankles.”

Clyde turned several of the reports towards Jake so he could look down at them on the table.

“Here,” he said, pointing to swaths of black on each of them under the heading of external examination. “These are descriptions of the bruising each victim had around his ankles. They were very pronounced, very dark. You could see the individual links of the chain, could see how they’d dug into the flesh. They were probably left hanging for a good period of time, based on how set in the bruises were.”

"Is that ever done with the animals?" Jake asked. "As part of the Shec -- Shec--"

“Shechita,” Rambo finished for him. “Well, yes. In mass production situations, it can be. Same with the Dhabihah, it’s not unheard of. The ultimate goal of either method is complete exsanguination, so hanging the carcass upside down can help speed that process. It can also help keep the mess, if you will, confined… allow the blood to flow straight down, like a waterfall, instead of just spurting out all over the place.”

Rambo referred back to the Billy Marsh report, checking the details to be sure he wasn’t twisting facts to suit theories too severely. Satisfied that he wasn’t, that it was all there, in black in white, he continued his description of the process.

“In the Dhabihah rite, the person carrying out the ritual must keep the blade he’ll use concealed as he approaches the animal and feels for the jugular. Before he completes the act, he must invoke Allah by saying [_ Bismillah -- ] which means _in the name of God. That’s where the differences between Dhabihah and Shechita end, though, the rest is exactly the same. The executioner uses a knife called a Hallaf or Sakin, which is basically just a long, sharp blade with no point… kind of like a meat cleaver, but razor sharp.”

Tilting his head back, exposing his aged neck, he simulated the process with a finger as he explained.

“The blade is pulled across the length of the neck swiftly and smoothly, with no pause or hesitation. In a single pass, the trachea, esophagus, carotid arteries, jugular veins and the vagus nerve are severed.”

Looking back to the table, Rambo cited several more redacted sentences in both the external and internal examination sections.

"Here, here, here," he said as he pointed. "It was the same for all the boys... the same for Billy Marsh. It's not a bad way to go, really -- it happens very quickly. They would’ve experienced a rapid drop of blood pressure in their brains, been rendered unconscious and insensitive to pain almost immediately. We’re not even sure they were conscious when it happened, really, based on the levels and types of drugs we found in their systems.”

Yeah,” Jake said, his memory jogged. “That’s right, I wanted to ask you about that. I noticed that the toxicology results were redacted entirely. What was that all about?”

“It was about the drugs!” Clyde laughed. “We figured it was a lead, so we quashed it!”

What drugs?” Jake asked, a suspicion stirring in him. “Was it meth?”

Meth?” Rambo snorted. “What in God’s name would make you think that? Hell no, it wasn’t meth! What, you think the boys were addicts or something?”

Jake didn’t respond, just let that exchange trail off and die for a moment. This wasn’t the time nor the place to talk about the meth… neither the time nor place at all. When it settled, he resumed. “What was it, then?”

The old sheriff looked at the reports in the piles he’d laid them out in, the four stacks he’d made initially when he’d pulled them from the envelope.

“It changed,” he explained. “Evolved, I guess, along with a couple of other things. I set this spread out in illustration of the progression. I guess it’ll be easier if I just explain everything at once, point out all of the differences so you can understand the growth of The Butcher. The first pile over here on my left, these are the reports about Gary Duncan. His toxicology report revealed that he’d been subdued with Halothane. It’s an inhaled general anesthetic, you could douse a rag with it and hold it over someone’s mouth and nose, like they do with Chloroform in the movies. It would take a minute, it doesn’t happen like it does on television, but that’s likely how it was used. That can be dangerous, though, because the person doing the sedating could end up sedated himself, if he wasn’t careful. The alternative would’ve been to vaporize it and mix it with O2, then administer it as a gas through a mask. That requires equipment and know how, so we figured it didn’t go that way. In either case, Halothane would produce complete anesthesia. The victim would’ve been entirely unconscious, entirely asleep. Doctor Felton said that practically anybody who was determined enough could get his hands on Halothane, though it’s typically a bit of a pain if you’re not a doctor.”

“Was Duncan the only one it was used on?” Jake asked, seeing that the next report over from that was Joshua Banks, the second victim of The Butcher.

“No,” Clyde responded. “Joshua Banks’ system had Halothane in it, too, but I’ve put his reports in this second pile because there were two other differences worth noting. The first is that Gary was sodomized postmortem… apparently, the creep didn’t much enjoy necrophilia, because it was the only time we could say for sure that this was the case. The other difference was that Gary’s remains were hacked into pieces. Felton figured it was done with an axe or similar tool, it was crude and savage. Very sloppy.”

Jake was caught in a momentary swirl of memories, thinking back to that afternoon in Booger Woods… thinking back to holding Joshua’s arm, which seemed cleanly and smoothly severed at the shoulder.

“The Banks boy was molested while he was alive, and he was cut up cleanly.” Rambo continued. “Our first impression was that it was done with some sort of saber or jig saw, but we had forensic anthropologists study his remains, and they disagreed. Their determination was that the cutting action was unidirectional, that it couldn’t have been done with any type of reciprocating blade. The kerf was smooth, with only microscopic striations. They wouldn’t rule out a circular saw with a very fine toothed blade, but they figured a bandsaw was the most likely culprit.”

Nodding, Jake thought about all of the bandsaws he’d seen in his youth… every red-blooded man in Burlwood had a bandsaw, it was like having a microwave oven for Christ’s sake. That didn’t give him anything to go on, nothing that would lead him to an answer.

Rambo looked down to the third pile of papers, the one that was the thickest of them all. “This is where The Butcher got settled in,” he explained. “Dawson, Wade and Marshall… all three were almost identical, almost the same in every regard. They were sodomized while alive, and sedated with Xylazine. This was a major change, Xylazine is injected, not inhaled. All three of the boys, and Timmy Lane, too, had puncture wounds on their necks. Doctor Felton said they were consistent with an injection given with a hypodermic syringe, most likely using a 22 gauge needle. The choice of drug was interesting, too, because Xylazine isn’t typically used on human beings.”

“What is it used on, then?” Jake asked.

"All manner of animals, usually large ones. It's almost exclusively a veterinary drug, though, so Felton was a bit puzzled that The Butcher had transitioned to it. It's more easily acquired, so that could've been the motivation. Any veterinary supply shop would have it, especially around here, with all the farm animals. You don't need any kind of prescription or certification to get it. It's also available on the street, it sometimes finds it's way into speedballs -- along with cocaine and heroin. The effect isn't quite the same as that of Halothane, either. It can be used for general anesthesia, but it’s primary action is just a mild sedation. The boys could’ve been conscious, but would’ve been very groggy and confused. “

“You said it was used on Timmy, too, right? And I know he was sodomized, so why is his report off to the side of that set?”

“Because, as you also know, Timmy’s remains weren’t found for over two months. That was a change, as was the fact that they were spread all over the goddamned town instead of dumped all together. Plus, I guess Timmy holds a special place in my heart, so I didn’t want to put him in with the other boys. It wasn’t The Butcher who killed Timmy… it was me! Me and my goddamned arrogance! I thought we had it covered, thought it was all under control! I practically begged Gomez to let us have that carnival, to restore a sense of normalcy! I told him I would take care of it… told him I would make sure nothing happened… and I failed… I failed Gomez, I failed Burlwood, and I failed poor little Timmy Lane!”

Jake nodded, understanding why his case was different. He didn’t want to think about it, so he moved on and pressed the conversation forward.

“Billy Marsh was also injected with something, right?” he asked.

“Says who?” Rambo retorted.

The response wasn’t what Jake had expected, and it jarred him. Thinking it over, he realized he’d only assumed this because it seemed to go hand in hand with the manner of execution. He figured Billy had been, figured that played a role in leading Clyde to believe that only someone with inside information could’ve carried out the murder.

“If he was, it’s not on this autopsy report!” the old man concluded.

“So, what then?” Jake wondered. “He was just fully conscious for the whole thing? Wouldn’t that be a glaring difference between his murder and those of the other boys?”

Studying the papers, Rambo offered only educated conjecture and speculation in his response. “There’s nothing about a puncture wound, but I see references to petechial hemorrhages in his eyes. Do you watch any CSI? Forensic Files?”

Jake shook his head, he didn’t.

"It's a sign of asphyxiation -- or at least near asphyxiation. Some of the other findings in this report would suggest to me that Billy was still alive when his throat was slashed. It makes me wonder if whoever did this went the Halothane route and pressed a little too hard. Either that or he was strangled until he passed out, and it went from there. I don’t see anything about any ligature or bruising on his neck, so I figure he either had to be smothered with something or have a rag with some kind of chemical on it over his mouth and nose, there’s no way to know for sure until you get a peek at the toxicology, which will probably be at least another week yet.”

“I don’t get it,” Jake said, “why would The Butcher revert to an old technique when he had a new preferred method? I mean, I assume it became his preferred method, considering he used it on four of the six other victims.”

“That’s a damn good question, Jake!” Clyde said sarcastically. “Maybe because this wasn’t The Butcher at all!

"So," Jake began, formulating his counter on the fly. "What you're suggesting is that someone -- some copycat -- correctly guessed that The Butcher drugged the kids, hung them upside down with a chain around their ankles, and slit their throats ritualistically? You really believe someone got all of that right?”

“I don’t know what I believe, son!” Rambo replied sharply. “I don’t see how they could’ve, no! But I also don’t see how The Butcher -- if it was really The Butcher -- could've gotten so much wrong, either!"

Frustrated, the old sheriff cursed and threw up his hands. The entirety of the situation was boggling to him, he didn’t understand how what he was seeing was possible. How any of the similarities he’d described in purging the secrets of the old case files were possible was a mystery that he just couldn’t comprehend. With the differences, though, the reports on the Marsh boy didn’t fit into the progression of the true Butcher at all. If this was supposed to be another piece of the old puzzle, it was not at all a proper shape to complete that familiar mural… that lingering bloodied canvas of murder done in portrait.

This crime was similar to the atrocities of the past… too similar.

However, it was also different than the others… too different.

“I don’t know, Jake,” he sighed. “I’m having a really hard time convincing myself that this is some sort of infernal resurrection… that it’s the return of The Butcher Of Burlwood… at the same time, I can’t explain the similarities away. I’m trying to, by God, I’m trying! Believe me, I’m trying.”

“I know you are, Clyde,” Jake agreed. “But I wish you wouldn’t. I wish you would treat this as the seventh murder, because that’s how I see it. On that note, I want to know more about the first six. When I looked at the old reports, I noticed that all of the trace evidence sections were redacted, too. What’s that all about?”

Rambo shook his head and frowned, shrugging his shoulders as though to say nothing. "We processed Vitullo kits -- rape kits -- on all of the boys, but nothing came back. No foreign DNA, no hairs, nothing. It was suggested that the remains were soaked in or sprayed with bleach before they were discarded. If not that, they were at least thoroughly cleaned. We didn’t find anything at all to help us.”

“Why redact it, then?” Jake asked, confused.

Clyde glared at him accusingly again, took his cop tone as he barked “in case some asshole like you got ahold of the reports! We didn’t want the press to see that we had nothing! If it leaked, we could say we had a lead… could say we were on the trail.”

“What are these, then?” Jake asked, pointing to patches of black on the sketches depicting scenes at which the victim’s remains had been discovered. “Something’s been covered up on these, too, but not on the one for Billy Marsh.”

Rambo looked at one of the examples, that of Gary Duncan, and answered dismissively. “Oh, that’s nothing, too.”

“It has to be something!” Jake insisted. “Do you mean to tell me that you blotted out nothing just for the sake of doing it?”

“It was a red herring, Jake, that’s all! It’s not even worth the time to talk about it!”

“How so?” he challenged. “How much time does it take to just tell me what it was? I mean, what the fuck was it, man? It takes two seconds!

The old man rolled his eyes, realizing that Jake wasn’t going to give up. “It won’t help you, son” he began, “but if it will make you shut up, I’ll tell you. We found these little things near the bodies. All of them, from Duncan to Lane. They were --" he paused, struggled to find the proper words as he cradled his hands as though to hold one of them. "They were idols, I guess.”

“What kind of idols?

“Oh, I dunno,” he continued to fight for verbiage. “They were made of sticks and cloth, sometimes a bit of straw… they kind of resembled a little person, like a little doll or something. Somebody said they looked like Voodoo dolls, and that took us right down the rabbit hole. We tried to make some kind of connection with them, but we couldn’t. It ended up derailing us for a while, pulled us off course and into things that we didn’t have any business getting involved with. It was a dead end, I don’t think it meant anything.”

“How so?” Jake asked, flummoxed. “I mean, you’ve just described to me that these kids were ritualistically slaughtered, how can you say that finding something like that didn’t tie in? Something with a religious connotation?”

“Because it’s bullshit, Jake!” Rambo yelled. “It doesn’t have anything to do with anything, we’re in fuckin’ Burlwood, Indiana here! You know of any Voodoo stirrings in fucking Burlwood? Besides, the ritualistic slaughter was sylized after Judaism and Islam, both so far removed from Voodoo that it’s beyond ridiculous! Like I said, it was a red herring… something to throw us off the scent, that’s all. Whoever The Butcher was, he was smart! Shit, he had to be smart to evade us for as long as he did! To leave no traces behind for us to sniff him out! Besides, you said it yourself, there wasn’t one when they found Billy Marsh. That doesn’t help you tie his death to the others now, does it? Like I said, it’s useless… so forget about it, don’t fall into the same traps we did! That shit will lead you around in circles, and you’ll end up nowhere!

That made sense to Jake, especially the part about it not being at the Billy Marsh scene. Even if he found some mysterious Voodoo sect buried deep beneath the devoutly Catholic facade of Burlwood, it wouldn’t serve him in freeing Chucky, considering there was no indication that any such sect was involved in Billy’s murder. If there had been an idol there… well, that would’ve been an entirely different story.

“Okay, point taken,” Jake replied. “So, let’s press on.”

“I’ve told you all there is to tell, son,” Rambo said. “I’ve told you way more than I should’ve, there’s nothing left to say.”

“Oh, there’s plenty left to say!” Jake asserted.

“Like what?” Clyde wondered.

“You said The Butcher was either dead or very old… you said knowing something and proving something are different… you said you had a very strong suspicion about who he was... so -- let's hear it! Who do you believe was The Butcher Of Burlwood?”

Rambo laughed heartily yet again, his belly shaking just as before. “You remind me of more Holmes, my friend!” he smiled.

“By all means,” Jake grinned back indulgently, “let loose!”

We approached this case with a blank mind, which is always an advantage!” he said in a poor attempt at an English accent. “We had formed no theories, we were simply there to observe and to draw inferences from our observations!

These words killed Jake’s complaisance. Slaughtered it, actually. Perhaps ritualistically. Perhaps with a Hallaf, no less.

“I haven’t got the kind of time you guys had, Clyde.” he said. “Chucky is in jailright now! You know Chucky, you know he’s not suited for that kind of an environment. I need to get this done, and I need to get it done quickly. Would it be better to start from scratch? Yeah, maybe. Is there time for me to start from scratch? Hell no! Just give me a place to start, Clyde! That’s all I’m asking! Just put me on the path! Do you want me to beg? If so, I’ll beg… hell, I’ll get down on my knees, if that’s what you want! Just throw me a bone here… please… just help me a little bit more!

The old sheriff thought about it… kicked the tires and looked under the hood… considered…

“I don’t want you to beg, son!” he eventually said. “If I’m to tell you anything else, I guess I want you to trade!

Jake drew back at this, wondered what he meant. What the hell could he possibly trade with Clyde Rambo? What did he have that the man wanted?

Quid pro quo,” Rambo continued, “tit for tat!

Still perplexed, Jake raised an eyebrow. “What is it that you’re after?” he asked.

Clyde chuckled an I can’t believe you haven’t figured it out chuckle, looked at him with conviction. “I want Ron Boudreaux, son!” he said. “I want you to tell me some of your secrets… some of the things that you unearthed back in the nineties!”

This brought the eyebrow back down, brought it crashing down into a scowl of contempt and anger. Not at Rambo, of course, but at Boudreaux… at Deputy Ron. There was more to it than those things alone… there was also apprehension… there was also trepidation… there was also presage.

“I know you had him by the balls!” Rambo continued. “I have some ideas about what he was wrapped up in myself, but I’m sure you know much more! You know names, you know places, and you know dates! That’s what I want! A trade!

Jake had to think about this, had to decide whether or not he could do it…

Did he dare to erase the black splotches over things he had redacted?

Did he dare to pull back the musty veil that he hid things behind, the way his friend had done for him?

Did he dare to rip off the bandaid, to expose the festering wound beneath it?

Did he dare to make it right?

“If I tell you,” he said, still turning it over and over in his mind. “If I give you what you want… what will you do with it?”

Clyde shrugged, scratched at his beard. "I guess it depends on just what you've got," he explained. "Maybe I just keep my mouth shut, keep it to myself -- if it's not enough. At least I would have the satisfaction of knowing, I could probably be happy with that alone. If it is enough, however, if it’s verifiable… perhaps I put in a few phone calls, I don’t know. I’ve still got a few friends in high places, maybe I rock the cradle a little bit.”

“But you’d keep me out of it? Keep the people I care about out of it?”

This made Rambo chuckle a bit. “How many people that you care about are left, Jake?” he asked. “How many that would be involved, as it were?”

Thinking about it, he realized there weren’t any… none at all, besides Launchpad -- and he still hadn't decided how he felt about that situation.

“That’s what I thought,” Clyde smiled, even though Jake hadn’t said anything at all. “But you have to give me all of it! No holding back, no holds barred. Can we call it a deal?”

Jake nodded, hesitating only slightly in doing so. Perhaps it would be best to let the skeletons out of the closet… they’d been in there for a long time… they might just turn to dust, like an aged and tired vampire, when exposed to the light of day. Divesting them couldn’t hurt anyway, not with double indemnity pending… what better prologue than the clearing of his conscience?

Okay,” Rambo said. “I don’t know if it’s a fair trade, though, because I can’t give you anything definite. Believe me when I say that every male older than sixteen in 1990 who lived in or around Burlwood was a suspect at one point or another. Once Alberto Gomez came to town, it was everyone who fit that demographic in the entirety of the county. Shit, he had field agents out questioning everybody! He even had a team of two guys whose sole assignment was to inspect and take swabs from every bandsaw blade in Elsmere!”

"Yeah, I remember that," Jake said. "My old man had one in the shed, we just let it rust in there once he was gone. I remember a couple of guys in suits taking the whole damned thing apart... they took all the guards off and inspected the pullies, the gear box -- everything.”

“And they didn’t put it back together when they were done, did they?” Rambo laughed. “Yeah, they hit it hard! Didn’t come up with anything, though… not a goddamned thing. Eventually, after more debate and discussion than you could possibly imagine, we narrowed our list down to four primary suspects. Most of them were only linked circumstantially, we never had any real proof that any of these were the guy. I’ve got four names for you, but there’s a big caveat that accompanies the two primaries. A hurdle that I'm not sure they can jump -- any of them, actually. They were the best we could come up with, the only ones we thought were realistic.”

“Shoot,” Jake replied, clearing his mind so he could absorb more readily.

“The first two were favored by your buddy, Ron Boudreaux. He vacillated between the both of them, certain this week that it was the one, positive next week that it was the other. The one he leaned toward the hardest was Evander Hughes.

Jake almost fell from his chair at the mention of this name, the name of Donnell’s father. “What?” he bellowed, shocked. “Where did that come from?”

The old man smiled slyly, cocking his head as though he were surprised that Jake found it so mysterious. “Evander was a hot mess, son, you know that! He had a rap sheet a mile long! Everything from drug possession to aggravated robbery, grand theft and aggravated assault!”

While he hadn’t been aware of the man’s criminal record, the revelation that it existed was no major surprise to him. He knew about the drug habit, knew he often went to great lengths to feed his addiction. Still, it seemed a stretch to think that he would do things so depraved as the deeds attributed to The Butcher.

“More than that, there was the thing with the car,” Clyde continued. “A 1986 Cadillac Fleetwood Brougham, blue in color.”

Again, the memories swirled… swirling, swirling… swirling in an afterimage of confusion, swirling like white-wall tires kicking up the dirt as the tail end of a blue vehicle sped away from Our Mother Of Sorrows… swirling, swirling, squealing when they hit pavement and, where’s Timmy? Oh God, where’s Timmy?

“You remember now, I see,” the old man said. “You picked a Fleetwood Brougham out of a photo lineup of sorts, as did the mother of Nathan Dawson. A witness who was around when Ricky Marshall went missing, too. Really, it was the only constant when it came to any eyewitness statements. They all saw a blue car, and they all picked a Fleetwood Brougham when given an array of choices. There was only one blue Fleetwood Brougham registered in Elsmere County, and it belonged to Evander Hughes. He told us he sold it, of course… that he needed the money to get a fix, so he pedaled it off for two grand to some stranger in 1991. Nobody ever registered it again, though, nobody ever transferred the title. We questioned him, surveiled him. We gave him the works, but we never got anything solid on him, and we never saw him in possession of the car. Cars dealt off for drugs have a tendency to fall off the radar, that’s nothing new. It wasn’t a stretch to believe him, it’s feasible that things went exactly as he described. Plus, there’s nothing to prove that the vehicle the people saw was native to Elsmere anyway, there were lots of blue Broughams registered in the state. We looked into a bunch of them, but they were all dead ends. I don't think Evander had it in him anyway, it just didn't fit. I was never sold on him, neither was Gomez. I don't think Mister Hughes had anything to do with the murders, but his name was kicked around. The car sure did, though -- either his in particular, or one very similar to it."

Jake took the idea in, filed it away for later reference. “Who was Boudreaux’s second guess?”

“That would be Jack Morris,” Rambo said. “As in Doctor Jack Morris, the veterinarian. The man didn’t have any criminal record to speak of, I think Ron just looked his way because of the Halothane and Xylazine. Morris would’ve had those things, would’ve known how to use them. He was a strange bird, too. He seemed to almost enjoy putting animals down. You couldn’t talk to him for more than five minutes without him telling you how many he had to do away with, what a big problem we were facing with the pet population in Burlwood. I don’t know if you ever had any dealings with him, but it was well known that he had an aversion to children… wasn’t very pleasant with them. Those things combined made him creepy, I’ll give him that much.”

“But you don’t think he was The Butcher?”

No ," he replied quickly. "No, I think old Deputy Ron was grasping at straws with that one. I always put more stock in the other two guys -- the ones that Agent Gomez and I often debated with each other over."

“And who were they?”

“Well,” Clyde offered, “Agent Gomez was pretty convinced that if it looked like a duck, walked like a duck and quacked like a duck, then it must be a duck. He thought that The Butcher was quite literally the butcher.”

Daryl Lane?” Jake asked, remembering his own suspicions… the ones that led to The Burlwood Boys adding their fourth member.

“You got it!” Rambo replied. “I have to admit, I wondered about him myself. If anyone in Burlwood was familiar with or equipped to carry out The Shechita or The Dahbihah, it was none other than Mister Daryl Lane! He had the hardware to tear a body down, too. You ever see him take down a full cow? Some of those saws he has are incredible, they cut through bone like it’s butter! We checked out his gear, but we didn’t find anything unexpected. They were all dripping with blood and flesh, but of all the samples we took, none ever came back as being of human origin. He changes blades frequently, as you might expect, so… take that for what it’s worth. Gomez had me half convinced it was him -- until the whole thing with Timmy. Of all the men I've met in my life, I can't think of anyone who was a better father, nor one who treated their son with so much adoration and fondness as Daryl Lane did with Timmy. I find it incomprehensible to think that he could’ve done something like that to his own boy. Gomez disagreed, he thought it was a strategic play to divert our attention… thought that his killing Timmy was a way to deflect all of the heat, because we were putting quite a bit of heat on him. The fact that Timmy was the last said a lot to Alberto, too. It was further proof, in his mind, that Daryl was our boy. He figured that he lost his appetite, after having to butcher his own son... I can see the logic in that argument, as hard as it is for me to imagine it being possible. Lane was a close second in my mind -- but if it was him, that hurdle I mentioned before comes into play. Hell, it comes into play with my main pick too, though, so I guess I can’t use it to disqualify Daryl.”

“Before we talk about the hurdle, then,” Jake said, “who was your pick?”

Rambo leaned back in his chair again and thought, trying to zero in on the facts that were most important to mention along with his accusation. Jake half expected to hear I believe it was Professor Plum in The Conservatory with The Knife, based on how thoroughly he was considering his answer, but there would be nothing so simple.

“If you want my opinion, Jake, then I can say with only the slightest hesitation that I believe The Butcher Of Burlwood was a man better known as Russell Davis Parker!” the old sheriff declared.

Rusty?” Jake answered, almost as surprised at this as he was at the mention of Evander Hughes.

He didn’t know Rusty well, but the man never struck him as a monster. He was a bit strange, sure… a bit mental, based on the stories Chucky related, sure… a recluse when it came to his social life, sure… but a child molesting murderer? A Butcher? That was a stretch that would require further explanation.

“I can tell by your surprise that you don’t know a whole lot about our old friend Rusty,” Rambo commented. “If Donnell’s dad was a hot mess, this man was a complete wreck! He came from Indy in ’89, which is where he landed after a long period of what can only be described as vagrancy. He was born and raised in North Carolina, and was lucky enough to be inducted into the service in 1969... just in time to spend two tours over in Nam. From what I understand, he was deep in the thick of it, too... saw some ugly shit, probably did some ugly shit. He was discharged in 1972, and his DD-214 papers were coded 261 -- which means they released him for a psychiatric disorder. If it were today, perhaps they would've called it PTSD... but I think it ran way deeper than that! The man was off his rocker, trust me -- I spent many hours interrogating him, and he’s batshit crazy.”

“Why did he come to Burlwood?” Jake asked.

“The short answer is that Father Lovett is a bleeding heart.” Clyde explained. “Rusty wandered into town in July, and somehow ended up at Our Mother… probably in a breadline, I imagine. They got to talking, Rusty probably gave him some sob story about being a homeless vet, having no place to go and no work to get a leg up. He had maintenance experience, so the good Father offered him a job. What he didn’t know was that the man had just been run out of Indy by an angry mob! I’m talking straight up Frankenstein style, son, the man was in a pinch!”

“Why? What happened in Indy?”

“I don’t know the whole story, only what I heard from Sheriff Blake. He was the big cheese in Indy, at the time. We happened to run into each other after the Kirk Wade murder and I mentioned that this Rusty character was on my radar, that I got a weird vibe from him. Blake went ghost-white when I mentioned him, just about fainted as a matter of fact. I asked what was up, and he proceeded to tell me about an incident that had occurred at a high school in the city. Rusty had managed to get a job there as a custodian, and Blake started getting calls on him pretty much straight away.”

“What kind of calls?”

All kinds," Rambo emphasized. "From complaints that he was shouting out weird shit to allegations of him giving kids dirty looks and threatening to beat their asses, you name it! Blake tried to squash it, tried to reign the guy in. It didn't do much good, but he had nothing to charge him on, so it just kept chugging along. Eventually, I guess he propositioned some teenaged boy and, as it happened, the kid was gay. I guess he was inclined to take Rusty up on the offer, so the two of them went into the boiler room for some privacy. Somewhere along the line of whatever it was they were doing, things went sour. According to the kid, Rusty got angry -- and tried to kill him!

You’re kidding!” Jake cried.

“I wish I was, Jake,” the old man replied calmly. “Kid claimed he cornered him and pulled a blade… said he fought his way out, somehow, and ran right to tell a teacher. The teacher didn’t believe him, I guess he was a problem student and the guy thought he was just making a wild excuse for being tardy. When he got home and told his parents, they called it in to the precinct.”

“How the hell did he end up out here, then? Didn’t they arrest him, for Christ’s sake?”

"No, they didn't. Apparently there were some issues with the boy's story, some issues with the boy himself, too. Blake said he could never substantiate any of the kid's claims, so all they could do was question Rusty about it. He denied any knowledge of the boy, shy of admitting to having seen him around the school. With no evidence that anything had happened -- anything [_ at all -- ] they cut him loose and let it go. The parents around town caught wind of the whole thing and _did believe the kid, so they got together and they nearly pulled a Freddy Krueger deal on his ass. He was lucky to make it out of there alive, and he just happened to land in Burlwood after.”

This story was shocking to Jake on many levels. The fact that the investigation of the allegations seemed so shallow, the fact that everything was seemingly just glazed over and that Rusty was allowed to saunter his way into their small town, like he was just an average Joe down on his luck. "Jesus Christ!" he exclaimed, trying to digest a new angle to everything he thought he knew about law enforcement -- about the treatment of potential sex predators. "They didn't give you any kind of heads up about him? Didn’t tell you to keep an eye out, to run him off if he came through? Nothing?

“Prior to ’94 there wasn’t even a sex offender registry out here, son!” Rambo replied. “Even had there been one, he wouldn’t have been on it, because he was never charged! You can’t just take an accusation and tattoo it on someone’s forehead, it doesn’t work that way!”

“He had to be your prime suspect, then. Once you found out, I mean.”

Of course he was!” Rambo barked. “I questioned him immediately, and he gave alibis for all of the murders that had happened up to that point. I was able to verify most of them, even though some were kind of shaky when it came to time frames and such. People weren’t always looking at their watches when they saw him, so it was all kind of general. I kept a close eye on him, had Boudreaux watch him too. What’s more, we were watching him when Ricky Marshall was kidnapped! He wasn’t anywhere near The Meadows when the boy disappeared, so I have no idea how he could’ve been involved. That’s part of the caveat I mentioned, which only gets more daunting when we talk about little Timmy Lane! As you know, Agent Gomez arrived after the Marshall boy’s death… we had a nice, long period of peace once he got here, probably because he cranked up the pressure all around. He turned it up to eleven on the people we suspected, kept them under 24/7 surveillance. We kind of dismissed Boudreaux's picks as time went on, BUT -- and this is the biggest but in the history of but's -- we never pulled the teams off of Rusty Parker or Daryl Lane! Therefore, both of them have rock solid alibis for the disappearance of Timmy Lane! There’s no way in hell that either one of them snatched that boy, it’s just impossible!

Clyde pounded out the impossible on the table with a fist clenched in frustration. Jake felt his pain, because he figured that digging into Rusty would be the key to solve the riddle. The details Rambo revealed up to this point had him convinced that he was the fabled Butcher… that he was also the man who killed Billy Marsh. That last bit, though, the fact that he was under the watchful eye of The Fed when Timmy was taken meant that he wasn’t behind the wheel of any blue Fleetwood Brougham on September 24th, 1994… meant that he wasn’t the one that had snatched Timmy away from the carnival… meant that he was quite possibly not The Butcher Of Burlwood at all, as well as the shoe fit him otherwise.

“So,” Jake began slowly, trying to piece alternative ideas together on the fly. “What does that mean? Does it mean it couldn’t have been Rusty? Does it mean there’s no way he could’ve slipped his watchers and found time to take Timmy? No way he could’ve been the guy?”

“Not unless you’re willing to change the nomenclature a little,” Rambo answered. “Not unless you’re willing to start using the term The BUTCHERS Of Burlwood! We certainly tried that angle… it didn’t get us anywhere, but we tried nonetheless. Even if he had a partner of some sort, I still can’t explain how he ended up in the same place as Timmy in order to carry out the murder. Neither he nor Daryl Lane did anything out of the ordinary in the days after the kidnapping, we obviously watched them even closer in the immediate aftermath.”

“What made you eventually stop trying? Why did the investigation just end?

“It didn’t, really,” he explained. “But after ’97, when we’d gone three full years without another incident, Washington got tired of footing the bill for what had become a pile of cold cases. They pulled Gomez, and I certainly couldn’t get any further by myself than we had together. I checked in on Daryl Lane as often as I could, and I kept an eye on Rusty until he retired from the church in 2001. I tried, but I was still running just a two-man cop-shop in a town with other troubles to be dealt with. Thankfully, mercifully, it just never happened again…”

Until now,” Jake asserted.

Rambo shrugged, exhausted in having relived what was certainly the most trying period of his life in conversation. He wished he were a younger man, that he could dive into the investigation of the Marsh boy’s death and finally finish the puzzle he’d spent so many of his days and nights trying to piece together. There was nothing that he could do, though… nothing more than to tell the tales of old.

This was today’s problem… and he was yesterday’s sheriff…

Closing his musty volume, he took the final sip of his now ice cold Earl Grey tea and sighed.

Que sera sera, he figured… que sera sera, indeed…

Meanwhile, Jake’s mind churned madly about the contents of this deluge of information he’d received. There was a groundwork, now, a foundation on which to build. Rambo had provided exactly what he needed to get the ball rolling, and now it was all on him.

The mission was clearly defined, the parameters set. He needed to work on finding the missing Church Van, and he needed to stick probes way up the asses of Jack Morris, Evander Hughes, Daryl Lane and Rusty Parker. He needed to look into the blue Brougham, needed to find out who had been at the wheel and whether or not that person tied in with any of the other suspects. If he could squeeze just the slightest bit of blood from any of those stones -- the four names, the van, the Cadillac -- he could lubricate the wheels of justice and work to see his friend exonerated.

Before he could get to any of that, though, before he could put rubber on the road and earn the title gumshoe, as Boudreaux had teased, he was obliged to return the favor that his old pal Sheriff Rambo had just done for him. Swallowing the lump in his throat, he prepared to make good on his word.

“Well,” he said, “I guess you’ve lived up to your end of the deal. Now, I suppose, it’s my turn to talk…”

“I’m all ears,” Rambo advised, settling in to his seat. “Tell me what you’ve got.”

A lot, believe me… probably more than you expect. I guess a good place to start would be on Thanksgiving of ’94… two months removed from Timmy’s abduction.”

 

TWENTY-THREE

Frosted Glass

 

November 24th, 1994. 7:20AM

Burlwood, Indiana

 

Dawn was barely breaking as Darkwing walked down Oakwood Avenue, alone. It was freezing cold, but he was wearing no jacket to keep him warm. The snow was deep, but he hadn’t bothered to put his boots on to keep his socks dry. He just didn’t care anymore… didn’t care that he was cold, didn’t care that his socks were wet, didn’t care that he hadn’t slept a wink the entire night, didn’t care that he was breaking the rules by walking alone, didn’t care that he was being followed…

Timmy Lane -- Drake -- had been missing for eight weeks. Everybody knew that he’d been taken by The Butcher, but no one wanted to admit it. They refused to acknowledge it, didn’t dare to say the words out loud, as though to do so was somehow forbidden.

All of the other murdered boys, the ones that went before him, had been found all chopped up within a week or two of going missing. With eight weeks having passed, Timmy’s remains should’ve turned up by now. His parts should’ve been sniffed out by the cadaver dogs, or tracked down by the FBI, or stumbled upon by some hunter out stalking deer in a patch of woods around town. They hadn’t, though… they were still missing.

That fact, coupled with the collective unconscious -- with the tincture of Burlwood's denial -- compelled the people, as a whole, to stubbornly and inexorably shield their eyes from what Jacob knew to be the naked truth. It was unreasonable to believe that Drake was still alive, but the fools around town simply wouldn't concede the obvious. Timmy Lane -- the sweetest and most innocent boy to ever walk the face of the Earth -- had fallen prey to, and become the sixth victim of, the man the city folks called The Butcher… the monster who sat upon the throne and ruled over their small town like King Solomon, insisting that all the children of Burlwood be cut at least in two… preferably in nine or ten.

It was their ignorance that led them to post signs with Timmy’s picture on the telephone poles around town. The cardboard placards declared that he was a missing and endangered child, which was a ridiculous grouping of words. He was endangered before he was missing… before he was taken away from his life, from his friends, from his father. He wasn’t endangered anymore, he was extinct. Pretending that he wasn’t was nonsensical and ludicrous, and Daryl Lane’s pleas for the return of his son on the evening news were futile and grotesque.

Timmy Lane was dead, Jacob could feel that he was dead… he could sense it… but he couldn’t cope with it.

As soon as he realized that Drake was missing, when he couldn’t find him as he searched around the outhouses at the carnival, he knew that it was over… that Timmy Lane was over… that life, as it had been, was over. When he saw the blue car speeding away, when he saw the shadowy figure driving and Timmy’s small foot propped up on the headrest of the backseat, he understood immediately that the boy was destined to end up scattered around the woods somewhere… that he was condemned to be cut into little pieces, to be sodomized and have his penis cut off. He knew then that there was no hope… that Timmy would never come home again.

He’d spent every night since it happened trying to wrap his mind around it, trying to accept it. He couldn't, though, this one was just too close to home. The other boys -- Duncan, Banks, Dawson, Wade, Marshall -- they had been strangers to him. They certainly hadn’t been friends of his, certainly hadn’t been close to him… certainly hadn’t been members of The Burlwood Boys. For all of his evil doings, The Butcher had never claimed anyone as familiar and sacred to him as Timmy Lane.

That made this latest incident particularly and uniquely hard to swallow, hard to deal with. In his braggadocio, in his delusional conceit, Jacob thought he’d gotten pretty good at coping with things over the years. He’d certainly had plenty of practical experience and on the job training, so he’d allowed himself to naively believe that he was a master in the art of moving on.

With Timmy disappearing, though, with the knowledge that he was dead, Jacob came to realize that he was as much a fool as the people who clung to the fallacy that the boy was still alive. A fool for believing that he was some sort of learned, enlightened practitioner in the craft of surviving loss. He’d taken imbecilic pride in believing that the mountains he’d climbed in the past prepared him for anything, had given him the skills to overcome all obstacles that he would face in life. But this one… this one was too much, this one was beyond him.

In an effort to deflect the disappointment he felt in himself, he tried to focus all of his emotion on being angry with the adults. They were the ones that failed to protect Timmy, not him. Not Darkwing, the leader and guardian of The Burlwood Boys. He wanted badly to believe that, wanted to convince himself that the blood of his friend was on their hands, not his.

It was the adults who should wear this albatross, the ones like Deputy Ron, at whom he was particularly angry. The fool constantly tried to convince Jacob that Timmy could still be alive, that he could be overreacting in being so distraught.

It was probably his mother that took him,” the idiot said on one occasion, just moments before he went into the bedroom for another loud nap with Janet Giguére. “She and Mister Lane have been involved in a custody dispute for years, maybe she just decided to take matters into her own hands. We’ll get her, and we’ll bring Timmy home!”

That was bullshit, and it made Jacob furious. Partly because it was just an ignorant supposition, and partly because it essentially meant Boudreaux assumed that Jake was stupid. He didn't know Timmy's mother -- had never even seen a picture of her before -- but he knew that it definitely wasn’t the former Misses Lane driving that blue car away from Our Mother Of Sorrows two months ago. It was no woman behind the wheel at all, the figure was too large to have been a woman. Unless Timmy’s mom was some kind of giant Amazon wench, there was no way in Hell that she had been the one to take him.

As the only witness to the crime, he couldn’t give the police much information to go on. He didn’t get a good look at the driver, couldn’t make out any of his features or say anything at all about him beyond the simple fact that he was a dark shadow and larger than the average person. He had no idea who it could’ve been, didn’t even have a guess to offer when Sheriff Rambo and Agent Gomez questioned him in the rectory. Whoever it was, though, it wasn’t Timmy’s mother… of that much he was sure.

The days since had been long and lonely, an eternity condensed down into two months. With the reappearance of The Butcher -- which everyone knew this was, despite their predilection to deny it -- the FBI had come swarming back into Burlwood. With their return came the reinstatement and escalation of the Draconian rules and regulations that made the small town a police state again, just as it had been for the duration of 1993.

The iron grip of The Fed was inescapable, and it was why he was being followed as he walked. He had a tail on him almost as soon as he’d left his trailer, a black Ford Crown Victoria with limo-tint all around, and it was still with him as he ambled his way through the snow down Oakwood Avenue. As a thirteen year old boy, he was a prime target to suit the tastes of the omnipresent tormentor. Burlwood’s own Zodiac Killer, Son Of Sam and Night Stalker… The Ripper, The Strangler, The Slasher… the fucking Butcher.

The sedan was following him because he wasn’t playing by the rules, because he was placing himself in danger, in their eyes. The latest set of orders, as announced at another overcrowded meeting at the Civic Center, declared explicitly that young boys weren’t allowed to wander the streets of Burlwood Meadows without the accompaniment of a parent or group of friends at any time, let alone at the ass-crack of dawn.

What he was doing was a flagrant violation of the rules, and he knew it. Similarly, he knew it meant he would draw attention. The watchers tried to keep their distance, tried to surveil him without him being aware. They weren’t having any success in that, the agent in charge of doing the driving totally sucked at being inconspicuous. There was no reason to rub his nose in it, but Jacob was half tempted to do it anyway. It would be funny to stop and waive at them every time they thought they were invisible, but what purpose would it serve?

It didn’t help their efforts that Jacob seemed to have a sixth sense about him… a sense that tingled when he was being watched, stared at or followed. He didn’t know why he had this ability, he certainly hadn’t tried to develop it. He figured it was just a natural instinct he’d been born with, or something he’d developed subconsciously because his mother was always so protective of him in the days before her pharmaceutical zombification. She warned him about the dangers of the world at a very young age, told him to always be mindful of what was happening around him.

Always be aware of your surroundings,” she used to say. “Always know who’s who and who’s where, and leave yourself an out.”

As a result, he couldn’t sit with his back to the door of any restaurant he ever went to… he couldn’t enjoy a movie in a theater because there was no way to watch the doors and the screen at the same time. Regardless of what had brought it on, the sense existed -- and it was strong. Given that fact, the men in the black Ford simply couldn’t sneak around well enough to fool him.

Occasionally, they would turn down one of the park’s side streets and drive off, only to reappear at an intersection a little further ahead of him. When it got there, it would sit and wait until the agents behind the blacked out windows thought that he could see them. Little did they know, he knew exactly where they were at all times. He would pretend to be oblivious so as not to shatter their likely fragile egos. What kind of federal agent could feel even slightly worth his salt if his clandestine maneuvers were so plainly obvious to a thirteen year old boy?

As much as being stalked irked him, Jacob knew it was because he was acting in violation of their rule. The problem was he just didn’t care anymore, didn’t feel any obligation to abide by regulations enacted by the overlords to protect him.

Why take such measures to protect the life of someone who just doesn’t care to live anymore? Why try to hide from the dreaded Butcher, when meeting with death at his hands would bring a final and irrevocable end to the misery that his life had become? In the shadow of all that he’d experienced in his thirteen years on Earth, under the suffocating cloak of everything he’d endured, death didn’t seem like such a horrible fate to the ever-fearless Darkwing, the leader of the pack.

What was there to live for anymore, anyway? It was Thanksgiving, now, but what was there to give thanks for in his life?

He had loved his father -- had treasured him, in fact -- for the limited and truncated number of days that he was allowed to have him. That time was over, now, his father was gone... gone forever.

He had loved his mother -- had cherished his relationship with her -- when she was herself, in the days before she became a tranq-zombie. That time was over, now, that woman was gone... gone forever.

He'd loved his friends -- had valued their kinship -- when The Burlwood Boys were whole, in the days that they numbered five. They would never be whole again, though, because Timmy was no longer with them. That time was over, now, Timmy was gone... gone forever.

Perhaps he could’ve made due with his three remaining friends, if they could’ve recovered from this tragedy and leaned on one another in their sorrow. It hadn’t gone that way, because everything was different in the wake of what happened to Timmy at that goddamned carnival. There seemed no hope of rehabilitation, no hope of rebuilding what had been. After what happened to Drake, the group was inexplicably pulled apart instead of being drawn together.

He still talked to and visited with Chucky, but there was little time to hang out anymore, considering the demands of school and Chucky’s job. They didn’t see each other nearly as often as they used to, and they weren’t nearly as close as they were before.

Perhaps that was due to the fact that Chucky was growing up, that he was transitioning from life as a child to life as an adult. A pseudo-adult, at least, in light of all his challenges. If that was the case, Jacob didn’t want to interfere with his blossoming in any way. Chucky needed to grow up, to become as much of a man as he possibly could.

Perhaps, instead, the change was due to Chucky just being too scared to go anywhere he didn't feel safe -- anywhere besides work, school or home. If that was the case, it was because he was normal in that regard. He didn’t want to die, didn’t want to fall prey to the savagery of The Butcher. Jacob didn’t want to subject him to any more fear than he was facing in dealing with every day life, the fear he suffered in dealing with Rusty and his strange behavior. He would gladly step aside, if that was what Chucky needed or wanted to help him cope.

Either way, whatever the cause, their relationship was strained.

He still saw Louie at school, but the son of The Sheriff never seemed to want to talk or hang out with Darkwing anymore. He offered no explanation, gave no indication of why he had stepped back. Jacob couldn't help but wonder if it was because the boy blamed him for what happened to Timmy. Since they were the youngest members of the crew, it was incumbent upon the leader to keep a close eye on Timmy and Louie both. Darkwing had failed in his duty to do so at the Our Mother carnival, so who could argue with Rambo if he did blame him? If that was the case -- if it meant that Louie just didn't want to hang out anymore, didn't feel safe with him anymore -- then he would just have to accept that. Louie seemed to have turned his back, all Jacob could do was to pat him on it... and to walk away.

Launchpad had distanced himself, too, and had similarly offered no justification for doing so. Jacob still heard Donnell’s parents arguing every time he walked by their trailer, still smelled strange odors pouring out of the windows in thick clouds of smoke, but he never saw Donnell trying to sneak out and get away from it anymore. If anything, it seemed that Launchpad was trying to engraciate himself to his old man. Jacob had seen them walking the neighborhood together, seen them having long conversations on their porch and forging a bond that hadn't existed in the past. Maybe he blamed Darkwing for Timmy, too, and was simply leaning on the only father-figure he had -- regardless of his faults -- for a sense of security. There was no way to know, there was only to accept his decision as well… and to walk away.

Whatever the cause -- whatever the reasoning behind each member's withdrawal -- apparently, the loss of a member had essentially disbanded The Burlwood Boys. In the absence of his old friends, he found an opportunity to grow closer to Tracy. That was the only silver lining in the storm cloud that seemed to be hovering over him, following him wherever he went in his life. He was happy about that, so he tried to bolster his desire to continue living by daydreaming and fantasizing about what life would be like if he could spend all of his time together with her.

In the months since Timmy was taken, he'd spent more time with her -- in the flesh and in his imagination -- than he did with any of his old chums in total. In fact, he spent more time with her than anyone else in his life -- his mother included.

That was partially due to the fact that Janet Giguére was totally enraptured with Ron Boudreaux now, even more so than she had been in the months leading up to the Timmy incident. The woman could barely form a simple thought, could barely speak a full sentence, without including something about Deputy Ron. He was at their trailer constantly, was practically living there with them. He was an intruder… living in his father’s house, eating at his father’s table, sleeping in his father’s bed and having sex with his father’s wife. Jacob loathed the very idea of that. It made his skin crawl, made him so angry that this man was trying to assume his father’s life.

If there was any silver lining to that situation, it was only in the fact that his mother wasn’t leaning on him nearly as hard as she had been before the usurper arrived and started settling in. He still had to keep an eye on her from time to time, when she was popping her pills. That was something she only seemed to do when Deputy Ron wasn’t around, so Jacob wasn’t sure which of the two evils was the one he should hope for.

Had she chosen anyone else to latch on to, perhaps it would’ve been okay… perhaps he could’ve handled it. He just didn’t like Ron Boudreaux, even though he couldn’t figure out exactly why. There was just something about him that seemed malevolent, something that seemed malicious… something that seemed off.

As it happened, the officer was on duty today… on Thanksgiving. Not inspired to put forth effort with the knowledge that her Romeo wouldn’t be around, Jacob’s mother decided that there would be no holiday dinner in their household this year. Apparently, cooking for her son alone was no longer adequate justification to keep up the tradition. Without a purpose to remain sober in Boudreaux’s absence, she popped her first pill the moment she woke up. There would likely be many more to follow throughout the afternoon, enough to keep her numb until her beau was by her side.

Jacob knew he should probably stay home, that she probably needed someone to keep an eye on her, but he longed for a break from the train-wreck of his day-to-day life, so fuck it. He needed something more upbeat than parental babysitting, something to take all of the negativity off his mind.

When Nick and Nancy Swete -- the parents of his fantasy lover -- heard that there would be no holiday joy in the Giguére trailer, they invited Jacob to partake in their celebration and giving of thanks. While he didn’t feel there was much to give thanks for, he decided the diversion was a chance to spend more time with Tracy, and that was worth the effort of pretending.

He climbed out of bed and got dressed the moment he heard his mother stirring, since he hadn’t been sleeping anyway. It was no surprise to him when he heard her immediately retrieve her pills from the medicine cabinet. It would be no surprise to her that he found somewhere else to go, because she probably wouldn’t even notice he was missing. He had no desire to watch her descent into intoxication on this day, a day meant for rejoicing, so he set out on his walk to Tracy’s cozy pink trailer just a little earlier than he’d intended to this morning.

The Feds babysitting him were parked under a tree on Maplewood as Darkwing strolled through its intersection with Oakwood, the main vein of the park. They’d been there for several minutes, presumably oblivious to the fact that he knew they were sitting there. He was only a few hundred yards from his destination anyway, so they wouldn’t need to follow him much further.

His route would take him right passed Chucky’s trailer, and he could hear a familiar sobbing as he drew close to it. The sound tugged at his heart immediately, as it always did, because he hated to hear the noises of his friend in suffering. Stepping up his pace, he found the sixteen year old toddler sitting on his porch with his face buried in his hands.

“Chucky, what’s wrong?” he asked, wrapping him in a preemptive hug. “What’s going on?”

There was no answer at first. None that was intelligible, at least. He was crying harder than Darkwing had ever seen him cry, harder even than when he’d broken his wrist playing Manhunt in Booger Woods. He could barely catch his breath between his blubbering, gasping like a child as Jacob squeezed him tight.

“Are you upset about Timmy?” he asked, wondering if there had been news that his friend’s remains finally turned up. “Did they find Timmy?”

N—N—No!” Chucky bawled.

“Then what?” Darkwing wondered. “Why are you so upset?

It’s Ru-Ru-Rusty!” the boy-man sniffled. “I’m sc-sc-scared, DW!

Shhhhhhhh,” Jacob prodded him, putting a set of kisses on his forehead, as was customary. “Why are you scared? Chucky? Why are you scared of Rusty?”

He’s being re-re-really mean, and now I ha-ha-have to go to work with him, to help him deliver the fo-fo-food!

Jacob had forgotten about that, forgotten the fact that Our Mother Of Sorrows delivered pre-cooked Thanksgiving dinners to indigent families around town. Chucky helped do it the previous year, too, as a volunteer instead of as an employee. By all accounts, he thoroughly enjoyed doing it. He even said himself that it warmed his heart to see people get so happy when he carried a steaming turkey up to their doorstep. His only complaint had been that Rusty, who did the driving in the church van, had made him carry all the heaviest stuff up to each trailer while he lugged around the pumpkin pie.

“I thought you liked delivering the food, Chucky?” Darkwing said. “I thought you said you had a good time last year? How is he being so mean that you’re gonna let it spoil the day for you?”

He’s just so-so-so mean!” Chucky answered, his tears showing no sign of waning. “Ye-ye-yesterday he yelled at m-m-me, because I went into the coo-coo-cooler to count the cans of bis-bis-biscuits! He told me I couldn’t do it ‘cuz I’m too stu-stu-stupid and threw me ou-ou-out!

Shit,” Jake complained. “He’s an asshole, Chucky, you know you’re not stupid! Fuck Rusty, who cares what he says? He’s a nut-job, don’t let him spoil your Thanksgiving for you!”

I don-don-don’t wanna g-g-go!” he continued. “I don’t wan-wan-wanna do it, Darkwing!

At a loss for words to offer in comfort, Jacob just kept hugging and kissing his friend. As he held him, he saw the black sedan of The Feds roll slowly passed them and disappear into the distance.

Dammit,” he objected, “now they probably think we’re gay!”

Much to his surprise, this comment brought the very slightest chuckle through the barrage of Chucky’s sobbing.

What?” Jacob laughed, trying to capitalize on the moment. “You don’t think I’m hot?”

Somehow, his jestful remark broke the episode of fear and sadness that had held Chucky captive. There were still a few lingering tears, but it was mostly laughter, now, in response to a well timed joke.

“Just calm down, Chucky,” Darkwing continued. “Everything is fine, Rusty’s just a dick! If you really don’t want to go, just call Father Lovett and tell him that you’re sick or something. He won’t be mad, everybody gets sick sometimes.”

With a few more tight squeezes and one final kiss, Chucky was settled. His face was red and puffy, his khaki work shirt marked with trails of tearstain and snot.

“I do want to deliver the food,” he said, sniffling just a bit.

“Then go,” Jacob advised. “But you’ll need another shirt, that one needs a wash! Do you have another one?”

Chucky nodded, choking back the last of his sobbing.

Good,” Darkwing said. “Aren’t you supposed to be there, like, now, though[_?_] Shouldn’t you be on your way already?”

Chucky checked the digital Casio on his wrist and realized his friend was right, he needed to get going. Thankfully, he’d taken driver’s training recently and acquired his license. Our Mother was just a two minute drive, and he already had the keys to Momma’s Buick in his pocket. If he hurried, he could still get there on time.

Leaping to his feet, he nearly forgot Darkwing’s advice to change his shirt before setting off for his duties. Jacob called out to remind him when he was half-way to the car, so he quickly spun and darted back into his trailer to get his spare uniform. Within a minute’s time, he was rumbling down Oakwood in his Momma’s Buick. Jacob watched him go, weaving side to side a bit, because he was by no means an expert driver yet.

A heavy sigh marked the end of this particular drama, and he tried to purge his sympathetic anxiety with a hearty exhalation. After taking a moment to ensure the calm was well set in, he stepped down from Chucky’s porch and continued up Oakwood until he arrived at The Swete Family home.

He knocked on the door and was welcomed by the kind smile of Nancy, who was still just as beautiful as Helen Hunt, even at eight in the morning. She explained quietly that both Tracy and her husband were sleeping in, but invited him to help her in the kitchen until they woke.

Jacob didn’t know a thing about cooking, had never done any that didn’t involve the microwave. Nancy moved around the kitchen like an expert and seemed enthusiastic about the idea of teaching him, so together they made a stock and stuffed the turkey. Removing the giblets made Jacob gag, which the Swete matriarch found hilarious. She laughed and put her hand on his shoulder, and in the moment he could feel her warmth radiating through his body.

The sensation awakened something in him, something that had been dormant for quite some time. It felt like comfort, it felt like hope… things that were foreign to him, now. Somehow, the feelings seemed to restore a degree of faith in him. A measure of optimism and belief in the potential goodness of life on the whole. It freed him of all the burdens he generally carried with him, and he was floating as they trussed the bird and she took him step by step through the process of making biscuits from scratch.

By the time they were shucking the corn, Tracy’s dad emerged from his bedroom in pajamas. His hair was wild and tangled, which made Jacob smile. For the first time in many years, he felt as though he was fully engulfed in normalcy . It was envigorating, refreshing and fantastic -- but devastating just as well.

To realize just how wrong things were in his life, to absorb how wonderful things could feel when they were right, left him feeling shell shocked. He could barely process the emotions, could barely stand to consider the fact that he would have to leave this comfort eventually. As the day wound down, so would his welcome in this, someone else’s home. Understanding that it was inevitable, that all good things must come to an end, he resolved to bask in the serenity as fully and completely as he possibly could so long as it lasted… until he would be required to go back home, where all the vulgarity of his life lie in wait.

He rose from his perch on cloud nine to at least eleven or twelve once Tracy woke up and joined in. He clung to her as closely as he felt her father would allow, he certainly didn’t want to face down that rifle the man mentioned in the past.

Together, the family talked and laughed -- accepting Jacob as one of their own. Together, they said grace, and it wasn't hard for him to bow his head and take the hands of The Swete family as they praised the God they seemed to genuinely believe was watching over them. In this environment, in this setting, the existence of some kind of God didn’t seem like such a stretch as it generally did to him. He could almost feel a guiding light, could sense a warmth in the universe, when he was under the roof of people who fully and truly believed.

Dear Lord,” Nick Swete said with fortitude. “[_ As we gather around this table, laden with your plentiful gifts to us, we thank You for always providing us with what we truly need. Today, let us be especially thankful, for each other -- for family, and for friends. Let us join together now, in peaceful, loving fellowship to celebrate Your love for us, and our love for each other _].”

As Jacob listened, as the words filled his heart, he felt a stinging in his tightly closed eyes. He clenched them shut, as forcefully as he could, to keep the tears that longed to fall as prisoners. To cry was to show weakness, and he did not want to appear weak to The Swetes. They weren't crying, and he wanted to be as they were -- so he mustn't cry himself.

As we celebrate, Lord,” Nick continued, “we ask that you bring comfort to the heart of Daryl Lane on this day, in his time of need. We ask that you shelter him and keep him. While we pray for the best, Lord, we ask that should you encounter the soul of his son, Timmy, you welcome him into your kingdom with open arms.

With that, there was no more holding back. His eyelids fought valiantly, but the tears won the day and spilled down his face unchecked. Those that rained down the right side, though, didn't have a chance to cascade all the way down to his jawline and roll toward his chin as the ones on his left did. They were intercepted in their plunge, cut off by the gentle touch of a small and caring finger. He didn't have to look to know that it was Tracy wiping them from his face, having let go of his hand so that she could tend to them. He didn't dare to open his eyes anyway, because to do so would've unleashed the full torrent -- and there were enough tears inside of him to flood the entirety of the small trailer.

As though he sensed that Jacob needed more time to recover, Mister Swete drug his prayer out beyond anything that resembled a reasonable length. By the time he cried Amen, Darkwing was back at the helm and secure. His eyes were moist when he repeated the phrase and opened them, but he wasn’t sobbing and, therefore, didn’t need to feel ashamed. Even if he had been weeping, he didn’t believe the people around him would’ve allowed him to feel that way… they would’ve taken him up in a tight embrace, the kind he took Chucky up in when he was feeling low, if they felt that it was necessary. They were a special breed, this family… a special kind of people.

The food was delicious, better than any holiday bounty he’d ever enjoyed. He figured that was because of all the love Tracy’s mother had baked, boiled, roasted and fried into it… he’d never tasted food infused with love, but he knew now just how wonderful it was.

When the time to clean up came, Jacob tried to help the girls. Tracy’s dad seemed to take offense at this as he was settling in to watch The Green Bay Packers take on The Dallas Cowboys. He insisted on having company on the couch with him, insisted that Jacob sit beside him. This seemed rude, though… to enjoy the meal and then make no effort to clean up the mess. Nancy and Tracy told him to go ahead and enjoy the game, that they would take care of the after dinner business… so he did.

Sitting with Mister Swete reminded him of the vague recollections he had of sitting next to his father on their couch so long ago. The act of lazing after a big meal brought back memories of fatherly love, memories of family unity, that he thought he’d lost to the fog of time entirely.

Shortly after the game began, he heard a familiar rumble outside and peeked through the living room blinds. He smiled as he saw just what he expected, the white van with Our Mother Of Sorrows emblazoned on the side rolling slowly down the road. To his surprise, it was Chucky at the wheel with Rusty in the passenger seat. He wondered if that meant the man was being a bit more fair with his friend this time… if he was carrying some of the heavy things himself, letting Chucky off easier than he had the year before.

Occasionally he would see one of the black Ford sedans of The Feds rolling by, too, but he paid them little mind. The troubles of Burlwood seemed far removed from the serenity of The Swete household. The Butcher seemed worlds away, like the dissolving memory of a nightmare in the bright sun of the morning.

Soon, the women had finished with their cleaning and joined them in watching the game. It was nice to have them, even though they didn't always understand what was happening and mistakenly started cheering when Dallas intercepted a pass -- breaking up the offense of the more local and more favored Green Bay team. By the time The Cowboys had dispatched The Packers, Jacob felt he'd reached cloud fourteen or fifteen in his ascension.

Turkey comas were starting to set in, everyone was yawning and feeling the holiday naps approaching. As much as the idea pained him, he knew that it was time for him to go… knew that he was obliged to spend at least a portion of the day with his mother, with what was left of his own family. He was showered with hugs and smiles when he announced his intent to depart, including a particularly long and fond embrace with the girl who was the subject of his ever-growing crush. Holding her tightly made things stir in him, things he didn’t entirely understand in his young adolescence. He knew he liked it, though, whatever it was… knew that he wanted to feel more of it, in the days to come.

As he walked away from the pink trailer, he felt no sweetness in the sorrow of their parting. There was more sorrow than anything else, of that there was no question. The weight of the world fell directly back onto his shoulders the moment he crossed the threshold, leaving peace and joy behind him and setting off for the more familiar emotions of despair and depression. Instantly, he was sucked up by the current of the rapids that were his life. Feeling, smelling and tasting the fishy whitewater splashing in his face and going up his nose, he knew his break was over. The ocean of his misery seemed even deeper, now, the tide higher than it had been before. Plunging back into the turmoil of the abyss was a shock to his system, after having spent so many hours lounging in comparatively shallow and calm waters.

Oddly, he saw no black sedans trailing him on his return walk. He figured that was either because they weren’t around or because he simply couldn’t sense their presence through the fading halo of peace that was collapsing with every step he took toward home.

Before long, he had arrived at twenty-three fifty-seven Ashwood… The Giguére Family single-wide trailer. It seemed like a belligerent to him, now, an antagonist in the conflict of his life, after having spent a day in a place that was its antithesis in every regard. The dull gray siding looked even more haggard than he remembered it being, weather worn and in need of repair. The cheap and aged shingles of the roof appeared to be just barely hanging on, many of them flapping up and dancing in the frigid breeze blowing around him. He stopped and studied his home, feeling the bite of the November cold more intensely in that moment than he had all day. For the first time, he wished he’d worn a jacket… wished he’d worn his boots to keep his socks dry… wished he never had to return to this place, this pocket of Hell at the backside of Burlwood Meadows.

The naked trees of Booger Woods seemed to mock him as he slowly approached the front door, seemed to whisper to him their tale of death and dismemberment in the voice of Joshua Banks… in the voice of Timmy Lane. They were as glacial in their essence as he had become in his soul, but he felt the chill more intensely now, having seen the other side. Having felt the warmth and tranquility of greener pastures, his homecoming was gutwrenching and heartbreaking in ways he never could’ve imagined.

Longing for at least the comfort of their space heaters, for any reprieve from the gelidity, he approached his front door and tried to enter. To his surprise, the door was locked. This was unusual, his mother generally only locked the doors and night -- and she often forgot to do even that, leaving it to him to ensure the security of their home when they retreated to their beds.

Having not anticipated this, he hadn’t taken his key when he left for Tracy’s in the morning. Wondering why she would’ve done this, he moved around to the side of the trailer to try the door that led into the kitchen. Finding that one locked as well, his heart skipped many beats and he felt his blood pressure start to rise.

Mom?” he called, pounding on the door. “Mom, let me in!

There was no answer to his plea, so he ran back to the front and tried knocking there as well -- knocking so hard that it hurt his hand to do it.

Mom?” he shouted, anxiety building with every second that brought no answer. “Mom, it’s me! Let me in!

Still, there was no response. The silence flipped a panic switch in him, and suddenly he was totally freaking out. He feared something just like this would happen one day, but found himself wholly unprepared to battle the trepidation it caused when he was face to face with the macabre possibility that she had made good on her threats. He was freaking out, wondering what could’ve happened and assuming the worst… assuming that she was dead, that she had finally taken the plunge.

Memories of his father swirled through his mind, memories of the smell -- of the sight of Garrett Giguére's corpse, twirling, twirling lazily at the end of a frayed and knotted rope.

MOM!” he hollered with every fiber of his being, pounding, pounding on the door as though he were beating her chest to pump her prematurely stilled and dying heart. He tried to lean over the precipice of the porch, to peer into the windows and see what was going on inside. The shades were drawn, though, he couldn’t see a damned thing.

Lowering his shoulder, he prepared his body to physically destroy the door while preparing his mind to find her swinging, to find her twirling just inside. He pulled back, clenching every muscle in his body and firing them in a spasm of ferocity that sent him crashing into the wooden barrier that separated him from the horror that was likely waiting just inside.

The heavy slab of faux rustic mahogany chaffed him and his first effort, absorbing every bit of his kinetic force and leaving him in physical agony. The collision hurt him much worse than it hurt the door, but he recoiled and prepared to do it again without a moment’s hesitation.

The second impact brought only a minor concession from the structure, sending particles of dust and debris billowing out like the wind that surged from his chest. His shoulder went numb with pain, his back cried out in agony and his legs threatened to buckle in weakness -- but he couldn't heed their call to stop. With the third impact came a loud crack as the doorframe started to surrender, but still he was locked out. The fourth and fifth collisions brought more progress, the beast finally faltering and reeling under Jacob’s unrelenting assault.

By the time he struck the door the sixth time, he couldn’t feel anything. His body had given up in the arms of shock, his brain so overwhelmed with signals of pain and weakness that it simply shut everything off. He could’ve made no seventh attempt, he’d given all he had. Fortunately, though, the door jamb finally acquiesced, shattering in a flurry of splinters and chunks of wood.

Jacob crashed through it with his inertia and crumpled to the floor, the carpet of the living room burning the flesh of his face as he slid across it. Immediately, he could smell the smell… the odor of puke and acid, the stench of death and dying.

Trying to force himself from the ground, he pushed off with his trembling arms and lifted his spinning head to see the frame of his mother hanging off of their couch. Her rear was in the air, only the very backs of her thighs still resting on the cushions. Her torso was draped over the coffee table, her arms hanging loosely against it as they dangled at her sides. Her face seemed melted to the wooden surface, the flesh of it mashed and contorted, her mouth agape with white foam spewing from it. As he stood and staggered closer, he could see air bubbling in the froth… she was still alive.

Mom?” he bayed, stumbling on legs that tingled with pins and needles.

The woman moved her lips, murmured something unintelligible and barely audible. When he finally stood over her, he saw something else on the table… something he’d never seen before. There were pieces of it, whatever it was, which looked like shards of frosted glass strewn about. There was a hammer set to her right, near pieces of the stuff that looked as though they had been broken and crushed into a fine powder.

Jammacaa ahhmmam,” she bleated, stupefied and spuming. “Obbobbama innttaa.”

Jesus, mom!” he cried. “What the fuck did you do?

He placed his hand on her brow and felt fire behind her flesh, felt sweat sizzling from her pores. Grabbing her by the shoulders, he tried to pull her erect and settle her back onto the couch. Her body was a heavy, dead weight that he could barely manage to lift. As her face peeled away from the table, a green plastic bendy straw that had been underneath it clung to her cheek in a fiery red impression it had mashed into her face. Solid bits of debris fell from it on the froth that soaked it, hunks of caked powder sticking to it and her skin alike.

When he almost had her center of gravity over the couch, when she was just about to flop back into a sitting position, he felt her body start to shudder and shake. Suddenly, she was overcome with violent convulsions that made her weight even more untenable and unmanageable to him. Her right arm flew up and its elbow dealt him a blow directly to the ear, his vision going blurry and pixelated momentarily with the strike. Clutching his head, he fell away from her. Without his support, the woman collapsed into a heap upon the table again as she continued to seize and wiggle.

Panicked, he raced to the kitchen and snatched the phone from its cradle on the wall. He dialed 911, but heard no ringing. Confused, he jiggled the cord and tried to hang up and start over. This time, he listened for a dial tone first and realized that there wasn’t any. The fucking phone was disconnected, she hadn’t paid the bill again.

Frantic and pissed, he chucked the receiver against the wall, shattering the cheap plastic, and looked around for anything that might be of use -- anything that might give him an idea of what to do. Suddenly, he felt a strange sensation passing over his body like a wave. When it struck him, he felt as though he'd been knocked clear out of his body. He could see himself standing there, near the busted phone with a look of panic on his face. Somehow, he'd dematerialized. He was a third party in this scenario now, seeing the room from a different and strangely altered perspective that made him wonder if he was losing his mind. In the swirling ether, as if they were drawn there, his eyes locked upon the clutter of the kitchen table, honing in on a bulging gray mass in the middle of the pop cans and empty food wrappers. It was her cell phone, the one Deputy Ron had given her to use for the nightly neighborhood watch reports.

Flipping it open, Jacob realized he didn’t know how to use it. He had never tried to use it, never asked for instructions on how to do it. Among the buttons on the face of it was a green one, and green means go, he figured. Pressing it wildly, over and over and over, he listened for any sound coming from the earpiece. There was beeping at first, and then ringingthank God , it was ringing. But who was it calling? He didn't know, didn't care -- anybody that it called could help him, and he needed help, now.

Eventually, the ringing ended and a voice answered -- a voice he knew quite well.

Howdy there, darlin’!” Ron Boudreaux said excitedly. “How’s my baby do—

Help!” Jacob shouted, cutting him off. “She’s dying! Help me, please!

Jake?” Boudreaux asked, surprised. “[_ Jake, what the hell is going -- _]”

PLEASE!” he yelled again. “She needs an ambulance! Something’s wrong with her!

I’m coming!” the officer replied, an urgency in his voice. “I’m right around the corner, I’ll be there in a minute!

Jacob heard a click and dropped the phone, racing back to the living room to check on his mother. She wasn’t convulsing anymore, but the foam was pouring from her mouth as she lay sprawled across the table. He didn’t dare to try to lift her again, in case it was his lifting that had caused her violent seizure.

It’s okay, mom!” he said to comfort her, though his voice trembled with fear and anguish. “It’s going to be okay!

It seemed like forever before he heard squealing tires outside his house, like an eternity before the figure of Deputy Ron appeared in the busted remains of the doorway with a look of terror on his face.

Janet?” he yelled at seeing her there, melted to the coffee table like the cheese on a freshly baked pizza. “What the fuck is going on?” he asked Jacob, as if he should know.

I dunno!” he answered. “I found her like this!

Boudreaux raced to her side, his handcuffs jingling on his gun belt as he moved. Brushing aside her hair with his hand, he grabbed at her neck and felt for a pulse. “Janet, can ya’ hear me, darlin’?” he asked.

Mmbababmma,” she uttered, still spuming.

The deputy grabbed her by her shoulders, just as Jacob had done, and lifted her gently from the table. Moving her exposed those shards of frosted glass, the hammer and the bendy straw. The sight of it all seemed to shock him, seemed to anger him immensely.

Oh fuck!” he gasped, surveying the mess. “Sweet Santa Muerte, what the fuck did she do? Snort it? Why the fuck would she snort it?

She needs an ambulance, Ron!” Jacob insisted. “Did you call for an ambulance?

The deputy reached for his radio, unclipping it from his shoulder epaulet and keying it up like Jacob keyed up his walkie talkie to speak with Chucky in the past. He didn’t say anything, though… just stood there holding the button depressed as though he was struggling with himself and his duty, as though he was unsure of what to do. After a few protracted seconds, he released the transmit bar and scanned the scene with his eyes again.

Jacob didn't know what was happening, didn't understand why he wasn't calling for help. Instead, he was just looking around -- seeming totally distraught, totally confused and petrified.

Fuck!” the officer shouted again, inexplicably clipping his radio microphone back to his shoulder as he took several frantic breaths. “The whole fuckin’ town is crawlin’ with Feds and she’s gonna pull this shit on me? The stupid bitch, what the fuck is she tryin’ to do to me? I can’t afford this shit!

Ron!” Jacob barked. “Call the ambulance, she’s DYING!”

Without another word, the deputy reached into his pocket and pulled out a pair of leather gloves. Slipping them on, he held one hand just under the lip of the coffee table and used the other to sweep up all of the pieces of whatever his mother had been snorting. Once all traces of it were gone, he raced into the kitchen and turned on the faucet. Jacob was dumbfounded as he watched the man dump all of the frosted glass shards into the garbage disposal and flip the wall switch to turn it on. He let it spin until there were no more clicks or clacks, until the only sound was the whirring of the blades and the rushing of the water.

CALL THE FUCKING AMBULANCE!” Jake demanded again, his fists clenching in fury as veins popped up on his neck.

Still not complying, the officer turned everything off and rushed to the bathroom. Jacob heard him hyperventilating as he opened the medicine cabinet, heard him digging through the bottles inside of it in search of something. When he emerged, he was carrying the orange vial that contained his mother’s Xanax. Opening it, he dumped every pill inside into his gloved hand as he approached the coffee table again.

Jacob watched as the man spread a number of tablets around the surface of the table haphazardly, then stuffed a good portion of them into his pocket. Taking up the hammer, he pounded several of the pills into a powder. Setting it back down, he stepped back and surveyed the scene. Apparently satisfied at what he saw, he took a long, slow breath and tried to steady himself before finally snatching his radio from his shoulder again.

“Burlwood two-two to Elsmere dispatch, do you copy?” he asked as calmly as he could.

Go ahead Burlwood two-two,” a woman’s voice responded.

Ma’am, I need a ten-fifty-two to two-three-five-seven Ashwood, code three, for a possible two-forty-four,” he said.

Ten-four, Burlwood two-two. Rolling ten-fifty-two, code three, to two-three-five-seven Ashwood, your city, eighteen-fifty-two hours.

Boudreaux swallowed hard, closing his eyes and still trying to catch his breath. Janet Giguére still lay half on the table, still foaming and mumbling.

Jacob,” he said, trying to stay calm. “Look, I know this ain't easy -- but if you have any idea what’s good for you, any idea what’s good for your mom, you need to take a hard look at what you see right now! Unless you wanna go through all kinds of mess, you need to absorb what you see right now and tell anyone who asks you that this is exactly how you found her! That you found her, you called me, that I came, and that I immediately radioed dispatch! Don’t say anything about what was here before, don’t say anything about what I done when I got here, don’t say anything about what you really saw! You got here, and she was snorting Xanax. Do you understand that, son?

Jacob did, of course. He understood exactly… understood what the valiant Deputy Ron was so panicked about… understood why it was so important that he didn’t tell anyone what he really saw… understood that what’s good for you and what’s good for your mom didn’t mean shit. All that mattered to Ron Boudreaux at this moment was what was good for him, and a complete and proper account of what had happened wouldn’t be very good for him at all. Not given his relationship with the woman… not given the fact that he had destroyed evidence… not given the fact that he probably played a part in introducing her to the frosted glass in the first place.

Glaring at the man, Jacob simply nodded.

“Are you sure you understand?” the officer asked again emphatically, drilling a hole through the boy with his eyes as the sound of screaming sirens began to echo through the rustling limbs of Booger Woods.

Jacob gave no second nod, and he gave no verbal reply… he just stared at him… stared with ill intent… stared with loathing… stared with hatred.

He would comply, though… he would do as he was ordered… not because it was the right thing to do, but because it seemed to be the only thing he could do. Deputy Ron was right about one thing he’d said, there would be all kinds of mess if he told the truth. More mess, even, than there was already. He couldn’t deal with that kind of mess right now, he was dealing with too much as it was.

In true homage to the idiom no rest for the weary, there was more trouble in the cards this Thanksgiving anyway. As the fates would have it, there would be no gap between its arrival and the appearance of the ambulance out front of his trailer. While they waited for the EMT’s to enter, the first word of the next trauma came crackling through Deputy Ron’s police radio.

Dispatch, this is unit seven-one-two. I need a CSI unit and The Feds to Burlwood Meadows for a possible six-thirteen. I’m at Tikiwood and Oakwood with a male jogger who flagged me down, we’ve got what appears to be a foot in the bushes.”

 

 

TWENTY-FOUR

 

 

September 10th, 2016. 4:30PM

Burlwood, Indiana

 

By the time the oil-starved lifters of Jake’s Malibu fired up again and he pulled away from Clyde Rambo’s home, his head was spinning just as frenetically as the worn down vehicle’s crank shaft. His throat was dry and his voice was hoarse, thanks to the old man’s lack of anything palatable to drink. Even his water was foul, tasting of rust and hard minerals. With nothing to soothe his vocal chords and old wounds objecting to being exposed after so much time wrapped in bandages, the sixty five minute dissertation he gave was particularly unpleasant.

Jake expected the session that followed their discussion of The Butcher to be like an interrogation, but the former sheriff surprised him by simply listening quietly as he told his tale about the misdeeds and chicanery of Deputy Ron Boudreaux. Occasionally, Rambo would make note of a particular tidbit on a pad of paper or record a specific date that Jake mentioned in his deposition, but he largely just absorbed and digested with a hint of intrigue in his countenance. He did ask a few questions, but they were generally just requests for elaboration or for a more detailed account of a portion of his story.

Once his narrative of the period between 1994 and 1997 had been told, Rambo just ran his hands through his beard and nodded contemplatively.

Very good, son,” he said praisefully, offering no clues as to whether or not he intended to take action on anything he’d learned. “I must admit, I’m a bit impressed at how thorough you were with your investigation! Makes me wonder how you didn’t end up wearing a badge, like Louie.”

“I thought about it,” Jake had replied. “But life just kind of ran away with me once I left Burlwood behind. Tracy was pregnant by the time we were nineteen, that didn’t exactly leave much opportunity for me to pursue an education. A criminal justice degree or military experience is just about a requirement to get your hands on one of those badges anymore, and the salary it gets you…”

That made Clyde laugh, as he was well aware of the pittance that his son was earning in exchange for putting his life on the line for the citizens of Elsmere every day. They conversed briefly about how much of a shame that was, denouncing the state of the economy and the country on the whole for a couple of minutes in lighthearted banter. Even depressive topics like the consequences of recession and the dupery of trickle-down economics seemed to resonate with lighter notes than the melancholy baritone of the rhapsody that had been the meat of their dialogue in the hours prior.

With each of them exhausted at the conclusion of their file-swap, they began to close the session with well-wishes, the exchange of phone numbers and a firm handshake. It was then that Rambo asked how long Jake intended to be in town and where he planned to stay for the duration. Jake answered the questions honestly, saying until it’s settled and in the backseat of my car, the latter of which brought a grimace to the old man’s face.

“You’re welcome to stay here, I think you’d be more comfortable.” he’d suggested.

Jake politely declined, noting that Rambo's estate was on the far side of town -- the part the boys had called Bumfuck Burlwood, back in the day -- and that he felt he needed to be closer to The Meadows, closer to where everything went down. Clyde held up a finger to beg a moment at that, looking as though a lightbulb had just flickered on above his head, like a character in an old comic strip. He walked out of the kitchen and disappeared deeper into the house for a few seconds, then returned with a key. It was a solitary Kwikset, complete with a large rubber Our Mother Of Sorrows fob dangling from it.

“What’s that?” Jake asked.

“It’s the key to Chucky’s trailer,” Rambo explained. “His mother gave me a spare so that I could keep an eye on him, make sure he wasn’t letting the place fall apart or living in squalor and filth once she was gone. I don’t think he’d mind if you stayed in it, considering you’re working on his behalf.”

“Is that even okay?” he wondered in reply. “I mean, I know they served a few search warrants on it… are you sure I’m allowed to do that?”

“Unless they’ve got a padlock on it and crime scene tape up, they’re done with it,” the old man declared. “A search warrant isn’t an open invitation to come and go as they please, it’s a finite license. Somebody’s gonna have to look after the place anyway, it’s not like Chuck will be around to cut the grass or anything. I have enough on my plate trying to kill that fucking tree, I certainly don’t want to deal with it!”

Not looking forward to anything beyond a day or two crammed into the back of his Malibu, Jake took the deal and they bid each other goodbye. The trailer park was about fifteen minutes east of Rambo’s place, down Route 4, and the drive would quite literally take him through the entirety of the rural township. He would pass all of the old landmarks as he crossed from the historically wealthy end of Burlwood to the perpetually poor side of town. The Downs, Butcher’s Lane, the high school, the K-8 school, Our Mother and the ruins of the old Super Socket Fasteners building.

The SSF factory -- at which Garrett Giguére and many of the residents of Burlwood Meadows served as wage-slaves, subsisting on the cusp of poverty -- had been abandoned by the company when they transferred operations overseas in 1993. As Clyde Rambo was now aware, it hadn't been entirely vacated until 1996, but that ball was in his court, now. Exposing the truth about what happened there in the past had essentially erased it from Jake’s mind, he was no longer the superintendent of those secrets. Nineteen years of blight had probably seen it crumble to the ground by now, but Jake wasn’t planning on scoping it out this afternoon anyway. The crimes committed in that building weren’t related to what happened to Billy Marsh, and that case was his sole concern.

In fact, the physically, mentally and emotionally exhausted grownup version of Darkwing didn’t plan on surveying any of the sights en route to eighteen-seventy Maplewood, because none of them were of consequence to the matter at hand. Having slept like shit the night before -- thanks to the night terrors and still nagging alcohol withdrawal -- and subsequently exerted so much effort in both talking and listening at Rambo's house, he was just too tired to relive the past. His tank was almost as empty as that of his vehicle, and the orange needle on the dashboard was teetering just above the E. Consequently, he was not compelled to allow himself to be swept up in the antipathy of his less than triumphant return to what was surely a dilapidated skeleton of his old hometown.

Determined to escape the deluge of memories and feelings, black and white alike, that he would eventually have to face in his homecoming, he tried to develop a self-induced tunnel-vision by focusing his eyes and his attention straight ahead. He locked his pupils on the faded yellow line that split Route 4 in two ahead of him, and simply pressed forward. Lighting a cigarette, he held his neck fixed and willed himself to resist the temptation to let his head swivel and survey the landscape around him as he drove on. It was easy enough to do on the open road, but that would likely change when he hit Woodstock Boulevard… when he drove along the backside of Booger Woods, the southern border of Burlwood Meadows.

Reviewing the map of the trailer park in his mind, he tried to plot out the best course to avoid as many of his old haunts as was possible on the way to Chucky’s place. Staying clear of Ashwood wouldn’t be a problem, and he knew for a fact that the trailer he’d grown up in had been removed and replaced with a new one anyway. The challenge, though, would be planning a route to avoid fourteen-thirty Applewood… where there may or may not still stand a particular pink double wide, which was one that he wanted to circumnavigate at all costs.

He would have to travel Oakwood to Tikiwood, turn right and follow the curve around to Ledgewood, where he would veer left. Ledgewood would dump into Ravinewood, which he could ride until it intersected Oakwood near the back of the park. If he was careful, he could approach Maplewood in such a way that he didn’t have to look down towards Applewood at all. He could park in one of the spots designated for Chucky’s trailer, and climb out of his car without looking to the left… without looking toward the former Swete household.

As he cruised ever closer to those familiar landmarks he didn’t want to face just yet, he puffed heartily at his smoke. It was the first he’d had in several hours, and it fucked him up royally. He felt as high as a kite, and it was kind of nice.

Comfortable in the arms of nicotine and menthol, he dialed Donnell’s number. The conversation would serve as both a distraction and an inquest of sorts, so it was a win/win as the ringing sounded out through The Malibu’s speakers and Launchpad answered straight away.

“What’s up, Jake?” he asked, sounding more relaxed than he had since their reunion.

“Plenty,” Jake replied. “I’m back in Burlwood and just had a crazy conversation with Clyde. He talked, so that’s good, but he gave me a lot to work on. I guess I’m calling to ask how much help I can expect in dealing with it from you.”

“I’ll do what I can, man, just keep in mind I have a lot on my plate. Give me the Reader’s Digest version of the shit you figure I can do from a distance, and I’ll tell you how reasonable it is to expect that I can work it in.”

Jake had prepared a mental checklist of the things he felt he needed help with, so he rattled them off concisely and in rapid succession, hoping not to scare his friend off with the breadth of the assistance he would need to wrap things up with haste.

“I need a contact number for an old cop,” he began. “Guy’s name was Blake, he was the sheriff in Indy back around the time The Butcher was at work.”

“Okay,” Donnell replied succinctly.

“I need full criminal records, if there are any, on Rusty Parker, Jack Morris and Daryl Lane.”

“Got it.”

“I need current addresses for all of those people as well.”

“Right.”

"I need details about the Our Mother van -- at least a plate number, preferably a VIN."

“Check.”

With all of the easy ones out of the way, Jake took a deep breath and prepared to potentially touch a nerve. “I need a list of every 1986 Cadillac Fleetwood Brougham in the state. If possible, I need that list to include not only vehicles actively registered now, but all of them that were around in the nineties as well.”

“Sure.” Donnell replied with no noticeable change of inflection.

“This one might be a little hard to swallow, Don,” he continued, “but I also need a copy of your old man’s record and his contact information, too. Are you still in touch with him?”

“Yeah,” he replied, “and if you think it’s a surprise to me that you’re looking into him, it’s not. I did grow up in the man’s house, I heard the stirrings. I saw The Feds following him, saw Gomez questioning him, I know the lay of the land.”

“Great,” Jake said, relieved. “I was hoping the idea wouldn’t be a shock, I know it’s a hell of a thing to consider.”

“Is there anything else you need?”

Running over his mental checklist, he thought for a moment before answering. “No, I think I’ll be good with those things for now. I’m sure more will come up, but it’ll all just flow with the investigation.”

“Perfect!” Donnell exclaimed. “Now, are you ready for the bad news?”

What bad news?” Jake wondered.

“The news that I probably can’t get you any of that shit!” Donnell answered quickly, though not angrily, not spitefully. He presented it as a matter of fact, not a matter of contention.

“Why not?” Jake asked, confused.

“Because I’m not a fuckin’ cop!” Launchpad laughed. “I don’t have some all-knowing database I can dial into, man, all I’ve got is the exact same shit that you've got! Google, Yahoo, Bing -- that's it! I mean, I’ll try… but don’t hold your breath, bro! If it’s not readily available as public record, I can’t get it! If you want shit like that, you’re gonna have to get Louie on the case.”

Jake rolled his eyes, irritated with himself again for not thinking of that before being told. Louie was a cop for fuck’s sake, he could peek behind the curtain. Since he didn’t have a number for him, he asked Donnell to text it when they were finished, and they continued their conversation.

“So far as my Pops goes,” Donnell continued, “I’m afraid you’re barking up the wrong tree if you think for even a second that he was The Butcher. First of all, the man was toasted out of his mind ninety-nine percent of the time, and he wasn’t the type that could function well while he was toasted. Had he tried some shit like cutting a body up, the damned fool probably would’ve taken his own arm off in the process!”

“What do you remember about The Brougham, though?” Jake inquired.

“That it always smelled like weed,” Launchpad chuckled again. “Whomever he sold it to probably got their money’s worth just by scraping up the crumbs in the upholstery, shit was like something that Cheech & Chong should’ve been driving! I can tell you without hesitation that I don’t believe my Pops had anything to do with the old murders, even if the car did. He really sold it -- gave it away, more accurately -- in exchange for a fix. Any link between him and The Butcher ended there, take that on my word. He definitely didn’t have anything to do with Billy Marsh’s death, that much I can promise is irrefutable.”

“You can say that as a fact? How?”

“Because the old fuck flipped his lid in 2009, right after my mother died. He’s crazy as a loon, they keep him under lock and key at the West Winds nursing home, in the Alzheimer’s ward. Old bastard didn’t cost me enough back in the day, I guess, that joint milks me of twenty-five hundred bucks a month beyond what Medicare covers.”

“Oh shit, Donnell, I’m sorry,” Jake said in consolation. He was feeling more disappointment in the fact that Evander would likely be of little help in tracking down the Cadillac than he was true sympathy for what the man’s condition meant for Donnell, but he tried not to let it show in his tone.

“About his illness or the money?” Launchpad quipped. “His sanity wasn’t a big loss, he’s not much different in his condition than he was when he was under the influence. You know as well as I do that he was under the influence constantly, so…”

“Still, I know what it’s like to see your father in a bad way,” he replied and swirling, swirling…

Swirling memories of how his father’s death had affected him, how the lack of a male role model that was anything near decent had shaped his life. Swirling sympathies and premonitions, precognition of what his own son would go through when double indemnity came to pass. What would Garrett Jacob Giguére the second think, what would he feel when he found out that his father was never coming home again? When he was told that daddy was never going to hug him, to read him a bedtime story, to tuck him in again?

For him, the processing of what lay ahead wouldn’t be so terrible. He was very limited in his ability to feel and reason due to the severe nature of his Autism. At 13, he was emotionally stunted far worse than even Chucky had been. He would probably notice that his father wasn’t around, but he wouldn’t understand… wouldn’t appreciate the permanence, the finality. Perhaps there was solace in that… or perhaps there was merely delusion, perhaps there was only selfishness in not acknowledging what the loss would mean to him. Maybe he would feel the sting when the time came… maybe he would suffer the pain, as Jacob had suffered it himself.

Jake thanked Donnell this time, even though he hadn’t proved to be of much more use on this occasion than the last, when there was a compulsion to thank him for nothing. He got Louie’s number out of the deal, as well as the name of the facility at which Evander Hughes could be tracked down… that had to count for something.

Hoping for better luck with the man who had been the final addition to the Burlwood Boys crew, he dialed up the junior Rambo and listened to ringing for a long, long time. Eventually, his call was dumped into Louie’s voicemail, forcing Jake to think very carefully about how to proceed. With Ron Boudreaux’s order to keep far away from Burlwood echoing in his ear, he left only a simple message. Name, number, time of call, request for a call back… the standards.

By the time he hung up, the Malibu had sped passed Butcher's Lane without Jake even realizing. With that landmark blowing by unnoticed, he nearly missed his turn onto Woodstock Boulevard -- the road that would take him into The Meadows. He punched the brakes a little harder than he would've liked, but made the turn without incident. Once inside the park, he followed his route exactly as devised. As he drove, he tried to focus his thoughts on the tasks at hand to keep the memories and observations of the neighborhood's decay at arm's length.

He couldn’t tune all of the stimuli out, though, there was an unexpected intrusion as soon as he pulled passed the Welcome To Burlwood Meadows sign that proved inescapable. It was a terrible malodor, redolent of shit and sewage, that permeated the air and poured into his vehicle through its vents and the seams around his doors and windows. It was foul, repugnant and strong, turning his stomach and nearly causing him to gag.

Christ, he thought, has it always smelled like this?

It was possible, of course, that it had. Those foreign city folk of the nineties might’ve been able to smell it all along, The Burlwood Boys and their families could’ve simply been nose blind to it from the beginning. Nearly nineteen years removed from his last visit, the palate of his olfactory system would surely have been cleansed of it, by now. That was just as likely an explanation of his revulsion at it as was the idea that it was something new, some problem that had sprung up in the days since his departure.

The more he thought about it, the more he came to believe that it had always been around... that he used to be immersed in it, that it used to cling to him and his clothing wherever he roamed in the blissful ignorance of his youth. It probably traveled with him, like the indelible mark of Cain, until he strayed from the beaten path and tried to find his own way in life -- a path beyond Burlwood, to bigger and better things.

If he was right, if that were the case, the fact that he could smell it now must mean that he had left it behind. If only the other shadows of Burlwood had been so easy to step away from… if only everything else had been so easily shirked off when he crossed the line into adulthood… if only he had remembered to help pull his best friend, Chucky, free of its grasp when he left… if only he didn’t have to come back now , under these circumstances -- with his life in this condition... if only he hadn't lost sight of the road, hadn't taken his hands off of the wheel... if only he hadn't wrecked it all... if only he could start over, appreciating what he had to lose this time.

Fuck, his mind was running away from him… he was falling into the abyss… he was descending into the familiar depths of dark waters, the rolling sea of depression, and there was nothing he could do to stop it.

Fuck, he was losing control…

Shifting his focus to avoid looking left when he parked beside eighteen-seventy Maplewood, Jake’s body felt numb with avoidance and exhaustion as he grabbed the oh shit handle and pulled himself out of his car. The Murphy family trailer looked much the same as it had in the past, excusing a few minor signs of neglect and the ravages of time. Its yellow siding could use a new coat of paint, the bushes in front of it could use a shearing and the roof had seen better days, but all in all the condition of the place was reasonable… but it looked menacing, looked foreboding… because he was in the haze, in the fog of a depressive episode.

The porch seemed smaller than he remembered as he slowly climbed the steps, swirling, swirling… binoculars and tears, hugs and black sedans… comedy and tragedy, humor and horror, the flood gates barely holding. Still forbidding his eyes to look down the road, he fought a desperate urge to glance over his left shoulder in the hope of seeing a little blonde girl unloading a U-Haul truck in the distance. Maybe if he looked, she would be there… maybe it would all have been a bad dream,

It was hard to not look, hard to not wish that Rod Serling would round the corner of Chucky’s trailer and make his introductory announcement, as only he could make it.

“Submitted for your approval,” he would say, “a story of regret filed under F for failure. A harrowing tale of two decades that never were. A saga of days that could’ve been but transpired, instead, only in the imagination of one Jacob Giguére. A little boy lost, in the miasma of stranger aeons… in the murky pit of nothingness that is… The Twilight Zone!

He couldn’t be so lucky, couldn’t be fortunate enough to have fallen from the porch before the original three Burlwood Boys set off in search of Nathan Dawson. Nothing would’ve made him happier than to wake up in the past, at that very moment, having struck his head on the pavement while gawking at an eleven year old Tracy through his father’s binoculars. Having been subjected to a post-concussive nightmare, he would take the terrible experience as a warning from The Gods about how not to play his cards… if he could just wake up in those bushes, if he could just catch a break like that…

Shit, he would’ve been happy to wake up suspended from the ceiling, feeling the tightness of a chain wrapped around his ankles. He would’ve been happy to realize that what he presumed to be his life was really only a series of horrific hallucinations, brought on by the influence of Xylazine. Under those circumstances, he would likely smile as The Butcher drew close with his blade concealed, preparing to slice his throat from ear to ear… preparing to put an end to it all.

Bismillah! The Butcher would shout, pressing his hallaf against Jake’s jugular. Bismillah! and it’s over! In the name of God, and it’s over! It was all an illusion, and it’s over!

Even that seemed preferable to what he was facing as he slid the key Rambo gave him into the lock of Chucky’s door. Sadly, this was not the key of imagination… beyond it was not another dimension, a dimension of sound, a dimension of sight and of mind… he was, however, moving into a land of both shadow and of substance, of things and of ideas… he was in a place that lie between the pit of his fears and the summit of his imagination… but he had not crossed over into The Twilight Zone.

This was his life, as it was now…

This is where he’d made himself an appointment to be…

This is how he’d fucked it all up, and this is what he had to do before he made his exit, stage left.

There was no young Tracy playing in the yard up the road, there was no young Chucky waiting inside to go out and hang with his best and most treasured friend, he was not eleven years old, Janet Giguére was not half way to the moon on the boosters of benzodiazapines, it was not March 16th, 1992, and he did not have a chance to make everything right by taking another run at it.

It was September 10th, 2016, he was about to turn 35, his mother was dead, his wife hated his guts, he was bankrupt, his business had failed, he was bound for divorce, Chucky was in prison and fuck it all, he wanted to swallow a bullet NOW, wanted to close the book NOW, wanted to get it over with NOW and let the rest go to Hell NOW, let it go back where it came from and fucking rot!

As the door of eighteen seventy Maplewood swung open, it wasn’t the foul smell inside that made him wince… it was the white-hot sting of the cold Beretta steel smoldering against his ribs. The gun was cocked, locked and ready to rock, there was one in the chamber and one is all it would take. One step inside the trailer he never thought he would see again, one motion to retrieve the weapon from under his shirt, one flick of the safety, one pull of the slide, one shot, one kill, one case closed definitively, one life over, and finally… finally…

But that option was no option at all…

It wasn’t viable, wasn’t feasible… wasn’t fair

Double indemnity was fair, that’s the way it would have to go…

But he was obliged to do this one last thing, first… he had to take care of this thing first, so he fought the longing, fought the desire, fought the fight he’d been fighting since he was thirteen fucking years old and resolved to hold on for just a few more rounds… just a few more seconds, a few more minutes, a few more hours, a few more days, a few more weeks at the most.

Then he could do it… then he could get it over with, the right way… the way that paid off for his wife and for his son, even if they did loathe him, even if they didn’t care, he owed them that much. The sooner the better, though, so he needed to get to work… but he needed sleep first. Just the temporary kind, for now, just the type that lasts an hour or two and refreshes the body, the spirit.

Before he could sleep, he was going to have to clean… literally, that is. The terrible funk in the air of Chucky’s trailer was coming from dishes in the sink, that much he could tell, but the entire place was a total disaster. It looked like a bomb -- like several bombs -- had gone off in the single-wide, but these were the sort of bombs that wore badges... the sort that carried a warrant to lay ruin and walk away. The cops had trashed the place, dug every loose bit of junk out of the recesses of every drawer and every crevice of every piece of furniture throughout the home.

Since he stepped into the living room first, he started there. He put the cushions back on the couches, restored some semblance of order to the knick-knacks that Chucky’s Momma would roll in her grave if she saw as disheveled as they were, hung the framed photos back up on the nails protruding from the walls and just cleaned everything he could in general.

Once the living room was settled, he moved into the hallway. The search team had pulled up much of the carpet, presumably looking for blood stains or something of the like, and had left it bunched up in a ball against the bathroom door. Jake spread it back out, using only his foot to press it back down on the tack strips -- he wasn't a contractor, for Christ's sake.

Pressing on, he surveyed the bedrooms. This particular trailer had two, one each for Chucky and his Momma, when she was alive. He stuffed all of the clothes back into the closets and drawers of the dressers in each of them, put all of the scattered jewelry back in the dead woman’s broken open safe, put the box-springs and mattresses back on the bed frames and just tossed the linens on top of them, not bothering to actually make the beds properly because he wouldn’t be sleeping in either of them. A person’s bed is sacred ground, Jake would be sleeping on the couch for the duration… that was a tenet he’d held for quite some time, one he wasn’t going to break now for the sake of his personal comfort.

The next area off the hall was the bathroom, which was the most daunting mess thus far. The raiders had completely emptied the medicine cabinet and the vanity, casting all sorts of a electronic devices and boxes of medications from hither to yon. Having brought his own self-care paraphernalia, he gathered the hair dryer, the electric shaver, the beard trimmer, the curling iron, the straightening iron and all of the other corded implements in one big bundle, which he then stuffed into the cabinet under the sink unceremoniously. When it came to the toiletries and medications, though, he realized he wasn't prepared for any physical ailment that might arise, so he took more care in packing those back into the medicine cabinet. He neatly arranged the shelves with the Tylenol, the Advil, the Benadryl, the Tums, the Pepto, the Kaopectate, the Ex-Lax, the Immodium -- and Christ, Chucky has a lot of stomach issues -- the Carters, the Trojans, the Visine, the hydrogen peroxide, the rubbing alcohol, the bandaids, the Epsom salt, the Neosporin, the tweezers, the nail clippers. Closing the door once everything was situated, he realized that the mirror was filthy, but he wasn't concerned with it at the moment... he didn't care to look at himself anyway.

With that room set, he tackled the kitchen. It wasn’t too horribly bad in there, excusing the disaster that was the sink. Putting the silverware away went quickly, as did the pots and pans and cooking implements. A quick glance at that horrific sink left him feeling that the plates, bowls, forks and spoons in it were just about unsalvageable, so he weighed the option of simply throwing them all in the trash for a moment. With further consideration, he decided that Chucky probably wouldn’t have the money to replace everything if he did. Having just over three hundred bucks to his name, Jake could offer no financial assistance to him. That meant he would have to endure washing the mold and grease from the used dishes with the ever-formidable power of Dawn detergent and a firm sponge, as much as the idea disgusted him.

He gagged a few times in the process, but managed to get it all taken care of in decent time. As he was drying the last of the bowls with a dishrag, he heard a distinctive clink and felt the vibration of the porcelain throughout his left hand. Turning the ugly 80’s style crock around, he realized the sound was that of his wedding band catching a chip around the rim of the dish. Gazing into the titanium, he reflected on his marriage to Tracy Swete. The tale was bitter, now, a mental film as depressing as any he’d ever seen on the silver screen, from beginning to end. When the curtain fell and credits rolled, it left him feeling as hollow and empty as the bowl he’d just washed.

As an epilogue, he remembered the events of the night before... remembered sitting at the sticky table at Uncle Jim's Pancake House and feeling the ring alight with the fire of Nikki's gray-eyed stare. He remembered how he felt when she saw it, how he realized it was silly that he continued to wear it -- not because he was on the market, but because the thing was a relic, now. It used to stand for something invaluable, used to represent his love for and his vows to the woman who was his wife. It used to stake her claim on him, used to reflect her affection and dedication to him, the man who was her husband.

It didn’t stand for anything anymore, wasn’t worth an equally sized ball of shit… it was a symbol of a broken bond, of a lost cause and resignation under duress. With those things in mind, he took advantage of the lingering lubrication of the grease he’d rinsed away from Chucky’s dirty plates and slid the token of their love off of his finger. It was the first time he’d taken it off for any reason, other than to clean it, since he was eighteen years old.

His first thought was of putting it in his bag, tucking it away until he figured out exactly what to do with it. Maybe he would hock it, maybe he would will it to Garrett, maybe he would just give it away to a stranger in the street, he didn’t know.

In the end, though, he decided there was only one thing to be done with it… there was only one place that it truly belonged. Having made his decision, in light of everything that had transpired since Tracy spoke the words with this ring and slid it on him, he walked directly to the trash can. Stepping on the lever, opening the lid, he dropped the worthless thing on top of wadded paper towels sinking into the congealing gravy of a Salisbury steak TV dinner tray.

With nothing left to do for the moment, with no energy left to expend anyway, he reported to the couch and laid down to take a nap. If he woke before the evening was up, he would get right down to business. If he slept all the way through to the morning, that was just as well. It was just a matter of time, it was all coming to a head. As he closed his eyes and the fog of this depressive episode started to dissipate, he realized that he could slow the pace just a little, if that’s the way he needed to do it… he could relax, just the slightest bit.

He needed to relax… if he wanted to keep that bullet in the chamber.

 

TWENTY-FIVE

 

 

September 10th, 2016. 9:20PM

Burlwood Downs,

Burlwood, Indiana

 

Ronnie James lifted his rear from his sulky and shifted his weight, something about the seat of this particular race bike hurt his left ass cheek. That was going to make the race miserable, but there was nothing to do about it at this point. The gate car was pulling into turn one, soon the bugle would sound out the familiar notes of Call to Post and he would have to guide Dixie LaRue to her starting position.

He’d drawn number seven for this, the eighth race overall and his third of the night. This was cause for concern, because Dixie was a spirited fillie who liked to run close to the rail. She’d never placed better than fourth when starting on the outside, and he’d never done better than sixth with her from any position. She was trotting well as he took her through her paces in the warmup, so he was hopeful, despite the fact that she would be going off as the nine-to-one long shot.

Settling into the sulky and bracing his feet on the stirrups, he pulled on her left driving line to spin her around, just in time for the sounding of the horn. She rode up tight to the gate as the pace car started rolling, chomping at the bit and ready to burn the mother down. If he could control her, he had a chance…

Pulling the lines lightly, he tried to settle her a bit as the field fell in around them. His goal was to start slow, to fall behind the aggressors of the pack just enough to tuck her to the hub, where she wanted to be. With any luck, he could drop into the middle of the pack and would be running in fifth or sixth as they entered turn three, the first turn of their lap-and-a-half around the five-eighths of a mile track.

If he could keep from getting boxed in, if the horses running along the rail pushed the pace, he would start to open her up when they got back around to turn one and two. They would cruise the backstretch, not giving or taking any positions, and just hold on. Envisioning himself as running no worse than fourth as they approached turn three for the second time, he would really push the girl and move to the outside coming out of turn four. He would be heavy handed with the whip in the homestretch, trying to beat his way to an upset victory and his share of the four thousand dollar purse that went with it.

So long as Patriot Patty wasn’t in front of him once they exited turn four, he had a shot. That horse was stupid fast down the stretch. If the bitch was in the lead or had an inside line, he and Dixie LaRue were totally fucked. Dixie’s owner had already lectured him, already told him that to place would be okay, to show would be acceptable, but that anything worse than that would spell trouble with a capital T. If he couldn’t lead the fillie to the wire in at least third place, he knew his chances of ever running her again were somewhere between slim and none. There were only two other owners that would put him in their sulkies as it was, he couldn’t afford to lose Dixie’s as a client.

As they thundered up to speed out of turn two, still tight to the rolling gate, he steadied himself and planted his feet. When the bell sounded and the gates folded to the sides of the pace car, he pulled at the lines just the slightest bit -- just enough to let the front of the pack collapse on itself ahead of them. When they were passed him and there was space to do so, he tugged twice with his left hand and tucked her tightly to the rail, just where she liked it. He was running sixth as they rounded turn three... not great but not terrible, not beyond the parameters of what he had hoped for.

The track was fast and Dixie wanted to run the stretch. She had the lungs to do it, but that wasn’t the plan, so he didn’t like it. She pulled hard and closed in on the jockey in front of her, almost too close for Ronnie’s comfort. Leaning his head just a bit, he saw the pink and white checker of Bruce Harris’ silks. Fuck, it was Patriot Patty!

Letting LaRue do her thing, he left slack in the drive lines as she leaned into turn one and overtook a stalling pair of competitors on the outside. They were running fourth down the backstretch, which was perfect so far as he was concerned.

Looking to his right, though, he saw a painted fillie trying to pull alongside of them as they entered turn three for the final time. If he wasn’t careful, he would end up trapped behind that cunt Patriot Patty and sandwiched to the hub all the way to the wire. That wouldn’t do, there would surely be a line pressing hard out wide, a line that would blow by him like they had afterburners jammed up their asses and leave him finishing toward the back of the pack.

Terrified of the damned painted screwing him, he flicked the lines a few times to demand more out of Dixie. They were into turn four when the horse running second slowed and fell back, presumably having gassed herself in maintaining the intense pace of this particular run. She became an equine barrier that forced the painted to slow, opening up a window as the time to pull away from the hub and let loose with the whip was approaching.

Patriot Patty’s jockey was already at it with his crop, shouting and beating the ever loving shit out of the horse, which was picking up speed in response and threatening to pull away. Two yanks on the right line and Dixie did as she was instructed, moving off the rail and fixing to take a run at that whore nag.

They were running third, now, with only Patriot Patty and Starshine standing between them and the full winner’s purse. The track was wide open in front of them, they weren’t far behind and they had every chance at an excellent finish! Starshine didn’t have enough gas, she always blew up in the stretch, so second was almost assured -- and first was within reach!

Excited, Ronnie pulled back with the whip and hollered Ya! Ya! at the very top of his lungs. The wind started to whistle in his ears as Dixie really put her foot in the tank and started to close the gap. Closing in on the leaders, closing in on the wire, he was twirling his whip hand like a windmill in a blistering gale and assaulting Dixie’s backside with a vengeance.

In mere moments the flashbulbs would explode, the race would be over and a winner would be declared. A reputation would be made or tarnished, a future would be assured or destroyed.

Ya! Ya!” he cried. “Ya, Dixie, ya!

Starshine broke down, slowing dramatically, and the pink checkered pattern of Bruce Harris' silk was drawing nearer! As Starshine fell behind, Ronnie kept up his assault and they were fixing to overtake Patriot Patty -- threatening to finish and trot like champions to the winners circle!

Ya! Ya!

More whipping, frantic whipping, and Dixie found her second wind! She picked up speed, just when it seemed there shouldn’t be any more speed in her at all! Harris looked to his right from Patriot Patty’s sulky and saw Dixie overtake his horse, the man’s eyes bulging in horror and surprise as his share of the purse was shrinking! He looked like a goddamned fool, like a deer in the headlights, a bug under a magnifying glass!

They were winning, Dixie and Ronnie, they were going to take it all!

Ya!” he urged her, begged and demanded her. “Ya baby, ya!”

Thirty yards to go, twenty-five yards and -- waitmore speed?

How the fuck was she picking up more speed?

He had never trotted a horse so fast, had never felt the breeze so strongly except -- except in pacing races! Spooked, he looked down to her legs… her left hooves struck in unison, then the right hooves, then the left hooves, and FUCK!

She broke, the fucking heifer!

She had broken stride, started pacing instead of trotting!

She’d snatched disqualification and defeat from the jaws of victory and of triumph!

Snatched hundreds of dollars from his pocket for tonight, perhaps thousands in potential future dollars! Snatched him right out of her sulky, right out of her owner’s good graces!

Pissed, he threw up his hands in disgust. The blinding flash came as he cursed, and Dixie LaRue would be in the picture. She would be in first place by a neck, but she might as well be back in the stable because all of her efforts didn’t mean shit! Because she choked, because she blew it! Because he blew it by pushing her so hard!

Also in the picture, in the background -- blended into the crowd gathered at the wire -- would be the face of a man who hadn't been seen in the lights of Burlwood Downs in quite some time. He would stand out on the photo distinctly for two reasons: firstly, because he was a very handsome man as compared to the faces of Joe Public around him, and secondly because he had his hands thrown up in the air, just like Ronnie James did.

Upon careful examination, a paper ticket would be seen flying from his grasp as the Inquiry light flickered to life on the infield board… a ticket on which was his wager, twenty dollars on number seven to win.

The ticket was garbage, now… not worth a red cent, not worth the paper it was printed on.

Two-hundred and eighty-four dollars, that’s all Jake had left when the race was over. After paying for gas, paying for a new pack of cigarettes, paying for parking, paying for a hot dog and a coke, then dropping twenty bucks on a fucking horse that broke stride and turned his ticket to toilet paper, his financial situation was becoming dire.

He was going to need a good chunk of what was left to buy groceries to stock Chucky’s fridge, or all of it if he continued eating out and had to stay for any length of time beyond a week or two. He would have to be more careful, would have to be more frugal… unless he could pick a winner in the ninth race.

It was fifteen minutes until post time for the next showdown, and he could’ve spent every bit of that time studying the program only to come away with no clue as to how he should bet. The facts and figures reported on its pages would serve him just as well if they were redacted, like the recently unearthed secrets of murders past, because he didn’t understand what any of them meant in the scheme of things. What difference does the stretch time make if a horse is stuck in traffic? What bearing does a horse’s last three finishes have on how they would stack up against the contenders of a totally different field?

Hang out by the stables, the raspy voice of Evander Hughes directed in his memory. Watch to see which horse takes a shit, and bet it all on him! What kind of horse you know can run with a belly full of shit? That’s the ticket! That’s the key!

As ridiculous as it was, he gave it thorough deliberation as he weighed the options and tried to decipher the tables on the paper. He watched the odds on each participant undulate as other patrons of the track cast their vote for the winner with cash-money, and it was obvious in the wild fluctuations that none of them had any idea how to bet either. The crown title of favorite changed hands more frequently than the names of some small African countries, which was frustrating as hell to him. Following the pack was a sucker bet anyway, because the payout amounts to nothing when everybody picks the winner. When a horse goes off at three-to-two, there’s little to gain and the total sum of your bet to lose. Whose idea of a good time is that?

The process of trying to decide started to irritate him, primarily because this wasn’t what he’d come to The Downs for in the first place, and he wasn’t sure how he’d managed to get so wrapped up in it. Horse racing had never been his thing, he preferred a good game of dice or cards. Those rackets were at least honest and upfront about the fact that there was more luck involved in winning at them than there was any degree of skill. Even the most strategic Blackjack player occasionally busts out with an unexpected face card, it’s all quite literally a crap shoot.

This joint, The Downs, tried to masquerade what amounted to pure chance as something that could be prognosticated by a keen and learned eye. He figured that was why he saw so many familiar faces among the crowd, they were the addicts who had enough disposable income to continue their delusive quests to master the art of predicting the results of chaos. They were older, they were more worn down, but they were largely the same faces as those that hung around the dirt back in the early to mid-nineties. There were some newbies, but the rest were the same people he used to see back when The Burlwood Boys would find a way to watch the races from Route 4, or to follow a man and wife in, pretending to be their children. All these years later, they were still at the track… still clinging to some long darkened hope that they might get it right for a change and hit it big one day. Like a leech, the track would feed on them, would suck up their money like a Dyson vacuum until they had none left, and then their welcome would expire.

While it was inherently dishonest, there was still a thrill in this activity… there was still that rush of possibilities as the field raced for the win. The pounding of the hooves, the whipping and shouting of the jockeys, the grunts of the strained horses being pushed to their physical limitations and the hollering masses cheering and jeering… the sights and sounds came together, like a symphony of adrenaline, that built to a crescendo as the rabid steeds came thundering home down the stretch, racing for the glory all the way to the wire.

It certainly wasn’t without its charm, as parasitic as it was in its nature. Resigning himself to simply picking the horse with the best sounding name, he folded the program and resolved to get back to business. There were twelve minutes until post time, at least eight of which he could dedicate to studying the crowd for anything that might strike him as unusual before he would have to report to a teller to place his wager. Reconnaissance was the purpose of this visit to the park, allocating another eight minutes to that end seemed the least that he could do.

He'd awakened from his nap at just after seven-thirty, having slept harder in the hour he managed to squeeze out than he had through the duration of the prior night. Apparently, his system was growing more accustomed to being without the alcohol. His thoughts were still a bit hazy -- and he still longed for a tall seven and seven or scotch on the rocks -- but the desire was fading in intensity. Thankfully, the track wouldn't aid in derailing his progress because they only served beer... and he loathed beer with a passion.

The goal of this evening was simply to get a feel for what had become of the town. Outside of the services at Our Mother, this place was host to the largest concentration of people to be found at any given time in Burlwood. He arrived about an hour after the race card began and spent a good deal of time driving around a gravel lot, where the pleasure of parking your car costs ten fucking dollars. It wasn't gated, it wasn't well lit, it wasn't patrolled by any type of security -- it was basically a shakedown without any pretense.

Driving every aisle, he slowly crept along in search of anything that resembled a Cadillac Brougham or Dodge Ram van. He knew it wasn’t likely that he would stumble upon either of his targets so auspiciously, but what could it hurt to try?

Having found nothing speficious, as Chucky used to say, he found a spot not worth a tenth of what he’d paid and locked the Malibu up tight, lest someone like him come along with their prying eyes and decide to scope out his ride. Once inside the track’s lobby, he surveyed the people and found that little had changed in the small town over the many moons of his absence. The citizens and visitors congregated there looked a little more downtrodden than he remembered them being in the past, but he was kin to them when he’d last looked upon their faces. His life, at present, was probably as much a mess as he assumed theirs were, but he was returning to them in descent of a tangled and bent spiral staircase. He could still claim the esteem of looking down on them from a class or two above, for the moment, but his twisted passage would see him looking up at them before too long… both figuratively and literally, in all likelihood.

He’d hoped to cross paths with Rusty Parker, Jack Morris or Daryl Lane in his travels, but such was not to be on this night in particular. After an hour or so of taking in the lay of the land, when it became obvious that further assiduous observation would prove fruitless, he allowed himself to be sucked into the void of gambling and had yet to emerge from its grasp. There were four races left; four more chances to either squander his endowment or to bring prime rib dinners for the duration within his reach.

Nothing in the crowd caught his attention as he looked around, until the dot-matrix pattern of light bulbs on the infield board flashed in indication of a change. The second digit had fallen dark in the Time to Post display, meaning he was down to nine minutes to place a bet. Not desiring to live on Ramen Noodles if it wasn’t necessary, he deferred to the program again in a futile effort to discern the indiscernible.

Falling back to his best name strategy, his eyes were drawn to a particular listing in bold black letters. It stood out amongst the banality of titles like Black Light Stallion and Tommy’s Topgun Hero, speaking to him and resonating in his mind.

It was the horse that would sport the number three and wear the black tack and cloth… the horse that was currently set to go off at five-to-one, a midfield pick with every chance of paying off. Those details were convenient, since the black suited his mood and the odds were a fine balance of risk and reward, but it was the name of the two year old colt that called to him. A name so simple and yet so profound… so perfect and so intense…

The horse was called These Truths, and that was brilliant.

We hold These Truths to be self-evident, his inner voice declared doggedly and intrepidly. [_ That all men are created equal, except for Jacob Giguére -- who is an absolute fucking asshole. That he was endowed by his creators -- Garrett and Janet, CERTAINLY not God, He would never take credit for this bit of flotsam -- with a penchant to turn everything he touches from glittering gold to rancid shit. That Tracy Swete, the woman whose life he hijacked and completely destroyed, and her son, Garrett, have an unalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of being made whole -- through the benefit of a life insurance policy rider known as double indemnity. That, upon completion of this, the first and last unselfish act of his entirely wasted life, his continued existence becomes destructive and inhibitive to those aforementioned ends. At that time, it becomes his unalienable duty to alter and abolish himself in such form as, to him, seems most likely to be maximumly sufferable and painful, and most likely to effect the safety and happiness of those he leaves behind. When a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same object, evinces a design to reduce them under him, it is his right, it is his duty, to throw himself off and find new guards for their future security. _]

These Truths… these fucking truths…

Folding the program and stuffing it into the pocket of his jeans, he marched into the enclosed concourse and approached an open betting window. The teller’s back was turned as he approached, apparently in counting the money to balance a till or something. It was plainly obvious that he was a black man, but when he spun around at the behest of Jake clearing his throat, his familiarity became just as evident.

The recognition came with that familiar swirling, swirling of thoughts and memories, swirling like the wrinkles on the man’s flesh, where none had been before, swirling like the curve at the bottom of a distinctive scar that split his face in two. Swirling like the horses turning around in their paddocks, during a tour of the stables at The Downs. Swirling in a strange and soft accent that sounded slightly French, but wasn’t quite right. Swirling and I got this scar in the war, I was a soldier… that’s why they call me Sarge!

There was no apperception of their aquaintance, nineteen years removed, in the dark eyes of the man wearing a name badge that read Grover. He turned and smiled warmly at what amounted to just another customer, in his mind. Kindness emanated from him in his demeanor and that smile, a grin worth at least fifteen bucks an hour in the year 2016, when it was held in the possession and control of an old and tired man.

Good evening, sir!” Grover said wholeheartedly in that familiar soft accent. “Are you prepared to make your wager?”

It took a moment for Jake to respond, as was typical when he found himself caught in a whirlpool of reminiscence. He tried to mirror the man’s graciousness when he did finally speak, but the effort was Herculean and perhaps beyond him, in the darkness of his mental state.

Hi Sarge,” he said, awkward in his delivery.

The man’s head cocked a bit at the greeting, as though the sifting over of many vast volumes in the library of his memory required some form of physical exertion. He looked thoroughly puzzled as he examined Jake’s face carefully, scrutinizing and comparing it to mental photographs of all the people he’d encountered in his time.

“Do I know you, young man?” he asked, still affectionate in his bewilderment.

It didn’t come as a terrible surprise that Grover didn’t remember Darkwing, the two of them had only crossed paths twice, to his recollection. The first time as a ships in the night incident at the Burlwood Civic Center, and the second during the school field trip to The Downs. Sarge had been their escort, and the man conducted a thorough, interesting tour complete with humor-infused insight into the world of harness racing and equine maintenance. He probably did it a hundred times with thirty students at a clip, there was no reason that Jacob should’ve stood out among them in his mind.

“Uh, no,” Jake stammered, “not really. I grew up out here, took the tour of the stables with you… twenty years or so ago.”

“Oh yes,” the man grinned, “I used to love giving those tours! Sadly,” he sighed, “this old body of mine just can’t take standin’ up all day anymore! That’s why I’m doin’ this now, workin’ the ticket counter at least gives me a chance to sit! That’s about all I’m good for, at my age!”

“I understand,” Jake said, as he feigned a smile in return. “I’m not getting any younger myself.”

“Forgive me and my shoddy memory, my friend!” Grover begged. “And tell me, while there’s still time… who’s gonna be the winner of this next race?”

“Huh?” Jake asked. There was another slight pause as he digested the question and pieced together the fact that Sarge was asking for his bet. “Oh,” he resumed, “number three, please.”

Ah yes,” Sarge countered, “These Truths! A fine pick, young man, a fine pick indeed! He’s a beautiful young Cremello colt, gonna have a strong career ahead of him! Are you gonna try for a quinella or trifecta, or are we gonna just go with number three to win?”

“Just the win,” Jake replied, “I’ll be lucky if I can manage to pick that right.”

“Very good, very good!” Grover praised. “And how much are you in for?”

Doing the mental math, he calculated the payout if These Truths was still going off at five-to-one. Deciding that a hundred bucks sounded nice at a twenty dollar wager, he concluded that a buck-and-a-half sounded even better at the thirty dollar level. “Thirty, please,” he said.

Two-hundred and fifty-four dollars left to go… two-hundred and fifty-four dollars, or over four-hundred if the old boy turned the trick.

The old man punched a few buttons on his touchscreen display, a printer to his right firing out a stub and a receipt in response. Pulling the tickets from their cradle, Grover extended his hand to present them before he actually had the cash required to complete the transaction.

“There you are, young man!” he said.

Without being asked, Jake handed over a twenty and a ten in exchange and thanked the teller. Sarge called out good luck as he turned and walked towards the courtyard, where he would take up a position at the wire and hope for the best.

There were only two minutes left before the contest would begin, so the gate car was taking up its position and extending its arms across the width of the track. As the mechanism worked and the vehicle sat, brake lights ablaze, Jake examined its rear end and was rocked with an abrupt and accidental discovery of revelation.

The vehicle was maroon in color, but the shape and form of the American steel lines were very familiar to him and swirling, swirling. A swirling coat of arms, one that belonged to the family of Baron Sylvester, but was most famous for having been borrowed by one Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac… an emblem that was emblazoned on the tail end of every Fleetwood Brougham ever produced, an emblem that was polished and shining under a thin film of Burlwood dust as the gate car sat and waited for the horses to approach.

His eyes wide, he pulled them down from the ornament and searched for the vehicle’s license plate. There wasn’t one, this car had been modified and was no longer street legal, no longer worthy of the road, no longer required to be registered.

Christ, could it be?

As the car started to roll, crunching on the surface of the track under its old and haggard tires, Jake studied it like it was the Rosetta Stone. The field drew close behind it as it rounded the corner, including the illustrious albino-looking contender These Truths.

He wasn’t concerned with watching how his pick behaved as the gates swung open and the starting bell sounded, he was focused, instead, on trying to ascertain exactly what it said on either side of the pace car. It pulled away from the pack in their first turn and led the way, rounding the bend that would bring it down the stretch and afford him a closer look at the beige letters on its quarter panels that were just a blur in the distance at present. Inside the vehicle, he could see the shadowy silhouette of a larger than life driver focused on the track as another form clutched what appeared to be a microphone in the passenger seat. That one was scanning the action behind them frantically, providing a play-by-play narrative that shook the air as it spilled from loudspeakers over the grandstands, where the gathered masses hooted and hollered.

As it came roaring around turn four, the dust billowing up behind it, there was a moment at which the outline of the microphone was situated such that, from his vantage point, Jake would’ve sworn that it was a little boy’s foot sticking up over the headrest of the back seat. In the yellow light cast down by floodlamps from above, the color of the vehicle itself seemed to change. It seemed to turn blue as the cinders of dirt and memory were swirling, swirling in its wake.

The amalgamation of stimuli in coincidence took him back, far back, to a place he never thought he’d be again… to a place he never desired to revisit… to a moment that would live in infamy in the recesses of his mind… to the gravel lot of Our Mother Of Sorrows, to the carnival, to the outhouses, to the blue car and oh God, where’s Timmy? Is that his foot? Jesus Christ, what’s happened? What have I done? Why wasn’t I watching for him? Fuck me, it’s all my fault! Fuck me, I let The Butcher have him, and he’s gone!

Gone, forever!

The rumble was deafening as the car and the horses blew by him, These Truths holding on to a narrow lead as Jake felt the blast of wind that marked their passing. It was as crushing and as demoralizing as the passing of Timmy Lane had been, and it shook him to his core. Nearly blown over by the gust in his trembling, he focused on those beige letters… those potential clues to the mystery at hand.

FGSI Services… that’s what the letters spelled.

FGSI Services, Blackmoor, Indiana.

He repeated the title in his mind, his thoughts racing, his heart pounding. [_ FGSI, FGSI, FGSI, FGSI, FGSI -- have ] to remember! -- _FGSI, FGSI, FGSI, FGSI, FGSI Blackmoor was easy, it was the next town over to the east, Services was superfluous, it didn’t matter. What mattered, what he needed to remember was FGSI, FGSI, FGSI, FGSI.

The race continued back into the far turn, the Cadillac and the horses disappearing behind the infield board for a few moments before they resurfaced in the backstretch. These Truths was still at the pole, but he was being challenged aggressively by a contender on the outside. The gate car continued to lead them, the driver driving and the commentator doing his thing. The crowd surged in their cheering as the pack tightened up, every horse on the dirt fighting for position and striving for the crown.

Then, as they entered the final turn, Jake’s attention was drawn to a disturbance among the people gathered near the rail where the homestretch began. He saw a horde of men who seemed particularly enthused about something, but none of them was watching the action on the track. Several were bent at the waist, hovering over something. Some of them seemed pleased at what they were watching while others looked angry and disturbed. The commotion doubled when a fist flew up into the air, the arm to which it was attached almost reaching a state of hyperextension. It was a fight, this one the more literal type than that taking place beyond the fence, where These Truths was being overtaken and falling back.

Jake watched the action, not inclined to step in and restore order until -- until -- he heard a definitively feminine cry come from the center of the mass. Christ, some thug was taking his aggression out on a woman!

That he could not let stand, that he could not be complicit in by simply standing by and watching, that seemed totally unacceptable to him, despite the fact that he himself had raised his hand to Tracy Swete Giguére not more than forty-eight hours ago.

His calves fired immediately, sending him tearing through the crowd before he knew what was happening. Pushing and shoving people out of his way with abandon, he was engulfed in the pile of humanity within mere seconds of having set off. The gawkers pulled away quickly in the presence of an enforcer, revealing to him a middle-aged cretin who needed a shave and shower worse than any other man Jake had ever met. He had his victim mounted, her petite frame trapped to the pavement by his crotch, which was crushing her sternum with his weight. Her arms were out turned and covering her face, which was the target of his assault.

Never one to take a cheap shot, the would-be hero peeled the villain off of the woman with handfuls of his denim jacket. Applying every bit of force he could muster with his triceps, he flung the man backwards and sent him crashing to the ground, just as Tracy had crashed to the mattress during the contention of his last bout. There was a look of shock upon the stranger’s face, likely at the fury of Jake’s applied strength, but he leapt to his feet and took a charge at Sir Galahad for his insolence.

More than happy to oblige, Jake met his challenge and drew back his right fist. The attacker opted to take the body, wrapping his arms around Jake and dragging him down to the rough concrete in an effort to mount him, as he had the woman. Little did the fool know, Jacob Giguére was an experienced practicioner in the fistic arts both on the feet and on the ground alike.

He was in a compromising position on the bottom only briefly, until another set of spastic flections brought about a reversal, and it was the brave knight on top of the hill. Pinning the man to the the ground, he had a chance to impose his will from above. He felt his jeans being ripped at and torn by the pavement as he braced himself to strike, springing forward into the punch by pushing off with his knees and pronated feet.

The impact of his tightly locked fist with the spongy flesh of the man’s cheek was glorious. It made a beautiful thwack that made his blood pump to unexpected places with haste. Reveling in it, he pulled his right hand back again as he held tight to the denim jacket with the left. The second thwack was accompanied by a crunch, he’d caught a piece of nose with it, which made it all the more pleasurable. There was a spraying of blood, but from the man’s nose instead of Jacob’s throbbing penis, which felt as though it would burst. Bordering on orgasmic in his rage and thorough enjoyment, he let loose a third blow that certainly separated his opponent from consciousness for at least a few moments. The fourth hook was unnecessary and in excess, but he just couldn’t resist.

His hand was throbbing, in concert with his heart and cock, so he straightened his back and tried to steady his breathing. The onlookers seemed in awe of him as he sat upon his throne of conquered flesh, the ballyhoo having quieted when the incident crossed the line and moved from freak show curiosity to mad-dog attack territory. His gratification unstifled by their distaste of what he had done, he flicked his hand to shake off the lingering pain.

Standing erect, as his dick was, he moved toward the crumpled frame of the woman on the ground, only to discover that it wasn’t a woman at all. The person holding her bloodied lip and watching him approach was no more than just a girl, and a familiar one at that… it was Nikki… the waitress from the diner.

“Are you okay?” he asked, reaching out his left hand to help her up since his right was still screaming.

Stunned at what had transpired and grateful for his assistance, she nodded slightly as a tear fell from one of her smoke colored eyes. In her shock, she didn’t take Jake’s hand immediately. Moving it closer to her, he prodded with a glance for her to grab it. When she did, he felt the fire within her like a bolt of electricity passing through him. It was another osmotic symbiosis, intense and incredible beyond any verbalization. He felt one with her, like he was inside of her, as he pulled her to her feet.

Asshole!” a gurgling voice called from behind. “You broke my fucking nose!

It could've only been one person, but could he possibly have the balls? Turning to look, he saw that it was, indeed, the felled reject -- daring to address him. He cast daggers at the fool with his glare, assuring him there was more where the ass beating came from, if he desired to have another taste of it.

The whore took my wallet!” he accused in a blood congested slur. “It wasn’t any of your fucking business!

Pausing to think, Jake turned his eyes back to Nikki standing beside him. She locked those gray pupils on his with fortitude and shook her head, denying the charge.

Before he could probe any further, another man approached them where they stood. He stopped mid-stride and raised his hands, as if he were under arrest, when Jake’s head snapped around to warn him to keep back. “Relax, guy,” he said, “I’m not looking for trouble… I was just gonna tell y’all that y’all should get out of here, quickly, if you want to avoid explaining this to the police!”

It was wise advice, especially considering the fact that Jake had his Beretta strapped to his side in violation of the track’s policy. That amounted to a crime, as did pounding in the face of some drunken bum. Eager to get out, he returned his attention to Nikki and asked a simple question that would have lasting ramifications.

“Did you drive yourself?”

“No,” she answered, physical and emotional pain obvious in her voice as she bent over to pick up perhaps the smallest purse that Jake had ever seen.

“Then come on, I’ll have to give you a ride.”

 

TWENTY-SIX

 

 

September 10th, 2016. 10:00PM

Burlwood, Indiana

 

“So, are you gonna tell me your name?” Nikki asked as she fastened her safety belt in the passenger seat of Jake’s Malibu.

He started the vehicle and backed out of his parking spot quickly, determined not to face the Elsmere PD officers that were surely on their way… officers who were likely briefed on the unwelcome nature of his presence in the township. Slamming the transmission into drive, he spun the tires on the gravel lot and tore away.

“Where am I taking you?” he asked, ignoring her request for a formal introduction and lighting a Newport with a heavy draw.

“I live in The Meadows,” she replied. “Fourteen Forty Applewood. Do you know where that is?”

Swirling, swirling and his blood ran cold. He felt a paleness overtake him, one that was sure to be visible, even in the darkness of the passenger compartment.. Of course he knew where fourteen forty Applewood was. It was right fucking next door to fourteen thirty Applewood, a place he wanted to avoid at all costs.

Christ, he would be right there. Unless he decided to dump her on Woodstock Boulevard and make her walk the quarter mile to her trailer, that is. As rude as doing so would be, it was certainly an option being weighed in his mind. He’d done nastier things to nicer people, he didn’t owe this woman anything.

His hand was shaking with the fallout of adrenaline, and the anxiety about what awaited him on Applewood wasn’t helping to calm his nerves. He took a long drag at his cigarette, trying to suck down as much smoke as was possible, hoping to achieve a comfortable high. A nice nicotine buzz, like the one he’d gotten from that first cigarette after leaving Rambo’s house, might make it easier to take the girl all the way to her destination, but that remained to be seen. Holding the noxious chemicals in his lungs, he didn’t answer her question.

“Should I take that as a yes?” she snapped, apparently taking affront at his silence as she dabbed her fingers to her bleeding lip.

“I know The Meadows,” he replied plainly, letting the smoke flow slowly and lazily from his mouth and nose.

Nikki nodded, shivering in his coldness to her. She’d never experienced anything quite like it from a man. Guys were normally open books to her, even those that held back at first generally caved once they’d taken the time to survey the curves of her breasts and waist. If they held out through that, it was usually over once they’d had an opportunity to gaze at her ass. It was obvious from the jump that this guy was different, though. That he wasn’t of the same breed, wasn’t cut from the same cloth as the others she had known so many of before.

She wondered, for a moment, if his disregarding of her was due to the fact that he was married and trying to stay true to his matrimonial vows. A wedding ring had never been an obstacle in her past interactions with the testosterone fueled opposite sex, so even that wall would crumble away with time. Looking at his hands upon the steering wheel, though, she noticed that the band he’d worn the night before was absent now. That was curious, because it meant that something had changed.

Either it hadn’t belonged there in the first place, or he had suddenly decided that he was in the market for some strange with anonymity and no strings attached. As she sat, she longed for it to be as simple as the latter… longed to be that strange piece of ass for him. She’d hoped to end up underneath him from the moment she first laid eyes on him, when he strolled into her life as just another customer of Uncle Jim’s Pancake House. If that was his desire, he had a very odd way of showing it -- right from the beginning.

She’d recognized him as the man from the diner straight away when he threw her date to the ground, his was a face that she wouldn’t forget easily. The exchange they’d shared with their eyes at Uncle Jim’s was among the most erotic moments she’d ever experienced in her life. She was very familiar with salacity, so there were plenty of similar experiences to compare it to and measure it against. It took the cake, hands down, and it would be etched indelibly on the walls of her memory forever.

When their psyches were intertwined in that moment, when their spirits were making passionate love, she saw a fire and lust in his stare that was deep and intense. He wanted her, and she wanted him, that much was obvious on the surface. There was more to their connection than lollipops and blowjobs, though, there was also a sense of profound sorrow and detachment in the depths of his emerald eyes. Beneath the surface of the fleshly intimacy they fantasized of in tandem, there was a strong current of despair that she recognized just as well as she did the lust.

Without a word from him, without the learning of a single fact about him, before she even knew his name, she knew everything about him. She knew who he was at his core, where he was coming from in his life, what he was facing on the horizon and the battles he was fighting within the mysteriously curved enclosure of his mind.

He was a denizen of a dark realm, a place that she too had once called home. They were born of the same universe, had their roots in the same Cimmerian land of heartache and suffering. The only difference between them was that he was trying to navigate that place alone, without the proper guidance or tools to succeed.

While his physical body -- which was stunning and ravishing to her eyes -- was alive and extant in this, the reality of the droids, his inner self was far removed from this facade. The true man inside of him was hidden away from this land of foolish hope and blind faith. Within himself, where his spirit lie, he walked the mile in a cold and lonely expanse where only a cursed few are condemned to tread. A desolate, lonely and silent place overseen by the tyrant Mars. The realm of war and inner conflict, of battle with oneself and with the clowns of the real world. With the masses of unenlightened who drone away as slaves to sanity, the buffoons who believe that their reality is the only one that truly exists.

This man, this tall dark and absolutely fucking gorgeous man, was aware, and he knew the truth that was hidden from the world at large. He knew of that other reality. The realm of suffering, of agony and of torment. The realm of depression, a place where Nikki was no stranger, in any sense of the word.

She knew the alleys of that place well, she had dwelled in those screaming streets for most of her young life. It pained her to think that he was walking that plane alone, that he didn’t have anyone to show him how to live in the misery, in the darkness.

She wanted to help him, but she knew that a person held in the bondage of the heavy chains he bore is beyond the reach of anyone who would act to interfere with the suffering. A person like that, a person like him, is a prisoner. Until they, themselves recognize the shackles. Until they, themselves wipe away the tears. Until they, themselves decide to exalt what can be salvaged of their lives and take the step to reach out a hand for help. Until then, they are lost. Until then, they are hopeless. Until then, they are the living dead. There was nothing she could do to help him, until he decided to help himself. She could give him physical release, she could ease his mind, but she could not rescue him.

What troubled her the most was the evident fact that he was actively struggling against the sea of black water that surrounded him. In her experience, struggling for air was the worst thing that someone caught up in the rushing tides could do. When it becomes too much to keep your head above water calmly, when it’s simply beyond you to continue struggling in peace, a floatation device is required. A life preserver is necessary, a chemical intervention is indicated.

This man obviously didn’t have access to any of those things. That meant that either he hadn’t felt the water filling his lungs severely enough to force a cry for help, or that he was the stubborn type and was too proud to suck it up and seek proper care. Whichever was the case, he was obviously on his own at present. That couldn’t end well, she figured. It never does… it nearly hadn’t for her.

Summing him up as she did, she felt like the two of them were brethren. In that light, she examined the fact that his ring was gone and tried to calculate exactly what its absence meant. Possibly, it meant that he was open. That he was receptive, in his broken condition. That he might accept the limited help she could provide. That he desired that physical and mental release, the most primal of all releases.

Had he shut himself off entirely, had he flipped all of his emotional switches to their off positions, he wouldn’t have bothered to remove the silver band from his finger. Even if it didn’t stand for anything anymore, if his marriage was in ruins or long over, the act of keeping it on erected a barrier between him and the fairer sex. Even the ones without scruples would take pause in seeing it, because it indicated that he would have to be won instead of simply being had.

Its disappearance was a sign, it was a dropping of the guard he shielded himself behind. She was determined to figure out exactly what it was a sign of, and she intended to see if she might slip in through that tattered guard and reach him. If he was open to being helped, she wanted to try and help him. If he just wasn’t getting any from his wife and was suddenly feeling horny, she wanted to satisfy his appetite in that regard.

Whatever it was, whatever taking off his ring meant, she wanted to know… and she wanted to be close to him. Mentally, emotionally, spiritually, physically. She wanted to be inside of him… she wanted to have him inside of her… in every way that was possible.

My name is Nikki,” she said, trying to coax even the slightest lowering of his shield. “Nikki Spencer. We met last night, at Uncle Jim’s.”

Jake nodded in the light of the dashboard’s gauges, refusing to let her in… refusing to reach out to her.

“Thanks for what you did back there,” she continued. “I don’t know what the fuck got into that guy, he’s a whack job, I guess. I should’ve known when he started drinking, when he kept drinking. He had way too many, I should’ve known he was some kind of nut.”

“He said you took his wallet,” Jake declared in a firm tone, “did you consider for a moment that that was his problem? I imagine I’d be pretty pissed if you took my wallet, too.”

Nikki looked over to him as they sped down Route 4, both surprised that he managed to speak more than a single sentence to her and angered at what the words insinuated. His voice was deep and manly, the bass of it sending chills through her body. The sonic vibration radiated from her ears, where it entered her, to a space between her legs, where it resonated and reverberated.

Any degree of pleasure she took in the breakthrough of his engaging her died a hard death when she looked at him. He was looking back at her, between glances at the road, and his eyes were filled with accusation and contempt.

“So you believe him?” she asked, irritated. “You just accept the word of a drunken bum who likes to use his fists on his date?”

The cold stare he returned indicated to her that he did, which pissed her off beyond belief.

“It figures,” she chirped, wiping at her busted lip. “Bros over hoes, right?”

Shaking her head, she realized there was quite a bit of blood on her hand. Apparently, her date had gotten in a pretty good shot at her before she was so valiantly rescued. She must’ve bitten her lip when he did, because it hurt like hell and she could taste the injury.

“Do you have napkins?” she asked, scanning the darkened floor of the vehicle for anything of use.

“In the glovebox,” he replied.

Without asking permission, assuming it was implied, she opened it. Several things spilled out when she did, including a bottle of eye drops and the vehicle’s registration. Left inside were several Burger King napkins, a handful of which she snapped up before stuffing the other junk back in and slamming the door shut. Ever the opportunist, she took a peek at the name on the registration before returning it… Giguére Investigative Services LLC, it said. Boy, was that a lot for her to consider.

The napkins themselves still stank of Whoppers and fries, which made her hungry as she tended to the blood. It was more than a simple meal she wanted as she smelled the musk of sweat, adrenaline and Acqua Di Gio in concert with mayo, mustard and onions, and it was more than her mouth that longed to be fed.

If he only knew how his stubborn and adamant dismissal of her made her want him. Maybe he would’ve hated it, maybe it would’ve inspired him to handle this encounter differntly. Alternatively, perhaps he was working her methodically, pulling her strings in just the manner he wanted to. Maybe that was just his style.

Hard to get is sexy, no matter which gender is playing the role.

“I didn’t take his wallet,” she insisted, dabbing the brown napkin to her lip.

“Well it certainly wasn’t on him,” Jake proclaimed, his tone still firm and hard. “I felt every inch of the man’s clothes while we were wrestling, it wasn’t in his back pocket!”

Nikki made a dirty face and turned up her palms, taking an attitude to match -- and likely dwarf -- his own. " How the fuck should I know?” she snapped. “I told you, he was drunk! He probably left the fucking thing at the bet window, or at the concession stand when he bought his seventh beer!”

Based upon the look he wore when she spoke the words, it was clear to Nikki that this Giguére guy wasn’t buying it. Maybe he wasn’t playing hard to get after all, maybe he was just a straight-up dick. Even that idea made her want to mount him, in her twisted sensabilities.

Approaching the park, they turned onto Woodstock and then onto Oakwood. From there, he took a strange route that made her wonder if he knew the place as well as he claimed he did. Eventually, after traveling far out of their way and winding around from the backside, they pulled up in front of her trailer.

Jake had consciously taken this route, which allowed him to avoid driving directly passed fourteen-thirty Applewood. It was right in front of them, though, as he pulled over to the curb and parked. Looking down to his lap, where things were still stirring, he tried not to dwell upon the horrific thing he now knew was still there. It wasn’t pink anymore, at least it didn’t look it in the dark, but the shadow of the home situated where Tracy’s trailer used to be looked very familiar to him nonetheless. It was the same trailer at fourteen-thirty Applewood that had been there in the nineties, and that royally sucked.

“Well, thanks,” Nikki said with a snark. Realizing that this moment may be the last time she ever saw the man, that it may be the only chance she’d ever have to reach out to him, she tried to tame her wild sarcasm. If this was to be the end, she wanted to leave his life on a positive note. She liked this guy, even if it was unrequited. Offering an olive branch, she took a softer tone and offered up the praise that he had, after all, earned with his chivalrous actions. “Look,” she began, as warm as she could possibly be. “Whoever you are, what you did was very noble. I appreciate it, and I thank you.”

As hollow as he figured her words might be, she delivered them with a sincerity that worked to soften his heart. She was young -- though certainly not innocent -- and regardless of what may or may not have happened between her and her date, she was vulnerable as they sat, at this moment. He was actively trying to hide his inner self from her, just as he had back at the diner. This wasn’t the result of anything she had done, but was instead because the intensity of the connection he felt in locking eyes with her had jarred him. She was not to blame for his retreat from her, he was.

This wasn’t something unique to her, either, he never let anyone inside with him. Tracy and his son were the only exceptions, and the backdraft he exposed them to in being open with them had ruined everything they held dear. He kept people out to protect them, because he was embarrassed of what lived beneath the hard exterior he projected to the public at large. He was rancid beneath his skin, beneath the suit of armor he wore through life. Even Hephaestus would stand at attention in admiration of his expertly forged chainmaille, it was just that solid and impenetrable.

Initially, Nikki’s attempts to pierce the veil had irritated him. Deep inside, he knew that his reluctance to let her do it was just a reflexive response he’d developed to stave off all intruders. She was exposing her inner self to him as they sat in front of her home, a place that was only ten or twelve trailers away from the one he would live in for at least a week or two. He would likely run into her again, and she would likely continue to try to break his defenses.

With that on his mind, he started to wonder whether it was his hiding from the world that led him to this cold and lonely place of darkness, this fog that he was lost in. For the first time in his life, he felt a strange compulsion to open the door and let her in. Maybe there was comfort in her light? Maybe she could bring him a degree of peace in the days to come? He’d never know if he pissed all hope of that away by remaining stoic in this moment.

The uncertainty was uncomfortable, he couldn’t decide whether to chase her away with a pitchfork or to snatch her up in a tight and passionate kiss. On the surface, he was inclined to run her off… but there was a little voice inside of him that longed for company, that begged for anyone to be by his side for the trials that were to come. That person couldn’t be Chucky, because he was indisposed. It couldn’t be Donnell, because he had a life to live. It couldn’t be Clyde Rambo, because he was an old man without the energy to climb the mountains that lie ahead. It certainly couldn’t be Tracy, because she had written him off.

Could it be Nikki? Could she be his Sherpa?

He didn’t know… wasn’t sure if dragging her along was a good idea or an awful one… couldn’t say if he wanted her as a confidant, as a partner in crime or perhaps even something so intimate as a fuck buddy in these, the last days of his life. If she could be any of those things, though… if she could fill any of those shoes for him, that would be more than he had at present. Certainly, it would be more than he would have otherwise for the remainder of forever, as it applied to him.

Many seconds of uncomfortable silence having passed, the girl resigned herself to not receiving a response and opened her door sharply. Hurt and pissed, she slammed it shut once she was clear of it and started storming toward her front door.

Still uncertain, still hesitant, Jake made a snap decision that he couldn’t just let her walk away… he couldn’t shut her out of his life, the way he shut everyone else out… he couldn’t walk the road ahead totally alone. Wherever it may lead him, whatever he might find waiting for him at its end, he wanted someone to be beside him when he got there.

Wait!” he called after her desperately, hopefully and cautiously.

She stopped and turned, locking eyes with him again in mutual consent… locking eyes with the same intensity and depth of emotion they had shared the night before.

“It’s Jake,” he declared.

Nikki stood frozen in the darkness, staring back at him with her hunger, staring back at him with her desire. The answer not enough, not sufficiently complete in her mind, she begged the rest. “Jake what?” she asked, wanting the exchange to be in full disclosure, even though she suspected she already knew the rest.

Ob,” he replied, still guarding the rampart just a bit.

Huh?” she furled her brow in reply. “Ob? What the hell kind of name is that? Jake Ob?

Their ocular coupling was broken when she rolled her eyes, deciphering what he meant and shaking her head at his sarcasm. He smiled in return, and the smile melted her where she stood. As the Malibu pulled away, she felt a moisture that was no stranger to her, no stranger to her at all.

God, she wanted that man… shattered, mending or put all together, it didn’t matter. She’d take him as he came.

Jake locked his stare on the surface of Oakwood, refusing to pay any mind to the former Swete home as his car rolled right by it. He didn’t intend to go directly back to Chucky’s, so he headed back to Woodstock to make his way out of The Meadows. The decision was based equally on the influence of two factors, two distinct issues that he decided he could not ignore.

His first objection was to Nikki knowing that he was living so close to her, but that concern was a distant second in his reasoning. More urgent and more pressing, so far as he was concerned, was a tingling sensation he felt… a phenomena that was independent from and unrelated to the things that were stirring in his pants. It was something he hadn’t felt in quite some time, but that made it no less disconcerting this evening. As he turned back onto Route 4, he had that old overriding sense that he was being followed.

Someone was on his tail, someone who wasn’t a friend of his and didn’t wish him well… someone he intended to shake and to identify, lest things go sour and spoil his night.

 

TWENTY-SEVEN

 

 

September 10th, 2016. 11:10PM

Burlwood, Indiana

 

Jake had driven forty miles around in circles, weaving down back roads and taking shortcuts that only the initiated of Burlwood would know. Unable to shake his feeling, he traveled halfway to Garthby before pulling a highly illegal U-turn, right in the middle of Route 7. That should’ve exposed whomever was after him, he should’ve been able to see them as he spun around and headed back into his home town.

Checking his mirrors all the while, scanning his surroundings like a bobblehead, he tried to figure out exactly who was tailing him and why. Seeing nothing out of the ordinary, convincing himself that no one could possibly have followed him without being busted by his trickery, he started to wonder if this whole affair had been a false alarm.

If it was, it would’ve been the first time he was wrong. His sixth-sense was pretty accurate, and he trusted it implicitly. Despite his efforts, though, he couldn’t zero in on any pursuer, couldn’t catch his predator in the act. That didn’t negate the feeling, it was still strong, and he was sure that someone was tracking him through the cloak of night.

Maybe it was a friend of the guy he’d stomped at the track… maybe it was some jealous ex or current boyfriend of Nikki’s… maybe it was a cop looking for an account of what happened at The Downs… maybe it was Sheriff Ron Boudreaux himself, out to babysit and make sure the thorn in his side wasn’t stirring the pot.

Whoever it was, Jake couldn’t finger him… he hadn’t been able to catch him red handed. Still, he knew there must be someone. To concede that there wasn’t was to turn his back on an instinct that never steered him wrong in the past.

Conceding the fact that whomever was tracking him must be better at staying hidden in the shadows than he was at exposing them to the headlights of his Malibu was a tough pill to swallow. Having no other choice than to choke it down, he pulled off the road and into a parking lot he hadn’t seen for many, many years.

Looking upon Butcher’s Lane Provisions, he was shocked to find the lights of the storefront burning. Daryl Lane was apparently working awfully late on a Saturday night. That seemed suspicious, right out of the gate. Reading the Business Hours sign that hung on the building’s door, he noted that the old man should’ve locked up and gone home over four hours ago.

Slamming the gearshift into park, he decided he was going in. Puffing another cigarette, he thought over what he would say and considered how he would broach the subject of suspicions. Plotting out how he would engage in the interrogation of a man he once saw as a victim instead of as a suspect, he wondered how he would manage to keep control.

Mister Lane had always seemed so kind, his son had been so sweet and full of love. The idea that Drake could’ve met his death at the gentle, familiar hands of his own father was as incomprehensible to him now as it was when Rambo first suggested it. His personal feelings aside, he owed it to Chucky to thoroughly investigate the allegation. If Mister Lane had been The Butcher, if he had killed Duncan, Banks, Dawson, Wade, Marshall, if he had murdered his own son… if he had killed Billy Marsh, he must be held to account for his deeds. As unlikely as it all seemed, it was possible… so he had to address it.

He knew this task wasn’t going to be easy, but he was going to have to feel the butcher out. He was going to have to jam a probe way up his ass, just as he initially planned to do. That was going to suck, but it was a necessary evil.

Trying to dance the dance of conversation and deception in his mind, he worked to anticipate and scout out every avenue the discussion might go down. Knowledge is power, and planning is essential. Savoring his menthol, he calculated how he would control the flow of information. If he followed the tune, if he kept up with the rhythm and the beat, he could juice the man of every word he was worth. With his answers, he could determine Daryl’s innocence or his guilt through careful observation.

When he felt as prepared for the exchange as he thought was possible, he discovered he had smoked another Newport all the way to the butt. Flicking it out the window briskly, he prepared to do verbal battle with an old friend.

Confidently, he stepped out of the car and approached the door. Absorbing everything he saw, he realized the entryway looked much the same as the one he’d walked through so many years ago, when he sought to pick up his friend for a day of raising hell on the haunted streets of Burlwood.

Reaching out his hand, he tried to turn the doorknob but found it rigid and locked in place. There were horizontal blinds over the window at the top of the door, so he tried to peer inside. Perhaps Daryl had simply forgotten to turn the lights off when he closed up shop for the evening. Unable to see anything, he was prepared to accept that this was the case when the sound of a power tool spinning up to speed startled him.

Clearly, someone was inside.

Trying the knob again convinced him that the door was truly and completely locked. Deciding to try knocking, he rapped softly on the wood several times in an effort to avoid spooking the old man. When there came no response, he pounded a bit harder. His hand didn’t much appreciate it, as it hadn’t recovered from putting the smackdown on Nikki’s date. Nothing happened even then, so he switched over to his left and pounded with all he was worth. The racket he made finally won over the noise of a motor whining inside and the shop fell silent for a moment.

We’re closed!” an aged voice eventually called, muffled a bit by the door between them. “Come back in the morning!

Mister Lane,” Jake shouted back, “it’s me! It’s Jacob Giguére!

Who?” the voice asked with a hint of recognition and disbelief.

It’s Darkwing!” he elaborated. “Please, I need to talk to you!

The old building rattled as the man inside moved to the door. Suddenly, a set of chubby fingers split the blinds and the face of Daryl Lane appeared in the opening.

Jacob?” he said, surprise and pleasure evident in his voice and upon his face.

There were several loud clicks and clacks as he worked the locks, the door swinging open thereafter with enthusiasm as the old man stepped out with a glowing smile.

“Jacob!” he repeated. “My God, boy, is it really you?”

Jake nodded and smiled, though no further convincing was needed. In his youth, Jacob had born a strong resemblance to Timmy Lane. The hair, the brow, the cheeks, the lips. They were all as they were before, all just the same as Timmy’s. They were a bit more pronounced with age, a bit more mature with the passage of time, but they were still very familiar to Daryl.

In laying eyes upon the adult form of Darkwing, Lane imagined he was looking at what might have been. He was seeing what Timmy might have grown to be, had his candle not been snuffed out prematurely. It was gut wrenching to behold, but it was joyous… it was terrible, but it was divine.

Oh, Jacob!” the man bellowed as he wrapped his arms around the visitor and squeezed him as tightly as his old body could. “Merciful Lord, I can’t believe you’re here!

Jake struggled for a breath in the bear-hug, which was difficult because Mister Lane had become quite a burly man and had some power in his muscles. Wearing bloodied whites, the butcher seemed shorter than he had been before, but there was definitely more to his mass than in the days of old. It seemed he drowned his sorrows in buckets of ice cream and top sirloin, apparently seeking comfort in the stuffing of his belly, which took a toll on his figure. Behind the softness of his flesh, though, were muscles accustomed to physical work. Jake could feel their conditioning in the squeeze, and he could tell that the added weight provided additional leverage instead of being an incumbrance to him.

Daryl Lane in 2016 was a large and powerful man… one who was of sound mind and body. He was a man who could easily subdue a nine year old child, if that was his desire. That put his name above Evander Hughes on the suspect list. That left him in the game and in contention for the title The Butcher Of Burlwood, past and present.

“It’s been a long time,” Jake managed to squeak somehow with his ribs constricted, shuddering at the thought of the transfer that must be taking place between his relatively clean clothes and the raw meat covered apron of the old man. “It’s good to see you again, Mister Lane!”

“It’s Daryl,” the man said kindly, finally releasing his deathly squeeze. “You know full well it’s Daryl, Jacob! My father’s name was Mister Lane!”

Stepping back to take him in, Daryl looked Jake over as intently as Nikki had done back at Uncle Jim’s. His smile was wide, still glowing and full of warmth.

Feeling a bit awkward at being examined so closely by a grown man, Jake let his lungs fill back to capacity and looked down to confirm what he feared. He was, in fact, sporting hunks of animal flesh on his shirt after the hug. Trying to ignore them, trying to resist the urge to brush them off, he put a friendly hand on Mister Lane’s shoulder. “Can I come in?” he asked.

Daryl invited him openly, letting him step inside before setting about locking the door again.

“It’s a shame, ya’ know,” the man said as he flicked bolts and fastened a safety chain. “Back when you were a boy, back when Timmy was alive, I barely ever locked this door! The people were different, then… different than the way the people are today. I swear, they’d cart my whole shop away in the night if I didn’t have it as secure as Fort Knox!”

“Has it changed that much?” Jake asked curiously.

“Oh, it has!” Lane replied. “I can barely recognize this town anymore, I have no idea what’s become of the place!”

Ron Boudreaux has become of the place, Jake thought but didn’t say aloud. That was Rambo’s problem, now. “I was surprised to see that you’re here this late,” he remarked instead. “Seems awful late for a small town butcher to be working on a Saturday night.”

“Well, the carnival is on,” Daryl explained, his inflection showing a note of displeasure. “I guess I’m lucky to get the business. They could’ve brought in their own fixings for the burgers, barbecue and their steak and cheese sandwiches. I’m grateful for the money and the work, I just wish it didn’t bring back so many memoriesMerciful Lord, the memories!”

Jake could sympathize, memories are a bitch. It was surprising that he hadn’t noticed the carnival, he’d driven by Our Mother at least twice since he’d been in town. Apparently, his tunnel-vision had blocked out the rides and concession stands, had blocked out the church in its entirety as one of the things he wasn’t ready to face yet. Knowing now that it was in town, he would have to check it out… he would be remiss in not checking it out, shaking it down and looking for anything out of place. Hell, maybe the new-age Butcher would try to snatch another child from it… the way The Butcher of old had snatched Timmy.

“Is it still just the one weekend?” he inquired, trying to work it into his agenda for Sunday.

"Yep," Lane confirmed. "Yesterday, today, tomorrow. I guess they're doing good business out there this year, I thought I had enough meat delivered to them last night to carry them all the way through -- with leftovers to spare. They called this morning and ordered a good deal more, though, so here I stand -- fixing it up."

“I hate to trouble you,” Jake offered, “maybe I should just come back some other time.”

What?” Daryl asked. “No! You’ve been away all these years, you’re not just gonna turn around and walk back out my door! No, you’re gonna stay right here and chat a while!”

“But you’ve got work to do,” the visitor continued, not really intending to leave at all, but doing a damn good job at putting up a front. “I don’t want to be in your way!”

“You could never be in my way, Jacob!” the butcher insisted. “I can work and talk! I can chew bubblegum and walk at the same time, too! In fact,” he continued, putting on a pair of safety goggles and retrieving a set of nitrile gloves from a carton, “you can help!

Jake was mortified as the man held his box of gloves out, urging him to take a pair of his own. Not thrilled at the idea, he took two and snapped them onto his hands. Daryl then produced an apron, which would’ve been nice to have earlier, and a second pair of safety glasses.

Once he was all dressed up, he held out his hands as though to ask what he was expected to do. Lane stepped over to his bandsaw and pressed an illuminated green button, setting the blade in motion. Jake was mesmerized by it for a moment as it spun, quickly whizzing up to speed and humming softly with vicious power.

“Hand me one of those quarters,” the craftsman said, pointing to large slabs of meat on a stainless steel table between the two of them.

Jake did as directed, finding the chunk of cow -- or whatever it was -- much heavier than he expected it to be. He felt bones inside of it, beneath thick pads of cooled flesh and fat. When he'd passed it to Mister Lane, the man slapped it on his cutting table and adjusted several metal guards around the saw's blade.

With only the softest push, he slid the meat into the blade and it went to work slicing through it. It was amazing how cleanly and easily the saw chewed through the flesh, chewed through the fat, chewed through the bone. It was like a hot knife through soft butter, just as Rambo had described it.

Daryl quickly had the slab cut into manageable pieces, flipping and slapping them against the steel to feed them to the mechanical beast at different angles, ripping and tearing it down with precision and finesse.

Before a minute’s time had elapsed, he was asking for another quarter to break down. Jake watched in awe, and he couldn’t help imagine something entirely different being devoured by that glistening blade. He tried to resist, but he couldn't help seeing Drake -- seeing little Timmy Lane -- his body cut in pieces, his arm being slid along those guides and so gracefully ripped asunder. His left hand passed through the teeth in Jake's mind, his thumb dropping to the table and being pocketed as a souvenir, as a trophy, as a prize

If anyone had the stomach to do it, if anyone had the knowledge to do it, if anyone had the equipment to do it… surely it was Daryl Lane, surely it was Timmy’s father, surely it was The Butcher, the man who just happened to be the butcher of Burlwood quite literally.

Christ, it could’ve happened right here.

It could’ve happened just like this.

It could’ve happened over, and over, and over, and over, and over, and over, and Billy Marsh equals number seven, so one more over again.

“Tell me, Jacob,” Daryl said, speaking loudly to be heard over the noise of the saw. “What brings you back here, after all this time? I thought you had pulled up stakes, I never expected to see you here again!”

“Well,” Jake began, struggling to take his eyes off of the spectacle as he fed the butcher another quarter to cut and shape. “I’m looking into something,” he said, intentionally vague in his strategy and in avoidance of breaking the rules as laid out by Ron Boudreaux. “I guess you could say I’m taking a bit of a survey.”

What?” Lane chuckled. “So you want to know what FM stations I listen to on the weekends or something? You’re interested in what brand of pasta I prefer when I cook spaghetti? Come on, Jacob! I know what you do for a living, I’ve heard the whispers about why you’ve come back home!”

This surprised Jake, caught him off guard. What kind of whispers was he referring to? Who was whispering? Still trying to maintain a degree of decorum, he danced the dance. “What’s the word on the street?”

“They say you’re out here looking into the old murders,” the butcher replied. “That you’re trying to tie them to what happened to little Billy Marsh!”

Stunned, Jake paused and thought. How the hell would word of that get around? There was only one answer, the answer he feared most.

“Don’t look so shocked,” Lane added, asking with a gesture for the final quarter. “It’s a small town, Jacob! Word gets around!”

Immediately on the defensive -- which was not where he expected to be -- he recalculated and back pedaled with haste. "Actually, I'm just here to visit with some old friends. I heard Chucky was in trouble, and it made me think about how long it'd been since I was last out here. I guess I got to feeling nostalgic, I wanted to check out what had become of my old neighborhood."

Right,” Daryl smiled again. “Don’t worry, Jake, I’m on your side!”

“My side in what?” he probed. “Who have you been talking to?”

“Ron Boudreaux was here, I’m sure you’ve figured that out by now.”

“Yeah, I suppose I have,” Jake groaned.

“He said he wanted me to call him if I saw you, wanted me to tell him if you came around asking questions that you didn’t need to be asking.”

With the last of his quarters cut down, Lane set to work on carving out slabs of ribs from the scraps he’d set aside. Jake digested the revelation as he watched, considering how best to counter.

“And how did you respond to that directive?” he wondered, watching the master do his thing.

“I nodded and smiled,” Lane replied, “then when he was clear of the door, I told him to blow it out his ass! You know me better than that, Jacob, you know I don’t just fall in line and jump when the man says to jump! Especially when the man is Deputy Ron Boudreaux!”

Thank you,” Jake said, relieved.

“Besides,” Daryl continued, still at work with the saw. “I’m all for somebody looking into what happened to my boy… to my sweet little boy, merciful Lord! Timmy is still owed justice. He deserves justice! If Boudreaux can’t find the answer, why wouldn’t I want someone else to dig in and try for themselves?”

Excellent,” the visitor replied, his wheels starting to turn and spin up to speed. His mind whizzing and whining, as the saw blade had, and preparing to breach raw flesh. “Then you won’t mind answering a couple of questions for me?”

Lane was wrapping up his work, setting aside perfectly cut half-slabs of ribs, blocks that appeared to be brisket, three shanks and many strips of chuck. He piled everything onto sheets of wax paper atop a stainless table to his right, surveying the quantities and calculating in his mind.

“I’d be happy to,” he said. “But I’m gonna need a few more quarters, first. I have two halves hanging in the cooler, that should cover it. Since I’ll be doing you a favor in answering your questions, one I was told not to do, maybe you could give my old bones a break by pulling one of the halves out here for me?”

“Yeah, no problem!” Jake answered. “Is the cooler still through the far door?”

Daryl nodded and chuckled. “Right where Chucky found it, back in the old days!”

Moving to a heavy insulated wall panel, Jake figured out that he needed to slide it in order to gain access to the cold room. Grabbing hold of a handle at its right side, he gave a mighty tug and was greeted by a blast of chilled air. Riding upon the surge was a pungent smell that was unmistakable to him. It wasn’t foul, it wasn’t spoiled, it wasn’t putrid, but it was still the odor of death… a sweet and sour aroma of passing, chilled and preserved.

Upon seeing what was inside, his heart fell to his ankles. It was a remarkable physical sensation, like a cone of coldness that rolled from the top of his head to the bottom of his feet, and it left him reeling. In the cooler were two quite literal halves of a cow…. and they were hanging from the ceiling, suspended by chains wrapped around what would be their ankles. They spun lazily in their postmortem repose, stripped of their innards and their flesh, twirling and swirling slowly, swirling, swirling in the forced breeze of glycol chilled air.

Clink, clank, twirl…

Click, clack, sway…

Following the chains up to the ceiling with his eyes, he saw large metal hooks that intercepted each of them. The hooks were in turn bolted to some sort of metal collar that was rectangular and held a captive steel caster at its top. The casters were locked into a track that ran along the ceiling. It was a trolley system of sorts, which ran in a zig-zag pattern throughout the cooler. Near the door, the maze of rails came together and fed into a single beam that led out into the work area of the shop.

Having scanned the works above, Jake looked down towards the ground, where drops of chilled blood were falling to the concrete sporadically. There was moisture all over the floor, a mixture of condensed water and the fluids of death. Occasionally, a horde of tiny drops would join forces and form a glob. When such an uprising occurred, a shallow and barely visible grade would pull the liquid to the very center of the room, where the glob would be swallowed by an old and filthy looking drain cover.

To keep the mess, if you will, contained, the voice of Clyde Rambo spoke in his head.

Yes, this would be the perfect place for a ritual slaughter… the perfect place to hang a child from his ankles, to lay open his throat with a swift and definitive swipe of the blade… to let all of his blood, all of his life, all of his essence spill from his wounded body. The mess would ride the slope down into the drain, where it would presumably find a path to the sewer or a grease trap of some sort. A quick pass with a floor squeegee would erase all signs of anything suspicious, a rinse of bleach water would restore a semblance of cleanliness and normalcy… no one would be the wiser.

Is this where the boys met their deaths?

Is this the land of Bismilah, and it’s over?

Is this the place where The Shechita, where The Dhabihah was carried out on the six fallen children?

On the seventh fallen child, little Billy Marsh?

Hey!” Daryl Lane’s call startled him, snapping him back to reality. “You okay in there?

Jake took a breath, trying to erase an image of naked children dangling on the trolley from his mind. It was like a nightmare, like a horror movie produced in the confines of his mind and distributed in limited release, for his eyes only.

He could see all of them in there, all together, like some macabre extended family. Seven dead children crammed into the confined space, their necks sliced wide open, their faces cold and lifeless, their arms dangling down and swinging in the frigid air, swirling, swirling. Seven innocent children dangling, seven victims of a monster in repose, seven bodies waiting for their turn, waiting for their number to be called, waiting for their final disposition. Waiting for their time to be butchered by The Butcher. As their hands swung lazily on the breeze, their fingers nearly brushed the floor where there was so much bloodgallons and gallons of blood. A pass with the squeegee, a splash with the bleach, a thousand revolutions of a razor sharp saw blade, and bring in the halves because this place is clean…

As he stepped inside and laid hands on the nearest half cow, he saw the children’s faces. Locked in terror, locked in horror and in pain, their jaws were agape, their eyes were rolled back and hanging open, their blood was dripping in rivers of bright crimson that rolled down and colored the pallid white flesh of their brows. It drenched their hair, changing it from blonde and brown and black to burgundy, painting them with the Masque of the Red Death, painting them with their necrosis and their end.

Pulling the mass of bovine forward, the trolley track rumbled with friction and the strain of moving weight. There was a clack as the caster transitioned from the system in the cooler to the lone rail that led into the workspace of the shop. He could still see the children in there as he started to slide the door closed behind him, and just before it thundered into place he saw a flash of movement.

He gasped as the arms of one particular corpse fired up in a wild seizure of cracking rigor and reached out for him… reached out in begging, in longing for the peace that only answers would bring, in desperation for that final rest that they could only achieve through justice being served. It was Timmy, of course, who snapped to life. Both of his hands were extended to Jacob in a cry for help, his left thumb nothing but a bloody stump, and oh God, I can see the bone in there!

Christ, his heart was pounding and his blood pressure soaring as he turned to Daryl Lane. Feeling feint, he wondered if his flesh had turned as white as the dead bodies drained of their blood. In the heat of the moment, he felt he might break down and accuse the butcher of being The Butcher plainly, blowing any chance at gleaning tangible information to help him build a case. He couldn’t do that, he had to resist the temptation to do that…

Thanks!” Lane praised him as the half rolled along the track, moving towards the bandsaw and the workspace.

Jake said nothing, just tried to steady himself and the tremors he felt throughout his body, his muscles weak and throbbing under the strain of horrors. Daryl picked up a different type of saw, a corded one, which was made of heavy metal and had a long blade like the electric knifes that were all the craze in the nineties… the ones that people carved their turkeys with at their holiday tables.

Positioning the cow over one of his tables, he pulled the trigger on the tool and a loud vibration spoke out with the violent reciprocation of the blade. As though the carcass was made of Jello, the blade chewed through the flesh. Before long, the half itself was cut in half. Lane left the upper portion hanging from the ceiling and slid the lower, which crashed to his table with a clap, over to his bandsaw to continue the process.

“What kind of questions have you got?” he asked simply, preparing to work over the fresh quarter.

Jake gathered his thoughts and prepared to get the conversation back on the rails he had envisioned. Working from a mental checklist, he began his questioning. “Tell me what you know about Billy Marsh,” he said. “I really don’t have a lot of information on him, it’s hard to proceed without understanding who the victim was.”

“You probably know more than I do about him,” Daryl said, pushing the meat through his spinning blade. “I wasn’t very well acquainted with The Marshes. I know they have money, they live out in Bumfuck Burlwood. I only saw them in here once, they bought a few pounds of top sirloin and filet.”

“Did you ever run into them at Our Mother?”

Lane chuckled. “I haven’t been to church in fourteen years, Jacob,” he explained. “When Timmy was taken from me, I thought I might find some answers in that ever mysterious God of ours. It didn’t go that way… in fact, you could say it went the opposite way.”

Jake nodded, understanding. “Yeah, for such a benevolent creature, he sure does like to turn that cold shoulder, doesn’t he?”

“At least to me, he does.” Lane acknowledged. “I suppose you must’ve had the same experience, you must know how badly it can hurt.”

“Tell me about Chucky, then,” Jake countered. “What’s his life been like since we all left town?”

“Chucky?” Daryl said, cutting out another brisket. “He’s much the same as he always was, still a sweet and innocent boy. It’s been hard on him, since his mother died. Getting along, I mean, without her. He’s always tight on money, always rubbing nickels together to pay the bills. He doesn’t get very much between Social Security and his work at the church. He straddles that poverty line, but he could make it work, if he really tried. I think it’s asking too much of him, though, he’s just not cut out for life on his own. He can’t really process the whole rationing thing… money burns a hole in his pocket when he’s got it, and it’s gone in short order. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to give him meat, because he’s run out of money and doesn’t have a scrap to eat.”

“Yeah,” Jake replied, “that reminds me of something I wanted to ask you. Did he bring you a deer in his trunk a while back? A deer he found on the side of the road?”

Lane nodded, working a slab of ribs. “Yeah, he did. The thing was nasty, I don’t know what the hell he was thinking!”

“But he had it in his trunk, right?”

“Yep.”

“Was it bleeding? Could you tell if it left any blood behind in his car?”

“Oh, I dunno,” he answered, moving the guides on his table to adjust his cut and mulling the question over. “It had blood around its mouth, but it seemed pretty dried out to me. I suppose it could’ve leaked some gut fluids or something in there, but I can’t say for sure. I take it there must be some question about it?”

“Yeah, Boudreaux found blood in his trunk and surmised that it was Billy Marsh’s. Chucky couldn’t explain it, shy of saying it could’ve been from the deer.”

“I would believe it was from the deer before I believed it was from Billy,” Daryl suggested. “I feel like I know Chucky pretty well, and he doesn’t seem the type to do something so awful. I can’t imagine him doing anything like what was done to that poor little boy. I certainly know he didn’t do anything to my Timmy, why should I believe he did it to this Marsh boy?”

This made the hair stand on the back of Jake’s neck, and he was immediately uncomfortable. What did Daryl know of what had been done to Billy Marsh?

The report Louie Rambo furnished wasn’t publicly disclosed, how the hell could Daryl Lane know of any similarities between the boy’s death and those who came before him? How could he know that Billy was treated much the same as Timmy? How could he know that there was a common pattern that linked them?

“What was done to Billy Marsh?” he asked, trying not to show his suspicion.

“He was killed!” Lane answered plainly. “Killed and cut up, just like before!”

“On what do you base that assumption?” Jake countered, his tone carrying notes of accusation that escaped against his will.

What assumption?” the butcher asked, setting the shank of his quarter aside. “The assumption that he’s dead? Hell, it was all over the news! The assumption that they found him cut up in the woods right across the street? I work here, Jacob, I saw them bringing his little body parts out!”

Finished with his cutting, Lane turned off the bandsaw and moved his strips of chuck over to an industrial sized grinder that was fixed to the counter. When he flipped its switch, a loud hum overtook the shop. His black gloves were bloodied, so the first hunk of meat he tried to lift into the hopper nearly slipped from his grasp. Catching it before it could fall to the floor, he fed it into the mouth of the machine and forced it down. Immediately, the solid chuck started coiling out of the grinder in finely marbled strands.

“So you just assumed that his death was similar to that of the other boys?” Jake asked. “You just figured that this was the return of The Butcher, just like that?”

“Is that a stretch?” Lane wondered, using a weighted tool to force every bit of the first strip through the grinder before feeding in a second. “I didn’t think it was, it only makes sense! What are you insinuating, Jacob?”

“Oh, nothing,” Jake lied. “I’m just trying to get a full picture, that’s all. It seems to me that most people around here are hesitant to speak of The Butcher. They certainly were back in the day, you know that as well as I do. With that said, I guess it just struck me as odd that you would fall back to it and believe this was some kind of rebirth.”

“I don’t know that it is a rebirth,” he offered, “I guess I just figured the song remains the same, ya’ know? We had six murders happen out here, the only six that’ve ever occurred in our little town. When a seventh comes along and the victim fits the profile of the first six… it’s simple math, to me. “

Jake nodded.

“Maybe I was too presumptuous, but if anyone has the right to be… wouldn’t it be me? Or the parents of the other boys? We’ve been through it, we’ve been haunted by it. Maybe, as a result, we’re not so apt to hide from it as the others are, because the demons of this town have already hurt us as badly as they possibly could! Why try to take cover from a monster once it’s already disembowled you? What more can it do to you? What sense is there in being afraid of it? When you’ve lost everything, what is left to lose in facing the facts?”

“I guess I hadn’t thought of it that way,” Jake replied. “It makes perfect sense, I suppose.”

Daryl shrugged and fed a third piece of chuck into his machine, sliding a loaded sheet of wax paper out of the way and placing another to catch the next deluge of meat. “Maybe it’s wishful thinking,” he continued. “Maybe I hope it was the same guy, and that they get him this time! Nothing would bring me more pleasure, Jacob, than having an officer of the law march in here and tell me that this Marsh boy’s death was linked to my Timmy’s, and that they finally caught the motherfucker!”

When the curse left his lips, he blushed dramatically. Jake had never heard such intense language spewing from his mouth, he was always a well controlled and reserved man.

Sorry, Jacob,” he said, burying his head in his hands and wiping his brow. “You’ll have to pardon my language! I’m still a little sensitive about that whole thing, sometimes my emotions get the better of me!”

“No need to apologize,” Jake said.

In the moment, he felt instinctively that this was the window, that this was the time for making the first cut. The man’s guard was down, his emotions were getting the better of him. If ever there was an opportunity to look inside of him for answers, it was now. The idea pained him, and he knew it would pain Daryl even more, but it had to be done… there was no room to protect anyone’s feelings.

“Nothing would make me happier than being the one to catch him,” he explained. “That’s what I intend to do, that’s why I came back home. I’m going to do it, Daryl, whether Ron Boudreaux likes it or not.”

“Good for you, son!” Lane applauded as more beautiful hamburger poured from the mouth of his grinder. “And believe me, I’ll do whatever I can to help! Just say the word, and I’ll jump!”

Great!” Jake replied, planting his feet and preparing for the dive. “But I don’t know if right now is the best time for us to discuss it. I’d like for us to sit down somewhere, with no distractions, and have a nice long conversation about everything.”

“Fine by me,” Lane said, “so long as we can find a time that doesn’t interfere with my business. I still run a one man shop! These cows won’t break themselves down!”

“I’ll give you a call to set it up once I’ve got my schedule worked out. I’m staying at Chucky’s place, so I’m near by… I can work with you, it won’t be a problem.”

Jake paused on that note, letting the grinder do its work for a few seconds, letting the hook find a comfortable spot before he would tug the line and set it in. Lane seemed oblivious to what was coming, he didn’t seem to see through the front that Jake was putting up… he didn’t seem to see him coiling like the ground beef, like a rattlesnake, preparing to strike.

“I wonder if I might ask a favor of you, in the meantime,” Jake continued, maintaining a calm in his tone.

“Sure, what do you need?”

“Well,” he hesitated. “I don’t know whether you can help me or not. You see, Chucky’s house is empty when it comes to food. I guess I must’ve caught him at one of his low points with money, because the cupboards are bare and the fridge is totally empty.”

“Ah!” Daryl smiled, feeding another strip into the machine. “Of course I can help you with that! You’re in need of a care package! Just like the old days!”

“You could say that,” Jake answered. “But I’ll pay you for it, I’m not after a handout.”

“I wouldn’t think of taking your money, Jacob!” Lane declared. “You brought a lot of joy to my son when he was alive. I’ll be forever in your debt for that, and giving you some good food is the least that I can do in return!”

“I insist on paying,” Jake replied. “Especially since I’m after a specialty product.”

“And I insist on giving, even if you’re after ten pounds of prime rib!”

“Well, actually, it’s a bit more specific than that,” he said, letting it simmer. “It’s a bit more specialized than that, which is why I’m not sure that you can help. You see, I’ve altered my diet a bit since I left town. A few years back, I bought some tainted meat and got very sick. Ended up in the hospital, actually. Since then, I’m very picky about what I eat. I’m on a very strict regiment that consists of only thoroughly inspected and carefully handled foods. To that end, I only consume kosher products…”

Lane froze, solidly and instantly. His eyes darted up from the grinder and stabbed at Jacob, stabbed him over and over again with daggers of anger and resentment. Without shifting his gaze, he reached out and yanked the plug of the grinder from the wall. There was a thud as he carelessly dropped the cord, the humming of the machine dying slowly and leaving them surrounded by the sounds of silence.

What?” Jake asked carefully, the buzzing of the fluorescent lights overhead stinging his ears in the hush. “You do have kosher products… don’t you?

Daryl’s chest rose and fell sharply, the man breathing the thickened atmosphere in through his nose and exhaling it with ire, as invisible flames of rage, from his mouth. He didn’t speak, but the silence shouted out his fury… shouted out his anguish, his torment.

“Did I touch a nerve?” Jake inquired coldly, fixing his stare on the butcher as intently as the butcher’s was on him.

The crickets were deafening as they stood for what seemed a long, long time. Neither of them saying a word, they were engaged in a contentious sabre dance for control and for dominance. The old sage and the young fool, they clashed violently over a breach of familiarities. It was a staring contest for all of the marbles, a game of chicken in which the first to flinch was damned for all time.

Eventually, Daryl spoke. His voice was no longer raised with his trademarks of happiness and warmth, it was deep and frigid… icy and cruel. Jake had pierced him to his soul, all of the veils were torn and cast aside. For the first time in many years, the man that lived deep inside of Daryl Lane was exposed to the world at large. His front was down, his forced kindness was slaughtered and left to rot in a heap.

Look at me, Jacob!” he said in his true voice, a voice that was deep, primordial and full of Hell. “Look long and hard, young man! Take me in with those intense eyes of yours!”

I am,” Jake countered.

“Then tell me what you see!” Lane demanded. Do you see a monster, boy? Do you see a savage? Do you see a butcher? A man who could murder his own son?

“I’m not exactly sure what I see,” he replied sedately.

“Well, I’m looking at you and I see a lot!” the butcher barked. “I see that you’ve been talking to Clyde Rambo! Or maybe it was Alberto Gomez? Whichever it was, did they tell you that those bastards followed me everywhere I went from 1993 to 1997! They were like my goddamned shadow! I couldn’t fart without them noting the time in a fucking log!”

“I’m aware of that,” Jake advised. “I’m also aware that there was only one murder during that time, the murder of your son! I also know that Timmy wasn’t the sort to climb into a car with a stranger! That’s the one thing I never understood,” he bluffed. “How the hell did someone get him into that car to take him away?”

“I don’t know either, Jacob!” Lane snapped. “Maybe you can tell me! You were the one watching him that night! You were the one responsible for him at that time!” Angered and hurt, he pulled in a deep breath and let it loose in the form of a shout. “You told me you would watch out for him!” he cried in a booming howl, a concussive blast that made Jake’s ears ring immediately.

What did you do with the fucking car?” Jake shouted back accusingly.

What car?” Daryl retaliated.

The fucking Cadillac you bought from Evander Hughes!

What?

The Brougham, Daryl, The goddamned blue Brougham you took the children in!

Jake studied the butcher’s face for any signs, for any clues of understanding. Watching it carefully, he focused in an effort to detect any attempt at deception he might make in the face of facts. There were no such signs, though, he couldn’t see any indication that he was lying. All he could read behind the animosity and the agony was pure confusion… Daryl Lane had no idea what he was talking about.

He hadn’t been behind the wheel of any Fleetwood Brougham, his eyes would’ve betrayed him if he had. The eyes always tell their secrets, but there were none in Daryl’s that he was after. He held no secrets of sodomy, no secrets of slaughter, no secrets of butchery in his heart. Those things didn’t live inside of his eyes, it was only heartache and pain that took up residence there.

Regret and dismay, sorrow and suffering… those were the tenants, each on a long-term lease. This man was the butcher, but he was not The Butcher. That was obvious to Jake as he looked upon his defeat, upon his surrender under the crushing weights of loss and suspicion.

It was Jake doing the stabbing with his eyes now, the tables had turned. It was Jake doing the cutting, doing the dirty work, doing the damage. He was beating a dead horse, pounding on a busted drum and adding insult to an existing layer of insult, further irritating an old and mortal injury.

Daryl Lane was tired, he was worn down, he was broken. Tears rained down his face in a deluge, as though a faucet behind his eyes had been thrown wide open and left to spew forever.

“You really think that I could do that?” he asked incredulously through the tears, his voice cracking with sadness. “You really think that I could take my boy, my sweet little boy, and hang him upside down? You think that I could damn near cut his head off with a sharp blade? That I could stand there and watch him bleed out? You believe that I could cut him up? That I could run him through this saw? Is that really how you feel about me, Jacob? You’ve known me for a long time, son, do you really think I’ve got that much evil inside of me?”

“I don’t know what I believe anymore, Mister Lane,” Jake retorted. “But if it looks like a duck…”

NO!” the butcher shouted, throwing his hands in the air like a child and bending his neck to gaze up to the ceiling. “Jesus Christ, HELP ME! I can’t TAKE IT anymore!” he sobbed.

Jake watched in awe as the man buckled at the knees and collapsed. A terrible crunch sounded out as one patella met the tile, and an awful smack when the second hit the ground. Daryl Lane, a fifty-something year old man, was reduced to an infant before him. He was forced quite literally to his knees by the weight of everything he’d carried through the twenty-two years since his son was murdered, and he was considered a prime suspect.

Oh God, oh God, oh God! PLEASE, why do you do this to me, you BASTARD!” he wailed, spittle firing from his mouth and rolling back down his upturned face. “DAMN YOU!” he cried, holding clenched fists up at whomever he believed was looking down at him. “DAMN YOU GOD! You fucking LIAR! You took him from me, you fuck! You took him and you left me with THIS! This cross I cannot carry ANYMORE!” Purged of rage, he fell back to sorrow and wrapped his arms tightly around himself. Like an inmate in an asylum, bound in a self imposed straight jacket, he rocked violently back and forth. “I didn’t do it! I didn’t do it! I didn’t do it!” he declared tearfully. “Jacob, I SWEAR TO YOU that I didn’t do it! I didn’t do it! I didn’t do it! I didn’t do it!

Daryl,” Jake called out, moving to him and scooping him into a tight hug. A hug tighter than he’d ever given Chucky, tighter than he’d ever given his mother, tighter than he’d ever given his wife or to his son.

He felt the stinging in his eyes, but he knew there would be no more. He would shed no tears, he was no longer capable. If he had been, he would’ve let loose in this moment. He would’ve shared a complete loss of emotional control with a man who he believed to be a victim once again. He would’ve cried in comforting an innocent man, a poor soul who’d worn the black spot of guilt for so long.

Jesus, I tried to tell them!” Lane sobbed. “The truth is supposed to set you free, but they wouldn’t believe me! MERCIFUL LORD, they wouldn’t believe me! I LOVED my son! God, my son! I would never hurt anybody, God, I would never hurt MY BOY! My boy, my sweet little boy, they TOOK HIM from me! GOD took him from me, he took my boy and he cut him up! Jesus, Jacob, they murdered my little boy! Oh God, my son! My INNOCENT son! Then, they came for ME! As if I wasn’t already in Hell, they came to DRAG ME DOWN deeper! FUCK! Do you know HOW HARD it is, Jacob? How hard it is for me to continue living while my poor son is dead? GOD, I wish it could’ve been me! I would’ve died for him, Jacob, I would’ve died A THOUSAND TIMES for him! God, I miss my son!

It’s okay, Daryl!” Jake tried to comfort him in vain.

It’s NOT okay!” he bleated. “Because they don’t believe me, Jake! They NEVER believed me! NOBODY believes me!

I do…” he offered, and he was being fully honest. “I believe you, Daryl… I believe you…”

Daryl Lane’s suffering was heavy, the toll everything had taken was immense. As he cradled the man, he felt tremendous guilt at what he’d done… tremendous regret at having torn the bandages off so harshly.

Christ , how did he manage to fuck it up so badly? He'd gone in like a three-hundred pound gorilla -- just like he always did -- and he'd fucked it up, just like he always did... just like he'd fucked up everything else in his life. He'd brought pain to another, which seemed to be all that he was proficient at doing. If there was a trophy for breaking people down, he would have it. If there was a champion, it would be him. If there was a medal, its pin would be dug deeply into the flesh of his chest.

Racked with contrition, he sat with Daryl until he’d cried more tears than most men shed from birth to death. There were certainly more than Timmy Lane had been allowed to shed, certainly more than Billy Marsh and all of the others. It took a long, long time, to finally get him settled. When he was back on his feet again, determined to finish his work like a working man does, Jake apologized to him for what he’d done. Lane waived it off, but he refreshed it with a new one. In parting, he promised to see this thing through… promised to find out who had murdered Timmy, promised to finally let the dead rest in peace.

Now, he was on two hooks… the hook of Chucky, and of Daryl Lane as well.

Hoping he could do right by them, hoping he could ease their pain, he climbed into his Malibu and set off for Chucky’s trailer. Distracted in the emotional fallout, he drove right by Nikki’s place and the one that sat beside it… fourteen-thirty Applewood, the former home of Tracy Swete and her blessed family.

Once inside his temporary abode, he flung himself on the couch with malice. Stretching out, he sighed and felt a throbbing he’d neglected while at Butcher’s Lane. It was a powerful pulsating that hadn’t ceased since he beat his fists against the face of some drunken fool and felt blood spattering onto his clothes.

His thoughts were not of Nikki, the temptress, the succubus… they were not of Tracy, neither young nor old. In fact, he didn’t fantasize about any female at all as he pulled his erect penis from his pants, and none passed before his eyes as he set about his task with it. He thought only of the adrenaline, only of the rush, only of the fury, only of the anger. And the pleasure in that, God, it had been so long since he felt such pleasure.

It was incredible, it was transcendent, and it held out until he climaxed with an intensity he hadn’t known for many years. When it was done, he simply closed his eyes… closed his eyes, and rested. It would be a deep rest, a deep and refreshing rest free of the ghosts that hounded him… free of the night terrors, free of the nagging feelings of inadequacy, free of the influence of liquor. It would be a rest in which he was free of everything… free of himself.

It would be a preview of the final rest that awaited him, when the puzzle was solved. When order was restored, at least as it related to Burlwood. When it was time for double indemnity, in the not too distant future…

 

TWENTY-EIGHT

Acetone

 

January 21st, 1995. 7:30PM

Garthby, Indiana

 

Beeeeeeeeeeeees GOAL!” an overly enthusiastic voice declared over the public address system of The Garthby Icehouse. “Scored by number sixteen, Ja-Ja-Ja-Jacob Giguére! His tenth of the season, assisted by Jarrod Ambrose and Martin Scholl, at nine-minutes and thirty-two seconds of the third period! Give it up, for your Bu-Bu-Bu-Bu-Burlwood Bees!”

The two or three hundred people gathered at the Icehouse applauded, but their limited zeal was odd in juxtaposition with the uninhibited excitability of the PA announcer. Among the crowd were four people who were as thrilled with his goal as the commentator, and their cheers were almost embarrassing to Jacob in their fervor.

Looking up to them in the stands as he skated the bench and slapped gloves with his teammates, he begged them with his eyes to quiet down. They were on their feet and clapping like brain damaged seals on display at Sea World, all four of them. Chucky, Tracy, Nick and Nancy Swete. He was glad to have them there, pleased to be supported, but they didn’t have to act like idiots… that was too much.

In the days since that fateful Thanksgiving, The Swetes had become his adoptive family. With his mother, Janet, being involuntarily committed to the psychiatric hospital for ninety days after her nearly fatal overdose, Tracy’s family had stepped up to the plate and welcomed young Jacob into their home. He was deeply grateful for that, because they were under no obligation to take him in. They could’ve let him be placed into what Sheriff Rambo called the system, which he didn’t speak very highly of when he laid out the options.

At thirteen, Jacob was not old enough to care for himself in the eyes of society. Of course, society wasn’t aware that he had been required to be self-sufficient from the moment his father left this world. Society didn’t appreciate the fact that he was the one who kept the Giguére household together, that he was carrying his mother’s weight, as well as his own, all along. All that Janet Giguére had been good for in their existence was the cashing of her survivor benefits checks and the redemption of their food stamps. Shy of those things, Jacob was well versed in getting by and getting on with life. Even when Deputy Ron came around, his mother was checked out of day to day life. He would’ve been fine on his own while she was away, but that wasn’t an option.

Bound by the principles of law, The Sheriff had a problem to deal with in young Jacob. When it became obvious that Janet would survive the incident, it was time to deal with the consequences. Rambo told Jacob he figured the penalty would amount to a minimum of ninety days in the hole, if not more if she was found to be so deficient in mind that she needed further help.

Had he known about the frosted glass, had he known the real truth, it probably would’ve been a good deal more than just the ninety. He didn’t, though, because Jacob told him bald-faced lies when he asked what happened. Just as Deputy Ron instructed him to.

Presented with a case like this -- handed a juvenile who would be left without a parental figure or guardian for at least three months -- the average officer would've simply filed papers to have the boy declared a ward of The State and walked away. If Ron Boudreaux had been the sheriff, that's almost certainly what would've happened.

Rambo, however, was a special sort of person. Being a good man, a good police officer, he treated Jacob like an adult -- which he appreciated -- when he spelled out what entering the system would entail. He shared a handful of horror stories about foster situations gone wrong, and generally explained that he didn’t want to resort to that option, if it was at all avoidable. Expressing his regret that he couldn’t take Jacob into his house, because there was no room with Louie and he didn’t have the time to supervise, he asked if there were any aunts or uncles that he might be able to stay with. There weren’t, because both of his parents were only children, and all four of his grandparents were dead.

Not one to give up, The Sheriff asked if there was anyone he could think of that might be willing to assume responsibility for him in the short term. Grasping for straws, he mentioned The Swetes.

With an I’m going to make this work attitude, Rambo called them to the hospital and presented his case like an expert in the art of coercion.

After a preamble describing the basics, telling the tale of the overdose and what was to follow, Rambo started his pitch. “We’re in a bit of a pinch, here, folks,” he began. “Jacob’s mother is going to be unable to care for him for just a little bit while she sorts herself out.

Before he even had a chance to ask the question, Nick Swete spoke up and declared “he can stay with us”.

Pleased and a bit flabbergasted at the man’s decisiveness, Clyde smiled and thanked his benefactors with hugs. Jacob had never seen a police officer give a hug, but it seemed right as he did it… it seemed fitting, seemed heartfelt and genuine.

As of one-thirty in the morning the day after Thanksgiving, The Swetes had a son on loan. They treated him just as they would their own, just as they did Tracy, and they brought him comfort beyond anything they could possibly imagine.

Nick took a special interest in Jacob, taking him under his wing and showing him what it meant to be the man of the house. His example was something entirely new, something Jacob had never encountered… and it was wonderful. If there was ever a time in his life that he felt was perfect, it was the period he spent as the honorary Jacob Swete. If only it could’ve been that way from the beginning, how different his life could’ve turned out.

The whole family got behind Darkwing to prop him up in his time of need, and he loved every second of it. They were always the loudest people in the audience at his junior league hockey games, which was nice -- but just a bit much for his humility, sometimes.

As he skated back out to center ice to take the face off at the direction of his coach, they finally sat back down and stopped cheering. His goal had tied the game against the Burlwood Bee’s bitter rivals, The Blackmoor Wizards, and he knew there would be lots of chirping when he squared off with the opposing center.

“Nice shot, Darkwing!” a bigger, more burly boy than he was teased while they waited for the linesman to arrive and drop the puck. “Looks like it really got your big retarded friend Chu-Chu-Chucky excited!”

Jacob didn’t say anything, he was wearing his game-face and wasn’t about to have it broken by some fool of a goon. Had the damned referee hurried and restarted the game, it would’ve ended there. Unfortunately, there seemed to be some issue with the time clock, so all three ice officials were conferring in the ref’s crease… there would be more time for trash talk.

A defenseman from The Wizards skated into the circle laughing, presumably at his teammate’s jab, and started up himself. “I bet he can’t wait to get home and celebrate by rubbing dicks with his big dumb faggot butt buddy!”

That made the center laugh too, and it pissed Jacob off just a bit. Still, he would’ve kept his cool… had it ended there.

“Did you hear about his mother?” the goon preparing for the face off added. “Bitch is in the nut house, stupid whore snorted too much coke off Deputy Ron’s cock!”

“Must’ve been a loooong line!” the defenseman said. “I hear Boudreaux’s got a baby’s arm, bet his momma loves when he gives her a deep cavity search!”

His anger building, Jacob clenched his teeth around his mouthpiece and considered pouncing. The officials were still jerking off. What the hell was taking them so long?

“Hey, back off!” the center joshed. “We don’t want the little pussy to go home and hang himself, like his loser da—”

Pushed to the limit, young Jacob Giguére just couldn’t stand to hear anymore. Before the goon finished his sentence, there was a hand locked around his throat. It was Jake’s left, of course, leaving his right free to smash at the bastard’s face. Shaking off his glove, he started swinging wildly at the exposed portion of his chin.

All three officials on the ice started blowing their whistles like they were Chuck Mangione, but it was far too late for that. The goon proved to have a glass jaw, and he collapsed to the ice after the very first blow Jacob landed cleanly. Seeing nothing but red and fire, Darkwing fell upon him like a blanket of napalm and repeatedly blasted him in the face, taking out years of bridled fury on the unconscious teenager.

Every player on the ice joined the linesman and referees in trying to peel him off of the boy, but he wasn’t finished yet. Pulling back with all the anger in his heart, he drove punch after punch after punch into the asshole’s crumbling skull. In his rage, he sought to kill the kid… sought to see him dead, to see him mangled, to see him FUBAR, as it were. In the moment, his awareness was suddenly pulled away from his body again, as it had been when he stood in his mother’s kitchen trying to figure out what he was supposed to do. From a place high above, from an angle just below the scoreboard, he watched himself assaulting the Wizard center. It was bizarre and it was frightening, and he was no longer in control.

Only when he was gassed, only when his fist felt broken, only when he was finished with his task were the people able to pull him off of the boy. Feeling powerful arms tugging at him, he was reintroduced to his body and back at the helm of control. As they towed him toward the locker room and he saw through his own eyes again, the world was still painted in dark hues of red. Wrestling an arm free, he wiped at his visor and realized that this red wasn’t anger at all. It was blood, and it was a lot of it. Looking back toward center ice, toward the fallen tyrant, the bully who now lay on the ice in a mangled heap, he saw that there was more red beneath him than there was the white of the ice.

Christ, what if he had killed the kid?

As the fit started to subside, as his nerves started to cool, he wondered what he’d done. He wondered what the fallout of this would be, for him and for The Swetes, whom he didn’t want to let down or hurt in any way. Looking to the stands before he was pulled off of the rink altogether, he saw the family standing again.

This time, it wasn’t in celebration. This time, it wasn’t in praise. This time, it was in shock and in horror and in disappointment. Nick looked particularly disturbed, his face contorted in disbelief. Nancy was covering her mouth with her hands. Chucky looked confused, and Tracy… Tracy looked to be crying.

Before he was able to process the image and absorb the shame, he found himself being planted on a wooden bench in the smelly locker room of The Bees.

What the fuck is wrong with you?” one of the referees shouted in his face. “Are you some kind of fucking psycho or something?

He didn’t answer. How could he answer?

The next voice he heard was that of Fred Boyett, his coach, and he sounded just as angry as the officials were.

Move, let me by! Let me in there!” he shouted in the corridor.

Jacob looked down at his skates when Fred entered the room. A tear fell from his eye in self loathing, a single drop of salty excrement that blended in with the sweat dripping from his body, hopefully going undetected. The coach had a spirited exchange with the officials, denouncing what he’d seen happen on the ice and blaming the refs for the delay that caused it all to simmer over. Assuring them that he would redress his player, he dismissed the zebras and directed that the game could resume in his absence.

Waiting until he was sure they were gone, until he heard the sounds of the puck dropping and the game restarting, he lowered himself to Jacob’s level and tried to force eye contact.

Look at me,” he said firmly, but calmly. “Look at me, Giguére!”

Jacob didn’t want to, he wanted to avoid facing up to what he’d done in shame. Fred wasn’t afraid to put his hulking hands on him, though. The callouses raked at Jake’s face as the man pulled his sweat and tear drenched chin up until he had no choice but to concede and meet his gaze.

What happened out there, Jake?” he asked, staring deep into the soul of his charge. “Tell me, son, what happened?

Unable to hold back any longer, unable to keep the cork in the bottle, the young man burst at his seams and started sobbing. Tears rained down unchecked, unfettered and with haste.

Let it out!” Fred ordered. “Just let it out, son! You can’t keep it all inside, NOBODY can!

The coach took Jacob’s hands and squeezed them, lowering his shoulder to receive the boy’s face. He planted it there, knocking his bloodied helmet from his head as all the sorrow of his days spilled from his eyes. This certainly wasn’t the first time he’d cried, but these tears weren’t the same as any he’d shed before. They came from deep within him. They were primal, and they were stale. They were old, and they were overdue.

Look,” Fred advised after several minutes, while the bout was still raging, “You’re gonna have to pull it together, son! I want you to get out of here before the game is over, I don’t want you running into any of those Wizards out in the lot! I want you to get changed and go out the back, I’ll tell The Swetes that you’ll be waiting by their car, okay?”

Jacob nodded, gasping back what remained of his fit and assuming control of his faculties as well as he could. He felt different in the passing of the episode than he had when it began. He felt altered, he felt changed. Uncertain as to the nature of this transformation, he felt confused.

Fred left just as the five-minute buzzer sounded, he wouldn’t have much time to change clothes. Hurriedly, he stripped off his uniform and gear, stuffing it into his bag recklessly. There was no time to take a shower, he would have to pull his clean clothes over his stinking, sweaty body. It was uncomfortable to feel his filth trapped under fresh garments, just as it was uncomfortable to feel the blackness of his soul screaming and begging for escape through the melting facade of his decent and innocent flesh.

There was a stain on him, now, he thought. His body wasn’t as innocent as it had been this morning, his skin wasn’t as inexperienced as it once was. He’d crossed a line on this night. He’d let his dark half take the helm, had let it come out to play in the public square among people who weren’t prepared to look upon it. People who didn’t know that blackness was living and festering inside of him at all.

There was no hiding it anymore, the cat was out of the bag. Everyone in the building knew of the ugliness and the monster that bubbled just underneath his cloak of human skin. Everyone in town would eventually hear that Jacob Giguére had totally lost his shit. There was now a clear point of demarcation, everything before this incident would be the past, and everything moving forward would be different, because he was different, now. He was blackened, he was stained, he was forever altered, in reality and in the perception of those around him.

How could he live with them, now that they knew what he really looked like?

Slamming his locker shut, he caught a glimpse of his face in the mirror on its door. It was an ugly face, one he didn’t like at all. It was a face of hate, a face of disgust, a face of loathing, A face he would have to look at for the remainder of his life, from this moment forth.

It was the face of a man, now. He was no longer a boy, that time had passed. The man that he was going to become, whether he liked it or not, was depicted in the reflection of that mirror. The die were cast, the runes were twirling on the cloth and would settle into a picture that was none too flattering to behold. This was him… this ugliness was him.

Turning his back to the reflection he didn’t want to accept, he stormed out the back door with his bag over his shoulder. It was frigid outside, and he felt the sweat and tears all over his body starting to freeze upon his flesh. The cold felt good in his lungs, though, so he drew a deep breath and tried to press his internal reset button.

It was with this breath that he smelled the smell… the odor of nail polish remover, pungent and strong. Looking to his right, he saw what he assumed was the condensation of someone’s breath in the chilly evening spilling around the brick corner of the Icehouse. As he walked towards it, in the direction of The Swete family station wagon, he realized that it was, in fact, smoke billowing about. The smoke wasn’t like a cigarette, it wasn’t even like a joint… it was different, and it was the source of the nail polish smell.

Rounding the corner, he saw the Burlwood Highschool Varsity team gathered there. They had a game tonight as well, they were scheduled to hit the ice at eight-thirty. It looked like all of them were present, each standing by their own bag of gear as they talked and laughed amongst themselves.

They seemed surprised to see Jacob. Seemed frightened to see him, actually. When he appeared, one of the guys closed his fist around something, as though he were trying to hide it.

Oh,” another of them said, sounding relieved. “It’s just Jake!

Shit,” a third exclaimed. “We thought you were fucking Rambo!

Jake smiled and shook his head. He liked the guys from the varsity team, he wanted to engraciate himself, if possible. He aspired to play for them one day, to represent his town with pride, when he was of adequate age to do so. Apparently satisfied that he wasn’t a cop, the one that had closed his hand opened it and shook it wildly.

Fuck!” he cried. “Damn thing burnt the shit out of me!

One of the other players reached out for what he was holding, taking what appeared to be a glass pipe from him and pressing it to his lips. “Who’s got the lighter?” he asked, and another boy handed him a red cylinder.

Jacob watched, dumbfounded, as the boy flicked the Bic and held the flame under the pipe. As he drew a deep breath, the fire danced around the glass and something glowed inside of it. It was something that looked familiar, something he had seen before. In its molten incandescence, it resembled the frosted glass he’d seen spread all over his mother’s coffee table. It was a piece of what he’d seen caked and powdered all over her face as she frothed and foamed. This piece was solid and turning molten in the heat, but it was clearly the same stuff.

Letting the flame flicker out, the player drew a bit more breath and seemed to strain to hold it in.

Yeah Jonezy!” a teammate encouraged. “Take it to the head, baby!

When he finally exhaled, the air around them was flooded with the chemical smell of the smoke. It wasn’t a pleasant odor at all. To Jacob, it didn’t seem like something that anyone would ever want to have inside of their body. The coughing recipient of the last drag seemed thrilled at it, though. He seemed to be thoroughly enjoying himself, which was beyond Jacob’s understanding and comprehension.

God, it stinks!” another player commented.

Yeah,” the one who took the drag coughed, “but lemme tell ya’, the shit is right on time!

Studying the team, he realized that all of them seemed just a bit off. Every one of them was high, like his mother when she was popping her pills. In observing their pleasure, Jake wondered exactly what this frosted glass was and what it was all about.

“What is that?” he asked his potential role models naively.

The team looked at him in unison, as though they weren’t sure that they should say. After an uncomfortable moment, one of them finally opened up and spilled the beans.

“It’s called ice,” he explained. “Do you wanna try it?”

Jacob shook his head, he didn’t want to. He couldn’t imagine wanting to.

One of the biggest players among them stepped forward and reached for the pipe, taking the lighter and preparing to have his turn. Just before he hit it himself, he spoke a warning that Jacob had heard before. It sounded more threatening in this instance than the last time it was uttered, but it was the same warning with the same connotations nonetheless.

“You’ll keep your mouth shut about it, though… if you know what’s good for you!”

 

TWENTY-NINE

 

 

September 11th, 2016. 8:30AM

Burlwood, Indiana

 

The tension and drama of the back alley dreamscape was suddenly colored by peaceful and comforting notes of music. As the big man took his hit, the sound of a piano softly singing overwhelmed the varsity team. Bahm-da-da-dum-ba-da-ba-ba-ba-da-dum-bada-dum, it rang sweetly. The players stopped what they were doing, a cloud of acetone scented fog swirling, swirling around them as they calmly looked around to find the source of the sound.

Da-da-ba-ba-ba-buh-dum-ba-ba-da-da-baba-dum… so sweet, so serene… baba-daba-dum-daba-dada-baba-dash

Young Jacob knew the piece… it was Pachelbel’s Canon in D Major, adapted from its original form into a peaceful single-instrument movement. In the smoke, in the fog of dreamland, the sounds spoke from the ethos in the electronic voice of a synthesized and soulless pianist.

Why was it here, though, why was it echoing through the haze of crystal meth and memories?

His eyes opened with effort, because they were glued shut with sleep, and he slowly started to gather that he wasn’t at The Garthby Icehouse at all. He was on a couch, in a vaguely familiar room that he couldn’t quite place. Balled up and stiff, he uncoiled his limbs and stretched out in the most pleasurable stretch he’d ever experienced. Prying the lids of his eyes apart, feeling the crystallized mess left behind by the sandman peeling and cracking, he started to piece everything together.

He was at Chucky’s place…

He was working on a case…

He was barely awake, but he could still hear the music from his dream…

The music wasn’t from his dream, it was real

It was close, it was vibrating

It was his fucking phone ringing, and it had been ringing for a long time!

Shit!

Reaching for it, he swiped the screen to answer without looking to see who it was, lest he miss the call.

Hello?” he asked, hoping he wasn’t too late.

“Jake, it’s Donnell,” Launchpad replied. “I’ve got a few things for you.”

Oh,” Jake answered, stretching more to bask in the sensation as he held the phone to his ear. “Sorry, Don, I was still asleep.”

“You sound like it,” Donnell said. “Did you decide to paint the town on your first night back or something?”

“You might say that,” Jake concurred, letting his muscles relax and feeling sore at the effort. “I didn’t expect to hear back from you so soon, what’ve you got?”

“Not much,” Donnell lamented, “and that’s kind of why I was able to get it together so quickly. I ran into brick walls on just about everything you asked for. All I came away with was a phone number for that cop you were after, and a tidbit about one of your suspects.”

“Which suspect?”

“Doctor Jack Morris,” Launchpad began. “Born January fifth, 1931, died March nineteenth, 1998.”

“Well I guess that rules him out on this Marsh thing,” Jake sighed.

And then there were three, he thought.

Of course, three still implied that he was willing to consider that Daryl Lane had totally duped him with his meltdown the night before. In his heart, he was pretty well convinced that Lane was not The Butcher Of Burlwood. Emotions and gut-feelings can be deceptive, and he knew that, so his head still held Timmy’s father as a suspect. It would take some incredible evidence to convince him that his heart was wrong, but he was leaving the door open to anything he might find.

Three also implied that he hadn’t dismissed the possibility that Evander Hughes had killed Billy Marsh. Based on Donnell’s description of his condition, his being guilty would mean that he somehow escaped his bondage and collected his scattered faculties enough to do away with the boy, perhaps in a half-witted homage to his deeds of old. That would explain the differences, the fact that many of the hallmarks attributed to the acts of The Butcher in the nineties were absent in this new case. Jake wouldn’t be able to convict or recuse Evander until he determined whether or not that series of events was feasible and attainable to him in any way. To make that judgement, he would have to gauge the man’s condition for himself, in person and in the flesh.

Either way, Donnell's work narrowed the field by one. It was evident, now, that Jack Morris -- whether he had been The Butcher of old or not -- was in no way involved with the death of Billy Marsh. That was a step in the right direction, so he closed the file on the town veterinarian and pushed it aside in his mind.

“Yeah, I’d say he’s a dead end… literally.” Donnell added.

“What’s Blake’s info?” Jake asked, scrambling to the kitchen for a pen and paper.

Donnell explained that the man’s name was Joseph Blake and rattled off a phone number. Apparently, he’d gotten it from LinkedIn and couldn’t swear that it was still good. It was the extent of what he’d uncovered, so it would have to do.

“So far as the criminal records go,” Launchpad continued, “I wasn’t able to find anything in the public record for Rusty or Daryl. That doesn’t mean that they’re squeaky clean, criminal charges are often expunged or sealed. All we can say for sure is that neither of them have anything terribly egregious to hide. Nothing that ever made the news or anything like that.”

“How about your old man?”

“Well, as you know, that’s a different story. I’ve got an old copy of his rap sheet that I pulled when I defended him in a possession case ten years or so ago. I’ll scan it and send it over. I’ve already given you my opinion on that, so take it as you will.”

“And the Brougham situation? Can we get that list of what was registered and when?”

“No, that’s gonna have to come from Louie. I mean, I might be able to track down some papers about my old man’s ride, but they’re gonna be buried and won’t tell us shit besides a VIN number and the old plate.”

“That would still be useful, see what you can do.”

“I’ll get LeTonya on that,” Donnell nearly whispered, as though it was a secret to be kept until the weekend expired.

“Oh! That reminds me!” Jake said spiritedly, remembering the Cadillac he’d spotted at The Downs the night before. “I saw a Brougham at the track last night! I don’t know that it’s related, but there weren’t many of them around this neck of the woods as I remember. I figured due diligence requires us to check it out.”

“What do you know about it?”

Thinking hard, Jake tried to recall what he committed to memory through repetition. G… S… F… I… S… F… I… G… something. It was a company name -- something Services, Blackmoor, Indiana… but what was it? Struggling, begging his brain to pull a rabbit out of the hat, he tried to see the letters on the view screen of his mind. He watched the gate car approaching in a grainy projection, tried to focus on the beige characters on the quarter panels. G… S… F… G… F… G… S…

FGSI Services,” he finally announced, the puzzle falling into place in his mind. “It belongs to a company called FGSI Services, out of Blackmoor. See what you can find out about the company, I imagine they have something to do with The Downs.”

“Got it,” Donnell replied. “Anything else I should work on?”

Referencing the latest version of his mental checklist, Jake decided there wasn’t. The ball was largely in his court, he needed to get out and beat the streets. Thanking Donnell for his help, he hung up and set about preparing for his day.

He was going to need a shower, because a certain region of his body was quite sticky. That meant the spare linens he used as bedding would likely need a wash as well, but that was an issue he could deal with later.

Marching into the bathroom, he took a long look at himself in the mirror. The man looking back at him in a stained pair of black boxer-briefs seemed more lively than the one he’d seen in the days of recent past. There was a sparkle in his eye that he hadn’t noticed there in quite some time. Hell, there was even a hint of a smile on his face. Pleased at what he saw, he wondered what had caused such a dramatic shift in the paradigm.

Perhaps it was as simple as sexual release, which he hadn’t enjoyed in many moons. It was a solo session, of course, but it could’ve done the job just the same and brought about the change. Perhaps he just needed to release his nuts to lift the weight off of his shoulders.

Maybe it was his interaction with Nikki, an attractive young woman. Wait… an attractive girl. He couldn’t let himself forget that she was a girl to him. Either way, she seemed to hang on his every word and expressed an interest in getting to know him. At the core of it all, what she really wanted was to fuck him, that much was obvious. Maybe it was the ego boost that caused his slight emergence from the shadows.

Perhaps it was the fight he’d been in, though it was more a beat down than it was a fight. The guy didn’t stand a chance from the beginning, there was no challenge in it or anything. A surge of adrenaline is like an infusion of intravenous amphetamine, though, it does wonders for the body and the spirit. Perhaps it was the natural high that painted his face with this brighter hue.

Maybe it was the interaction with Daryl Lane. The verbal snare he'd set and watched the man fall haplessly into was expertly crafted, and it was fun -- until it turned sad. It takes a sharp mind to paint an intelligent person into a corner and force him to show his hand, and he got off on feeling superior. Maybe it was that sense of superiority that brought the fire back to his body.

Whatever it was, he liked it. He liked the sly grin his reflection in the mirror cast back at him, in living color.

There would be rain in the forecast for this parade, however, because when he felt the tingle of happiness breaking through the wall of depression and darkness, his first inclination was to call his wife and share the joy with her, the love of his life. If he made that call, the storm cloud would burst. He would be drenched, and not with anything that would please him to be dripping with.

It would be spite, it would be malice, it would be scorn, it would be bad blood that soaked his body after she had her way with him. She was still feeling the sting of the things he’d done, still suffering the slings and the arrows of his missteps and his trespasses. She still bore the scars of his fouls, still felt the pain of the mistakes that he made when he let his feculent inner self spill from his mouth, from his eyes, from his hands, from his body, in every way that it could. She was still crying in the bleachers above center ice at the sight of his true self.

It was incumbent upon him to keep his true self caged, to keep his it in its pit. It was his burden to keep watch, to keep it where it should’ve stayed forever locked away and held prisoner, held harmless, held in limbo, held in its crypt and wrapped in chains from which it could never escape. His charge was to never allow it to see the light of day, to never allow it to reek its havoc, to never allow it to cast a shadow over his wife or his son, and he had failed to meet his obligations in that matter.

Feeling the fog of depression rolling back in, feeling its damp and murky essence stirring around him, feeling it trying to swallow him, he shook it off and forced himself back into the stoic state of numbness that was his home. It was hard, but he was experienced at doing it. Physically flicking his hands and shoulders in an effort to fling the influence of dark sentiments from his body, he sucked up the neutral air of the world around him. When he did, he smelled for the first time since his arrival that awful stench that greeted him when he initially pulled into Burlwood Meadows. It suited his mood, suited what he figured he deserved. He’d pulled his family down into the shit, it was only fitting that he should have to live in it.

After taking it all in for a moment, he decided that he needed to shave. His dark facial hair caused a shadow to form across his face with haste, and he hadn’t used a razor in two days at this point. When that was done, he would take a nice, hot shower and rinse the drama of the previous night from every crevice of his body.

Once he dried himself off, he would have to dig out his very best threads from his duffle bag and potentially use Chucky’s clothes iron. It was important that he look his Sunday best, because he had an appointment to keep in town.

For the first time in many, many years, Jacob Giguére was going to church.

 

THIRTY

 

 

September 11th, 2016. 10:15AM

Our Mother Of Sorrows

Burlwood, Indiana

 

“For a just man falleth seven times,” Carl Lovett thought aloud as he stood, preparing for Mass in the vestry.

When he pulled his alb down over his head, the white polyester vestment unfurled around his shoulders and plunged down to his ankles in a free fall that mirrored the spiritual belly-flop his embattled town had endured in recent weeks. Another child had been destroyed, another lamb sent off to slaughter, and now -- now -- one of his own stood accused and was being held to account.

Chucky was one of his circle, one whose confession he had taken many times throughout the years. Never had those confessions been of deeds so heinous, never had the young man shown any sign that such evil intentions or inclinations stirred within him. Upon taking his confessions, as innocent and immature as they were, he had done his duty in absolving his friend of his tortious sins with a clean conscience. He had no qualms about the issuance of forgiveness, because the boy’s soul seemed so innocent and pure. If Chucky was guilty of the murder of Billy Marsh, if he was capable of such evil, how could he not have seen it?

As Father over the parish, he regularly stood beside the man and brought him closer to God through the offering of The Eucharist. As his employer, he spent many hours and many days in his presence and sensed no ill intent. He’d presided over the funeral of his mother, Charlotte Murphy, and had visited the trailer in which the man lived countless times as a friend and as a spiritual guide. In all of his encounters with Charles Edward Murphy, in all of his intimate knowledge of the man and his life, he could not conceive the possibility that he was guilty of the crimes attributed to him.

Did that mean that he must be innocent?

Or, apparently more likely, did it instead mean that Carl Lovett had been fooled?

And no marvel, he thought silently, for Satan himself is transformed into an angel of light.

That was Corinthians 11:14, and Corinthians 11:14 was certainly not on the common lectionary for the liturgy that he was dreading as he dressed for it. Neither was Proverbs 24 on the agenda, but it was those two books and chapters that were racing through his mind as he prepared himself to face the congregation.

It was September 11th, the seventeenth Sunday after The Pentecost, and he was supposed to lead his people through an entirely different mass than the one that was playing in his mind this morning. Jeremiah 4:11-12 and 22-28, Psalm 14, 1 Tim 1:12-17, Luke 15:1-10, that was supposed to be the liturgy, and he was supposed to wear the green chasuble, but none of those things would be carried through to fruition on this day. He was going to wear the white chasuble, accented with the purple stole, because those colors were comforting. Those colors were calming, those colors were holy.

The township of Burlwood needed comfort, it needed calm, and -- above all else -- it needed holy on this particular Sunday. This may've been the seventeenth Sunday since The Pentecost, but it was just the seventh since little Billy Marsh went missing from the Sunday School class, and it was the first since a member of the congregation had been arrested and arraigned on charges that were stunning and staggering to the righteous and Godly.

The people didn’t want to hear I beheld the mountains and, lo, they trembled. They weren’t in the proper spiritual state for the whole land shall be desolate, and all the cities thereof shall be broken down at the presence of The Lord. This wasn’t the time for the fool hath said in his heart, there is no God.

Maybe they could handle and the grace of our Lord was exceeding abundant with faith and love which is in Christ Jesus, but that didn’t mean that he was going to work it into his sermon as the diocese requested. What did the diocese know of the struggles in Burlwood? If there was a place in which it would slide comfortably, he would invoke it, but that would be the only verse spoken of 1 Timothy during this mass.

The only certain inclusion from the liturgical lectionary was Luke 15: Then he drew near unto him all the publicans and sinners to hear him. And he spake this parable, saying, what man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he loses one of them, doth not leave the ninety and nine in the wilderness and go after that which is lost? Either, what woman having ten pieces of silver, if she loses one piece, doth not light a candle and sweep the house, and seek diligently till she find it? And when they hath found that which they lost, they calleth together their friends and say unto them rejoice with me, for I have found that which I had lost. Likewise, I say unto you, that joy shall be in heaven over one sinner that repenteth, more than over ninety and nine just persons, which need no repentance. If Chucky had done this damnable thing, it was because he was lost, like the sheep and the piece of silver. This was not the time to shun him, it was the time to call him back to God. He must pay his penance, of course, but it was not for them to castigate him as a child of a lesser God, for there is only one God and his grace cures all ills.

They could not damn him, because they were of God, and the word of James 4 instructed them in this matter, saying:

Speak not evil one of another, brethren. He that speaketh evil of his brother and judge his brother speaketh evil of the law, and judgeth the law, but if thou judge the law, thou art not a doer of the law but a judge. There is one lawgiver, one judge who is able to save and to destroy. Who art thou that judgest one another? If the Lord will, we shall live and do this or that by His judgement. Therefore to him that knoweth to do good and not to judge, and doeth it not, to him it is sin.

He hoped his parishioners knew to do good and not to judge, but he feared that it wouldn’t be the case when he took the pulpit. He feared that the people gathered would take up stones against Chucky. He feared they would forget the deliverance of the adulterous woman, that they would block the mount of Olives from their minds. If that were to happen, Father Lovett would stoop and with his finger write upon the ground, as though he heard them not. When they continued asking him, would he have to remind them that it should be he who is without sin to cast the first stone. Given that warning, would they hold their fire?

He would preach James 4, he would cite John 8 if necessary, and along with that, intertwined in that, he would cover Proverbs 24. For a just man falleth seven times, just as Burlwood had fallen with its seven children, its seven little angels. Rejoice not when thine enemy falleth, and let not thine heart be glad when he stumbleth, as Chucky had stumbled if these terrible things were true. Lest the Lord see it, and it displease him, and he turn away his wrath from him. Fret not thyself because of evil men, fear thou the Lord and the King, and meddle not with them that are given to change. For their calamity shall rise suddenly, and who knoweth the ruin of them both?

Hopefully, the people would hear him.

Hopefully, the people would understand his message.

Hopefully, he would get through the mass without stumbling himself. Without shedding the tears that swelled within him. Without breaking down in his dismay at what had once again befallen his congregation. Without announcing aloud that he just couldn’t believe that Chucky had done this, that he just wouldn’t accept that it was true.

As snow in summer, and as rain in harvest, so honor is not seemly for a fool.

Was Father Carl Lovett a fool?

Draping his chasuble over his shoulders, he took up his stole and kissed the crucifixes upon its ends. With the mass drawing near, he recited his list to ensure he’d made all of the necessary preparations for the Holy Sacrament and the baptism of young Thad Mencer.

Lord, may that young boy not face the specter of The Butcher when he comes of age. May he not go the way of those many others whose infantile heads he’d submerged in the holy basin of Our Mother, those who felt the sting of Burlwood’s cursed water upon their brows so profoundly.

Leaving it to the deacons to seat the congregation, he whiled away the time until he would take the pulpit in reflection. This business with Billy Marsh brought back so much darkness, and he was lingering in it like a leaf upon the vastness of the ocean. He was on the cusp of becoming lost within it, on the verge of succumbing to it.

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures. He leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul, he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for thou art with me. Thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me. Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of The Butcher. Thou anointest my head with oil, my cup runneth over. Surely, goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of The Lord forever.

All the days of my life… all the days of my life… all the days of my life… coughing, and all the days of my life… sputum, and all the days of my life… blood in the tissue, and all the days of my life… yearly physical, and all the days of my life… strange congestion, and all the days of my life… radiology, and all the days of my life… asbestosis, and all the days of my life… mesothelioma, and all the days of my life… stage four, and all the days of my life… terminal, and all the days of my life… a matter of months, all the days of my life… thou anointest my head with the blood of children, and all the days of my life… all the days of my life… my cup runneth over, but my soul runneth empty, and all the days of my life… all the days of my life… all the days of my life…

The organ crying, and all the days of my life… out of the sacristy, and all the days of my life… behind the altar, and all the days of my life… kneeling at the feet of Christ, and God, help me, all the days of my life… standing in the chancel, and all the days of my life… approaching the pulpit, and all the days of my life… a packed house, and all the days of my life… numb and detached, and all the days of my life… mouth opening, words floating on the air, and all the days of my life… a familiar face, at the back, and all the days of my life… it’s young Jacob, and all the days of my life… Jacob Giguére is all grown up and home, and all the days of my life…

Seated in the pew nearest the narthex, at the very back of the church, and squeezed between strangers, Jake looked upon an old and frail man who seemed to have conceded the fight long ago. He was definitely Father Lovett, but he was in as poor a state as his temple appeared to be upon close examination. The changes in the man and his cathedral were shocking to behold, given the air of divinity and devout stewardship that had prevailed within these four walls in the distant days of old.

Without Rusty, the maintenance foreman, the place had become a portrait of disrepair instead of an exquisite jewel nestled amongst the decay of the town. It seemed to fit into the landscape, now, instead of standing out as a shrine of reverent faith and the perseverant power of the collective poor. Without Chucky, the custodian, the place looked dirty and unkempt. The pews were dusty and faded instead of brilliantly shining and polished, and there were cobwebs dangling from nails that were backing themselves out of loose boards and tattered fixtures.

Father Lovett looked just as decrepit as this aging house of the Lord as he stood at the ambo and spake in a trembling voice. It was disconcerting to see him in this condition, as he lived in Jake's memory as a strong and proud shepherd over a brood of lost plebeians. He was the backbone of the subjugated masses, the figurehead of courage and fortitude that a people oppressed by poverty turned to for inspiration and the promise of salvation. Under the intractable assault of father time, the man who was the spine of Burlwood had developed stenosis and scoliosis. A crippling tag team of maladies that barred him from the mountaintop, instead of inspiring his parishioners that -- if they followed -- he could lead them there.

The former champion of faith and certitude stood before his people as nothing more than a haggard shell of a man, now. He spoke the same words of inspiration and integrity that he’d recited from his lectern when he was a beacon of hope in the gloomy shadows of blight, but they rang hollow through the nave and lacked the efficacy to move the masses. They listened, but they didn’t hear what the man was saying, because years of struggle and misadventure had made the sounds of the verses grow stale to their ears.

In his youth, in his prime, Father Lovett had the charisma and tenacity to imbue the word of God with fire. His sermons would scorch the souls and ignite the spirits of his charges, refreshing and envigorating them to face the challenges of their lives. In his age, in his submission, he had no more strength to give. It seemed to take every bit of his resolve to simply stand and orate, there were no reserves within him to cast power upon the crowd.

His sermon was disjointed and rambling, things they had never been before. Jake wondered, at first, if the lack of resonance he felt in the service was due to the fact that he’d decided there was no greater power long ago. He quickly realized that this couldn’t be the case, however, because the words of Father Lovett had moved him in the past.

Even in the darkest of days -- after Timmy's death, during his mother's hospitalization and the horrors that followed -- his spirit had been lifted by wise and insightful words spoken by the man who now seemed to be faltering in the pulpit. He used to be able to stir the spirits of all men with his sincerity, even those that staunchly denounced the fables and refused to accept a concept so obtuse as that of some all-knowing God standing watch. With a wink and a smile, the resident priest of Burlwood used to have the power to melt through even the thickest shields of atheism and could warm the coldest of hearts in all the land.

That power was absent now, that man was no more.

Disregarding the direction to kneel when the father called for prayer, Jake sat and surveyed the crowd as he had surveyed the patrons of Burlwood Downs last night. There were no surprises here, just as there had been none at the track. Many of the faces were familiar, but none belonged to anyone that struck him as suspicious or led him to believe that further vetting of their character was required.

Scanning the room perpetually, he was not only engaged in watching the people, he was also hard at work trying to figure out who was watching him. Once again, that sense was tingling. The sense that someone was surveiling him, which he felt immediately when he stepped out of Chucky’s trailer and climbed into his car. It stuck with him for the short ride to Our Mother, which he made longer than it should’ve been by trying to sniff out his tail with more cunning tricks and maneuvers. Despite his best effort, he still couldn’t smoke out his pursuer.

It was starting to frustrate him, because he had no idea how anyone could move so stealthily as to avoid his detection. Even inside the church, he had the sense that someone was keeping him under careful observation as he half-heartedly listened to the service.

Whoever it was, they were good… they were better at this game of cat and mouse than he was, which is a hell of a feat to accomplish. When he eventually found them out, in admiration of their skill, he would shake their hand and congratulate them before he commenced to beating their ass for their efforts.

After what seemed like an eternity and an epidemic of yawns moving through the hall with contagion, the offertories were passed around as Father Lovett gave communion and baptized some screaming infant. With a final prayer and some less than stellar organ music, the mass finally came to an end.

Jake expected Father Lovett would promptly report to the narthex, where he would personally greet and bless each parishioner as they left. That had been as compulsory as The Lord’s Prayer and was his custom in the past, but the old man ducked out and disappeared entirely instead. That was a problem, because Jake needed to talk to him.

Wondering how the hell he was going to find the man, he sat and waited until everyone else had filed out. He figured sitting still was a two-pronged attack, because not only did it ensure that he would be able to chat with the father in solitude, it meant that whomever was stalking him would have to leave the building to avoid being made. That wouldn’t hold true if his tormentor was one of the deacons, who were running around snuffing out candles and would not be leaving the church, but he figured that was unlikely and gave it no further consideration.

After a few minutes, he was quite literally alone in the great hall. When he was satisfied that any peeping tom must’ve left, he stood and walked toward the sacristy, where several of the volunteer deacons had congregated. Kindly and respectfully, he asked where he could find Father Lovett.

It was an older man among them that met his question, and he took a second to look Jake over carefully. The man was familiar, but Jake couldn’t put a name to his face. Either stricken with a similar lapse of memory or just not inclined to shoot the breeze, the deacon simply said follow me and started weaving his way toward the rectory. They arrived at a closed door, so the escort knocked gently.

Yes?” Father Lovett asked feebly from inside.

“There is a young man who wishes to speak with you,” the deacon declared.

There was an audible sigh of reluctance, followed by a long and echoing silence. The moment was totally surreal, the robed senior citizen at his side just staring at the door blankly and unblinkingly. Time seemed to stand still, as though the two of them had been swallowed up in some kind of temporal rift, as they waited for a response.

Come in, Jacob,” the priest finally capitulated.

Jake was taken aback, shocked at the holy man’s apparent ESP and the dreary tone in his voice as he extended the invitation. The deacon looked up to him and nodded, then turned and waddled away, his vestments dragging the floor behind him. Hesitant himself now, because of the frigidity he sensed from the father, he held his ground for a brief period before turning the doorknob and peering cautiously inside.

The air of the small apartment was as musty as the verses spoken in the chantry, and it stank of age and decay with notes of mold and mildew. It was physically uncomfortable to step inside, a strange sensation due in part to the want of a respirator. The atmosphere seemed toxic, both in deleterious airborne particles and in a less tangible charge of negativity that permeated the ether. The place was like a void of sadness, something he wasn’t prepared to find tucked away within a building that stood for decades as a haven of hope and optimism. Already walking dark roads within himself, he was swiftly and instantaneously sucked into the whirling nihility of a chasm left behind when those tenets took flight.

The door opened to a short and narrow hallway with a dated and dilapidated bathroom to the left just inside. Jake stepped passed it gingerly, as the floor felt spongy and uneven underfoot. The aged floorboards shifted and creaked when challenged with the strain of his weight, and he started to wonder where he would end up should the structure give way. Not disposed to finding out, he stopped where he stood and called for the priest to avoid walking anywhere that he didn’t need to tread.

“Father Lovett?” he asked firmly but quietly.

“In here, young Jacob,” Lovett replied from the end of the hallway, where the apartment opened up into a small living area.

Jake moved carefully by a kitchenette on his right and stopped at the precipice of the living area. The room was just as small as the rest of the place, and he found himself surrounded by walls covered with shelves crammed full of books on all sides. The racks were built crudely with particleboard and two-by-fours and stood from floor to ceiling. The articles upon them varied from large leather bound volumes to small paperback digests, and they were only interrupted where windows covered by moth-eaten curtains required a break in the shelving. Outside, the silhouette of a Ferris wheel was turning as the carnies tested their rides in preparation for the final day of the annual event. Jake disregarded the hypnotic quality of the machine’s swirling, swirling. There would be time to visit the fair later, when business picked up in the evening. For now, he focused on the room around him.

It was amazing, really, to see so many books shoehorned into such a small space. The fact that there was no television in the room led Jake to believe that the old man spent all of his time submerged in the words and the pages of his books. He’d probably read each and every one of them from cover to cover, some of them likely multiple times. As he stepped inside a bit, he realized that much of the mustiness in the air emanated from this space, which smelled a lot like the used book store that used to stand on Main Street.

At the center of the room was a small rectangular coffee table, which was covered with even more books. These were presumably the ones on deck for the father to consume next as he sat before it on a worn down and crooked La-Z-Boy, which was propped up against the back wall of the room. The layout was enough to make the visitor uneasy, as the priest sat with his back to the door and hallway. That was something he could never endure himself, given his compulsion to keep an eye on his surroundings. It didn’t seem to phase the priest, however, and he appeared totally uninterested in his guest as he sat thumbing through what appeared to be a bible.

“Good afternoon, Father,” Jake greeted him.

Lovett furled his brow and removed a set of bifocals to rub his eyes, as though he was exhausted and prepared for a midday nap. “If you insist,” he mumbled, his voice hoarse and tired as he replaced his glasses and yawned.

“I’m sorry to bother you, Father,” Jake apologized, since it was evident that he was. “I was just hoping we might talk for a few minutes, if it’s not too much trouble.”

“If you wish to talk, we’ll talk,” the priest replied. “I don’t know that I have any of the answers that you’re after, but if you feel it necessary to ask the questions anyway, go ahead and have a seat.”

Looking around the room again, Jake wondered where he was expected to sit. There was no furniture, save for the chair and book covered coffee table. Lovett apparently picked up on his confusion and groaned as he leaned forward and started shifting the volumes. He made stacks of a few, opening just enough space for Jake to plant his ass on the faux oak before settling himself back into his seat. His joints popped and creaked like the floor as he did, and he vocalized his discomfort with dignity.

“Thank you, Father,” Jake said, more appreciative of his willingness to talk than the preparation of what would prove to be an uncomfortable seat.

The old man grunted, lifting one leg atop the other with the aid of both hands. Turning his attention back to his bible, he put off a dismissive air as he spoke. “We both know you don’t subscribe to this faith, Jacob,” he said, “so you may refrain from the formality of calling me Father. Carl will do just fine, if you please.”

Not sure whether there was malice in the directive or simply knowing resignation, Jake nodded and accepted it. Rewinding the conversation in his mind, he asked a question that needed to be asked. “You said you probably don’t have any of the answers I’m looking for. Forgive me for being blunt, sir, but how do you know what answers I’m after?”

Lovett turned the pages of the bible indifferently, not lifting his gaze from the book as he replied in a riddle. “Young Jacob, if you encountered a feral dog in the alleys of your big cities… if you found yourself standing in the place where it slept, would it come as a surprise to you if it should bark in defense of its territory?”

Trying to decipher what he was getting at, Jake thought it over before he answered. “No, I guess it wouldn’t.”

Pulling his attention from his bible momentarily, Lovett made eye contact with Jake for the first time. His stare was profoundly intense, his clouded pupils piercing. “Then why should you not expect that Ron Boudreaux preceded you in this affair?”

Of course he did, Jake thought. Why wouldn’t he? Obviously he’d already prepared Daryl Lane for his visit, he’d probably prepared everybody. “I did suspect that he may have,” he replied. “I guess I just wanted to hear you say it.”

No.” Lovett insisted. “You wanted to gauge how I felt about his warning, that’s the truth of the matter.” he surmised keenly, returning his attention to the book. “Let us be upfront with one another, my son. We’ll make much better progress under that pretense.”

Accepting the condition, Jake nodded again and left a moment of silence for the two of them to synchronize under its banner. “Then you’re still willing to talk to me?” he asked. “Despite his telling you not to?”

“You’re sitting before me, are you not?” Lovett replied plainly. “But I reiterate, I don’t know that I can be of much help. I haven’t any answers, and I’m too tired to seek them out. I’ve given it all to God, because it is beyond my comprehension. He knows the truth, and He will pass appropriate judgement. Some things are not for us to understand.”

“You speak as though you believe that Chucky did this. Is that where you’re at?”

Believe not every spirit, but try the spirits whether they are of God,” the man said enigmatically. “That’s John 4:1, and they’re words to live by.”

“And do you not believe that Chucky is of God? You know the man so well , do you suspect that he could do something so -- so --"

“So evil,” Lovett completed the thought, then fell back on another verse from memory. “If any of you lack in wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all generously and without reproach, and it will be given to him. But let him ask in faith, nothing wavering. For he that wavereth is like a wave of the sea, driven with the wind and tossed. I’ve asked in faith every day since Billy Marsh went missing whether or not I truly know Chucky. In my heart, I believe that I do… or at least I believed that I did. The man I thought I knew is not capable of such an act. But mark them which cause divisions and offenses contrary to the doctrine which ye have learned, for they that are such serve not our Lord Jesus Christ, but their own belly. By good words and fair speeches, they deceive the hearts of the simple. All men who appear good on the surface have a touch of evil within them, and all who appear evil have a similar touch of good. Sometimes, when the circumstances and God are so inclined, it is the lesser voice inside that wins the day and shouts aloud. No good deed is beyond the wicked, and no sin is beyond the righteous.”

Jake shook his head and grimaced, looking upon the priest still thumbing through his bible with antipathy. The father’s willingness to accept Boudreaux’s damnation of Chucky left a hollow in his heart. It hurt him, physically and spiritually, to think that a man as close to his old friend as Carl Lovett was could apparently be so easily turned against him.

“I’m surprised to hear such words from you,” Jake admonished, “when you’ve stood by Chucky’s side as a friend and a trusted mentor for so long.”

Lovett threw up his hands, the bible flopping around in one of them, as he made a gesture of uncertainty. “Therefore shall evil come upon thee, thou shalt not know from whence it riseth. And mischief shall fall upon thee, thou shalt not be able to put it off. And desolation shall come upon thee suddenly, which thou shalt not know. I’m neither convinced of Chucky’s guilt nor his innocence. I haven’t the answers, as I’ve told you. My heart steers me one way, my greater intellect another, my spiritual sensibilities in yet another direction. I don’t know, young Jacob! By God, I don’t know! Every time I convince myself that he must be innocent, God says to me take ye heed, every one, of his neighbor, and trust ye not in any brother. For every brother will utterly supplant, and every neighbor will walk with slanders. They have taught their tongue to speak lies, and weary themselves to commit iniquity!

Frustrated beyond his ability to manage it, Jake spoke his next words with bite. “Well, I’m sorry Carl, but I think that’s a bunch of bullshit! Doesn’t your book of fairy tales also say things about standing by a friend in need? Doesn’t it also say that you should never turn your back on the ones you love? Didn’t I hear you preach just this morning about missing sheep and silver coins? About recovering them and making things whole? About seeking the truth before passing judgement?”

The old man smirked a bit and removed his glasses again, setting his bible in his lap and tucking his bifocals into a pocket of his sweater. “I’m impressed, young Jacob, that you listened so closely to my sermon,” he said with pleasure. “But what would you have me do? I’m an old man, my son… a dying old man, and a relic in this time. I was in the trenches of the troubles that plagued this town twenty years ago, when I was fit to wade the waters. That was my fight, that was my time. I cannot help Chucky, my son, whether he’s innocent or guilty of these deeds. I will tell you anything that you want to know, I will arm you with any knowledge that I have, but I cannot take up a gun and march into the breach with you! So, as I’ve said, I’ve given it to God. I don’t know whether Chucky has done these things or not. Only God, Chucky and poor Billy Marsh know the answer to that question. If he is innocent and it is God’s will that you should save our mutual friend from this scourge, then it is incumbent on you to walk the road. If he is guilty and it is His will that Chucky should fall upon the cross, then it is just as much beyond me to help him as it is beyond you. I’m very tired, Jacob. Let us stop bickering between ourselves and get to the questions you believe I can answer for you. If I can help you, I will. I’ve already given you that as my word. But do not ask me to fight beside you, for I cannot. I will not.”

“But you’ll be an open book? Can I make that assumption?” Jake asked. “You do not stand under threat from Ron Boudreaux? You will not aide him in hindering me and my investigation?”

Provide for honest things, not only in the sight of the Lord, but also in the sight of men. That is my Godly commandment, and that is the oath I swear to you. You’re an intelligent man, Jacob, I’m sure you can read between those lines. If I am mistaken, if that is a riddle to you, then let me spell it out. To Hell with Ron Boudreaux, my son. I serve only the truth, even if that truth is inconvenient to the ears of our overlords.”

“Okay,” Jake smiled in acceptance. “Then let’s start the conversation by talking about your old pal Rusty Parker.”

 

THIRTY-ONE

 

 

September 11th, 2016. 1:45PM

Burlwood, Indiana

 

Dirt flew around the Malibu in a cyclone as Jake once again sped down Route 4, destination: Bumfuck Burlwood. A long and less than spirited conversation with Father Lovett had yielded three clues that would be of use. The first was a copy of the registration for missing church van, a 1978 Dodge Ram 15-passenger model. The second was the key to said van, which the police had apparently shown no interest in taking. To the priest’s knowledge, it was one of only two surviving sets. The other, of course, was the one found on the kitchen table in Chucky’s trailer during the execution of the search warrant.

The third, and perhaps most important clue, was the last known address of Russell “Rusty” Parker, which was twenty-four Confederate Way. Since Jake was largely unfamiliar with the wealthier end of town, he was forced to defer to his GPS for directions. When he punched the address in, he was surprised at the satellite images that appeared at its coordinates. The houses on Confederate Way were all quite large, and many had what appeared to be pools in the yards behind them.

Father Lovett explained that Rusty was just fifty-one years old when medical concerns forced him to retire in 2001, and he also made it clear that the man hadn’t earned a fantastic salary for his work at the church. It was likely that he was living on some combination of disability and retirement benefits earned during his time in the service, and it seemed hard to believe that those measly stipends would afford him the luxury of owning such a lavish property.

Following the voice commands, Jake turned onto Route 9 as he scrolled through his call log to dial Louie Rambo again. He still wanted the Brougham listing, as well as in depth background checks on Rusty, Daryl and Evander. Knowing Louie held the keys to the kingdom in the form of official access, he was eager to get the wheels turning toward securing that information. As a result, every ring that sounded out through the car speakers without an answer only served to frustrate him. As had happened before, he was dumped unceremoniously into the deputy's unpersonalized voicemail. Suspecting that Ron Boudreaux -- who was, after all, the man's boss -- may've ordered young Rambo not to talk, he didn't bother leaving another message this time. If Louie was willing to play ball, he would reach out himself in one manner or another.

With a few more miles to ride, Jake decided this would be a good time to give Joseph Blake a call. According to Rambo senior, Blake was the sheriff in Indy when good ol’ Rusty allegedly had a run-in with a school boy that sounded a lot like attempted murder on the surface. With Jack Morris being dead, Evander Hughes being in the nut-house and Daryl Lane passing the pressure test of his interrogation, Rusty was starting to look like the most viable suspect of the group when it came to involvement with the murder of Billy Marsh.

Information about an incident that was more than a little suspicious could help him pin the old title The Butcher Of Burlwood firmly on one Rusty Parker, and that would be huge. Since the killer of little Billy Marsh was obviously familiar with the heinous acts of the nineties in a way that only a perpetrator could be, nailing him on those old cases would lead to thumbing him in the new one.

The Malibu weaved around the two lane road a bit as Jake dialed the number for Blake that he’d received from Donnell, but there was no traffic nor police so far as his eye could see, so he wasn’t worried about drawing any attention. When he pressed the call button, more ringing came through the audio system and sang that familiar song of waiting. This series seemed to drag on just as long as the one that came when he tried Louie, and he was eventually directed to what sounded more like an old fashioned answering machine than a new age voicemail system. This one, at least, was personalized and provided more than a digitized recital of the number he’d called. Somewhat to his surprise, though, it was a young woman’s voice that proclaimed you have reached The Carrothers residence, but we are unable to take your call. Please leave a message after the tone, and we’ll get back with you as soon as possible.

“Um, hi,” Jake responded to a mechanical sounding chime. “This message is for Joseph Blake. If I’ve got the wrong number, I’m sorry. My name is Jake Giguére, and I have a few questions I’d like to ask Mister Blake about something that happened quite some time ago. If he could return my call, I’d very much appreciate it.”

After leaving his cell number, he ended the call and hoped that he wasn’t chasing a ghost that had taken the secrets of past misdeeds to the oblivion of the grave. With nothing else to go on, he simply drove the final few miles to Rusty’s home in silence. Anxiety began to build in him just a bit as he considered the idea that he might find someone else living at the address, just as he found someone else at Joseph Blake’s phone number. If Rusty’s health had been so bad fifteen years ago, what was to say that he wasn’t dead himself? If that were the case, the chances of identifying The Butcher of old with new information would begin to look pretty bleak.

Approaching Confederate Way, Jake slowed and turned left onto it without signaling. The houses on the small court were just as grand as they appeared on his phone, each of them sporting finely landscaped front yards and late model vehicles in their driveways. Scanning the address placards affixed to them, he found number twenty-four tucked back in the corner of the cul-de-sac at the end of the street.

Inclined to surveil the place discreetly for a moment before diving in, he parked in front of a house a few doors down and retrieved his binoculars from the backseat. Rusty’s place wasn’t the largest home among the small neighborhood, but it was still a very nice piece of real estate that would likely fetch more on the open market than even the nearly quarter-million dollar Giguére family colonial ranch. It was a well kept tri-level, complete with expensive looking masonry and iron work that gave it the air of a prized and regal medieval castle.

There was no car in the driveway, but a large attached garage was present and may have kept a respectable vehicle hidden from his view. Perhaps, he thought, it would be a 2016 Land Rover, like the one parked next door, that lived in Rusty’s garage. Or, instead, perhaps it was a more classic automobile that was protected from the elements just beyond one of the two roll-up doors… maybe it was a 1986 Cadillac Fleetwood Brougham, blue in color… or a 1978 Dodge Ram Van with Our Mother Of Sorrows decals on the side. Since the two bays were closed and there were no view-ports in them, Jake couldn’t determine which was the case, or if it was empty altogether. All of the possibilities stirred in his mind’s eye, and each set him off on a path of speculation that led him around and around like a carousel of unanswered questions.

Turning his attention to the house itself, he saw that just about all of the windows were covered with either vertical blinds, which were tightly closed, or draperies that were completely opaque and allowed him no clues as to what, if anything, was going on inside. Watching for any signs of movement, he tried to determine if anyone was home. There were none, so he was faced with a question as to how he should proceed.

Staking the place out for a few hours seemed like a reasonable thing to do, but he still intended to make a visit to the Our Mother carnival. If he were to watch the house for any significant period of time, he wouldn’t be able to actually visit with and question the man inside before he would be forced to return to the church. Plus, it was entirely possible that he wouldn’t see anything if he just sat there staring at the place, and that would amount to an enormous waste of precious time.

If he were to approach the place and simply knock on the door, he would have his answer as to whether or not the resident was still Russell Parker immediately. Once that was clear, he would have ample time to feel him out and take a look around, assuming the man was willing to let him in the house and open to talking about what would certainly be a sore subject. Based on the reaction Daryl Lane expressed when old suspicions were brought to light, the mere mention of the murders might be enough to see Rusty kick him out of the house with extreme prejudice.

Deciding that time was of the essence, he opted for the more direct route and began formulating his plan of attack. Since he was wearing his church garb, complete with suit coat and purple tie, he realized that he might be able to pull an okey-doke to gain access to Rusty and his house. With an unorthodox strategy falling into place in his mind, he reached for his wallet and opened it to the private investigator’s badge, which was tucked neatly behind a leather partition with his driver’s license. Adjusting the elastic bands that held it in place, he tried to cover as much of the recessed lettering as he could. With a few zigs and zags, he was able to largely cover the text that read private investigator and make the minor-league badge look much like an official police shield.

Grinning slyly at his trickery, he pulled up into Rusty's driveway and adjusted his hair in the vanity mirror -- for vanity's sake. Clearing his throat and trying to take an official air, he stepped out of the car and marched intently to the front door. Along the way, he adjusted his shoulder holster to be sure he could snatch his Beretta and be ready to fire at a moment's notice. If Rusty was The Butcher, he might not be too pleased to have a visitor of this nature.

When he stepped onto the porch he saw that there was a doorbell, but ringing it seemed too benign and benevolent for the powerful man of the law he was pretending to be. To increase the intimidation factor, he chose to pound heavily on the ornate wood instead, with his wallet and badge in hand, ready for presentation.

Initially there was no response, so he beat out another set of knocks and waited a bit longer. Just as he was about to fire a third salvo, the door opened slowly without the sounds of any locks being disengaged beforehand. Apparently, Mister Parker didn’t share Daryl Lane’s paranoia. When it was eventually opened wide enough to reveal the aged man inside, Jake’s heart once again dropped to a place below his knees.

It was Rusty, but he looked like death warmed over. His hair was virtually absent and fully white where there was enough to make it visible, and his face was gaunt and haggard, like that of a creature from some haunted crypt. He was hunched over as he stood, leaning on a tubular aluminum walker for support and stability. Lifting his head enough to look up at his visitor seemed an incredible chore, and the effort was obvious in his wheezy and heavy breathing. With the presentation of his face came the discovery of a thin plastic tube draped over either of his ears. The two ends of it came together in a nasal cannula that was seemingly irritating the flesh of his upper lip, painting it red and chaffed in a hue of discomfort. There was condensate and a haze of gas in the line, and the bassy rumble of an oxygen machine operating somewhere nearby within the house confirmed what was plainly obvious even without it… this man was gravely ill.

“Yes?” he said with liquid congestion bubbling in his chest.

Again the cone of cold feeling swept through Jake’s body, just as it had when he stepped into Daryl Lane’s cooler. It wasn’t inspired by any actual change in temperature, just as it hadn’t been before. It was a symptom of stunning revelation, a physical manifestation of devastating realization. Just as the cold room of Butcher’s Lane was well suited to host slaughter, the Rusty Parker of 2016 was more feeble and fragile than even Father Lovett had proven to be.

“Uh,” Jake stammered, trying to quell the storm of doubt raging in his mind. “Good afternoon, Mister Parker.”

Rusty lifted his eyes a bit further to take a better look at him with the mention of his name, likely wondering who this stranger was and why he was pounding at his door on a Sunday afternoon. Falling back to his plan, Jake opened his wallet and exposed his badge. Taking a deep breath, he tried to steady himself before speaking.

“I’m a detective with The Elsmere County Sheriff’s Department, would you mind if I came inside and asked you a few questions?”

“Questions?” Rusty gurgled, coughing to clear his lungs. “What for?”

“I’m investigating a stolen vehicle,” Jake replied, not showing his hand and quickly closing his wallet to dissuade further inspection of his badge. “The van from Our Mother Of Sorrows has gone missing. Father Lovett tells me that you used to drive it a lot, I was hoping you could tell me a bit about it so I know exactly what I’m looking for.”

Coughing again, Rusty looked disturbed. “Is this about that dead kid?” he asked accusingly. “Because if it is, I don’t know nothin’ about it!”

“No,” Jake lied again, his heart pumping at the idea that Ron Boudreaux may well have primed him too. “I’m just looking for the van.”

“Who are you?” the old man inquired, agitated and growing visibly fatigued by holding himself up on the walker.

"As I said, I'm a detective with the --"

“Detective who?” Rusty interrupted.

Frozen by the question, Jake feared this was an indication that the sheriff had, indeed, paid a visit to Confederate Way. Considering himself lucky that Rusty apparently didn’t recognize him if he had been warned, he hurriedly tried to cook up a pseudonym to further conceal his identity. Pressured and on the spot, nothing came easily to his churning mind. Afraid that his hesitation would give him away, he promptly spit out the first combination that broke through the chaos.

Enrico Palazzo,” he answered, instantly mortified when the words left his lips.

Rusty didn’t seem phased, the reference outwardly lost on him. Seemingly too weak or simply unwilling to say anything else, he opened the door a little wider and turned his walker to head inside. Taking it as an invitation, Jake followed him through the entryway and into a sparsely decorated living area.

The floor appeared to be genuine hardwood, the furnishings were leather and the television mounted on the wall looked to be a sixty inch or better brand name LED model. Just off the living space was an equally rich looking kitchen, complete with granite counter tops and stainless steel appliances. Somehow, through some mysterious means, Rusty Parker had evidently landed quite comfortably on his feet.

The old man slid his walker across the floor until he was in range of a love seat, which he then lowered himself into gently. Stepping fully into the room, Jake saw the compressor that was the source of the humming in a far corner with an oxygen tank standing at its side. Hooked to the front of the machine was a tube that coiled its way along the floor until it eventually lifted up to meet Rusty where he sat. Estimating roughly, he guessed that the total length of the hose was no more than a hundred feet or so. Next to the device was a small table with all sorts of medical supplies. There was gauze, tubes of lotions, inhalers, what appeared to be IV supplies as well as wrapped syringes and vials of injectable medications.

His curiosity peaked, Jake walked over to the table and spun the vials to read their labels. How convenient would it be, he thought, if one of them declared that the contents were Xylazine or Halozine, the preferred elixirs of The Butcher. To his disappointment, the labels on each and every bottle said either Aminophylline, Methylprednisolone or Morphine. The latter was pretty obvious, but the first two were mystery to him. Looking over the slew of inhalers, he saw familiar words like Advair, Symbicort and Proair, so he paid them little mind.

Given the combination of these medications and the oxygen machine, it didn’t take much sleuthing to determine that Rusty had some pretty serious breathing issues. The fact that several of the labels read Home Hospice meant that his condition was more than simply severe. Whatever it was that ailed the man in his old age, it was expected to be terminal.

“The van isn’t over there,” Rusty coughed, looking at him damningly.

Picking up on his irritation, Jake lingered longer than was necessary to establish the fact that he was in control and didn’t give a fuck how Rusty felt. Standing near the kitchen, he surveyed that space as well. Everything was immaculately clean, every surface shining with no signs of rubbish or clutter lying about. There was, however, a small grouping of papers and envelopes on the dining room table in the distance. Intending to check them out before he left, he made a mental note as he slowly strolled toward the couch and planted himself in it authoritatively. Locking his eyes on the old man intensely, he prepared to thrust his rectal probe in.

“Looks like you’re pretty sick, Mister Parker,” he remarked coldly.

“Gee, you think so?” the man fired back.

“May I ask what troubles you?”

“Death troubles me!” he answered, hacking out a few additional hunks of lung.

Jake raised an eyebrow, amused at the indignation. “Fair enough,” he replied, showing no remorse. “Well, Mister Parker, as I said, I’m looking in to the disappearance of the church van. It was last seen in the lot of Our Mother on the morning of Sunday, July 24th. Just for my own information, do you recall where you were and what you were doing on that date?”

Rusty cackled painfully, putting his hand to his chest as mucous rattled and bubbled. There was a hint of a devious grin on his face as he composed himself and replied. “If I remember right, I was within eighty feet of that thing,” he said, pointing to the compressor. “And as for what I was doing, I was probably sitting here dying!

Realizing there was no effable rebuttal, Jake nodded in reply. His mouth fell open to continue the questioning, but his brain fed it no words to speak aloud. He was at a loss, as it was pretty clear that the old man was in no condition to be snatching feisty little children from the Our Mother Sunday School. Given his frailty, there was little chance that he’d been the one to hang Billy Marsh upside down by his ankles. He probably didn’t have the lung capacity to have cried out bismillah or the strength and dexterity to pull a blade across an innocent neck. He hadn't likely run a small body through a bandsaw, hadn't hauled the remains to Booger Woods and disposed of them, hadn't driven the van off into oblivion and hoofed it back home. If he was the original Butcher Of Burlwood, the six victims he claimed in the nineties were the only ones he could take full credit for, as he was in no condition to subdue and murder an ant -- let alone a fully capable child.

Closing his mouth without saying a thing, Jake stood up and turned his back to the man, running his hands through his hair to frazzle it the way that he was frazzled. He couldn’t afford for this to be happening, he needed Rusty to fit the mold and wear the crown of thorns reserved for the killer of the Marsh boy. If he were to concede that the slipper didn’t fit, he was left with only Evander Hughes, Daryl Lane or some random copycat that would likely never be found and fingered. There weren’t any clues to lead him to some unidentified assailant, there was no trail to follow to identify a new player in the game.

Frustrated and pissed, he intertwined his fingers and locked his hands behind his neck as a heavy sigh spilled through his clenched lips. Subconsciously, he started pacing back and forth between the threshold of the kitchen and the backside of the couch. Rusty was watching him with a look of disinterest on his face, his chest rising and falling sharply with his labored breathing speaking in crackles. The shell of a man was winning this exchange without speaking a single word to clear his name, and that was unacceptable. Totally confused about how to proceed, Jake decided to call a timeout to allow him time to gather his thoughts.

“Do you mind if I take a look around?” he asked, hoping his desperation wasn’t as detectable as he feared it was.

Rusty shrugged dismissively, which was permission enough in the moment. He stayed put on the love seat as Jake walked through the kitchen to a corridor that he figured should have an entrance to the garage, which could’ve concealed dark secrets. If the Cadillac or the van were in there, he wouldn’t need to struggle in verbally digging out any further proof of Rusty’s involvement in the Marsh case. There would be some seriously tough questions to answer about how he’d managed to pull it off, but he could be locked in as, at very least, an accomplice with knowledge to be beaten out of him. With the evidence in hand, that could be done either literally or figuratively, depending on his preference and how charitable either Jake or Ron Boudreaux were feeling.

Checking the first of three doors along the hallway, he found a large and beautiful bathroom complete with whirlpool tub and seperate stand-up shower. Seeing nothing of interest inside, he moved to the second door and found a walk-in closet. There was little inside, just a few jackets and old pairs of shoes. The thought of checking the shoes for foreign soil or blood occurred to him, but he was more interested in finding the vehicles, so he waived it off for the time being.

Behind the third and final door was, in fact, the garage. It was dark, as all of the interior lights were off and he couldn’t immediately find a switch to flip them on. Longing to find something, to find anything that even resembled suspicious, he stepped down two stairs blindly and his shoes clicked onto the painted floor of the space. The noise echoed in what seemed to be vast emptiness, as did each step he took further inside. Feeling along the wall for a switch, his hand fell upon a plastic button, which he promptly pressed. In response, the nearer of the two bay doors opened up to Confederate way, letting all of the natural light spill in and break the darkness partially. While he couldn’t see every nook and cranny of the darkened far side, the sudden illumination revealed beyond a doubt that there were no vehicles inside the place at all. What was more, there was no odor of oil or motor fluids, nor any stains on the ground or any other tangible indication that an automobile had been stored there recently.

Looking around where the ambience of the sun made it possible to see, he noted that there were several large upright toolboxes, each looking brand new and hardly used. Turning every stone, he opened every drawer and saw a variety of Craftsman hand tools that also seemed new and barely used. Nothing about the place was suspect, nothing out of the ordinary. Refusing to give up, he walked every inch and inspected every recess. Much of the far side was still dimly lit, as the second door was still down and preventing any further sunlight from painting the perimeter.

Tracing the wall with his hand where the gradient of light morphed from white to black, he ended up in the back corner of the room where he nearly walked directly into the perpendicular wall. Feeling a sense that something was hanging above his head, he raised his arms and ended up with a handful of rubberized and coiled wire. It was of a thick gauge and stretched when he pulled down on it, an action that caused something heavy to strike him on the top of the head enough to wake him up a bit.

Reaching for the object, he found it to be a rectangular control box of some sort. There were several large buttons, so he pressed one at random. A loud mechanical whine and grinding sounded out when he did, and suddenly the coiled cord was being pulled toward the center of the room and stretching. Not wanting to let it be ripped from his hands, he walked along in pace with the movement until he was in a spot where the machinery was exposed to light. Releasing the button stopped the motion, and he was able to examine the contraption.

Looking up to it hanging from the ceiling, Jake realized that it was a fairly hefty and likely expensive engine hoist. Moving it had brought an I-beam into view that seemed to stretch from one end of the garage to the other. Traveling along it, connected to the control pad and coil of cable, was the hoist itself. It was comprised of a red metal box with a motor inside from which a heavy metal hook was swinging. It was too high for him to reach, so he experimented with the control pad until he eventually found a button that caused the hook to descend. A thick chain to which it was attached came with it, as did another dramatic realization.

Hoping for further support of a hypothesis developing in his mind, he looked down to the floor and scanned it throughly. At first, he didn’t find exactly what he was looking for. If it were there, it would likely be in the center of the room, an area where the light didn’t color the ground to allow visual inspection. Examining the walls that were visible, he tried to locate a light switch with to no avail. Releasing the control box and taking a step into the darkness with a mind to seek it out blindly, he felt his cellphone shifting in his pants pocket as though it were being brought to his attention by divine intervention.

Feeling a bit like an ass for not having thought of it sooner, he retrieved it and flipped through the apps until he found the flashlight. When it sprang to life with blinding brightness, he turned it to the ground and panned from side to side until he saw what he was looking for. It was there, just as he suspected it would be. His mind demanding confirmation, he refused to acknowledge the possibility that it could be used as he imagined until he put it to the acid test.

Walking back into the light, he grabbed the control box of the hoist and played with it until he figured out exactly how to move it around the garage as he desired. After a few seconds of trial and error, he mastered its operation and had the device positioned exactly where he needed it to be… directly above and perfectly aligned with the drain that he’d discovered in the floor.

Yes, the scenario playing in his head was possible. This device, this hoist, was capable of holding in suspension something as heavy as a vehicle’s engine as it was drained of oil and fluids over the receptacle in the floor. Or, more relevantly, it could’ve hung something as comparatively light as the body of a child. Yes , they could've been chained to -- and dangling from -- that hook, held high over the concrete as blood spilled from their necks like a cascade of organic water in the throes and undulations of some twisted tranquility fountain. Their essence could've flowed into the city sewer from this place, this den of murder and destruction.

But then what?

How would they have been handled from there?

There would need to be a saw, something to take them apart with so that they were in manageable and inconspicuous segments. Turning his phone back up to eye level, he scanned the darkness with its ray of white in search of any such implement. Not far from where the hoist had been parked was waist-high square table with wheels at its bottom, which he determined required closer examination.

Stepping to it, Jake realized that it was no ordinary table, nor was it another toolbox facing the wrong direction. It was a table saw, and much of it was missing. The top surface was simply a flat sheet of metal, void of any guards, void of any safety shields, void of a blade or any cutting mechanism. Where those things should’ve been, there were only grooves and channels in the steel. Inspecting them, it became obvious that the blade this tool was intended to host was of the circular variety.

They wouldn’t rule out a circular saw with a very fine toothed blade, the voice of Clyde Rambo spoke to him again, and the words were deafening in his ears. This place could’ve been the lair of The Butcher Of Burlwood just as well as Daryl Lane’s place of business could have, but that still didn’t explain how such a fragile old man could’ve had anything to do with the murder of little Billy Marsh.

The revelations of this room presented more questions than they provided answers, but the questions gave him fresh hope where the old was decomposing. The fact that the blade was missing was very suspicious, but he was going to have to build something on that suspicion. He was going to have to build a prison cell for Rusty Parker, and that was going to take effort. It was going to take cunning, it was going to take tireless investigation, and it was going to take indeterminate discovery of mysterious facts. It was going to take time, and that was difficult to digest with double indemnity still a factor.

Tempted to hurry inside and shine the bright light of interrogation in Rusty’s face, he fought back his desire to go in like the three hundred pound gorilla as he had with Daryl Lane. Showing his cards to this man would likely go much differently than things had the night before, and he might quickly find himself unwelcome in this particular house when the chips were down. If Boudreaux had prepped Rusty, he might even find himself locked in shackles should the old man call in the cavalry to reveal his chicanery. He was going to have to handle this one with kid gloves, no matter how powerful the desire to confront the potential killer was.

Taking several deep breaths, he calmed himself before stepping back into the hallway of the house. Instead of reporting directly to the living area, he resolved to double back and have a look at those papers on the table in the kitchen. When he got there, he looked up and saw that Rusty had fallen asleep where he sat on the love seat. He would’ve passed for dead if not for his continued heavy wheezing, and boy would that have royally screwed the pooch.

His unconsciousness was a window of opportunity that Jake intended to fully exploit, as it allowed him to thoroughly examine the loose pages strewn about the table. Most of them were benefits statements from social security and the department of veterans affairs, one of which identified his condition as stage four chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Nothing else among them was of interest, so after scanning them he simply returned them to the pile and tried to mask the fact that he’d been snooping.

His strategy changed quickly, however, when he saw a familiar string of characters on one of three unopened envelopes set off to the side of the table. Hardly believing it was possible, Jake lifted the letter to confirm for his own peace of mind that he wasn’t wishfully seeing things. His eyes assured him that he was not as he examined the blue logo on the envelope over, and over, and over again. This letter, addressed to Rusty Parker at twenty-four Confederate Way, was from FGSI Services, PO Box 65, Blackmoor, Indiana.

Not bothering to check who the other two unopened letters were from, Jake stuffed them all hastily into a pocket inside of his suit coat. This action sealed the deal on any further questioning, as he couldn’t afford to wake Rusty up and risk having him discover what he’d done. Moving quietly, he crept to the front door and prepared to make his exit with stealth.

Just as he was about to leave, though, something hanging on the wall beside the door caught his attention. It was a wooden rectangle stained a dark and rich mahogany hue, and several small hooks we’re screwed into it along its center. Hanging from them were several keys, one of which looked terribly familiar. At the top of the shaft was a pentagon that any red blooded American could easily identify. This key belonged to a Dodge vehicle, and the lack of a rubber coating meant that it was one of vintage… perhaps even of 1978, a particularly good year, in this context and situation. Snatching it from its resting place, he stuffed it into his pants pocket and silently left the home with a good deal more to work with than he had upon his entry.

 

THIRTY-TWO

 

 

September 11th, 2016. 7:50PM

Burlwood, Indiana

 

The midway was alive and bustling with action, as though someone had forgotten to tell the residents of modern-day Burlwoood that their town was once again under siege. Carnival barkers working a host of crooked games challenged them to test their luck with the promise of taking home oversized stuffed animals should they find a way to accomplish tasks that were barely possible to achieve. If they could put a basketball through a hoop that wasn’t quite wide enough to accept it, or land a softball inside of a wicker tub that was spring loaded to eject it upon impact, or hit a bullseye with a pellet rifle equipped with intentionally misaligned sights, or some other ridiculous thing, they would reign victorious and go home as champions with trophies that weren’t worth the price of playing to win them

Jake could feel their plight, because he was engaged in a lopsided affair of his own and felt he was facing similar odds. Solving a murder with only a skeletal outline of the facts seemed much like trying to knock three jugs off of a table when one of them is firmly bolted in place, and victory for him didn’t even offer the prize of a giant purple octopus to show for his efforts. Perhaps in recognition of this principle, he felt entirely disconnected and detached as he strolled along the path of dirt and gravel between the games and concession stands while diesel powered generators screamed in tandem with people riding shoddily constructed and brightly illuminated rides in the distance. If it wasn’t the daunting task ahead of him that was causing this familiar sensation, it was likely the memories that the sensory assault of the fair brought to the surface in swirling, swirling… swirling faces, swirling voices, swirling rides, swirling lights and oh God, that’s Timmy in that fucking car!

The episode of depersonalization, which a head shrinker had once explained was the word to describe the feeling that a person has left his or her body, had taken hold of him before he started this round of reconnaissance, though. Therefore, it was probably unrelated to the flashbacks triggered by the smell of funnel cakes, grilled onions and polish sausage. The return of this uncanny phenomenon, of seeming to be watching himself interact with the world from a vantage point outside of his body, set in when he parked the Malibu along Violet Street at around four PM, having made his way back to the church from Bumfuck Burlwood in a haze of confusion.

Actually, he could almost pinpoint the exact moment at which what he considered to be his astral self had separated from his eyes and moved to a place about ten feet diagonally from -- and a greater distance vertically above -- his physical body. From that position he watched himself, as though his spirit had activated the ejection seat and was now working him with a controller as a character in a third person adventure game. In top-down fashion, he could see his car, could see himself seated behind the wheel, could see the world happening all around him as he tried to piece together the meaning of a new fact that he'd uncovered. It happened quickly and abruptly, like a flash of lightning, when he placed the key he took from Rusty's house atop the one Father Lovett had given him earlier in the day.

Of course, the two were identical… the trouble was he just couldn’t figure out exactly what that meant and how it changed the playing field. The firing of neurons that brought a thousand potential explanations to mind also set off this strange disjointed sensation, and the derealization didn’t resolve itself at all while he sat mulling over the possibilities for nearly an hour.

There were many logical answers to explain the key -- and more than a few illogical ones -- that he considered as he held the pair together, running his fingers along every peak and valley in the steel repeatedly to convince himself beyond a doubt that they were, in fact, just the same. Rusty had been employed by Our Mother for a very long time, he'd driven the now missing Dodge Ram many times, and was therefore just as likely to have a spare key as Chucky was. Acknowledging that fact didn't mean there was no chance it had been used in the commission of a revivalist murder, but there were many hurdles to jump in explaining exactly how the old man could’ve managed to pull that off.

He’d made no solid conclusions or judgments about it when he tucked the keys into his center console, setting them aside for the moment and moving on to exploring Rusty’s link with the mysterious company called FGSI Services. When the Cadillac at The Downs sped by him the night before, Jake had assumed the enterprise was a small outfit that served as an event management organization or had something to do with the track itself. His curiosity was initially limited to whether or not the Fleetwood Brougham leading the pack of horses was somehow the modified vehicle of Evander Hughes. It was a shot in the dark, a totally random and likely ridiculous notion that didn’t seem to merit the exertion of much effort in investigating it. Finding a letter from them at Rusty’s turned the dial of intrigue up just a bit, but there was still no concrete foundation to build suspicions upon… until he actually opened the letter.

Inside the envelope he’d stolen from Rusty’s table was a statement which led him to believe that the concern was a much more prominent and prolific conglomerate than the modest old gate car that introduced him to the company would otherwise imply. What’s more, there were shady details on the papers that were inexplicable, at least on the surface, and begged a thousand additional questions and most certainly did merit further investigation. That fact, coupled with the level of Rusty’s involvement with the business as it was described, put FGSI Services in a very near circle on his radar.

Not intending to sneak the letter back into the old man’s house in an effort to conceal his theft, he ripped the envelope open briskly and crudely instead of taking a more discreet approach like steaming the adhesive. There were two sheets of paper inside, each of them titled Statement of Stockholders’ Equity, and each of them detailing the benefits due to Russell Parker.

The first page declared that the report was for the quarter ending July 31st, and the numbers associated with the operation were far too grandiose for the entity to be classified as some mom-and-pop style cottage industry. Whatever their business was, it was big and it was thriving. Top line income for the quarter was over a half a million dollars, and the year to date figure showed as nearly one-point-three million. There were many deductions from those numbers for things like cost of goods produced and legacy expenses, but the bottom line still showed a hefty profit of better than eight-hundred-thousand for the first six months of 2016. Numbers to the side explained that their profit margin was sixty-two percent and change, which would be considered incredible by any business standard.

The second page was related to Rusty’s particular share of the windfall, showing that he owned twenty-four percent of the LLC and listing the cash value of his equity at a staggering five million bucks. The bottom third of the page was a check stub for a direct deposit made to his bank in the amount of nine-thousand nine-hundred and ninety-nine dollars, which was an odd figure to Jake’s mind.

Surprisingly, there didn’t seem to be any taxes deducted from either the operating figures or Rusty’s individual payout. That was obviously cause to be suspicious, and was also plenty of reason for him to promptly Google this mysterious company for any further insight that the deep abyss of information known as the World Wide Web might offer.

Not surprisingly, given the fact that FGSI apparently didn’t pay any taxes, there was no official website or any other indication that they had a digital footprint to speak of whatsoever. Querying the Internet with the phrase identify owners of LLC in Indiana took him to the Secretary of State website, which allowed him to search a database containing the records of companies registered with the Department of Revenue and Workforce Development. As he somewhat expected, there was no listing under the name FGSI to be found. That was a profound fact to consider, because it meant that so far as the State of Indiana was concerned, the multi-million dollar corporation that was apparently supporting Russell Parker in his convalescence simply did not exist.

Faced with that information, Jake’s astral self moved further yet from his physical body in recognition of the revelation that things were getting deep, and that he was in it up to his knees. He was so far removed from himself that it was difficult to continue controlling his disconnected chassis, which was a totally surreal and largely terrifying experience. He’d felt this way before, of course, but never had it been so intense, never had he wandered such a distance from himself.

Checking the other two letters he’d taken, he realized that one of them was junk mail advising Rusty that he could save up to fifteen percent by changing his insurance company. The second, however, was from Safe & Secure Self Storage. Inside the envelope was a bill, which explained that the man was renting a ten-by-twenty unit for eighty-four dollars a month. Calculating in his head, he tried to figure out whether a particular Cadillac or Dodge vehicle could possibly fit into a room of that size. He was pretty confident that both could fit in there, but it was something he was going to have to check out. Either being there opened up more questions about how Rusty would’ve gotten them to their hiding spot, but it didn’t mean it wasn’t possible.

Uncomfortable and disturbed by the degree of separation he was feeling at that discovery, he sat in his car doing absolutely nothing for an additional hour as the carnival started to fill in with people and the sun retreated from the sky to its resting place in the west. It was almost six-thirty before he felt he’d regained enough control to step out of the Malibu and join the crowd, and doing so was still awkward because he wasn’t squarely back between his eyes.

Just as at The Downs, though, there were no tremendous surprises to be found among the customers of the carnival. There were no suspicious faces, no mustache twirling villains, no sign of any Cadillac Brougham nor of any Dodge Ram van. All in all, the time he spent wandering the lot was a complete and total bust, which meant he was wasting his efforts and would be better off sleeping until his essence returned to his body. Still, he diligently walked the mile and scanned the mass of humanity for anything that seemed even remotely out of sorts. There was nothing, and that only added to the frustration he was already feeling deeply and intrusively.

Stepping over a threshold of metal plating that covered temporary electrical cords, he crossed from the midway area to the space in which the rides were constructed. There was rock music in the air, but it was the modern whiny pussy rock that he couldn’t identify with, so he paid it no mind. As he took in all the sights and sounds and strolled passed a ticket booth, a familiar voice sounded out and stopped him dead in his tracks.

“So, what?” it asked softly, femininely. “Are you following me or something?”

Swiveling around, he saw little Miss Nikki clutching that obscenely small purse and a handful of ride tickets, staring at him seductively once again. He met her eyes, locking into their customary osmotic symbiosis with less turbulence at the coupling than they’d experienced in encounters past. Still a bit detached, he had no words to volley back at her, but she didn’t seem to mind. Smiling bewitchingly, she took a few steps toward him with her hips swiveling captivatingly.

“Has anybody ever told you,” she said as she sauntered, “that you fight like a hockey player?”

This unexpected and seeming clairvoyant insight jostled him, and it somehow managed to pull his escapist astral self back entirely into his own head and skin. A smile escaped outside of his control, his lips spreading to reveal more of his teeth than he generally liked to show. Nikki seemed to appreciate it, as it turned her own grin up to eleven and cocked her head to the side at a curious angle.

“Oh, that’s not fair!” he objected to her statement. “What did you do? Google me?

Maybe,” she replied craftily.

“How the hell did you do that?” he chuckled subconsciously. “I never told you my last name!”

“Well I knew it wasn’t Ob,” she countered. “But I figured it was the name I saw on your car’s registration, so I punched it up and checked it out!”

And?” he wondered as she stopped just in front of him, close enough to be in violation of what would typically be considered his personal space.

She shrugged, staring up at him in her shortness. “And you should smile more often,” she said, “because you have perfect teeth! Are they real?”

What?” he asked in a full on laugh. “Of course they’re real! What kind of question is that?

“I dunno,” she giggled in response. “I guess I figured that somebody who played hockey for The Burlwood High Varsity Team wasn’t likely to have all of his own teeth left to show!”

“I actually didn’t fight much,” he explained. “The league frowned on that sort of thing. It could lead to lots of trouble, so I avoided it.”

Nikki lifted her eyes as though she was searching her memory for a list she'd committed to it, then proceeded to recite every fight of his career while butchering his last name phonetically. "Jacob Gig-whera versus Kevin Largent, Jacob Gig-whera versus Mason Swigert, Jacob Gig-whera versus Alvin Kimbler, Jacob Gig-whera versus Junior Kendricks, Jacob --"

Whoa, whoa, whoa!” he interrupted with a smile and out turned palms before she could finish. “First of all, you’re murdering my name! It’s pronounced Zhig-gair! Zhi, kind of like you’re saying shit but with a z. Jacob Zhig-gair, but I prefer just Jake. Secondly, I didn’t start all of those fights, so they don’t all count!”

Yes they do, dork!” she snickered as she gently pushed him with her petit little hands.

Her touch made his smile widen even further, exposing nearly all of his bleached white choppers and starting things to stirring. There was an energy about her that was palpable, and it was working his desire like an expert spider works its web. She had a warmth that was contagious, and he was immediately afflicted with her disease. He felt the butterflies dancing in his heart, a fluttering he’d forgotten could occur in the days since Tracy’s touch stopped inspiring it in him. It was wonderful and it was terrible, a bittersweet combination he’d similarly lost to time and the repetitive nature of life experience.

“If you say so,” he grinned, staring deeply into her smoky eyes.

Grateful to her in the moment for reigniting a spark he hadn’t felt in years, he wanted to take her on the spot. The encounter played out in explicit detail in his mind, featuring him ripping her skinny jeans from her body and clutching her ass cheeks with his comparatively massive hands. He lifted her clean off the ground in his fantasy, pulling himself out of his fly and filling her body promptly and savagely. Engaged, he carried her to the ticket booth and pressed her hard against the flimsy aluminum wall. His hands squeezing and pulling her tightly to him, he thrusted with unbridled passion while she squealed in pleasure and pain at taking in his swollen sex, the side of the ticket booth bending and warping until it took on the rough shape of her form under pressure. He pumped and pulled and swiveled and ravaged until he couldn’t take it any longer, until a part of him that wasn’t his astral self came spurting out of his body in transcendent pulses of pleasure.

He couldn’t do that, though… he wouldn’t do that.

Tracy Swete was the sole heir to that throne. She was the reigning, defending, and undisputed queen of being fucked by Jacob Garrett Giguére. His penis belonged to her, whether she was receptive to it or not, and it was not his to do with what he would… to do with what he desired. That’s the way it’d been for nearly nineteen years, and that’s the way it would likely remain forever, as it applied to him.

As he looked upon Nikki in the shadow of his fantasy, he realized that she couldn’t be a fuck buddy, and that he was a fool for having thought for a moment that he could subject her to something like that. He was ashamed of having thought she could be when he dropped her off from the track last night, and he was disgusted with himself for thinking about unleashing himself sexually on her as they stood.

He didn’t know exactly how old she was, but he could tell she was way too young for him. She was practically a child compared to him in terms of life experience and self awareness. In his mind, she had no idea what she was doing in being so flirtatious toward him. She had no idea that she was playing with fire. She was unaware that she was dancing with a pyromancer, who was himself covered in the scars of burns and blisters suffered when he lost hold of the flame. He was toxic, and she was a nymphoid minx with some masochistic radar that pulled her to dark people with the desire to have them use her up.

Involving herself with him would only serve to harm her, and involving himself with her would only poison him further. To fuck her would be to cross a line that he had no desire to cross. Under the best case scenario, it would make him feel like a creep and a traitorous piece of shit. Under the worst case, it could hamper his chances should he find that there really is a place called Heaven, where some overzealous God is waiting to judge him once double indemnity came to pass. If the fairy tales were real, adultery is a sin. If the good book was truly filled with lies, he would feel the sting of the scarlet letter on his soul because it would be yet another example of how he failed to live up to the promises he made before saying I do to the woman that was the love of his life.

Perhaps seeing these things playing out in his eyes, Nikki keyed in to his wavelength somehow and seemed to be reading the story playing out in his head. As though she could see his manhandling of her and wanted to share in the experience, she asked a question that he could never answer in decent company.

What are you thinking about?” she said, nearly in a whisper.

At that, Jake flipped an internal switch to turn off his lust and fantasy. If she was picking up on it, if she was seeing it within him, that was unacceptable. This desire to have her was too personal, too explicit and too inappropriate for sharing. Similarly, the revulsion he felt at his own mind for conjuring such imagery was a matter of shame for him. She didn’t need to know what he was doing to her in his head, and she wasn’t entitled to know why it could never come to be a reality.

Nothing,” he lied poorly, unable to formulate a more articulate response.

Right,” she giggled, seeing plainly through his rampart.

He tried to keep his thoughts in check as she surveyed the carnival around them, looking at the variety of rides and attractions for something that suited her fancy. Apparently finding what she was looking for, she grabbed his left hand and pulled him along behind her toward it. Completely confused and still trying to control his thoughts, Jake didn’t have any idea what was happening until they were half way to a ride.

“Um,” he began as they approached a machine called The Scrambler which was just finishing up a cycle. “What the hell are we doing?”

She looked back at him and smiled, still moving along at her lively pace and tugging him in the direction of the queue. “We’re going on a ride!” she explained with an enthusiasm that bordered on glee.

“Wait, what? " he asked, flummoxed. "I'm not here for --"

“Don’t tell me you’re scared!” she joshed, interrupting him and still smiling. “Especially not of The Scrambler!

"Well, no," he stammered as people started to get off of the ride. "But I was --"

“You were wandering around like a lost puppy!” she broke in again. “You’re at a carnival Jake Ob, you’re supposed to be having fun!”

Before he could say anything else, the last of the departing Scrambler riders spilled out of the exit gate on the far side of the fence built around it. With every car empty, a shady looking carny opened up the entrance and started collecting tickets from those who wished to ride next. Nikki was still dragging Jake along, pulling him by the arm excitedly until it was her turn to hand over ten tickets to pay their fare. Within mere moments, she was opening the swing arm of a red gondola and climbing inside. Unable to protest given the haste with which she moved, he shook the entirety of the ride arm with his weight as he boarded the car.

Nikki pulled the swing arm closed, causing a metal bar and ripped pleather pad to sink into Jake’s stomach with a bit more impact than he would’ve liked as the restraint clicked into place. The greasy roving carny made spot checks of everyone’s safety locks as Nikki glowed and her largely unwitting partner wondered how the hell he’d ended up on this contraption. He was still confused as a loud buzz sounded out and the ride began to move, with theirs and three other cars starting to twirl around an overhead axis that made up one arm of the machine. There were two other similar arms to the ride, each of which was mounted to a giant pylon at the center. All three arms were carrying four gondolas each and were at work spinning them when the entirety of the interconnected web of steel started spinning and swirling around the swiveling mast at the center.

When the amusement was at full speed, Jake felt like slave to inertia and centrifugal force as he was whisked around like a bug stuck to a tri-headed egg beater being cranked along mechanically by a mad chef with reckless abandon. It was dizzying at his age, a sensation not at all like what he remembered feeling when he’d ridden similar rides in his childhood. He felt compelled to puke and pass out, but not necessarily in that order. Every time their car would be flung out towards the metal gate that surrounded the ride, his brain physically stopped there to take a breather before being yanked out in the opposite direction. That was a wholly unpleasant experience that he didn’t expect or appreciate whatsoever.

In antithesis, Nikki seemed to be loving it, which was something he couldn’t quite relate to in the moment. She laughed, smiled and screamed with each forceful change in direction they made, giggling like a school girl peeping through a hole in the boy’s restroom wall each time she was yanked askew. Physics caused her petit body to repeatedly shift and slide around in the seat, sending her toward the center of the axis for a moment before slamming her hips into Jacob’s on the rebound.

At first, he was indifferent to this in his vertigo and lingering confusion at how he’d ended up in this position. All of that changed, though, once his body started becoming accustomed to the stimulation, and he eventually started to enjoy feeling her soft flesh and dainty bones grinding into his thigh. Occasionally her entire torso would collide with his, jamming his gun into his ribs in a manner that wasn’t entirely pleasurable, but even that started to seem okay as they continued to twirl and twirl.

As though powered by the frenetic rotation of the machine, his blood started to pump and pulse yet again to places that should’ve made him feel self conscious. Enamoured and enraptured with her contagious joy, he felt no shame in the fact that his dick was standing nearly perpendicular to the padded seat of the gondola as they spun. On the contrary, he was almost pleased at what was happening as they swirled and swirled and swirled. Swirled like memories of incredible sex with Tracy Swete, swirled like memories of the first time and how incredible it was to feel her small, warm hand touching him in places that no one had ever touched him before. Swirled like her hips as she mounted him and took him in, swirled like overwhelming feelings of love and intimacy that were to last forevermore. Swirled like the death of affection and the departure of physical love, swirled like double indemnity and let’s get this over with.

By the time the ride had started to slow, he realized that -- at some point, without any willful action on his part -- he'd put his right arm around the girl riding next to him and rested his hand on her shoulder. The diminishing force of artificially amplified gravity made it apparent that his arm wasn't just resting on her, it was actively pulling her closer to his body, which is where his inner self apparently desired her to be. With the discovery of this came a question; was he pulling at an imaginary Tracy in the swirling, or was he conciously aware that this was a new young woman at his side? Was he acting out on memories and a desire to hold his wife, or was he knowingly violating the oaths he’d taken to have no other besides her for all the days of his life?

She seemed to realize that he was pulling her closer at the exact moment he did, and she looked to him with her sparkling smokey eyes. Finding him looking back to her, she could almost see in his eyes the moment at which he finally started feeling that self consciousness that had eluded him before. The smile she gave him in recognition of what he was doing only doubled his self awareness, so he promptly retracted his arm and looked away toward the other rides and flashing lights working nearby.

His withdrawal was disheartening to Nikki, as she had truly enjoyed making even the most superficial of connections with him. It was probably the ring, she figured, that caused him to pull back so arubptly. He still wasn’t wearing it, but it was obviously a factor nonetheless. She wanted to ask him why, she wanted to hear from his lips what was going on in his life, with his wife, and why he’d come home to Burlwood after so many years away.

Her Googling of him had exposed just about the entirety of his life, from his time as a star of The Burlwood Bees Varsity team to his seemingly troubled private investigation business based in Michigan, the website of which was mysteriously inactive and the domain for sale. She’d even seen a Facebook page created for the Giguére family, presumably by his wife, featuring pictures of this man Jacob with a beautiful woman named Tracy draped around him. They looked happy in most of the pictures, even the ones in which he wasn’t smiling and seemed to be hiding tremendous pain behind his eyes. There was also an album composed entirely of shots of a somewhat off looking boy named Garrett, who was the product of their union.

She knew a lot about what his life had been until just recently, but she had no idea why it seemed to be in such disarray now as the toothless carny came by to unlock their restraints. The Facebook page showed recent pictures of him hugging and holding his wife, and it featured sweet comments from one to the other that would otherwise indicate that all was well in their wedded bliss. If that were the case, why was he so far away and wearing no wedding band, looking like a dejected and demoralized shell of a once proud man? Why was he wandering a shitty little town like Burlwood, and why was he so hesitant to let her in as a friend?

She wanted to fuck him, sure… because he was gorgeous, charming, mysterious and beguiling. If that was out of the question, though, she was still willing to hold his hand and help guide him through the darkness that she had already figured out he was lost in. She would be a paramour, a girlfriend, an affectionate plutonic friend, or a private therapist -- anything and everything that he wanted or needed her to be. Perhaps she could even help him find a way to reconnect with his wife, but for any of that to happen, he needed to drop the shields and let her near him, which he was obviously very reluctant to do.

Jake was still refusing to look at her, and the arm he’d taken from around her shoulder was now positioned over his lap to serve as a modesty guard. That was pointless, because she knew very well what was under it. She’d already seen it and noted that it was impressive, so she wondered why it seemed to shame him so badly. Shit, if anything he should’ve been proud based on what she could make out.

Given the fact that he was here, that he was no longer wearing his wedding band, and that he had a massive errection for her meant that something had obviously gone terribly wrong since the last update on the Giguére family Facebook page. She wanted to know what it was, she wanted to know why it happened, and she wanted to know how she could help. It was clear, however, that the man was too proud and stubborn to explain any of it to her as he stepped out of the gondola and the arm of the ride rose with the departure of his weight. It was more than just his physical body, the man was carrying around a lot of baggage with him and refusing a very clear offer of assistance, which she couldn’t understand for the life of her. To make it even more obvious that she wanted in, she would have to probe deeper, she would have to stimulate him harder… and that’s exactly what she intended to do before the night was over.

Grabbing hold of his wrist like a parent would grab an insolent child in a toy store, she pulled him through the exit gate of The Scrambler and led him directly to the next ride over, which happened to be The Witches’ Wheel. Their timing was impeccable, because that ride was finishing up a sequence and the operator was taking tickets for the next round. There would be no time for him to object.

Jake was silent and like Jello being towed behind her as she handed over another stack of tickets and approached gondola number thirteen. That had always been a lucky number for her, so she was pleased to find it empty. The gate that would make the car a cage was up, so she directed her escort to sit first so that he would be riding behind her. With a look of numbness and disconnection on his face, he climbed into the car. Seated on his behind, he pressed his back against a pad at the rear and spread his outstretched legs to allow her room to join him. Getting in meant squeezing her small behind into the area directly between his crotch, with his legs engulfing the entirety of her lower half. Resting her elbows gently on the tops of his thighs, she could feel what he wanted to hide from her digging into her buttocks as she pushed back into him. Enjoying being close to him, she relaxed the upper half of her body against his firm stomach and chest, feeling his energy pulsating through her with the heat of his flesh and pumping of his heart.

After everyone else was settled in their cars, the side gate of their cage lowered mechanically and locked them in their intimate posture. There was another buzzing sound, and the Witches’ Wheel began to spin.

The design of this particular ride consisted of a large wheel which started out parallel to the ground, hanging around the circumference of which were free-swinging cars. As the giant circle started to turn, the forces at work on the gondolas caused them to lift so that they too became parallel to the ground. When full speed was achieved, the giant wheel itself started to rise on one side until, at the peak of its operation, it was standing at a ninety-degree angle to the ground. As a result, the riders were moving at incredible speed in a circuit that saw them right-side-up as they swung just above the gravel lot, then promptly had their backs facing the ground as climbed vertically like an F-16 fighter jet. They moved with haste around the turning center of the wheel, and at its apex they were fully upside down for a moment before starting a harrowing dive towards the Earth. Near the bottom of their swoop, they leveled out again and started the ascent once more, the car shaking and swaying from side to side with their speed and frenetic motion.

The g-forces required to keep them from flopping about the gondola while upside down also forced her rear end to slide deep into his crotch, and she could plainly feel the head of his erection digging into the very top of her ass crack. Occasionally, a slight change in their speed would force it lower down towards her anus, which tightened with desire each time. It felt as though it wanted to reach out and pull him into her, which would’ve been just fine by her should it happen magically through their clothes. The slight undulations were incredibly erotic, and she noticed a change in her breathing as she tried to absorb as much of the feeling as she possibly could.

Smelling his cologne, smelling whatever he put in his hair, smelling his shaving balm and deodorant mixed together with the natural musk of a powerful man made the experience a pseudo-sexual encounter, and she was loving it. As they spun and spun, their feet racing toward heaven on the upswing and toward the bowels of hell after the crest, she started to feel guilty for using him to unwillingly bring her pleasure. She was treating him like a dildo or full sized sex doll, manipulating herself around him for her own enjoyment despite what he might think of such action. Before her regret could turn to shame, though, she realized that he had his powerful hands wrapped around her tiny waist. Pausing, she felt for a sign of where he was at with this escapade.

Jake was feeling everything happening just as well as she was, and to his surprise he found himself getting into it. His cock throbbed harder than it had in a long time as he squeezed her hips and felt it digging into the crevice of her backside. Fully involved, he began to share the experience actively with no reservations about what it meant, with no concern for the repercussions it could have for him or for her.

In the meantime, Nikki surrendered herself to feel what he was doing instead of what she wanted to do. When she did so, she quickly realized that he was slowly alternating between pulling her bottom closer to his crotch and subsequently pushing her away. Whether he was doing it conciously or not, he was thrusting the head of his dick into her ass crack, which was amazing.

Stunned and overcome with lust, she rolled her waist in time with his movements and squealed every time he pulled her to him. He answered her vocalizations with primal grunts and a tighter squeeze until they were fully engaged in an unfettered and wanton session of passionate dry sex as the blaring notes of Sex Type Thing by STP set the mood perfectly. They were each in heaven as the world spun around them in high speed swirling, swirling. Swirling desires and fantasies, swirling pheromones and hormones on the loose and flowing freely, swirling pleasure and intimate connection. Swirling and I know you want what’s on my mind. I know you like what’s on my mind. I know it eats you up inside, I know you know, you know, you know, and she did know… both of them did.

On the upstroke of the ride, he pulled in time with the gravity to drive himself further down between her buttocks, his sheathed sword nearly slipping into her through their clothing. When fully inverted the beginning of the drop pulled her off of him slightly, and he pushed her away in concert as they plunged down toward the ground. When they swung parallel with the Earth he thrusted again, and the power with which his penis dug into her hurt so good that she almost wanted to come. This cycle repeated over, and over, and over until she was approaching a full orgasm with the action. Just before it came, which would’ve been incredible given the fact that she’d never had one without direct clitoral stimulation, The Witches’ Wheel started to slow and lower, decreasing the gravitationally assisted bump and grind until he suddenly released his grasp on her with no warning or explanation.

Planting his sweaty hands on his own thighs, he subjected her to an incredible wave of feelings comprised mostly of rejection and shame that she could feel as a hollow in her chest. Apparently, he was all-in if he could simu-fuck her while no one could see it happening, but he wasn’t down for letting the world at large behold what he was doing when the darkness of the gondola was exposed to the lights of the midway.

That pissed her off, but it did little to change how incredible it had been while it lasted. Similarly, it did little to change the fact that she wanted to try it wet. She wanted to feel every inch of him, not just the tip through underwear, panties and two sets of pants. She wanted to envelop every ridge and every curve of him inside of her, and she wanted him to claim his prize with as much neanderthalic carnality as he could possibly muster. She wanted him to channel his inner beast, the one that he evidently did have hidden somewhere inside of him, the one that broke through his shield of decency when he grunted and growled with the pleasure of their sanitary fucking as the Witches’ Wheel spun.

As the cars came to a stop, Jake was feeling his own wave of unpleasant emotions. He was disgusted with himself for having let his darker half overwhelm him, for letting his lust overpower his greater reason and allowing it to use Nikki for the sake of getting off. The sensation was nothing new, in fact it was becoming all too familiar as of late. Ashamed of what he’d done, embarrassed at having done it, he urged Nikki quickly out of the gondola quickly when the safety gate opened up. Jumping out behind her, he felt he needed a long, hot shower to wash the indiscretion from his body. Rolling his eyes behind their lids and swallowing hard, he tried to wipe the incident from his mind and memory. Never had he done such a thing with a woman other than his wife, and never had he considered doing it with a girl that had to be at least thirteen years his junior. Christ, how could he have objectified her like that? How could he have given in to his shameful desires? How could he have betrayed Tracy with such a lewd and adulterous act?

Nikki wasn’t fully in tune with what he was thinking, but she could sense some of the emotions he was feeling based upon the deep shade of red his face had turned. She wanted to tell him that it was okay, she wanted to let him know that she liked it, but it looked as though he was in no mood to discuss what had transpired between the two of them. Deciding to let it lie, to act as though it hadn’t happened, she spoke her next desire instead of simply grabbing him and dragging him along as she had done before.

“I’d like to have a beer,” she said cautiously. “Will you come with me?”

Satisfied that her presentation left him an adequate out, that she had left the ball fully in his court as related to what would happen next, she waited eagerly for his reply.

Considering his loathing for beer and his desire to never drink a drop of liquor again, his initial reaction was to say no and simply walk away. Besides, she didn’t look old enough to buy a beer for herself, and he certainly wasn’t looking to get into that kind of trouble. What he’d done to her was wrong, though, and to just leave her on that note would’ve been cold and heartless. Choking back his anger with himself, he tried to put on a kind face and speak in a civilized manner that was more befitting of what he had always believed was his greater character.

“I don’t drink,” he said, “but I am a bit hungry.”

“Fair enough,” she replied with a half-hearted smile. “Follow me, then?”

Without laying a hand on him, she made her way through the ride’s exit and moved towards the concession area. She was tempted to look behind her at times to see if he had split in secrecy, but that was his decision to make and she would have no recourse if he decided to go that route anyway. She did peek when she approached the stand marked Ice Cold Beer, and she was pleased to see that he was still behind her.

Watching the transaction with curiosity, Jake waited to see if the booth attendant would ask her for her identification or simply sell to her blindly. He had seen that happen many times in bars, usually when a horny minimum wage creep was faced with the possibility of landing a hot piece of ass by looking the other way. As it happened, the man in the poorly lit trailer did ask to see her license, and she provided it to him. He looked awfully hard at it, which made Jake wonder, but he eventually handed it back and accepted cash from her before producing a massive paper cup of Budweiser. Thanking him and turning away from the booth, Nikki sipped at the brew as though it were a fine glass of wine, which reminded him of Tracy and her nightly dose of Franzia. Impressed that she was indeed old enough to drink and amused at her Emily Post approved mannerisms, he smiled at her when she looked up to him.

She froze for a moment at the gesture, seeing a sparkle in his eye that he’d never shown to her before. It was sweet, and it was endearing. Standing there with a beer pressed to her lips in a gleeful stupor, she realized that she was falling in love with this mysterious stranger named Jacob Giguére. That was nothing new, she was always quick on the draw when it came to love… and love was generally even faster than her when it came to firing the first shot. She’d been left to die in pools of sorrow many times in her past, having taken that master marksman Cupid’s arrow straight through the heart. Occasionally, the death blow came with a firm slap across the face for her efforts. She was an expert in picking assholes, but this one seemed different. Only time would tell… time and vulnerability.

Jake took the lead once Nikki was back on Earth, marching off towards a booth marked Polish Sausage. She followed, still sipping at her beer, and waited as he ordered a sausage, a Coke and a side of fries. Two-hundred and thirty-nine dollars, that’s all he had left after dropping fifteen bucks on overpriced food yet again.

Once he had the goods in hand, the two of them walked over to a picnic table not far from the concessions area and took a seat. Nikki parked across from him instead of next to him, which he appreciated, if only for familiarity’s sake. They were silent briefly as Jake started to eat his food, but his date for the evening felt this was a good time to continue to her probing, so she broke the quiet with her naturally sultry and seductive tone.

“So,” she began, “what brings you back to Burlwood?”

Washing down a hunk of sausage with his Coke, Jake replied succinctly before shoveling a bunch of fries in his mouth. “Business.” he said plainly.

“Ah,” Nikki replied with a nod. “You’re working a case?”

He took pause at that, wondering for a moment how she knew what kind of work he did before remembering that she had Googled him. “You could say that,” he replied, not bothering to clear his mouth of fry debris.

Nikki nodded again and waited for him to swallow before asking anything else. Half-eaten French fries weren’t at all attractive. “Does it have anything to do with that Marsh kid?” she asked intuitively.

That brought more surprise, brought an even longer pause and more wondering. Taking a sip of his drink, he turned his attention away from eating to determine what she knew and how she knew it. “If it did, what would you know about it?” he asked.

“Absolutely nothing,” she replied.

“So what would make you jump to that conclusion? Why would you go right to that?”

“Simple math,” she said with a shrug.

“Show your work,” he requested sharply.

“Well,” she started snidely, “Burlwood on its own equals quiet and boring. Burlwood minus Billy Marsh equals major crime, like what happened here in the nineties.”

“You weren’t here in the nineties, what do you know about what happened here?” he countered.

No, I wasn’t” she snarked, “but that doesn’t mean I’m an idiot! I know what happened! Believe it or not, I can read! I can even use a computer, if I really put my backwoods mind to it!”

Sensing her insult, Jake put up his hands to calm her. “I didn’t mean it like that!”

“You said it like that!” she smiled. “But chill, I was just playing with you. I also know that you were friends with that Charles guy, the one they arrested. I saw him in the background of one of your old hockey pictures online. Private eye plus friend in trouble equals you come home, right?”

“Very deductive of you,” he said, taking another bite of sausage. “Maybe you should be doing this instead of me, because I’m not getting very far at all myself.”

Nikki nodded again, sensing his frustration and an air of vanquished pride. Deciding that this condition was ideal for further piercing his defenses, she was preparing to ask about his wife when his head suddenly spun as violently as Linda Blair’s toward the sound of a new song coming from one of the nearby rides.

Holy shit,” he said heavily, as though it pained him. He sighed after, and it seemed that more air came spilling out of him than his body should’ve been able to hold to begin with.

Listening for what he was hearing, Nikki could barely make out the music over the sounds of the people all around them. Eventually, she picked up on a few lyrics, but they were foreign to her. She’d never heard this song before, and she didn’t know why it seemed to disturb Jake so badly.

Baby, here I am, I’m the man on your scene. I can give you what you want, but you’ve got to come home with me.

What the fuck did that mean, besides the obvious?

Why did it seem so devastating to her date?

Watching him, she noticed that his chest was rising and falling rapidly. The color had run out of his face, and a bead of sweat appeared on his brow. He was having a panic attack… she was sure of it.

“What’s going on?” she asked, legitimately concerned for him.

This song,” he said through shallow breaths. “The Gravitron!

Craning her neck and looking over his shoulder, she saw that there was, indeed, a Gravitron spinning about a hundred yards behind him.

“What about this song?” she wondered. “What about The Gravitron?”

He puked,” Jake replied, his heart pounding and booming in his ears. “He puked on himself, and he threw his shirt away!

Confused, Nikki put a hand on his arm in a futile effort to calm him.

Who puked, hun?” she asked.

T-T-Timmy,” he stuttered in reply. “H-he didn’t want to walk around with no shirt, so I gave him MINE… my M-M-Maple Leafs shirt…

Seeing the panic doubling and tripling in him, she rubbed his arm firmly and considered reaching into her purse for one of her Xanax. Not knowing how he would feel about blatantly violating every federal drug law on the books, she set aside that notion and just continued petting him.

It’s okay!” she said. “Just breathe, baby, it’s okay!”

He went to the bathroom to clean himself up and to put on my shirt, and… and…

“Shhhhh,” she continued her efforts to soothe him. “Relax, sweetie, you’re okay!”

Not calmed in the slightest by her words or tactile prompts, his heart beat faster and harder. A flush of warmth consumed him, and his breathing became even more labored than it had already been.

Pretty little thing let me light your candle ‘cause mama I’m so hard to handle now, yes I am.

I’ve gotta get the fuck out of here!” he declared in a nearly tearful whinny.

Without another word he leapt from the picnic table, spilling his drink all over what was left of his meal and leaving it all behind in the process.

Wait!” Nikki called after him, getting up herself to follow and help in any way she could.

There was no use in trying, though, because the man broke immediately into a full sprint towards the parking area. He was much taller than she was, he had much longer legs and there was simply no way she could hope to catch him.

All she could do was watch him go, so that’s what she did. Worried for him, she cursed and shed a tear of empathy. As he ran, she wondered if this would be the last time she would ever see him. She knew from her evaluation of him that he was in a deep depression, that he was walking blackened roads alone as it was. This episode would push him further into the pit… it would make his world that much darker.

Was he going to run away from Burlwood?

Was he going to run away from everything?

Not knowing which he chose would be terrible… and she wouldn’t know, until they either happened upon each other again… or she read his obituary. To her mind, both scenarios were very real, and they were equally possible.

Fuck, if he killed himself…

 

 

THIRTY-THREE

 

 

September 12th, 2016. 10:00AM

Burlwood, Indiana

 

Clyde Rambo watched his fax machine as several more feet printed from the scroll of paper inside. There was a lot more to the transmission from Linda Buell, an old friend at the Elsmere Circuit Court, than he expected. What's more, many of the words he saw as he skimmed the incoming documents were inflammatory and suspicious. He was transfixed by one page in particular, which had been the first to print in the deluge of legal documents. Mystified, he read it in its entirety many times over. It was heavily redacted, but there was still much to be gleaned from it -- and plenty to worry about. Checking it again, he read:

Grand Jury Deposition of Father Carl Lovett a CI. Witness sworn in by Judge Eldon Casella on this 5th day of September, 2016. It is the testimony of Father Carl Lovett, offered freely and willingly with no promise of immunity or compensation that on July 24th, 2016 one Charles Edward Murphy confessed to him that he had participated in the murder of one Billy Marsh. According to his confession, he kidnapped the boy at the urging of one Russell Davis Parker and took him to 24 Confederate Way where the two of them killed, mutilated, destroyed and planned to dispose of the body of Billy Marsh. The remains were placed in the back of Murphy’s Buick Lesabre, and he himself disposed of them in the patch of woods behind Burlwood Meadows. It is Mister Lovett’s testimony that Russell Parker allegedly aided in the dismemberment of the corpse and disposed of the remains behind Burlwood Meadows and has had no further contact with Murphy since that date. The body was dismembered in Parker’s garage, with the use of his table saw, the blade of which Parker has turned over to the custody of the Elsemere County PD. Mister Parker and Mister Lovett, with the prior’s urging, have made themselves available for further questioning at the discretion of this court and Sheriff Ron Boudreaux. This document shall remained sealed, as will the identity of Mister Lovett and Mister Parker until such time as disclosure is required by law.

Shaking his head, Clyde tried to discern what could possibly be hidden under those foreboding blocks of blackness. Whatever it was, it was likely damning for Chucky because he saw no other solid evidence in the pages coiling out of his fax machine that would logically lead to his indictment in the murder of little Billy Marsh. Whatever the words under the redactions were, they were hidden maliciously to hamper the investigation of this case by anyone who wasn’t named Ron Boudreaux. In Clyde’s mind, that was so typical of the man who had usurped power from him so many years ago. He was cunning, he was devious, and he was a snake.

The second half of the papers rolling from his thermal machine related to that side of the man specifically. They were outlines of shady deals and covert maneuvers to manipulate the letter of the law to his whim, and when coupled with the testimony of Jake Giguére, well… they were incriminating as hell.

Dropping back to the pages related to the case of Billy Marsh, Rambo checked his memory for any instance in which he’d heard of a grand jury affadivit with features like the sorts of things he saw at the top of his paper roll. After much thought, he realized that in the entirety of his long career, he had never seen or heard of the letters CI being invoked in any criminal case ever tried in Elsmere County, let alone emblazoned on an official report or deposition. That title was generally reserved for cases involving organized crime, when revealing the name of a confidential informant would almost certainly result in the death or disappearance of said informant. Its use in this case was odd, and it was more than a bit suspicious.

The incoming fax records together with the copies of reports he’d received from Jake made it flagrantly obvious that something was rotten in Burlwood, and Ron Boudreaux was operating the strings of a sinister marionette with his masterful zeal. In his unconstitutional puppet show, the first act featured his own behind the scenes chicanery. The second told the tale of a crime that very closely mirrored the murders of the past, and the third act would involve the execution of Charles Edward Murphy. The crooked son of a bitch was determined to see the show all the way through to that end, and he would have a clear path to doing so if not for Jake’s intervention.

His program could be further interrupted by the dropping of a thick and heavy blue curtain that would overwhelm even the King of Elsmere County himself. The papers continuing to print as he spooled the coil painted an outline of what that would look like, but Clyde was going to have to invest a lot of personal time to make it a reality. To ensure that the blindfold of justice was finally lifted just enough for the world to see exactly what was happening on the King’s watch, an old tag team would have to make its way to the ring to do battle. If he could put it all together, though, if he could make the information he was receiving tie in with what Jake had told him, he could reveal the entire truth. He could prove that the emperor had no clothes, and that he was hideous in his nudity. Finally setting that right would bring him great pleasure, and it could shed new light on the case against Chucky, because it was the emperor who was keeping everything related to that so tightly shaded.

Two birds dead with one phone call, that was the goal. It was going to be a tough call to make, because he’d never reached out to the man he once considered a close friend since he left Burlwood in 1997. That was a violation of his word, because he’d promised to keep in touch with the man he worked so closely with through such a storm of hard times. Now that he was finally going to make good on his oath, he was doing so only to ask for more help. That was selfish, it was rude and it was unfair. If he knew Alberto Gomez as well as he thought he did, however, it wouldn’t be a big problem at all.

Before reaching out to him, Clyde wanted a bit more information from Jacob, the point man in the investigation into the Billy Marsh case. It seemed pretty clear that Jake had no idea Chucky had been arrested on the testimony of a confidential informant, because he would’ve likely asked a litany of questions about that program in an effort to figure out who the informant was if he did. With that in mind, Rambo was curious what the word on the street was about what led to Chucky being charged.

Referencing the scrap piece of paper he’d written Jake’s number on, he spun out the digits on his ancient rotary phone. It rang for quite some time, which was a surprise because it was late enough in the morning that Clyde figured that Burlwood’s answer to ace detective Bulldog Drummond would already be knee deep in the trenches trying to sniff out clues. When the call was eventually handed over to voicemail, Rambo identified himself and posed a simple question; What evidence were you told that Chucky was arrested on?

Unable to reach Jake, he thought about calling Louie to get the information from him, since he had probably been the one who fed whatever lie Ron Boudreaux dished out to the defense. Realizing that doing so would put his son in an uncomfortable spot, he decided against trying him and returned his attention to the now massive roll of documents from Linda Buell.

Skimming over it again briskly, he flipped through his rolodex until he found the card for his own personal connection to the Federal Bureau of Investigations. The number he had was in the 407 area code, so he hoped it was still good because the 407 is Florida. A man who lived in Florida during his working years was probably likely to either remain or return there for the days of his retirement, which he was certainly enjoying by now.

Spinning his dial again, he listened to the ringing and hoped to hear a familiar voice answer. This round didn’t last nearly as long as the one for the call to Jake had, and the voice that spoke when it ended was indeed familiar.

“Gomez here,” his old pal said sharply.

Smiling, Rambo replied. “How far over par are you, old man?”

Clyde?” Gomez chuckled in response. “Jesus, it’s good to hear from you! What the hell have you been up to?”

“Oh, sitting around waiting to die and plotting the murder of an intrusive tree!” he answered with a laugh of his own. “But you didn’t answer my question.”

There was a pause as Gomez pretended to calculate, but Rambo knew he was keenly aware and only putting on a charade in his calling out of low numbers. “I’m four under!” he declared, and it was obviously bullshit.

“Probably more like four over!” Clyde suggested. “And what hole are you on, seven?”

“Five!” Gomez conceded with a hearty belly laugh, knowing full well he was busted. “Now what’s going on, you old dog?”

“Well,” Rambo returned, “how would you like to hunt a real life Boudreaux with me?”

 

THIRTY-FOUR

 

 

September 12th, 2016. 1:15PM

Burlwood, Indiana

 

Nikki tried to peer into the windows of eighteen seventy Maplewood, hoping that her knock was ignored simply because Jake was still asleep inside. She’d known he was living just a few hundred yards from her trailer since the night of the race track incident, because his car made a very unique clicking when it drove and she plainly heard him returning from wherever he went after dropping her off.

Having last seen him in the midst of a pretty severe panic attack, she was worried that there'd been no sign of his stirring since she made the long walk home the night before. There had been lights on in the living area, and they'd stayed on for most of the night -- at least until she herself went to bed just after two in the morning.

To her dismay, the lights were still on. In her mind, that meant that either he had not gone to bed or that he was, instead, sleeping a more eternal sleep. The type that’s not disturbed by the annoyance of a burning lamp or a knocking at the door.

She walked around the whole trailer trying to see through windows, but none offered her a glimpse of what was happening inside. Returning to the front, she approached the Malibu and checked it out to be sure there was no mistake that it was his. As she cupped her hands on the windshield and looked in, she saw a familiar bottle of eye drops on the floor. They had apparently fallen out again when the glovebox was opened, and it was still in that condition. Satisfied that this was definitely Jake’s ride, her worrying only increased at that fact that he wouldn’t answer her knocks at the door.

Stepping back from the car, she looked down Oakwood and was spooked for a second when she saw a strange glimmer in the periphery of her vision. Shielding her eyes from the sun, she looked down the road and saw a large, dark sedan parked about a block down in the distance. Its windshield was tinted limo-black, and she figured it was possible that it had caught a ray of sun through the rolling clouds, causing the odd flash. She waited a moment to see if it would happen again, because in her mind the flare more closely resembled the flash of a camera than a random reflection off of the glass. There was no repeat performance in the few seconds of attention she gave it, but her patience for the minor mystery had passed, so she turned away.

Determined to be sure Jake was okay, she moved back to the front door and knocked a little harder than she had before. When even that was ignored, she began knocking constantly, hoping for anything but what she was thinking. She knew he was suffering, she knew he was struggling, and she was all too familiar with the urge to make the pain stop when things just get to be too much to bear any longer. He may have reached that point in his panic attack, and he seemed a prime candidate for suicide. Mortified, she prayed as she waited for a response that working on the case of his old friend was enough motivation to keep the man alive, even through an episode as bad as the night before had been.

When there was still no answer, she felt her heart beginning to pump heavily and her breathing becoming strained. In no mood for a panic attack of her own, she promptly fetched a Xanax from her purse and let it dissolve under her tongue. Feeling instant relief, she decided she would try to find a way to get into the trailer to be sure that all was well. To her surprise, she found the doorknob of the front entrance turned freely and the door started to open when spun it.

Jacob?” She called softly as she stuck her face into the living area, relieved that she wouldn’t have to physically break in.

She recoiled and gagged when the smell inside hit her nose, the pungent aromas of old garbage and vomit making her eyes water immediately. After pulling back for a moment, she plugged her nostrils with her fingers and opened the door wide enough for her to step in.

The first thing she saw inside was Jake, naked and sprawled out on his stomach atop a raggedy looking couch with his left arm hanging loosely over the edge. Looking closer, she saw that he had a nearly empty fifth of Jack Daniels dangling from his loosened fingers.

“So much for not drinking,” she said quietly to herself.

Not far from his hand was a pool of puke, which was the source of one of the foul odors that was still somehow finding a way to creep into her sinuses. Just outside of the mess was a rather large looking handgun, which turned her on as much as it terrified her. Her heart dropped at seeing it, but the lack of spattered blood gave her hope that he hadn’t used it… not on himself, at least.

Taking a few cautious steps toward him, she watched his chest and lower back for any sign that he was breathing. When she saw his ribs expanding, she sighed in great relief. With that worry for his life out of the way, she took a moment to examine his ravishing physique before going to wake him up. His back was sculpted, as though he spent many hours working to make it so, and his arms were wide and powerful looking. His ass was firm and round, and the thighs that extended from it were thick and toned. His tree-trunk looking upper legs led into calves that were equally defined and muscular, and his feet were large and manly, if a bit hairy.

Her first instinct in seeing him this way was to tickle him and make him roll over, in order to expose his chest, his abs and -- well -- the rest of him. Concerned about his humility and still a bit worried about his wellbeing, she moved to the head of the couch and put a hand on his shoulders instead. His flesh was cool and clammy, his body covered in beads of sweat from his head to his toes. Rubbing gently at his back, she spread his perspiration around as she leaned close to his ear to try and rouse him.

Jake, sweetie,” she whispered, changing tactics and running her fingers through his dripping wet hair. This seemed awfully personal, but also very natural. Hoping she wasn’t encroaching, she continued to whisper. “Jake, are you okay baby?

Her second effort made him stir a bit, leading him to lift his head which revealed a trail of vomit and drool running out of his mouth, which was not attractive in the least. He mumbled something in response to her prodding, but it was totally unintelligible and meant he was still sleeping deeply.

Jacob, honey,” she continued. “It’s after one, I need you to wake up so that I know you’re okay.

Again he grumbled and stirred, but showed no interest in waking. Frustrated with her lack of progress and deciding that a change in technique was indicated, she took her hand off of him and stepped back a bit.

JAKE!” She shouted this time, and immediately his head snapped up.

His eyes were glassy and bloodshot as they looked upon her in shock, his mouth agape and still dripping with slobber. He planted his hands on the couch in surprise and lifted his upper body a bit, exposing a flash of his dangling penis that made Nikki’s eyebrows raise instinctively. It only took him a moment to gather what was happening, but in that moment she thoroughly surveyed his dark and curly pubic region and what hung freely below.

“Jesus!” He slurred in shock, dropping his frame back into the couch with authority and shame. “What the fuck is going on?”

“I was hoping that you would tell me!” She answered with a subconscious grin. “You scared the shit out of me last night, I thought I was gonna find you dead in here!”

Full awareness coming to him slowly, he thrust his hand underneath him to cover his manhood, even though it was presently wedged between two cushions and felt a bit twisted around by the force he’d planted it with.

“How the hell did you get in here?” He asked. “How the hell did you know I was here at all?”

“First off,” she began as she casually walked into the kitchen with her teeny purse to find paper towels or something similar to address the puke, “you left the door unlocked. That’s not very wise in this neck of the woods, not anymore at least. Second, you’ve got the newest yet junkiest sounding car in all of the park! It didn’t take rocket science to figure out that you were staying here, everybody on the block can hear you come and go!”

With her out of sight, he scanned the floor around the couch for his underwear. Only then did he see the vomit and the empty bottle of Jack. He had little recollection of what had happened the night before, but there was a vague hint of a memory that involved stopping at a local liquor store and pounding the stuff he bought down hard. Pissed at himself but more concerned about getting dressed, he found his pair of boxer briefs near the foot of the couch. Checking the entrance to the kitchen to be sure she wasn’t watching, he leapt to his feet and dove into them with both legs at once.

“Good God!” He heard Nikki exclaim just after the sound of the trash can opening. “Don’t you ever take this shit out?”

He didn’t answer, looking for the rest of his clothes instead. They were nowhere to be found, which sucked because he hardly knew this girl in Chucky’s trailer. She’d already seen more of him than he would’ve liked, and he was eager to be sure it was limited that momentary glance alone. He needed to take a piss, which was making things stand up and stand out, even through his black underwear. That was certainly not something he wanted her to see.

To his relief, he heard the sounds of the full bag being pulled from the trash can. That meant he had a few moments to address his growing issue, because she was involved with cleaning. He stumbled to the bathroom, as hungover as he could possibly be, as Nikki tossed the garbage out the back door and put a new liner in the bin. Finding that the toilet was full of yak as well was a surprise to him, as was the fact his clothes seemed to be soaking wet in the bathtub for some reason that he couldn’t readily explain. Clearly, he would have to get to the hallway closet, where he stashed his bag, and find something different to put on. He pissed into the vomit and flushed it all first, then set off to finding something to wear.

Leaning around the door frame like a police officer engaged in a tense gun battle, he spotted Nikki on the floor scrubbing his polish sausage and fries out of the carpet with a brush. She was pretty focused on her task, so he darted out of the bathroom with his rear intentionally pointed towards her, so as not to reveal what she would probably like to see revealed. With a few quick steps, he reached and tore open the closet, yanking his bag out and retreating back to the lavatory. The clothes at the top happened to be a button down black shirt with epaulets and a pair of distressed denim jeans, an outfit Tracy always said he looked sexy in. He didn’t intend for them to have that effect on Nikki, but it seemed to him that he could wear My Little Pony pajamas and she would still want to fondle him. Leaping into the clothes, he buttoned the shirt before washing his face and straightening our his disheveled hair in the mirror.

His head ringing, he opened Chucky’s medicine cabinet and found a bottle of Tylenol right where he had put it, next to the box of Trojans. The graphic on the front of the condom package made his mind wander, and that started things back to stirring. Thankfully, those things were well compressed beneath the jeans and wouldn’t likely be an issue.

Seizing control of his thoughts, he took three capsules from the bottle of pain relievers and swallowed them with a handful of water from the sink. Noticing his eyes were fucked, he wished he’d brought his Rohto drops in instead of leaving them in the glovebox of the Malibu. That brought another hazy recollection of trying to use them the night before after drinking a good deal of liquor sitting in the car in Chucky’s driveway. Hitting himself with a blast of his Acqua Di Gio, he sighed at his condition and shyly made his way to the living room.

Nikki had finished scrubbing the carpet with Resolve, which she must’ve found under Chucky’s sink. There was now a cleaner looking section of rug as compared to the rest where his stomach contents used to be, and it appeared the carpet used to be a much lighter shade of beige than it was at present. Rising from her knees, she took the dirtied brush and a wad of soiled paper towel into the kitchen. She gagged a bit as she dumped everything into the fresh garbage bag she had installed, she wasn’t much a fan of puke, but dirty times bring dirty responsibilities. Jake watched her appreciatively as she rinsed her hands afterwards, still feeling anger at himself for resorting to the bottle in concert with shame at having been discovered in such a state by a girl he rather liked.

“Thank you,” he said humbly to her as she walked back into the room.

“Don’t mention it,” she replied, “if I had a dollar for every time someone cleaned up after me…”

“Still,” he said, “you didn’t have to do that.”

“No, I didn’t,” she acknowledged.

"And I'm sorry about --" he paused, searching for words as he felt his face starting to blush. "The whole --"

“About the fact that I saw your ass and cock?” She declared plainly.

Jake nodded, feeling the blush all over his body now.

“It’s okay,” she continued. “Believe it or not, I’ve seen men naked before, you look much the same as most of them.” Looking down to the floor, where his eyes were also trained, she indicated the gun with her foot. “You might want to clean that, it looks like it got a bit of the puke in it.”

Shit!” He exclaimed, realizing the Beretta was there for the first time. He quickly snatched it up, hoping not to scare her with the fact that he carried it, and stuffed it into the waistband of his jeans. Only then did he feel the liquid leaking out of the barrel and running down his leg. That sucked, and it was even more reason that he was going to need a shower before he went about the rest of his day.

“Now, I said cleaning up wasn’t a problem,” she said, “but I didn’t say I did it for free.”

Puzzled, he cocked his head and looked at her. “Okay?” He asked curiously. “What do I owe you, then?”

Skating lessons,” she replied quickly, as though she already had her payment plan in mind.

What?” He wondered, confused.

“I’ve always wanted to learn to ice skate,” she explained, “and you were some hot-shot hockey player back in the day. I figure that makes you a good guy to teach me, so that’s what I want in return for cleaning up after you.”

“Look, Nikki,” he shook his head, “I’ve got a lot of work --"

Sorry,” she interrupted with a smile. “It’s not negotiable!”

Rolling his eyes, he thought about how she’d made him feel at the carnival the night before. It had been awkward for him, but it had also been pleasurable. He loved it as much as he hated it, as much as it seemed wrong to him. Weighing those feelings against the bleak and black emotions he’d been engulfed in for the entirety of this investigation, he decided that there was room in his schedule for a diversion. Even if he maintained his determination to keep Nikki as no more than a friend, surely he could make time for something a bit more positive than death and dismemberment.

“I can bring the puke back out and spread it around again, if you want,” she insinuated.

“No no,” he replied. Summing it all up in his mind, he nodded slowly and locked in on her gray eyes once again. “When and where?” He asked.

“Garthby Ice House,” she replied with no hesitation again. “Tomorrow morning, free skate from twelve to two. I assume you know where the place is?”

Oh yeah,” Jake confirmed. “I’m quite familiar with it.”

“Good,” she replied. “I have to get to work for the evening at the moment, but I expect to meet you there at eleven forty-five sharp tomorrow! Don’t make me come find you again, because that’ll make the price go up!

“I’ll be there,” he smiled, reading pleasure and desire in her face.

“Well, until then, I guess,” she said, simply walking off toward the front do