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Strawman

 

 

 

Strawman

 

 

STANLEY LAINE

 

 

Copyright © 2015 Stanley Laine

 

All rights reserved.

 

Front Cover: SelfPubBookCovers.com/LadyLight

Chapter 1

 

 

THE BLOOD IN OUR VEINS like the brain in our head, autumn’s call draws our curiosity out into the cornfields. On a cold October night Spencer Hatfield waited impatiently in his beat-up Volkswagen outside the Dollar General looking for any sign of Jeanie in the windows, hoping she would soon pass along the registers in the front to hang her green smock over the small partition between the counters while waving goodbye to her co-workers. Tonight was the night he was going to pop the question and he nervously fumbled the ring between his knuckles as he practiced his lines, “I know we ain’t got much Jeanie, but we got love and that’s more than most…”

He dropped the ring on the floor of the car brushing his hair against the stick shift as he leaned forward to run his hands upon the cluttered floorboard to feel for the metal band. Sitting up, he slicked his hair back down as he saw her burst through the double glass doors and wave to him before running across the empty lot. He quickly tucked the ring in the front pocket of his shirt and leaned over to unlock her door as she jumped inside, her curly hair bouncing with excitement at seeing him and she leaned over planting a generous kiss on his trembling lips.

“I thought today would never end,” she smiled and kissed him again before he reached over and pulled the seatbelt around her buckling her safely in. She raised her arms as he cinched the belt and then holding her hand to the back of his neck she pulled him close to her and kissed him again saying, “I missed you baby.”

He closed his eyes tasting the gloss on his tongue and said, “Let’s go to the field,” as she quietly nodded and tried to hold his hand atop the stick shift as the VW puttered out of the lot and drove past the Strawtown town square. The shops on all sides facing the courthouse in the center were decked out in holiday supplies, their Halloween wares prominently displayed in their front windows, ghosts strung from wires, pumpkins ripe for carving and large robotic spiders with glowing eyes inviting shoppers inside hoping to raise the bar in this year’s decoration competition. But on this night the town square looked deserted, the shops having closed early as nearly everyone would be out at the big game, where Benton Central and rival White County would battle it out on the gridiron.

Spencer said, “I want to go out to that stand of trees we saw in the cornfield last Saturday, where we can be all alone, no deputy pulling up and knocking on our windows this time. It was embarrassing getting out of the car like that…”

“I know,” Jeanie said, “but I never told you to take your pants all the way off.”

“They just slipped off once they dropped down around my ankles. But I want tonight to be different. We’re not going out to Lover’s Lane, or the cemetery, or any of the usual places…I want to be as far away from people as we can tonight.”

Ever since Spencer Hatfield’s family moved to Strawtown six months ago and he met Jeanie at a gas station on the edge of town their romance had been a whirlwind affair and he had been pulling double shifts at the furniture factory trying to save up enough to get his own place and buy her the ring. He wanted Jeanie and her little boy Tyler to move in with him as soon as he could afford his own place but he knew she wanted a real home, a place for her and her little man to live where she could raise her son. Spencer knew the only way she would be with him now was under the promise of a ring. She had learned her lesson about false hopes with her last steady boyfriend, Tyler’s dad, who bolted from her life the moment he found out she intended to keep the baby. She wanted Spencer to be different from all the others. She wanted Spencer to be there for her and her little man even when the chips were down. She wanted Spencer for keeps.

Jeanie smiled and said, “I understand, but just think how great it will be when you finally get a place of your own…”

He nodded, understanding fully what she expected from him and in his mind she was the one girl he had known in his life that was worth the effort. They had their ups and downs like any young couple, they even split up for a week when Jeanie felt Spencer was more interested spending time with his old friends in the town from where he came than he was in spending time with her and Tyler, but soon enough he made his choice about who was more important in his life now and he slowly drifted away from the people he once knew to move forward with his new life in Strawtown.

“You ain’t afraid of the Strawman are you?” he asked, looking at her soft, round face in the shine of oncoming headlights.

Jeanie laughed and said, “No I ain’t afraid of no Strawman,” but the truth of the matter was she had grown up all her life hearing the stories about it, the scarecrow that wanders the fields around town at night, looking for troublemakers that ought to know better than messing around out in these vast farm fields after dark. There was the recent story of the two little girls, friends who were playing at a picnic on the edge of a cornfield when curiosity got the better of them and they wandered inside the rows of corn and after a turn or two found themselves lost inside of it until they came across a scarecrow hoisted atop a pole in a small clearing in the field, wearing a devilish smile upon his face and one extended arm pointing the way back out of the field. When the little girls returned things were never again the same.

Jeanie had grown up hearing frightening stories about the Strawman from her family and it was something the kids always joked about back when she was still in school. She tried to forget the scary tales but on those dark nights where the only lights came from the stars in the sky or the faint glow of the dashboard in Spencer’s car while he tried to keep it warm for them, the Strawman was always in the back of her mind as Jeanie was watching and listening for any sign, for any sound of something walking, like the scratch and sizzle of straw stuffed into a burlap bag, the fear that the Strawman’s button eyes and Jack O’ Lantern smile beneath its boat captain’s hat could be peering inside the car window, and the fear ended many a romantic rendezvous earlier than Spencer had hoped.

“Good,” he said, “because tonight is gonna be real special.”

They drove quietly along the county roads until they came to a sign they recognized advertising hybrid corn seeds and they pulled the car off the road beside it and opening her door Spencer held her warm hand in his and led Jeanie to the edge of the cornfield saying, “If we just walk along this row we will reach the stand of trees in the middle where no one can find us without us knowing it first.”

Jeanie nodded and holding his hand even more tightly she followed him inside the cornfield. The stalks were tall and yellowed, even under the night sky, nearly ready for harvesting and as they brushed their arms along the corn it crunched and rustled as Jeanie felt like an insect in the grass waiting to be squashed when she looked up at the tops of the corn stalks hovering above her. In her row she could see the stars looming overhead within the narrow crevice between the openings in the corn. Spencer was following the straight path ahead of him tromping his boots into the dry dirt between the roots as the two continued swiftly down the row until Jeanie began to wonder if they were lost.

“Are you sure you know where we are going?” she asked tugging backwards at Spencer’s hand to slow him down. “Mama’s only watching Tyler until eleven…”

“We’re almost there,” he replied but it was still much further along than either of them expected. They trampled along the path, their feet sinking into the soft dry soil until they could feel the solid roots where they packed the mud in like clay. Jeanie looked behind her occasionally, down the long dark row, using Spencer’s pull to guide her along as she watched, half-expecting to see something appear trailing off in the distance, waiting for any moment that the Strawman might step out from behind the next row of corn and into theirs, to start running up after them, but only darkness swallowed up the path behind her and she turned to crowd up closer on Spencer’s back as she tried to look over his shoulder to what was ahead resisting the temptation to look behind her again.

Spencer was enjoying feeling her body pressed up against his back as he moved them along the row until eventually they reached a small clearing where some scrubby bramble and a thick craggy tree were congregating in the center. There was a small weedy area around the stand where the farmer had not planted corn and Spencer stamped down with his boots to bend stems and removing his barn coat he spread it out on the ground beneath the dry exposed roots of the largest tree.

“We can sit here,” he said as he pulled Jeanie’s arms so she would sit down next to him on his clean coat. Jeanie began rubbing the outer edges of her arms feeling chilled in the cool autumn night as she listened to the crickets and tree frogs chirp and sing all around them. Spencer put his arm around Jeanie to try to help warm her as she looked around in the dark at their sheltered surrounding.

There was nothing but an audience of corn stalks standing at attention and encircling them as she remarked nervously, “If I screamed I don’t think a single soul would ever hear me all the way out here.”

“That’s kind of the point,” Spencer chuckled, and then clumsily putting his hand under her jaw he put his lips to hers and began kissing her. Then he stopped and looking her squarely in the eyes he said, “I put a deposit down on a little place today. It will be vacant in a month…”

Jeanie looked back into his eyes as their motion glistened in the starlight, “Really?” she asked.

He continued with trembling lips, “I know we ain’t got much Jeanie, but we got love and that’s more than most…”

Just then Jeanie heard a crack and a crunch, like the sound of someone stepping on the base of a corn stalk and snapping it beneath their feet.

“What’s that?” she asked, her neck extending as she looked beyond him and around at the corn stalks surrounding them.

Spencer was still watching her lips, wanting to kiss them, feeling ambivalent about the noises that enveloped them and dismissed her concern, “It’s just a deer or raccoon.”

“A raccoon?” she exclaimed, “They can be nasty can’t they?”

“It ain’t gonna bother us,” Spencer said as he cradled her jaw again and began kissing her lips working his way slowly down her neck, but Jeanie was looking harder out into the dark for any shape or movement along the rows of corn that lined the perimeter of the clearing. She thought for a moment she saw a dark shape standing in one row which caused her to jump and pushing Spencer away she exclaimed, “Someone’s there, watching us from the corn!”

Spencer turned around to look and seeing nothing but yellow stalks arranged in neat rows against the black night sky, the tops of which were leaning slightly in a gentle breeze, he turned back to Jeanie and said, “Nothing’s there, it’s just the wind blowing the corn and playing tricks on your eyes.”

In her mind, Jeanie could see the Strawman as clearly as she had drawn him so many years ago as a little girl for Halloween decorations in their house at the prompting of her mother. He wore an old suit that was undersized for his plump stuffing and a white shirt with ruffled sleeves and collar that spilled out from beneath his undersized coat and pants, dusty black boots and a white captain’s hat, the kind a person of leisure might wear while sailing his yacht around on a lake, and his black leather gloves filled with straw to make even his fingers stretch out, but it was his face that troubled her the most when she drew it. He had large button eyes and a small thimble nose stitched onto a burlap bag, tied by a taught cord at the neck to hold its stuffing, and its mouth painted black like a pumpkin carved with jagged teeth and a sadistic looking smile.

She closed her eyes to try to erase the memory of the image from her mind and she snuggled in closely to Spencer feeling his warmth wrap around her, trying to keep her eyesight within the confines of his presence. He leaned back for a moment and reached into his shirt pocket to put his fingers around the ring preparing to remove it and slip it onto Jeanie’s finger the next time he kissed her and he leaned forward to find her lips but she could not resist the temptation any longer after hearing another crunch of a corn stalk at the edge of the field and she looked beyond him over his shoulder and began screaming at the top of her lungs.

Spencer’s head was turned as she jumped to her feet and began running into the wider row between the corn stalks where they had come from into the clearing but then scratching her arms along the stalks as she thrashed about while running she suddenly realized Spencer was not trailing behind her. She stopped and leaned over to catch her breath as she peered between the quiet lines surrounding her to see if she could find him but there was only stalk after stalk of high corn and the sound of crickets chirping around her feet.

She began to move slowly back toward the clearing wondering if what she had seen was just an overactive imagination in the dark night like Spencer had said, merely a trick of the wind but she was certain it was no figment of her imagination, she was sure that she had seen the Strawman standing at the edge of the clearing and creeping slowly towards them in the dark night, his barrel chest oozing straw from between his buttoned coat and from under his shirt sleeves, his white captain’s hat tilted to the side as he approached them staring back with his black button eyes and painted jagged smile.

She tip-toed quietly along the row of corn, a small field mouse squealing beneath her foot as she jumped, then pressing her hand to her chest trying to push the beat of her own heart deep within it so as not to be heard she moved along the row again looking back behind her into the darkness and turning to face the light of the clearing. She could see a corn leaf bending and bouncing in the breeze at the end of the row and she considered that the Strawman might just be hiding around it waiting for her to step out where he could pounce upon her. She stopped dead in her tracks trying to breathe deeply to slow her heart from continuing to race, the pain now throbbing in her chest and she called out as quietly as she could but loud enough to be heard, “Spencer?”

She felt a chill run down her spine as there was no response, only the sound of her own heartbeat in her ear drums, and she looked back down the empty row and then toward the clearing as she crept closer toward it crouching down to consider that the Strawman might reach out to find only empty air at his arm’s level where she could scramble beneath his legs to look for Spencer but when she reached the edge of the cornfield she was unable to move her legs any further, the fear of the moment had overtaken and paralyzed her.

She closed her eyes and thought of Spencer, she had not heard him scream or did not hear any sign of a struggle whatsoever and she considered that he might very well be out in the cornfield looking for her, but why would he not call to her?

She broke free from her paralysis as she pushed the fear deeper down inside of her and crept her way into the clearing but to her immediate horror as she re-entered the open space she saw Spencer high up in the air, hanging from the end of a rope draped over a large branch in the tree where his barn coat remained, his lifeless body dangling and twirling in the breeze above her head and the cornfield around them.

Her hands shaking to cover her mouth she knew it was the work of the Strawman, her lover now hung by the monster as she looked to run back to the field feeling the Strawman hot on her heels as she thrashed her way through the corn jumping from one row to the next until she sliced her arms and face all along the dry stalks as she tried to crush them out of her way under foot, but it was like trying to climb a wave, the weight of the stalks pushing her back into the path of the Strawman.

At last finding her way along a row she burst from the field to find a white farmhouse gleaming beneath a tall lamppost where she ran to the door and pounding upon it until a man answered holding a shotgun but seeing her horror and the blood covering her face and arms he let her inside while his wife tended to a speechless and inconsolable Jeanie as she kept pointing to the field, pointing and breathing fear from her chest as though it were about to explode, unable to speak or think and falling off a chair and onto the floor she collapsed as the farmer looked at his wife in shock and called the Sheriff.

Jeanie lay motionless on the floor, frozen and silent, her eyes wide open but one curved index finger pointing straight out the front door and toward the cornfield where Spencer was swinging at the end of a rope in the wind as the Strawman looked on.

Chapter 2

 

 

THE PHONE IN MY POCKET started ringing as people sitting at the other tables inside the Bob Evans restaurant turned to look at me as though we were sitting inside a movie theater and my phone had just gone off at a crucial moment in the film. Philippa was stacking her pancakes having just buttered each layer and was getting ready to pour a small silver pot of syrup over the top when she stopped and stared at me through the bangs of her auburn colored pixie haircut now mostly combed forward to cover her sleepy eyes.

I looked back at her as the phone kept ringing while she stared at me until it stopped and then when the silence returned she began pouring the syrup over her pancakes again making little circle designs all over it before stabbing her fork into the stack to create drainage holes through which the sugary elixir could soak between the layers but then my phone made another beep to indicate a message had been left. Philippa stopped stabbing her pancakes and stared at me, then after a few more moments of glaring she spoke, “You know, Tom Pettinga, one of the pleasures of eating at a Bob Evans is that you get to sit around a lot of old people?”

“Yes but…”

She continued uninterrupted, “And one of the pleasures of sitting around old people is that they very rarely carry noisy telephones with them…”

“Yes but…” I tried again, but she would not yield.

“And even if they did, they would never be charged up, let alone turned on.”

“But you yourself told me I should get one,” I protested.

“Hmm,” she grumbled as she cut and speared a forkful of pancakes and plopped it into her mouth but remained talking, “As I recall I said your life might be easier if you had one, but I never said anything about mine.”

“Philippa K. Dick you are impossible,” I thought to myself as I dug into my pocket to retrieve my phone. Looking at the display I remarked, “Oh, it’s my Uncle Fred, he’s the Sheriff in Benton County.”

Philippa was busy chewing and reading the dessert menu on a little flip top stand on the table by the window, appearing to ignore me.

“I think I’ll just step out and make sure everything is all right.”

Philippa never looked up, just continued cutting off little triangles of pancake layers from her plate like oddly shaped petit fours and slipping them delicately into her mouth while she read all about lemon meringue pie on the dessert menu. Her black trench coat was still cinched tightly around her waist beneath the table top having never removed it throughout the meal. Her eyes had dark circles under them, evidence to the fitful night of sleep she complained about on the drive to the restaurant. I stood up as the waitress dropped the check off on the table and I started to pick it up when Philippa stabbed it with her syrupy fork and said, “Hey Tom, I’ve got this…boss’s prerogative.”

“Okay boss,” I said, lifting my hands in surrender as I moved away from the table and stepped out into the sunny but chilled late morning air.

I pressed the number to re-dial my uncle at his office in the Sheriff’s department. After confirming for me that he was all right, he explained to me about an odd case of a couple out for a night of fun in a cornfield in his county and that the man ended up being hung from a tree and the woman is now left in a catatonic state, the only word she will utter, repeating over and over is the name, “Strawman”.

He finished saying, “Sounds like the perfect case for you and that crackpot mystery-hunter you work for.”

When I returned to the table the ‘crackpot’ was done eating her pancakes and was now sitting with a Tootsie Pop in her mouth. There was a little girl standing in the seat of the booth across from her turned around and staring straight at Philippa and she was also sucking on a Tootsie Pop “someone” had given her and the two of them were making faces at each other as they enjoyed their suckers. I set my phone upon the table and dropped into my seat in the booth while the little girl behind me continued staring over my shoulder at Philippa, the two of them smiling at each other when suddenly Philippa said, “Okay Tom, let’s go.”

Working with the infamous mystery-hunter Philippa K. Dick was like this, driving from town to town, jumping from case to case, always on the move, taking meals and sleep where we could find it, her reputation and notoriety always preceding her and a shadow on her tail at every turn, so like any other day we downed our food and drove like maniacs in my car on our way to Strawtown as I explained to Philippa what my uncle told me about the case and the legend. “My Uncle Fred said it’s been a pretty quiet year in the county. Other than a meth bust and a hit and run at Benton’s Crossing this has been the only major news. As far as the legend goes, the Strawman has been seen many times, a scarecrow that is said to haunt the fields around town at night. It is even said he was caught one time by some deer hunters and that they tried to set him on fire, to burn him up into oblivion but that they managed to set the field on fire instead causing them all to flee and as a result he was able to get away.”

“Of course,” Philippa replied skeptically.

“I’ve heard of this Strawman before, Philippa, I spent some time as a child in this county and have heard that if he touches you it will change you forever.”

“Change you how?” she asked.

“Different ways depending on the person,” I replied, already knowing she was dismissive of the legend as pure silliness, “It is said he has a sick sense of humor. My uncle told me that just this summer there were two girls that were lost in a cornfield and claimed they met the Strawman and he showed them the way out but they were never the same when they came back out of the fields.”

“Never the same, like how?” she asked.

“They said the Strawman reached down from his post and touched their heads. When they went back home to their respective parents they weren’t the same girls at all. They both cried day and night saying they were homesick and that they were in reality now the daughter of the other girl’s parents, as though they had been switched, one girl claiming the other house was where she lived and the other claiming the same thing. They each knew things about the other house and family that they never could have known unless they had lived there.”

“Hmm,” Philippa grumbled, “I have heard something like this before.”

After a lengthy drive across flat, parched farmland, we arrived in my uncle’s snug office. Touching my pocket when I sat down across the desk from him it was then I realized what I left on the table on the other side of the state at Bob Evans and snapped, “My phone, it’s all the way back at the restaurant!”

Philippa grinned like the Cheshire Cat and remarked, “Yes, I know,” then patting me on the shoulder she remarked, “You’ll survive without it Tom.”

I frowned as Philippa was now busy examining awards and pictures on the wall as my tall, sunburn creased and white-haired Uncle Fred leaned back in his chair and said in his deep, powerful voice, “I know about you Miss Dick from the papers but despite all that,” he smiled and winked at me as I continued sulking about my phone, “My nephew seems to think highly of you so that is good enough for me.”

Philippa was looking at a bowling team photograph in a plastic frame and without taking her eyes away from it she said sarcastically, “Well I’m certainly glad I meet with your approval since I was really worried about it and despite the fact that Tom says he simply can’t stand you, I definitely won’t hold it against you.”

She turned and smiled at my uncle who chuckled in a raspy tone and looked back at her as Philippa said tapping the picture, “What’s your handicap?”

He looked at the picture and said, “This year about a 35. The old leg isn’t what it used to be.”

“Hmm…” Philippa mumbled.

My uncle turned to me and said, “Now the way I see it is this. I’ve got a murder case to solve here,” he stopped and glanced at Philippa again who was now looking back at him and he continued, “Yes, murder, that rope certainly did not get pulled up by the young man hanging himself all the way up there,” to which Philippa smiled, as though pleased at the sudden realization that she was not dealing with an obtuse person and my uncle continued, “and it seems to me that you’ve got an interesting mystery to solve here, this Strawman thing, so I reckon between the two of us, if we put our findings together, gather what we can learn from looking into both sides of things, we might just come across a solution to both.”

Philippa turned her head back to the bowling team photograph and ran her fingers along the inner edge of the picture frame to examine the dust that collected as she remarked, “I never work for free you see, someone must hire me to look into this thing.”

She noticed my brow furrow as I had seen her (non-existent) financial statements before, but she smiled and said, “Uncle Fred, are you hiring me to solve the Strawman mystery?”

“Well now,” he replied, “I’m just a simple county Sheriff, I don’t have any kind of budget, personal or otherwise, to go hiring private investigators…”

“You only pay me what it is worth to you, and I think we can work out some sort of arrangement, like you helping me get to a 35 handicap?”

He laughed and said, “I like your style Philippa and that sounds more than fair to me young lady,” and he leaned forward to shake her hand, but she just looked at it and showed him the dust on her own saying, “Uncle Fred, you need a new cleaning service.”

 

*****

 

The first order of business was to go to the scene of the crime. I drove Philippa to the farm field outside of Strawtown and we stopped when we reached the sign advertising hybrid corn seeds like my uncle said. The farmer had cleared a path from that point out into the field leading to the stand of trees off in the distance on the horizon. Philippa wasted no time hopping out of my car and cinching the belt on her black trench coat before she stepped into the field, taking delight in cracking what remained of any standing corn stalks beneath her combat boots. The day being sunny she slipped on her sunglasses and stopped to turn to me lagging behind as I tried to avoid loose mud churned up by the tractor wheels when it cleared the corn to make a narrow swath through the field.

“Come on Tom, we haven’t got all day,” she said as she waited for me to catch up. We walked side by side as she kept comparing from time to time the distance we had traveled to the distance yet to go to the stand of trees.

As we walked I recounted for Philippa what we had heard from my uncle, “He said they found the car parked by the sign, nothing unusual, a little messy but there was nothing inside of it that shouldn’t be. The body was found hanging from the tree and the woman was taken to the county hospital where she was treated for cuts and bruises and then taken to a psychiatric specialist to asses her catatonic state. She was released to her mother a day later but has been bed-ridden and on meds ever since, keeping her mostly quiet and resting. She has a son, a boy about three years old that her mother is now caring for while her daughter recovers. Spencer Hatfield was twenty-one years old and worked at a furniture factory outside of town. He still lived in his parents’ basement having moved into town with them six months ago but had recently put money down on a rental in town. Jeanie Meldrum is nineteen and works at the Dollar General in Strawtown. Nothing unusual about either of them really, Jeanie never graduated from high school but both are good employees except the occasional sick days and otherwise no trouble.”

“What about the boy’s father?” Philippa asked.

“He lives in town but was at the big football game that night between the local high school and a rival county. There were people with him at the game and my uncle says his alibi seems solid enough. He was not paying child support, Jeanie wanted full custody of her son with no visitation and he wanted nothing to do with his son, no interest in being a part of his or Jeanie’s life whatsoever, so there was no conflict between the two by all accounts. Once she became pregnant with the baby, they went their separate ways.”

“Hmm…” Philippa grumbled. We walked along not saying much more as Philippa stepped on the mounds created by the tractor as though enjoying sinking into the soft earth.

In the silence of our walk I said, “My uncle is one of the good guys.”

“Is he?” she asked.

“Yes, I lived with him and Aunt Francis for some of my childhood and they were always kind to me.”

“Why is that?” she replied, “I mean why did you live with them as opposed to your own parents?”

I hesitated for a moment as she turned back to gauge the distance we had come and then she looked at me waiting for a reply.

“My mom had a hard time for a while after my father passed away and she needed space, I guess, to get things together…”

Philippa said nothing but turned to continue walking.

“Anyway, after college Uncle Fred helped me get the job in Orange County, where you and I first met and I don’t know, his house in Unionville, about eighteen miles southeast of here, always felt more like home to me, more than anywhere else. I guess I felt I was wanted there. Aunt Francis passed away three years ago and now my uncle lives there alone.”

We approached the clearing where a lone tree stood like a lighthouse in the middle of the flat field of corn and Philippa immediately went to stand under it and seeing the rub mark on a large gnarled branch high in the air where the rope would have been hanging, she merely pointed up at it and I nodded in understanding.

“It’s unfortunate they ran that tractor through the field,” she frowned, “I wonder how many footprints it churned up on the way out here.”

She put her hands in her coat pockets and began circling around the tree moving her way farther out to step around or between the bramble as she spiraled outward in the clearing. She crouched down and picked up some straw that was scattered on the ground and rolled it between her fingers and then put it up to her nose and smelled it several times before putting it into her coat pocket.

Philippa remarked, “Nothing but corn and weeds and this old tree growing out here.”

She stood up straight but leaned over to brush off the ankles of her black jeans before tucking them back inside her boots and then walked out toward the edge of the circle where she scanned around its perimeter looking at the tidy rows of corn disrupted only by the path that had been cut through it allowing access into the circle.

“Tom,” she said, “Do you notice anything odd about this clearing?”

I looked around and scanned the scene, the perfect rows of corn all leading up to and away from it, the big old tree and low shrubs in the middle, one slightly larger than the others and the grass and ankle high weeds that remained un-trampled.

“I’m not really sure. I mean I’m not an expert on farms…”

“You don’t have to be,” she replied, “Just look at the scene and think about what is different here than what we just walked through to get here.”

I stepped around the clearing and then moved toward the path where we entered and looking down it I could see the clean edges where the corn had been mowed down beneath the tractor, the ruts from the tires and the piles pushed to each side. I looked back at the clearing and still could not discern a difference.

“Look at the ground Tom,” she said to me, growing slightly impatient with my thickness.

There was something I still had not grown accustomed to since I first met Philippa those years ago on the ‘Charlie X’ case in French Lick, and then re-connected with her in Hammelburg last year when she hired me after concluding that case to document her mysteries. It was the special feeling I got when hearing her voice say my name, even when it was in frustration. There was something so pleasing to my ears to know it tumbled across her lips. To realize that she was thinking about me personally, some tiny part of that infamous and magnificent brain of hers carved out for me, even if it was merely to acknowledge my dimness at times, meant all the world to me. For when I saw her again that first day in Hammelburg the one thought that had never left my own brain was whether or not I would ever know another kiss from those lips again.

I looked at the ground and surveyed the weeds, seeing Philippa stand in the middle of it watching me with an incredulous expression on her face that it was taking me this long.

“Come on Tom,” she pleaded, “You’re no dolt.”

Then suddenly it dawned on me. The ground beneath our feet, the dirt and mud that fed the weeds and grass we were standing in was completely flat. There were no tracks in it, no ruts or lines at all as one might expect should a tractor have come straight up to this clearing and then circle around to it on the other side of the tree to finish the rows across the field beyond it. Even when the tractor cleared the path to this spot it stopped and turned at the point of entry, but beyond that there was simply no evidence of any heavy machinery having ever passed through the small clearing.

“There are no tire tracks, no ruts across it, or anything. This little splotch of land is pretty much flat and smooth.”

“Exactly,” she responded, “It would appear we have some questions for the farmer of this field.”

Before leaving, Philippa asked me to hand her my watch, and sliding her Ray-Bans atop her head she took the large-faced timepiece in her fingers and started angling it beneath the sun to shine a focused reflection along the ground around and in front of the tree. She was moving it in random patterns, wiggling the watch creating a shiny spot in the grass and weeds until a small flash appeared in the tangle of vegetation and holding the face of it in that position, jiggling it only slightly, she made the sparkle in the grass appear and disappear, like a twinkling star lying within the weeds and she said, “Tom, go to that spot and see what is there.”

I approached the shiny speck where I bent over and poked my fingers through the roots and grass to find a gold ring resting below a wide prickly leaf. I picked it up between my fingers as Philippa walked over to me and took it from my hand placing it upon her finger, a little snug but sized for a woman and she counted her steps from the spot where the ring was found, pacing two long strides, to where the rub mark from the rope on the branch was directly overhead.

She removed the ring from her finger and dropped it into her trench coat pocket handing me back my watch saying, “I think your uncle will hear from the coroner’s report that Spencer Hatfield died prior to being hung, perhaps from strangulation or a broken neck, but when he was strung up, he was already dead.”

Chapter 3

 

 

WE PULLED OFF THE county road and drove down a long pea-gravel drive lined with three massive oak trees whose gnarled branches had grown so large it appeared they had to be trimmed near the trunk to allow for passage of farm machines to make it on and off the property unencumbered. The crunchy gravel drive led up to the single story white farmhouse with its green shingled roof and large two-story barn behind with its door slid wide open. As we approached, Philippa was looking out her window to the right of the car at a large field where some cows were grazing beside a barbed-wire fence and she waved to them as they watched us warily. The drive circled around to the back of the house where there was a detached garage behind it, not visible from the road, constructed with the same white clapboard siding and green roof.

I turned off the car and Philippa sat, making no hurried motion to get out like she normally would but instead looked out the front window at the closed garage in front of us, at the wide open barn door and at the pea gravel covered area on which we were parked and then turning to me she said, “Tom, you said you spent time out in the country when you were young?”

“Yes,” I replied, looking at her, knowing her well-enough by now to understand that whenever Philippa preceded a statement or question with my name it was something she expected me to pay close attention to.

“Is it very common for a farmer to leave their garage doors closed in the middle of the day but barn door open?” she asked.

“Not if they are home,” I replied, “Most farmers are out in the field or in the barn working and trips to the garage for tools and whatnot would be so common that it would be ridiculous to have to constantly open and close the door.”

“Well their barn door is open,” she noted.

“Yes,” I agreed, understanding her point, “Then someone must be home.”

“But the garage door is closed,” she followed.

I shrugged, not completely understanding her point. She pulled on the handle of the door and stepped out into the gravel making her way up to the back of the house where we stepped onto a square concrete landing that had a rusted metal cover in the center of it as though concealing the opening to a well or pump. She walked over it listening to the hollow ring it made as the uneven edges of the metal lid clanged when she shifted her weight upon it and Philippa rose up the one step to rap her knuckles upon the metal frame of the storm door. She removed her sunglasses and dropped them into her trench coat pocket and turning to me she said, “Tom, make sure you mention your uncle.”

I nodded not really knowing why she said it and then we heard the door unlock and start to open, the occupant struggling with it as the house had settled making it difficult to pull loose from out of its frame. A man stood in the doorway wearing a straw hat, white t-shirt and overalls, and holding a red bandana in his hand as he was wiping sweat from off his double chin when he looked warily at us through the glass on the storm door, just like the cows had done.

“Can I help you?” he asked cautiously.

Philippa turned and looked at me, and I looked back at her eyes as I was stammering to speak but quickly piped up as though Philippa was prodding me with her gaze, “I am the nephew of Sheriff Bull, and we are here on his behalf looking into this hanging that occurred on your property.”

The man paused for a moment looking us both in the eyes and then nodded opening the storm door as he invited us inside. Philippa hesitated so I stepped in first ahead of her following the man down a short hall as he removed his hat and hung it on a hook where a small walk-through kitchen started off to the right but we continued into the main room of the house. There was a rose colored sofa beneath a picture window in the front that looked out across the long front lawn leading out to the county road and the pea-gravel driveway.

Philippa followed closely behind me as though keeping herself within my shadow and when I stopped I lifted my arms half expecting her to appear underneath them but as we entered the open space a woman in a dark blue dress stepped from the dining room off to the side between the room we were in and the entrance to the kitchen on the other end. She was holding a black, leather bound bible tucked up under her arm and she appeared slightly frazzled and distraught but immediately she looked upon Philippa and noting her black trench coat, her dyed auburn pixie haircut, the functional black jeans and combat boots that Philippa always wore the woman eyed her as though she felt she was standing in the presence of the Devil, gripping the gold-edged book even tighter beneath her arm.

The man spoke, “Please have a seat on the sofa,” as he motioned for us to sit. He continued wiping sweat off his neck despite the air conditioning unit in a side window from the dining room blowing at full force as he continued, “I just came in from out in the field so pardon my appearance.”

Philippa just looked at him but said nothing as he looked at me, then turning to gaze at Philippa I waited for her to speak, but she grinned slightly and then nodded to me as I turned in the awkward silence and said, “My name is Tom Pettinga and this is my friend Philippa, Philippa K. Dick, and as I mentioned we are helping my uncle, Sheriff Fred Bull look into details of this tragedy.”

“It is the work of the Devil,” the woman interrupted from the corner of the room as she was now sitting on the edge of a rocking chair when Philippa turned silently to look upon her, and the woman continued, “The Devil himself put this evil thing into our field…”

The man quickly interjected as I turned to him when he spoke, but Philippa kept her eyes fixed on the woman in the corner, “I am Carl Huson, and this is my wife Eliza, and we are just beside ourselves over this death, to think such a thing could happen out here, in our field. It is beyond comprehension.”

I looked to Philippa not knowing what to say next but her gaze was still locked on Eliza as the woman was continuing to eye Philippa up and down, her dark appearance perhaps somewhat startling in the flowery, country décor of the room, but to my surprise Philippa still said nothing only looking at the woman and then finally turning to me she nodded at a blue suit that was lying on the back of a chair beside a console television near the hall entry where we had walked in and I said, “Yes,” awkwardly as though I were acknowledging Philippa and then turning to the farmer I pointed to the suit and said, “Did you know the young man?”

Carl shook his head but looking at the suit that appeared to have been recently pressed said, “No I did not but I feel it is only right to pay my respects at the service all things considered. I knew the girl though, Jeanie, knew her from the dollar store, We’ve seen her there a few times to know her well enough I suppose. Terrible thing that has happened,” he said wiping his neck and brow and shaking his head.

Eliza spoke up across the room, “They were doing the Devil’s work those two, the girl already with a child out of wedlock from one man, meeting another out in a field under the cover of night, nothing good to come of that…”

Philippa turned her head and eyed her but still said nothing, merely waiting for the woman to speak further, but Eliza looked across the room at her husband as though she felt now the Devil herself was sitting in the room with them.

Then Philippa spoke through the awkward silence, “Tom, you were going to ask about the garage door…”

“Yes, that’s right,” I stumbled, not realizing I was going to have to ask a single question at all when we stepped in, “I noticed your garage door…”

Not sure where I was going to take my question, thankfully the farmer took my lead as Philippa must have realized he would and he interrupted as though already expecting it, “Yes, the spring broke and I’m waiting on the repairman to come. It’s too heavy for me to lift on my own.”

“I’m sure Tom can give you a hand,” Philippa interjected, but the farmer looked displeased so Philippa continued, “Perhaps just after Tom is through asking what you know about that night.”

“Yes,” I followed her lead, “Can you tell us what happened that night?”

Carl began, “Well, we were just about ready to turn in for the evening, it was a chilly night, the ten o’clock news was over, Liza had just gone into the bathroom and I was setting my clock thinking I could sleep in a little later when all of the sudden there was a terrible pounding on our front door. It startled me and I raced to the closet and retrieved my gun, then Liza opened the bathroom door and asked, ‘What is that pounding Carl?’ and I said, ‘Someone at the front door,’ but no sooner had I said it when the pounding continued and I could hear a woman’s voice screaming, ‘Help me please! The Strawman, the Strawman..!”

Carl wiped his forehead as he spoke then wadded up his handkerchief and tucked it down into the front pocket of his overalls as he continued, “I opened the door not sure what I would find and there was a young woman, I did not recognize her at first, her hair was a tangle in front of her face and switching on the porch light I could see her clothes were covered in blood, her arms and face speckled with small cuts and tiny scrapes, she looked as though she has been attacked by a mob of angry cats.”

At this Philippa chuckled under her breath but when all eyes looked to her she reached into her pocket and retrieved a Tootsie Pop which she unwrapped under watchful eyes and plopped into her mouth. Carl continued, “I opened the door all the way and she ran inside. She was out of breath, hyperventilating it seemed, shaking all over, and Liza took her to the kitchen switching on the light along the way, and it was then I recognized that it was Jeanie from the Dollar General in town and she started raving about going out to the field by the big tree with Spencer and some nonsense talk about a straw man chasing them and as Liza tried to calm her down the more she talked about this straw man chasing them through the corn the more worked up she got until her eyes rolled back into her head and she collapsed right out of the chair in which we had her sitting. I picked up the phone on the kitchen wall and called the Sheriff’s office who called an ambulance out to the house. The girl was breathing all right after she collapsed, like her body was forcing her to calm down, but she was unconscious and would not wake up. I thought maybe she was in shock so we lifted her legs on the chair and covered her with an afghan from the living room but she just lay there on the carpet in the kitchen, drooling, her eyes fluttering beneath her eyelids, her face twisted and head shifted to the side and soon enough she was muttering the words over and over, ‘Strawman, Strawman’. At first it crossed my mind that she was talking about me, because, well, I used to be known around these parts as ‘the strawman’, since I used to grow wheat and would always bale some straw for my neighbors after the harvest but I haven’t been called that for many years now, certainly not in this girl’s lifetime and Liza was convinced Jeanie was talking about the legend.”

“Yes, tell us about the legend,” Philippa said in an interested tone, surprising Carl as she spoke, “That’s really the aspect we are most interested in.”

But before he could speak Eliza piped in from the corner of the room saying, “The Strawman haunts all these fields out here. He is always on the prowl for evil and if he catches you doing wrong then you will meet his judgement, merely a touch of his hand renders his verdict, he might drive you out of your mind,” then pausing she looked at the suit on the chair and said “or depending on the level of your sin, perhaps even worse.”

Philippa just stared at Eliza while she twirled the sucker in her mouth and then the woman’s face turned her scowl toward Philippa and said, “I know you, I have read all about you in the papers and seen you on the news; you are that woman from the big city that looks into these dark things. You have escaped the clutches of death far too many times for any mere mortal. What kind of black magic allows you to pass under the hand of fate with nary a scratch upon your head?”

Philippa said nothing to her only staring back at her in cold silence. Eliza continued by pointing directly at Philippa and saying, “He will come for you too if you are not careful. He will find you when you least expect it, and he will render his judgement upon you.”

After a moment of silence while Philippa continued staring in the face of judgment from the woman in the comer as though genuinely perplexed by her Philippa turned her gaze away from Eliza and said, “Tom, you were going to ask about the rows leading up to the clearing weren’t you?”

“I was?” I replied, and then quickly followed, “Yes, indeed I was.” Turning toward Carl who was staring angrily across the room at his wife, I asked, “Why do the rows of corn lead just up to the clearing, but there are no tracks that go through it?”

Cark looked at me and furrowed his brow saying, “I don’t understand what you mean.”

I clarified, “The rows of corn, when they were planted, all the rows lead right to the edge of the clearing, but there are no tire tracks going through the clearing. How could this be? Did the tractor levitate over it?”

He made a confused expression on his face and then shrugged, “I don’t farm those fields any more. I rent them out. I only raise a few chickens and cows these days for eggs and milk and rely on others to pay me to use my fields.”

“But you said you were working in the fields when we arrived,” Philippa interjected.

Carl quickly recanted, “Yes well I meant with the cows and mending some gaps in the fence. It was just an expression.”

“Hmm,” Philippa replied, then taking the Tootsie Pop out of her mouth she said to me, “Tom, perhaps you can help Carl lift his garage door now.”

***

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Strawman

  • Author: Stanley Laine
  • Published: 2015-10-26 19:05:07
  • Words: 47271
Strawman Strawman