Jacksonville by Michael Piel

Jacksonville by Michael Piel


A chilling short story by Michael Piel.

1.


The night was still and quiet above Brookside Terrace, an average street in an average town in the great Prairie State of Illinois. It held about 20 houses, nine on each side and two around the cul-de-sac. They were cookie-cutter houses, each with an average sized living area connected to a one-car garage that led to the road down an average sized driveway. For the most part the driveways held station wagons, rusting minivans, a few golden oldies, and the occasional hotrod. Some yards were fenced, others weren’t. Some held trees and tire swings, others doghouses and car engines. The streetlights shed a sodium-colored light onto the dry lawns, casting shadows on the beige, green, and brown houses. A dog barked off in the distance somewhere, maybe a German shepherd from a neighboring street.


The front door of 3 Brookside Terrace opened. It was hard to tell what the man looked like from the photographs taken where he was finally killed, but before that night he had been reasonably good-looking, perhaps a little too heavy; he had a kind face people said. Robert Parker. He was the assistant manager of the local Wal-Mart, the one located at the shopping plaza in the center of town right next to College-Town Bagel. According to the police report he ran from the house and took a left up the street away from the main road. I can still remember the photographs lying on our family room floor.


Robert Parker, naked and dripping with his own blood and vomit, ran from the green house barefoot and started to make his way up the street. He staggered halfway down the road, wheezing and gulping mouthfuls of cold air, when the garage door of 3 Brookside Terrace began to open. An engine fired and a particularly average car (in color and in make) backed out of the driveway, its lights off. Robert heard the metallic hum of the door raising and began to scream. Unfortunately for Robert Parker it was Sunday morning and most reasonable folk wouldn’t be awake for another few hours.


The sun was just beginning to peak over the mountains to the west and the sky was a dull grey color. The car slowly rumbled forward, obviously in no hurry. Robert Parker’s voice cracked through his sobs and he stumbled, the big toe of his left foot scraping against the pavement leaving behind half of its nail. Robert shrieked and tumbled forward, hitting his head hard on the curb of the cul-de-sac. He couldn’t see the car through the morning mist, but he could feel it in the pavement. He dragged himself now the whole while pleading and asking God what he had done to deserve this. Hadn’t he lived a good life? He knew he shouldn’t have slept with Becky’s sister after that one Christmas party but it hadn’t been his fault –– he had had way too many drinks, and besides, that had been five years ago. He’d been faithful since.


The car eased to a stop and the driver watched as the fat bald man pulled his corpse across the stony ground. He was dead –– he just didn’t know it yet. The driver flicked the lights on and Robert Parker turned and covered his eyes. He tried to bring himself to his feet, but the pain in his foot was too much. He collapsed. The driver reached over the stick shift and grabbed the hunting rifle lying in the passengers seat. He opened the door and stepped out into the morning mist, the keys still in and the engine still running. The driver could barely make out the jumbled nonsense that was pouring from the fat man’s mouth like vomit. He raised the rifle and fired.


The driver tossed the gun into the bushes of the cul-de-sac and got back into his car. He backed up, shifted into first, and drove off down Brookside Terrace pulling out onto the main road and taking a left at the lights. Robert Parker lay there, naked and drawing flies, for three more hours until a neighbor finally noticed the pink and red heap at the end of her driveway and called the local dogcatcher.



2.


“So our person stops Mr. Parker’s car about here, he takes the hunting rifle and shoots Mr. Parker. Mr. Parker dies instantly. Our person then tosses the rifle into the bushes and drives off in the stolen vehicle. Sound about right?” said my father to his partner Simon Dench. My father had been in the military for about 15 years before he met my mother and settled down out here in Illinois. Back then he worked as a detective for the local law enforcement, but in a town like that you didn’t see much action. If you asked my father if he liked it that way, he would have said damn right he did. Personally, if you had asked me back then, I would have called it boring. I would’ve wanted to be tracking down Buffalo Bill or Michael Myers or some other psychopathic killer.


“Whys he leave the rifle?”

“Well if he’s the same guy from Drighton he always leaves the murder weapon.”

A cruiser pulled up to the yellow police tape and a man ducked under it and walked up to my father.

“The rifle’s signed to Robert Parker’s name.”

My father took the slip of paper from the policeman’s hand. “Thanks, Bill.”


He stood there a moment, gumming the folded up slip in his mouth and tapping it against his lips. He traced the line of blood with his eyes to the chalk outline where Mr. Parker had been lying only an hour earlier. My father had been a tall and very handsome man, dark black hair that was just beginning to grey and a well-trimmed beard that was more pepper than salt. He wore a tan overcoat in the frigid November air and an orange knitted jumper.


“Alright. Let’s clean this up and head back to the station.”

“You want another look around Parker’s house?” asked Dench.

“No,” replied my father. “I’ll be damned if I have to look at that basement one more time.”


Four people had been killed in Illinois so far –– three in Drighton and now one here. That made the suspect a serial killer, and serial killers are a whole different ballgame than one-time murderers. For some reason they had always interested my father. The way he used to tell me was they must have just stared into the darkness of the night sky, and when the only thing that looked back at them was that great nothingness, something in them must’ve snapped. They weren’t real folk, he had told me. They didn’t have a soul like he and I had. Each had a particular taste, something he did repetitively (series: serial). His Mr. Smith liked to chase his victims. He would torture them, set them free, and then hunt them down once they were wounded –– he liked to give them the hope of freedom and then watch their faces as he took it away again; it’s what made his blood hot and his heart pump fast, but of course he didn’t tell me all this back then.


My father had had trouble keeping his breakfast down when he first walked into Robert Parker’s basement. It smelled like shit and gasoline –– Mr. Smith must have been going at it for days. There had been a chair in the center of the basement, tipped when my father had entered the room, with ropes tied all around it. On the wall was an array of tools, the ones used being obvious (they were still covered in wet blood). Pliers, a foot-long screwdriver, a hammer. The nail jar was tipped over and open. Below the wooden chair was a cocktail of blood, vomit, and kerosene. Detective Dench had clutched his stomach and ran back upstairs. My father held his handkerchief over his mouth and nose and continued down the wooden steps. Mr. Parker’s family had been away for the weekend and he had been living at home by himself for two nights. His guess was that the killer arrived before Robert Parker got home from work that first night and worked on him for the following 36 hours. Robert Parker had called out sick on Saturday, and when his supervisors were questioned later they did say there was something strange in his voice. They figured it was the flu.


The kitchen was a mess of pots and opened cans and dirty utensils. The killer had stayed in the house and fed himself –– even slept in Parker’s daughter’s bed.



3.


In the weeks that followed there were five more murders in the district, all done the same way. The police force was tripled and we began to see my father less and less –– he was the resident scholar of The Hunter of Kane County. When he was home he was poring over files, photographs, making calls and filling up notepads with his illegible chicken scratch. My mother kept trying to hide me from what my father was doing but I found out. I was 12 years old then and I wasn’t to be underestimated. I would sneak a glance at the photographs on the dinner table as I walked into the kitchen to get a glass of milk. One photograph I saw I imagine I will never forget. It was of an elderly woman, about the age my grandmother had been then. The Hunter had tortured her and set her free, just like his other victims, and just like the others he had run her down and killed her –– but it was how he killed her that had got to me. He didn’t use a rifle, or a knife, or anything like that. The old woman had been covered with teeth marks.


I stopped sneaking looks at the kitchen table after that night. When my father was home and not working (which became more and more rare), I would hang onto him and bury my face in his soft stomach. I didn’t want him out there looking for this lunatic, this lunatic who was scarier than any killer the movies could come up with. I would sob and beg him to stop, I would beg him to stay at home with me, to help me build a puzzle or to read me It’s Not Easy Being a Bunny for the 100th time.


“Oh, Matty,” he would say, “You’re much too old for that book now.”


But I didn’t care. I wanted to hear him do the voices like he always did; I wanted to feel his big body next to mine in my bed as he read me the picture book. I wanted to feel his beard scratch my face as he kissed me goodnight and to smell the faint scent of clove cigarettes on his breath.


Then one night after dinner the phone rang.


“Walter,” my mother said, and handed the phone to my father. He dropped his knife and fork onto the plate and walked into the other room.

“Eat your asparagus, Matthew –– just the one.” I moaned. A moment later my father walked back into the kitchen.

“I have to go away for a little while, but I’ll be home tomorrow morning.” He picked up his glass and drained it. He kissed my little brother and me on the head.

“Walter, be careful,” pleaded my mother. He kissed her hard.

“Don’t worry, baby.” He grabbed his tan overcoat and walked out the door. That was the last time I ever saw my father.



4.


My father had received a call from a man named Ronald Delson, an old military friend who was now the sheriff of a small New England town in western Massachusetts. Delson had been keeping up with my father’s case and had been calling periodically to lend my father advice and to get the inside scoop. I met with Delson two years ago, 11 years after my father’s death. He was a tall lanky man with a well-trimmed mustache –– looked pretty good for his age. Looked like my father might have had he still been alive. Delson had pulled a man over only an hour earlier when he called. The man had been going 10 miles over the speed limit on the Mass Pike and Delson had been bored enough to nab him. As he approached the car he happened to glance at the license plate. Illinois: The Prairie State. He asked the man for his license and registration. Delson thanked the driver and walked back to his cruiser to run the plates. The car belonged to a woman named Caroline Marigold. Delson asked the driver how he had come to acquire the vehicle and the driver had told him Caroline was his sister-in-law.


“I just bought it from her two days ago. Decided to move up here to New England and hadn’t gotten around to registering it yet,” the man had told Delson.

“Where you thinkin’ about headin’?”

“Portland Maine, maybe. Change of scenery in my old age, ya know?”

Delson laughed. “Mid-life crisis, I get it. I bought a bike.”


Delson let the man off with a warning and told him that as soon as he got where he was going to get all the stuff with the car cleared up. The driver wished him a good night and drove off. Delson hadn’t given the man another thought until later that night when he was sitting in front of the television watching Days of Our Lives while reading the daily paper. He flipped to page three where my father’s story had usually been running. The headline was about another murder, and as he skimmed down through the article he almost choked on the coffee he had been drinking.


“What was the last victim’s name, Walter?”

“What do you mean, Ron?”

“The last victim. What was her name?”

“Pauline Marigold. Why, Ron, is there something wrong?”


Delson told my father what had happened earlier that night and sure enough, the Hunter of Kane County had stolen Caroline’s sister’s car, a 1985 Geo Prism. My father rushed into the kitchen, told us he’d be home in the morning, and rushed out to catch a late flight to Hartford, Connecticut.


I had been 23 by the time I finally contacted Delson. He was still working as a sheriff and seemed pleased to hear from me. We scheduled a weekend for me to come up and he said he looked forward to it. Dark rain clouds hung over the city and as I crossed the terminal I listened to the pitter-patter of the drops on the windows. It was late August and the rain was hot and stuck to you like sweat. Delson picked me up from the airport and drove me back to his house, a small grey saltbox with a pickup in the driveway. Delson was your average blue-collar America loving man. Real sweet. He introduced me to his wife Helen and his twin sons, Robert and John. Kids were real sweet too and his wife wasn’t too bad looking for 40-something. We ate dinner in the family room and as we began to finish up Delson told his wife to bring me and him a couple of beers from the garage. A moment later she came out with a six-pack of Boston Lager and we each cracked one open. We were silent a moment. Neither of us had mentioned anything about my father or anything else that had happened 11 years ago, even though we both knew that was the reason why I was there. Delson sipped at his beer.


“Mr. Delson ––”

“Ron, please.”

“Ron…” I paused. “I want to know what happened that night. I want to know how my dad died.”


Ron had rocked back in his big La-Z-Boy, his face blank and his eyes beginning to remember. He told me about the phone call, but I had heard about that before; they had interviewed Dench the day after it happened and that much had been in the papers.


“Your daddy came right up, fast as he could. I met him at the airport, same one I met you at earlier, and we got in my car and drove out to the station. We had a man there who had sketched a picture from my description and a few other fellas from the force –– I had called them all in right after I had gotten off the phone with your daddy. We had all the troopers in the state looking for this guy, and finally about two in the morning we got a call that the car had been spotted in a motel right over the border of New Hampshire. You realize we were way out of both mine and your daddy’s jurisdiction, but he had a fire in his eyes that night. He hadn’t flown out here for the clam chowder. The other guys went home, saying they wanted to help but that they didn’t want to get mixed up in this. Your daddy understood.


“We got a few guns and left both our badges on my desk. Your daddy’s is actually somewhere in my office upstairs, I’ll show it to you later.”

“I’d like that,” I replied.


“Well we drove for about three hours until we got to the Moose Crap Inn. That wasn’t its actual name, something ridiculous, but the place looked like shit and that’s what your daddy and me called it. Sure enough, there was the 1985 Geo Prism. The place was small, maybe about 30 rooms in all. We walked up to the desk and asked the night clerk for a map of the rooms. He gave it to us and we asked who was in room 23 –– he said he couldn’t say. Your daddy did the whole cop shpeel and finally the man said he’d help us out. We showed him the picture our man had drawn up and he told us that that was him alright. Your daddy and I pulled out our guns and knocked on room 23.


“He musta been awake or something cause a second later he shot through the window at your daddy and got him right in the belly. The whole thing shattered and he leapt right through. He sprinted right across the parking lot and over the divided highway. I emptied my whole clip, think I might have gotten him in the shoulder actually, but he got off and I stayed with your daddy until he died about 20 minutes later.” He sighed. “Terrible shame…” Ron took a big swig from the bottleneck and was silent again. I waited a moment, thinking he had more to say, but he was finished. He took out a handkerchief and blew his nose. I looked down into my empty bottle, trying to imagine the whole scene in my head.


“Maybe you could show me that badge now?”

He nodded and stood up, placing his beer on the coffee table. He grabbed another one out of the six-pack and popped the cap off.

“Here,” he said. He handed it to me.



5.


I push open the glass door and am met with the refreshing air-conditioned chill of the small café. I smile and wave at Katie as I jog between the little wooden tables. She greets me, I smile again, and jog through the back door and up the stairs to my landing. The hall is quiet and dimly light, the only window a small one at the end of the hall with the curtains pulled in front. I go to my door, fumble for my keys and slide the key into the hole. I toss the newspaper on the table and my keys on top of the paper, walking over to the refrigerator and pulling out my water bottle, drinking long and drinking deep. The water freezes my teeth. The small tan cat jumps up on the counter and mews.


“Hey, buddy.” I pick Otis up and hold him under one arm, drinking with the other and pulling off my headband and kicking my shoes off. I walk over to the ceiling fan and pull down the metal chain. It hums and slowly comes to life, making the sweat on my forehead run. I toss Otis into the armchair and pull my shirt off, making my way to the shower. The phone rings and Otis jumps.


“Calm down, little guy.”

I let it ring a few more times, turn the shower on and walk back out in my briefs to answer the phone.

“Hello?”

“Hello, is this Matthew Calloway?”

“Yes it is. May I ask whose calling?”

“Hi Matt, it’s Simon. Simon Dench.”

I freeze –– it’s been a long time since I’ve thought about that name. “What’s up, Mr. Dench?”

“We found him, Matty. We found your daddy’s killer. His name’s Donald Ryan. We found him in a small flat in Portland, Maine. Got him with a DUI and he’s confessed to everything. We got him Matty and he ain’t goin’ no where.”


I hold the phone a moment (Matty? You there?) and then press down on the receiver. I hear the dial tone. Otis purrs and rubs up against my leg. I walk back into the bathroom and hold my hand under the flow from the nozzle to see if it’s warm enough. I take a quick shower, enough to rinse the sticky sweat off my body, and walk out into the main room as bare as the day I was born. Otis claws at my leg.


The breeze comes through the window and cools my body and for a moment I’m covered with goose bumps. Maybe I’ll go see if Katie wants to grab a bite on her lunch break, I think – there was that new Tai place down the street I’d been meaning to try. I walk back into my room, pull on some khakis and a collared shirt and slip into my sandals. I run my hand across my father’s badge on the coffee table by the door, grab my keys, and lock the place up behind me. Maybe she’ll even say yes this time.

Copyright 2009 Michael Piel, All Rights Reserved.