“THERE IS A MURDER DOWN THERE.”
The vocalization came to him as mysteriously as invisible ink acted on paper. First the lucidity, the clarity, but with time, the words written begin to fade, the solidness becomes hollow and the edges ethereal and substance quickly diminishes. Even under your astute watchfulness, you fail to pinpoint with certain accuracy the time the words disappear altogether and you simply stare at the paper in absolute curiosity and wonderment, if it’s your first time that is.
So the words were to Keith Garland, like a language spoken audibly into a whisper and had tugged at his mind for attention but because it was his line of duty and he had many frolicking thoughts upstairs, he generally dismissed it and tried to move to something kinky.
“THERE IS A MURDER DOWN THERE!”
He instantly startled at the deep, gravelly voice. It’d scratched at his ears’ insides, tearing him from the fatuous musings that had led him to the very edge of sleep. He pushed a finger into his ear to rid it of the raspy echoes and unintentionally of building gunk. Where had the voice even come from?
He pushed his eyes open and twisted his neck to be certain the voice hadn’t been a product of some poorly suppressed unremembered thoughts, but even every thought he had going at the moment fled when his eyes fell upon a peculiar spectacle:
The creature was feminine, though looked almost neuter, genderless, and visibly bent and riddled with age. A face, pallid as the moon and as wrinkled as a paper bag that had seen eons of use, diseased by crumpling and part burning, glared at him through two heavily mismatched and deep-jaundiceyellow eyes; one was tightly half shut and the other was nearly vacating its socket. That face, with those eyes, was most capable of hiding all sorts of emotions she could effuse. God knew what went on behind them. Resting on a hooked nose was a large zit that hosted a smaller, skanky zit, the both of them relishing in the most repellant commensalism, their colors a stratified strain of black and brown that was darker than the gravelly surface upon which they rested in consummate firmness. Her (he was still unsure if that was wholly agreeable) lips, tightly jammed together, were curved downwards as if struck by an eternal unhappiness. Keith imagined that no pleasant sound could be issued from those lips. The way they were knitted together, he imagined the amount of force that would be required to pry them apart. Her frame was squat and her clothes a tad regal than rags, nondescript as she herself was, and frayed along all of its edges. They hung loosely on her skin like a long dress heavy with oiling. A scarf of the same color as her dress (a dirty colorlessness) covered her hairs, hairs that fell afore her eyes, stiff, dry and untogether like wasting straw. She was thin but her squat form made her appear otherwise; malnourished and withering however were clearly televised. One weak hand grasped a staff tightly while the other rested by her side. Her gnarled toes rested shakily on clasping flip-flops.
Keith was mightily flustered as he beheld her. She was like a wraith, a dying wraith come to life. She stood a few centimeters away from the patrol car he’d been nestled in since duty time five hours ago. His mouth held tight for lack of what to say for utter discomfiture. Gaping at her, he detected a quiver rising up her throat. She was about to say something.
Rather, she turned her face down and spat phlegm to the floor. What made him look at it, he didn’t know but the repellence tore his eyes away from it. The memory though lingered thrillingly. He saw the phlegm, an irritating string of saliva and hardening pus on the matter of his brain, washing, lubricating, and traversing watery paths of folding gyri and wrinkly sulci—
He looked up, feeling the saliva that clogged his throat gathering weight, or it could be the phlegm—
He immediately discovered she wasn’t looking at him anymore, rather her sight had been sent down the highway, off to the distant fields of corn; and the moment he looked in her eyes, he was shocked to find an emotion roiling in them—worry. No, worry was too deep. Concern? Yes, more like it, concern. That touched the surface, like the emotion in those eyes. He didn’t believe they went deep or they could go deep. Or was it in his head? But who was he to divine others’ thoughts. With that came the bitter realization he was being unkind and maybe unfair concerning her disfigured figure. She was just an old woman needing assistance, and wasn’t that what he was here for? What was it she said before? He tried to remember.
“There is a murder down there,” she suddenly repeated in her throaty voice and pointed with a clawlike finger to a distant part of the plantation that raged on either sides of the highway.
My God, is she a mind reader? Keith thought apprehensively. He followed that long-nailed finger and returned it back moments later for the fear of getting his eyes and mind completely lost and disoriented in the tempestuous sea of stalks of green. He turned back to her.
“Are you serious?” he asked but then felt a stabbing regret for asking it. Her face was resolute, firm. She’d come to him in complete seriousness.
“Would I come here to you if there wasn’t?” she responded, pushing the knife of regret deeper into his belly with effective results.
Keith turned from her and consulted the clock on his dashboard. Five forty-eight pm. This was new. The sun was just beginning to show signs of its setting. Why was there murder in broad daylight? And why hadn’t she called 911 first? There was probably no time.
“Get in the car,” he instructed as he got out but once again regretted giving the instruction; she took forever to get to the open door and after came a tough struggle of getting herself into the patrol car, most of the fuss due to that staff. Finally he had no other option than to get the staff away from her and place it in the back seat. She’d reluctantly parted with it. Queer old people and their third legs. He made sure she was properly seated before closing the door to get behind the wheels.
As he marched to the driver’s seat, he checked his .40 Beretta in his holster. The gleaming piece of weaponry had seen fair use in the three months since he’d applied for and obtained it, all of that use in target practice so he knew its 12 round magazine was fully loaded, but following his protocol, he checked it for assurance of that fact before returning it to its place.
Settling down behind the wheels, he made a mental note to call HQ for backup when he got to where she wanted to lead him to, of course if there was the need for that. Finally he turned to look into that hideous face, and for a split moment thought there was this glum expression of satisfaction playing in it. The expression disappeared the next moment. He turned from her and started the car.
SPRINGPLAINS BASE WAS A SMALL DEVELOPING COMMUNITY. It held at present no more than thirty thousand individuals in as much as six hundred households; the kinships of the community were tight bonds. Nuclear families were seen as peculiar and therefore unacknowledged and the extended family with the record highest number of males had their head the chief of the town. Pregnancies were ceremonies; male births were celebrations; female births were remitted heartfelt congratulations.
The community itself had gotten its name from a now defunct military base, a remnant of the American fleet from 1945. A journeying family had stumbled upon the area in one of their travels and impressed by the richness of the land, had decided to make the place their final settlement. Of course they’d met resistance from the base but they reached a compromise: they’d till the land and cultivate it and pay a tithe from whatever amount of produce they obtained from it. Therefore, the chief occupation within the area was farming. Its excellent, fertile greenery and then peaceful, pristine atmosphere made the place an unbelievable catch for the early people.
With time, other clans stumbled upon the area and it wasn’t long before the base was forced to move or succumb to the power of the growing population, thereby relinquishing control. Other occupations included churching, butchery, trade and theft, et cetera.
With the growing diversity came disputes of land settlements amongst clans, therefore the need for peace enforcers, which was henceforth created from the scraps of the defunct military base. They’d done well. Inasmuch as there was conflict arising somewhere within the town, things had never gotten so out of hand for murder to arise. Of course bloodshed could be mild.
Keith reduced the pressure on the accelerator as he looked forcibly through the windshield. Things had gotten strange much of recent. People were going missing. Was kidnapping becoming a new occupation? First there was Old Ogdens, the butcher. Keith had seen him times before during his patrols and boy, did that man like to slice and tear meat. He was a very fleshy man himself with a protruding belly a facsimile of a nine-month-old pregnancy but despite his bulk, he was extremely jolly, a cheerful friend to the people, ready to render help no sooner than asked. Just one morning, three weeks ago, when people weren’t receiving their weekly supply of meat, questions were asked and it wasn’t long before he was declared missing. Whereabouts unknown.
Next to follow was Maggie Haley, the town’s Daily, third wife to Patrick Haley. News travelled as fast as the falcon flew as long as the persons spreading it had their source as Maggie. She had an uncanny knowledge of all that went on in Springplains, from the hourly pooping of the baby just born in the Stevensons clan (two boys left to par the same number the head family had) to the very words, down to the last letter, conversed in the master bedroom of the Johnsons, the head family of the town. She was a renowned gossip.
Then there was Jerk. He was a vagabond. No one knew where he came from, what his actual name was, where he was going to, no home, nothing, save the rags around his sunburnt skin (of which there wasn’t much of, both rags and skin) and a filthy burlap bag that God knew what it held. He trampled around the town barefoot like a hobo (wait!, He was one anyway), the hairs on his head unwashed, unshaven and uncombed since birth, tangled and tousled than the roots of a mangrove tree. He wasn’t missed when he disappeared and nobody would’ve linked him to any of the disappearances had there been none.
The disappearances themselves had happened in the uncanniest of fashions. Like rapture. The people just went missing without a trace or a hint of struggle, suddenly disappeared from the face of the earth. Their houses had been in place; no sign of robbery, of kidnap, no call from the kidnappers even, just—vanished. And the wildest animals in town were the rabid strays and field vipers. Search parties and techniques had failed miserably.
Of course, a similar occurrence had happened last fall. The entire Martin household: papa, mama and two ill-fed boys, all gone. They’d had enough of the discrimination of the town’s inhabitants. They were leaving, in their truck. Only, they might’ve continued the rest of their way barefoot and unloaded of everything that would’ve given them comfort, safety, and suppressed hunger for the length of their journey. Their truck was found on the outskirts of town, deserted, gas already burned out but the engine in proper condition otherwise and their entire properties still intact inside. They never came back and no one had heard from them since.
“You live there?” Keith asked as he slid his foot upon the brake and applied pressure to bring the car to a full stop. Beside them, a thick overgrowth of healthy-looking cornstalks rose over six feet from the ground and clotted most tightly to form a makeshift impenetrable wall. The wall of rich green and faint light-brown was all they were allowed to see from the car but minutes ago, whilst the car slid down the steep slope that led here, Keith’d spotted a cottage, small and brick brown with a less noticeable chimney, very befitting of the woman, trapped in the midst of the stormy sea of stalks.
She gave a slight nod, yes.
“The murderer’s still in there?”
She didn’t answer him to his face. She instead turned to look in the direction of the plantation, hiding her face from his sight.
“You’ll find death there.”
It was a sentence, spoken with the brevity of a warning, accentuated by her guttural voice and punctuated at the end by an ominous intake of breath. Keith however found it all amusing.
I’ll find death there. He smothered a chuckle. She’d sounded threatening, eerily threatening, in a way he found cool. She had guts, he observed. It ought to’ve taken all of her to escape, trudge up the sloping highway to find him. But he had to admit: he never saw her coming. He’d simply closed his eyes one time, exceedingly bored, to have her voice pull him back to presentness.
Without warning, there was a sharp, forced twist. He believed he heard bones snapping as she turned to face him again. Her grimaced expression cracked her wrinkled face into a million sections, the lines of cracking traversing one another in a madman’s scribbled map, mismatched eyes flared with deep black flames. She suddenly looked like one of those witches in… there! He was being unfair again.
“Ok, ok, I’m going,” he responded, drawing his gun out. He checked the walky-talky on the left side of his left thigh. It was in place. He got out, then padded around to her side, looked through the window and stopped. He hadn’t decided yet on what he was going to do with her. He could leave her here and go inspect the plantation, maybe then the house but there was the fearful fact that the murderer, if any (he still had some reservations) and if they were still here, would’ve spotted him approaching and tracked him if he entered in order to make for the car, maybe kill her, definitely drive off. With that thought, he turned to look at the wall of luffing cornstalks, expecting to catch unfamiliar movements. They had the advantage being in there. Things were getting nervy. He discounted giving her the gun too. He didn’t believe she would be able to handle it and he had just the one he held now. Of course he needed it to guard himself while scouring the vegetation.
Which left him just one more option.
He opened the door. She scowled at him before making to step out of the car. And she took forever, of which Keith groaned.
She paused halfway between sitting and rising to pluck her staff from the backseat, then finally stepped out with the same lethargic slowness she’d started with, turned to face him and waited for him to lead the way. He closed the door behind her, clicked the lock button on the car key remote, locking all the doors at once and brought up his gun. Silently, he prayed she wasn’t going to slow him down. He had to cover this quickly and report back to HQ, if there was need to.
“Keep close behind me,” he instructed her.
After moving to the delimitation of the wall of stalks that stood two feet above his head, he turned around and found her almost upon him. She’d kept up unbelievably and unexpectedly well. And was there egging in that jutting eye?
He pushed the stalks apart, found inside to be a wilderness of green, so thick, so dense, so tight a path wasn’t visible, and entered. Then he kept them apart for her to get through and the moment after she limped in, he left them.And they closed.
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