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Inhabited


By Eloise Hamann


Copyright 2014 Eloise Hamann


Smashwords Edition




Table of Contents


Chapter 1 November 2006

Chapter 20 Soledad

References

About the Author & Special Offers






1 - November 2006


Dry Creek’s only cop nearly stumbled while carrying the stretcher bearing young Peter’s lifeless body. Ben Swanstrom looked in horror at the town mortician, who gripped the other end. The hushed gathering of onlookers on the other side of the wide, tree-lined street emitted a collective gasp. Ben couldn’t imagine anything more dreadful than dropping a corpse onto the ground. His mouth suddenly tasted of tinfoil, and it took all of his strength to quell the desperation jangling his nerves.

Ben and Harold carefully deposited Peter with his parents and brother. It would be a tight fit for all five bodies to nestle in their own places in the back of the hearse. Stacking the bodies seemed as repulsive as separating the family. Ben turned from his macabre assessment of space to collect Samantha, the last of the Swiesaus. The soft crunch of his feet on the frozen grass seemed offensively loud in the awful stillness.

On their reluctant trip to the back bedroom, Ben and Harold trudged through hallways lined with family pictures. In a few short steps, Samantha lost her front teeth, grew them back, and matured from gawkyhood to emerging beauty. The house was rife with sports equipment, games, and hobby paraphernalia — the stuff of life. It was painful to think it had all vanished as quickly and as finally as the snuffing of a match. Doc Hutchison was standing at the side of Samantha’s bed shaking his mottled, bald head. “She looks so peaceful. They all did.”

Numbly admiring the halo of golden-brown hair splayed on her pillow, Ben said awkwardly, “I don’t think I’ve ever seen her without her pony tail.” The frigid November wind reached through the window and lifted a strand of the halo, creating a false sense of life. The trio hesitated, as if they felt Samantha needed a moment. Even Harold, who had to be inured to collecting the dead after thirty-three years in the mortuary business, was reluctant. Ben broke the awkward silence, “As soon as we’re finished here, I’ll call Chuck Wissink.”

“If he locates the gas leak, we shouldn’t have to do autopsies. Their lips are pinker than normal, but I’m not sure I’d call them cherry colored. I’ve only seen one case of carbon monoxide poisoning, and the lips were darker, so I suspect it’s the furnace. Eyebrows raised, Ben glanced at Harold, who sighed and gently pulled back the flowered bedspread.

Outside, the collection of neighbors murmured under starkly bare trees, conversations repeating and crossing like rounds of Three Blind Mice. “Of all the families! Who didn’t love the Swiesaus?” “Have you ever known George not to run down to his pharmacy at an odd hour if your kid was sick and needed something?” “Yeah, if not George, Mary.” “Hell, half the time if I had the flu, George would know more than Doc.” “And does anybody know better kids?” “That Samantha’s bobbing pony tail!” “That girl never walked.” “Always skipping!” Then just as if the hand of God put his finger to his mouth, they quieted when Ben emerged from the house transporting Samantha past her unlocked bike parked by the garage.

By putting her two younger brothers end to end, the men were able to gently ensconce Samantha beside her family. Ben solemnly closed the back door and nodded at Harold as Ben turned back to the house. He noticed for the first time, a crude, white cross above the door mantel. It looked unfamiliar and out of place. He stopped and stared up at it. What the hell! That’s weird. He was momentarily mesmerized, and then shook himself. Is this the kids’ latest Halloween prank? I’ve never heard of this trick. I hope that’s washable paint. It looked as if it had been drawn in two slapdash strokes, giving the cross the shape of an ancient relic from a long-abandoned cemetery.

He found Doc looking around, appearing not to know what he was looking for. In a continuing effort to move past this tragedy, Ben said, “We’d better leave the windows open until Chuck gives an OK.”

“Yeah,” he sighed. Wouldn’t want him keeling over, too.”

“If he can’t get over until tomorrow morning, I’ll leave the faucets with a slow drip, so the pipes don’t freeze.”

“Sure. Oh, I checked the food in their refrigerator; it all looked fine. And no hand-picked mushrooms.” With nothing left to say to distract them from their profound numbness, he turned to leave and put his hand on Ben’s shoulder. “You’re the cop; I guess it’s your job to sort this out.”

Ben phoned Wissink Heating & Air Conditioning from the yellow kitchen wall phone. “Chuck, this is Ben. You’ve heard?”

“Yeah, everybody’s shocked. What happened?”

“Don’t know, but it has to be some kind of gas. Do you have stuff to test the furnace?”

“Yeah, you want me to come over now?”

“I’d appreciate it.” While waiting for Chuck, Ben solemnly prowled the house, looking for anything capable of explaining the tragedy. After he located and sniffed the furnace registers, he found a screwdriver in the junk drawer in the kitchen. He took off two register plates, reaching in looking for blockage. He understood it made no sense, but he had to do something.

Hearing the sound of Chuck’s rattletrap van, Ben strode out to meet him in the driveway, “Need help?”

“Naw, I got it.” Ben followed Chuck’s bowed legs up the driveway. Once inside, the house — like a church — subdued the men. Ben tipped his head in the direction of the basement stairs, and they descended to the expected source of the calamity. “We’d better get these casement windows open.”

“Boy, this just doesn’t seem real.” Chuck struggled with one of the windows. “I can’t imagine not seeing George in his white coat at the back of the drug store.” Dead leaves and other debris sifted through the window, and Chuck turned his head to keep from breathing the dust.

“Life isn’t fair sometimes, maybe never,” Ben said sourly. He opened another window slowly in an effort to keep the dirt outside.

After they managed the rest of the windows, Chuck headed for the furnace room just off the rec room furnished with old, living-room furniture, avocado raised carpet, piles of family games, and a record player with a stack of old 78s. Ben watched from inside the doorframe, arms akimbo with the backs of his hands resting on his hips. Chuck opened his tool chest. “I suppose George’s mother took it pretty hard?”

“I think Louise was too stunned to get her head around it all.” He sighed. I’m sure it’ll sink in later.”

“Yeah, George’s her only son, and with Clarence gone, it’ll be hard. Must be the worst part of your job.” He was studying the setup of the furnace, cobwebbed pipes, and gas lines.

“Yeah. Everybody reacts a little differently. Some can’t stop screaming, and others seem to think the world is playing some rude trick on them, that they must be dreaming. To be honest that’s how I feel. I’ve never had to deal with a whole family wiped out.” He saw Chuck tapping a pipe with his ear next to it. “I’d better let you work in peace,” he said and turned, his gaze sweeping the room. He froze, staring across the room. “I don’t believe this.”

“What?” Chuck, startled, took three long strides to Ben’s side.

He pointed toward an old, walnut-colored end table in the corner. “There’s a hamster cage down here, and I saw him moving. Take a look.” They strode over to gape at the chubby, little animal vigorously twitching his nose at them.

“Well, I’ll be damned,” Chuck said. “That’s really odd.”

“A furnace problem should be worse in the basement, right?”

“I’d think so. I think this little guy means I’m not going to find anything, but I assume you still want me to check?”

“Yeah. I don’t know what else it could be.” Looking around, he went on, “I only see one register, and it looks half closed. Then the furnace room door was closed. Maybe it wasn’t as bad down here. It has to be the furnace.”

Both men stood in silence until Ben reached out and gently lifted the cage. “I think I’ll move little Hammie upstairs for now.”

Chuck nodded and returned to his task.

Placing the little creature in Samantha’s bedroom, Ben took the opportunity to replenish the water and find some fresh lettuce. When he returned to the basement, Chuck was shutting his toolbox and wiping his hands with a rag. “The furnace is not leaking where it comes into the house and not where the line comes into the furnace.” He pointed at his dated tag on the furnace. “I replaced the furnace only six years ago, so I can’t imagine there’s a crack in the heat exchanger. I’ll have to take it apart to be sure.”

“Is that a pretty big job?”

“Yeah, and given that hamster, why don’t I put up patches which test for gas? I’ll put some down here and on the main floor. They turn different colors. It takes a while, though.”

“Let’s leave ‘em overnight then. I’ll get the windows and adjust the temperature. What your patches don’t detect, the hamster should.” The men left the house unsatisfied.


***


Ben’s route back to his office took him past George’s mother’s house. The street was lined with cars. Already, women walked toward the door carrying bowls covered with dishtowels. The sight made him heartsick.

After half the town had visited and left, George Swiesau’s mother phoned Ben at home. She sounded exhausted. “This is Louise.” After a brief awkward exchange, she said, “Harold tells me I can’t set the date for the services until you give him clearance.”

“He’s right. We need to find the gas source first. I’m having Chuck check it out.” There was no need to suggest it might not be the furnace until Chuck was finished. “You just get some rest and take care of yourself. I’ll call him first thing in the morning. Louise, again I am so sorry.”

After absentmindedly consuming some leftovers, Ben poured himself a double dose of his bedtime brandy and sat sipping it slowly with fingers drumming on the arm of his mud-brown, overstuffed chair.


***


Chuck called early the next morning. “How’re you doing?”

“I’ll be better when we figure out what happened.”

“Sorry, but I didn’t find a damned thing. I ran over about a half hour ago. All those patches are negative, and Hammie’s as lively as ever. They have an electric stove and water heater. Whatever it is, it’s out of my league.”

“OK, thanks.” Ben slowly hung up his phone, perplexed, but still sure there was some simple explanation, except now, he had the unpleasant task of calling in the state crime lab in Falls City. Louise didn’t need this, and he didn’t need the condescension the state detectives usually displayed toward small-town cops.

This was a different kind of crisis than he’d ever faced. Ben had been born and raised in Dry Creek and was used to car accidents, horrible ones. He was used to quieting loud parties, retrieving cats from high places, driving drunks home during the wee hours, calming abusive husbands, all of which was not easy, but with practice he’d become good at it. To the townspeople, he appeared taller than his 5’10” stature. His rugged face with deep-set, blue eyes rarely changed expression and served to give him an aura of unflappable wisdom. His naturally curly hair dictated a short hairstyle: a bed of tiny, cognac-colored springs. Up to this point in his life, he had aged well.


After a brief discussion with the receptionist at state headquarters, Ben was connected to the chief investigative officer.

“Ken Fischer here.”

“This is Ben Swanstrom from Dry Creek Valley Police. We just found a family of five looking as if they all died in their sleep. I had the furnace checked for gas leaks, but our guy didn’t find any. I —”

“We’ll be right there,” Fischer said. “You can tell me the details while we check out the crime scene.”

“The crime scene?”

“You said you had the furnace checked. I assume you’re still in that office in your city hall. We’ll meet you there.”

Before Ben could say anything further, Fischer had hung up. An hour later, he and a younger officer marched into Ben’s office. He neither bothered with pleasantries nor acknowledged he and Ben were acquainted, “I assume you’re Swanstrom. Lead the way. Matt and I’ll follow you.”

When they pulled into the long driveway of the red-brick house, no longer a home, Fischer swore as he got out of his squad car, “Jesus Crackers! Don’t you have any yellow tape? People need to know the house is off limits.”

“Trust me. People know.”

Ben swept open the unlocked front door, causing Fischer to shake his head. Matt, the younger officer, followed at Fischer’s heels like a puppy dog as Ken strode from bedroom to bedroom. “Where in hell are the bodies?”

“At the mortuary.”

“What! You’re kidding me. Now you’ve mucked up any investigative help we can give you. You couldn’t wait an hour for us to get here?”

“When I said we just discovered the family, I didn’t mean today. A neighbor found them yesterday. They looked so peaceful; Doc, the mortician, and I assumed it was a furnace problem. It never occurred to us we shouldn’t let Harold collect the bodies.” When Fischer scowled, Ben added, “Remember this is Dry Creek, not Falls City. I didn’t find out until this morning the furnace is OK. That’s according to someone who only installs and repairs furnaces. He’s not an expert. Your lab should go over it with a fine tooth comb.” Ben wished he had taken pictures of the victims so Fischer could see how their faces looked — as if they were dreaming of sugar plums.

“So, did your doc make that assumption too? He’d better not have signed death certificates yet.”

“No, we knew there might be a need for autopsies, just didn’t expect it.” Ben didn’t like feeling like a fool.

Ken Fischer and Matt Keegan searched the house while the forensic experts were on the way. Later, Ben felt some perverse gratification when it became clear that the state crime unit was as clueless as he was about what had happened. The forensics team found no sign of gas and commended the idea of placing the hamster in a bedroom. According to them, gas would claim a hamster in about a fourth of the time it would take to kill a human. If it were gas, somehow it only affected the main floor of the house. Ben remembered a mystery movie, where someone had hooked a hose to a car exhaust to murder someone in their sleep, but this could never happen in Dry Creek.

He drove over to Louise’s house and had to park three blocks away; the other half of the town was paying its respects. Calling Louise aside, he spared her from hearing the umpteenth story about George dispensing medication after hours. One would think George saved more lives than the ER section of Ponca County Regional Hospital. Louise’s face, crosshatched with fine wrinkles, held weary gray eyes. Her guests stared into their coffee cups and tried to hide their curiosity

“I’m sorry, Louise, we have to do autopsies,” Ben said softly.

“So how long will that take?”

“I don’t know. It depends on what it is. They said if it’s a common gas, they’d know soon enough, but if it’s poisoned food or something else it could take longer. Say, did Mary can her own vegetables like green beans?”

“Mary, no.” she said distractedly. “I still do. I think they taste so much better.” Normally, she would have described picking the beans before they got too big, recited her canning recipe, and shared every comment of praise on their flavor.

“Did you give them any?”

“They always ate Sunday dinner here, so I fixed them a lot. George loved them.” Saying this, her grief broke through, and Ben held her awkwardly against his chest. Knowing botulism comes on slowly with multiple symptoms, he wished he hadn’t asked. There was no way George would have not recognized what was going on, but Fischer had ordered him to check.

He began his investigation by interviewing the neighbors. He did it, because he didn’t know how else to start, but couldn’t imagine they’d be of any help. Judy had discovered the bodies. After rapping on her door, he waited on the covered porch of her fairy-tale, white cottage across from the Swiesaus. Her bench-swing swayed gently in the November wind.

“Oh, Ben. Come in.” Judy’s plump face, framed with short blonde locks, lit up. “Sorry the place is a mess.” She led him to her spotless red-rooster-themed kitchen.

“Sorry to bother you, but I need to follow up.”

“Oh, if I can only help.” Without asking, she poured him a cup of coffee in a red mug and pushed it across from her place at the table. “So do you know what happened? I saw the state police car and stuff. Everyone in town is desperate to know. I guess you haven’t figured it out.”

“Not yet. That’s why I’m trying to find out as much as I can. Could you go over in detail how you found them? Take your time.”

“Well, I just knew that something was wrong. I really did. First, Mary didn’t show up for our morning walk, then I saw Samantha’s bike parked outside, but when I walked by the pharmacy and saw it was not open with no sign on the door, I got really scared. It just wasn’t right.” Judy shook her head from side to side with her lips pressed together.

“No, it wasn’t,” Ben sympathized. “What about the night before? Did you see anything different, like any cars parked in front or lights on later than usual?” He blew on the steaming cup of coffee and sipped a small amount. He felt like he was going through the motions in this interview, but maybe the process would be of some comfort to Judy.

“No cars. I don’t know about the lights and stuff. Of course I went to bed early because my sinuses have been acting up.”

“You still have problems with that?”

“We all have to live with something.”

“I suppose.” Ben glanced at his spiral notebook with the page of bullet points. “Do you remember the last time you saw any of them?”

“Let’s see.” Judy pressed her forefinger against her cheek. “I didn’t walk with Mary as I usually do, so I didn’t see her until she came back from working at the pharmacy. That was around 4:30. We just waved at each other. I didn’t talk to her. I saw George pull into the garage sometime around 5:30. No, it must have been around 6:00, because the 6:00 news came on right afterward. I don’t remember if I saw any of the kids.”

“You smell anything, when you went into the house?”

“No, I really didn’t, but I was so worried I’m not sure I would have noticed a skunk.”

Ben’s eyes smiled. “Well, my guess is that you would have noticed that. You make the best coffee.” Ben took a long sip.

“Thanks. I think you and I are the only ones in town who like it strong. I hate that stuff everybody makes that looks like weak tea and tastes like one bean was waved over some boiling water.”

Ben looked amused but continued. “How long would you say you were in the house?”

“Well at the time, it seemed forever. I went in the front door. I stood just inside and yelled ‘Mary’ really loud. I could see she wasn’t in the family room or kitchen, so I went down the hall to their bedroom. It’s the first one. I knocked, and when there was no answer, I opened the door. I didn’t go in. I just hollered, and when I couldn’t wake them up, I just knew the worst; I screamed and ran.” She stopped to gain control, and then continued with a quaver in her voice. “However long that took.”

“It couldn’t have been more than about five minutes.” Ben used the most soothing voice he could muster. He jotted in his notebook. “I guess you didn’t feel woozy or faint afterward?”

“Well, not from anything I breathed, but my heart was racing, and I felt sick to my stomach. It was such a shock.”

“And you didn’t touch anything in the house?” He didn’t know why he asked the question, but it kept the conversation going, and maybe Judy would remember something relevant.

Judy shook her head. “I just wonder if I had gone in when Mary didn’t answer the door for our walk whether they’d still be alive.” She sniffed hard, and tears began to course down her cheeks.”

Ben reached across the small wooden table with a rooster decal in the middle and patted her arm, “Don’t even think that. If she didn’t answer, it was because it was too late. You didn’t do anything wrong.”

Ben couldn’t think of anything else to ask. He gave Judy time to compose herself. Gradually her sobs subsided, and she wiped away her tears. He patted her arm once more as he thanked her and left. He interviewed the other neighbors including the children who played with the Swiesaus. As he expected, they provided nothing useful. Lenny Peterson was out the latest, around midnight, and saw nothing amiss when he came home from a date with Stephanie DeGrouthuis. There was little left for Ben to do but wait for the autopsies. Slowly, he began to doubt his original assumption of something as benign as a faulty furnace. In fact, a sense of genuine unease was taking root in his gut.

2


At 6:05 the next morning, an insistent ringing of the phone pulled Ben from a long, gnarly dream. He fumbled for the switch on his bedside lamp. Light blinded his eyes as he kicked off the covers and flopped his legs over the bed. Squinting, he noticed the call was on his home line, but he knew it was an emergency.

“Ben, this is Nancy Grundy,” a voice faltered.

“Nancy.” A perceptible intake of air alarmed him. “What’s wrong?”

“Oh God! Norman’s bed is empty. He didn’t come home last night.”

“Oh now. Lots of reasons kids stay out all night.” Ben struggled to think. “Where did he say he was going?”

“He took Katie Hunter to the game, but I already called the Hunters, and they said Katie was in by 12:30. I’m so scared. I …”

When Nancy couldn’t speak, Ben took over. “I’m up and out. You just sit tight. I’ll find him.”

Ben knew everyone in Dry Creek. Norman was sixteen, a school year ahead of fifteen-year-old Katie, who lived on a farm seven miles south of town. He had bought one of the long-kept and well-cared-for cars of the older citizens. Despite what Ben told Nancy, he felt little confidence of an innocent explanation. Norman wasn’t the kind of teen who cruised the streets late at night because of nothing better to do.

Ben crept along the winding route — which followed Dry Creek’s namesake — from the Grundys to the Hunters, scanning the ditches. The landscape consisted of brittle, brown grass and occasional, naked trees with long-fingered arms reaching for the heavens. In the half-dark, his was the only vehicle on the road. The beams on his cruiser were two lonely tunnels of light. He felt no relief as the corners piled up the miles with no grisly discovery. The hair on the back of his neck felt like an army of needles when he made a U-turn on the Hunters’ yard. He drove at no more than twenty mph on the return trip; then three miles from town, he rounded a curve to detect a faint, tire-width path of crushed grass parting from the road. His red rotary-light flashing, he backed up and parked on the narrow shoulder. Flinging open his door, he took a deep breath and swung his legs heavily out of the patrol car, praying for a miracle. His heart sank as if it had gained ten pounds when he peered over the bank and saw Norman’s ’91 Chevy wrapped around a tree. He swallowed sour saliva, and although seconds didn’t matter, he half ran and half stumbled down the steep embankment.

His dread was confirmed by Norman’s position slumped against the steering wheel, with dried blood on his face. A solid branch had hit the windshield, spraying glass inside, and had been bent straight up, looking like the tree was signaling a halt. The driver door was jammed, but he was able to open the back door. He crawled in and leaned forward to grasp Norman’s wrist. There was no pulse, and Norman’s skin was ice cold inside the arm of his Dry Creek High School jacket. He trod back to his car and radioed ER. “Rachel, tragic news. I need an ambulance three miles south of town at the big curve. It’s Norman Grundy. I can’t get a pulse. Call Rich and have him bring out a tow.”

“Roger, Ben.”

Ben waited in a funk in his patrol car, thinking about the flood of deaths in Dry Creek in the last month. One of their own had been killed in Iraq. Last week, the oldest citizen died. Neither was surprising, expected almost, but the death of the Swiesaus was mind boggling. Now Norman, with his whole life ahead of him, was gone. The thought of retirement randomly surfaced. His house was paid for, and his needs — except for his taste in brandy — were simple. No. He wasn’t ready to be put out to pasture, but over time the feeling of responsibility for the well-being of Dry Creek’s denizens weighed more heavily on him, so much so, that there was a measure of guilt over each tragic accident.

Thoughts so occupied his mind, his body was on autopilot, and he was surprised to find himself in the ER. Despite his certainty Norman would be DOA, a sinking feeling washed over him at Doc’s pronouncement. “I assume you want his blood to be tested for alcohol and drugs,” Doc asked.

“That’s the law. I’ll take care of notifying the Grundys.”

Doc nodded grimly, his eyes brimming with concern, as he watched Ben trudge out the door.

Driving slowly behind a yellow-orange school bus filled with wool-coated elementary and high school students, Ben rehearsed his speech.

The Grundys’ stoop was covered with a steepled roof, a perfect spot for Ben to make a silent prayer. When the front door swung open, Nancy’s eyes widened, and a familiar look of knowing dawned on her face. “Is he alive?” Ben shook his head as much in disbelief as in answer to her question.

She broke down in sobs and clung to her husband’s chest. He looked stunned, “What happened? I was sure he was just feeling his oats on some teenage lark.” Nancy shook her head, as if she couldn’t believe how little he knew his son.

“Somehow he didn’t make that big curve south of town; he went over the embankment and hit a tree.” He paused, while they absorbed this bit of horror, before continuing. “He must have fallen asleep. Doc thinks he died instantly, so he wouldn’t have suffered.” He didn’t think it much consolation, but no one needs to imagine their loved ones spending their last moments in excruciating pain. “Can I give you a ride to the hospital? You’ll need to do some paperwork.”

Maynard blinked, as if he were trying to get his brain to focus on the question. “No. We can drive.”

“If there is anything I can do …” Ben recognized their need to be alone. It was too soon for eulogies, or he might have told them he thought Norman was one of the best kids in town. Glancing at the house as he put the car into gear, Nancy caught his attention, waving for him to stop. "Could you tell Katie Hunter please? I just can’t …" she called. He nodded, waved back, and started the engine.

He had to pass Red’s Wrecks at the edge of town on the way to the Hunters, and some instinct made him stop to examine Norman’s car in the full light of day. The windshield had a long vertical puncture, and the part of the windshield around the gaping hole looked like the cracked glass of his late parents’ lamps. A white chalky substance lined the rupture, and another white slash crossed the gash. He didn’t remember seeing this stuff at the accident site. Of course, his attention had been on Norman, and it was still dark. He leaned over, closely examining but not believing what he was seeing. He lifted up — much like Frankenstein taking his first breath — and slowly stepped back, chilled by the shape the chalk would take, if he gently lifted the broken windshield into place. What is this?

His trek to the Hunters was even more sober than the one searching for Norman. Feeling as if a battering ram had pummeled the energy out of him, he was relieved Katie was still in teenaged slumber. It was bad enough to have to relate the bad news to her mother. Grace was shocked, but not so overcome she forgot the Midwestern rule to pour coffee for a guest. “Katie will be devastated,” she shook her head.

“I can imagine,” Ben said woodenly.

“Oh and pooooor Nancy. She was beside herself when she called this morning. If it were Katie I can’t imagine … I peeked in on her after Nancy called just to be sure she didn’t come in and sneak out again.” She let out a gasp of air.

Ben blew on his hot coffee.

“It must be hard for you, especially after the Swiesaus.” She covered her mouth with her hand while her eyes radiated concern.

“Will you have Katie call me when she’s up to it?” he asked, fully aware he was avoiding further conversation.

“Sure, Ben,” she said sympathetically. She held up the coffee pot signaling a refill.

“Thanks, Grace, but I need to get going.”

Ben stopped at the accident site and searched for a source that could account for the white stuff on Norman’s windshield. Nothing. For the second time in as many days, he felt he was going through the motions of detective work without any expectation of finding answers. Random thoughts flooded his brain on his pilgrimage back to town to revisit the Swiesau house, where he sat in the vehicle staring at the white cross. Finally, he slowly opened the cruiser door. He crossed the street like a man ten years older than two days ago. He didn’t remember knocking, but Judy opened the door saying, “I know, I know, you can’t stay away from my coffee. Come on in. It’s cold out there.”

“No coffee. I’ve had plenty. I forgot to ask you something yesterday. Do you know anything about that white cross over the Swiesau’s door? How long it’s been there?”

Judy frowned and looked around Ben, trying to trigger her memory. “Oh, I didn’t notice it until after it all happened. I just saw it when we were standing there … when you … I hope you don’t think I’m morbid for watching you. I couldn’t help it. I couldn’t sit inside when my best friends were leaving their house for the last time.” Shaking her head, she returned to his question, “I suppose it could have been there earlier. I might have been too distracted the morning I found them, but I don’t think it’s been there long. I always sit on my porch swing and sort my junk mail and stuff. It makes me feel good not to let that crap get into my house. See that wastebasket by the swing. I take it directly to my trash barrel. Anyway, when I’m sitting there I’m right across from the front door, so I’m thinking that I would have noticed something different pretty quick.”

“Yeah, I s’pose you would. Thanks, Judy.”

“Sure you don’t want coffee. I just made a fresh pot.” She tempted him, “It’s the good kind.”

He shook his head, about to say he’d just had some at the Hunters, but he was afraid he’d get entangled in a new conversation about Norman. It wasn’t his place to spread the news. It was surprising she hadn’t heard. Routine news traveled through Dry Creek at the speed of sound, while news of deaths and teen pregnancies managed warp speed.

He sat at his desk unable to concentrate for the rest of the morning. When Katie phoned after lunch, her voice was so soft he could barely hear her. “Are you up to answering a few questions, Katie?”

“I guess so.”

“This won’t take long, I promise. Your mom said you got in about 12:30. Is that right?

“Yes.”

“Do you think Norman was tired when he left?”

“No. He wanted me to stay out later. Now I wish I had. Maybe …” Her voice cracked.

“No no, don’t even think that.” He paused for her to collect herself and tried to refocus her. “Did you notice anything on Norman’s windshield?”

“Like what?”

“Some white smears?”

“No.”

He wondered why he bothered to ask but continued fruitlessly, “Did you stop anywhere after the game?”

“Just for burgers.”

“Nothing to drink or anything else?”

“Cokes.”

“Thanks, Katie. I guess it was a freak accident. I’m so sorry. Norman was a great kid.”

The silent sound of swallowing.

“You take care.”

Ben tapped his pencil against his desk, then stood up and paced his little 9 by 12 office — then out the door through the hallway of town hall and back. His beat passed the town Jobs Bulletin Board with the yellowed notice for another policeman. As he trekked, he mentally recited facts as if he were writing a report. There was no black ice on the road. There were no skid marks, so Norman must have driven straight off the curve. There would have been no traffic at that time of night. Even if he were hunting for a tape cassette or been distracted by something in the car, where did the white paint or chalk come from?

Searching for an answer to the bigger puzzle, Ben called the state morgue about the Swiesau autopsies, but after holding for five minutes, he slammed down the phone. It was only a little after 4:00, but it had been a long day, and he was out of sorts. Office locked, emergency line switched to ring in his home, he dragged himself to his car, but tromped the accelerator on his way home.

He didn’t sleep well. Too consumed with his thoughts to watch CSI New York, he’d had his usual nip of brandy and retired early, only to lie there brooding over Norman and the Swiesaus. Finally, he got up to look for something boring to read. He found a small book, Historical Records and Accounts of Native American Indian Tribes and their culture, art, and symbols. That sounded like something from his Boy Scout days. He flipped open to the chapter on the religion of the Lakota Sioux and read a paragraph.

The Lakotas believe in an evil spirit as well as a good, but they do not consider these spirits as opposed to each other; they do not think that they are tempted to do wrong by this evil spirit; their own hearts are bad. It would be impossible to put any limit to the number of spirits in whom the Lakotas believe; every object in nature is full of them. They attribute death as much to the power of these subordinate spirits as to the Great Spirit; but most frequently they suppose death to have been occasioned by a spell having been cast upon them by some enemy.

He was reminded that the Swiesaus had no enemies and realized he could neither sleep nor read. He could not shut down his thoughts. The white paint in the two accidents, if they were accidents, made no sense. A little paint was hardly ominous, but everything had to have an explanation. Ben liked things neat and tidy. He kept his house as organized as it had been when Doris was alive. A little dust was OK, but he liked everything in its place. Maybe that’s why the white crosses bothered him. They were so out of place.


3


While the coffee perked Ben collected the paper from his front stoop and followed the microwave instructions for oatmeal. Without lifting his eyes from the Falls City Gazette, he alternated sips of French Roast with spoonfuls of his oatmeal with honey and half n’ half until he came to the account of Norman’s accident. One three-inch column. He sighed. He still had the urge to reach for Doris’s hand. The oatmeal suddenly looked unappealing, and he dumped the rest and left for ‘the Office.’

When Dry Creekers talked about the Office, they meant Ben’s office. Even the weekly Dry Creek Flow would refer to the Office with a capital ‘O.’ It could hardly be called a police station, consisting of a small room inside city hall and furnished with a desk, a coat rack, and two old wooden filing cabinets. There were three doors, one to a hallway in the town hall, one to an alcove, which served as a coffee-supply room for the building, and the last to an entrance on Main Street directly across from an area Dry Creek folks called the Town Square.

The Town Square was a square block with a fountain in the center, sidewalks spoking out from the fountain, large elms, park benches, and picnic tables. It was where all outdoor town events were celebrated. Churches held barbecue fundraisers. Makeshift stalls sold sweet corn, fresh green beans, and tomatoes. Zucchinis were given away with each purchase. In the winter, the flooded, cemented area around the fountain became an ice skating rink. On New Year’s Eve people would gather to hear the Big Ben clock over the Office chime in the New Year, fancying themselves at New York’s Times Square. When Doris was alive, they’d cozily toast the New Year in the Office while Ben kept an eye on things.

Despite three exasperating attempts to get through to the morgue in Falls City, the message ‘to call back later’ made him feel his life was on hold. At noon, he connected with a clerk who was willing to give him more than cursory information. “The times of deaths are all around 1 a.m.,” she reported. “The condition of the bodies indicates a common cause. The coroner has ruled out natural gas, carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, food poisoning, and the most common poisons, but he is still investigating.” Reading between the lines, it was clear the cause of deaths of the Swiesaus remained a total mystery. The long list of non-causes was a reminder of his awful fear after learning Doris’s symptoms were not due to any minor ailment, and Doc had ordered further tests.


***


Coroner Smith was indeed mystified. When Fischer queried him, he admitted, “I’m stymied. There’s not much left to test. They died of cerebral hypoxia, but I have no clue how it happened. It’s as if they were shipped to outer space for fifteen minutes and returned. You said you found no clues in their house.”

Fischer responded negatively and added, “And the small town cop is such a rube. If you don’t find the cause of death, we’ll have to chalk this one up as unsolved, or rather Ben Swanstrom will. After all, it’s on his watch.”


***


The night before Norman’s funeral, the corpses of the Swiesaus occupied over half of the slabs of the morgue, which served both Falls City and the state. Ben reluctantly phoned Louise, “They’re still working on the cause of death. It must be something really rare.”

“It seems like it’s taking a long time, but what do I know? It’s made it easier to decide on the caskets and the other arrangements, so maybe it’s a small blessing from the good Lord. I don’t know how people like the Grundys make all of these decisions in such a short time. Those poor folks! At least I don’t have so long before I get to join my family, but the Grundys are in the prime of life.”

“Yeah, I know. Are you going to the funeral? People would understand, if you thought it too hard.”

“That’s why I thought I’d go to the visitation instead. There I can slip in and out. People mean well, but all of the sympathy is wearing me out. It’s the worst part of this waiting.”

“I understand.” And he did. When Doris died, at first Ben thought the world should stop, not realizing how emotionally draining it would be to have to continually respond to sympathizers. He had been grateful for the first normal conversation with an unknowing clerk in Falls City.

The day of Norman’s funeral arrived with overcast, gray skies— as murky as recent events in Dry Creek. Ben picked up Janet, dressed for Norman’s service in a new, white coat and navy and white houndstooth scarf. She was ready when he came to the door, and they looked at each other with grim faces. There was nothing to say.


Janet had lost her husband, Gerrit, about two years before Doris died. The couples played cards and went to movies together. The men used to fish and hunt pheasants, and despite their difference in personalities, the two women remained friends after Gerrit’s death. Doris had been a tomboy all of her life. She was feisty, politically active, and didn’t give a hoot about how she looked around the house. If she’d been out the night before, she’d have raccoon eyes from not removing mascara before bed. Ben would roar about her outfits. She’d add clothes to her pajamas to stay warm and stay in them all day, resulting in argyle socks inside fuzzy slippers, plaid pajama bottoms, and striped T-shirts. She painted and wallpapered in even weirder getups, but Ben noticed she was cute enough — with freckles and turned up nose — to attract sidelong glances when dressed up. They had a few rip-roaring fights, but Ben loved her pluck. Her perkiness managed to pull him out of his natural reticence. They’d been married long enough that they finished each other’s sentences, knowing what each was about to say. A typical breakfast conversation might be: “Did you handle the — Yes, I called yesterday — What about — They were OK with that — Oh, good.”

Janet, on the other hand, was as much the lady as Doris was the hoyden who never grew up. While Doris scurried from point A to B, Janet glided. She put on her makeup before breakfast, wore matching casual knits to clean the toilet, and liked projects that didn’t risk getting her clothes dirty. She was a pretty woman with the kind of firm, well-hydrated skin that was resistant to wrinkles, brown eyes that still sparkled, and Clairol-honey-brown hair — set weekly at the Cut ‘n Curl. Ben married the cheerleader, and Gerrit got the homecoming queen.

Both women liked to cook, but Janet wore an apron, while Doris, cooking in stained clothes, didn’t need one. Their friendship was based on their enjoyment of good food, matching senses of humor, and capacity to make the most of very minute. In their separate relationships, they both found Ben fun to tease

Although Ben had known Janet all of his adult life, they had been seeing one another for only five months. They were companions with benefits. Wednesdays and Saturdays, they’d alternate eating at the Creek House and at Janet’s home. Both seemed content with the arm’s length arrangement for different reasons. Janet’s life was full and Ben’s grief over losing Doris continued to linger.


They rolled past the closed signs all along Elm Street which included: Audrey’s Apparel, Swiesau’s Pharmacy, The Honey Bun, Tony’s Barber Shop, Notions ‘n Things, Van Sloten Hardware, and then turned off to the residential section where all of the churches were nestled. Ben was as silent and as expressionless as a chauffeur. Twice, Janet opened her mouth to say something but ultimately left him in peace.

They sat in the back pew of Norman’s church — and Ben’s. The pews, pulpit, altar, and cross were ash-blond. No Christ was nailed to the Lutheran cross. The green, satin altar cloths bled gold tassels. The floor was tiled nondescript, but a dark-green carpet runner in the aisle softened footfalls as the mourners filed in. Ben’s thoughts drifted with the strains of somber organ music. He tried not to remember Doris’s funeral. He knew all of the young kids in town — well represented today. He gave two of the driver’s education classes each semester. It was always more impressive for a cop to talk about seatbelts and safe speeds than the driver’s ed. teacher. He had seen the results of a lack of caution first hand, and he could be graphic in his description, when he needed to be. He remembered where Norman sat in the front row last year and wondered what he could have done differently. Janet touched Ben’s arm, and he realized the congregation was standing. She held the hymnal and indicated the point in the liturgy. He struggled to pay attention through the next four ‘stand-up, sit-downs’ as he called them, sometimes adding ‘fight fight fight’ as if Lutheran services were led by cheerleaders. Norman’s death was such a waste.

When Pastor Kaupins, well launched into his eulogy, pronounced, “This young man stood up for his friends, the sniffling among the young increased, but Frank Stillwell, began to sob. Frank and Norman had been best friends since Kindergarten. Ben’s thoughts wandered again, remembering how Norman protected Frank from his brutish older brother, Mitch—Dry Creek’s Iraq war victim. The thought of this thug always set Ben’s teeth on edge. He was so distracted, people filing from the pews startled him from his unpleasant reverie. He vaguely remembered the pastor announcing, “Nancy and Maynard invite the congregation to join them in the church basement for brotherhood and refreshments.”

After they shook the hands of the stoic, red-eyed parents, Ben whispered to his companion, “Do you mind if we don’t stay?”

Janet looked surprised but shook her head. As he opened her car door she asked, “Are you OK?”

“I’m just not in a mood to be with a crowd of people.”

Janet waited until Ben backed out of the lot to say, “You were a million miles away during the service. Is it Norman or is it the Swiesau thing?”

“It’s the combination. I don’t understand why the morgue is taking so long with the autopsies. It’s making me anxious.”

“Yeah, you don’t like loose ends. Nobody does. It’ll be a relief for everyone to have closure. I don’t know how Louise is holding up.” When she didn’t get a response, she added, “At least, Norman’s accident is not a mystery, but I don’t imagine that’s much consolation for the Grundys. Those poor parents.”

Ben said nothing, falling back into his thoughts, once again becoming nothing more than Janet’s chauffeur. He pulled up her gravel drive, rocks crackling under the tires. She studied him sympathetically, “You want to come in. I can make coffee.”

“No. Maybe I’ll feel like talking tonight. Let’s just sit here for a minute.” They sat in silence as Ben watched a huge crow with wings spread for a touchdown landing in Janet’s blue spruce.

4


On Wednesday nights Janet made her slow-cooked pot roast or her prize-winning meatloaf. The meatloaf dish was a legend in Dry Creek. She mixed finely diced, sautéed peppers and onions with delicately spiced ground beef, then folded in cubes of cheddar cheese and corn kernels. Every bite was a delicious surprise. Ben could eat it twice a week.

Helping Janet clear up the Wednesday night dishes, Ben searched for space for the non-hydrogenated margarine in the refrigerator filled with condiments and little Tupperware containers of mysterious dabs of food. The door was covered with magnets holding up smiling faces of grandchildren, pet dogs, family group-photos, and newspaper clippings of student honor rolls. He remarked, “If you have any more grandkids, you’re going to have to buy a bigger refrigerator.”

Janet looked up from wrapping the leftover meat loaf into two packages. “Hey, there’s the man I recognize. I was beginning to think you were a pod person.”

“I’m sorry I haven’t been good company.” He took Janet’s arm, turning her toward him, and looked at her like a puppy begging forgiveness.

“You want to stay over?”

“Not tonight.”

“I don’t know what’s bothering you, but I know what might make you feel better,” she lightly singsonged.

He smiled faintly but shook his head. “I don’t know why you put up with me.”

“I don’t know either, when I have so many other admirers. Charlie thinks I’m a real catch for a woman my age.” She smiled, “Of course, he just celebrated his eighty-ninth birthday.”

He rarely complimented Janet, viewing her attractiveness as an advantage just as height was an advantage for reaching the top shelf of a kitchen cabinet. “Doesn’t mean he isn’t a good judge of beauty.”

“Be careful, that almost sounds like a compliment.”

He pulled her to him, wrapped her in his arms, gave her a warm kiss, and mussed her hair as he used to muss Doris’s mop. With a smile most often reserved for over-exuberant children, she retouched her hair as he cluelessly said goodnight, picking up his portion of tinfoil wrapped meatloaf.

He drove home deep in thought. He had been agonizing over something for days and finally came to a decision. I can’t wait for the autopsies. I have to call the state police about those white crosses. I wonder which it will be: Fischer belittling me for bothering them with such a piece of trivia or catching hell for not bringing up such a relevant piece of information earlier.


***


First thing in the morning, Ben tried the morgue one last time. If the deaths were naturally explained, the white crosses could be chalked up as a bizarre coincidence. When there was no new information, he resigned himself but postponed the dreaded phone call. He was due over at the county courthouse in River Center. An out-of-towner planned to protest a speeding ticket and a townie a ticket for parking too close to a fire hydrant. If he didn’t testify, they’d get off. It was his civic duty to appear, but this morning he felt he was using it to postpone a higher duty.

After his testimony contributed to guilty verdicts, he picked up the phone and naturally asked for Ken Fischer. When he wasn’t available, he asked for the younger Matt Keegan. To his surprise, Matt responded to his revelation about the two instances of white crosses, “Hot damn, that’s pretty wild. I’m sure it’s significant. I want to follow up on that. I don’t remember seeing the cross on the Swiesau house when we were out there. Fischer missed it too. When’d you say you first noticed it?”

“When I turned back to the house after carrying out the last body, which means I walked toward the front door five times before I noticed it.”

Matt chuckled. “OK, that makes me feel better. I’d like to take a look. I’ve got several hours of shit-work ahead of me, but I’ll drive over late this afternoon and get some paint scrapings for the lab to assess and see if the two match up.”

Ben felt foolish. He had tacitly assumed there was no way of knowing whether there was any kind of connection. Although forensic lab tests had never been needed in Dry Creek Valley, every TV cop show he watched involved crime labs. Nevertheless, it was a relief to talk to someone who didn’t treat him like an idiot.

Around 4:00, Matt’s long legs stomped into the Office, his shoulders shivering under his freckle-faced head sprouting a shock of red hair. “Brrr, it’s colder than a witch’s tit out there. You ready? I left the car running.” Ben climbed in and directed Matt past the schoolyard, past the regional hospital, over streets so wide there were four lanes and angle parking on both sides. After they pulled into the Swiesau driveway, Matt looked at the brickwork just above the doorway. “Knowing it’s there, it’s easy to see, but the white shutters and other white trim kind of takes your eye away from it.”

Ben felt like an intruder helping himself to a stepstool from Mary’s kitchen for Matt’s scraping job. Without the smells of daily life: coffee, toast, after-shave, hair spray, meat frying, the still house smelled dank and musty. The furniture was all there, yet small sounds ricocheted and reverberated. He remembered he’d never picked up Hammie, and he was likely out of food. He walked down the hall as softly as he might at a funeral parlor despite the vacant bedrooms. When he knelt over the cage with fresh water and lettuce, he discovered its little occupant on the treadmill appeared as still as a museum display. It took Ben several seconds to realize the small lifeless form was dead. Its natural posture added to, rather than detracted from, his sense of horror. Even more frightening were the two intersecting white wires on the outside of the cage. “Oh my, god!” he cried out, and Matt came running. The two towered over the cage in awe.

Ben stood immobilized, while Matt stripped a pillowcase from the bed and gently wrapped the tiny body in it. He began carefully scraping the white part of the wire cage into a small vial and looked up at Ben, “You know what this means don’t you?”

“I’m afraid so.”

After a long pause, “I don’t suppose it could have been a prank,” Matt said absently.

“I don’t think so.” Ben ran his fingers through the coiled curls on his head.

“Who else knows about these damned crosses?”

“I didn’t mention the one on the windshield to anybody. I only spoke with Judy about the one here. She’s the neighbor across the street who found them.” A wave of grief welled in his chest.

“So it’s not too likely some jerk kid did this for a lark.” He capped the vial and threw the bedspread over the naked pillow.

“No.” As they walked down the hall, Ben wondered how anyone could live in the house again.

“I grew up in River Center, so I know how people in small towns talk. It should be easy to check if people have noticed the white cross and think there’s a connection. You must know what people are saying about this damned delay with the autopsies.”

“The Swiesaus’ only living relative is George’s mother. She thinks it’s taking a long time to identify the gas that killed them, so it’s what she’s passed on to the town. People are saying what a pity it is, that the dead need to be put to rest, and the big city bureaucrats are derelict in the delay.” Ben straightened the throw rug announcing ‘Welkommen,’ which Matt had kicked over in his haste.

Matt clapped Ben on the back, “That’s effing great, especially now that we have to treat this as a homicide. What’s really weird is if the asshole hadn’t indulged in this bit of strangeness, it might have gone down as some unexplained toxic accident. We must be dealing with a sick S.O.B.”

“I’m not excited about the town finding out.”

“Yeah. Hey, there’s no hurry. You can wait for the final autopsy report. I’d hold back the white-cross angle indefinitely. It’s good to have something to rule out the crazies who’ll confess to anything.”

Mission accomplished, the next stop was Red’s Wrecks where Norman’s car was out back. A sign on the weathered door read ‘Back in ten minutes.’ “That’s a break,” Matt said and followed Ben around back to the auto graveyard. They picked their way to Norman’s Chevy. Matt studied the mangled windshield, noting Ben wasn’t imagining things. As he set himself to the task of collecting a sample from the windshield, he said, “If you have time, I wouldn’t mind seeing the accident site.”

“Sure.”

Matt tapped his gloved fingers against the steering wheel while Ben directed him to the tragic bend in the road, already adorned with bouquets of flowers stabbed into the ground. They walked back from a wide parking spot up the road, and both men froze when they noticed a white cross among the flowers. They laughed nervously. Nothing strange here, the countryside is littered with memorials at scenes of fatal accidents. If that’s all the white crosses were, symbols to respect the dead, then the killer was indeed one strange dude.


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