Wednesday, December 25, 2013
THE GARBAGE MAN
Daniel Skye (Randy Benivegna)
Like most hard-working Americans, Gerry Spradlin had grown to hate his job with a searing passion. The seeds of contempt were planted the day he started working for the sanitation department.
At age thirty-two, Gerry was nothing more than a glorified citywide janitor. At least this is how he viewed himself.
Five days a week Gerry rode on the back of that filthy truck and forcibly endured all the harsh conditions; the blazing heat or the frigid cold. The smell of garbage would latch onto his clothes, soil his wavy brown hair. He’d go home every night reeking like a landfill and would shower and scrub vigorously to extinguish the stench. Some nights he’d shower two or three times just to erase the stink.
It wasn’t always like this. It’s hard to believe that after his high school graduation, Gerry was actually pre-med. He grew up listening to all the pretty girls gab about how one day they would marry a rich handsome doctor or surgeon. And this was all the motivation Gerry needed.
His interests didn’t lie in helping people. Money and chicks; these were his inspiration. Why else would Gerry take the courses required for med school? He didn’t know much about the human anatomy. Well, not at the time. But he knew there was money involved and he knew the word “doctor” was like kryptonite to a single woman.
His second year of college was where it all went bad. It took Gerry nineteen years of hard work and dedication to reach that point, but it took just one night to flush it all down the toilet.
Gerry attended a frat party during the first semester of his second year at Nassau. Gerry arrived late that evening and after discovering the kegs had all been tapped, he snatched a cold bottle from some frat boys unguarded twelve-pack.
A few of the frat brothers spotted their uninvited guest and interrogated him over the beer. “I walked in with it,” was his response, but they weren’t buying it. When they tried to start a scene and backed Gerry into a corner, he switched personalities.
For years, Gerry struggled with bipolar disorder and could not receive or afford proper treatment. Several shrinks tried to analyze him on different occasions but all with the same results. The shrinks would get too freaked out, spend the night restless, and refuse to treat him as a patient again. So Gerry learned to keep his disorder in check on his own, only releasing his affliction at appropriate times. Unfortunately, this was not one of those times.
The ensuing brawl led to Gerry’s permanent expulsion. The jock who had pinned Gerry against the wall and threatening to crush his throat was sent the hospital with a broken nose and three cracked ribs. The frat brother who attacked Gerry from behind with a pool cue got a bottle smashed over his head for his efforts. And the frat boy who paid for the twelve-pack that started this whole commotion got tossed out a second story window, resulting in two crushed discs in his lower back.
Once he got kicked out of school and served his sentence, this job was the best he could do. It was either collect trash or work the drive-thru at McDonalds. And Gerry was never big on fast food.
His parents had put their faith in him, and when he failed, they decided to invest the rest of their stock in his younger sister.
Jessica Spradlin was a straight A student, missing only three days of high school in her four-year attendance. Twelve years younger than Gerry, she had already surpassed him in every way imaginable and was a few months shy of graduating law school.
Jessica’s only flaw was that she still hadn’t left behind that whole Goth trend she experimented with in high school. She still had a penchant for dark baggy clothing and only used black nail polish that her brother found repulsive.
But so what if Jessica was doing better than him? So what if her future was brighter than Gerry’s? She was young, smart, and she earned every opportunity she had been given. As for Gerry; he put his pride aside, collected his paycheck every week, and made the most of the job.
As he soon discovered, you can learn a disturbing amount from collecting your neighbor’s trash. And this was the only aspect of the job Gerry savored. It was the one thing that kept him hanging on the back of that truck from the sweltering summers to the dead of winter.
For instance, Gerry knew Mr. Bulzomi–the balding accountant who lived next-door to him–was using Viagra to give himself an extra boost in the bedroom. Every month, he’d find at least one discarded prescription bottle in Bulzomi’s pails.
He knew that his old English teacher, Mr. Federico, was behind on his Porsche payments and that his wife owed back taxes to the IRS.
He knew this just as he knew Mr. McCormick–the town doctor–was deep in credit card debt and behind on his mortgage payments. And he understood it was all because of McCormick’s addiction to fetish porn websites, as Gerry ascertained from his credit card statements. Next time use a shredder, Gerry thought every time he sneaked a peek at one of the statements.
Hell, Gerry could’ve told you what the Henderson’s had for dinner on Friday nights. In case you were wondering, the answer is meatloaf.
What’s that saying, one man’s trash is another man’s treasure? Well, in Gerry’s case, the phrase undoubtedly applied.
He observed that rich people usually have lobster shells or steak bones collected in the bottom of their garbage cans. While poor people tend to have microwave dinner packaging and Mac & Cheese boxes stuffed inside their pails.
Gerry looked at the garbage as an intriguingly uncommon puzzle. Through the trash, he was able to piece together all the little details of his neighbor’s lives. From discarded pill bottles and their labels, he could determine which of his neighbors were miserable like him. He could tell who was anxious or depressed or suicidal. Who was suffering from erectile dysfunction or carrying STDs around the neighborhood.
From bank statements, he could tell who was penniless and who was raking in the dough. But he didn’t even need the bank statements. Just by examining leftover scraps of food, he could tell who was rich and who was broke. If blackmail was Gerry’s game, he could’ve made a fortune.
* * *
April, 24th, 2012.
Birds chirped and tweet their insipid tunes as a mellow breeze flowed through Gerry’s crimped hair. His gloved hand gripped the rear handle of the truck tightly as they hit a slight bump, which gave him and his partner a jolt. Gerry looked over at the man hanging on the other side of the truck. With his thin eye glasses, beer gut, and cleft chin, he bared more than a passing resemblance to Peter Griffin from Family Guy.
“This job blows,” Hal shouted over the noise of the engine and the enthusiastic birds. Gerry couldn’t agree more if he tried.
His fellow trash collector was a man named Hal Kendrick. An ex-con, this job was not Hal’s first choice. But like Gerry, he didn’t have the luxury of being picky.
Hal got popped for robbing a Subway sandwich shop, served two years in prison before they granted him an early parole. As far as the robbery went, he almost pulled it off. Hal got away with the cash, but accidently left his wallet behind when it slipped out of his back pocket. The cops were still there questioning the employees when Hal returned to the scene to claim it.
The brakes squealed as the garbage truck came to its first stop of the day. Gerry and Hal hopped off the back and went to work. Gerry fetched the Johnston’s bins, dumping the bags into the rear waste compactor, and then tossing the bins aside clumsily as most garbage men tend to do.
The truck inched forward and Gerry grabbed McCormick’s pails and dumped his garbage in back. He didn’t bother sifting through to take a gander at his credit card bills. It was nothing he hadn’t read before.
Then he moved on to his own house. Gerry’s neighborhood was always the first stop on Tuesday’s. He found the act of disposing of his own trash to be degrading. It wasn’t bad enough that he had to bag it, take it outside, and drag the pails all the way to the curb. He also had to pick it up and haul it away.
Gerry flipped both of his pails and dumped all the trash into the waste compactor. In this mass of chicken bones, rotten fruit, Styrofoam cups, disposable utensils, and other half-eaten food, he gazed upon a sight that would’ve made anyone else recoil in horror.
It was a severed human foot, sealed in plastic and wrapped with duct tape.
He could clearly make out the black nail polish through the lucid plastic.
Gerry paused for a moment and stared vacantly. His look was not an expression of guilt or sorrow. His face was a chilling mask of indifference.
He glanced quickly over his shoulder to make sure Hal was busy. And he was busy, as he was in the midst of a heated argument with a woman whose pails he had carelessly thrown aside. The driver of the truck even stepped out to try and defuse the situation.
He wandered casually to the left side of the truck and pulled down hard on the lever that operates the hydraulically powered mechanism used to compress the garbage. The gears whined and screeched as the metal plate descended and the walls of the front end began to shift. The plate and the walls collided with a heavy metallic thud, compacting all of the waste and squashing it down to virtually nothing. He did it without batting an eye.
He didn’t even blink. Not once did he blink.
Bobby Drayton had disobeyed his mother’s wishes again, staying up fifteen minutes past his nine o’clock curfew. It took Marilyn Drayton ten minutes just to convince her son to change into his Superman pajamas. Christmas was right around the corner and the anticipation was making young Bobby restless. He couldn’t wait to see what Santa was going to leave under the tinsel-draped tree this year.
“Do you think Santa’s going to bring me that Nintendo 3DS this Christmas?” Bobby asked as Marilyn finally got him to settle down. His big brown eyes were wide as telescope lenses and gleaming with joy. It was the same look of joy he got whenever he saw the commercials for the Nintendo 3DS on TV.
“I’m not sure, sweetheart,” Marilyn grinned with that I know something you don’t know look on her face. “I do know that Santa doesn’t give in to naughty little boys and girls who refuse to listen to their parents. So when I say it’s time for bed, I mean it. Now scoot under the covers and I’ll turn your night light on.”
“But I don’t want to go to sleep. I’m… I’m scared, mommy.”
“Scared of what?”
“The Boogeyman,” he whispered harshly.
“Oh, Bobby,” his mother sighed. This is why you don’t let kids watch horror movies. They see a few late-night films on Halloween and next thing you know, they’re checking their closet every night for Michael Myers and peeking under the bed to make sure the Boogeyman isn’t waiting to snatch them in their sleep. “There’s no such thing as the Boogeyman.”
“Promise?” Bobby moaned.
“I promise,” she said, tucking him in gingerly. “It’s all make-believe, just like your comic books.”
“It’s all make-believe,” Bobby repeated verbatim, trying to drive it into his tiny head. Marilyn flipped off the bedroom lights and as she reached the doorway, she leaned over to turn on Bobby’s night light, which was in the shape of a harmless duck.
“Goodnight,” she said as she closed the door behind her and retired to living room to enjoy a full bottle of red wine.
He snuggled under the covers and tried to think happy thoughts. He thought about how pleased Santa was going to be when he saw that fresh plate of cookies and that cold glass of milk. He thought about the new video games and comic books Santa was sure to leave him this year.
It was the cheerful thoughts that helped Bobby drift off to sleep. Whenever he had trouble sleeping, his mom would tell him to try the old counting sheep trick. But that never worked for him.
Seconds away from finding sleep, Bobby was stirred by a loud BANG that sounded like a car backfiring. He was sure it had come from outside, until he heard a similar noise that undoubtedly stemmed from the downstairs living room.
“Mom?” he called out. “Is that you?” But mom didn’t answer.
Marilyn’s bedroom was on the second floor and he was certain she could hear him. Yet she refused to respond.
The noises continued as someone approached the stairs and began to ascend them. Thud. Thud. Thud.
Each footstep was like a small bomb being precisely detonated in coordination with each step.
“Mom?” he bellowed. But mom still wasn’t answering his cries for help.
Thud. Thud. Thud. The footsteps continued. Bobby shuddered when it dawned on him that his mother was not capable of producing this kind of racket with her size.
Thud. Thud. Thud. The noise ceased at the top of the steps.
He almost called out again before he realized that mommy wasn’t coming to his rescue. “Think,” Bobby whispered to himself, huddled under the covers. “What would Superman do?”
Just when Bobby thought the worst was over, the noises commenced again. Thumping, scraping, clawing. It all made Bobby twitch inside his PJ's.
The noises continued as the hardwood floors squeaked outside his bedroom. His door was shut but he could see the light from the hallway peeking in from the slight gap under his door.
His undeveloped bones rattled when a loud THUD occurred outside his bedroom door. It sounded like a sack of potatoes hitting the floor.
Bobby tugged the covers tightly over his head, pretending the blanket was some kind of magic force field that would shield him and repel whatever evil force eagerly awaited him.
His door opened and slammed and the whole room shook. A sharp sting occurred as Bobby bit into his upper lip to stifle a scream. The clump of footsteps could be heard across the hardwood floors of his bedroom.
Silence. Terrifying, gut-wrenching silence.
He gulped as he slid the covers down slowly. His eyes gradually adjusted to the dark–as the night light only illuminated half the room–and he found that he was alone. His Batman and Superman posters were still tacked to the walls, his action figures and toys still in their designated spots. Nothing had changed.
Had he simply imagined it all? Did all of his “Boogeyman” paranoia get the better of his gullible imagination? Bobby had to be sure as he rolled the covers off and breathed deeply.
His bare feet touched the floor and he moved quietly, barely lifting his legs. The floor was sticky, coated in unseen goo. It felt like he was walking across the floor of an empty movie theater.
His small hand gripped the doorknob and he pulled with all his might. His eyes blinked rapidly as they attuned to the bright ceiling fixtures of the hallway.
Streaks of a black sludge-like substance stained the floral wallpaper on both sides. At least the spots of the wallpaper that hadn’t been torn to shreds. One long streak of this black muck extended from the start of the hallway to his bedroom door. He was afraid to touch it. It looked almost alien to him, like something you’d see ooze out of a meteor in those old black-and-white Sci-Fi flicks.
He followed the path of black sludge from the start of the hall to his bedroom, and what he saw resting near his feet made his telescope eyes bulge. Beyond the threshold, his mother had shed her own skin as one would casually remove their coat. There appeared to be no damage to the epidermis. There had been no knife or blade that caused this horrific scene. She had not been skinned alive. His mother had seemingly just slipped out of her body the same way a woman would slip off a dress.
He inched back from the door, his tiny shadow falling over the glow of the night light. Petrifying thoughts ricocheted around inside his head. His young mind conjured up images of every fictional monster it had encountered through television or comic books. But none of those images could prepare Bobby for what was next.
His closet door crept open a tad. Not enough to get a full glimpse enough inside. But enough for Bobby to see the shadow that obscured his own.
“Mommy?” Bobby cried.
“Mommy isn’t here…” a scratchy, unfamiliar voice called from inside the closet. Two red eyes stared back at him intently, a set of razor-sharp claws scratching against the side of the door keenly. Little Bobby shut his eyes before the tears could strike. Not even Superman could save him now. “….Call me the Boogeyman.”
Thursday, December 12, 2013
The most embarrassing day of Julian Campbell’s life was when he had to go door-to-door and inform all the residents of Westlake that he was a registered sex offender. He got through the ordeal physically unscathed, but the degradation and shame had left a mark on him that would not soon fade.
In the grocery store, the barber shop, the post office, the deli–people would point at Julian and whisper, mutter horrible things under their breath. No matter where he turned, he felt as unwelcome as a mangy cat. But Julian understood this sentiment wasn’t exclusive to Westlake. As soon as people found out the truth about Julian, he would be made to feel unwanted in any town he stepped foot in. The stigma of being a registered sex offender would haunt him until the day he died.
His only companion was Esther Driscoll, the Witch of Westlake as the kids called her. As one might guess, it wasn’t a term of endearment. But it wasn’t an insult either. It was more of an aphorism. And while the nickname was not a sign of affection, it was a sign of fear. And it kept the children of Westlake from causing her any grief as they all knew to steer clear of her property.
Esther could run her hand over a pregnant woman’s belly and tell her if her child was going to be born gay or straight. With a brief handshake, she could see what you had for breakfast–three years ago. With just the right wink, she could make you go blind overnight.
Esther shied away from town because she knew the people despised her. She didn’t have to read their minds to figure it out. Their hatred was palpable. So she stayed sequestered in her personal library, studying her ancient witchcraft spells and curses. The curse she favored most–the curse she fantasized about unleashing on the town Westlake time and time again–was the Curse of the Behemoth.
Julian rode his bike by the house every day to bring Esther the newspaper and see if she had any chores she needed crossed off her list. Julian cleaned her gutters and hauled her trash away for her. He helped her clean out the garage and donate her late husband’s belongings to goodwill. She saw what everyone else in town refused to see because of the label Julian carried with him. She saw Julian was a good hearted man who simply made one horrible mistake in life. Unfortunately that mistake cost him dearly. But they still helped each other due to their outcast statuses in the community.
Esther’s place was a Victorian style house that was estimated to be more than a century old. The original color of the house–blue–had drained from the exterior due to years of weathering and had been painted over with layers of rot, green mold, and creeping vines that collected along the sides.
Her house was full of old collectibles and rare valuables, antique ottomans and credenzas, full-length vanity mirrors. Each room had a kerosene lamp that dated back to the 20s. Esther kept all of them filled and in pristine working condition.
Julian stopped by around four that day and stayed until six-thirty. She didn’t have any chores on her list, but she boiled some tea and they talked for a while. It was the best part of Esther’s day, having another lonely soul to connect with, to share her thoughts with.
“How’s the job search coming along?” Esther asked hopefully.
“Not too well,” he groaned. “Nobody wants to hire someone with my record. And my unemployment runs out in two months. I don’t know what I’m going to do.”
“Have hope,” Esther said. “Things will work out.”
“You don’t have any curses in those books that can persuade someone to give me a job?”
“Wish I could help. The curses aren’t there for things like that. They’re not to be abused or toyed with. If they were, I’d turn half this town into donkeys and make the other half sprout goat hair and lay chicken eggs.”
“You could actually do that?”
“You’d be surprised,” Esther winked, though at her age a wink was more of an unappealing eye spasm.
At six-thirty, Julian departed on his bike and pedaled back to the lake, where his trailer was stationed.
* * *
It was Deputy Blake Bradbury who discovered the body on his nightly patrol. There were clear signs of a struggle and possible sexual assault. Mallory Ward’s purple sequined dress had been ripped from her thin, hourglass figure. Her head bashed against the side of a jagged rock protruding from the dirt. She was face-down on her stomach, legs spread wide apart.
There were deep thumbprints around Mallory’s throat, suggesting her attacker had tried strangling her at some point. But the rock was clearly the final blow. The jagged edge had caved in the side of her skull, causing it to collapse with relative ease like a child’s sandcastle on the beach.
He called it in on his radio and waited for further assistance. Sheriff Harold Dinsmore was the first to arrive on the scene in his patrol car. Before Harold had a chance to converse with his deputy, a beam of headlights blinded them both and Drayton Sawyer’s rusty pickup came to a screeching halt by the edge of the lake. Both sets of doors opened and Drayton climbed up from the front with Victor Ward and Glenn Parker in tow.
“Where is she?” Victor shouted. “Where’s my little girl?”
“How’d he find out so soon?” Bradbury asked.
“I called him up as soon as I heard,” Dinsmore explained. “The man has a right to know. That’s his flesh and blood lying in the dirt there.”
“Mr. Ward, please step back, Bradbury urged him. “You don’t want to see her like this.”
“I do,” he said definitively. “I need to see what that sick, twisted monster did to my little angel.”
“That fucking pervert,” Glenn Parker muttered. “He’ll pay for what he did.”
“You three know who did this?” Bradbury asked.
“Sure do. That sexual deviant they should have booted out of Westlake months ago. Julian what’s-his-name? Campbell? It’s got to be him. Name one other person in town who could commit such an atrocity. I’ve lived here for thirty-five years, and nothing like this has ever happened. Not once. Then all of a sudden this pervert moves into our backyard and my little girl turns out dead a quarter mile from his trailer. That doesn’t sound like a coincidence to me, deputy.”
“Victor, you can’t go around accusing people of something like this,” Bradbury said. “Julian Campbell is a registered sex offender, but he’s still entitled to his rights.”
“What about my daughter’s rights?”
“We’ll find the person who did this. You have my word.”
“Your word ain’t shit to me, deputy. I want to hear from Sheriff Dinsmore.”
“Victor, please let us do our work here. In the meantime, go home, be with your wife. Let us handle this. That goes for all of you. I’m looking at you, Drayton Sawyer.”
“I ain’t up to nothing, deputy,” Sawyer said twisting his foot in the dirt in an innocent, cartoonish fashion.
“So if I checked your pickup truck, I wouldn’t find a loaded rifle on the front seat?”
“A man’s got a right to hunt,” Drayton shrugged his shoulders.
“Depends on what he’s hunting for. Now I’m ordering the three of you to return to your homes. Let the professionals deal with this, Vic. I’m begging you. Don’t go off halfcocked and do something you’ll regret later.”
Sheriff Dinsmore glanced at his wristwatch. “Blake, you’re off the clock. Why don’t you get some rest and I’ll take over from here.”
Blake checked his own watch and realized there was still two hours left in his shift. Without argument, he walked back to his patrol car and drove away, taillights glaring in the night.
Dinsmore gave Victor a nod of approval and said, “Do what you need to do.”
* * *
Julian returned to his trailer by seven o’clock that evening. He had a cot, a television with horrible reception, a battery operated radio, and a mini fridge crammed between stacks of unpacked totes and boxes. Julian never bothered to unpack his belongings. He knew no matter where he wound up, he wouldn’t be there long. The only thing that kept him hanging around Westlake was Esther. She was his only friend. The rest of his buddies had abandoned him when the verdict was in.
He liked to reflect on the days of his youth for inspiration to continue on. The Island–or Dirt Bag Island as the teachers loved to call it–was a long square of green adjacent to the school parking lot. Therefore it was not deemed school property and the security guards couldn’t stop teens from sneaking cigarettes there in between classes. It was basically the spot to go if you needed a smoke.
Julian made a lot of friends on that island. But even those friends couldn’t stick with him through the toughest of times.
Being accused of a sex crime is akin to being found guilty of the same allegation. Even if you’re proven innocent, that’s not the part people remember. They only remember the moment they found out you were accused.
Julian polished off a few Pabst from the mini fridge and curled up on the cot, hoping the dreams waiting for him were better than the reality he had found himself in.
* * *
The three waited until after midnight and Victor had Drayton park his truck a few hundred feet from Julian’s trailer. With Sheriff Dinsmore’s blessing, Victor switched into revenge mode and set his plan in motion. Glenn Parker was in full support of this notion. But Sawyer–loyal a friend as he was–was insistent that Vic reconsider.
“You’re not backing out on me, are you Drayton?”
“You know me, Vic. I’m with you ’til the end. I just think there are better ways to handle this. Let the police gather evidence and build a case. Wouldn’t it be more satisfying to see that freak rotting behind bars for the rest of his miserable life?”
“No, it wouldn’t. I’d rather see him suffer to his last breath. I want to put the final bullet in him myself. But before I do, I want to see that little bastard squirm. You see that trailer over yonder? That’s where he camps. The county lets him crash there as part of his rehabilitation program. I say we go around back and surprise him."
“I say we smoke him out,” Glenn cackled, brandishing a Molotov cocktail. He had emptied half a bottle of scotch into his belly and soaked both ends of a white cloth in alcohol, which he then folded and tucked into the bottle like a cork so that only half the cloth was dangling free.
Drayton had his rifle in hand and Vic ordered him to wake Julian up. He hesitated slightly before firing a warning shot through the back window of the trailer, the bullet narrowly missing Julian. Victor Ward’s stern voice commanded Julian to surrender without any defiance.
Julian peered through the shattered window of his trailer and saw Sawyer and Parker standing idly by. Sawyer was gripping his rifle, but his hands were visibly shaky. Parker was waving the Molotov cocktail around, ready to ignite the alcohol drenched cloth at Victor’s command.
Not understanding the gravity of the situation, Julian stepped forth from his trailer, hands raised high in the hopes he could reason with these gentlemen.
He could smell the alcohol on the heat of Victor’s breath and knew the three of them had been drinking heavily.
“Mr. Ward,” Julian nodded, trying to be respectful. “What’s going on here?”
“You,” Vic pointed accusingly. “You raped and murdered my little girl. She was fifteen. Fifteen you son of bitch! I’ll kill you!”
Before Julian could offer a rebuttal, he was driven to his knees by Sawyer and Parker and the barrel of Vic’s shotgun was jammed into his mouth with such force it broke his teeth.
“Please, let me explain,” Julian mumbled with the shotgun barrel pressed against the back of his throat, blood dripping from his chin.
“Explain?” Victor laughed. “I don’t need your explanations. I need closure, plain and simple.”
He squeezed the trigger and Julian’s body crumpled beside the flowing lake. Deer’s scattered in the night, dry leaves crunching and branches snapping under their cloven hooves. Sawyer gasped, dropping his rifle. Parker was ecstatic.
“Did you see that?” Parker cheered joyfully. “The back of his head just…exploded. I thought that shit only happened in movies.” He looked down and spat at Julian’s frozen face and it landed below his right eye, dribbling down his cheek.
“Fucking pervert,” Vic affirmed. “We just did the entire world a favor.”
“What should we do with the body?” Drayton asked, his voice weak.
“Leave it for the flies,” Vic proposed as they loaded into Sawyer’s pickup truck and sped off, tires spinning and kicking up clumps of dirt and mud.
* * *
Drayton Sawyer spent an hour driving around aimlessly in his pickup after dropping Glenn and Victor home. He polished off a full bottle of Irish whiskey and had a second bottle he was saving for home.
It was two in the morning when he got back and his wife was sound asleep. They didn’t have a child, no son or daughter to call their own. And at a moment like this, Drayton couldn’t help feeling guilty that he was thankful for the fact. If it had been his daughter instead of Victor’s, he would’ve had a harder time explaining it to the police. He would’ve had a harder time covering his tracks, too.
Drayton sat alone at his kitchen table and cracked open the second bottle of whiskey. For this occasion, he didn’t feel the need to fetch a glass. He drank straight from the bottle, quaffing it down with large gulps.
He could still hear Mallory’s screams, her cries for help echoing in the back of his mind. When his fingertips brushed the checkered tablecloth, he could feel the fabric of her dress as he viciously ripped it from her body.
It was a mistake. A mistake that started when Drayton Sawyer left the steel mill early that day and spotted Mallory on her daily walk home from school. He offered her a lift and one thing led to another, Drayton misinterpreted a few comments she had made about her new hairdo and her sequined dress, and he thought she giving him a signal, making a pass at him. Instead of dropping her off, he drove past her block and headed down towards the lake.
Mallory was taken aback at first, but she didn’t protest or request that he turn the truck around. It was almost as if she expected this to happen, almost as if she wanted it to happen this way. At least that’s what Drayton kept telling himself.
It wasn’t until he pulled her out the truck and laid her down by the lake that she started to scream. So he hit her. But the screams wouldn’t stop. Not when he ripped the dress or forced her legs apart. Only when he cracked her head against the rock did the screams cease.
He scanned his memory to be positive no one had seen him pick Mallory up. He couldn’t recall a face in sight. They never even passed another car on their way to the lake. Realizing he was a quarter mile from Julian’s trailer, he bailed, knowing the hammer of blame would fall in Julian’s direction.
But Drayton had anticipated a lengthy trial. He had envisioned months of debating and examining evidence. He figured Julian would even go free when the courts realized the timing of the crime and the evidence didn’t quite match up.
But Vic couldn’t wait for the trial to commence. He just had to take matters into his own hands. No matter how hard he tried, there was no talking Victor Ward out of it. And now he was forced to live with the blood of two people on his hands for the rest of his days.
Halfway through the second bottle, Drayton noticed his answering machine was blinking red. Expecting the usual drunken ramblings of Glenn Parker, he pressed play and was greeted by an unfamiliar voice instead.
“I know what you did. It’s just past midnight. You have exactly twenty-four hours to gather your hunting buddies and meet me by the lake. I don’t think I have to tell you the exact spot. And bring that crooked sheriff along with you. I’d love to meet him in person.”
Drayton erased the message and phoned Dinsmore immediately.
* * *
Blake Bradbury broke the news to Esther the following morning. He had to clear his conscience. He hadn’t done anything wrong, but that was also his dilemma. He hadn’t done anything. He let Victor Ward and his drunken posse carry out their brand of street justice without any interference. And he had let Sheriff Dinsmore sweep it under the rag and write Julian Campbell’s death off as an unsolved hate crime.
There were many unsolved crimes under Sheriff Dinsmore’s tenure. And Blake knew many of those crimes and their mysteries had already been unraveled, but the truth would never see the light of day. Not as long as Dinsmore was running the whole damn show.
“When’s the wake?” Esther asked somberly, the rolling tears lubricating the dry, wrinkled skin of her face.
“There isn’t going to be one,” Blake sighed. “Julian didn’t have many friends and has family is mostly deceased or halfway across the country. I reached out to his uncle in Nevada. He didn’t seem too distressed by the news. There’s a funeral scheduled for Friday, no precession. Just a gathering at the cemetery so those that wish to do so can say their final farewells. It pains me to say this because Julian was a human being, but don’t expect a large crowd.”
“I won’t,” Esther said, dabbing away her tears with a red handkerchief. “And you’re right about one thing…Julian was a human being. Whatever crimes he committed or mistakes he made in the past, he paid his debt to society. He didn’t deserve this.”
“Neither did the girl,” Blake made his opinions known. He wasn’t even sure whose side he was on anymore. He didn’t agree with Harold Dinsmore’s choice. But seeing Mallory the way he had–her dress torn from her body, the side of her head bashed in, her face all caked in blood–left a rotten taste in his mouth. If Julian hadn’t deserved what he got, then Mallory hadn’t deserved it either. She was fifteen, pure and sweet. Never harmed a soul. He didn’t know if Julian truly was the culprit, but the list of suspects was narrow and Julian’s name was at the top of that list. Well, it had been until Victor Ward took it upon himself to erase it.
“What are we going to do?”
“We? Nothing. This is a case for the Witch of Westlake."
“You seem to have really taken a shine to that nickname.”
“Maybe I have. Gooday, Blake. Take care and sleep well tonight. By tomorrow morning, all our troubles will be solved.”
* * *
Esther sat undisturbed in the library section of her home and read aloud from one of her ancient tomes. In between passages of an unidentified language that she seemed to understand and speak fluently, she spoke the words, “Rise up Great Behemoth” with each paragraph.
Her body jerked, trembling as the ground shook beneath her feet. She continued reading from the ancient scripture. “Rise up Great Behemoth,” she chanted repetitively. Her tone rose to a thunderous pitch as the floorboards began to splinter and crack. Esther glared in awe as the Behemoth ascended from the depths below. It stood eight or nine feet tall, its weight impossible to calculate.
“Remarkable,” Esther winked. “I have a mission for you my darling destroyer. These men must suffer for their injustices. Their crime must not go unpunished.”
* * *
Judd Ballard lived in Mill Pond, threes towns over from Westlake. A retired paleontologist, Judd did what most retired sixty year olds did. He slept late, played golf, and of course, went fishing. Westlake was his secret retreat. When he needed to get away from his own neighborhood for a few hours, he’d set up his lounge chair by the edge of the lake and cast his rod into the water.
That afternoon he had brought a six pack along with him. The beer made him sleepy and after hours passed with no fish taking the bait, he dozed off in his comfy lounge chair. It wasn’t until he heard the shot that shattered Julian’s window that he woke.
He shuffled quietly through fallen leaves and snapped twigs. The sound of scattering deer and other wildlife muffled his footsteps and they did not see him approach behind Drayton’s pickup in the distance. But he had seen them. He had seen enough to put the three of them behind bars for life. Not to mention the dirt he had on Harold Dinsmore.
Back when Judd was a young paleontologist and Dinsmore was a deputy instead of a sheriff, he had pulled Judd over one night. Claimed he was driving erratically, which wasn’t the case. After a field sobriety test, he administered a Breathalyzer and Judd passed with flying colors. Checking his inspection and registration stickers and neither were expired. With no reason to give Judd a ticket and with a ticket quota needing to be filled, he pulled the old busted headlight routine, smashing it out with the butt of his flashlight. When Judd made a stand for himself, Dinsmore clubbed him, sprayed his eyes with mace, and booked him for disorderly conduct and resisting arrest.
In addition to golfing and fishing, Judd had donated a fair amount of his retirement to documenting Harold’s indiscretions, gathering all the evidence needed to one day bring him down. And this was that glorious day.
Flashlight in hand, Judd Ballard waited at the edge of the lake near Julian’s now abandoned trailer. His body had been removed once Victor’s work was complete. Judd stayed by to watch the story unfold and Dinsmore was the first to arrive on the scene. Judd watched him instruct the deputies on what to write in the reports and told them not to alert the media.
The four of them arrived promptly at midnight, Dinsmore in his patrol car with Vic riding shotgun, and Drayton in his pickup with Glenn. The four men exited their vehicles, hands to their sides. At Judd’s request, they lifted their jackets to show they weren’t armed.
“What’s this all about?” Dinsmore asked.
“Money,” Judd said with a slight chortle. “I thought that part was obvious.”
“So this is blackmail?”
“Think of it as payback,” Judd shined the light over his face so Dinsmore could have a better look. “Remember me?”
“I remember you,” Dinsmore spat. “You’re the dinosaur man. Didn’t I cite you a while back for a busted taillight?” He laughed at that last line.
Near the edge of the lake, an inhuman roar filled the black, cloudless sky and the ground quaked as the Behemoth made contact. Its long, narrow wings flapped effortlessly in the breeze.
It was a creature beyond natural description. As a paleontologist, Judd shockingly identified parts of the beast. It had the head of a triceratops, a prehistoric creature that’s been extinct for more than 200 million years.
Three horns jutted from its misshapen skull; two vertical horns above its glowing yellow eyes and one curved horn in place of a nose. Though, its mouth was much wider than that of a triceratops. It had two rows of razor-sharp fangs protruded from its black rotting gums. Its prodigious claws were sharp and strong enough to rip through a steel vault.
Its massive body was adorned with green and yellow scales that took on a dry, cracked appearance. Whatever it is, it had reptile skin.
Drayton fell to his knees. “I deserve this,” he confessed. “I deserve to be punished. Take me and spare the others, please. I beg of you. I can’t live with myself anymore.”
The Behemoth leaned forward, its jagged claws piercing Drayton’s chest. It lifted Drayton from the ground with ease and held him at eye level, its unforgiving eyes staring him right in the face. Then it drew him closer and with one bite, decapitated Sawyer with its teeth.
The four remaining men didn’t have the good sense to get out of dodge. They stayed frozen in their separate states of shock and disbelief.
“Glenn,” Dinsmore managed to whisper. “The rifle in Drayton’s truck, can you get to it?”
Glenn didn’t respond. He just curled into a ball and attempted to play dead as the Behemoth approached. One set of claws sliced through his back, tearing the flesh down the middle and in a display of brute strength, it ripped out his entire length of spinal cord and discarded it amongst the fall-colored leaves.
“You want something done you have to do it yourself,” Dinsmore said and made a run for Drayton’s pickup. He snatched the rifle from the front seat and fired several shots in the dark, each one hitting its intended target. But the bullets barely penetrated its tough, rigid exterior.
Admitting defeat, Dinsmore tossed the rifle aside and bolted to his car. Before he could jam the key in the ignition, the Behemoth was off its feet, wings flapping as it sailed through Dinsmore’s windshield and tore a hole in his jugular with its teeth.
Blood spurting from his neck, saturating the dashboard and upholstery of his car, he managed to twist the key in the ignition and put the car in drive. He didn’t make it more than fifty feet before he bled out.
Its blade-like claws digging into Victor Ward’s shoulders, he shrieked as the Behemoth spread its wings and flew off into the night with its precious prey in hand.
They were nearly out of focus when Judd heard the undeniable sound of Vic’s neck snapping like a twig in the sky above.
He waited a solid five minutes, expecting the Behemoth to return and finish the job. But it didn’t. Perhaps this creature was a guardian angel of sorts. At least that’s how Judd Ballard chose to view it. It was the only way he could process the experience. An experience he could not breathe to another soul.
How could he convince someone else what he had seen when he couldn’t even convince himself. He got into his car, started it up, and took off without thinking twice.
He opted to take the scenic route home, hoping to avoid any patrolling deputies. As he drove down the narrow, unlit streets of Westlake, another deafening roar filled the pitch-black sky.
He didn’t know whether to feel safe or terrified.