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.