Authors: Maggody,the Moonbeams
I looked at her for a moment, then gave up and went out into the hall. I'd expected to find a veritable horde of eavesdroppers, but no one appeared to be within earshot, which was for the best. I had a much better theory than aliens about whose body she'd encountered.
Billy Dick was hovering at the bottom of the stairs. "Is she okay?" he whispered.
"It's possible that she broke her ankle. I have a feeling she'd just as soon not see you now, so go back and join the others."
"It's all my fault."
"No, Billy Dick, as much as I hate to break it to you, your name did not come up in our conversation. If Darla Jean wants to see you tomorrow, I'll tell you."
The kids were subdued, the girls holding each other's hands and glancing nervously at the front door, the boys hanging their heads. I gestured for Larry Joe to join me in the dining room.
"Is Darla Jean hurt?" he asked.
"She's either sprained or broken her ankle. I'll ask Estelle to take her for an X-ray tomorrow. Mrs. Robarts can tell her the closest place to go."
"Then everything's okay."
"Not exactly. Darla Jean swears she came across a body in the woods."
He stiffened. "Whose?"
"It's hard to say. I guess we'd better take a look. Maybe there are some raincoats in a closet somewhere. Don't mention this to anybody."
"Mrs. Jim Bob'll want to know where we're going."
Bearing false witness (or lying through my teeth, anyway) was becoming easier by the second. "No problem; I'll tell her we're fetching our flashlights in case we need them later."
I detoured through the kitchen and asked Ruby Bee and Estelle to take Darla Jean a sandwich, an ice pack, a couple of aspirin, and another mug of tea. Ignoring their questions, I went back into the dining room.
Larry Joe had a couple of plastic ponchos draped over his arm. "Just let me handle this," I said to him as we pulled them over our heads and went into the living room.
Mrs. Jim Bob had been pacing in front of the fireplace, but she cut us off midway across the room.
"And where are you two going?" she demanded, her arms crossed and her eyes so beady they looked as if they'd been sucked into her skull. "I'd like to think you're not planning some sort of sexual interlude in one of the cabins. Arly, I'm sure you are aware that Larry Joe is a family man with obligations not only to his wife and children, but also to the community. He is a deacon in the church and an upstanding member of the school board. Furthermore, the seventh commandment specifically warns against the evils of adultery. Larry Joe, all I can say is that your conscience needs to be your guide, no matter how strong the temptation may be."
I bit my tongue until I'd allowed myself a few seconds to regain control. It was not the time to drag her outside and tie her to a tree in hopes Thor might be in the mood for target practice. I certainly was. "Jarvis, you and Parwell get some light bulbs from the pantry in the kitchen."
"It might just be the circuit breakers," said Jarvis. "I reckon we can find the box and see. If flipping the switches doesn't work, we'll start changing bulbs." He gave me a sly look. "So where are you and Mr. Lambertino going?"
"To bring back flashlights," I said briskly. "It should take us no more than ten or fifteen minutes."
I hustled Larry Joe out the door before he could blurt out something to further complicate the situation. The rain had eased up for the moment, but more lightning was flickering across the lake -- and therefore heading this way, and the thunder, although muffled, sounded like a grizzly bear prematurely aroused from hibernation. The road was nearly invisible under elongated muddy puddles.
Larry Joe was far from an acquiescent Dr. Watson. "This is plum crazy, Arly. Camp Pearly Gates ain't no tidy little patch of woods; there're paths and roads all over the place. How are we supposed to find this body, if there is one?"
"Darla Jean thought she was behind the softball field," I said. "Let's go down the road and see if we can spot where Jacko might have left footprints when he found her."
"You know that guy?" said Larry Joe as he followed me, huffing like a solid community figure, a family man, a deacon and member of the school board, or someone with a beer belly and a penchant for puffing cigars with Hizzoner the Moron. "He didn't, well, do anything to her, did he?"
"All I know about him is that he's a lousy fisherman and a Good Samaritan. Darla Jean may be on crutches until graduation, but she's just frightened." Saying this reminded me of her story of chasing the child, which had taken a backseat in my mind when she'd told me about the body. She hadn't been lying about it, but how could any family have overlooked a small child when packing up the picnic basket and tossing the cooler into the back of the pickup truck?
I decided to hold off telling Larry Joe the full story. We slogged down the road, doing what we could to avoid the deeper puddles, until we were past the far edge of the softball field.
"Look here," Larry Joe said, pointing at some indentations in the bank above the road. "I can't tell if they're footprints, but I guess they might have been an hour ago."
"Very good," I said. The woods seemed to encroach as daylight faded; rain dripped off thorns as venom might drip off fangs. "I suppose we ought to go up that way and have a look. You want to go first?"
"Maybe you should, since you're a cop. The marks could be evidence."
I took a deep breath. "At the police academy, we made a lot of plaster casts of footprints and tire tracks, but that may not be a pertinent skill right now." I took two steps, and promptly slid back down into ankle-deep water. Managing to keep a long string of four-letter words to myself, I made a second attempt with even less success, then said, "Listen carefully, Larry Joe. Put your hands on my rear and shove me up until I can grab that sapling. This will remain between the two of us; Mrs. Jim Bob and Joyce will never know. Can you do this?"
Larry Joe looked as though he'd prefer to dive into the puddle and suffocate, but he nodded, and with reluctance, applied the requested pressure until I found my footing. I hung on to the sapling and offered him a hand, and after several unfortunate starts, he joined me.
"Now what?" he said, gazing unhappily at the mud seeping through the laces of his shoes.
"Darla Jean mentioned a creekbed that was filling up fast. Hear anything?"
He cocked his head. "Over that way, maybe. Before we go thrashing around like a couple of pie-eyed piglets, just what did Darla Jean think she saw?"
It still seemed premature to mention the dead alien and the potential presence of the mother ship. "She wasn't able to tell me much," I said. "Let's head up this way until it gets dark. If we don't find anything, then ... "
"Aw, hell, come on."
Larry Joe took the lead, which meant he also took the brunt of wet branches and briars. I followed meekly. We slipped and slid, cussed under our respective breaths, and at last found a creek that was doing its best to cut a swath worthy of the Grand Canyon, given a few million years.
"There's something," he said, stopping abruptly.
I peered over his shoulder. The light was lessening with every minute, but the body, sprawled across the creek and draped in a white robe, was hard to miss. I swallowed, then said, "Let me go first. I don't think we can preserve the crime scene, but I might notice something." I picked my way over treacherously mossy rocks, bent down over the body, which was decidedly terrestrial in origin, and felt for a pulse in her neck. Her flesh was cold, her eyes dull. I presumed it was Rachael from the cafe, although there was something about her features that was unfamiliar.
"She's dead," I said, standing up.
Larry Joe's face was almost as pale as hers. "What happened to her? Why's she out here and dressed like that? Is she some kind of witch?"
I stared at the surrounding brush, hoping I'd see a small face watching us. This woman had not been Darla Jean's quarry. Where was the child?
"What's the matter?" said Larry Joe, his voice cracking. "Is somebody else here?"
I let him imagine the worst while I tried to figure out what to do. Moving the body to the road would be damn near impossible under the existing conditions. If there was any evidence indicating the cause of death, we would destroy it with unwieldy attempts to keep our footing while carrying what appeared to be a hundred and forty pounds of dead weight.
Very dead weight.
I held up my hand to hush Larry Joe, then kneeled down and pushed the woman's head to one side. I was immediately sorry that I had. I stumbled backward and sank down, battling nausea.
"What's wrong with you?" demanded Larry Joe.
"I'll be okay in a minute. We need to go back to the lodge and call the local police. Whoever this woman is, she didn't lose her balance and bang her head on a rock. The back of her head's caved in. Something really walloped her."
Lightning illuminated the object Larry Joe raised above his head. "Like maybe this bat?"
Had a movie production crew been present, the director would have shouted, "Cut!"
Hammet offered a few choice words as the rain began to splatter. He was cold, tired, and still hungry, even after eating the sandwiches and pie. What's more, it was getting dark. He supposed he could sleep in the church, but folks would start coming in the morning and he might get caught. He sure as hell didn't want to get arrested and sent to the gawdawful place Jim Bob had described.
He couldn't quite figure out what had happened to everybody, but it seemed like Arly, Ruby Bee, Estelle, and Mrs. Jim Bob was all off for the time being. He finished the last apple, flung the core at the silver trailer, and got up. There was one other place in Maggody where he'd stayed before, and it was big enough that he ought to be able to keep out of sight, and at the same time stay warm and dry. He couldn't sleep in a bed or lie on the sofa watchin' television, but he reckoned there were all sorts of storage rooms and closets in such a fine house. With Mrs. Jim gone, it wasn't like Jim Bob would come looking for the vacuum cleaner. If he was careful about stealing food, he could most likely hide out there till Arly got back. It was kinda hard to guess what she'd do, but at least she wouldn't arrest him or anything like that. More than likely, she'd just sigh and send him back to the foster home. It never hurt to try.
He set off across the pasture behind the row of abandoned buildings, trying to remember the layout of the house where he and his brothers and sisters had been dumped while Arly figured out what shitheel had killed their mama. At the back of the garage was a room with what he'd later learned was a washing machine and dryer. The floor was concrete, though, and likely to be clammy as a cave. He couldn't recollect if there was a basement or an attic. He stopped in the knee-deep weeds and tried to think. Between the kitchen and the living room was a closet crammed with winter coats where he'd hid during a game of hide-and-seek. Not even his dumbshit brother had found him in there. It hadn't smelled real good, but it didn't stink near as bad as the dirty quilt he'd slept on in the cabin up on the ridge.
He figured it'd do.
Jim Bob had meant to shut down his computer and go home, but messages in the chat room were coming fast and furious. Most of 'em were from pissant teenagers with screen names like Vaginalee and Studboy. He'd fired off his share of responses, just to amuse himself by trying to see if he could make them squirm. It was about as tough as shooting fish in a barrel.
Then a new presence popped up in the chat room, one making more sense than the brain-dead morons with nothing better to write than, "Yo, dudes." Jim Bob waited for a while, reading the messages from a poster using the name "LovePussy." Clearly she was older than the pimply assholes in the chat room, and she was making veiled suggestions that would send most of them under their beds to jerk off.
Jim Bob continued reading for a few minutes, enjoying the specter of the fourteen-year-old boys utilizing their impaired vocabularies and geeky emotions to impress this mysterious LovePussy. She wasn't buying, but she was teasing the living hell out of them.
He finally decided to put the litter out of their misery and posted a message to LovePussy that claimed she was all talk and no action. An instant message came up on his screen, offering to prove otherwise.
Jim Bob damn near fell out of his chair. Once he'd pulled himself together, he replied, asking how LovePussy thought she might make good on her promise. Her response had chilled him: "See you at the Dew Drop Inn in half an hour."
Jim Bob turned off his computer and swept all the papers, including such irrelevancies as the payroll and the current invoices, into a desk drawer. As he blotted his face with his handkerchief, he wondered if he had time to swing by his house and take a shower.
Probably not, he concluded. If "LovePussy" actually showed up at the Dew Drop, she might not be the kind to wait around. He locked his office and went to the registers.
"Idalupino, close up at nine. Kevin's fixing to wax the floors, but he's got a key so's to let himself out when he's done."
"I'm supposed to be off at seven," she protested. "Me and some of my girlfriends are gonna have us a night out. We've been planning it for weeks."
"So go at nine. Big fuckin' deal."