Authors: Bill Benners
Tags: #Fiction, #Thrillers, #Suspense, #General
It was just a bunch of papers. Some of it blew out including that piece of newspaper.”
We’ve got to follow them!”
Haven’t you noticed? We’re stuck!”
Sydney jammed the gas pedal against the floor again and held it there while the two of them rocked back and forth in their seats, nudging the van forward as smoke from the spinning tires drifted across the road. When headlights appeared up the highway coming toward them, Sydney turned on the vehicle’s lights, but kept her foot on the gas. Back and forth they rocked as the car drew nearer. Suddenly, the rear tires found solid ground and the van lurched onto the highway directly into the path of the approaching vehicle.
Shit!” Martha cried clutching the door handle as the oncoming car braked and skidded past them with its horn blaring.
Sorry,” Sydney said, correcting the van with the steering wheel as it fishtailed across the highway. “I was afraid it would do that.”
Martha laid her head back against the seat and exhaled. “Forget the car. Let’s just go see what we can find out about this license plate number.”
FEW MILES NORTH of Wilmington on US 17, Bonner turned into a new subdivision under construction. He rolled past numbered stakes, road-building equipment, utility connection boxes, and new curbing to where the pavement ended and the road surface turned to rock. But the rock was hard and the shovels were of little use against it. Bonner tossed his aside, climbed on a nearby backhoe, and started the engine. He fiddled with the controls learning what each does, then clumsily maneuvered the machine to the spot they’d tried to dig, lowered its giant scoop to the rock, and powered it into the dirt. The engine groaned and the machine rose off the ground and warbled against the strain, but it dug into the rocks and opened a hole in the dirt. Moving levers back and forth, Bonner raised the scoop, shifted it to the side, and released the dirt away from the hole.
I think I got it now!” he shouted over the roaring of the engine. He swung the scoop back over the hole, dug deeper, and again dropped the dirt next to the hole. Noticing a pipe in the hole, César jumped in front of the machine waving his arms.
What?” Bonner shouted over the rattle of the machine.
César pointed to a four-inch pipe running along the side of the hole. “Water line!”
Climbing down, Bonner saw where the scoop had scraped along the length of the pipe, but it had remained intact. He climbed back on the machine, moved the scoop a little to the right, and dug again into the street. Within ten minutes, he had opened a hole five feet deep, five feet wide, and at least eight feet long. He left the machine running and climbed down.
Get in the hole,” he said. “Aye’ll pass the boxes down to you.”
Bonner brought each box to the hole and handed it down to César who nudged it into the loose dirt at the bottom. As he handed the last one down, Bonner pulled a pistol, aimed, and fired, hitting César in the center of his back. The explosion reverberated through the subdivision and echoed off into the night. César’s body lurched around and landed face up lying over the boxes. His disbelieving eyes stared back at the gun. Raising a hand, he pleaded, “Por favor no dispare otra vez, Señor Bonner. Please, no shoot.”
Bonner raised the gun a second time, aimed, and squeezed the trigger. This bullet opened a small hole in César’s forehead and exited the rear of his skull grazing the water pipe causing a dark geyser to spout from the man’s forehead and an almost invisible misty spray of water behind his head.
Flinging the gun into the hole, Bonner climbed back onto the machine, filled the dirt in, and returned the backhoe to where he’d found it.
He gathered rocks and spread them evenly over the freshly filled hole until he was satisfied that no one would know they’d been there. It was now 12:58 a.m.
AT WRIGHTSVILLE BEACH MUNICIPAL COMPLEX, Chief Milton Simmons was trying to get things straight in his head. “So, you—Richard Baimbridge—who just happens to be under investigation in the disappearance of another girl, lose your phone and minutes later it gets picked up by someone who just
to see a man on a motorcycle drop off a dead girl behind Lloyd’s and uses
phone to call 9-1-1 and report it. Is that what you’re saying?”
I didn’t blame the chief for being confused. I was confused myself—and I’d been there. “I’m saying, yes, I lost my phone, and I had nothing to do with putting that body behind that restaurant although I do
know where it came from and how it got there.
didn’t put it there.”
Do you really think I could have carried a dead body across town on a motorcycle without somebody noticing it?”
Somebody did notice. They called 9-1-1.”
The fact he was on your phone proves to me that he was
in close proximity to you.”
Oh, come on! You know damned well that would never happen.”
I’ve seen stranger things than that,” he said holding his gaze on me, his feet propped on a chair.
So that’s where I was sitting at 1 a.m. when the door opened and Sam Jones walked in. I never imagined I could be so happy to see Sam Jones.
When I told Sam what I’d seen, he was only slightly more willing than the chief to give me the benefit of the doubt. Ten minutes later he, Simmons, and I were cruising up the island toward the beach house. They rode in front and I rode in the “cage.” My hands were cuffed, but not behind my back. Two other officers followed in a separate car and the chief radioed two more with instructions to head that way. Traffic had thinned and the ride took no more than seven or eight minutes. I pointed out the house and the chief pulled up the winding drive stopping just short of going under the building. The second car pulled in behind us.
Jones and the chief left me in the cage and climbed the long staircase to the front door. The other two made a wide circle around the house. A third police car pulled onto the grass at the end of the drive and parked. Laying my face against the side window, I could barely see Chief Simmons knock at the front door and Fat Albert step out, but could hear nothing. The clock on the car dash read 1:21 a.m. I sat back in the seat and waited.
One of the roving officers—a tall, muscular black man with a two-day beard—strolled up under the house and studied a wet spot on the cement. He looked up at the source—a drip under the edge of the house—then stooped, touched his finger to it, and smelled it. He then called the other roving officer over who also stooped and smelled it. Together they shined their lights up at the underside of the house. The black officer pressed the button on the microphone attached high on his shirt and spoke into it. A moment later, Jones and the chief came running down the front steps to examine the puddle.
Something was wrong.
I sat forward gripping the bars separating me from the front seat and watched as all four men backed away then charged up the stairs and disappeared into the house. The clock read 1:27 a.m. I pressed my head far back in the rear window, looked up, and saw lights coming on throughout the house.
One of the officers staggered out the front door carrying a limp young female in his arms followed by Fat Albert struggling to carry another. They carted them down the stairs, away from the building, and placed them on a patch of grass halfway to the road. Detective Jones and the chief together were attempting to carry a third female down the steps when a massive explosion blew the roof off the house and rattled the car knocking Jones, the chief, and the girl off the steps onto the front lawn.
A huge fireball bellowed high into the night sky carrying with it pieces of the building that shot skyward then fell back to earth, some up to a hundred feet away. Flames leapt through windows that had been blown out and cracks that had appeared in the walls. Jones shoved an officer—whose hair and clothes were on fire—to the ground, rolled him, and beat out the flames.
A section of second story exterior wall gave way and crashed down on the hood of the police car smothering it in sparks, embers, and splintered construction materials. The impact crushed the hood of the car and bounced me against the ceiling. Flames spread up the windshield and I could instantly feel the heat through the glass.
There were no door handles in the rear to open the doors. I pressed a button there to lower the window, but it didn’t work. I tried the one on the other side, and it, too, didn’t work. I waved my hands in the back window and shouted, “Hey! Hey!”
Smoking debris lay scattered throughout the front yard and surrounding empty lots. Two of the officers dashed up the steps and into the house. A third helped the chief to his feet and a fourth began dragging the unconscious girls farther from the inferno, one at a time.
The temperature inside the car was rising. The inspection decal on the windshield bubbled, curled away from the glass, and dropped onto the dash. With sweat beading on my face, I kicked at a side window, again and again, but the window refused to break. Another chunk of debris smashed onto the hood of the car and sparks spewed past the windows. The air was getting hot, and thick with the taste of ashes and glue. I pounded the glass with my elbow and screamed, “Get me out of here!”
Cars had begun pulling off the road and there were people running back and forth seeming not to know what to do. A man was giving mouth-to-mouth respiration to one of the girls. The plastic padding on the dash began smoking, then bubbled like boiling water. The mirror mounted to the windshield wilted, slid down the glass, then dropped off. I lunged to the floor and looked up under the front seat. There was nothing there but paper trash.
Smoke now filled the interior of the chief’s car and I could no longer see the windows. Perspiration soaked my clothes, and my lungs choked on the thick cloud. The fire had moved under the car and now totally engulfed it in flames. The heat was unbearable.
My God! Is this how my life is going to end? What is Mom going to think? And Dad?
I sucked at the cooler air under the seats, gagging and choking on the smoke. Another massive crash hit the car and I felt glass scatter over me. I tried to rise up, but couldn’t move. The heat was too intense to even breathe. I held my breath listening to the rumble, hiss, and sizzle of the fire. Outside, I could hear the wail of fire trucks and the shouting of the crowd, then pounding on the car.
Baimbridge!” The pounding continued. “Baimbridge!”
I felt the spray of cool water douse my hot skin. I heard the pounding of metal against metal and more glass shattering. I felt the pressure of the water as it washed me down and heard the sizzle of it as it turned to steam. My mind was awake, but my body was asleep. I felt myself being lifted and watched as though I was a witness—as though I was outside of my body seeing myself pass through the back glass into the arms of the firemen.
I saw myself carried to the patch of green grass and watched an EMT perform resuscitation. I saw the flames leaping a hundred feet in the air and the walls of the building collapse. Then everything turned white and faded away.
ANE BONNER TURNED OFF Highway 133 west of Wilmington near Kendall Chapel and guided his Escalade through thick brush along an overgrown dirt trail leading back to a nineteenth-century farm house. He’d stolen the property from a client that had gotten the death penalty for the rape, torture, and murder of an eleven-year-old boy the man had picked up hitch-hiking. Although it was located in Brunswick County, it was just minutes from Wilmington along the western side of the lower Cape Fear River—a tract he now called “The Bonner Place.”
The two-story frame house had been built in the late 1800s and had been wired for electricity later with exposed cables running up and down the outside of the house. The barns and sheds had been added in the more affluent 1950s. Behind the barn, there was a bulkhead and dock on the river. He got out of his car, pulled open the front doors to the barn and parked the car inside.
Bonner lit a kerosene lantern, unbolted the front door to the house, and stepped into a narrow hallway. There were doors on his left and right and stairs going up to the second floor. The house had not been cleaned or even opened for fresh air in two decades. A hole in the roof had gone unattended for years and the air reeked of dampness, mold, and bird droppings. The wallpaper throughout the house had turned dark brown and, in places, drooped from the walls like pig’s ears. Cobwebs shadowed all corners and the floors were barely visible under a chalky layer of dust. He stepped into the front room to his left and walked to a metal table placed against a dark window. The corner of the room nearest the center of the house had a fireplace set in it at a 45-degree angle that shared a chimney with a fireplace in the next room. Behind the wire grill were the carcasses of black birds and squirrels unfortunate enough to get trapped in the chimney. In the room beyond, a double window was completely covered over by a hardy sprig of poisonous
that had somehow managed to find its way through the floor and now sought a way out.