Short Stories

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The Fire Inside

Lars Thompson opened the fridge and looked for something to eat. It had been several days since he’d had a real meal that didn’t come from a garbage can. Life on the streets had never been easy for him, but he was a survivor. He carried a package of lunch meat, head of iceberg lettuce, a jar of mayo, and moved the items to the kitchen table. Grabbing a steak knife, stained with spots of crimson, he went to work on making a sandwich. He slathered mayonnaise on two pieces of rye bread. White was his favorite, but he couldn’t find any in his search of the kitchen. There hadn’t been much food in the house anyway, so his options were limited. Lars didn’t know where he would go after he left the house. It wasn’t his, but he’d been able to commandeer the two bedrooms, one bath dwelling. It had been the first home he’d seen after getting off the train. The small farming community didn’t have many residents, at least not that he had seen in the middle of the night. Maybe he’d get a hot shower after his meal. He hadn’t decided. Time was on his side for now, but he didn’t want to push his luck. The sun would be up in a few hours and he needed to be as far away as possible. Running had been his only friend. He hadn’t settled down in one place too long and he wasn’t about to start now. The sandwich tasted delicious as he woofed it down in several, large bites. It felt good to have something to eat. Several, dirt size crumbs remained on the tabletop—a sad reminder of the life he lived. He stared at the blood on his clothes. If he wanted to blend in with society, he couldn’t look like he was right out of a horror movie. He walked across the living room, stepping over the body of an old man, lying in a pool of dried blood. Lars had been able to climb through an open window sometime after midnight. The old man with cropped, white hair had been sleeping on the couch. Infomercials had been muted on the television. Lars crept into the kitchen, grabbed a kitchen knife, and stabbed the guy repeatedly in the neck and chest. The geezer rolled off the couch, his face eating the linoleum. He went into the master bedroom and removed his clothes. He and the dead man were about the same size and build. He rummaged through the closet, took out a pair of faded blue jeans, a long sleeve flannel shirt and set them on the bed next to a dead woman, lying on her back. Her face ashen, eyes bulged from the sockets. After he’d killed the man in the living room, he went to both bedrooms. Only the woman, probably the geezers wife was left in the house, snoring. She lay on her back, her hair fanned out, dried bloodstains on her ears, nose, and mouth. Her right leg bent at a right angle. Stab wounds to her neck and abdomen. The left side of her face was crushed, the left eye knocked from the socket and hung just above the pool of blood by the tendons. Then he ransacked the place and took a few pieces of jewelry he might pawn. He walked into the bathroom and got a shower. The hot water felt very refreshing. The house had been cool, partly due to the cold weather outside, and partly due to the heater in the house didn’t seem to work very well. He’d turned the thermostat to 80 after killing the wife, but the inside never got any warmer than sixty-eight degrees. After getting dressed in the new digs, he set the house ablaze using lighter fluid from the kitchen. Flames spread across the floor, chewing up curtains along the back wall. The fire quickly spread. Black smoke billowed to the ceiling. Burning furniture smelled like a campfire. He closed the door behind him and walked into the cold, dark, night. He shivered as a strong gust howled in his ears, the cold biting into his skin. He looked over his shoulder and watched as the inferno ate up the outside of the small home. Several neighbors had ventured outside, but they didn’t look in his direction. In the distance, a fire truck siren sliced through the wind. Time to move onto another city.   Blood Spatter The car was in pristine condition the day it came off the lot. That was six years and a hundred-fifty-thousand mile ago. Detective Bobby Cox inherited the unmarked cruiser from a detective whom he replaced eighteen months ago when the department promoted Cox. The aging air conditioner rattled in a futile attempt to cool the interior of the car as stagnant air trickled from the vents. Temperatures exceeded triple digits by noon. The asphalt jungle was congested with cars, trucks, and vans. A faded yellow school bus cut in front of him, black smoke bellowing from the tailpipe. His grip strangled the steering wheel. The interior of the Caprice was still lukewarm. Maybe he should have taken his gray sports coat off before sitting in the car. “Okay, people. Enough is enough,” he grumbled. Although the person he was going to see wouldn’t be in any hurry, Cox turned on the lights and sirens. “Now get out of my way.” Fifteen minutes later, he parked on the curb to 1992 Comstock Avenue. Not a great neighborhood, but not the worst, although the dozen or so neighbors and spectators gathered along the sidewalk and street might disagree. Murder had a way of bringing people together, even if to bear witness to someone else’s misery. This was the fourth homicide the detective had been called to in as many weeks. The media dubbed the serial killer, The Slasher, because each victim had been murdered in their home, their throat slashed. What the media and public were unaware of was the killer used a kitchen knife from each of the victim’s residence. After committing each crime, The Slasher left the knife in a bathroom sink filled with bleach. The house, if you could call it that, all eight hundred square feet, sat on a tiny piece of land. Many of the homes on this street resembled each other. They’d sprouted up after the Second World War. Most still resembled the original design, but several had a room or two added or a garage installed. The bushes outside the windows needed to be trimmed, unless it was the resident’s intention to use this as some sort of criminal deterrent, although Cox didn’t think so. The barred windows should have been enough to keep the riffraff out. Apparently it had not—at least at this address. He cut the engine and the tailpipe backfired, resembling a gunshot. Normally, when this happened, and it seemed to be more often as late, people within earshot of the blast flinched or gasped. Everyone seemed to be immune to the noise in this neighborhood. Cox got out and walked across the dirt lawn. Tiny dust bombs floated into the air with each step. The city hadn’t seen a drop of rain in three weeks, not that it would have helped anything in this yard grow. Perspiration dripped from his brow by the time he reached the front door. He reached into his coat pocket, retrieved a handkerchief and dabbed the sweat and stepped into the tiny dwelling. Two paramedics, a woman who looked old enough to still be in middle school and her partner, who resembled Tom Wopat stood in the corner, awaiting further instruction. They were probably the first on the scene, he figured, and probably contaminated the crime scene trying to revive the body, which turned out not to be very successful. Otherwise he wouldn’t have gotten the call. The living room had sparse furniture—a flower patterned couch and matching love seat. A small television leaned at a downward angle from a warped metal TV tray in a corner. Smoke wafted from a cigarette in an ashtray. The three-inch trail of gray ash indicated it hadn’t been smoked in a while. “The victim is in the bedroom, Detective,” a patrolman said. “Looks like The Slasher struck again.” Cox retrieved a notepad and pen from the inside pocket of his sports coat. “Who discovered the body?” “Jimmy Parker and Ida Jones. They’re both outside with several officers until you’re ready to speak to them. The paramedics are attending to Parker. He’s got blood on him. Not sure who’s though.” Cox scribbled some notes. “They read Mr. Parker his rights?” “No, Detective. We’re treating them both as witnesses.” He tapped the pen on the pad and thought about the ramifications if Parker confessed to the cops without being Mirandized. Don’t get ahead of yourself. Read the evidence and search for clues. Cox nodded his thanks and walked toward the kitchen. He scanned the small space and saw a block set of knives on the counter. One was missing. After searching the sink, dishwasher, and cabinets without finding the knife, he jotted this information down. The distinct odor of bleach lingered in the air as he walked down the hallway. The scent grew stronger with each step   Pictures and accolades lined the walls. Each award was for journalistic excellence on various crimes committed in the Chicago area. He scribbled several notes to check on this later. Maybe the victim knew the killer or had uncovered the identity of The Slasher. Flashes of light from the crime scene photographer illuminated the corpse. The victim lay on the floor between the bed and the wall—mouth gaped open as if to let out one final scream. Blood spatter covered the wall from the corner to about eighteen inches out. Then it stopped with a gap of approximately two feet before the grisly trail continued. The photographer stepped away and started taking pictures of the surrounding area. The medical examiner, Dr. Winn Sellers knelt over the corpse. Sellers was chunky and round-faced with a nose somebody hadn’t liked. The ME combed the victim’s hair with a tiny brush in search of forensic evidence. Several follicles were collected on a white sheet of paper. “What have we got?” Cox asked the ME. “Looks like another slasher victim.” He placed the sheet containing the hair inside a crime scene envelope. “I don’t know if you saw the awards in the hall, Detective, but the Vic is Doug Sanders, a former reporter for the Chicago Tribune.” “Yeah, I remember. Didn’t he get into some trouble a few years back for fabricating stories?” “Yes. Several people sued him for defamation of character. He filed chapter eleven. Guess that’s why he now lives … well lived in this dive.” Cox crossed his arms. “Time of death?” Sellers stood, the bones cracking up his spine. “Not long. Rigor hasn’t started. Body temp is 95 degrees. I’d say we’re looking at approximately two hours, give or take an hour.” Cox caught a whiff of bleach. The scent lingered in the air and grew stronger as he headed toward the master bathroom. He pushed the door open. Fluorescent light bounced off the white walls. Bleach filled the sink. The strong odor of cleaner stung his nostrils. His eyes watered. At the bottom of the blanch liquid was a large knife. The rug on the floor had what appeared to be bleach stains. He stepped out and motioned for the crime scene reporter to take pictures before the forensic team collected the evidence. Back outside a gust whipped Cox’s hair. Sporadic raindrops dotted the sidewalk. Lightning flashed nearby followed by the crack of thunder. The crowd along the street began to thin out. The paramedics slammed the back doors shut to the ambulance. A moment later the engine revved and they pulled away. Two patrolmen approached with a tall, athletic-looking man and the woman with the dog between them. The man’s shirt and jeans were splashed in crimson in a downward angle starting left to right. “Detective, this is Jimmy Parker,” one of cops said. “He found the body.” “And this is Ida Jones,” the other officer said. “Thanks, I got it from here,” Cox said. He decided to forgo the Miranda warnings for now. If either of the potential witnesses gave any hint they may be the killer, he would halt the interview and read them their rights. He separated the two potential witnesses outside earshot of one another. “Ms. Jones. Can you tell me what you observed?” “I took Misty for a walk before dinner. She’s a wonderful pooch. Anyway, Misty stopped to pee and I saw that man,” she pointed to Parker, “run outside. He looked at me then turned and ran back inside.” “Did he say anything to you?” “Yes. Told me to call nine-one-one.” “Is there anything else you can recall?” She shook her head. He thanked her and walked to the other end of the porch. “Mr. Parker. Can you tell me what happened?” Parker hesitated. “I was in my kitchen when I noticed someone approach Doug’s front door. A moment later, I heard a scream.” “Do you recall if the scream came from inside the house or outside?” “I think inside, but I can’t be certain.” “What did you do then, Mr. Parker?” “I ran over to see what happened. When I got to Doug’s, the front door was ajar. Then a man almost knocked me down as he burst from the house.” “Can you give a description?” “No. It happened so fast. He ran past me.” “Was he black, white, Hispanic?” Parker flinched. He stared at the ground. “I don’t know. I think he had a hoodie on.” “Okay, what did you do then?” “I told the lady with the dog to call nine-one-one. I went inside the house and saw Doug on the floor in the bedroom. I went to check on him. See what happened. I tried to resuscitate him, but then I noticed his neck had been slashed.” “You said you tried to resuscitate him. What kind of aid did you perform?” “CPR. When I went to blow air in his mouth, I saw the neck.” Cox glanced down. There were bleach stains on the bottom of Parker’s pants along with specks of red on the man’s shoes as well. Could this man be The Slasher? He decided to press on. “Did you go anywhere else in the house?” Parker rubbed his hand on his pants. “No, Detective. I ran back outside and waited for the police.” Cox smiled. He put the notebook and pen back in his coat pocket then retrieved the handcuffs from his belt. “Jimmy Parker. I’m placing you under arrest for the murder of Doug Sanders.” Why did Detective Bobby Cox arrest Jimmy Parker? Blood spatter covered the wall from the corner to about eighteen inches out. Then it stopped with a gap of approximately two feet then started up again. Why would that be? This is where the killer had been standing when he slashed Doug Sanders’s throat. The spatter would have gotten on the person’s clothes. The media and public weren’t aware of the knife being immersed in bleach in the bathroom. Only the police and the killer would have known this information. When Detective Cox asked Parker if he had gone anywhere else in the house but the bedroom, he said he didn’t. But Parker had bleach stains on his pants which would have been caused when the bleach splashed onto the floor onto the rug. Some of the bleach also splashed onto his pants. Jimmy Parker is The Slasher.   Case Closed Detective Harry Crenshaw glanced at the pamphlet one more time. Tonight was his last day as a homicide detective. By this time tomorrow he’d be drinking rum and coke in the Bahamas. He couldn’t remember the last time he went on a vacation. He’d lost his wife a year ago … not to cancer or a drunk driver, but to a guy named Steve Gentry. The two met at her spinning classes at a local gym. It didn’t matter though, the marriage started to crumble long before Steve was sticking his dick in her. “Crenshaw, you’re up?” he heard his lieutenant, Mike Pomroy, shout from across the room. The man in charge of the homicide division was thirty-four, nearly fifteen years younger than Crenshaw. He didn’t think Mike did a bad job, just a little young for the position. He also thought the lieutenant could stand to gain about thirty pounds. The man resembled the scarecrow from The Wizard of Oz. Pomroy approached carrying a coffee mug. Smoke wafted in the air. The inscription read, Homicide! Our job begins when your life ends. “What’s the case?” Crenshaw asked as he refolded the pamphlet and put it in the top drawer of his desk. Daydreaming would have to wait. His mind needed to focus on the case. “Looks like self-defense, but the DA wants us to take a look—make sure it’s not a homicide.” “Where?” Pomroy took a sip as if to stall. “The Villas.” Crenshaw sighed. “Great. My last night on the job and I pull a case in crack central.” The lieutenant ran a bony finger through his straw-like hair. “Crime Scene is in route, so you should be cleared to enter by the time you arrive.”  
  Crenshaw parked several houses down from the one with crime scene tape in the front yard. He liked to take in the scene and get his bearings before anyone tried to tell him what had happened. This way he wouldn’t be misled or manipulated by anyone. He went through his checklist as he continued down the sidewalk. Crime scene, evidence, interviews … A cat scurried between his legs chasing after something smaller and he almost kicked the feline in the head. I won’t miss the job. The two-bedroom house was located near the middle of the block. A rusted metal gate sagged along the outer perimeter of the yard. The landscape was made up mostly of weeds. Dirt and grime caked the windows. The garage door was open and contents spilled out onto the carport and onto the yard. It appeared as though the garage threw up. He ducked under the yellow crime-scene tape and moved to the front porch. The front door was open. The Crime Scene techs were inside. “Is it okay if I come in?” he asked to no one in particular, through a ripped and rusty screen door. One of the techs, a short-plump man waved him in. Two expended shell casings lay on the floor near the couch. The faint odor of gunpowder lingered in the air. His gaze followed the trail of expended casings, all looked to be from a 9mm as he made his way down the hallway toward a bedroom. Seven more rounds had been fired. Inside the bedroom he saw the lifeless body of a man lying on his stomach in a pool of blood. The deceased held a large kitchen knife in the right hand. He scanned the area surrounding the body but didn’t see any other evidence in the bedroom. Nothing eye-popping anyway. Time to move on.   He backtracked through the house. When he got back outside there he saw a paramedic attending to a male in his late twenties or early thirties. He assumed this had been the person to make the nine-one-one call. “I’m Detective Crenshaw,” he said. “Are you the person who called this in?” “Yes, Detective. My name is Todd James.” “Okay, I’m going to start by reading you your rights. It’s just a precaution and you can choose not to speak to me. Do you understand?” “Yes, but I don’t have anything to hide.”
“It’s standard operating procedure.” James nodded. After reading the Miranda warning, Crenshaw asked his next question. “Do you own a gun, Mr. James?” “Yes.” “What kind?” “A Berretta 9 millimeter.” “Do you know the name of the deceased?” “Yes. Chad Dunn.” “Okay, can you tell me what happened?” “I got home around three this afternoon. And Chad was upset. We got into an argument. One thing led to another and he came after me with a knife.” “Why did he attack you?” “He accused me of cheating on him.” I know a little something about that. James looked away. “We’re lovers, well were.” “What happened next?” “I ran into our bedroom and hid, but Chad was able to get his arm in the door and shove it open. He swung the knife at me several times but missed.” He paused. “I grabbed the 9mm from the dresser on my side of the bed. I shot once to try and scare him, but it was like he didn’t even hear or care. So I pointed the gun at him and pulled the trigger.” “How many times did you fire the gun in the bedroom?” “I can’t remember, but then I tried to do CPR.” Really? “And you didn’t move the body?” James scrunched his nose. “Ewe. No way.” He placed the back of a hand across his forehead. “The sight of blood makes me pass out.” Yours or someone else’s? “Mr. James,” Crenshaw said retrieving his handcuffs. “You’re under arrest for the murder of Chad Dunn.”   The Woodsman Jerry parked the 1979 Dodge D50, painted yellow, at the end of a sandy embankment leading to the water’s edge of the Pensacola Bay. An outcrop of trees and brush provided privacy of the surrounding area. He stepped out into the golden glow of the morning sun, the December air still crisp, at least by Florida standards. The smell of rotting leaves and wet earth saturated the air. Several twigs snapped under the weight of his boots. He popped the hatch for the camper top, grabbed his tackle box, fishing rod, and walked toward the surf. Another truck had parked nearby, but he didn’t see anyone. The wind blew cold air across his face. He inhaled, crisp, fresh air. It felt good to be outside. Someone had pinned warning posters about the Woodsman on several trees. The flyers informed the public to be safe while in wooded areas. The Woodsman had killed four people in the last two weeks, shooting each victim in the head with a .357 handgun. He tore one down, folded it and placed the flyer in his back pocket. Walking along the shoreline, he came to a bend and made his way further inland, the woods always nearby, which felt eerily ominous. After several twists and turns he ended up along an estuary. The area was very secluded and out of sight of prying eyes. Water flowed over algae-covered rocks as he made his way further down. About a half mile into the trek, he thought of turning back, but decided to push ahead. A few yards further, he saw a gentleman with a mop of graying hair sitting on top of a five-gallon bucket, a fishing pole in his hands. Jerry pegged him as the driver of the truck parked near his. There didn’t seem to be any other people out this way. Just him and the stranger. The man gave him a long stare, with dark eyes. The guy seemed cold and calculated … maybe even a little dangerous. He shirked the idea. “Having any luck?” Jerry finally asked. Maybe the question would be an icebreaker. When opportunity opens a window, sometimes fate steps in. maybe he’d found a new fishing buddy. The man stood so Jerry could look inside the bucket. Several fish splashed in a small pool of saltwater. “I’m Jerry.” The man’s face seemed to soften, if only a little. Or maybe Jerry only saw what he wanted to see. He didn’t know one way or the other. “Mike.” “How long you been out here?” Mike reeled in the line. The hook was bare of bait. He reached into a small tin can filled with dirt and pulled out a night crawler. He skewered the slender invertebrate onto the hook, the worm wriggling. Then he cast the line into the water. “Maybe two hours.” “You’re not worried about the Woodsman?” Mike lifted his sweatshirt. Sunlight reflected off a silver pistol. Jerry’s chest tightened. Goosebumps formed on his forearms. What if this man drew his gun and shot him. Would anyone even find his body out in this desolate area? The outside elements would wreak havoc to his body. Maggots eating his dead flesh. Animals picking at his carcass. Birds pecking out his eyeballs. He shuddered at the nightmarish images flashing in is mind. Mike lowered his shirt, covering the handgun. “If he comes this way, the hunt for the Woodsman will be over.” The tension he’d felt a moment ago was now replaced with a feeling of euphoria. Jerry wondered if this sensation was a normal response when fear subsided. The uncertainty that you could die, but managed to escape deaths grip. He didn’t know. Jerry opened the tackle box and withdrew a .357, and aimed the barrel at Mike’s head. Mike’s eyes widened as he fumbled to draw his own gun from under his shirt. The loud bang of a gun being fired echoed. A cloud of smoke rose from the end of the barrel. The acrid scent of gunpowder hung in the air. Blood, brain matter, and bone sprayed across the landscape. Jerry picked up the five-gallon bucket and tossed the fish into the estuary. Then he dumped the can with the worms onto its side. As he made his way back to his truck, he thought about Mike’s last statement, If he comes this way, the hunt for the Woodsman will be over. “No Mike. The hunt is still on.”  

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