Death … and More Death by Bill Capron
The world is black and white for me, so you’d think I’d be more sensitive to tonal shifts. That said, there’s never any warning before the dark side smacks me upside the head. No “Sharp Knife” or “Gun Ahead” signs; no death congestion reports. If there had been, I would have turned around and headed straight home; and missed out on all the pain. Maybe the quiet summer should have been warning enough. Maybe I don’t take a vacation again.
Come to think of it, I’m not a vacation guy. I’ve been everywhere, and it’s no big deal. When I do travel though, it’s to fly-fish. It’s been a lousy year for trout west of the Cascades, so I head toIdahofor a couple of days of chasing rainbow grays and brown grays and cutthroat grays. On the work side, the quiet summer had blended into an even quieter fall; the bad guys are in remission, which is good news for victims.
The bright sun makes me a bit woozy, so I stop in the Tri Cities and spend the night. The next day I put into Chenko’s Cross Creek Inn in Gannett, a couple miles north of Silver Creek. I get to talking with the owner, an immigrant from Russia. I don’t remember why, but I tell him I’m private investigator. He shows me a rustic cabin set back in the property; I take it for two nights. With the remaining light I make my way to the Kilpatrick Bridge and wade the edge of a wide pool. It is past the high season and I’m the only one there. I use a white-gray caddis and get a few noisy strikes from rainbows before I hook a nineteen-inch brown which barely ripples the water when it takes my hook. I work it in, let it go and stow my equipment.
I hear the scream as I turn in the driveway behind the motel. A young girl is on her knees in a wide circle of black blood; her hands are flat in it. She is too terrified to move. I say something calming, then lean forward, place one hand on her left shoulder and the other on her right arm to lift her. She falls back against the wall with her hands away from her body. I pull a towel from the cart she was pushing.
The owner comes around the corner. “Gerrie, my God, you all right?”
He is fifty, a stooped five-nine, with faded gray eyes, sun lined face, wispy hair. He looks at the floor. I smell the beer on his breath when he turns on me. “What you do to my daughter?” His body shakes under an off-white and gray Hawaiian shirt. He raises his fists in anger, but it doesn’t cover the fear in his eyes.
I hold my hands up, palms out. “Hey, you know me.” I shake him a little; “I got here three hours ago.”
He jumps over the puddle of black, sending a spray of drops with the edge with his heel. He searches the bedroom and the bath. He looks under the beds, then rises up on his knees, his black eyes darting around the walls. He jumps out the door and puts his hands on the girl’s shoulders. “Gerrie, where’s Dessie?”
The girl is crying, bobbing her head.
He shakes her. “Who here with Dessie?”
I lean between them. “Your daughter’s in shock.”
“She not my daughter. She the maid.” Like I know.
I put an arm around her shoulders and turn her to the Adirondack chair at the corner of the porch; she folds into the chair like a rag doll and cries into the towel.
I return my attention to the man. “Call the cops.”
His face goes blank. “No, gotta find Desdemona.”
“My daughter, Desdemona. She staying in this room.”
“She could be dead.” There is a lot of blood. “Somebody’s dead.”
“Gotta find my Dessie.” He turns to the girl. “Stop crying, Gerrie. Clean this mess up.”
“You can’t, it’s evidence.”
He puts a defiant look in his eyes and grabs a pile of towels and tosses them onto the pool of blood. He uses his foot to move the towels.
I pull him through the door. He shakes me off.
Suddenly he changes tact as he remembers who I am. “Can you help me?”
“No, I’m calling the cops.”
He grabs my arm. “No, they get Dessie killed.”
Ever the one with the incisive question, “Why?”
He is more frantic. “Can you help me?”
I pull him away from the towels. “Maybe, but leave the blood alone.”
“Okay, okay.” He drags me towards the tiny office, away from the crying girl he’s already forgotten. We go through the counter to a small studio apartment in the back. It is a neat room; anally so. He’s been lying on the bed covers, and the impression of his scrawny body is fading. There is a bathroom on the right side; gleaming white; and an empty beer bottle is turned upside down in the sink.
He reaches for a picture on the highboy drawer, a high school graduation shot of a pretty girl with the name “Desdemona” in a shiny light gray script angled across the bottom right; above the year. She is four years out of school. He pulls the picture from its frame. “You find my Dessie. I pay.”
I sit him down at a tiny dinette table. This is getting out of hand, but I feel sorry for the guy. I let my instincts override my brain. “Tell me about it –” I remember the name of the motel; “– Mr. Chenko.”
He blurts, “Dessie, she come home yesterday, say she need a place to stay. I never seen her since high school.” A memory crosses his face. “Not since she run away.”
“Why’d she run away?”
Stubbornness closes his mouth.
“Why’d she come home?”
It is safer territory. “She said this man was after her, wanted something she had.”
He shrugs. “She don’t say. She said he never find her here.”
“Looks like she was wrong.”
His eyes show surprise; “No, Dessie never wrong.” It is a statement of fact.
“Then what happened here.”
The old man’s mind is working, contorting his face. “I saw that Packard boy, Rex. He argue with Dessie this morning.”
The face closes up again. I reach a hand across the table and shake him. “Who’s Packard?”
“Bob Packard’s son.”
I am not enlightened any; it’s like forty questions. “Who’s Bob Packard?”
A strange pride marks his face. “I kill Bob Packard. He screwing my wife, then he kill her. So I kill him.”
I can’t help myself; “Judge, jury, executioner?”
He states the words, like a lifelong litany, “Did my time. Crime of passion. Dint know what I was doing.” The words don’t mean a thing to him.
“And your daughter?”
He shakes his head at the remembered pain. “She gone when I got out. Graduated, left that picture. Wanted to tell her, not my fault. Dint know how.”
“Where can I find this Packard boy?”
“Back off main road, in old shack with his mother.”
I scribble down the directions. I make him promise not to clean the room. I call the cops. It will take them an hour to get there. I say Chenko will be waiting. The old man tries to pay me with two crisp hundred dollar bills. I’m not sure I want to be beholden to him. I tell him we’ll talk about it later. He says his daughter drives a little red foreign convertible.
The girl is still in the chair, crying. I put her in my cabin and tell her to wait for the cops.
I zigzag the mile to the Packard place. The boy’s name is Rex; his mother, Isabella. The place needs attentionis run-down, but the rambling farmhouse isn’t a shack. Night has fallen, but a full moon lights the way. The lights are on in the house. There is a rusted gray Chevy in front of the garage, and a blood black Buick convertible behind it.
I ring the bell. An old woman comes to the door. She’d been beautiful once, but time has taken its toll. Like the house, she needs attention. I hear voices in the background. I walk by her into a large living room; she follows me like a shadow. Two men face each other across a low glass coffee table; the young one, presumably Rex, stands six-four, same as me but skinny as a rail with black hair and strong features; a good-looking kid in his early twenties. The other man is maybe fifty, five-ten, good shape, short gray beard, wearing professor-type duds; corduroy pants and patches on the elbows of his hounds-tooth coat.
The older man says, “I don’t know where Desdemona —” He falters as he feels my presence.
“Don’t stop on my account.” I read confusion; “I want to know where Desdemona is too.”
The boy sputters, “Who are you, mister?” He isn’t belligerent.
“Her father asked me to find her. He said she was in trouble.” They look unconvinced. “There’s about two pints of blood on the floor of the hotel room she was using.”
Rex looks from the older man to me and back. I see the decision on his face. He doesn’t know me from Adam’s off ox, which says a lot about the other guy. “Her car’s in a ditch a mile down the road. She’s not in it.”
The older man says, “Count me out of this,” and makes for the door.
The boy grabs his arm. “No way. You don’t want to help, maybe the cops will find it interesting that you were screwing her when she was your student. Maybe some nasty questions about doing the whole family.”
I am a little lost. To the boy, “You’ve seen the car?”
“No, Schindler —” He points at the man; “— he saw the car.”
I turn to the gray teacher. “And?”
It comes out reluctantly, “There’s a dead man in the passenger seat.”
“No sign of the girl?”
A quick “No.” His eyes dart over my shoulder to the woman behind me.
The woman backs out of the room.
Things are getting hairy. “Show me.”
They precede me in Schindler’s car; the man drives slowly as the boy argues with him. In the moonlight the tiny Porsche looks like a shadow against the dying blackberry bushes. The man’s head is flattened against the window; I turn it for a better look. I know him; not in any personal sense, but he’s been in the news lately; a gangster putting the squeeze on an Indian Casino near Spokane.
The boy turns a hard stare on the teacher; “Where is she?”
A car squeals to a stop beside us. A reedy voice calls out, “Aaron, is that you, Aaron?”
The older man’s face hardens. “I’m over here, Helen. You wait.”
She isn’t taking orders; “No, I’ve been driving all over Hell’s half acre looking for you.” She is a hatchet-faced woman with the white-gray hair; her eyes are black; black eyebrows seem to swoop away from her face; a black line of roots makes the hair look like a wig. Her body is thin and dried up, like the wicked witch in the Wizard of Oz.
She gasps at the body. Her knees buckle, but no one catches her. I help her up.
She moves unsteadily to grasp her husband’s arm, taking a tenuous ownership. “You come home right now, Aaron. You can’t be mixed up in a mess like this. What’ll the school board say?”
I turn to her. “A mess like what, Mrs. Schindler?”
“Why, the dead man. And Desdemona Chenko.” She turns pleading eyes to her husband. “Please, Aaron, we’ve got to get out of here.”
The man turns to me. “I’ve got to take her home. I’ll give her a sedative and be right back?” He makes it a question.
I nod, glad to have them out of the picture. I give my attention to the boy, “So, Mr. Packard, what’s going on here?”
He shakes his head in seeming disbelief; “It’s happening again.”
It must be a strange town, what with no one ever answering a question. “What’s happening again?”
“Death —” His eyes looked empty, the voice sounded hollow; “— and more death.”
I turn him away from the body and push him into a sitting position on the car’s tiny trunk. I calm my voice, “Tell me about it.”
His eyes come back into focus; “About what?”
Beams flash across us as another car skids to stop. The frantic motel owner runs to the car, sees the dead man and yells, “Where’s my daughter?” He raises a pistol and points it at the boy. Hysteria tinges his voice, “I want my Dessie.”
I shove the kid and the bullet finds empty air. I tackle the old man and wrestle him to the ground. I take his gun away. He is on his knees, crying; “They’s killing my family. Them Packards is killing my family.”
I look at the gun in my hand. “Looks like you got that backwards.” I believe in justice, but justice must be certain; Mr. Chenko believes in revenge, and certainty has no place in it.
He pleads, “They’s killing my family.”
“Somebody is.” I leave him bent over the dewy grass and return my attention to the boy; “Let’s go to my car.” I push him.
I repeat my question, “Tell me about the death, Mr. Packard.”
“There’s too much of it.”
“That’s not telling me anything.”
The silence grows between us until he fills the void, “Dessie, she called me yesterday, to come to the motel.”
“Her father said you were arguing.”
“No … Yes. She wanted me to protect her from this man who was chasing her.”
“Why you?” He looks right through me. I shake him; “Why you?”
“She knows I still love her. She said she worked for this gambler, that she stole some papers of his, his ‘second set of books’ she called them.” It hurts him to say the rest, “I told her no.” It is matter-of-fact, like a death sentence.
His face crumbles. “She went to Schindler. It was my fault.”
“What are you talking about?”
The past and present merge for the young man. “Schindler was the one screwing Dessie’s mother, not my father.” A long pause; “At the same time he was screwing Dessie.”
The obvious question falls from my lips, “Why didn’t you tell the cops?”
“My mother wouldn’t let me.” He sees the disbelief on my face. “Helen Schindler is my mother’s sister.”
I try to imagine the kid’s mixed feelings of grief and guilt; I can’t do it. I sound like a broken record, “Where’s Dessie?”
He shakes his head; “I don’t know. Schindler said he didn’t see her, but I think —”
I finish it for him, “He lied.”
I start the engine and Rex gives me directions to Schindler’s house. I pull behind the Buick. We hear them on the back deck. There is an incoherence to the words; nothing to learn from them. I go up the steps with the boy behind me.
They are eyeball to eyeball; pain, shame, hate mark their faces. When they see us, it is as if someone says ‘cut’, and the scene is over. A forced calm returns to their faces; it isn’t pretty.
She speaks first, as if I weren’t there, “Rex, what are you doing here?”
I answer for him, “We’re here for Dessie Chenko, Mrs. Schindler.”
A doughy look smooths her face; softens her features. “What do you mean?”
I take a shot in the dark, “You killed her.”
She looks shocked, but doesn’t deny it.
When you shoot from the hip, you might as well empty the gun; “Like you killed her mother.”
A spasm contorts her face as she points a finger at her husband; “No, he killed them.”
The man hisses through clenched teeth, “Helen, shut up!”
Disgust pulls her features together. “How can I ever shut up again, Aaron?”
I confront her, “Why did you kill them?”
She shrugs emaciated shoulders. “Hey —” She points her finger at her husband again; “— he was poking them, so I filled the holes.”
The boy blurts, “But why Dessie? Why now? That was so long ago.”
The woman’s laugh is borderline hysterical. “They were in the garage when I got home. They didn’t see me. He had that man’s blood on his hands, and he was sticking it in her. All over again. Those Chenko women, they’re like animals in heat. I’m killing animals.”
Schindler collapses onto the bench built into the deck. I tell the boy to call the motel to redirect the cops. The woman has entered some kind of catatonic state; she isn’t with us any longer.
The cops show up. We find Dessie’s body in the backyard under a tarp. They give me a lot of grief, but nothing I can’t handle. Except for Chenko’s shooting at the boy, I tell them everything I know. I think they are glad to get it all tied up. Still, they keep me until eleven the next morning. The wife is in a padded cell in Boise by that time, and Schindler is being held for killing the hoodlum.
I drive back to my cabin and pack my things. Chenko nods when I go to the counter to check out. He offers me money again, much more than before. His eyes won’t meet mine. I tell him to keep it. He has no wife. He has no daughter. He doesn’t even have his crime of passion to fall back on.
I barely know any of them, and what I know is probably the tip of the iceberg. I feel sorry for Chenko. I feel sorry for Rex Packard and his mother. I feel sorry for Dessie and her long-dead mother. I feel sorry for the teacher and his sick wife. No happy endings.
I head home to Portland. Fishing isn’t so important right now. I am feeling more than a little noir. Maybe I need more color to my world.