The Grave (by Sierra)

Summary:  The Lord helps those who help themselves.
Category:  General Fiction
Genre:   Murder/Mystery
Rated: PG
Word Count: 6985


 

“You can’t believe she did it. A fine Christian woman like that?” John Carter’s voice is incredulous. “She’s an altar lady, for pete’s sake. Runs the charity bazaars, volunteers at the hospital, stuff like that. Hell, she even brings sandwiches and cookies down to the office.”  

Carter’s tirade abated while he expertly slid behind the wheel of the Toyota Land Cruiser. It currently doubled as an official police vehicle and his only means of getting around town, thanks to Sharon Perry and the unpredictable West Texas weather. The office secretary accidentally slid her big Chevy Suburban tank into his half-ton Ford Ranger pickup truck out in the parking lot during a rare heavy downpour, putting his truck out of commission and into the local repair shop indefinitely.

Carter started the engine, turned the air-conditioner to maximum cool and the fan speed to full blast while he waited for his partner to settle in. He then drove south down Main Street, headed for a small subdivision located about five miles distant. Although it appeared to be out of town, the subdivision was actually within the town’s city limits.

“There’s got to be some mistake,” Carter continues. “Nobody in his right mind would believe a story like that.”

Carter maneuvered the vehicle around the road crew busily repairing a large chuckhole in front of the Chat N Chew Restaurant on the edge of town, a hole created in the previous week’s rains and gradually enlarged by the constant barrage of traffic in and out of the parking lot. Clearing the construction site, he floored the accelerator and flew down the highway like a bat from Hell with its wings on fire.  

“I know she does all that,” Police Chief Daniel Jackson was noncommittal, “and it is an outrageous story.”

Jackson sat stiffly in the passenger seat, braced with one hand to the roof and both feet on the floor. In the three years that John Carter had been one of his assistants, Jackson had learned that the tall deputy never did anything by half measures, and that included driving.

“The kid said she did it, and we have to check it out. Besides,” Jackson shifted into a more comfortable position, “the guy’s been missing for six years. He has to be somewhere. He didn’t just vanish into thin air, you know.  In fact, if you think about it, it’s a pretty damn good place to hide a body. Unless, of course, you have a better idea.”

“Bah!” Carter dismissed Jackson’s words with a toss of his straight, black hair. With his long thin face, aquiline nose, and deep brown eyes, he was a classical throwback to his Apache ancestors. “That kid doesn’t know what he’s talking about. He’s been a real pain in the ass ever since I’ve been here, and I suspect he’s been that way his whole life. Screws up everything he ever touches. Have you seen his rap sheet? It’s this thick.”  Carter held his index finger and thumb together to indicate about two inches. “Enough’s enough, already. His daddy probably just ran off to get away from all the grief he knew that kid would cause. Not to mention the expense.” That last was an afterthought.

“So, what you’re saying is that this guy would prefer to abandon his wife, whom you obviously think is a saint, forcing her to hold down two part-time jobs to support herself, just because the kid’s a big headache?” Jackson let Carter mull it over a moment before continuing. “Kinda cowardly, isn’t it. If the woman’s all that peachy-clean, why not just stay and ship the kid out? I can think of a couple of places in East Texas which could whip him into shape in no time.”  

Spying the sign proclaiming Mesquite Hills, John Carter slammed on the brakes, skidded about ten feet on the hot pavement, and made the turn. He then gunned the engine and sped off with a rooster plume of rocks and dust sailing ten feet into the air behind him. Despite the name, there were very few mesquite trees and practically no hills for about 100 miles in all directions. The town of Pandale lay in the heart of the desert and canyon lands of West Texas.

Dan Jackson grabbed for the dash and the door frame at the same time. “Johnny,” he began, but a big washout bounced him clear off the seat. Automatic reflexes snapped his jaw shut before he landed with a force that sent lightning bolts up his spine. Wincing, he voiced his protest. “Do you think we could slow it down some?” The washboard road made his teeth rattle, and his words came out in staccato.

“Huh? Oh, yeah. Sure.” Carter backed off on the pedal, but only slightly. He continued with his opinion. “It just doesn’t make any sense. If she did it, and the kid knew it, why wait all this time before ratting on her? What’s to be gained from it?” He hit another pothole. “There’s just got to be some mistake.”

“When you’ve been around as long as I have,” Jackson advised his deputy dryly, inwardly reflecting on everything he had learned since the boy had made his statement, “you’ll learn that nothing is ever a mistake. It’s one of the fundamental rules of life.” He braced for another jolt.  “Everyone has a darker side.”

John Carter left the thought hanging as he topped a small crest and pulled to a stop. “Damn!” he exploded.  “Just look at that!” He gestured down the road where dozens of potholes and washouts scarred the earth. “Why doesn’t the County come out here and fix this damn road once and for all?”

Dan Jackson grinned. “They do. All the time. Keep the old grader at the Winston place. They just can’t afford to pave it, that’s all, and neither can the town.” He motioned for Carter to drive on. “Besides, it only gets really bad about once a year.”

“I guess this is that one time, huh,” muttered Carter.  He drove on in silence. A minute later, he pulled to a stop in front of a line of beat-up mailboxes, leaned across Jackson, and peered at the names. In this part of West Texas, hail did more damage than anything else Mother Nature offered. Nobody got much excited about it, though. When the mailboxes became dented to pulp, people just tossed them out and installed new ones.

“I know where she lives,” Jackson said. “Turn right at the next lane.”

“And then what?” Carter asked, doing as he was told.  “You just going to march up and arrest her? Based on what that crazy kid said?” He still couldn’t believe it.

“The kid said she did it. And the guy’s still missing.  What else do you want? A signed confession?”

“Something besides that cockamamie story….”  

Carter followed a curved, graveled driveway and stopped before a two-story ranch house with peeling white paint. There was no porch, just a set of concrete steps. Off to the right was a sagging barn, also in need of paint. A pickup truck with no wheels was up on blocks, and a white Chevy Impala with a cracked windshield sat parked at the side of the house. A brown dog crawled out from under the truck and began to growl threateningly. Despite the previous week’s soaking, a sprinkler was running. Yards tended to dry out fast in the desert, especially in July.

Carter drove to the steps and then halted, backed neatly, and parked facing the way they had come. Only a half dozen or so feet separated the vehicle from the house.

“Good thinking,” Jackson observed with approval.

“Thanks.”

Dan Jackson got out of the coolness of the cab, cringed at the sudden blast of hot air, and carefully picked his path across the wet yard. Carter followed behind, dogging his footsteps. It was just yesterday that Dan had been looking forward to camping out on the Pecos with his son Tommy, nothing to disturb them, except maybe an occasional fly-by from one of the military pilots stationed at Del Rio. The chances now of a free weekend anytime soon appeared to be nil.

Jackson walked up the steps, stopped a moment with his head bowed as if composing his thoughts, took a deep breath, and knocked on the door. It opened instantly. No doubt Amanda Miller had been waiting.

“Morning, Amanda.”

“Morning, Dan. Johnny.” She smiled at the two men.

Amanda Miller was a small woman, standing about five feet four inches tall and weighing about 130 pounds. She was in her mid-fifties, wearing faded blue shorts and a baggy red tee shirt sporting a light dusting of flour on the left sleeve. She had pulled her gray-streaked, brown hair back into a ponytail and had tied it up with a piece of red yarn, but several wisps had escaped and were hanging in damp ringlets down her neck. Her bare feet were encased in thongs. When she opened the door, the aroma of cinnamon and country spice wafted along on the cool air.

Carter moaned, and unconsciously smacked his lips.

“Do come in,” Amanda said, smiling broadly at John Carter as he breathed deeply, savoring the air. “I just made a batch of gingerbread cookies for the church choir. You just go on now and help yourself.” She shooed John toward a rack cooling on the counter between the kitchen and living room.

“Thank you, ma’am,” Carter said eagerly. He walked over, picked up several, settled himself with his back against the living room wall directly in line with the air-conditioning vent, and began munching them blissfully.

Dan Jackson removed his cowboy hat and began slowly twirling it in his fingers. He looked very uncomfortable.  

“Let me get you a glass of milk to go with that.” Amanda patted Carter’s arm affectionately and flip-flopped noisily across the carpet into the kitchen, followed by a fat, red-striped tiger cat on soft paddy-paws.  She poured out the glass of milk and then filled a small saucer for the cat. When she returned, Dan Jackson spoke.

“Amanda, this isn’t a social call.” He kept his eyes on her, never removing them for a second. There was a look about her. Something in the eyes. Was it relief? Or knowledge?

Carter looked at Dan sheepishly, but he continued to munch the cookies.

“Why? What’s wrong, Dan?”

“It’s about your husband, Raymond.”

“Raymond? He’s been gone about six years now.”

“So he has, Amanda. But we’ve received information that he was the victim of a homicide.”

From outside the house came the sound of an approaching vehicle laboring under low gear.

Amanda looked toward the door and then back to Dan. “Oh.” She reached to smooth her hair. “Can’t say as I’m surprised. He was a violent sort, you know. Have you found his body? Do you know who did it?”

Dan Jackson stopped twirling his hat and carefully set it down on a nearby table cluttered with old letters and bills. He cleared his throat, reached into his shirt pocket, and produced a folded piece of paper. “Amanda, this is a search warrant authorizing us to search your property and the outlying buildings.”

“Why, Dan, you don’t need a search warrant. You know that. You’re free to look anywhere you want around here. Anytime. What is it that you want to find? Maybe I can tell you where it is?” Her voice was steady enough, but she began to have a hunted look about her.

Outside, the engine sound grew louder, and a bright yellow dump truck finally pulled into view. It was towing a heavy trailer, and set upon the trailer was an equally bright yellow backhoe with big, black tires.

Dan again cleared his throat and said, almost apologetically, “Well, it seems that someone believes you murdered Raymond and that you buried him in your front yard.”

The dump truck ground to a halt, it’s air-breaks screeching in protest. Amanda Miller just stood there…wide-eyed and mute.

*****

It began two days earlier. Dan Jackson was in his office, working up the budget for the town’s upcoming meeting the following week, when Sharon Perry tapped on his door and walked in. She was the widow of Robert Perry, the town’s mayor, who had died last year of a heart attack only three hours after taking up tennis lessons at the age of sixty-four. Besides being Dan’s secretary and file clerk, Sharon was also his own private intelligence system for the whole town of Pandale, not to mention the surrounding area.

“Someone here to see you,” Sharon said.

“Who?” Dan Jackson kept toying with the figures on the sheet of paper before him, never once looking up. What passed as Pandale’s police department was in a small brick building adjacent to the Town Hall. It consisted of four tiny rooms, which included his office, a waiting room, a bathroom doubling as a storage room, and a holding cell for the rare times a prisoner had to spend the night before being remanded to the county jail. It had once belonged to Dr. Frank Michaels, until the dentist had rented an office in the strip mall out on the highway.

“Scotty Miller,” Sharon said. “Age about eighteen or so. Said it’s real important.”

Dan Jackson looked up, putting down his pen. “Yeah, I’ll bet.”

Scotty Miller had been in and out of the holding cell many times in his young life, mostly for irritating annoyances perpetrated on the town. His file contained citations for speeding, reckless driving, truancy, disturbing the peace, drunk and disorderly conduct, and just two months ago, fighting in the school’s cafeteria. Everyone in town knew Scotty, and everyone disliked him.

“Okay,” Dan finally said. He reached up and rubbed a muscle knotting at the back of his neck. “Send him in.”

Scotty Miller swaggered into the office, plopped himself into a vacant chair and lounged back, preening as if he were the most important person around. He had been born when his mother was almost thirty-seven years of age, and half the people in town considered it a minor miracle that she had been able to keep him in school after his father disappeared, considering his track record for delinquency.  Because of his truancy, he was still a sophomore in high school.

He wore faded blue jeans, ripped out at the knees, and a dirty black tee shirt. His black leather jacket was covered in studs and belts and chains, and he had it unzipped to the waist, but not all the way opened. His shoulder-length brown hair was matted and stringy, and his face bore the signs of a recent pimple outbreak. Above the lip and on the chin were a dozen or so hairs in the early stages of what promised to become an unkempt mustache and beard.

“What do you want, Scotty?”

“I want to know when a crime runs out.”

“I don’t understand. What kind of crime are we talking about?” Dan cleared his desk, got out a fresh pad of paper, and began doodling on it. “Are you wanting to know about the statute of limitations?”

“Yeah, that’s it. When you can’t get arrested no more for something you did.”

Dan looked directly into Scotty’s eyes. The boy stared back, almost defiantly. “It depends on the crime.”

“How about killing someone?”

Dan was puzzled. Who had died? The last death in town had been Sharon Perry’s exercise-crazy husband. Nobody had even been reported missing that he knew about. Then he stiffened. Scotty’s father! Raymond Miller had disappeared without a trace nearly six years ago. He had even worked on the case. That must be it.

“Suppose we cut out this crap, and you tell me what’s going on?”

Scotty sat up straight. “I ain’t crapping you, Chief.  I want to know how long you got before you can’t be arrested no more for killing somebody.”

“In this State, and practically everywhere else in America, there is no statute of limitations on murder.  Who’s been murdered, Scotty.” He looked in the boy’s eyes, concluding that he had guessed accurately.

“My dad. About six years ago. Somebody clubbed the back of his head and buried him, and I know who done it.”

Dan Jackson began taking notes. “Who, Scotty?”

“My mom, that’s who. She killed him.”

*****

The backhoe was finally positioned, and Andy Garcia of Delmo’s Construction began digging. Dan had called Delmo Wilson for use of the machine only the day before — “Don’t worry about who’s going to pay for it…Del, you’ll get paid…Del, I need that backhoe and Andy…Okay, you do that…Sure, send me the bill…” — and now the big machine snorted and roared as it dug.

Dan stayed as close to the lip of the hole as he dared. He nodded as a figure approached.  It was Alex Pitcher, his other assistant. There were only the three lawmen for Pandale. The town was so small, it didn’t need anyone else.

“People are starting to bunch up at the driveway.”

“Let them. Just don’t let them onto the property, okay?”

“Yeah. Okay. Sam Taylor’s out there. Where’s John?”  Alex peered down into the pit.

“Inside with Mrs. Miller. I didn’t want anything disturbed in the house. He’s probably eaten all her cookies by now.”

“She’s got cookies? Damn!” Alex turned and started for the house, stopped, and turned back to Dan. “Any idea how long this’ll take?”

Dan Jackson shrugged, as the backhoe went in for another load. “How the heck should I know?”

Jackson watched as Alex entered the house and emerged a few minutes later with what appeared to be a fistful of treats. When he reached the end of the driveway and Sam Taylor of the Highway Patrol, who had stopped to see what all the ruckus was about, saw what he had, Taylor hurried to the house. Dan shook his head. Amanda Miller was known all over the county for her baking. He turned back to the pit.

*****

“Okay. Let’s go over this again. What happened?” Dan Jackson had asked.

“Like I said.” Scotty Miller had his elbows resting on the police chief’s desk. “I was maybe twelve at the time.  Something woke me up. A funny noise. Something like that. I looked out the window and saw Mom dragging Dad into the hole. The summer before, Dad had dug this hole in the front yard to put in the septic tank, only he didn’t have enough money for the tank. So the hole just stayed there. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. Thought I was dreaming.  And then Mom got the tractor and leveled off the hole.”

“Go on.” Dan was scribbling furiously.

“I got up, ran down the stairs, and asked her what the hell she was doing. She was tired and dirty, and she had blood running down her nose like Dad had been beating her again. She said that she just couldn’t take it anymore, that Dad was beating her up worse than before. So when he stopped, she got the baseball bat and bashed in the back of his head. She said that it would be our secret, because if she were arrested and put in jail, I’d be put into a foster home.”

“Was it true? Did your dad beat your mother?”

Scotty took a deep breath, the chains and buckles jingling. “Well…sure. But no more than usual.”

“Just an ordinary beating, huh?” Dan wryly shook his head.

“Yeah.”

“Okay. Why have you come forward now, Scotty? It’s been your secret for six years.”

“I got my reasons.” Scotty’s voice became surly, and he slouched back in the chair.

“Suppose you tell me what they are?”

Scotty exploded, “Hell, Chief. I’m eighteen. Old enough to be out on my own. It doesn’t make any difference to me what happens to her now.”

*****

As Andy Garcia worked slowly with the backhoe, Dan thought back to the day Scott Miller had walked into his office. The kid’s story was strange, too weird to be true.  Yet, it was that very strangeness which made it seem plausible. After Scotty had left, he had gone to the filing cabinets in the bathroom, rummaged around through several drawers, and finally dug out the original Missing Persons report filed on Raymond Miller. He read and re-read it for about an hour. The story was simple enough. Raymond Miller had walked away one night and had never returned. It wasn’t unusual for him to walk about, as he enjoyed hitchhiking, but after two days, Amanda Miller had reported him missing.

Attached to the report were personal notations made by former Police Chief Roger Bickham—dead now of natural causes for five years—about Raymond Miller, which appeared to confirm Scotty’s story. Dan had been a brand-new officer back then, and although he had helped in the search investigation, after about a month with no further trace of Raymond Miller, Bickham had assigned him other duties. By the time Roger Bickham died a year later, and Dan had gotten himself promoted to the position of Chief, the paperwork had been filed, and Raymond Miller neatly forgotten.

Roger Bickham’s notes said Raymond Miller was an on-again, off-again farmer, preferring odd jobs to anything steady. He had been arrested several times for assault and once for suspected rape. Other than that, there wasn’t much else to the file. It wasn’t until Dan was about to put it away, wondering at Scotty’s story, that he realized something was missing. He reopened the file. And there it was. Or rather, there it wasn’t. There were no follow-up reports. Not one. In all the years since her husband had disappeared, Amanda Miller had not once asked about the progress of the investigation into her husband’s case.

Maybe she already knew where he was? Did Roger Bickham know also? Is that why the file had been put away? Dan Jackson reached for the phone and called the district court judge.

*****

The backhoe dumped a load of damp dirt off to the side, and in the pit, Dan thought he saw something. He waved Andy to a stop, and jumped in to investigate. Barely discernible in the red earth was the toe of a man’s boot. Carefully, he began to scrap away the dirt. The brown boot came further into view, and along with it, a piece of tattered cloth and a bone.

Dan Jackson stood up. “Well, I’ll be damned.”

After calling in the medical examiner and the state police forensics team, he allowed Amanda Miller to call her sister to come get the cat and dog. He then stood with her and an incredulous John Carter in the living room of her home. “About Scotty…” Dan began.

“What about him,” Amanda replied, her voice flat.  “He’s on his own now, I guess. Probably won’t go to summer school like he’s supposed to without me here making him.”

“I reckon so, Amanda,” Dan said. “You’ll have to come along with us to the station now.” He nodded to John Carter.  “Read Amanda her rights, John. And take her back to town. See that she’s comfortable.”

*****

Amanda Miller sat in the holding cell, seemingly uninterested in what happened to her. It had been six years, and she’d known all along that she’d end up here. It really didn’t bother her, not all that much. It was like knowing she was on a trip, but not knowing when, or even if, she’d ever reach her destination.

Cal Henry from the district attorney’s office walked in. Amanda turned to stare at him. He carried a brown briefcase, which he sat on the floor, and he had an over-eager smile. Too eager to suit her. She turned away.

“Mrs. Miller,” he said. “Don’t do that. Don’t turn away. I’m here to help you.” He bent over and dug around in his briefcase for a folder, found it, and straightened back up, beaming at her.

“I don’t want your help.”

Cal Henry’s smile froze. “I’m afraid you don’t understand. You don’t have much choice. I’ve been appointed by the court and…”

“Does Janet Cole still work there?” Amanda interrupted.

“I beg your pardon?” Cal Henry was confused.

“I want to know if Janet Cole is still working in your office. Because if she’s not, then I want another woman lawyer.”

“Well, yes. I mean no. Not really. She’s working for Judge Green over in Comstock now, but she helps us on occasion. We have another woman in the office, only she’s awfully busy and her schedule is…”

“I want Janet Cole.”

“But, Mrs. Miller, I can’t just…”

“Look, Cal. You’re a fine man and all that, but I want a woman lawyer. I’m not some dumb countrywoman who doesn’t know what’s in store for her. Now, you go back and tell them to either send Janet back here, or get me that other woman lawyer.” She turned away again, and presently she heard a briefcase click open and then snap shut.

Cal Henry stared at her back one last time, and then turned and walked out.

*****

Dan Jackson looked around the medical examiner’s office, located about an hour and a half away in Del Rio.  It was almost as small and cramped as his own, and lined with what he imagined to be just about every technical book of the trade. It also held what looked to be a few of the nastier instruments of the trade.

On the top of one shelf were three human skulls, and Dan had to look closely before deciding one was real and the other two were fake. Over in the corner next to an old refrigerator was a pickax and what looked to be a Samurai sword. Various bottles holding strange-colored liquids were on the desk. Dan walked over and picked up the pickax just as Dr. Lewis Short walked in.

“A man used that out in the Seminole Canyon to kill his partner a few years back. Thought the guy was trying to steal his treasure map.” Lewis Short was the same age as Dan, but with his gray hair and potbelly, he looked ten years older. “How’s things going for you, Dan?” He opened the refrigerator, pulled out two bottles of Coke and handed one to Dan.

“Thanks,” Dan acknowledged, taking a grateful swallow.  “It really depends on what you found out.”

“Like, is your corpse really Raymond Miller?” Lewis Short took a deep pull on his soft drink, almost draining the bottle.

“Yeah.”

“Oh, that’s for certain.”

Lewis sat the Coke bottle on top the refrigerator, burped loudly, turned to his desk, pushed aside a Mason jar holding about two inches of amber liquid—“Iced tea,” he said to Dan’s quizzical look—and opened a folder.

“The dental records match. We even have his old medical records. He broke his left clavicle playing football in high school—that’s collarbone to you—and the remains you found in the front yard has the same fracture. Yeah, it’s Raymond Miller.”

“Thanks, Doc.” Dan finished scribbling in his notebook and put the pad and pencil away in his shirt pocket.

“You’re welcome. But I knew it was Miller right after I saw him.” Lewis Short grinned, watching Dan absorb that revelation.

“How the hell….” Dan Jackson’s voice trailed off.

“Found a lump of leather and stuff, and when I pulled it apart, I had his wallet. Inside was his driver’s license.”

“Well, I’ll be.” Dan grinned. “Kinda makes your job easy, huh!”

“A little,” Lewis Short admitted. He suddenly turned serious. “Dan, you mentioned something about looking for damage in the skull and neck area?”

“Yeah. The son said his mother took a Louisville slugger to the back of his dad’s head.”

Lewis Short shook his head. “If she did, it must have been made of foam rubber.”

Dan felt a cold trickle start down his spine. “What are you trying to say?”

“I’m saying that there wasn’t any damage to his head. Or neck. Or anywhere else for that matter. The only injury I found was the old collarbone fracture.”

“Then, what the hell killed him?”

Lewis Short reached for the rest of his Coke. “Beats me. You drop a pile of bones and clothing in my lab, which has been rotting for six years in someone’s front yard, telling me he’s been beat in the head with a baseball bat, and my examination proves otherwise…well, I’m not a fortune teller, you know. The man’s not been beat, shot, or knifed. There’s not a mark on his bones. So, your guess is as good as mine.” He swigged down the rest of the Coke.

“Great.”

*****

The next day, Dan Jackson sat across the table from a neatly tailored Janet Cole at the Chat N Chew, idly sipping on a cup of hot coffee. Although Cal Henry had called Janet the moment he had returned to his office, John Carter had already beat him to it. John was engaged to marry Janet over the upcoming Christmas holidays, and after placing Amanda Miller in the holding cell, he had wasted no time in calling his fiancée.

Janet still lived in Pandale, preferring to commute the thirty miles to Comstock twice a day rather than move there, and she immediately made the necessary arrangements to represent Amanda. Already, she had spent many long hours in conference with the jailed woman.   

“What made you decide to take this case?” Dan asked her.

“Oh, maybe it’s because Amanda is a good friend. Maybe it’s because she’s good for the community.” Janet stirred a packet of artificial sweetener into her cup and took a swallow. “Or maybe it’s because I don’t think she’s guilty of anything more serious than hiding a body. I might even think you don’t have a case. Maybe all of the above. Take your pick.”

Dan shook his head and smiled ruefully. “You and John are going to make a great couple. He thinks just like you do.” Then he turned serious, “Raymond Miller’s dead, Janet.”

“Yes, but you have no proof of how he died, other than Scott Miller’s incredible story which is not born out by the medical examiner’s facts. For all you know, Scotty buried his own father in the front yard, and Amanda’s covering for her son. Maybe Raymond died of natural causes. Now that Scotty’s left town, where does all this leave you?” Janet paused a moment to summon the waitress for a menu. “I’ll tell you where. It’s nowhere. No evidence of foul play, no bloody murder weapon, no witnesses. There is just no case here, Dan. You may as well throw in the towel.”

“It’s not up to me, and you know it. I like Amanda Miller, too, and I’d like nothing better than for her to be out of jail and back home where she belongs, but my gut instinct tells me that she’s guilty. And if she’s guilty, she has to pay for it. Justice is blindfolded, Janet, not blind. It’s so we can’t play favorites. You know that.”

Janet looked up from the menu, reached across the table and briefly touched Dan’s hand. “I know it, Dan,” she said, understanding his vexation completely. She picked up her cup and took another sip. “Would you like to hear a story?”

It caught Dan off guard. The whole tone of her voice had changed. He looked at her quizzically. “This wouldn’t be related to the case in any way, would it?”

“Let’s just say that there was a man named Raymond, who was something of a religious nut….”

“Oh Lord, not the fanatic-who-hears-voices-telling-him-to-kill-his-family routine,” Dan interrupted.

“No, listen,” Janet shushed him. “This man Raymond starts out as a pretty nice guy, but he’s a bit of a religious nut, always quoting Scripture and all that, and not too many women are comfortable being around him because of it. He’s in his mid-thirties before he finds and marries a woman willing to accept it. She’s a little plain, and easily intimidated, but for awhile, things seem to be going okay. Then, the wife miscarries three times in succession, and Raymond, thinking God is punishing him for some sin she did, begins to beat her. At first, it’s just a slap here, and another one there, but it makes every day a nightmare, and it leaves her wondering what will happen next.” She paused to see if Dan was paying attention. He was listening raptly.

“Gradually, the beatings turn really nasty. Black eyes…bloody nose…bruises…all that. The wife mostly covers up for the bruises and black eyes, saying she’s accident-prone, but her sister becomes suspicious and confronts Raymond. This interference only serves to enrage him even further. By the time the wife gives birth to a son, the beatings are commonplace. She is totally unable to predict what will set him off. The love she once felt turns to hate.

“After the baby’s birth, things settle down somewhat, and the beatings taper off to only the times when Raymond is drunk. But as time goes on, it becomes increasingly apparent that the boy is having problems of his own. He becomes whiny and hyper, difficult to handle, and Raymond starts slapping his wife around again. Realizing the boy needs help but not having much money for expensive medical tests, the wife wants to apply for Welfare and other financial aid, only Raymond won’t hear of it. The beatings start to escalate. It doesn’t take long for the wife’s hate to burn inside her.”

The waitress came to take their order, but Dan shooed her away with a wave of his hand.

Janet continued. “As the boy progresses through the grades, it becomes increasingly difficult for him to concentrate, and he begins to bring home bad marks on his report card. This infuriates Raymond even more, who blames the problem on his wife, when in reality, the child suffers from a common illness called Attention Deficit Syndrome, which can be successfully treated medically. Only Raymond refuses to consult with doctors. Instead, he takes to whipping the boy.”

“So she takes a baseball bat and bashes in his head?”

Janet smiled. “Hardly. No, she waits. One night when the boy is about twelve years old, Raymond comes home really drunk. It’s late in the evening, and the boy is already in bed, but Raymond wants his supper. The wife dutifully goes into the kitchen and fixes the meal, but something about the way she is doing it infuriates Raymond. He beats her into unconsciousness. When she wakes up, he is eating his meal as if nothing has happened.”

“So it’s here she bats him in the head.”

“No, she sits quietly out of sight, making plans, while Raymond eats. When he is done, he goes to the couch and sits down. Then he rolls his eyes and clutches at his chest. And dies. Right there. The horrible thing in her life is gone, just like that.” Janet snapped her finger. “But there is a problem.”

“No life insurance?”

“You aren’t thinking, Dan. She’s lived with this consuming hate for years, and now suddenly, the thing she hated is gone. But she hasn’t had revenge, and she still wants that. How do you get revenge on a God-fearing man like Raymond?”

Dan nodded. “She buries the body in an unmarked, unconsecrated grave.”

“Exactly.” Janet smiled brightly, showing white, even teeth. “She drags him to the septic tank hole, tosses him in, and covers him up. And she gets her revenge because every day that she walks out of her house, she walks on his grave. And it’s not in holy ground. Everything is fine…until her son becomes of age.”

“And that’s it? End of story?” Dan motioned for the waitress, and they gave their orders. “What about that story the son told of the baseball bat to the back of the head?”

“This is still hypothetical, you know.”

“Oh yeah. Sure. Hypothetically speaking, what about the bashed head story?”

“Well, the son is of age, now, and instead of graduating from high school like others of his age group and making plans for work or college or whatever, he still has two more years to go because of his truancy and inattentiveness. He tells his mother he wants to quit school, but she won’t let him. He gets mad and goes to the cops with a crazy story that his mother murdered his daddy.”

“It’s a hell of a story.”

“Only because you know it’s true, Dan. You have nothing on Amanda Miller, except maybe for disposing of human remains improperly. And I’ll have her plead the Fifth Amendment on that issue. With Scotty out of town, and no one able to find him, you have nothing. Zip. No case.”

“I’ll have to let the State decide that.” The food arrived, and Dan began to eat, but he was thoughtful.

*****

Four days later, John Carter and Dan Jackson were retracing their drive to Amanda Miller’s place. The State had decided it didn’t have enough evidence to convict and had elected not to prosecute. Raymond Miller was now neatly buried in the church cemetery on hallowed ground. And Amanda Miller sat quietly in the back seat of the Toyota. Past the beat-up row of mailboxes, up the graveled driveway, everything was the same, except that it was one week later. John Carter pulled to a stop before the gaping hole where Raymond Miller had been found.

“You going to be all right, Amanda?” Carter asked, as she got out. “Being alone and all that?”

“I’ll be fine, Johnny. My sister will be here tonight.”

“And Scotty?” Dan asked.

“He’s of age now. Moved out. I haven’t heard from him in a couple of weeks. Didn’t want a diploma, I guess. Never really did.” Her voice sounded sad. “All I ever wanted was the best for him. Didn’t want him having to struggle for a living the way I did.”

Dan nodded. He pointed to the hole. “I’ll have Delmo send someone out and take care of this tomorrow.”

“No. Don’t bother. The tractor’s still in the barn. I’ll take it out later today and fill it in myself. Might make me feel better.” Amanda started for the door, then turned and added, “might send you a bill for it though. You know…to cover gas and all that.”

“Sure. Go ahead.” Dan looked in the pit one more time, and then added, “Amanda, with the Grand Jury electing not to indict, and with the way this county feels toward you and the way that Raymond treated you, I don’t think you’ll be having any further cause to worry about coming before the Grand Jury again.”

“You mean if Scotty comes back here and raises another fuss about how I killed his father, nothing’s going to happen?”

“No, probably not. Besides, I don’t think he will be back.” Dan looked her directly in the eye.

Did he know? Amanda wasn’t sure. “Well, then I just want to say that the Lord moves in mysterious ways. Bye Johnny. Dan.” She entered the house.

Dan turned to John Carter. “Let’s go.” They got back in the Toyota and headed back toward town.

“What did she mean by that?” John Carter asked.

“She means that she killed her husband,” Dan answered.  And her son, he thought to himself. He had known it all along. Known it from the moment he had first seen her on that first day. It was something in her eyes. The only thing he didn’t know was how. But it no longer mattered. They drove on in silence.

*****

After taking a quick shower to wash off the jail scent, Amanda dressed in old jeans, a long-sleeved work shirt, and boots. It was hot, but the clothing didn’t bother her. She had a job to do, and it had to be done quickly. Already, she thought she could detect the smell.

She went to the barn and walked past the tractor with a bucket attachment on the front. The bucket was covered with a canvas tarp. It was somewhat cool in the barn, but the smell was still bad. Almost overpowering. Flies were everywhere. She had to work fast.

She slipped on a pair of work gloves and started up the tractor. It took four tries before the engine caught, and she almost panicked. She hadn’t counted on the battery being nearly dead. As she drove the tractor out, she glanced over to the shelf on the near wall. Nothing had been disturbed.  It was still there behind the old newspaper. She stopped the tractor, fetched it, and then drove to the pit.

Revving the throttle up high, she tilted the bucket. The canvas tarp came off, and Scotty, all neatly trussed in ropes and green garbage bags, tumbled into the hole. She tossed in the box of rat poison she had retrieved from the shelf, and began moving in the dirt. She wasn’t sorry. Scotty had been more like his father than anyone knew. The night he had shown up drunk, bragging that he had called in the cops, she fed him well. Just as she had his father. She had only concocted that baseball bat story to keep herself safe. As long as Scotty thought he would be taken away if she were in jail, he remained quiet. Well, he would be quiet now. Forever. And she was safe. Safe for the first time in years. She began repeating a Bible verse her mother had taught her.

The Lord helps those who help themselves.

***The End***

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