Her mother had called her this morning, right after calling the police. "A dead body! I found a dead body, Abby!"..."Mother, don't start that again.".... "It was in Mr. Peterson's trash cart!"... "Mother, what were you doing looking in Mr. Peterson's trash cart?"... "I opened it because I had to throw away Booboo's poopie bag. Will I get in trouble for that? Putting Booboo's poopie bag in somebody else's cart? I threw in the poopie bag and it was in a trash bag."..."The poop?"..."No, the body."..."Mother, if it was a trash bag, how did you know it was a body?"..."It was a body. It was shaped like a body, all curled up in one of those huge super-stretchy bags. I'll tell you what I did, I reached in and pulled Booboo's poopie bag right back out. My hand brushed the big bag, and Abby, it felt warm! Do you think I could catch something? I washed my hands real good, I tell you, and then I called the police, but the garbage truck came while I was still on the phone. Do you think the police can stop them?"..."Mother, didn't I tell you to call me before you called the police again?"..."Yes, but the garbage truck was coming. Now it's too late anyway."..."Mother, why didn't you just stop the garbage man?"..."Oh, you know how fast they are. Now they've got that new truck that tips the bin for them so the man doesn't even get out anymore. I never had time. Do you think the police can stop them before they get to the incinerator?"
Abby Medina viciously jammed her finger at the radio's off button as she turned onto Oak Street. She was in no mood to listen to a shrieking car commercial today. Or ever, for that matter. She rubbed her forehead tiredly as she remembered the past few months.
Last week Martha Collins had called the police about a burglar in her attic; the burglar turned out to be a raccoon who chattered angrily at the police before stomping out a hole in the roof vent. The week before Martha had seen a dead body in the ditch that ran along the road--the corpse that time turned out to be a pile of litter. Last month, a suspicious car parked in the neighborhood had just been purchased by the people across the street. And then there was the time Martha had called about a dark shape in the bushes that had turned out to be--well, a bush.
After this morning's phone call, her husband Felipe had suggested Mrs. Collins might be ready for assisted living, but Abby had brushed him off sharply. "There's nothing wrong with Mom. She walks the dog everyday. She doesn't have any problems driving. It's only been a few months since Dad died. She's just nervous being alone, and that stupid chihuahua of hers starts yapping every time the wind blows. She'll be fine."
Felipe turned to their own chihuahua. "Well, Roscoe, now we see how it is. Okay, Abby, but this time you can talk to the cops. I've got to get to work."
Might Felipe be seeing something she didn't want to see? Abby pulled into the driveway. The same officer who came about the suspicious car, the body in the ditch, the raccoon burglar, and the skulking shrubbery stood again on the front walk, trying to look polite.
"But I saw it," Abby heard her say.
"It's gone now," said the officer patiently.
"That's because the garbage truck's come and gone," replied Martha, her voice rising. "You have to stop that truck before it gets to the incinerator! Hurry!"
He sighed. "What number is your garbage truck?"
"Number? I don't know. It comes down Oak Street. What more do you need?"
"If I call Municipal Waste, they're going to ask me the number of the truck, Ms. Collins. They can't stop all the trucks." He broke off to listen to his car's scanner as the dispatcher drawled tiredly: "417 at Linden and Vine."
"I've got to go." He turned to Abby. "You need to talk to your mom about, well, calling the cops about this and that."
She nodded as he got back in his car, then turned to her mother. "Mom, what is the matter?"
"Abby, I know that officer doesn't believe me. You talk to him. You have to make him listen."
"Mom, first of all, tell me what is going on. You were walking the dog."
"He's leaving!" Martha's voice rose to a shriek.
"Don't worry, he can get back here if he needs to." Abby continued, watching her mother stare at the police car now backing out of the driveway. "You were walking the dog, Booboo did his thing, you picked it up, you opened the cart to throw in the bag..."
"Can I get in trouble for that? It wasn't my cart."
"Mother, just tell me what you saw in the cart."
"I saw a body. You know those really stretchy garbage bags that hold, well they just hold tons of stuff and they stretch out and take the shape of whatever's in them. This one was shaped like a person, all curled up in a feetish position."
"Feetish? Oh, fetal. Well, why don't we go talk to Mr. Peterson?"
"That policeman already knocked on the door. Nobody was there."
Abby looked over at the next-door house. "Well, there's no newspaper. Maybe Mr. Peterson's gone on vacation. Or he may have left early this morning."
"He didn't tell me about any vacation. And I didn't see him leave."
"Maybe he left while you were out."
"Abby, I see him every day. If he was going on vacation, he would have said something to me! I tell you, it was that no-good son of his! That Blake!"
"All right, mom. I'm going to go over and knock on the door. Why don't you go back inside?"
"There's nobody there. The policeman did that already. Why won't you listen?"
Abby gritted her teeth. "Mom, could you please go in the house? Make us some tea or something. I promise, I will go look around."
"You will?" Her mother's voice softened a little.
"Yes. If it makes you feel better, I will."
Martha opened the screen door. "Be careful! Blake could still be in there!"
"Yes, Mom." Abby walked across the yard to Mr. Peterson's house. Poor Mr. Peterson. What would she say if he came to the door? Mr. Peterson, you haven't been murdered or anything, have you? Good, good. Glad to hear it. Mr. Peterson, you didn't happen to see a corpse in your trash bin, did you? No? Oh, good. No, no reason. Say, Mr. Peterson, I hope you don't mind my Mom putting her dog's poop bags in your trash cart? No? That's great. I'll tell her.
Her mother worried about Mr. Peterson constantly. Mrs. Peterson had died before Abby was born; he didn't talk much, just sat on the porch. He waved at her now and then. He had a son about her age. The girls all liked Blake, she recalled, shaking her head at the thought.
Oh, how they'd envied her living next door to him. And if only they knew. The shouting late at night, with Blake screaming at his father. Demanding money, demanding his dad's car, always demanding. Yelling about his report card. Yelling about his stereo being too old; he needed a new one. Yelling about anything and everything. And he seemed to get everything he wanted. He wanted the car, screamed for it, and a few minutes later he'd be backing it out of the driveway, stereo blasting. He wanted that new stereo, and soon enough she saw the old one dumped by the curb, next to the boxes the new one had come in. Well, that had ended happily enough; somebody had stopped their car within five minutes and picked it up. She remembered how delighted they'd been; well, it was a newish stereo set, after all.
Mr. Peterson never talked about it. One night. when they heard Blake screaming and glass shattering, her father had called the police. But Mr. Peterson told the cop everything was fine, that a dish had fallen to the floor. The next day Joseph Collins had tried to talk to Mr. Peterson, but he'd just waved his hand and said to not bother the police again. It would just make more trouble.
Yet at school Blake seemed friendly and open. He'd invite other kids over. And when they came over, Blake acted perfectly normal. Abby's father didn't want her to, but she actually went out with him once, back when she was sixteen. Maybe Blake wasn't really that bad, she told him. Maybe it was all a misunderstanding.
Over a cheeseburger and a vanilla milkshake Blake had talked about his pet python. Apparently Blake loved to pick up live rats, watch them squirm, and then drop them into Spike's cage. When Abby had informed him coldly that she owned a pet rat, Black had laughed and suggested she bring it over to meet Spike. It would be some fun to watch, because Spike hadn't eaten in three weeks, and...
...And then Abby emptied her milk shake onto Blake's head. The ice cream shop went dead-silent as she collected her purse and marched out the door in the white-hot fury only an adolescent can muster. She called her father for a ride, and she recalled, looking back, that Dad was kind enough not to say "I told you so."
Just a week later, she recalled, she sat in the backyard with Knuckles the Rat on her shoulder. Knuckles loved snuffling her ear and tugging on her hair.
Laughing in mid-cuddle, she saw it. Out of the hedge that separated the Collins and Peterson houses came a huge snake, tongue flicking the air with excitement.
Abby had screamed for her father, working in the garage. Her father immediately ran over and saw Spike. Without a word, Joe Collins brought down the shovel onto Spike's head. Abby glanced over the still twitching coils to see Blake, standing next to a gap in the hedge, a snarl of rage on his handsome face. He screamed, "That was my snake! He cost me five hundred dollars! I'm gonna sue you!"
Collins kicked the dead snake into a pile. "No. I could sue you, but I won't. This time. You allowed a dangerous animal on my property. My daughter could have been hurt. Her pet could have been killed. Get this thing out of my yard. Do it now, boy. This time I won't call the cops." He stood waiting, leaning on the shovel.Blake tried to stare him down, but finally he came over and picked up the dead snake. As he carried it back, he hissed at Abby, "I'll get you for this."
Her father had heard. "Do not speak to my daughter again. Do not look at her."
Abby cupped Knuckles in her hands as she went in the house. "Dad, you did that poor snake a favor."
Her father laid the shovel by the door. "I wish I could do Blake a favor."
That had happened fifteen years ago, and Abby hadn't spoken to Blake since.
Blake had married, but his wife had divorced him after three years and slapped him with a restraining order, and Mom had told her that Blake had enjoyed torturing the poor woman's cat. Quelle surprise.
Blake Peterson could be a murderer, sure. But his own father?
She knocked on the door. Sure enough, no answer. The drapes in front of the living room were tightly shut.
Abby decided to try the back door.
She went around the side of the house to the back step, where Blake had sat all those years ago with Spike looped around his shoulders. Poor Spike. It wasn't his fault he was a snake with an awful human.
She peered through the thin curtain that covered the window over the back door, into the kitchen. By the small breakfast table, she could just make out a chair laying on its side. Abby frowned, and tried the doorknob. Locked, as she'd expected. She looked thoughtfully at the overturned chair.
The curtain on the kitchen window across from the door consisted of a faded little valence, fluffy with dust, dating from the time of Mrs. Peterson. The valance only covered the top five inches of the window. Abby went round and peered through the glass.
From here, she could see books, pans and silverware scattered on the floor. A pan lay on its side by the refrigerator. Hadn't the policeman seen this?
Under the sink the cabinets stood open. As her eyes took in more of the room, she could make out dark spots on the pale linoleum. By the stove sat a bottle of bleach and a bucket. But no mop.
Something had happened here. And somebody had been preparing to get a mop and clean it up. And why did she see a baseball bat lying across the stove? She pushed at the sash of the window, not really expecting it to give way.
But it did. It rose up easily, and Abby found herself starting into the kitchen.
Every police show or book always made a big deal about not disturbing a crime scene. But could this really be a crime scene? She debated calling out Mr. Peterson's name. Should she just run back to her mother's house and dial 911? She suddenly had a vision of that poor officer going through the window to find a puddle of coffee drying on the floor.
Well, nobody seemed to be home. And of course this wasn't a silly crime scene. So go in, she told herself, and report back that Mr. Peterson tripped on the chair, knocked a few things over, and spilled some coffee this morning while carrying the newspaper into the kitchen. He obviously ran out to the store to pick up some paper towels. And Mr. Peterson would pull into his driveway and come over for a cup of tea. She raised the window higher and pulled herself in. That policeman would probably call this trespassing, but she'd be gone by the time Mr. Peterson got home.
Abby stood in the kitchen and looked down at the spots on the floor. Deep reddish brown, they looked too solid and glossy to be spilt coffee. A strange smell, the smell of something metallic, seemed to come from all around her. She knelt down and saw more stains: on the overturned chair, splashed on the frying pan, spattered on the cabinet door.
Chocolate? Mud? She stood, arms folded tightly together. A few months ago, in one of her domestic fits, she had cut up a pumpkin to make pie. The knife had slipped; what a mess. Felipe took her to the ER for stitches, and when they finally came home the blood had dried to shiny, reddish-brown patches. Patches like these, only these made great puddles and splashes of...
Abby started backing toward the window, images in her mind spinning like the shards of a broken mirror. Blake. Blake in this kitchen, screaming at his father, screaming. Blake throwing the chair. Mr. Peterson falling to the floor. The garbage bag. Blake picking up the morning paper so no one would suspect. Blake leaving.
And Blake coming back. To clean up the mess, put everything in order. Months might pass. By the time anybody got suspicious, the body would be lost in the landfill. The police would have nothing left but the memories of a nervous old lady with a chihuahua....
Don't disturb a crime scene.
And then Abby seemed to feel the sound rather than hear it, like the breath of a whisper. Blake. Had he ever left?
The sound came again, louder this time. Sort of a shuffling. And Mr. Peterson himself appeared in the kitchen doorway, holding a roll of paper towels.
She exhaled slowly, her heart pounding. How stupid she had been. Stupid! "Mr. Peterson, I'm so glad you're all right. Mom was so worried."
Mr. Peterson did not smile. "Why was she worried?"
"Oh, you know how nervous she gets sometimes. I guess it spread to me. She thought she saw a dead body in your garbage cart, and when you didn't answer the door, she thought the worst."
A strange look came over Mr. Peterson's face. "A dead body?"
She laughed. "I don't know. She sees dead bodies all over the place lately." Abby shook her head. "Then when I came over and saw the blood on your kitchen floor, I thought maybe she was right. Did you hurt yourself?"
"No." He said it flatly, almost disinterested.
She frowned. "No?"
"No," he repeated.
"Well, how did all this blood get here? It is blood. I cut myself once, when I was chopping up a pumpkin, and that's exactly how it dried."
Mr. Peterson looked down at the shiny splashes on the floor, picking up the chair that stood in the dried circle. "Hmm," was all he said. "Well, I suppose--it is blood."
"Well, you must be hurt. That's quite a lot. And it's splashed around."
He looked angry. "Yes. It's quite a mess, isn't it?"
She tilted her head. "Mr. Peterson, what happened?"
He glared at her. "This. This, that shouldn't have happened."
Mr. Peterson let the paper towels drop, seemed to lean on the back of a kitchen chair for a moment. "He could have done so much with his life. But--ruined. Ruined by one girl." He shook his head. "One stupid, stupid girl. You!"
"What?" He had lifted the chair, swung it with shocking strength.
It would have caught Abby across the head, but she instinctively dropped to the floor. She rolled towards the comforting bulk of the fridge, gasping, "Mr. Peterson, what are you doing?"
"It's fair. You killed my son. My poor son."
She could only shake her head in bewilderment. Kill Blake?
He strode across the kitchen. "You didn't mean to. But you killed him all the same. He wanted you. You could have turned him around. But you humiliated him, made your father threaten him. You had your daddy kill his poor snake." His voice rose. " He forgave you for that. He told me how he did. He would have married you anyway. He told me he forgave you for everything you did to him. But instead you married that Mexican! Don't tell me you couldn't find a nice white boy to marry! You had one next door, waiting for you!" He swung the chair again. "It sent him clean out of his mind. I didn't kill my son last night. I killed a crazy man. Sent crazy by you!"The chair shattered against the fridge, slammed against her back as she desperately grabbed for the pan on the floor.
Her ribs screamed in pain. "Mr. Peterson, your son--I never wanted anything to do with your son. My mom, my dad, me--we all felt sorry for you. You didn't deserve to be treated like that."
"Don't you talk bad about my boy!" He grabbed for another chair. "His mother died. He had it hard. Maybe I gave in to him a little too much, but he had a good heart. You sent him out of his mind!" Again the chair swung, low this time. She jumped up just as it caught her legs. The chair did not break bone, as he no doubt intended, but it knocked her to the floor.
Abby swung the frying pan into his knee, wincing as she heard the dull snap of bone. Mr. Peterson groaned in pain as she scrambled to her feet. He tried to lift the chair again, but he screamed when the weight shifted to his broken knee, and it fell back to the floor.
He stood between her and the window, so she would go out the kitchen door. Too late she saw he had balanced himself on one leg, lifting the chair above his head.
He threw it at her as she ran for the door, and the chair leg caught her above the temple. She saw only darkness as she felt herself falling to the floor, then the fog cleared, and she saw him hobbling across to her, bracing himself on the stove, on the table.
She would never reach the kitchen door in time; but she felt another door falling open behind her. The basement door, she realized detachedly. The yawning darkness seemed to beckon her, down, down to dreamless sleep...
He was almost on her, lifting up the bread board on the stove. Wearily she kicked at his good knee.
It buckled only a little, and he reached down to brace himself on the stove again. She kicked once more, but this time to his broken knee.
He screamed again, leaning forward in agony. This time the kick knocked him off balance, his body plunging past her, down the unlit steps, vanishing into the basement. She heard a cry, low and hoarse.
Staggering to her feet, she grabbed the phone, dialed 911 as he called to her, "Don't do it! Abby, just go!" His voice became pleading. "I'm sorry. I'll clean this up. I can fix it. I'll make it right..."
She left him in the basement and came out to sit on the back step. Blake Peterson had sat here with Spike, all those years ago. "Abby!" Her mother came across the back yard. How could the years pass by so quickly?
She hugged her knees. "They're stopping the truck, Mom. I just told them the one that goes down Oak Street. The lady looked it up for me." She said it calmly.
"That Blake! Poor Mr. Peterson. To be murdered by your own son, and dumped out like garbage! And he would have gotten away with it too. How did you find out? They've got to catch Blake!"
"He didn't get away, mother," said Abby quietly. She leaned her head back against the door, listening to the ambulance. She wondered what Mr. Peterson would tell the cops. Well, she would tell what she knew, and let them make whatever they could from the crime scene. Abby understood now why they say you should never disturb a crime scene...