La Cagoule: The Water Conspiracy

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Mystery and Crime  |  House: Booksie Classic
It takes only three words to get a mother to kill on command.

Submitted: April 21, 2009

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Submitted: April 21, 2009

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La Cagoule  by Devon Pitlor
 
 
I. Moments of craziness, moments of laughter
 
"Mom, who really killed Dad?" Brianna asked suddenly.
 
A fuzzy white haze clouded Brenda's mind for second or two blurring her view of the bright turquoise hillsides that surrounded Asherton Falls.
 
"I did," Brenda said, feeling the blood drain from her face. She dropped the knife she was using to dice onions into the sink and in a partial and all too- familiar trance gazed out on the ugliness of Tech Village.The setting sun made the smooth white sides of the research labs a nauseous shade of pink that resembled the diluted blood that was now running from her finger where the fallen knife had sliced her. "I did."
 
Brianna started crying again and ran from the room.
 
Later Brenda just assured her as always that she was just having "one of her crazy moments." Then, while cuddling in overlarge pajamas with her precocious twelve year old daughter, she remembered that it was exactly that which always made Brianna cry. The whole world knew she had not killed Rudy--the police, the neighbors, the stolid faces at the nuclear medicine research center. Rudy Rossinger had died from an overdose of insulin, self-administered, and that by accident. It had been in all the papers too. DOCTOR Rossinger of Barron Systems had overfilled his syringe...or something like that. Brenda had not even been in the house at the time. She was at her mother's, but her mother knew better and had always said privately that Brenda was not there. In effect, Brenda did not know herself exactly where she was when Rudy died. She knew that she was supposed to be at her mother's, or somewhere like that. Maybe the grocery store. It was all so foggy, so unclear. It had been so for two years now.
 
"You're going back to the hospital, aren't you?" blurted Brianna snuggling closer to a mother she knew she was losing. "We'll have that awful Mrs. Shneckbrenner over here again."
 
Brenda hugged her daughter fiercely and assured her that she would not be going ever again to the hospital and that Mrs. Shneckbrenner would never be in the house again. But Brenda was unsure of her own words. The daze came and went. She was trying hard to stay on the medication and hold onto the little pieces of reality that she knew were solid. Like Brianna. Like Dylan and Donnie. She was trying to do what her therapist said: "Get a grip." A grip of what? Brenda wondered. Where does one start gripping?
 
II. Dylan and Donnie
 
The rain fell in sheets, so Dylan and Donnie were playing inside. Brenda was at the sink again chopping vegetables, looking at the turquoise, heather-dusted hillsides now slick with rain, raising her vision above the horrid barracks where once Rudy had worked on "secret" projects. The boys were noisy but not destructive, so she fell into a quiet muse about Rudy and her poised life before the accident. How they had been introduced in her senior year in college. How they had moved to Asherton Falls before taking final vows. How Rudy began at once working on a project, the funding of which prohibiited him from discussing it. How Rudy had proposed to her in a stupid cartoon gondola in the phony-baloney moat which surrounded the international headquarters of Barron Systems. Dirty water and ducks. Ducks that ate garbage and drank dirty water. Why had they needed to move to Asherton Falls and Tech Village in the first place? Oh yes. Rudy's job.  His life's calling. Nuclear medicine, some sort of extended physics project that she would never hear about let alone understand. Like an extension of that university research paper that he had been perennially writing and never finishing.
 
Suddenly Dylan tore free from little Donnie's grasp and ran into the kitchen. He had two dishes fastened together face to face with wads of silly putty---a "flying saucer" that he was hovering in the air too high for Donnie to reach it. He brushed past her at the sink and shouted "Brenda Caylow AKKKKKA the Missing Girl Scout." Where in the name of god had Dylan seen that? She spun around to ask him, but Dylan had already flown his saucer out of the room. He was yelling "abducted...abducted...quack...quack...abbie duck ted...abbie...duck...ted." Brenda later saw her old high school yearbook open on a living room sofa. There she was still as she had been thirteen years before. Pretty. Shapely. Her breasts outlined in ballpoint pen, a navel slit drawn across her stomach, and a word bubble that read "Hi. I'm Brenda Caylow aka the Missing Girl Scout. I was abducted." It was signed by Grant Holstings who used to tease her from the fifth grade onward--right to the day of yearbook signing. Yes, indeed. Once five years before that she had indeed been the Missing Girl Scout. She knew very little about that, but she had never told anyone she was abducted by aliens or anything else. After an absence of two days, she was found wandering in Highland Park near a water purification plant. Doctors and police had examined and interrogated her. She was totally intact. No signs of foul play. Her girl scout uniform was clean, ironed and pleated. Obviously she had not been in any dirt. And that was about all she knew, other than that no one had touched her impurely, but it had taken several doctors to verify it with their probing and sniffing about. Brenda Caylow, the Missing Girl Scout. She had been all the media rage for two days. Then it was forgotten. Except by Grant Holstings when they hung out occasionally in high school. Now Dylan was bothering her with it. She felt the smothering mist come down around the sides of her mind again. But when Donnie fell and skinned his knee, the clouds lifted rapidly. The "flying saucer" was forgotten, the rain stopped and Dylan had run outside to other games. 
 
Brenda sat down, relieved. Maybe she was getting better. Maybe she was getting a grip. In a few minutes, Brianna would be returning home from band practice. Brenda needed to finish dinner, the casserole. Her mental cloudiness could wait. She had children to take care of. Friends. A possible special friend. After all, it had been over two years since Rudy's passing. It was time to live again, at least a little. She needed the tenderness of a man far more than the sympathy of therapists.
 
So she returned to the kitchen and busied herself. The turquoise hills were getting creepy again. A sickly yellow stain was forming across them. She needed Brianna home soon. Brianna always kept her sane. But, of course, she was sane. Just overwrought, or so she told herself. She needed a grip. Something to hold onto. For the moment it had to be Brianna.
 
III. The Kool-Aid
 
When Brianna came across the patio, it was clear that she was in one of her moods. A boy must have teased her, or someone must have criticized her clarinet playing. A twelve year old could get moody about nearly anything. Brenda remembered. She had been twelve once herself. The Missing Girl Scout. Was the Missing Girl Scout ever moody? she wondered Oh god, she thought, I have to stop thinking about these things. 
 
She asked Brianna what was wrong, and Brianna muttered something about Isaac being a dirtball,then disappeared into her bedroom, slamming the door.
 
When Brianna finally came down, Brenda had almost finished the casserole. The table was set and Dylan and Donnie were transfixed in front of the television watching a man slaughter diseased cattle in England. Brenda switched off the television. How could they broadcast such stuff? Dinner was ready. No more television. No more Missing Girl Scout talk. No more mewing about Isaac the dirtball. As they sat down to dinner, Brianna, visibly in a better mood, pulled a packet of Kool-Aid from her shirt pocket. It was a gift from Isaac Tolliver, the dirtball. Would Brenda fix it? Of course she would. She took the packet to the sink and ran some cold water into a pitcher. Then she added the Kool-Aid and swished the water around. In an instant she was in another bleak trancelike state. Black curtains were coming down around the corners of her eyes. Water was still running in the sink. In a tiny, dimly lighted hole framed in the back of her mind, she saw Rudy totally absorbed with a glass of cherry Kool-Aid. She saw his quizzical eyes through the glass as he stared into it. She heard his voice mumbling something about "partial dissolution of a substance." She saw him toss the glass on the counter and rush out of the house and into his car. Without further comment, he was dashing wildly back to the facility. A packet of Kool-Aid dissolved in a glass of water had done that to Rudy, and now a half pitcher of Kool-Aid was doing something equally insane to her. It was the memory. Rudy's strange behavior. What had he seen in the dissolving red Kool-Aid? Her never told her, but she knew it had something important to do with water. Yes water. Rudy had been working with water. Doing something with water. Water had been the cause of his death. Not insulin, water. Her mind struggled, but the curtains came down all around and she felt herself falling. The last thing she remembered was Brianna's scream.
 
IV. Brenda is discharged
 
After Brenda made the usual routine promises, the clinic let her go.She walked through the tiny village of Asherton Falls, with its not-so-quaint antique stores and tacky card shops and arrived home. Behind her she noticed a local police car pulling away as she unlocked the front door. She had been followed all the way back. It was probably just as well. 
 
In the house, Mrs. Shneckbrenner bustled. Something acrid was boiling on the stove. Brianna was nowhere to be seen, and the boys, she knew, were at her mother's. Or were they? She needed to find out. Mrs. Shneckbrenner did what Mrs. Shneckbrenner did best. She produced a cup of hot coffee and put it in Brenda's hands. Brenda loved coffee. That was about all Mrs. Shneckbrenner knew about her. That and the fact that she was still suffering from the aftershock of her husband's death. She sipped the coffee and let Mrs. Schneckbrenner catch her up with all the bad news. Dylan and Donnie had been just horrible. Brianna had stayed out late at Kathy Whatshername's house on Tuesday. None of the children had made their beds. No one had helped with the dishes. No one had cleaned the cat box, and Ursula had matted poop on her fur from squatting in soiled sand. A bird had crashed into the picture window and died. Mrs. Shneckbrenner missed her Sanka....Sanka? 
 
Brenda listened patiently. She saw her reflection in the black coffee, and it occurred to her that it was about time to go shopping, something Mrs. Shneckbrenner would not do. Among other things, she needed coffee. For some reason the thought of running out of coffee scared her. As she contemplated the lack of coffee, her fear rolled into terrror.
 
She wrote Mrs. Schneckbrenner a check and got into the car, somehow totally obsessed with buying coffee. At the grocery store, she grabbed a cart and dashed down the coffee aisle. Going straight to the green lidded coffees, she snatched up a can of Sanka, threw it in the cart and rushed to the self-checkout. In barely ten minutes she found herself standing outside in the parking lot with a can of decaffinated Sanka in her hand. She stared at the can in amazement. Never in her life had she drunk either Sanka or decaf. Why on earth...? Then she got that famous grip that they were always telling her to get on herself and drove home, tossing the unopened can of Sanka into a trashbarrel at a red light. Sanka. Even the name puzzled her. Like the water and the Kool-Aid, it meant something, but Brenda could not say what.
 
Collapsing at the kitchen table, Brenda began to rationally compose a proper shopping list. She looked in the pantry and refrigerator to see what she lacked, which turned out to be very little. She had two full cans of regular coffee as well. What had been the big deal about darting out to buy Sanka? She found the grip again and tried, this time successfully, to forget Sanka.
 
But on her folded shopping list the next day, listed just above eggs and onions, was scrawled "Sanka."
 
She got the grip once again, and the rest of her day went as normally as one could wish for.
 
The grip.
 
Maybe she had learned to master "the grip."
 
VI. Brenda's dream
 
That night Brenda dreamt of three distinct things, perhaps in three separate dreams, perhaps not. One was a lucid vision of a man in a suit threatening Rudy about something Rudy was doing with water. Something that had to do with cars or with car motors. It was so intense that it woke her up. Rudy had dropped a beaker of water. It crashed on a tiled floor.
 
The second dream may have been an extension of the first one. Brenda was not sure. It was about her father back in Highland Park. Her father had been an obsessive gum chewer. It had something to do with his not smoking, but when Brenda was a child she developed a tremendous aversion to chewing gum. She did not forbid her own children from using it, but she loathed it herself and as an adult could not bear to even pass closely by the gum racks at the supermarket. Nonetheless, she awoke with the name of popular gum on her mind. Doublemint. Her father chewed constantly. But he chewed a gum called Black Jack, a nasty licorish stick. To her knowledge, there had never been any Doublemint in the house. Perhaps she had seen Mrs. Shneckbrenner with a pack of Doublemint. Perhaps not.
 
In another dream sequence, Brenda was naked in the bathroom examining herself in the mirror. As if in some movie, she saw herself taking out a tube of lip gloss and writing Sanka on the mirror in huge letters. This was the final dream, and when she awoke this time, rain was pelting down on the window panes outside. She lay in bed and listened, mulling over her three dreams. Rudy,water, Doublemint and Sanka. And finally another word. Somewhere she had heard it before. In one of her French classes no doubt. " La Cagoule." She even knew how to pronounce it, and she had a vague idea what it meant, and this vague idea kept her in bed long enough to revisit the naked bathroom/Sanka scene still fresh in her mind. She had not been totally naked. She was wearing a hood which covered her head and shoulders, the type of weird, priestly hood that was called a cowl. At once, she linked the words cowl and cagoule, even though she had only two years of schoolgirl French, and certainly her teachers had not taught her the obscure name of a creepy garment like a cagoule in school. No. They were too busy teaching things like "bonjour" and comment ça va?" Where had she learned the word cagoule, and how did she know to put "la" in front of it because it was feminine? One of the worst parts of learning French for Brenda had been in distinguishing feminine from masculine, but implicitly she knew it was indeed "la cagoule."
 
And she got up from her bed scared. The grip may have been fading.
 
VII. La Cagoule
 
Brenda arose to torrents of rain and a greater sense of foreboding than she had ever known before. She rushed to wake up Dylan, Donnie and Brianna and told them to dress quickly because she needed to drive them to school. They needed boots and umbrellas. All three children had become aware of their mother's fragility and complied with her urgency without argument. They piled into the car under the carport with school books and umbrellas. Not one of them, least of all Brianna, dared ask why they couldn't take the bus as they always did. In the back seat, Brianna whispered to the boys to hush and that it was because of the rain. But it was warm rain, and they had umbrellas, and they had waited for the bus in the rain many times before. On the seat beside Brenda was a note written on a scrap of hastily torn memo pad paper. Brenda recognized her own writing but did not know why she brought along the note. The traffic was heavy in the rainstorm, so she thrust the note behind her to Brianna. "Tell me what it says," she asked. Brianna unfolded the note and read her mother's rushed writing with a puzzled tone. "It says Sanka, Doublemint and Saint Dunstan's," she said blankly. Brenda steeled herself at the wheel searching for her "grip." She had children to protect, so the fear was choked off, postponed, and she drove on. In the rearview mirror she could see Brianna's frightened eyes. Brianna knew what must be coming. Brianna knew and Brenda didn't. 
 
She dropped the boys off under the bus roof at Allcorn Elementary and splashed off toward Brianna's middle school still holding the requisite mental grip on herself. 
 
"Mom," Brianna began. 
 
"Not now, honey," Brenda said, "I've got some errands to run, and you have school."
 
"But Mom, I just wondered..."
 
"Not now."
 
At the corner of Placard Street in front of Saint Dunstan's Elementary, a traffic guard was ushering a parade of little kids across the street. Their faces were invisible underneath their identical bright yellow Saint Dunstan's hooded raincoats. Sheets of driving rain pelted them as they streamed across, heads down, all of them passing close to the front of Brenda's car. Suddenly one of them looked up and directly into her eyes. It was not the face of a child but rather that of a sallow demon-thing with hollow yellow, bloodshot eyes, protruding crooked teeth and and an evil smirk. A malevolent midget among a crowd of school children, his face emerging fearsomely from under a rain hood. He mouthed something awful and chilling at Brenda. Watching his purple twisted lips move, Brenda knew at once what he had said before his face disappeared again beneath the hood. It was "La Cagoule."
 
VIII. Mass at 8:30
 
After leaving Brianna off, Brenda started to decompose mentally once again. Seeing a horrid leering dwarf in a pack of school children had shaken her at her very foundation, and she was determined to pull into Saint Dunstan's to report the incident. Hidden under one of those identical raincoats was a demon in the form of a child. She needed to tell someone, but checked herself as she sat frozen in abject terror behind the steering wheel of her car. Everyone at Saint Dunstan's knew her. Mrs. Doctor Rossinger, the unfortunate widow under stress, under duress, under treatment. The widow who never came to Sunday mass. The widow who may or may not have killed her husband. Her knuckles whitened as the only firm grip she got was on the steering wheel. No, she would not report the lurid demon-child. It was a part of her imagination, another chimera of an unsteady and suffering mind. 
 
Beside her on the seat Brianna had thrust the note. "Sanka, Doublemint, Saint Dunstan's" What did it mean? The shadows grew thicker in her mind as she searched for her grip but only found her palms tortured by the tension she passed through them to the steering wheel. She noted the time. 8:15. Saint Dunstan's had a daily mass at 8:30. She was resolved to attend. The therapists had told her this was a good idea and another way to get a grip. The rain had lifted, and she was alighting from the car when she remembered her cellphone. The last time, many months ago, that she had attended a mass, Father Donald had embarrassed her with his bushy eyes and stern stare when her phone had rung during the communion. She knew that she needed to turn it completely off and so fumbled with the buttons until the phone went totally dead, saying "goodbye" as it blinked out. She replaced it in her purse and walked into the church, took a seat alone at a back pew and waited for the mass to start. Perhaps the god of her youth could communicate with her and explain what was going on. She reached for a bible as the hymnal began and noted the crumbled scrap of paper. Sanka, Doublemint, Saint Dustan's. How had she known she was going to be at Saint Dunstan's when she wrote it? She let fall the note and kicked it under the pew in front of her. The few scattered morning attendees began intoning a weak Ave Maria. She mouthed the words but did not join in.
 
Later as the Panis Angelicus began, she walked unsteadily toward the altar eyeing the acolytes with their hosts and grape juice. Father Ambrose was on duty for morning mass. He smiled kindly as she approached. With no warning, her cellphone began to vibrate violently in her purse. She could feel the waves of vibration as she approached the altar and made an abrupt turn and stepped quickly into the vestibule. Hands shaking, she withdrew the buzzing phone from her purse. How could it be vibrating? She had switched it totally off on purpose. A red mist of fear glazed her eyes as she flipped open the phone.
 
A scratchy, distant voice, like that of someone pretending to be a child, rang out, not waiting for her to speak first. "Are you ready to kill again, bitch?" it said, sounding like a nail scraped on a sheet of zinc. "Are you ready to serve La Cagoule? You only need one more word. One more. You will kill for us again. You will always kill for us. You will always be one of the La Cagoule."
 
Brenda dropped the phone, and it smashed to the floor of the church vestibule. She ran outside into the morning sunlight. La Cagoule...the cowl...the hood...what did it mean?
 
At the side of Saint Dunstan's where she felt no one was watching, she heaved up a mouthful of sour vomit and spit it out. Her heart was pounding. Her eyes refused to focus. For over an hour by her best reckoning she stood there riding out the debilitating trance. When she did move, it was in the direction of Tech Village Clinic, on foot, her car abandoned at Saint Dunstan's. Somehow she checked herself in. 
 
 
IX. A flash of lucidity
 
When Brenda finally regained her composure, she found herself sitting in a soft chair in front of a woman with a badge that read Sylvia or Sara Something, Nurse Practioner. It turned out to be Sarita, a person she had never seen before. Obviously she had been stammering details to Sarita for some time without being fully aware of what she was saying. Sarita read some of the details back to her: "La Cagoule, you say that's a hood. Sanka decaf, you don't drink it. Doublemint chewing gum, you don't chew it. A midget with a twisted face in a crowd of children hidden under their raincoats. A phone call from a phone you had turned off. Strange shopping lists to yourself. And someone telling you "One more word." Sarita paused and reflected over the notes she had read. Then she said "Hmmm, sounds like a lot of delusive behavior. We see a lot of that here. Your records are pretty much filled with that kind of stuff, and there are no therapists on duty right now to see you. How are you feeling?"
 
"Much better," said Brenda suddenly recomposing herself. 
 
"That's good," smiled Sarita warmly. "You may have just been having a kind of relapse. I can't say. I haven't worked here long, but there was something...."
 
"Something," snapped Brenda, searching for some sanity.
 
"Yes, something. You said your husband was employed at Barron's and working on some project involving ordinary water, didn't you? It was secret. That was right before his accident."
 
Brenda nodded. She had no idea of what she had said in the minutes or hours previously. She had no idea of the time. The sun was slanting in from a higher angle, and she supposed that it was getting toward afternoon, and she had to get home, or was it going to be confinement and Mrs. Shneckbrenner all over again?
 
"I'm releasing you," said Sarita. "You can come back tomorrow if you feel strange again. But before you go, there is something I need to tell you. Two things, in fact. I hope you can keep them confidential."
 
Sarita got up and closed the consultation room door and stared back at Brenda.
 
"I lost my husband too," she began. "He was working at Barron's and may have known your Rudy. I have no idea because everything was so secret, but he was obsessed with jars and glasses of water just before he was killed."
 
"Killed," stammered Brenda.
 
"Yes, it was about three years ago. He was attacked by a man in Diversey Park, a man who came out of nowhere and stabbed him with a screwdriver. The man was seen by at least five witnesses, but he ran off so quickly that no one could ever find him. And the funny thing was no one could ever describe him because he was...well, he was wearing a big pointed hood that covered most of his face. That part was in the papers. The Hooded Killer. That was how my Jeremy died. And Jeremy's last words were 'The water.' Strange."
 
Sarita left the room and returned with a newspaper article that described the hooded man and had a police sketch in it. The headlines read Barron's Researcher Killed by Park Pond. 
 
Sarita continued almost blankly. "Not long after his funeral, some men arrived in dark business suits and asked if they could see our car. They said they were from some agency or another and seemed official, so I Iet them do it. They drove the car around the block and brought it back. One of them sniffed into the gas tank. They told me that I could accept a payment of twelve thousand dollars for the car or that they would simply confiscate it as evidence in Jeremy's death. Our car was an old Saab. We had not paid even close to twelve thousand for it. Jeremy liked old cars. It probably wasn't worth three thousand. But I needed money and sold it to them. They drove it off that very day."
 
Brenda asked what she Sarita thought it was all about.
 
"I've done a lot of thinking about it, " said Sarita. "I think it was about an additive of some sort that they were working on at Barron's, an additive that made cars run on water. I can swear I saw Jeremy filling the tank with a garden hose once, but he hid it as soon as I came around the corner. That was only weeks before his murder."
 
IX. Mrs. Shneckbrenner
 
When Brenda arrived home, it was already close to 5pm. Donnie, Dylan and Brianna were sitting silently at the kitchen table waiting for Mrs. Shneckbrenner to ladle them out some thick, mucosy stew she had boiling on the stove. They had sad, subdued looks on their faces. Children who did not expect their mother's return or more like children who had been told not to. Characteristically, Mrs. Shneckbrenner was wearing a ruffled apron and had a scowl on her face. Brenda felt a tinge of the usual guilt. She had lost her grip once again, but a tiny bar of sunlight had crept into the abyss of her mind. It came from the nurse practitioner Sarita. Sarita's husband had been lost under the same mysterious circumstances as Rudy, and it was something about water. Brenda had a secret now. In her own way she felt less isolated, less crazy.
 
She needed to get rid of Mrs. Shneckbrenner and talk to Brianna. They all ate a few mouthfuls of the gluey stew the housekeeper put before them. Brenda rolled her eyes at Brianna. An understanding passed between them. They would talk later.
 
Mrs. Shneckbrenner sat down with a bowl of her stew next to Brenda. She still had an angry look on her face. "I need to get paid," she muttered. "Then I'll leave you with the children. You seem all right enough. They told me at the clinic that you were going to be a few days..."
 
"Who told you?" snapped Brenda.
 
"I got a call."
 
Brenda checked her impulse to argue and continued to eat the stew. Brianna and the boys remained face down. Something had definitely transpired between all of them in Brenda's absence. She needed Mrs. Shneckbrenner out of the house as soon as possible and rose to get her checkbook. Mrs. Shneckbrenner followed her into the living room. 
 
"Tomorrow is Brianna's birthday," she announced blankly. "I got her a present. She doesn't know yet. I put it in the armoire." Mrs. Shneckbrenner opened a cabinet door at the bottom of the armoire and pointed to a neatly wrapped present with a pink card taped to it which read "Brianna." Then she closed the door. "Keep it a secret until tomorrow," she said. "Brianna doesn't like me."
 
Brenda nodded and wrote a check. She did not like Mrs. Shneckbrenner either, and, moreover, she suddenly realized that she had no idea who had sent this woman to take care of her children following Rudy's death two years before. She had just appeared. The assumption up until now had always been that Mrs. Shneckbrenner had been sent as part of the death compensation package by Barron Systems. Brenda had never bothered to question it before. The woman was a horrible cook and a worse housekeeper. The children hated her. She was mean and quarrelsome. How had she tolerated such a housekeeper for so long? This was only one of the questions which were now finally arising in Brenda's troubled mind.
 
As she was leaving, Mrs. Shneckbrenner pulled a thin cape over her shoulders. She had always worn it, despite the weather which was unseasonably warm that fall. There was something else that Brenda had never noticed before. The cape had a hood. Mrs. Shneckbrenner had never worn the hood up, however. A hood, mused Brenda, "une cagoule," the French term. Why did she know it?
 
Mrs. Shneckbrenner paused at the door and examined her check. In one brisk movement, she pulled the pointed hood over her head and gazed into Brenda's eyes. Brenda had never seen her so intense before. Her eyes seemed malevolent and piercing. The hood looked totally out of place in the bright afternoon sun.
 
"Spaghnum," she muttered between her twisted lips. "Spaghnum. Your garden needs some sphagnum for the fall, for mulch. Don't forget Brianna's present tomorrow. And spaghnum."
 
Then she turned abruptly and left for her car.
 
X. Conclusion
 
Brianna had tears in her eyes and didn't want to talk. She went directly to her room. The boys, likewise, were silent and went off to play their video game. Brenda was left alone with dirty dishes in the kitchen. Yes, tomorrow was indeed Brianna's birthday. Brenda felt a need to get out. She also felt a need to get Brianna's present out of the armoire and throw it away. It didn't matter what the hooded lady had bought for her daughter. She wanted it out of the house. She wanted to get Brianna her own gift and forget Mrs. Shneckbrenner for good. She told Dylan that she would be right back and to tell Brianna to watch the house for a couple of hours. Dylan nodded, absorbed in his game. Donnie paid no attention whatsoever.
 
She threw the wrapped box beside her in the car and began driving through the business section of Asherton Falls toward the front entrance of Barron Systems. Along the way, she passed the garden shop, a brick building in the old quarter which predated most of the newer structures in town. Something about the garden center was attracting her attention. She slowed down to look at the building. On the side wall, just above huge bags of pine bark and mulch, someone had written SPAGNUM in huge chalked letters with an arrow pointing downward to some bags which were also marked SPAGNUM. Brenda froze to a halt. A horn behind her blasted. In a determined but dazed effort, she pulled the car onto the garden center parking apron. Spaghnum, she thought. She had heard the word before. It was some kind of peat moss mulch, but then Brenda realized that she had no garden. There was not one place in her yard where anything needing mulch was planted. Why spaghnum? 
 
Then the pressure and buzzing began. The grip she had over her senses faded like a sheet of dew on the grass. An ice-clear memory blazed in her head. Rudy had been pouring water into his car too, just like Sarita's murdered husband. It was a repressed thought. Two men whose cars ran on water. Water with what in it? Kool-Aid? That was the secret. That was the big mystery that Rudy couldn't talk about. Someone at Barron Systems had discovered or concocted something that made cars run on water. All at once Brenda was convinced of it. 
 
Behind the piled bags of mulch, a small child appeared. Brenda did not need to examine him to know that he was not a child at all and that he was wearing a hood. Une cagoule. The child's bloodshot eyes caught hers. He was old and wrinkled beneath his hood. He pointed to the writing on the wall and said "spaghnum."
 
Brenda drove off to the front gate of Barron Systems. As she drove, her fingers mechanically tore away the taped envelope on Brianna's gift. Beneath it was another card, a blue one this time, a card destined for a man. On it was printed neatly "For M.J.C. at Barron's, for all you have done for us. Happy birthday."
 
Sanka, Doublemint and Spaghnum echoed in Brenda's mind on an endless loop. Sanka, Doublemint and Spaghnum. Spagnum was the missing word. Brenda knew it. She knew her mission was to deliver the package. She was known at the gate, and the guards all had sympathy for her. Her mission was to deliver the package to one of them. And she did. A friendly guard in a Barron's uniform met her with a smile. 
 
"Evening Mrs. Rossinger," he said pleasantly. "What can we do for you?"
 
"I have a present for...for...Miles Cooley," she stammered, the words and the name coming from some locked chamber that had just opened in her brain. "He has been very kind to us since...."
 
The guard looked quizzically at her. After two years she was bringing a gift to the head of research. The guard must have felt it strange.
 
Then a rush of courage and coarse madness rushed over her. "It is from La Cagoule," she blurted. "La Cagoule." She was screaming now.
 
The guard immediately made an urgent phone call, and more uniformed men appeared. The gift vanished between them, and Brenda fell once again into a cloudy haze and was not aware of her actions.
 
When lucidity returned to her mind again, she was in the company clinic surrounded by men in white coats. A couple of them she recognized as company psychiatrists in whose care she had been. They examined sheaves of papers and motioned to Sarita, the nurse practitioner, to come out from behind a glassed-in office.
 
Sarita stared at Brenda for a moment or two. Then she sat down and took Brenda's hand. "It exploded in the lot when the bomb crew opened it. No one was hurt. Miles never saw it either. But I think he got the message. You see, it is just not time yet to run engines on water. Too many jobs will be lost. Too many petroleum fortunes. The world-wide impact would be too great... It is hard to explain, but I think your last mission is over. At least I hope it is your last."
 
With that, Sarita pulled a pointed hood up over her head and left the room.
 
Brenda was free to go.
 
_______________________________
 
Devon Pitlor, April 2009
 
 


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