Authors: Pamela Grandstaff
|Rose Hill |
|ERDT Books (2010)|
by Pamela Grandstaff
This book is a work of fiction. The characters, incidents, and dialogue are drawn from the author’s imagination and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to actual events or persons living or dead is entirely coincidental. No part of this may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews.
Copyright © 2010 Pamela Grandstaff
All rights reserved.
Ray Caliban slid a hunting knife into the holster on his belt, where it would be hidden by the bottom of his leather jacket. He glanced down at his alibi, who was sleeping off the knockout drug he’d slipped her the night before. As he left the motel room behind the Roadhouse Lounge he looked around for other potential witnesses, but it was that time in the morning when even the hardcore partiers were unconscious, and there were no early risers at the Roadhouse Motel.
Ray was amped up on methamphetamine. His days all seemed to be twenty-four hours long on meth, and he hadn’t slept for three. Ostensibly a bartender at the Roadhouse, Ray was actually an illegal drug distribution rep and the bar was his district office. He made enough to support his own habits, keep up the Harley, and pay for some female company whenever he wanted it.
Ray left the parking lot and walked down the narrow lane that led to the railroad tracks by the Little Bear River, about a hundred yards behind the Roadhouse. He crossed the tracks and slid more than walked down the steep hillside to where an old fishing shack stood next to the river.
Ray scanned what was left of the snow for footprints or tire tracks but saw none. He drew out his knife before he checked to be sure the shack was empty. He returned it to the holster while he scanned the riverbank and hillside on each side of the water.
The only sounds he could hear were the rushing water and the wind in his ears. This part of the river featured shallow rapids over a rocky bed. The current was swift and deadly in the middle but there were deep, dark, still places along the bank where trout were known to hide. It was a clear, beautiful morning in early March but the sharp wind made it feel like February.
As time passed his ears began to sting from cold. He repeatedly tipped up on his toes before setting his heels back down, and opened and closed the snap on the knife holster. He lit a cigarette with shaking hands. The previous murders he’d committed were reactions to sudden turns of events, fueled by adrenaline and the need to survive. He didn’t like having all this time to think about it beforehand.
A flash of bright color on the other side of the river caught his attention. A man emerged from the thick underbrush on the steep hillside there and slid down to the narrow riverbank, causing a small avalanche of dirt and rocks. Ray realized that when the man called the night before he hadn’t specified on which side of the water he would appear, and had assumed when he said ‘by the shack’ he meant this side. Ray didn’t know of any other shacks, he didn’t have a boat, and it appeared this man didn’t either.
The man across the river cupped his hands around his mouth and shouted something, but Ray couldn’t hear for the rushing water. He focused his full attention on the man, who was now waving his arms, pointing, and shouting, Ray couldn’t figure out what he was trying to communicate. It seemed to Ray he was indicating Ray should stay there and the man would somehow cross over.
What the man was actually pointing to was the person who crept out of a huge drainage pipe in the hillside behind Ray. This man also had a knife, and was stealthily approaching Ray’s back.
The person creeping up behind Ray had also been waiting for the man across the river. This person had no compunction about killing Ray, who was simply an obstacle to be removed, a complication to be eliminated; the next move in a brutal game. Thus he didn’t hesitate when he reached his victim; he seized and dispatched him before the man had time to react.
Within minutes the riverbank by the fishing shack was deserted and the man across the river had fled. Ray tumbled and rolled through the freezing cold rapids until he reached a calm stretch of water, where he floated on his back, his body turning in lazy circles as he went downstream. His eyes were wide open but he could no longer see the brilliant blue sky.
Rose Hill Police Chief Scott Gordon sat at his desk and considered the last box of evidence related to the murder of postmistress Margie Estep. During the investigation into that crime twenty years’ worth of stolen mail was discovered in her attic crawlspace. Margie’s killer was in prison awaiting trial; the evidence pertinent to the case was with the district attorney. With the Pine County Sheriff’s permission Scott had been returning the rest of the purloined mail to its proper owners. He had made appointments with everyone who had stolen mail and was awaiting his last visitor this morning.
Miranda Wilson, known as Mandy, worked at Fitzpatrick Bakery during the day and the Rose and Thorn bar at night, and was the live-in girlfriend of Scott’s best friend Ed. Mandy had a twelve-year-old son named Tommy who was the town’s only paper carrier. Mandy had been one of Margie’s extortion targets, and Scott held before him the ammunition Margie had used in that blackmail attempt.
Mandy crept into Scott’s office, her big green eyes wide in her pretty face. Mandy’s long blonde hair was wound up in a messy knot on top of her head and she wore a Fitzpatrick Bakery sweatshirt with jeans and sneakers.
“Hey, Scott,” she said in her Chattanooga twang.
Scott got up, closed the door behind her, and gestured for her to sit.
“Thanks for coming in, Mandy,” he said. “I wanted to give you the letter Margie stole from you.”
“Did you read it?”
“I had to,” Scott said. “I read every piece of mail that had been opened when I was trying to figure out who killed her.”
Scott handed the letter to her and she read it silently, moving her lips as she did so. When she finished there were big tears in her eyes, and her face was flushed.
“Do we have to talk about it?” she asked.
“No,” Scott said. “This isn’t officially any of my business. As your friend I’d like to know why you don’t want your mother to know you’re alive and well. It seems like she’s gone to a lot of trouble to find you.”
“It’s complicated,” Mandy said.
“How could Margie use this to try to blackmail you?”
Scott could tell Mandy was struggling with her fear so he let the silence play out. Finally she said, “When you went through the mail she took did you find anything for somebody called Melissa Wright?”
“I did, but there’s nobody by that name in town that I know of. I still have the letters.”
“Well, I know her. You can give ‘em to me.”
“Who’s Melissa Wright?”
“I can’t tell you, Scott. It ain’t exactly a legal situation.”
“Then you should discuss it with an attorney.”
“I can’t afford nothin’ like that.”
“Then maybe Father Stephen could help.”
“I ain’t Catholic,” Mandy said. “I ain’t nothin’ religious. Them church folks seem nice enough in church on Sundays but they’re mean as the dickens everywhere else and it don’t seem to matter.”
“Father Stephen says church is for imperfect people learning to do better.”
“When that preacher looks at me I feel like I done something wrong even if I ain’t.”
“Delia and Ian love you, Mandy, why don’t you confide in them?”
“I hate to let ‘em down,” Mandy said. “They been so good to me, givin’ me a job and a place to live. They’re like family.”
“What about Ed?”
“I ain’t tellin’ Ed and you better not neither.”
“Tell Hannah then, or Patrick. Someone you trust.”
“Can I have the other mail?”
“I can’t give you mail that doesn’t match the name on your driver’s license.”
“Well, don’t give it to nobody else,” Mandy said as she rose from her chair, tucking her letter into her back pocket.
“Mandy, please let someone help you deal with this, whatever it is.”
“I appreciate your advice, Scott, but I’ll handle it.”
After Mandy left, Scott did some Internet sleuthing. He knew Mandy came to Rose Hill from Florida, and he’d heard her talk about St. Petersburg, so he ran a search for the name Melissa Wright in St. Petersburg, Florida. What he found surprised him. He called the St. Petersburg Police Department, and after proving he was who he said he was they referred him to someone at the Treasure Island Police Department.
Treasure Island had a small staff, and luckily there was someone still working there who remembered the case.
“Melissa Wright died in a house explosion eleven years ago,” the officer told him. “Her husband was a local drug dealer who was cooperating with an undercover investigation into a methamphetamine production and distribution ring. We found him tied up and shot in the head in a dumpster near the airport. A day later there was an explosion at the house he’d been renting. His wife and two men were killed.”
“How was she identified?” Scott asked. “Dental records?”
“No,” the man said. “A neighbor identified the body.”
“What was the neighbor’s name?”
“Let me look,” the man said, and Scott held his breath until the man said, “Miranda Wilson. When the fire trucks arrived Miss Wilson was on the scene trying to put out the flames with a garden hose. She stated she heard the explosion and ran over to see if she could help.”
“What caused the explosion?”
“They’d built a meth lab. They were bright enough to make the drug, but stupid enough to blow themselves up doing it.”
“Were there any other deaths around that time with the same M.O. as the husband?”
“Several,” he said. “It was a bloody housecleaning by a local drug lord, and it seemed like we found a body every other day.”
“Any criminal background on Miranda Wilson?”
“Do you mind to hold?” the man asked.
“Not at all,” Scott said. “I appreciate the time you’re taking.”
When he came back on the line the man said, “Nothing on Miranda Wilson. I’ve got her profile if you want to run a background check. I can also e-mail the incident report to you if you want.”
Scott took down the Social Security number, gave the man his e-mail address, and thanked him. Within the hour Scott had a copy of the newspaper account of the explosion as well as the notes from the case file. Scott read the newspaper account with growing interest.
“Sunday morning at approximately 4:12 a.m. Melissa Wright, wife of the late Dallas Wright, was killed in a house explosion at 1118 Sixth Street East on Treasure Island, west of St. Petersburg. A source within the police department, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said that based on their preliminary investigations, the Pinellas County sheriff’s department suspects the structure housed a methamphetamine lab. Three victims were killed in the fire, including Mrs. Wright. Authorities are withholding the names of the other two victims pending notification of their families.
“Melissa Wright’s husband Dallas Wright was killed two days before the explosion in what some believe was another in a string of drug-related executions in Pinellas County. Additional details about Wright’s murder are being withheld pending further investigation.”
The officer’s notes corroborated the newspaper account and included the names of the other two victims, who both had outstanding warrants for a number of drug-related crimes. It was also noted that Miranda Wilson left the area shortly after being interviewed at the scene, and was believed to no longer be a resident of Florida.
Scott got out the letters written to Melissa Wright. There were three, and they were all from the same P.O. Box in St. Petersburg, Florida. One had been sent every year on the same date for three years. Scott checked his notes. The date was the same as the anniversary of the explosion that killed Melissa Wright. Each had the same message scrawled on white copy paper: “Someone is looking for Miranda.” The letter Margie used to blackmail Mandy had been sent six months ago, three months after the last Melissa Wright letter.
Scott e-mailed the officer in Florida, thanked him, and then made one further request. The officer e-mailed a scan of both Melissa Wright’s and Miranda Wilson’s driver’s licenses. After he printed them out and compared them Scott felt sick inside. Both women were very young, pretty blondes. Scott knew one of the women very well, having been served donuts and coffee by her every morning for the past several years. He was just surprised to find Mandy’s face on Melissa Wright’s driver’s license.
After debating with himself for a few minutes Scott ran a background check on Miranda Wilson. He found her St. Petersburg, Florida records, and the live birth of her baby boy recorded twelve years earlier in a local hospital. There was no record of a marriage and the father was listed on the birth certificate as “unknown.”
Ed Harrison waded through the celebrity gossip magazines, bras, panties, and damp towels that were draped over every fixture in his only bathroom, and found his good safety razor in the tub, along with what seemed like forty different kinds of shampoos, conditioners, bath gels and lotions.
He took a few deep breaths as he changed the blade and cleared enough space so he could shave over the sink. Mandy had written “I love you” on the mirror with lipstick, and it took glass cleaner and elbow grease to get the waxy red letters off the glass so he could clearly see the irritated expression on his stubbly face. He had a housekeeper who cleaned every Friday and this was only Monday.
“You got yourself into this,” he said to his reflection. “You might as well make the best of it.”
After he finished shaving and was cleaning the sink, he heard someone in the house and opened the bathroom door. Mandy was walking down the hall, and when she saw him she jumped back and gasped.
“What’re you doing home?” she asked. “You like to scared me to death.”
“Tommy was in the bathroom so long this morning I didn’t have time to shave,” Ed said, noting how agitated Mandy seemed. “Why are you home?”
“I forgot somethin’,” she said, but she didn’t look him in the eye as she said it. “I gotta get back to the bakery now before Bonnie has a fit.”
“See you later,” Ed said as she disappeared out the door.
Mandy waved but didn’t say anything.
Ed was confused. Anytime they parted or reunited he usually had to peal her off limb by limb, and then wipe off all the lipstick she left on his face. He returned to the bathroom, gathered up all the damp garments and towels, and threw them in the laundry hamper. The magazines he threw in the trash.
Scott put his feet up on his desk, wadded up a scrap of paper, and shot it toward a wire mesh basket in the corner. He and his friends Ed and Patrick played basketball for the Rose Hill Thorns, one of the Pine County Men’s League teams. Although Scott was barely six feet tall he was a serviceable defensive player. His shooting stats weren’t worth writing home about but he could still hustle up and down the court and pass to those who did shoot well. It was eleven o’clock in the morning and practice wasn’t until seven o’clock so Scott had several hours to kill with nothing to do.
Rose Hill had been quiet for the past couple weeks, which suited Scott just fine. There had been four murders in the small town over the past few months, where previously the most serious crimes Scott had investigated involved domestic disputes or vandalism. Scott had almost been corpse number five; his hair was starting to grow in around the scar on the back of his head caused by an iron-skillet-wielding murderer. That person was locked up in the mental health unit of a federal prison, unlikely to be released any time soon.
Up until a few weeks ago, Scott would have spent any free time he had preoccupied with what Maggie Fitzpatrick was doing. He would have walked down to Little Bear Books to pester her for attention. He still loved Maggie but they had experienced a serious rift in their burgeoning relationship. Nowadays he was keeping his distance, hoping that leaving her alone would eventually cool her anger. He also hoped that when enough time passed she would forgive him for what he’d done.
Ed walked through the station into Scott’s office and regarded the waste basket full of paper balls.
“There’s more in than out,” he said. “That’s an improvement.”
Scott swung his feet off the desk onto the floor as Ed sat down in a chair across from him.
“What’s up?” Ed asked him.
“I’m officially done cleaning up after Margie,” Scott said. “Now maybe everything and everyone in this town can get back to normal.”
“Did you ever find out why she was blackmailing Mandy?”
Scott hesitated before he spoke.
“I can’t discuss that with you,” he finally said. “You’ll have to ask Mandy.”
“Fair enough,” Ed said. “I figure it’s probably something that was no big deal to anyone except Mandy.”
Scott balled up another piece of paper and shot it toward the basket, but Ed deflected it.
“Since you don’t have anything to do,” Ed said, “you can help me find a new car.”
“You feeling alright?” Scott asked him.
“I’m serious. I’ve never actually purchased a car. In college I walked or took the bus; after I married Eve I drove her car. I’ve been driving Dad’s truck since he died.”