It’s because they’re trying to tell you something.
Find out what in this peek at The Vision, from The Vision and Other Tales
Former Lieutenant Colonel Lawrence Mendenhall, business consultant and researcher of emerging technologies, put off his planned suicide for the day and blamed his newly diagnosed brain tumor when he glimpsed the spectacle across the street from his dining room window. The vision vanished in a blink, and he had to ask himself if what he had just seen—a person in a garbage bag impaled on the sharp tines of the wrought iron fence—was a product of the tumor or a message from his damaged psyche. Plagued with hidden memories and painful images since the diagnosis, that morning he heard what sounded like a thousand crows outside, cawing, shrieking, knocking leaves, branches and possibly roof tiles loose with all their flapping. But there wasn’t a bird in sight when he looked out his window, just a tattered garbage bag in the shape of a human that was there and then gone.
Mendenhall walked into his kitchen for a bottle of water. His dark-haired wife, Jennifer, a stunning thirty-one, entered carrying her purse and a backpack. Mendenhall forgot all about bodies on fences and concentrated on his wife’s appearance. Her clothes, as usual, were too suggestive. Her slacks were too tight around her thighs and butt and her blouse displayed far too much cleavage.
“We had another window peeper last night,” she informed him.
“I didn’t imagine it. I heard them moving around outside the window.”
“Him…whoever…listen, I’m going to a movie today after school. I’ll call your cell if it looks like I’ll be home later than you.”
“Don’t bother,” Mendenhall told her. “I’m taking Mark and Jordan to dinner.” He wanted to tell his children goodbye.
“Okay then,” she in a falsely cheerful tone. “Guess I’ll see y’all later.”
She came near and lifted her face to kiss him, but he brought the bottle of water to his lips instead. “In class today why not learn to spell and pronounce the word you? Just a suggestion.” He knew she only said “y’all” because her favorite recording artist of the moment liked to be heard saying it.
Jennifer said, “Screw you, Larry.” Then she was gone.
Mendenhall walked through the kitchen to the dining room to watch her get into her car. He watched carefully to see if she glanced at the fence across the street or paused in hesitation. There was nothing, just a flash of arm and a hand stabbing and yanking at the door handle of her BMW, which was locked, so she was forced to unlock it before she could open it and climb inside.
“Idiot,” Mendenhall said and sipped at his water.
Thirty-six year old former assistant District Attorney and current city council member Stefan Havlicek heard the cacophony of bird noise outside and left his bedroom dressing room still tying his tie so he could look out the window. Seeing nothing from this view he moved into the hall and on to the formal living area that looked over the street outside. He saw what looked like several hundred crows gathered on the black wrought iron fence across the street at the Hudspeth home. A great cluster of them looked as if they were picking and tearing at something that hung from one of the spires. When he realized what shape the something appeared to be, Stefan sucked in his breath and headed for the front door. He wrenched it open then stopped dead in his tracks. There were no birds, no bird noise, and nothing on the fence.
Stefan blinked, swallowed and made himself walk outside and pick up the paper near the porch. He stood for several moments and stared across the street, telling himself he was not hallucinating or dreaming or anything else. The birds were there. His attention was diverted when he saw Jennifer Mendenhall leave the house next door. From the look on her face he decided his neighbor Larry must be in fine torturing form that day. Lawrence Mendenhall was a pompous, self-righteous ass and when he made the comment a few months ago about possibly running for city council himself in the next election Stefan wanted to take out a gun and shoot him…or himself. Bad enough Stefan had to live next door and watch him mentally abuse the sweet Jennifer, who adored the arrogant jerk according to Stefan’s wife Tessa, also an attorney. No way did Stefan want to sit on the city council and listen to the same highhanded crap from his ex-military neighbor meeting after meeting.
“Hey,” Tessa said from behind him, “keep staring at her and you’ll get Larry mad.”
Stefan turned. “I hope Jennifer asks me to defend her when she finally kills the insufferable bastard.”
Tessa moved outside to peer around him at the disappearing BMW. “She won’t kill him. Taking crap from men we love is ingrained at an early age. Like putting on lipstick after we eat or drink something, it’s automatic. And believe it or not, I see what she sees in Larry: an Ivy League vocabulary and an authoritative air can be pretty irresistible to most females. Just look who I married.” She winked and made to depart but Stefan caught her by the arm.
“Tess, did you hear the birds a minute ago?”
“I did, yes. I have to go now. I have an early doctor’s appointment.”
Tessa made her shrug casual. “It’s just a check-up.”
Before he could mention what he had seen on the fence she pulled out her keys and headed for the garage. “See you at dinner. Thaw the chicken?”
Stefan nodded and went back in the house, but not without a last look. Not a single feather or ounce of bird dropping in sight, and for God’s sake wouldn’t there have to be with that many birds?
The same thought was shared by Nashua Crowley, twenty-seven, failed medical student and wannabe artist-photographer who lived in the house next to the Hudspeth home. Nash inherited the house and a substantial sum from his deceased parents, so the failed part of his bio didn’t trouble him as much as it might someone less economically fit. What nagged him that morning was the knowledge that he had seen something truly extraordinary and had been thoroughly unprepared to capture any part of it.
The would-have-been doctor in him charged for the door the moment he realized what he was looking at, but the decadent hung-over drunk in him fell face first in the pile of mail, fast food wrappers and empty pizza boxes before he could get out. By the time he actually reached the drive the vision of the bag-covered body being pecked in the head by crows was gone and he wondered if by chance he had gotten a different kind of mushroom on that last pizza.
Nash stumbled back in the house to take a piss and curse his luck. There was no question he had seen something. He was never one to doubt the intricate complexities of the universe and he felt privileged to have been allowed a glimpse of what must have been a temporal flux of some kind that provided a three second view into a parallel dimension. Poor bastard, he found himself thinking as his stream made an arc into the toilet. Hope he was dead before the birds started in…
When he could see straight he left the house and went to examine the fence. While he was looking for bird droppings an arch teen-aged voice said, “What the hell are you doing?”
Nash turned and wasn’t sure if what had addressed him was a he or a she. It was ugly, that much he knew. There was a lot of greasy hair under what was some sort of crocheted hat, baggy shirt, trousers, and acne. Oh yes, a lot of acne.
“I live next door,” Nash explained. “I—“
“I know where you live,” the ugly it-thing interjected in an acid tone. “What are you looking for?”
“My lucky charms,” Nash retorted. “What do you care?”
“Because I live here and you’re on my lawn.”
Nash straightened, and when he looked directly into the mottled face it snorted and said, “Don’t worry, I’m not contagious.”
One of Mike and Mindy’s chosen ones, Nash realized. The Hudspeths took in sick children, screw-ups and foster kids no one else wanted and had done so ever since Nash could remember.
Some of his best friends while growing up had come from the rejected kids next door.
“I’m Nash,” he said.
Gender mystery solved. But there was no angel in any part of this ugly, angry pubescent girl.
“Okay, well, Angela, the reason I came out here is none of your business.”
“Mike and Mindy said to steer clear if we ran into you.”
Nash had to smile. They’d been telling kids that for years.
“I can see why,” she continued. “You look like crap.”
“Look who’s talking,” Nash returned.
“Oh, nice…ass hat.”
“What’s your affliction?” he asked, “Tourette’s?”
It was Angela’s turn to smile. “So lame. They don’t know what I have. They diagnose something different every year. Right now I’m on a Ritalin and Cocoa Puffs based cocktail served twice daily.”
“Dump it,” Nash advised. “They put me on the same stuff when I was your age.”
“Wow,” Angela said. “And just look how well you turned out. It gives me such hope for the future.”
Nash shook his head and walked back to his house.
The next morning the crows began again, but fifteen minutes earlier, while it was still dark and not yet dawn, and just beneath the raucous cawing was another sound that was unmistakably human. Several sets of eyes popped open. Two of the men, Nash Crowley and Stefan Havlicek, rolled out of their beds and hurried to the window, Nash grabbing a camera then cursing because it was still dark.
Lawrence Mendenhall awakened from a dream of blackened, melted faces and reached for his watch and his Blackberry.
Angela got up and pressed her oily acne-scarred forehead against the pane of her bedroom window in the Hudspeth home.
Across the street Stefan walked determinedly out of his house. The moment the door closed behind him, all the bird noise and pained cries stopped.
A hoarse “Dammit!” startled him from several yards away and Stefan strained to see who was complaining. He could just barely make out someone sitting on the curb and nursing a stubbed toe. Rather than deal with who he knew it had to be, Stefan retreated and returned inside his home.
“Stefan?” Tessa asked sleepily as he entered the bedroom. What was that?”
“Crowley from across the street.”
She rolled over. “All the wild things are out: Nash Crowley, squirrels, robins…spring must finally be here.”
Stefan stared at her back. There was no way anyone could call the crazed cacophony of crows a harbinger of spring and the fact that she was able to sleep through it spoke volumes. One time could be laughed off and easily forgotten, but two mornings in a row was not a coincidence and if he was alone in this he needed to know about it. He decided to go back outside, but Crowley was gone. Stefan waited, observed nothing further, and finally went in again.
By ten a.m. he was seated in his doctor’s exam room and trying not to look as shocked and stupid as he felt when his doctor said, “I’m glad you and Tessa made the decision to abort together. You’re both being very mature in your decision making process. Did you have any questions about the forms she brought home or the procedure itself?”
Stefan cleared his throat. “I, uh, might. For now I need to get a copy of the forms Tessa signed. She said she didn’t get any.”
“I’d like copies,” Stefan was firm. He wanted to see what boxes she had checked when it came to him and her reasons for having the procedure.
“Of course.” The doctor left and came back twenty minutes later with copies of the forms. He gave them to Stefan then stood back. “Now, you told the nurse you wanted to get your blood pressure checked today so why don’t you roll up your sleeve? I’m sure you’ve been under some stress recently.”
“As a matter of fact I have,” Stefan said as he stared at the first page in his hands.
Angela avoided Mike and Mindy Hudspeths’ radar by flying past the breakfast table and out the door before they could corral her into any of their home schooling classes, which usually included at least one Greek play (Medea was a favorite play of both) and generous amounts of L. Ron Hubbard. Though off the national radar for the moment, the Scientology bible known as Dianetics continued to be a big part of life in the Hudspeth home. Apparently the state would give you to any kook these days. The freak next door was interesting though and looked like he’d have some excellent drugs around his place if she could ever get inside and have a look. She had heard Mike and Mindy talking about his failure as a med student and the suspicious Mindy openly speculated that the Oxycontin overdose that killed his grieving mother might have come courtesy of son number one. He was two states away when it happened, but one never knew what hand he might’ve had (just pop a bunch into your mouth and chew them, Mom) in his unhappy mother’s end.
Mike came out looking for her and Angela ran around the side of the house and into the trees that bordered the grungy Nash’s place. Mike stood and called her name, his voice never rising above the same patient tone he displayed at all times, and finally went back inside. Angela slipped to the front window of Nash’s house and cupped her hands while attempting to peer through the slit in the drapes. She saw a trail of blood-covered tissues on the floor of the living area, looked like someone had a nosebleed. She eyed the tops of the tables in her line of sight but saw no drug paraphernalia and no pill bottles.
“Shit-pops,” she mumbled then jumped when behind her Nash said, “What’s up, crack baby?”
She backed away from his scruffy, bearded grin. “You are a total douche-bag, aren’t you?”
“I heard Mike yelling,” he said.
“So did I, aren’t we special.”
Nash opened his mouth and yelled, “Hey, Mike!”
Angela jumped at him. “Shut up! What are you doing?”
“You’re on my lawn,” Nash mimicked from earlier. He looked at her then. “Are they still Mormons?”
“Mike and Mindy.”
Angela lifted both brows. “Mormons? Seriously? They’re Scientologists now.”
“Figures,” Nash said. “So why were you window-peeking?”
“That’s none of your business.”
“Mike!” Nash yelled again.
“Ass!” Angela seethed. “Stop it. I’ll have to go in and read Ayn Rand or something.”
“Ouch. They play dirty now. It used to be Sophocles.”
“It still is. It’s retarded the stuff they make us read.”
Nash sat down on the stoop and patted the cement step beside him. “Any screamers in the house? They always had at least one while I was growing up.”
Angela ignored the invitation to sit. “Jeremy and Jason. They’re twins. Some kind of nerve-ending skin disease crap that makes them scream all the time. Worse than the freaking crows.”
Nash’s head came up. “You heard crows this morning?”
“Yes, I heard them this morning. I hear birds every morning. Maybe you’ve noticed the hundred thousand trees in this neighborhood?”
Was it her imagination or did his face fall just a little? It told her what she needed to know, mainly that he had heard the terrible noise too and it wasn’t her imagination. And if the noise wasn’t imagined then neither was the body on the fence yesterday.
Super, she told herself. Her lifelong lucky streak was holding out.
Lawrence Mendenhall sat on a bench on his stone patio and breathed in the morning air. It was still and humid and when he closed his eyes he could feel his pulse pounding all the way to his fingertips. He remembered feeling it before, long ago, in a land half a world away. He shuddered and lifted his lids before any horrific visions came. The constant effort left him angry and restless. He had done his time already; he had made peace with horrors past and had no wish for these prolonged return visits, not with brain tumors, crazed birds, agonized cries or suggestive garbage bags. He wasn’t going the way his friends and countless others had, he wouldn’t drink himself numb or take twelve anti-depressants or pain-killers a day. He would not.
“Larry?” Jennifer leaned out the French door. “Do you want some coffee?”
For half a second he appreciated the gesture, until he saw her expression. “If I wanted coffee I’d have a cup in my hand. I gave up caffeine and you know it.”
She closed the door without saying a word.
Mendenhall sighed and hated himself. Then he hated her. She knew what she was doing. She reveled in it. Everyone thought she was so nice and such a loving, considerate person. The truth was she liked to do things in front of other people to make herself look good and him look bad. She wanted everyone to believe she was the perfect wife, much put upon by her ailing wicked husband, but day in and day out there were digs from her, consistent wrongs designed to antagonize and keep him on edge. No one believed her capable of such craft of course. She was sweet, beautiful Jennifer. He hated the cunning and guile wrapped up in her physical perfection. He had seen glimpses of it in her before and dismissed it, thought it was cute and like everyone else who knew her thought she was the sweetest, feistiest, thing he had ever seen.
Some day, he thought, he would take out the strongbox in his safe and show her photos of the only woman he had ever really loved. The one he had killed. They weren’t at all alike. Not even close.
“How about a cinnamon roll?” She was at the door again. Never mind his diabetes, the calculating bitch was offering him a platter of sugar-laden pastries.
Lieutenant Colonel Lawrence Mendenhall, veteran of three tours and early participant in the delivery of millions of gallons of dioxin-laced herbicide known as Agent Orange to the forested hectares of Vietnam gave her a withering look. Jennifer sniffed haughtily and returned inside again, taking her pastry platter with her.
Stefan Havlicek didn’t want to see or speak with anyone, couldn’t face another single person at the moment, so he drove home and called the law office to say he was sick and wouldn’t be in that day. He dragged a suitcase out of the closet and started filling it. He thought of going to Tessa’s firm and confronting her but knew his anger would get the better of him, so it was best to gain more distance from his emotions and plan a strategy. He always planned his conversations; it was what had helped him overcome stuttering as a child. It had helped him pass the bar and it helped him win Tessa, the wife who was about to abort his baby without telling him.
He slammed shut the suitcase knowing how bad it would look if word got out to the city council that he was leaving his wife. No matter how hip modern society liked to pretend to be it was never good news for a man in politics who couldn’t keep his marriage together. He decided he didn’t care. After lugging the full suitcase out to his car he returned inside and started a note. Then he decided he didn’t care about that either.
When he was beside his car once more, keys in hand, the bird noise started. He swiveled around to look and within seconds it was deafening. Stefan thought of the Hitchcock movie and wondered if he should be ducking and running. But no…the birds were concentrated in one area, on the wrought iron fence with the sharp, pointed spires. And yes, there was the body-shaped thing in the bag.
Stefan drew a deep breath and walked as quickly as he could toward the fence and the birds. He reached the bag, and amazed that it was still there he tore the plastic with his hands in case whoever it was still needed to breathe—and saw eaten, pecked flesh down to raw cheek bone. Bile rose in his throat and he retched. The vision disappeared, leaving him standing with his hands out. Stefan shuddered. His limbs were shaking, his breathing shallow. He felt like he was going to pass out. It was real. It was so real he could still smell the stench in his nostrils.
“You all right, man?”
Stefan jumped and shouted when Nash Crowley with a video camera approached from behind and touched his arm.
“You scared the shit out of me!” Stefan said angrily and jerked away from the other man’s touch.
“Sorry. You looked like you were having a David Lynch moment.”
Stefan glared at Nash. “A what?“
“What’s going on here?”
Both men turned as Lawrence Mendenhall approached.
“Nothing, Larry. Why do you ask?” Stefan was automatically defensive.
“You’re both standing in a yard that’s not yours and looking like something’s wrong, that’s why.”
“And that concerns you how?” Nash asked, the slacker coming out against the establishment.
“Jesus flipping Christ!” chimed in Angela who emerged from behind the nearest tree. “Isn’t anyone gonna say anything about the crows and that freaking body?”
Three men looked at her, not one spoke.
“Assholes,” Angela said. “You know you all saw it, same as me. I can see it in your faces.”
Nash was first to cave. “All right I saw it.”
Slowly, Stefan nodded. “I touched it. It was real. It was a per—”
“Oh, crap.” Angela bolted and three heads turned to see a diminutive sixty-something Mindy Hudspeth moving briskly down the drive toward them. She did not look happy. Angela sped away. “I call a meeting at Nash’s tonight at ten o’clock!”
“Angela?” Mindy called. “Where are you going? Please get back in the house.”
The turbulent teen melted into the trees and an embarrassed-looking Mindy approached her neighbors. “I hope she hasn’t been causing any trouble. Angela’s one of our newer, more difficult charges.”
“She has quite the mouth on her,” said Mendenhall and Nash rubbed away the grin beneath his beard.
“It’s chronic, I’m afraid.” Still smiling, Mindy asked “Why are you all standing out here?”
Stefan opened his mouth but Mendenhall was in charge. “We just happened to land here is all, Mrs. Hudspeth. I saw Crowley talking with Stefan here and came over to join them. You’ll have to forgive our trespassing.”
“That’s quite all right. Chat all you like. I just hoped Angela wasn’t causing any kind of disturbance. She’s very good at that. Well, you all have a nice day.” And the still displeased Mindy walked back up the drive.
Stefan looked at Larry Mendenhall in surprise. Mendenhall looked at Nash. “Ten o’clock, the girl said.” Then he turned stiffly and walked away.
Nash and Stefan nodded to each other and parted ways.
At ten-fifteen that evening Mendenhall got up from Nash’s cluttered sofa and said, “Let’s start without her. She’s not coming.”
Nash looked at Stefan. “Mindy’s probably got her on lock down.”
Stefan followed Mendenhall’s lead. “My wife didn’t hear the birds, Larry. Did Jennifer?”
“No. Seems it’s just us…and the girl. Any thoughts?”
Nash got up and reached for his video camera. He hit play and handed it to Mendenhall to show him. “Nothing showed up on what I filmed earlier. I keep the camera next to me all the time now, just waiting, and zip. Nothing on audio either.”
Mendenhall watched then hit rewind and handed it to Stefan, who hit play and watched before giving it back to Nash.
The door opened and a perspiring Angela rushed inside. “Ooh, what’d you get? Can I see?” She snatched the camera then snorted in disappointment at what she watched. “Should’ve known. Sorry I was late. What have you guys figured out? Are we all hearing and seeing the same thing? Bagged body on fence, lots of cawing and pecking, right?”
The men nodded, giving way to the force that was Angela.
“And why just us, right? Why not anyone else? Why on that fence in front of that house?” As she paced in front of them Stefan noticed the acne scars on her face were nothing compared to the deep scars on her hands. They looked as if they’d been sewn together with large ugly stitches. She saw him looking and self-consciously shoved them in the pockets of her baggy pants.
Not having a clue why, Stefan opened his mouth and said, “Your scars aren’t so bad. My younger brother was born with a cleft palate, a club foot, and a tiny hole in his heart. He ‘hit the trifecta in birth defecta’ a nurse in the hospital used to say.”
Immediately the hale and physically fit Stefan felt himself come under close examination by the others. “I was born normal,” he added in response to their searching gazes.
“Lucky you,” Angela said, and with an edge to her voice turned on Nash. “What about you? A pair of undescended testicles perhaps?”
Nash shook a finger at her. “Where does Mrs. H think you are?”
“She’s busy with the retarded black lady, Melba,” Angela explained.
“Jamaica Melba’s still around?” Nash was surprised. “She was here when I was a kid.”
“Yeah well she’s still a kid up here,” Angela pointed to her head. “Every time she comes near me she says weird stuff like ‘Shaleem my queen,’ over and over again. ‘Shaleem my queen, Shaleem my queen.’ It makes Mindy nuts.”
Nash sat forward. “She’s not saying ‘Shaleem my queen’, she’s saying Charlene McQueen.”
“What?” Mendenhall and Stefan said at the same time.
“Charlene McQueen lived next door for a while,” Nash said. “Her hands and feet were shaped like lobster claws and she had some other stuff wrong too. Her parents brought her here from Laos to get operated on. The surgeries were too expensive so the parents just abandoned her and went home. That’s how Mike and Mindy got her.”
“You were friends?” Angela asked.
“Yeah, and Melba was Charlene’s buddy. She must’ve seen your hands and it reminded her of Charlene.”
“So whatever happened to her?” Stefan asked. “Charlene.”
“I don’t know. My mom said she left and went to school somewhere.”
Mendenhall stood suddenly. “I need to be going. We should meet again.”
Before anyone could speak, he was out the door and gone.
“I need to go, too,” Stefan said. “My wife is due home. We’ll talk soon.”
At home Mendenhall fixed himself a drink and fought to stave off the nightmarish images that played like a slideshow in his head at Nash’s description of Charlene McQueen. He remembered the little Laotian girl with her large dark eyes and pitiful deformities. He had seen her on several occasions, and the last time he saw her he thought he probably should have done something about what he saw, but did not. Didn’t because of everything she suggested to his wounded, guilty mind, because he believed thousands like her were the result of what he had done on those Agent Orange chopper missions and he couldn’t bear to look at her and remember. So the day she ran crying and screaming in terror across the lawn with a large sash made from a plastic dry-cleaning bag draped around her head and shoulders he closed the shade and pretended not to see how enraged Mindy Hudspeth was when she caught her.
Stefan stared through his open front door toward the Hudspeth home, only now remembering the number of times he heard screaming and crying coming from the house with all the foster children. He supposed he associated displaced children with crying and had never thought much beyond it. It was always someone else’s problem. He thought of the number of child abuse cases he had prosecuted and made deals for probation instead of jail. Now he wondered why.
Nash lay on his couch thinking of everything Charlene McQueen said to him the last time he saw her. Mindy swore it was all a terrible mean-spirited lie and threatened to call the police on Nash and tell them he was molesting Charlene if he didn’t leave. He threatened to call the police right back and tell them all about the asphyxiation ritual Mike and Mindy performed on some of their ‘hyperventilating’ wards. Charlene claimed it was right up their objectivist alley in terms of dealing with the mentally unfit in their care. Covering people’s heads with plastic dry-cleaning bags and holding it tight around the neck until they passed out was apparently the first line of treatment when the Hudspeths felt someone was out of control.
Embarrassed and aghast at all the allegations Nash’s parents sent him far away to an uncle’s house in Colorado to live, where he learned about doctors and drugs and decided he wanted to be the one doing the prescribing. That changed, but his memory of Charlene McQueen and what she told him never went away.
Angela crept to her room as quietly as possible and paused when she looked outside and saw a dim light in the greenhouse directly beneath her window. She had never been in the greenhouse—it was off limits to all but Mike and Mindy, who were both snoring in front of the television downstairs. Who the hell was in the greenhouse then? Angela slipped down the stairs again and made her way out the back.
The door to the greenhouse was unlocked, which made Angela immediately wary. But who would break in some place just to steal a freaking plant? There was no light that she could see and she wondered if whoever it was had doused it the moment she came in the door. Ever prepared she took her prized Zippo lighter from her pocket and fired it up. The place was dark as hell and creepy because of the smell. It reminded her of a mortuary.
She walked down one row and then another until she found herself looking at a miniature wrought iron fence just like the one outside. Inside it were tall white flowers that looked like cartoon lilies when someone died and a flower was stuck in their hand. There was a little sign below and she held her lighter next to it to see the italic print: Zantedeschia aethiopica Crowborough’
“Whatever the hell that means,” she mumbled and then jumped when the giggling Melba came at her out of the dark.
“Jesus, Melba!” Angela hissed. “You scared the pee out of me!”
Melba had a wrench in her hands, a heavy one, and Angela saw that her hands were covered with dirt.
“What are you doing with that?” she asked.
“Shaleem my queen,” Melba answered.
“Okay, I’m your buddy,” Angela said and she patted the woman’s arm. “You’d better not let Mindy find you. You need to get cleaned up and get to bed, Melba.”
“No,” Melba told her, but she nodded vigorously.
“Go on now,” Angela said, and she smiled and murmured “Goofy,” as Melba yawned hugely and ambled out.
Angela’s attention returned to the weird plot of lilies and her gaze fastened on the metal sign and stuck there for several moments while her mind replayed the noisy visions of the last two days. Angela eyed the pointy fence, the italic ‘crow’ and then the lilies. She got down on her hands and knees and sank her scarred fingers into the earth below the plants.
Her hands weren’t as strong as most people—her father had stuck her hands in a garbage disposal to prove a point about not stealing lunch money from him—so it was work for her to pull the earth away. A foot and a half down she touched what felt like plastic and she fired up the lighter once more. It was black plastic, like a trash bag. Angela swallowed hard and sat back on her heels…right into the heavy wrench swung at the back of her head. The blow cracked skull and Angela collapsed in a heap, eyes round and staring out of her scarred, dirt-encrusted face.
“I told everyone she was trouble,” Mindy Hudspeth said as she awakened her husband. “There’s been an accident, Mike. Angela’s been seriously hurt. She may even be dead.”
Stefan stood in the shower and thought of his brother’s birth defects. It must’ve bothered Tessa more than he ever imagined, though they had never truly discussed it. The fact that she believed a child of theirs would be thus afflicted, and had obviously been supported by their own doctor, should tell him all he needed to know, he guessed. He thought about Angela’s hands as he turned the knobs in the shower and wondered what else she might have suffered in her short unhappy life. When he left the bathroom Tessa was waiting. “What’s going on?”
“You tell me,” he said, ready for her excuses.
“I have no idea. I just came home and there’s an ambulance and a dozen police cars across the street. You don’t know what happened?”
Stefan pushed past her to get to the window. Holy shit. “Whatever it was it happened in the last twenty minutes.” He reached for his clothes and hurriedly dressed. Outside in his yard he saw Larry Mendenhall headed his way. Nash met them in the street, and a cop stopped them at the gate.
“What happened?” Mendenhall asked, and not even a cop was going to brook his authoritative demand.
“A girl was injured, that’s all we know at this point. Did any of you see anything this evening? Hear anything?”
A medical examiner’s vehicle arrived before he could finish.
“Looks like injured just became dead,” Nash said, and below his breath he added a soft curse.
The three moved into the street.
“Do we know it’s her?” Stefan asked.
“It has to be Angela,” Nash said. “What have we gotten ourselves into?”
“What did Angela get into might be the better question,” Mendenhall said.
Nash was visibly upset. “She was a tough little thing. I don’t even want to think about how she learned to be that way.”
“The same as the rest of us,” Stefan said. “Once people meet someone of a generous nature, trusting and honest in their affections, they can’t wait to start abusing them.”
Mendenhall and Nash both looked askance at Stefan but he was staring into the lighted windows of his own house.
“Nash,” Stefan said suddenly. “Can I stay at your place tonight?”
Nash was caught by surprise. “Are you worried, man? I mean, should we all be?”
“No,” Stefan said quickly. “I just…can’t…stay at home tonight.”
“Sure,” Nash said and rather than say how weird he thought the request he offered to let him sleep on the sofa.
“Stefan, can you make a call and find out what happened?” Mendenhall was back to business. He offered a card from his wallet. “Text me when you know something, would you?”
“I’ll do that.” Though no longer with the D.A., Stefan still knew people.
Once in the house Tessa approached Stefan and demanded, “Where are all your clothes? I just opened the closet.”
Stefan retrieved his briefcase and took out the papers from the doctor’s office with her signature on them. He gave them to her.
“We need to talk,” she said, her face gone white.
“Call my attorney,” Stefan responded, and briefcase in hand he went out to get in his car. He drove it around the block just in case she was looking, and pulled it all the way up into Nash’s drive so the car would be hidden from view. The last thing he wanted to do was talk to her.
Tessa didn’t see where Stefan went, but Jamaica Melba did, having sneaked out of the house the second Mike and Mindy went back to bed. She crept to the front window of Nash Crowley’s house and giggled as she peered through the drapes. She saw Nash hand Stefan Havlicek a beer and sit down. The place was a mess, with piles of newspapers, pizza boxes, food containers and cardboard beer boxes everywhere. On the end table nearest the window was a magazine with pictures of women.
Nasty, Melba thought. The pictures were nasty, and nasty was wrong. Nash had always been nice to her, but nasty was not nice. Mindy always said if any boys were looking at nasty pictures to make them stop. Maybe she wouldn’t give Nash the little pipe and the weird test tube looking thingy she had found in Angela’s things. Maybe she’d just keep Angela’s pretty silver fire-lighter. And she should probably go right now and tell Mindy about Nash being nasty. Nasty, nasty Nash. Melba giggled.
Mendenhall’s fitful dozing was interrupted yet again by the sound of sirens. He looked at his clock with blurred vision and saw it was close to four a.m. He had drifted off only minutes ago, his mind still in a crazy spin over Angela and the visions. He stepped outside and nearly stopped breathing when he saw flames shooting high and smoke pouring thick out the windows of Nash Crowley’s house.
He made his way to the street and across the Hudspeth lawn, where he met Mike Hudspeth and his wife Mindy looking appropriately aghast at the horror enfolding before them. He noted their performance and kept moving, heading for someone who looked in charge.
“There are two men inside,” he told the fireman wearing a badge. “Nash Crowley and Stefan Havlicek.”
“Then I’m sorry,” the man responded, “because anyone in that house is probably dead.”
Mendenhall stumbled back in a state of disbelief and didn’t notice the speculative gleam in Mindy’s gaze as he passed.
Jennifer met him at the door. “Oh my god, honey, what an insane night! Can you believe all this? Wait—you don’t look so good, honey. Are you feeling all right? Is your tumor hurting?”
“Shut up, Jennifer.”
She blinked. “What? Did you just tell me to shut up?”
“Yes, and you’re still not doing it.”
“Okay, that’s it. I’ve put up with all the shit from you I’m going to. We are so over.”
Larry looked at her. “Still talking?”
She did a lot of slamming of things and some pretend sniffling on her way out of the house.
It was five a.m. before he reached for his Blackberry and he was stunned to see a message from Stefan Havlicek waiting for him. Hope leapt in him as he saw that it came with a picture attached. Then he looked at the time it was sent, two-thirty a.m., and he realized it was sent before the fire. The message read: Angela found bludgeoned in greenhouse. Nash said CMcQ told him the Hudspeths were asphyxiating kids! Pic is CMcQ at Nash’s 13th b-day. CU tomorrow.
CMcQ. Charlene McQueen.
Mendenhall stared at the deep black hair and sweet upturned nose and wondered why he hadn’t seen this beautiful child in the ugly misshapen thing that ran crying and screaming across the lawn that day. He wondered if the plastic dry-cleaning bag had been used as something other than the pretend sash he had believed she was wearing in some dress up game. He remembered the white finger marks on her thin arms as Mindy viciously jerked her like a rag doll. A fierce pain lanced his head and out of nowhere a sob erupted from his chest. He clutched the Blackberry in his hand and tears streamed down his face as he realized the girl had never left the people next door to go off to school somewhere. She had likely not lived past the day he saw her, and just as egregiously the brave Angela, Stefan Havlicek and Nash Crowley had all become victims of the people the vision was sent to warn against.
It appeared Mendenhall was destined to be the one to fix things, perhaps rightfully so as someone who had been the cause of so many similar deformations in human beings.
Mendenhall went to the closet and pulled out his footlocker.
A strange car was next door at the Havlicek home, a relative come to comfort the grieving Tessa, no doubt. Nash’s devastated home was a charred, blackened husk; the terrible odor of things burned still filled the air.
Mike Hudspeth answered the door on the first knock. “Hello, Larry. I’m sorry, but we’ve been told not to talk with anyone or answer any questions about what happened last night.”
“I haven’t asked any,” Mendenhall said, and he raised his weapon and shot Mike in the chest. Mindy was right behind him and when she saw Mike fall she turned to run. Mendenhall shot four times into her retreating back then he placed the muzzle under his chin and pulled the trigger.
Across the street a red-faced Tessa sat up with a start. “What was that?”
Her mother got up and looked. “I don’t see anything.” She returned to her daughter. “It sounded like gunfire, or firecrackers. Would you like me to call the fire marshal? Find out when they’re coming back.”
Tessa nodded. “I don’t think I can talk to anyone. I can’t believe they left without finding anything. And how did Larry know where Stefan was? Stefan can’t stand Larry, and I don’t think he even knew Nash Crowley that well. Mom, he was just so hurt. I’ve never told him about Daddy’s schizophrenia. He didn’t know how sick and worried I’ve been about these visions.”
“You’re fine, Tessa.”
“We’ve talked about getting pregnant, but I didn’t realize how scared I was until it happened. I’m worried I might hurt a baby the way Daddy hurt all of us and… Poor Stefan, he probably thought it was because of his brother.”
Tessa began sobbing anew and her mother held her grieving daughter and shook her head. “I’m so sorry, Tessa.”
“I’m going to keep it,” Tessa declared suddenly. “Schizophrenic or not, I’m keeping this baby.”
“You are not like your father. I promise you.”
Tessa hiccupped. “Then why am I seeing and hearing these ghastly things?”
“I don’t know, baby. I wish I did.” Her mom looked at her watch. “I’ll go and make the call now. Will you be all right?”
“No,” Tessa whimpered. “I’ll never be all right again.”
Her mother held her tightly. “I know, honey. I know.
Jamaica Melba sat cross-legged on the floor beside the bloody bodies in the foyer. Jeremy and Jason were upstairs screaming, as usual. She wished they would not scream but maybe the loud cracking noises and the strange smell in the house scared them. Melba bit her lip. She held Lawrence Mendenhall’s gun and examined it thoroughly, even pulling the trigger while pointing it directly at her face just as she had seen Mendenhall do. Nothing happened but a click.
Jennifer Mendenhall shook her head in dismay at sight of the Crowley house as she left her BMW. It was going to be an eyesore in the neighborhood for some time, obviously, unless the insurance people came and demolished everything right away. She thought maybe sweet Stefan next door could be persuaded to make something immediate happen from his position on the council. He would if she asked, she knew, since Stefan obviously had a crush on her. Having the bland Tessa for a wife Jennifer couldn’t blame him. With determined steps she walked into the house, ready to kiss Larry’s ass and act in whatever serious adult way he wanted just to make up. There was no way she was going to miss the fourteen day Mediterranean cruise they were scheduled to be on next month. She had bought a ton of outfits for the trip.
“Honey?” She walked into the foyer and stood listening a moment before making a tour through the usual places he could be found. Moments later she threw her purse on the counter and went to her room to lie down. She’d just nap until he came back. It wouldn’t kill her to miss class again. Under eye puffiness said she needed to catch up on her sleep and as the professor was seriously into her and loved everything she did, one missed exam wasn’t going to hurt a thing.
When Tessa could stand it no longer she left the house at dusk and went across the street to speak with the fire marshal. The man sighed when he saw her coming. “Ma’am, I asked you to—”
“Not one bone fragment?” Tessa interjected. “Not a single dental filling?”
He handed her a cell phone. “We found his phone by the back door. Please go home and we’ll call when and if we find something biological.”
“When and if? When did ‘this takes time’ become ‘when and if’?”
He rubbed his face. “If there’s anything in there to find we’ll find it, but we will need more time.”
Defeated, she trudged across the street. The cell phone in her hand buzzed and when she opened it she realized it wasn’t her husband’s phone at all, but Nash’s. Some girl was texting him. Tessa ignored the call and shoved the cell phone in her pocket. Her mother handed Tessa the handset to the landline. “It’s the doctor’s office calling to confirm your procedure.”
Tessa’s chin trembled as she took the phone.
In the Hudspeth greenhouse Stefan and Nash had identical bloody foreheads and temples. Bound to each other with fifty feet of unused Ethernet cable, both men watched in dread and horrified stupefaction as the lumbering Melba brought first one screaming twin out to the greenhouse and pinned it to the ground with her legs while she covered its head with a plastic garbage bag and wound duct tape around the neck. Then she departed and returned with the other twin. The incessant screaming at last stopped, easing only a fraction of the pain shrieking through the huge swollen lumps on both men’s heads, made by one very heavy wrench.
Melba hunted up a garden spade and began to dig, accompanied by constant mumbling of, “Shaleem my queen, Shaleem my queen.”
“Looks like she’s going to bury them,” Stefan murmured to Nash, who had been staring at a sign below some lilies. The earth below the lilies was freshly turned and Nash thought hard while he looked at the dirt and the name on the sign.
Stefan blinked away the flying dirt from Melba’s spade. “You think she killed Charlene?”
“And maybe Angela—Jesus, who knows how many?” Nash kept his voice to a whisper. “What I’m wondering is did she start it or did the Hudspeths?”
“Where the hell are they?” Stefan wondered. “Maybe they’re tied up too.”
“Ask Melba,” Nash said.
“You ask her.”
“I can’t; she thinks I’m nasty.”
Melba looked over her shoulder at them. “Shush!”
Both men shushed.
Tessa’s mother was asleep on the sofa when the bird sounds came. Tessa covered her ears and squeezed her eyes closed, but it went on and on until finally she got up and opened the front door. She walked outside. The neighborhood was unnaturally dark to her eyes, too dark to see the fence across the street. There was no porch light on at either the Mendenhall’s home or the Hudspeth, and there were too few lights on inside the homes as well for this time of evening.
A mixture of fear and curiosity took her into the street. The bird noise was deafening. It was too dark to clearly see the bag they were pecking at, but as Tessa reached the fence she heard a series of moans and shrieks and she approached with sick dread. Her eyes adjusted and she reached for a piece of the torn plastic, fighting off the more aggressive crows. She pulled the plastic away and gasped at the decayed flesh and bone beneath her fingers. Her hand fell away and she stumbled back in horror and disgust.
She turned on her heel and was ready to bolt for home when she spied a light in the greenhouse beside the Hudspeth home. Another glance at the Hudspeth house: pitch black, but shadows on the glass panes revealed furtive movement in the greenhouse and against her better judgment Tessa veered onto the lawn and approached.
Jennifer turned off the television with the remote and got up. Twice Larry had simply disappeared, leaving the car in the drive and taking a cab somewhere to stay overnight. It appeared this was the case again, no doubt in distraught response to her having left him. She had noted the open foot locker and Jennifer thought for several minutes before going into the bedroom and looking at his safe. He changed the combination on her a month ago but the camera she had hidden in the room was able to give her the new numbers. She quickly opened the safe and checked to see if everything was still there.
The strongbox inside caught her eye. She had never seen its contents and wondered if it possessed a hidden Swiss bank number or a bundle of treasury notes or some other hidden wealth. Jennifer retrieved her lock-picking tools from her purse and set to work on the lock.
Minutes later her smile of satisfaction turned to a moue of disgust at what she found when she lifted the lid of the strongbox. Inside were old pistols, old papers, and old pictures. Why on earth would he keep such hideous pictures? And just who was the woman? Jennifer couldn’t bear even to touch the photographs and dropped them as if the disease-ravaged Asian woman pictured might somehow infect her own silky perfection.
She always wondered if Larry had a kinky side.
A sound at the window made her look up. Quickly she turned off the lamp on the end table and hid beside the bed, peering over the top to see who was outside. A face was pressed against the window. Jennifer dove for the open footlocker in a panic and came up with a pistol. “I’ve got a gun!” she yelled, and when she aimed it at the window she inadvertently pulled the trigger not just once but an Oh shit! twice.
The resulting blasts were deafening and the ringing in her head went on and on while the smell of cordite filled her nostrils. She dropped the gun and waved her arms at the smoky tendrils and smell. The window was a disaster. She had really shot the hell out of the window.
For an insane moment Jennifer almost grinned thinking how pissed Larry was going to be. Then she decided she needed her cell phone to call the police. A deep moan from outside sent adrenaline coursing through her body as the realization that she had actually hit someone came home.
Jennifer grabbed the gun again in case it was a trick and went cautiously to the window to look down, using the tiny light from her cell phone to see. On the lawn below her window was a large black woman. Jennifer squealed in fright and jumped back from the window.
Crap! Was she in trouble now? Weren’t intruders supposed to actually be in the house before you could shoot them?
Momentarily paralyzed by indecision she sat frozen on the bed and wondered what the hell she was going to do. Then she thought of sweet Stefan next door. Okay. She would have to be crying really hard of course, which might take a few seconds.
While sizing up the greenhouse Tessa heard more pops, really loud ones, but ignored them when grunts and groans from inside the glass structure captured her attention. She circled and attempted to look through the dirty panes. Finally she found a broken piece of window pane about six inches wide and leaned in to look.
“Stefan! Oh my God!”
His wife’s shriek of joy caused the twisting, squirming Stefan to jerk his head around. “Tessa?”
“Sssshhh!” Nash warned. “She could be out there!”
“Tessa!” Stefan hissed. “Watch out for her!”
Tessa looked over her shoulder and sure enough saw a figure in the darkness staggering toward her with a gun. She grabbed up the first thing she saw, a wrench on the ground next to the greenhouse. Tessa threw the wrench as hard as she could and heard a crunching sound as it struck the sobbing Jennifer Mendenhall squarely between the eyes, shattering both her nose and cheekbone and dropping her like a stone, flat out unconscious on the ground.
Tessa crept over to see who she had hit. “Oh my god.”
“Tessa!” Stefan was worried. Tessa picked up the wrench, ran back to the greenhouse and broke half a dozen of the panes to get inside to her husband. She ran and threw her arms around both men.
“What happened out there?” Stefan asked in between kisses.
“I hit her in the face with the wrench.”
“Is she out?” Nash asked.
“Yes. Oh, I should’ve taken the gun!” Tessa started away, but Stefan said, “Melba didn’t take the gun. It’s right there.”
“Melba? I hit Jennifer Mendenhall in the face with a wrench. You told me to watch out for her and when I turned around she was coming at me with a gun!”
“What?” Nash cried. “Melba’s still out there? Hurry up and get us loose!”
No sooner did he finish the sentence when Melba stumbled into the greenhouse. Bullet holes in her chin and cheek streamed with blood that covered the entire front of her large frame. She tried to hand the gun to Tessa.
“Melba hurt!” she exclaimed and began braying in loud noisy sobs.
Tessa rose, but Stefan caught her blouse. “Be careful, she’s dangerous!”
“It’s all right,” Tessa said and went to Melba, who sat down in a heap and cried as if her heart were breaking. Tessa put her arm around her and held her close.
Once free, Nash went directly to the ground beneath the lilies and began to dig.
When Melba saw what he was doing she stopped sobbing long enough to say “Shaleem my queen” a few times before blubbering again about hurting.
Stefan scrambled to the twins and tore open the plastic over their heads. Both were blue in the face, but quickly started gulping huge breaths of air.
“She’s under there, isn’t she?” Tessa said as she watched Nash. “The girl inside the trash bag on the fence. The vision of the crows and the bagged body was a message for us.”
Stefan looked up as Nash cursed. He had uncovered the same black plastic bag as Angela, and after ripping it open he discovered the grimy flowered fabric of a dress, along with the remnants of an ancient dry-cleaning bag.
“Hey, Charlene,” Nash said softly.
Within an hour the police, the FBI, two ambulances, the medical examiner and two social workers arrived and began interviewing everyone on the scene. Nash pointed to where Charlene McQueen was buried and the FBI took over the excavation.
The bodies of the Hudspeths were taken away. The miraculously still alive Larry Mendenhall was taken away, tongue destroyed and nasal passage cratered by the bullet that exited between his eyes. The bloodied, broken and swollen Jennifer was also taken away, vehemently swearing lawsuits against one and all and finally Jamaica Melba was taken away, still sobbing in pain and drooling, nodding to everything asked of her. Yes, she broke into the Mendenhall’s house, stole a pistol from his footlocker and shot Mindy, Mike and Larry Mendenhall, who must’ve fought her for the weapon, resulting in his getting shot the way he did. It was a tribute to the Lieutenant Colonel’s bravery and tenacity that he survived.
Before dawn Nash stood with Stefan and Tessa Havlicek and watched the departing vehicles.
“We still don’t know who killed her,” Stefan mused. “Was it a raging out of control Mindy, or copycat Melba just doing what she had seen the Hudspeths do?”
“My vote’s with Mindy,” Nash said. “Either way, that bitch was responsible.” Then his voice turned mournful. “Shit…my house.”
Stefan turned to his wife. “You heard the crows all along?”
Tessa sighed. “My father suffered severe schizophrenia. The visions made me think it was happening to me too. I was afraid to pass it along to—”
“Angela?” said Nash, looking at the cell phone Tessa had handed him. “I thought the wigged out little shit was dead! How the hell did she get my number? She’s been texting non-stop from the hospital, wanting to know what’s going on. If she’s alive then why the hell was the medical examiner here?”
“That was Mike Hudspeth’s brother, who works for the medical examiner’s office,” Tessa said. “You knew that, Stefan. You spoke to him in the street last time he came to visit.”
Nash looked at Stefan. “Wow. Bet the D.A.’s office misses you, Sparky.”
“Thanks buddy. You need someplace to crash…Nash?”
Nash shook his head. “Thanks, but I think I’ll check in somewhere, avoid the whole sequel pending moment.”
As dawn broke the tired three crossed the lawn. In unison they paused in the street as a small flock of crows flew overhead, cawing and flapping across the morning sky. Lids blinked and three faces lifted, tense, waiting. The crows flew on.
Nash’s phone buzzed insistently.
“Where are you, ass face?” he read aloud.
“That sequel’s all yours,” Stefan said to Nash. “Be seeing you.”
“Shit-pops,” Nash mumbled and walked away punching buttons on his phone.