by Christopher Stires
“Gotta jimmy the lock ‘fore we leave,” Chevy Odell said, fishing the keys out of his Raiders jacket. “Right?”
Laura Duncan stepped up onto the deck, the ancient wood groaning under her weight, and scanned the rocky beach that ran from the old house to the ocean, and while she saw no one, she continued to tap the crowbar anxiously against her gloved palm. She felt as if something had just slithered across her grave.
“Yeah, right,” Duncan replied. “If we kick the door in, we could leave a footprint that Sheriff Tobias could use.”
Odell’s mouth eased into his bucktoothed smile. “Always thinkin’. Yep. I’m glad I brung ya in on this.”
Duncan didn’t correct him. No point. But the job had been her idea. She knew what they were going to do about two seconds after Odell told her that the old spinster had been found passed away in her bed by Miss Sanger Merrick on Sunday and the funeral was going to be Tuesday morning.
Merrick, direct descendant of the Gold Rush founder of Harmony Bay, lived in the two-story cottage house on the outer finger of the inlet. The spinster, who was her cousin, lived there also. There was a third member to the household. He was a handyman who did repairs and renovations. That man was Chevy Odell.
Duncan had known immediately what they were going to do when Odell told her the news. Duncan’s chance to get out of the Bay, to escape the life she’d been trapped in for the past four months had finally arrived. Yes, while Miss Sanger Merrick, and anyone else that cared, attended the funeral services, she and Odell would strip-mine the house of its treasures.
A hot twitch spider-dashed along her shoulders.
As Duncan rubbed her right arm, her fingers caressing the nicotine patch — shoplifted from Porter’s Smiling Ox General Store — she studied the empty road that curved up to the highway. No one. It was just the jones.
The little worm in her brain was once again nagging, actually full-throttle demanding, that she smoke. But she wouldn’t. She wouldn’t smoke because she couldn’t afford the price of a pack of cigarettes.
When she’d left Phoenix, leaving behind her business and real name, a half jump ahead of an IRS posse and the cops, she thought it couldn’t get any worse. The plan had been to relocate in Seattle. Her bus money, however, had run out in Harmony Bay, a little town on the Pacific Coast Highway between Monterey and Carmel, whose main industries were lost summer tourists and AA.
She’d managed to land a job as a part-time dishwasher at Porter’s Laughing Mule Café. Getting the job — and getting Porter to pay minimum wage for the job — had taken all her charm and abilities. She still couldn’t figure out whether Porter distrusted strangers or was just a cheap bastard. Didn’t matter. She planned on staying only until she had the bus fare to Seattle. That was all.
Four months later.
Odell unlocked the door. “Yer not supposed to wear yer shoes inside the house.”
Snickering, he walked into the kitchen kicking his heels, leaving heavy scuff marks, as he went. He cleared his throat then hocked a large gob of phlegm onto the ancient Westinghouse refrigerator. “She wanted me to lube the icebox motor. Busy work. All she’d let me do was clean-up an’ busy work.”
Duncan shook her head. “Only do what we need to do.”
“Watta ya think is gonna happen, bud? Ya think Tobias is gonna mop up my loogie an’ run one of those fancy NBA tests on it? Peoples of the jury, we cracked the case ’cause the defendant hocked one in the kitchen. We will give ‘im credit though. Figger he made the shot from ‘bout five feet. C’mon, I’ll show ya the treasure room.”
Duncan sighed slowly, deeply, as she followed the handyman into the dining room. Chevy Odell should have been drowned at birth. He had nothing, just like his father and grandfather before him, and never would. But for Duncan the most appalling thing about Odell was that he was her best friend in the Bay.
“See this,” Odell said, stopping in front of a portrait of four solemn, grave men. “Harmony Bay, 1852. These jokers are the town’s foundin’ fathers. Ain’t no picture of the jailhouse whores an’ drunkard scrub women they bought themselves for wives.” He paused, thinking. “This picture is pretty high up on the wall but I think I can hose it with my snake.”
“No!” snapped Duncan.
Odell cackled. “Gotcha, bud. Gawd, I’m havin’ fun here.”
Duncan closed her eyes. Just get the job done, she told himself. After the burglary, Odell would drive them up to Monterey to unload Merrick’s collectibles. Duncan would ditch him there. Because, no matter how they staged the break-in, as soon as Tobias knew that Odell had left town, they would be looking for him. That was a sure a bet.
The twitching skim-flared down Duncan’s spine.
She turned quickly and bumped the dining-room table. A large stack of papers, one of six piles, toppled over and slid across the worn table top. She stared at them. The papers were flyers, a thousand, most official, some homemade, all sent originally to the sheriff’s office. They were all of missing or wanted persons. She swallowed. In San Diego, she’d seen a wanted poster on herself. The reward for her arrest was twenty-five thousand dollars.
“Didn’t ya know ’bout that?” asked Odell.
“That’s why Miss Merrick an’ her cousin went to the Laughin’ Mule every day.”
Duncan traced her fingers across the flyers. She’d spent her time at the café in the kitchen, bent over a steel sink filled with dirty dishes. She knew all the locals came there but when — and how often — was of no interest to her.
“It was their job,” Odell continued. “Been doin’ it for twenty years. The Laughin’ Mule is the bus station for the Bay an’ they was there every day when the bus stopped. They’d watch the people getting’ off an’ try to match pictures an’ faces. The flyers with stars penciled on ‘em are the ones that offer rewards.”
“How many rewards did they collect in twenty years?”
“One. Got twelve hundred dollars.”
“Weird.” Duncan chuckled. “The richest woman in town and that’s what she does for a job. Sanger Merrick was one spun monkey.”
Odell snickered. “Spun monkey. I like that one.”
Duncan walked into the living room. The furniture was even more faded and shabby than it was in the kitchen and dining room. The sofa and chair looked a century old with patches that were seeping feathers. The table lamp near her was chipped and its shade threadbare. The television in the corner was an old Dumont. The flowered wallpaper was bulging away from the walls. She chuckled, amused. The rich were such misers. They’d live one jump up from poverty rather than part with a nickel.
Odell bounded into the room.
“Where’s Merrick’s safe?” Duncan asked.
“Ain’t none,” he answered.
Duncan tapped the crowbar against her palm. Go slow with him. “Where did Merrick keep her cash? In a bread box or cookie jar? Upstairs somewhere?”
Odell, puzzled, looked toward the stairs. “Ain’t no cash upstairs. Oh... there’s a Mason jar of pennies by her bed. Is that what ya mean?”
“No.” Duncan rubbed the nicotine patch. “Where... are... Merrick’s... valuables?”
“Everywhere. Everything in this house is valuable or Miss Merrick wouldn’t have kept ‘em.”
Duncan’s shoulders sagged. No. Couldn’t be. “I don’t believe this. She was the richest woman in the Bay. Her ancestor founded the town. He made his fortune panning gold during the Rush. She has to have money.”
Odell cackled. “Is that what ya think, bud? That’s the story we tell the tourists. I thought you would have figgered it out by now. Original Merrick never found a fingernail’s lick of gold prospectin’. He got together with the other three an’ they built the café for people travelin’ between San Francisco an’ Los Angeles or vicey versa. Lemme think. Yeah. Original Porter watered down the drinks an’ overcharged for a night’s lodgin’. Original Tobias took care of the stable. Original Merrick was the boss ’cause he did the killin’.”
“They ambushed lone travelers, sometimes pairs, and Merrick did the killin’s.”
“This town was founded by a bunch of murdering thieves?”
“Sometimes, bud, ya have to do what ya have to do. My daddy said that durin’ the Great Depression an’ the Hippie Sixties it was hardly worth killin’ the folks for what they had on ‘em. I think it’s worse nowadays. The town’s never been so strapped for money an’ it’s ’cause nobody carries cash anymore. Everybody has those damn little plastic cards.”
“What?” Duncan stood still, stunned. “Hold up a minute. Think, Odell. I want you to think hard. When did the last killing take place?”
Odell scratched his ear. “Lemme see... yeah, it was ‘bout five months ago. He was a fella that Miss Merrick spotted from the flyers. I remember ’cause right after is when those state detectives came pokin’ around. Then that private investigator showed up lookin’ for somebody from Phoenix. We thought he’d never leave. Anyway, Miss Merrick said we had to shut down for a while. That’s when you arrived. Miss Merrick told Porter to hire ya. ’cause, she said, we wouldn’t be hirin’ strangers if we were hidin’ something. I’m glad they hired ya, bud. I’ve never had a woman friend ‘fore. I like it even if ya can dead-lift more than me.”
“The fourth man in the painting,” Duncan said. “Was his name Odell?”
“Yep. Sure was.”
“What was his job?”
Odell looked down at his work-boots. “Clean-up an’ busy work. C’mon, I’ll show ya the glory hole in the basement.”
Duncan watched as Odell walked over to a dingy curtain and pulled it back to reveal a thick rough-cut door. Two grooves stretched across the plank floor to the door. Duncan wondered how many bodies had been carried with their heels dragging to carve those marks in the floor?
Odell opened the door. “The house was built over a hole in the ground. Don’t nobody know how deep it is. Throw stuff in an’ ya don’t hear it hit bottom. That’s where the bodies go.”
Duncan moved toward the doorway. She had to clear out of town. She had to hitch a ride, steal a car, something. Once the others discovered that she knew their secret, she was finished. She’d personally find out how deep the hole was. That was a fact.
She glanced at her watch. The funeral had barely started. She had time. If she moved quickly. If nothing or no one slowed her down.
“Kept askin’ to do important stuff. Miss Merrick said no.” Odell flicked on the overhead light-bulb then trotted down the stairs. “I coulda done it without screwin’ up. Watch yer step, bud.”
Duncan, stroking the nicotine patch harder and harder, stepped onto the staircase platform.
“Don’t grab the railin’. Wood’s rotten.”
Down below, about fifteen feet, Duncan saw that the floor was rock slab. A high plank cupboard and stacked boxes sat to the left of the stairs. To the right, filling three-quarters of the basement room, was a giant cavern pit.
She knew what she had to do and she had to do it now.
“Bud,” Odell called over his shoulder, trotting down to the floor. “I wanna go see a Raider football game in person. Can we do that?”
“You’ll get me caught,” Duncan whispered, following, adjusting her grip on the crowbar.
“Watta ya say? Couldn’t hear ya.”
As Duncan stepped onto the rock floor, she froze and stared at the high cupboard. On the bottom plank, she saw shoes. All kinds, styles, and sizes. The next shelf held pants, dresses, and shirts. Then she saw sweaters, jackets, and coats. There was even a shelf containing hats and caps. On the top most shelf, stacked side-by-side, were rows of Mason jars. Maybe fifty or sixty of them, Duncan figured. And they were filled with the belongings that Merrick couldn’t figure out how to sell without attracting attention. The jars were filled with rings and bracelets, necklaces and chains. They were filled with diamonds and pearls, silver and gold.
“Watta ya say, bud?” Odell repeated. “I couldn’t hear ya.”
Duncan turned, cocking the crowbar like Barry Bonds stepping up to the plate.
“Don’t even think about it, Miss Duncan.”
Slowly, ever so slowly, Duncan looked upward. Standing at the top of the stairs, holding a Civil War-era pistol, was Miss Sanger Merrick. Porter and Sheriff Tobias stood behind the woman.
Odell poked Duncan in the shoulder and jumped back. “Gotcha, bud. Yes, I did. The funeral’s not till tomorrow. I out-foxed ya.”
Sanger Merrick nodded her gray head. “You did just fine, Chevy. I’m very pleased. Toss the crowbar into the hole, Duncan.”
“You’re not turning me in.” Duncan pitched the bar into the pit. “This is what is going to happen so listen close. You’re going to give me a couple of those Mason jars up there and turn me loose.”
Sanger Merrick frowned and deep furrows knitted across her aging face. “Why would we do that?”
“Because if you turn me into the cops for the bounty, I’ll tell them all about your little enterprise here in the Bay.”
“Crafty,” said Odell, slapping his thigh with the flat of his hand. “I tol’ ya she was crafty. Look how fast she came up with that story.”
“There aren’t any posters on Laura Duncan,” Sanger Merrick said flatly.
Duncan snorted. “It’s not my real name.”
“Crafty,” repeated Odell. “Crafty an’ quick. But I got her down here. I want everybody to remember that. She called you a spun monkey, Sanger.”
Duncan stepped to the foot of the stairs, caressing the nicotine patch on her arm. “Three Mason jars and a bus ticket to San Francisco. Decide before I up the price.”
Sanger Merrick leveled her pistol at Duncan’s chest, directly between her breasts, and fired.
As the booming echo faded inside the basement room, Sanger Merrick swung toward the others. “This was an emergency,” she said, “or I wouldn’t have done it. Until the police quit poking around, we have to stop normal operations. Does everybody understand?”
“My fault,” Porter said. “I got us in this here situation, Sanger. I accept full responsibility. But like Chevy pointed out, that Duncan was crafty an’ quick. Still cain’t believe that she talked me into payin’ her minimum wage. My God, if we hadn’t killed her, I don’t know where we would’ve found the three hundred dollars I owed her for her last two weeks’ wages.”
Copyright © 2006 by Christopher Stires
[An earlier version appeared in Dark Moon, December 2000]