A Thin Veil of Innocence
by Christopher J. Ferguson
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3, 4
Every so often, Stieger read some political correctness piece about domestic violence or rape that suggested the United States was steeped in a culture that supported male violence against women. Stieger didn’t buy it. Oh sure, there were plenty of assholes out there who got together to brag about how they kept their women in line with force. But they ran counter to the general culture.
Stieger could still remember his own days in school. As a boy, to so much as lay a hand on a girl in anger meant that, at best, you would be labeled a weakling and a sissy for life. At worst, you would receive daily beatings in retribution for your violation of that male code: boys don’t hit girls.
The principal at the North Cumberland Middle School painted a picture of Richie Phillips as an intelligent, popular boy, presumably just the type to be aware that boys don’t hit girls. Assuming that the principal was correct in his assessment of the Phillips boy, what could possibly have brought that boy to behave so violently against Ashley Watcher?
Stieger left the middle school with the intention of revisiting the graveyard, primarily to search for the cat’s head, though he knew he would not find it. He suspected that the head itself must have been kept as a trophy and would be someplace safe to the perpetrator.
More than anything, Stieger just wanted time to think, to let his brain lead him down whatever path seemed appropriate. He had one of those feelings brewing in him, that feeling that a case was more complicated than it first appeared.
Part of those feelings were due, perhaps, to a paranoid streak in his personality, and he had to admit that often enough he was wrong and things indeed were as simple as they appeared. But sometimes, just sometimes, he was right.
He began driving toward the cemetery by way of the Watcher home and was surprised to find Mrs. Watcher’s car parked in the driveway. She must have gotten Ashley out of school rather quickly. Stieger thought that it could be useful to get an interview with the girl, to try and find out just what had transpired between her and Richie Phillips.
He swung his car off the road and into the driveway, his thoughts pulled away from the dead cat by the crunching sound of the tire as it packed in the layers of snow at the side of the road. He turned off the engine and, with some reluctance, swung his body back out into the cold.
Mrs. Watcher greeted him at the door, her face looking strained. “Did you pick up that Phillips boy?” she asked, her face peering between the open door and the sill.
Stieger nodded. “Yes, my partner is interviewing him now. I just came back because I was hoping to speak with your daughter for a bit, if that would be possible.”
Mrs. Watcher nodded sadly. “I just got her home from school. She’s quite upset, as you might expect, so she might not want to talk much. But anything that will help.” She invited Stieger in and called to her daughter in a careful, motherly voice.
“Also,” Stieger asked, before Ashley appeared, “if it would be okay, I’d like to have a look around your property after I speak with Ashley.”
Mrs. Watcher looked surprised. “Around our property, whatever for?”
“It would be helpful,” Stieger suggested, “If we could find the location where the cat was killed. I’d just like to be able to look around here,” he said and heard himself adding weakly, “you know, since the cat came from here.” He coughed into his fist; at least he hadn’t said he was looking for “clues.”
Mrs. Watcher was wary, though he could tell from her expression she could think of no good reason not to allow him to look around. “All right,” she replied, though her tone suggested she was unconvinced. Stieger took note of her wariness and was sure it had to fit in this puzzle somewhere.
His suspicious were almost entirely dashed upon the appearance of Ashley, an angelic blonde girl with a prettiness so perfect she looked to have been made out of porcelain. Her big blue eyes were red from crying, and she stood rigid, looking at him without saying anything. She appeared to be younger than her years, pixieish, just a few inches over four feet in height and still clothed in a fashionable dress that she had probably worn to school. She was the sort of child who would win people over to her with a glance.
“Ashley,” her mother told her, stroking her long blonde hair protectively, as if Stieger might do to the girl what Richie Phillips had done to the cat, “this is Detective Stieger, he would like to speak to you for a moment.” The mother was not going to leave her side.
The girl was at that middle age where she was too tall for Stieger to stoop down on his haunches, and too small to naturally come eye-to-eye with him. As a result, Stieger towered over her unnaturally and found himself at a loss about what to do about that. He settled for holding out his hand to her. “I’m detective Stieger,” he said, and was pleased that she took his hand without hesitance.
“I’m Ashley,” she replied with a strong, mature voice that belied her age in a way that her physical appearance could not. “It’s very nice to meet you.” She managed a polite smile and wiped unconsciously at her swollen eyes.
“Likewise,” Stieger told her. “I’m sorry about your cat,” he said sincerely. “I was wondering if there was anything you could tell us to help us figure out what happened.”
Ashley looked at her mom for guidance. “Mom told me that it was Richie Phillips that killed Nemie.”
Yeah, Stieger thought, that’s pretty much what she told us, too. He shot a look at the mother and, though she still had a protective arm around her daughter, he could not read anything useful in her face.
“Well,” he said to Ashley, “that’s what we’re still trying to figure out. Is there anything you can remember from last night that was unusual or out of place?”
Ashley shook her head. “I don’t remember anything. I just played with Nemie earlier at night, then she went outside to play with the neighbors’ cats like she always does. She likes it outside even in the cold.”
“Okay,” Stieger said in the encouraging tone of voice he took when he was getting useless information but hoped for better. “What about Richie Phillips? What happened between you two? Can you tell me about that?”
A mixed look of fear, sadness and anger crossed Ashley’s face. She looked up again, instinctively toward her mother for support. “I don’t really understand what happened. We used to be great friends, us and his brother, but one day he just seemed to freak out. We hadn’t argued or anything. My mom said he must be bipolar.”
Stieger shot another look at the mother, who was watching him stonily. The mother said to him, “Ashley has had a difficult day, I think she should get her rest. Perhaps you could speak with her more on another day?”
Stieger nodded. “Sure, I suppose so.” He turned back to Ashley. “Well, Ashley, I hope you will be feeling better soon. And if you think of anything that might help, I will leave my card with your mother, okay?”
“Okay,” Ashley said with a polite but sad smile.
Stieger faced the mother again, hiding an irritation he felt but could not fully pin down. “If you don’t mind, I’ll have that look around now.”
* * *
“What cat?” Richie Phillips asked again, his look of anguish now mixed with a healthy dose of confusion.
“Uh,” said Marcus, effectively taken aback more than he ever had been by a professional criminal. “Nemie, Ashley Watcher’s cat.” Had no one mentioned to the boy yet that this was about the cat and not the previous assault?
“Somebody killed her cat?” he asked incredulously. “Nemie was a nice cat!” Then it dawned on him why he was there. “Wait, you think I killed her cat!”
Marcus shook his head. “Are you trying to tell me that you didn’t know this cat was dead?” He was not yet ready to believe the boy, but if the boy was lying, he was a seasoned pro at it.
Mrs. Phillips was equally confused. “But didn’t you just try to say that Arnold killed the cat?”
“No!” Richie protested in both fear and exasperation. “Arnie would never hurt that cat.”
“Then what,” the principal asked in his own confused voice, “did you say that Arnold didn’t want you to talk to people about?” Evidently the principal had become so engrossed in the interview he had abandoned his defense-lawyer stance.
Richie looked from one adult to the other, confused as hell. But he knew that whatever miscommunication had occurred, the cat, so to speak, was out of the bag. He turned to his mom, who he must have thought of as his biggest ally in the room. “Mom, do you remember the day when you and Dad were working and I had to go to some Scout meeting?”
“I think so. That was right before the incident with Ashley wasn’t it?” she said, still confused but encouraging him to speak more.
“Yeah,” Richie said, “Arnie went to stay with the Watchers for the afternoon until I got dropped off from my meeting.” He looked around the table at the three adults staring at him in incredulity and anticipation. “I got home around five, before you and Dad got home. Arnie was already there, he had run home...”
His voice choked, and there were tears in his eyes. “He wanted me to clean him up,” he wailed, looking up at his mom guiltily. “He made me promise not to tell you what happened to him. He thought you’d be mad at him.”
Mrs. Phillips was crying now, her confusion being replaced by dread. “Richie, what are you saying? What happened to Arnie?”
Behind Marcus the principal took an involuntary step back as Richie told, told everything, spilled the secret he had been keeping for his brother. It spilled out of him like an evil spirit and its presence in the room drove nails of ice into each of the adults’ hearts.
“Christ,” Marcus breathed softly and pulled out his cell phone.
* * *
It wasn’t until he was standing besides the majestic oak and tree-house that Stieger realized that he had forgotten his cellphone in his car. Well, assuming that he had any of his youthful climbing skill left, he suspected that this wouldn’t take long. He was about four hundred yards into the cold away from the warmth of the Watchers’ house.
When he turned to look back, it appeared to be a beacon of heat in the distance. He was ankle-deep in snow that was becoming soft under the glare of the sun and would have made for excellent snowballs. He decided that, at the moment, he was hating his job. Lieutenant Starling was going to have to answer for making them do this.
With mild reluctance he looked up at the tree-house above. It looked to be a remarkable specimen, perched solidly in the branches of the huge oak. It was made of plywood and painted white, with some simple windows —with glass! — and a trapdoor in the bottom that one could climb up in. Small boards of wood were nailed every foot or so into the tree for one to climb up. Deciding that there was no time like the present, Stieger grabbed the first of these and began to haul himself up the tree.
It was a fifteen-foot climb to the tree house, which left him precariously dangling a distance great enough to risk his spraining an ankle if he fell. Wouldn’t that be a perfect ending to a most remarkable day? The news at the top wasn’t good either, for the trapdoor was held shut with a plain lock of the sort one could get at any hardware store.
Stieger had a brief internal debate on the nature of search and seizure laws. He had gotten permission from the mother to search the premises, but did that entitle him to pick this lock? Or was he expected to return to the house and ask for the key which, if there was anything of interest within the tree-house, would be conveniently lost or perhaps simply refused.
He decided that picking the lock was within the realms of ethical behavior, as he had already secured a right to search the premises. He didn’t have professional lock picks with him, but a few pieces of a pen would suffice. It was odd, picking a lock while dangling over the ground, and there were several moments when he was afraid he would fall, but ultimately he got through the lock and into the tree house.
Copyright © 2015 by Christopher J. Ferguson