A Thin Veil of Innocence
by Christopher J. Ferguson
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3, 4
In a perfect world, there would have been a cat’s head and a signed confession letter waiting for him. Unfortunately he found neither of these. The interior of the tree-house was decorated with some simple wooden chairs and tables, a few games and toys which had evidently been abandoned, a collection of scissors, pencils and other such supplies and a small metal lockbox.
Stieger paused for a moment to take in the view out of the windows, which provided an elegant panorama of both the neighborhood, on one side, and the woods, on the other. His breath still hung in the cold air, but at least he was sheltered from the wind. He scanned around the few objects in the little house and found nothing out of the ordinary and focused his attention on the lockbox.
He could not stand straight in the tree-house; it was a welcome relief for him to sit down beside the lockbox and examine it. It was tan in color, made of some thin, light metal, and predictably locked. Inside he could hear that there were several things that he wished to see.
Well, in for a penny, in for a pound, he decided and began to work on the lock. It took only a few seconds to flip the latch. He opened it with excitement, still wondering if he might find the head of a cat within. He was disappointed and it took him a minute to register what he had actually found.
On top of the little collection of things was a fairly decent length of rough rope, the sort of rope that might be used in a garden. It was wound into a circle and tied around the middle for convenience. This he carefully took out and set aside.
Underneath, and more puzzling, was a pair of cotton briefs, the cloth almost frozen stiff. Instinctively he knew that this was an odd find for a little girl’s lockbox, particularly as they appeared to be boy’s briefs. Even though his hands were gloved, he used his dismantled pen to remove these and examine them. There were a few splotches of rust-colored stain on them, consistent, he realized with dawning horror, with blood.
When he set the briefs aside, his excitement at this find returned. The heaviest object in the lockbox was what Stieger immediately recognized to be a small stun gun. It fit neatly in the palm of his hand, and he depressed the little button on the side and watched the purple arc flow between the electrodes. The air in the tree-house cackled with energy.
He knew in all his heart now that he would have Mrs. Watcher on charges of... something. This had to be child abuse, perhaps sexual. Perhaps Ashley and Richie had both been victims, though the briefs seemed too small for either of them.
But that could explain Richie’s rage at the Watcher family. Perhaps it was the father who was the abuser, with the mother covering for him. That, to Stieger, seemed a more reasonable hypothesis.
He put the stun gun aside and looked at the last item in the box, a dozen polaroid photographs bound with an elastic. Hating this part of the job, he slipped the elastic away and looked at the photos. He was, at once, paralyzed with dread, his hypothesis crushed. There were two children in the photographs, one a little boy, tied to a tree with the thin rope and crying. The other was not Richie Phillips.
“I don’t think you’re supposed to be in here,” a voice said to him from beside the trapdoor.
Stieger’s hand instinctively dropped to his pistol and the photographs fluttered from his hands. His adrenaline had been coursing as he looked at the photos, and in his bewilderment and horror, he had not heard the other person climb into the tree-house. It took him a moment to calm himself and realize that he was in no immediate danger.
Through the clouds of mist that rose from his own breath, Stieger could see the face of Ashley Watcher as she calmly sat, Indian-style beside the opening to the trap door.
“Without a search warrant, I mean,” she explained. “I don’t think you were supposed to come in here.” She pointed at the lockbox. “Or open that.” She shrugged. “I don’t suppose it would make much difference either way. What’s the worst I could expect? Therapy?” She smiled, that same sweet angelic smile that would win hearts over to her throughout her life. “But no, I think a lawyer, a good lawyer like the kind my Daddy knows, will be able to keep me out of trouble.”
Stieger said nothing, could say nothing, only stare at her while she spoke. His hand was still on his pistol, he realized, though she seemed unconcerned about that. The cold seemed nothing now to him against the presence he felt in this room, the presence he felt from this beautiful little girl.
She nodded, more to herself than to him, speaking wistfully. “Still, this was not the ending I had hoped for.” Her eyes looked at him and seemed filled with fire. “That Richie Phillips was supposed to rot in juvenile detention. How dare that imbecile attack me! And Nemie,” she said dreamily, “sacrificed her life so that he would be punished. Such a waste of a good cat.”
Ashley shrugged. “Since when do cops poke around so much when they have an obvious suspect?” she accused him, her eyes glaring angrily.
He did not answer, still breathless.
“Well,” she said, smiling once more that angelic smile, “I suppose I must let you arrest me, though we both know how this will turn out. Mother will be upset, but Daddy will handle the lawyers. I took photographs of you picking the tree-house lock from my bedroom window. Hard for you to lie and say the lock was open that way.
“The case will be dismissed. Mom may take me for a few sessions with some snot-nosed therapist. I’ll shed a few tears and reveal a few choice but false details about my childhood, and once the therapist blames my parents for my behavior, my parents will stop taking me and I will be back here, same as before.” She pointed her finger at him as if scolding him: “And it will be you who has to live on, haunted with the knowledge that you failed.”
She smiled broadly, even in anticipation, and swung her legs out the tree-house trapdoor. “Come on then. The sooner we begin, the sooner we can get this over with. I want to be home in time for dinner.” She vanished from view, climbing without concern down the side of the tree.
Stieger did not move for some time, stunned with the horror of this day’s revelations. What she said was true, particularly about the weight that would be on his shoulders from this day forth. For he knew that a girl as charming, intelligent and pretty as she would be able to find her way out of trouble and into the lives of others who were unsuspecting. She would enter their lives, he knew, as the kindly neighborhood girl who baby-sat their children and later, perhaps, when she reached adulthood, provided medical care to them as their pediatrician.
Copyright © 2015 by Christopher J. Ferguson