The International Writers Magazine:Dreamscapes
The Wounded Swallow
John Wayne Marshall had been dead four weeks before his neighbors had reported him missing. The two sheriff’s deputies investigating the report had arrived at Marshall’s property at the edge of town just as the sun had reached its zenith.
Neither of the two had known the dead man, nor had ever set foot on his property. Nevertheless, their task was now to find out what had become of the man who had been feared and loathed by the entire town of Prospect.
Prospect, with one convenience store, one schoolhouse, and a single law man (aided by two deputies,) was a place where the need for a newspaper or a television station was clearly unnecessary: Mrs. Hoagland, wearing her fuzzy slippers and holding her steaming cup of morning coffee, could stop at her window and listen to the echoes of the tabernacle choir rehearsing for Sunday services at the Methodist Episcopal Church located at the opposite end of town. Yet, to all the inhabitants of Prospect, John Wayne Marshall had remained a mystery.
The mysterious John Wayne Marshall had been the subject of speculative talk at the “Wounded Swallow,” where most of the local men, and one or two women, gathered to while away the long hot nights of summer. However, despite the scrutiny, not a single shred of evidence had ever surfaced to justify the speculations: His family was cursed, he’s involved with narcotics dealers, his wife was killed by a drunk driver, he keeps an idiot child locked in his cellar he had engendered with the daughter of one of his Latino landscapers.
John Wayne Marshall’s house, a mansion, really, had been built in the late 1890’s in the middle of a pristine peninsula at the southern end of town. Its coastline, combined with meandering tidal creeks, woodlands, and salt marshes, was the envy of every speculator that had tried and failed to purchase part of the coastal land to build expensive retirement homes for baby-boomers. The local lore had it that the Marshall clan had settled in the area after migrating from the continent, running away from political persecution. The entire original family, except for Marshall’s great grand father, had been killed in a mysterious fire that had destroyed the original house, where the new building now stood. John Wayne was the last of the remaining Marshall clan.
When the black-and-white cruiser carrying the two deputies reached the gravel path that led to Marshall’s property, Junior Fairchild hit the brakes abruptly causing the lid of the paper cup from Martha’s convenience store to flip open, spilling coffee on Charlie Baker’s clip-on tie, already showing dried up speckled stains from previous mishaps:
“Fuckcryingoutloud! Junior, take it easy willya, it’s not like we’re late for your weddin’, muttered Baker as he tried to dry the tie with paper napkins. “And stop grinning like an idiot, this is my only uniform, you know, ” he shouted.
The gravel path meandered through a wooded area for nearly a kilometer before abruptly disappearing in a thicket of wild berry bushes and fallen trees dating back to the devastation caused by hurricane Gloria in the nineteen-eighties. Inside the cab the two deputies sat drenched in sweat with their chocolate-brown standard-issue uniforms covered with a thin film of dust that made them look like two slices of devil’s food cake sprinkled with confectioner’s sugar.
‘Hell kinda place you think this is, you figure?’ muttered Junior as he put the car on park.
“Don’t think, Junior, let’s just get our asses up there and get this figured out” muttered Baker.
The sheriff’s deputies were met by the enormous task of making a pathway through a wooded area to reach the clearing where Marshall’s mansion stood. After several hours of hacking and sawing to clear a pathway, both deputies felt as two prize-fighters gone a few rounds in a fight and losing miserably in the final minute. Drenched in sweat, and covered with burrs and cuts, they reached the steps leading to the house. They climbed the wooden structured to the front porch and sat at their chosen corners.
Each of the men had chosen a corner after they had reached the the Victorian style building that rose like a hulking monster silhouetted against the blue sky. One sat at a porch swing the other on the weathered boards of the porch. From their chosen corners they could see the woods rising like walls of a fortress surrounding the clearing were the house stood. The glittering sun provided the necessary heat and shadows to add to the medieval scene.
According to the sheriff’s report compiled from interviews with John Wayne Marshall’s neighbors and acquaintances, after he’d been reported missing, Marshall was a quiet man who kept to himself. He was a widower in his late eighties who seldom stepped outside his property. Monica Brodsky an octogenarian who had visited often when Marshall’s wife Alice was still living in the house had told the sheriff: “He [John Wayne Marshall] was very polite, a quiet sort of feller.” There were few locals that had known Marshall, despite his having spent nearly five decades in that vicinity. John Wayne Marshall was a stranger in town despite his family having owned most of its land. “It was rumoured that he’d had many wives but had never fathered a child.” Rhonda Pritchard, the only black woman in the town, had said in a statement to the Sheriff.
Shadows crawled along the auburn grass of the extensive lawn of the mansion; inch by inch, making slow progress towards the edge of the steps leading to the porch where the two sheriff’s deputies had settled themselves. Their bodies lay as sacks of chicken feed. Neither had felt ready to continue with his investigative duties until giving his body enough time to recover. Their chocolate colored standard-issue uniforms still bore the remnants of dust from the gravel path. Both men wore bare heads, having left their hats inside the cruiser. The pale skin of their foreheads made them look like farmers. Charlie Baker’s earth-worm-color pate stood out obscenely when uncovered. He was the older and more experienced of the two deputies. Junior looked like a teenager with his military crew-cut.
“Wouldn’t you like to be the man who owns this here property, Junior? murmured Baker. His eyes were staring at the line of trees encircling the property. “Surely beats the double wide, said Charlie Baker.”
Junior responded with a laugh.
“The woods look so inviting from the distance,” Charlie Baker mused, “surely makes you want to live in the out-of-doors, doesn’t it, Junior? I mean look at us both nearly cut to shreds by thorns, and now probably infested with fleas and ticks.” Baker complained to unresponsive Junior. “That’s no friendly woodland in the distance,” he added with a tinge of irony in his voice. “Nature is not about beauty. It’s about survival of the fittest.” Baker quipped.
“I saw some of the most amazing sunsets in Ayrack,” said Junior, referring to the time he had been deployed with the Infantry in Iraq for nearly two years of his young life. “At night when the sun went down it was just beautiful, but you knew them bastards took advantage of the shadows to let you have it.” said Junior.
“So this here is paradise compared to the desert, hah, Junior? asked Baker rhetorically.
“If it were up to me” said Baker, “if I owned this here land, I’d splice into a thousand pieces and sell it for as much cash as I could carry, so I could get the hell out of this miserable town.” Baker’s eyes drifted to the sky where a flock of birds flew in straight formation towards the imposing clouds.
“Just think of it Junior” Baker addressed his partner, “you and your young bride with all this property: hell-of-a-lot better than your in-law’s basement, right?”
“C’mon Junior, we’d better get ourselves busy here, I don’t want to spend the night in this place,” blurted Baker as he pushed his body from the porch swing. He slapped his arms, legs, and chest to get rid of the dust covering his brown uniform. Junior flexed his knees and jumped up immediately to his feet. He moved his head close to one of the large windows and using his hands as a visors tried to peek through the glass and into the house. Baker opened the front door and entered the house as if he had been an invited guest. Junior followed nearly stepping on Baker’s heels.
There was nothing strange about the house, except for the musty smell that hit their nostrils the moment they took their first breath inside the house. T hey were met by a giant cascading staircase that lead to the second floor of the house. It stood there inviting them to climb upstairs at their earliest convenience.
The wooden floor of the foyer creaked and squeaked with every step they took. The full length oil portraits of turn-of-the-century men and women staring out into nothingness showed the opulence of old money.
“You know the rumor of the cellar right Junior?” Baker whispered.
“The idiot child chained in the cellar? replied Junior in a low tone.
“I’ll go to the upstairs you check the cellar” Baker said, daring Junior to chance it alone.
“Fine” Junior replied.
Junior moved with purposeful steps toward a large door at the far side of the parlor that clearly appeared to lead to the cellar. He turned the crystal knob slowly and pulled the door open. It offered no resistance. Junior’s left hand flicked a switch, conspicuously placed to the right of the wood paneled wall. The yellow light from the cellar immediately revealed a set of steps leading to the floor below. Junior was careful to leave the door wide open propped with an ceramic umbrella stand in the shape of a Chinese dancer.
“Coming down,” he announced loudly with the intent to alert whomever might be in the cellar, that he was on his way down. No one answered. Junior’s heart was beating a little too excitedly for the simple task. His brain, however, was focused on another place and time, somewhere inside the confined space of a Humvee in the middle of the dessert.
“Coming down,” he shouted again as he meandered down the stairwell with his back against the paneled wall. He felt faint smell of oak and leather reach his nostrils, saw the glittering shine of a Tiffany chandelier, and felt a sudden drop in temperature. He stepped abruptly onto the wooden floor expecting another step and nearly toppled over. His eyes sparkled at the site: burgundy wood cases with glass doors lit by track lights and low lights lining the walls of the cellar. Inside were dozens of bottles of every brand of whisky and spirits imaginable. Just as Junior was about to call his partner Charlie Baker, to share his find, he noticed the half-opened door of a walk-in freezer at the end of the long bar. It was the source of the chilling air. He moved swiftly and reached for the door handle. “Holly shit” he shouted and instinctively jerked his body away from the door. Blocking it was John Wayne Marshall’s legs and lifeless body.
“Poor bastard.” Junior whispered to himself, “Poor bastard.”
Inside the freezer hung carcasses of deer, and pigs, and cows. Junior could see the half frozen corpse of Marshall with his hand still clutching a brick of something green. Carefully, without disturbing things, Junior knelt down balancing on the balls of his feet. He pulled his flashlight close to the dead man’s hand and saw the faint outline of none other than Benjamin Franklin. “Shit” he whispered with astonishment. “Shit” he repeated as he recognized the denomination of the bills packed into a neat brick, and frozen to Marshall’s purple hand. Junior’s head hit a slab of meat as he rose abruptly searching for a light switch. When he found it, he zig-zagged between the hanging pigs and cows until he had reached a large upright freezer at the corner of the place. It was still open. His bulging eyes danced inside their sockets as he looked at brick-upon brick of neatly wrapped Ben Franklins cuddling next to bricks of powder dope. “Bingo!” Junior whispered slowly.
The mysterious John Wayne Marshall who had been the subject of speculative talk at the “Wounded Swallow,” lay dead as a slab of pork in his own freezer. At least one of the many rumors that had circulated in the tavern had been true: he was involved with narcotics traffickers. The rumor of an idiot child locked in his cellar, however, was not in evidence.
Baker’s voice startled Junior as it drifted down the stairway and echoed inside the paneled cellar walls. Junior stood shivering inside the freezer holding a bundle of bills with both his hands. The flashlight dangled from his wrist precariously with its amber circle of light dancing around inside of the upright freezer. Junior Fairchild’s thoughts started to thaw out.
“Junior, you there? Repeated Baker.
Junior dropped the bundle in the freezer, zigged and zagged between the frozen products, skipped over Marshall’s body, and without having to think twice, he grabbed a bottle of Tequila resting on the edge of the bar and took a swig.
“Charlie” he shouted, “Get your ass down here, you’ve got to see this.” he took another drink as he waited for Baker.
John Wayne Marshall had been dead four weeks before his neighbors had reported him missing. His body had been kept from rotting because he had dropped dead inside his walk-in freezer. Nothing more was certain. When Charlie Baker saw the stack of Franklins, he did not hesitate: “We’ll bury the bastard in the woods, and keep the money” He had said to Junior, without remorse. “This is our only chance. It’s you and me, it’s you and Wendy, it’s all the shit we’ve had to put up with all our lives.” Baker preached to Junior, sensing Juniors hesitation. “Here’s our chance Junior, you and me, nobody has to know, nobody knows he’s dead nobody knows about the money, we have to do it.”
The sun, a red balloon, floated close to the edge of the trees. They buried Marshall in one spot and the money in another. The shallow hole they dug for Marshall was an insult to his ancestry, and an easy meal for any critter that might chance upon it. Bury him they did. In the nearby woods. Same with the money. Baker filled out the report without a word of it to the sheriff. Junior who had been reluctant at first, had caved to Baker’s insistence: “This is our only chance, it is our destiny.”
The pact was sealed by the two deputies with a handshake and a hearty toast with the dead man’s liquor. Prospect would never find out about the money, and by the time they found the body, if ever, Baker and Junior would be gone, and long forgotten. That was the plan.
The black-and-white cruiser carrying the two deputies had left the gravel path that led to Marshall’s property with Junior Fairchild at the wheel. Charlie Baker sat on the passenger seat half asleep from the effect of the dead man’s whisky. Junior’s mind was heavy with half-baked plans of a trip to Vegas, stretch limos and dancing girls, or midgets and elephants, and all the booze that one could muster. Wendy, his fiance, was fading quickly from his mind.
The red balloon that danced atop the trees popped and disappeared behind the woods leaving behind a clear but moonless night. John Wayne Marshall’s mansion, built in the late 1890’s in the middle of a pristine peninsula at the southern end of town, with its solitary coastline, silent tidal creeks, and heavy woodlands, disappeared quickly in the rearview mirror of the cruiser that nearly levitated at the speed it negotiated the curvy road to Prospect. Baker snored. Junior strained his sleepy eyes to keep from dozing off.
Mrs. Hoagland, wearing her night gown and her fuzzy slippers, was the first to hear the solid crashing noise, followed by the steady blare of a car’s horn. She was also the first to stop at her window and witness the blast of yellow-orange coloring the trees and sky in the distance. It was a tragedy the inhabitants of Prospect had never witnessed. From that day on the mysterious John Wayne Marshall, and the death of the two deputies, became the subject of speculative talk every summer night at the Wounded Swallow.
© Oswaldo Jimenez November 2011
It’s the Vernal Equinox in Manhattan. Purple shadows stick to everything in sight as the sun sinks at the far edge of West 42nd Street. “Shorty” Walker wobbles forward and back trying to escape from his shadow, but sinks right back into it, like an animal trapped in a tar pit