Scarecrow's Heart

Prologue

If they had left Ezra alone, I wouldn't be so rotten bitter. Or come down to it, so damn rich. But they took him, my older brother: a man who could've done so much good if they spared him. But no, you see they also wanted to collect what they feel was owed to them. They leveled that hospital ‘cause that was the principal cut the loan, but the souls ... those poor damned souls who burned to ashes that night -- they were interest. And like any good loan shark, they were really after the interest, not the principal. I can safely say they must have gloated over the coin that was Ezra's soul ‘cause it alone was a Brasher Doubloon.

I happen to know this because they didn't even leave a body for me to bury. Ashes and smoking ruin were what was left for me to cry over and boy did I cry. But my grief didn't stop me from taking the insurance money and runnin' away, all the way to the great New York City where I hoped I would either be robbed and shot or just robbed because the $2500 loaded in my pocket was blood money. Instead, I bumped into Ezra's lieutenant who heard about his soldier's death. He was a decent man in what was then an indecent city, and for reasons he revealed only in his deathbed, he took care of me in Ezra's stead. For next fifteen years Mr. Devon managed my money with words like annuities, trust funds, long-term investment, and solid real estate purchases. He died eleven years back from prostate cancer. He led a tough life, filled with temptations that would fell the Pope, but he remained a good man through and through, even when the cancer ate his guts, leaving him blind with pain. And me, I retired a multi-millionaire. I was nearly seventy then and had but one thing in mind. Hunt down the devils that killed my town and make them pay for what they did.

I know I'll probably fail ‘cause these things have been doing this since Man began walking, but I'm no fool. I did my homework and read everything written about the ‘traveling Merries'. Let me tell you I had to part with hefty cash to get what I needed but I didn't blink. And, now that August is almost upon us, I'm glad I did all the legwork. I figure I won't live to see Christmas but what the hell, I don't have any of my teeth, and I have to go to the bathroom every hour so it's been years since I had good night sleep. Death don't scare me. Living through another August does.

June and July, those are fine months for vacationing, but not August. August's for worrying, worrying about all the money you shouldn't have spent over the June and July: worrying about the tuition costs of the too-expensive private schools. June and July, you're carefree and young, but August is when you see the darker side of being so fancy free. And let me tell you none of it's pretty. But since I've seen eighty-nine Augusts, I guess I can make do with the hell I created for myself ‘cause when it comes down to it, I'm to blame. And it's not like I've got choice in the matter either.

But I can't depress you about that. Or worse, bore you.

Not when there's a bigger boogeyman just ‘round the corner, poised to pounce on us with murderous glee. And this one's got teeth, claws and an appetite that hasn't been satisfied in centuries. That's not true; maybe just once -- when a young carpenter boy got himself nailed to bits of wood for expressing certain unpopular viewpoints -- but that was long time ago, and appetites have a way of coming back with vengeance.

I wish I could explain what this traveling nightmare is but I can't. But, if you read history and I mean you have to read close, they crop up now and then. Better writers than I have described the destruction, the absolute waste that the "Merries" leave behind. "Merries" -- that's what I've taken to calling them. The name isn't fitting, but the chronicle that told the end of an entire fishing town off the southern coast of England had plenty of details and a lot of useful information. And the monk who toiled for years writing down that tragedy called them "Merries". I figure if it's good enough for that poor sap, it'll do just fine.

I learned a lot from that volume. I also paid nearly fifty thousand dollars for the privilege too. Not that I'm complaining but I wish I could've gotten my hands on the book without having to resort to criminal mischief. Unnerves me that I had to hire someone to steal from a dirt-poor monastery. Don't worry: I made a generous but anonymous donation. From what I hear their new boilers and electrical system are doing wonders for the monks. Though the heart that beats in my body is making its final preparations for retirement, it's still beating and I pay attention to its rhythm. I also take heed of what I owe and what is owed to me. There ain't nobody living or dead who can claim I cheated them. Nobody.

My brush with the Merries made sure of that. Damn them.

Notice I don't damn them to Hell? That's ‘cause I got this sick feeling that's their home. Or worse, that's what they want to call home. Either choice leaves me watching brain-killing television programs at three in the morning and drinking coffee like it's going to be taxed out of existence. And running to the bathroom, of course.

I miss Ezra. And the pain gets worse every time I see my neighbor's sixteen-year-old son, Dean. He was a miracle you know. His parents, Michelle and Thomas Gunner, tried for years to have a kid, but like most honest and humble prayers, their wishes went unanswered. Eleven years ran away from the Gunners before Dean came along. I was shocked when I found out Michelle was carrying, and was even more shocked when they told me the baby's name was going to be Dean. With all the whoop-de-doo, I figured he'd be called Jesus.

Dean Gunner grew up in front of my unblinking gaze and sometimes he reminded me so strongly of Ezra, past bled into the present and I have to catch myself from calling him by my brother's name. I wish the kid wasn't here. I had a chance to pay for an internship that would take him far, far from here. I didn't though. I knew the Merries would smell his soul from wherever they set up their tents and they won't be able to resist such good meat. They would come calling soon. They have to. It's been years since they've eaten properly and appetites ... well, you know what my opinions are on that particular topic.

I don't want to think about what they'll do to him when they get here. But I have to. He's bait. In fact if you must know this entire town is. I've wasted my youth, my adult life, and my retiring life on top of that to do what needs to be done so I can get what those damn Merries owe me.

Well, if you think I'm a crazy ol' coot -- **** you.
If you think I'm a crazy ol' coot with nothing better to do -- **** you twice.
If you think I'm a rude crazy ol' coot -- **** you, please.

Stick around if you're interested. You're about to see August come down on a small town like Hera did on Zeus' girlfriends. I do feel sorry you know, for setting up this entire mess. But not so sorry to stop it. No, not that much.

 

 

Day One

Today is beautiful but nice weather can't stop me from feeling the change rippling through my town. It isn't carried on the breeze. No, nothing that romantic. Instead, it came in the mail, specifically advertised in the local rag. As my usual habit I first flipped to the Life Section where the Obits were. At my age it's good to know if any of your enemies or friends were still with you. Besides, I keep hoping to see a certain name -- Mr. Henry Minor -- prominently listed. You see he's the one who sold this beautiful little town so long ago. Maybe he didn't know what he was doing when he signed that dotted line. However, even if he were genetically predisposed to be a lost cause, he couldn't have remained stupid for over twenty years. Not when the town's economy suddenly did a complete u-turn the year following the Merries' visit. Not when the tourists came by droves and not just on the fair seasons either. Not when the local wineries suddenly started flourishing and nobody, including the genius scientists down in NYC, could explain the cause of the sudden fertility in the crops. The soil samples sure didn't seem any different than others taken from surrounding towns. Isn't the rain or the sunshine, and the air ain't anything to write to home about either.

But I know why. I know because I was looking for it and when I found out how prosperous a little out-of-the-way place named Rothenberg became in two years, I didn't hesitate. Had to work slowly but I made damn sure my plans were carried out to the letter. First, I had to have a new identity. The Merries might not have met me but they would remember my surname. I was born Isaiah Twilight. Ain't that lovely? Now it's John Pratt. Sounds like something you pass along with gallstones. If I were forced to think about it, John Pratt's probably closer to my personality than Twilight. I was Twilight when Ezra was around and I stopped being one when I buried him. Buying a new identity is a dandy affair. Amused myself by thinking I was in some Harris novel. The truth is, if I were a character in one of his bang-up books, I'd be the poor sap whose murder starts off the story.

Anyway, the reason why I knew the Merries were coming was because they put in a whole-page advertisement about the spectacular but wholesome fun they planned for our little berg. The plan is they are going to swing by Rothenberg for a two-day visit before heading out west. I wondered what other poor town they had on the to-do list. A to-do list that probably ran something like: buy some milk, pay the bills, and if there's time, level an entire town and kill as many of the inhabitants as possible. If murder isn't possible, mutilation will have to suffice. I laughed at that mental joke. I know, it isn't really funny but my funny bone hasn't been right since Eisenhower was at the White House. Many years back I actually wrangled an invite to a soiree at the White House just to see if deserved its name. It did.

I read the advertisement and saw the place they were going to set up this family-oriented Caligula Fest. It was familiar enough. I own that plot of land and right pretty place it is too. It abuts the largest park in Rothenberg and both of them face Seneca Lake. Nobody in town knows I hold the deed to that land. I made sure there were enough smoke and mirrors between myself and the town elders when they leased the tract of land for use. Actually, I own about fifty-nine percent of the land surrounding and within Rothenberg. Bought it quiet with nobody the wiser. Just the way I like it. I'm not schoolin' smart but Mr. Devon was damn good teacher and I learned.

The Merries were going to drop by in three weeks. So I had three weeks to watch this town get yanked this way and that, until everyone's emotions were so out-of-whack there wouldn't be a chance in hell for sanity to win when the Merries did finally arrive.

I'm not a prayin' man, never was. We Twilight men made do with what's given. More importantly, we knew better than to whine about it. But while I held that advertisement in my hands I felt a pressin' need to ask the good L-rd if he could spare me a glance or two.

I heard laughter outside my window and couldn't stop myself from taking a look. It was Dean and his girlfriend, Sara. They look sweet together and they fit, you know? It's like they are two neighboring pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. Standing apart and looking with cool amusement was Ted, Dean's best friend or so he tells me. I can't understand how Dean could have good judgment when it comes to choosing girlfriends and such p***-poor ones when it comes to picking buddies.

Ted Forrester. If you look at the definition of "snake in the grass" in one of those old illustrated dictionaries, you'd see his picture. The two boys fell into each other's company after they crashed into each other's cars. Dean claimed his car spun out of control. Now, that I believe. Roads around here get mighty icy during winter. Ted claimed the same. I guess if I didn't see him drive drunk seventeen times in three years, I might have given his story some honest consideration.

I really don't much care for that smile on Ted's face. It's too knowing. Too ... settled. As if the movie going on in his head was guaranteed to happen. And let me tell you, those movies are best left buried. He's gesturing energetically to Dean and Sara. After some animated conversation they regroup at the edge of Gunner's front lawn before trotting to a sweet-looking car. I blinked in shock as Ted got into the driver's seat. Holy hell, that car belonged to him?

Suddenly I knew where Ted must have gotten the car. It wasn't his folks who splurged for such classy wheels. They can if they wanted to but why would they? Mr. and Mrs. Forrester were way too selfish to show any kind of largesse to their kid. No, they'd buy another boat or take yet another fancy trip to Europe.

Ted got himself a sugar daddy and I don't mean the sex-fiend type. No this sugar daddy's much, much worse. This one wants nothing to do with the flesh and everything to do with a soul. I suspect Ted already sold his and is looking to bargain away Dean's. I thought the advertisement was a feeler: something the Merries could use to attract interested parties. I was wrong. It was just a sell. They're already here. And if Ted's any kind of sign they already got their foot soldiers marching hard and fast.

How could I have missed it? Was I so completely blinded by fear that I didn't see their arrival? Or was I too engrossed in preparing for them that I missed their presence? I honestly don't know and now that I know they're here, I can't waste any of my precious energy trying to answer that question. Let's just say I'm stupid and move along. Unlike some other people with fragile egos, I don't have any problem admitting my ignorance, as long as it gets me somewhere. Or something.

I grab the walker abandoned at the front door. I use it every time I go outside though the truth be told, a cane would do just fine. However, I need privacy and the only way I can achieve that when I'm out and about is to look infirm and helpless. Sad to say, people around these parts and most everywhere else studiously if not religiously ignore a sick, handicapped elderly man. They can't be bothered to waste their precious time on what is so obviously a hopeless and dying cause.

With an apologetic and tremulous smile I stepped onto my porch and hollered, "Dean! Ted! Can I talk to you for a second?"

 

 

Day One, continued

I couched my request in the most harmless way possible and the boys bought it. Dean gave me a worried sidelong glance. No doubt wondering if his neighbor was losing what little marbles he had. Ted just agreed to help because Dean did. Part of me wished they said no to my crazy request and walk away.

No luck in that, I suppose. And there's no time left for me to screw around so I won't waste my time thinking about it. But, as I watched the two boys return to Ted's car I found myself shouting Dean's name once more.

The boy turned around, his head cocked to the side. He didn't even bother to hide his concern.

"It might be these old bones," I started off apologetically, "But you take care of yourself. My thumbs are itching, if you know what I mean."

Dean's face broke into a smile. "MacBeth!" He cried out. "We went over that play last semester!"

I nodded, "Good to know they're teaching you something worth its weight in gold. And Dean, if you haven't read Othello, I suggest you should. Damn good play, better than MacBeth!"

"I will Mr. Pratt!" Was Dean's parting cry as he joined Ted and Sara.

I watch them, feeling tears burn. Oh, to be that young again -- to have the careless strength of youth running through my veins just one more time. Feeling sorry for oneself is a hobby that's all too easy to start, and damn near impossible to finish. Best I don't even start going down that road. Besides, what good will it do? That kind of thinking is nothing but an ulcer to one's soul and I need mine intact for what's ahead.

I hobble back into my house, not totally faking my crippling walk. My back's been acting up, no surprise there but it's still incredibly annoying. I had to take a break before driving to town. It was three in the afternoon, and the tourists were predictably taking their coffee-or-tea break in all those cozy little cafes lined up on Windermere Street. Not that I'm complaining. Don't get me wrong, they're better on the eyes than those booze and hootchy bars they got in Buffalo. It's the pretense that goes along with such contraptions that gets my hackles up.

Listen to me whining about people having a good time while vacationing. Damn, I'm not only old -- I'm old and unfair. Fighting down a laugh I park my Ford and feign a struggle as I get the walker from the backseat. As I expected people dutifully ignored me and my travails. Finally gathering myself together with a theatrical sigh, I spotted the first colorful poster announcing the Merries' arrival. My response was immediate and telling to anyone who was watching. I bit my tongue hard enough to bring tears.

The garish poster wasn't anything shocking but I could smell the evil wafting from it, and its scent was horribly ... ripe. And for a moment I had to fight down my stomach from tossing up my breakfast. I closed my eyes, took four deep breaths and continued my way down Windermere. The street was chock full of antiques-and-curio shops, and their window displays are a kicker. I finally managed to get myself under control by studying a collection of WWII medals prominently displayed amongst other military crap. I think they were arranged by the color of the ribbons ‘cause the only way someone could earn those medals would be to serve in the Navy and the Army at the same time. The thought made me chuckle and I finally found strong enough emotional footing to make a safe passage down the street plastered with those goddamn posters.

And I'm not swearing when I say goddamn.

Suddenly a door opens before me and I nearly collided with a couple obviously "antiquing". They apologize politely and wander away, their toy dog following briskly. I had to quell a desire to kick the rat-on-leash. Never could stand those things. Can't figure out why people can't get a decent sized mutt instead of those yapping annoyances.

"Hello Mr. Pratt," Jodie, the owner of the antique store, Gracefully Inane, greeted me from the doorway.

"Skinned any tourists today?" My greeting was met with a crooked smile.

"Just that couple. They were desperate to find a matching hurricane lamp they bought from me last year."

"Did you have it?"

"No, I convinced them to get a charming chandelier instead."

I cackled in honest amusement. "Holy hell, what are they going to do with that?"

"Believe it or not, they're planning to install it in their walk-in closet."

My cackling got louder and it took me a while to stop laughing. "Well, as long as it's legal, I see no problem."

"That's what I say." Jodie's vague smile disappeared. "Do you notice anything strange lately? It feels ... off somehow."

I nodded, "Yeah, but that's because August is the swan song of summer. People are desperate to squeeze in as much fun as possible before September starts and they have to go back to truckin' their kids to school."

"It's not that," Jodie softly said. "Rothenberg feels different, like ... it's holding its breath."

"Maybe it's the carnival."

Jodie wrinkled her nose. "Can't abide those things. Had a bad hot dog once and it put me down for two days. Besides, it's just a traveling scam, isn't it?"

"Ain't no shortage of suckers in the world," I added.

Jodie nodded, her cynical smile returning to her carefully painted lips. "And those carnies always manage to bring them out of the woodwork. Thank heaven I'm too busy with this place to indulge in such foolishness."

I pointed at a poster tacked on the lamppost in front of her store. "When did these go up?"

"That's another weird thing," Jodie said. "They must have done it late last night because I was taking inventory until eleven and I didn't see anyone come by. Annoying really, after they're through guess who's going to have to pull those down these eyesores? Us."

"I have to get going, Jodie. Take care of yourself."

"I will Mr. Pratt."

I watched her slip into her store where another couple besieged her with questions. She's a smart girl. The desperation she senses is constant in these parts because with winter we got snow. And it's no picnic. Around here we don't have school closings until the snow measure above two feet and even then it's not a guarantee. It's expected to see snowdrifts bury trucks, even houses and they remain buried until mid-March, sometimes well into April. So, people rush about and have as much fun as possible during the warmer months -- to store up for the dreary days ahead, like psychological squirreling.

It was the bright flashes of light that caught my attention. I toddled over to the middle of the street, looking up Windermere to where it t-boned Town Hall. My jaw fell open and for a moment there I thought I was going to puke and empty my bowels all at the same time. It was the Merries. They've come to town and by the looks of it, they got their spats and walking sticks. Other people noticed them too but their reaction was the opposite of mine. They pointed excitedly, clapping and laughing at the clowns' outrageous costumes and even more outrageous antics, but all were eager to see them. Their behavior reminded me of sheep being entertained by the shepherd's dog while the shepherd calmly led the flock to the slaughterhouse.

I don't like clowns. Their red mouths ... remind me of vampires. I suspect these particular clowns use something worse for their makeup. The calliope music they were playing grated my ears and I was about to turn away when I saw someone. Someone I recognized.

You know, there's always been a little voice inside my head, nagging me, saying that I was insane, suffering from dementia, paranoia and other --ia diseases. That I was a danger to everyone and had to be hospitalized el pronto so I don't do something that would land me in hell.

The funny thing's that I was already in hell, and believe it or not I got use to the pain. People are strange that way. It's amazing what we can get used to given time and inclination.

But that man ... that tall, pale ... thing ... he hasn't aged a day since I first saw him over fifty years ago. That man, if you could call it that, swept down the street, dressed in a fine red riding jacket, a tall hat, waving his silver-capped walking stick about while making announcements to the crowd that I couldn't hear above the din. He made a striking figure when I was a kid and he still is. People watch him with wide eyes as he passed by them. Some he smiled to, others he waved, but nobody could escape from him once he laid those shark-dead eyes on them.

I shrank into the doorway, praying he won't notice me. I watch them drift down Windermere, with children and their parents following them. Only then did my brain kick in. I wonder how they got permission for the parade. I remember last year the local Shriners had to give up their plans for one after they discovered the nightmare that passed for the application process.

Then something else hit me. The calliope music that attracted so many people: where did it come from? There was no band, nothing that I could see which could generate that particular type of music. The music that reminds people of their youth when they could eat as much as they want and not gain an ounce; when they were able to stay outdoors for hours on end in the summer and not worry about getting skin cancer: when they were able to wear clothing that showed off their trim legs and fine ankles. It was a siren song and for a moment even I felt its pull. A sharp hip pain saved me from doing something foolish.

I was later told by Mrs. Worth, the local gossip, that Mr. Henry Minor, a prominent citizen and former mayor of Rothenberg, committed suicide the very same moment the Merries came to town. Sometimes past sins can catch up with you all gentle-like, tapping your shoulder like a lost child looking for directions. Sometimes they come swinging axes, blind with rage. Looks like Minor got the latter, and in spite of my anger I felt sorry for him.

 

 

Day Two

I was genuinely anxious as Dean and Ted coated the roof of my house with what I said was a special winter "primer". Or at least that's what they think it is. Actually it's a special mixture of belladonna, mandrake, and few other herbals. And boy, am I glad I'm not the one on the ladder cause that thing reeks to high heaven. The recipe for the vile concoction is pretty simple but it comes with pedigree of time. It'll keep unwanted eyes and visitors from wandering into my property without my express permission. Of course, the Merries might very well wonder why the hell the town crackpot would want such protection or even know what it is to begin with, but I figure by the time they notice my roof, it'll all be over for one of us.

Like I said before, I don't figure surviving to see another August. But as long as I can take them with me, I won't mind dying. Suddenly my nerves jangled as I saw Dean's footing get wobbly. He quickly balanced himself out, caught my worried stare and smiled sheepishly.

"I'll try not to get killed!" He shouted amiably.

"I'd appreciate that. It'll take me forever to scrape you off the driveway!" Was my ornery reply.

Ted mumbled something and Dean gave him an irritated look. That was enough to silence the brat and the two continued to coat the roof in silence. I forced myself to read the incredibly boring book on my lap, feigning disinterest. But all the while I kept a sharp eye on the road and the sidewalk in front of my house. Nobody new, nobody suspicious, but I had a bad feeling I wouldn't be able to spot "suspicious" even if it bit me. And since Ted was probably their spy, it wouldn't make sense for them to send somebody extra. They're probably much too busy putting their plans in motion. One would hazard a guess that setting up a carnival would take at least a day, and it does if the carnie's one of those normal affairs you see. But this one ain't, and in less than one night they were ready for business.

You'd think something like that would attract attention, wouldn't you? I mean Ferris Wheels suddenly towering in the horizon, along with Bendy Boxes and Flying Cups, and even a friggin' honest-to-goodness roller coaster, but nobody seems to care how fast it was all set up, just that it was. I swear, sometimes I wonder how the hell the human race got to where it is. In spite of all the messes we made, here we be. Now if that's not an argument for a benign G-d, I don't know what is.

People are already visiting the carnival, filling their junkie need for even junkier food like cotton candy, caramel apples, and fried dough. I'm bettin' more than a few of them are going home with stomach troubles. And some might go home with even bigger problems: problems that can't be solved with a visit to the doctor. I fear for those people. I fear those people cause they've got cancer of the soul and there's no cure for that. Oh, the Merries will say otherwise, but they're selling snake oil for a sickness they started in the first place. And sicker the people, the happier they be.

Dean's bucket thumped to the ground, startling me. I looked up and the look on Dean's face broke my heart. It was cunning ... almost poisonously sly, and I wondered how such an angelic face could make itself so twisted. He almost looked like one of those stone gargoyles I saw while touring France. I wondered when I saw the first of those monstrosities exactly what the hell the masons were thinking of. But now that I saw Dean's face, maybe those carvers weren't dreaming up those hideous things. Maybe they were just copying.

Jesus Christ, what happened to you, Dean?

"Sorry!" He said as he climbed down the ladder. "It slipped. Are you okay?"

I nodded wordlessly. His apology sounded genuine but those eyes ... those eyes were mocking me. It might have been an accident but right now, I'd bet otherwise. This revelation froze my tongue and maybe because I was struck dumb I noticed the look on Ted's face. It was cloudy with genuine fear and worry. Something was happening to Dean and his so-called friend didn't like it. Sure, Ted's a bad one but he's a bush league player compared to them and he instinctively knew it. Like any predator he wants to keep his territory and now that someone or something laid claim to what was his, Ted couldn't help but be scared.

This is bad. This is what is called an opportunity.

Ted caught my suspicious stare and narrowed his eyes at me. I gave a small nod which he aptly interpreted. He made motions to leave but stayed behind as Dean drove away to meet somebody or other. By silent agreement we waited until Dean was clear out of sight.

"What's up?" He asked cautiously.

"I'm worried about Dean. He's not himself lately. Did you notice that?"

Ted shrugged carelessly but I saw the tension burrowed in his shoulders.

"Maybe it's cause I'm old," I said. I had to go soft and slow, couldn't alarm Ted and send him running off to Dean the first chance he gets. "But that doesn't mean everything's dandy. Is Dean having problems with his girlfriend? With his parents? I know he must have been upset at not getting that internship."

Ted gave an explosive sigh and wiped his forehead with his baseball cap. "Mr. Pratt, I don't know what's happening to him. Sometimes he's like his old self, but then there are times when he just scares me."

"Oh dear, is he upset with someone?"

Ted shook his head, "Not someone, more like something. He's angry with the entire town and I mean that. His parents, Sara, everyone. And the things he says when he gets mad ... it's like someone else talking with his voice."

"Sounds like Dean's got a bad problem. When did it start?"

"At the beginning of this month. He went away for the weekend and came back like that. I thought something bad happened while he was away but he won't talk about it. I've been trying to make him talk, you know. Some beers or whatever, but he's not telling. And that's just weird cause Dean's a cheap date. Give him couple of brewskis and you'd have to gag him to shut him up."

"Sounds like troubles, alright. He might have seen something ... criminal and is afraid to report it. Maybe it was somebody in town that did wrong. That would upset his boat."

"Maybe," Ted said thoughtfully. "I won't stop asking though."

No, the little creep wouldn't. Why would he? If Dean did come clean then he would have dirt on somebody, a leverage that might come handy later on. Part of me recoiled at the thought of associating with Ted but, as the saying goes, beggars can't be choosers.

"By the way, nice ride you got there." I said in hopes of switching the conversation.

"It's my dad's. He and mom are away for the rest of the month. They're visiting friends in California and doing some serious hiking in Yosemite."

"I never knew your parents appreciated nature," And I was telling the truth. They were more of the wine bar types, not prone to appreciating Nature unless she was irradiated and packaged in cellophane.

"They're not," Was Ted's sarcastic reply. And that was his version of farewell too.

I watched him saunter away, all the while chowing down the need to give him a good swift kick on the behumpus. Arrogance befits no one, but especially youth. On them arrogance looks like cheap suit on Thursday afternoon board meeting. Ugly and inappropriate.

I was about to enter my house when I heard something. Ambulance sirens, not too far off from the sound of it. That cacophony was soon joined by another and another. I felt a shiver snake its way down my back. It's not unusual for a town this size to have pressing needs for medical or police services. But that particular chorus meant something really bad was happening and I knew the Merries had to be involved.

It wasn't until I took in my usual drink at Tide's Tavern that I found out what went wrong. Mr. Sanders, along with his family, dog included, died in a fiery crash when their mini-van suddenly lost control and collided with a tree. What was weird was the fact that nobody was wearing seatbelts. Now, if the driver were someone like Ted, I wouldn't give it a second thought and chalk up the entire mess as human error. Sanders, though, was a seventh-grade teacher and a damn good one. So, a man like that has got be naturally finicky about the safety of his kids.

But no seatbelts. By the time the ambulance got to the scene, they were pretty much roadside pancakes. Poor Goldie included.

It was a shame but I knew this was how the Merries got things rolling. I ordered a second round of whiskey cause my thirst just got bigger. I also figured there wasn't much time left for me to share my woes with Mr. Beam so I should renew our acquaintance while I still can.

The door opened but I didn't notice. It wasn't until the new customer sat down next to me that I bothered to look.

"Sheriff McTiernan!" I exclaimed in genuine surprise. The man is a hard Northern Baptist when it came to alcohol. What the hell was he doing here?

"Mr. Pratt," He said as he stared at his reflection in the bar glass in front. His voice deep but hollow -- something terrible dug out the man's strength from his guts and left him painfully empty.

I noticed the dark circles under his eyes and the trembling of his hands. The poor man must have been at the accident site and saw the carnage. When my drink came I pushed it over to him.

"I figure you need it more than I do." I said lamely. Damn, I wanted to comfort him. He wasn't the brightest pup in the pack but I met few men who tried to be so good at what they do. And being the law ain't no cakewalk either, let me tell you. There's much to be said for strength of will and a solid heart as there is to be said for intelligence.

"Thank you," He managed to say before downing the entire glass.

"I liked him. He was a good teacher. He didn't just play to the kids' level but really cared enough about them to be their teacher instead of their friend. Not many people in his position do that, you know." I half-mumbled in the hopes of getting the Sheriff talking.

McTiernan blinked and then looked at me. "Oh, yes, the crash ... yeah, that was rough."

"Were they going to the carnival?" I asked, feigning disinterest.

McTiernan shook his head, "No, they just left the fair and was driving home when it happened. Mr. Sanders had a bit of a dizzy spell after he came out of the mirror maze. Nobody thought much of it but I'm including that on my report in case the autopsy reveals something. You're right about him. It's going to be hard on his students."

Suddenly I realized it wasn't the accident that had him looking so blasted. I didn't bother to hide my confusion. "Is something else wrong, Sheriff?"

McTiernan studied the glass in his grasp then his reflection once more. He took a deep breath and said, "I just came from a crime scene."

"Crime?" I echoed. "You mean deliberate ... murder?"

McTiernan nodded. He took a big gulp of air but his face reddened as if he was choking on something. I put my arm around his shoulders and asked, "What happened?"

"It's Samantha Maxwell. Her husband came home and found ... she killed her baby."

My jaw dropped. Samantha gave birth to a baby girl two months ago. Both she and her husband were practically floating on air when their child was born, and that's including the birthing process. I personally thought they went a little soft in the old noggins with it all, but hey, it was entertaining to watch.

"Do you know why she did it?" I asked, my voice so reed-thin it could've been mistaken for a child's.

McTiernan wiped the tears from his eyes with a vicious swipe of his hands. "She said she wanted to wash the demon out of her baby."

"Wash? What do you mean wash?"

"She put Jenny in the laundry machine and cranked it for heavy cycle. The baby drowned."

I felt all my strength slip away and cradled my head in my hands in the hopes to stave off a bad fainting spell. McTiernan didn't bother to hide his tears and let out small sobs as the day's massacre overwhelmed him. The other patrons noticed our anguish but obeyed The Eternal Code of Drink -- never bother upset men lest you want to end up upset yourself.

The Merries have begun their work and from the looks of it, they started off in a damn hurry.

 

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