A week of my life wasted trying to write a short story no longer than 7,000 words.
CREDO MAN by Carol Kean
The credo is simple: If no one talks, everyone walks. You have nothing to gain by talking to the police … and everything to lose.
KENNY LOCKE WAS BACK in town. Not that Sally cared, but her sister would, and that was the trouble.
Her grip tightened on a thirty-pound pumpkin and instead of lowering it to her Fall Sidewalk Sale table, Sally stood behind it, staring like a teenage idiot as a leathery, gray-haired Kenny angled his Harley to a stop in front of the Post Office.
No helmet. No mistaking that face and physique no matter how many decades passed. Smooth as ever, all six and a half feet of him glided up from the bike. He nudged the kickstand with a booted toe and went inside.
A rusty old 1999 Malibu shuddered down Main Street without a muffler. Connie. Her stiff, slow-motion climb from the car was not a good sign. Some things never changed, though: the ol’ Connie chin lift, the little squint, the smirk, the gravelly voice: “Hey, Burl.”
“Hey, Ana-conn-da.” It wasn’t the best Sally could come up with, but anything beat Connie’s original nickname, which no longer meant what it did back when the Burton sisters were known as Burl and Butch. At least Connie didn’t call her Herpy this time, or some other bastardization of herpetologist. Burl was a deformity, a rounded outgrowth on a tree filled with small knots from dormant buds. By the time pudgy little Burl had turned into a swan, Connie was singing her own swan song. She’d married Don Viggers in spite of, or because of, everyone’s warnings to steer clear of the bastard.
Connie cleared her throat in that annoying way she had, probably to remind people to look at her beautiful blue eyes rather than her metal arm. Busted. Too late, Sally looked up.
“Working hard,” Connie said, “or hardly working?”
That line was older than the Burton sisters. Next, Connie would be trying to guilt-trip Sally out of a few twenties, to tide her over until her next disability check.
Across the street, Kenny Locke sauntered out with his hands full of mail. Catching Sally’s eye, he nodded at her behind Connie’s back and tipped his hat. Her face burned like a hot flash, but he was probably too far away to notice. Not that she cared. That womanizing felon. That–
–What if Kenny was still single?
He had a history of liking too many women too much, not of abusing them.
What if Kenny Locke was the one thing left that could get Connie to leave Don?
“No. No. A thousand times no,” Nancy said from behind the pharmacy counter. “Did you see the patch on his jacket?” Sally had not. “O.P.,” Nancy said. You know what that means.” Of course, Sally did not. “One Percent. It means he belongs to S.O.S.” More eye rolling from Nancy. “Sons of Silence? The outlaw motorcycle gang? He’d better not be bringing them here.”
Nancy The Tongue was a repository of information, the first to know anything and everything. Sally was just a repository of wisdom on gardening, cooking, flora and fauna, not gossip, and certainly not Kenny’s business in Falls City.
Sally blew a stray hair from her forehead. “I’d rather see Connie run off with a motorcycle gang than let Don keep killing her, slowly, year by year. Sticks and stones can break my bones but words can never hurt me? That’s a lie. She’s always making excuses for him, but nothing ages a woman like a bad husband. Today she looked twenty years older than me.”
“You should worry more about her Oxycontin habit than a few new gray hairs and wrinkles. That’s why she was here, you know. Trying to pawn off a bogus prescription. ”
A light blinked on Nancy’s cash register. That one was new, Sally noticed. Little blinky lights had come to signify cameras in every store, at stoplights, even along highways to trap speeders or just keep track of who was going where. It was enough to give her a panic attack, and she had nothing to hide.
“I can’t worry about Connie,” Sally said. “She won’t let me. Anyway, I have too much else on my plate today.” She turned, heading for the door before Nancy could find more ways to belittle her, then stopped. “Ha. I wonder if Kenny is here for Oktoberfest this weekend. Can’t you just see him in Lederhosen and a feathered cap?”
“No, but obviously you can,” Nancy quipped.
Sally would have slammed the door behind her but it was one of those pneumatic glass things that whispered, slow and heavy, back into place.
Her husband Tom would look great in Lederhosen but wouldn’t be caught dead listening to polka, much less dressing for it. Sally kept her St. Pauli girl costume buried deep in a box under the bed, but one day she’d break free of the kitchen and garden, and just drive off, maybe even fly to Germany, but she waited too long, because now everything was bar-coded, bleeping and traceable. She wouldn’t get as far as the airport. Not that she wanted to run away, for real, but sometimes she just needed to believe it was an option.
It wasn’t unheard of to have the local police at her door for coffee and cookies, but it wasn’t a regular occurrence, either. When Chief Wickham and Police Pal Cal showed up the next day, Sally assumed the aroma of chocolate chip cookies had lured them there. “Door’s open,” she called, glimpsing them through the screen. She set a sheet of cookies onto the stovetop and shifted a second sheet from the bottom oven rack to the top. Her eyes flicked up as two silhouettes loomed in the afternoon sun. “Pull up a chair,” she said.
Sally flashed a smile at them and turned to the coffee pot. Her kitchen was sought out for many reasons, and the warm, welcoming aroma of a fresh-brewed dark roast was just one of them. She practiced a few questions in her mind about Denny Locke and the One Percent, but Cal spoke first. He was the young one, tall, blond and boyishly cute, a favorite among the school kids as Police Pal Cal.
“Do you know where your sister is?”
Sally snagged an ominous breath. “Oh no. He didn’t hurt her, I hope…!”
The two officers exchanged glances. “He, who?” Cal said.
“Her loser of a husband. Who else?”
Police Pal Cal and pudgy, gray-haired Chief Lawrence Wickham exchanged glances.
Wickman made air quotes with his fingers. “Her loser of a husband… ”
“… is dead,” Cal finished. As if they’re rehearsed it. In unision, they shifted their eyes to Sally.
The oven timer dinged. Sally turned to pull out the second batch. She hit the “cancel” button and left the rest of the batter in the bowl. “What happened? How did he die?”
“Well.” Wickham cleared his throat, almost as loudly as Connie did in that annoying way of hers. “We thought you might want to tell us that.”
Sally plunked back into her chair. Solid walnut, this table, these chairs, salvaged from a garage sale, scraped and sanded by her and Tom. Solid. The floor, however, shifted like sand beneath her feet.
“If I have to guess,” she said, “I’d say it was the Y2K chili. We were cleaning the shelves in her basement and found a few more of those jars labeled 1999. You remember the big scare. Don said the power grid was going down at midnight, January 1, 2000. He made Connie slave away, canning jars of chili and roast beef to last ten years, and he bought up fifty-pound bags of flour and rice and a generator, then his arsenal of guns and ammo to fight off all the hungry at his door.” Sally scoffed again, blowing a wisp of hair from her forehead. “I told her it was time to dump that stuff. If botulism is what did him in, he had it coming.”
Finally, Wickham bit into a cookie. He grabbed a napkin and wiped quick as hot, melted chocolate chip started oozing down his chin.
Cal waltzed slowly around the kitchen with his coffee mug, examining the potted herbs on the window sill above the sink, touching the desk calendar on the countertop, muttering at the books shelved up in a cupboard without doors. Kitchen Toxins to Avoid. Safe Canning Practices. Snakes in the Garden. Poisonous Snakes.
“You still one of those Raptor Re-biller-ators?” Cal said.
“Raptor and Reptile Rehabilitator? Yes.” Sally wanted to slap him and demand to know what had happened to Don and Connie.
“I guess you’d know better than to go at a timber rattler,” Wickham said.
Sally drew up taller and straighter. “I wouldn’t dream of attacking one.”
Wickham rose from his chair and faced her. His words came out measured, heavy.
“But you dreamed of killing Don, didn’t you?”
Lesson #1: The Mortification of Silence
There is no such thing as a ‘friendly chat’ to sort things out. Even seemingly casual small talk can come back to haunt you. Anything you say can, and probably will, be used against you.
A long visit at the police station was not in Sally’s agenda. Not that day, not any day. She had dinner to cook, floors to mop, and no idea who planted a snake in Don’s garden. How does one get a snake to hold still in one spot, then get it to bite the first hand to reach for a tomato? Sally was an amateur herpetologist, not a snake charmer. And not a murderer. Sure, she wished Don Viggers dead, but dreaming and doing are two different matters.
“The wish is father of the deed,” Wickham said. That porker with his flabby beer gut and double chin. Pig Wickham. How she hated him now, she who hated no one, she who baked Christmas cookies for prisoners and brought Oktoberfest to the nursing home every year, she who had no enemies except maybe Connie who’d always had it in for her and her ally, cousin Nancy the Tongue.
Finally her husband showed up at the station. She trembled in his arms, and he pulled back to give her a questioning look. “What have you done, Sally?”
“Me?” She shot a glance at that porker, Pig Wickham. “Ask him.”
He didn’t. He looked at her, waiting. Tom was lean and tough as a whip, with that stoic look she’d loved in Clint Eastwood’s spaghetti Westerns. Not the warm-fuzzies kind of guy, definitely not the Lederhosen type, but dependable. True-blue.
“Crotalus horridus,” she said.
“Timber Rattlesnake. Crotalus horridus. It sounds like they’re trying to make a case that I used a snake as a murder weapon. It’s the lamest thing I’ve ever heard. As if I’d put a snake in harm’s way, on the off chance that Don might find it, and might scare it enough to get it to bite him, and that he’d die of anaphylactic shock before Connie could summon an ambulance. How are they building a case of premeditated murder out of that?”
Tom cast a grim look at PigWick. “How did they get in our house and rummage through your books and papers without a search warrant?”
Sally bit her lip. “They just dropped by for coffee and cookies, or so I thought, and we just got to chatting, and I never imagined…this. I just want to go home now. Thank God you’re here.”
“Uh, Sally, they aren’t letting me bring you home yet.”
She stared at him, jaw sagging.
“Your bail is half a million dollars. I can’t round up that kind of money today.”
“Bail!” she sputtered. “How can they do this to me? I’m innocent!”
“That’s what they all say.” PigWick stepped over, waving a stack of computer print-outs. “You sure spend a lot of time thinking about ways people can die, don’t you?”
He handcuffed her, just like that, while Tom uttered impotent protests, and led her away into the deepest, darkest corners of her nightmare.
Lesson #3: Be Courteous & Non-Confrontational
As a rule, you don’t have to answer any questions the police ask you. This comes from the Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which protects you against self-incrimination.
Kenny Locke knew all these things, of course, knew them from age sixteen, but ….
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