“Shhhh. Cut the light,” Jeb Grady whispered sharply to his brother, Donnie. “Lights coming.”
Donnie dropped his leather jacket and shut off the flashlight in an instant. Jeb flattened behind the hedge on his stomach, peering out under the bottom leaves; Donnie rolled on his right side, his head nearly touching his brother’s.
“Don’ see nothing.”
Jeb waved him quiet. “Somethin’s out there.”
Car lights lit the tree tops and the top of the hill briefly, then went dark. A familiar green dinged old Ford pickup silently pulled over the crest of the hill and rolled to a stop. Interior lights flickered momentarily, as two men slid out and shut doors with barely a sound. The Johnson brothers, Case and Hig.
“What the fuck?” Donnie moaned quietly in Jeb’s ear. They both took the safety locks off their Colts.
There was just the faint crescent of a moon, but enough light that even under the leaves, the Grady’s could see Hig motion Case to move across the road. Both Johnsons’ were carrying rifles, pointed straight ahead into the darkness. The men melted into the inky trees, following the narrow uphill curve in the road, toward the flattened and waiting Grady’s.
“What about my car?” Jeb whispered softly.
“Should be okay” was the low reply.
Case’s pronounced limp slowed down both Johnson brothers. Their silhouettes blended in with the deep black of three a.m.
Donnie and Jeb lay as still as the logs around them, their senses on heightened alert. Both jerked when, fifteen minutes later, Case’s boot scraped the pavement twenty yards away. They sensed, more than saw, Case shrug his shoulders and raise his arms.
“Okay,” Hig’s voice said softly, “we’ll head back. Look somewheres else.”
Case scraped and Hig followed back to the Ford, where they made a three-point turn and slowly drove back down the hill, out of sight again.
It was another ten minutes before the Grady brothers stiffly stood, damp and chilled. Ten minutes more to make sure the Johnson’s were not coming back. In those long minutes, they stood staring in all directions, with poised and pointed guns.
Jeb and Donnie knew what the Johnson brothers were doing; knew why they were out on a late-night drive. Case and Hig were looking for their sister, Elsa Matson, the leggy, vodka-swilling blond divorcee whom the two Grady’s were currently in the process of burying.
An hour later, nervous and sweaty, Jeb and Donnie cleaned the shovels in a nearby stream and drove quietly and cautiously down back roads to town. The late Elsa Matson, nee Johnson, lay in a hastily dug and shallower grave than she probably would have preferred. Any hymns or prayers she might have liked to be said over her were disregarded. Her final parting was met with a few thumps of a shovel and a lot of hushed swear words.
Earlier that evening, Elsa Matson, dressed fashionably, had sashayed into Frank’s Tap, looking gorgeous, entitled and angry. Donnie saw her and tried to hide, tried to shrink his big frame behind the wall of patrons. He asked horse racing questions to his friend, Kevin, a subject he had no interest in, but it kept Kevin at his table and Donnie was trying not to be seen.
Twenty minutes and three vodka tonics later, Elsa spied Donnie and forced her way through the crowd.
“You’re looking fabulous, Kev,” she cooed, “Could you buy me a drink?”
“Not tonight, I’m outta here.” Kevin slapped his hand on Donnie’s shoulder, drained his beer and disappeared into the crowd.
“What a dullard. How can you tolerate him?” Elsa sat on Kevin’s empty chair, her hand on Donnie’s thigh.
“What do you want, Elsa? I’m busy.” He flicked her hand away.
“Waiting for a friend.”
“None of your business. What do you want?”
“Another, thank you,” she drained her glass and handed it to a passing bartender. “I want an answer from you.”
“What was the question, again?”
“Us, dumbass. Are you moving in with me?”
“No, not interested.”
She sighed and waved to someone across the room. Donnie studied his fingernails.
“Put this on his tab,” Elsa snapped when the bartender returned with the vodka tonic and another beer for Donnie.
“Look,” she turned toward Donnie, sipping the vodka, “you know you will someday, why not now. Okay, we’ve had some stumbles, I know that, but so what? It’s bound to happen. Just pack your shit and come over.”
“Nothing serious, don’t look so pouty.”
“You’ve been cheating on me for months, Elsa. We’re through, get the fuck away from me. I can’t stand you.”
“Oh, grow up, you jerk. That is all in the past.” She held her empty glass out for a passing waiter. “Like you’re a choir boy. HA!”
For another ten minutes they sat in silence, looking away from each other, downing their drinks. Then, with an air of exasperation, Elsa stood, flung her gray silk scarf across her left shoulder and strode out the door. Donnie exhaled, visibly relaxing.
For two years, Donnie and Elsa had been the hot topic and main entertainment of town. Their behavior was ridiculed and laughed about, but everyone turned out on a Friday night to see the show. While Donnie was quiet, his feelings of annoyance or disgust was evident through his facial expressions; they were much copied throughout the week by the watchers. Elsa, on the other hand, was explosive, either roaring with drunken laughter, frantically kissing on and making out with Donnie, or cursing him at top volume. It was always the week’s gossip.
On a snowy March night, a handsome gray-haired stranger sat at the bar of Frank’s Pub. Donnie had stayed home, ill with a cold. Elsa had claimed the bar stool next to the stranger, chatted, laughed and drank, and hours later, left with him. Then, she disappeared; sometime in April, Frank’s Pub received a postcard from Paris “Having a great time, see you all soon, Love, Elsa and Joe.
Donnie had taken her back, both to the joy and disappointment of the crowd.
The next stranger was a music producer, in town to listen to a band. Her next postcard, two weeks later, was from Nashville. Everyone eyed Donnie warily; he seemed relaxed, relieved. But he took her back.
The third stranger was local; a Hollywood cinematographer who had a large property just thirty miles away. She stayed with him eight months. Donnie grew more relaxed each week. He dated some women, but no one more than once or twice. Still, he was charming, looked more youthful and was fun to be around.
Donnie had just gotten home and was finished in the bathroom when he heard a key turn in the door and Elsa walked in.
“Get out, now. Leave the key.”
She lurched forward and slumped over the arm of the nearest chair.
“Afraid I can’t drive tonight,” the words were slurred. “Guess I’ll stay here tonight.”
“No way, you won’t, get going.”
As Elsa leaned across the chair trying to seat herself properly, her scarf dropped to the floor. “Look, you ass, I’m sorry, but it’s over with him and that’s all there is. I want you.”
“Go, Elsa, now.” Rolling her eyes, she took her vibrating phone from her purse and punched in some message.
Then, she stood, unsteady but elegant. With an effort, she staggered the few feet, until she was inches from Donnie. Her hands wrapped lightly on his arms.
“You stupid fuck!” With that, she spit full in his face.
Enraged, Donnie shoved her away from him; she fell against the chair. On her knees, her back to Donnie, Elsa struggled to stand. Donnie snatched her scarf from the floor, wiped her saliva from his face, then, just as she was nearly upright, with fury he threw the scarf around her neck and twisted it hard. He smelled booze, hair spray and some dry-cleaning ingredient as he pulled her upright against him with the scarf.
Elsa strained and coughed and gasped. She turned slightly toward him, pleading with her bulging, watery eyes, her hands grasping, tearing weakly at the tightening scarf. Donnie towered over her, twisting and jerking until Elsa, red-blotched and slightly blue slid soundlessly and limp to the floor. Her eyes bore into him.
“Elsa, shit, get up,” Donnie stepped awkwardly backwards two steps, “C’mon, get up.”
The eyes remained half-opened, her upper lip pulled up under her nose like she was still trying to suck in some air.
“Oh, no! Oh, fuck.”
Nearly sixty minutes later Donnie heard a light series of raps, followed by another at the kitchen door; the sign Jeb was outside and needing a couch for the night. He hurried to admit his brother, shutting the door quickly behind him.
Donnie drained the last of his beer, tossed the bottle in the trash can and wordlessly got two more from the refrigerator.
“What’s up, Donnie? Ya look a little wigged out.”
“Oh, she’s here, sorry, I’ll leave.”
“No, sit down.”
“Where is she? Really, I can leave.”
“She’s in the living room. She’s dead.’
“DEAD! What the f—?”
“Shut up!” Donnie interrupted, “the neighbor’s downstairs.”
Beer in hand, Jeb tiptoed into the living room and stood over Elsa. “Good God, she’s dead.”
Back in the kitchen, Jeb immediately took charge. “we need to get rid of fingerprints. What did she touch?”
Donnie gasped, blinked and shrugged, “Not much, the door knob, the chair. I’m not really …….”
“Get up,” Jeb was squirting detergent onto a sponge, “go get an old sheet, something.”
For the next thirty minutes, the brothers silently washed and cleaned. Until they wrapped Elsa’s body in a new sheet Donnie had gotten for Christmas, her eyes seemed to follow them, wherever they stood or went. Jeb threw her scarf, jacket and purse on top of her. Repeatedly, he checked for any other items that were hers, even pulling up and cleaning under the cushions of both chairs and the couch. Carefully, they washed the rug under her, picking through it again and again for any strands of her hair. Donnie would vacuum it thoroughly tomorrow.
Around two in the morning, when the neighbor’s lights were long turned off in the other apartments, Donnie and Jeb fearfully lugged Elsa’s sheet-wrapped body down one flight of stairs and dropped it in Jeb’s trunk.
“Where’s her car, Donnie?”
“Dunno, look you don’ hafta to do this, I mean ….”
“Let’s find her car.”
They did, in the parking lot outside Frank’s Tap. “She walked to your place?”
“I dunno. She let herself in the front door. Said she couldn’t drive home.”
“Did someone give her a ride? Did she talk to anyone, tell anyone she was coming? Did anyone in your building see or hear her. Jesus!”
“I DON’ KNOW. I DON’ KNOW. FUCK.”
“Well, at least we don’ hafta figure a way to move her car. Good thing it’s not in front of your place. We got that goin for us.”
“Thanks, Jeb, thanks so much.” Donnie explained the story as Jeb drove to the distant hills. There was no discussion as to where they were going. They had grown up in those hills, knew the backroads and valley well. Knew the soil and the lay of the land. Knew places a body could not be found.
Elsa became the talk of the town. Posters with her picture were tacked to every telephone pole, graced every store’s front door and her updated story on the six o’clock news.
The police talked twice to Donnie; his apartment was not searched; he was not a suspect, as there was no body. He stuck to the story both times. Dozens of other interviewees backed up Donnie’s basic story; Elsa was drunk, obnoxious and left Donnie alone at his table.
Jeb was never questioned. He spent his time cleaning the shovels and his car trunk again and again. There was no blood evidence, but he became obsessed there could be some lingering hair or fabric. He started and ended each day with cleaning.
Case and Hig pleaded for help on the news. Off camera, they ran their own investigation, roughing up Elsa’s ex-husband, strong-arming anyone they thought might know something. They left Donnie alone, but followed him everywhere. Kevin got a black eye and a split lip for being at the table with Donnie, but the Johnsons determined he had no information. Kevin kept a low profile and reported his injury to no one, especially the police.
Two months passed. People began to believe Elsa had run off with someone. She had done so in the past for as long as she needed. The news found other things to talk about; the unseasonal cold, the endless rain.
Until …. a woman walking her Labrador was horrified when the dog ran ahead and returned with part of a human hand and strands of blond hair in his mouth.
Elsa was quickly identified. Although badly decomposed, it was proven her hyoid bone had been broken, a sure sign of strangulation.
The town buzzed again.
Two nights after Elsa’s identification, Jeb sat in Donnie’s kitchen, downing a beer. They were both grim and shaken. The police had returned to Donnie’s, more questions, more insinuations, more pressure. Donnie retold the bar part of the night, insisting he had not seen Elsa since she strode out the door.
Donnie was frayed, getting little sleep, fearing the knock on the door.
“This will pass. Just stick to it,” Jeb was consoling, “nothing comes back to us.”
“What about the trunk? Shovel? Dirt on the tires?”
“All taken care of, I promise.”
“Shit, Jeb, thanks so much.”
“Don’ mention it, just keep on course and …. WHAT THE HELL?”
Donnie stood and saw Case and Hig walking down his alley, long coats covering something. As the Grady’s started for the front door, Case motioned Hig to go around the building to the front. Case started up the back stairs. Hig kept moving.
They froze listening to Case scrape every concrete step until he was outside the kitchen door. Too late for Donnie to get his gun from the bedroom. Jeb moved in a rush to the living room just at both front and back doors were crashed through.
“What the fuck do you want?” Donnie was the first to recover. Jeb was ashen in the other room, hands up, staring at Hig’s leveled rifle.
“Revenge,” Case drawled, “Elsa deserves that.”
“Not from me, she don’, she left me with a bunch a her drinks ta pay for. I’ve told every cop in the county what happened, so no need to make trouble with me.”
“She had a grudge with you, and guess what, she was found ‘bout a mile from your ole family farm. Plus, there’s that text we never mentioned. Makes you pretty guilty in our book.”
“Text?” Donnie heard Jeb gasp in the next room.
“Texted me she was gonna get you to take her back down memory lane. We know where you two usta make out. By your ole family farm off Plummer Road. An’ we never liked you messin with our little sis.”
“So, you came with rifles that night to keep us from making out?”
“Shut up, Donnie!” Jeb barked on the other side of the wall.
“Came with rifles to ….? You sonofabitch, you saw us there, didn’ you?”
“Don’ mean a thing,” Donnie gripped a chair back for support, “now get outta here. Go find someone else who she tormented.”
The words were barely out when Case opened fire, hitting Donnie squarely in the chest. The blast blew him halfway through the refrigerator.
In the living room, Hig followed his brother’s lead, dropping Jeb in nearly the same spot Elsa had died.
Hig joined Case in the kitchen; the brothers each took a bottle of beer off the kitchen counter, twisted the cap off and flipped the lids over their shoulders as they started down the back stairs.