A short story by S.K. DuBois
Blood soaked through the pristine white snow. A lot of blood. Enough blood to bathe a horse. The open door of Bert’s car showed even more blood inside. Spiky blood-cicles hung from the door frame into the frozen puddle on the parking lot.
Last night’s snow lay undisturbed otherwise. No tracks from the street to the parking place. No tracks leading to the river, where ice floes churned and grumbled. No pale corpse. The car was empty except for the litter of blood-soaked trash on the floorboards.
It would be just like Bert to get himself killed and tossed in a river where no one would ever find his body. Just like him to ruin everything.
“You can’t be sure it was Bert,” said Al, the cop guarding the line of yellow police tape. “I mean, it could be anybody’s blood.”
I stuck my hands deeper in the pockets of my coat, fingering the wadded tissue and the chocolate wrappers and the bulky envelope in one pocket and the cold snub-nose pistol in the other.
“They’ll test it, won’t they? How long will it take to find out for sure?”
“A week, even if they put a rush on it. Them big city guys don’t get in a hurry,” said Al. “By then Bert will be back home safe and sound. No use to worry.”
Inside my pockets, I wadded up my hands into fists. I didn’t need comfort right now.
“How much blood do you suppose is there?”
Al flinched and avoided looking back at the mess. He’d never liked the sight of blood. Since we were kids in elementary school, he’d been finicky like that—puking when somebody skinned their knees and blood trickled down their legs. He’d never make detective with that handicap. He’ll be a flatfoot beat cop for the rest of his life.
“It’s enough,” said a voice behind me. “More than enough.”
Mike McArthur, the chief of police, walked through the snow to stand beside me. In his brown police chief coat, he was a solid, dependable block of a man. Ice crystals, borne on the fresh morning breeze off the river, stung my cheeks. I pulled my head further back in the furry fringe of my hood.
“I won’t kid you,” Mike said. “Anybody who loses that amount of blood isn’t going to be home for supper. But Bert didn’t make it home for supper much, did he?”
He flashed me a look that could have been pity if I didn’t know Mike so well.
“It might not be Bert’s blood,” I said, echoing Al’s words.
“Won’t know for sure until the DNA test comes back. Bert’s car, though.” He bumped against my shoulder. “What are you doing out here anyway?”
“Al called me.”
“Not procedure,” said Mike, more to Al than to me. I couldn’t see his eyes until he turned back to me. I knew what was coming next.
“When’s the last time you saw Bert?”
“Before the snow, then.” He puffed out a breath of cold, white air. “What was his condition when you last saw him?”
“He was walking and talking and being Bert.” The fresh bruises on my cheek throbbed.
“Judith, if this is Bert’s blood, you’re the primary suspect, you know. You’re the wife.” He said the last word with a snarl.
“Maybe he slit somebody’s throat and ran off.”
“Bert’s a piece of shit, but he isn’t a killer.” He puffed out some more white air and shuffled his feet in the snow. “You’ll have to make a formal statement, no matter what. Go on home. I’ll drop by later. If Bert isn’t dead, he may run out of cash and get there first.”
“Thanks, Mike.” I knew he meant well. But he was a good cop, and I was already a suspect.
I nodded to Al and headed back to my own car, weaving between the cops and forensics people who were congregating on the frigid parking lot beside the icy river on this cold, cold morning.
I gripped the steering wheel with both hands and took a deep breath. Somebody may have saved me the trouble of killing Bert, but they also left me smack dab in the soup. I could just see Mike’s face when I told him my alibi.
Where was I last night? Well, Officer, you see I was cruising town with an unregistered pistol in my pocket looking for the man who cheats on me, spends all my money, and regularly beats me up. Nobody saw me because I didn’t want to be seen because I was thinking about shooting Bert in the head. But all is well. I didn’t find him.
Or I could say I was home alone. But Mrs. Winterbottom, the nosy neighbor, would be happy to tell anybody who asked I pulled down the drive at 9 pm and didn’t come back until well after 4 am. She keeps a journal. She’d seen everything that happened last night, too—the argument and the half dozen smacks to my face Bert delivered with precision. And she didn’t do a thing about it except watch.
But Mike liked me. Maybe he loved me. Would he lock me up anyway? I wasn’t sure.
So, what I needed was the corpus delicti. Preferably before Mike found out about the gun I bought last week and the insurance policy I took out on Bert last month. In retrospect, I hadn’t really thought the whole thing through. I’d never have gotten away with it. And the funny thing was I’d get sent to prison for doing the very thing I wanted to do but couldn’t get done. That would be fun to think about while I was doing life in the state pen.
Bert didn’t have friends—not real friends—but if anyone knew what had happened to him, it would be Maizie LeBlanc.
She opened the door to her cozy house—the house Bert bought for her with my life savings—pulling a frilly pink housecoat tight against the wind. When she saw me, she squeaked and put all her weight into slamming the door.
I’ve got twenty pounds on Maizie. I used them to shove her back inside.
“He ain’t here,” she squeaked again, falling on the couch in a cloud of pink fabric. “He ain’t been here for weeks, Judith. I swear it. We broke up.”
I didn’t waste words on her. She lies. I’ve learned that much.
She bounced up off the couch and followed me as I searched. Empty beer bottles, discarded clothes, and a kitchen sink filled with dirty dishes gave the place a lived-in look—lived in by a pack of wolves. But Bert wasn’t there.
In the bedroom, I yanked open the closet door. Only Mazie’s clothes hung inside—light, gauzy things straight from Whores Are Us.
“I ought to call the cops,” she shrieked. “You can’t just bust into a person’s house.”
I felt along the top of the closet door frame and pulled a baggie full of weed from Bert’s favorite hiding place. I jerked it open and dumped the contents over her head.
“You just go ahead and call ‘em, Mazie. Bert’s car is down at the lake. It’s full of blood. Probably Bert’s blood. They’ll be wanting to talk to you about that, anyway.”
I gave her another shove, just for fun, and she fell back in a cloud of weed on the rumpled bed.
“Did you kill him? Where is he?”
Her eyes widened, cracking the day-old eye liner. Either she was genuinely shocked, or her acting skills were better than I thought.
“Judy, honest. I don’t know.” She started to cry. “He dumped me. But I didn’t do nothing to him. Just slapped him. Maybe scratched his face a little. Yesterday.”
“Where did he go? Who else had it in for him?”
“He told me to get out. Said this wasn’t my house no more because he gave it to someone else. That’s when I scratched him. He hurt my feelings.”
That made me laugh.
“Do you really think he’s dead?” she whispered. “Maybe he didn’t get a chance to give my house to someone else. I don’t want to leave, Judy.”
I slammed the door on my way out. She didn’t know anything. If Bert were dead, she’d just move on to some other woman’s husband. Maybe Bert dumped her. Maybe not. Either way, I couldn’t imagine Mazie killing him.
The only other thing I knew for sure about Bert was that he owed money to lots of people. If I wanted to find out who and how much, then Fat Eddy the local bookie, was the man to see.
I headed to his establishment, a pool hall on the wrong side of the tracks. Sleet pelted down as I pulled up to the door. The place was empty except for Eddy.
Fat Eddy racked up a set of balls just as I stepped inside. He offered me a pool cue.
“Bet you ten bucks I can beat you this time,” he said.
I pocketed two balls on the break. Ten minutes later, I was stuffing Fat Eddy’s ten-dollar bill in my pocket beside the gun.
“Damn it,” said Fat Eddy. “I was hoping you got soft in your old age.”
“I’m looking for Bert.”
“So where is he?”
“It depends on who’s askin’ and what’s in it for me.”
I told him about the car and the blood and how I would burn his place to the ground with him in it if he didn’t tell me what he knew.
“I think Bert’s bad for you. You’re meaner than you used to be.”
“Eddy, I don’t have time for this.”
“All I know is Bert was cozy with the Winkler brothers and that ain’t good. If he pissed them off, you’ll be collecting his remains with a spatula and a pair of tongs.”
“Might be enough,” I muttered.
“Oh, I get the drift,” said Fat Eddy who isn’t an idiot. “You got him insured and you need proof of death. Hey, how much you got on him? I can tell the cops I saw him drown or something and we can split the money. Or is Mike in on it with you. He always was sweet on you.”
I take it back. Fat Eddy is an idiot.
“Tempting,” I told him. “But no.”
On a good day, the Winkler brothers are in jail. But this was a bad day, so I found them at Aunt Sassy’s Bar and Grill just outside of town.
Marvin and Willard Winkler looked up from their breakfast of grease when I came in. Marvin started to get up, but Willard gave him a warning glare.
“Well, if it ain’t Miss Judith Ann. I thought you wuz too good to be around us poor people. What brings you down here? Looking for Bert I bet.” Willard had always been the brains of the outfit.
I pulled out the snub nose and nobody laughed then.
“Where is he?” I said.
“Somebody beat you to it. He’s dead. Dead and gone,” said Willard.
Marvin laughed again. “Gone and dead’s more like it.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” I aimed the gun in the general direction of Willard’s nuts.
“Judy, don’t go crazy. You wanted rid of Bert and now he’s gone.” Willard protected his junk with both hands.
“What did you do with him?”
“We didn’t do anything but what he asked us to do. We got him fake ids. We helped him siphon out his own blood and save it in our refrigerator. Place looked like a damn vampire café. Said he was going to dump it all over his car so everybody would think he was dead. He was buggin’ out, Judith. He got in too deep with the boys from over Willow Falls way and they ain’t as kindly as us.”
“So he’s not dead.”
“Not at two o’clock last night, but he will be. Soon as them Willow Falls fellers catch him. They ain’t dumb. They’ll never believe he’s dead until they see his cold, white body.”
“Or at least a big chunk of it.” Marvin snickered again, despite the gun.
“How do I know you didn’t kill him and dump him in the river?” I waved the gun a little more, for emphasis.
“He gave us that house where Mazie lives. We may skate around the law, but we keep our word. A deal’s a deal.”
I backed out the Aunt Sassy’s Bar and Grill and kept the snub nose on my lap as I pulled away. I was out of options. I couldn’t track Bert all over creation if he was on the run from the Willow Falls mob. They were out of my league—and out of Bert’s, too. If Mike didn’t find Bert or what was left of him, I was going to look pretty interesting to the county prosecutor.
My driveway was covered in sleet. I parked at the bottom and picked my way up the treacherous incline to the back door. Across the street, the curtains in Mrs. Winterbottom’s house fluttered. I flipped her an eloquent bird. Inside, I went straight to the kitchen and jerked open the refrigerator. The bottle of wine I was looking for wasn’t there. Seems I couldn’t find anything when I wanted it.
Then a familiar feeling hit me.
Sure enough, when I looked in the front room, there was Bert drinking my bottle of wine. He nearly jumped out of his skin when I came in.
“I have to get out of town, Judy,” he said, like he hadn’t hit me just a few hours ago. Like nothing bad had ever happened between us. It’s that kind of thing makes you wonder if you’re going nuts.
“I thought you were dead. Your car’s full of blood.” I put the couch between us.
“I was trying to throw them off the trail. Thought I’d lay low and then, when the heat was off, I could get a message to you so you could come with me.” He was panicked but not so panicked he couldn’t shine me on. “I love you, Judy. I’m sorry about last night.”
“Yeah, yeah. I know all about the Willow Falls guys and the blood and your half-assed plan. You know I’d be the first one Mike suspected of killing you, right? You know they’d lock me up.”
“Mike likes you. He’d do anything for you, including tamper with evidence. He’d make sure you were ok. I wouldn’t do anything to hurt you, Judy.”
It finally occurred to me that Bert had planned to set me up all along. I don’t know why I didn’t figure it out sooner and I don’t know why it made me so sad, even now, after everything.
“So what happened to ruin this brilliant plan of yours? Why are you still here?”
“I was about to smear all that blood around the parking lot, make it look like I’d been murdered and drug to the river, when here came Arnie Wallander, the head muckety-muck over in Willow Falls, slinking down the highway. I dropped the blood and skedaddled down to the river. He didn’t see me in the snow. He sat in the parking lot for a long time. I couldn’t get back to the car and grab my suitcase. I hid out in a cave all night and then the cops came along. I’m out of cash. I need your car, Judy.”
He was dirty and forlorn and the fear in his voice sounded real. But I was cold and hungry and that was my last bottle of wine. It had been a long damn day so I said something I should have said years ago.
“Get out, Bert. I don’t owe you anything.” I pulled out the snub nose for punctuation.
It was like I’d said some kind of magic spell and changed the world. He didn’t say a word. Didn’t look back. Just grabbed the spare set of car keys off the coffee table and dashed out the door.
I felt like I just woke up from a horrible nightmare. I’d broken whatever curse got me hooked up with him in the first place. And all it took was six punches to the face, the Willow Falls mob, a snub nose pistol, and magic words.
I pulled the curtains aside and looked out the window. I wanted to remember this moment. Across the street, I locked eyes with Mrs. Winterbottom, who was doing the same thing. We both had a front seat view of what happened next.
First—and this is important—Mike MacArthur rounded the corner in his shiny black police car.
Bert trotted down the drive. He was intent on making a getaway. Then his foot hit a patch of ice, and he went down. He slipped—simple as that –and hit the pavement hard. I heard the crack of his skull, even through the window glass. His feet twitched exactly three times and then were still. Blood tinted the sleet on the driveway red.
Mike skidded to a stop. When I came out the front door, he was already kneeling beside Bert’s body. He looked at me, relief all over his face. I could tell he’d been sure I was guilty from the start.
“He’s dead, Judy. It was an accident. I saw everything.”
I sat down on the cold step. It was an hour before the ambulance came and went. Mrs. Winterbottom brought me a bowl of chili which was good enough to make me regret flipping her off. It was another hour before Mike left, promising to come back later.
Once I was alone, I took the insurance papers out of my coat pocket and thumbed through them until I found what I was looking for. I hadn’t paid attention to the fine points when I filled out the online form. I’d been a little drunk and a lot mad. Funny how you can just fill in a few blanks and make somebody worth more dead than they are alive.
About halfway down the fourth page under Accidental Death and Dismemberment I read the words Double Indemnity and then the words Fully Covered by this Policy and I didn’t read anymore after that.