The Darkened House
By Gay Toltl Kinman
Gay Toltl Kinman worked in law enforcement for over a decade and has published over 100 articles in writing, law enforcement, library, law, political, and professional publications. She is the author of the Alison Leigh Powers mystery series for children. She lives in California.
The house, in a cul de sac near a freeway off-ramp, had the right look. Shades down on Tuesday afternoon, the day after the Memorial Day weekend. No car in the driveway. A newspaper on the lawn. Hedges around so the neighbors couldn't peer in. A perfect hideaway.
No lights, no activity when he came back that night.
He picked up the newspaper, walked down the driveway and glanced at the windows of the house next door. No one watching.
He tried the doorknob.
Maybe they'd left in a hurry. His luck was changing. For the better. That's all he needed for a while, a string of good luck.
He slid into the darkened house cautiously in case there was still someone inside. He stood in the kitchen, his eyes becoming accustomed to the lack of light.
And listened. No sound. After what seemed a very long time, still no sound.
He moved through the kitchen into the hallway, then stopped dead in his tracks.
The outline of a woman.
Standing in the room on his left, her reflection in the mirror on the closet doors. She wasn't moving.
He pulled out his gun. And waited.
Still she didn't move.
He inched toward her.
In the faint moonlight coming through the closed curtains, he saw her.
A dressmaker's dummy.
He waited until his heart stopped pounding.
He lowered the gun. His gun had no bullets, and couldn't fire anything anyhow. It was only good for making people follow his orders. And for scaring them, he'd found that out, too. Scaring them to death.
He shoved the dummy into the closet and closed the sliding doors. The mirrors reflected him. He didn't like what he saw. Too short, always a dark whiskery shadow on his face, hair starting to thin on top even though he was only twenty-seven. He looked away. Haircut, good clothes, he'd be a different person. And that's what he was going to be. Mr. Upright Citizen.
He'd pulled his last job, that was his plan. Finally got smart and thought about what his next move was going to be, planning for the future. Not thinking ahead had got him into trouble. But mostly it was bad luck.
There wasn't anything he could do about bad luck. And he'd had his share of it. More than his share. It wasn't fair. But it was changing, he could feel it. Hadn't the back door been unlocked?
He looked around the guest room. Neat, tidy, homey. It gave him a good feeling.
Exploring the house with his flashlight, he saw the beds in the other two rooms were unmade. He chose the one that obviously belonged to the children.
Boy and girl, he guessed. Young enough to still share the same room as he and his sister had--when there'd even been a second bedroom. Soon one of them, maybe the girl, would have the guest room, the dummy would have to go, or stay in the closet forever. No such room in the series of apartments and rooming houses, he'd lived in when he was a kid.
In spite of the rumpled covers and crushed pillow, he chose a twin bed to lie down on. The window in that room made a better exit. Or maybe he was trying to revert to being a boy again, for it was the boy's bed he chose. Not that he wanted to be a boy again, it wasn't a happy time. All he wanted to do was start over. He was going to start over, get a fresh start, forget about the past.
Why was he even thinking about the past? It only started his ulcer to pump out acid. He closed his mind on those thoughts. He'd always been able to do that.
He slept restlessly until morning, dreaming about the dummy coming out of the closet to get him. Only the dummy had his stepmother's face, like he was in some horror movie.
He checked the house again. In the daylight, he saw clothes strewn at the foot of the bed in the other room as though the parents couldn't decide what to wear or take.
The living room was sparsely and cheaply furnished but the essentials were there for him-sofa and radio. A couple of kids' chairs lay askew in front of the TV. The coffee table held a litter of papers, a beer can, and spilled chocolate milk. A picture on the TV showed a man with his arm around a woman, and two kids sitting on the ground in front of them. Probably taken in the front yard. The kids looked like twins.
In the kitchen, the sink and counter were full of dishes. A column of ants swirled over them. Remnants of breakfast-pancakes and eggs. The smells made him slightly dizzy, and he found himself shaking. He realized he was weak from hunger, fueled only by adrenaline in the last twenty-four hours. Longer.
The refrigerator held dubious merchandise. Little jars and containers of things that he didn't even try to guess the contents of. He drank what was left of the milk, ate a hunk of cheese and found half a loaf of bread that he made into toast heaped with jam and butter. He stood by the toaster and ate while putting in two more pieces of bread. Then he boiled water for instant coffee. No real coffee anywhere. He wore oven mitts or used a paper towel before touching anything that might hold his prints. He tried not to leave any traces of his breakfast, but it was useless to clean. His crumbs just blended in. Maybe the ants would carry them away.
He wrapped a paper towel around the cup handle, went into the living room and turned on the TV. He'd been holding himself back. Were they going to show a picture of him without a disguise?
The big news was about a cop killer, Mannsfield was his name. Wow, he thought, what a nut to kill a cop. That guy deserves all he gets. There was quite a bit on the guy, interviews with his aunt saying that it was all a mistake he would never kill anyone, where he had spent time, those he had killed. The cop wasn't the first one.
The news was taken up with how Mannsfield had eluded capture so far, where he had been seen, the two hostages he took while escaping, then killed and left in their car in Culver City.
That was near here!
The cops'd be all over the place.
Just his luck. Maybe it wasn't changing for the good.
He sat straight up.
But Mannsfield'd be long gone by now. He'd steal another car, hop on the freeway, and be off to somewhere.
He tried to calm himself. He'd got all rattled yesterday when the old man croaked at the last place. All he wanted was the money in the register and the safe. But the old man got all excited and started yelling. Why did he have to have a heart attack at that moment? Why couldn't he have waited for a day or so?
He saw again the old geezer gasping, clutching his chest, dropping to the cement floor. All he could think about at that time was running. But he hadn't. That was good. He followed his plan, looked for a safe place to hole up for a while.
Until he could think straight, make another plan. A plan was important. He had to keep remembering that. He didn't want to be on the road, always on the move, looking over his shoulder every second.
But he was finished with all that. Finished running. Finished doing time. He wanted to settle down. He was tired of it.
He wanted a nice normal life, like the guy who lived in this house, the guy with a wife and kids. Hey, why not twins.
That wasn't too much to ask, was it?
He went back into the kitchen and heated up water in the microwave for another cup of coffee.
No, he answered himself. He deserved it. He'd never hurt anybody, not physically anyway, unless it was self-defense, then no holds barred. He'd learned well in the streets near the cheap apartment houses off Alvarado. He'd learned a lot of things there. And while he was on the inside. But that was all past. He was starting a new life. Now that he had a stake. Memorial Day weekend had meant big profits for gas stations/convenience stores. And that had meant big profits for him. Good thing a lot of people still paid cash for gas and all that junk food.
He took the coffee into the living room and listened to the newscaster on TV finishing up about Mannsfield. Only as a short sideline did he mention that three places had been held up.
The description for each of the men doing the daring holdups was different. The TV announcer didn't even connect them. When they got to the old guy having a heart attack at the last one, he clicked it off. Silence.
All he'd got from the third place was the stuff in the register. Not much. Nothing from the safe where most of it would be.
Commission of a felony in which a person dies, no matter how... He recited the words from the penal code in his mind.
The silence was loud.
Suddenly, a sound shattered it. The doorbell.
He almost dropped the coffee cup.
Then a knocking.
The doorbell again.
"Nobody's home. I told you they were gone for the week," a man said.
"I saw a light here last night. Right through the hedges. I know I did." A woman.
"Could have been the reflection from a car on the freeway, I told you that before. If they were here, they'd answer the door."
"I'm sure I saw a light and it wasn't any reflection. We've lived in our house across the street for thirty-five years and I've never seen a reflection in these windows before."
"Well, maybe it was somebody driving on the street. Somebody walking their dog with a flashlight"
"There wasn't anybody in the street, driving or otherwise."
"Come on, Gladys, no one's here. You must have imagined it. Remember the last time you called the police?
"I'm sure I saw--"
"They said they were going away for the week and they have. Let's go."
He heard them leaving.
His heart was beating so fast he thought it would fly out of his chest. Maybe he was going to have a heart attack. Wouldn't that be a joke!
He clutched the coffee cup so hard that he could barely pry his fingers loose when he set it down. Coffee had spilled on his hand and the floor.
He lay down on the sofa, his shaking hands clasped behind his head, trying to calm himself. His ulcer felt like it was spurting out gallons of acid, burning. The food he had eaten wasn't sitting too well.
Later, he turned the radio on as low as possible. He hoped the music would be soothing, but it kept being interrupted with bulletins about Mannsfield.
He tried to take that as a good omen. Maybe the cops wouldn't have time to think about him.
He listened and thought. He had enough to give him a start someplace else. He hadn't made those plans yet. He knew he should have. Like where to go. The money wouldn't take him far and he needed some to live on until he found a job, blend in. Be like the guy in this house. Meet a nice woman. Maybe somebody who owned her own home. Somebody like the woman who lived here.
He wondered where the family went on their vacation. Maybe the beach. He could see the two children playing on the seashore, splashing each other, laughing. Then he pictured them as his children, sitting on the sand, watching them with his wife. He smiled.
He switched on the TV again and watched the noon news, but it was much the same. Nothing about him this time. No one noticed how clever he had been, much to his annoyance. He'd worn a wig for one holdup, a seaman's cap and sun glasses for another, side burns and a long drooping moustache for the last place.
That meant he could move safely now. They weren't looking for him.
He decided to leave in the morning. The neighbors might be back, might snoop around. He couldn't take the chance.
He searched around in the kitchen shelves, found a can of stew, heated it up and ate it with crackers and cheese. The rest of the bread he was saving for breakfast. He watched the ants in their endless loop. Like exercising in the yard. Around and around.
He alternated between dozing, watching TV, listening to music, and wandering through the house. After the six o'clock news he put a couple of frozen dinners in the microwave. While they were heating, he ate a can of peaches, then peeked between the curtains of the window into the back yard.
In one corner was a tool shed. His heart leaped and he smiled. The shed looked new, painted corrugated tin. He had seen them in garden catalogs. He was itching to look at the tools. He had a feeling that they would be neat and orderly. After all this was the man's bailiwick. That's what he'd do, get back to woodworking, a real profession, then have a home with a backyard and his own tool shed.
He waited until it was completely dark and then slipped out. He almost salivated with the joy of fondling the different tools, drills, chisels, hammers. He'd made things in high school, often the only class he showed up for. And on the inside. Even the warden said he had talent.
That's what he should have done from the very beginning, instead of getting mixed up with the neighborhood gang. But they had been so much fun, exciting, a counterpoint to his dull life, and his stepmother. Real friends, not like the dorks at school, buddies, one for all. Yeah, until they were faced with serious stuff. Prison. He put an oven-mitted hand on the knob. The knob turned. He opened the door slowly, his flashlight ready. A movement caught his eye. A small arm fell out. He jumped. A little palm lay up. Reddish.
He froze. There was no other movement. No sound.
He decided to risk a quick on and off with his flashlight. He closed the door as much as he could with the arm sticking out, put the flashlight in the crack and quickly turned the light on and off.
The sight horrified him.
A tangle of bodies.
Eyes staring at him.
Blood all over.
He tried to shut the door. The arm. The little girl. Blonde, blue eyed.
He was nauseated. He didn't want to touch that bloodied arm. Finally he lifted it gingerly with the toe of his shoe and shut the door. He ran back into the house and all but hid under the bed.
He wasn't scared easily but that had shaken him badly. In his mind he had seen them on vacation at the beach, the twins laughing and frolicking in the water.
Not dead. Not bloodied.
Mannsfield had killed them and now he was safely sailing down the freeway, away, away in the family car.
They hadn't left in a hurry for a vacation at the beach. Mannsfield must have caught them before they had a chance to leave. That explained the mess in the kitchen, the clothes on the bed, stuff spilled on the coffee table in the living room. He saw it all, as a sick, ironic TV show--his life.
Mannsfield, a cop killer, was free, and here he was left with the bodies.
Why did he have to choose this house? The perfect house. Yeah, right. His luck was changing all right, but not for the better, it was going from bad to worse.
He had to leave right away. He kept seeing all those eyes and all he could think about was to get as far away as possible. Now. He knew he was panicking but he couldn't help it. He'd run to someplace else, he'd make a plan there. Right now he had to get away, fast.
He slipped out the side door and stayed close to the house as he walked down the driveway. The moon was like a spotlight.
Then there was a spotlight.
"Hold it right there. Put your hands on top of your head. Don't make any fast moves." The authoritative tone was there. A blinding glare of light. He didn't have to ask who or why. He didn't even try to pretend any more. He did what the voice told him. What all the other voices, sounding exactly the same and using the same words, had told him. Suddenly he felt tired and old. While they patted him down and took the gun, the flashlight, the money, he said nothing.
They put him in the back of the black and white. He was thinking fast. They couldn't prove anything. They could never tie him to the gas station jobs, he had ditched all the disguises. No one would be able to identify him. So he had a lot of cash, so what?
They left him in the car, handcuffed, and went into the house. He could see the lights go on in the rooms. Maybe they'd open the closet and shoot the dummy.
Behind him, he heard a car screech to a stop. He turned awkwardly. Another cop car. They were getting out and going to the house across the street. An old man and woman came out on the porch.
After a few moments he heard the woman's voice, loud enough for the neighborhood to hear, "See, I told you so. I knew I'd seen a light over there. I wasn't imagining anything."
The cops who had handcuffed him were back.
"Tell me why you're here," one of the cops said, flipping open a notebook.
"You've got nothing on me," he said.
They were on a fishing expedition. If he didn't tell them anything, then they wouldn't know anything. They wouldn't even find his prints in the house. They'd let him go. He was almost home free.
The two other cops came over and the four of them chatted, but he couldn't hear anything. The second pair went along the driveway to the back.
One of the cops came over. "Okay, I'm listening, tell me what you're doing on this street?"
The two cops in back yelled something. The other cop joined them, but the one who was asking him questions kept on. Even if they found out he was in the house, all they could get him for was trespassing. He hadn't taken anything, except food. They'd have to give him his money back. Then he could start on his plan for the future.
The three cops returned. The other one from the car said, "You've got a lot of explaining to do. What about those bodies in the tool shed? Why don't you tell us about them?"
"I just found them, that's why I'm leaving. I didn't do it," he said. He heard his voice quavering, whining, pleading, going back to what he used to be.
"That looks like blood on your shoe." The cop's flashlight shone on it.
"I'm innocent." How many times had he said that?
"Okay, Mr. Innocent," the cop taking notes said, "Start by telling us everything you did over the weekend. Everything."
Gay Toltl Kinman ©2004
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