Stivins never set out to implicate someone else in a murder he committed. On that count, however he was two for three. Another man very nearly was convicted for Denise’s death, but investigators never found her body. With neither that nor an eyewitness to foul play, prosecutors had to let the man go free.
He had not planned to involve anyone else in Frank Shaeffer’s death, but the old man’s unexpected resolve allowed him to escape just long enough to make his misfortune known. Gaither, whom Stivins never had met, proved to be a malleable man who did as well as he could expect considering the circumstances.
He liked Gaither as a scapegoat. Leaving the body in open sight was a snap decision. The other Timex employees and the authorities, lacking a flair for the artistic, would see the dead man and his blood dripping into the shimmering liquid metal as horrific. They would dog their suspect until the fearful public was satisfied.
Stivins felt Detective Davies’ suspicions during his brief interview. Something Gaither said obviously had set them on his trail. Apparently he had violated their impromptu agreement, and although Stivins preferred not to leave intangibles, he did not like the prospect of killing to cover his tracks. Such an action undoubtedly would confirm his culpability.
Shaeffer’s last act of defiance, a backward kick to Stivins’ right shin, had left behind the only evidence that he could not hide or somehow attribute to someone else. Because there was little tissue on the shin, there was no noticeable bruising, but the rip in his skin had not healed completely. If only I had not worn shorts that day. He hated making foolish mistakes.
He sat in his house, a few blocks from Little Rock Central High, watching local news and listening to a neighbor’s car thump in time to the latest rap song. He had heard shots from next-door just last month, and laughed at the thought of thugs who preferred guns.
He wondered if others possessed the same power, but had not shared it. Did gang members kill from a distance to avoid absorbing every tortured soul they freed from its corporeal constraints? Did some soldiers who killed in close combat go insane because of the spirits inside their heads? So far, Shaeffer’s soul had shown no indication of that.
Although handguns never had held his interest, the shotgun he held had a comforting heft to it.
He imagined a future conversation. “Yes, officer, I was just cleaning it, and I guess I emptied the clip but forgot to check the chamber.”
He had to hit both legs to make it convincing. Whether he loaded a full or cylinder choke shell, a spread like that from close range would be difficult. He held the gun out to either side in turn, because shooting down would damage his feet. Any way he held it, there wasn’t much muscle under the target. Even if he could somehow shoot across his legs, he could shatter his bones.
This might not be your best idea, chap.
Whatever he did to hide the wound, it had to look accidental. Some wild grape vines in the backyard crawled from the ground to the top of his trees, and their leaves robbed the old Oaks of precious sunlight. He had been meaning to get rid of those for a while. Such a job required innumerable downward chopping strokes, and even a sharp blade could bounce off uncontrollably.
Wall drove to Leigh’s house to get the search warrant. He was anxious to arrest Stivins. Still, he worried that he did not have enough to hold him long. Based on his previous conversations with him, and how cool he seemed under pressure, he doubted he would get a word out of him. It would be up to the evidence. He just hope there would be some left.
He dialed Max as he turned down Leigh’s street.
“Max. I got papers for Stivins’ place. Yeah, we got clearance to toss the place.”
“That’s one of the best I’ve heard in a while. ‘Toss the place.’ I like it,” Max said.
“Yeah, yeah. Bring your best guys over.”
“How many do you think I have on staff? We’re lucky we don’t have to send our homicide cases to the State Crime Lab any more, and we’re barely holding on to that. You don’t expect to find a body over there, do you?” Max said.
“No, but there might be other evidence you can help us with. I just don’t want any amateurs pawing the stuff. I’m calling Wilson next, because he needs to keep up with this case.”
He brought the machete down hard on a grape vine about five inches thick, severing it. “That’s much too forceful. I’ll be hobbled if I don’t temper myself a bit.”
Stivins loved anything with a blade, and restraining himself was difficult. He knew this had to be perfect, so he took a few more practice swings. Damaging the bone was his main concern.
He was reminded of the day his grandfather taught him how to filet a fish. They had just caught a huge mess of perch and bream and were gutting them at a cleaning station. The entrails and scales fell into the water below, attracting, coincidentally, more bream and perch.
It was his first experience with a dangerously sharp knife. He was nine years old. “Now, you want to be able to read the newspaper through what’s left on the bone,” his grandfather said. That was not his goal this time, but he needed the same precision.
It was so much different from stabbing.
He got a rush as he recalled plunging his knife into a human. The sound. The momentary resistance before the knife pierced the skin and entered the perfect darkness. The blade’s silver edge contrasting with the soft, pink wonder that kept a body alive. Although his eyes had never seen it, he imagined it must be beautiful.
“Back to the task at hand, Jeffrey,” he said.
He bent his elbow enough to raise the blade only slightly above parallel to the ground, for it would not take much force. “Out, damned spot,” he said.
Gaither reached the top of the rocks, tears streaming down his face. The moon was just a sliver, but enough of its light shone down for him to find the edge of the sheer cliff wall.
He remembered the day he met Pam at the student union; their first date at a restaurant called, simply, A Place to Eat; their whirlwind romance, wherein he quoted “The Passionate Shepherd to His Love,” his favorite poem not penned by Shakespeare; their wedding, with the string quartet playing selections by Handel and Vivaldi. It was the last happy day of his life.
Standing at the edge, leaning against the wind, he began the poem aloud. “COME live with me and be my Love/And we will all the pleasures prove/That hills and valleys, dale and field/And all the craggy mountains yield./There will we sit upon the rocks/And…”
When Wall punched the doorbell button, a shot rang out, probably just a few blocks away.
Leigh lived in the Quapaw Quarter, a pocket of large houses built from the 1840’s to the 1930’s. The interiors, some eternally under repair, were impressive and occasionally appeared in Southern Living magazine. Mostly two- and three-story affairs, they formed an oasis surrounded by violence.
The door opened. Leigh obviously had fixed her hair and put on makeup. For a moment, Wall saw that young woman he still called his first true love. It was over for him, but it was nice to see her paying attention to her looks again.
“You look great, Leigh.”
“Thanks. I just got in from a date.”
“It’s barely past nine. Didn’t go well?”
“He was nice, but he was dumb.”
“That’s why you dumped me, right? You didn’t want a man with a smaller brain than you.”
“Cut it out, Wall.” She reached over to a console table in the entryway. “Here’s your search warrant.”
“Thanks. If it’s any consolation, it probably was you who struck him dumb, looking like that.”
She smiled. “Go home to your wife, Detective.”
He waved the document at her as he turned to step off the front porch. “Not until I try to find something on this bastard. His house isn’t far.”
There was very little blood on the machete, but it quickly flowed down his leg to coat his shoe. The pain, worse than when Shaeffer had kicked him, was tolerable. He suspected he owed that to his care in keeping all his blades sharp.
He took normal strides across the yard to the back door. The television blared something about unrest in the Middle East. Pain dug in enough to make him limp before he reached the kitchen. He set the machete on the counter, its gleaming blade reaching across the sink.
The doorbell rang.
(continue to Part 11 on my story blog)