Jimmy Cain checked his watch. It was now a quarter past twelve. That no good little shit doesn’t even have enough respect for me to get Natalie home at a decent hour, he thought and lowered himself into one of the living room’s oversized chairs.
He sat in darkness. He had turned off all the lights inside the house. Only the naked bulb on the porch was allowed power in order to do battle with the inky blackness beyond his front door. Maybe this way they would think he was already in bed and Donnie would have the balls to walk Natalie to the door like a decent human being. The chicken-shit bastard never walked her up
if he thought there was even the slightest chance of a confrontation. He was like a cockroach that skitters away under the refrigerator when it realizes it’s been seen. It seemed to Jimmy that after most nights out, Donnie barely brought his truck to a full stop in front of the house before pushing Natalie out and hauling ass – skittering – down County Road Forty-four, a rooster tail of red dust flying in the wake of his weathered Dodge Ram. Such cowardice, such disrespect for he and his daughter was simply…
“Unacceptable,” Jimmy mumbled and sank even deeper into his chair and the long shadows of the living room. As he did so, he noticed the porch light stealing into the room through the curtains of the front window and glinting off of his badge.
“That won’t do,” he muttered. “I don’t want to scare el cucaracha away,” and removed the star-shaped piece of brass from his uniform. Jimmy laid the badge face down on the small lamp table to his right. It was just as well. Tonight, he was a father, not the Bleakwood County Sheriff.
Jimmy Cain would sit there for another two hours, a wraith cloaked in darkness whose rage intensified with every passing moment.
Natalie finally crept into the house at two twenty-five. As Jimmy suspected, Donnie did not walk her to the door. Judging by the fading sound of his Dodge’s Hemi, the little punk had likely been out of sight before she had even made it to the porch.
“You’re late,” he said.
To his surprise, Natalie did not jump or seem even mildly startled to hear his voice coming from the darkened parlor. Without turning her head, she replied, “I know,” and started toward the stairs.
“Where do you think you’re going?”
Natalie paused on the first step, her back to her father. “Dad, I really don’t want to have this conversation again. There’s no point.”
Jimmy clicked on the small reading lamp next to his chair, stood up, and took a step toward his daughter.
“Stop,” she said. “I mean it. I’m done with this.” She turned to face him and continued, “I love him, Dad. I’m going to marry him. You’re just going to have to come to terms with it.”
“Like hell, I will,” Jimmy said and closed the gap between them. He took his daughter by the shoulders and added, “You’re making a huge mistake, Nat. Deep down you know that.”
“Daddy…” was all she could muster in return before starting to cry. Jimmy, still holding her by the shoulders, could feel the power of her sobs as they rolled in waves through her body. He tried to pull her close but she was having none of it. “No!” she shouted and tore herself from his grip. “He loves me, Dad. He wants to marry me.”
She quickly cut him off. “I’m turning eighteen in two weeks. Once I do, we’re going to Shreveport to get married. Donnie already has a job lined up over there.”
“Natalie, you’re too young.”
“There’s nothing you can do about it, Dad,” she said and walked up the stairs. Upon reaching the second floor, she turned to face her father for the final time that night. “I really wish you would let this go and give Donnie a chance. You two actually have quite a bit in common.”
He flinched at that and started to reply but the look on Natalie’s face caused him to think twice. Even in the low light he could see that her mind was made up. This conversation was over.
Natalie nodded almost imperceptibly then turned and retreated to her room. Jimmy was still standing at the bottom of the stairs when he heard her bedroom door click shut.
The Bleakwood County Sheriff walked back into the gloom of the parlor and sat down. With his head in his hands, he thought I can’t let her ruin her life. He sat there, deep in thought, until the sun came up.
Natalie walked into the kitchen the next morning to find her father sitting at their small kitchen table. He sat motionless, staring out of the window toward the wood line just beyond the boundary of their property. A large raven sat on the thickest bough of the lone oak in the yard proper – the same bough on which Natalie’s old tire swing still hung – its eyes glinting green when the rays of the now rising sun struck them just right. In front of him, on a paper towel, were two untouched strawberry Pop-tarts.
Natalie said nothing and proceeded to pour herself a bowl of Cheerios. As she did so, her father turned to look at his now almost adult daughter. She was tall and lean, like him, but had her mother’s blonde hair. That hair was currently tied up in a ponytail that protruded from the back of an adjustable BHS baseball cap. Donnie’s cap, no doubt, he thought, and felt last night’s anger trying to well back up inside his chest. He pushed it back down, remained silent, and swung back to gaze out of the kitchen window. He did not turn when Natalie placed her bowl of cereal on the table and sat down across from him.
“Breakfast of champions, I see,” Natalie said between two spoonfuls of Cheerios.
Jimmy smiled thinly in spite of himself. Natalie had a way of doing that – making him smile – no matter the circumstances, just like her mother used to do. It was one of the things he loved the most about his daughter.
“Yeah,” he replied. “The criminals of Bleakwood County won’t stand a chance once I’m all carb-loaded.”
Natalie nearly spit out a mouthful of milk and cereal trying to suppress a laugh. Jimmy’s smile grew wider.
“You always have liked those things,” he said, and pointed at the Cheerios floating, like tiny life preservers, in the milk of her bowl. “I never cared for them; I think they taste like sawdust.”
“You don’t know what you’re missing.”
“Oh, I think I do,” he replied. “Of course, I never used to miss them.”
Natalie furrowed her brow in a confused manner but did not say anything as she had just shoveled another too large spoonful of cereal into her mouth. Jimmy laughed.
“Whath’s tho funny?” Natalie managed to get out without spraying milk or Cheerios particles across the table.
“I’m going to let you in on a little secret. Your grandmother used Cheerios to, shall we say, improve my aim when I was a little boy.”
Natalie’s eyes widened. “You don’t mean…”
“Yep,” Jimmy interrupted. “She would sprinkle a few in the toilet bowl and tell me to take some target practice. It worked, too. I was a deadeye.”
“Ugh,” Natalie groaned and pushed her bowl to the middle of the table. “You have got to be kidding.”
“I’m afraid not,” he said. “As a matter of fact, that last floater there looks like it needs sinking.”
“Don’t you dare!” Natalie squealed in mock horror. At that, father and daughter laughed heartily and genuinely. Once the laughter petered out, Natalie reached across the table and took Jimmy’s hands in her own.
“Daddy,” she said. “You’re wrong about Donnie.”
Jimmy felt the smile fade from his lips. The anger was back, a dark thing, chewing him up from the inside, trying to gnaw its way out. “Nat,” he started, but she cut him off.
“Daddy, I’m pregnant.”
Jimmy Cain said nothing, he didn’t have the words. He pulled his hands away from his daughter and turned to stare again out of the kitchen window, as if hoping he would find the solution to his problems in the thick woods beyond the back yard. He said nothing when Natalie, crying, stood up and left. The raven perched in the oak tree offered no comfort.
Jimmy sat at his desk, a Styrofoam cup of coffee cradled in his hands. While his location had changed, his mood had not and he found himself unable to concentrate on the stack of paperwork piled in front of him. He had decided it would all have to wait; he had to figure out what to do about Natalie. Besides, what were they going to do, fire him? They’ll have to think of a better threat than that, he thought, and turned to stare out of his office window. The same forest that was visible from his kitchen window at home loomed mere yards from the back of the small metal building that served as the Bleakwood County Sheriff’s Office. Though he was seeing the woods from a different vantage point than he had earlier, the wall of trees and brush here seemed just as impenetrable and uncaring. There were no answers there. Realizing this, Jimmy swiveled in his chair, determined to give the paperwork another try. As he did so, Stevie knocked on the frame of his open door and said, “Good morning, James. Mind if I come in?”
Without waiting for an answer, she strode into the office and took a seat across from the sheriff. Stevie Broussard had worked for Bleakwood County in one capacity or another for the last ten years; for the last two, she had served as the dispatcher and office manager for the Sheriff’s Department. Jimmy had grown quite fond of her and she had earned his trust with her straightforward, tell-it-like-it-is manner and penchant for seeing straight through bullshit. Stevie probably knew him better than anyone else in the county; better even than Natalie, he thought. She was also the only person within a two-hundred-mile radius that called him James.
She seemed nervous and fidgety, something that was not like her. It was clear there was something on her mind, something heavy. “I don’t really know how to bring this up,” she started. “And feel free to tell me it’s none of my business, but I’ve been hearing some things…and I’m concerned.”
Stevie shifted uncomfortably on her chair. When she looked up at him, finally meeting his gaze, her eyes shone with an intensity he had rarely seen from her.
“Yes…things,” she continued. “Things about Natalie.”
Jimmy groaned. It was certainly no secret that he did not approve of Natalie’s boyfriend, Donnie, but Stevie’s look of concern seemed to indicate something more than that was going on. Jimmy could almost picture a cartoon anvil, the word ACME printed across it in large letters, hanging above his head. It seemed obvious he was about to get clobbered again. He wasn’t sure how much more he could take.
“Okay,” he said. “What have you heard.”
“That she’s pregnant,” Stevie replied, this time without hesitation.
Jimmy exhaled slowly, stood up and turned to again look out of the office window at the emerald wall of vegetation just beyond. “Well, that didn’t take long to get out,” he said softly.
“So, it’s true,” she replied. “Oh, James, I’m so sorry. What is she going to do?”
Jimmy did not answer immediately, just continued staring at the mix of hardwoods and pines outside. The now familiar anger inside tried to flare again. He steeled himself against it, steadied his emotions, and decided there was no harm in discussing things. If Stevie had already heard about Natalie’s situation, then it was likely that everyone else in this backwater county had, too. Plus, this was Stevie. Hell, maybe she could even offer some advice. God knew he needed some.
“I…I don’t know what she’s going to do,” he said. “I only found out this morning myself.”
Stevie nodded but said nothing.
“She wants to get married and move to Shreveport. She told me Donnie has a job of some kind lined up over there. God knows doing what.”
“I take it you don’t approve of her plan?”
“I don’t,” Jimmy said. “She’s just a kid, Stevie. She’s not even eighteen years old. She has no idea how difficult it’s going to be.”
Stevie gave him a gentle smile and said, “Yes, it will be hard, but she won’t be alone. She’ll still have you and…”
“If you are about to say Donnie,” he interrupted. “I’m going to have to stop you right there.” The rage had sparked a bit in spite of his best effort to contain it.
Stevie started at that and cocked her head slightly in a way that might have been humorous in any other situation. She did not reply verbally but did raise her eyebrows, forming an okay, tell me why expression.
Jimmy took a sip of his now stone-cold coffee and grimaced before continuing. “Rick Daniels is the counselor over at the high school. About a year ago, I pulled him over for suspicion of DUI. He was weaving all over the road and nearly took out a couple of mailboxes on FM 105. To make a long story short, he had knocked a few back at Bodee’s Barn and was clearly impaired.”
“I know Rick,” Stevie said. “I would never have figured him for a drinker.”
“He’s not, that’s sort of what I’m getting to,” Jimmy said. “An old buddy of his was passing through, had a few hours to visit, and wanted to reminisce with Rick about the good old days when their band was out on the road.”
“Rick? In a band?” Stevie asked in disbelief. “I wouldn’t have figured that either.”
Jimmy did not reply specifically to her comment but continued, “Anyway, he stayed longer than he probably should have and had one too many old fashions. He was very honest about it and begged me not to run him in as he’d lose his job at the school for sure.”
“What did you do?”
“I had him pull his car way off the shoulder and gave him a ride home. The guy screwed up – he could have killed himself, or somebody else – but I could see he was scared shitless and that this was never going to happen again.” Jimmy sighed. “I just didn’t want to see the guy’s life get ruined over one dumb mistake.”
Stevie nodded and said, “I can understand that. I think you did a decent thing, James.”
“I guess,” he replied. “He was incredibly grateful and said if there was ever anything he could do for me to just ask. I never planned on doing so, that quid pro quo stuff can get pretty sticky when you’re a cop, but I called in that favor this morning.”
Stevie frowned and leaned forward in her chair. She was fully invested now. “What did you do?”
Jimmy turned away, ashamed to meet her gaze. It seemed it was easier to admit his abuse of power to the woods outside his window than it was to her. “I asked for all the school records on Donnie.”
Stevie let out a soft whistle. She could have chastised him, told him such a thing could get he and Rick both fired, but she didn’t, something Jimmy appreciated greatly. “What did you find out?”
The anger, seemingly his constant companion now, flared again. Jimmy tried to control it but it slipped out in the quivering of his voice as he told Stevie the rest. “Between the school records and the background check I ran on him last week, I’ve found out that he’s been lying; he’s been lying about everything.”
Stevie waited silently as Jimmy gathered himself. After a minute or so, he turned back to her. “He’s been arrested twice down in Beaumont in just the last year.”
Surprised, Stevie’s eyes widened to what seemed to Jimmy to be the size of dinner plates. “Why?”
“Public intoxication the first time,” Jimmy replied. “The second arrest was for DUI and drug possession. The drug charge ended up being dropped as part of a plea deal.”
“What were the conditions of the deal?”
“That he attend weekly AA meetings and surrender his license for a year.” Stevie could see Jimmy seething. “He’s been driving my daughter all over the county for months and he doesn’t even have a license.” He paused momentarily before speaking again. This time, he looked Stevie square in the eyes when he said, “I could kill the little bastard.”
Jimmy was surprised when Stevie remained stoic. Gone was the wide-eyed, surprised expression he had seen earlier. She no longer seemed unsettled at all.
“Well,” she said finally. “That’s certainly not good news, but maybe he just made a mistake. Maybe he got scared straight, kind of like Rick.”
“No,” Jimmy replied. “There’s more.”
He turned back to the window and the forest beyond. The enormous trees stood like uncaring sentinels, oblivious to his plight. Something about the forest just then – how dark it remained beneath the canopy, even in broad daylight – unnerved him and he returned to his desk.
“The boy’s failing every class he’s taking. Rick said there is no way he’s going to graduate. So, to sum it up, the kid has a record, is on probation, is going to be a high school dropout, and is probably an alcoholic already at seventeen.” He covered his eyes with his hands and added, “I don’t want this for Natalie…or my grandchild.”
“What are you going to do?” she asked.
Jimmy lowered his hands and once again looked squarely at Stevie. “I’m not sure. I only know I’d do anything to keep Natalie from getting hurt.”
The rest of the day crawled by in an agonizingly slow fashion. Fortunately, nothing serious came up and Stevie, God bless her, ran interference for him with the few folks who did come in to file complaints. He just did not have the patience to deal with the Widow Talbert complaining about “hoodlums riding their ATVs across her property at all hours” or Croppo Melancon harping about his house being “toilet-papered again” by a roving pack of middle-schoolers. Jimmy heard Stevie reassure them and say that both of the incidents would be “investigated fully.” The Widow Talbert seemed satisfied with her assurance, but old man Melancon felt the need to shout, “This country is going straight to hell!” before stomping out of the office.
Mercifully, quitting time came – not that there really is such a thing for a law enforcement officer – and the flow of angry octogenarians ceased. Stevie poked her head into his office and said, “I’m headed home; I want to get out of here before Mr. Prescott shows up demanding we set up a stakeout to catch the raccoon that’s been knocking his trashcan over every night.”
Jimmy smiled and replied, “Yeah, nobody needs that. I’m not far behind you.”
Stevie started to turn away, stopped, and looked back at him. “Are you going to be okay, James?” Her concern was earnest; Jimmy could see it in her eyes.
“I’m okay,” he said.
Stevie said nothing but doubt showed on her face.
“I’m fine,” he said. “I promise.”
“Alright then,” she said. “I guess I’ll see you in the morning.”
Stevie turned and walked out of the office. Moments later, Jimmy heard the engine of her car turn over followed by the sound of crunching gravel as she drove out of the parking lot. He sat down and, once again, found himself staring out of the window as if the answer to his problems was going to somehow manifest in the deepening gloom beneath the hickory, black walnut, and loblolly pine trees beyond the office wall. He did not sit there long before deciding no answer would be forthcoming, at least not on this night. He stood up, stuffed his laptop into his BSD backpack, and walked out of the office. After locking up, he walked to the Ford Explorer that served as Bleakwood County’s only Sheriff’s Department vehicle. There, pinned beneath the windshield wiper on the driver’s side of the vehicle was an envelope.
It was still ungodly hot and humid – Natalie would’ve said it was hotter than balls (that always cracked him up, though he was never sure exactly what it meant) – so Jimmy waited until he had started the Explorer and got the air-conditioner blowing before opening up the envelope. Inside was a handwritten letter on stationary emblazoned with the Sheriff’s Department letterhead. The handwriting was Stevie’s.
I can’t imagine what you are going through right now. I’ve been thinking about everything you said and though it’s none of my business, I want you to know that I tend to agree with you about Donnie not being good for Natalie. I think he’s going to end up hurting her badly sooner rather than later. Just thinking about it breaks my heart as she is such a precious girl.
I also know that no matter what you may think, Natalie is going to side with Donnie. They say love is blind, but in the very young it is often deaf and dumb, too. Believe me, the more you badmouth Donnie, the harder Nat will defend him. That’s just the way it is with young girls in love. It is also why – after he leaves her high and dry – she still won’t come back to you. She will be humiliated as well as heartbroken. After that, every time Nat sees you, she will be reminded that you were right and she was so very wrong. She will read “I told you so” into every gesture and hear it between the lines of every sentence you speak. James, I think you really could lose her forever unless you do something.
You told me in the office that you would do anything to keep Natalie from being hurt. If you really meant that, I think I know someone who can help you. Her name and address are written below. She has no phone, but I will make sure she knows you’re coming. Go see her, James. Go tonight. Take her something that belongs to Donnie. Please don’t ask me why, just know it is absolutely necessary.
James, there is time to fix this situation, but no time to waste. I’m asking you to trust me on this. She helped me once a long time ago. I know she can do the same for you now.
101 Saratoga Road
Bell Falls, TX
Jimmy refolded the letter and placed it back in the envelope. He tapped it against his chin several times as he digested Stevie’s words. He had no idea how this Rowena Black person might be able to help him, but it was obvious Stevie believed she could. We’ll see, he thought and tossed the envelope onto the passenger seat. With that, Jimmy put the Explorer in gear and drove out of the parking lot. Behind him, unnoticed, a large raven sat perched atop a cypress tree adjacent to the parking lot. Its eyes gleamed like emerald fire in the night’s first beams of moonlight.
Jimmy pulled into his driveway just as the full moon had finally managed to hoist itself above the imposing tree line of the Saratoga National Forest. Natalie’s car was not in the drive; he wasn’t surprised. He sighed and made the trek from the driveway to the front door. After letting himself in, he called Nat’s cellphone. No answer. I guess she’s not talking to me now, he thought and walked through the gloomy house toward the kitchen. There was no need to turn on any lights as he had the lay out of the place memorized. Nothing had been changed or moved in the years since Denise had died. Somehow, leaving things as they were while she had been here made him feel close to her; almost as if she were still around. At times, the feeling was strong enough that he almost expected to come around a corner and see her in the kitchen, attempting some new recipe she had found on Pinterest or in the living room, watching Sweet Home Alabama for the umpteenth time. Tonight, however, he couldn’t feel her at all. He felt very much alone.
Once in the kitchen, he opened the fridge and retrieved a Diet Coke. He padded over to the table and took a seat next to the same window he had spent so much time in front of this morning. The moon was unusually large and the empty yard was brightly lit. The woods just beyond, however, were dark – ominously so. It seemed to Jimmy that there was more to the darkness than just the canopy preventing the moonlight from reaching the forest floor. It was as if the thicket was somehow devouring the light. The idea made him shudder and he turned away from the window. It was then that he noticed Natalie’s note on the table.
Bell Falls was an unincorporated community in the heart of the Saratoga National Forest. At one time, when the oil still flowed from the ground, the saws of the lumber mills whined day and night, and the railroad made frequent stops in the heart of town, Bell Falls was a bustling island of civilization in the heart of the vast green jungle making up this corner of southeast Texas. By the 1970s, it was all but gone. The oil ran out, environmental restrictions brought logging to a standstill, and the East Texas Railroad Company pulled up its tracks and decided business would be better in Beaumont, forty miles to the south. Only a few unfortunate souls with nowhere else to go remained in the area, most of them eaking out a living running moonshine or cooking meth out of ramshackle cabins or rundown trailers deep in the woods along Pine Island Bayou. Downtown, only a few buildings remained. It was to the only one of these structures that was still occupied that Jimmy Cain was speeding at eighty miles per hour, the red and blue emergency lights atop his Explorer flashing. Natalie was gone. Her note said that she was dropping out of school and going to Shreveport with Donnie tonight. I’ll call you when we get settled, she had written. She had signed it Love, Natalie, dotting the “i” with a tiny heart as she had since elementary school.
Natalie’s note lay on the seat next to him. Beside the note was Donnie’s BHS baseball cap. Take her something that belongs to Donnie. Please don’t ask me why, just know it is absolutely necessary. Each time he glanced at the cap his anger swelled within him, as did his desperation, threatening to swallow him completely. In his hand, Jimmy held another note, Stevie’s. I must be crazy, he thought, as he glanced down at the address of a woman he had never met.
“I don’t know who you are, Rowena Black, but I pray that you really can help me,” he said to himself before pressing the accelerator to the floor.
Jimmy stood in front of a small, flat-roofed building that had clearly seen better days. Half of the building housed the remains of, according to the signage that was still present, the Sunshine Suds Laundromat. Inside, all manner of debris littered the floor. An old laundry cart lay on its side, nearly covered by ceiling tiles and drywall that had collapsed due to some long-ago water leak. The hulks of several industrial-sized dryers lined the far wall. The doors of the dryers had been removed, giving the rotting appliances the appearances of great, rectangular monsters with gaping black maws. In the far corner, an ancient Asteroids arcade game stood. On the side of the game cabinet, a future ad-man had written Assteroids? Get Preparation-H! Jimmy sighed. A Real Rhodes Scholar, no doubt, he thought and then turned his attention to the other side of the building.
Most of the structure was taken up by the carcass of the long-dead laundromat, but at the far side of the building was a single glass door. Stenciled upon it was Three Ravens Realty. Below that, in the spot where most proprietors would post their business hours, By Invitation Only was printed. Next to the door was an intercom system with a small sign – this one handwritten – that read Ring for Entry. Jimmy pushed the button, but heard nothing. He waited a minute and tried again. Still nothing. “Weird,” he mumbled, then double-checked the address Stevie had given him. This was the place, alright. Even so, this couldn’t be right. Stevie must have gotten her wires crossed, he thought, and turned back toward the parked Explorer. Before he could take a step, he was startled by a female voice coming from the intercom speaker.
“Welcome, Mr. Cain. Please come in.”
Jimmy opened the door and stepped inside.
Jimmy was greeted by a tall, smartly-dressed woman. Her jet-black hair was pulled back into a harsh bun that Jimmy thought would have been more suitable for a much older woman. On her lips, she wore a deep red lipstick.
“Welcome, Mr. Cain,” she said without warmth and ushered him into a small office.
The walls of the office were lined top-to-bottom with built in bookshelves. The shelves were full, stuffed actually, with all manner of hardbacks and leatherbound volumes whose titles Jimmy did not recognize. Some of them looked very old.
“Please, sit down,” she said and steered him to a high-backed leather chair that rested in front of a massive desk that was made from a dark wood Jimmy did not recognize. “We have much to discuss.”
Jimmy sat and watched as the woman glided to the opposite side of the desk. Her gait was smooth and effortless, cat-like, with no inefficient motion. Jimmy had never seen anyone move so gracefully.
“Mr. Cain, my name is Rowena Black. A mutual friend contacted me and said you might be in need of my services.”
“Stevie,” he replied.
Rowena Black nodded slightly and placed her clasped hands on the desk in front of her. Jimmy noticed her long nails were polished in the same deep red as her lipstick. She stared into Jimmy’s face with eyes so black they seemed like voids in her skull and said, “Tell me what you want from me.”
Jimmy shifted in his seat. What did he want from her? “I’m not sure,” he finally managed to say. “My daughter…”
“Natalie.” She interjected.
“Yes, Natalie. She’s gotten herself mixed up with this boy and she’s well on her way to ruining her life.”
Rowena Black said nothing and allowed Jimmy to gather his thoughts; her gaze, however, never wavered. Doesn’t she blink? Jimmy wondered.
“She’s just made one bad decision after another,” he continued. “She’s dropped out of school and has run off to Louisiana to get married to this juvenile delinquent.”
“Is that all?”
“No,” he whispered. “I found out this morning that she’s pregnant.”
At that, Rowena Black leaned back in her chair and stared at the ceiling in a contemplative manner. She began lightly drumming her fingers on the armrest of her leather chair, the long, red nails making a tik, tik, tik sound as she did so.
Jimmy waited silently for what seemed like a long time.
Tik, tik, tik.
Finally, she returned her eyes to him and said, “Thank you, Mr. Cain. I know that must have been difficult for you; however, you still haven’t stated what you want from me.”
That question again. Deep down, he knew the answer, though he had never allowed himself to fully form the thought, much less verbalize it.
Tik, tik, tik.
“I want him gone.”
“I don’t think you need my help for that, Mr. Cain. After all, you are a law enforcement officer,” she said. “I’m sure you could arrange…something.”
Jimmy had to admit that a part of him would relish ridding the world of the piece of shit that was Donnie Simon, but he knew he couldn’t risk it.
“I can’t do that,” he said.
“If I made a mistake, if I was caught,” he replied and swallowed hard. “I’d lose Natalie forever.”
“And if your daughter knew of our meeting?”
“She can’t know. She can never know,” he said.
For the second time since he had entered the office, Rowena Black leaned back in her chair and stared upward. It now seemed to Jimmy that she was not staring at the ceiling but, as crazy as it seemed, at some point beyond it.
Tik, tik, tik.
Finally, she broke the silence. “I don’t think I can help you, Mr. Cain. I’ll see you out now.”
Jimmy was shocked. “Wait. What?” he stammered. “Stevie said you would help me.”
“Goodnight, Mr. Cain.”
All the anger that Jimmy had been holding onto for months, the rage he had suppressed over and over, finally erupted from its hiding place deep within him. He stood and shouted, “No! I came here for help and, by God, I’m going to get it?”
“Tell me what you want, Mr. Cain.”
“You know goddamn good and well what I want!” he roared.
Rowena Black leaned forward across her desk; her ebony eyes gleamed. “You must say it, Mr. Cain.”
“Why? You know…”
“Say it!” she hissed.
“I want him dead!”
“Who?” she asked. She had taken on the look of a hungry predator, lean and lethal. “There is power in the name. Who?”
“Donnie Simon!” he screamed. “I want Donnie Simon dead!”
Jimmy collapsed back into the leather chair across from the now smiling Rowena Black, all of his strength somehow gone. Her grin seemed too wide for her face, her teeth pointed and sharp. Jimmy swooned. Somehow, she was suddenly behind him and holding him up by the shoulders. Her red nails, now more like talons, dug into his arms.
“What are you willing to do to make this happen, Mr. Cain?” she whispered into his ear. Jimmy shivered. Her breath was as cold as the grave.
“Anything,” he replied. “I’ll do anything.”
Rowena Black sat behind the massive desk, staring at the ceiling, her fingers once again drumming upon the armrest of her chair.
Tik, tik, tik.
From the hallway, the sound of footsteps reached her ears. The steps stopped at the doorway to the office.
“Is he gone?”
“Yes,” Rowena Black replied without turning.
“Did he agree to the terms?”
“He did. Those who do not believe in the reality of the soul never hesitate to barter theirs away,” Rowena said. “The fool.”
Rowena Black picked up the cap Jimmy had left behind, pressed it to her face, and inhaled deeply. As she pulled the hat away from her face, something in it caught her eye. With two, pointed blood red nails, she reached in and pulled a single long, blonde hair from the band of the cap.
“You have what you need then?”
Rowena Black smiled as she examined the hair. “And more,” she replied.
Dear God, not again, please! Jimmy thought as he raced toward the front door.
The dream was always the same: Jimmy trying in vain to reach Denise before it was too late. Maybe this time…
No, this time would be like all the others. He burst through the front door to find his wife lying in a pool of blood on the floor of the foyer, half of her head missing, his service revolver still gripped in her hand.
“No, no, no!”he screamed. “Not again, no!”
Jimmy fell to his knees and gave vent to a primal howl of agony and grief.
Impossibly, as if disturbed by his cries, Denise turned her ruined face to look at him with her one intact eye and whispered, “You’re too late, Jimmy.”
Just before his mind became unhinged, Jimmy awoke. Tears streamed down his face and he felt nauseous. Though he had suffered through this same nightmare countless times since Denise’s death, this time it had been different. It was more vivid, more real than those that had come before.
Jimmy started violently. It seems the banging had not been part of the dream after all. “Holy, shit,” he mumbled and wondered how much more his heart could take.
“Okay, okay, hold your horses! I’m coming!” he shouted.
After pulling on a pair of sweatpants, Jimmy walked to the front door. He opened it to find a disheveled Stevie standing on the porch. She had clearly been crying and looked like she had aged ten years since he had seen her the day before.
“Stevie, what is it? What’s wrong?”
“James, it’s…it’s…Natalie,” she managed to say before breaking down into new tears.
Still disoriented from his nightmare, Jimmy could not grasp what Stevie was trying to tell him. “Natalie? What about Natalie?”
“There was an accident, James; a car accident in Shreveport…”
“No, Stevie, stop!” he gasped.
“James, I’m so sorry.”
Jimmy barely heard her. It was as if he were looking at Stevie through a dark tunnel, a tunnel that closed quickly into complete darkness. Somewhere out in that void, he could briefly make out Stevie crying out his name, then there was nothing.
Perched on the roof of the house, a lone raven – detached and emotionless – watched the drama play out below. It took wing the moment Jimmy collapsed, as if satisfied by what it had seen. Stevie, cradling Jimmy’s head in her lap, watched it go.
“Open up! Open up now!” Jimmy screamed and slammed his fist against the door of Three Ravens Realty. “Open this goddamned door or I’ll break it down!”
Before Jimmy could pound his fist into the door a second time, the intercom on the wall crackled to life. “Come in, Mr. Cain.”
Jimmy stepped into the building and ran to the office where he had made the unholy pact with Rowena Black less than twenty-four hours before. The room with which he was familiar was no more. The floor to ceiling bookshelves and the massive desk were gone, only bare brick walls remained. Across the room, the high-backed chair Jimmy had occupied on his last visit to this terrible place sat facing a fireplace, a fireplace that had not been there before. In the hearth, scarlet embers smoldered.
Jimmy looked around wildly. How can this be?
“I’ve been expecting you, Mr. Cain.”
The voice was familiar to Jimmy’s ears, the voice of Rowena Black. Jimmy pulled his revolver from its holster and walked to the fireplace in order to face the woman who had killed Natalie.
What he saw shook him to his core. Sitting in the oversized chair was a bent and deformed old woman. The crone was wrapped in a black shawl. Her face was wrinkled and pale, the color of non-living flesh.
“You…you’re not Rowena Black,” he stammered.
“Oh, but I am, Mr. Cain.”
“No, it…it isn’t possible,” Jimmy said.
She smiled at that, exposing her jagged teeth. “More things are possible in heaven and earth than you can possibly grasp,” she said. “My very existence is proof of that.”
“I don’t understand any of this,” he said. “Last night, you looked…”
The witch cut him off and said, “You saw what you expected to see – what you needed to see – Mr. Cain. I really had very little to do with it.”
His mind reeling, Jimmy shouted, “You killed Natalie!” His eyes narrowed to mere slits, and added, “Now, I am going to kill you.” Jimmy raised his revolver and leveled it at the old woman.
The shriveled hag on the chair chuckled softly. Her eyes – no longer black, but a fiery green – blazed from beneath the dark shawl she wore upon her head as she hissed, “I think not.”
Jimmy squeezed the trigger. Click.
The crone licked her lips, her tongue somehow negotiating the dagger-like teeth that were now on full display. Jimmy looked from his sidearm to the witch and back to the gun. “No, no, no…” he moaned.
Click. Click. Click.
Jimmy sank to his knees. All of the strength had left his body. He looked into the face of the old woman and choked out, “You killed, Natalie.”
“No, Mr. Cain,” whispered Rowena Black. “You did.”
Jimmy stared stupidly up at her. He opened his mouth to speak but found he could not.
“The owner of the item you brought me was killed, per our bargain.
“No,” Jimmy struggled to say. “The cap; it was Donnie’s.”
Rowena Black’s face darkened. “Perhaps at one time,” she said. “That is not for me to know. The spirits decided to whom that cap belonged and they are infallible.” The witch leaned back in her chair and turned toward the fire. “Leave this place, Mr. Cain. Leave now.”
Jimmy fell on his face at the feet of the old woman. “Please,” he sobbed. “Please, there must be a way to bring her back. There has to be. Help me.”
The hag turned from the fire to the sobbing Bleakwood County Sheriff at her feet. “You forget, Mr. Cain. You have nothing left with which to bargain. Your soul is already mine.”
“Please,” Jimmy whispered.
“You are detestable; leave me.”
Rowena Black continued to stare into the fire. The only indication that she was considering Jimmy’s fevered request was the drumming of her blood-colored nails on the arm of her chair.
Tik, tik, tik.
“What you are asking is possible, but it comes at a high price,” the witch finally said. She turned to Jimmy, her emerald eyes sparkling, and added, “Payment would be expected immediately.”
“Yes…anything,” he whispered.
“Very well. Your badge, please, Mr. Cain.”
“I guess that’s it,” Natalie said after laying a red rose on the casket.
“I guess so,” Donnie replied.
Natalie reached out for her new husband’s hand and then turned to take one last look at the polished wooden box that contained her father’s remains. The sight of the casket suspended over the gaping grave was hard for her; however, it was the mound of dirt sitting adjacent to her father’s final resting place, seemingly anxious to be heaped upon him, that Natalie found most disturbing. She turned quickly away and buried her face in Donnie’s chest.
The pair lingered graveside a few minutes more before Donnie said, “C’mon, babe. Let’s get you home. You need your rest.”
Natalie said nothing, but nodded in agreement. Donnie helped his wife up into the cab of his Dodge and within moments, they were gone.
As the truck passed through the gates of the Bleakwood Cemetery, two dark figures stepped out from the gloom of the bordering forest. Once certain that the cemetery was empty, the cloaked pair made their way to the still open grave of the county sheriff. The dark duo stood silently for several minutes as if in deep thought, then the taller of the two reached out and placed Jimmy’s star-shaped badge on the top of the suspended casket.
“You have done well, child,” the bent and disfigured crone that was Rowena Black said.
Without taking her eyes off of the casket of Sheriff James “Jimmy” Cain, Stevie Broussard removed her hood and allowed the southeast Texas sun to warm her face.
“Thank you, mother.”
Michael Mayes is a middle school history teacher and coach from Texas who dabbles a bit as an amateur naturalist and folklorist. His interests are wide and varied and have led him to a fascination with cryptozoology, the paranormal, and other esoteric topics. He is the owner and writer of the Texas Cryptid Hunter blog, which has accumulated more than 2.7 million page views since its inception, and a published author. Patty: A Sasquatch Story is his illustrated children’s book (self-published), while his most recent efforts, Shadow Cats: The Black Panthers of North America and Valley of the Apes: The Search for Sasquatch in Area X, are his two non-fiction titles published traditionally (Anomalist Books). He have also sold several stories of fiction to various literary magazines.