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ADELAIDE Independent Quarterly Literary Magazine / Revista Literária Independente Trimestral, New York / Lisboa, Online Edition  

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Scourge
By Brett Herrmann

 

 


7:12 p.m.

There were mosquitoes everywhere, buzzing in people’s ears, digging into the backs of their necks — swarming the body.

Billie Twardowski swatted three mosquitoes in one hit on her forearm. Two were pulverized into little black dots of bug flesh, and the other gushed blood. A bright red stream smeared down her arm, matting down her thin blonde hairs.

“Do you need a Band-Aid?” Norma asked.

“No, just a big mosquito,” Billie said.

“They are thick enough to breathe aren’t they? I don’t know how these guys are working through it.”

About two hours earlier Billie had been knife deep in an ice cream cake, cutting a big corner slice for Ryan, her boyfriend, when she got the Tweet.

Now, she was standing in the heat, the humidity, and a bath of mosquitos, wiping her blood (or was it someone else’s?) on the side of her pants.

Everyone in town was watching the same thing. All two hundred people from the little village crowded around the block between Taft and Wilson streets to see the large crowd of police work in the back yard of an abandoned building.

They poured in from all edges of the village, from Bonino’s Tap on the east end to the Senior Center on the west end. The abandoned old house with a detached garage in the back was really the only structure on the block. The rest of the space was open grass field, most of it freshly mowed.

Big Jim “Bo” Handler still had a fresh Old Style in hand as he wiped the cool can across his forehead, leaving droplets of condensation clinging to his matted dark hair. The water slowly trickled to his brow. Next to him was Susie Watkins, sitting in a lawn chair with her walker by her side. She had hobbled the three blocks from the senior center to the excavation site to get in on the action, same as everyone else.

On the front side of the yard, a lazy rural highway had the occasional car pass by where the driver would slow down to a crawl and gawk at the number of police cruisers.       Normally, drivers sped through town so fast they didn’t even notice the signs designating the speed change.

Today, there were about 15 police cars surrounding the abandoned house. The cars encircled the yard as best as they could but police couldn’t quite fill all the gaps to block the view entirely. They were state and county cops. The village’s police force had disbanded decades ago. Not enough funds, not enough crime.

Allen Bigham rolled his lifted truck into his driveway about a half block down the street and bounced out of the cab with a pair of binoculars. His five-year-old daughter Lily, who was in the back cab, tried to keep up as Allen scurried towards the group, his gait something between walking and running, as he tried his best to contain his excitement.

“They’re still digging?” he asked rhetorically.

Behind him, Lily lost her sandal while trying to keep up. She stepped on some loose bits of gravel and pouted.

“Daaad,” she called. “I need help.”

Allen turned around, walked back, picked up the sandal and picked up Lily before joining in with the crowd that clung to the side of the road just in front of the ditch where most of the mosquitoes seemed to congregate from.

“They sure are going slow. I could have had this done within an hour. Just get me back there with a Bobcat and shows over,” Allen said.

They had been at it for a long time, since 2 p.m. from what Norma said. She had been picking zucchini in her garden when all the police cars drove into town. Their lights were on but sirens weren’t blaring. She said the cops got out and went right to work, right to the burial sight. Billie would get there more than four hours later.

6:17 p.m.

The random Tweet, from a kid she had never met, tipped her off about the investigation.
“News tip: Large police presence in Mobile along Route 17 in connection with Trish Truman’s disappearance,” — Justin Axelson @axeman5745.

Billie showed Ryan the Tweet as his face scrunched up while trying to fight a bout of brain freeze after taking his first oversized bite of ice cream cake.

“You think it’s the real thing?” he asked Billie, rubbing his forehead.

“Could be. Could be nothing. I was going to pass through there anyway on my way to cover Ginsburg city council tonight,” Billie said.

“Well good luck. Give them hell. I was hoping they’d find her,” Ryan said.

“Yeah, but not like this,” Billie said. “Happy birthday. I should be home around nine.”

“I’ll try and stay up but I can’t make any promises. These 5 a.m.’s are killing me,” he said. “And remember, you promised me a little… you know? Birthday fun.”

“Yeah, yeah. That’s what I get you every year. I thought the ice cream cake would be a fair trade off this time,” Billie said with a smile as she walked towards the bedroom in their apartment.

“Not a chance,” Ryan called after her.

Billie grabbed her camera and notepad before hopping in her car. The last time she had been in Mobile was to cover the town’s 125th anniversary. There was no drama then, just plenty of drunken people enjoying a town-wide party. Yes there was one fight, a couple of high school kids got into a scrap, but there was no police involvement. That’s why pulling up to the scene was such a stark contrast.

6:33 p.m.

When Billie saw the number of police cars surrounding the house she immediately called her editor.
While she was on the phone she started walking towards the police line. Billie had walked up to her fair share of police lines during her time as a reporter, but this was different. Usually an officer or a firefighter would tell her “Hey, that’s close enough. Try not to interfere with anything.”

Not this time.

As she approached the caution tape surrounding the scene a state trooper caught sight of the camera slung around her neck. He made a beeline right towards her, puffing his chest out as he walked his quick, cocky strut.

“You can’t be here! You have to get back!” he said, pointing to the throng of residents that were crowding the street on the other side of the block in the rear of the house.

That’s where Billie went; she got to hang out with the townsfolk. That’s what her editor had asked for over the phone. Clyde Staumbaugh, editor of the Ginsburg Free Press for the past 30 years was not someone in the news business solely to uncover the big scandal or break the big story. Above everything, he wanted to sell papers.

“Get the story. Get it posted. Get us some web traffic. We’ll re-spin it for tomorrow’s paper once we know more,” he told Billie while she still had him on her cellphone. “There should be plenty of grieving kids, grieving old people, grieving somebody. Get their reactions. And get Chris down there.”

Chris was the paper’s photographer. The Free Press was one of the only small-town papers to still staff a bona fide photographer.

And once Billie started mingling with the locals, she realized the police had her backed up so far from the scene, her camera lens was not powerful enough to get a view inside anyway. Chris would have something stronger. He begrudgingly told her he would make his way over after a brief phone call.
“Are you sure it’s necessary I’m there?” he asked Billie.

“Yeah, it seems like a big one,” she said.

Click.

He didn’t say goodbye.

6:52 p.m.

The sun was starting to set over Billie and the crowd of onlookers. The mosquitos seemed to be getting more active in the low light. It had been a wet, hot, humid summer, especially through August, which made a perfect breeding ground for the bloodsuckers.

Some neighbors ran home to get bug spray to protect against the merciless onslaught. Others just stood around talking.

“The tomatoes haven’t been great this year,” Norma said to anyone who might want to talk about gardens. “We’ve been getting plenty of rain but not enough sun for them to get good color.”

“Do you know how the police knew to look here?” Billie asked her as she pulled out her reporter’s notepad.

“I’m not really sure. Couldn’t have been long. One of the kids who cuts the grass, the Smith kid, found the hole. But it’s the first time that yard has been dry enough to mow in weeks. But let me tell you, these summer storms have been tough on my green beans.”

Some kids circled the block on their bikes. They peddled hard, racing each other, although one in particular was faster than the others.

It was Big Jim “Bo” Handler’s son. Big Jim “Bo” yelled at him to slow down as he sped past, coming a little too close to Susie Watkins chair.

“He’s a wild one. Had a hell of a year on the baseball diamond too. Our boys came up just short of taking the regional,” he said.

“Yeah, I saw that. That was a tough on to lose. Do you know where the Smith kid is?” Billie asked.
“Is he not riding bikes?” Big Jim “Bo” said, craning his neck back to look. He turned his head back quickly and snapped his fingers. “Oh, that’s right. He is talking to the police at home. I guess he is the one who found the spot. Came here to mow the day after that regional loss. I still can’t believe that play at the plate. I think the ump made the right call, but man was it close.”

Allen Bigham came walking through backyards adjacent to the crime scene. He was escorted by a police officer who walked him back to the road with the rest of the neighbors. The cop was a county sheriff’s deputy, a much more friendly group than the state police.

“Can you give any information on the investigation at this time?” Billie asked the officer as Allen grinned and walked back into the crowd, getting a fist bump from Susie Watkins.

“No, we can’t really say anything. It’s the state police’s scene. They said there will be a press release forthcoming,” he said before turning away.

“Press release coming,” Billie wrote in her notepad. The rest of the page was blank.

A small circle of people formed around Allen, anticipating his report.

“I couldn’t see a thing back there. Why does everyone have all these damned trees and bushes?” he said.

His shirt was dirty as if he had been belly crawling through the grass. He pulled out his phone to check the time. He noticed the mosquitoes on his arm first though and brushed them away.

“I have to go pick up Lily anyway,” he said. “I’ll come back with a pair of binoculars.”
Allen left.

7:04 p.m.

More people continued to show up. Some of them were out-of-towners. One man even brought a mini-grill and started cooking bratwurst.

Chris showed up too. He almost appeared out of nowhere as he walked down the street towards Billie. He couldn’t find a place to park within a two-block radius. His camera had about a two-foot long lens attached to it.

“You know, I was just about to go eat when you called me,” he said to Billie. “Now I’ll have to figure out what the fuck I’m going to get when this is all done.”

“Well, it looks like we might be here a while,” Billie said.

“Fucking great,” Chris said.

He scoped out the police line, looking for a shot, looking for his way in.

“They won’t let you get very close,” Billie said.

“We’ll see about that. I didn’t come here to stand in balls soup. And these mosquitos are ridiculous. I wasn’t even out of the car and they were on me,” Chris said, swatting at his bare calf. He stumbled his way through the back yards going the same way Allen had just come back from. 

By this time police had blocked Taft Street with their cars. Billie kept getting texts from her editor asking for updates. She knew as much as anyone else. Police were digging. What were they digging for? No one knew for sure, but everyone was thinking the same thing.

The police had found Trish Truman, or what was left of her. She had been missing for about three weeks, and anxiety had ramped up in anticipation for her recovery.

When she first went missing, there hadn’t been much concern from law enforcement. It happens all the time, they said. A widowed middle-aged woman, working a factory job, decides to take off and doesn’t tell anyone. No one was too suspicious about her disappearance at that point. Except for Trish’s son, Mason. Mason had called into the Free Press newsroom to try and gain some publicity for his missing mother. Mason said that he talked to his mom almost daily up until she vanished. He said she would never just leave.

About a week after her disappearance they found her car, empty and unlocked about 40 miles down the interstate.

Again, police said there was no foul play suspected. Mason said Trish never drove on the interstate.
Dissatisfied with the police’s work, local residents started their own search parties. In the newsroom, the reporters thought they were fruitless endeavors, although the paper did provide a little coverage.

The group wasn’t searching private property or anything. They were combing public land, parks and forest preserves, in search of Trish. They weren’t looking anywhere near where her car was found.

But neither were the police.

The police were digging about fifteen miles south of where Trish had lived. And they had been digging for quite some time.

Billie didn’t have a number in her phone to call Mason for a reaction. She had it written down at the office.

7:38 p.m.

A Jeep slowly pulled down the street. Its headlights were on, although there was still a faint glimmer of sunlight on the horizon. The driver rolled down his window, and the lingering smell of marijuana seeped out of the vehicle, clearing away mosquitoes for a brief moment. A look of sheer panic emulated from driver’s red eyes.

“They’re not at my house are they?” he asked to the crowd.

“No they’re next door,” Susie Watkins said.

The driver’s shoulders slumped and he let out a sigh.

“I wonder how I’m supposed to get home,” he said.

“Ask the cops,” Norma said.

Allen, who paid no mind to the driver of the jeep, peered through his binoculars at the scene beyond the cars.

“It looks like they are bringing in floodlights. I guess they might be here a while,” he said. “Good thing too. It’s too dark to see shit.”

“Have they pulled anything up yet?” Big Jim “Bo” asked.

“I don’t think so. Doesn’t look like they have been digging for a little bit though,” Allen said.

Chris came walking back towards the crowd. He too was escorted by the same cop who walked Allen up.

“I couldn’t get very close,” he said to Billie.

Once he was back on the road the cop turned and left.

“I think I’m going to try the front of the house,” Chris said. “I didn’t get anything over there.”

And just like that he was walking down the street to find his way around the police line.

Billie’s phone buzzed in her pocket. She pulled it out and looked at a text from her editor.

“Ira Hernon is property owner. Where is he?”

Billie didn’t know who Ira was, but she was sure one of the neighbors would.  She glanced over at Big Jim “Bo” who looked impatient as if he were trying to decide between heading back to the bar for another Old Style or waiting to see how the crime scene played out.

“Jimbo, any idea who Ira Hernon is?” Billie asked.

“No idea. Why?” he said.

“That’s the property owner.” Billie said.

“Really, I thought it was Dan Schumacker. He’s the one who pays the Smith kid to mow,” he said.

“Who is that?” Billie asked.

“He’s Trish’s brother-in-law,” he said, before turning to Susie Watkins. “Hey, could you keep an eye on my kid while I run to Bonino’s real quick?”

“You better come back with one for me,” Susie said.

Billie texted her editor.

“Dan Schumacker helps take care of the place, according to neighbors. Can you confirm he is Trish’s brother-in-law?”

Big Jim “Bo” was already a block down the street, so Billie turned to Susie who sat there with a calm demeanor, as she enjoyed the outdoors, despite the dozens of mosquitoes that clung to her body and clothes.

“Do you think Dan Schumacker was involved? Have the police questioned him?” Billie asked.

“Danny? Oh, no. He’s a nice guy. There is no way he could have been involved. He gave me rides into Valley Springs for groceries for a month after Walt passed,” she said.

Billie had her pen pressed to her notepad but did not write anything as Susie talked. The police had finally gotten the floodlights on and Allen was again peering through his binoculars. He let out a small gasp and started waving his left hand in the air frantically.

“Hey! Hey! They have something,” he said. “They have something!”

The crowd shuffled closer to Allen.

“It looks like a blue tarp or something,” he said holding out the binoculars for any pair of hands that would take them. “Here, look!”

Norma grabbed them and looked towards the scene.

“Yeah they have something, or a bunch of things, I can’t really tell,” she said.

Billie’s phone vibrated in her pocket. Her editor again.

“10-79” was all it said.

Billie had listened to enough police scanner traffic to know what it meant. It wasn’t a frequent call signal. It usually came after a bad car accident. It was the code to notify the coroner. Billie had confirmation on one thing. They had a dead body.

7:54 p.m.

It didn’t take long for an ambulance to arrive. It was there within a few minutes. The EMT’s rolled out a stretcher and pulled out a body bag.

The coroner took a little longer though. In the small, rural county, the coroner was also the funeral director almost everyone used. He had been busy placing a headstone in a cemetery about 10 miles away when he received the call.

The police had the floodlights and flashlights, but getting a good view became more and more difficult. The officers and investigators crowded around the body. All anyone could see were the police officer’s backs, but Allen continued to try and observe.

“I think I see two tarps, maybe three,” Allen said told the crowd.

Big Jim “Bo” had snuck back up behind everyone. Bonino’s had sold him a six-pack.

“How many do they have buried back there?” he asked.

The officer who had to play the role of an usher for Chris and Allen came up to the huddle on the street.

“We’re going to need everyone to start going home. There is nothing left to see here,” he said.

“State police are going to hold a press conference at 9 p.m. explaining what we’ve been doing here.”

No one seemed surprised, or aggravated, or bewildered. They just started to slowly shuffle away, saying goodnights like it was the end of a party.

“See you at Jack’s benefit tomorrow?” Big Jim “Bo” asked Norma, carrying the Old Style’s in one arm and corralling his son in the other.

“Yeah, we’ll be there. Tell Cindy we’re looking for more baked goods if she has time to pitch in,” she said.

Allen looked around for Lily before spotting her making sidewalk chalk drawings with another girl around her age.

“Time to go,” Allen said. “You can come back and draw tomorrow.”

8:02 p.m.

Almost everyone had cleared away but Billie stood there a little longer. She looked at the crime scene one last time, the floodlights had attracted plenty of bugs, but they were no longer bothering her. The mosquitoes had finally settled a little now that it was dark and the temperature was cooler.

Billie walked the road back to where her car was parked and opened the door to throw her camera bag in. Her blank notepad followed.

Chris was walking down the street towards her, a slightly less aggravated expression on his face.
“Take a look at these,” he said, showing Billie the camera’s small digital screen.       

The picture was mostly dark except for one spot, which was crystal clear. A police officer was shining his flashlight down on a bag. The outline of a body was obvious through the clear plastic.

“These are good. These are really good,” Billie said.

“Yeah, I know,” Chris said. “Do you think it’s Trish?”

“I have no idea who else it would be. But the police still haven’t confirmed anything for us. Might be a long night,” Billie said.

“I hear there is a press conference at nine?” Chris asked.

“That’s the plan,” Billie said.
“Well then, I’m going to go try and get something to eat. All I could think about this whole time is how fucking hungry I am,” he said.

“Hurry up, I guess. Ice cream cake sounded pretty good tonight. Although I’m hoping I can get home before midnight to have a piece. I guess we’ll see how long the police take with this thing,” Billie said.

“Yeah, good luck with that,” Chris said and turned to walk back to his car.

“See you at nine?” Billie asked.

“See you at nine,” he said.

Billie took out her cellphone and called Ryan, hoping he could at least make stay awake past 8 p.m.
He didn’t answer.  

 

 

 

 

brett herrmann

About the Author:

Brett Herrmann was born and raised in the small town of Spring Valley, Ill. He attended Illinois Valley Community College and received a Bachelor's Degree in creative writing from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He currently works as a reporter for the La Salle NewsTribune and, in the past, worked extensively in the fried chicken business.              

 

 

 

 

     
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