“Wait, where?” That couldn’t be right. Zeb double-checked the address on the display.
POSSIBLE TRIPLE HOMICIDE: 512 Maple Avenue, White Pine, NC
“Well, shit. Here we go,” he thought. “On my way,” he said, as the radio sent his voice careening through space.
It wasn’t a long or hard drive. In fact, Kevin knew exactly where he was going. White Pine was his old hometown. It’s not the type of place to get much attention from homicide—not that they didn’t have their share of domestic quarrels that ended with some woman or man blowing their spouse’s head off. He had seen plenty of that, but that happens everywhere. Put a couple people in a house, depress them economically, give them booze and guns, and you’ve got a recipe for any measure of violence.
He thought over some of his cases as he drove. Second to last time he was called out here, it was for a knifing. Joel Osborne’s boy. Zeb remembers walking into a kitchen that looked like a scene from the Saw movies. He hated those movies. Joel was a drunk. His son was a bastard. Everyone in town lowered their voices when they talked about him. They didn’t ignore him; gossip was too much fun for that, but they had to signal that the usual Southern sensibilities would be offended by the actions of their subject.
Teenaged Mitt caused trouble for everyone at the local high school. Joel would be called in to pick up his son, and the teachers would purse their lips and look the other way while the father mentally and verbally beat his son on their way to the truck. Mitt was accepted into the Marines straight out of high school, but he was back in town just months later. Dishonorable discharge. Joel couldn’t take it. The gossip continued in its hushed tones, and Mitt worked various construction jobs as a laborer and lived in a trailer near his father’s house.
The report said that he died from massive blood loss and pulmonary laceration. Zeb didn’t have the read the report to know that. Mitt had brought home a girl from an out-of-town bar. They were both drunk, but apparently, she wasn’t as far gone as he thought. He attacked her in the bedroom, but she managed to break free. The phone was hanging from its cord when the police and EMS arrived. Zeb remembered thinking that it fit the area to have a corded phone on the wall. She had the time to dial 911 and grab a knife from the counter before he made it into the kitchen. He was very drunk, and she had some training in some form of martial arts, Zeb couldn’t remember which.
She had bruises all over her body, and the EMS people said that she was coated in his blood. She was in shock. She answered his questions in single syllables. The last he heard, she had gone back to her family out-of-state. Hopefully she got some help.
That all happened on a Friday. He expected the call on Sunday. In fact, he had warned his superiors about it. Joel didn’t show up at church that morning. Joel was a regular. He hadn’t missed a Sunday in 45 years. He arrived ten minutes early and always sat on the inside end of the pew in the back row of the balcony at the local Baptist church. He placed a twenty in the offering plate every morning, and he always asked the preacher to pray for his boy.
Zeb made the drive back out to White Pine. Joel was in his barn. There was a note in the dining room, apologizing for the mess. The buckshot had made a mess.
When Zeb asked why no one had gone to see Joel on Saturday, the local police chief said that some officers planned to check on Joel at the church service. Zeb knew they had waited on purpose. The chief didn’t like Joel’s type. He knew he wouldn’t be coming to church that day. Zeb had sighed and thanked the chief for his time. He knew there was no changing those politics. He’d have better luck trying to put Joel’s face back together.
That was the last time he had been out to White Pine for work. This time was different, though. Maple Avenue was in the “nice” part of town. “The big house street,” as he remembered calling it when he was a kid. This was usually burglary territory. Someone egged a car. Every now and then domestic violence. Joel couldn’t remember the last time they had a reported homicide here. Every now and then some old lady or man would die in their house, but that’s just life—he chuckled—the last part of it, anyway.
The house was massive, by small town standards. Most of the houses in town were mill houses or brick ranch homes. This would’ve been the mill owner’s home. He grimaced as he pulled up to the checkpoint. They had closed down the entire street for this one. A couple reporters spotted the government plates and tried to flag him down. He ignored them. A local officer moved the barricade so Zeb could drive through. Zeb recognized him: Matthew Haynes. Nice kid. He was several years younger than Zeb. He grew up in White Pine and signed on to their police force after going through the County’s community college law enforcement program. His face was grim. Zeb guessed that he hadn’t had to deal with anything worse than the local bar getting a little out of hand.
“Hey Zeb. The chief’s somewhere inside. He’ll be glad to see you.”
The chief may have been glad to see him, but that’s all relative. A starving person is glad to find a piece of bread, but that doesn’t change the fact that he’s starving. Zeb saw the severity of the situation on the chief’s face.
“No. Nothing’s missing.”
“Maybe they got scared when they saw the family. Panicked. Killed them. It happens all the time.”
“Does the killer usually paint a mural on the wall afterwards?”
Zeb felt the disgust welling up in his throat when he turned the corner into the living room. A man and a woman were seated in chairs in the living room, both facing the wall where a TV had been. They were dead. The man’s eyes were propped open with toothpicks; a bloody smile was painted onto his face. The woman’s head had been meticulously wrapped in masking tape, and something resembling a surprised face had been painted over the top. The TV was leaned against the wall. The public tv station was playing. The wall, which had been white, had a mural on it. Zeb stared for a moment. The mural was a picture of the room. The paint came from the body on the TV stand. The monochromatic mural showed the room as it had been altered. The bodies sat in their chairs, staring back in a sort of meta-observation. The painted TV leaned against the painted wall, and the morbid palette was half-mirrored in the base of the image. It was the center of the image that caught Zeb’s attention, made his heart sink. In the middle of the portrait was an image of the police chief, looking down at his feet, and another man. Wearing the same clothes as Zeb. Staring directly back at him.
An artist once built a park for the enjoyment of others. As he was a great lover of nature, he crafted the park in such a way that the benches and fountains and ornaments blended naturally into the wild theme. He made benches from great boulders, and his fountains resembled the streams that one may find in the Smokies or Appalachians. His touch left no detail undone. The paths through the park were paved with small stones, like a dry creek bed may boast. The edges even lent their aesthetics to those of a stream bank.
His work took him many years, and during that time many animals and people wandered through, amazed by the work, but unsure of its origin, for our artist worked in such secrecy that he avoided all human contact. Only the birds and smaller creatures saw his work, and though they often spoke of it, the tongues of men and birds do not easily mix.
One day, the artist found his work finished. His park was constructed and the piece was signed. His signature ran through the park like a birthmark, intertwined with the layout in such a way that none could argue the whole.
The residents of the surrounding town wandered often into the park, and they loved the artist through his work, though they did not know his name. The years passed, as years do, and the people gradually forgot the creation of the park. It became a seemingly timeless fixture. One day, a visitor came into the town, and a friend who was a local took him to the park.
“Look at our marvelous park!” exclaimed the local “We value and esteem this creation as our most treasured possession.”
“It is a beautiful place,” the visitor commented, “surely one of nature’s finest works.”
“But more than nature, my friend! This is the work of a man!”
“My good fellow, while your belief is truly quaint, I see no more than folly in your assertion. Take this large stone, for example. It has the same geological makeup as that boulder there, yet it resembles a bench. I suppose that you would say that a man carved this? For what? The pleasure of others? No, this was the work of the ice of prehistory. Look at the way the cuts are smoothed over, and the deep gashes in the sides. The force of water is greater than you might think. Look at the great canyons in the West, do you think those were the result of one man?”
The local looked, and though he thought the idea of chance was far-fetched, he saw the logic in his companion’s words. As much as the great rocks resembled benches, so might a fallen log, or some other luckily rolled boulder. He thought for a moment, before replying, “Ah, but you have forgotten the path upon which you now stand! Look at the detail with which these stones were laid! Look at how none jut up to impede our walk, and observe how clear of debris they remain!”
The visitor smiled, “Ah, but surely you don’t think that someone took the time to lay out these stones, just as perfectly as if they had lain in the bottom of a creek! Yes, a creek, for that is what I say these paths are. Nothing more.”
Perhaps these paths were no more than creek beds. The animals that wandered through these forests had their own paths, and these could have been formed by none other than the guests who came to admire them! Our local looked a fair bit more troubled as he reached for his last handhold. “The fountains! You cannot surely say that these are the work of nature! She may be powerful, but does she make such things of beauty for no reason?”
The visitor contemplated for a moment before replying, ” yes, I agree, the fountains are curious. I have, however, seen such a thing before. See how they sit on the side of a hill, and see how the brush cleverly hides the flow! It is no more than a ploy of gravity, my friend. These fountains are no more than tiny waterfalls and miniature rapids. You would see the same thing, if you looked, on a such a larger scale, in the mountains surrounding us!”
And so, in the mind of some, the signature of the artist was gradually obscured. His work was credited to chance, or nature, and the park itself became known as a great place to see wonderful natural fountains, paths, and beautiful natural ornaments. Every once in a while, though, if one were to be quite still and to watch the park at night, he might observe a man come into the park and straiten the stones or pick up litter, and if the observer were even more vigilant, he might notice that the park itself never quite descended to a point of disarray, even though none of the locals kept it up.
The artist, though ignored, worked on his art.