Once Dormant – Blake Pierce

Gareth Ogden stood on the wide beach looking out over the Gulf of Mexico. The tide was out and the Gulf was calm—the water flat and the waves low. He saw a few seagulls silhouetted against the darkening sky and heard their tired cries over the sound of the waves. He took a puff of his cigarette and thought with a bitter smile … The gulls sound like they hate this weather too. He wasn’t sure why he’d even bothered to walk down here from his house. He used to enjoy the sounds and smells of the beach in the evening. Maybe it was just his age, but he found it hard to enjoy much of anything in this muggy heat. Summers were getting hotter than they ever used to. Even after dusk like this, the breeze off the water offered no relieving coolness, and the humidity was suffocating. He finished his cigarette and ground it into the sand with his foot. Then he turned away from the water to walk back across the waterfront drive toward his house, a weather-beaten structure that looked out over the old road and the desolate beach. As he trudged across the stretch of sand, Gareth thought of all the repairs he’d had to do on the house after the last hurricane, just a few years back. He’d had to rebuild the big front porch and stairs, and replace a lot of siding and roof shingles, but he’d been lucky that there was no serious structural damage. Amos Crites, who owned the houses on either side of Gareth’s, had been faced with almost complete rebuilding. That goddamn storm, he thought, swatting at a mosquito.

Property values had plummeted since then. He wished he could sell the house and get the hell out of Rushville, but nobody would pay enough for it. Gareth had lived in this town all his life, and he sure didn’t feel like it had done him any favors. As far as he was concerned, Rushville had been going downhill for a long time—at least ever since the interstate had passed it by. He could remember how it had been a thriving little summer tourist town before then, but those days were long gone. Gareth made his way through an opening in the slatted wooden sand fencing and walked onto the beachfront road. As he felt the soles of his shoes absorb heat from the pavement, he looked up at his house. Its first-floor windows were lit up and friendly … Almost like somebody lives there. Although “living” hardly seemed the word for Gareth’s own lonely existence. And thoughts of happier days—when his wife, Kay, was still alive and they were raising their daughter, Cathy—only made him feel more depressed.

As he walked along the sidewalk leading up to his house, Gareth glimpsed something through the screen door—a shadow moving around inside. Who might that be? he wondered. He wasn’t surprised that some visitor had let himself in. The front door was standing wide open and the screen door was unlatched. Gareth’s friends were pretty much free to come and go as they liked. “It’s a free country,” he liked to tell them. “Or so goes the rumor.” As he climbed the long crooked stairs up to his porch, Gareth figured the visitor might be Amos Crites. Maybe Amos had come over from where he lived on the other side of town to check out his properties along the beach. Gareth knew that nobody had rented either house for August, a notoriously hot and sticky month around here.

Yeah, I’ll bet that’s who it is, Gareth thought as he crossed the porch. Amos often stopped by like that to bitch and moan about things in general, and Gareth was glad to chime in with grumbling of his own. He supposed maybe he and Amos were a bad influence on each other that way … But hey, what are friends for? Gareth stood outside the doorway, shaking some sand off his sandals. “Hey, Amos,” he called out. “Grab yourself a beer from the fridge.” He expected Amos to call back … “Already got it.” But no reply came. Gareth guessed that maybe Amos was back in the kitchen, just now getting a beer. Or maybe he was just crankier than usual. That was fine with Gareth … Misery loves company, as they say.

Gareth opened the screen door and walked inside. “Hey, Amos, what’s up?” he called out. A flash of movement caught his peripheral vision. He turned and glimpsed a shadowy form silhouetted against the living room lamp. Whoever it was rushed at Gareth too fast for him to ask any questions. The figure raised an arm, and Gareth glimpsed a flash of steel. Something unspeakably hard crashed against his forehead, and then an explosion burst through his brain like shattering glass. Then there was nothing. CHAPTER ONE Morning sunlight was glistening on the waves as Samantha Kuehling drove the police car along the waterfront drive. Sitting next to her in the passenger seat, her partner, Dominic Wolfe, said … “I’ll believe it when I see it.

” Sam didn’t reply. Neither she nor Dominic yet knew just what “it” really was. But the truth was, she pretty much believed whatever it was already. She’d known fourteen-year-old Wyatt Hitt all his life. He could be ornery, just like any boy that age, but he wasn’t a liar. And he’d sounded downright hysterical when he’d called the police station a little while ago. He hadn’t made much sense, but he’d been pretty clear about one thing … Something happened to Gareth Ogden. Something bad. Beyond that, Sam didn’t know a single thing. And Dominic didn’t either.

As she parked the car in front of Gareth’s house, she saw that Wyatt was sitting at the bottom of the stairs that led up to the porch. Beside him was a cloth bag of undelivered newspapers. When Sam and Dominic got out of the car and walked over to him, the towheaded kid didn’t even look at them. He just kept staring straight ahead. Wyatt’s face was even paler than usual, and he was shivering, even though it was already getting to be a hot morning. He’s in shock, Sam realized. Dominic said to him, “Tell us what happened.” Wyatt sat upright at the sound of Dominic’s voice and looked back at him with glazed eyes. Then Wyatt stammered in a hoarse, frightened voice made worse by the changes of adolescence. “He—he’s in there, up in the house.

Mr. Ogden, I mean.” Then he stared off toward the Gulf again. Sam and Dominic looked at each other. She could tell by Dominic’s alarmed expression that this was starting to get real for him. Sam shuddered as she thought … I’ve got a feeling it’s about to get awfully real for both of us. She and Dominic climbed the steps and walked across the porch. When they looked through the screen door, they saw Gareth Ogden. Dominic staggered backward from the door. “Jesus Christ!” he yelped.

Ogden was lying on his back on the floor, his eyes and mouth wide open. He had some kind of open, bleeding wound on his forehead. Then Dominic wheeled back toward the stairs and yelled down at Wyatt … “What the hell happened? What did you do?” Feeling a bit surprised not to share Dominic’s panic, Sam touched his arm and quietly said, “He didn’t do anything, Dom. He’s just a kid. He’s just a paperboy.” Dominic shook her hand off and stormed back down the stairs. He hauled poor Wyatt to his feet. “Tell me!” Dominic yelled. “What did you do? Why?” Sam dashed down the stairs behind Dominic. She grabbed the hysterical cop and forcefully pulled him onto the lawn.

“Leave him alone, Dom,” Sam said. “Let me handle this, OK?” Dominic’s face looked as pale as Wyatt’s now, and he too was shivering with shock. He nodded mutely, and Sam walked back over to Wyatt and helped him sit down again. She crouched in front of him and touched him on the shoulder. She said, “It’s going to be OK, Wyatt. Just take a few slow breaths.” Poor Wyatt couldn’t follow her instructions. Instead, he seemed to be hyperventilating and sobbing at the same time. Wyatt managed to choke out, “I—I came by to deliver his newspaper and I found him in there.” Sam squinted at Wyatt, trying to make sense of this.

“Why did you go all the way up on Mr. Ogden’s porch?” she asked. “Couldn’t you just throw the paper up there from the yard?” Wyatt shrugged and said, “He gets—got mad when I do that. It made too much noise, he said, it woke him up. So he told me I had to come all the way up onto the porch—and I had to leave the paper between the screen door and the front door. Otherwise it would blow away, he said. So I always went up there and I was about to open the screen when I saw—” Wyatt gasped and groaned with shock for a moment, then added … “So I called you on my cell phone.” Sam patted him on the shoulder. “It’s going to be OK,” she said. “You did the right thing, calling the police.

Now you wait right here.” Wyatt looked at his bag. “But these papers—I’ve still got to deliver them.” Poor kid, Sam thought. He was obviously terribly confused. On top of that, some kind of misplaced guilt seemed to be kicking in as well. Sam guessed that this was a natural reaction. “You don’t have to do anything,” she said. “You’re not in trouble. Everything’s going to be OK.

Now just wait here, like I said.” She got up from the step and looked for Dominic, who was still standing dumbly in the yard with his mouth hanging open. Sam was starting to feel a little angry. Doesn’t he know he’s supposed to be a cop? She said to him, “Dom, come on. We’ve got to go up there and have a look at things.” Dom just stood there as if he were deaf and had no idea that she’d spoken. She spoke more sharply. “Dominic, come with me, damn it.” Dominic nodded dumbly, then followed her up the stairs and across the porch into the house. Gareth Ogden was lying spread-eagle on the floor, wearing sandals and shorts and a T-shirt.

The wound in his forehead looked strangely precise and symmetrical. Sam stooped down to get a better look. Still standing, Dominic stammered, “D-don’t touch anything.” Sam almost growled … “What do you think I am, an idiot?” What kind of cop didn’t know better than to be careful around this kind of a crime scene? But she looked up at Dominic and saw that he was still pale and trembling. What if he faints? she thought. She pointed to a nearby armchair and said, “Sit down, Dom.” Dominic mutely did as he was told. Sam wondered … Has he ever seen a dead body before? Her own experiences were limited to the open-casket funerals of her grandparents. Of course, this was completely different. Even so, Sam felt strangely calm and under control—almost as if she’d been preparing to deal with something like this for a long time.

Dominic obviously wasn’t feeling the same way. She peered closely at the wound in Ogden’s forehead. It looked a little bit like that big sinkhole that had collapsed under a country road near Rushville last year—a weird, gaping cavity that didn’t belong there. Weirder still, the skin seemed to be intact—not torn, but stretched into the exact shape of the object that had bashed against it. It took only a moment for Sam to realize what that object must have been. She said to Dominic, “Somebody hit him with a hammer.” Apparently feeling less squeamish now, Dominic got up from the chair and knelt beside Sam and looked closely at the corpse. “How do you know it was a hammer?” he asked. Half-realizing it sounded like a sick joke, Sam said … “I know my tools.” In fact, it was true.

When she was a little girl, her dad taught her more about tools than most of the boys in town learned in their whole lives. And the indentation of Ogden’s wound was the exact shape of the round tip of a perfectly ordinary hammer. The wound was too big to be made by, say, a ball peen hammer. Besides, it would have taken a heavier hammer to strike such a deadly single blow. A claw hammer or a rip hammer, she figured. One or the other. She said to Dominic, “I wonder how the killer got in here.” “Oh, I can tell you that,” Dominic said. “Ogden didn’t bother to lock his front door much, even when he was gone. He sometimes left it wide open at nights.

You know how the folks who live here along the waterfront drive are—dumb and trusting.” Sam found it sad to hear the words “dumb” and “trusting” in the same sentence like that. Why shouldn’t folks be able to leave their houses unlocked in a town like Rushville? There’d been no violent crime here for years. Well, they won’t be so trusting now, she thought. Sam said, “The question is, who did this?” Dominic shrugged and said, “Whoever it was, Ogden sure as hell looks like he was taken by surprise.” Studying the wild look on the corpse’s face, Sam silently agreed. Dominic added, “My guess is it was a total stranger, not somebody from around here. I mean, Ogden was mean, but nobody in town hated him that much. And nobody around here’s got the makings of a killer. It was probably some drifter who’s already come and gone.

We’ll be damned lucky to catch him.” The thought made Sam’s stomach sink. They couldn’t let something like this just happen right here in Rushville. We just can’t. Besides, she had a strong suspicion that Dominic was wrong. The killer wasn’t just some drifter passing through. Ogden had been murdered by someone who lived right around here. For one thing, Sam knew for a fact that this wasn’t the first time something had happened right here in Rushville. But she also knew that now was no time to start speculating. She said to Dominic, “You call Chief Crane.

I’ll call the county medical examiner.” Dominic nodded and took out his cell phone. Before she reached for hers, Sam wiped some sweat off her brow. It was already getting to be a hot day … And it’s going to get a whole lot hotter.

.

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