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Since becoming a cop six years prior, I’d grown to dread the thirty-first day of October. I could no longer believe the holiday was simply a night of innocent fun. I’d been witness to desecrated graves and smashed pumpkins; violent bar brawls and deadly DUIs. The night gave liberty to all sorts of spooks and ghouls, not only encouraging them to come out and play but practically daring them not to.
I was also a parent, though, and slowly learning that Halloween was a night I needed to tolerate, if not someday even embrace. My daughter, Grace, was nearly a year old and already she was captivated by the glowing pumpkins and toddler-size spider webs that adorned front porches and yards all over town.
Luckily, because Grace was so young, my fiancé, Brody Sutherland, and I still had full control over what she wore. He wanted to dress her as a witch, while I was leaning toward a cute bunny. After a heated discussion in the back aisle of a costume shop on Colfax in Denver, where the three of us had gone for a quick weekend getaway in late September, we split the difference and paid forty bucks for a zombie llama costume.
It was as ridiculous as it sounded. By the time we got her ears on, Grace looked like a rabid camel. But I’m nothing if not stubborn and by God, we were going to get our money’s worth. Brody threw on an old monkey suit and I slipped a pair of cat ears over my dark hair and called it good.
We’d been out an hour; it was well past dusk and we were nearly done trick-or-treating. The sky had turned a violent deep purple, a shade of eggplant that seemed both ominous and watchful. The full moon was still low, gradually beginning its climb up past the clouds. We were lucky; though the forecast had predicted an early-morning snowfall, none had come and the night was merely cold instead of both cold and snowy.
Cedar Valley, like most mountain towns in Colorado, was both blessed and cursed with a population that was widely spread out; even our own nearest neighbors in the canyon were a good quarter mile away. And so, every Halloween, the town’s city council sponsored a Spooks’ Night Out. Up and down Main Street, merchants and shop clerks decorated their storefronts and competed to see who could give out the most coveted treats. This year, word on the street was that Old Man Brewer at the bookshop had a seemingly endless supply of full-size candy bars.
We reached the end of Main Street, where the businesses faded into stately residential homes and low-slung bungalows. Grace was sleepy, her eyes nearly shut.
It was quieter here, with the bulk of the trick-or-treaters still to the north.
Brody adjusted his monkey suit and moved Grace higher on his shoulder. “What do you say? It’s been a long evening.”
It had, but we had one more stop to make. “I promised Caleb we would come by. He’s dying to see Grace in costume. Anyway, it’s just up here.”
The small, tidy, single-story redbrick bungalow was set back from the street on a quarter-acre lot. A gleaming white Mercedes sedan, parked along the sidewalk, got an appreciative whistle from Brody. Together, we read the placard mounted on the black wrought-iron fence: Montgomery and Sons, Estate Planning and Legal Services, though I, and everyone in town, knew there were no sons to be found inside. There was only retired Judge Caleb Montgomery and a part-time paralegal who favored heavy gray cardigans, even in the heat of summer, and smelled, incongruously, of coconuts and tropical sunscreen.
We pushed open the gate, wincing as the rusty bolts screeched, and stepped onto a narrow path that led from the gate to the front door. Caleb, or most likely his wife, Edith, had lined the path with carved pumpkins. They glowed, lit from within by tea lights.
The door opened slowly as we reached the front porch. Caleb Montgomery greeted us with a smile and a bowl of hard butterscotch candies.
“Come in, come in!” he called softly, noting the nearly-sleeping Grace in Brody’s arms. “A rabid camel! How original! Wherever did you find a costume like that?”
I shrugged. “Colfax, of course.”
“Beautiful car, Caleb,” Brody said and shook the older man’s hand. “Early Christmas present?”
Caleb grinned. “You could call it that. A man’s got to live a little, right?”
The house was small; the front living area had been converted into a reception area, and the two bedrooms turned into Caleb’s office and an office for his paralegal. In the rear of the house, closed French doors likely led to a kitchen, bathroom, and perhaps a closet or two.
A small white dog dressed in a bee costume darted toward us. The dog’s bark was all Grace needed to perk up; she squealed with delight and then fussed in Brody’s arms until he relented and set her down. The dog fell over with happiness, squashed its tiny wings, and offered up its pale speckled belly for rubs.
“When did you get a dog?” I asked.
“I didn’t. It’s the neighbor’s, but Cricket—the dog—prefers to hang out with me. He’s highly intelligent that way. I’ll take him home before I leave for the night.”
We watched dog and baby play for a few moments, then Caleb cleared his throat. “May I speak to you a moment, Gemma? In private?”
He gestured to his office. I followed him, smiling at the white lab coat he wore. The retired judge had always reminded me of Albert Einstein, with his shock of white hair and matching mustache. The costume he wore now only served to reinforce the image. Once we were inside his office, Caleb gently closed the door and slipped into the enormous chair behind his desk. A slight man, he was nearly swallowed by the leather and brass-studded throne.
He rubbed at his face. “This life. It’s exhausting, isn’t it? When I was a kid, I was terrified of dying. Now, the thought of living forever is enough to make me want to scream. Mankind was created with an expiration date, and for good reason. Our hearts are too soft, our emotions too brittle to go on forever.”
I took a seat across from him in one of the two guest chairs. A single nine-by-twelve manila envelope lay on the mahogany desk and Caleb stared at it, falling silent. For the first time, I felt a sense of trepidation at what he might wish to discuss. It was unlike him to be especially morose or sentimental; seeing him this way was unsettling.
It was almost as though he were afraid.
I’d known Caleb most of my life, after all; he and my grandfather Buford “Bull” Weston had been colleagues and friends for decades. Both men had started their careers as attorneys and then moved into judgeships in Cedar Valley. Caleb was armed with an analytical mind and a sharp wit. Years in the courtroom had left him all too aware of the darkness that lies in the hearts of every one of us, but he was more likely to seek scientific explanations (nature versus nurture, that sort of thing) than find refuge in melancholy musings.
I realized suddenly that it had in fact been months since I’d seen Caleb or his wife. Perhaps there was something going on in their family, an illness or a financial worry.
I tried to lighten the mood. “You’re not getting soft on me, are you?”
Caleb smiled grimly. With the tip of his finger, he pushed the manila envelope across the desk to me. I picked it up, noting a tiny spot of blood at the edge of the flap.
“Nosebleed.” Caleb grew impatient. “I didn’t call you in to discuss my health, dear. There are letters in there, letters you should read. Though they might give you nightmares.” I didn’t bother telling him that come dark, nightmares were my most constant companion. I’d been living with them for years. Part of it stemmed from my work as a detective in Cedar Valley, work that had led me down bleak, hopeless roads. In my dreams I often found myself stuck on those same roads, traveling them over and over again, walking alongside the dead, the victimized. Never far behind us were the murderers, the rapists, the men and women who had black clouds in their heads and hearts.
And some of the nightmares had planted their seeds the terrible night my parents were killed in a car accident. Just a child, I was in the station wagon with them, and I knew the images and sounds from that night would stay with me forever, even as the days and years took me farther and farther from that time.
I glanced at the large manila envelope again. “I take it they’re not love notes?”
Caleb sighed. He slumped down even farther into the chair. “They’re threats. Death threats. It’s ridiculous—it’s been six months since I left the bench. I’m out of the game, I have no influence. My clients now are widows who want to amend their wills and bored divorcées looking to squeeze a few more pennies out of their ex-husbands. You make a threat if you want something done, an opinion swayed, a conviction overturned. Me? I’m powerless.”
“Did the threats start arriving before or after you left the bench?”
“Just after.” Caleb leaned forward and rested his hands on the desk. They were pale, like his hair, and as I saw now, like his face. He was a washed-out version of himself, a faded man.
It was a strange thought to have; Caleb was, to my knowledge, healthy. He wasn’t quite seventy, and while he carried an extra ten or fifteen pounds on his belly, he was an avid hiker and fly fisherman. The man before me looked as though he hadn’t seen the sun in weeks.
Caleb continued speaking. “The first letter showed up four, maybe five months ago, at the house. Since then, I’ve gotten one every couple of weeks.”
“Do you have gloves?” Not expecting to be involved in official business that night, I’d left my small evidence kit in the trunk of my car.
Caleb retrieved an old pair of leather driving gloves from a drawer in a file cabinet behind him. He handed them to me and as I slipped them on, I asked the obvious question.
“Why haven’t you turned these over the police?”
“This will sound crazy, but … well, they’re like a puzzle. There’s something so familiar about the words, the language, and yet it’s just out of my grasp. I guess I’ve been reluctant because I have to know who’s sending them. I have to know, Gemma. And I thought I could figure it out myself.”
I upturned the manila envelope on the desk, wondering just how ugly of a business I was about to step into.
Nine crisp business-size white envelopes slid out. I picked one at random and examined it, talking out loud, saying the things that Caleb was surely already aware of. “Typed address label, made out to you, no return contact information, the stamp is a sticker … We won’t get DNA from this. Looks like it originated in, or was routed through, Boulder. The envelope appears to have been opened with a letter opener.”
Caleb nodded. “It was an anniversary gift from Edith. She gave me a letter opener and I gave her a kitchen ice pick. See a theme there?”
“A fondness for sharp objects, apparently.” I slipped a folded white piece of paper out of the envelope and asked, “Has she seen these? Your wife?”
“Of course she has.” Caleb managed to snort and scowl at the same time. “You try keeping something a secret from that woman. I knew Edith was a pistol when I married her. I just didn’t expect her to become a cannon in her middle age.”
I smiled, knowing just what he meant. Edith was twenty years his junior, in her midfifties, and the very definition of a spitfire. She was notorious across town for her fiery outbursts, though usually they were done in the spirit of sticking up for the underdog or shaming a merchant for exorbitant prices.
From the other room, I heard Grace and Brody laugh at something. Then their giggles were overpowered by the shriek of a nearby trick-or-treater. As both sounds faded and quiet returned to the room, I was struck once more by the sense of fear, of tension, in the room.
I unfolded the paper and read the four sentences on it. I read the words again, slowly, then slipped the sheet of paper back into the envelope, moving quickly though I knew the futility of trying to put back something evil once it has been unleashed. The images evoked by the letter—Caleb, strung up like a skinned deer set to bleed out, vital organs scattered outside instead of nestled inside—made me sick to my core.
“They’re all like this?”
A weary nod from the retired judge.
Reluctantly, I read another of the letters. “This is … malignant. Twisted. You should have come to me sooner, Caleb. You know there are protocols for this sort of thing, procedures in place to protect people like you.”
“People like me?” He was breathing hard now, rubbing his hands over his eyes as though to wipe out the words on the papers I held.
“You know what I mean. Judges, prosecutors. The threats come with the territory, but that doesn’t mean we don’t take them seriously.” The clock on the wall chimed seven thirty, and from the other room, I heard Brody clear his throat. It was past Grace’s bedtime. She’d be hard to put down tonight, wired from the activities of the evening and the cinnamon doughnut she’d eaten as we strolled Main Street.
“Ah, for Pete’s sake. Someone or another has been angry at me my whole life, Gemma. You know the quality of people we deal with in law enforcement, in the courts. Look, I promised Edith I would turn the letters over to you. What you do with them now is your concern.”
“You’re really not worried?” Even though the fear in this room is heavy enough to be smothering?
“I never was in the past and I’m sure as hell not going to start worrying now. You know how many crackpots have threatened me over the years? On both sides of the court, too. Cops and crooks, accuser and accused, it’s a fine line that divides them, present company excluded, of course. You’re an easy target when you sit in the middle.” Caleb stood with a slight groan and rapped definitively on the desk with the knuckles of his right hand. “If someone wants to hurt me, they’ll find a way. What am I going to do, spend my sunset days playing golf in a disguise? Hiding out from the boogeyman in my own town? No. Screw ’em, I say.”
Caleb’s cavalier attitude made me uneasy, especially given that I was certain he was lying. I gathered the white envelopes back into the manila folder and tucked it under my arm. “I’ll let you know what I find out.”
“Fine.” He moved away from the desk, walking with a slight limp to his left leg. I remembered that he’d recently had surgery; knee or hip, I couldn’t recall. “You should get that little one home. It’s getting late. Nothing but trouble will be out on the streets soon.”
In the waiting room, Grace’s eyes were nearly shut. Brody glanced at the manila envelope in my arms but didn’t say anything other than goodbye to Caleb and the dog. He went ahead of me, taking our sleeping zombie llama back out into the night.
I gave Caleb a pat on the shoulder. “Are you headed home?”
He nodded, turned away toward his office. “In a few minutes. I’ve got to return Cricket and put a few files away.”
“Good night then, Caleb.”
“I’ll see you around, kid.”
Kid. I hadn’t been called kid in a long time.
“It’s Detective now, Caleb,” I called after him.
He stopped, turned, and saluted. “Yeah, right. I’ll see you around, Detective. And happy Halloween. Watch out for the monsters.”
* * *
The sky was still violet, though the moon had risen and was now high above us. We walked north, back to the car under the pale yellow orb, the glow of moonlight complementing the evenly spaced puddles of streetlight. As we reached the side road we’d parked on, a pack of teenagers in skeleton costumes rushed past us, pummeling one another with sacks of candy. They turned the corner, the sound of their voices and crazed laughter drifting away.
“Kids,” Brody whispered as he strapped Grace into her car seat. “That’ll be our baby in just a few short years. Heaven help us.”
“I don’t even want to think about it.”
In the driver’s seat, Brody moved away from the curb carefully, mindful of others still running about, and headed west. We’d gotten half a mile or so away when a terrible noise shattered the night. For a moment, I thought the world itself was ending; the noise had sounded as though somewhere a great rock had been torn asunder.
Brody pulled over. We stared at each other, the color draining from our faces. He said, “That was an explosion. A house maybe, or a car. Could be a gas leak.”
“You go.” My hand was already on the door. “Take Grace home. I’ll call as soon as I know anything. There could be people hurt, injuries. I might be able to help.”
Brody nodded, knowing it would be a waste of time to argue. His eyes pleaded with mine. “Be careful, Gemma. Listen, hear that? Sirens. The fire department is already on their way. They’ve got the gear, the training. Don’t go inside any structures, even if you think there’s someone trapped or hurt. You’ll put yourself and the fire personnel at risk.”
I nodded. “I love you.”
I was out of the car and jogging back toward Main Street by the time the first fire engine sped past me, its lights and sirens piercing the darkness. I watched as it drove by the bulk of the shops and kept going, toward the south end of the street.
Toward Caleb Montgomery’s law offices.
I sprinted, cursing the heavy layers I’d worn to keep out the evening’s chill. It was a Monday, and with school the next day, many of the families had already called it a night. But a fair number of older teens and adults still roamed the town, the adults taking advantage of the holiday to tuck into a few more drinks at the bars and the teens taking advantage of a one-night-only license to claim Cedar Valley as their own.
Now, though, everyone I passed had stopped, their faces wearing equal masks of horror and confusion, their heads cocked in anticipation of further explosions.
I slowed down as I reached the end of Main Street, then stopped completely, in total disbelief at what I was seeing. Caleb Montgomery’s white Mercedes no longer existed. In its place was an inferno of fire and smoke. And all around it, a beehive of activity had commenced; the fire personnel raced to get water on the flames and a set of paramedics stared openmouthed at the site of the blast.
And Caleb himself?
I nearly retched as the realization hit me that his was likely the body in the driver’s seat. I looked away though I knew the images—charred skin, a formless shape more mass than human—would stay with me forever.
Flames continued to dance at the edge of my vision and I pressed the heels of my hands to my eyes, willing this to be some kind of terrible, sick practical joke. A gruesome Halloween trick concocted by a madman.
It was an empty wish, of course. This was real, as real as the heat of the fire and the smell of the smoke, the smell of other … things burning.
Copyright © 2019 by Emily Littlejohn