Read Death Falls Online

Authors: Todd Ritter

Death Falls (25 page)

They had reached the meadow and the fire pit again. Making their way back to the main cabin, Nick asked how easy it would have been to trespass onto the property in 1971. Craig shrugged his response.

“Not too difficult, I imagine. It’s a ways off from the main road, but easy to get to if you put your mind to it. And, of course, if you know where you’re going.”

Nick knew what he was getting at. Getting into the camp wasn’t hard. He had been able to do it with a bum knee and only one cup of coffee under his belt. Someone in better shape would have had an even easier go of it. But in order to reach Camp Crescent, you needed to be aware of its existence. That meant whoever took Dwight Halsey back in 1971 didn’t stumble upon the place by accident. He knew what it was, where it was, and, most important, what kind of potential victims were waiting there.

TWENTY-THREE

Norm Harper blew his nose, took a quick peek at his handkerchief to see what surprises it yielded, then stuffed it back into his shirt pocket. Old men could get away with such things. Norm was so old that he could do this mere inches above his early bird special and no one watching would bat an eye.

“Mort and Ruth Clark. I remember them. Good people.”

“So I’ve been told,” Kat said.

She was sitting across from Norm at the Perry Hollow Diner, two booths down from his usual spot in the corner. The other members of the Coffee Crew—five ancient men wearing plaid, khaki, and Aqua Velva—were still there, shooting Kat dirty looks because she had the nerve to pull away their perpetually disgruntled leader.

For his part, Norm didn’t seem to mind being culled from the herd. Judging from his blow and show earlier, he felt just as comfortable with her as he did with his friends. Kat wasn’t sure if this was a good thing.

“How well did you know them?” she asked.

“About as well as I know everyone in this town. You see them around. You make small talk. You hear gossip.”

“And what was the gossip about the Clarks?”

Norm picked up a fork and dug into his breakfast of eggs, bacon, and toast. “That Mort was a little bit paranoid.”

Kat had figured that one out for herself. Anyone who went to the trouble of building a bomb shelter beneath their yard worried too much.

“And Ruth?”

“Fine woman,” Norm said. “Made the best lemon meringue pie in the county, no question.”

Taking a sip of her coffee, she was beginning to regret initiating her chat with Norm Harper. So far, he had nothing new to offer, and her time could have been better spent elsewhere.

On James, for instance.

That morning had been the usual routine of rushing and bumbling. When Kat slapped together James’s lunch, she hoped it wouldn’t be for naught and that he’d be the one eating it that day. She even used a Magic Marker to scrawl his name on the brown paper bag, in the hopes it would deter any would-be thieves.

It ended up not mattering. After she dropped him off at school that morning, James repeated what he had done on Thursday. Kat didn’t witness it herself. James was too smart for that. So she pulled away quickly and let Lou van Sickle, who had also secretly parked at the curb, do the witnessing for her.

They met up in the diner parking lot, where Lou confirmed what Kat had feared—that James once again dropped his lunch in the trash before entering the building. He seemed resigned to the fact that the bullying would continue and that there was little Kat could do about it.

“I wouldn’t worry too much,” Lou told her before heading to the station for the day. “Boys will be boys.”

“But why do they have to be mean boys?” Kat said.

“Because,” Lou replied, “human nature dictates it.”

Yet Kat still felt that she had to intervene somehow. She knew James needed to learn how to fight his own battles. There’d come a day when she wouldn’t be around to fight them for him. But it pained her to know that while her son was being tormented at school, she was stuck at the diner watching Norm Harper slurp down a fried egg.

“So that’s all you remember?” she asked. “That Mort and Ruth were good people?”

“That’s about it. Shame about what happened to their daughter, though.”

A daughter. The word set off a reaction in Kat’s brain similar to the effect of a grenade tossed into water. At first, there was a light splash, in which she understood that’s who the third bunk in the bomb shelter had been reserved for. Then the detonation came, and a hundred different questions bubbled to the surface.

“Why didn’t you tell me the Clarks had a daughter?”

Norm dug into another egg. “You weren’t asking about her.”

“I am now. What was her name?”

Norm lifted the egg to his mouth and gulped it down, leaving a smear of Day-Glo yolk stuck to the corner of his mouth. Kat didn’t tell him about it for fear he’d use his already-soiled handkerchief to clean it away.

After he swallowed, Norm said, “Jennifer, I think.”

“Are you sure?”

“Pretty sure.”

“I need you to be certain,” Kat said.

Norm leaned out of the booth and called to his cronies in the corner. “Fellas, what was the name of the Clark girl?”

“Janice,” one of the old men replied. Another one said, “Janine.”

“It was Jennifer,” Norm said. “Certain of it.”

“And what happened to her?”

“She died, of course,” Norm replied, as if everyone knew this fact.

“How?”

“Poor thing drowned to death.”

“When?”

“Late fifty-nine, I think. This was down in Florida. The Keys. Word is she went out one morning for a dip in the ocean and never came back. They found her a few days later, washed on shore like a boat wreck. Poor thing. Barely nineteen.”

“Why was she in Florida?”

“She was living there for a spell,” Norm said. “With the Olmsteads.”

“Ken and Maggie Olmstead?”

“The very same. They all went down to Florida together in early fifty-nine. The Olmsteads returned that July after Jennifer died and Maggie had Charlie. They were real broken up about it.”

“I didn’t know they were close.”

“Maggie and Jennifer? They were like this,” Norm said, crossing his fingers. “As close as sisters.”

“And that’s all you know about her?”

Norm nodded. “It’s hard finding out much about those who die young. Their secrets tend to die with them.”

Kat had to agree. Whatever there was to know about Jennifer Clark had died either with her or with those she was close to. But there was another person living on that cul-de-sac who was still alive and kicking, but just as unknowable.

“What about Glenn Stewart?” she said. “What do you know about him?”

“Quite a bit,” Norm said. “We were friends for a spell. Attended the same church. Back before the war, of course. After the war, I don’t think anyone really got to know him.”

“Why do you think that is?”

“Most likely because he got shot in the head.”

“When was this?”

“In 1968, I think.” Norm grabbed a triangle of toast and slid a corner of it through a puddle of egg yolk on his plate. “The story differs with whoever’s doing the telling. I heard the Vietcong shot him during an ambush and I heard he shot himself after going crazy in the jungle. I can see how that place would drive you crazy, so I’m leaning toward the second version of events.”

“How did he survive?”

“He got lucky,” Norm said. “Or unlucky, depending on how you look at it. Either way, it left him looking pretty strange, which is why I think he doesn’t like to go outside anymore.”

“So you’ve seen him?” Kat asked.

Norm told her he had seen Glenn Stewart once since he returned home from Vietnam, which was one time more than most anyone else in Perry Hollow.

“It was right after he got back,” he said. “I stopped by one day. He let me inside, but only briefly.”

“How did he act?”

“Strange. But calm.”

Glenn Stewart was the same way when Kat had talked to him. Apparently, not a lot had changed in four decades.

“What did you two talk about?”

Norm shrugged as he took a sip of his coffee. “Small talk, at first. Who was still in town, who wasn’t. Then it got weird.”

“Weird how?”

“Well, he kept talking about the moon.”

A second grenade went off in Kat’s head, sending up another wave of questions. It was surprising that she didn’t have a headache. She was certain that one more information bomb would make her entire brain explode.

“The moon? What about it?”

“How great it was. How it, and not the sun, was the source of life on Earth. Crazy talk, really. But he said it with such seriousness that I knew he really believed it.”

“Believed what?”

“I’m not sure, exactly. Like I said, it was weird. I asked him if he’d be going back to church. He said no and started telling me about how he had changed beliefs while over in Vietnam.”

“Religious beliefs?” Kat asked.

“Yes. He said he met a few Vietnamese while recuperating and they converted him. He seemed in awe, too. Kept talking about—”

Kat knew what he was about to say. “A glorious enlightenment?”

Norm snapped his fingers. “That’s exactly right.”

Quickly, Kat grabbed her wallet and slapped a twenty on the table in front of Norm. It would pay for his breakfast and her coffee, with a big tip for their harried waitress. “I need to go,” she said. “Thanks for the information.”

“Find out everything you needed?” Norm asked.

Kat had, and then some. She now knew that Mort and Ruth Clark had a daughter, that the Olmsteads were there when she died, and that their neighbor, the elusive Glenn Stewart, most likely worshipped the moon.

The kitchen looked like it had been raided by a starving grizzly. When Eric entered it, he found the refrigerator door ajar, an overturned carton of juice dripping orange stickiness onto the linoleum. Two cupboards were open. So was the silverware drawer. Yet as far as Eric could tell, no food had been taken. His father’s target was the alcohol, and he had consumed—or spilled—every last drop.

Cleaning up the mess, Eric discovered an empty wine bottle rolling beneath the kitchen counter. A six-pack of beer he had purchased two days before had become a no-pack. All the liquor bottles his mother had left behind—most of them at least ten years old and containing only a few ounces of spirits—had been drained and lined up near the sink.

As for Ken, he was still asleep upstairs. Eric heard him stir only once, and that was to make a crazed dash to the bathroom, where some of what he had consumed during the night had come back to haunt him. Eric tried to ignore the noise as he went about cleaning the kitchen with a sad resignation only the children of alcoholics possessed.

Eric didn’t know what came first—Ken’s drinking or his divorce from Eric’s mother. By the time Eric was four, both had been well established. Growing up, Eric spent one miserable week each summer with his father. Every June, Ken would pick him up in his rig and whisk him to whatever trailer home or backwoods hovel he was staying in at the time. Always, there was a woman involved—trashy yet kindhearted gals who bleached their hair and liked a good time. Their names and their faces changed, but they were mostly the same.

Once the kitchen was in reasonably good shape, Eric stepped onto the front porch and lit a Parliament. As expected, his father’s rig was there.

Ken was too old to still be driving a truck for a living, yet that didn’t stop him. He said he couldn’t afford to retire, which was undoubtedly true. But pushing seventy-three, he couldn’t keep living a life on the highway much longer, either. Especially in an ancient rig like the one he owned.

Black with orange flames spreading across its sides, it was an unruly beast of a vehicle. Eric remembered going for a ride in it when he was younger. The noise, rumble, and sheer power of the rig had terrified him. Or maybe the fear came from the fact that he was pretty sure his dad had been half-lit while driving it. He suspected his dad drove that way a lot. Whenever Eric’s phone rang late at night, he immediately assumed it would be someone notifying him that Ken had finally killed himself that way.

That morning, however, the rig was parked neatly at the curb. Eric took it as a sign that his father had waited until coming inside to start his bender. There was some consolation to be had in that, no matter how small.

Eric took one last drag on his cigarette and prepared to head back inside. As he turned around, he accidentally kicked something that had been placed to the right of the door. It was a shoe box, similar to the one he had dug out of Glenn Stewart’s yard the night before. But this one was clean, covered not with dirt but with that morning’s mail.

Picking it up, Eric felt leery about opening yet another box. It was starting to feel like the whole investigation into his brother’s fate had been reduced to peering into box after box after box. Yet curiosity got the best of him—as it always did—and he lifted the lid.

Inside, he found a reel of film sliding around the bottom. Stuck to it was a Post-it note written in a feminine hand.

Turning around, Eric looked past the truck to the Santangelo residence across the street. He focused on the first-floor window that faced his own house. He now knew it was the room devoted to Lee Santangelo’s accomplishments, a bit of self-importance his mother would have found insufferable. And just behind the glass was the pale face of Becky Santangelo, staring back at him.

Under her watchful gaze, Eric picked up the box and carried it inside. Once he closed the door, he took another look at the note Mrs. Santangelo had attached to the film reel.

Your proof
, it read.
When you’re finished, burn it.

TWENTY-FOUR

The professor’s name, Luther Edmond Reid III, intimidated Kat. So did the fact that he taught at Princeton University. And that he was considered America’s leading expert on the religions of Southeast Asia. All of it—name, place, profession—conjured up images of a bearded man in a smoking jacket who read thousand-page books written in Sanskrit just for fun. When he answered his phone with a deep-voiced “
Namaste,
” Kat knew she was talking to someone far removed from Perry Hollow.

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