By J Thomas Fussell
Chapter 20: The Detectives Return to Silent Glade
“God, will we ever be done with this place?” Nina asked as she and Del stepped out of her car which was once again parked on the Eastman’s driveway.
“I kind of like it here,” Del said. “I mean look around. Spring has definitely sprung here earlier than the rest of the state. On the other hand, the upkeep must be hell.” He pointed at the vine covered western wall of the Eastman house facing Mary Sue’s cottage through the trees. “That wall didn’t have a single vine on it last week. Those vines must have grown a foot a day.”
Nina raised her eyebrow in surprise, but she had heard of vines growing that much in the right conditions. “Is it Kudzu or something?”
“No. I call that yard vine. People were crazy about filling their gardens with it in the seventies and eighties. It does grow fast, but a foot a day is amazing. I bet they grow prize vegetables here year-round.”
“You can have it. I’ll take East Nashville and downtown Franklin any day of the week, even with the influx of millennial families.”
“What’s going on down the street?” Del asked, changing the subject. He could see a police car in front of Tara and Cindi-Lin Dixon’s place at 005.
Nina looked at her pad, typed for a moment with one hand, and said, “Looks like some kind of animal disturbance.” She raised one eyebrow and grimaced. “Looks like the ladies woke up to an opossum and snake invasion.”
“Interesting,” Del said. “Possum probably chased that snake into the house through an animal door or something.”
“What are you going on about?”
“Possums’ love snake. It’s one of their favorite meals,” Del said.
“Uh-huh,” Nina said unconvinced.
Del winked at her; this was not why they were here. Nina had finally spoken with Larissa, if only briefly. The poor kid lost both of her parents in a week and the detective who had found her mother’s body was the last person she wanted to hear from. As it turned out, the responsibility for burning the eyes out of the family picture with a laser fell to her. She “borrowed” the laser from school, even got a reprimand for it and had to serve detention. She knew nothing of Amy’s participation in the Discipline Room and believed she and her mother were both victims – and so they were to a point. Nina felt no need to dissuade her of that belief and hoped the girl would never find out all the sordid details. Her world had been shattered enough. Regardless, the pictures alteration had been Larissa lashing out at her father with all of her blossoming pre-teen angst. She had been disappointed of course; neither Tom or Amy ever noticed. She returned the laser to school two days after using it at home and showing Julia Hunter how to pop balloons.
Nina and Del now had a fairly large problem. Their case against Tom Eastman appeared to be falling apart. The entire Eastman drama had begun to look more and more like a coincidence of timing and nothing more. The discipline room and the photos of Beverly were Amy’s doing. The photo, Del’s first “official” clue, turned out to be nothing more than a kid’s emotional response to household abuse. Unless Amy’s suicide note turned out be true, and she had driven her husband over the edge – or they were able to find some other clue today – Tom Eastman would no longer be considered more than a person of interest. They would be back to square one and no closer to discovering who committed the assault of Beverly Hernandez. Truth be told, the trail of the real perp would be two weeks older, and short of a confession or another similar crime, the likelihood of finding the actual attacker would be very low.
They had returned to look for clues one more time. If nothing was found today, they would have to move on. Someone else would be put on the crimes of Tom Eastman and why he had keys to the neighbor’s houses in a closet. In fact, it was possible they might get reassigned altogether. With those sobering thoughts in mind, the detectives made their way to the front door, removed the police tape, and let themselves in.
The musty smell of mold and decay tickled Del’s sinuses. His sudden loud sneeze echoed through the empty house and startled Nina.
“Is that necessary?” She asked.
“Allergies,” he said with a wheeze as if that explained the volume. “This place has really gone to seed.” He pulled out a pocket handkerchief and put it to his nose.
Black mold covered the bottom of most walls and spread outward across carpeted floors. Wallpaper curled up from the baseboards as if trying to escape the encroaching invasion. Two windows on the second-floor had been broken by tree limbs that had somehow grown into the rooms in less than two weeks.
“What happened here?” Nina asked appalled at the damage done in so short a time.
“No idea.” Del said, bending to study the mold at the baseboards. “I’m not sure we should be in here. This black mold is bad stuff.”
“Okay. Let’s give it a once over and get out. With this kind of weathering I doubt we will find anything useful.”
Officer Ollie Brown stepped outside the house at 005 Silent Glade Drive and stepped around the side for a smoke. A gentle spring breeze stirred around him as he lit up. He should have quit when his father died of cancer three years ago. He had promised the man on his deathbed that he would, and he meant to, but the time had never been right. Life always added one stressor or another, and cigarettes never let him down when he needed stress relief.
He took a deep drag and blew it out slowly. What a fiasco this had been. The opossums were supposed to be easy, at least that is what the guys at the precinct said. “Just grab them by the tail, carry them outside and toss them in the woods behind the house, no problem,” they said. But in the end, neither he or his partner, Officer Tonya Carlin, had been willing to grab the hissing beasts. The needle-sharp fangs looked far too menacing for such a rash act. Instead, with a little help from the homeowners and a couple of brooms, they chased the two marsupials out the backdoor.
The snake was a bigger problem. They found the big bastard, but again nobody was willing to reach back into the cabinet and grab it. And so far, the reptile had ignored all prodding with the broom. Now they waited patiently for animal control. Tonya was inside talking with the homeowners, trying to figure out how the animals had gotten inside in the first place. The cat door had been bolted from the inside for the last six months. Tara’s cat died of old age around then and a new pet had not been found. Ollie shuddered. Hopefully, Tonya was keeping an eye on the snake. He did not relish the idea of having to look for it. He hated snakes and already expected to have nightmares about this for weeks.
Wind blew down the hill from the south, south-east. It felt good as it rifled his hair and fluttered through his shirt. He took a deep breath. The sweet, sickly smell of rot and death drifted past his nose. He knew the smell all too well; something must have died nearby. He held his cigarette behind him and tried to orient on the smell. It seemed to be coming from the general vicinity of the next-door neighbor’s house in 003. He took one more drag, stubbed the cigarette out on his heel, and tossed the half-smoked butt into the yard.
As Ollie walked up the hill toward the Stanton residence, he called Tonya on the walkie-talkie and said, “I smell something dead out here. I’m going to walk up the hill and see if I see anything. Probably just a deer or somebody’s dog. Copy?”
“Got you and gross,” Tonya replied. “Hope you don’t find anything.”
He did not think he would be so lucky. The smell grew stronger as Ollie climbed the hill, and before long, he knew the smell emanated from the house at 003. There were no lights on that he could see – nobody at home maybe. Hopefully the smell he detected was rotting food or a dead pet, and not a person. He wondered briefly if he should call it in, but decided against it, at least not right away.
Oliver touched his radio and said, “Definitely something dead out here. It appears to be coming from the neighbor’s house. Can you get a name for me?”
Tonya said, “Copy,” and then was quiet for a moment. She had his answer when she spoke again. “Fred and Leroy Stanton, a father and son. Should I call it in?”
“Not yet. Will advise. Going to see if they are home first.”
The smell was stronger still at the front door. Ollie knocked and called out, “Mr. Stanton, this is Officer Brown with the Franklin PD. Please come to the door.”
He knocked again and said, “Fred, Leroy. Is anybody home?”
He peered in the front window and saw someone disappear around a corner. His mouth suddenly went dry. Something did not feel right. He reached to call his partner when his radio blared to life and he nearly jumped off the porch. He completely missed what Tonya told him.
“Say again,” Ollie said, pressing the button.
“The ladies here advise me that Leroy has a mental condition and Fred is in a wheelchair. They may not be able to answer the door if there’s a problem.”
“Thanks Tonya. You may want to call this in after all. I’m going to check and see if the door’s unlocked. They may need help. Over.”
Next door, the animal control van pulled into the driveway. Ollie waved to the driver and pointed at the front door of the Dixon house and turned back to the task at hand.
He tried the front door and found it locked. Stepping off the porch, he made his way around the house to the backyard and found a patio with a backdoor on the house that led into the kitchen. The screen door was closed, but the door behind it stood open. The smell of rot and death blew from the house in a wave of nauseating odors that left no doubt that what he smelled was a dead body.
“This is the Franklin PD. Fred Stanton. Leroy Stanton. Is anybody home?” He called into the open door.
The house remained silent, except for mumblings heard from deep within.
Ollie checked the screen door; it was unlocked. He pulled it open and stepped inside. The overpowering odor made him gag and he shoved an arm across his nose. The mumblings clarified into the sound of a TV and drew him through the kitchen and across the living room. He followed the sound to a bonus room above the garage.
The bodies of Fred and Leroy Stanton had been placed side by side on a sofa which had been turned to face the door instead of the TV. Fred’s arm had been put around Leroy’s shoulders. Both men leaned into each other and might have been asleep, if not for the flies landing on their upturned faces and the blood-soaked clothing now dried into clumps and folds covering their bodies. It only took a moment for Ollie to take in the horrific scene. He reached up to press the button on his radio and call his partner when a hand wrapped around his forehead from behind and pulled his head back and down onto the razor-sharp blade of Tom Eastman’s knife. He twitched once and then fell still.
Del started coughing on the second floor of the Eastman house and could not stop. He had no choice but to leave Nina to it and moved outside as quickly as he could. The further away from the Eastman’s house he could get the better. He had never seen a mold infestation take hold so quickly. On what kind of forest had this neighborhood been built? Roots had already torn into the basement of the house. It was as if the forest realized this house was vacant and had come to claim it for its own. He hacked and coughed as he tried to work out how this could be happening. It just didn’t make sense.
Ten minutes later, Nina found Del coughing still and sitting in her car with the AC on. Thankfully, the mold did not have the same effect on her, but the air did smell better outside and she hoped she had not breathed any dangerous spores. She glanced down the street and was shocked to see six police cars at the end of the street with lights flashing instead of the one that had been there when they went inside.
“That’s quite the animal disturbance,” Nina said.
“What?” Del wheezed.
Nina nodded towards the bottom of the hill. She pulled out her phone and called dispatch.
Del could barely make out what was going on through the trees. If it were any closer to summer, he doubted he would be able to see the houses at all. Fortunately, they had the high ground and he had a pretty good view.
He coughed a couple of times into his arm and sneezed again, then said, “That’s a different house than earlier. I believe that’s where the Stanton’s lived. I’m still thinking about that mug you know. I think, ‘You are one big bitch’ will make an excellent designer coffee cup. I could put a heart and maybe the little monster from his shirt….” He trailed off; Nina wasn’t listening. As he watched the scene below, several officers were moving towards the house from the front. Another pair slid around to the side and he lost sight of them. A single officer moved from the back of the house, up the hill, and disappeared into the woods. Another pair stood behind the cars watching the front of the house. One of the neighbors, a middle-aged lady with church-lady brown hair, seemed to be arguing with one of the officers behind the car.
Del turned back to Nina. “I see. It does appear they have a situation down there. Should we assist?”
Nina nodded gravely as she hung up her phone. “Three dead. Both of the Stanton men and a Franklin police officer. Officer Craig is in charge. We are to report to him and assist in any way we can to secure the area. Once the all clear is given, we take charge and investigate the scene. Let’s leave the car here.”
When they arrived at the scene, the officer speaking with the neighbor was losing his patience. He said, “Ma’am, I have asked you nicely to go back to your home. This is an active crime scene. I won’t ask you again.”
The officer turned on them next. “As I told your neighbor, Mrs. Blanchard here, this area is not safe. Please go back to your home.”
“TBI,” Nina flipped out her badge. “I’m Detective Houle; this is Detective Fuller.”
“Damn, when they said you guys were in the neighborhood, I didn’t think they meant this neighborhood. I’m Officer Wade Craig.”
Kathy Blanchard had not moved. She said, “You two investigated Beverly’s attack didn’t you? I saw you checking from house to house. You didn’t talk with me though. And that was a mistake. I hope you do a better job this time. A woman can’t even feel safe in her own neighborhood.”
“Mike,” Wade pointed to the officer watching the front of the house. “Get this lady back to her home and out of my way. In fact, find Danny and secure the neighborhood. Everyone needs to stay inside, until we clear the area.” He turned back to the detectives.
“Well,” Kathy stammered. “I’ve never been treated so rudely in all my life. I don’t need an escort. I can find my own way home, thank you very much.” She turned with a harrumph and began marching up the middle of the street. When she got up to the Thompson’s house at 004, she glanced over her shoulder and saw that the cops were no longer paying attention to her. She turned into Ethel’s driveway. Fat chance she was going to go all the way home. She climbed the steps to Ethel’s front porch and sat herself in the glider swing. Ethel wouldn’t care; besides she was still at the hospital with Barry, the poor dear. From here, she had a commanding view of the entire scene. The only way it could be more perfect is if she had a nice tall glass of ice tea.
Nina and Del did not have long to wait. The all clear on the house came only a few moments after Kathy left. Apparently, the killer had escaped. Officers fanned out into the woods behind the house, but it quickly became apparent that a K9 unit would be necessary for any real tracking. A helicopter had already been dispatched and would be their eyes in the sky within moments.
“The house is all yours, detectives. Could this have been your boy, Tom Eastman?” Officer Craig asked before leaving Nina and Del to the grizzly task of investigating the scene.
“Hard to say. He was last spotted at the Texas – Mexico border, but…” Nina answered with a shrug. The knot in her stomach said different.
“Okay. I’ve sent his mug shot to the team just in case. Let me know if you find anything.”
Del and Nina entered the home through the front door. The overpowering smell of decay led them straight to the bonus room where they found the killer’s handiwork. The corpses of Fred and Leroy Stanton and Officer Ollie Brown had all been stripped of their clothing down to their underwear and piled unceremoniously onto the couch. Flies buzzed lazily about the room, fat and gorged on gore. The rest of the room had been trashed, and right then, without any other facts to back it up, they knew Tom Eastman had returned.