By J Thomas Fussell
Chapter 12: Confusing the Detectives
Tom Eastman ran south in an old 1978 Mercedes-Benz 300D. The car had been hidden in a lot near his old business in downtown Franklin for the last few months. No way was he going to let the bank have “The Shit”. She was escape plan-A should the need ever arise, and sure has shit, it had. Nobody, not even Amy, knew about the Mercedes, and that was just the way he wanted it. “The Shit” received its moniker due to its faded brown-maroon coloration which had as much rust as remaining paint. The torn leather seats needed to be recovered, but he had never gotten around to it. Now a faded blue blanket was all that protected Tom’s rear from the springs poking out of the seats. The car looked like hell, but “The Shit” ran like a dream, most of the time anyway. For what he planned, the car would be perfect.
He had to get the hell out of Dodge, and that was no joke. A car was not the only thing he needed though, he needed money. Unsurprisingly, Tom had a secret stash too. He believed a man should be able to go at a moment’s notice. A man never knew what was going to happen in life, so hope for the best but plan for the worst. On his way out of town, he stopped at a small storage facility in Nolensville, TN and collected five thousand dollars in small bills, a SIG Sauer P220 pistol that he had bought from a pawn shop two days after he had been told he could not have a gun at home due to a domestic dispute, a large eight-inch hunting knife, a punch dagger with a three-inch blade he could put in his back pocket, and a carefully crafted driver’s license naming him Robert James Westmorland. His spare keys were also in this storage shed. He was nobody’s fool. Did they think he would have only one set of the keys it had taken him almost a year to collect? No sir, not him. Each was marked with a small number on the grip one through twelve. There was no doubt the cops would warn the neighbors once they opened his closet. But unless they changed the keys for everyone themselves, it was unlikely all the locks would be changed before he returned, and he would return.
As he drove south, Tom ruminated over the situation, and he didn’t like it one bit. No sir. And if that wife of his thought he was gone for good, well she had another thing coming. He was just getting started. There would be no more Mr. Nice Guy. Hell no. Now she would have to deal with him on his terms. No more collars, not for him, no sir. She thinks she can run him off from his house? His fucking house? He paid good money for that house. No, that would not do. A man’s home is his castle, and his home had been undefended for too long. Oh yes, he would show her most of all.
Then, there was the little issue of the girl next door. He didn’t know where she had come from, but that little bitch had gotten into his head, and he didn’t like that one bit either. Oh, when he got back, the two of them would have another little talk. They would talk about where the fuck her house had come from, and then why she thought she could mess around on him with that old asshole across the street. Who the hell did she think she was? Tom Eastman expected his side women to be faithful. Just the thought of that ticked him off even more.
And Larissa, he did not even want to think about her. His own offspring, sprung from his loins – His! – just popped him in the face like she didn’t even love him. How could that be? He had never been anything but kind to that little shit. But then again, she had been crying after. Maybe there was hope for her yet. He would have to think about that some more. Maybe when the grinding pain in his jaw stopped, he could think rationally about her punishment.
Eventually the cops would get on his tail. In fact, he counted on it. He could not run forever. But maybe if he were lucky, he could throw them off. He swapped plates in south Alabama with a car he found on the side of the road and then turned west along the coast. He avoided areas with cameras as best he could for the first two days, taking backroads wherever possible. On the third day, when he was deep in the state of Texas, he began looking for cameras. He didn’t want to look like he was looking for cameras, but he wanted to be seen. This was the crucial part of his plan. He had to be careful. If he were caught now it was all over, and Tom Eastman would be in prison for a very long time.
The assault of Beverly Hernandez had quickly become one of the strangest cases either Nina or Del had ever worked. At first, it seemed open-and-shut; but clearly, they did not understand the full picture. Tom Eastman was still their number one suspect, but something didn’t feel right, and they began to question what little evidence they had.
The day after they left Silent Glade, both Nina and Del came down with a forty-eight-hour stomach bug which left them both drained and weak. They both ate at the same steak restaurant after leaving the scene, so food poisoning seemed the likely culprit. Nina called it in but had not yet heard whether other patrons had come down sick. Three days went by in a flash of bathroom nightmares that both preferred to forget.
Nina recovered first and was at work a full day before Del. She decided to visit Amy Eastman and ask her what she knew about the photos and keys. If she had to bring her in, she would, but she hoped Amy would clear it all up. To Nina’s chagrin, Amy Eastman left the women’s shelter the day after she was dropped off. She left no forwarding address and wasn’t answering her phone. Damn, that did not make their job any easier. Amy must not be thinking rationally, or perhaps they did not understand the full picture. It was looking more and more like that was the case. There was no telling what Amy might do from here. This was not Nina’s first domestic assault though, so this was not entirely unexpected. Over the years, she had seen just about everything. Unfortunately, she would not be surprised to find Amy and Tom together when they were found. Nina just hoped they were both still alive. She sighed. She couldn’t just let it go though, not with that little girl involved.
Perhaps Julia Hunter would know something. Nina tried Julia’s number. No answer. She left a message, asking Julia to call as soon as possible. She tried the hospital next but was not surprised to discover Julia had been released that morning. A house call might be in order, but not today. She still did not feel one hundred percent. It might be prudent to spend the day at her desk with the necessary facilities nearby, just in case. Besides, Julia needed sleep, not a detective reminding her of the cause of her pain.
Unlike Nina, Del was in no hurry to leave his house – or his bathroom – even though the worst had passed. He wasn’t entirely sold on the food poisoning idea; something else had to be wrong. He had eaten at that same steakhouse dozens of times. They had not even had the same meals. Maybe it was something else like bad donuts, or, or… Something else, but it would not come. Something they had both… he didn’t know, couldn’t get to it. Like the name of a singer he’d known his whole life, but for some reason, when someone asks, he can’t get to it. He let it go for now. The answer would come back in its own time. Besides, he had other things to keep him busy.
He sat down at his desk, pushed a few files out of the way, and tossed an empty bag of chips into the floor. He moved the mouse, and the computer sprang to life. After a few minutes, he logged into work and pulled up the forensic files on Beverly Hernandez and the Eastman house. He wanted to see the results of the family photo where the eyes of Amy and Larissa Eastman had been burned out.
Yesterday, while still in the throes of the mystery illness, he had gotten a chill and lit his fireplace to warm his bones. In a nearby closet, he kept a box of old bills and other things that he preferred to burn instead of throw away. He pulled a few out and began tossing them in the fire. The heat the pages threw off felt heavenly. As he watched, fire burned through the middle of several pages instead of from the edge. In all cases, irregular edges were burned around the hole when the fire breached the paper. It struck him as odd. In the photo, the eyes had been burned out in perfect little holes. The faces of the subjects in the picture had not even been half-charred; instead the holes were little circles with tiny radiating edges. It had fascinated his fevered mind, and for a moment, he forgot he was sick. He wanted to reproduce what he had seen and tried several methods to do so, but the pattern on the Eastman photo eluded him. He tried a lighter with no luck. Then he tried matches, none of which even remotely worked until he discovered he could get close by blowing the match out first. Next, he tried a large magnifying glass that he had in his study which got surprisingly close to the pattern on the photo, but still, not exactly right. One more idea struck him, and he pulled down an old box from his closet which contained a wood-burning tool. He plugged it in but never got a chance to try it. The tool had an electrical short in the handle, and when he grabbed it, Del got a few seconds of a sustained one hundred twenty volts which triggered a gut reaction that sent him scrambling for the bathroom The whole thing was hilarious, and he laughed heartily at himself, but didn’t think he would ever tell anyone. That would just have to go in his daily journal to be discovered after his death. Suffice to say, he was glad to find the email this morning that stated the lab results had come in. After a good night’s rest, he had a good idea what he would find, and he was right.
He flipped to the results on the photo. The lab suggested the holes were punched with a high energy pulse laser like one used to engrave or cut. The picture had been covered in a glass pane, so it may or may not have been removed before the eyes were burned. Unfortunately, it had been wiped down or cleaned, so there was no way to tell who handled it last.
Where had Mr. Eastman gotten a high energy pulse laser? His shop maybe? Del made a note to check it out and read on through the forensic notes.
They had pulled three distinct prints and DNA samples from the Eastman house, and then crossed checked against Amy Eastman’s and Larissa’s samples taken at the hospital. The third prominent set had to be Tom Eastman’s, and that was verified by previous police records. None of the prints from the Eastman house had been found on Beverly Hernandez or in the vicinity of where she had been found. Another unexpected finding was that the DNA samples taken from the whips and collar in the discipline room belonged to Tom Eastman. The exercise equipment had seen regular cleaning, but a few prints had been found, all of them belonged to Amy Eastman. Del scratched his head. He could not put that picture together in his head. Maybe he was still tired. He made a note. Fortunately, he knew someone to call.
He moved on to the notes about Beverly Hernandez. There was not much new here that he had not seen in the initial report, but two things caught his eye. The first and most shocking was that Beverly had been released to her husband and taken home yesterday afternoon. Why in God’s name would Mr. Hernandez have done that? The main suspect was still on the loose, and the poor woman had not even had time to heal. Secondly, the doctors had found several thin splinters in the walls of her empty eye-sockets. In addition, small bits of a wood-like substance had been collected from her garments. These had now been analyzed, and in a first in his career, the samples were completely unidentifiable. The lab techs suggested the samples might have been dipped in acid or some other caustic, because the cells appeared to be stripped of all normal markers. No DNA of any sort had been found. The report claimed to rule out any native plant or fungal life with about an eighty percent accuracy. Based on the cell shape, the closest living relative would be a primitive fern of some sort, perhaps even aquatic.
Del sighed and closed the folder. What the hell was all this nonsense? Nothing was adding up. What were they missing? He closed his eyes and rubbed his sweating head. He stood up from his desk, took three steps and then lay down on the daybed in his office. He quickly fell into a fitful sleep where dreams of a nameless monster chased him through a thick forest of grasping vines. A creature so terrible he dared not even glance over his shoulder to see if the creature was gaining lest his mind be forfeit. He could feel its breath on his neck and smell the noxious odor of its rotten breath. The creature began to scream…
Del leapt from the couch in full panic only to discover his cell phone ringing next to his bed. He glanced at the clock – 10 PM. He had slept for over six hours.
His phone identified Nina as the caller. He answered and said, “Hey lady, that’s the last time I ask you for a steak.”
“Yeah? I seriously doubt that. We have a lead. Tom Eastman’s car was found in south Texas near the border. Looks like our boy ran south. That sure doesn’t help his case if he isn’t guilty.”
“Damn. I must be getting old. I would’ve guessed him to stay close. Doesn’t fit the profile I was building.”
“Didn’t say they had him. So, who knows?” Her voice softened, “How’re you feeling old man?”
Del grunted, “Spent, but nothing a good night’s sleep won’t fix. You up for breakfast tomorrow? I’ve been going over the lab work. We need to catch up.”
Tom arrived at the Mexican border and threw his plan into action. He posed as an independent militiaman named Robert J. Westmorland – Bob to his friends – who just wanted to protect the border from illegal immigrants. The guard to whom he spoke chastised him for trying to work outside the law but pointed him in the right direction nonetheless. Tom guessed the guard had simply been repeating a canned speech. He knew those border guards wanted the help and felt like they really would not care in the slightest if a few border-crossers got shot. As fun as that might be, he did not plan on staying around long enough to find out.
Once in the militia camp, Tom made sure he was seen by several people. He then drove the car down the border and out of sight. He ditched the car along the border wall between cameras and hiked north. He followed a map he had brought with him that showed the southern border in great detail. He had ditched his cell phone long ago. After about fifteen miles, he found a small border town right where the map showed. He found an abandoned gas station and broke in. Once inside, he shaved his head. Not just his head, but all facial hair as well, including his eyebrows. The hairless head was the perfect camouflage and would be all anyone could see and remember that saw him. He stayed the night in the gas station. In the morning, he bought an old Ford pickup off a Hispanic kid which got him all the way to Louisiana. There, he bought an old 1993 Nissan Sentra off a Cajun that took him the rest of the way home.
Even sitting in the woods, high on the hill above Oscar Jackson’s house, Silent Glade felt good to Tom. It had been less than a full week, but it felt like he hadn’t been home in months. Strange how stress stretched time in a person’s mind. Hell, his memories of the good times in his life could be compressed to the size of a mental thimble. Living on the edge, now that’s what makes a powerful memory. He stuck a piece of the beef jerky in his mouth. The salty hunk of leathery beef brought childhood memories of his father throwing him a bag of jerky with a wink. Jerky had been a staple item for dinner, especially when the old-man was left to feed him and his brothers. The drunk bastard had probably punched somebody later.
He put his binoculars to his face and peered at the neighborhood. From his vantage point several of the houses were completely out of view, but he could see the ones that mattered most to him.
His house sat still and empty. Police tape clung to the porch bannisters and crossed the door. He looked up and down the street, but could not see any cars that he didn’t recognize. Could the police have already given up? No sir. He didn’t believe that for a second. They had just taken the bait and thought he was in Mexico. No need to keep an officer on the street – plain clothes or otherwise – if the perp was out of the country. He might even be able to get in without getting caught, although he couldn’t think of a good enough reason to take the risk.
He shifted his attention to Mary Sue’s house. She was nowhere to be seen. No lights warmed the windows. That just would not do. No sir. He needed to see her. The need burned in the pit of his stomach the moment he crossed the ridge, like a silent Siren song calling him, urging him on. But no, he was not ready for her yet. There was the little issue of his rival. Oh, yes. Oscar would get what was coming to him. He studied Mary Sue’s house a few moments more. Was that movement in the window? Nothing. His eyes began to tear up and Tom realized he had not blinked in some time.
He lay the binoculars back in his lap and wiped his eyes on his sleeve. Another piece of jerky disappeared in his mouth, and he sat back to think. This would be a first for him. He had never killed before. Oh, he had hurt plenty of people, but he had never murdered anyone. As a concept, the act of murder did not bother him, but the reality might be a different story. If he messed it up, the whole shit show would come tumbling down around him, and that would be the end of that. Hell, he kind of expected to be caught eventually, if he were being honest with himself. That did not bother him much either. What would bother him was getting caught before he finished everything. So, how to go about it? Who first? And where the fuck was Amy and Larissa? There were too many loose ends. And killing? Was he, Tom Eastman, a killer?
Oscar’s house lay directly below him. Maybe, he would kill that old bastard first. He would go down there and…
“Hi, sugar. Miss me?”
Tom leaped to his feet. What the hell? How had Mary Sue gotten here without being seen? There was nobody there. He shook his head. Damn, maybe he needed to go see her first. A lascivious sneer lifted his lip as he thought about her.
“Now, now, Mr. Eastman, calm yourself. I’ll be waiting when the time is right,” Mary Sue crooned from somewhere behind him.
He spun around, ready to grab her around the waist and pull her close, but she was not there. The way she said “Mr. Eastman,” though, he liked that a lot. He said, “Why’re you playing coy with me, girl?”
“You have things to do, love. You cannot stay in the woods. You’ll be caught. You must find a place, and bide you time. Assuming you mean to do what must be done and take away our slow feed for a gluttonous feast. If this is the way it is to be, then so mote it be, but you must go about it properly.”
“What?” Tom had no idea what she meant.
“You need a place to lay low – just for a while. And it can’t be your house. Your house is forfeit already; besides, it’s being watched. When the patrols come through, they go there first. You need another place.”
Tom blinked. Her voice left little doubt of his plans. Of course he had to find a place to lay low. What? Did this cute little bitch think she was the boss of him? Of course he had to find a place, but where? He couldn’t go home obviously. He picked up his binoculars and looked for the first house on the street. The Patterson’s were off the road, but they had that damn Cocker Spaniel. There would be no sneaking up on that house. Not to mention, they had kids. He panned house to house with his binoculars. He didn’t know much about the new neighbors. He paused for a moment at the dykes’ house. Oh yes, he owed those bitches on principle alone. But no, not today. Didn’t feel right, but they would get theirs later.
“Oh yes, you can count on that ladies,” he whispered under his breath.
Then he spied the perfect house, and a wicked grin spread across his face. He said, “You’ll do just fine. No muss, no fuss.”
Leaves rustled nearby and, in their movements, Tom heard, “Yes! It is decided.”
A creeping shiver climbed his boots as if the ground beneath his feet shivered in some ecstatic eruption. He leaped aside, fearing a bizarre cave-in beneath his feet, and heard mocking laughter on the wind.
“Don’t laugh at me, you weird little bitch,” Tom spat.
The laughter followed him as he made his way down the hill to do what must be done. It wasn’t as if he really wanted to kill anyone, but he needed a house. He had always wanted to know what it was like, and it looked as if he would get his chance. A wicked sideways grinned crossed his features. There would never be a better time to learn.