Note: This is the second of several installments from my latest work-in-progress, The Circle. If I knew how to make the copyright symbol on a MacBook keyboard, this is where you would find it. Don't steal my shit, man.
Barb Berry’s life sucked. All she wanted was a decent relationship with a guy with a decent-sized cock, no kids and no strong desire to get married, but all she ever seemed to get were married guys, tweakers and lesbians who assumed she was gay because she was a cop. She couldn’t avoid married guys because the world is full of them. The tweakers came with her job patrolling Mars Hill, a veritable fountain of bathtub crystal methamphetamine. The lesbians mistook her for a sister because there are precious few straight, single and hot 30-something females on any police department, let alone the Marion County Sheriff’s Department.
The night before Lillith Mendenhall’s appearance at Nettie’s front door, Barb tried and failed to replace a deputy prosecutor who forgot to tell her he was married. One guy at the club made a few minutes of small talk, then blurted out that he had an eight-ball as he pseudo suavely caressed her left tit. She pulled her sheriff’s badge out and watched him turn as white as the cocaine in the hip pocket of his too-tight blue jeans. She let him sweat for a moment before she retreated home to consume most of a bottle of vodka and watch Lifetime movies.
When Nettie called at 7:30 a.m., Barb was too miserable to resist her in her time of need. Nettie was more of a sister than a cousin. They were the same age. Their parents’ marriages were equally shitty and the divorces were worse. Their mothers each moved on to nicer guys who treated them slightly better, while the dads chased bar whores and drank too much. Nettie dealt with her father’s departure by trying to replace him with series of rednecks. Barb became a cop just like her dad.
The girls stayed close over the years. Nettie was always there to provide a shoulder for Barb to cry on when a relationship went bad. Barb, in turn, saved Nettie from a couple of her more abusive boyfriends and loaned her money from time-to-time.
After a quick stop to buy some aspirin and a fountain Coke, Barb found her way to Habig Road. Nettie was standing on her front porch.
“This better be good, Net,” Barb said as she eased out of her sheriff’s department cruiser, Oakleys effectively hiding her bloodshot eyes.
Nettie dashed up to the car. “You’re not gonna believe this, hon,” she said as she led Barb across the street. “Mrs. Mendenhall is layin’ over here on her kitchen floor, like she’s dead or something.”
Barb was trying to keep up with Nettie, but she wasn’t doing a very good job of it, what with the Sun trying hard to pierce those Oakleys.
Seeing Bobby standing by the Mendenhalls’ side door didn’t help to motivate her. Barb and Bobby didn’t get along at all. She didn’t like him for the same reasons she didn’t like any of the other guys Nettie ever got involved with: he lounged around the house, smoked pot, and forced Nettie to bartend at the Stingray, a smelly strip club featuring wretched, booze-and-drug addled dancers. Bobby didn’t like Barb because she was a cop, as well as the fact that she never hid her dislike of him. They grunted at one another, eliciting the same sigh from Nettie that she exhaled every time her cousin and her boyfriend were within the same vicinity.
“Barb, we’ve knocked on the door about 100 times and nobody’s answering,” Nettie said. She and Bobby stepped out of the way and let Barb look in the door window. Barb peered about, looking for any signs of life. Luckily, she didn’t detect the trademark stench of a week-old corpse. She went back to her car and got on the radio. Dispatch said that half the units on the road were working a three-car pileup on I-465; it would be an hour before another car could get free to get there.
Not wanting to stand around and hold Nettie’s hand for an hour, Barb advised the dispatcher that she would investigate. She had probable cause to break in the house. Once inside, she could call for EMS or the coroner. She called the south district watch commander on his cell phone and he quickly agreed to her plan. She ambled back over to the Mendenhall house.
“Okay, Net, I’m going in,” Barb said. “Try to keep the other neighbors away from the house.”
Barb threw her left elbow into one of the windowpanes on the side door, breaking right through it. She reached in and found the latch and chain easily enough. She opened the door just enough to stick her pretty head inside and look around. The view was the same as before. She inched her way in, 9mm clutched firmly in her right hand.
“Hello? Is anyone here? Marion County Sheriff’s Department I’m armed.” There was no answer. She looked up into the kitchen. She saw Mrs. Mendenhall laying flat on the floor, partly under the kitchen table. She crawled up the steps, keeping her head down in case someone was lurking around the corner. She crept into the kitchen, gun first, and saw no one but the old lady.
Barb stood up halfway, crouched over the old lady. She looked through into the great room and saw a matching arm chair and couch covered in rosy chenille, a bookcase cluttered with old photos, another large dining table, an old dial television on an older metal stand, and the front door. The walls and shelves were so full of crosses and icons that it looked like a Catholic supply store. Barb knelt down next to Mrs. Mendenhall’s head and faced the doorway to the basement and side door, as that seemed to be the only direction an intruder would come from. She felt the old woman’s right carotid artery. Her neck was cold and there was no pulse. Barb bent over further and pressed her left ear onto her subject’s chest -- no pulse and no breathing.
Barb looked over the body. There was a grimace etched on the lady’s face, and a bit of blood on the floor under her head. Barb glanced up and saw a slight crimson stain on the linen tablecloth hanging over the edge of the kitchen table.
“Ouch,” Barb muttered to herself.
Barb stood up and reholstered her gun. It was then she noticed the big purse lying on the table, its contents half-spilled out. There were keys, a pack of gum, an empty prescription bottle of Xanax, sunglasses, Kleenex tissues and a compact, but no wallet or change purse.
“Hey, Nettie, you can come in here now,” she called out. No sooner had she finished the sentence than her cousin’s head was poking in through the doorway. “Honey, don’t touch anything; just stay on the step there,” Barb ordered.
“Is she?” Nettie asked. Barb nodded, and Nettie started to weep.
“The meat wagon guys -- oh, I’m sorry, hon -- will be able to make a time of death, but I’m guessing she died sometime overnight,” Barb said.
Nettie wept and shook her head tentatively, unable to take her eyes off of her late neighbor. “Barb, that’s impossible,” she croaked.
“How do you figure, hon? She’s this close to rigor setting in,” Barb answered, pinching her left thumb and forefinger almost together.
Nettie looked up at Barb and countered, “Barb, Lillith was sitting in my living room not an hour ago. Bobby let her in the house. I went to get her some coffee and Bobby came over here to see if he could find Tommy. And even before that, she was knocking on the neighbors’ door trying to get help.”
Barb was stupefied. “Nettie, she’s ice cold. How could a dead woman knock on your door?”
Bobby poked his headway into doorway underneath Nettie. He was looking for a way into the conversation.
“Are you callin’ us liars,” Bobby demanded, “‘cause thats what it sounds like.” Nettie covered her face.
Barb rolled her eyes. She walked over to them and ushered them back out of the house. The driveway was a better place to talk.
“Net, I need to talk to you outside,” Barb said.
Bobby stepped between the two just as Nettie started to follow Barb down the driveway. “Anything you say to her you can say to me, Barbie,” he barked.
Bobby always went for the Barbie button. He knew she hated that name. Being a tall, blonde-haired and blue-eyed woman drew the nickname Barbie from inmates, co-workers, and every guy she went to high school with. When guys found out that her real name was Barbara, they invariably started asking her where Ken was, or if she wanted to play dolls -- sometimes as they reached for the toys in their crotches.
This time, however, she was too tired and mad to bite her tongue. “Shut the fuck up, redneck! Barb snapped. Why don’t you go back across the street and smoke a bowl? I’m talking to my cousin.” Bobby was speechless. Nettie sloughed around her boyfriend and followed her cousin the ten or so paces down the driveway. Barb knew he would take his embarrassment out on Nettie when she left, but she was too tired to care.
“Now, start from beginning, Nettie,” Barb instructed.
“Well, she was at our place, sayin’ somethin’ about Tommy,” Nettie started.
“Tommy’s her son, right?” Barb asked.
“Yeah, he was always yellin’ at her and tryin to get shit from her,” Nettie spat. “He’s almost 40 and lives with his mom…what a piece of shit. I see him at the Stingray with these nasty whores all the...”
Nettie was distracted by Detective Lieutenant Ed Hennessey, who came striding up out of the blue.
“What the heck is going on here?” Ed demanded.
Nettie started to cry again. “Oh, Ed, I’m so sorry about your aunt.”
“What?” Barb sputtered. “Ed, is Mrs. Mendenhall your aunt?”
The gray, burly Hennessey was giving Nettie a bear hug. He looked over at Barb and nodded. “Yeah, she’s my dad’s sister. I mean, she was my aunt.”
“I’m so sorry, Ed, I had no idea,” Barb said. “I would have called you first if I had known.”
Ed let go of Nettie and motioned for her to go back over to Bobby, who standing a few feet away trying to listen in. “You wouldn’t have known that unless I told you, Barb,” Ed said. “Aunt Lil sort of cut herself off from the family years ago. The only reason Nettie knows is because she saw me dropping my cousin Tommy off here a coupla years ago.”
“Her son?” Nettie says. “Mrs. Mendenhall was telling them something about Tommy this morning,” Barb replied.
Ed shook his head in disgust. “We always said that fucking kid would be the death of her, the no good little cocksucker. Where is he?”
Barb was a little taken aback by the outburst: Ed Hennessey never swore, at least not in front of women. The other guys around the department called him “Boy Scout” behind his back.
“Uh, I don’t know, Ed,” Barb said. “I’m the only one here and I just got here a little while ago. But what I was starting to say was that something’s not right with this. Net and Bobby said she was over at their house just an hour ago.”
“And so what?” Ed blurted out. “So what’d she say about Tommy?”
“Ed, lemme finish,” Barb shot back. “I found her in the kitchen not 15 minutes ago and she’s ice cold. She’s been dead since midnight, at least…”
All of the color drained from Hennessey’s face. He opened his mouth to say something, but nothing came out. He stared at Barb for a moment, then at Nettie and Bobby, and finally at the house. Barb started back toward the side door and looked at Ed to follow her. He did, albeit very slowly.
As they entered the house, Barb joked, “So how’d you here about this? I didn’t think detectives worked weekends.”
“Uh, I was going to the grocery when I heard you talking to dispatch on the radio,” Ed said distractedly. He looked around the kitchen. “So Tommy’s not here? You’re sure, right?”
Barb stopped next to the kitchen sink, so as to let Ed by. “Uh yeah, Ed. He’s not here, unless he’s hiding in the basement.”
Hennessey, starting to get his bearing again, snapped, “You didn’t go down there and check? And you let Nettie and Bobby in here? What were you thinking, Barb?”
Barb, confused and defensive, pleaded, “Well what the Hell was I supposed to do, Ed? There wasn’t anybody available and I thought she might still be alive, for Christ’s sake. I’ll go down there right fucking now if you want me to.
“This is my day off too, Goddammit.”
Hennessey grew even more annoyed. “Barb, go outside and wait for the coroner. Don’t let them in until I say so. I’ll handle the investigation from here.”
“What?” Barb snapped. “Are you joking?”
“That’s enough, deputy,” Ed barked.
Barb, taken aback, said, “Yes, sir.”
The meat wagon arrived about 20 minutes later. In the interim, Barb tried to sneak peaks through the windows facing out into the driveway to see what Hennessey was doing inside. He spent several minutes in the basement. When Barb knocked on the door to tell Ed that the medical examiner’s crew had arrived, he emerged with a box packed full of stuff -- posters, candles, some clothing -- and dashed to his car without saying so much as a word to her or anyone else. When the driver looked at Barb for an explanation, all she could do was shrug her shoulders.
The body was carted out of the house and shipped downtown for what was likely to be a very superficial autopsy, as old women drop dead in their kitchens nearly every day.
“What the fuck?” was all Barb could think to say.