A DAY AT THE BEACH
© 2002 K R W Treanor
After three years of hell, Harlan John McGuiness had achieved a measure of peace and a sizeable lump of compensation. The newspaper that had identified him as the Jungle Gym Killer was forced to pay damages, and the police who had jumped on the media juggernaut were made to eat crow and issue a public statement declaring his innocence.
Everything was back to normal, if you discounted Harlan's having had to sell his house to pay lawyers, losing his fianceé due to the merciless accusations, and getting fired from his job as a draftsman for one of Boston's more conservative engineering firms. Mr. Korbin, the office manager, had had him in for a private chat and told him how he, Harlan, wouldn't want the firm's image to suffer from his involvement in something unsavory. Harlan had considered suing for unfair dismissal, but his lawyer hadn't thought the case had much of a chance. At least, he said he didn't have time to take it on. After Korbin was killed in a hit-and-run a few days later, there hadn't seemed much point; still less when the lawyer had fallen asleep at the wheel and driven off a bridge the following week.
After the settlement, Harlan had expected that life might return to something like normal. He invested the settlement money, bought a condo, and began job hunting. After the seventh interview, which fizzled out after starting brightly, Harlan had second thoughts about the possibility of normality. His doctor advised a change of scene and a vitamin tonic.
After a hiking trip through the White Mountains with a bottle of Super-Vites, Harlan came back feeling ready to start again. Collecting his mail from the concierge's office where it had been held while he was away he found a card from the Boston Police dated three days previously, asking him to contact Sergeant Rickson. He recalled the name from the murder investigation; Rickson had been one of the team who'd turned up on Harlan's doorstep with depressing frequency. Maybe he wanted to make a personal apology, now that Harlan's name had been cleared.
Legs fit from ten days' hiking, Harlan walked to the nominated police station and presented himself at the desk with Sergeant Rickson's card.
He was stashed in a stale interview room and left with a lukewarm over-sugared coffee for twenty minutes before Rickson came into the room. It took a while for the staccato questions to form themselves into realization. Pushing back his chair, Harlan got to his feet, smacked his hand on the table and said in loud tones "I was found completely innocent of any, repeat, ANY, crime; I was compensated for libel, and your own Commissioner had to look the fool by apologizing to me on television. If you have ANYTHING to ask me now or in the future, you can make an appointment with my lawyer." Without waiting to see Rickson's response, Harlan marched out of the room, down the corridor, and into the overcast late afternoon.
He strode along the Charles River in a red fog, anger and fear churning in his gut. Was this what he could expect from now forward: every time a child went missing or turned up dead, to be questioned as if he had a record as a pedophile?
Nothing further came of Rickson's questions, although Harlan took the precaution of giving his new lawyer a minutely detailed account of the interview. After a while, the feeling of prickly heat in his forearms every time the phone rang or a knock came at the door faded, but Harlan's pleasure in his new apartment had been spoiled. He found the location of the children's indoor play area on the roof particularly uncomfortable: somehow every time he got in the elevator it seemed full of children. He feared to look at them lest a watcher report him to some faceless authority figure, and so got a reputation as a bit of a grouch among the young mothers in his building.
Dropping his first name along with his hopes of finding a job, McGuinness rented out the apartment and moved to Portland. Long walks along the Maine coast helped release the feelings of panic and injustice, although McGuinness carefully avoided contact with children he met along the way. It was on one of these walks that he observed a colony of fiddler crabs going about their comical activities. The next time he came, he brought a sketchpad and pencils. He discovered the little creatures, with their jointed legs and jerky movements, were not unlike the mechanical creations he'd spent his working life depicting.
By luck as much as talent, his first book, "Artie and Bill and the Big Brown Bottle" took a respectable bronze medal in a prestigious children's book award. "Artie and Bill and the Picnic Basket" soon followed, and eventually it was considered an incomplete Christmas if New England children didn't find a new Artie and Bill book under the tree.
Harlan McGuinness began to like Portland. It didn't offer Boston's cultural pursuits, but there were compensations. He could grow a beard without anyone making any rude comments about it--so he did. He could put Worcestershire sauce on his scrambled eggs at Len's Diner and all Dolly the waitress said was "Want some ketchup too?"
After a few months he began house hunting and eventually found a one and a half bedroom house that the realtor had given up hope of selling. On its roof was a fanciful widow's walk, looking like something out of a fairy tale. The whimsy of the place appealed to Harlan, and he made an offer and got the place for a song and a chorus by two-thirty the same day.
The misery of the false accusation and the three-year investigation and the subsequent questioning by Rickson finally began to fade from Harlan's mind; but like an old bruise, it still could twinge. Slowly, the new life was coming to seem livable.
An acquaintance with a local antique dealer led to membership of the backgammon club and a modest social life. Harlan, now known even to himself as John, felt his shoulders finally relaxing and settling, no longer bunched up around his ears as if awaiting a blow.
It was early June; he had been six years in Portland. The fifth Artie and Bill book was struggling to life on the big drafting board in the half-bedroom which had become the workroom. Harlan often sat on a campstool on the ersatz widow's walk, staring out at the beach beyond the rooftops of the small cottages down the road. The little eyrie had become a favorite spot on warm days: here he got some of his best ideas for Artie and Bill. The ship's ladder that led to the roof from the upstairs hall was not for those prone to dizzy spells, but Harlan didn't mind it. He came up here with a thermos of coffee and a pocket CD player and was as close to joyful as he allowed himself to be.
He watched the terns spinning like compass needles on the tips of their wings over the riffles of foam that ran up the beach. He tried to count waves, to see if the seventh really did go the farthest. His eyelids drooped.
A raspy voice ripped him from a dream of flying. "So this is where you hide out. I knocked but no one answered. Shouldn't leave your front door open like that, it's just an invitation your neighborhood light-fingered Louies." The net-veined nose and scurfy hair of Sergeant Rickson poked itself clear of the hatch, and the gooseberry eyes blinked in the bright light.
Harlan screamed and lashed out with his feet, scrabbling to get upright, to get away, to not have to listen to what the horrid voice would say next. The small table fell over, knocking the prop of the skylight from its socket. The skylight fell with a crash on the shaggy head, there was a muffled roar and a thump. And then only the mew of gulls and slosh of withdrawing water sounded on the clear air.
From below the postman's voice floated up. "What's up, Mr. McGuinness, hornets?" He stuffed a magazine and a few envelopes into the letterbox and looked up again.
Harlan took a deep breath and said "Something like that. Might have been a Yellow-jacket. I dozed off, he must have been after my coffee." He flourished the mug at the postman and mimed something flying around it.
With a wave the postman got on his motorcycle, did a U-turn near the vacant lot next to Harlan's place and puttered off.
Harlan picked up the table and set the CD player and the thermos back on it. I can't stay up here forever, he thought, but I don't want to go down and see what's there. With a reasonably steady hand he poured out the last of the coffee and sipped it.
Why had Rickson come here? It could only be because some child, somewhere, had come to harm and Rickson had run through his usual suspect list and was casting his net wider. I really thought all that was behind me, Harlan thought, the coffee bitter on his palate. Now he's down there on my floor, dead or dying, or just bloody mad, and my life's about to be gone over with a pickaxe again. Maybe I should just jump off the roof now, save us all a lot of trouble. Would a fall from this height kill me, or just break me up a bit? Could I force myself to fall headfirst onto the back patio where there'd be some certainty of instant death?
First things first: get off the roof and out of sight.. Keeping low, Harlan opened the skylight hatch and restored the fallen prop. He looked down. At the foot of the ladder that led to his aerie lay a rumpled gray mass. Harlan looked long and hard and could not detect any sign of breathing.
Harlan went down the ladder and jumped well clear of the body on the floor.
Kneeling beside Rickson, he felt for a pulse. He thought he felt something, but it might be his own blood, pumping erratically. He put the back of his hand on the florid cheek: was he imagining it, or was the flesh abnormally cool?
What could he do? What would an innocent man do? Call an ambulance, obviously. But if Rickson were still alive, he might recover, and then whatever new horrors he had come to inflict on Harlan would merely have been postponed. But if he didn't call an ambulance, he'd be stuck with Rickson: obviously he couldn't keep 180 pounds of dead meat in his upstairs hall indefinitely. If it was dead meat.
How would you get rid of something like a body? Digging a hole in the vacant lot next door would attract attention. Putting it in the van had the same drawbacks, and that would just transfer the problem. Could he possibly wait until tonight, put the body in the van, and dump it somewhere?
He could cut the body up so it could be more easily moved. Harlan understood that the bathtub was the venue of choice for ax murderers in fact and fiction. Could he get Rickson into the tub, and could he bring himself to joint the man like a side of beef? For someone who had difficulty getting the legs off a roasting chicken this prospect was daunting.
Then there was the possibility that someone had seen Rickson coming up the path and into his house. Harlan sat back on his heels and considered who that could be. The postman had come along after Rickson's arrival. The people directly across the street both worked all day. Mrs. Harrison in the next house was visiting her daughter in Augusta, he remembered her mentioning it when they exchanged good mornings a few days ago. There were several other people in the neighborhood about whom Harlan knew little. What if one of them was home with summer flu and had seen Rickson?
Alright, get yourself together. Is Rickson dead? Harlan tugged at the limp body and managed to roll it over into what the TV doctors called the coma position. You were supposed to make sure the airways were clear, that was the next step.
The thought of putting his fingers into anyone's mouth to clear his airway appalled Harlan. As a compromise, he thumped the flat of his hand between Rickson's shoulder blades. A noise like a burp came from the flaccid mouth. It might mean the man was alive, or it might just be something the newly dead did.
That brought up a new problem: so far all that had happened was an accident, but if Harlan dragged Rickson into the bath tub and began to disjoint him and then he came to, he'd have to actually kill the man. One could hardly leave a half-dead person in the bathtub, and once the first cut was made the die was well and truly cast. If he revived, he'd know in a minute what Harlan had intended to do, and the only response would be swift slash across the throat.
That would probably be bloody. Not only might Harlan himself be covered in Rickson's blood, his bathroom would be as well. Harlan thought about the grout lines in the small old-fashioned tile floor. No matter what he did, he'd never get all the blood out. He'd watched too many episodes of CSI to be unaware of the clever things forensic specialists could do. A spritz of luminol and he'd be looking at 30 years behind bars, that's if they didn't send him to Bridgewater indefinitely.
Who'd have thought it was so hard to tell if a person was alive or dead? Harlan gingerly put his ear against Rickson's chest. He could hear some gurgling noises, but whether that was post mortem intestinal activity or his own frightened blood racing through his ears he had no idea. Clearly, he'd have to be sure Rickson was dead before trying to cut him up. A pillow held over the face would be the cleanest method. Harlan fetched a spare pillow from the closet and stood holding it. Then he thought, if I have to cut up the body, I'll have to get the clothes off it. With fumbling fingers, he undid Rickson's already loose necktie and unbuttoned a few shirt buttons. The thought of the large lardy body lying in his hall completely naked was more than he could contemplate sober. He needed a drink. Moved by some obscure feeling of decency, he put the pillow down and lifted the scurfy head onto it. As an afterthought, he brought a blanket as well and laid it over the body. He might need to use it as a sort of toboggan to drag the body into the bathroom.
Glad of any excuse to get away from the corpse or near-corpse, Harlan went downstairs to his modest liquor cabinet. He poured a whisky out and stood staring at it. Leaving it on the sideboard, he went into the kitchen and looked over his cutlery. He had a French chef's knife and a bread knife and a serrated middle-sized knife that he used for tomatoes and salamis. Somehow it didn't look like enough.
He pulled out his Larousse and flipped to the section on meat cutting. Here, nicely laid out with dotted lines, were instructions on how to carve ducks, bone chickens and a realistic full colour plate with all the cuts of beef overlaid on a red and white carcass. As a DIY help it was better than nothing, but Harlan wondered how much like a steer a human body really was. Leaving the book open on the counter, he took the knives into the living room and put them on the sideboard. He picked up the drink and went to the foot of the stairs.
There was nothing for it: he'd have to get rid of Rickson, there wasn't any other solution. He'd waited so long now it would look odd if he rang the ambulance, it must be all of three hours since the initial shock. How would he explain not doing anything sooner? He'd have to go through with it, there was no way out. If the man weren't dead by now, the pillow would finish him.
He started upstairs. Each foot seemed to weigh fifty pounds. Accused of crimes he didn't do, he was now about to commit one to protect the new life he'd cobbled together. If this didn't work, if he got caught, he could see the headlines: "Artie and Bill's Dad an Ax Murderer". "Mutilation Murder: Fiddler Crab Writer Charged."
As he reached the first landing, there was a rap on the front door, and before he could react, a bush of grey curls surmounted by an improbable straw hat pushed its way into his house.
"Sorry to barge in, I'm looking for my husband. You must be Harlan McGuinness, I remember your pictures from the papers. Say, that was an awful thing they did to you, I knew you never did it from the first time I heard Dan talking about it. You must be pretty happy about his news, hey?"
Harlan stood on the landing feeling as if he was about to pass out. Rickson hadn't been alone, and now he'd have to kill this babbling booby as well. Was there never to be an end to his trouble?
His eye sliding to the sideboard where the French chef knife glittered in a shaft of sun, he said, "Um, husband?" while calculating how he could get over to the knife and stab this woman before she made any fuss. And could his bathtub possibly accommodate two overweight people?
The plump little woman trotted into the living room from the doorway, carefully latching the door behind her. Good, she was off the braided rug; that would make things easier. A second Harlan stayed on the landing while his doppelganger moved down the last few steps, eyeing the knife even as he set the drink down on the phone table.
"Yes, Dan Rickson. He wanted to tell you the good news himself, since he'd give you such a hard time, he said. It took him weeks to track you down, but that's my Dan, just like a bloodhound when he's on the trail. He said he'd only be five minutes, but it's been over twen'y now and it's hot in that car, no air conditioning. Where is he?"
Harlan stood looking at the woman. "Accident." was all he could get out. He jerked his head towards the upstairs hall.
"Have you called an ambulance? Have you tried first aid?" she demanded.
"No dial tone," Harlan offered the first lie he could think of, adding, "always meant to do the course."
Mrs. Rickson ripped open the flap of her handbag and pulled out a cell phone. Punching numbers in rapidly she snarled "I can't believe you don't know basic first aid in this day and age!" Getting connected to someone, she spoke rapidly, then snapped the phone shut.
"They'll be here in ten minutes" she said, running up the stairs. Harlan could hear her slapping her husband's face and calling his name. Grunts and wheezes indicated she might be trying CPR. Faster than expected, the local ambulance wailed up the street. Feet thumped on Harlan's front walk, large men with medical bags and a stretcher pounded up his stairs. Through it all, Harlan stood by the phone and felt foolish. The ambulance men pounded back down the stairs, rather more slowly with the burden of Rickson on the stretcher. Harlan noticed that the sheet over the large body wasn't covering the face.
Mrs. Rickson trotted down the stairs after the ambulance men. "You should take yourself a Red Cross course, Mr. McGuiness. It pays to be prepared. But I guess you did OK. Just a bit of advice, never give liquor after an injury, especially a head injury. You must have been remembering those old stories about brandy for shock or something. Maybe you better drink that drink yourself. You sure you're alright?" Without waiting to hear the answer, she went out, leaving the door open behind her.
Harlan took the still untasted drink to the front window. He watched the ambulance pull away, followed a minute later by a large blue car that had been parked under a tree further up the street. Rickson must have wanted to talk to him without the chatterbox wife hijacking the conversation. From what Mrs. Rickson had said, it sounded like the Jungle Gym Killer had finally been identified, and the fat cop had decided to bring the good news personally.
Rickson would never know what he owed his wife. If she hadn't barged into Harlan's house when she did, Rickson would now be just a pile of cooling joints and suet.
He whistled a Bach gigue as he picked up the knives and returned them to their slots in the kitchen. Would I really have had the nerve to go through with it? he wondered. Cut up a whole body? Or even two? He doubted he'd have been able to do it. Cutting people up was so…personal. You had to get involved. Get dirty, even.
It wasn't at all like running someone down on a dark street, or dropping a sleeping pill in a glass of beer.