The Julius House


Chapter Thirteen



IT WAS A LONG NIGHT.

Angel slept in the office/family room downstairs on the couch. Shelby was out patrolling the grounds. I lay awake in our bedroom. Sometimes I read. Sometimes I slept. Sometimes I brooded. In a million years, I could never have imagined myself in the situation in which I found myself now. I was glad my mother was out of town. I couldn't envision successfully concealing from her all the misery and fear I felt. Before we'd all gone to our assigned spots for the night, Shelby had questioned us about the appearance of the man. It had all happened quickly, and he'd been in movement the whole time, but I found that if I shut my eyes and replayed him exploding from the tool-room door I could get a fair picture. "He had on a short-sleeved khaki work shirt," I said first. Angel nodded agreement.

"And safety shoes," Angel contributed, rubbing her shoulder.

"What are safety shoes?" I asked.

"Steel toes," she told me, looking faintly amazed.

"Oh. And he had on dark brown work pants."

"So now we've got his wardrobe. What did he look like?" asked Shelby with very obvious patience.

I had a good mind to stomp up to my room and slam the door, but I was aware that Shelby, of course, was just doing his job and my acting childish would not help the situation. I was sorely tempted, though.

"He had dark curly hair," Angel said.

"He was Angel's height," I contributed. "He was young. Not more than thirty, I doubt that old."

"He does heavy work for a living," Angel said. "Based on his musculature."

"Clean-shaven. Blue eyes, I'm pretty sure. Heavy jaw."

"He never said anything in any language?" Shelby asked us.

"No."

"No."

And that was the sum total of our knowledge of the man in the garage.

The next morning was clear again, definitely hotter. The Youngbloods switched;

Shelby went up to their apartment to sleep, and Angel was detailed to stay with me. We ate breakfast and did the dishes in silence, and when we were facing each other dressed in blue jeans and T-shirts, we fidgeted. Angel hadn't gotten her run in. I had finished my last library book, and I was not a daytime television watcher. After one round of the news on CNN, I switched the set off. Normally, at this time, I would be getting ready to start my round of errands, or at least figuring out what that round should consist of - cleaners, grocery, bank, library -??making phone calls, or writing letters. But today I couldn't; they didn't want me to go into town.

"Can we go outside?" I asked Angel finally.

She considered.

"Yes, in the front yard," she said at last. "There are too many trees and bushes that block the view in the backyard."

That was one of the things I liked about it so much. "In the front yard I can see what's coming," Angel said. "Last night, Shelby took out that clump of bushes out by the road that hid the car." "He what?"

Taken aback, Angel repeated, "He cut down that clump of yellow bells." "The forsythia is gone," I said unbelievingly. During the night, Shelby had cut down my bushes, a huge beautiful growth of three forsythias that had been happily expanding and blooming for twenty years, I estimated. "They were down by the road, and they hid things from the house," Angel explained further, puzzled at the degree of my dismay. "Okay," I said finally. "Okay. Let's go."

"What are we going to do?"

I was punch drunk with lack of sleep and shock.

"Got a Frisbee, Angel?"

"Sure," she said, as though I'd asked her whether she had a nose.

"Well. Let's play Frisbee."

So after a preliminary reconnaissance, we came out into the fresh day. I ignored the shotgun Angel carried out; she put it on the chair on the porch, where she could reach it quickly. Then she got her Frisbee and cocked her wrist to spin it to me, an anticipatory grin stretching her thin lips. I prepared myself for some running.

Ten minutes later I was panting, and even Superwoman was breathing a little heavily. Angel had gotten surprised all over again. I was no mean Frisbee player. But my aerobic exercise videotape hadn't prepared me for this, and I felt the first trickle of sweat for the summer season gliding down my back and then between my hips. On the whole, I was having a good time. I dashed inside for a drink of water.

Angel must have felt mildly challenged. She had backed out toward the road a little, and as I was coming down the front steps, she flicked her wrist and the red disk took off. A sudden breeze gusting over the open field across the road picked up the Frisbee and wafted it even higher. With a thunk, the Frisbee grazed the top of the first roof peak (the roof of the porch) and rolled into the space under my bedroom windows.

"Aw, shit," Angel said. "Listen, I'll be back in a second. Let me go blot my face, the sweat's getting into my scrapes and making them sting." "Sure," I said. "I'll be getting the ladder."

It felt creepy going into the garage and opening the door to the tool shed in the back. I knew the Youngbloods had checked it out and searched everything on the property before it got dark the night before, but in my brief hours of sleep, I'd had nightmares about a dark figure running toward me with an upraised ax.

I maneuvered the long ladder out of the tool shed and shouldered it to get it to the front of the house. Angel descended the apartment steps with a tender look on her face; the sight of Shelby sleeping certainly still rang her bells. I pushed back the hooks that held the extension down parallel with the base of the ladder, and with Angel's help ran it up to the roof. Since the house was built up on a high foundation, the climb was no short one. "Do you mind," Angel said almost shyly, "I know I threw it up there, but if there's one thing I can't handle, it's heights... now if it bothers you, I'll go on and do it, or Shelby can get up there when he gets up ..." I gaped at her, before I remembered my manners and nodded matter-of-factly. "No problem," I said briskly.

She seemed to relax all over. "I'll brace the ladder," she said with equal briskness.

So up I started. I am not automatically afraid of heights; I am fairly phobia-free. But it was quite a climb, and since I was showing off for Angel, I found I needed to keep my eyes looking up and my progress steady. Stopping, I had a strong feeling, would not be good.

Actually - come to think of it - I had never been on a roof before. The porch roof was steep. Really steep. Nervously, I transferred from the ladder to the shingles, already warm from the spring sun. I'd never been right next to shingles before; I had a good look at their pebbly gray-ness while I was bracing myself to reach the peak. I stretched and grasped it, and pushed with the sides of my feet, glad I was wearing sturdy rubber-soled hi-tech sneakers. The Frisbee should be on the downslope of this roof, where it joined the roof of the house;

I remembered Miss Neecy telling me about the feuding couple who'd built the house, Sarah May Zinsner's last-minute insistence on a porch. "I hear a car coming, Roe," Angel said quietly down below.

I froze. "What should I do?"

"Get over that roofline."

So I scrambled up and over in no time at all. A little incentive was all I needed. In the valley between the two roofs, formed like a forty-five-degree angle with the wall under my bedroom windows being the straight line and the upward slope of the porch roof being the angle line, lay the bright red Frisbee and an old gray tarp so exactly matching the shingles that I had to land on it to notice it.

I peeked over the roofline to see what Angel was doing. The shotgun was in her hands now, and she was against the inside of the wall of the garage, the far side where Martin's Mercedes was parked. The car was visible coming closer, thanks to Shelby's butchery of my forsythia, and it was a white car that was a little familiar. It turned in the driveway, and Angel raised the shotgun. The white car crunched slowly up the drive and pulled to a halt on the gravel a few feet behind my car, in the near side of the garage. The driver's door opened. Martin stepped out.

I was smiling without even realizing it for a second. Angel came out of the garage with the shotgun lowered, and though I couldn't hear what they said, she pointed at the roof.

"Up here!" I called. Martin turned and went to the front of the house, looking up with a quizzical expression. He wasn't wearing a suit for once, and he needed a shave.

"How are you, Roe?" he asked.

I still loved him.

"I'm all right, Martin. Be down in a minute. Here's the Frisbee." I sailed it over the peak down to the them. Martin's arm shot out and he caught it neatly. "There's something else up here," I called. "There's a gray plastic tarp." Angel's expression changed to alarm. "Don't touch it!" she and Martin yelled simultaneously.

"It's been here for ages," I reassured them. "There're pine needles and bird poop and dirt all over it."

The two faces upturned to me relaxed somewhat.

"What do you think it is, builder's material?" Martin asked. "Well, I'm going to find out." I maneuvered a turn in the little valley in which I found myself. A gutter had been installed in this valley, to carry off rainwater, and the covered bundle had been shoved just clear of it under my bedroom window. In fact it was so closely packed into this one straight stretch of roof that I knew why I hadn't ever noticed it: It was so close under my window that I would have had to stick out my head and shoulders out and look down to see it.

The tarp was stiff and crackly with age and exposure. It was weighted down with bricks. When I shoved one off the tarp and raised one corner, the whole thing moved, and I was treated to a comprehensive view of what lay beneath. It took me a moment to understand what I was seeing. I tried to believe that someone had been up on the roof eating ribs and had thrown the discarded bones in a heap after he was through. Maybe lots of people; there were so many ... I saw the ribs first, you see. They weren't pretty and white: they were yellowish and had little bits of dried dark stuff on them. But there were other bones, tiny and large, one whole hand with a few strings of tendon still holding it together... the skulls had rolled a little, but I counted them automatically. "Roe?" Martin called from below. "What's happening up there? Are you okay?" The breeze was gusting again. For the first time in over six years, it wafted under the gray plastic. The hair on one of the skulls lifted. I wanted off this roof.

I flung myself upward, swung my legs over the peak, and began backing down in record time.

"Roe," called Martin again, definitely alarmed. My feet hit the first rung. It seemed like long minutes before my hands could grasp the metal and then my feet flew down once I was totally supported by the ladder.

Martin and Angel were both asking me questions at once. I leaned against the metal, my feet finally on the ground, a safe distance from the horror on the roof.

"They're there," I managed to say at last. "They've been there all along." Martin still looked blank, but Angel, who had helped me look, got the point immediately.

"The Julius family," she told Martin. "They're on the roof."

We did have to tell the police about this. Angel stored away the shotgun and made the phone call. Then I saw her bounding up her apartment steps, presumably to wake Shelby.

We were sitting on the porch in one of the chairs. I was folded up on Martin's lap.

"Martin," I whispered. "She still had on her wig. But there was just a skull underneath it."

Everyone came. It was like a lawn party for law enforcement personnel in Spalding County.

Our house was just within the city limits, so the chief of police came first. Padgett Lanier was sharp-nosed, tall, with thinning blond hair and nearly invisible eyelashes and eyebrows. He had a paunch, and a mouth that was too small for his face. He had been chief of police of Lawrenceton for twenty years. I'd met him at various parties while I was dating Arthur Smith. I was sitting in a separate chair by then, but still on the porch, hoping to keep everyone out of our home. Martin had pulled his chair over by mine and was holding my hand. Shelby and Angel were sitting on the porch itself, blocking the front door, watching the activity with impassive faces. "Mrs. Bartell?" Lanier asked from the front lawn.

"Ms. Teagarden," I said.

"You the one that found them?"

"Yes. They're up on the roof. Under the plastic." "The picture man should be here in a minute," he said. It sounded as though he were talking about Mr. Rogers; Padgett Lanier was one of those people who think because I'm small, I'm childlike. "I'd better let him go up first. Did you touch anything while you were up there, honey? How'd you happen to go up on the roof? Wait, here comes Jack; you might as well tell both of us at once." Detective Sergeant Jack Burns came next, and I heaved a sigh when I saw him emerge from his car. He hated my guts. On the other hand, he treated me like an adult. Burns was wearing one of his hideous suits, which he apparently bought at garage sales held on dark nights. He stood looking at the ladder with a face even grimmer than usual. He did not relish making the climb. His no-color hair was scantier than when I'd last seen him, and the flesh of his face was sagging. Lynn Liggett Smith was right behind him, looking as slim, tall, and competent as ever, and she had the "picture man" with her. Several other cars pulled in after Lynn's, and it began to seem that whoever was off duty or had decided they weren't needed at the moment had driven out to the Julius place to see what was happening. It was the place to be if you were a cop. Martin murmured, "Is there no other crime in this town that needs investigating?

Surely somebody is running a stop sign somewhere."

"Most of them, probably, were here six years ago," I said.

After a thoughtful moment, he nodded.

Padgett Lanier conferred with Jack Burns, and the picture man was dispatched up the ladder first. Lynn went up after him to help carry his equipment. Fortunately, she was wearing slacks. She looked through the rungs at me on her way up. She shook her head slightly, as if I'd gotten up to another naughty trick.

The yard fell silent. All the policemen - and aside from Lynn, they were all male - looked up at the roof above our heads. I could hear the scrape of the photographer's shoes as he scrambled up the roof; the pause as he reached the top, saw the tarp. He said something to Lynn; I heard her reply, "Here," as she handed him his camera from her place on the ladder. I could only see her feet from my chair. Presumably he took a few pictures. I heard him say, "Lift the tarp for me, Detective," and then Lynn's progress across the roof. I swear I heard the rattle of the stiff, cracking plastic as Lynn raised it. "They're stacked on top of each other, Martin," I murmured. "I guess it's all three of them."

"Mostly bones, Roe?" Martin asked. His face was calm, and I knew he was being matter-of-fact because he knew I needed it. And because he had seen death far more often than I.

"Yes... mostly. The wig is on her skull. I told you that. I don't understand about the wig."

"Probably a synthetic."

"No, no. It's the wrong wig."

His eyes were questioning and he leaned closer, but at that moment Lynn came down the ladder, turned to her superiors, and nodded curtly. "Three of them," she said. "Three skulls, anyway."

A collective sigh seemed to go up from the people on my front lawn. "Jerry's going to pass the tarp down," she said. "Then he'll take more pictures." She went to her car and got a large plastic garbage bag. She beckoned to a patrolman. He sprang to help, and they spread the mouth of the garbage bag wide. There were a series of scraping sounds as the photographer/policeman removed the tarp.

"Need someone up here to pass it down!" he called. Jack Burns shambled forward to the foot of the ladder and began to climb heavily. He had pulled on plastic gloves.

They made an effort to pass the tarp down folded, so nothing would spill from its surface, but it was cracking with age and a few pieces had to be retrieved from the bushes around the porch. Finally it was sealed in the garbage bag and placed in Lynn's car.

"Get whoever's on dispatch to call Morrilton Funeral Home to come out here. Tell them what to expect," she told the patrolman who'd helped hold the bag. He nodded and went to his patrol car radio.

Some of the men approached Lynn with a request, and after a moment's thought, she nodded. They converged at the foot of the ladder. One by one the men climbed up. We would hear the scrape of heavy official shoes, a silence as he peeked over the porch roof, then he would come down. The process would be repeated. While that was going on, Lynn and her two superiors congregated on the porch.

Shelby got up and arranged three chairs facing ours. Angel took Martin's chair.

He and Shelby stood on the side of the porch, where Angel and I could see them. This did not suit Jack Burns, I could tell, but he could hardly tell our husbands to leave when Angel and I were innocent bystanders to another family's tragedy.

"Could we move inside?" he asked, with as much geniality as he could muster. Angel had actually shifted in her seat preparatory to rising when I said, "I'd really rather not." She shot me a startled look and tried to settle back as though she'd never moved. I saw from the corner of my eye that Martin had blinked in surprise, and Shelby turned to one side to hide a grin. Lynn, Lanier, and Jack Burns all looked surprised, too.

I didn't want my house invaded.

"Well, it is a right nice day out here," Lanier said smoothly.

"How did you come to go up on the roof, Roe?" Lynn asked.

"Angel and I were playing Frisbee."

Lanier looked from Angel to me, comparing our sizes, and put his hand over his mouth to shield his smile.

"Angel threw the Frisbee, there was a gust of wind, and it ended up going up on the roof. I got the ladder, climbed up, got the Frisbee, and found - them." "You were there, Mrs. Youngblood?" Lynn asked politely.

"I was holding the ladder. I'm scared of heights." "What happened to your face, young lady?" Jack Burns asked, in tones of tender solicitousness.

"I fell on the gravel driveway, and I couldn't catch myself in time," Angel said. Her hands, resting on the arms of the chair, were perfectly relaxed. "And you, Mr. Bartell?" Lynn asked suddenly, swinging around in her seat to look at Martin. "Where were you when your wife went up on the roof? And Mr. Young-blood?"

"I was driving in from the airport. I got here while my wife was up on the roof," Martin responded. "I've been away on a business trip." "I was asleep," Shelby said.

"You're not working today?"

"I felt sick this morning, and didn't go in. As a matter of fact, I started feeling real bad yesterday afternoon, all of a sudden. I came home from work then and haven't been back since."

Shelby had neatly covered his sudden departure from work yesterday afternoon after Angel had called him. A "just in case" move, I thought. That was really all Lynn could ask us, given the circumstances. Perhaps it was even one or two questions more than she should have asked us, come to think about it.

"I'm taking my wife inside now, she's had a shock," Martin said. The police cars were vanishing one by one, but local people were beginning to drive by; someone had been listening to a scanner. A hearse from Morrilton Funeral Home pulled into our driveway, and abruptly I could hardly wait to be inside the house. There was no reason for me to stay, so Lynn nodded. Shelby and Angel came in with us. Martin pulled the drape cord in the living room and blocked out the cruising cars and the police and the funeral-home men. But nothing could block out the sounds from the roof.

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