The ringing phone shocked Detective Dan Brock out of his sleepy stupor. He left the novel he'd been reading and grabbed the phone receiver.
"Dan! I heard someone screaming in my barn!" Dan had to hold the telephone an arm's length away from his ear to keep it from being pierced by old Mrs. Hutchinson's screams.
"Calm down, Mrs. Hutchinson, and say that again without yelling," Dan said.
"Do I have to repeat myself?" she asked. "I said I heard someone screaming in my barn! You know? That barn I keep locked every night? Someone broke into my property!" Dan sighed, remembering the time Mrs. Hutchinson raised an uproar over a stray cat that had gotten into her fireplace; she'd thought it was a hiding robber.
"Are you sure it was not an animal?" Dan asked.
"Of course not! I can tell the difference between an animal howling and a person screaming. Are you coming here to investigate or what? I'm watching the barn door right now and the lock's not in its place." That last sentence alarmed Dan out of his comfortable armchair.
"I'm going to check it out," Dan said. He looked at the clock. 4 a.m. was not a good time to wake up Bob, his colleague. He grabbed his gun and a flashlight, put his police badge in his pocket and went outside to his car.
Dan always kept the keys to his patrol inside the car. No one had ever stolen them, nor tried to take his car. Why would someone trespass into the Hutchinsons' property in such a little town?
It took him five minutes to reach the Hutchinsons'. The door was unlocked, and Dan entered the house without any problem. Mr. Hutchinson sat in front of the dead fireplace, chain-smoking. Mrs. Hutchinson stood by the window leading to the barn, shotgun ready.
Her hair stood up in all directions, contrasting with the usual tight bun she wore most of the time. Her body seemed about to break under the think fabric of her nightgown. All her usual severity had disappeared to give way to a scared, fragile woman.
"About time you came," she said, her voice booming and fierce, the only thing that reminded Dan that he was actually talking to Mrs. Hutchinson and not some strange old lady. "Look, the lock is broken and on the ground. I heard glass break a minute ago, but can't see a darned thing outside." Mr. Hutchinson nodded, lighting up yet another cigarette.
Mr. Hutchinson was not an alarmist, yet he looked overly nervous and shaky that night. Dan loaded his gun, ready for everything. He turned on his flashlight and walked with caution towards the barn.
The lock lay in the floor, broken. Someone had sawed through it. Dan looked around himself. No light meant anyone could be standing between the trees near the farm without being seen. He opened the door with care, trying not to make a noise. He took out his pocket flashlight and turned it on. The barn appeared to be empty.
He went inside the barn, flashing his light everywhere. The old truck rested in its place, unused since the last spring. The place was perfect for a crime, Dan thought. Small windows ensured no one could see the inside, while the thick walls prevented much noise from escaping the building.
One of the windows was broken. Dan walked closer to examine it. It was large enough for a person to walk through it, and on the side opposite to the house. A wooden box propped up against it would allow even a three-year old to jump out the window and into the soft grass. As he approached the window, he slipped on something on the floor.
He kneeled down and examined it more closely. Wax covered the floor in various spots, as if two or three candles had been lit. Thirty years chasing after pranksters stealing small items from their neighbors had left Dan unprepared for what he saw. Something dark stained the floor near the wax. Blood. Scratch marks scarred the floor at two spots, and a piece of a human nail still remained on one of the marks. Mrs. Hutchinson had actually heard human screams on her barn; someone had been murdered.
The church's bells greeted Small Creek Town as it woke up. People got up faster than they normally would and got dressed with yesterday's clothing.
By 7:00 a.m. the whole town had gathered at the church. The ringing of the bells at such early hours had startled everyone into going there, even Tom, the town's atheist.
"There is something of great importance I need to tell you," priest Peterson said. Beside him stood his daughter, Clare, looking pale and disheveled. Even the priest looked as if he was going to be sick.
"Someone has been murdered at our town this night," the priest said. An immediate hush came over his congregation. People stared at each other, whispering dreadful words.
"As we all know, murder is something unheard of in this town," the priest continued. "Detective Dan has given orders for us to count our numbers, so we can know who among us is missing." Clare gave a sob, and covered her face.
People grouped with their families, and the desperate shouts for dear ones soon filled the whole church. The priest walked around the congregation, questioning every family about missing persons.
"Only Susan is missing," the priest said thirty minutes later. "But she was arrested this morning for the murders. Apparently, Detective Dan found a strand of her hair in the scene of crime."
"A strand of hair could belong to anyone," Felix Truman said.
"Susan is the only one who has curly black hair, though," Jane, the grocery lady, said. Only two other black-haired heads poked in the crowd; one had straight hair and the other's hair was much shorter than Susan's.
"Why, though?" Steve asked. "Why would Susan do something like that?"
"Does anyone know what happened?" Kelly asked.
"I do," Mrs. Hutchinson said, her chest swelling with self-importance. "I heard someone screaming in the barn tonight. I even asked my husband about it, but he said he didn't hear a thing. Bless him; he's quite hard of hearing. Anyway, since the screaming didn't stop, I decided to go to Dan and tell him about it. Stupid bloke wouldn't believe me."
"But did you see anyone near the barn that night?" Molly, the butcher's wife, asked.
"No, we didn't, that's the strangest part," Mrs. Hutchinson said. "Someone broke through the lock at the barn."
"But if someone had been murdered, wouldn't someone be missing?" Molly's son asked.
"Now, you go back to bed and don't speak about things you don't know," Molly said, ushering him back to the second floor.
"It is a little strange, though," Steve said. "With no bodies found and no one going missing. Hell, not even a sheep is missing, we even counted the cattle and all, and nothing's missing."
"M-maybe it was an outsider," Clare suggested. She looked even paler than ever and hadn't quite pulled herself together since that morning. Her beauty hidden behind a disastrous choice of clothing, bad hairdo and profound circles under her eyes.
"Clare, dear, you don't look that good," her father, the priest, said. "Why don't you go back to the house and take a rest?" Clare nodded, and walked down the aisle. She limped slightly, walking like one who has nothing to lose and is just waiting to fall again.
"Your daughter is been acting weird today," Mrs. Hutchinson observed.
"She's been like that ever since her boyfriend, Robert, left her," the priest said. "Oh, poor girl, she seemed to really love him."
"And I heard she loved to demonstrate it too," Barbara said. She looked at the priest with malicious eyes, but he ignored her remark.
At that moment, detective Dan entered the church. His feet dragged him on, and he sat down on the first bench. The whole congregation gathered around him, eager to hear his news.
"I talked to Susan," Dan said. "She insists on being enigmatic. She has admitted to murdering someone, but will not say who or why. She says one of you knows and that's good enough for her." The congregation broke into whispers and mutterings, as the townsfolk looked at each other, wondering who else knew about the murders.
"I'm afraid that I will have to interrogate each and every one of you," Dan said. "Yes, even the kids. We can never be too sure. So, I will ask you all to please form a line in front of my office." He stood up and dragged himself out of the church. People followed him, whispering excitedly. No such thing had ever happened in their little town.
# # #
"I have already interrogated the whole town. What is your game, Susan?" Dan asked. Susan looked at him, and it unnerved the detective to see her look so calm.
"I am playing no games," she said. "I did what I have to do. Now, you can either let me out due to lack of evidence or you can lock me up the five years required by the law. I am not murdering again, Dan, and you have my word of that." Dan stared at her for a couple of moments, taken aback by her knowledge of the system.
"Where did you hide the bodies?" he asked, trying to change the subject.
"You haven't answered my question," Susan insisted. "What are you going to do to me, Dan?"
"Susan, whoever was killed needs a proper burial, and the priest would love to see to that. Now, we need to find his body to do that," Dan said. Susan seemed to find this funny; she burst out laughing. Hearing Susan laugh had never been a pleasant thing, since her booming laughs soon broke into snorts. Susan did not seem to mind.
"I would love to see that," she said. It took Dan a moment to register the sarcasm.
"I'll talk to you in the morning," Dan said. He left the room and went to his office. He stared at the file for the case for a long time, trying to make any sense of what had happened in the town. He got so immerse in the case he barely noticed the yelling in front of his door.
"Dan, I have the one you're looking for," Molly yelled before the door to his office opened completely. She had forgotten all decorum, as she wore a robe around her too-thin nightgown and slippers.
"What is it, Molly?"
"It's Clare, Dan. Clare knew all about the murders from the start."
"Knew?" Dan asked, wondering if the past tense had been intentional. Molly nodded, taking out a piece of paper from her pocket. She handed it to Dan, who put on his reading glassed before looking at it.
"Oh..." he whispered, as he read the letter. Then, he read it again.
I am sorry for what I am going to do. I do not think my soul can be
more damned than it is already. Please, do not punish Susan for my
mistakes. She had been a good friend and has only tried to help me. I
am sorry for what the whole town has been put through.
Father, I am also sorry that I had to do this to you. The person who got murdered meant the world to me, and I couldn't bear living with the knowledge he had been killed. I'm sorry, I hope you will find it in your heart to forgive me.
He turned to look at Molly, afraid to ask the question. She nodded slowly.
"We found her dead five minutes ago. She killed herself," Molly said. The letter slipped from Dan's grasp, and he had to lean on his chair. Without a second thought, he strode towards the cells. He found Susan sitting on a bench, staring at the ceiling.
"What did you do?" Dan asked, startling Susan out of her thoughts.
"What do you mean?" she asked. He threw Clare's letter at her. With a confused look on her face, Susan picked up the letter and read it. Her eyes widened as they passed from word to word, and her mouth dropped open as she read the end.
"No!" she yelled. She threw herself against the bars and tried to grab Dan's hand. "Please, I have to see her! Let me out!"
"What did you do?" Dan repeated. "Clare is dead, Susan. I want to know who you murdered, and why. There's no point keeping it secret. Look at the consequences."
"I did only what she asked of me," Susan said. For the first time, her gathered appearance disappeared to give way to a sea of tears. "Please Dan, please! I never thought it would come to this!" Dan picked up the letter Susan had dropped, and sighed. Susan looked so desperate and torn, Dan felt pity for her. He knew Susan would never say a word; the loyalty in Susan's eyes told him so.
"It was Clare's last wish that you shouldn't be punished," he said, taking his keys from his belt. He opened Susan's door, but stopped her before she exited.
"You'd better get out of this town, before words gets out of this," Dan said. "I am putting you on liberty, on condition that you never return to this town."
"Can I see Clare one last time?" Susan asked.
"No, it would be better that you go away quietly," Dan said. Susan nodded, and sobbed all the way to the front door of the police station.
In the years that ensued, people in Small Creek Town would keep on talking about the mysterious murders that had occurred in their very town. Each time, the story got embellished here and there, until little or no truth remained on it.
People started talking of Susan as a witch, who had murdered old Mrs. Hutchinson before vanishing Mrs. Hutchinson's body into thin air. Truth was, Mrs. Hutchinson lived to be ninety three years of age, and was not murdered by a witch named Susan.
On her way out of Small Creek Town, Susan stopped by a tree in the forest. She knelt by it, and drew the sign of the cross over it. Even though no one but her knew it, the tree marked a grave.
Susan didn't feel too proud of the murder she had committed, but she'd done it to help her good friend, Clare. Clare's boyfriend had left the town weeks ago, upon hearing about Clare's pregnancy. Clare's father would never put up to having a bastard in the family, and Susan knew it would not be fair for the baby to live as a bastard. She knew she had made the right decision on performing an abortion on Clare.
She said a quick prayer for the unborn baby buried under the tree, and then proceeded to leave Small Creek Town, carrying her secret and two deaths on her shoulders. Eventually, she too would fade away into nothingness.