Sudden High Pressure

by Brian Lawrence (1998)

The tornado that graciously squeezed between the Oakley's house and barn, tearing away a few shingles and splintering a wooden fence, left one injury in its wake. The problem for Marble Hill Police Chief Tom Petrosky was that the injury was caused by a bullet wound in the side of George Oakley. And to compound the problem, George had been shot with Tom's gun.

"Now why'd you shoot me, Tommy?" George asked, his head propped on three pillows. The tornado had been over an hour. George had been conscious half that time. Light rain pattered against the window. The smell of fresh coffee drifted from downstairs where the cluster of people who'd been in the storm shelter waited. Except for the two kids. They played in the adjacent bedroom.

"I didn't shoot you," Tom replied, wondering if the people of Marble Hill would ever stop calling him "Tommy".

"Well, then, who did?"

Tom shrugged. "That's what I'm going to find out."

The former Chicago homicide detective trudged downstairs, paused half-way, sat on the carpeted steps, listened to the anxious voices in the kitchen, then replayed the day's events.

Unlike in The Wizard of Oz, this twister was no surprise. They had seen the tornado when it was about five miles away. Southern Iowa cornfields stretched for miles on either side of the Oakley farm making it difficult for a storm to sneak up.

Dark clouds rolled in from the west. Pea-sized hail pummeled the fields and the men out looking at the Oakley's prize boar.

"Blasted." George looked west. "We better get our butts inside."

Pete Peterson, the county veterinarian, said, "Inside? We better get everyone in the storm cellar."

He had accompanied Tom to the Oakley's to examine the boar. Tom's mother was intent on breeding their sow. When Tom's dad died two years earlier he had quit the Chicago police force and moved home to help his invalid mother. Not that he would ever tell his mother he thought of her as "invalid". Now, on his day off, he was looking at boars and, it appeared, dodging storms.

The wind howled and the hail stung their faces as the three men ran for the house. By the time they reached it, the hail had stopped and a sickening green pallor stained the sky. Humidity thick enough to grab hung in the silent air.

"Elizabeth, kids, the storm cellar," George yelled, "Now!"

Elizabeth Oakley, her two children, Ben and Delilah, and Victoria Peterson, Pete's wife, scampered out of the house. The seven of them paused outside the storm cellar and gazed west.

"A tornado!" Ben exclaimed. His eleven year old eyes grew as wide as Frisbees.

His eight year old sister, Delilah, clung to Elizabeth's flowered dress, and whimpered, "Hurry, mommy, let's get in the cellar. Please, mommy, hurry."

George and Tom hefted the cellar doors. The wind raged. The temperature plummeted. Tom smelled ozone and wet dirt.

Women and children first, then the three men scooted down the wooden stairs. The cellar was no more than ten by ten, about eight feet deep. On three of the walls were empty shelves. The cellar originally had been a canning cellar, now used only for emergencies such as this one.

George heaved the doors shut, fighting the fierce wind, then flicked on the overhead light. Tom leaned against the shelf on the left side of the shelter, George in front of him. Ben managed to wiggle between them and clutched Tom's waist, shivering, his head resting on Tom's hip. Behind them was Victoria, Delilah, then Elizabeth. Pete was to Tom's right.

No one spoke. The vibrating rumble intensified. The sound of a freight train, all right, if he was strapped to the engine of that train, thought Tom.

The electricity was severed and the light winked out. The doors to the shelter rattled. Tom wondered if they'd hold. He'd seen the movie Twister, had seen how the man had been sucked out of a cellar much like this one. Could that really happen? He didn't know, this being his first close encounter with a tornado.

When the tornado was loudest, and the darkness was blackest, Tom saw a bright flash out of the corner of his eye. Only later did he realize that had been the gun shot. At the time, the flash had not registered, nor had the metallic smell, which lasted only a moment as the wind from above sucked it out through the cracks in the door.

The rumbling sound retreated. Tom felt jostled. George had fallen against him. Maybe he'd tripped, trying to step back.

"George?" Tom said. "George?"

No reply. The wind died and they heard rain beating the door above them.

"Pete, we need some light. Open the door."

Pete scrambled up the steps. Several thuds preceded heavy cursing, but finally, Pete thrust the doors open. Rain splattered Tom's face. One of the women screamed. Tom eased George to the floor and dragged him further into the shelter out of the rain. A dark red stain spread over his greasy T-shirt.

Elizabeth rushed to her husband's side. On the floor was Tom's gun. A snub-nosed .38. His day off gun. He carried it on his right hip.

Elizabeth said, "I think the slug passed through his side. He should be okay."

She was a nurse in Marble Hill, not caring much for pig farming. Even so, Tom thought her composure too clinical, too calm. She looked at him with what Tom thought at first to be accusing eyes. Later, re-examining that look, he realized her expression had been more fearful than accusing. Had she shot her husband? She was definitely the prime suspect.

Snapping back to present, Tom made his way down to the kitchen. He had three viable suspects, but only one of them, as far as he knew, might have a motive. But did Elizabeth Oakley have the means? There had been a child and another woman between her and Tom. He was sure of that.

The Petersons and Elizabeth hushed as Tom entered the kitchen. He sat at the table. Above him he heard the kids playing. Ben's voice shouted gleefully. Elizabeth glanced at the ceiling. Tom caught her fearful expression. She lowered her head and looked at him, then quickly turned away.

No one said anything for several minutes. Pete shifted uncomfortably. The chair creaked under his heavy bulk. Victoria, also heavy, but pretty, her brown hair pulled into a bun, studied the lace tablecloth, tracing the patterns with a stubby finger.

Finally, Pete said, "Maybe you should call that girlfriend of yours. Have her do some forensic work."

Girlfriend. Tom hated that word. Patricia Johnson was no girl. She was all woman. And she was more than a friend. Had been since the murder of Alice Hendrix, a case she and Tom had solved together.

"I'm not sure I'll need her, Pete."

"But if you shot him-"

"I didn't shoot him, Pete."

"You might need the state police."

"Pete, why don't you and Victoria wait in the living room."

Pete looked questioningly at him, but Victoria stood and dragged her husband into the other room.

Tom also stood. His six foot frame towered over the diminutive Elizabeth Oakley. She was an attractive woman, or at least could be if she tried. Tom guessed her to be around forty, same as George. She had stringy cinnamon and sugar hair, golden eyes with brush stroked crow's feet, and tan skin.

She fidgeted at the old iron sink. A ceiling fan rotated languidly, swirling humid air, having little cooling effect. A tiny trickle of sweat ran down Elizabeth's slender neck.

"Why'd you shoot him, Elizabeth?"

She whirled, eyes blazing, but bit off the retort she surely wanted to hurl at him. Instead, she said meekly, "I didn't shoot him. Maybe it was an accident."

"Tell me about your marriage. Does George treat you well?"

"He has a bit of a temper, but other than that, fine."

"Does he hit you?"

She shook her head, but would not meet his gaze.

"Look at me, Elizabeth." She raised her head. "Does George hit you?"

Again, she shook her head, this time holding his gaze. Tom narrowed his eyes.

A bump, then a child's shout came from upstairs. Elizabeth snapped her gaze to the ceiling. George shouted, calling Ben's name. A disturbing thought crossed Tom's mind. He turned away from Elizabeth and walked toward the stairs.

"Where are you going?" Elizabeth's asked in a shrill voice.

"Upstairs."

"Why?"

He turned. "What are you hiding, Elizabeth?"

She looked down, clutched her small hands in front of her, and muttered, "Nothing."

Tom went upstairs.

When he reached the top of the steps, Delilah squealed and then shouted at her brother to give back her doll.

George bellowed, "Ben, get your scrawny butt in here."

Tom remained on the last step, watched Ben trudge from his bedroom. When the small, dark-haired child walked into his parents' room, Tom quietly stepped into the hallway. He could just see inside the bedroom.

Ben approached his father. George grabbed the boy's thin arm and yanked hard. He then shook the boy.

"You stop teasing your sister, you hear. I want some quiet so I can rest. Understood?"

The boy grimaced with pain and glared at the floor. He nodded, then glanced Tom's way. George did too. Seeing Tom, he released his grip. The boy fled the bedroom, running past the police chief without a glance. He entered his bedroom and quietly closed the door.

Silence, then a footstep. Tom turned. At the foot of the stairs stood Elizabeth, her eyes moist, pleading.

Tom scratched the three-day stubble on his chin. Then he wiped his sweaty hands on his jeans and softly knocked on Ben's door.

The door opened a crack and Ben peered out.

"Son, can I come in?"

"Yes, sir." The little boy stepped back.

Tom pushed the door open. Model airplanes hung from the ceiling with clear thread. A Stealth Fighter was partially assembled on the boy's desk. His bed was neatly made, hospital corners, covered with a dark blue spread. Delilah sat on the floor, a baby doll with painted hair sprawled beside her. She was coloring in a book.

Tom knelt. "Delilah, honey, I need to talk with your brother."

Her sweet brown eyes smiled. "Sure. Go ahead. You won't bother me."

"He means go to your own room, dummy," Ben said.

"Huh uh. He didn't say that."

"Delilah, it might be best if you did," Tom said.

"Oh." She grabbed her doll and left the room.

Tom closed the door, then leaned against it.

"Do you know who shot your daddy, Ben?"

"No, sir."

The red mark on the boy's arm where George had grabbed him was still visible. Tom sighed.

"Turn around, son. Lift up your shirt."

Ben hesitated, but then did as he was told.

Tom left the boy's room without another word and strode purposefully to George's room. He slammed the door behind him.

George looked up, surprised. Tom reached out and grabbed the farmer by the hair.

George squealed like one of his pigs.

"You physically abuse your boy again, George, and I will shoot you. Understand?"

George said nothing. Tom released him and left.

On the way out the kitchen door, the Peterson's in tow, Tom turned to Elizabeth and said, "It's an unsolvable case. No physical evidence. Besides, I got other things to worry about." He walked down the stone steps then turned around. "But if George abuses your son again, please call me."

Tears rolled down Elizabeth's cheeks. She nodded vigorously, smiling. Tom doubted he'd hear from her.

Before they climbed into Tom's Jeep Cherokee, Pete asked, "So who shot him?"

Victoria smacked her husband on the shoulder and said, "Just get in the car."