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Unraveled Part III
Caleb could smell the room all the way from the elevator. He'd reserved the only business suite they had, complete with a kitchenette and sitting room. Marnie had managed with the basic kitchen furnishings to prepare a beautiful meal for them, candles and all. She greeted him at the the door exuberantly in a simple knee-high sundress, white overlaid with baby blue lace. Caleb's favorite. He was so happy to see her smiling it took him a moment to think about the fact that she was, in fact, smiling.
Caleb was a plain-thinking man, not stupid in the least but certainly no expert in the human psyche, and even he knew she should at least be in a somber mood after the day's events. It dawned on him as he changed out of his uniform moments later.
She hasn't even asked what's going on
"Looks great, honey" Caleb said, sitting across from her at the small table.
"Thanks sweetie" she beamed proudly over the food and cut delicately into the chicken breast on her plate.
Caleb picked up his fork and knife to cut into his own, and found he couldn't. He sat watching Marnie eat, utensils hanging uselessly in his hands.
"Marnz... are you ok?"
She looked up from her plate. "Much better now that you're home."
"OK... it's just, you haven't asked, you know, about the Sheriff or this morning with the bag or anything."
Marnie could feel the tears welling up again behind her eyes. She blinked them back.
"Oh Cal, I just wanted us to have a little normality, I'm sorry..." she blinked again, but was losing the battle, "The last weeks have been so frightening, not knowing what might happen or when, then that bag was outside our door.. .then.." she sniffled involuntarily, Caleb felt the familiar pang of dread in his chest he always did when he thought she might cry. "... Laura... my god, baby, the way I acted when you took me to -the-station today..." she sobbed into her napkin and he was around the table in an instant, his arms around her.
"Shh, shh, it's alright" He stroked her hair lovingly as she continued.
"You must think I'm a monster!"
"No, no, not at all... you were in shock, come on now, no one thinks you're a monster. You're the sweetest little lady around" he leaned back, brushed away her tears and smiled. "No more tears now, you're right. Lets eat this amazing food and enjoy each other for a while. We can talk about it all tomorrow."
"You're so good to me." She kissed him more passionately than usual, making it a difficult decision to return to the other side of the table and finish, but he managed and afterwards helped her clean up the dishes, then carried her to bed, both of them basking in the glow of the evening so far removed from horror which had invaded their lives.
Officer Jenkins had gone over all the facts a thousand times since the first incident at Caleb's home. They'd grown up together and were relatively close; she'd requested to be put on the case, not unlike several other officers. After all, who didn't love the guy? He was as sweet as they came, and everyone knew it. Even the perps they brought in were just a little bit more human to Caleb.
It was obvious the events were all connected, but the fact eluding them all was who would target Caleb and his wife, as well as Sheriff Eckhart? The most recent news from the medical examiner had only muddied the waters more. Some random senior social worker from never-heard-of-it, Oklahoma. The beginnings of a migraine twinged behind her left eye as she stared at the witness statements and crime scene photos scattered across her desk, as if willing them to reveal something, anything, to bring it all together. Her eyes drifted across the 911 transcript.
CALLER: Yes, I was out getting the mail, I heard someone scream next door, then a loud crash. I think someone might be hurt....
Screaming and then a loud crash...Dana sifted through the few other reports there were looking for something similar. Two other neighbors had heard the scream, but not the crash. She pulled Marnie's scant statement from the bottom of the pile. No mention of either. She'd said she was knocked unconscious, that must be why. Though Dana had not yet, in the few years since Cal's wedding when she and Marnie first met, ever much grown to like the woman, she was harmless enough, if a little annoying. Dana dropped the papers and pushed them away across the desk, resting her head on her arms. It was enough for one night. Perhaps forensics would have something new in the morning.
Eckhart lay , staring at the ceiling, on the bed in Delson's guest room, trying to wrap his mind around the fact that his wife of thirty years was dead. There was not a single thing in the world he could accomplish until he'd united reality with her death in his mind; he'd been at it three days. When his cell phone rang he considered ignoring it as he had been for the past 72 hours until he heard Delson's voice outside the door.
"It's Janice, she called me already and said to tell you to answer, and Lord help me if you don't, Joe, it'll be the end of me. She'll call me back and the woman'll talk me to death. Please,brother, do me a favor"
Eckhart, though he appreciated his friend's attempt at humor, could not bring himself to even smile. He plucked the phone off the side table and heard Delson's footsteps retreat as Janice's sing-song voice came through the phone.
"Sheriff! my goodness, how are you, dear?!The place isn't the same without you! Everyone has been working 'round the clock,. People coming by the station to offer condolences, I'm drowning in flowers and baked goods, Sheriff. Are you OK?"
Thank God she had to take a breath or I'd never get a word in
"Janice, Delson said you needed to talk to me, what is it?" He knew he was being short and ill-tempered, he didn't care.
"Well, Sheriff,-" the song had gone out of her voice, never having had Eckhart snap at her in all the fifteen years they'd worked together. "Your son was here, he and you sister in law are handling all the preparations for the funeral, but they're worried about you. So are the men here, everyone has been calling you. Also the Medical Examiner has identified the body found in Caleb's home as a woman named Rita, a social worker form Oklahoma. That was a few days ago, I tried to call you then, but..." she trailed off.
Eckhart felt a pang of guilt for the way he'd spoken to her, after all, she was only doing her job and he was far from doing his.
Just like you didn't do you job and protect Laura
Eckhart shook his head vigorously to clear the awful thought that had snaked it's way into his mind. He had to focus now.
"I'm sorry, Janice. It's been a hard few days, I just haven't been able to get my head around it. You've done well holding the station together I'm sure, now, tell me about the woman, Rita, did you say?"
So Janice told him everything she knew, including a few things she'd dug up on her own via Google whilst sitting at her desk in the station.
"Well, sir, her name is Rita Bennett, she's 59 years old from Achille, Oklahoma, it's a very small town, Sheriff, less the 600 people. Dana called their local Sheriff yesterday and he knew who she was, but there's no next of kin.
"Alright. Well, she was here for something, lets see if we can't find out why and I'll wager that'll lead us to her killer. And Laura's."
"Of course, Sheriff! Dana and Caleb are already looking into it but without much luck, they've been working pretty much nonstop for the last couple of days. I must have fielded about fifty calls from Cal's wife, he's been here so much."
"That woman... he should get her a dog, eh, Janice?" He said, managing to smile and the familiar joke between them.
"Yessir, but not one too big, she might be frightened of it!" Janice chimed in immediately, thrilled to have Eckhart banter with her again.
So, Eckhart dug. He called Achille's police department, the social services office, the court's public records. The woman was possibly the most unremarkable person in the history of the world. She had no family, no real friends, seemed only the bury herself in her work. Her co-workers had little to say about her other than she was "Nice, worked hard, and cared very much about the children". When Janice called him again, the day of his wife's funeral, he had all but given up on finding anything about Rita Bennett. She had been alive, in Achille, and had worked hard. It seemed to be all anyone could come up with. No inclination of enemies anywhere, although as a social worker for children he guessed there had to be parents somewhere that wanted to at least give her a piece of their mind. He said as much to Janice when she asked if he'd found anything more.
"Same, here, Sheriff. Cal has been so frustrated, he's just left to go get Marnie for the funeral, you know they went back to their house just yesterday."
"Did they? I didn't think Cal'd ever get her back in that place."
"You and I both, Sheriff."
Eckhart smiled a bit. In all the years they'd known each other she'd never once called him by his first name, not even during their two year affair when Janice was first hired. The travel of his thoughts from her quirky way of addressing him to the one thing he regretted most in his life, his betrayal of his lovely Laura, robbed the smile from his face and brought a sharp pain to his gut where the poison of his deceit had formed an ulcer.
"Oh, dammit" he cursed softly, completely forgetting Janice was still on the line.
"Sheriff? Are you alright?"
"Yes, yes, it's nothing Jan, what were you saying?"
"i was saying Caleb was having some newspapers from the Achille local library faxed over here, apparently Ms. Bennett was honored a few times for her work with children. It's so odd, Sheriff, everyone in that town seems to know who she is and what she does, but nothing about her otherwise."
She's about to launch on a tangent and you're already late a voice said in his mind.
"Yes, that's fine, I'll come by after the funeral and pick them up."
"I could drop them off for you."
After all this time, she was still trying in her way. His ulcer pulsed again.
"No, that's alright. Just leave them on my desk, Jan."
There was a millisecond of silence on her end, nothing to the average ear, but the Sheriff knew better. It might as well have been an eternity; she was crushed.
"Very well, Sheriff Eckhart. Good afternoon."
The funeral, while heartbreaking, was beautiful. So many people loved Laura Eckhart, when Caleb looked over his shoulder during the service, he could no longer see the rest of the cemetery for the sea of black umbrellas behind him. No matter how desperately he wanted to not cry in front of Marnie, he lost his battle to maintain a strong silence and found his face wet with tears. She offered no judgement, though, only clung to his arm more tightly, shedding tears with him.
Marnie hadn't known Laura well, she'd never made the effort. She knew Caleb loved her like a mother and he needed to grieve, but to ease his shame of appearing weak before his wife, he needed her to grieve with him. So, she made her husband's pain her own, and the tears came.
Janice sat in the lonely station, sifting through the faxed newspaper copies as they came out of the printer. Most of the other officers had attended the funeral, but couldn't bring herself to show her face at the funeral even though no one but the Sheriff and herself knew, still she felt it would be wrong to attend. So, she had stayed behind, waiting on the faxed papers, answering phones, anything to keep busy.
As she went about organizing the articles by date, one in particular caught her attention. Her eyes widened as she read the caption on the picture and then the article itself. As the nearly ancient fax machine buzzed and screeched out the last few pages, Janice felt her heart flutter in her chest. Not in the pleasant way it used to for Sheriff Eckhart, but in a way that reminded her of the one time she'd been talked into getting on a roller coaster. Sheer panic. She knew she was making connections that weren't necessarily true, but it was too coincidental, wasn't it? She dialed Eckhart's cell, knowing he wouldn't answer, and left a lengthy message explaining what she'd read, everything she was thinking. she turned back to the article one more time, just to be sure. No, it was all there, in black and white; this was their missed connection.
The fax machine wheezed and croaked again as the last page came through. The noise of it had drown out the sound of the station door opening and closing, the swift-approaching footsteps. Janice was dialing Caleb's number when she felt the cold steel drag across her throat, and the warm flow of the blood it released. When she managed to turn to face her attacker, the scream would not come. She could only crumple to the floor, her eyes locked on her killer's, mouth working uselessly to form words that wouldn't come.
At Caleb's prodding, Eckhart agreed to join him for a drink after the service.
"It'll be good for you, Joe, get away from all the gloom for a couple hours. Marnie can pick up your papers from the station and drop them at Delson's for you, won't you, Marnz?"
Marnie had looked hesitant, but agreed.
"Oh.. of course, of course. You two just don't be out too late." She'd smiled and kissed Caleb's cheek.
Eckhart had never seen her so agreeable, usually any suggestion from Cal that he go anywhere other than work (and sometimes even then) would set her to pleading him to stay home, usually in or near tears, and he would relent every time. Somehow, in the wake of recent tragedies, she'd finally learned to let go a little. People were funny like that, Eckhart thought to himself as they watched her drive away. He'd suspected she would've gotten worse, more frightened, more clingy, and here she was doing just the opposite.
"Come on, boss." Cal said, clapping him on the back. "Let's get outta here."
Eckhart took a last look at his wife's grave and, tears burning behind his eyes, tossed Caleb the keys to his truck.
"If you don't mind driving, Cal. I do believe I'll get drunk."
Dana didn't linger after the funeral. She offered the Sheriff and his family her heartfelt condolences again and slipped away from the crowd. Her desk in the station, piled high with paperwork, seemed like a glowing beacon, a sanctuary, in her mind. She wasn't on duty for the night but could hardly stand to sit alone in her tiny apartment, knowing she'd only dwell on the fact that they were no closer to breaking the case than they had been weeks ago. She stopped at the gas station for her usual 24oz coffee, taking a few minutes to chat with the usual clerk who had a thousand questions about the murders which had been all the talk around town.
"Have you found him yet? that killer? We've all been so on edge, Dana, every customer that walks in I think 'Is that him?' "
"I can't really talk about it, Kate, but I don't think you have anything to worry about. I can tell you one thing; this guy.. he's focused, he knows his victims, it's not random."
"I suppose that should make me feel better..."
"It doesn't, though, and you won't feel better until you know he's behind bars."
"yes... exactly...how did you know?"
"Because I feel the same way."
Eckhart and Caleb pulled into the tiny parking lot of the local dive-bar; Red's. The place was a dark little hole-in-the-wall, the type of place you go when you're trying to avoid the world. They settled into a booth set back against the wall in the shadows where they wouldn't be bothered, ordering shots and beers.
"How many times you think Marnie's going to call you, Cal?" Eckhart said, chuckling into his beer.
"Probably not half as many as Delson's going to call you "
"I don't know about that, I suspect I won't hear a word from him, you know he doesn't do funerals, not to mention the old goat's "on vacation" which to him means sleeping all day and ignoring all means of communication. I suspect Jan will be calling, though, probably about fifty times to make sure I picked up the papers... won't matter anyway-" Eckhart grinned mischievously -"Left my phone in the truck."
Caleb gasped, mockingly incredulous. "You devil... I did too."
They shared a laugh over the women, while outside in the Sheriff's truck the calls did, in fact begin to roll in.
Dana was first on the scene. When she'd entered the station and noticed the light on in Sheriff Eckhart's office, she knew something was off. Janice never forgot to close up, she knew better than anyone how fastidious the Sheriff was about his office. The room was in order, the desk neatly organized, nothing amiss, except for Janice's lifeless body lying face-up on the cold tile floor and the sickly sweet odor of blood hanging thick in the room. Dana stopped herself from going to the body. The scene had to be left undisturbed, and no amount of CPR or any other form of resuscitation was going to help Janice anyway. She gripped the radio on her shoulder, called for backup, ran out of the office to the break-room where a few desk-cops was slurping coffee and adding a few donuts to their waistlines.
"Get CSU here, call the M.E. and get her here as well!" she shouted, jarring them from their caffeine-pastry bliss.
"What is it, what's going on?" She heard the voices behind her as she dashed to her desk to retrieve her cell phone, calling Sheriff Eckhart first, then Caleb, then Delson. No answer anywhere.
As the officers and forensics crew arrived, she finally gave in to the shock. She sat numbly at her desk, redialing the three numbers over and over until finally, nearly two hours later, an answer at Delson's house.
"What is it, woman?! I was trying to get some sleep! I am on vacation, you know!" Delson growled into the receiver.
"Please.. Del I'm sorry, it's Janice... she's dead, right here at the station, can't find the Sheriff.."
"Slow down, girl. I'm on my way."
Delson knew where he'd find Sheriff Eckhart, they'd spent many nights at Red's in their younger days as deputies. He drove directly there and found his old friend tucked in a corner booth with Caleb, an array of empty shot glasses and beer bottles around them.
"Well, drunk as your are, Sheriff, you're needed. Now"
"Damnit, Del, aren't you on vacation? what are you doing running errands for Janice?"
"There's been another murder, at the station." Delson said, staring at the two of them flatly.
The color drained from Caleb's face.
"Oh God, Marnie!" He scrambled to get out of the booth.
Delson caught him by the collar. "Easy Cal, weren't Marnie, why would she be at the station?"
Eckhart put his head into his hands. "God help me...Del, tell me it's not-."
"Wait! what do you mean why would Marnie be at the station?" Caleb interrupted the Sheriff. "She was supposed to go by and pick up some papers after the funeral. She never dropped them off to you?"
Delson furrowed his brow "No...no she didn't. I think you'd better get home and check on her, Cal, there's plenty of people to handle the scene at the station. Take Joe's truck."
Caleb snatched the keys off the table and raced out of the bar, a thousand horrific possibilities running through his mind
Delson put a not-so-gentle hand under the Sheriff's arm and hauled him up out of the booth.
"Come on, brother. Not going to let you just sit here and in turn let this psycho keep killin' our folks. Lets go."
If every officer hadn't already been occupied with a murder within their very own police station, Caleb would have certainly been arrested, fellow brothe rin blue or not. He pushed the Sheriff's old truck to 75mph through residential neighborhoods, blew through stop signs and clipped two parked cars turning onto his street. He raced in the into the house, shouting for Marnie all the way. He ran all through the ground floor, then went up the stairs. As he reached the top, he heard a sound that had no place in that moment; a light, childlike laughter. There was a flash of movement to his right on the landing, a searing pain in his head, and then it all went black.