Frank knelt on the mossy stone floor next to the body and pressed his fingers to its neck.
“Dead?” asked Clyde.
“Dead dead?” asked Clyde.
“Dead dead,” said Frank. He stood and wiped his hand on his jeans. Had it been a good man at their feet, there might have been a different conversation. Had a good man lain beaten, his face in cornmeal lumps, his limbs askew, the men would have removed their caps and bowed their heads and called on the mercy of their Lord and Savior.
But the dead man was not a good man. Or at least these men did not believe him to have been a good man. These men believed this dead man to have been the worst kind of man, a pervert, a predator, so the men felt little guilt over the death of this bad man to begin with, and guilt dilutes when shared. Which one of them had landed the fatal blow? Whose boot or fist had demanded too much of flesh and bone? It was impossible to tell. It was everyone’s fault; and, therefore, it was no one’s.
“Right. Sooooo…. What do we do now?” asked Clyde, and both he and Frank looked at Teddy. Why they thought Teddy was the man who would know, they could not have said, except that he had worked as a mudhand in the Texas oilfields, and there had always been an edge to his quiet, even before the asbestos took his voice box and a quarter of his left lung. Teddy began gesturing with his hands.
“Find something to wrap him in?” asked Frank, and Teddy pointed in the direction of the trucks and made a square with his hands. Sometime in the night, Teddy had lost his voice modulator. He had spares back in town, but they needed batteries, and none of them had thought to grab batteries when they went back to clear the man’s things from his hotel room and move his car.
“The toolbox,” said Frank, and Teddy nodded. “There’s something we can use in the toolbox.”
“Can’t we just leave him?” asked Clyde. “Ain’t no one gonna find him out here. Leastways not for a while.”
“No one but the buzzards and the bearcats. Town’s only five miles away. Can’t risk them strewing pieces all over,” said Frank. Frank wished Clyde wasn’t involved in any of this. He’d been a weasel his whole life and the crank hadn’t helped that any.
“Fine, I’ll go,” said Clyde. He held his hand out for the keys. Frank tossed them to Teddy.
“If anyone happens by, he’s got reason not to talk,” said Frank.
After Teddy left, Frank walked the room, ran his hand over the vine-choked walls and kicked at the rotten wood that had once been some kind of furniture. He had come to this place while tracking a gut shot deer last Fall, figured it was an old outbuilding left to rot when it became Wildlife Management land. He’d thought about coming back in the summer and setting it up as a blind, but after everything had gone down with his daughters, he hadn’t gotten around to it.
Frank looked over at Clyde squatted beside the dead body, studying it like it had answers.
“So, Sarah was just out with her boyfriend?” Clyde asked. “This guy didn’t have anything to do with it?”
“Ex-boyfriend,” said Frank. “And Sarah is safe by the grace of God. You saw what was in his car. Dozens, maybe hundreds of women are safe because of what we did here.” Frank didn’t realize he had raised his voice until he finished and there was the kind of quiet that only ever followed a man raising his voice. Like most men, he thought it the silence that followed truth. The silence was interrupted by a noise from the doorway and Frank and Clyde turned to see Teddy with an armload of tarp.
Frank and Teddy lay the tarp on the floor, then Clyde rolled the man onto the material and they swaddled him as best they could. He was a small man, but the tarp was frayed and patchy, so their work did not hide what they had done as well as they each had hoped.
“Now what?” asked Clyde.
“We could drive him over to Little River. Let the gators do the work,” Frank said.
“Federal land,” said Clyde. “Someone finds him there, we’ve got the FBI up our asses.”
“No one’s finding him,” Frank said, as much a warning as an assurance.
Clyde shoved his hands into his pockets. “Why not just bury him? Make sure it’s deep enough the animals don’t haul him out?” he asked.
Teddy began moving his hands and the interpretation took a while, but in the end, Frank understood.
“What we need,” Frank said, following Teddy’s hands as he lifted them to the sky, “is an act of God.”
It was the first mention of God since it all began and a needle prick of uncertainty pierced each man’s heart. To break the tension, Clyde asked if Teddy was going to do a dance and call down a tornado. Teddy flipped him double birds, then pointed to his watch and back to the trucks. They had all agreed they should keep to their regular schedule. Teddy needed to check his lines and stop at the Alibi for a few drinks. Clyde needed to get some sleep before his night shift at the gas station. Frank, who called himself a real estate agent but lived off oil rights, would say he was out looking at possible properties and stay with the body until Teddy relieved him that afternoon, then they would all meet back after Clyde’s shift was over. They would each try to think of what could be done with the body until then.
The men walked to Teddy’s truck and gathered the essentials he kept for fishing—a sleeping bag, a roll of toilet paper, a jug of water, Saltines, tinned oysters.
“See you at around five-thirty,” said Frank, after they had set the stuff in the corner away from the body.
“Georgia won’t wonder where you’re at?” asked Clyde.
“She’s not the questioning kind,” said Frank.
Frank had never been around a dead human body that had not been made-up and embalmed. Lots of dead animals, but no humans. He had not been present for any of the hunting or car accidents that had killed his classmates in their youth. And, unlike his wife, who had grown-up in a ragged, violent home and seen her share of death too young, he’d been raised by and among good Christian people who were all still alive. There were movies, of course. And there were the photos and videos from the various wars his football coach had shown them in history class. It was a different thing, though, to smell it. To put your hands on the flesh of the dead.
Frank approached the body and squatted beside it. He pulled out his pocket knife and lifted an edge of the tarp that covered the man’s face. He wondered if the discoloration and swelling was from the beating or from death or both. He withdrew the knife, wiped the blade on his jeans. He examined it before closing and returning it to his pocket. It had been a gift from his youngest daughter, Ruth. Maybe he should have known then. A girl giving a knife as a gift. Her love of science and math. He hadn’t thought anything about it. Had even been proud. His daughter, the future veterinarian. She would get her degree and open a place in town. He had his eye on a few acres over by Bandy Creek that would make for a real nice clinic. Then, once she and Jimmy Hartshorne started their family, she would step back from work and draw on her investment so she could take her natural place as a mother. Her own kind of property rights, in a way. God had revealed this plan to Frank years ago. It was holy. Sacrosanct.
But then, well, then Satan had his way with her. And now? Who would have her now? Even after the folks at the treatment center cured her, who would sign-on for the jokes? The shame? Maybe there was a mission trip she could join. Maybe a man who dealt with lepers all day wouldn’t flinch at a woman who had lain in homosexual sin. Frank knelt. He prayed that the people at the camp knew what they were doing. He asked God to please guide their hearts and their hands as they worked to expel the demon of homosexuality from her.
Frank felt better after the prayer. God had reminded him that he still had his Sarah. No matter that she had been acting-up recently, Sarah was a good girl. Maybe she had always been more her mother’s child, but he could see now that this was how it was supposed to be, that Satan had turned Ruth against her womanly nature to prefer the company of her father. Did he bear some guilt for not seeing this sooner? For embracing what he thought had been a special bond between them?
Frank shook away those thoughts. It was the devil who had turned Ruth. He was being tested. Like Abraham. Like Job. Like Jesus. Just as he had been tested when this man had appeared. This pervert. This predator whose car was covered in bras of all sizes and types. Frank knew about this stuff. Had seen the movies. Those were trophies. This man had harmed so many women. Maybe he hadn’t abducted Sarah, like they had all thought. Maybe she had snuck away with the Moore kid without telling anyone. But this man would have harmed Sarah, given the chance, so Frank had done what was right. He had protected his family. They had not meant to kill the man, but the man had died, and so it was God’s will that he had died, and so it was his will that the man had died at Frank’s hands.
Our hands, Frank reminded himself.
Something scuffled in the room. A rat appeared, and he shouted it away. He decided to sit next to the body. If the others asked why he stayed so close, he would tell them it was because of the rats. He would not tell them that when Satan tempted his heart with doubt, he would press his hands into the dead man’s flesh and be comforted.
Normally, Clyde liked sleeping most of the day and working late into the night. He didn’t much care for most people and the schedule meant he didn’t have to be around too many. But even after four beers and two frozen pizzas—a combination that normally resulted in sleep—he still found himself pacing his house like he’d had a hit, a habit he’d pretty much kicked. Almost entirely. Recreational now more than anything. Maybe just a little today. Just to get him through. Now every car that passed was the police coming to question him. Every bird call was a SWAT team approaching him in the trees.
After a bit, Clyde decided to get some cash from the bank and then drive over to the Wal-Mart in Poteau and purchase some things. He agreed that burial was not an option. He hadn’t been thinking straight when he’d said it. Would have stopped them all before they did anything that stupid. But what on earth did Teddy mean by ‘an act of god’? What were they supposed to do, make a flood? Locusts? They had to be modern about this shit. Scientific.
Clyde had read a lot about murder. Watched all the good movies. Read all the books he could find on Dahmer and Jack the Ripper and the Son of Sam. His favorite, though, was the Zodiac, because he had never been caught. He’d even taunted the police, stayed in the same area, left evidence behind, and they still hadn’t caught him. Why? Because he was smart. Smarter than the cops, that was for damned sure. And those were city cops. It wouldn’t take much to outsmart Sheriff Carter, or Jimmy Hartshorne, or that new kid up from Florida.
Clyde walked the aisles and loaded the cart with what they would need to make sure the man was never found. He knew Frank was good for a refund. That was how life went, a man like Clyde could work hard his whole life and stay broke, and a man like Frank just sat around drawing interest on what they’d pulled outta his papa’s land years ago. Clyde would rather be lucky than good any day.
“Sorry, people gotta be eighteen to buy this now, on account of the suicides,” said the cashier as she asked for his ID. Clyde knew it would look worse if he canceled the sale.
“My boyfriend’s from over near Pekolah,” said the cashier, glancing at the driver’s license and then handing it back and punching in numbers. “You know Bryce Deelah?”
“I just moved there,” said Clyde, and knew this was a stupid move. Of course he knew the Deelahs. He had grown up with some of their cousins. Hell, Bryce’s sister had been in the gas station when the man had been there, had said she’d gotten a creepy feeling from him. If the cashier remembered his name or his tattoos, there would be no denying who had bought all this stuff, which would lead anyone with even Jimmy Hartshorne’s brain to guess why.
“Well, this looks like a big project,” said the cashier. “If you need any help, I can give you Bryce’s number. He’s real good at stuff like this.”
“Like what?” asked Clyde.
“Plumbing stuff,” she said, as she gave him his change.
“I’ve got it covered,” he said. He tried to keep his face down. There were cameras, right? There were always cameras.
“Have a good one,” said the cashier as Clyde pushed the cart away, not too fast, but not lingering. When the greeter smiled and told him to have a blessed day, Clyde’s hands shook so hard they rattled the cart. He was fucked. He was absolutely fucked.
After Clyde loaded the supplies into his truck, he sat in the cab, his hands gripping the steering wheel. He hadn’t wanted to do this, had just taken the voice modulator as a back-up plan. But he had no choice now. An act of God. It was Teddy’s fault for being the kind of idiot who believed in stuff like that.
After the sound of Frank’s truck faded, Teddy felt the silence in a way he had not felt it in years. No electric lines or the distant blur of traffic or even the lapping of lake water against his boat. Only his own breath and heartbeat. The shuffling of his body. It was not the first time he had kept watch over a corpse. At least this time it was a stranger.
Teddy decided to walk the perimeter and look for his modulator, which is when he began to notice signs of people being around the building. Flattened vegetation. Saplings cut down. He wondered who, or at least what kind of people had been there—teenagers looking for a place to have sex or tramps following the old rail line or hunters tracking prey or kids let loose to roam the hills and make stories of what the building had been and how it had come to be abandoned. White kids, thinking only of white people, and that only when white people began to live in a place did it begin to exist. Teddy stomped on fallen logs and kicked at underbrush. He discovered nothing left interred. His voice modulator was there somewhere, though. It had to be. There was nowhere else.
Teddy returned to the building and examined it more closely. Whoever had been there seemed to be trying to clean up the place—some vines had been pulled from the walls and there should have been even more debris. He wondered what the person who had done this work would think if they saw that someone else was there. Would he confront Teddy or sit in the trees and watch? Had he been watching while they took the man inside? While they took his life? Had he ignored the man’s cries for help in order to save himself?
Teddy began to sweat and his heart began pounding in his ears. This hadn’t happened in a long time while he was awake. He was awake, wasn’t he? His vision blurred and he tried to walk back to the building, but only made it a few steps before he fell to his knees. His hands gripped the grass. Shelter. He had to get to shelter.
Teddy came back to himself holding the dead man in his arms and rocking and crying and singing a song whose melody and words faded as the world became what it was again instead of a what it had once been. He laid the man on the floor and waited for his heartrate to steady and his hands to stop shaking. When he was able, he walked to the stone wall and leaned his head against it, then reared back and hit it. He did so again. And again. He stopped when blood stung his eyes. Those other men. They thought that as long as no one found the body, it would be over. They did not know that some memories burrowed into your marrow, that overtime, they hollowed you.
Teddy used his shirt tail to clean the wound on his forehead as best he could. When it seemed the bleeding had stopped, he stripped off his shirt and used the water from the Igloo to wash his hands and forearms before he rolled the body onto its back again. As he did so, he felt something hard beneath the wrapping, a shape his fingers recognized, one that had not been there when they had first swaddled the man. He was sure of this.
Teddy held the voice modulator in his palm as if weighing it. Frank or Clyde. Frank or Clyde. Clyde was the more likely, given his nature, but Frank was the one with the most opportunity and the most to lose. Or maybe it was the two of them together. Of course they would frame the Indian. Probably why he’d been asked to help in the first place. No coincidence Frank had come to the gas station when he did. Clyde had probably called him, told him Teddy was there refilling his ice chest. No wonder they had suggested gators and burial. They hoped the body would turn-up. Hoped to point fingers. What if that’s where they were now? What if they were with the cops? No, if the plan had been to go to the cops, Teddy would already be in custody. They wouldn’t want to be implicated even that much. They would come back and suggest Teddy be the one to haul the body in his truck while they drove separate. An anonymous tip would get him stopped on the highway. Teddy would understand why they kept driving. Would keep his mouth shut like a good Indian. Well, they wouldn’t get the chance.
Teddy scoured the place for more planted evidence then removed as much of himself as he could. It took a while to load the body and arrange his gear to disguise it. He was still a big man, but the loss of his lung had left him winded by the smallest tasks. By the time he was finished, there were only a few hours before Frank and Clyde were due back.
Teddy drove not knowing if he would place the body in Clyde’s truck or Frank’s. Sure, he disliked Clyde more, but Frank was smart and had money for a good lawyer. He would be the one a jury needed “beyond a reasonable doubt.” And even if one or both of them were convicted, went to prison, they would still not have paid for what they tried to do to him. What he really needed was for the original plan to happen. Make the man’s death look like an act of God. Then he could take Frank and Clyde out himself, over time. They would know the consequences of their actions.
Teddy stopped at the highway juncture and heard what his mind first registered as a woman’s scream, but then knew the sound for what it was – bearcats caterwauling to each other, letting the others know there was food to be had. A sound he’d learned to mimic as a kid so as to draw them near. He’d place some dead thing in a clearing and watch them tear it apart. They were no threat to a full-grown person, but what if a man as small as the one he had carried were near dead? What if that man wandered his way to one of their favorite watering holes?
The perfect act of God had presented itself.