More Dark than Night
Morality, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. But can it transform a crime of opportunity into a crime of compassion?
The smell hit me as I jimmied the window open. I climbed in anyway, hoping I was wrong.
It's funny how life can be broken down into a small series of events, where a simple decision can alter the entire outcome. An if in the right place can change your perspective. If I'd been smart, I'd have immediately turned and left for parts unknown. If I'd gone for the living room window instead of the kitchen window, I may never have known she was there. If I'd decided to burgle the house on either side of hers (or even one halfway across the island in, say, Mililani Town), I could have avoided the whole thing.
As it happened, I found the woman in the kitchen, hanging from a rope, bare feet dangling above the floor. It was a botched hanging, common when folks try to kill themselves. In a proper hanging, the drop breaks the neck and knocks the victim unconscious--death is quick. But this woman hadn't given herself enough height. She had choked slowly. It probably took her five minutes.
She was definitely dead. Her eyes bulged out like a cartoon character and her face and neck were dark red. Her mouth was open, the tongue hanging out like a sausage. Somehow, she swayed slightly, her body making tiny circles in the air.
She hadn't been dead long, probably no more than a few hours. The smell I had noticed was from her bowels and bladder letting go in those last moments of life. Some evolutionary throwback designed to make our bodies as unappetizing as possible before some saber-toothed tiger made a meal of them. Takes all the glory out of dying, if you know what I mean.
That's assuming there ever was any glory in dying.
I made my way carefully around the body, not touching her and being even more careful than usual about fingerprints. It wouldn't do to give anyone the impression I was linked to this mess. Good ol' Five-Oh found burglars merely annoying, but if they thought a burglar was icing middle-class housewives things could get uncomfortable very quickly.
It was the refrigerator that stopped me. I'd seen these things in a hundred houses before this one. Crude drawings of palm trees, flowers and, most of all, horses. All done in crayon and held to the fronts of refrigerators with magnets shaped like fuzzy animals or cookies or other suburban bric-a-brac. The difference this time was the woman hanging from the light fixture behind me.
With a chill I recognized the scenario. Single parent--for some reason known only to Your Preferred Deity of Infinite Greatness--offs herself, leaving a child behind. I'd been that child once.
Now there was another.
I did something stupid. I turned to the dead woman, my stomach a cold stone rising in my throat, and hit her with the crowbar I had used on the window. I'm not sure how many times I hit her, knocking her body around like a piñata, cracking bones and not stopping until she struck the edge of the counter and jarred a stack of plates. The plates didn't hit the floor; a few just slid into the sink. But until then, the beating had been quiet and she certainly hadn't complained. Silence returned; I watched as the corpse swung, limp. My eyes were wet when I finally got myself under control.
Business as usual, I said to myself and crept into the living room on shaky legs.
No. Not quite. I was searching the house, not for the caches of valuables people think they've so cleverly hidden, but for people. I found a child's room, toys scattered around the floor but the bed made. A doll house rested in the pale light coming through the window, looking like a tenement cross-section with miniature furniture spilling out the sides. A little girl lived here, but judging from the bed, not tonight.
The master bedroom had the double bed I expected, unmade, but only half a closet of clothing, all female. The adjoining bathroom was littered with woman's gear, the medicine cabinet was lined with ointments, salves and pills. The pills were arranged more neatly than anything else in the bathroom. They were familiar. Valium. Xanax. Tranquilizers and sedatives.
Aside from myself, there was no living person in the house. The corpse was still spinning when I came back to the kitchen. I wasn't sure why I returned. There was something that needed to be done, something important. I stood there a long time, watching the woman slowly rock to a halt, not thinking of anything, until a red light caught my attention. An answering machine. I pushed the button and waited for the tape to rewind.
"Kini, this is Hal. Don't pick up if you don't feel like it, the message is the same. Don't call me anymore. Don't write me anymore. I have my own life to live and the two of you don't figure into it. Just leave me alone."
There was a brief pause and a beep before the second message began. "Mommy, this is Keke. I'm at Amy's house now. Thanks for letting me sleep over. We're going to have pizza. Bye!"
The message ended with a final beep.
So the girl was spending the night at a friend's. I turned, looking at the woman again. The little girl will come home tomorrow to find Mommy's little surprise waiting in the kitchen. How clever of you, Mommy. How wise of you. To screw yourself and her at the same time. What a wonderful, self-centered, vicious trick.
I ran my hands through my hair, leaving trails in the black grease I use. It wasn't fair. The little girl hadn't done anything, any more than I had at her age. But now she'll find her mother hanging from her neck like a goose and she won't understand. No, that's not right--she'll understand too well. She'll understand the woman she put all her trust in has let her down. She'll understand her mother wanted to die more than she loved her own daughter. And she'll remember that lesson above all others.
Unless someone changed the lesson.
Cutting her down was no trouble at all. I wouldn't be able to make the rope burn look like a ligature strangulation--it wouldn't have looked right. So I taped her hands and feet together, careful not to bruise or break the skin. A wound delivered after a person has died is different from one delivered while the person is alive. While the damage I had done when I first found her would be curious, it wasn't impossible. But the rest had to look good. I taped the hands in a manner she wouldn't have been able to do herself and put the body on the master bed, wrapped it up in the sheets, and broke the lock on the bedroom door.
I paused at the postmortem lividity in her feet. After she had died, blood had pooled in the lowest portion of her body. Her feet had turned deep purplish-red color. They gave away that she had been moved after death, and I wondered if that was what I wanted.
I tried to reconstruct what the evidence might show. Forced entry into the bedroom. A struggle from the bedroom to the kitchen. (I would have to knock things around to make it look convincing.) She was taped up, and a poor job of hanging had been forced on her. After death, she had been knocked around, taken down, and left in the bedroom.
That might work. At least it was obvious someone else was involved. And although there wouldn't be any defensive wounds (there wasn't anything I could do about it), the scene did not scream of suicide.
All that remained was to make sure there were no suicide notes, take a few items of value, and make an anonymous phone call to Five-Oh. Then let the cops figure it out.
I didn't have to do it. I could have let it go. What does one girl's pain mean in the big scheme of things?
It just so happens it means a lot.
Christopher O'Kennon (email@example.com) is a freelance writer living in Richmond, Virginia. He has been published in several newspapers and magazines (where, he reports, he has managed to enrage both the Henrico Police Department and the U.S. Navy). He spent two years working in a psychiatric hospital, which altered his outlook on life quite a bit.
InterText stories written by Christopher O'Kennon: "More Dark than Night" (v4n6), "With Thoughts of Sarah" (v6n4).
InterText Copyright © 1991-1999 Jason Snell. This story may only be distributed as part of the collected whole of Volume 4, Number 6 of InterText. This story Copyright © 1994 Christopher O'Kennon.