Check our activities for The Lake here: https://eflshorts.com/category/the-lake-activity/
Get away with murder? You have a ghost of a chance…
As she usually did on crisp, spring mornings, Annie Baker settled on her porch with a cup of coffee in her hand and watched the early morning sun climb over the Argent Valley hills and the Easton River. From her cabin on the valley’s southern slopes, she loved to watch the light from the morning sun sparkle on the river and listen to the birds whose songs filled the pine, birch and hickory forests all around her. ‘Seventy two years,’ Annie said to her dog, Rufus, ‘and I still love this place.’
Rufus gave a wag of his tail and Annie patted his head.
The house that Annie lived in was built by her grandfather. It overlooked the Easton River just two miles north of the old silver mine at Hunting. Two hundred years ago, her grandfather had worked in the mine, but the silver didn’t last. After the mine closed, most people moved away. Within a year, Hunting was empty: people needed work. Many went to Easton, the nearest city, and began new lives. Soon, Hunting became a ghost town.
But not everyone left the area. Annie’s grandfather was one of the few people who stayed. He bought some land in the valley – acres were cheap then – and he built a house. That house passed to Annie’s father; and after he died, it became Annie’s. Her father had begun a lumber business. He had bought more and more land until most of the valley was his. When he died, the land also passed to Annie. That had been nearly twenty years ago.
Annie sipped her coffee. Through the kitchen window, she glanced inside her house, checking that she had switched off the stove. She had. Her eye caught a book on her small dining table and a line from one of her favourite authors, Marcus Aurelius, came to mind: ‘Take your delight and find your rest in one thing alone.’ When she was younger, she had taught at a college in Easton. Those days were long gone, but Aurelius’s work was still a constant companion and the land that she owned was still a constant delight.
She watched a kingfisher plunge into the river. That reminded her: she needed to make an appointment with a lawyer soon. She planned to create a private wildlife park; she even had a name: The Kingfisher Reserve. But she would need help. She smiled. Abe Longman, the best lawyer in Easton, was almost as old as she was. She would call him later. ‘I’ll see Abe next Tuesday,’ she thought. ‘That way I can do my shopping too.’
First, there was a floor to clean, a cake to bake and wood to chop. She put down her coffee stepped off the porch and picked up the axe. She was about to line up the first piece of pine when she froze.
‘Was that a car that she could hear?’ She listened and groaned when she was sure that it was. It could only be one person: Big Donnie Brown. She had forgotten. Three days ago, he had called and told – not asked – her that he was coming to see her; that he had something important to discuss. Annie had tried to refuse, but he was insistent. He promised that if she didn’t like what he had to say, he’d never bother her again.
An offer too good to refuse.
Brown Construction was the biggest company in Easton. Its owner, Big Donnie Brown, planned to build a dam across the Easton River at the eastern end of the Argent Valley, flood the valley, create a lake and build a hundred holiday homes beside it. ‘The lake development will bring money and jobs. There’ll be fishing, water skiing, yachting…’ he would say to anyone who would listen.
There was just one problem, one thing that stopped the lake development from progressing: Big Donnie needed Annie’s land.
‘We can build you a new house, a better one, and you will still have lots of money left over,’ he said to Annie every time he visited. But Annie’s answer was always the same: she didn’t want to move. She loved the family history of her house and the memories that it held…In 1940, her mother and father were married in the house. When she was 12, she helped her father and her grandfather put on a new roof. When she was 22, she married her husband, George. And when she was 23, she had her only daughter, Elsa. George and Elsa and all the rest were long dead. Only Annie and her house remained.
No, she was not selling.
But other people who owned land in the valley were. The Brennans, from the northern slopes, sold their house and moved; so did the Atfields and the Cahills. They all took the money that Big Donnie Brown offered them and went. It was good money too, Annie had to admit. In the end, only she remained. ‘What price can you put on memories?’ she would ask.
While Annie washed her coffee cup, she thought again about the last time Donnie Brown, in his big black Mercedes, came to her house. Every time he visited her, he offered more money. It wasn’t about money, but men like Donnie Brown didn’t understand that. Money had bought him everything; but without Annie’s house and her land, Donnie Brown could not have his lake development.
And even if Annie did want to sell, she wouldn’t sell to him.
Donnie Brown’s Mercedes climbed the hill that led to Annie Baker’s house. The road was narrow and old; and for the fourth time, his car’s wheels sank into another hole.
‘Damn this road,’ Donnie Brown cursed as the car’s front end dipped violently and dirty rainwater splashed up. ‘This is the last time’. In his black, leather briefcase a cheque for four hundred thousand dollars sat. It was his final offer for all the land and property that Annie owned in the Argent valley. He was sick of watching Annie rip up his cheques in front of him and he was sick of travelling 80 km from Easton to watch her do it…
Five minutes later, and ten minutes after he pulled off Interstate 311, Annie’s house came into view.
Gratefully, Donnie pulled into the front yard and brought the S550 to a stop. As usual, Annie was there, eying him suspiciously. He waved and Annie nodded, slipping the axe that she was using to chop wood onto the ground and patting her ugly dog’s head. It still gave three quick, angry barks at Donnie before Annie hushed him.
Donnie shut his car’s door and wiped his forehead with a silk handkerchief. He liked it when people called him ‘Big’ – ‘Big’ Donnie Brown of Brown Construction, with big ambitions and big plans for Argent valley. He started with nothing and now he drove a top-of-the-line luxury Mercedes. He was a big man. ‘Damn, it’s hot,’ he muttered, gazing at the clear blue sky above. It was not much past ten in the morning and already the temperature was in the mid-eighties.
‘Good morning, Ms Annie,’ Donnie called, trying to keep the mud off his black Gucci shoes as he stepped across the yard.
‘Morning,’ replied Annie.
‘It is going to be a fine day.’
‘I guess so.’
Annie was standing in front of her house, over beside a small pile a wood. Donnie crossed the yard and rested a meaty hand on the porch’s short banister.
‘What brings you here, Mr Brown? ‘ Annie asked, though she could guess.
‘Can I have a word with you, Ms Annie?’ Donnie asked. ‘Inside, perhaps?’
‘Out here is just fine,’ replied Annie.
Donnie gave her a smile. He was used to dealing with difficult sellers. Usually, it was just their way of raising the price. But the truth was Donnie wasn’t sure about Annie.
‘Okay…Ms Annie,’ Donnie paused. ‘Have you thought about my last offer for the house?’
‘Yes – and my answer is still the same.’
‘Well, I guessed that,’ said Donnie smiling, ‘and that is why I’m here to see you today.’
‘You’re wasting your time, Mr Brown,’ Annie said.
‘I want you to look at this,’ he said. Balancing on one leg, he brought the briefcase onto his thigh, and popped it open. He brought out the check.
‘I am not interested,’ Annie said.
‘It’s a great deal: a lot more money than this house and land is worth. Four hundred thousand,’ he said, emphasizing each word. ‘That’ll buy you a nice retirement in Florida or…’
‘Turn around and look at that, Mr Brown,’ Annie said, standing and pointing to the valley below with its sunlit hills and trees. ‘And you want to destroy all of it with your dam and your lake?’
Donnie could feel his anger rising, boiling towards the surface.
This old woman is as stubborn as a mule. ‘Not destroy, Mrs Baker,’ he said with an exaggerated calm, ‘improve – improve the Argent Valley.’
‘The answer is still no,’ said Annie, ‘even if you offer me ten million dollars, the answer is no.’
‘Now Mrs Baker,’ said Donnie, raising a chubby finger, ‘I have been fair with you. You can’t say I haven’t. I’ve given you a fantastic offer. More than it is worth.’
‘I didn’t say your offer wasn’t fair,’ said Annie, rising out her chair. ‘I just don’t want to sell. Simple as that!’ She nodded at Rufus. ‘Come on boy…’
‘What’s the matter with you?’ cried Donnie, the sharpness in his voice making Annie freeze. ‘Never lose your cool – it’s bad for business,’ his father used to say. But he could feel the blood pumping pure, red anger now. Didn’t he have a right to be furious with this woman? He was an important man. People expected this deal to go through; they expected him to double and triple their money. Didn’t he tell them he would? ‘I’ll have the land – with or without your consent,’ he spat and slammed his briefcase shut.
‘I hope you are not trying to threaten me, Mr Brown. Rufus was on his feet and growling.
‘You just don’t get it, do you? Do you know how many people want this project to happen? Do you have any idea? This is the biggest single development in the valley EVER! What gives you the right to stop it?’
Annie had heard enough. ‘What gives YOU the right? Look around. Look at it! Doesn’t the environment have value of its own? Don’t the creatures that live here have any rights?’ She took a deep breath. ‘We all know you have friends, Mr Brown. But those friends in city hall can’t help you: I own the land and I AIN’T SELLING!’
‘I’ll bury this house at the bottom of my lake with you in it!’ yelled Donnie, throwing open his car door and hurling his briefcase in to the back seat.
Before Annie could reply, Rufus went racing towards Donnie, his teeth bared. Donnie was quick but not quick enough. He managed to squeeze himself in behind the steering wheel but couldn’t shut the door quickly enough. Rufus bit down on his leg.
‘Aaarrrghhh!’ yelled Donnie, shaking his leg furiously. ‘Get him off me,’ he screamed. ‘GET HIM OFF!’ Annie came running, but already Donnie could see blood running freely from where the dog’s teeth held his ankle. Bringing his other leg over, he launched a kick at Rufus, striking the dog hard on the nose. He pulled the car door shut and sat behind the steering wheel, breathing hard. Rage filled his head. He started the big Mercedes. The dog was standing directly in front of the car with a piece of his Italian silk suit hanging from its mouth. Donnie stamped his foot down on the accelerator pedal and steered straight towards the dog.
From the corner of his eye he saw Annie Baker rush in front of him.
Everything happened so fast.
Donnie looked at his hands and, realizing that they were hurting, relaxed his grip of the steering wheel. How long had he been sitting there? Was it a minute, ten minutes, an hour? He had no idea. For a moment, he felt calm and rested. Everything was quiet – too quiet – no bird song, no wind in the trees, no traffic noise, nothing.
Why was it so quiet…?
Then, in his mind, he saw again Annie fall under the wheels of his car, heard her scream, felt the car roll over her.
It was an accident. You didn’t mean to hit her. It was an accident.
He rested his head on the steering wheel. He began to think.
Nobody saw you…It was her fault. This is your chance Donnie, the chance you have been waiting for. No one will miss her. She’s done you a favour…
Donnie stepped out of the car.
You need to get rid of the body.
Donnie looked around.
Easton swap. Put her in there. No one will ever find her. Do it. Do it quickly.
Below the rear of the Mercedes, Donnie could see Annie’s feet. He looked away and closed his eyes.
You have got to be strong Donnie, you have to deal with her body and you have to do it now…
He opened his eyes again. Annie’s old Ford was parked at the side of her house.
Find the keys to it!
He climbed the steps to Annie’s front door and opened it. The room in front of him, which was full of old photographs and books, led into Annie’s kitchen. He stood in the doorway. He did not want to go inside. He felt dizzy. He put a hand on the door’s frame to steady himself. His fingers hit a bunch of keys that were hanging from a small hook.
With the key that said ‘Ford’ on it in his hands, Donnie rushed outside.
He opened the driver’s door and sat behind the wheel of Annie’s old, red Ford. The inside of the car smelled of wet dog. He turned the key. The car’s engine coughed; then with a roar and a plume of black smoke, it came to life.
You need to hurry. You need to get her and the car into the swamp.
The old Ford was facing his Mercedes. Next to it, Rufus still sat, his head resting on his paws.
‘The dog! What am I going to do about the dog?’ asked Donnie aloud.
Forget about the dog…
Donnie stood on the high, grass banks beside the Easton swamp. He looked around – there was no one for miles. People didn’t fish this far down the river because Annie hadn’t allowed them on her property.
Nothing to worry about – just do it!
Donnie released the brake and – slowly at first, then more quickly – Annie’s old Ford with Annie’s body inside it ran down the hill and into the swamp. He watched the car sink until it finally disappeared below the thick, brown water. Nobody was ever going to find the car or Annie.
In five years time, Annie, her car and her house will be under a hundred feet of water.
Donnie laughed and slapped the side of his leg. ‘Hey Annie,’ he shouted, ‘you should have sold at $400,000! I’m going to get myself a real bargain when I buy your place.’
Edward Lake covered the whole of the Argent valley. It was twelve miles long and one mile across at its widest point. At the lake’s southern end, sat the Easton dam. The local people called it `The Concrete Monster`. It took Brown Construction five years to build it, but it had made Donnie Brown the richest man in Argent valley’s history. When the dam was finished and the lake was created, Donnie named the lake after his father, Edward.
Donnie stood on the balcony of his house and looked over the calm, black water of Edward Lake. His house, the largest of the two hundred properties that sat around Edward Lake, looked out over the water to where Annie Baker’s house used to be.
No one had asked any difficult questions about Annie’s disappearance. There were no family members or friends who came looking for her and there was no police investigation. Farley, the sheriff, was happy to speculate about Annie. She was known to go walking all over the hills around the Argent valley. Chances were she just didn’t make it back home. And in an area as big as the valley, the Easton sheriff’s office didn’t have the resources to go looking for some crazy old coot.
Donnie knew the truth of the matter: Farley was too stupid and too lazy to bother.
A year after Donnie put Annie in the swamp, he bought her house and all her land at auction. He paid just one hundred thousand dollars: three hundred thousand dollars less than Donnie had offered Annie.
Donnie smiled. Every time he thought about how profitable the development was, it made him want to laugh: ‘a big profit, for a big man!’ He was proud of his success. Why not? Rich people had come from all over the country to build their houses at Edward Lake – just as Donnie said they would – and the city of Easton was rich and alive with new businesses. All thanks to ‘Big’ Donnie Brown.
The lake was beautiful this morning; the sun felt warm on his face. There would be a lot of people out on the water today enjoying the good weather. ‘I might even go out myself,’ thought Donnie. ‘Do a little fishing.’
He picked up his cup of coffee and raised it slightly. ‘I told you, Annie – I told you it would all be mine.’
Donnie leaned forward in the driver’s seat and steered his big Mercedes along the dark road beside Edward Lake. The rain was falling hard, a torrent of water that the window wipers were able to clear for only the briefest of moments before the glass was submerged again. To Donnie, it felt like he was driving underwater; and once again, he wished that he were home in bed.
But Donnie knew that he needed to concentrate. He was tired – the golf club dinner at Rushmore Park finished two hours ago and it was now nearly 2 a.m. ‘I should have stayed in Rushmore,’ he thought. ‘I should have taken Don’s advice and…’ But Donnie didn’t complete the thought – a car, its headlights blazing, swung round a bend in the road in front of him and crossed into Donnie’s lane. It all happened in a fraction of a second.
‘BEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEP!’ blasted the other car with its horn.
Donnie pulled hard on the steering wheel as the other car flashed past. The Mercedes swerved to the right and its passenger side struck the barrier: ‘KAARUMP!’ The steering wheel leapt out of Donnie’s hands and spun wildly. The big car twisted across the two lanes towards the trees on the other side of the road. Donnie stamped on the brakes, furiously turning the steering wheel and the Mercedes stopped a metre away from the trunk of an ancient oak.
Donnie sat listening to the rain drum down hard on the roof like a stampede of horses. He opened his door and stepped out. Even in the dark and the rain, he could see that the right hand side tire was flat and the passenger’s door was badly damaged.
Donnie wiped the water from his eyes while the rain soaked through his Italian silk suit and shirt. ‘Now what am I going to do?’ he asked himself. He stood staring up the road, listening. Was he mistaken? Then, he heard it again: a car. The engine noise was loud and rough. Donnie splashed into the middle of the road as the two headlights of the car approached and waved his arms above his head.
The car stopped fifty yards away, the beam of its headlights blinding Donnie. He covered his eyes with his hands. All Donnie could see was the two bright lights.
‘Hey, I need a ride,’ he shouted.
The car in front of him revved its engine loudly.
‘HEY! I NEED SOME HELP HERE!’
‘VROOM!’ roared the car’s engine as it revved even louder. ‘VROOOOOOOM!’
Donnie shook his head. ‘Could this night get any worse? First some jerk nearly runs into me and now some fool is playing games.’ He took a step forward.
‘VROOOOOOOOOM!’ The car drove straight at Donnie.
Donnie screamed and dived to the side. As he landed in the wet mud, he turned his head just in time to see the rear lights of a rusty, old red Ford disappear into the rainy darkness.
Big Donnie woke up in his bed and his tired eyes slowly focused in the dark. Something wasn’t right. His eyes opened fully and his heart began to beat hard: someone was in his bedroom, standing beside his wardrobe. In an instant, Donnie had rolled over and was reaching for the gun on his bedside table. As his fingers fumbled for the revolver, he stared back at his wardrobe – and his head fell back onto his pillow. Hanging from his wardrobe door, his Italian suit dripped water onto his bedroom floor.
Donnie shook his head and took a deep breath. ‘What’s wrong with me?’ he asked.
Not a lot frightened Donnie. Over the years, he had made a lot of enemies: local politicians, policeman, businessmen, and even friends. But only one person really troubled him: Annie Baker. Recently, the image of her dead body below the wheels of his Mercedes had bounced around his head like a table tennis ball in a goldfish bowl.
He looked at the clock – nearly 4.30am. He had been asleep for just 40 minutes. He pulled the silk bed sheets up to his chin and closed his eyes. In his mind’s eye, he saw again the old Ford that had almost crashed into him earlier, its red tail-lights shining in the darkness like demon eyes. He turned over in his bed, restless…
Donnie sat upright.
‘BEEEEEEEEEP, BEEP, BEEP, BEEEEEEEEP!’
‘WHAT NOW?’ he shouted angrily. The noise of the car horn was loud and close. Was it coming from his driveway? But that was impossible: there was a wall around his house and the big metal gates at the entrance were locked. He knew they were locked. He did it every night before he went to bed. Donnie swung his legs out of bed, crossed the room and looked out of the window: nothing there, just the tall dark spruce trees that grew around his house. He walked out into his hallway.
There it was again. He walked to the window at the far end of the hallway and, taking hold of the large heavy curtain that hung from the ceiling to the floor, pulled them apart. To his extreme left, two big circles of light shone on his garage door – but he couldn’t see a car.
‘DAMN YOU!’ shouted Donnie. He walked back to his bedside table and picked up the big silver pistol out of the drawer. The heavy weight of the gun felt good in his hand. In the ivory handle, eight diamonds sparkled in the shape of a large `D`.
Donnie checked the gun. It was fully loaded. He grabbed a robe and, still in his bare feet, went down his spiral staircase to his front door.
Donnie threw open his front door and ran outside into his driveway. The security lighting flashed on and the area around him was flooded with light. He looked around: the garage to his right and the wall around his property in front of him. No car and no one.
He ran towards the edge of the building and stood with his back to the cold bricks, ready to spin around the corner. Hugging the gun to his chest, he took a deep breath and leapt out ready to fire.
The driveway stretching towards the gates lay empty before him. Beyond the pool of light that he stood in, there was only the blackness of the night. He let out his breath slowly; and, with the wind tugging at his robe and the wet stones chilling his feet, he lowered his gun. ‘What a night!’
He turned around and took a step back towards the house. Something wet and cold squeezed up between his toes. He looked down: he had stepped on thick, muddy, tyre tracks covered in slime.
Donnie looked up. In the darkness on the other side of the gates, two red tail-lights suddenly came on.
‘VROOOOOOOM!’ the car’s engine roared.
Donnie stepped back and raised the big silver pistol.
‘VROOOOOOOOOOOOOM!’ The engine revved again.
‘BLAM!’ Donnie fired a bullet into the air. ‘Get out of here! This is my property…`BLAM!’ he fired again.
The two red lights didn’t move.
‘VROOOMMMMM!’ The car reversed out of the darkness and into the edge of the artificial light that spilled down the driveway.
Donnie’s arms fell to his side and he stood motionless.
‘BEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEP!’ The cars horn blasted loudly and then the two red lights drove off into the black night, the tyres spraying up dust and stones.
Donnie watched the old red Ford go.
Big Donnie sat at the desk in his office. Usually he was in his office by nine, but he was late this morning. He looked at his watch – ten o’clock already – and swallowed two pills with a drink of water. Dark rings lay below his eyes and his head ached; the rain crashing against his office window didn’t help either.
A knock on his office door interrupted his thoughts. ‘Come in,’ he said, with the bitter taste of the pills still in his mouth.
The door opened and his blonde-haired secretary, Cindy Duke, stuck her head round the door. ‘Sheriff Farley’s here to see you Mr Brown,’ she said. ‘Will I ask him to come in?’
Big Donnie groaned again, but sat up straight in his leather chair. He nodded.
Cindy smiled and disappeared. Donnie heard her talking to someone and then laugh. The office door opened again and Sheriff Farley walked in. Donnie watched the old man as he came towards him. Farley was in his sixties, with long silvery, grey hair and moustache.
‘Mornin’ Mr Brown,’ Sheriff Farley said. ‘What do you want to see me about?’
The old Sheriff sat down in the chair opposite Big Donnie. He took off his tan cowboy hat, sat it in his lap and took a deep breath. Donnie wondered how much that breath cost him – no one could accuse the old man of being cheap.
‘I’m being followed,’ said Big Donnie getting straight to the point.
‘Who’s following you?’ Sheriff Farley asked simply, stroking the top of his hat.
‘I don’t know,’ replied Big Donnie, ‘but I want it to stop.’
‘It’s going to be hard to stop this person when you don’t know who it is,’ said Sherriff Farley.
Big Donnie wondered what he should tell the old Sherriff. Should he tell him everything? Donnie didn’t think so. ‘I don’t know who it is but they drive an old red Ford.’
‘There’s an awful lot of people driving old, red Ford cars in these parts Mr Brown,’ said Sheriff Farley. ‘I’m going to need more information than that.’
‘They came out to my house on the lake last night,’ continued Big Donnie, ‘blasting on their horn and driving their car all over my property.’
‘Have you upset anybody lately Mr Brown?’ Sherriff Farley asked, a sly smile on his face.
Big Donnie ignored it. ‘I want you to find out who it is and I want it to stop… permanently. Do you understand.’
There was knock at his door and Cindy opened the heavy oak door again.
‘Damn it! What is it Cindy? Can’t you see I’m busy?’
‘Sorry Mr Brown, but there is someone messing with your Mercedes car down in the car park,’ said Cindy quickly. ‘She looks kind of old and…’
‘She?’ interrupted Big Donnie. The colour drained from his face.
‘Yeah, I think so,’ replied Cindy, placing at a thick red fingernail in her mouth.
Big Donnie stood up from behind his desk his anger rising along with his fear. ‘Is it a woman or not?’ he yelled.
‘I think it’s a woman,’ Cindy repeated. ‘I tried knocking on the window because I saw her bending down at the front door of your Mercedes. I thought she was trying to break into your car. I knocked real loud too and still she didn’t turn round…
Big Donnie ran from his office, pushing Cindy out of the way. He ran to the window beside her desk and looked out into the office car park. There was no one there, only his big black Mercedes.
‘What is it Mr Brown?’ Sherriff Farley called.
Donnie said nothing. He hurried out his office and swung open the door to the emergency exit stairs. The Sherriff watched him go. Minutes later, Donnie burst out the back door of the office block and into the car park. He stopped and stood, his Mercedes in front of him, the rain falling softly on him. Sherriff Farley’s footsteps, faint at first, grew close and finally stopped.
‘You okay Mr Brown?’ asked Sherriff Farley coming down the last set of stairs. ‘Seems like you are wound up pretty tight…’
But Big Donnie didn’t answer. Instead, his eyes were fixed on the big black Mercedes and the words that had been written on it:
THE EVIL THAT MEN DO
Farley looked at the words too and put on his hat. ‘Are you sure that you ain’t annoyed someone lately?’
‘Maybe,’ replied Donnie, his voice low. ‘But I want you to find who did this and I want you to deal with them,’ he said, his eyes still on the Mercedes.
‘It won’t be cheap – If you are asking what I think you’re asking.’ said Sheriff Farley.
Big Donnie swung round to face Sheriff Farley, his eyes wild, ‘Just do it,’ he shouted.
Big Donnie Brown got out the taxi and took a $50 note from his wallet. He threw the money at the taxi driver through the cab’s open window. ‘Daylight robbery!’ Donnie shouted.
The taxi driver looked at him and, for a moment, Donnie saw a spark of anger flash across his eyes. Then the man laughed and, without a word, drove off. Donnie took a swing at the bumper as it went past, but the kick didn’t connect. Probably just as well – he was far from fighting fit.
The thought that he was well past his prime didn’t make Donnie’s mood any happier. He thought again about his Mercedes and the muddy words painted on its side. When he saw the words, Sherriff Farley told him, with a sly smile, that his face had turned ‘whiter than snow’. Big Donnie had tried to sound in command – telling Cindy to go to Ben Green’s garage and get the car cleaned up – but there was no hiding the fear in his voice.
Donnie reached out a hand towards the entrance gates just as his phone rang. It was Cindy.
‘Mr Green says the car won’t be ready until tonight,’ she reported.
Donnie was in no mood to have a conversation. ‘Wait till it’s ready and bring the car to my home,’ he ordered.
‘Yes, Mr…’ But Donnie finished the call. ‘Another fifty bucks to take Cindy home after she delivers my car,’ he thought bitterly. If there was one thing he hated, it was spending money on unnecessary, unproductive expenses.
‘Waste of money,’ he muttered as he gave the big, iron gates a hard push. They didn’t move. He nodded in approval. Again, he wondered how the red Ford had managed to get down his driveway. Perhaps he had imagined it all. Perhaps it had been a dream. Even while he thought it, he knew that wasn’t true.
Unlocking the door beside the gates, he walked down the driveway to his house. It was a beautiful night: the stars were out and a full moon cast its light across the water of the lake. Big Donnie kept on walking, passing his front door. He wasn’t tired anymore. He walked down through his garden and made his way to the back of his property and the private pier that stretched out onto the lake. Next to the pier, his motorboat, sleek and pale, moved gently up and down in the dark water. Donnie took a deep breath of the cool night air. ‘What a day!’ He put his hand into his pocket and took out the keys for the boat. The weather was perfect, the water was calm, there wasn’t another boat out, but…He stood on the pier with his legs feeling as if they were made of concrete. Fear gripped at his heart with an icy cold hand.
‘This is stupid,’ he told himself. But still he couldn’t move his legs. He stared out over the lake towards where the Easton swamp used to be. The light of the moon didn’t reach that part of the lake. It was dark, so dark that Donnie couldn’t even see the trees that grew by the shoreline over there. He stood staring at the blackness, not moving a muscle, swaying slightly with the motion of the water under the pier.
As still as a rock.
Sheriff Farley shut the front door of his house quietly, took off his boots and tiptoed into his kitchen. He didn’t want to disturb Mary-Beth. Sometimes, she went to bed early; and if he was lucky, tonight was one of those nights.
‘Hank is that you?’
Farley sighed. He put the kettle on and got a cup from the cupboard above the sink. Strong coffee – he needed something to keep him awake. While he was adding sugar to his cup, he thought again about Nancy Hayek. Had he done the right thing? It seemed like a great idea at the time. Nancy was always searching for her next Jack Daniel’s, and he needed someone to paint those words on Donnie Brown’s Mercedes. ‘Just a little joke,’ he had told her. She was reluctant at first, but when he had shown her the $40, she hadn’t wasted any time…
‘I thought you were coming home from work early tonight.’ Mary-Beth was standing in the kitchen doorway dressed in slippers and a thick dressing gown. A cigarette clung to her lips like a goat on a ledge.
‘Something came up and I had to work late,’ Farley replied without looking at his wife. The kettle boiled and he made his coffee.
‘What about your dinner?’ Mary-Beth asked. ‘There’s fish pie in the oven.’
Farley could almost taste the anger that his wife was brewing. `Not hungry. Coffee’ll do.’
‘You ever think of calling and telling me that? I mean, don’t the telephones in your office work? I spend all day waiting for you to come home and you’ve already eaten?’
‘And don’t tell me you’re going to spend half the night in the garage again!’
‘Yip,’ He said simply.
‘YOU AND THAT CAR! If you’re not in the garage all night… you’re away all day fishing on that lake.’
‘Yeah, I know. I heard you the last time and the time before that,’ Farley replied, walking past his wife and into the hall. He couldn’t get to the garage quick enough.
‘Don’t you get smart with me Hank Farley,’ she called from the kitchen. ‘Fishing and old cars, that’s all you do. I never see you…And don’t put your hot coffee cup on my good table.’
‘Whatever you say,’ replied Farley, putting his coffee on the little table. He sat, pulled on his boots then opened the front door.
Mary-Beth, advancing up the hallway, was sounding mad enough to pick up the coffee and throw it at him. `Fishing and cars – that’s all you care about. Fishing and…’
Farley shut the door.
‘Stay out there!’ he heard her yell before the key turned in the lock.
Farley took a deep breath. The cool night air eased his temper. It wasn’t raining anymore; instead, stars shone brightly between pale grey clouds and the air smelt of damp earth – not a bad night to be locked out! Mary-Beth hated him going fishing. But just a few years ago, Hank Farley had landed his biggest catch ever. He smiled at the memory of him fishing on the Easton River near the swamp and the unexpected good luck he had had that day…What a catch! What a fat, ‘Donnie-Brown-sized’ catch!
Farley unlocked the garage door and opened it. His hand reached along the wall and found the light switch. He walked over to the old, rusty, red Ford and ran his hand along the side of its roof. ‘One day soon,’ he said, ‘things round here are going to change.’
Cindy looked at the Mercedes’s interior clock. It was almost half past nine. She pressed the accelerator a little harder and leaned forward in her seat as the big car eased up to 110kph. She wanted to deliver Big Donnie Brown’s Mercedes and return home before 10.30. If there was one thing that Jack hated, it was her not sitting at home when he returned. Jack Hogan, her partner, finished work at 11. If she were lucky, he’d never even know – the possessive, paranoid shmuck! She and Jack had been high school sweet-hearts who had stayed together ever since. Love In The Time of Zits! It had been good at first; but over the years, Jack had changed. He was no longer ‘The student Most Likely To Break A Girl’s Heart’ of their high school yearbook. Instead, he was mean – there was no other word; and yet she was still with him: his moods, his questioning, his belligerence, his checking up, his phone calls.
Something had to change.
Cindy chewed on her bottom lip anxiously. She wondered if Big Donnie would give her a lift me back home right away. She doubted it. She imagined instead him ordering a cab and her having to pay for it.
At least Donnie’s Mercedes was beautifully clean now. Ben Green at the garage took great pride in his work. The inside of the car smelled like pine; and when she had picked up the car, the black exterior had sparkled too. ‘Donnie will be pleased,’ she thought, ‘but not when I tell him Ben Green’s price.’
The road along the Argent valley and the shore of the lake was rushing past her in almost complete silence, lit by the huge headlights of the Mercedes. She glanced in her rear view mirror. A car was coming up behind fast, headlights on full, its high beam reflecting blindingly in the mirror. Cindy slowed down to let the car overtake. ‘Come on,’ she said to the headlights in the mirror, ‘go past me. `
‘Yeah, yeah, I hear you. So come on… go! Get past me!’ Cindy tried to keep her eyes on the road and the car behind her at the same time. The big Mercedes swerved into the middle of the road. Cindy pulled hard on the steering wheel and corrected the car with a screech of the tyres.
‘BEEEEEEEP, BEEP, BEEP!’
‘What’s the matter with you?’ shouted Cindy.
She reached for her handbag on the floor of the car. Her mobile phone was inside, near the top. The car behind suddenly pulled out with a roar of its engine. It was creeping up along side her.
‘BEEEEEEEEEEEEEP,’ blasted the horn again. `BEEEEEEEEEEEEEP!’
Cindy gripped the steering wheel of the Mercedes. She could see a bend in the road in front of her – a tight one.
`BANG!’ the car behind hit the Mercedes.
Cindy screamed as the steering wheel jerked in her hands and the car twisted one way then violently the other. The steering wheel broke free of her grip and she lost control. With her foot hard on the brakes, the Mercedes smashed through a wooden fence and came to a stop hard against an old tree. Crash bags exploded in her face and all around her body. But she was alive.
Sheriff Farley’s phone rang in his pocket. He took it out and looked at the number flashing on the screen. It was the station. He didn’t want to answer it. He wanted peace and quiet to work on the old red Ford. He was going to add more mud and slime to the paint work. He thought again of Donnie Brown’s face when he saw the muddy words painted on his Mercedes. ‘Looked like he was having a heart attack! Wonder what he’d do if he saw this in my garage?’ he said, placing a hand on the Ford before answering his phone.
‘Hi Hank, it’s Daisy. Sorry to trouble you so late at night.’
‘It’s okay, Daisy. What is it?’
‘I’ve got Cindy Duke on the other end of the line and she’s very upset.’
Farley sighed again. `What now?’ he wondered. ‘Was it that no good boyfriend of hers?’
The phone clicked in his ear and then he heard the sobs of Cindy Duke.
‘Sheriff Farley?’ Cindy sobbed. `Is that you?’
‘Yeah Cindy, it’s me. What can I do for you?’
‘I…I… I’ve been in an accident – a… a… maniac tried to run me off the road.’ Cindy burst into tears again.
‘Take it easy. Are you hurt? Where are you?’
‘Out in the Argent valley…on the lakeside road…. near…near where the Easton swamp used to be. I’m okay.’
‘Good,’ said Farley,’ now tell me what happened.’
‘Well…’ sobbed Cindy, `I was taking Donnie Brown’s car back to him… It was lovely and clean and now it’s all…’ Cindy burst into tears again.
‘Yeah, I understand that bit,’ Sheriff Farley said. He was losing his patience now. `Did you get a look at the car? A number plate, anything?’
‘Yeah, I sure did,’ said Cindy. `It was an old red Ford covered in slime and mud…’
Sheriff Farley’s mouth went dry. He turned to face the old red Ford covered in mud in front of him. ‘That ain’t right,’ he breathed as a stab of fear ran down his spine and Cindy Duke, oblivious to the old man’s strange reaction, continued.
Sheriff Farley stepped out of his police car and stood in front of the iron gates of Big Donnie’s house. ‘This is going to be fun,’ he thought, looking through the ironwork at the house, the lake and the pier beyond. He had news to tell Donnie, big news! He pressed the buzzer.
He stretched his stiff arms and legs. He had slept in the garage last night after his argument with Mary Beth. Sleeping in the old, red Ford at his age was not good for his bones. But he was happy to be up early in the morning. He couldn’t wait to tell Big Donnie the news about Cindy’s crash, about the damage to the Mercedes. He pressed the buzzer again.
Where was he? Farley suddenly felt annoyed. He wanted to tell Big Donnie all about the accident and how much it was going to cost. He wanted to see Donnie’s reaction. Ben Green would be able to repair the Mercedes, but it was going to cost a ‘heap of Benjamins’. He pressed the buzzer again, hard.
He sighed heavily. He thought about using the skeleton keys he had used before to open the gates and come into Donnie’s driveway with the red Ford. But if he is home and he sees me opening them…He looked at the top of the gates. ‘I’m too old for this,’ he said and started to climb. It was harder than he thought. At the top of them, his legs started to shake. He looked at the sharp metal spikes. ‘If I fall now,’ he thought, ‘they’ll hear me scream in Easton!’ But somehow, he got up and over the big gates. Landing heavily on Big Donnie’s driveway, he dusted his trousers and straightened his hat. ‘Not bad for a man in his sixties!’ he declared. When he reached the front door, he pounded on it with the toe of his boot.
Farley looked up at the windows. There was no sign of life. He raised his hat and scratched at his head. ‘Where on Earth is he?’ He moved around to the side of the house. As he turned the corner, he saw Big Donnie come out of the motorboat’s interior and climb on deck.
‘Gotcha!’ said Farley and made his way to the boat.
‘Hey, Mr Brown, what are you doing out here at this time of the morning?’ Farley asked as he approached.
Big Donnie stood on the boat with his back to Farley. He was staring across the lake.
Slowly, Donnie turned around. Dark bags hung under his eyes and his face was pale, almost grey.
‘Mr Brown?’ repeated Farley.
Big Donnie eyes flickered. ‘What time is it?’ he asked and turned away again, resuming his watch of the lake.
‘Nine o’clock in the morning,’ Farley told him. ‘Why?’
‘I’ve been out here all night. Looking…watching…’
‘Is that so? What are you looking for?’ asked Farley, enjoying every moment but trying not to smile.
‘Do you believe in ghosts, Farley?’
‘That’s a mighty strange question – if you don’t mind me saying so. Is something bothering you?’ He knew exactly what was bothering Big Donnie Brown. It lay at the bottom of the lake under 100ft of water.
Big Donnie said nothing.
‘I’m afraid I have some bad news for you,’ continued Farley. ‘Cindy Duke was in an accident with your Mercedes last night…The car was damaged pretty badly. Ben Green says he can fix it… but it won’t be cheap. Eight or nine thousand dollars, he thinks.’ Farley stopped talking but Big Donnie didn’t seem to notice.
‘What happened?’ asked Donnie quietly.
‘Some maniac tried to run Cindy off the road.’
Big Donnie turned around sharply. ‘Did she see who it was?’
‘Yeah, but she’s a bit mixed up. She says the car that tried to run her off the road was a rusty, old, red Ford…’ said Farley scratching at his head again.
Donnie’s eyes were as big as plates. ‘A Ford?’ he croaked, a look of terror in his eyes.
Farley waited for Donnie to say more, but he just stared.
‘I have a message for you from Ben Green. He wants to see you. He said eight o’clock tomorrow night at the garage. Do you understand? Something about the car that you need to see.’ Farley studied Big Donnie’s face. ‘You got that Mr Brown? Do you understand?’
‘Yeah,’ Big Donnie nodded. Slowly, his eyes drifted back to the dark waters of the lake, ‘eight o’clock.’
‘Tomorrow night,’ added Farley.
‘Tomorrow night,’ repeated Donnie.
Farley gave Donnie a long stare before turning on his heels and walking back to his police car. He was worried that Donnie would forget about the appointment: the man was almost out of his mind! Had he pushed him too far? He hoped not. He still had plans for him.
Two streets away and in deep shadow, Sheriff Farley was parked in the old red Ford when he saw Big Donnie Brown stop outside Ben Green’s garage and go inside.
‘Good boy!’ he said. ‘So far, so good.’
How long ago did Big Donnie put Annie into the swamp? Five? Six? Seven years? Farley wasn’t sure but he was sure of one thing: now was his time. Ever since that day on the river, he had been planning his move.
Tonight was the final act in his terror campaign.
He yawned and looked at his watch. Just after 8pm, and yet he was sleepy. He hadn’t had a good night’s sleep in weeks. Lately, nightmares had disturbed him. For the past three weeks, every one had been the same: Farley standing beside Donnie, unable to move; Annie’s body in the old red Ford; the car in the swamp, sinking fast; Donnie laughing, laughing hard; the dark water in the car rising; Annie’s face, grey and lifeless; the water swimming up towards her chin, her nose.
Then her eyes would open and she’d look at Farley. She’d look deep, deep into him…
Most times, he had wakened himself with a shout.
He had liked old Annie – a good woman with a kind heart. But he had no illusions. If he had wanted revenge for what Donnie had done to her, he would simply have arrested him. No, no pretence. This was about the money. After tonight, he would send Donnie the first letter: a demand from an ‘anonymous’ blackmailer for $250,000 to keep his mouth shut about Annie. Of course, $250,000 was just the start. Once Donnie was hooked, he’d bleed him dry…
Farley reached over and picked up a bag from the back seat of the car. Inside was a grey wig. He pulled it on. ‘Better be ready for when Donnie comes back out’ he thought. But he couldn’t help chuckling at himself: a grown man in a grey wig! What next? ‘Shame Mary-Beth is so big or else I could have worn one of her dresses!’ That thought made him laugh. But then a worry crossed him mind. When he saw the car in daylight, he wasn’t sure about the colour: was it the same shade of red as Annie’s? He had used ‘Alabama scarlet’ – but perhaps ‘Sunset crimson’ would have been better.
He liked to be exact.
Then again, what did it matter? Big Donnie would never notice the difference. That night when he had driven the old Ford all over Big Donnie’s property and Donnie had come out shooting with his pistol proved it. Farley chuckled. It was all too easy. With skeleton keys to open the gates to Donnie’s house, Nancy Hayek to paint muddy words on his Mercedes, and a few scares with the red Ford, Donnie was ready to pay up big time. After one last scare, he’d send the first letter. After that, all he had to do was keep taking Donnie Brown’s money to the bank!
‘I can fix the car,’ said Ben Green, his eyes on Donnie’s Mercedes, ‘but it’s going to cost…eight, maybe nine thousand.’ From the corner of his eye, he looked at Donnie. The big man stood silently under the garage’s neon lights, his eyes in shadow. ‘That headlight right there,’ continued Ben Green, ‘is going to cost $200 alone and that’s without adding my labour and…’
‘I don’t care – just fix it,’ said Donnie, sharply.
‘Sure thing,’ replied Ben Green. ‘Sure thing.’ Didn’t even say a word of complaint. I should have charged more! He opened a ledger that he held with his oil-stained hands. ’I should have the car back to you…’ He turned a page. ‘Wednesday next week.’
Donnie gave the smallest of nods.
Ben Green wrote something in his book and closed it. He looked at his watch. Half-past eight. His stomach felt empty. He thought about the apartment above the garage, its bare refrigerator, the three or four tins in its cupboards, its worn sofa. He patted the Mercedes, two, three times. ‘You know,’ he said, shaking his head, ‘Cindy Duke’s a lucky girl: lucky to be alive after a bad accident like that. Sure are some crazy drivers out there.’
Big Donnie said nothing. Instead, he turned around and walked out of the garage. The office car that he was driving – a grey Buick – was parked at the front.
‘Don’t you worry, Mr Brown,’ called Ben Green as Donnie Brown swung open the Buick’s door, ‘the car will be as good as new.’
A second later, Ben watched Donnie walk towards the Buick. He pressed a button on the wall. Cold air crept around his ankles as he watched the big steel shutters at the front of the garage slowly begin to fall.
A few moments later, the Buick drive off, its red tail lights disappearing into the misty night.
The noise of the steel shutters falling at Ben Green’s garage interrupted his thoughts.
‘There’s my boy!’ said Farley. ‘My blue-eyed ATM!’ He watched Donnie walk to the grey Buick that was parked across from the garage.
Farley started up the engine of the old Ford. He had had to deal with lots of criminals over the years – and a lot of bent cops. He had always stayed clean – and look what it had got him: a house that was falling down and a wife who was always complaining about not having enough money. If that weren’t bad enough, his monthly pension –when he eventually retired – wouldn’t even cover half his grocery bill. And don’t even mention medical bills.
No, Donnie Brown deserved to pay; and he, Sheriff Farley of Easton Police Department, deserved to be paid!
Farley stamped on the accelerator pedal and roared off into the fog after the grey Buick.
Big Donnie was racing along the lakeside road through the fog in his Buick on his way home from Ben Green’s garage. The road was difficult to see but he didn’t care. The reason he was hurrying was the phone call that he had just received on his mobile. It had made him mad.
The caller gave him a message that was very clear. The caller told him that he knew about Annie Baker. The caller also told him he had 24 hours to get $250,000, ‘or else someone is going to testify that they saw you put her body in the swamp along with her red Ford.’
And the demand for $250,000 was only the start – Donnie was certain of that. But he had a plan too. He knew how to deal with trouble. He looked over at his revolver with the diamond ‘D’ in the handle that was sitting on the empty passenger seat. If he could make Annie Baker disappear then he could make this blackmailer disappear too. When the blackmailer called back to arrange a time and a place, he’d go there with a suitcase full of paper – and his gun.
Dark trees on both sides of the road flew past. He began to wonder if the call could be traced. The mobile was probably unregistered, but he should check it out anyway. Could he trust Farley or should he approach some of his friends at the telephone company directly? He shook his head. Someone had the nerve to try and hustle him! HIM! BIG DONNIE BROWN!
Big Donnie looked in his rear mirror. Two headlights lit up the inside of his car. He recognized the sound of the horn. ‘You again!’
Big Donnie watched as the red Ford pulled out from behind him and started to overtake.
‘I ain’t no Cindy Duke…’ he said with a grimace.
The two cars drove side by side as they passed where the Easton swamp used to be. Big Donnie rolled down the window of the Buick. Across from him, in the other car’s driver’s seat he could see the shape of a head.
He raised his gun and fired three shots
‘I got him,’ said Big Donnie excitedly and reversed his Buick back to where the Ford had disappeared down the embankment. He got out of his car and stared down at the lake. A red tail-light shone in the darkness at the swamp’s edge. For a moment, he was tempted to get back in the Buick and drive away. But he had to see who – or what – was driving the Ford. He had to know. Slipping and sliding on the wet earth, he half-fell, half-ran down the muddy embankment towards the wrecked car. As he reached the bottom of the slope, he slipped and landed on his backside. The car sat a few metres away, the passenger side closest to him, the front end of the Ford sunk in the swamp, the darkness lit only by red glow of a single tail-light.
Donnie stood up. Immediately, he could feel his feet sink into thick mud. Dragging himself forward, he pulled one foot after the other towards the driver’s side.
There – hanging out of the driver’s window – was the grey-haired head of an old woman. Big Donnie froze. ‘No, it can’t be. She’s dead! She’s dead!’
The body moved. The grey wig fell off.
For a moment, Big Donnie couldn’t make sense of what he was seeing. A wig? Donnie watched in horror as the door to the Ford swung open. The body that had worn the wig looked up at him and fell forward, landing just out of the freezing water.
It couldn’t be, thought Donnie. This isn’t possible.
He had stared into the face of Sherriff Farley.
‘Uhhh…’ groaned Farley, turning his face out of the thick mud in which he lay.
It took Donnie a few moments to find the words he needed. When he did, he stamped forward. ‘Not dead yet?’ Big Donnie shouted, reaching down and grabbing hold of Farley by the collar of his jacket. ‘I’ll soon put that right.’ He dragged Farley back into the water and pushed his head under it. ‘I’ve already put old Annie Baker in here,’ he screamed, ‘you can join her.’
Farley thrashed like a fish on dry land. He clawed at Donnie’s arms.
‘No more ghost cars, no more sleepless nights and no more Annie Bakers back from the dead. Easton is going to need a new sheriff,’ said Big Donnie as Farley’s resistance grew weaker and weaker.
Suddenly, Donnie felt an icy hand take hold of his wrist. It seemed to lock onto him like the jaws of a vice and from the dark water there rose a torso, shoulders, a neck…
Big Donnie screamed as the face of Annie Baker appeared before him, her yellow skin and hanging hair lit in the red tail-light of the Sheriff’s Ford.
‘Help,’ screamed Donnie, ‘Farley… HELP ME!’
Sheriff Farley watched, covered in mud, as Donnie Brown disappeared below the lake’s dark water along with Annie Baker.