INNOCENCE . . . a new Johnny O’Brien novel by Lee Capp
In the days, months, and years that would follow that strange hot summer, and for all the rest of my long life, they would always be the thing that I remembered the most—the crows. Black as night they were, and numerous as stars in the darkening sky.
Odd, when I stopped and thought about it.
. . . I should have remembered the dead children.
I walked toward the creek. Even though I had never been to this place, I knew it would be there. I felt somehow directed to the spot. As I neared, I could hear the swift current of the water, as it worked its way between the weed and tree choked banks.
Drawing closer, I could see a break in the overgrowth of the opposite bank, and a well-worn foot trail leading into it. Beyond were thick woods of mixed pine, maple and scrub oak trees. Another smaller creek worked its way at right angles to the larger one I was facing at the moment. It emptied into the larger body of water through a short but large diameter drain pipe.
A narrow wooden foot bridge arched over the larger stream, and led directly to the path. It beckoned to me, as surely as if there had been a person standing at the entrance to the woods pointing. I knew I was supposed to cross and go that way. I knew I had to. I didn’t want to go. I was aware in the center of my heart that path would only lead to heartbreak and sorrow—but I was powerless to resist.
So, I moved forward, and out onto the bridge—listening to the ever increasing murmuring of the black birds along with the soft babble of the swift creek. A few small frogs, huddled on the bank, dived in, making a distinctive plopping sound. Looking over the side of the bridge and into the clear fast running water, I was surprised to see the shape of two small bicycles just under the surface. I wondered if they had been tossed in on purpose, or if the two riders had each lost a wager as they played chicken on the old wooden structure. The bikes looked new. I imagined that their parents would not be happy as they came to fish them out.
“Kids,” I thought, shaking my head slightly.
The last light of late afternoon was quickly fading as twilight gathered through the trees. The sky to the east purpled toward night. The heat of the day was giving up the ghost, and a slight chill was already on the evening breeze. I knew I shouldn’t go into those sinister woods. I knew it would be dark and close in there. I knew that they contained nothing but sadness and grief, although what the source of the sadness was, I did not know.
So, I moved forward, powerless to hold back, and crossed the short bridge.
I had just entered the thicket when I heard the soft, but distinct sound of movement directly ahead—twigs breaking and branches being pushed aside as a large creature moved slowly through the heavy brush. Labored breathing—as though something heavy were being carried. A loud splash. And then more sound of brush breaking. Gradually, it grew softer, as whatever it was retreated into the distance.
The hundreds of crows perched in the surrounding trees, momentarily quiet for the drama being played out below them, erupted into a cacophony of discordant sound. The many small frogs and crickets still along the banks of the creek joined them.
Shaken out of my momentary hesitation, I pressed forward and into the overgrowth. Almost immediately the light faded as the thicket closed around me like impending doom. A rancid odor rafted from the still water pooled just to the left of the creek. It was trapped there, at the base of a steeper portion of the bank. It smelled of swamp water—dark, musky, and fetid. The enclosed water was deep. I could see an ancient tree stump poking from the top. I could also plainly see the circle pattern of the recently disturbed surface.
Something large had been thrown in.
Again, I advanced toward the pool through the ever increasing darkness. As the angle of the bank sharpened, I struggled to retain my balance. My smooth soled dress shoes slipped sideways in the loose dirt, pebbles, twigs, and debris of the forest, threatening at any moment to pitch me into the ominous water. Instinctively, my left hand flailed in the air, seeking a tree branch or other object to keep myself upright.
There was none.
Now, closer to the edge of the water, I lowered my gaze to my feet, trying to keep from slipping in. For the first time, I noticed the footprints of many shoes in the soft soil. Some large, but most a much smaller size. Straight ahead, I could just make out a shoe in the darkness. It was a small one—black nylon. An outdoor shoe. It was turned on its side. I stooped to pick it up. Placing two of my fingers inside, I could feel the still warm interior. It hadn’t been there for long.
I carried it with me as I moved forward along the bank and closer to the pool. It was only a couple more paces before I saw another discarded piece of clothing—a small pair of boy’s boxer shorts. Dark blue. The tee-shirt I discovered a few yards beyond that was white. Except for the blood stains, that was. Blotches and smears. Not a lot—but enough for me to know that the youngster who had been wearing it was probably in big trouble.
Quickening my pace to the pool, my heart beat faster as I neared. There, in the last light of day, I could see the fresh tracks of larger shoes. One, a few inches from the water’s edge. The other, partly into it. Toe forward, deeper than the heel, as the person wearing it leaned out over the edge. Someone that carried a heavy burden. The toe of the shoe looked as though it had pressed deeply into the mud. Even as I stared at it, I could observe it still filling with water.
And then I understood exactly what I was looking at. And, more importantly, I knew why I was here. Perhaps there was still time. Perhaps the small body in the dark, dank water still had some life left in it. Perhaps, I could still save him.
I plunged into the wetness. It deepened quickly, rising to my waist almost immediately. Tearing off my suitcoat, I reached into the water with both hands, frantically searching for that which I knew must surely be there. Quickly I located the child’s body, and with all my might pulled it to the surface. The face rose out of the abyss first. Porcelain white dead flesh. Sightless eyes stared blankly at me as water poured from the boy’s mouth. I quickly gathered the lifeless child into my arms. I knew with all my heart that he was gone—but still, I had to try.
Turning toward the bank, I took no more than two steps before tripping over another object under the surface of the water. I could not regain my balance, and both myself and the dead child that I carried in my arms, plunged face forward into the stinking water. I fought to regain my feet. When I did, the lifeless body of another naked child rose to the surface. Another set of dead eyes stared into my soul, imploring me for relief that I could not provide.
It was too much. I froze. Stopped, unable to move—alone once again with death. The death of children. I was too late. Once again, much too late. There was no life to be breathed into them. Nothing on earth that could save them. Nothing that could help them. Yes—God help me—I knew I could change it. And once again, I knew I couldn’t. My own personal nightmare, played out one more time before my old and tired eyes.
My own personal torment. My own personal punishment. My own personal lesson—mine, to be learned and re-learned; over and over, throughout my life. The legacy of Satan’s timepiece—the golden pocket watch from Hell. Although I possessed the life giving power of deity, I was at last, nothing at all. Nothing but an ordinary mortal, dripping swamp water and bitter tears in the dark, gripping the tiny corpses of God’s two newest angels.
I turned my face toward the sky. And there, in the pain and emptiness of my own impotent mortality, I screamed to Heaven. Long, deep, and angry.
The noise disturbed the crows. All as one, and in a giant swarm, they lifted up and out of the trees. Hundreds of them. Thousands of them. The night sky was filled with their dark darting forms. The air reverberated with the call of their raspy voices. All at once, they were everywhere—screaming their throaty call, sounding almost as though the Lord of Hell himself were shouting back at me—and laughing.
Cruelly, and diabolically.
The sudden and overwhelming sound of that laughter and the melee of the crows startled me.
My body jerked violently.
And I awoke from my dream.
Maggie shifted in the bed, almost, but not quite awakened by my nightmare. She settled back into her pillow and her breathing slowed and returned to a gentle cadence. I glanced at the nightstand clock. Three in the morning. Looked like it was shaping up to be a long night. I doubted I’d be getting back to sleep anytime soon after that gut wrenching dream.
A fine mist of perspiration covered my bare skin. I arose and slipped into my boxers and tee-shirt. It was a warm night on Mercer Island, after a long and hot July summer day. I made my way down the stairs and into my home office, quietly closing the door behind me. A comfortable place to spend a little time as I tried to coax sleepiness back into my body. Failing that, I would be able to fire up the old desk-top and do a little work on the latest McGuire novel. I had decided to title it, ABOVE SUSPICION, as old Jackie-boy struggles to save a guiltless man from an impending date with a sharp needle and an ice cold stainless steel table.
So far, McGuire wasn’t coming up with a very good plan as how to go about that—so it, and I, languished. My professional agency was doing the same thing, the telephone and doorbell making the same sound as that I heard coming through the open window at the moment—crickets.
I walked to the window now and swung it wide open. A cool and gentle night breeze washed over me. Pleasant. The remains of the dream were fading. Less pleasant than the wind, was my own reflection caught in the window glass. Older eyes looked back at me now, along with a head full of white and wispy hair. I was just forty-eight. Still young by the standards of the world. The snow on my roof, along the thinning of my shingles easily added ten years to it.
A few well-meaning friends had suggested a wee bit of darkening agent. I always smiled a bit as I rejected the idea. Each and every hair, I assured them, had been well earned, and I intended to keep them all—tangible souvenirs of the hard times and narrow passageways that had produced them.
Happily, Maggie agreed with me. The time since our marriage had raced by, and every wonderful moment had etched a timeless memory in my brain as I savored and relished the passing days, and the sweet prospect of our growing old together.
We were made for each other. Our union had been forged in the almost literal fires of Hell, as we fought together the evil that was Moradi. It had made us one. Indivisible—in body, soul, spirit, and more importantly, intent. That was how we tried to live our lives. Intently, and Intentionally. It was our bond, our watchword, and our creed.
Out of respect for my new wife, I had intended to not mention, talk about, or visit the gravesite of my first wife, Janis. After all, life must go on. Maggie was having no part of that. Early on, she bought three large bouquets of flowers, and we made the pilgrimage to Sunset Hills Cemetery together. There, Maggie exhibited complete love and total respect for Jan, and made it clear that she expected me to do exactly the same. I was happy to comply with the request. Next, we made another short trip to the gravesite of her former husband, Bobby Moran, along with his father and Maggie’s father in law, Colonel Robert Moran, and did the same. It was nice closure, as they say. It made us all, family—and friends. She and I often reminisced the happy days and joyful moments of our first marriages.
Like I said—she was some class act.
I suppose I could tell you that I loved her—but I guess you’ve likely figured that out by now. I daily thanked God for the moment I had met her.
My mind flitted over the days, months, and years since the wastelands. It had been close that day. Awfully close indeed. Closing my eyes and thinking back, I could easily fancy that I could still feel the Reaper’s blade at my neck. Surprisingly though, it had never resulted in nightmares for me. I generally slept the peaceful slumber of a new born babe. Tonight, had been a surprise. I had been living with being “displaced” long enough though, to understand that the dream had meaning—either symbolic or literal. And I knew how the universe worked well enough by this stage of my life, to know that I would only have to wait a while to find out what that was.
It didn’t take long. The thought had barely formed in my mind before the phone on my desk began to ring. I jumped a little with the unexpectedness of it, at barely four in the morning. It was coming in on my professional land line. The one for WE—Watchmaker Enterprises, my Agency.
I guess I forgot to mention—my name is Johnny O’Brien, and I’m a private detective.
And murder is my specialty.
I crossed the room in three quick strides and picked up the phone.
Thanks so much for reading. We’ll pick up in a few days with Chapter One. Goodnight!