Saturday, December 11, 2021

The Last Casualty


The Last Casualty


The Car     

      The twisters had devastated a ten mile wide, two hundred mile long swath of heavily populated land wiping out entire towns and causing hundreds of human casualties before it was over.

      It was inevitable that immediately after the storm passed looters began to pick away at the carcasses of decimated homes and businesses like vultures. They were part of the ugly and all too human side of disasters. At a time when so many people came together to aid in the rescue and recovery of their community, crimes of opportunity turned honest, desperate people into thieves.

      Such acts have become more frequent and brazen and the looters have become more aggressive and violent. Rioters and looters don’t back off easily just because the authorities show up. Emergency responders are constantly being attacked by the looters as they try to do their jobs.

      Trooper Stone had been fifteen miles away, just outside of the edge of the strom's track where the destruction was greatest. He had lost seven members of his immediate family. They all lived directly in the massive path of the F4 tornado. He was on the phone with his brother and heard him scream as the house he was hiding in with the rest of the family was reduced to splinters. He didn’t have time to grieve. Instead he focused on the work he had to do. He was a trained military veteran and a state trooper and those were the skills he would need now. He would have to deal with the situation at hand before he could stop and cry.

     Currently, he worked with local and state law enforcement and emergency management agencies. He was directly involved in securing local businesses with buildings that had been structurally damaged but remained standing with inventory still inside. His team was often in place before the debris had stopped falling; looking for survivors, spotting for fires, fallen lines or gas leaks.

      He often encountered mobs of looters rummaging through the open walls of local businesses. He considered them scum, parasites feasting on the corpses of communities, businesses and homes.

      Protocol stated that they shouldn’t engage if possible, just clear and secure targets. Catching looters meant running them down which meant risking your life catching a guy with empty hands. The team's arrival usually made them scatter like roaches. The ones arrested were those stupid enough to run straight into their arms. The sad souls that ran into Trooper Stone were lucky if they ever ran again. Rather than instruct them to get on the ground he greeted them with a swinging baton and a knee to their groin. He would hit them even after he had them in cuffs just for good measure. They would probably get off easy in court he reasoned. So he passed his own sentence while he had them.

The Truck

      “Juke” Saunders was in his truck chasing close behind the tornado’s path. He was certain that it was going to roll over the entire town. He was a member of the local fire brigade, trained in first aid with a heavy duty custom painted pickup that could haul a house. He knew the roads and country as good as anyone could. He never hesitated to respond in an emergency.

      He put in seventy-two straight hours working with the local first responders. He assisted the medical staff in caring for the patients with serious wounds. After that he lifted, loaded and transported anything and everything that would fit in his truck. It was knowing that everything he did was helping save lives and families that kept him going. If there was something to be done he was the first to take the job.

      As usual, every time he worked as a volunteer he would work until the work was done. He caught quick naps and drank one continuous cup of coffee trying to make a dent in the tasks to be done to get people back on their feet It was obvious that the work needed after this weather beating would be going on for months. Noticing his exhaustion, Juke was ordered to go home for forty-eight hours by his bosses.

      The roads were littered with trees both whole and in pieces. Juke’s route home took him on a long and winding path when one after another detour took him an even longer way around the normal route. A huge number of warehouses and an airport were obliterated and a carpet of broken pieces from all the items they once held covered the landside. Hundreds of homes had been destroyed just a few miles from the clear, untouched homes and streets where he lived

      A glint of light off a bright object a short distance from the side of the road caught Juke’s eye and he slowed to take a closer look. He discovered a pile of boxed and bagged packages with familiar logos on them piled in a peculiar fashion. The pieces of a wooden pallet were close to the parcels. Dozens of assorted UPS, FedEx and Amazon packages were clustered together. Several large transport facilities nearby were destroyed by the twister. The parcels were obviously debris from one of the warehouses that landed in a funny sort of clump and were almost dry and intact.

      There were collection sites in a clear town just a few miles from his home where people turned in articles that survived the storm in hopes they would found by the owner. He decided the parcels were worth salvaging and he tossed the dozens of packages that he collected into his truck bed. He hoped the roads would be better closer to the center.

The Intersection

The Truck      

     Driving slowly and carefully on his way home Juke approached an intersection where a state trooper’s car was sitting with his headlights on. Juke slowed down until he was sure the car was stopped. He accelerated and slowly drove past giving a friendly wave to the trooper behind the wheel. Once past the intersection he checked his rearview mirror and was surprised when he saw the trooper’s car pull out and come up behind him. 

The Car

      Trooper Stone was parked at an intersection that led to a badly damaged mall preventing traffic from entering until a truck with barriers arrived. He checked his gun again as he kept his vigil. There could still be some individuals hiding in the mall waiting for an opening to slip away home. 

      He noticed a brightly painted pickup truck slow down as it approached the intersection even though there was no stop sign. The driver looked at the patrol car  as though unsure about driving past. Trooper Stone suddenly sensed the driver seemed spooked by the patrol car.

      As the truck passed in front of the car the trooper noticed the large heap of boxes with logos and packaging that told him those packages didn’t belong in a private vehicle. Trooper Stone cursed under his breath as he started his car. Turning the corner he pulled behind the truck, turned on the lights and pulled the truck over.

The Last Casualty

      Juke was confused when the trooper’s lights came on and he was being signaled to pull over.

      “Fucking looter!” Stone cursed out loud. He checked his gun again before muttering to himself lowly. “How the fuck did he slip out of the mall with that load?”

      Stone was angry as he stepped out of his car but as he looked at the pile of stolen contraband he also noticed the expensive piece of truck this looter was driving. It didn't look like he needed the money... the money he wasn't going to be getting by stealing this load. Stone was in a rage by the time he approached the driver’s window. In a loud and commanding bark Stone demanded Juke hand over his license and registration. Juke smiled and leaned towards the glove box as he started to ask why he was being stopped and to explain his curious load.

      Stone cut him off again and demanded Juke’s papers in a voice that was far beyond what would be reasonable. Taken aback, Juke reached for his glove compartment both bewildered and frightened by the trooper’s demeanor. He saw Stone’s hand rest on the grip of his service weapon.

      Juke reached in and nervously felt around for his papers. It was when Juke was startled and tried to catch the gun that fell out of his glove compartment that Trooper Stone started to draw his weapon. 

      It was when Juke, in a panic, picked the gun up off the floor and started to turn towards the officer to explain that the first of six shots ripped into his body.

      Trooper Stone began pulling the trigger before shouting, “Looter! Drop the weapon!”

      Juke was dead before he ever got the chance.

      The last casualty of the storm.

Sunday, December 5, 2021

The Grape Thief

The Grape Thief


     When the S.W.A.T. team smashed in his front door, Martin Fletcher was at first shocked,  then terrified and totally confused. Before he could even get out of the shower he was thrown to the floor, handcuffed, wrapped hastily in a towel and on his way to a prison cell where he would live for the rest of his life. The state had no death penalty so executing him wasn’t an option, although everyone that followed the case felt it was what he deserved.

    For twenty-four years Mr. Fletcher had been the produce manager at the local big name supermarket. He ran a “tight ship” as he referred to the way he did his job. His biggest complaint was with the way many customers felt it was OK to sample the fruits and vegetables before buying… especially the grapes. It seemed as though every customer that passed the stand where the grapes were displayed would look them over, pluck one from the bunch, sample it and then move on, never buying any.

    He had posted a number of signs warning the customers to please refrain from sampling the produce. He’d even started to threaten people with arrest for the “theft of goods not purchased but consumed!”

    He was famous for his angry comments directed at people that would sample the wares. He had become much more confrontational when faced with a customer’s wanton disregard for his signs. It seemed even the threat of arrest didn’t curtail their outrageous, if not criminal, behavior. More than once he had remarked to his co-workers. “They get me so mad that sometimes I just want to kill them!” 

    His temperament led to a confrontation that almost cost him his job and pension. On a particularly bad day he witnessed a customer walk up to the grape stand and sample not one but two grapes before turning to continue shopping. She did it even while standing next to his sign that threatened violators with arrest for theft if they sampled products without paying.

    From three stands away in a voice loud enough for others to hear he ordered the customer to stop. He rushed towards her and began berating her for “stealing the grapes” despite the clear warning on the sign. He chastised her in a loud, angry tone in front of dozens of customers. 

    “I am so sick of people like you who think my department is a place where you can eat for free! Didn’t you see the signs?”

    Instead of reacting like someone who should be offering an apology the lady turned on him with equal aggressiveness 

    “How dare you talk to me that way? I don’t who you are but I have been a loyal customer and stock holder of this market for 27 years. I never buy grapes without sampling at least one grape. Never have I been so humiliated and treated so rudely. I’ve just moved to this town and I’m new to this market but I can tell you this, you are being a complete moron and I think you are seriously overreacting. And, for the record, these grapes suck!”

    Over the years he had become accustomed to people just slinking away meekly to his policing in the produce department. This time the woman was challenging his rules regarding sampling the goods. He decided then and there that his signs were meaningless if he didn’t back them up with action. He called her a thief and had the police called. He insisted they arrest her for shoplifting. The police were reluctant but Mr. Fletcher insisted so she was taken to the local police station, given a citation and ordered to appear in court. Fletcher felt she was dealt with properly and that his actions were fully justified.

    Fletcher soon learned he had picked a fight with the wrong customer that day. She had money and a good lawyer. The judge listened politely to Fletcher’s complaint. When Fletcher was done he felt he had presented a solid case against the woman he had come to call the Grape Thief. He was genuinely surprised when the judge smiled and tossed out the complaint and she was free to go. She followed up her encounter with some well placed letters to the corporate office. Fletcher was called into the store manager’s office for a hearing with a corporate representative that could result in his losing his job and pension.

    Fortunately and with no explanation, the woman didn’t come to the meeting to present her side of the story. Fletcher had been an excellent employee for twenty-four years so the corporation went easy on him. He was removed from his manager position and had his pay cut but kept his pension. He was put on a two year probation. If he got into any arguments or received any complaints he would be dismissed with no severance package or pension. 

    After the meeting the lady was rarely seen in the store again. The few times she came in he would run to the back of the store until she left. Even after everything she went through she still stopped and sampled the grapes.

    Fletcher would sit sullenly and plot her death, killing her in a thousand different ways. His hate for her was a burden he never could free himself of. He kept a journal where would give voice to his hate and plots of revenge. He wanted to kill her and every customer who ate the grapes freely.

    About a year into his probation a number of people in the area died in a wave of mysterious deaths. It took months to discover the cause. Investigators found that all the people had one thing in common. Shortly before their death each victim had shopped at the same supermarket. They all had bought some grapes. When questioned by the investigators almost every person pointed the finger of suspicion at Martin Fletcher.

    Autopsies showed that the same drug had been used to kill them all. Succinycholine was a drug that was almost undetectable in most routine blood screens. An anonymous tip led the police to search the supermarket. When the police searched the employee’s lockers they discovered a small vial with the same poison in Fletcher’s locker. They confiscated all the grapes in the store; after testing them many of the individual grapes contained large doses of Succinycholine.

    When they searched Fletcher’s home they discovered his journal that detailed many ways he intended to kill all the people that sampled his produce.

At his trial the prosecution had a parade of witnesses who testified as to Fletcher’s angry, over-zealous and borderline insane reactions to people who sampled any produce; especially the grapes. All of them had witnessed his outbursts and heard the threats. Individually, each witness’ testimony was about their personal experiences with Fletcher. He might have had a chance at beating the charges if it was just them.

    Unfortunately for Fletcher the prosecution had a star witness whose experience was witnessed firsthand by several of the witnesses called to support her testimony. The older woman, the long time loyal customer and stock holder, the one that Fletcher had insulted, humiliated and had arrested for stealing two grapes took the stand and, in a tearful voice, described his tirade and his death threat..

    She was well-spoken, articulate and a witness whose story the jury totally believed. She was in the courtroom when the jury came back with the guilty verdict. Fletcher’s eyes met hers as he was led from the court and she simply gave him a small smile. It was then that Fletcher finally realized the mistake he had made.

    Many credited her with being the one that helped bring a monster to justice and saving many other lives. No one ever learned just how many lives she sacrificed to get the man that had called her a thief; A “Grape Thief!” The best thing was knowing that Fletcher would spend the rest of his life in a cell.

    It took almost two years to exact her revenge. She worked at a medical supply company and had an extensive knowledge of the drugs used in medical centers.  Getting her hands on the Succinycholine was easy enough. She wore a variety of wigs and dressed in ways that would disguise her appearance. The public restrooms were at the rear of the supermarket just steps away from the employee lockers. The names made it easy to identify Martin Fletcher’s locker. She went to the supermarket almost every week and went to the grape stand. She would always sample them and usually buy a few bunches.

    Over two years, when she was disguised, when Fletcher was hiding in the back of the store, she would leave some grapes as a gift from Fletcher to all the rest of the Grape Thieves.

A Christmas Rose

    On most weekends his home was pretty busy. Friends were always dropping in unannounced. He always enjoyed the visits, almost as much as his wife, Rose. But it was during the christmas holidays when his home always became the center of attention.

    Starting with Thanksgiving, the holiday season brought enough visitors to make his modest home absolutely crowded. Almost every weekend there was a spontaneous party. People seemed to come out of nowhere. He hardly had enough room for himself let alone his guests. The influx of visitors picked up through Christmas. By New Year's Eve he could barely find a place to sit where he wasn't in the way.

    Older now and a little less active during the season, he loved to sit and reminisce about the days when he and his family celebrated the seasons with large gatherings of friends and loved ones. Holiday parties were a way of life growing up as a kid in his parents home. It was a tradition he carried on when he finally had a home and family of his own. He would tell his stories to anyone that would sit and listen. He wasn't much of a cook and he was never able to whip up a holiday meal. That had always been his wife's job.

    Holidays were when his wife was in her glory! She loved everything about them... especially the cooking. Her holiday table was always one of the best feasts around. He always referred to her as his "Christmas Rose!" She would always have a deep red blush on her beautiful face from working in the warm kitchen or hustling about, cleaning up after one party or preparing for the next.

    It was his skill behind the bar that made him the hit of the parties. His guests would always praise him for being able to make the best drinks around. He had mastered his talents during his college days working as a bartender at some of the wildest bars around. He met his Rosie back then and they married the year he graduated. He earned a good living and together, they raised two beautiful children. The holidays were the time of the year when his family always shined.

    Slowly, he began to be less of a host and more like a party guest. His friends started to notice before he did. His bartending skills finally started to get the best of him. Soon, he was mixing fewer drinks for the crowd and more for himself.

    Each year the financial demands of the season became more of a burden. He hadn't received a pay raise in years. He couldn't cutback on the party supplies, so the gifts became cheaper. He was always in a rush and dealt with the pressure by drinking. Gradually, his friends stopped coming to his parties as often. Even, "Christmas Rose" started to slow down. She'd grown tired of cleaning up after the parties... and after him. He'd embarrassed his wife and kids more times than they could bear. Eventually, they left the party too.

    But that never stopped him from enjoying a good holiday party. He simply decided that if the party wouldn't come to his home, he would go to the party. Before long, he found the kind of people for whom the party never stopped. He never lost his holiday spirit. Gradually, while finding the way to the next party, he lost his job, his friends, and his family. In the end, he never found his way home again.

    Every year, he still welcomed visitors to his home. Their good cheer and generosity helped lift his spirits. He never had much to offer in return, but he always put on his happiest face. Often he would sing a song and dance merrily to help add to the festivities. He always wore a bright red "Christmas Rose" in his lapel during the season. It was the only way he knew to keep his love for Rose alive.

    Pulling his coat tighter around him, he sat huddled in the doorway, staring at the holiday crowds through bleary, bloodshot eyes. He smiled at his guests as they walked past him or around him. When he wasn't singing or dancing for their entertainment, he sat talking in a low voice to the rose he wore. As far as the shoppers on their way to the next purchase were concerned, it was just a street to them. For the drunk that sat crying quietly in the doorway ... it was home.

Sunday, January 31, 2021

What Time Will Tell

What Time Will Tell

        Albert sat quietly watching the ceremonies along with the rest of the crowd gathered on the town common. He was waiting his turn to get up, make his speech and put his contribution to the town's history into the "Century Capsule." It was a time capsule that the people in the town could use to send a message to the future,  He had been selected as one of the leading citizens and was asked to contribute to the contents of the town's 200th anniversary time capsule. It would be placed at the foot of the new statue commemorating the soldiers that had perished in the various wars over the years.   
      He wasn't a member of the military although he did have family members who served and died honorably. He was denied admission to the military because he had lost two fingers in a farm accident when he was just a young boy. After learning of his rejection many of his classmates took to pointing with the fingers he lacked and making jokes at his expense. 
      His family was one of the first families to settle in the small town that would become a mid-sized city in the mid-west. His great-grandfather started a farm and a lumber business that became a regional success. His brothers became big in civic, business and political affairs and held important positions.
      When his parents passed away he became the richest man in the city. But that did nothing to improve his social standing. He was still quietly shunned by the more active social groups, Once his brothers got their share of the inheritance they left their small town for the big city in a hurry.
      The family fortune and name would grow along with the town. He was generous in his support for the town so he held a place of dubious honor at most civic events where no one really liked him.
      He was only invited to events where donations were important. They always needed money and he had more than most of them combined. He hated the affairs but felt obligated to attend out of respect to his family. No matter his age, whenever he was there, he always felt like the little boy that everyone pointed fingers at and laughed.
      Other than his family name Albert was as forgettable a man as anyone could ever meet. He was short, plain and frail He led a quiet life running a business his grandfather had started back in the early 20's. He was happy for a few years when he met his wife. She was the only person in his life that ever truly loved him for who he was, not what he had.
      They married when he was 32 and she was 27. She was a social gadfly and was loved by everyone that met her. They both wanted a family but his wife passed away before they had children. After she passed away he lost interest in life in general.
      He was recognized as a pillar of his community. He was active in every social group and contributed what money he could whenever asked. But he was active because he knew his wife would have wanted him to be.
      He volunteered whenever the need arose. He volunteered as a firefighter. When hikers, children or residents from the surrounding towns were lost he would guide the search parties. Sometimes they were successful in finding those lost, most times they weren't.
      He was only 17 the first time he joined a search party. He was 71 when he joined the last one. The searches found many of the missing but there were many, dozens over the years, that were never found; Adults, children, males and females, cases that were never solved. "Cold Cases" as they were referred to by law enforcement
      There were many theories that followed the cases. People believed it was the work of cultists or sex perverts. Many suspected a jealous husband. But the murders were done in different ways with different weapons that made it impossible for the task forces that were formed to catch the killer or killers.
      The last unsolved murder was committed almost 5 years ago. By now the people had almost forgotten it. No one seemed interested in discovering the identity of the mysterious monster. 
      Only the killer was still craving the fame and notoriety he felt he deserved. He had expected to be discovered years ago. He had even taken to leaving small clues at the crime scenes hoping the detectives would put them together.
      But they never came close to identifying the killer. They never even gave the killer a name. Despite the killer's efforts to give the police clear clues to help them find him he wasn't even sure they ever linked the crimes together. 
      Albert had volunteered to work on the task forces and had done his best to track down the killer. No matter how hard he worked no investigation ever came close to finding the killer.
      What the people chosen added to the time capsule would remain a secret. The contents were intended for the residents that would be there 100 years from mow. He had decided that the string of murders were a vital even if embarrassing part of the town’s history. Maybe he could contribute in a way so that people in the future would be able to finally reveal the identity of the person that terrified their town over 100 years ago.
      He reverently placed the small ornate wooden box into the concrete container along with all the other trinkets, baubles and mementoes. He stepped back and stared at the box. His grandfather had kept all of his prized possessions in the box. The capsule would be opened in 100 years. It meant that it would be another 100 years before the town, before the world finally knew who the killer was,
      In the capsule were 12 different fingers from 12 different victims. They were his favorite trophies from the 73 victims that he had kidnapped, tortured and killed over his lifetime. He had cut off many pieces from his victims over the years but fingers were his favorites. More than a few of them were from people that had enjoyed pointing their fingers at him. He made sure to point their fingers at them when he was done cutting them to pieces,
Along with the fingers was a map indicating where whatever remains still survived could be found after 100 years. On the map was the location of the home he'd lived in all his life. It was also where he buried and disposed of at least a couple of dozen bodies. He left pictures and a signed confession.

For once he would look forward to having his name in the town paper… even if it takes 100 years,