Pete McArdle is clinically old, and when a bad ticker ended his long but unremarkable athletic career, he decided to wow the world with his writing....read more A wecent, er, recent spate of published stories has done nothing to dampen his delusions of literary grandeur. Sadly, some editors have found his work "just not right", eerily echoing the sentiments of Pete's third-grade teacher re Pete.
IT HAD BEEN A WONDERFUL YEAR for petunias and Miss Wiggington’s vibrant, well-manicured beds were the envy of her small New England town. The former high-school science teacher had a way with plant life, a feeling for colors and textures, and was not afraid to get dirty.
On a gorgeous but unseasonably-cool June afternoon, she was harvesting some of the rich, black loam behind her free-standing garage when she found the first set of human remains. More skeleton than remains, really, but there was no mistaking what it was.
By the time she’d unearthed a sixth skull, Miss Wiggington was certain this was the work of a serial killer, worse still, a serial killer who’d once rented the small bachelor’s apartment above her garage. No stranger could have spent so much time here and escaped her notice.
The elderly spinster took a break to catch her breath, well aware that she should’ve notified the authorities hours ago; a true-crime aficionado, she knew she’d contaminated the crime scene. But Miss Wiggington had known Whitney Stark, the local chief of police, since he was in short pants and had decided not to pick up the phone. Whit, as he liked to be called, had always been sloppy and disorganized, a man of limited intellect who’d made chief mainly on his ability to loudly give orders.
Since a soulless predator, living in her good graces, had used her property as his dumping ground, Miss Wiggington felt a parental sense of responsibility toward the victims buried there. She simply would not---could not---allow Chief Stark to bungle this case. No, this was her baby.
After carefully covering up the remains and washing up, Miss Wiggington made a cup of Chamomile tea, grabbed a handful of sugar cookies, and sat down in front of her computer. She proceeded to surf the web until she found a site for “The Body Farm” at the University of Tennessee, the brainchild of Dr. William Bass, a forensic anthropologist. Dr. Bass had placed cadavers in all different situations and environments around his facility and carefully noted the manner and rate at which they decomposed.
After studying the good doctor’s findings, Miss Wiggington nibbled on a sugar cookie and evaluated the environmental conditions present behind her garage. The weather, almost as cool as Quebec’s, the constant shade from the tall evergreens, and the acidity of the soil that conifers love would all combine to slow down putrefaction. The abundance of worms and lack of clothing would slightly accelerate it. Hmm.
The erstwhile educator drank the last of her tea, dabbed the corners of her mouth with a white satin napkin, and concluded that the bodies had been there at least three years and no more than nineteen, since that’s when she’d first started renting out the apartment. She rolled her chair over to the file cabinet and pulled out her rental records.
The blond divorcee who’d been Miss Wigginton’s first tenant could not be considered a suspect. She was as sweet as maple syrup and terribly afraid of her own shadow, not to mention her ex. Six years later, young Bobby Franchi had moved in. A handsome, long-haired musician, he’d probably defiled a fair number of the fairer sex during his short stay, but a killer he was not. Her current tenant, old Mr. Zapolski, had occupied the apartment for the last half-decade but could barely get up and down the garage steps. The only thing deadly about him was his plosive, room-clearing flatulence.
That left only tenant number three, Jonathan Neese.
Mr. Neese had always seemed a bit too perfect. His rent was always early, his manner overly glib, and the crease of his pants razor-sharp. Of course, he wasn’t perfect, as the empty bourbon bottles peeking out of his trash could attest. Miss Wiggington had never really liked the man, but she was of the school of live and let live.
Mr. Neese, apparently, was not.
To the best of her knowledge, Mr. Neese---Professor Neese---still taught poetry at the university one town over. A place where young people came and went, where co-eds sometimes fell for their professors’ avuncular charms, where the occasional sad, lonely student simply disappeared. In other words, a perfect hunting ground.
Miss Wiggington was quite sure she had her man as she shut down her computer and locked the front and back doors. Still, she had no proof. And if she could prove Mr. Neese was the killer, how best to avenge the poor souls buried in the dirt behind her garage?
The old girl trudged upstairs, stiff and sore from the day’s exertions, and drew a hot bath. As she poured lavender bath salts into the slowly rising water, Miss Wiggington decided that perhaps the best thing to do was give Jonathan Neese a little rope, and if he were guilty, let him hang himself.
She lowered herself into the bath, careful not to bark her elbows on the old cast-iron tub, and leaned back with a deep, drawn-out sigh. And as her muscles unwound, her nerves settled down, and her wrinkled hide somehow grew even more wrinkled, Miss Wiggington hatched a plan.
After a glorious night of deep, restorative sleep, Miss Wiggington had her customary breakfast---one soft-boiled egg, tea, and toast with marmalade---and made a phone call.
“If I told you what it was, Mr. Neese, why, I’d spoil the surprise,” she said. “Let’s just say it’s pretty old and undoubtedly valuable. Besides, I live alone and it’s always nice to have a visitor.”
Holding the phone to her ear, Miss Wiggington nodded and smiled thinly. “Yes, seven o’clock would be fine. See you then, Mr. Neese.”
She hung up the phone and then double-checked her shopping list. Satisfied that everything she needed was on it, Miss Wiggington slipped the list into her pocketbook, donned her knit wool sweater, and went out to the front porch to wait for the taxi. Sadly, the one-mile walk into town was now simply too far.
A half-hour later, she was in Fabricant’s Antiques, a dust-laden pawn shop with delusions of grandeur. Mr. Fabricant came out of his back room with a selection of old pocket watches and laid them out on the counter. None of them worked.
Miss Wiggington found a gold one that looked halfway decent and said, “How much is this one, Sol? And can I get it engraved?”
Mr. Fabricant stared down through his pince-nez and said, “For you, Miss Wiggington, a hundred bucks. And I’ll engrave it gratis and have it ready for Friday.”
Miss Wiggington glared at the man and said, “I need it this afternoon, Sol, and for fifty-five dollars and not one cent more.”
“S-sure,” said the proprietor, averting his gaze and nervously licking his lips. Sol Fabricant had passed Intro to Biology by the skin of his teeth and was still easily cowed by his former teacher. “It’ll be ready, uh, by three,” he said.
Next stop was the package store where Miss Wiggington would occasionally purchase a small bottle of dry sherry. She was not fond of drink but took a nip of sherry every now and again to calm her nerves. Today was certainly such an occasion. The place was surprisingly busy, considering it was not yet noon, and Miss Wiggington put her bottle of sherry on the counter and waited until the store manager was free to whisper her special request.
“And make it your best,” she said as the man disappeared into the liquor section. He came back with the desired item, and the cashier rang it up along with the sherry and put both bottles in a paper bag. Taking the old lady’s payment, the pimply-faced clerk asked her if she’d like to join the Preferred Customers Club and save 10% on all future purchases.
“Certainly not,” she said, arching a single eyebrow.
Miss Wiggington left the package store, careful to not let the bottles bang together, and headed for her doctor’s office, located directly across the street, above the Polish bakery.
After filling out a seemingly-endless health form, she sat in a chilly examination room and stewed. Her doctor was almost twenty minutes behind schedule and one thing she did not tolerate was tardiness.
“It’s about time,” she said when Dr. Browne breezed into the room.
“Nice to see you too,” said the doctor, smiling wryly. “What can I do for you, Ms. Wiggington?”
“That’s ‘Miss’ if you don’t mind, and Doctor, you know those sleeping pills you prescribed? Well they don’t do a thing, even when I double the dosage,” she said.
Dr. Browne frowned. “I’m surprised. That Lunesta’s fairly strong stuff.”
“It may well be, Dr. Browne, but I haven’t slept a wink in the last week. Do you happen to remember what you prescribed me many years ago, when I couldn’t sleep after my hysterectomy? That medicine worked like a charm, I recall.”
The tall, portly physician paged through Miss Wiggington’s voluminous chart, then made a tssk sound.
“That was Seconal,” he said, “and I’m afraid we don’t prescribe that any more. It’s too dangerous.”
Miss Wiggington folded her arms across her narrow, bony chest. “Well it didn’t do me any harm,” she huffed, “And unlike Lunesta, I was actually able to get a good night’s sleep!”
Dr. Browne shrugged and reached for his prescription pad.
Later, after a cup of vegetable-barley soup at Crawley’s Diner, Miss Wiggington picked up her newly-engraved pocket watch and then strolled over to the pharmacy on Front Street. Although it was the same pharmacy and staff she’d patronized for years, it had been bought up by a big chain and now a garish neon sign loomed over the entrance.
While she waited for the clerk to retrieve her prescription, Miss Wiggington filled a basket with several paperbacks, Advil, gauze, Ace bandages, Bengay and adhesive tape.
“Are you opening your own clinic, Angela?” said kindly, gray-haired Mr. Henderson, looking up from a tray filled with little blue pills.
“Better safe than sorry, Donald,” said Miss Wiggington, blushing. In another life, she’d had a crush on the future pharmacist but regrettably, nothing had come of it. “Better throw in a bottle of mercurochrome while I’m here,” she said.
“Yes, ma’am,” said the pharmacist, stepping down to the counter and doing just that. “That’ll be one-hundred and eighty-two dollars, Angela, with your senior discount. Not that you look a day over sixty, of course.”
They both laughed at this joke, it had been part of every transaction for quite some time now. After paying the man, Miss Wiggington hefted the day’s purchases and flinched when the bottles clanged together.
“Angela, please be careful with that Seconal,” said Mr. Henderson, staring meaningfully at the brown paper bag.
“Aren’t you a dear!” she replied, truly meaning it. Then she trod gingerly to the front of the store, to await the cab Mr. Henderson had graciously called.
Perhaps there had been something there, Miss Wiggington mused.
In any event, it was now late afternoon and both her feet and her nerves were looking forward to sitting down with that glass of sherry.
“Would you like another piece of pie, Mr. Neese? Perhaps a little more tea?”
“No, no thank you, Miss Wiggington,” said her nattily-dressed visitor, patting his practically flat stomach. “After all, I’ve got to watch my girlish figure.”
Miss Wiggington managed a small chuckle despite her revulsion at the man’s unabashed narcissism. Since she’d seen him last, Jonathan Neese had gone gray at the temples but was still remarkably fit and handsome, and much taller than she remembered him.
“So tell me,” he said, with a show of his pearly white teeth. “What trinket of mine did you find?”
“Well, I’m not entirely sure it’s yours,” said Miss Wiggington, wagging an index finger, “however, it does have the initials ‘J.N.’ engraved on it.” She handed Mr. Neese a small velvet box.
Her former tenant opened it, examined the gold pocket-watch within, and gave Miss Wiggington a smile with absolutely no warmth in it.
“Why, yes, this watch belonged to my grandfather, Jonas Neese,” he said. “It was given to him the day he retired from the railroad. Where on Earth did you find it?”
Miss Wiggington swallowed hard.
“In the dirt behind the garage, Mr. Neese. I was digging up some soil for my petunias when a glimpse of gold caught my eye. Of course, I had it cleaned professionally.”
“Of course,” said Mr. Neese, putting the watch on the coffee table and rising to his feet. “Say, which way is the little boy’s room?”
Miss Wiggington turned toward the hall and was about to speak when a crushing blow knocked her off her chair and onto the floor. A vicious kick knocked the air out of her, and a second kick broke some ribs. The old woman used every bit of her considerable will to remain conscious as wildfires of pain raged in her torso and jaw.
“You think you’re so smart, don’t you, you bitch!” the man spat. Having dropped his human disguise, Mr. Neese now looked at her with cold dead eyes. “Did you wonder just what happened to those people you found? Did you?” he hissed.
Dropping to one knee, he grabbed Miss Wiggington by the hair and pulled her face within an inch of his. “No? Well you’re about to find out,” he said and slammed her head against the hardwood floor.
When a human brain is rattled violently enough within its bony confines, even the iron-willed must succumb. Miss Wiggington passed out.
Some time later, she opened an eye, the one that wasn’t swollen shut, and saw a pair of expensive black loafers. Straining to look up, she beheld a smiling Mr. Neese sitting on her couch, a bottle of bourbon in one hand and his erect penis in the other. His average-sized hand almost obscured his miniscule member, and Miss Wiggington wondered if that was the root of his pathology, the terrible inadequacy that fueled his terrible rage.
“Well look who’s back,” said the monster in human garb as he took a big swig of bourbon. “I’ll bet you’ve never seen one of these before,” he said, nodding down at his sex.
“Certainly never one so tiny,” said Miss Wiggington, earning herself a swift kick in the head.
That’s going to leave a mark, she thought as she watched the dazzling fireworks display in her head until slowly, ever so slowly, it subsided.
Upon opening her eyes, she saw that the bottle of bourbon in the man’s hand was half empty.
Mr. Neese noticed her looking and said, “Thanks for the top-shelf hooch, you stupid bitch.” He was starting to slur his words now. “I never woulda guessed a frigid ol’ twat like you would like the good shtuff.”
“There’s a lot about me,” said Miss Wiggington, slurring slightly herself thanks to a fat lip, “that you never would have guessed, you pathetic coward.” She cringed, awaiting a blow, but it never came.
When she dared to look up, Mr. Neese was smiling crookedly and swaying from side to side. He took another belt of whiskey, shook his head as if to clear it, and said, “D’ya know wha’sh gonna happen now, you wrinkly piece-a shit?”
Mr. Neese’s penis had gone limp and retreated to the safety of his trousers.
“D’ya know?” he bellowed, spraying spittle like an actor in a Shakespeare play.
With great effort, Miss Wiggington pulled herself up to a sitting position and leaned back against an overstuffed armchair.
“Yes, Mr. Neese, I know exactly what’s going to happen now.”
“Y’do?” he said, sounding surprised.
“What’s going to happen, Mr. Neese, is that the synergistic effect of the bourbon---and all the Lunesta and Seconal I laced it with---is going to render you unconscious any second now.”
Was that a spark of fear in the man’s eyes? It was hard to tell with his pinpoint pupils.
“Then the huge dose of Seconal in your system is going to depress your respiration,” she continued, “and slowly starve your brain of oxygen. And then, with any luck, you’ll become nauseous and choke to death on your own vomit.”
The handsome man who’d brutally savaged six---and probably many more---innocent souls fell back against the couch, the spiked bourbon slipping from his grasp. He opened his mouth as if to speak, but all that came out was an ugly rasping sound.
“Who’s responsible for making you what you are, Mr. Neese, for the horrible suffering you’ve inflicted upon others? I’ll leave that for God to decide,” Miss Wiggington said solemnly. “But I know who’s responsible for your death, sir. You are.”
The silver-haired spinster managed to drag herself up into the armchair, ignoring the damage reports flooding in from her bruised and battered body. She used a wadded paper napkin to stanch the flow of blood from her nose and looked over at her guest.
Jonathan Neese was now perfectly still. His hazel eyes were glazed over, a white froth dripped from his mouth, and there was a wet stain in the crotch of his fashionable pants.
Miss Wiggington could take no joy at the serial killer’s demise, after all, he was someone’s son. But she did feel a sense of satisfaction at a job well done, and looked forward to three or four Advil and a large glass of sherry.
Miss Wiggington rolled the body, enshrouded in a heavily duct-taped rug, into the shallow grave she’d dug behind the garage. Then she sat down on the folding chair to catch her breath, no easy feat thanks to her tightly-bandaged ribs. It would have been a lot easier to bury Mr. Neese after a week or so of rest and recovery. However, her tenant was due back on Tuesday and it was summer, after all, and she was running low on ice.
She chuckled, thinking that she must’ve been quite a sight, all Band-Aids, tape, and bruises, and positively reeking of Bengay. But it was a dark, moonless night and there was no one there to see her, save for the barn owls, skunks, and mice.
Having recovered somewhat, Miss Wiggington dragged herself to her feet, said a few prayers for the man---and his victims buried close by---and began filling in the grave. It was slow work, thanks to her swollen shoulder and balky knee, and dawn was breaking by the time she was done.
The old woman carefully raked some leaves and debris over the freshly-disturbed dirt, and threw a few branches on top for good measure. All that was left to do was to write an explanatory letter and place it in her safety-deposit box. It wouldn’t be long, a few years at most, and then the families of the dead would have closure.
Miss Wigginton jumped at the sound of a car grumbling down the road. It was the paper-delivery man, chucking newspapers out the passenger-side window with a metronomic thwack, thwack, thwack. She made a mental note to call the man, he kept throwing her newspaper under the juniper bushes.
After stowing away the folding chair and all her tools---a place for everything and everything in its place---she gimped down to the road and picked up her paper, on the driveway for once. And as Miss Wiggington slowly made her way back to the house, the first rays of sun began to light up the world. The morning sky was a cloudless powder blue, the tall evergreens framed her tidy white house, and her petunia beds, a sprawling riot of crimson, yellow, purple, and pink, were absolutely stunning.