by Bill Cameron
Here is another Halloween mystery/crime short story. Sunlight Nocturne was previously published in a small anthology, Deadly Treats, about six years ago.
Early on the morning of October thirty-first, three intruders entered a home on the east side of Lents Park in southeast Portland. The date sticks with me because it’s the day I’ll finally get around to building the bat house I’ve been talking about for the better part of the year. I catch the breaking story on the morning news while I drink my coffee and scrape cobwebs from my eyes.
Word is an invader kicked through the front door and bludgeoned one of the occupants—identified as a nineteen-year-old from Provo named Jeremias McCreevey—as he slept on the couch. Dead at the scene. The other occupant, a seventeen year-old pregnant girl, tried to flee through the back door, only to meet two more attackers. They shot her in the belly, then tore through the house spilling drawers, slitting open upholstery, and ripping into the sheetrock walls with a claw hammer until they were interrupted by approaching sirens. The girl had managed to drag herself into the backyard and dial 9-1-1 on her cell phone before losing consciousness.
McCreevey’s mother, haggard but anxious to talk, told a Provo television reporter she thought her son had been sharing an apartment in Gresham with two other LDS boys. She had no idea who the pregnant girl was nor why her boy had to die. The girl—identity withheld pending notification of next-of-kin—is being prepped for surgery at Emanuel Hospital as KGW Sunrise gives way to the Today Show.
For all that, I’m more interested in the weather report. The day will be dry and unseasonably warm, the last gasp of an extended Indian summer which has been lingering since mid-September. I drink another cuppa joe to Matt Lauer’s nattering and feel grateful for being a year-and-a-half past the time when I might have gotten the call-out on the deadly home invasion. It’s one of those days when it’s good to be an ex-cop. Not Detective Kadash, just ol’ Skin.
I spend half an hour rooting through my garage for the screwdriver, staple gun, and a quart of grey house paint I vaguely recall buying a year before. No sign of the paint. I take the tools and bat house kit onto the front porch for what I expect to be a long day of low-level bloodletting and streaming expletives fit to make a Teamster blush.
When I emerge, the sun is peeking over the shoulder of Mount Tabor and tinting the front lawn bronze. It’s still cool, but the feather touch of sunlight hints at the day’s warmth to come. I smell dew on the air as I start sorting the pieces of the kit on the porch. It’s a simple three-chamber roost with interior baffles pre-roughened so the bats will have something to grip. I’m just starting to make sense of it all when I hear the tap of tiny footsteps on my walk.
I look up to see little Danny Bronstein approach from across the street, trailing his mother behind him.
“I’m sorry, Skin.” Luellen blows her bangs out of her eyes. “He saw you outside and wanted come to over.”
“Danny’s always welcome. You know that.”
She smiles gratefully. “Did you see the news this morning? That boy and his girlfriend?”
“Yeah. Unfortunate situation.”
“They haven’t caught the guys yet. Someone called in a tip and the police tracked them to a house down around Foster and 82nd, but they went running off in different directions. Cops are everywhere now.”
As if to punctuate her report, I hear a ‘whap-whap-whap’ in the distance. Off to the south I can see the hovering chopper. It’s too far away to tell if it’s a news or police helicopter, but the location is consistent with activity on the ground in the vicinity of Foster and the mid-80s.
“Bad guys on foot?”
“I’m not sure.”
“I’ll be right back.” I go inside and turn on the radio, tune to OPB. They’re on the national report at the bottom of the hour, so I increase the volume enough to hear on the porch and rejoin Luellen and Danny.
“Might as well keep up with what’s going on.”
Luellen’s eyes get distant for a moment, but then she focuses on the pieces of wood on the porch. “What’s this stuff?”
“It’s a roost. For bats.”
She’s quiet for a moment. From inside the house, I hear a reprise of the weather report. Blue skies and heat. Danny fidgets on the lawn. Luellen gives me a dubious look. “It’s almost winter. Are bats still around?”
“I know. I’m late.” No need to mention I bought the kit in February with bold plans for a spring installation. “If nothing else, it will be ready for next year.”
“You sound worried.”
“It’s not that. It’s just …”
“Well, you’re a weird fellow.”
I chuckle. “And yet you still live across the street from me.”
“Actually I was wondering if you could watch Danny for a little while. I’ve got to pick up some things. I can take him with me, but you know how it is.”
“Of course. He can help me paint the roost.” Assuming I find the errant paint can.
“If you want smudges and handprints, he’s your man.”
“That’s exactly what I want.”
Danny sits down on the stoop next to me, fascinated by the pieces of wood and screen which make up the kit. Luellen kisses his forehead with a wet smack and laughs when he rubs the spot dry. “Thanks, Skin. I’ll be back in an hour or so.”
Danny is a quiet boy, as well-behaved a four-year-old as I’ve ever encountered. Give him something to do and he’ll be content for hours. I let him hold the screws. He watches my every move. From the living room, I hear an update on the home invaders. One has been picked up after rear-ending a UPS truck on Foster as he fled toward Powell in a stolen Ford Focus. The others remain at large, presumed armed and dangerous. The girl is still in surgery.
“What are we makin’, Mister Skin?”
“It’s a bat house.”
He ponders that bit of information. Passes me screws when I ask for them. I manage to get the whole thing together without drawing blood from either one of us. Together we regard the assembled house. Two-and-a-half feet tall and eighteen inches wide. Access from the bottom. My plan is to mount it under the eave, south facing. Decent sunlight even in the dreary months.
“Do bats live in houses?”
There’s a note of concern in Danny’s voice. I can’t tell if he’s worried about the bats which might come to live in this house in particular, or about houses in general.
“Not in your house.”
He screws his mouth up into a skeptical little knot.
“Bats eat bugs, you know.”
He eyes me sideways. Then he runs his hand over the smooth outer surface of the bat house. “What kind of bugs?”
“Mosquitoes and stuff.”
“I don’t like noskeetoes.”
“Me either. But the bats will eat them for us.”
His mother appears shortly after that and scoops him up. “Sorry, Skin. The morning got away from me.”
“We didn’t even notice. How long were you gone?”
“Too long. The police are still chasing those guys. They have them cornered in a house over near 50th and Division. I was stuck in traffic for half an hour.”
She’s anxious, her expression a mirror image of Danny’s when he contemplated the natural history of the Chiropterids. Luellen likes things quiet and safe. Citywide manhunts fall outside her comfort zone. She thanks me and then hustles Danny across the street.
I put my tools away, drift inside. Turn off the radio. The helicopters are still flying. The sound of their rotors beats out a cadence which carries me back to my tour of Vietnam. I remember lying wrapped in my poncho at sunset and watching fruit bats fluttering through the jungle canopy, the motion of their membranous wings ethereal and hypnotic.
Long time ago.
I drop onto the couch, hit the power button on the remote. Russ and Brenda, the KGW morning news anchors, are back for the noon report. Two suspects remain at large, but police are questioning the fellow who crashed into the UPS truck. I know how that will go. The cops probably already know who the other invaders are. The bastard will make sure the first story on the books is one that paints him in the best light. “I thought we were visiting a friend. They never told me it was no break in until the door’s busting down.” I’ve had the conversation myself dozens of times, variants thereof. These guys are always badasses until you get them in the little room and give them the stink eye.
They show Sky 8 video from the crash scene, then the dead boy’s mother is back, still baffled about what he was doing in that house. His fellow missionaries from the apartment in Gresham claim they haven’t seen him in months and thought he’d returned to Provo. It’s a pretty good guess whose baby it is, but Mother McCreevey doesn’t want to discuss that possibility. The girl is still in surgery; the baby was delivered via C-section and is now being treated in the neonatal intensive care unit. A boy.
When the news ends, I step out onto the porch. A warm, dry breeze carries the smell of illegal leaf burning, a comforting scent. The midday sun hangs low and watery in the southern sky as a reminder of the winter bearing down on us. I hear the fearsome bickering of sparrows and the first juncos of the season, then the skirl of skateboards. A pair of skaters wheel down my street and for a moment I stare at them. I’ve known a few in my day, one in particular, but it’s been a long time since I’ve seen him. Damn memories again. I wait until the skaters pass, then head across the street. I’ve given up on the can of paint.
I knock on Luellen’s back door. Through an open window above, I can hear her singing quietly to herself, a song I’ve heard many times before, a tuneful lullaby. At my knock, the singing stops, and a moment later she opens the door.
“Oh, Skin. Hi.”
“Hey. I thought Danny might want to come watch me hang the bat house.”
“I don’t want to be any trouble.”
“It’s no trouble. He seems interested.”
“He always likes visiting with you. After his nap okay?”
While I wait, I pull out the ladder and make sure the battery for the drill is charged. The helicopters move nearer, then farther away. I’m not really keeping track, but it’s hard to not wonder where the action will move to next.
The big break in the case comes before Danny awakes. The skell in custody ID’s McCreevey’s mother from a frame grab off the TV news. Police confirm she flew to Portland the week before, a round-trip which carried her home again the same night. They figure that’s when she hired the crew. The idea was to scare her wayward boy, trash his house, get him to turn away from the new life he’d chosen. She didn’t count on Jeremias being armed, less on the fact he couldn’t shoot for shit. When the bullets started flying, one of the invaders bashed his head in with a stone paperweight grabbed off the coffee table. The girl had already been hit.
Northwest Cable News shows tape of Mother McCreevey being taken into custody by the Provo police. They have to censor part of what she’s shouting as they put her in the back of a patrol car, but I hear enough. “I wasn’t going to lose my boy to no bleep-bleep city trash.” I turn off the TV and head back outside.
Luellen and Danny join me. I climb atop of the ladder, balancing precariously on the step warning me NOT A STEP, trying to wield the drill without screwing my hand to the lap siding. I manage to center the roost between two windows and get it reasonably straight. My neighbors will complain when the guano starts to streak the siding, assuming a bat ever moves in. Whatever. It’s not like I don’t own a hose.
Luellen takes the drill from me as I descend the ladder.
“What are you passing out tonight, Skin?”
“I usually pass out in front of the TV trying to find a channel that isn’t showing Law and Order reruns.”
“Not when. What?”
I stare at her.
“Why would I have candy?”
“It’s Halloween, you big ninny.”
“Ah.” October thirty-first. Right. “I’ve been distracted.”
One of the attackers is still loose, but the main hunt is tapering off. The police know the only gun involved was McCreevey’s—recovered at the scene—so they’re focusing on known associates, friends, relatives of the remaining fugitive.
“You’ve got to have Halloween candy. I’ll pick some up for you.”
“I could just sit on my porch with a Super Soaker.”
She ignores that. “Why don’t you come trick-or-treating with us?”
Danny gazes up at me, expectant. I smile. “Sure. Why not?” I sit down next to him on the stoop. “What are you dressing up as?”
He thinks for a moment. “It’s scary.”
“The scariest thing I can think of is a starling.”
Danny giggles. He knows how I feel about starlings.
“A zombie starling?”
Luellen rolls her eyes. “Skin, you’re hopeless.” But she’s smiling as Danny tumbles on the porch, his giggles too much for him. Luellen holds out her hand. “Come on, sweetie. Let’s go get you ready.”
It’s some time after four when Luellen brings little Danny back across the street. He’s wearing a black fleece skullcap which she’s cut so a point dips across his forehead to the ridge between his eyes. His outfit is black as well, an inside-out sweatshirt and black pants. A black cloak drapes across his shoulders and hangs almost to the ground.
Luellen crouches next to him and smiles up at me.
“Show Mister Skin your costume, honey.”
His eyes are wide as he lifts his arms. Luellen has trimmed the cloth cape into the shape of bat wings. He gazes at me, face solemn.
“I eat bugs.”
I nod. “Important work.”
He shows me his teeth for a second to emphasize the point.
“But not too many at once, I hope. You need to save room for candy.”
At that, Luellen smacks her forehead. “I forgot his candy bucket. It’s in his room.” She smiles quickly and a little sheepishly.
“No rush. We’ll wait.”
“Sounds like a good one.”
While we wait, he throws up his arms and runs around my lawn, flapping his wings and squeaking. I watch, smiling, and imagine him snapping up insects in flight. I’m sure his mother would be aghast, but the thought gives me a chuckle. Danny frowns my way, disapproving of my laughter at his important work, and squeaks more loudly. In the dry grass, his footfalls sound like the rustling of crepe paper.
But the smile dies on my face when a guy rushes out of my backyard through the side gate. There’s no easy way to get back there except through the house or the way he came. But from the scratches on his face and exposed forearms, I assume he arrived the hard way, through my neighbor’s raspberries and over the cedar fence at the back of my lot. He’s got a Skeletor thinness to him, his neck long and ridged, his Adam’s apple an angular prominence. His arms are veiny and laced with tats, muddy blue prison work. In one hand he’s holding a shaped block of red granite. I can’t decide which of us is more surprised. His mouth falls open to reveal a nasty case of meth mouth. Danny stops near me and points.
“Too many bugs.”
His voice is no louder than a dove’s coo, but the fellow hears him and raises his inked arms in alarm. At a glance, the tats look like poorly rendered spiders and flies which seem to move, crawling and fluid. But my attention is on the carved stone in the man’s hand. I see a bloody tuft of tangled hair matted at one corner. Jeremias McCreevey’s, I’m sure.
The skell looks up, and his bloodshot eyes widen at my recognition. I gotta wonder what possessed him to carry the murder weapon all through the day, cops on his trail, choppers beating down from the sky. In the distance I can still hear them, but too far away. I wish I was alone, wish Danny could fly to safety. I paw at my waist in search of a weapon which hasn’t been there since I retired. The moment stretches. A shred of cloud passes before the sun and a chill runs through me. The fellow hefts the stone, lips peeled back from his rotting teeth. Later, I imagine, Sky 8 will hover overhead. Someone will sit with Luellen in the front room of her house while a team does its work out here, piecing together the last scrap of Mother McCreevey’s mess. The pursuit will continue.
“I eat bugs.”
The bastard drops his eyes to Danny, and I’m sure the world is about to end. But Danny spreads his wings and squeaks. I can’t guess what the tweaker sees, looking at my sweet little bat, but he screams and hurls the paperweight with all his wiry, cranked strength. I throw myself toward Danny, a feckless shield, but the stone arcs harmlessly through the air above us. For a moment I see it framed by the steely sky, then it clatters against the bat roost and lands with a thud in the dirt below. The tweaker runs past us, waving his arms over his head. I watch him disappear up the block, his howl fading.
The energy drains out of me in the space of a heartbeat. I stumble to the stoop and sit. Danny watches, curious for a moment, but then gets back on bat-winged task. I pull out my cell phone and dial a number I know as well as my own. I describe the fellow and the direction he ran. They’ll want to collect the weapon too, so I tell them where to find it. I hang up before they can ask any questions, knowing I’m only delaying the inevitable.
Danny pulls up short at the bottom of the steps, his expression fierce with bug-eating batistry.
“That was something, eh, buddy?”
He gazes at me. Then he points at the next house. He’s ready for trick-or-treat. I draw a deep breath and tell him we have to wait for his mom. At that moment Luellen pops out her front door and trots across the street. “How are you boys doing? Anything interesting happen while I was gone?”
Danny is fluttering around the yard again. In the distance, I hear sirens and the chop of rotors drawing near. I start to describe the encounter, but then I note the high color in Luellen’s cheeks, see the breeze move her dark hair. She’s ready to go, eager to run through the streets with her little boy, to knock on doors, and collect treats as the daylight fades and crisp autumn twilight descends.
“He’s been eating bugs.”
She grins. “Guess what. While I was inside I heard on the news the girl is going to be okay. The baby too. Both are out of danger.”
Danny flits over to me and takes my hand. Luellen offers him his pumpkin bucket, its triangle eyes alight, and together we walk down a street made gold by the setting sun.
Check out other mystery articles, reviews, book giveaways & short stories (including more Halloween ones) in our mystery section and watch for many more Halloween short stories this month.