by Joyce Ann Brown
A Hit and a Miss is the third place winner in our Halloween Mystery Short Story contest! Watch for the rest of the top 5 this week, and check those entries, including the winner, that have already gone up!
A figure plunged out of the shadows like a deer bolts onto a freeway, giving the driver no time to react. Since the roadway in question was a residential street in a quiet Kansas City neighborhood, Marci had a smidgen more time to jam her foot on the brake and squeal to a stop than she would at highway speeds. A ghostly white face with huge eyes turned into the headlights. Marci squeezed her eyes shut. Her seat belt prevented her from slamming into the steering wheel, but the dread of hearing a thud caused her adrenalin to spike and her heartbeat to race into her throat.
Marci opened her eyes and expected to see a person standing in front of the car, a person as relieved as she. She hadn’t felt or heard a bump of any kind. Nothing. A blank space appeared where the specter faced her five seconds before. Marci scanned the treed neighborhood. All seemed normal in the final gray of twilight except for the acrid smell of burnt tire rubber. Lamplight shone through front windows of Tudor-style brick and stucco homes.Children’s voices echoed down the street–children playing hide-and-seek on the late summer evening.
Her hands shaking, Marci turned off the ignition, unlatched her seat belt, stepped onto the pavement, and walked to the front of the car. The sight of a prone body lying only inches from the bumper caused her to recoil for an instant, and then, in sudden recognition, she knelt on the pavement and reached out to touch her neighbor’s shoulder. Had the poor woman fainted?
“Heather, are you okay?” Marci said.
A low groan and twitch of a hand in reply. She saw Heather, lying on her stomach; struggle to look up at her. There were no apparent injuries. A sick feeling struck. Had her car knocked Heather to the ground, after all? Maybe, in her panic, she didn’t feel the impact?
“Just lie still. I’m going to call 911,” Marci said.
She rushed back to grab her phone. In the street she’d felt nothing beyond the trembling in her stomach and the rough asphalt on her knees through her khaki pants, but when she stuck a leg into the car to reach for her purse, she realized her pant legs were wet. The dark substance felt slimy when she touched it. Like light cream, or blood. The interior car lights confirmed the suspicion. She must have knelt in a pool of Heather’s lifeblood. Marci found her phone and hurried back to the front of the car.
“There’s been an accident,” she said to the 911 operator. “I think–I believe–I hit someone who ran into the street in front of me. She needs an ambulance.”
As Marci answered the operator’s questions, Heather moaned, pulled her hand toward her chest, and raised her head an inch, as if she wanted to push herself up.
“Hold on,” Marci said into the phone. She knelt again and put a hand on Heather’s arm. “No, no, stay down. Help is coming.”
“I…um…m…itch…itch,” Heather whispered.
“Where? Where do you itch? I mean…oh, Heather, I’m so sorry. Hang in there. You’re going to be okay.” The 911 operator forgotten, Marci looked up to the raucous sound of sirens and then obscene flashing red lights. Only her concern for her neighbor kept her from blubbering like a baby.
Weeks later, Marci awoke with a start in the middle of the night. She sat up and peered around the dark bedroom. Heather’s agonized plea had sounded so real. “It itches, Marci. Scratch my itch. Please listen. Help me scratch m-m-my itch.” In the nightmare, Heather sat alone on a patio chair with a book in her hands. However, the eyes, the voice, and the vague metallic smell of blood revealed her otherworldliness.
As she had done many nights, Marci spent the next hour lying still in bed, so as not to wake her husband, and relived the night of the accident. Not accident–her counselor–they made her attend counseling and told her to use a different word, even in her thoughts. No accident had occurred.
The ambulance had come. Heather had been examined, stabilized, and taken away. A policeman took Marci’s statement and then left her standing, hugging her arms around her body to stop her disorienting shivers in the August heat and humidity, while her groceries sat forgotten in the back seat of the car, the milk souring, the ice-cream melting. Her husband was out of town, but she called him and somehow managed to describe the situation without breaking down. More police cars arrived, and a bunch–was that the right word? A lot, a large group, a hoard of investigators measured, photographed, examined, and held back the small crowd of local folks who showed up to gawk. Marci overheard the police talk about a bullet wound and the lack of marks on the car.
Later, sometime during the lengthening night, a detective told Marci, “Your neighbor was shot. You had nothing to do with her collapse. Do you know who had reason to kill her?”
Marci had shaken her head. She remembered that. She stood, looking stupid, she was sure, mouth open, blank expression, and shook her head slowly from side to side. Why is it always later you think of what you should have said? I don’t know anyone who would murder anyone. I live in a quiet, safe neighborhood. We raised our kids here.
The detective told her she could drive her car into her garage. She had to back up, turn around, and go around the block to approach her driveway from the opposite side so the tires wouldn’t obliterate the dried blood and the tape around it. The tape remained for a couple of days and then disappeared along with the blood after a rain storm, about the same time Heather, under heavy sedation, having never given a statement to police, passed away in the hospital.
Heather had little family. Her mother flew in from Florida, and a brother and his wife came from Dallas for the funeral. There were no children. Some friends and acquaintances from social groups and customers of her freelance graphic design business came to the funeral, put on acceptably mournful faces, and left after the service.
Cremation required no graveside service, and Heather’s brother, who spent as much time on his phone with business matters as he did presiding over the funeral, departed a vaguely respectable two hours after. He left his mother the tasks of closing up the house and finding her own way back to the airport.
While summer waned and autumn winds brightened leaves, Heather’s house remained a silent witness to its own secrets. Neither the lawn service workers nor the curious young hide-and-seekers were able to penetrate its mysteries through the blind-shrouded windows. No For Sale sign appeared. No family member or bank representative came to take stock.
One evening after work, Marci stepped onto her screened porch and heard voices from the patio next door. A high wooden fence hid the view. She ran to find her husband.
“Barry! There are people next door.”
“Maybe a Realtor is finally showing the house.”
“I don’t think so. It sounds like a bunch of young men having a party or something. I haven’t seen anyone move in.
As a matter of fact, Heather’s furniture is still there. Do you think someone broke in?”
“Maybe the family sold it lock, stock, and barrel. We’ve been at work all day. Someone could have moved in today with just his personal possessions.
A couple of days later, Barry told Marci he had seen Joseph Pianci drive out of the garage next door. Joe, Heather’s ex, had moved out months ago. Heather had confided to Marci that Joe was bisexual but had promised he was done with men. After various infidelities, to which he always begged forgiveness and swore it was the last, she caught him in a lie about having given up smoking. It was the final blow to the relationship. She kicked him out of the house, the house that she owned. He threatened to make her regret her decision, and she attained a no contact restraining order against him. Now he was back?
“When I found out about Heather’s tragic death, I was grief-stricken,” he said with a sad little smile. “We had our differences, but I still loved her. I loved living here in this house, too. It may seem strange, but it reminds me of her. We had an agreement that I’d get the house if anything happened to her, and that remained in effect. Of course, I gave the family some compensation.”
“You got all the furnishings, too?” Marci asked before she thought better of it.
“Heather’s family didn’t want to deal with an estate sale from afar. I’m lucky they let me keep almost all of it.”
A shift in the wind blew a funnel of leaves off one of Joe’s piles just then, and Marci’s eyes grew wide when Heather’s ghoulish figure flew through the curtain of yellow and orange behind Joe’s back. When Joe turned around to see what had horrified Marci, the apparition disappeared. Marci tried to mask her distress with a slight laugh.
“We’d better get back to our raking before we have to start over,” she said. Marci trembled at the grin Joe sported and then attempted to act normal as she resumed raking.
Detective Martin, who led the investigation into the circumstances of Heather’s death, told Marci, “No, we investigated her ex-boyfriend thoroughly. The law professor has an air-tight alibi. A whole classroom full of students observed him in class during the time period of the shooting.”
Over the next few weeks, Marci watched two cars enter and leave Joe’s garage. The driver of the second car was a nattily-dressed young man Marci didn’t recognize. One day, Barry told her he’d been introduced. “Leonard something–uh, Jones, I think.” She heard the two men in the back yard or on the patio on warm evenings.
After that, the nightmare Heather told Marci to keep her eye on Joe’s friend. Complaints about the itch continued. “M-mm-my-itch,” the sad ghoul moaned over and over until Marci jolted awake into a sitting position with her arms out as if trying to reach for her friend. Barry cuddled and soothed her until she fell back asleep.
Marci called Detective Martin two more times with ideas about how Joe could have shot Heather before going to class or might have hired a gunman to kill Heather. There was no evidence to support either theory.
“There were some fingerprints on the victim’s neck,” the detective said, “but they don’t match Joe’s or anyone in our files. Joseph Pianci is a law professor, not a killer. You’ve got to accept that the murder was probably a random burglary gone wrong and that we may never find the perpetrator.”
At the end of October, Marci and Barry attended their neighborhood Halloween party, an annual event since their kids were young. Joe and Leonard came in costume, Joe’s grim reaper outfit made Marci shudder, and his partner’s fake bloody head bandages seemed inappropriate for a party full of children in cute trick-or-treat outfits. Marci avoided the two men until close to the end of the evening when they joined her at the buffet table.
Joe said, “I don’t think I’ve introduced you to my roommate. Mitch, Marci is Barry’s wife. Marci, this is Leonard Mitchell Jones, but he goes by Mitch.”
The air in the room became too thick for Marci to breathe. She clutched her chest and excused herself to the bathroom. “Too much cider, I guess,” she said.
Mitch–of course–not, my itch–M-Mitch.
Marci remembered the unmatchable fingerprints on Heather’s neck. During the remainder of the evening, she watched Mitch carefully and nabbed various items he touched–a plastic cup, a balloon, a Ping-Pong paddle, a dart.
Mitch was arrested on suspicion of murder. Although he claimed to have known nothing about his partner’s deed, Joe’s name and circumstances became media fodder for a couple of weeks. He became suspect of collaborating with the shooter. His reputation was ruined.
At the neighborhood Halloween party the following year, Heather appeared across the room in an angel costume. Marci approached, but the lovely apparition disappeared out the door into the evening drizzle with the joyous trick-or-treaters, and Marci never saw her again.
Check out other mystery articles, reviews, book giveaways & short stories, and more Halloween stories all month, in our mystery section.