He is the author of two novels published under pseudonym, Shane Kinsey, three Christian non-fiction books including Cause of Death: Autopsy of Jesus, and was part of the development team for “Quincy,” a software program designed for coroners and medical examiners.
Steve subscribes to multiple writing-related newsletters and seminars, and continues building his on-line presence with his Website at www.steverush.org, Goodreads, and Linked-In. He reads thirty plus novels yearly and now writes full time. Steve lives in Metropolitan Atlanta, Georgia, with his wife, Sharon.
The time had come for the wife of Madison’s police chief to stain the town’s pride. Tess Fleishman’s fury remained unseen until she expressed it in a manner unbecoming antebellum homes and the best small town to live in Georgia.
Tess filmed Vanessa Flack running through a stand of pine trees and hustle up the red clay embankment to the dirt road. The eighteen-year-old heaved breaths and rested her hands on her hips.
“How was that?” Vanessa puffed out.
Tess tossed her a towel. “You showed me I made the right choice.”
“Thank you for this, Tess.”
Tess popped open the trunk. “You can thank me when it’s over. I need your help with this next part because I’m not able to lift anything over twenty pounds.”
Vanessa embraced her. “I heard about your diagnosis.” She glanced inside. “Do I have to get in there? It looks grimy.”
“We can’t let anybody see you with me, Vanessa. It will ruin the surprise. It’s just ‘til we get to the barn.”
Vanessa climbed into the trunk. She sipped from a bottle of water while Tess bound her wrists and ankles. She smiled and waved before the lid closed her inside.
The repossessed Impala bounced and swayed through the graveyard. Tess stopped the car in the umbra of the tree line and opened the trunk. Vanessa squirmed and strained against the paracord looped and tied around the towels wrapped around her wrists and ankles. Twilight robbed her face of color. Her skin appeared gray. Tess pictured her at the crime scene sans the restraints, her clothing, and a pulse.
“Why are we in the cemetery? Where is Katie and Chad? You told me the murder-mystery party is supposed to be filmed at the barn.”
“It is, Vanessa.” The tactical-garbed Tess sat on the lip of the trunk. She grasped Vanessa’s hand to calm her. “I sent Chad a message to prepare the scene. Katie and the others will join us after I get you set in place.”
“Are you sure?” Vanessa tugged at the restraints.
“Have you ever known me to lie to you?”
“No.” Vanessa stilled. “You’ve always been sweet to me.”
“Then trust what I tell you, Vanessa. I’m taking you to the barn where Chad will make a video of me killing you. He’s agreed to film and edit our project.”
Vanessa flinched when Tess flicked open a tactical knife. Uncertainty filled her eyes. “That knife is just for show, right? You’re not really going to hurt me.”
Tess waved the knife a foot from Vanessa’s face. “The effect of a tanto blade is one experience a person never forgets.”
Vanessa reached out. “Please let me ride up there with you. I’ll hide behind the seats. Nobody will see me.”
“Relax, Vanessa. You agreed to do this. How would it look if one of your friends saw you getting out of the back seat instead of me hauling you out of the trunk? A little discomfort never hurt anybody. It will be over soon.” Tess slammed the trunk lid.
Darkness consumed them when the lights shut off. The sedan rolled to a stop beneath a hundred-year-old oak tree behind Fletcher’s barn on Washington Street. Tess eased along the side of the car to the trunk, felt for the lock, and inserted the key.
Vanessa jerked away when Tess’s gloved hand touched her arm. “Where is Chad?”
Tess shushed her. “I told you he’s waiting for us inside.”
“Then why is it dark in there? You lied to me, Tess. Untie me.”
Tess gripped Vanessa’s shoulder, slid her hand to Vanessa’s throat and stuffed a gag into her mouth. “This is reality, Vanessa. It’s time to die for what your backstabbing sister did to me.”
Chad Stoltz skirted around a rusty truck hood propped against three bales of hay and stepped up to the image painted on the barn wall. The portrait appeared crimson up close. When his fingertips touched it, he jerked away and rubbed his thumb across them. The goo gripped his thumb and threaded when pulled apart. He sniffed it.
His throat seized. Chad focused on the crimson-and-wood-colored face while he shuffled two short steps in retreat. What kind of crazy would do a thing like this?
The exposé held his gaze long enough for him to remember where he was. An old barn full of ominous shadows, places to hide behind. He looked up to the darker loft where he expected to see the creature from Jeepers Creepers; expected the monster’s grin, and tantalized by its snuffle. The All-American linebacker from Morgan County High School saw nothing except more bales of hay stacked floor-to-roof on one end and three-and-four high near the ladder.
The boards behind the likeness creaked from a gust of wind. Chad shuddered at the noise. A tingle crawled up his neck. Acridness nearby enveloped him. The next breath knotted his stomach. His pulse battered his eardrums and punched his temples. That same smell—the smell of Death—once nauseated him after he saw his mother’s body slumped behind the steering wheel of her SUV eighteen months earlier.
His left foot thumped the truck hood as he hurried to get out of the barn. He stumbled and fell forward onto the dirt floor. Two empty feed buckets banged and rattled on the side boards after his right arm struck them against the outside of one stall. Dust rose from the clay floor.
Death’s stench reeked at ground level. Chad looked around and located the source less than three feet away. Blood saturated the sawdust-covered floor. Spatter and smears stained the slats of wood separating the stall from the one adjoining it. At that moment, not even the joint in his pocket appealed to him. Never had he observed so much blood.
Chad scrambled to his feet, fumbled his cellphone pulling it out of his pocket as he ran toward the double doors. He paused long enough to pick up the phone. He shoved open the left-side door, scrolled to the number for Neil Caldera and pressed his thumb to the screen. He leaned against the front of the barn to the left of the doors. He held the phone tight to his ear, bounced on the balls of his feet as he heard the first three rings.
A voice answered after the fifth ring. “Caldera.”
“You’ve g-got to g-get over here right now.”
“Who is this?” Neil spoke in his Long Island accent.
“It’s Chad. Chad Stoltz.”
“Chad, try to calm down so I can understand you, okay? You’re breaking up. Take it slow and tell me again.”
“I’ll t-try.” Chad peered around the edge of the barn door. The image on the wall stared back at him. “It’s just ... Somebody has to be dead. This can’t be real. There’s blood everywhere. I ain’t ever seen anything like this. There has to be a crazy monster running loose around here somewhere.”
“Where are you?”
“I’m outside Fletcher’s barn on East Washington. Please. Please hurry, Bishop. You have to see this.”
“Did you say bar?”
“No, not a bar. Barn. I’m at the old barn close to the apple orchard.”
“Okay, got it. Stay right there. I’m on my way.”
Neil Caldera glanced at the dome-glassed clock on the mantle—three minutes before ten. After a change into black attire, he grabbed a flashlight out of the nightstand next to his bed. He flipped the switch to check the batteries. The bulb threw out a solid beam. Satisfied, he put the flashlight in his left hip pocket. He reached for the Smith & Wesson 9mm, hesitated and slid the drawer closed.
He walked through the leased house, turned off every light except one over the kitchen sink and exited through the back door. He checked the door lock and even though he planned not to drive his decade-old Acura, Neil pressed the unlock button on the key fob which also activated a video security-system link. He manually locked the door.
His ten speed mountain bike stood propped against the wall around back. A trip on foot meant a greater chance of being seen on the road. If he rode the bicycle to the barn he risked leaving evidence of his presence.
The thermometer nailed to the outside door frame showed a near normal sixty-seven degrees on this first Saturday in May. Humidity made it feel more like seventy-five.
Neil chose to walk.
Two hundred yards into the trek he met a dark vehicle headed in the opposite direction. The Impala slowed to a stop in the roadway. The driver rolled down her window. “You’re out late, Padre.”
“Hi, Tess. You are the last person I expected to see out here tonight. Did you trade in your vehicle?”
Tess Fleishman sat slumped in the driver’s seat. “It’s a loaner. I didn’t want Rob to see mine about town. I’m supposed to be at home.”
Neil stepped over to the car and leaned his left forearm on the door. The thumb on his left hand swiped a roughness in the paint. He glanced at a half-moon-shape scratch an inch blow the trim. His heart saddened at seeing the woman’s pallor and a walker in the foot well on the passenger side. Six months ago, Tess enjoyed health and a semblance of happiness. They were her life of luxury, not hers and Rob’s amassed material possessions. It was then she reported leukemia had invaded her body and forced out the richness of her thirty-six-year existence.
“I guess he’s not there.”
“No. It’s a strain, but I needed to get out of the house for a while. Those walls close in on me. I feel trapped. I can’t just sit there, Neil. Life is whizzing by me and I’m missing it because of my senseless disease.”
“No words exist, Tess.”
She tucked strands of chestnut hair behind her left ear, twisted in the seat and laid her hand on his arm. Her right arm lifted her breast visible beneath the sheer eggshell tunic wet from chest to waist.
“Words I can do without, Neil. If I weren’t such a mess I’d invite you over for some pat and frisk. Although, be warned. I am armed. You might have to take me into custody.”
“You’re a married woman.”
“Somebody needs to tell that to Rob. He seems to have forgotten.” Tess shook her head. She sighed. “It really doesn’t matter to me what he does anymore. I’ll be gone soon and he can do whatever he wants.” She squeezed Neil’s forearm. “I want to feel special again, Neil. I want to feel loved.”
Neil put his hand on hers. “I’ll talk to him.”
“No. Please. He shouldn’t know we talked.”
Neil nodded. He removed his hand from hers and straightened.
Tess waved goodbye. She turned right at the first intersection and in moments the Impala’s tail lights faded in the darkness. Eleven minutes passed before Neil arrived at the barn. The acrid scent of blood permeated the air.
Chad stuck his head around the corner.
“Thank you for coming.”
“Have you notified the police?”
“No. Vanessa Flack called me this afternoon about getting together to do a mock murder scene. I was supposed to meet her here after it got dark. I called her phone several times, but they all went to her voice mail. You’ve got to help me. Please. If something happened to Vanessa, the police will think I did it.”
“Why would they think that?”
“I just assume because we’ve been talking?”
“No. It’s nothing like that. We’re just friends.”
“Call them. I’ll wait.”
Chad’s hand trembled as he gestured to the door. “You’d better look in there first.”
A metal bar fit over a latch to secure the barn doors on the outside. Neil rotated the bar clockwise and let it hang toward the ground before he let go of it. He tugged on the left-side door. Its lower edge caught on clumps of crabgrass. He lifted the door enough to clear the obstacle and allow enough space for him to squeeze through.
“You want to show me?”
Chad covered his nose and backed away. “Not a chance. I’m not going back in there.”
Neil thought about his decision not to bring his pistol. Three years ago, he never would have gone anywhere without one. Besides, any threat in Madison, Georgia compared little to those in New York City.
He stepped through, pulled the door shut and turned on the flashlight. The stench overpowered the smell of old hay and musk. He aimed the beam leftward. Three bridles hung on hooks between the two stalls on that side. A singletree dangled from a nail above them. Three supports lined the right side, spaced the same distance apart. A ladder leading to the loft abutted the middle post. The space under the loft housed a John Deere tractor and related farm gear.
The rear wall contained double doors similar to those on the front. Neil eased forward. His footfalls made no sound on the dirt floor. A quick check with the light confirmed the first stall was empty. He crept on to the second. A work table lined two walls. Hand tools lay haphazard on its surface. A pitchfork and two shovels propped alongside the wall to the right.
The stench intensified with each step. The source was somewhere in the darkness beyond the second stall. He discovered it in the third. A three-by-five foot blood-soaked spot on the sawdust. Neil had observed enough crime scenes to identify the familiar sight and smell of blood. Light revealed blood on three of the four walls and on a few boards overhead.
He strode to the rear space amidst various farm implements. The flashlight beam revealed nothing unanticipated to the right. The light revealed more than he foresaw on the left. Happenstance played no role in the display now before him. The artist’s rendition displayed evidence of a warped mind. Dementia flaunted in form of a portrait painted with blood. Neil widened the beam of light with a left twist of the flashlight’s head. Shock jolted him. The likeness on the barn wall stared back at him with remarkable resemblance.
“Holy mother of Moses. Now I see why you didn’t want to come back in here.”
Neil looked left and right at the front and rear doors, back to the front. Light from an approaching vehicle rose on the front of the barn. Gaps around the door allowed enough streaks of light through to make shadows look as if the light infused them with life. The vehicle continued onward. Every shadow around Neil returned to stationary ominous forms. He half-turned toward the front and listened. The whine of tires on pavement diminished. Silence again filled the barn.
The hinges squawked against Neil’s shove on the right side door. Chad turned his head in Neil’s direction. He was sitting on the ground with his back to the weathered wood. Knees drawn up, arms wrapped around them and his right hand clamped on his left wrist.
“It’s you.” Chad shuddered, tilted his head toward the barn. “In there. The picture on the wall looks like you.”
Neil glanced inside. The image renewed in his mind. “Is that why you called me to come out here? To have me look at someone’s depravity smeared on a barn wall?”
Chad shook his head. “No sir.”
He looked up at Neil. “I know what you did.”