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Death in the Fort - Chapter Seven

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Jan Hoffman | The Journal Gazette

Chapter 7

"It's a bunch of crap!"

Jessica was elbow deep inside the open box - bitterly disappointed by its contents - by the time I reached our front door.

"There's nothing here," she said, turning the whole thing upside-down and spilling everything inside of it onto the living room rug. "It's just junk."

I don't know what I was expecting to find inside that box. Jewels, maybe? A ransom note written with cut-out letters from a magazine? Someone's pinky finger, wrapped in gauze? But Jessica was right. It was filled with junk.

There were a few items you'd expect to find inside such a carefully packed box. Darleen's birth certificate, for instance. Her Social Security card. And there was some sentimental stuff too - old photos, mostly; one of her and some old guy, another one of some sour-looking woman standing next to a statue of a giant guitar. But there was also a lot of random junk - a bottle of talcum powder, a handful of ugly-looking flowery buttons torn off of some old sweater probably, a ball-point pen.

And then Jessica yanked out a letter - tucked inside an unsealed envelope - addressed to someone named Nikki Statler.


"At last," Jessica said, snapping open the letter with a flourish. "We'll get to the bottom of this."

She read aloud: Dear Nikki. Sorry about the mess in the kitchen. Couldn't be helped. Darleen.

"Mystery solved," Jessica said, tossing the letter up in the air. "Darleen's a pig in the kitchen."

I hadn't seen Jessica this disappointed since they got rid of that "Have Your Picture Taken With a Monkey" booth at the Three Rivers Festival. ("Great," she'd said, crossing her arms and pouting. "I'll probably never see a monkey wearing fingernail polish again in my whole life.") So I thought my little discovery outside - the big ol' puddle of blood - might cheer her up.

"Did I mention there's a bunch of blood outside?" I asked. "Right in front of our house?"

The question kind of settled on us - like those vapor clouds that squirt out at you in the misting tents at outdoor concerts. We were quiet for a while, just kind of staring at all of Darleen's random junk. A ransacked garage was one thing, but shotguns and blood were a tad dark for a little summer adventure. I was beginning to get nervous. Not just for us. For Darleen.

"Poor Darleen," I said. And then I remembered something - an incident involving Darleen and a stray cat that liked using her flower pots as a litter box.

Darleen hated that cat, and the battle to keep it away from her yard was epic. In the evenings, it would come sniffing around and Darleen would hiss, flap her arms. I'd even heard her yell the word "Scat!" once, like in a cartoon. One time, she threw a broom at it - missed by a mile - and followed it up by throwing a really flimsy plastic grocery bag in the same general direction. Jessica and I watched from our kitchen window, howling with laughter.

"Remember how much she loved cats?" I asked.

"You're talking about Darleen like she's dead," Jessica said. "We don't know that."

"She's in trouble," I said. "She could be somewhere bleeding right now."

Like I said, we didn't know much about Darleen. And most of what we did know seemed sort of made up, like a story you'd tell about yourself at Bible camp. What we did know was that Darleen was young and alone. She didn't work. And neither Jessica nor I could remember ever seeing a friend or relative popping over for lunch. Darleen may have been standoffish and even a little bit sketchy, but she was also our neighbor. And that means something in Fort Wayne. Even if we don't like you, we'll help you out if you're bleeding. That's just the way things are done around here.

"If Darleen's in trouble, I think we should find her," I said. "But first, we need to find out who she really is."