This is the fourth part of a fiction serial, in 1202 words.
The State Police turned up at Old Man Henderson’s place with a search warrant. It took us all a while to find out what had gone on, but Vince DeWalt had a quiet word with my Dad later that week. He said he wanted to lay it all to rest, so everyone in town could get on with their lives. He also mentioned that Melanie had not been molested, as he put it. Her cause of death was strangling, and by hands too. Dad was sworn to secrecy about that of course, but he didn’t reckon that meant me and Mom. Not after what we had already been through,.
Behind the old farmhouse, they found a rusty oil drum containing Donna’s swimsuit, and Mel’s too. They were just dumped in there, in plain sight. Henderson denied knowing anything of course, and said he had never seen the items of clothing before. But he had a poor alibi for that Sunday, as he claimed to have been fishing west of White Oaks, but didn’t have anyone to back up his story. Besides, that was on the same river, and only twenty miles or so from Riverdale.
When they took him in for questioning, they also dug up a juvenile record, in another state. Allegations of improper conduct with women when he was younger, a long time before he moved down here and bought the land. Even though he was sixty-six years old, not as old as I had expected him to be, he was judged to still be strong enough to overpower two girls easily, and became the main suspect.
That may have taken all the pressure off of us, but I let it be known that it didn’t sit well with me. It was glaringly obvious that nobody with half a mind would just leave the dead girls’ things where they could so easily be found. And what had actually happened that Sunday? We still didn’t know. There had been three boys and two girls at the swimming spot, so if Henderson was guilty, where had the boys got to? And how had Tommy ended up in that condition?
If I could ask myself all those questions, how come professional police officers were so ready to believe the worst of Henderson? The Sheriff told my Dad that they thought Tommy had witnessed something that had made him lose it. That might have been so, but what about Duke and Freddie?
The two-faced townspeople were happy to accept that the grumpy old farmer was in the wrong. He had never been popular, and the fact he never went to church and was so anti-social had been the cause of gossip long before things got so bad in the town. I couldn’t shake the idea that something was very wrong, and resolved to go and talk to Vince DeWalt. I didn’t mention anything to my parents, and walked into town alone.
He agreed to see me in his small office at the back, next to the three cells that he used to lock up drunks or troublemakers. I repeated the concerns that I had about how Henderson could have done all that with three boys around, and that as far as I knew, his name hadn’t been mentioned by any of us. Vince listened to me very carefully. He employed his wise nodding once again, something I was sure he did to cover up when he was wrong about something, but didn’t want to let on.
“Well Clayton, you are quite the detective, I see. When you finish college, you should come work for me. I thank you for coming to talk to me about this, but the State Police are in charge now, so I guess we just have to let them go about their business in their own way. As far as your friends’ stories go, well they are part of the evidence in these two cases, and I’m not about to discuss them with you. I know you were sweet on Melanie, but you have to let us do our jobs. Just be grateful the heat is off you boys now”.
As I walked home, I thought about going to see Duke or Freddie, but I knew their parents would make a fuss, and I couldn’t handle any trouble at home.
On the next Saturday evening, Reverend Powell held a special service for the girls, and the whole town turned out. The bodies couldn’t be released from the County Morgue until any trial, so with no funerals allowed, the Reverend thought some kind of memorial would be something to heal the wounds in the town. Still, it was suggested that none of us boys went along. Despite Henderson being held in custody at White Oaks, Powell thought it was for the good of the community that the three of us stayed home.
They charged Old Man Henderson the following Monday. Two counts of murder one, and no bail, as he was deemed to be a flight risk. According to those who had turned up in court to watch, his lawyer argued about the lack of any real evidence, and the fact that the police had stopped investigating anyone else for the crimes. It had all been too quick, in their rush to close the case, and get someone under arrest. The newspapers and TV news had a high old time of it. Interviewing people who had only bad things to say about Henderson, and hinting at the juvenile stuff about him showing himself to women in a public park when he was still a teenager.
By the time it came to the trial in Renton, he was as good as guilty, as far as everyone in town was concerned.
Everyone except me.
When we went back to school, we had already been cautioned not to discuss the case. Tommy was still in hospital, and nobody knew when he was being let out. Most of the other kids continued to ignore us. We were so far out of the social circle, that even though they were bursting to ask us about what had happened, they refused to lower themselves to be seen to talk to us.
I caught up with Duke at lunchtime, but he waved me away as soon as I started to talk to him, then turned his back on me. Eddy didn’t show up for school at all. Talk was that Mr Silverman had sent him to live with relatives in Florida, and he was never coming back. Freddie was friendlier, but also flatly refused to talk about what had happened to the girls. “Clay, they’ve got Old Man Henderson now. Just let it go. Nothing good can come from going over it”. I had known those boys since I could walk, and I just knew they were both keeping something from me.
When home time came, I wrote a note, and handed it to Freddie so nobody could overhear me if I spoke. What I wrote was clear enough.
‘Meet me at the river, Saturday morning. Usual spot. Bring Duke.’
I got there at nine, in case they were early.
When they hadn’t shown up by midday, I knew they weren’t coming.