They said she was dangerous.
They were right.
“Petty Moshen.” An electric megaphone amplified the man’s voice outside.
The dogs howled at the sound of it, intensifying further the tremor that possessed my entire body. I hadn’t shaken like this since the night Dad left me out on the prairie in a whiteout blizzard to hone my sense of direction.
“Petty, call off the dogs.”
I couldn’t do it.
“I’m going to dial up your father’s cell phone again, and I want you to answer it.”
Closing my eyes, I concentrated, imagining those words coming out of my dad’s mouth, in his voice. The iPhone vibrated. I pretended it was my dad, picked it up, hit the answer button and pressed it to my ear.
“This is Sheriff Bloch,” said the man on the other end of the phone. “We have to come in and talk to you about your dad.”
I cleared my throat again. “I need to do something first,” I said, and thumbed the end button. I headed down to the basement.
Downstairs, I got on the treadmill, cranked up the speed to ten miles an hour and ran for five minutes, flat-out, balls to the wall. This is what Detective Deirdre Walsh, my favorite character on TV’s Offender NYC, always did when emotions overwhelmed her. No one besides me and my dad had ever come into our house before, so I needed to steady myself.
I jumped off and took the stairs two at a time, breathing hard, sweating, my legs burning, but steadier. I popped a stick of peppermint gum in my mouth. Then I walked straight to the front door the way Detective Walsh would—fearlessly, in charge, all business. I flung the door open and shouted, “Sarx! Tesla! Off! Come!”
They both immediately glanced over their shoulders and came loping toward me. I noticed another vehicle had joined the gauntlet on the other side of the road, a brand-new tricked-out red Dodge Ram 4x4 pickup truck. Randy King, wearing a buff-colored Stetson, plaid shirt, Lee’s, and cowboy boots, leaned against it. All I could see of his face was a black walrus mustache. He was the man my dad had instructed me to call if anything ever happened to him. I’d seen Randy only a couple of times but never actually talked to him until today.
The dogs sat in front of me, panting, worried, whimpering. I reached down and scratched their ears, thankful that Dad had trained them like he had. I straightened and led them to the one-car garage attached to the left side of the house. They sat again as I raised the door and signaled them inside. They did not like this one bit—they whined and jittered—but they obeyed my command to stay. I lowered the door and turned to face the invasion.
As if I’d disabled an invisible force field, all the men came forward at once: the paramedics and firemen carrying their gear boxes, the cops’ hands hovering over their sidearms. I couldn’t look any of them in the eye, but I felt them staring at me as if I were an exotic zoo animal or a serial killer.
The man who had to be the sheriff walked right up to me, and I stepped back palming the blade I keep clipped to my bra at all times. I knew it was unwise to reach into my hoodie, even just to touch the Baby Glock in my shoulder holster.
“Petty?” he said.
“Yes sir,” I said, keeping my eyes on the clump of yellow, poisonous prairie ragwort at my feet.
“I’m Sheriff Bloch. Would you show us in, please?”
“Yes sir,” I said, turning and walking up the front steps. I pushed open the screen and went in, standing aside to let in the phalanx of strange men. My breathing got shallow and the shaking started up. My heart beat so hard I could feel it in my face, and the bump on my left shoulder—scar tissue from a childhood injury—itched like crazy. It always did when I was nervous.
The EMTs came in after the sheriff.
“Where is he?” one of them asked. I pointed behind me to the right, up the stairs. They trooped up there carrying their cases. The house felt too tight, as if there wasn’t enough air for all these people.
Sheriff Bloch and a deputy walked into the living room. Both of them turned, looking around the room, empty except for the grandfather clock in the corner. The old thing had quit working many years before, so it was always three-seventeen in this house.
“Are you moving out?” the deputy asked.
“No,” I said, and then realized why he’d asked. All of our furniture is crowded in the center of each room, away from the windows.
Deputy and sheriff glanced at each other. The deputy walked to one of the front windows and peered out through the bars.
“Is that bulletproof glass?” he asked me.
They glanced at each other again.
“Have anyplace we can sit?” Sheriff Bloch said.
I walked into our TV room, the house’s original dining room, and they followed. I sat on the couch, which gave off dust and a minor-chord spring squeak. I pulled my feet up and hugged my knees.
“This is Deputy Hencke.”
The deputy held out his hand toward me. I didn’t take it, and after a beat he let it drop.
“I’m very sorry for your loss,” he said. He had a blond crew cut and the dark blue uniform.
He went to sit on Dad’s recliner, and it happened in slow motion, like watching a knife sink into my stomach with no way to stop it.
“No!” I shouted.
Nobody but Dad had ever sat in that chair. It was one thing to let these people inside the house. It was another to allow them to do whatever they wanted.
He looked around and then at me, his face a mask of confusion. “What? I’m—I was just going to sit—”
“Get a chair out of the kitchen,” Sheriff Bloch said.
The deputy pulled one of the aqua vinyl chairs into the TV room. His hands shook as he tried to write on his little report pad. He must have been as rattled by my outburst as I was.
“Spell your last name for me?”
“M-O-S-H-E-N,” I said.
“No,” I said. “We’re from Detroit originally.”
His face scrunched and he glanced up.
“How’d you end up here? You got family in the area?”
I shook my head. I didn’t tell him Dad had moved us to Saw Pole, Kansas, because he said he’d always wanted to be a farmer. In Saw Pole, he farmed a sticker patch and raised horse flies but not much else.
“How old are you?”
He lowered his pencil. “Did you go to school in Niobe? I don’t ever remember seeing you.”
“Dad homeschooled me,” I said.
“What time did you discover the—your dad?” The deputy’s scalp grew pinker. He needed to
grow his hair out some to hide his tell a little better.
“The dogs started barking about two—”
“Two a.m. or p.m.?”
“p.m.,” I said. “At approximately two-fifteen p.m. our dogs began barking at the back door. I responded and found no evidence of attempted B and E at either entry point to the domicile. I retrieved my Winchester rifle from the basement gun safe with the intention of walking the perimeter of the property, but the dogs refused to follow. I came to the conclusion that the disturbance was inside the house, and I continued my investigation on the second floor.”
Deputy Hencke’s pencil was frozen in the air, a frown on his face. “Why are you talking like that?”
“Usually I ask questions and people answer them.”
“I’m telling you what happened.”
“Could you do it in regular English?”
I didn’t know what to say, so I didn’t say anything.
“Look,” he said. “Just answer the questions.”
“All right. So where was your dad?”
“After breakfast this morning he said he didn’t feel good so he went up to his bedroom to lie down,” I said.
All day I’d expected Dad to call out for something to eat, but he never did. So I didn’t check on him because it was nice not having to cook him lunch or dinner or fetch him beers. I’d kept craning my neck all day to get a view of the stairs, kept waiting for Dad to sneak up on me, catch me watching forbidden TV shows. I turned the volume down so I’d hear if he came down the creaky old stairs.
“So the dogs’ barking is what finally made you go up to his bedroom, huh?”
“Those dogs wanted to tear us all to pieces,” the deputy said, swiping his hand back and forth across the top of his crew cut.
I’d always wanted a little lapdog, one I could cuddle, but Dad favored the big breeds. Sarx was a German shepherd and Tesla a rottweiler.
The deputy bent his head to his pad. “What do you think they were barking about?”
“They smelled it,” I said.
He looked up. “Smelled what?”
“Death. Next I knocked on the decedent’s— I mean, Dad’s—bedroom door to request
permission to enter.”
“So you went in his room,” the deputy said, his pencil hovering above the paper.
“Once I determined he was unable to answer, I went in his room. He was lying on his stomach, on top of the covers, facing away from me, and—he had shorts on … you know how hot it’s been, and he doesn’t like to turn on the window air conditioner until after Memorial Day—and I looked at his legs and I thought, ‘He’s got some kind of rash. I better bring him the calamine lotion,’ but then I remembered learning about libidity on TV, and—”
“Lividity,” he said.
“It’s lividity, not libidity, when the blood settles to the lowest part of the body.”
“Guess I’ve never seen it written down.”
“So what did you do then?”
“It was then that I …”
I couldn’t finish the sentence. Up until now, the shock of finding Dad’s body and the terror of letting people in the house had blotted out everything else. But now, the reality that Dad was dead came crashing down on me, making my eyes sting. I recognized the feeling from a long time ago. I was going to cry, and I couldn’t decide whether I was sad that Dad was gone or elated that I was finally going to be free. Free to live the normal life I’d always dreamed of.
But I couldn’t cry, not in front of these strangers, couldn’t show weakness. Weakness was dangerous. I thought of Deirdre Walsh again and remembered what she always did when she was in danger of crying. I cleared my throat.
“It was then that I determined that he was deceased. I estimated the time of death, based on the stage of rigor, to be around ten a.m. this morning, so I did not attempt to resuscitate him,” I said, remembering Dad’s cool, waxy dead skin under my hand. “Subsequently I retrieved his cell phone off his nightstand and called Mr. King.”
“Why didn’t you call 911?”
“Because Dad told me to call Mr. King if something ever happened to him.”
The deputy stared at me like I’d admitted to murder. Then he looked away and stood.
“I think the coroner is almost done, but he’ll want to talk to you.”
While I waited, I huddled on the couch, thinking about how my life was going to change. I’d have to buy groceries and pay bills and taxes and do all the things Dad had never taught me how to do.
The coroner appeared in the doorway. “Miss Moshen?” He was a large zero-shaped man in a cardigan.
He sat on the kitchen chair the deputy had vacated.
“I need to ask you a couple of questions,” he said.
“Okay,” I said. I was wary. The deputy had been slight and small, and even though he’d had a sidearm, I could have taken him if I’d needed to. I didn’t know about the coroner, he was so heavy and large.
“Can you tell me what happened?”
I began to repeat my account, but the coroner interrupted me. “You’re not testifying at trial,”
he said. “Just tell me what happened.”
I tried to do as he asked, but I wasn’t sure how to say it so he wouldn’t be annoyed.
“Did your dad complain of chest pains, jaw pain? Did his left arm hurt?”
I shook my head. “Just said he didn’t feel good. Like he had the flu.”
“Did your dad have high cholesterol? High blood pressure?”
“I don’t know.”
“When was the last time he saw a doctor?” the coroner asked.
“He didn’t believe in doctors.”
“Your dad was only fifty-one, so I’ll have to schedule an autopsy, even though it was
probably a heart attack. We’ll run a toxicology panel, which’ll take about four weeks because
we have to send it to the lab in Topeka.”
The blood drained from my face. “Toxicology?” I said. “Why?”
“It’s standard procedure,” he said.
“I’m pretty sure my dad wouldn’t want an autopsy.”
“Don’t worry,” he said. “You can bury him before the panel comes back.”
“No, I mean Dad wouldn’t want someone cutting him up like that.”
“It’s state law.”
“Please,” I said.
His eyes narrowed as they focused on me. Then he stood.
“After the autopsy, where would you like the remains sent?”
“Holt Mortuary in Niobe,” a voice from the living room said.
I rose from the couch to see who’d said it. Randy King stood with his back to the wall, his Stetson low over his eyes.
The coroner glanced at me for confirmation.
“I’m the executor of Mr. Moshen’s will,” Randy said. He raised his head and I saw his eyes, light blue with tiny pupils that seemed to bore clear through to the back of my head.
I shrugged at the coroner.
“Would you like to say goodbye to your father before we transport him to the morgue?” he said.
I nodded and followed him to the stairs, where he stood aside. “After you,” he said.
“No,” I said. “You first.”
Dad had taught me never to go in a door first and never to let anyone walk behind me. The coroner frowned but mounted the stairs.
Upstairs, Dad’s room was the first one on the left. The coroner stood outside the door. He reached out to touch my arm and I took a step backward. He dropped his hand to his side.
“Miss Moshen,” he said in a hushed voice. “Your father looks different from when he was alive. It might be a bit of a shock. No one would blame you if you didn’t—”
I walked into Dad’s room, taking with me everything I knew from all the cop shows I’d watched. But I was not prepared at all for what I saw.
Since he’d died on his stomach, the EMTs had turned Dad onto his back. He was in full rigor mortis, so his upper lip was mashed into his gums and curled into a sneer, exposing his khaki-colored teeth. His hands were spread in front of his face, palms out. Dad’s eyes stared up and to the left and his entire face was grape-pop purple.
What struck me when I first saw him—after I inhaled my gum—was that he appeared to be warding off a demon. I should have waited until the mortician was done with him, because I knew I’d never get that image out of my mind.
I walked out of Dad’s room on unsteady feet, determined not to cry in front of these strangers. The deputy and the sheriff stood outside my bedroom, examining the door to it.
Both of them looked confused.
“Petty,” Sheriff Bloch said.
I stopped in the hall, feeling even more violated with them so close to my personal items and underwear.
“Is this your bedroom?”
Sheriff and deputy made eye contact. The coroner paused at the top of the stairs to listen in. This was what my dad had always talked about—the judgment of busybody outsiders, their belief that somehow they needed to have a say in the lives of people they’d never even met and knew nothing about.
The three men seemed to expect me to say something, but I was tired of talking. Since I’d never done much of it, I’d had no idea how exhausting it was.
The deputy said, “Why are there six dead bolts on the outside of your door?”
It was none of his business, but I had nothing to be ashamed of.
“So Dad could lock me in, of course.”
Armed with a B.S. in journalism from the University of Kansas, she had a radio show called “People Are So Stupid,” edited a trade magazine and worked as a traveling Kmart portrait photographer, but never lost her passion for fiction writing.
She’s got a hilarious, supportive husband, two brilliant daughters and a massive music collection. She lives in Colorado but considers Kansas her spiritual homeland. Visit her website at LSHawker.com.