Life in the small town of Howesville changed the day Mike Thurber arrived
It had been over half a lifetime since I last saw Rick Houston. He had been a major force in my life once, an unwelcome interlude that I have tried hard to forget. So I wasn’t ready for the phone call. Nor was I prepared to deal with the memories that came with it. It was inevitable, I know. Rick’s strange disappearance had never been explained, and the police kept the book open. Now it was over, and I guess in some ways I was relieved. But it will never “be over” for me.
A lot of water has passed under the bridge since Rick went away. I no longer lived in Oakville. But I suppose, like most people, I never really left the town. I loved it, and still do.
Oakville was not a town for the likes of Rick Houston. It was a small, secluded community, nestled in the foothills of Southern California. Life in Oakville was—how would one phrase it—idyllic. No drug problems. No gangs or other bad influences to disturb the peaceful existence of the two thousand inhabitants.
It was in the late fifties, a time before Viet Nam and the unrest of the turbulent sixties. I was entering my junior year in high school. I was looking forward to the school year, planning to try out for the baseball team and the junior play.
Then Rick appeared. A sulky, ill-tempered teen from Chicago, he moved with his divorced mother into the former Johnston house on the outskirts of town. Mrs. Houston, a small, mousy woman of indeterminate age, wore a look of perpetual sadness, as one would expect of a mother of an out of control teenager. She took a job as a maid at the local motel and kept to herself.
Rick was instantly a problem. Uncooperative with teachers at school, bullying with his classmates, and contemptuous of the law, Rick was constantly in trouble with the faculty as well as the local police. Most of his transgressions were minor: truancy, classroom infractions, and general behavior problems. But it disrupted the otherwise peaceful environment of the small school. No one was quite sure how to deal with him, and except for an occasional trip to the principal’s office, Rick did pretty much what he wanted to do.
I met him on the first day of the new school year. For reasons I shall never understand, Rick was drawn to me. He bullied me, to be sure. But he was protective as well. I didn’t welcome his bullying or his protection. I could do without the former, and I certainly did not need the latter. There were no threats or challenges from my schoolmates that I couldn’t handle. And we had nothing in common. I was shy, introverted and studious. Rick was none of these.
Nonetheless, Rick sought me out, and in his own peculiar way treated me as his friend. In all of the time that I spent with him, I saw no one else whom he considered a friend. The girls were afraid of him. The boys kept their distance. He went out for the high school football team, and his natural physical ability along with his aggressive personality landed him a first string spot at fullback. But football, to him, was not a game. It was another form of legal violence in which he excelled and enjoyed in a sadistic sort of way. Often he would miss practice as well as games. The coach was patient, only because Rick’s talent was needed to field a competitive team. But it was clear that the coach and the rest of the team were not happy with his lack of commitment.
It was toward the end of the school year when he collared me after school as I sat at the counter in the soda shop where I waited for the school bus to deliver me home. I lived on an orange ranch a few miles from the school, and, along with several others, patronized the soda shop while waiting for the bus to deliver students who lived on the west end of town. The school district was small, with limited funds, so one bus was all that was available. We didn’t mind. It gave us a little free time before we had to get home to our chores and homework.
He slid on the stool next to mine, ordered a coke, and slammed a quarter on the Formica countertop. Sally, the soda girl, a pretty classmate, smiled nervously and twisted away from the grip he had on her wrist. He laughed and turned to me.
“Hey, pal. I don’t know how you stand it here.”
“What are you talking about?” I asked.
“This.” he said, waving his arm around the room. “Boring!”
I followed the sweep of his hand. Having lived most of my life in Oakville, I saw nothing wrong with the way we lived our lives. I said nothing.
“Don’t you ever want to break out and do something besides drink soda pop and wait for a goddam bus?”
“Yeah. I guess,” I said, not certain how to answer his question.
“What do you do for excitement in this burg?”
I considered the question. Nothing exciting ever happened in Oakville. But we didn’t care. Excitement was not high on our list of priorities.
“Dunno,” I said.
Rick snorted. “What do you mean, you don’t know, for Crissake? You must do something besides go to school and help your daddy pick oranges.”
“Sure,” I said. “We have a movie house. We ride horses. We go to the beach in Jackson in the summer. We have picnics.” I paused to think of other events, but he cut me off with another snort, louder than the first.
“Jesus,” he said. “You sound like The Beaver.” He took the coke, removed the drinking straw from it and drank. Setting the glass back on the counter, he nudged me with his elbow.
“I want excitement, not a goddamn TV show. Where do you get your liquor?”
“Liquor?” I said. “I don’t. I’m only sixteen.”
“What the hell does that matter?” he said. “Does Jackson have a liquor store?”
I nodded. “I guess so.”
“What about girls?”
“What about them?” I said.
Rick exploded. “My God, you’re a piece of work. Back where I come from you could get anything you want if you knew where to go for it. Booze. Women”. He winked. “I mean real women. Not the little tightasses you got here.” He shook his head and sighed.
“You could get anything you wanted if you knew where to look.”
“Marijuana?” I asked, intrigued.
Rick laughed out loud. “Kid stuff! Sure, you could get that anywhere. Hell, I could buy that from the school janitor.” His eyes took on a reflective look and an enigmatic smile crossed his lips.
“Me and Joe had some great times,” he said at last. Turning to me, still smiling, he said, “Have you ever hot wired a car?”
Before I could answer he waved a hand in disgust. “No. Of course not. I bet you don’t even know how to drive.”
“I do so!” I said.
Rick studied my face for a few seconds, then shrugged. “OK,” he said. “Don’t get sore. But I bet you never drove a real car. Your old man’s Hupmobile ain’t nothing more than a lawnmower.”
I started to protest, thought better of it, and sipped my coke. In the short time I knew him, I had learned that it was better not to argue with him. It could get physical fast, and I was no match for him.
“Hey!” he said, breaking the silence. “What do you say we drive over to Jackson?”
“Can’t,” I said.
“I gotta get home and do my chores.”
“It’s Friday,” he said, grabbing me by the arm. “Call your old lady and tell her you’ll be late.”
“But…” I started.
“C’mon,” Rick said. “Live a little. God, man. You have the rest of your life to do what your mamma wants.” He ushered me out of the soda shop and down the street to his car.
Rick’s car was a flashy, if old, sports car, with a new coat of paint and chrome tailpipes. A decal of flame was on each side, giving it an appearance of power that both awed and scared me. With some reluctance I crawled into the passenger seat and locked the door. This was before the age of seat belts, so I gripped the armrest and dug my feet into the floorboard in anticipation of a fast, probably dangerous ride. Rick looked over at me as he started the engine and smiled maliciously.
He pressed the starter button and the engine roared to life with a deafening noise that echoed along the otherwise placid street. The town’s lone patrol car was nowhere in sight. I knew from previous conversations with Rick that he had been ticketed for various traffic offenses, primarily lack of a muffler. Instead of conforming, he treated the tickets like badges of honor.
With a squeal of tires, he pulled away from the curb and headed west, toward the coast.
“Where are we going?” I asked.
Rick didn’t answer. Outside the city limits now, he accelerated, his eyes bright with excitement. I watched nervously as the speedometer pushed toward sixty. The road was narrow, with curves and hills that made driving over forty-five a dangerous undertaking. I dug in, wanting desperately to cry out for him to slow down. But my pride, or whatever it is teenagers have that keep them from acting sensibly in times like this, kept me from saying or doing anything “cowardly”. Although I didn’t like Rick, I felt the need for his approval. Swallowing my fears, I remained silent.
After what seemed an eternity, we were on the outskirts of Jackson. The town itself was not impressive. It was divided in two by the coast highway, with the beach on one side of the road and the main part of town on the other. Rick wheeled on to the Pacific Coast Highway, headed north, and passed a semi chugging up the small rise leading toward San Roberto. I held on, praying silently for the ride to end.
Rick slowed the car as we approached a service station. He pulled in, parked next to the gas pump and got out of the car.
“Wait here,” he said.
I watched as he went inside. I could see him talking to the attendant behind the counter. Then, suddenly, before I realized what was happening, I saw a flash of light followed quickly by the sound of a shot. I watched in horror as the attendant slumped to the floor. I could see Rick fumbling with the keys of the cash register. A few seconds later he ran back to the car, got in and started the engine.
“You shot him!” I shouted as we sped away from the station.
Rick had a grim look on his face; not a look of fear as I expected. It was an evil, excited look.
“You shot him!” I said again.
Rick turned to me, the excitement flashing in his eyes. Taking the money from his shirt pocket he threw it in my lap. “Yeah,” he said. “The stupid jerk wouldn’t give me the dough.”
“Is he dead?”
“I don’t know,” Rick said. “For Chrissake, do you think I was going to take the time to find out?”
“Rick!” I shouted over the roar of the engine. “We gotta go back and help him!”
Rick glared at me and sped up. “Are you crazy?” he said. “I just shot the guy. We gotta get out of here.”
“But…” I started.
“Shut up!” he said, and for the first time since I met Rick I detected a note of fear in his voice.
I thought I was going to be sick. Rick must have realized it, because he left the main road and drove along a one lane unpaved road until we were out of sight from the highway. He stopped the car and sat back. I jumped out, ran over to a tree and threw up. Standing up slowly, I walked back to the car. I wanted to run. I wanted to get as far away from Rick as I could. But there was no place to go. Still feeling sick, I crawled back into the car and leaned back.
“Feelin’ better?” Rick asked.
Rick laughed nervously. “Jeez, what a jerk!” He said.
“Me?” I asked.
Rick snorted. “No. The guy at the station. Sixty-five lousy dollars and he fights over like it was a million bucks.” He shook his head as he started the car. “It ain’t worth risking your life for.”
I didn’t answer. Shaking and sick, I closed my eyes. Rick drove in silence, considerably slower than he had before.
“I want to go home,” I said.
The drive back to Oakville was made without a word from either of us.
Rick dropped me off at the intersection near my home. I got out of the car and started to close the door. Rick reached over and grabbed my hand.
“Listen, pal. Not a word of this to anybody, understand?”
I wrenched my hand free, shut the door and started to walk.
Rick drove slowly along next to me. “We’re in this together. You were with me. If anybody finds out about this we’re both in trouble. Do you hear me?”
“I didn’t shoot him,” I said.
“You were there. That’s all the cops care about. You’re as guilty as I am.”
Suddenly, without any warning, I started to cry. Rick stopped the car, climbed out and crossed over to me. Strangely, instead of getting angry, he put his arm around my shoulder.
“Hey, kid. It’s goin’ to be all right. Nobody saw us. Keep your mouth shut and we don’t have nothin’ to be afraid of.” He reached into his shirt pocket and extracted the money. Peeling off a twenty, he handed it to me.
“Here,” he said. “Your part of the take.”
I pulled away. “I don’t want it!” I shouted. “I don’t want any of that money. It’s dirty.”
Rick shrugged and put it back in his pocket. “Suit yourself,” he said, anger creeping back in his voice. “But remember, not a word to anybody. Understand?”
I pushed my hands deeper into my pockets.
“Understand?” he said in a threatening voice.
Finally, I nodded.
He visibly relaxed. Climbing back into the car, he started the engine. “OK, pal. Remember. Keep your mouth shut and nobody gets into trouble. That’s the way it is. Welcome to the world.” With that, he drove off.
My mother was waiting for me at the door. “Where have you been?” she said, a note of anger in her voice. “I was getting worried.”
“Sorry,” I muttered.
My answer only made her angrier. “Sorry? You were supposed to be home two hours ago. You didn’t call. Then you come strolling through the door without a word of explanation. I…” She paused as she searched my face. Her mother’s instinct took over.
“Bart, what’s the matter? What happened?”
“I…I…” I started, fighting back tears.
“What? Tell me!”
“I can’t,” I said at last. “I can’t talk right now.” Before she could say anything, I ran to my room and closed the door. I skipped dinner,
By morning I had composed myself enough to face the world. My mother was in the kitchen. She eyed me with concern as I took a bowl from the cupboard and fixed a bowl of cornflakes. I avoided her eyes.
“Bart? What on earth is the matter?”
I had prepared for this. Having had all night to sort things out, I was ready with a story that sounded convincing.
“Nothing,” I said. “I was upset last night because me and Judy had a big fight. She told me she never wanted to see me again.”
Judy was my steady girlfriend. We had been going together for almost six months. My mother liked Judy very much.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “Maybe you can work it out.”
“I hope so,” I said. I poured some milk over the corn flakes, spooned sugar on it, and ate. Putting the bowl in the sink, I headed for the door. “I’m going over there now,” I said. “I’ll do the chores when I get home, I promise.”
My mother started to protest, but seeing the determination in my eyes she smiled and shrugged. “Don’t be long. And good luck.”
Of course I would have to tell Judy the truth. Having used her as an excuse for my state of mind, I had no choice but to tell her so that she would go along with my cover story.
Judy was horrified. “Rick killed a man?” she said. “How terrible. Why didn’t you…”
“What could I do?” I shouted. “I didn’t even know he had a gun. Hey, Judy, I didn’t want to go with him in the first place. But you know Rick. Nobody says ‘no’ to him. Least of all, not me.”
“You have to tell the police,” she said.
“I can’t. Rick says I’m as guilty as he is.” I swallowed hard at the thought of going to prison. I didn’t know if Rick was right or wrong about my being an accessory, but accepted his opinion. He was far more worldly than I, and had almost certainly been in trouble with the law before.
“Bart,” Judy said, watching me with troubled eyes. “You have to go to the police. It’s the right thing to do. It’s the only thing.” She reached out and patted my hand. “If you go now and tell them the truth, they’ll understand. You weren’t a part of it. You didn’t even know it was going to happen until it was over.”
She was right, I knew. Still, Rick’s threat hung over me. Somehow he would see to it that I shared in the crime. People like Rick don’t accept responsibility for their actions. They find ways to get others involved, and I certainly was the most obvious person to share the blame for the clerk’s death.
“I know. I know,” I said. “God, how I hate Rick Houston.”
“I’ll go to the police with you,” Judy said.
“No,” I said quickly. “You stay out of it. No sense both of us getting involved in this.”
“You will go?” she said.
“I said I would,” I snapped. Then, realizing what I had done, I took her hand and squeezed it. “I’ll go. But I need a little time.”
“No,” she said. “You have to go today. Now. You can’t wait.”
I nodded absently, kissed her on the cheek, and left.
Rick was furious. “You told Judy?” he shouted. “What the hell’s the matter with you, pal?”
“I had to,” I said. “I had to tell somebody.”
Rick was pacing up and down, cursing. “Jeez, I can’t believe you could be so stupid.” He stopped pacing and glared at me, his eyes bright with anger. “What the hell…”
“Hey, Rick,” I said. “She won’t tell anybody.”
“The hell she won’t,” Rick said. “She wants you to go to the cops, don’t she?”
“And if you don’t, she will. You can bet on that.”
“I…I don’t know.”
Rick snorted. “You don’t know. Well, I do.” He started pacing again. “We gotta do something about this.”
“What?” I asked, concern edging my voice.
Rick stared at me with a look that sent chills down my spine. “What do you think?”
“I don’t know.”
He waved a hand in dismissal. “Forget it. Leave it to me. I’ll handle this.”
“What are you going to do? For God’s sake, Rick what are you going to do?”
He didn’t answer. Horror gripped my throat as the impact of what he had said hit me. He was going to kill her! I had witnessed the cold-blooded way in which he had shot the clerk at the liquor store. He was capable of doing the same with Judy.
“No!” I said. “You can’t do this. You can’t…”
Rick whirled and swung hard, landing a fist on my chin. I went down in a flash of pain and rolled over. Rick leaned down and held out his hand. “Sorry, pal. I didn’t mean it. I’m just so pissed off about all this that I lost control.” He patted my shoulder. “No hard feelings?”
I rubbed my chin gently. “Rick, you can’t do this.”
“Sure, pal,” he said. “You’re right.”
The way he said it scared me. I didn’t believe him. I didn’t believe him at all.
“Let’s talk about this, Rick.”
Rick snorted. “There’s nothing to talk about. What’s done is done. We just have to deal with it.”
“Well,” I said, trying desperately to think of something that would change his mind. “Let’s go somewhere away from here. I…I have to get away.”
Rick studied my face with a look of disdain. He hated weakness, I knew. And I was weak. I could never measure up to his expectations even if I wanted to. Finally, he looked away. “OK.”
While I sat sullenly silent in the car, Rick drove out of town to the hills overlooking the reservoir. It was dark, with a waning moon rising slowly over the mountain. A cool breeze swept through the trees. Under any other circumstances I would have enjoyed the ride and the view from the hilltop. But tonight all I could think of was a murdered man and an innocent girl who was in danger. I felt helpless, impotent in the face of a horror unfolding before me.
Rick was no longer a schoolmate, a companion. He was a killer, a dangerous young man who was as desperate as I, even though he didn’t show it. I had never wanted to be his “companion” anyway. I never felt so desperately alone in my life. And now, alone with Rick miles from help, I should have felt fear for my life. Strangely, I didn’t.
We walked to the edge of the cliff overlooking the reservoir. Rick picked up a stone and threw it over the edge. A few seconds later the plunk reached our ears. In the crisp night air it sounded loud and ominous.
“Rick,” I said. “Don’t do anything to hurt Judy,” I said.
Silence. In the soft light of the moon I studied his face. It was a passive, cold look that sent chills down my spine.
“Rick? Do you hear me?”
Finally he nodded. “Sure, pal. I hear you.”
“Things will work out,” he said. “Let’s get out of here. I hate this place.”
“Go ahead,” I said. “I’ll walk.”
Rick grabbed me by the arm. “It’s five miles to town. Don’t be a jerk.”
“Leave me alone,” I said.
Rick gripped my arm harder. “Get in the car.”
I had never stood up to Rick before. His hard black eyes studied me for a minute.
“Listen, pal. You better not do anything stupid.”
“I need to be alone. I’ll walk home. I’ve done it before.” I met his eyes. My heart was pounding so hard I could hear it. I knew what Rick was capable of doing, and up here where there was no one to see or hear us, I was sure he wouldn’t hesitate to kill me. The way I felt at the moment, it didn’t matter to me.
We stared at each other for several seconds. Then Rick released my arm.
“Suit yourself,” he mumbled. He turned and walked away. I watched Rick’s retreating form with a growing rage. At that moment I felt a hate I had never felt for anyone before or since.
It was after midnight when I got home. The walk from the reservoir took close to two hours, and I was exhausted, physically and mentally. I closed the door softly and went to my room, careful not to wake my parents. I fell on the bed, fully clothed, and drifted into a troubled sleep.
As it turned out, there was a witness to the killing. A woman who lived nearby, out walking her dog, had seen Rick running from the station and getting into the car. She gave a good description of the car with its flaming decal and chrome pipes. Her description of Rick was less accurate. But the car was sufficient evidence to lead the police to Rick. Thankfully, she did not mention a passenger. I was never suspected.
Rick never returned home the night we went to the reservoir. His disappearance created a stir in Oakville. They had a murderer in town, a fugitive. In a strange sort of way, the residents enjoyed the notoriety. The local papers picked up the story and gave it prominent coverage. The Jackson Tribune printed an interview with Rick’s mother, playing on the public’s fascination with the case.
“He’s run off before,” she told reporters.
“Where would he go?”
“No place in particular. ‘Specially if he’s runnin’ from the law.”
“Are you surprised by this?”
“It don’t surprise me that he did this thing. He’s a bad one. Always has been. Just like his father. I brought him out here to the country hopin’ it would change him. But a leopard don’t change its spots, I guess.”
Mrs. Houston didn’t seem sorry that Rick was gone.
I never went to the police. Now that it was known who killed the clerk, I felt no need to go. Judy agreed. I loved her for that.
They never found Rick. Eventually, life returned to normal in Oakville. For me, however, life was never the same. Being a witness to murder and knowing things that no one else knew about Rick and his plan to kill Judy scarred me forever. Shortly after graduation I left Oakville, not because I wanted to, but because I could never live a normal life there in light of the situation.
I received the phone call about Rick from Judy. She had married a local boy, raised a family, and was still living in Oakville. Now a widow, she kept in touch by
e-mail and an occasional phone call.
“They found Rick Houston,” she said without preamble when I answered the phone.
I swallowed hard at the pronouncement. “They did? When? Where?”
“Yesterday,” she said. Silence.
“You know the reservoir?” she asked. It was not a question, but a statement. Everyone who ever lived in Oakville knew where the reservoir was. “The dam was cracked. They condemned it last month. They had to drain the reservoir.”
I waited for her to go on. After a moment of uncomfortable silence, she said, “Bart?”
“You knew about this, didn’t you?”
“What do you mean?”
There was an edge to her voice. “You were with Rick the night he disappeared. You told me that, remember?”
She sighed. “They found a car at the bottom of the lake. It was just off the south rim—the deepest part of the lake. Over eighty feet deep, I guess.”
I thought back. The cliff overlooking the lake was primarily rock. No tire marks would be left. And it sloped downward, making it easy to push the car over the edge.
“It was rusted almost beyond recognition,” Judy was saying. “But enough remained to identify it as Rick’s car. They could tell the make and year. And there was even a trace of a decal on one of the doors.”
“That’s interesting,” I said. “But what about Rick? You said they found him.”
“They did. There were partial remains of a skeleton. They found a skull.” Another pause. “They could tell from the condition of the skull that he had been hit with a blunt object, heavy enough to kill him.”
Like a tree limb, I thought. There was no shortage of them at the reservoir.
“So he was murdered?” I said.
“Bart.” Judy said, “I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know. Ever since the night Rick disappeared you were a different person. I thought it was because of your being involved with the murder of the clerk. I never suspected you had anything to do with Rick’s disappearance.”
“And now you do?” I asked.
“Yes. I do. And I know why. You had no choice, at least in your mind. You were afraid he would try to kill me…”
“No,” I interrupted. “I knew he was going to kill you. He almost said as much. I couldn’t let that happen, Judy. Don’t you understand?”
“I understand, Bart. Of course I understand. And I’m grateful. But…” Her voice trailed off.
“There had to be another way.”
“Maybe,” I said. “Maybe.” I listened to the sound of her breathing and felt a surge of love for the girl I used to adore.
“God, this is so hard for me,” she said. “I never dreamed you were capable of murder.”
“Desperate people do desperate things,” I said.
There was a long silence, broken by a muffled sob on the other end of the line.
“What are you going to do, Judy?” I said.
“Do?” she said. “There’s nothing to be done. Not now. It all happened so long ago. What possible good could it do to resurrect it now?”
“Right,” I said. “I’m just sorry it had to happen.”
“Believe me when I tell you that I am not judging you. I can’t begin to understand what you were going through. I just find this so difficult.”
“I know,” I said. “Forgive me.”
“There’s nothing to forgive. I called because I wanted you to hear it from me. Before you read about it in the paper. And I wanted you to know, too, that your secret is safe. I think I’m the only one who knows what really happened that night.”
“I’m coming to Oakville in a few weeks,” I said. “I’d like to see you. Will you be home?”
There was a long pause. “I don’t think it would be a good idea. Let’s remember things the way they were, Bart. I loved you once. I guess I still do. But things can never be the same. Not after all this.”
I started to protest, then sighed. “OK. OK. Thanks for calling.”
I hung up, a feeling of melancholy spreading over me. The police could close the book on Rick’s disappearance. But now they had another murder on their hands. They would have to investigate, I was certain of that. But I wasn’t certain how vigorously they would pursue it given the amount of time that had elapsed and the nature of the victim. It didn’t really matter to me. Because of it I had lost a girl, a home and a way of life I had treasured. Let the police investigate. I suddenly realized that I wanted the truth to come out. It had consumed me for most of my life. Now I could have closure.
I reached for the phone. Obtaining the number from information, I dialed and waited.
“Oakville Police, Sergeant Madison,” a voice growled over the wire.
“My name is Barton Howell,” I said. “I killed Rick Houston.”