Deputy Clarkson had been a wonderfully good sport up until this point, but when presented with the prospect of crossing the threshold of this house, he balked. He released his death-grip on his rifle, lowering it to his side and exclaiming, “No offense, Sheriff, but fuck this. I’m not goin’ in there. Let’s go back to the car and call--
“Call who, Henry?” Lutz said flatly. “The state troopers can’t do anything except write tickets to out-of-towners. The town police call us when there is a violent death. So who exactly should we call? Animal control?”
Clarkson glowered back at him, “Then let’s go back to the car and come back in the goddamn daylight, “ he hissed between clenched teeth.
Personally, Lutz felt that Clarkson was speaking the most sense that anyone had all night. But as much as he privately agreed with his deputy’s plan to retreat far away from the McGuire house, they were there and there was a job to do. “Come on now, Henry. Billy’s been inside. Can’t let the kid show us up now, can we?” Lutz said with a forced lightheartedness that rang false in his ears.
He sighed, ran one hand along his forehead and through his salt-and-pepper hair, and tried again. “Yeah, this sucks. Doesn’t change facts. We have to find out what, if anything, occurred here tonight. So let’s just sack up and get it done, yeah?”
It wasn’t much of a pep talk but it seemed to do the trick. Billy gave a heavy shrug, scuffing his boots against the brown grass bordering the McGuire’s front porch. Clarkson closed his eyes for a moment as if offering up a silent prayer, then reshouldered his firearm and nodded at Lutz. “I’m taking a long weekend,” he stated matter-of-factly. “Gonna take my wife up to Iowa City. Gonna go to Red Lobster. It’s Crabfest.” He continued muttering to himself about his upcoming weekend, but brushed past Lutz and climbed the creaking steps onto the porch.
You can have the whole week off. Lutz mentally promised his deputy. Then he pulled his revolver out of its holster, thumbed the safety off, and followed the two men past the entrance and into Bud McGuire’s home.
A profound silence settled around the men as they crossed the threshold of the McGuire house. The footsteps made by the officer’s heavy boots were muffled by the layer of dust that lay upon the floor. In the beam of the flashlight, the wallpaper in the foyer may have been a sunny striped yellow at some point, but had been warped with water damage and was now the color of old urine.
Ahead of the men was a long corridor with a doorway on either side. On one side, Lutz could see the ubiquitous farmhouse “mudroom”, complete with rows of rubber Wellington boots and heavy winter parkas. The Wellies were dull and cracked with disuse, and the coats were moth-eaten and smelled of damp. A closed door led deeper into the house, probably into the kitchen.
On the left side of the corridor was a room Lutz’ wife would have referred to as a “parlour” when she was alive, with delicate furniture and assorted porcelain figurines. Here was the first evidence of human activity. The dainty tables were smashed to bits, and the rose-patterned loveseat was at a defined angle to a moth-eaten rug, as if someone had forcibly shifted the couch by standing with sudden force. A broken water jug lay in pieces on the floor.
Oddly enough, even these violent scene was gentled by a thick layer of dust. So far, the only sign that a living person had been in the house were the tracks he could see in the corridor that had clearly been made by Billy’s heavy workboots.
Where were the McGuire’s?
Lutz moved on a constant pivot, shining his high-powered flashlight into every corner and crevice. His senses felt electrified as he strained each one of his senses to determine whether or not a threat still lurked in this house. According to his eyes and ears, this was just a normal house, though terribly neglected. “Billy,” he whispered under his breath. “Why the fuck did you even come in here?”
Billy responded equally quietly, “Like I said, sir, I thought maybe someone was in trouble. But when I got here -- it was like I just had to keep going. I had to see for myself.”
Lutz understood. He could feel it too. The panicky urge to head back for the car was drowned out by grim determination. He needed to find out what the hell had happened here.
Past the open doorways to the mudroom and the parlour was a flight of stairs that went from the first floor all the way to the attic in a long switchback. The stairs, like everything else in the McGuire house, seemed to be standing upright by sheer force of will alone.
Running along the right edge of the staircase, in a long unbroken line from top to bottom, was a wide swath of dried blood.
The first thought that ran through Sheriff Lutz’ mind in that moment was that he wished he lived in a larger city, with more resources. If they were farther north, near Des Moines or Cedar Rapids, the three men standing in the McGuire house could be surrounded by backup within an hour.
A small fleet of detectives, forensic experts, photographers, evidence baggers and rubberneckers could gather at the homestead. The living darkness of the August summer night would be be beaten back by high-powered flashbulbs and battery-powered spotlights. Under their harsh glare, and soothed by the shop talk of the gathered officials, whatever horrors had visited the McGuire family would be revealed as just another crime scene, still tragic but acceptable to the mind. A sane sequence of events. Unfortunately, his little pocket of eastern Iowa was small and underpopulated, the mechanics needed to properly investigate a potential crime were simply not in place.
As much as Lutz dreaded the idea, it would have to be him that ventured up those stairs, and it would have to be now. He would have to venture up there, and so would Clarkson, as department regulations forbade an officer from entering a potential crime scene alone. Plus, he wanted Clarkson’s steady presence beside him with the Winchester.
That didn’t mean they all had to go. “Billy,” Lutz said to the young man without turning, “if you don’t want to go up there a second time, now is your chance. Go wait for us on the porch. Stand guard.”
“With all due respect sir, there is no way I am staying down here by myself.” Billy squared his shoulders and gave Lutz a defiant look.
“Your choice, kid.” Lutz gave him a nod and turned back to the problem of the staircase. They would have to make sure they didn’t contaminate the crime scene with their boots. The blood was thick all the down the stairs, where it abruptly stopped on the second to last riser. Here, a slightly thicker pool of blood still shone with faint wetness under his flashlight.
Whatever had happened here, had happened recently.
“Slow and steady does it, now. Don’t step in it.” Squeezing his lanky frame to the far edge of the staircase, Lutz placed a heavy boot on the first riser. A puff up dust arose, and the stair gave an wheezing groan, but it did not buckle under his weight.
Lutz began slowly advancing his way up the stairs, pressing firmly on each stair first to test its stability. The staircase creaked and moaned but continued to hold firm, and he motioned for Clarkson to follow. Lutz could hear his usually taciturn deputy muttering various prayers and swear words under his breath.
The swath of blood continued up the stairs in an unbroken streak. Now it veered off to the right and disappeared into the darkness of a long corridor. The overwhelming odor was of dirt and mold, but the coppery smell of fresh blood was also thick in the air. A few framed photos hung at uneven intervals, their subjects almost completely obscured with dust. The dust on the floor was disturbed now, but there were no distinct tracks; it had been swept almost clean away in some places.
Resigned now to seeing this through, Lutz felt his earlier fear retreat to the back of his mind. The adrenaline pumping through his system was working for him now, sharpening his focus and steadying his pulse. The corridor opened twice to the right, and Lutz circled warily around the open entrance to the first room.
A cursory glance revealed a dingy bathroom. Or perhaps it had once been a bathroom. Now it was a heap of stained and cracked porcelain, with a rusted out pipe hanging loosely where a sink may have been. Torn linoleum covered parts of the floor, but most of it was the same weathered floorboards as the rest of the upstairs. The air was heavy with the smells of stale grime and mildew.
The path of blood, which had become thicker as they advanced along the corridor, continued down the hallway to the second room. Lutz signaled to Billy to cover the entrance of the bathroom, then he and Clarkson advanced, firearms cocked and ready. Lutz still carried the Maglite, held to the top of his service pistol, so he was the first to cautiously peer around the corner of the room at the end of the hall.
When Lutz first shone his flashlight into the darkened room, he actually breathed a sigh of relief. He had expected to find the strewn and dismembered bodies of April McGuire and her children in pieces about the floor.
Instead, the room appeared entirely empty on first glance. There were no severed limbs clad in footie pajamas. There was also no furniture, curtains, rugs or anything else to indicate that the space had ever been occupied by inhabitants other than mice. The bare wooden floor was littered with their droppings, but not much else. He began sweeping his flashlight from floor to ceiling. The walls had been painted a deep scarlet that looked almost wet by the light of the--
For a span of time that felt like an eternity but was in reality probably more like thirty seconds, Lutz stood stock still in the entrance to that room, his head cocked to one side like a man trying to figure out a really good riddle. One eyebrow was raised, and his mouth hung open in bewilderment.
The room had been drenched in great splashes of blood that reached all the way to the ceiling in some places. It was swirled in sporadic circles across the floor, and spattered against all four walls. The closest thing Lutz could compare it to
Behind him, Lutz could hear Clarkson’s sharp intake of breath as he also took in the scene before them. Then it was as if all the air went out of his lungs, and Sheriff Lutz suddenly deflated. He felt his knees give way, and had to lean one hand against the outside wall of the hallway for support as his vision blurred and his head spun.
He still held the flashlight in one hand and it was pointed into the room, shining onto the dripping walls. He felt more than saw Clarkson stumble backwards into the wall behind him.
Billy stood at the doorway to the demolished bathroom, studying the mud on his boots. Lutz realized that the younger man had already seen all of this. “Billy, did you see any bodies when you were here earlier?”
Billy met the sheriff’s eyes directly. “When I saw the blood on the stairs, I figured maybe someone was still alive up here. But when I got up here there was nothing. The batteries in my flashlight were starting to die, and then I saw that room, he gestured towards the room with the bloody walls, “I got the hell out of here quick as I could. I didn’t check any of the other rooms.”
“So then where the fuck are the bodies? It looks like Bud McGuire and his family in a Salad Spinner. There’s blood on the goddamned ceiling.” Clarkson queried, stepping closer to the open door of the empty room and glancing inside once more.
“Yeah, but that’s the problem. It’s blood. Just blood. No bones. No organs.” Lutz’ mind was still spinning as it frantically tried to bring a sense of logic into what it had just witnessed. “There should be pieces of the McGuire’s everywhere. But so far, the only evidence of an actual crime is that arm out on the road.” he turned to face the other two men, continuing to speak under his breath.
Clarkson faced him, his normally placid face a mask of tension and fear, “Yeah, how did that arm even get out there? Why does it look like no one has lived here in five years? Where the hell are the McGuires!” this last sentence he said in a whispered shout.
“Are they in the barn? The basement? Did Bud chop them up and carry them into the woods? Was it even Bud? What the hell were those claw marks on the door, Sheriff?” Clarkson continued his questioning in a voice that did not conceal his rising terror.
Lutz gripped his deputy tightly by the shoulders, his own fear gone in the face of his officer’s increasingly panic, “Of course it was Bud, Henry. We’ll find him. Don’t worry.” This idea, as nightmarish as it was, offered a kind of morbid comfort. Bud McGuire might be a deranged madman who had just killed his entire family, but he was a man.
A man bled when you shot him.
This whole time Billy Hudson had been silent, his eyes fixed on the open doorway to the dingy bathroom. Now Billy cleared his throat, and almost sheepishly said, “Sheriff? You might want to see this.”
Had there ever been less welcome word’s in human history? Lutz pinched his nose between two fingers and reluctantly asked, “What is it?”
Billy just gestured with the head of the shotgun, and in the bright glow from his Maglite Lutz could see a thin line of blood slowly making its way from behind the open bathroom door.
Immediately his heart, which had just begun to resume its regularly scheduled beat, started jackhammering wildly in his chest. Somehow, in that moment, Lutz knew.
Whatever they had come here to find was on the other side of that door.
On their first walkthrough of the corridor, all three men had been preoccupied by the path of blood that led to the room at the end of the hall. Now, upon closer inspection, Lutz realized that there was the faintest glimmer of light coming from the darkened bathroom.
His mouth was dry as a bone, and Lutz swallowed hard and then, pistol still at the ready, he eased around the doorway of the bathroom and put his back against the nearest wall. He checked the corner and, finding it empty, proceeded to circle slowly around the room. Clarkson covered him from behind, while Billy stood guard once more outside the room.
The light was coming from two flickering candles, the tall glass ones of the sort his grandmother used to burn on Sundays. The flames were sputtering their last breaths, and two more candles had already drowned in their own wax. How long do those candles burn? Lutz made a mental note to check and kept his eyes on a swivel, trying to observe as much as possible about the scene.
The candles had been arranged next to a chipped green bathtub. The formed a small circle, in the middle of which was a blackened circle, as someone had foolishly decided to build a fire in the middle of the floor.
On the edge of the bathtub was a draped a faded calico dress. Lutz approached the garment, which had been carefully arranged so as not to wrinkle against the sides of the tub. The tub itself was empty.
Lutz suddenly froze as he heard Clarkson swore a low oath behind him. Filled with sudden dread, he pivoted instinctively on his heel and prepared to fire.
For the first time that night, Andrew Lutz screamed at the top of his lungs.
Slumped in one corner of the trashed bathroom, in a slowly spreading pool of blood, was what remained of Bud McGuire.