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Death in the Fort - Chapter Five

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Jan Hoffman | The Journal Gazette

Chapter 5

I had - what? - one Scrabble tile left to lay down? Maybe two. And then - and I swear - I would've had "musquash." I'm talking about 338 points here, people.

But as luck would have it, just as I was laying down the 'h' (and right as Jessica was saying, "'Musquash' is NOT word, Martha!") our baby monitor let out a loud squawk. Jessica reared back and fell heinie over teakettle, knocking the whole dang table over. The board flew up and hit my chin - Musquash! Down the toilet! - and, after the tinkling of Scrabble tiles subsided, we paused ... staring at each other ... and then both made a frantic grab for the baby monitor.

"Gimme it!" Jessica has always had a way with words.

Jaime was right. They do pick up everything. Amid the ambient fuzz and feedback, we could hear someone's heavy feet echoing through Darleen's apartment; doors creaking open and angrily slamming shut.

"NIKKI!" The voice coming from inside Darleen's house wasn't hers, that's for sure. This was a man. And he sounded a lot like Dad did the day I melted his autographed copy of "Ellington at Newport" and turned it into a super-cute popcorn bowl. (That particular nebula of obscenities probably still hovers over the Maumee River to this day. A tribute to Dad.)

The guy inside Darleen's apartment - he was screaming obscenities, too. But not at Darleen.

"Who's Nikki?" I whispered, trying to grab the baby monitor from Jessica. She had a death grip on the thing though.

"Wait, wait," she said, shrugging me off and pulling at a piece of hair stuck to her mud mask. "Listen."

Things were getting a little muffled, a little too obscure (lots of banging and coughing, as far as we could tell) for us to tell what was really happening inside that house. So we hightailed it to the backdoor, dropping low at the porch and scrambled across the yard. From the alley, we could see directly into Darleen's now curtainless kitchen. So we squatted next to a busted-down old fence, still clutching the baby monitor, and started watching.

"Oh, man," Jessica whispered. "I have to pee."

"I was afraid of that," I said. "I know you're the type who likes an outdoor bathroom challenge."

"One time!" she said. "I use the facilities at Freimann Square one time in 1992 ..."

"What facilities? It was a park bench."

"Shhhh," she whispered. "There he is."

We could see him pretty well inside Darleen's kitchen - a kinda twitchy, wiry guy with a cruddy little mustache. He was, in a word, ugly. Not just regular ugly, either. Like, "I take my meth with extra battery acid, thanks!" ugly.

His face was pockmarked, with these scabby little chicken pox all over his cheeks and arms. And his teeth were yellow and a little pointed in the front, as though they'd been filed. I pictured him picking his teeth with a steak knife after every meal. They were that bad.

"Nikki!" he screamed again, opening Darleen's cabinet doors and slamming them shut over and over with the butt of a shotgun. "Where's my stuff, Nikki?!"

"I take back what I said earlier," Jessica whispered, grabbing my arm. "This freak is definitely not invited to the party. Let's go."

Bang! The screen door slammed open and ol' yuck mouth was on the porch now, holding his gun in one hand and screaming for Nikki (whoever that was), telling her he was going to kill her if she didn't give him his money.

"I know you're here, Nikki," he said, looking around the yard and toward our garage. "I know what you did."

He spat into the grass - a long, brown ooze.

"Gross," Jessica said. And then she winced.

Because he'd heard her.

"That you?" he said, raising his gun and squinting through the darkness. "I'm coming after you, hon. You've got something I want and you know it."

Remember that karmic debt I talked about earlier? Katie Pee? The cup of water? That's not the only incident I'm still paying for.

My dad died when I was 21 - my mom, long dead from cancer by then. And, for reasons too complicated to go into, I probably said about four words to him during the eight months before he died. In fact, I'd responded to the last words he ever said to me - "Merry Christmas, Martha" - by rolling my eyes and walking away from him.

For whatever reason, this was the thought that flashed in my mind when I noticed that the torn ankle of my cargo pants - the ratty pair that have never caused me a lick of trouble - was hooked around the bottom of that busted-up fence. And every time I tried to loosen them, the fence rattled. Loudly. A "come and get me" rattle. A "Hey, psycho meth guy! I'm right over here!" rattle.

Jessica, already creeping steadily down the alley, glanced back and shot me a look of panic.

"Keep going," I mouthed, kicking the fence a couple of times.

But, like the good friend she is, she stumbled back to me and yanked my pants down to my ankles.

"What are you doing?!" I said.

"Take 'em off!" she screamed. "He's coming!"

"NIKKI!" I could hear the sound of the shotgun preparing to fire - shank! shank! - so I flipped off my shoes and tumbled out of my pants. I was going to kill Jessica for this. I just wanted to live long enough to do it.

We ran, heading straight for the safety of the riverbank near Edgewater Avenue and LaFort Street - the one we grew up on; the one we knew like the backs of our hands - and heaved ourselves up the dike. In the distance, we heard the sound of the shotgun firing. It sounded weird, like someone had popped a hot-air balloon with a giant safety pin.