by Terry Carroll
A raucous whining drew Hughie Campbell from a dream. With his right hand, Hughie rubbed his left cheek. His heavy sweater smelled of oil and mould. The kitchen was cooling. Light and shadows danced around the walls, the floor, the table. That was strange. Why would his mother bring out the coal oil lamp?
He lifted his head and attempted to raise himself. On the second try, with the help of quivering hands, he made it. He shuffled to the window. Rain had started in the morning, had begun to freeze around noon. The power had been knocked out mid-afternoon. It was now night, but outside was more white than black. He wiped at a frosted window pane with one bare palm, making a hole. Over by the silo, two snowmobiles idled. Snow streaked in wraiths across their headlights.
Two of the buggers.
Horse thieves, maybe.
A good team like Charlie and Barney would fetch as much as six hundred apiece, more for stud. Hughie’s dad loved horses, and Hughie hated men who tampered with them.”Good for nuffin,” he said out loud.
He steadied himself and paused, before making his way to the wood stove that was still warm to the touch. Neighbours said he was soft in the head, keeping that stove when he also had the electric. With no heat, what would those geniuses be saying tonight? He had to force his left leg. It had stiffened up as he slept in the chair. He should have gone to bed. But then he wouldn’t have spotted the snowmobiles.
The rifle behind the old stove was loaded. He thought it was. He was pretty sure. If it wasn’t, the threat of it might do the trick. Hughie tucked the .22 under his good arm and made his way back across the green linoleum,
ripped to black patches in places. With his thin right shoulder, he bumped the outside door. Nothing. He hit it again. Harder, hurting something inside. The ice seal along the edges crackled, and the door swung wide.
Wind and cold surged around him in sharp waves. He leaned against the frame. His dad’s voice came to him, moist and soft, a rivulet of tobacco juice trickling a line from his mouth to his stubbly chin.”What do you expect, Hughie? It’s January.”
Hughie raised his left arm as high as it would go, somewhere around his waist. He sent his stiffening trigger hand even lower, to aim above the intruders.
That was the idea. His body carried remnants of instincts for such things, ancient senses of line and angle.
Those men had no right. This was a Campbell farm and the Campbells...
As if it had a life of its own, the rifle fired.
A headlight shattered.
The figures turned toward the house. Hughie cursed them; what were they, Eskimos? Out on a night like this, robbing old bachelors minding their own business? He heard them shout, couldn’t make out what they were saying. They let go of something they’d been dragging toward the silo and waddled to their snowmobiles.
Take that, you buggers.
The figures started their machines but didn’t skedaddle. They roared toward the house. The one with no headlight followed in a line behind the other. Hughie watched this longer than was sensible before he closed the door and hobbled to one of his round-backed kitchen chairs. The rifle, he laid on the table in front of him, handy in the light of the lamp. He rubbed his numb left arm with his right.
Light flared through the ice-encrusted kitchen window. The engines idled and stopped. Steps thumped up the stairs to the side porch.
The door flung open.
Two men entered, closing the wind behind them. Hughie raised the rifle with his good hand. He had never fully recovered from the stroke, but he wasn’t an idiot. The angle was wrong.
The bigger man, massive in his parka, glanced at the gun and snarled,”You stupid old geezer. What you gonna do with a single-shot .22? Ever hear the term, reload?”
His shorter companion’s laugh was high-pitched. He had a red beard flecked with grey. Hughie thought he recognized the laughing man. But no name would come to him. Hughie wanted to tell them to get out. His toothless mouth rummaged around. The words, in there somewhere, would not surface.
The large man raised his right hand and set his own gun on the table. With careful deliberation, he removed bulky mitts one at a time and picked up his weapon again. He pointed it at Hughie.
What an asshole, Hughie thought. Any fool knows guns like that are illegal. He’d seen it on the CBC.
The red-haired man said,”Do we have to, Turk?”
The man who said that... what was it about him? He put Hughie in mind of a woman, but who?
“We don’t need no witnesses. Look at this pigsty. Let’s do the world a favour.”
A tattoo of a snake’s head, its tongue flicking, ended near the man’s thumb. That digit settled on the guard. The index finger next to it curled comfortably around the trigger. Hughie raised his working arm in protest, .22 at the ready.
Firefighters had set up powerful klieg lights on snowbanks and the running boards of trucks. The lights illuminated the remains of a farmhouse, stark against the wintry backdrop. Thick icicles and thinner sheets of ice glistered from the burned remnants of walls and a collapsed roof. One pumper truck was still spraying water. Figures came and went.
It was after 5:00 a.m. On New Year’s Eve, the temperature had started to drop. Before midnight, a minor blizzard had hurled in off Lake Erie. Sergeant Carl North inhaled through his nose, broken in a hockey accident and never properly straightened. He held that breath all the way to his abdomen, before exhaling through his mouth, and holding again before the next inhalation. He repeated this. Much as he hated winter, he was glad the air was cold and fresh.
His queasiness settled, North forced his attention back to the scene inside the kitchen. Warmth seeped up through his boots and into his feet. Constable Pete Heemstra stood beside him on the concrete step. Below them, Constable Jennifer Duchamps stamped her feet on snow-swept ground. Jennifer and Pete were plain clothes officers, reporting to North in Criminal Investigations in St. Thomas.
Crispy critters. North thought the two bodies looked like crispy critters. He forced his gaze away from the remains. Holes had burned through the farmhouse flooring in places, exposing the tops of charred joists. What was left of the linoleum, what wasn’t completely fried, curled at the edges. Old appliances, laden with blackened debris, tilted against the far wall.
The scene smelled of soot and charcoal and decay. And an underlying stench like burned meat.