While Maurice was hardly a sedentary man, he seldom found himself, as he now did, hiking through the woods. He looked at the slender shoulders and determined boots of his neighbor, Natalie, leading him further and further from familiar ground. She had appeared at his door in the late afternoon with a tentative knock, a stricken look and a grave summons to please come see what I've found in the woods. He was politely curious. After all, this was the woman who wept when he set out ant traps and, though he painted her walls and fixed her sink, he knew very little about her. She'd been following a hawk, she said, paying no attention to where she was going when she'd found herself up against a barbed wire fence. She wouldn't describe just what she'd seen, but she'd wanted him to come with her, that at least had been clear. When she'd held out the brass clock that had gone missing from the barn, he'd grabbed his coat, called his dog and followed her out the door.
The unlikely trio – artist, handyman and dachshund - had left the wooded path several minutes ago and were now forging their way through dense raspberry brambles towards some mysterious destination hidden near the neglected perimeter of the property. Samson's pointy little face looked grim as his stubby legs struggled to keep up with Maurice's shadow.
"Careful," said Natalie, more to herself than to Maurice.
He came up short, just avoiding the rusted barbs of a long-forgotten fence; it wasn't the barbed wire that made him step back. Tied to the fence with rusty lengths of salvaged wire were a dozen or so dead pigeons, wings spread wide, heads hanging limply against their soft gray breasts. Care had been taken to arrange each bird, as if the person who had assembled this awful display wanted them to be seen at their best. Samson whimpered and pressed against Maurice's boot facing away from the birds. Maurice turned to Natalie but she, too, looked away, tears creeping gravely down her cheeks. She moved to an adjacent section of fence and held the strands of wire apart with trembling hands. Maurice hesitated but Natalie motioned him through, then followed, resolutely, herself.
"Just up here," she said softly, rolling up the legs to her jeans, "we have to wade the creek."
She led him through the cold water at a narrow place with lots of stones, then through a tunnel of branches that opened out into a clearing full of rusty, discarded trucks and cars. Maurice had heard tell of the old car dump in the woods, but he'd never felt the need to visit it himself. Now, faced with the scope of it, he wished he'd taken the initiative sooner. Generations of vehicles rested before him, easily dating back to the 1940's, and the potential for salvaging interesting and usable parts made his frugal tinkerer's soul flutter with possibility. He paused momentarily by a venerable VW bus, sorely tempted to investigate, but Natalie was doggedly picking her way through the debris and he forced himself to follow her. She stopped several cars ahead of him and looked back over her shoulder, waiting impatiently for him to catch up.
Maurice was unprepared for the sight that met him when his big, muddy boots stepped past the final moldering truck carcass and brought him to a standstill next to Natalie. A big 1950's Cadillac sedan, it's trunk wide open and its windows obscured by dirty cardboard, sat in an area that had obviously been cleared with great care. A blue vinyl bench seat had been pulled from one of the vans and arranged like a sofa in front of the trunk which held the remains of a substantial campfire. Tilting against the bumper was a grill rack thick with greasy, charred remains, and Maurice's heavy saucepan nested neatly in the old iron frying pan on the ground by the left rear tire. Behind the seat his best axe leaned against a methodically stacked woodpile, and over it all a frayed black tarp hung like a canopy, held in place with clothespins, wire, and pieces of string. The shiny new bucket that Kate was missing sat, full of clean water, next to the driver's door surrounded by cans of various sizes full of nails, bolts, and screws. Samson sniffed nervously at a thick mat of weeds where dozens of eggshells had been tossed among enough feathers and bones to reassemble a small flock of pigeons.
Maurice ran a thick hand over his balding head. The quiet domesticity of the scene was disturbing, severely at odds with the stealing and trespassing that made it possible. Even so, he was left with the feeling that he was invading someone's privacy. He hesitated, looking at his own familiar tools scattered throughout the site. Who had done this? And where were they now? Maurice shivered and felt himself shrink. What if they came back? Enough was enough. He squared his considerable shoulders. Maurice Diggersby was not one to dither; he needed a plan. First he would find out all he could about this strange set-up leaving it intact for the police, then he'd get Natalie out of the woods and report what he'd found to Kate. That settled, and feeling more himself, he stepped firmly over to the car and opened the back door.
The wide backseat of the big old sedan had been turned into a fair imitation of a bed. At one end of the seat an unwashed fleece from one of the unfortunate sheep leaked out from Augusta's downy, lace-edged pillowcase (now gray with accumulated grime); the second fleece appeared to be safety pinned into a moldering old army blanket and tucked into the crack of the car seat as a makeshift mattress. The bedding was completed by Lady Gertrude's missing blanket. On the floor next to the seat a dirty coffee mug held converse with several dilapidated gun magazines and a splayed toothbrush shared quarters with a mildewed bar of soap in an old tomato can. All things considered it looked to be a fairly accommodating bedroom. With that campfire banked in the trunk, it was probably even warm.
"That's where the clock was," Natalie said.
Maurice startled; he had forgotten she was there.
"There," she said, pointing, "on the shelf by the back window."
Maurice nodded his acknowledgement, closed the door and moved on to the front seat. A worn canvas rucksack slouched by the steering wheel. Maurice opened it calmly and dug through the contents: a pair of men's underpants in serious decline wrapped around an archaic deck of playing cards; empty cigarette packs, peanut shells, gum wrappers, and a length of twine tangled up with two cheap carabiners and a bottle opener; a pair of old metal scissors with deeply nicked blades; one man's glove, and a toothpick stuck to a photograph with a piece of sticky candy. He separated the photo from the rest of the mess and glanced at it quickly, then looked again closely and felt his body freeze. It was a picture of the Mad Tom swimming pool, probably from the 1970's, with a teenage girl sitting on the diving board in a bikini. The girl was unmistakably Kate. He peeled off the candy, stuffed the picture into his pocket, and quietly closed the door.
** ** **
Kate looked at the picture and shook her head. It hadn't been easy to get her by herself this close to the start of the party. She was dressed in a gown of deep cranberry red with her hair all fancy on top of her head; she didn't look like herself.
"Thank you for telling me Morris," she said, "we'll call the police in the morning. He's been there this long, another night won't matter." She cocked her head uneasily, "I wonder who it could be?"
"Not someone to take a chance with," Maurice replied grimly, "Watch yourself tonight."
"I'll be surrounded by people all night long."
"Make sure of it," he said.
She nodded and smiled. Samson's pointy tail patted the ground.
"Home Samson," said Maurice, "get us out of the way."
YOU ARE READING
Mad Tom Winter: Gray ManGeneral Fiction
Maurice Diggersby, the handyman at Mad Tom Farm, likes to see that things are done right, and keeping things up and running on an estate that houses four generations of one eccentric family is no small task. When odd things go missing and mysterious...