Not a lot of exciting things happened in Bucky Creek, and not a lot of bad things happened either, at least none anyone talked about, and that was very disappointing to Jeanie Kramer because she wanted to catch a murderer.
Jeanie Kramer was eight, and a liar. If you asked her what her name was she would say it was Stella Goldfish, and if you asked her what grade she was in, she would lower her voice darkly and tell you she didn’t have time for school because she was a private eye, and if you asked her where she was going so quickly with mud all over her front and a dripping bag in one hand, she would wave you close and tell you that she had just solved a hot case and there were six dead bodies lying in the streambed at Willow Crossing, and she was on her way to fetch the police.
The truth of the matter was somewhat different: Jeanie had never actually seen a dead body, at least not a human one. The six she had found in the stream-bed were rats that had been surprised in their holes by a flashflood and washed out, all matted fur and yellow, translucent claws. Jeanie had never put anyone in jail either. Her only case so far had been finding old Mrs. Brodzinksi’s cat in the storm-drain, and then running all the way back to Mrs. Brodzinksi’s house and waiting on the rickety porch until Mrs. Brodzinksi came home and telephoned the fire department. But – and Jeanie was quite firm on this – none of that mattered. Just because something wasn’t true now, didn’t mean it would never be true. She would be named Stella Goldfish one day. She would be a detective, and if people laughed at her, well, they would just have to solve their own murder cases.
* * *
Her way to achieve her goals, she had decided, was to catch a killer. Murder was the worst sort of crime you could commit. Even the word sounded dreadful – MURDER – all red and raw and awful. So it stood to reason that if you could catch a murderer you had to be pretty bright. You had to be fearless and brave and better. Jeanie had already imagined many times a scenario in which she found one. They were either great grizzled men with beards, or shivery, wild-eyed women in nightdresses, or sometimes a pumpkin with a knife. (Jeanie didn’t quite believe that last one, but she had dreamed about it one night, and had henceforth always regarded pumpkins with suspicion).
In Jeanie’s daydreams, she would leap onto the scene just as the murderer was about to commit his dastardly deed, and then things became rather fuzzy, but they usually involved the murderer tripping, or Jeanie using a crossbow to shoot him.
Jeanie didn’t have a crossbow in real life, and she didn’t know what she would do in the case that there was no fortuitous clumsiness, but that wasn’t the point. When you got into tough situations, either things went your way, or they didn’t, and Jeanie felt they would go her way, because why would things go well for an evil bearded man or a crazy lady?
* * *
Jeanie’s parents were not best pleased with her pastime. Neither was her older brother, who wore spectacles and ratty sweatpants, and always seemed to find something wrong with everything Jeanie did. He often gave her long speeches about the ill-effects of having morbid interests, but whenever he started on those Jeanie made a point not to listen to him.
At breakfast, her father would look over his newspaper at her. She hardly noticed, was usually busy reading How to Sharpen your Powers of Observance in 10 Simple Steps, whil her eggs grew cold and congealed in greasy puddles on her plate. He would say, “Jeanie, I think if you found a murderer, you wouldn’t know what to do with him,” at which Jeanie eyed him sharply over the top of her book and said, “It might not be a ‘him’. Ladies kill people, too, sometimes.” At which point her father lost all interest in the conversation.
* * *
Jeanie and her parents and her dull brother lived outside a town that was very small, in one of those brown, scraggly states that no one really talks about except to express dismay at their voting habits. Her house was out on a long stretch of highway, and there were fields around it for miles, no trees, just lots of brown dead grasses, waving like so many dry, thin dancers. Sometimes Jeanie would sit in the yard and peer out toward the fluttering brown sea and imagine what might be going on in there, or just beyond the horizon-line.
It was lonely out here. It was lonely in Bucky Creek, too, because it took ages to become friendly with people. Once you did, you started to wonder whether you really knew them, or whether they simply knew you.
The Kramers had moved into the house about two years ago, after Jeanie’s parents became convinced the city was too dangerous to raise a family. Jeanie had not been happy about the move. The Kramer house was a low, one-story get-up, with a few shingles missing and a screen-door with a too-quick spring that snapped shut on your heels if you weren’t quick enough. There was a patch of lawn and a few dark bushes and a creaky swing-set and not much else. It was exactly the sort of house, that, when you pass by on a long road trip, you wondered with a pang of pity what sort of sad, going-nowhere people must live there, and sometimes when Jeanie walked home she thought the same thing.
She had not been as keen on murderers as a six-year-old as she was now as an eight-year-old. It had happened slowly. The kids at school were farm kids who had so many brothers and sisters they didn’t need anyone else. They didn’t have time for games, and they talked about livestock a lot. None of them really liked detectives. And Jeanie had decided that if she couldn’t fit in, she had to stand out wildly.
She got used to the town. She got used to the library. The house wasn’t so bad on closer inspection, and once you stepped safely through the screen door it was actually quite homey; it had a TV and running water and all that, which some people maybe would not have guessed at first glance.
But there were no murderers. Jeanie had checked. She had even checked the shed far out in the fields behind the house. It had looked very promising, but had proved to be empty.
* * *
Jeanie made a sign and colored it yellow and put it in the driveway. It said, “Stella Goldfish, private-eye, 2$” and unfortunately that had not turned out well. Her brother had laughed uproariously when he saw it, and Jeanie had stared at him, confused, because she thought it was a good sign. When he had calmed down enough to speak, he asked, “What happens when they pay 2 dollars? Do they get to keep you? There’s a no-returns policy, I hope?” And then he started laughing again, and Jeanie shook her head and furrowed her brow and said, “No, then I solve their cases, duh.” But her stupid brother hadn’t stopped laughing.
No one responded to the sign. Maybe the people in the cars driving by laughed, too, when they saw it, or maybe they saw the house beyond, and the brown fields, and had that twinge of pity, thinking, “What sort of sad, going-nowhere people live here?” And it made Jeanie angry because she didn’t want to be a sad, going nowhere person. She wanted to be someone. She wanted people to stop laughing, and she wanted to do something brave and wonderful like Arthur Conan or Nancy Drew. No one ever laughed at them, did they?
And then one day, not to be deterred, Jeanie put on rain boots and a red raincoat and took the bus into town.
* * *
Jeanie went to the library. “Hello,” she said at the desk. “I need some books about murder.” The librarian was a nice-looking person with frizzy hair, who said, “Oh, you mean mysteries. Well, I don’t know if they have murder in them, but let me find you something.” She came back a few minutes later with three small, bright books that had children in sneakers and flashlights on the covers, and titles with exclamation points.
Jeanie looked at the books and looked at the librarian. The librarian smiled at her, waving the books encouragingly. Jeanie sighed. She knew the librarian meant well, but she also knew that these were not the sorts of books she needed.
“Can I look around?” she asked, and the librarian smiled and nodded.
Jeanie found a section on forensics, some illustrated volumes on crimes scenes, and one book full of glossy pages of photographic evidence. She had just gotten comfortable at a table under a window with a large stack of books, when the librarian swooped in out of nowhere and said, “Sweetie, I don’t think these books are good for you right yet,” and started gathering them up and putting them back on shelves before Jeanie could even open her mouth.
Jeanie watched her, annoyed.
“If you really want something on the subject, how about trying these books!” the librarian said cheerily, and set down a few old-looking books. “There’s some tingly local stories in them and you’ll get some history, too.”
Jeanie blew a strand of hair out of her face and picked up one of the history books despondently. She began to read. The history book was surprisingly good. It didn’t tell her the really necessary things, like how victims were identified when they had been dead for a while, or what the police did when they knew someone was guilty but he wouldn’t confess. But there were nuggets here and there that intrigued her. It seemed that this particular county, with its brittle yards and ochre-colored houses, had just as many terrible people as anywhere. The difference was simply that they lived very far apart from one another, and no one ever spoke of the bad things that happened. They knew. Everyone knew. But they didn’t tell outsiders. They didn’t tell book-writers; they didn’t even tell the police necessarily.
Jeanie read about a few cases the book-writer had been able to glean – a woman who drove off a bridge, and a man who stayed in his house so long that when they found him he was covered in dust and cobwebs, still breathing, because his dog had brought him sparrows and blackbirds to eat. Jeanie’s eyes grew wider and wider as she read, and the clock ticked, and the shadows grew longer. The librarian came by once or twice just to make sure she was okay, and probably also to make sure Jeanie didn’t make a run for the Criminology shelf.
And then Jeanie saw it, and her skin prickled. Murder. Murder right here in town. She shivered.
The Raincoat Killer: 22 years ago, in the sleepy town of Bucky Creek, a shocking murder tore through the community. An entire family slain. Remains never found. Perpetrator vanished without a trace, presumed dead. All that was recovered from the crime scene was a shred of plastic, probably belonging to a raincoat.
Jeanie’s heart squeezed. She was suddenly glad for the librarian hovering around and shelving books and making friendly, normal noises. The murderer had been identified immediately, but somehow before the police could arrest him he had gone into the grasslands and no one had ever seen him again. They found some evidence later, but no one ever found the remains of his victims. The murders had taken place in one of the houses in Bucky Creek, and it was still standing, and there was a black-and-white photograph of a knife that-
Jeanie closed the book with snap and looked over at the librarian, who was humming and flipping through a notepad, casting Jeanie nervous glances. Jeanie sat very still, breathing shallowly. Then she scooted off her chair and hurried out of the library.
She didn’t think about what she had read. She was not even sure she had read it. It was half in and half out of her brain, and somehow it was in just enough to disturb her a lot. She thought of the murderer, imagined him a man with silvered glasses walking along the street in his gray raincoat. She thought of the nice people who stopped for him, and she wondered where they might have gone had they not stopped. It made her feel cold and sad and hollow.
She thought about going home, but she felt she ought to investigate now. She was closer than ever. A murder had happened right here in Bucky Creek and no one had ever solved it. One part of her, deep, deep down, was telling her she shouldn’t go snooping anymore, and she wasn’t sure why because it was all she had wanted to do for years now. She wasn’t afraid, not of murderers. But something told her she might be afraid of this one.
* * *
She wandered all up Bucky Creek’s main street, then down its only side street, one called Peachtree Drive, even though there were no peach trees and probably never had been. She peeked in windows and crept over scraggly lawns, quiet and sharp-eyed. She looked everywhere for clues. She saw bad things, that was for sure, things no one should really see, garbages full of glass bottles, quiet fights, and whispered words behind a wood-stack. But it was not enough, and it wasn’t what she needed. After a while, she went to Mrs. Brodzinski’s house and stood with a stick, banging it against the mailbox post. She saw old Mrs. Brodzinski on her porch and walked over. The woman was crying, her white hair stuck to her face.
“Why are you crying?” Jeanie asked, peering at her from below, and Mrs. Brodzinski’s head came up with a start. She didn’t answer, just stared at Jeanie, wide-eyed.
“I miss them,” she said. “I miss them so much.”
“Oh, kiddo,” said Mrs. Brodzinski. “What do you want? Why d’you keep coming ‘round here, causing mischief?”
Jeanie wandered off, but she couldn’t get Mrs. Brodzinski’s words out of her head. It wasn’t mean, the way she’d said it. It was so sad.
* * *
Jeanie went to the bus stop and waited for the bus to take her home. It was a gray, windy evening. She sat down on the bench next to a woman who was chewing gum and flipping through an envelope of static-y, freshly developed photos. The woman smiled at Jeanie, but Jeanie didn’t smile back. She was busy thinking. The police had never caught the Raincoat Killer. Ever. They never found all his victims. This was her chance. She would search the town far and wide, look into windows, use her very sharpest observational skills. She would find him. . .
But what Jeanie didn’t know was that she already had. A third figure was waiting at the bus-stop. Behind the bench where Jeanie and the gum-chewing woman sat, behind the glass of the bus-stop’s wind-break a huge, gray man loomed. He had hunched shoulders and a great, gray coat with a piece missing. She looked back in that direction several times but she didn’t see him, right there on the other side of the glass, standing among the wet leaves and shrubs that grew close and tangled behind the bus-stop.
* * *
Jeanie shivered one last time as the bus pulled up, and climbed in. She didn’t see the figure behind the glass flicker, like film, skipping frames. As the bus took her out of the town and down the road, she thought she saw someone there on the shoulder, blurred by the windows. But the bus was going fast and it was getting dark and she couldn’t be sure it wasn’t just a friendly farmer. She did think it was watching her, though, standing still, eyes following the bus as it passed.
She had to walk the last distance from the bus-stop to her house. She got off and started along the ditch next to the road. She didn’t even bother going into the house, which was oddly dark for so late in the day. She went around the back, and pulling her raincoat around her, hurried into the fields. There was that shed, far out back. She had investigated it before, but had she dug in the dirt floor?
She walked through the brown grasses, poking along with her stick. The wind flittered through the top of them. Faraway she heard crows calling, and suddenly she wondered if there was not another sound, a drifting, sighing sound a few feet away in the sea of brown. But she ignored it and began humming, walking, humming, poking with her stick. It was a big field, but Jeanie always kept a compass with her, and she knew which way was home. She walked until she came to a tiny clearing, where there was a twisted black tree. She stopped and stared up at it. The brown grass made a clearing around the tree, and she saw the tree was full of blackbirds, silent, watching her. She crept around the tree and kept going into the field.
And all at once she stepped out from a particularly high clump of shrubs and found herself face-to-face with the shed. She dropped her stick and hurried toward it. It was small, leaning, almost tipping over, its back facing a ditch full of stagnant water, an old creek-bed maybe, overgrown with brush.
She pushed open the door. It was dark in there. The air smelled old, wet. She felt suddenly sick and giddy. . .
She knelt down on the floor, scratching in the dirt. She did not see as the gray figure came and stood in the doorway behind her. She found a bit of a flannel shirt, a hammer, a ring . . . and all the while the figure in the door stood, motionless in that wrinkled gray raincoat, eyes hidden behind silver glasses. The door began to close with a creak.
Jeanie looked up with a start. She didn’t look over her shoulder, but suddenly she felt very cold. She knew, she just knew that the ground under her was a lacework of skeletons, a white tangle of bones extending into the earth. And she knew there was someone behind her.
“Who are you?” she asked, without turning. She kept her voice steady, but her heart was going off like a jackhammer.
The figure didn’t answer. The door was almost closed, the faint gray light from outside becoming narrower and narrower across the floor. Jeanie turned her eyes downwards, watching the triangle turn to a thread. Her breathing sped up.
And all at once the huge man turned and shrank, and his coat wriggled, and then it was a child, standing there in the shadows, her back to Jeanie.
Jeanie stood up and spun.
“Who are you?” Jeanie shouted. “Are you-“ She cleared her throat and said loudly, “Are you the Raincoat Killer?”
The other girl began to whisper. Her face was hidden in the shadow of her coat’s hood. Her hands were clenched at her sides. “Your brother is so annoying. So is Mrs. Gilthrope. They’re all so stupid and mean. They laugh. They laugh at you. Gacker-gacker-gacker.”
The girl made a hideous noise, dry and chittering.
“What are you talking about?” Jeanie asked. Something was wrong. This was not how murder investigations went. Who was this girl?
“They all know, Jeanie,” the girl said. “The librarian, Mrs. Brodzinski, that woman on the bus. They see you, but they never talk about it, because nothing bad ever happens in Bucky Creek.”
“I don’t know what you mean,” whispered Jeanie.
“You know. Truth is, Jeanie, you don’t need to go looking for bad things in other people’s yards, because, oh, there’s plenty in your own.”
The girl dropped to her knees and scrabbled wildly at the dirt floor, scabbed fingers clawing at the earth. There were the bones, peeking out, almost gasping for the air, white, white, white in the darkness. . .
A pair of spectacles. Ratty sweatpants. A wedding ring. A brother, a mother, a father, rumpled under a thin skin of earth. And far out in the fields another body, one no one had ever found, even though her coat was bright red, like a stoplight.
“No,” said Jeanie Kramer, putting her hands to her ears. “It’s not me. It’s not me.”
The shed door crashed open. The girl was gone. Jeanie chased her. Back, back through the fields, past the tree full of black birds. Jeanie’s head was buzzing. In the distance – the direction of the house – she heard a sound, a clattering, maybe voices, but it was being drowned out by the cloaked hum inside her skull. She ran faster, faster, and she could have sworn she heard screams, the screen-door snapping open-closed-open-closed as people ran through it in a panic. . .
She arrived at the house. All was silent. There was the girl again, standing still, looking down at the bare earth at her feet. The knife was still in her hand. Jeanie tackled her and the blade spun away, and she ripped the hood from the girl’s head. It was like a string had been cut, like a door had been battered down inside Jeanie’s head.
It was herself she was looking at. Jeanie Kramer, in her favorite red raincoat and muddy galoshes. Pasty and wide-eyed, her lips blue, her skin pocked with black, turning to decay, like old china.
Six dead bodies in the stream-bed at Willow Crossing. The spout of a hose pressed to the black, wet dirt, to the mouth of the warren, rats squeezing out, gasping for breath and then washed away. She had gathered them up and took them though the town, a lonely, desperate ghost, looking for anyone who would listen to her, listen to her whisper about how someone had murdered, someone awful, not her, not her, someone worse.
Why do you come around here causing mischief? What do you want?
She wanted so much. She wanted someone to know what she had done. She wanted someone to find her bones and bury her. She didn’t want people to forget her. She wanted to be a detective. . .
The house was so quiet. The knife was nowhere to be found.
Slowly, Jeanie rose to her feet. Her knees were muddy. Her fingers were red.
“I caught one,” she said crazily, and wandered down the driveway. It looked for a moment as if she were wringing her hands, her dirty fingers pinched tight around each other. But then it became clear that she was gripping her own arm, guiding herself along. “I caught one!”
She stumbled into the road, and then she began to run, on and on along the chipped yellow line. Cars passed her – a sad little ghost in a red raincoat – and the tall grasses began to dance, their scaly heads whispering in the wind, and behind, the house shrank and darkened, a black memory swallowed whole by the gathering dusk.
* * *
Back in town, the librarian opened a book to replace the checkout sticker. The dedication quote caught her eye:
How comforting are our neighbor’s evils, distracting us ever from our own.