The Last Handful of Clover

Chapter 2.48: Nervous as Cats

Book Two — Gifts Both Light and Dark

NOTE: This chapter is available in audiobook format on the TLHOC Podcast.
Access previous chapters of the book on the Table of Contents page.

June 14, 10:02 am

It was only a few minutes after Howard Gunderson had left, and already Pil regretted that he hadn’t done something. Anything. Keith and Michelle sat across from each other in the living room, and Pil lingered in the archway, staring at them as if that alone would help him understand what had just happened.

Michelle had a towel that she’d grabbed from the kitchen, and was attempting to dry her hair, but didn’t seem to care about her soaked shirt. None of them spoke, but Michelle kept glancing at Keith in a way that made Pil increasingly uneasy. Finally, his patience snapped.

“I don’t know what kind of spell came over you both,” he said, “But he’s gone now, and you both need to snap out of it. And for God’s sake, stop looking at each other like you’re sharing some kind of secret.”

Michelle finally looked away from Keith and caught Pil’s eye. It looked like she wanted to say something, but after several seconds, words were still beyond her.

“I swear,” Pil said, shaking his head and pacing back and forth across the living room. “I should have tackled him, tied him up, and held him until the cops got here.”

“Why didn’t you?” Michelle asked. Pil shot her a glance that was meant to wither her, until he realized she was being totally sincere. “I’m serious, Pil. Why didn’t you? When I heard you come out the door, I was absolutely certain that you were going to floor the guy.”

“So was I,” Keith added. He was once again wrapped in his blanket, but whatever cloud had been in his eyes less than an hour ago was now totally gone. He was absolutely clear-eyed and sitting up on the couch as if his entire body was alert. “I’m with Michelle. What was it that stopped you from taking him down?”

“I’m not sure,” Pil said, slumping heavily against the door frame. His head barely cleared the archway, and his bulk blocked the door almost completely. He realized he was staring down into the very spot where Richard had died, and the image of all that blood roared back to him. “I wish I knew. But you two looked like you were having some kind of… epiphany.”

“I guess that’s as good a word as any,” Michelle said, tossing the towel onto the coffee table.

“And by the time I realized what you were going to do… that you were going to give him clothes… it was too late.”

“Oh, come on Pil, that’s bull,” Keith said, pulling the blanket off his shoulders. “You could have stopped everything if you wanted to. You need to admit it. You felt something too.”

Keith was right, of course. Pil had been almost as enraptured by the moment as they were. But unlike the two of them, now that the moment had passed, he had his wits back about him.

“Okay, fine. I’ll admit it. It was… weird. But it’s over, and we all need to recognize that what we did was wrong. Jesus Christ, Keith, this is the guy that killed Richard! How can you forget that?”

“You think I’ve forgotten?” Keith asked, and the pained expression on his face made Pil turn away.

“I’m sorry,” he said, his voice softer. “That’s not what I meant. But you seem to be under some kind of spell when it comes to Howard Gunderson. Both of you are.”

The room fell silent, while Michelle went out, and back toward the kitchen. When she returned, she had one of Richard’s old shirts. It must have been one that was in the laundry basket. One they didn’t give to Howard Gunderson.

“I don’t think we were under a spell, Pil,” Michelle finally said, unselfconsciously throwing off her wet shirt and putting on the dry one. “It wasn’t something magic. But it was very strange, and I think we were all three in shock. You seem to be going into denial about how surreal it was. Maybe we’ll all get to denial, eventually. But right now, I’m still just trying to understand it.”

“You know, some of the things that Howard said weirded me out,” Keith said, his eyes focused on a point in empty space. “And more than that, they seemed absolutely true.”

“You really believe that?” Pil said, his hands clenching. “You really believe that Richard has been visiting the man who killed him, and sending him to you with warnings?”

Keith wavered. Finally, he squared his shoulders and focused on Pil. “Yes, I do. Or maybe I should say, yes, I did, at least, in that moment. When he was telling me those things, I believed it. Completely.”

“And do you still?”

Keith and Michelle stared at each other for so long that Pil almost stepped between them to break their gaze. It was like they were trying to get the story straight between them, with only eye contact and that weird telepathy that they sometimes shared. Finally, it was Michelle who spoke.

“No. I for one don’t believe it. At least, not completely. But like Keith, I believed it at the moment he was saying it, and I can’t ignore that. All I know is that something just happened that was beyond our ability to… decode.”

“Do you know how you sound?” Pil asked, rubbing his eyes with his big, brown hands.

“I do,” Michelle said. “But Pil, he said he was sorry for what he did.”

“No,” Keith jumped in immediately. “He said he was sorry for what we did.”

Michelle started. “I noticed that too.”

“And what the hell does that even mean?” Pil asked.

“It means it wasn’t him,” Keith shot back. “Or at least, not him alone.”

“He used the name Justin,” Michelle said. “Why did that name sound familiar?”

Keith took a deep breath and clasped his hands together. Pil thought he looked almost like he was praying. “I’ve probably mentioned the name, but I’m sure I never told you both the whole story. Richard wouldn’t have wanted me to. But Justin was a boy that Richard fell in love with when he was a new professor at the University. They had a wild affair over the summer, and it all ended really badly. I won’t go into the gory details, but the boy killed himself. And the guilt of it was something Richard never got over.”

“Jesus Christ,” said Michelle. “No, you definitely never told us that. He was one of Richard’s students? That would have been… wildly inappropriate, to say the least.”

“And you think this Justin is the other part of the ‘we’ that Gunderson talked about?” Pil asked. “Richard’s dead boy-toy from decades ago?”

“I’m sure of it.” Keith said, and Pil could see that he was. There wasn’t a hint of doubt anywhere on his face.

Pil felt dumbfounded by both his wife and by Keith. How could they believe all this? What had come over them on the porch had to be a combination of the gray light, the rain, and the ghostly appearance of the boy standing in the yard. Why were they still under that spell?

“You guys,” Pil said with a sigh, “can’t you see that Howard Gunderson is a deeply disturbed guy. And a murderer. I don’t know how he knew about Richard’s dead former lover. But it doesn’t matter. We have to tell Detective Grayson that he was here. She’s going to be here any minute. For God’s sake, we can’t hide this! Do we really want to become accessories after the fact to his escape? What if he does get away? Keith, I hate to say it again, but this is the guy that killed Richard! We can’t keep this quiet!”

Unfortunately, it was at that moment that the doorbell rang.

Keith looked at Pil, but didn’t say anything. They didn’t have time now to come up with a coherent story. As Michelle went to answer the door, Pil was totally unsure what he would say to the Detective when she came in. And from the look on Keith’s face, he wasn’t sure what Pil was going to do, either. That look had a level of pleading in it. But also a recognition that Pil would do whatever he had to do, and Keith understood that.

“Come in, Detective! Get out of the rain!” He heard Michelle say in the hallway. Pil marveled that her voice could sound so absolutely normal.

“Thank you, Mrs. Kilani,” the other voice said. “Although it looks like you’ve been out in the rain yourself!”

Michelle just laughed, but didn’t attempt to explain, as she led the Detective into the living room.

“Hello Mr. Woo, Mr. Kilani. Nice to see you both again.” The Detective shook both their hands. “Thanks for taking the time to see me.”

“Absolutely,” Keith said. “What can we do for you?”

As she eased into the recliner, Grayson looked at the tableau before her. Pil was instantly certain that her instincts were aroused, and that she knew something strange was happening here. I hope it’s just my paranoia, he thought, and tried to smile.

“I told Mr. Kilani some of this on the phone, but I wanted to let you all know that Howard Gunderson is no longer in police custody.”

“Pil told us,” Michelle said. “I understand he escaped?”

“It’s far worse than just that, I’m afraid. Mrs. Kilani, I didn’t want to tell you this part on the phone, but I thought you all deserved to know. That’s why I’m here.”

All three of them looked at Grayson now. She had their total attention.

“What is it?” Pil asked.

“Yes, Mr. Gunderson escaped. But not by himself. It was with the help of one of his guards. And it was not a… not a bloodless escape. We have surveillance video of Gunderson beating to death the other guard in the cell block.”

Michelle gasped and put her hand to her mouth. Keith collapsed backwards onto the couch, as if all the strength and certainty that Pil had seen in him over the past few minutes suddenly drained away.

“Justin…” Keith muttered under his breath.

“Excuse me?” the Detective asked.

When Keith didn’t answer, Pil jumped in. “Detective Grayson, how sure are you that it was Gunderson? I know you saw surveillance video, but are you absolutely sure?”

“I’m afraid so. And it was him, not Delgado.”

“Delgado?” Michelle asked.

“That’s the name of the guard who helped Howard escape. It wasn’t Delgado that beat the other officer to death. As far as the video shows, he just stood there and watched while Gunderson used his nightstick on the man.”

Pil saw the color go out of Grayson’s face, and she took a handkerchief out of her pocket and mopped at her forehead. “I’m sorry, it was just a really horrible thing to see.”

“And you have no idea where Gunderson is?” Pil asked.

“None at all. Although we did get to Delgado. It’s all over the TV. He went on a rampage with a squad car in downtown. He killed more than a dozen people and injured twice that many.”

“Oh my God,” Michelle winced. There were tears in her eyes, and as Pil watched her, he realized that finally, the spell that Howard Gunderson had her under was unraveling. She looked at him, and he could see it in her eyes. She was with him. She knew they had to tell the detective what they knew. The only question was, how would Keith react?

“Howard wasn’t with him.” Keith said. “Not downtown, I mean. With the guard.” Carla Grayson had to notice that it wasn’t a question.

“No. We have no idea where Gunderson is at this point. But it appears they didn’t stay together after they left the Courthouse. Howard seems to have gone off on his own.”

Michelle eased over, and sat down next to Keith, and took his hand. As Grayson continued to talk, Michelle touched Keith’s chin and turned his face toward her. Pil could sense them conversing between them, without a word, the way they often did. Normally, it was a maddening habit. But right now, he was grateful for it.

“I don’t believe that Gunderson is heading here,” Grayson continued, her voice sounding normal, but her eyes focusing on the strange interaction between Keith and Michelle. “I mean, if there is one place he probably wants to avoid like the plague, it is the scene of an earlier crime. But I thought you folks needed to be aware of exactly what was happening.” Her voice trailed off. She was staring at the pair now, and Pil could sense that something in her had changed. With a force of will, Pil turned to face her. Grayson caught his eye, but her face was as still and steady as a snake. Pil was certain she knew something was off here, but was still unsure what. Or how to approach the question. Finally, she took the conversation in a completely unexpected direction.

“There is one more thing,” she said. “Keith, I have come across some new information I’d like to chat with you about. Alone, if that’s okay.”

Keith broke his gaze with Michelle and turned back to the Detective. “Certainly, Ms. Grayson. But anything you want to discuss with me, we can talk about in front of Michelle and Pil.”

Grayson cleared her throat before beginning. “Okay, if you’d like.” She leaned forward and put her elbows on her knees. “I apologize for this, but I’ve come across some new information about Richard, and I wanted to ask you about it. Based on a tip, I did some additional research in our files, and I discovered that Richard was questioned, briefly, about seventeen years ago regarding the death of a young man maned Justin Kimball.”

Although Keith didn’t flinch, Michelle did. If she’d had a drink, Pil was certain she would have dropped it. She recovered quickly, but he was certain that the Detective caught the reaction.

“I know this would have been long before you met him. And there was never anything suspicious about the boy’s death. It appears that he drove his car off the embankment at the mouth of Parley’s Canyon. But there was no note, and it seems that he was Richard’s student. The interview notes make it sound like the two were… very close. And one of his colleagues at the University told the police at the time that Richard seemed devastated by the incident.”

Carla Grayson stopped talking and just looked at the trio, waiting for someone to say something. When none of them did, she asked, “Keith, does this ring a bell with you?”

Pil expected Keith to lie in that moment. To completely and unashamedly lie to the Detective. But it seemed that he was unable to make himself do that, so he just stayed silent and glanced back to Michelle. Pil reached down and put his hand on Keith’s shoulder, hoping he could subconsciously communicate what he was thinking to his friend.

Now isn’t the time to lie, K. Just tell her.

After about fifteen seconds of silence, Grayson’s eyes narrowed. Her jaw worked, and Pil could see the muscles at the side of her chin twitching.

Finally, she glared at them all and leaned back in her chair. “Okay, enough with the silences and the glances back and forth. What aren’t you telling me?”

Keith sighed, and took Michelle’s hand, and then looked at the Detective.

“Yes, Justin was one of Richard’s students. And yes, they had an ill-advised affair that ended badly. Justin killed himself right after the two of them had an argument and broke up. Justin’s suicide deeply affected Richard, and he’s been haunted by it even since.”

Carla hesitated, but then said, “I’m sure you know, I have to ask this. In the light of his earlier relationship with this other young man, Justin Kimball, do you still believe it is out of the question that Richard had an affair with Howard Gunderson?”

To everyone’s surprise, Keith let out a laugh. It was a hearty guffaw that quickly faded, and his face became serious again.

“No, Detective. That’s not what’s going on here. Richard did not know Howard Gunderson. They did not have an affair. I know Richard, Ms. Grayson, and he would not hesitate to tell me if that had been the case.”

“So you were monogamous?” Grayson asked, her manner now steely and her face unreadable.

“Our relationship is the center of both of our worlds, but…” He paused. “No. We are not monogamous. We’ve both had outside… dalliances. It’s never been a deal breaker. Richard would tell me if he’d been involved with Howard Gunderson. And he hasn’t.”

I wonder if Grayson is noticing that Keith is speaking of Richard in the present tense, Pil thought. I wonder if he even notices…

“Keith, how old were you when you met Richard?” Grayson asked.

“I was twenty-one.”

“And how old was Richard?”

Keith sighed. “He was in his late forties.”

“Justin Kimball was eighteen. You were twenty-one. Howard Gunderson is twenty-one.”

She said nothing more, but the assumption she was making hung in the air between them all, heavy and dark.

“Okay, let’s set that aside,” she said, clasping her hands together and leaning forward. “You three have been as nervous as cats since the moment I walked in here. I’ve been doing this job a long time. And I can tell when someone is hiding something. If it isn’t the possibility of Richard being lovers with Howard Gunderson, then what in the hell is making you all so nervous?”

The three of them sat there with numb expressions. To Pil’s surprise, it was Michelle that finally broke the silence.

“We’re nervous, detective, because Howard Gunderson was just here.”

Pil wasn’t sure what Carla Grayson was expecting to hear, but it clearly wasn’t that. She shot to her feet.

“What? How long ago?” She was fumbling with the radio on her hip.

“Not long. Less than an hour.” Pil said.

Grayson crossed to the window, which was still boarded up. After getting her dispatcher on the line, she said, “We have a sighting of Howard Gunderson. Repeat, a confirmed sighting of Howard Gunderson, in the vicinity of 3rd Avenue and J Street, less than sixty minutes ago.” The detective engaged in some back and forth with the dispatcher for a moment until it was clear they were sending squad cars in their direction. A lot of them.

When Carla turned back toward them, Pil was surprised that a woman so kind and matronly could look so angry.

“So I’ve been here for close to fifteen minutes, and you didn’t mention this? You do realize that he could be long gone by now? And that if he is, the three of you will be responsible?”

She calmed herself with a force of will, and Pil could see the anger draining from her as she took a deep breath.

“Okay. So, what did he say?”

“Not much,” Michelle said.

“He said… He was sorry,” Keith said. “That’s all. He just said he was sorry.”

Pil wanted to say more. He wanted to tell Grayson that they had given the boy some clothes, and tell her what they looked like. He wanted to say he was sorry for not telling her first thing. But more than anything else, he wanted to tell her about the strange effect that the boy’s presence had on all three of them. He just couldn’t think of any way to even touch upon that subject without sounding crazy.

“You’re not telling me everything.” Carla said. And it wasn’t a question.

“There isn’t much more to tell,” Michelle said, trying to hold the Detective’s gaze. “He didn’t seem at all threatening. Like Keith said, he just told us he was sorry, and then he left. He looked like he was heading toward town. Down toward South Temple.”

That’s a lie, Pil thought. They had no idea which direction he had headed, but he had left around the north side of the house, so it was a good assumption that he wasn’t heading back downtown. Would the detective be able to hear the deception in Michelle’s voice?

Someone was calling Carla now on the handheld radio, and she used it to gesture at the trio. “I still think there is something you’re not telling me, so we need to continue this conversation.” The rotating lights of a police car stopped in front of the house. There must have been a unit just around the corner. “But for now, I have to get out there. I have to see if I can spot Howard.”

“Don’t hurt him, detective,” Keith said. “Please. He’s alone, and he’s afraid.”

Pil thought she was going to turn on Keith, but instead, her face softened. “Keith, I’ve never thought that Howard was dangerous. But I just this morning watched a tape of him beating a man to death. And not just beating him to death, but beating his corpse until the man’s head was little more than hamburger. I can’t afford to assume he’s not dangerous. And neither can you. I’m sorry.”

She started moving toward the doorway, but at the last minute she stopped, and without turning around, she said. “I just need to find him before he does something stupid. If I can, I want to be the one to find him.”

“Thank you, Carla,” Michelle said.

“I’m going to have one of these officers come in and take a full statement. And I want every detail of what happened. Every word he said. And I’ll keep another officer stationed outside to keep a watch on the house, just in case he decides to come back.”

She turned back to them. “I’m also going to tell them to keep an eye on you three. So stay put.” She took out one of her business cards and began to jot on the back. “I know you have my office number, but this is my personal cell phone. If you need to reach me, I want you to call this number. Anytime, day or night. I always pick up.” She handed the card to Michelle.

“We will, detective,” Pil said.

“And for God’s sake, I mean it when I say to stay here! You three are to remain in this house until I give you the all clear. Things are crazy out there, and with Howard at large, I don’t want any of you where I can’t find you.”

The Last Handful of Clover is a supernatural thriller by Wess Mongo Jolley. Thanks for reading! If you are enjoying this story, please consider supporting the author on Patreon.

For more information (including maps of the story’s world and a contact form) visit the author’s website.

To read previous chapters of this book, go to the Table of Contents page.

If you’re interested in listening to the book, rather than reading it, the audiobook is available at the Patreon link above, and also as a podcast on iTunes, Stitcher, Anchor, and all other podcast platforms. Visit the podcast page for more details.

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Copyright 2021, Wess Mongo Jolley. All rights reserved.

Wess Mongo Jolley

Wess Mongo Jolley is Utah native, who is now an expatriate American novelist, editor, poet and poetry promoter, living in Montreal. He is Founder and Director of the Performance Poetry Preservation Project, and is most well known for hosting the IndieFeed Performance Poetry Channel podcast for more than ten years. His poems and short stories have appeared or journals such as Off The Coast, PANK, The New Verse News, and Danse Macabre, Apparition Literary Journal, Grain, and in collections such as the Write Bloody Press book The Good Things About America. He loves hearing from readers, and can be contacted through his website, at https://wessmongojolley.com. If you are enjoying this story, please drop him a line, and consider supporting his work as a novelist at http://patreon.com/wessmongojolley. All of the trilogy's over 207 chapters are available there for subscribers, and new poems, short stories, and other content is posted there every Friday.

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