1966 He had gotten up early that morning, not really surprised that Louise wasn't up yet. Just as well, he thought, she's probably still upset. He planned to talk to her later, and if she still felt strongly about leaving, he would start making some inquiries, maybe take out an ad in the local paper. The kids were old enough now that getting someone to look after them wouldn't be as hard as it would have been back when Edward was a newborn and Janice was barely out of diapers.
After working on the old Case for a couple of hours, he went back into the house to get some breakfast, and maybe talk to Louise before the kids were awake. The sun was up, but the kitchen was still empty. Seven in the morning was early for some city folks, but for Louise, that was a new world's record for sleeping in. Thomas heard footsteps coming down the stairs, but their light and lively pace told him it was one of the kids.
It was Edward. Tom was surprised to find him being the first one up. Usually he was the last, and even then he seemed to be sleep walking for the first hour. Today he was bright eyed and bushy tailed, fully dressed, and his hair was even combed.
"What's for breakfast, I'm starving?"
"Looks like corn flakes today, son. Grab the milk out of the fridge, we're fending for ourselves today."
Thomas couldn't remember the last time he had done anything around the kitchen himself. In fact, he wasn't even sure which cupboard the cereal was in.
Halfway through breakfast, they were joined by Jonathan and Janice, the latter of whom absolutely despised corn flakes, or anything that was made from corn for that matter. She even refused to be in the same room while a University of Nebraska game was on, just because they were called the 'Cornhuskers'. It was obvious to her father early on that she would be the first one of his flock to move on, breaking the chain of the Engelhart family of Nebraska, which went all the way back to the Mayflower or some such ship he was sure.
As Janice looked around at the scene in front of her at the kitchen table, she instantly curled up her lip until the gums were showing above her top teeth.
"Ew-w-w-w. Daddy please, not corn flakes. I'll die, I swear I will."
She stopped whining long enough to look around the kitchen.
"Where's Aunt Louise anyway, she sick or something?"
"She just needs some rest honey. Now you eat your cereal like everyone else," said Thomas.
"Dad," it was Jonathan. "After our chores, can we go down to the pond and do some fishin'?"
Next to his love for school, fishing was his only other interest. He too would leave the farm some day, never to return, Thomas thought sadly to himself. Hell, none of the kids had much farming blood in them, few of their generation did. He couldn't really blame them. It was tedious, hard, boring work. Nothing that could hold the interest of a child born into the age of the 'race for space', the Vietnam War, hydrogen bombs and the almighty television set. That no one was getting rich working the smaller farms was certain. By smaller, he meant anything less than a couple of hundred acres. He was himself beginning to wonder if it was worth the effort, even though it was the only way of life he really knew.
"I guess so," said Thomas. "If you take Janice and Edward with you."
"Dad, you know I don't like to fish, next to corn it's . . ." Janice started to say before her father cut her off.
"Janice, you're at the age when you really don't like anything, but I want the house quiet for awhile so your Aunt can get some rest. Now just do as you're told, and don't give me any lip, I'm definitely not in the mood for it today.
"When you're through eating breakfast, I want you to help Jonathan pack a lunch of some kind. Make me a sandwich too, please, and leave it in the fridge. I want you kids back in time to help with supper, do you hear me?"
Jonathan answered for the group. "Yes, Dad. If we catch enough fish, can we have them for supper?"
"Yeah, rolled in cornmeal and flour, fried in corn oil, and served with cornbread," teased Eddie. "Mm-m-m-m-m."
Janice's lip curled up again, as she looked towards her father for some kind of admonishment to be delivered to Eddie.
"Daddy, make him stop. He's trying to make me sick on purpose!"
Actually, that had sounded pretty good to Thomas, and they just might end up having to do that if Louise wasn't up to cooking, but he reprimanded Eddie anyway.
"That will be enough, young man. Now, I want you to all get along for once, and check in with me on your way back. Is that clear?"
He waited for all three heads to acknowledge him, then got up and put his bowl in the sink.
"I'll be out in the south field by the time you kids are headed in." With that said, he headed back out to the tractor shed to finish his repairs. He would wait until he saw the kids head out for the pond, then go back in and check on Louise. The more he thought about doing without her, the more he wanted to get things set right as soon as possible.
A little after eight in the morning, the children finally had their chores done and were headed off for the pond, with both of the dogs leading the way. Still no sign of Louise, he thought to himself. Damn. Well, enough was enough. It was showdown time, for better of for worse.
He headed back up to the house, kicking a rock towards the cats before they could scurry away. He had hoped that maybe she would be in the kitchen, after hearing the children leave. Somehow, deep inside, he had a feeling that all of this had more to do with one of the children in particular, not the situation in general. Truthfully, he felt it had something to do with Edward. Not that he had anything to actually base that feeling on, it was just that everything else had turned to shit since he was born, so why should this be any different?
He mentally brow beat himself for thinking that way, knowing that most of all he really just missed Edwina. Not just her being around and making things more comfortable, but damn it all, he had actually loved her. There were a lot of marriages in this part of the country that were based more on convenience and not knowing any better, than on the fact that the two people actually were in love. But they had actually been happy in their own little way, neither wanting or expecting more than they had. Until Edward came along, God taking Edwina in the trade, and Thomas felt cheated. He hadn't been to church since the funeral, although Louise still took the kids on most Sundays.
Well, whatever it was that was bothering Louise, no sense in trying to guess about something that was just a talk away from being brought out in the open. Unfortunately, she wasn't in the kitchen when he got there, so he proceeded to climb the stairs and force the issue to a head. He stopped at Louise's bedroom door, hoping to hear some sign of her being up and about, as long as it wasn't the sound of her packing her bags that is. He listened for almost a minute, but heard nothing but the dogs barking off in the distance as the children headed for the pond.
He rapped lightly on the door, just a couple of knocks, and waited again. Still nothing. He knocked longer this time, and a little harder, but still no answer. He knocked a third time, calling out her name.
"Louise…Louise, it's me, Thomas. Are you awake?"
There was no answer. If it had been one of the kids, he would have opened the door right away, but he knocked again, this time loud enough to wake the deaf.
"Louise. Please answer me. Louise?" He waited another thirty seconds then decided that he had exercised all of the necessary gentlemanly manners required of the rightful owner of the premises, and reached down to open the door.
"Louise, I'm coming in," he said, as if maybe she was just getting up and hadn't heard him before. He tried the doorknob, but it was locked. He shook the door as much as the hardwood frame would allow.
"Louise, it's Thomas. Open up woman, or speak your peace now!" he yelled. But only silence followed.
Well I'll be damned, he thought to himself, as he reached for his key ring that had the skeleton key in it that opened all of the inside doors in the house. He hadn't used it since Edwina had locked herself in the master bedroom many years ago, over what he couldn't remember. He turned the key over and opened the door, just enough to put his mouth up to the gap.
"I'm coming in Louise."
That was it, his one last gesture as a gentleman. Receiving no answer, he opened the door the rest of the way and found Louise lying on her bed only there were several things wrong.
First, she was still wearing her clothes from the night before, not her tried and trusty flannel nightgown that must have been designed to turn off even the horniest of Midwest farmers. Second, she wasn't under the handmade quilt that was probably older than she was, and last but not least by any means, her head was laying up against the oak headboard at a right angle to her shoulder, which would have been an impossible feat for most people unless they had a double jointed neck.
"My God . . ." was all he could utter upon seeing the sight of Louise, obviously dead, laying on top of her bed with her head grotesquely twisted towards the window, eyes still half open. He started towards her, thinking he should check for a pulse or something, but one look at her coloring reassured him that she had been dead for quite some time. He looked around the room for something to cover up her face with, and decided on the washed out flannel nightgown that was hanging on the back of her door. He tried not to look too close as he placed it over her head, but it was hard not to look all the same. Humans just seemed to have a morbid curiosity when it came to death. Why else would anyone spend half a fortune to have an open casket funeral?
He doubted a person would actually try and commit suicide by slamming their head against a headboard, but on the other hand, it seemed to be a strange position to be found in for a natural death situation. He wasn't sure what to think or do next, and he felt ashamed for thinking as he had, but he couldn't help himself. Even though Louise was so obviously dead, he couldn't help but wonder how he was going to replace her. He chased the thought to the back of his mind in embarrassment, and turned to go downstairs and call the police.
Thomas had dialed the county sheriffs department, and explained his situation. They had switched him to a criminal investigator after learning that Louise had presumably died of a broken neck, yet there were no signs of an accident. He talked to a Lieutenant William Taylor next. After about two minutes of re-answering the same questions he had been asked by the first person, he was told to leave everything as it was and sit tight, and that somebody would be out as soon as possible.
That had been about thirty-five minutes ago, when Thomas finally saw the dust trails of two cars coming up the road to the farm. The first to arrive was Lt. Taylor. The second was the county coroner, a fellow by the name of Rudolf Fichtler. They both walked up to the front porch together, where Thomas was sitting smoking a cigarette.
"Thomas Engelhart?" asked the tanned, muscular Taylor, who stood almost a foot taller than him and must have weighed 250 pounds.
"Yes, that's me"
"I'm Lieutenant Bill Taylor, Platte County Sheriff's Department." he said, introducing the other man next. "This is Rudy Fichtler, from the coroner's office."
They all exchanged handshakes. Thomas noticed that Fichtler was seemingly the physical opposite of Taylor. He was shorter than Thomas, about five four, quite thin, and rather sickly looking with his pale white skin and thinning salt and pepper hair, which appeared to be plastered to his head. He obviously needed to get out of his office more, or laboratory, or morgue, or wherever it was that he spent the most of his time. Thomas also noticed Fichtler had a small, hard-shell suitcase with him.
"Thanks for coming so soon, I know its a ways in from Columbus," Thomas said, not really knowing what else to say. He just wanted things taken care of before the kids came back from fishing. When Edwina had died, the hospital had taken care of everything official, except for the funeral arrangements. Shit! He had forgotten about those. He'd probably end up paying for that too since Louise had been living with him for the last ten years.
"Are you all right, Mr. Engelhart?" asked the lieutenant, with a look that Thomas perceived to be half genuine concern and half professional curiosity. He was a criminal investigator after all, wasn't he?
"Yes," replied Thomas. "I was just thinking about Louise. She didn't have much of a family of her own to speak of, just us."
"And who would that be?" asked the Lieutenant again, opening up a small spiral notepad as he reached for a pen in his shirt pocket.
"Just myself, and my three children," he replied, and then proceeded to give their names and ages in chronological order.
"And where are they now?"
"They're down at the pond, fishing. At the time, I thought Louise just wasn't feeling well, so I sent them down there first thing this morning so the house would be quiet for her."
"I see," said Taylor. "When was the last time you saw… Louise was it?"
"Yes, Louise Neumann. She was my late wife's sister. She's been helping with the children since my wife died back in fifty-six."
"Mr. Engelhart." It was the coroner, who up until now had remained silent. "I'm sure this isn't easy for you, but could we please look at the body now?"
"Yes, of course. She's in her bedroom upstairs, just like I found her, except for the nightgown I used to cover her head with." Thomas shuddered as he remembered the picture of Louise, staring open eyed towards the window.
"Would you show us the way, Mr. Engelhart?" It was Lt. Taylor again.
"Yes, this way."
He turned and walked up the steps of the porch, with the two county officials behind him. When he reached Louise's bedroom, he opened the door and then stepped back so they both could enter.
"Thank-you Mr. Engelhart, we shouldn't be long," Taylor said, scanning the room from left to right, eyes finally resting on the body.
Fichtler was already lifting the nightgown off of Louise's head, which he carefully placed at the foot of the bed. He opened up his suitcase, and pulled out a pair of latex surgical gloves and stretched them over his small delicate hands. Next, he leaned over Louise, and carefully tried to lift one of her arms as if he was her doctor and she was still alive. He seemed to be testing the flexibility of her elbow and shoulder joints, Jonathan correctly guessed. Fichtler was checking to see how far rigor mortis had set in.
Thomas had seen enough dead animals over the years to realize Louise had been dead for quite while. He watched as the coroner set her arm down as he had found it, and then reached beneath her hair, probing the back of her neck and head. In the mean time, Lt. Taylor had walked around the bed, obviously looking for something, but not touching anything. A minute later Fichtler stepped back from the corpse and began removing his gloves. He looked at the lieutenant, who also seemed to be finished.
"Probable cause of death definitely seems to be a broken neck, although I won't know for sure until I do an autopsy," he said to neither man in particular.
"I would say the body's been dead at least six hours, possibly more." He threw his gloves into the Samsonite, then retrieved a 35mm camera and began attaching a flash unit. He took a couple of pictures, then moved to the end of the bed, refocused, and took two more. He repeated this exercise until he had gone all around the room, shooting about half a roll of film. Thomas flinched every time the flash went off.
"You might want to look at the headboard, lieutenant. There's a particularly nasty crack in it behind her head. Looks new, by color of the wood. I'd bet money that upon impacting with the headboard, her neck snapped. Probably killed her instantly. Definitely, not accidental, unless she tripped and fell head first into the headboard. But there aren't any bunches in the quilt to show signs of falling or sliding. Very peculiar." Taylor just nodded his head. He bent over to see the crack in the wood himself.
"Why do you say that?" asked Thomas, noticing that Lt. Taylor was watching his every move.
"Well, first off, a person would have an impossible time of doing that to themselves, especially from a laying down position. Second, and this is what is really strange, there are no signs of a struggle. No bruises, no blood, nothing at all to indicate that someone did it to her."
"You're losing me. Are you saying she was murdered?" asked Thomas incredulously.
"It looks that way, and then it don't," replied the coroner.
"Just what are you trying to say?" said Thomas, beginning to get really irritated with Fichtler.
"It's possible, highly unlikely mind you, that she had some kind of massive seizure, and actually did slam her own head against the back of the bed. In a single blow mind you, because their are no signs of contusions on the back of her head, which would indicate repeated trauma before death."
"I'm confused," was all Thomas could say, looking to Taylor for some kind of an explanation.
"Welcome to the club, Mr. Engelhart. I'd like you come with me back to the station. We can pick your kids up on the way. I'd like to talk with them also. I'll need to get statements from everyone who was here last night."
"Are you arresting me?" asked Thomas.
"No one's being arrested, Mr. Engelhart. Until we have more facts, we can't even determine whether it was an accident or not," said the lieutenant. "Did you notice or hear anything out of the ordinary last night?"
"No. What are you going to do with Louise? I don't want the children to have see this."
"We understand, Mr. Engelhart," said Fichtler, sounding genuinely sympathetic. "I called for an ambulance just before I left, they should be here any minute."
"Thank-you," Thomas said.
"We'll leave as soon as they take care of the body," said Taylor. "Then you can lock up and we'll go pick up your children. Shouldn't take more that a couple of hours at the most."
As they walked out onto the front porch, an ambulance pulled up behind the two official cars. Two men got out and opened up the back and unfolded a gurney.
"I'll show them the way, if that's alright with you, Mr. Engelhart," said Fichtler.
"Yes, thank-you." replied Thomas, glad not to have to look at the body one more time.
Twenty minutes later they were all on the way to Columbus in Lt. Taylor's unmarked police car. Thomas sat in back with a crying Janice in his arms and a shell shocked Jonathan staring out the window at nothing in particular. Edward was up front, seemingly having a great time, after having talked Lt. Taylor into placing a magnetic red flasher on top of the car and turning on the siren as they headed past the never-ending cornfields on the way to town.
It was then, for the first time, but hardly the last, that Thomas began to have real concerns for Edward. It was more than just resentment for him causing Edwina's death. Thomas knew that there had never been any love lost between Louise and Edward. She may have harbored the same resentments, but she had never showed it, at least not around him. She had administered the same kind of tough love, if love was what you could call it, to each of the children.
She must have shown them something that Thomas had never seen God knows she spent more time with them than he had. Janice could be melodramatic, but she was a shaking mass of sobbing hysteria in his arms. He felt ill equipped to try and console her. He would have felt more at home rubbing the neck of their Jersey cow as she was giving birth to a breached calf. Jonathan was taking things like the man he was becoming, in some ways making his father proud, yet he knew that the turned head facing out the window was crying. He could see him reach up every so often and wipe away the tears, trying to act like he was brushing the hair out of his eyes.
Definitely a family in mourning, a family feeling a loss of someone close to them, thought Thomas to himself. Except for Edward. When the officer had asked if Edward was okay, he had said he didn't see what the big deal was. Everybody's go to go sometime, ain't that right Dad?
Thomas had caught the eyebrow go up ever so slightly on Taylor's brow, then go slightly down again when he saw Thomas watching him in the rearview mirror.
"Is that true, Edward?" Taylor asked. "Is that what your father always says?"
"Yeah, just like that." Eddie said, matter-of-factly. "I guess he's right, everybody's got to go sometime, it's just a matter of when. Wouldn't you agree, Bill?"
Lt. Taylor had insisted on the children calling him Bill, probably as much a way to get next to them as to be nice, thought Thomas. But it didn't really matter. He could see it in Taylor's face, as he turned to listen to Edward. He knew as well as Thomas that there was something too cold about his general attitude, something that made the hair on the back of your neck rise.
"You know what I mean Dad, we can always find someone better than Louise, she was a pain. Someone that will do things the way that we like, right Dad?"
Either Edward didn't care at all that Louise had died, or he was trying to make things awkward for Thomas. Or, most likely both, thought Thomas, as he gave his daughter another hug. He wasn't sure what was triggering his warning bells, but they were going off so loud he thought that everyone in the car must hear them too. Then it hit him.
Edward had never called him 'Dad' in his entire life. They were never close, and Edward had seemed to even choke on the word 'father'. Now it was Dad. Well I'll be damned and sent to hell, thought Thomas.
"Your Aunt Louise was a good women, Edward. We were lucky to have her as long as we did . . . God bless her soul." Thomas said sternly, hoping afterwards that he didn't sound too sappy to the Lieutenant, but meaning it just the same.
"Come on, what's the big deal. She was a pain!" said Edward again, this time to the whole car in general.
"Make him stop, Daddy!" screamed Janice, as she reached across the back of the front seat and smacked Edward on the shoulder with her closed fist.
"Can you make that siren any louder?" asked Eddie of the lieutenant, as if they were partners. "Girls can be such a pain."
Lt. Taylor again looked into the rearview mirror, this time looking for Thomas' attention and finding it. He nodded gently towards Edward's side of the car, and then gave him a quizzical 'What's up with him?' look.
God, if I only knew, thought Thomas, sending Taylor a look that said exactly the same thing.
"Sorry boy, I'm afraid that's as loud as she goes. As a matter of fact, we're getting pretty close to town now, I'd better turn it off." Which he did, as he rolled down his window so he could bring in the magnetic flasher.
"Yeah, right. You're not as fun as I thought you were, Bill," returned Edward, folding his arms across his chest and staring straight ahead.
"Just shut up, Eddie!" said Jonathan from the back seat, saying his first words of the entire trip.
"And who's gonna make me, Aunt Louise?" laughed Eddie, head raised towards the dome light.
"Daddy, make him stop or I'm gonna scratch his eyes out!" demanded Janice, no longer with her head nestled in her father's chest, but reaching for the front passenger seat.
"You just never liked her because she made you stop being a pig, and she wouldn't let you pick on me and Jonathan all the time!" Then she spit a mouthful of spittle across the left side of his face.
Thomas reeled her in, so astounded he couldn't even speak. Jonathan was back to staring out the window, and Lt. Taylor seemed professionally satisfied with just letting things go on as they were. Edward wiped the saliva off of his face with his arm, and turned his head towards the back of the car. Although nothing came from his lips, his eyes seemed to say 'I'll get you' to everyone in his view, then he turned around, scrunching his shoulders up as to say 'what's with her' to Lt. Taylor.
Taylor wasn't fooled, as he glanced one final time in the rearview mirror, seeing a Thomas Engelhart looking as though he had just seen the devil himself.
This whole thing runs deeper than I could have ever guessed, the lieutenant thought, hoping that Rudy would come up with something concrete in his tests later. He had been around long enough to know that circumstantial evidence wasn't worth a squat in the bushes in a murder case, even if it came from a police officer. Besides, even though he knew there was a finger to be pointed, he wasn't really sure which direction to point it in. He would have bet his badge that something wasn't kosher about this mess, but he didn't have diddly to show for it except a dead body, a cracked headboard, and a gut feeling. Joe Friday, he thought to himself, eat your heart out.
Thomas was thinking along the same lines, only he wasn't worried about proving anyone innocent or guilty. He was just trying to come to grips with his own intuitions, something he hadn't tried since he had been courting Edwina.
Back then he had to second guess her every move, because he found, as most men hopefully do sooner or later, that women don't always act or speak what they actually mean. It was all part of a game in which the rules changed every time you thought you had a handle on what they were thinking. It was all part of the game that was supposed to go away once you grew older, and got married, and hardly ever talked to each other anymore, now that the game was over. While the women missed the game, the men rarely did, because they were so lacking at it. The closest they came, was looking right and running left in a football game and, in the end, they still got to hit somebody.
Now he found himself not only having feelings that didn't come from anywhere tangible, like the newspaper or the six o' clock news, but he was lost in sea of emotion that only sent out waves of foreboding. What was coming over him? Sure, he was shaken from the death of Edwina, but now he found himself sinking in a pool of mental quicksand, and that sand was made of something he had never really felt this strongly in his life. Something that wouldn't just go away with a punch in the nose, or be tilled under with a row of discs being pulled behind a John Deere tractor. He had no skills or weapons to deal with the emotion that was now eating at the core of his inner being.
For the first time in his life, Thomas Engelhart was experiencing the mask of fear, unexplainable, gut-wrenching fear. Making it all the harder to deal with was the fact that the mask of fear had a strong resemblance to his son Edward, and to no one else in particular.