First place 

"Old Scratch"

Page 3 of 4

"Excuse me, officer?" called Mrs. Sorensen. She was a pretty brunette, and the faint worry she wore didn't detract from her looks. Most men listened when she talked.

The cop glanced uninterestedly down the driveway and waved. "Everything's just fine," he said vaguely. "Just fine." He seemed dazed.

"I don't see how everything can be fine," Sorensen grumbled.

"Just fine," the cop said again, and with that he drove away.

We stared in disbelief, watching the taillights as the cruiser disappeared onto Moreland Avenue.

"That figures," Miller snorted. "Whoever made that call is in for squirrel guts or ripped trash bags."

Mrs. Sorensen looked more worried than before.

Halloween fell on a Saturday that year, and Wilder woke up late, a hangover slipping over his shoulders like his worn bathrobe. He took longer than usual with his coffee and newspaper, and didn't manage to get his trash outside until 10. Wilder stepped out and noticed how cold it was. The hairs on his legs prickled uncomfortably, and he wished he'd taken the time to put on pants. He stepped gingerly onto the asphalt, intent on making a quick dash for the can before Mrs. Patterson, who had too much free time, caught him in his boxers. Wilder had almost reached the can when he noticed the figure on the curb in front of the Walkers' place. It was the old man himself, and he looked worse for wear. His balding head was set in his palms, and his clothes, torn and dirty, were spattered with vivid red stains.

"Holy shit," Wilder whistled. "You OK?"

The old man looked up and let out a strange laugh. "Finally dead," he said. "Blown to bits."

Wilder was dumbfounded. It was lucky that Mrs. Patterson caught the scene from her kitchen window, because she called Miller and Sorensen and the rest right away. She dialed the police, too, but no one counted on that, and soon everyone crowded the street. Miller, who'd been a Navy medic, knelt before Walker and pressed his fingers against the bloodstains.

"You hurt?" Miller peered into the man's pale eyes. Walker's face was taut, like he didn't have enough flesh.

"I'm fine." Walker gazed at his reddened hands. "It's not my blood."

Sorensen finally showed up among all the commotion, unaccompanied by his wife. "What in the shit?" he asked. No one answered.

"What happened?" Miller put a hand on Walker's elbow.

Walker stared at his shoes, which were crusted in mud. "I finally got that goddamned cat, is what. Shot it! It wasn't ready for me."

"What about your wife?" Mrs. Patterson asked. Curlers still snagged her dark hair. "Oh, she's dead, too."

Miller tightened his grip.

"Didn't say I did it! She died on her own. I woke up this morning – been sleeping on the couch for years – and headed to the bathroom. I saw the bedroom door was open – odd. She don't trust me. That door stays locked. And then I saw her laying there, mouth hanging open, eyes glazed over. She was big, but healthy. What got me was her damn cat. It was perched on her chest, claws sunk into her nightgown, and it was grinning at me, just like it always did after something nasty happened. That's when I took my chance. I went back into the den and got the gun – I had secrets, too – and I shot a hole the size of Macon through the critter's head. Finally! The bullet tore through it and smashed the headboard. Wood went everywhere. And what did I see? Her damned hiding spot, that's what. It was there all along, in that headboard."

Miller peered at him. "What was there?" He looked over his shoulder at Sorensen, also a former serviceman, and nodded at the house. "Might want to check it out, Daniel."

Sorensen scowled, but acquiesced. He headed up the driveway, mumbling fiercely under his breath.

"What was there?" Miller sounded urgent.

"The money," said Walker. "Hers and the cat's."

"Pardon?"

Walker sighed. "We came here for a fresh start. After our son died, I mean. It was all right at first. Didn't socialize, but that was how she wanted it. She was Pentecostal-raised, and got religion again after our boy passed. She thought the neighborhood was, well – there was drinking, and too much gossip."

Wilder snorted.

Walker went on. "I wasn't much for it, but I loved her. It wasn't a bad life. Then, her father died, and she got an inheritance: a 100 grand, and his awful cat. She got real strange then. I'd lost my job when the plant closed, and I expected she'd offer the money, but no. She hid it and wouldn't tell me where. She took to sitting with the cat, talking to it, petting it – but she never spent a cent. It was enough that it was hidden. I got work, and a little money when my sister passed. But then my niece's husband died, and she needed help. Edna wouldn't budge. Even when Edna's own sister got cancer, she still wouldn't part with the money. That's when I started digging. I tore up the house; I looked everywhere, but came up dry. That cat always stopped me somehow. Once he tripped me and broke my ribs, another time he knocked my insulin into the trash – little devil."

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