Vonnie Wiggins and Irma Jones stumbled down the dirt path about 10 minutes before arriving at a small, wooden shack. The earth and vines had nearly reclaimed the sagging structure, but its interior glowed with the warm light of Coleman lamps.
Parked nearby was a red Suburban.
“Somebody lives there,” Irma whispered in amazement.
Vonnie grunted softly in response, then rapped the rickety door with his hand. It cracked open by itself.
“Jesse?” Vonnie called, pushing the door farther open and stepping inside.
Irma followed and let her eyes adjust to the light. A worn couch and scuffed table sat in the center of the room, while Elvis memorabilia decorated the otherwise bare clapboard walls. The place was sparse, but tidy.
Then Irma’s eyes found Jesse. The old man with the full lips had been in Irma’s hotel room with Vonnie earlier this evening, before Adam Chandler’s murder.
“But I already know you,” she said. And she turned to Vonnie: “I thought you were taking me to someone with more information.”
“I am,” Vonnie said, blinking quickly. “But Jesse is the only one who knows how to get there.”
The trio piled into Jesse’s SUV, which was rugged enough to plow through the wooded terrain surrounding his shack. Vonnie’s Toyota would have gotten stuck had he tried to take it this far.
Meanwhile Detective George Sonot was trudging down the path with Bennett Stone in tow.
“Dang branches,” Sonot scowled as he slapped a leafy obstacle from his face. Up ahead was Jesse’s shack.
“Come on,” the detective urged Bennett when he saw the lights. “I think we found ’em.”
Just as the men quickened their pace, the SUV lurched forward into the woods and out of sight.
“Argh,” Sonot seethed, kicking the dirt. “Come on, we’ll have to follow the vehicle’s tracks.”
It was quieter inside the SUV. Jesse and Vonnie took the front seat, while Irma perched in the middle behind them, her knife still in hand. Her mind raced as she wondered where they were going and who she would meet.
Then a new thought entered her head, and she froze in terror.
“This is the SUV,” she gasped. “This is the one that killed Nigel. This is the one Bennett saw at the library.”
Silence from the front seat.
“Did you kill Greta and Adam, too?” Irma shrieked.
When no one in the front seat spoke, Irma thrust the knife tip to Vonnie’s throat. It dug into his skin but didn’t pierce the flesh – not yet.
“Answer me,” she cried.
“Yes, this is the SUV,” Jesse said calmly. It was the first time Irma heard his voice – the old man had never even spoken in the hotel room – and it sounded rich and velvety.
“Why?” she whispered.
“Nigel’s death was an accident,” Vonnie said. “I was driving when I hit him, and I didn’t stop because I was scared.”
“Then who killed the others?” Irma said, lowering the knife.
“Ask the reporter,” Jesse mumbled. “He knows.”
The conversation ended when the SUV stopped at a huge house nestled so densely in the woods that Irma wondered how anyone could find it.
“It looks like a replica of Graceland,” she said.
Vonnie and Jesse exchanged glances but said nothing. After Jesse killed the engine, the three exited the vehicle and started toward the house. But a dark shadow emerging from the bushes stopped them.
“Hi Vonnie. Hi Jesse. Who’s your friend?” the shadow said.
The form entered the light shining from the home’s front porch, and instantly Irma recognized the Daily Journal reporter. He had a gun.
“I’ve been tracking down this story for the past 20 years of my life,” Robert Salts said. “And I’m not going to let someone like you steal my glory just when I’m about to break the news.”
He pointed the gun at Irma, whose knife now seemed moot.
“I should kill all three of you,” Salts said, waving his gun at each intended victim and smiling smugly. “It will give me more to write about in the newspaper.”
He turned his gun on Vonnie first, and pulled the trigger. The librarian went down with a thud, as Irma screamed in horror.
Then the reporter aimed at Jesse. Bam! The old man fell backward, blood pouring from his head.
Irma closed her eyes and said a silent prayer. But when the next shot rang her ears, she didn’t feel pain. She didn’t feel dead, either, so she opened her eyes.
Salts was on the ground, bleeding from the mouth, his gun still clutched in his dying hand. At first Irma thought he’d killed himself, but then she detected movement from the corner of her eye.
An old man with a jet-black pompadour stood on the front porch of the house, smoking a cigarette and holding a gun.
“Thank you,” Irma said, nearly crying with relief. “You’re a saint.”
The man looked at Irma, took a drag from his cigarette, and finally spoke on the exhale.
“I ain’t no saint,” he said in a smooth Southern voice, “And I never did like reporters.”
Emily Le Coz/NEMS Daily Journal