Mistaken

Written by on July 19, 2016 in My Short Stories

Carl looked at his watch. It was twelve minutes past five. He had been sitting in his car for four long hours. A small circle of cigarette butts lay in the dirt next to the driver’s side door. He had been assigned a family and they had been under surveillance for weeks and still there was nothing. He was to collect information, to take down license plate numbers from cars that came or went, interview the neighbors, learn the routine of the owner. He flipped open the folder lying on the passenger seat of his Ford sedan, standard issue for FBI agents. Allen Warner age 30, former member of the LDS Church and excommunicated two years ago for allegedly practicing polygamy. Legally married to Marta Barstow age 28. Seven children. The family had lived at this address for eight years. The property was owned by Mr. Warner, formerly owned and purchased by his father in 1922. The house was a modest two-story bungalow with a small attic balcony. The porch had a single wicker chair in one corner and a few potted pink begonias rested on either side of the porch steps. The white cotton curtains were kept drawn at the windows and the dark front door with its white casings had recently been painted. Carl drew in hard on the cigarette in his right hand, let the smoke out of his nostrils and leaned back, watching the house with renewed interest. Even from across the street he could hear the clanging of dishes and muffled conversations. At one point an older girl had stepped out onto the porch, placed a bucket near the front door before closing it. He had seen more than a few children, running down the porch steps and around to the back of the house. Carl closed the file and was about to start the car when he heard the door open. It was a woman. She wore a plain colorless house frock and matching apron. She leaned heavily against the balustrade and rested her head against one of the white painted columns and closed her eyes. Her blonde hair was functionally arranged into a tight bun. Though she wore scuffed brown shoes and there were dark stains on her apron, she looked graceful, her sleeves rolled to the elbow, her arm brown from the summer sun rested on the railing. Most likely there was a garden in the back where she weeded rows of onions and gathered harvested peas in her apron skirt. She was very slim and short and could have easily passed for a child if not for the care worn expression on her face and the way she gave a little start, a short intake of breath, at the sound of a car pulling into the driveway. Carl sat up straighter, his eyes set in a furrow of dark brows as he watched the short, burly man in his brown suit close the car door. The blonde woman was smoothing her apron and tucking a few stray hairs behind her ear when he approached the porch. He looked around uneasily before speaking harshly to the woman. Carl couldn’t hear what he said but the man held the blonde woman tightly by the arm and led her into the house. She looked back toward the car over her shoulder. Carl slipped low into his seat, adjusting his own hat down over his eyes, hoping he appeared to be sleeping. When he lifted his eyes after a few moments the two of them were gone, into the house. He checked his file against the license plate number they had for Allen Warner. It was a match. This was their man. The woman was most likely Marta. Carl flicked the cigarette butt out the driver’s side window and drove back to the office to complete his paperwork before he could go home.

“Any luck today, Holloway?”

It was Donald, Carl’s supervisor, a tall, trim man with a tidy haircut and glasses who liked to walk about the office with both hands in his pockets, his vest swelling out in front of him.

“Nothing yet, boss.”

“Unlawful cohabitation,” Donald said, sitting down on the corner of Carl’s desk.

Carl looked up. “It’s hard prove.”

“I know. Kids?”

“Yeah, plenty. But who knows if they are Warner’s kids?”

“Kids will talk though,” Donald said. “Just ask them.”

“I have,” Carl replied leaning back in his chair. “You know what they tell me?”

Donald looked directly at Carl and folded his arms. “What do they tell you?”

“I don’t know.”

“You don’t know?” Donald said, his eyebrows shooting up.

“That’s what they say to every question I ask them,” Carl continued. “I don’t know. Where do you go to school? I don’t know. Do you live here? I don’t know. What’s your daddy’s name? I don’t know. What’s your name? I don’t know. It’s damn frustrating.”

“They really say, I don’t know? To every question?” Donald looked surprised.

“They seem embarrassed about saying it too, like they have practiced it over and over so as not to slip up.”

“I’ll be damned.” Donald ran his hand lightly over his hair. “The lady of the house?”

“ I’ve seen her but I don’t want to approach her quite yet, afraid I will spook her before I’ve got something. She is real flighty, nervous as a hummingbird.

“Have you seen many visitors?”

“Sure, but it could be anybody, a neighbor, a relative, a friend.”

“An extra wife.” Donald tapped two fingers on Carl’s desk. “Look, we’re building a mighty big case against these men. We’ve got evidence enough to arrest two-dozen of them. This Warner, he’s a big shot. He is also slippery as an eel. We gotta go in careful.”

“The wife is already wary.”

“Don’t focus on the wife, she will have to testify in court if we can get her husband. And all we need to nail him is to prove the appearance of marriage to another woman.”

“I haven’t seen anything so far, except everyone acting suspiciously.”

“Ask the neighbors, follow the man to his place work and find out if any of his coworkers are willing to talk. Some of these men move the women from state to state when they know we are getting close. With the Mann Act we can charge them with human trafficking.”

“Why are we spending so much energy and resources on this?” Carl asked.

“We have agreed to work with U.S. Marshals and the Utah state police to eradicate this cult.”

“You think it’s a cult?” Carl knew he was pushing the edge.

“I do,” Donald said quietly. “A cult that abuses women and children. Don’t you?” Donald asked his dark slender brows turned down into a serious arc.

Carl fiddled with the pencil in his hand, rolling it between his fingers. “It’s more complicated than that. These men are willing to risk arrest and even imprisonment for claiming to be married to more than one woman. They don’t have to claim their second and third families. But they do. That seems pretty committed to me.”

“They’re brainwashed,” Donald said, a little exasperated at Carl’s reasoning. “Besides, they are breaking the law.”

“The wife did look afraid of her husband,” Carl said, lighting a cigarette.

“Sure, she is afraid of him. He probably abuses her to keep her mouth shut. I don’t know any woman that would put up with her husband taking other women if she wasn’t afraid.”

Carl nodded, thinking of the Warner wife, Marta, wondering what it might be like to live in constant fear of the one meant to protect you.

“Don’t get all cozied up to these people, Holloway. You’re not their friend. You are the law.” Donald put his hat on and left the office.

 

The next time the house was under Carl’s surveillance he parked two streets down, removed his jacket and walked to the brown and white house. The wooden stairs creaked as he made his way to the front door in the shade of the porch. The morning sun had already warmed up the balustrade and a breeze rustled his shirt. He knocked loudly on the screen door and then listened. He heard scrambling, a woman’s voice, shouting in a loud whisper: Go. Chairs scraping, feet trampling up the stairs, followed by silence. Then the door opened. Marta Warner stood at the screen door. Her blonde hair was pinned back and her apron had two wet spots on the front where she had dried her hands. He smelled oatmeal and saw the breakfast table with at least ten or more settings. There was bucket of milk on the sideboard near the door.

“Yes?” Marta asked looking carefully at Carl. He removed his hat and smoothed his blond hair, but Marta did not open the screen door. Her arms were folded tight against her chest as if keeping out some invisible cold.

“I’m looking for the office of the Salt Lake Telegram, and I seem to be a bit lost,” Carl said looking around him.

“You mean the newspaper office? You’re too far south,” she said, suddenly relaxing her arms and opening the screen door. She stepped out onto the porch. She looked so fragile, her tiny wrists were delicately shaped and her fingers were slender though the nails were cut very short. She pointed north. “It’s that way. Downtown. About three miles.”

“Thank you,” Carl said. He didn’t move and Marta smiled at him, her lips were dry and her smile was meant to encourage him to leave.

“I hate to bother you, but I didn’t catch your name?” he said after a moment.

“Mrs. Warner,” she replied, suddenly moving back inside the house. She held the screen door open but her face was closed. Carl noticed that several wooden crates were arranged around the kitchen table instead of chairs and that the curtains on the east window were actually flour sacks.

“It’s quite warm and I could use a glass of water. I’m walking, you see.”

“Yes, of course.” She exhaled. “Wait here.” She brought him a glass of water but did not invite him to sit in the wicker chair or to bring him into the house. She stood on the porch with her arms folded, her pale eyes squinting toward the road. It was her fear that drew him to her. He thought of Mr. Warner then, gripping this woman’s thin arm, his knuckles white with the effort and Carl gritted his teeth. He drank the water and handed her the empty glass.

“I appreciate your hospitality, Mrs. Warner,” he said warmly, “and for the directions. Good day.” Carl put his hat back on his head and turned to go down the stairs. Just then Mr. Warner appeared from the side of the house. He had his keys in one hand and when he saw Carl he froze.

“This man is lost and I was just giving him directions,” Marta said in a too loud voice, still holding the empty glass in her hand. Mr. Warner approached Carl, his shoulders squared. His face was round and he kept his black hair cut into a military buzz.

“Go back into the house,” he said gruffly and Marta hurried inside closing both the screen and the door behind her.

“You got what you needed?” Mr. Warner asked Carl in a low voice.

“Your wife gave me excellent directions,” Carl said brightly but he could feel the muscle in his jaw grinding. He turned to leave, feeling a pair of eyes boring through him as he made his way down the porch stairs and to the street. Carl felt his face suddenly grow warm. He wanted to stay, to stand guard at Marta’s front door, to keep that bully from touching her. He imagined the satisfaction he would get from landing a blow to that smug face. He wanted to arrest him more than anything and was going to get the evidence he needed to see Mr. Warner removed from the home.

 

The Warner house was part of a larger neighborhood with a wide gravel road that curved around a small pond and headed west until it dead-ended; nothing beyond but a large hayfield and tall water tank. The home sat on a two-acre lot, with an orchard in the back, a few cows and a henhouse. The other houses surrounding it were smaller by comparison and many of them needed repairs with sagging front fences and weeds growing up through the floorboards of the porch. Allen Warner was likely the envy of his neighbors with his painted front door and cleanly swept stairs. The family was poor but there was industriousness about the yard and home that seemed to be lacking in the rest of the neighborhood. He had spoken to several of the neighbors already. Carl regretted his decision to talk to Marta Warner. If he was seen again, he might be recognized and he pulled his hat down lower as he talked to the neighbors, most of whom were willing to give Carl details of the Warner family. Several of them had claimed to see another wife, a brown haired girl and, according to the reports he received, she was no older than eighteen. Carl had not seen this person and doubted at times the motives of the neighbors, eager as they were to pass judgments. But Carl wanted to get Mr. Warner and he was working the investigation much more aggressively.

He stood at the front door of a run down house in the late afternoon. The original paint was nearly completely worn off and the wooden steps groaned dangerously under Carl’s weight. An old man opened the door, wearing nothing but suspenders holding up a pair of stained trousers. His skin was weathered and darkened by the sun. His white hair was matted down against his head and when he scratched himself Carl noticed the yellowish black nicotine stains on his fingers and instinctively looked at his own hand.

“What do you want,” the old man stated, his words hard and defensive. Carl stiffened at the sight of the old man, images of his own father loomed up in front of him. He removed his hat.

“I’m Agent Holloway with the FBI. We are investigating your neighbor, Mr. Allen Warner on allegations of polygamy. Have you seen or heard anything that would be helpful to our investigation?”

“I don’t spy on my neighbors.” The old man picked at his teeth with a greasy fingernail.

“I am not asking you to spy, just if you have noticed anything.”

“Which neighbor we talking about,” the old man asked looking over Carl’s shoulder.

“The Warner family,” Carl pointed toward the brown and white house.

“I’ve heard the rumors.” The old man hitched his trousers adjusting the suspender over his shoulder. “And there is whole passel of kids. The man runs a tight ship over there, keeps that little woman in her place.”

Carl felt the heat rise from his belly up to the hairs on his head. “That is no way to speak of a lady,” he said leaning in toward the man who backed up a bit. “She is Mrs. Warner and you will refer to her with some respect.”

“I see how it is,” the old man said stepping back into the shadows of his house. A hungry little smile curled at his mouth. “G’day to you then.”

Carl stood on the creaking porch staring at the discolored door. He pulled out a cigarette and lit it up before heading back to his car that was parked near the dead end. Carl noticed several kids in Warner’s backyard watching him. Two girls with black hair shooed several boys away from the fence and turned their backs to him. He threw the cigarette into the dirt and was anticipating the drive back to the office when he heard shrill screaming and the sound was coming directly from inside the Warner house. He turned and ran straight up the porch stairs. The scene was playing out right in front of him. Mr. Warner with both fists balled up in fury, Marta crouched against the kitchen table, a bruise forming along her cheekbone. No longer a little boy, Carl was broad and much taller than Mr. Warner. He flung open the door and instead of the drama he was expecting he found Marta standing at the stove removing a kettle that steamed up around her, making her blonde hair curl out away from her face. Carl was so confused for a moment he didn’t move. There were stack of towels on the counter.

“You,” she said looking startled. “You were here the other day.”

Carl didn’t say anything.

“You weren’t really looking for directions were you?”

Carl shook his head.  There was a brief silence between them as Marta realized the truth, eyes growing small and fearful.

“You’re the police,” she said quietly still holding the steaming kettle in her hand.

“FBI.” He felt small and found-out, though he towered above her in his dark suit and hat. They stood there suspended by the strangeness of the situation. Suddenly there was screaming again. An older woman came running into the kitchen, her sleeves were rolled up to her elbows and a bloodstained apron covered her dress. She stopped cold at the sight of Carl.

“Hurry,” was all she said but the look of fear in her eyes made Carl step back a little.

“Arrest me right now or get out of here,” Marta said in a low, gravelly voice. She turned her back to Carl and hurried down the hall with the hot water and towels. He followed her to the back bedroom where a young woman was lying on her back, her pale face was sheened with sweat and her long brown hair clung to her forehead and cheeks. He removed his hat and stared at the scene before him. The bed sheets were bloodstained and wet. The older woman, obviously a midwife was bent down in front the young woman’s raised knees. Marta poured the boiling water into a bowl near the bed and set the towels next to it. The woman was wailing and didn’t pay any notice to Carl standing in the doorway.

“The baby is presenting breech,” the midwife said in a strained tone. “Get her on her knees!” Marta helped the midwife turn the young woman who whimpered and made the most desperate sounds Carl had ever heard. They turned her from her back until she was positioned on all fours. The midwife was up on the bed and Marta too, holding the younger woman up. The baby was already emerging.

“You have to push with the next contraction, honey, you understand? You have to be strong and help this baby be born.” With the next contraction the young woman grunted and howled with pain. The midwife was pulling and working the baby out. Carl couldn’t see what was happening until the young woman finally collapsed on the bed sobbing as the midwife held the birthed baby in her hands. Carl held his breath as she rubbed the tiny grayish colored infant draped over her arm. The baby began to cry. There was a gush of relief that filled the room. Even Carl exhaled audibly. Marta was crying and the young woman was crying. Carl backed up out of the bedroom and hurried out toward the kitchen door. Marta followed him.

“Mister?”

Carl turned to face her. He had crushed his hat while watching the woman give birth and now he smoothed the rim.

“Thank you,” she wiped her tears and hurried back down the hall.

Carl didn’t move after she left. All that he had been so sure about dissolved in an instant. Marta was no longer a figure he watched from a distance, the young wife was now flesh and blood, literally. Had he really watched her give birth? Had he really been standing in her bedroom? He felt oddly complicit as if he were actually a part of it all.

 

It had been a week when Donald gave Carl the news.

“We arrested your man,” Donald said, “and presumably his younger wife. We caught them at the Mexican border and arrested both of them. They are in custody now.”

“The baby?” Carl asked without thinking.

“How did you know about the baby?” Donald asked taking off his glasses.

“I do my job,” Carl responded quickly.

“He is in the care of the legal Mrs. Warner.”

“What next for Mr. Warner?”

“Trial, hopefully a conviction and then prison.” Donald said emotionless.

“What of the family?”

“It will be much harder to get a conviction for the woman, most likely she will be released. She isn’t legally married to Mr. Warner so I am not sure what she will do.”

“Mrs. Warner?” Carl tried to sound casual.

“I don’t know. Divorce the bastard maybe?” Donald chuckled.

Winter had arrived and Carl was smoking in his parked car outside the Warner home. He had found himself sitting there often in the months during the trial and sentencing of Mr. Warner. He knew Marta checked the front door every night before retiring and on this night she wore a heavy woolen sweater when she came out to the porch. Her breath a white fog in the dark night air, before picking up the crate of oranges Carl had left on her step. Her figure was illuminated by the glow of the porch light over her head. She looked all around her, just as she did every time and then carried the crate into the house.

 

Tags: , , , , , ,

About the Author

About the Author: .

Subscribe

If you enjoyed this article, subscribe now to receive more just like it.

Subscribe via RSS Feed

Comments are closed.

Top