Secrets by Jules A Riley

After the funeral and when everyone had left, Nathan was helping to clear up when he’d noticed Billie had disappeared. When he found her she was walking towards the barn.

“It’s been on my mind all day, even when they were lowering him into the ground.”

“What’s that?”

“This damn place,” Billie’s grasped the heavy padlock and pulled hard, “should have known better to think that Marlow would leave the place unlocked. Need to find Marlow‘s keys.”

“I can cut the chain,” offered Nathan.

Billie and Nathan weren’t prepared for what met them on opening the high doors.

“Damn it, Nathan. I knew Marlow never threw anything away.”

“He hated waste.”

“Hated waste. He was a tight arse. Do you know I’ve had the same wash tub since we married. He fixed it so often it now hasn’t any original parts. Said I didn’t need a new one.”

“He liked fixing.”

“Fixing? I once told him that Cyrus has so many new tubs down at the store that they just about done anything except the ironing, and that one even weighs the wash and decides how much water’s needed and that mine only washed everything on the same temperature.”

“What Marlow say to that?”

“He couldn’t see anything wrong with the wash. The man never looked at the wash, and then said it cost us nothing to run the tub on account we made our own electricity and the water comes from the creek and he didn’t see why he had to pay state taxes.”

Billie and Nathan stared at the large yacht filling the centre of the barn, the craft supported on wooden blocks and its mast reaching to the rafters and all held in place with ropes attached to metal pegs anchored into the dirt floor.

“Look at her,” exclaimed Nathan staring at the multi-painted figurehead of a naked woman attached at the craft’s bow, then lowered his gaze as he realised Billie was scowling.

“We’re a thousand miles from the sea,” Billie remarked, “what did the man want with this?”

“Told me once he’d always wanted to be a sailor,” Nathan climbed a ladder leaning against the yacht’s hull and clambered on board. He stared into the cabin to find he was staring at an interior, the likes of which were usually confined to glossy magazines.

“Billie, you need to get up here.”

Billy did get up there and stared down the barn’s length. Anchors of all sizes leaned against the walls aside of sedans, soft tops and trucks from bygone times. A yellow school bus stood next to a harvester, a pyramid of old radios and a precarious mound of TV cabinets.

“Now look at that,” Billie pointed to a row of refrigerators. “All them ‘frigerators looking good against the shabby one in my kitchen. The first thing we bought when we moved in . Mine’s even got a different door and like the wash tub, not much left to call its own.”

“Billie, there’s a fortune in here. Them vehicles…”

“All junk to me, except this boat.”

“I think it’s called a yacht. Your Marlow sure had taste.”

“When was the last time you were in my home?”

“Just today.”

“Have you not noticed how old everything is.”

“It’s all good stuff.”

“It’s the same stuff we bought forty years ago.”

“Marlow did his best.”

“Did his best to spend all the money on Marlow.”

“A man needs a hobby.”

“This ain’t a hobby. This is what they call…what they call it now? O.C… something…it’s where people get all obsessed. Some need to collect things.”

“I suppose you’re right. What are you going to do?”

“Sell it. That’s what I’m going to do. Jacob Robbins told me that all Marlow had in savings after paying for his funeral comes to $26.40. I’m looking at my damn future.”

Billie did just as she’d said and got ol’ Zachariah the auctioneer to come and look at all the stuff. He made lots of notes, got Nathan to help him find all sorts of numbers.

“Need to set up a few auction days, I reckon. Some though is just scrap.”

“How much will it all make?”

“Well Billie, that’s hard to tell. I reckon you’re be alright the rest of your days. We’re talking big money.”

Billie was elated until a few days later there came a knock on her door and there stood Sheriff Pharaoh Cotton with his deputies and a warrant. They looked at everything, even pulled out her refrigerator and washing machine.

“Afraid to have to tell you Billie but Zachariah got a bit concerned when he checked out some of the things Marlow had in that barn. Rang a few bells. Seems most of the good stuff is stolen.”

“Pharaoh Cotton. Are you fooling me?”

“I sure ain’t, Billy."

“You’re telling me that Marlow was a thief?”

“He sure was. A lot of things were at some time reported stolen. Seems now we’ve checked the house…and I‘m sorry we had to do that…the number on the back of your refrigerator, well that was on a list of a goods stolen from a raid on a store in Kaiserville some forty years ago. Then there was your kitchen table. Still had the store label underneath, Fairley‘s Furniture Store, raided some thirty-five years ago. Witnesses reported a large truck was used to ram the doors…fit’s the description of the green truck in the barn. All that was stolen that day was your table.”

“What happens now, don‘t you have to bag it all as evidence, take it all away?”

“Ain‘t no way that‘s happening. Imagine the paperwork and where would I store it all? We’ve been flat out contacting people, telling them to come here and make a claim. The Kaiserville store’s been shut some twenty years, but the son of the owner still lives in the town, so we reckon anything from the store is his to claim, though when I explained about your refrigerator he said he’d forget about that. We couldn’t contact anyone from the old Fairley’s store that’s been shut some time, so I reckon your table’s safe.”

“Well, the son-of-a-bitch. When we first married and I asked for something he’d say, whatever you want, pumpkin. Nothing’s too much for you, pumpkin.”

“Seems Marlow stole to order. You asked for something and he got it for you.”

“Are you saying it’s my fault?”

“No Billie. That’s not what I’m saying.”

“What I want to know is, if he wasn’t spending anything over the years, where’s all the money gone?”

“You’re looking at it.”

“Looking at what?”

“The barn for a start…and the yacht.”

“The barn and the yacht?”

“Yeah. The Crichton Brothers say he paid them cash to build the barn and the boat yard in San Francisco says he paid them in hard cash too.”

“San Francisco?”

“They sure built some fine boats there.”

“How much is this fine boat worth?”

“The boat yard reckons that right now it could fetch half a million.”

“Five hundred thousand dollars?…That’s it. I’ve had enough. I’m getting myself a spade.”

“Why do you need a spade, Billie.”

“To dig him up and feed him to the coyotes.”

“Easy Billie, easy. Now I know things have been tough, and Marlow hid things from you, but there’s the yacht. That’s not stolen. It’s yours. Yours to sell.”

“Mine. Well, it sure is. You’re right. I can sell the damn thing. Leave this God-forsaken place. I’m going to be a rich woman. Thing is, how come I never saw anything arrive. I mean, the yacht. It’s so damn big…and that harvester…and the school bus.”

“We reckon it all came in along the old track at the back of the barn. Marlow probably brought it in at night. All the raids were at night.”

“I’d had known if he wasn’t there. Damn it. The man had the same daily ritual. Always good to me before we bedded down for the night. Ran my bath. Made me… a hot drink…you don’t think?”

“Billie. What did you drink?”

“Hot chocolate. Same as always.”

“How did you sleep?”

“Good, real good…are you trying to tell me that Marlow drugged me?”

“You still got some? We should get it tested.”

“What good is that going to do. If Marlow drugged me, it’s a bit late.”

Bit by bit the barn emptied. It took a few days and there was no animosity towards Billie as everyone knew she was straight as they come. There was some bidding too, for all the things Sheriff Cotton reckoned Marlow had acquired honestly, like the pyramid of old radios and the collections of anchors. Finally all that was left was the yacht and a pile of planks.

Winter came and the yacht was covered in tarpaulins and the barn locked up and stayed that way until the snow had cleared and the first signs of Spring were showing. Then Billie returned to her daily routine, most days standing at the barn entrance and just eyeing the yacht and shaking her head. Summer came and then Fall and the first signs of Winter returned and the yacht was covered again and the barn secured until yet another Spring.

“Billie, ain’t it time for you to do something with that damn thing,” pleaded Nathan who’d taken on the task of keeping the yacht in pristine condition so the vessel always smelt of freshly applied varnish and the brasses gleamed.

“I don’t need a yacht.”

“I know that, Billie. What happened to selling it and becoming a rich woman.”

“What good will that do me?”

“Make you comfortable for the rest of your days.”

“I have enough. The farmstead, a few dollars in the bank having sold all them radios and such like, and I’ve got you, my best friend.”

“What else can you do but sell it. Which ever way there’s going to be a lot of money floating about.”

“There’ll be trouble.”

“How come?”

“Remember the Zellers who won the state lottery. Everyone was after their money. The postal service was delivering begging letters by the sack. All those so-called financial advisers came out of the woodwork trying to get a piece of the action. Broke up the family and Ma Zeller lost her mind.”

“What else can you do?”

“Burn it.”

“Are you serious?”

“Never been so serious. I ain’t got half a million dollars, never dreamt of such. If I gave it away they’d be someone asking why they didn’t get a share. No Nathan. I’ve made a decision. You and the Crichton brothers take everything off that yacht that won’t burn, then get it into the yard with all them planks, and burn it.”

“You just give yourself time to think about it.”

“Nathan. It’s final. We’ll invite everyone. I’ll bake more apple pies and you get me plenty of root beer and coffee. We’ll make a day of it, hire some rides for the children. Then come dusk we’ll set that boat alight.”

Billie kept to her word and baked lots of apple pie. They fixed a date, even told Sheriff Cotton and the fire chief and Nathan went across the county putting up notices inviting everyone who wished to attend. Once more the yard filled with friends and total strangers and even a coach load of foreign tourists visiting the area who’d been made to believe that burning yachts was some form of strange American custom not to be missed.

When dusk fell the fire was lit and the flames shot so high they were seen across the county.

“That’s that done,” said Billie when late at night the flames died out and all that remained were a few smouldering planks.

“The Crichton brothers want to know if you want them to take down the barn. Seems they’ve got a use for it and will pay you what Marlow paid them.”

“Good idea. Ain‘t no use to me.”

Billie and Nathan walked back towards the house. As they stepped on to the porch Billie took hold of Nathan’s hand and held on tight.

“Do you think Marlow ever knew about us?”

“Reckon not,” smiled Nathan. “Seems the man was too busy at night. What was all that about hot chocolate.”

“Couldn’t let our sheriff think I was doing anything else but sleeping.”

“You sure didn’t do much of that,” chuckled Nathan.

“Nor you,” grinned Billie.

Comments

Enjoyed this. Parts of it reminded me of Raymond Carver. I liked the first sentence; it was a good example of how to draw you into a story, transport you straight into an environment.

Very good, indeed. I've just started trying to write, and I find Puffin Review stories a real inspiration. Well done, Jules A Riley.

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