An orange haze envelops the small town of Republic, Missouri every year by way of the annual pumpkin festival. Pumpkins are bought, sold, carved, smashed, and baked into pies. The crowning achievement, however, is the pumpkin growing contest that promises glory and riches to whoever can grow the largest gourd. The winner is crowned the PumpKing and receives a $1000 cash prize. The champion from the previous year must relinquish the prestigious trophy to the new victor.
“He only held the title for 12 hours or so,” Deputy Shannon says as he looks down at the deceased body of the newest PumpKing, Dennis Walker. “He won two years ago, though, and three years before that. Him and Harris usually go back and forth.”
Sheriff Gordon squats down and inspects the knife protruding from the back of the corpse. He pulls a pen from his shirt pocket and pokes at a glob of orange goo stuck to the knife. “This what I think it is?”
“Yeah, looks like one of the pumpkin carving knives from the festival,” the Deputy replies. He leans against the faded red barn wall and reaches into his coat pocket, retrieving a crumpled tobacco pouch. He watches a large, ominous dark cloud roll over the rising morning sun. He takes a pinch of the rich, woody smelling snuff and stuffs it under his lip. Though the temperature is warm and there is still plenty of daylight, Deputy Shannon feels a sense of foreboding pass over him and he shivers unconsciously. “Gotta be Harris, ain’t it?”
The Sheriff tilts his head slightly in thought, “You think?”
“Well, you heard all the hubbub about his crop of pumpkins this year, right?”
“Aw hell, everybody heard about that. Harris came rip-roarin’ down to the Silver Dollar saying Walker had poisoned his crop. He claimed that him and his buddies had gone over and seen Walker’s entry pumpkin and could tell on sight that it was ‘scarcely bigger than a tom cat’ – his words– and then the very next day his own pumpkin started turning brown and smellin’ putrid and what have you.”
Deputy Shannon grins, despite the morbid situation. “Well, that certainly sounds like him.”
The Sheriff slaps his hands on his knees and stands up, groaning with the effort. “Guess we better load up and get on over to Harris’s farm and see what he has to say for himself.”
Gravel crunches as the old chevy police cruiser pulls in front of a large yellow house with faded blue shudders and a wraparound porch. Fat droplets of rain finally begin to splatter onto the windshield as the Sheriff and his Deputy open the car doors. White laundry billows on a clothesline in the steadily increasing wind, and Shannon notes the holes and stains on them. The front door is wide open, but the screen door is closed to keep the flies out.
A portly woman in a well-worn red dress and a dirty apron bustles up to the door as they approach, wiping her hands back and forth and letting a cloud of white flour disappear in her wake. She is inherently likable, an excellent cook, and a passable weekday bartender when she isn’t busy tending the farm alongside her husband.
“Gentlemen,” she says, smiling widely and opening the screen door. “I heard you pull up. I was just putting the finishing touches on one of my famous gooseberry pies. To what do I owe this pleasure?”
“Marna, good to see you. You want help getting all that in?” the Sheriff gestures to the linens.
“Oh lord, I forgot all about it. My head’s not screwed on right today. Yes, thank you kindly for your help,” Marna says and the two of them quickly get to work to beat the full force of the storm.
The deputy stays back, peering surreptitiously inside the house through the screen door. The lights are off, and despite all the curtains being open and the early hour, the gloomy clouds cast the house in darkness. There’s a sweet smell emanating from withing – probably the pie – but there’s also the hint of something else he can’t quite place. Something unpleasant, rotting. There is no sign of Harris.
He startles slightly when Marna speaks from behind him, “Can you get the door for me?”
He obliges and watches her carry the large pile of laundry into the house and disappear behind the corner. After a moment, she returns.
“Now then, what can I do for you?” she asks, stepping outside onto the porch. The Deputy notes that she closes both the screen door and the worn front door behind her.
“Well first, let me ask, is your husband here?” Sheriff Gordon asks.
“No, Harris didn’t come home last night. It ain’t uncommon for him to end up in the spare room above the Dollar on Saturday nights if he gets too deep into the bottle. Wish it wasn’t like that o’ course, but it is what it is,” she says, raising her chin defiantly.
“I see,” Sheriff Gordon says, casting a glance at the deputy. “Well, I wish we were here under different circumstances, but there’s been a murder, you see.”
Marna’s hand flies up to her chest. “A murder? Here in little Republic?”
“Yes ma’am. I’m afraid Dennis Walker was found dead this morning by his son,” says the Sheriff.
“Dennis Walker! Oh my, that is a shame,” she says fanning herself with her hand. “Well, you know our family never got along with the Walkers, but I hope you’re not here because you think Harris might’ve had anything to do with this?”
The Sheriff casts another sideways glance at the Deputy. “We just have a few questions for him, ma’am. You say he’s likely at the Silver Dollar?”
“Well, I should certainly hope so. Otherwise, he’ll have even bigger problems than the two of you,” Marna says with a scowl, indicating exactly who he will have problems with.
The wind whips Marna’s greying hair around her face and the Deputy imagines that Marna can be quite like a storm when she gets angry.
“Alright, well thank you for your time, Marna,” says the Sheriff. The deputy tips his hat to her and the two of them hurry back to the patrol car.
“Yeah, he was here last night, alright. Drunker than a skunk, and he closed the bar down at 2 am,” says Andy, the bartender, rinsing beer mugs as she talked. “You’re welcome to head upstairs if you need. Haven’t seen him yet this morning. Must have quite the hangover.”
A man at the bar grins into his drink and nods his head at the two men. “Sheriff, Deputy. Long time no see.”
Deputy Shannon gives the man a withering look. “Sure, Jim, if a day and a half is long. I see you’re straight back to business then. A martini at 11 am is an odd choice.”
“Well, you know us city folks,” Jim says, shrugging, as though that explains the matter.
“Don’t get into any more trouble. I’d hate to see you back in the clink again. Might be a new record, even for the locals,” the Deputy says.
The man grins again and takes another sip of his drink, ending the conversation.
Deputy Shannon and Sheriff Gordon make their way to the staircase leading to the room above the bar.
“Guy’s weird, man,” the Deputy says. “Who drinks a martini at 11 am?”
“You never like newcomers,” the Sheriff says, chuckling. “And you especially never like anyone from the city.”
“Yeah well, can’t trust em, can ya? Says he moved here because a string of violent crime scared him out of the city, yet he gets locked up for petty offenses all the time. Vandalism, squabbles, public intox…”
“Those are hardly serious crimes, and anyway the folks around here get locked up plenty,” the Sheriff says.
“True,” the Deputy admits. “Still, you’d think after being in jail for five or six days that he wouldn’t go straight back to drinking before noon. It’s just trouble waiting to happen.”
The Sheriff shrugs and knocks on the door at the top of the stairs. They hear a string of curses and shuffling. Finally, the door creaks open a few inches and Harris’s face peers through.
“Whaddaya want,” he asks gruffly.
“Are you decent? We need to ask you a few questions,” the Sheriff replies.
“This isn’t exactly a good time. What time is it, actually?” Harris asks, going into a coughing fit. The room reeks of marijuana and stale liquor.
“It’s 11 am.”
“Shit,” Harris says. “Hang on.” The door closes and there are more shuffling sounds and then the door creaks open.
“Let’s get this over with,” Harris says, walking into the room.
“There’s like, privacy privilege or whatever, right?”
The men walk into the room slowly. The Deputy waves a hand in front of his face, unsuccessfully diffusing the stench of the room. “What? Jesus Harris, it smells like a brothel in here.”
The room is a complete disaster. Women’s and men’s clothes litter the room. Cans of beer crowd the nightstand and an empty bottle of wine lays near a tipped trashcan, its contents spilled onto the floor. There is an ashtray with a lit cigarette still burning inside. There are no windows in the room to let in fresh air. A bathroom fan is on, but the bathroom door is firmly closed. Suddenly, they hear a loud clatter from inside the bathroom, and then someone cursing.
“Who’s in there?” Deputy Shannon asks, but no sooner has he asked the question than the bathroom door swings open.
“Shit,” says Irene Walker, wife of the deceased.
The deputy purses his lips, and his eyebrows raise, but he says nothing.
The Sheriff coughs awkwardly as Mrs. Walker shimmies into a coverup and snatches the cigarette out of the ashtray, taking a long drag to fully reignite the ember.
“Uh,” the Sheriff says, at a loss for words.
Harris makes an impatient gesture, “Yeah, we’re fuckin’, so what? Whaddaya guys want? I gotta get goin’ before my old lady beats my ass for bein’ home so late. Can’t believe it’s almost noon.”
“We’re here to ask you a few questions about last night. We heard from the bartender that you were downstairs all evening,” says Deputy Shannon.
“Yeah, and so was half the town. I came here with my buddies to blow off some steam after the contest ceremony. Which was rigged, by the way,” he says darkly. “Drank some pumpkin brew. Came upstairs, et cetera,” he says, wriggling his eyebrows suggestively. “Went to sleep. And here we are.”
“So, neither of you are aware of the murder that occurred last night then?” Deputy Shannon asks, watching Harris’ face for his honest reaction. He is surprised when the man’s eyebrows shoot into his hairline in surprise. Irene doesn’t appear to care much. Her face is turned away and she is puffing steadily away on her cigarette.
“Murder? Whose?” Harris asks, leaning back on the bed.
Irene goes still but says nothing.
“You’re shitting me,” says Harris.
Harris exhales a puff of breath that could be a laugh. “Got what was comin’ to him, if you ask me.”
“Interesting for you to say that,” the Deputy drawls.
“I didn’t kill him, if that’s what you’re implying.”
“Didn’t say that you did.”
There is an awkward silence. Sheriff Gordon eventually fills it. “Irene, your husband is dead.”
She turns her head and looks at him. Her eyes are bloodshot. “And good riddance,” she says quietly, taking a drag on her cigarette that brings it down to the filter. “He beat me, you know. Every time he got drunk. Which was all the time,” She mimed a backslap into the air, not meeting anyone’s eyes as she did so.
“We were wondering where you were this morning, Irene. Your son was the one who found the body,” Sheriff Gordon says. “He says he came over early to congratulate his old man on his win. Says he was sorry he couldn’t make it to the ceremony.”
Irene covers her face with her hands. “My poor boy,” she chokes. “I was here with Harris the whole time. It wasn’t him. Or me. Check with Andy.”
“We will be doing that,” the Deputy says skeptically. The Sheriff shoots him a look, as if to say, ‘let it rest for a minute, man’.
“Who else closed down the bar last night, Harris?” asks the Sheriff.
“Uh, lemme think. Lyle, Ben, Kevin, Jim, Courtney, uh, Claire, Irene and me obviously,” Harris says. “I think that’s it. You’ll have to ask Andy, things get a bit fuzzy around midnight. I don’t usually take shots, but I was pissed off last night. You know that dead bastard poisoned my pumpkins, right?”
Deputy Shannon makes a few notes in his notebook and pockets it. This whole encounter was awkward at best, particularly having just come from speaking to Harris’s wife.
“We’ve heard the accusations, yeah. What makes you think it was Dennis?” asks Sheriff Gordon.
Harris gawked at him. “You mean besides the fact that I would have won the PumpKing contest if not for my entry suddenly melting? I’ll be honest, Lyle, Ben, and I went to the Walker farm and talked some shit on his pumpkin. I could tell by the sight of it that mine would win. After, what, 10 or 12 years doing this contest, I can tell on sight what a pumpkin will weigh. His was nowhere near my beauty. We went to the Dollar after and laughed about it with Jim and some others. I was so sure I’d win. And then the next day – the very next day – my pumpkin starts to get spots on it and melts? Seven days before the contest. I’d say that’s pretty suspicious, wouldn’t you, Sheriff?”
“It is a bit questionable, sure. But what proof do you have?”
“Don’t need any, I know it was him. And he didn’t even need the money. I need the money. Bastard knew that,” Harris says angrily.
“Alright Harris,” says Sheriff Gordon. “We’ll be in touch. Don’t leave town until all this is settled, you hear? You too, Irene.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Harris grumbles. Irene nods stiffly.
The Sheriff turns to the Deputy and gestures towards the door with his head. “Let’s go.”
The two men close the door behind them and make their way back to the bar. The place is empty now, besides the bartender. The two of them sit at the bar and order a round of pumpkin ale. The Sheriff lets out a long sigh and rubs his hands down his face. After serving them, Andy heads to the kitchen, leaving them alone.
“Okay, so who do we think it is?” the Deputy asks, straight to business.
“Well, there’s Harris or Irene, obviously. Both have motive, and neither has a good alibi, considering they were supposedly together all night.”
“What about Marna?” the Deputy asks.
“Marna? Come on, man. What would she have to kill the guy over?”
“I don’t know, the cash prize from the contest? They could use the money, Harris said. Maybe she wanted her old man to win… Thought maybe it would keep him around the house more?”
“Maybe. Doesn’t feel right though,” Sheriff Gordon says.
They are silent for a long time. Eventually, the Sheriff asks, “Who else entered the contest?”
“Hang on, they posted that on the festival website,” the Deputy says, getting his phone out. After a minute of searching, he says, “Looks like the runner up was Kathy Miller, 3rd place went to Kevin Calhoun, and 2nd place went to… Jim Burleigh?”
“Jim? City Jim?” the Sheriff asks. “I didn’t know he was into that.”
“Me either. What’d he do before he moved here?” the Deputy asks.
“Dunno. Let’s go have a chat with him, shall we?” He looks to where Jim had been sitting and sees a nearly full martini still sitting on the bar top.
“When did Jim leave?” the Sheriff asks Andy as she returns from the kitchen.
“As soon as you two went upstairs, why?”
The Sheriff and Deputy look at each other meaningfully and stand.
Jim’s apartment door is wide open when they arrive. The men draw their weapons and call out, but they find that the apartment is empty except for an orange tabby cat who hisses at them from the shadows. There is only a folding table and single plastic chair in the living room which makes the place look eerie. There is mail on the table addressed to someone named Lyle Cornerstone.
After a few minutes of internet searching, Deputy Shannon finds an article. “Look at this.”
“String of Knife Attacks Shocks Locals”
A series of seemingly random stabbings in St Louis, Missouri, has left residents shaken. Two men were killed and a woman was seriously injured when an unknown assailant stabbed them in the back with a knife. Based on cctv footage, a single person of interest, Lyle Cornerstone, was apprehended but quickly released from police custody due to insufficient evidence. Police have no other leads. The investigation is ongoing…
There is a single piece of paper next to the letters. The Deputy picks it up and reads it aloud.
I have taken my leave, but I wanted to have a final word. Draino works remarkably well on pumpkins, did you know? I hoped that afterwards, Harris would take things out on his rival for me, but I forget sometimes that people don’t think like I do. If I hadn’t been ‘in the clink', I could have taken Walker out sooner and then I would have won. I do so like to win. Alas, I can see that the jig is up and must make my way. Please see that my cat is taken care of.