JANUARY STORY: THE OUTLIER BY CATHERINE ASTOLFO

13 Claws Anthology

The Outlier is one of the scariest stories I’ve ever read. It was first published in the Mesdames of Mayhem’s third anthology, 13 Claws, where our theme was animals…and crime. (Carrick Publishing, 2017) And it won the Crime Writers of Canada Award of Excellence for Best Short Story in 2018.

All I can say is never trust a man who keeps pigs…

M. H. Callway

The Outlier

by

Catherine Astolfo

If I’d paid attention to Marvin, none o’ this would’ve happened.  For that matter, I should’ve seen the signs left by the burglar when he cased the joint. 

Whenever I take my semi-annual trips to St. John’s, stocking up for the seasons, the hours of hard driving there and back again take their toll on the old man I have become. Especially the early winter one.

 This little spot isn’t called Back Side Harbor for nothing. We’re the ass end of a narrow strip of land—technically an isthmus—that juts out into the Atlantic.

Back Side is an outport. Pay attention to that word ‘out’. It has a lot of uses here in Newfoundland. Outport family names go back many decades even though most o’ those families moved out of here during resettlement. There are a dozen villagers left, give or take. They think their shit smells good because they have those historical names. However, since none of us goes out, it’s hard to tell who’s still here and whether or not they really are a Gill or a Butt.

I’m an outlier, a person who’s come from away, so I get even less attention from any of the harbor dwellers. Which suits me just fine, since being out of contact is my goal.

I live on the hill above the harbor in a little cottage. Been here ten years now. One big room runs along the front part with a living area and a kitchen. The back part has a bedroom and a bathroom.

I have a corn-fed stove that keeps the whole place warm in winter and the windows send cool ocean breezes in the summer. No electricity, but a big old generator gives me all I need.

With such a small space to look after, you’d think Id’ve taken note that first day when I found my mattress shifted slightly on the bed. Next, the shutter in the kitchen left open. The third day, a lack of snow on the doorstep, as though it had been blown away by someone’s boot.

My excuse—I was just so damn tired. That trip to the city is brutal. I’m creeping onto ninety years old next year, if I’m still here. I can’t do three whole days away from home any more. I don’t sleep well in those cheap hotels. Everything is just so…noisy. Like a big loud cell block in a federal prison.

The day the kid arrived I was still tired from the trip. Not to mention the tasks I’d had to face when I got home.

I drowsed all afternoon with Miss Kitty. She’s a big old tabby cat who wandered by one day and stayed.  She likes to curl up on my stomach, makin’ biscuits in the blanket with her paws.

I sat and listened to the CBC on the radio. Played some solitaire. Did nothing and paid no attention, just like Miss Kitty.

Marvin, on the other hand, sniffed and snorted everywhere during those four days. He knew there was something off. He can always tell when a stranger invades our privacy.

Here’s the quick version of Marvin’s story. I was comin’ back from one of those voyages to the city when we were stopped on the highway by a rollover.

From out of the damaged back end of the truck, down the road trotted a whole bunch of pigs. They’d been hauling them off to the bacon factory.

Only Marvin made it as far as my car. The rest of the porcine escapees got recaptured, run over by traffic on the other side, or disappeared into the brush. I watched this big guy waddle along the side of the highway, head up, going who knew where. He was simply scramblin’ fast as he could in the opposite direction of that truck.

Thing is, I didn’t think about what I did. I certainly didn’t expect the result I got either. I admired that pig’s determination to get away so I leaned over and opened my passenger door. And into the old car hopped Marvin.

As it turns out, pigs make great pets. They’re clean, smart, they’ll eat whatever’s on offer and they like people. Marvin’s a bit stubborn, likes his own way in things, but so do I and so does Miss Kitty. We make a great trio.

The kid came at night, when I was fast asleep. There were three signs of his invasion that I could not miss.

First, the sound of a chair falling over (though I didn’t know that was what caused the bang until later).

Second, Miss Kitty used her claws in fright to lift herself off me, even digging below the blanket and through my long johns.

Third, Marvin made his squealing noise, a throaty, screechy kind of sound that feels like pins in your ears.

I sat straight up in my bed and, what with the noise and the cat’s nails, soon had my feet on the ground.

I didn’t need to tiptoe into the front of the house. Marvin was raising such a racket that a truck could’ve driven through the living room and no one would have heard it.  

The young guy was sprawled out on the floor. He’d obviously come in through the kitchen window, stepped on that rickety chair and sent it and himself tumbling to the floor. Unfortunately for him and Marvin, he landed on the pig.

I went for the guy without a second thought. Lifted him off my pet. Flipped him over onto his stomach. Pulled his left arm behind and upwards ‘til he made squeals of his own.

In the meantime, Marvin scrambled to his feet, still carrying on, but now he was snorting with indignation.

I reached over to the drawer nearby and got my fingers on a couple of cable ties. I soon had the asshole’s hands tied behind his back.

I rolled him over and clipped his ankles together for good measure. Then I lit the kerosene lamp.

I checked on poor Marvin, who was still mad, but he looked and felt okay.

Then I had a long gander at my intruder.

He was a young ‘un. Early twenties, maybe even late teens. Fair hair and freckles. At the moment his baby blues were liquid with fear and shock.

I figured he didn’t expect me to be home. Even if he thought I might be here, he didn’t think an old guy like me could take him down.

I put the chair back on its feet and sat.

“So, by, what the feck’re ya doin’ in my house?” I asked, using as good a Newfoundland accent as I could manage.

He didn’t struggle. Just lay there panting for a moment.

“Are you gonna call the cops?” he finally gasped.

“Not much point to that. They’re all the way over to Fishy Cove and they’re closed at night.”

I waited a moment.

“That’s all you got to say?”

The boy’s eyes were clearing. He almost looked defiant.

“I knew you’d say that.”

“Say what?”

“About not callin’ the cops.”

“Did ya now?”

I got up and stretched, feeling the takedown in my lower back and shoulders.

“Since we’re all up, we might as well have a cuppa tea and a yarn. What do you t’ink?”

My visitor had the grace not to answer.

We needed something to cheer us up. After all, we’d suffered a big shock.

I gave Marvin one of his favorite treats, a mishmash of broccoli, carrots and squash. He snorted a few times, but soon got distracted by the food.

Miss Kitty still hadn’t surfaced, but I put some tuna down in a bowl just in case.

I lit the gas stove and put the kettle on the burner. I got the Bailey’s from the icebox and poured a good measure into my teacup.

While the water boiled I took my handcuffs down and swiftly replaced the cable ties. I let him keep one hand free while the other dangled from the chain and eyehook on the wall.

He yanked on the chain once but seemed satisfied that he was stuck. He settled in.

 I pulled my old armchair closer to the wall and propped the kid against it so he could sit up.

Once the tea was ready, I sat on a chair, angled so I could see the young man’s face. We sipped in silence for a few minutes. Like he’d just dropped in for a nice winter’s chat.

He should’ve thought to dress like a mummer, hide his face under a mask. Either the guy was dumb or he was new to breaking and entering.

“You thought I wouldn’t be home, wha?”

“No, I thought I could sneak in.”

That made me laugh.

“Well, I’d say the arse fell out of ‘er on that one. You from around here?”

He shook his head. “I’m from Vancouver.”

“Whoa. You’re way off your patch, aren’t ya?”

“So are you.”

I chuckled and shook my head.

“Mind now, you’re the one come into my house. I gets to ask the questions.”

“I know who you are.”

“It’s my turn then. Who owns ya? Related to an outport family?”

“You’re not a Newfie. Stop talking like one.”

I laughed heartily.

“Reminds me of that old joke. The mother says to her wayward boy, ‘Son, why-a you do deese t’ings to-a me?’ and the son says, ‘Ma, why are talking like that? We’re not Italian.’”

I guffawed some more. I was beginning to have fun. That’s what comes from living without other humans. You are easily amused when they do show up.

I leaned over, still laughing. When I slapped him across the face, he looked as though I’d betrayed him.

“What. Are. You. Doing. In. My. Home.” I punctuated each word so he could understand me above the likely ringing in his ears.

Tears slid down his cheeks, but he was still determined to be rude and a liar.

“I needed money.”

I waved my hands around the cottage.

“And you thought I’d have lots of it hidden here on the hill above Back Side Harbor. You are dumber than I thought and that’s pretty dumb.”

“I meant…I thought I could take something and sell it.”

I smiled at him. He really was stupid.

“Like my teacup?” I held it aloft, displaying the side with a prominent chip. “How much will this beauty fetch? Was ya born on a raff?”

When I stopped laughing, I scowled and leaned over him, snatched his empty cup.

“Maybe you can tell the truth about the who. Who are you? No ballyraggin’ this time.”

I used the quiet, menacing voice that tends to encourage reluctant truth telling.

He pulled the lids over his big eyes, fear crowding out the defiance. He thought he could hide the sudden vulnerability he was feeling.

 “No…what?”

Why are there so many stupid criminals these days? In my day it took cunning and careful study of the minutiae. The ‘what ifs’, the contingencies, the back stories.

“Don’t feckin’ lie to me, b’y.” This time I must admit my voice rose a little.

 “I…my name is Brent Hillyard. I do come from Vancouver. That was the truth.”

“Well, Brent, nice to meet ya. I’m Jason.”

“No, you’re not.”

“Jaysus, idd’n you a stunned one?”

He cried out when the cup landed on his forehead. Bled like a sucker too.

I got another cup out of the cupboard and fixed us more tea. Mine got an even larger dollop of Bailey’s than last time.

I pulled out the lassy buns I’d bought in St. John’s. A rare luxury that the stupid kid in front of me, had he any manners, ought to appreciate. I was a regular Martha Stewart.

I handed him a clean handkerchief too so he wouldn’t get blood on my floor. It’s a bitch to get that stuff out of the carpet.

I munched on one of those delicious treats while he blotted at his cut. With any kinda luck, he wouldn’t feel like eating.

“Lots of people calls me Jason,” I said between bites. “That’s what you’ll call me too.”

He said nothing. Sulking I supposed.

“So. We gots the who and the why. I needs to know the how. Or did I get the why? I’ve been t’inkin’. Maybe there’s another reason you tripped all this way to the Back Side. You thought I might have some souvenirs. Any other reason?”

He looked pretty scared now. Sometimes people get that way when they’ve been hurt. Not too many of us is used to being doused on the head. Or on any other body part for that matter.

“I…I’m kind of a reporter.”

“Kind of? Either you are or you aren’t. You can’t be kind of. That’s like you’re kind of a moose or not.”

He considered that for a moment. “I work in the mailroom right now. My dad’s the chief editor and he insisted I start at the bottom.”

“Uh-huh. Now that’s some wise, b’y.”

“I thought if I uncovered a big story, he’d…well, he’d promote me faster.”

“I dies at dat, fella. You are some full o’ yourself. So you takes off work and comes all the way out ‘ere cuz you t’ink I’m a big story. Huh.”

I took another lassy bun.

“I ought to be flattered, I suppose. After all these years I’m still a big story.”

“You’ll always be a big story,” he said. “No one will ever forget what you did.”

I stood up so quickly that my chair fell backwards.

“I’m havin’ trouble believing a dimwit like you found me when no one else has. Maybe you should use those smarts to show your father you’re a hard worker instead of trying to take the easy way around.”

I stretched up and back, hands on my hips. Took a few deep breaths, in my nose and out my mouth. Ten years of perfect solitude, no fools to hound me, no idiots to spread vicious rumors of my supposed exploits.

And this goof, this lowlife idiot, had cracked the mystery of my whereabouts? I had a difficult time calming down, I tell you.

“You might as well tell me how, lad.”

I righted my chair and sat down again, folded my arms and tried to achieve a kindly old man’s expression.

“Have a lassy bun first. You must be ‘ungry.”

While he munched, he stared at me the whole time. I was a museum piece to him. I gazed right back, knowing full well the emotions I felt weren’t visible.

The boy’s expression, on the other hand, clearly displayed curiosity, horror, fear, and even a hint of defiance.

The newspapers always described my eyes as “dead.” How can eyes be dead in the face of a person who is alive? Impossible. They meant devoid of feeling. Uncaring, calm, nothing to see here. Back away. That’s what they should have said.

This boy didn’t back away, though. I wondered if, instead of stupid, he was a bit like me. He cared about nothing and no one. In his case, his sole purpose was self-aggrandizement. Maybe he was more worthy than I thought.

“All right. Hope you liked your breakfast.”

He nodded, unable to halt the manners he’d clearly been taught.

“Yes, thank-you.”

I let the Newfoundland accent slip, winding him up, letting him think he’d gotten through.

“Tell me how you found me and maybe I’ll give you a story to take away with you.”

Brent sat up straighter. He was clearly pleased and excited.

He would never make it as a reporter. He was far too easily manipulated.

“I have some connections in the prison. The last one you were in,” he said.

I nodded, though I felt like saying, “Well, duh.”

“My friend was a guard there. He got me an interview with your old cellmate.”

Brent. You broke into my home. I am hosting you with great patience. I don’t expect lies.”

“Oh yah, yah, sorry, I meant a guy who was in the same segregation block as you. You know, the protective solitary cells where…”

“I guess I know all that. Stay on point.”

He nodded, eager to please me now.

“Yes, yes, of course. Anyway, this prisoner talked quite a lot to my friend. He claimed he’d heard you say to your lawyer that if they ever granted parole, you’d go to the other side of the country, like Newfoundland, and hide out.”

Those damn cells were like echo chambers.

“Okay. So did you search all over Newfoundland for the last ten years and just get lucky?”

“Of course not. I was just nine when…”

All I had to do this time was point my finger.

“Right, right. On point. So my friend kept in touch with this fellow even after he was released. By coincidence, the guy settled in St. John’s. He told my friend that he swore he saw you in town one day.”

I sat in silence for a moment. Saw me in town? Me in my silver wig and thick glasses and beard?

There had been a few times over the years when I’d felt as though someone had been watching. When I caught a pair of eyes that lingered a bit too long on my face. I’d always chalked it up to paranoia. Damn. As they say, just because you think people are watching you, it doesn’t mean they aren’t.

“And what did you do with that information?”

Brent looked a little embarrassed.

“I hired a PI in St. John’s to look out for you. In your disguise, like the other fellow described. Kevin’s No Frills.”

“You paid a guy to sit in a grocery store all year?”

“No, no, of course not. I just hired him for the week the con said he saw you. I figured if you were staying somewhere isolated, you’d have to stock up, and you probably did it the same week every year.”

He sure looked proud of himself. I was surprised by his ingenuity.

“That’s actually pretty smart for a dumbass,” I said.

“Well, the PI was the one who suggested…”

“And he knows you found me?”

Brent looked confused.

“He was the one who found you. He followed you up here and called me to give me directions.”

“So that’s who the burglar was,” I mused.

“Pardon?”

“We had us a burglar a few nights ago. Or at least, we thought that’s what he was. Guess he was your PI instead.”

Brent nodded eagerly. “Maybe. Though I’m surprised he would come into your house.”

I shrugged. “Maybe he was after my teacup too?”

“Well, Paul, let’s face it, you are the most famous serial killer in Canada. Lots of places in the US, too. They even made a movie and some television…”

If only he hadn’t pushed. He was some stunned, that kid. Didn’t even notice the look on my face as he prattled on about my crimes. The ones I did, the ones they say I did but wasn’t convicted for.

“There are lots and lots of people who believe you never should have been paroled. There were quite a few protests against it. Did you know that?” Brent asked.

He still thought we were having a conversation.

“I did know that. I got attacked quite often, both inside and outside.”

“I read that! Can I quote you when I write the story?”

“Lad, you can quote me all you like when you write the story.”

“I can’t believe it! You are not what I expected at all.”

“What did you expect?”

He paused, a look of embarrassment flashing through his eyes. He even blushed a little.

“A monster?” I guessed. “Not a harmless old man who serves you tea and lassy buns?”

“Well, you did slap me and you threw the cup at me, but…well, I didn’t think you’d let me write the story, to be honest.”

“Oh me nerves, you got me drove,” I said so quietly that he kept on flapping his mouth.

“People are going to go nuts for this story. My dad will have to promote me and I’ll be a real reporter. Probably take over his job when he retires.”

“Do you think people will change their minds about letting me out when they read how old and harmless I am now?” I asked.

“I do. I can write it for sympathy if you like. Explain a few things if you want me to.”

“Explain that I didn’t do half of what they claimed, you mean?”

“Sure, if that’s your story, I will tell it.”

I stared at his small, petty lips with its satisfied smirk. The mouth that formed a silent “Oh” when I broke his neck.

“Well the story would be wrong,” I said to his truly dead eyes. “Once you have a monster caged, you should keep him there. Or keep him away from people. Let an outlier be.”

The silence was perfect.

Miss Kitty came out of hiding and began to lap up her tuna.

The kid wasn’t as much work as the burglar. That fella was a big bugger. Belatedly, I felt a grudging admiration for him, too. He’d never let on that he was a PI. Nor did he rat out the kid. Maybe he knew there’d be no tickets out of the harbor, so he kept himself to himself.

I figure I will only have to do this one more time when I pay a visit to my old pal from prison in St. John’s. Good thing, too. I’m getting too old for such excitement.

And Marvin’s getting too old for such rich food. I think I mentioned before that pigs make great pets. They’ll eat whatever’s on offer.

This entry was posted in News. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.