Under the Deadwood Tree by Guest Author Alex Knight

Guest Author Alex Knight

Guest Author Alex Knight

Diane Morrison, the college’s most popular professor, stood smiling from her lectern as the class trickled in and settled down for the last lecture of the semester. As usual, it was standing room only. She was famous for the unorthodox methods by which she challenged her criminology students to think outside the box.

“This is my favorite topic,” she said, and the rustle and hum died instantly. “Is there such a thing as the perfect crime? Who wants to start our discussion?”

Several students took turns presenting a scenario for the perfect crime and each time Professor Morrison pointed out the problems and pitfalls, which would guarantee detection of said crime and lead to the eventual arrest and punishment for same.

“Professor, is it only a crime if you’re caught?” this from an earnest young man standing in the back. He was a new student who didn’t know better and although he arrived twenty minutes early, he was still too late to get even the poorest choice of seats.

“No, it’s still a crime if you’re not caught, but then it becomes the perfect crime. As soon as one other person knows of it, it ceases to be perfect. Consider the following story, and then tell me whether or not it was the perfect crime.”

They knew they were in for a treat; her ‘stories’ were legendary around campus.

“Twenty years ago Chrissie Baxter was a nineteen year old wife with two small babies. Both were born premature and had residual physical ailments. The doctor as much as told Chrissie that these problems existed due to injuries she had sustained during her pregnancies. He shook his head and told her she had to be more careful around stairs.

Clucking his tongue at her he muttered, ‘…some people would learn to watch their step after one bad fall.’ He thought her a foolish young woman and a clumsy one at that.

Well she had fallen more than once during each pregnancy, it’s hard not to when someone shoves you or knocks your legs out from under you. Of course her husband would apologize afterwards, adding in his sly way that he wouldn’t get so angry if she wouldn’t be so ‘slow’ or ‘dumb’ or ‘quiet’ or whatever his excuse of the day was.

One of his greatest excuses was her lack of ‘real’ contribution to the household. Apparently cooking, cleaning, tending two small babies and pretty much being his slave just wasn’t enough of a contribution. When she offered to get a job outside of the home, he’d sneer at her.

‘What kind of a job can an uneducated slob like you get?’

Yes she was uneducated; she had to drop out of school when she got pregnant with Bobby. Of course her husband hadn’t had anything to do with that now had he? And when she talked of going back to school she became pregnant with Lindsey, again entirely her fault. It must be, he always said it was.

As to her being a slob, she took great exception to that remark and often paid for it dearly. She and the children were always as clean and tidy as plain soap, water and a comb could make them. He never bought her deodorant or nice shampoo.

‘Only money down the drain, you don’t go anywhere or do anything.’

If she did mention wanting to go anywhere he would find extra chores for her to do. He told her she wasn’t sufficiently grateful for all she had if she still wanted more. What hurt most of all, (more than the kicks and punches ever could, after all, she was used to them) was when he would call her deadwood.

‘You’re as useful around here as that deadwood tree out back. It doesn’t bear fruit (had he found out about her being on the pill now) and it no longer has leaves to provide shade. The limbs aren’t even long enough for a tire swing (as if he’d ever put one up for ‘her brats’) or for climbing. It’s useless, just like you. You’re both deadwood.’

Chrissie was determined to prove him wrong. She found out from Missus Emily Harper at the library that she could finish her high school education there through a correspondence course and then arrange to take her SAT. Once Chrissie had done that, she could take other courses so that she could get a real job. She’d show him, Willy would be so proud of her. And when she was finally earning a good paycheck he wouldn’t be able to call her deadwood anymore.

Every day after Willy went to work she would pack up her babies and walk two miles into town with them. At the library she would study and Emily would read to the babies or play with them. The librarian had never been blessed with children of her own and she took to Chrissie’s two instantly. Emily said Chrissie could take the books home with her but Chrissie declined. She couldn’t risk Willy finding them. Chrissie didn’t want him to know until she graduated. She wanted it to be a surprise and she didn’t need any more broken bones hampering her chores or keeping her from her goal.

Chrissie was almost ready for her SAT and Emily had been quizzing her daily. They were both confident that she would score well. Looking out the library window Chrissie chanced to see Willy at the stoplight. He was on lunch break and there was a trashy looking blonde sitting next to him. Chrissie thought that if they were sitting any closer, they’d be wearing the same skin.

‘Emily, watch the kids for a sec.’ Not waiting for a reply, Chrissie rushed out the door in time to see Willy turn right on Beacon Street. There was one only thing at that end of Beacon, a string of ‘beds-by-the-hour, no-tell motels’. Chrissie returned to the library. There was no point walking to the motel and confronting them. She was certain Willy would even find a way to make his cheating her fault. In that moment she realized it just didn’t matter, she had had enough.

While Emily was arranging an appointment for Chrissie to take her finals, Chrissie was planning a future for her and the children. Once she passed the exams, she would take another course and become a legal assistant or medical secretary. Those were the best paying jobs she could qualify for the quickest. As soon as she found a job she would take the babies and leave. Then Willy could have all the blondes he wanted, redheads too for that matter. She giggled. For the first time in years she had a dream, a goal, a future! Sure it would take a bit of time to accomplish, but time was on her side, wasn’t it?

The time came for Chrissie’s exams and Emily watched the children. They were both on pins and needles until Chrissie received her score; she had aced it. Emily had a little cake ready for the celebration she was certain they would have. She had even found some scholarships that would pay for Chrissie’s upcoming tuition and had helped her apply for them.

Everything was falling into place until one night Willy came home, drunk and in a rage. One of his buddies had seen Chrissie in town a couple of times and had teased him about it.

‘I’m a laughing stock, not knowing where my wife is or what she’s doing. Are you screwing around on me?’

WHACK!

Through tears and blurred vision she retorted, ‘If they’re laughing at you, it’s because of your cheap blonde floozy. They’ve probably all had her and you’re only getting what they no longer want.’

PUNCH!

Chrissie’s lip was split, but at least she didn’t lose a tooth this time. Lindsey started to cry.

‘Damn it woman, you woke up one of the brats.’ Sure, this too was her fault.

‘I’ll see to her.’

‘No, I’ll make her be quiet.’

She didn’t like the way Willy said that or the look in his eye. Grabbing the closest thing, which just happened to be the 10-inch cast iron skillet, Chrissie cracked him over the head with it. Willy crumpled, striking his head on the corner of the kitchen table on his way to the floor.

Chrissie went to tend Lindsey, glad that Willy was out of commission while she got the toddler back to sleep. One situation at a time was enough to deal with, thank you very much!

When Chrissie returned to the kitchen she noticed that Willy was still on the floor and in the same position as when she had left. Was it a trick? Was he waiting for her to get close enough to grab? Oh dear God in heaven, she was going to pay for this big time. Then Chrissie noticed the blood pooling under her husband’s head. Her trembling fingers could not detect a pulse.

Chrissie prepared a cup of tea, sat down and took stock of the situation. Using a hanky, well worn but clean, she removed Willy’s wallet from his pocket, extracted all the cash and returned the wallet to his pants pocket. Even though Chrissie didn’t expect the body to be found there was no point in putting her fingerprints where they clearly did not belong.

It was dark when she went outside to dig. Chrissie didn’t need a large hole, just one deep enough to tumble his body into. She quickly covered Willy up, smiling through tears as she shoveled the dirt onto his face. There was no turning back now. Wearing gloves, his clothes and a ball cap concealing her hair, she drove the pick up truck close to the border. Chrissie left the driver side window open and the truck keys sitting on the front seat in plain view. As Chrissie quickly walked away she was certain she heard the truck being started up. Faster than she could turn the next corner, the truck would be in Mexico with some punk boasting at how hard he worked to separate the pick-up from its previous owner.

Although tired from the activities of the previous evening, Chrissie got up at her normal time. She called Willy’s work and asked to talk to him. Ray, Willy’s boss, assumed that Willy was with his current bimbo Roxy and lied for him as all good buddies are expected to do.

‘He’s not back yet Chrissie, I had to send him over to Chula Vista to get some parts we needed in a hurry. I’ll tell him to call you when he’s back.’ Ray chuckled; he knew first hand what a hot little number Roxy was. Ray also knew that if he told Willy to call home, Chrissie would be in a mess of trouble for phoning her husband at work. Chrissie must know it too, perhaps he should pay a little visit to the house frau and see how nice she was willing to be to avoid Willy knowing that she called. The phone rang again and thoughts of a mid morning tumble with Willy’s wife quickly faded.

Chrissie packed up the kids and went to the library as usual, the wheels turning in her head continued in overdrive. She asked Emily to watch Bobby and Lindsey while she ran a couple of quick errands. Her first trip was to the bank; she needed to have her own bank account. Her first check for tuition aid would be arriving within two weeks. It was when she was exiting the bank that she saw the blonde from the pick up.

‘Excuse me, we need to talk.’ Chrissie grabbed Roxy’s arm and swung her around. ‘Willy didn’t come home last night, tell him I need milk for the kids, you do know we have two little babies, don’t you?’ she hissed quietly.

‘Hey, I haven’t seen him for over a week now. I found someone new and I’m leaving here today. I’m through with Willy and this town full of losers.’

‘Does Willy know you’re leaving?’ a mega watt bulb switched on over Chrissie’s head.

‘No I haven’t told anyone, I’m not even sure why I told you. Look honey, you want some advice? Leave the creep before he kills you, take the kids and get as far away from him as you can. And don’t ever, ever tell Willy we spoke to each other. He’d kill one or both of us without thinking twice.’ Roxy flagged down the approaching cab and disappeared.

No one knew where Roxy or Willy went, but everyone was certain that they had run off together. Of course the woebegone Chrissie made sure that everyone knew Willy had left her high and dry, penniless with two babies. It was a good thing the house was paid for. Not that Willy had paid for it; it had belonged to his daddy, and his daddy’s daddy before him.

Chrissie worked hard and earned a college degree while Emily watched the children. Owing loyalty and more, Chrissie stayed in that little town until Emily died from a stroke. Only then did she pack up Bobby and Lindsey and leave town, moving onto bigger and better things.

Had Chrissie gotten away with murder? Was it murder? Could she have argued self-defense? Chrissie had been bloodied and beaten more than once; she could prove a history of ‘accidents’ and broken bones. Did Chrissie actually kill Willy with a blow from the frying pan, or did he die from striking his head on the corner of the table?

Chrissie had never meant to kill him, but could a shrewd district attorney argue premeditation?

‘Ladies and Gentlemen of the Jury, Mrs. Baxter was taking all those classes; she had been making plans to leave her husband. How do we know that she hadn’t really been making plans to kill him?’

It had been a town of and for ‘the good old boys’ of which Willy was certainly one. Would anyone have believed Chrissie? Anyone other than the late Emily Harper, that is.

Is this an example of a perfect crime?”

The auditorium was still, and finally a voice tentatively offered, “No, it wasn’t a perfect crime.”

Several snickered and a few gasped. Who would dare to answer negatively to Professor Morrison? Whoever it was had better have a strong argument prepared.

“You’re right. Explain why it wasn’t a perfect crime.”

The voice started out quietly and grew stronger with each word, “…and so at least one other person knows what happened, Chrissie Baxter didn’t commit the perfect crime. By your earlier definition, it’s only perfect if the person has escaped both detection of and punishment for the crime. Since you know of the circumstances, it can’t be perfect.”

“That would be true, unless I am Chrissie Baxter.”

They all gasped and that brave young voice spoke again, “It still wouldn’t be perfect because now we all know.”

“True again. You have been wonderful and it has been an honor to have met and worked with you all. (Several other professors had also dropped in to listen to her farewell lecture.) Good luck in your future endeavors.” Diane Morrison began packing up her briefcase to thunderous applause and hushed whispers.

“Do you think she did it?”

“Nah.”

“Maybe.”

“Sure.”

“No way!”

When she returned to her office, her children Don and Rita were waiting for her.

“We caught the lecture Mom, why did you tell them everything?” Rita couldn’t believe her mother had laid it all out like that.

“Even though ‘Under the Deadwood Tree’ hasn’t been published yet, the movie rights have already been sold. Before long everyone will know.”

“What if someone believes the story and goes looking?” this was from Don, her firstborn child and the worrier in the family.

“The deadwood tree isn’t there anymore. ‘There’ isn’t even there anymore, it’s a huge shopping complex, it has been for several years. The house no longer exists, there is nowhere to search, no evidence to find. The speculation will make great publicity and my next novel will be a guaranteed best seller before it hits the bookshelves.” Diane paused for a moment reflecting on the life changing events that occurred so long ago.

* * *

About to throw another shovel full of dirt on Willy, she shrieked and dropped the shovel. Struggling to sit up, Willy’s hand grasped her ankle. Terrified, she grabbed the shovel and struck him again and again until he stopped moving and making those awful sounds.

* * *

She remembered her panic a couple of years later. There had been rumors going around about a big box shopping center that was going to be built in the immediate area. That was when she decided to plant a garden out back. Painstakingly digging up the entire yard, she put deadwood and bones alike into the wood chipper and produced mulch for her garden. Everything she had done up to that moment and beyond and been to protect her children and provide them with a better life. There were some things they were better off not knowing.

The sound of Rita’s voice snapped her out of her reverie.

“Mom, it wasn’t really self-defense when you hit Willy (she couldn’t bring herself to call him dad), but it wasn’t murder either, manslaughter maybe.” Rita was studying law; she would make a great district attorney some day.

Don pipe up, “As far as we’re concerned, it wasn’t a perfect crime.” His mother looked at him, silently willing him to continue until he added, “it wasn’t a crime at all.”