Charles Tabb is a retired English teacher living the life he’s always wanted now that he writes full-time. His work has appeared in Ariel Chart, and his horror story, The Corruption, will appear in September 2018 in The Raven Theater Anthology. His debut novel, Floating Twigs, will also be released in September 2018. Charles lives with his wife, dog, and two horses in the Richmond, Virginia, area, where he is currently writing short stories and working on his second novel. He is a proud member of the Virginia Writers’ Club, The Hanover Writers’ Club, and James River Writers. Find him at charlestabb.com.
GOOD FOR THE SOUL
In the final analysis, Carl Norman decided to kill his former English teacher, Mr. Justin Batard, because it was an excellent example of the ends justifying the means. Most people would think getting away with murder involved complexity and an unbelievable amount of luck, but Carl knew better. His plan would work because of its simplicity. Success relied on only one thing: predictable reactions that were totally dependable. Luck was a minimal requirement. Time was needed, but that was only to make sure everything would work as simply as he hoped it would. Anyway, Carl had all the time afforded youth. In the end, Carl considered Batard’s death a necessity; therefore, he must die.
It all started with the first essay assignment in senior English: “Write an essay on how the fight between Beowulf and Grendel represents the fight between good and evil, especially as it relates to the Christian influence on the story’s later development.” Carl had turned in one sentence: “I do not agree with the mandatory writing of essays on a required topic since it prevents creativity rather than nurtures it.” By the end of the second week, Batard would announce Carl’s shortcomings to the class. “Well, another zero for Mr. Norman!”
The struggle between student and teacher intensified until Batard did the unthinkable.
Carl sat in Batard’s class, watching the achingly slow passage of minutes until class was over. He was about to ask to go to the bathroom just to get out of the room for a moment when a dog barked in the hallway.
All eyes shot to the door, first wondering what was happening, then realizing it was just another visit by the drug dog. Someone was about to have his day ruined. Carl knew better than to ask to leave now. Nobody went out in the halls when the Chadley P.D. drug dog was there.
A moment later, Towermann, an assistant principal, was at the door, asking Carl to come out in the hallway.
Pointing at Carl’s locker, he asked, “Is this your locker?” as if he hadn’t already checked the records.
“Yeah, why?” asked Carl. He wondered what this was all about. He never used drugs, but if he did he would never be stupid enough to bring them to school.
“Would you open it, please?” Towermann said. The cop and his dog waited nearby, the dog sitting patiently. Near them stood Mr. Batard, who had come out with Carl. He sported a smug smile.
Carl felt a trickle of sweat slide from his hairline as he opened the locker. They always humiliated students by having them open the locker for a search. It was like being told to retrieve a switch to have your butt whipped.
As the door swung open, a small bag of marijuana plopped to the floor at Carl’s feet. He had never seen it before, but he knew nobody would believe that. He had been set up. Looking at Batard, he was fairly certain who had done it.
Carl spent the next several hours denying the drugs were his. As he expected, nobody bought it. Two months later he was sentenced to probation and fifty hours of community service.
A week after his sentence, Carl sat in English class hating Batard. As the teacher passed him, he leaned over to Carl and whispered. “You don’t want to mess with me.” Then he went on his way, as if nothing had happened. Carl stared at him as he walked away.
Two days later, Batard again muttered to Carl, “Enjoying that community service?”
Carl seethed and planned his revenge, even telling some of his friends that he would get back at Batard one day. He had heard that revenge is a dish best served cold, and he couldn’t agree more. Let others rush to satisfy their need for instant gratification. He was patient, and as he had also heard, patience was a virtue. He had always loved pithy sayings like that.
Five years after graduating, Carl would serve that cold dish. His virtuous patience would pay off. Tonight, he would kill Batard the Bastard, the name they had called him behind his back, and Carl would get away with it. He had seen to that as well.
He had followed Batard over a hundred miles from Chadley to Richmond, where Batard had taken a job as an assistant principal. Carl took a job working construction and moved into a cheap house in another area of town to avoid running into Batard.
On the night of the murder, Carl followed Batard to his house, where he lived with his cat, Byron. His wife had left him, prompting the move to Richmond. His son, whom Carl had never met, was in the army.
Carl had been in the house before, having located an unlocked window in back. While inside, he had found a house key, which he had taken to the hardware store to make a duplicate before returning the key to its hook. He was careful to wear gloves when in the house. Tonight, he had even pasted thick cardboard to the bottoms of his shoes to avoid leaving shoe patterns anywhere.
He had thought of everything. Five years of planning allowed that.
Carl stood at a rear window and watched Batard fill his night with mundane activities, mostly watching reality shows.
Donning his gloves and using his key, Carl entered the house and walked into the kitchen for a butcher knife before heading to the living room, where Batard sat in his recliner, watching an insipid program.
Surprised, Batard looked at Carl and said, “What are you doing here?”
Carl had expected the question and had prepared his response. “Settling old scores.”
Batard’s face clouded, his forehead wrinkling with worry. He sat forward in his chair and put the foot rest down. Byron hopped down from Batard’s lap.
Carl said, “I didn’t enjoy the community service.”
“Carl Norman,” Batard said, the concerned look suddenly gone, replaced with a friendly smile. He looked as if he didn’t have a care in the world.
“Of course,” Carl said, fuming. He struggled to maintain his composure. Then taking a calming breath, he said, “Batard the Bastard.”
Batard looked at Carl, smiling his same maddening smile. “Yes, I guess I still get called that by students. Indeed, I was definitely born with an unfortunate last name.”
“Don’t you know why I’m here?” Carl asked. His jaw hurt from clenching it.
“You said you were here to settle old scores.”
Carl brought the knife from behind his back. “I’m going to kill you.”
Batard reacted as if Carl had pulled a bottle of wine out as a gift, apparently thinking Carl couldn’t do it. “Well,” said Batard, “why am I not surprised? You always were impulsive.”
“But this isn’t impulse,” Carl said. “I’ve been planning this since before graduation.”
“But I bet the first time you thought of killing me was an impulse,” Batard said, but Carl ignored the remark.
“You don’t seem surprised,” Carl said.
The smile broadened. “And you do.”
“Why aren’t you?”
Batard sighed and looked at Carl, shaking his head. “I always figured you for a hothead,” he said.
“You set me up. You placed pot in my locker.”
“No,” Batard said. “I know you thought I did, but if it wasn’t yours, then someone else had a vendetta against you, because it wasn’t me.”
“Of course, it was you,” Carl said. “You even asked me if I was enjoying the community service.”
“Well, I will admit to taking some pleasure in your situation. Quite a bit of pleasure, actually. I freely confess I never liked you. You had intelligence, but you never used it to do anything . . . well . . . constructive.” Batard chuckled, waving his hand at Carl to prove his point. “You were such a smart ass. It’s funny, really. I used to think of you as a real bastard.”
“It doesn’t matter what you think anymore because in a moment you’ll be dead, and I’ll be getting away with murder.”
“You really think you will?” Batard asked, his eyebrows arching. “That would be quite a trick.”
“I don’t think I will; I know it.”
“Somehow I doubt it. Still, hats off to you for being patient. I actually expected you a few years ago, but when it didn’t happen, I forgot about you.”
This surprised Carl. He had expected him? What did he mean?
“Are you saying you knew I would come to kill you?”
“Kill? Maybe not, but yes, I did think you might show up one day to hurt or harass me.”
“There’s no way I could ever harass you the way you harassed me,” Carl said as anger rose in him like lava. “For that reason, killing’s the only revenge.”
“I’m sorry you feel that way,” Batard said. “I really am.”
“I just bet you are,” Carl said, advancing and plunging the knife into Batard’s chest. Acceptance was Batard’s only expression.
Bright blood spurted, and Carl dodged what he could while the cat hissed and scampered from the room. Carl watched Batard die.
“You won’t harass anyone anymore,” he muttered, yet the self-satisfied look on Batard’s face as he died bothered him.
Taking the knife with him, Carl left the house, being careful not to step in the blood, and walked in the shadows to his car parked on a street not far away. Checking the plastic sheeting that now covered the seats to keep blood from getting on the cheap upholstery, he removed his shoes before sitting in the car and placed them and the knife on the plastic.
When he got home he showered, stuffing his clothes in a garbage bag, and dressed again. Sometime around three a.m., he wrapped the plastic covering around the trash bag containing his bundled clothes, shoes, the knife, and a concrete block from his yard. Then he hooked a bungee cord tightly around it all, and placed it in his trunk. Driving to a nearby bridge that spanned a lake, he dropped the bundle off the bridge after checking to make sure he wasn’t being watched.
Carl drove home and slept for a few hours before going to work. He had one more thing to do, but he would have to wait until news of the murder had been reported.
Detective Tony Pantera of the Richmond Police Department caught the case the next morning. Someone at a local high school was worried about one of their assistant principals, because he had not shown up for work and would not answer his phone. A young patrolman had stopped by the man’s home, found the front door standing open, and discovered the bloody scene. He called the murder in at 9:41, ruining Pantera’s day. Rising from his desk, Pantera left his cubicle to investigate, stopping for a third cup of coffee in the break room first. It would be the last thing he ate or drank until late afternoon.
The news of the murder was on the radio by noon. By that evening, it led the local television news. Carl watched and smiled, noting and savoring the details, enjoying his anonymous notoriety.
The next morning, he watched the local news again, once again taking in the few details the police had released. Then he donned the outfit he would need for phase two of getting away with murder—short pants, an old dress shirt that he buttoned all the way to the collar, and ragged tennis shoes with no socks. Carl didn’t shave for the third straight day and left his house after calling in sick. Confident, he backed out and drove into town, parking a few blocks from the police station.
When Carl walked in, Leonard Morgan, the balding and overweight desk sergeant, sighed heavily and said, “Hello, Carl.” This version of Carl was well-known at the department. He once overheard an officer referring to him as “Crazy Carl,” but all things considered, he didn’t mind.
Carl stepped up to the desk and said to Sergeant Morgan, “I, um, uh, I need to talk to someone about that guy.” He glanced around the room as if expecting an attack.
“Which guy would that be?” asked Morgan.
“You know. That guy. The guy from the, um, school. The one that got murdered.”
“Don’t you have something better to do today, Carl? We’re real busy here right now.”
“No!” Carl said, raising his voice, then lowering it again. “I have to talk to the detective.”
Sergeant Morgan heaved another sigh. “You promise not to take too long?”
Carl nodded and glanced over each shoulder. First the left, then the right.
Morgan picked up the phone and dialed an extension. When Pantera was on the line, Morgan said, “Tony? This is Lenny at the desk. You have anyone who can talk to Carl?” Morgan listened then said, “Yeah, that Carl.”
Carl stood at the desk, glancing everywhere, anywhere, to avoid looking into Sergeant Morgan’s eyes. He thought how he should become an actor. He had fooled them all for a couple of years now. He picked up a pen lying on the desk and studied it.
“Don’t do that,” Sergeant Morgan snapped, and Carl dropped the pen and ducked his head. Then Morgan said into the phone, “Not you. It’s Carl. He’s messing with my pens.” He glared at Carl. “He’s always messing with something.”
After another pause Morgan said, “Okay, I’ll send him up.” He looked at Carl, who continued to avoid eye contact. “Okay, Carl, you know the way to the detective bureau. Ask for Officer Wheaton. She’ll speak to you.”
Carl hurried through the double swinging doors and scampered down the featureless hallway, keeping his gaze on the floor. He brushed past several people, feigning a strong desire to avoid physical contact.
Pushing through the door marked Detectives, he searched the room quickly and spotted a young, black woman seated at a desk who looked at him expectantly. He stepped up to her.
“Are you, um, Officer Wheaton?” he asked her, looking at the desktop.
“Yes,” she said. “Are you Carl?” She had apparently been forewarned about him. She was new and had drawn the job of speaking to him this time. It was almost always a young officer now.
“Yeah. I’m Carl. Can I, um—can I sit down?”
“I did it,” Carl began, tracing imaginary lines on top of the desk with his finger. “I killed that man, that, uh.” He took a deep breath. “That guy from the school.” His gaze darted up, caught Officer Wheaton looking at him, and dropped immediately to the desk again.
Officer Wheaton opened a legal pad and appeared to take notes. “Tell me about it. How did you kill him?”
“I used a knife,” he said. “I found this knife, uh, in this dumpster and, um, I used it. It was old but it was sharp.” He made a stabbing motion at the air, startling the officer.
“Okay,” Wheaton said, leaning away from Carl. Then she asked, “What did you do about the dog?”
Carl nearly grinned. Here it was. The trap. “The dog?” he said, feigning confusion.
“Yes, he had a dog for protection. What did you do about him?”
“Oh! Yeah, the dog. I forgot. I uh, I killed the dog, too.” He stopped to think. “Um, yeah. I fed him poisoned meat.” Carl felt like standing up and doing a jig. Morons, he thought.
Officer Wheaton nodded, as if this answered something important for the case. She said, “Well, thank you very much, Carl. We appreciate that you stopped in to let us know about this. We’ll be in touch, okay?”
“Okay,” Carl said, still appearing confused. “You’re not gonna, um, lock me up?”
“Not yet. We have to check out your story first, but I’m sure we’ll be arresting you in the next day or two.”
“Oh, okay,” he said softly. “That’s good. Should I go now?”
“Yes, Carl. We’ll be in touch.”
He muttered a quick “Thank you” before rushing from the building to drive home.
Over the next month, he stopped by the police department three times. Twice he asked when they would arrest him for the murder of “that school guy,” and the third time he confessed to a string of burglaries. He did this to keep up appearances. It wouldn’t do for someone to wonder why he had stopped coming in after confessing to Batard’s murder.
Finally, he was ready for the final scene in this little play he had constructed. He would go in today to tell them he was moving to Philadelphia to allow them to find him later. He was actually going back to Chadley, but they didn’t need to know that. They would just be happy “Crazy Carl” was becoming someone else’s problem.
After getting into his Crazy Carl outfit, he was leaving when his doorbell rang.
“Carl Norman?” the young man at the door said as Carl opened it. “I’m Detective Brunson with the Richmond P.D. Can I talk to you?”
To Carl the man looked young to be a police detective, perhaps in his late-twenties, with dark hair in a military cut and a stern gaze. Despite misgivings, Carl stood aside to let him enter.
“What is it?” Carl asked then decided it would be best to play the Crazy Carl part for this interview. “You here to arrest me?”
Instead of answering, the man turned. A revolver was aimed at his chest.
“Sorry about the little lie,” the man said. “My name’s Thomas. Thomas Batard.”
Carl blinked. “You’re his son,” Carl said.
“Yes,” Thomas said.
“What’s this about?”
“This,” Thomas said, holding out a sheet of paper, a hand-written letter.
Taking it, Carl read it, his heart hammering with each word. It named him. It explained Batard’s fear that a former student, Carl Norman, would come for him one day, and that if something should happen, that Carl should be questioned. Carl recognized his former teacher’s odd, meticulous handwriting. Stunned, Carl looked up from the letter.
“I’ve checked around,” said Thomas. “You confessed to killing him—and another two dozen crimes. But then, that was the key, wasn’t it? They’d never believe you, even if you confessed to a crime you’d actually committed. This letter and the fake confessions are enough to put you away.”
Carl stared at the weapon aimed at him. It was steady. If Thomas Batard was nervous, it didn’t show.
“You know what they say,” Carl said. “Confession’s good for the soul.”
“Not this time.”
“Where did you get that letter? Why would he write it?”
“After you graduated, you mentioned to some people you would get even one day. One of the guys you told became concerned and spoke to my father about it. Dad noticed you were frequently around, watching him, so he wrote this, sealed it, and left it with an attorney with instructions to give it to me if anything violent ever happened to him.”
“But what if someone else had done something?”
“Then I guess you’d get blamed,” Thomas said. “But I’m right. You murdered him?”
Carl considered the question. “You’re going to kill me no matter what I say, aren’t you?”
“Yes.” Thomas’s gaze never faltered.
“Your dad was an ass.”
“So you killed him?”
“He ruined my life.”
“Again, so you killed him?”
Carl stared into his executioner’s eyes. He could try to deny it, but why? He could see that he would never believe a denial, especially in light of all the confessions. The irony of his situation occurred to him. The confessions that were supposed to allow him to get away with the killing would convict him if he ever went to trial.
He shrugged. “Yeah, so? He deserved it. He ruined my life.”
“No,” Thomas said. “You ruined your own life.” Carl stiffened as Thomas opened his jacket and revealed the wire. At that moment, a police car swerved into his driveway and two more screeched to a stop on the street.
Then came the final irony. “My father was dying of cancer, you know. He hadn’t told anyone. His doctor told me he would have been dead in another three or four months anyway.”
Carl thought of the elder Batard’s calm acceptance of his fate and would have laughed had his victim not deserved the last one.
Thomas holstered the gun as Detective Pantera came through the door, his own weapon drawn.
Carl looked at him. His smile felt pasted on. “So, Detective Pantera. I see you’ve finally come to arrest me.”