The Market in Murder
by E. Cluff Elliott
Jenna Holsteen watched her big sister run to the other side of the park to meet a group of kids from down the street. The group of pre-teens huddled on concrete at the parks edge as if to be seen on the grass might damage their reputations. She wanted Hailey to come back and push her on the swing some more, but she also knew how her sister changed when her friends were around. It’s not like she ignored Jenna, it’s just that Hailey seemed to prefer her friends to her own sister.
“This is bullshit.” She repeated her father’s words without thinking. Blond, shoulder length hair caught a breeze and fluttered at the tips. For a moment she thought about walking home. It was only a couple of blocks, and besides, she knew Hailey wouldn’t want to do anything until her friends were gone.
She let her hands move up the pinch-proof chains until her My Little Pony shirt exposed her belly button. Once she had a good grip, she pulled herself up enough she could stand on the seat of the swing.
From her vantage point she surveyed the park. A few younger kids played on the newest edition to the park, one of those plastic, kid friendly sets that come in red, blue, and yellow.
She thought about hiding in the crawl tube. It wouldn’t be first time she’d used the playground equipment to escape supervision, but she didn’t want to have to deal with a couple of kids either.
“I’m only eight, Hailey. You always do this to me.” She knew her sister couldn’t hear her from this distance but she kept her voice low anyway.
Using her weight, she leaned back until the swing rocked forward. Her head lolled so low the chain-link fence at the rear of the park was upside down, and the sky was at her chin. Blood rushed to her brain.
“There better be something good on TV.” Jenna knew there wouldn’t be, there never was, but sitting on the couch sure sounded better than waiting on Hailey.
The horizon disappeared as she pulled her head up and lowered herself down to a sitting position. Fighting a wave of dizziness, she squeezed her eyes into slits.
Sitting there letting her head clear, she heard a faint whimper behind her. The sound made her turn and look over her left shoulder. Beyond the railroad ties surrounding the swing set, the grass blanketed the ground for twenty feet, but the only thing she noticed was a yellow patch in an ocean of green.
Turning away, she heard it again. She hadn’t had a lot of experience with dogs; her dad said the only K9 they’d get is one to guard his shop. She did hear it a lot, especially when the next door neighbors forgot to bring in their Cocker Spaniel.
Blond hair flew as her head snapped back to the fence. Pulling her face into a stare of suspicion, she held still, trying to minimize interfering sounds. After a few seconds she was rewarded with a third whimper.
This time, she got to her feet and turned to face the back of the park. It was definitely a dog, but she couldn’t see the poor thing. Her first instinct was to run toward the fence but then she thought of Hailey.
“She’s gonna be pissed if she sees me back there.” Her head swiveled between the fence and the group of kids over by the street. Jenna knew if she didn’t tell Hailey what she was doing and got caught, the story would end up in her mothers’ ear. On the other hand, if she told her sister, there was a good chance she’d deny Jenna the opportunity to explore.
She waved both hands above her head in wide arcs. Three passes later, she stopped waving but didn’t lower hands. She waited, wanting to see if Hailey and her friends paid attention. They fluttered around each other like a bunch of giggling flamingos, but none of them so much as glanced in her direction.
“Can’t say I didn’t try.” Jenna turned back to the fence. There was a split in the links somewhere on this side of the park but she couldn’t remember where.
Walking toward the edge of the park, she kept making little half turns to see if anyone had noticed her. None of them had. Sand slipped in between her feet and her flip-flops. Stepping over the railroad tie, she kicked her legs, getting all the sand out. It was still gritty between her toes but she could live with the irritation.
She heard another whimper, this one louder, painful. The sound stopped her in her tracks and cut at her nerves, making her doubt her commitment to the endeavor.
“Please don’t be all bloody and gross. I’ll have nightmares for a week.” The grass tickled her feet as she moved forward.
Approaching the fence, she saw where a link had been removed. Someone had used bailing wire to re-attach the two halves, but because so many kids used the fence as a shortcut, the wire on the lower half had come loose and a path was forming on the other side. The trail led into wild juniper trees then disappeared behind foliage. If she were to walk to the end, it would take her to the neighborhood adjacent to her own, something like two football fields away.
Curling her fingers around the criss-crossing bars of wire, she peered through the fence, searching for the source of the whimpering. There was a Flaming Hot Cheetos bag against the trunk of the closest juniper, but she didn’t see a dog.
“Come on, where are you?” She pressed her face closer to the fence as if that was going to help her see better.
Another whimper, almost a howl.
Jenna turned back toward the front of the park and her sister. She half expected to see Hailey stomping over with that I’m gonna kill you look on her face. Not today, however. Today the giggling group of pre-teen flamingos were completely enthralled with their conversation.
“Ten minutes. That’s all I need,” she said as she turned back to the fence. “If the dog is hurt really bad then I’ll come back and get Hailey.”
Using both hands, Jenna spread the fence open and slipped through the opening, hoping her hair didn’t get caught. On the other side, she checked to see if her sister heard the rattle of the fence. Nothing.
“Feels weird over here.” Seeing the park from a different perspective gave her tingles down in her gut. Realizing how much trouble she could be in for leaving the park almost caused her to vomit.
“I’m not doing it to get in trouble, though,” she said as she faced the small path in the dirt. “I’m doing it to help a dog. What would Hailey do if she heard a dog whining?” Timid, yet determined, she folded her arms and walked to the first bend where the path curved around a juniper twice as tall as her.
From the park side of the fence, the wild patch of land looked small and easy to navigate. Now that she was at the first bend, a mere ten feet away from the fence, she wasn’t so sure. Junipers crowded the trail, some of the twisted trunks reached ten feet or more, and she was pretty sure she could see a fork in the path ahead of her.
“I’ll just follow the trail.” Arms still folded, she walked beyond sight of the park, her eyes darting to either side of the path. “If I see the dog then I’ll help him. If I can’t find him then I’ll turn around and go back.”
Jenna unconsciously picked up her pace when she heard another whine. It was close. Her head moved back and forth as though she were watching someone play tennis or ping-pong. There was a rusty washing machine to her right, half buried and partly dismantled. More trash littered the ground in clumps, either up against a juniper trunk or half buried like the washing machine but she couldn’t see a dog.
“Come on, you stupid dog. Where are you?” Her arms came unfolded as she ducked and tip-toed, trying to see past the thick foliage on either side of the path. The sun was hot against the back of her neck.
“Here doggie,” she yelled as she moved further down the trail. Beads of sweat ran down the sides of her face.
More than a hundred feet away from the park, Jenna came across a mattress standing up between a juniper and a large piece of sandstone.
She looked back along the trail. The beginning of her trek had long since been swallowed by huge clouds of junipers. Somehow knowing the trail would take her back to the park didn’t help with the sudden realization of how close she was to getting lost.
“You better be in there, dog.” Stepping off the trail, she approached the mattress, making little side-steps to get a better view.
Instead of using a mattress for its original intent, someone had decided to use this one as a lean-to, creating a crawl space between it and the sandstone. Now, it collected trash, and the pile looked big enough for an animal to hide in.
“Are you in there?”
The dog whined no more than five feet in front of her, underneath the pile of trash.
Jenna hesitated when she thought about the germs, but she knew she had no choice. Hitching up her courage, she took two steps forward and dug into the pile. Trash flew as she cleared away each layer of garbage. A moment later her hands found a small box. She brought it up to toss it to the side, but once she saw it she froze.
“A speaker? Why the hell?” She flipped it over in her hand. The small box, wireless and brand new, gave her instant chills. She wanted to believe she was helping an animal, but now she regretted ever coming out here.
The small box in her hands roared to life with another whine, giving off a crackling sound that happens when a speaker is turned up too high.
She screamed and dropped the box. Advice about strangers and candy tore through her mind like a whirlwind.
She turned to run, the heel of her right foot coming down on the toe of a boot. The thought she’d stumbled on a rock lasted for less than a heartbeat. She knew what was happening.
Despite her flailing arms, big hands kept her from falling. Despite her screams, big arms kept her from getting away. The energy Jenna had was fierce, but for someone so small, it was like fighting a bear.
“Help.” She screamed as she kicked at her abductor. The back of her head pounded against his chest. She wanted free, to get away, but she couldn’t budge. “Let go you creep.”
He dodged her kicks and put a filthy rag over her face.
The smell of noxious fumes invaded her mouth and nose, and the more she screamed, the more she inhaled. Her arms grew heavy and it felt like her head had gained fifty pounds. She could feel her eyelids droop. She wondered if it was a dream. She wanted it to be a dream. “Hailey!”
Throughout my years, I’ve come across a number of songs, that’ve inspired me with instantaneous story ideas. The Market in Murder is one of those stories. I cannot take claim for the idea itself, but I can take claim for bringing it to life in the form of a short story.
The subject matter is going to strike home with some people and it may infuriate others. Recently, a little girl the same age as my daughter was kidnapped and murdered near my home town. The tragedy is real, and it can strike when you least expect it. In the aftermath, family members, neighborhood friends, and even local supporters band together to seek justice for the one who can’t seek it for themselves. It’s a shitty situation no one should have to deal with. That little girl deserves justice, but what kind? An eye for an eye? Turn the other cheek? They are both opposite sides of the same pendulum. And that’s what this story explores. Can humans take justice too far? Is there a line in which we should adhere? If the opportunity to do anything and get away with it arises, what kind of justice would one be willing to dish out? These are serious questions, but they are not so easily answered. The truth is no one will know until they are given the opportunity to take the justice they want.