In a town like Deercliff there are no secrets. In the days following the assault of Maggie Nice, Sheriff Boyer made it her job to cultivate this small-town share-all mindset. She did not have to do very much before she was swimming in a proverbial sea of (mis)information.
Ethan Largo was placed in the drunk tank after Essie grew tired of hearing him cry out his innocence. He could not provide an alibi for his time missing from the party, had no one to support his story, and was clearly emotional distraught. He was, without a doubt in the sheriff’s mind, the primary suspect. Evidence from the medical exam and the SAFE kit would set the record straight, and when this was a clear case, she would make the formal arrest and push the district attorney to go for the throat. Essie had seen what a sexual assault could to a person’s life (her mother) and their was no punishment too severe for a perpetrator.
They held him till about nine that night, when his parents got back from the city and found out what had happened. From what the officer on duty told her, Ethan’s parents had threatened a litany of charges against the county and the sheriff in particular, and promised to bring the holy fire of God down on Deercliff if anything were to happen to their son. It was always the hardest for family members, to find out someone they felt such a strong bond with was capable of doing something that broke the social code. People seemed to take it like a personal insult, like the criminally inclined were behaving this way to hurt them. Everyone is always looking for a way to make something about themselves.
In her best-selling memoir (and the Ellen interview it was based on) Essie was often asked to answer the question, “When did stuff begin to get weird around this case?” The answer she came up with was something akin to what follows:
That first day. This case was, odd, from the very minute it began. In a town like Deercliff, this sort of thing never happened. Our worst crime up until then was a couple swastika’s spray painted on the middle school by some idiot kids and the drunk driving. To have a rape case spring up in Deercliff was already odd. But I’m not answering your question am I?
I have a hard time really pinpointing the answer that you want to hear from me. Cause, you see it wasn’t any of the points you’d think, or really be hoping for. It wasn’t when the Largo’s hired Chas German, that gorilla with a law degree. Or when the press showed up and started making my job a hell of a lot harder. And I certainly don’t think it had anything to do with Trevor Nice coming back to town… Well sure when you put it like that. His sister had been hurt, and he reacted in a way unique to him. At the end of the day though, no one is going to blame a grief-stricken young man for the shiners he was giving out at the Gretel… Yea, except that one reporter he sucker punched, I’m sure he feels like a big man picking on the kid… Anyways, no, Trevor coming back from college had nothing to do with the case or the town’s weird shift.
But again, Ellen, understand, all that stuff you and these good people want to be the beginning of the strange s***, isn’t. This case was something totally singular, totally implausible from the minute it started. It had nothing to do with all the frogs, or those glitter-covered college freaks that yelled at the townsfolk… yea the ones that threw red paint on townsfolk yelling things like, “rapist saviors”… and it had nothing to do with the SAFE kit results or the 5:13 AM power outages or [incoherent] Sorry, I still have a hard time thinking about it. Or the disappearances. Sorry.
It got weird when people started coming in reporting sightings of Maggie that night.
These people began appearing at the sheriff’s door around mid-afternoon on November first. She had most of the department working the case, with a few left in reserve for whatever calls came in about getting those damn teenagers who had been out egging houses the night before. While her deputies did the police work, Essie knew she had to be the face of Deercliff on this day. Word of the assault, and of the boys that had been called in to talk that morning was being spread around the town like typhoid in the third world. She got about ten minutes after Ethan was escorted out of her office to eat her lunch (the same tub of Mediterranean orzo salad from the day before) before her secretary began leading these informants in.
For the most part, they were concerned citizens who just wanted to hear it from Essie, from some sort of authority figure. They’d spill out some line about seeing a girl who might have/could have been Maggie out trick or treating with her niece, or helping out at the church’s kids night, or drinking in the parking lot of the gas station before dropping the façade and simply asking, “did it really happen?” When the sheriff responded with a yes, the reactions were essentially the same. Sighs, deep breaths, a few tears, offers of help for the department and family in this time of need. Casual deflections before getting to the point, “So, Sheriff/Ms. Boyer/Essie, who did it/have you caught the pervert?”
So was her job. Thank them for their contribution to justice, promise to keep the public informed, and guarantee to punish the son of a bitch who could do such a thing to a beautiful, lively young girl who meant so much to the community. She dutifully made the appearance of writing down what the concerned citizens told her, but for the most part her legal pad was covered with drawings of the faces of the people who were speaking. Not all of these speakers were useless however.
A gas station owner came in, saying that he had footage of Maggie Nice entering the store at 11:43 pm, where she bought a lighter, green tea and pack of American Spirits. This was interesting, primarily because it did not line up with Ethan Largo’s story. In his version, Maggie left the party some time after midnight. He said he knew that for a fact, because when the clock chimed midnight (apparently the Halvert’s owned a large grandfather clock) Maggie and Ann Marie had made them all do the “Thriller” dance. The owner promised to bring in the store’s footage.
Maggie’s neighbor, Daniel Gerstein, was one of the first to come in. No doubt he had seen the cop cars (and the sheriff) earlier that morning when they went to inform Maggie’s parents what had happened and that she was being taken to the hospital in the city. Mr. Gerstein contradicted every story that had been heard thus far, saying he was coming home from the grocery store on a last minute candy run when he ran straight into Maggie. She helped him pick up his stuff, engaged in some small talk, and then stood on the sidewalk for several minutes before a red Ford Bronco pulled up. As Mr. Gerstein put it, some goth kid (he was unsure of the gender) was driving, and Maggie ran over and got in the car, which peeled off like a bat out of hell. Essie carefully got all the details she could out of Mr. Gerstein, but was unsure what to make of his claims. He wasn’t the sort of person to make up a lie, and was a rather upstanding community member. It felt like a puzzle piece that had wound up in the wrong box just to infuriate her.
The story that really got to sheriff Boyer came from Ms. Bridgette Halverson.
Bridgette was the new teacher at Deercliff Alternative High School, and was one of Maggie’s teachers. The Sheriff had met her at a community dinner before and found her to be a good addition to the gene pool of the town. Blonde, bubbly, impossibly polite, and by all accounts good at her job, though how she kept high school boys focused on algebra with tits like that was anybody’s guess. She was visibly shaken when she entered the sheriff’s office, and had the aroma of someone who had had too much to drink the night before. Her blonde hair was pulled tight, and her blue doe eyes had deep purple bags under them. She shuffled in her seat for a few seconds (Essie had made one leg shorter and removed some of the cushioning from the chair to make it more uncomfortable. Made it easier to tell when someone wasn’t telling the whole truth) and gingerly put her left index and middle finger on her lips. A sort of calming technique.
“Thank you for seeing me Sheriff Boyer,” Bridgette said. “I, I heard about what happened… and I think I have something valuable to add to your investigation.”
“Of course. Thank you for coming forward. I know this is a difficult thing to confront, for all of us. Maggie will need all the support she can get, as do I,” Essie replied.
Bridgette adjusted again in the seat. “I hope I can help. I… I don’t really know if what I saw even happened. Last night is a blur, a, like a dream, or a nightmare, but I couldn’t not say anything. If I did see her, at that place… I don’t know.”
“Aiden Griffen’s. The masked ball. I was invited, I don’t know why, I think he was just being nice. We keep running into each other in random places.”
Essie struggled to keep in a snort. Aiden Griffen, friendly neighborhood eccentric millionaire asshole. There was no doubt that him running into Bridgette was anything but random. Every year all the local socialites flew into frenzy for his Halloween party, which carried with it some ludicrous theme and gift bags that often contained thousands of dollars of ridiculousness. Essie tilted her head and asked, “So you went then? I thought all the teachers rented out the Gretel for Halloween?”
“I stopped by the staff thing. It’s kinda awkward, I think Scott (that would be the principal, Scott Russo) has a crush on me. But, I mean, everyone there told me I had to go the Griffen’s party. Some of the other female staff told me to get all the juicy details, haha.”
“I’m sorry Ms. Halverson, what does your office gossip have to do with the sexual assault of Maggie Nice?”
“well, I just don’t want to leave anything out. So, the theme was like, literature or something. So I was dressed as Coraline. I don’t like girls who use Halloween to dress slutty. (Essie nods in agreement. Her pen is softly outlining the young woman’s left cheek. She didn’t take her for someone who needed attention this bad, to attach herself to a tragedy seemed low. Then again, she was new in town, and it wasn’t easy to make people like you in a place as close as Deercliff) Just yellow jacket and a blue wig for me. I showed up his house, well mansion, at like 9:00 pm. There were so many people there, all wearing these fantastic costumes. A lot of people dressed like the Clockwork Orange guys. I didn’t know that was a book. Anyways, I was enjoying the party, kind of wandering around Aiden’s house, just totally in awe. I’ve never been somewhere with such an ostentatious display of wealth. I could have sold the glasses the drinks came in for more than my monthly paycheck. I didn’t see Aiden for like a full hour, ended up talking to these people who had come in from LA just for the party. One of them did the make-up for the new Harry Potter movie. Well its not’s actually Harry Potter, is it.”
“Right, the thing about Maggie. Well, you see, at some point, Aiden showed up. And he was dressed like some Victorian figure. Or like, late 19th century. I don’t really know. He told me he was supposed to be Leopold Von Sacher-Masoch, I think I said that right. The guy who came up with masochism. He said it fit the theme cause his most famous book was all about whipping your sexual partner or some shit, and like, that made it hot. Lit literature, you know. (Essie was carefully shadowing the hollow eye sockets of a hungover Bridgette at this point. She didn’t point out that Bridgette was technically thinking of the Marquis De Sade if sadism was involved.) And he introduced me to his wife. Claire Zima-Griffen. I never got why women don’t just take their husbands last names, seems like a lack of commitment to me. She was Lady Macbeth. Just dunked her hands in red paint from what I could see. Well, after chatting with them and this make-up artist fellow, Aiden invited me to come with him, he said the house had a very special art piece.”
“What was the small talk about?”
“Some lady they all knew. I guess she had been working herself to death. And it didn’t sound like it was worth it. So I followed Aiden, and he led me into the kitchen. It was like the kind of kitchen you see in castles in movies. The amount of pots and pans hanging from the ceiling rack was bigger than my bed, and it had like dead poultry hanging out to dry on the walls. There was this stairway, and he said the show was down that way. It spiraled down pretty low, and the only light came from the kitchen itself. The last couple steps had no light at all. I practically ran into him when we got to the door. He rapped on it once, this big steel or iron thing. When it slid open, there was this huge room. It was probably a basement the size of the actual mansion sheriff. (Essie looked up from her doodle.) The only lights came from these pyramids, in the corners. Some hundred yards apart. Three were this deep red, the other was a light blue, and the blue one flickered with the beat of the music. I couldn’t see where the music came from, or who was playing it, but that music made the whole place feel like it was breathing. I could only catch glimpses of people, like snapshots while the beat adjusted to the light. Aiden led me into the middle of the place, introducing me to people as we went. Somehow, his voice was always louder than the music. I think there was a dead Hemingway fellow, a few slutty Hester Pryne’s, and a couple dressed up like Marla and Tyler from Fight Club. And a lot of Jane Austen or Brontë sister stuff I can’t really tell apart. A lot of Seattle’s and Portland’s and San Francisco’s poured from their mouths.
When we reached the middle of the area, the lights were barely visible. Just random flickers that seemed to match the song playing. A lot of slow music, lots of bass. It was just Aiden and I, there in the near dark for a while. He told me how money had never really made him happy. I don’t remember what I said back, I had drunk a lot of vodka by that point. it kept showing up. Then these hands slipped over my shoulders, and this voice said hello to me. I’m not a racist Sheriff, but the woman who was holding me was so dark, all I could see was her teeth and the whites of her eyes. Aiden told me she was the heart of darkness. She had this neon heart thing that glowed on her breast. She talked to me for a long time, I think.”
“Sheriff, I can’t tell you her name, or what we talked about. Not cause I don’t want to, I can’t remember. When I think about her, all I can see is the few glimpses of the heart shape, and her teeth. Did I mention, the heart wasn’t a valentines shaped one, it was a real heart shape. Whenever I looked at her, I felt like everything that had ever troubled me had gone away… oh that doesn’t really mean anything. I just, I don’t know sheriff. I think we talked for a long time, yes.”
“You are a verbose woman, Bridgette.”
“If you could get to what your Halloween night had to do with my rape case, that would benefit me.”
“This thing happened, in that room. Aiden told me there was going to be a performance. I talked to heart of darkness for a long time, then it was quiet, and there was a light. A actual light, right there in the middle of this room. And Aiden went out, and sat in a chair that must have always been there. Some old, antique wood thing. I looked at the heart of darkness, and just saw a topless black woman, with a detailed human heart painted on her, and then the dancing started. Claire, Aiden’s wife appeared next to him, in some skimpy outfit, all leather and metal. The two of them, they, I don’t know, did some kind of performance art. It was part play, part porn, part living painting. And this orchestra was illuminated, and they all looked like they were wearing animal masks. This whole, just, weird sex act thing happened in front of us. I don’t think I have the vocabulary to describe it, sheriff. Everyone in the room was transfixed by this dancing. The heart of darkness grabbed my hand at some point sheriff. I think it was just the vodka, but I really liked holding her hand. I feel like I kissed her, or we kissed, or, I don’t know, maybe I initiated it. I don’t even know if this room is real. The more awake I get, the less of this seems to make sense to me. I swear, I really don’t drink this much usually,” Bridgette stopped at this point.
Essie had, somewhere in this story, titled her head to the left. Primarily to better observe Bridgette’s lips during the whole exchange. It wasn’t everyday Essie had someone telling about some weird sex dungeon escapades, and Essie saw it as a good chance to work on her ability to draw what a lie looked like. The way people’s faces moved when they told a story could tell you so much more than the words of the story. Bridgette’s hand had made its way from the armrest to her lips about every tenth word. She stared at the ceiling for most of her story. Essie couldn’t place most of this behavior, but it seemed like the new teacher could be something of a basket case. She was the right age for a mental illness to be begin rearing its hydra head.
Yet, she looked right at Essie, after she stopped rambling about the rainbow colored martinis served at the party and the fur coat of Aiden’s wife in their little sex play. “Maggie Nice was at the party sheriff. She was in that room, they basement with the pyramid lights. I left with the heart of darkness. And near the entrance, I swear, Maggie was right there. She told me she was the use of female cops in danger as a plot device. She had a bunch of fake cuts, and a cop outfit on. She gave me a big hug. I know that happened sheriff. I know that happened,” Bridgette said. “I can’t forget her perfume.”
With each word, Bridgette leaned closer to Essie. Where her eyes prior to this had been avoiding Essie’s, they now looked deeply at the sheriff. Her hands had clenched on the armrests, several fingernails piercing the warn leather. And with each syllable, the sheriff got a clearer idea of how much the teacher believed this idea.