Eternal Light

The long grass danced in the breeze. She watched and waited, waited and watched. Hoped that sometime soon she’d be found. The birds rose up from the trees in the distance, turned the sky black with their flight. She rose up, wondering what had disturbed them. She heard rumbling, a groaning and grinding roar. Behind the new houses, the rumbling got louder. Leaves in nearby trees shook, floated to the ground even though they were still green. Could it be? Could the dawn of this glorious new day be the day she was found? The longest game of hide and seek ever, she thought with a wry grin.

The machines rolled into sight, the same ones she’d been watching for months building all the new houses near her hiding place. Trucks and men gathered, shouting to one another. She didn’t care what they said, none of it concerned her. She watched, patiently, as they moved into position. The vehicle with the big bucket, the one that dug up the earth and deposited the dirt into huge trucks finally appeared. She wished she could control it, guide it to wear it needed to be.

The sun blazed high in the sky, she watched the men remove their hardhats and swipe sweaty brows. Now she listened, now she cared what they said.

“We’ll start excavation tomorrow, maybe day after.”

She shrugged, figuring tomorrow or the day after were better than the years she’d been waiting.

*

A week later, she watched as the big machine finally started to dig. Not where she needed them to dig, but close. She watched, listened to the birds, tentative in their perches as though they knew their safe place was in danger. She hadn’t left the area for months, waiting forever for them to work their way to where she rested. She got tired of watching them work, yearned to drift away, just for an hour, or a day. She didn’t have any concept of time, only knew the changing of day to night, summer to fall.

“Bones! Stop! We got bones!”

*

Several days to nights later, she was riding with her bones in a vehicle. She refused to leave, afraid she’d miss something. Finally, she’d been found. Now, she needed to know why. She knew who, when, all the boring details the police would eventually figure out themselves. She wished she could save them the weeks of work, the forensic stuff, but she couldn’t. She could take them straight to the who, she’d be with them when they figured it out. Would ride with them when they confronted him, maybe learn the whys. That’s all she wanted to know. What came after she learned them? She had no idea.

*

“I think I’ve got her!”

She clapped as Detective Thomas Erickson shouted from his chair behind the computer. Tom kept slapping his hand on the surface of his desk, his smile wide and made him even more handsome.

“You got her? Who is she?” Tom’s partner, Eleanor, dashed into the office they shared.

Tom swivelled the screen for Eleanor. “Margaret Aikens.”

Eleanor clapped Tom on the back. Margaret beamed at the two of them, they’d been working cold cases for a long time together, and had managed to figure out who she was a lot faster than Margaret had thought possible. Finally, she could leave her bones, stop visiting that dark lab where forensic people did disgusting things to her remains. She no longer cared what happened to them. Only what happened next.

*

“Quick recap then. Margaret left her parents house at about five o’clock on September twenty-seventh, fifty-eight years ago. It was a Saturday, and she’d been invited to her friend Louise’s house for dinner. She never arrived. Louise was surprised when Mr. and Mrs. Aikens woke her family at midnight, wondering where their daughter was. They called the police more than seven hours after the last time anyone saw Margaret alive. That’s where Detective George Lawson comes in. We have his reports, his notes, and you can tell he took young Margaret’s disappearance very seriously because of the incredible details.”

Margaret nodded her head vigorously. She’d spent hours and hours with George, whispering the name he was looking for over and over. Of course, George hadn’t listened, preferring to do things the hard way.

“I’ve got a name that comes up several times. Arch Benton. George wrote his name with an almost angry force.” Tom held up a piece of paper from the old file, showing Eleanor. “See? The pen ripped the paper on this one.”

“Who was Arch Benton?” Eleanor took the paper. Margaret watched the woman’s eyes fly across the page, back and forth like a pendulum.

“That’s the thing. There’s no clear indication. Just his name mentioned, over and over by family and friends. No clear accusation, no sort of feeling for who he was. The fact that his name came up so often? Leads me to believe George had to tread very carefully around the name, the man. We need to figure out who this Arch Benton was, and why George seems to have interviewed everyone from the most distant relative to those closest to Margaret, but never interviewed Arch.”

Margaret closed her eyes, a serene smile spreading over her face. George had been listening.

*

“Your not going to believe this, Tom. I’ve found him.”

Margaret heard Eleanor’s voice shriek over the phone as Tom answered. She’d been drifting between Tom’s house and Eleanor’s, now she wished she’d stayed a little longer at Eleanor’s. She clapped her hands. Eleanor had succeeded where even Margaret had failed. Try as she might, she’d never been able to locate him. She’d spent time with her parents, had even been at her brother’s bedside when he’d died. That had been hard, meeting her brother as he entered her world, calling her name from the world he was leaving, calling her name as he drifted through the world she was in now. He’d passed into a bright, beautiful light, his hand outstretched for hers, and she’d managed, barely, to resist reaching for him before he was gone, and with him the light.

“Where? Don’t leave me hanging, El.” Tom put his coffee down and sat back. Margaret had to stay close to hear what Eleanor said next.

“An LTC about forty minutes outside the city. A ritzy Long Term Care place.”

“So our guy has money. How old is he? Figure Margaret would’ve been seventy-five if she’d lived.”

“From the little I’ve been able to dig up, looks like he’s eighty. And he no longer goes by Arch Benton.”

Tom got to his feet and paced, making it hard for Margaret to keep an ear on the phone. “How’d you find out? What’s his name?”

“You got time now, or should we wait until we’re on the clock tomorrow to discuss it?”

Tom blew out a breath. “Give me a bit of it tonight. Maybe I’ll be able to sleep.”

“Tidy little package then. His father was that big shot lawyer, the one George mentioned when writing out info about Arch. Seems Arch’s daddy paid big bucks to quietly change his son’s name, had all records of it sealed. Arch Benton disappeared without a trace five years after Margaret disappeared, yet we had no idea how or why. Seems he never left the city. He just became Richard Robertson. His mother’s maiden name and his own middle name. Now why would a perfectly innocent acquaintance of the Aikens’ family change his name and go underground? He lived off trust funds left to Richard Robertson by his father, but as far as I can tell, the Benton’s never mentioned their son again publicly. The five years after Margaret’s disappearance until Richard’s appearance in the world, like he dropped out of the sky, there was little mention of him other than George’s notes. We can safely assume that Benton Sr. was the reason George never interviewed Arch. George’s notes are so careful to elude but never outright say anything about suspicion regarding Arch.”

Tom’s free hand clenched into a fist. “We need to find out if any other women disappeared before Robertson showed up. And if there were any after where Robertson’s name was mentioned in passing. That’s going to take a year to sift through.”

“I’ll run a search using the key names in the cold case archives. It’s not much, but it’s a start.”

Margaret wished she could use a computer, she’d help them search. Anything to get them going to see Arch before the guy died first.

*

Eleanor slammed the door behind her as she entered the office. Margaret came through the door right behind her, just as angry.

“What?” Tom looked up from his computer, apprehension etched on his face.

“We got nothin’. According to the chief, anyhow. He agrees that Arch slash Richard is suspicious. There was no DNA found on the remains that weren’t Margaret’s. At least not enough to matter. The missing homeless women were random and sporadic. Their bodies were never found so we can’t prove they didn’t just simply move somewhere else, died as Jane Does the way they’d lived. Nothing even remotely close to linking Arch to them. No reports from anyone mentioning Arch slash Richard had frequented their area. No DNA to trace because we haven’t got anything to get a DNA sample from. Random bodies found had matching DNA after the eighties, but without a suspect, they’re cold cases too. Even if we worked all of them, we’d never be able to find a link to Arch slash Richard.”

“Just call him Arch. This slash business grates on my nerves.” Tom blew out a frustrated breath. “What else did the chief say? You seem a little too upset considering we expected him to say that.”

Eleanor punched a stack of folders on the filing cabinet. Papers rained down to the ground. “I called the LTC, seems dear Mr. Robertson’s not in good health.”

Tom threw his pen. “How long?”

“Anytime. Though the woman I spoke to let slip that they’re surprised he hasn’t gone downhill faster. Sort of hinted he’s dying in slow motion.”

Margaret wished she could punch like Eleanor, throw things like Tom. She’d waited all these years, searched for whispers of Arch to find him, find out why, only to be denied the chance? “Please, go see him anyways. Let me get my answers before it’s too late.”

Margaret knew it was futile, no one had heard her since her brother in his own passing.

“Here’s what we’re going to do.” Tom gestured for Eleanor to come closer.

*

Margaret floated on air all the way up the interlock path, following Eleanor and Tom. This place was like nothing she’d ever seen alive, and unlike anything she’d paid attention to in death.

“You’re sure this is a Long Term Care place? Looks more like a movie stars mansion.” Tom pressed the buzzer at the door. “Ready, Betty?”

“As I’ll ever be, Fred.” Eleanor smoothed her blouse and patted her hair.

The door swung open and a fresh faced young woman smiled at them. “Mr. and Mrs. Stone?”

“That’s us.” Tom smiled at the woman as he gestured for Eleanor to go ahead of him. They stepped into the large foyer and followed the woman to a desk.

“Normally, I’d have to ask for your IDs and confirm you should be allowed in, but due to the circumstances…” The young woman smiled sadly.

“Thank you so much,” Eleanor whispered. Margaret almost believed the tears were real except she’d seen Tom pinch her.

“Mr. Robertson’s been here for so long and never had any visitors. Never spoke of any family. We wondered…” The young woman trailed off again as they made their way to a sweeping circular staircase.

Eleanor launched into the story she’d given that morning. “My mother always told me my grandfather was dead. Until right before she died, I had no reason to doubt her. Then my mother, on her deathbed, confessed that her father was still alive, that she’d run away to marry my father and never came back. My grandfather tried to find her but she refused to see him. I just want to meet him, you know? My mother wasn’t very kind, but you said my grandfather is?”

“Oh yes, he’s very likeable. Quiet, but always polite. Until you called, I always wondered why I sensed a sadness in him. Now I know.”

“You didn’t tell him I was coming, did you? I’m not sure I’ll tell him who I am. Might be too painful to dredge all that up when he’s so weak already. This is selfish of me, I know.” Eleanor gripped Tom’s hand and Margaret rolled her eyes behind them.

“No, we’ll let you decide if you want to share or not.” The woman led them along a long hallway. The carpet beneath their feet looked lush and rich to Margaret, and she wished she could feel if it were soft. The woman knocked lightly and opened the door. Margaret soared in, froze. The sounds in the room were so loud after the muffled hall. Beeps and whirs and rattling sounds, loud and intimidating.

Margaret drifted to the figure in the bed, hooked up to machines, with tubes running from his arms to bags hanging beside the bed. “Arch.”

Margaret couldn’t reconcile this miserable creature with the memory she’d carried in her mind. “Arch, this isn’t fair, this isn’t how it was supposed to be. You were supposed to be young, alive. Going down in a hail of bullets or something.”

“Mary, you can monitor everything from outside the room for five minutes, okay? Give Mr. and Mrs. Stone some privacy.”

Margaret had almost forgotten Eleanor and Tom were there. She watched as a nurse nodded, followed the young woman out of the room. When the door closed softly behind them, Tom approached the bed with Eleanor beside him.

“Mr. Robertson?”

Margaret worried he was already dead, that the machines keeping him alive had somehow missed that he was gone. But then Arch opened his eyes, the brown almost blue with age like Margaret’s grandmother’s had been.

“I understand you can’t talk to us, but we’ve been assured you can see and hear us.” Tom pulled a paper from the inside of his jacket. “Arch, do you recognize her?”

The man’s eyes widened in surprise at the use of the name. Margaret heard the beeps increase their pace, worried the nurse would come back and shoo Tom and Eleanor out. When the beeps slowed again, Tom held the picture close to Arch’s face. Margaret saw his eyes widen, saw the recognition. She wanted to curse, to scream, to cry. This wreck of a man wouldn’t be able to answer the question she’d waited fifty-eight years for. The question that burned brighter than the white light she’d turned from.

“Arch, you know what happened to Margaret, don’t you? Just nod your head.” Tom kept the picture in the man’s line of vision, and Arch never looked away.

“I hear death bed confessions are good for the soul, old man. If ever a soul needed to score points, it’s yours, here and now.” Eleanor spoke softly, almost gently, but the glint in her eyes made Margaret smile.

Arch glanced at the table behind them, back at them, then at the table again. When Tom and Eleanor continued to watch him, he raised a skinny arm and pulled the mask from his face. “Book.”

Tom didn’t seem to understand the whispered word, but Eleanor and Margaret did. Both spun to look at the table. An old, worn book lay on the table along with a cross and some rosary beads. Margaret read the faded cover, but didn’t understand because the words weren’t in English. Eleanor grabbed the book and lifted it so Arch could see. “This book?”

Arch blinked, his head moving slightly in assent. Eleanor and Tom opened the book together. Margaret stood behind them, reading over their shoulders.

“The writing is so faded.” Eleanor complained, flipping pages. “We’ll never be able to read it.”

“Let me see.” Tom took the book and squinted. “I can make out some of the words.”

“Read it out loud.” Eleanor and Margaret watched Arch as Tom began to read aloud.

“Dad always said there wasn’t a murder that didn’t leave traces. Bragged it was his job to find the traces before the prosecutors, suppress them. I wanted to know the lengths he’d go to. She was easy, Margaret Aiken. Stupid girl got into my car when I offered her a drive. At first, she didn’t seem to mind that I’d driven past her friend’s house. I was going to let her out at the next street when she didn’t react, but then she started to cry. That’s when I got excited. She begged me to stop, to let her go. I kept driving to the hunting cabin. We got there and she stopped crying. Stopped begging. Seemed to accept her fate. I got bored. Killed her, watched her die. When she was dead, I was so angry. She’d died so fast. She should have begged, fought me. But she didn’t. She just muttered her prayers the whole time. And then, she went blank. Such a disappointment. I should’ve let her out of the car, found someone else. I buried her in a field, left. Was home before anyone even knew she was missing. I waited forever for someone to question me. To mention seeing me with her, lots had seen me. I finally told Dad. Cost him a fortune to get people to change their stories, to lie. The cop suspected me, but he couldn’t get enough to charge me. Dad wouldn’t let him question me, said there was no way he’d let his son be bothered by police, that as the best lawyer in the city he’d be a laughingstock if he let him question me. Dad told me how stupid I’d been, picking a sweet girl like Margaret. Said if I had half a brain, I’d have gone for a girl no one would miss. So I did. Dad was right, no one ever suspected me when a prostitute disappeared, or a homeless woman. I didn’t have to work so hard to hide their bodies, but I put in a bit of effort. Weighed them down in the lake, buried them in dumpsters headed for landfills. Just left their carcasses in forests. After Margaret, Dad didn’t trust me. Kept watch. But when he found me with the body of a homeless woman, he made me change my name and I was moved out of the spotlight Dad’s fame cast. Every chance I got, and there weren’t many, I went out to find another. But none of them brought the same sort of feeling Margaret had. Because as disappointing as she’d been, it was a challenge to make her beg again. But she didn’t beg. Didn’t cry. The others were weak, begged until there was no more breath.”

Margaret looked from the book to Arch. She’d waited fifty-eight years to find out she’d only died because she’d cried? He hadn’t picked her, loved her, stalked her. She’d been walking down the street and was a convenient target. So random. Not special, not for any great reason she might be able to reconcile her cruel fate with.

“You killed her just to see if you could get away with it?” Tom stared at Arch, his disbelief mirrored on Eleanor’s face.

“She was only seventeen. She had her whole life ahead of her.” Eleanor whispered, and Margaret thought she might actually be sad, not acting.

Tom flipped the page. “When Dad died, I lost my inspiration. I never killed again after that. I guess because I knew there’d be no one as good as him to save me from jail. But man, what a run. If I had it to do over again? I would’ve done more. Been more. Done it better. But my one regret, the one that’ll haunt me until the day I die? That I didn’t take longer to kill Margaret. I think, if I had tortured her more, had more time, I could have made her beg.”

“You sick SOB.” Eleanor spat the words. “This is your dying day, and after hearing that? I hope you have an eternity to rot, dwelling on all your regrets. No, I hope you relive everything, only the girls don’t die, that they turn on you. I hope when you take your last breath, you see them happy, knowing they’re in a better place, a place you’ll never go.”

Tom lifted the cross and rosary beads. “Are these for show?”

Arch smiled. Margaret saw the faint upturn of his lips, the laughter in his rheumy eyes. He gave them the thumbs up.

Eleanor shuddered. “Evil. Sick. I wouldn’t have begged you for my life either.”

The humour faded from Arch’s features as Tom grabbed Eleanor’s hand. “I’d love to arrest him, but we’re not supposed to be here. We’ll get his DNA postmortem. But we won’t tell the world what a monster he was, why give him that fame? We’ll close the case quietly, match him to as many other cold cases as we can, and let him rot in his destiny without any fame.”

Margaret watched them leave. She had no need to follow them. She’d wait until Arch died. Then she’d figure out what to do. How to find the light she’d turned from.

The nurse and the young woman entered the room. “He’s still hanging in there?”

“Had a little spike when that couple were here, but otherwise the same as he’s been for hours. Stubborn. You’d think at this point he’d be glad to leave the pain behind. Such a sweet guy. Do you believe in Heaven, Mary?”

“I do.” Mary adjusted something on one of the drips. “Surely Mr. Robertson would be thrilled to meet his maker.”

“Mr. Robertson, it’s okay. You can let go.” The young woman patted his hand and left the room.

Margaret had been watching Arch during the exchange. She knew why he was clinging to life. Fear.

Margaret wanted quiet. She didn’t dare leave the room, not for a minute, in case she missed it. She wanted to be there, see him off. Would he go to the light? She wasn’t sure what happened to someone if they weren’t going on, into the light. She shivered involuntarily as a thought flickered. What if he were stuck here, where Margaret was, forever? And because she’d turned away from the light, she could never go on? Had her need for answers cost her eternity in Heaven? One thing she knew; if she were stuck in the same place as Arch, she wouldn’t beg for anything. She couldn’t imagine torturing him the way he’d tortured her, but she wouldn’t let him hurt her.

The machines made different sounds. Margaret waited as the nurse got up to check the bags dripping into the needles in Arch’s arms. He stiffened in the bed, and Margaret kept watch. Finally, finally something happened.

She watched Arch leave the old man. She rose up with him, waiting to see. Arch turned to her, his eyes widening. “Margaret!”

The room filled with light. Margaret felt something she hadn’t felt before. Heat. The light had a flickering quality to it; instinctively she moved away. Arch tried to follow, but the light reached out, caught him. Screaming, Arch held out his arms to her. Margaret couldn’t have touched him if she wanted to. The heat stifled, choked. Margaret watched as flames engulfed him, and with the fading scent of acrid smoke, Arch and the flames were gone.

“Who was Margaret?” Mary whispered, closing Arch’s eyes on the bed below. “God rest you both.”

Margaret looked up, to Heaven. “I’m ready. I hope I can find my way to the light.”

And as fast as the flickering light had come for Arch, the brilliant, blinding pure white light came for her. And this time Margaret went into it.

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