Leah had no plans for her thirtieth birthday. She was going to go home right after work and reward herself with a frozen pizza she had been holding onto for a few months for a special occasion. This was what her life had become. A $7 pizza was the highlight of her year, but it was better than chasing a high. It was better than being back home in Washington, unemployed and dependent on her ex-husband and her ex-con family members.
Leah’s probation officer had hooked her up with the job at the chicken slaughterhouse at the edge of Astoria, Oregon. She worked the line, finishing off the chicken carcasses with a process that she honestly had tried so hard to block out of her mind it was so horrifying to her that she couldn’t verbally explain exactly what she did to anyone, she just knew the muscle memory.
The pay was good though. So were the benefits. Especially for an ex-con herself. The four months that she had been working there were the best, or at least just the most-stable of her entire life she could remember.
The rush Leah got when she walked out of the chicken factory at quitting time at 5:30 each night was stronger than any high she ever got from any drug she ever took in her 15-year drug taking career that was hall of fame level in rural northwest Washington state. She regularly felt like she was walking on air when she walked from the entrance of the plant to her beat up Accord in the back of the dark lot.
She was floating so high it took her awhile to realize there were two men standing next to the passenger-side door of her car. It wasn’t until she was in the driver’s seat, keys in the ignition that a knock on said passenger-side door window startled her.
She rolled down the passenger-side window, cautiously.
A sheriff’s badge greeted her through the window as soon as it was half-way down. She’d seen plenty of those before but this one particularly deflated her.
“Fuck me,” she muttered to herself.
The sheriff explained she was not in any trouble. He, and his associate, who worked for the state of Oregon, just wanted to take her to a nice dinner and ask her some questions. They would have her home by 7 p.m. to feed her cat.
She agreed. A restaurant dinner sounded nice. It was her birthday, after all.
The nice dinner they treated her to was at a place called The Iron Skillet. It was a run-of-the-mill small town diner. She ordered the only steak they had on the menu. She didn’t even like steak, but it was $21, and they were paying.
The sheriff did almost all of the talking. A tall, thin guy with sunken eyes who was pushing 50 with a five o’clock shadow. He seemed exactly like all of the officers who had always busted her throughout her life. The only thing he liked was probably whiskey, chewing tobacco, fishing, and the strip clubs of Portland.
The government guy was more alien to her. Short, pale, round, soft, with poofy gray hair. He seemed entirely out of place in the rural northwest. She vaguely thought he resembled some of the lawyers she had over the years and the job he said he had with the state sounded something somewhat law-related. He mostly just seemed gross though.
The two men did their best to try and make small talk for at least the first 10 minutes of their meal to seem like caring human beings, but they got down to business as soon as they placed their dinner orders of three New York steaks, Leah’s being the only one that wasn’t well-done.
The sheriff got to it really quick. Her ex-husband, Dale, officially divorced as of 17 months ago, was suspected, well not suspected, known, to have murdered a handful of women in Oregon and Washington state over the past handful of years. They had all the proof they needed; it was only a matter of connecting the dots.
Leah felt sick to her stomach the second she heard his story. Even a $100 piece of steak wouldn’t have sounded good to her at that point. She honestly wasn’t sure if Dale was capable of murder. They had only been married for a few years and they were both so high during that time that she didn’t really know him or what he was doing just that he cheated on her, a lot.
The sheriff explained that Dale would lure the women in by selling them meth and then gain their trust and then would suffocate them up a logging road up in remote Skagit County…
“Okay, okay,” Leah said with eyes closed. “I’ve heard enough. What do you want from me though?”
The government boy finally spoke up, with a mouth full of mashed potatoes and gravy. He explained one of the women Dale had killed was the Governor of Oregon’s niece and the governor was worried Dale was going to be arrested and convicted in Washington, where there is no death penalty and the death penalthy would be overturned in Oregon by the time they got him down there.
So…they wanted Leah to lure Dale down to Oregon where he could be arrested for violating the restraining order she had against him and then he would get tried for the murders in Oregon first, where he could be properly executed.
Oh, and she had to get him arrested before the end of the year, before Christmas really, because they were going to have an overturn in the state courts that was going to make it really hard to get him the death penalty if he was arrested in the coming year. It was November 19.
“I’m not exactly a fan of Dale, so I’m happy to help in ways that don’t really inconvenience me, but what is really in it for me?” Leah asked.
The sheriff coolly and calmly explained just before the entrees arrived they were aware Leah had used her rental house to store a massive amount of heroin that was eventually part of a massive drug deal about a year prior. They had everything they needed up in Washington to drop a charge on her but if she participated in she’d never even heard about it again.
“And five hundred thousand dollars from the governor’s family,” the government lawyer guy blurted out with a mouthful of strip steak. “Fifty thousand in cash just to get started as a bonus on top of it all too.”
She agreed. The only problem was she didn’t even know how to get a hold of Dale and last she had heard he left town and maybe moved up to Alaska. She had no phone number. No email. No Facebook profile. Nothing.
How was she even going to find him, let alone get him to come down to Oregon?
“We have intel with the name of the bar he’s been going into almost daily,” the sheriff explained.
Leah laughed internally about having Dale and the word “intel” mentioned in the same sentence.
“We think he lives somewhere on his brother’s property up on the mountain. A tiny town called Day Creek,” the sheriff went on.
“Yeah, I think his brother lives up there. Has a farm or something,” Leah said as she started to actually start thinking about how this was all going to work and go down.
The sheriff and the government guy had it all set up for her. They already got her the next month and a half off at work, with pay, and they put in good word for her when she got back to what the sheriff referred to as the “chicken-gutting plant.” They also rented her a place up in Skagit County, where Leah was originally from and where they believed Dale still lived.
Only problem they didn’t think about: Leah’s 13-year-old daughter Rosie, who lived with her in Astoria and was smack dab in the middle of the 7th grade. Neither of the men knew about this. It wasn’t good.
But whatever. That was Leah’s problem. They had the money. They had the blackmail. They had the man they needed down in Oregon so they could lethally inject his ass. Leah could figure out what to do with Rosie.
The first matter of business for Leah was taking Rosie to her parents’ house in Raymond, Washington. It wasn’t an easy decision. Her relationship with her parents was rocky. Both were functioning alcoholics who were also drunk on the “the Lord” and being rather preachy. A dangerous cocktail of hypocrisy.
Leah didn’t know what else to do though. Her parents were (mostly) harmless and she actually thought their bizarro religious scoldings could help her young daughter who seemed like she was just starting to test the boundaries of being a troubled teen ever since Leah cleared enough fog in her head to notice.
Leah hugged Rosie goodbye in the tall dead grass of her parents’ front yard and then got back on the road up to Skagit County. The guys had commissioned an apartment for her in Anacortes. The nicest town in the area and supposedly it had an ocean view and marble countertops. She was honestly excited to get there.
She was a little less excited about reuniting with an old friend in the area, Nikki, whom she was probably going to need to make the whole caper work out. Nikki was very much not in recovery and a horrible influence.
The two had a ton of baggage. Nikki felt betrayed when Leah left town to get clean and sober but Leah didn’t care. She had a number of reasons to think that Nikki may have hooked up with Dale at some point when they were married. Nikki always denied it. Leah was still 50/50 on if it happened.
Leah knew interacting with Nikki was a horrible idea, but she really had no choice if she wanted to pull it all through.
Speaking of baggage. Her baggage with Nikki paled in comparison to her baggage with Dale. Their relationship was a nightmare from the start.
Dale was an assistant coach on Leah’s high school basketball team in Aberdeen, down in the southwest corner of the state. Leah had no idea how or why Dale, who was born and raised in Skagit County, ended up in Aberdeen when he was 24, but he ended up there, assistant coaching and quickly making it clear he was interested in the high school senior shooting guard that was Leah.
They started dating while she was in high school and he was coaching, privately. They went through great lengths to make sure no one found out, especially Leah’s parents. He proposed to her at the end of the season. She later figured it was because he had hacked her Google account, where she kept her personal journal. The proposal came just days after she put in her journal that she was having thoughts about accepting an offer to play basketball at a community college in Arizona.
Instead, Leah accepted Dale’s offer, though she wanted to be graduated a while before they could publicly transition their relationship to let people know. A week after graduation, she moved in with him. A few months later, just after she told her parents about their relationship, she got pregnant with Rosie.
Leah and Dale got married at the courthouse just before Thanksgiving that year. It was bittersweet. He joined the Navy to get some more stability for Rosie, but that also meant that he had to go to North Carolina.
Leah tried to spend as much time with Dale as she could before he left, but all that did was reveal that he had a serious drinking problem and a burgeoning heroin and meth problem he was hiding. The realization pushed her back when she confronted him and he took off for North Carolina, with her about to give birth, with a dark cloud over his head.
Things would go from bad to worse before Leah even gave birth to Rosie. Dale got into a motorcycle accident, while drunk, in North Carolina, and was severely injured. Worse, there was a 17-year-old girl on the back of his motorcycle who didn’t survive the crash. Even worse yet, Dale’s story was that she fell off the back of the bike while he crashed on a bridge and drowned in the water but the story had a lot of holes in it.
Too injured to continue his service. Dale moved back and Leah took him in, even agreeing to move up to his small hometown in Skagit County, where he proceeded to be equal parts angry, drunk, drugged, injured, and unemployable.
Leah tried to join Dale in the drugging and drinking, thinking it would bring them closer together. All it did was drag her down to his level where he promptly and perpetually walked out on her.
She eventually moved in with Nikki, who was actually worse off than even Dale, but who was at least her friend.
Leah tried to divorce Dale but she was too high to pull it off and too broke to pay for a lawyer. Plus, Dale regularly got drunk/high and pitched getting back together. She even took him up on it a few sad nights, but always came to enough of her senses to call it right back off.
Leah drifted, living with Nikki for years. Her only income coming off of getting semi-involved in large drug deals that Nikki and her boyfriend, Tim, pulled off a few times a year. The time was such a fog that Leah could sadly barely remember Rosie growing up at all.
It wasn’t until she got arrested for DUI and was threatened with losing Rosie that Leah cleaned up her act, went to rehab, got a restraining order against Dale, moved out of state, and got the job butchering chickens.
Now here she was, right back in Skagit County on a miserable, rainy night, waiting for Nikki, who was more than an hour late, yet again. She was right back in the belly of the sad, white trash beast.
Leah was about to give up when she got a text from Nikki that asked her to actually meet at Nikki’s place, even though Leah had specifically requested that they meet at the nicer restaurant across the street from her temporary apartment in Anacortes. Leah was going to treat. Nikki agreed, then she changed her mind. Leah couldn’t say she didn’t see it coming a million miles away though.
Nikki’s house in Clear Lake was a nightmare. It was a little rambler at the end of a soggy street lined with double wides and old run down cabins with a yard full of algae-coated children’s playsets.
Leah could hear what she presumed were Nikki’s young children screaming from inside that house as she approached. This was confirmed when Nikki’s bear of a husband, Ben, answered the door and ushered her with the smell of Kraft mac and cheese in the air.
Nikki was barely awake on the couch. Semi-watching some TLC reality show and ignoring the three young boys and two young girls running in circles like a tornado around the couch, around the dining room table, and regularly running into the wall. It was like a war zone.
Nikki also looked like she had eaten herself since the last time Leah had seen her a little more than a year before. She had doubled in size, grown a second neck, and her hair had even started to go a little gray in the temples.
Yet, Nikki looked better than Leah could ever remember and her eyes lit up when she saw Leah standing in her doorway just before a dog ran through the door and took out Leah’s legs.
Nikki thankfully had the two of them talk outside on the back porch so Nikki could smoke a cigarette and “get the fuck away from Ben and the kids.” Leah was thankful, even though it was only 35 degrees outside and she could see her own breath.
“I got sober because I saw what you were able to do, on Facebook,” Nikki said as she took the second drag of her Camel Crush and looked out into the dog shit-filled backyard.
Leah had to admit it felt good.
“Only bad part is I got sober and found out I’m depressed, I got molested by my dad’s friend when I was twelve, my mom used to whip me when I was barely older than a baby, and my life is horrible. Then the legal drugs they gave me to deal with all that made me fat. I guess it’s better though. Ben’s gross though. Really gross. How high was I when I got with him. Three kids. Was I out of my mind?” Nikki lamented.
“Yes,” Leah cracked.
They both laughed.
“I still smoke half a pack a day and can’t lose a pound and can’t stop eating food, constantly,” Nikki went on as she took a deep inhale. “Dale doesn’t even recognize me when he comes into the store to buy chew.”
“You work at a store?” Leah asked.
“Country Convenience, well, it sold out to Food For Less. I work there during the day to get some more income, keep me busy. I don’t actually work at the bar anymore. Stopped a few weeks ago. Was too hard to stay sober. Dale was always there though. I’m guessing that’s why you’re here though…something with Dale. They got you wearing a wire or something,” Nikki said and then put her hands on Leah’s chest, mock looking for a bug, but also kind of serious.
“I’m not wearing a wire, but I am here for Dale, just not what you think it would be,” Leah started in but stopped there, thinking if she was going to be able to say what she was going to say next.
Nikki blew some smoke in Leah’s direction, clearly very interested in whatever words Leah was cuing up.
“Do you think Dale has it in him to ever kill a woman?” Leah asked.
Nikki just laughed and killed her smoke.
“There’s no way I’m talking about this here. Ben, the kids, someone’s going to overhear this, open their mouth and then it’s going to start flying all over town,” Nikki said in a tone that was 50 percent genuinely scared.
Leah took Nikki to her apartment in Anacortes. It was the nicest room Nikki had ever been in in her entire 33 years of life and she said that four times before they even sat down in the living room area that looked out at the Puget Sound, shining in the moonlight. They brought in take out from the restaurant and Leah finally got to start spitting out all the information she had been holding on her ever since that meeting at the diner back in Astoria.
Leah told Nikki everything. About how they suspected Dale of murder and how she needed to get Dale down to Oregon. She had Nikki pledge allegiance to her. She even told Nikki that if it leaked out through Nikki, she was going to go down for the drug deal they had Leah pinned with too. Nikki pledged fucking allegiance. She hated Dale just as much as Leah did and she wanted nothing more than to see him die at the hands of a state of Oregon executioner.
They hatched a plan to go to the bar Friday and catch Dale when he came in around 6. Apparently that’s when he came in each week, when a methy blonde named Jamie was behind the bar. Nikki suspected either Jamie was giving Dale heroin or the other way around, either way, other than buying chew at Country Convenience, it was the only way you could catch him in public.
And you had to do it quickly. Apparently he only stuck around long enough for a beer and a shot of Jagermeister and he was back in his truck, headed up the mountain.
Leah and Nikki went into the bar just after 5. It was just them, a female bartender who probably had more tattoos and piercings than she had trips around the sun and three unemployable men sitting there drinking beer with the stereo blasting AC/DC and SportsCenter on mute.
Leah’s heart dropped when she saw all three guys perk up when her and Nikki saddled up to the bar just as the sun was going down. Oh no, these guys were going to try to talk to them. They should have known.
One-by-one, each of the pickled gray men who smelled like musty trailers went up to the bar like they were going to place an order with the bartender despite her being all the way at the other end of the bar, on her phone. They then started talking out of the sides of their mouths, saying things that didn’t make it 100 percent clear they were talking to Leah and Nikki, but making it clear they were very open for conversation.
Leah really regretted going into the bar. She sipped on her soda and lime without vodka and stared up at the sports news silently rambling on the TV to no one. She would do that until 6 p.m. because Nikki actually chatted up each of the pathetic men who sidestepped into conversation with them. She felt sorry for Nikki, she really just must have wanted male attention that badly.
Leah was so distracted by cringing about the sad conversations Nikki was having with one of the neardowells that she didn’t even notice Dale slip into the bar until she looked to the bartender for a refill of her mocktail. Dale was over at the other end of the bar, dressed in all black, leaning toward the bartender and smiling in a dopey way she had never seen him in her entire time of knowing him.
“Nikki,” Leah said and elbowed her friend in the boob.
Nikki was so lost in conversation that she didn’t hear Leah.
“Nikki!” Leah said much louder this time as she watched Dale leave the bar area and head toward the bathrooms in the back.
Nikki finally paid some attention to Leah, just enough to see Dale slip out the back door of the place.
“Shit!” Both Leah and Nikki lamented at the same time as they watched the door close in the back of the bar.
They ran out to the parking lot in the back, but all they got was the sound of what they presumed was Dale’s F-350 roaring away into the cold night.
Missing Dale would only remain the worst news of the night for about 45 seconds. Leah realized her phone was ringing in her purse. She couldn’t get to the call before it went to voicemail, but she saw that she had seven missed calls from MOM and knew it couldn’t have been good.
It wasn’t. She called her mom back and got her on the phone. She was hysterical. Apparently she had caught Rosie smoking weed in front of the house and they had tied her up in the kitchen, washed her mouth out with soap, and were telling her the cops were on their way over to arrest her, though that was just a bluff.
Leah told her mom to release Rosie, let her stay in the guest room and she would be right down to scold her daughter. Mom agreed, begrudgingly.
Leah hopped in her car and made it down to Raymond in less than three hours. She walked right into the house without a knock, grabbed Rosie out of the guest room, threw her in her Accord and drove right back up to Anacortes, making it there around 2 a.m.
The two didn’t exchange a single word on the nearly three-hour drive. They didn’t speak to each other until they walked into Leah’s opulent digs and Rosie lost her breath.
“You got the couch, but you can stay here as long as you want. I’ll figure out you going to school over the weekend,” Leah said as she retreated to her room. “Talk in the morning.”
Leah shut the door to the bedroom and Rosie climbed onto the couch. She cried for an hour before she fell asleep.
A call from Nikki woke Leah up just after 7 a.m.
“Why are you calling me at seven in the morning?” Leah answered, groggy.
Nikki just dove in, not even acknowledging Leah’s question.
“Isn’t is crazy. You get sober and now I WANT to get up in the morning. Early. It’s like I’m a grandparent. Which I’m sure I will be before I’m forty, knowing my kids,” Nikki said.
Leah wasn’t as thrilled to be up before sunrise as Nikki was but she was excited about the piece of news Nikki shared with her as Leah woke up.
Nikki went back into the bar after Leah left and chatted up the bartender. Nikki bought her drinks and waited until she was four in before she started asking questions about Dale. The bartender was quick to open up.
Apparently her and Dale were simply “really, really, really, best fucking friends.” They smoked weed together a lot and hooked up, but always at her place. He was sketchy but “cool as shit.”
That wasn’t that great of information for them, but the bartender then let slide that Dale actually usually came in now to drink during the day. As soon as they opened. 11 a.m. When no one else would be in there. He would have a few drinks and some pizza and head out at lunch time.
That’s when Leah and Nikki could catch him and he would be vulnerable. The bartender said he drank about a half a bottle of Jager whenever he came in and couldn’t stop running his mouth to anyone who would listen.
Leah went to the bar right when it opened at 11 a.m. Jamie, the bartender, was there from the Friday before. She strangely didn’t think it was weird that Leah was waiting for her out front of the little small town bar. She just ushered her in and took her order.
It wasn’t until Leah ordered her mocktail that Jamie started asking questions. Well, just one question.
“Sober? Why go to the bar at eleven a.m. then?” Jamie asked while setting up the bar for the day.
Leah didn’t get a chance to answer because Dale walked in and sat down at a stool a few away from her up the bar and she couldn’t breath. Being alone with just him and a single bartender sent shivers down her spine.
She smelled Dale before he noticed her. That familiar musty, tobacco smell. It made her skin crawl.
Then he looked over to her with yellow eyes. Far more dead than they were the last time she looked into them. How had she fallen in love with this man?
He smiled at her, walked over, and sat down next to her in a breath.
“Why are you here?” He mumbled as he waved at Jamie for a drink.
He eyed the back of the bar, where there was an old couch and an unlit fireplace. It was dirty but cozy and inviting.
“You wanna talk back there?” Dale asked Leah.
Leah agreed. She lied and said she came back up because one of her old friends he didn’t know was sick with cancer and she was visiting her for a week.
Thankfully Dale didn’t ask any follow up questions on that because Leah had almost nothing. Instead, he turned down the drink Jamie brought over but paid for it.
“I don’t wanna get drunk while we’re talking,” Dale explained as Jamie walked away with the drink.
Dale looked over his shoulder and watched Jamie walk away, thinking about his next move.
“Jamie, can you light this fire, please?” Dale asked.
Jamie came back and lit the fire. Dale softened. He asked Leah an endless barrage of questions about herself, and he listened. He moved a little closer to her on the couch. He was soft, thoughtful and gentle in a way you would never imagine for a roughneck like him.
Leah started to remember why she accepted his pitch all those years ago. She wasn’t about to accept it again if it came to the table, but she understood.
Nikki had told Leah a nugget that had burned in her mind the past days. Dale seemed to have a good amount of money all of the sudden after being horribly broke for his entire life.
“I heard you have a lot of money for some reason,” Leah said coyly.
Dale laughed it off and shook his head. Like a star athlete in the locker room responding to a ridiculous question after the game.
“It’s not for ‘some reason.’ I grow marijuana with my brother up in Cape Horn. It’s legal now. He has a government contract. It’s good, legal, money,” Dale explained.
Leah should have started to grow worried but she wasn’t. First reason was that a drink was suddenly sounding not too bad for her. The second was Dale was seeming not too bad to her. She had completely forgotten about the whole this guy is guilty of multiple murders thing.
“Do you want to see the farm?” Dale asked while taking his hand away from his pocket, avoiding the chewing tobacco that was in there, even though he wanted it, because he knew Leah always hated it.
Yeah…um…wait…no…the thought process ran through her head. What was she doing? Some sense finally kicked back into her head.
“No, sorry,” she answered. “But I need to go to the bathroom.”
Leah fled to the bathroom to collect herself.
What WAS she really doing there? She thought to herself as she looked at herself in the dirty mirror and fought off tears that were trying to flood in for unknown reasons. She needed to get Dale down to Oregon. Remember that.
She needed to get her eyes back on the prize. She fought back the tears and came up with an idea. A good one.
Leah sat down next to Dale, a little closer this time. Their thighs now touching.
“I just can’t go up your brother’s place yet. Things are still too messy with us, but,” Leah stopped there for dramatic effect.
Dale slid a hand onto Leah’s thigh. She let it linger there, knowing she had him right where she wanted him.
“I lied when I told you why I was up here,” she stopped again for drama.
He sat up a little taller in his seat.
“I want to give Rosie a chance to get to know her dad on some level. I’m kind of just running intelligence here to see if you’re acceptable to meet her, sober, you know?” Leah explained.
Leah saw feeling sweep across Dale’s face for maybe the first time ever. She always assumed he didn’t give a shit about Rosie. Maybe she was wrong?
Was he even getting fucking choked up? No. She couldn’t believe it. He was breaking down in his dirty seat on that broken couch in front of the fire Jamie had built while Leah was in the bathroom.
Now the tears were coming back to Leah. Good. Let them in. They would help lure him down to Oregon. Down to death.
She looked to his hands. Hard. Strong. Had those things choked the life out of innocent women. She looked back to his wet eyes. They were still dark. Chaos behind them they way it always was. Yes, it was all believable.
“You’re doing a good job,” Leah went on, fighting through fresh tears.
He broke a smile and paused the tears.
“Well, I like the sound of that,” Dale said softly.
Leah genuinely was choked up, but she cranked it up further, acting as if she was so touched she could barely speak when she started talking again.
“I’m thinking I can lift the restraining order and you can come down to Oregon and you can spend some time with Rosie. Soon,” Leah said.
“Yeah, yeah, I would like that,” Dale said.
“Can I have your number?” Leah asked.
“Why don’t you give me yours?” Dale asked right back.
She smiled and shook her head.
“Just yours. That way when I’m ready, it’s on my terms.”
She stared into his eyes.
He gave her his phone number. She gave him a hug and left. He ordered up three shots from Jamie within seconds.
Nikki had texted Leah that she needed to come over right away once Nikki got home from work so Leah stopped at her nightmare of a house at the edge of town. They shared a cigarette on the back deck again, the dogshit that choked the grass even more disgusting in the bright light of the Winter day.
Leah couldn’t get Nikki to get out what was so important about her being there. She kept dodging and instead talking about the great microwave pizza she found at Country Convenience.
Leah got so tired of waiting she went into talking about how Dale didn’t seem like such a bad guy. He seemed like the decent country gentleman she fell in love with back when she was 17.
“And he was twenty-four,” Nikki blurted out as soon as that little detail about Leah being 17 when she started dating Dale came out of Leah’s mouth.
“I know,” Leah muttered, embarrassed.
“That’s the thing with Dale. I’ve picked up enough at the bar to know over the years. He’s a puppy when he’s sober. When he’s lit up. He’s gone. With a capital G. Gone. Bad dude. Not a good guy,” Nikki droned on.
“Okay, I get it.”
“I told Rosie the same thing earlier today,” Nikki went on.
“I was on that chat thing on Facebook this morning and I saw Rosie was on and she was green so I started chatting with her about you, and her, being up here and how cool it is and then she started asking me about her dad and I told her, Dale aint half bad when he’s sober but you just wait…
“What the fuck Nikki?” Leah cut her friend who was about to not be her friend again very soon.
Nikki seized up and changed her cool and casual cadence. Sensing too late she had done something wrong.
“Oh fuck, I’m sorry Lee,” Nikki lamented. “I’m fucking sorry. We just got to talking and…
“NO,” Leah said before firing up off the cold wood of the deck.
Leah stormed out before Nikki could say anything more.
Leah went straight back to the apartment but Rosie wasn’t there. She called Rosie eight times before her daughter would pick up.
They would argue for 30 minutes about Rosie finding out from Nikki about why Leah was up there before Rosie would tell Leah where she was. Walking around a park by the sound.
Rosie was betrayed and appalled. She was setting up her dad to be killed? Even if he was a guilty murderer, Rosie needed a say in what happened with his life, if she preferred the option of seeing him behind bars some day or in a cemetery where people would desecrate his grave.
He was a bad guy, Leah insisted.
What she saw him as was up for Rosie to decide though.
Leah didn’t tell Rosie that she was driving around to every park in the town while they were talking, looking for her as they argued for well over an hour.
It wasn’t until Leah parked out on a bluff at Washington Park that she finally saw her daughter, broken down on the cold beach, lying on her back next to a big pile of driftwood and kelp.
Leah ran down and stopped arguing. She wrapped Rosie in her arms and the two cried out the rest of their energy on the topic of Dale to each other.
At the end, Leah agreed she wouldn’t move forward any more with the Dale thing until Rosie approved. Rosie agreed and let her know she needed more time to think it through.
Leah left it alone. She got Rosie into the local Anacortes Middle School and spent the days in her nice apartment, using her per diem to buy nice food, watching shows on Netflix and lying on the couch. She barely even left the place.
This went on for nearly three weeks before a stiff knock on the door woke her from a late-afternoon nap in early-December.
She opened the door to see Sheriff Wallace there. He invited himself inside.
She fixed the two cups of coffee from the Keurig machine in the apartment that she was very much enjoying and very much taking advantage of. They sat in the dining room and watched the rain fall on the large window that looked out at the water throughout almost the entire conversation.
Sheriff Wallace was fine with having patience with Leah and waiting on Rosie to make her decision about Dale. Leah promised she was checking in with Rosie on it each day, which was true.
However, the governor of Oregon and his friends weren’t too pleased that the clock was running out on getting Dale back to Oregon by the end of the year. His friends in Washington state weren’t exactly pleased either. They wanted to make their move on Dale. They didn’t want to wait any longer and have him skip town or have evidence dry up.
Okay. Leah would have to just do it, right? No, she couldn’t betray Rosie. Whatever Leah could do she could do.
Sheriff Wallace let Leah know they could stay in the apartment through the end of the year, then they would have to move back to Astoria. He hoped her job would be waiting for her back there without a seal of approval from the state.
Leah went around driving aimlessly for hours. Trying to drive through the indecision and either just commit to Rosie and roll with the punches or decide she had no choice but to sell out Dale and complete her deal. She hadn’t told Rosie, or Nikki, about the $550,000 total she was going to get out of the deal.
Plus, the government had held up on giving her that initial $50,000. She thought they were balking due to her lack of progress in the Dale situation. It was supposed to be there the day after Thanksgiving. It had yet to show.
Leah’s car broke down nine miles away from her apartment in Anacortes. She had a full blown panic attack until she saw an auto shop just up to the highway connected to a gas station.
Leah could tell the guy working in the shop was a junkie as soon as she walked into the filthy garage. Just the sunken, but content, look in his eyes made her hungry at a time when she could not have been more weak.
The thoughts of shooting up, or at least smoking some heroin, were so strong in her brain when she caught his attention that it took her awhile to even remember why she was there.
Leah was in the dark bathroom in the back of the garage buying black tar heroin within eight minutes. She thought the shit looked terrible but it was a good deal so she went with it. The guy also promised to give her a good deal on fixing her car as soon as possible too so she felt she couldn’t back out of the deal after getting her eyes on it.
The guy may have been lying about the quality of his heroin but he wasn’t lying about his prowess fixing cars. He had Leah’s car ready to go in less than two hours and she was back on the road, heading home, ready to taste the contraband he sold her in the bathroom.
Leah was surprised to see Rosie crying on the couch when she walked through the front door, her hand already digging into her purse for the black tar. She froze and looked down at the heap that was Rosie belting out sobs.
“What happened?” Leah asked as she dropped down to sit by her daughter’s side.
Rosie went on to explain that the kids at school made fun of her ratty clothes so badly she ran away from school during the final period. Anacortes was one of the richest towns in the entire state. Rosie was a tramp whose mom was barely a year sober. Leah should have known. She felt incredibly guilty and apologized.
Leah was able to calm Rosie down, and herself. She agreed to go shopping with Rosie at the local mall that night to get her some nice clothes, even though she didn’t have any money.
Then she excused herself to the bathroom to shoot up.
Leah scrambled to get her rig set up and get the heroin in her veins in a reasonable amount of time that would line up with her urinating. She got needles from the guy at the garage. She got a spoon and a lighter at a store on her way home.
She got it all ready.
Then she heard Rosie crying through the door.
She flushed the heroin down the toilet.
She wrapped the needle, spoon, and lighter in a hand towel and buried it at the bottom of the waste bin underneath the sink.
She unlocked the door and stepped out to keep talking to Rosie while deciding that she had to sell out Dale and get that $550,000.
Leah got dressed up in a way she hadn’t in years. She told Rosie it was because they were going to go to the mall and she wanted to look her best.
Rosie legit laughed. Getting dolled up to go to the Cascade Mall in Burlington, Washington? Alright.
Leah dropped more than $600 on clothes for Rosie, which was quite a lot at the Cascade Mall. Leah texted Dale she wanted to meet up at the bar that night while Rosie was trying on clothes in the dressing room. He replied “OK” in less than five seconds.
Leah took Rosie home and tucked her into bed. She mentioned she might go out later to meet up with Nikki. They needed to make amends.
Rosie was pretty sure that was a lie but she didn’t care. She wanted to be able to be home alone so she could meet up with a boy she met at school earlier in the day anyway so she wanted her mom out the door into the long hours of the night.
Leah waited 20 minutes after she tucked Rosie in to head out the door and drive to the bar in Clear Lake.
She was shocked when she couldn’t find Dale inside the bar. He said he would be there. Maybe he was on the back patio having a smoke? He loved to do that when he drank.
She texted Dale “Where are u?” before she walked out onto the back patio. She was relieved when she saw Dale smoking at the very far end of the yard, about 20 yards away from her, the stem of his cigarette shining in the dark.
She stepped off the patio deck and down into the wet grass of the little yard where the horseshoe pit was. She could sense Dale staring at her as he smoked his cigarette. Nervous, she dropped her gaze to her feet and looked at the stiff grass below her feet.
She felt her phone vibrate in her pocket. She checked it before she got to the back of the space and saw a text from Dale that said “Not there yet.”
She looked up and saw the guy in the back of the yard was not Dale, just a guy who kind of looked like him. He stared at her with cold eyes, seemingly just as confused as she was. Who was this woman approaching him?
The sound of feet crunching the cold ground behind her interrupted her before she could say anything to the man in front of her.
She whipped around and saw a man dressed in black quickly approach her. He was dark-eyed with stubble and wearing a filthy sweatshirt. She only caught that brief glimpse of him before he wrapped his body around her and tackled her to the ground.
She tried to scream but his powerful hand was stuck up against her lips and her teeth, she couldn’t even breathe let alone steam for anyone to hear.
All she could think was: what was happening? What was happening? What was happening?
No time to think. She felt herself get lifted up off the ground. She saw the man who was smoking the cigarette in the back of the place pushing open the door in the back of the patio. She saw herself getting pulled to that opening.
She felt herself feel absolutely helpless.
Leah didn’t start to get a grasp on what was happening until a familiar smell wafted into her nose. It wasn’t just the smell of Dale, it was the smell of Dale’s parents’ house she recognized from her times going there when they were together a musty smell that mixed mold but also with peppermint. Her mom was obsessed with peppermint soap.
She figured out the smell as she was thrown into the back of a truck with a canopy on it and heard the back tailgate close, sealing her in darkness. She was going to die. That, she knew.
The next thing she saw was a hand reaching into the darkness for her. She tried to crawl up into the truck bed but could only get so far. That gloved hand grabbed onto her booted foot and dragged her out of the bed.
She landed hard on the ground, the wind fully knocked out of her. She wheezed and cried with her eyes closed.
Then a familiar face flashed across her gaze – Corey. Corey Boyd. It was Dale’s brother. He had pulled her out of the backyard of the bar. He was going to kill her.
The room she was in was dark and smelled rotten. The light was so low she could barely see but it appeared to be an empty greenhouse in the woods, the clear ceiling above her letting in just enough moonlight to see.
He moved back into her gaze. It was definitely Corey. She only met him about 10 times while she was with Dale but she could definitely recognize him. He always looked like fatter Dale with a goatee and he for some reason had an eyebrow piercing.
Corey was so quiet she didn’t think she had ever heard him talk. She was scared of him since the first time she met him and now she was her, tied up in some abandoned greenhouse in the woods.
She tried to fight, but she couldn’t move. He lashed the ropes around her a little tighter.
She looked up to him and tried to plead with her eyes as she watched him rub his thick leather gloves together.
She closed her eyes as he descended upon her with his hands out. The reports of the murdered women was that they were strangled. They believed the woman on the back of Dale’s motorcycle in North Carolina had been strangled. Corey was down there at the base visiting Dale the week that woman died.
Was Corey the one strangling all of these women? Ran through Leah’s mind as Corey’s gloved hands found her soft neck.
She felt the ability to breath lose her body. She tried to open her eyes, but couldn’t. She didn’t even want to anymore. Would this be so bad, really?
She drifted off to nothing. She embraced it. Her sad life was over. No more gutting chickens on the bad side of a dead town on the Columbia River. Okay.
Then she felt the weight lifted. Off her neck and off her body. She could breath and move again.
She opened her eyes and saw a struggle taking place on the other side of the little greenhouse. Two men. Both dressed dark. The two men were about the same size.
Leah watched the men fight for a moment before she took off out the door of the greenhouse and into the deep, dark woods.
It took her a minute to lose her breath again and realize her flight might not have been the best idea.
She found herself in the thick woods, scratched up by the thick trees and brush, almost blind and with no idea of where she was.
She stopped for a moment. Her consciousness started to fade. She lost too much oxygen in the struggle. She gasped for wind. This was not good.
She could hear someone tearing through the woods behind her. There was no way she could get herself together and get away from the person.
But she tried.
But she failed.
She was tackled to the ground right onto a frozen mud puddle and cracked her chin against the ice.
She rolled over and saw that Dale was on top of her. He put his index finger to his lip and flexed his lips. Quiet. She obeyed.
They listened to the silence of the frozen woods. Nothing. It was all still for a couple of minutes.
Dale whispered kindness into her ear. Assuring her he was okay and he was going to help her. Everything was okay.
Dale led her through the woods and to his truck, parked at the end of a long, muddy driveway.
He insisted she get into his truck so she could drive her to safety. They were close to Corey’s house and Corey was dangerous. They had to go.
She balked. She stood in the ditch staring up at his truck. She didn’t trust him.
He pleaded with her. Corey was going to recover from the beating Dale put on him and it wouldn’t be good.
She explained that she thought Dale was dangerous. Dale promised it wasn’t him. It was Corey.
“Then why haven’t you ever done anything about it?” She screamed at him.
She looked up the driveway. She thought she might have seen lights coming.
“He’s my bread ticket now. He has the marijuana business. It’s how I live. No one else is hiring someone with as much baggage as me but I’m going to have to do that,” Dale explained.
Leah had never seen this side of Dale. He seemed genuinely soft and emotional. She had to fight against it though. Even if he could safely transport her back to town, she still couldn’t trust him.
She got in the truck.
Dale offered to drive her home. No. He dropped her off at the bar. They talked in the cold street.
She explained to him everything about the set up from the government and the cops in Oregon.
She also explained to him that she wanted Rosie to get to know her dad, if that’s what Rosie truly wanted. She also explained she was going to go back to Astoria though.
If Dale truly wanted a clean chance to get to know Rosie, he should come down to Astoria, after January 1st, so he would avoid the death penalty if he was arrested and convicted, but he would get a chance to meet her. That was the only way it would work. She figured they would monitor her apartment for a long time. So if he showed up and got arrested that was on him, but at least if it was after the new year, he wasn’t going to be put to death.
She asked one more time if he was sure if it was just Corey who killed those girls and he had nothing to do with it and if he got arrested and went to trial there was no way they could convict him. He promised that was the case.
Leah and Dale parted ways without many more words.
Leah got a call from Sheriff Wallace just before she crossed the Columbia River moving from Washington to Oregon. He started giving her more heat about not being able to get Dale down to Oregon.
She made it simple for Wallace. She was going back to Astoria. She invited Dale down. If he showed, he showed and they could arrest him and pay her the $500,000 they owed her. If he didn’t, that was just what it was. Oh, and by the way, they owed her that $50,000 initial payment immediately or she was making a call to every major news outlet in Portland, immediately.
She hung up shortly after.
Leah’s life went back to normal. She went back to work. She got back on Match.com and she went back on dates with nice, normal, stable guys.
Rosie’s life also went back to normal. Her scary one-day career at Anacortes Middle School now seemed just like a one-time nightmare and she was back in her comfortable social circle in Astoria.
The only thing that quickly became unique was how quickly Leah fell for a man named Denny she went on a date with. It was only a couple weeks before they basically became inseparable and considered each other boyfriend and girlfriend.
Unfortunately, the momentum of their relationship was slowed down by the impending Christmas holiday. Denny headed down to San Diego to spend time with his friend and Leah took some time off to spend the holiday break with Rosie who was off from school.
Leah and Rosie spent the holiday together for the first time with Leah truly sober. They planned out an elaborate meal. They put on the perfect music. They opened presents. They danced. Even a light snow fell outside the window.
Their dancing was interrupted by a knock on the door.
Leah was shocked about the visitor on Christmas, so lost in the haze of the holiday that she totally forgot it could possibly be anything remotely sinister until she checked the door and saw Dale outside.
He opened the door instinctively without thinking. Dale hurried in and shut the door behind him. He looked up the hallway and saw Rosie, distracted by her phone.
She had so many questions she didn’t know where to start, her jaw just wobbled at him. He started talking before she could ask a single one.
“Have you had dinner yet?” Dale asked.
It took Leah a second to answer. In that time Rosie looked over and made eye contact with Dale.
“Yeah,” Leah answered softly and ushered him in through the hallway, his and Rosie’s eyes locked the entire time.
Dale found a seat at the dinner table. Leah went and got the massive amounts of food they had prepared and were just about to eat anyway. It was as if everything had been planned.
She set the food down at the table and sat down between Dale and Rosie. She prepared herself to do a lot of explaining.
They ate as Dale and Rosie got to know each other and Leah filled in the gaps. It was perfect. The food was delicious. The room was warm and cozy. Everyone felt right. A light snow started to fall again.
Then the front door was kicked down. A SWAT team rushed in and surrounded the table.
Gabe put his hands up in surrender and locked eye contact with Rosie. Both of them started to tear up.
The room was still for a few moments. Leah could hear one of the SWAT team members breathing over her shoulder. It was so still.
Then Rosie sneezed and knocked her fork off the table. It clanked down on the linoleum floor and startled one of the SWAT team members who hit hard on his trigger and fired a shot into Dale’s shoulder.
Dale fell out of his chair and all chaos broke out – Leah yelling at Rosie. Leah yelling at the SWAT team. The SWAT team members yelling at each other. Rosie crying. Dale crying out in pain.
Leah and Rosie asked Dale if he was okay. He yelled that he was fine before the SWAT team dragged him away, smearing his blood all over the white carpet as they pulled him through the hallway and out the door.
Dale ended up hitting his head hard on the doorway when the SWAT team drug himself out of Leah’s house, knocking him out, giving him a stroke and sending him into a coma. Funny enough, it would be that sequence that would save his life.
The state of Oregon couldn’t charge him with the murders he was accused of until he came out of the coma in February. The death penalty was officially overturned by then and he couldn’t face it.
Rosie checked into the Oregon State Penitentiary in Salem and waited in the stark cafeteria room. It had been 25 minutes and no one had come in, leaving her with plenty of time to think about how the room reminded her of the visiting areas she had seen at prisons in countless movies and TV shows.
It had been five years since that Christmas when the SWAT team shot Dale. Her idea was to start a tradition the past few years had been visiting her dad as close to Christmas as she could each year to reminisce on that beautiful little moment that they had.
This was the first year she was able to do it since he had been convicted. She would do it for the rest of her life.