1ALL HELL FOR A BASEMENT
“Mommy, there’s bodies with blood on them.”
Jacob and Gareth were inseparable that spring, playing ball hockey, wrestling, and pretending to be Jedi knights engaged in a galactic struggle to save the universe. The afternoon of April 23 was a particularly good time to be a little boy. Bright, sunny, and warm, it hinted tantalizingly at the long summer days to come. Soon, the prickly pear cactus would be in yellow bloom, an anomaly in a country known for ice and snow but part of the normal cycle of seasons on the semi-arid southeastern Alberta prairie, where deep coulees hide dinosaur bones and rattlesnakes nest amid eerie outcroppings of sandstone sculpted by wind and rain.
For Gareth, it was certainly no day to be cooped up at grandma’s house. There were pretend hockey games to be won in sudden death overtime and home runs to be hit in the bottom of the ninth inning. Darth Vader’s Death Star had to be attacked, the Dark Side confronted, Imperial storm troopers vanquished, the republic restored.
The six-year-old boy gazed out the window and sighed. “Mommy, can I please go to Jacob’s and play?”
Sarah Penner looked at her son. He had been patient all morning, tagging along as she ran errands with his little sister in tow. Now, as they ate lunch at her mother’s house, he was growing restless and bored. He wanted desperately to see Jacob, his next-door neighbour and best friend.
The previous day, the two boys had played together all day, as usual. Gareth was supposed to sleep at Jacob’s house Saturday night, but instead he went with his grandmother to the hockey game between the hometown Medicine Hat Tigers and the Moose Jaw Warriors, who were battling for the Eastern Conference championship in the 2006 Junior A Western Hockey League playoffs. It was the hottest ticket in town, and the last-minute chance to go to the game was not to be missed. In lieu of a sleepover, Jacob’s dad, Marc, had cooked the boys hot dogs on the backyard barbecue. Sarah called Gareth home at 5:30 in the afternoon, bundled him off to the hockey game with her mother, and went out with a friend.
When Sarah got home at 10:30 p.m., Gareth was already home from the game, which the Tigers lost 4–3 in overtime, and sleeping soundly. Sarah parked her car in the driveway and noticed that the lights next door at Jacob’s house were off. Everything seemed normal.
On Sunday morning, after breakfast, Sarah headed to her mother’s house with the kids. Now, with lunch finished and Gareth beginning to fidget, Sarah agreed it was time to leave. She told her son to phone Jacob to see if he could play. If not, she would take him to the movies. Gareth darted to the phone and dialled Jacob’s number.
The family’s answering machine picked up. On the recording, Gareth heard the cheerful voice of Jacob’s mom, Debra: “Hello, you’ve reached the very happy home of —”
Gareth hung up, disappointed.
“I’ll take you to the movies instead,” Sarah promised.
Sarah left her daughter with her mom, gathered up her son, and made the short drive back to their house in Ross Glen, a tidy, suburban, middle-class community of mid-1970s bungalows and split-level homes in Medicine Hat, a city of 57,000 located 300 kilometres southeast of Calgary. It was about 1:15 p.m. when Sarah pulled into the big common driveway they shared with their next-door neighbours Marc, Debra, Jacob, and their 12-year-old daughter, JR.
Gareth’s face brightened when he saw Jacob’s dad’s white truck sitting in the driveway. He raced next door as Sarah walked into her house, set down her keys, and began looking for the discount matinee movie coupons she would use that afternoon.
Within a minute, Gareth was back in the front entrance, calling to his mother. “Mommy, there’s bodies at Jacob’s with blood on them. I saw them through the basement window,” he said in an urgent voice.
Sarah looked at him in disbelief. Six-year-old boys have active imaginations, but Gareth wasn’t one to make up a story like that and his voice was remarkably even and calm. “What did you say?”
“I think I saw bodies with blood on them. Come quick.”
Gareth ran back to the house next door, with Sarah following across the driveway. “You better not be lying, Gareth,” she warned. This was not something to joke about.
As Gareth pressed his face and hands to a ground-floor window, Sarah did the same. She nervously peered into the downstairs family room of her neighbours’ split-level home, shielding her eyes against the reflections on the glass. A wave of nausea hit her. She saw the body of a man lying faceup on the floor, clad in black boxer shorts. His legs were smeared with blood and he appeared to be reaching out with his arms, as if in motion. But something was wrong. He wasn’t moving. There was also blood coating his face, so much blood that she couldn’t tell if it was Marc. Behind a couch, she saw the body of Debra lying on the floor, almost on her back and in an oddly bent angle. Her legs were also smeared with blood.
Sarah gasped, grabbed Gareth by the arm, and hurried the few steps back to her house. She stopped at the front door, afraid to go inside, fearful an attacker might be lurking. She pulled out her cellphone and called her mother. “Something bad has happened next door. You need to come over,” she said, describing the gruesome scene.
“You’ve got to call 911,” her mother replied. “I’ll be right there.”
Sarah trembled as she dialled. Talking rapidly, she told the dispatcher what she had seen. Her heart was beating hard. Could an attacker be close by, watching? Could he have broken into her house while she and the kids were at her mother’s?
Too nervous to stay in her home, Sarah loaded Gareth in the car, backed out of the driveway, and parked on the street, waiting for her mother. She couldn’t get the horrible thought out of her head that Gareth had wanted to sleep over at Jacob’s on Saturday night.
It didn’t hit her at the time, but with all the lives lost that day, Sarah would later come to realize that something in her little boy died that bright Sunday, too. Killed in Gareth was his innocence, the thing that mothers fight so very hard to protect.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Runaway Devil by Robert Remington and Sherri Zickefoose. Copyright © 2009 by Robert Remington and Sherri Zickefoose. Excerpted by permission of McClelland & Stewart, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.