I met Helena a few months ago when she needed somebody to install a new fountain in her front yard. She's at least 90 years old, has one of those big-ass humps on her back and a wispy white goatee. She also talks in a child-like, sing-song voice about (at least to the casual observer) seemingly whatever pops into her head. You would think she was losing her marbles at first glance.
If you look carefully though, you see it's all an act. The fact is, she's a whole lot smarter than she lets on to most people and the whole senility thing is a put-on she does to amuse herself. I figured this out after spending a couple of afternoons doing odd jobs at her house, which I guess could be described as a "McMansion" in one of those sprawling, super-expensive golf course communities in North Scottsdale.
Anyway, ever since I figured out her act she's been a blast to talk to, and I try to stop by at least once a month or so to shoot the shit with her. This past week, I walked into her living room and the Jodi Arias trial was on TV. So, we talked about her for a few minutes.
Here's a few things she actually said over the course of our conversation, so you can get a sense of why I always make it a point to seek her company.
Her: What do you think about this awful Jodi Aryan Nation business?
Her: What's that?
Me: It's 'Arias' Helena. She's not in the Aryan Nation, her last name is Arias.
Her: Nuts to that. The girl's a lunatic.
Me: She certainly seems that way.
Her: Not to mention a big old liar.
Me: Well, to be fair I don't think the guy she killed was a very nice man, either. I'm not saying he deserved to die or anything, but ...
Her: I think in a way, all the lying was worse than the murder. Don't you think so?
Me: I don't know. Murder's pretty bad. I guess lying's bad, but you definitely shouldn't going around murdering folks.
Her: My sister's a great big liar.
Me: Oh yeah?
Her: I bet if she murdered somebody she'd get away with it. She's such a liar that she could probably get rid of a body and meet you for lunch and you would have no idea.
Me: (Stunned silence)
Her: (Speaking slowly, for emphasis) No. Idea. (Then, as if I had just walked into the room she brightens up) Will! Would you like a coke? It must be almost a hundred degrees outside!
Helena and I actually talk about murder a lot. She's a big Ann Rule fan, she's gone and had several books signed by Ann Rule at appearances and stuff, and she knows I write horror stories so it's kind of a conversational tent-pole between the two of us. The truth is, I hate doing research on criminals, especially serial killers. It's the one subject that generally scares the shit out of me. Throw me a copy of anything by Jack Ketchum or Edward Lee and I can usually burn through it in a single afternoon, while eating, no problem.
But a hundred or so pages on somebody like Richard Speck or Ted Bundy and I'm taking an extra Xanax that night, on account of that stuff is real. It doesn't even have to be serial killers, either. I had a spate of horrible nightmares after spending a few weeks researching some of the more prominent Mafia families in NY in the late 60's. (Possibly on account of a lot of that stuff happened where I grew up, but who knows?)
Anyway, Helena's made of tougher stuff than I am. She doesn't read true crime so much as devour it. One of our favorite subjects to bat back and forth is H.H. Holmes and the Chicago World's Fair of 1893. We talk about the Murder-Castle Holmes built and speculate on how many women he managed to actually trap in that thing. That usually leads us to the fact that the thing burnt to the ground, before investigators were able to really figure out how a lot of the traps worked, while Holmes was incarcerated in another state.
By the way, soon after that, the entire World's Fair White City burned to the ground, too ...
Such talk will eventually bring us around to "The Curse" , referring of course to the startling number of Holmes's prosecutors who came to mysterious ends after Holmes was sentenced to death.
This past week, the talk of Jodi Arias naturally brought us around to H.H. Holmes. I love shooting the shit with Helena, but whenever we start really stirring up Holmes's bones I spend the rest of the day in a state of low-grade freakout, and read ominous intent into whatever other events may occur.
Case in point, that afternoon's job at another nearby client's house - we'll call them the Baxters. The Baxters are a totally normal, well-to-do family. If there's anything odd about them, it's that they have more pets than most families. I've seen at least four dogs and a half dozen cats patrolling their yard. An unknown number of parrots, cockatoos and budgies squawk and chirp from various windows, and there's a koi pond the size of a truck trailer in the back of their yard as well. The Baxters are constantly adding to their menagerie as well, although most of the time if I'm doing any work in their yard they're pretty good about penning up the larger, more aggressive animals.
Most of the time.
Like I said earlier, my hackles were kind of up by the time I got to the Baxter's and as I was crossing the back yard (which is set up like a miniature rain-forest) I heard a series of low, persistent grunts. Aware that one of the Baxter dogs is a Doberman that I'm pretty sure was either cross-bred with a Clydesdale or part of some bizarre military growth hormone experiment, I hurried back to their front door and confirmed that yes, the Hound of the Baskervilles was safely inside. So I went back around and heard it again.
With thoughts of a mustachioed demon armed with a flit-gun full of knockout gas fully ready to attack, I steeled myself and pushed some brush aside in order to face whatever lay in wait. And saw ...
Now, this is a stock photo I pulled from Google, but it's a fairly accurate representation of what I stumbled upon. If you've never seen two giant desert tortoises getting it on, let me just tell you, it's quite a sight. Turtles are normally slow, deliberate creatures, but when it's time to get their rut on, they can thrust just as fast as, well rabbits, I guess. And they're loud.
If you're wondering why I didn't try to take a picture while I was there, congratulations. You've just asked the same question that my girlfriend, parents, co-workers and everybody else I've told this story to. And the answer is two-fold:
1 - As I said earlier, I'd spent the better part of the morning discussing murder most foul and was already pretty much bent out of sorts, so ...
2 - If while snapping a photo, one of the turtles looked up and made eye contact with me, I'm pretty sure I would have totally lost my shit that day.