AUTHOR'S NOTE: I intended for this chapter to be put up no less than a week after Chapter 14. Evidently, and embarassingly, this was not so.

I've had a busy year with many personal events that have changed me as a person and important academic events which have taken priority. Nevertheless, I am back for a long time to come and have no intention of abandoning this story whatsoever. It shall be done. Thank you for your patience, those of you who are still here (hopefully all of you!).

Nikooru-chan: Thanks for the review and I hope you enjoy this late, late chapter. I shall try hard not to be afraid!

The Scarlet Sky: Your praise always makes me feel warm and I'm truly glad you like this story. I apologize again for its lateness.

Akina Rose Sumora: You'll be pleased to know that this story is far from over! Around another 15-25 chapters are coming up. I shall try to be more active on this from now on.

kelley28: I like to think that suspense is one of my strengths, so I tend to use it quite a lot. Don't worry, I promise NEVER to abandon this story, even if I take a long time in uploading the next chapter. Thanks for your great review!

Kuro-Hidama: Unfortunately I've never played HM64, only BTN. And thanks for your many reviews, they are most appreciated!

Nina: Thanks for the review. Unfortunately, I tend to be grand in design and slightly less good at serving up the goods. TAD is on the back burner for now and probably won't be done, but we shall see, eh?

Karen Moondrop: Thanks very much. I hope you enjoy this next chapter.

Ara: Thank you very much. This means an awful lot to me and inspires me to carry on. I apologize for my rude lateness.

Callie: Thank you. I hope to become a writer one day after gaining more experience and broadening my range of reading matter; I'm not yet good or varied enough to become the author I aspire to be. That's not false modesty, I genuinely do not think I'm good enough (hopefully yet) to be the writer I aim to be. But I'm working on it and practice and critique, such as that you have given me, are good fodder and experience. Thanks.

Larissa: What a beautiful review! I'm glad you took the time to make this long review, since it's evidence that you enjoyed my poor offering so much. I didn't like Freddy much and am glad he's out the way for the more charismatic Jack. And I'd fall for Popuri any day, even more so that Karen. Since I'm a lad, perhaps in my writing I tend to focus on the more, er, sexual aspects of Popuri's attractiveness, but then, so would Rick. A sordid tale indeed, but there we go. Thanks for your analysis of the murder scene, I thought it was underdone, but your critique gives me confidence that I did it well. Thank you.

Let's go.

Chapter 15: Jack

It was snowing on the day of the funeral. The flakes fell wearily, mournfully, over our heads as we trudged solemnly along the sodden path, signifying our grief over the loss of this most beloved man, a prince among farmers and a pillar of the community, illegal fireworks aside. Mother had made a rare appearance in the outside world in order to see Freddy off and Popuri clutched a tissue to her face as the coffin passed by towards the graveyard.

I am glad that I never saw Freddy's body after Gotz had recovered it from the fire, for I know that it would have gnawed at the already bloody and ragged edges of my haunting dreams. Gotz's description (himself shaken by the memory despite the quantities of whiskey he had imbibed to rid himself of it) was enough to make me shudder. Thankfully, it was safely encased in that monolithic slab of wood, ready to be buried underneath the earth, and hopefully my secret with it, forever.

I was a pallbearer at the funeral. Tragedy is always best served with a side-dish of irony. Along with Duke, Doug and Gotz, we bore Freddy down from the church through the misty meadow of the graveyard towards a freshly-dug spot under a yew tree. There, surrounded by the denizens of the town, we placed the coffin in the pit and consigned the old farmer to the afterlife.

"Do not grieve," intoned Carter soggily as the snow slowly began to overwhelm him, "For the Lord is merciful and just. He will..."

I wasn't listening. All I thought about as I waited in line to toss some earth into the grave was my dispatching of Freddy to the next world. Strangely, I didn't feel revulsion or regret for the deed. I simply felt relief, security, safe in the knowledge that the only other person aware of my feelings was dead and unable to threaten me. It felt good.

My turn. I grabbed a handful of snow-speckled ground and threw it into the wretched grave, muttering, "Goodbye Freddy, I will miss you...but not what you knew."

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That Christmas died along with Freddy. There was little celebration in the town that year. Although there were still smiles and glasses of wine, they were hollow and devoid of true pleasure. Old farmers never really die; they stick around after death and make everyone miserable.

I think it was on Boxing Day that a phone call arrived from Minnesota inquiring as to the health of a certain Frederick West. The caller was apparently the old man's grandson and had heard rumours that his grandfather had perished suddenly. Mayor Thomas confirmed the story. The young man was understandably taken aback, but asked about the funeral arrangements and cautiously alluded to the possibility of his inheriting the farm. The Mayor thanked him for his call and said he would get back to him as soon as possible. That was how I ended up in a meeting of town elders in the back room of the Mayor's house.

"I just don't think it's right that we let a stranger take over the farm! He wouldn't understand our way of life," said Duke loudly, with a hint of self-righteousness that comes from being a professed lover of "rural, family values" (although I question what kind of values those were in a man who regularly got drunk and beat his wife to a Biblical pulp)

"I appreciate your concern, Duke," said the Mayor, peering at the hefty man over his spectacles, "but there's no law that says we can deny him his inheritance just because we, erm, don't like city folk."

"Er, actually," I interjected hesitantly, "there is. If you read the town charter, it says that should the townsfolk not agree with the selection of a suitable heir to the West farm, they may reject the candidate in the name of "social harmony"."

"...There is?" replied the Mayor, "Gosh, I didn't know that."

I nearly rolled my eyes. Typical know-nothing career politician.

"Well, I agree with Duke," said Saibara gravely, "I don't think that this young fellow will be up to the job of carrying on Frederick's work."

"Let's not be so hasty," Barley retorted, "I think we should give this young man a chance. After all, we can always turn him out after a couple of years if he doesn't live up to his grandfather."

"That's right," added Doug genially, "Say we lease the farm to him for three years and see how he gets on? If he succeeds, the land is his. If not, we'll let him leave and take the property back."

Mayor Thomas thought for a while, before deciding, "Let's put it to the vote. Who wants the new man to come?"

Barley and Doug raised their hands.

"Who wants the farm to revert to town control?"

That won Duke and Saibara's votes.

Reader, obviously you will have noted that I abstained from voting. Why? To be perfectly honest with you, as only a criminal can be, I could not be bothered one way or the other. Still, when the Mayor pressed me to break the deadlock, I acquiesced fully.

"Sure, why not?" I answered, "Might be fun having a new guy around."

A lifetime of sin brought to an end in the stormy night. It could only be destiny.

"The young man can come and work on the farm for three years before we decide if he's good enough to stay," said the Mayor decisively, "That's settled then."

wrong. All stirred up.

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His name was Jack West and he was a fresh-faced young man from the sun and swamps of Orange County. He stepped off the boat with nothing but five hundred dollars and a rucksack full of sandwiches. He was surprisingly young, or so I had heard, for at my tender age of eighteen (with one murder under my belt; not bad, America!) there was no such thing as "surprisingly young". He arrived on New Year's Day and it was a hungover Karen who had met him first."

"Oh. My. God!" she practically squealed to me in the Inn that morning as we sipped medicinal coffee, "He is SO hot!"

"How refreshing," I replied blandly, drinking the mud with a shudder.

"Oh don't worry," she replied soothingly, "You're still the only guy in my life." She continued with her praise of the new man unabated, "He's really nice though. He helped me with getting Duke to pay his tab at the Supermarket. Isn't that sweet of him? And him a stranger too!"

"He does sound a pretty nice guy," I admitted, "Maybe I can get him to stop Popuri messing around with the freakin' chickens. She's obsessed with this one chicken she calls Pon. It's really weird."

"You'd better watch out Rick," Karen joked, "She'll probably want to marry it or something."

Could my next victim be a chicken?

"Maybe," I said, "But she keeps taking Pon out of the roaming ground and leaving him out in the open. If she keeps forgetting to put him back in, bad things are gonna happen. We lost six chickens to stray dogs last year."

Karen picked up her cell phone in a flash and answered it (apparently it was ringing, the girl had an odd sixth sense when it came to her phone), "Hello? Oh, hi Mom. What?" She rolled her eyes, "Yes, okay then, I'll be back in a second."

She put the phone in her bag and stood up, explaining, "I've gotta go now Rick, Dad's got one of his stomach aches again and they need someone to watch the store." She bent down and kissed me before she bounded off, saying, "See ya later and look out for Jack!"

"Will do," I replied, before adding when she was safely out of hearing, "Damn guy must walk on water or something."

I finished my coffee and paid for our drinks (Karen always managed to sneak away before it was time to pay) and then headed back home since it was time to feed the chickens and collect their eggs.

I left the Inn and walked slowly back home, reflecting on Karen's praise of the new farmer. I knew without a doubt that Karen was exaggerating, but I was intrigued nevertheless. Jack West sounded like an interesting young man and perhaps even then I suspected that he would influence me greatly. No, that is one of my own exaggerations, drunk on the bitter wine of hindsight. He did, but I had no inkling then of what his friendship would give - and take away - from me.

A howl of grief ripped me back into reality. It emanated from the farm, filling me with gut-wrenching panic. Quickly, I picked up the pace and began sprinting home.

As I turned the corner of our house and the yard came into view, I saw Popuri and instinctively knew. She was crouching over a chicken with its throat ripped out. Pon.

I rushed over to her to take a closer look. When she saw me, she jumped up and threw herself into my arms sobbing heavily, "R-Rick, P-Pon was killed by a d-dog. I left him out of the pen and l-look now!"

Incandescent with rage, I pushed her away and yelled, "You idiot, Popuri! What the hell did I tell you about leaving the damn chickens out of the damn cage!? Now look what you've done!"

This set off a fresh round of weeping. Popuri replied, "T-there's no need to be so horrible, Rick. I-I didn't mean to."

"Well you are an idiot!" I shouted at her, "How many times have I told you to put the goddamn chickens in that pen!?"

"Oh I hate you, Rick!" Popuri shrieked and, tears streaming down her face, she ran off out of the yard.

"Popuri!?" I yelled, running after her, before reluctantly giving up and turning back to the yard.

"Er.....hello?" came a sudden voice. I looked up and saw an unfamiliar young man slowly approaching me.

I was struck immediately by his appearance. He was one of those clean-cut, fresh-faced, all-American youngsters who are ridiculously handsome and almost certainly good as gold. Annoyingly so. Yet he looked as though he was someone you could trust and would never regret placing that trust in him. He was wearing an orange-and-blue baseball cap and a short-sleeved t-shirt with casual blue jeans and he looked a million bucks.

"Oh, hello," I said, suddenly, snapping out of my thoughts, "You're Jack, right? I guess you heard us arguing?"

"Yeah, sorry friend. I wasn't interrupting anything personal, was I?" he asked in a strong Floridian accent, a light wave of concern crossing his face.

"Oh, no!" I quickly assured him, "What happened was one of our hens got killed by a stray dog. My sister Popuri forgot to put it in the coop, so I got mad and yelled at her."

"Ah, sorry to hear that."

"Say, would you do me a favour and go and bring Popuri back home?" I asked, suddenly, "I think she went up in the mountain behind our house. If I went to get her, we'd probably start arguing again."

"Sure, not a problem, my friend," he replied, smiling a hundred-million-dollar smile of trust and instant friendship, "I'll go get your sister for you."

"Thanks," I said, relieved I wouldn't have to endure a second round of arguing with Popuri.

As my new-found friend went to find Popuri, I turned back to the grisly details of the ex-chicken Pon and made ready to bury it later on at the pet's graveyard, since Popuri had obviously considered it to be more than just another proleish animal on our farm.

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Several hours passed. I was having a cup of tea in the kitchen when Popuri came in, slightly hesitantly and, eyes to the ground, whispered, "I'm sorry, Rick. I should have listened to you about Pon."

I got up and went over to her. I said magnanimously, "Hey, it's okay, kid. I'm sorry, I shouldn't have shouted at you. Did Jack find you alright?"

"Yeah," she replied, "He's wonderful."

"That he is," I agreed, smiling warmly.

She hugged me and as I smelled her hair like a drowning man gasps for air, she said, "I love you Rick."

"I love you too, Popuri."

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The next day, around lunchtime, I went over to thank Jack for his help in getting Popuri to come home. When I arrived, I saw him slashing down weeds with a scythe. I stood and watched him for a few moments, as he was doing it in an almost graceful way, cutting down growth to the left and slicing long grass to the right with utter precision and care, yet also with a determined fury and a kind of controlled rage. Eventually, I walked over and called out to him, "Hey, Jack!"

He stopped and looked up, mopping his brow, and broke out in a genuine smile, "Hey stranger!" he called, "Whatcha up to?"

"I just wanted to thank you for looking after Popuri," I answered as I reached him, "It was very good of you."

"Not a problem, friend," he replied genially as he leaned on his scythe handle. He offered a hand and said, "What's your name, cowboy?"

"Rick," I replied, taking the hand and shaking it warmly, "I run the Poultry Farm with my mom and Popuri. If you ever need any chickens or chicken feed, call there."

"Thanks Rick, I will," he replied gratefully.

"I was also wondering," I added, "Do you want to come to the Inn with a few of the guys and have some drinks tomorrow night? It'd be good to have you."

"That sounds like a plan, kid!" he replied brightly, beaming at me, "I'd love to come. I'd better get back to work now if y'don't mind, I've got a lot of cutting to do."

"No problem," I replied, "See you around!"

As I left, there was a skip in my step. Jack seemed like a decent guy and a great new friend to make. I genuinely looked forward to his company and hoped he would succeed.