(Following is the first installment of my mystery novel False Witness. On subsequent Saturdays I’ll post a new installment. Enjoy. :) – Writer Chick)
“The jury’s in!” echoed through the halls of the old courthouse. The courtroom hummed with murmured voices and shuffling feet. Announcing the arrival of the Honorable Josiah Memphis, the bailiff said, “All rise.”
Like the dinosaur that he was, Memphis moved at a slow and awkward pace. He took his perch above the gallery, arranged his robes and nodded to the bailiff.
“Be seated.” Murmurs melted to a hush.
Overhead fans groaned and squeaked as they fought to move the hot, humid air.
“Mr. Foreman, has the jury reached a verdict?” Memphis looked to Sam Quigley – a hardware store owner who’d never been important until that moment.
“We have, Your Honor,” Quigley struck a solemn pose.
“The defendant will please rise,” Memphis drawled.
Beautiful and beleaguered Rachel Clarke, rose with her attorney, Tommy Hicks. She clutched Tommy’s jacket sleeve with one hand and the gold locket around her neck with the other. Tommy whispered in her ear and smiled at her. Rachel nodded and stared straight ahead.
A collective breath caught in the throats of the gallery spectators. The bailiff, yoked by the heat and old age, lumbered to the jury box and then back to the bench.
Memphis opened the scrap of paper that held Rachel’s fate. His expression conveyed nothing when he folded the paper, gave it to the bailiff and nodded. When Quigley held the verdict in his hand again, Memphis cleared his throat. “How say you?”
Quigley swallowed and answered. “We, the jury, in the above-entitled action, on the sole charge of the indictment of murder in the first degree, find the defendant, Rachel Clarke . . . not guilty.”
Voices, bodies and flashguns exploded like a summer thunderstorm. Arms and legs flailing to get to the exit. Rachel Clarke had beat the odds and the news was exploding on lips, tape recorders, tv cameras and radio stations. The silence came quickly.
Rachel let go of a breath she’d held in for what seemed hours. “We did it, darlin’” Tommy hugged her then let her go. “Now go on out of here and get your life back.”
Rachel nodded and watched as he too left the room that had been her life for so many months.
She turned to the one remaining person, her sister, Elizabeth. “It’s over.” Tears flooded her vision. “It’s finally over.”
Eastern Michigan University – Ypsilanti, Michigan
The lecture hall echoed like a bowling alley on Friday night. Voices ricocheted and careened off the walls. “She admitted she killed him!” Loy Parsons’ amber eyes flashed as she squared off with Billy Frayne in class. “The issue isn’t who killed him. It’s the circumstance of his death.”
From age fifteen, Billy Frayne was obsessed with the Clarke case. He’d read everything ever written about it and believed one day he would write the definitive story of the case.
“That’s not my point! My point is that it wasn’t self-defense. ” Billy’s face flushed and he pushed his shaggy blond hair out of his eyes. “I know what the issue is for Christ’s sake!”
“She was a battered woman!”
Billy rolled his eyes. “Yeah, the chick defense. You can get away with murder if you can convince a bunch of idiots that you were hit by the victim. Gimme a break!”
“So, Mr. Frayne, you believe the battering defense is unbelievable because . . . why?” Professor Glass asked. “Not enough evidence of the battering?” He shrugged. “The trial revealed that the accused had suffered many injuries. In fact, the night of the killing, she’d sustained broken ribs, a sprained wrist and a black eye.”
“That’s right,” Loy said, “and they found a hank of her hair in his fist. This guy was innocent? I don’t think so.”
“Maybe he was fighting her off,” Billy argued. “Ever think of that? She was in a rage and attacked him! He had wounds too. She left her mark . . . ”
“Minor injuries,” Glass interjected. “Comparatively, the victim’s injuries from the struggle were quite minor.”
Billy smirked and rolled his eyes again. “You call gouges in his face, bite marks and bruises covering his arms, minor? Sounds like an enraged, crazy woman to me!”
“A desperate woman, you mean!” Another student jumped into the fray. “Why don’t you try getting beaten and abused regularly and see how you react?”
Billy turned to the pretty brunette whose eyes brimmed with tears. “So, it was justifiable homicide? You can murder somebody because they’re abusing you?”
“Should be state sanctioned, if you ask me,” a male student said. “Any man that uses a woman for a punching bag should be shot at sunrise.”
Billy trembled with anger. “So, screw the law? Vigilantism lives? It’s okay if he deserved it? You all really think that?”
No one agreed with him. He didn’t care, he’d take them all on. They were wrong. A bunch of panty-waste liberals feeling sorry for a murderess.
“No one is saying the victim deserved it,” Glass said. “We are debating if in fact, Rachel Clarke had a legal right to end the life of her husband.”
“Bullshit!” Billy exploded. “You’re just making noise. None of you have studied this case. You’ve read a few chapters of a book and from that devised a theory that validates your own core beliefs. That’s all!” Billy slumped down in his chair and caught his breath.
“Ah yes, class, Mr. Frayne has indeed made a career of studying this case. Perhaps he is the expert in this room.” Glass’s smile reminded Billy of a Halloween mask.
The class laughed. Billy glared at Glass. The revered Ivan Glass, criminologist extra ordinaire. If he was such hot shit then why did he teach rather than investigate cases? Billy knew; Glass taught because it was safe. He didn’t have to get his hands dirty, nor did he have to prove his theories. He could just stand at the podium and be the mediator and instigator. All under the guise of inspiring debate and getting young minds to think. What crap.
Billy stood up and took a little bow. “Hey Prof, thanks. You’re right. I am the expert in this class.” Billy puffed up his chest and flashed a grin like a ten-year-old who’d won the county spelling bee.
Glass’s expression went cold. He took off his glasses and cleaned them with the edge of his sweater vest. He put them back on as though he wanted an unobstructed view of Billy, the impudent student.
“Really, Mr. Frayne? Surely, you knew I was being facetious.”
“You mean, sarcastic, don’t you?” Billy wasn’t afraid of Glass or anyone else in the class.
Glass nodded slowly. “Perhaps, perhaps. You may sit now, Mr. Frayne.”
“I don’t feel like sitting down.”
Glass shook his head and looked heavenward and the class rewarded him with a laugh. “All right, Mr. Frayne. Have you something to tell us?”
“Just that you’re all wrong. This was a premeditated murder. Rachel Clarke and Bennett, planned, plotted and executed . . . ”
“Ah, the Webster theory . . . ” Glass interrupted him.
“No, my theory.” The room was silent. “They used the boy as a decoy . . . ”
Groans issued from everywhere in the hall.
“Go ahead,” Billy smiled, “groan all you want . . . ”
“Mr. Frayne, if I may ask, how often must we hear this theory of yours? I mean to say, when will you prove it to us? It isn’t that we think you are wrong,” he smiled. “Well, perhaps we do think you are wrong – but I believe we are open-minded enough to hear your proof if you have any.” Heads all turned to Billy like one giant smirk that judged and ridiculed.
Billy felt like he was back in grade school, cornered by the neighborhood bully. “Why should I?” They were calling his bluff. “Open-minded, my ass.” He felt a stammer fighting to rise.
“Well, why would you keep it to yourself?” Glass asked. “If you know something, we don’t know. Or, in the alternative, if you know a way in which you can prove your theory, why not share it with us? Enlighten us. Please.”
Billy stood mute. His hatred for Glass grew exponentially. Fifty pairs of eyes scrutinized, judged, and dismissed him.
“I see,” Glass nodded and cleared his throat. “The truth is, you want us to agree with you without having to prove anything.”
Billy gnashed his teeth but kept his temper in check. He looked at the faces of his classmates – they dared him.
“I could prove it if I wanted to.”
“Then, please, do so.” Glass opened his arms to encourage Billy.
“I’d need time,” Billy hedged.
“How much?” Glass asked. “We’ll give you all the time you need, won’t we, class?” The class concurred. “You see, you can take all the time you want.”
“I’d need to research and travel,” Billy said unable to stop himself. He’d grabbed the gauntlet and couldn’t give it back.
“The semester ends in three days, perhaps the summer break will suffice?”
“Perhaps,” Billy said.
“All right then, class, Mr. Frayne will see us all in the fall semester, proof in hand.” The bell rang. But not in time to save Billy. He gathered his books and headed for the door.“Have a pleasant trip, Mr. Frayne,” Glass called after him. “And don’t forget to write.”
Billy barreled out of the lecture hall and knocked Spider Cohen on his ass. “Whoa man, take it easy.” Spider earned his nickname because he could hack into any computer system he set his sights on – and could leave a web of false footprints for any tracker who tried to catch him.
“Sorry man,” Billy mumbled. He glanced back at the lecture hall. “Son-of-a-bitch.”
Spider’s dark eyes danced. “Another round with the professor of smug?” Spider snorted when he laughed. “That dude is a pain.”
They walked toward Spider’s dorm. “Any luck with Webster?” Billy had read Lucas Webster’s book about Rachel Clarke – Self Defense or Self Preservation? So often he’d committed it to memory.
Spider shook his head. “No, nothing, but I wrote this new program I want to try. If it does what it’s supposed to, I’ll be hacking into his publisher’s database by tomorrow.” He grinned. “Let’s see how good their fire wall really is.”
“I need to talk to that guy,” Billy said more to himself than to Spider. Webster’s theory was that Rachel Clarke and her sister, Elizabeth Bennett, had conspired together to kill Thomas Clarke. That they had purchased the gun, learned how to use it and planned to enrage Thomas into a fight. Once the pieces were in place, they struck. Webster also contended that the kidnapping of Rachel’s young son, Thomas, Jr. was used as a decoy to throw the jury off and elicit sympathy.
The boy was traumatized by the murder and unable to tell the police anything. During the trial he was kidnapped and took with him anything he knew or witnessed.
The kidnapping fascinated Billy more than any other facet of the case. The few published photographs of the boy were old and grainy – and the best rendering was done by an FBI sketch artist. Speculation at the time was that Thomas Clarke, Sr. had also used his son as a punching bag and he’d destroyed any pictures that would reveal injuries he had inflicted. When the FBI stepped in to investigate the disappearance, there was precious little to give them.
Spider nodded. “Yeah, you and everybody else with a theory want to talk to Webster.”
Billy’s believed Webster was essentially correct except that he believed the boy was used somehow to lure the father to his death. Perhaps by giving him something to make him sick, so he cried out in the night, causing his father to go to him. Then they ambushed Thomas Clarke. Though, even Billy would admit, this part of his theory was soft and had a tendency to change back and forth. The boy was key, of that he was sure.“Well, my need is greater.”
Spider stopped and looked at him. “What did you do?”
Billy dug through his book bag and pretended to look for something. “What do you mean?”
“Oh man, you didn’t?” Spider asked.
“I was tired of his shit, so I called his bluff.”
“If I don’t find Rachel Clarke by Fall semester, I’m pretty much dead meat.”
Billy tore through his tiny apartment, ripping clothes off hangers, dragging boxes and duffel bags back and forth. Drawers were pulled out drawers and left to hang crooked and open. There were still two weeks of finals before he could go but it felt good to take out his frustration on the dump.
Despite the protestations of the bank manager, he’d converted his savings into travelers’ checks. His Aunt Finn would freak if she knew. Being raised by a spinster who sent money to the IRA and sang rebel songs when she was drunk had been unique. “You woulda been a fine rebel,” she always told him. She was more right than she knew. Over the years, she had managed to save $50,000 for him and gave it to him the day he graduated high school. “Do something good with this,” she said with a tear and shaky voice. He sighed. Most of the money had gone to his tuition and the $5,000 left was earmarked for a custom-built computer from Spider. He would just have to make do with his ancient laptop. If a $5,000 investment got him to Rachel Clarke and the story of a lifetime, it was worth it. If he crapped out – he just refused to think about it.
His portable office – laptop, files and clippings -would see him through. The rest of his life – some clothes and a few books – were stuffed into a couple duffels. Except for the few necessities he’d need over the next two weeks, he was ready to go. Between finals he’d do more research and formulate a plan. If the Gods were on his side, Spider would get a fix on Webster by the time he was ready to roll.
Spider had already helped him to connect with Detective Joe Enders of the Oxford, MS Police Department – the lead investigator detective of the Clarke case. Joe had agreed to meet Billy, if he could make it to Oxford.
His obsession was his destiny and it seemed a natural sequence of events was playing itself out. Though it was playing out sooner and faster than he thought, maybe sooner was better.
He caught the case like the flu when he was fifteen and hadn’t let go since. It had all the elements of a Hitchcock film – Rachel Clarke, battered for years by her husband, until she snapped and shot him dead with a snub-nosed .38 colt. The jury called it self defense. Billy called it state-sanctioned murder. There were too many unanswered questions. Why did she endure years of battering? Why didn’t she leave him? What hold did he have over her? There were the typical talk show theories – the victim angle, the Stockholm Syndrome, all the complex psycho-babble anybody could ever want. But Billy thought it was much simpler, Rachel got sick of it one day and exacted her revenge, pure and simple. She waited, she planned and then she acted.
He identified and felt sorry for her son. A witness to his own father’s murder, he went into a catatonic state. Rachel and Elizabeth didn’t want to take the chance that the boy would come out of it, remember and tell someone. So they were forced to devise a plan to make the boy disappear – under the guise of sending him to stay with relatives. Cold as ice. And too hard for the jury to imagine, but not for Billy. He knew that was how it had happened and he was determined to prove it.
The bet with Glass was just flat out stupid, but there was no turning back. Time to put his money where his mouth was, to prove what he’d believed all these years and there was only one way to do it.
His stomach lurched when he thought of Susan. She’d be pissed, no doubt about it. He’d have to make her understand. Billy gulped when he heard her coming. The impatient footsteps rushed toward him, with a thousand questions right behind.
“Is it true?” Susan asked before she was through the door. Her pretty face was flushed and her breath, quick. She’d run up all three flights of stairs and her long, blond hair clung to the back of her neck. “Billy, it’s all over Campus! You made a bet? Is it true?”
Billy kept his back to the love of his life and fiddled with the zipper of his duffle bag. He maneuvered like a prizefighter and dodged this way and that. He grabbed clothes, jamming and thrusting them into bags. He focused on packing and avoided Susan’s brown eyes.
He didn’t want to fight with her. Ever. He needed to keep his resolve firm. There wouldn’t be discussion or debate because he was going. What he didn’t know was if she was going with him. He prayed she would.
Billy grabbed the change jar that he held his tips and dumped the contents into his gym bag. It jangled as he dragged it back to the bed. Pride swelled at his frugalness – he had managed to live cheaply, supporting himself and Susan on his income from delivering pizzas, while using his savings to put himself and Susan through school.
Billy felt Susan’s eyes follow him. Breath escaped her like the air from an old party balloon. “It is true.” The disappointment in her voice made his soul ache.
Billy pushed his hair out his eyes and looked at her. “Are you coming with me?” She didn’t answer. “Suz, are you?”
She leaned against the door and studied her dirty sneakers. “Are you crazy?”
Billy’s shoulders sagged.“Yeah, probably.” He took a book of travelers’ checks out of his pocket.
Susan’s eyebrow shot up. “Where did you get that?” She shook her head. “You emptied your savings?”
He shoved the traveler’s checks into an envelope and gave it to her. “Here’s the rent. I should be back by the time Rubski wants more.”
Susan took the envelope and put it in the back pocket of her shorts. Her eyes roamed the disaster Billy had made of their home. Her neat-freak mode kicked in and she started to clean the mess.
Billy felt bad, he shouldn’t have taken it out on their place. Susan had worked so hard to make it livable. The handmade curtains, the framed prints and potted plants mocked him for the disruption he’d caused. Despite all her efforts, it was just a dingy, little apartment that sweltered in the summer and went cold and damp in the winter. A sad place to live.
Billy tried to help her pick up clothes and overturned pots but she pushed him away. “Oh Billy.” She threw up her hands in surrender and plopped down on the creaky bed and hugged her knees. “On a dare? You’re uprooting your whole life on a dare? Our whole life?”
He sat next to her and caressed her soft hair and admired the way it sparkled in the afternoon light. “I’m doing it because I have to.” He kissed her softly. “Are you coming?”
Susan put her head on his shoulder and closed her eyes. Billy held her and rocked with her in his arms. “Come on, pretty girl, it will be an adventure.” Susan hummed to herself. A trick she used when she didn’t want to answer him. “I can’t do it without you, babe,” he whispered.
She stopped humming and looked up at him. “You won’t go without me?” Hope glinted in her eyes.
Billy misread her expression and jumped to his feet. “Let’s get you packed.” He went to the closet and dragged down another duffel. “You get your girl stuff and I’ll put your clothes in here.” He grabbed for clothes on hangers then turned back with a grin.Susan stayed on the bed, her arms crossed over her chest. She shook her head. “What?” he groused. The smallest descent from her clocked him completely.
“Billy, this obsession with Rachel Clarke is going to ruin your life.”
“Why do you say that? Why do you always say that? I mean, how do you know?” He paced like a sugared-up, little kid.
“I feel it. I know it.” She stood up and went to him. She took his face in her hands and kissed him softly. “I just know.”
Billy backed away from her touch and pouted but he couldn’t deny it, she was her barometer and she knew all things Billy. It pissed him off that anyone knew him that well, yet he was so grateful it was she.
Her eyes wouldn’t release him. “Why can’t we live our lives? Why do we have to live the life of people we don’t even know? Can’t you let go of this?”
Billy clamped his jaw so hard that he thought his brains would blow out through his ears. “No, I can’t! I can’t! I just can’t!”
Susan stood still and let him rant. He slammed doors and drawers and stomped his feet and kicked the wall.“Susan, don’t you know that no matter how many times you ask me why, I still don’t know? I just know I have to. That’s all.” It was the only thing they ever fought about and the fight was always the same. His obsession versus her logic. It never resolved. Always a standoff.
Billy took her hand. “Please Susan, trust me. Just this once, trust me, not your intuition. I promise, once this is over then I’ll never bring it up again. But if I don’t go, I’ll never be rid of it. The feeling, the ache.” He slapped his hand against his forehead. “This voice that tells me I have to do it!”
Susan resigned herself to the impetus of the obsession. “Okay. I’ll go. God knows what you’d do out there on your own. God knows what I’d do, worrying about you. I’ll go, but I won’t like it.” Billy’s face brightened. “But, only for one month. After that, I go home. With or without you.” On this, Billy knew she was resolute.
“Deal.” He picked her up and twirled her around. He got her to go, he could get her to stay and had to – he was nothing without her, his rock. So, they would go. He would solve the Rachel Clarke case and he would win his bet with his smug professor and snobbish classmates. A big mistake to make a bet with Billy. He just had to be right. He’d show them all. He hoped.
Fifteen years after her acquittal, Rachel Clarke, now known as Rae Hale, resided in Lakeview Terrace, California. A rustic town that was ten minutes from the Angeles Crest National Forest and nestled in the foothills of the San Bernardino Mountains.
She loved the clean, fresh air, ancient pines, oaks, maples and the lush, indigenous flora that reminded her of better days. In the winter, the mountains were capped with snow, in the fall the leaves were afire with crimson, gold and russet. The spring brought cool, misty mornings and summer offered the sweet fragrance of jasmine and orange blossoms like her beloved South.
Rae checked her reflection in the ladies’ room mirror of Al’s Steakhouse, a local eatery that was little more than a hole in the wall. Everyone in town ate there and it was famous for prime rib served with twice-baked potatoes and garlic-cheese bread.
She fussed with her unruly, auburn hair and smiled at her own vanity. “You’ll do,” she said to herself.
When she returned to her booth, Michael Ferris’s smile lit the room. Rae slid into the red vinyl seat next to him. “Miss me?”
Michael touched her hair and nodded. She wanted to kiss him, he had such a fine mouth for kissing but she restrained herself.
Michael caressed the back of her hand with his fingertips.
“Oh the way you make me feel,” she grinned and swatted away his hand. She picked up the big, red menu and squinted in the low light. “What are you having?”
Michael sipped at his draft. “The usual . . . and so are you. I’ve already ordered.” He took the menu from her and put it on the edge of the table. “What way?”
Rae shrugged. “I don’t know . . . happy, I guess.”
Michael’s blue eyes crinkled at the edges when he smiled. Rae could look at him for hours. Just look at him and be happy. He was the perfect specimen of a man, tall, rugged, tanned, with silver hair and maddening blue eyes that made her weak in the knees.
He swooped in for a kiss when Martha arrived with the salads. She was either oblivious or pretended not to notice that she had killed the moment. Martha whipped out the mammoth pepper grinder and aimed it like an M-16. “Fresh, ground pepper for your salad?” Both Rae and Michael declined. “Suit yourself,” she said, pushing her glasses up the bridge of her nose and dashing off to the next order.
After dinner, they drove up the Angeles Crest to watch the sunset. The ascent was steep and winding. To Rae, it felt like climbing to the sky. She relaxed and watched the colors sharpen in the evening sky while blurs of silver granite rushed by her like nature’s hands pointing the way. The air turned cool and smelled of pine and wildflowers. No matter how often Rae took the trip it always dazzled her and instilled a profound sense of calm.
Michael pulled into a turnout that looked out over the San Fernando Valley. Breathtaking. The sun was an orange ball that shot streaks of indigo, magenta and gold across the horizon as the lights of the city blinked on little by little. Rae fancied the view as her own special Christmas tree created for her admiration.
Michael found a radio station that played soft jazz, pushed back his seat and pulled Rae close to him. His mouth found hers and for a while they were lost in warm kisses. What a joy it was for Rae to share affection with a man who didn’t play the game of grope and grab. They weren’t teenagers eager to learn about the dictates of their hormones. They were adults who enjoyed each other on all levels.
“I love you, Rae,” Michael murmured into her ear.
Rae pulled back from his embrace and smiled. “It’s getting late,” she said.
Michael looked at the dashboard clock. “Nine-thirty? Hardly the witching hour.”
She pulled down the visor and looked in the vanity mirror, fussing with her hair and smeared lipstick. “It is when you have bright, young faces who greet you at six o’clock every morning.” She gave up trying to fix her face and flipped the visor up. “A girl needs her sleep.”
Michael took her in his arms and kissed her with such an urgency that it took Rae’s breath away. “Michael, what’s wrong?”
Michael slumped back, a wry smile belying a private joke. “Wrong? Nothing.” Abruptly, he pulled his seat forward, buckled his seat belt and started the engine.
Rae put her hand on Michael’s. “I’m sorry. I’ve upset you, haven’t I?”
His jaw tightened but he said nothing. Rae waited. He turned the engine off and leaned his head back against the headrest. He took her hand and looked into her hazel eyes. “Marry me?” he asked in a whisper.
Without her consent, she went rigid and gripped the door handle. She fought against going into full panic mode but whenever Michael tried to get too close, it happened. Whether she wanted it to or not. Men were dangerous, unpredictable creatures. They can’t be trusted. They maim and betray. They break bones and hearts. She couldn’t turn the thoughts off, the voice of her experiences, her tragedies. “Michael . . . ”
“I know, I know . . . you’ve got things in your past . . . you can’t tell me . . . you . . . what? What is it?” He took her hand and put it to his face. “You love me, of that I’m certain. What does anything else matter? Can’t we slay your dragons together?”
Rae leaned against him and wished she never had to move from that spot. Wished she could spend the rest of her days in Michael’s arms because it would be an ideal existence if she could. “It’s complicated. It’s ugly.”
Michael kissed the top of her head. “It doesn’t matter. I promise you, it doesn’t matter at all.”
She wanted to believe him but she didn’t. Trust was a luxury she couldn’t afford. She imagined many times, telling Michael who she was. The famous Rachel Clarke. The murderess who’d gotten away with killing her husband because fate had twisted hatred into pity. A woman whose freedom came at a price so dear that life was barely worth living. “I just can’t. I’m sorry.”
Michael kissed her softly. “I know.”
Rae leaned back in her seat. “I don’t deserve you. I wouldn’t blame you if you left me and found a woman who deserved you.”
Michael laughed and started the engine. “Not on your life, madam. You’ll never be free of me.”
Though it was a joke, the words cut her like a knife and brought back the shadow of the man whom she could only be free of by death.
The kitchen door creaked as Rae let herself in, she cringed, hoping Libbie hadn’t heard. Not willing to risk turning on the lights, she picked her way through the shadows toward the stairs that led to her room. “It’s late,” Libbie said from behind her.
Rachel jumped and cursed silently. Libbie loved to startle her. It was a mean childhood game that Libbie still enjoyed and had carried over to adulthood. Rachel switched on the light. “What are you doing up?”
“I heard you,” Libbie said flatly. “You think I don’t hear that contraption of his whenever he rolls up? You’d have to be deaf not to hear it.”
It amused Rae when Libbie acted like a crotchety old man, always grousing at something. “Well, it’s late and I’m tired.” Rae walked through the living room toward the stairs.
Libbie followed her. “What have you two been doing ‘til all hours?”
Rae never understood how two sisters could be so different, how they could view life as such distinct and separate animals. “Ten-thirty? Is that all hours?”
“It’s late enough,” Libbie grumped. “But then, bless your heart, you’re always off having a grand time while I stand watch on the home front.” She turned on her heel and stomped toward the kitchen.
No easy escape to bed and sweet dreams of Michael would be had yet. Rae sighed and followed Libbie. She watched from the kitchen doorway as Libbie put water on for tea. “What’s wrong?”
Libbie pulled down the special tea cups and saucers, china with an antique rose pattern. Tea was an important ritual that few found more satisfying than Libbie. The water must be boiling hot, the cup china and the tea fresh. “What do you care? You got your life. You needn’t trouble yourself with my trifles.”
Guilt dragged Rae into the kitchen and to the table. “Oh sister, don’t be that way. Tell me what’s troubling you.”
The kettle whistled and Libbie prepared the tea in silence, leaving Rae on the edge, as she was wont to do. One of Libbie’s greatest joys, Rae knew, was to rile her.
Libbie brought the tea to the table, pulled out her chair and sat as if she’d spent the day laboring in the fields. She stirred sugar into her tea, clanging the special teaspoon back and forth. She put the cup to her lips and took a dainty sip, her pinky finger extended, just as their mother, Charlotte, had taught them as children.
“Libbie, for heaven’s sake, what is the matter now?” Rae wanted to tear her hair out.
“Why on earth did we ever start this business?” Libbie snapped. “To call it a business though, is absurd, because that would imply we make a profit. Or at the very least, break even.” Her dark eyes peered at Rae over her cup.
“Money? We have more money than we could spend in our lifetimes.” Rae sipped her tea, made a face and put the cup down. “What kind of tea is this?”
“Fresh camomile. From my garden.” A flare rose in her eyes when she said garden.
“Oh, I see,” Rae frowned. “The kids got into your precious garden again?”
Libbie glared. “I’ll thank you not to take that tone with me. You know well how very much of myself I put into my garden. It is like a child to me!” Libbie’s eyes went hot and liquid.
Rae refused to be pulled into full battle with Libbie, a woman more stubborn than lipstick stains on silk. “Fine. And who is the guilty culprit? And what did they do?” She struggled to keep her voice steady and not enter the screaming match Libbie was offering her.
Libbie got up, took her cup to the sink and poured her tea down the drain. She rinsed her cup and put it on the drainboard. “Never you mind, sister. I can see it doesn’t matter a damn to you.”
“Of course it matters. But how can I help if you don’t tell me?” Rae wanted to sleep, her eyes burned and her head began to ache.
Libbie faced her, wearing her bitterness like a crown. “How can you help me? Well bless your heart for asking. You can slam the door shut on this business before it sends us to the poorhouse. Set a match to this nightmare you call a home and take us to Europe to live out our days in peace and tranquility.”
Rae laughed. “I see you don’t want everything at all, as I’d feared. Just sell everything and move to Europe. Of course, sister dear, are you sure that’s all? No other requests, wishes? Dreams?” Libbie pouted and gave Rae her back. No one could ply guilt from Rae like her sister, like picking at a scab the grab of it never went away. She put her hand on Libbie’s shoulder. “Libbie, you know we can’t just up and go like that. Folks depend on us. What would all our mothers do if we quit and left them to flail? Who’d care for their little ones?”
“I’m sure I don’t know and I don’t care neither,” Libbie snapped.
“Oh pish, you don’t mean that.” Rae’s eyes sparkled. “I mean, who could look into those sweet, little faces and abandon them?”
Libbie crossed her arms over her chest. “Oh, but I do mean it. I don’t give a whit about those little tyrants, with their rosy cheeks and sticky, dirty fingers over everything. Their blood curdling screams incited by toy usurpation.” She put her hands to her head as if it might explode. “Their incessant demands for food and attention and bandages. Expecting that everything and anything be explained to them. Not once but endlessly!” She trembled to get the last declarations out. “They shatter the sanity of any rational human being and give it no thought at all. So, why should I? Why, I ask you, why?”
Rae backed away from Libbie who looked like a demented witch trembling with evil. “They’re children for pity’s sake! What on earth is wrong with you? How could you possibly expect anything else? What do you expect from them?”
“I don’t expect anything of them. I expect it of you!” Libbie broke down and wept.
“Well, no one is forcing you to stay. You are free to leave anytime you want. Far be it from me to deny you Europe!” Rae snapped back.
“And how would I live? How would I get there? Where would I live?” Libbie wailed and accused.
Rae stormed out of the kitchen and came back with her checkbook in hand. “I’ll write you a check. How much do you need? Ten thousand? Twenty thousand? Just name your price and it’s yours!”
Libbie panted like a caged animal and twitched with adrenaline. “Oh I see, just write me a check! That’s right, you hold the purse strings! Mother left everything to you!”
“Shut up, Libbie! Just shut up!” Rae leaned against the counter, bowed her head and prayed for strength from God, if there was a god. Libbie never missed the opportunity to needle Rae about her inheritance, though Rae had never refused Libbie anything she ever wanted.
“You think you can be rid of me by writing a check?” Libbie charged her. “You think you can buy me off?” She grabbed Rae’s arm. “Is that what you think?”
Rae flung off Libbie’s grasp and for a split second feared Thomas wasn’t dead but lived in her sister’s enraged eyes. “Stop it, Libbie! Just stop it!” Tears stung in Rae’s eyes. “Why must you make me feel guilty about everything? I didn’t ask Mother to leave me anything. I had no idea . . . ”
“But you never tried to change it, did you?” Libbie accused. “You didn’t try to make it right. Why not, sister? I’ll tell you why not, because you liked it that way. You liked being able to control me. Holding it over my head and making me beg for every single penny!” Libbie’s sobs racked her body.
Rae became furious when Libbie acted like her victim. Whenever she felt threatened, Libbie trotted it out to ambush her. “Fine. We’ll go to the bank tomorrow and draw up the papers. We’ll divide everything straight down the middle. I’ll buy out your half of the Center and then you can do whatever you fancy, sister dear.”
Libbie’s sobs stopped mid-gasp and her dark eyes flashed. “I knew it! You picked this fight to get rid of me. Badgering me until you got what you wanted.”
Rae had an overwhelming urge to slap the hell out of Libbie.
“You couldn’t get through a day without me. You know it’s true. Who’d feed you and keep your books?”
Rae wanted to rip the smug look from Libbie’s face. “That’s not true,” Rae defended. “I’m not a child. I don’t need a nursemaid. I’m a grown woman.”
“And when the rest of the world betrayed you, who stood by you? Tell me that?”
“Libbie, please, must you bring that up every time we disagree?” Rae felt squashed by the weight of Libbie’s ten pounds of flesh.
“You can’t toss me out like a piece of trash. I’ve given you too many years of my life for you to treat me that way.”
Libbie had always been high strung, but Rae worried about her personality flips that had worsened and increased over the years.
“Yes, Libbie you have helped me a good deal in my life. And I am eternally grateful, you know that I am. But if you aren’t happy here, you don’t have to stay. I don’t want you to be miserable. I want you to be happy.” She smiled at Libbie.
“Then I’ll thank you to treat me with some respect,” Libbie softened.
Rae took Libbie’s hand and held it in hers. “I do respect you. More than any human being on God’s green earth. Don’t you know that?”
Libbie’s lip trembled and she daubed at her eyes with the sleeve of her robe. “Can’t you keep those children out of my garden, Rae? It hurts me so when they trample it to death.”
Rae put her arm around Libbie’s shoulder and gave it a squeeze. “I will, sister dear, I will. I’m going to hire us a handyman and have him build a fence around your garden. How’s that?” Libbie nodded. “We all right now?” Rae asked her.
“I hate it when we argue sister, I truly do.” Libbie cried a little.
“I do too,” Rae nodded and guided Libbie out of the kitchen and toward the stairs. “And tonight I had such good news to tell you too.”
Libbie stopped and looked at Rae. “Good news? What is it?”
“Michael. He asked me to marry him,” Rae glowed.
Libbie looked away. “Have you accepted?”
“No,” Rae admitted. “But isn’t it wonderful that he asked? Maybe I will say yes, someday.” Rae’s eyes sparkled as she spoke. “We have only to find you a wonderful man too and then life will be perfect.”
Libbie nodded and started up the stairs. “If only we could believe such fairy tales. We Hale women have the most dreadful luck with men, haven’t we?”
Rae stopped on the stairs as hope rushed out of her. “Our luck could change.”
Libbie smiled, “yes, sister dear, if you wish it hard enough perhaps it will someday come true.”
Joe Enders sat alone on his porch and sipped a warm beer as he admired his perfect, green lawn. He lamented that there was no one to share the moment in the humid afternoon. His wife dead for the better part of two years and his grown children lived up north, scattered like so many seeds. Most of his friends had moved away to live with either their children or senior communities in Florida and such. But he stuck – he stayed in his beloved little town of Oxford, where he was born and most certainly would die. Life had been pretty slow and uneventful and beyond fooling with his lawn and watching ball, often with a Budweiser, in hand.
Then a college kid named Billy Frayne, contacted him out of the blue. First by email, then phone. “I’m researching a few well-known murder cases for a paper I want to write. Do you remember the Clarke case?” Joe laughed. It was the biggest case of his career. He remembered every dang bit of it.
In the summer of 1993, when Joe’s life was full and he was the lead detective in the Oxford Police Department he’d headed the Clarke investigation. A three-ring circus was nothing in comparison. The murder of a popular university professor at the hands of his lovely and equally popular young wife had rocked the little town. Better than a Tennessee Williams play, the newsmen said. Crime of the century, the Eagle banner proclaimed. Something for everybody reporters joked from the gallery. In Joe’s mind, it was none of those things. It was plain and simple, tragic. A disturbing lesson of how wrong life could go.
The crime scene was chaos. News vans, reporters and nosy neighbors littered the street and had to be held at bay by an insufficient detail. “You’d think the whole damned world got an invite to this soiree before me,” Joe complained to the uniform protecting the scene.
Rachel seesawed between hysteria and calm as if possessed by some mad puppet-master pulling her strings. Her sister, Elizabeth, however, spoke in clear, concise sentences and explained every detail of what had happened. A little too well, Joe thought. Rehearsed. To Joe it was obvious the sisters got their story straight first before they called 911, although he could never prove it. What broke his heart was Rachel’s boy, Beau, so traumatized by the incident that he stood still as critters before a storm and clutched at his mama’s robe. No seven-year-old child should ever have to see his own father’s death – Beau’s reaction was testament to that.
The smell of blood and magnolias blended in a repulsive stench and hung in the humid air. “Stinks like the Devil,” Joe said to no one in particular.
“It was self defense,” Rachel whispered. “I had to do it. He gave me no choice. He was relentless, Joe. You know how he was.” Rachel’s face was a testament to the violence. The blood splatters that clung to her cheek and the left eye that had swelled shut said more than words. The bruise shaped like a hand print that encircled her left forearm told of the enraged man who had left it as his calling card.
The Clarke’s had a lot of fights and many of them knock down drag-outs, but Joe was damned if he could figure what was so different about that night.
He knew Rachel since she was a baby and wanted to believe her story, needed to believe her story. Jailing a woman who’d been like a daughter to him for a brutal murder was not a task that Joe relished. Especially for the murder of a man who deserved it. If not for that night for any number of others.
Everyone in Oxford knew about Tommy Clarke’s dalliances with other women. They were as legendary as his charm. So too, were the fights and the trips to the emergency room for inexplicable injuries that didn’t agree with the explanations Rachel offered. Beau had also suffered at the hands of his father, with a collection of bruises and scars that would have seemed extreme even for a high school football player. Rachel had made a bad marriage and she’d paid for it. But murder? That was going too far. Even Joe couldn’t look the other way for that.
After the paramedics had tended to Rachel’s injuries, Joe snapped handcuffs around her wrists. “You have the right to remain silent . . . ”
Rachel didn’t say another word to him. That moment ended their friendship and Joe knew it. Her eyes pleaded and screamed a thousand questions but they were never spoken.
She was indicted for premeditated murder and most believed she was headed for death row. In those days, spousal abuse was not considered much of a defense in the South.
Midway through the trial, Beau went missing. Elizabeth had put him on a bus to go stay with relatives up north. At a rest stop, in Fort Wayne, Indiana, Beau asked to go to the bathroom in the diner. The driver pointed the way and it was the last time anyone ever saw him.
The police were called in. Then the FBI. Rachel even hired private detectives to find him. Money being no object, she’d spent much of her inheritance to do so. It didn’t matter, the boy was never seen again. And probably dead, Joe feared.
When nothing would clearly lead anybody to Beau, all the life went out of Rachel. For the remainder of the trial she was silent and motionless at the defense table and stared straight ahead, as if nothing existed but her pain. If it hadn’t been for Elizabeth, she probably would have tried to kill herself and save the State the cost of a trial. Elizabeth seemed to keep her going. The secret bond of sisterhood, Joe reckoned.
Ironically, the horror of losing Beau turned the trial in Rachel’s favor because it aroused such sympathy in the jury that they ignored the facts. Rachel was acquitted. “Damnedest thing I’ve ever seen,” Joe said upon hearing the verdict.
Rachel tried again, through attorneys and private detectives to find Beau, but never did. The sisters left Oxford a couple years after the acquittal, unable to bear the reporters and tourists who had no conscience about peering into their lives. Oxford returned to its previous quiet state as if its even, steady pace had never been disturbed.
Joe pondered what Billy Frayne really wanted from him. Experience told him that inquiries into the Clarke case were never innocent. Over the years many people had contacted him. Some made claims of being Rachel’s long lost son and others just wanted to find a story. Joe didn’t know why he agreed to meet Billy Frayne. He seemed sincere and honest to Joe, but so had others who turned out to be fakers. “Just a school paper,” Joe said to himself, “guess it couldn’t do no harm.”
Joe would know soon enough because Billy would be there tomorrow. “Billy Frayne, come on down,” Joe chuckled to himself. Twilight cued Joe to go inside. The evening news and the Wednesday night movie beckoned him. He tucked Rachel and Beau into a corner of his mind and let them rest there for the time being.
The screen door squeaked as he opened it and let it slam behind him. Joe let loose with a good belch as he made his way to the fridge for another brew.
Billy expected Oxford to be a hick town, filled with red necks who waved confederate flags and ate fried chicken and grits. Instead he found a postcard perfect village built around a university that nurtured the creative and artistic.
All things revolved around the Square. Quaint shops melded seamlessly with newer stores and restaurants. Young, eager faces greeted them as they walked the streets and reminded Billy of his own campus at Eastern.
The soft, humid air of spring carried the scent of magnolia and dogwood and comforted Billy somehow. Above it all loomed the statue of Faulkner, looking down like a father beaming at his children of whom he was proud.
“Lovely,” Susan murmured as they walked the Square. “Just like out of novel.”
“Yeah, a Grisham novel,” Billy joked. Susan rolled her eyes and punched his arm. “Ouch!” He rubbed at his arm. “What was that for?”
Susan shrugged. “General purposes.”
Billy took her hand as they strolled. If it weren’t for his mission, they could have just enjoyed the trip. They always talked about going on a vacation and this would have been perfect.
“What do you think?” Billy asked.
“I think it’s a lovely place.”
Billy led her to a park bench and they sat. “No. What do you think about my plan?”
“It’s not much of one,” she said as she rummaged in her backpack for a barrette. “I thought Michigan was humid, this place takes the cake.” She twisted her hair into a bun and clipped it in place. “That’s better.”
“Do you think this guy will believe me?” Billy asked.
Susan furrowed her brows. “I don’t know, Billy. Probably. You’re a college student doing a paper on famous murder cases. Sure, why not?”
“But?” Billy prodded.
An octogenarian couple approached them, walking slowly and fanning themselves. They smiled at Billy and Susan. “So friendly here, aren’t they?”
“Come on,” Billy said. “But, what?”
Susan smiled and pushed the hair out of his eyes. “You need a haircut.” Billy made an impatient face. “Okay, okay. Honestly, I think he’ll see right through you. Screw the plan. Just tell him the truth.”
“The truth?” Billy’s voice cracked. “Are you crazy?”
Susan laughed. “You should see your face, like I asked you to give up your computer or something.”
“He’s a small town, hick cop, why wouldn’t he believe I was writing a paper? I am a college student and the truth is I probably will write a paper on the case . . . someday.”
Susan smirked. “The truth is that you want to write a book about this case. One you want to be more famous than Webster’s.” Billy tried to protest but Susan wouldn’t let him get a word in. “This isn’t about the bet, not really. Oh sure, it gave you an excuse to go off, half-cocked and pissed, but it’s not the real reason and we both know it.”
Billy leaned forward with his elbows on his knees and watched an army of ants march after a wad of gum that melted on the sidewalk. “Well, just because we know it doesn’t mean everybody has to know too. Besides, I look at it like I’m doing a public service, you know?” He stole a glance at her. “If I get the truth out there then whatever I had to do to get it doesn’t matter so much, right?”
Susan guffawed. “That’s the stupidest thing you’ve said all day.” Billy continued to pout. “I’m telling you, Billy, if you use this guy as a source you need to level with him. If you don’t, it’ll blow up in your face.”
“Says you,” Billy said.
Billy was undaunted and in fact, rejected her theory. “He’ll swallow whatever I tell him, believe me.” Susan’s face said she didn’t. “Most people think I have a way with words,” he insisted.
Susan laughed hard. “True, you do have the bullshit gene,” she said between snorts. “I mean, you did get me to go out with you.”
Billy was indignant. “No joke, total strangers spill their guts to me. I’ve got that kind of face.” That comment sent Susan into another fit of snorts and laughs.
“And, Miss know-it-all, this guy likes me. I can tell by the way he talked to me on the phone. He was excited about my coming down. I mean, look around you. Not like there’s any excitement going on here. I bet he’s happy to have somebody to brag to. You know?”
Susan surrendered. “Okay, Billy. Whatever you say. Some hillbilly cop is going to tell you the secrets of his case. Going to tell you things that he’s never told anybody. Not in all the years that people have tried. He’s decided that you are the one he’s going to confide in. I got it.” She stood up and curtsied. “I am honored to be in the presence of such a master bullshitter,” she giggled.
“You aren’t now, but you will be.” He couldn’t hang onto his straight face and busted up laughing. “I am so full of shit, ain’t I? He went into a fit of giggles.
Susan yawned. “Right now, I’d be happy to find a Starbucks.”
Billy stood up and offered her his arm. “Well, my little julep,” Billy drawled. “This here college town’s gotta have an establishment wheres we can get y’all a fine cup of coffee.”
Susan let out a whoop. “That’s the worst southern accent I’ve ever heard in my life!”
Billy stopped and grabbed at his chest like he’d been stabbed. “Say it ain’t true, peach blossom. Say you didn’t mean those hateful words. If you don’t, I’ll surely fall to the ground and die. I’ll just die,” he fluttered his eyelashes taking a crack at a Scarlet O’Hara impression.
“Oh stop! You’re killing me!” Susan howled.
They hung onto each other laughing until they realized they had a small audience who was not amused. “You pokin’ fun at us, son?” a large and sweaty man asked.
“Ah, me . . . no. I was just . . . ah . . . ”
Susan grabbed Billy by the arm and hustled him away. “You better pray they don’t still tar and feather around here, Batman, or we’re in a whole heap of trouble.”
copyright Anita Rodgers