photo Jonnie Jacobs
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MURDER AMONG STRANGERS

[cover]From Chapter 1

At the tender age of six, my daughter Anna has already learned that it's hard to tell the good guys from the bad. The saints from the sinners, friends from foes.

She's standing at the window, her eye on the cable television truck parked across the street.

"Is it them, again?" she asks hesitantly, afraid that this time the answer will be yes.

I run my hand over the top of her head. Her honey-brown hair is fine and silky under my palm. "No. That's over, remember?"

"Libby says—"

Anna's words are cut short by the appearance of Libby herself, who sashays into the room in a whirlwind of teenage energy.

"Have you seen my yellow sweater?" she asks without preamble. It sounds like an accusation, but I'm reasonably sure that's not what she intends.

Libby is a foster child of sorts—the daughter of a friend who was killed last year. While we've had our disagreements, the absence of a blood tie seems somehow to cut us more slack with one another.

"I haven't," I tell her. "Did you check your backpack?"

"Backpack. Closet. The car. Everywhere."

"It's in my room," Anna exclaims, as though she's just scored in Jeopardy. "You took it off when we were doing our exercises."

Libby slaps her forehead with the heel of her palm. "Right. I remember now."

The two of them head for Anna's room, the specter of bad tidings forgotten.

I sink down in the arm chair near the window and find my eyes drawn, as Anna's were, to the van across the street. My mind, though, is filled with images from the night it all began. Like the opening credits on the big screen, I can see it unfold.

* * * *

It was January—cold, wet and ugly. People think it doesn't rain in California, but it does. That night, it was raining heavily. The kind of downpour that makes you think God has opened a faucet over your head. Even at the fastest speed, my windshield wipers couldn't keep up with the deluge. The wind howled, dropping limbs and blowing debris across the roadway.

I was headed home, hugging the winding, two-lane road like a safety line in the night. In this unincorporated part of the county, houses were few and far between. Street lights were non-existent.

It was later than I'd expected, which would irritate Michael. But then, he was already irritated, although about what I couldn't say. That, in turn, made me peevish. We'd been snapping at each other for weeks, then compounding the problem by ignoring it.

I squinted into the darkness, cursing the ineffectual wiper blades he'd promised to replace. The rain pounded loudly against the car roof, threatening to drown out the radio. I was concentrating so hard on the parallel ribbons of yellow at the center of the roadway that at first I didn't see the car with its lights off stopped just ahead, near the shoulder. It was an older model turquoise sedan, long and wide. And it blocked enough of the lane that I had to swerve across the double line to avoid hitting it.

As I went by, my gaze caught the face of a woman in the driver's seat. Young, with an expression so petulant it was almost comic. Her eyes met mine briefly and then she looked away. I'd passed before it all registered.

I thought of simply driving on. She hadn't flagged me down, after all. Nor did she appear to be injured. She would have managed, I told myself, if I hadn't happened by. Couldn't she manage just as well if I passed and didn't stop?

Sure. Is that what you'd want if the situation were reversed? Or if it were Libby stranded there on a deserted road in the middle of the night?

I found a wide spot in the pavement and managed, with considerable effort and some deft maneuvering, to turn the car around without getting stuck in the mud. I headed back in the direction I'd come and pulled in behind the car.

Okay, Ms. Good Samaritan. What if she's out here on purpose, studying the effects of rain on asphalt or some such thing. You'll inconvenience yourself for nothing and wind up looking like a fool.

It wouldn't be the first time, I told myself.

With the illumination of my headlights, however, I saw immediately what the problem was. The car's right rear wheel was missing.

I parked on the shoulder, behind the stranded car, and felt a moment's satisfaction at doing something which would undoubtedly irk Michael if he knew.

Grabbing my umbrella, I climbed out. The woman rolled down her window when I approached.

"You need help?" I asked.

She shook her head. Straw-blond curls shimmied with the movement. "No. I mean, I don't think so."

She was attractive in a hardened kind of way. Without the dark lip-liner and heavy shadow she might even have been pretty. She looked to be in her early twenties, although between the makeup and the darkness of night, it was hard to tell. She sounded about twelve.

"I can give you a lift somewhere, if you'd like."

"No, I..." She was shivering so hard she had trouble talking. "My... friend went for help. Only I thought he'd be back before now."

"How long has it been?"

"I don't know. Over an hour."

"You sure he's coming back tonight?"

"This is his car." She hugged her arms across her chest in an effort to keep warm.

"Why don't you at least turn on the engine and stay warm?"

"The tank's almost empty."

"Look," I told her, holding the umbrella tight against a gust of wind. "You're freezing cold. Besides, with the car jutting out into the road the way it is, you could get hit. Why don't you let me take you into town. You can leave a note for your friend."

She shook her head. "No, really. Bobby wouldn't like that."

To hell with Bobby, I thought. What kind of friend leaves a young woman alone on a night like this, without even enough gas to keep the engine running?

"What's your name?" I asked her. "The least I can do is call Bobby when I get home and make sure he hasn't forgotten you."

"It's Sheryl Ann. But I wouldn't know where to have you call. He was going to get the tire fixed. I'll be okay, really." She was putting up a brave front, but I could hear the doubt in her voice.

"Maybe there's a blanket in the trunk," I said. "And some flares."

"I don't..."

My patience was wearing thin. I was cold and wet and anxious to be on my way. But Sheryl Ann seemed incapable of helping herself. I was afraid that if I simply walked away, I'd be reading about her demise in the news. Young woman freezes to death in winter storm.

I reached through the open window for the keys. "Let's take a look and see. Okay?"

"No," she said, more firmly this time. "I'm fine. Really."

But I'd already grabbed the keys. I was used to dealing with recalcitrant children, which was how I was beginning to think of Sheryl Ann. I found the lock and opened the trunk.

Sheryl Ann was out of the car now, without an umbrella or a jacket. "I'm fine," she said again, tugging on my arm. "You really don't need to—"

"See, there is a blanket," I told her. "Now that you're wet, you'll really need it."

I grabbed a corner of the blanket and pulled, uncovering a man's shoe. Tugging harder, I saw that it wasn't just a shoe. There was a foot inside. Attached to a leg. Which, given the futility of my tugging, I felt certain was connected to a body.

It took a moment for these realizations to sink in, and when they did, they hit me like a lead ball in the chest. Fear sucked the air from my lungs.

"It's not the way it looks," Sheryl Ann said.

Unless this body in the blanket was something other than flesh and bone, it didn't look good.

"Is he dead?"

She nodded.

"Who is he?"

"Tully."

"Tully," I repeated, simply for something to say.

"My husband," she added.

I didn't try to sort it out, not right then. All I wanted was to get away from there as quickly as possible. I started to back up, heading for my car.

"I know what you're thinking," she said, following me.

"Look, whatever's between you and your husband, I guess it doesn't really concern me, right? So I'll just..."

A flash of headlights around the bend, a screech of tires as a car skidded to a stop on the opposite side of the street. Squinting into the glare, I saw a man emerge from the passenger side.

"Bobby!" Sheryl Ann's voice was flooded with relief.

I felt nothing of the sort. Fear prickled my skin and sent a tremor down my spine.

It was clear I should never have stopped.

 

© Jonnie Jacobs. Web site by interbridge.