Read Murder Mile High Online

Authors: Lora Roberts

Tags: #Mystery

Murder Mile High (3 page)

 

Chapter 3

 

I parked the bus in the shade of a big sycamore, across the street from my parents’ house. It was after eight, full dark. Even nosy Mrs. Beamish, if she still lived next door, would have trouble seeing us. Amy sat beside me; Barker was curled up on the back seat, my personal car alarm. Andy had driven his own car over to pick up my dad for his jaunt to the Legion Hall. The front door of my parents’ house opened, and Andy walked out beside my father.

Dad looked small next to his son. He was bent—the legacy of so many construction jobs—and his hair had progressed from iron-gray to white, combed back carefully as always.

I felt shocked. I remembered him as he had looked the day I brought Tony home after our hasty marriage. He had risen out of his big chair when my mother started crying at my announcement. Leaving the Sunday afternoon game blaring on the TV, he had escorted us to the door. Standing there, tall and broad and forbidding, he’d told me I was never to come back, since I’d hurt my mother so much. That wouldn’t have kept me away, if it hadn’t been for the grim satisfaction behind his words. He’d always said that letting me go to college would end in disaster; once again, he was proved right.

Now I looked at his shrunken form, the thinning hair, and wondered why we were tiptoeing around this man, what fire he could possibly still possess that made Andy reluctantly agree to get him out of the house for me, as if the old man could physically bar the door to his errant daughter.

Andy scowled over at us after shutting the passenger door, before he climbed into his side of the car and drove away.

“That’s Daddy,” Amy said blithely. “He doesn’t want us to think he likes doing us a favor. But he’s not so bad, really.”

"That’s not what you said last summer.”

Her brow wrinkled. “Well, he was different when I got home. Like—I don’t know, like he almost respected me or something.” She giggled. “Fat chance, huh. Well, they’re gone. Let’s go in.”

She led the way across the street and used her key to open the door. “Hi, Gramma, it’s me!”

I stopped in the doorway, overcome by the familiar smells of lemon oil and my dad’s pipe tobacco and the faint, musty scent of old house. The couch was the same, its striped upholstery faded now into a soft haze of blue and gray, its cushions saggier. My dad’s armchair still stood in front of the TV, but the TV was bigger, dominating the room. Through the archway I could see the chrome dinette set in the dining nook. The curtains looked new—not the faded draperies of nubby polyester I remembered, but some cheerful, homemade ones with sunflowers. The rooms seemed much smaller, cramped and crammed with doilies and plastic flowers and my mother’s collections of silver state teaspoons and china leprechauns.

“Come on,” Amy hissed from the hallway. “I’ve told her you’re here. She wants to see you."

I followed her into the short hall. On the left was my parents’ bedroom, on the right my old room; the one bathroom was at the end of the hall.

“Amy?” It was my mother’s voice. “Lizzie?”

“She’s right here, Gramma.” Amy pushed me through the doorway. “I’ll make us some tea.”

I hesitated, feeling awkward, just inside the room. The woman in the bed had changed. She had always been short, like me, but she was no longer pleasingly plump, as she had called herself; now her face looked thin, and the hand she held out to me trembled.

“Well, come here then.”       Her voice was the same, unexpectedly steely. “You’ve come all this way. Sit down here.” She patted the bed, beside her.

“You don’t look good, Mom. Shouldn’t you be in the hospital?”

“No.” Her hand closed around mine, hot and dry but still with enough strength to pull me down beside her. “I’m getting over it now. There were a couple of days when I thought I would die, and that’s when I knew we’d have to talk.”

I looked at her carefully, while she fumbled on the bedside table for her glasses. Her hair had gone from the gray I remembered to snowy white. My dad would be in his eighties, my mother pushing seventy-five, and neither had led the easy lives that keep a person young-looking. My mother’s hands were lumpy with arthritis, and I wondered if she could still hold a crochet hook or embroidery needle. Her blue eyes were filmed, her eyebrows sparser. Beneath the covers, her outline was insubstantial.

“Well, you’ve changed a great deal,” she announced after examining me. Her hand moved restlessly, picking at the chenille bedspread, and I took it before I realized I was going to. After a moment, she squeezed my hand gently. “I’m sorry, Lizzie. I was sorry right after I wrote you last summer, but I didn’t know how to make things better. He wouldn’t let me.”

“Dad? Is he still so bitter?”

She shook her head slowly, side to side. “You know your father.” Her eyelids drifted closed, and she spoke with a kind of detachment. “Although he probably doesn’t really care. He just goes through the motions these days, you know. I can tell. He acts the same and says the same old things, but he’s not really here.” She opened her eyes and fixed a painful gaze on me. “It’s not your father that’s worrying me so much. It’s Tony.”

I couldn’t speak; my throat was closed with fear.

“Tony,” she said again, helpfully. “You know. Your husband.”

“Ex-husband,” I managed to whisper.

“Divorce is not sanctioned by the Church.” For a moment the stern disciplinarian of my youth was there before me. I almost expected her to ask me to say the Act of Contrition. Then she closed her eyes again and let her head sink back into the pillow. “You should never have married him. He’s a very bad man.”

“How—how do you . . ."

“He came here a few weeks ago.” Her eyes were still closed, and her voice was becoming thready. “His car had broken down nearby, and he wanted to use the phone—that’s what he said. After he made a phone call, we talked. At first I had sympathy for him. He said he’d never gotten over you, that he’d spent a lot of money to try and find you and was broke.” Her eyes flicked open. “I gave him some money.’’

I tightened my grip on her hand. “Mom—”

“Let me finish. I felt sorry for him, like I said. It stirred up all that upset, all the disappointment I felt in you.” She was watching me now. “He was back in a couple of weeks. I told him I didn’t have any more money, and he suggested that I get some. He said—he said you’d told him that—” She drew in a deep breath. “That your father had—that there had been—episodes—when you were little.”

I couldn’t be silent any longer. “He lied, Mom. I wouldn’t have told him anything like that, because it wasn’t true.”

Something in her face relaxed. She was quiet for a moment. “I wondered,” she said at last. “You think you know a man, but you never do, really.” She pressed my hand again. “Thank you.”

“So Tony was trying to blackmail you.” I started to get angry. “All you had to do was tell me. You could have written again, asked me about it. You could have gotten Drake’s phone number from Amy.”

“I—couldn’t.” She turned her head away, nestling it into the pillow as if seeking refuge. “I didn’t want to think about it or deal with it. I got some money and gave it to him, and he said he wouldn’t be back.”

“But of course he didn’t mean it.” I felt hot rage. “He didn’t hurt you, did he?”

She didn’t answer, her head turned away. Then she said, “No. Not really.” She must have felt my anger. She put her other hand over our joined ones. “He was sorry, right away. He said he wouldn’t be back.” She fought for a deep breath, and I held my own, sensing she wasn’t ready to yield the floor.

“Your dad came in then, with Byron.” She looked at me. “Your nephew—Molly’s youngest boy.”

“I know.” I didn’t know, really. All I remembered about my sister Molly’s kids was that they were all boys—maybe two, maybe three of them. “What did Dad do?”

She sighed. “He went into a rage, of course. If it hadn’t been for young Byron, it could have been bad. Byron—Biff, they call him—is a good-sized boy. He was ready to fight. Then your dad got his gun out, and Tony left.”

“Dad has a gun?” That sounded like a recipe for disaster. “So did Tony come back?”

She moved her head weakly from side to side on the pillow. “No. But there’ve been phone calls—breathing, and muttering. When I got sick, I worried about it a lot—that he would come back when Byron wasn’t here, get hold of your father, and there’d be a fight or worse, and your father would be killed—”

“Relax, Mom.” I pushed her back on the pillow. Her breathing was light and fast, and two red spots burned on her cheeks. “There’s nothing to worry about. The threat he made is untrue, and he won’t be back if there’s no profit. I’ll take care of it for you. I’ll take care of him.”

She took a deep, shuddering breath. “I knew you would. After all, you brought him into the family. You have to settle this, Lizzie.”

I swallowed the retort that rose to my lips. She was right, as far as she saw it.

We sat for a moment, holding hands. She was almost smiling, and then I realized she’d fallen asleep. I disengaged my hand gently and went to find Amy.

“So how did it go?” Amy sat at the dinette, sipping tea, eating a large peanut butter sandwich, and reading from a big textbook. “I was dying to come in, but I thought you needed some privacy.”

“You’re perceptive.” I found another cup and poured from the old blue and white teapot. “She’s sleeping.”

“You set her mind at rest?” Amy spoke around a mouthful of peanut butter. “Something was really eating at her.”

“I’ll take care of it.” I stared into my cup, wondering just how I was going to do that. I didn’t want to see or confront Tony in any way. And yet somehow I was going to have to make him quit threatening my family.

There was a thump on the front porch. “Oh, gosh, I thought Daddy was going to keep Grampa away,” Amy cried.

“Sounded more like a big newspaper. Is there evening delivery?” Even as I said it, I realized how unlikely it was. The clock over the stove said 8:31; no one brought papers around that late.

Amy ran to the front door. “I don’t see Daddy’s car,” she said, puzzled, peering out the little window. “Just some hot-rodders or something.” We could hear the revving engine, the squealing tires.

I pulled open the door. At first I looked toward the street, catching a brief glimpse of a big white vehicle careening around the corner. Then Amy gasped, and I looked down.

A man lay sprawled on the front steps. His head was on the welcome mat. His eyes were open—the two brown ones that I was familiar with from several years of marriage, and a neat black hole like a third eye between them.

Tony had bothered the Sullivans for the last time.

 

Chapter 4

 

Tony was dead.

For one instant my own heart stopped. A tidal wave of emotion rushed through me, leaving my knees weak. I clutched the doorknob, staring at that round third eye. It was as if I had time-traveled back ten years, with Tony’s gun smoking in my hand after my feeble attempt to kill him, as if everything between that moment and the present had been wiped out, and I was that terrified young woman again.

Then it washed away, and I recognized the emotion that flooded me. Relief.

Amy screamed. The present snapped back around me like a rubber band.

I put an arm around Amy, turning her horrified gaze away from Tony’s body. Cold night air poured through the open door; across the street, Barker hurled himself against the car window, yelping furiously. My mother cried out from the bedroom.

“Don’t let Mom get up. Don’t let her come out here.” I squeezed Amy’s shoulders and nudged her toward the hallway. “You’ll have to get a grip on yourself.”

Amy drew a deep, shuddering breath. “I—I—was it a dead man, Aunt Liz?” She sagged against me.

“Yes, he’s dead. You can’t help him. Help your gramma.” The next nudge was not so gentle.

“Right. Right.” Noises came from my mother’s room, and Amy ran down the hall. “Gramma—no. It’s okay.” I heard her close the bedroom door behind her.

Without Amy to bolster, I felt shaky again. Light streamed out of the house onto the porch, casting golden bars onto Tony’s face and open eyes, giving him a lively air. For a moment I wondered if he really was dead. The hole in his forehead seemed pretty conclusive.

It was important to call the police. I knew that. But I was rooted to the floor, while all kinds of mad ideas rushed through my head—getting rid of the body, wafting myself away from Denver, turning the clock back so I could decide not to visit my family in the first place. Such thoughts were futile. That blessed moment of intense relief would have to be balanced by hours, maybe days, of close encounters with the police.

A light flashed on the porch of the house next door, and a little figure scuttled out. Mrs. Beamish, like my father, seemed much smaller than my memory of her, but her voice was the same commanding boom.

“What’s going on there? Mary, is that you?”

“It’s Liz, Mrs. Beamish."

“Liz?” She came to the edge of her porch, peering over the railing. “Liz who? What’s that there?”

“Liz Sullivan. Could you call nine-one-one, Mrs. Beamish?”

“Nine-one-one? Is your mother taken bad?”

“Not my mother.” I tried to sound calm. "There’s been an accident, though. Please call for me.”

“You haven’t been around in a long time.” She sounded accusing.

“Yes, I’ve just come for a visit. Mrs. Beamish—”

“Fine, I’ll call for you. I don’t understand why you don’t do it, though. What’s the matter? Has someone passed out or something?” Mrs. Beamish lingered another moment before going back into her house.

I could have made the call, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that if I turned my back, Tony’s body would vanish. That would be fine, actually, but Paul Drake’s voice in the back of my head was telling me not to leave the scene, not to touch anything.

To hell with Drake. I took a deep breath and knelt beside the body of my ex-husband.

He was wearing jeans, a flannel shirt with the sleeves rolled up, and scuffed hiking boots. I put my fingers on his neck. No pulse. No gun concealed under his arms, in his front pockets. I fished a tissue from my own pocket and, wrapping it around my fingers, angled behind him for his wallet. His body shifted, the dead weight pinning my hand. With something like panic, I pulled out my hand, his wallet in it.

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