Authors: Lora Roberts
His face stared back at me from the driver’s license. I repeated the address given there a couple of times, hoping I’d remember it. There was money in the wallet—I saw a couple of hundred-dollar bills, and didn’t count any further. He had a Visa card that bore a woman’s name: Maud Riegert. I stared at it for a moment, wondering why the name was familiar. Then I heard a noise from next door and quickly stuffed the card back into the wallet, the wallet into Tony’s pocket.
“So what’s the matter with him?” Mrs. Beamish, booming her questions, scuttled down her front walk and up my parents’ walk. “Drunk, is he?”
I got to my feet, fighting off the urge to stand between her and Tony. “Actually, he’s dead.”
“Dead?” She stopped, halfway up the walk, and stared up at me. Her thick glasses caught the light from the open front door. I hoped her eyesight was bad enough that she hadn’t seen me rifling Tony’s wallet.
“Yes. Are they coming?"
“Who? I told the girl there was a drunk passed out, not a dead man. Maybe you’d better call again.”
She came a step farther, peering avidly up at the sprawled form that decorated my mother’s front porch. “Poor Mary,” she added in passing. “Certainly not good for her in her condition.”
“I’ll call,” I said, driven to desperation. “Please don’t let anyone else up here, Mrs. Beamish. The police will likely consider it a crime scene.”
Her mouth opened a little farther at that, dentures gleaming in anticipation.
My parents’ phone didn’t have a long cord. I was trapped inside the little kitchen, not knowing what Mrs. Beamish was up to. The brisk voice at the other end of the phone didn’t hesitate when I gave her the address and said the drunk that had been reported was actually dead.
“No hurry for the ambulance, then.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“Any evidence of foul play?”
“There’s a bullet hole in his forehead.”
The brisk voice paused briefly. “Any firearms around?”
“No. He was dead when he got here.”
Another pause. “The officers will be right over. Please stay on the line.”
“That’s not such a good idea.”
“Wait! I didn’t get your name—”
I hung up the phone and rushed back to the porch. Mrs. Beamish had come as far as the foot of the steps. She transferred her glittering gaze to me.
“So, Lizzie. When did you get back into town?” As loudly as she said it, I was sure the whole neighborhood would be out soon.
“Just tonight, actually. Thanks for your help, Mrs. Beamish. The police will be here soon.”
She backed up a couple of feet. “The police, is it? Does your father know you’re here?”
“He will.” There was no possibility, now, of keeping my presence away from my father. And after my earlier glimpse of him, I didn’t care anymore. The stern disciplinarian of my youth, the fearsome authority figure, had no more power to cow me. I was only amazed that my brother still found it necessary to placate our father.
A police cruiser rounded the corner, lights flashing but no siren. Perhaps the dispatcher had conveyed that there was no emergency. Mrs. Beamish edged off the walk and into the shadows of the big catalpa tree that grew between her yard and my folks’.
“I’ll just be getting on home,” she said more softly than usual. “Let me know if your mother needs any help, Lizzie.”
“Thanks. I will.” I watched the police car pull up to the curb, facing the wrong way. Barker had quieted down, but he was still watching me, his wet nose pressed against the window glass to make slimy smudges I’d have to clean off later. If I were free to wield my window cleaner.
Amy came out of my mother’s room and joined me at the door. She shivered in the cold. “Gramma’s resting. I told her everything was all right.” She glanced at me anxiously. “Did I lie?”
The cruiser’s doors popped open and the officers made an appearance. “Do you have any weapons?” The driver of the cruiser was a tall, beefy-looking silhouette, just out of range of the porch light.
“Weapons?” Amy squeaked. “Jesus God, Aunt Liz. Do they think we killed this guy?”
“Probably.” I raised my empty hands, fingers spread. “Show them, Amy. They do have weapons, you see.”
The other officer approached us slowly, watchfully. As the figure came into view, I saw it was a woman, looking bulky in her thick waist-length jacket, her peaked hat casting a shadow over her face. She had one hand on the gun at her side; her other hand held a cell phone close to her mouth.
“Come down here, please,” she said. Her voice was neither demanding nor harsh, carrying the lilt of Hispanic pronunciation. Something in it compelled, besides the hand on the gun. We went down the steps, me first, Amy shrinking away from Tony’s body as she negotiated the steps.
The woman cop waited until we were level with her, then pocketed her cell phone and patted me down. Amy’s skimpy leggings and hooded T-shirt took even less of her attention. “No weapons,” she tossed over her shoulder to the guy, who still waited, using the cruiser as a shield against our potential violence.
The woman flashed her badge at us. “Officer Gutierrez,” she said. “Hear you’ve got a dead body you want to get rid of.”
“Jeez, Gutierrez.” The big cop came out from behind the patrol car, finally. “They might be kin to the stiff—the dead guy.”
“As a matter of fact,” I said, clearing my throat, “he’s my ex-husband.”
Amy gasped. “Why didn’t you tell me? Aunt Liz—”
“Listen.” I turned to the woman cop, thinking she could more easily understand. “My mother is sick in bed in there, and my niece should be taking care of her instead of standing out here shivering. Can you let her go back in while I give you the story? You can talk to her later.”
Officer Gutierrez thought about it for a minute. “Guess so,” she said finally. “He wasn’t killed here?”
“No, he was just dumped out. It was around eight-thirty.”
Amy started shivering again. “Go on in,” I told her. “Make some more tea or something—make some for Gramma, too. Tell her I’ll be in later if she wants to talk about it.”
Amy nodded and sidestepped Tony’s body on her way up the stairs. Her back was stiff with holding in her usually volatile emotions. I had to give her credit for keeping her cool.
The male cop stopped at the front of the steps. “You been through here, right? Anyone else?”
“Just my niece.”
He went up a couple of steps, examining Tony’s body critically, as if we were holding a body-dumping contest and he was the judge. “You move him at all?”
“No.” I saw no reason to mention my snooping, and hoped Mrs. Beamish wouldn’t either.
Officer Gutierrez took out a notebook. “Let’s have the story.”
I told her as briefly as I could how I’d just gotten into town, stopped at my brother’s, come over to my mother’s sickbed. There was a small-to-nonexistent chance they would finish grilling me and cart Tony’s body away before my dad came back. I made my story as quick as possible.
“My dad’s down at the VFW,” I finished up. “He’s old and frail. Any chance we can clean this up before he gets back?”
Officer Gutierrez tilted her head, examining me under the porch light. “You’re pretty cool about your ex-husband’s murder,” she said slowly.
“Yeah, well, he was ex for a reason.” I sighed. “Look, you’re going to find all kinds of great stuff when you start up your computer on this one. He beat me, I shot him—ten years ago.” She had stiffened, her hand going to her gun. “I did time for it, then I left for California. I haven’t been back until now—tonight. Just my luck that someone offs him the instant I get back. If you want to arrest me, get it over with and let’s get out of here before my dad comes back and has a heart attack.”
Gutierrez stepped away from me and spoke into her cell phone. I watched the male cop put on plastic gloves and begin going over Tony, his pudgy fingers moving with surprising delicacy. Shooting off my big mouth wouldn’t get me anywhere—I knew that already, but I’m still apt to do it in moments of stress.
"The Homicide guys are coming,” Gutierrez announced, flipping her phone shut. There was a hint of hostility in her voice when she spoke of Homicide. “I’m just going to keep the scene intact and take statements from your niece and any neighbors who might know something.” She looked narrowly at me. “Are you planning to leave town?”
“Not anymore, I guess.”
“After we secure the scene, you’ll be coming with us for further questioning. The Homicide guys will decide whether to detain you or not.”
That was that. A few minutes later, a van full of equipment and people pulled up, and they took pictures, fingerprints, scrapings, and sweepings, of this and that. The lights they rigged made the whole front yard glow like a scene from a science fiction movie. Neighbors started to gather just outside the circle of light. I could hear Mrs. Beamish’s foghorn voice broadcasting everything she knew.
After a few minutes of that, I asked to sit with my mother, and received an absent-minded permission from Gutierrez. Just before I shut the front door, an ambulance pulled up to take away Tony’s mortal remains.
There were people inside, too, doing a rough but efficient job of tossing my mother’s living room. It gave me a horrible feeling to see her antimacassars and embroidered cushions strewn every which way. They barely looked at me when I walked toward the hall.
Amy was curled up on the bed beside my mother. She lifted a scared face to me. I could see a million questions trembling on the tip of her tongue, but mercifully she suppressed them. I didn’t notice the stolid policewoman in the corner until I shut the door. My mother lay back on her pillows, her face white and exhausted. Her eyes, worried, flicked open when I came over to the bed.
“Amy said your husband is dead, that that’s what this is all about.”
“Yes, he’s dead.”
“Gramma!” Amy let the word explode. “I keep telling you, Aunt Liz has been with us—with me—since nearly seven this evening. She couldn’t possibly—”
“I didn’t shoot him this time.” I leaned against the wall, fatigue washing over me, as tired as if I’d walked all the miles between Grand Junction and Denver that day instead of driving them. “I’m sorry, Mom. Whoever dumped him on your doorstep must have been hoping I’d take the fall. I just don’t understand how that person knew I’d be here.”
“It’s punishment for our sins,” my mother said gloomily. “I doubted your father, so I’m being punished.”
“Bullshit.” She winced, and I tried to moderate my voice. “It’s sheer bad luck, is all it is. And anyway, like Amy says, I have an alibi for most of the evening, so probably everything will be okay.” I studied her face. “This isn’t doing you any good. You need your sleep.”
“I’ll sleep later.” She reached out, grasping my hand, her fingers surprisingly strong. “Will they arrest you?”
“They’ll take me to the station for questioning, and then I’m sure they’ll let me go. The investigation will take some time, and while it’s going on I’ll be around. Then, hopefully, they’ll find out who killed Tony, and it’ll all be finished.” I squeezed her hand, and her grip slackened. “You’ll be over the flu by then, back on your feet.”
“I hope so.” Her voice was feathery, her eyelids drooping. “Your father—he’s going to be—”
“Upset, I’m sure.” From the corner of my eye, I could see the policewoman taking notes. “He’ll deal with it.” I stood up. “Amy, let’s get out of here and let Mom sleep.”
The policewoman waited for us at the bedroom door. I turned the bedside lamp low and pulled the covers up around my mother’s shoulders. She smiled a little and nestled her head into the pillow.
In the living room, Amy looked around at the mess. “My God, what did they do here? What were they looking for?”
The uniform who accompanied us shuffled her feet sheepishly. “Anything—blood, bullet casings—that ties this place to the crime.”
“Well, are they done?” I glanced into the kitchen, where the same chaos reigned. “Can we put things back?”
She went to the door and had a low-voiced conversation with someone there. “Yeah,” she said, coming back. “They’re finished in here. Be all done in ten, twenty minutes.”
It was nine-thirty. My dad would be home pretty soon. Amy and I fell in to the living room, tidying the magazines, putting cushions back on furniture and books in the bookcase. After a few minutes the uniform started helping, so I went into the kitchen and cleaned up spilled flour and sugar, put staples back in the cabinets. It burned me to have my parents go through this, but it wasn’t exactly new to me. I’ve been involved in crime scenes before.
Amy came in as I finished sweeping. “It looks better now." She wrapped her arms around herself. “What happens next?”
“Next, I let you drive Babe.”
“Wow.” Her smile was a pale imitation of the usual beam. “I’m overcome.”
"Take it back to your house, and take Barker for a walk if you would. He’s going to be antsy.” I put the broom back in the closet. “Go now, before your grampa gets back. It’ll save trouble.”
“What about you?”
“I’ll call Andy if I need anything, but probably I’ll just creep in quietly when the police are done with me and sleep in the bus. You can put Barker in there after his walk if you want—that way your mom won’t have a conniption.”
Amy’s smile was less forced. “What is a conniption, anyway? Gramma’s always talking about them.”
“You’ll find out if you’re not out of here before your grampa comes home.” I found my knapsack where the police had dumped it beside the refrigerator, and dug out my keys. “Drive carefully, now. Just park on the street in front of your house.”
“Okay.” Amy took the keys, said a polite good-bye to the policewoman, and headed out the door.
I followed her. The front porch was empty of everything, even the welcome mat. Outside, the ambulance and the evidence van were both gone, along with the glaring lights. Except for the police cars and a few neighbors still hanging around, it looked normal again.
"That didn’t take long.” I said it to the other policewoman, but Officer Gutierrez answered.
“He probably wasn’t killed here, as you said. There wasn’t much to find.” She nodded to the policewoman, who clumped down to a second cruiser and got in. “Are you ready to go?”