Darlene’s Story

Darlene’s Story unfolds (or tangles :)) more each week using Trifecta’s weekly writing prompt.

Links to the individual challenge responses are on the Writing Prompts page.

If you want to read the entire story, keep reading here!

*****

Darlene stared at the bouquet of withered roses, contemplating her next move. The crinkled brown leaves curled around brittle stems and the dried, almost black, rose blooms drooped from the mouth of the crystal vase.

A reasonable person might suggest she discard the arrangement, dump the foul chemical-filmed water and scrub the vase clean. But her heart couldn’t do it. Scott gave her those flowers before he disappeared. The only trace of him: a blood stain left in his truck parked near the Mogollon Rim.

Like a torrential monsoon rain, tears gushed down her cheeks. Each sob sent a wave of misery through her, so she wrapped her arms around her torso to ease the movement of her cracked ribs. It had been nearly four weeks since she almost died, but her wounds still gaped.

The emotional agony rivaled her physical scars. Nightmares of smoke and flames interrupted her sleep. She relived the panic of the stuck windows, the desperate grasp at life she made by throwing herself through the glass, and the jarring smack of concrete twenty feet below.

Scott had stayed with her in the hospital. He held her hand, slumped over with his head next to her on the bed. He did this for five days and then he was gone.

Darlene took a shallow breath and forced herself to slowly exhale.  She grabbed the bunch of stems and dropped them in the trash. She spotted the unopened pink envelope on top of the heap, still held by the plastic pitchfork.

She stared at the small rectangle until it grew blurry.  Finally, she lifted the envelope and slid her finger under the sealed flap, saying a quick prayer before reading his message.

“I’m sorry. You’re stronger than I thought…it wasn’t supposed to end this way.”

His apology left her with more questions than answers and a fury that sent crystal shards and putrid water spraying across the ceramic tile floor.

*****

“Darlene, the police were just here.”

“What did they want?”

“They grilled me about Scott.  Was he in some kind trouble?”

“I really don’t know.  But I think I’m about to find out.”

*****

Darlene swung her legs from the arm of her oversized lounge chair and planted her feet on the floor.  She squinted and leaned closer to the window but still didn’t recognize either of the suited men exiting the black Lincoln parked in front of her house.

“Amy, I have to go,” she whispered into the phone.

“What’s wrong, you sound-“

“I’ll call you later.”  Darlene ended the call.  She watched the men briskly make their way to her door and ring the bell.  She didn’t bother to answer.  Maybe they’ll just go away.  Even as she thought it, she knew that wouldn’t happen.

Darlene didn’t understand how her life got so messy.  When she stood at the altar and said “I do” without her daddy’s blessing eight years ago, she knew it would be hard but never imagined her life’s path would lead here; barely alive inside and out with a missing, and presumed dead, husband…

“Ma’am, Agents Mulroney and Haversill, FBI.  We need to talk to you.”

Great.  And two FBI agents on my doorstepDoes life get any better than this?

Darlene’s heart pounded faster.  “I don’t know anything!” Darlene called through the window.

“We think you might.”

She wondered if they’d bust her door down like they do on TV.  A glance across the street revealed nosy Myrtle Crawford staring at the two men on the porch.  Darlene’s heart sank when she saw the crank to the rumor mill clenched in the old widow’s bony fingers.  She feared her path just got thornier…especially if Mrs. Anderson was on the other end of the line.

Darlene opened the door.  “What did Scott do?” she blurted.

The taller agent on the left showed a flicker of puzzlement.  The other agent remained stone-faced.  “Ma’am, we need to talk to you about your father, Andrew Moritz.”

“My father?”  The room shifted and swirled.  Darlene teetered until the muscles in her legs refused to hold her weight any longer.

*****

Darlene sat up on the sofa, confused.  She didn’t remember laying down.  Her mind raced to reorient her.  Black Lincoln… nosy Mrs. Crawford…

“Ma’am, are you okay?”

FBI agents… Father.  Sure enough, the agents sat on the loveseat to her right.  “Oh.  Um, I guess.”  She’d fainted.  They must have put her on the sofa.

“When was the last time you talked to your father?”  The taller agent with darker hair and graying sideburns spoke.

He doesn’t waste time.  She furrowed her brow and shook her head.  “I don’t know.  Maybe eight months ago?”

The younger, shorter agent tilted his head.  “Interesting.  He lives in town doesn’t he?”

Darlene raised an eyebrow.  “The FBI doesn’t know the exact distance between our homes?”

The other agent suppressed a laugh.

“Okay, so 12.4 miles, give or take,” he mumbled.  “Why haven’t you spoken to him?”

“He didn’t agree with some of my life choices.”

“Like what?”

Like it’s none of your business, Darlene wanted to say.  Instead, she asked, “What do you want with my father?”

“Your father disappeared four weeks ago.”

“Does the FBI normally handle missing person cases?” Darlene asked.

“We do when the person is the subject of a long-time investigation.”

Darlene slumped into the sofa cushion.  “Investigation for what?”

The agents exchanged glances.  “Mulroney?” the shorter agent said to the other.

Mulroney cleared his throat.  “We can’t divulge details in an open case.”  He reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out a long white envelope.  He handed it to Darlene.

Darlene accepted it and slipped her finger under the sealed flap.  “What’s this?”

The agents stood simultaneously.  Haversill, the shorter agent, responded, “It’s a subpoena for your financial records.”  They made their way to the door.  “We’ll be in touch.”

Darlene watched them leave and caught sight of Myrtle Crawford still staring out her window.  Her smile confirmed she’d witnessed everything.

Darlene couldn’t dwell on the imminent neighborhood gossip.  Not while the FBI nosed around, anyway.

*****

Darlene stared at the crumpled-then-smoothed subpoena she’d tossed on the coffee table and contemplated her next move.  The FBI wanted her financial records.  The vortex of bad feelings emanating from that piece of paper threatened to suffocate her.  A big part of her wanted to drown in pity, but the other small part of her psyche urged her to continue.

A list.

Several minutes passed before she could convince herself to walk.  She plopped into the wobbly desk chair.  Scott was supposed to fix this.  The thought sent a new wave of emotion through her; a concoction of longing, anger and betrayal.  Darlene still couldn’t accept that her husband was missing, so it was no wonder she couldn’t grasp that her father had disappeared as well.  If Mom were still alive, she’d know what to do.  Finally, her thoughts unlocked the barrier that had dammed her tears.

Darlene blew her nose and dried her puffy eyes.  The list couldn’t wait.  She had to categorize the questions and uncertainties and exhaust the possible explanations.  The truth must be hidden in the midst of it all.  When she finally set the pencil down, she had filled two pieces of paper.

Her attention settled on one line; the thought of going back terrified her.

Before fear changed her mind, she got in the car and she drove for two hours to their cabin on the rim.  The A-frame chalet had been their break from the stresses of city life.  Scott in particular found peace from his usual restlessness while soothed by the low whistle of wind blowing through Ponderosa branches.

Darlene stopped the car in front of their beloved cabin.  She turned the ignition off and stared at the charred remains of their safe haven.  Memories of the fire came back as vivid as that night four weeks ago.  She stared at the jagged edges of the broken loft window.  Her ribs ached as she remembered her desperate leap.

For a fleeting moment, she wondered “why?”

*****

Darlene stood on the cabin’s porch.  She noticed the front door ajar, probably due to the warped frame.  She heard movement inside and inched off the porch, her sneakers crunching glass broken from the window she’d jumped through to escape the fire several weeks before.

Not knowing whether she’d find a skunk, bear cub- or worse, she scanned the area around the cabin for a stick.  She found one at the edge of the clearing, just before the dense forest began.  She approached the house again and nudged the door open with the four-foot-long stick and waited for a blur of fur and teeth to charge her.  Nothing.

She slipped inside and left the door open.  The sunlight streamed through and illuminated the dust and ash still permeating the air.  Darlene used the stick for balance as she stepped over debris on her way to the small room just off the kitchen that Scott had used as his office or “alone space.”  She opened the door to find a man hunched over a filing drawer.  Her scream startled the man, and he squealed too.

“W-who are you?”  Darlene asked, keeping her distance.

“Mark.”

“Why are you here?”

“I’m sorry… I thought the place was abandoned.”

“Where do you live?”

“Wherever I am.”

Darlene felt sympathy as her gaze traveled from the transient’s thread-bare jacket, to his dirty pants, to his shoes.  “Well, my home is your home,” she said.  Her smile, a doctor to gain his trust, seemed to put him at ease.

“Thank you, ma’am.”  He kicked the filing drawer shut with his heel.

“You dropped something.”  Darlene pointed to the ground beside him.

When he looked down, she swung the stick at the side of his head.  He crumpled to the ground, blood trickling from his nostrils.

She pulled the leather dress shoe off his right foot.  Gucci.  She removed the lace and used it to bind his wrists together.

Never trust a transient wearing Gucci, she thought to herself.

*****

Darlene stood over the restrained man sprawled face down on the floor.  She wrestled with her incongruent urges:  use the adrenaline to “finish him off,” or place a tissue under his bleeding nose.  Instead, she stepped away and watched from a distance.  The slight movement of his torso with each shallow intake and exhale of air soothed her indecision.

Check him for ID and weapons.  Taking her cue from the cop dramas she’d seen on TV, she rolled the man onto his side and felt inside his jacket.  Coming up empty, she hesitated before shoving her hand into his front pants pocket.  She grasped the contents in her hand and let them spill to the floor.  Spare change, loose aspirin, a book of matches, and a wrapped butterscotch candy.

Darlene’s heart fell.  What if he really is a transient?  She let him rest on his belly again and then rolled him on his other side.  Her hand brushed against metal on his waist.  Her heart pounded faster as she realized it was a Glock.  She removed it from the holster and slid it across the floor away from them.  From his pants pocket, she recovered folded papers and ring with four keys on it.

She noticed a bulge in his back pocket.  His wallet.  She worked it out of the fraying pocket and then let him roll forward onto his stomach again.  She read the name on the driver’s license:  Jeff Weissman.  Darlene slid away from the man and slumped against a partially charred wall.

She shoved the papers and Jeff’s wallet into her own pockets.  Her nervous fingers fidgeted with the keys, the clanking metal echoing in the too-silent room.  Her mind began to juggle what to do with this knowledge.  Call the police?  The FBI?  Run away and pretend like she never saw him?

The man stirred, and then groaned before opening his eyes.  Darlene’s pulse throbbed in her ears.  Their gazes locked.

Too late to run.

*****

Darlene broke into a sweat as the man she’d tied up came to. Instinctively, she grabbed the nearby Glock, never looking away from him. Once she felt the cold metal in her palm, she realized the absurdity: she couldn’t bring herself to step on a spider- could she really pull the trigger? In her heart, she knew the answer.

“So, Jeff Weissman, why are you snooping around my cabin?” Darlene asked.

Jeff blinked several times. “Dolly? I can’t believe it’s really you.”

Darlene’s spine stiffened. “The only one person who has ever called me ‘Dolly’ died eight years ago.”

“It’s me. That situation was… complicated.”

Darlene pulled the slide back on the gun. The click echoed in the room. “It’s time to simplify it.”

The man she once knew as ‘Uncle Jeff’, now barely recognizable dressed as a beggar, wriggled but couldn’t free his wrists from the shoelace. “Can you untie me, please?”

“No. Start talking.”

He studied her for several moments. “Your father wanted me dead. I wouldn’t sell my half of the business, so he started skimming and shortchanged several customers. Of course, he blamed me and half a dozen other people pledged to bag me.”

“So you did what any chicken liver would do and faked your own death?” Darlene said with contempt.

“It wasn’t like that.”

“No?”

“For eight years, I’ve been tracking your father, gathering evidence so I could turn it over to the police.”

Darlene laughed. “And they’d believe a dead man? Why are you really here?”

“Your husband is a major player in Andrew’s business.”

“Impossible. Father hated Scott. He never-“

“Wake up, Dolly! Your father isn’t who you think he is!”

His shout startled Darlene and she pulled the trigger. She hunched over and closed her eyes. After several seconds, she looked and found Jeff staring, wide-eyed but unharmed. She couldn’t tell if she felt relief or disappointment.

“Jesus,” Jeff muttered.

“Maybe I’m not who you think I am, either,” she whispered, hands shaking.

*****

Silence mingled with traces of gunpowder in the aftermath of the errant gunshot.  Jeff had wiggled himself into a sitting position and slumped against the wall, his hands still bound behind his back.

Jeff broke the silence.  “Dolly, give me the gun.  We both know this isn’t you.”

“You wrecked our family.  The accusations ruined my parents’ marriage.  My mother died alone because of you.”

Jeff smiled, as if recalling a fond memory.  “She wasn’t alone.”

“What are you saying?”

Jeff hesitated, glancing at the gun.  Darlene removed her finger from the trigger.

“The only person who loved your mother more than you is me.”

“You went to college with my father.  You were business partners.  I was raised to call you ‘uncle.’  How could you…?”

“All I sought was the truth.  I’m still trying to find it.  Your father is a dangerous man and I’ve got proof, if you’ll let me go.”

Darlene jabbed the barrel of the gun toward Jeff.  “No!  No!  You’re trying to infect my memories of my father with lies.  I won’t let you do this.”

“Your father doesn’t deserve vindication.  He hasn’t even talked to you for over eight months.”

“How did you know that?”  Jeff’s crooked smile made Darlene shiver and the realization settled deep in her stomach.  “You know where he is…”

Jeff shrugged.  “Sometimes disappearance is permanent.”

“Or the dead can rise,” Darlene said flatly.

He narrowed his eyes.  “So are you going to shoot me?”

“You’ve already been declared dead.”  Darlene furrowed her brow.  Maybe her father was alive.  Jeff knew.   Her shoulders slumped.  “You should die,” she muttered.

“But you can’t pull the trigger.”

“I’ll let the police have you.”

Darlene wanted to grab the rest of Scott’s files, but didn’t want to risk walking by Jeff.  She’d have to come back.  She slipped her cell phone from her pocket.  Two signal bars.  She dialed 9-1-1 and an operator answered.

“I have an intruder in my home.  Please dispatch a deputy.”

*****

Darlene kept the barrel of the gun aimed at Jeff.  While waiting for a deputy to arrive, she contemplated whether or not to trust him.  Her mind considered the facts:  he was a long-time family friend and her father’s business partner, but he also tore her family apart before faking his own death.

“It’s not me you should worry about, Dolly.  Your father is the evil you should fear,” Jeff said, interrupting her thoughts.

“Shut up!”

“I can prove it.  Give me chance.”

Darlene focused on the center of his chest.  Two to the chest; one to the head, she coached herself.

“Your husband has secrets of his own,” Jeff continued.  “Lucky break, him marrying you…”

She clenched her jaw, willing herself not to cry.  Stubbornness was a family trait that only sometimes worked to her advantage.  This would be one of those rare instances.

Jeff grinned with the smugness of a gambler laying down a royal flush.  “Do you really think a small courier business could pay for a home in Scottsdale, a cabin in the forest, and a vacation home in St. Thomas?”

Darlene’s mouth opened, but words refused to form.

“Didn’t know about that last one, huh?”  He laughed.

“I can’t!”  Darlene grabbed her purse and ran out of the cabin.  Jeff was right about one thing:  she couldn’t shoot him.  But she couldn’t listen to his lies any longer, either.

She fished her keys from the side pocket and fumbled with the remote.  Finally, she heard a beep and the click of doors unlocking.  She slipped the gun into her purse and tossed it in the passenger seat before flopping into the driver’s seat.  Through her tears, she managed to get the keys in the ignition.  She spun the car around to the dirt road, leaving a fog of gravel and dust behind her.

On Highway 87, she passed a Gila County Sheriff patrol car headed in the opposite direction.  Soon, Jeff would pay for his deceit.

Darlene smiled.

*****

The clap of thunder woke Darlene with a start.  Pictures rattled on the wall and lightning flashes cast eerie shadows across the room.  She turned to check the clock:  1:15 AM.  The fiercest monsoons often rolled through the city in the middle of the night, but Darlene’s nerves couldn’t handle the jostling.

Darlene had been on edge for the three weeks since she fled her burned out cabin and left her father’s ex-business partner, Jeff, for the police.  She still scanned online local news sites and faithfully watched the 9 o’clock news, but still saw nothing about him.  Wouldn’t the live capture of a man dead for eight years be a big deal?

In her heart, Darlene knew:  somehow, Jeff had eluded the police.  She thought for sure him being twenty-five years her senior, with wrists bound by a shoelace, that he couldn’t have gotten far.  A week after she let him live, she came home to a disheveled office and a black shoelace on her living room floor.  It didn’t take a detective to figure out Jeff left it on purpose.  That’s when Darlene understood she underestimated the will of a man with secrets to keep.

Darlene shuddered as thunder shook her house again and fat raindrops pelted her window.  She sat up in bed and her heart thumped faster when she heard banging at her front door.  Her unease heightened when she realized it was the screen door being blown by the wind.  She always kept it locked.  Her mind amplified every noise, and terrifying scenarios began to rain down on her like dollar bills in a strip club.

Lightning illuminated a figure several feet away.  She blinked, thinking her imagination went too far.  Before she could scream, a gloved hand clapped over her mouth.  Hot breath tickled her ear.  Darlene shivered despite the perspiration on her skin.

“You have something that doesn’t belong to you,” the intruder said in a hoarse whisper.

*****

Darlene struggled against the grip of the intruder’s gloved hand over her mouth.  The whispered accusation, “you have something that doesn’t belong to you” repeated in her mind.  She remembered the Glock that she had removed from Jeff’s waistband and stashed under her mattress… as if she could flip the mattress to get it.  She’d die before handing it over.

“You have the keys.”

There was a hint of familiarity in the whispered voice.  Darlene couldn’t place it, though.  She grasped the arms- definitely male.   His hand pressed harder on her mouth.  She closed her eyes and shook her head, her cries muffled by leather.  She relaxed.  Maybe if she pretended to give up, she could catch him off guard.

“Don’t make me do this.”

I’m going to die.  Darlene resisted the urge to open her eyes.  Please God, help me.

The house rumbled from the crack of thunder.  Darlene gasped when she felt a crushing weight on her chest.

“Get up!”

Darlene snapped her eyes open.  It wasn’t the same whisper.

“Move it!”

Nosy Myrtle Crawford.  “What-  how?” Darlene sputtered when she saw her neighbor with a baseball bat propped on her shoulder.  Darlene prayed the room was dark enough to conceal the color that burned across her cheeks.  Rescued by an octogenarian.  The rumor mill would love that one.

Myrtle smiled.  “Rockford Peach, 1954,” she said proudly.

“Y-you played professional baseball?”

Myrtle frowned.  “I wasn’t so old back then.  Now git up ‘for he does!”

Darlene grunted as she shoved the man.  He hit the floor with a thud.  Her stomach turned when she realized the sticky liquid on her fingers was crimson.

“I’ll meet you downstairs,” Myrtle said.

Darlene stood and reached under her mattress to retrieve the Glock, papers, and keys she’d taken from Jeff.

Curiosity ruled, so she clicked the lamp on and removed the man’s knitted mask.

“Oh, my God…”  Darlene stumbled, tripping over her feet.  Her husband’s skull smashed on one side, she knew.

“Scott… no!”

*****

“Two coffees, black, and one water in a warmed glass with no ice and two wedges of lemon,” Darlene said as she handed the FBI agents coffee, and the water to Mrs. Crawford.  Though grateful that Myrtle saved her life, she couldn’t help but think that the picky drink order suited her personality well.

“Mrs. Crawford, think back to last night.  Tell us everything you remember.”

Darlene leaned back in the chair.  This will take a while.

Myrtle closed her eyes.  Her breathing slowed and a slight smile tugged on one corner of her mouth.  Each hand rested on a knee, palm up with her index finger and thumb touching.

The agents leaned forward in anticipation, pens ready above steno pads.

Darlene sipped her own glass of water in hopes of averting laughter.

After two minutes, the younger agent, Haversill, looked to the more seasoned agent.  Mulroney shook his head.  They waited.

Darlene wondered if Myrtle was summoning the gods of gossip to help her recall details that no mortal person could possibly remember.   The expression on her face made it look like she’d entered some kind of ecstasy or enlightenment.

“My knee hurt so I had gone to bed early.  My left knee always aches during monsoon weather,” Myrtle said in a low voice.

They asked for everything, Darlene thought.

Twenty-five minutes later, Myrtle opened her eyes, her recollection of last night complete.  She winked at Mulroney.  “You boys are even more handsome up close.”

“Oh, uh.  Okay,” Agent Mulroney said.

“I-I found something that might help you.”

Both agents turned to Darlene.

She drew out her exhale and then handed them the paper she’d lifted from Jeff’s pocket when he was unconscious on the floor of her cabin.  She kept a copy in her pocket.

Mulroney took the paper and unfolded it.  He stared, brow furrowed.  Several minutes passed before he showed a flicker of understanding.  “Where did you get this?”

Darlene sighed.  “It’s a long story.”

“This is key evidence.”

*****

Darlene watched as the FBI agents speed-walked to their car.  Myrtle sat in silence, which was not characteristic of her.  Two car doors slammed and the engine rumbled to life.  Darlene stared at the empty curbside and contemplated what the message meant.

“What was that about?  Mulroney seemed happier than a cat in a henhouse,” Myrtle said.

Darlene glanced at Myrtle.  She leaned forward, eager for a tidbit of information.  “Oh, uh, it was just a paper I found.”

“Where?”

Darlene shook her head.  “It doesn’t matter.  Well, I have some errands to do.”  Darlene stood and headed toward the door.

Myrtle didn’t budge.  “You’re hiding something and I’m going to find out what it is,” she said with a crooked index finger pointed at her.

Darlene sighed.  “Okay, I found it in Jeff Weissman’s pocket.”

Myrtle gasped.  “Why, that man’s been dead for eight years!”

“He’s alive.”

“He’s dangerous.  I heard that he and your daddy-  Can I see the paper?”

“He and daddy what?”

Myrtle shook her head.  “May not be a shred of truth to it.”

“I gave the paper to Mulroney.”

“I know you kept a copy.”

Darlene studied Myrtle for several seconds.  She couldn’t possibly know.  She had to be bluffing.

“It’s in your pocket,” Myrtle said and nodded toward her outstretched hand.

Darlene slid the paper out of her pocket and Myrtle’s bony fingers snatched it from her.

Myrtle read the paper.

Talked to AMY and MEG is ready to be courted.  SAM will greet this BOY.  TTL.– JAW

“It’s a coded message,” Myrtle said with an edge of excitement in her voice.  “I want to help!”

“Oh, no, no… I couldn’t possibly drag you into-“

“This is the door for me to get back in.”

“You’ve worked an investigation before?” Darlene said, doubt hanging on every word.

“Well, just my scoundrel husband-”

“No.”

“I caught him red-handed with Betsy Williams.  He never saw me coming.”

“Please tell me you didn’t…”

Myrtle winked.  “Rockford Peach, 1954.”

*****Myrtle’s View*****

Eighty-two-year-old Myrtle Crawford stared out her front window- right into Darlene Whitman’s window.  Of course, Darlene had closed her blinds, but the small opening in the slats on the left side revealed that Darlene watched, too.  Myrtle raised her right hand and moved her arthritic fingers in a stiff wave.  The opening closed.

Myrtle smiled.  She made no attempt to hide her snooping.  Over the last forty-one years, she’d built a name for herself as the neighborhood gossip and doing anything less would raise suspicions.  The smile faded from Myrtle’s lips.  Being caretaker of others’ secrets was in her blood just as much as baseball.  She’d become adept at using her neighbors’ dirty laundry to deflect their friendship and questions about her own past.  The only person daft enough to not stay away was Dottie Anderson.

Myrtle played over yesterday’s conversation.  Darlene was adamant that she didn’t want her help.  She may not want it, but she’ll need it, Myrtle thought.  As the guardian of secrets, Myrtle knew things that would make a lesser person sleep with one eye open, or move far away.

Fourteen years in prison for the murder of her cheating bastard husband had hardened Myrtle.  Any softness that remained disappeared when her daughter died several years back.  That relationship was complicated.  It wasn’t even a relationship, really.  While in prison, two-year-old Lucy became a ward of the state.  Once free, Myrtle tracked her down and saw she’d grown into a fine young woman.  At sixteen, she had beauty, grace, a different name- and love from a real family.  Myrtle watched from a distance so she wouldn’t cast her shadow on her daughter’s happiness.

Tears rolled down Myrtle’s cheeks.  Each time she thought of her daughter, the pain seeped like a fresh wound.  The gaping hole in her heart brought her to her knees, but also gave her the will to find justice.

Darlene had lost her mom, and her husband.  Myrtle understood Darlene’s loss.

That’s why Darlene needed her.

*****

Darlene stared at her closed blinds, knowing full well that Myrtle Crawford’s gaze hadn’t strayed from her window.  A part of her felt she should talk to her neighbor, but what could she say, really? I know you served fourteen years for killing your cheating husband with a baseball bat?  Since you killed my husband, I’m afraid you might be a serial killer? 

She couldn’t ignore that Myrtle saved her life, though.  Darlene knew in her heart that Scott would’ve killed her.  She shivered when she recalled the coldness of the eyes showing through the holes of the dark ski mask that night.  Her blood chilled when she remembered how she almost died in that cabin fire two months ago.  The police hadn’t said, but Darlene suspected that was Scott, too.  But why?  She had to know something she didn’t even realize she knew.

A car door interrupted Darlene’s thoughts.  She heard another slam, followed by the clack of deliberate footsteps on concrete.  She peeked through the blinds.  The black Lincoln again; this time in front of Myrtle’s house.  Mulroney and Haversill strode up Myrtle’s walk.  Puzzled, she ran to the front door.

“Hey!”

The FBI agents stopped and turned to her.

“Did you figure out that note?” Darlene asked, running barefoot toward them.

Mulroney shrugged.  “We aren’t at liberty to discuss with you.”

“Why are you at Mrs. Crawford’s house?”

“That doesn’t concern you either,” Haversill said.

The agents continued up Myrtle’s walk and Darlene stood in Myrtle’s lawn unable to move.

Myrtle opened the door. “Hi, boys,” she said with a faint smile.

“Mrs. Crawford, you are under arrest for the murder of Scott Whitman.  We’d also like to question you about the disappearance of Andrew Moritz,” Mulroney said.

“Myrtle didn’t do anything to my father!”

Darlene’s words dissipated without acknowledgement.  Haversill held Myrtle’s handcuffed wrists.

Myrtle looked at Darlene.  “Please feed my cats.”  She emphasized the word feed and her eyes implied deeper meaning.

Darlene had no idea.

*****

Darlene watched the Lincoln drive away with Myrtle in the backseat.  She glanced at her bare feet, then at Myrtle’s front door.

She gulped.  Guess I’d better feed her cats…

Darlene’s sudden perspiration could be attributed to the 105 degree temperature, but her heart palpitations signaled the real culprit:  fear.  One of her earliest memories involved cats.  She’d been playing in the food bin and her mom’s three cats circled her legs like sharks around a row boat.  Next thing she knew, Lightning, the black cat, attacked her leg and she had to get five stitches.  Ever since then, Darlene hadn’t met a feline she trusted.

She took a deep breath and trudged up Myrtle’s walk.  At the door, her slick palm rested on the knob.  I can do this, she told herself.  With a deep breath, she flung the door open, expecting cat stench to assault her senses.  She was surprised when that didn’t happen.  Darlene noticed the waist-high stacks of newspapers along the walls.  “What is it with elderly and newspapers?” she muttered.

Cat food.  She had no clue where Myrtle kept the cat food, but figured the kitchen would be logical.  She rummaged through the cabinets, first low, then high but couldn’t find the cat food.  Darlene put her hands on her hips and scanned the floor.  Funny.  I don’t see food or water dishes.

“What are you doing in here?”

Darlene let out a startled yelp and turned to the sound of the sharp voice.  Dottie Anderson.  “Hello, Mrs. Anderson.”  She smiled so she wouldn’t appear flustered- or worse: guilty.

“Well?”  Dottie folded her arms across her chest.

“Myrtle asked me to feed her cats.”

The old woman smirked.  “Really?  She doesn’t have cats.”

Darlene spotted an unopened bag of Meow Mix on the counter, partially obscured by a potted plant.  “Ah, this must be it,” she said, then grabbed the bag.

“That’s not yours!”

“Good day, Mrs. Anderson.”  Darlene squeezed by before she could protest.

*****

Door bolted and blinds drawn, Darlene stood at her counter staring at the ten-pound bag of cat food.  She doesn’t have cats.  Mrs. Anderson’s words echoed in her mind.

She inspected the bag of Meow Mix.  Nothing written on the bag; the top flap was still sealed.  “This can’t be right,” Darlene muttered in frustration.  “What the heck…” she tore open the bag and poured the contents onto her kitchen counter.    She gagged.  Seafood Medley smelled more like Rotting Fish Guts, but she figured Meow Mix marketing nixed that flavor name.

Darlene ran he fingers through the kibbles looking for… what, exactly she didn’t know.  After several minutes of separating the kibbles with her fingers, all she ended up with was greasy fingers and the sense that every neighborhood stray would soon be on her doorstep.

With both hands, she scooped kibble and dumped it back in the bag.  On the third handful, the doorbell rang.  Startled, she dropped the food on the floor.

The ignored doorbell was followed by three raps on the solid wood door.  “Police!”

Darlene pulled out two small plastic dishes and put them on the counter, then headed for the door.  She almost wiped the rank kibble dust off her hands, but decided not to.  She opened the door and extended her right hand.  “Darlene Whitman.  Can I help you?”

The young officer wore a look of obligation mingled with disinterest.  “We received a call that you stole a bag of cat food from a neighbor.  He spied her grimy hand and wrinkled his nose.

Darlene laughed even though, at that moment, she wanted to pound the freak nosy gossip gene out of Dottie with Myrtle’s Louisville Slugger.  “Myrtle had to leave unexpectedly and asked me to feed her cats.”

“Lucky me,” the office muttered.

“I’m sorry about the misunderstanding.  We think Dottie Anderson has dementia, but her poor husband refuses to accept it.”

“I still have to write a report on the complaint,” the said officer grimly.

*****Myrtle’s View*****

Myrtle Crawford waited in the jail’s interview room, her wrists and ankles shackled.  She had only spent one night in jail, but her neck and hips were stiff.  The coils from the worn cot mattress and the wafer-thin pillow made her feel every one of her eighty-two years- and then some.

Two officers led Darlene into the room.  “Fifteen minutes,” one said before closing the door.  Myrtle could see through the tiny window that he kept post right outside the door.

“Darlene,” Myrtle said when Darlene sat in the chair across from her at the table.  “Did you find the cat food?”

“The bag I found was unopened.  Did you have one already opened?

“Those bags are a modern marvel,” Myrtle said.  “With the triple layers, the food stays fresh forever.  When you close the bag, it’s like it was never opened.” 

Darlene’s brow furrowed.

“So the cats are fed?”

“Dottie Anderson stopped by and said you didn’t have cats.”

Myrtle laughed.  “We don’t own cats- it’s the other way around.  They come and go as they please.  They are sneaky ones.”  Myrtle leaned forward.  “Old Tyrone is the fattest cat in Scottsdale.”  With a nod, she added, “You can take that to the bank.  Three hundred and twelve times.”

Darlene looked puzzled, but Myrtle let her words sink in.  When she saw Darlene’s eyes light and a smile spread, Myrtle knew she understood.

Tyrone O’Reilly was the president of the Old Town Bank in downtown Scottsdale.  He was also rumored to be involved in some slightly shady side deals.  Of course, Mrytle knew he was more than slightly shady- he dwelled entirely in the shadows.  The key to a safe deposit box- number 312- was in the cat food bag.  Literally.

Darlene grinned.  “Your cats will be fed.  Do you have any other special instructions?”

The door creaked open.  “One minute,” the officer barked.

Myrtle shook her head.  “You’ll know what to do.”

*****

Darlene burst through her front door and ran to the kitchen, where she’d left the cat food.  She skidded to a stop and stared in disbelief.  Gone!  How? 

Her heart raced as she dragged her leaden feet toward the counter.  She ran her hands along the surface to make sure her eyes didn’t deceive her, as if the bag became invisible.   A knock at the front door interrupted her panic.

Dottie Anderson stood on the porch, arms folded with a smug look pasted on her plump face.  “Treasures gained by wickedness do not profit.”

“Is this about the cat food?”

The old woman shrugged.  “God commands against stealing.”

“I doubt God broke into my house.”

Dottie laughed.  “Of course not, dear.  I work for Him.”

“If not his opponent.”

“Meaning what?”

“Figure it out.  Somewhere else!”  Darlene slammed the door and twisted the deadbolt.

Darlene got an idea.  She ran to the phone and dialed the Anderson’s house.    On the second ring, Mr. Anderson answered with a craggy “Hello.”

“Hi, Mr. Anderson.  Darlene Whitman, from down the street.”

“Yes?”

“Myrtle Crawford asked me to feed her cats.  Dottie misunderstood and took the Meow Mix.  Have you seen it?”

“Funny you should ask.  Dottie clutched that bag like it was the gold of Lost Dutchman’s Mine.”

“I’ll come get it!”

“Sorry.  It’s in her car and she left for bowling already.”

Twenty minutes later, Darlene parked by Dottie’s ’76 Cutlass.  She peered through the rear passenger window and spotted a bowling bag on the floor.  She jiggled the handle until the lock popped and the rusty door creaked open.  Foam peeked through the river of cracks in the vinyl seat.  Sun-faded carpet lined the back window.  Like its driver, the car showed obvious signs of age.  Darlene unzipped the bowling bag, gagging on the fishy odor.   She swapped cat food bags before sliding back into her car.  As she sped away, she prayed the switch would go unnoticed.

She had to find the key.

*****

For the second time in as many days, Darlene was up to her elbows in greasy, fishy cat food.  And again, no deposit box key.  Instead, she found a note inside a sealed snack baggie:

Nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.

Darlene crumpled it and hurled it at the wall to relieve some frustration.  It didn’t help.  “That devious, lying hypocrite!” Darlene shouted.  She then scrawled her response on scrap paper:  If anyone gives a neighbor goods for safekeeping and they are stolen from the neighbor’s house, the thief, if caught, must pay back double.

Fueled by anger, Darlene half-ran to Dottie’s house.  She pounded on the door until it opened.

“Can I help you, dear?”  Dottie asked with fake kindness.

Darlene thrust the paper at her.  “Since you communicate in scripture, here’s my response.”  Darlene backed away and jabbed her index finger toward the old woman.  “You won’t get away with this, Dottie Anderson!”

When Darlene arrived home, she found Myrtle perched on a stool at the island counter.  “Myrtle! I-I’m surprised to see you.”

She shrugged.  “I made bail.”

“Oh.”  Darlene wanted to ask how she got half a million dollars, but decided not to.

“Did you find the key?”

Darlene contemplated lying.  “Um…”  She sighed.  “Dottie stole the bag.”

Myrtle’s face paled and took on a bluish hue.

“I’ll get it back.  I-I have a plan.  Here, let’s get you home so you can rest.”

Myrtle didn’t fight Darlene as she led her across the street.  Back at home Darlene paced, struggling to devise a plan to back up her words.  She caught sight of the setting sun and felt the pressure of passing time.  She grabbed a scarf and pepper spray from her dresser drawer.  She paused at the door, then retrieved Jeff’s gun from her nightstand.

Her plan:  scare the key out of Dottie.

Darlene surprised herself with the crude intimidation she imagined.  She feared the darkness.

*****

Darlene crouched behind the manicured hedge running the length of Dottie Anderson’s front walkway.  She tugged at the scarf’s fringe with her left hand, pepper spray clenched in her right.  Her plan to coerce Dottie into giving back Myrtle’s safe deposit box key ran into a little hitch.

A man’s shadow stretched across the dimly lit walkway.  She strained to hear, but couldn’t make out any words.  Something about the man seemed familiar.  He looked to his right, then in her direction before taking a small envelope from Dottie.  Darlene gasped.  Jeff Weissman!

That man had the luck of a Leprechaun, and more lives than an alley cat.  Her father’s ex-business partner had faked his own death before enemies could “off” him, managed to escape when Darlene busted him snooping through her recently burned-out cabin, and has remained invisible for eight years.

Seeing Jeff at Dottie Anderson’s house made accusations and suppositions fly through her mind.  Jeff peered into the darkness around her.  Darlene ducked.

She exhaled when Jeff stepped inside and closed the door.  Darlene leaped over the hedge and concealed herself in the shadows of a bush on the opposite side of the walk.  She kept her finger on the pepper spray trigger.

Less than a minute later, Jeff exited the house, shutting the door behind him.  He hurried down the walk, pausing to investigate the hedge near where Darlene first hid.  Darlene snapped a twig.  When Jeff whirled around, she aimed the pepper spray.

“What the- ohhhh,” Jeff groaned, clawing at his eyes.

Darlene kicked his shin and he dropped to the ground, holding his leg.  She slipped her scarf around his neck and pulled tight until he relaxed.  She plucked the envelope from his pocket.   

The key. 

Déjà vu.

She felt the same nausea as when she lifted the gun, papers, and ring of keys from Jeff’s pocket that day in her cabin.

He’s dead!  Her pulse throbbed in her ears.

Darlene clutched the envelope and ran back home.

*****

Darlene had let herself into Myrtle Crawford’s backyard with the intention of knocking on her patio slider, out of sight of nosy neighbors.  Instead, she found herself crouched beneath a window, straining to place the muffled male voice that carried through the crack of the open window.

Paranoid after possibly murdering Jeff the night before, Darlene stayed at a hotel.  At 8AM, she showed up at the bank before someone intervened again.  After emptying the safe deposit box, she’d noticed a man lurking in the corner.  Their gazes met and danger aroused every nerve ending.  Darlene pointed him out to security, but when the guard approached, the man disappeared like smoke under a closed door.  Just like that; gone.

The guard made sure she got to her car, but her paranoia lingered.  Her senses heightened, she imagined the man’s gaze still on her and it prickled the hairs on her arms.  Darlene glanced at her tote bag, dying to know the significance of that expandable folder of papers.  Darlene cringed at her thought.  Dying.  That may indeed be my fate, she thought.  In a split-second decision, she crawled ten feet to the small storage shed.

True to Myrtle’s style, the shed was unlocked.  Darlene pried the door open, but halted when the creak cut through the quiet morning air.  After several minutes, her heart slowed and she crawled inside.  She shivered as cobwebs tickled her cheeks.  She spotted a large bag of fertilizer propped against the back wall.  She weaved around gardening supplies and tucked the folder behind it, careful to not disturb the dust.

Darlene backed out of the shed and pushed the door shut.  She exhaled a relieved sigh when it didn’t groan.  She crawled back to her spot under the window.

“I let this go far too long, Myrtle.  This might cost you your life.”

“You’ve already taken it.”

Darlene’s breath caught in her throat, frightened by the icy tone of her father’s voice and puzzled by Myrtle’s reply.

*****

Darlene stayed crouched under the window long after she heard Myrtle’s front door slam and her father’s car engine crank; even after the motor’s purr faded down the street.  Darlene didn’t move until her aching knees insisted.

Several minutes later, she’d unfolded into an upright position and managed the stiff journey to Myrtle’s back patio.  She peered inside the sliding door before knocking.  Myrtle’s hunched shoulders shook, her face rested in her hands.  She’s crying.

Darlene rapped on the glass.  Myrtle’s head jerked toward the slider, surprise melting into a smile.  She wiped her hand across her eyes and rushed to the door.  Noticing a slight limp, Darlene suspected arthritis flared in her left knee again.

“Darlene,” Myrtle whispered.  “What are you doing here?”

“Why whisper?”

Myrtle grimaced.  She poked her head outside, looking left, then right.  She grabbed Darlene’s elbow, pulled her inside, and locked the door behind them.

“You shouldn’t be here,” Myrtle said.

“Is someone looking for me?”

Myrtle averted her gaze.  “I heard Dottie Anderson and her husband are dead.  You’re the suspect.”

“Me?  I didn’t kill them!”

“They found your scarf around Dottie’s neck.”

Darlene took several shallow breaths.  “No.  No!  I used my scarf on Jeff outside Dottie’s house.  I wanted the key.  When he quit struggling, I panicked and ran away.”

“Did you get it?”

Under Myrtle’s hopeful stare, Darlene weighed her answer.  “How do you know about all this?”

Myrtle’s eyes widened, but she remained silent.

“Did my father tell you?”

Myrtle flinched.  “That man could charm the devil with a smile.” She shook her head.  “I know, because I sold my soul to him.”

Darlene wondered if Myrtle sold out to the devil or her dad.

Or if they were one in the same.

Three sharp knocks on the front door interrupted her thoughts.  “Mrs. Crawford!  Agents Mulroney and Haversill.”

Darlene gasped.

Myrtle led her to the slider.  She opened the door just wide enough and shoved her out.  “Run,” she whispered.  “Go!”

*****

Shoved into Myrtle’s back yard with two FBI agents at the front door, Darlene felt the panic of a child still searching for the perfect hiding spot when the seeker just counted, “twenty-three!”

“Just a minute.  My knee’s bothering me.”

Darlene smiled.  She heard Myrtle’s exaggerated shuffle and knew she was stalling.

For a split-second, Darlene contemplated climbing the 6-foot tall block wall, but thought better of it, remembering she couldn’t even shimmy up a chain link fence in grade school.  Her options limited, she bounded for the cobwebbed storage shed.  She slipped inside, leaving the door ajar so a thin stream of sunlight leaked inside.

She huddled in the corner beside what might’ve been a wheelbarrow, praying the agents’ visit would be quick.  After several minutes, sweat beaded around her hairline; then trickled down her face.  Darlene wiped her forehead with her shirt.  She had to think of a plan, or she’d die an inelegant death.  She figured she had less than half an hour in the unforgiving Arizona August heat.

Her heart lurched when she heard a male voice.  Agent Mulroney.  Aloneness overtook her.  Mulroney had Haversill, Myrtle had Darlene’s father- but she had no one to band with.  Darlene had no one she could trust.  Myrtle was hiding something about her father, and for that reason, Darlene couldn’t risk confiding.

“You can’t do this!”

“We have a warrant,” Mulroney said.  “You know harboring a fugitive is a felony?”

“The only thing I’m harboring is-” Myrtle gasped, and then groaned.

“Let’s get her inside.  Could be a heart attack!”  Haversill shouted.

The sliding door slammed shut.  Trembling with fear, Darlene started to feel her way to the door, but stopped.  She inched backward and patted around until her fingertips grazed the plastic fertilizer bag.  She slid her hand behind it and snatched her tote bag.

In that instant she understood the moth, as she was drawn to the safety deposit box contents- even though the knowledge would likely kill her.

*****

Darlene checked into a run-down motel that she wouldn’t normally consider, in case anyone came looking for her.  She had been puzzled by the front desk clerk’s “hourly or nightly” question.  However, upon seeing a scantily clad, heavily decorated woman and a suited man enter the next room, she pieced it together.  The noises seeping through the paper-thin walls confirmed the nature of business conducted.  Consequently, she decided avoiding the bed would be in her best interest.

She huddled at the small desk, curtains drawn, door double-bolted, and lights dimmed.  The papers from Myrtle’s safety deposit box were spread on the desktop.  Darlene cupped her hands over her ears to muffle the grunts and groans from next door.  Finally, fifteen minutes later, she was blessed with silence when her neighbors left.

One of the pages caught her eye.  She recognized the Medical Enterprises of Grayhawk logo.  Her mom had gone there for her cancer treatment.  A few weeks ago, Darlene read in the Arizona Republic that early clinical trial results earned Grayhawk a large federal grant.  Darlene went numb as her eyes scanned the paragraphs.  Myrtle had cancer.  Behind the letter, she found a handwritten page.  She recognized Myrtle’s shaky penmanship.

She read through the letter twice and dropped it on the desk.  She shook her head.  It couldn’t possibly be true.  Myrtle claimed that Medical Enterprises of Grayhawk injected healthy patients with an aggressive form of cancer to gather more treatment data.  A European competitor, Sidney-Talbot, also had promising trial results, and Darlene knew being the first to market meant billions of dollars earned before patents expired.

Still, Darlene couldn’t buy the weak claim that her father, Andrew Moritz, injected Myrtle with cancer as retribution.  Retribution for what?   Her father had been a sales rep for New Way Pharmaceutical for twenty years, but that had nothing to do with Grayhawk.

Darlene needed more.  She needed Myrtle’s help.

New occupants entered the room next door.

Darlene decided to leave immediately.

*****

Darlene checked her reflection in the rearview mirror after snagging a shaded space in the hospital’s north lot.  She almost didn’t recognize herself with the sandy blonde hair and green eyes.  The bangs made her even more a stranger, as she hadn’t worn them since 1999.  Her best friend, Jen, masterminded the disguise, right down to the skinny jeans and floral t-shirt.  She blinked several times, still grossed out by wearing borrowed cosmetic contacts.  When she balked, Jen had said, “do you want to rot in a jail cell wearing unflattering wide stripes?”  Darlene doused them in extra saline before inserting.

She felt ridiculous about her paranoia as she concentrated on not toppling over in 4-inch heels- also borrowed from Jen.  The idea was to not dress “Darlene,” and any shoe with a raised heel was definitely not Darlene.  She strolled to the information desk and asked for Myrtle Crawford’s room, claiming to be her niece just in case they limited visitors to family.  Without any verification, the volunteer surrendered the room number.

On the third floor, Darlene rounded the corner to the east wing.  She halted at the sight of two officers outside Myrtle’s door.  Panic took form in caught breath, pounding heart, and the distracting trickles of sweat sliding down her sides.  Her mind had refused to grasp the danger of coming here- until she spotted the two dark uniforms and gold shield badges.  Her gaze settled on the weapons dangling from their duty belts.  She took a deep breath and exhaled slowly.

“Hey-a, fellas,” Darlene said as she approached the door.

On officer blocked her way.  “You can’t go in there, ma’am.”

“I-I’m her niece.  Please… ya’ll have to let me see my aunt.”

“Evie, honey, is that you?” a weak voice asked from the other side of the door.

“It’s me, Auntie!”

The officers exchanged glances.  The one in front of the door narrowed his eyes, studying her face.  “Go on,” he finally said, stepping aside.

*****

After donning the disguise of all disguises, Darlene couldn’t get a word out of Myrtle Crawford.  She claimed that even when they weren’t there, they could hear everything in her private hospital room.   Darlene wished she could bust Myrtle out of that hellish prison, but couldn’t.   Her sick act wasn’t an act.

Darlene felt the burn of curiosity when her thoughts drifted to the folded papers in her bag.  Just because Myrtle couldn’t talk didn’t mean she couldn’t communicate.  She’d clearly expected Darlene would find a way to get there, because she’d spent her days in the hospital writing, and then hiding the pages when nurses, doctors, or FBI agents came into the room.

Darlene kept her hands on the steering wheel, rented car pointed east, for no other reason than her instinct said west so she did the opposite.  When she hit the Albuquerque city limits, Darlene finally felt far enough away.  At four in the afternoon, Little Anita’s wasn’t busy, despite being located right off the I-40.  The sole waitress on shift shuffled her to a booth in the back of the restaurant.  Maybe her desire for privacy was that obvious.

Sipping on a Diet Coke- Darlene would never drink that- she ordered a smothered burrito and then carefully pulled the tri-folded papers from her bag.  In her acquired paranoid state, she looked around to make sure no one watched before opening Myrtle’s letter.

Tears involuntarily slipped from her eyes when she finished reading.  She tried to stop them with a swipe from the back of her hand, but it did no good.  Myrtle provided more evidence that Darlene’s father was a thief and possible murderer and her dead husband, Scott, the ultimate liar she’d never be able to confront in this life.

This left Darlene with a brand she couldn’t hide.  A criminal’s daughter and a liar’s wife is what her heart knew.  It became her, no matter what clothes covered her.

All because of the experimental cancer drug, MEG42A1.

*****

As Darlene ate her smothered burrito, she moved Myrtle’s letter to the side so she wouldn’t drip red sauce on it.  Her eyes settled on the words for a third time.

Dearest,

I know you lied to me- you have what you needed all along.  You must be scared and confused, as you should be.  Time is running out for me, and there are a few more things you have to know.  The mind is our body’s ultimate protector.  To do what you’ll need to, you have to first believe who the monster is and what he’s capable of.  Research the owner of his employer.  Peruse your mother’s medical records.  (Mine will be available to you upon my passing.) Striking similarities…

I believe the suits are insiders on the scheme.  Of course, I can’t prove it, but it’s a strong gut feeling.  If you need someone to confide in, Jeff is on our side.  I’m sure you’ll find it hard to believe, but justice is what he wants, too.  Everything you need is in your hands.  Every piece is important.

Above all else, please know that I loved you.  My heart aches to say goodbye without you at my bedside holding my hand, but I’ve made amends with God and understand this is how it shall be.

Myrtle

Tears welled up once again.  Myrtle loved her?  Why?  Questions tugged at her heart.

She startled when someone slid into the booth seat in front of her.  When her gaze traveled up the elbows on the table and saw Jeff Weissman’s face, she choked on her burrito. She dislodged it from her throat with cough and a long swig of Diet Coke.

He leaned forward.  “You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”  He grinned.

Darlene stifled her shock and faked a smile she hoped exuded the grace of someone who possessed more confidence and courage than she’d ever mustered.  Myrtle.

“Haven’t I?  You’ve died so many times; I suspect you’re not of this world.”

*****

Jeff’s eyebrows knitted together.  Then, suddenly, he laughed.  “Like the possum, I understand that faking can be key to survival.  Sadly, Dottie and her husband didn’t have the skills.”

She gasped.  “You killed them.  And left my scarf to implicate me.”

Jeff shrugged.  “I had to make you run.  It worked.”

“That’s it?  It’s that easy?  You can talk about killing two people in the same manner you’d tell me you ate tuna salad for lunch?”

“Actually, I had a grilled chicken sandwich.”

Darlene scowled.

“Look, survival is about one thing:  kill or be killed.  It’s not hard to choose which actions to take.”

With her elbow, Darlene pressed her tote bag to her side and felt the handle of Jeff’s stolen gun through the fake leather.  “That, I understand.”  Myrtle’s words ran through her mind again.  If you need someone to confide in, Jeff is on our side.

“Tell me about my mom’s death.”

Jeff leaned back and sighed.

“You claim to be for justice.  Prove it.”

He focused his stare on the faux wood tabletop.  “It shouldn’t have happened.”

“Did my father inject her with aggressive cancer?”

His gaze snapped up and held Darlene’s for several seconds.  His eyes, glassy with tears.  “Do you remember how even the nurses tending to her wore protective gear from head to toe?”

She nodded and uttered a half-laugh.  “It felt like the set of a sci-fi movie, with each face a pair of eyes peering over a sterile white mask.”

Silence brewed for several heavy seconds.

“So, he did it.”

Gaze averted, he muttered, “With his gun at my head…”

“What?”

His lip quivered.  “I-I did.”

Darlene narrowed her eyes.  “What’s going on?”

“I loved her.  Always did,” Jeff whispered.  “He hated that.”

“Oh, God.  Please don’t tell me you had an affair.”

“No!  I loved her too much.  Your mother was a pawn.”

“Meaning?”

“Her death served as a warning.”

“Did he love her?”  Darlene’s voice sounded as hollow as her insides felt.

*****

Darlene looked at Jeff expectantly.  Her heart fell when he didn’t answer.  She repeated, “Did my father love her?”

“It’s complicated…”

She couldn’t read his expression.  “I’m twenty-eight.  I can take it.”

“Not how she deserved to be loved.  Greed took over.” He paused.   “Your mother deserved to be wrapped in love twenty-four hours a day.  Breakfast in bed, a kiss and a rose each evening, and passionate caresses throughout the night.  But making deals drove him.”

“So he didn’t do any of that?”

“Not in her eyes,” Jeff said.

“She confided in you?”

“Sometimes… I mean, only a few times.”

“No.  It’s too much.  I can’t do this.”  Darlene slipped the tote bag straps over her shoulder and slid out of the booth.  “I’ve heard enough.”

“When did you stop chasing the rainbow, Dolly?”

Darlene halted mid-step and turned around.  “What’s that supposed to mean?”

Jeff shrugged.  “Well, Myrtle needs help, and your mother deserves justice, and you’re running because you don’t like what you hear.”

“I just need time…I need-”

“There’s no time, Dolly.”  Jeff shook his head.  “In high school, you expected to change the world.  We need that girl now.”

“She was foolish,” Darlene said.

“She believed.”

“She didn’t know any better.”

“Reckless optimism can topple the foe.”

“Meaning, my father.”

“MEG.  But your father is a big part of it.”

Darlene slumped into the booth.  “I don’t understand how.  My father works for New Way Pharmaceutical, MEG’s competitor.”

“That was true, until 2004.”

“The year mother died,” Darlene whispered.

“The year I died,” Jeff added.

“Why did you fake your death?”

“I had to keep my promise to your mother.”

“Which was?”

“To protect you.  And I almost failed.”

“How?”

“The fire at your cabin.  I should’ve seen that coming.”

Darlene shook her head.  “Scott set me up.”

Jeff reached into his jacket and pulled out some papers.  He unfolded and smoothed them before his fingertips pushed them across the table.  “I don’t think Scott knew.”

*****

“What do you mean, Scott didn’t know?”  Numbness crawled down Darlene’s extremities.

Jeff nodded toward the papers on the table.

Jaw hung slack, she scanned through the three pages.  “Where did you get this?”

“The cabin.  Right after the police cleared out.”

“You were there before?”

He smirked.  “I came back expecting to find more information.  Not to be restrained by my own shoelaces.”

Darlene suppressed a smile, remembering her handiwork.  “Why would he be Scott’s main contract?  Father hated him.”

“All part of his plan.  He can pinpoint and play weaknesses.  With extreme patience, I might add.”

“You’re suggesting my father orchestrated everything so I’d be alone?”

“Not suggesting, Dolly.  It’s in black and white.”

“Why?”

“You were Scott’s weakness.   Paris was a new life, not a second honeymoon.   The fire was a warning for him to stay put.”

Darlene’s throat tightened.  “Scott tried to kill me.  I removed the mask and saw for myself.”

“Your father is persuasive.  And survival instinct makes a person do shocking things.”

Recalling Jeff’s involvement in her mother’s death, her anger flared.  “So Scott was just a savage animal inside?”  The waitress glanced her way, so she lowered her voice.  “He was incapable of selflessness, driven only to protect his life?  No.  He wasn’t like you!”

Jeff snorted.  “It’s at everyone’s core.  Better believe, or your blood will be on daddy’s hands.”

Darlene flinched.

“You gotta do what it takes.  He won’t stop.  You know too much to live, Dolly.”

Tears trickled down her cheeks.  It came down to kill or be killed.  Darlene doubted she had what it took.  He might be wretched, but he was her father.

“You have to get past him being your father,” Jeff said, as if reading her thoughts.  “I want to help.”

She nodded, still unconvinced… still unsure if she could trust Jeff.  She feared faked death didn’t diminish his survival instinct.  Kill or be killed. 

“What do you have in mind?” Darlene asked, summoning her inner animal.

*****

Darlene had stayed up most the night reading.  Myrtle’s notes corroborated much of what he’d claimed.  She’d told Jeff to meet her at the Albuquerque Indian Cultural Center at 8am.

Plans changed.  She glanced at the dashboard clock- 6:21.  She took another swig of her tar-like convenience store coffee and bumped the cruise control up a couple notches.  She’d be in Phoenix by eight.  Questions swirled in her mind and the only way to find peace was to ask the only man with answers.

She pulled into the West Phoenix apartment complex that Jeff said her father had been renting for the last year.  The stucco needed paint; patches of gray peeked through the terra cotta hue.  The roof tiles had faded under the unforgiving summer sun.

After climbing three flights of stairs, she stood in front of the weathered door labeled “312C.”  She almost lost her nerve.  She raised her hand to rap on the door just as it flung open.  Darlene and her father gasped at the same time.

“Darlene.”  A tight smile followed.

“Can we talk?”

He stepped aside and she entered the sparsely furnished one-bedroom.  As he bolted the three locks, she put Jeff’s gun to the back of his head.

“Here’s how it’s going to work.  I ask questions, you tell the truth.  You lie, it’s over.”

He turned.  “Darlene.  This isn’t you.”

“I don’t know anymore.”  She took a deep breath, prepared to expose the phantom of security urging silence to preserve her past.  “Were you involved with mom’s death?”

Anger flickered in his eyes.  “Jeff.  I knew that bastard wasn’t dead.”

“Answer!”

“Indirectly.”

“Did you inject Myrtle with cancer?”

“Possibly.”

“Are you involved in illegal cancer research?”

His jaw clenched.

Darlene leveled the gun.

“The laws are archaic.”

“Did you embezzle federal grant money?”

“Can’t be proven.”

“You tried to kill me in the cabin fire.”

“It was for your own good.”

“So is this…” She flashed the digital recorder.  “You’ll be front page.”

*****

Darlene tucked the recorder back in her pocket.  “No need trying to stop me.  Our conversation has already been transmitted.”

Her father’s face went ashen.  She undid the three locks and glanced back at her father, who’d collapsed into the only chair in the room- an armchair covered in a worn floral pattern, obviously not his taste.  She felt a flicker of guilt, but slipped out the door anyway.

She sprinted to the rented Camry and pulled onto Thomas Road, heading east.  She called her best friend, Jen.

“Well, how did it go?”

“I got some answers, mostly excuses.  I think he bought it, anyway.”

“So what now?”

“I wait, I guess.”

After a couple beats of silence, Jen said, “Okay, don’t be mad, but I called my old friend, Melanie Sorensen.  She works in sales at the Republic now and she talked to Alex Curtis.  He wants to break this story.”  She took a breath.  “He wants to meet with you.”

Darlene felt light-headed.  She hadn’t considered taking this anywhere.  It was supposed to be a bluff; pulling the trigger without actually pulling the trigger.

“Helloooo?”

“Uh, I don’t know…”

“You want justice for your mom, and Myrtle, right?”

“Of course.  But when my father is dead, that will happen.”

“What if your meeting this morning just spooked him enough to run?  There’s no closure in that.”

Darlene sighed.  “He’s a coward.  He will kill himself before he lets his reputation get dragged through the mud.”

“It may take seeing the first specks of dirt to push him to that point,” Jen said.  “You’ve gone through too much to let it go at this.”

Silence.

Jen continued, “I’m sure there are others.  What about their families?  MEG is a big corporation… they will go on with or without your father.”

“Okay.”

“Okay, what?”

“I’ll meet with Alex.”

“Good.  He’ll be at Cooperstown at one.”

Darlene ended the call and dropped the phone into her purse.  She pulled into a QuikTrip station.  She retrieved a duffel bag containing “Evie’s” clothes from the trunk and headed for the bathrooms.  Four hours would be enough time to transform herself into Myrtle’s niece and visit her old neighbor again.

Time weighed heavily on Darlene.  She had to tell Myrtle she’d read all her papers.  She had to tell her she knew everything- before it was too late.

THE END.

14 thoughts on “Darlene’s Story

  1. judithhb May 7, 2013 / 10:00 PM

    Now I am up to date and enthralled. Waiting on tenterhooks for the next episode.

    • jannatwrites May 9, 2013 / 11:08 PM

      Thanks for reading, Judith. I hope you enjoy the continuation of the story!

      • judithhb March 29, 2015 / 6:07 PM

        And I have only now reached the end. I love this story Janna – will there be a sequel?

        • jannatwrites March 31, 2015 / 7:25 PM

          Thanks for reading through til the end, Judith! I hadn’t thought about a sequel, but I do plan to expand it into a novel. I was 18 chapters in when I had to put it aside for the time being, but I’ve not forgotten it 🙂

  2. Sarah Ann June 6, 2013 / 11:33 AM

    I’ve read through all the way from the beginning and now I want to know what’s happened to Jeff. (I am fickle.) Really enjoying this series and looking forward to lots more.

    • jannatwrites June 6, 2013 / 11:06 PM

      Thanks, Sarah Ann. Yes, Jeff will turn up again. (This is the downfall of 333-word limits – by the time the story involves a character again, most people have forgotten about that character!)

  3. philosophermouseofthehedge August 19, 2013 / 12:23 PM

    Just ran over to refresh a few details. Cool story. Your use of some tiny effective details make it so real.

    • jannatwrites August 19, 2013 / 10:00 PM

      I’m glad it helps you get into the story. Fine line between not enough info and drowning in details 🙂 Thanks for taking the time to refresh the story, Phil…it’s been going on so long, it’s hard to remember what happened in the beginning!

  4. the dune mouse March 26, 2015 / 11:32 PM

    Janna, what a fantastic story, I’ve bookmarked it to come and read it right through tomorrow. It’s grabbed me with the wonderful details and wanting to know what has happened!!

    • jannatwrites March 31, 2015 / 7:23 PM

      Thanks, TDM! I’m glad you liked what you’ve read so far. This is one that I was working on turning into a novel before life got sticky. I’ll get back to it sometime 🙂

        • jannatwrites April 4, 2015 / 12:01 AM

          Thanks, TDM 🙂 Perhaps by the end of the year I’ll be in a place where I can get back to it. I miss it!

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