Authors: Shirley Rousseau Murphy
A JOE GREY MYSTERY
Shirley Rousseau Murphy
Joe Cat LeBouef
And all who went before
OG AS SOFT
as a purr drifted among the twisted oaks and tucked down around the weathered roofs of the old hillside neighborhood, blurring their steep angles. On the twisted arm of a sprawling oak, the gray tomcat crouched above the rooftops licking at his fog-dampened fur, his claws kneading idly as he watched the neighborhood below. The old stucco or shingled homes, denizens from an age past, crowded close to one another among their overgrown gardens, descending the hill with dignity, some perhaps still sheltering their original occupants. This early morning, the tomcat was concerned with only one house, with the small, two-story Tudor that, until this week, had stood empty, its tenants long departed.
It was a simple house, and straightforward, its pale plaster walls set within heavy, crisscrossed timbers. A wide bay window at the front revealed a glimpse of the kitchen, and above the kitchen, behind a narrow ledge of
dark shingles, opened the wide windows of two upstairs bedrooms topped by a steeply peaked roof. Only the garage roof was flat, out of keeping with the original design as if it had been added on in later years. Replacing, perhaps, the kind of small detached garage common in the age of the first cars, of the little Model A Fords—the kind of shed that would never have held Maudie Toola’s big black Town Car.
From the moment, three days earlier, when Maudie’s Lincoln parked at the curb and then soon the yellow moving van pulled into the drive, Joe Grey had observed the grandmotherly woman with interest. He knew she had fled L.A., some three hundred miles to the south, after the murder of her son and his wife, but it was even more than the murder that piqued the tomcat’s curiosity; it was something about Maudie herself. Something out of keeping, an attitude that didn’t seem to fit this gentle person, an occasional gesture or glance that seemed out of character in the soft little woman.
The tomcat had no clue that his interest in Maudie would soon involve a whole tangle of confusing events besides the recent murders, that a stabbing soon to occur at the state prison and the brutal home invasions that had already descended upon the small village would prove all to be connected in some way to Maudie herself. This morning Joe puzzled only over Maudie as he watched for her to appear, watched for an early light to blaze on in her bright kitchen.
The shooting of Maudie’s son and daughter-in-law had occurred eight months earlier, east of L.A. on a lonely mountain road as they headed up into the mountains
north of Lake Arrowhead. Their destination was Maudie’s weekend cabin on the edge of a tiny, man-made lake, where they planned to enjoy the children’s Easter vacation. Only Maudie and the three children—her grandson and her son’s two small stepchildren—had survived; they were the only witnesses.
HEIRS WAS THE
only car on the dark and narrow road, they moved through the night between tall stands of shaggy forest, the scent of pine blowing in through their open windows. Deep within the woods they could hear the occasional booming of a barn owl, solemn and intent. Only where the pines thinned for a moment did light from the low moon flicker into the front seat, catching a gleam of Caroline’s honey-colored hair and of Martin’s white baseball cap. Caroline’s two children and Martin’s little boy, Benny, were crowded into the backseat with Maudie, Benny snuggled against his grandma. They were all startled when headlights blazed suddenly into the car from behind them, blasting out of the night as if the overtaking car had snapped out of another dimension. Martin slowed to let the speeding vehicle pass so he could safely make his left-hand turn. Instead of passing, the big pickup cut its speed and pulled alongside, keeping pace with them. Maudie glimpsed the passenger for only a second before she saw the gleam of metal, too, and shoved the children to the floor, crouching down over them as a fiery blast exploded, and another. In the front seat Martin jerked and fell sideways; she could see him between the bucket
seats, twisted and slumped beneath the wheel. It all happened in an instant, their car skidding sideways headed for the dense pinewoods. Maudie could see Caroline leaning across Martin’s body fighting the wheel, trying to keep them from crashing, trying to reach the emergency brake. A third shot burst from the big pickup and their car spun out of control, skidded off the shoulder, went over on its side, and crashed into a tree. The engine roared, and flooded, and died. The pickup cut out around them screeching tires, kicking up gravel, and was gone. Silence in the car. Neither Caroline nor Martin moved; all was dark and still.
The couple had been married just four months; Caroline was a widow of two years, her husband having been killed in Iraq. Maudie’s son, Martin, an airline pilot, had filed for divorce when he learned that his wife, Pearl, during his absences, would go off for days leaving Benny alone in the house to fend for himself, the six-year-old child begging meals and spending many nights up the street with Caroline Reed and her two children. When Martin was home between flights, Pearl had seemed a caring enough mother, though her nature was cold. Certainly the couple had had their problems, but Martin had stayed for Benny’s sake—until he learned how much he had ignored of the little boy’s life. Only when he pressed Benny for details had Benny confided that, when they were alone, his mother would drive him out of the house or, if she had company, she would lock him in his room.
Benny was always a quiet child, and Martin berated himself for not seeing clearly the little boy’s pain. What
use was it to provide well for his family if he couldn’t take proper care of his neglected child. Stricken and ashamed, he had told Pearl to move out, had gotten a restraining order against her coming anywhere near Benny, had filed for divorce, and had asked Caroline if Benny might stay with her until he found live-in help. Caroline told him the arrangement need not be temporary, that her two kids liked having him there, that that was where Benny felt safe and loved, that was where he wanted to be when he couldn’t be with his daddy. Benny, in his loneliness, had drawn Martin and Caroline together, and nearly a year after Martin divorced, they knew they had fallen in love and would marry.
When Maudie returned home to L.A., after a long absence on the East Coast where she’d gone to care for a cousin, when she moved back home and learned the truth about Benny’s life, she was devastated. She had thought to take Benny to live with her, but then, on meeting Caroline and learning about their upcoming wedding, she saw there was no need. She was deeply warmed by their newfound happiness, she wept when they said their vows; after the ceremony she held the child and held Caroline and thanked God for the miracle that had brought the two together. Martin’s life had turned around—until the evening they headed up to the mountains for that fatal Easter vacation.
It was black night when they reached the mountains. Moving along the narrow back roads, theirs was soon the only car. Moonlight fingered the tips of the pines, and flashed between the trees into the moving vehicle. They
met no oncoming lights and they passed no clearing in the forest where any faintest house light flickered, they were alone, content with one another as Benny napped peacefully against Maudie and she herself dozed.
And then the blazing lights. The gunshots. The wreck. Easing up, Maudie caught her breath as pain seared through her shoulder. In the front seat, the newlyweds lay unmoving, a dark huddle; they made no cry, no smallest sound. The children clung to Maudie, Benny’s arms so tight that pain shocked through her hurt shoulder, making her vision swim; she clung to the child, dizzy and sick. The night was so black, silent except for the dying ticking of their wrecked car. She cried out to Martin but he didn’t answer, nor did Caroline. She tried to wedge her way into the front to find Martin’s hand, or Caroline’s, to feel for a pulse. She was sick with the terrible, certain knowledge they were dead. They were alone on the deserted mountain road, no one to help them, no one to know what had happened. No one but the killer.
Maudie tried to find her purse, find her cell phone, wondering if, in that desolate mountain area, a 911 call would get through to anyone, wondering if her signal, impeded by the ragged peaks, could possibly reach a tower and be relayed to the local sheriff or the CHP. Or would her call simply die, smothered among the ridges and pinewoods? She thought of a gasoline fire but could see no lick of flame starting among the wreckage. The children clung to her, silent and shivering. As she searched for her purse, for the phone, the pain that surged through her brought tears spurting.
Later she remembered only fragments: the children
climbing over into the front seat to their parents even as Maudie tried to stop them. At once, Gracie and Benny started to scream, Gracie’s high-pitched little voice screaming, “Mama, Mama, Mama, Mama, Mama …” unable to stop. Twice Benny said, “Papa,” then he began to retch.
It was so dark, the moon’s light blocked now by the mountain of the car itself towering over them. Maudie abandoned the search for her purse, and rummaged through the pockets of the backseat trying to find a flashlight—but she didn’t dare shine a light on Martin and Caroline, didn’t dare let the children see them torn and bleeding. She prayed they weren’t dead, prayed they would live, they were all these children had. Death wouldn’t be fair, not for this warm, happy, newly formed family.
But the words “fair” and “right” were arbitrary, they had no connection to real life. Were those concepts applicable in the dimension larger than life, a dimension that neither she nor anyone alive was equipped to understand?
Swallowing back the pain in her shoulder, she reached between the bucket seats, feeling for the children. She felt Gracie huddled down against Caroline, her arm slick with Caroline’s blood. Maudie tried to squeeze through between the headrests and the headliner, but Benny swarmed back away from Martin, screaming and crying, pressing her down again. Gracie followed him in a panic, and then Ronnie, the three children clinging and shivering, weeping uncontrollably in their terror and grief.
Later she remembered hugging the children, feeling sick and dizzy with pain. She remembered finding her phone, making the call, but after that the memories
became disjointed. She thought a lot of time had passed in pain and blackness until, what seemed hours later, the sound of sirens startled her from half consciousness, and lights blazed in, blinding her, blinding the children …
Even now, eight months later, her memories of the shooting and crash were still tangled. She had lucid moments, and long spaces lost in between that she couldn’t bring back: waking in a moving vehicle, strapped down to a cot, unable to move or sit up. Not knowing where the children were, crying out for the children. A man’s voice, trying to calm her. Waking to a loud insistent thumping that terrified her until the man told her she was in a helicopter. Recognizing, then, the thunder of its propellers, as the white-coated medic leaned over her, telling her the children were right there with her, that they were not badly hurt. Seeing the three children, then, huddled together with blankets around them, and the medic asking her about family, asking who they should call. She tried to tell them where, in her purse, to look for the phone numbers of her older son, David, and of Caroline’s sister. Everything happened in torn fragments, ragged and not quite fitting together, a nightmare puzzle that would never, ever leave her. She remembered the loud, slamming wind of the copter’s blades above her as the door opened and she was lifted out on the stretcher, uselessly crying out for the children.
She remembered waking in a cage of metal bars, trying to pull herself up, then seeing the tubes sticking out of her arm confining her, holding her down, remembered yanking at them trying to get free until a nurse grabbed
her hands. She fought the nurse, screaming for Martin, screaming his name over and over …
It had taken her a long time, in the hospital, to face the truth that lay silent and dark within her, to face the fact that Martin and Caroline were dead, to face the grief she didn’t want and didn’t know how to deal with. A long time to understand that Martin’s and Caroline’s bodies had been transported to the county morgue to await a coroner’s autopsies. A long time to believe what the doctors and police told her, that the three children were safe, that they were in a motel nearby with Caroline’s sister, who had flown out from Miami. It took her a while to understand that her older son, David, would arrive from Georgia that evening. Not until Caroline’s sister, Maryanne, arrived at the hospital with the children, until Maudie saw for herself that the three children were all right, did that part of the nightmare begin to subside.
Gracie and Ronnie, subdued and pale, clung to Maryanne, needing their aunt, whose golden hair and warm smile so resembled Caroline. Now Maryanne, and David, and Maudie herself, were all the children had left to love and nurture them.