Authors: Merry Jones
Tags: #Mystery: Thriller - Paranormal - Philadelphia
Even as I muttered those feeble comebacks, though, I realized Emma had been right about one thing: Charlie had changed. Especially over the past few years. Sorrow washed through me as I remembered the old Charlie, my Charlie. But I couldn’t dwell on that, and hurried upstairs to quiet my mind.
I ran the bath, added jasmine-scented bubbles. Finally sank into warm water, relaxing, soaking in silence. Lying back, closing my eyes. Again, I thought of Charlie, how he’d sometimes kept me company when I’d bathed. Brought bubbly wine or bonbons. Sometimes, he’d lit candles and turned out the lights. Sometimes, he’d put on music. Sinatra. Beethoven. The Stones. Whatever suited his mood.
Oh God, why was I remembering those times? They were finished. Even if Charlie weren’t dead, those times would be. It was the bath, probably. The tiny popping of bubbles, the embrace of hot water. The jasmine scent. Memories were linked to those sensations. Or maybe it was even deeper—maybe the house itself held memories. Maybe the walls, floor, stairway, bathtub—maybe they all held images of what had happened inside them. Meals, music, laughter, lovemaking. Maybe not just bubbles, but also memories floated in the tub.
I closed my eyes, engulfed in quiet and warmth, and let the memories surface, almost feeling Charlie beside the tub, leaning against the wall, holding his drink. Almost hearing his voice.
“Derek brought in big bucks today. I mean big. Somerset Bradley.”
I’d never heard of him.
“Guy owns half of New England. Hotels, commercial real estate. He’s giving us the whole enchilada. He says he’s done working, just wants to travel. So Derek—got to give him credit—he lured him in by putting a whole trip together for him. Russia. The Far East. It cost a wad, but it was worth it.”
Lord, why was I remembering that conversation? It was boring, had no significance. Why, when I let my mind drift, wasn’t I remembering steamy sex? Or spooning cozily in our sleep? After all, these were my memories, too. Why was I resurrecting Charlie talking about business? And out of all his clients, why a twit like Somerset Bradley?
The water cooled; the bath ended. I wrapped myself in a terry robe that had been Charlie’s and went to bed. It was barely nine o’clock. But I lay down, clean, on fresh sheets, turned out the light, and lay quietly listening, watching. Maybe he’d say my name again. Or put the rose somewhere. Or kiss me. Or brush by, leaving his scent.
For a long time, I didn’t let myself sleep. I lay still and alert. Waiting for Charlie.
No kisses. No scents. No rose. No voice. No Charlie. At least, not while I was awake, which was, I think, until after one.
But then, I remember walking into the study, stepping on something sharp—a tack? Wincing. Looking down at the floor, seeing not a tack. A rose. Thorns. A speck of blood on my foot. And, in the shadows, a man.
“Charlie?” I was surprised. Delighted. He was back. Home. Everything was okay.
“You’re smiling.” He didn’t move, just turned his head my way. “Don’t smile, Elle. Don’t pretend.”
But I was glad to see him and felt my smile widen. “See, I
thought you were—” Wait. What had I thought again? It flittered away, but I knew it had been something bad. Something awful.
“Oh, please, Elf. There’s no need to say it.” He looked pale, and I wondered if he’d been drinking again. He’d been drinking so much lately.
I went to him, sat beside him. Leaned over for a kiss.
But Charlie didn’t kiss me. He sighed, but didn’t move. Didn’t even put an arm around me. Dread washed through me. Why was he being so cold? What was it I had forgotten?
His expression was blank. “Please. Don’t make it difficult. Don’t pretend.” A slow, twisted smile.
I was cold. Shivering.
“You were the love of my life. But I could never make you happy.” Charlie stood, towered over me. “Goodbye, Elf.” He leaned down, his lips brushing mine, tickling like butterfly wings. And then he turned away. Leaving me.
I opened my mouth to call him, but could make no sound. Charlie was going. Almost gone. No—no way. He couldn’t leave me.
A knife was in my hand. I raised it. Drew a breath. Closed my eyes. Felt a rush, a thrust. And distinctly, independently: The taut resistance of fabric, the smooth separation of flesh. The scrape of steel against bone. The handle slipped. The blade cut my hand as I adjusted my grip and tugged at it until with a sucking sound it came suddenly free. Then another plunge. And another.
I tried to open my eyes, to shake my head, to say “no,” but couldn’t. I tried to sit up or move my legs. But couldn’t. In fact, I could move nothing, not my toes, not my eyelids. I was paralyzed. You’re asleep, I told myself. Not awake. Stuck in a dream. But blood was warm and sticky on my hands. And I still heard gurgling, the rasps of Charlie’s dying lungs.
Don’t fight it, I told myself. Go back. Change it. Make it so you didn’t kill him. Because you didn’t. You know you didn’t. Charlie, my mind called to him, and I saw him, stumbling onto the sofa in the study, staring at me. It wasn’t me, I told him. I didn’t kill you. You must know that. Didn’t you see who did? Tell me, who was it?
But Charlie blinked at me, stunned, as if surprised to be dying.
And he mouthed a word. Only one syllable: Why.
Why? Why what? Why, as in, why am I dying? Or as in, why did you kill me? Didn’t he believe me? Did Charlie think I killed him? He stared at me from the couch with accusing eyes as I blithered my innocence. So far, going back into the dream wasn’t going well. But it was my dream. Shouldn’t I be able to steer it the way I wanted? It wasn’t me, I repeated. I didn’t kill you, but Charlie was gone, and I was lying immobile in my bed, struggling to open my eyes. This time, I insisted, pulling myself out of a well of deep sleep, making my eyes open, my limbs come back to life. Even when I could move, I didn’t get up right away. I lay there, actually checking my hands. My cut was healing, and they were both free of blood. Finally, my mind still immersed in the dream, I looked at the clock, remembered my appointment. Made myself get up to make coffee. My left foot was tender. When I looked, I saw a tiny red sore there, as if I’d stepped on the thorn of a rose.
Nonsense. The mark on my foot was probably just a scratch. Not a prick from the stem of a rose. But some dreams are so vivid, so intense that coming out of them is like pulling out of quicksand. As I brushed my teeth, I could still feel the knife in my hand, still smell Charlie’s blood. And, as I made coffee, I was still shaking off the accusations in his eyes. I knew the dream was merely that, and that I had to get on with the day. Meet with the funeral director. Make plans for Charlie’s body
to be picked up and buried. I was thinking about epitaphs when the doorbell rang.
It couldn’t be Becky. She was teaching. Maybe Jen? I opened the door still wearing Charlie’s robe, my hair disheveled, face unwashed. And faced Detective Stiles, the handsome one with the scar. Married to Susan’s friend.
No Swenson this time; a uniformed officer was with him. A woman. They had yet more questions to ask. Could they come in?
“Coffee?” I offered. “I’m just having some.”
They followed me into the kitchen. On the way, I realized that the kitchen might not be a good idea. Charlie had crammed it with expensive appliances—a fridge bigger than my closet, stainless steel top-of-the-line everything, but the room was tiny. Before we’d added the study and powder room, it had been the back end of a row house in Fairmount. Sitting down together would mean crowding chairs around a protrusion of granite just big enough for Charlie and me. Not built for three. Three would mean that at least two have their knees or even thighs bumping each other, depending how the bodies were arranged.
When they saw the room, the officer—her name was Moran—hung back, standing at the door, declining coffee. Detective Stiles and I sat.
I refreshed my mug, poured his. Offered milk and sugar. Stiles drank it black. He sipped it. Complimented it, said it was nice and strong.
Good. So he liked my coffee. I sat, trying to seem relaxed. As if I hadn’t just committed murder in my sleep.
“Just a few more questions, Mrs. Harrison.”
“Elle—please call me Elle. We were getting divorced. I don’t think of myself as Mrs. Harrison.”
“Okay, Elle. I know it’s a difficult time for you. But chances are we’re going to be showing up here repeatedly during this investigation.”
“No problem. I understand.” I sipped coffee. He had clear, blue eyes. Penetrating.
“Good. So. Let’s begin by going back to last Thursday. The day of the murder. You said you went to Jeremy’s bar that evening. What did you do before that?”
Before going to the bar? “Nothing. I took a shower.”
“I mean, all that day.”
All that day? Why? I heard Emma’s accusing voice, saw Charlie’s eyes. Stiles probably believed I’d killed Charlie, too. I held onto my mug, eyeing the handcuffs on Moran’s belt. Suspect Number One.
“Should I call my lawyer, Detective?”
The side of his face without a scar smiled. “You can, of course. But that will slow things down. All we need for now is a timeline.”
Just a timeline. Well, there was no harm telling them what I’d done on Thursday. Besides, calling my lawyer would antagonize them; that’s how it was on every cop show that ever aired. “I worked. Left the house about seven thirty a.m. Came home from school about four.” I paused, trying to remember. What had I done next? Probably reviewed the next day’s lesson plan—that’s what I normally do. “Oh—I remember. I was upset. It was Benjy’s birthday, and his mother sent chocolate cupcakes. Well, Aiden and Lily, two of the kids in the class, are allergic to chocolate.” Why was I telling him about the cupcakes? “Anyway, I remember writing a memo to all the parents about being careful with birthday snacks.”
And then? Why couldn’t I remember? “I think I graded some arithmetic papers.”
I stiffened, not accustomed to having my language examined. “No. I know.” I did, didn’t I? “I graded some arithmetic papers.”
“Where were you while you did all this? In what room?” His eyes drilled into mine. Almost punctured my corneas.
“Probably the bedroom.” Damn. I sounded unsure again.
“You’re not sure?”
“I was in the bedroom.”
“Yes.” Kind of.
“Okay.” Stiles glanced at Officer Moran. Just the tiniest, quickest glance. “So. You graded arithmetic in the bedroom. Then what?” He set his mug down, empty. Crossed his legs with some difficulty; they were long, didn’t fit easily under the extension of granite.
“I was tired. I took a nap.”
He nodded. “And what time would that have been?”
What time? I didn’t know. If I’d come home at four, written a memo, graded papers, it must have been—what? Almost six? “I’m not sure. Six?”
“When did you cut your hand?”
I had no idea what time it had been. “Right before I left for Jeremy’s, I was slicing fruit—”
“And the knife slipped?”
“Yes. I’ve already told you what—”
“And what time was it when you left the house?”
He’d asked all these questions before. Several times. Why did we have to go over all of it again? What difference did it make? “Detective, really—I don’t see—”