By Shannon Hollinger
The harvest moon cast an eerie yellow glow through the shadows of the trees. Sam watched Julie’s face flash from darkness to light as they walked up the narrow paved walkway to her house. The strobe effect was sinister and made him uneasy. He nervously licked his lips as Julie stopped before the porch steps, turning to face him.
"I had a great time tonight Sam. Thank you," she said, looking up at him through her dark lashes.
"Me too," he said, a shy grin revealing his perfect white teeth. Her face was divided by shadows and moonlight. He looked away, down at the ground, observing the way his silhouette moved as he shifted from foot to foot.
Julie waited a moment in silence, watching him stare down at his feet. Then she leaned forward, hooking an arm around his neck in a quick hug. "Good night," she said pulling away, tucking a strand of dark hair behind her ear. She started up the steps.
"Yes?" She turned to face him, her voice hopeful and breathless.
"I was, uh, just wondering if..." His voice trailed off, his eyes leaving hers, moving toward the house next door. She followed his gaze. In the murkiness of the front porch, they could just barely make out the form of someone in the rocking chair. The eyes shining toward them through the darkness was the only proof the shape wasn’t imagination.
"If?" Julie prodded, looking away from her neighbor’s house. It didn’t bother her if the old lady next door wanted to get her kicks through voyeurism.
Sam faced her again.
"If," he started slowly, drawing the word out. "If I could see you again. Tomorrow, maybe?"
"Yes!" Julie said the word quicker, louder than she would have liked to. "I’d like that," she added, this time keeping the eagerness out of her voice.
"Great!" Sam’s grin widened. "How about I pick you up tomorrow at six?"
"Sounds good," she said casually. She walked down the steps and leaned toward him again, this time giving him a small kiss on the cheek. "Tomorrow then. Goodnight."
Julie wiggled up the stairs, positive he was watching her. She took her time digging in her purse for her keys, opening the door. When she glanced over her shoulder to throw one last coy look at him for the night, she was surprised to see that he was already at the curb, getting into his car. She ignored his wave, storming inside the house.
Sam stopped waving and closed his car door, buckling his seat belt. He looked at his watch before starting the car. Only eleven o’clock. Still early, he thought, turning the key in the ignition. The car thundered alive. Shifting the car into drive, he glanced in the rearview as he pulled away from the curb. Only a single, upstairs light was visible in Julie’s house. Oh, well. Halting at the stop sign, he inspected the street in both directions before turning left, leaving the quaint two story brick house behind.
* * *
"May I help you?" the cop asked gruffly. He tipped his glasses down his nose with one finger, his eyes meeting Sam’s.
"I... uh. I’m just here to pick up my date," Sam stammered.
"Which house?" The cop’s voice sounded apprehensive, his look hard and suspicious.
"This one," Sam pointed. "Julie Shafer."
The cop’s mouth opened then shut. He checked his watch and cleared his throat. "Sir. Would you mind coming with me and answering some questions?"
Sam swallowed hard, looking at his elbow as the cop palmed it and started guiding him forward before he could answer. As he was led toward two men in suits talking to each other across the street, Sam questioned the officer. "I’m sorry, but I don’t think I quite understand what’s going on here. Is there some sort of problem?"
"I’ll let the detectives answer your questions," the cop said, his grip moving up to Sam’s tricep. Sam started to protest, but decided against it. Another four seconds and they were in front of the two detectives.
"What’s this?" asked the taller, balding one.
"Says he’s here to pick up the girl for a date tonight sir."
"Is that so?" he asked, exchanging a sideways glance with his partner. "I’m Detective Clark. That’s Detective Hopkins," he said, jerking his thumb toward the man next to him before offering his hand to Sam. Sam gave it a limp shake, eyes wide, mouth open. The other man, not quite as tall, stopped pulling at the ends of his mustache long enough to offer Sam his furry paw.
"How long have you known Miss Shafer, Mr., uh...?" Detective Clark asked.
"Smith," he volunteered. "Sam Smith. About a week. Last night was our first date."
"Did you spend the night?" the detective inquired, one eyebrow arched.
"No. No sir, I dropped her off around eleven."
"You sure about the time?"
"I’m positive. I looked at my watch when I got back to my car. I don’t..." Sam trailed off, looking from one detective to the other. "Has something happened to her? Is Julie all right?"
Detective Clark clapped a large hand onto the back of Sam’s shoulder and focused sharp eyes on his paling face, watching his expression closely. "I’m afraid not. She was found this morning by a coworker. A friend she carpools with."
"Found?" Sam wrinkled his nose and shook his head, eyes slightly narrowed in a look of confusion.
"Yes. Her body was discovered this morning when..."
"Body! Wait a minute. Her...she’s..."
"I’m sorry son," Detective Clark said, temporarily satisfied with Sam’s look of shock. "It appears as if someone broke in the house sometime late last night or early this morning. We’re thinking she might have surprised a burglar."
"She was... killed?"
The detective nodded. "I’m sorry. Any questions you can answer would help us to..."
"Of course," Sam interrupted. "Anything I can do."
Hearing a scraping, dragging noise nearing from the street behind him, Sam twisted around to locate the source. Julie’s neighbor, the old woman who had been watching them the night before, was approaching with the aid of a pair of uniformed cops. Her slippers shuffled loudly over the asphalt.
"Is this the one, ma’am?" Detective Clark asked, his hand still on Sam’s shoulder.
"Yes, that’s the one who dropped her off last night." The old woman’s voice cracked with age. She held a battered walking cane in her gnarled left hand.
"Are you sure?" Clark asked.
"Of course I’m sure," she snapped, banging the cane against the ground in irritation. "I’m old, not stupid. He was such a nice young man, so polite. I remember wondering what he was doing with a nasty bitch like her."
The men exchanged looks of embarrassment, shock, and amusement as she continued on her tirade about her dislike for her neighbor.
"Now I’m not saying she deserved to die, but she certainly didn’t take any precautions against it. With all the different young men she had coming over all the time, and she certainly was a cruel one, not a second thought for anyone’s feelings but her own, why, the real surprise is that it didn’t happen sooner and I..."
"Ma’am?" Detective Clark interrupted, a ghost of a smile about his lips as he tried to retain his professional demeanor. "If you would be kind enough to accompany Officer Stevens here so that he can put this in his report, I would be most grateful."
"Why of course," she beamed, pleased with her importance to the investigation. She accepted the officer’s arm while keeping up a continuous chatter as he escorted her back to her front porch.
"And you," he said, turning back to face Sam. "Mr. Smith. I would appreciate it if you would come down to the station and give a statement."
Sam nodded woodenly and allowed himself to be shown to a seat in one of the police cruisers.
Sam walked through the doors into the dark cave of a bar off Hibiscus Street the next afternoon. He waited a moment just inside the door, letting his eyes adjust from the glaring sun outside to the barely lit room. The cold air chilled him, drying the fresh layer of sweat on his back and neck. He looked around at the empty tables and booths as he walked to the bar. Sliding onto a stool, he nodded at the woman advancing from the other end of the counter. "Getcha somethin’ darlin’?" she asked, her deep, raspy voice emitting from between a pair of crimson red, wrinkled lips.
"I'll take a glass of the I.P.A. on the end please," he said, pointing to the corresponding tap handle.
Sam watched as she filled a filmy mug with the dark ale and set it in front of him. Then she returned to the other end of the bar, resuming her conversation with the only other customer, an overweight man in a dirty T-shirt. Taking a sip from the mug, Sam grimaced as the warm beer offended his palate.
The door opened, admitting a wave of heat and another customer. For a quick minute, light filled the room, revealing a level of dinginess previously concealed. Sam didn’t bother to turn around. With his luck, this was the favorite haunt of those two detectives that had questioned him the entire night before. How the hell were you supposed to have someone to verify that you came home and were in your bed all night when you live alone? The bartender approached the newcomer, bringing a cloud of stale smoke with her.
"Getcha somethin’ honey?"
Sam tensed as the newcomer sat on the stool next to him. He was sure that if he turned around, the tall, nosy detective from last night would be next to him.
"May I have a screwdriver please?" He relaxed a bit, the voice next to him distinctly feminine.
The bartender quickly filled a glass with melting ice and mixed the drink. Setting it down with a loud clank, she retreated to the other end of the bar. Sam saw a delicate hand reach out and retrieve the glass. He twisted around on the stool to face the woman.
"Hi," she said, a friendly smile spreading across her pale face. She was pretty, high cheek bones and dark eyes accentuated by her curving lips.
"Hi," he returned, flashing his white teeth. "Sam," he said, offering his hand.
"Liz," she said, placing her hand in his. He shook her hand firmly, keeping it a bit too long.
"Good choice," he commented, nodding towards her drink.
"Thanks. Figured the only way I’d get something cold was to order it on ice," she said with a small laugh.
"Then you must’ve been here before," he said, lifting his mug of tepid beer.
"Nope. Just know how these places are, that’s all."
They sat smiling at each other for a few minutes in awkward silence. The laughter of the bartender and her prey carried down the bar toward them.
"Would you like to grab a booth?" Liz asked, breaking the silence. "These bar stools always make my ass go numb." She clapped a hand over her mouth. "Sorry, that’s probably a little too much information, isn’t it?"
"I have the same problem, actually. And they’re a proven drinking hazard in forty-eight states. Bad for your health," he joked. "So, to a booth?" Sam gestured toward the rest of the empty building.
"To a booth."
She grabbed her drink and led the way to a table in the corner of the dark room, sitting with her back to the wall. Sam stood and quickly followed, settling across from her.
"Hot outside, huh?" Sam asked. She nodded. In a desperate attempt to keep the conversation going, Sam resorted to one of the many cheesy pick-up lines used in bars across the world. "So, what brings a girl like you to a place like this?"
"Don’t know," she said casually, sipping her drink. Her nose wrinkled in distaste as she swallowed. "Must’ve been you, I guess."
Sam laughed. "I’m flattered. Do you usually follow strange men into bars?"
"Not normally, no." A mischievous smile contorted her face. "How strange are you, anyway?"
"Who, me? Not very. I’m pretty boring, actually."
"I find that hard to believe."
"Oh, I don’t know," she said, her tone bored, distracted. "You just have that look, I guess. And you’d have to be a little bit odd to live around here."
"I’ve noticed." Sam made a face as he sipped his beer. "Actually, I just moved here about six months ago."
"Really? Me too. Five months ago."
"Do you live around here?"
"A few streets down, actually. I rent a little house on Azalea," Liz shuddered as she tried the bitter drink again, swirling the remaining fragments of ice around the glass.
"Yeah. Kinda have too."
"Why’s that?" Sam asked, knowing he had been led to the question but willing to take the bait anyway.
"It’s the only way I can chop up bodies in my basement in private."
They both laughed, Sam wondering at his lack of surprise over her morbid sense of humor, almost as if he had expected it. He watched her closely as she stopped laughing and her face became serious.
"Usually, this is the point where I keep laughing and say just kidding, but I don’t want to lie to you." Her black eyes focused on his with a sudden intensity as she studied his face.
"What?" The smile followed the blood draining from Sam’s face.
"I don’t want to lie to you. Why lie about something we have in common?" she said in the same nonchalant tone she’d been using.
Sam felt a chill run through him. A single bead of sweat dropped from his right armpit onto his side, tickling his ribs on its way down with the weight of a ghostly finger until it came to the waist of his pants and was absorbed by the material. He gave a small, involuntary twitch, like a shudder, the hair on his arms floating straight up into the air that was oppressively heavy and static, like the last few minutes before an electrical storm rends its way through the clouds. His eyes narrowed and his head cocked to the side as he leaned a bit closer to her.
"I’ve been watching you for a while, Sam."
"Have you?" he asked, trying to keep his tone light despite her bad joke.
"Mmhmm. Not just here. In the last two cities too. Last night finally confirmed my suspicions."
"I don’t have any idea what you’re talking about."
"Really." Liz raised her eyebrows, the corners of her lips turning up in a pouty smile. "I bet the cops know what I’m talking about. Julie something, lived over on Gladiola Street. Until last night, that is."
"Are you kidding me?" Sam tensed. He could feel the muscles bulging in his neck and the vein in his forehead throbbing. "What are you, a cop?"
"No. Just a fan who admires your work, actually. Unless you’re trying to tell me that Julie died of natural causes."
He fought against the constricting, tightening muscles in his chest for a deep breath to compose himself, and then said coldly, calmly, "I had nothing to do with that."
"Then I guess it was your identical twin that jumped the back fence and broke into her house at three in the morning? Funny, ‘cause all my research says you’re an only child. I might have bought some kind of doppelganger story, but..." She paused, drew a finger through the weak condensation on her glass, then rubbed the moisture between her thumb and forefinger.
"Well, I just don’t see how it could have been someone else when you were never out of my sight until you went in the house. I guess someone else could have been in there, but you were the only one to leave before her body was found and the cops came and searched the place."
"You were there?" Sam asked suspiciously.
"Well, not exactly there. I watched you change clothes and cars and drive back to the girl’s house. Then I saw you go in the back. It doesn’t take Einstein to figure..."
"Who are you?" he hissed, grabbing her wrist as it reached for her drink. "What the hell do you want?"
"No need to get nasty," she said, irritability creeping into her voice. "I just thought we had something in common. I mean," she leaned across the table, bringing her face close to his, "Don’t you ever want to talk about it with someone? I do. I have for years. And I figured the only way I could find someone I could trust enough to tell everything to was if I found someone who was doing the same thing. Someone who would have just as much to lose."
"Do you really expect me to buy this? What, did you think I’d say, ‘Oh, you kill people, I do too. Let’s be friends and talk about it’ or something like that? Do you have a brain in your head? You can’t just go around accusing people of murder."
"Listen," Liz said, her eyes narrowed, her voice low and steely. "I’m not accusing you of murder. I have irrefutable proof that you did this one, as well as two in Tennessee and three in DC. Whether you did the crime or not isn’t in question here. If you wanted deniability, you should have done a better job getting rid of the evidence. Throwing away a bloody glove here and a bloody glove there isn’t enough. You have to make sure no one’s following you, too. So why don’t you stop being an asshole, cut the bull, and answer the question. You either want someone to talk to about it or you don’t."
"It would be nice," he said reluctantly after a long moment’s thought. He released his grip on her arm. "And it does make a sort of sick sense. But how am I supposed to believe you. You say you’ve got dirt on me, but what do I have on you?"
"I’ll show you my basement," Liz said. "Show you some dirt. Some proof that I’d be in just as much trouble as you if the cops found me."
"Right," Sam said sarcastically. He viciously pinched the thin skin on his stomach. It hurt like hell. This wasn’t a dream. He leaned against the back of the booth, crossed his arms and stared at her, taking his time to assess every inch of her face, searching for any fleeting expressions or emotions. There were none. Nothing marred the serene innocence of her countenance, the calm passivity with which she returned his gaze. "How do I know you won’t try to kill me?"
"How do I know you won’t try to kill me?" she echoed. "It’s a risk. One I’m willing to take because I want someone to talk to. Besides, I like your style."
Sam surveyed her for a minute. Across from him sat a beautiful woman who appeared to share the same interests as him, who wanted to take him into her confidence. The situation was risky, yes, but he was just as lonely as she was. He liked the idea of a companion, someone to confide in that he wouldn’t have to lie to and deceive. Maybe they could even teach each other some new tricks, and if she became a liability, it wasn’t like he didn’t know what to do. What the hell, he thought. "I’ll pay the check."
With degrees in Crime Scene Technology and Physical Anthropology, Shannon Hollinger hasn't just seen the dark side of humanity – she’s been elbow deep inside of it. She currently resides in Massachusetts where she is owned by two Terrier Terrorists. Check out www.shannonhollinger.com for info on where you can find more of her work.
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