Until Death Us Do Part


By Big Jim Williams



"I'm gonna kill myself!"

It was Audrey on the phone.

"W-What...?" Although awakened from a deep sleep, Jeff recognized his ex-wife's voice.

"I'll make it look like you did it!"

Memories of Audrey's bleeding wrists in a hospital flashed through Jeff's mind as he flicked on his bedside lamp. He squinted at his clock. "Jeez, Audrey, it's three a.m. Calm down, you're — "

"You'll pay for what you did to me."

Jeff sat up in bed. "What are you talking about?"

"You left me!" she screamed. "You swore until 'Death Us Do Part.'"

"Audrey, we've been divorced a year."

"I'll make it look like you murdered me."

"What?"

"You'll never convince a jury it wasn't you. I've written it all down in my diary. Everything!"

"This is crazy!"

"Remember your pistol you couldn't find? I've got it." She laughed and hung up.

"Audrey! Audrey!" Jeff screamed into the dead phone. "Hello! Hello!

"My God! She'll do it!" He hurriedly pressed his phone's callback button. Across town, Audrey's phone rang. She didn't answer.

Her midnight phone tantrums increased after their divorce and interrupted his sleep night after night. He switched to unlisted phone numbers, but somehow she always found them.

Jeff had left recorded messages on her answering machine, pleading with her to seek counseling and to leave him alone: "Audrey, I can't take it any more. Get out of my life...or God knows what I'll do!"

Audrey was irrational. Unpredictable. She had done many weird things during their one-year marriage.

Jeff had sworn to never let her manipulate him again. A month earlier she had had him arrested for allegedly threatening her.

No one understood why he divorced Audrey, a gorgeous blonde with talent, inviting eyes, slender body, long legs, and a promising stage and movie career. She was the "Lovely" Audrey, always ready with a smile, her long fingers toying with the double strand of pearls that circled her delicate neck, pearls Jeff had given her on their wedding night. He was "Lucky" Jeff to other men who envied his marriage, an average-looking guy with a passion for writing his newspaper column.

Within weeks of their Hollywood marriage, Jeff knew it was a mistake. Audrey had strange violent rages, was possessive, abusive, jealous, vengeful.

"Just plain crazy!" Jeff called it.

No one believed Jeff when he spoke of Audrey's paranoia. Her tantrums and violent outbursts were never triggered by anything Jeff could pinpoint, perpetrated only on him, never seen by others.

A small scar pulsed beneath his hairline, left by a vase thrown by Audrey. Jeff's best friend, Tony Morgani, a fellow Los Angeles SUN reporter, stared in disbelief when Jeff described Audrey's temper.

"She's impossible to live with," confided Jeff. "One minute she's sweet, the next, angry. Some days she's mad all the time."

"About what?" Twice-divorced Tony had a sympathetic ear.

"She won't tell me," said Jeff. "I feel like I'm living on a roller coaster. I can't take much more."

Audrey was jealous of his continued success, claimed Jeff. Her acting career had stalled in theatre and short-lived, dead-end TV sitcoms, while his column had gone into national syndication. He was regularly quoted, and a frequent guest on CNN, MSNBC, and Fox TV News. He had also written two best sellers. The more acclaim he received, the angrier she became.

"You're late, again," she pouted. "It's after eleven."

"Audrey, I work nights. You knew that when we got married."

"You spend more time at that damned newspaper than with me!"

"I was doing research on grunion."

Jeff always double-checked his facts, emulating his idol, hard-drinking Donovan Peach, whose Pulitzer prizewinning column, "Peach Pits," dominated the SUN until he mysteriously vanished over ten years ago. Jeff had never met him.

"Would you believe those illusive little fish only spawn at night at high tide — and only on Southern California beaches? That's when people actually catch them with their hands when they're laying their eggs in the sand. Some people think those little fish are a hoax, like — "

"You and your damned column!" screamed Audrey. "You hate me!"

Her tirades were followed by days of silence, or nights of endless talking and arguing.

Jeff begged her to seek professional help. She refused.

"Having trouble meeting deadlines, Jeff?" growled The SUN's city editor. "If you can't get your column in on time, we'll find someone who can. Capish?"

Exhausted, Jeff moved out and filed for divorce, taking back everything he'd brought into the marriage. The only thing he couldn't find: his small pearl-handled pistol.

He never missed another deadline.

Months later he began dating Grace, a woman in his newspaper's advertising department.

* * *

Audrey stood alone on an isolated cliff — their place — where she and Jeff first kissed, a windy spot at the end of a twisting rib-rutted road that dead-ended high above the churning Pacific. A strange nervous laugh escaped her perfectly glossed lips as her blue eyes filled with tears.

The wind whipped her long soft blonde hair and thin white dress, her body gripped in the headlights of her car, beams that highlighted her like giant theatre spot lights. Her back to the sea, the wind pressed her dress against her sensuous body. She yanked a strand of pearls from her throat, scattered them on the ground, and then deliberately ripped her dress halfway to her waist.

"I said you'd pay, Jeff!" she screamed. "Nobody walks out on Audrey Ames! Nobody! Especially no two-bit hack journalist!"

She dumped her purse and its contents after carefully removing a small object — Jeff's missing pearl handled pistol. It was tied in a monogrammed handkerchief she had given him on his twenty-ninth birthday.

She hesitated, and then held the wrapped weapon at arms' length...both hands shaking...the uncovered barrel facing her heaving chest. Sweat covered her face, and streaked her perfect makeup. She stood on unsteady high heels, balanced against the midnight gusts.

"You're going to pay, Jeff! I'm going to die, but everyone will think you murdered me!"

She steadied the pistol, remained in the center of her headlights, and dramatically stepped backward to the edge of the crumbling cliff. She smiled, tilted her head back, closed her eyes, and pressed her right thumb against the trigger. The weapon jerked, its popping sound riding above the pounding sea as its tiny lead projectile sped through tissue and bone into the last beat of Audrey's heart. The impact kicked her backward off the cliff, twisting her toward the pounding waves and jagged rocks a hundred feet below. She was no more: swallowed by the night, wind, and black water. She had crossed the invisible line between life and death.

The pistol landed in the dust. Jeff's monogrammed handkerchief snagged on a nearby bush.

A disheveled man with red, watery eyes heard and watched in disbelief, his head inches above the cliff's rim, his feet balanced on the lip of a small cave tucked under the rocky edge. His sad eyes followed Audrey's lifeless body as it tumbled toward the sea. He hurried back inside the cave, raised a shaky hand, and emptied the last of a bottle of cheap wine into his bearded mouth.

* * *

Jeff's murder trial was brief, expedited with enough lies from Audrey's diary to have convicted Mother Teresa as a co-conspirator.

"Hearsay," said the prosecutor, objecting to Tony Morgani's negative testimony about Audrey, heard from Jeff.

"Not admissible," said the judge.

Then the DA waved Audrey's diary to the jury: "She wrote right here: 'I'm afraid Jeff will kill me!'"

Jeff's last desperate message recorded on Audrey's telephone convicted him, jurors said after the trial. Audrey had taken the audiocassette to police.

"He's threatening me," she had said. "Listen..."

An angry Jeff had recorded: "Audrey, I can't take it any more. Stop calling. Get out of my life...or God knows what I'll do!"

Jeff told the court Audrey was cold and manipulative, often not speaking for days. "The perfect passive-aggressive personality," he claimed.

"Move to strike!" voiced the DA. "The accused is not medically qualified to make such a judgment."

"Sustained," said the judge.

"Audrey set me up!" claimed Jeff, a theory the prosecutor challenged.

The DA pointed at Jeff in the witness box, and challenged: "You expect this court to believe a beautiful young actress like Audrey Ames would commit suicide and frame you for murder?" He shook his head. "Preposterous! And you damn well know it! Your murdered your ex-wife!"

Clancy Godper, Jeff's attorney, snapped to his feet. "Objection! The DA is badgering the witness."

"Overruled," said the judge.

The DA pressed on: "Audrey's body was found in the surf, just as she predicted." He waved her diary at the jury. "She was found below the very cliff where Jeff had proposed marriage, where, according to Audrey's diary, Jeff had promised to love and cherish 'Until Death Us Do Part.' Audrey called it 'our favorite spot.'"

He displayed Jeff's monogrammed handkerchief, Exhibit B. "Is this your handkerchief? It was found at the murder scene."

"Yes, but I don't know how it got there. I wasn't with Audrey that night."

The DA laughed and exhibited a plastic bag holding a small pearl-handled pistol. "Ballistics testified this is the weapon — Exhibit A — that killed Audrey Ames." He held it in front of Jeff.

"Is this your gun?"

"I've never denied it. But, I didn't kill Audrey. She must have kept that when I moved out of our apartment, because I couldn't find it."

"Your prints, and only your prints are on it!"

"She framed me!"

The DA showed the jury the "death" weapon. "This pistol killed Audrey Ames! Jeff Stacy bought it. His fingerprints are on it. No one else's."

Jeff's girlfriend, Grace, eyes downcast, quietly left the courtroom and never returned.

Two days later the jury returned a first-degree murder conviction.

"I didn't do it!" pleaded Jeff.

His own newspaper headlined:

SUN COLUMNIST CONVICTED OF MURDER!

* * *

Jeff was moved to the state's maximum-security prison, confined on death row in a stuffy, windowless cell. Months followed, broken only by brief outdoor exercise periods, bad food, sleepless nights, and Clancy Godper's visits and failed legal appeals.

Tony Morgani's national newspaper story, "Reporter on Death Row Claims Framed by Wife," failed to stir sympathy.

Then, hours before Jeff's midnight execution...

"Wake up, Jeff." It was the warden.

"Is it time?" Jeff kept his eyes closed, to fight reality with sleep.

"No! It's good news!"

Jeff opened puffy eyes.

Standing by his bed were the Warden and Clancy Godper.

"Clancy? What...What's going on?"

Godper waved some legal papers, and handed Jeff civilian clothes. "Get dressed, you're going home."

Jeff sat on the edge of his bed, and tried to focus his mind. "I...I don't understand," he said, thinking he was dreaming. He rubbed his eyes, and squinted under the single overhead light.

"You're pardoned," smiled Godper, "because Audrey had an unseen witness to her suicide. An old bum living in a cave — just below the cliff — heard Audrey scream about getting even with someone named Jeff, and blaming him for her death. He saw her shoot herself."

Jeff found it hard to speak.

"Audrey must have been a lot of fun to live with," said the Warden.

"Warden, our marriage vow," said Jeff, "included, 'Until Death Us Do Part.' But Audrey had a different definition of what that meant."

Jeff slipped on his new pants and shirt. "Who was the guy in the cave? I really want to thank him."

"Some old wino," grinned Godper. "Claims he was once a journalist on your paper. He'd been waiting for the grunion run so he could get a free meal."

"After Audrey died, he said he read some old newspapers, including Tony Morgani's 'Reporter on Death Row' piece about you in the SUN. That's when he realized you were the guy Audrey wanted to frame, the same Jeff Stacy charged with murder — who wrote a column for the SUN. Says your style reminded him of when he wrote years ago for the same paper."

"Don't know who he is," replied Jeff, "but I sure want to thank him. Got a name?"

Godper pulled a note from his pocket. "Name's Donovan Peach."

"Donovan Peach? You're kidding?"

"Know him?"

"I thought he was dead. Donovan Peach wrote for the SUN years ago. A great column called, 'Peach Pits.' Had a biting wit, but a big drinking problem, vanished years ago. No one knew why or where."

"Peach said he'd never seen grunion," continued Godper, "but had read about them. You want to know where?"

Jett waited while Godper grinned.

"Well...?" questioned Jeff.

"In another old newspaper he used to keep him warm in the cave while waiting for the grunion to run...the very night Audrey committed suicide."

Godper paused, building suspense.

"Ah, come on Clancy, spill it!"

"It was one of your old columns."

"That's right," gasped Jeff. "I did write about grunion the week before Audrey and I split."

"You'd better gold plate and frame that column," suggested Godper.

Jeff laughed.

"You find that funny?"

"Audrey hated my columns, especially the one about grunion. That column and Donovan Peach saved my life. I owe him a dozen dinners at the best restaurants in L.A." Then Jeff laughed, and added:

"Do either of you know of a good restaurant that serves grunion?"


Big Jim Williams, author of the audio books, THE OLD WEST, and TALL TALES OF THE OLD WEST, has also written for Suspense, Rope & Wire, Western Horseman, Shoot!, Livestock (Texas) Weekly, American West, Orchard Press Mysteries, Radio World, Writers' Journal, WritersWeekly, Cardroom Poker News, Sniplets, and other magazines, and the anthologies, MURDER TO MIL-SPEC, THE LAST MAN, and AT HOME AND ABROAD: PRIZE-WINNING STORIES. He helped judge Rope & Wire Western Magazine's 2011 writing contest, and was a guest speaker during the Assistance League of Sacramento (CA) Writers' Conference in March 2012. He welcomes emails at: bigjimwilliams2@cox.net.


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