Elaine Pearson was opening the driver’s side door of her Claret Mica Lexus GX when the first blow from the ax struck her between the shoulder blades.
Had she been paying closer attention she might have seen in the tinted window the reflection of the figure in the gray jogging suit approaching from behind. But she’d been fixated on the fact that that bastard Tate had taken the Mariner to work today when she specifically told him to take the Lexus; she swore the wheel was pulling to the right side, even if the several test drives he’d taken had him telling her she was imagining things. She wanted an expert’s assessment of the situation and had insisted Tate take her SUV to the dealership during his lunch today and find out what was wrong with it. The moment she’d stepped outside to find the Lexus in the driveway she failed to see anything else, including the figure in the gray jogging suit as it came out from behind the bushes planted tall and tightly along the lease line distinguishing the Tate’s property from the Tagliardi’s. The bushes had been planted at her insistence five years ago; her neighbors on Canterbury Place may have been content with free range front lawns, but Elaine Pearson needed to clearly establish what was hers. A six foot cement and stone wall on the Darlington’s side and the bushes separating her from the Tagliardi’s made just the right statement. And an effective screening for the figure in the gray jogging suit.
It was blow number eight—the one that cracked across her wrist clutching the door handle, desperately trying to open the door—that finally caused her to fall to the ground. It was unnecessary, though; the M.E. would later report that swing number six—the third in succession on the back of her skull—was the one that sealed her fate. The severed hand—a product of final blow number nine—was still hanging from the door handle when the police arrived, a fact that was kept out of the news stories, including the one Ru Porter read online at work on Thursday afternoon.
She found out Elaine was dead by the many messages expressing condolence posted on Tate’s wall. She hadn’t checked his Facebook page in three days, and Elaine’s murder occurred right in the middle of her hiatus.
Murder. It seemed someone had murdered Tate Pearson’s wife.
Ru was at her desk eating a quick lunch of Chef Boyardee mac and cheese straight out of the can with a plastic fork, a glob of pasta dropping on her keyboard as she froze in mid-bite.
“Oh my God,” she gasped to herself, placing the can on her desk with shaking hands; she didn’t get it all the way, and it fell off, spraying her legs and chair with milky orange splatter.
“Shit shit shit.”
She quickly dabbed at the mess, tossing the can and soiled napkins into the waste basket under her desk. Roy Rubenstein peeked over the partition that separated their cubicles.
“Everything okay over there?”
“No.” She looked up at him, his expression eager and anticipatory of discovering someone’s misery and misfortune. “A friend of mine in California.”
She couldn’t finish the thought. Her mouth was dry, almost frozen in a grip of palsy while the rest of her facial muscles spasmed. Why was she reacting this way? Could she really be this upset?
“His wife was murdered.” The words came out in a whisper.
“Oh, wow!” Roy exclaimed, his head disappearing back over the makeshift wall. She heard the frantic pounding of keys. “What was her name?”
“Elaine Pearson,” she answered, her lips numb.
“From Burbank? No . . . yes!” he exclaimed. Was that patter the sound of his jubilantly clapping hands? “I found it!”
She locked her computer and rose from her chair, coming around to peer over Roy’s shoulder at the article he had pulled up on The Burbank Leader website.
“OMG, with an ax!” Roy exclaimed. Ru tried to block him out, quickly reading the screen.
According to the report, posted Tuesday, 45-year-old mother of two Elaine Pearson was brutally attacked with an ax outside her Burbank home earlier that morning. Apparently she’d been on her way to a yoga class, her mat still slung over her shoulder as she lay bleeding out beside her car in the driveway. A neighbor had called 911 after discovering the body.
“It was awful,” Angie Tagliardi was quoted as saying. “It sounded exactly like what it was; like someone being ax murdered. I’ll never forget those screams for as long as I live.”
Knowing she’d be completely unable to focus on her work, feeling barely functional, Ru went to Danielle Traynor’s office and knocked on the open door before stepping inside.
“What’s wrong?” Danielle asked, quickly assessing Ru’s demeanor.
Ru was wringing her hands, unable to look at her boss.
“A friend of mine in California—his wife was just murdered. I can’t . . . I have to go.”
“Oh my God, Ru.” Danielle dropped the pen she was holding, rising from behind her desk. “God. I’m so sorry.”
Ru nodded, feeling tears in the corners of her eyes. For what? Tate? Elaine? The proof of evil in the world?
“Thanks. I just need to go.”
“Yes, yes, of course. Take tomorrow, too, if you need.”
“No, I don’t think that will be necessary. I just need today. I have two appointments tomorrow . . .”
“Roy can cover them.”
“No, really. I’ll be fine. I just need the shock to wear off.”
“Right. Well, we can play it by ear, okay?” She paused a moment. “Can I call a cab for you? On the company?”
“No, no, I’ll be fine,” Ru assured her. “I just need to get out of here.”
Danielle made a sweeping gesture with her hands. “Yes, yes, go. Don’t worry about anything. Just please call me, let me know you got home okay.”
Ru nodded absently, her head still bobbing as she went to her cubicle to close down for the day and collect her purse.
“I found a few more articles,” Roy was saying. “The police don’t have any solid leads. They think it could be random, but I think she knew the person. Probably her husband. It’s always the husband.” He stopped abruptly. “Oh, isn’t that your friend? I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to imply that he was a psycho killer.”
She didn’t think she was listening to him, but his words thundered in her head as she made her way to the parking lot. Could Tate have done this? She couldn’t deny she’d considered the possibility all on her own the moment she’d learned Elaine was murdered. A random ax murdering? Didn’t seem likely. Seemed like an act of passion. Of seething hatred. Had Tate hated Elaine that much? Ru hadn’t gotten that impression at all. Maybe he was tired of her, bored, stuck in a rut. But he hadn’t cheated on her. Not all the way. Surely a man who hated his wife enough to kill her would have no problem cheating on her. Then again, some men murdered their wives in lieu of cheating on them. How many times had some guy on Dateline said he murdered his wife because divorce just didn’t fit in to his religious belief system? Dead wives didn’t get sole custody of the children. They didn’t collect alimony. They didn’t take half of the marital kitty.
“No way,” she whispered to herself. No way Tate could have done this.
She waited until midnight to call him. It would be nine in Burbank, post rush hour, past dinner time. She wasn’t sure if he would even answer, or what she would say to him if he did, but she had to call. She wasn’t going to leave anything on his Facebook page and no contact was not an option. They were friends. She cared about him. She had every right—maybe even duty—to call.
“Hi, Ru.” Tate picked up the line on the second ring, all the loss and hopelessness and defeat in the world impregnating those two simple syllables. Although she hadn’t expected him to sound happy, she wasn’t entirely prepared to find him sounding so grief-stricken. Apparently he’d loved his wife. Obviously he loved his children, and now they were left without a mother. Absent of all those things, there had been a horrific murder in his driveway. His house was a crime scene, a portion of it sealed off to him by blaring yellow crime tape. Ru cringed when she saw caution tape surrounding an uncovered manhole; she couldn’t imagine having it wrapped around her home, unmistakable, glaring, taunting proof that nowhere was safe.
He loved his wife.
She swiped angrily at the tear merrily rolling down her cheek, a spiteful reminder of her foolishness.
“Tate.” Her voice cracked like Peter Brady’s singing about a time to change. It sure was.
“I heard about Elaine,” she continued. “It’s so awful. I’m so sorry.”
“Mmm,” he agreed.
“How are you? The girls? I mean, how are you holding up?”
“Umn, not well.” He did chuckle, a sardonic laugh, the whistling wind that accompanied a shit storm. “It’s, umm, pretty surreal. We’re all just kind of . . . here.”
“Me, too. Kind of there, with you.”
Another soft laugh, this one less bitter than the last. “Thanks, Ru.”
“Is anyone there with you now? Staying with you? I mean, do you have people around you?”
“Yeah, yeah. Constantly.”
“Are you staying there? In the house?”
“No. We’re with Elaine’ parents.”
“Right.” A long pause where neither of them spoke. She didn’t want to hang up. She wanted to think of the perfect thing to say to make this a little better for him, but— “God, I don’t know what to say. Who could have done such a thing? Why?”
“I don’t know.” He blew out a deep breath.
“Do the police have any leads?”
“You mean, besides me?”
She was taken aback by his question. She hadn’t meant to imply that. Had she?
“Tate, I didn’t mean that—” She stumbled over her words. “They don’t think that you—”
“They’re not treating me that way, no. I was at work all day, so they know I wasn’t personally responsible. But I’m sure they’re not ruling out a murder for hire, or an affair.”
“They think you’re having an affair?” Her face flushed. What if he was? Maybe he was married to Elaine and seeing some other woman. Ru had never even considered the possibility.
“Me, her. I’ve been interviewed like, six times. So sure, do what you gotta do, then find the real person.”
“They think she was having an affair?”
“They’re not ruling it out. But I don’t think so. I mean, it’s not impossible. But highly improbable.”
“Well, what do you think?”
A pause. Then, “I honestly don’t know. A mistake? Someone thought she was someone else? Someone she pissed off at yoga or the supermarket? I don’t know.”
She took a deep breath. “Look, I know I’m on the other side of the country, but if you need anything—anything at all, Tate—you ask me. You ask me and I’ll give it to you. I will come there and hand deliver it to you in a Happy Meal box.”
He chuckled. “Thanks, Ru. I appreciate that.”
“Are you having funeral services?”
“Yeah. We don’t know exactly when, though. They still have the body. They’re hoping to get to the autopsy and forensics and all that CSI crap in less than two weeks.”
“Two weeks? Holy shit.”
“Yeah, yeah. It’s not like on TV, huh?”
“Sure isn’t,” she murmured. “Well, you keep me posted, okay? I want to come out there.”
“Thanks, Ru,” he said again. “I will.”
“Okay. Well, I’ll let you go now. Try and get some rest, quiet your mind.”
“And remember, if you need anything, anything at all. Call me. Doesn’t matter what time.”
“Okay. I will. Ru?”
Her heart skipped. Was he going to ask her to come see him now? To fly out tomorrow, he needed so badly to have her there beside him?
“Yes?” She held her breath.
“The police will probably be calling you.”
She exhaled like a popped balloon. “What?”
“I told them about you, you know, having dinner with you, and Elaine was mad at me about it—”
“—and she was complaining to some of her friends about me, so you might get a call. I’m just giving you a heads up.”
“I see.” Ru closed her eyes, the image of herself with Tate in the backseat of his car coming unbidden into her mind. “Is there anything specific I shouldn’t mention?”
“Just answer their questions truthfully,” he said, his voice void of any traces of impropriety or guilt. “I don’t want them stuck on me because they think I’m hiding something.”
“Right, of course.”
“You don’t have to feel bad about this. This isn’t your fault.”
His words took her by surprise. Not her fault? What did he mean by that?
“I know that,” she said, even though she really didn’t know that at all.