Love Me Not
The things we do for love
When they found them, the babies wore life jackets smeared with their mother’s blood. The blood was everywhere. No telling how long the babies slipped and slid in it, marveling, most likely, at its slick wetness; then at the syrupy stickiness as it dried.
By the time the police arrived it was crusty, more brown than red, streaked across the floor and the walls and, of course, their mother’s body.
The first patrolman on the scene threw up.
He rang the doorbell, knocked. Got no answer. He went around back, cupped his hands around his eyes and pressed his face to the sliding glass door.
Two of the babies sat beside their mother, diapers full, squalling. The third lay comfortably across the room, her face coated in dried blood, sucking the caked clots from her fingers and licking her lips. When she saw the patrolman at the glass, she smiled.
That’s when he threw up.
The father was an immediate suspect. For good reason. He had a mistress, a growing mountain of business debts, and he’d taken out a million-dollar life insurance policy on his wife exactly three months and one day before she died.
But he also had a solid alibi. At the moment the medical examiner fixed as the time of death he was aboard a plane making its final approach into Dallas-Fort Worth, at the end of a three-hour flight. When the authorities reached him four hours later, he was digging a fork into a Caesar’s salad with blackened chicken that had been brought into the conference room where he was piecing together a proposal for a planned development with three corporate clients.
A year later, with no arrest yet and facing the prospect of having to make the payout, the insurance company called me. It’s specialized work. Strictly high-dollar.
I went to the P.D., asked to see the file.
It wasn’t technically a cold case yet, but it might as well be. It was so far down in the pile of “No Leads” cases you practically needed a shovel to reach it. The cops didn’t mind giving it to me. They knew me and more or less liked me. I did the digging they didn’t have time to do and if I struck gold, I made sure they got the credit. All I wanted was the paycheck.
“Good luck, Pep,” the harried homicide detective on the case said as he handed it over.
“Pep,” that’s what they call me, a diminution of a derivation of my given name, Jose. It’s biblical. Sort of. It comes from Joseph, Jesus’s “padre putativo”— “P.P.” Which, pronounced the Spanish way, becomes Pepe. Thus, “Pep.”
The file held the investigative log, the autopsy, father’s statement, and crime scene report—fingerprints, photos, etc. The important parts told me there were no unaccounted-for prints, the mother had been shot five times, died somewhere around 9 a.m., and there had been some kind of struggle—as evidenced by a couple of bruises and a photograph of a blood-stained earring that must have come off in the fight.
A single set of footprints, men’s dress shoes, size 11, led from the woods at the property line to the back door and back again. Then they disappeared. The shoes were the same size dad wore. But the impressions were all wrong. Dad stood a trim six-one, one-eighty-five. Whoever made them weighed seventy pounds less—a bantamweight with big feet. They must have looked like clown shoes.
Dad’s statement held no surprises.
I went to see him.
“You call it an alibi,” he said. “I call it the truth.”
“Of course you do. But you gotta admit you got a string of motives. You needed money. You had a mistress.”
“Had. She left. After.”
“And you’re not fighting your sister-in-law for the babies, just the house.”
“They’re not my babies. They had nothing to do with me. And, thanks to them, she didn’t either.”
I arched an eyebrow. He kept talking.
“But she wanted them, no matter what. Fertility treatments. Then, finally, a sperm donor. When she had them, she became absorbed. There was nothing left for us.”
I nodded. The details change, the stories don’t. Men always blame their wives when they have a mistress. It’s never their fault.
I went to the house.
It was a painstakingly reconstructed and remodeled old barn. He liked the land, secluded but not remote. She liked the lines, despite the sagging roof, rotting floors, and rusted pipes. They rebuilt it from the ground up, converted the downstairs into an open kitchen, dining, living, and play area for the kids; turned the hayloft into a full-fledged second story with three bedrooms, two baths, and a home office.
Then they put in a pool. That’s why she kept the kids in life jackets. All day long. Despite the alarms on the doors and the fence around the pool, she wanted to be sure that if they somehow fell in, they’d be safe.
The police tape still hung across the door, tattered and grimy but steadfastly barking its weathered warning: “Do Not Cross.” The pool was green with mold. No one had been allowed in since the murder. Not because of the investigation. The sister-in-law had the house tied up in a legal fight with dad. She wanted it for the kids, according to the court filings. Either that, I figured, or as a way to screw him for what she was sure he did to her sister.
I let myself in.
I didn’t think the cops missed anything. I just wanted to see it for myself. I wanted to walk the room, study it from different angles, let it play out in my mind’s eye.
The walls and floor still bore the brown stains of dried blood, now well-coated in gray dust. I looked around for other signs of what had happened. The fight, if there really was one, had been brief. None of the furniture was knocked over nor, apparently, moved.
I stood in the spot where the victim had fallen, marked by a massive amoeba-shaped stain where her life had spilled out. I paced off the distance to the coffee table leg where the C.S.I. found the bloody earring.
Then I went out back. I found the spot where they found the footprints, counted off steps to the woods. The report noted thirty-seven in, thirty-nine out. It took me twenty-nine. Our bantamweight was short. Very.
Back in my home office, I perused the dead woman’s social media. Lots of pictures of her and the babies, some of her with her BFF. Almost none of dad. Fewer still since the babies were born.
The ones with her bestie caught my eye. Big smiles, always. In bikinis by the pool, eyes glistening. Cheeks together, wine glasses raised, jewelry glittering in the sun.
It seemed pretty certain mom didn’t know her friend was dad’s mistress.
My buddy in homicide told me they talked to her.
“She sobbed uncontrollably. The whole time.”
“Broken up about losing her best friend?”
“Or scared shitless. If her boyfriend could kill his wife, what’s to keep him from doing the same to her?”
She opened the door on the first knock.
She was petite, slim, with dark hair cut short, almost boyish. She reminded me of Tinker Bell.
“I already talked to the police.”
“I know. I’m just tying up some loose ends.”
Her place was small, one of those apartments they try to make look bigger by separating the kitchen with a counter instead of a wall. She decorated hers with a small bowl of plastic fruit and a butcher block knife set. That made it the bright spot in an otherwise sterile place.
She sat in a plump armchair, pointed me to the couch. She didn’t seem to care that she wore only a short silky robe, and she didn’t make much effort to keep it from falling open as we talked.
Some witnesses you soften up. Some you hit fast. She struck me as the second kind. I dove right in.
“The shoes were clever.”
She yanked her robe tight.
“Yeah,” I said. “The cops kept talking about the footprints leading from the woods to the house and back again. They figured that was the way the killer got in. Someone light. Someone short. With big feet.”
I made a big show of pulling out my recorder and flicking it on.
“You mind?” I asked. She said nothing. I set it on the coffee table between us before I continued.
“But they had it backwards, didn’t they? It wasn’t from the woods, it was to them. And back.”
Her eyes narrowed. I kept going.
“And it wasn’t big feet. Just big shoes.”
I glanced down and watched as she instinctively tucked her feet back under her chair.
“I wasn’t sure, though,” I said, “until I saw this.”
I held up my phone so she could see the picture I’d copied from an Instagram post — her and her “best friend,” cheek to cheek, jewelry glittering.
“And this,” I said. I dropped the evidence print of the blood-spattered earring on the table. It matched the one she wore in the photo on my phone perfectly. “They thought it was her earring. It was yours.”
She gave a sharp gasp.
“You wanted him all to yourself.”
“She wouldn’t let him go.”
“That’s why you killed her.”
“You hated her.”
“NO!” She shouted.
She jumped out of her chair, dashed to the kitchen counter. She brought both fists down on it like hammers. Then she sagged, drained, sobbing. I watched her shoulders heave for a long moment before she turned to face me, bracing herself with her hands on the counter behind her.
“I LOVED her!”
“I loved her. I only slept with him so I could be near her. I wanted us to leave him. I wanted us to be together.”
She shuddered, closed her eyes, paused. I waited, listening to her ragged breaths as she fought back the tears.
“She wouldn’t,” she said.
Her eyes were wild, tortured.
“She called me crazy. Crazy!”
She turned away from me again, back to the counter, before she went on.
“She had a gun. Told me to leave. But … I got it. And …” Her voice dropped to a whisper. “I didn’t mean to.”
I got up, walked up behind her, rested my hands on her shoulders. She let them settle there. Then she stiffened, hissing fiercely:
“But I’m not going to prison!”
She whirled, a butcher knife in her hand, slashing at me. I raised an arm to block it, watched it slice my forearm open. Defensive wound, I heard the analytical part of my mind say.
She brought it down again before the next thought could form. Just missed my neck. The blade broke off as it hit bone, but that didn’t stop her. She drove the broken end in, skewering me with what was left.
Call me old-fashioned. Call me sexist. Call me anything you want. Whatever you call me won’t change my thinking: I don’t believe a man should hit a woman.
But when one has four inches of a broken butcher knife buried in my shoulder and she’s shrieking she’s going to kill me, I’ll make an exception.
My fist caught her just below the cheekbone at the corner of her jaw. She went down like a rock.
The babies’ dad didn’t want to believe it. The cops were happy to. They closed their case. I got a nice bonus.
But every once in a while, when the weather turns, I get a pain in my shoulder and I remember the babies—and the things people do for love.
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