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Authors: Lorena McCourtney

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BOOK: Invisible
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“I’m sorry to hear that.” I heard something hard and stubborn creep into her voice, something that said she was just saying words, that she’d calloused herself against caring about tragedies and death. “But why would you think I . . . ?”

“She lived in my friend’s rental apartment. She was going by the name Kendra Alexander. And using your daughter’s date and place of birth and Social Security number as her own.”

The photo dropped to the floor, and Marcy Alexander staggered heavily against the wooden rack. Mac grabbed it to keep it upright. She looked stunned. “The police didn’t tell me that. You’re saying this girl stole my daughter’s identity?”

I retrieved the photo. “So far I haven’t been able to figure out what was going on. You’re positive you don’t know her?” I held out the photo again. “I think she may have been a friend of your daughter’s.”

She took a long look this time, as if really wanting to find something familiar so she could nail this girl who had brazenly impersonated her daughter. “I’m sorry, no. She could have been someone Kendra knew at college, I suppose, but I’m sure she isn’t from here in Clancy.” She handed the photo back. “Look, I’d like to help, but I find this rather . . . distressing.”

“I’m so sorry. And I wouldn’t ask, except that Kendra, the girl I knew as Kendra, was murdered—”

“Yes, you said that.” Marcy Alexander’s lips compressed as if she was determined not to let that fact affect her.

“Shot in the chest and dumped in the river.”

Mrs. Alexander reacted to that raw information with a convulsive swallow, but she shook her head again. I held out the photocopy of the young man’s picture.

“How about him?”

She gave the picture a disinterested glance, started to shake her head, and unexpectedly grabbed the photo instead.

“That’s Ray!”

“Ray?”

“Ray Etheridge. Kendra’s fiancé.”

I just looked at her, more bewildered than ever now.

“Where did you get this?” Mrs. Alexander demanded.

“It was in Kendra’s . . . the woman I knew as Kendra . . . in her apartment.”

“You mean some woman was pretending to be my daughter and . . . and carrying on a relationship with Kendra’s fiancé too?” Outrage trembled in her voice.

“I don’t know . . .”

I was as shocked and stricken as she obviously was, and neither of us said anything. Mac put in a soft-voiced question directed to her.

“Are you still in touch with him? Or know where we might contact him?”

“They met at college, Arkansas State at Jonesboro. He was from Little Rock. He came home with Kendra on a few weekends and seemed nice, although we didn’t really know him well. He was always driving that car.” She pointed to the vehicle I now knew from Tiffany was a sixties-something Mustang. She frowned. “We didn’t keep in touch, but I heard once that he’d been in an accident.”

“Maybe he’d have family in Little Rock?”

“I don’t know.” She didn’t seem interested, as if her mind was still trapped in shock by Ray’s relationship to this unknown woman. “He hadn’t given Kendra a ring to make it a formal engagement, but they planned to get married after they graduated. But then Kendra was diagnosed with leukemia . . .” Mrs. Alexander’s hands plucked in nervous agitation at a seam on a patchwork quilt. “He seemed terribly broken up after Kendra died. I know he dropped out of college. But then to do something like this . . .”

“I don’t know that he did anything,” I said hastily. “Without knowing why his photo was in her apartment—”

“He went up to Missouri, I’m sure of that,” she said suddenly, as if she’d just remembered that fact. “To that city you said you were from.” She inspected me sharply, as if there was something suspicious about the connection.

“He did?” I asked in that stupid way that’s more conversation filler than an expression of doubt.

“What was he pulling? Setting some girl up with Kendra’s identity. What were they up to? Maybe he was even seeing this woman before Kendra died!”

I wanted to say that couldn’t be. But I couldn’t, because I didn’t know, and I just stood there feeling helpless.

“Kendra didn’t seem to be doing anything malicious with the identity,” I finally offered. But I didn’t know that for sure, did I? It now seemed likely that this guy, Ray Etheridge, had provided the girl I knew as Kendra with the birth date and Social Security information to make the fake identity possible.

Mrs. Alexander shoved Ray Etheridge’s picture back in my hands. “I—I’m sorry, but I do find this all very upsetting—” She turned and rushed toward a rear door marked Restrooms.

I looked after her, dismayed that I’d upset her. But also regretful that this obviously ended any possibility of further information from this source.

22

We spent the rest of the afternoon wandering the flea market, riding the Ferris wheel, and sitting on grass at the far end of the park listening to the twang of the bluegrass festival. We missed the cow-chip throwing contest, which did not disappoint me greatly.

It was all fun, but my mind kept jumping back to the encounter with Marcy Alexander and puzzling over what I’d learned from her. Had my Kendra had a relationship with the real Kendra’s fiancé? Yet the man she’d been seeing, the one who’d almost bowled Thea and me over, was definitely not the guy in the photo. And how did any of this tie in with murder?

We ate fried catfish and French fries at a Moose Lodge stand and, finally, well-fed and tired, caught the wagon back to the industrial park. Most people had gotten their RVs set up by this time, so the industrial park was neither as hectic or dusty as before. A slender crescent moon hung in the western sky, but Mac said it would set by 10:00, so the sky would be dark by the time the meteor shower should be heaviest, between 2:00 a.m. and dawn.

“And you’re staying here, right?” Mac said.

“Is that offer of a shower still open?”

“You’re telling me my charismatic company isn’t sufficient inducement?” he grumbled.

Mac indeed had a bit of charisma, although I didn’t tell him so. “The thing is—” I couldn’t squelch a yawn. “I don’t think I can stay awake until 2:00.”

“I figured we’d go to bed, and I’d set an alarm so we could get up at the best viewing time.”

That sounded alarmingly cozy for two people who barely knew each other, but the reality turned out to be comfortably less intimate. Mac dug out clean sheets, and I made up the bed for me while he fixed the fold-out sofa for himself. And then . . . a shower! A hot, beautiful, needles-stinging-the-back shower. And sleep, on a mattress that hit just the right balance between soft and firm, with the sliding door closed.

I heard the alarm when it went off in the living room. I jumped up and dressed in two minutes flat, ready for meteor watching.

Although when I went out, I was suddenly self-conscious of my appearance. “Sorry, no makeup at 2:00 a.m.,” I muttered. And hair that looked as if I’d slept through a tornado.

“I never noticed,” Mac returned gallantly.

He’d already set chairs outside, and we settled into them with eyes turned skyward. Lots of other people were out too, sitting or strolling. A few generators rumbled, but most were silent, lights out, televisions off. The night was warm, no need for jacket or blanket.

The meteors were already shooting, some mere pinpoints of moving light, others streaking fireballs, some coming singly, others in fiery storms.

“It’s hard to believe most of them are only about the size of a grain of sand, or at least that’s what the scientists say,” Mac said.

“They all seem to be coming from one general area of the sky.”

“It’s called the Perseid meteor shower, and that’s why, because they seem to come from the area of the Perseus constellation. Although they’re actually debris from a comet called the Swift-Tuttle. Technically, they’re meteors when they’re streaking across the sky, meteorites when they land on earth.”

“You seem scientifically knowledgeable on the subject.”

“Pre-research for my article.”

Another burst of exploding stars, one streaking almost to the horizon. “Like celestial fireflies,” I murmured appreciatively, if not scientifically.

“Hey, I like that. May I use it in my article?”

“Consider it my contribution.”

We sat and gazed in comfortable silence. Mac crossed his arms behind his head. I just slumped down in sloppy comfort, my head against the back of the webbed chair.

“Does all this make you wonder about God?” Mac asked, his tone speculative. “How all this got here?”

“I don’t wonder about God. And I know how all this got here. He created it. I can never look up at all the stars at night without being reminded of that.” Gazing across the universe always did that to me. It made this truth of God’s creation so obvious.

Mac shot me a sideways glance. “You really think so?”

“I don’t see any way to explain the sky or the stars or the earth or us
without
God.”

“Maybe this—” his arm swept the skies, “was always here.”

“But the experts who study these things say it came into being X number of years in the past.”

“X number of years?”

“Fill in the X with whatever the current theory is on age of the universe.”

“But maybe creation didn’t start then. Maybe the ‘big bang’ they talk about happened then, and started this universe. But maybe some other universe was in existence before that and collapsed in on itself. Then the cycle started over again with another bang.”

“And this just happens all by itself, like some cosmic Play-Doh exploding and collapsing over and over in an endless cycle?”

“Well . . .”

“There’s a biblical quotation—”

Mac laughed. “There’s always a biblical quotation. But go ahead,” he added quickly. “I’m interested.”

“I probably can’t quote it exactly, but it’s in Isaiah. ‘Lift your eyes and look to the heavens: Who created all this? He who brings out the starry host, and calls each one by name.’”

“Specific enough, if you can trust in the Bible.”

“I do. For you skeptics, there’s also the bumper sticker version. ‘God said
bang
, and it was so.’”

He laughed again, and I was surprised that we could so obviously disagree on something so important and yet still feel comfortably companionable sitting here under stars both shooting and stationary.

“You really don’t believe in God?” I ventured finally.

“I wouldn’t say I absolutely don’t believe. But I can’t say I absolutely do believe, either. I suppose I’ve just never felt any great need for God.”

“Not even when you were alone after your wife passed away?”

“I didn’t figure God was going to give her back to me, no matter what I believed.”

“Not in this life,” I agreed, “but . . .”

“My wife was a believer,” he said, which rather surprised me. “I guess I’ve always thought . . .” He hesitated for a long moment before adding, with a self-conscious clearing of throat, “I always figured, if there really was anything to life after death, that she’d find a way to contact and convince me.”

That concept startled me. A standard of judging the existence of God and eternal life that I’d never encountered before.

“I suppose that puts me in the weirdo category?” Mac inquired.

I didn’t comment on that. “Did you ever go to one of those people who claim to contact the dead?”

“Those charlatans? No way!” he said vehemently, and that much, at least, was a relief. “I just figured if there was anything to it, she’d somehow contact me.”

“How long ago did your wife pass away?”

“About three and a half years.”

“And after her death you decided to go on the road?”

“Not right away, no. Our home was in southern California. We have three children, and there are eight grandchildren now. But they’re scattered from Montana to Florida, so I was there alone. I’d retired not long before Margarite died, and I threw myself into keeping busy with a vengeance. Painting the house, inside and out. Building a new fence. Yard work. Raising a huge garden. Taking classes. That’s where I learned photography.”

“Very commendable.”

“I photographed every flower in the yard. Every vegetable I grew. Every project I undertook.”

“And?”

“One evening I found myself taking a potato to my photography class. I was all excited because I thought it looked like Lincoln. I was even thinking maybe I should tell someone from TV or the newspaper. And then I suddenly felt as if I’d been whammed in the head with that potato. That was what my life had come to: I was seeing Lincoln in a potato. And I was excited about it.”

“I saw Barbra Streisand’s profile in one of my tomatoes,” I admitted.

He glanced at me, and we grinned at each other under the light of a flaming star. Two people unexpectedly united in a small conspiracy. “Did you ever tell anyone?”

“No.”

“Neither did I. But it tells you something about yourself, doesn’t it?” he said.

“It embarrassed me. Even scared me a little. The creeping senility thing.”

BOOK: Invisible
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