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Authors: Lora Roberts

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BOOK: Murder in a Nice Neighborhood
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I already remembered the sound of the blows, crunching inside my head, thudding into my ribs. I already remembered how the pain exploded until I wanted to die—or wanted him to.

“You don’t give me orders anymore, Tony.” I forced myself to sit up in the bed, thankful that my left shoulder was on the far side from Tony. When he started to hit me, I might be spared that pain at least.

He was silent for a moment. “I waited for you. Why didn’t you come back? Why did you divorce me?”

“You know why.” I didn’t want to play this game either, the one where he was the injured party and I just got what I deserved for not being the perfect wife. “It’s over, Tony. Been over for years.”

He flicked the flashlight on again, moving the light until he found my face. “It’s not over. You wouldn’t have been hiding from me if you thought that. You wouldn’t have run away if we weren’t still bound together.”

I wanted to deny this, but it was true that my fear and terror had dictated my life just as love and commitment do for other, luckier people. “You must leave me alone.” I tried to be forcible, but I felt as if I was pinned against the wall, waiting for the pain.

Tony shook his head. “I’ve been looking for you for a long time, Liz. I don’t believe in divorce. You’re coming with me.”

“No.” I braced myself. “Did you ever go for counseling, like the judge said?”

“I don’t need counseling.” He pulled a chair forward and sat right next to the bed, still shining the light in my eyes.

“A man has a right to be with his wife. I wouldn’t have had to hurt you if you’d just understood. . . ."

Understood that I was his doormat. “I wouldn’t have had to shoot you if you’d just let me alone.” I found myself echoing his almost regretful voice. I couldn’t smell alcohol; if he wasn’t drunk, he might listen to reason.

When his fist drove at me, the whisper of its movement triggered a long-buried instinct; I jerked aside. The blow fell on the wall where my head had been. Flakes of plaster rained into the bed. “Damn it!” He shook his hand. I hoped it hurt. “You should have come back, Liz, so I could’ve taken care of this once and for all. Now I’m really going to have to teach you a lesson.”

He turned off the flashlight, set it down. Now he would beat me until I died. The unspoken words echoed between us. His blow had shaken the walls, but I couldn’t count on Claudia to
have noticed. She slept heavily, and her bedroom was upstairs on the other side of the house. No one would save me this time.

At least I had had security and happiness in my grasp, however ephemerally.

I was tired of being under a dark, threatening cloud all the time. I didn’t want to die. But I didn’t want to live on the run anymore. I didn’t have the energy to fight; and blowing Tony away hadn’t worked the first time. This time there was no gun to test my philosophy that I wouldn’t try killing again. There was nothing left except to ask him to leave, and not to come back without an invitation. I didn’t think that would work.

“You know, Tony, if you hurt me, you’ll go to jail. I’ll press charges, and I’ll see you put away for a long time.”

He laughed a little; “You may not be in any shape to talk, babe. Of course, I’ll still love you when you’re a vegetable, but the new boyfriend might not.”

“You’ll still get arrested.” My eyes were getting used to the dark. I could see the white gleam of Tony’s eyeballs, the pale glimmer of his shirt. I could tell he was nerving himself for the first hit, for the surge of self-justifying adrenaline that comes with it. “If you hurt me bad, if you kill me, you won’t get out for a long time, Tony, because they’ll bring a first-degree charge—premeditation, probably special circumstances.” I spoke fast, the words tumbling out, needing to convince him. “In California, that could mean execution.”

“Who’s talking about killing?” He backed off a little. “I just want to teach you—show you—” The pent-up anger of years radiated from him. His hands were clenched already. “Besides, look what you tried to do to
me!”

“I found something out about death recently, Tony.” I didn’t know how much longer I could keep him from hitting me. “Dead people have this look. Their eyes follow you. They’re dead, but they don’t look finished with life, somehow.” He shifted his position. It was hard to hold my voice steady. “After you kill me, I’ll be with you, all right. You’ll see me everywhere. You’ll probably be glad when they execute you.”

“They won’t execute me.” He hissed at me, putting his face down by mine. “No one will even notice what happens to a tramp like you.”

“Yes, they will.” I braced my back against the wall, trying to keep my wits about me. "That new boyfriend—he’s a cop, Tony. I told him all about you. He’ll track you down, wherever you hide. He’ll see that they throw the book at you. If you’re going to
kill me, you might as well kill yourself, too, right off the bat. You won’t like prison. You won’t like running and hiding, either. Believe me, I know.”

He loomed over me, his frustration and fury tangible. I hoped I wouldn’t beg for mercy, that I would endure what came with dignity. But then his hands closed around my neck, crushing painfully. I forgot about dignity. I clawed at his fingers, but he was strong.

We were face to face. My back arched, my heels dug into the bed. I could taste his sour breath, see the sheen of his eyeballs, just like Pigpen’s. No, that was wrong. I would be like Pigpen, wide-eyed but dead, seeing nothing.

His hands slackened, and I could breath again. I sucked in cool gulps of air, sagging back against the wall.

The fury seemed to go out of him. Sighing, he loosed his grip.

“You always did talk too much, Liz.” He picked up the flashlight, flicking it on again, then off. “I’ve spent years thinking about how I’d beat the shit out of you for what you did.”

“Wouldn’t get you anywhere.” The words felt harsh, forced through my throat in a scratchy whisper.

“Yeah, yeah.” He tossed the flashlight at me. It bounced off the bed onto the floor with a tiny chime of breaking glass. “You’re really just a mousy, smart-mouthed female. Don’t know what I saw in you in the first place.” He sounded a little puzzled. “All this time I’ve waited, and now it doesn’t seem worth it.”

“Good . . . choice.” I swallowed, painfully.

He stooped over me again, but then turned away. “Don’t push your luck, bitch. You’ve already cost me too many years.”

“That’s funny.” I watched him move toward the window, and felt suddenly an odd flicker of kinship. We had been locked together for so long by our common enmity. “I feel . . . the same.”

He paused, straddling the windowsill, and I could see the cocky, swaggering spirit that had been so attractive to me once. “Tell your cop boyfriend I’m laying off,” he said. “If he wants used goods, that’s his loss. I’ve got better things to
do than go after a woman who sleeps in that getup.”

He swung out of the window. I heard the gravel crunch under his feet as he walked away.

The silence would have been loud if it hadn’t been for the thundering of my heart. After a few minutes I struggled out of bed and shut and locked the window. Houses were just an illusion of safety, after all; one good blow and the lock wouldn’t matter. I turned on the light and brushed the plaster dust out of the sheets, picked up the shards of flashlight and dumped them in the wastepaper basket. The hole wasn’t too bad; after I spackled it in the morning, there’d be no evidence, nothing to show that the night’s encounter had actually happened.

There was emptiness inside me, where I’d always kept my fear and anger. Tony was gone, and I hadn’t had to kill him. It was more as if I had finally let him go, when his actions ceased to matter. From now on our karmic circles would be separate. My future could be a matter of choice, not reaction. His future, I hoped, would soon run smack against some well-deserved event, like crashing his motorcycle into a sturdy brick wall.

I was cold, very cold. The pan of cocoa was still in the kitchen; I crept in quietly and heated it, drawing a spoon across the top to take off the skin that had formed. The warmth felt good on my throat. I was hunched over a steaming cup when Claudia appeared in the doorway, yawning.

“I thought I heard something,” she said, around another immense yawn. “Are you all right? Have a bad dream?”

“Yes.” I cleared the croak out of my throat, feeling the comforting warmth of the cup between my palms. “But I don’t think it
will come back.”

 

Chapter 34

 

I was sitting on my front steps, eating an Empire apple and reading
Chronicles of Avonlea.
It was one of those early December days that are really lost bits of summer, trying to get back. The sun shone mightily, but the air held a bite, and there were clouds building in the west. I was ready for the rain; I had planted some tulips and daffodils down my tiny front walk, and could not wait for spring to come.

Drake’s car pulled up behind my bus, and he came down the walk. “You painted your place.”

“It wasn’t hard." I put the apple core inside and shut my book. “I wanted it all sealed against the winter rains.”

He stood back a little, like an art critic. “I like it,” he said judiciously. I did, too. Just white paint, green shutters, the best quality I could afford. My labor had been pretty cheap, and the check from
Smithsonian
had covered the cost of the paint.

“I’ll do your house for you, for a fee.” I looked at him. It had been nearly a month since we’d started all the paperwork relating to
our transfer of property; I had met him to sign things once in a while, but we hadn’t really talked. He would be moving in soon.

“I thought you might call,” he said, sitting on the step beside me. “Ask for help shingling the roof or something.”

“It was no problem.” I kept my voice casual.

“Humph.” He reached for my book. “It would be for me.” His voice changed.
“Chronicles of Avonlea?
What’s this?”

“A trip down Memory Lane.” I took the book away and set it inside by the apple core. Something about owning my own little place had started me reading the cozy, long-forgotten stories of my childhood. In the past couple of weeks, I had taken armloads of books out of the children’s library. It was a vacation from reality; I’d enjoyed every minute of it.

Drake clearly didn’t know what I was talking about, and didn’t much care. “Actually,” he said, reaching into the pocket of his shabby tweed jacket, “I came to drop off my first official house payment.”

"Thanks." I went inside to put the envelope away, and he followed me, looking around curiously. The cottage was three rooms—small bedroom, small living room and tiny kitchen. Compact as it was, my stuff didn’t begin to fill it, though just the other day I’d bought a waffle iron at a second-hand store in Redwood City for $4.50. I had Vivien’s bedroom set, and her worn couch and faded rug looked fine in the living room. I’d painted all the walls, scrubbed all the wavy glass in the windows.

“You’ve really been in a nesting frenzy here, haven’t you?” Drake touched one of the new curtains. Vivien had also had an old Kenmore sewing machine, and I’d found some good deals on remnants at Douglas Fabrics.

I shrugged, a little embarrassed. “It’s been a while since I set up housekeeping in a house. I just thought I’d kind of enjoy it while I could.”

“Hey, I think it’s great.” He looked at me intently. “So you’re not afraid to have an address again?”

I had never told anyone about Tony’s return, and I didn’t plan to start now. "Time to stop running.” I spoke firmly, and Drake dropped the subject.

“There’s a bunch of mystery writers having a panel at
Kepler’s tonight,” he said instead, not really looking at
me. “Marilyn Wallace, Carolyn Hart, Linda Grant. Thought you might like to go.”

It took me a couple of moments to realize that this was an invitation. From a man. They used to call it a date, I believe.

I had spent several years suppressing my womanhood, trying to be a faceless, formless neuter creature. I didn’t know if I was ready to be female again. I still didn’t have a hairdo, although I had moved up from Goodwill to the Junior League Thrift Shop. I was wearing decent jeans and a heavy cotton sweater, neither of them immediately identifiable as someone else’s castoffs.

Drake was looking at me, a hint of anxiety in his eyes. He’d seen nothing amiss in my appearance. I could go out with him to Kepler’s, maybe even buy a book new instead of secondhand. Or I could crawl back in my cozy new cocoon for a while longer—like maybe my whole life. Even if I couldn’t take the stress of being a woman, surely I could be a friend.

“Sure,” I said. “Let me comb my hair.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

Copyright © 1994 by Lora Roberts Smith

Originally published by Fawcett Gold Medal

Electronically published in 2003 by Belgrave House

 

ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

 

No portion of this ebook may be reprinted in whole or in part, by printing, faxing, E-mail, copying electronically or by any other means without permission of the publisher. For more information, contact Belgrave House, 190 Belgrave Avenue, San Francisco, CA 94117-4228

 

http://www.BelgraveHouse.com

Electronic sales: [email protected]

 

This is a work of fiction. All names in this publication are fictitious and any resemblance to any person living or dead is coincidental.

BOOK: Murder in a Nice Neighborhood
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