Read My Sister's Keeper Online

Authors: Bill Benners

Tags: #Fiction, #Thrillers, #Suspense, #General

My Sister's Keeper (8 page)

BOOK: My Sister's Keeper
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Sorry, I didn’t hear you come in,” she said coming toward me. “I was taping a floor.” Her voice was rich and deep, like a tenor sax crooning the blues; luscious and
unique
. A spark flashed across her eyes as she extended her right hand. “Richard Baimbridge, it’s
so
good to see you again. Thanks for coming.”

She’d called and asked if I’d photograph her students. It wasn’t the kind of photography I normally do, but I agreed to come and take a look. Seeing her now brought back memories I hadn’t thought of in years. “Wow! Look at you.” I held her at arm’s length. “Sydney Deagan all grown up.”

Her face was soft and warm. Her smile genuine. And there was a hint of pride in her voice. “On my own with responsibilities and everything

just like a real adult.” Her laugh was the same squeaky laugh she’d had as a little girl. It gave me chills back then and it gave me chills that day. My thoughts were momentarily disoriented as I relived a few laughs from the old days. Finally, I spoke.


You really look great, Sydney.”


So do you, Richard. I see you every once in a while around town. You haven’t changed much.”


Well, you certainly have. The last time I saw you, you were swinging on a rope in your mom’s back yard.”


No, the last time you saw me I was dancing in a recital. You were there with Jewell and later that night she broke up with you.”

A pain shot through the back of my head. Jewell and I weren’t actually going steady, but it still hurt to be told that they’d rather date someone else. “Yes, I think you’re right. That was the last time I remember seeing either of you.”


She came home and told everyone about it and I stayed awake all night crying. I think I had a bigger crush on you than she did.”


You probably did.” I felt strangely weak and off-balance. My pulse was running wild. I needed to sit. I drew a deep breath and looked around. “So, what’s it been? Fourteen years?”


Yes. Hard to believe, isn’t it? I heard about Martha’s accident. How’s she doing?”


She’s…coping well. You know Martha. Nothing’s going to hold her down for long.” We gazed at each other evaluating each other’s faces for a moment. She had definitely inherited all the beauty in her family. “So, why don’t we take a look at the photography you’ve been getting and let me see if I can do any better?”

We stepped into her office where hundreds of photographs were stacked on her desk. I’d spent enough time in New York to know the difference between a beautiful, powerful image and one that lacked good lighting, lines, and composition. A few of them were artistic, even stunning. The majority, though, were atrocious and amateurish. I knew I could do better than that.

I asked her to show me where she wanted me to set up and followed her to a room with a door marked STUDIO B. It was forty-by-fifty foot with a rack of stereo equipment in a far corner, a mirrored wall along the right side, and ballet barres around the other three walls.


It needs to be a really large background,” she said.


No problem.”


Like thirty feet wide.”


Fine.”

She didn’t look convinced, but accepted my word. “Good. Can we put it over there?” I noticed she wasn’t wearing any kind of wedding or engagement ring when she raised her hand to point.


Sure. I can attach it to the ceiling, and



The ceiling?” she interrupted. “How are you going to do that? It’s a drop ceiling

acoustical.”


It’ll hold it. I do it all the time. Even bigger.”


It was very expensive.”

Her persistence amused me. “It’ll be fine, Sydney. I promise.” Our eyes locked and something passed between us. Soul to soul. Trust, maybe, but something powerful. When she called me on the phone, she’d told me about all the problems she’d had with other photographers. Backgrounds that were too small, eyes that were shut, feet cut off in the photos, poor lighting, under-exposed negatives, and bad attitudes. The last one had even failed to deliver all the photographs that had been ordered and paid for.

Then she told me how badly she needed good photography for her advertising, brochures, and website and how much she liked my work. She said she’d thought of calling me many times, but didn’t think I’d do it so she never called. The more she talked, the more interested I became.

As she moved about explaining how she wanted things arranged, she was charismatic, energetic, and dynamic—her voice gentle one moment and flamboyant the next. She was just as self-confident and enchanting now as she’d been at the age of thirteen and there was no way I could turn her down.

After I told her I’d do it, I received a gracious thank you and a warm hug, and was on the way out when my eye caught sight of a face in a photograph on the wall. Stepping back, I took a second look. It was a ballet pose. Sixteen girls in the same black and silver costume. And right there in the front row was a girl that looked exactly like Ashleigh. Her hair was up in a tight bun and though she was much younger and less developed, I was certain it was Ashleigh.

Sydney’s voice startled me as she stepped up behind me. “Are you critiquing another photographer’s work?”

I pointed to the photograph. “Isn’t that the Matthews girl? The one that’s missing?”


Ash? Missing?”


It looks like her. The police think she might have been murdered.”

Sydney gasped. “Ash? I haven’t heard anything about that. What happened? When?”


Monday morning her landlord found her house open and a lot of blood inside, but they haven’t found her body.”

Sydney’s hands covered her mouth and her voice fell to a whisper. “The studio is closed this week. This is the first I’ve heard.”


She lived next door to me, but I hardly knew her.” I touched the photo with my finger. “That’s Ashleigh, isn’t it?”


Oh, yes. That’s her. A good dancer, too. I thought she’d go all the way to Broadway.”

Broadway?
I’d walked it often, but on the wrong side of the street. I’d carried a camera when I should have carried a script and a playbill. I thought just getting to New York would take me close enough to the action to open doors to what I really wanted—Broadway theatre. But, it’s a big place and there were so many doors. I exhaled. “Maybe she’ll turn up alive.”


I hope so. She’s a beautiful dancer.”

She gave me another hug and we said goodbye.

Seeing Sydney had definitely revved up my spirits. My emotions were flipping around wildly, diving and climbing like a kite with a short tail on a windy beach. I wanted to do the photography for her, but was going to have to keep things on a professional level if I didn’t want to end up crushed when it was over.

I stopped by Barnes & Noble and picked up a copy of
Peterson’s Field Guide to Eastern Birds
, then spent the afternoon shooting a new line of audio mixing boards for Barleystone Corporation’s catalogue and web site. As I worked, my mind retrieved many lost memories of Sydney that made me smile. Although I’d paid no attention to it at the time, I now realized just how much of a crush she’d had on me back then and wondered how she’d taken it when Jewell and I stopped dating.

I had one more session scheduled that afternoon—a portrait of an older couple—and the moment they stepped into the camera room, I realized there was something very different about these two.

Mr. and Mrs. Jacob Ballance appeared to be in their eighties. They were frail and weathered. Yet, there was something fresh and alive within them. They touched each other as if they were pieces of heirloom crystal and their voices were soft and sympathetic. Their eyes caressed one another with the tenderness of a first-time mother with her newborn child. It was dazzling.

During the session I asked Mrs. Ballance if she remembered the first time she’d laid eyes on her husband and as she spoke about it, her cheeks flushed and her eyes twinkled. It was mesmerizing. I took a picture and the flash froze their images for a brief instant. The joy in her eyes and the love in his hung suspended for a second and I knew the photographs would be remarkable.

I burned a lot of film on Mr. and Mrs. Ballance during that session. They were delightful, fun, and uncommon. I felt I was in the presence of something extraordinary.
Something sacred.
Whatever was in their hearts that day touched mine. I wanted what they had. It was going to require some changes in me, but I was determined to find it.

At home that evening, I sat on the deck watching the police activity next door and thought of Sydney, how different she was from Jewell, and the way I felt when she’d looked at me.

I fixed a scotch and headed to the den to watch the news when I noticed something white beneath a cushion on the couch. Lifting the cushion, I discovered a pair of women’s panties. They were ripped down the side with a spot of blood on the waistband.

As I held them up to examine them, the doorbell sounded. Turning my head, I saw several men peering through the etched glass of the front door. Stashing the panties in my back pocket, I crossed to the door.

It was Detective Jones and his posse.

 

11

 

 

W
HEN I OPENED THE DOOR, Sam slapped a search warrant into my hand and walked in without invitation. As a photographer followed, a knot tightened in my gut. There are times when you draw the line and dare someone to cross it, and times when you open wide and take the drill. This was a root canal without Novocain. Staten went immediately to dusting the den for fingerprints. Lizard Lips headed for the kitchen and the photographer stuck out his hand to shake.


I’ve always wanted to meet you, Mr. Baimbridge. Danny Butler.” He carried a fairly inexpensive digital camera with a Metz strobe. I forced the warrant into the pocket with the panties and shook his hand. “I really hope to have my own studio some day,” he said, “and do the kind of work you do.”


Don’t wait too long to get started,” I said, my voice flat. “Dreams have a way of slipping away.”


Yeah, I’ve been thinking about that.” He looked uncomfortable as if waiting for my permission to start. I closed the door and left him standing there. He raised his camera to his eye, aimed it at something in the room, focused, and fired. The drilling began.

I couldn’t stand around and watch while they picked through my life. I had nothing to hide. It just looked so insignificant in their hands. Like the piece of driftwood on the mantle over the fireplace that I’d picked up on the beach the one time Jewell and I made love. To them, it was just a stick. I rinsed a glass and poured a drink with the intention of stepping out on the deck.


You don’t have to say anything if you don’t want to,” Jones said sitting at the counter.


Good. My attorney told me not to,” I said replacing the cap on the bottle. “I don’t know anything else anyway.” I pulled the warrant out of my back pocket and flung it on the counter. As I did, the panties fell to the floor. I lifted my glass and turned.


You dropped your handkerchief,” Sam noted flipping through his notepad.

Looking down, I saw the panties lying on the floor. With heat flushing my face, I scooped them up and stuffed them back in my pocket. “Thanks.”


Could I see the shoes you were wearing Sunday night?” he asked nonchalantly.


I…don’t have them, Sam.”

His eyes raised, then he set his elbows on the counter. “You don’t have them?”


I didn’t have them on when I awoke out there on the deck.”


You think they’re still at Ashleigh’s?”


I guess.”


You guess wrong. What did they look like?”


Maybe they’re outside. I haven’t actually looked.”


What did they look like?”


Brown leather Bass loafers with a tassel on top.”


Like the one’s you’re wearing?”


Yes, only darker.”

He made a note in his pad, opened the back door, flipped on the outside lights, and walked out. I followed with the scotch in hand. The night air was cold and damp. He produced a flashlight and began searching under the deck. I gazed out at the lake and wondered if this once tranquil backdrop had been changed forever. The police tape and the colored flags would soon be gone, but would I ever feel peace here again?

I moved to a wooden chair, sat, and sipped the whiskey. A strobe flashed inside my house. I laid my head back and closed my eyes.
How could those panties have gotten under that cushion?
As Sam moved about under the bushes, I replayed Ashleigh’s route through my house from the kitchen to the love seat, to the window, and back to the love seat.
She never went near the couch.

Sam came up the steps and paused. “Don’t see them. Would you mind walking me through the events of the other night again?” He lumbered past me leaving a trail of mud and went back inside. Danny’s flash went off again somewhere in the house. I drained the glass, rose, and followed Sam. Carrying the empty glass, I walked Sam through the re-staging of events while Lizard Lips picked through dirty glasses around the sink, put them in plastic bags, and labeled them.

BOOK: My Sister's Keeper
4.34Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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