Party To A Murder
“I can't do this!” Margo said, her voice shaking, on the verge of tears. Her auburn hair pulled back in a tight ponytail, and some strands had come loose around her face, which had become flushed from lying in the sun on the beach.
“C'mon, Margo!” Arline said, grasping her friend's upper arms and shaking her slightly, avoiding a large bruise on her left arm where her boyfriend, Dave Corbin, had hit her the other day. “This is it! It's now or never. Besides, a tiger can't change his stripes. The first chance he gets, the next time he gets angry, or you say something he doesn't like, he'll haul off and hit you again, just like always.” Corbin was an abuser, but secretive about it. Only once he had slapped Margo in front of Arline, so she knew about the abuse way before this. “You can't hide a black eye and lie about it saying 'I ran into the door'. It only works once, if at all.” Arline had told Margo a gazillion times about telling Corbin to take a hike. For the past two weeks Arline had groomed Margo, coaching her in exactly what she should say, how to react to his reaction, assuring her she would be close by, just in case he began beating her. They'd planned it for weeks after graduation. Arline knew that the best time for her to tell him goodbye was the very last day they would be at the rustic cabin in Wisconsin Dells, which belonged to Arline's boyfriend's parents. It had its own pier, and a small boat they could use. They'd all had a good time the four days they'd been here. Corbin seemed to have been in a better mood, and hadn't argued with any of them, unlike during past outings.
AJ Beaumont III was Arline's fiancé, they were going to be married in July. Margo was her bridesmaid. She couldn't have her covered in bruises while wearing the beautiful turquoise dress she'd picked out for her to wear.
Earlier, she had arranged for AJ to take Corbin out on the boat, do some fishing, or whatever, until late afternoon. They were already packed and ready to leave as it was a four hour drive back home. Arline had put Margo's suitcase in the trunk of her car, instead of Corbin's truck—thinking ahead, trying to avoid any more ugly scenes afterward. Since Arline had driven herself and AJ up in her own car, Corbin had driven up in his truck with Margo. It had worked out so far, he didn't know, or suspect what was coming. But Margo was becoming unhinged moments before she would tell him it was over between them. The sound of the outboard motor of the blue bass boat puttered closer. The two guys would be here in less than a minute. Arline would tug AJ away toward the cabin, but then drop back and linger in the trees, between the boat dock and the cabin to keep an eye out for trouble.
“You can do this, Margo,” she said, tucking in a wavy strand of honey-blond hair, which had escaped from her own ponytail. She glanced out onto the lake. They were nearly here. “You do it just like we practiced. Okay?”
Margo nodded, but her eyes were down cast.
“I'll be nearby. I swear, I won't let him get away with his shit any more,” Arline said.
The guys pulled the boat up to the dock, AJ cut the engine, and they looked excited.
“We caught three big ones!” Corbin pulled up their catch out of the water. Three fine-looking northerns hung from the stringer.
“What are you going to do with them?” Arline asked as she and Margo padded across the sandy beach barefooted toward the dock.
“I'll clean 'em, and cook 'em,” AJ said. “We'll have a snack to eat on the way home.”
Arline rolled her eyes as Corbin handed him the fish.
“C'mon.” Arline pulled AJ away from the dock. She'd told him in advance what was going to happen. He wanted no part of it. As far as he was concerned, it was Margo's problem, not theirs. It had been a sore spot with Arline how he reacted to the couple's rocky relationship.
Arm in arm Arline and AJ walked up the pathway, toward the cabin. Halfway there, she looked back at Margo speaking to Corbin on the dock. Their voices were already loud. She paused at tree line.
“I'll be up in a bit,” Arline told AJ, and moved into the pine trees, sneaking stealthy back as close as she could get in order to hear and watch the break-up. Cell phone in her pocket, just in case she needed to call AJ—or the police, for that matter. In her other hand she held her camera. It was one of those disposable ones. She had wanted to try it out to see if she'd like to buy a few dozen for her guests at their reception party. Without telling her, Arline wanted to capture this moment just for Margo, to let her relive that moment over and over again, while telling her how proud she was of her for getting up the courage to tell this abusive guy to get lost.
Holding up the camera she looked through the lens—it pushed everything far away, so she couldn't really see small details through the camera lens. But now their conversation had become even louder. Corbin looked agitated. Angry. His arms flying up while he yelled at Margo. His voice booming. Then he grabbed Margo by the arms. She screamed. Arline's heart thudded with dread. He was going to hit her. The slap was hard, and Margo fell right into the water. Arline's breaths came fast as she snapped a picture, and forwarded it and snapped a few more until it wouldn't forward any more.
Corbin bent over, looking down at Margo, not doing a damned thing to help her out, the bastard. It all had happened so fast, but Arline had snapped two, maybe three pictures, as fast as she could, capturing as much as she could as it happened. Evidence for police, she thought.
Feeling a flash of guilt quickly displaced by a surge of anger, Arline bolted through the trees toward the dock, dropping her camera in the soft needle-strewn earth.
“You asshole!” Arline yelled fifteen feet away.
Corbin straightened and yelled back at her. “Fuck you!”
Arline rushed up, her feet pounding along the boards of the deck, as she yelled obscenities back at him, getting in his face. She wasn't afraid of this asshole. If he hit her, AJ would deck him but good. She had her cell phone out ready to press 911.
But when she looked into the water, Margo was nowhere to be seen. Tossing her cell phone on shore, she dove in. She found Margo in ten feet of water not moving. She was unconscious. Having always been a strong swimmer, Arline managed to pull her friend out of the water onto the shore and performed CPR, but couldn't revive her. She screamed at Corbin to call 911—cursing at him for not having done something to help her out of the water himself. By this time, AJ rushed up and he began helping her with CPR, alternating when one became tired of breathing for Margo.
The paramedics arrived within ten minutes of the call, but they couldn't revive Margo. She was dead. They'd said she had drowned. The sheriff's police had arrived shortly after, and Arline told them exactly what had happened, telling him that Margo wouldn't have even been in the water had Corbin not hit her so hard. He denied it, of course. The matter was his word against hers. In the excitement, she'd forgotten about the camera and her evidence.
Arline's eyes filled with tears as they put Margo into the ambulance. The police took Corbin in for questioning, mainly because Arline had pointed to one of the bruises on Margo's arm, and the paramedics did find some discoloration on her face as well. AJ was consoling, but they had to get home. The sheriff assured them Margo's parents would be called. She told the sheriff, over and over, she saw Corbin hit Margo. She'd testify to it!
They were returning to the cabin when she stumbled onto the white camera in the pine needles. She wasn't sure if the pictures would turn out, or if what she'd taken were good enough for a court of law. She was so angry over what had happened, she wanted Corbin to pay dearly. A plan was hatching.
On the way home, she'd begun to think about it. Everything was clearer the closer they got to Iowa and crossed the Mississippi, and what she could do to get even with the son of a bitch. She wasn't ready to share the pictures with the police. Not yet. They were much more valuable to her and what she would gain, than to give them to the police.
The bell on the door rang, making me look up automatically from my work near the bottom bookshelves.
“Hi. Good morning,” a man said pleasantly. The man's deep voice threw me into a panic and made me pop up from where I was crouched shelving the new Tami Hoag paperbacks. Going up on my tippy-toes, I flung a gold-brown length of hair away from my face in order to see over the shelf. It was one of those voices that tended to pull your attention, if you were of the female persuasion. And since it wasn't who I dreaded to see, my heart calmed down.
Curious, I peeked around the corner of the shelving unit to spot my Aunt Jessica standing behind the counter near the door.
“Good morning,” Aunt Jessica trilled, turning to him, her silver onyx cross earrings glimmering in the overheads.
“I was wondering if you have some literature by Mark Twain?” His tall frame was decked out in a long, black canvas coat, a black Stetson with conchos around its brim hid most of his face. Long wavy brown hair with blondish highlights grew past his shoulders. He was a few inches over six foot.
My excitement about tonight's planned activities had been interrupted by the man's entrance into my aunt's bookstore, Books 'n Such, which was situated on Front Street in Montclair, Iowa. From the store front we could see the Mississippi River, as it was only two blocks away, and down an incline. There was a slight breeze today, and the river looked somewhat choppy, with the color beige, coffee and the sun glimmering in silver bands across its expanse. Through the large front window I spied, The Miss Twila, a river boat owned by Uncle Ed. It was docked as it had been for weeks, now.
“Oh, my, do we!” my aunt said enthusiastically to the man's question.
Poe jumped onto the counter, coming to a halt and, ears going flat to his head, hissed and growled at him, then he jumped back down and disappeared, growling as he went.
“Wow,” the man said, startled by the large long-hair black cat's reaction to him. He had one green and one blue eye (it's a bit spooky to look into those eyes for very long), which was why my aunt had given him the name Edgar Allan Poe. He had been a mangy alley cat when she'd found and fed him about a year ago. Now Poe was our mascot for the store, and came home with us every night.
“Oh, don't mind him,” my aunt said apologetically with a little chuckle. “He tends to not like men very much. Sort of a jealousy thing, I guess.”
I wondered why she had lied. Poe was a sweet cat. People could pet him, scratch his chin. Sometimes he wandered around the store looking for attention from patrons. He wasn't afraid of anyone. Animals have a good sense of people. If a dog growls at someone, you know that person may have some hidden agenda, a mean streak, or there's something bad about them that the dog picks up. A cat couldn't be any different, my young mind concluded, and this had sent up a little red flag for me. So, I kept my eye on the man via our big fish-eye mirrors around the store. While I watched him secretly from behind the stacks, I imagined he might be here staking the place out, and he was going to rob my aunt at gunpoint as soon as he thought she was alone. I admit my writer's mind clicked on a hundred different scenarios within those first moments of his entrance. So I stayed out of sight for the moment, pulled out my cell phone and went to my contacts, and, with a jittery finger, pulled up the number for Weeks, our local sheriff, just in case. I had a simple cell phone—it wasn't modern by any means, but it worked fine. I'd had it since I was fifteen. I hoped for a new one before going off to college—dropping hints whenever I could, of course.
The man chuckled and shook his head. “Had a girlfriend once whose cat didn't like me, did the same thing,” he said. “Guess I'm just not a cat person.”
“Come. I'll show you what we have.” She waggled her hand for him to follow, and drew him to where all the books Mark Twain ever wrote, history or other works about the man, was displayed in its own separate narrow bookcase to one side of the magazine racks near the front of the store. Having a store along the Mississippi, it was natural people stopped in to ask for works of Mark Twain. We were also blessed (some would say cursed, depending upon your view of the man), with a Mark Twain impersonator, Ed Lamont. He was related to my aunt—her uncle, but we both called him “Uncle Ed”. He also happened to own a river boat The Miss Twila, currently being worked on.
Following my aunt, the man stepped noisily across the wooden floor. The thunk-ching, thunk-ching, thunk-ching when he walked brought my gaze down to his booted feet. Whoa, wait. He was wearing spurs? Not the kind with the wheel, but the kind with a blunt end. Probably drives a Harley, my thoughts came. Bet he has tats all over his body.
Today Aunt Jessica wore her long brown hair, which came well past her hips, in a single braid down her back. Usually she leaned toward long skirts, or jeans. Today she was in a pair of faded jeans, which fit her slim form like a glove. Her brown shirt was patterned with Native American images like the Thunderbird and spirals, and other such drawings common in the southwest. I once intimated to her that my mother had called her a hippy. My aunt had chuckled and said, “I'm not so much a hippy as an independent thinker.”