If the witness lied, p.13

If the Witness Lied, page 13


If the Witness Lied

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  Madison buys chocolate milk and jelly donuts for herself and Smithy and sets them on the table.

  “Cheers!” says Tris, raising his milk.

  Smithy giggles. “Cheers!” They clink jugs. Plastic doesn’t clink well but Tris is satisfied. “Where did he learn that, Jack?”

  “The Murrays. He has dinner over there a lot.”

  How will Smithy face Diana, whose friendship she threw away like so much crumpled paper? Smithy looks to food for comfort and frowns at her donut. “Jelly?” she says to Madison. “You know I only like cream-filled.”

  They glare at each other.

  “Then can I have your donut?” asks Tris excitedly.

  They can all see that Jack is irritated.

  “No?” asks Smithy doubtfully.

  “I just told him he’s had enough donuts,” says Jack. “Oh well. This is different, Tris. This is Smithy’s donut. You can have a bite.”

  Tris’s face clears. He squeezes the donut until the jelly spurts out. Then he pulls the donut apart to see how much jelly is still in there.

  “What made you come home, Smithy?” Jack wants to know.

  It’s a test question. The one with the most points and the biggest chance for failure.

  “There was an assembly to talk about Thanksgiving plans. I was already upset, because of Dad’s birthday. I wasn’t home, and I didn’t call home, and I sat there in that assembly realizing I don’t even have a home. I have to borrow one from Kate. So I had to get back here in time for Thanksgiving and say I’m sorry.” Smithy takes a deep breath. “I’m sorry, Jack. I’m so sorry.”

  Tris is wide-eyed. “Did you do a bad, bad thing, Smithy?”

  “I did a bad, bad thing.”

  “Me too,” says Tris.

  If Tris says this to Angus Nicolson, the TV crew will go berserk with joy. They will insert these words where they have the cruelest impact.

  “I spilled my chocolate milk,” explains Tris. “Raquelle cleaned it up.” He flashes Raquelle a smile and she smiles back, and Smithy thinks: So many wonderful grown-ups out there. They’ve kept Tris safe for us. And happy. And ignorant. He doesn’t know. I don’t ever want him to know.

  And yet, somebody has to know. If we don’t make public what she’s done, Cheryl gets away with it.

  Their mother used to sing a spiritual. “So high I can’t get over it… So low I can’t go under it… So wide I can’t get around it… Oh, rock-a my soul.”

  No, God, Smithy dictates. We’ve got to get over it, under it and around it.

  * * *

  On the first pass, Diana does not find the laptop or the briefcase. Methodically, she shifts every box, searching back to the eaves and restacking. When her hair brushes against something, she jerks away, expecting spiders. It’s a lightbulb with a beaded metal pull chain. Nice location.

  She’s trying to come to terms with Jack’s theory that his aunt Cheryl murdered Mr. Fountain. Diana can’t go for it. She’s not comfortable with Mrs. Rand, doesn’t approve of her obsession with the house rather than the children, doesn’t think planting Tris in front of a TV every waking hour is good for him. Still, Diana is not willing to believe that the woman would commit murder.

  As for the docudrama, could Mrs. Rand be making it up? Has Cheryl convinced herself a TV crew wants to immortalize her window treatments?

  The laptop and briefcase are tucked so far back under the eaves that professional movers could pack this attic and never spot them. Diana drags them out. If there had been even a teensy-weensy chance that Mr. Fountain’s death was not an accident, the police would have demanded to see this stuff. Police always go deep into computer histories. It bolsters her theory that Jack is exaggerating.

  Diana restacks boxes to make room for the folding staircase to fold. She pulls the chain of the ceiling bulb and drops the flashlight into the briefcase. Now she’s standing in the dark over a coffin-sized opening, the fat leather handle of a heavy briefcase in one hand and a slimline laptop with no handle in the other. The stairs are steep and the little broomstick railing doesn’t offer much support. She backs down slowly. It feels tippy. The laptop is sliding from her grip.

  There is a sound like gunfire. Diana drops the laptop, which smacks on the oil spot in the middle of the cement floor. What is the survival rate of laptops dropped on cement?

  The garage door goes up.

  Cheryl Rand is home.

  * * *

  Tris is showing signs of wear and tear. They need to get out of the restaurant and let him run around and yell. Down the road is the state beach where few people will go on a wet November day. Since Madison doesn’t have a car seat, Jack goes once again through the routine of helmet and bike, and sets off for the beach with his little brother hanging on to his belt loops. Madison and Smithy will catch up after Smithy changes her clothes in Dunkin’ Donuts’ restroom.

  Jack pedals in circles around a huge empty parking lot, waiting for his sisters. It isn’t actively raining, but it’s misty, and Tris hasn’t fully dried out from his last outdoor adventure. When Madison arrives, Jack leans the bike against a pine tree and the boys crowd into her small car. It’s very warm. The idling engine hums with a comfy whir.

  “Sit on my lap,” Jack tells Tris, “while I open your toy car pack.”

  “No. I want to sit with Madison and Smithy.”

  The girls are delighted. Everybody switches places. Jack gets in front while Madison and Smithy wedge in back, with Tris squashed between them. Jack doles out the toy cars one by one.

  Tris has had a big day and a lot of fresh air. Warm and snug between his sisters, he falls asleep. “If we talk without raising our voices,” says Jack in a monotone, “we can cover any subject without waking him up.”

  There are too many subjects. They don’t know where to start.

  How did they get here, anyway? The four Fountain children—orphaned, divided, estranged, on the run, using diversionary tactics, hiding out.

  “Can we use the television people to our advantage?” asks Jack. “Suppose we show them the photographs and tell them about Madison’s discovery in that Jeep?”

  Madison snorts. “Talk about a media frenzy. They’ll love the idea that the stepaunt framed the toddler for murder. They won’t help us find out the truth. They’ll just use that along with everything else in their docudrama. This will be serious prime-time stuff.”

  “Anyway,” says Smithy, “Angus asked me how I felt when my mother said she’d rather be dead than bring me up.”

  “Okay, so we can’t trust Angus,” says Jack, and they laugh. The laughter helps. They toss ideas around. The girls defer to Jack, because he is the one who stayed. But if they are to be a family again, they have to get back to their old family ways. “You’re the oldest, Madison,” Jack points out.

  “But you’re the good one.”

  He nods. “Second-borns are always superior.”

  “However, it’s the third child who has an intelligent thought,” Smithy puts in. “Let’s figure out why Cheryl would do it. If we want somebody to take a second look at Cheryl, we have to have a reason why she would do it. I want to know why she did it. The only thing we’ve come up with is that she wants the house. But everybody wants a house and a car and money somebody else earned. They don’t kill for it. And how would Cheryl know Daddy would get killed? It’s more likely he’d jump out of the way, get a scratch and send her packing.”

  “Suppose Dad was going to send Cheryl packing before the accident,” says Jack.

  “Cheryl did something, Dad found out, and he threatened to fire her?” asks Madison. “That’s possible. Maybe Dad found out that she hurts Tris.”

  “No, because Tris isn’t afraid of her.”

  “Maybe Cheryl was stealing. Spending money on herself that Dad gave her for groceries.”

  They can readily believe this—especially Jack, now that he knows Madison gets an allowance and he doesn’t—but their father would just have fired her and she would’ve left.
  “We’re not going to get anywhere with guessing games,” says Jack. “We need a way to scare Cheryl into leaving of her own accord. Suppose we go back to the house and hide out upstairs until the TV crew leaves. Then we confront Cheryl. We show her the photographs. We make it clear that she has to leave.”

  “I don’t think we can scare her, Jack,” says Madison. “I think she’ll talk her way out of the photographs.”

  “I haven’t seen them yet,” says Smithy. “Let me see them.”

  * * *

  Cheryl’s headlights illuminate Diana Murray, who is halfway down the stairs with somebody else’s property in her hand.

  The Lincoln’s engine roars at Diana. Is Cheryl going to drive right through her, crushing Diana against the stairs and shoving her into the back wall?

  Diana almost scurries back up, but getting trapped in the attic seems just as scary. And the laptop—she can’t leave the laptop on the garage floor for Cheryl.

  But Cheryl stops her car outside the garage. Heaving herself out of her car, she slams the door behind her. There’s strength in the slam, as if she would’ve caught Diana’s fingers in that door if she could have.

  Behind Cheryl’s headlights, Diana has a sense of other people moving around. Who could they be? “Hi, Mrs. Rand!” she calls. She tries to sound lighthearted and fails.

  “What do you think you’re doing?” screams Cheryl.

  Diana makes it down the steps. The pavement feels good. She picks up the laptop and holds it and the briefcase against her chest like laundry. She can’t claim this stuff is Jack’s. RF is cut into the leather of the briefcase and scratched on the lid of the laptop.

  Now Cheryl is inside the garage. She pauses to press the interior control button. The heavy doors begin to close.

  Cheryl advances. Her lips are pulled back in a snarl. She does not look like a civilized woman in civilized clothing. She looks like a predator, teeth bared.

  Diana is immobilized. The expression on Cheryl’s face chills her bones. Has Tris ever seen that expression? Did Reed Fountain see it? Was it the last thing he saw?

  In front of a real producer, Cheryl has been unable to produce. No Tris, no Jack. Smithy and Madison vanish. The friendly neighborhood babysitter lies. Cheryl is tricked into driving to a pointless destination. And now the friendly neighborhood babysitter is stealing from her.

  The big doors slam down.

  Diana Murray is alone in a closed garage with a murderer.

  DIANA, LIKE EVERY TEENAGER IN AMERICA, POSSESSES A WEAPON. She uses speed dial. “Hi, Mom. I’m over at Jack’s. I’m in the garage. Cheryl just got here. I’ll be home in a minute.”

  Cheryl stops mid-attack. She can close all the garage doors she wants, but what happens here will not be a secret.

  “Okay.” Diana’s mother sounds distracted. She’s probably in the middle of a transaction, because she disconnects almost immediately, and Cheryl, inches away, knows.

  “You give those to me!” she shouts.

  Diana takes giant steps toward the breezeway door, which opens at a touch, crosses the small space and opens the outside door with her elbow.

  A handsome blond middle-aged guy is blocking the way. “Hiiiiii,” he says, drawing out the word like a party host. “And you are …?” A big smile fills the bottom half of the man’s face. It’s the wrong time and place for a smile that big.

  Out on the wet grass, somebody in the settling gloom raises a heavy camera to his shoulder. They are going to record Diana in the act of taking things that are not hers. Will it matter that Jack asked her to? Probably not. A court won’t care about a fifteen-year-old’s permission.

  Cheryl seizes the rim of the briefcase.

  What does she think is in this briefcase? Is there some sheet of paper, some file, that Cheryl’s been looking for all this time? Is decorating a secondary reason for inching through the house, sifting through every drawer, gloating as she discards the possessions of Reed and Laura Fountain? Diana has always thought there is an element of jealousy in Cheryl’s stripping of the house—as if she wants to erase the beautiful situation that once existed there. But maybe she’s wrong. Maybe Cheryl is simply protecting herself.

  The mist changes to a violent downpour. The blond man, the cameraman and Cheryl flinch.

  Diana wrenches free and runs through the pelting rain. Over her shoulder she yells cheerfully, “Bye, Mrs. Rand! Thanks for everything!” Her theory is that on film or tape, her happy voice will deflect the idea that she could possibly be stealing something.

  She reaches her car, throws the laptop and briefcase onto the passenger seat, locks the doors and backs out of the driveway.

  Then she calls Jack. “Good news, I have the briefcase and the laptop. Bad news. Cheryl caught me.”

  * * *

  The ringtone wakes Tris up. Groggy and cranky from the brevity of his nap, he doesn’t want to be with two sisters he doesn’t even know. He climbs into the front with Jack and rubs his eyes against his big brother’s shoulder. Madison collects the toy cars and hands them to Tris, but he turns his face inward to the comfort of the brother he knows. He listens in to Jack’s brief conversation and perks up. “Diana’s coming,” he says. He scrambles over Jack’s lap to reach the door handle. “Diana is my friend,” he explains to Madison and Smithy.

  * * *

  “We’re at the state beach,” Jack tells Diana, and adds, “Don’t let anybody follow you.”

  “People have been following you? Awesome.” Being followed, or following somebody else, is a lifelong dream.

  “Not successfully,” brags Jack.

  Driving toward the beach, Diana checks her mirror. Nobody.

  The heavy rain subsides. By the time she reaches the beach, it’s drizzling, and by the time she reaches the west parking lot, it’s stopped. In the lowering dark of early evening, she just barely makes out Tris running toward her, and Jack racing to catch him. She stops where she is and lets Tris help her out of the car.

  “I had donuts!” Tris says excitedly. “At school I finger painted! My painting wasn’t dry. We left it there.”

  Diana often wonders what Tris thinks about. Moments like this amaze her. In the midst of chaos, nightmare, sudden sister appearances and long bike rides in the rain, an almost-three-year-old thinks first of food (donuts) and second of his own accomplishments (finger painting) and third of his own worries (will he ever see his painting again?)

  Diana picks Tris up and gives him the circle-swing he loves, holding him under his arms and whirling, so his feet stick out. Then she hands Jack his father’s briefcase and laptop. “It wasn’t just Cheryl who caught me. There are guys with cameras there. Furthermore, I had to leave the stairs down. Cheryl knows about the storeroom.”

  “Do you think she’ll go up there?”

  “Someday, but not now.”

  Tris leads Diana to Madison’s car. Madison and Smithy have gotten out. Smithy looks very young in clothes that are too large and Madison looks belligerent, ready to pick an argument.

  Tris examines them briefly, as a visitor to a zoo might pause in front of a habitat. “Those are my sisters,” he tells Diana.

  The girls give each other tight awkward smiles.

  “I’m soaking wet,” says Diana. “Do you mind sitting in my car to talk? We can all fit in mine. I need to turn the vent on high and dry myself off a little.”

  Tris has never sat in Diana’s car. He’s excited and wants to be the first one in and get the best seat. “It isn’t locked,” says Diana. “You go on, Tris. Take Madison and Jack.”

  Diana and her former best friend are alone.

  * * *

  Smithy knows that she has to start. “I’m sorry, Diana.”

  Diana doesn’t say, “Oh, it’s okay.” She doesn’t say, “It doesn’t matter.” She says, “It was awful, Smithy. It hurt that you never wrote or called or answered my e-mails. It was mean.”

  It is a gift of sorts: Diana missed her.

  “It was
mean,” Smithy admits. “But at school I decided never to think. Thinking hurt. You can make a decision not to have thoughts. It’s probably like dieting.” Smithy has never been on a diet. The Fountain kids are lean. “You just decide to cut something out.”

  “But you cut me out!”

  “Yes. And I also cut out my older brother, my little brother and my sister.”

  “Yell at each other later,” calls Jack. “Right now we have to figure out what to do.”

  * * *

  Madison does not want to be in Diana Murray’s car. She isn’t clear why Diana is here to start with or why they need her around. This isn’t Diana’s business.

  She forces her mind to the central issue—how to get Cheryl out. They need more leverage than those photographs. They didn’t come up with anything that might have happened before the murder, and they can’t guess what happened the instant of the murder. Certainly Cheryl will never tell them. Is there a clue in what happened after the murder?

  “Come and live with us,” said Nonny and Poppy, when Dad’s funeral was over. When they had actually lowered a box holding their very own father down into the cold ground.

  But if the children had gone to Missouri, they would have left behind every trace of their parents. Somebody would have bought their house. Nobody would be able to tell that Laura and Reed Fountain had ever lived there. Nobody would go into the little woods to see the initials carved in a heart on a tree. Nobody would visit the graves. (Not that anybody does now; Madison cannot stand getting near the graves. The worst thing about burying Dad was reading over and over again the stone next to his: Laura Courtney Smith Fountain.)

  Again Nonny pleaded. “Live with us.”

  Aunt Cheryl took the children aside. “Your grandmother is destroyed by your father’s death. Your grandfather has health problems. You must not worry them. They’re sweet to ask you to live with them, but they can’t handle it.”

  Jack summoned the courage to say, “We’ll stay here. We belong here.”

  But almost immediately, they didn’t belong there. Cheryl hired a maid and stopped doing any housework. She stopped cooking and bought dinners at a catering deli. It was her house now, and she was all house, all the time. The kids were treated like furniture, expected to sit quietly against the walls and make no noise.

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