Monday, June 3, 2013
Katherine McCall stood at the broken front gate and stared at the words that had been spray-painted in black across the yellow clapboard siding. Simple. Ugly. A warning.
We know u did it
No surprise there. Kat shifted her gaze. The once sunny yellow had turned forlorn. The white trim was peeling, the gardens overgrown and overrun by weeds. She pictured it as it had been the last time she’d seen it, ten years ago. The cute gingerbread cottage with the white picket fence, gardenias in bloom, their fragrance potent in the June sun.
Not her childhood home. No, that had been a grand estate on the Tchefuncte River. Plantation grand—with white columns and a double gallery, a sweeping expanse of lawn with ancient live oaks and century-old magnolias. A swimming pool and cabana. A guesthouse and tennis courts. A home befitting the owner of McCall Oil.
No, this had been her sister Sara’s cottage. Her first home, her pride and joy.
As it had turned out, the only home Sara would ever own.
Regret and grief washed over Kat, as piercing as a fresh wound. If she hadn’t been such a selfish little shit back then, maybe Sara would be alive today. Maybe her murderer wouldn’t have had the opportunity.
Kat reined in her thoughts, the regret. She couldn’t change the past, no matter how hard she fought accepting it, no matter how far or fast she ran from it.
Being back in Liberty was an acknowledgment of that.
Kat unlatched the gate and stepped through. She’d thought she would never return. She had promised herself she wouldn’t.
Yet here she was. The scene of the crime. The place her life had come to a bloody, screeching halt.
She started up the walkway, heartbeat quickening. Breath coming fast and thin. Kat forced herself to keep moving, to put one foot in front of the other. She reached the porch steps. Three of them, though it could have been a hundred by the way she dreaded climbing them.
She did anyway. Crossed to the front door. With unsteady hands, she fit the key into the lock, turned it and stepped into the foyer.
Cousin Jeremy had opened the cottage and had it cleaned for her. The smell of the polish and cleaners still hung in the air. She closed the door behind her but didn’t move.
Her gaze went to the spot where she’d found Sara. In a crumpled heap, blood pooled around her in the shape of an amoeba.
An amoeba. Kat remembered thinking that. She had just studied the single-cell organisms in science class.
She stared at the floor, unable to tear her gaze away. The blood had subtly stained the honey-colored wood, creating a faint but permanent shadow.
Or was that her imagination?
The doorbell sounded.
Startled, she jumped, then, hand to her chest, peeked out the sidelight. A man. Dark hair. Good-looking. Holding up a badge.
The sight of it knocked the breath out of her.
“Miss Katherine, I’m afraid you’re going to have to come with me.”
“Ms. McCall? Sergeant Luke Tanner. Liberty P.D.”
Kat gazed at him, suddenly seeing the resemblance. Now, there was a name she had never wanted to hear again.
She nodded and opened the door. “Hello, Sergeant. Did you say Tanner?”
“Any relationship to Chief Stephen Tanner?”
“Perfect.” The sarcasm slipped past her lips before she could stop it. “Sorry, your dad and I have some uncomfortable history together.”
“Funny, he and I do as well.”
She surprised herself and smiled. “How can I help you, Sergeant Tanner?”
He motioned to the graffiti across the front of the house. “I heard from Mrs. Bell across the street that you’d had a little trouble already, thought I’d stop by and check it out.”
“Iris Bell’s still alive? I thought she was a hundred ten years ago.”
Kat could see he wanted to smile but thought better of it. His brown eyes crinkled at the corners. He cleared his throat. “Probably just kids, but we’ll be keeping a close eye on the house, stepping up drive-bys and the like.”
“I appreciate that, Sergeant Tanner. And I’m sure Iris Bell will be stepping up her surveillance as well.”
Again, he struggled not to smile. “This is a small town, Ms. McCall, everybody knows everybody and their everything. To that end, you might as well call me Luke.”
“I remember you now. Local football hero. You were off to college before I got to Tammany West High.” She cocked her head. “You were a bit of a hell-raiser, am I right?”
He laughed. “So now you understand my comment about bad history with my dad. We all carry our pasts around on our backs.”
“Or written on our foreheads,” she said. “A bloodred ‘M’ on mine.”
He glanced toward the graffiti, expression serious. “Yes, well, don’t hesitate to call if something comes up.”
She followed him onto the front porch. He stopped when he reached the stairs and turned back to her. “I don’t know why you came back to Liberty, Ms. McCall, but little towns have long memories. People don’t forget. You’d be wise to keep that in mind.”
She watched him drive off. How could she not? She had the longest memory of them all.
Four days before the murder
Sara stood on the front porch, waiting for Kat. She glanced at her watch. Just past four thirty. Any moment, her sister would come trotting around the corner. Bubbling over about how well softball practice had gone. Playing Miss Innocent to the very hilt.
But she hadn’t been to practice. Not today. Not once. Lying little sneak.
On cue, Kat arrived, baseball bat propped on her right shoulder. She was smiling.
Not for long. Sara struggled to control her anger. She shook with it. Deep down. All the way to her core.
She needed her wits about her when she confronted her sister. Kat was going to pitch a holy fit. It could get really ugly. If she let it.
Calm, Sara. In control. You’re the adult.
The truth was, she didn’t have the heart for this right now. She didn’t have the energy. Not with everything else going on. But she didn’t have a choice. She was Katherine’s guardian.
“Hi, Sissy,” Kat called, jogging up the steps.
“How was softball?”
If Kat heard the sarcasm in her tone, she didn’t show it. “Great. I’m getting really good.”
“Yes, you are.” Sara held out her hand. “I’ll take the bat.”
She looked confused but handed it over. “What’s up?”
“Jig’s up, kiddo. You’re grounded.”
“Why? Let’s try that you’ve been lying to me. I found out everything, Kat. What you’ve been doing and who you’ve been doing it with.” She paused, watching as the reality of what she was saying sank in. “He’s twenty years old. You’re seventeen. No.”
Kat’s expression darkened. “You can’t tell me what to do or who I can see.”
“The hell I can’t. I’m your guardian and that’s exactly what I’m doing.”
“That’s not fair!”
Sara almost laughed. “Tough. Life’s not fair.” And boy, did she know it. If it was, their parents wouldn’t have died and she wouldn’t have been saddled with raising an obnoxious teenager.
“I hate you!” Kat shouted. “You’re ruining my life!”
Sara didn’t even flinch. It wasn’t the first time her younger sister had shouted those words at her. She was certain it wouldn’t be the last. “Stop with the drama, Katherine. If anyone’s life’s being ruined, it’s mine.”
“Then emancipate me.”
They had been here before, as well. “Emancipate yourself. You’re seventeen.”
“Then I won’t get my money.”
“That’s right, little sister. So, either go without ‘your’ money or live by my rules.”
“I wish I’d died with Mom and Dad! Then I wouldn’t have to live with you!”
It took every scrap of Sara’s self-control not to shout back that she wished that too. That she wanted her life back. That caring for Kat had become like a prison sentence.
But she didn’t. She loved her sister—at least the kid she used to be. In the past year, that girl had disappeared and this creature had taken her place.
“Wow, Kat, I love the way you’re playing the victim here. You’re not the one who’s been lied to for weeks. Girls’ softball? You didn’t think I’d find out eventually? I’ve got to hand it to you, though, our trip to the sporting goods store to get everything you needed was pretty convincing.”
Sara wanted to slap the smirk off her face. “What were you doing all those afternoons you were supposedly at practice? Were you with this Ryan boy? Or that group of kids I told you to stay away from? They’re bad kids, Kat.”
“You don’t know anything about them!”
A breeze stirred the azalea bushes beside the porch. In full bloom, they provided a brilliant shock of color; from the magnolia blossoms on the tree to her right floated a sweet, almost lemony fragrance.
Sara breathed in the colors, the smell, using nature’s beauty to calm her. She was the grown-up here, she reminded herself. Kat had been through so much.
“Kit-Kat,” she pleaded, using their mother’s pet name for her, “I’m worried about you. The girl I know doesn’t do things like this. Talk to me. No problem’s too big we can’t work it out together.”
Kat’s face softened, tears filled her eyes. “You don’t know what it’s like. All the other kids have their moms and dads. And mine—” She choked on the last, a tear rolling down her cheek.
Sara’s heart hurt for her. She held out a hand. “I know what you’re going through. I’m going through it, too.”
“You don’t know. I was twelve when they died, you were grown up.”
Just out of university, at her first teaching job. Barely on her own two feet. “But I still needed them, too. I miss them every day.”
“Why’d they have to die?”
She started to cry and Sara took her in her arms. “I don’t know. And I wish I could change things, but I can’t.”
“I’m sorry I lied to you. It’s just that—” She sniffled, her face against Sara’s shoulder. “The only time I’m happy is when I’m with my friends. They understand me. They make it … stop hurting. That’s why I lied about where I was.”
Something in her sister’s tone didn’t ring true. A cloying quality. Sara frowned as a suspicion wormed its way into her head: Was she being played?
Kat went on. “You don’t know them the way I do. They’re really good kids. Please don’t take them away from me, too.”
Sara’s resolve wavered. She’d heard things from the other teachers about the group. They had warned her to keep Kat away from them. But that was all secondhand information. There was a reason the courts didn’t allow hearsay as testimony, right?
Sara glanced across the street. Old Mrs. Bell stood on her front porch. Listening to every word. Or trying to.
“I tell you what, Kit-Kat, have them over here. Let me get to know them. If they’re the kids you say they are, I’ll feel comfortable letting you hang out with them.”
“Sure.” She smiled. “I just have to know you’re safe.”
“You’re the best!” Kat hugged her. “Can they come over tonight?”
“You’re still grounded, Kat.”
“But you just said—”
“That I’ll give your friends a chance. And I will. After you do your punishment.”
“Two weeks. And I’m taking your phone, car and computer.”
“You can’t do that! How am I supposed to get to school?”
“I’ll drive you.” Kat looked horrified. “And the answer’s still no about you and this Ryan dude. He’s too old for you.”
Before her sister could squeal her protest, she dropped the final bomb. “Cousin Jeremy suggested I start drug-testing you. And I think he’s right.”
“What?” The one word conveyed outrage and innocence. “I can’t believe you don’t trust me!”
“Are you kidding? Really?” Sara folded her arms across her chest. “If you’ve got nothing to worry about, what’s the problem?”
Kat stared at her, her face an open book as she stuttered and searched for the right response.
She had been playing her. Little brat.
“Give me your car keys.” She held out her hand. “Now.”
“I lied before. I wish you were dead. Then I wouldn’t have to put up with your shit!”
“Want to say it a little louder? I don’t think all of Liberty heard you.”
“I wish you were dead!” she screamed, turning toward the street. “You hear that, everyone? I wish my stupid sister were dead!”
Kat threw the car keys. Sara reacted just in time not to take them square in the face. They grazed her cheek before hitting the wall and dropping to the floor. It stung; her eyes teared up and she brought her hand to her cheek.
But instead of apologizing, Kat stormed past her into the house. A moment later, she heard a door slam.
Sara sank onto the porch step and dropped her head into her shaking hands. What was she going to do? She was frustrated. Overwhelmed and exhausted. And it wasn’t just the situation with Kat. It seemed every part of her life had spun out of control as well, situations that made dealing with a rebellious teenager a piece of cake.
Mom, Dad, why’d you have to go out that night? Why’d your path have to cross that drunk’s?
She couldn’t do this alone. But who could she trust? It seemed like everyone had either turned against her or had their own agenda. If ever she could have used a miracle, it was now.
Copyright © 2013 by Erica Spindler