Like a police car’s siren, the shriek penetrated his slumber.
Startled from a deep sleep, but still groggy with it, Dr. Sam Sheppard pushed up on his elbows as the siren became a scream, a woman’s scream, Marilyn’s scream, from their bedroom above.
Then: “Sam! Sam!”
He clambered from the daybed, positioned against the stairway wall, and started quickly up. The last he knew, he and his wife had been entertaining another couple, good enough friends to understand that after twelve tough hours at the hospital, he might crap out on the couch like this, no harm done. So the house was dark, company had gone home, with Marilyn off to bed.
Nothing unusual about any of it.
Even the cries from above, however concerning, did not alarm him. Marilyn, four months pregnant, might have been having convulsions, as when she carried their son Chip. The boy right now was in the bedroom beyond theirs, a sound sleeper like his dad.
These thoughts flashed through his mind in a few seconds.
But as the screams continued, and his thoughts came into focus, he knew something much worse than convulsions was wrong. He took the several steps to the landing, then at the top of the stairs, which rose vertically to meet the horizontal hallway, he found the door to their bedroom open. The screaming had stopped now, replaced by a raspy gurgling, and a figure in the darkness—a night-light from behind Sam providing scant illumination—was hovering over Marilyn, who was on her back. The figure was flailing, but then moved across his vision, in a blur of almost glowing white.
Sam rushed inside the bedroom to help his wife, who was moaning now, but first there was an intruder to deal with. He grabbed at the formless figure with its white torso, grappled with it in a fashion Sam hadn’t experienced since high school wrestling days. The grunting of their struggle joined the bubbling groans from the bed, when something struck him from behind.
Struck him hard.
The world went red, then black, as Sam fell to the floor.
When he awoke, he had no idea how long he’d been unconscious—a minute? An hour?
Feeling punch-drunk, he was on his stomach at the foot of the bed, his feet out the door and in the hallway. His dazed condition eased while the throbbing pain at the back of his neck—had that been a judo chop?—did not, and he pushed himself up, noticing his open wallet flung nearby, his badge (he was the local police physician) catching the dim light and winking at him. Absentmindedly, he stuffed the wallet in his pocket and he got shakily to his feet.
Even in the near darkness, he could see Marilyn, on her back, in her diamond-pattern pajamas, almost floating in blood, a damp veil of it covering her face, its coppery smell all pervasive. He checked her neck for a pulse that wasn’t there. Just enough illumination came from the night-light across the hall to reveal the unsettling shimmer of blood splashed on the walls.
He backed away from the horror and hurried to the room next door, Chip’s room, finding him deep asleep. Before he could even feel a sense of relief that his son had been spared, from violence, from the screams of his mother, the boy slumbering and blessedly unaware of their loss, Sam heard movement downstairs.
Lithely muscular, a thirty-year-old six-footer, Sam—in the T-shirt, slacks and moccasin-style slippers he’d sacked out in—ran down the stairs. In the darkness but silhouetted against the windows onto the lake, no glow of white now, was a nonetheless discernible form, a dark human form that must have heard him coming, because it, he, moved quickly across the living room and to and through the door onto the screened-in porch, facing the lake.
Sam followed the dark figure outside, through the screen door and across the narrow backyard, then down the thirty-six steps to the bathhouse on its platform eight feet above the lakeshore. As before, this was just a silhouette, but a silhouette of what appeared to be a man, a big man with a good-sized head and bushy hair.
Rattling down the remaining few steps, Sam caught up with him, and tackled him to the sand. Waves were hitting the shore as violently as the struggle on the strip of foamy beach rolling in nearby. Again, Sam found himself wrestling with an attacker, but when strong fingers gripped his throat and squeezed and squeezed, unconsciousness took him a second time.
When he awoke, he was belly-down on the beach, his feet and legs in the water, where the waves kept churning. His head was on the bank, out of the water, or he might have drowned.
Staggering to his feet, he came slowly to his senses. Was this a nightmare or reality? The cascade of surreal events could only make him wonder. He made his wobbly way up the many steps to return to the scene of horror on the second floor of the house looming above.
At the very least, Marilyn had surely been badly injured by the intruder—intruders?—and the husband, the doctor, went to his wife quickly, through the house, up the stairs. Again he found the scent of copper and the splash of blood and a woman with no pulse.
In a daze, he began to pace aimlessly, first upstairs, then down, and up again, and every time he re-entered the bedroom he hoped he would wake from this bizarre bad dream. But one final examination confirmed Marilyn was gone.
There would be no waking from this, for either of them.
He wandered downstairs, disoriented, sleepwalking through the kitchen, through his study and living room and finally he became focused enough to find the phone and call for help.
But what good had crying for help done his wife?
* * *
“What,” Erle Stanley Gardner asked me, “do you think of his story?”
The story, of course, belonged to Dr. Sam Sheppard of Bay Village, Ohio, whose wife Marilyn had been murdered in the early-morning hours of July 4, 1954. Dr. Sam, as many called him (including the Cleveland media who’d crucified him), was found guilty of her murder on December 21 of that year. He was currently in a maximum-security prison in Columbus.
“It stinks,” I said.
I had followed the case, which had made the Chicago papers—it got a lot of national coverage—and the accused husband’s account had been repeated again and again.
“I mean, your melodramatic touches improve it,” I granted, “but it’s still about as believable as a flying saucer sighting. I mean, who the hell gets knocked out twice in one fight?”
We were seated in Gardner’s knotty-pine office in the sprawling main house of his thousand-acre ranch outside tiny Temecula, California. The creator of Perry Mason and so many big-city mysteries was a would-be Westerner, with a tanned, weather-beaten oval face and snap-button open-collar tan shirt with black trim as evidence. He was one of those men of average height who seemed taller because of wide shoulders and a stout build, his brown hair going gray but the dark eyes retaining a boyish twinkle behind round-lens glasses with dark plastic frames.
“That’s what the jury thought,” Gardner said, between puffs of his pipe. “But much as I prize our system of justice, sometimes juries do get it wrong.”
“Sometimes it’s given to juries wrong,” I said.
I was not a Westerner, and my suit was strictly big city, a dark brown Botany 500 with a brown-and-yellow silk tie. I’d been more casually dressed when I’d driven the near two hours plus down from Los Angeles.
Copyright © 2020 by Max Allan Collins