Everybody said they were such a lovely couple. So when they took her away in a body bag and put him, handcuffed, in the back seat of a police car, I knew, as I have always known, that things are never what they seem.
My name is Annie Walker and I've lived across the street from Lucy and Dex Parker for the last six years. It's a quiet cul-de-sac called Amity Lane in what used to be a drowsy little town called Suffolk. But because it's located only seventy miles northeast of a big fat city, people like Dex and Lucy have been migrating here for something they call "quality of life." Dex is a film editor who commutes to the city when he has a job and spends his time "between films" making birdhouses that look like diners and fast food joints that sell for pretty good prices in those upscale country stores. Lucy is a magazine writer who does most of her work at home on a computer that's IBM compatible. They're both "freelance" which means they spend more time looking for jobs than actually doing them.
I'm retired which means I spend more time looking out my window and listening to gossip than I ought to. But I'm only working to one deadline these days and it's still a few years off so why shouldn't I contemplate the problems of the environment and human nature once in a while? Sometimes there's a lot to contemplate. Which brings me back to Dex and Lucy. I never would have thought he was capable of murdering her, but it just goes to show how wrong you can be.
"He beat her, you know. All the time," said Iris, my neighbor to the east. "They say he has a violent temper and she lived in fear of him."
I'm a little skeptical about that mysterious collective referred to as "they." The conclusions they reach are often as questionable as the great collective itself. "They," I've been told, think I'm a little strange because I choose to go everywhere on foot rather than in a motorized vehicle. My answer to that is that if more of them went around on foot, maybe we wouldn't have so many problems with the environment.
"You know what they say about those quiet types," said Iris. "They're always the ones that explode when you're least expecting it. That poor girl," she opined, "how she must have suffered."
And they seemed like such a nice couple, I thought. What went on behind those stucco walls that led Dex to plunge a knife into Lucy's back? You have to hate someone a lot to take their life with your own hands. Did Dex hate Lucy that much? The police seemed to think so. They charged him based on the fact that, even though he had phoned them to report his wife's death, his fingerprints were all over the murder weapon and she had been killed less than half an hour before he called the police. No one else had been seen to enter or leave the house and there was no other possible explanation. Dex, however, denied having killed her and hired a lawyer from the city, Arthur Diamond, to defend him.
Less than two days later, my phone rang and it was Arthur Diamond himself, calling to tell me his client, Dex Parker, wanted to see me. He was being held, without bail, at the medium security prison in Stalmaster. Would I like Mr. Diamond to arrange for a car to pick me up and take me there? "I'll take the train," I said. "Thanks anyway, but it seems a terrible waste of fossil fuel just to transport one person." Fine, he replied, with a patience gleaned from years of dealing with criminals and lunatics, I'll set up an appointment at your convenience.
I had no reason not to go the next day so Mr. Diamond made the arrangements and I set off at nine in the morning for my appointment with Dex at eleven. It was a beautiful day, but then July is always beautiful in these parts. As I watched the countryside roll by, I wondered why Dex wanted to see me. He hadn't asked me to bring him anything, so he must have wanted to talk to me about something. The only connection I had to him was that I had known his mother when we were at school together. Rita Parker, or Manley as she was then, was a Suffolk girl who had headed for the big city as soon as she graduated from high school. She had married well and Dex had been her only child. Her husband had died when Dex was only ten and Rita never remarried. One year after Dex and Lucy moved to Suffolk, Rita sold her downtown condo and moved lock, stock and antiques back to the place where she had started and couldn't wait to leave forty years ago. She was always popping in when Dex was there, but whenever he was in the city you never saw her. I couldn't tell you if she and Lucy got along or not. Maybe Rita just didn't want to disturb Lucy when she was working on her IBM compatible.
I arrived at the prison at ten minutes to eleven. It was a two-story pentagon, all electronic doors and gleaming linoleum. The lighting was fluorescent and the walls an unpleasant institutional beige. Actually, beige is too warm a word. It was more the color of Lucy's computer, a kind of hard plastic off-white.
I could only talk to Dex through a plexi-glass partition that divided a long wooden table, just like I had seen on T.V. I knew to pick up the phone receiver and I waited for him to speak first.
"Hello Annie," he said. "I want to thank you for coming all the way out here to see me."
"I don't mind, Dex," I said. "It's a beautiful day and I enjoyed the train ride." I immediately regretted saying it when I saw the look of longing that passed across his eyes. "I'm sorry, Dex. I didn't mean to be unkind."
"I know, Annie," he said. "I'm sure you've never been in a situation like this before. One doesn't generally keep up on prison etiquette." His smile was pathetic but he wasn't asking for pity. He was trying to help me relax.
"Everybody thinks I killed her," he said suddenly, "even my own mother." He seemed bewildered, as if he disbelieved his own words.
"Did you?" I asked. I wanted to hear him say it.
"No, of course not. How could I?" he demanded. "I loved her." His voice cracked on the word love and I wondered if he had really loved her or if he just believed he did. There's a difference.
"I'm sorry, Dex," I said. "But the evidence is so damning."
"I know. That's why nobody believes me. That's why my mother must think I did it." He was chewing on his lip as if it helped him form his words. "Will you talk to her Annie? I know you two go way back and I don't know who else to ask. I can't let her go on thinking I killed Lucy. She'll make herself sick over it."
"I'll do my best, Dex," I said. "I promise."
Rita Parker lived in one of the finer old homes off Main Street. It was a grand Victorian mansion that she had decorated with the help of a very expensive city designer. It was a real showplace and reflected everything she was and everything she had to great effect. I rang the doorbell and Eric, one half of the German couple she employed, showed me into a satin-swathed sitting room the size of my whole house.
"Annie, how good of you to come in my time of trouble," she said, sounding rich and tragic. She was swathed in silk like the sitting room. "Bring us tea please, Eric," she said over her shoulder. She led me to the sofa and we sat down. "Isn't it awful about my poor boy," she sighed. "I still can't believe what's happened."
"I'm sure it's all a terrible mistake, Rita. Dex couldn't have done such a dreadful thing."
The color rose in her cheeks as if the maternal fires had been stoked. "She drove him to it," she said. "He would never have laid a hand on her if she hadn't provoked him."
"But you can't believe that. He's your son, Rita."
"Of course I believe it," she said. "I saw how she treated him, didn't I? She was so cruel to him. He never should have married her, but I couldn't stop it. They married without my consent."
Eric brought the tea and we talked about Dex being in Stalmaster and how worried Rita was that he wasn't getting enough vitamins. "I'm sure he's not getting fresh fruit and vegetables there, let alone fresh air and exercise," she said. The whole time she spoke her hands were busy pleating the fabric of her skirt between her fingers. She was distracted and worried and even though I had never warmed to her as a friend, I felt sorry for her and wished I could comfort her.
"I know for a fact they have a huge vegetable garden that the prisoners tend," I said, trying to offer her some hope. "And I'm pretty sure they do it without chemical fertilizers."
"Yes, it's true," she said, tightening her fingers around the pleats in her skirt, "but those guards take it all home. It's not for the prisoners at all."
I could see she didn't want to be comforted, at least not by me and when I thought about it later, I realized it was much easier and more natural for a mother to worry about her son's health in prison than to worry about why he was there and what was going to happen to him if he went to trial. I still couldn't believe she thought he was guilty of murder, but I knew in my mind it was all tied up with mother love. Lucy had taken her son away from her and, in Rita's eyes, Dex killing his wife had reaffirmed his love for his mother. Those of us who are not mothers can never be privy to the complex emotions that define that role. Rita Parker belonged to an exclusive club of which I was not a member.
I had told Dex I would try and convince her of his innocence, but I could see this wasn't the right time. I resolved to try again, sometime soon. Maybe some new evidence would present itself, something that would point the finger away from Dex. I sent a note off to Dex telling him I'd seen his mother and she was still pretty upset and worried about his health. I didn't tell him she was convinced he was a murderer, I just told him I would keep in touch and let him know how she was doing. He wrote back and said please don't give up; I can bear anything but the idea that she thinks I'm guilty.
I suppose every small town has someone that used to be called a village idiot, but for reasons of sensitivity is now called special or challenged. I used to like the expression "idiot savant," coming from the French for "learned fool" and somehow giving special status to someone who was different from run-of-the-mill normal people. Nowadays you can't call anyone an idiot unless you mean to insult them. A pity, I think; it's a lovely word gone to waste. Anyway, Suffolk is fortunate to have someone special in our midst in the person of Merle. Merle must be pushing forty by now, but to the people of Suffolk he's never grown up and they treat him like the perpetual child he is in some ways. What one can appreciate about Merle is a simple, pure honesty that is rarely found in our complex, screwed-up world. He never lies. He doesn't have to. Merle sees life unfold before him in a series of unconnected vignettes, like little one-act plays that add up to nothing more than a collection of stories. No different from a collection of bottle caps or baseball cards.
No one thought to ask Merle if he had seen anyone near the Parker house on the day Lucy died. Merle does bicycle deliveries for Harmony's Drugstore and because he has an exceptional memory, he never makes a mistake or forgets his route for the day. He does the deliveries in exactly the order Mr. Harmony gives them to him and always gets the right package to the right customer. Of course it didn't even occur to Mr. Harmony to tell the police that Merle made a delivery on Amity Lane on the day Lucy lost her life. It was only by chance that Alice Clarke, the recipient of the package from Harmony's, mentioned it to me in quite another context. We were talking about her allergies and she was telling me that ever since Doc Spencer had changed her medication she had been feeling drowsy. "It was the day that poor girl Lucy was murdered," she said. "Merle brought me the new prescription and I started taking it right away. I've barely been able to keep my eyes open since."
"What time was that?" I asked, my curiosity aroused.
"Just before lunch," she said, "and it was a good thing too because you're not supposed to take the stuff on an empty stomach."
I felt my excitement mounting as I told her to give John Spencer a call and suggest he reduce the dosage. We parted quickly at that point, she to call the doctor and me to locate Merle. I had to talk to him, because if Dex hadn't killed Lucy, then someone else had and that someone would have had to enter and leave Amity Lane and the house to do it. Merle had been on the street at the approximate time of the murder and maybe, just maybe he had noticed something.
I found him at the school playground watching a bunch of kids on skateboards. He applauded each spectacular display of skill and every time a kid fell off, his standard response was "Uh-oh. Wipeout!" I hated to interrupt his fun, but he didn't seem to mind and gave me the same full attention he had given to the kids. He nodded when I asked him to remember the day he had delivered Alice Clarke's medication and if he had seen anything or anybody else on the street that morning.
"Car," he said, still nodding his head up and down.
"Whose car?" I asked, knowing as I asked that he probably didn't connect cars with their owners.
"Blue car" was all I could get out of him, but it was something and it meant that somebody had been with Lucy before her body was discovered by Dex and maybe that person had killed her.
I walked over to the drugstore with Merle and bought us both an ice cream cone. I also confirmed with Gus Harmony that Alice's delivery had taken place around the time she said it had. I told him I thought it might be important and I was going to tell the police about it. He agreed with me and offered to call them right then and there.
That evening, when the O.P.P. officer came asking for the details of my conversations with Alice and Merle, I questioned him about the progress of the case.
"Nothing much to go on so far, Mrs. Walker," he said, "but this could prove to be a valuable lead. Knowing it's a blue car will help, but I have to tell you it's a heck of a big job to trace a car by its color. There's a lot of blue cars around."
I asked him if they'd had any other leads come to light since the murder and offered him one of my super-moist chocolate brownies to give him time to think.
"Well," he said between mouthfuls, "there's just the fact that she seems to have had an abortion about a week before her death. We questioned Mr. Parker about it and he said he knew about it. It had been her decision, he said, and there had been no discussion. Kind of makes you wonder, don't it?"
"About what?" I asked, pouring him more coffee.
"About whether they were getting along so well. I mean, maybe I'm old-fashioned, but isn't that something married couples usually discuss? Now I'm not saying the decision shouldn't be hers, but you'd think he'd have an opinion about it."
"Did he say he wanted the baby?" I asked.
"Didn't say boo," said the officer. "Didn't say boo."
The next morning I was in my garden pulling weeds when Rita Parker drove up to Dex's house. I waved to her and got to my feet to ask how she was doing.
"Not so bad," she sighed. "I just wish we didn't have to go to trial. Dex refuses to plead guilty and this whole thing is going to drag on for months, I just know it."
"Maybe he isn't guilty," I said. "Have you thought of that, Rita?"
"Oh Annie, I wish I could believe that. But I know when people find out what she did to him, they'll understand and they'll see it was self-defense. Dex is not a killer, Annie. He's a man with a great burden on his heart."
"I'm sure he is," I said.
"Well, I must hurry," she said. "Dex asked me to get some books for him and I want to get over to Stalmaster this afternoon."
She rushed off and I got back down on my knees and started pulling weeds with a vengeance. I was baffled by her absolute conviction that her son was guilty. It was as if, as his mother, she had special knowledge that the rest of us couldn't comprehend. Her connection to her son was as mysterious as Merle's perfect memory. As I was rolling all this over in my mind, I saw Merle riding his bike with a delivery from Harmony's. He pulled up in front of Alice Clarke's and before he got halfway up the walk she came running out to meet him. She waved the small white bag at me and shouted, "He changed the prescription." I smiled and nodded my head.
"Good," I said. "I'm glad."
Merle got back on his bike and pulled up in front of my house. He stopped and planted his feet on the ground and pointed across the street.
"Blue car," he said, pointing at Rita Parker's dark blue sedan.
"Yes, Merle," I said, "but that's Dex's mother's car. That's not the same car you saw." I hadn't even noticed that Rita's car was blue; I had pictured light blue when Merle had told me about the blue car and Rita's car was a dark navy, almost black, with a lighter blue interior.
"Blue car," said Merle, nodding his head up and down. He was still nodding as he pedaled away.
I stood there for a long time after Merle had gone, looking at that blue car. Finally I crossed the street and went in the side door of Dex's house. She was sitting at the kitchen table absorbed in her thoughts. A pile of books and magazines was by her right elbow. "Did you do it, Rita?" I asked in a quiet voice.
She raised her eyes to look at me and her expression was one of utter sadness, reaching as far into her soul as anything that had ever touched Rita Parker.
"You don't understand," she said. "She killed my son's baby."
After it was all over and Dex was back home, I went over one afternoon with a plate of brownies. He was packing books in a cardboard box, preparing to move back to the city.
"I guess I'll need a lot of distractions for the next little while," he said, blowing the dust off a copy of David Copperfield.
"Yes, I expect so," I said. He made some coffee and after a while he started to tell me the few things I didn't already know.
"I was relieved when she told me she wasn't going to have the baby," he said. "Lucy would have been a terrible mother. Not just a bad mother, but cruel. She had a mean streak in her and a vicious temper, you know. My mother knew that about her and kept saying that Lucy abused me and I should leave her. I wanted to leave her, but I couldn't bring myself to do it because my mother wanted it so bad. I didn't want to do it for her. Do you know what I'm saying?"
It was the same way he had looked at me when I had visited him at Stalmaster. Pathetic, but not wanting pity. "Yes," I said. "I know what you're saying."
"I asked Lucy not to tell Mother about the baby or the abortion. I knew it would hurt Mother and cause a lot of unnecessary trouble. But Lucy just had to tell her. She must have told her that morning and I guess it was all too much for Mother. She'd always hated Lucy but I never realized how much." He looked bewildered and unhappy.
"She was willing to let me go to jail for murder," he said.
"She never thought that would happen, Dex," I said. "She honestly believed you would be set free, that people would realize you were justified in killing Lucy. 'He's not a killer,' she told me. 'He's a man with a heavy burden on his heart.' She might have been saying it about herself."
"Yeah," he said. "I guess."