Copyright © 2016 by Pamela Crane
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means including information storage and retrieval systems—except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews—without written permission.
The characters and events portrayed in this book are fictitious or are used fictitiously. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental and not intended by the author.
Cover Design: Vanessa Maynard
Other books by Pamela Crane:
The Little Things That Kill Series
The Scream of Silence
The Art of Fear
The Admirer’s Secret
A Fatal Affair
The Killer Thriller Series
A Secondhand Life
A Secondhand Lie
I came into this life kicking and screaming, and I haven’t stopped since. But a blinking moment is sometimes the only chance we get to turn life around. One opportunity, one shot at redemption. Unfortunately, I had missed my chance…
Her face was contorted in a soundless scream, her skin a sickly marlin blue. My heart caught momentarily, but not in the same fear-struck manner that laboring mothers feel at the sound of nothingness immediately after birth. For me the silence was the gift of relief. Then a breath later her piercing wail shattered that hope.
The wriggling limbs. The squirming body. A sharp cry.
I couldn’t tell you what I ate for dinner last night, but twenty-three years later I remember that day in excruciating detail. 2:03 a.m., a precise ticking of the clock’s hand that announced an event that would never touch me, yet always haunt me, like prickling fingers running across my naked skin. Fingers that would never let go.
She was a tiny, bald, pinkish creature—all 6 pounds 4 ounces of her. Eyes an iconic Indiglo blue, like her mama’s.
Baby Girl Childs.
That was her name, at least according to the flap of paper taped to the transparent plastic bin that the nurses called a bassinet.
The daughter of unwedded, unwanted teenager Destiny Childs. And yes, that’s my real name. The famous R&B girl group of the 1990s was not yet a twinkle in their producer’s eye when my parents named me upon the advice of a fortune cookie: “Your destiny will be what you make it.” I could imagine it now…
My mother, her overhanging belly quivering as tiny feet slithered beneath her taut skin, in a grimy Chinese takeout booth, cuddling in the crook of my dirt-poor father’s armpit. His fingers callused and grimy with construction work labor as they discuss baby names over kung pao chicken. Then suddenly the answer wrapped in a stale but edible pocket: Destiny.
The irony of my name exposed itself unashamedly as life left me far behind. My destiny was little more than a remnant of a lost hope, a sliver of life that I’d never partake in. I’d only watch it from afar, like a foggy dream after being jarred awake. That baby was the only good thing I’d ever do, although I didn’t know it back then.
I was glad Baby Girl Childs lost the corrupt part of me that day when her forever family swooped in to rescue her from my ill-equipped clutches, changing her name and identity. At the time, I was only fifteen and reckless—a “waste of space,” a “cold-hearted bitch,” a “user and abuser” as everyone who knew me or dated me or lived with me said about me. All true. I’m no saint. Wasn’t back then, still not now. But part of me hoped I could change that… just not the biggest part of me. The biggest part of me cared only about me.
Weak, that’s what I am.
I never looked back with regret on that day when I pushed Baby Girl Childs away as the nurse held her out to me for a last-chance embrace. “You wanna hold her, honey?”
“No, take her away,” I insisted, wiping the sweat of labor from my forehead. Tears streamed down my flushed cheeks, but not for the loss of my child. I cried for myself that day.
Baby Girl Childs was a lifetime-ago memory that I stuffed into the hole in my heart and sealed shut… until I heard her name for the first time in two decades.
I knew her name, but she never knew mine. I remembered Eliot and April Beatty from the adoption paperwork, while I remained the shrouded incubation tool tucked behind the red tape. It had been a closed adoption, after all. But I had stalked the Beatty family once upon a time just to check in. Filthy rich. That’s what stuck out to me back then.
Now all that stuck with me was the name on the television screen.
I can’t remember the last time I watched the news, but Fate was pushing her way in to deliver a message.
A miasma of brake fluid, burnt oil, and exhaust fumes wafted from the Sears Auto Center garage into the cement-block waiting room while the mechanic attempted to revive my POS 2004 Chevy Cavalier on the other side of the floor-to-ceiling window smudged with a collage of greasy handprints. It was a miracle the vehicle even made it to the shop as a black cloud billowed out from underneath my hood, but $600-I-didn’t-have later, I was sitting on a vinyl and metal chair watching my daughter’s name flash across the top of the television screen beside a picture of a smiling brunette, pretty in a girl-next-door way. I searched for signs of myself in the heart-shaped face and found them in the wide mouth and pert nose. And the eyes—still that unnatural blue, like charms on an Indian bracelet.
A chyron flashed underneath the photo:
Clarissa Beatty, 23-year-old murder victim
I gave a little gasp. The chair belched against the concrete floor, plastic suckling my bare legs as I shifted forward in my seat toward the wall-mounted TV. The news anchor’s voice came to me as if from the depths of a black void:
“Twenty-three-year-old Clarissa Beatty, daughter of Eliot and April Beatty, owners of the locally-owned Beatty’s Pest Control franchise, was found dead in her Briar Creek apartment yesterday evening.
“Around ten thirty p.m., authorities responded to a call from Beatty’s roommate, Whitney Cardano, when she came home to find Clarissa lying on the floor unresponsive. There was no evidence of a break-in. According to officials, Clarissa was pronounced dead upon their arrival.
“The investigation is ongoing. No information has been released about the circumstances surrounding her death at this time, but police say the incident is being investigated as a homicide.”
As the anchorwoman breezily segued from an innocent girl’s death to the devastating plight of Durham, North Carolina’s lack of funds for road improvements, I sifted through my Rolodex of feelings: an unfamiliar grieving over something I never had.
It wasn’t that I hadn’t known grief. I’d had my fair share and then some. A mother dead from a cocaine overdose just as I ventured into adolescence, setting me permanently on the path to failure. A father who turned me into an orphan when he up and left me months later, a shattered and twisted Riddler of a child with nothing but pranks to pull. Theft, prostitution, drugs, depression—my own butterfly cycle.
Life had left me wilted and worn, but my daughter’s death became my resurrection.
Nerves shuttled from head to toe, churning the stale vending-machine Oreo cookies in my stomach. On the other side of the braggy lion’s-mouth door knocker that I thudded against the Brazilian cherry wood, I could only imagine what Eliot and April Beatty were doing. Probably skinny-dipping in their Olympic-sized pool filled with hundred-dollar bills. Whatever it was, I was sure it was hedonistic.
Too many seconds had passed, so I turned to leave. But a swoosh of linen-scented air ruffled the hair hanging lifeless down my back—raven black, like my soul.
“Can I help you?” a pitchy voice asked, though without feeling.
I pivoted toward the mournful sound, greeted by a woman whose seamless face suggested her gray-streaked ponytail was pulled too tight. Her skin was shiny and translucent, and her eyes bulged like a bratty child holding her breath. I could spot a botched facelift a mile away.
“I’m here about Clarissa Beatty. I heard she passed away.” Cut to the chase—that was the kind of woman I was.
“And you are—?” she replied, waiting for my answer. One over-tweezed eyebrow shot up in a skeptical checkmark.
“My name is Destiny Childs. I’m her biological mother.”
Two hours later I had regurgitated my sad story of beginnings and endings—my childhood, unplanned pregnancy, Clarissa’s birth, followed by a CliffsNotes version of life after life as I lost a mother and father, skirted through foster families, and eventually fell face-first into a life of chaos. Then I concluded with a semi-morsel of truth: I was now sober.
I omitted that I was only twenty hours in and jonesing to get totally blitzed.
I had only needed to excuse myself once to rush to the bathroom in search of something to calm my nerves, since the cucumber finger sandwiches and chamomile tea weren’t doing the job. Sure enough, in the vanity I found an orange prescription bottle of Xanax—every trophy wife’s secret little helper—with half a dozen 2-mg white oblong pills that would smooth the edges of my sanity. I studied the label. April had been prescribed sixty pills just over a week ago—perhaps I wasn’t the one with a problem.
I popped one in my mouth and one in my pocket, in case the visit got much longer. I returned to the great room—and truly it was great, with a cathedral ceiling adorned with polished oak beams and a friggin’ stained-glass skylight—to find palm-sized chocolate mousse tortes garnished with steroid-laden strawberries that I planned to overeat.
“My reason for coming,” I finally got around to, “is that I never got to know Clarissa, and part of me regrets it. I guess… I just want to grieve her. I know I don’t deserve this, but… I dunno how to explain it. Does that make sense?”
Her rosy face bobbed up and down—ponytail causally swinging—as she swiped at tears, then lurched forward to claw me into an overstepping bear hug. “Say no more, sweetie. Of course Clarissa would be honored you are here, that you’re thinking of her… if she knew you were her biological mother, that is.”
I pulled back, partly because of the admission and partly because the touchy-feely was making my claustrophobia act up. “She didn’t know she was adopted?” I asked.
“Well,” April sighed, “we had wanted to find the right time to tell her, but that time never came. It just seemed pointless to crash her world with news like that. It had nothing to do with being ashamed of her past or of you, but we simply never got around to it. I’m sorry to have to tell you that.” Pausing, she lifted her chin, her eyes saucily scanning me for buried secrets. “But I’m curious—how do you know for sure you’re her biological mother? I mean, your story is convincing, but without a DNA test, you can’t know 100 percent.”
Matching her sass for sass, I stared right back, unflinching. “I’d be happy to take a DNA test to prove it.”
My challenge defused the conflict, for April’s tension abated as she warmed. “I’m sorry to be so blunt. It’s just that with Clarissa’s murder and all, I don’t know who to trust anymore. But I would like to take you up on that offer. I hope you’re not offended.”
“No, it’s okay. I understand. I’ll do whatever I can to help make things easier on you.”
A wobbly smile barely creased April’s caricature-esque visage. “You’re a doll,” she said through her grotesquely inflated lips, seeming to throw her voice like a ventriloquist. “I really don’t know how you can help… other than finding who did this to my baby girl. The police don’t have any leads other than her boyfriend—ex-boyfriend. Seemed like a nice boy to me, from a good family. I don’t know why she broke up with him, but one never knows what goes on in a relationship. God knows Clarissa would never tell me things.”
So Clarissa instigated the breakup. Was it enough to be a motive for murder?
I checked the thought, pushing it back where it belonged—into the netherworld. I wasn’t here to solve a murder. I was here for a much grander scheme.
And then an epiphany alighted upon me—a lightbulb moment, an opportunity-in-waiting. “Well, I’m here for anything you need. Do you need help with planning the funeral? Or what about setting up donations for a cause she was passionate about?” My breath caught in the conversational wake.
April’s hazelnut eyes scrutinized me warily, as if assessing the phantom behind a comedy and tragedy mask. I waited for Melpomene to strike, as tragedy always had something against me. But today the Greek muse was MIA.
“What a lovely idea, Destiny. I think she was into saving the polar ice caps. In fact, what if you set up a charity and handle the accounting for that?”
I had absolutely no idea how one even went about saving a polar ice cap, but it didn’t matter.
“Absolutely. I’m honored. I’ll open up a donations account and get you the information. Maybe I can even name the charity after her: The Clarissa Beatty Save The Ice Caps Foundation.” A laughable tribute, but April was already tearfully on board.
She rose from the sterile-white stiff sofa that clearly cost more than my childhood ghetto townhouse—hell, even my current residence—and briskly strutted to a custom-crafted mahogany rolltop desk. Four-inch Miu Miu peep-toes click-clicked across the Italian calacatta marble floors, announcing classiness with every step. Through my Dollar Tree turquoise flip-flops (a shade of blue that matched my eyes) I could feel an unnatural warmth rise from the polished limestone. I imagined a two-year-old version of Clarissa sock-skating across the smooth floors, slipping along as gravity—coupled with an tenuous sense of balance—tossed her to and fro.
A bold, bona fide Wassily Kandinsky adorned a two-story wall to one side of the room, the abstract shapes and primary colors screaming for attention amid the vast white space. Hideously amateur, I always thought. The handicraft of a precocious child with a paintbrush, if I hadn’t known better—and yes, I’m more cultured than I’m given credit at first glance, a fact belied by my thrift store tank top and ripped jeans. I’ve made it a point to school myself in the arts and the finer things of life, because a guttersnipe never knows when she’ll have to try to fit in with her “betters.” It’s amazing how much hoity-toity trivia one can pick up just reading fashion and architecture magazines.
Clickety-clacking back to me, April held a blue fabric pouch and gold pen, her scribbles scraping against the echoing silence. A tear of paper later, she held out a check. “How about I make the first donation?”
My flesh ached over the number of zeroes: $10,000.
And thus began the story that would sweep me from Tragedy’s grip into the abundant hands of Destiny.
Whitney Cardano, Clarissa’s lifelong best friend and roommate, talked a mile a minute, only occasionally coming up for air. It was astounding how much the girl could talk without saying anything. But I smiled and nodded—all part of my due diligence.
While a murder investigation wasn’t part of my purpose, something about Clarissa’s death poked at me, egging me on to figure it out. My earlier stop at the Raleigh Police Department precinct in charge of the case provided a few bare-bones details, including that the cops ruled it a murder by alprazolam poisoning. Slipped into her drink, perhaps? Apparently it wasn’t that uncommon, the naïve desk jockey divulged, after a healthy dose of my feminine wiles. After explaining I was family—that, and a gratuitous flash of my cleavage—I coerced a glimpse of the autopsy report, which contained more information than I knew how to interpret. But the most important findings confirmed my suspicions:
Decedent: Clarissa Beatty
Identified by: fingerprints, dental comparison, family identification
External Examination: Well-developed white female with multiple subdural hematomas, one on right wrist and one on upper arm, demonstrative of a physical altercation.
Toxicology: Blood and vitreous fluid positive for alcohols; blood positive for acidic, basic and neutral drugs (alprazolam)
Cause of Death: Poisoning
Manner of Death: Homicide
The cops had questioned the roommate, who led them to the boyfriend, but with his alibi confirmed, the suspect list was at a standstill. But I wasn’t.
That afternoon I decided to visit Whitney at their apartment to see what I could dredge up from her caffeine-befuddled brain. Two empty Starbucks cups sat on the glass-and-chrome coffee table between us, and one shakily in her hand.
Her rear perched on the edge of a hot-pink sofa that would make Bathhouse Barbie envious as she talked animatedly with her hands, every bit the Italian from the over-gesturing to the teased black hair framing an olive face that had seen one too many tanning booths. Her luxury pad was a pastiche of all the lofts and apartments I’d seen in home mags. With easily 1,000 square feet of open gourmet kitchen, a formal tiered-ceiling dining room, and kitschy chic living room space, I could only imagine how much more glitz hid behind the scattered closed doors.
“Me and Clarissa, we were besties since kids. Inseparable,” Whitney chattered, her line of sight exiting stage left as if reliving bygone days. A moment later, she returned to Earth fiercely. “I can’t believe someone would want to hurt her.”
“Any idea who?”
“No, not really. I’m assuming it was some psycho bum or something.”
Wow, this girl never ceased to amaze me with her absurdity.
“You think a homeless man followed her home and killed her?”
“Sure, it happens all the time on the news.”
Rampant homeless murderers, much like Bigfoot and Elvis sightings. Her conviction about this version of the truth was unwavering, so I decided to let the idiocy slide. But I was still curious about the men in Clarissa’s life.
“What about her boyfriend?”
“You mean her ex, Trace Eriksson? God, he was a hottie but a real douche bag. Treated her like he owned her. But killing her—why? He was rich and handsome, could get any girl he wanted… even with that temper of his.”
Who names their kid Trace? A frazzled pill-popping soccer mom with her sidekick nanny burst into my head, next to her frat-boy, baseball-playing son with his clean-shaven chiseled jaw and Abercrombie polo.
“What kind of temper?” I asked.
“Just slamming doors and stuff. Hard to ignore, y’know? But they always made up—I could hear it from my bedroom. Ugh. But at least he made her happy… in his own twisted way. But hey, a guy who looked like that could make any girl happy, if you know what I mean. The boy worked out.” Whitney followed this with a mischievous Groucho Marx eyebrow pop.
I chuckled politely, hoping to stave off further innuendo. “I’m just curious, but what would Clarissa do to make him mad?” My memory ventured back to my parents’ fights—how my mom’s rampant mood swings would send my dad crawling into a vengeful bottle, where he’d stay crocked for days. Fights about nothing—a surefire relationship killer.
“Not really sure,” she replied with a shrug. “Mostly they blew up when she was having a bad day, I guess. It’s like he expected her to be happy all the time. But no one is happy all the time.”
It sounded like my memoir. I considered my own struggle with depression, a cycle of frustrated hopelessness revolting against me, waging war on my psyche. Day after day I would be lost in no-man’s land, yearning to get out, but too mentally drained to surface to the happy-go-luckys around me. It tossed every relationship I ever had overboard. “Do you think maybe Clarissa was depressed?”
“How would I know?” Whitney gave a halfhearted frown and glanced at her cell phone. “Anyhoo, sorry I can’t help you more, but I got yoga in an hour. Gotta get prettied up.” She winked, coupling it with an exaggerated playful smile. “Cute instructor I wanna impress.”
What kind of live-in bestie didn’t know—or care—if her friend was depressed? Perhaps I shouldn’t regret my unpopularity if this was what true friendship consisted of—nothing more than sharing Jimmy Choos and sipping chocolate martinis at hotel bars.
Whitney squeezed me in a brusque hug, my cue to make myself scarce. But I needed something first.
“Do you mind if I use your powder room?” I figured a little snooping wouldn’t hurt, though I didn’t expect to find anything worthwhile.
“Sure, it’s next to the office. I’m going to get a shower, but lock the door as you leave. I don’t want to end up next on some hobo’s kill list.” She pointed a bejeweled fingernail and we parted ways, me treading one way and Whitney sashaying to her private quarters.
As I passed the office, I stepped back in a double take. Several framed pictures of Clarissa sat crookedly on a modern computer desk, a light dusting of grime coating the black glass. Peeking over my shoulder into the empty living room, I wandered in. Her father’s cartoony smile and her mother’s freakish Chicklet teeth were fodder for an awkward family photos meme. A collage of memories, all vanished in a last breath. But there was nothing phony about the candid photos of Clarissa. A preteen riding a camel at a petting zoo. Clarissa at nineteen or twenty, mugging it up at a bachelorette party. A bikini-clad Clarissa on spring break in Key West with her friends. She was happy in all of them, but—call it a mother’s intuition—there was a shadow of sadness behind the smiles.
Then an overturned frame, facedown in shame. I flipped it up, my assumptions about Trace spot-on. His hair combed tidily to one side, overpriced collared shirt, handsomely arrogant smile. Almost too good-looking—and he knew it, too. Possessively clutching an adoring Clarissa, her eyes gazing up at him while he modeled for the camera. The perfect murderer—the classy Brazilian killer Tiago Henrique Gomes da Rocha, or America’s charismatic Ted Bundy. Charm oozed from him, the kind of elegance that would reel an unsuspecting girl in for the kill, dare she step out of line.
What line had Clarissa crossed?
As I set it down, I noticed a crack spidering out from the corner of the glass, like tiny legs crawling in search of prey. Slammed down in rage after a fight? I’d never know.
I skimmed through the remaining pictures, until I came upon one that felt truer, more honest. Just Clarissa, somber and serene. Black and white, gazing sorrowfully at something behind the lens, somewhere beyond space and time. It captured her perpetual beauty… and ultimate sadness. I would know, for I recognized myself in that picture.
It was the image of depression.
And no one knew but me. I heard my own silent scream.
REM’s “Everybody Hurts” played through my car’s CD player as I read Clarissa’s flowery prose on the front of Clarissa’s Pity-Party Playlist. Adorned with morbidly cutesy broken-heart drawings and skull stickers on the homemade case, I had swiped the CD from her room while rummaging through her belongings, looking for something personal that was small enough to fit into my purse. Just something to know her by. A mixed tape—or CD, in this case—seemed as personal an item as any, so I shoved it in my peeling faux leather Goodwill-bought handbag before rushing out the door, lest I get caught.
The opening song surprised me. Clarissa Beatty, rich and popular party girl, seemed more the bubble-gum music variety. Lady Gaga or John Mayer, even. Alternative and grunge rock, though, I hadn’t expected. But as I hummed along to the lyrics—for the words had long escaped me—I remembered REM from my own adolescence. An oldie but goodie. Many nights I spent crying into my tear-stained pillow over my latest breakup as Michael Stipe sang the woes of my heart.
Skipping ahead, the next song was Soundgarden’s “Like Suicide.” The hypnotic drumbeat and growling guitars enveloped me as Chris Cornell spat out the lyrics describing the gilded cage trapping the girl—was this Clarissa? My fingertip tapped the next one in, “Suicidal Dream” by Silverchair. Then Papa Roach’s “Last Resort.” By this point the theme was catching up to me, and my heart squeezed wildly, as if keeping pace with a hummingbird’s wings. Song after song of death and despair, cutting and chaos.
Had Clarissa suffocated under the loss of herself?
Was her death a murder… or suicide?
I’m a bad, bad girl.
I do terrible things.
Like framing an innocent man for murder.
Well, let’s not get carried away. Trace Eriksson was no victim. An abuser, that’s what he was. And like a mama bear—albeit an absentee one—protecting her cub, it was my responsibility to avenge my daughter’s death because of what he did to her.
Sure, I knew he hadn’t put the pills in her drink. But the cops didn’t know April Beatty had just filled a prescription for the same drug that killed Clarissa—something as readily accessible as Xanax. And they didn’t know that Clarissa suffered from undiagnosed and untreated depression. Sure enough, they caught the bruising and battering on the autopsy report, my perfect segue. I may not have graduated high school, but I knew what a hematoma was. My fascination with CSI: Miami paid off.
Now it was Trace’s turn to pay.
The plan was foolproof, and I was already knee-deep. Seducing him was simple enough. After looking up his address online, I dolled myself up in a classic black micro-dress, silver hoop earrings, and enough makeup to pass for a twenty-eight-year-old. Okay, a twenty-eight-year-old chain smoker with a smoker’s cough to match and telltale wrinkles and crinkles no amount of foundation could disguise. As long as I appeared MILFy enough to grab Trace’s gaze, I still had enough hotness to win him over—if it was a slow night for the playa. Weren’t all Tuesday nights slow at the bar?
I tailed two car lengths behind him from his ritzy Skyhouse Raleigh apartment all the way into downtown Durham, where his bar of choice left me poleaxed: a townsy bistro called Alivia’s, a step above a dive. Passable fare and a low-key hipster vibe, but nothing as fancy as Trace was dressed for in his black slacks and button-down dress shirt. I admired his ingenuity—a big fish in a small pond. He was out for easy prey.
I’d make sure he hit pay dirt.
The place was packed with a mix of Sorority Sues slumming it, frat house playboys on the make, respectable townies just there to kick back a few, and a handful of rowdies from the sticks. A pathway separating two outside sitting areas led to the open front door. Strings of colored lights hung over metal chairs and tables on one side, and laughing patrons idled around fire pits on the other. I waltzed through the door, threading my way up to the counter, and wedged myself between Trace and a bleach-blond grandma whose pleated bosom deflatedly poured out of her cinched, sequined top.
“Hey, cutie,” I said, resting my hand on Trace’s arm. His sleeve was rolled halfway up his forearm, revealing taut muscles and a dusting of hair. “I’m Patty. You are?”
“Trace. Nice to meet you, Patty. Can I buy you a drink?”
I giggled, my hands flirtily gripping him. “I’d love one. Surprise me.”
He ordered me a Cosmo and himself a Scotch. Typical choice.
“You come here often?” I probed. I needed to know where he had been Sunday night if I was going to execute my plan, but I needed to apply the pressure evenly.
“Yeah, but I’ve never seen you here.”
“I was just here on Sunday. You missed a good time,” I teased, my palm squeezing his thigh.
“Sorry, that night I was at the Person Street Bar. Ever been there?”
And it was that easy—Trace had no idea how easy a mark he was.
Three hours and four mixed drinks later, I tossed my black lace thong under Trace’s bed, far enough back that he’d never notice but that a police investigation would turn it up easily. Tiptoeing out his apartment door with my stilettos in hand—damn, those shoes were torture!—I skipped through the wee-morning coolness, adding an air kick of my heels, exploding with the first semblance of pure joy I’d had in a long time. Glancing up and down the silent street, with only a streetlight illuminating my car, no one witnessed my “walk of shame”—or victory lap, in my case—as they slept in pillow-hugging huddles beneath their down comforters. Sleep was something I didn’t anticipate tonight.
Perhaps it was my first foray into the responsibilities of motherhood that gave me such pleasure, or the simple act of eating the rich, but whatever it was, I was addicted. And the game had only just begun.
“Yes, detective, I can give a statement about the night of Clarissa Beatty’s murder.”
In jumbling detail, I had exhaustively explained to Detective Moody that yes, I had come into the police station two days ago. And yes, I hadn’t been honest about who I was. No, not family but a woman who knew Trace Eriksson. Yes, I had tried to get information about the Beatty murder, because yes, I had a tip about who might have killed her. And yes, I had met Trace at the Person Street Bar that night and we left together for his apartment. No, he wasn’t there all night but left early that evening.
“So,” Detective Moody said, heaving a hefty sigh, “you’re telling me that the night of Clarissa’s death you were with Trace in his apartment. Then he left around 7:00 p.m. to, and I quote, ‘take care of some business regarding his ex.’ That’s what he said?”
“That’s correct,” I affirmed. “I assumed it was nothing, until I saw her name on the news. We had talked about exes during our conversation that night and he mentioned her name.”
Lie after lie escalated the story, delving into depths I didn’t know were there. All believably validated and orchestrated by yours truly. Even I was convinced.
“Well, this does line up with his alibi. I’ll check into it. If you could write down everything you’ve just told me, that will help us a lot. Thank you, Miss Childs.”
The detective handed me a yellow legal pad and pen, then left me to spend the next thirty minutes uncomfortably sliding back and forth on my metal folding chair as I wrote the most exquisitely sinister lie of my life.
A witness testimony debunking Trace’s alibi.
And the pièce de résistance: proof—my underwear under his bed.
I had the girlfriend-beating bastard cornered.
April Beatty’s brown eyes swam with tears as we sat cattycorner on matching cushioned wicker chairs under her back veranda. A light breeze from an overhead fan stuck wisps of ebony hair in my lip-gloss, which I pried gently away and tucked behind my ear.
“I’m so sorry about any pain this caused you. I really thought I was Clarissa’s biological mother, but it turns out I’m not.” I had just arrived at the Beatty estate—for an estate was the only proper word to describe the gaudy McMansion squatting on ten acres—with the difficult news.
“Perhaps it’s better this way,” April said. She folded one leg over the other, her navy pumps hidden beneath the hem of her beige linen pants. “I mean, you didn’t lose a daughter after all. I’m suffering this loss alone… well, Eliot and me. But I’m glad for you.” She grinned wearily, a despondent burden that her Mick Jagger lips couldn’t carry.
“Well, it still hurts my heart to think of any mother going through this. But from what I read, they arrested Trace Eriksson. Sounds like her killer may be caught after all. I hope that gives you peace.”
The front-page article in The News and Observer was sprawled open on an end table adjacent to us. A bowl of fruit salad and honey-sweetened yogurt lay untouched next to two china cups of tea on saucers.
The Beatty Murder Suspect Now in Custody
According to the Raleigh Police Department, investigators have arrested Trace Eriksson, ex-boyfriend of 23-year-old murder victim, Clarissa Beatty, of Raleigh.
Eriksson, 28, is accused of poisoning Beatty in her Briar Creek apartment at around 7:00 p.m. on Sunday. Due to witness testimony and undisclosed evidence, Eriksson was picked up by police. After being questioned, he was subsequently charged with murder. He remains in custody in the Wake County Detention Center with bond still pending. He is scheduled to have his first court hearing on Thursday.
With trembling fingertips, April traced the headline that lurked along the edge of her vision. “Yes, yes it does give me peace that Trace is getting what’s coming to him. I hope he rots in jail.” She exhaled the pent-up anger. “But at least we can put Clarissa to rest now. That’s all that matters.”
“You’ll be in my thoughts, April. Take care of yourself.”
As I rose, she sat sadly stoic, a breakdown away from losing herself. So I did something I didn’t know I was capable of doing. Reaching over, I placed my arm around her, drawing her to me and kissing her forehead. My embrace vented the sorrow as she wept into my shoulder. A simple gesture soothed her broken spirit as I held her, letting the pain seep into the tear-stained fabric.
Despite the lies to April, to the police, despite my compulsion to run away and forget everything all over again, right now I would be a convenient shoulder to cry on.
The nondescript cream envelope sat on my kitchen table, hiding under two days’ worth of junk mail. LabCorp’s address hung in the top left corner, partially missing from when I had torn open the letter two days ago.
I shuffled the heap aside, retrieving it for a final look. A loneliness etched across my heart as I looked down at the paper. With 99.98% certainty, I was Clarissa Beatty’s biological mother.
Some consolation that was. My daughter was dead.
My deceit had become a nasty four-letter word, everything from the past week a sham. But not without purpose.
I hadn’t planned it this way. I had wanted to tell the truth… but only part of it. It was a selfless act, deceiving April about the DNA test results. With the shared bond of motherhood, I could never hide Clarissa’s true cause of death from her: suicide. What mother wants to discover that her own child killed herself? Losing a child to murder was just as horrifying but somehow strangely preferable. I had to let her believe that, for her own sanity. But to do it, I knew I needed to walk away forever, and bear the burden of this truth alone.
Guilt was a relentless son of a bitch. Cut all ties to keep my lies.
It was better for everyone… right?
With a whispered good-bye, I fisted the paper into a ball and tossed it in the garbage can, along with the usual tacky shopper’s guides and the shredded remains of April’s $10,000 check.
Yes, I had surrendered the conspirator in me when I lost the daughter I’d forgotten and clung to the better parts of her, the parts that maybe she did get from me after all. No more deceit. Kill the parasite within me. That would become my mantra. Because of her, it was my destiny to be a better Destiny. A death not in vain.
But I knew I couldn’t do it alone.
Fate was hard at work.
Despite my every effort to protect Clarissa from my demons of depression, she could not escape her hereditary fate.
I wanted to scream. At the injustice of her life in the ungrateful hands of an abuser. At the tragedy of her suicide. At her unspoken hopeless despair. I just wanted to scream, which I could no longer do in silence.
A fittingly blue brochure had survived the purge of junk mail from my kitchen table, and it appeared to be the answer to my prayers:
Are you struggling with depression? Have you, or someone you know, contemplated suicide? Has suicide taken the life of someone you love? Don’t let the little things kill you. Join us at the Triad’s Suicide Support Group to meet others who share your burden, and find relief from the pain.
Weekly group meetings. Contact us for more information.
I would go. And I would find peace… even if it killed me.
I hope you enjoyed this free short story teaser that was featured in the Reader’s Circle of Avenue Park’s Crooked Tales Anthology.
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A Final Word…
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A Secondhand Life
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In this riveting prequel to international best-selling author Pamela Crane's The Little Things That Kill Series, "The Scream of Silence" unravels the darkest depths of human nature. A chilling tale consumed in under an hour, but not so quickly digested. She had secretly wanted the baby to die, but Fate never sided with her until twenty-three years later, when Destiny Childs got her wish. Broken, middle-aged Destiny daily struggles to survive her haunting past. Dead parents. Unplanned teen pregnancy. Cyclic addiction and depression. Life hasn't treated her kindly. Then one day she sees the name of her castaway daughter on the news: a victim of murder. Seeing this as an opportunity to extort the rich family her daughter left behind, Destiny crafts a plan. But as all her plans go, it loosens a mess of secrets long buried, along with the truth behind the killing. In this haunting murder mystery short story, discover the gruesomely intimate stranger harbored within Destiny... and who may lurk within any one of us. "The Scream of Silence" originally appeared in Reader's Circle of Avenue Park's "Crooked Tales" anthology but is now published for the first time as a standalone short story.