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Authors: Gayle Roper

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BOOK: Caught in the Middle
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NINE

I
walked to the door of the Martens’ house with sweaty palms. It was the first time I’d interviewed the family of a murder victim, and I wasn’t looking forward to it. I wasn’t certain I’d ever grow a shell that allowed me to deal with emotionally charged stories easily—and I wasn’t certain I wanted to.

“I’m Merrileigh Kramer from
The News,
” I said to the young woman who answered the door. “I believe Mrs. Marten is expecting me.”

She nodded. “Come in. I’m Annie Marten Morrell, Pat’s sister. Mom’s in the kitchen. I’ll get her.”

Annie left me in the living room with a pair of little boys about six and eight. They were looking at a photo album. Or they were when they weren’t staring at me.

“Hi,” I said. “Who are you guys?”

“I’m Jonny Morrell, and this is Pete,” the older said.

“We’re looking at pictures of Uncle Pat,” the younger said. “He got killed. Grandmom says that if we look at pictures of him, we’ll remember him real good even though we’re only little.”

“Except we aren’t little,” clarified Jonny.

“You loved your uncle?” I made it a question, hating myself for interviewing two little kids.

“He was great,” Jonny said.

“He took us fishing,” Pete said. “Now there’s nobody to take us fishing next summer.”

“Our dad’s a trucker, and he’s gone lots and lots,” Jonny said. “Uncle Pat called himself our Dad Two.” He sketched the number in the air so I’d understand.

Pete stared at the photo album. “I think Uncle Pat loved us more than Daddy does,” he whispered.

Jonny thought about that idea for a minute, then shrugged. “He was here more.”

“That means he loved us more,” said Pete with a child’s simple equation for estimating affection. “And he bought us candy.”

We three looked at each other from the edges of the immense chasm Patrick Marten’s death had ripped in the boys’ lives.

Liz Marten and Annie came into the room. Liz had that vulnerable, shocked, infinitely sad expression I had seen before at funerals and viewings. All pretense and protective behavior had been stripped off, scrubbed away, and only pain remained.

“Mrs. Marten,” I said, standing. “I’m so sorry.”

She nodded her head. “Sit,” she said.

I did.

There was an awkward little silence during which I considered without pride my audacity in being here. I took a deep mental breath and began.

“Tell me about Patrick,” I said.

“He was a wonderful kid.” Liz smiled softly. “I know all mothers who lose children probably say the same thing, even if the kids are in jail for life. But Pat truly was a wonderful kid.”

“He taught me how to ride my bike,” Jonny said.

“Me, too,” Pete said. “And roller-skate. And bat. I was the best batter at T-ball.”

“He was going to teach us to drive,” Jon said.

Pete nodded. “He promised. He already let me sit in his lap and steer when he backed out of the driveway.”

“He let us help him change the oil in our car,” Jon said. “He took us to Taggart’s and let us get in the pit with him.”

“Mom didn’t mind too much that we got dirty.” Pete rubbed some imaginary oily mess off his sweatshirt.

Liz smiled. “Pat was one of these kids who’s a car junkie, you know? We always had a gutted wreck in the driveway when he was a teenager. He thought going to Taggart’s garage every day was like going to heaven.”

There was a little silence while she heard what she had said. She closed her eyes in pain.

Annie took her mother’s hand and held it, her own eyes sheened with tears.

On the sofa the boys looked back at the album, and suddenly Pete started laughing.

“Grandmom, what happened here? He’s all muddy!”

Liz leaned over and looked at the picture Pete was pointing to.

“Remember, Annie?” Liz said. “We went camping for a weekend, and it rained the whole time. Pat was about as old as you, Jonny, and he was so bored! Finally he started sliding down the little bank by our campsite into the stream at the bottom. The ground was so wet that it was a great sliding board. He’d gotten that dirty before we even realized what he was doing. Then your mother started sliding, too.”

It was obvious from the boys’ faces that the idea of their mother sliding in the mud was beyond comprehension.

“Even Grandpop slid,” Annie said with a soft smile.

“Did you slide, too, Grandmom?” Pete asked.

Liz nodded. “But I wouldn’t let Grandpop take my picture. And I was never able to get the clothes clean. I had to throw them all out.”

I looked at Liz and Annie and the boys. How had such a thing as murder happened to such truly nice people? And why?

Why, God? Weren’t you looking?

“Did Pat live here with you and your husband?” I asked.

“Pat’s lived with me ever since my husband died a year ago. Before that he had an apartment with a couple of guys.” Liz drew a ragged breath and stared at her clasped hands. “This time I’ll really be alone.”

“We’ll be here for you, Mom,” Annie said. “You won’t be alone.”

Liz smiled at Annie, and the three of us knew she would be alone, a wife and mother who had lost her calling.

“Hey, Grandmom, look!” Pete pulled his hand out from under a sofa cushion, clutching a pair of quarters.

Liz put her hand to her mouth as pain rippled her forehead. “Pat always sat at that end of the sofa to watch TV. He was always losing change there, and I kept it in a mug until there was enough to go to dinner. He and Hannah and I went to Ferretti’s about a month ago.”

Pete came to Liz, the quarters sitting in his outstretched palm.

Liz took them, fingering them lovingly because they were one of the last things Pat had touched. Then she put them back in Pete’s hand. “One for you and one for your brother,” she said. “Uncle Pat would want you to get a candy bar on him.”

Pete grinned, stashing one quarter in his pocket and handing the other to Jonny. He didn’t even mention that most candy bars were more expensive.

The doorbell rang, and Annie went quickly to answer it.

“Make sure you tell your readers,” Liz said, “that murder kills more than the victim. It kills his family and friends, too.”

Annie returned with a frail-looking young woman whose pale face had the same stripped look as Liz’s.

“Hannah.” Liz hugged the girl. “Did you get any sleep?”

Hannah shook her head. “I don’t think so.”

Annie introduced Hannah to me as Pat’s fiancée.

“They were to get married at Christmas,” Annie explained.

Interested, I looked at the girl with the listless blue eyes and the fine, limp, light-brown hair. Just two days ago she had been a fiancée. Three weeks from now she was to have been a bride and a wife, someday a mother. Now she had no definition, because a fiancée must have someone to whom she’s affianced, and someone who hasn’t been a wife can’t be a widow. She was that all-purpose person, the mourner, one of the crowd, albeit one with more intense pain.

“Merrileigh Kramer?” she said at my name. A faint spark of interest lit her eyes. “Pat was in your car, wasn’t he?”

I nodded, feeling somehow that it was my fault. I barely stopped myself from apologizing.

“Why?” she asked.

I shook my head. “I have no idea.”

She nodded and rose, walking to the door.

“Hannah,” Liz said. “You’re leaving already?”

She paused. “I’ll be back.”

I rose, too. “Excuse me, Mrs. Marten. I won’t be long.” And I followed Hannah out of the house.

“Can I ask you a few questions?” I said.

She stopped at the crosswalk and shrugged. “I guess.”

I noticed she wouldn’t look at me. In fact, she stared over my shoulder with such concentration that I turned to see what she was looking at. There was nothing there except another house with a barren winter lawn, the first beautiful shimmer of falling snow turning it into one of those glass balls you shake.

“How long had you been engaged?” I asked.

“I come here all the time now,” she said. “They loved him, too, and they understand. But it hurts too much to stay. So I go away for a while. Then I have to come back. Then I go. Come, go, come. I think I’m driving all of us crazy.”

She fell silent, and I was about to repeat my question when she answered it.

“We’ve been engaged about eight months,” she said. “I met him two years ago at a Christmas party. Well, I really didn’t meet him. We’d been in the same high school class, but I hadn’t known him except as some guy who was just sort of there. But that night I was mad at my old boyfriend, so I started talking to Pat just to get Andy’s goat. Well, I never went back to Andy.”

She smiled as she remembered. “You know what our first date was? He took me to church. I’d never thought too much about God before, but Pat thought about Him a lot. I went along with Pat’s religious stuff at first just because I liked him so much. Then I found myself believing in Jesus because of my own needs, not because I wanted to impress Pat.” She sighed. “I thank God for these past two years. They were the best of my whole life.”

Oh, Lord,
I found myself praying,
did You have to take this wonderful person from her?

“We were going to get married at Christmas because that’s when we started going together. Romantic and all. Plus the church is already decorated. “We might as well save any money we can,’ he said.”

She began blinking rapidly as she tried not to cry. “He was such a special guy. I knew as soon as I started to date him that he was special. He was kind, you know? He loved those little boys—” she waved her hand toward the house and Jonny and Pete “—and he was so gentle with his mom when his dad died. And he loved me.”

She gave a great sniff and began rummaging in her shoulder bag for a tissue. Instead, she pulled out a packet stuffed with pictures, credit cards and identification.

“My dad didn’t love my mom, but Pat loved me.”

She flipped to a pair of pictures and held them out.

I looked at an average-looking guy with brown hair, brown eyes and pleasant smile, holding a mess of fish before him proudly. His jeans and sweatshirt were as ordinary as his face.

“Opening day of fishing season last spring,” she said. “He got up and staked his place at four in the morning. He took his sleeping bag so he wouldn’t freeze, and he caught more fish than anyone around him. He was so proud.”

The second picture was of this young man and Hannah. It was obviously a studio picture, probably taken to celebrate their engagement. In it her eyes shone, her hair was curly and bright and her smile had enough wattage to light Amhearst. She was so beautiful that it looked like a different woman from the girl standing with me in the cold, wintry dimness. I had a stab of realization and a wash of sadness. This
was
a different woman.

“May I borrow these pictures for the paper?” I asked. “I’ll be sure they’re returned.”

She looked at them, then slid loose the one of Pat alone and handed it to me.

“You can use this one, but not the one with me in it. I don’t deserve it.”

I looked at her blankly. “What?”

“I don’t deserve it,” she repeated. “It’s all my fault. I’m the one who killed him.”

TEN

H
annah’s words echoed in my ears:
I’m the one who killed him.

“What?” I stared at the girl. Now I could see that something besides grief had etched the dark blots beneath her eyes. Guilt was consuming her.

“Of course I didn’t mean to,” she said quickly. “After all, I loved him.”

“Are you telling me that you struck him?” Had I stumbled on a common, ordinary, tawdry crime of passion?

“What?” She vibrated with anger, more alive than I’d seen her. “How could you even suggest such a thing!”

“But you said—”

“I said I killed him,” she said. “I didn’t say I
killed
him.”

“Okay,” I said, feeling more than slightly bewildered.

She looked around vaguely. “It’s snowing. Pat loved the snow.”

“But why did you say you killed him?” I asked, trying to keep her focused on the main issue.

“We were going to Vermont for our honeymoon,” she said. “We thought about the Poconos, but we didn’t want one of those places that have heart-shaped tubs and all. Besides, you can’t trust it to snow in Pennsylvania. We were going to a cozy B and B he found, and we were going cross-country skiing and snowmobiling and ice-skating. And we were going to lie in front of our own private fireplace at night.” She was crying now, large, crystal tears streaming down her cheeks.

I stood with her in the increasing snow because I didn’t know what else to do. Finally I repeated, “What did you mean when you said you killed Pat?”

“Andy Gershowitz,” she said.

I waited for more, but she seemed to feel she’d said it all.

“Who’s Andy Gershowitz?” I asked.

“The guy I went with before Pat.” She looked at me with her soggy eyes. “Do you have a Kleenex?”

I rooted in my purse and found the package I hadn’t been able to offer Curt last night. She took a tissue and blew her nose. She ignored her tears.

“I’ve got to go,” she said.

“But I need to know more about Andy Gershowitz,” I said. “Are you saying he killed Pat?”

“He didn’t want me to marry Pat,” Hannah answered. And she climbed into her car and drove away.

I watched her go, worried about any drivers she might encounter. She’d never see them through the tears and snow.

I went back into the Martens’ house. Liz, Annie and the boys were sitting where I had left them.

“She’s gone,” I said.

Liz nodded. “She’ll be back.”

“She seems to blame herself for Pat’s death,” I said.

Annie nodded. “She’s told us.”

“And you believe her?”

“Who knows? I do know she’s had trouble with some guy.”

“Andy Gershowitz?”

Annie nodded. “That’s the name. He’s harassed her since she began dating Pat.”

“Really?” Could someone really be that jealous over pale, wan Hannah? Then I remembered the shining woman in the engagement photo.

BOOK: Caught in the Middle
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