Authors: Gayle Roper
Leaving Pittsburgh and home had been hard for me. I like to think of myself as independent, but the truth is that I like to be “independent” surrounded by familiar things.
I’d gone back home after college, moving in with my parents, content to be where everything was known and comfortable. I hadn’t had to find a new doctor or a new dentist or a new church. I’d become a general reporter at the paper where I had worked for three of my college summers, and I’d done very well, even winning a couple of minor journalism awards.
And, of course, Jack was in Pittsburgh: handsome, personable, accomplished, irresponsible Jack.
I had expected to live at home one, maybe two, years at the very longest. After all, I was an independent spirit. I was amazed and appalled when I woke up one day and realized that I had been there four years, waiting for life to happen. Waiting for Jack.
“Just a little more time, Merry,” he’d say. “That’s all I’m asking. Just a little more time.”
Eventually, to save myself from drowning in despair, I came to Amhearst, and my first weeks here were terrible. I hated all the new people, the new streets, the new stores. I got a toothache, probably from grinding my teeth all night in fear, and I had to find a dentist. I hated him, too.
But I made it. I learned to like my job, and I slowly remembered that being alone isn’t the worst thing in the world. I might not be laughing much yet, but I was slowly regaining some self-respect.
“Forgetting what is behind,” Dad said one night on the phone, quoting St. Paul. “Straining toward what is ahead. Pressing on toward a new life. We’re proud of you, Merry.”
Jack spoke to me on the phone a few times, too, and even came to visit me once. I agonized over that visit, filled with equal measures of hope and dread. The reality was dull compared to my nightmares and daydreams.
“Come back when you’re ready to get married,” he told me when he left.
“I’ll come back when I have a ring on my finger and a date on the calendar, not before,” I replied. Then I went into my apartment and cried myself sick.
And so summer became fall, and fall a nasty, sleety, early December night with icy roads, and I was finally home.
I parked, climbed out into the cold and wet, and hurried to my trunk, where I’d stashed a case of Diet Coke. The dim light by the walk barely illuminated the area.
I looked uncomfortably over my shoulder. It was dark and spooky back here even on a nice night, but in the rain and sleet, it was worse than usual. The large lilac at the edge of the house was especially eerie tonight, with its branches creaking and complaining about their icy bath.
I eyed the dripping tree, trying to penetrate it to be certain it wasn’t hiding someone. Come May, those blossoms had better be beautiful and fragrant to make up for my heart palpitations the rest of the year.
Although, I told myself with false bravado, no bad guy in his right mind would be lurking behind a lilac tree on a night like this.
Even so, the last thing I expected to find when I raised the lid of my trunk was a dead body.
nstinctively I slammed the lid down. I stood, shocked, until a sudden, stout gust of wind made the lilac creak alarmingly. I jumped and swung around, but of course no one was there. We were alone, the corpse in my trunk and I.
It can’t be true,
It simply can’t be. Things like this don’t happen to real people, just people in mystery novels. My mind is playing tricks on me because I’m tired and had such a nerve-racking trip home.
I looked at the dark outline of my trunk lid. The slight illumination from the light by the walk glinted on my keys still dangling in the lock.
I raised the lid just far enough for the light to come on, then bent cautiously and peeked in.
There was a body, all right. A man. He had on a green, down-filled jacket, and he was lying on his stomach, his face turned away.
I slammed the lid again and made it to the porch just in time to sit before I fell. I put my head between my knees and stared blankly at the wet cement.
There was a body in my car!
When I could move again, I stumbled into my apartment and called the police.
“Please come quickly!” I hardly recognized my shaky voice. “Please.”
I got out of my wet clothes and into my heaviest sweats. I toweled my hair and went to wait numbly at the front door, my breath frosting the glass of the storm sash.
When the first flashing light turned down the alley, I ran to the parking area. Soon I was standing under my gray umbrella surrounded by men in dripping, bright-orange slickers with POLICE written in black on their backs.
“First question,” said one. “Did you touch anything?”
I shook my head, horrified at the thought.
“Okay, then,” he said. “What happened?”
“I was going to get a case of sodas out of my trunk. I opened it and there was this body.”
He looked at me, eyebrows raised, waiting for more. “That’s it?”
I looked back, aghast. “A body isn’t enough?”
He smiled. “Open the trunk for us, please.”
Obediently, I did. “See?” I pointed helpfully at the corpse sprawled on top of a cardboard box filled with two dozen cans of decaf Diet Coke.
I swallowed convulsively and looked away. My stomach was teeming with acid, and my mouth tasted like metal. The flashing lights and the crackling car radios did nothing to ease my tension.
The policeman, a beefy man with a heavily seamed face, studied the body.
“Who is he?”
I stared at the policeman, thunderstruck. “How should I know?”
your car,” said the policeman reasonably.
“Well, it isn’t my body!”
“Oh.” The policeman’s voice was neither believing nor disbelieving. “Then you’ve looked at him well enough to know you don’t recognize him?”
I swallowed hard a couple of times against the thought of studying the man. “Are you kidding? I haven’t gone near him. See me? I’m standing with my back to the car so I don’t have to look at him.”
“Then how do you know you don’t know him?”
“I just know.”
“Uh-huh. Well, why don’t you tell me exactly what happened here tonight.”
I had never felt so unreal in my life. My car was now bathed in bright light supplied by portable generators rumbling in a van with RESCUE in red-and-gold letters on its white side. Two policemen were trying to arrange a plastic tarp to shield the whole area from the weather. One tied some ropes to the creaky lilac, and the other hammered some pegs into the macadam of the parking area and looped ropes around them.
The vanity license plate my brother, Sam, had given me for my birthday mocked the intense scene. MERRY, it read.
“So you’ll remember who you are, and so you’ll remember to be happy,” he said when he gave it to me. What he wasn’t saying was that he wanted me to forget Jack, but I knew. I had looked at the plate, knowing the love and concern that went into his ordering it, knowing he couldn’t have foretold that my romantic trials would force me to decide to move just when he planned to give it to me. But the truth was that MERRY was a heart-piercing reminder of the un-Merry person I had become.
Now my car, my trunk, my parking lot, even MERRY had become police business.
I sighed as I watched another heavy peg pounded into the macadam. Hopefully my landlord would understand that it was the police who had made the holes in his parking area, not me. Somehow, knowing Mr. Jacobs, I doubted it.
“Miss Kramer, please tell me what happened here tonight,” the policeman repeated.
I forced my eyes from the activity and looked at him. “Nothing much happened here,” I said. “I opened my trunk, and there he was. I closed my trunk, hoping he’d go away. I opened my trunk and he was still there. I called you.”
A car squealed into the alley behind the official cars. A man climbed out and walked authoritatively toward the open trunk. He leaned under the protective plastic and around the men taking photographs, studied the situation, then walked to the policeman and me.
As he watched the approaching man, the policeman snorted, little puffs of foggy breath erupting from each nostril. “The press already! That’s all we need.”
“Don!” I said as I flung myself at the man. He ducked to miss the points of my umbrella and patted me comfortingly on the back.
“It’ll be okay,” he said as though to a crying child. “It’ll be okay.”
Suddenly I realized that I had thrown myself at my boss, a man with whom I had only the most superficial of working relationships, a man I had on a pedestal. Ever since I’d gone into journalism and realized what editors did in putting together a newspaper every day, I had been in awe of them. And here I was, hanging all over my editor like a Southern belle with the vapors. I pulled back in embarrassment but was glad when he kept a comforting hand on my shoulder.
“Don, there’s a body in my trunk,” I said.
“I noticed. Who is he?”
I glared at him. “Why does everyone think I know him?”
“That doesn’t mean I know him! I suppose you think I put him there, too?”
“Did you?” asked the policeman.
I blinked, my anger gone as quickly as it had come.
“You don’t really think I did, do you?” I could feel the handcuffs already.
The policeman shrugged. “Someone put him there.”
“Well, it wasn’t me.” I hoped I sounded confident. “If he were really my body, I’d put him in someone else’s car.” I looked from the policeman to Don. “That only makes sense, right?”
The policeman shrugged.
I shivered. “I think I’ll go inside.”
I sat forlornly in my living room for a few minutes seeing the bright light from the generators through the tall windows. That was a nice thing about old buildings—tall windows.
Restless, I got up, went to my minuscule kitchen and put some water on to boil. People would be in soon, and hot drinks would be welcomed. Personally, I still wanted my Coke and Oreos, but there was no way I had the nerve to get a can from the trunk, even if they let me.
Ten minutes later, the policeman, whose name was Sergeant William Poole, sat carefully in my blue wing chair, his hair hanging damply on his forehead and his shirt gaping a bit about the belly. A mug full of coffee sat on the end table beside him, and he had a clipboard in one hand and a pen in the other. “All right, Miss Kramer, tell me all about it. In fact, why don’t you tell me about your whole day.”
I nodded. “Okay.” I cleared my throat nervously. “This morning I drove my car to Taggart’s garage for its annual state inspection. Jolene Meister, the secretary from work, picked me up at the garage at six forty-five.”
“Where do you work?”
“Then he’s your boss?” Sergeant Poole nodded at Don Eldredge, who was sitting comfortably on the sofa.
“Yes, he’s my boss.”
“You been at
“About three months. I started just after Labor Day.”
“What do you do?”
“I’m a general reporter and feature writer.” Which sounded more glamorous than the gofer I often felt like.
“Have you lived in Amhearst long?”
“Since Labor Day weekend.”
“Where do you come from?”
“The Pittsburgh area.”
Sergeant Poole nodded. “Did you leave a family in Pittsburgh?”
“My parents and Sam, my younger brother, who’s at Penn State.”
“So you took your car to be inspected this morning. Why’d you go to Taggart’s?”
“The people at work recommended that garage. No huge bill for unnecessary work, you know?” I noticed I was picking nervously at my cuticles and forced myself to stop. “Lots of garages like to bleed single women, but they told me Mr. Taggart wouldn’t do that.”
Sergeant Poole nodded like he knew Mr. Taggart and agreed. “When’d you get your car back, Miss Kramer?”
“Jolene dropped me off on her way home. I hadn’t expected to be able to leave by five because of a late-afternoon meeting I was to cover and write up, but the meeting was canceled.”
I gulped some tea, then continued. “Mr. Taggart wasn’t around when Jolene dropped me off, but my car was waiting, the new inspection stickers on the window and the bill on the seat, just like we’d arranged when we thought I’d be late.” I shrugged. “I just climbed in and drove off. After dinner at Ferretti’s, I covered the Board of Education meeting at the high school. Then I came home.”
“Did you have dinner with anyone?”
I shook my head. “I ate alone.”
“You didn’t stop for those sodas sometime between picking up your car and coming home?”
“No, I bought them yesterday. I just hadn’t taken them out of the trunk.”
Sergeant Poole nodded. “Did anything else significant happen today?”
I realized that, in place of my cuticles, I was playing with the string from my sweatshirt hood. I tucked it inside so I couldn’t fiddle with it anymore and said, “I almost had an accident on my way home when some guy pulled out in front of me over on Oak Lane. But I didn’t.” I paused, thought, then shrugged my shoulders. “That’s it.”
Sergeant Poole chewed the tip of his pen for a minute, wrote something down, then asked, “Does the name Patrick Marten mean anything to you?”
“Patrick Marten?” I thought for a few minutes, then shook my head. “I don’t know anyone by that name. Why? Is he the man in the trunk?”
Sergeant Poole nodded.
Patrick Marten. I sighed. Was there a Mrs. Patrick Marten somewhere waiting for him to come home? Were there kids? Certainly there was a mother and a father. A girlfriend? Obviously there was an enemy.
By the time Sergeant Poole capped his pen and hefted himself to his feet, I was feeling more normal. I almost smiled as the gaps in his shirt slid shut. After all, I was used to talking with people in living rooms. It was just corpses in the rain that bothered me.
And I had finally realized that I was in the middle of the biggest story of my fledgling journalism career.