Get Miles Away
A Jackson Donne Mystery
by David White

Also available as an audio download.


......"You're a what?" Beth Deegan said, brushing hair out of her face. Maybe she was covering a giggle.

...... "A private investigator."

......"No. You aren't."

...... I didn't say anything.

...... "Jackson Donne. Your name sounds so familiar. Where have I heard it?"

...... I took a sip of my Starbucks coffee. I was drinking regular and Beth had a mocha frappe something. When we planned on a date, I figured the regulars at the Olde Towne Tavern would scare her off.

...... I had my back to the window with a clear view of the counter. Beth faced me, staring at the door. I could feel the cold coming off the window on my neck. It was probably snowing out. The forecast had said it would, but I hadn't looked. All my attention was on Beth.

...... Her green eyes widened. She remembered something. "That thing at Liberty State Park a few months ago. It was in the paper. That was you? Oh, my God. I can't even imagine . . ."

...... I asked, "How was class today?"

...... She took the hint. "It's Friday. I didn't have class today. I was working on a paper, though."

...... Beth was a Graduate Student at Rutgers and a TA for an undergraduate Communications class. I had met her while I was listening to a lecture on social communications and liars. It wasn't anything I hadn't known, but meeting her made it worthwhile. I asked her if she wanted to get coffee sometime, and she agreed.

...... "Did you finish?"

...... "Not yet. But I have all weekend." She stirred her coffer gazing out the window. For a moment she looked like Jeanne. I chased the thought from my mind.

...... "What can you do with a Master's in Communications?" I asked.

...... "Hopefully work in radio, in the city."

...... Direction. I liked that.

...... Behind me the door swung open, and Beth jumped in her seat. She looked up at a couple of girls in sorority jackets giggling their way through the door. Then she looked back to me.

...... "Sorry."

...... "What's wrong?"

...... "No. It's nothing. I'm just . . . nervous, I guess." She smiled, but her eyes went toward the door again.

...... "Don't worry. Just pretend I'm a professor." I took a sip of coffee, deadpanned. She looked back to me, her smile a little more genuine.

...... "So," she asked, "what's your favorite movie?"

...... I smiled. "Um. Raiders of the Lost Ark."

...... "Raiders? Get out of here!"

...... "What?"

...... "I love that movie. It's classic. I can still remember seeing it when I was like five or six on our first VCR. When he comes out of the cave and that guy has all the arrows in the back. Scared me." She was grinning now. Whatever made her jump was gone.

...... "My favorite lines are in that movie. 'You throw me the idol, I throw you the whip.'"

...... "'Truck? What truck?'"

...... We laughed.

...... "Okay," she said. "We both like the same movie. Let's go for double jeopardy. Favorite band."

...... "The Stones."

...... She frowned. "The Stones? Yuck."

...... "How can you not like the Stones?" I asked.

...... "Look at Keith Richards. A man like that should not be successful at anything. He's like the MacGyver of heroin. Can get it in his system with an inner tube and some duct tape."

...... "Hey. Don't mess with Keith. The man has no soul and will probably never die, but he can play a mean guitar."

...... She laughed. Then, squinting out the window, said, "It never did this in California."

...... "You're from California?"

...... "Yeah, this is my first year out here."

...... "How do you like it?"

...... "It's crowded, and it's snowing. In fact, I don't want to be walking home in heels, knee deep in snow."

...... I was hoping she stick around a while. I tried to cover my regret. "Let me just finish my coffee, and we'll be off."

...... Beth said she was renting a second floor of a house on Hamilton Ave, but she didn't say much else until we were almost there. I didn't mind. I enjoyed the snow, a lazy drift that didn't get in the way. At one point, I had my arm around her, but when we had to rush across Easton Ave, she moved out of my reach. As if something had caught her eye and worried her, she picked up the pace.

...... "This is it," she said. A small, two-family house painted a fading yellow. "I live upstairs."

...... The first floor of the home was unlit.

...... "Friday night. No parties here?"

...... "No, a couple of undergrads rent the downstairs. They go home every weekend."

...... She paused.

...... "I wanted to ask you all night," she said.

...... "Ask me what?"

...... "You're a private investigator, you get all this press coverage, and people know about it, but you've spent the past three Wednesdays sitting in the back of Scott Hall, listening to lectures on communications. Why? You're not registered; I checked. You following someone?"

...... "No."

...... "Then why? Why go?"

...... "I don't know. I find it relaxing. I thought I'd come one day and listen to a lecture, just hang out. I always liked the atmosphere on campus, and I wanted to see what a class was like. At the first one I noticed you, so I kept coming back."

...... She smiled. "Didn't you get a degree?"

...... "No. I only spent a year at Villanova."

...... "How come?"

...... "I don't know. First time free from the parents, I learned that sleep and smoking weed were more interesting than sitting in a lecture." I paused, hoping for a reaction. It didn't come. "I kind of regret it now."

...... "So, go back."

...... "I'm a little old."

...... "Hmm. I'm twenty-five, so you're what? Twenty-seven?"

...... "Twenty-eight," I said.

...... "You can go back. You should." She looked at the ground then back up at me and hugged herself dramatically. "Cold. I'm going to go inside now. Call me?"

...... "Of course. This was fun."

...... "Yeah. We'll have to do this again."

...... "You got it. How about dinner on Monday?"

...... Beth smiled. She pulled a Palm Pilot from her purse. "I can book it in here. You'll be on my agenda."

...... "Are those things snowproof?"

...... She considered it for a second, then shrugged.

...... She poked at the screen with one of those high-tech pencils, and studied the display intently. I liked the way her lip curled in concentration. I hadn't seen anyone do that since high school

...... "I have one," she said, "but barely know how to use it. Everyone in the communications department has one. You have to fit in." She raised it next to her face and posed. "And it's fashionable. Look. It's blue."

...... "Very cool." I winked.

...... She kissed me on the cheek, said, "I'll talk to you soon," and went inside. I walked back to my apartment, smiling in the snow.

****

...... It was dark in the holding cell, and I couldn't see the cop on duty. I didn't have my gun, or a jacket. I was lucky I had a belt and the laces in my bloodstained shoes. Saturday night and the snow had stopped, but the brick walls weren't heated and the winter chill leaked in. I rested on the small cot, staring at some undergrad puking in the lone toilet in the cell.

...... I didn't want this kid dehydrating on me, but the guard was nowhere to be found. My night became sitting, listening to the kid, trying to keep stomach from turning. I had more important things to think about anyway.

...... Like how I ended up in this holding cell. And if Beth was all I thought she was.

****

...... After walking Beth home, I watched the end of the Rutgers basketball game on cable. Normally, I'd pop the cap on a beer, but tonight I didn't need one. Rutgers pulled it out in overtime, and as the analysts were going over their player of the game, my phone rang. I picked it up and there was talking before I even said hello.

...... "Jackson! Jackson?" Beth was out of breath.

...... "I'm here. What's wrong?" My hand gripped the receiver tight.

...... She took a breath. "C-can you come over? I'll explain when you get here."

...... "Are you going to be okay? I need to know you'll be all right."

...... "Yeah. I just need to talk."

...... "I'll be there in ten minutes."

...... Hanging up, it took me a second to collect my thoughts. What could have happened? I went to my drawer and found my Glock. It was new, never used. I put it in a holster under my leather jacket. I think I ran all the way to Hamilton.

...... Beth was leaning against the doorjamb watching the street. She hugged herself, and gave me half a smile while I climbed the stairs to her. Her eyes were dark and wet. Her face was flushed even in the cold air. As soon as I was close enough, she threw her arms around me. The hug lasted a while. Neither of us spoke. As much as I tried not to, my mind drifted to Jeanne.

...... Beth stepped back and gestured me in, holding the door open. We climbed brown-carpeted stairs to the second floor. She had a small apartment, with a kitchen, a living room, bath and bedroom. It wasn't fancy, painted light beige. An old radiator sizzled in the corner. The furniture was secondhand. A plaid couch rested against the wall facing the windows and a TV. I wanted to sit Beth on the couch and hold her while we talked, but she had already set up camp on the floor: glass of wine, a few open books. I sat on the couch.

...... She rubbed her face. "I don't know where to start," she said.

...... "Go easy. From when I left until you called me."

...... "There's a little more to it than that. Do you want a drink?" She drained the wine glass.

...... "I'll pass. Beth, what's the matter?"

...... "I told you I was from California tonight."

...... "You said you went to Fresno State."

...... "I commuted. I lived at home."

...... "So?"

...... She shuddered at my voice, the frustration I was starting to feel. But I was worried.

...... "I had a boyfriend out there," she said. "Sean Bannon. A nice Irish boy, just like my father wanted. We went out for about five years. When I got into grad school, I left him. Christ, I left everything. My father, my mother, I just wanted to start over. The East Coast is about as close to starting over as I could get, right? I need another drink."

...... She got up and went to the kitchen with her wineglass. I sat for a second and then followed her.

...... The kitchen was a dark shade of blue, its white tile floors scrubbed spotless, cleaner than the snow outside. A refrigerator across the room had a few takeout menus and a picture held in place by various magnets. I couldn't make out who was in the picture. The only signs that Beth lived here were two dishes in the sink waiting to be washed.

...... Beth opened the fridge and pulled a bottle of Chardonnay. She shook it at me, offering me some. I declined. She poured a full glass and drank it quickly. She poured another glass.

...... "Shit. I should be able to handle this myself. But here I am, calling you, drinking. God, what happened to me?"

...... "Beth, please. I can't help if you don't tell me what happened."

...... She glared at me, and took another sip. "I don't need your help. I don't want your help."

...... "Yet you called me."

...... She finished her wine. I stepped across the room and stopped her before she could pour another glass.

...... "I'm scared. Okay? I'm just scared that's all." She sighed. "When I left Sean, he didn't take it well. He had my email address and would send me at least ten messages a week."

...... "What did he say?" Interrupting with questions. The private investigator in me started to do business.

...... "Every once in a while I'd write him back, just so he knew I was alive. You know, trying to let him down easy. He-he's not the kind of guy you let go cold turkey.

...... "Why not?"

...... She ignored the question. "It started out okay, he'd email me and say he missed me. Wanted to send me cards. Wanted my address. My parents don't even know my address."

...... "You don't talk to your parents?" I took the bottle from her, corked it, and put it back in the fridge, on its side.

...... She leaned back against the counter, her foot kicking at a cabinet behind her. "I started over," she said. "I just wanted to get miles away from everything."

...... Out the window the snow was sticking now, the roads becoming worse. They'd have to send the plows out soon, or New Brunswick was going to have a mess on its hands.

...... Beth put her hand on my shoulder. I could feel her breath on my neck. We watched the snow together. Just a typical winter Friday.

...... "At Christmas, I got an email from Sean. He still wanted my address, just to send me a card. I didn't think much of it. With all my papers, TAing, and Christmas shopping for my friends here, I just sent it along. I guess that's how he knew . . ."

...... Turning toward her, I asked, "Knew what?"

...... "He was here. Before. He saw us together. He came to see me. Said he loved me. Wanted to know who you were. He didn't look right. Disheveled, and tired. Had this look in his eyes."

...... "Did he threaten you? Did he hurt you?"

...... "He just stood there and said he loved me over and over. If he wanted to scare me, it worked. I told him I was gonna call the cops, had my cell phone out. He backed off, and I came in and called you. The big private investigator. To come help me. Help me. You couldn't even save that guy at Liberty State. What are you going to do for me?"

...... That stopped me. "How much did you have to drink?" Just talking about Sean had twisted her in knots.

...... "What the hell do you care?"

...... I took a deep breath and said, "Why don't you get some sleep? I'll stay here on the couch, make sure he doesn't come back. We can talk more in the morning."

...... "I don't want to sleep. I don't want this to be happening. I don't-" She finally broke. Shaking and crying, she fell against my shoulder. I held her for a minute, then took her to her room.

...... When she was sleeping soundly, I went back into the living room and sat for a while, thinking about everything Beth said. The movie fan I drank coffee with was gone and in her place was a scared, angry woman.

...... I went downstairs, out onto the porch. About two inches of snow on the ground and still falling. We hadn't gotten any significant snowfall in Jersey yet, and it was already February. The first snowfall of the year is always an event. Good thing tomorrow was Saturday or the drivers at rush hour would be in a panic.

...... He came around the corner softly. I heard the crunching of the snow under his feet too late. I turned toward the sound and saw a guy about my age staring at me. He was tall and lanky. He was shivering. The jacket looked pretty thin – not anyone's idea of a winter coat. At least not anyone local.

...... "I haven't ever seen snow," he said. He reached out his hand, letting some flakes fall into it. "I mean I've seen flurries and TV shots of blizzards, but this is a pretty good storm. It's really coming down. How do people get around in this stuff?"

...... "Slowly," I said.

...... He reached into his pocket and pulled a pack of Marlboros. He took one, offered the pack to me. I refused. He took a few seconds to get the lighter going, but finally did. He took a long drag, let it out through his nose.

...... "Yeah. I guess you have to be careful." He stood at the base of the stairs leading to the porch.

...... "I'd say so," I said.

...... "She upstairs?"

...... "Who?"

...... "Liz. She upstairs? I'd like to talk to her."

...... "You Sean?"

...... "Yeah." He smiled, took the stairs, and shook my hand. "You the new guy?"

...... I kept quiet. Part for effect and part because I didn't know the answer to that.

...... "Yeah, you are," Sean said. "I saw you guys tonight at the Starbucks, sharing your coffee. Two lovebirds. You like her?"

...... Like we were in seventh grade.

...... "Listen, maybe you should-"

...... "Just let me talk to her."

...... "I don't think so."

...... "You really do like her, don't you?" When I didn't answer, he continued. "Let me tell you something about Liz. She's cool to you, but man, once you start to like her. I mean love her. Once you start to love her, she packs up and leaves. That's it. Leaves you high and dry."

...... "It's time you get out of here."

...... He shivered. "That's not going to happen with me. I'm not going anywhere without her. You think she's going to stay with you? Just let me talk to her. She loves me and I love her. That's all I know. I just have to remind her of that."

...... "Beth's not going to see you tonight."

...... "Beth? She calls herself Beth now? Oh that's cute." He laughed. "Elizabeth."

...... The porch light illuminated his face. He was clean-shaven--a fresh job, complete with new nicks--with dark eyes, and even darker circles under them. His hair was brown, and covered with flakes of snow. He had a small scar on his right cheek.

...... "Go home, Sean. Back to California. She doesn't want to see you."

...... "How do you know what she wants? She gave me her address for a reason."

...... "So you could send her a Christmas card. And if you're really lucky, she'll send you a fruitcake."

...... He rolled his eyes. "She doesn't even know what she wants. That's why I have to talk to her. You think she'll talk to you? Man, has she told you about her father? There's a lot you don't, and won't know. She's like that. She won't tell you nothing. It'll piss you off. Pissed me off, but I could deal with that for her. That's what she wanted. I'm the only one who knew what she wanted. You sure don't."

...... He tried to move past me. I stepped in front of him, smiling my kindest smile.

...... "Oops," I said. "Excuse me." I let my jacket hang open and the Glock show at my waist. A little extreme, but it was one in the morning, and I was tired. And getting pretty angry myself.

...... He took a deep breath. Steadied himself. "Heh." He smiled. "All right, tough guy. I'll leave. But you aren't going to be with her. If I can't have her, she'll be alone."

...... He took another look at the Glock. It was shiny and clean and the streetlights gleamed off of it.

...... "Let me tell you a story," he whispered, backing off a step. "There was this guy at a job she had, couple of year ago. He was her manager, a few years older than us. Your age maybe.

...... "Anyway, this guy? He hit on her a couple of times, took her into the stock room and tried to grope her. She said no. He didn't do nothing when she said no again, but she came home and told me. Well, I went and talked to him."

...... He looked one more time at the gun. His smile was gone, his eyes raised to meet mine, "If you know what I mean."

...... Winking at me, he turned and trudged back into the snow. I could have shot him right then

...... Back inside, I sat on the couch. Sometime before morning I fell asleep.

...... When I opened my eyes, Beth was looking out the window, her back to me. She wore jeans and a thick turtleneck sweater. She must have heard me move a bit, because she turned to face me. She had a mug in her hands. She gave me a shy smile.

...... "Good morning. There's some coffee in the kitchen," she said.

...... I got up, rubbed my face, and fixed myself a cup, cream and sugar. When I came back into the room, she had turned toward the window again.

...... "I want to apologize for last night," she said.

...... "You don't have to."

...... "No. I'm sorry for what I said. I was scared and angry and had too much to drink. I had no right."

...... "It's ok."

...... I wanted to hug her, just touch her. With everything that was happening, I was afraid it was all going too fast. Getting too involved, with her, and her situation. I started to reach out to her and stopped myself.

...... She said, "The snow is really pretty. Like the world's been whitewashed. I didn't get to see much snow out in California."

...... "Sean said the same thing."

...... She whirled around, some coffee spilling out of her mug. "You saw Sean?"

...... "Yeah. I went down to the porch last night after you fell asleep, and he came up to talk to me."

...... "What did he say to you?"

...... "He called you Liz. He wanted to talk to you."

...... "I hate that name. Before last night, I hadn't been called Liz since college."

...... "Why did you leave California?"

...... "I don't know. It was time to get away. Prove that I could make it on my own."

...... I thought about asking about her employer that Sean mentioned, but didn't want to upset her more. I smiled instead, trying to break the tension. "Like Mary Tyler Moore?"

...... "You're cute when you're worried." She stepped toward me, putting the coffee cup down on to the coffee table. "Thank you for your help. I feel like I need to apologize again."

...... "You don't."

...... "Then I want to say thank you. Hold me for a little while."

...... Everything about her reminded me of Jeanne. She was soft and comfortable in my arms. Part of me really liked having her so close. I didn't know much about Beth, but I wanted to share a lot more than a hug. I needed her, and she needed my help. It was hard to tell where one stopped and the other started.

...... I leaned in and kissed her hard on the mouth. She resisted for a second, but then relented, opening her mouth, tongue meeting mine. Her left hand slid up the back of my neck, and started to play with my hair.

...... We broke for a second as I pulled the sweater over her head, and then kissed her neck. She sighed, almost groaning. Under the sweater, she had on a cotton t-shirt. I started to pull that from the waist of her jeans. My hands ran across her stomach, feeling a small hardened patch of skin, like a scar, as I went along.

...... She pulled away, breathing hard.

...... "Wait," she said. "Wait." She covered the scar with her hand.

...... "What?"

...... "I can't. I just keep thinking of Sean."

...... I tensed, not sure whether to be angry or understanding.

...... "You want to take a break? Go home, get a shower?" she asked.

...... Debating my emotions, I settled for, "I don't want to leave you alone here."

...... "He won't come back. You probably scared him off."

...... "Didn't seem very scared to me."

...... "But he went away. I'll lock my door. I just need some time to get him out of my head."

...... "Are you sure?"

...... "Yes. Meet me for dinner tonight. My treat."

...... I agreed. She gave me a quick peck on the lips goodbye.

...... I took a nap in my own bed, showered and shaved, then went to my office. There were bills to sort, but I couldn't really keep my mind on them for very long. I didn't think Sean would stay away from Beth. I thought back to the lecture where I first saw Beth. Liars tended to back away from people they spoke to. They touched their faces, fidgeted, and found it hard to make eye contact. Sean didn't do any of these things. He was confident in what he was saying; he believed it. And that scared me.

...... In the early afternoon, I called my lawyer, Lester Russell. He picked up, sounding like he had a cold.

...... "Yeah, what is it?" he sneezed.

...... "Having a good day, Lester?"

...... "There's snow everywhere, it's Saturday, I have a cold, and I'm in my office. What do you think?"

...... "I need a favor."

...... "Of course you do. Can't talk to the New Brunswick Police, they hate you. So who gets lucky enough to hear from you every time you need something? Me. Hoo-ray."

...... "Can you look up a guy in the Fresno area?"

...... "California?"

...... "Yeah. Name's Sean Bannon."

...... "What do you want to know?"

...... I twirled a pencil in my hand. "Any outstanding warrants. If he's been arrested for anything."

...... "Why don't you call?"

...... "You're the one who always brags that he has contacts everywhere, Lester."

...... "All right. I'll see what I can do. I'm going to charge you for this."

...... "I figured as much."

...... "You're a real worthwhile client, you know that? Every time I turn around, you need a favor."

...... "I haven't had to bring you into court much."

...... "Well maybe you should start. Go get arrested for something."

...... "I'll work on that."

...... "I call you back if I have something." He sneezed again as he hung up.

...... The phone rang immediately after I put it down. It was Beth.

...... "He's outside."

...... "What? Are you okay? I'll be there in-"

...... "No, I'm okay. Don't come over yet. He rang the bell once and I didn't answer. Now I can see him from my window. He's across the street. Just standing there, looking up at the house."

...... I took a breath. I started to speak, but Beth cut me off again.

...... "Come tonight, around six. If he's still there, just walk past him, don't say anything. If he comes to talk, I'll deal with him. Okay?"

...... "I-"

...... "Promise me."

...... "I promise."

...... Two hours, I thought, and counting.

****

...... The air was cold that night. Any snow that had melted was forming into ice. Cars still moved slowly down the street, and plows were still dropping rock salt. I was careful getting to Beth's, waiting for all traffic to pass before I crossed streets. Six o'clock and Sean Bannon was still standing across the street.

...... He wore a thick coat, zipped to the neck, and a wool hat. He had his hands shoved in his pockets. I tucked my head down and kept walking, right onto Beth's porch, wondering if he was watching me. I wanted to tear his limbs off. One day I'd learn to follow my instincts.

...... Beth answered her door and we went upstairs. Joni Mitchell was playing on her stereo.

...... "Where do you want to go eat?" I asked, not taking off my jacket. I still had my gun on.

...... "How about we just order Chinese? Stay in?" She sat on her couch.

...... I looked at her. "I'll talk to him."

...... "No. I'll handle it."

...... "By letting him stand out there and stare at you? So you can do nothing but sit inside your home and order food?"

...... "I'll handle it! Can't we just have a nice romantic evening in? Just relax?"

...... "Are you really going to be able to relax with him outside?"

...... As I spoke, the doorbell rang. I went to the window and looked out. Sean wasn't standing across the street anymore.

...... I turned to Beth. She eyed me, her mouth half open. Her hands visibly shook.

...... "Well, it's not the delivery guy," I said. "It's Sean. If you want to handle it, now's your chance."

...... "I-I don't . . ." She looked away from me.

...... "Otherwise, I will. I think there's more to it than just you. I think he may have hurt someone. A man you worked with a few years ago. Sean said this guy came on to you?"

...... That didn't stop her, it was almost as if she didn't hear it. "Sean hit me. Okay? He hit me. Just once. When I told him I didn't want to see him anymore. When I told him I was leaving. He got angry. And he hit me. So I'm scared. But I can do this. I can go down there and tell him to go away." She wasn't making eye contact with me. She touched her face. Tears shimmered in her hazel eyes. "If I don't handle this myself, I'll feel . . ." She wiped her eyes. "I'll feel like a failure."

...... "Talk to him on your porch. I'll go down with you. I won't say a word. I just want to be there."

...... She mustered a smile back. The doorbell rang again. "Okay. Let's go."

...... As we walked down the stairs, Joni continued to sing. "I wish I had a river I could skate away on."

...... She opened the door, and I could see Sean smile. She stepped out with him. I stepped out too. The air was cold and bitter. I could smell someone frying onions. I took a step away and leaned against the wall of the house.

...... "Hey, baby," Sean said. "What's the tough guy doing here? I just want to talk to you. He can go back upstairs. And then when we're done, you can go tell him to go home."

...... I wanted to cross my arms and look tough, but I didn't move. I watched.

...... "He stays here or we don't talk." Beth had her arms crossed, hugging herself.

...... "Liz. Liz, we don't have to . . ."

...... "Don't call me that. No one calls me Liz anymore."

...... Sean looked at me. Then back to Beth. "Why not? It is such a pretty name. It fits you. Like Liz Taylor. You're beautiful. Why would you change your name?"

...... "I needed to start over. I wanted to be a new person."

...... "Start over? Why? We had such a good thing going, Liz."

...... "Call me Beth. Please."

...... Sean clenched his bare fists. I tensed a bit. A breeze blew, and some snow from the ground came with it.

...... "Okay. Beth. We had a good thing going."

...... "We did, Sean. We did for a little while. But I had to go."

...... "Why? You always do this. Every time something was the matter and I'd ask you what was wrong, you wouldn't answer. You kept everything to yourself. And then you just decide to apply to grad school without telling anyone. You packed up and left. I loved you and you left me, barely saying a word."

...... "I'm sorry, but I had to-"

...... "Why? Why did you leave me? Because of your father? Was that it?"

...... "Don't bring him up. Don't do this. Just go away. You have to realize it's over."

...... "It's not over. We have a good thing going." Sean was pleading. His eyes were wide and desperate.

...... "Have? No we don't. We don't have anything going. There is no Sean and Liz anymore. Go back home." Beth backed up a step.

...... Sean looked over Beth's shoulder at me.

...... "Five years! And I could always tell when she talked to her father. She just looked tired and hurt. And I'd ask her to tell me what was wrong. That I could help her. And she wouldn't tell me. And then she leaves. No explanation why. She just leaves me."

...... "Stop."

...... "I loved her. I still love her." He looked back at Beth. "I love you. Come back with me. Come back to California. We'll make it work. You won't have to talk to him. Ever."

...... "Stop it! Stop! I made my decision! I don't want to be with you! I like it here. Can't you just be happy for me? Can't you just be happy and move on with your life? Go home, Sean. Find someone else." Beth was crying hard. Her shoulders were shaking. I wanted nothing more than to hug her and take her upstairs. "It's over between us! It has been over. And there is no chance-zero-of us ever getting back together! I don't love you anymore!"

...... Sean stood still for a moment. He put his hand in his pocket and came back out with a knife. He spun Beth around efficiently, pulling her close to him. He pressed the knife against her throat.

...... "Jackson!" she screamed.

...... I pulled the Glock, clicking the safety off. It had been so long since I'd pulled a gun with the intention of using it, it felt heavier than I remembered. But I was not going to be a bystander.

...... "Let her go, Sean."

...... "I told you. If she's not with me, she's not with anyone." He looked down toward Beth. "Well, Liz. Guess you'd better choose."

...... "I-I," she said. She couldn't move, he had his left arm wrapped around her waist and arms. She couldn't handle this one.

...... "She made her choice, Sean. Let her go." I aimed the gun as best I could.

...... He didn't speak, just pressed the knife harder into Beth's neck. The skin broke, as blood flowed over the blade. I'd reacted enough, watched things happen without doing anything. If I waited any longer Beth would be dead. I pulled the trigger.

...... There was blood everywhere. Beth was screaming, crying. I tried to hug her, to pick her up and hold her, but she clawed herself away from me. She lay on the floor crying for some time. Sean lay on his back, eyes lifeless, looking away from the both of us. His leg twitched.

...... "You shot him! You shot Sean!" Beth's voice was high pitched, matching the sirens I could hear in the background.

...... My legs felt weak. I'd never shot anyone before. Even when I was a cop, I'd only pulled my gun three times.

...... The cops got there in what seemed like record time. Two of them trained their weapons on me. I put the gun down and raised my hands, yelling, "My name is Jackson Donne. I am a New Jersey private investigator. I have ID." Cops don't like me very much, so telling them who I was probably wasn't the best idea. Beth kept screaming.

...... One of the cops asked her what happened.

...... "He shot Sean," was all she said.

...... The cuffs were slapped on me, and hours later I was in a holding cell.

****

...... All night, freezing my ass off, all I could hear was Beth's voice accusing me, angry with me. I had no choice but to shoot. But the cops wouldn't buy that, and Beth didn't help me. My brain raced and I shivered. The kid had stopped puking, now sleeping it off on a cot across from me.

...... In those moments of consciousness somewhere before sleep, it seems the brain relaxes and the pieces of a puzzle begin to fall into place. Why didn't she tell the police that it was all in self-defense? She could have been panicking. Someone was shot in front of her, someone she did care about at some point. But there was something more. Sean had hit her. He was hunting her down, following her, watching her. My gut was saying she set me up. She wanted to get rid of Sean for good, and she saw an opportunity with me.

...... I tossed and turned and couldn't figure out which was the truth. Or maybe I didn't want to.

****

...... Monday morning I went to court. Lester Russell did his best, pointing out the knife and the cuts on Beth's throat the police had mentioned in their report. He had also dug up an old warrant or two and an arrest sheet on Sean Bannon. Apparently, he was arrested for assaulting a man in a bar a year ago. No word on anyone who disappeared after talking to Bannon.

...... Beth wasn't at my hearing, and her statement wasn't read. Apparently, the police didn't get her to say anything other than I shot Sean.

...... Lester got The Olde Towne Tavern to take up a collection for my bail.

...... After the hearing, Lester said to me, "I wasn't serious about getting arrested."

...... "Hey, you got me off. It's good for business."

...... I was set free that afternoon, hitting the Tavern and buying everyone a round.

...... I didn't talk to Beth for a week. She didn't call me. And I still had my doubts.

...... Finally, I sat in the back of the Scott Hall, listening to another lecture on lying, and face-to-face communication. She probably saw me come in, because she didn't make the rounds of the audience like she usually did as the professor talked. She just leaned against the stage, arms crossed.

...... The lecture was dismissed an hour later. I got up as the students woke up and filed out. I made my way against the traffic toward her. She caught my eye and looked away. I leaned against the stage next to her.

...... "I'm not clear on every thing. I don't understand all of it," I said.

...... "What do you mean?" she asked.

...... "Sean mentioned your father. What did he have to do with this?"

...... Her cheeks burned red.

...... "Sean brought it up. I went to jail. I want to know everything." Hard as I tried, I couldn't bring any compassion into my voice.

...... "My father didn't think I was good enough at anything. He never gave me any credit. He didn't think I'd survive undergrad, let alone grad school. Part of why I left without telling him where I was going. It's stupid, but it bothered me. I don't want to talk about it anymore."

...... "That's not enough," I said. "There's something more."

...... She spoke through clenched teeth, her cheeks growing red. "I shouldn't have to tell you anything."

...... "I'm tired of all this," I said.

...... She let the silence grow for a second. Then said, "I knew what Sean was capable of. He beat up that guy I worked with for coming on to me. He was protective. That's just the way I thought he was. I told him I was thinking of leaving, of going to away for school. I told him it was because of my father. Sean flipped out when he first heard it. He didn't believe me. He went and caught my father coming out of work and broke his arm.

...... "That's when I decided to leave for sure. And when I told Sean, he hit me. I was gone a week later."

...... She stared at me, as if trying to find something in my expression.

...... "One more thing I have to ask," I said. "Did you want me to kill Sean? Is that what all of this was about?"

...... She was quiet, still looking at me. She couldn't have planned it all from the beginning. She didn't know I was a private investigator until I told her in Starbucks. But she could have started planning right then.

...... "No," she said, turning her head. "How can you ask me that? How dare you ask me that?" Her eyes wouldn't connect with mine.

...... "Go to hell," she said.

...... Looking around, tears in her eyes, she gathered her stuff and stormed out into the winter air.

...... The lecture hall was as empty as I felt inside. Walking out, I thought about what she said more than a week ago. On my way back to my office, I picked up an application to Rutgers.

****

...... Two weeks later, I returned to my office after a day of following a doctor suspected of insurance fraud. The light on my phone was blinking signaling a voice mail. I listened to it.

...... "Jackson, it's Beth. I'm not really sure what to say. But I hope to see you again. I, uh, had a really good time at Starbucks. You were a fun date." She laughed quietly into the phone. "That was stupid." A pause. I guess she was searching for words. "It's your job to know. I understand you had to ask. But can you imagine what it was like to hear those questions?

...... "All I wanted was to come here, get my Masters, and work for a radio station in New York. That's all. Anything else was bonus. Last Friday, I thought you were a bonus. But my life kept coming back and biting me."

...... "I know you were trying to help. I believe you helped me. Can we try again?" There was another brief pause, and the message ended. Leaving it up to me to call back.

...... I replayed everything in my head. And I still came to the same conclusions. I deleted the message.

...... I thought about getting a beer from the fridge, but instead pulled the half-completed Rutgers application from my desk drawer. I opened it and found a pen. Maybe one day I'd be able stop doing what I was doing, and find some direction for myself.

Copyright (c) 2003 by David White.



David White is the Derringer Award-winning author of the Jackson Donne series. His stories and reviews have appeared in both Thrilling Detective and Hand Held Crime. He resides in New Jersey. He'd love to hear from you at dpwhite237@yahoo.com or via his website.

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