Decision Points

I insert my key and open the lobby mailbox in my apartment building. “Bills, bills, junk, catalog, political mailer.” I mutter the inventory of typical American mailbox contents as I throw them in the trash. Well, not the bills. “Hey, this is odd.”

“This” is a buff-colored, heavyweight envelope with an embossed return address. I don’t recognize it or the company name. My name is typed, like with an old-fashioned typewriter. The “y” in Kelsey is not aligned with the rest of the letters, floating too low so the tail overlaps the next line of text.

I take the bills and the envelope to my apartment. Tossing aside the bills, I open my laptop and do a quick search for the sender. Grumman & Parkins, LLC is a law firm. I’ve never heard of them. What could they possibly want with me?

I rip the envelope, and remove a thick parchment-like piece of paper that was the same buff color. The interior is lined with silver foil. Fancy stuff. I unfold the paper.

There are only two sentences, centered on the paper, typed with the same manual typewriter as the outside, or so I assume from the typeface. I know what you did. Ball’s in your court.

What kind of stupid joke is this? The Grumman & Parkins website lists current partners, but I don’t recognize any names. Do major law firms still use Smith Corona typewriters? Surely not.

I drop the envelope and its contents into the shredder without a second thought. There are more important mysteries at hand. Like what to have for dinner.

***

It’s pouring when I get home the next day. I shake out my umbrella and retrieve my mail. This time, only two items: a political flyer and another buff-colored envelope. Same paper, same return address, same Smith-Corona type.

In my apartment, I toss the flyer and slit the envelope. Still two sentences, but different this time. July 20, 2002. Make your choice.

When a date isn’t your birthday, or wedding anniversary, or something equally big, it’s hard to remember. But July 20, 2002 is seared into my brain. I couldn’t forget it. The day everything changed, while nothing appeared to change at all.

My hand trembles as I drop the envelope into the shredder. Who at Grumman & Parkins could possibly know about that day?

***

Later that evening, my boyfriend, Andrew, comes over to watch a movie. “Are you okay?” are the first words out of his mouth when I open the door.

Andrew is a detective. In fact, he’s Kansas City’s youngest detective ever, at the ripe age of 33. He’s a smart guy and my chances of hiding anything from him are less than zero.

“I’m fine.” A lie, mistake number one. “Rough week.” I peck his cheek. Mistake number two.

“No you’re not. You’re hiding something.” He holds me at arm’s length, studying my face. “You never look me in the eye when you try to hide something. You haven’t kissed me like that since our first date, but I haven’t seen you in three days. What’s wrong?”

Damn. “I told you, rough week. I’m behind on my quarterly audits. Come on, almost time for the movie.” I drag him into the living room, where popcorn and his favorite beer are waiting. I flop on the couch, hoping the movie and beer would distract him, but no such luck.

“Kelse, you look tense.” He strokes my face. “Talk to me.”

I can’t talk to him, not about this. I need to ramp up the distraction. “Maybe after the movie,” I say, pulling him down and snuggling close. Fortunately, the movie offers some sultry seduction scenes. It doesn’t take long before the TV, popcorn, and beer are totally forgotten, lost in a trail of the clothing shed on the way to the bedroom.

***

I trail my fingers down Andrew’s chest, breathing in the scent of sweat, spice, and sex. I’ve done it. Derailed his investigative instincts. The letters are coincidence. Have to be.

“So, what did you want to tell me about?”

I should have known better. But I can’t tell him, not my police detective boyfriend. It happened twelve years ago. I’d been eighteen and stupid, but it would ruin me. Ruin us. I try to push it from my mind, but the memory held me.

It had been a hot July night. Michelle and I went out celebrating the end of high school, the beginning of college. Maybe we had a little too much to drink. Just a touch. We tore down the dark country road, her yelling out the window while I drove. Then we heard the thud and crunch, the car bumping as we hit something. “What the hell?” Michelle said.

I turned around, sure it was an animal. Somebody’s dog.

It was a man.

He laid perfectly still, dirt and blood streaking his shirt. Michelle got out and approached while I cowered in the car. “Is he dead?”

“He’s… he’s still breathing.” She stumbled and fell, hand landing on a large rock by the road.

“Oh God. We gotta, we gotta call…” I fumbled for my cell phone and flinched when I heard a sickening crack.

Michelle stood over the guy, blood-smeared rock in her hand, shaking like a tree caught in a tornado.

“What the hell did you do? Michelle? What did you do that for?” The cell phone fell from my hands.

“I had to. This way it just looks like a hit and run. Drive, drive!” She jumped in the car and hit me.

“Michelle, we can’t. We have to…”

“Drive!” She pounded me and screamed. “You’re going to Stanford in the fall. I’m headed to Princeton. We’re getting out of this shit-hole cornfield. Do you know what would happen if we admit to anything?” She gulped, tears streaming from her eyes. “We go to jail. He’s dead, he can’t tell anybody shit. Now for the love of God, go!”

I went. The papers the next day reported the tragic hit and run accident that had claimed the life of Stanley Devonshire, a local farmer. He left a wife and two young kids.

Michelle and I never told. She committed suicide a year into Princeton. They said it was stress. It was, but not about academics.

“Kelse? What’s wrong?” Andrew’s voice pulls me back to the present.

No, I can’t tell him. It’s over. I’d done the driving, but Michelle had done the killing. And now she was dead too.

“It’s nothing. Really, just work. But thanks for asking.”

There is nothing to gain by telling. No one knew anything. It was in the past.

***

I do not immediately drop the third envelope in the shredder.

Same buff envelope, same Smith-Corona type. Same kind of terse message. Time is almost up. Tell or I will.

To anyone who knows me well, the lack of screaming and swearing would have been a good indicator of my anger level – off the charts.

I check the clock. I’d come home early and it is only four-thirty. Plenty of time to call Grumman & Parkins. I pull up their website and dial.

“Grumman & Parkins, how may I direct your call?” The voice is professional, but monotone. This girl says those words a million times a day.

“Yes, hi. I’m not sure who to speak with.” I study the letter. “See, I’m getting some really strange mailings from your organization. They aren’t signed, but I’ve never done business with you so I don’t know who would be contacting me.”

“What do you mean strange?”

I can tell I’ve broken the girl’s script, but I plow on. “Obscure messages, typed on an old-fashioned typewriter. Like a Smith-Corona. Is there any way of finding out which department posted a particular piece of mail?”

“We don’t use typewriters,” the girl says. A thin veneer of politeness covers her sneer. “Are you sure these letters are from Grumman & Parkins?”

“They have your return address embossed on the envelope,” I say, flipping it over. “Buff-colored paper and envelope in a heavy, textured stock. The envelopes have a silver lining.”

“Oh.” The girl pauses. “Yeah, that isn’t ours.”

“What do you mean it isn’t yours? I told you, your mailing address is embossed on the envelope.” I always suspected receptionists at high-end law firms are often hired for looks, not brains, but this is ridiculous.

“Yeah, it’s defective stock. The stationary company sent the wrong color scheme with the last order.” Her shrug can be heard in her voice. “Mr. Grumman ordered those buff pieces be discarded and replaced.”

I look at the stationary. Expensive stuff. But appearances are important, so I have no trouble believing a senior partner would pitch anything that didn’t meet standards. “Okay, so you just gave it away? When?”

“Oh, no. It went to recycling. This was a while ago. But I can assure you, no one here uses a Smith-Corona, so it’s definitely not coming from us.” Emphatic and bored. The girl is counting the minutes until quitting time.

“All right. Thanks anyway.” I hang up and inspect the envelope. The postmark is Kansas City. That’s no help. Grumman & Parkins is in KC. I have no idea how to figure out which post office processed this. Andrew would know how. The reprimanding inner voice sounds like my mother. I push it aside.

Feeling defiant, I drop the paper and envelope in the shredder. If the defective stationary went to recycling, someone stole it from there, or never took it in the first place. For all I know, this person is mailing letters to random people throughout the city. Who doesn’t have a few skeletons in her closet, right?

This is a kook, a prank. Nothing to be taken seriously. I dismiss the cards from my mind, focusing instead on more important things. Like laundry.

***

There is no card in the mail on Saturday. A huge weight falls off my shoulders. See, just a prank. I knew it. Whoever it was got bored.

My phone rings a little after noon. Caller ID reports no number available. Probably a telemarketer, but I answer it anyway. “This is Kelsey.”

“You’re ignoring me.”

I don’t recognize the voice. Male, either a young man trying to sound old, or an old man trying to sound young. I stall. “I’m sorry, who is this?”

“You’re ignoring me. I don’t think that’s smart.”

“Look, I don’t know you. I don’t know how you got this number. But my boyfriend is a KC police detective, so you might want to reconsider who you’re playing with.”

“You won’t call him.” The voice chuckles, a hollow sound that makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up. “Meet me, tonight, nine o’clock. Pickwick Parking Garage on east ninth. Don’t be late.” A click and the line is dead.

I drop the phone like it is a hot poker. My instinct is young male. How many young men would know about that night twelve years ago? Stanley Devonshire had two young children. Was one of them a boy? I can’t remember. If so, he’d be in his mid to late teens by now. Revenge for his father?

I didn’t kill his father. Melissa did that. I tried to call 9-1-1, I swear.

But you hit him, my mother’s dry, rational, unsympathetic voice answers. You could have called. You didn’t try very hard, did you?

This isn’t happening. I can’t go, yet I can’t not go. There’d been a veiled threat in that voice for sure. He’s already escalated from letters to phone calls. What’s next?

I unlock the safe in my closet and pull out the .380 automatic I bought when I first moved to the city. For personal safety.

If this nutcase isn’t a threat to my personal safety, I don’t know who is.

***

I wrap my hand around the .380 as I enter the building. It is just a few minutes before nine. There are few lights, the building shrouded in shadows. I can hear skittering along the walls. A rat? I shiver.

“You came. Smart.” The voice comes from the corner. “Time to make your decision. Will you tell or will I?’

I squint, barely making out a silhouette in the dusk. Medium height, thick shoulders. No legs. Is he wearing a trench coat? I can’t see hands; they must be stuffed into pockets. Holding a gun? I think I see the outline of a fedora. How trite. I swallow, willing my knees not to tremble. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“July 20, 2002.”

“That was a long time ago. It’s over, done with.”

“Not yet. But it will be tonight.”

I draw the .380 and point it at the figure. “You can’t threaten me. I told you, my boyfriend is a cop.” A dry, raspy chuckle reaches my ears, making my neck hairs prickle.

“He’s not here. Will you tell him? Or should I?”

A crash and clatter makes me jump, my finger involuntarily pulling the trigger. The .380 barks and the figure topples back.

“Police. Hands in the air.”

The echoey garage can’t disguise the voice. The bottom falls out of my stomach, but I don’t drop the gun. “Andrew. I can explain.”

“Put the gun down.” He flicks on a flashlight, blinding me. His own gun is steady in his hands. “I mean it, Kelse. Put the gun down. Then we can talk.”

Another man, Andrew’s partner perhaps, walks over to the figure on the ground and shines his own flashlight. “Drew, it’s a dummy. She shot a mannequin.”

I stare at the pool of light. It is a rubber body dummy. I hadn’t seen arms or legs because it doesn’t have any. A fedora is on the ground, knocked from the dummy’s head by the fall. But where had the voice come from? I spot an open exit door in the corner. The speaker has most likely fled in the noise and confusion.

Tears stream down my face, but I can’t drop my arm, or the gun. “Andrew, please. I can explain. Maybe.”

Andrew doesn’t budge. “I’m sure you can. Put down the gun first.”

Put down the gun. Such a simple act, but I can’t do it. I look at Andrew, his face hard, but his eyes give me a window to his anguish. In them, I can see my career, our relationship, and our future, go up in smoke. My stomach is missing. Someone has ripped it out.

I can’t do it. I move, but not to drop the gun.

I place it next to my temple.

Andrew’s partner swears and fumbles for a radio. I can hear him calling someone.

“Kelsey, don’t. Put the gun down. Whatever it is, we can work it out. You didn’t shoot anyone tonight. The tip that brought me here was vague. Please. Just put the gun down.” Andrew licks his lips, but he doesn’t lower his own gun.

I feel the cold metal against my head, contrasting with the hot tears running down my cheeks. Is there a statute of limitations on hit-and-runs or accessory to murder? I don’t know. “I’m sorry, Andrew. Really sorry. I should have told you.”

So many bad decisions. My final one will hurt the most.

At least I won’t have long to regret it.

 

 

Liz Milliron is the crime fiction pen name for Mary Sutton. Mary has been making up stories, and creating her own endings for other people’s stories, for as long as she can remember. After ten years, she decided that making things up was far more satisfying than writing software manuals, and took the jump into fiction. Her short fiction has appeared at Uppagus.com, Mysterical-e and in LUCKY CHARMS: 12 CRIME TALES, a juried anthology from the Pittsburgh chapter of Sisters in Crime. Visit her on the web at http://marysuttonauthor.com.

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