Authors: Betta Ferrendelli
Tags: #Mystery, #Thriller, #Suspense, #Contemporary
The Friday Edition
A Samantha Church Mystery
For my grandmothers
I am always reaching out to them
He opened the car door and Jingle Bells spilled out from the radio, filling the night air with holiday spirit until he cut the engine. The Lexus groaned and settled as the couple collected their packages and got out of the car.
Wrapped in coats and scarves, they followed their breath toward a high-rise of condominiums, their footsteps crunching over freshly fallen snow. Light from the near-full moon honed the distant tall trees into black skeletons, but the couple, laughing and caught up in a festive mood, did not notice. They were still singing. “Oh, what fun it is to ride …”
“Roger! Hush!” Marj said in a loud whisper. “You’ll wake the entire complex.”
A scream came from somewhere above them, its shrillness cutting through air thick with the smell of burning wood. Before they had a chance to look up something clipped her arms with enough force to knock the packages to the ground. “Oh my God!” she gasped. “What on earth was that?”
Roger dropped his packages, grabbed his wife’s arm and pulled her close. She could see his eyes darting back and forth, quickly assessing their situation. His easy disposition changed instantly, reminding her that his years of military training would always be part of their civilian lives. She felt him push her closer to their building. “Stay here,” he said.
He had moved just enough that Marj saw their packages outlining a woman’s body sprawled face down across the sidewalk.
“My God,” she gasped, her voice rising to meet her fear. “Roger, look!”
He took a step toward the lifeless figure.
“No!” She grabbed his arm firmly with both hands. “Call an ambulance. Maybe she jumped or she could’ve been murdered. Roger, please, call an ambulance. I … I can’t believe this! Things like this just don’t happen around here.”
He pulled away from her grasp and gripped her shoulders tightly. “Marj, quiet,” he said. “Let me handle this.”
“Don’t touch!” she called to him as he moved toward the body.
“I won’t. I just want to see if she’s still alive.”
He hunkered down to examine the body and saw that the frame was slender.
Marj looked on for a moment. “Is she alive?”
He ignored her question.
She took a step in his direction.
“Stay there,” he said, pointing at her without looking.
“Roger, call an ambulance, please! What are you waiting for?!”
He saw that the woman wore no coat and cold crystals of snow quickly covered her bare arms, exposed to the elements. He could not see her face, hidden by long brown hair.
Marj stepped away from the building and surveyed the balconies in front of her. “She must’ve jumped...” she said, her voice trailing off as she folded her arms and pressed them tightly against her body.
Roger turned his attention from the body and looked up. “She probably did; ten, twelve floors maybe more.”
“What a shame. She must’ve been alone. What a terrible time to be by yourself on Christmas Eve …” Marj said and turned to Roger. “What could’ve happened?”
He looked again at the lifeless figure before him. He noticed that a pool of blood had started to form near the top of her head. “She’s bleeding,” he said.
“Roger, please! Call an ambulance, right now!” Marj exclaimed.
The chill of death ran through him, turning his blood cold as he allowed himself to imagine what might have transpired in this woman’s place just moments before.
He wanted to feel for a pulse, but instead pulled his cell phone off his belt as he rose to his feet.
“I don’t know what happened, but she’s dead,” he said, punching 9-1-1 into his phone.
Samantha Church opened her eyes and blinked slowly. She muddled through clouded thoughts, trying to figure out what was dragging her from a deep, but troubled sleep.
She stirred slightly, thinking it was the telephone. It took all her strength to reach for the phone on the nightstand. But it wasn’t there. She scanned the room through lazy eyes and realized that she was on her sofa. She glanced in the direction of the curtains. They were closed and not bright with the usual morning sun. A dream woke her, she guessed, and closed her eyes.
She heard the sound again. Someone was pounding hard enough to break down the door. She realized she wasn’t dreaming.
God, if there were pictures on these walls they’d be falling off.
For the first time she felt happy that her apartment walls were empty. She had rented the place for nearly a year, but had done nothing to make it feel like home.
The knock came again. “Sam?! Sam, are you in there?! Open the door!”
She turned toward the clock on the stone mantel, but could not focus well or long enough on the hands to determine the time. “Sam? Open the goddam door!”
She closed her eyes, trying to think.
What day is this? Monday? Tuesday? Everything’s running together.
Her mind had cleared and she realized who was yelling and pounding on her door. She made a raspy attempt to call his name. “Jonathan?”
She hadn’t spoken in hours and her throat felt scratchy and raw. She sat up and a wave of nausea swept over her. She tried to swallow away the queasiness, but it persisted. Her lip curled at the rancid taste in her mouth. The knock came again, taking her mind off the nausea and foul taste.
She glanced around the living room. The two bottles of wine on the coffee table were empty, as were the two on the floor. One had fallen over, leaving a pool of red the size of a quarter on the carpet. The scent of stale, greasy food filled her nostrils. There was a crumpled KFC bag by the coffee table, but she couldn’t remember eating chicken—or drinking the wine.
The Christmas tree propped in the corner of her living room caught her attention, reminding her of those she saw watching Charlie Brown specials on television. The lights were still blinking, but nothing about them seemed like Christmas. There were no presents beneath her tree. Just as well. Sam hated the holiday and had since she was twelve when her mother died.
The muffled voice beyond the door took her attention from the tree. “Sam! Come on! Open up! I have to talk to you.”
The urgency in his voice registered in her brain, now that sleep had cleared. She started to stand, but stopped to a surprising revelation that she had slept in her clothes. Her blouse was partially tucked into a skirt that felt too tight around her waist. She was still wearing one high heel. She removed the shoe and dropped it next to the other, lying on its side.
“I’m coming, I’m coming,” she said finally, primping slightly as she started toward the door.
She walked slowly, holding onto the furniture and walls to steady herself. She opened the door and met his eyes, but did not bother to extend a greeting to her ex-husband. There was nothing about their relationship to merit a more amicable hello. They had been divorced nearly a year. He tried to keep their split on friendly terms, but she refused.
Jonathan Church had something she wanted: Their nine-year-old daughter. “Good morning and Merry Christmas to you, too,” he said.
Sam ignored his sarcasm.
“I’ve got to talk to you,” he said.
“Can’t you tell me here?” Sam asked, not budging from the door.
He shook his head and ran a hand through his hair as if to comb it. His auburn locks were short and loosely curled and what gray there was collected evenly along the sides. A fine, thin beard covered his face. “I need to come in,” he said, his tone collected.
She didn’t move.
“It’s not good news, Samantha.”
One person came to mind. Instantly she forgot how lousy she felt. Jonathan only called her Samantha when it was serious. “Is April all right?” Sam asked without pause, not hiding the fear in her voice.
“April’s fine. She’s with your grandmother. Now, can I come in?”
Sam pushed the door open. He walked from the hallway to the kitchen, surveying the surroundings as he went. He took note of the wine bottles by the coffee table. “This place is a mess,” he said.
“The housekeeper has the week off,” Sam said, and when they reached the kitchen she turned to him, “What’s going on?”
“It’s your sister.”
“She’s ...”Jonathan hesitated and the silence allowed Sam to hear her blood rushing through her ears, roaring like a spring runoff.
“I’m sorry, Sam, I wish there was an easier way to say this, but Robin’s dead.”
“Dead? What the hell are you talking about? How?”
“We don’t know,” Jonathan said and shrugged his shoulders.
Sam blinked and reached for the top of a kitchen chair to steady herself. Jonathan pressed his lips together. He touched her hand. “We think it was a suicide,” he said softly. He hesitated a moment then added, “You’ll have to identify the body.”
Sam looked at him and nodded slightly, her eyebrows drifting toward the ceiling. Then she blinked several times, trying to make sense of his news. She pulled out a chair and sat down. She stared at the dark brown wood in the table. She shook her head slowly and felt herself pull a mental plug somewhere deep in her mind, disconnecting her emotions. “You know,” she said, rubbing her hand over the smooth surface. “Robin was … she was with me when I bought this table. She hates dark wood. Always has.”
Sam’s laugh was small when she looked up at Jonathan.
“She wanted me to get one made of oak,” she went on. “She thought it was nicer. So did I, but I couldn’t afford it.”
“Sam, let’s go. They’re waiting for us at the coroner’s office.”
“How’d it happen? Wh … When?”
“Last night,” Jonathan said. “Robin was on her balcony and she was drinking.”
“You mean she fell eleven floors?”
Jonathan nodded, keeping his eyes on her. “It’s a long way to fall, Sam.”
“But that … that can’t be. My … sister … would never, never do something like that. Kill herself? Maybe it was an accident. Maybe … maybe she accidentally stumbled over the railing.”
“No, Sam. The 9-1-1 call came from a couple coming home at the time she jumped. Robin almost landed on the woman,” he said and his voice was calm. “I’ve been at Robin’s most of the night. I just came from there.”
“No, it can’t be,” Sam said looking at him wide-eyed.
“Sam.” Jonathan held her gaze a moment, then shook his head. “She left a note. You’ll see when we get there.”
Sam looked at her wrist and tapped several times where her watch should have been. She didn’t remember removing it. “What time is it?” she asked.
“It’s just after seven,” Jonathan said.
“In the morning?’
“Of course, Sam, what do you think?”
Her mind was blank. She didn’t know what to think.
“Let’s go,” Jonathan said.
They drove to the Grandview Police Department and Truman County Coroner’s Office in silence. Sam watched the landscape pass before her, but nothing registered. She was so deep in thought when they reached the police station that Jonathan had to shake her to get her attention. “Are you going to sit there all day? Let’s go,” he said.
She wanted to stay in the car. She felt safe there. The heater had warmed the interior comfortably against the winter day. She wanted to look out the window. Grandview, a sprawling suburb on Denver’s West side, was perfectly named. Even the view from the car window offered a generous vista of the city’s skyline. “What’s today?” she asked.
“Are you completely out of it? It’s Christmas.”
Her focus was on the distant buildings, but at his words, she turned to him. “There’s something wrong,” she said, her voice distant, her thoughts just surfacing.
“What the hell are you saying?”
“My sister wouldn’t kill herself on Christmas. She just wouldn’t.”
“How do you know?”
“If she were going to kill herself it wouldn’t be on Christmas morning.”
“It happened Christmas Eve,” Jonathan snapped.
“This is no suicide,” Sam shot back. “I know Robin had considered suicide years ago after what happened to Brady, but she would have never killed herself on Christmas. We made a promise to each other a long, long time ago.”
He studied her skeptically, slightly cocking his head. “As long as I’ve known you, you’ve never said a thing about hating Christmas. Why now?”
“We have a painful memory of Christmas morning that you know nothing about, Jonathan. Besides, I had April to think about. It’s not anything she needs to know right now.”
His laugh was short and harsh. “Why? You never have before.”
Sam pursed her lips and let his comment pass.
“What’s the big secret, Samantha?”
Sam looked at him, her head titled slightly to the right as she considered his question. She got out of the car, deciding not to answer.