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Susan Rogers Cooper's
Edgar-nominated author of 3 mystery series
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First Chapter
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Chapter One
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The definition of hell: A minivan loaded with five children and me. Only three of them were actually mine-two biological and one adopted; the older two, teenaged boys, belonged to my nextdoor neighbor.
Just because those two weren't actually mine didn't mean I couldn't yell at them as easily as my own three.
"Stop it now!" I screamed.
The minivan was shifting from side to side as we sat at the red light. My two girls, Megan and Bessie, were on either side of the second seat, whacking the sides of the van with their bodies, while my son Graham and my next-door neighbor's two boys, Eduardo and Luis, were in the backseat, rocking back and forth for all they were worth.
There was no response to my demand. Of course. "I mean it!" I yelled. "You're going to tip this thing! "
By the laughter coming from the back, I deduced that was precisely the plan.
"Eduardo, I'm telling your mother," I said, my voice even.
All movement stopped in the van. The light changed and I floored the accelerator, heading into the parking lot of the supermarket.
I've always wondered how Luna, my next-door neighbor, did it. Was it an ethnic thing-that her children would do anything not to bring on their mother's wrath? Or did she harbor her own secret mothering device? I'd never seen or heard her raise her hand or voice; one eyebrow seemed to be all the action necessary. I've always thought she should teach an adult education class: "How to intimidate your children in ten easy lessons."
It was October, coming up on that most hallowed of all holidays-Halloween. In my part of Texassouth central-it was basically still summer. The nights and mornings were crisper than summer, but the afternoon temperatures could still reach ninety without much encouragement. The pools were closed as of the beginning of the school year, but new school clothes weren't out of their wrappers yet because it was still too hot to wear them.
As much of our weather was, we were again in that "in-between" stage. It was three-thirty in the afternoon, school was out for the day, and the sweaters and light jackets necessary for the earlier morning were now either crumbled in backpacks or left in school rooms. As much as I disliked the thought, I had to take all five kids to the grocery store if there was to be any semblance of dinner that evening.
I pulled into a slot only a mile or so from the front door of the Food Giant and herded all five children out of the van. Once inside, the boys headed for the video games while the girls stayed with me.
At nine, Bessie had decided her goal in life was to become a ballerina/nuclear physicist/mommy, and I was selected to teach her the nuances of shopping. Megan, also nine, but whose only goal in life was to get her waist-length hair cut and paint her fingernails green, came along with Bessie and me because Megan loves to talk and the boys will never listen to her. She considers Bessie and me an easy audience.
"So she goes, 'Megan, what are you doing?' and I go, 'Brandy, you have gum in your hair!' and she goes, 'Don't cut it!" She's like screaming, and I go, 'But what do you expect me to do?' and she goes-"
I showed Bessie the relative merits of an eightounce can of tomato sauce versus a four-ounce can.
"So I told Mrs. Rudolph, I go, 'Mrs. Rudolph, Garrison shot that rubber band,' and Garrison goes, 'I did not,' and I go, 'Did so,' and he goes, -Did not'--"
We were in the cereal aisle, discussing SpoonSized Shredded Wheat versus Wheat Chex, when I felt a frontal assault on my shopping basket.
I looked up to see Rene Tillery, my son's homeroom mother from the previous year, trying to dislodge a wheel of her basket from mine.
"E.J.! Hey! Sorry about that! I swear we need driving lessons for these damn things. Oops, sorry girls. "
The word perky was invented for Rene Tillery. This day she was wearing tennis whites-a sleeveless one piece with a flouncy little skirt-her dark brown hair pulled into a high, bouncy ponytail. That Rene had been a cheerleader in high school was selfevident. Everything about her screamed "Rah" with a capital "R". Rene never turned-she pivoted.
"Hello, Mrs. Tillery," Bessie said. She didn't curtsy, but her attitude strongly suggested that if she wanted to, it would be a damn fine curtsy.
"Hi!" Megan said, turning back to her sister to relay a few thousand more "he goes", "she goes".
Rene moved around her basket to grasp my arm.
"Have you heard?" she whispered, pulling me away from my daughters.
" What? "
"About Michael Whitby?"
I shook my head. The name wasn't the least familiar. "Who's Michael Whitby?"
"My God, where have you been?"
It was Monday and we'd just gotten back from a weekend in Houston with my parents.
"Houston," I said. "What's going on?"
She pulled me further away from the girls and lowered her voice. "Michael Whitby! He was a high school girls' basketball coach somewhere in East Texas. He was arrested a couple of years ago on God only knows how many counts of child molestation-with his students!-and went to prison. Well," she said, looking around to make sure no one was watching or listening, "you know the Texas Parole Board! They let him out after serving only three years of a ten-year sentence! And lie's moved to Black Cat Ridge with his family! Into our village!" she said, her voice indignant.
Black Cat Ridge was divided into economically evaluated villages-we lived in the middle-income village.
"Oh, my God," I said, not knowing how I was supposed to respond.
"Madeline Grainey sold him the house, so we're organizing a boycott of Grainey Realty, and Tina Perlmutter think she has a line on where he's working. As soon as we know for sure, we'll see what we can do about putting pressure there. Meanwhile, we're meeting at my house to organize the vigils."
"Vigils?" I asked, somewhat overwhelmed.
"We're trying for around-the-clock, but at first maybe just rush hour-as much visibility as possible. And we definitely want to be out there when he's in the house!"
I shook my head. "Rene, you've lost me."
She sighed. "Pickets, E.J. We'll walk a picket line in front of his house until he gets the hell out of Dodge! Luckily there's a sidewalk in front of his house, so that's public access. We intend to walk that sidewalk until hell freezes over or that scum leaves town! Whichever comes first!"
"Who's we?" I asked.
Rene looked at me funny. "Concerned parents," she said. "Right now there are four of us in leadership roles, but we are organizing as fast as we can. You're with us, right?"
I sighed. "Rene, I really don't know anything about this-"
She took a step back and looked at me as if I'd just done something unpleasant in my pants. "What's to know, E.J.? A child molester has moved into our midst! Surely you don't condone that kind of behavior?"
"Of course not, Rene. But if he's served his time--"
"Do you have any idea what the recidivism rate is for pedophiles? Over ninety-nine percent! They are not rehabilitatable, E.J.! My God, what sand do you have your head buried in?"
I shook my head. "Rene, it's not that. I'm not naive. This is just the first I've heard about any of this-"
"And you should be as shocked as the rest of us! "
"I am," I said, trying to calm her down. "Of course I'm shocked."
"Where's your son?" she asked out of nowhere.
"At the video games," I answered.
She shook her head. "We're not doing that anymore," she said. "Letting our children run free. We can't afford to now. Keep your children close to you, E.J. Don't let them out of your sight!"
With that she grabbed her basket, pivoted neatly, and was gone.
It's amazing how much wash is generated from two days in another town. I had three loads to do and I wasn't in the mood. Of course, you could put the times I'm actually in the mood to do laundry on the head of a pin and still have room left over for a debutante cotillion. I sorted, fluffed, and folded while Megan stood leaning against the wall regaling me with school gossip.
"James has a crush on Laura, so I go, 'Laura, James has a crush on you,' and she goes, 'No, lie likes you.' But, Mom, she always says stuff like that. Why do you think she does that'! I mean, you say, 'Laura that's a pretty dress,' and she'll go, 'Oh, yours is much prettier.' That's dumb. Why do you think she does that? And I know James doesn't like me because he never tries to take my lunch money or anything like he always does to Laura, and you know how boys are. They're preverse."
" Perverse. "
"Right. So I tell Laura, I go, 'No, he likes you.' And she goes . . ."
I tuned her out. I know I shouldn't. I know I should hang on every precious word in these days when she's still speaking to me. It won't be long before she's buried in her room under a princess phone and blaring music I'll be too old to relate to. But as I sorted laundry I couldn't help wishing that far-off day was already here.
I also couldn't help thinking about my chance meeting with Rene Tillery at the Food Giant. A pedophile loose on the streets of Black Cat Ridge, I thought. But a pedophile who'd done his time, my other self said. Three years for ruining how inany lives? my other self said. He's served his time and he has the right to live in any community he chooses, my bleeding-heart-liberal self said.
"Mom!" Megan yelled.
I came back to the here and now. "What?" I yelled back.
"I said, how come I can't go to the movies with Laura on Saturday?"
Not having remembered saying she couldn't, or any reason why she shouldn't, I said, "We'll talk to your father."
Megan rolled her eyes and left me to the laundry, which is all I really wanted in the first place.
Michael Whitby Journal Entry-September I
I am writing this by order of my court-appointed therapist. He says I need to keep a journal of my thoughts, that these will be private thoughts only I will have access to. But that I must write in the journal at least once a week. I wonder if I've written enough. Ha, ha!
I'm not sure where to begin. Three years of prison has robbed me of my thoughts. Except for my prayers. Prayers, I suppose, are thoughts. More of a conversation, really, with God. In my conversations with God, He has forgiven me. The state has forgiven me--they released me from that God-forsaken hole.
If God and man can forgive me, why can't my wife? She took vows, swore before God and man that she would cherish and obey me, in good times and bad times, forever. I may have my faults, but I haven't forgotten my vows!
What happened, those girls, I take full responsibility for that. I must. I told the parole board that I took full responsibility for my actions. And that was the truth. But I can't see that I'm totally responsible. It takes two, right? I'm not the one who was running around in skimpy shorts, breasts hanging out for all the world to see. Tramps, all of them, tempting me, leasing me!
And speaking of blame--where does my wife stand in all this? If Arlene had ever been there for me, really been there, maybe none of this would have happened!
But I take responsibility for my actions. I'm not a bad man, God knows. I'm a good Christian and I take my faith seriously. A good Christian, a family man, college educated! And I end up in prison! It doesn't make sense, but little in this humanistic world makes sense.
I'm a good father to Mikey, no matter how Arlene tries to turn him against me! I'll not have that! I am the man in this family and Arlene better remeniber that!
She's more concerned with what her family will think, what the neighbors think, than worrying about her husband--like a good Christian wife should! Everything she does for me, front cooking to cleaning to whatever, I can see it in her face, see the haired. It's against God's law for a wife to behave like that to her husband! Arlene needs some straightening out, and I'm just the man to do it! A wife is to be subservient unto her husband, not look at him like he's some kind of rabid animal!
She needs to see the situation as it truly is--if she had been therefor me, if she had fulfilled my needs as she was supposed to, none of this would have happened. And if you ask me, they put the wrong person in prison!
That's not to say I don't take responsibility for my actions. God knows I do, and by His will I will seek His forgiveness. I don't need anyone else's.
"Who's Michael Whitby?"
"My sentiments exactly," I said to my husband. "Rene waylaid me in the Food Giant, screaming about this pedophile who's moved into the neighborhood. "
Willis put his book down and looked at me. "A pedophile here? On what street?"
I shrugged. This information I didn't have.
"In our village, you say?"
"That's what she said."
"And this doesn't bother you?" Willis asked, hitching himself up to lean his back against the bed's headboard.
"Well, yes, of course it bothers me. But-"
"But what? What are we going to do about it?" Willis demanded.
"Do about it?"
"Is anything being done about it?" he bellowed.
"Hum. Well. Yes. Rene's leading a vigil-slash-protest, then, of course, there are the boycotts."
"Who is she boycotting?"
"Grainey Real Estate. They sold Whitby the house."
Willis sighed. "Shouldn't waste their energy there. By law she had to sell him the house."
"Explain that to Rene Tillery, will you?" I said, snuggling up to my husband, ready for the lights to be off and the discussion to be over.
"When I see her I will," Willis said, snapping off the light.
There was something in his tone that alerted me. "When you see her?" I asked. "When will that be?"
I could feel him shrug. "Tomorrow I hope. When we go sign up for the vigils."
I wondered idly if that "we" meant, as they say in Texas, my husband had a turd in his pocket.
Michael Whitby Journal Entry---September 12
We have to relocate. Fine. They don't want me here--I don't want to be here. Even some of the congregation at our church are looking at me funny! The true Christians, the ones who truly know God, they understand and back me, knowing that a true Christian forgives a sinner his sin. And, yes, I sinned. I allowed myself to be tempted by the harlots in my classes. But God has forgiven ine-why can't everybody else?
Arlene says she keeps gelling threatening phone calls and blames it all on me. I'm not making the phone calls!
Now we have to move, which could be a major hassle. I've got to go through the parole board, gel permission, they'll find us someplace, and help me line up a job. So that should be okay.
I won't be able to be a coach any longer. So fine. Like that was my life's work or something. Standing around watching a bunch of tramps teasing me. Always teasing me with their shorts and their butt wiggles. I sure don't need that.
And I sure don't need Arlene's long, pathetic face watching my every move. The woman doesn't trust me. I've tried to explain to her how it wasn't my fault. She still doesn't trust me. She's obviously forgetting her vows again. I think we need a prayer session tonight. I think Arlene needs to get on her knees before God and ask His forgiveness for the way she's been treating me!
I'm having fantasies about a small, beautifully decorated one-bedroom apartment. It's clean. Always clean because I'm a well-heeled career woman and can afford a cleaning lady. I'm not actually in my apartment as much as I want to be because of my career demands during the day, and the gallery openings and concerts, and dinner and drinks in the evening. Sometimes with career women friends, but sometimes with gray-haired, distinguished older gentlemen, and occasionally an artistic younger man. The men all want me, the old and the young, of course. Physically and emotionally. I may give in occasionally physically-but never emotionally. I don't have time for such encumbrances. I'm a career woman. I have to travel to New York next week for the betterment of my career. Maybe there I'll meet a French expatriate artist living in a million-dollar loft in the Village, who will, of course, want to ravage my body-and my soul-in that order. He of course can have my body
Then I remember I'm supposed to be writing this stuff, not daydreaming about it. I write romance novels, the category variety, and sometimes, as silly as they can get, the lives my heroines lead look pretty damned good in comparison to my own.
I love my kids, my husband, my house, my dog, and my cats. Really.
But for the first time in my life I can see the appeal of long visits to a sensory deprivation tank.
Lately I've been feeling jumpy, fidgety. You know, that pre-PMS, I'm-going-to-start-any-day kind of fidgety. But I've been feeling like this for weeks. Three weeks to be precise. Ever since I was supposed to start my period.
I'm three weeks late.
This doesn't mean anything. Really. I've been late before. Twice. Of course, both times I was pregnant, but that doesn't mean anything.
A sensory deprivation tank is looking better and better. I just wish I'd thought about it a few weeks back, say ten minutes before Willis asked, "It's okay if you forgot just one little pill, right?"

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Twilight Lane, from Avon Books, at The Online Mystery Network,
is produced and published by Newfront Productions, Inc.

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