When I asked friend and author Martha Randolph Carr to share a sample of her latest novel with Indies Unlimited, she was more than generous. This is chapter 2 of “WIRED.” You can read part 1 here.
Martha describes “WIRED” as an old school thriller set in 1989 just before the age of the internet, cell phones, home computers or even ATM’s. She invites the reader to “Enjoy reading about an era that had more in common with the technology of 1889 than 2011 and a time when people had to lay eyes on each other and communicate face to face if they were going to stop a killer.”
If you enjoy the sample, please drop a comment to let Martha know.
Charlie had to park a block away from the store and carry Matthew on his shoulders down the block. Matthew was pretending he was a cowboy and Charlie was a horse and he was moving his bottom up and down with a thud while trying to watch himself in each storefront window they passed by. There were a lot of shoppers out today. Just barely past ten and parking’s almost gone, thought Charlie.
All the storefronts faced out toward the street with big glass fronts and sample wares in the window. The only customer parking was at the curb in front. Directly behind the stores on one side of the street were older homes, oldest in the county and there was an unspoken agreement that no shoppers parked back there. On the other side was a long, steep hill that ended in a high bluff where generations of teenagers parked their cars and sat on the hoods to smoke, or drink, or whatever, late at night.
Charlie tried to get Mary Elizabeth up there a few times back when they were dating but she had always said there wasn’t enough privacy.
This part of town was the old business district, and was all that existed when Mary Elizabeth and Charlie were growing up. Now, of course, there were strip malls scattered everywhere surrounded by brand new subdivisions with silly names like Reindeer Park, where all the streets were named after Santa’s herd. Charlie hated all that, too phony, and three years ago when the old man who owned a shoe store down here, one shop in from the corner, dropped hints to Charlie that he was looking to retire but needed to find the right man to take over, Charlie dropped the wingtips he was looking at and asked the man for details.
He kept the old name, Mortimer’s, but changed the display in the front window to two-tone platform shows and pointy white, patent leather men’s shoes that dangled on the ends of fishing wire.
Douglas was in today. He was in the back helping some guy try on steel tipped boots. Douglas came with the store too. He started out with Mortimer’s as a kid and had been there for almost thirty years now. The old man made Charlie agree to keep Douglas on as his assistant in exchange for a better price on all of the remaining stock. Mortimer whispered to Charlie that he didn’t dare offer the store to Douglas because a lot of folks around here wouldn’t buy shoes from a colored man. Charlie didn’t care. He would have kept him on anyway. Douglas was nice enough, kept to himself for the most part.
He didn’t know if Douglas had even made an offer.
Matthew got a pair of ladies shoes down from a shelf and tried to walk in them to Douglas, chatting the whole way. Douglas was picking up the boots the man didn’t want, putting them back in their boxes, and looked over Matthew’s way every minute or so saying, “Is that right? Is that right?”
Matthew nodded vigorously and went on about, “my friend Paulie did this, and Stewart’s momma said that.”
“Is that right?”
Charlie watched the two of them. How did Matthew do that? He never cared who he was talking to, he would just talk. Same way with everybody. Chirp, chirp, chirp. Charlie and Douglas sometimes talked about a game that had been on television the night before, or mentioned some bit of gossip about a neighboring store but never anything personal.
The customer Douglas had been waiting on came up to the counter with the pair of boots and tugged at his jeans to pull out the wads of money tucked in the front pockets. Dirty blonde hair, must be about forty, thought Charlie. Rough looking. The man gathered his new boots in the box and left without waiting for the receipt or a bag, letting the door slam shut behind him.
“Construction worker from that new site out on Route 440. Takes all kinds,” said Douglas, his mouth drawn into a sour pucker.
Mary Elizabeth decided to catch the late morning bus down to the store and see if Charlie and Matthew might like to go for a swim in the river. The thought had occurred to her right after they drove out of sight and she waited a few minutes to make sure they weren’t going to come back for some forgotten item before she resigned herself and packed everything into a big bag to carry on the bus.
They couldn’t have been here long, she thought, stepping off the bus. It’s what, maybe a quarter till eleven? Mary Elizabeth walked with her head down feeling the weight of the bag while she tried to think about something else. She saw a man coming out of the store and stepped forward, thinking he would hold the door for her. He looked straight at her as he let go and let it slam at his back.
He smiled and she looked into a row of stained teeth before he strode past her, leaving her with a scent of old cigarettes.
Do I know him? God, he looked familiar, thought Mary Elizabeth, as a small piece of her enthusiasm for swimming fell away.
Mary Elizabeth tried to tap with her watch on the window of the shop to get Charlie’s attention. What is he staring at now? Douglas and Matthew? What has Matthew got on?
“Charlie! Charlie! This is heavy! Open the door, will you?” Charlie jumped from behind the counter and pulled the door open.
“Mary Elizabeth. Is something the matter?”
“No, Charlie, no,” said Mary Elizabeth, sighing. “I just thought, well, that maybe we could all go swimming. Leave straight from here. I brought everything with me.” Charlie noticed the bag and the way Mary Elizabeth was shifting it from hip to hip and took it from her to rest it on the counter.
“Uh, sure, sure. Hey Matthew, want to go for a swim?”
Matthew tripped trying to get out of the ladies shoes, came down on all fours, picking himself up and came barreling at Charlie. He stood on one of Charlie’s feet and wrapped both arms around his leg.
“Okay, go now? Do we go now? Does Douglas come? Want to come, Douglas?”
Charlie felt embarrassed and a little annoyed with Matthew.
“No honey, somebody’s got to watch the store. We have to keep it open.” Charlie kept his eyes trained on Matthew’s face. That sounded reasonable, didn’t it? Douglas quietly excused himself from the group, took the rolling, three-step ladder and began putting boxes on one of the higher shelves. Well, best to leave it alone, thought Charlie.
“Did you finish the receipts?” asked Mary Elizabeth, as they passed through the door.
“No, no, but that’s okay. It can keep till later. I have a general idea. Do you want to walk or take the car?”
“Walk, you carry the bag. Come on, Matthew, stay with us.”
The river ran down behind the county almost on the line as if the founding fathers had drawn the map with that in mind. It was about a quarter of a mile back behind the old neighborhood, Mary Elizabeth’s old neighborhood and was calm with stretches that were deep and stayed cool even after a spell of hot weather.
The walk was almost in a straight line down a paved road and sloped down slightly toward the river. Matthew darted back and forth across the street looking in sewer openings, pulling dandelion weeds and blowing on the seeds, and pushing on any young saplings he could find.
“Stop that, Matthew. Do you want them to break? Stop it. Come hold my hand if you can’t behave,” said Mary Elizabeth. She looked back toward the river and felt Charlie’s stare.
Well, it was a tree for God’s sake, she thought. Have to keep things in order.
They headed down Azalea Road to the end and the little stretch of beach where they could leave their things. Charlie dropped the bag and fished through it for his and Matthew’s bathing suits.
“Come here, Matthew, let’s change under here,” he said, pointing toward the little pier someone had built behind their house.
Matthew and Charlie changed while Mary Elizabeth sat on the sand with the bag. The pier was really the only decent place to change. She looked over at the clump of thin bushes and tried to imagine what might show through if she used those.
The gnats started to flit around Mary Elizabeth’s face, a couple flew up her nose making her snort hard to try to get them back out again. The heat started to bother her, sitting in the sand with the sun coming right down on her head.
Matthew and Charlie still hadn’t appeared from underneath the pier but the sound of their voices carried out to Mary Elizabeth.
“That’s a pretty one. Help me get my foot in here. Here, put your hand on my arm while I hold them open. Do you need the string tied? Can I make a pile of these right here to save?”
Mary Elizabeth was tired of waiting and took her suit between the clump of bushes to change. She put her back to the pier and the street and started to take off her shorts and underwear. She reached for the bathing suit hanging on one of the branches and snagged it, gave it a tug and let go. It fell loose and she bent over to pick it up, shook it and turned it around to put a foot in, pulling it up to her waist. She pulled her shirt off and unsnapped her bra, slipping the straps of the suit over her shoulders, before giving a tug around each of the legs to pull it back down over her bottom.
Charlie came out from under the pier holding the clothes and spotted the white moon of Mary Elizabeth in the bushes bending over to pick something up. Matthew had raced ahead to the water and was standing ankle-deep, marching in an imaginary parade along the edge, his knees bending high in the air.
Charlie stared at his wife’s bottom as she struggled to push it into last year’s bathing suit. The view of her body struck him as beautiful. Not beauty magazine beautiful but rounded in places and firm. Something good to hold on to in the middle of the night.
He watched her lift her shirt over her head and flip her hair back and felt a sadness that spread through him. He didn’t really know this woman and he couldn’t bring himself to try harder or to hate her.
Mary Elizabeth turned around and spotted Charlie staring. She quickly grabbed her clothes, shaking the bushes and walked over to the bag to put them down. Charlie’s eyes kept following her and he waited until she had headed for the water before he turned and walked in, feeling the cold chill against his skin, letting his eyes wander out to the far distance.
They stayed at the river till late afternoon till Matthew started to turn cranky. He was hot and tired and Charlie ended up carrying him back to the car, his head resting on Charlie’s shoulder, still in his wet suit. Mary Elizabeth carried the bag and followed slowly a few paces behind. At the car she changed Matthew back into his underwear on the back seat of the car and put him in the front with the seat pushed back so he could drop off to sleep. Her hands worked easily, she had done it so many times. Taken care of Matthew, taken care of Charlie. It was her job. She did it without thinking, without feeling. That made it easier to ignore the voice in her head that sounded like a sassy child.
Your fault, Mary Elizabeth, your fault. Careless, careless. Mary Elizabeth slammed the door shut, almost waking Matthew.
They saw Douglas through the window of the shop on the way back to the car and Mary Elizabeth waved and smiled at him. He gave a nod and went back to waiting on someone. Mary Elizabeth was restless for the rest of the day.
The night was a full moon and Charlie woke to the tugging of Mary Elizabeth. His body responded and she wasted no time in climbing on top of him. She was pushing hard and fast against him, almost hurting him. Charlie could see her reflection and stared at her face, her eyes shut tight, her teeth grinding. Her face was dark and wet from exertion. As he came close to climaxing he tried hard to keep his eyes on her face. He wanted to see her face.
She dropped to her knees and hooked her hands underneath his shoulders burying her head into his neck. He felt himself let go.
I wanted to see her face.
The next day, Charlie could still feel where Mary Elizabeth had pounded away on his body. He sat at the kitchen table with Matthew, his eyes shut, trying to remember.
Mary Elizabeth sat with her chair pushed back and pulled the morning paper up near her face to read. Front page, above the fold there was an article about a body found yesterday up on the bluff. A young girl was sexually abused it said, and then slowly murdered. The coroner said he could tell by the marks on her arms and legs and other evidence found at the scene.
She was a local girl about fourteen and had not been reported missing until early the next morning. The coroner estimated that death had occurred at around seven or eight the night before just as everyone was just finishing supper. The victim was last seen at a strip mall hanging out and had left the kids she was with to go look into a dress shop. No one saw her leave, which made the police speculated she knew the person.
There were signs of a car but it was the bluff. There had to be signs of a hundred cars. The police said she must have put up quite a fight. The obituary and funeral arrangements were on the next page.
Mary Elizabeth read the article at least three times and felt a throbbing in her head as she tried to go over every line again. It was stupid to get that upset. She didn’t know the girl to speak to her and what had happened to Mary Elizabeth at the bluff didn’t begin to compare. It had been almost twenty years ago and really what had happened?
Something bad was bound to happen eventually up there. All those kids and no one looking after them. Mary Elizabeth felt sick and put the paper down. There were those eyes staring back at her.
“I’m sorry, I don’t feel well,” she said, getting up and heading for the hallway.
“Does your tummy hurt, Momma?”
“Yes, sweetie, but I’ll be okay,” she said, glancing back at Matthew. “I’m just going to go lie down.”
“Here’s Bunny, hold him tight, you’ll feel better.”
Mary Elizabeth hesitated but went back and took the bunny by the arm and squeezed it close to her chest. Matthew smiled up at her, happy that he helped.
She went up the stairs and into the only bathroom to sit on the tile floor, just in case. Her knees were pulled up and Bunny was in her lap waiting to see if she might really get sick but the feeling passed. She put her forehead down on her knees and great sobs rolled up from her throat. She could feel the pressure on her neck, her wrists again and taste the salty flesh in her mouth.
I’m in control, I’m in control. The words rolled around in her head in an endless loop.
I have given so much to you, she thought, giving the memories a life of their own. Why the hell are you always so damn close to me, ready to come pounding in at a moment’s notice?
Bunny’s face was pressed against her mouth and she moaned into his soft fur. She stayed that way for minutes and when it was over she felt nothing. Years of practice had made her more efficient at getting back to where she could feel numb. The problem was the joy always slid away with the pain. There was no way to split the two in half and keep parts for herself. Cafeteria style living, she thought. Turn down the overdone peas and take two desserts.
So hard not to let everything slip under but it did. She let out a deep shudder left over from the crying and stared at her limp hands in her lap, her mind caught on thoughts of Charlie and Matthew. Hard to feel anything, wife, mother. It’s a role I’m standing in for, she thought. Most of the time when I’m looking at them, I’m thinking of the next chore, next thing on the list that needs to get done.
Occasionally, if distracted, a longing came over her, a need to squeeze Matthew and feel the outline of his ribs under her fingers but it never lasted. Other thoughts barged in, holding hands with the pleasant moments. She would turn, never having reached out for Matthew and go back to what she was doing, carefully folding towels, stacking dishes, keeping things straight, feeling nothing. Keeping control.
The sunlight coming in the window shifted before Mary Elizabeth finally thought to get up and go lie down on her bed. She lay flat on her back, closed her eyes and fell asleep until dinner.
Charlie heard something through the ceiling, too faint for Matthew but he thought he knew what it was. Why was she doing that? Was it the paper? He looked at the front page and saw nothing unusual except for the murder but they didn’t know the girl and they certainly never went near the bluff.
Was it last night? He waited until after lunch and when he put Matthew down for his nap he looked in on Mary Elizabeth to see if she was sleeping. She was in the middle of the bed snoring softly with her arms out to the sides, her fingers hanging over.
God, it had sounded like a dog moaning. What did that to her?
Mary Elizabeth and Charlie had stopped talking to each other about anything that mattered a long time ago. He turned to go back downstairs to read. Better just leave it alone.
The man sat in his room, stripped to his waist and sweating through his pants with a dark stain growing everywhere there was contact between his skin and the cloth. The pressure in his head had eased. The sharp crackling and flashes of light were quiet. He could rest again. The dance had felt good and his partner was so sweet but he needed to be careful. He wanted to take his time and have an opportunity to enjoy this place. He didn’t want to have to leave and miss so much. So many new friends to make.