WICKED WAYS (written with Lisa Jackson)
Kensington, Genre: Suspense (October 2014)
ISBN-10: 1617734152 ISBN-13: 978-1617734151
Read an Excerpt
Elizabeth watched through her front window as the two police officers trudged up her walk. She knew what was about to come. And it wasn’t because she could sometimes sense when danger or tragedy was about to occur. No, she’d seen this walk to the door before in varying incarnations on television dramas. It seemed like every cop show had at least one scene where officers came to talk to someone and deliver the bad news. A death, she guessed, her heart hammering, but whose?
A wave of fear enveloped her. Twisting closed the plantation blinds, she hurried away and down the hall to the room where her daughter was sleeping. Of course she knew Chloe was safe in bed but she had to see her. Pushing open the door to Chloe’s room, she gazed in fearfully, her pulse racing with premonition. Her daughter’s golden-brown curls were splayed on the pillow. She saw the sweep of her eyelashes, the way her arms lay flung around her head in the abandonment of deep sleep, the soft puffs of her breath.
The sound was so loud she jumped. Gently closing her daughter’s door, she then race-walked back to the living room, then flipped on the exterior light before cautiously opening the door and eyeing the two officers through the screen.
They stood in a circle of yellow light, their expressions grim. The woman spoke first.
“Mrs. Elizabeth Ellis?”
“Yes.” Her throat was dry as dust.
“I’m Officer Maya, and this is Officer DeFazio.” They already had their badges out and Elizabeth’s eyes traveled toward them as Maya continued, “We regret to tell you that there’s been a car accident.”
“Is it Court?” she whispered.
“Ma’am, may we come in?” the male officer, DeFazio, asked.
Elizabeth wordlessly opened the door fully. Their faces blurred in front of her. She was seeing something else. The entire last week in bullet points.
On Monday she’d reluctantly kissed her husband, Court, goodbye as he left for yet another business trip. They’d had that fight. . .again. . .about what she referred to as her ability to foreshadow. “You really think you can sense danger?” her husband of six years had demanded. The face she’d once thought so handsome had stared down at her in scorn, his brown eyes simmering with fury, his lips twisted into a snarl. “Don’t act like a crackpot, Liz. I’m about to make partner at the firm, and I swear, you’d better not get in the way.”
“I’m not going to tell anyone else,” she’d assured him. She’d just been scared, worried. After she predicted Little Nate’s accident on the monkey bars before it happened, her friend, Jade, had gazed at her with wonder, awe and maybe a little horror. But when she’d tried to tell her husband about Little Nate and other times similar things had happened, incidents she’d dismissed as coincidence – because honestly, what else could they be? -- he’d shut down completely. Their marriage was disintegrating, had been for a long time. She knew it, but had been unable to put her finger on what was wrong.
“Make sure you don’t,” he’d said, then had left on a business trip in anger.
On Tuesday Chloe had a fainting spell at school. It was troubling, because she seemed to be having more and more of them. Elizabeth picked up her daughter and brought her home, and Chloe assured her that she was fine, fine, fine, in a loud, five-year-old voice that never seemed to have any volume control.
Nevertheless, on Wednesday Elizabeth kept Chloe home from school and took her to the doctor who checked her out and pronounced her good to go, a fact that made Elizabeth slightly uncomfortable. Something was going on with Chloe that no one seemed to be able to diagnose. But maybe that was just Elizabeth being paranoid again, a helicopter parent, as Court had accused her of often enough.
On Thursday Elizabeth took Chloe back to her kindergarten class, then met with one of the women from her Moms Group for lunch. Tara Hofstetter was the closest to a real friend that Elizabeth had in the group which had been formed online and consisted of women in the area who had delivered babies around the same time. Court had really wanted Elizabeth, who’d always been somewhat introverted, to meet people around the Irvine, Costa Mesa and Newport Beach cities where he worked as an attorney in a high rise business center near the Orange County airport. Dutifully, Elizabeth had gone outside of her comfort zone and joined the newly formed group after Chloe was born. Since that time, a number of women had both left and entered the group, but Elizabeth and Tara were two of the original members, and Tara’s daughter, Bibi, played well with Chloe.
However, when Elizabeth, who was running late, blew into the sandwich shop, she could tell by the look on Tara’s face that something was wrong. Before she could even ask, Tara reached across the table and grabbed Elizabeth’s hand. It was a surprise as Tara, with her bleached-to-hell blonde hair and taut, dancer’s body, wasn’t exactly known for demonstrative displays. But then she said, “I saw Court with Joyce Bellhard yesterday.”
“Joyce Bellhard. . . Where? What do you mean?” Elizabeth asked. Joyce Bellhard was one of the parents of Mason, a classmate of Chloe’s. She gave Botox parties around the area and her picture was plastered on flyers she passed out in every neighborhood around the school. Joyce was big-breasted, big-eyed and about as subtle as a Mac truck.
“They were holding hands at this bistro I go to whenever I’m in Santa Monica,” Tara revealed.
“Santa Monica?” Elizabeth had repeated faintly. “Court’s in Denver.” Santa Monica was at least an hour away from Irvine in good traffic, good traffic being a very short window of time between about nine in the morning until two.
“Elizabeth, they were staring at each other so hard they didn’t even see me. I ducked out and watched a little while from outside the window.”
“Maybe they were. . .just. . .” But she hadn’t been able to come up with any reasonable excuse for them being together in a city far enough away that you wouldn’t expect to be seen by someone you knew.
“They were acting like they couldn’t wait to get the bill,” Tara had finally said in a reluctant voice, her blue eyes regarding Elizabeth regretfully. At that Elizabeth had nodded and silently accepted the unwelcome realization that her husband was having an affair.
On Friday Court got home late after Chloe was already tucked into bed. Elizabeth was lying in bed with a book, reading one page over and over again as her mind ran over what she was going to say when she saw him again. She’d run the gamut of disbelief, to fury, to despair, to a kind of angry acceptance. She tried to self-assess, ask herself if she cared enough to try to save the marriage. For Chloe, she wanted to, but for herself. . .? That was a trickier question.
By the time Court entered the bedroom, loosening his tie and telling her he’d come straight from a meeting and really wanted a drink, and did she want something, Elizabeth had put down the book and was simply waiting, her hands folded on her lap. Court didn’t wait for her answer. He went to the bar in their living room and she heard the squeaking hinge that said he’d opened the bar which was hidden inside a tall chest made of ebony wood. Next she heard him slam a glass on the counter. She was walking into the living room as he pulled out the stopper to a bottle of scotch and splashed a healthy dose into the old-fashioned glass. She watched silently as he bolted it down and could almost read his mind as he considered the bottle, wanting to pour a second drink but thinking it might not be prudent based on his wife’s uncertain mood. “What’s wrong?” he asked sullenly, rolling the glass between his palms.
“Is it true that you met Joyce Bellhard in Santa Monica?”
Court jerked his head back as if he’d been slapped, then tried to cover up the tell with a bunch of bluster. Detached, she watched his florid face turn brick red and knew he was going to lie to her. “Who the fuck told you that?”
“Someone from the school,” she lied right back.
“I wouldn’t have that plastic bitch on a dare,” he declared.
“No one said you had her. They just said you met her for lunch.”
“Whatever nosy bitch told you that should just mind her own fucking business and stop trying to stir up trouble.”
“It’s not true?”
“Of course it’s not true!” He slammed his empty glass down on the bar and reached for the bottle of scotch again, his misgivings gone in the face of bigger issues.
“So, if I check, I’ll find out you were still in Denver on Wednesday, like it says on your itinerary.”
“Since when do you check on me?” he demanded, his dark eyes glittering as he shot her a vituperative look.
Elizabeth had almost lost her nerve at that point. She’d never challenged her husband before. Court Ellis was a master arguer, a born lawyer, and she couldn’t compete with him in any discussion. He loved talking circles around her, and she hadn’t realized how little affection there was left between them until that very moment.
“What’s the name of the bitch who told you those lies?” he demanded as he took another healthy sip.
“What’s the name of the hotel you supposedly stayed at in Denver?”
He’d slammed out of the house after that and didn’t come home the rest of the night.
On Saturday afternoon he returned, but they didn’t talk about Joyce Bellhard or Santa Monica or if he’d even really been in Denver at all. They lived in icy silence throughout the day. Chloe, picking up the tension, had cried and fussed, and it was a relief when it was finally late enough to put her to bed. Elizabeth told herself that she should make herself talk to Court some more, but she never found the energy and in the end, while Court slept on the couch, she lay awake in their king-sized bed alone, feeling a cool breeze come through the open window, smelling the menthol scent of nearby eucalyptus trees, watching palm fronds wave in the soft landscaping lighting of their backyard.
About five the next morning Court entered their bedroom and stood at the foot of their bed. Aware something momentous was about to happen Elizabeth pulled her knees up to her chest under the covers, automatically bracing herself.
He was perfectly sober, the anger seemingly drained out of him. “I didn’t want it to happen this way,” he said, his voice curiously tight, as if he might break down, though Court Ellis never showed any emotion. “I’m in love with her,” he said then, shocking Elizabeth so much she’d actually gasped. “I’ve been meaning to tell you for months. Joyce and I have been meeting at a place in Santa Monica at the end of my business trips. I wasn’t in Denver. I haven’t been in the final cities on any of my itineraries for almost a year.”
It was such a bone deep betrayal that Elizabeth couldn’t find her voice. There was no love between her and Court; maybe there never had been. But she was shocked, hurt and cold. Frozen to the core. She stared at him and thought terrible thoughts. I wish I’d never met you. I wish I never had to see you again. I wish you were dead.
“Get out,” she ordered through gritted teeth.
“Elizabeth, you know I never meant to hurt you.”
“Get the hell out and don’t come back.”
“Jesus.” He stared at her as if she were being unreasonable. “You’re such a bitch. When did you become such a goddamn bitch?”
“You need to leave,” she said woodenly.
“This is my home, too, and – ”
“This is not your home,” she corrected swiftly.
“Be careful. Don’t push me. I can make your life a living hell.”
“You didn’t just say that.” She was stunned by how quickly he went on the offensive.
“I have a daughter, too, and when I get back from this next trip -”
“You don’t have a daughter anymore!” she’d shot back in fury. “You’re never going to see her again. Get the hell out and never come back!”
“Cut the dramatics, Elizabeth.”
He came around the bed so swiftly it scared her. She’d tried to scramble away, suddenly afraid. When he placed his hands on her shoulders and glared down at her, she felt threatened. She sensed that he wanted to put his hands around her neck. They held each other’s gaze for a moment, then he’d suddenly released her and left the room. They’d suffered through the rest of Saturday and into Sunday not speaking to each other and now it was Sunday night and there were two officers in her living room.
In a hollow voice, she said to the woman officer, Maya, “Court’s dead, isn’t he?”
Her careful expression said it all. “Yes, ma’am.”
You wished this on him. You made this happen. It’s happened before. . . Elizabeth swallowed. “You said it was a car accident.”
“That’s right.” It was Officer DeFazio who answered her. “A single car accident.”
“So, no one else was hurt?” she asked, hopeful.
Maya, who was somewhere in her thirties with blunt-cut dark hair and a no-nonsense expression, shared a look with DeFazio, who was at least ten years older and a whole lot grayer than she was, before turning back to Elizabeth. “There was a second fatality.”
Elizabeth’s head swam. “Oh, no. . .”
“It appears your husband was driving and there was another person in the passenger seat.”
“Excuse me, I have to check on my daughter,” she said in a strangled voice, then left the two officers hanging as she hurried on rubbery legs down the hall to Chloe’s room and opened the door a crack again. The night light bathed the room in a soft circle of illumination. Of course Chloe was still breathing easily, sleeping soundly, but Elizabeth clung to the door knob for support, fighting down a rising panic.
It can’t be your fault, she told herself. Things like this don’t happen.
But she knew she was lying to herself.
She carefully shut the bedroom door tightly once more and then returned to perch on the edge of the couch. The two officers were still standing in the center of the room. Elizabeth wasn’t sure what emotion they could read on her face. Grief? No. Not yet. Maybe not ever. Numbness? Definitely. Fear? Yes. . .a little of that, too, though she would never be able to explain why, and even if she could, she knew they’d look at her as if she were stark raving mad.
“Who. . . .?” she asked, picking through the words that seemed to be shuffling around in her brain, not connecting in sentences. But then she thought she knew already anyway and she didn’t want to hear the name yet, so she changed direction. “Wait, no. . .how did it happen?”
They’d been about to tell her about the other victim; she could see the way they both drew a breath, but they checked themselves. DeFazio said, “That’s still to be determined. It looks like your husband lost control of the vehicle. A BMW. It appears to be his car.”
Elizabeth nodded. Court loved his silver BMW while she was happy with her Ford Escape.
“The car was found near San Diego,” Maya supplied.
“San Diego?” She’d half-expected to hear Santa Monica, thinking maybe this time Court had decided to meet Joyce Bellhard at the beginning of his trip, not the end.
“South of San Diego. Almost to the border,” Maya said.
“Court wouldn’t go to Mexico,” Elizabeth responded with certainty. “He got a bad case of Montezuma’s revenge once, and he swore he would never go there again.” And he would never drive his beloved car across the border, either.
“We have a receipt from a Tres Brisas Hotel in Rosarita Beach from last month,” DeFazio stated.
Elizabeth could feel herself staring and had to force herself to drag her gaze away. “You sure it was Court?”
“A man and woman were registered as Mr. and Mrs. Bellhard,” DeFazio told her.
Elizabeth felt near collapse. So, he had been with Joyce again. Of course he had. What had she expected. Clasping her hands together and squeezing so tightly it hurt, “The other fatality is. . .?”
“Mrs. Joyce Bellhard,” Officer Maya confirmed.
Not only Santa Monica, then, Elizabeth thought dully, though why she should care she had no idea. If Court had been meeting his lover from Los Angeles to Mexico and beyond, what did it matter? They were both gone now.
“One of our detectives will be here soon,” DeFazio said into the silence that followed. Elizabeth felt dissociated from the action around her, as if she were far away looking down on them, watching a play, maybe. Someone else’s troubles.
“We spoke with Mr. Bellhard before we came here,” Maya said. “He told us he’d suspected his wife was having an affair with someone for about a year. He apparently followed her to Rosarita Beach and saw her with your husband, but he didn’t know who he was,” Maya explained. “So, he followed her again today. She left her car in the parking lot of your husband’s law firm and got into his vehicle. Mr. Bellhard then followed them to the juncture of I-5 and 405 south, but then turned around because he had a dinner meeting with his boss at The Bungalow in Newport Beach. He was still at the restaurant when officers contacted him. Detective Bette Thronson has taken a statement from him. She sent us ahead to contact you.” She hesitated, as if she were deciding if she should say anything more, and then added, “Mr. Bellhard followed them because he wanted to use their affair as leverage in the pending divorce between his wife and him. They’ve been separated for several years.”
Elizabeth didn’t give a damn what happened between the Bellhards. She was having trouble processing that Court was dead. Gone. Never to trouble either her or Chloe again. She should care more that Chloe had lost her father, but right now she couldn’t summon up the emotion. “A detective is on her way here?” she asked.
“Yes. Detective Bette Thronson.” Maya’s dark eyes studied Elizabeth. “Can you tell us where you were today?”
“Yes, ma’am,” Maya said.
“Well. . .uh. . .I was home with Chloe in the morning, but I went into work for a while. Misty was here. She lives down the street.”
“You’re a real estate agent,” Maya said.
In a distant part of her mind Elizabeth realized the officer was stepping outside her bounds a little. This wasn’t part of her job, but maybe she wanted to be a detective herself. “I was at the office for a while.”
“From when to when?” Maya questioned.
They wanted her to account for her hours. “Umm. . . .I went to a couple of open houses. . .” she said vaguely.
In truth, she’d only been at the office for a short time and then had gone to a local park where she sometimes took Chloe and sat at a table under a tree, lost in thought. When she got home Chloe had practically been done in from all the fun she’d had with Misty who was fourteen going on ten and who had lots of energy. Elizabeth had fed Chloe and put her to bed at seven-thirty, her thoughts still on her fight with Court. She’d thought about leaving him a text on his cell that he could read once he’d landed in Chicago but hadn’t gotten around to it. Now she knew he’d never made it to Chicago.
It was another thirty minutes before the detective finally showed and the officers departed. Detective Thronson was tall, iron-jawed and intense. She had short gray hair and a body built like a barrel. She didn’t stand on ceremony and almost immediately began asking questions that made Elizabeth feel like she was under attack. She asked the same questions Detective Maya had, then started in on her family.
“Your daughter goes to school?” Thronson asked. She also chose to stand and took center place in the middle of the room while Elizabeth was once again seated on the edge of the couch.
“Preschool until this fall.”
“She was with a babysitter this afternoon while you were working?”
“Did you know your husband was heading south of San Diego, possibly to Rosarita Beach?”
“He was supposed to be flying to Chicago. That’s what his ticket said.”
“Did you know Joyce Bellhard?”
A trick question, said off the cuff as if the answer didn’t mean that much to her, but Elizabeth knew the detective was keyed into her response.
“I knew of her. She. . .advertised around the neighborhood with flyers, and she has a child at Chloe’s preschool. A boy, I believe.”
“Her husband said she was an aesthetician.”
“Yeah. . .she advertised Botox and facials and skin peels. I never went to her.”
Elizabeth’s mind was starting to wander into dangerous areas again. You wished him dead. . .just like you wished bad things on Mazie. . .just like you wished ill on that other cop, Officer Unfriendly. . .and they both died, too. . .
But how could thoughts kill?
Detective Thronson then asked questions about her relationship with Court which Elizabeth answered dutifully. Yes, there were some problems in the marriage. No, she hadn’t known he was having an affair with Joyce Bellhard until. . . .this was where she stumbled and lied, saying, “. . .until the officers told me.” She didn’t bring up Tara’s revelation, nor her fight with Court, nor the true deteriorated state of their marriage. It didn’t take a rocket scientist to determine there was something fishy about the accident by the probing questions the detective was asking her. Something wasn’t right.
Finally, Detective Thronson wound down and slowed her questions. When she ended the interview she told Elizabeth she would be in touch with her later. Elizabeth thanked her and showed her out, then nearly collapsed against the door panels once the woman was out of her house. With an effort she gathered her strength, then made her way to the bathroom, staring in the mirror at her own drawn face.
You shouldn’t have lied. You should tell them, right now, what you know. Before they learn it some other way. Let them know he’s dead because of you. That you knew this was going to happen. That it’s your fault. That it’s happened before. Tell them before it’s too late.
But it was already too late, and she knew she wouldn’t say a word.