A Peek at Spider Blue
Caleb Knowles pulled his beat-up suitcase out of the truck and stared at the front of the cottage. It was close to midnight and his home was lit up like a Wal-Mart Superstore. Hadn’t his girlfriend just given him that little talk about wasting electricity, asking if he knew lights could be turned off as well as on? He smiled. Payback time, Shannon McPherson.
The front door opened before Caleb reached it, Shannon standing there with purse in hand. “I tried to call you.”
Caleb glanced down at his cell, wincing when he realized he hadn’t turned it on after the flight. “Sorry.”
“How was the social work conference?” Shannon had a strange look on her face, her thin lips taut, a little crease appearing between her brows.
“Riveting. My butt’s still asleep.” He wondered why they were having this conversation on the front steps. “Is something wrong?”
“I have to go over to Maggie’s.” Maggie Wells was Shannon’s best friend. The beautiful, often tragic, Maggie Wells. Shannon fumbled in her purse for keys, trying hard not to look at him, something she did when she was upset.
“Honey?” Caleb reached over and squeezed her arm.
Blue eyes met his, misting. “Maggie’s neighbor died. Maggie found her. She was murdered.”
“Murdered?” That word felt strange in his mouth.
“Frances Callahan, the one with the kids. She was stabbed. Maggie’s trying to take care of the children.” Shannon blinked at him, her eyes pleading. “She needs us, Caleb.”
He slung the suitcase inside and followed her out to her car.
Three miles separated them from Brenton Maggie’s neighborhood, but Shannon did the drive in five minutes, ignoring red lights and disregarding Caleb’s terrified grip on the dash board. She took the right turn onto Sims Avenue and only slowed when she spotted the six police cars lining the street in front of Maggie’s house, sealing off the drive. She parked a block away, climbed out of the car and jogged up to Maggie’s door.
Caleb eased his car door shut. A huddle of police officers and forensic technicians standing beside a crime scene van turned to stare at him. He wished he’d had the chance to brush his teeth or comb his hair after his flight, and he still longed for the hot shower he’d been denied, but maybe charm and grace would make up for bad grooming with the cops. Or not.
The talking ceased as he drew near. One of the officers scowled at Caleb as if he were just another one of the nosy neighbors he had apparently had to deal with all night. “Something I can do for you, sir?” he asked, stressing the “sir.”
“We’re friends of Ms. Wells,” he answered over the buzz and crackles of police radios.
“Who?” He glared harder at Caleb.
“Never mind.” Caleb got the too-familiar feeling that he was stepping into something he shouldn’t. “Who’s in charge here?”
The officer pointed with his clipboard. “She is.”
A cluster of more police personnel had gathered under a street light and Caleb spotted Detective Claudia Briscoe giving orders as she scribbled into a small notebook. Caleb took a step in her direction, but the officer placed a hand just in front of his chest. “You stay right here. We don’t need anyone else in the scene right now. I’ll let her know you’re here, Mr . . . ?”
“Knowles. I’m a therapist. I’ve worked with the police department some.”
“Wait here Mr. Knowles,” the officer ordered, looking decidedly unimpressed. Yep, definitely stepping into it.
He looked beyond Claudia, to a section of the Callahan’s yard enclosed in crime scene tape. More yellow tape made a web around a rust colored spot on the sidewalk and a toppled Red Rider tricycle beside it. The whole scene seemed surreal.
“Caleb? What are you doing here?” Claudia came over to him, taking his hand. Despite the chill, her grip was warm and moist. “This is a mess, I’ll tell you.”
“Shannon’s best friend called. She lives there.” He pointed at the small cottage with yellow siding.
“Right, the lady who took the kids. It’s a good thing she was here.”
Her coal black glare berated him. “A woman’s been killed. Sorry if that sounds blunt, but really, that’s all I can tell you.”
He gave her a sad smile. They had a long, interesting history together, beginning in the early nineties when she came to him for counseling. Five years later, Caleb had been recruited as a part-time police consultant and Claudia had been promoted to Detective. Their careers, and lives, had been curiously intertwined ever since. “I’m here to help with the kids. Do you know anything I can tell them?”
“They just lost their mother. What do you tell them after that?” Long, crimson nails scratched her mahogany chin. “She was stabbed, right here in front of her house. All the neighbors are panicked, telling me over and over how this is Brenton, not the projects, and this kind of thing doesn’t happen here. A nurse bleeds to death beside her kid’s tricycle. People want answers faster than I can give them.”
“Where’s the father?”
“Down at the station giving a statement.”
Caleb stared at the dark pool where the life had leaked out of Frances Callahan. It looked brutal, like she’d lost a huge amount of blood. “You thinking this is domestic?”
“We’re questioning Mr. Callahan because he was here when it happened, but I’m not ruling out anything at this point. We’d question Gandhi, too, if he’d been on the premises.” She glanced over at Maggie’s house. “You better go see to those children. They got a rough road ahead of them.”
As he started to walk away, Claudia called after him, “Hey Caleb?”
She came in closer, almost whispering. “Listen, if the kids say anything, and I mean anything, that you think might help us catch a break here . . .” She let her words trail off.
Caleb acknowledged that he understood. “I’ll let you know.”
Caleb made his way up the walk and opened Maggie’s front door, finding a somber gathering in her living room. “I was talking to Claudia,” he whispered, taking a seat beside Shannon. He glanced up at Maggie. A small child had affixed herself to her, its tiny arms clinging to her neck, its tiny face buried in Maggie’s long, dark hair. The girl looked to be about four- years- old, with paper white skin and long, spindly limbs.
“How are you holding up, Maggie?” Caleb asked.
Maggie’s dark, frightened eyes swept past him to Shannon, to the child, to the window that looked out on strobing police lights. The child sobbed a little and tightened her grip.
Shannon reached for her. “Come here, sweetie. Let’s go find your brother.”
The girl pulled back, scrunching her petite shoulders up. She started to cry.Maggie touched her chin. “Emma, you remember Miss Shannon, don’t you? You’ve met her before.”
The child nodded.
“Why don’t you take her in my room?” Maggie said to Shannon. “Seth is in there. Maybe she can lie down with him and sleep for a bit.”
Shannon slipped her hands under the girl’s arms to lift her. Immediately, the child clutched Shannon’s neck with fierce desperation, holding on as if her life depended on it.
“Can I get you anything?” Caleb asked Maggie.
“No,” she answered. “Thanks for coming.” She reached up to wipe the tears filling her eyes.
Caleb noticed a box of tissues on the coffee table and handed her one. “You’ve had one hell of an evening.”
“How does something like this happen? I just talked to Fran this afternoon. Everything was so normal. And now ...” Her voice faltered. “I just don’t understand it.”
“You knew her pretty well?”
“She was my neighbor, for Chrissake. And my friend.” Maggie narrowed her eyes at Caleb, like he had moved far away and was hard to see. “I haven’t been sleeping well lately so I piled into bed early with the TV on. I don’t know when I finally got to sleep. But I woke up when I heard this screaming. I thought it was the TV, like a horror film or something, but I heard the screaming again, so loud, I thought it was an injured animal. I went to the window.” She paused for a long moment, then continued. “It was dark outside, except right under the street light, where the light was almost pink. I saw two people, shadows really, one leaning back against the other. I couldn’t tell who they were. I grabbed the phone and dialed 911. When I looked out again I only saw one person, lying there on the sidewalk.” Her eyes darted back and forth like she was could still see it.
“Fran?”“I couldn’t tell at first. I saw a little movement, like maybe a hand reaching up, grabbing at the air. I went outside but when I got to her I didn’t know what to do. How to help. She reached up for me and said ‘Maggie, I can’t breathe.’ But her voice was gurgly and I could barely hear her. I got on my knees to get closer. That’s when I saw what had happened. What they’d done to her.”
Maggie’s eyes fell to the floor. “There was blood everywhere. I took her hand and told to be still, to breathe, but she couldn’t seem to get her breath. Each time she tried, I heard that same gurgling, gaspy noise. I’ll never forget that sound.” She shuddered, her hands shaking in the folds of her arms.
“What happened then?”
“Then Paul was there. I don’t know where he came from. He was panting and sweaty, and he laid down beside her, holding onto her, telling her she would be all right. Dear God . . . Paul!” A tremor made its way through her, vibrating her hands, her breath, her lips.
“That’s Fran’s husband?”
She nodded. “How can he survive this? And the kids? They’re just babies!"
Caleb tried to fathom it himself. If his daughter lost her mother . . . if he lost Shannon . . . It was unthinkable.
A door creaked open and Shannon appeared. Behind her, a blond-haired boy, about six, held the hand of his younger sister. They looked like Hansel and Gretel, lost and frightened in the forest.
“Caleb, I’d like you to meet Seth.” Caleb heard the forced bounce in Shannon’s voice. “And I think you’ve already met his sister, Emma.”
Caleb went over to them and crouched down so they were eye to eye. “How you guys doing?”
The boy pulled his sister close. "Where’s our dad?”
“He’s talking to some people right now. But I know he wants to be here with you.” He looked at the girl’s face, her eyes wide blue beacons scanning the unfamiliar giants in the room.
Caleb hated feeling impotent. What could he say? Sorry your mom got murdered. How about a cookie?“We called our grandma,” Seth said, taking charge. “She said she’d come get us. I want Dad to know where we are.” His skin was fair, like his sister, and his lips were drawn in tight. His eyes were pools of haunted gray.
“I’ll make sure he knows, Seth,” Maggie said.
A gentle rap at the front door made them all jump. Caleb opened it and showed Claudia Briscoe in.
“Ms. Wells? Could you come here for a moment?”
“Why?” Maggie eyed Caleb, looking terrified.
“I’ll come along, if it’s okay,” he said.
Claudia shot him an irritated look but assented. She led them out of the house, around the back, and through the welded-wire fence that enclosed Maggie’s back yard. In the far left corner of the property, three officers stooped down to study something on the ground.
“Now, I need both of you to follow in my footsteps exactly. We’ve found a piece of evidence and we need to wait till daylight to see if there are any foot impressions around it,” Claudia said.
“Excuse us, gentlemen.” She motioned them out of the way, dropping to her knees and pointing to a bed of dense ivy. An officer aimed a flashlight at a glimmer of silver metal nested in the dark green leaves. Maggie and Caleb knelt down for a closer look.
“That look familiar to you?” Claudia asked.
“No.” She pointed to the blade. “There’s blood on it.”
Claudia used her pencil to force back a thick ivy vine and nudged the object onto its side. It was a knife, about nine inches long with a treacherous scalloped blade coated with a thick rusty brown substance. Blood. “Bag this,” Claudia instructed one of the uniforms. “And take a couple of these leaves so we can match the blood.”
Caleb looked over at Maggie, who was shivering in the cold, moist air. “It could have been me,” she whispered. “The murderer was here, in my yard. He could have killed me.”
“Go back inside, Maggie. I’ll be right there,” Caleb said.
“Follow the same path out as you did coming in,” Claudia called after her.
After she left them, he turned to Claudia. “That the murder weapon? It looks like a regular kitchen knife.”“Actually, it’s an expensive one. High carbon stainless chef’s knife, probably eighty bucks or so at one of those fancy kitchen stores.” She looked back at the house. “Kids okay?”
“No. They need to see their dad soon. I sure hope he didn’t do this. They don’t need to lose both parents.”
She peered up in his face. “If this is your subtle way of trying to pry information out of me, forget it. I don’t know who did this and if I did, I wouldn’t tell you. So let’s move on to some other subject.”
He shook his head. He didn’t want to know more. He just wanted to spare those kids another loss if he could.They heard voices and what sounded like a wail coming from the front of the house. Caleb and Claudia ran to the commotion and found a middle-aged woman leaning against an older man. She was crying, sobs heaving from the depths of her. The man’s feeble arms tried to hold her up as he stared at the chaos around him. The front door opened and the children ran out to the woman, who scooped them up and held them close.
Shannon found Caleb and whispered, “Fran’s parents. They’re taking the kids.”
He watched the small family huddled together, bracing themselves against waves of grief. Maggie walked over to them and talked for a moment, then led the children to the grandparents’ car.
“Maggie’s coming home with us,” Shannon whispered.
“Makes sense to me. No way I want her staying here. Have her pack a couple of days’ worth of clothes.”
Shannon gave him a grateful hug. “I’ll go help her get her things.”
To order Spider Blue, go to Bellarosabooks.com