In the comfort of Mom’s home, we told her the decision Butch had come to; she was thrilled. “Good for Liz. I knew she didn’t do it. Now why don’t you girls come in the living room, and I’ll pour us a nice bottle of wine to celebrate.” I told Mom Liz had gone to the station to do some paper work with Gary and Butch.
During the next hour, we put away a bottle of cheap Chianti. The girls, Mom and I did some much-needed catching-up. At first it seemed so awkward, our being together after all these years and knowing only tidbits of information about each other’s current lives.
Sherry told us about her short-lived marriage to Saul. He anticipated her to be at home more, expecting her to take a career hiatus to raise a few children. Instead, Sherry had aspirations of making it to the top, and no one or no circumstance was going to get in her way. She liked the fast pace of the city, and Saul liked the suburbs. She was caviar, and he was McDonalds. I heard of opposites attracting but this was ludicrous. Their vows were doomed from the beginning. He was the typical guy next door. But I think the only thing Sherry had in common with him was their Jewish faith.
Once Sherry headed off to Hofstra, she got back in touch with her Jewish ancestry, something she learned very little of in Liberty. I still remember the buzz around Liberty when we found out a Jewish family was moving to town. We had all belonged to St. Ann’s and most of the town went there.
At the time, we had assumed they would be strict, Orthodox Jews wearing kippah or yarmulke. However, it couldn’t have been any farther from the truth. They were liberals who attended temple on rare occasion for a wedding or Bar mitzvah. No different than the Catholics we referred to as Chreasters. I think she missed not regularly practicing her faith as a child, and she became more intrigued during her college years, probably when Saul entered her life.
Sherry told us of some criminal cases in which she made the front page of the New York Times. She had been in the spotlight on many occasions and loved telling us about it. I knew she would be successful in whatever she strove for; her tenacity wouldn’t permit her otherwise. But I sensed she would brag about her career all night if we allowed her to, so, I politely attempted to redirect the conversation. “Sounds exciting,” then I nodded my head a few times, pretending to be engaged in her every word.
Mom must have picked up on it too and politely intervened. “And, how about you Gabby, what else have you been up to these days?”
“I work at the women's shelter, primarily with battered women and children.” Unlike Sherry, Gabby didn’t divulge as much information without being asked for further details.
“That must be tough."
“It is. But it would be even harder for these women and their children if they had no one to turn to for help.” Mom patted Gabby on the shoulder, “You’re right, Honey. I’m sure they’re grateful for you and the shelter.”
“I never understood those women,” snapped Sherry.
“What women?” Gabby asked.
“You know,” Sherry vigilantly chose her words, “the kind who allow men to use their face as a punching bag.”
“I wouldn’t expect you to understand,” defended Gabby.
Sherry didn’t know about Gabby’s first marriage in which her husband nearly beat her to death. Fearing he may hurt their child, she sought refuge at a shelter, in fact the very same place at which she is now the director. Gabby had a protective order against him. A few years later the bum decided he was tired of paying child support, and he terminated his parental rights. It was just one obstacle after another for Gabby.
Sherry knew none of this, yet she continued making judgments. If it weren’t for mom having kept me abreast of my old friends, I too, would be unaware. Mom is the one who had told me Gabby had fallen for her therapist, though unorthodox, they married and had several more children. She had never spoken to me of her ex-husband, but she was very open about her second one. He had even legally adopted her eldest son.
This quality time together was terrific. It was really the first time we had the chance to catch up in detail. It was long overdue. Though we had each grown in different directions, Liberty remained the link that connected us.
The wine was flowing nicely and even Sherry became less guarded. We were anxious for this ordeal to be put behind us. We began laughing, and for a moment our voices were young again.
“Stuff it with more,” Gabby laughed as Sherry pushed two sweat socks inside my bra. “If I pack any more, she’ll pop!”
“Thanks a lot, you two,” as I primped my boobs in the mirror. “I think they look perfect.”
“I don’t know why you want to look bigger anyway, Pepper,” Liz remarked.
This, coming from an overweight girl who had been wearing a bra since she was nine. What could she possibly know about being small?
“I just wanted to see what they’d look like.” I adjusted them again as I primped them in the mirror. “Perfect!”
I remember the door opening and Mom walked in, right in the middle of my homemade plastic surgery. “Mom!” I shouted, as we all burst into infectious giggling.
The four of us spent many afternoons in front of my mirror, accessorizing, playing with make-up, trying on the latest fashions, and of course, singing to Casey Kasem's American Top40 hits into my curling iron. No matter how much time had passed, I continued to miss those carefree days with my friends - their smiles, the laughter and everything about them.
The phone rang. It was Liz. She told us she would catch up with us in the morning. She and her mom had some of their own catching up to do and some long overdue healing. “No problem,” I told her, “We’ll see you in the morning.”
That night Gabby, Sherry and I stayed up after mom had turned in for the night. We hadn’t talked about the case since leaving Liz’s. But Sherry brought up a valid concern. “I’m glad things are turning around for Liz, but do you really think Sam could have done it?”
“Why not?” Gabby said.
“Because what would be the point? We paid the guy a measly $128.00 - to scare him. I hardly think it would be worth his effort to do us the additional favor.”
“Sherry! You don’t think we really wanted him dead?”
“Maybe not, but why would Sam murder him?” She asked.
I had thought about that same question over and over again. But it wasn’t any of our jobs to prove who did kill Mr. Townsend. It was our duty to prove Liz didn’t, and we were successful. “Let’s leave it up to the authorities,” I told her.
“The authorities…my ass...that’s a joke! Butch is in charge.”
Although it was hard for Sherry to admit, I think she had a tough time with Butch becoming a respected, successful man in Liberty. She had teased him so ruthlessly as a teenager. For Butch this had to be bitter sweet.
The phone rang and startled us. I jumped to answer it, thinking it was Liz calling back to fill us in on how things were going with her mom. Instead, it was Butch. I thanked him again for listening to us but mostly in forgiving us for not having come forward many years ago. He accepted my apology and asked to speak with Sherry.
She rolled her eyes when I told her the phone was for her. “Now what?” she mumbled with one hand over the receiver.
“Yes, Mista’ Butcheviwietz,” she mocked.
We only heard bits and pieces of their conversation. He must have been inquiring on how long she would be in town. “Yes, yes, hmm…”
It sounded as though he was asking her on a date. Gabby and I giggled in the background as Sherry placed her fingers to her lips to hush us. I held a pillow over Gabby’s face to shut her up. I felt fifteen again. “Massimo’s…that’s fine…see you then.” She hung up the phone.
“Did he just ask you out?”
“And what if he did, Peppa’?”
Gabby pulled the pillow away from her face and let out a yelp loud enough to cause Mom to come running in.
“What happened? Are you ladies okay?”
“Fine, Mom,” I said, while I tried to stifle my laughter.
“We’re fine,” Gabby managed to say, “but Sherry’s going out with Butch tomorrow.”
“Oh, he’s a real nice man.” When mom left the room, we whipped the pillows at Sherry.
“Put a sock in it, will ya’! He’s not half bad,” she snickered.
Butch was one of Liberty’s most eligible bachelors. “Watch out, Miss Rosen. If things go well, you could find yourself back in Liberty.”
“Not in a hundred years, Gabby!”
Barely able to keep my composure, I said, “You never know Sherry. You could have a practice up-town - Attorney Sherry Rosen-Butcheviwietz.” We roared.
The next morning, we awakened to a spectacular sunrise just beyond the trees over McNurney’s Pond. The sun looked like a blast of burnt orange rays with hints of Magenta specks. The air was crisp. It was simply perfect.
I felt as if an enormous weight had been lifted from my shoulders, and yet I was still disturbed by not knowing who murdered Liz’s father. How could the killer have lived with himself after all these years? And if it weren’t Liz, then who and more importantly why?
Since Gabby and Sherry hadn’t been back to Liberty in decades, we decided we’d take a walk and enjoy Liberty. We stopped for Liz, and the four of us meandered up to Executive Blvd. Liz lagged behind as always. We slowed our brisk pace in order for her to keep up with us.
It was Sherry who suggested we stop at her parents’ old place. Rosen’s deli had been converted several times since the seventies. First, it was an arcade, then a craft shop, and for the past few years it had been Café Liberty. “Come on, let’s check it out,” Sherry said.
We went in. I was never one for coffee, so I studied the menu with amazement. I must have read thirty flavors before I lost count. Gabby and Liz ordered two cups of regular coffee, and I got a hot chocolate.
Sherry asked the waitress if the beans were Columbian or Arabic before ordering. “I’ll have a large English Toffee cappuccino with a touch of French Vanilla and a cream cheese croissant, please.”
The café was relaxed and quaint. Our stools were miniature in size and had wicker seats with wrought iron backs. I worried momentarily as Liz sat on hers it made a crackling sound. Her bottom overlapped the surface by at least four inches on either side. In the center of the tables were flavored creamers, and a pink carnation acted as makeshift centerpiece. The crowd was young, much younger than us. There were quite a few people coming and going, each on a first name basis with the waitress.
This was our last day together. Gabby was scheduled to leave tomorrow and Sherry the day after. As for me, nothing was in stone. Collin knew I was visiting indefinitely or until things with Liz were settled. I found it odd that neither Sherry nor Gabby was interested in finding out who actually did kill Mr. Townsend. It wasn’t enough for me just to have Butch drop the charges. Maybe it was the journalist in me, but I needed the loose ends tied up.
The bell on the front door jingled as customers entered through it. I looked up and noticed Butch. He didn’t see us at first and made a direct beeline to the counter. I snickered at Sherry and tapped her foot under the table. She pretended not to be interested but I observed her, as she stayed focused on him. Butch rested his elbows on the counter and bantered with the waitress. They had obviously known each other.
Sherry’s leg was pumping back and forth over the other one, an uneasy habit of hers. As he turned to leave, he saw us and pushed his way through the crowded café.
“He’s coming over,” I whispered.
“Hi Butch,” we replied together.
“Did you take care of everything? Liz asked.
“Most of the preliminary paperwork. Gary will keep you posted.”
He reached for an empty chair from the table behind and joined us. He sat next to Sherry. Her leg was still lively. We chatted for a few minutes about when Gabby, Sherry and I were scheduled to leave town. When he stood to leave, he turned to Sherry, “Are we still on for later?” Then he casually ran a hand across her shoulder. “Sure, see you then,” she smiled flirtatiously.
I asked the others if they wanted to walk to McNurney’s Pond. “What for?” Sherry inquired. I wasn’t quite sure myself – maybe curiosity or some sense of finality. The pond had become forbidden territory after Mr. Townsend was killed. I think I may have passed through the woods leading to McNurney’s only a handful of times after that night.
“I’ll go,” Gabby murmured.
“Me too,” Liz seconded.
“Fine! Count me in.” Sherry added.
The coffee and conversation had lifted our spirits. As we journeyed back down Executive Boulevard, I was flooded with youthful memories, and wondered if it were only me who wanted to be fifteen again.
We cut through back alleys, dipped behind business establishments, and cut across people’s lawns taking every shortcut to get to the pond. It was remarkable how naturally our feet remembered the way. To passersby, we must have looked peculiar – four grown women taking short cuts through back yards and jumping old fences. We laughed aloud as we tried to climb an embankment just past the ball park. The tiny stones beneath our feet caused us to lose our balance. Liz even tripped once but quickly caught her footing.
We finally arrived at the out skirting trees on the east side of McNurney’s Pond. Our houses and the path we usually took entered from the opposite side. There were several paths leading to the thick trees but we took the one farthest to the left, the same shortcut we used to get back and forth from home to the little league.
“Hurry up you guys! Gabby yelled, “I’m going to be late.” We said goodbye to Danny and Gary, and we watched as Sean quickly planted another kiss on Gabby’s cheek. Then we ran across the street, up the hill and towards McNurney’s.
We had just spent the early evening watching the teen-league baseball game. Gabby and Sean had been meeting there without her dad knowing. They usually met at the ball field. We’d go there to watch their games, and afterward Gabby would spend time with Sean.
We had to be back home before the street light came on. That was a written rule with all our fathers except for Sherry. She could stay out pretty much as long as she wanted.
But on this particular day, Gabby was having a hard time saying good-bye to Sean. They kept kissing each other behind the dugout. I noticed my watch read 7:55, and the sun was going down. I motioned to Gabby. Sean pecked her one last time before Liz yelled, “Gabby, your father!” We spotted him before he saw us. It was easy since he was driving an army issued Jeep. “He’ll ground me from the Bicentennial if he sees me here!” she worried.
We dashed across the street, towards the trees and followed the path on the left. We knew if we ran the entire way, we had a chance of beating Mr. Sanchez home. He would have to stop for at least one of the stoplights. Missing the Fourth of July festivities would be the least of Gabby’s worries; she would be grounded for life if she got caught kissing a boy in public. So, we frantically raced towards the shortcut.
Off to the left, there were a few homes sitting relatively close to one another that were not there when we were young. Some acreage had been cleared leading to McNurney’s to build a new housing subdivision. The trail had signs of still being used; however, the branches and bushes had become overgrown. We pushed them out of our way.
Once in the clearing we could see the water. The big Willow tree still shadowed it on one side, and algae covered the outer portions of the surface now. “Wow!” Gabby said, “It doesn’t look like anyone has swum here in years.” Moss and debris covered the base of the Willow and some kind of infestation looked to have overtaken the upper portion of its once wispy branches.
“Would you?” Sherry responded.
I watched Liz as she walked closer to the water’s edge. She picked up a small stone and skipped it across, like Butch had shown her many years ago. A green film flowed over the continuous ripples.
I stood under the tree we had once swung from. I remembered falling carelessly to the water below. I sat and paused for a moment realizing it was the very spot I had lost my virginity to Gary on the night of the Bicentennial. I felt a grin move stealthily on my face.
“If the water weren’t so damn cold and encrusted with that crap, I would just leap in,” laughed Gabby.
“If you do, I will,” joked Liz.
“You can count me out,” scoured Sherry, “that shit’s probably toxic.”
I looked at Gabby and motioned to her. She gave me a clever smirk. And counting to three with my fingers, we shoved Sherry in the murky water.
“You son of a…”
“Run, Gabby!” I yelled.
We bolted as fast as we could back through the trees, this time we headed west, back towards Justice Drive. We knew if Sherry caught us, we would be thrown in next out. We got ourselves away from the pond as quickly as we could. Liz was several feet behind us laughing hysterically.
“When I get you two…I’ll drag you in by the haya’!”
“Did you see her face, Gabby?” I was giggling uncontrollably.
“Stop!” Liz screamed. We ran for a few more feet before she yelled a second time.
When we did, Liz was crouched over. I assumed she was out of breath.
“Look,” she showed us, pointing at a nearby grouping of trees, “This is where it happened.”
Sherry finally caught up to us, “You two are going to get…”
“Shh!” I motioned with two fingers pressed to my lip.
“Don’t you recognize it? Any of you?” Liz asked.
I scoped the mature landscape. There was a split in the trails, several old trees with trunks intertwined and a large boulder embedded in the ground. The past came rushing back to me in a flash.
Gabby and I raced back up the trail when we heard a scream. We didn’t see anyone but heard some ruffling behind the high brush. On the ground lay Liz. I just watched as Sherry lifted the branch above her head. Then swung it, and with one mighty blow she hit him over the nape of his neck. He staggered a few steps, and reaching his hand behind his neck, fell heavily to the ground.
I would relive that scene over and over again for years to come. I thought of every conceivable notion as to how and why Mr. Townsend’s body had ended up near the pond. It was at least twenty-five yards away. Even though the land sloped slightly downhill, it would take a very strong person to drag a body through the brush, assuming he was strangled in the path, somewhere near where we had left him.
Gabby extended her hand to Liz, helping her up from a crouched position, “It’s okay, Liz. He can’t hurt you anymore.”
“I know Gabby, but who did it? Who else would have wanted him dead?”
Sherry piped in, “Personally, I don’t give a flying fig, but my ass is freezen’. Let’s go back to Peppa’s,” she said shivering.
Like Liz, I also had this unrelenting passion to find out who killed Mr. Townsend. We had promised Butch we would help in any way with his new investigation. Sherry’s lackadaisical attitude about Mr. Townsend’s death caused me to wonder. How could she be so flippant?But, I dismissed it because she was Sherry.
“Come on,” I said, “let’s get this drenched poodle to my house.”
Sherry came out of the shower with her hair wrapped in a turban and joined us in the kitchen. We were nibbling on some appetizers Mom had fixed for us when we heard a rap at the front door.
“Oh, come in Butch. How are you?” we heard Mom say. Sherry grasped the bundle on her head and stepped behind the kitchen counter. “Hello again, ladies,” he said as he entered the kitchen. We acknowledged him.
“You’re a few hours early aren’t you?” Sherry asked. “I’m actually here on an official visit.”
His tone caused me to become leery. “Did you locate Sam?” I asked.
“No. No, I didn’t. We did find out KAB trucking went out of business in 1988.”
Looking directly at me, Butch asked me what kind of shirt Sam was wearing that night. Sherry hardly gave me the opportunity to respond.
“Camouflage,” Sherry adamantly answered, “with an elk on it and some logo about Montana written across it. Why?”
“Are you sure?”
“She’s right, Butch,” I told him, “it was a t-shirt like a hunter would wear.”
Both Gabby and Liz were nodding their heads in agreement.
“Why, Butch?” Sherry asked again.
He hesitated for a moment. “Along with the blood, forensics has several fibers which were found embedded near the strangulation marks around his neck.” Liz clutched her neck in horror, probably thinking of the pain her father must have experienced.
“Butch, is this really necessary now,” Mom said, comforting Liz, “she’s been through enough.”
“You’re right Mrs. O’Neil. I’m sorry.” He turned and took a few steps towards the door. “Just one more thing. What were you girls wearing that night?”
Sherry beamed with confidence, “That’s simple. We each had on our white, bicentennial t-shirts and denim shorts.”
“Don’t you remember, Butch?” Gabby quickly added, “we were in the talent show so we wore matching outfits.”
He nodded, “That’s right. I’ll see you later, Sherry.”
I knew there had to be a logical reason as to why he needed to know what Sam was wearing. I was certain we had known this information before. I also knew several people had witnessed the altercation between Sam and Mr. Townsend. Surely there was enough corroboration.
“What kind of fibers did you find?” I finally asked before he walked out.
“It was a poly-cotton synthetic.”
“So,” Sherry remarked, “half the clothes in America are made from that.”
“And… they were pink,” Butch added.
No one spoke. But each of us knew we weren’t wearing a stitch of pink that night. Mostly everyone was wearing some sort of patriotic display of reds and blues - it was the country's Bicentennial celebration for goodness sake.
“Well, I’ll see you later.” And with that, he left.
“That’s weird,” Liz added.
We looked at each other more puzzled than ever. “What if he had been,” Liz stuttered to find the words, “hurting someone else? What if there was another girl and she killed him?”
“Whoa…wait a minute, Liz. You’re jumping the gun,” I said.
“Why didn’t we know about this evidence before?” Gabby asked.
“They don’t want us to know. There is always one piece of crucial evidence that investigators don’t want us or the media to know,” explained Sherry.
“Makes sense,” I added.
“But why is Butch making us aware of it now?” Sherry paused as she talked to herself out loud, “unless he knows something else.”
“I’m not sure Sherry, but let’s leave it to Butch. We’ve muddled it enough.”
“Pepper’s right, Sherry. We made a mess out of the investigation before because we listened to you. Besides, we only have one more night before we have to go back. Let’s not ruin it.”
“Fine,” Sherry conceded, “but I may just have to pry it out of him on our date.”