We agreed to gather back at my house where Liz would later meet us. On the way there, Sherry filled us in on some of the legal gibberish. Gabby sat in the backseat leaning forward, her head between the passenger and driver seat much like an impatient child would do on a long vacation drive.
“I think we should tell him,” I said.
“Me too,” admitted Gabby.
“Are you two kidding me?”
“Why not, Sherry? Twenty years is long enough. We talk to Liz first, then we tell Butch everything.”
“Pepper’s right, Sherry. We know we didn’t kill him and don’t you think Liz has the right to know what happened to her father,” Gabby’s voice cracked thinking of what Liz had been through, “no matter what the creep might have done to her.”
Sherry began piecing together the evidence and connecting it with the questions Butch had asked. “But the evidence isn’t in Liz’s favor. It implicates her even more. Besides, don’t forget what we did that night…”
“Wait a minute, Sherry,” Gabby protested, “we didn’t do anything. You hit him!”
“Me? You were there too!” Sherry shouted.
I urged them both to calm down. Things were beginning to rattle our nerves; maybe this was part of Butch’s plan - to get one of us to break.
“We can’t blame Sherry for what happened, Gabby.”
“Oh muy God! Einstein has spoken,” Sherry sarcastically spat back.
“Be serious, Sherry. If you didn’t hit him, one us would have.”
Gabby placed her hand on Sherry’s shoulder, “I’m sorry Sherry. This is overwhelming me. One day I’m at a PTA meeting, the next day I’m in Liberty rehashing a twenty-year-old homicide… so pardon me if I’m a little edgy!”
As we neared home, I could see Liz and Mrs. Townsend sitting on my front porch with Mom. I often wondered why Liz had never spoken to Maggie Townsend about the demons from her past. I felt guilty about not staying in better touch with Liz maybe I could have helped her through it.
If it weren’t for Mom, I may not have even known about Liz’s current troubles. I had lived away for years, only returning to Liberty for family functions or holiday visits a few times over the last decade. Mom remained my eyes and ears to the goings on.
It wasn’t until I became a mother that I was able to relate to how Mrs. Townsend must have felt when Liz first told her about Mr. Townsend. A husband you’re married to for years, whom you love so intimately, is accused of doing sick things to his own daughter. It is unimaginable. A small part of me could understand why Mrs. Townsend didn’t want to believe her daughter. It would mean a great burden of guilt would fall on her own shoulders. But as a friend, we had no reason to doubt Liz. We had seen the fright in her eyes - it was real.
In my kitchen, Mom had outdone herself with a spread of food fit for an army. She made chicken tenders, a tray of finger sandwiches and a deli platter filled with Greek olives, peppers and assorted cheeses. “You shouldn’t have, Mrs. O’Neil,” Gabby said.
“I didn’t mind, Honey. It’s just so good to have you back in town again. Liberty is too quiet without you girls.” She patted Liz on the shoulder, “despite the circumstances.” Liz cupped her hand over mom’s.
For a second, envy stirred within me. I couldn’t quite pinpoint it but something bothered me. It was as though Mom was mine, and Liz should be turning to her own mother for affection. Perhaps, it was because Maggie Townsend had only given Liz material things when all she really longed for was a nurturing hand. I was embarrassed for feeling this way and kept my emotions to myself. Mom had always showered me with adoration as a child and was overly supportive of me, especially in my decision to leave my career in order to stay home with my sons.
Mrs. Townsend and Mom left the kitchen after handing a plate of food to Gary. I felt sad for Gary too, getting stuck in the middle of this mess. Even though it was his job, I’m sure he was hoping he hadn’t taken on Liz as his client. Somehow each of us was pulled back into this mess.
Mom told me, Gary and Butch had remained close through the years which must have put a recent strain on their friendship. However, they both handled it professionally.
Gary emptied out a stack of papers in front of us, careful not to let them bump the food. “Butch believes your dad knocked you around…physically,” he said looking to Liz, “but my gut tells me he knows you didn’t kill him.”
“Then what the hell is all the hoopla for?” sneered Sherry.
“He thinks you’re not telling him something…and quite frankly, so do I.”
Liz got up from the table and paced the kitchen floor. Through the window, I could see Mom and Mrs. Townsend on our back deck. It looked as though Mom was reassuring Maggie Townsend. How hard it must have been for Mrs. Townsend to relive this whole ordeal. I remember Mom consoling her tenderly in the days following Mr. Townsend’s murder. The two became close that year, and Mrs. Townsend came to depend on Mom.
She waved through the window and as our eyes crossed, we exchanged an unspoken glance, one of assurance. I felt guilty for not having turned to her back then. She had the answers to everything. Surely, she could have helped, if only she knew what we had done. Would she be disappointed in me?
Liz began mumbling as words fell haphazardly from her mouth. At first, I wasn’t sure what she was saying until Gabby directed to her to slow down. Liz’s face was like a radish, a shade her face became in times of embarrassment or when she physically exerted herself.
“We didn’t mean it! He was scum…a scum…I hated him at times!” Her sobbing was out of control. We could barely comprehend what she was struggling to say.
“Slow down, Liz,” Gabby urged as she handed Liz a glass of wine to calm her. Gary walked to the kitchen and made certain the door leading to the deck was closed. He whispered in my ear something about not wanting our mothers to overhear our conversation, though it would all come out soon enough.
Liz was breathing heavily; tears were dripping over her top lip. I sat beside her. She looked over at me. “You can tell him now, Pepper,” Liz uttered softly, “please tell him everything.”
“Are you sure?” I hesitated a bit waiting for Liz to give me the green light.
“I’m sure.” And I then I finished our story.
“After Sherry had met with Sam, the trucker from the Midwest, he agreed to our plan.”
“What plan,” he hesitated, “you didn’t?”
“No, Gary! But we weren’t exactly angels either.” Gary let out a long overdue sigh after I assured him our plan had no murderous intentions.
“What did he say? Will he do it?” Liz inquired.
“He’ll do it. I told ya’ money tawks,” Sherry wisely responded.
“When?” I asked.
“When the time is right.”
We worked our way back to the beer tent where Sherry was to point out Mr. Townsend to Sam. In the meantime, Dad spotted us and came over. “Hi girls,” kissing me on the cheek, “you were terrific, I caught a bit of it.”
“Thanks, Mr. O’Neil.”
“You’re coming back for the fireworks later, right?” We nodded our heads.
“See you later then.” And we disappeared behind the beer tent, which was now humming with the twenty-something crowd.
Sherry seized her moment when Mr. Townsend took an empty keg around the side of the tent. She tilted her head and signaled to Sam. We ditched the scene quickly, so we wouldn’t be noticed. From a close distance, we could see Sam pass by Mr. Townsend without ever saying a word or even looking at him. Sam had done this several times and each time we grew anxious. Swiftly, Sam disappeared into the crowd.
“He’s gone, Sherry,” Gabby announced with worry.
I got a little nervous too assuming he abandoned us and pocketed our money. “He’s not gone, he’s blending,” Sherry confidently added.
A few more moments had passed before Mr. Townsend resurfaced in the beer tent, still no Sam. I whispered to Gabby and told her I thought she might have been right. Gabby nibbled at her nails as we scanned the crowd. Liz was busy devouring a funnel cake when a voice startled us from behind. “Evening girls.”
Gabby leaped into the air causing Liz’s cake to slide off the plate. It was only Officer Simms. We acknowledged him.
“You girls did pretty good up there t’night.”
“Thanks,” I said, trying to hurry the conversation along.
“Miss Rosen, are you looking for Mr. Angeli?”
Officer Simms had known the boys we hung out with from seeing us around town. Sherry was preoccupied with the beer tent and sort of brushed off Officer Simms. By now, I think even she was beginning to believe Sam had skipped town with half of our money.
A garbled voice came over Officer Simms’ radio. He reached for his walky-talky. There was a dispute on the far side of the beer tent. He ran from us toward a small group of rubberneckers surrounding the pavilion. As we got closer, we could see the tail end of Sam shoving John Townsend. He pushed him back as he lost his footing. The two briefly scuffled and we witnessed Sam punch Mr. Townsend in the jaw and he was knocked to the ground. Sam leaned over him and said something before running out of the crowd just as Officer Simms was making his way through the thick crowd.
Mr. Townsend sat up brushing himself off with a mortified look on his face as a few folks nearby tried to help him to his feet. I remember the intense gaze in his eyes. He was livid. Whatever Sam whispered definitely caught him off guard.
“Let me through!” Officer Simms yelled as he pushed back the bystanders.
“You okay, John?” officer Simms asked Liz’s dad. He dusted himself off again.
“That redneck jumped me for no reason,” pointing his finger over his shoulder. Liz’s mom came running over after receiving news of the brawl.
“John, are you okay?” With the attention and fuss focused on Mr. Townsend, Sam blended quickly into the crowd and was well out of sight.
I watched as Liz observed everything. Her mouth curved slightly upward as though she were slightly gladdened by what she had witnessed. What could she possibly be thinking? What did she feel for her dad or her mother for that matter? These were supposed to be the two people who cared most for her well-being. One who had molested her and the other was too blind to see it.
“He’ll be fine, Honey,” some old lady said, as she tapped Liz's shoulder. She must have recognized Liz to be his daughter. Officer Simms was too busy listening to John Townsend to even notice Sam slip away. It was past dusk and the overheads lights were ablaze with dozens of mosquitoes swarming about the bright bulbs. Sam had successfully faded out of view.
Sherry directed us to get out of there. We followed her back to the entrance where she was supposed to meet him. About twenty feet from the gates an arm reached out and pulled her behind a parked trailer that was resting on blocks. It was Sam.
“Well, young lady, looks like you owe me,” he snarled. His voice was harsh with a phlegmatic catch. He too, had an accent but not one I was familiar with at the time. I would later learn after many years of broadcast journalism, it was native to the deep south. Sherry reached in her shorts for the other half of the cash. "My rig is right over here." he pointed in the direction well away from the lighted area.
“What did you say to him?” Gabby asked.
Who’d ya bring with ya love?” as he checked us out.
“Just some friends.”
“You never said nothin’ ’bout havin’ no company.”
He was filthy, covered with grease on his hands like he had been working in a garage all day. He gave me the creeps, but I tried to remember mom’s favorite saying, though this little voice in my head told me a kind and decent man wouldn’t have taken our bribe. I was apprehensive and worried for Sherry and the rest of us.
“Just give him the money, Sherry,” I urged.
“Give it to him,” Gabby’s voice echoed.
He snatched the wad of cash and without missing a beat he clutched Gabby’s arm. Gabby tried to pry her arm free but he only held it tighter.
“What a smile,” he uttered in a filthy tone. He continued to hold her arm, almost toying with us.
“Get your hands off her!” I demanded.
“Come on Sam, this is between you and me,” Sherry added.
“What did you promise this jerk?” I asked Sherry.
She turned to me and told me not to worry. Things had gotten out of hand, and although we didn’t need Sam ratting us out, I didn’t want any of us putting ourselves in further danger.
“You heard me,” I stepped closer to him and I gripped Gabby's other arm, “You got your money. Now get your redneck, clod-hopping, ass out of here before I scream so loud Officer Simms and every other cop will come running!”
He stepped toward me in a threatening stance and licked his lips in a suggestive manner. Despite the watermelon sitting in the pit of my stomach, I wasn’t about to show my fear. I pulled Gabby free and pushed her and Liz farther behind me. Sherry just stood there.
For me, it was a defining moment in my friendship with the girls. For the first time since Sherry Rosen had moved to town, I was back in control the way things were supposed to be.
“Why don’t ya go right ahead and scream. I’ll just tell ’em you lil’ angels bribed me,” he said, flashing the cash in front of my nose, “to pick a fight with that man.”
“And just who do you think they’ll believe? You’re an out-of-town drunk who smells like yesterday’s leftovers.” I was on a roll and wasn’t about to let up. “Besides, you just provoked a fight with one of Liberty’s upstanding citizens.”
I saw the confusion in his eyes when I referred to Mr. Townsend in such a way. I could feel Liz tugging on the back of my shirt. “Tell you what, Sam, I’ll take my chances screaming,” I confidently added.
He stared at me blankly and then reluctantly, stepped back. “I don’t need the trouble.” He pointed his finger at Sherry. “You’d better be careful what ya promise people. It might get ya in deep shit someday.”
In the distance I could see Officer Simms scanning the grounds, probably hunting for Sam. “Better get going,” I smugly suggested. And that was it, Sam was gone.
We ran as fast as our feet could take us to the other side of the parking lot before we slowed down.
“Pepper, you were great! You scared the shit out of him,” Liz grinned, as she hugged me. "Thank you" and she hugged me again.
“Really Pepper, that was so cool the way you handled him,” Gabby agreed.
I turned to Sherry and scolded her as though she were my child. “What were you thinking?”
“I had it all unda’ control,” she tried convincing me.
“Why did he expect more than the money?” Gabby inquired.
Puzzled, Liz interrupted, “were you…”
“Of course not. Don’t worry about it,” Sherry snapped. "It's over now."
I used to think Sherry was all about herself; she kept us around just to help her own ego. Instead, I learned to what length she would go to help Liz. Sherry may not have been raised with same morals as us, but she sure as hell was willing to do anything for a friend. We all appreciated her differently after that. And I… well, I was back on top - the way things were before Sherry Rosen moved to Liberty. And that was the last we ever saw of Sam.
“Wait a minute! Let me get this straight,” Gary sat shaking his head in disbelief, “you girls rallied up some cash and bribed a complete stranger to threaten Mr. Townsend?”
“That’s right,” I said. I couldn’t tell if he was amazed by our tenacity or stunned by our lack of forethought.
“Let me guess,” he continued, “Sherry’s idea?” We quickly nodded our heads.
“You girls were lucky he didn’t hurt any of you.”
“We know,” Gabby added.
“This Sam, do you know anything else about him?”
“Just that he drove a truck, and he was from somewhere in the south,” I told Gary. “My God, Pepper, this changes everything,” he said with a burst of excitement, “How could you not realize its importance?”
“We were young, Gary and afraid. How could we possibly know?” explained Liz in an exhausted tone.
“Let me make this clear for you ladies,” waving his hands in the air, “Sam, this stranger, was a suspect from the very beginning. Surely, if anything, it would at least cast reasonable suspicion Sam’s way.” Gary made it sound so simple. But as teenagers, nothing seemed trouble-free. I looked at Sherry with an I-told-you so-look.
Gary and Sherry began throwing around some legal terms and strategies, while the rest of us pretty much twiddled our thumbs. They clearly understood the law in a much more calculating way than we did. I heard them arguing about Liz’s diary. Then those words “reasonable doubt” slipped into their conversation.
“Excuse me,” Liz waved her arm in front of their faces, “Yoo-hoo, remember me?”
“I’m sorry, Liz. We were just talking legal strategy.”
“What about reasonable doubt?” Liz asked.
Sherry explained, “Back then you were no more of a suspect than anyone of us. Officer Simms had no real leads but he liked Sam for the murder.”
Gary jumped in, “Since Sam was an outsider, there was never any evidence other than the brief physical encounter at the beer tent. They assumed he was just trying to pick pocket Mr. Townsend and it went sour. The leads stopped there.”
By the tone and hesitancy in Gary’s voice I detected a but coming. “What if we came forward now and told them about Sam?” Liz suggested.
“It may be too little too late,” exclaimed Sherry.
“Why?” asked Gabby, “it really did happen that way.
“Sherry’s right, Gabby. It sounds like you concocted the Sam story to distract suspicion from Liz. Not to mention you had twenty years to come forward. Why now?” Gary asked.
“Let’s not forget the DNA,” Sherry added.
“So, what are you two saying that Liz is out of luck?” I questioned.
“There’s enough evidence pointing toward Liz, but with each of you as witnesses I think we can raise reasonable doubt when it goes to trial.”
“Oh, that’s just great,” Liz remarked, “Now all of Liberty will know why we bribed Sam in the first place.”
Gary looked at Liz with his dark brown eyes. The same eyes I used to get lost looking in when I was younger. “I’m sorry, Liz. Unless we can convince Butch otherwise, or the murderer decides to confess after all these years, there will be a trial, and you having been molested will come out.” Liz stormed out of the kitchen obviously upset.
I noticed Mom and Mrs. Townsend were no longer outside. I assumed they had slipped away for a walk or gone back over to Liz’s. I turned to Gary and asked what else we could do. He assured me all efforts had been exhausted and had we been more forthright in the beginning, maybe circumstances would have been different.
We were no better off now than we were a day ago, except more people were about to learn Liz’s secret.
I was fairly certain finding Sam was out of the question. Even if we were able to locate him, what would be the chances he’d admit to any knowledge of Mr. Townsend’s demise?
Gabby suggested we put together a composite drawing and circulate it at dozens of the truck stops along the major interstates. Sherry did remember the logo from the back of his truck had the initials KAB trucking on it. Gary agreed it was at least worth the effort but we’d have to first run it by Butch.
“But…then Butch will know everything?” Liz sighed. I imagined how deep her pain must have been to carry this horrible burden for years. She still felt ashamed as though somehow it was her fault.
“As your lawyer, Liz, I have to advise you…it’s time.”
We had never even spoken of Mr. Townsend after his funeral. It was as if it had never happened. I’m not sure why we didn’t; maybe it was the guilt we carried, knowing we played a role leading up to his death.
Gary was right - it was now or never. I took Liz by the hand, “It’ll be okay, Liz, you’ll see.”
Gary headed to the kitchen phone and worked his fingers around the knotted cord. Sherry was mumbling something under her breath about what this would do to her career. Gabby tried reassuring Sherry everything would eventually blow over as things often do in any crime investigation, at least till the next news made its way to Liberty. Before Liz’s arrest, the only juicy talk around town was about the funeral director. He was having a torrid affair with the lady who owned the bakery next door. Imagine how Liberty would be rocked when they heard allegations about Maggie Townsend’s husband. Surely, her once stellar reputation, would be tarnished.
Gary quickly brought Butch up to date, and he agreed to sit down with us one more time. He wanted us to come to the station, but Gary insisted we meet at Liz’s house. He thought it would help Liz if she were in her own surroundings.
My front door made a dreadful squeak as it opened. Mom and Mrs. Townsend were back from their walk. Mom asked if Dad had called. He had been away on a business trip as he had done several times a year. I told her he hadn’t.
Gary thanked Mom for the food by giving her a generous hug and Mrs. Townsend asked how things were progressing.
Liz sat beside her mother on our old sofa, which had been worn from years of heavy use. I noticed Liz didn’t embrace her mother or even make eye contact with her. Instead, I watched as Liz’s eyes follow Mom to the kitchen while she prepared a doggy bag for Gary. Subtleties I may have overlooked as a child were clearer to me now. The two sat near each other, yet neither seemed responsive the way Mom and I were with one another.
“Thanks again,” Gary smiled, as he reached for the food wrapped neatly in tin foil.
The years had been kind to Mom. She had a stunning smile and a warm glow to her skin. She had kept herself lean and carried herself with such pride. She was a wonderful role model for me. But again, jealousy enveloped me briefly as she exchanged an unsolicited embrace with Liz. I felt guilty for feeling this way.
Growing up, everyone liked Mom, why should things have changed now. She had always been caring and gracious. I made it a point to treat each of my sons’ friends with the same motherly gestures she had shown mine.
Gary had yet to tell our mothers about Sam. And none of us had either. He figured Liz would first need more time with her mother in private. For Liz, it would mean rehashing the painful ordeal with the same parent who didn’t believe her years earlier.
Gary and the Townsend women went to await Butch’s arrival at Liz's house. “Let’s go ladies, Butch will be there shortly.”
“I don’t see why he has to talk to her again,” Mrs. Townsend said with disgust, “we’ve been through this already.” Gary politely nudged her through the front door. “I know Mrs. T but this will all be over soon.”
The three of us took a moment to check in on our own personal affairs. Gabby escaped to my old bedroom to call her family. Sherry checked in with her practice, and I helped mom in the kitchen.
“How are things looking for Liz?” Mom asked me.
“I don’t know.”
She continued scrubbing the tile counter top. “Surely Butch can’t believe Liz would have killed her own father?”
“The blood at the crime scene matches Liz’s DNA.” I told her.
“How would her blood have gotten there?”
The timing was right. Mom needed to know. If Liz could do it, so could I.
The pungent odor from the cleaning abrasive was beginning to make me nauseas. I reached over and stopped mom’s obsessive hand from scouring.
“Sit down, Mom. I need to tell you something.”
“What is it, Pepper?”
“I know you are going to find this difficult to believe and so did I at first…” I struggled to find the right way to tell her. How do I tell her a friend of theirs was a child molester?
“Did Mr. Townsend have any enemies?” I asked.
“No. He got along with everyone …except,” she paused, “that night at the Bicentennial.”
My lip began to quiver when she mentioned Sam. “That’s just it Mom…we… uh…we paid that man to pick a fight with Mr. Townsend.”
“We bribed him to threaten Mr. Townsend,” I repeated.
I reached for Mom’s hand and she cupped mine in return. She could see in my eyes I was serious.
“Mr. Townsend had been…”
My voiced cracked as I tried to muster up the strength to say it.
“Patricia!” Mom snapped!
Calling me by my proper name was something she only did in times of reprimand.
“How dare you speak of the dead in such a manner!”
“It’s true mom. I thought he was a nice man too. We all did…until we found out.”
“Found out what?” she pried.
“We nearly walked in on it once.” I tried hinting to her. “He molested her.”
Mom muffled her gasp with one hand and shaking her head, she said, “why didn’t she tell Maggie?”
“She tried, Mom. But Mrs. Townsend never believed her.”
Why didn’t you come to me? I could’ve helped.”
“We promised her we wouldn’t tell anyone.”
“I’m not just anyone, Patricia. I’m your mother!” she scorned.
“Does Maggie know now?”
“Liz is telling her and Butch tonight.”
“What did you hope you would accomplish with having him beaten up?”
“I don’t know, Mom. At the time it seemed right. We were trying to scare him.”
“Poor Liz, I wish she had told me. I wish you would have trusted me.”
We heard the door slam from the bedroom and footsteps approaching.
“Pepper?” Gabby called.
“We’ll talk later, Mom. I have to get down there to support her. I just needed you to know.”
The phone rang saving me from any further questions. But I knew she would drill me again. Mom answered it. It was Dad calling from his trip. I told her to blow him a kiss from me because I didn’t want to keep Gary or Butch waiting. I whispered in Mom’s ear, “I’ll be down at Liz’s.” She nodded, blew me an invisible kiss and continued her conversation with Dad.