Among Friends

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If Memory Serves

IF MEMORY SERVES

Natalie opened the door at the hotel room two hours later to let Johnny Billings in. By this time, Toby was sitting up on the bedspread, his back supported by a pile of pillows lying against the headboard. Cheryl Grant was sitting in the desk chair, the top three buttons of her uniform tunic undone. She was stretching her long legs out away from the desk, large yet feminine hands folded in her lap.

There were piles of paper in various parts of the room: next to Toby on the bed, on the desk top, on the floor in front of the armless chair Natalie had been sitting on when Johnny knocked.

The pizza box was lying open on the bedside table. Nothing was left inside of it except for a few stray crusts and a grease stain. A six pack’s worth of empty Pepsi cans were in a wastepaper basket under the desk.

“Special delivery,” Johnny said, handing Natalie a manila clasp envelope.

She smiled and invited him in.

“You know Cheryl, of course,” Natalie said. “This is Toby Hughes, the guy you talked to earlier today.”

Johnny and Toby exchanged nods.

“Sit over there,” Natalie told him, gesturing at the armless chair.

“I don’t know if you explained it to Toby,” Johnny said, “but the original photographs are in an evidence bag in case of fingerprints from our alleged contract killer. Not likely but…”

“I understand,” Toby said as Natalie tugged the two sheets of paper out of the envelope. “Nice that Graham’s mother was so cooperative.”

Natalie took a moment to look at the photocopied version of the remaining eight exposures from Ashley’s camera, four per page. There were the individual portraits of Tom and Ashley along with the posed activity shots. She saw herself snuggling with Toby in his lap; Ashley sitting outside the cabin balancing a small sketchpad on her right knee; Rick and Tom arm-wrestling at the kitchen table; “Birdie” standing back-to-back against the much taller Sharon in profile, both giggling; Tom and Toby toasting something with beer bottles; and Ashley leaning back against Tom, his arms around her slim waist.

“She confirmed that Graham came back from prison to live with her in Vergennes?” Toby asked.

“Yes,” Johnny said.

“Here,” Natalie said, stepping over to the bed to hand Toby the gallery from their past.

“What’d she say about Sunday?” Cheryl asked.

“That Graham left early in her car, without telling her where he was going or why. She didn’t report it as stolen because Graham was only borrowing it without asking. She assumed he’d be back home before long.”

“What about visitors to the house?” Natalie asked. “People to see Graham; suspicious characters she didn’t recognize.”

“Nothing like that,” Johnny replied. “Of course someone like that might have stopped by when the old lady wasn’t at home. Graham did go out for hours at a time, supposedly looking for a job.”

“Did the mother notice any large withdrawals from her bank account after Graham came back to her?” Cheryl asked.

“No,” Johnny said.

“Maybe there wasn’t a contract hit on Rick or Sharon,” Natalie said.

Johnny sat back in his chair and crossed his legs.

“So what have you guys figured out over your pizza?” he asked.

“Natalie thinks Graham Wright might have been innocent, after all,” Cheryl said.

“Really?”

“Might have,” Natalie replied, sitting at the end of the bed. “Look at the facts. The main thing that convicted Graham was his belt around Ashley’s neck. There were no other fingerprints on that belt but his. He had no alibi but the rest of us mutually alibi’d each other. Yet when Graham was arrested, he was on his way back to the cabin. Back to the cabin!”

“To finish off the rest of you?” Johnny asked.

“He’d bought groceries and drinks for everyone,” Natalie said. “And he apparently dropped off the film roll at a drugstore. Since Johnny got the rest of the photos from Mrs. Wright we seems to have confirmation for that part of it.”

“Yes,” her partner said. “The envelope from the film lab was sitting in a cabinet for over twenty years along with all the other mail Graham’s Mom had saved for him.”

“But if Graham was guilty, why would he have taken time to do all that in St. Albans and then come back?” Natalie wondered aloud. “We’d always assumed he was heading up to Canada. If anyone ever told me just where the VSP caught him, I forgot about it back then.”

“You were there, Toby,” Johnny said. “What do you think?”

“Huh?” Toby reacted, looking up from the photocopies.

“Do you think Graham could have been innocent?”

“I doubt it.”

“What about the grocery run, then?” Johnny asked.

“I know what Natalie’s talking about. But Graham might have had a psychotic break, killed Ashley, and not known what he did to her. He was about twenty years old. That’s an age where people can have a sudden onset of psychosis. Anyway, that’s what the attorney tried to argue during the penalty phase. Not that Graham did it, as such, but that if he did, then it could be that he wasn’t conscious of his crime. Maybe the defense should’ve tried that approach first, an insanity defense. But I suppose Graham refused to go along with it if his lawyer suggested it to him. He completely refused to admit guilt to get out on parole, after all.”

“Evidently the jury thought it was a possibility or he would’ve been convicted of murder one, life without parole,” Natalie said.

“Let’s suppose Graham didn’t do the murder at all,” Johnny said. “Then someone else must’ve done it, right? A premeditated homicide since whoever did would’ve borrowed Graham’s belt and made sure to avoid getting his―or her―fingerprints on it. So which one of you did it?”

“Here’s the controversy,” Cheryl remarked.

“Controversy?” Johnny asked.

“Between these two witnesses. Natalie has a candidate but Toby disagrees.”

“Wait, weren’t all five of you in each other’s company the whole time Graham and Ashley were left behind in the cabin?”

“Yes,” Toby said.

“No,” Natalie dissented. “Not the whole time.”

“Natalie remembers Tom going back into the cabin for a few minutes to get a compass before our hike,” Toby said. “But that only took two minutes.”

“It was a lot longer than that.”

“No, it wasn’t. Tom was in and out too quickly to have done anything to Ashley.”

“Problem is,” Cheryl spoke up, “the perception of time varies from person to person, especially if we’re talking about events from twenty-five years ago.”

“I’m sure that’s true,” Toby nodded. “Maybe it did seem like ten or twenty minutes to Natalie. Perhaps it was really somewhere in between my recollection and hers.”

“But there’s more to it than that,” Natalie said. “I remember Tom telling us he’d spoken to Ashley long enough to get her permission to go on the hike without her. That would’ve been long enough to strangle her, too.”

“And I just don’t remember Tom saying any such thing,” Toby retorted.

Natalie scowled at him.

“Why would Tom need a compass in the first place?” she asked. “We were going on a blazed hiking trail, not going out on some expedition to points unknown.”

“Just in case we wanted to roam off the trail?” Toby suggested. “Besides, how could he know for sure that Graham wouldn’t be awake when he went back in there with the intent to kill Ashley?”

“Tom might’ve spiked Graham’s drink with barbiturates,” Natalie said. “And did the same to Ashley so that he’d have both where he wanted them, his victim and the guy he wanted to frame. Easier to kill that girl if she couldn’t fight back.”

“Any residue of drugs in her blood?” Johnny asked.

“They didn’t look for anything,” Natalie replied. “The autopsy showed death by strangulation. There wasn’t a need to look for anything else.”

There was a moment of quiet in the room. Johnny hesitated before asking: “So, Sergeant, why didn’t you bring up how Tom claimed he went into the cabin to look for his compass back then?”

“Fair question,” Natalie replied. “For one thing, I was too traumatized to think clearly about what Tom had done before we went the hike. Otherwise, it didn’t seem important, like what Toby’s saying now. Maybe Toby’s right. It could be nothing. Also, no one ever asked me about the compass. Graham never knew about it and none of us volunteered the information.”

“Wait, what?” Johnny reacted. “You mean Tom Wright himself never mentioned it, either? Wouldn’t you have all been asked to give every detail in your police statements and then on the witness stand?”

“He didn’t want to make himself look bad,” Toby suggested. “Haven’t innocent people left out unimportant details that might distract the authorities from the guilty party?”

“It was just unthinkable to us that Tom could’ve hurt Ashley,” Natalie said. “They seemed so much in love. He was going to propose to her, bought an engagement ring.”

“H’mm,” Toby muttered.

“What?” Natalie asked.

“So Tom told us at the time. But only after we found Ashley’s body.”

“Right,” Natalie agreed. “He made a big deal out of it right then on the spot. Something that might impress a room full of teenagers, especially teenagers from the ’Fifties.”

“But he did show that ring at the trial,” Toby said.

“Yeah, but that was a stunt, according to the defense. Isn’t that what you told me later?”

“Yes, that’s right. He never told anyone about his plan to propose to Ashley, did he?”

“I don’t think so. Seems like a teenage boy couldn’t keep a secret like that.”

“Not a normal teenage boy,” Cheryl suggested. “What would you kids have known about sociopaths?”

“A sociopath,” Toby whispered. “That could explain a lot.”

Natalie stood up and paced towards the desk.

“We’ll never know for sure,” she said, turning back towards Toby. “How could we? Both Graham and Tom are dead and can’t speak for themselves, assuming we could get the truth from either one of them.”

“Say Graham was either innocent or guilty but in either event blamed us four for his conviction,” Toby said. “He arranged a hit on Rick and then one on Sharon or even took care of Sharon himself. Since Graham is dead now, maybe that means you and I are safe.”

“Let’s hope so. Still, I put in a request for Graham’s visitor list at the prison for the past year at least, or however far back they keep records. But if it was another con doing him a favor, that’s going to be hard to prove.”

“So will you release me from protective custody?” Toby asked.

“I wish I was sure we’re in the clear,” Natalie said.

“You’re armed and dangerous,” Toby said. “I doubt anyone would dare take you on. I wouldn’t.”

Natalie smiled.

“Well, let’s pick up this mess and break up our meeting,” Cheryl suggested. “Natalie and Detective Billings can do some follow up on the visitor’s list when they get it. Might want to look into prisoner pen pals, too.”

“Good idea,” Natalie said.

Cheryl was the first to leave. Natalie and Johnny accompanied Toby on his way to check out at the front desk. Then Natalie said goodbye to her old flame in the parking lot after putting her briefcase in her car.

“Are you going to write about what happened to Graham, Rick, and Sharon?” Natalie asked.

“Maybe after your investigation’s over. I’d want to wait until we could run a longer news feature going from Ashley’s murder up through the solution of whatever happened to Rick and Sharon.”

“I can give you an exclusive,” Natalie promised.

“So how much have I changed?” Toby asked.

“Hardly at all. I’ll bet you can’t say the same about me.”

“Yeah, that’s true. Would you mind if I’m blunt with you?”

“I can take it. What?”

“I admire what you’ve done to become a strong woman,” Toby said, leaning against the fender of his Volvo. “And you’ve kept your looks.”

“Let’s have the criticism.”

“It’s not exactly criticism but you seem more, uh, brusque now. I wouldn’t want to say coarse but…”

“I’m not so ladylike anymore, is that it?”

“Sort of. I mean you’re still feminine. On the other hand, you’re like…”

“Like what, a cop?”

“A cop,” Toby said with a nod.

“A vulgar cop. Does that offend you?”

“Fuck no!” he said with a nervous giggle. “I don’t know why I even mentioned it. I guess it surprised me, that’s all. Of course you were always kind of sassy.”

“Just not foul-mouthed.”

Toby nodded again.

“Your husband,” he said after a moment. “I hope he treats you right, I mean after what your first husband did to you.”

“Oh, he does. He’s a big, strong man. I don’t feel like I have to act tough around him. Well, maybe once in a while. Dan’s a gentle giant, though. Everyone loves ‘Officer Dan’ in our little town.”

“You won’t tell him you kissed me, will you?” Toby asked with a smile. “In case he might not be as gentle as you think.”

“That kiss was innocent, but no, I won’t.”

“Good. It’s bad enough that I had pizza with two women stronger than me. I’d hate to have a jealous husband break my bones.”

Natalie gave Toby another hug, more sisterly than the last one.

“I’m going to check in with you now and then,” she said. “But if anything suspicious happens, don’t wait for me to call. I gave you my home phone number so use it if you need to.”

They parted, Toby driving out of the lot before Natalie. His drive to Albany was nearly three times as long a drive as hers to Holbrook. Natalie followed close enough to watch the taillights of the Volvo until, just north of Vergennes, Toby exited US Highway 7 to drive southwest on Vermont 22-A. It would take him to a bridge across Lake Champlain with New York on the other side.

Natalie had felt anxious watching Toby on the road. Her memories of the murder had emotions attached to them and she’d been frightened in a way ordinary murder cases failed to move her. Natalie could feel anger on behalf of victims and their families towards the killers, something that helped motivate her to solve the crimes. But this was the most personal case since her stepdaughter had been at the scene of a triple homicide and needed to be protected from harm before the killers were caught.

It was different this time in that Natalie didn’t know for sure whether she and Toby were in any danger. Moreover, it hadn’t even been established that what happened to Rick and Sharon had any connection to Graham.

Cheryl had brought word from Detective Ryland that Sharon’s employees couldn’t name any suspects from the gift shop. There had been no staff turnover of any kind in almost a year before Sharon’s murder and the one person who’d moved on did so under friendly circumstances. There had been no altercations involving customers that the employees knew of; even if Sharon had caught a shoplifter on her own, for example, she would have mentioned it to her employees.

But whoever had shot Sharon to death probably knew when she made her cash runs to the bank and which bank as well. Four .38 caliber bullets fired into Sharon’s back was deliberate homicide. Natalie had to assume her old friend had been watched and hunted.

Thinking about kissing Toby brought another emotional memory to Natalie. She’d been reminded of kissing Dan under circumstances that guaranteed Dan’s wife would see it. It was a deliberate act to show Michelle that her husband’s friend was really his lover. Natalie had been impulsive and brutal, three years ago this very month. Despite the fact that Michelle had remarried and was with a good man, Natalie often wished she and Dan had been kinder about the revelation.

Having stolen Dan from Michelle, Natalie was thereafter worried that some other predatory female might come along to steal him from her. On the other hand, Natalie had been completely confident that she would never so much as have a passing fling, let alone leave Dan. Yet now she’d kissed someone else. Sure, the man Natalie kissed predated Dan as her lover by a generation, but that didn’t seem like a good excuse.

Thank God Toby was still sweet and submissive. A lot of other men would have grabbed her and tried to continue things on the bed.

Natalie thought back to one would-be rapist who’d misjudged her abilities. This had happened when she’d been on an undercover assignment only months after being promoted to Detective. Natalie had put the man in the hospital with a variety of fractures and contusions. She was cleared of the excessive force charges brought against her by the perpetrator.

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