My local Sisters in Crime chapter sponsors an event (not a contest, because Sisters promote and support one another, they don’t compete with each other). At this event, members may enter short fiction projects for evaluations. This is the entry that earned the highest score that year.
This was inspired by Stephen King. In his memoir/how-to book, he gave a story idea and then instructed the reader to give it a spin and turn it to the opposite of the usual. I gave it a second spin.
“Today, in a brazen daylight escape, three inmates at the Chowchilla Women’s Prison eluded their pursuers through the orchards surrounding the complex. Two of the inmates have been recaptured; one remains at large, although authorities believe they will soon have her in custody. Stay tuned to this channel for further developments.”
Jack froze with his beer half way to his mouth. He knew, suddenly and with no doubt, the missing inmate was Julia and she was on her way here, coming to finish what she had started. Killing him.
Even as the thought entered his head he heard the pantry door creak and knew she was already here. That was what he had felt earlier. The mail wasn’t scattered across the entry way as usual. It sat on the hall table where Julia had always left it for him. He’d picked it up and carried it into the kitchen without a thought before he grabbed his beer and flipped on the television. All this raced through his mind as he wondered how he could escape from her again. Spousal abuse was common, but it almost always referred to wife beating. He was an anomaly, a husband who had been beaten and abused by a violent woman.
“Hi, honey,” Julia said from behind him, her voice light, as if she was returning from the grocery store and dry cleaners instead of a two-year prison stay. “I’m home.”
“Julia, I’m so glad to see you!” Jack worked some moisture into his mouth so he wouldn’t sound panicked. “I just heard about the escape. Baby, I was worried, why didn’t you tell me you were coming?”
“What? And ruin your cozy life here? I couldn’t do that, now could I?” Julia moved into his field of vision and he wasn’t surprised to see that she had his gun from the safe in his closet. “Where’s Chloe? I want to see my little girl.”
“I didn’t know you were coming. I let her go play at Jennifer’s house for the afternoon, I’m supposed to pick her up after dinner. Should I go get her now?”
“Very funny, Jack. No, we’ll wait until after dark and then we’ll both go get her. You can fix me something to eat while we wait. Let’s go into the kitchen.”
Jack got up from the recliner and briefly thought about jumping her to wrestle the weapon away but the sight of the .25 was a strong deterrent. It may be little, but it could still kill when fired point blank. And he knew that she knew how to use it. He had trained her himself. He had also taught her how to box, to use pressure points to disarm an assailant, and even some basic martial arts. She may be small but she knew how to fight dirty.
As Jack moved into the kitchen with Julia following, he decided that just as in all the detective books and movies, his best chances required that he keep her talking.
“Honey, you know I never meant for you to get sentenced to ten years in prison. I figured a year of probation would be it and we’d live happily ever after.”
“Skip the bull, Jack. What’s going on with the lawsuit?”
“My attorney expects the city to offer a settlement of half a million dollars, and she’s advised me to accept it.”
“I said to skip the bull. I know the city has already offered you three million and you said you want five. I know you are sleeping with your attorney and I know she’s agreed to a twenty-five percent fee instead of her usual one third.”
A tingle of hope raced up his spine. Maybe he could use her knowledge to his advantage and come out of this after all. He had underestimated her before, he wouldn’t make that mistake again.
“You really do know a lot,” he said. “Is there some sort of prison grapevine you can subscribe to?”
“Yeah, it’s called the Internet. I’m such a model prisoner, I get to do clerical work and sometimes I can sneak a few minutes online to read local news. I guessed about her sleeping with you, but since you don’t deny it, it must be true.”
“What should I do with your half of the settlement? Do you want me to put it in a CD that matures when you’re released?”
“Very funny, Jack. I’m now an escapee. If they catch me, I’ll be going back till Chloe’s a grandmother. I want the money now. How much do you have? And I’m starving. Are there any Spaghetti-Os?”
“No, but I can fix you some good ol’ Mac & Cheese. Remember how Chloe loved it when she was three years old? That’s all she ate the whole year, I think.”
“Don’t try to change the subject. I asked how much money you had.”
Jack moved to the pantry, removed the familiar blue and white box and filled a pot with hot water to start boiling.
“I have a couple hundred on me is all. If I knew you were coming, I could have had more.”
“You think I would trust you again? After you set me up? Geez, you must really think I’m an idiot. I’m not.”
“I’m so sorry, honey. I don’t know why I froze like that. I think I was just so into it, like an actor becoming his character. I know I let you down. I hope that someday you’ll be able to forgive me.”
“You had the chance to get me sentenced to local jail for six months and then probation, but you sold me out to state prison for ten years. I’m supposed to forgive that? You ever hear of double jeopardy? It means I can beat you senseless. I’m already doing time for domestic violence. I might as well do the crime for real.”
Jack swallowed as he poured the macaroni into the boiling water and stirred it. He forced his voice to stay calm and even. “I understand. I blame myself. It’s all my fault and I deserve whatever you do.”
He hated pain, the hardest thing he had ever done was to purposely hit his arm with a club to crack it. He wanted his injuries to look real and to convince the cops. He had had to beg Julia to punch his face hard enough to leave bruises. As much as he hated pain though, he loved money and he loved his plan for getting it even more.
It had seemed easy enough in theory. They would be a typical American family, hiding a violent spouse-beater. But instead of the man being the abuser, it was his idea that Julia would mistreat him.
It had taken a couple of years to lay the groundwork. For the first few months in their new house they were the perfect, loving family. Then he began to show a few bruises to friends and neighbors, accidentally of course. After some really bad contusions, he confided to a friend that Julia hit him when she was angry and frustrated.
Then they had a few arguments in public and Julia would throw something and let people glimpse her violent nature. It was all an act. She was never abusive to him or Chloe. They really were a typical close and loving family. Except for the plot to make a million dollars.
Finally, it was time to stage the performance. Together, they knocked over some furniture and threw some dishes around while yelling, just in case a neighbor was out walking a dog. Then Jack had hit his arm with the bat, hard enough to break it. Julia couldn’t stand to watch, though she knew it was a vital part of the plan.
Then Jack called the police, requesting protection from his wife. It took two more performances before the Fresno PD began to really believe that Julia was a husband beater. She was arrested.
The plan had been that she would be released, come back home, and put Jack into the hospital. Jack would file a lawsuit against the city, claiming they had neglected to protect him and had placed his life in jeopardy. Jack figured a man beaten up by a woman had to be worth a million or two, maybe more when you factored in sympathy.
Everything went according to the script. Up to the point of Julia’s sentencing hearing. He was supposed to agree to a plea bargain and a restraining order. But as he sat in the courtroom, anger began to swell in his gut. This was his plan. He was the one in constant pain. He had done all the planning, taken all the physical risk, and he deserved all the money.
When the judge asked him if he was agreeable to Julia’s plea bargain, Jack willed his eyes to fill with tears. He looked at Julia and allowed fear to wash over his face. He managed a quick nod, but just as he hoped, the judge asked a few more questions. Was he continuing to live in fear? He whispered that he was. Then came the clincher. The judge asked if he feared Julia would become violent towards Chloe. He almost guffawed, but was able to turn it into a sob as he nodded. Julia’s face turned deathly pale as the judge rejected her plea and sentenced her to ten years in jail.
Two years later, his lawsuit against the city was near settlement and Jack planned to take the money and his daughter and start life over again in a new state. But Julia had shown up, and now she was angry enough to beat him for real. Maybe even kill him.
Jack considered throwing the boiling water from the macaroni onto Julia. He held the pot and looked steadily into her eyes. “I could throw this boiling water on you right now, Julia. But I’m not going to.” He continued to the sink and poured the water and macaroni into a colander he had set there. He moved the drained pasta to a bowl and stirred in some butter, milk, and the fake cheese powder. “I don’t want to hurt you. I really feel sorry for the way things have turned out and I want to help you get away. I have probably five hundred dollars stashed around the house I can give you. What else do you need?”
“I want my daughter.”
“On the run from the cops? Do you know how crazy that is? You’ll barely be able to take care of yourself. You’ll always be afraid to look at milk cartons. What kind of life is that for her?”
“She must hate me. Do you know how much that thought kills me?”
“She was too little to remember any of the fighting and yelling and stuff. We were always careful around her, you know that. All her memories are of normal, family stuff. I show her the pictures of us at the zoo and the park. That’s the mom she knows. I just tell her that you love her and miss her, but that you have to be away from us right now.”
“I want to believe you.”
“After everything I’ve put you through, I wouldn’t lie about Chloe.”
Jack scooped the orange macaroni into a bowl, pushed it and a spoon across the counter to her. She started to eat. “I won’t take her right now but I want to see her. When can you get her?”
“At eight. Why don’t you come?” A plan was taking shape. “You can ride with me to the Benson’s. I’ll pick up Chloe, we can have a little reunion, and you can drop us off here and take the minivan. I’ll report it gone in the morning. I’ll tell the police you must have hidden a spare key somewhere that I didn’t know about. That’ll give you ten or twelve hours to get a head start. How about it?”
“I need to let the food hit my stomach and think for a minute.”
“We’ve got until eight o’clock.” Just then the sitcom rerun on the television segued into a newsbreak.
“Police are still on the lookout for escaped convict, Julia Larson. Authorities believe she will head for Fresno where her family lives. Anyone with information is urged to contact the police at the number on your screen. Don’t attempt to confront Ms. Larson, police consider her armed and dangerous.”
Julia paused between bites to listen. “Well, they got that right.” She finished the bowl of macaroni and touched a paper napkin to each corner of her mouth. “Okay, we’ll try it your way. Let’s get Chloe now so I can have a little longer with her.”
“You bet.” Jack moved into the entryway to get his jacket and keys. “Umm, do you think it’s a good idea for you to be in the car with me? What if someone sees us? Then the police will know I gave you the car and they’ll think I know where you’re going.”
“Well, I’m not staying here, Jack. I know you. You’ll drive straight to the police station. I’ll be sitting here eating microwave popcorn when they surround the house.”
“What if you ride in the back? Hunkered down. Then you can hear where I go and what I say.”
She seemed to consider the suggestion. “It might work. Just remember though, I have a gun and thanks to you Jack, I know how to use it.”
“Let’s go.” She really was stupid to fall for this. Geez, his brilliant mind had been wasted on her.
They moved into the garage and Julia climbed into the back of the late model Odyssey. “If you do anything to attract the cops’ attention, I will hunt you down,” she said. “Even from prison. Don’t underestimate me again.”
Jack forced himself to look her in the eye as he answered. “I promise I will do everything in my power to help you see Chloe and get away safely tonight.”
Julia settled herself in the rear seat, still gripping the .25, as Jack slid the door shut. Soon they were on their way down the suburban street, just the local single dad on the way to pick up his daughter. Jack waved to a neighbor he hoped would later tell others about how “Everything seemed so normal, he even waved like always. Who knew?”
Making the turn onto Cedar, Jack slowed and watched his rear view mirror. He needed just the right vehicle, not too fast, not too slow, not too big, and not too small. “Aaah, there we go.” A Caddy, about ten years old with one head in silhouette appeared behind him. It touched the white line.
A drunk driver would be perfect! He almost said it out loud as he let off the gas just a little so the Cadillac could gain. He checked the mirror again and calculated the timing and speed he would need for the driver of the other car to rear end him, kill his wife and solve all his problems. “She must have climbed in while the car was in the garage,” he would say. The back would be so damaged in the impact, no one would guess the truth.
They entered the intersection at Herndon on a yellow light. “Now!” Jack slammed the brakes and braced for impact. A long second later the Caddy stopped for the signal. “Damn!” Before the word was out of his mouth, brakes squealed and a pickup hit him on the driver’s side. The Honda slammed to the right and was hit again on the opposite side.
Julia told her story to the detective as she waited on a gurney in the emergency room. “I did it just like you said. I kept the gun between us. I didn’t let him see the wire. I knew what he was planning when he suggested we pick up Chloe. Thank God you were listening and tailed us. And thank you for taking a chance and believing me.”
“I’m just glad the city attorney’s office had so many questions about your husband’s story that didn’t add up, and asked us to investigate before they signed the settlement papers.” The detective awkwardly patted her hand. “You did good.”
Her eyes filled with tears. “Is it over?”
He nodded. “I think it might be.”
Jack died on the operating table, still believing he would be coming into some real money very soon.