MY HUSBAND TOOK OUT THE GARBAGE
AND NEVER CAME BACK
Karma is as karma does. It’s what Nana, my grandmother who raised me, always said. Her intentions were kindly. They always were. She strove to find ways to help me feel good about myself, so my basic inner confusion isn’t her fault.
I should have kept karma in mind that morning.
Everything was going well. Too well.
As I stepped out my front door and headed for my mailbox on the street, dew twinkled in the April morning sunlight like faux diamonds on the Neelah Queen’s tiara. I looked up the curving road and a shocking silence reverberated. All was still on my small street and my elderly neighbor, Mrs. Mitchell’s, lace curtains didn’t twitch as they usually did when she’s home, watching for something to talk about.
I earned my living by writing short stories for True Lies, a confessions magazine. Sue Ann, my best friend, insists I have enough Catholic guilt I’ll confess to almost anything and I suspect she’s right. My True Lies editor was about to go on maternity leave and my source of income would at least temporarily dry up. Imagine my excitement when I checked my mailbox to learn she’d bought eight confessions from me in advance. What a relief.
I desperately needed the money.
My house was about to go into foreclosure — the house Dan bought for me — for us — when we got married. I had sixty days to pay or I would risk hell and brimstone in the hereafter. I simply could not lose our home. It had been seven years since Dan simply disappeared and I had no other choice than to put the wheels in motion to have him declared permanently out of print. That morning Sue Ann’s attorney husband, Ron, assured me I would have the insurance proceeds in time to save my home.
Now most people probably aren’t as worried about facing the hereafter as I am, but they don’t share my past. My parents were devout Catholics. Two days before my confirmation, when I was thirteen and it was the main focus of my life, my parents were involved in a fatal auto accident. I was distraught — not only had I lost my folks, but I never was confirmed.
Instead I went to live with Nana, who didn’t believe in such nonsense. Instead, she was a Spiritualist and believed in a totally different set of nonsense. Or not.
As a result, I’m basically totally confused about the hereafter and have one leg firmly planted in each realm. The good news that day was I no longer had to worry about burning in hell for losing Dan’s house. The bad news was that neither my parents nor Nana had visited from the Eternal Divide to let me know one way or the other. I expected better from Nana.
Since the people I loved had a way of going to their spiritual reward or just plain disappearing like Dan, I recently decided it had something to do with the Law of Attraction. By concentrating on my losses, I attracted more loss. It had taken me awhile, but I came up with a new affirmation: I attract people into my life who stay.
As I picked my barefooted way back up the graveled drive toward my front door, I glanced at the redbud tree I planted when Dan and I moved in. Its bare limbs were a tangled puzzle and I willed it to hurry up and bloom.
The next good thing to happen that morning was when I went to get dressed I found a twenty-dollar bill stuffed into my ill-fitting WonderBra. I vaguely remembered wondering where the money had gone to a year ago, so now I knew. Another new affirmation: I attract money into my life to stay.
Feeling as if I was on a roll, I tried on my too-tight jeans and they fit perfectly. I could even bend and sit without causing my fallopian tubes to screech in protest.
There was edible food in my refrigerator.
And to top it off, I wasn’t out of toilet paper after all.
Incredible, exceptionally good karma.
So when I saw the corner of a crisp white envelope peeking out from a stack of books on the coffee table, it caught my eye. I pulled it out and saw my name, Amanda Crosby, written on it in block print. There wasn’t an address or a postmark, so it hadn’t come in the mail.
When I turned in my story Diary of a Teenage Psychic, which was retitled by my editor (I don’t know what it is about my titles, but she changes all of them) to I Can Read My Best Friend’s Mind and She’s Messing Around With My Boyfriend, I honestly believed I was now somewhat clairvoyant. Or at least warning bells and whistles would go off before something dire was about to happen.
Boy was I wrong.
As I opened the envelope, I can’t tell you my hair stood on end or chills chased down my spine. What I can state without any hesitation is that I was merely curious.
Who expects to receive a blackmail note?
But that’s what it was.
I collapsed onto my sofa.
The note said:
Insurance fraud is a felony criminal offense. Before contemplating cashing in your missing husband’s life insurance policy, you might try to discover where he is living or, at the very least, ask his mother. Should you wish the fact he’s still alive to remain confidential, place $2,000 in unmarked bills in the waste bin on the corner of Main and Knox on Friday at 6:00 a.m. Or else.
Or else what? Unanswered questions pelted me like a hailstorm. What kind of insane person would write a blackmail note like this? Who would want to blackmail me? Why would someone blackmail me?
And most of all — was there a chance Dan was alive? And if he were, why would I want to keep it confidential?
Was the Law of Attraction and my new affirmation working?
I scanned the note again.
Obviously I’d be thrilled to welcome my husband back into my life. I hadn’t wanted to start the legal proceedings because of the off chance Dan might return someday. I knew it wasn’t likely after this long, but I missed him and dreamed of the day he would come home. Now it felt as if the legal proceedings did the trick that years of praying and tears hadn’t. Was Dan alive?
The blackmail note didn’t make sense. The logic of blackmailing me at all seemed senseless, and with such a small amount, it was peculiar. Plus, why put the money into the trash? While one segment of my brain analyzed the physical attributes of the note — it was a computer printout similar to those of most city, school or library-owned printers as well as my computer and there were no identifying marks — the emotional part of my brain short circuited.
I suppose I need to digress. Technically I was still married in the sense that I hadn’t been divorced or that my husband hadn’t officially corked off.
It wasn’t as if I hadn’t waited long enough or grieved enough.
It wasn’t as though I’d be unhappy if Dan turned up alive, either.
I saw an image in my mind — in black and white like an old movie. It was my favorite fantasy in the early months when Dan first disappeared. I was in my kitchen, cooking something. Okay, okay — I don’t know how to cook, but it’s my fantasy and I reserve the right to fantasize I’m the next Rachel Ray. So there I am, pans steaming, vegetables bubbling, and I’m chopping something green and I’m not even afraid of my knife. Hmm. Maybe instead I’m ladling something, when the sound of the front door being thrown open startles me. The next thing I know, I see Dan, tanned, brimming with health stride into my kitchen. I drop my ladle, in thrilled shock, then Dan swoops me into his arms and, in a Fred-Astaire-like-dip, leans me over. His lips press against mine.
The fantasy no longer worked for me. All I could think was where the hell has he been for seven years and why did he look so tan and fit?
Nothing less than being kidnapped by those sex-slavers his mother was always ranting about would satisfy me. Unless they allowed him to use a tanning bed?
Or maybe he’d been recruited by the CIA and they needed him to invent some top secret thing and it’s now invented. He’s finally allowed to come home and return to me, his devoted wife.
Nah. The CIA would have let him bring me along — or at least he should have found some sly way of letting me know he hadn’t kicked the bucket.
No matter how many scenarios I played in my head, none truly satisfied me because I’d long since believed that if Dan were alive he would have found some way of clueing me in. The only other option was he would never be coming home again and the very idea made me more than sad — worse than devastated — lower than the bottom.
It also left me truly pissed off at whomever the jerk was who willingly reopened this emotional can of worms for me. Who could have done this to me? I wanted to lash out at whoever it was.
And there was the problem with losing Dan’s and my home. If I wanted to save it, maybe I should pay the blackmail? Putting off having Dan declared legally non compus life-os would mean my house would definitely go into foreclosure. But what if he came back and I’d done that to him? Would he be able to forgive me? Would he understand I’d done it to save our home? Would I be able to forgive myself?
Before I had a chance to make sense of it all, my friend Sue Ann chose that moment to come barging into my house.
“You didn’t knock,” I said with a sort of surly tone.
She ignored my statement of course, as she always does, because she doesn’t think knocking is necessary. Instead she stopped in her tracks and asked, “What’s wrong, Amy?”
I hadn’t realized I’d given myself away other than a slight trembling of my hand fisting the blackmail note. Then I realized tears silently streaked down my face.
It was amazing how a little detail like that could slip past me.
This was not how my life was supposed to pan out. I wasn’t quite sure yet how it was supposed to go, but this wasn’t it. “My louse of a husband has apparently been alive all this time.”
“What?” screamed Sue Ann, making a dive for the letter. Snatching it from my shaking hand wasn’t a problem for her and she quickly scanned it. “Do you think it’s likely?”
“I hadn’t really considered that. I’m still reacting to the very notion Dan’s alive and chose to skedaddle out of town.” Was it really possible he’d done this to me? My breath left me and with a whoosh I deflated back onto the sofa. “I told you I didn’t want to start the legal proceedings to have him declared officially dancing with the fishes.”
“This letter doesn’t change anything.”
“You’re wrong. It changes everything.”
“Let’s not jump to any conclusions just yet. Scooch over,” said Sue Ann, parking herself beside me. “That’s the weirdest blackmail note I’ve ever heard of. I thought they usually threaten someone missing, not threaten to prove someone’s alive.”
I wiped my tears away with the back of my hand. “It is strange.”
“We’ll get to the bottom of this,” she said reassuringly. “I just know it.”
The two of us are not much alike. Sue Ann’s blond hair is cut in one of those pixie-like bobs and her blue eyes flash with life. She’s an extrovert, sure of herself and her place in the world, certain everyone will like her and she likes them all back. She jumps into life with her limbs spread akimbo and with all the effervescence of sparkling champagne.
Me? I’m not so much like that. I have long, dark brown hair, boring grey eyes and the only flashy thing about me is the thumb drive on my computer. I’m more the hide in my office and hopefully no one will want to talk to me sort. With very good reason my favorite animal is the turtle.
Sue Ann glanced over the note again. “The way I see it is, either Dan’s alive or he’s not.”
Since she’d stated the obvious, I ignored her comment. “So why blackmail me? It’s not as though I’m rich or anything. Between the confessions and the monthly check I get from Dan’s inventions, my ends are far from meeting.” When he’d first turned up missing, the money from his inventions had been sufficient. But it had been years since any new devices were invented and accordingly my monthly income had flatlined.
One look at my house and anyone could see it desperately needed repairs, things Dan would have taken care of if he wasn’t MIA. Not only did the house need updating, it needed to have the gutters repaired, a new roof to stop the leaks and the shutters tacked back into place. Surely any blackmailer could see that if I had a spare two thousand lying around, I would have paid for a fresh coat of paint. A pale canary yellow might be nice.
“Why only two thousand dollars? Why not twenty thousand or two hundred thousand?” asked Sue Ann.
“If it’s over twenty dollars, it might as well be two million considering my budget.”
“So maybe the point isn’t blackmail.” Sue Ann, whose bangs were always about an inch too long, yanked them over her forehead. “Maybe someone’s trying to let you know, in a sneaky way, that Dan’s still around.”
I sighed, sending my sunshiny paint fantasies skittering away. “That doesn’t make sense. Why not just write an anonymous letter saying, Dan’s alive and well and living the good life in Tahiti?”
The more I thought about why the note had been sent, the more it worried me. I’d been caught up in thinking Dan was alive rather than considering the motive of the person who delivered the note.
Sue Ann leaned over to pick up the envelope. “This doesn’t have a postmark. Did someone slide it under the door or what?”
My forehead furrowed, but I quickly smoothed it out. I had enough wrinkles already, even though I hadn’t yet crossed into thirty-something territory. “That’s another weird thing. It was here, stuffed between a couple of books on my coffee table.”
“How’d it get there?”
“I have no clue.”
“When did you find it?”
“Was it there last night?”
I slowly shook my head. I couldn’t recall seeing it there, but I didn’t remember actually looking in any more than the usual cursory way. It could have been there since the last time Sue Ann cleaned the room out of desperation because I’m such a hit-and-miss housekeeper. Since then I’d barely left the house because I’d been busy writing. “I don’t know when or how it arrived, but it couldn’t have been here long since you cleaned a couple of days ago.”
“So all we know for sure is this anonymous person knows you well enough to come in your house and put it here. The blackmailer wants you to believe your husband is alive and that your mother-in-law is fully aware of this and is keeping it a secret from you.”
Put like that, I felt even shakier than when I’d first read the note.
“So, someone I know wants me to talk with Dan’s mother about whether he’s alive? There’s no way. Even if she knew he was alive, if he’d asked her to keep it quiet, the secret would go with her to the grave. She’s already one olive short of a pizza. If it’s not true, even a hint he’s still around might send her to the loony bin or putting together a séance.”
“Maybe there’s another way to find out,” said Sue Ann. There was no mistaking the devilish gleam in her eye.
“What did you have in mind?”
“She asked me to clean her place. I said I’d work her in this week.”
I didn’t know whether to roll my eyes or lock myself in the bathroom. I knew where she was going with this and it made me nervous. “Tell me you don’t have a key to her house.”
“I have a key.” She grinned malevolently. “Now before you get started, I know you don’t clean. But you do know how to search.”
“No, no, no.” Searching was a skill I acquired when I wrote a confession about being a private detective. But it wasn’t a skill I was eager to use. “You know anytime I try to do anything remotely wrong, I always get caught.”
“It’s either we snoop to find out if she knows anything or you tackle her directly. Your choice.”
“There’s got to be something else I can do. How about I go to the bank and ask for a discreet loan of two thousand bucks in unmarked bills?”
“Don’t be ridiculous. Have you called Brad yet?”
We’d known Brad Tyler, now a detective with the Independence Police, since the days when he’d been a troublemaker himself. He’d been assigned to handle Dan’s missing person case. “Wouldn’t calling the police be overreacting?”
Sue Ann pushed back her bangs again. “You received a blackmail note. Calling Brad should be the first item on your agenda, I’d think. Besides . . .”
“Yeah, yeah. I know.” How many times had she told me this? Trying to mimic her voice, I said, “Besides, he’s always had a soft spot for you.”
“Well, he does. I think if Jerome wasn’t hinting that he’s about to pop the big one, Brad would ask you out.”
“Why is it everyone knows my business long before I do?” Jerome and I didn’t have that kind of relationship yet. We were close and I knew he wanted more, but I wasn’t ready. He was a really good guy and assured me he was willing to wait for when the time was right. The idea he was about to ask me to marry him rocked me because it would change what I felt was a very comfortable and comforting friendship. A friendship that involved kissing, but not much more in the way of physical contact. His kisses were nice and I missed being touched, but I always felt as if I was cheating on my missing husband. Possibly for good reason if Dan had merely done a disappearing act. “Jerome hasn’t proposed and I think Brad’s only interested in me as a murder suspect. If he’d found Dan’s body, I’d probably be in the clinker right now.”
“No one ever mentioned anything about murder.”
“No one had to. Dan’s gone as if he evaporated in thin air. Law enforcement always looks at the spouse in any suspicious circumstances. I’m sure Brad thinks I did something.”
“Brad doesn’t think anything of the sort. You’re so clueless about men. Look at you and Dan.”
I growled. “I don’t want to talk about it.”
“It’s about time you did. You’ve been running in place all these years. And why? The two of you never had a close relationship. When he didn’t come home, it didn’t much affect your life one way or the other except you no longer had anyone to do all the household repairs or take out the trash.”
I opened my mouth to argue with her, then shut it firmly. Unfortunately, she was right in some ways. Don’t get me wrong, I loved Dan. But time had given me the chance to see that he was more like a father-figure to me rather than a typical lover. I missed the closeness, having someone to hold me, care about me. What I didn’t miss were the bits and pieces, nuts and screws, Dan’s spare parts for his inventions always cluttering up our living room. Or the inventions he’d created that didn’t quite work — like the combination coffee maker/band saw.
I recently began tossing his invention stuff into our spare room, unsure what to do with it but unwilling to part with it entirely. Over the course of the past month I’d gradually moved his belongings from our bedroom into there as well. It felt so — final.
Perhaps in addition to the foreclosure issue, the action had been what spurred me to ask Sue Ann’s husband to petition the court to declare Dan officially mortality-challenged and right now I needed to clear the air about Dan and me. “We were close. So what if our relationship wasn’t like your marriage? Dan was a wonderful man and I miss him.”
Sue Ann gave me a quick hug. “I know you do. But I still think you should call Brad. If he finds out you didn’t call him about the letter, it’ll make him suspicious — like you’ve got something to hide.”
Her comment surprised me. “You don’t think I had anything to do with Dan’s disappearance, do you?”
“Of course not. He always went to the Independence Tavern on Friday night to play chess. He always walked home when the bar closed at two in the morning. Everyone in town knew it and if anyone had wanted to harm him it would have been the best time.”
“Yeah, but who would want to hurt Dan?” The question had haunted me for years. Had Dan had an accident or had someone set out to harm him? Other than during the Neewollah Festival (aptly named with reverse spelling of the word Halloween because it celebrated, what else, All Ghouls Day — and the city population rose during the ten festival days from 10,000 to around 80,000), Independence, Kansas, isn’t exactly a crime hotbed. “It’s not like Dan was rich or cruel or anything. He was just a real sweet, harmless guy who liked to invent things. It’s no wonder Brad suspects I had something to do with it. In his shoes, I would, too, even though I don’t have a motive.”
“I’m certain he doesn’t think you had anything to do with it. But you do need to call him.” Sue Ann placed the cordless phone between my stiff fingers. “Maybe this blackmail note will make him reopen the case and find out exactly what did happen to Dan.”
I dialed 9-1-1 and Peggy picked up on the first ring. Things rarely hopped this time of year at the Independence Police Department. Although they received plenty of calls, most were minor incidents such as dog bites, rather than true emergencies.
“Hi, it’s Amy Crosby. Is Brad available?”
“No, hon. He’s over at the diner. But if it’s an emergency . . .” Her voice trailed off and I could tell she was hoping I’d say it was.
Sue Ann piped in. “Tell Peggy it’s an emergency.”
When I heard the excitement in Peggy’s indrawn breath, I did what I could to dispel it — I laughed. “Peggy, this is not an emergency. Don’t listen to Sue Ann. Just have Brad call me when he gets a chance.”
After disconnecting the call, I threw the phone at Sue Ann who deftly caught it with one hand.
“You know better than to tell Peggy it’s an emergency,” I grumbled. “It’s like broadcasting it over the radio. She’ll blab everything to Maureen down at the Clip ‘n Curl.”
Sue Ann smirked. “You think this won’t get out? Better we have the law on our side than the other way around.”
“I suppose you’re right,” I said grudgingly. “And you’d better tell your husband to withdraw that petition. No use having Dan declared awake to life immortal if he simply walked away.”
Just then the phone rang and my new psychic ability told me Peggy hadn’t listened when I told her to wait. I grabbed the phone from Sue Ann’s lap and answered it.
“What’s the emergency?” Brad sounded annoyed, as if he thought I was the sort of woman who overreacted — just as I’d told Sue Ann.
“I gave Peggy explicit instructions not to tell you it’s an emergency.”
“Now that you’ve interrupted my lunch,” he teased, “you might as well tell me what you called about.”
“I thought we’d established I hadn’t interrupted you. Peggy did.”
He gave a long-suffering sigh. “Amy, will you get to the point, please?”
“All right, already.” How did you go about telling the law, even if he was an old friend, that you were being blackmailed? Did you build up to it or blurt it out? “I received a letter today.”
“Well, an anonymous note, actually.”
“And you want to report receiving an unsigned note?”
Again he sighed. “Is it a death threat?”
“No. It’s more like — eh — blackmail.” I didn’t relish the way my voice squeaked. Sue Ann grabbed my hand and gave it a little squeeze, providing me with the courage to go on. “Or at least that’s what it says. Sue Ann and I aren’t sure that’s the intent.”
“You guys are getting your fingerprints all over it, aren’t you?” he snapped.
Dropping Sue Ann’s hand, I tossed my head. “Generally you pick up a letter in order to read it. It’s not like I wear gloves when going through my daily mail.”
“Just put the letter in a plastic bag. If there’s an envelope, toss it in as well. It’ll take me five minutes to finish up here and then I’ll head over to your place. You are at your place?”
“Duh. You just called me here.”
“Stay there. Don’t let anyone else in and don’t handle the letter more than you have to. Got it?”
The man was far too bossy for my tastes. “Got it.”
After disconnecting the call, I said to Sue Ann, “He should be here in about fifteen minutes and I need to grab a quick shower first.”
“What did he say?”
“Fingerprints.” Sue Ann hightailed it to the kitchen. After a few seconds of sounds of drawers and cabinets being opened, she yelled, “Where’s your plastic bags?”
“Like I buy any?”
More rumbling noises, then she returned with a plastic Wonder Bread wrapper and my bacon tongs. Using the tongs, she gingerly slid both letter and envelope into the wrapper. “There. I need to head over to Mrs. Henderson’s, so I’ll leave you to your shower. Want me to make you some tea first?”
My gaze shot to the shelves in my living room. The ones Dan designed to hold my teacups when we first got married. I shook my head. “That’s okay.”
She grabbed her handbag. “When I get done cleaning Mrs. Henderson’s, you can go with me to your mother-in-law’s and tell me what Brad has to say.”
Bowing to the inevitable, I agreed to go with her to Dolores’s. Somehow I had to find out if Dan was still alive. Besides, this gave me an idea for another confession: I Was A Professional Snoop Until I Found My Cheatin’ Husband With Another Woman.