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DEATH OF A LOVER

David Bruce Bozarth



"You sure this is the right place?"

"Yep," Duncan Anderson, private investigator, replied. A conversationalist he was not; though the big man's words were generally direct and to the point.

"Sandy can't be here," I pointed to a tarnished brass plate bolted to the cracked brick facade of the old brownstone. "This is a home for battered women."

"She's here, Mr. Bracket. Still want to see her?" At my nod Duncan sighed. "You're sure?" he asked again.

Anderson's inquiry was uncharacteristic. In the few weeks I'd dealt with his agency I'd usually found Duncan Anderson to be tacit and unemotional. For a moment I was startled by the hesitancy.

"I've very sure, Anderson. You know how long I've been searching for her. I can't stop now." I pushed past the silent investigator into the lobby of the ancient three-story tenement.

A beat-up desk, occupied by a middle-aged woman who appeared as nearly mistreated, sat to the left of the entrance. Her narrowed eyes and clamped lips displayed the depth of her welcome, which is to say that nothing would please her more if we turned and went back where we came from. On the opposite side of the lobby was a pay phone, used by a quietly sobbing young woman with an infant clutched to her breast. She turned away, but not before I caught a glimpse of distrust and a hint of fear in her red-rimmed eyes; very unsettling if you happen to be the apparent cause of such emotions.

"I'd like to see Sandy Jakes," I told the wary woman at the desk. "I know she's here, though I can't imagine why—"

Her acidic reply set my teeth on edge. "If you don't know then you probably don't need to see her. Who are you?"

"I'm Philip Bracket. Sandy and I were very close until she vanished from sight. I've been searching for months. How is she?"

"She'll be all right if she's just left alone..." The woman's manner was irritating and suspicious. I took a sudden and intense dislike toward her hardened and unforgiving attitude.

I made an effort to keep my voice reasonable. "Please tell Sandy I'm here. We'll let her decide if she wants to see me or not. Okay?"

She narrowed her eyes to thin slits, then stood. "Sure, why not. Wait here."

After the hard-nosed lady left the lobby the young woman at the phone hung up in mid-sentence and rushed out. Anderson nodded toward the direction of her fading footsteps. "Must be one of the new ones," he muttered. There was a sad bitterness in his voice.

"Nice place, Duncan," I scowled at the faded curtains, the poorly mended furniture, the worn carpet runners across the floor. "What's Sandy doing in a dump like this?"

"What's wrong with it?" he asked, his tone cool. "These places usually run on a budget of promises and goodwill—not cash. Besides which," he added enigmatically, "where else could she go? Why don't we let Mrs. Prentiss explain herself—if she'll see you." Anderson kicked at a loose piece of cracked linoleum.

"Sandy isn't married," I said. "Her name is 'Jakes'."

"Jakes is her maiden name, Mr. Bracket." The big man tugged at his ear, a deep frown puckering his brow. "It's not too late to leave. There's a lot you don't know about this lady. Believe me, you really don't want to pursue this."

"You're full of it, Anderson," I growled. Before I could question him further, the middle-aged harpy returned. The look she gave me should have been reserved for convicted axe-murderers, not me, Philip Bracket, accountant.

"Sandy turned pale as a ghost, but she said okay. Come with me." The woman crooked a finger, beckoning us to follow.

She led us through a colonnaded hallway that opened on several large rooms and a dining area. Eventually we came to a flight of stairs. At this point she gave instructions. "Second floor, then left, third door — and wipe your feet." The last crack was unnecessary, it only revealed her low opinion of men.

I hesitated slightly before curling my knuckles to rap firmly on the peeling paint of the wooden door. The panel opened a few inches; pale blue eyes timidly examined me.

"Philip—" she breathed, opening the door. The relief expressed in her eyes seemed curiously centered around the fact that she apparently expected someone other than me, someone she dreaded; it was not a welcoming gesture.

"Sandy! I'm so glad I found you!" I started to embrace her, but Sandy pulled back, staring at Duncan Anderson with wide eyes. "What is he doing here?"

I completely missed the emphasis in the statement, too happy to find her at last. "I got desperate, Sandy. When I couldn't find you I hired Mr. Anderson. He's a private detective."

Sandy made a futile attempt to smooth her blonde hair; haphazardly pinned back with golden wisps trailing the curve of her throat. I saw dark hollows under her eyes and noticed an unremembered scar puckering the pale skin near her temple. Her worn yellow cotton housecoat was clenched together with trembling hands.

She deliberately ignored Duncan Anderson, facing me with a weary sigh. "This is crazy, Philip. Why couldn't you just forget me? It would have been so much easier."

"Can we talk inside?" I felt self-conscious standing in the narrow hallway.

Sandy squeezed her eyes shut, compressing her lips uncertainly. Then she stepped back, turning into the single room apartment without bothering to see if I followed. Duncan muttered something about waiting outside, but Sandy spun about and stopped him with an abrupt rush of words.

"Come in, Mr. Anderson. I insist."

I wasn't sure who was more surprised, the investigator or myself. I certainly wasn't pleased when Duncan Anderson gingerly settled his great bulk in the straight back chair by the dingy window. Sandy led me to the folded sofa bed, rumpled sheets still piled on a cushion. She dumped the linen behind the couch and sat down.

"Can I offer you something to drink? Coffee? Tea?" Sandy stalled for time, striving to still the tremors of her nervous hands. This was not the carefree, confident Sandy Jakes I'd fallen in love with.

"I don't want anything," I said. Anderson politely declined in silence, watching us.

I looked away from the big man and leaned toward Sandy. "What are you doing here? Why did you take off so mysteriously?" I rushed my words, heart bursting because of her nearness.

Sandy sat on the edge of the couch, casting quick glances from her hands, knotted and twisting in her lap, to me. This went on for several eternities. She finally cleared her throat, stared at me, determined to speak.

"Why did you come looking for me, Philip?"

I frowned, confused. "Isn't it obvious? I love you."

"I don't want your love," she said, weary unto death. In a gentle voice she said, "Get out of my life, Philip Bracket. Leave me alone."

My face flushed crimson. "After all the plans we made? You owe me an explanation, Sandy."

"I don't owe you anything, Philip!" The weariness, the repressed fear and hostility boiled out of her like fire ants from a disturbed mound. "If Anderson wasn't so good at his job—"

Duncan squirmed uncomfortably under Sandy's cold glare. His deep baritone echoed ominiously in the tiny room. "I went looking for a Sandy Jakes," he told her. "If I'd known Sandy Jakes and Sandra Prentiss were one and the same, I wouldn't have taken the job. I think you know that."

"What's this?" I cried. "Do you know each other?"

Sandy ignored me, intent on Anderson. "I believe you because...but it doesn't matter anymore, does it?" She turned to me. "Philip, you must go away and never see me again."

"What are you talking about?" I felt a coldness gripping my guts, I couldn't breathe.

"I don't want you to get hurt," she said, biting her lip.

I was puzzled by the remorse and regret she displayed, and infinitely more confused by the little something existing between her and the powerfully built detective. But I loved Sandy Jakes and I would not be turned away so easily. "Look, darling, if it's something about—"

She cut me off; quickly, efficiently. "You know nothing about me, Philip. I'm trouble. I'm bad for you."

"I can't believe that; not when I feel what I do just by being with you again."

Moisture gathered in her eyes. Sandy avoided my out-stretched hand as she faced the silent detective sitting by the window. "Why didn't you tell him?" she demanded of Anderson. "Why bring him into this mess?"

Anderson looked out the window, scratching the back of his neck. "I told you I came after a Sandy Jakes. By the time I knew it was you, it was too late. Bracket had enough reports from me to find you on his own. I thought it best to be here when you told him."

Sandy stiffened, her face became haunted, as if she faced an unpleasant memory. I was beginning to dislike being the outsider. "Tell me what?" I demanded.

Anderson fixed an unyielding gaze on me, his voice as unemotional as ever. "In situations like this it's often best for the client to meet it head on and get it over with." With a sour growl he added, "You wouldn't have believed me anyway."

"What's going on?" I fought to keep my temper. It felt like cat and mouse, and I never was a patient mouse.

Sandy stifled a sob, wiping tears from her eyes. "I want you to listen to me, Philip. Anderson's right, it's better we end this now."

The chill became a lump of ice. Sandy averted her eyes so she wasn't looking directly at me, but she didn't look at Anderson either. I don't know what her eyes focused on, but it wasn't inside the tiny room, and it scared the hell out of her.

Her voice shuddered. "I'm not who you think I am, Philip. You made the plans, not me. I couldn't, you see, because I was married at the time. I never told you and you never asked — no," she apologized quickly, "that's a poor excuse. What you were to me was a pleasant playmate, someone I could see when my husband was away."

"If that's what's worrying you," I began, "then it's in the past. It's obvious that part of your life is over." I felt the blood warming again, relief flooding me. "We can work things out."

"Stop it!" she cried, vexed and impatient with me. "You weren't the only one, Philip. There were others. A lot of others!"

The admission was painful for us both. I must have shown my brief revulsion; she reeled as if struck. I was hurt, and it came out in ill-considered words.

"If that's the case, why live here instead of with one of your boy friends?"

"Because I'm scared to death, you stupid idiot!" Sandy covered her face, abruptly breaking down. I'd expected anger, not hysteria. I had an urge to take her in my arms, but I was too shocked to make the effort.

Anderson's gravelly voice drew my attention. "That's enough, Bracket." He stood, his large form obscuring most of the light attempting to pass through the dirty window. "I don't know what planet you call home, but you had to be in outer space to miss all the publicity at the trial. That's why I didn't make the connection about Mrs. Prentiss until it was too late."

Anderson moved away from the window, pacing toward the door, then turning. His hard-boned hands jammed into his trousers and I heard the jingle of change and keys mix together. The investigator narrowed his eyes and when he spoke, I felt compelled to listen.

"Paul Prentiss, Sandy's recent ex, returned one Saturday night and caught her in bed with another man. Prentiss had an argument with young Jason Morgan, followed by a fight in which Prentiss brutally beat Morgan to death with his bare hands. Prentiss then assaulted Sandy, who narrowly escaped the same fate because the police, summoned by concerned neighbors, finally arrived at the house.

"The murder trial lasted several weeks and Paul Prentiss was convicted of man-slaughter. He was sentenced to ten years imprisonment because of the excessive violence involved. He's up for parole in seven months." Anderson removed his massive hands from his pockets and made a sympathetic gesture. "I'm sorry for you both."

Sandy's pleading came on the tail of Duncan's speech. "Can't you see, Philip? Paul will come after me when he gets out. He'll kill you just like he killed Jason. I can't live with that. One man's death is too much for me to bear. He's a crazy man, Philip. He laughed while he did it—he laughed!"

She stared with sightless eyes, reliving past horror. "I tried to stop him," she said, rubbing the scar on her temple. "He gave me this..."

My belated chivalry filled me. "I'll protect you! He'll never harm you again—"

"Sure!" Sandy almost sneered. "You and who else? You just don't know how cruel and unforgiving Paul can be. But that's not the worst of it, Philip." She turned away, shoulders tight, arms hugging herself. "I hated being Paul's possession so much I started seeing other men. I know you won't understand this, Philip, but I discovered I truly like the variety. I could never stay with one man. I won't even try. So, please, get out of my life before we hurt each other!"

"You can't mean that!" The bottom dropped away. I clutched at her, hoping for anchorage. Sandy pushed me away, eyes flashing.

"Can't you understand English?" she exclaimed. "Leave me alone!"

Sandy twisted away when I reached for her. She jumped up from the couch and I followed, until Anderson laid a huge hand on my collar. He yanked my arm behind me, holding me effortlessly.

"Don't," Duncan cautioned when I tried to shake him off. "I'd hate to hurt you, Mr. Bracket. Think about it for a minute. You'll see she's right."

I made another attempt to free myself, but the detective pulled my wrist higher and harder; my arm shouted with pain. Struggling with Duncan Anderson was like wrestling with the Pittsburgh Steelers' defensive line.

He maintained his grip and, looking over my shoulder, spoke directly to Sandy. "I never thought I'd have the opportunity to thank you for what you did, Mrs. Prentiss. I owe you and now I can do something about that. Reach into the inside right pocket of my jacket, Mrs. Prentiss. Take it. Use it anyway you want. I wish you luck."

Sandy cautiously approached, then pulled a thick number ten envelope from Anderson's coat. She looked at the contents, which I could not see, then stared at the private investigator with a bewildered expression. "I don't understand—" she began.

Anderson shook his head. "Let's just say it's from Philip and me. You know my reason for wanting you to have that; Philip will just have to find one of his own. If you'll open the door, we'll be going."

Duncan's voice, close to my ear, said, "Say goodbye politely. Keep it nice, Mr. Bracket, and keep it brief—and if you give me any trouble on the way out, I'll break your arm. Got it?"

I was so furious I couldn't speak. I glared at Sandy, finding only a bitter sympathy from her. Duncan ushered me out when I remained silent. He manhandled me all the way to the street before he released me. I saw the instant warning in his eyes. If I turned to go back, he'd carry out his threat. I could wait. I knew where Sandy lived...

"Let's have lunch, Mr. Bracket." It wasn't an invitation.

Fifteen minutes later we were six blocks away, giving menu selections to a bored waitress. A half hour passed before Anderson broke the silence.

"Don't try to find her," he said, voice tired and empty.

I couldn't resist it. "I know where she is."

"Already gone," the big man said without malice. "Probably on a plane heading someplace out of state."

"You bastard!" I was halfway out of the seat before Anderson's heavy hand thumped me back into the booth's age-fractured vinyl.

"You're the last person Sandy Prentiss needs in her life. After you hear what I have to say, you'll realize that goes for you, too. I know Paul Prentiss. He's a vicious, narrow-minded son-of-a-bitch. He'd kill you without blinking, and probably Sandy this time around."

"There must be a way of dealing with him," I said. "Surely the law will protect..."

"What good is the law to a dead person?" Anderson was deliberately rude. He leaned forward, the weight of his upper body making the table groan. "It doesn't matter now, Mr. Bracket, she's gone. The lady's pretty smart for most part, even if she does have a insatiable appetite for men."

"Calling her a slut won't change the way I feel about her," I said. I firmly believed that. "I'll find Sandy. I'll help her."

"I've already given that woman all the help she needs from you or anyone. As of our exit from her room Sandy Prentiss is dead and a new girl is out there, somewhere, finding a life for herself."

Tears of frustration blurred my vision. "Why are you doing this? What did you give her?"

"I'll be straight with you, Mr. Bracket, because I like you. I owed her." His harshness, caused by the words regarding Paul Prentiss, slowly faded from his voice. He stared at the remains of his beer several moments before continuing.

"The envelope contained an airline ticket, paid to any destination within the United States. I also gave her ten one-hundred dollar bills, enough cash to give somebody on the run a chance to find a place to hide and start over. If you love her, as you claim, you'll wish Sandy Jakes-Prentiss the best of luck and never try to find her."

"Why?" I asked, choking on Duncan's interference and Sandy's rejection.

The detective lowered his gaze, unable to meet mine. The suspicion building in me bore bitter fruit and it suddenly made sense. The anger swelled high as I pointed an accusing finger.

"You were one of her lovers!" I rose from the booth.

My outburst drew unwelcome attention from nearby diners. Anderson calmly told me to sit down, "Before I kick out your kneecap," he added.

I sat.

Anderson glared at the curious until we were suddenly and completely ignored. He looked at me, eyes hard, debating with himself. With a sigh as huge as his body, Duncan Anderson confided in me.

"Jason Morgan was a young kid always in trouble. Sandy met him, took him under her wing—and into her bed—and he fell for her in a big way. She got Jason off drugs and back in college. I suppose she re-motivated Jason, because he took a new interest in life, but she couldn't give him up. I suppose, in her own way, she loved Jason Morgan as I'm sure she loved you—still loves you.

"But one Saturday night Paul Prentiss found them together. You know the rest. You want to know my connection? Jason Morgan was my nephew."

Anderson leaned back in the booth, his head tilted toward the grimy ceiling. "There's laws against me killing that slimy son-of-a-bitch. I dream about doing to him what he did to my sister's kid—"

I felt chilled as I witnessed the murderous look in the man's eyes. At that moment I thanked God I wasn't Paul Prentiss. Anderson looked at me sharply, tapping his calloused finger on the formica table. A malevolent grin creased his weathered features.

"There's nothing in the book that says I can't help the object of his sick obsession disappear. I helped Sandy leave out of a sense of revenge. You'll let her go because you love her."

My shoulders drooped in anguish. I chewed the inside of my lip to keep from crying. When I raised my eyes, I saw Duncan staring moodily at his empty glass.

"Anderson?"

"Yeah, Mr. Bracket?"

"Join me in a toast to Sandy's safe journey?"

"Yeah," a faint smile eased the darkness of his thoughts. "Let's get good and drunk. I'm buying."

-30-