The writer chuckled with satisfaction as the plain white envelope with block print slid through the mail slot. It’s her turn to wonder, her turn to feel helpless.
“What a great day to be alive!” Shelby Randall’s laughter followed her as she strolled along the asphalt, greeting passersby with a cheerful nod. No blue Monday this week.
Her job as bookkeeper at Dillon’s hardware store was finished for the day. After being cooped up inside, she relished being outdoors, always her favorite place to be. Fluffy clouds drifted across blue skies, a balmy breeze ruffled the newly opened leaves on the maples that marched along the roadway. Even after nearly five years in Crawfordville, she cherished springtime in the North Carolina mountains. She’d never stayed this long in one place and hadn’t expected to settle here either. It had been just one more stopgap in a lifetime of them.
At forty-seven, she was comfortable in her skin. She always had been although there had been some hazy moments in her life. Still, it was good to feel settled. Life couldn’t be better.
Pulling open the mailbox at the end of her driveway, she hummed as she shuffled through a stack of mail. Junk as always. She had been many things to many people, but the name Shelby Randall didn’t exist in any address book.
“Ah, what’s this?” she wondered aloud as she entered the wood framed house that had become home. A plain white envelope addressed to her in bold block print stood out among the advertisements.
She settled into the sagging leather chair that dominated the living room and propped her feet on an equally worn ottoman. Inside the envelope was a single, folded page from a lined tablet.
Do you remember the summer of 1995? Did
you really think you had covered your tracks?
You didn’t. I’m coming after you.
She frowned at the postmark. Boston. Was it ’95 when she spent the summer in the northeast? It must have been.
Her thoughts slipped back in time and she again heard the burglar alarm blasting as the rock slammed through the pawnshop window. When she crawled through the window, there he stood, a little pipsqueak of a man with rimless spectacles perched on the end of his nose. She almost regretted jabbing the knife into his belly. It was his fault. He shouldn’t have threatened her.
She’d barely had time to grab a few rings before she heard the sirens. Escape was possible only because she sprinted through alleys, sometimes blinded by the long blonde hair that whipped around her face. Her college days of running track had saved her skin that night, as it had many times before and since. A brief smile crossed her face. Those rings had kept her in good pot for weeks. Who could ask for more?
But why write a letter after all these years? Surely, that six-inch knife hadn’t done much damage. Besides, how could he know her name? This name?
It was probably somebody’s idea of a practical joke. Somebody who thought she was too stand-offish maybe—for the most part she kept to herself—and who had friends in Boston. She dropped the letter into the wastebasket. Life was too good to let it bother her. She settled down to watch an evening of Cold Case File reruns. She never tired of seeing criminals get caught, and, in fact, their stupidity usually made her laugh.
Late the next day, Shelby finished punching figures into the calculator and hit the total key. Good. The columns balanced, always a satisfying way to end a workday.
Outside the hardware store, she stretched her aching neck muscles. An ominous cloud peeked above the horizon in the western sky. Farmers would appreciate some rain, but it only gave her a nagging headache.
She started homeward, her long stride easily covering the few blocks to her driveway. There, she pulled another bunch of advertisements from the mail. And another plain white envelope with her name and address in block print.
She frowned. Two days in a row? Somebody must have too much time on his hands. She ignored the fleeting unease that nibbled at the edges of her mind.
Inside the living room, she dropped into the leather chair and peered at the dim postmark. Fishkill, New York.
Did you actually believe I wouldn’t identify
you someday? There’s no statute of limitations
for what you did. You won’t escape justice.
I’ll see to that in my own way.
Her heart lurched, then slowly settled into its regular rhythm.
She remembered Fishkill as a small town with a small bank. It had been easy to strike up a conversation with the security guard at the bar across the street and just as easy to get him talking about his job. It had been harder to steal the key from his jacket pocket after he’d bragged about it being the key to great riches. She’d excused herself to go to the ladies’ room, and then ran half a block, made a duplicate, and slipped the original back into his pocket before he’d finished his beer.
The rest had been easy, too, but to no avail. Not one dime had been left lying loose. Didn’t those people even keep coffee money in their desks?
She gripped the letter in one white-knuckled fist as she remembered the security guard with suspenders holding up his baggy jeans. Had the elderly man been badly hurt? Surely, she’d only stunned him with his nightstick. Besides, it was his fault. He shouldn’t have altered his routine that night after she’d spent several nights watching through a back alley window.
She gazed at the envelope in puzzlement. Maybe this wasn’t a practical joke at all. Yet how could any one person know about both the burglary at the pawnshop in Boston and the attempted bank robbery in Fishkill?
She grappled with that question while she zapped frozen lasagna in the microwave and methodically shoveled it into her mouth. No answer came. Her fingers pressed the muscle that jumped in her temple. Three aspirin and a night’s sleep ought to take care of her headache.
A distant rumble of thunder woke her at dawn, and she considered keeping her throbbing head at home, but she couldn’t. It was Wednesday, the day she must face the auditor. Everything was in order, of course. She wasn’t stupid.
With the auditor satisfied, she made her excuses and left work early. Striding home under the darkening sky, she cringed with every roll of thunder.
Her footsteps slowed as she neared her driveway. Holding her breath, she eyed the mailbox. Surely not another one.
She was wrong. It was there—the plain white envelope, the block print, postmarked Richmond, Virginia.
The frantic barking of a dog running down the road galvanized her into action, and she ran indoors. Maybe she’d wait until after supper to read it. No, she would deal with it now. Still she hesitated, the envelope clutched in her shaking hand. This is ridiculous. Open it!
Your day of judgment is at hand. Are you
ready? I’m coming after you.
The words jumped off the paper, darted through her widened eyes, and burned themselves into her brain. This made three, she reflected when her brain started functioning again. Should she call the police? No, they’d ask questions she didn’t want to answer. She’d never seen the inside of a jail and didn’t intend to start now.
She thought back to that long ago summer when she’d left the northeast traveling south. Had she stopped in Richmond? Yes, she had.
Her old MG speeding through the quiet neighborhood . . . the Golden Retriever . . . the thud when she dodged the terrified child. It wasn’t her fault. It was either hit the dog or hit the child. What choice did she have?
She had washed the blood off the car that night using the hose at an empty house several miles away. The following morning, she had deliberately run the car into a muddy ditch. The mechanic hadn’t raised an eyebrow, but she’d had to hock a ring to pay the costs.
A chill crawled up her spine. Someone was retracing her steps of that ’90s summer. Who? Why that particular summer and those particular towns? She had left her mark behind in several places during those halcyon summer days, as well as other summers and winters.
The questions gave sharp little bites around the edges of her mind, bites that grew sharper throughout the long night. Clutching her throbbing head, she listened to the ominous sound of thunder coming closer, ever closer. No way could she go to work. She called the store, then swallowed more aspirin – what she wouldn’t give for something stronger – and went to bed, but not to sleep.
She wished the storm would break and get it over with, then at least her headache would go away. She rolled out of bed and paced the floor, the threatening words of the letters battering her brain with each step. Her heart seemed to bounce around, climbing into her throat, thudding into her belly. Had the mail come yet?
She slid the squeaky dead bolt and eased open the door. Was someone hiding behind the shrubs, ready to grab her when she stepped outside? She slammed the door, her breath coming in short gasps. When she stopped shaking, she walked from room to room, peering through the blinds. She couldn’t see anybody, so maybe if she hurried . . .
The wind left a low moaning sound when it passed through the trees. Death rode on this kind of wind. She shoved the thought away and searched the mailbox. At first, she thought it was empty, but she groped all the way to the back. There it was.
The plain white envelope. The block print. The postmark: Charlotte. Oh so close.
She shuffled back to the house, the letter stretched as far ahead as her arm would reach. She was hardly aware of locking the door before she walked, stiff-legged, into the kitchen. Perched on the edge of a ladder-back chair, she stared at the envelope for an eternity. Or was it only seconds?
With deliberate care, she tapped the letter into one end of the envelope, then, bit by tiny bit, she tore off the other end and slowly extracted and unfolded the single sheet of lined paper.
The grim reaper is upon you!
She dropped the paper on the table. A cobra coiled to strike wouldn’t have been more deadly.
Charlotte. But it wasn’t murder, not really. It was a drug deal gone wrong. If she had lain there in the puddle of blood, he wouldn’t have cared. He would’ve left her there, like she left him.
She thought she’d covered her tracks over the years, even changed her name and her lifestyle many times. Still, someone had found her, had caught up with her at last. Depression hovered like a cloud around her slumped shoulders. Which one was it, she wondered, and fought the numbness that settled in her brain.
The pawnshop owner?
The bank security guard?
The dog’s owner?
The drug dealer?
He was gaining on her, a meat cleaver clutched in his fist, a look of evil on his face. She put on a burst of speed and watched the pawnbroker fall behind. She didn’t have time to relax though. Ahead of her, the bank guard swung a baseball bat that brushed her hair as she ducked into the security of the MG. Her foot pushed the accelerator to the floorboard even as her hands pushed the steering wheel to go faster. She gasped in horror when a dog splattered against the windshield. Leaving the car in gear, she flung herself into the street and ran. Heart pounding, lungs pumping, her steps lagged as the man with blood spurting from a hole in his chest grabbed her long blonde hair. One yank and he had her in his grasp.
A scream woke her, jerking her upright at the kitchen table where she had sprawled through the night, too numb to propel herself up the stairs to bed.
She glanced frantically around, but there was no one there. Her breathing slowed, but the nightmare clung to the edges of her mind like long thin fingers of fog.
She hadn’t meant to hurt anybody, she whimpered to whatever gods might be listening. If they’d left her alone, everything would have been okay. It was their fault, every bit of it, she assured those gods. She was the one suffering though. Not fair, she ranted. Not fair at all.
Shudders rolled down her spine matching the rolls of thunder that made her grip her throbbing head. She had to do payroll today, then it was time to move on. After collecting her paycheck, she would clear her safety deposit box, and hit the road once more. She looked at the refrigerator, but didn’t open it. She didn’t remember when she last ate, but the thought of food made sour bile rise in her throat.
Staring out the window at a world that had turned metallic gray, she waited for the mail. This mind-numbing suspense had to stop. Apparently, her urgency traveled on the rising wind because the mail van rounded the curve and slowed.
It didn’t stop. The mail van didn’t stop! Or had she turned away? Or blinked? She set her teeth against the bile that threatened to overflow. As soon as the van rounded a curve out of sight, she hurried to the box and thrust her hand inside. Nothing.
She slid her hand over every inch, all the way to the rear and back again. Up the sides and across the top. No plain white envelope with block print.
Giddy with relief, she laughed hysterically and ran back to the house. Electricity filled the air and flickering blue light lit the gray sky, but neither disturbed her happiness. Sinking into the old leather chair, she laid her head against its back. Why had she been so worried? Somebody had been playing tricks on her, that was all. Nobody from her past could possibly find her in this small out-of-the-way town. In relief, her eyelids closed and she dozed.
She bolted upright. Thunder? No. Somebody pounded on the door. It was a neighbor, she assured herself as she stood on trembling legs with her hand on the knob. Or someone with car trouble needing to use the phone. Or someone caught in the rain and needing shelter. All perfectly innocent.
Don’t be a fool, she muttered, and flung open the door.
“I’ve come, Mother dear.”
Stung by the biting sarcasm, Shelby Randall stared in disbelief. Is this what those letters were all about? Not the pawnbroker, not the security guard, not the dog owner, not the drug dealer. It was only this thin young woman calling her mother. Shelby slumped with relief. All her fears had been for nothing. All the gut-wrenching terror she’d gone through this week had been for nothing. All she had to do was explain and this nightmare would be over.
She didn’t have the chance.
“Goodbye, Mother dear.”
A loud clap of thunder broke directly overhead as the young woman drew her hand from the pocket of her bedraggled raincoat, and fired a .38 slug into Shelby Randall’s heart. She nodded in satisfaction while blood seeped through her mother’s blouse. She stepped across the crumpled body and went in search of a phone.
“She had it coming,” the woman told the police chief a short while later in Shelby Randall’s living room.
“Had it coming? Maybe you’d better explain that.” In all his years in police work, Mike Williams had never seen a murderer so calm, so matter-of-fact as this young woman lounging in an ancient, sagging leather chair.
“She gave me away. Didn’t want a baby messing up her life. Left me with strangers. Strangers who beat me. Made a slave out of me.” The choppy sentences notwithstanding, she spoke in even tones. “So, you see, it was her own fault. And it’s not like I didn’t give her fair warning because I did.”
“Fair warning,” he repeated after her, a ballpoint gripped in his fingers. “In what way did you warn her?”
She told him about the letters. “She could’ve left town. Wouldn’t have done any good, though, and I guess she knew it. I would’ve followed her to the ends of the earth.”
“Let me get this straight.” Williams checked his notes. “You mailed four letters, one day apart. Right? Boston, somewhere in New York, Richmond, and Charlotte. Did you search for your mother in those cities?”
“No, I just happened to stop there.” A sly smile crossed the young woman’s face. “I thumbed, and dallied along the way.”
“But why four letters? Why not simply come?”
“I wanted her in terror when I found her.”
The policeman made a note on the pad in front of him. “Can you be sure you found the right Shelby Randall? Both are common names. How did you find her?”
“When the woman who raised me died a few weeks ago, I found papers in her safety deposit box. They included the name of my mother and my birthplace. Finding Shelby Randall was simple after that. There’s only one other woman with that name listed in phone books in this state. She’s too young, so I came here. Funny thing is, I lived a few miles from here, Asheville, until I was seven.”
“But she could have married, or moved away.”
“Did you ask her? If she’d given a child for adoption, I mean.”
“I didn’t need to ask.” Her confidence was supreme. “She was my mother all right.”
“Impossible!” The medical examiner strode through the open doorway and repeated himself. “Impossible. Shelby Randall was a man.”