Chapter 23: Mark and Jamie Westbrook — by Nichole R. Bennett

Jamie sat on the bed, leaning against the headrest. Her legs were pulled tightly to her chest and she could almost rest her chin on her knees. Mark made her nervous with his agitated back and forth pacing around the room.

Mark’s footsteps filled the room with a steady rhythm that didn’t comfort or console Jamie. With every step, Jamie found it more difficult to think and the walls seemed to close in a little more. Tension had been building since the cops showed up and now it was like a tangible thing in the middle of the room.

“Maybe the family in Minnesota doesn’t know the girl here is dead.” Talking might ease some of the tension, might lighten the mood enough to let her think.

Mark didn’t respond. He just kept pacing, bringing the walls closer still.

Jamie had to try again. “I still think we can salvage something out of this.”

Mark stopped and turned to face her. “Are you really that stupid?”

Flabbergasted, she pulled her legs tighter to her chest.

She assumed Mark would resume his pacing. Instead, he just stared at her. “I asked you if you were stupid.” His voice had a bite to it that reminded Jamie of a snake. The “sss” sound slithering into her ears and causing her to shiver with trepidation. Looking into his eyes, she wondered when the kindness and patience she used to see had been replaced with hatred and distrust.

Changing the subject she asked, “Let’s go get a drink.” Maybe alcohol would defuse the situation.

“No,” the venom in Mark’s voice didn’t lessen. “You’re an idiot. The longer we stay here, the greater our chances of screwing this up.”

“We aren’t going to mess this up.” Jamie rose from the bed and took a cautious step toward him.

“You’ve already messed this up. There’s no reason we should even be here.” He took a step toward her. “Don’t you know when to let it go?”

Jamie stepped closer to Mark. “But we can’t leave now. The cops have already been here once. They know we’re in town.” The logic was sound, but saying the words caused a lump to form in the pit of her stomach.

“Also your fault.” His voice got louder with each word.

She wanted to remind him that running the stop sign wasn’t her fault. Mark had been driving. Bringing that up, however, would not have defused the situation. Instead of adding fuel to the fire, she groveled. In an effort to make her words comforting, she closed the gap between the two, wrapping her arms around him as she spoke. “I’m sorry. If I would have known—”

He pushed her away. “You should have thought this thing through. Use your damn head.”

The push surprised her almost as much as the tone of his voice. “I couldn’t foresee the little girl dying. Could you?”

Mark didn’t answer. Instead, she could see his jaw muscles tense as he clenched his teeth. She was surprised that he didn’t answer. Maybe he’s just so angry that I would even ask such a question.

“So what do you think we should do?” Jamie made her voice low and smokey, hoping to take the edge off Mark’s anger. “I really should have listened to you.”

“This is your mess!”

Jamie stared at him. Changing the subject hadn’t worked. Trying to agree with him hadn’t worked. She couldn’t take anymore. “This. Isn’t. My. Fault.” She spit the words out, hoping that each word would sink into Mark’s brain like a dagger.

“Who’s fault do you think it is?” he spit back.

“I don’t know, but it isn’t mine.” Her anger was getting the best of her, causing her to match Mark’s volume.

Mark took a step toward her. Jamie took a step back, her legs hitting the edge of the bed.

“You really are an idiot aren’t you?”

“Don’t call me that!”

Suddenly feeling claustrophobic, she stepped to her right in an effort to move past the stranger who had taken over Mark’s body. Instead of passing him by, she accidentally stepped on his foot.

That was enough to push Mark over the edge. He raised his arm, hand balled into a fist. As punch flew forward Jamie ducked, squeezing her eyes shut as she did.

Expecting pain, the crack that followed surprised her. She opened her eyes in time to see Mark remove his fist from a newly formed dent in the wall. The divot wasn’t large enough for Jamie to consider it a hole, but the wall was no longer smooth, either.

Jamie looked at Mark and, for the first time since meeting him, was afraid for her safety. Not knowing what else to do, she ran to the bathroom and locked the door.

Leaning against the door, she slid to the floor as the tears slid down her cheeks.

***

Crap. Everything was falling apart.

With every fiber in his being, Mark Westbrook wanted to punch something. Or someone. But he wouldn’t. Instead, using every ounce of willpower he could summon, Mark stormed out of the room at the Rubicon Ranch Bed and Breakfast.

Never had a con been this screwed up. Nothing was going the way it should.

“She should have planned this out better,” Mark mumbled through clenched teeth.

The owner of the Bed and Breakfast was thankfully occupied when Mark walked passed her and headed out the front door. The last thing he wanted to do was talk with that nosey broad and pretend he was having a good time.

Things were spiraling out of control.

Mark left the B&B, walking toward the nearby subdivision. It wasn’t where he wanted to be. He wanted to be as far from Rubicon as possible, as far from the state as possible. That, however, would draw suspicions and Mark needed to stay off the cops’ radar.

Cops. Never had a con brought the cops so close. It didn’t matter to Mark that he was the one who ran that stop sign in front of the sheriff. Coming here was Jamie’s idea making everything else that happened her fault.

Jamie. Just thinking of her caused the muscles in Mark’s jaw and hands to tense.

Tensing his hand, though, hurt. Before he’d left the B&B, Jamie had been babbling about her new plan. Mark warned her. He told her to shut up. When she wouldn’t, Mark punched the wall. He wanted to punch Jamie. As his fist propelled forward, however, he realized that punching Jamie would inevitably bring more attention to them. At the last minute he swung wide and smashed into the wall instead.

At the distinctive crack of bone meeting drywall, Jamie’s eyes clouded over and her face took on a hardened expression.

That was when Mark stormed out. He had taken the keys to the rental car, as well as every cell phone he could get his hands on. The phones he threw into the car before starting his walk.

Everything was falling apart.

As he walked toward the subdivision, Mark tried to prioritize the damage.

Jamie would have to go. Not just go, but disappear. The look on her face spoke volumes to Mark. Since his display of temper, she no longer trusted him. Unfortunately for Jamie, she knew too much about him for the two to simply part company. There was no way Mark was going to spend the rest of his life wondering if Jamie was waiting in the wings to rat him out. He needed to rid himself of her. For good.

A screen door slammed in the distance, startling Mark. He hadn’t been paying attention to where he was. Looking around, he got his bearings. The house to his left was the same one he’d seen that kid sneak into the night he and Jamie had arrived.

He would have to find that kid. Disposing of Jamie would put Mark in a position to mentor someone else. And the desert was a good place to dispose of someone.

Ahead, a cop car was parked in a driveway. It wasn’t the dead kid’s house, but Mark didn’t want to take the chance of being noticed.

The old man was out again. Mark considered striking up a conversation with the man. There was something about the geriatric sentinel that wasn’t what he seemed. He portrayed the image of a feeble old man, but Mark had noticed a spring in his step that didn’t seem right. Obviously, the old man had secrets, too.

A group of children were playing in the yard just ahead. A young woman watched the herd with a bored expression. Until she saw him, that is. Then her expression changed to concern.

Mark plastered on his “trust me” smile, waved, and shouted a hello. The daycare worker nodded back and resumed her bored watch over the children.

Continuing his walk, Mark reached into his pocket for the assortment of pills he kept there. Just being reassured of their presence boosted his confidence. The street value in his pocket was enough for a fresh start. A comfortable fresh start.

Selling the drugs had never really been his plan, however. At least, not a full-time plan. Sure, he’d done it once or twice over the years to make some fast cash. Stealing the pills was harder than getting rid of the things. Stealing wasn’t the right word since the people he took the pills from often didn’t know they had them. Or know they were gone. And that was only when he needed to resort to taking the actual pills.

Six months ago, Mark and Jamie had posed as venture capitalists and offered to help a recently retired doctor invest his savings. In addition to nearly a quarter of a million dollars–safely hidden in a variety of banks under a variety of names–Mark managed to snag a half-full prescription pad. And every last page had been signed by the unlucky doc.

Mark smiled as he remembered how easy it was to rifle through the old man’s desk to find the pad. Getting the various prescriptions had been just as simple.

That entire con had been easy. He’d planned it and had foreseen every possible outcome. Not like this one. Not like the way Jamie had screwed up.

His thoughts had come full circle. Back to Jamie. He needed to get rid of her.

I guess I should head back.

He wouldn’t dispose of Jamie around here, but he would and soon.

Mark hadn’t gone more than a hundred yards when a siren made his blood run cold. He turned around to see the sheriff pulling along side him.

“Mr. Westbrook,” came the smug voice from inside the car. “Just the man I wanted to speak to.”

Once again, plastering on his “trust me” smile, Mark replied, “Anything I can do for ya, Sir.” Silently, he again cursed Jamie.

The sheriff slammed his large, tan cruiser into park right where it was and crossed to Mark with a quickness belying the casualness of his bearing. He wore a smooth, easy grin. Eerily similar, Mark thought, to his own smile.

“Not holding you up, am I?”

“Not at all. I was just headed back to the B-and-B. Had to pick up a few things.”

“Oh? Things for a trip? Hope you’re not planning to leave us?”

The taste of brass fired across his tongue. Never in his life had it been more important to maintain his serene composure.

“Well, we’re not in a rush to leave, Sheriff. We’re enjoying our stay, but our vacation is almost over.”

“Been meaning to ask you about that.” The sheriff stretched, arching his back and looking down the street—but not until after, Mark knew, he had memorized every detail of Mark’s appearance. “What is it that brought you to Rubicon?”

Mark nodded, giving himself time to remember the ruse they had given the deputies earlier. “Just wanted to spend some time with the wife. Turns out I was able to do some research for a client while we were here.”

“Do tell? A client in Minnesota?”

He couldn’t hide his shocked expression. He smiled.

“Now, Sheriff, I hope you understand if I can’t tell divulge that information. We signed a confidentiality agreement. Much as I wish I could tell you all about it, we’re legally bound to keep silent.”

He chuckled. “’Legally bound.’ What a funny expression. Sounds like a guy in handcuffs, doesn’t it?” Again he was looking down the street, his face perfectly tranquil. “I asked about Minnesota because Riley and her folks are originally from up there. And, you may have heard, a body was found out in the desert. Oddly enough, we’re beginning to think he was from Minnesota too. And, if I were you and I was gathering data for customer who, ironically enough, happened to be from Minnesota, I’d have to start worrying about my paycheck.”

“Another body?”

“Fellow about the age of Riley’s dad. Seemed to have something to hide. Like to never got an ID for him. No license. No luggage. Finally managed to track down who he was though.” He leaned forward. “Aren’t you going to ask how he died?”

Mark wondered if the sheriff could hear Mark’s heart pounding against his chest.

“Is that my business, Sheriff? Do you always have murder and mystery and crime going on around here? Seems like my wife and I have come to sort of a dangerous place. We might be better off leaving earlier than we had intended.”

“Funny you would mention that—about mystery and criminal things, I mean. Lieutenant Frio, one of my deputies, reported that some shady drug activity has been going on around here lately. Prescription drug abuse. Kids involved. Pretty unusual for Rubicon Ranch.” He shook his head in mock dismay and leaned toward Mark, their faces only inches apart. “I’ll tell you, we can use all the help we can get putting this little crime wave behind us.”

“I can imagine.”

“Yeah. So if you and your lady think of anything—anything at all, we’d really like to hear about it. Don’t know when you’re planning on pulling out, but make sure you stop by to see me before you leave town. I’ll be keeping an eye out for you.”

The sheriff straightened abruptly. He passed in front of the police cruiser, slid inside and pulled swiftly down the street.

Mark watched him, feeling a mixture of relief—that the encounter ended without his being searched and arrested—and dread.  The sheriff had cleverly revealed that the two of them were being closely watched by the police.

How could he escape this little place? How could rid himself of Jamie? He couldn’t kill her now. The snare was tightening around him. He had to escape somehow without revealing his intentions—and take Jamie with him. Left behind, she would reveal everything she knew about him in exchange for lesser prosecution. Or perhaps the wise thing would be simply to wait. Maybe the sheriff would allow them to leave if someone else was arrested for Riley’s death. And her father’s.

A wave of ironic admiration swept through him.

“What a great con artist that cop would make.”

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