Chapter 31: Mark and Jamie Westbrook — by Nichole R. Bennett

Jamie paced, her flip-flops making a thwack, thwack, thwack as she did so. Her eyes burned with tears threatening to overflow. Although the window was open, there was no breeze. The hot, stale air pressed down upon her shoulders and chest giving her the feeling that the walls were closing in.

Mark had taken the car keys and the cell phones with him when he stormed out. She had looked for the briefcase, but couldn’t find it. He probably took that, too. Jamie couldn’t be sure; she had locked herself in the bathroom, afraid Mark would give in to his obvious anger.

Once she had been sure Mark was gone, Jamie wanted to make her own escape. That’s when she noticed the keys and phones missing. With the briefcase gone, she didn’t even have access to her other IDs or extra money. She was left with whatever was in her pockets. Or Mark’s.

And that search didn’t lead to money.

What she did find was more interesting. A phone number scribbled in his handwriting on the back of a receipt stuffed in a pair of dirty pants. Another number written in a feminine hand in a different pocket. An empty pill bottle prescribed for one of Mark’s many aliases.

Under the bed, however, she found a lone piece of paper from the Minnesota part of their con. It wasn’t a sheet she had ever seen. And this was her con. She had done all the background research. Mark had been adamant about not wanting to do any work for that score.

From what Jamie could decipher, it had information about the family of the little girl kidnapped so many years ago. Names, credit information, job histories for both biological parents. There was even a reference to a private investigator the family had originally hired, and contact information for a reporter sympathetic to their cause.

When she’d prepared for this job, Jamie found out what she could about the biological parents and even Riley’s parents to see if there was any overlap. There was some. The thought had even occurred to her that this might be a legitimate thing. But a reporter? A private investigator? None of that was in her original pitch to Mark. None of that should have been in any of the information they had on file for this con. That type of information wouldn’t matter because neither Mark nor Jamie should be contacting anyone but the families. And then only long enough to get the money and run.

Once again the number of mistakes made during this con began to plague her thoughts. Things that had never gone wrong before were not just going wrong, but failing in epic proportions.

Merely arriving at Rubicon Ranch had been a mistake, Jamie knew that now. Mark’s running that stop sign wasn’t just a mistake. It was pure stupidity. Mark trying to hit her was frightening.

And Mark wasn’t usually stupid, or frightening.

At least, he hadn’t been.

Full of frustrated energy, Jamie continued to pace. Without the keys to the rental car, she couldn’t leave Rubicon Ranch. There was no one here she could even turn to. Maybe she could seduce that big mountain of a cop. No, something in his eyes told Jamie she wouldn’t get far with him. That female cop? Jamie considered playing up Mark’s attempt at hitting her. Maybe the other woman had a soft spot for domestic violence victims. On second thought, Jamie didn’t remember the lieutenant looking like she had a soft spot for much of anyone.

That settled it. No cops.

Jamie briefly considered walking around the neighborhood just to get away from the room’s four walls but she didn’t want to accidentally run into Mark. Run over? Maybe. Run into? Definitely not.

She kept pacing. Jamie thought better when she moved and right now she needed to think. She needed to leave. Leave Rubicon without arousing the suspicions of cops. Leave Mark without spending the rest of her life looking over her shoulder. In a perfect world, she could do both simultaneously.

The question was how?

No longer content to pace the floor, Jamie had the intense desire to leave the room. Maybe a change of scenery would do her some good. Or a stiff drink. Since there wasn’t any booze in the room, however, she’d have to settle for staring at a different set of walls.

Putting the scraps of paper and the mysterious sheet about the Minnesota family in her pocket, Jamie headed for the door. Chances were Mark didn’t know she’d found the paper, but until she had a chance to investigate the information, she didn’t want to risk him disposing of anything.

Jamie’s hand just started to turn the knob when she remembered the pill bottle and went back to pick it up. The bottle might not be worth much as it was—there weren’t any refills left and Jamie didn’t recognize the drug’s name, anyway—but Jamie thought it might make good “insurance” if she couldn’t ditch Mark some other way. There were laws about forged prescriptions, right? And that doctor they’d scammed, the one whose name was listed as the prescribing doctor, would probably be beyond mad by this time. An anonymous call to him, another to the authorities, and Jamie may not have to worry about Mark after all. The realization brought a smile to her face.

The closer she got to the dining room, the deeper the breaths she took, the aroma of fresh baked apple pie becoming stronger with each step. Contrasting with the pleasing smell was a mechanical rar-rar-rar, which also grew with each step.

“Well, there you are!” Consuela smiled as Jamie entered the dining room. “I was wondering if you were ever going to leave your room. I trust everything is all right?”

Jamie smiled and nodded. “Everything’s wonderful. I just needed a change of scenery.”

The proprietor nodded as the corners of her mouth turned up. “I remember what it was like to be a newlywed. All that ‘getting to know each other’ is fine, but a little time apart is a nice thing, as well.”

Not wanting to discuss herself if possible, Jamie deftly moved the conversation to Consuela. “Something smells good. Apple pie?”

“Yep. I’ve got one of them in the oven and another cooling in the kitchen. And that obnoxious noise in the background is the ice cream maker.” As if on cue, the offensive racket stopped and silence filled the void. “Well, that’s finally done. What do you say to some fresh apple pie a la mode?”

“Sounds great,” Jamie replied, seating herself at one of the tables.

Consuela disappeared into the kitchen and returned with two plates of pie, topped with vanilla ice cream. A spoon balanced on each plate. “Enjoy,” she said. She laid one plate in front of Jamie and the other directly in front of herself as she sat.

Jamie took a bite of the still warm pie, the ice cream melting into a fine mist over the top. “This is really good, thanks.”

The two ate in comfortable silence until Consuela spoke. “How are you enjoying your stay?”

Considering what had brought Jamie to Rubicon Ranch and the events forcing her to remain, she replied with, “It’s been interesting.” Not a lie at any rate.

“It’s not usually this . . . exciting around here.” Consuela didn’t look at Jamie as she spoke. “Let’s just hope it stops at two.”

“At two?” Jamie looked for a clock.

Consuela, her eyes twinkling with humor, looked up and shook her head as a wry smile crossed her lips. “Sorry, that’s not funny. I mean with two bodies, though it would be nice if at two o’clock everything would just be back to normal and Rubicon would be a nice quiet bedroom community where tourists like yourself stop occasionally.”

The full implication of her words struck Jamie in the gut. “Two bodies? Someone else died?”

“Not just died. Was murdered, from what I hear.”

Jamie was stunned, no flabbergasted, but tried to keep her face as impassive as possible. She tried to remember if Mark had left her alone any other time. He had that first night, and obviously now, but she couldn’t be sure those were the only times. Maybe he had snuck out while she was sleeping. He had run to the store, hadn’t he? Had he been gone for too long that time? Jamie couldn’t remember. “That’s horrible,” she whispered when she found her voice again.

Consuela nodded. “I hear it was a man. Not from around here, though.”

Jamie gulped, simultaneously hopeful and afraid that it had been Mark’s body. That would solve all her problems. Aloud she asked, “Do they know who he was?”

The innkeeper shrugged, but remained silent.

A shrug wasn’t an answer. Could it be Mark? Had his past finally caught up with him? But if it was Mark, wouldn’t the sheriff be here to question her?

Jamie eventually came to the realization that the body wasn’t her supposed husband, though she couldn’t imagine why Consuela would bother telling her about a second murder. It wasn’t as if they had gossiped about anything before this. In fact, Jamie couldn’t remember exchanging more than a few basic pleasantries with Consuela. Then again, a second body while they were here might be to her advantage after all. Jamie suppressed the smile crossing her lips by taking a bite of the now soggy apple pie.

As she laid the spoon back down on the plate, Jamie feigned a desperate sigh.

Sympathy and understanding seemed to emanate from the older woman. “Anything I can help with?”

Bartenders and innkeepers. Neither can resist the lure of being a poor man’s psychiatrist, thought Jamie with a mild shake of her head. But they are almost always sympathetic to a victim. Jamie forced another sigh, this one more pathetic sounding than the first. “I don’t think so,” she looked coyly at her plate. “I don’t think anyone can help me.”

Consuela clucked sympathetically. “We’ve all had rough spots. Lordy, you’d be surprised at the things I’ve been through. Sometimes just talking can help. Make ya feel better, anyway.”

Jamie nodded. “I suppose. I just, well, I don’t want you to think badly of me. Or of Mark.”

The innkeeper reached across the table and patted Jamie’s hand. “Marriage isn’t easy, is it? Somewhere those fairy tales forget to mention that it takes more than love to make a life together work. It takes understanding and work.” Another pat on the hand. “A lifetime of understanding and work.”

Jamie faked a sniffle, bringing a napkin to her face in an effort to hide the smirk she could feel erupting on her lips. Let the old woman think I need her advice. I need to get her talking enough that I can convince her Mark could be the murderer. She might even help me “escape” if I play this con right.

Once she felt more in control of her expressions, Jamie daubed at her eyes as if tears had started to form. “He’s changed.”

“People learn so much about each other once they’re married,” Consuela said. “Much more than when just dating. Maybe what you think is change was there all along.”

Jamie remained silent, hoping Consuela would take the silence as contemplation.

After a few minutes Consuela asked, “How has he changed?”

“He’s just so stressed,” Jamie began. “I was hoping this trip of ours would relax him. It hasn’t really worked out that way.”

“He brought his work with him?”

“Well, yes.” Jamie kept her voice quiet, causing Consuela to lean closer to hear. “He said he needed to finish some things. Even though we’re supposed to be on vacation.”

Consuela nodded. “Many men are workaholics. Heck, many women are, too. I’m sure he thinks he’s being a good provider.”

Disappointed that the conversation wasn’t leading in the direction Jamie wanted it to, she opted to change her tactic. “I’m not sure it’s work. He, well, he has left in the middle of the night while we were here.” Jamie managed to make her voice crack and added a sniffle for effect. “I even found a phone number.”

Another sympathetic pat on the hand accompanied Consuela’s question. “You think he’s having an affair? Oh, honey. I’m so sorry.”

Jamie used the napkin to once again hide a smile, nodding and shaking her shoulders slightly to make it look like she was holding back sobs. “I just don’t know what to do,” she whined, hoping to garner additional sympathy from the older woman.

Consuela remained silent, seemingly content to merely pat Jamie’s hand. Had Jamie been sincere, the act would have been comforting and supportive. Instead the young con woman saw the means to a clean escape with every touch.

When she felt the silence had gone on long enough, Jamie pushed the napkin to her eyes, hoping to redden them. Anything to help the con along. “He didn’t used to be like this, you know,” she said, removing the napkin from her face and adding frightened tones to her voice. “But then he got hurt.”

The innkeeper’s eyes went from sympathetic to concerned, but still she remained silent, allowing Jamie the freedom to tell the story on her own.

“He was rock climbing,” Jamie babbled, keeping the conspiratorial whine she had cultivated. “He hurt his back. The doctors, they gave him pain medication, of course. I just don’t think he’s ever stopped taking it.”

“He must have been hurt badly.”

Jamie shrugged. “Yes, but the doctors say he’s as good as new now. He doesn’t even limp.”

“No,” Consuela agreed. “He seems fine. But pain is a strange thing.”

“I suppose.” This wasn’t going the way Jamie wanted either. “The medication, though, it’s like I don’t even know him anymore. He just isn’t Mark.”

Jamie tried hard to suppress the smirk at her joke. Of course he wasn’t Mark. Jamie had no idea what his real name was, but it wasn’t Mark.

Consuela must not have noticed the smirk, since she just continued patting Jamie’s hand, making sympathetic clucking noises.

The older woman’s reassurance prompted Jamie to continue her story. “It’s been a long time since the accident. He was okay at first, but then. . . .”

“It can be hard to see someone you love hurting, can’t it?”

“Yes,” agreed Jamie. “It was so hard.”

“What do the doctors say now? He seems fine, but pain is a personal thing. What did you say happened to him again?”

“Oh, it was a car accident,” Jamie quickly replied, making up a story as she went. “A hit and run. They had to cut him out of the vehicle. He was in critical condition for days. They never found the guy who hit him.”

“That’s awful.”

Jamie nodded. “And now, well, now he just takes drugs all the time, popping pain pills to survive the day and then sleeping pills for the night. I don’t know what to do. And then . . . then . . . he disappears. Sometimes he just leaves in the middle of the night.” She faked another sob, closing her eyes as if to fight back tears. “I’m just at my wits end.”

“I know, honey. It will all be okay,” Consuela comforted. “Would you like me to get you some information on local resources? Some good drug counselors? Pain doctors? If not here, what about back home?”

“Back home?”

“You’re on vacation, right? I’m sure there are some good resources where you’re from.”

“Oh, no. I mean, yes. I’m sure there are. But he’d never go to a doctor there. Too much pride, you know?”

“Some men are like that.”

“But, yeah. Maybe he’d go see someone here. It wouldn’t hurt to try, right?”

“Right,” the innkeeper agreed. “I’ll get you some information and send it up to your room. Would that work?”

“Sure. Just don’t let Mark see it, okay?”

“No problem. I should have something for you soon.” Consuela picked up the plates and headed toward the kitchen. “Don’t you worry about a thing.”

“Thank you so much.” Jamie stood and turned to leave.

I should be an actress, she thought as she headed back to the room she shared—for now—with Mark.

***

Deputy Midget entered the dining room when Jamie left.

“Well? Did I do okay?” Consuela asked. “The girl must think I’m incredibly stupid. She can’t even get her story straight.”

“Consuela, you did great,” Midget replied. “We’ll turn you into a first-class deputy yet.”

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About Pat Bertram

Pat Bertram is the author of Grief: The Great Yearning and four novels -- More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, Daughter Am I, and Light Bringer. All are available from Amazon, Smashwords, and Second Wind Publishing, LLC. http://secondwindpublishing.com
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