Synopsis: After ten long years, Candace is still no closer to identifying who murdered her sister. Frustrated, Candace takes matters into her own hands, only to confront horrors she hadn’t imagined.
You’re doing this for Jennifer.
This thought repeated in Candace’s head as she prepared to read the words on the teleprompter.
“Our final story is a somber one: Tomorrow marks an anniversary; one that is quite personal to me. Ten years ago, on January 31, 2011, Jennifer Anderson was found brutally murdered in her home. Despite police efforts over the years, this case was never solved. Jennifer was my sister.”
Candace dutifully followed the words on the screen – words she’d helped write. Her steady tone and measured cadence belied her inner storm. Years of delivering the news had taught her to compartmentalize, separating her emotions from the day’s top stories, and she did so now. She’d pitched this final segment to her producer earlier, swearing by her anonymous informant.
“Channel 5 News has learned from a highly-placed source in the police department that Jennifer’s murder is being reopened as a ‘cold’ case. Will this bring the justice we’ve waited a decade for? We’ll keep viewers apprised as we learn more. And now for a look at the forecast. Ben, what does the weekend have in store for us?”
“Well, Candace, that’s a ‘cold’ case too, with a projected daytime high of 5 degrees tomorrow…”
Candace tuned out the rest of the weather report, focusing instead on maintaining her composure through the remainder of the newscast. Only after arriving home did she allow herself to consider the potential repercussions of her actions.
She wasn’t surprised to find her phone teeming with angry texts and voice messages from her husband, Rich, and from Sam, their friend and Rich’s boss at the police department. Rich was working tonight, so maybe she wouldn’t have to face the music until tomorrow. She didn’t think she had it in her tonight.
She wondered if Rich was planning on attending tomorrow night’s anniversary vigil with her. They hadn’t discussed it yet; they hadn’t discussed much lately. Candace inventing a renewed investigation into her sister’s murder and announcing it on the evening news wasn’t likely to help their strained relationship.
She wasn’t sure why she’d done it. But lately, especially at night when she was alone with her thoughts, she’d started to question why the original investigation hadn’t yielded any suspects.
Her sister’s murder ten years earlier brought Candace and Rich together; he’d interviewed Candace as part of his investigation. As Jennifer’s only surviving family member, he’d pressed her for information. She hadn’t known much, but shared what she could.
Jennifer had been seeing two men before her death. She’d been secretive, not telling her sister or friends their names. “We never said we were exclusive, but they know each other. I need to be careful,” was all she’d revealed. She’d ended things with both men weeks before her death, telling Candace they’d both begun to make her uncomfortable.
Candace became obsessed with finding the men, convinced if they identified Jennifer’s lovers, they’d find the killer. Unfortunately, even a forensic digital search failed to identify either of the mystery men. There were few other leads.
Rich had stayed in close contact with Candace as the months passed, updating her on the case’s progress – scant as it was. One thing led to another and the two began dating. As teens, Candace and Jennifer had giggled about their shared attraction to men in uniform. How many times over the years had Candace wished she could introduce Jennifer to Rich?
Her phone jolted her back to the present. Rich again. She ignored it, silencing the ringer. She drew the blinds and crawled into bed, fleeing the weight of the day.
Her sleep was fitful, her nightmares filled with all-too familiar visions of Jennifer covered in blood, butchered by a knife that was never found. Jennifer didn’t speak in these dreams, but she cupped a police badge in her hands, her eyes imploring Candace to do something.
Candace woke to a hand clasping her shoulder. Metal glinted in the darkness above her. She shrank from it with a shriek, certain it was Jennifer’s killer come for her with his knife.
“Candi, it’s me. You OK?” Rich looked down at her, his expression unreadable. The keys in his hand caught the light from the hallway.
Not the knife, then.
She reached for him, her nightmare already receding.
“Jennifer… The anniversary…” She choked back a sob.
Rich pulled away and his voice hardened. “Yeah. What the hell was your little stunt? Sam is all over me, thinking I put you up to it. I know you miss her Candi, but you can’t just reopen the case. Sam’s not going to do it either.” He paused. When he continued speaking, his eyes bore into hers. “If Sam reaches out, I don’t want you talking to him. Let me deal with it.”
Candace fought to shake off the cobwebs of sleep.
“Sam? What do you…”
“We’ll talk later. I’m going downstairs.”
As his footsteps receded, Candace collapsed into her pillow and tried to picture Jennifer’s face. She vowed to do everything she could to bring the killer to justice.
Daylight grew longer as Rich snored in the next room. Candace hated when he worked nights; hated having to tiptoe around their house so as not to disturb him.
Her phone vibrated with a text from Sam:
We need to talk. Call me.
In the harsh light of day, she regretted her impulsive actions on last night’s newscast. She wanted the killer brought to justice of course, but would reopening the case – even if Sam agreed – really yield any new results in the decade-old murder? She no longer wanted to dredge up long-buried memories, but she supposed she’d have to have this conversation eventually.
Resigned, she took her phone downstairs, as far from her sleeping husband as she could get. They’d talked about finishing the basement family room early in their marriage after she’d moved into Rich’s home. That idea dwindled over the years as the family they’d both imagined would fill the room failed to materialize.
Candace settled into a worn leather recliner and dialed Sam’s number. It had been ages since she’d been in this room. She swiveled absently and leaned back in the chair as the phone rang, silently cataloguing the accumulated dust she’d have to deal with later. What was that in the heating duct behind the grate by the ceiling? Did they have a rodent problem? Or, maybe a bat? She shivered. Whatever it was wasn’t moving, thankfully. Candace made a mental note to find the stepladder later to investigate.
Sam answered, his voice gruff.
“Candace, what the hell was that last night? I know you miss her, but you do not work for the department. I’m reopening the case, but that wasn’t the way to go about it.”
“I know, and I’m sorry. Thank you for doing this for me. For Jennifer. Rich will be excited to hear the news.” Candace swiveled back to face the stairs as she spoke.
“Rich won’t be working on the case this time. I have some ideas, but I can’t say more right now.” This last was punctuated with a deep sigh. When he spoke again, his tone was softer. “Look, I don’t know what Rich has told you, but…”
“Sorry Sam, but I can’t talk more now. I need to get ready for the ceremony tonight. Are you going?”
Sam paused before answering.
“I wouldn’t miss it, dear. You make sure Rich is there tonight too. I want to talk to the both of you.”
Bits of her dream returned, bloodied Jennifer holding a detective’s badge. Candace didn’t put much stock in interpreting dreams, but perhaps there was a message there. Maybe forcing the issue with the police department, with Sam, was what she was supposed to do.
“See you tonight at the church then, Sam.”
Sam was going to reopen the case. As Candace contemplated this turn of fate, she thought she saw a shadow darkening the stairwell. By the time she reached the landing, heating duct long forgotten, she chalked it up to frazzled nerves. Rich would sleep for at least another hour.
Candace prepared to leave, her anger growing with each passing moment. Rich told her he wasn’t attending the remembrance. In fact, he’d tried to keep her from going.
“If you insist on being bull-headed, don’t talk to Sam, Candi. He’s not the nice old cop you think he is.”
“What the hell does that even mean, Rich? Sam is going to reopen Jennifer’s murder investigation again and he already has some new theories. I want justice, even if you don’t.”
Rich grabbed her arm as she passed him, his tone sending shivers down her spine. “I mean it, Candi. We’re going to talk about this later. There are things about Sam you don’t know.”
She shrugged free without meeting his gaze and slammed the door behind her. Tears burned her eyes as the cold air hit her face. She would hear what Sam had to say, she decided. She owed it to Jennifer to find answers after all this time.
The vigil had already started when Candace arrived. Jennifer’s friends had planned it, mercifully taking that burden off Candace’s shoulders. One of them spoke now in low, measured tones.
Candace was both angered and saddened by how few people had come. The funeral ten years ago had been standing room only. Tonight though, Candace saw fewer than a dozen people, spaced out in clusters.
The church was old, its sanctuary narrow, with one long row of pews. She spotted Sam sitting alone in the front row and made her way to his side. Sam smiled as Candace approached. Something in that smile gave her pause, but he patted the wooden pew next to him and she sat. She shrugged off her discomfort, silently berating Rich for sowing seeds of mistrust. After all, she’d known Sam as long as she’d known Rich.
“You look so pretty, Candace,” he whispered. “You look like her. Where’s Rich?” He craned his head, looking behind her.
“Rich isn’t coming… We’ll talk later, OK? I’m speaking soon, I think.” She gestured to the front of the church, wondering at his comment. Had Jennifer and Sam known each other?
For a moment, Sam’s expression was unreadable. Then he nodded and rose. “Yes, later. Excuse me.”
Candace’s feeling of unease grew. She filed this thought away for later examination and turned her attention back to the ceremony.
The sorority sister who’d kicked things off sat down and another of Jennifer’s friends approached the piano at the front of the church. She began playing and singing a contemporary tear-jerker. Candace didn’t know the number, but by the sniffles and sobs she heard coming from the pews behind her, the song was having the desired effect.
The song ended and the pianist turned to face the audience. A scream replaced her smile. A loud ‘pop’ silenced her and she fell, a red stain blossoming on her dress. Dozens of gunshots followed, silencing more screams.
Instinctively, Candace ducked under the pew when the first shots rang out. She stayed put, not wanting to draw attention to herself. The entire incident lasted no more than 90 seconds, but it seemed an eternity to Candace. When she’d counted to 30 hearing nothing but her own ragged breathing, she willed herself to look. She lifted her head cautiously over the seat, but couldn’t comprehend what her eyes saw.
The pews and church floor were splashed with blood and tissue; Jennifer’s friends slumped in their pews. Candace didn’t see any movement. She ducked to her knees again.
Oh my God! Where’s Sam? Is one of those bodies SAM?
This hysterical voice in her head was answered by a calmer one.
Get your phone. Call Rich.
She sensed the man crawling toward her before she saw him. A hand covered her mouth as she reached for her purse, stopping a scream in her throat.
An overwhelming sense of relief swept her when she saw Sam’s familiar face. He released her mouth but put a finger to his lips.
“Sam! Oh my God! I thought he got you too!”
Her whispers trailed off at his somber expression. Then she noticed the gun.
“Stay down, Candace. You should know I loved your sister. And Rich is like my brother, but…”
Whatever else Sam had meant to say would remain forever unsaid. A final shot rang out and Sam crumpled before her eyes.
Rich rushed toward her from the aisle next to her pew. His revolver clattered to the ground, landing next to where Sam’s had fallen. He bent to retrieve it, kicking the other weapon under Sam’s outstretched hand as he did so.
When he stood, his eyes searched hers.
“Oh my God, Candi, I thought I’d lost you! I figured out that Sam killed Jennifer; I guess he assumed you knew too. He must’ve feared you’d expose him here tonight. Maybe he thought you were going to get up and talk about what he’d done or even spill the story on the news…”
He gestured to the bodies lining the pews behind them. “If I hadn’t gotten here when I did…”
Then he was hugging her tightly, both of them holding on for dear life.
When the first patrol officers burst through the doors, Rich and Candace held up their hands, and Rich offered his badge to identify himself.
Candace thought again of her dream, of Jennifer holding a detective’s badge.
You were warning me about Sam. I didn’t understand…
Candace learned she was expecting in May. The nightmares about Jennifer and the badge hadn’t receded yet; if anything, they’d intensified. Her therapist said it was normal and to give it more time. Things were better between Candace and Rich lately, but they didn’t talk much about what had happened.
Learning he was going to be a father had lit a new fire under Rich to transform the basement family room into one deserving of the title. He was insistent about doing it all himself, but Candace wanted to help.
While Rich went out to buy paint, Candace busied herself taping baseboards. Then, she used the stepstool to remove the vent covers. Intent on her work, she didn’t hear the footsteps on the stairway.
The grate behind the recliner was stubborn; she pried it loose with a grunt. A wooden box lay inside the shaft. Curious, she removed it and stepped down, setting it on top of the stool to open it. Intimate photos of Jennifer and Rich stared back at her, along with love notes to Rich in Jennifer’s unmistakable flowy handwriting.
Jennifer and Rich.
Understanding dawned. There’d been two men, Jennifer had said, two men who knew each other. Sam hadn’t been the killer; it had been the other man all along.
It had been Rich.
The horror of having married her own sister’s murderer enveloped her. From far away, she heard screaming, only recognizing her own voice as Rich’s cold hands silenced it.
[AUTHOR’S NOTE: This was my 2,500-word entry for round one of NYC Midnight’s annual Short Story Challenge. In this round, I was tasked with crafting a horror story using no more than 2,500 words, including a newscaster and a remembrance. Both the newscaster and remembrance had to be integral to the story.
This is not a traditional “horror” story, and I know I risk losing points with the judges because of that. But, it’s the story my muse brought to me on day seven of the eight-day period I had to write this one.
I won’t know until the first week of April whether this scored highly enough in my group for me to advance to round two. But, I don’t necessarily enter these competitions with any intention of winning anyway. For me, it’s more about stretching my creative legs every once in a while.
So, thanks for coming along as I stretched those legs in new ways with this tale. – Cindy]