WITNESS by J. A. JANCE
What are you going to do about it?” I asked. Refusing to meet my gaze, Mindy Harshaw poked at her salad with her fork but ate nothing. Her lower lip trembled. “What can I do?” she asked hopelessly.
A year ago I’d been matron of honor at Mindy’s wedding. She had been radiant then. A few months later, when she and our other pal, Stephanie, and I met for coffee at Starbucks, she had definitely lost her glow. She had been uncharacteristically quiet then and had hidden out behind a pair of enormous sunglasses, claiming she had an infection related to pinkeye. Now, having heard what she had to say, I suspected the pinkeye story was just that-a story. And the woman sitting across from me bore no resemblance to my lifelong friend who had been a beaming bride only a few months earlier.
I had been shocked when she slipped into the booth across from me. She looked wan and pale, and I thought she had lost more weight than she could afford to lose. I didn’t say, “My God, Min! You look like hell!” although I probably should have. But now, after she had told me at least some of what had been going on, I wasn’t the least bit shy about offering my opinion.
“What you do is blow the whistle on the jerk,” I said. “You’re not the first Cinderella who woke up after the honeymoon to discover she had married a frog instead of Prince Charming.”
Mindy sighed. “It didn’t turn out that way for you and Jimmy.”
That was true. I had been a thirty-eight-year-old “old maid” when I was introduced to James Drury in the lobby before a performance of Angry Housewives, an original Seattle-based musical about a group of frustrated mothers who start a rock band and end up with an unlikely hit entitled, “Eat Your Fucking Cornflakes.” Not being a housewife at the time, I hadn’t much wanted to go, but a friend from school had dragged me along. James Drury had been bullied into going to the play by a friend from the bank where he worked. The moment Jimmy and I met, we clicked. Just like that. Neither one of us had been married before, and our whirlwind courtship had left our friends, Mindy included, shaking their heads. Jimmy and I had enjoyed eleven glorious years together before a drunk driver, going the wrong way on the I-90 bridge, had snuffed out Jimmy’s life and dismantled mine.
It was now three years later. The ache of losing him was still there, but his death was long enough in the past that when Mindy asked me to be her matron of honor, I had been glad to do so. I had known Mindy Crawford since grade school. In high school and college she had always gone for the wrong guys-for the wild ones, the ones living on the edge, for the muscle-bound jocks who played sports, looked great in jeans mid T-shirts but had nothing whatsoever going on upstairs. But in the days and weeks leading up to Mindy’s wedding to Lawrence Miles Harshaw III, I thought for sure she had come up with a winner.
Larry had money, looks and brains, and not necessarily in that order. Obviously, having money isn’t everything, but I was grateful that, after years of hardscrabble existence, Mindy would finally be in a situation where she wouldn’t be living hand-to-mouth. As far as I could see, Larry was crazy about her. Which is one of the reasons I was so provoked with him right now. Larry Harshaw had pulled the wool over Mindy’s eyes and mine as well. She had an excuse-she was in love with the guy. I’ve spent the last twenty-five years working as a high school guidance counselor, and I resented the hell out of being duped. Two and a half decades of working with troubled kids has taught me way more than I ever wanted to know about the realities and pervasiveness of domestic violence. It worried me that Mindy seemed totally oblivious about what was in store for her.
“What do you think I should do?” she asked.
“Let’s go over what you just told me,” I said. “He reads your mail, checks your e-mail. He monitors your telephone calls and checks the mileage on the odometer whenever you use the car. What does this sound like to you?”
“He wants me all to himself?” Mindy asked meekly.
“It’s a lot more serious than that,” I told her. “It’s called isolation. He’s cutting you off from your support network. I’m surprised he let you meet me for lunch.”
“It was spur of the moment,” Mindy admitted. “I didn’t exactly tell him.”
Or ask permission, I thought.
Suddenly I felt much older and wiser than my fifty-two years, and Mindy seemed like an innocent-a babe in the woods. Trying to guide recalcitrant teenagers has taught me that I’m not going to get far by telling anybody what they need to do. If I really want to help, I have to get the students who come to my office to see their problems and difficulties for themselves. Mindy wasn’t one of my students, but the same thing was true for her. If she was going to save herself, she would have to come to terms with what was happening in her life and marriage on her own. Comprehending the existence of a problem is the first essential step in solving it.
“I’ve seen how Larry Harshaw acts,” I said. “In public, he’s the perfect gentleman. What’s he like in private?” My question was followed by a long, awkward silence. “Well?” I prodded finally. “Are you going to tell me?”
“He’s not very nice,” Mindy said in a small voice.
“How so?” I asked. “Does he tell you you’re stupid, for example?”
Mindy nodded. “Yes, and that I’m not good with money.”
“Because I don’t balance my checkbook.”
“Min, I’ve never known you to balance a checkbook-not once in forty years. But have you ever bounced a check?”
“Well then? So much for the money-handling problem. What else?”
“There’s more to it than just the checkbook,” Mindy said. “Even though it’s not true, I’m worried that he thinks I married him for his money. When we were engaged, all his friends kept telling him we needed to have a prenup. I told him at the time that I’d be happy to sign one, but he said not to be silly. That he loved me and that whatever he had he was willing to share.”
Up to a point, I thought.
“Okay,” I said. “He treats you like a prisoner in your own home. He checks on your comings and goings. He belittles you. What else?”
“What do you mean?” Mindy asked,
“Has he ever hurt you?”
“He’s hurt my feelings,” she replied.
“Has he ever hit you or hurt you physically?” I insisted.
“What does that mean?”
“We were cross-country skiing out by Lake Kachess a couple of weeks ago,” she said slowly. “A storm was coming, and I had this terrible feeling that he was going to drive off and leave me out there all alone. That he was going to leave me to freeze lo death.”
“What did you do?” I asked.
“I told him that I’d hurt my ankle and wouldn’t get out of the car.”
An involuntary chill swept up my spine. I had no doubt that some subliminal sense of self-preservation was what had kept Mindy off her skis that day and kept her alive long enough to tell her hair-raising tale to me.
“But he’s never struck you?” I asked. “Bruised you or pushed you around?”
Mindy shook her head. “No,” she said. “Nothing like that.”
But she was wearing a turtlenecked sweater. With long sleeves. I know how domestic violence works. I know how cagey abusers can be in making sure none of the bruising shows. I also know how hard it is for women to admit they’ve been hit. They think that somehow they’ve caused this terrible calamity to befall them, and by admitting what’s happened they’re also confessing their own implicit culpability.
“You need to get out,” I said quietly. “You need to get out now, before it gets worse. Because it will get worse.”
“I can’t,” she said. “I mean, I just barely finished sending the thank you notes for the wedding presents.”
“Screw the wedding presents,” I said. “Don’t let them stand in the way…”
Mindy’s cell phone rang, and she fumbled it out of her pocket. “Hi, hon,” she said too brightly. “Yes. I stopped to grab some lunch. I’ll be home in a few.” She ended the call and then added, “Sorry. I’ve gotta go.” She pulled a twenty-dollar bill out of her wallet and dropped it on the table next to her mostly uneaten salad.
“He’s pulling your leash,” I said. “Bringing you to heel.”
“I know,” she said. “Still, I need to go.” And she left.
I sat there for a few minutes longer before paying the bill and heading home. Earlier that gloomy Saturday morning, when Mindy had called to invite me to a spur-of-the-moment lunch, I had been out in the garage sorting Jimmy’s stuff. It was a task that I had delayed time and again. At first I had put it off because it was too painful. And then I put it off because I was too tired. But now, three years later, it was time. I was planning on doing some traveling this coming summer. That meant I needed to reclaim enough room in the garage to park my shiny new Beetle inside.
But now, burdened with what I’d learned from Mindy, I went back to the task with a heavy heart. Jimmy had bought the small Capitol Hill fixer-upper five years before I met him and had set about transforming it. He had stripped and refurbished the fine old hardwood floors. He had repainted and installed crown moldings everywhere. He had ripped out the old plumbing and cabinets and replaced them with updated plumbing fixtures and cabinets of his own design and making.
When we married, I had sold my downtown condo and moved in with him. Disposing of all his woodworking tools was part of the job ahead of me. Sorting his clothing was another.
My folks had come back to Seattle months after the funeral. My mother had insisted on boxing up Jimmy’s clothing and having my father cart it out to the garage. “It’s part of moving on “ she said. She would have taken it to Goodwill right then, but I told her I wanted to sort through it myself. And I did, want to sort it, that is. The plastic bag containing the tux Jimmy wore at our wedding was the topmost item in the second box I opened. Seeing it was too much. I broke down and cried. Again. But then I steeled myself to the task. I put it in the goodwill pile and went on.
There was nothing James Drury did that he didn’t do right. As I went through his clothing, much of it still in bags fresh from the cleaners, I missed him anew. It wasn’t until after he was gone that I discovered how much he had cared. There were the insurance policies I hadn’t known existed. One meant that the mortgage was now paid in full. Another had left a sizeable enough nest egg that I’d be able to retire from teaching as soon as I was eligible rather than having to work any longer than I wanted to.
And that was exactly the kind of stability I had wanted for Mindy as well. I’d really believed that at last she’d found someone who would truly love her and give her a lasting sense of security. The contrast between my situation and hers was striking-and terribly sad.
So often, anticipating doing something proves to be far worse than simply digging in and doing it. By six o’clock that evening, the job I had put off for years because it was impossible was pretty well done. I had loaded my trash can with as much as it could hold and had a pile of a dozen bulging black plastic trash bags sorted and ready to go to Goodwill. A single call to Don Williams, a shop teacher and fellow faculty member at Franklin High School, had elicited the excited promise that he’d come by the next day with a pickup truck to collect any of the tools I wanted to dispose of. It was as I hung up the phone after talking to Don that I remembered the guns. Not Jimmy’s guns, because he didn’t own any. Larry Harshaw’s guns.
I’d seen them the evening of their engagement party. Larry had been showing me through his spacious house overlooking Elliott Bay in Magnolia, one of Seattle ’s fine old neighborhoods. He had led me into his wood-lined study where an extensive collection of weapons was visible in a locked display case. On his desk was a picture frame. Inside it was a letter of appreciation from the National Rifle Association lauding Larry for his many years of loyal membership. It was signed in unwavering penmanship by former NRA president Charlton Heston himself.
Back then I had only just met Larry Harshaw. He was engaged to one of my best friends. I had wanted to make a good impression, so I feigned far more interest in his gun collection than I had felt. Since that night, I’d had no occasion to return to Larry’s study. Now, though, I remembered the ominous presence of all those guns. The likelihood that there were others that I hadn’t seen left me with a terrible sense of dread. What if…?
I grabbed the phone and dialed Mindy’s cell phone. She didn’t answer, and I didn’t leave a message. For the next half-hour I paced around my house, trying to decide what to do. Should I call the cops? And tell them what? That I was afraid something had happened to a friend-that her husband might be trying to do her harm-when I had no proof at all that was the case?
Finally, unable to let it go, I got into my VW and drove there. Like waterfront homes the world over, the front of the house was primarily there for the view. Visitors actually entered the house through a backyard gate that opened on a small alley. As soon as I stepped out of the car, I heard voices coming from the open door of the garage. Leaving my car door ajar, I stood and listened.
“Come on, Wes,” Mindy was saying. “You’ve got to do better than that. Grab both my upper arms and squeeze as hard as you can. We need bruises-clearly visible bruises. And then backhand me-right on the lip. Fortunately, Larry’s left-handed and so are you.”
I cringed when I heard the dull thwack as flesh pounded flesh, but the blow evidently wasn’t enough to satisfy Mindy.
“Again,” she ordered. “You need to draw blood.”
I heard another blow followed by a man’s voice. “Aw, geez. Now I’ve got it all over my shirt.”
“My God, Wes. I never would have thought you’d be so damned squeamish. It’s a good thing you’re not the one who has to pull the trigger. I’ll be sure there’s plenty of my blood on Larry’s shirt, too. Now get the hell out of here. He’s due home in a few minutes. I don’t want you anywhere near here when he shows up.”
“You’re sure this is going to work?”
“Of course, it’s going to work,” Mindy replied. “As soon as the cops come looking for me, I’ll send them straight to Francine. After that load of shit I laid on her this afternoon, it’ll be self-defense for sure.”
Francine! Me! I was the one who’d had a load of shit laid on me. Larry Harshaw wasn’t getting ready to kill Mindy. It was the other way around, and I was going to be a prime witness-for the defense.
For a few seconds, I stood rooted to the spot. Finally I managed to will myself to move. I jumped into the car, slammed the door, started the engine and raced to the bottom of the hill. Afraid Wes might have followed me, I ducked into a driveway two houses up from the intersection. Seconds later the Dodge Ram pickup that had been parked next to the garage came roaring down the hill. The driver paused at the bottom of the alley and seemed to look both ways. I held my breath, but he must not have seen what vehicle I was in when I took off. Or else he didn’t see me parked there. After what seemed like a very long time, he finally pulled into the street and drove off. From where I was, I wasn’t able to make out his license number, and I sure as hell wasn’t going to follow him hoping to get a closer look.
I was getting ready to call 9-1-1 when another car came down the street, signaling to turn into the alley. With a sinking heart, I realized I was looking at the headlights of Larry Harshaw’s Cadillac. I turned the key in the ignition and slammed my VW into reverse. Flashing my headlights on and off, I followed Larry up the hill. He stopped halfway to the top and got out of the car.
“Can I help you?” he called back to me. “Is something wrong?”
“Yes,” I said. “Something’s terribly wrong. It’s Francine, Francine Drury. I’ve got to talk to you, Larry. It’s important.”
“Well, come on up to the house,” he said. “We can talk there.”
“No,” I said desperately. “We can’t go to the house.”
“Why not? What’s wrong? Has something happened to Mindy? My God, is she all right?”
“You’ve got to listen to me, Larry. Mindy’s fine, but she’s got a boyfriend. They’re planning to kill you and make it look like self-defense. I heard the two of them talking about it just now.”
“Kill me?” Larry said. “Are you kidding? Mindy loves me, and she wouldn’t hurt a flea. That’s the most preposterous thing I’ve ever heard. Where did you come up with such an outrageous idea? You haven’t been drinking, have you, Francine?”
“Of course I haven’t been drinking,” I said. “I was standing outside the gate. I heard them talking inside the garage-Mindy and somebody named Wes.”
“Wes Noonan, no doubt,” Larry said confidently. “I’ll have you know Wes is a very good friend of mine. I’m sure all of this is just some silly misunderstanding. Come on up to the house now, Francine. We’ll talk this over, have a drink or two and a good laugh besides when we finally get to the bottom of whatever’s going on.”
“Didn’t you hear what I said?” I insisted desperately. “Mindy’s going to kill you and try to make it look like you attacked her.”
“She’ll do no such thing,” Larry Harshaw told me. “Now come on. It’s starting to rain. I have no intention of standing here, getting wet and arguing about this. Are you coming or not?”
“Not,” I said. “But please don’t go.”
“I’m going,” he said. And he did.
I scrambled into my car, grabbed my cell phone, and dialed 9-1-1. “Washington State Patrol,” a voice said. “What is the nature of your emergency?”
“My name’s Francine Drury,” I said. “I’m on Magnolia, in Seattle. And someone’s about to be murdered.”
I was still on the phone, giving them Mindy’s address, when I heard the distinctive pop, pop of gunfire. There was a pause and then a third pop. “Oh, my God!” I exclaimed into the phone. “Please hurry. She already did it. She shot him. Send an ambulance, too!”
I stood there shaking, leaning against the roof of my Beetle for support as two blue police cars and an ambulance, lights flashing and sirens blaring, went screaming up the hill past me. I’ve never felt more useless. If only I could have made him believe me…
A third cop car pulled up behind me and a uniformed officer stepped out. “Ms. Drury?” he asked. “Are you the one who placed the first 9-1-1 call?”
“Yes,” I managed. “Yes, I am.” Then I burst into tears. “It’s all my fault,” I blubbered. “I heard her say she was going to kill him. I tried to warn him, but he wouldn’t listen to me, and now he’s dead.”
Something came in over the officer’s radio. I heard a garbled voice, but I couldn’t make out the words. “Sit down, please,” the officer urged me. “Let me get you some water.”
I did. I was too weak to object or do anything other than what I’d been told. I sat where he told me. There were other people on the street now, streaming out of neighboring houses, trying to figure out what had happened and what was going on.
Moments later the ambulance came roaring back down the hill. The onlookers parted to let it through. r
“That’s the male vic,” the officer explained, handing me a bottle of water. His name tag said he was Sergeant Lowrey. “She winged him. Superficial wound to the shoulder. They’re taking him to Harborview. He’s going to be fine.”
“And Mindy?” I asked. “What about her?”
Sergeant Lowrey took out a small notebook. “That’s her name? Mindy what?”
“Mindy Harshaw,” I answered. “What about her?” Lowrey shook his head. “When it didn’t turn out the way she expected, she turned the gun on herself.”
“You mean she’s gone?” I stammered. “She’s dead?” Sergeant Lowrey nodded. “I’m afraid so,” he answered. “I hope she wasn’t a friend of yours.”
“I thought she was,” I said quietly, fighting back more tears.
“But I guess she wasn’t anymore.”