Behind Closed Doors
By Natalie R. Collins
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2007 Natalie R. Collins
All rights reserved.
Five Years later
I got the call that changed my life forever around two P.M. on Tuesday, June 28.
The coffee I had poured thirty minutes before had gone cold as I stared into my computer screen and talked on the phone, arranging for a restraining order against the husband of one of my repeat clients. Debbie Talon floated in and out of our shelter every several months, convinced her husband, Brandon, was going to kill her. I was convinced, too, but it made no difference. Debbie always returned to him, and they always paid a reunion visit to their bishop, who praised their decision to keep the family unit together. In another couple of months Debbie knocked on our door again, dragging with her a four-year-old son, eight-year-old daughter, and, once, a fetus that didn't live through the night, having been punched and kicked to death while still inside his mother's body.
The Salt Lake City Police Department had finally gotten involved after the last one, even though Debbie begged everyone, including me, not to tell them. She loved Brandon. He was her eternal companion.
Somehow, her eternal companion convinced them she was clumsy and fell down the stairs. No charges were filed, but they were watching him. Without Debbie's testimony, they could do little because there was no proof that anything except a terrible fall had happened. She backed up the "clumsy" story. They knew what I knew, even though they couldn't — and some wouldn't — move against a fellow priesthood holder without black-and-white proof. Apparently, black-and-blue was not enough.
Yesterday, she had shown up with a new complaint — a multicolored patch on her daughter's back. This time, she swore she wouldn't return, wouldn't put up with this, wouldn't even call her bishop. I knew better, but maybe Brandon didn't. So for now, I would try to get her the restraining order, even while knowing it was probably pointless.
I arranged the order and wrote down instructions for Debbie — which she would undoubtedly ignore. After I was done, I picked up the mug and took a sip of tepid coffee and almost spit it back out. Blah. Coffee was evil. I knew that. If anyone from my past life — the one I led before I first attended a session in the Mormon LDS Temple — could have seen me, they would have been shocked.
I was not honest with those who knew me from before. It pained me, but it was necessary. I could not handle their pressure. It was just easier to pretend I still believed, that I attended church on a regular basis, that I never drank coffee or alcohol, or even thought about sex. Of course, the last was not true at all. I thought about it all the time. I just wasn't doing it.
I stood up to refresh my coffee, the phone rang, and I sighed. Some other disaster, some other abuser, some other horrible omen or event to attend to — maybe even Sunday dinner at my parents' house, where I would be grilled endlessly about the singles ward I told them I attended, and about any possible prospects for marriage, and — worst of all — whether or not I had considered going on a mission.
Since I wasn't married, and showed no signs of ever being so, that was expected of me. It was the fate of all old maids. Next month I would be twenty-six years old.
"Oh, Jannie," came my mother's voice over the line.
I'd been right. Somebody give me a quarter and call me Madame Zelda.
But I didn't correctly predict what she would say next.
"Jannie, something terrible has happened. Lissa is missing. She's been gone half the day. She never showed up for work, and Jannie? Jannie, are you listening?"
My mother needed constant reinforcement that everyone within miles was attuned to the sound of her voice. The scary part was they usually were.
"I'm listening, Mom. I'm just in shock."
Melissa, my longtime friend, had been missing for six hours and everyone was getting frantic. Steady, dependable Melissa, who always reined her emotions in, would not just up and disappear. She would never just not show up for work, or fail to call in, so we all knew that something was wrong.
"Please come," my mother said, her words compact and tight, her unusual brevity a sign that things were horribly out of kilter.
I left my desk at the YWCA Women's Shelter, hurried down the long hallway to my boss's office, and popped my head in the door, quickly explaining that I needed to leave, to join the search party combing the canyons behind Michael and Melissa's apartment. Millicent Stone, a fifty-year-old former Catholic nun who had saved more women from monsters than any knight in shining armor could ever claim to have done, understood completely. Millie was small of frame and stature, with short, close-cropped gray hair, a heavily lined face, and eyes that expressed more than she could ever say in words. There was usually a touch of sorrow in those eyes. In our line of work, disaster is always little more than a phone call away. We've learned to adapt.
As I drove my Honda Civic toward the Canyon View Stake Center, where the command post for Melissa's search had been set up, fear raced through my mind. Surely Melissa had just lost track of time, or thought she had arranged for sick leave because she had a prior engagement.
But what if that wasn't the case? What if she had been kidnapped, taken by an unknown assailant for nefarious purposes? Although I knew the odds of that were slim, the case of Elizabeth Smart still loomed in my mind. The obvious suspects are those closest to the victim. Stranger abduction is rare. Look first at the family. These were my mantras, as a domestic abuse counselor.
But Michael and Melissa had a strong relationship. She laughed sometimes, and I frowned and fought to keep from speaking my mind, because he always wanted to know where she was, who she was with, what she was doing. He bought her a cell phone and then had to up the minutes because he called her so often they were hit with huge overage charges. Sometimes, when we were together, she'd sigh when the phone rang. No one else called her. It was always Michael.
But she loved him. And he adored her. I remembered him serenading her, back when we were in high school, singing silly, sappy romantic tunes and then sulking when she laughed at him, even though she did it kindly.
They had problems, but who didn't? I couldn't even stay in a relationship for twenty minutes. Michael would never lay a hand on her.
So who would hurt Melissa? Was she dead? No, no, don't think that way. No! She's fine. She just got busy and forgot to go to work, and to call in and tell them, and to ...
Everyone loved her. She was the type of person who really listened, who met new people and immediately knew everything about them, all their secrets spilling out. They walked away, saying, "What a nice person," without even realizing they knew absolutely nothing about her.
Melissa even knew my secret, one I had shared with no one else.
My cell phone rang, and I answered with a quick and breathless hello, praying it was someone calling to tell me that Melissa was fine.
"Jannie, it's Brian. Melissa is missing. Have you seen her?" His voice sent a cold chill down my spine, and I felt the fear, the anger, and the claustrophobia return. God help me, I really hated him. It wasn't healthy. I kept my voice calm and modulated.
"No, Brian, but my mom called me. I'm on my way."
"Good. Michael needs support. Lissa's car has been found in the parking lot of the 7-Eleven close to their house. It doesn't look good."
I felt as though someone had punched me in the stomach. I didn't want to hear this.
"Why would she have gone there?" I asked, after a moment's silence.
"She went to buy milk. Mike says they were out of it, and she told him she was going to go get some, even woke him up, since he was sleeping. She left, he went back to sleep, and when he woke up again it was ten A.M. He just figured she had let him sleep and gone to work. And you can find out more when you come here. You're great at supporting your friends. You've always been good at supporting everyone but me." He disconnected. I guess he hated me, too. I'd broken his heart. His lack of spirit and chivalry had broken mine. If only my relationship had been more like the one Mike and Melissa shared.
Flashes of the last time I saw her played through my mind. It had been an odd encounter. She'd shown up at my doorstep around seven-thirty one evening the week before. We hadn't seen each other in months and had only talked on the phone once or twice. So, to open the door and see her standing there was a bit of a shock.
Her long brown hair was swept back into a harsh ponytail, and her dark brown eyes seemed deeper set than normal, surrounded by hollows that spoke of sleepless nights and stresses I, in my single and unencumbered state, could not begin to imagine. I knew Michael and Lissa struggled for money — her job working as a secretary for an insurance company was not terribly high-paying, but she'd never gone to college, opting instead to marry young and support Michael while he attended first college and then medical school.
"Can you keep this for me?" she asked, without even a hello. She thrust a medium-sized shoe box toward me, and I reached out and grabbed it, stumbling a bit from the force of her movement. I put my hand on the doorway to steady myself.
"Geez, Liss, what's up? You don't look great. Why don't you come in and I'll —"
"I can't stay. I need to get home. Mike will be home soon for dinner. Just keep it for me, okay? Someplace safe?"
"What is it?"
She tightened her lips and shook her head twice, standard Melissa posturing for things she did not wish to discuss. I was used to this type of behavior with her. When we were growing up, it had usually signaled one of her mother's bad spells. What that could possibly have to do with the box I held I didn't know, but I knew I wasn't going to get it out of her until she was ready. Eventually, she would tell me. She always did.
"Okay, it's not anything live, is it?" I asked jokingly, trying to coax a smile out of her. "Something that will smell my place up if I ignore it for too long?"
She finally smiled — not the full, open, wide-mouthed smile she usually displayed and for which she had received one of those silly Senior Spectacular awards at graduation — but a smile, nonetheless.
"Are you sure you don't want to talk?"
"Not today," she answered. "I have to go. Thanks, Jannie. I really appreciate it."
And she turned and left.
"Oh, my God. The box," I said with a gasp, as fear gripped me. Could the box she left with me be connected to this? Her behavior had been strange, her conversation terse, her smile forced. Now she was missing. What, if anything, did the box have to do with it?
Instead of heading straight up 400 South in downtown Salt Lake City, I flipped on my blinker and moved over to the right-turn lane and headed south on 700 East. I had a small apartment in Sugar House, and although it seemed a long shot, perhaps I would find the answers to Melissa's disappearance there.
I had to open that box and find out what was inside it.
My life as an inactive Mormon was nothing but a balancing act, one that I knew I could not maintain for an extended amount of time. How I had pulled it off this many years was nothing short of a miracle, for which I thanked God daily — my only religious ritual.
I loved my family, yet I had chosen to move out of their home, even though my mother continually assured me I could live in their basement rent-free until I married. There was too much emotional baggage occupying the house where I had been raised, not the least of which was the fact I hadn't even come close to living up to my parents' hopes for me. They gladly told the bishop of my old ward my new address, and my church records followed me there. When the home and visiting teachers came, I told them I was attending a singles ward up at the University of Utah, and promised to call the bishop to have him transfer my records. I never did. They were starting to get suspicious. My big fear was that they would return my records to my parents' ward, and the jig would be up.
For now, I had my freedom, and their ignorance accorded me some bliss as I lived in my own apartment.
I parked in the side driveway of the old red brick house, located on the east side of Salt Lake City, where I rented a back apartment connected to the main home. The sides of 1700 South were lined with trees, all in full leaf on the hot July day, and when I jogged or walked, they afforded shade and relief. The neighborhood was quiet and peaceful, filled with old homes occupied either by elderly people who had lived there for years, or younger, hip, upper-class denizens who could afford the skyrocketing property costs on the east side of the valley. It was close to 2:30 P.M. on a Tuesday, so I knew that my landlady, an elderly woman named Ida Miller, would not be home. Early every Tuesday and Thursday morning, without fail, Ida packed up her old-fashioned flowered canvas suitcase with her temple clothes and caught a ride with me down to 700 East, where I would drop her off to meet her friend Elsie. Together, they would stand there, holding their flowered suitcases and chattering loudly, while they waited for the third member of their trio, LaDonna Ford, to pick them up and drive down to the Salt Lake Temple. It was a rare Tuesday or Thursday when Ida didn't follow this schedule. Despite her age, nearing ninety, she was healthy and active, and since her husband's death, her schedule had revolved around her friends and her temple work.
This morning had been no different. After their temple work, Ida and her friends would go to the Gateway Mall and eat, and then shop a bit, then she returned home around 4 P.M., when she would promptly retire for her afternoon nap. Life was simple for Ida. I envied her sometimes.
I raced around the side of the house, where my apartment was located, skirting, as always, the wide and tall hedge that protected my door from being seen by the street. Ida kept offering to have the hedge cut, but I declined. The extra measure of safety gave me a small amount of peace of mind, and since that was already in short supply, I needed all I could get. I reached for the doorknob, the keys in my right hand, and saw that the door was already slightly ajar. Startled by the gap, I stood for a moment and considered my morning. My already racing heart picked up a notch as I tried to remember what I had done before I knocked briskly on Ida's door and told her I was ready to go. Had I forgotten to lock the door and pull it closed when I left that morning? I couldn't remember pulling it shut, but it was rote. I had never before left my door unlocked and open. There were too many burglaries in this affluent east side neighborhood.
I listened closely for sounds, but there was no noise. Just the week before, the neighbor across the street had returned home in the middle of the day to find her house trashed by thieves who had stolen whatever they could tote quickly away. The police said it was young gang members looking for money to buy drugs. Were dangerous criminals inside my apartment right now?
My next thought was even more frightening than young addicts. What if it was one of the violent men whose wives and girlfriends it was my job to protect? I had a concealed weapon permit because of the nature of my job, but I had left my purse — complete with the gun I always carried — on the front seat of my car. I had raced to my apartment door, sure that I would only be a moment, that the box would contain nothing of importance, and that I would quickly be back on my way to the command post where they were setting up searches for my missing friend.
Now I backtracked, threw open the car door and grabbed my purse, pulled out the small-caliber weapon, and headed back to my door. It was probably nothing, but I wasn't taking chances. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Behind Closed Doors by Natalie R. Collins. Copyright © 2007 Natalie R. Collins. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.