The Lost Night: A Daughter's Search for the Truth of Her Father's Murder

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Overview

A deeply moving story of one woman's search for truth and meaning in the aftermath of her father's unsolved murder.

On the night of June 22, 1986, ten-year-old Rachel Howard woke to a disturbing sight: pools of blood on the hallway carpet and a glimpse of her father clutching his stabbed throat. Stan Howard died minutes later, and his bizarre small-town murder was never solved. Rachel's father was thirty-two, a laid-back, handsome man who loved the music of Rod Stewart and had ...

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Overview

A deeply moving story of one woman's search for truth and meaning in the aftermath of her father's unsolved murder.

On the night of June 22, 1986, ten-year-old Rachel Howard woke to a disturbing sight: pools of blood on the hallway carpet and a glimpse of her father clutching his stabbed throat. Stan Howard died minutes later, and his bizarre small-town murder was never solved. Rachel's father was thirty-two, a laid-back, handsome man who loved the music of Rod Stewart and had no known enemies. Faced with her family's shock, Rachel decided she would cope the only way she knew how: By keeping silent and trying to pretend the murder had never happened.

Now, seventeen years later and recently engaged, Rachel attempts to uncover for herself what happened that night. Finally reconnecting with her father's family, she sorts through her relatives' memories of his death and presses the less-than-helpful detectives. Still bewildered, she seeks the only other two people present at the murder: her former stepmother and stepbrother, neither of whom she has seen since her father's funeral. The result is a tender portrait of a father and a keen investigation of memory, truth, and how a family moves on from a tragedy for which they may never find answers.

“Homicide has lifelong effects for its secondary victims, and educating people to that fact is an essential part of the battle for victims' rights. The genres of True Crime and Memoir both need more books like The Lost Night. Rachel's memoir is important and enlightening. She is very brave for taking on the telling of this story.
—Jeanine Cummins, author of A Rip in Heaven

"From the first page to the last, I read Rachel Howard's spellbinding memoir of murder and its harrowing aftermath with my heart in my mouth. A riveting exploration of grief, suspicion, and the tangled ties that make up the modern family, her need to uncover the identity of the person responsible for the vicious stabbing death of her beloved, but flawed father compels her on a brave, emotional quest for the truth. I turned the pages late into the night, eager to follow Howard as she pursued the next clue and the next, as well as to discover how she would come to terms with her terrible loss. A clear-sighted writer, willing to admit to the gaps in fact and memory that will always remain, the true triumph of her story is the hard-won, if uneasy truce she ultimately establishes with the past."
—Anna Cypra Oliver, author of Assembling My Father: A Daughter's Detective Story

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
"I saw my father clutching his throat, trying to speak." Rachel Howard's last memories of her murdered father are Polaroid snapshots of shadowy moments, fragmentary images of a world forever lost. This book is both a reconstruction of that unsolved 1986 murder and a series of impromptu portraits of a family of victims.
William Grimes
As a detective, Ms. Howard fails. She never learns the identity of her father's killer. But as a memoirist, she succeeds brilliantly. The Lost Night is enthralling, a skillfully narrated story that begins as a tale of detection but quickly becomes something more. Sifting through her past, Ms. Howard, who writes on dance and books for The San Francisco Chronicle, opens a window onto the miseries that divorce visits upon children, and the extent to which drugs have woven their way into ordinary working-class lives.
— The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
In 1986, when the author was 10, her father was stabbed while sleeping next to his third wife; his murder remains unsolved. After years of pretending the memories of that night haven't affected her, and about to get married and enter a new phase of life, Howard sets out to untangle what she and her family can recall of her father's life and death. This book is not an attempt at vengeance but rather a profoundly personal account of a California Central Valley childhood defined by chaotic family life. Howard's parents divorced when she was very young, and both subsequently remarried, with Howard repeatedly pulled into new versions of "family" that replaced-but never explained the demise of-the old ones. It's a testament to her strength that she was finally able to extract herself from this turmoil and make a life of her own (she now writes for the San Francisco Chronicle). Howard's desire to understand her past (particularly the murder) will leave readers sympathetic and understanding of the story's sometimes wandering nature. This is a poignant account of the lifelong effects violence and tragedy can have on an individual and a family. Agent, Noah Lukeman. (July 25) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Howard was only ten years old and asleep in the next room when her father was murdered in their Merced, CA, home. Nothing was stolen, and police uncovered no clues. Why was a family man with no apparent enemies stabbed to death in the middle of the night? The case stayed open but grew cold. To this day, there have been no leads, no suspects, and no arrests. For Howard, now a freelance journalist, memories of that night are hazy-even, she suspects, warped by time and subconscious influences. With an eye toward her future, she begins her search for the truth behind that night, eventually reaching out to her father's family, from whom she has been estranged since his funeral. Coming face-to-face with the full force of death, grief, destruction, and the discovery of the healing process, Howard offers readers an uncommon glimpse into the aftermath of a murder as seen through the eyes of one of its peripheral victims. With honest and uncluttered prose, she paints a haunting portrait of a father-and a night-lost but a family found. Recommended for public and academic libraries.-Jamie Engle, Richardson, TX Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A young woman tries to reconcile her memories of her father's murder with the recollections of others. Howard-dance critic and book reviewer for the San Francisco Chronicle-was ten in 1986, when her father was stabbed to death. Seventeen years later, she began her quest to make sense of things, sort out what happened and put to rest her suspicions and fears. Her depiction of life with her mother, her addicted and abusive stepfather, Howdy, and her half-brother Emmet is vivid, as are those early years spent with her father and beloved and loving first stepmother, Nanette. When her cocaine-sniffing father moves on to his next wife, the sexy young Sherrie, visiting arrangements are such that she spends considerable time with them and with her new young stepbrother Bobby. She adores her father but fears and dislikes Sherrie and must get along with Bobby. Blue-collar life in California's Central Valley is rich in detail: shabby tract homes, trucks, fights, language, clothes, pop music-all ring true, whether actually from memory or reconstructions. Indeed, the question of memory and its reliability is one Howard has to face in her search. Accounts of her father's murder differ: her own memories of the night of the murder, on the one hand, differ from what she learns from the police, which differ from the recollections of her stepmother and stepbrother. She seeks out and interviews family members she hasn't been in touch with for years, questions detectives who worked on the case and tracks down old newspaper articles. Yet this is not a detective story, and Howard doesn't solve the crime. Although she hates the overused word "closure," that's what in fact she is searching for, and it's what shefinds. By the end, her adoration of her father and her hatred and suspicion of her stepmother have been tempered, and her need to find someone to blame, vanquished. A slight work with memorable portraits of a fragmented family.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780452287426
  • Publisher: Penguin Group (USA)
  • Publication date: 6/27/2006
  • Pages: 288
  • Product dimensions: 5.38 (w) x 8.00 (h) x 0.69 (d)

Meet the Author

Rachel Howard currently covers dance and writes book reviews for the San Francisco Chronicle. She has also written for The Village Voice, The San Francisco Examiner, The Orange County Register, The Santa Barbara Independent, and Dance Magazine.

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Read an Excerpt

Prologue

I saw my father clutching his throat, trying to speak.

That image taunted me as I walked into the Merced County Sheriffís Department one sweltering August day. Iíd come to meet with the detectives assigned to my fatherís murder, though discussing his death with anyone, let alone the authorities, still made my throat constrict and my right eye twitch. Whenever anyone asked about my father, I replied, in a flat, neutral voice, ìMy father was murdered.î I hoped to stop the conversation cold, and usually I succeeded. But sometimes the questions persisted. How old were you? I was ten. God, Iím sorry, can I ask what happened?

If I felt strong, if I felt I was dealing with a straight shooter who wouldnít coo with pity, I might push myself to continue. Iíd tell of waking up that summer night, and seeing pools of blood on the hallway carpet. Iíd describe my father standing inside the darkened bedroom doorway, one hand clenching his throat. I might say heíd been trying to say something to me, his mouth moving soundlessly as he bled, even though I could not swear upon it.

This was the trouble with talking about the murder, the reason I usually blunted the topic. The moment I saw my father clutching his throat was just one among so many details I couldnít verify. Some details remained in doubt because Iíd never worked up the nerve to check them out; others, things Iíd seen with my own eyes, lay obscured because for sixteen years Iíd let them fade like an intense and illogical dream you try to shake upon waking.

The only facts I held with certainty were these: At about three thirty a.m. on June 22, 1986, someone entered, through an unlocked sliding-glass door, my fatherís house on the outskirts of the central California farming town where he had grown up. The intruder took a knife from the kitchen and stabbed my father as he lay sleeping next to his third wife. He was pronounced dead at the hospital an hour later. He was thirty-two years old, a handsome, laid-back guy who had loved weight lifting and the Three Stooges and Rod Stewart songs, and who seemed to have no enemies. No one was ever charged with the crime.

Beyond this, fact dissolved to suspicion. My father was married to his third wife, Sherrie, for just over a year. I never met her brother Steve, but I heard my grandparents refer to him in mysterious, bitter outbursts. Iíd been left to wonder whether Sherrie had conspired in my fatherís death, and Iíd done soófleetinglyóin the privacy of my own mind, never daring to talk to my family about what had happened.

Finally, in my mid-twenties, Iíd begun writing about my father, reclaiming moments from our summers together, trying to bring the years before his death into focus. But when I thought of describing the night of his murder or the way Iíd felt afterward, my mind stopped short like a horse at a tall fence, unwilling to cross into territory I wasnít sure I could return from.

The story of my fatherís death was half complete, because Iíd been too afraid of what I might remember, and because I hadnít lived the end of it. Now I was ready, and I had a guess as to why. Three days before my appointment with the detectives, Iíd joined my boyfriend, Bill, on a visit to his family. We sat around the dining table with his siblings and parents, playing Scrabble and trading jokes as the night grew darker. Finally Bill glanced at me, tapped my foot under the table, and said, ìRachel and I are engaged.î You would have thought weíd announced we were joining the circus, the way the air hung with incredulity before the excited gasps. And though heíd proposed months earlier, Bill and I could hardly believe the news ourselves.

I wrote in an ecstatic scrawl in my journal the next day, ìIíve entered a new era. One in which the murder is pastóor almost.î Was I ready to face my fatherís murder because I was getting married, or was I ready to get married because Iíd begun to examine the murder? I only knew the two were connected, and that the need to learn all that I could about my fatherís death now felt urgent.

And so I found myself giving my name at the Sheriff Departmentís bulletproof reception window and waiting for a detective to open the locked steel door leading to his office. I wasnít on a mission to solve my fatherís murder or convict his killer. What I wanted was even more elusive, and unlike an investigation, full of leads to pursue, there were no clear steps to tracking it down.

Perhaps Iíd thought the detectives guarded all the answers I needed, that their case file held some magic decoder that would make sense of the little I knew about my fatherís death. They confirmed a few elements of the crime that had always felt too bizarre to be real and gave me new pieces of information that left me even more bewildered. But they didnít present a definitive story of my fatherís death that I could live with, that I could hold in my mind as truth.

I didnít recognize my story in the detectivesíbare-bones accounting, and I wanted to fill in the scenes their facts left out. I wanted to tell them about the summer afternoons of happiness my father and I had shared dancing to ìMaggie Mayî in our cramped living room, the wiggle of his mustache as he winked at me in his janitorial vanís rearview mirror, the triumphant smirk on his face when he crossed the finish line in our neighborhood 10K. I wanted to say that all of that had ended with his third marriage. My father had changed in the months before the murder; heíd turned sluggish and controlling, and his love had come to feel more suffocating than protective. My story was still disconnected and inconclusive, but it was more revealing, I felt certain, than anything the detectives could share with me from their tightly clutched case file.

The detectives werenít interested in hearing my story, or in helping me assemble it. They nodded as I tried to condense the most telling scenes, took care to look me straight in the eyes and jot down a few notes. They shook my hand and asked, ìDid you get what you came for?î

I answered yes. I said I had just wanted to hear the little that was known about the case for myself. But in truth my need ran deeper. I wanted to understand the facts of my fatherís murder in order to write about itóand I had to write about his death in order to understand it. Those drives were circular and inextricable as I tried to construct a past that would let me move into the future.

But only I could live the second half of this story. And my fatherís murder wasnít behind me just yet.

PART ONE

Murder Night:
June 1986

Bobby is at my bedroom door, in his tighty-whities. ìWake up. Rachel, wake up!î he whispers. ìI think Daddy cut himself shaving.î

Bobby is nine and I am ten and what he is saying makes no sense. First off, Bobby has no right to call my father ìDaddy,î even if Bobby lives here year-round and Iíve only come for the summer. But as I rub the sleep from my eyes and look at the clock, the usual irritation fades into confusion. Itís three thirty a.m.óno time for a shave.

Bobby is gone. I sit up and shuffle alongside my dresser, feeling my way to the bedroom door. I can scan our entire house from my room: the living room straight across, the kitchen to the right, the bathroom and Bobbyís room down a short hallway to the left, and Dad and Sherrieís room across from it.

It takes a few seconds for my eyes to adjust to the moonlight pouring through the living room window. I make out our powder-blue curtains first, slate gray against the darkness, and as the rest of the view falls into place, I see the house is empty and still. Then I look down the hallway, and what I find there sears itself upon my brain: huge, dark pools in the carpet, like giant grape Kool-Aid spills. Bigger around than basketballs, sticky wet and black in the colorless night. As I stare at them and remember Bobbyís nonsensical words about shaving, I know at once that they are pools of blood.

The blood is a flash, a Polaroid snapshot of a shadowy moment, and the next ten minutes come in flashes too, murky images captured and set aside to develop in slow motion. In a flash, Iím at the open door of Dadís bedroom. Dad is standing bare-chested, deathly white, holding his throat, looking into my eyes and mouthing something I canít understand. In a flash, the door slams in my face, and I hear Sherrie shout ìIím calling 911.î

It feels like I stare at that closed door a long time. I donít know if I try the handle, but if I do, itís locked. I donít know how I step around the blood, how I decide to go back into my bedroom, how it is that I eventually walk into the living room and quietly take a seat on the couch next to Bobby. I donít know who turned the lamp on, but the light is throwing just enough illumination around the room to make the shadows look that much deeper. And I donít know how it is that Bobby and I are both now fully dressed. The biggest mystery of all, though, is how Bobby knows someone has tried to kill my father.

He picks up one of Dadís sweat-stained weight-lifting gloves from the glass-top coffee table and slips it over his pudgy fingers.

ìMaybe we should take these with us,î he says in a serious but steady voice, pulling the Velcro strap open and closed. ìLike a keepsake.î

I pick up the other glove and let the meaning of Bobbyís strange words trickle through my mind. I slide the glove over my hand. The cutoff finger holes are too big for me; the glove is a hard, sweaty shell that doesnít fit, that makes me feel tiny and protected.

But Bobby has a second thought. ìWait,î he says. ìWhat if that person touched them!î

He tosses his glove so it slides off the edge of the coffee table and flaps his hands as if shaking off cooties. I set my glove down gingerly, not believing that whoever came through our house could have tarnished it but wanting to play along with Bobbyís game because playing along will let us believe that we can still play games after what weíve just seen.

The house hums with noiselessness in the dead night of our country neighborhood. I try to think of other mementos we might want to take, to ignore the blood splattered along the wall and soaking on the carpet behind us. The couch is placed so that its back faces the open hallway. I want to curl up in a ball for fear that someone will pop up behind me, but Bobbyís presence keeps me from cowering.

Instead I search for cootie-free souvenirs, looking at the airbrushed duck decoy Bobby and I bought Dad at the flea market a few weeks ago. At Dadís old record collection, his beloved Rod Stewart albums, leaning against the TV. At yesterdayís cold coffee cup forming a creamy brown ring on the coffee table glass.

When the paramedics charge through our living room, itís like a scene from an action movie crashing down our hallway. A moment later Sherrie is sitting between us on the couch, wrapping her hands around our eyes and telling us, ìDonít look, kids, donít look.î I look anyway, can just peek over her skinny pinkie and above her shoulder, and I see Dadís legs and his feet streaking by on the gurney. I tell myself to remember that last look well. In my gut I know it will be the last I ever see of Dad.

When we arrive at the emergency room, everyone is there. My grandfather, my aunts and unclesóitís like Christmas without the other children. Grandpa Ben gets up from the plastic waiting-room chair and steps aside with Sherrie into the hallway. Grandma Mae calls me and Bobby over to sit in her wide lap, to each slide upon her bench-sized thighs, clenching us to her enormous bosom. ìDonít you worry, kids, your daddyís tough and heís gonna make it!î she says, rocking. I look around the blue-gray fluorescent room at my aunts and uncles, who donít seem to share Grandma Maeís conviction.

It is forever and yet no time at all before a man in blue scrubs walks into the room. He stands in front of Grandma Mae, looking down on us huddled together. He acts as though heís talking just to her. ìHe lost too much blood,î he says. He says something about trying to operate, about a piece of knife stuck in the vein. ìIím sorry but he just lost too much blood, and heís passed on.î

I think I feel Grandma Maeís heart stop beating beneath her cushiony chest. She looks up at the man, silent. ìWould you like a moment alone with the body?î he asks. Heís still talking to Grandma Mae, but it will always feel as though he were asking me too, as though if Iíd had the courage to pipe up, I could have visited my father one last time.

Iím not quite thinking this though. Iím thinking of cooties. Iím thinking of dead bodies. Iím thinking that itís gross to see a dead body, even if it is my fatherís. Iím thinking I have seen enough.

The only entertainment Bobby and I can find on TV at five thirty in the morning is a fishing show. One of the adults has handed us the remote control and headed to my grandparentsí kitchen, where the coffeepot is gurgling and Grandma Mae is busying herself filling cup after cup. Sherrie sits at the kitchen table as aunts and uncles seem to sleepwalk around her. She is chattering hysterically. ìI just canít believe it, I donít know who could have done this.î My uncles stare at her with puffy, annoyed eyes.

The sliding-glass door slams. Grandpa Ben stands outside, wailing and kicking the redwood deck with his short, strong legs. Every pound against the wood makes me cringe. Iím staring at the television, but Iím telepathically begging Grandpa Ben to wipe his foxlike eyes, smooth his dirty-blond hair, and stroll back inside. His whimpers fall silent, but the door does not open.

Bobby and I stay focused on the fishing. Two men sit on a dull, flat lake whispering, waiting for the big one to bite. For the sake of distraction, for the sake of fear, it is the most engrossing program Bobby and I have ever seen. We made it back to the house first, in Grandmaís car. Bobby headed directly to the message board next to the kitchen telephone and scrawled ìCREMATED 6/22/86î in chalk. I watched, puzzled, not knowing what cremated meant and not believing Bobby could use the word so confidently. Iíd never felt a kinship with Bobby. His father, Dad had told me, was a bad man. I was brash, outspoken, full of myself; Bobby tended to mumble and communicate in nervous giggles, with wary eyes. Yet, except for that weird remark about the shaving accident, Bobby had shown admirable control during those last two hours at the house and the hospital.

When the knock comes at the front door, I know itís my mom, because only she, the perpetually paranoid ex-wife, would knock. She crouches in the foyer and hugs me, braces my shoulders, makeup-free face twisting with worry. I feel as if Iíve just been released from a torture camp in which Iíd been next in line for the firing squad, but my joy in finally seeing her, in finally heading to our home far, far down the freeway in Fresno, is muted. I look her in the eye.

ìSomeone killed my dad,î I tell her. ìBut Iím OK.î

This is what I say to her, verbatim. I know it now for fact because she never forgets it.

The Fallout

Four days after my fatherís murder, Grandma Mae, Sherrie, Bobby, and I sat on the Merced County Sheriffís Department steps, waiting for the detectives to send us on our way. Bobby and I had just been fingerprinted. A current of excitement had rippled through me as the lieutenant firmly rolled each of my fingers on the ink pad, followed by a wave of guilt as I remembered that my father was dead, that it was only because of his murder that I was feeling like a guest star on The Rockford Files. I would get used to this seesaw sensation over the next few monthsóa moment of normality, of laughing at my favorite cartoon or delighting in the teddy bear my aunt in Oregon had sent as a condolence gift. And then that jolt of memory, of registering anew a fact that had not yet become a given of my existenceóDad would never watch Inspector Gadget with me again; my aunt had sent the bear because my father was dead.

Grandma Maeís salt-and-pepper bob had turned noticeably grayer overnight. The outside corner of her right eye twitched above her deepening jowls. I repositioned myself, tugging at my culottes to cover as much skin as possibleóthe afternoon was so hot that the concrete baked my backside, even though a breeze blew down the sidewalk. The wind picked up a pile of dead leaves and tossed them into a tiny whirlwind that swept toward us. Sherrie took a deep drag on her cigarette, peering at the miniature tornado with that thoughtful smoker expression. ìStan always said that when he died, heíd like to come back as the wind,î she said with a wistful smile.

My own right eye began to twitch. It struck me that what Sherrie said wasnít true. Just a few weeks ago Sherrie, Bobby, and I had all lain together in Dadís bed one late morning, cuddling as he sipped his coffee, musing on the concept of reincarnation. I said I wanted to return as a rabbit, and Dad said he wanted to come back as an eagle, soaring above the mountains.

I let Sherrieís seeming lie wash over me, like so many things that Sherrie had said in the year and a half since sheíd entered my life. Iíd given up trying to read her motivations long ago. Just before her marriage to my dad, a year earler, sheíd taken me alone to the mall for ìgirl shopping.î Sheíd hovered over a bin in the Mervynís lingerie department, dangling discounted thong panties from her skinny fingers and purring, ìYour fatherís going to love this!î Was I supposed to enjoy being in on her grown-up seduction? Was she trying to make clear the sexual powers she held over my dad? My face tingled with shame, but my head shook up and down as though sheíd offered me a piece of candy, because it was the only way I knew to get through.

All of us were just getting through during those days after the murder, which is why I was sitting at the Sheriffís Department with Sherrie in the first place. Iíd spent the first day after the murder in Fresno with my mother, but Grandma Mae requested that I stay with her and Grandpa Ben after the funeral. Sherrie and Bobby had moved into my grandparentsí extra bedroom. Unbeknownst to my mother, Sherrieís sworn enemy, I was left not in my grandparentsí constant care, but in Sherrieís charge. And so, the day after the Sheriffís Department visit, Sherrie dropped Bobby and me off at a city-run child-care program in Applegate Park and came back for us late that afternoon.

We drove past downtownís vacuum-repair shops and boarded-up cafÈs, past the vintage movie theater with its peeling orange trim, past the fairgrounds, past the cemetery where Dadís ashes had just been laid to rest. Beyond the freeway overpass, Bobby and I knew the route by heart. No other destination was possible. We were going back to the house, our house, where Dad was killed.

ìIíve gotta run inside and get some things,î Sherrie said as she pulled into the driveway, as though stopping off at Longís for toothpaste and deodorant. She turned the key, set the parking brake. ìCome on, guys,î she said.

She took quick strides up the walkway while Bobby and I dragged our feet behind. We stopped in the hallway, where the harsh summer light glared upon a trail of blood.

ìI guess weíll have to get new carpet before we put the place on the market,î Sherrie said with mystifying levelheadedness. She tiptoed around the blood spots, pussyfooting along the wall to the back bedroom. Bobby looked ready to pick his nose, his nervous tic. I grabbed his arm, pulled him into my bedroom, and shut the door.

My bedcovers lay unmade, just as I had left them, and the dresser drawers sat open, clothes tossed around like tissue paper. Just to make believe this was a normal trip home, I picked out some shorts and T-shirts and began folding them. Bobby sat in the corner next to my trunk of stuffed animals bobbing Ralph the Muppet up and down in conversation with Arthur the Cabbage Patch Kid. ìMommyís going to sell the house,î he said in a ventriloquistís squeaky voice, nodding Arthurís plastic head. ìYes, and then weíll never come back here again,î he huffed, snapping Ralphís mouth open and shut.

There was a soft knock at the door. ìYou guys ready?î Sherrie said. She had a backpack over one shoulder, and an overnight case in her hand. Bobby and I followed her out of the bedroom and around the blood, not bothering to take anything with us, not knowing if weíd ever come back.

On June 23, 1986, the headline ìMerced Man Stabbed To Deathî appeared on the third page of the Merced Sun-Star, beneath a puff piece about locals auditioning for the new Fresno miniseries. Merced County sheriffís officers are investigating the stabbing death of Stanley Howard, 32, who died early Sunday. Sheriffís Detective Sgt. Hector Garibay said Sunday no suspects had been arrested in the case.

While Sherrie and Bobby and I were revisiting the crime scene, articles about Dadís murder that I was not shown, that I would not see for nearly two decades, were running in the Merced and Fresno papers. News spots about the case I would never view were playing on the local television stations. The story had the makings of a gripping chronicle: The murder was bizarre even for an agricultural town of sixty thousand despite Merced Countyís high crime rateóa dozen people were murdered there the year Dad died. And yet the story would quickly disappear, because within a week it would be obvious that the case was going nowhere.

I overheard certain details in those days right after his death, a word dropped by Sherrie, a whisper from someone I didnít even recognize at the funeral reception. Some of these details stuck in my memory. Others I didnít learn until more than fifteen years later, so that it would become difficult for me to sort what I knew then from what I gathered as an adult.

The detectives decided that whoever killed my father had been expert in his operation: Heíd stabbed Dadís carotid artery and twisted the knife, breaking the blade off inside his neck. They had a psychologist interview Bobby, who talked of half-waking to see a shadowy figure in his bedroom doorway. They analyzed a hair that had been found in the house and failed to connect it to anybody. They dusted the house for prints but found only the familyís finger smudges and a stray print from one of the detectives.

They canvassed the neighborhood and questioned Dadís friends and acquaintances in hopes of identifying someone, anyone, with a reason to want Dad dead. Names were swiftly checked off the list of possible suspects: The owner of a van that had been sighted parked near our house had a strong alibi; a man spotted walking down a road near our home with blood on his hand had buddies vouch that heíd been in a fight, and that heíd been returning from a late night out. One final suspectóSherrieís own brotherówas cleared just as quickly and mysteriously.

But my family was silently beginning to form its own suspicions. The process began the moment Grandma Mae called my mother at four thirty a.m. to tell her my father was dead, with my motherís gut response: ìDid Sherrie do this?î

The Howards had accepted Sherrie out of family solidarity. But she was never one of us. She was a good-looking woman, thin, with alluring blue eyes and long legs. She wore typical eighties fashions, acid-washed jeans and big dangling earrings, but she did not dress especially provocatively. Her hair was a flat brown, feathered in a Charlieís Angels style, and her face bore big bee-stung lips, black-lined eyes, and carefully arched and penciled brows. If my mental image of her now tends toward caricature, a snapshot of a woman in skintight shorts and heavy makeup, itís because of her carriage, not her grooming. She was incorrigibly flirtatious and suggestive, a habitual eyelash batter, a fan of heavy metal music, a partyer. A tease.

She was the antithesis of my previous stepmother, my fatherís second wife, Nanette. I had lived with Nanette during visiting weekends and vacations for five years and adored her, and perhaps that helps to explain why I never took to Sherrie, why I distrusted her so staunchly. A week or so before my father died, I dreamt Sherrie was trying to kill me by poisoning my cereal.

But my dislike of Sherrie remained mostly secret before Dadís murder. During Dadís marriage to her, my grandparents had stood by her, defending her against my motherís demands for skipped child support, which Dad had never failed to pay while married to Nanette. And so during those first days after the murder, the facade of that allegiance remained. I had always looked upon Sherrie with wary eyes. Now I sensed, but did not know, that my family was watching Sherrie with that same distrust. From my motherís groggy gut reaction forward, Sherrie would assume a mysterious, mythological status in our memories.

My motherís memory of Dadís funeral is much stronger than mine. She sat with her second husband, Howdy, in the parlorís main hall as the organ musicóìI Come to the Garden Aloneîómeandered and a minister my father hadnít seen in years attested to Dadís zeal for life. I sat in a curtained side box with Sherrie, Bobby, my grandparents, and a host of aunts, uncles, and cousins. When my mom heard a child wailing, she rushed over to comfort me, parting the box curtains as her former in-laws shot sharp looks. But I hadnít so much as sniffledóit was Bobby who sobbed uncontrollably. My father had been in the process of adopting him, becoming his hero almost overnight. I had lost my father but Bobby had lost his new life.

I didnít cry that day. In fact, I never cried about my fatherís death in front of anyone. I detested pity and shrank from it in horror, afraid that the murder had made it obvious to everyone that I was broken and hurt. At the funeral, I focused on minute details to blur the reality of a bigger picture. My oldest cousin, Kelly, was wearing electric blue eyeliner and mascara; I stared at her in wonder, longing for the day Iíd begin to wear makeup, as we trudged across the prickly lawn to the gravesite.

For many years I remembered Sherrie as also remaining unstained by tears during Dadís funeral. Somehow this impression, which must have taken hold a few years after Dadís death, morphed into a vision of her, blithe and stony-eyed, black mascara utterly unsmudged. Many years later, when she might as well have been some monster under the bed Iíd imagined as a child, I fit the piece into my personal Sherrie lore.

But Sherrie did cry at the funeral. Other witnesses remember that now. Her tears flowed more liberally than my grandparentsí. For almost two decades, my memory chose not to acknowledge that.

A box of ashes went into the ground that day, marked by a headstone that read ìBeloved Husbandî

My father was not a wealthy man. He left $30,000 in insurance money. Initially the insurance company told Sherrie and my grandparents that he left that money in his second wifeís name, but the policy was restored to Sherrie without whispering a word to the woman who had come before. Accounts differ, but as far as I can ascertain, my father had died owing my grandfather about $16,000. The day the insurance check came, Grandpa Ben accompanied Sherrie to the bank to supervise her deposit, collected his debt, and told her to get lost.

My mother assumed that my father left more insurance money, remembering the way heíd bragged about his policies. Sheíd wanted to fight for the payout and claim a piece for me. Sheíd put herself through college, on welfare, to become a registered nurse, and she knew she wanted me to be able to attend college one day without going on the dole. After months of Dadís missed child support payments, she figured a chunk of insurance cash was only just.

My grandparents didnít want any fuss. They wanted to move on, or more specifically, they wanted to get Sherrie out of their house and lives, though they didnít tell Mom that. ìLet this pass,î Grandma Mae said. ìWeíll help Rachel with college when the time comes.î This ambiguous agreement resulted years later in the near-gift of their used station wagon (Mom bought me a car herself, making it unnecessary) and a check for $500. My mother saw this as stingy; Mae and Ben, born of the Great Depression, with thirteen grandkids and an objective, everything-split-exactly-evenly philosophy of money, saw it as more than fair. Certainly, it wasnít personal: I had been as close to them as any of their other grandchildren, visiting on weekends with Dad, delighting in each family Christmas, even living with them for part of second grade. But all that easy familiarity was about to disintegrate.

Except for Social Security, I never got any money from Dadís death. Mom regretted not fighting for a settlement, however meager, but as I grew up, I never wished for the nonexistent inheritance. It was not the lack of a few thousand dollars that would eventually bring me to emotional collapse, that would build an invisible wall between an only child and the extended family she had once taken for granted.

Instead it was the absence of answersóthe desire for an accounting of Dadís death that felt real and made senseóthat would shape my life. It would take many years of forgetting to realize that I wanted to remember.

—Reprinted from The Lost Night by Rachel Howard by permission of Dutton, a member of Penguin Group (USA). Copyright 2005 by Rachel Howard. All rights reserved. This excerpt, or any parts thereof, may not be reproduced without permission.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 9, 2006

    A Compelling Emotional Search for Justice

    A trying tale of a young girl struggling with the murder of her father, and trying to unravel the mystery behind his death. As Rachel Howard goes through life she tries to find her father¿s murderer. The Lost Night follows Rachel on her journey through the aftermath of her father¿s murder and path of trying to find her father¿s murderer. This book is a good book to read though depressing and grim at times, the overall message shows Rachel growing as a stronger person despite what happened in her childhood. People who have recently experienced a loss in their family might especially find this book high-quality. The low point of this book was that though Rachel Howard is a good story teller, the book seemed to drag in some place and lack some details in other parts. Overall though The Lost Night was a very good book with good narration and gave the reader a good picture of what Rachel Howard was feeling at the time of the events.

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