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Light and movement coming from the back of the house across from hers caught Petra Wilson's attention. In the cool, May dusk, the lights in the family room of the big brick house flooded through the sliding glass doors. Inside, a woman gestured with one hand as she shouted and with the other held a colorful object against her dark blouse.
Petra froze on her back deck, no longer aware of the rubber bone in her hand or her golden retriever, Mason, waiting eagerly below for her to throw it. The woman's profile was framed by the patio door, and Petra couldn't see her neighbor's face clearly, but it must be the woman who lived there. Dull brown hair hid her face, but the slightly dumpy figure seemed right forwhat was her name? Mrs. Hall? Howard?
"Starts with an H," Petra whispered to herself. The couple had moved into the roomy house last fall, and Petra had only seen the woman up close a few times. She knew almost nothing about them, but the homes on the next street were bigger, with generous lots and priced twice as high as those on Petra's street. Last month she had exchanged pleasantries over the fence about the balmy April weather with the woman. Of course, then there was that time Mason got loose and ran into their backyard. Petra preferred not to remember the husband's anger on that day.
A man stepped into her view inside the other house, and she recognized the tall, lank homeowner. She saw him more often than she did his wife, when he did yard work on weekends. He approached the woman and appeared to be reaching for the thing she clutched. They grappled over the object, and Petra caught her breath. The woman pushed the man away, but he came back at her. She slappedhim this time, and he seized her.
The man grabbed her red scarf and pulled it tight. He was choking the woman. Petra gasped and squeezed the rubber bone.
Mason let out a little woof, but Petra couldn't look away from the riveting scene in the other house.
"Hush, Mason!" What should she do? She couldn't run over there, jump across the fence and confront her neighbor. But she had to do something. Maybe she could scream or toss a rock toward the glass patio doors as a warning that his actions were observed. Then she would call the police. Her mouth went dry at the thought.
She started to move toward the steps, but suddenly it was over. The woman collapsed in a fluid heap on the carpet, and the man bent over her. When he straightened, he held the object they had fought over and walked to the shelves at the side of the room. Petra gaped as he lifted the thing and placed it on a shelf at eye level and then stood back. He turned toward the sprawled woman, then looked out the patio doors. Petra could tell the exact moment he spotted her. Even from the distance across both their backyards, the expression in his eyes chilled her.
She gulped and ducked below her deck railing, dropping the dog's toy. Oh, no, what do I do now?
Mason came over and stood at the bottom of the steps whining.
"Good dog," she whispered. "Just wait."
She looked between the boards that formed the railing and saw the man close the drapes across the glass doors.
Petra took a deep, shaky breath and stood. Her legs wobbled as she dove toward her own double doors.
The dog bounded up the steps and glided past her into her living room. She closed the door and locked it, then hurried to the kitchen, grabbed her purse off the counter and pulled out her cell phone. Her hands trembled. The last time she'd called the police, her world had gone to pieces. But she had to. She couldn't ignore what she'd just seen. Mason woofed softly and rubbed against her leg as she punched the buttons.
"What is your emergency?" a woman's calm voice asked in her ear.
"I" Petra gulped for air. She looked over her shoulder, back toward the living room doorway. "I want to report a crime."
"What sort of crime?"
"I think " She swallowed hard. "I think it was a murder."
In her dark living room, Petra couldn't stop shivering as she peered through the crack between her closed drapes. The crime she'd witnessed so close to her home terrified her. So did her thoughts of what lay ahead. She'd reported a criminal once before. The horror of that night twelve years ago still haunted her.
The family room in the house opposite was once more framed like a stage with lights aglow. She could see the actors. Two Portland policemen who had questioned her a few minutes ago now talked to the owner.
The tall man stepped over to the patio doors and gestured toward Petra's house, then stared out at her. She ducked back, then told herself that was silly. He couldn't see her behind her thick green drapes.
She ventured another glance. He was talking to the officers, and one of them appeared to be taking notes. The homeowner shook his head and gave an exaggerated shrug.
Petra exhaled and turned away from the draperies. No sense watching. If they found something, she would hear about it.
Mason snuffled her pant leg. She stroked his head, and he whined.
"Yeah, I know you're hungry. Come on, boy."
She turned toward the laundry room and Mason pranced ahead of her in anticipation. Petra put a scoop of dog food into his dish on the floor. After filling his water dish, she pulled a can of coffee from a kitchen cupboard and worked mechanically, starting a fresh pot. Usually she microwaved one cup of instant at a time, but you never knew. The policemen might come back and accept a cup. Sitting down at the small oak dining table, she clasped her hands together and took a deep breath.
Lord, give me wisdom. Give me strength to get through this. Help me not to be afraid.
How long had it been since she had prayed with any regularity? Tonight, fear had sent her back to prayeran old habit she hadn't practiced in a long time. Not since she'd tried to do the right thing and someone she loved had died. Perhaps she'd been foolish to walk away from God; she didn't know, but maybe it was time to face the question. Later, though. Not now, not in the middle of this.
Coffee cascaded into the carafe. The smell of the rich brew filled the kitchen. As she rose to take her mug from the dishwasher, the doorbell rang. She hurried to the front door and peered through the peephole. One of the uniformed policemen stood on her steps. She threw the dead bolt and pulled the door toward her.
"Miss Wilson." His generic smile flashed. "We've talked to your neighbor, Mr. Harwood."
Harwood. That was it. Petra nodded. "Would you like to come in?"
As he entered the kitchen, Petra stepped back toward the counter to avoid feeling claustrophobic near the large man. Officer Stenwick, his nameplate read. His youthful features alternated between the meaningless smile and a grave, official business air.
"Would you like some coffee?" she asked.
"No, thank you. My partner is just finishing up with Mr. Harwood. We'll be heading out soon."
"Is there anything you can tell me?"
He winced. "Well, cases like this are difficult, Miss Wilson. When the witness thinks she saw something"
"I did see something." She noticed his pained expression and lowered her gaze. "I'm sorry. You were saying "
"Well, we asked Mr. Harwood about his wife. He says she's visiting her sister in Millinocket, but is due home tomorrow. We'll check his statement, of course, but " He pulled out his pocket notebook and glanced at it. "We didn't find any evidence of a crime over there."
"But that's " Petra stared at him. His impassive disbelief was clear. Just a lonely, single woman seeing things. That was how he interpreted this incident. "There was a woman," she insisted. "It may not have been his wife, but I saw her clearly. She was wearing a dark blouse and slacks, and a red scarf. He used the scarf to strangle her."
Stenwick frowned. "A scarf in May?"
"Not a winter scarf. A decorative one. An accessory." His lips twitched. "Well, I'm sorry, Miss Wilson, but we didn't find any bodies or red scarves over there. Mr. Harwood was very cooperative, and he let us search the house."
She swallowed hard. "He did?"
"Yes. Even the basement. We searched his car, the garage, as well, and we didn't see anywhere that a body could be concealed."
"Then she's outside."
"We checked all around the house. Officer Chadbourne arrived on Harwood's doorstep only seven minutes after you called the dispatcher, Miss Wilson. There wasn't time for him to remove a body."
Petra's mind raced. "There has to be something!" Stenwick shook his head. "We asked Mr. Harwood if he'd had company this evening, and he said he was alone since about two this afternoon."
"Then how does he explain what I saw?"
"He doesn't. Although there is a wide-screen TV in there. He wondered if perhaps "
"Absolutely not! Look." She led him to the patio door. Her hand shook as she unlocked it. She took four steps across the deck to the railing. "I was right here. My dog was down below, and I was going to throw a toy for him." She nodded toward the rubber bone she'd let fall to the redwood decking.
"You can see part of Mr. Harwood's television screen from here. But you certainly wouldn't mistake an image on the screen for someone choking someone else, would you?"
He exchanged places with her and stared toward the other house.
"I don't know what to tell you, ma'am. I'm sorry. But there's no physical evidence of what you claim you saw, and the professor"
"Yes, ma'am. He teaches at the university. He seems like an intelligent, respectable man."
Petra felt sick inside. "You will make sure his wife is all right?"
"Yes, we'll definitely check on her. Officer Chadbourne is calling Harwood's sister-in-law."
Petra licked her dry lips, not satisfied. "I mean I heard them arguing once, when I was out weeding my flower bed."
"When was this?"
"A couple of weeks ago."
"What were they fighting over?"
She closed her eyes to focus. "The newspaper, I think. She was pretty loud, telling him to pick up the newspapers and things he'd left all over the room. They must have had a window open."
Stenwick nodded and jotted something in his notebook. "If we find anything, we'll be in touch, Miss Wilson."
The lights in Harwood's family room went off. Petra caught her breath at the sudden change.
"Please, Officer, I didn't imagine this."
He nodded. "All right. Can you just go over your description of her again for me? I'll check the missing persons reports for the next couple of days. If someone of her description is unaccounted for, we'll be back."
They went inside, and Petra sank onto the sofa with a sigh. She repeated everything she had told the two policemen earlier, concentrating on the woman's appearance.
"The thing she was holding," she said, sitting forward.
"Did you look for that?"
"There were several knickknacks on the shelves," Stenwick said. "But you didn't say he hit her with it?"
"No. He just tried to get it from her. And after he choked her he took it and put it up on the shelf."
Stenwick nodded and stood. "Well, as I said, there were several collectibles, and pictures of their grandchildren. But nothing seemed out of place or damaged."
"So that's it?"
"Unless we find out his wife is missing."
"Or some other woman," Petra said.
"Well, yes." He turned toward the door and said a brisk, "Good night."
When he had left, Petra locked the door. Mason came and sniffed her hand, then whined.
"You need to go out?" She eyed him with indecision. She didn't want to go out again this evening, but she knew it was necessary. With a sigh she pulled on a sweater and got the leash. She took Mason out the front door and strolled up the sidewalk with him, deliberately choosing a route that would avoid the Harwood house.
Even so, she looked over her shoulder frequently.At the end of her street, she turned and headed back, although she and Mason normally walked a mile or more together in the evening.
It struck her that she had lived here a decade and had never been afraid in this neighborhood. In fact, there were few times in all her thirty-five years that she had been frightened.
Even in childhood she'd been proud of her independence. Her older sister, Bethany, was just the opposite. "Go with me, Petra!" she'd cry when asked to go down to the cellar for a jar of pickles. Petra had scoffed at her at the time.
Many times Petra had asserted that she wasn't afraid to live alone. When she was younger, she had trusted God to take care of her. But for the past twelve years, since the man she loved tore her life apart, she had trusted herself. All of her prayers had seemed useless then. Her fiancé had not repented of his wrongdoing. He had not cleaned up his life. He had not given up drugs. And when she stood up to him, he'd turned on her.
Before entering her driveway with Mason, she looked around once more. Maybe she should get away to Waterville for a few days until her nerves settled down. She could help her sisters Bethany and Keilah with the new gift shop they were about to open. Petra knew they would welcome her for a visit. One more day of work at the hospital emergency room before the weekend. Driving up Saturday morning would be better than staying here all weekend, looking over her shoulder.
The breeze rippled her hair and she shivered. If she went back to their hometown to visit, would Bethany and Keilah believe her? Or would they think she had an overactive imagination? Maybe it would be better not to tell them about what she'd seen without some proof. She'd already mentioned to them the stress she was under at work, with the emergency room being so short-staffed. She couldn't bear it if they thought her nerves had cracked.
She stroked Mason's head and smiled down at him. "At least I've got you, boy." A car rolled slowly past. Petra shivered. They needed to get out of the open. She urged the dog quickly up the walk. The car turned at the corner and was soon out of sight, but Petra still felt a sense of growing unease.
She'd never been the type to jump at shadows, and she didn't like this new, fretful feeling one bit. As she went into the house and locked the front door, it hit her that her solitude had become sinister.