Barb Goffman
Mystery Writer
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"Stepmonster" was published in the anthology
Chesapeake Crimes: Storm Warning

(Wildside Press, April 2016)

STEPMONSTER

by Barb Goffman

Lightning flashed, and my handgun’s silver barrel shone bright as a full moon. Then, just as quickly, the gloom settled in again, and I could barely see a thing. The night’s blackness invaded the porch where I hid and enveloped the acres surrounding the old farm house. It slithered between the pine trees at the far end of the property, the same way it had crept into my heart and planted roots five years earlier.

Thunder rumbled. The autumn storm clawed closer, each clap louder than the last. This one had rattled the windows. I smirked.

Did you hear that, Jan? Are you trembling in your nice warm bed? Trying to convince yourself that you’re safe? That there’s nothing to be afraid of?

I chuckled, thinking of the wrinkled hag cowering upstairs, chiding herself for being so afraid of thunderstorms, especially at her age. My dad used to try everything to get her through such bad nights. He read to her by flashlight. Told her jokes and funny stories. Once he even sang to her. “I figured she’d either laugh or cry,” he’d told me on the phone the next day. “Either way, she’d be distracted.” She loved to be distracted when she was scared. But Dad’s not around to do those things anymore.

You made sure of that. Didn’t you, Jan?

With a whoosh the wind picked up, sending crackling leaves adrift, flying over the railing onto the wooden porch. A few settled at my feet. They brushed against the size-six shoes I’d stuffed my toes into a half hour before, right before I trekked from my nondescript rental car safely parked a half mile away on the other side of the woods. I knew my feet would hurt from wearing shoes two sizes too small, but the pain would be worth it. Any tell-tale footprints would send the investigators in the wrong direction. Not that they’d even consider me. Not after all this time.

Thunder boomed again, and a bolt of lightning split the sky. Then came the rain. Fat drops slammed into the farmhouse’s roof, slid down its eaves, and dripped onto the porch railing. Steadily it poured, pounding like a fetal heartbeat, rapid and relentless. Upstairs, Jan likely had pulled the covers over her head, chanting that there’s nothing to be afraid of.

But you don’t really believe that, do you, Jan? You know that demons hide in the night, waiting, waiting for their chance. Waiting for enough time to pass that no one would suspect them when the next horrible crime occurs.

I skulked to the front door, key in my pocket, warm against my thigh. I hadn’t lived here for more than a decade, but I’d kept the key all these years. Not that I’d probably need it now. Folks around here typically didn’t lock their doors, but I wasn’t going to take any chances. Not tonight. I leaned on the door, my gloved hand resting on the knob. The door eased open with a squeak.

Dad never would have stood for that. He’d have oiled the hinges straight away. But my stepmonster was always too busy going to church or Bible study classes and chattering on the phone with her friends to do anything as mundane as keep up the family homestead. I hoped she heard the squeak now. I hoped it scared her to death.

I’ve waited five long years, I thought as I approached the staircase. I’ve been patient. I’ve planned.

And now, Jan, I’ve come for you.

Another clap of thunder shook the house as I climbed the stairs. The nearest neighbor—Old Man Adams, a couple of miles away—had probably flown to his bedroom window to check if his barn was still standing, before flipping on his porch lights and heading outside for a better view.

But you can’t turn on your lights, can you, Jan? Oh, no. ’Cause I cut the phone and power lines when I approached the house, just in case you found the courage to peek out from under your covers.

Are you hiding under the same blanket now, Jan—the blanket Dad lay on as he was dying? Are you reassuring yourself that everything’s fine, the way you did when Dad was writhing on that very bed, eyes clenched shut, powerless against the pain racking his body?

I reached the top of the stairs and began creeping toward their bedroom, remembering. The night before the funeral, when Jan and I were alone at the house, she told me what really happened the night Dad died. He hadn’t died in his sleep, even though that’s what she’d told everyone else. She’d actually found Dad about ten o’clock the night before, obviously having a heart attack. She’d offered—so magnanimous of her—offered to call an ambulance. But Dad had refused. “No no no no no no no,” were his last words. She couldn’t bear to see him like that, so she went downstairs, picked up her knitting, and turned on the TV for distraction.

“Don’t look at me like that,” she’d said as my mouth dropped open. “Your father was a very stubborn man. You would have done the same thing.”

I’d thought of him lying cold and still in his casket at the funeral home. My hands shook with rage. It took every ounce of self-control I could muster to keep from reaching out and strangling her, squeezing every last breath from her useless body. “No,” I said at last. “I would have called an ambulance.”

He’d been dying, and instead of calling for help, she’d turned on the TV. And then she had the nerve to unburden herself to me so she’d feel better. Remembering now, my hands trembled so violently I nearly dropped the gun. Outside the bedroom door I paused and leaned against the wall, forcing myself to breathe deeply. My head banged against a frame hanging on the wall. We’d never had anything hanging in the hallways, I thought, putting things together. The bitch had redecorated. I’d been mourning my dad all these years, and she’d been using his money to redecorate the house.

My face grew hotter as my anger boiled. I stepped over the threshold, into the bedroom, raising the gun. The floor creaked, as if announcing my arrival.

Jan . . . I’m here.

She lay like a lump under the blanket, snoring, larger than I remembered.

I edged closer, until I was a foot away. Then I planted my legs so I stood like a teepee, and aimed the gun at her mid-section. I wanted to make sure she didn’t die right away; she had to suffer first, as Dad had. I waited for the right moment. Five seconds passed. Ten. Then lightning lit the room, thunder roared from the sky, and I fired.

My mouth spread into a grin as the screaming began. I did it, Dad. I’ve avenged you. But then my eyes widened. That didn’t sound like Jan.

With bile rising in my throat, I yanked the blanket back. Jesus Christ. Who the heck was that? A man. A man I didn’t know. Not Jan. Not Jan! He was grabbing his chest. I’d aimed too high. Lightning flashed again, and I could see blood pouring out of the wound as he moaned in agony.

“Oh, my God,” I cried. “Who are you?”

“Lester,” he croaked out. “Why . . . why did you shoot me? Help . . .”

I dropped the gun, grabbed the blanket, and pressed it hard against his chest, trying to stop the bleeding. He moaned in pain.

“Ambulance,” he said.

I shook my head, trying to get a hold of myself. I couldn’t call for help. Not now. Not when I was so close.

“Where’s Jan?” I screamed.

“Who?”

Thunder rumbled again, and the whole world seemed to shake.

“Jan Vieta. Where is she?”

“She sold me the house a few years ago.” Lester’s breathing was shallow. “She moved . . . away.”

“Where?”

No answer.

“Where did she go?” I yelled, shaking his arm.

“She moved,” he rasped, “to . . . ”

And he took a deep breath, and exhaled, and a stillness overtook the room. No more moaning. No more answers. Just the revolting smell of his bowels evacuating as he died.

I fell back against the wall, gasping for air. I’d never get my revenge now. I couldn’t find Jan without putting myself at risk of being discovered. And I’d killed a man, an innocent man. I was going to go to hell for nothing.

I’d hated Jan all these years because she hadn’t called an ambulance for Dad, and now this man had begged me to call for help, and I’d refused. Who was worse?

Tears began pouring down my cheeks, but then I started laughing, roaring like the thunder outside.

Yes, I’d eventually go to hell. But I’d see Jan there.

#

I finished reading my story aloud, sat back in my chair, and glanced around the dining room table. This was a new critique group, an hour’s drive from my house. I hoped they’d be helpful.

“So,” I said. “What do you think?”

“It’s powerful,” Cheryl said. “I like your use of the weather to keep the tension up.”

“The writing was clear,” Lori added. “And I loved the twist at the end. Although, if your protagonist really wants to kill Jan, shouldn’t she—or he, I guess—be willing to do whatever it takes to find her, even if it means risking getting caught?”

“That’s a good point,” I said. “And my protagonist could be a she or he, whatever works for the reader. But did you believe everything my main character did to try to get away with it from the beginning? Do you see any flaws in how I set up the story?”

“The rental car could be a problem,” Dina said. “Sure, she—I’m going with she because of the small shoes—hasn’t been home in five years, but the police will always look at family first. If they find evidence that she flew home and rented a car, her goose will be cooked. So if your goal is for her to get away with it, you might want to change that part of the story.”

“That would only be true if she actually killed Jan,” Lori said. “She doesn’t know this Lester guy. The police probably will look at his family for suspects.”

Cheryl nodded. “Unless she’s spotted before she gets away. Her clothes likely will have blood on them.

“She could bring a change of clothes with her,” Lori said. “And then burn the clothes she wore during the killing.”

A change of clothes. Another good idea.

“Not that all of that should be on the page,” Dina said, “but it’s good that you’re thinking things through. You need to be sure you’re making the story realistic for your readers.”

Over the next ten minutes, they offered more helpful suggestions, and then it came time to move onto Cheryl’s work. I excused myself to the bathroom.

They seem like a good group, I thought as I shut the door. Too bad I’d have to drop out. I couldn’t let them get to know me too well. I examined my dye job in the mirror. It had been a good idea, as had been using fake names. For me and Maureen—Maureen, whom I’d kept tabs on. Who I knew had never moved.

I plopped my purse on the countertop. It was heavy from the all the cash inside, including several rolls of quarters for the tolls. Flying in and renting a car at the airport could indeed be a problem. That was why I’d planned to drive halfway, rent a car where no one knew me, and then drive the rental the rest of the way. I had to remember to remove my EZ-Pass from my dashboard so there’d be no evidence my car was anywhere out of the area.

I reached inside my bag, found my phone, and punched the weather app. Thunderstorms were still expected later in the week back home. Terrible storms. A nor’easter. The storm of the century, perhaps. I smiled.

Can you hear them, Maureen? They’re coming for you.

As am I.

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