Chapter 11: A Full House, a visit, and an overheard conversation
"Are you sure?" I asked Christie for what seemed the tenth time.
"Yes," she nodded. "I've thought it over and it's the best solution. I've been talking to your mother and she's convinced I'm the best person for the job. If she has confidence in me and you guys think I'm the right person, then I guess I can take a chance. Thank you for the offer, Doug."
"I'm really very happy you decided in our favor, Christie. We'll do everything possible to make you happy here. I want you to treat this as your home, not just a place to stay. I want you to be part of this family."
She smiled shyly and nodded.
She had chosen the basement suite to live in. While it was technically a basement, it wasn't all below grade. The lot sloped from front to back with an eight foot drop from the front of the foundation to the back. That permitted a walk-out exit, large windows and it meant a good deal of natural light compared to a conventional basement.
Our financial agreement was straightforward. We would pay Christie with free room and board and she would keep fifty percent of the billing business plus her alimony. She would have time off on the days I wasn't driving. Debbie and I would look after the meals and the housekeeping. I put a lock on the door from the kitchen to the basement to protect her privacy. If she wanted a guest in her suite, she could bring them in the exterior exit without our knowledge.
She thought I was being overly generous, but in the end we agreed to try the plan and reassess in a few months to see if it was working for both parties. When the agreement was in place, I breathed a big sigh of relief. It was the solution I had hoped for. I prayed that it was a solution that Christie could live with.
Christie put her house up for sale and wonder of wonders, it sold within six weeks. That was unusually quick in the current market. After she split the equity balance with Paul, she had nearly thirty thousand dollars in cash. The only downer was when her ex-husband came to collect the check. I deliberately stayed out of the way when they met in her suite.
It was close to an hour before I heard his car start and he pulled out of the driveway, seemingly in a big hurry. A few minutes later, Christie came upstairs and into the kitchen.
"How did it go?" I asked.
She shook her head sadly and sat quietly at the table.
"I don't know what I saw in that man, so help me," she said forlornly. "In his mind, we should be getting back together now that I've gotten over his little mistake. I couldn't believe his arrogance. He hasn't changed at all. I wanted to give him his check and send him on his way, but he just wouldn't shut up. According to him, I should be begging him to take me back.
"I don't think I could have made it any plainer that I was never going to take him back and that was final. We must have argued about it for fifteen minutes before he changed his tune and told me I wasn't any good in bed anyway and no wonder he was out looking for 'strange' as he called it. If I'd just gone along with his version of an open marriage, everything would have been fine."
Now I was shaking my head, wondering how he could come to that conclusion.
"I said something about this being a bad time for me," she continued, "what with divorcing him and losing my best friend. That's when he started in about Diane and you. He said something about Diane being a 'stuck up bitch' married to a bus driver. How happy could she have been anyway? She needed a man like him to look after her. He said some very nasty things about you, Doug. I told him to shut up and get out but he couldn't resist badmouthing you."
"Don't worry about that, Christie," I said. "Just consider the source and forget it."
"But it hurts, Doug. You and Diane are my friends and no one wants to hear that kind of thing about their friends ... especially when it isn't true."
"His comments about me don't bother me in the slightest, Christie. But I have to admit, if he'd said something about Diane in front of me I'd have gone after him ... no matter how much bigger he is than me."
"He's a bully, Doug. A bully and a drunk. He'd had more than one drink before he came over here. I could smell it on him. I wonder if that's why his alimony payments are getting so erratic."
"Do you think he needs a warning letter from your lawyer?" I asked.
"No ... at least, not yet. But if it doesn't get any better, that's probably the route I'll go."
We sat in silence for a few minutes while Christie gathered herself. I could see that she was a bit shaken by the encounter with her ex-husband although I didn't get any sense that he'd laid his hands on her. Verbal abuse was bad enough. I would not stand for physical abuse.
"He said something odd when we were talking about Diane and you. I get the impression he tried to seduce Diane, maybe more than once, and got a flat rejection. He said he could have 'swatted you away like a fly if he'd really tried to get Diane.' She was 'easy to control.' I don't know what he was thinking, but it sounded evil the way he said it."
"Don't pay any attention to him, Christie. You said he'd had a couple of drinks and you know how he likes to brag. He was just shooting off his mouth to make himself feel better about being rejected by you."
"Yeah. I suppose that's so. I didn't know he made a pass at Diane, though. I thought she would have told me. She knew how I felt about his cheating."
"May she felt you had enough pain dealing with him every day that you didn't need any more? That would be like Diane."
"Yeah, you're right. It would be just like her."
Three days after Christie came to live in the suite, my mother left to go home, satisfied that the household was back in good hands and that we would all be okay. My father had left ten days earlier as he had appointments with his doctor and dentist. We promised to come north and see them sometime during summer since we would be headed up that way to visit Diane's parents anyway.
We held a yard sale to get rid of a lot of furniture that neither Paul nor Christie wanted nor had room for. By my order, the downstairs was now off limits to the children and me without an invitation from Christie. She seemed to be happy in that environment, but I noticed that the door from the kitchen to her suite was never closed, even at night.
She often spent the evenings after supper upstairs with the children and me. She no longer had to work at night since she was able to keep up with the billing business during the day. She had quit her job when the decision to move in with us was confirmed. Christie and Debbie were sharing other household duties, including cleaning, vacuuming and making meals. I began to feel we were taking advantage of her.
"No, Doug. I'm fine with what I'm doing. Debbie and I make a good team and it's nothing I wouldn't be doing in my own home or apartment. You take care of the outside of the house and I'll do the inside," she grinned.
I had bought a riding mower the previous winter through an ad in the Buy and Sell magazine. An older couple was moving into a townhouse and no longer needed it. It was in great condition and I got it at a much reduced price. With the big lot we had, it was a real benefit, especially during the hot summer days. Bill, of course, immediately volunteered to become the official lawn cutter.
"Okay, I'll give you a trial run, Bill. However, part of the deal is you have to weed-eat around the shrubs and driveway before you cut the lawn."
"Okay, no problem," he said, anxious to jump on the machine.
I went over the usual safety things with him, hoping he was listening to me. I would be watching him like a hawk for the first couple of times to make sure he observed my rules.
"I think that's the first sign of enthusiasm I've seen in Bill since ... well ... since you know," Christie said.
We were standing on the back deck, watching Bill operate the mower.
"It is. I'm pleased to see it. Maybe this will break him out of his funk. Pop Warner season is just around the corner and I want to see him continue with that. He needs the camaraderie and the discipline that team sports promote."
"He'll be fine, Doug. He's a nice young man and he'll make you proud of him," she smiled.
I put my arm around her shoulder instinctively when she said that before I realized it wasn't Diane and I shouldn't have done that. I yanked it away immediately.
"Relax, Doug. I'm not untouchable. I know you didn't mean to be forward. It felt very natural, in fact."
"I'm sorry, Christie. It was out of line. I apologize."
She was shaking her head. "Doug, we're going to be living in close quarters here. It's unavoidable that we will have some contact with each other. I'm not offended and you shouldn't be embarrassed. It was a very nice response to a nice moment. Don't be afraid to do things like that."
I didn't know what to say, so I said nothing. I was embarrassed, but I was also thinking just how comfortable it felt. She was someone I enjoyed sharing that moment with.
I had a surprise visit from Detective Etchevarry one morning.
"Come in. Would you like some coffee?" I asked, curious about the reason for his appearance.
"Yeah, that would be great. I'm sure it's a lot better than the battery acid we make at the station."
I handed him a mug and poured. He took a sip and nodded appreciatively.
"That's good. Thanks."
"So, what's the occasion? Have you made some progress on Diane's death?"
"Not much, to be honest. I'm reluctant to let it go to the cold case file yet, though. There are some things that are nagging me about it. For instance, no one seems to know why she would have been at the motel that night. Everyone I interviewed, including your neighbors, relatives, babysitter, and so on ... all said the same thing. She was the ideal wife and couldn't possibly be having an affair.
Your baby sitter, Juliet Fiddler, said she went out about two or three times a month while you were on your trips. Your wife said they were business meetings, so Juliet didn't really question her about them. We talked to a few of her customers, though, and none of them said they had any night meetings with her. So, where did she go?
"I didn't know she was going out while I was gone," I said, surprised at this new information. "She never mentioned any meetings at all."
"Did you phone her or did she call you when you were away?"
"I usually called her every second night. I called around eight o'clock so I could talk to the kids too. She was always there."
"Not surprising. Miss Fiddler said she didn't go out until almost nine o'clock and got back between eleven and midnight. Did she ever go out for any reason when you were home?"
"No ... not that I can think of. She would go across the street to see Christie now and then, but that was usually just an hour or so and certainly not that late."
"Okay, then, we have a pattern of behavior that is unexplained except it leaves us with a suspicion that she was meeting a person or persons that she chose not to tell anyone about."
"I can see how you would come to that conclusion, but ... who? Why? How the hell do we find out what was going on?"
"That's the sixty-four dollar question, all right. We've been canvassing the motels and hotels to see if anyone recognizes her. So far, no luck, but we'll keep at it."
"I guess there doesn't seem to be much doubt now that she had a secret life, does there?" I said, deflated.
"That's sure what it looks like. Sorry, but I thought you'd want to know we haven't given up and we will do whatever we can to bring her killer to justice."
I nodded. "I appreciate you're keeping me informed, even if it isn't good news."
"Thanks for the coffee and I'll be in touch if we turn up anything new"
I watched him walk briskly to his car and leave, heading back toward his office, I assumed. I had an unpleasant feeling in my gut. I suppose I knew that something wasn't right about Diane's life, but it was quite another thing to discover just how mysterious her activities were. Where did she go when I wasn't home? I was beginning to put two and two together and I didn't like what it was adding up to.