On the day Chris moved in permanently, Sharon surprised him with a leather chair and matching ottoman. Now he sat motionless on the ottoman, his back to the leather chair, and studied the stenciled plaster wall, seeing nothing. His Colt 1911, with seven bullets in the clip, lay on the floor three feet away, and across the room, medical personnel confirmed what he already knew—his wife was dead. Officer Lanco, wearing gloves and carrying two plastic bags, walked past the medics toward Chris. She carefully lifted the gun, removed the clip, made sure the chamber was empty, and placed the clip in one bag and the weapon in the other. Officer Black stood beside Chris, hand on his service revolver, as he had since arriving with the entourage of responders. Once Chris’ weapon was gone, he dragged a caned chair from a desk and sat facing Chris.
“Can you tell me what happened, Mr. Straight?”
Chris, still in shock, began slowly. “We were watching a movie and heard a sound outside the window… so we muted the television.” Chris looked toward the silent television and saw the movie credits running. “It sounded like someone was trying to remove the window screen. I took my gun from the drawer.” Slowly, he pointed to the small maple table beside the leather chair. The drawer was open, a lamp sat on top, and a cell phone lay beside the lamp. “I stood up and saw a man standing outside aiming a gun at me. I shot at him before he could shoot me, but the bullet hit something and ricocheted in my wife’s direction.” Chris looked over and watched the sheet being pulled over his wife’s bloody head and became queasy. Officer Black glanced at Officer Lanco who immediately unhinged the flashlight from her belt and left the room. Less than a minute later, Chris was momentarily distracted by a light moving outside the window.
“Mr. Straight, are you the legal owner of the firearm?” Chris said he was. He applied for and received a concealed carry permit and purchased the gun for protection. He purchased it legally from a dealer who’d run a background check. Officer Black asked how long he’d lived in the area and how long he’d had the gun. Chris explained he moved into his wife’s home, also a riding stable, when they married two years earlier. Both he and his wife, Sharon, loved their home in the woods, but there were no neighbors to rely on in times of emergency.
Sharon grew up with brothers who hunted deer and ducks and went along with Chris’s suggestion that they keep a loaded pistol in the drawer for protection. She didn’t object because they had no children, her riding students never entered the residence, and neither gun rights, nor gun control interested her. She told Chris, “The gun rights lobby is a group that exploits sportsmen in order to protect the interests of gun manufacturers, but anyone who considers hunting “murder” needs professional help, or, at least, some education about animals and the natural world.” To Sharon, these were facts, not emotional positions. Chris suspected Sharon forgot about the gun in the table until a few minutes before she died.
Officer Lanco returned, reporting there was nothing unusual outside the window— screen intact, ground undisturbed, no sign of person or animal walking around. Officer Black looked at Chris and asked Officer Lanco to check the area near the window for any indication of a bullet hitting something. Chris continued to stare ahead blankly.
“Mr. Straight, we need to talk with you at the station. Do you want to call someone?”
“Yes, I’d like to call my wife.” Officer Black wondered if Chris needed medical attention.
“I mean, I want to call my ex-wife.”
In fifteen years on the force, Officer Black had seen people deal with death in many ways. Some immediately called members of their social clubs or sports teams, who rallied the troops to provide intensive support to the survivor. Others called a best friend, a sibling, a child. Others thought they could deal alone, but this could be a rocky road. Most called their spouses, which was not possible this time. Officer Black never saw anyone call their former spouse when their current spouse died.
“Go ahead, make your call.”
Chris took his phone from the table and dialed. “Hi Tammy. Sorry to call late, but I need a big favor. There’s been an accident and Sharon is dead and I have to go with the police. Could I call later for a ride home?” Officer Black watched Chris listen to the response.
“I’ll explain later, Tam. I’m still in shock. Go to bed. There’s nothing you can do. I’m safe. I’ll call when they’re finished. I appreciate it.” When he put the phone down, Officer Lanco seized it and slid it into a plastic bag. Officer Black stood up and lightly grabbed Chris’s upper arm, signaling him to rise, and escorted him out of the room, to a cruiser parked beside the flashing ambulance. Officer Lanco stayed behind.
Chris’s ex, Tammy, was a massage therapist who always saw the good in people. They were married for a decade and very close for half those years. But, Chris constantly worried that she would trust a client she shouldn’t, and something bad would happen to her, making something bad happen to him. The fact that she allowed total strangers into her home massage studio, without background checks, was the source of many arguments. He wanted her to keep a gun in her studio for protection and she refused. He offered to take a class with her, promised they would learn everything about gun safety, and reminded her that he was not a crazy personbuying military style weapons in order to murder scores of people in short periods of time.He thought those people should never have guns. But,he was sure that everyone, especially Tammy, must be able to protect themselves, given the extremepolitical divisions in the country and the growing drug epidemic. Tammy was not convinced.
“There’s no point in getting a gun for protection if you won’t use it. I could not shoot another human being even if my life depended on it.” Tammy was, however, more courageous and knowledgeable than Chris thought. Her father was a war veteran, a veteran who owned guns for hunting, but enjoyed watching wildlife more than shooting wildlife. Tammy kept bookends he made from small torpedo shells in their living room. She’d learned to shoot at a young age and always knew where the guns were kept, but never touched them. As a college student, she was completely anti-gun, believing the world would be a better place if everyone disarmed, that war was always bad, that animals should never be shot, and that crime increased when gun ownership increased. As she aged, she tempered her position, believing that families hunting for food treated animals more humanely than commercial meat producers. She tasted venison and liked it. But, in her opinion, keeping a loaded gun around for protection was asking for trouble.
When Chris and Tammy were married, they lived in the city and Chris spent his days selling real estate. He was smart, but couldn’t focus on one thing too long. He became a competent, competitive and confident agent. And socially, he pretended to be competent, competitive, and confident. He checked on Tammy several times a day, making her feel stalked and quite annoyed. The two fought about it often, unable to find resolution, and gradually drifted apart. Chris dealt with his loneliness by becoming jealous of Tammy’s male clients and stopped home even more often. The marriage ended. Now, Tammy lived alone and dated occasionally, and Chris didn’t worry about her much, although he still viewed himself as her protector and assumed she felt the same way about him.
“Would you like a cup of coffee, Mr. Straight?” Chris said no and Officer Black sat down opposite him in the small conference room, his folded hands resting on the formica table. He told Chris he was required to ask some questions that might be awkward, but necessary in cases like this. Chris couldn’t imagine there actually were many cases like this, but if so, he felt a tiny bit better.
“Have you and your wife been getting along alright lately? Was she faithful? You called your ex-wife tonight. Do you see each other often?”
Chris moved his head quickly and focused on the policeman, realizing for the first time, he was a suspect in his wife’s murder.
“My relationship with Sharon is fine. She’s, she was, very independent and I respected that. I rarely see Tammy, but our divorce was friendly.”
“I was surprised that you didn’t call one of your wife’s friends or one of her family members. Perhaps it’s the shock?”
“My wife has no family except the horses. Her parents are dead and she’s an only child. She has two aunts who live 3,000 miles away that she never sees. I’ll have to find her address book to contact them… I’ve never met them. I probably should have called her friend, Jane, but I didn’t think of it. My brain is still trying to process the fact that my wife is dead!”
Officer Black said that he’d been a cop long enough to know that trauma after a shooting can make it hard for witnesses to see anything except the killing…..or accident. Now Chris squinted his eyes at Officer Black in anger, but Officer Black continued talking, saying it was interesting he was able to break through the fog long enough to call his ex, adding that police are happy to transport citizens in situations like this.
“I….didn’t……kill…..my…..wife. It was a ricochet.”
“OK, Mr. Straight, just one more question. I assume your wife’s property is yours now. Did your wife also hold life insurance payable to you?
Officer Black rose and left the room, saying he’d return shortly. Chris intensely studied the green wall.
Officer Lanco turned on all the lights in the living room and, using her flashlight, looked closely at the area around the window. She saw no evidence of a bullet hitting the moulding or the window frame. She backed up ten feet and took her revolver out of its’ holster, pointing it toward the window, imagining where the bullet would hit in order to ricochet into Sharon’s head. It would have to be a spot higher than the window, maybe a foot higher on the beam decorated with horseshoes. “Jesus, was this guy that bad of a shot?” she said out loud. “Was he one of those anxious guys that shouldn’t have guns in the first place? Poor wife.”
Still wearing gloves, Officer Lanco pulled the caned chair over to the window, climbed up, and removed four horseshoes from the beam over the window. She was surprised all of them were covered with a number of dings since Chris only fired once. Then she understood. The horseshoes were probably not worn by horses, but instead used to play the game of horseshoes, each team using two, banging them against the pole in different ways for years. Unfortunately, with all the marks, it would be difficult to determine if the bullet hit any of them. She took photos, placed each shoe in a plastic evidence bag, and left the scene.
At 1:00 a.m., Officer Black returned and again offered Chris a cup of coffee. Chris accepted, feeling tired and impatient.
“Can you tell me about the horseshoes over the window in your living room?”
Slightly irritated, Chris explained that Sharon’s parents always played horseshoes with neighborhood friends in the evenings. When they became frail, Sharon brought the horseshoes home and hung them on the wall for good luck. His eyes widened and he looked straight into Officer Black’s eyes.
“That has to be the source of the ricochet! But it’s high. Maybe I tripped on the ottoman when I stood and messed up my aim. It’s hard to remember. Everything happened so fast.”
“Well, we’ll look at them closely to determine if that’s the case. We’ll also have to do an autopsy to look at the bullet.”
“No, I don’t want you to cut into her head! Don’t you need my permission?”
“I’m very sorry, Mr. Straight, but it’s the only way to confirm that this was an accident.”
Tears came to Chris’ eyes for the first time that evening.
“I have to ask you one more question. Were you and your wife drinking this evening?”
“We had a few glasses of wine at dinner, but nothing after.”
“OK, we’ll be in touch. We’re not quite finished at your house, so you won’t be able to return until tomorrow and we’ll need to keep your cell phone for now. I’m sure you have arrangements to make. You’re free to call…your other wife. Follow me and I’ll show you where the phone is.”
Tammy sat in her car in front of the station sipping vitamin water. Whatever had happened, she didn’t think Chris should have called her, but when death was involved, all rules were suspended. And, she was curious to know what actually happened to Sharon, Sharon who she’d never met and who either didn’t mind or didn’t know that Chris still communicated with Tammy. She guessed it didn’t matter anymore.
Chris emerged from the station and slid into the car, moving his right arm across the dashboard toward Tammy as if he wanted a hug. She kept both hands on the steering wheel, which Chris took as a signal to halt above the radio, retract his arm, and grab the seatbelt instead.
“I don’t know. I can’t go home until tomorrow……maybe one of the hotels on Route 3?”
“You can sleep on my living room couch tonight.” Putting the car in gear, she drove to the parking lot exit. “What happened?”
Chris told Tammy the identical story that he’d told Officer Black and complained about being treated as a suspect. Tammy wanted to say he shouldn’t have had a gun in the first place, he could have picked up his phone and called the police instead, but she just listened.
They were at Tammy’s house in fifteen minutes, entering as if both lived there, Chris unfolding the futon and Tammy searching for sheets and blankets. She offered him food, drink, or something to help him sleep, but exhausted, he refused everything, saying he’d talk with the police again and make funeral arrangements the next day. Tammy assumed he’d be emotional about losing Sharon and found his calmness a bit disturbing, but she refused to judge him. She said goodnight, warning Chris that clients would begin coming for massages at 10:00.
“Thanks for everything, Tam. I’ll see you in the morning.”
Chris woke early, made coffee, and was hanging up the phone when Tammy entered the kitchen wearing stylish exercise clothes. The futon was no longer in sleeping position, the sheets swirled in the dryer, and the blankets were where Chris knew they belonged.
“ I can go home now, but I have to stop by the police station later. Do you think I could use your car for an hour?” Tammy, handing him the keys, said she had appointments until 2:00, and after 2:00, she’d bring him to collect his own car.
At 2:30, Chris was not at Tammy’s house and she was anxious, especially since his phone was still at the police station and she couldn’t call him. She knew promptness was an issue with Chris. Once, after enthusiastically inviting her to celebrate their anniversary at a fancy restaurant two hours away, he arrived home too late to make the last seating. His sentimental invitation had made her feel special, but it all evaporated when he didn’t follow through, and she’d become angry. She knew he was great at shooting himself in the foot, and now the police were treating him like he shot something else. For a few minutes, she wondered if Chris really did shoot Sharon and if he’d taken Tammy’s car to skip town. She knew nothing about Sharon and was curious if Chris judged her or refused to give her enough space. Chris had judged Tammy too trusting in a world where people could not be trusted, a world where you had to punish bad guys. Was Sharon a bad guy? Tammy told herself that these thoughts were ridiculous and took ten, deep, slow, yoga breaths.
Fifteen minutes later, Chris pulled into the driveway. “Sorry, Tam. Things took longer at the funeral home than expected. Then I went to the house to find the phone numbers for Sharon’s aunts. Do you think I could call them from here? It’s late morning in California.”
Tammy didn’t mention that Chris could’ve called her, or that it was inconsiderate to borrow a car for an hour and then return it four hours later. She wasn’t married to him anymore and he’d just lost his wife, his second wife. She wondered why he seemed so perky. Didn’t he care that his wife was dead?
“Sure. You know where the phone is. What time is your appointment with the police?”
Chris said 5:30 and exited the room to call the aunts.
Tammy went for a run, watered the flowers, and returned to shower before driving Chris, now napping on the couch. When she came downstairs an hour later, he was awake and ready to leave. Outside, he headed for the driver’s side of the car.
“I’ll drive.” Tammy extended her hand, motioning for him to turn over the keys. He did without comment.
On the way to the station, Chris chatted about the weather and the news while Tammy thought about how strangely talkative he was. Because he hated dealing with the police, he asked if she would come with him. Tammy could no longer hold back. She put the car in PARK and addressed Chris in a soft, but incredulous tone.
“Don’t you think it’s a little weird that you came to me after this horrible thing happened?
I mean, no wonder the cop gave you a hard time. Have you even spoken to your brother?”
“Well, that bullet wasn’t the only thing that traveled to an unusual place. Sorry to bring up the image, but Chris, you need to talk with someone besides me right now. I’ll wait here and then I’ll take you to your house when your done. If you’re not back in thirty minutes, I’ll come in to make sure that you’re OK. OK?” Chris nodded, but looked confused.
Officer Black was talking to the dispatcher behind the counter when Chris entered.
“Mr. Straight, please come this way.”
Chris followed Officer Black to the same room they’d occupied the previous night. He explained the ballistics tests that were done on the horseshoes. A marksman had managed to make similar marks on one of the horseshoes, but he couldn’t definitively prove that the bullet that killed his wife had hit one of the horseshoes first. But, he said, the bullet taken out of his wife’s head certainly came from that direction, rather than from where Chris was standing. There was no way for Chris to make the shot unless he stood on a chair near the window. The time of death, the time of the 911 call, and the time the police arrived, didn’t give him any time to reposition furniture or reposition his wife’s body, and there was no evidence that anything had been moved.
Chris was relieved that the unpleasantness was over and changed his judgement of the police officer. He relaxed, but the police officer still wore a serious expression.
“There’s something else, Mr. Straight. Can you remember anything about the man you saw in the window?”
“It was dark, but he was about my height. His face wasn’t clear, but the gun was in his left hand.”
“Can you remember anything about the sound you heard?”
“It sounded something like sand paper on wood.”
“Mr. Straight, it is our belief that you attempted to shoot a reflection of yourself.”
“That can’t be true. I heard a noise. I saw a man.” But Officer Black said the movie he and his wife were watching contained background noises that sounded like sanding.
“Maybe you remember when the farmer was dragging the wheat into the barn?” Officer Black watched part of the movie and the timing of the sounds and the shot lined up. There were no charges, it was an accident. He flatly said the state did not require safety training in order to own a handgun, but, Chris might consider a short class if he decided to keep the gun. Did he want a ride home?
When Chris exited the station, Tammy was reading a novel. She looked up when he approached the open window on the driver’s side.
“You can go, Tam. The police will take me home. Everything is OK.” Tammy didn’t think everything was OK, but she didn’t argue. Maybe he was beginning to understand that spending time with his ex-wife didn’t make sense right now. She wished him luck, but didn’t suggest he call if he needed anything.
Officer Black came out of the station, noting the woman driving out of the parking lot, wondering what Chris told her. Chris followed him to the cruiser and the two sped away from the station, Chris in the back seat, heading for the riding stable where Chris exited the car and began to judge himself.
Debora C. Martin
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