by Anthony R. Pezzula
The car caught his eye right away, and he took it for a test drive accompanied by the salesman who detailed all its features as Phil half listened. He knew right away the 2007 black Mustang was the car he wanted and had to have. No sales pitch was necessary.
It was Mulrooney's annual "previously loved" car sale. Dealers chose euphemisms these days -- "rebranding" was the fancy word for it -- and Mulrooney's chose to call their used cars "previously loved." Phil thought it was lame, but at the same time he couldn't deny the pleasantness of it.
It took him a few weeks to arrange financing, but now he was the Mustang's proud owner. His new baby had a black exterior and gray leather seats. She was sporty but roomy, and had a great sound system too. He decided to just drive around the city for a while enjoying the responsiveness of the car and getting used to every detail.
He came to a stoplight at a busy downtown intersection while Gavin Degraw's latest played on the FM station. He watched the people walking through the crosswalk in front of him and spotted an attractive young woman. He followed her with his eyes as she made her way across the street. Phil was a movie geek who loved watching old films and he decided she bore a resemblance to a young Elizabeth Taylor, dark hair up in a style she wore in Cat On A Hot Tin Roof, violet eyes and red lipstick. As she passed in front of his car, she looked directly at him. He gave her his best smile, silly really, who picks up a girl that way?
He thought he detected a slight smile in return, but suddenly she stopped, came around to the driver's side of the car and yanked on the door handle trying to jerk it open. But the door was locked and when he looked at her though the window, he could see that brief smile was replaced with an expression of rage. His window was open a crack, and she put her fingers through and began pulling on the window shouting, "I'll get you, I'll get you."
Phil was paralyzed by shock as the woman continued to pull on the window, shouting the same thing all the while, stopping only to try the back door, and then returning to bang on the window. Phil recovered enough to begin pulling through the crosswalk, even though the light was still red, dodging pedestrians in his haste to get away from the crazy lady. He finally pulled through, turned right and sped down the street. At first he heard her high heels clicking on the pavement as she chased his car. Even when he was blocks away he thought he could hear that clicking, but he knew it couldn't be and he must have imagined it. Who could blame me? he thought. What the hell was her problem?
Phil continued on, repeatedly checking the rear view mirror before finally deciding there was no way she could be in sight with the distance he had put between them. Still shaking, he pulled onto the cross-town expressway heading to his suburban apartment. As he calmed down, Phil kept his eyes open for any cops figuring this might be an opportunity to check out the Mustang's power, see how quickly he could get the speed up. He settled back in his seat and let his foot fall on the accelerator moving into the center lane and passing cars on the right as though they were standing still.
Thump, thump, thump.
Phil frowned at the thumping sound coming from the rear of the car. Oh great, he thought, a problem already. I just bought this thing. He slowed up as the thump, thump, thump continued. He cautiously changed lanes, moved into the right-hand lane and looked for a good spot on the shoulder to pull off. He finally came across a flat stretch with plenty of room on the side of the road. He was no mechanic, far from it, but he might see something obvious; maybe he ran over a box or something that was stuck in the undercarriage.
Phil got out of the car watching vehicles speed by him. He went to the rear of the car, flattened down without getting his clothes dirty, and looked underneath. Nothing. No boxes, branches or other items that might be flapping against it. He got up and walked around the Mustang, looking for anything else that might have caused the sound, but saw nothing. He shrugged and was about to get back in the driver's seat when he heard it again.
Thump, thump, thump.
"What the hell?" he said out loud. He walked to the back of the car and the sound became clearer, thump, thump, thump. It wasn't coming from underneath, but from the trunk. Could the dealer have left something in there that was rolling around? But the car was still now; whatever was making the noise was moving under its own power.
Phil went to the driver's side, opened the door and reached in to pop the trunk. As soon as it lifted, the thumping noise stopped. Phil returned to the back of the Mustang and lifted the trunk fully open, but it was empty. He lifted the spare tire covering from the floor of the trunk and checked the well for anything loose, but all was in its place, tight and secure.
He put the cover back down, and removed the access cover from the left rear lights. Nothing loose there. He replaced that and went to the right access cover; nothing loose there either. He was about to replace that cover when he saw a tiny circular silver object.
He reached in with his fingers and managed to get a hold of it, and pulled it out. It had a hole in the center, and Phil knew what it was. He had searched for many of these when he and Dana had lived together. It was an earring backing. Nothing that would cause a thumping noise, but what was it doing here, and where was the earring that went with it?
He looked into that light fixture but nothing else was in there. He replaced the access cover and was about to close the trunk when he felt a strong urge to check the spare tire well one more time. He lifted the trunk floor, propped it up, and began unscrewing the spare tire holder until he was able to lift the tire out half-wondering the whole time why he was doing it.
Nothing obvious in view, but he was not surprised by that. He looked around the bottom of the spare tire well, removing the tool bag from its Velcro hold, still nothing obvious. He leaned over to look into it but couldn't see much. He reached his hand down where he couldn't see and felt around. Finally his fingers hit on a lump that felt like a pebble. He carefully grasped it between his thumb and forefinger and lifted it out. It was a diamond stud earring. It had to be worth something, he thought. Maybe it fell out of the prior owner's luggage or something.
Phil put it in his pocket, put everything back in place and closed the trunk. While he still didn't solve the source of the noise, he now had another mission, tracking down the prior owner of the car so he could return the earring. It was valuable enough to make the effort; they must have gone crazy looking for it. Phil got in the car and checked the glove compartment and was relieved to find the owner's manual still there. Mulrooney's was all right, he thought, having kept the original owner's manual with the car.
If the prior owner was like him, he would have filled out his information on the front page. Yes, it was there: Roland Warner. His address was there too. Great, Phil thought, not far from here either. Mrs. Warner would be happy to get her earring back.
Phil pulled onto the highway and headed toward the Warner house. It only took about fifteen minutes. It was on a quiet street with well-spaced houses, lots of privacy. The Warner house was gray with black shutters. There were plenty of trees on the property, so it was heavily shaded. Thick bushes surrounded the house, and with all the blinds drawn, it was not a very welcoming place. Still, Phil pulled to the curb in front of the house, strolled up the walkway and rang the bell. He could hear footsteps approaching the door and saw the curtains covering the door's window flutter aside.
The door opened a crack to reveal a tall thin man with thick glasses.
"Yes, may I help you?" the man said.
"Hi," said Phil extending his hand, "my name is Phil Connors."
The man looked at Phil's hand and for a second Phil thought he was going to slap it aside. But he didn't, shaking it limply instead saying, "Mr. Connors."
"Are you Roland Warner?" Phil asked.
"What's this about?" the man said.
"Well," Phil began, "I bought your old car, that is, your previously loved car, as Mulrooney's calls it."
"Oh," the man said as he peeked over Phil's shoulder looking at the Mustang.
"You are Mr. Warner, right?"
"That's right," Warner said. "Got a problem with the car? 'Cause I have to tell you it was in good shape when I traded it in. You got a problem, you should take it up with Mulrooney's."
"Oh no," Phil said, "the car's great. I just stopped by because I found your wife's earring in the car and I figured she'd want it back."
"I don't know what you're talking about," Warner said, "I'm not married, and I don't know anything about any earring."
Phil reached in his pocket and took out the diamond earring, holding it up to Warner. "You sure?" he said nodding toward the earring in his outstretched hand, "It's a beauty; sure it doesn't belong to your girlfriend, one of your dates or someone like that?"
"Look," Warner said, becoming agitated, "it doesn't belong to anyone I know."
Not usually this emboldened, Phil felt the urge to persist. "How do you know?" he said, "I mean if you're anything like me, I don't even notice jewelry on women half the time. Maybe you could check with any lady friends to see if it belongs to them."
"Mr. Connor, I haven't been on a date in years, not the whole time I owned that car. There, have you embarrassed me enough? Now if there's nothing else, I must go."
"I didn't mean to ..." Phil began as Warner slammed the door in his face.
Strange dude, Phil thought as he turned and walked back to his car, returning the earring to his pocket. He got in, taking one last glance at the house, which now looked as creepy as its inhabitant, the dark shadows casting a veil as though to hide something.
Phil turned the key in the ignition -- nothing happened. Not even a click. He pulled the hood release latch and opened the hood. Yeah, there it was: the engine. He could see the brand new battery, even he a non-mechanic could tell that. He got back in the car and tried the key again. Still nothing.
Thump thump thump.
There it was again, more insistent this time, no pauses, just a constant thump thump thump. Phil popped the trunk and got out of the car wondering if he had fallen for a lemon. But this time when he looked in the trunk his eyes widened and it felt like his heart skipped a beat.
There she was, the Liz Taylor girl, curled up in the trunk, beautiful, no anger, but no movement. He rubbed his eyes, then looked again. Still there. Phil wiped his mouth with his shaking hand and just stood there as if frozen. Suddenly she began to change. Bruises appeared on her neck, then she turned a sickly gray and her hair started to get brittle. Like time-lapse photography her skin began to shrink nearly exposing bone. Phil felt a swarm of butterflies in the pit of his stomach. He jumped back when her eyes sprang open, looking right at him. This time he didn't see rage, but instead pleading. She raised her boney arm and pointed toward the Warner house. Phil looked at the house and thought he saw a slit open in the blinds and a reflection of glasses. When Phil looked back toward the trunk, he was shocked to see it was empty.
Who was this girl, this beautiful creature that turned to death before his eyes? He pictured her again, not as the decaying husk she became, but as she looked when he first opened the trunk, like a sleeping beauty. But something else, something that was just registering now. She had had a diamond earring in her right ear, the only one visible because of her position. He concentrated on what it looked like and yes, he was sure it was a perfect match of the one in his pocket. As he stared into the empty trunk he felt a compulsion to do something. Phil pulled out his phone and dialed 911; he would just get the police here somehow. He told them there had been a murder at the address. He planned on telling them what he'd seen when they arrived, hoping they wouldn't just cart him off in a white coat.
It wasn't long before he heard the sirens, and two squad cars pulled up.
"Are you the guy who called the police?" one of the officers said as they rushed from their cars.
"Yes, I'm Phil Connor, and I believe there's been a murder..." Phil began.
The sound came from inside and the officers rushed the house, two in front and two toward the back, guns drawn.
When they came out, they told Phil there had been a suicide in the house; Warner had put a bullet through his brain. They asked Phil to follow them to the station so they could take a statement. Phil figured he was in for a long night. He got in the Mustang and it started right up, no problem.
As he pulled from the curb behind the police cruiser and accelerated, he turned on the radio.
"Thank you, Phil," a soft female voice said as the hairs on Phil's arms rose from goose bumps when he heard his name. He pushed a button to change the channel, but the same voice continued. "He got me coming out of work late one night, not far from where I saw you. I'm sorry I got a little crazy, but when I saw the car, I thought it was him. That monster, that creep. He must have been stalking me, I never saw him before that night. He did awful things Phil, and I think maybe not just to me. So thank you for hearing me, for following through, for my peace." Phil nervously looked around the car, checking his rear view mirror, expecting to see her, or her apparition or whatever it was, but did not. The radio voice was a male now saying "...and that's the Wall Street report..." as Phil clicked it off with his shaking hand. He continued to follow the police cruiser and heard nothing from the trunk, the thumping was gone. There was nothing but the quiet purr of the engine.
© 2012 Anthony R. Pezzula
Bio: Stories by Anthony R. Pezzula have been published in various print and online magazines including Midnight Times, River Poets Journal, The Fringe, Pulse Literary Journal, The MacGuffin, Pulp Empire, Crimespree Magazine, and, of course, Aphelion (most recently The Office Worker) among others. He has also written several one act plays, three of which have been performed at regional theaters. Mr. Pezzula lives in upstate New York with his wife of thirty-seven years.
E-mail: Anthony R. Pezzula
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