Story of the Month

Sunset Sunrise

from

MOST MEN – A Short Story Collection #2

Short Stories

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FOR MORE THAN A QUARTER CENTURY, his view of the outside world was limited to a shoe box-sized west-facing window.  Through it, he’d witnessed thousands of sunsets.  Some were brilliant.  Most were ordinary. Each signified that he’d survived another day.

During this time, James Warren hadn’t seen a single sunrise. He preferred it that way.  The start of a new day was nothing to celebrate, not when you’re serving 35 years in state prison for second-degree murder. 

The oak trees lining the crest of the Pennsylvania hillside outside his cell window aged along with him.  Once willowy and young, they were now tall and rigid.  He’d also become hardened after living more than half his life in the company of convicts.

LEARNING HE’D NEXT see freedom as a middle-aged man was impossible for an 18-year-old to comprehend.  The words of the jury foreman echoed inside the silent courtroom that Friday afternoon as James stood by his attorney.  

“We, the jury, find the defendant, James Anthony Warren, guilty of murder in the second degree.”

James’ mother screamed, “No!” and dropped to her knees, sobbing.  His girlfriend Sarah called out his name as if he was about to plummet from a cliff and then slumped into her mother’s arms, both unable to watch the handcuffs being applied and James being led out of the courtroom.

Throughout the trial, James had plenty of time to think of all possible motives anyone might have had for framing him.  He always came up empty.  He hadn’t killed his girlfriend’s father, Frank Pearson, but someone made it look like he had. 

Sarah stood beside James, never believing he murdered her dad.  Even Frank’s widow insisted James was innocent, but their support wasn’t enough to avert his conviction.

James had his life planned: college, career, marriage, kids.  The son of a respected Penn State professor, there wasn’t much standing in his way.  He’d been accepted to Brown University just weeks before his arrest.  

WITH A BEEFY GUARD HOLDING each arm, James made his way to his second parole board hearing.  The chains connecting his ankles rattled in an eerie cadence as he lumbered down the tiled hallway toward the hearing room.  The hearings were now an annual event since James had served the minimum 25 years of his sentence.  Reaching their destination, one of the guards pushed the grey, double doors open and led James inside.

The heavy doors creaked as if in pain, and the panel of four parole officers looked up in unison.  Seated behind a long table at the front of the starkly appointed room, condescending scowls were etched on the panelists’ faces.  James recognized two of the men from his first hearing.  

The windowless room worshiped a world that James despised.  Photos of former wardens and governors lined the painted cinderblock walls.  The “Guard of the Month” was recognized on a bulletin board on the side wall.  Just last week, the same guard had thrust a baton in James’ gut for speaking in the chow line, cracking his rib.

His parents, one of his high school teachers, and three others with their faces turned sat dispersed among three rows of folding chairs facing the panel.  James assumed they were all there to support his release.

James exchanged glances with his parents as he shuffled past to a single seat positioned in front of the panel.  His mother lifted her arm toward her son, but quickly lowered it.  James saw her smiling through moist eyes. 

Since his incarceration, the Warrens made weekly visits to the prison from their home sixty miles away.  They spoke to James through phones, separated by a bulletproof glass panel.  The last time they hugged him was the day before his conviction.  Now in their seventies, they feared they’d never again spend time with their son outside of the penitentiary walls.   

James’ high school math teacher and track coach, Jack Sullivan, sat beside his parents.  Jack had written one of his letters of recommendation to Brown.  He offered a reassuring nod to James.  

After sitting, James turned to look at the others.  Ellen and Fred Pace, longtime friends of his parents, were seated in the back row.  He’d grown up down the street from them and dated their daughter Sandy his junior year, but the closeness of the two families made it seem as if he was dating his sister. After a couple months, James broke it off.

The only other person in the room was Judy Pearson, Frank’s widow.  James was shocked to see her, not recognizing her at first.  She and Sarah had stopped visiting more than twenty years ago after Sarah got married.  Mrs. Pearson forced a smile when James’ eyes met hers.  He nervously turned away.

Just as the proceedings were about to begin, the double doors opened, and an attractive, middle-aged woman entered the room.  Everyone turned. 

Embarrassed, she whispered, “I’m sorry for being late,” and scurried to sit near the Paces.  

THE MORNING FRANK PEARSON DIED, James was returning from freshman orientation at Brown.  His day had been full, meeting with counselors and fellow students.  He’d planned to complete the six-hour return trip that evening, but his meetings ran late.

After driving less than halfway to his home in Loch Lorne, Pennsylvania, he stopped for dinner at a Denny’s.  It was after 8:00 p.m., but energized by his day, James thought he could stop for dinner and still easily travel the remaining distance.

 His stomach, heavy from a stack of pancakes, James found himself dozing behind the wheel.  He searched for cheap accommodations and eventually turned into a roadside motel, The Sleep Inn.  The neon sign in the parking lot blinked CLEAN ROOMS $25.00.   James entered the lobby and slapped a ten and twenty on the counter.  Not saying a word, the sleepy desk clerk gave him his change and a key to room 109.

James pulled his six-year-old Toyota to the side of the aging building and parked outside his room.  The rusted 9 on the room door had rotated upside down, making it look like room 106. 

Once inside, James set his overnight bag on the dresser and called his parents. His call transferred immediately to their voicemail.

“It’s James. I got a late start, so I stopped at a motel to spend the night. I should be home before noon tomorrow.  See you then.”

JAMES ROSE EARLY THE NEXT MORNING, deposited his key in the lobby drop box, and was on the road before 7:00 a.m.  After an uneventful three-hour drive on a sunny summer morning, he pulled onto the tree-lined lane leading to his parents’ two-story stucco home.  

On the other side of town, Judy Pearson and her daughter Sarah were returning from one of their frequent overnight shopping trips to Philly. As the garage door rose, Judy saw her husband’s Aston Martin parked inside. By this time of day, Frank was usually at his Williamsport law office with his prized vehicle safely parked in a secured lot. 

She paused at the door from the garage with Sarah waiting behind her and called, “Frank, we’re home!”

Silence.

She proceeded through the door and into the kitchen, her arms filled with shopping bags.  Sarah continued to follow her. 

 “Oh, my God!” Judy screamed, dropping her shopping bags to the floor.

There he was.  Frank was lying in a pool of blood on the kitchen floor, a metal-handled knife protruding from his back.

“Daddy!”  Sarah cried, struggling to see around her mother.

“Sarah, call 911!” Judy shouted. “Wait for the ambulance at the end of the driveway.”

Sarah grabbed her phone from her purse, and frantically typed in the three numbers as she ran back toward the garage.

With her daughter out of the room, Judy stepped closer, bending down to inspect her husband’s injuries.  The right side of his face was pressed to the floor. His eyes were open in a cold stare.  A trail of splattered blood led from the front door to where he lay. 

Judy placed two fingers to the side of her husband’s neck.  His skin was cold and dry.  She snatched back her hand.

The sight of a bloody knife protruding from Frank’s body made her shiver.  Lightheaded, she stumbled as she rose, coming to rest against the kitchen counter. 

Judy surveyed the grizzly scene.  There didn’t appear to be a struggle. Other than the trail of splattered blood, everything seemed in its place, undisturbed.  

His death must have come quickly, she thought.

A wadded napkin lay beside Frank’s body.  Judy stepped forward to pick it up before stuffing it in her pocket.  

POLICE DETECTIVES SPENT six hours gathering what they needed from the crime scene.  The coroner put the time of death at approximately 8:00 a.m., about the time Frank Pearson would have been heading into his office.

Sgt. Tom Kline, a veteran on the small town’s police force, interviewed Mrs. Pearson for nearly an hour on her back porch.  He asked all the obvious questions.  Did Frank have any enemies? Was he expecting anyone today?  Did she recognize the murder weapon?

Judy stared blankly across her yard, shaking her head in response to each query.

Sgt. Kline treaded lightly discussing the couple’s past marital problems. Less than two years ago, he and a fellow officer were dispatched to the Pearson home to quiet a heated dispute. 

“I loved Frank, and he loved me,” Judy said convincingly. “We’d put all that behind us long ago.”

SARAH RETREATED TO HER aunt’s home.  Frantic and in tears, she called James.  He could barely understand her.

“I’ll be right there,” was all he could say before rushing to his car.

Ellen Fredrick was Frank Pearson’s sister.  It had been a long day for her and Frank’s family.  Tears throughout the afternoon had removed her makeup, stress amplifying the lines on her face.

“Sarah’s waiting for you on the back porch,” she told James, greeting him at the front door.

Sarah burst into tears as James stepped onto the porch.

“Who could do this to my dad?” she asked, burying her head into James’ shoulder. “Why? Why?”  

James felt helpless.  He held onto Sarah and waited for her head to rise.

“Sarah, everyone respected your dad.  It doesn’t make sense to me, either.”

Respected was the best word James could muster.  Sarah’s father was not a likeable man.  But James knew his words didn’t really matter.  Nothing he could say would ease Sarah’s grief.  

News of the murder spread across Loch Lorne like a cloud of locusts over an Oklahoma wheat field.  Throughout the evening, friends and family stopped by the home of Sarah’s aunt, sharing their sympathy along with plates of food.  No one felt like eating, and by 11:00 p.m., everyone had departed except James.

As Sarah walked James to the front door, a police cruiser pulled into the Fredricks’ driveway. The sight of two uniformed policemen striding up the sidewalk sent chills through Sarah’s body.  Her first thought was they’d found her father’s killer.

She grasped James’ arm.

Without offering a greeting, the taller of the two officers said, “We’re looking for James Warren.”

“I’m James.”

The officer took his cuffs from his belt and slapped them on James’ wrists.

“Mr. Warren, you’re under arrest for the murder of Frank Pearson.”

The second officer began reading James his rights.

James turned to Sarah, his eyes wide and mouth agape.  Neither could believe what was happening.

Mrs. Pearson came running to the front door, having heard the commotion. 

“You’re making a terrible mistake!” she called out. “There’s no way James could be involved in my husband’s death.”

“I’m sorry, ma’am.”

The officers led James down the sidewalk and stuffed him in the back of the cruiser.  Sarah and her mom stared in disbelief from the front porch.

JAMES AND SARAH WERE a handsome couple, tall, blonde, athletic.  They were both excellent students and enjoyed the same friends, activities, and interests.  Everyone thought they were meant to be together.  Only one person didn’t–Sarah’s father.  

James had his heart set on being a teacher and a coach.  It wasn’t a life Frank Pearson wanted for his daughter.  He often told Sarah she could have her pick of Penn State law grads. On more than one occasion, flare-ups erupted at the Pearson home over Sarah’s relationship with James. The most recent was when Sarah’s father refused to pay her tuition if she followed James to Brown.  It was the first and last time James raised his voice to Frank Pearson.  James was no longer welcome in the Pearson home. 

Despite Frank Pearson’s well-known disapproval of James’ relationship with his daughter, James had been far down the list of murder suspects.  He shot to the top when his fingerprints were found on the handle of the knife that protruded from Frank Pearson’s back.

THE FEAR OF POWERFUL people with ties to Frank Pearson kept local attorneys from representing James.  James’ father had to travel more than 200 miles from Loch Lorne to find a lawyer qualified to defend his son.

During the trial, dozens of townspeople took the stand as character witnesses in defense of James.  He came off looking like a choirboy.  Even the prosecuting attorney couldn’t find anyone who had a beef with James, except of course, Frank Pearson. The case against James hinged on his strained relationship with the victim, his lack of a corroborated alibi, and his fingerprints on the knife.

James stayed at a motel more than 200 miles away the night before the murder, but he lacked witnesses to verify when he checked out.  The desk clerk at the seedy motel testified James had stayed there, but didn’t see him leave.  The prosecution argued James had plenty of time to commit the murder.  He could have driven 200 miles, killed Mr. Pearson, and then arrive at his parents’ home, all before 10:00 a.m.

James and his attorney could not explain his fingerprints on the knife.  The weapon matched no other knives in the Pearson or Warren homes, and it wasn’t a knife James ever remembered seeing or using.  Even if he had, why did it only have his fingerprints? 

JAMES DAYDREAMED AS HE SAT motionless in the parole hearing room. It had been 26 years to the day since his murder conviction was read in the Pennsylvania county courtroom.

His thoughts turned to the woman who entered the room late.

Where have I seen her before? 

As the parole board began asking James the customary questions, he turned to study the woman’s face.  Seeing her seated next to Ellen and Fred Pace, it hit him. She was Sandy, the Paces’ daughter.

James hadn’t spoken with Sandy since their junior year in high school. Shortly after their breakup, she’d become depressed and began abusing prescription drugs.  Desperate, her parents sent her to a high-priced rehab center near Philadelphia.

James refocused his attention in time to reply to the panel’s last question.      

“Yes, sir. I am regretful for Mr. Pearson’s death.” 

Over the next thirty minutes, James provided rehearsed responses to questions from each of the men on the parole board.  

Poker-faced, the board chairman announced they’d finished their questioning, and those in attendance could now make their cases for or against James’ parole.  

Chains rattling, the prisoner was escorted to a seat in the first row of chairs. Once James was seated, his father was waved forward to take the center seat facing the parole board. 

It was comforting to hear his dad’s voice unfiltered by a telephone. The same was true of Jack Sullivan, his high school track coach.  James closed his eyes and heard a much younger man encouraging him as he made his final lap around the track.

Next, Ellen Pace told the parole board she and her husband had known James since he was a young boy.  She couldn’t imagine a more unlikely person to be involved in such a dreadful crime.  She described the time James used his allowance to repay them for a window he’d broken playing baseball. 

The panel squirmed in their chairs as she spoke, glancing at the clock above the door. 

“Thank you, Mrs. Pace,” the chairman finally interrupted.

He then turned to the two women who’d yet to speak.

“Is there anyone else who would like to make a statement?” 

There was an uneasy pause as Frank Pearson’s widow turned to look at Sandy Pace. Sandy stared back but said nothing.

Sandy had called Judy that morning saying she and her parents were going to attend the hearing.

“It’s time for James to be with me, just like you said he would,” Sandy told Judy.    

Sandy refused Judy’s demand to meet with her before the hearing.  She had hoped to intercept Sandy outside the hearing room and dissuade her from attending, but Sandy’s late arrival foiled her plan.  Now she could do nothing except wait to see what Sandy would do–what she would say.

“I repeat. Does anyone else have anything they wish to say?” the chairman said more firmly.  

Sandy sprang to her feet. “I do.  I want James to come home.”

“Well, ma’am.  I’m sure you do,” he replied through thin lips, “but you need to come forward to state your case.”

Sandy weaved her way through the rows of chairs, glancing into the faces of everyone she passed.  She took the seat in front of the panel.

“Where do you want me to begin?” she asked.

“How about with your name and why you’re here.”

“I’m Sandra Ellen Pace.  James and I are in love, or rather we were in love.”

She stopped and turned to James, who stared back, his face blank. 

“James didn’t kill Mr. Pearson.  I’m certain it was an older man driving a fancy car. I saw him that morning.”

Murmurs spread through the hearing room, heads turning to study each other’s reactions.  The board chairman leaned forward and gave Sandy a warning gaze over his spectacles.

“That’s a bold statement, Ms. Pace. Why haven’t you shared this information before now?” he asked.

“Because Mrs. Pearson told me if I kept silent, she’d make sure Sarah would break up with James, and someday he’d be with me.” 

Sandy rotated on her chair to look at Judy.

“Isn’t that right, Mrs. Pearson?” 

All eyes were now on Judy Pearson.

“Well, I never,” Judy huffed. “Ms. Pace is terribly confused.”

“Oh, no! I remember exactly, Mrs. Pearson,” Sandy shot back. 

Heads turned from Judy to Sandy and then back as if watching a tennis match.  Judy adjusted her weight on the metal chair and glanced nervously around the room.

“Gentlemen, you clearly can’t consider a statement from someone with a history of mental illness.”

Ellen Pace grabbed her husband’s arm as he angrily rose to his feet. 

“Our daughter has her shortcomings, but she wouldn’t make up something like this,” he said, glaring at Judy Pearson.

“Ladies and gentlemen, we must have order!” the chairman called out. “Withhold your comments until you’re called upon.  Now, Ms. Pace, do you have any proof regarding your claims?”

“Proof?” she asked.

“Just tell us everything you saw that day.”

She took a deep breath and began.

“I remember everything,” Sandy said confidently.  “I hadn’t been home for months, but I’d been doing better at Rosemont and was home visiting my parents.  That morning, I’d driven to Sarah’s house and parked my car down the street in a neighbor’s lane.  I was waiting for James to pick up Sarah and drive her to work. I just wanted to say hi, but he never showed up.  Instead, this man in a black Mercedes parked across the street and walked to the Pearsons’ front door.”

“Can you describe the man?”

“Yeah.  He was older, tall, and had dark hair.  Kinda handsome I guess.  I also remember his license number. It was JB-1945. That’s the year my mom was born.”

Judy Pearson jumped to her feet.

“I can’t believe you’re listening to this ridiculous story.  Didn’t you hear her say she’d been released from Rosemont Rehab?”

“Mrs. Pearson, sit down! One more outburst and I’ll have you removed from the hearing!” the chairman shouted, slamming his fist onto the table.

“Ms. Pace, did you actually see the man attack Mr. Pearson?”

“No.  I waited a minute or so and walked toward the front door.  I heard a man shouting, so I ran to the back of the house and looked through the window.  That’s when I saw Mr. Pearson lying on the kitchen floor.”

Judy Pearson leaned forward and hid her face in her hands.

“Did you see anything else?”

“Yes.  The man I saw enter the house was standing near Mr. Pearson, looking down at him.  He looked scared.  When he turned and ran toward the front of the house, he dropped something from his hand. It looked like a handkerchief.”

JUDY PEARSON’S PLAN HAD worked perfectly for more than a quarter century.  Months before the murder, she’d carefully placed a newly purchased steak knife next to James’ plate while having dinner with him and Sarah at a restaurant they frequented. After sending James and Sarah to pick out dessert from the display, she carefully retrieved the knife and wrapped it in her napkin. 

The heated argument between James and her husband weeks later provided a convenient motive. 

Judy only needed to convince Jack Blair, her paramour for more than a year, to kill her husband.  Offering to share Frank’s life insurance and his considerable wealth with Jack, he quickly agreed to her plan.       

Sandy’s appearance at her home the morning of the crime was something Judy hadn’t anticipated.  Murdering Frank was easy.  He was an abusive man who’d cheated on her.  But Judy couldn’t bring herself to kill a young, innocent girl.  Instead, she took advantage of Sandy’s mental illness, manipulating her for years.   

WEEKS LATER, JAMES walked from prison a free man. 

The license plate number provided by Sandy led police to Frank Blair.  Blair immediately confessed to the murder, as well as Judy Pearson’s role in the plan.  His relationship with Judy ended shortly after James’ conviction, but her threats to pin the crime on him kept Blair quiet.  Fear and guilt were heavy loads to carry for 26 years.  He was relieved it was over. 

There were no provisions in Pennsylvania for wrongful incarceration retribution, but given the 26 years that had been stolen from James, the state quietly settled for $1 million.  James also filed a civil suit against Frank Pearson’s estate, yielding another million. No amount of money would have been enough, but now in his late 40s, this sum provided a new start for James.

James and Sandy became close friends. Their relationship would be nothing more, and they were fine with that.  They had a lot in common, both leading secluded lives and having few friends.     

James never received an apology from Judy for robbing him of a promising life.  Unknown to everyone, her motive for killing her husband went beyond his abuse and her massive inheritance.  She had bigger plans for her daughter’s future, and they didn’t include James.   

Judy Pearson spent her final years in a maximum security prison just outside Philadelphia.  Her daughter never visited, nor did anyone else.   

James hoped her cell window faced east, the sunrise reminding her each morning of the hopelessness of the day ahead.                

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