New Pictures of an Old Murder

                    by Jonna Turner

Prologue 

The newest of the Highlands Ranch high schools, Coyote Canyon, stood like a skeleton as the warm, dry, September wind blew through its bones. A Saturday and from where she stood, the site appeared deserted. Brandi reached over the seat of her Wrangler. She grabbed her thirty-five millimeter camera and a Broncos cap to keep her copper-penny hair out of her eyes while she shot pictures of the construction site for The Highlands Ranch Voice.

Chunks of dry, rocky soil and concrete littered the barren, construction-damaged ground. Brandi gingerly stepped around the debris and climbed a packed, four-foot dirt pile to gain an elevated position. She planted her feet in the sun-baked soil and shot several pictures of the front of the U-shaped building. Satisfied with the angle, she walked around to the back of the building where she noticed a red Jeep, a white Lexus, and two pickups. Someone must be on-site today, she thought, although she saw no one.

With no workmen in sight, she used the vehicles as the focal point for her next shot to give life to the picture. Next, she scanned the skeletal building with her zoom lens in search of something that might be interesting.

Suddenly, three men popped into her viewfinder. She steadied the camera and focused on them. Each man, she noticed, wore a yellow hard hat, and they appeared to be in deep conversation while they stood on the fourth floor of the steel and concrete structure. Brandi snapped a picture. Yes! This would be perfect for the front page of the next edition of the newspaper.

For the moment, she ignored the men and checked her film. Six shots left. A digital camera would have been her camera of choice, but the paper still insisted on thirty-five millimeter. She aimed her camera to the west and captured the hazy Rockies in the distance through the steel support beams. Then, for one last shot, she aimed back toward the men. When they came into focus, she witnessed what appeared to be an argument in progress. Their loud voices carried across the site on the warm, afternoon breeze.

The shorter man, with curly red hair that poked out from under his yellow hard hat, jammed his finger toward some sort of blueprints.

A taller, sandy-haired man in jeans and a black tee shirt folded his arms across his chest and shook his head.

Was this what her editor called local color? Brandi chuckled and snapped the picture.

Suddenly, the taller man shoved the shorter man who lost his balance. He stumbled and fell backward over a large roll of insulation.

Brandi snapped another picture as the man tried to regain his footing. He failed.

“Oh, my God!” Unable to stop herself, Brandi snapped another picture. The man screamed and clawed at the air as he plunged to the ground. Pop! The man’s head smashed on a stack of concrete blocks. His body twisted like a pretzel and sagged toward the ground.

Brandi raced toward the man who lay sprawled across the concrete. She expected the two men on the fourth floor to hurry down to help, but when she looked up at them, they only stared at her.

“Call 911!” She bent over the man.

Blood gushed from the side of his head. Helpless, she watched while he choked on the blood that spewed from his mouth and nose.

“Oh, dear God!” Brandi looked back up to where the men had stood. They were gone. “Please hurry!” she screamed. Why had she left her cellphone at home?

She grabbed the man’s hand, not sure what else to do.

For one second, the man’s wild eyes focused on her and then closed. The choking sounds stopped.

Brandi knew the man was dead. A cold chill clawed its way up her back, and her hands shook when she released the dead man’s hand. She heard a scrunching sound and turned.

The taller man and a beefy, dark-haired man walked toward her over the construction debris.

Finally. “Have you called 911?” she shouted.

No answer.

The men continued toward her. The taller man bent down. He grabbed a piece of rusty rebar. Iciness burned hot in his eyes.

The shorter, heavier man followed closely behind. “Don’t!” he said and pulled on the taller man’s arm.

The man shook off the hand that would restrain him and continued purposefully toward Brandi.

Realization dawned—Brandi stood and ran. The men had no intention of helping her. They meant to kill her too. But why? What happened appeared to be an accident.

Brandi stumbled and tripped over the construction debris. When she reached the Wrangler, she yanked open the door and jumped in, threw her camera on the passenger seat, and jammed the key in the ignition.

The Wrangler exploded to life just as the men reached her.

“No!” She stood on the clutch and threw the Wrangler into first gear. The taller man grabbed the door handle.

Brandi screamed. She hit the gas pedal. The Wrangler shot forward and threw the man to the ground.

He scrambled to his feet and ran around the side of the building. “Give me the keys to your truck!”

“Don’t do this!” the shorter man said, catching up to him.

“Just give me the keys!”

When the keys were reluctantly handed over, the man jumped into the pickup and rammed the key in the ignition. The engine roared to life. He wrenched the steering wheel and stomped the gas. The truck pitched forward.

Brandi fought to control the Wrangler as it bounced over rough, rocky ground. After she reached the road, she checked the rearview mirror.

A white pickup rounded the side of the building. The truck bounded and bounced over the dry terrain. The tires spat dust and rock.

Brandi tore down the road and headed for C-470. Soon the entrance ramp to the expressway came into view. She glanced in the rearview mirror.

The truck had almost closed the distance between them.

The Wrangler raced up the ramp and careened into traffic. She punched her emergency flashers in hopes the other cars would let her merge faster. They did. She swerved over into the left lane and slammed the accelerator to the floor.

If she could make it to the Yosemite exit, the Douglas County Sheriff’s office would only be about a mile away.

The truck, now in the middle lane, was two car lengths behind.

Brandi shifted her Wrangler into the center lane, then into the right lane. Horns blared. Tires screeched. She pulled onto the shoulder and sped toward the exit less than a quarter of a mile ahead. Again, she glanced in the rearview mirror.

The truck merged into the right lane, one car-length behind her. “Oh, no! He’s trying to pull up beside me!”

Brandi reached the exit ramp and braked hard. The Wrangler skidded past the offramp. She fought for control, but the tires spun. The Wrangler flipped. It rolled down the steep incline, across the grassy embankment into heavy traffic. Brandi screamed. “Oh, God!” She threw her arms over her head.

The driver of an eighteen-wheeler, with his cellphone to his ear, never saw the Wrangler until it lurched onto Yosemite into his path. He jerked the steering wheel to the right and stomped on the brakes. Tires screamed. Brakes squealed. The truck jackknifed; the driver crashed through the windshield. The truck bed spun and slammed the cab into the Wrangler. Suddenly, a loud boom erupted. Torn metal and yellow flames shot into the air.

The man in the pickup pulled over to the side of the exit ramp and wiped sweat off his face with his shirtsleeve. He watched the fiery wreckage spread across the roadway while oncoming cars veered off the road.

Tires screeched as cars skidded off the pavement onto the shoulder and into the median.

He jumped out of the truck and ran down the incline. From a distance he watched.

Metal crunched; car doors slammed. Shouts and screams mingled with the metallic mayhem and the whoosh of the fiery collision.

The man joined the crowd that now gathered to gawk. He scanned the area. Hopefully the camera burned along with the girl and the Wrangler, but he needed to know for sure. He remembered that the Wrangler’s windows had been open, so the camera could have been thrown clear. He looked up the hillside to his right where the Wrangler had left the road and rolled down the embankment. He spotted the camera. Yes! He strode toward it. When he reached the spot where the camera lay, he crouched in front of it, with his back to the expressway and crowd. It was open—and empty.

“That stupid—” He uttered a harsh laugh and climbed up the hill. When he reached the pickup, he opened the door and turned to look down at the wreck. No one paid any attention to him. He grinned and pulled himself into the truck and threw it into gear. He had a body to bury.

Chapter One

 Three years later. 

“Are you through with the front page?” Lindsey asked. Val’s only daughter knew more about local and world events than she did.

Dressed in her favorite pink terrycloth bathrobe and matching slippers, Val dropped Section A of the Denver News on the red Formica breakfast bar when she passed Lindsey to refill her coffee mug. Val looked around the thirty-something-year-old kitchen while she poured her second cup. Renovation would definitely start here. The aged white appliances and the white metal cabinets had to go, although white kitchens were again fashionable. Obviously, the people who liked white in their kitchens had not grown up with white metal cabinets.

“Thanks.” Lindsey picked up the newspaper. She wrinkled her freckled nose and watched her mother pour coffee. “Don’t you know that’s bad for your heart?”

“What should I drink in the morning, carrot juice with a raw egg and tofu?”

With a smirk, Lindsey said, “You know what I mean. Caffeine’s not good for your blood pressure. Why don’t you try decaf?”

“If God had meant for coffee beans to be caffeine free....”

Lindsey finished her mother’s sentence—singsong. “...He would’ve made ‘em that way to begin with.”

“Well spoken, daw-tuh.” Val resettled on the bar stool next to Lindsey and sipped from her mug. Then, she set her mug on the counter, reached over, and pushed Lindsey’s coppery hair away from her face.

Lindsey looked up from the front page and smiled. “When’s Dad coming home?”

“Probably in a week or so. They should be finishing up with the house soon.”

“I’m glad.” Frown lines appeared between her green eyes. “Seems like he’s always on the road somewhere helping out somebody with something.”

“You’re right.” Elbows on the counter, Val took a long drink of coffee. The strong brew revved her slow-starting engine. She looked over at her daughter—seventeen, serious, and growing up too fast. “When your dad comes back from this trip, he should be home for a while and hopefully can get some of the projects done around here.” She paused for more coffee. “So, what’ve you got going today?”

Lindsey sipped her orange juice. “I’m meeting Hannah at school to work on the first edition of the The Rover.”

“School doesn’t start until Monday, remember?”

“I know, but we want to get a head start on setting up the newsroom before Monday. Mrs. Claton’s going to let us in and help us decide what to put in the first issue.”

“Mmm.” Val nodded.

Lindsey, dressed in khaki shorts and a black tank top, checked her watch. “I’ve gotta go. I promised Rachel and Erin I’d pick them up.” She jumped up and brushed a kiss across her mother’s cheek. “Love you,” she said just before the door to the garage slammed.

“Love you, too,” Val called out too late. She sighed. How old do kids have to be before they quit slamming doors?

Moments later, Lindsey was back. “Oh, I forgot to ask you.” She sat down beside her mother again. “I...uh...was wondering if you would mind if I...uh...used Aunt Brandi’s camera to take pictures for the paper? I found....”

Val choked on her coffee.

Lindsey patted her mother on the back. “Are you okay?”

Red faced, Val raised her hand to signify that she was still alive. She grabbed a napkin off the counter to wipe her face and the front of her robe.

A pained look crossed Lindsey’s face. “I didn’t mean to upset you mentioning Aunt Brandi, but I’d like to use her camera...if it’s okay.”

All the horror of Brandi’s death returned. Tears smarted in Val’s eyes, and she swiped at the wetness with the back of her hand. “I’m not even sure what happened to her camera.”

Hope flickered in Lindsey’s eyes. “It’s in the basement—with all her other stuff.”

Val pulled a Kleenex from her robe pocket and blew her nose. “Are you sure? I don’t remember seeing it when we packed up everything after she—”

“It’s down there. I...uh...found it yesterday.”

Val searched her daughter’s bright eyes and shining face—the spitting image of her aunt. Young and eager, she seemed to be following the path her aunt had taken. “I guess your aunt would want someone to get some use out of it.”

“Thanks,” Lindsey said, relief evident in her voice. She headed for the basement.

Swoosh. Swoosh. Creak. Creak. Click. Click. Val heard sounds of small feet as they shuffled in house shoes, the creak of old pine floors, and dog’s nails that clicked on the hardwood in the hallway. The familiar sounds of Ryan, Val’s ten-year-old son, and George, his three-year-old golden retriever.

“Morning.” Sleepy-eyed Ryan hugged his mother and then opened the back door to let George outside. Spiky brown hair stuck out at odd angles from Ryan’s head.

Val stood up and wiped away the last of her tears. “What do you want for breakfast?”

“Cheerios,” Ryan mumbled. He shuffled over to the pantry door and pulled. The glass knob came off in his hand. “Not again!” he whined as he held up the guilty knob.

“Just lay it on the counter. I’ll fix it.” How many times had she put that knob back on? Maybe she’d use Superglue this time. Would Superglue hold glass? Probably not.

While Ryan grabbed the box of cereal, Val pulled a bowl from a cabinet and milk from the refrigerator. She placed each in front of her son. He climbed onto the red vinyl bar stool that had been vacated by his sister.

“It looks like you combed your hair with an egg beater this morning,” Val remarked.

Ryan poured cereal and milk. He grinned at his mother. “I didn’t comb it.”

“My point exactly.” She took a spoon from a drawer, handed it to him, and poured a glass of orange juice, which she set beside his bowl. “Don’t forget to thank the Lord for your food.”

“I always do—to myself.”

“Here it is!” Lindsey called as she ran up the basement steps. She slammed the basement door and walked over to her mother.

Val held out her hand. Caked dirt flaked off the black thirty-five millimeter camera when she turned it over. In a flash, Val remembered seeing the mud-covered camera in a box at the morgue. It was the only thing left after the accident, except for a role of film and the rear license plate of Brandi’s car.

A young police officer had handed her the film while she filled out paperwork on where to send her sister’s charred body. He had said something about finding the roll somewhere near the camera. Not sure the film was even Brandi’s and not caring, Val had thrown the dirt-covered roll in the box with the camera. Vaguely, she remembered the box being placed in the back seat of her Explorer. Somehow it must have ended up in their basement.

The inevitable click of Brandi’s camera at family gatherings sounded in Val’s memory. In her mind, she could still see Brandi’s freckled face, bright smile, and shiny hair that swung around her shoulders. Val recalled the instance where Brandi sneaked up behind her and snapped a picture while she mucked out the stalls in the barn. The sharp pain of the loss of her sister returned as Val stood, walked over to the sink, and brushed dirt off the camera.

“I also found this roll of film. I wonder if it’s any good?” Lindsey said. “It’s got dirt caked on it like the camera.”

“I don’t know.” Val took the film. “This must be the roll someone gave me at.... It may not even be from Brandi’s camera.” She studied it more closely. “It looks like most of the film has been exposed.” She paused, thinking. “Maybe I’ll take it to one of those one-hour photo places today and see if they can develop any of it.” If the film had come from Brandi’s camera and if it was any good, Val would have the last pictures Brandi had taken.

“Do you think the camera still works?” Lindsey asked.

“I think we probably still have a roll of thirty-five millimeter film around here somewhere. If you really want to use the camera, I’ll try it out.”

Lindsey hugged her mother. “Thanks, Mom.” She walked over and opened the door to the garage. With a glance back at her mother, she added, “Oh. Would you pick up some extra film for me if the camera works?”

“Okay. Don’t slam....” Slam! Too late. Val grimaced and leaned on the counter beside her son. She shook herself mentally, not ready to allow herself to slip back into the grief pit that it had taken her two years to climb out of after Brandi’s death.

She looked over at Ryan who dribbled milk and cereal on the table. “How about you and George pose for some pictures for me so we can try out your Aunt Brandi’s camera?”

Ryan shrugged. “Okay.”

“Good. As soon as you finish your breakfast, clean up, and feed George, how about we go down to the pond and see if this camera still works?”

A frown crossed Ryan’s milk-speckled face. Gray-blue eyes, the color of his dad’s, focused on the dusty camera. “Looks kinda beat-up to me.”

More loose dirt fell free from the camera when Val shook it over the sink. It was in reasonable condition considering that it had been thrown from Brandi’s Wrangler before the crash. Tears welled in Val’s eyes again.

.

 
 
 
 
 
 

 Copyright 2011, Jonna Turner - All Rights Reserved