“ Hello Phillip, this is Melinda. Are you feeling any better now?”
Phillip was in no mood for mind games.
“ Yes, I am ok. I’m sorry, but is there something I can do for you?” Phillip waited for her response.
She seemed to be searching for the right words.
“ I was wondering. Are you free this evening? You see, I thought you might stop by my house for a drink. I am sure you will find it easily enough.”
Phillip pulled the phone away from his ear and looked at it incredulously as though it might respond to his regard.
“ Miss Beecham; Melinda; I don’t think that would be such a good idea. As you are aware, my wife died recently, and well, I am really not ready to be entertaining any sort of relationship with anyone just at the moment.”
Melinda recoiled at the last remark.
“ Phillip. I don’t think you really understand what I was saying. I am not asking you out for a date. I am having some friends over for drinks tonight. They are anxious to meet you. And, they may have some answers to questions that have surely been on your mind. But, by all means, if you feel that you are not up to it, then perhaps we can do this another time.”
Phillip felt his face go red and he quickly responded.
“ Oh, I am sorry Melinda, I didn’t understand. Forgive me. But may I ask, who are these people?”
“ Friends. People you can trust. People who know exactly what it is you are feeling right now. I really can’t say much right now Phillip. I am sorry to be sounding secretive, but you will understand when you get here. Will you come?”
Phillip thought that all of this was getting to be a bit much. Melinda knew his name; the deed he had done; she was having a secret meeting with secret friends; she was offering up scraps of information which lead to more questions; and being downright sickly sweet and compassionate through it all. Making his decision on where and how to kill her even more complicated. Getting her home address might prove rather useful though, and so he agreed to meet.
After Melinda gave him the address and time, she paused just long enough for Phillip to ask her what was wrong.
“ Well, may I ask Phillip? Would you please shave and dress accordingly? These are my closest and dearest friends, and well...”
Phillip assured her he would do his best to make himself presentable, and hung up.
The summer sun was sinking quickly into the western horizon; casting long shadows over the sprawling front lawn as Phillip put the car in park. The repressive heat of the day gave way to warm evening breezes that caught the scents of the flowers growing in profusion and carried them in waves of gentle smells. It was obvious that Melinda took great care of her home and garden.
A gnarled crab apple tree, heavily laden with summers’ bounty was off in a corner. The manicured lawn, lush and thick, swept gracefully up to the front porch. Its railings were snow white and set against the forest green color of her home. Atop the railings, planters, overflowing with rich red Begonias were placed every two feet. On either side of the large wooden front door were brass pots. Shoots of wild grasses and tiny flowers in purples and gold swayed in the gentle winds.
As Phillip climbed the front steps, he heard the sounds of soft music and laughter coming from inside the house. The clinking of glasses and the smell of warm pastry seemed to be hanging in the air. He grabbed out to the big knocker in the form of a lions head and was about to knock when the door suddenly swung open.
“ Phillip! I am so glad that you could make it! Please, come in.”
Melinda looked lovely. Her dark hair framing a pair of soft brown, and sparkling eyes. Her tanned complexion bore witness to the work she had done in making her front lawn summer perfection. She gently took Phillips hand, in a soft handshake, and without letting go, pulled him into the foyer. A large mirror to the right was far too harsh a reality that Phillip gazed upon in brief disgust; the damage of these past days had left their toll on his features.
The conversation; so bright and lively; came to an abrupt halt, as all heads turned towards the front door.
“ Everyone, I want you to meet Phillip Preston.”
Smiles beaming, and glasses raised, they seemed to all say in unity; welcome Phillip. He felt awkward. He felt like turning and running out the door. Melinda, sensed this awkward moment, and offered him a drink.
“ What can I get you Phillip? I have some terrific wines. But I also have a bottle of really great single malt Scotch whiskey if you prefer.”
Phillip agreed to the whiskey and Melinda, smiling and never letting go of Phillip’s hand, gently led him to the bar. The conversation continued as Phillip turned his back on the guests; all the while sensing their eyes upon him. This had been a mistake, but he was here now and couldn’t leave. He felt trapped and totally friendless. What had he been thinking when he accepted this invite from Melinda?
“ Hi Phillip. Brad Stryker.”
Phillip turned into the face of a man with a large smile and friendly demeanor. One large hand thrust forward. As Phillip took his hand, he noticed the grip. Strong and sure. Brad was a big man. Broad shoulders and barrel chested; he reminded Phillip of a wrestler from years gone by.
“ May I join you in the Scotch? Wine is ok, but whiskey is better!”
Phillip was glad someone was talking to him. So, he agreed.
Melinda smiled as she poured Brad his drink.
“ I have to check on some things in the oven. Brad, will you please take care of our guest till I return?”
Brad raised his glass of Scotch in the air and saluted Melinda as she slid from behind the bar.
“ Tell me Phillip, are you a smoker by any chance?”
Phillip was dying for a cigarette, and was relieved that he had met another person that shared this addiction.
“ Yes, I smoke.”
Brad gave a toothy grin.
“ Then I have just the place for you! Follow me.”
Phillip followed the big man as he wandered through the kitchen, stating, “Melinda was the greatest hostess and cook anywhere to be found.” Melinda, bent over near the oven, having heard this, blushed.
The two men continued out the side door in to a shaded back yard. Thick with trees and a pond, the croaking of frogs and birds singing made it a haven from the day to day stress. As much care as Melinda had put into her front garden, an even greater priority had been placed here. It was lush and damp. A cool wetness hung in the air and the myriad of fragrances from countless species of plants mingled with the smells of mosses and forest foliage.
As Brad reached down to pick up an ashtray that had been placed by the door, Phillip pulled his cigarettes from his pocket and offered one to Brad.
“ Oh, no thanks Phillip. I don’t smoke. I thought we might just talk a bit. You see, we are all here tonight for you.”
Phillip drew hard on the cigarette and said as his mind focused, ” What do you mean?”
Brad’s face grew serious as he searched for the words.
” We all have something in common Phillip. In spite of our different lifestyles and personalities, there is one common thread with everyone here tonight.”
Phillip stared at Brad, waiting for him to continue. Brad took a large sip from his Scotch, and turned his gaze back on Phillip.
“ On second thought, I haven’t smoked in years, but maybe a cigarette would be good just now. Do you mind?”
Phillip hastily fumbled for his cigarettes and Brad took one. Lighting it up, he took a long haul and gently let the smoke drift out into the evening skies.
“ I haven’t smoked since the night that I killed that son of a bitch.”
Brad drew another long puff from the cigarette as Phillip stood wide eyed at his last comment.
“ Killed? Who?”