REUNION IN SHOCKOE SLIP
By Maggie King
“Tonight the body of a Nashville man was found in a Richmond motel room. Roger Rucker, sixty-three, was bludgeoned to death at the Good Night Inn on Richmond’s Southside.”
A photo of Mr. Rucker appeared on the screen. It looked like a standard DMV mug shot.
The news anchor continued. “The apparent weapon was a twenty-five pound free weight. Rucker was found by his former wife, Jean Rucker of Richmond.”
The newscast cut to footage of the motel parking lot: the open door to the room, police cars with lights flashing, the covered stretcher being carried out of the room to the waiting ambulance, the motel’s sign with an o missing from Good, making it Go d Night Inn.
Mike asked, “Isn’t that the guy you had coffee with earlier?”
Unable to speak, I nodded. We listened to the rest of the broadcast but learned nothing more. The report ended with the usual appeal to come forward with any information that would help the police with their investigation.
“I wonder if Jean killed him.” I looked at my husband as if I expected him to know.
Mike shrugged. “Well, you said she threatened him with a knife.”
“Yeah, that’s what he told me. But—but, she used a weight.” I wondered why I expected consistency in weapon choice. “Of course, she probably didn’t bring the knife with her to the motel. And Roger said he traveled with all his weight-lifting equipment.”
“So she used whatever was close at hand.”
“Sounds like a crime of passion.”
Earlier that day I’d been signing copies of my latest mystery, The Berlin Affair, at the Fountain Bookstore in Richmond, Virginia’s historic Shockoe Slip. My face ached from smiling and my hand from writing. A perky woman lingered at my table, wanting to know how I got my writing ideas.
“Be born into my family and the ideas will never dry up,” I quipped.
“Nancy McGregor. It is you. You’re N.J. Drummond. You haven’t changed a bit.”
That voice. Gravel infused with Southern drawl. The last time I’d heard that voice was thirty years before in North Hollywood, California. What on earth was Roger Rucker doing in Richmond?
“Roger.” I stared at the smiling man before me.
“I was walking by last night and saw your picture in the window with the announcement of your signing. N. J. Drummond. I said to myself ‘That looks like Nancy McGregor. Could it be? Here, in Richmond, three thousand miles from where I last saw her?’ But I knew it had to be you, the resemblance was too strong. Like I said, you haven’t changed a bit.”
That was doubtful. Oh, I styled my thick honey blonde hair in a chin length bob, much the same as I had thirty years before. And my face still had what I liked to call the bloom of youth. As for the neck down—well, I won’t go into that.
“Neither have you, Roger.”
His skeptical look made me realize that he had changed in some ways. The mass of dark curls had gone gray and his bushy dark brows were more so. But his face showed no signs of sagging. I wondered if he’d had work done. The Roger I’d known had been lean and muscular, the result of clocking in many hours at the gym. Was he still fit? Hard to tell under the heavy winter jacket.
“Well, do I get a hug?”
I hesitated for a nanosecond before standing and giving my long-ago lover a hug amid cheers from the many customers.
Roger continued in his sore throat voice.
“I wanted to be the first here for your signing, but I got held up. Any copies left?”
I looked over at Kelly Justice, the proprietor of the Fountain, standing behind the register. Kelly, a tall, attractive brunette, was just finishing with a customer who picked up a foot-high stack of trade paperbacks. Naturally, smiles wreathed Kelly’s face.
“Kelly, any more copies of The Berlin Affair?” I asked.
“One.” She held it up. We’d had a great day. The Berlin Affair was surpassing sales of my previous books.
“Sold!” Roger took out his wallet.
While he and Kelly completed his transaction, he regaled the customers with an embroidered story of our long ago love in sunny Southern California.
“How romantic,” a woman effused, holding her hand over her heart. “It’s just like in As Time Goes By.”
I held back an unladylike snort—as I’m sure Judi Dench and Geoffrey Palmer would have done if presented with such a comparison to their long-running BBC show.
When Roger came back to the table with book in hand, I signed with my usual flourish: “Roger, nice seeing you again. Best wishes, Nancy.” Short and sweet.
Customers started taking pictures of us with their iPhones and uploading them to Facebook. Tagging me. I checked my Facebook page on my phone—it was already littered with pictures of me and Roger reuniting. When someone suggested that we hug again, I said playfully, “I have a husband, and he’s on Facebook. We don’t want to make him jealous.” That netted me dismissive hand waves and guffaws.
Roger leaned toward me and lowered his voice.
“I see you’re signing until three. Do you want to get coffee at that place on the corner? What’s it called?”
“Urban Farmhouse. Yeah, sure.” Not only was I curious about Roger’s sudden reappearance in my life, but I figured there might be a story in this reunion. I grabbed every opportunity for new material.
Roger sat on a chair, took his phone out of his pocket, and set to swiping at his screen. “Great looking web site.” He held up his phone so I could see my home page. He friended me on my Facebook page, then moved on to Twitter where he followed me.
With The Berlin Affair sold out, I signed copies of my previous books and chatted with customers. But my mind was on Roger. What is he doing here? As I signed, he took pictures of me with his iPhone. I heard him telling a customer about a backup feature he’d enabled that let him automatically upload pictures to Google Plus.
“In fact,” he added, “every picture I’ve ever taken is on Google Plus.”
Good old Google—the mega social network had not only taken over our lives but it let us view them in pictures. Finished with his phone activities, Roger wandered around the store.
“Great place you have here, Kelly.”
Kelly was still on cloud nine after such a successful day. Saturdays in downtown Richmond didn’t usually draw crowds of shoppers. Roger took in the stamped tin ceiling, wooden shelves, and exposed brick wall that displayed oil paintings created by local artists. Kelly elaborated on the history of the shop.
The number of customers dwindled to two. At three o’clock, I thanked them, shrugged into my coat, looped a long scarf around my neck, and pulled on leather gloves. After Kelly reminded me about another signing event, Roger and I stepped outside to face a cold and blustery January afternoon.
The Shockoe Slip section of Richmond started out as a trading post in the early 1600s. Over the centuries, it has morphed into an eclectic shopping and dining district. Restored warehouses and taverns combined with cobblestone streets and alleyways to create a little of yesterday with a little of today.
At the Urban Farmhouse, we ordered lattes and oatmeal raisin cookies, which we carried to the one available table in the back by the restroom. When we took off our jackets, I noticed that Roger did, indeed, still have that fit body, evident in his custom-tailored shirt. Unlike my own body, ravaged by time, gravity, and a fondness for good food. I caught the appraising sweep that Roger’s eyes made over my figure. I sat quickly.
“Do you still work out a lot?” I asked.
“You bet. This morning I ran around the track at a high school near where I’m staying. And I have my free weights with me. That’s what I do when I travel.”
“What brings you to Richmond?”
“I gave a lecture on Internet safety at J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College—J. Sarge as you locals say. They’re having an IT conference this weekend.”
“And how did you happen to be at the Fountain?”
“I passed the store last night on the way back to my car. I had dinner with one of the workshop presenters at that Irish pub down the street.” He pointed down Cary Street.
I nodded. “Sine’s.” I pronounced it Shin-ay.
We talked about what had brought us to the East Coast: the pull of family in both cases. I was from Virginia and Roger from Tennessee. He’d inherited the family homestead in Nashville and had moved back five years before.
“When did you start writing? You didn’t write when I knew you, did you?”
“I started back in the nineties.” I told him about my Christian-flavored mysteries that featured a travel writer who goes around the globe, finding murder wherever she goes. “I just finished my twelfth book in the series.”
“And if they’re Christian, I take it there’s no sex?”
“No sex and no profanity. Violence is okay, though.” We chuckled over that one.
“So, Roger, tell me more about your work.”
When I knew him, I had been at loose ends, and his ends were even looser. I supported myself with temp work and went to computer school. He worked construction—sometimes. I had a weakness back then for bad boys and taut bodies, and Roger fit the bill.
“Oh, I teach. Web design, Photoshop, Internet safety, social media, you name it.”
Photoshop. That’s right. Back in the day, he was a budding photographer with a whoopdy-do camera. I remember him snapping pictures at every opportunity.
“I have another reason for being here this weekend.”
His ex-wife Jean and ten-year-old son Cameron lived in Richmond. He and Jean were battling over custody and visitation rights for Cameron. He claimed that his wife was mentally ill. He showed me a picture of her and Cameron. The boy sported a baseball cap and looked miserable. Jean was a hefty-looking woman with platinum blonde hair and milky white skin. The blue of her eyes was so pale they almost appeared white as well. The whole effect was that of a post-nuclear linebacker—one that I recognized.
I smiled. “I think I can guess where you two met.”
“Yes, that AA meeting in North Hollywood. The same one where I met you. You know Jean?”
“I’ve seen her at meetings. Never talked to her though.”
I didn’t explain that her fierce look didn’t invite friendly overtures.
“She’s not the friendliest person in the world,” Roger said, as if he had read my mind.
I kept my thoughts about Jean’s friendliness—or lack of—to myself.
“I hate to air my dirty laundry, but . . . ” He shot me a rueful look that signaled a dirty laundry airing.
“I was over there this morning, and Jean came outside waving a kitchen knife at me. Totally unhinged. Right in front of the neighbors, too.” He pressed his lips together and shook his head. It was then that I saw the strain around his eyes. “At least there were plenty of witnesses to testify if she ever does kill me.”
“I’m so sorry . . . so how long are you staying in town?”
“I’m heading back tomorrow. I’m holed up at this motel near where Jean and Cam live. I—damn!” Roger bit his lower lip and shook his head. “I shouldn’t have told Jean where I was staying.” Then he waved a hand, either dismissing the subject or swatting at a bug. “So . . . back in the book store you said you were married?”
“Yes, I’m married.”
When I didn’t elaborate, he picked up his phone and accessed my Facebook page.
“You said he was on Facebook.” This guy didn’t miss a thing. He scrolled until he found Mike Drummond. “Hmm. Nice looking guy.” I smiled and nodded. Salt and pepper hair, green eyes peeking out from bushy brows, gleaming white teeth—it all added up to make Mike one nice-looking husband.
Roger put the phone back on the table.
“You two have children?”
“And your family? Wasn’t your daddy a preacher?”
Daddy. Perpetually in a suit and tie with perpetually pursed lips showing his disapproval of just about everything. He held the congregants of his Northern Virginia megachurch spellbound with his fire and brimstone sermons. He extended his authority to his three children by constantly threatening to disinherit us if we stepped out of line. His wealthy parents had left him a fortune. I was already a black sheep because of being a mainstream Protestant.
“Is he still anti-porn?”
“Still anti-porn,” I laughed.
Daddy was on a crusade to rid the world of porn. I guessed that keeping us in line had something to do with porn. Did he really fear that we’d take up acting in blue movies?
“You know, Nancy, I was disappointed when you just up and left me all those years ago.”
“I had to, Roger. You’d started drinking again and smoking weed. I didn’t want to jeopardize my own sobriety.”
“I understand. But I still hated you for running out on me.”
After an uncomfortable pause, he said, “Well, I don’t drink anymore.”
“We were together for quite a while.” I caught the edge in Roger’s voice.
I shrugged. “Three months?” Maybe three months seemed like a long time to him.
Not liking the path this conversation was taking, I took out my phone and checked the time. “Well . . . I have to get going,” I said, trying to look regretful.
“I was hoping we could have dinner. I’d like to meet Mike.”
I struggled to maintain the look of regret plastered on my face.
“We have plans. We’re going out of town for the weekend. Maybe some other time.”
I bit my lip to keep from laughing at the very thought of a meeting between Roger and Mike. Back in the day, Roger had been a die-hard liberal, given to soap box speeches. Not a good combination with my Rush Limbaugh-loving husband. I could just see the two of them facing off over Obamacare.
“Okay, but let me give you the number of my motel room . . . just in case.”
He jotted the number down on a napkin that I stuffed in my purse.
“I’m staying at the Good Night Inn.”
The Good Night Inn was a third—make that fourth-rate—motel on one of Richmond’s main drags. Any number of murders, solved and unsolved, had been committed on the premises. I guessed that J. Sarge wasn’t footing the bill for Roger’s lodging. Couldn’t a man who sported custom-tailored shirts secure better accommodations for himself?
We pulled on our cold weather attire and stepped outside. Roger’s Honda Civic was parked a few cars up from the café. The Obama-Biden stickers from 2008 and 2012 confirmed that Roger and Mike were best kept apart.
“Nancy, I have a confession. When you broke up with me, I wanted to kill you. Seriously.”
I stared. That’s the first time someone had shared that particular urge with me.
He laughed. “You should see your face. Oh, don’t worry, I don’t want to kill you anymore. Now Jean . . . she’s another story.” His face went from mocking to thunderous.
Did the man always need a woman to want to kill? No wonder Jean shielded herself with kitchen knives. But even without weapons, I think she’d be a good match for Roger. He may be fit, but she had size and fierceness going for her.
Still, it was only right to warn her.
I could hear Fox News blasting when I got out of my car. I walked into the house that I shared with my husband on Richmond’s Southside.
Mike turned off the TV and listened attentively as I told him about the signing and how I ran into someone I’d known in L.A.
“We had coffee at the Urban Farmhouse.”
“You mean the guy on Facebook? Who’s he, an old boyfriend?”
While Mike would never admit to being jealous, his tone suggested otherwise. And so I kept things vague.
“Not really. We went out for a while, nothing serious.” Angelo, our orange and white Manx cat, jumped in my lap. “His ex-wife lives in Richmond.” I petted Angelo as I relayed the story about Roger and the knife-wielding Jean. I omitted the part about Roger wanting to kill me or his ex-wife. “I’ve seen Jean at AA meetings.”
Mike shook his head. “I hope you don’t get involved with these people.”
“Not to worry,” I assured him. “He’s staying at the Good Night Inn.”
“Even more reason not to be involved with him.”
“I’m not getting involved.”
I worked at my computer for a while, posting on my blog, checking social media, and returning e-mail. Angelo helped by walking around on my keyboard. But I couldn’t shake the vision of Roger killing his ex-wife. If he succeeded, would he remember that he’d given me a heads up by telling me about the knife incident? Would he then come after me to shut me up—permanently? Had he deliberately put me in that position? But why? After all this time did he still want to kill me? Or was it that he wanted to be able to plead self-defense in his ex’s killing and planned to call on me to back up his story? Were the knife and the neighborhood witnesses even real? If he intended to kill Jean it made sense that he wanted to create a scenario.
I’d seen Jean at the Saturday AA meetings at the church off of Chippenham Parkway. Hopefully, she’d be there tonight—else I’d have to hunt her down online. Sometimes that worked, sometimes it didn’t.
“Do you want to go to Italian Delight?” Mike called.
“Sure, good idea.”
It beat cooking and having the inevitable wrangle over who was going to clean up. We enjoyed pizza in the unpretentious Southside neighborhood restaurant on Jahnke Road.
Back at home, my friend Darla called, and we chatted for a bit. I had some time before I had to leave for the meeting, so I did more computer work, including my weekly backups.
I found Mike in the family room doing a crossword puzzle.
“I’m going to an AA meeting.” I kissed him and said I’d be back in a while. “I might go out for coffee with some of the others afterwards.”
“Okay. See you later.”
At the meeting I spotted Jean immediately. Not difficult with her nuclear glow. I sat on the other side of the room, planning to buttonhole her during the break. That would give me more time to summon up the courage to approach her.
I had no idea what was said, or who said it, during the first half of the meeting. During the break, I found Jean outside in the freezing cold, smoking. I stood a distance away, assessing her while I exchanged small talk with another smoker. Had Roger’s ex expanded in size since I’d last seen her? Not only did the woman look fearsome, but the news I had to deliver wouldn’t have been easy even if she was friendly. I started wavering. Did Roger even mean what he’d said about killing her? Was it just a figure of speech? Was I overreacting? Really, it was hard to fathom that the woman couldn’t hold her own against Roger. I felt sure that he had more to fear than she did.
But no, I couldn’t take chances. It was my moral duty to warn her. I soldiered on.
As I drew closer, I found myself looking right into those spooky blue eyes.
Nope, can’t do it. The woman was too scary.
I arranged a smile on my face and came out with a cheery “Cold, isn’t it?”
She scowled, not responding to my inanity. I turned and walked away.
When I got home later, Mike asked me about the meeting. We sat and talked for a while. I said nothing about the frightening Jean.
“Oh! I was supposed to send Darla some information about a new quilting group that I heard about. Let me do it before I forget.”
I got up and ran upstairs to my den. Once there, I brought up my Facebook page. There I was—in all my glory. My profile and cover photos showed me wearing come-hither smiles and nothing else.
I thought back over the past few hours since Darla had called and told me about a strange picture on my Facebook page, posted by one Roger Rucker. When I checked, I groaned—there I was in the all-together. Thankfully my artful placement of a silk scarf over my head partially obscured my face and identity. But I knew it was me—I remembered Roger taking those pictures in his budding-photographer days. And I already had a slew of likes and comments, “Is this you?” being the most frequent one. Roger had duplicated the photos on Twitter. Stunned and furious, I reposted my original photos and made sure that I unfriended and unfollowed Roger.
An e-mail from him warned that “next time I’ll post more identifiable pictures unless you agree to my terms. On your website, too. Believe me, I can get into it.”
Next time? Terms? What did he mean by that? And my website? Oh dear. I had to face it—Roger was an Internet safety expert—and likely that meant he had the know-how to hack into systems. And he intended to put his hacking skills to use by posting nude photos of me. I set to backing up my site so I could restore it if necessary.
Why was Roger doing this? Had he seen an opportunity to get back at me after all these years? For what—breaking up with him? Had he been that obsessed with me? Or had the threat from his wife unhinged him? What did he want from me? Was this blackmail? I had to find out. But first things first—I had to find Jean and warn her. We could both be victims of Roger’s apparently psychotic mind.
As I sat and stared at the pictures, I continued to rewind through an evening that I’d give anything to forget.
I hadn’t returned to the meeting after my aborted attempt to warn Jean. Instead, I beat it over to the Good Night Inn. A quick check of Facebook on my phone showed that Roger had re-posted the pictures of me wearing only the sinuous scarf. I parked on the street and walked through the motel parking lot that was littered with broken beer bottles. Bass music blasted through open doors. Party revelers, unfazed by the low temperature, spilled out of the rooms, whooping and cheering. Belatedly, I wished I’d thought to bring along a weapon to this hotbed of crime. No telling what the motel denizens might get up to. And Roger might still want to kill me. Would anyone hear my screams? Would they even care? Likely not. Probably everyone screamed in this place.
But if Roger wanted to blackmail me, wouldn’t he want to keep me alive? You didn’t kill your income source. As for the raucous guests, I prayed that they’d limit their offenses to disturbing the peace.
“Roger, please delete those pictures.” I said without preamble when he opened the door.
He laughed. “Oh, ho. I thought you were going away for the weekend.”
“We had a change of plans.”
He guffawed again. “No, you didn’t. You lied.”
“Please delete those pictures, Roger,” I repeated. I hated begging.
“What will you do for it?”
The gleam in his eyes unsettled me and made me want to flee. But I pressed on.
“What do you want?”
“What do I want? Why, I want you. We used to be good together. I have lots of those photos on Google Plus. I can show the world how beautiful you are. Were, rather.” He gave me the once over and snickered. “You’ve spread out a bit, haven’t you? I noticed that at the Urban Farmhouse. Sooooo . . . I might just have to settle for money.” He punctuated everything he said with that evil laugh.
Roger had set up his laptop next to a stack of twenty-five pound weights on a desk with a scratched and peeling faux grain. He sat and started a slideshow of the images. Were there that many? I remembered that rainy day in L.A. when he took them. I had hammed it up with the wanton looks and the Playboy centerfold poses.
“I’m sure you don’t want hubby or daddy to see these pictures, beautiful as they are. And your Christian readers? I don’t think so.”
“Tell me, my dear . . . what’s it worth to you to keep these photos away from their eyes?”
“Why, Roger? Why?”
The laugh turned maniacal. I sensed his frenzied excitement. Was Roger going mad? Was he always this nuts and somehow I hadn’t noticed? Maybe Jean had put him over the edge.
Roger continued the slideshow. I’ll never know what made me pick up that weight and bring it down on his head. Was it the blackmail threat? The insults? The laugh? The weight seemed light as a feather—was I really that strong or did the adrenaline surge empower me?
I thanked my lucky stars for the gloves that protected my fingers from the January cold—they left no prints in the motel room; and for having the presence of mind to grab Roger’s laptop and iPhone. I’d have to figure out what to do with them. My trunk wasn’t the ideal place. Had any of the partiers noticed me arriving and leaving? Probably not. Women my age were invisible.
When I got to my car, I could barely open the door for my trembling. I sat and shook for the longest time. When Jean pulled into the motel parking lot in a monster SUV, I ducked in my seat. A few seconds later, I peeked over the dashboard and saw her turning off her lights. She had parked under the Good Night Inn sign with the missing o.
Not a good, or god, night for Roger.
For the second time that evening I considered approaching Jean. And just what would I say?
Hi Jean! Lovely evening, isn’t it? If you’re here to kill Roger I saved you the trouble. But you’ll still take the rap for it. So sorry. Surely the police will zero in on a very angry ex-wife. Plus your neighbors will remember you coming at Roger with a knife. Unless that was a trumped up story—who knows with Roger.
But you could plead self-defense. You could say he tried to whack you over the head with one of his weights and you wrestled it away from him. But if you end up in prison you’ll fare far better there than I would. Remember, orange is the new black.
Needless to say I stayed put and watched Jean stumble and nearly fall as she climbed out of her vehicle.
She lumbered off toward Roger’s room.
I started my car.
Now I could delete the pictures, and Roger wouldn’t be undoing my efforts.
I looked again at my image. Hmm. Roger was right . . . I looked pretty good. The thirty-years-earlier me had no cellulite; my stomach was smooth and flat, my breasts perky. Nothing sagged. Nowadays all parts headed south, melting and drooping like candles.
Mike yelled from the den, “Hon, come here. You won’t believe what’s on the news.”
Oh, yes I would. “Be there in a sec, sweetheart.”
“Reunion in Shockoe Slip” appeared in Virginia is for Mysteries Volume II, published by Koehler Books in 2016.