Curtis A. Bass, author of The Pearl Earring, writes short stories in a variety of genres including science fiction, horror, mystery, and young adult. He’s had stories published in online and print journals such as Youth Imagination, Fabula Argentea, Page & Spine, and the anthologies 2020 in a Flash, Best of 2020; The Protest Diaries; Worlds Within; and Screaming in the Night.
“So I said, ‘In that case, let me know when you get your head out of your ass’.”
Benson Hughes laughed at the anecdote his dearest friend Bethany had related. They were in his office, facing each other across his desk. She was wearing her red business suit, the tight jacket and slim skirt accentuating her trim build and set off by her perfectly coifed silver hair. He admired how she always looked so professional, but with a touch of sensuality. Or perhaps that was just him. Bethany was a force to be reckoned with, and not everyone saw her tender side as he did.
“Why do you keep touching your ear?” he asked. She put her hands together in a flustered motion. They were immediately up again to her right ear.
“It’s these darned earrings. I screwed this one on too tightly and it’s caused a tender spot on my lobe.” She removed the offending pearl earring and held it up to Benson as if it were evidence. “If I don’t screw them on tight enough, they fall off.”
“Still wearing the screw backs? I would have thought you’d have pierced ears like everyone else. How have I gone these many years and not known this?”
Bethany gave Benson a thoughtful look, eyebrows lifted and lips pursed, as she massaged her sore lobe between her thumb and forefinger. “There’s much about me you don’t know. After all, a lady must maintain some air of mystery. I place comfort ahead of fashion. I’m not letting some bodega kid at the mall poke holes in my head. It’s no telling what diseases they carry.”
“Still wearing the screw backs? I would have thought you’d have pierced ears like everyone else….”
Benson laughed again. Bethany was always a breath of fresh air. It brightened his day just to see her. They had been best of friends for nearly twenty years. They told each other everything. Or almost everything, he mused. Only Bethany knew of his dissatisfaction with his home life and his problems with Elaine. She was aware he was unhappy, but usually didn’t pry. But even she didn’t know how untenable things had become and what he had planned.
“You men have it so easy. Brush your hair and you’re ready to go. At my age, it takes me hours to be presentable.”
“You’re beautiful, and you know it. Don’t give me your ‘my age’ speech. You’re ageless.”
“Always the perfect gentleman. That’s why I love you so. Of course I’ll be your plus one for the award gala. You’re sure Elaine won’t change her mind?”
“I’m afraid not. Getting forced into retirement and the leg injury have really taken the wind out of her sails. She doesn’t want to go out in public.”
“Couldn’t have happened to a more deserving person if you ask me.” Bethany began screwing her earring back into place.
“Don’t start. Please.”
“I can’t help it.” She dropped her hands in her lap and gave him a sharp look. “You’re a good man.” There was a slight touch of scorn in her eyes. “Maybe too good.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“It means I think you could do better. You deserve it. But you always put everyone else’s good ahead of your own.”
Benson stared at his hands. “She needs me.”
“When I see how she treats you, it burns me up. I don’t know how you’ve lived with it all these years.” She took a breath and raised a hand to stop Benson from answering. “I know, I know. You love her. Mores the pity.”
“She’s my wife.”
“Till death do you part?” she asked, arching one sculpted eyebrow. “We’ve danced around this for years. When will you see? She’s using you. And it hurts me to see you so miserable.”
“We get by. Things will be better when I can spend more time at home.”
“When pigs fly. I know you Benson Hughes. You’ll stay the course, plodding along until one of you drops dead. I just hope it’s her first.”
A buzz sounded from the phone set, and Benson’s secretary’s tinny voice announced, “Mr. Jernigan here to see you, Mr. Hughes.”
“Send him on in, Barbara,” Benson said. Mark Jernigan had been Benson’s protégé when he had worked under him five years earlier. Now he was an independent contract counselor but dropped in often for coffee and friendly business gossip.
“Well, on that cheery note, I need to be off.” Bethany picked up her pocketbook from beside her chair and smoothed her wool skirt as she stood.
“Anybody home?” Mark called as he pushed open the office door. He was fifteen years younger than Benson and Bethany but had the gravitas of someone older.
“Come on in,” Benson said.
“Bethany, so good to see you again. And don’t you look wonderful,” Mark said, crossing the floor to take Bethany’s hand.
“Mark, you are such a flirt,” she said, giggling. “And always such a sharp dresser.” She straightened the lapel of his business jacket and brushed off imaginary lint. “I do love a man who knows how to dress.”
“Now who’s the flirt?” he came back.
Bethany smiled at him. “Well, I’m off. Benson?” He stood, leaned forward and she kissed his cheek. “I’ll see you Friday next. If I’m going to wow them at the gala, I have some shopping to do. Give my regards to Elaine.” She swept out of his office, closing the door behind her.
“Have a seat,” Benson offered, reseating himself.
“She’s quite a lady.” Mark settled his slim frame into the chair Bethany had vacated. “I always thought that if not for Elaine, the two of you might have ended up together.”
“I doubt it. We’re too much alike. And she knows where all the bodies are buried.”
Yes, Benson thought, if not for Elaine I’d have been all over Bethany. She’s the perfect woman. If not for Elaine.
Before Benson said anything else, Mark jumped in.
“So when were you going to tell me you’re retiring? I had to hear it through the rumor mill.”
“Well, I’m retiring,” Benson said with a slight grin.
“Not funny. Although I guess the Foundation award should have been a giveaway. A lifetime achievement award usually comes at the end of a career. You’ve raised residential care for DD people to an art form. But come on, you’re only fifty-five.”
“It’s time. The field is changing, and it’s harder for old dogs like me to keep up. The Board asked me to not say anything until they had a chance to look around. I should have said something to you, but time got away from me.”
“Man, it’s going to be weird without you here. Where will I get my coffee?” He gave Benson a cheeky grin.
“I’m sure Barbara would love to see you drop in any morning for a cup. Or pop into the Starbuck’s down the street more often. You know the one, where the green-haired barista thinks you’re cute.”
“But it won’t be the same without you here. What are you gonna do with yourself? You hate golf and I can’t see you in a rocking chair.”
“Well, Elaine needs me more now, so I’ll stay at home to care for her.”
“Yeah, that was a nasty turn of events. You don’t think the guy will sue?”
“No. Her company squelched that.”
“But she made him miserable, tried to destroy his life, even kicked down his door. How’s her leg, by the way?”
“It’s mending. But he falsified his data. It scotched a grant she was hoping for. You remember how dedicated to her work she is. Or rather, was.”
“So she sits home licking her wounds and you pick up her pieces.”
“Something like that. In fact, it touches on the reason I had Barbara ask you to stop by. Elaine’s been so dejected recently. She lived for her work at GSK. Some days I can hardly roust her out of bed. She hasn’t dressed in anything but pajamas for weeks. She keeps saying she doesn’t want to do anything because her life is over. I’m worried about her.”
“She has access to meds” Mark sat forward in his chair. “You don’t think she’d do something rash, do you?” There was a note of urgency in his voice.
“I hope not. I’d like to say no, but it’s like I don’t know her anymore. She’s changed. This has hit her hard.” Benson looked at his hands, folded on his desktop, as if in prayer.
“Sounds like she needs some help. I can give you a couple of referrals. Good people who really know their stuff. I’ll text them over tomorrow.”
“Thanks, Mark. I’d like that,” Benson said, a note of despondency in his voice.
“Hey, come on, man.” Mark leaned forward and placing his hand atop Benson’s. “Buck up. This should be a joyous occasion. Retirement is when the fun begins, and you’re going out on top. Not just anyone gets the State Social Agency Foundation Award for Life-Time Achievement. You’re basically a legend.”
“Anyone who lasts as long as I have gets called a legend as a subtle way of saying ‘it’s time to go away’,” Benson said, a smile cracking his lips. He slid his hands from under Mark’s but gave it a squeeze.
“Bull and shit,” Mark said. “When I consult on the far side of the state, I can mention your name and earn immediate street cred. People respect you. And I worked here, bud. I saw you in action. You’re the real deal. I’ll be at that award ceremony cheering as loud as anyone. You earned it.”
Benson looked down at his lap as a brief heat crossed his face. He was too old to be blushing like a virgin but cared about Mark’s opinion of him. He had a few misgivings about his plan to use Mark, but he was only peripheral to the primary objective. No harm would come to him.
“Why don’t we celebrate?” Mark said. “It’s almost five o’clock. Let’s hit the oyster bar for drinks and an early supper. What do ya say?”
Benson pressed a button on his desk phone. “Barbara. Call Elaine and tell her I’ve gone to a late meeting. I’ll eat before coming home. I won’t be late.”
“Sure thing, boss,” came the reply. Benson reached into his pants pocket and pressed the button to turn his cell phone off.
Benson pulled into his garage and waited as the door rolled to a close. Sitting for a few minutes in his car before going in was like donning his battle armor. When he went out for drinks, Elaine would invariably accuse him of philandering, though he had never strayed in their twenty-five years of marriage. He’d been presented with plenty of opportunities; women seemed drawn to him. But he had pledged himself to Elaine, and his marriage vows meant something to him. That was all that kept him from Bethany.
Once he felt strong enough, he entered the house.
Elaine was waiting for him in the darkened living room, lying in her black negligee and robe on the sofa, which had become her semi-permanent roost. The muted TV flickered, and a half-empty bottle of gin stood on the end table. She’s liable to drink herself into an early grave, he mused. Not an entirely unpleasant thought, he added. But that would take too long.
“Out chasing after that tramp Bethany again?” she slurred.
He hated it when she started in on Bethany. She was twice the lady Elaine would ever be. Oh, if only I’d met Bethany before Elaine slithered into my life, he thought.
“The both of you are pathetic.” In the dim light he could just make out the ugly sneer marring her face. She had been beautiful in her youth, but time had been unkind. Though dye kept her hair dark, the lines had crept around her eyes and mouth. She had also gained weight since injuring her leg.
“Good evening, darling. I was out with Mark. You remember him? He took me out to celebrate my award.”
“Then why didn’t you answer my texts? Was Mark so charming you couldn’t look at your phone?”
Benson pulled it from his pocket. “Crap, it’s dead. I must have forgotten to plug it in at work this morning.”
“Yeah, right,” she answered with the air of someone who didn’t believe a word he said.
He walked over to the sofa and began picking up takeout containers that littered the coffee table. “I see Zelma brought you Chinese takeout for dinner. C&G Wok. You like that place. Was it good?” Zelma was a health care worker with a company that helped housebound people. She was the fourth one they’d engaged in as many weeks.
“She’s supposed to make me a home-cooked dinner. That Mexican girl can’t cook worth shit. I had to send her out for the food. I fired her.”
“She’s Honduran, honey.”
“I’m sure Zelma would disagree. And you can’t keep firing the workers the company sends out.”
“They keep sending idiots.”
“I’ll call them tomorrow and register your complaint when I ask for a new worker.”
“I don’t need a new worker. You can take care of me now you’re retired.”
“I still have two weeks left before I leave the office.” Benson carried the containers to the kitchen and began rinsing them. The smell of the congealing moo goo gai pan made him queasy.
“You can rearrange your hours. What are they gonna do? Fire you?” Elaine cackled at her own joke. “You won’t disrespect me like these so-called care workers do. You’ve learned your place around here.” Elaine was often a mean drunk, and tonight was bringing it out.
“I’ll see what I can do, dear.” Benson tossed the cleaned containers into the recycling bin and returned to the living room.
“That girl was all thumbs in bandaging my leg. I need you to fix it.”
Benson sat and examined the leg she extended onto his lap. The bandaging looked fine, but he unwrapped and re-wrapped it, anyway.
“Yeah, you win an award for that pseudo-science crap, and I end up canned for doing real science. I made all the money so you could play with your retarded kids. Well, that’s changing now. You’re going to dance to my tune,” Elaine continued with her current subject of interest.
Her words chilled Benson. Elaine had worked in a high-paying job which had supported their lifestyle. His human services job was fulfilling, but low paying. Elaine often derided him for making so little money compared to her. He had long ago accepted his role as her ‘trophy husband’. They had plenty of money, but all their assets were in her name, and he was about to become her personal attendant.
Benson had left a fresh bottle of gin out for Elaine on Friday, knowing she’d be easier to deal with under its influence. She didn’t disappoint him.
“I’ve not been a good wife, have I?” she asked as he prepared her evening tea. Tonight she was being a maudlin drunk. “I’ve been a bitch.”
“Hush, honey. You’ve been fine,” he soothed as he stirred a sedative into her cup.
Benson looked over at where Elaine laid on the sofa in careless disarray. He had loved her once. The independent woman, so beautiful and intelligent, had seized his heart from the beginning. The love that had burned so hot had cooled over the years. Career disappointments had dimmed her spirit. Instead of turning to him, she depended on alcohol. Then when they discovered she couldn’t bear children, she had retreated into her private purgatory of misery, dragging him along with her. Her beauty faded into the pinched sneer of her disdain for him, and her intelligence found inventive ways to demean him. When she railed at the injustices the world had visited upon her, he was just collateral damage. He wasn’t sure when their love had died, but it was long gone.
Benson leaned back in his chair, sighing in pleasure at the wondrous dinner he’d eaten. The food at the Faculty Club was legendary. He was with seven members of the board of directors of his company, celebrating his tenure.
After all the toasts and thanks, Dave Strickland, the current president, slid an envelope over to him.
“Ben, this is only a small token of how proud we are of what you’ve done. In your thirty years you’ve taken us from a tiny start-up to a major player in the state. You’ve touched so many lives.” Benson picked up the envelope and peeked inside. As Benson’s eyebrows rose, Dick said, “We all chipped in. Take a world cruise, rent a ski condo for a season. Do something fun with it.”
The five-figure check startled and humbled Benson, and he mumbled his thanks.
“Now, we have an award ceremony to attend,” Dick said, clapping him on the back. Benson checked his watch. The gala started in a half hour. It was time to put his plan into motion.
He left the dining room, walking with the board out onto the columned portico. Dick was the last to leave. He shook Benson’s hand. “It’s been a pleasure, Ben. We’re so proud of you. See you at the gala.”
“Yeah. I need to run pick up Bethany and then we’ll be there.”
The award ceremony and gala were a ten-minute drive away, so Benson had to work fast. He had timed it to the second and it should work, in theory.
After pulling out of the Faculty Club parking lot, he turned and raced toward his house. He took backstreets to his home at breakneck speeds, hitting seventy on some stretches. Darkness had fallen, and there was no traffic on the residential streets. Along the way, he called Bethany and told her he was just now leaving the restaurant and would pick her up in fifteen minutes. Then he turned off his phone.
He hit the garage button as he turned onto his street, so it yawned wide for him as he pulled into the driveway. Once parked, he closed the garage door, so the neighbors wouldn’t see he was at home.
He grabbed the water bottle off the seat beside him. It was a third full of a milky liquid, the dissolved powder of one hundred oxycodone tablets. Elaine should be groggy from the sleeping powder he’d slipped into her tea before leaving. He would hold the bottle in her mouth until she downed all the water. Then, leave a used water glass with her fingerprints and lipstick stain beside the bed with the empty pill bottle. When the police made enquiries, Mark would tell them that Benson had feared Elaine was suicidal. He would probably even say it was like her to plan her suicide on that particular night to ruin Benson’s award. It was an excellent plan. But time was of the essence.
Benson raced into the living room and smiled when he found it vacant. It would look more realistic if she were in bed. He had hated that he might have to drag her into the bedroom.
As he rounded the corner, hurrying to the bedroom, he skidded to a stop. He was panting with nervous anticipation, his heart pounding with excitement and fear at what he planned to do. The unexpected sight in front of him drew a gasp. Elaine was sitting up in bed staring at him, her mouth open in a silent cry. The bedclothes were crimson in her blood, and her baby blue peignoir had been ripped to shreds from multiple stab wounds. A butcher knife still protruded from her chest. In only a moment he understood Elaine’s stare was vacant and dead. The room reeked of blood and other bodily fluids.
Benson took a few steps but then backed against the wall, his eyes rolling as he gaped around the room.
Someone was here. Someone was in the house. Mindless in his panic, Benson fled to the safety of his car and locked the doors.
Gotta think, gotta think. What should I do? rolled over and over in his mind. The more he thought about it, he doubted whoever had done it was still around. She looked to have been dead for a while. He had no enemies, but Elaine’s were legion. The thought of calling the police flitted into his mind. He fumbled for his cell, but then stopped. How would he explain why he was here? He was supposed to be on his way to the awards gala. I’ll go to the gala and ‘discover’ the murder when I come back home, he thought. But can I carry that off? Am I cold blooded enough to act like nothing has happened while Elaine’s corpse cools in our bedroom? After another moment he said to himself, I can damn well try. He opened the garage door and raced to Bethany’s house.
Act normal, gotta act normal, ran through Benson’s mind as he approached Bethany’s door. He was on the first step when the door opened, and she slipped out. He stopped to drink in her beauty. She saw his look and struck a model’s pose. She’d donned a smart gray silk cocktail dress with a matching jacket. It was accented with a shimmering silver scarf and glittering diamond stud earrings.
“You like?” she asked, playing the coquette.
“Ravishing, as always,” Benson answered, noticing she was out of breath. “You okay?”
“Oh. Time got away from me. I had to rush at the last minute. I lost that dratted pearl earring. Looked everywhere for it. I was almost afraid to wear my studs tonight. But you’re worth it, dear friend.”
The gala was surreal. He smiled and glad-handed the people drinking cocktails before the award presentation. Everyone wanted to speak to him, shake his hand. Benson felt as if he were outside his body, watching the night unfold. Bethany stuck close to him, as if she detected his discomfort.
“What’s going on, Bennie? You’re pale and clammy. You coming down with the flu?”
“Nah, must be the excitement of tonight.”
Would the police question the people who were at the award ceremony? Would people say he acted suspicious? He began hyperventilating and excused himself to the bathroom. Locked in a stall, he wiped his brow with toilet paper and worked to control his breathing.
I did nothing wrong. I didn’t kill her. Someone else did. There’s no evidence against me. I have an alibi, he told himself repeatedly.
Benson opened the stall and staggered to the sink. After splashing some water on his face, he dried it with a paper towel. His image was pale enough to draw comment. He pinched his cheeks for color, but it only helped a little. The dark eyes in the mirror looked haunted.
“You are a murderer in intent if not in deed,” he muttered. He had not expected to feel this way. He was ridding himself of a burden. And someone else, some Good Samaritan, had done it for him. Everyone will say I was a loving husband, he reasoned, and she had enemies. I’ll let the police do their work. We’re important people so they’ll put extra effort into it. He wanted to find out who killed Elaine. If for no other reason than to whisper a prayer of thanks for him.
Feeling more centered, he left the bathroom and endured another half hour of congratulations and backslapping. Finally Sylvia, the coordinator, told him it was time. Along with her, he, Dick, and the president of the state association mounted the dais.
Sylvia introduced Dick, who presented a florid, overblown epic of Benson’s tenure at his company. Then the president made his own speech, ending with the presentation to Benson.
Benson stumbled to the podium and accepted a small golden statuette dimly aware of the standing ovation. He had his short acceptance remarks on cards before him but couldn’t focus his eyes. He looked out at the crowd as they settled, all waiting for his words.
“Murderer!” someone shouted. “Murderer!” another joined in. Others picked up the cry until the entire audience was raging at him, shouting “Murderer!”
Benson blinked twice, and the horrific mirage resolved into the respectful crowd waiting for his remarks. He cleared his throat.
“Wow,” was all he could say. A chuckle spread around the room. He cleared his throat again. “I’m truly honored and humbled that the association feels I’ve made a difference in my years of work. I want to say this is the best night of my life.” His vision cleared and Benson delivered the remainder of his remarks with the slight touch of humility expected. Bethany, Mark, and all the rest gave him another standing ovation when he closed.
“Want to come in for a nightcap?” Bethany asked as they pulled into her drive.
“I really shouldn’t. Elaine will be waiting up.” It amazed Benson at how easily the lie came to his lips.
“It’s late. She’s probably asleep by now. Come on in.”
Benson was ready to have this night over with, to stop pretending he didn’t know Elaine was dead, so he had to turn down Bethany. After an appropriate period, he would ask her out. She would be eager to comfort him. With Elaine’s money they could travel, entertain, have fun, have a life.
“I’d like to, but I need to leave.”
As the garage door closed behind him, Benson steeled himself for what was about to come. Don my battle armor one last time, he thought. He’d ring his lawyer after the 911 call. The husband is always the first suspect, so he wanted his attorney, Kevin, there to make sure he didn’t slip up and say something incriminating. Even though it was late Friday night, let him earn the five hundred an hour he charged. Then he’d call Bethany. She’d come over and hold his hand through this. No. That’s too obvious. If the police saw that, they might become suspicious. He decided he’d call Mark.
When he opened the door from the garage, the stench of a slaughterhouse assaulted him. He needed to go into the bedroom so he could recount his actions correctly to the police.
Benson walked to the doorway of his bedroom and stared at the still form on the bed. The blood was drying and had turned brown in some spots. As he was turning to make the emergency call, something on the floor glinted. He stooped to pick it up. A pearl screw back earring. It wasn’t Elaine’s.
Lots of people disliked Elaine, even enough to harm her. Lots of people wore screw back earrings. Lots of people, he reasoned.
Benson hung his head and murmured, “Oh, Bethany.”
He walked into the connecting bath and threw up in the toilet. Tossing the earring into the bowl with the late contents of his stomach, he flushed. He edged back into the bedroom and warily approached Elaine. I have to, he told himself, and pulled the knife from her chest. He pressed the buttons on his phone, leaving a smear of blood on the smooth face.
“911. What’s the nature of your emergency?”
“Um. This is Benson Hughes, at 1212 Sunday Drive. I need to report that I’ve murdered my wife. Please send the police.” He hung up and staggered from the bedroom to his living room. The gummy knife in his hand dripped a crimson trail on the pale carpet. He sat on the sofa and picked up Elaine’s filmy black robe. He pressed it to his wet cheek, caressing the soft fabric, staring at the wall as a siren approached in the distance.
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