A/N: I'm sorry this chapter took as long as it did. There's a lot I wanted to pack into one chapter and I've been getting ready for my senior year. Hard to believe it'll be here in less than a month... cries

tryhonesty and PeaceLoveandPoetry, I really appreciated you guys taking the time to write such extensive critiques! And thanks very much for the suggestions!


Chapter IX: Death Makes A Phone Call

"I know everything's gonna be okay if you just stay gone." – Jimmy Wayne

For a moment, it seemed the world drifted away. Or Layla drifted away from the world. "Missing?" she mumbled, repeating her sister's words in a baffled stupor. Maybe she had heard wrong. This couldn't be right. Frank had called her just the other day. How could he have dropped off the face of the earth in that time-span?

"Yes, missing! Reggie told me!" Reggie, Rita's husband, was a conceited downtown detective who liked to think he was at the top of his game. It was for this that Rita and Reggie were a perfect match. Love at first boast. "He got this call from your ex-in-laws, Frank's parents, last night. Frank and his woman were supposed to go to their house for dinner, but they never showed up."

"I see…" It burned her to think that Frank's parents were so accepting of the harlot, extending their hospitality and welcoming her with open arms, but it was nothing Layla didn't expect. Twas no secret that they disapproved of their baby boy marrying 'that despicable redhead', as she once overheard herself being referred to as.

"Well?" Rita jabbered on, appalled that Layla didn't want to be more informed on the situation. "Don't you want to hear more? Or did I waste my time in calling?"

"No!" Layla jumped in. For once, it was a good thing that her sister was so keen on gossip. "I really would like to know more about this. It's…scintillating."

Layla didn't have to say it twice. "And then, get this, they had made a four o'clock appointment with a wedding planner yesterday afternoon, but they didn't show up for that either. I couldn't believe it, that they were planning on getting married so soon after everything was finalized. But then, Frank was real adamant about getting a quickie divorce, wasn't he? Couldn't wait to get away from you."

A callous way of putting it, even if it was the truth. "Thanks for reminding me." This, Layla figured, was probably the reason why Mort had refused to sign his own divorce papers. His refusal to provide a signature was the only thing that kept he and Amy from dropping their titles of husband and wife. It was Amy's intent to completely erase Mort from her life, starting with his last name.

"You did know they were getting married, right?" Rita harped on the subject, refusing to let it go.

Layla rubbed her neck, as a twinge of panic set upon her. This sudden disappearance was too bizarre. After her dream yesterday…no no, not this again. It was a dream and nothing more. They couldn't be interrelated. It wasn't possible. But when she closed her eyes, she could remember the man of her dreams, dripping with rainwater and fresh, sickeningly warm blood…the blood of betrayers.

"The sonuvabitch. He done hurt yew too many tahmes, an' ah wasn't goh-na allow it anymore. Him an' that hussy o' his weren't goh-na get away with it."

Still…

A coincidence was all it was.

Had to be.

Yet she felt safer denying Rita's inquiry. "No…I wasn't aware."

"PUH-lease!" Rita shouted, so loudly that Layla jumped, holding the phone out away from her to keep her ear from bleeding. It even shook Mort from whatever trance he was in; his coffee-colored eyes darted to the phone, his lips pulling back from his teeth in a deep snarl. Meanwhile, Rita barked on. "You can't be serious. I know he told you about it. Why wouldn't he want to gloat? I mean, that's what I'd do."

Layla returned the phone to her ear, clearing her throat. She hoped to God her falsehoods sounded convincing. "He never told me. I had no idea."

"Oh…" Rita sounded at a loss for words at first, maybe just a tad afraid that she'd hurt her sister's feelings, but any form of sympathy was too much to hope for. Her giddiness picked up right where it left off. "Well, you had to find out sometime. Reggie thinks that they could have decided 'screw the wedding' and just eloped."

Layla brought her hand to her mouth before realizing that she no longer held the cigarette. Confused, she turned to see Mort puffing away, having snatched it from her when she wasn't paying attention. He was hopelessly out of it, his gaze now turned up to the ceiling. She just shook her head, deciding to leave him alone. Let him stay locked within his thoughts. "Why does he think that?" Layla asked, suspicious.

"Their car's gone, for one thing. And when they searched the house, there wasn't a single suitcase in that place. Ditto for toiletries. And some clothes were gone."

She narrowed her eyes, gazing down absent-mindedly at the self-inflicted scratches on her palm. This whole plot sounded very nearly familiar. But why? "Isn't this case moving a little fast? They've been gone twenty-four hours and already the police did a search of their house?"

Rita scoffed, "You knew Frank's parents better than I did, doll, but now we've gotten to know them too and believe me, I pity you for having to put up with them all those years. Reggie hasn't slept since yesterday morning. The Tristans won't give it a damn rest. They harassed Reggie with phone calls all night long until he and his buddies went over to check out the love nest for clues as to where they've gone. The Tristans said that since Reggie was formerly family, even though it wasn't by blood, even though the relations are about as distant as it gets, he 'owed it to them' to investigate right away. Or something like that."

'Love nest'…Layla couldn't help cringing in disgust. Frank and Natalie's 'love nest' had been her home not so long ago, which she was all but dropkicked out of. "What were you saying about the possibility of them being dead?" That was the part that caught her attention anyway.

"Well…" Rita got real quiet just then, trying to prevent others around her from hearing her, like she was divulging a secret. "There was a message left on the answering machine, supposedly made by Frank, about driving to Arizona. Isn't that where Natalie's from?"

After all the conspiracy theories bouncing around in her head, it had come to this: the solution to the riddle was in the fucking answering machine. Layla took the opportunity to draw in a deep breath, relief spreading through her, "For God's sake…"

"It's not what you think, let me finish. So Reggie calls Mr. and Mrs. Tristan down to the station to listen to the tape, right? To identify if it was their son's voice. Now, the quality on answering machines isn't all that great, granted, but neither of them was convinced that it was Frank who left the message in the first place. They said that whoever did leave the message had too thick of an accent. And they were sure that Frank would give them notice if he was just going to up and leave like that. So Reggie thinks some foul play may be involved. I swear, this happened maybe ten minutes ago. That was the breaking point for me. I had to call you up and tell you…not to mention—"

"Accent? A Southern accent?" Layla repeated, feeling faint. Oh God…if only the dream was real, it would be a perfect fit. This jigsaw puzzle would be complete.

"Yes, that's what I said," an impatient Rita harrumphed. "What's the matter with you? Are you drunk again? You sound like you are."

"I'm perfectly sober," Layla interrupted. For once, she thought to herself. She almost wished she were the one who had gotten whacked in the head. Anything to stop these inane thoughts and unanswered questions. "I'm…just in a state of shock, is all."

Rita chuckled, almost wickedly, "And I thought this would lift your spirits. That's what I get for performing a good deed for you, eh?"

"It wasn't a waste of time. I appreciate you calling." Layla tried to be polite, really tried, but she felt she almost came across as sounding rushed, like she wanted to get off the phone as soon as possible. Whatever. It was the truth. She just needed to relax. Cooking or drinking, she would take her pick. But definitely not sleep. Something told her she would run into him again.

Obviously, Rita picked up on her hurriedness. "Don't tell me you're trying to get rid of me. Don't rush off just yet. There's something I have to ask you. It's very important and potentially very serious."

"Yeah, what?"

"Reggie wanted me to pose this question to you, on behalf of Frank's parents," Rita began, actually sounding a bit unsure. "Um…how do I word this? If you…" Her voice trailed off as she thought it through. With a heavy drama queen sigh, she tried again. "If you, or somebody you knew, had something to do with Frank's disappearance, you would tell me, right?"

Layla's eyes widened. She should've known this would come up, her being a suspect. "Excuse me?"

"Well…when Reggie asked Frank's parents if they knew of anybody who would harm their son and future daughter-in-law…your name came up right away."

Layla swallowed hard, for a second almost forgetting how to breathe. "They would think that, wouldn't they?" she muttered, choking on spite and fury.

"Yes, but—"

"But do you think I did it? Does Reggie?"

Another over-dramatized sigh. "I don't know, Layla. It's hard to say. I just…don't know what it's like to be in your situation."

"Oh yes, of course you wouldn't. Because Reggie would never abandon you. Not your perfect, loving husband."

"No. He wouldn't," Rita agreed, with a little too much pride in the fact. How heartless could you be?

Layla rested her chin in one hand, an idea formulating in her head. It was time for a little reverse psychology. Make her see things from her perspective. "But what if he did? What if one day, he left you and the kids behind and shacked up with a little slut half his age. What then?"

"But he wouldn't," Rita groaned, exasperated that this would even be an issue.

"It's a figurative scenario. Just play along."

She could practically hear Rita rolling her eyes. "I don't have time for this. I just want you to answer the question. This is serious business, you know. We could be dealing with a double homicide here."

"This is your answer to the question. What would you, Rita Bateman, do if your husband threw away all those promises he made you the day you were married and gave his heart to somebody else?" Not waiting for an answer, Layla continued, lowering her voice. "Wouldn't you fantasize about killing him? Maybe him and his new flame both?"

Rita said nothing, but her breathing could still be heard, fast and enthralled, as though she expected her sister to admit her guilt right then and there.

Layla smiled sadly, "You would, wouldn't you? But the real question is, could you do it? Would you capable of it?"

More silence. Layla had her in her grasp, right where she wanted her.

"To commit murder, first you would have to be able to get out of bed in the morning. As for myself, this can be a very trying task and most days, I haven't the strength nor the inclination. Then, you would have to be able to set foot out the front door. For me, this isn't going to happen anytime soon. I haven't seen the light of day in months, except when it shines through the windows. That's two strikes against me right there. That isn't even including me driving all the way down to good ol' Dallas and chopping them into itsy-bitsy pieces."

With another laugh, this time a little more forced, Rita restarted the two-person conversation. "Nice try…but you must be joking. Laying in bed all day? Now you're a lot of things, doll, but I admit, lazy isn't one of them. It hardly sounds like you. And why haven't you mentioned any of this before?"

Layla shook her head, rising to her feet and beginning to pace the floor, not even bothering to sidestep the papers. She didn't really like opening up to her sister like this, laying bare all her weaknesses, but oh, she was going to do it. These things needed to be said for her to be convinced of her innocence. "You know, while it's plausible that these sordid predicaments will never happen to you, that you'll never have to go through suffering of this magnitude, would it kill you to empathize? Couldn't you even imagine what it would be like to lose the most important person in your life? You don't only lose the person; you lose a part of yourself. It just dies away and you have to find something else to live for." Layla found herself sniffling a little, in spite of herself. "I haven't felt like myself in a long time."

So, now she'd explained everything. A little part of her expected Rita to recant the suspicions. She wouldn't receive any pity, that wasn't what Layla wanted anyway, but hopefully, she would gain a little respect as a fellow human being, a member of Rita's own gene pool, who was in a lot of pain. But respect was the last thing that was to come from the other side of the phone line. "Yes…something to live for. Like taking out the persons who wreaked havoc on your life, perhaps?" Rita murmured, mulling it over. Suddenly, she sounded as much an investigator as Reggie, ploughing into her version of Layla's psyche. "Once he and Natalie are gone, it'd be like a fresh start for you, wouldn't it? You'll be free to live your life and you won't have to think of them so very happy together, drowning in their happiness, having children, children you and Frank were supposed to have. The Layla I know wouldn't kill anybody, but you said it yourself, you're not who you used to be."

Horror-stricken, Layla's mouth was practically scraping the floor. Paranoia struck like lightning, walls closing in all around her. That bitch was trying to turn it all around, put words in her mouth. It was her plot to put all the blame on Layla, whether there was hard evidence or not. Maybe so her dickhead husband could get a promotion, for solving a case so quickly and efficiently. The 'psycho ex-wife' was the perfect candidate for the supposed deaths. This whole time, Rita had been insisting on how serious this was. It certainly was serious now. She had no clue what to say in her defense, and anything she did say would probably wind up being used against her. Shit…what if this conversation was being taped right now? She could see Rita on the other end of the line, so very pleased with herself, a predator's grin on her hideously botoxed face, awaiting Layla's next stupid move…

Before she knew what was happening, the phone was roughly yanked from her grasp. She jerked to her side to see Mort standing next to her, pressing the receiver to his lips. Not holding back, he screeched into the phone, his explosive voice like a mushroom cloud.

"GO TO HELL!"

And with that, Rita's reign was silenced as swiftly as by a guillotine blade, Mort slamming the phone back onto its receiver. Layla nearly gave herself whiplash, staring between the phone and Mort. She couldn't have said it better herself, yet she couldn't be entirely grateful…

Looking more like a madman than ever before, Mort seemed to feel the need to explain, even if Layla had remained silent thus far. "I just felt like…saying that." Standing there a moment, hunched over slightly and panting like he'd just run a mile, he shambled back to the couch. The shout seemed to have taken a tremendous amount of energy, something he was most lacking in these days.

Layla clasped her hands, kneading them together nervously. This could not have made the situation any more precarious. Why did he have to go and do that? "Did you even…hear any of that conversation?"

Mort shook his head sullenly as he stretched out on the couch, gingerly resting the back of his head on a pillow. "I just felt like saying that," he reiterated. Expertly tossing his spent cigarette into the ashtray, he grabbed at a scrap of paper hanging on the couch's arm, pushing his glasses up the bridge of his nose as he scanned over it.

He obviously wasn't well, that was all it came down to. His behavior, just this morning, was nothing short of frightening. Layla knew she should've called a doctor and she wanted to call one now, but she couldn't stand the thought of Mort screaming at her like that. He seemed to have calmed down considerably, less than a minute after the incident, but that was because he was swiftly able to get rid of Rita. Maybe it was best not to piss him off. She could call a doctor later, maybe, but right now…she would just stay in his good graces. Wouldn't even mention anything about last night. And besides, there were larger blades looming over her now.

It was good that Mort didn't know what was going on, regarding her ex-husband, and it was even better that Mort wasn't interested. No way did she want to discuss this, nor think of what the implications of this whole thing could mean. What if Reggie, receiving information from his wife that not only Layla, but Mort as well, were acting very suspiciously on the phone, decided to place in a call to the Tashmore Police and have one or both of them arrested? And what evidence would they end up finding at the 'love nest' in the next few days? What if Frank and Natalie really had been murdered, by way of coincidence?

Fumbling for some sense of normality, she asked Mort the magic question. "Breakfast?"

Mort looked up from his paper, blinking widely at her. "No. But thanks."

Damn. She was hoping he would comply. Since he had been all but starving himself lately, some food would do him good. "Please eat?" she asked gently, taking baby steps towards the couch. "It would make me feel so much better. It would be so nice to have a man around to eat my cooking. I'd be so much...I'd feel so much better." Pitiful, she knew. There was no way he would say yes.

He still stared at the paper, but it seemed as though his expression had begun to soften. After a pregnant silence, he surprisingly responded: "Eggs…I'll have eggs."

Layla nodded and made a feeble attempt at a smile, relieved that he'd at least made a choice. "You still like them sunny side-up, right?"

"Mmm."

"Alrighty. I'll get right to it." On her way into the kitchen, Layla paused to glance at the scrap Mort was so interested in, just a glance. It was a page from his 1995 novel, 'Alice's Elegy'. If her memory served her right, it was this offbeat tale about a middle-aged woman who saw her dead relatives ambling around on her porch, and heard their voices whenever she picked up the phone. It had sold well, but overall, the story was a little too creepy for most readers. Rita hadn't liked it, Layla remembered. She had read about half of it before hurling it in the trashcan, claiming it seemed more like something "from the pen of Satan". It was during that particular sisterly conversation, in person rather than over the phone, that Rita had went on to bitch that she would have nothing to read on her upcoming flight. Pity. But in the end, it didn't matter whether she had anything to read because …

"Stop it…" Layla said out loud, pressing her fingers to her temples and rubbing at the sensitive skin. She wouldn't allow these memories to creep into her mind. She had blocked them out for a reason. Some things are better off forgotten. Bothersome tremors had started shooting through her nerves, to her fingertips. She had to will them to stop, or she'd never be able to cook the eggs properly. It would be one of the first meals she would be serving Mort, and it couldn't be any less than perfect. She just had to keep her mind free of everyone and everything, just block it all out for the moment…but her mind wouldn't leave well enough alone.

("Wut wuld ah do without yew?")

(Remember when Frank used to say that to you? And he was so nervous, he ended up dropping the ring into the chicken cacciatore. You put it on anyway, and the diamond was covered with tomato sauce and basil, and it smelled like garlic for ages afterward, but you didn't care.)

(I wonder if that's how he proposed to Natalie?)

(NatalieNatalieNatalieNatalieNatalieNatalieNatalie)

(If'n ah was the one doin' the proposin', ah wouldn't have been so cayreless with th' ring)

(I wonder what their wedding will be like.)

(There ain't gonna be no wedding now. Better start learning to use past tense when referring to them.)

(Ah don't have much, but ah would spend what ah could fer the purtiest ring out thayre.)

(What happened to the car? And the suitcases and clothes?)

(What do you care?)

(Isn't this all playing out nicely? Just to your advantage?)

(I could have the cops after me! How is that advantageous?!)

(Rita was bluffing.)

(Don't believe her.)

(How dare she call you up after everything that's happened?)

(It's better that you answered her. It would look even worse if you didn't. And then the whole family would be involved.)

(She'd send them after you.)

(Ah'd tell yew how much yew mean to me and slip it on yore finger. An' ah'd count mahself the luckiest man in the whole damn world if yew were to accept.)

(But what about—?)

(Forget it. It's nothing you should be concerned with.)

(You're innocent, remember?)

(Your hands are totally fucking clean.)

(You know that, I know that, and he knows that.)

(Of course. Mort would vouch for me. I've been here the whole time.)

(I wasn't talking about Mort.)

(Have yew forgotten about me so soon?)

(Who did it, then? Who got to Frank and Natalie?)

(Crazed hitchhiker.)

(The in-laws did it.)

(Jack the Ripper. He killed whores, didn't he?)

(Somebody help me. Somebody get me out of this.)

(I can't breathe. Make it stop.)

(It's alraght. Ah'm here.)

(No…)

(Stop it.)

(There's nothing you can do for me.)

(Don't yew trust me anymore? Pease don't send me away, darlin'.)

Ah, 'Alice's Elegy'. One of his personal favorites to write. Mort couldn't quite remember where he'd gotten the inspiration for it. The words were authored by him, but the plotline wasn't. Where did it come from? It was probably from some dream...or maybe not...Oh well. It didn't bother him too much that he couldn't remember. Many some other time he would think on it and come up with the answer.

He slowly read over the print on the page, savoring each word scribed by his own hand and printed by Méridional Publications. Then, he began folding the page in half, then again, then again. When it was about the size of a coat button, he began restoring it to its proper size, the pages deeply marked with creases. By now, he had expected the aroma of one of Layla's creations, the sizzling sounds of breakfast cooking, to reach his senses, but there was nothing to be smelled or heard, except for the methological, almost violent cracking of eggs. Just what the hell was she doing in there?

He was about to rise from the couch to investigate, when he glanced back to the paper he had just unfolded. Something about what was written there made him stop short. The print had somehow been altered, as if by magic. He turned on his side, curling into a fetal position as he read over it, confused. "This is very good," he choked out, envious. Why hadn't he written it? "This is perfect." But soon enough, the jealousy faded and he couldn't help but smile at the words. They gave him hope, somehow, letting him know that what he wanted was meant to be and that everything was bound to fall flawlessly into place. No worries.

He had already swung his arm to backhand her when the bitch thrust her hands over her face, defending herself, and at the last second, he changed his trajectory, instead whacking her hard upside the head. The heel of his palm slammed against her thumbnail and because of the angle at which it hit, half of the entire nail was roughly bent back from its bed. It hung on only by the base, as well as by a few strings of bloody gristle. The filthy slut couldn't yet see the damage Mort had done, but by the way she wailed, he knew she could feel it and was aware of what had just happened. He tilted his head to the side, staring down at his former love as she screamed and screamed, the only action she was now capable of. It was clear she could no longer defend herself against him.

But that was just the way it should be.

With a macabre grin, he took hold of her wrist, grabbing onto the thumbnail he had peeled back and, giving a hard tug, ripped it clean off, as easily as pulling the top off a soda can. The crunch it made as it was torn from her flesh made him think of the satisfying sound of a cockroach crushed beneath the heel of one's shoe, the exoskeleton cracking open and putrid yellowish insides spurting out from beneath. It satisfied him even more to think that he would get to hear that sound again, nine more times.

He himself didn't think he was being cruel. It was a precaution, after all. To make sure she would never run those nails down any man's back ever again.