"My mother was murdered when I was six years old."
It was a statement she had long ago grown accustomed to making, although it was information she didn't readily divulge. She inevitably had to reveal the fact when someone mentioned their own mother and asked Shannon about hers, as Frieda Williams had just done. Shannon could have simply said, "My mother died when I was six years old," but she never hid the truth that her mother had met a tragic, violent end.
"Really?" Frieda asked. "You poor thing! What happened?"
Shannon Reece handed her two cold beers from the refrigerator. "Here's one for you and one for Sam." She then took one for herself and another for her own husband. The men were in the living room watching the Super Bowl. The kids were playing in Billy's room.
The Reeces had just become friendly with the Williamses. They had met at church. The Reeces didn't have a lot of friends, and the Williamses were new in town. Shannon and her husband thought it would be nice to invite the couple over. It turned out that Sam Williams was as much a football fan as Carl, and Frieda enjoyed daytime soaps and women's magazines with the same fervor as Shannon.
"Let's go back in the living room," Shannon said.
"Wait, no, Shannon, tell me," Frieda said. "Unless... well, I'm sorry, I mean I didn't want to upset you or nothin'. If it's painful to talk about..."
"No, it's okay," Shannon said. "Like I said, it happened when I was six, so I don't remember much about it. All I know is what I've been able to find out from reading the newspapers at the library. God knows my dad won't talk about it."
Frieda Williams was staring at her friend with incredulity.
Shannon said, "Frieda, it's not that big a deal."
"Well, I think so! Did they catch who did it?"
"Sort of. He went to prison, but he wasn't convicted for the murder of my mom."
"It's a long story. Come on, let's go back in."
Frieda followed Shannon into the living room with newfound respect.
"It's about time," Carl Reece said. "Bring me beer, woman!" he said with a Tarzan imitation.
He swung her down onto his lap. Frieda and Sam laughed.
"Carl! We have guests!" Shannon said, pretending to be embarrassed. In actuality, she enjoyed the attention.
He let her up after taking the beer from her hand.
Carl and Shannon Reece made an attractive couple. She had black hair, blue-eyes, and was thirty-two years old. Even after two children, she had stayed slim and shapely. Her morning run around Woodchuck Park did her a world of good. Carl was thirty-five, just as fit, and was tall and handsome. He had brown hair and brown eyes and looked like a movie star. They had two adorable children, Billy, age six, and Cathy, age four.
Carl was an accountant who worked downtown next to the tallest building in Limite, Texas. It was sixteen stories high, and the rest of the city was as flat as the ground upon which it sat.
Shannon was a housewife who worked part-time as a secretary at an oil field supply company on the highway between Limite and Mitchell. They had lived in Limite all their lives, and they had had their fair share of scrutiny over her mother's legacy. The neighbors avoided them. Billy and Cathy had trouble getting playmates to come over. Shannon herself had few friends as a child. It seemed that as soon as other girls' mothers learned who Shannon was, the girls were no longer allowed to play with her. This affliction followed her into adulthood. Carl was aware of the problem but married her anyway. At least he had sets of friends that the Reeces saw every now and then. Every Sunday they went to church, the only place where they found some acceptance.
Shannon had learned to handle the questions and stares long ago. What she didn't like to be reminded of was her dissatisfaction with the historical conclusion to her mother's case.
Frieda and Sam Williams were a little older, having just moved to Limite four months ago from El Paso. Frieda sat by her husband and handed him a beer. "So who's winning?"
"Nobody," Sam said. "It's half-time, anyway."
Shannon slipped off Carl's lap and moved to the table where she had set some chips and salsa. "I'm gettin’ hungry, is anyone else ready for dinner?" She popped a chip into her mouth.
"Sure," Carl said, "how about ya'll?"
Sam shrugged. "Whatever..."
"You don't need to go to any trouble," Frieda said.
"Don't be silly," Shannon said. "I'll be right back. Carl, can you help me with somethin’ in the kitchen?"
Carl sighed and rose from his easy chair. As soon as he followed Shannon out of the living room, Frieda whispered to her husband, "Sam, Shannon tells me her mother was murdered!"
"I knew that," Sam said.
"You did? Why didn't you tell me?"
He shrugged. "It's old news. Everyone at church knows about it."
"Well I didn't! What's it all about?"
"Don't you remember that guy Gary Harrison?"
"It happened, hell, nearly twenty-five years ago. Nineteen-seventy-three or seventy-four or somethin'. I remember it from the El Paso newspapers. It was big news back then. They called him the 'Oil Field Killer,' or somethin’ like that. I'm surprised she'd talk about it. Haven't you noticed that they have one of those... what do you call it?... you know, those bad things that hangs over someone and follows them around?"
"A black cloud?"
"No... a stigma, that's it. They kinda have a stigma attached to ‘em. Haven't you noticed that they always sit by themselves at church?"
"Never thought about it."
"Well, don't mention it. It's probably an uncomfortable subject for 'em."
Carl came back in the room and resumed his spot in front of the television. "The boys seem to be playin’ nicely," he said.
"Sonny makes friends pretty easily," Frieda said.
Then Carl caught Sam and Frieda off guard by asking, "So you didn't know about Shannon's mother?"
After a moment's pause, Frieda said, "Well, no. She just told me in the kitchen. I'm sorry if I..."
"No no, don't worry about it," Carl said. "She's used to it. We're all used to it. Her brother and sister are used to it. I think the only person that ain't used to it is her dad. I don't think he ever got over it, even though he's now in his fourth marriage, if you know what I mean." Carl mimed taking a drink out of an invisible bottle.
"What happened?" Frieda asked.
"Her mom-- Mary Parker was her name-- was abducted from a nightclub on the north side of town one night in January 1973. They found her body over a month later out in an oil field."
"She was really just one of several women the guy was suspected of killing. I think he might have been West Texas' first known serial killer."
"Shannon said he's in prison now."
"He was, but he was murdered by some other inmates not long after he was sent to the pen," Carl said. "They never could convict him of Shannon's mom's murder."
"Not enough evidence?" Sam asked.
"No, in fact he confessed to the murder, but some idiot judge in Austin threw out the confession."
"How come?" Frieda asked.
"There was some question as to whether the confession was coerced by the Lucas County Sheriff's Department here in Limite. It's a long story. Shannon's okay about it, but I think the one thing that bugs her is that justice wasn't served-- even though they know the guy did it."
Shannon entered the room on this last bit. "I tried to get the D.A. to reopen the case when I was a teenager. I couldn't understand why Gary Harrison wasn't tried for mom's murder. He gave me some B.S about not enough evidence without the confession and all that. Besides, the guy was dead. So I tried hirin’ a private detective but I couldn't afford it. I wanted to find out more about what really happened. I finally gave up. There was nothing anyone could do."
Billy and Sonny ran into the room shooting imaginary pistols at each other and making a tremendous racket.
"Boys! Boys!" Shannon shouted. "Take it to your room or outside."
"It's cold outside," Billy said.
"Then put on your jacket."
"Let's go back in my room," Billy said to Sonny.
"Where's your sister?" Shannon asked.
"In her room." They ran out shouting war cries.
The football game resumed, so nothing more was said that night about Shannon's fascinating past.
* * *
After the Williamses had gone home and the kids were in bed, Shannon stood in the bathroom and washed her face. She often wondered why she and her husband stayed in Limite, although life wasn't too bad. They lived in a small brick house on the north edge of town, not far from where her parents had been living when she was six years old. Her father, Larry Parker, still lived on that side of town with his young, fourth wife. The back of the house faced a vacant lot that expanded into wilderness, which, in Limite, was the desert. Shannon liked to sit at her kitchen table and gaze out the glass doors into their unfenced back yard and beyond to the horizon. It could be mesmerizing at times.
Limite, Texas was a bustling blue-collar city of about 80,000 people. Its beginnings could be traced to the extension of the Texas and Pacific Railroad across the south plains area. Legend had it that the Mexican workers who helped build the railroad named the town, as it had been a boundary of sorts set by the railway owners. For several years, the line ended at the site-- the railroad had reached its "limit." Indeed, many Texans and Spanish-speaking residents pronounced Limite properly-- "LEE-mi-tay." Others ignorantly pronounced it "Li-MEE-tay." There were those around the state that pronounced the word in English, "Limit," but the majority of people, and the residents themselves, called it "Li-MEET."
There were less than a thousand people in the county until 1926, when the discovery of petroleum changed everything. By 1930, 3,000 people had moved into Lucas County, and this figure tripled by 1940. The oil companies laid claim to the fields around the town by 1950, and Limite experienced a boom of sorts. Smaller satellite towns sprouted up-- Preston, twenty miles northeast, Mitchell, forty-five miles west, and Sandhill, thirty miles southwest. An airport was in place outside Limite by 1960.
The flat, endless plains of West Texas were now cluttered with pumpjacks and other remnants of the productive oil decades between 1950 and 1980. The distinct odor of petroleum still permeated the air, especially in the summer months. The oil industry continued to possessed an iron hold on the area's commerce and the town was culturally tied to it. The bars and honky-tonks on the outer edges of the city were mostly filled with roughnecks from the fields, still dressed in greasy overalls or blue jeans. The town had its fair share of cowboys, too, as some ranching business existed outside city limits. Sometimes cowboys and roughnecks didn't mix well.
Limite was always a little wilder and rougher than its more white-collar neighbor, Preston. An old saying went-- "Preston was a great place to raise your kids. Limite was a great place to raise hell." The nightspots on both sides of the tracks had always been trouble, as altercations inevitably broke out every other night. As the only sizable town between El Paso and Dallas, Limite was a major stop for drug smugglers. It was also a choice jump-off point for illegal aliens. In the eighties, Limite developed a teenage gang problem, influenced by the far-reaching tentacles of the gangs in Los Angeles.
Shannon might have left Limite long ago if it hadn't been for what she thought was the natural beauty of 180 degree sunsets. Because the land was so flat, the spectacular orange and red streaks would spread across the sky to the eastern horizon. When there were clouds overhead (which wasn't often), the effect was breathtaking.
The desert had its beauty, even when the landscape was dotted with oil derricks and the ever-rocking pumpjacks. When she was in a contemplative mood, Shannon loved to drive out on "the loop"-- a state highway that surrounded the entire county. The oil fields, full of mesquite and tumbleweeds, held a certain mystique for Shannon. After all, her mother's body had been found lying in the open by a couple of ranchers. She had lain there for over a month before being discovered a quarter of a mile east of a graded county road, seven miles northwest of Limite.
Mary Parker's body was still clothed in what she had been wearing when she disappeared, although the pants were open and pulled down around her hips. Her blouse and bra had been removed and were lying under her head.
A nylon stocking had been used to strangle her. It was still tied around her neck when the body was found. Not only that, a metal bolt had been placed inside the knot so that it could be used as a tourniquet. This meant that her mother did not die quickly. Gary Harrison had intentionally kept her alive long enough to do whatever it was he wanted to do with her, then probably enjoyed killing her slowly-- twisting the bolt, then releasing it, twisting the bolt, then releasing it...
Shannon pushed the image away, finished in the bathroom, and undressed. She put on a pink, silky nightgown and got into bed beside Carl, who was already on his side, breathing heavily. Shannon turned out the light on the nightstand and stared at the dark ceiling.
She resigned herself to another night of insomnia. It was something that happened every two weeks or so. Her mind raced, covering dozens of topics in seconds. Inevitably, she ended up obsessing about her mother.
January was the anniversary month of her mother's disappearance. It had happened on January 2, 1973. Shannon used to make a pilgrimage out to the site where the Moonlight nightclub used to be. She stopped doing that after her second child was born. Still, she wondered what had really happened that night.
Her uncle Fred had been babysitting her and her siblings at the time. Uncle Fred, her mother's brother, had told her a lot of what had gone on, but Shannon always felt that he held some things back. It was no secret that Mary Parker had been rather wild and hard to control. Everyone in the family always said that Shannon was the spitting image of her mother. She had Mary's coal-black hair and blue eyes, as well as a pale complexion that had to be protected from the West Texas sun. Some even called her "little Mary." The only difference was that Shannon didn't have her mother's restless disposition.
"Your mama never could sit still," her Uncle Fred had told her in a thick West Texas accent. "She was a wild thang, and she loved men."
Mary Parker had dropped out of high school and never attempted to further her education. Shannon thought her mother may have been "wild" because she'd been rebelling against her conservative parents. Ed Barnes, Shannon's grandfather, had always been a controversial figure in the family. He changed jobs often and invested in one hairbrained scheme after another. He had a close business partner who got into some legal trouble. The man's name was Chuck Davenport. He was in and out of court with various lawsuits, arrested for embezzlement, and ultimately spent some time in prison. In court he had accused Ed Barnes of complicity. Uncle Fred used to say that contributed to the heart attack that killed her grandfather a few years later. Shannon had always wondered if Davenport's accusations were true.
Her mother had married too young and had not experienced enough life before settling down. It didn't help that a town like Limite was incredibly dull. At the time of the murder, Limite had only three indoor movie theaters, three drive-in theaters, a miniature golf course, and a stadium where everything from rodeos to rock concerts was held. But even those were few and far-between. High school football was perhaps the biggest attraction in Limite. The Limite Lynxes were legendary in the state for winning the championship several times. Just about everyone in the town was football-crazy, and it was all they cared about. When football season was over, however, the only thing for young people to do back then was cruise the streets.
The house lights outside seeped through the curtains of the bedroom window and cast a dim glow on the framed photo of Mary Parker sitting atop the dresser. Mary's eyes were looking directly at Shannon. Sometimes when Shannon gazed at the picture, she thought she could remember her mother's voice. It was so long ago, though--she was never sure if the memory was real or only imagined. One thing she knew was true was that her mother used to make up affectionate baby-names for her.
"Hi Shannon-wannon... how's my little Shanna-banana?... I love you, Shannon-girl..." her mother would say.
Another vivid memory was chasing tumbleweeds with her mother. They wouldn't actually chase them, but they'd see one blowing in the wind and follow it with their eyes, fingers pointing, until they couldn't see it anymore. Sometimes, if Shannon saw a tumbleweed from the window, she would shout for her mother to come and look. Then they would both run outside to see where it went. Shannon used to believe that tumbleweeds were little messengers that came through town, said hello, and then went on to their next destination.
Aside from fleeting images, Shannon didn't remember much about her mother at all. The painful truth was that her mother hadn't been home most of the time.
She had been too busy being a wild thing.
* * *
The phone rang early the next morning after Carl had gone to work. Billy was off at kindergarten, and little Cathy was transfixed in front of the television.
"Hi Shannon." It was her younger sister, Jackie. Shannon winced. She loved her sister, but she could be a pain. Their relationship was often strained. Jackie, or Jacquelin, was divorced and had a five-year-old boy. She was always hitting up Shannon for babysitting whenever Jackie wanted to go and do something "fun." Shannon was very vocal in her opinion that she thought Jackie hung out with the wrong kind of crowd. Jackie liked to go to bars, see a lot of rough-looking men, ride motorcycles, and drink more than she should. Sometimes she acted as if she were still seventeen and single. Perhaps she had more of their mother in her than did Shannon or her brother, Jeff.
"What's up, Jackie?"
"I was wonderin’ if you could watch Tyler for me for a couple of hours this morning."
Shannon sighed. She could have bet money on it.
"What are you doin’?"
"I've got a job interview!"
This got Shannon's attention. Jackie had been looking for a daytime job for months. She currently worked as a barmaid at a raunchy dive on the north side of town. "Oh? Where?"
"Fredna's Beauty Parlor. They need a hairdresser to work weekends."
Oh, great, Shannon thought. That meant that Tyler would be spending the weekends at their place. But if it helped Jackie get back on her feet...
"That's wonderful, Jackie. Can you still remember how to cut hair?"
"Of course, silly. It's like ridin’ a bike. Once you learn, you never forget."
"All right, bring Tyler over. I might have to take him with me to do grocery shopping."
"Oh, he'll love that. Besides, he likes his cousin."
That was true. It would give Cathy someone to play with for a while.
Jackie arrived twenty minutes later. She was twenty-seven and looked more like their father than their mother. Her hair was lighter, almost sandy brown, and her eyes were brown like her dad's. Shannon thought she could be pretty if she tried to be, but she dressed like "trailer trash." She wore five pierced earrings on each earlobe, had a tattoo of a rose above her right breast (which she enjoyed displaying by wearing low-cut tops), and wore black clothes that were too tight. Her makeup couldn't disguise the fact that there were dark circles under her eyes and she looked terrible. They once had a fight when Shannon told Jackie that dressing the way she did made her look like a slut.
"You have time for a cup of coffee?" Shannon asked. "You look like you were up all night."
"I was. Sure, I'll have some," Jackie said, depositing Tyler on the floor by Cathy in front of the television. "I have thirty minutes or so."
Shannon poured two cups and sat down at the kitchen table. "Have you heard from Jeff?"
"I never talk to anybody. He's busy makin' money, I guess."
Their brother was twenty-nine and had never married. He lived in Austin, which was far enough away to be considered exotic. Jeffrey Parker left Limite as soon as he finished high school and he rarely came back. Of all the members of the family, Jeff was the most intolerant of Limite's lack of culturally and intellectually stimulating facets. He had gone off to the University of Texas, studied computer programming, and now had a high-paying job in the state capital.
"I wish he'd come home to visit," Shannon said. "I miss him."
"Why? He'd just complain about how awful Limite is and then leave after three days."
"I know, and he's probably right. I don't know why I never left either."
"Where would you have gone?" Jackie asked, sipping the coffee.
"I have no idea."
"See what I mean?"
There was a typical moment of silence between the sisters.
Jackie had dropped out of Limite Junior College after two years to marry Zach Thompson, someone Shannon thought was a real loser. That was where it had started. Jackie never had good taste in men. At the end of three years of spousal abuse, Tyler was born; but Jackie had seen the light. Zach was kicked out of the house and Jackie changed her name back to Parker. Until the real Mr. Right came along, her son was going to be known as Tyler Parker. In the meantime, Jackie found every possible excuse to leave him with relatives or babysitters so that she could go out and party like a bad girl. It wasn't fair to Tyler. Shannon felt a kind of empathy with the little boy. She had been just a bit older than he when her own mother... disappeared.
"You still seein’ what's-his-name?" Shannon asked.
"Travis? Sure. We're thinkin’ of runnin’ off together."
"I'm kidding," Jackie said. She pulled out a cigarette from a pack in her purse.
"Jackie, you know you can't smoke in here," Shannon said.
"Oh, yeah, right," she replied, stuffing it back in. Shannon knew her sister would now look at her watch and say it's time to go just so she could smoke a cigarette.
"I should get goin’," Jackie said, looking at her watch.
"What does Travis do, anyway?" Shannon asked.
"He's in some kind of business thing, I don't know. He always seems to have enough money."
"It's probably illegal."
"Oh, it is not."
"Well, he looks like a crook. He's so much older than you are. You really find him attractive?"
"Hey!" Jackie said, offended. "He's not a crook, and yes, I find him attractive."
Shannon shook her head. "You always went for the bad boys."
"I guess so," Jackie said. "Kinda like momma, huh?"
There was another long pause before Jackie asked, "Have you been thinkin’ about mom lately?"
Shannon put down her cup. "I was about to ask you the same thing. That's really weird."
Jackie laughed slightly. "I’ve been thinkin' about her a lot lately. I guess it's that time of year, y'know?"
Shannon nodded. "We were talking about her last night. Some friends from church were over and the subject came up."
"Listen," Jackie said. "I was talkin' to a friend of mine at the mall the other day. She's married to a lawyer. She said her husband knows a guy that's a detective, and that he was familiar with the Gary Harrison case. He told her there was a lot to it that wasn't public knowledge."
"We knew that."
"Yeah, but she seemed to think he knows a lot more. You want talk to him?"
Jackie shook her head. "I'm not as obsessed about it as you are."
Shannon shrugged. "What good would it do?"
But then Shannon said, "I don't know. It's just that... I still want to know what really happened. I mean, I know she was kidnapped and strangled to death, and Gary Harrison left her body out in the oil fields and all that. He probably killed a bunch of women that way, including Kelly White and Grace Daniel. But there were always so many questions about it all. It really bothers me sometimes."
"Didn't you try to find out a bunch of stuff when you were in high school?"
"I spent nearly a year of my life tryin’ to piece together what really happened. I spent weekends at the library collecting newspaper articles. I must have spent all my free time at the court house buggin’ the D.A.'s office and then tryin’ to get information out of the sheriff and the police department. They were always so tight-lipped. No one wanted to talk to me. That old Sheriff Barton was a mean guy. He told me not to stick my nose into it or I'd just get hurt."
"Well, he was probably lookin’ after you. He didn't want you to learn things that would really upset you. You know, you might have seen pictures of mom's body or somethin’."
"Oh, I've seen pictures of mom's body. They published them in the damn newspaper, for Christ's sake."
"You know what I mean. Color pictures of her on the autopsy table and stuff."
"Oh, please. I think he just didn't want me findin’ out the truth."
"Well, what do you think the truth is? Don't you believe Gary Harrison killed her?"
"Yes, I do, but there's more to it than that. You know the story. He confessed to killing Kelly White and then later he confessed to killing mom and Grace Daniel. But those confessions were thrown out of court and he wasn't convicted for those."
"Wasn't there another one he confessed to?"
"There were two. That older woman, Barbara Lewis, and the barmaid, Tina Lee Peters. But he was never even indicted for those. I'm not sure why."
"Right, I remember now."
Shannon shook her head. "There're more weird things about that guy and those murders than anyone could possibly straighten out. It just really gets to me that he was sent to the pen for life after pleading guilty for Kelly White's murder, and not for mom's. They were saying he had committed as many as forty-three killings in Texas, New Mexico, and Oklahoma. You know, I wanted to hire a private detective back then, but I couldn't afford it."
"Well, here's your chance," Jackie said. "I got the guy's number if you want it. Can you afford it now?"
Shannon nodded. "Actually, I've been saving money for a rainy day. Seein' as how it never rains in Limite, I can use it for something else, right?"
"Whatever." Jackie looked at her watch again. "I gotta go. I'll be back after lunch, okay?"
"Sure. Are you okay? You look kinda pale."
"Nah, I'm fine. Just worked until two, then partied till dawn..."
Shannon walked Jackie to the door. As her sister walked outside toward her car, Shannon said, "Hey, call me with the name and number of that lawyer's friend, will you? I think I do wanna talk to him."
Shannon watched Jackie get in the car and drive away. She worried about her little sister. There was definitely something wrong. She was drinking too much and was probably doing drugs. That Travis Huffman she was seeing was no good. He was a drifter in his forties, and it seemed that all he liked to do was shoot pool at bars and drink a lot. Once he yelled at Jackie in front of them and called her a "bitch." Jackie didn't protest. She silently took the abuse and later smiled sheepishly at her sister.
Shannon went back inside and sat on the couch in front of the TV. The two kids were sitting like zombies in front of it, fascinated by Big Bird and the gang. Shannon missed the days when the children wanted to take naps. Besides, it wouldn't be long before Billy was home from kindergarten and then the daily afternoon soap marathon began. Shannon could lose herself in other people's troubles. She didn't have to work but two days a week, so she saw enough of the shows to keep up with the storylines.
Restless, she stood and moved to the bedroom to gather the laundry. Shannon stooped to pick up a discarded blouse by the dresser and, upon rising, accidentally bumped a half-opened drawer hard. Her mother’s portrait fell off the top and hit the drawer with a “crack.”
“Oww,” she said, rubbing her back. There would be an ugly bruise there by nightfall. She picked up the frame, sat down on the bed, and held her mother’s face in her hands. The glass was cracked. Shannon ran her finger over the line and inadvertently cut it.
“Damn!” A drop of blood spread over the glass. Shannon put her finger in her mouth but continued to stare at the picture. Her mother’s piercing eyes gazed back, beckoning her… to do what?
She attempted to wipe the blood off the broken glass with her finger but only managed to smear it across her mother’s face. Doing so inexplicably caused a chill to creep up her spine.
“Oh, mama,” she sighed. “What happened to you? Why do you keep haunting me? Won’t you ever leave me alone?”
For twenty years her mother’s ghost had interfered with Shannon’s happiness. The many questions about Mary Parker’s death had distressed her far too long.
Shannon made up her mind that it was time to finally do something about it.
An hour later, Billy came home on the bus with a puzzled look on his face.
"How was school today, Billy?" Shannon asked him.
"Mommy?" he asked.
"What's a whore?"
Shannon was taken aback. "What?""What's a whore? I think that's what he said..."
"What who said?""This kid at school. One of the big kids."
"What did he say?"
"He said my grandma was a whore. What is that?"