Chapter 1 – Hell Hath No Fury
July 16, 2018
Carrboro, North Carolina
A DROP OF BLOOD clung to the tip of the knife. A nasty red stain was forming on the white carpet of Madeline Hawthorne’s bedroom. The woman gripping the knife breathed in staccato gasps. The muscles in her right arm twitched from exertion.
Madeline lay on her stomach on the king-sized bed, bathed in moonlight. Blood welled up from the two thin gashes in the back of her silver nightgown and ran down onto the 2,000-thread-count sheet. Madeline groaned and moved her left arm.
“I said die, Bitch!”
The knife plunged into Madeline’s back five more times in quick succession. Crimson spatter covered the attacker’s face, arms, and blouse. The woman holding the knife was petite, with well-defined muscles in her arms and shoulders, honed by hours in the dance studio. Her lithe calves were visible below a black leather skirt. She tensed for another lunge, but there was no need.
She stood over Madeline’s corpse, knife hanging at her side, and breathed deeply. A dark pool spread out on the mattress and ran in two rivulets off the edge. When her pulse steadied, she calmly laid the knife on a clean space near the foot of the bed. She removed her shoes, then tiptoed to the bathroom. Selecting a robin’s-egg-blue hand towel from a neat pile on a white wicker credenza, she wiped her hands and face.
She then walked barefoot around the bed, avoiding the patches of blood, until she reached a closet. Inside, she stretched up to a high shelf over a row of dark men’s business suits and removed an ornately carved maple box.
John had shown her the box once, when Madeline went away for the weekend. He was unnaturally proud of his Colt Python .357 Magnum with the 4-inch barrel. He had bragged about spending $4,000 on it at a gun show in Charlotte. He once told her that he could blow the head off any intruder. He always kept it fully loaded with six bullets. She returned to the bathroom, sat on the edge of the marble bathtub, and waited.
She and John had made love in that spacious tub, and on the wide shelf that ran around its length. She remembered the smooth, cold feeling of the chrome soap dish against the arch of her foot when she had braced herself against it. She could smell the cinnamon candles she lit before their bath. John was more than twenty years her elder, but he kept up fairly well. He enjoyed her flexibility and the taut smoothness of her muscles. He told her what a shrew Madeline was, and that he was going to divorce her as soon as their youngest son graduated from Chapel Hill.
In John, she had a patron and a lover. He wanted her to be a star someday. He had written to a major talent agent he knew in New York, at the William Morris Agency. John had praised her voice and dancing, her beauty, and her poise. The agent had written back, expressing great interest and asking when she could come to New York for an interview. She smiled at the memory, but then her brows furrowed. John had lied to her.
Ten minutes later, she heard the front door open, then close quietly. She faintly heard four beeps as John disabled the burglar alarm. She had done the same when she arrived, then re-set it before she came upstairs. She had watched John do it when he brought her home. It was a simple four-digit code, and the numbers were his birthday. It was after midnight and she knew that John would be creeping upstairs soon, hoping not to wake his wife. He told her many times how he had perfected the routine. He would go to the bathroom to change into his pajamas, which he kept on a shelf there. Then, he would slip into bed without turning on a light or making a sound.
She waited patiently, the cool wooden butt of the pistol in her hand. With a soft whirr, the air conditioning kicked to life, fluttering the end of a toilet paper roll. She detected a slight creak from a nearby floorboard. The bathroom door crept inward, blocking her view of the threshold. When the door swung shut, she could dimly make out John’s silhouette against the soft green glow of his electric razor, charging next to the sink.
“Were you fucking Cheryl tonight?”
Although she whispered, John jumped, then spun around, squinting into the darkness.
His voice came out in a hissing whisper. “Holy shit! Is that you? What the fuck are you doing here? How did – you have to leave. What if Maddy wakes up?” She could hear the panic in his voice and see his head turning quickly from her direction to the bathroom door, listening for movement from the bed. She wasn’t worried about Madeline waking up, but she was happy to keep up the charade.
She stood up slowly, keeping perfectly balanced on her bare feet. “Don’t worry, I had to be with you, John. I love you. How could you cheat on me?”
“What?” John’s eyes were adjusting to the darkness, but he couldn’t see any details, except for the reflection of the green charger light off her eyes. “Jesus! No. I told you that I needed to work out the details with Maddy. I’m working on it.”
“I know you were with Cheryl. I saw you at the motel.”
“What?” John tried to control his voice, but failed. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
She took two steps forward, until she was inches from John. She smelled his cologne – the one he always put on after having sex with her so that his wife wouldn’t smell her on his body. She looked up into his shadowy face, the .357 Magnum dangling next to her right thigh. She slid her left arm around his neck, drawing him toward her. Some of Madeline’s spattered blood transferred from her blouse to John’s white dress shirt.
“Oh, John. I’ll go soon. I just had to see you.” She pulled against his neck and felt him lean in toward her. As he whispered something she didn’t listen to, she brought the gun up until the muzzle touched his chin. At the same instant, she stepped back a half-step and squeezed the trigger.
The explosion was louder than she expected, and the kickback from the discharge jerked the gun out of her hand. John’s body slumped forward as she stepped sideways, allowing him to fall with a moist thwack. Dark lines quickly formed in the indentations surrounding the 12-inch square ceramic tiles next to what was left of John’s head. Bits of bone, blood, and brain matter speckled her face and hair, but the bulk of the tissue covered the far wall and mirror.
She looked down at the gory scene and sighed. It was sad, really. John could have made her so happy, and she would have made him such a good wife. She shook her head and picked up a light blue washcloth, then carefully wiped her hands. She cleaned the butt and the trigger of the gun, removing the spattered blood as well as her fingerprints. She used the cloth to hold the gun and pushed it into John’s dead hand, pressing his fingers into the wood and chrome and placing his index finger on the trigger. Lifting the gun and his hand until his arm was fully extended, she pressed his finger into the trigger and squeezed. The bullet burrowed into the ceiling as John’s arm dropped back to the floor. The gun skittered across the tiles, settling beneath the waving toilet paper.
She walked carefully back into the bedroom. There, she retrieved the knife and carried it to the bathroom, where she wiped some of the blood from the blade onto John’s pants. Then, she repeated the process of wiping away her fingerprints, placing the knife in John’s hand, and squeezing his prints onto the hilt. She used the blue cloth to pick up the knife by its blade and tossed it back onto the bed. She retrieved her shoes and tucked the blood-smeared towel and washcloth into the waistband of her skirt.
As she carefully walked toward the door, she passed Madeline’s dressing table. She plucked a tissue from its box and used it to remove the top of a small heart-shaped porcelain container. Inside, she saw the glint of a gemstone in the moonlight filtering in through the window. She replaced the lid and picked up the jewelry box, shaking it softly to hear the tinkling sound coming from inside. Then she left the room, leaving no footprints.
As gruesome as the crime scene was, it didn’t really present much of a mystery from a police perspective. The official report said that the wife was stabbed multiple times, and the husband’s prints were on the knife. There was no sign of forced entry. The alarm was engaged. After he killed his wife, the husband retrieved a gun registered to him from a storage box in his closet and went to the bathroom. He fired the gun once into the ceiling, probably trying to work up his courage, then blew his own brains out. He had the appropriate powder residue on his hand and clothes.
Neighbors and friends confirmed that the marriage had been on the rocks. A review of the husband’s credit card spending had quickly led them to a mid-level motel on the edge of Durham. There, the night clerk and some low-quality surveillance cameras identified John Hawthorne exiting room 108 that night, an hour before the likely time of death, with a young blonde woman. His Amazon account included sexy lingerie recently shipped to Cheryl Winters, a graduate student at UNC, where Hawthorne was the director of the musical theater program. Ms. Winters was devastated to learn of the man’s death and quickly admitted that she had been having an affair with him for the past few weeks. She was not much of a suspect; she had no motive, and her doorbell cam showed her coming home twenty minutes after she left the motel and not leaving again that night.
The forensics unit called in from Durham thought the angle of the gunshot was unusual for one that was self-inflicted. But it was difficult to be sure, since the .357 had blown so much of his head off. They also thought the orientation of the prints on the knife handle were unusual. But the prints were definitely his.
The crime scene was a mess. After a neighbor called in a report of possible gunshots, the officers who responded had not followed precise forensic protocols. The rookie who went into the bedroom first had barfed on the carpet upon viewing the bloody mess. His partner had rushed in to check whether the woman was dead, smearing the blood and leaving his footprints all over the rug. There were no other suspects. There was no robbery. It was obviously a murder/suicide.
John Hawthorne’s family had swooped in and tried to convince the insurance adjuster that it could have been a double murder, but the insurance company didn’t buy it. Nobody could say for sure if anything was missing, and since the alarm was still engaged when the responding officers arrived, the police dismissed the idea that a burglar was responsible for both deaths . The wife’s daughter got paid off on her policy, then accused the husband’s son of stealing some of Madeline Hawthorn’s jewelry.
Cheryl Winters told the investigating officers she did not believe that John Hawthorne would kill himself. She wanted them to investigate a prior mistress, whom Cheryl claimed was “batshit crazy.” She had allegedly threatened to kill Cheryl when she found out that John had moved on. The local police tried to find the other woman, but she had left town and nobody knew where she was. Her apartment had been cleaned out. They put out a note to the state police to be on the lookout for the woman, with information about the car registered to her, but they weren’t really concerned. The guy had killed himself. It was his gun. Nobody else had a motive. It was not worth any more resources. They could safely close the case. Nothing to see here. If the other woman ever came back to town, they would question her. If they remembered.