For the record.
Claire pondered her diminishing options for years. If she had only herself to worry about, it would be easy. She would work at her job until one day there was a hit and run, or a drive by shooting. At least she could continue taking care of the babies in the neonatal unit at the hospital and maybe do some good right up until she was killed. If she were the only one in the picture, she would have taken her chances and contacted her parents years ago. Maybe. But even that would have likely put them all in danger. She went over it in her head a thousand times, trying to figure a way out of this mess.
Sometimes a young person makes a decision that irrevocably changes the course of their life forever. That day twenty-five years ago when she ran away with Pete Hunsicker was such a move. Claire was 17, a junior in high school, and pregnant, the latter a fact that she did not share with Pete until they were well away from Waynesville, North Carolina and living in a third-floor walk-up apartment in New Orleans near the French Quarter, where he worked as a bartender and ran the illegal video poker room at a dive off Rue Morgue.
Claire thought running away to New Orleans with Pete, a good-looking, slick-talking older guy, a friend of her Uncle Rory, would be a romantic adventure. She had dreams of becoming a writer or an actress, and figured this episode in her life would be a fun lark, something she could tell her grandchildren about someday.
Besides, her parents were consumed by building their company, Berringer Software, and probably wouldn’t miss her, anyway. Such were the thoughts of a lonely 17-year old.
Pete blew up when Claire told him about the baby. He gave her enough money for an abortion, but when she refused, he told her how dumb she was and that he had no intention of being saddled with her and a kid, slapped her, and said “You will take care of this. Tomorrow, okay?” She worried about it all the next day, but couldn’t bring herself to go to the family planning clinic and kill her baby. Pete went a little crazy with her when he found out she didn’t go. He shook her, got right in her face and told her if she didn’t go the next day, he would take her himself and then throw her out on the street. So she promised she would go.
When he was at work that night, she packed her one small bag, wrote Pete a note telling him he wouldn’t have to worry about her anymore and left. There was enough cash from the abortion money to rent a cheap room in another parish across town. She got a job a waiting tables at a café next door. It was a local place with a trade that mostly included the drunks that came from any one of several neighboring bars to get cheap omelets, beignets and chicory coffee.
Claire poured herself a tall glass of vodka over ice and muttered to herself as she walked around the house making sure all the doors and windows were locked. She took the bottle of liquor and a small ice bucket to the bedroom, turning off lights as she went. Stupid. Stupid. Stupid. Hot tears collected behind her eyes. No. The time’s past for that, idiot. Time to protect Grace if you can.
Claire had been preparing for this day ever since she got the first anonymous threatening card more than twenty years ago. She hated lying to Grace all these years, hated the mess she made of her own life, hated the bastard that made her life a living hell, hated Pete Hunsicker, and hated herself.
She especially hated lying to Grace on their last phone call. She wrote the points she wanted to cover on a small sticky note which she flushed down the toilet after they said good-bye.
Claire researched how to check if your telephone was bugged. Pretty simple, really. When she found the bug three weeks ago, she couldn’t stop shivering. She was so mad she wanted to rip it out of the wall and drown it in the bathtub.
That’s when she knew “he” – whoever “he” was – wouldn’t quit until she was dead. She had to convince him or them that she never told Grace who she really was. And she hadn’t. So she needed to concoct a little bit of theatre for the listener’s benefit and then cut off any potential of a future leak at its source, which, sadly, was herself.
Claire’s access to substances from the hospital would guarantee a quick, certain, painless result. She cautiously gathered them for months. She sensed there was a narrow window of opportunity to do this thing once Grace graduated from law school, took her after-graduation trip to Italy with her friend Ariel, came home to pack up all her belongings, and moved to her new job in Pensacola. But she couldn’t drag it out. She was convinced she was a dead woman either way. At least by following her own script there was a chance she could save Grace.
The one dumb thing she had done was to send the bear made out of flour sacks, Elisha Walter, “E.W.,” with Grace. Putting the big stuffed bear in the Grace’s car was a last minute irresistible impulse. She still didn’t know what she hoped to accomplish, and hoped her rash act never endangered Grace.
E.W. held a secret in his belly. Claire used a surgical scalpel to make an incision along one of the flour sack seams on his back. She carefully removed part of the packing material and inserted a thin scroll of papers into E. W.’s mid-section, re-stuffed him, and resealed the seam with tiny stiches.
That thin scroll was the only evidence in the world that proved Claire Ringer was born Ann Mathis Berringer, only child of Troy and Mary Alice Berringer, billionaire founders of Berringer Software.