by Carole Sojka
Enjoy this never before published mystery short story.
I wouldn’t say I actually liked yoga, but I did it faithfully twice a week because it was supposed to be good for me. I did like the meditation at the end when we lie flat on our mats in corpse pose with the ceiling lights off while the teacher played a tape of New Age music and spoke softly about Mother Earth and Father Sky.
There was only the music, the voice of the teacher speaking in a low monotone, the rustle of bodies, and an occasional cough or sigh. That morning was no different. It seemed a short time until the instructor told us to roll over onto our sides into fetal position, and then to sit up. When I did, I noticed that Rose, the woman whose mat was near mine, hadn’t move.
Sometimes people fall asleep during the meditation, but Rose continued to be still after the teacher turned on the lights and the women rose to their feet, so I went over to her and gently shook her arm. She didn’t move. Then I noticed the knife protruding from her chest. I screamed.
Julia, the teacher, called the police. Two officers in uniform arrived first. They told us no one could leave until we’d all been interviewed and asked us whether anyone could have come in from outside. The door to the outside hallway had been closed but not locked. Since it made a clicking noise when it was opened, it seemed likely that a class member would have heard anyone entering.
Of course the whole thing seemed improbable. Why would anyone murder Rose? I guessed she was about forty-five, a quiet woman whom I’d seldom seen talking to anyone in the class.
The police detective, a man named Langer, arrived about an hour after the patrolmen. He seemed young, with sandy hair and a freckled face, but when I looked at him more closely, I saw lines around his eyes and mouth, and his bright blue eyes didn’t miss much.
He set up an impromptu interview room in one of the offices and had each of us come in to answer questions. Julia was first, and after she came out, I was summoned. Detective Langer established the particulars about the positions of our mats, whether I had heard anything, and if the room was dim during the meditation period, and I answered all his questions as best I could.
Then he asked me what I knew about Rose. I said that she had been at the yoga class when I joined about a year ago, but I’d never met her outside of class.
“So you heard nothing. No one moving around, no slapping of feet? The door didn’t open?” Detective Langer asked.
“No. I didn’t hear anything although I was pretty spaced out on the music and Julia’s voice.”
“Wouldn’t the teacher have her eyes open during this meditation? Doesn’t she watch the class?” he asked.
“I don’t know. I think she sits on her mat and talks. I suppose she checks us from time to time. She might close her eyes. I’ve never looked.”
What had Julia told him about the meditation period?
“Did you notice anything different about Rose that day?”
“She seemed just like always, and she didn’t say anything to me. She was there when I arrived.”
“Don’t discuss this with the other members of the class or with any of your friends. All of you are under suspicion until we learn more.”
I must have looked startled at the information that we were all suspects because he said, “Everyone. Not just you. Now give your name, address, and phone number to the patrolman at the door, and then you can leave.”
As I picked up my mat and walked out to my car, I thought about his statement that we were all suspects. I couldn’t imagine anyone in the class killing Rose, but apparently someone had. She seemed so inoffensive, so quiet, almost mousy. Her asanas were nearly perfect, much better than mine, but I didn’t think anyone killed her out of envy.
I had a busy day at work with meetings scheduled most of the morning and afternoon. I tried to call Jim, my husband, when I arrived, but he was in a meeting, and I never got another opportunity. I tried to put the murder out of my mind, not even calling Liz, my best friend, to tell her.
The next time the yoga class met, three days later, only six instead of the regular fifteen students were present. Apparently, the rest didn’t want to be murdered during yoga meditation.
After class, I talked briefly to Julia about Rose.
“I’m surprised you didn’t see anything that day,” I said. “You usually sit and watch us during the meditation, don’t you?”
“Oh, sometimes, but mostly I close my eyes and just keep talking. I’ve done it so often I know the words by heart. The important thing is to keep my voice soft and soothing.”
“I guess,” I said. “Do you ever play a prerecorded CD or tape for us instead of talking?”
“The detective asked me that,” she said, and turned away to speak to one of the other women.
She hadn’t answered my question. If she’d played a CD of her voice that day, she’d have known when everyone’s eyes were closed. Then she would have been able to stab Rose while the rest of us were lost in meditative dreams.
I pondered this question. What possible reason could Julia, an attractive, married, thirty-something yoga instructor have to murder Rose, a forty-something librarian, pretty enough but not nearly as sexy as Julia? It didn’t make sense.
But then, suddenly, it did.
Ten days after Rose’s death, Julia was arrested for her murder. Jim saw the item on page one of the local paper, and when I came downstairs for breakfast, he said, “I see your friend’s been arrested.”
“Julia murdered Rose? I can’t believe it.”
“The paper says that Julia was having an affair with Rose’s husband and apparently decided to get rid of his wife.”
“Wow! Really? You never know about people, do you?” I asked. “I never would’ve thought Julia had any reason to kill Rose. Or that she was capable of murder. I’ve seen her own husband, and he’s very attractive. You wouldn’t think she’d want Rose’s.”
Julia’s arrest unleashed a media circus in our little town with reporters camped out on her front lawn. Julia was arraigned and charged with murder. She pled not guilty and was freed on bail. There seemed no doubt in anyone’s mind that Julia was guilty. Who else could possibly have done it?
When the case finally went to trial, all the women who had been in class that day were called to testify. That was the first time I’d seen Julia since she’d been arrested, and I hardly recognized her. She was gaunt and drawn-looking, her brown hair streaked with gray, and her eyes puffy. She was thin, and the dress she wore sagged over her shoulders and breasts as if the flesh had been stripped from her bones.
The trial was short: two days of testimony followed by the attorneys’ summations. I was called on the second day, and when I was sworn in, I recounted what I remembered from that day. The jury wasn’t out very long and brought in a verdict of first degree murder. Julia was sentenced to twenty years to life in prison.
Rose’s husband stayed in town after Julia was convicted. They hadn’t had children, and he worked in the city, so I suppose he wasn’t faced with constant reminders of his wife’s murder. Since they had lived a block from us, I sometimes saw him in the grocery store or at the bank. When housing prices went up about two years after Rose’s death, Stephen put the house on the market and sold it to a young couple just moving out from the city.
They had two young children, about the age of my grandkids, and when my two visited, I arranged several times for the four children to play together. I was retired by then and enjoyed having the kids around.
Karen, the wife of the couple, came to me about six months after they had moved in. She had been cleaning house and come across some things that Stephen had forgotten. She wondered if I knew Stephen’s address, and as it happened I did, so I offered to take charge of the forgotten items.
When I looked through what Karen had left with me, I saw little of interest: some calendars from the year of the murder, a file of cancelled checks from several years ago, and copies of income tax filings for anywhere from six to ten years ago. I prepared to mail them to Stephen.
Then I came across a diary. I wasn’t familiar with Rose’s handwriting, but the precision and neatness of the entries made me think it must be hers. I know I shouldn’t have read it, but I couldn’t help myself.
Rose’s entries were generally dull, a recitation of things that had happened at work, matters that had come up between Rose and her husband, called S, and rather banal meditations on the meaning of life. I leafed through the pages, looking for anything that would tell something about her murder.
Sometime during the beginning of the year in which Rose was murdered, she noted that S was working longer hours. She wrote that she’d talked to him about his workload and asked if he couldn’t get more help from his boss, but he’d told her he didn’t want to ask.
Rose noted that S was preoccupied and not as attentive to her as he’d been. This led to a boring meditation on marriage and whether or not people were meant to stay married for life. Up until these entries, the diary had been neat, the margins precise, and her writing well-formed and regularly spaced. After she began to write about S’s preoccupation and her loneliness, her writing became more cramped and tight.
Rose didn’t say how she found out that S was having an affair. Her first response was disbelief, then anger. Several pages of the diary were filled with angry rants against S and “his whore,” her pen pressing so hard that she dug holes in the paper. If Stephen had been murdered, Rose’s diary would certainly be evidence against her, but he was alive.
She wrote, “I hate my life. I’m worthless, ugly.” Another entry began, “I’ve started again. I promised my mother I’d never do it again, but my mother’s dead, and it’s the only thing that makes me feel, that gives me pleasure. S no longer loves me. What good is my life?”
I didn’t know what she meant, but in a later entry she talked about “scarring herself,” and I thought she’d been a cutter as a teenager and was doing it again. I wondered if her body had shown scars when the coroner had done the autopsy, but of course, there hadn’t been anything about that in the paper.
After months of anger and cutting, she wrote, “I can’t stand it any longer if I don’t know what he’s doing. I’m going to find out who she is.”
In the next entry, she wrote, “It’s Julia! The whore is Julia! He said he’d be late because he had a business dinner, so I followed him after he left work. He didn’t go to a restaurant but to a crummy, cheap motel. I watched him go into the office, then into a room facing the parking lot to wait for his whore. I felt as though he’d hit me. A few minutes later another car drove up. She didn’t know I was watching her. She walked to the room where S was waiting. When she stood under the light above the door, I saw who it was. I thought it would be a stranger. But it wasn’t. It was Julia. How could she? How could S sleep with someone I know? Someone I like?
“I wanted to kill her right there, but I controlled myself. I sat quietly in my car, then drove home. I need a plan. I need to ruin her life the way she ruined mine.”
So Rose had known about Stephen and Julia. I wondered if she had known Julia planned to kill her. I read on.
“I have nothing to live for. Nothing. I loved S, and he threw me away. I don’t want to live, but I’ll make her pay.”
The diary was empty for a couple of weeks, then she wrote, “I have my plan. I’ve done a lot of research, and the books say it’s very painful. One book said that to reach the heart I need to put the blade of a sharp knife in the pit of my stomach and angle it upward toward the left shoulder. I’ve been practicing the move. I’m not afraid of the pain. Pain is nothing. Pain is pleasure. Cutting makes me feel serene. I feel good. I know the pleasure it brings. I know I can do this. Julia will hang for my murder. Who else would kill me?”
In the last entry, Rose wrote, “This is it—my big day. I’m going to do it. The worst part is I won’t know if Julia is convicted of my murder, but I must believe she will be. She has a reason.
“And if there is an afterlife, I will know.”
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