“So, his whiney-ass little girlfriend left, eh?” Lucas cackled into the phone. “Good.” Daisy looked up at him and wagged her tail. Her eyes darted from Lucas to the Heineken on the table. Lucas patted her head, snapped his fingers and pointed to the other side of the room. The mutt reluctantly went to the doggie bed and lay down. “Where’d she go?” he asked.
“Back to Michigan,” Hansen said, on the other end of the line.
“Family?” Lucas asked.
“No,” Hansen said slowly. “Friend. The kid said she was a flake and that pissed off the girlfriend pretty bad.” He exhaled deeply and Lucas wondered if the man smoked in his sleep. “She ain’t coming back. Count on it. They were going at it gang-busters when I got there. Nope, she’s history.”
Lucas swigged his beer then belched. “Make sure of it. I don’t want any distractions. I want that boy focused.”
“I’ll keep him on the straight and narrow,” John said.
“Make sure you do,” Lucas said and hung up. He leaned back in his chair, stretched out his crippled leg and scowled at it. “You useless piece of shit.” Imagining himself whole again he put himself in Billy’s place. The look that would invade Rachel’s pretty face at the sight of him. What a joy it would be to see the terror in her eyes. How he would love to see that. The fear. He envied Billy his ability to move into her life without the realization she had opened her door to the enemy. That she had welcomed trouble with open arms. Opened her soul to be tortured for her treacherous acts. “She’s going to pay, Tommy,” he said aloud. “Count on it.” He belched and Daisy returned to his side and begged for beer, dog-dish in her mouth. “Pushy bitch, ain’t you?”
Billy arrived at eight a.m. on the nose, parked his new truck on the street out of sight and walked onto the property. He wore faded jeans, a gray Nike tee shirt and scuffed work boots. His red, metal tool box was loaded with hammer, nails, screws, level, pliers, wrench, flathead and Phillips screwdriver, tape measure, wood glue, sandpaper and hand sander.
The hot, morning sun set off a light sweat on his forehead and down his neck. He heard screeches, laughs and kid-chatter that blended with the strains of a kid’s song pounded out on an untuned piano. The aroma of fresh muffins awoke his senses and led him to the kitchen door. Through the window, he saw Libbie holding a tin of muffins in oven-mitted hands. He rapped lightly and smiled at her through the glass when she looked up.
She nodded her head and turned away. Billy assumed permission was granted to enter and he opened the door. “Hello?”
“Don’t stand there and gawk, young man,” Libbie said over her shoulder. “Come in and make yourself useful.”
“Yes, ma’am.” He stepped into the homey kitchen and was impressed with the design and layout of the room. Wood cabinets painted in sea foam green, yellow counter tops of Formica, white appliances and a stainless double oven stove from the 40’s fully refurbished and doing over time. Every burner had a pot simmering and both ovens held bakery delights. The warm air competed with the summer heat but the smell was so intoxicating that Billy didn’t mind. Billy put his tool box on the floor with a clunk that made Libbie jump. “Can I help you with that?”
Libbie placed muffins in large baskets. “I believe you were hired as a handy man, not a cook’s helper.”
“Then go into the dining hall and announce yourself and sit down. If you expect to have breakfast, you will have a dozen tiny hands to compete with.”
Billy felt dismissed and found his way into the chaos that was the dining hall. Fifteen children, Rae, and two other women all chattered at once. The women got the children into seats, tucked in napkins under their chubby faces and dished out eggs, berries and bacon.
Rae looked up and gave a quick grin. “Well, there you are. Sorry I didn’t hear you pull in.”
Billy returned her grin. “It’s okay, I parked on the street. I wasn’t sure about where . . . ” His voice was drowned out by the din of hungry children.
Rae shook her head and winked. She pointed down the hall. “The washroom’s that way. Hurry back, lest you get nothing but crumbs for breakfast.”
Billy found the bathroom another example of times past with its big, pedestal sink and porcelain tub. He washed up and returned to the dining hall. In the few minutes he was gone most of the food had disappeared and he realized with growling stomach that Rae and Libbie had told the truth about the fight to be fed.
Rae patted an empty chair next to her and he sat. Like magic, Rae produced a plate with scrambled eggs, crisp bacon, fresh strawberries and two of Libbie’s blueberry muffins, split and slathered with butter. A mug with fresh, hot coffee also appeared. Billy chuckled. “You’re good.”
“I have to be,” Rae said. “Cream and sugar?”
“No thanks, take it black.”
“Marcie and Maria, this is our new handyman, Billy.”
The tall, thin woman with the crooked teeth smiled at Billy. “Nice to meet you, Billy – I’m Marcie.”
“Holla, Senor Billy, my name is Maria.” The dark, petite woman said shyly.
“Nice to meet you.”
Rae clapped her hands to get the children’s attention. “Children, children we need to be quiet now.” The room fell silent as the children looked at Rae. “That’s my angels,” Rae smiled. “Children, this is Billy. He’s our new handy man. He’ll be fixing all of our many broken things. Say hello.”
“Hello, Billy,” the children said in unison.
“Howdy.” As quickly as they’d fallen silent, they began their chatter and clatter. Billy eyed his breakfast hungrily
“Well, don’t just sit there, eat,” Rae said.
Billy dug into his food and ate with the same gusto as the children. It was the best meal he’d eaten in a long time, each bite was a flavor explosion for his taste buds. Fast food and what he managed to throw together himself was what he was used to. He hadn’t eaten home-cooked meals since he left Michigan and even that was just beans and franks that Susan whipped up on the hotplate. His heart tugged at the thought of her. Where is she? Will she call? He told himself she would.
Breakfast was over in an instant and the children were herded outside as Libbie cleared the dishes. Billy tried to help her but she gave him the look of an angry rattle snake and stopped him dead. She hates me already, he thought.
“Okay,” Rae pulled him from his distraction. “You survived breakfast – let’s see what you can do for our sorry grounds.” Billy gave her a blank look. “I’m sorry, do you need more coffee?”
“No, thanks. I was just thinking that this is a great place. I wouldn’t ever call it sorry.” He felt a little thrill, realizing he was where he’d wanted to be all his life. The puzzle would be solved and he would solve it.
Rae pushed back her oak chair and stood up. “Let me show you the work ahead of you before you decide.”
“Okay, I’ll reserve my judgment.” Billy stood, followed her through the kitchen and out the back door.
Just behind the house were swing sets, a slide and a small, shallow pool for the kids. Three freestanding sheds stood to the right containing toys, big wheeled trikes, hoola hoops, and sports equipment. He noticed the shed had roll-up doors locked in place, Billy presumed so no child could accidentally get locked inside and be trapped. To the left of the kitchen was a demolished garden. “Whoa, what happened there?”
“A small accident,” Rae said and led him in that direction.
Billy’s eyes flicked back to the kitchen window where he caught Libbie spying on them. “Your sister doesn’t trust strangers too much?”
“Libbie is shy and reserved until she gets to know you,” Rae said casually. “But don’t you worry about that. She’ll come around.” They stopped at the garden. “This is our most immediate problem.”
Billy nodded. “Yeah, I’d have to agree with you on that. What the heck happened? The kids go crazy with it?”
Rae looked toward the back of the property where a wooded area was cordoned off by a flimsy fence. Her face creased with worry. “We do need a better barrier for that too.” She sighed. “The little ones are so curious.”
“You’re the boss,” Billy said. “What do you want me to tackle first?”
She pulled a notepad from the pocket of her jeans and a pencil and consulted her list. “I suppose we should take care of the garden first. It’s so important to Libbie.” She ripped the page from her notebook and gave it to him. “Go to Harriman’s – it’s just a quarter mile down the road, turn left at the gate. You can’t miss it. They have the fencing and gate waiting for us. Just tell them you’re there for the Hale order. They’ll load you up.”
“Okay, just the fence and gate then?”
“Let’s try for that today. Once we have the garden plot contained, we can go to the nursery and buy the plants.”
Billy nodded. “Okay, then I’m off.”
Rae led him around the house to a side gate and then down the driveway. “When you return, just back up here, then you won’t have to lug everything through the house. We’ll try to keep the children out from underfoot.” She smiled and crossed her fingers. When they reached the street, she spied the red SUV. “Is that your vehicle?”
Billy flushed. “Ah, yeah. Not what you’d expect from a college student, eh?”
“It is something.”
“Yeah,” Billy agreed. “I don’t think I mentioned this to you yesterday, but I’m staying at my uncle’s place while I’m here. He’s got a cabin up Mount Gleason, near the Wash? Anyway, he had this baby waiting for me.” Rae nodded politely. “It’s not mine. I mean, he didn’t give it to me. But he said I could use it while I’m here.” Billy stuttered as he lied.
“Your uncle must hold you in high esteem,” she said thoughtfully. “Won’t you worry about scratching it?”
“He’s in the auto industry,” Billy lied some more. “He can just trade it in whenever he wants.”
“I see,” Rae said but her eyes called him a faker. “Well, all right then. We’ll see you shortly.”
Billy climbed into the truck and started the engine. In his rearview mirror he saw Rae give him and the truck a doubtful look. “Shit,” he muttered under his breath. He pulled out onto Foothill and went in search of Harriman’s.
Throughout the day Rae kept an eye on Billy. She tried to keep him in sight, while tending to the children. He impressed her with his industry and ability to perform the tasks asked of him with efficiency. He hadn’t dawdled at Harriman’s. He returned quickly with the prefabricated fencing and gate for the garden and installed it, never stopping until it was complete. To her surprise, Rae saw Libbie bring out lunch, endless glasses of iced tea and water to Billy. Libbie even smiled at him.
Once the fencing was done, Billy dashed down to the nursery. Libbie insisted on going with him, claiming that she wanted to check every plant before it was brought home. Upon their return, they went straight to work on the garden plot. Billy toted, dug and planted at Libbie’s beck and call. Billy didn’t stop until every plant was in fresh soil and drinking up fresh water. It was seven o’clock when he flashed a grin, got in his truck and disappeared down the road.
Libbie stood in the doorway and watched him drive away.
“Happy, sister?” Rae asked as she joined Libbie at the doorway.
Libbie nodded and smiled wistfully. “It’s a miracle,” she murmured.
Rae laughed. “A miracle? I thought it was just a garden.”
Libbie closed the front door and started for the kitchen. “That’s not what I meant.”
Rae followed her into the kitchen and watched as Libbie pulled out vegetables for salad. She washed the vegetables and left them to drain on paper towels. She pulled cold chicken, mayonnaise, minced garlic and raisins from the refrigerator and began to chop up the ingredients for chicken salad.
“What did you mean, then?” Rae asked leaning on the counter as Libbie prepared their dinner.
“He’s unique, is all.” Libbie said, chopping meat and vegetables with precision.
“You mean, Billy?”
Libbie nodded and reached for a bowl, in this she mixed the mayonnaise, raisins and garlic. A pinch of dry mustard and caraway seed went into the mix. She blended it with a rubber spatula, added the chicken and vegetables, then placed it in the refrigerator to cool. She moved onto the salad greens which made a crisp sound as she twisted and tore off pieces. Thin slices of Bermuda onion, black olives, ripe tomatoes, fresh cucumbers and grated Parmesan cheese were tossed in with the greens. A generous portion of her special vinaigrette dressed it nicely.
“Well, what about Billy is so unique?” Rae asked, because Libbie would not volunteer anything without prodding.
Libbie looked at Rae as if she were mentally slow. “You saw what I saw, sister. You tell me.” Libbie reached into the oven and pulled out warm sourdough rolls and put them in a basket which she placed on the table along with table settings for two. The salads completed the table and Libbie gave a satisfied sigh to her lovely summer dinner.
“I saw a young man build a fence and gate and put some plants in the ground.” Rae stopped and smiled. “And I saw him make you happy. Is that what you mean?”
Libbie poured them each a large tumbler of iced tea and sat at the table. Rae joined her. “What I mean is he did what he said he would do. And he did it with efficiency and talent. He made something out of nothing.” She nabbed a roll and carefully spread butter so it would melt into crevices and crust. “Without complaint or expecting praise.”
Rae served herself with greens and chicken salad, tore a roll in half and put it on the edge of her plate. “Well, that’s what we hired him for.”
Libbie sighed as if Rae still didn’t get it. “Well sister, we have hired many people in our careers and he is the first to have simply done the deed.” She flicked Rae a look. “Without incessant instruction.”
Rae shook her head. “Oh no, I’m not going to argue with you about past employees again. I think I’ll just be happy that you like Billy, since it seems we’ll have him around for a while.” Rae played with her food. Though it was delicious, her, appetite had waned.
“What’s the matter?” Libbie asked. “You should be glad that I like someone you hired.”
“I am glad.” Rae said.
“There’s something about him. I can’t put my finger on it.” She shook her head. “Oh, never mind.”
Libbie put down her fork. “No, tell me. What’s wrong?”
“It’s just a feeling. Like he’s up to something. Did you see that new truck of his? He claimed it was his uncle’s and he has unlimited use of it. But I don’t think he was telling the truth.”
“Young people are always up to something,” Libbie said, taking another roll. “I suspect you may be right about the truck though, probably the uncle doesn’t know anything about it.”
Rae shook off her doubts. “Well, I guess I can’t be too upset with someone who could make you smile so.” She squeezed Libbie’s hand. “At last, the garden is safe.”
Libbie beamed. “Yes, I’d have to agree with you, sister. I do believe you are right.”
Lucas Webster was restless. He reread Hansen’s report on Billy Frayne. The boy checked out. He was a nobody, raised by a spinster aunt after his parents died in a car crash. Gained entrance to Eastern Michigan University with a partial scholarship. Good grade point average. Major in English, Minor in Criminology. Another true crime writer among us? Lucas’ feathers ruffled slightly.
He continued with the report. Susan Spark – parents also dead, a couple of distant cousins, aunt and uncle and a brother she never had contact with.
The girl was irrelevant, she left Billy and was out of the way. Why wasn’t Billy making any progress? He’d made contact and got hired two weeks ago – what was the hold up? “No guts,” he told Daisy. “The kid’s a chicken-shit.” The homely mutt adored him with a look and wagged her tail. “No, I didn’t say beer,” he chided.
Lucas had thought of nothing but Rachel Clarke in the last two weeks. She invaded his every thought and action and it pissed him off. The emotions that stirred were relentless. He sat on his leather sofa and pushed a button on the side table. It opened and exposed a DVD player that he put a disk in and pushed the play button. The armoire doors slid back and revealed a big-screen television. “Home movies,” he explained to Daisy.
A lot of time and money had done into having all of his family movies transferred onto DVD but it was well worth it. Now he watched Rachel, a beauty in her day. She blushed as the camera caught her breast-feeding Beau. “Oh stop,” she demurred. But the cameraman wouldn’t. He followed her everywhere she went – into the kitchen, onto the veranda, and he’d even followed her on horseback.
He played disk after disk, unable to sate his desire to look at her and hear her voice. The final disk was of Rachel and Beau. She was trying to teach him to ride but the child was fussy and afraid of most animals. They rode together on an old Paint named Lulu. Beau whimpered softly, but Rachel whispered something to him and it made him smile.
“Go Lulu,” he said brightly and suddenly. “Giddyap!” His chubby little legs kicked at the horse’s neck to spur her on.
The horse whinnied and it seemed she was laughing at the boy. It delighted him and he continued to give her orders to ‘go’ ‘giddyap’ ‘run’ none of which Lulu obeyed. Gently, Rachel walked the horse once around the corral and brought her to a stop. “Okay darlin’,” she said in that magical, lilting voice. She lifted Beau off Lulu and he insisted on giving the horse a kiss on the nose before she set him down. She took her boy in her arms and hugged him tight. She pointed at the camera and said, “blow a kiss and say goodbye.”
Beau, obliged his mother, eyes shining as he smiled and blew a kiss. “Bye now,” he said then made the smacking sound of a child’s kiss.
The movie ended but not the memories it stirred in Lucas. In his mind, the movie continued. Rachel put Beau down for his nap. Tommy was at work and Libbie had made a rare trip into town. They were alone. An opportunity that Lucas couldn’t let slip away.
He found her in the kitchen, at the table, drinking a cup of tea. She massaged her temples as though a headache had ruined her perfect face. He came up behind her and began to massage her shoulders. “This will fix you right up,” he said, his lips close to her ear.
Rachel flinched and moved away from his touch. “Well, thank you but I’m just fine,” she said.
Lucas pulled out a chair and sat. “You feeling poorly?”
Rachel fanned herself. “The heat. I’m afraid my constitution finds it deadly.” She got up. “I should check on Beau.”
He caught her by the hand and stopped her. “You just put the boy down. Set and visit for a spell.”
Rachel sat again, reluctantly. “All right, but just for a little while.”
Lucas took in her beauty as if it were air to him. “Why’s that? You have big plans for yourself today?”
“I need to groom Lulu, now that Beau is down . . . ”
“She hardly worked up a lather. She’ll be just fine,” Lucas insisted.
Rachel stood, “no, I really should.”
“All right then,” Lucas said, “I’ll help you. Hold the brushes for you.”
He followed Rachel into the barn. It was cool and smelled of hay and horse. She eased into Lulu’s stall and patted her flank. “Hey girl, how’s about a brush?” Lulu snorted and nodded her head up and down. Rachel laughed. It was music. Lucas could bear it no longer and reached for her. Her face paled to the shade of funeral lilies. “What are you doing?” Rachel backed up as far as she could, leaning against Lulu as though the horse could protect her.
“What kind of question is that?” Lucas asked. “You know how I feel about you, girl.”
“I’m a married woman, Lucas,” she smiled. “In fact, married to your cousin, Thomas.”
Lucas advanced a few paces more but Rachel had nowhere to go. His face was inches from hers and he could smell the sweetness of her skin. Lavender. “Your husband, my dear cousin, whom I love like a brother, has never met a petticoat he didn’t like. So, let’s not quibble about fidelity.”
Rachel’s face twisted in hatred and it gave Lucas pause. “My marriage is none of your business. And I’ll thank you to keep your opinions to yourself!”
She pushed past him and out of the stall. He rushed after her and grabbed her by the arm. “You don’t think I see it? Your signals. Your sashaying every time I’m around? I see it! And I know what it means!”
“You’re hurting me.” Rachel pulled her arm away from him. “I’m sure I’ve no idea what you are talking about. I certainly am not trying to encourage you into believing I would . . . ”
Lucas laughed. “You can’t even say it, can you?” He tore at her blouse, which gave easily and exposed full breasts encased in a lacy, pink bra. Rachel’s eyes filled with rage and fear. She scratched his face and broke free. Lucas screamed from her assault and lunged for her as she ran for the barn door. Lucas pursued Rachel, unaware that he had left Lulu’s stall open. The horse snorted and charged Lucas with maternal fury.
It happened so fast that Lucas still had no clear memory of how he’d gotten caught under the hooves of the twelve hundred pound horse. He felt the snap in his leg, the crushing pain. When he awoke, he found himself in the hospital in traction. The doctors did what they could, the leg was miserably damaged and he was destined to live his life as a cripple.
Despite several surgeries to correct the problem over the years, the leg never returned to normal. Though Lucas was manic about his physical therapy and worked to build up the rest of his body, the leg remained something he dragged behind him. Something that dragged him down. He still held out hope for the miracle of stem-cell research but it would be years before that avenue would be open to him.
Even still, he could have borne the tragedy of his leg if Rachel hadn’t gotten it into her head to tell Tommy about their encounter. Tommy was furious. “I don’t ever want to see your face again,” he said as cold and quiet as a rattlesnake. It was the last time Lucas ever saw Tommy alive. Rachel owed him. For his leg. For his loss of family. She surely did.
Susan woke with a start. Her eyes opened and she reached for Billy who wasn’t there. The small room was dim and its single window did little to let in the morning sun. The blue walls and carpet made her feel like a castaway on the water, floating without direction. The comforter hugged her body like protective arms and encouraged her to burrow deeper but she forced herself up. A chill raised the flesh on her arms as she untangled herself from her cocoon.
She put on her robe and padded down the hallway to the bathroom where she splashed water on her face and brushed her teeth. The peppermint toothpaste made her queasy but the nausea passed quickly. “You look like hell, girl,” she said to her reflection in the bathroom mirror. In the two weeks since she left, not a moment had passed without Billy lurking in the back of her mind.
She missed his smile that was so quick and easy. The warmth of his body against hers in the morning and the silky touch of his hair as it brushed against her cheek. Tears welled and threatened to spill but she beat them back stubbornly. I was right to leave, she thought, but she wasn’t happy to be right.
Back in her room, she put on light cotton sweat pants and an Eastern tee shirt. The kitchen was empty but she spied the half pot of hot coffee and a dish in the sink with crumbs of the toast it once held. A power drill whined and pulled her gaze through the kitchen window. The workshop door hung open and strains of Eric Clapton’s guitar competed with the cry of the drill.
She stepped into a pair of flip-flops and went out the back door. She could hear Terri screeching along with Clapton, bemoaning life with Layla as she approached the workshop. Terri couldn’t care less if everyone in the neighborhood heard her and that made Susan grin. Terri worked, too lost in her own creative surge to notice Susan standing in the doorway watching her.
Terri wore faded overalls and a tank top, her hair was knotted on top of her head with strands that had broken free hugging her neck and forehead. She was tall and thin – all arms and legs as she described herself. Dark hair, blue eyes and a strong bone structure made her striking and imposing. But she had a winning smile that always put others at ease in her presence.
Terri was an urban sculptress and created pieces that reflected the times in which they lived. Susan admired the piece Terri labored over, which was a rendition of terrorism; two rectangular blocks of wood charred and splintered, surrounded by rock and ash, miniature vehicles twisted and blackened among the rubble, and a tattered flag mounted on an overturned truck. She selected miniature figurines of soldiers, policemen, firemen, freedom fighters and others Susan didn’t recognize and placed them carefully.
Susan was fascinated by Terri’s passion and talent and felt a pang of her own failing as an artist. She hadn’t worked on anything in months. She cursed Billy though she knew it wasn’t his fault. Maybe she just didn’t have the soul and discipline to be an artist. Her track record showed no evidence of it – just several unfinished pieces in a rented garage studio near her apartment. An urge surfaced to go there, that instant and throw herself into the game but the inertia of pregnancy and missing Billy kept her planted in the spot where she stood. “Are you just going to stand there or say something,” Terri asked.
“I didn’t want to disturb you.”
Terri turned her sweaty face to Susan. “How’s the little one?”
Susan touched her swelling stomach and nodded. “She’s fine.”
Terri grinned. “Sure that’s a girl in there? You already look like you’re housing a bowling ball. God help us when you really get big.”
“Hey, no cracks about the mother to be,” Susan wagged her finger.
“I’m just saying we got us a big baby in there, ma’am.” She made a face and Susan laughed. Terri took a kerchief from her back pocket and wiped sawdust and perspiration from her face. “I could use your help with this.”
Susan walked around the piece which took up most of the space in the workshop and was impressed. Terri’s attention to detail was incredible. “I feel as though I’m there,” she said with a shudder. “You don’t need my help, you’re doing brilliantly on your own.”
Terri stepped back and surveyed the piece. “Maybe,” she said, “but chances are nobody’s going to want it.” She fell silent for a moment.
Susan shared Terri’s sadness though didn’t feel the depth of her despair. It was a subject that was close to Terri’s heart. What had been done to the country on that day, Terri had taken very personally. From that day on she was on a mission to ensure no one ever forgot. “How can anyone want to forget this?” she asked.
Susan put her hand on Terri’s bony shoulder and squeezed it. “I don’t know, but they do.”
Terri headed for the door. “Let’s go outside, I want a smoke.” Terri lit a cigarette as they sat at the patio table and was careful to blow the smoke away from Susan.
“Don’t worry, the smoke doesn’t bother me,” Susan said. “It’s about the only smell that doesn’t bother me. Go figure.”
Terri probed her with dazzling blue eyes. “I do worry, Suz. I worry about everything. Especially you and that baby. Have you called him yet?”
Terri reached across the table and took Susan’s hand. “You must, you know? He’s got to be going crazy, wondering where the hell you are.”
Susan’s stubbornness reared up. “He knows where I am. He should call.”
Terri leaned back in her chair and blew smoke rings. “You two,” she shook her head and grinned.
“You’re so much the same,” Terri said.
“On some things we aren’t,” Susan insisted.
“Like what?” Terri asked. “You never did tell me why you left. I mean, okay, he can be a pain at times. But I can’t believe he’d ever do anything to drive you away.”
Susan gave in to tears and between sobs, she told Terri the whole story. “What would you have done?” Susan asked.
“I don’t know. This is pretty out there, even for Billy – but I can’t say I’m surprised.” Terri almost smiled.
“This isn’t funny,” Susan said.
“In a way it is. I mean, come on, Billy being some sort of spy meister? I don’t think so. Suz, he always comes up with these half-baked ideas and then later he comes to his senses.” She patted Susan’s hand. “He’ll snap out of it. You know he will.”
“I don’t know, Terri, he’s so determined. So . . . single-minded about this.”
“It’s a family thing,” Terri said. “You know, he can’t remember his parents or anything about them – just that crazy old aunt of his. He’s trying to fill the hole. That’s all.”
“But he has us, me and the baby. Why doesn’t that fill the hole?”
Terri put out her cigarette and stood up. “It will. You’ll see.” She tugged on Susan’s hair. “You have to call and remind him, who his family is. Know what I mean?” She patted Susan’s shoulder and headed for the house. “I’m going to take a shower. You make the call.”
Susan felt better and knew Terri was right. Finally, she stood and went inside to make the call. An answering machine picked up and just the sound of Billy’s voice made her heart sing. “It’s me,” she said to the recorder. “I’m at Terri’s, call me.” She hung up and felt more lonely than before.
She eyed her bag on the kitchen counter, then dug into it and pulled out a beat-up address book. She found the number she never had the nerve to dial before. With unusual bravery, she punched out the numbers on the keypad.
“Ms. Frayne?” Susan said shyly.
“Yes, who is this?” Finn Frayne asked sharply.
“It’s Susan, Billy’s . . . girlfriend.” A pause hung between them. “Hello?”
“I’m here,” Finn said. “What do you want?”
“I wanted to let you know that we’re having a baby,” Susan said as though it would turn Finn into a human being.
“And?” Finn barked.
“I just wanted to let you know,” Susan said.
“Where is he? Let me talk to him,” Finn said sharply.
“He’s not here right now.”
Finn Frayne cackled and Susan could imagine the smug look on her face. “Oh, I get it. Left you, huh?”
“No,” Susan said.
“Don’t lie to me, girl. If he’d wanted me to know, he woulda called himself. I know my boy.” She took a shallow breath and Susan could hear her swig from a bottle. “He ain’t any better than his father. Apple don’t fall far from the tree.”
Susan’s pulse raced. Billy told her that he knew barely a detail about his parents from Finn. “How’s that?” She hoped Finn was drunk enough to give up some secrets.
“No good,” Finn said as if common knowledge. “I did my best with what I had to work with. Ain’t my fault that he turned out the way he did.”
“Wasn’t Billy’s father your brother?” Susan braved a direct question.
“I never had any brother. Who told you I had a brother?”
“Billy did.” Susan was confused but she wasn’t sure that Finn knew the time of day much less the history of her own life. Finn’s alcoholism was the reason Billy never introduced Susan to her. She was only supposed to call Finn if there was an emergency.
“Well, Billy don’t know anything either. Just like his father, always thinking he knew something he didn’t.” Another swig from the bottle. “But he got what he deserved.”
“What did he get?” Susan asked as fear crept up her neck.
“He got dead, that’s what,” Finn snapped. “And if Billy don’t watch out he’ll get the same.”
Susan’s mind raced, Finn’s cryptic comments meant something if only she could piece them together. “But why did he deserve it?”
“He was a bad man,” Finn said.
“Why was he a bad man?”
“Don’t call here again.” Finn said sharply.
“Please don’t hang up,” Susan begged. “Please, I’m afraid for Billy. Have you heard from him?”
“Me? Heard from him? That boy left four years ago and never come back. And I don’t care if he ever does,” Finn said and hung up.
Susan stared at the phone and tried to make sense of the conversation.
“What’s wrong?” Terri asked. Susan startled. Terri’s face was concerned. “Suz?”
“She knows something,” Susan muttered. “And I’m going to find out what it is.”
The stuffy garage made Billy sweat like a little league outfielder in August. He couldn’t remember the last time he worked so hard. In the two weeks he had worked for Rachel, he built a fence, put in a garden, painted the garage and cleared underbrush from the rear of the property. There was no question that he had earned his $12 an hour and all the blueberry muffins he could stuff in his face.
The garage was the worst task, because it had five years of discarded items piled to the ceiling. It was a giant junk drawer in the shape of a room. Rae gave him little instruction. “Clean it out.” Leaving him to decide what was trash and what was treasure. Ten loads to the dump had barely made a dent. His once beautiful and shiny SUV was now filthy and scratched up. It turned out not to be a good choice for his cover. It hurt him every time he discovered a new scratch or scrape on the bright red finish.
Whenever Rae looked at it, he shook with guilt. Her eyes said she knew, yet she did nothing. Every time she gave him that look he felt like a five-year-old whose mother through her special telepathy had divined his sins. Libbie however, was his protector. If Rae tried to corner him, Libbie would appear with food or drink, a suggestion or request, giving Billy an escape from scrutiny. The telepathy between the two sisters was a little nutty too, in Billy’s opinion. Something about the connection between the two women gave him the creeps.
He wiped the sweat from his forehead with the tail of his shirt and tackled the endless boxes of junk. Many of them contained old magazines with outdated, heavily made-up models smiling at him from the covers. Some were about gardening and cooking. Deducing which magazines belonged to which sister was easy. Rae was the beauty and Libbie the homebody. Different as sisters could be. Yet joined at the hip in a way that Billy had never seen.
Their relationship fascinated him. Libbie was only a few years older but she acted more like Rae’s mother than her sister. Sometimes scolding, sometimes coddling. Rae protested, but weakly and Billy suspected she liked the attention though much of it was annoying and even stifling.
He came to the end of magazine boxes and opened next, one of various, small personal items. Scrapbooks of the daycare center with past students, teachers and field trips. He set those aside, certain Rae would want to keep them.
Old combs, brushes and hair doo-dads he tossed in a trash bag. At the bottom of the box was a deep blue, satin jewelry pouch, worn in places but still useful. He reached for it and as he was going to toss it in the ‘keep’ pile, he felt something inside. He knew he shouldn’t open it but Rae told him to look at everything and decide. He untied it and unrolled it and found three pieces inside; a wedding band, engagement ring and a heavy, gold, charm bracelet. He assumed the rings belonged to Rae and she had worn them while her husband was alive then hid them away, unable to look at them after she killed Thomas. Antagonism rose in Billy’s chest. His purpose for being there renewed. And he thought again about installing some of those nifty little listening devices Hansen gave him. Yet, he couldn’t bring himself to actually do it. Why?
The charm bracelet attracted him oddly and he held it up to study the charms that hung from it. A tiny, watering can, a cat, a spoon, a thimble, piano, a ballerina and a horse. He guessed it was Libbie’s. All of the things she seemed to love, symbolized in one piece of jewelry. And Rae had better taste in jewelry, the locket she wore around her neck with its fine, filigreed chain was subtle and classy. Not like the bracelet that was heavy and ostentatious. He reached for the pouch to put the bracelet and rings away and dropped the bracelet to the concrete floor. It clinked as the charms hit the floor.
The sound triggered an image in his mind. A woman’s wrist adorned by the bracelet, rattling as her hand moved. No, you don’t! The woman’s voice screeched. He trembled and felt afraid the way he used to when a child. Had Finn worn a bracelet when he was a child? He couldn’t remember. Maybe it was his mother, but no matter how many times he tried no memories of her ever came to him. Carefully, he slipped the bracelet in his pocket. He felt like a thief but the urge to keep it was so strong he couldn’t stop himself. The rings he put in the pouch and buried it inside an old lingerie laundry bag.
“Hi!” Billy startled on the kid’s voice and turned toward its owner. Arthur Phillips stood, akimbo, devilish glint in his eyes. “What’s you doing?”
Billy stood up and reached for the broom. “Cleaning up this place,” he waved a hand around the garage.
Arthur surveyed the space and rolled his eyes. “What a mess!”
Billy swept without purpose. “You said it. Shouldn’t you be with Rae and the other kids?”
Arthur strutted toward him and peered into the save pile. “They’re sleeping,” he said casually. “I ain’t tired.”
Billy softened toward the half-pint. He could see that Arthur would grow to be his own man, without excuse or explanation. He envied the boy, wishing he’d been so sure of himself when he was a kid.
Arthur reached for the lingerie bag, “What’s this?”
Billy gently took it from him. “Personal stuff. Don’t touch.”
Arthur shrugged and poked into a box Billy hadn’t yet gotten to. “What’s in here?”
Billy reached down and picked up the boy. “You are a curious devil, ain’t you?”
Arthur laughed and hugged Billy’s neck. “I love you.”
Billy melted and felt a deep affection unknown to him until that moment. Though, what prompted Arthur’s proclamation Billy didn’t know. He didn’t care either – it felt good to be loved. He hugged the boy back. “I love you too,” he whispered in Arthur’s ear. “But you’re still a pain in the butt.”
Arthur giggled. Billy carried him out of the garage and met Rae on his way to the house. “There you are,” Rae wagged a finger at Arthur.
“Here I am,” cried Arthur.
Billy handed Arthur over to Rae. “Caught this one trying to escape.”
Rae nodded. “He is a handful.”
Arthur hugged Rae’s neck and put his head down on her shoulder. She rocked him as she held him and within moments he fell asleep. “He needs a special touch sometimes,” she explained.
“Don’t we all?” Billy asked with such emotion that sympathy came into her eyes. Billy looked toward the garage. “Meanwhile, I’m getting through those layers out yonder.”
Rae laughed. “Trying to sound like one of the locals?” she teased.
“Yes ma’am,” he tipped an imaginary hat.
“Keep trying.” She shifted Arthur’s weight to her other shoulder.
“You want some help with him?” Billy reached for the sleeping child.
Rae shook her head. “No, I’ll manage. You go back to work. Libbie should be out soon with something cold to drink and a snack. You see, we treat our slaves well around here.”
Billy laughed and was charmed by her. He couldn’t picture her, a weapon in her hands, stealing a man’s life. He didn’t see that kind of rage in her. But the medical reports confirmed Thomas had abused her – maybe Clarke planted that rage and taunted her until it controlled her? She could have snapped and become the monster she fought. For a brief moment she was inhabited by an evil strong enough to fight the evil that sought to destroy her. It annoyed him to feel sympathy for Rae and he worried he was falling under her spell. Stay focused, he told himself.
“You all right?” Concern etched in her face.
“Sure. A little hot. I’m fine.”
“Do you have any plans for supper?” Rae asked.
“Swanson’s,” Billy grinned. “They have unlimited choices.”
“Have dinner with us? My friend Michael is coming by – and some others. We’ll have a nice barbecue, drink Margaritas. How does that sound?”
Billy was unsure. “I have a lot more work left to do.”
“It’ll keep,” Rae told him. “Knock off at four, go home and clean up and come back at six.” Rae smiled and carried Arthur, still asleep, inside.
Billy watched her disappear into the house with the little boy in her arms and imagined how she might have been with her own son. Observing her with the children made him certain she was a good mother. The contradictions racing around in his head, dizzied him. She was good and kind and but also a cold-blooded killer? There was no doubt about it, Rachel Clarke was shaking his beliefs in himself and his theories.
Billy stood in the shower and let the sweat and dirt wash off his body. The heavy physical work took its toll – he ached all over.
Rae joked he was their slave, but Billy wasn’t laughing anymore. He was starting to feel like a servant who was subject to any whim of the two middle-aged women. His resentment rekindled his suspicions of Rae and it was a relief to him. Libbie and Rae were true to their southern roots, a couple of southern belles, spoiled and demanding. Though they lived modestly now, Billy could imagine Rae as the mistress of a big southern estate in Oxford. A waste of space, Aunt Finn would have said of the six bedroom house. It would have taken one person just to polish the hardwood floors and antiques in that place. Did she have servants then? Doreen had none that he saw. She must have outside help come in and do the work. He made a mental note to ask Joe.
He could imagine Rae and Libbie there in that beautiful home. A safe harbor from the outside world. Yet, it hadn’t protected either of them. Instead, it trapped them with a monster whom they had to slay. Sympathy resurfaced for Rae again, but he couldn’t stop it. His mind played over possible scenarios of the murder. The images he saw in Oxford returned to him. Screams, anger, flashes. He turned up the hot water to make them stop. “Just find the proof,” he told himself as he stepped out of the shower and dried off. He pulled on boxer shorts and sat on the bed. The overhead fan hummed as he spread his evidence out on the bed. There was more than he had realized, the files from Lucas, the charm bracelet and Billy’s own clippings and notes he collected over the last several years. It was his own personal reference library on the case. When the time came, the book would probably write itself.
He studied the picture of Thomas Clarke who looked like a nice man with an open and handsome face. The type who would turn most women’s heads. Billy focused on the smile that appeared in all the photographs of Clarke. It was easy to imagine Clarke practicing that smile until it reached a state of perfection.
Until he had married Rae, he’d been penniless. Though a scholar and well respected in his field, material wealth had evaded him. How thrilled he must have been to marry the beautiful Rachel and get the family fortune to boot. His dreams realized, Billy figured he wasn’t willing to let go of the money train and the status it brought him. And was willing to put up with a bad marriage to keep it.
Billy laughed at himself for having an insight that seemed to have no foundation. The files told him none of this. His mind had connected to the data and from that he had formed opinions. Was he right? He ran his finger over the tiny charms of the gold bracelet. It was expensive, perhaps custom made. When did Libbie get it? What was the occasion? She seemed to lack true sentimentality. She was very blunt and plain spoken. Not a woman to wear something so whimsical and feminine. He picked up the bracelet and studied it. “What happened to you, Libbie?” he asked aloud. “What made you so bitter?”
The bracelet jangled as he studied it. Another image flashed. The hand slapped him hard in the face. He dropped the bracelet and put his hand to his cheek to ease the sting he remembered. It wasn’t Finn’s hand for he saw it this time in more detail. Finn’s hands were thin and childlike, tiny, in fact. Was it his mother’s hand? Had Finn saved him from a monster? His bitterness toward his aunt abated and he saw for a moment, life through her eyes. It stabbed at his heart and he wanted to melt into grief and despair. Finn never had anything easy. Love dodged her. Every man she ever knew betrayed her and drove her to the drink even more. Billy was a problem to her, with his stuttering and painful shyness. And because she had no patience for the problems of children, their fears, real and imagined, she had nothing to offer in wisdom or experience that Billy could have used to face life. He let out a heavy sigh to chase away the ache in his chest.
He gathered up the files and tucked them in a drawer. The bracelet, he put in a plastic baggie and hid it in the coffee can. He didn’t know why he felt compelled to hide it. Rae and Libbie would never come to this place. If they even noticed the bracelet missing, they would assume it was lost years ago. Still, it was his secret and one he didn’t want to share with anyone.
He pulled on chinos and a white golf shirt. Ran his fingers through his damp hair cut in a close-cropped style because of the heat. He slipped bare feet into scuffed moccasins and headed for the door. He met Hansen as he opened the door.
“Hey there, little buddy.” Hansen’s mean grin made Billy flinch.
“Hey,” Billy said.
“So, what’s the word?” he asked.
Billy plopped into a canvas chair on the porch. “Nothing much.” Billy stared at the thick stand of pines feigning deep thought. “They’re working me like a dog.”
Hansen leaned against the rough-hewn railing and narrowed his eyes. “Looking pretty sharp for a working stiff.”
Billy shifted in his seat. “Yeah, well I’m done for the day. Had to get out of my work duds. Stunk to high heaven.”
“Where you off to?”
Billy shrugged. “Nowhere really. They’re having a barbecue and invited me.”
Hansen broke into a broad grin. “Well, well, getting tight with the sisters then?”
“I’m trying to get chummy,” Billy nodded. “I’m thinking that maybe they’ll leave me alone in the house. Then I can get into things. You know?”
Hansen nodded. “Better be soon, son,” he was serious and it made Billy cringe. “Lucas ain’t too thrilled with your progress so far.”
Billy stood up. “I know, I know. But I told him it was going to take time. Not like they’re going to give a stranger the run of the place. Right?”
Billy moved toward the steps but Hansen blocked his exit. “You ain’t found nothing?”
“Found? You mean, something that would prove she killed Clarke in cold blood? Nope, she hasn’t confessed yet, if that’s what you mean.”
“No diaries and such?” Hansen didn’t let go once he closed his teeth on something.
“Like I said, I’m working on getting the run of the house.” Hansen grunted and followed Billy down the steps to their vehicles. Before Billy got into his truck, he turned to John. “What do you guys want anyway? I mean, from her?”
“Lucas wants justice, son. Me, I’m just doing my job.” With that, Hansen got in his Silverado and drove off, kicking up dust as he went.
Billy’s knees went a little soft. Justice or just plain revenge? Was Susan right about them? Were they really dangerous?