False Witness – Installment Five

False Witness new

CHAPTER TWENTY-SEVEN

“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?”

CHAPTER TWENTY-EIGHT

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.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“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.

CHAPTER TWENTY-NINE

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.

“But?”

“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.”

CHAPTER THIRTY

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.

CHAPTER THIRTY-ONE

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?”

“No.”

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.

“What?”

“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.

“Hello?”

“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.”

CHAPTER THIRTY-TWO

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.

CHAPTER THIRTY-THREE

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?

How Blogging Saved my Sorry Writer’s Ass

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Started out innocent enough. A writer friend was going on vacation, could I cover his blog while he was gone? A blog? WTF is a blog? He showed me the ropes:

  • Where to find images
  • How to post a blog
  • What categories and tags were
  • How to respond to comments

Back then you needed a handle, a blogger’s name, an avatar. Because you know, back then we didn’t use our actual names. Privacy and all that, right? So for lack of a better idea I went with Writer Chick (who knew it would stick?).

So….I blogged for him. I wrote about whatever came into my head. My first post was called Cream Boogers.  Surprisingly, people liked it.

After a week of this, I kinda got the blogging bug. So when he came back I started my own blog. I was scared. It was weird. I mean, who’d want to read what I thought about anything? I had no idea…

Writer rebooted

I’ve written stories pretty much all my life. Words were always my friends – especially written words because I didn’t stutter and stammer over those. I didn’t burn bright red when I wrote words, only when I tried to speak them. I could let the words do my talking and really it was better that way.

And I always ‘dreamed’ of being a writer. Of writing books, movies, TV shows, poetry. Yeah, all of it. But life always got in the way. There were jobs to work, rent to pay, relationships to nurture. Whatever, always some reason I should put it on the back burner. Or I could do what I really wanted to do someday. And I had periods, maybe you’d call them spurts where I was ‘being a writer.’ Got an agent, yeah I was going to hit the big time baby. Meh, not so much.

I gave up a lot of times. I decided it just wasn’t meant to be. I wasn’t good enough or just didn’t have the guts or something. But I always missed it when I wasn’t doing it. I always thought about it when I wasn’t doing it. Every time I read a book I thought, “I could do that. I could’ve written that story…”

So this blogging thing – that I did for a friend – forced me to write. Not dream about it. Or think about it. Or long for it. But to do it. I couldn’t let my friend down, right because he was depending on me so I did it.

So I figured if I had my own blog I could make myself ‘be a writer.’ I could make myself write. So that was the deal. I started blogging to see if I could make myself write everyday. No. Matter. What.

And I did it

I wrote a blog post everyday for 18 months and somewhere along the way I realized I was a writer. And always had been a writer. And I’ve been a writer ever since.

So just by writing this silly blog I:

  • Got into the habit of writing daily
  • I got a lot better at writing
  • I learned a lot more about writing
  • I got work as a writer
  • I became a freelancer
  • I published a book
  • I now make my living as a writer
  • I am currently writing a series (soon to be published)

And I was saved. From being the 9 to 5 grunt I feared I’d become. From keeping all those words inside. From being miserable.

So you just never know what a silly little thing like a blog can do for you. So I say, if you have a dream, find a way. Find something that helps you to walk toward that dream. Do something that reinforces it. That validates it. That makes you better at it. Gives you more confidence in it. Helps you prove to yourself that yes, you are that thing that you want to be. Because nothing creates being like doing.

So what about you? Did blogging save you too? What’s your story?

Writer Chick

Ten Ways to Ruin Your Blog

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Yup, I think I’ve done all of them.

Stop blogging about what you want to blog about in favor of the advice of experts whom you do not know. The problem with experts on the Internet is that everyone is an expert. This can confuse us. While there are many people who do give sound advice on Internet marketing you might want to check them out before taking their advice.

Worry about value to your readers so much that your blog posts are incomprehensible and even you don’t know what you’re saying. I remember a few months back I was trying to get back into regular blogging and so read tons of articles and advice, most of it stressing value. I became so stressed out about my ‘value’ that when I wasn’t in apathy about writing a post I was chewing my fingernails down to the stubs worried that whatever I produced was not valuable enough.

Imitate what the big bloggers do so you are a poor imitation of them. I think we’ve all done this. Tried to imitate CopyBlogger or some other big blog in our niche. I don’t know about you, but I couldn’t pull it off. Can you say disaster?

Blog about what you think others think you should blog about because what you want to blog about you don’t think anyone will think is cool. Look, you started your blog because you had an idea. You had something to say in your own voice, from your own point of view. Now after reading all the how-to articles, that enthusiasm, that joy of creating that you felt is like a cold super-sized side of McDonald’s fries churning in your stomach. See if you can go back and find the thing that excited you when you first started.

Write about a topic as though you are an expert but about which you know nothing or you know something but not enough. Lots of people think, well I can (fill in the blank) so I can assume the view of an expert – and in fact I’ve seen that suggested in marketing advice. But when you try to write the post it doesn’t fly. It doesn’t sound authoritative or experty enough or whatever. Might work better if you approach the topic from the view of ‘this is how I do (fill in the blank).”

Write the same post everybody else is writing. Is this tempting or what? You subscribe to lots of blogs, read a few of the big ones and everybody is posting about a certain topic, news story or current event. So you figure you’ll do it too. I’ve done it and it didn’t work. I say, so what if everybody is talking about the fight with Hachette and Amazon, if you want to blog about red-haired girls and their best looks then write about that. It’s your blog, your voice, your little condo on the Internet. Do it your way. Who knows you may even set a trend.

Write posts based on titles you get from a title generator. Okay, I haven’t done this one but you can tell who does. Because you see the same titles/headlines everywhere, slightly edited but still…

Write nothing about which you have an opinion, feel passionate or have any interest in. Can you say instant death? Blogging about things you don’t have any strong feelings about is about as exciting as watching milk go bad. If you don’t love it, chances are nobody else will either.

Write a blog for the sole purpose of collecting readers for your future books. I know, I know, most of us are writers. Most of us write books, stories, and poems and we want people to read those books, stories and poems. But people can tell if you’re just trying to sell them rather than have a conversation with them. And who knows if the conversation goes well, they might want to buy your books, stories and poems.

Have lots of ads, pop-ups, flash animation and everything else you can think of to keep people from being able to read your posts. This one I did for about five minutes. I didn’t go full-bore flash animation but I ran the ads. I made no revenue whatsoever and even I was irritated by them staring back at me.

So my friends, there you have it, ten surefire ways to ruin your blog. Have you ever done something that ruined your blog? What happened? Did you fix it? How?

Oh yeah, and Happy Tax Day to one and all :D

Writer Chick

Amazon goes to court over fake reviews and other scintillating reads this week

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Amazon files first-ever suit over fake product reviews, alleging sites sold fraudulent praise
Hold onto your hats, think Amazon doesn’t like reviews written by your mom or best friend? They really hate it when somebody builds a business around fake reviews.

20 OF THE MOST BEAUTIFUL LIBRARIES IN THE WORLD – Gary McLaren at WorldWide Freelance Writer offers us awe-inspiring buildings that honor books – so beautiful they almost look like houses of worship – and maybe they are.

Top Social Media Turnoffs. Forbes gives us a pictorial of the top social media turnoffs.

Nicolas Sparks:Writing and Proscratination go Hand-in-Hand.
Interesting insights about writing from famous romance writer, Nicolas Sparks.

10 Resources To Upgrade Your Grammar And Writing Skills from BhatKallys.com is a handy list of resources to up your grammar and writing game.

Okay my friends, start reading. And feel free to talk about these stories with each other in the comments.

Have a great week!

Writer Chick

False Witness – Installment Four

False Witness new

CHAPTER TWENTY

They drove back in tortured silence. Susan kept her gaze out the window and locked onto the sunset that splashed scarlet and gold across the desert floor. Her eyes studied the scene as if trying to commit it to memory.

Billy stole glances at her but she refused to look in his direction. She didn’t approve of Webster and when Billy disagreed she went into a pout. “You ever going to talk to me again?” he asked.

She murmured something that didn’t sound like words.

“Eh?” Billy cocked his ear. “What’s that you say?”

Susan glared at him. “I said, shut up!”

“Ooh,” Billy pretended fear. “Guess I better be careful of the little mama?”

Susan switched on the radio and got nothing but static. She switched it off and dug in her bag for a book or some other distraction but came up with nothing. Finally she crossed her arms across her chest.

“Long drive back to the hotel,” Billy said.

“It’s a bed and breakfast, not a hotel, lame brain.”

“Zing!” Billy clutched his chest like a cowbo pierced by an arrow.

“It’s not going to work this time Billy. You aren’t going to joke your way out of this!” Her nostrils flared and her eyes were on fire.

“What is your problem?” Billy shot back. “It’s no big deal.”

“He wants you to drive this poor woman crazy!”

Billy shook his head. “Nah, he just wants me to mess with her head a little.” He reached for her hand but she pulled away.

“Billy, that man wants revenge and you’re offering to be his weapon!”

Billy pulled over to the side of the road and turned the engine off. “Okay, if we’re going to fight, I’m not doing it while I’m trying to drive.” Susan stared straight ahead. “Come on. Get it off your chest.” Susan got out of the truck and stomped off. Billy followed her, swearing as he got sand in his shoes. “Suz, what are you doing?”

“Just leave me alone,” she yelled. “Go back to your stupid truck and leave me alone!”

He stopped and watched her walk in circles like a bird with one wing. She looked lost and it made Billy feel bad. Why did she have to take everything so seriously?

It wasn’t as if Webster asked Billy to kill Rachel Clarke. He just wanted him to needle her, make her feel a little of the pain she’d given out. Webster said, “She killed my best friend and I want her to pay.” In a way, so did Billy. She had gotten away with murder and disposed of her own son, why shouldn’t she suffer?

All Billy had to do was call Lucas once a week and tell him where she was and what was going on. Webster wasn’t going to swoop in and get her. He was a cripple for cripes sake.

As a bonus, Lucas gave him valuable information. Beau’s medical records. Police reports of the domestic disputes. The trial transcripts. Billy could have gotten these things himself but Lucas had made it easier. The real prize though was a book of notes on Rachel. Personal things. Things that most wouldn’t know about her marriage and her son.

As far as Billy was concerned it was a brilliant stroke of luck. Now he had a plan. He was going to pose as Rachel’s son. Not come right out and say it. But hint at it. Make her think she realized it. Once she trusted him, she’d confess to the crime. That way he and Lucas got what they wanted. A confession. Justice. What was so evil about that?

Susan gave up making circles in the sand and came back to the truck where Billy waited for her. “Feel better, now?” he asked. She glared at him, got in the truck and slammed the door.Billy got into the driver’s seat and shut his door. “It’s not as bad as you think.”

“What if she is innocent?” Susan asked near tears.

Billy was stumped. It was a scenario he’d never imagined. It was obvious she wasn’t, wasn’t it? “She’s not.” Though a small doubt snaked around his insides and made him feel ill.

Susan searched his eyes. “But what if she is? Think about it, Billy. You are about to change another person’s life forever. Do you realize that?”

Billy sat back. Her attitude worried him. He knew it wasn’t hormones talking. It was Susan. Also known, as the voice of reason. “Well, people always change people’s lives. Isn’t that the nature of life? I mean, look at you. My life was never the same after I met you.”

Susan wiped away tears. “But honey, that was a good thing. This isn’t.”

Billy tapped his foot, annoyed. “How do you know? I mean, how do you know she didn’t kill the man in cold blood? That she isn’t evil? It’s not that much of a stretch. The man is dead. She ran away and changed her name and has been in hiding for years. Doesn’t that at least make her look guilty?”

Susan leaned back in her seat and thought about it. “I don’t know. Maybe. But if she isn’t – if things did happen the way she claims, that man was a monster. He was torturing her and their son. She had a right to defend herself and her child. Not to mention the fact, that a jury found her not guilty.”

Billy took her hand and held it to his cheek. “I’m not going to put a gun to her head, Suz. If the stuff doesn’t rattle her then you’re right. If it does, then Lucas and I have got it right.” He looked into her eyes for reassurance. He wanted her to be okay with it. He didn’t want to go it alone but he would if necessary. Susan looked away and he let go of her hand. “Do you want to go home?”

“Yes.”

Billy’s heart sank but he kept his expression neutral. “Okay. We’ll drive into Albuquerque tomorrow. I’ll put you on a plane.”

He started the engine. Susan grabbed his arm. “No! Not without you. I don’t want to go home alone.”

Billy turned off the engine and fell back in his seat in frustration. “Okay, well I’m going ahead with my plan.”

“Webster’s plan, you mean,” she snapped.

“So you’re either going with me or you’re going home. Your choice.”

“Drive,” she said quietly.

Billy turned the ignition, put the truck in gear and kicked up dust as he sped through the desert.

CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE

Libbie muttered as she tossed in her sleep. Her hands twitched and tears soaked her pillow. She woke in the darkness, her breathing thundering in her own ears. Was he there, at the foot of her bed? Did she smell his scent of musk and Ivory soap? “Thomas?” she whispered.

The vision vanished and reality replaced the ghost. A sad and lonely room, like every other she ever had. Even as a child her room personified the melancholy that haunted her.

She switched on the bedside lamp and blinked against the brightness. It was still, except the crickets that chirped eternally outside her window. She got out of bed, pulling down her ankle length night gown that had hitched at her ample behind and reached for her flannel bathrobe. A sudden shiver made her pull it closer to steel against the iciness that sunk into her bones.

Bare feet padded across the room to the window and she looked out. Just the night. The moon was large and pale yellow in the inky sky and stars winked at her like an illicit lover.

A cup of tea might comfort her but that would wake Rachel who would interrogate her about her sleeplessness. Since they were children, Rachel had a special connection to Libbie – always knowing what Libbie was thinking before Libbie did. It rattled her and made her feel violated, as if she could never have a private thought. The exception being the things that Rachel didn’t want to see or hear. The dark thoughts. The ones no one longed to share with Libbie.

Crossing back to her dressing table she caught her reflection in the mirror. A plain face stared back at her with not a hint of Rachel’s loveliness, nor their mother’s. “I am my father’s daughter,” she said and flicked a look at the framed photo of her father on the dressing table. Martin Hale had been a swarthy, little man with large hands and feet. “What did my beautiful mother ever see in you?” Most people had found him charming and generous and it was true. He had been good to all of them. Even to Libbie. He called her, Little E. When she was very young, it made her feel special and pretty. Though as she grew older she realized that the only man who would ever see her as a princess was her father. The troll whom she favored in looks but not disposition.

Tears of self-pity fell as she opened the bottom drawer of her dressing table and pulled out a music box. The last gift from her father. He’d brought it back from New Orleans. It played the song Mona Lisa and a tiny ballerina twirled to the tune when the lid was lifted. The song inspired her as a child to pretend to be a ballerina. Graceful, petite and perfect. But the dancing lessons proved she would never be an exquisite creature.

From the drawer of the box she took her most treasured photograph. Thomas Clarke. The object of her desire. Every dream and hope she ever had about love and romance she had invested in him. If not for her perfect sister, she might have realized those dreams.
Her finger caressed the faded photograph and she put it to her heart as if embracing it would bring him to life. “I’ll always love you,” she whispered then put it back in its hiding place.

A nightingale serenaded as she returned to her bed and turned out the light. The bird’s song and her memories of Thomas Clarke led her gently back to sleep.

CHAPTER TWENTY-TWO

Susan locked herself in the bathroom and pored over the files Lucas Webster had given Billy. She jumped at every sound, worried Billy would catch her. But he usually slept through anything -being caught in a tornado wouldn’t rouse him.

She could have read all of it earlier without sneaking around. Billy tried to make her read it but she pushed it away. She refused to let him think that she approved of what he was doing. Though after he fell asleep, the file sat on the dresser and taunted. Finally, she snatched it, stole into the bathroom and locked the door.

The stark light bounced off the white pages and assaulted her already tired eyes. There were several photographs of Rachel and Thomas Clarke and they made a handsome couple. She was tall and slender, with thick, wavy, auburn hair that framed her heart-shaped face. Sparkling eyes smiled at the camera. He was tall and muscular with a thick shock of blonde hair, a dimpled chin and chiseled features.

Beautiful people. They could have been movie stars. The contrast of those and the pictures of Rachel, in a prison jumpsuit was startling. The downcast eyes and tragic features, though still beautiful was a portrait of pain. The booking photographs showed the damage she had suffered that night. Bruised and swollen face with a numb, vacant stare. There was only one photograph of her son in the stack – a sweet-faced, tow-headed boy with a shy, crooked smile. She wondered if her little boy would look so sweet and tender.

Several reports detailed incidents of domestic disputes in which the police intervened. Every time, Rachel had declined to press charges. Many times, she was taken to the Emergency Room with broken or fractured bones, bruises and abrasions. Even her son had been taken to the Emergency Room when he’d reportedly fallen backward into a plate glass window. The injury required seventeen stitches in his back and shoulder and he’d sustained two fractured ribs. Susan’s blood boiled and her suspicions were validated as she read. Being so accident-prone was impossible for anyone. Obviously, Rachel’s accidents had been caused at the hands of her loving husband.

The report that detailed the night of the murder was extensive. Susan tried to absorb it all but her eyes burned with exhaustion. Thomas Clarke was shot twice. The fatal injury was a bullet to the base of the spine. The police concluded the victim was fleeing the assailant when he was shot and therefore, it couldn’t have been self defense. She didn’t bother reading the trial transcript, Billy had recounted every detail of the trial to her for the last two years. It struck her funny that though it was Billy’s obsession, she had lived with the ghost of Rachel Clarke too. She wasn’t willing to admit it, even to herself, but she was just as invested as Billy.

Newspaper clippings detailed the trial and when news was thin, discussed gossip about Rachel Clarke and her family. Susan was angry again when she imagined the pain and degradation Rachel must have suffered at the hands of the tabloids and town gossips. The last few clippings covered the disappearance of Thomas, Jr. A probable kidnapping was the consensus though some speculated that Rachel had arranged the kidnapping herself. The boy had too easily and completely disappeared without a trace. Despite the theories that Rachel was involved, public opinion seemed to change after the kidnapping and she was acquitted.

Susan moved onto the copious notes Webster had written on Rachel and his scrawl was nearly illegible. She caught random words but nothing that made sense to her. She needed a cryptologist to decipher them.

Billy pounded on the door. “Suz, you in there?”

Susan jumped and swore under her breath. “Yes, go away.”

“What are you doing?”

“I’m throwing up,” she lied. “Want to help me?”

Silence.“I don’t hear anything,” he finally said.

“I’m between barfs,” she snapped. “Go back to bed.”

“I can’t sleep. I woke up because you weren’t there.”

“Oh, quit whining.” Susan grabbed a towel and wrapped the file in it then held it to her stomach and opened the door. “What?” She wiped at her mouth and made a face.

“What’s the matter?” he asked rubbing her arm.

“I’m pregnant, Billy. I throw up all the time.” She pushed past him toward the bed.

“What are you doing with that?” he asked.

“What?” she asked as she got into bed.

“That towel?”

“I’m holding it against my stomach. The pressure seems to help.”

Billy nodded as if that made sense and got back in bed. Within moments, he was snoring softly.

When she was sure he was asleep, Susan returned the file to the dresser and went to bed. She slept. But fitfully.

CHAPTER TWENTY-THREE

Beyond furious, Libbie gaped at her garden. Evidence of the crime mocked her; hundreds of kid-sized footprints circled plants with broken stems, decapitated flower heads and unripe fruit that had shriveled where it fell. Surveying the damage, she trembled. A cool breeze rustled her skirt around her ankles, but it didn’t distract her from the bitter taste of anger.

Hot tears pooled in her dark eyes as she reached for the hoe. With fierce and deliberate blows she hacked it up.

From the kitchen window, Rae saw Libbie, in full tantrum. Like a mad woman, her face drenched in sweat, Libbie assaulted the thing she loved most in the world. Rae rushed out to the garden and grabbed at the hoe. “Libbie! What are you doing?”

“Leave me alone!” Her voice pitched so high that it could shatter a glass.

“Libbie, why are you destroying your garden?” Rae cried.

“It was already destroyed. I am only putting it out of its misery!” She continued to chop and maim what was left of her garden.

“Please Libbie, this won’t help.”

Libbie would not respond to her sister’s pleas, she was a machine, built to destroy and yield to no one who would seek to introduce logic into the situation. The hoe made a dull thud with each downward swing and it was like the sound of a body dropping.

Rae fell into a waking memory. The thud of a body dropping. She remembered Tommy’s surprised look. His outstretched hands made a last attempt to pull her down with him. His blood was a black pool on the French oak floors that spread out like evil fingers to grab at her. The sound of her own screams seemed far away like the angry caw of a crow, warning danger. Beau’s eyes were like the wide-open sky, blue and vacant. “No!” Rae screamed.

Marcie, Rae’s assistant brought her out of her reverie. “Rae? Rae, what’s wrong?”

The yard came back into focus but was no better than her horrid memories. Libbie, still diligent in her destruction was dirty and sweating and grunted like an inept ditch digger. Leaves and stems littered the garden as if an autumn wind had swept them into a vortex of violence.

Rae saw that the children were behind them with Maria, the housekeeper. Their eyes were wide and tearful. Maria crossed herself and whispered in Spanish as she held them back. The wild anger that held Libbie in its grip terrified all of them.

Libbie stopped. Her mission was complete. She pitched the hoe into the remains of her garden and stormed past Rae into the house.

Arthur broke free from Maria and the other children and ran to Rae. He threw his arms around her legs and said, “Don’t cry, Rae. We’ll make another one.”

She bent down and caressed his soft cheek. “Yes, Arthur, we must.” She stood up and patted Marcie on the shoulder. “Okay, Marcie. It’s all right.”

Marcie blinked in disbelief.

“Come on, children,” Rae said brightly. “Your mamas will be here soon. Time to clean up.” She nodded at Marcie and Maria and they herded the children back into the house. Soon, their little voices and laughs and footsteps moved away toward the big bathroom where they would leave all the dirt of the day.

Rae walked around to the side of the house and entered through the French doors into the study, not wanting to be met with questioning looks from the others. When she saw the hallway was empty, she hurried up to Libbie’s room.

Libbie’s muffled cries sounded as she opened the door. “Sister?” Libbie lay on the bed, crying into a pillow like a child. Rae sat beside her on the bed and patted her back. “There now, it’ll be all right.”

Libbie’s cries turned to sobs. How many times had this scene replayed in their lives, Rae wondered. Since they were children, Libbie had been high-strung. Frustration would make her sullen until she could hold it in no longer and an outburst of vile anger would leap out and attack everyone and everything in its wake. How many possessions had Libbie destroyed over the years? Rae always hoped that Libbie would outgrow the habit and learn to come to grips with her unhappiness and find a way to cope, but she never had. It was an inherent part of Libbie and a fact of life. Libbie had her outbursts and when they were over, she could be reasoned with.

“Are you ready to talk about it?” Rae felt exhaustion overtake her. The sobs faded to silent shudders and then Libbie lie still for a while. Rae rubbed her back and murmured soothing sounds, like a mother to her hurting child. “I’m sorry, Libbie. I am.”

She turned a hateful face to Rae. “It is what you always say. But it doesn’t change a thing, does it?”

“I can’t control life. And neither can you.”

Libbie grunted as she sat. “Again, it is what you always say. And again, it means nothing. Nothing, I tell you!”

“Libbie, why must we have the same argument time and again?” Libbie’s face was a stone through which no emotion ventured.“ I had an idea I wanted to talk to you about,” Rae changed the subject. Libbie’s dark eyes were suspicious. “Michael has asked me to move in with him.” Rae watched for a change in Libbie’s face but it was unchanged and set in its own miserable expression. “What would you think about that? Naturally, I wouldn’t expect you to take on any additional responsibilities. I’d be here throughout school hours, take care of the children. Leave after everyone was gone . . . ”

“I see.”

“That way, you could have some privacy. I’m going to hire a handy man, right away. We’ll have him build a fence and a gate, something the children couldn’t get into.” She smiled, and hoped that Libbie was quiet because the idea appealed to her. “I spoke to John today, the delivery man for the produce company? He brought your vegetables by the way and they look so wonderful.”
Libbie was still as a corpse. “And he said he may know of someone. A young man, who is looking for work. He said he’d send him over as soon as he could. Wouldn’t that be nice?” Rae waited for an answer. Libbie gave no response. “Have you nothing to say?”

Libbie stood up and went to her dressing table. She unpinned her beautiful raven hair and brushed it like she was raking rocky soil. Rae flinched with every stroke. “Libbie Hale, you answer me.”

“You can do whatever you like, sister.” She watched Rae’s reflection in the mirror. “You aren’t a prisoner in this house. If you don’t like it here, you may certainly leave.”
Rae’s shoulders bowed in defeat. “That is not what I’m saying. I am simply trying to find a solution to this . . .stress and tension between us. Clearly, you aren’t happy. You say you don’t want to leave. So I can only imagine that you’d like me to. Am I wrong?”

“No Rachel,” Libbie scowled. “You are never wrong. It must be so lovely to always be right. To always be the one who is loved and admired. It must be absolutely divine.”

“Have you another suggestion, then?”

“I suggest you stay here with me. Just as we agreed. So many years ago.” Libbie tossed her hairbrush on the table. “Do you remember, sister dear? When we came here, what we agreed? I know I certainly do.”

Fear lurched in her stomach and Rae trembled. “But that was so long ago.”

“Nothing has changed has it? History has not been rewritten, has it?” Smugness made her dark eyes sparkle.

“You’re threatening me?” Rae asked. Her face flushed as her pulse raced.

“I simply point out the facts.” Libbie held her gaze for a moment. “It would be terrible, tragic really, if certain people learned of our dark and vile past, wouldn’t it?”

“It’s part of your past too. And I’ve told Michael.” Rae pretended a bravery she did not feel.

“What have you told him? Have you told him that you murdered your husband and almost went to the gas chamber? That they called you the Black Widow and spat on you as you walked down the street? That you changed your name to hide your identity and protect your secret?” Rae stood mute. “Well? Have you?” Libbie sputtered.

“He knows about the abuse and Beau’s kidnapping . . . ”

Libbie laughed like a squawking hen. “And knowing you, dear sister, you put it in such terms as to make it impossible for him to know the truth. Would he love you, do you think, if he knew? Of course he wouldn’t.”

“As I said, it was your past too,” Rae reminded her.

“But I have nothing to lose,” Libbie said and smiled for the first time that day. She went to the door. “Come sister, the mothers must be downstairs by now. Wouldn’t be right if we weren’t there to greet them, now, would it?”

CHAPTER TWENTY-FOUR

“Welcome to California” the sign read as they waited behind 18-wheelers, RV’s and countless other vehicles waiting to cross the border into the land of sunshine and make-believe. Billy gunned the engine and it chugged and sputtered in response. “Damn piece of junk.”

“Now, you realize this?” Susan asked. “I could have told you that in Albuquerque.”

Billy stuck his tongue out at her. “How about a little support, here?” He stuck his head out the window and craned his neck to assess the length of the line. “We’ll be lucky if we get through by sun down.”

Susan shrugged. “So? In a hurry?”

“Kind of.” He eased the truck into neutral and the chugging lightened up. “Hey, it’s going to be fun! Disneyland, Hollyweird, Rodeo Drive.”

“If only that was the reason we were here.” Susan sighed then pulled a paperback out of her bag.

Eventually, they got across the border and sped along I-10 toward Los Angeles. By eight p.m. they exited the 210 at Sunland and swung onto Foothill to the local Denny’s. Susan threw the door open before Billy came to a complete stop. “Finally!”

“What’s your hurry?”

“Bathroom,” she called over her shoulder as she rushed inside.

A big man got out of a blue Silverado and ambled toward Billy. “Billy?”

Billy froze, afraid it was a plain-clothes cop who was going to nail him for sliding through a stop sign a few blocks back. But how would a cop know his name? “Yeah, I’m Billy.”

“Billy Frayne?”

“Yeah, that’s me.”

In two strides, the man was next to him and towering over Billy. “John Hansen.” He put out a beefy hand.

Billy returned the shake but had no idea who John Hansen was.

“Lucas sent me to meet you.”

“Oh, well, pleased to meet you.”

John’s big face reminded Billy of a Saint Bernard without the fur. “Got everything set up for you. Why don’t you hop in your truck and follow me?”

“You know, I’m wondering – how could Lucas tell you to meet me here? I didn’t even know I was coming here until we got here.”

John grinned at Billy. “Only place to stop out this way. Lucky guess, I suppose.”

Billy didn’t buy John’s explanation but before he could question him further, Susan called out. “Billy? What the heck are you doing? I’m starving.”

“Okay, just a minute.” He turned back to John. “Girlfriend, she’s hungry.” He laughed. “She’s always hungry. Mind if we get a bite first?”

“Better make it to go,” John said and something in his voice creeped Billy out.

<<>>

They followed John but had to work the truck hard to keep up with him. The winding road was dark, save the moonlight and hard to maneuver in Billy’s truck. “Jeez,” Susan said when they hit a bump. “Person trying to eat here.”

“Person trying to drive here,” Billy said tensely.

“What’s the matter?”

“Nothing.”

Susan sipped at her coke. “He’s creepy, that guy.”

“He’s just a guy,” Billy said.

The Silverado turned off the main road onto a dirt access road, making the drive more difficult. Billy leaned forward and peered through the windshield like a myopic old lady. He downshifted to first and did his best to keep John’s brake lights in view. The pines that flanked the road blocked out most of the moonlight. “Jesus, where the hell is he taking us?”

“Ooh, maybe he’s a serial killer and we’re dinner,” Susan joked.

Billy turned to Susan. “Not funny.”

When he turned back, he saw John had stopped and he had to slam on the brakes to avoid hitting him.

Billy was rattled and pissed when he got out of the truck. “Kind of a sudden stop there, John.”

John shrugged. “Need help with your stuff?”

Billy shook his head. “Nah, we’ll get it later.”

John nodded and led them up a short path to a clearing where a cabin stood. The full moon shone bright and when Billy looked up, he was astounded by the hundreds of stars in the night sky. “Wow, this is amazing.”

John was on the porch holding the door open. “You coming?”

Susan and Billy hurried up the steps and inside. Inside, the cabin was quaint and cozy, with exposed ceiling beams, weathered planked floors and a river rock fireplace. John dropped a satchel on the pine table with a thud. “What’s in there?” Susan asked.

John looked at Billy. “Think it might be best if we went over things alone. Maybe your little lady could use a rest or something?”

Susan took the hint and found her way down the hall to the back bedroom.

“What’s with the mystery? What do we need to go over?”

John opened the satchel and pulled out eavesdropping equipment. He held up a small electronic gadget. “Ever bugged a place before?”

Billy’s eyes went wide as John showed him piece after piece of surveillance paraphernalia. John explained their use and how to install them without being detected. After twenty minutes, Billy had the low down on how to spy on someone with tiny high-tech equipment. “Any questions?”

“Yeah, what are you guys after?”

“That’s our business. You just keep your end of the deal and we’ll be fine.”

Billy chuckled. “And if I don’t, what are you going to do? Rub me out?”

Hansen’s face was stone. “Lucas doesn’t like to be disappointed.”
Billy climbed into bed, exhausted and happy to put his head down.

“I can’t believe this,” Susan said.

Billy turned over. “You’re awake?”

“Do you know what you’re doing?” Susan’s eyes bored a hole into him.

Billy sat up, turned on the bedside lamp and sighed. “Okay, now what?”

Susan untangled herself from the bed clothes and got out of bed. She went to the window and looked out. “You think I don’t have ears, Billy?”

“Yeah, some pretty cute ones, too,” he said.

She turned back to him and gave him a poison look. “I’m not joking. I don’t want you to do this. These men, they’re dangerous. They’re trying to make you dangerous too.”

Billy chortled. “Yeah, right.”

“Enough with the charming bullshit, Billy. I heard everything he said to you. Spying equipment? What are you now, a CIA agent or something? What are they going to do to her?”

Billy got out of bed, went to her and hugged her but she remained rigid. “Don’t worry so much, honey. It’s no big deal. I’m just playing along with them.”

Susan wriggled away from him and sat in the old rocking chair in the corner. “Playing along with them? Billy, this isn’t a game. These men mean business.”

“Look, they want to spy on her and know what she’s doing and get their rocks off that way. Fine, I’ll play along. I have other plans.”

Susan looked horrified. “You’re planning to double-cross them?” She looked around as if an evil spirit would leap out at her. “How do you know they don’t have this place bugged? They could be listening in on you! Right now!” She threw up her hands in frustration. “You’re playing with fire. You could be putting us, and I mean our baby, in danger. Can’t you see that?”

Billy was starting to regret having Susan with him. He loved her and wanted her to be with him but not if they were going to fight about everything. She was making it too hard. “Okay, okay . . . maybe they’ll be pissed at first. But if I get what I want, then they get what they want too. You know? What difference does it make if I pretend to play by their rules?” He knelt down in front of her and kissed her hand.

Susan clutched his hands so hard it hurt. “Billy, please, let’s leave. Let’s go right now. I’m scared. I’m scared for you. I’m scared for me. What if they . . . ”

Billy held her tight. “Don’t worry so much, honey. It’ll be okay. “They’re just an end to a means. I can handle them.”

Susan leaned against him and let him hold her. Billy held her as tight as he could. A nag roiled around in his head. She was making him think too much.

CHAPTER TWENTY-FIVE

Billy’s stomach clenched like a fist when he rang the bell. He heard neither footsteps nor voices coming from inside and the silence unnerved him. “Hello?” he called out, wondering if his voice could be heard through the oak door. His hand trembled from adrenaline when he used the old brass knocker that he imagined sent echoing thuds into the belly of the house. He jangled change and shuffled his feet, if only to add some noise to the peaceful environment. Is she still beautiful or has guilt wasted her away? At last, footsteps approached and the door opened. He took a deep breath.

The first sight of Rachel Clarke elicited a short laugh. The kind that erupts without warning. She was striking, with large eyes that were kaleidoscopes of blues and greens. “Yes?”

She smiled and Billy responded to that smile against his will. “I came about the job? John sent me?” Billy stuttered. His face colored. He hadn’t stuttered since fourth grade when Mrs. Whipp told the class he was adopted.

She extended her hand to him. “Well, hello. I’m Rae Hale.” Billy couldn’t believe he was face to face with his obsession. At last. “And you are?”

“Billy, Billy Frayne.” He took her offered hand and shook it briefly. Her grasp was firm but friendly and her skin was soft. He imagined the gun that killed Thomas Clarke in that hand. A shiver scurried up his spine.

“Come in, please.” Rae led Billy through the house to a study off the living room. The hardwood floors echoed their steps as they went. She nodded to an overstuffed armchair and he sat. Through the French doors he saw a large yard with woods beyond. It had a country feel to it and the air, though hot, was fresh. Rae moved lithely around her antique, black walnut desk. “Can I get you anything? Iced tea? Coke?”

Billy shook his head. A collection of porcelain horses on a shelf behind the desk grabbed his attention. It stirred a memory of an old Roan, but it confused him because he’d never been around horses. The air inside was cool and smelled of lemon oil.
The gold locket Rae wore around her neck dangled and chinked against the desk as she leaned forward. Something about it was familiar to Billy. Had he seen it in pictures of Rachel? Did Finn have one? He couldn’t remember. “Now, tell me about yourself.”

“Sorry?”

“Tell me about yourself?” she repeated. “Are you a student? Need a little pocket money?” Her expression was open and kind.

“Yes . . . no, well, I was . . . ” Billy wished he’d planned what he was going to say. He thought he would be the one interviewing her. Fat chance, Rachel knew how to control a conversation without effort. He could hear Susan laughing at him though she was miles away in Webster’s cabin. “I’m on a summer road trip.” He grinned and felt like a teenager with a mad crush. “Susan, my girlfriend, and I decided to see a little bit of the country.”

“You plan to stay long?” Rae tucked a lock of hair behind her ear. “I ask because we have a good deal to do around here. We’ll need someone for a several weeks, maybe longer.”

Billy nodded. “Yes, I think we will. I mean, we pretty much got across the country. If we keep going, we’ll end up in the Pacific.” The joke sounded hollow to him and he worried she would see through him.

“Well, we wouldn’t want you to do that.” Rae’s laugh bounced off the paneled walls. Billy detected a trace of a drawl in her voice. “Do you have your own tools?”

“Yeah, I have some. But I might need to rent some power tools if you have any heavy clearing to do.” Billy hoped he sounded confident, shifted in his chair tried to look macho but she still made him feel like a schoolboy.

“Rae?” a woman’s voice cut through the quiet space.

“In here,” Rae called out. “My sister, Libbie. We run the center together. She sees to all the organizational details. Books, bills, you see? She also graces us with her fabulous cooking. A craft I’ve never mastered. What’s left, I do.” She laughed again. “She’s the brains and I’m the brawn I guess.”

Libbie appeared in the entrance. She reminded Billy of the nasty matron in Oliver Twist whose name he could never remember. Her deep-set, brown eyes seemed out of place in her long face. Her glossy, raven hair was incredible though it was pulled back and coiled into a bun. She wore khaki trousers and a chambray shirt, tails out and loafers with no socks. “I didn’t know we had company.” She looked at Billy like he was a bug. “I’m Libbie Hale.”
Billy extended his hand but ignored him and addressed Rae. “We still got last month’s books to go over.”

Rae winked at Billy. “Libbie, this is Billy Frayne, our new handyman.”

“I’m hired?” Billy hoped his jaw hadn’t actually hit the floor.

“Of course you are.” Rae looked back at her sister. “Well?”

Libbie gave Billy a stingy look. “How do you do?”

Again, she gave Billy her back before he could respond. “This won’t keep, sister. The natives, bless their hearts, are dancing with the sandman but before long we’ll be knee-deep in monkeys again.”

“All right, Libbie. In a minute. Just as soon as Billy and I are finished.”

Libbie nodded and left. She moved like a turtle on two legs and Billy was glad to see her go. “Was it something I said?”

“Don’t mind Libbie. She’s a little slow to warm to people but she comes around.” Rae smiled but it looked forced to Billy. Joe had called the woman a rock. A rock of a different color, Billy thought.

“Something funny?”

“No, sorry I grin when I’m nervous.”

“Nothing to be nervous about. We don’t bite.”

Billy knew it was a joke but didn’t find it funny considering who had uttered it. He nodded.

Rae pulled a file from a drawer and consulted it. “John sent your references and I see your background check came out just fine.” She handed him a blank form. “Still, I’ll need you to fill this out for taxes and payroll and such. Take it home, bring it back in the morning – with your tools. I plan to put you to work. Right away.” Billy was stunned. “Have I surprised you?” She flashed a smile. “I suppose I was sold on you before you ever arrived. John recommended you so highly, and as I said, your background check is clean. And honestly, the others we’ve seen were just plain awful. I’m in such need right now that I’m willing to take a chance on you.”

“Well, I hope I can live up to your expectations. But . . . well, I mean what about the basics? I mean . . . ”
Rae smiled. “Oh my, well yes I am getting ahead of myself. Let me start at the beginning. We’re paying $12 an hour, and I expect it will be about thirty hours a week. You start at 8:00 a.m. and knock off when you just can’t stand to do another thing.”

Billy found himself just nodding as she spoke so fast he couldn’t get a word in.
“We’ll provide breakfast, lunch and a snack or two. There’ll be unlimited iced tea and cold drinks. Your first task is to put in a new garden and to fence and gate that garden for Libbie. We had a little incident the other day, with the children and . . . well, we don’t want that happening again. After that, we’ll discuss the list of repairs needed and their priorities. I promise to keep you busy at least through the summer.”

“Okay, sounds like you do mean business,” Billy said. Though he wasn’t listening because his own thoughts and curiosity drowned out her voice.

“The only area off limits will be the upstairs living quarters, unless you’re asked specifically to repair something by me or Libbie. I’d prefer too that you keep a wide berth of the children, lest they inadvertently harm themselves with nails and hammers and such. Naturally, we’ll reimburse you for any expenses you incur for us and for mileage. Any questions?”

“Nope, I think that covers it. See you tomorrow.”

Rae walked him to the front door. “I’m glad you’re here, Billy. I have a good feeling about you.”

Billy smiled. “I have a feeling about you too,” he said. He whistled as he walked back to his truck. Oh yes, he definitely had a feeling about her.

CHAPTER TWENTY-SIX

Susan sat on the cabin porch, in a beat-up wicker chair. The mountains, rose up to the climbing sun in a verdant salutation and the overpowering smell of greenery made her stomach quiver. A stand of pines towered like ladies-in-waiting who were past their prime and mourned the loss of their youth. Ebony Crows called to one another in mad cackles that reminded her of the Wicked Witch in the Wizard of Oz.

The cool mountain air rustled her hair and fluttered the hem of her yellow sun-dress around her ankles. Hugging the swell of her stomach, she smiled. Her baby already had the power to comfort her in a way of no other.

Tears slipped down her cheeks and she wiped at them carelessly but they would not cease. She waited for Billy and to hear the news of his deception. She waited to tell him her decision.

A truck sounded on the access road below. Pines, sycamores and scrub oaks obscured the view but Susan knew it wasn’t Billy because his truck would be groaning and grinding during the ascent. She imagined Billy pushing his truck up the steep incline, his own pants and sputters competing with his vehicle’s tired engine. It almost made her laugh.

It was a brand new, red SUV – the model and make she didn’t know or care to know. The tinted windows hid the driver’s identity but Susan suspected it was John, Webster’s thug. He gave her the creeps and she her stomach tightened at the thought of seeing his big, rubbery face.

Billy emerged from the vehicle with a proud pappa grin. Susan’s jaw dropped. “What the hell?”

“So, what do you think?” he beamed. The seduction was complete, her replacement gleamed in the sun and mocked her. Susan gawked without response.

Billy patted the hood of the SUV like it was his firstborn. He came up the steps, leaned down and kissed the top of her head. “How’s my girl?”

“Where did you get it?”

“A beauty, ain’t she? Can’t believe it’s ours.”

The bottom dropped out of Susan’s stomach. “Yours, not mine. Not ours.” She stomped into the cabin.

Billy followed her. “What’s the matter? Feeling sick again?” He reached for her but she pulled away. “Suz?”

Susan moved to the kitchen that occupied the far wall of the main room. She filled a kettle with water – set it on the range top and lit the burner with a wooden match. She reached for a cup and placed a camomile tea bag in it. “So?”

Billy cocked his head and waited for the rest of the question. The air was still between them. “So, what?”

The kettle screeched and Susan turned off the burner. She poured the boiling water over the tea bag and watched the water turn golden then sipped it. “What is she like? The famous Rachel Clarke?” Brown eyes watched him over the rim of the cup.
Billy shrugged. “I don’t know. Okay, I guess.”

“Okay? You mean, she didn’t show you her horns and pointy tail right off? Didn’t have her pitch fork with her?”

“Come on, Suz . . . ”

Susan put the tea cup down and leaned against the counter. “What do you mean, come on Suz? She’s a monster, right? The one who murdered a man in cold blood? Weren’t you afraid to be alone with her? I mean, if I thought that about someone, I sure as hell would be afraid. So, were you afraid?”

Billy rolled his eyes. “Give me a break.”

“Give you a break? What do you mean? I’m just quoting you, Billy. You’re the one who thinks she’s a psycho-killer. I’m the one who thinks she’s just a human being who made a mistake. Remember?” She dumped her tea down the drain and went to the sofa. She plopped down and put her feet up on the coffee table. “So come on honey, sit down and tell me. Tell me all about it.”

Billy felt worried for the first time. “She hired me. I start tomorrow.”

“Hired you to do what?” she asked.

“Handy man. Repairs and shit like that,” he said.

“I see. So, you’re all set, then?”

“What do you mean? All set?” He felt he couldn’t read her, couldn’t tell what she was thinking.

“Okay then.” She stood up. “Me too.” She went into the bedroom for a minute and returned with a packed suitcase.

Billy’s eyes darkened. “What’s this?”

Susan dropped the suitcase with a thud to the floor. “It’s called a suitcase. People use it when they’re traveling.”

“Where are we going?”

“I’m going home. I can’t stay.”

Billy shook his head. “No.”

“Yes, I am. I have to.” She touched his face, gently. “I can’t help you with this, Billy. I don’t want to help you with this.”

Billy put on his lost puppy look. “Suz . . . ”

“No, Billy. Just . . . no.” The tears began again. “I don’t know you anymore. You’ve become a stranger to me. Someone who’d violate another’s privacy for his own needs. A man my child doesn’t need to know.”

“Your child? You made that baby on your own, did you?” Billy was pissed. Susan flinched and backed up a step. “You can’t leave me,” he said more gently. “What am I going to do without you? What about the baby? What about us?”

“The baby needs me. You don’t.” She held his gaze. “You know I think this is wrong. But my feelings don’t seem to matter to you. Because, why? This is your destiny? You have to do it and nothing can stop you?” She looked disgusted. “Fine, follow your crazy mission. I don’t care anymore. But I refuse to stick around and watch you ruin your life and mine.”

Billy smirked. “Ruin my life? I’m just going to get her to tell me the truth. How is that going to ruin my life?”

“Tell the truth? Who’s truth, Billy? Who cares if it was murder or self-defense?”

“I do!”

“Well, I don’t.”

Billy went pale and he broke into a sweat. “Where will you go? How are you going to take care of yourself and the baby?”

Susan eased into a club chair near the fireplace. She stared into the empty hearth like an answer was buried in the grey ash and charred lumps of pine. “Terri, will put me up. I’ve already called her and she’s expecting me.”

“Terri? That flake? The one with all the crazy sculptures?” He shook his head. “No, no way am I going to let you go there.”

Her nails dug into the arms of the chair. “Shut up about my friends. At least I have a friend. Unlike you, who keeps everyone away. You don’t trust anyone. Not even me. It’s all about you and how you feel and poor, poor Billy nobody understands him.” Anger flashed in her eyes. “That’s why it’s so easy for you to ruin somebody else’s life. You don’t have one of your own. You don’t have anything precious to you so why should anyone else? I hate you!” She wiped at angry tears and glared at him.
“What?” He exploded. “You hate me? Because, why? Because I’m doing what I told you I was going to do? Because I’m following through on something?” He took a deep breath to calm himself. “Fine, go stay with your friend. See if I care.”

Susan rose to her feet and stormed down the hall to the bedroom. She slammed the door and locked it.

“Hello?” a voice called out from behind him. Billy whirled toward the voice. John stood in the doorway. His hound dog face grinned at Billy. “Trouble in paradise?”

Billy shook his head. “Nah, nothing I can’t handle. What are you doing here?”

John lit a cigarette and dropped the match on the floor. “Just wanted to hear all about it.”

Billy nodded. “Let’s go outside.”

They went out to the porch. Hansen admired the SUV parked and sparkling in the sun. “She’s a beauty.”

“What? Oh, yeah, she is.”

“You made contact?” John asked.

“Yeah. Start tomorrow.” Billy looked out at the ancient pine trees as if bars of a prison cell.

John nodded. “Good, good. Lucas’ll be liking that.” He snapped his fingers. “You with me, boy?”

Billy looked away from the trees and back to John. “Yeah, sure.” He frowned at the SUV. “I don’t know though. Rachel gets a look at that truck she might wonder . . . ” Hansen’s empty, stupid look didn’t change. “I told her I was a college student just traveling around. What’s she going to think when she sees me pull up in a brand-new truck like that?”

“I don’t know,” he shrugged. “You’ll think of something.” He laughed like a donkey. “That’s why we’re paying you the big bucks, right?”

Billy forced a laugh. “Yeah, right.”

Hansen scratched his crotch and ground out his smoke with the heel of his boot. “Okay then, anything you need to go over?”

Billy shook his head. “No, I got it under control.”
He winked and clapped Billy’s shoulder. “All right then, see you in a couple days.”

“A couple days? It’s going to take longer then that. I mean, I have to work up to this slowly. You know?”

Hansen’s expression went snaky. “You better adjust your thinking on that, son. This ain’t no holiday. You do what you have to and do it quick.” Before Billy could respond, Hansen was down the steps and in his Ford Silverado. The engine roared and the truck sped down the road, kicking up dust in its descent.

“Nice friend you’ve made there,” Susan sneered.

Billy startled and turned on her. “Oh, so now you’re spying on me? Sneaking up on me?”

“Who needs to spy when you’re in a box that echoes like a bowling alley?” She had her suitcase and her pocket book was slung over her shoulder. “Let’s go.”

“Where?”

“I need a ride to the train station.” She went down the steps to Billy’s new ride. “Don’t tell me you don’t want to drive this thing?”

“Fine,” Billy said angrily. “Hop in.”

<<>>

The train station in Pasadena was a picture out of time. Quaint and quiet. Susan could imagine GI’s coming home to their sweethearts after the war. Their duffles tossed over their shoulders as they returned to the world that was safe and far away from the sounds and sights of combat. Smiles spreading wide as they spotted the objects of their affection opening their arms wide and welcoming them back. The future, a warm promise.

“You can go now,” Susan said as they stood on the platform.

“I want to make sure you board okay,” Billy insisted.

Susan looked at him sadly. “I don’t want you to. I just want you to go.”

“We’ll be together again. Promise,” Billy said.

Susan shook her head. “Billy, I don’t believe your promises anymore.”

Stunned, Billy turned away and walked to the exit.

Twitter Tips for Newbies and Other Great Links This Week

Robin5
Lots of good reads this week, following were my tops:

Twitter Tips for Beginners. Kevan Lee gives a lot of great twitter tips for those of us who are let us say, Twitter-challenged (raising hand).

18 Book Marketing Experts Reveal Secrets That Boost Recognition, Get New Readers, and Increase Sales. Over at e-releases, you can find some great marketing advice from a wide array of professionals. And you’re sure to get at least one tip you can put into action.

Crafting Killer Action Scenes. Very good advice for writers, writing action scenes from Francesca Pelaccia

How to set up pre-orders for paperbacks. A great nuts and bolts how-to from self-publishing advice org.

Secrets of Bestselling Indie Authors: Crunching the Data. Alexis Radcliff does a very comprehensive job of crunching data on indie sales and genres. Thank God, now I don’t have to.

Enjoy the reads and have a great week.

Writer Chick

False Witness – Installment Three

False Witness new

CHAPTER ELEVEN

Rae and Michael sat in their favorite booth at Al’s and lingered over brandy. Rae leaned into him and sighed. “This was just what I needed.”Michael kissed her forehead. Rae looked up at him. “Penny for your thoughts.”

Michael searched her eyes as if it would give him passage to her secrets. “I could say the same to you.”

Rae stared into her snifter and admired the way the amber liquid glistened in the candlelight.“Not a thought in this head,” she joked and took a sip of her brandy.

Martha whisked by like a freight train and refilled their coffee without consent and then disappeared.

“Michael?” Rae touched his hand.

He gave her his eyes but she couldn’t read his expression. “What is it, honey?”

“So, you talk in your sleep. Is that why you never stay the night? Because of what you might say? What I might hear?”

Rae couldn’t stop the surprise in her face. She felt a deep flush start at her neck and rise to her face. “No, I . . . ”

Michael waved her off. “I’ve got some things to say and I want you to just listen.” Rae nodded, relieved she wouldn’t have to manufacture lies that sounded believable. “When we met, I thought you were a gift from God or the angels or whatever powers exist that perpetuate miracles.” He smiled like only he could. “Corny as it sounds, I did. After Ginny died, I was certain there would never be another woman in my life. I was lucky once, had a great woman and a great marriage. I couldn’t expect lightening to strike twice. Then . . . you came along. Do you have any idea what you do to me?” Rae shook her head. “You send me.” He laughed at himself. “I know I sound like a love-crazed teenager, but it’s the truth.” Rae opened her mouth to speak but thought better of it. “The last six months have been a dream. I’ve been so happy. We’ve been so happy but . . . ” he frowned. “Something’s wrong. I know it. Not with us, but it’s something. And the truth is, Rae, I don’t think we can keep going on like this. Not unless you tell me what it is. If you can’t trust me, then we’ve got nothing.”

She started to tremble. “What did I say? In my sleep?”

Michael took a sip of brandy and looked straight ahead. “You sounded as if you were talking to a child. Your child.” He stole a glance at her.

She felt an ache in her chest and tears tried to force their way out. “I told you there were things in my past. Horrible things. That I don’t like to talk about. It isn’t you or that I don’t trust you. I simply want to forget them. I simply want to pretend they never happened.”
Michael bit back a response and clenched his teeth instead. It startled Rae to see that he was angry. She drew back, worried there was a side of Michael that would hurt her. “Michael . . . ”

He exhaled hard and loud. “Rae, I love you. I know you know that. But I can’t handle the secrets anymore. And I know they’re there. I see the telepathic signals and codes between you and Libbie. What hold does she have on you?” He reached for her hands and held them tight. “Can’t you see that I’m worried about you? Whatever is in the past doesn’t matter to me. It won’t make me stop loving you. But it drives a wedge between us. And it makes me desperately afraid I’m going to lose you.”

Rachel studied him and wished she could know what his reaction would be, but she couldn’t. “You’re right, of course. I must tell you. I don’t know where to begin . . . ”

“Wherever you can. A little at a time.” He looked as frightened as she and his hand shook a little as he picked up his drink. “Do you have a child?”

“Yes and no.” Michael shot her a disappointed look. “I’m not being coy, darling. Yes, I had a son but I lost him when he was very young.”

“Oh Rae, I’m sorry.” He squeezed her hand. “What happened?”

Rae wiped at the tears that spilled down her cheeks. “He was stolen from me. Kidnaped.” She leaned against him and wept.

Michael held her. “It’s okay baby, I’m here. I’ve got you.”

“But there’s more,” she said. “So much more . . . ”

Michael pulled her closer. “And you’ll tell me. A little bit at a time.”

She nodded. “Yes, a little at a time.”

CHAPTER TWELVE

Billy zipped through microfiche newspaper files. His eyes were bleary and his head threatened to split but he refused to stop. After three days of slogging through small town journalism, he found gold. Rachel’s private detective, stared at him from a grainy black and white photo – on page five of the August 5, 1993, Eagle, evening edition. “Gotcha!” Billy cried out.

Frank Morgan of Phoenix, Arizona was hired by Rachel Clarke to find Beau despite the protests of the FBI. Morgan agreed he would cooperate with the FBI agents working the case, but the article stated the FBI stated that Morgan never shared any leads or information, if any, he had found. The fact that Morgan disappeared shortly after being given a sizable advance seemed to confirm the FBI’s allegations. And as of the writing of the article the police had a warrant for his arrest for fraud. A small follow-up article stated that the Oxford P.D. had been unsuccessful in extraditing Morgan from Arizona and had essentially closed the case.

“What a prick,” Billy said to Morgan’s picture. Another small article stated that Rachel had declined to sue Morgan and wrote off the loss as a consequence of life. “Fifty grand a consequence of life? Cripes Rachel, you must be loaded.”

Billy sat back and stretched his aching back. Phoenix wasn’t that far, and he had still to reach Lucas Webster. Maybe he was in New Mexico and maybe he wasn’t. Phoenix was a few hundred miles out of his way, but he had no solid route, so what difference did it make? “Okay then, Phoenix it is.”

Billy jumped online at the Library, having left his laptop at the motel with Susan-the-Terrible. His perfect girlfriend had turned into She-Monster overnight. He made a mental note to do a search on hormones and pregnancy later. Maybe they’d research it together – Susan would probably like it if he participated in the pregnancy education process. And she might cut him a break too, which couldn’t hurt.

No Frank Morgan listed in the Phoenix online Yellow Pages. He tried the white pages and found Francis X. Morgan, Private Investigator. Billy grinned. “Too cheap for a yellow page ad, eh Frank? But what the fuck did you do with all that money Rachel paid you? I can’t wait to hear that story.” Exhausted, he closed his notebook, logged off and stood up. His back ached and his stomach growled. “Food,” he mumbled.

After he’d polished off a couple of mini mart hot dogs and a big coke, he felt human again. On his drive back to the motel, he thought about how to pitch Susan for another road trip. He knew now, especially now, she wanted to go home. Though she agreed to honor the one month commitment deal, Billy knew her heart wasn’t in it. She hadn’t talked to him about much since they learned about the baby. That still knocked him through the floor. He was going to be a father and it was thrilling and terrifying. “What kind of father will I be?” he wondered aloud. He didn’t remember his own father and so had no frame of reference. A dull hurt closed around his heart. “I won’t desert you,” he promised his unborn child and God.

He picked up Hagen Daas at the mini mart for Susan, since that was the only food she wanted to eat. It couldn’t hurt and Susan might be happy to see him for a minute before she started crying or threw something at him. Joe said it was just hormones raging. Billy wasn’t so sure.

Susan sat on the bed watching television. When he walked in, she looked up and smiled. Billy didn’t know how to react. Did she know he had ice cream in the bag? Did pregnancy make women telepathic? “Hi.”
“Hi honey,” she glowed.

He sat on the bed next to her. “Me, bring food.” He offered the paper sack to her.

She took it and peeked inside. “Mmmm, a good nutritious lunch. Yummy.” She put the bag aside and took his hands. “I’m sorry.”

Billy pushed the hair out of her eyes. Such beautiful brown eyes, he loved to look into them. “What for?”

She giggled. “For being the pregnant girlfriend from Hell.”

Billy laughed. “Oh, that. It’s okay. Just blame it on hormones. I hear they’re pretty scary little buggers.”

They hugged and kissed and things felt okay again. “What have you been up to?”

“Research. Found out some interesting stuff.”

Susan bit her lip. “So, more road trip?” Billy nodded and asked her with his eyes if it was okay. “When do we leave?” she asked.

“Tonight?” Billy was hopeful.

Susan got up and stretched. She ambled to the bathroom. “Guess I’d better clean up my act then,” she said over her shoulder. “And keep your paws off that ice cream, mister.”

“Don’t you even want to know what I found out?” he called after her.

“No, I’d rather be surprised,” she said and closed the bathroom door.

“Yes!” Billy did a victory dance.

CHAPTER THIRTEEN

On hands and knees, Libbie hoed the garden with a hand trowel. She’d donned a floppy hat to shield her eyes from the hot, bright sun. Though it ruined her hands, she never wore gloves. Feeling the soil between her fingers soothed her and set her mind at ease. The garden was her place in all the world to feel safe and in control.

Every afternoon at two, the kids went down for naps and Libbie rushed to her garden to dig and gather her thoughts. She worked coffee grounds into the soil around her sage and oregano. Then pinched back dried leaves on the parsley and rosemary. The scent of lavender and mint teased her nostrils as she picked chamomile flowers for tea, snipped off some fresh chives and pulled a few large leaves of red oregano for salad.

She stood and filled her water can from the jugs of distilled water she kept at the back porch. Gently, she watered her beloved plants with just enough water to moisten the soil, careful not to splash water on the leaves. Most people who garden don’t know what they’re doing, she thought. Just throw things in the ground and flood them with chlorinated water. And expect something will grow! “Might as well buy the pitiful things they call vegetables in the grocery store,” she said to herself.

Libbie despised grocery stores and processed food. It was overpriced and had no flavor. It seemed few people cared these days about food that tasted good. They only cared about getting something, anything in their stomachs and carrying on with their busy lives. But what kind of life was it, if you couldn’t savor it? If it were up to her, all fast food stands would be burned to the ground and SUV’s would be dismantled and used for scrap iron. “The world would be a better place,” she mused.

She finished her watering and stood for a moment to admire the lush little garden. It’s deep greens, silvers, lavenders and yellows sparkled in the afternoon sun and she felt she could hear them laugh with pure contentment.

Libbie had always had a way with plants. They’d spoken to her since she was a child. She could go into any yard or home and spot any plant that was ailing or out of sorts. Her ability to commune with them was legendary and magical. Though her talent never extended to people, who did nothing but agitate and confound her. She understood neither their motivations nor their needs, which were always changing and contradicting. People distressed her. Made her feel ill at ease and long for solitude. Rae was the people person. She was the one who was adored and sought after by the human species. Without ever having to work at it either. It annoyed Libbie that Rae could do something that she found daunting. It drove her further into her garden and kitchen.

“Snack time!” she heard Arthur scream.

Her expression went sour. Of all the children who came to the center he was the most irritating. If there was a way that Libbie could be annoyed, Arthur soon found it and used it with absolute glee. The hum of the other children’s voices filtered through her thoughts. Reluctantly, she turned away from her garden and trudged back to the kitchen. Where she was a slave to the endless desires of children. Who only wanted and never thanked.

“Hey Libbie,” Arthur called from the door. His red hair stood up like a fright wig. “We want cookies!” He motioned her in and grinned. “Come on, Libbie!”

Libbie glared at him but he giggled and ran back into the kitchen like they were playing tag.
When she came through the back door, Marcy, Rae and ten children beamed at her. “I see you’ve been waiting for me,” she said as she washed her hands at the sink. After every bit of dirt and grit had been scrubbed from her hands with soap and a nail brush she opened the cabinet and pulled down plastic containers filled with cookies, brownies and lemon bars.

The crowd ooh’d and ah’d. She smiled in spite of herself. Libbie loved to impress people with her culinary skills, even a scraggly band of ill-mannered urchins.

She set out the treats on large china platters. With her back turned to the hungry vultures, she said, “I don’t believe the milk and juice will make their way out of the refrigerator on their own.”

Little feet ran to the fridge and Rae laughed. “Hold on now, we’ll get the milk and juice. But I think some little hands need to be washed.” The children groaned. “First one with spanking clean hands gets an extra brownie,” she said.

The children squealed but before they could thunder down the hall, Marcy said, “Slowly and safely.” Ten faces frowned in unison. “I think I’d better take them,” Marcy said to Rae and led the pack toward the washroom.

“Those look mighty good,” Rae licked her lips.

“Baked them last night, so they’re fresh.” Libbie said.

She turned, holding a platter of cookies in her hands. “Well, they ain’t going to carry themselves to that table, are they?”

Rae grabbed a platter and followed her into the dining room. It was no surprise that they found Arthur, in his chair, waiting for his extra brownie.

CHAPTER FOURTEEN

Seven stops in as many hours for bathroom breaks for Susan. “Let’s get some ice cream before we get back on the highway,” Susan suggested.

Billy eyed her. “I don’t know, Suz. Every time you eat, your stomach sends it back up.” He cupped her face in his hands. “Are you sure, you’re okay?”

Susan pushed his hands away. “Yes, I’m fine. It’s normal. You don’t need to mother me.”

“Yes, I do.” He grinned. “I’m all you’ve got.”

“Not true, I have the baby now, too.” She smiled and rested her hands over her belly. “I mean, we have the baby now, too.”

Billy drove through the side streets looking for a MacDonald’s or a mini mart that had soft serve ice cream. “Are you okay with this? I mean, you know, not having your mom around?”

Susan looked out the window and forced a smile. “Billy, my folks have been gone a long time. Sure, it’d be nice if they’d lived long enough to see this.” She let out a laugh. “On the other hand, if they were here, you might be shaking hands with a shotgun.”

Billy saw a mini mart and signaled to turn into the parking lot. “Is that what you want? To get hitched?” Susan didn’t answer. Billy parked the car and turned off the engine. “Suz?”

She turned to him and smiled sadly. “We don’t have to get married just because we’re pregnant.”

Billy screamed inside his head. The conversation was suddenly laden with emotional land mines and he hadn’t a clue where to step. “Okay, that was a lousy way to propose. Should I try again?”

Susan’s smile broadened. “Yes.”

Billy winked. “Be right back.” He got out of the car and went inside the mini mart. He returned with two soft serve ice cream cones and a devilish grin.

“What have you been doing in there?” Susan asked. “I was ready to file a Missing Persons’ Report.”

Billy opened her door, got down on his knees and handed her an ice cream cone. “Susan Sparks, you are the light of my life.” Susan giggled. “I would be honored if you would consent to be my wife.”

Susan shook her head. “That’s got to be the worst proposal I’ve ever heard.”

Billy grabbed a plastic globe out of his pocket. It held a toy ring. He popped open the container and held it out to her like it was a four-carat diamond.

“A Wonder Woman ring?” She howled. He tried to put the ring on her finger but she swatted his hands away. “I am not going to wear that thing.”

“After all the time I worked and slaved to buy you this gem? I’m crushed. Please, darling, I beg you. Please don’t say, no.”

“Oh shut up and get in the truck,” Susan said.
“But . . . ”

“Yeah, get your butt in the truck. Now!”

Billy chuckled and tweaked her nose, then got in the truck. “After we’re done, we’re goin’ to Atlanta and we’re going to buy you the biggest, gaudiest diamond in all of Georgia. Then, then you’ll be my bride.”

“Oh brother,” Susan muttered. “I think you’d better stick to Rhett – you just don’t do a good Scarlet.”

Billy put the truck in gear and pulled out of the lot. For a while they drove and ate their ice cream in silence. “We will, you know,” Billy said.

“I know.”

“We’ll have any kind of wedding you want. Bridesmaids, ushers, roses, the whole deal.” He stopped as the light turned red and looked at her. The love of his life had drifted off to nap-land. He touched her silky hair. “We’ll be a family,” he whispered. “Just the three of us.” He slipped the toy ring on her finger and grinned.

CHAPTER FIFTEEN

They found a room in the Sierra Suites. Nice but nothing special, Billy thought. Susan was happy when she saw a color television with cable access. “Jeez, could it be more brown?” Billy asked as his eyes took in the maple furniture, brown curtains, bedspread and caramel carpeting.

Susan cocked her head. “I don’t know, kind of reminds me of ice cream toppings.”

“Everything reminds you of ice cream. Which by the way, I’m cutting you off as of now.”

Susan put her hands on her hips and glared at him. “Oh no. You ain’t the boss of me.”

Billy kissed the top of her head and patted her fanny. “Oh yes I am. From now on, you’re going to eat real food and take care of yourself.”

Susan unzipped her duffle bag and grabbed a change of clothes. “What’s the difference? Like you said, everything I eat comes back up anyway. So, I might as well eat what I like.”

Billy opened his laptop and plugged it into the phone line. The hiss of the dial-up reminded him of the old black and white television Finn had in her livingroom when he was a kid. “Or, it could be what you’re putting down there just isn’t agreeing with you. So, we’re doing it my way for a while. So there.” He stuck his tongue out at her.
“I don’t like you anymore, Billy Frayne,” she said. Before he could shoot her a come back, she sashayed into the bathroom and closed the door. The running water cued him that she was about to settle into a bubble bath and he’d have at least thirty minutes to amuse himself. He called Room Service and ordered some decent food for dinner. Then checked his email. A message from Spider waited for him in his in box. No news on Webster’s exact address, but Spider had verified that Webster resided in Taos. He’d keep checking until he got it. Billy sent a quick answer and logged off. He made a few quick notes then closed the laptop for the night.

A knock at the door and a call of “Room service.” Billy offered the waiter the wonder woman ring, which Susan had tossed on the table, but the waiter preferred cash. The food was laid out on the coffee table and the waiter disappeared, five bucks richer.
Susan emerged from the bathroom and smelled of roses and looked relaxed. “Dinner is served.” Billy pointed to the coffee table laid out with sandwiches and salads, a glass of milk for Susan and a coke for him.

Susan pouted. “What’s this?”

“It’s dinner. Didn’t you hear me?”

Susan plopped on the sofa. “You call that dinner? Where are the chips and fries?”

Billy handed her a fork. “Do it for your child, dear woman.”

Susan grumbled but ate anyway. Before Billy was halfway through his salad Susan had cleaned her plate and reached for his sandwich. “Hey, hands off! I need to eat too.”

“And I’m eating for two,” she said and swiped his tuna on rye.

“Okay, Godzilla, you want all of Cleveland for dessert or just half of it?” Billy picked up the phone and dialed room service. Again.

<<>>

Frank Morgan’s office was on the outskirts of downtown Phoenix on Seventh Avenue and wasn’t hard to find. Pawn shops, wholesalers, gun shops and crumbling office buildings lined the streets. The kind of neighborhood where the rent was cheap and nobody asked too many questions.

Frank’s building was a three-story walk up. Billy figured the carpet was older than him and stunk. He suspected that the occupants of the offices lived in them too. An old man in trousers and a sleeveless tee shirt watched from his doorway as Susan and Billy made the climb to the third floor.

“Are you sure this is an office building?” Susan whispered.
“I think it’s kind of whatever people want it to be,” Billy said.

Susan looked down at the old man watching them. “What do you think he does?”

“As little as possible,” Billy said as he looked for Frank’s office. “This is it.” The door had a frosted glass insert in the top, and on it was etched “Francis X. Morgan, Private Detective.” Billy tried the door but it was locked. He knocked but no one answered. “Crap.”

“He ain’t there,” the old man called up.

Billy and Susan walked back to the stairwell and looked down. “How do you know who we’re looking for?”

The old man shrugged. “Nobody up there but Frank. Who else would you be looking for?”
Billy came down a couple of steps, with Susan behind him. “Know where we can find him?”

“Hard to say. Keeps funny hours, you know? He’s a private dick . . . ” the old guy cackled. “Yeah, he’s a dick all right.”

“So you don’t know where we can find him?”

“You a client?”

“Could be,” Billy said.

“Maybe he’s having breakfast.”

Billy and Susan descended a couple stairs. “Around here? Where would somebody get breakfast around here?”

“Where else? Tits are us!” He laughed again and shut his door.

The titty bar, also not hard to find, just follow the smell and the bad music, was more depressing than Frank’s office building. Susan sniffed and wrinkled her nose. “Please tell me I’m not smelling what . . . I think I’m going to be sick.”

Billy squinted to adjust his eyes to the dark. “Let’s just see if we can find him and get the hell out of here.”

They picked their way through the dark room. Not much action. The bar had a couple of sad sacks nursing beers while the barkeep flipped burgers, being not too careful about the ash at the end of the cigarette that dangled from his mouth. On the stage, a woman far south of young and attractive, bumped and grinded to The Stripper.
At a table near the stage, a middle-aged man ogled the stripper as he chowed down on a greasy burger, fries and a beer. “That must be him,” Billy pointed. He led Susan to the table. “You Frank Morgan?”

The man looked up and smirked. “Who are you?”

Billy took a twenty from his pocket and laid it on the table. “Just a guy with a couple questions.”

Morgan shrugged and nodded toward the empty chair next to him. Billy sat but Susan remained standing, with her eye on the door, as if turning away from it would make it disappear. Billy put out his hand. “I’m . . . ”

“I don’t give a damn who you are. Ask your questions and leave.” Morgan had an odd voice, and sounded like he had a permanent head cold. Something in Billy’s head clicked.

“I’m here about Rachel Clarke. About her son, Beau.”

Morgan gave him a sharp look. Again Billy felt a connection. “What about them? Long time ago. I don’t remember a thing.”

Billy chuckled. “I haven’t even asked you anything yet.”

“Twenty bucks don’t buy much, kid.” Morgan’s eyes narrowed. “What are you after?”

“Just wanted to know what you found. You were hired by her to find Beau. You must remember something.”

Morgan stood up and pushed his chair back. “Like I said, I don’t remember squat.” He picked up the twenty and stuffed it in the stripper’s G-string. “Sorry, looks like you wasted your money.” He smiled at Billy like a crocodile at his prey. “But I’ll give you some free advice. Stay out of things that are none of your fucking business.” With that, Morgan walked out of the bar.

“Are we going to go after him?” Susan asked. Billy shook his head. “Why not?” “Let’s get out of here. I don’t feel so good.”

CHAPTER SIXTEEN

Billy woke with a start. His eyes searched the room filled with night shadows. His breath caught in his throat when he saw Finn sitting at the foot of his bed. “Auntie?”

Finn shook her head and put her finger to her lips. “Sh, Billy boy. Quiet now, you’re sleeping.”
He put out his hand to find Susan but he was alone in the bed. “Where’s Susan?”

Finn’s round face looked like the moon in silhouette. “You don’t need her. You don’t need any of them. That’s why I come. To tell you.”

Billy sat up and reached out his hands to Finn but she refused his touch. “Who don’t I need?”

Finn stood and walked to the window. “You done all right, boy. Look at you, all grown up and smart. Going to college. I always knew you’d be somebody some day.”

Billy got out of bed and padded across the room to Finn but she was gone. He looked out the window and saw the old oak, its limbs swaying in the breeze. A man stood in the yard below looking up at him. His slanted hat shadowed his face but Billy knew it was Frank Morgan. Billy tried to open the window but it wouldn’t budge. He knocked on the glass. “Hey!” Morgan looked up and shook his head. He took a butterscotch candy from his pocket and popped it in his mouth. “Leave her alone,” Billy screamed through the closed window. Morgan ignored him and carried on a conversation with Finn, who sat with him at a bus stop. They sang Irish rebel songs in drunken glee. “Finn!” Billy called out to his aunt but she didn’t hear him.

Finn and Morgan turned as Susan approached riding a horse, a brown and white paint. Susan waved an ice cream cone at them in salutation. Billy struggled with the window and finally forced it open. He stuck his head out. “Susan, what are you doing?” The trio ignored him and played catch with a bundle that Susan had taken from the saddle bag. Billy swung out his leg and straddled the tree. Hurriedly, he shimmied down the trunk. When he turned, they were gone. “Susan! Where are you?”

The night was still and warm. Beads of sweat popped out on Billy’s forehead and arms as he searched the grounds. He stepped on something and stopped to see what it was. Susan’s wonder woman ring shone in the moonlight.

“Come with me,” a woman said.

Billy turned but couldn’t see anyone.

“I’m over here,” the voice called out.

“Who’s there?” Billy asked and his voice sounded small and young.

“It’s Mama, honey.”

Billy’s heart lifted and fell at once because he was alone. “Mama? Mama? Where are you?” He began to cry in desperation. “Mama? Please come back. I’ve been looking for you for so long. Please come back. Mama . . . ”

“Billy! Billy, wake up!”

Billy’s eyes opened and a worried Susan came into focus. “Susan?”

“Yes, honey, it’s me.” She stroked his forehead. “What a dream you were having.”

Billy sat up. “Dream?”

She searched his face. “Are you okay?”

Billy nodded and took her in his arms. “As long as this is real.”

She hugged him tight. “Yes, this is real.”

CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

As the sun went down, Rae relaxed in a chaise lounge and watched Michael grill chicken and roast corn. She loved his serious concentration as he employed his skill at the age-old manly task. It was a perfect end to a perfect weekend.

When the sunset was in full bloom, they drank brandy and watched the sky change colors.

“This is nice,” Michael murmured.

“Yes, perfect. I can’t remember the last time I had such a blissful two days.”

“Seems a shame to end it,” Michael looked at her.

Rae smiled. “I can stay a while longer. I don’t have to go home right away.”

Michael kissed her softly. “Why go at all?” Rae raised her eyebrows and felt a warning ping in her stomach. “I mean, why not move in?”Rae didn’t know how to answer. She hadn’t anticipated the suggestion and wasn’t prepared. “Now before you say no, let me make my sales pitch.”

She was thankful that he wanted to continue talking. She hoped he’d say something that would enable her to wriggle free from the subject. “You won’t marry me . . . yet.” He flashed a smile. “And I’ve been thinking about that. Maybe you’re right. It’s too soon to think about marriage. But living together. Why not? Why not have this seven days a week? You like it here. There’s room for all your things and if not, I’ll build you a walk-in closet and a sewing room too.” Rae shifted in her seat and stared into her brandy snifter. “I know what you’re thinking. Libbie, right? She’ll be all alone in the house. What would she do without you to argue with and belittle? How can we sneak your luggage out without her noticing?”
Rae laughed. “It’s not that bad.”

Michael touched her auburn hair. “Yes it is, honey.”

Rae went to the table and started to stack dishes and utensils. Michael made her stop. “Rae, we can’t avoid talking about this. You know it and I know it.”

Rae looked into his deep, blue eyes. He was the best thing that had ever happened to her. He was her biggest joy in life and she couldn’t bear the idea of losing him. But the idea of living with a man again scared her. “What is there to say? As you’ve already pointed out, Libbie wouldn’t take kindly to the idea.” Even to her, the argument sounded weak.

“So what? You aren’t her child, Rae. You’re her sister. A free woman who is entitled to her own life. Would she begrudge you your happiness?”

Rae sighed. “It’s not that simple. It’s complicated . . . ”

“All right then, explain it to me.” Michael crossed his arms over his chest. “What makes it so complicated? Apart from the fact that she despises me, what would she object to?” A smile touched the corners of his mouth.

Rae ran her hand through her hair. “The center. There’s so much to do. She’d feel abandoned.” Rae gave him a plaintive look. “And she’d have a right to feel so.”

Michael took her in his arms and began dancing to music only he could hear. “You wouldn’t abandon her, you’d be there from open to close. I wouldn’t expect you to give that up. In fact, I’d be surprised if you did. What else?”

Rae leaned into his embrace. “She hasn’t anyone but me. I am her entire family.”

Michael stopped dancing and looked into her eyes. “She hates the daycare center, she’s miserable. Why don’t you buy her out and let her live her own life?”

“We’ve discussed it. She doesn’t want to do that either.”

Michael let go of her and sat down. “It’s not healthy, Rae. This relationship with Libbie. You must know that. You aren’t kids anymore. You’re a grown woman. It’s time to cut the ties.”

Rae knew he was right but wasn’t brave enough to confront Libbie. “Yes, it is a bit co-dependent. I know that. I do. But despite her abrasive behavior sometimes, she has my best interest at heart. She does love me. And has stuck by me through thick and thin. How could I desert someone who’s done so much for me?”

“Ah, the mysterious past?” Michael refilled their brandy glasses. “She helped you through a bad marriage. What else?”

Rae sipped at her brandy. “Countless things. When my son was kidnaped, she hired a detective to find him.” Tears sprung to her eyes. “Honestly, I think I would have died if she hadn’t been there.”

“Okay, I’ll concede that Libbie has come through for you. Perhaps more than the average sibling would have. Still, as the saying goes – what has she done for you lately?”

Rae frowned. “That’s a rather cold attitude, isn’t it?” Michael shrugged. “I mean, family is family. Isn’t it?”

Michael stared at the waning sunset and looked handsome in silhouette. “The point is, you have to start leading separate lives. It might even be good for Libbie.” He looked at her. “Haven’t you ever wondered if she’d be married with a family of her own if she’d not felt obligated to be there for you?”

Rae’s head felt heavy and she nodded. “Yes, I’ve thought of it many times. You’re right, she is entitled to her own life. It’s just that I’ve needed her so much in the past that I guess I never stopped needing her. Perhaps you’re right, I’ve been selfish.”

Michael took her in his arms. “I’m not saying that. I’m just suggesting a change would be good for both of you. We could be happy together, Rae, we could.”

Rae hugged him tight. “Be patient, darling. Things will work out. We can’t rush them. Let them happen naturally.”

Michael grinned. “So, you’ll think about it?”

Rae nodded but she was lying to him. Libbie would never let her go. And she could never trust Libbie to keep her secrets if left on her own.

CHAPTER EIGHTEEN

They spent another three days trying to flush out Morgan but he had vanished. Billy cursed himself for being such an idiot. Though he had no certainty that if he found Morgan again, he would learn anything more than he already knew. They had to move onto the next. The good news was that Spider found Lucas Webster’s address. Armed with that information, Billy pointed the truck toward Taos.

The brilliant sun shone down on Taos and it sparkled like a diamond in the desert. Billy got a surge of energy from the town. Everybody was a painter, jeweler or artisan and the creativity was palpable. Everywhere they looked, they saw museums and art galleries.

The bed and breakfast they stayed in was quaint and romantic. Billy thought they should have been on their honeymoon not chasing after ghosts and strangers. The realization of fatherhood struck again like a flash flood that swallows up a town without warning.
Susan fell into the four-poster, wrought-iron bed and gushed. “Oh, I never want to leave here.”

Billy chuckled. “That’s what you always say when you find a comfortable bed.”

Susan sat up and looked at him with a glint in her eye. “I bet they have a Justice of the Peace in this here town.”

“Justice of the Peace, eh? I thought it was the worst proposal you ever heard.”

Susan flushed. “I didn’t say, no.”

“You didn’t say, yes, either.”

Susan put her hands to her throat and pretended to gag herself. “Okay, uncle. Yes, I’ll marry you. That better?”

“I want to do it right, Suz. Is that okay? I mean, at home. With our friends and family. Okay, so we don’t have any family . . . but Finn should at least have the chance to say no to the invite. Don’t you think?”

“Okay. I guess you’re right.” Susan’s stomach growled. “Mmm, food.” She grabbed the phone. “Hello, room service?”

Billy rummaged through his duffle bag for shorts and a tee shirt as Susan ordered half the lunch menu. “Damn, it’s hot.”

Susan sunk into the bed. “It’s beautiful here, isn’t it? Maybe some day we could live here?” Her eyes met his.

Billy pulled off his jeans and pulled on the shorts. “Sure, maybe. But I don’t know what I’d do around here.”

Susan got up and went to him. She put her arms around him and nuzzled his neck. “Honey, you can deliver pizza anywhere.”

Billy mocked anger. “Grrrr.”

Susan laughed. “Well, you said you want to be a writer. What better place to write? Look around you! Such inspiration. It practically oozes from the walls.”
“We could get a place, maybe a studio for you.”

Susan’s eyes danced. “Oh yes! A big one. So I could do the big stuff I’ve always wanted to.”

Billy could see her thoughts like a slide show. Susan and Billy in their desert hideaway, writing, sculpting. And their child, a little girl, with long blond braids running wild, picking bouquets of desert flowers. He sighed out loud.

Susan looked at him. “What?”

Billy blushed. “Nothing.”

Susan pounced on him. “No, it was something. You don’t ever sigh like that. You can see it too, can’t you?” Billy suppressed a grin. “You can!” Susan danced around the room like a wood sprite. She put her hands to her belly and said, “See, little one, we’re going to live here. When you grow up, it will be in a beautiful place where people make beautiful things for a living.”

“Come on, let’s go.”

Susan stopped her dance and the cheer left her face. “Go where? I just ordered lunch. A really big lunch.”

“We have to force our way in to see Lucas Webster. Crime writer extra ordinaire.” He forced a smile. “It’s why we’re here, right?”

Susan’s joy crash-dived. “Okay,” she nodded, pulling on shorts. She looked at him. “We’ll come back, won’t we?” Billy studied a map he’d taken from his duffle. “When it’s all over? We’ll come back here to live?” Susan asked.

“We’ve got lots of time to decide, don’t we? Can we just worry about today?”

Room service arrived with a cafe cart filled with sandwiches, salads and cold drinks. “Could we get that to go?”

CHAPTER NINETEEN

Lucas Webster yelled into the phone. “What do you mean you can’t? I pay you damn good money, John. And I expect something for it!”

“Hey man, what more do you want? I told you where she is and what she’s doing,” John shot back. “Which wasn’t that easy, considering we got squat on Rachel’s social security number. Everything’s in the sister’s name. I’m the one who figured that out, remember?” He sighed for effect. “For crying out loud, I found her. Isn’t that worth something?”

Lucas simmered down. “Yeah, it’s worth something. Not much, but something.” John chuckled. “This ain’t funny,” Lucas snapped. “I need an inside man. I need to get up close and personal, without her knowing it.”

“Well, they’re looking for a handy man. Maybe we could get somebody in that way. You got somebody we can send in?”

Lucas narrowed his eyes. “Now, just remind me, who is working for whom, here?” Silence. “All right then. You find somebody to get inside and call me back when you do.” Lucas slammed down the phone. “God damned, son-of-a-bitch, mother-fucking . . . ” he sputtered like an old car. Daisy the mutt, looked at him sympathetically. She whimpered and nuzzled his hand. Lucas softened and scratched the dog’s chin. “Rat bastards, all of them,” he told her.

He rubbed at his bad leg and rose with great effort. A cane of carved ebony helped him make the long trip to the kitchen. Leaning on his cane he opened the refrigerator and took out a can of beer. He step-leaned, step-leaned to the kitchen table, fell heavily into a chair, popped the top and took a swig.

Daisy barked and wagged her tail. Lucas smiled. “Okay, girl. Bring her over.” Daisy fetched her plastic water bowl, brought it to Lucas and set it down at his feet. He patted her head and poured half the beer into her dish. Daisy lapped up the icy brew with gusto. “I don’t know what you are, girl, but I got a feeling you got some Irish Setter in you.” He laughed hard at his own joke, not minding one bit that there was no one to share it with. He didn’t take to people much and preferred Daisy’s company to anybody else’s.

He eyed the last report from his investigator, John, the topic of discussion on the phone just now. His lips curled back in a sneer. “What do you want, he asks me? I want revenge, God damn it!”

He wondered what his readers or his editor would say if they could see and hear him now. It made him smile. They had no idea who he was. Ten years ago when he’d written his book on Rachel Clarke, it had been touted as brilliant and innovative. The critics were astounded at his insight into Rachel Clarke, her life and her possible motivations for killing her husband. Self Defense or Self Preservation? was on the New York Times Bestseller’s list for months. All the talk shows wanted him. All the major magazines fought to get interviews with him. Even now, colleges and universities used his book as text for developing theories of murder cases. He was one important son-of-a-bitch.

Though what no one knew, but Rachel of course, was that he was Thomas Clarke’s second cousin. And he was privy to the skeletons in the closet -on both sides of the family. He paid big money and favors to ensure no one ever found out. Course, there were those in Oxford who knew, but something about small town folks, they don’t share their business with outsiders. He knew Rachel would never come out of hiding to discredit him. Nor would her insufferable sister, Elizabeth. They would keep on hiding. One day, he’d get his hands on them though. And they’d both pay for what they’d done. He lived to avenge Tommy -who was the closest thing to a brother that he had. It was his number one focus. His first thought in the morning and his last as he fell asleep. Revenge. She would pay for what she’d done. If the courts wouldn’t make her then he would.

He’d written many other books. Some of which received as much notoriety as, Self Defense but they had no personal meaning to him. He was a true crime writer and knew his craft. It was his job to write about the monsters and freaks that nature had turned loose on society. At least, that was what he told interviewers, publishers and his readers. They ate it up too. Loved it. Couldn’t get enough of his hard talk and tough guy image. Even if he was a half-ass cripple. Yet another thing he would make Rachel pay for. He could still make big men cringe and women swoon.

But why in hell couldn’t he get, one god damned, overpriced investigator to do what he wanted? Oh sure, he found her. Lucas had the report. He knew where she was, the name she used and what she was doing for a living. The problem was he couldn’t get his hands around her neck and wring the life out of her. That was the problem. And nobody else wanted to do it for him either. Not literally or figuratively.

He wasn’t stupid or blind enough with rage to actually want to hire somebody to kill her. But he was more than willing to pay someone to drive her out of her mind. Why were people so squeamish? A man who is willing to climb trees and takes pictures of unfaithful spouses doing the dirty with a third party but he couldn’t bring himself to play mind games with a mere woman? Ridiculous. “An inside man,” Lucas repeated. “Yeah, that’s what we’re needing about now.”

<<>>

Billy was so nervous when he pulled up to Webster’s house that he couldn’t move. The house was nothing special; a Mission-style painted in desert coral. Aloe Vera, tired Palms and various succulents drooped in the midday sun, too hot to care that their job was to adorn the property.

“What are we waiting for?” Susan asked.

Billy flicked her a look. “Now, you’re in a hurry?”

“I just want to get it over with,” she said, looking just as droopy as Webster’s landscaping.
Billy swallowed his apprehension, pulled the keys out of the ignition and got out of the truck. They came up the walk slowly, like children on their way to the Principal’s office. Billy rang the bell.

A voice from the intercom squawked. “What do you want?”

The couple exchanged a look. “Maybe we are in the Twilight Zone,” Susan whispered.

Billy spoke into the intercom. “Are you Lucas Webster?”

“Who wants to know?”

Billy rolled his eyes. Worried he was going to stand on the porch, drenched in sweat as he carried on a conversation with a paranoid writer. “The name is Billy Frayne. I’m here about Rachel Clarke.” There was a long silence. So long that Billy and Susan assumed the conversation was over. They started back down the porch steps. A buzzer sounded. They looked at each other for a minute. Billy ran up the steps and grabbed for the door. It opened. He pulled a reluctant Susan through it with him.

The foyer was dark with drawn shades shrouding it, making it a cool silence. When Billy let go of the door, it snapped shut with a resounding click. “Oh no, we’re trapped.” Susan feigned terror.

Billy admonished her with a wagging finger. They started down the narrow corridor toward the living room. “Hello?”

“Don’t dawdle,” Webster said.

They picked up their pace down the corridor. The living room was an impressive, wide expanse of imported tiled floors and textured turquoise and coral walls. The furnishings were Italian leather sofas and chairs and a coffee table made of a slab of green and silver marble set on a driftwood base.

Webster sat in the sofa, his left leg propped on the magnificent table. A sable-colored mutt sat at his feet. It had one of those faces that made you think it was smiling. Billy could feel its impulse to pounce playfully and slurp doggie kisses all over him.

Though Webster was not a big man, there was a power that emanated from him. A strong male energy that commanded the space. Billy noticed the hand carved cane propped against the sofa next to Webster and he remembered reading about a riding accident Webster had as a young man. “Well?” Webster said irritated.

“Hi, I’m Billy . . . ”

“Yes, yes,” Webster waved his hand, “we already know your name. Are you coming in or are you just going to stand there and gawk?”
Shyly, Billy and Susan stepped into the room. Susan found a chair opposite Webster and sat. Billy crossed to Webster and shook his hand. “It’s an honor to meet you, sir.”

“Yes, so they say,” Webster’s lips curled in a crooked smile. “What’s this about Rachel?”

Billy sat on the edge of the sofa and faced him. “I’m looking for her.”

Webster nodded impatiently, his grey eyes narrowed. “Why’s that? Why come to me?”

“Because you wrote that famous book about her,” Susan piped in.

Webster smirked. “So, I wrote a book. So did every son-of-a-bitch in the country. Course, theirs all sucked. None of them assholes knew shit about it. Hard to believe any of them could type, since they obviously couldn’t find their asses with both hands.”

Billy suppressed the urge to bust out laughing.

“I just meant that as an explanation to why we’ve come to see you,” Susan said quietly.

Webster smiled at Susan, with a magnetism that made her look away. “You’re a very pretty young woman,” he said. “It would serve you well to let strangers notice that about you.”

Susan’s eyes flashed and Billy interrupted before that flash turned to something much worse. “Well, I guess it doesn’t matter how we came to find you, Mr. Webster. What matters is that we’re looking for Rachel Clarke. We understand you know how to find her.”

Webster’s face relaxed into a conspiratorial grin. “I see. Well, what if I did know where she was? Why the hell would I tell you?”

Billy leaned a little forward in an attempt to create some intimacy. “Well, no reason really. I mean, you’re right. We’re total strangers. You have no idea what our plans are and what we would do if we found her. I can understand that you might want to protect her. Her interests . . . ”

The vein in Webster’s forehead bulged and pulsed like the heart of a trapped animal. “Protect her? I’ll be damned if I’d protect that bitch!”

“Excuse me?” Billy said.

“I got no use for the likes of that woman. The last thing on earth I’d do is look out for her interests.” He leaned forward with some effort and captured Billy’s eyes with his own. “That woman is evil. Pure and simple. Got away with murder and living the high life. Like nothing ever happened. Nothing would make me happier than to see her suffer. I thought you said you knew my book. Didn’t you read the fucking thing? Why in hell would you think I would be looking out for her?”

Billy was speechless. He nodded his head, hoping it would encourage Webster to go on. The silence swallowed up the room and Billy felt like an orchid under glass. Though the room was cool, beads of sweat formed on his upper lip. He wanted to wipe at it but feared it would break the trance between him and Webster.

“What happened?” Susan asked, sounding to Billy like she was on a distant planet.

Webster’s head snapped in her direction. The look on his face would have wilted a weaker woman, but Susan held his gaze. Webster sat back, relaxed and amiable. He patted Daisy on the head and reached for a cigarette. He lit up with an old Zippo that made a resounding snap when he flipped the lid shut. He made smoke rings in the air and watched them as if he were alone in the room. “What’s your business with her?” he finally asked.

Billy prayed that Webster would believe the lie he was about to utter. “I believe I’ve found her son.”

A small tic pulsated under Webster’s left eye. “Oh you do, do you? Is he dead?”

Billy shook his head. “No, he’s a friend of mine.” He sneaked a peek at Susan who stared at the floor. He felt the heat of her anger from across the room.

Webster chuckled softly. “Really? Then why ain’t he with you? Why isn’t he here, himself?”

Billy leaned back, trying to look casual. “He doesn’t know my suspicions. I wanted to see if I could find her first. Check it out, you know?”

Webster shook his head. “That is the biggest load of shit I’ve ever heard.” Then he laughed like it was the funniest thing in the world.

Billy deflated. He’d blown it. Maybe he’d find Morgan again, but so what? The guy wasn’t going to tell him anything anyway. Back to Michigan with egg on his face. Crap. Maybe if he returned to class as a married, expectant father, they wouldn’t humiliate him too much. His mouth tasted bitter, like bile. His eyes grew bleary and he worried he would cry. He rubbed his eyes and stared at his hands. “Sorry to have bothered you,” he said and stood up. Susan followed his lead and they moved toward the corridor.

“Where the hell do you think you’re going?” Webster called out. Billy shot him a helpless and embarrassed look. Webster patted the sofa. “Oh come on now, I’m just fucking with you. Come back here and let’s talk a spell. I got a feeling that maybe you and I can help each other.”
Susan cautioned him with a look but Billy moved back to the sofa, anxious to hear Webster’s proposal.

“Suppose I hired you to do some work for me?” Webster asked. Billy nodded. “I need somebody to be my legs and my eyes and ears. You think you could do that?”

Webster’s eyes gleamed with a light that was dangerous, but Billy couldn’t resist. “Yeah.”

They talked for hours. Ate and talked some more. Lucas told Billy that he and Thomas Clarke had been close friends and Billy played along. Opting not to tell Webster he knew that the men were cousins.

Lucas railed on that when word of Clarke’s death came, he went to Oxford to see for himself what it was all about. “Rachel was guilty. I could see it in her face. The treacherous bitch.” His face contorted into an angry mask. “I went to the trial every day. Examined all of the evidence, saw the crime scene, interviews and the autopsy report.” He winked. “Buddy of mine was in the D.A.’s office.”

“Guess it pays to know people in high places,” Susan said sarcastically.

Lucas ignored her. “I knew in every cell of my body that she’d killed Tommy in cold blood. Nearly killed me when the jury came back with an acquittal. I vowed then, to God and Tommy, that I would she that she paid. Even if it took the rest of my life.”

“What is it you want Billy to do?” Susan asked.

“All in good time, Missy,” he said. “All in good time.”

copyright Anita Rodgers

Talking Dirty (Chuck Wendig’s Flash Fiction Challenge)

Chuck Wendig’s Fiction Challenge this week: So, given all the hullaballoo with Clean Reader (“read books, not profanity”) this week, I thought a flash fiction challenge in pure defiance had some meaning.

Thus: I want you to be inspired by that debacle. I want you to write filthily.
Or write about filth. Sex, profanity, perversion. Fiction or meta-fiction. Any genre.

In some way, take something from the discussion about censorship and profanity and vulgarity and sex and — well, throw all that stuff into a blender, whip it up, and see what foamy frappe belches out into your story.
Censorship

“So Chuck wants me to write something dirty.”

“Chuck who?”

“You know Chuck? Terrible Minds?”

“Well if he has a terrible mind, no wonder he wants you to write something dirty.”

“No! I didn’t say he had a terrible mind – Terrible Minds, that’s the name of his blog?”

“Why would anybody name their blog that? Terrible Minds..well gee, wouldn’t that make people think there were terrible things happening over there?”

“You’re digressing.”

Blank stare. “What was the question?””

“Well, uh, should I? Write something dirty? Well not dirty exactly – profane – er, ah, stuff with swear words in it. Y’know?”

“Sounds like a terrible mind at work to me…”

“No man, it’s about censorship.”

Rolls eyes, sighs and taps foot.

“What?”

“You writers are always so worried about being censored. I mean, what the hell’s your problem? You think people are lying awake at night just devising methods to squelch you?”

“It’s been known to happen.”

Smirks. “Right.”

“You never heard of book burning? You never heard of book banning? What about the Salem witch trials?”

Yawns. “People say all kinds of things on the Internet, doesn’t mean they’re true.”

Pulling hair. “You’re really not helping.”

“It gets weary you know, being your enabler all the time.”

“Enabler? You? The only thing you enable me to do is beat my head against the wall.”

Stares curiously at a hangnail. “Then why do you keep coming back and asking for help?”

Grits teeth. “You kind of owe me.”

“How the fuck do you figure?”

Shaking fists. “I give you life.”

“Says you!”

Smirk. “You think anybody else hears your squeaky little voice yammering in their ear? Ah—no!” Whining. “Come on! Help me!”

Sighs. Sighs harder still. Throws up hands. “Fine. Sure, do it.”

“Really?”

“What’s the matter, yes not a good enough answer for you?”

Frowning and scratching head. “What should I write?”

“How the fuck should I know? You’re the writer. I’m just the lowly editor. I’m just the voice of reason when you’re totally out of control, which by the way, you are most of the time. I really don’t even know why I talk to you at all.”

“You’re sure?”

“Yes.”

“What if people get upset?”

“Fuck ‘em!”

“What if people don’t like me anymore?”

“Let’s be honest, how many people really like you anyway?”

“Good point.” Thinking. “Okay…once upon a time there was a fucking…”

“Maybe you should use fornicating.”

Frowns. “Okay, once upon a time there was a mother fornicating…”

“No, don’t use mother, you could offend mothers and mothers shouldn’t be offended.”

Heaves a sigh. “Okay, once upon a time there was a non-gender-specific fornicator who…”

“Wait!”

Looking up and frowning. “Now what?”

“I think there’s this app you should download…”

Writer Chick

copyright 2015

The Safety of the Bookternet for Women and other Compelling Reads This Week

walking_away

Been busy this week and didn’t have nearly enough time to read but the following were pretty damn compelling is you ask me.

 
Why I Quit GoodReads (or The Bookternet is Not Safe for Women). Is a compelling post by Brenna Clarke Grey dealing with the harassment and fallout of the ‘bookternet.’ Thought provoking read.

Online book shopping overtakes in-store for first time. Over at The BookSeller, they’ve got the 411 on online book sales versus offline book sales. Enlightening.

Controlling the Creatives. Kristine Kathryn Rusch writes a nice piece about ignoring in-fighting (what I call penis tossing), online battles and just writing what you write. I’m with her.

Goodreads has decided that there is no friendzone for authors and people. Nate Hoffelder writes about the now more confusing world of GoodReads, fans, followers and a weird gum-up that may send people away from GoodReads.

The New World of Writing: Pulp Speed. Dean Wesley Smith quite knowledgeable about pulp writers and writer, offers some awesome insight about writing fast. Warp speed fast. (H.T. Anne R. Allen)

Read, enjoy and have a great week. :) WC