Good morning all. Once again we are at Lake Cumberland for the weekend. My daughter’s little dog is blind and is terrified of the boat, so since I don’t swim, we said we would stay with Zoe. Plus we love the peace and quiet here.
I was supposed to do this blog yesterday, but by the time I finished all I had to do, plus throw my rags in a bag, then sit still as a stone on the I75 due to rush hour traffic, we did not get here till late and I just deflated like a blow up doll.
I love it when I am with family. We have such a good time when we are together. After all, family is what it’s about, and with the world going to Hell in a hand basket, we need to stick together.
Okay, so much for preaching. I hope y’all have been able to get some work done this week. I am going to try and work on THE STONE KILLER some, but it is a two hour trip to any large super market. That’s fun. But then, it is Saturday and all country people go to town on Saturday. So, that is my day. So much for relaxing amid the peace and quiet. I just realized. Today is the first of the month, so it is bill paying day. Lordy, I love when your plan works out. Ha.
Y’all take it easy if you can. I hope you have a Blessed day and we’ll talk later.
Sorry for the delay. I hurt my back and couldn’t work.
FOR LOVE OF HANNAH
A Ghostly Romantic Suspense
Tuesday, December 4
At 5:30 A.M., Hannah opened her eyes but continued to lay listening. Outside, the night held back the dawn and fought to maintain its hold on the day, but soon had to relinquish its grasp and let the sun appear. All was quiet in the house. Cooper raised his head as if questioning whether or not to get up. She was glad she’d been able to sleep through the rest of the night without any other problems. But her gut told her Paul was behind the invasion of her home. She had hoped he’d realized she wanted nothing more to do with him, but doubted that he would accept the fact.
Still furious, Hannah headed back upstairs for a quick shower before sitting on the balcony savoring her first cup of the day. A trip home at noon was going to be necessary. One, to let the dog out, check on his injury and make sure Agnes was all right and aware to watch for the ADT man. Also, to see if her neighbor Richard could repair the glass panel in the door. He was good at odd jobs such as fixing things. Otherwise, she’d remain at the hospital until her shift was over.
After coffee, Hannah went inside, closed and locked the French doors, double-checking to be sure they were secure. Now dressed in scrubs and nurse’s shoes, dark hair pulled back in a ponytail, she headed downstairs and draped a light jacket over a chair to wear in the car. Having forgotten to give the security code for the alarm to Agnes, she wrote a note telling her what happened and who to watch for, then made a quick trip back upstairs to slip the note under the bedroom door. A lot of good the system did now or giving the code to Agnes, Hannah thought since she purchased the wrong type.
Going into the garage, she searched for and found a small square of plywood that might fit into the missing glass pane. Using duct tape, Hannah secured the piece in the door and returned to the living room. Now, she wished she parked the car in the garage instead of the driveway. Before stepping outside, she started to punch in the security code, stopped and shook her head, remembering the blasted thing wasn’t working. Not being used to having an alarm system, Hannah resented Paul for having to have one now. So far, it hadn’t been much use.
After locking the front door, she stood under the large portico supporting the second-floor balcony and checked the street. No sign of a red Mazda, thank God. Maybe today there’d be no incidences. Pulling the jacket closer in the cool air, Hannah hurried to the car.
All the way north on MLK Jr Street, Hannah was overjoyed to be going back to work. She slowed the car going past Lake Maggiore, a triangle-shaped body of water stretching from Twenty-sixth Avenue South to the Boyd Hill Nature Preserve at Forty-Fifth Avenue. Several residential homes faced the water, but most of the shoreline was surrounded by the Nature Preserve. The lake was used by local fishermen. But considering the lake was filled with alligators, Hannah felt anyone getting out on the water in a boat was risking their life if they accidentally fell overboard. The body of water also attracted different species of wading birds from white egrets, herons, and ducks who came to feed along the shoreline. Today, not a bird could be seen.
Now police cars lined the short patch of grass beside the water and the street. A tow truck was in the process of hooking up a battered old truck. From Hannah’s brief glimpse, the vehicle appeared to have run head-on into a tree. Even wrecked, the sight of the Ford tied Hannah’s stomach in knots. It looked a great deal like the truck driven by the man from yesterday. Then she saw a couple of boats on the lake, and the implication made Hannah shiver. Pressing the accelerator, she was glad to speed away from the ominous scene.
Once at work, Hannah tried to put the image out of her mind and fell into the ER routine. Another busy day was in the making as ambulance after ambulance rolled up to the automatic doors, and paramedics rushed patients into different rooms. Dr. McGhee kept an eye on her for any sign of fatigue or any other symptom associated with a head injury. But, when he needed a nurse’s assistance, he continued to call on Hannah. Around 11:30 A.M., the flow of ambulances slowed, giving the ER doctors and nurses a breather from the hectic pace.
Hannah was standing completing the information on a patient’s chart when Dr. McGhee came to stand beside her. “How are you doing so far?” he asked and placed a hand on her forehead.
Taking a step back, Hannah answered, “I’m doing great.” When the doctor stared as if questioning that statement, she insisted, “Really, I am. Even you said I have a hard head. As you can see, the bruise on my forehead is almost gone.” Hannah exposed the cut on her right arm. “There’s only a small scab left here, and no dizziness. So stop worrying.”
“That’s my job,” Dr. McGhee said. “I like to make sure my patients survive. I have to admit you appear to have recovered quite well. If there are any signs of a severe headache, be sure to call me at once. Do you understand?”
Hannah had to smile. Samuel McGhee was indeed a bossy doctor and must think the ER was under his full command, similar to the Army troops. As the doctor walked away, Hannah continued to smile, thankful the man did care about her welfare.
At noon, Hannah let Karen know she was going home to check on Cooper and would be returning a little late. All during the drive south on MLK, uneasiness tugged at her stomach. Any time Hannah expected to see a little red car in the rearview mirror. The vehicle never appeared. No one appeared to be following the Chevy, yet the prickling at the back of her neck refused to go away.
After pulling into the driveway, Hannah hurried to the front door, entered and started to punch in the code to cancel the alarm, then stopped. Cooper danced around, happy to see her, and eager to go outside. She hurried to the kitchen and opened the back door. “Hey, Agnes,” Hannah called to the older woman busy making tea and a ham and cheese sandwich. The canine charged out, peed, and raced back to gaze at Hannah as if to say, “Are you staying home?” Even the dog was recovering well.
“Hannah,” Agnes said, turning to ask, “Can I prepare a sandwich and a cup of tea for you?”
“How nice. Thank you,” Hannah said and took a seat at the large center island. “Any problems so far?”
“Everything has been nice and quiet. Your neighbor has gone to buy glass to repair the back door. Also, I know to look for the ADT man. Is there anything else I can do to help you?” Agnes raised an eyebrow.
“Yes, stay safe,” Hannah asked. “Have you sensed anything from Nate?” After Agnes shook her head, Hannah was disappointed and had hoped the woman would have heard something. She felt ridiculous because she was treating the situation as if her husband had just returned from deployment and was going to walk through the door at any moment? When had she started believing everything Agnes said? Because she wanted to believe Nate was still here in any form, ghost, or otherwise. “Sorry. Since being told you talk to my husband’s ghost, I’ve fallen into this mindset Nate’s not dead. It can’t continue, Agnes. Facing his death once was bad enough. To go through that a second time would kill me. I’d give anything if what you say is true, but being realistic, that is impossible.”
“How did I know all those things about the dress, the shirt, and the necklace if what I said wasn’t true?” Agnes believed Hannah knew her well enough to trust she wasn’t telling a lie. “Look, the only reason I told you anything about my being psychic was that Nate insisted I do so. Your husband is here to protect you,” she stated and placed a sandwich and a cup of hot tea on the table in front of Hannah.
“God, I hope you’re right. We both need protection from Paul,” she said and took a bite of the sandwich, chewing the dry meat and bread. Agnes had used butter instead of mayonnaise. A sip of tea to wash the food down, and Hannah added, “Nothing makes sense anymore. All this stress involving Paul is wearing me down. How do I distinguish between what’s real and what isn’t? That was the main reason I went back to work. The ER is the one sane place I know.” Hannah finished the food and tea, rose to let the dog out once more before returning to the hospital.
Again she told Agnes, “Keep an eye out for the ADT man. With luck, I should be home before the man arrives. Also, the phone is out. I’ll call the company later. And, if you would, when Richard fixes the door, tell him thanks, and I’ll pay him when I get home? That man is a wizard when it comes to repairing anything.” Hannah glanced at the clock. “Gotta get back to work,” she said, glad Agnes was there to take care of everything.
“Don’t worry about Cooper; I’ll take care of the poor pooch and the other. Stop worrying and go, and do be careful. You don’t know what that Paul is planning.” In an attempt to reassure Hannah, Agnes offered, “Everything will work out. Wait and see,” gave a short laugh, “Remember, I’m psychic.” Agnes waved Hannah away. “Go to work. I’m here and will let the ADT man in to fix the alarm. With Cooper here, I’ll be safe.” Agnes rubbed the animal’s head and stated, “This baby will let me know if anyone’s around the house in plenty of time to call the police. Stop worrying.”
Hannah nodded, grabbed her purse, gave a halfhearted wave, patted Cooper, and stepped out onto the front portico. A black newer Ford SUV with dark windows drove into the street, circled the cul-de-sac, slowed down when the driver saw her, then sped away to the main road. Hannah had never seen this vehicle in the neighborhood before. Someone was either lost or checking on her for Paul. Although she dismissed the idea as silly, that didn’t explain the anxious shivers crawling over her skin. Was she right? Was Paul having someone else spy on her? Why did she feel the vehicle had a more sinister reason for pulling into Hanover Street? Paul’s actions had made her paranoid and too suspicious of strangers. With a shake of her head, Hannah hurried to her car. At the front door, Agnes stood in the doorway, a hand on Cooper’s collar. Perhaps, the afternoon in the ER would be quiet for a change, but Hannah seriously doubted it.
Climbing into the Chevy, Hannah backed out of the driveway, drove to MLK Jr, turned left, and proceeded north. As she passed one of the side streets, Hannah glimpsed a small red vehicle. Not sure if the car was Paul’s, she turned left again at Fifty-Fourth and headed for the Interstate 275 ramp. Being a creature of habit, Paul knew Hannah always traveled MLK to the hospital. MLK was the shortest route. Today, she would feel safer if she took the long way if only to confuse him. At Fifty-Fourth, Hannah turned onto the access to the interstate. Once on the three-lane highway, she relaxed somewhat but kept looking for Paul’s vehicle. If everything went okay, she’d be at work in no time.
Maggie was mad as hell at Paul. Nothing had gone as planned or as she had instructed. December thirdcame and went, and Hannah was still alive. That she still lived put all their plans in jeopardy. Plus, not a word had come from Paul’s friend, Pete, to say the old bitch was dead and that he’d disposed of the body. Maggie called the attorney to make sure the man still thought she was Hannah. After being assured the paperwork was in the mail to transfer all property and funds, Maggie hung up, feeling a little more secure all their plans were going to continue to work. Now, to follow Hannah and grab her before she had time to get out of the vehicle.
Maggie had dressed in blue scrubs that morning, ready to take Hannah’s place once Paul had her secured and in the SUV. Paul now sat in the passenger seat, ready to head south as soon as Hannah was tied up and in the back. The plan was for Maggie to drive Hannah’s car back to the hospital, act sick, and return home. So far, everything was on schedule. Ahead, in the far right lane, was the Chevy HHR.
The time was a little past noon on the same day when Nate positioned himself in the back seat of Maggie’s Ford SUV. On I-275, three car lengths ahead, he could see Hannah’s car in the far right lane. Nate was sure his wife was oblivious to the fact the two were in the Ford in the lane next to the Chevy. No, Hannah would be focused on watching for Paul’s red Mazda and the Fifth Avenue South exit off the Interstate.
Nate had no idea what the two had planned. In shadowing Al, little had been revealed. All the man had done was work on the engine of the old truck or sit around drinking beer. The trip to Hannah’s on Monday was scary, but Cooper had scared Al away, and the drive-by on Tuesday was useless. Hannah had seen the vehicle and was sure to recognize it. Calling the police would be useless because the man had done nothing to be considered a threat. At least he’d been able to eliminate two of the problems. The only people left to deal with was his SOB friend and the woman.
So far, Paul had spent most days at Maggie’s house, talking a lot on his cell phone. It was on Nate’s return to Hannah’s the next morning after taking care of Pete, he’d sensed their plan was being put into action today. First, Maggie had dressed in nursing scrubs, and Paul had followed Hannah when she left work at noon. They had watched her go home and head back up I-275 to the I-75 split and Fifth Avenue exit.
Nate’s heart began to race as the woman increased the speed of the Ford, trying to stay close on the tail of the Chevy. The two vehicles drove side by side for a mile or more, the SUV in the middle lane, yet farther back so Hannah wouldn’t notice. Ahead, the exit sign for Fifth Avenue South, came into view. Nate was unable to stop Maggie as she edged the SUV forward until the vehicle was a short distance ahead of the HHR’s left front fender.
Out of nowhere, in the far left lane, a large semi-truck appeared and pulled next to Maggie’s vehicle. Without warning or hesitation, Nate slid into Maggie’s body and whipped the steering wheel to the left, slamming into the front fender of the semi, bounced off and hit Hannah’s Chevy, sending the vehicle spinning onto the off-ramp. Enraged, Nate had been unable to stop the impact of the Ford against Hannah’s car, but he’d make damn sure this woman never tried to harm his wife again.
With all the force possible, Nate grabbed the steering wheel and yanked it back to the left, holding on with all the strength he could muster for a ghost. A shocked Maggie yelled in terror as the out-of-control SUV smashed into the trailer of the truck. Nate caught a glance of the stunned expression on the face of the poor driver following behind the semi as he slammed on the brakes of the BMW and lost control.
The smaller sedan didn’t stand a chance against the weight of the larger vehicle as the SUV crashed into the passenger side. Nate continued to hold the steering wheel far to the left, while Maggie fought for control. Then both vehicles crashed and flipped. Over and over they rolled. The sedan landed upright in the median while the SUV flipped two more times before coming to rest on the grass upside down and now was a pile of crushed metal. Looking around, Nate saw the driver of the other vehicle had climbed out and stood, holding one arm, gazing at the larger sports utility vehicle.
Gas leaked from the tank. A spark flared. Bright orange flames shot up and began to envelop the car. Nate hoped both Paul and Maggie had died on impact; their bodies appeared twisted, broken, and bleeding. In slow motion, their ghosts rose and stood by the burning remains of the Ford looking horrified by the sight of the wreck. Maggie kept turning her gaze from Paul back to the black smoke forming above the wreck. Paul stared in terror at Nate, realizing he was seeing the spirit of the man he had betrayed. His mouth tried to form words, but he never got a chance to utter anything as he raised a hand in a pleading gesture. Fiery tentacles snaked out like a cracked whip to wrap around each leg, waist, and neck of Paul and Maggie. Screams erupted from the two as they fought against the force, dragging them back into the blazing vehicle. Their terror-filled voices rose in the air as the fire began to burn away the clothing on their bodies. In an instant, the two were devoured by the inferno.
Nate cringed at the sight of their souls, twisting in agony, but had little sympathy for the two people who had planned to murder his wife. Turning away, Nate went in search of Hannah. The vehicle had also flipped and rolled, landing upside down on the grass under a tree a little past the Fifth Avenue South exit but with the top in tack. Someone had called 911.
At a distance, but drawing closer with each minute, came the wail of sirens. As Nate kneeled beside the upside-down vehicle, he could see Hannah was seriously injured. Long gashes were bleeding on her right forearm from a new wound. Another large knot was growing on her forehead and becoming bluer by the second, as was the surrounding area of her right eye. Nate didn’t know if she had internal injuries or any broken bones, but it was possible due to the extent of the damage to the side and front of the vehicle.
“I’m here, Hannah,” Nate said over and over. “You’re going to be all right. Stay with me now.”
Hannah had heard his voice, but couldn’t see Nate’s face as it wasn’t visible. “I’m hurt, Nate. What happened? Did I wreck my car?”
“Yeah, baby, you wrecked. Don’t try to move. Fire Rescue will be here any second. I’ll stay with you until they get here.” Oh, how Nate wanted to pull Hannah from the vehicle and hold her close. That was an impossibility, but somehow, Hannah had heard his voice and knew he was there. God was kind to him on this day. As soon as the Paramedics arrived, Nate moved away.
The EMTs went into immediate action, assessed the injuries, and used the Jaws of Life to extract Hannah from the vehicle. After placing her on a backboard, a brace encircling her neck, a helicopter was called for transport to the nearest trauma facility, Baypointe Memorial
Doctors and nurses were waiting when Hannah was wheeled in on the gurney and rushed into the Trauma Room. At once, Dr. Hardy went to work to save her life, cutting off her bloody clothes. IV needles were inserted in her veins, supplying life-saving fluid to stabilize her condition. From a corner, Nate watched as the emergency team worked over Hannah.
A light began to glow around the bed. Nate knew what that meant; the doctor was losing Hannah. Dr. Hardy started yelling for the paddles. All too soon, her apparition sat up, and joy spread across Hannah’s face as she stared at Nate’s form standing near the door. She eased off the gurney, ignoring those working to save her life and rushed into his arms, tears sliding down the cheeks of her pale face
“Oh my God,” Hannah cried, “The military told me you were dead,” and clung to her husband, holding on tight.
Heart aching, Nate pulled Hannah’s arms loose and pushed her away. Anguish brought tears to his eyes, but time was fast running out for Hannah. Before that happened, he had to stop her. “I am dead, Hannah. Remember, I died in Afghanistan.”
“No, you’re here. So you can’t be dead,” Hannah said. Confusion furrowed her brow and brought pain to her eyes.
Nate watched the agony spread across his wife’s face as he turned Hannah to face the battle raging behind to save her life. “Hurry, Hannah, you have to hurry,” Nate said as the steady noise of the heart monitors flat-lining filled the room
Again, Nate heard the doctor yell for the paddles to shock her heart. If Hannah didn’t return to her body soon, she’d be gone. Nate urged her toward the gurney. “Now, you have to go back. There was an auto accident. Paul tried to kill you. Don’t let that bastard succeed.”
Hannah turned and looked at the doctor and nurses working over her body, then back at Nate. “I don’t want to go. Why can’t I stay here with you?”
What Nate was about to say hurt, “Because, you can’t. It’s not your time to die. There’s a lot you have to do. Paul and Maggie are dead, so you don’t have to be afraid anymore. Besides,” he said, a sad smile curving his lips, “someone is waiting for you to love him.”
“I don’t want to love anyone else.” Hannah began to cry
“Hannah, Hannah,” Nate said and wiped the tears from her cheeks. “You were my one love, and I thank God, we had those years together. But life has to go on. I’ll always live in your heart, but you have to go back. You will love again, maybe not in the same way, but just as fulfilling. A child is waiting to call you mother. It’s a boy, and he has to be allowed to live. You can’t deny his birth.” Again he heard the doctor yell to stand back, and Dr. Hardy hit her again with the paddles. “Now, Hannah, go now,” and Nate shoved Hannah back toward the gurney and said. “My allotted time to protect you has come to an end. I have to go too.”
“No,” Hannah yelled, as Nate again pushed her back. As her soul began to fade back into her body, Nate again experienced the pull of the white light drawing him away. Now that he’d accomplished what he’d stayed to do, protect Hannah, he didn’t fight the pull. Nate took one last look at Hannah as the thump, thump of the heart monitor, brought a smile to Doctor Hardy’s face, and the doctor yelled, “Yes!”
Nate whispered a quick, “I love you,” certain Hannah had heard his words. Finally, he was at peace, and then was gone
Three days later, Hannah woke in a room on the surgery floor of the hospital, right leg and left arm in a cast, with multiple bruises on her face and a bandaged wound again on the right forearm. Still groggy from painkillers, she remembered everything as if in a dream, not the actual accident, but seeing Nate. It had been due to her husband’s insistence that she had re-entered her body. The only reason she lived was because it was what Nate wanted. As for this new man in her life, that was a wait and see circumstance. After what she’d experienced with Paul, Hannah wasn’t sure she wanted anyone else. She also remembered Nate had said the threat from Paul and Maggie was gone.
Hannah had a vague memory of Joy sitting by the bed, crying, and holding her hand. Her cousin was in town caring for Cooper, having sent Agnes home, and planned to return to see Hannah in the evening. On the table next to the bed was a vase of flowers and a get-well card also from Joy. Propped against the vase, was a letter containing a business card with the name of an attorney and a note requesting she contact the office as soon as possible. Attorney Winston C. Dansworth was happy to inform Hannah, she was the sole beneficiary of her late father’s estate. There were papers to be signed so all property and accounts could be transferred to her name. This newfound wealth needed to be discussed with Joy as to what they would do. There was nothing Hannah wanted from the man who had deserted her as a child, and who she believed murdered her mother. But she wasn’t stupid either. The best decision was to see what the attorney had to say and then make a decision.
There was a sharp rap on the open door, and Hannah glanced over at a tall, broad-shouldered man in jeans, a white shirt, and loafers entering the room, holding what she assumed was her hospital chart. “And how are we today?” Dr. McGhee asked
“We are groggy, and a bit broken,” Hannah muttered, eyes half-closed and wanting to go back to sleep and not face the day
“Well, I fixed the breaks, so you’ll be good as new.” The doctor pulled a chair up to the side of the bed
“I know who you are, Dr. McGhee. I work in the ER,” she said.
“I know you do. Well, I’ll do my best to have you up and around in no time. But, you do need to learn how to drive or take a cab. Otherwise, I’m going to have to become your chauffeur to keep you safe,” Dr. McGhee said and looked down at the chart.
Hannah couldn’t help but give the man a pain-filled smile. “Those auto accidents were not my fault,” she countered, ignoring the remark of him becoming her chauffeur. Hannah hesitated and asked, “Are you from Tennessee by chance?” trying to joke. Did the man even know the old poem by Robert Service, The Cremation of Sam McGee, ‘Sam McGee was from Tennessee, where the cotton blooms and grows’?
The doctor looked up and smiled. “No, but I’ve heard that joke most of my life. I’m from Texas.” glanced down at her chart again, then wrote new orders to reduce the pain medication. After listening to the beating of her heart, checking her eyes, and blood pressure, Dr. McGhee brushed a stray lock of hair away from her face, rose to leave, then added, “I’ll be back to see you tomorrow.” Then called over his shoulder, “No Tennessee jokes either,” as he walked out the door laughing
It was the soft voice in Hannah’s mind, which was a surprise as she closed her eyes, “Dr. McGhee’s, Hannah, my love is the one. He’ll protect and make you happy.” As sleep claimed Hannah, she saw Nate’s smiling face before he turned, walked away, and disappeared. Now, she could put her husband to rest and was at peace knowing the time had come to let go and accept the possibility of someone new in her life
Everyone have a great weekend and stay in, wear a mask if you go out and always remember, NEVER GIVE UP, NEVER SURRENDER. This virus is deadly and is not a hoax.
To those who have read this story; I would greatly appreciate an email to email@example.com telling me if you liked the book and why or constructive criticism.
Monday, December 3
Hannah woke to the low whisper of Nate’s voice. The night’s sleep had been anything but restful. Even if it had been a dream, it had been wonderful to lie in Nate’s arm and experience his lovemaking. Again, since the problems with Paul had started, Hannah awoke, still tired but feeling a little safer. Near dawn, there had been another dream or nightmare, involving watching Paul being chased around the house by a shadowy figure. All Hannah could think was how great it would be if someone had chased the man out of her life. She smiled at the idea and lowered the chair into a sitting position
Rubbing the sleep from her eyes, Hannah rose and dragged herself into the kitchen to let Cooper hobble out the back door. The poor dog was sore, but still able to get up. Like me, she thought, still hurting a little from the accident, but better. The animal was not happy about wearing the collar and kept trying to shake the thing off. Hannah was just thankful the dog was alive. She continued to be angry over Paul causing the problem. It was a deliberate attempt to hit or even kill Cooper. The fact Coop had been Nate’s dog, Hannah was sure the bastard knew how much the animal meant to her. If Nate had been alive, Hannah was positive her husband would have killed Paul. If Nate were alive, there’d be no Paul in her life. How often did that phrase enter her mind? Too often. Nate was gone, and now, she had to fight her own battles.
At the moment, all Hannah could think over and over was, the bastard, someday he’ll get his. Once Coop returned, she fed the dog and filled gave him fresh water. Nothing was pressing; she could spend time relaxing if she wanted. Sitting around doing nothing was not Hannah’s idea of fun. But the lack of a good night’s sleep made her feel as if she were exhausted. She chalked the feeling up to all the emotional turmoil she had gone through with Paul and the accident. Again the word bastard crossed her mind.
The coffee pot finished gurgling. A fresh hot cup in hand, she carried it into the living room, placing it on the table before going for the paper. Still in a flannel nightshirt and house shoes, she unlocked the front door and stepped out onto the front porch, grabbed the newspaper, and raised up in time to see Paul’s red Mazda drive slowly past the street.
Son of a bitch, she muttered. The problem with Paul wasn’t over. The bastard wasn’t giving up. This intense stalking was beginning to frighten her. At no time had Hannah believed she’d become the victim of a mentally crazed man. What made a person want a woman who didn’t love him? The entire idea was crazy. Didn’t men or women understand they couldn’t make someone love them? The chemistry was present, or it wasn’t. But that didn’t stop people of both sexes from becoming obsessed with one another. After years of working the ER, Hannah was aware of how dangerous and violent those types could become, having help treat women whose boyfriends refused to take no for an answer. To end up on some gurney after being beaten half to death was not in her plans. Another call to the police was due.
After breakfast, Hannah did phone the police but was not surprised when told there was nothing they could do to prevent the man from driving anywhere he wanted to go. Besides, he was the one who had filed the complaint against her. Hannah hung up with the realization she was definitely on her own. Sure the police would come after Paul had either maimed or killed her. Too late, but the problem was solved. It was optimistic to think he wouldn’t resort to violence. As long as Paul stayed away, he was safe from her anger. She would fight to protect herself.
To chase away the morbid thoughts, Hannah began removing the rest of the framed pictures of Nate and her that were hanging on the walls. The photos were documentation of their life together, which no longer existed. It was time to put it all away. All the memories were forever stored in her mind, which, unlike photographs, could remain out of sight. There’d be a time when the void might be filled with the love of another man. A different kind of love, but still love.
The rest of the morning Hannah spent boxing everything that she had not had the heart to pack away before. All the mementos of Nate’s little league coaching days, plus two old sweaters, were placed in a bag to go to the shelter for the homeless. When done, a single photograph of Nate hung above the fireplace, another on the nightstand beside the bed, and one remained on the table by the front door. The walls and bookshelves looked naked. A whining Cooper followed Hannah around until she dropped into the recliner and fought back the tears. Her heart was breaking to let go, but it was best to get the job done while she had the courage.
Suddenly the phone rang, and when she answered, a single word was shouted at her, “Bitch!” and the call ended. Without any warning, Cooper uttered a low growl and hobbled to the front door. Hannah rose, opened the door, and stepped out onto the porch in time to see Paul’s car driving down the street. The man was not going to leave her alone. He was an out and out vindictive bastard. That SOB needed to leave her alone. Hannah dropped into the chair. She was still so furious the urge to commit violence was tempting. Never had Hannah experienced loneliness as she did now. The deep sense of being vulnerable was overwhelming, and she fought against the tears sliding down her cheeks. A pity party was not going to help her situation. So she dried her tears and tried to dissect all that had happened.
Paul had convinced his friends at the police department, she was the one causing trouble, and now no one believed her. Everything that had happened in the last week compounded the agony of losing Nate, and the terrible turn her association with Paul had taken. There were no tears to shed over ridding herself of that relationship. More and more, Hannah was suspicious of the motive for his proposal. Paul claimed to be such a great guy helping people locate missing loved ones. In the short time he’d been involved in Hannah’s life, their few evenings together consisted of one brief encounter and two dinners, not counting the evening he’d brought pizza to the house.
The man gave the impression of having limited funds made Agnes’ warning more believable. If she were supposed to inherit a large sum of money that would explain Paul’s desire to marry her. Certainly not for love as he professed. Paul Dawson didn’t love anyone but himself. Of that, Hannah was positive. The fact a man wasn’t rich didn’t matter, as long as the man was willing to work. The most important consideration was the type of individual he was and if he had a kind and loving heart. One other thing, she wasn’t about to support a man. A lazy man should be hard for any woman to tolerate. But Hannah knew a lot of women did support men, which was understandable if the individual was unable to find employment due to sickness or for some other legitimate reason.
Another thought crossed Hannah’s mind. She had never been to Paul’s apartment, had never wanted to go for some reason. Had her subconscious sensed something? Considering how things had turned out, maybe she should have listened.
By late afternoon, tired of thinking about Paul and his spiteful ways, exhaustion, both mental and physical, fatigue weighed on Hannah’s eyelids. With Cooper settled beside the chair, Hannah grabbed an afghan and curled up for a short nap. It wasn’t long before she was deep asleep and dreaming.
The hour was late. Out on the Bay, the faint glow from the lights of a ship was visible. The security light in the backyard had suddenly popped on, and Hannah was frightened. Nate was there, and she rushed into his arms, never wanting to leave. Dressed in fatigues and battle gear, he was all serious, with worry lines creasing his forehead. They were standing on the upstairs balcony, and Nate kept glancing at the yard below. Shadows drifted back and forth across the lawn, then became menacing shapes rushing toward the house. Nate kept trying to shove Hannah behind him as if blocking the dark forms from reaching her. Over and over, the creatures darted at the balcony. Again and again, Nate blocked the shapes from coming over the railing, knocking each back into the light, where they vanished. Hannah began to shiver with fear. What were those things wanting to harm her? Once Nate was certain the danger was gone, he led Hannah inside to bed, cradling her all night in his arms.
When Hannah awoke, the dream became a faint memory, but somehow she sensed Nate was trying to tell her something from beyond. Paul wasn’t finished. But she’d deal with whatever he tried.
Hannah was busy in the kitchen, preparing Cooper’s food and a turkey sandwich for lunch when the phone rang. Grabbing the portable, she grabbed the tea kettle at the same time, and said into the receiver, “Hold on a minute,” filled the pot with water and placed the kettle on a burner before turning back to the call. “Hello.”
“Hi there. It’s me,” Suzanne said. “Boy, aren’t you the one.”
Confused, Hannah asked, “What do you mean, I’m the one?”
“At Dubees Saturday night.”
“Suzanne, what are you talking about?”
“You and Paul. I saw you.”
Hannah was beginning to get angry, “I have no idea what you’re talking about. I was home Saturday night. Now quit sidestepping and say what you want to say.”
Sounding exasperated, Suzanne almost shouted into the phone, “You and Paul out dancing at Dubees. Why didn’t you tell me you were dating him?”
“What! I’m not, and I wasn’t at Dubees. I wouldn’t go anywhere with Paul Dawson. That bastard tried to kill Cooper.” Hannah’s temper was on the rise at the mere idea Suzanne claimed she was out on a date with the man.
“Look, Hannah, why are you denying it? I saw you myself on the dance floor. It wasn’t but a minute or two after Charlie and I walked into the bar. I waved, but you ignored me. Then I looked for you, but you had disappeared. I thought it was rude, you didn’t stop and say hello.”
Not believing what Suzanne was saying, Hannah continued to deny being at Dubees. “I told you I was at home. And as far as Paul Dawson is concerned, I never want to see that son of a bitch again. The biggest mistake I made was trying to be a friend to the rat.”
“Hannah,” Suzanne insisted, “You can deny it all you want, but I know what I saw. There you were, all hugged up in Paul’s arms dancing close together. When he saw me, Paul said something, and then you both disappear. If you don’t want anyone to know, all right, but say so, and I won’t tell a soul.”
Yeah, Hannah thought, in all likelihood, Suzanne had been mouthing off all over the hospital by now she was dating Paul. “I don’t care what you think you saw; I was not at Dubees Saturday night. I don’t care what you believe, but you’d better not be telling anyone I’m dating that bastard.” This time Hannah did shout into the phone, “Do you understand what I’m saying?”
A meek, “Yes,” came through the line, and the call ended.
Hannah replaced the portable on the cradle as the tea kettle screamed. She jumped up and hurried to turn the burner off. After placing the dog’s food bowl on the floor, she paused, hand on the cup holding a tea bag, the kettle posed above ready to pour the hot water. She chewed at her upper lip, trying to reason out what Suzanne had said. Had Paul hired someone to impersonate her? Had the man stooped to such a devious low to make people believe they were dating? Why? For some money, she didn’t possess? Lord knows, she didn’t have any excess. The question of being able to keep the house was still up in the air.
So where was all this cash coming from? Nowhere. It couldn’t be this supposed fortune from her long-vanished father. If the story was true, why hadn’t an attorney contacted her? Then Hannah remembered what Agnes had said, that Paul had a woman friend who could be her twin. Was that the woman Suzanne had seen and believed to be Hannah? The thought was frightening, that someone could pretend to be her. Had the lawyers called this other woman believing she was Ted Clayton’s daughter? If that was Paul’s scheme, it would work only if she was dead. And as Agnes had said, Paul was scheming to kill her. If attacked while at home, Hannah had to wonder if the police would even show up. Officers had been dispatched to her address multiple times and were not inclined to respond when prior problems had not been substantiated. No, the police could not be depended on to save her.
Another question popped into Hannah’s head. What about her DNA? Wouldn’t that be a requirement to prove her identity? If so, then this doppelganger was out of luck. Trying to reason it all out was giving her a headache. After pouring the hot water over the tea bag and stirring in a teaspoon of sugar, Hannah carried the cup and the sandwich to the table. As for Suzanne’s crazy comments about seeing her and Paul, Hannah hoped she was wrong and that her coworker was seeing things.
After eating the sandwich and finishing the tea, with Coop curled up beside the chair, Hannah settled in the recliner to watch television. But her mind was unable to concentrate on the screen. The question kept running through her head, what other horrible things was Paul scheming to do next?
Around two in the afternoon, the ADT man arrived and installed the security system, giving Hannah a sense of protection. Afterward, she went to the home office, sat at the desk, contemplating reading several of the letters she’d sent to Nate but changed her mind. Why torture herself? She’d, at last, come to terms with Nate’s death, even though the loss continued to hurt like hell. But she was surviving.
Right after the serviceman pulled away from the house,
Hannah called the dog and urged him to the back door and left it open so he could come in when ready. There was a knock at the front, and the dog came hobbling in, hurried across the living room, growling all the way. When Hannah opened the door, a man in worn a flannel shirt, jeans, and work boots stood on the front porch. She had to grab Coop’s collar to prevent the animal from lunging through the screen door.
Holding up both hands, a mean glint in his blue eyes, the man smiled then started to say something, stopped and stared at her as if he’d seen a ghost. Quickly backing away, he said., “Sorry, I only wanted to know if you had any yard work that needed doing?” and then turned to hurry down the steps to an old Ford truck parked in front of the house.
Hannah gasped as the man smiled, then hurried to his vehicle. It was the evil smile that brought the image from her nightmares to mind. The man gave her chills. He was an older version of the man in her dreams. A look-a-like possibly, but not the same person. Trying to shake off the image from her childhood, she continued to stand in the open doorway, and watch as he drove to the end of the cul-de-sac and turned onto the street. If Coop didn’t like the man, Hannah wasn’t about to hire someone the dog didn’t trust. And that man, she would never hire. A person had to respect a dog’s senses over their own when it came to most people. Cooper hadn’t liked Paul, yet she had let the man into her life. Hannah paused to consider that stupid mistake before closing and locking the door before going to the kitchen to fix dinner.
It was more difficult than she thought to rid her mind of the image of the boogeyman she’d feared most of her life. But Hannah was determined not to let the memory of the terror of her childhood return to haunt her. Glancing out the kitchen window, Hannah could see the sun was hanging lower in the afternoon sky. The days had shortened so much now that sunset was around 5:30 P.M. or shortly thereafter, which made for a long evening. Too much time to think about past events. But not tonight. It was early to bed. The morning couldn’t arrive soon enough as far as Hannah was concerned. She was going back to work. Hannah smiled as she climbed the stairs, then images of Agnes slipped into her mind. After performing the night’s routine, she put on a nightgown and placed a call to Agnes.
When Hannah didn’t get an answer right away, she started to worry. Then came a soft “Hello.”
“Agnes, it’s Hannah. Just checking to see if you’re all right? Are you settled in for the night, the door locked?” How safe was anyone if a man like Paul was hunting for you?
“Yes, the door’s locked. But, this is not the most secure place I’ve been in. My house would have been safer. That’s where I should have stayed.” Agnes was frightened. Someone was out to kill her. If Carson could invade her house, she wasn’t safe in a motel. And where was Nate? Not a word from the soldier since warning her to get out.
“Perhaps you’re right. Agnes, I think you should come here. At least, I have my gun. If anyone comes to the house, we can defend ourselves.” The more Hannah thought about that idea, the more she was certain it was the best choice. “Get in your car and come here, right now. I had an alarm system installed today, and with Cooper and my gun, this is the safest place for you.”
“I’ll be right along. And thank you, Hannah.” A sense of relief made Agnes smile. The girl was right; there was safety in numbers. Purse in hand, she hurried to the rental car, keyed the engine and backed out of the parking place.
Tired of sitting around the house all day waiting for Paul to call, Pete had gotten curious about this woman, Hannah. It was obvious the man was crazy about this gal. Otherwise, why had he threatened to kill Al if his brother touched her? On impulse, Pete had gone to see the reason and now understood. This Hannah was beautiful beyond words.
But Paul would kill him if the man suspected he was anywhere near what he called his girl, let alone at her very door. Curiosity had made Pete do it. Paul never said why the woman had to die, but any fool could figure it out once he saw this Hannah. Maggie may be a close twin, but she’d never pass for this woman if that was the plan. Pete suspected it was. Maggie was a beauty, but had too many hard edges. This Hannah was soft and wasn’t capable of hurting a bug, let alone a human being. Maggie didn’t come close to being as classy as this broad.
Why, he wondered, had he never realized how much Maggie resembled his first contract kill. Maybe it was her blonde hair. But this Hannah woman brought it all back. She was a ringer for the broad in Kentucky back in1986 who he’d forced to commit suicide. His victim was beautiful, but in constant pain from cancer, or so he’d been told. It had all been arranged by the husband’s girlfriend. The woman was tired of waiting for the wife to die and had hired him to quicken her passing.
There had been a kid in the house, a little girl. He’d given the woman a choice, take the pills voluntarily, or he’d kill the child while she watched and then her. After the job was done, for years the shocked expression on her face, as he forced her to take the pills, haunted him. But he’d been paid and paid a lot. Too late to question if it was her wish or not. He found out later, the husband had left town without the woman and disappeared. Too many years and jobs made it too late for regrets. He’d chosen his path in life.
Pete hurried to the truck and drove back to Gulfport. Paul should be calling at any moment. If not, what the hell was taking so long? Today was the date Paul had set to kill this woman. Had something happened to change the plan? Even if he had, the bastard had better come up with the seventy-five thousand, or he was a dead man.
As Pete walked into the house, his cell phone rang. Paul.
“Well?” was all he said.
“This Agnes is at the Budget Inn on Thirty-Fourth Street North. The one a couple of blocks north of Ninth Avenue.” Paul gave Pete the room number, and the make and model of Agnes’ rental car. “It’s after six, so get your butt in gear and get the job done!” Paul added, “Don’t be seen, or let anything lead back to me either. Do the job and do it right this time.”
“What about this, Hannah woman? Didn’t you say she had to be gone by today?”
“Take care of them both if you can. If not, just get this old broad out of our hair, then we’ll take care of the other one later.” If Pete did the job right, and Hannah could be grabbed tonight, Maggie could move into the house, and no one would be the wiser. Paul smiled. Everything was going to work out after all. “Do it and then call afterward,” he instructed and then hung up.
“Okay, talk to you after.” Pete headed back to the truck.
Like Pete, Nate was tired of waiting for something to happen. He’d stay close to the man all day, not daring to let him out of sight. Terrified when the man had knocked on Hannah’s door, Nate was ready to attack, but hesitated, not wanting to frighten his wife. The man did nothing and left. Now Nate was determined that Pete would never come close to Hannah again. But, where was Agnes?
All Nate had to do was concentrate on the older woman, and he was transported to the motel room in time to hear the phone conversation. Agnes was going to her house or Hannah’s. Not sure which, when the older woman left the room, he was right behind and slipped into the car. As she drove onto Thirty-Fourth Street, an older truck pulled into the driveway of the motel. The man driving the vehicle glanced briefly at the vehicle, but couldn’t see who was driving. But Nate recognized the truck as Pete’s. Agnes glanced in the rearview mirror and saw the vehicle park in front of the room she’d just vacated, and immediately stepped on the gas, anxious to get as far away as possible.
Pete opened the truck’s door, got out without making a noise, and then pushed it closed. Glancing around, he walked to the room’s entrance and turned the knob. The door opened to reveal an empty room. The woman was gone. In a rush, he hurried back to the vehicle and backed out but was forced to stop for the traffic. Where could the old broad have gone? Back home was the best odds, or to the other woman’s house. Cussing, Pete merged onto the street, certain this Agnes hadn’t gotten too far ahead. He was right. At the red light, he saw the rental car turn right. He followed. At every turn, Pete was close behind, keeping one vehicle between the truck and car at all times. If the old woman became spooked, she might drive to the police station. It was best to stay close and see where she stopped. With any luck, it would be a place with easy access.
Nate was aware Pete was behind Agnes and had followed her to the house. When she pulled into the garage, Pete stopped the truck at the corner and sat with the engine idling watching to see what she was going to do.
Agnes pulled the rental car into the garage, closed and locked the door, then hurried to Hannah’s house and knocked. At once, Hannah ushered her in, shutting the door and turned the lock. Then wrapped her arms around Agnes and muttered, “Thank God, you made it.” before releasing the other woman. “Are you all right?”
“Scared as hell, but otherwise fine. What do we do now, wait for someone to break in here?” shaking, Agnes asked, removed her coat and tossed it across a chair along with her purse. “The rental car is in my garage, and the door doesn’t have windows. If anyone wants to check, they’d have to enter the house.
“Sit down, Agnes, and try to relax. You’re safer here than the motel,” Hannah persisted and sat beside her. “When I found your house open, I turned the bottom lock.
“Thanks. Neither of us is safe as long as Paul Dawson is after us.”
“Paul won’t do anything now. Since I reported him to the police, if anything happens to me, he’d be the first one the cops would suspect,” Hannah insisted, hoping she was right. “One of the police officers who came to the house said I have the right to defend myself since the police won’t believe we’re in danger. But if that becomes necessary to make certain the person is inside the house. If this Al is still after you and comes here, I can shoot the man and be within the law. Also, I received a phone call from a coworker saying she saw Paul and me out dancing. I think he is using that twin you told me about to impersonate me.”
“Oh my,” Agnes said. “Then it’s true, this woman does look like you.”
“That’s what Suzanne claims. She kept insisting it was me even after I told her I wasn’t out with Paul.” No, Suzanne hadn’t believed Hannah, and now she understood why.
Nate sat on the arm of the sofa next to Agnes. “Don’t worry about Al Carson anymore,” he said. “The man had an auto accident. As for this woman, she will never be allowed to take Hannah’s place.”
Agnes spun around. “Oh, God, where have you been?” Agnes glanced at Hannah. “Nate’s here.”
“Here beside me.”
“Agnes, tell Hannah you’re both safe for now.” Maggie and Paul still had to be dealt with and soon. “Al died when his truck flipped on Fifty-Fourth Avenue. I still have to find out Paul’s plan.”
Agnes relayed the message, gave a sigh of relief, and relaxed back against the cushions. “Nate said the man had an accident with the truck.” Agnes wasn’t sorry the bastard was dead. Al had invaded her home to kill her and destroyed her peaceful existence. He had shown her how dangerous the world could be. She was lucky fate got to the man first.
“He was the man killed the other night?” Hannah asked.
Nate gave a quiet, “Yes.”
“Sleep easy tonight,” Nate said. “I’ll be keeping watch.” From the balcony, he almost added. Hannah was suffering enough without adding to all her problems. What she needed was rest and a good night’s sleep. Nate was determined to see Hannah was able to go to bed without worrying. Besides, no matter what Paul said, he and Maggie weren’t going to try anything tonight. No, those two had to have other people to do their dirty deeds.
Hannah gazed with longing at the end of the sofa. Since coming to believe Agnes did see Nate, how she prayed to be able as well. But that didn’t happen. “Tell Nate how much I miss him,” Hannah said with a catch in her voice.
“Hannah, he knows.”
Nate felt as if he was being torn apart to be so close and unable to touch his wife. “Tell her I love her and will keep you both safe.” Nate had to go before doing something he’d regret.
Agnes sensed the instant Nate left. “He’s gone, Hannah.”
“I know,” she said.
“The room isn’t as cold as it was before.” She sighed, feeling saddened and a little less secure by Nate’s departure. “There are fresh linens on the bed in the spare room,” she told Agnes. “You have your own bathroom, and the bed is comfortable. There’s no need to wake you when I get up. Tomorrow, I have to go back to work. With the alarm and Cooper, you should be all right here alone. Make sure to remember to shut off the alarm and keep the doors locked. Come upstairs, and I’ll show you to your room.” It dawned on Hannah, Agnes didn’t bring any luggage. “There’s a gown and a robe in my room you can wear. Also, the toothbrush and supplies in the bathroom are new, or do you want to run to your house and get a few things?” Hannah didn’t think that was a good idea for Agnes to leave the safety of this house. “Let’s wait until tomorrow evening to do that,” Hannah said leading the way upstairs.
“Okay. I’ll make do tonight, and we’ll see how everything goes tomorrow. And thank you, Hannah. This was not necessary.” Agnes realized the danger to which she was exposing her neighbor. From prior experience, crazy men such as Paul Dawson didn’t give up. Regardless of what Nate said, they had to be careful. Agnes stopped outside the bedroom door and confronted Hannah. “Why are you risking going into work tomorrow?”
“Staying off work will cost me too much. I need this job, Agnes. Like you, I have expenses. If I don’t work, I could lose my home. I couldn’t bear to lose this place too.” It was true. Each month her savings had dwindled. If she wasn’t careful, soon, there would be nothing left.
“Go to bed and try to sleep. Cooper will let us know if anything is wrong, and I’ll call the police.” Hannah patted Agnes on the shoulder and hurried to the bedroom, calling out, “Goodnight.” To be at work on time, she had to be up before dawn.
“Night,” Agnes called, then closed the door.
Once Pete saw the house go dark, he waited forty-five minutes to give the women time to fall asleep. As quiet as a skunk on padded feet, he sneaked around the side of the house, and carefully peered into the backyard. Having seen the ADT sign stake in the ground near the front steps, he clipped the phone line on the outside wall, before hurrying to the kitchen door. Placing duct tape in the form of an X on the glass of the lower pane, a swift rap to the bottom pane and the glass fell inward and onto the matt with minimal noise. Pete stopped to listen for the sound of the dog, but heard nothing. After reaching through the opening, he turned the lock, twisted the knob and stepped through the entrance being careful to avoid the glass.
Once inside, he headed for the stairs, testing each step before placing his full weight down. Pete had drawn his gun in case the dog charged. Both Paul and Maggie wanted the animal gone. Maybe this would be the perfect time to take care of the problem of the dog and the women. Besides, he hated dogs, having been bitten as a kid. Pete was midway to the second floor when he heard a low growl coming from behind the closed door at the end of the hall. Right foot hovering above the next step, he stopped and remained quiet, hoping the animal would go back to sleep. The growling did stop, so he continued up the staircase.
At the top, he was struck by a blast of frigid air. The whole hallway seemed shrouded in a chilling mist of icy crystals. The way this bitch liked the cold was crazy. Too cold for him. But he was here to do a job. It was time to get crackin’. Pete placed a foot on the last step into the hallway and shivered. “Damn,” he whispered and moved on rubber soles toward the closed door.
After quieting Cooper, Nate was waiting for the man to reach the top and come down the hall. Another bastard to be dealt with and soon before, either of the women woke and found him in the house. Nate drifted forward until he was right behind Pete. Before Carson’s hand touched the doorknob to Hannah’s bedroom, he was whirled around by an unseen force.
Stunned by the sudden twist of his body, Pete tried to turn back to the door, but his frame refused to cooperate and was out of control. Strong hands clutched his shoulders, whip him around to face away from the door. Slow but sure, he was pushed forward toward the stairs. Pete tried to dig in his heels and fought to stop the movement, but the hold on his body was too strong. All of a sudden, he was at the top of the landing gazing down the eight steps, then flying headfirst to the bottom. Landing on his back, his right shoulder slammed against the wall, and the air was knocked out of his lungs. Gasping for breath, Pete raised on one elbow, then climbed to his feet. Again he was shoved from behind. An icy fist kept hitting him in the middle of the back until Pete was running to get away from this unseen force scaring the hell out of him.
Bounding out the kitchen door, around the house and down the street to the truck, Pete jumped behind the wheel, keyed the engine and hit the gas, then barreled east on Pinellas Point Drive to MLK, turned and headed north. All the while, fear made him wet with sweat. Once he was far enough away, he started to relax, but kept going over and over what had happened in his mind. There wasn’t any explanation that could explain away what had transpired in the house. Paul was crazy if he thought he was going back to grab the woman. Something else, besides the dog, was in that home protecting the bitch. If Dawson wanted the job done, he could do it. Seventy-five thousand wasn’t enough. If he was to try again, there had to be a much higher payday, otherwise, no go. And Paul and Maggie had to come up with a better plan.
Nate had followed Pete to the front of the house before returning to make sure the women were still asleep. After fading through the door to Hannah’s room and seeing she did not appear to have been awakened by the noise of Pete falling down the stairs. Nate was surprised. But Cooper was awake and kept looking at his master for a command. Nate motioned for the dog to settle down, and he jumped back on the bed. Satisfied, Nate now had to take care of this Pete problem.
He focused on the man and the vehicle and found himself sitting next to him. The truck was on MLK Street and maintained its speed. The closer they came to Lake Maggiore, an idea popped into Nate’s head. The bastard’s brother had run Hannah off the road, along this road, and this SOB had planned on abducting her and doing God knows what to his wife. Perhaps he should return the favor.
As the vehicle approached Thirty-Second Avenue South, Nate shifted toward Pete and felt himself glide into Carson’s body. With hands clamped tight on the wheel, Nate twisted it to the left and the truck crossed the lane, jumped the curb and slammed into a tree. Thrown out of the man’s body and the truck, Nate saw Pete shake himself, look around and try to open the door. The thing didn’t budge. Angry, the man kicked the panel over and over until it whipped back. Looking confused, Pete jumped from the cab and started to examine the front end.
Sneaking up behind the man with both hands, Nate slammed him against the side of the vehicle. His body bounced off the hood, and he stumbled backward, looking to the right and left. Again, Nate pushed him away from the tree. Staggering, the man righted himself and whipped from side to side, looking for the culprit attacking him again. There was no one, but again a cold mist made Pete shiver with fright.
This time Nate pushed him backward into the water. Pete fell and scrambled to get up, fearing the consequences if he didn’t. As soon as his body was upright, once more, Nate smashed Pete hard in the chest, driving him ever farther, and farther from shore into the inky deep water. A splash sounded not far away. Nate was aware of what the sound meant, had hoped it would happen. An alligator. Over and over, he forced the man away from the shore’s edge. And then the monster appeared, a snout and two eyes gliding along the surface. Pete screamed and tried to turn, making every effort to get back to shore. Too late. Two massive jaws clamped down on his arm and dragged him under. Pete fought, beating on the knobby head and pounding the eyes with his free fist. A hopeless fight of man against beast. The beast won. Down Pete was dragged into the darkness of the lake.
In the glow of the streetlights, Nate witnessed the struggle. The alligator rolled the body over and over until both disappeared beneath the dark water. A blacker cloud formed and hovered above where the alligator and man had vanished. Finger-like streaks of fire shot out and beneath the surface to drag Pete’s screaming spirit up from the depth. For a second Pete stared in Nate’s direction, horror registering on his face, then his ghost vanished into the inky void, his terror-filled howl suddenly cut short.
Two threats had been eliminated. But Nate knew two remained.
Hannah had heard Cooper’s low growl and lay still for a few moments with her eyes closed listening, but heard nothing more. When the dog settled on the bed once more, she sat up. In the light shining into the bedroom from the bathroom, she could see the dog jump down again and put his nose to the door. Grabbing the fuzzy blue robe, she pulled it on, removed the gun from the nightstand and slipped her feet into the moccasins. Silently, with the gun in hand, she made her way to the door, opened it a crack, in time to hear the pounding of feet below. She slipped into the hallway with Cooper right behind and heard someone rush out the back door. She saw Agnes’s bedroom door open and motioned for her to remain inside.
Being careful in case more than one person was in the house, Hannah made her way down the steps into the living room. A blast of cold air wafted around her when she reached the kitchen doorway. Immediately she flipped on the light switch. The room was empty, and the back door was standing open. Broken glass lay on the mat used to clean off the soles of shoes when coming inside.
Hannah looked around the room. Nothing appeared disturbed. The dog sniffed the wood and the tile, gave a low growl, the hackle on his back raised. Coop made his way outside, peed, and then trudged around the side of the house, nose to the ground. Hannah followed and saw the faint outline of footprints coming and then a set in the dirt with a wider stride as if the person was running.
Grabbing the dog’s collar, Hannah led Cooper back inside, shut the door and twisted the lock, then gave a short laugh. The pane had to be repaired. All anyone had to do was stick an arm through the hole and open the door. Then it hit Hannah. Why hadn’t the alarm gone off? Going to the front door, she checked the keypad. The damn thing was offline. Hannah used her cell phone to call ADT and was happy for the twenty-four-hour service, but was surprised to learn the system she had purchased was connected to the phone landline.
“Check your house phone,” the man said.
The line was dead. Nothing, she told the representative. “Then it isn’t wireless. All anyone had to do is cut the outside phone lines, and the alarm won’t work. What you need is a wireless system in the house. It’s safer.”
Furious, Hannah demanded, “Why wasn’t I told this when you people came to show me the plans? Send someone here to install a wireless system today!” The man agreed to send someone out the next afternoon between two and four.
Still furious, Hannah cleaned up the glass, then stuffed heavy towels in the broken pane to keep out the chilly night air. The door couldn’t be repaired tonight, so her makeshift job would have to do for now. Frustrated, she headed back upstairs to bed, hoping the rest of the night would pass without incident.
Everyone have a great week and stay in and stay safe. Remember: NEVER GIVE UP, NEVER SURRENDER.
A gray sky hid the sun the next morning, and the humidity level was on the rise. To the west of the Sunshine Skyway Bridge, dark storm clouds loomed, threatening an afternoon of bad weather. Somewhere in the outside trees, birds sang and chirped as Hannah awoke, surprised to have slept through the night. She’d had another dream — a scary one. Nate was worried and kept telling her to be careful. Then they made love, and the warning vanished from her mind.
Hannah stretched, rubbed the dog’s head, and then got out of bed. “Come on, Coop, time to go outside,” she said and pulled on a robe. “What was wrong with you last night?” she asked, proceeding down the stairs ahead of the creature. Earlier in the evening, the dog had barked and acted as if sensing something sinister. After Hannah had checked and saw nothing, he quieted down and went to sleep on his pallet. Raccoons were known to wander the neighborhood and even invade garbage cans in search of any morsel of food. With the ability to open most containers, it was hard to keep the clever creatures out of the trash. On several occasions, Hannah had found the can on its side and the contents scattered in the yard. Perhaps one had been in the front yard or on the porch but dismissed the idea of Paul returning. The man couldn’t be that stupid.
As soon as she opened the back door, the dog charged out. Hurriedly, she fixed the dog’s food and sat it on the floor. It amazed Hannah, since the terrible evening when the two Marine officers appeared at the door, how the dog guarded her. When she was home, he stayed close, ears alert for any strange sound. No doubt, the animal would die trying to protect her. Nate had trained him well.
Paul didn’t seem to like animals, and Cooper wasn’t fond of him. Animals were a good judge of character. She should have known something was wrong with the man from the way Coop acted. Dogs could sense when a person was bad or good. Why, Hannah wonder, couldn’t humans have the same capabilities. It would save a lot of heartaches for women and men. Whether the dog was receptive to Paul didn’t matter anymore since the relationship didn’t work out. Hannah was still determined to follow through and move forward and put Paul Dawson out of her mind.
After the ordeal last evening, all she wanted today was a peaceful day. Since the disposal of Nate’s clothes, she realized it was time to put away any other reminders of her husband. Her wounds had to heal, and that was the only way they would. That didn’t mean he would be banished completely from her mind; no, her heart would always be full of love for her husband.
Coffee cup in hand, and still in the robe, Hannah headed into the living room, turned on the television to catch the morning news at nine. An on-location reporter was describing a horrible vehicle accident late the night before. A man in a brown truck had flipped near the I-275 overpass on Fifty-Fourth Avenue South. Witnesses stated the individual had been driving erratically all along the avenue and into the intersection where the accident occurred. The vehicle had burst into flames, and the driver had died at the scene.
Surprised by the news, Hannah had to wonder if the truck was the same one that had run her off the road and been at the cemetery. She wanted to dismiss the idea but did not believe it was a coincidence. Yes, there were numerous brown trucks in the city besides the one she had encountered, so the chances the vehicle was the same were slim to none. There should be more details on the noon or the evening news. Until then, the work in the office she’d started needed to be finished. Returning to the bedroom, Hannah pulled on an old pair of jeans and a blue sweatshirt, stuffed her feet in socks and sneakers, and went back to the kitchen.
Refilling her coffee cup, she entered the office and stared at the mess on top of the desk. No matter how hard she tried to keep everything neat and in order, once the desktop was cleaned off, within a day or two, the surface was piled high again. Well, now it was time to master her laziness. Hannah was determined to file all the papers. She sat at the computer staring at the dark screen. The idea of searching the files for the love letters she had written to Nate was more than she could take. A gut-wrenching ache of loneliness hit Hannah.
God, how she missed him, missed his humor, the boisterous laugh, everything about him. The man always made her feel safe, out of harm’s way as long as he was around. And now, alone, Hannah had to contend with Paul and his nasty attitude. For the moment, the decision was to read all the letters or forget about it altogether. Tomorrow was a different day, and she’d make the decision then, as Scarlett always said.
Hannah wiped at her face, took a deep breath to ease the ache in her chest. Thinking about Nate hurt too much and served only as a reminder of how alone she felt every day. The love like they’d shared came around once in a lifetime. No other man could ever measure up to her late husband. It was unfair to expect anyone to compete against the man.
All this free time was too much and had her thinking crazy things. She needed to get back to her job. With that thought in mind, Hannah called Karen Watts to ask about returning to work. All the inactivity and the situation with Paul added to the wear and tear on her nerves. It was better to be at the hospital with lots of people around than alone in a big house.
“Look, Karen, I’m going crazy sitting at home,” Hannah said. “This house has been scrubbed from top to bottom twice since I’ve been off. Please ask Dr. McGhee if I can get back to work.”
“Hannah, you had a concussion. What if something goes wrong?” Karen had to protect the best interest of the hospital, as well as the patient.
“Well then, I’ll be right where I can receive immediate care. Isn’t that better than something happening here at the house? I’m all alone except for my dog, and he can’t dial 911.” A long silence followed. “Karen, I am much better, no dizziness or anything,” Hannah hastened to add, fearful her boss would insist she stay home.
“Look, I’ll talk with the doctor and see what he says. Until then, you stay put.”
“All right. But see if I can return to work tomorrow,” Hannah said.
After Karen ended the call, Hannah realized the chill remained in the room, so she turned the heat up a notch. She glanced out the front window and stared in disbelief. Parked at the corner not far from one of the resident’s house was Paul’s red sports car. What the hell was that SOB doing there, spying on her? A wave of fear passed over her to think the man would sit in the car and watch the house for the sole purpose of keeping tabs on her activities. Furious, Hannah charged out the front door, with Cooper following.
When she walked up to the driver’s side of the vehicle, Paul was dozing, head resting against the glass. With a sharp rap on the window, he jerked awake and stared through the window before lowering the glass.
“What the hell are you doing watching my house?” Hannah demanded
Paul’s lips curled into a snarl. “Just wanted to see what an asshole you were fucking last night!” and started to open the door to get out, but changed his mind when the dog uttered a deep growl.
What the hell was Paul talking about; had he been there all night? “You bastard, did you break into my house?” Hannah didn’t believe that was a possibility as Cooper would have attacked him. Also, the dog would have let her know if Paul was anywhere close to the home. Coop knew the sound of his car would have smelled the man’s odor. Paul was making it all up. Now, Hannah knew why he didn’t like animals; animals knew he was a bastard. “If I catch you watching my house again, I’ll call the police and have you arrested for stalking,” Hannah yelled and turned to go back to the house
“It’s a free country, bitch,” he yelled back, ignoring her question about breaking in. “I can go wherever I want, and you can’t stop me!”
Hannah whipped around and charged at the car again. “What have I ever done to you to make you treat me this way? I tried to be your friend, but you wanted more than I can give. So, stay away from me, Paul. I’m warning you.”
When she’d run to the corner to confront Paul, Hannah hadn’t noticed Agnes’s front door standing open. As she walked toward her house, now, she did. Taking the steps two at a time, she stopped and knocked, in case the older woman didn’t realize the entrance to the house was unlocked. No answer. Hannah stepped inside and called her name. Still no answer. A knot formed in her stomach. Where was Agnes? Hannah checked the upstairs and each room downstairs in case the older woman was unconscious from a fall. She was nowhere in the house. Agnes wasn’t one to run out and leave her home unlocked.
Fearing the worst, Hannah secured the door and hurried home to phone the police. When she explained her neighbor’s door was open and the lady appeared to be missing, Hannah was stunned to discover nothing could be done for twenty-four hours. What made matters worse, Hannah had the woman’s house phone, but not the cell number. Did Agnes even own a cell phone? When she and Nate first moved into the neighborhood, they’d make a point of giving Agnes both their phone numbers. There was nothing to be done but wait until she called. For the moment, Hannah had another problem to deal with, Paul.
How long had Paul been watching the house, Hannah wondered? Was this the first time? And why? Was the man that upset over being rejected? Was Paul that vain? Just as Hannah reached for her cell to call the police, it rang. The phone number was unknown. On the odd chance it was Agnes, she answered.
“Hannah, it’s me,” Agnes said.
“Where are you? I found your front door open this morning, and you were gone. I’ve been worried sick. What is going on?”
“I’m alive thanks to Nate’s warning late last night that Al Carson was coming to kill me. And it seems your friend Paul is in a tizzy over my warning you against him. Do you believe the bastard’s afraid of someone like me?” Agnes stated, amused by the fact Paul might fear what she had to say.
“Are you somewhere safe?”
“Yes. I didn’t want to put anyone in danger, so I’m staying at a motel. Carson won’t find me here,” the older woman said.
Agnes sounded more confident than Hannah felt. Paul was a former cop and now a PI who had all types of resources at his disposal. And how many friends at the Police Department was he able to rely on for information.
“Agnes, the danger hasn’t gone away. Paul will find you. That’s what he does for a living, find missing people. Come here. I have a gun and know how to shoot it. Nate taught me.” Maybe the woman would listen to reason.
“I’m not about to put you in any more danger. The man is crazy.” What kind of person would she be if Hannah was killed because of her?
“Did you use a credit card?” Hannah hoped not, but habit outweighed common sense.
“Yes,” came the timid reply.
“Well, Paul can track your whereabouts through that credit card.” Thank goodness for all those crime shows on TV, Hannah thought. Otherwise, she’d never have thought about the cards. “Go get cash and check out of the motel. Now.” Hannah was aware Agnes’ vehicle could also be tracked. “Can you afford to rent a car and park yours someplace?” A different car and paying cash was the safest way to go.
“Okay, I’ll do as you say. But, I’m sure Nate’s keeping an eye on the men. Nate is not going to let anyone hurt you, Hannah, or me.”
“Agnes, I’m not worried about me. I’m afraid for you. Please stay safe and call when you get settled into a different hotel.” How had everything become such a mess? There was no way to trace the problems back to any one particular instant other than when Paul appeared back in her life. That had to be it. Something had to be done about the man.
“Look, I’m calling the police right now to let them know what’s going on. I have your number on my cell phone, so I know how to reach you. I have to go. Take care, Agnes,” Hannah said and ended the call.
Hannah immediately placed the call to the police department. After explaining the situation, the complaint was dismissed. Paul had threatened, abused, or stalked her. Since this was the first incident committed, there was nothing the police were able to do. Plus, Hannah had no proof Paul had been inside the house other than when invited. Until he took action against Hannah other than sit in the car outside on the street, only then could she file a complaint.
Besides, she’d heard a restraining order didn’t stop a woman from being attacked or killed. It was a useless piece of paper issued by the courts, which stopped no one from committing a violent act.
Hannah would have to protect herself. Nate had taught her some self-defense moves and how to shoot a gun. She hated guns, having seen at the ER the damage caused by a firearm to the innocent. Well, why should she waste her time worrying about Paul? The man was a coward, and Hannah felt lucky to be rid of the son of a bitch, anyway soon, she hoped.
Going to the kitchen, she made a grocery list before running the errands already on her agenda. She’d never considered an alarm system until now, but it was time to arrange to have one installed. Suddenly the phone rang and startled Hannah. It was Karen, with good news. “You can return to work Tuesday, but for light-duty, and that’s all. If Dr. McGhee says you have to go home, you are back on sick leave. We’ll see how it goes. Okay?”
“Great,” Hannah said. “I’ll be in by 7:00 as usual. See you Tuesday then, and thanks.” Hannah wanted to jump with happiness. Thank God, she was going back to work. No more sitting around on her butt, trying to find ways to keep busy. There was just so much housecleaning to do before it became ridiculous. Back to the job Hannah loved was a sure way to put Paul Dawson out of her thoughts. Caring for patients gave her the same joy as taking care of Cooper.
Talking to her boss had cooled her anger at Paul somewhat, but not enough. After making sure Cooper had plenty of water, a chew bone, and the back door was locked, Hannah left the house, giving the front door a double check in case Paul got any ideas. Once inside the Chevy, Hannah sat behind the wheel for a moment before backing out. Driving while in an agitated state was not a good idea. It made a person vulnerable to accidents, even if it was simply to go the short distance to Publix and back
As she backed out, Hannah glanced at the second story, but in daylight didn’t see anything. Cooper hadn’t made a sound all night. Paul had lied. Maybe the vine growing up the trellis could support a man, but that was doubtful. On the way to the store and back, she kept expecting to see Paul’s little red car but breathed a sigh of relief when she didn’t.
Once home, after parking the Chevy in the driveway, Hannah climbed the steps to the front porch and stopped. A package was on the floor at the front door. Hannah picked it up. There was no return address or postmark on the outside. Carrying the box to the kitchen with Cooper at her heels trying to sniff the outside of the box, Hannah placed the item along with her purse on the counter. With a knife, slit the tape binding the box flaps. Cooper at once reared on his hind legs, placed his front paws on the counter, and uttered a low growl
Inside the carton was a heart-shaped box of chocolates and a card from Paul apologizing for his outburst. As far as Hannah was concerned, it was too little, too late. Without a moment’s hesitation, she dropped the card and chocolates into the trash.
Immediately, her cell phone rang. Hannah pulled the phone from her purse and looked at the screen. As expected, Paul. She declined the call. Again the damn thing rang. This time Hannah answered, knowing Paul would keep calling. “I told you, we’re finished. Don’t call again.”
“But, I sent a card and candy to apologize. I’m sorry for the way I acted. Give me another chance,” Paul begged
“No, impossible, Paul. For one thing, I’m not in love with you, and it’s best we never see each other again.” Hannah ended the call and returned to dusting the house to keep her mind off what had happened.
By evening, exhausted from polishing everything, vacuuming, and mopping the kitchen, Hannah had even laundered Cooper’s bed next to Nate’s chair. The dog kept sniffing at the pallet as if to ask, “What did you do to my bed, Mom?” before lying down.
Now too tired to cook, a quick run to Subway or a pizza crossed Hannah’s mind. After a quick shower, with her hair wrapped in a towel, she emerged from the bathroom and pulled on a robe. Out of the open French doors, at the end of the cul-de-sac, Hannah saw Paul standing in front of the red Mazda, staring at the second-story balcony. Anger like she’d never experienced sent her blood to boiling. Clutching the robe tighter and ignoring the chill, Hannah charged out onto the balcony.
When Paul looked up, Hannah yelled, “You son of a bitch, you’d better stay away from me! I told you, we’re done!”
Paul hurried to the driver’s side and yelled back, “No woman throws me over like this. I’ll make you pay,” then jumped in the car and sped away, tires screeching on the pavement
Shaken by this new threat, Hannah returned to the bedroom, closed the doors against the cold, and dropped down on the bed. How could she have been so wrong about a man? Why hadn’t there been signs of his controlling behavior? Hannah knew the answer to those questions. Not once had Paul exhibited anything other than consideration.
The man was good at putting on a facade to cover his true personality, which was that of a scary vengeful person. She needed to keep the gun Nate had taught her to use close at hand and in the nightstand when she went to bed. The weapon plus an alarm system, and Cooper should keep her safe. Decision made, Hannah dressed in fresh jeans, a sweater, socks, and loafers and went down to the kitchen to make hot tea to ward off the chill. But even the hot tea didn’t stop the goosebumps racing over her skin. Hannah realized she was afraid of Paul. The man had gone crazy with this obsession for her. Hannah didn’t feel safe anymore. So before she had a chance to change her mind, she grabbed the phone book and located a number for ADT Home Security, placed the call, and arranged for a system to be installed on the upcoming Monday. Then, instead of going out, she called Pizza Hut and placed a delivery order.
Soon there was a knock at the front door. When Hannah opened it, Paul tried to push the screen door open wider, knocked her down, and was stopped by a charging, growling Cooper. Rage roared through every fiber of Hannah’s being as she climbed to her feet. She didn’t attempt to stop the charging dog as Cooper chased Paul to the Mazda parked in front of the house. Along the way, the man stumbled a couple of times and almost fell, but regained his footing and made it to the car just in time or the dog would have had bitten him.
Cooper reared on his hind legs, clawing at the window, trying to get at the man. When Paul pulled away from the curb, he attempted to hit the dog with the car, missed, but managed to graze him with the bumper. The animal dropped to the pavement, whimpering. Hannah raced down the front steps, yelling for help and knelt beside Cooper, cradling his head in her lap. Tears streamed down Hannah’s face. The poor animal had been injured trying to protect her.
Richard and Harvey came running from their home in time to see the dog bounce off the vehicle’s bumper. Both rushed to help Hannah. With care, Harvey ran a hand over the dog’s hindquarters while Richard stooped beside him. “I can’t tell if anything is broken,” Harvey said, shaking his head. Harvey was what a lot of women called a dream walking, tall, dark, handsome, and gay. “Better take the dog to the vet to be sure.”
“Please, carry him to my car,” Hannah said, then ran back into the house to grab her purse, car keys, and lock the door. With Richard and Harvey in the back seat holding Cooper, Hannah drove as fast as the traffic allowed to the emergency veterinarian’s office on Twenty-second Avenue North.
After several x-rays and a diagnosis of a severely bruised hip, Hannah was glad to pay the five hundred dollars plus a bill for the dog’s care. And she was thankful Cooper was going to be all right. The vet was amazed the animal didn’t have a broken hip or more serious injuries. The injury appeared to be a minor bump, taking off a bit of hair and hide. As for the raw place, the doctor supplied an ointment to be applied three times a day, and a collar for Cooper to wear to stop the dog from licking the wound.
Hannah intended to call the police as soon as she arrived home. But when she turned into the cul-de-sac was surprised to see a sheriff’s car stopped in front of the house.
“Mrs. Roberts,” one of the deputies said as Hannah hurried to unlock the front door. Richard and Harvey carried Cooper inside. After the men placed the dog on his bed, she turned, thanked them for their help and ushered them out, before motioning the other two inside
“I’m Hannah Roberts,” she said. “I was about to call you about Paul Dawson. Richard and Harvey, my neighbors, witnessed the man try to kill my dog with his car.”
The two men looked confused, “Mrs. Roberts, Paul Dawson filed a complaint that your dog tried to attack him.”
Hannah exploded, “What?” Almost too angry to talk, Hannah stammered, “The son of a bitch pushed open my door, knocked me down, and when Cooper tried to protect me by chasing the SOB, the asshole hit my dog with his vehicle.” Hannah grabbed the receipt where the vet bill was paid and shoved the piece of paper under the officer’s nose. The man took the receipt, looked at the itemization and passed the bill to the other officer
Hannah’s anger continued as she spat out. “I called the police the other day and tried to get a restraining order against Paul. The man threatened me, and he sits in his car outside this house watching me. Now, the bastard has attacked me. The clerk I spoke with said a restraining order couldn’t be issued until Paul did something. Well, now he has, and I want one issued against Paul Dawson. The man is nuts.”
“Ma’am,” embarrassed, the cop went on, “Mr. Dawson claims you’ve been harassing him.” The officer handed Hannah a paper and continued. “We’re here to issue a warning to stay away from Mr. Dawson.”
Stunned by the paper in her hand, Hannah stammered, “Me? I never want to see that man again. Keep the son of a bitch away from me! Paul Dawson was the one who attacked me. The only thing I’ve done is to end our so-called friendship.” Hannah paused for a moment as a thought occurred. Cooper was down, but would still try to protect her. The gun was now the single means of defense. The main problem being, would she be able to shoot at a person? Hannah didn’t like the idea much. “Don’t I have the right to defend myself and my property?” she asked
“Yes, ma’am, you do,” the deputy said, expression sympathetic as he added, “Just make sure if that’s necessary, you are in your own home, and the person isn’t outside.”
Hannah followed the two men to the door and watched the car drive away, Paul’s red sports car drove past the entrance to the street. The bastard was still watching the house. The pit of Hannah’s stomach said more trouble was coming her way. Paul wasn’t about to stop his attacks, and that she had better be prepared.
Thankfully, Richard and Harvey had gone inside and missed hearing about all the problems with Paul. As neighbors go, the two men were great, but also big gossips. Hannah didn’t want all everyone on the street, knowing her business by the end of the day. The men had learned more about her business than she wanted anyone to know.
Another knock at the door jarred Hannah. Cooper issued a low growl as she peeked out the front window. It was the pizza delivery man. Pulling twenty dollars from her wallet, Hannah opened the door, handed the young man the money and still angry, stormed at him, “You’re way late. The pizza has to be cold.”
Ignoring the young man’s guilty frown, Hannah took the pizza into the kitchen and placed it in the refrigerator, now too exhausted to eat. She didn’t want to think or care about Paul Dawson anymore.
Relieved, Hannah locked all the doors and curled up in Nate’s recliner. Since Cooper was too sore to climb the stairs, so sleeping in the recliner was the best option for now. After watching television for a couple of hours, she turned it off and went to the kitchen to prepare the coffee pot for the morning. When Hannah started to go to the second floor, the dog hobbled over to stand at the bottom, whining. With an order for Cooper to stay, she then hurried up to brush her teeth and pull on a long warm flannel nightgown before coming back down.
Once Hannah was wrapped in a heavy comforter and settled in the old chair, the dog, with care, laid down on the pallet and settled in for the night. Hannah hadn’t realized how exhausted all the confrontation had made her. Soon, her eyes drifted shut. Once again, Hannah slipped into dreamland, and all was right in the world.
Nate had watched everything that had transpired and was furious he’d been unable to stop Paul, not that he didn’t want to, but the timing wasn’t right. Plus, he’d have terrified his wife. A couple of times, he’d made Paul stumble to give Cooper a chance to catch him. Too bad, he hadn’t dared to do more.
Now that Hannah was resting and asleep, but safe, he was uneasy. Agnes was somewhere out there and still be in danger. The woman wouldn’t be able to hide from someone like Paul Dawson. Turning his attention to the former cop once more, Nate arrived at the Carson house in Gulfport as the Mazda pulled into the driveway.
Paul barged into the house without knocking, to find Pete pacing the floor. “Where in the hell is Al?” Paul shouted. “My sources at the police department have no record of that old woman’s death. Police have not been dispatched to her house or anything. I told Al to kill the bitch, not dispose of the body too. The cops have received one phone call from Hannah saying the front door was left open. So, where is the bastard?” Paul demanded.
“How the fuck do I know,” Pete yelled back. “Al left here last night after dark as you instructed, and I ain’t seen him since. You must have scared my brother so bad with those threats, he left the state. I even made a call to relatives in Georgia. None of them have heard from or seen Al. Now I have another mess of his to clean up. That’s been the story of my life, fixing what Al ruins. If I fix this, all the money is mine.” Pete was about to say something else when his cell phone rang. He held up a hand to silence any remark Paul was about to make.
Pete listened for a moment. The man’s face paled, and he dropped down onto the sofa. “Yeah, that’s me. When? Yeah, Al was driving his truck last night. No. No one was with him.” Again Pete was silent, then asked, “Where? Do I need to come down and ID the body?” If pale wasn’t enough, Pete turned even whiter, and his mouth twisted as if holding back a scream. At last, he was able to mutter a low “Thank you,” before ending the call.
Paul kept staring at the man. “What the fuck was that all about? Holy shit, man, you look like hell.” Something bad had happened. Whatever it was had better not interfere with their plans.
Pete raised his eyes to meet Paul’s. Rage simmered in the glare. “Al’s dead, and it’s your fucking fault.” Pete shot the words like bullets at the man and rose to his feet, fist balled. “You just had to have some old woman killed, even though the cops believe the woman is crazy with her wild idea of being psychic.”
Paul backed up when the older man stood. The look in Pete’s eyes was scary even to him, the appearance of a crazy man. “What do you mean, Al’s dead? Your brother was here last night, so he can’t be dead.”
Pete picked up a beer bottle from the coffee table and threw it. The thing sailed past the other man’s head and hit the wall, smashing into tiny pieces. As Pete began to advance, Paul backed away.
“Hold it,” Paul shouted. “I had nothing to do with Al’s death. All I told him was to kill the bitch, not get himself done in. Look, I’ll double your money. Fifty thousand instead of twenty if you take care of Hannah and the nosey old bitch. This job still needs to be done. What do you say?” At the mention of the larger sum, Pete stopped moving in Paul’s direction.
“If you can do fifty,” Pete snarled. “You can do seventy-five.”
“Done.” Relieved, Paul moved out of the man’s path and sat on the sofa. “Now, tell me about the phone call and what happened.”
Pete explained the call was from the police. There had been an accident in south St. Pete. The cops identified the truck as belonging to Al and explained the driver had died. The truck caught fire. If he supplied a DNA sample, the Medical Examiner would be able to get a positive ID on the body which had been burned beyond recognition. Until the victim was identified, Pete would be unable to claim the remains for shipment back to Georgia.
“It’s that damn old woman,” Paul insisted, realizing the one fact he’d withheld from Al, the claim Nate’s ghost was talking to Agnes Carter. Paul didn’t believe the story and wasn’t about to mention it in case Pete believed in spirits. “Pete, you have to take care of this woman. She’s the one who’s caused all the problems between me and Hannah.”
“How do I find her?”
“That won’t be difficult for me. With all my connections as a private investigator, tracking most people is easy. I have access to numerous informational databases that can locate the old bitch. She might try to hide, but also can be easily found. Because this Agnes person has a record with the police department, a friend at the PD can help track her. The cops can put out a BOLO (Be On the Look Out) for her vehicle. I’ll have her exact location within hours. St. Petersburg ain’t so large she can hide from me.” Paul gave a smug smile and pulled out his cell phone. “Stay close to the phone. I’ll call as soon as I locate her.” As Paul walked out the door, Nate stayed behind. Even though his main priority was Hannah, Agnes was his second and needed to be protected as well. As soon as Pete made a move, Nate planned to be right beside the man.
Still shaking from Pete’s threatening action, Paul hurried to the car and drove straight to Maggie’s place. He was dreading telling her about Al. When he walked into the house, without thinking blurted out, “Al’s dead. Killed in an auto accident on Fifty-Fourth Avenue South last night.” Paul expected a reaction but was surprised by the empathy in Maggie’s voice.
“How awful for Pete,” she said. Then the real reason for her concern came out. “Is he going to do the job alone?”
“Yeah, but he wants seventy-five.” Paul arched an eyebrow, waiting for Maggie to explode at the larger sum. Another surprise.
“Okay, that’s agreeable. With the amount of money involved, seventy-five thousand is nothing. So everything is on schedule. You look like hell. What’s going on with you?”
“Nothing,” he snapped, still fuming over Hannah’s refusal to marry him. Now, he had to marry Maggie to gain access to all that money. If she caught wind of his plans, he’d be a dead man for sure. He softened his tone and said, “Sorry, baby. It’s been a hell of a day, and I’m tired, that’s all.” He gave her a quick kiss on the lips. “You go on to bed. I’ll be there shortly. I have a phone call I need to make first,” and went to sit at the kitchen table.
“All right. Just so you know, I’m not sleepy, so hurry up,” Maggie called over her shoulder as she sauntered down the hall.
Paul was aware of what Maggie not being sleepy meant. He frowned as he pulled his cell phone from his pocket and called an old friend at the police department.
Everyone have a safe and great weekend. Remember, NEVER GIVE UP, NEVER SURRENDER.
Nathan C. Roberts sacrificed his life for his country. Now he will sacrifice his soul to save his wife.
FOR LOVE OF HANNAH
A Ghostly Romantic Suspense
Saturday, December 1
At 9:00 A.M., Hannah dragged herself out of bed, let Cooper out, and then took a shower in hopes it would wake her up. She had been off work all week and planned to return on Monday, if possible, Tuesday at the latest. Physically, she was doing better. Her shoulder was still sore, as were her knees, but the knot on her forehead had gone down. A slight bruise still showed, which could be hidden with makeup. By the end of the weekend, all the soreness should be gone. Besides, she needed to get back to work and put all this craziness behind her. And last night’s conversation with Agnes had been insane. She hoped her decision to go to the police was the right one.
After dressing in a navy pants suit, white blouse, and matching pumps, she returned to the kitchen to let the dog back inside. It was important to appear as professional as possible when she visited the main headquarters. With any hope, they wouldn’t think she was as nutty as her claims were going to sound. Taking a seat at the table, she savored the cup of hot coffee. She’d made it extra strong for fortification and to give her a little extra energy.
When she picked up her purse, Cooper dropped down on his bed and stared at her. “I won’t be gone long,” she told him. He thumped his tail and sighed. Hannah gave him a quick pat on the head and went out the door.
Located on First Avenue North, the Police Department covered the entire block from Central Avenue to First Avenue North and in between Thirteenth and Fifteenth Street North. Hannah considered herself lucky to find a two-hour parking spot across the street from the building. Inside the lobby, she waited her turn in line at the reception desk. The room was filled with people sitting with men in business suits and engrossed in quiet conversations.
At the front desk, she explained the purpose of her visit and was told to wait for an escort. After being guided upstairs to the Property Crimes Unit, Hannah was directed to a Sergeant Wade Boston’s desk.
“Good morning, Miss. How can I help you?” he said and leaned back in his chair. A heavyset man with thinning dark hair, a bulbous nose, and green eyes, he was dressed in a white shirt and tan slacks; a dark brown jacket was hooked over the back of his office chair.
Hannah hesitated, not sure how to begin. “My neighbor told me a man named Albert Carson broke into my house.”
The sergeant sat up straighter, “Did she see this man do it?”
Hannah frowned and shook her head. Oh crap, she thought, now comes the lunacy part.
“Then how does she know he did it?” Confusion danced across the Sergeant face, and he raised his eyebrows in doubt.
“My neighbor is Agnes Murphy-Carter,” she told him and went on to explain all Agnes had said.
“You’re telling me this woman claims to be in contact with your deceased husband,” the detective said and gave her an odd look. “She claims to be psychic and talks to the dead? That’s what you’re saying?” Skepticism was etched in every line of the man’s features. Boston nodded to a younger man at the adjoining desk, a sharp contrast to the sergeant. This man was well dressed in a dark suit, white shirt, vest, and tie, with a thick head of sandy hair and probing blue eyes. Right away, he began typing something into the computer, waited a moment, then jotted a note on a piece of paper, rose and left the room.
“What’s he doing?” Hannah asked. Did the police know Agnes?
“Sergeant Robo is my partner, and he’s checking something for me. What else can you tell me about this Carson person?” Boston asked as the other man returned with a folder and took a seat at his desk, turned his chair, and nodded to the sergeant.
“Nothing. I don’t know Al Carson, and as far as I know, have never met the man.” Hannah looked at the other sergeant and asked, “What did you go to look up?”
Sergeant Boston nodded to Robo. “This department is familiar with your neighbor, Agnes Murphy-Carter. In fact, she is suspected of having helped her husband, John, die from an overdose of morphine. The man was riddled with cancer and had been prescribed a heavy dosage every four hours for pain. The needle and medication were on the nightstand beside the bed, so the man could have administered the drug himself. Agnes’ prints and his were on the syringe. We had no proof of anything, so the case was dropped. But we know Agnes in another way.”
Sergeant Robo flipped open the folder and showed it to Hannah. “We don’t want you to be conned by this woman.”
Before Hannah was a candid picture of a young Agnes, dressed in a floral print blouse, a long skirt, and sitting at a table in a small room. “Whenever the Renaissance Festival was in Largo years ago, Agnes Carter would set up a fortune-telling booth. People paid to have their fortune read by this woman. Several complaints were filed against her. It seems she told people the good things and warned them about the bad going to happen. Scared the hell out of several folks. Then, she kept trying to get the department to investigate a murder, which hadn’t happened. That’s when we became interested in her little act. Then the victims were found just as she described. Let’s say, Agnes became a prime person of interest. There were things she knew which had been kept from the public. Robo and I never found any evidence to connect the woman to any of the crimes. When she was threatened with incarceration, she stopped coming around.”
“Maybe you should have listened. Perhaps Agnes was trying to help the victims and the police, like she’s trying to help me.” Frustrated, Hannah continued, “Look, there’s no way that woman could know the things she told me, like a prom dress I bought and never wore, a shirt of my husband’s I slept in.” From their facial expressions, Hannah could tell they were not going to believe anything she said.
The sergeant interrupted, “You don’t know. She may have been watching with binoculars. It’s amazing in today’s computer age how easy it is to find out all kinds of things about people.” The sergeant leaned forward and continued, “Just in case, we’ll check out this Albert Carson.”
“What about Paul Dawson? Agnes says he’s in on the plot to kill me. For some reason, the man thinks I’m to inherit a lot of money from a father I haven’t heard from or seen since I was four years old. Which, I don’t believe. All the money I have is what I received from Nate’s insurance policy.” Hannah was getting angry. Had she been a fool for listening to Agnes? At the mention of Paul, she had their attention.
“Do you mean Paul Alan Dawson?” Sergeant Boston said.
“I don’t know what his middle name is.”
“Paul Dawson, who used to be a cop?”
“Yes. Paul used to be on the St. Pete police force but was suspended for something,” Hannah stated. The two men exchanged glances. Hannah suddenly felt uncomfortable. These men were friends of Paul.
“Paul wasn’t suspended. As far as I know, the man quit because he and the commander didn’t get along. He’s a straight-up guy. And you claim this man is planning to kill you. Well, we’ll check it out, but I don’t think you have anything to worry about with Paul. As for Agnes Carter, stay away from that woman. She’ll cause you nothing but grief,” Sergeant Robo stated as if disregarding her entire statement.
Hannah stood, having been dismissed by the officer, turned to walk away, stopped, and said, “I’ve had enough grief, as you so aptly put it.”
“Wait,” the cop named Boston stopped her. “I’ll escort you out,” and led the way to the elevator.
Standing at the lobby entrance, after Hannah walked out the front doors, Sergeant Boston watched the woman look back, then hurry across the street to a Chevy and drive away. A crazy nut job was what he thought. Taking a cell phone from a pocket, Boston placed the call any good friend was duty-bound to make.
A voice said, “Hello.”
“Hey, you son of a bitch, how you doing? This is Boston.”
“Hey, back at you. What have you been up to?” Paul paused for a moment. This wasn’t like his old coworker to call out of the blue even if they had been friends. Boston was privy to the real reason Paul had left the job, and that information remained a secret between the two. After a drug bust late one night, a lot of money had been found at the scene. Later, he and his then partner swore it was a miscount. Nothing could be proven otherwise because both men stuck to the same story.
“Just a friendly heads-up. I had a visit today from this damn good looking woman who claims you want to kill her.” There was silence on the other end. “Do you know Hannah Roberts?”
“Yeah,” Paul said, drawing out the word, trying to come up with anything to appease the detective. “We were involved but split up. What do you mean Hannah claims I want to kill her?”
“That’s what she said. Claims a neighbor, one Agnes Murphy-Carter is a psychic and is talking to this woman’s dead husband. This dead man’s ghost insists this Carter woman warn Mrs. Roberts you are planning on killing her for a bunch of money. Any truth to this, old buddy?” Boston wasn’t surprised to hear the anger in Paul’s voice.
Paul reacted as expected, he exploded. “You’ve got to be kidding me. Hannah was angry over the breakup, but I didn’t realize she was that mad.” Now how in the hell was he to resolve this problem? Maggie was going to be pissed as hell if she found out. Paul knew he’d have to make sure she didn’t know anything about Agnes and this psychic crap. Maggie had a tendency to be skittish about such things. “Don’t pay any attention to the claims. Never would I touched a hair on her head. Wade, you know me better than that. I don’t hurt women.” As far as the truth went, the statement was true. But, for as much money as Maggie was due to inherit posing as Hannah, Paul would kill his own sister if she got in the way.
“Yes, I do know you well, Paul. Stay clear of this broad. If anything does happen to the woman, you’ll be the first person suspected. Just wanted you to know, old buddy.” Yeah, Boston thought, I sure do know you. Paul had never hurt a woman that he knew about, but the man sure as hell had beaten an abusive husband half to death. One of several incidents which had almost gotten the man fired. That was also one of the reasons Paul left the force, his violent temper, and a missing money problem. He’d been wise to leave before Paul had found himself on the opposite side of the law.
“Don’t worry, Wade. I’ll give Hannah a wide berth. Why she’d claim such a thing is puzzling. But thanks for the call.” Paul said.
“Look, I gotta get back inside. You take care, old buddy, and I’ll see you some time.” Boston ended the call.
Paul slipped the phone into a jacket pocket and turned to look at Maggie.
“We have a problem,” he said and went on to explain about Hannah going to the police, but never mentioned anything concerning Agnes seeing Nate’s ghost.
Maggie remained silent for a few minutes as an idea began to form in her brain. “That shouldn’t be a problem. Boston thinks the two of you broke up. Well, you’re going to get back together. We’ll make sure to run into your detective tonight and show the fellow what a loving couple we are again. It has to be a brief encounter. No long conversations, do you understand?” If the detective witnessed them together being all lovey-dovey, that should alleviate all doubts in the man’s mind, as long as the encounter was kept short and casual.
Paul and Maggie sat down at the table and began to organize a plan for that night and the encounter with Boston. “This can work in our favor,” he said and took out his phone once more.
Once outside the building, Hannah paused and looked back at the entrance. The sergeant continued to stand on the other side of the glass doors watching, then waved, turned, and walked out of sight.
As she crossed the street, the chill of the breeze made Hannah pull the jacket closer for warmth. The weather had to work hard to reach the low sixties. The air was cold, and the wind made it worse. Inside the car, Hannah turned on the heat and headed for home. It was noon when she parked in front of Agnes’s house and walked to the door, which was opened before she had a chance to knock.
By Hannah’s expression, Agnes knew she’d been right to expect a negative result from the visit to the police. “The police thought you were crazy and didn’t believe a word, did they? And, one of the detectives told you all kinds of stories about me. Right.” Agnes opened the door wider. “Come in; you might as well hear what I have to say.”
Hannah followed Agnes into the house and took a seat in one of the overstuffed wing-backed chairs. This being the first time she had been in Agnes’ house, she was surprised how similar the floor plan was to her own home. “How did you know what they’d say?”
“Because the police never believed me years ago when I tried to warn them. I told them someone was in danger, and they ignored me. Wrote it all off as me being nuts. I even gave them the date and time. But, because I was unable to tell them who the victim was or where the crime would take place, they ignored my warning. After the woman was killed, the cops believed I was involved.” Agnes gave a harsh laugh. “I was brought in, photographed, fingerprinted, and was about to be booked. John and our attorney showed up and threatened to sue if the charges were not dropped. There wasn’t a single piece of evidence to connect me in any way to the crimes. My alibi was solid, as John and I were with friends at the time of the murders. That saved my ass.” It was a bitter smile she offered Hannah. “I had given the bastards a general description of the killer, otherwise, who knows how many other people the man would have killed or if they’d even have caught him. Yet, to this day, the police believe somehow I was involved. Did one of the men show you my file?”
“Yes, I saw it. Don’t feel bad; they wrote me off as soon as I accused Paul of being involved. He’s still one of them, as far as they’re concerned,” Hannah said.
“Nate won’t like it.” Agnes didn’t consider the soldier’s ghost able to protect Hannah too much
“Nate’s not here?” Hannah asked, surprised. “Do you know where he is?”
“Gone to check on Al Carson was the last thing he told me.” Agnes studied Hannah. “You still believe me?”
“Yes. There’s no way you could have known about the gown and my sleeping in Nate’s shirt, or the necklace or letter.” She rose. “I have to get home and let Cooper out. If you want, come over later, and we can talk.”
“We need to decide what to do about this threat to you. How are you going to protect yourself?” Agnes was afraid for Hannah. She sensed this Al character was dangerous, more so than the woman realized. Paul was a cunning SOB and was far from what he appeared. “Paul and his friends are not going away, Hannah. You are in danger. They’re not going to stop until they get the necklace and kill you. Do you have any idea what’s so valuable about it?” Agnes asked and followed Hannah to the door.
“Since I went to the police, I doubt they’ll do anything now. As for the locket, I don’t know. But we’ll find out. Come over around four.”
“Okay, I’ll see you then,” Agnes said, opened the door and watched her to the car.
Hannah had been home long enough to let Coop out, fill the water bowl, and brew a cup of tea. The dog had run back inside when someone pounded on the front door. The animal charged across the kitchen into the living room and stood growling, nose pressed to crack in the door frame. Hannah called to Coop, but he uttered another low growl, looked back, and finally went to his bed beside Nate’s chair, ears up, and still on guard. Whoever was outside the dog didn’t like them.
Hannah hurried to open the door. No surprised. Paul stood on the front porch, face red with anger. The man showing up unexpectedly this way, after Agnes’ warning, was scary.
“Why are you here?” she demanded, blocking the entrance.
Paul pushed past and stood in the middle of the floor, eyes blazing. “How dare you go to the police about me! You told the cops I had threatened to kill you? How could you say such a thing? Here, I tell you I love you, and this is how you treat me?” Paul turned back and forth in exasperation, ran a hand through his hair, stopped, and stared hard at Hannah. “Do you honestly believe what this old bitch is saying about me?”
Hannah frowned, confused, questioning her action against a man on the word of a woman who claimed to talk to the dead. Even to her, it sounded crazy. “God, Paul. What am I to think anymore? Mrs. Carter knows things she has no way of knowing.”
“Like what!” Paul demanded.
She shrugged and told him about Albert Carson, Maggie, the gown, the shirt, and last the locket.
“Hell, Hannah, there’re many ways that old woman could have learned about those people. Perhaps she somehow knows Al and doesn’t like the man. As for this Maggie person, I don’t know anyone by that name. What if this old bitch is angry and only wants to cause trouble? There are people like that. Who knows? Or, maybe inadvertently, you let this information slip and forgot about telling this Agnes. Could Joy have said something before leaving? If not, the only other way to find out such information is to spy on a person. This woman is guessing, and you’re falling for this line of bullshit.” Paul’s coloring returned to normal, and now the man appeared hurt by the accusations. “Why believe someone you hardly know over a longtime friend like me? And Al Carson. That was one of the men I was with at Dubees when you were there with Suzanne. There is no way I’d associate with anyone stupid enough to hurt you? I’d kill them first. I promised to protect you as Nate wanted, and I will.”
Hannah’s chest muscles tighten. Who to believe, Paul or Agnes? The man did have a valid point. The short time she and Nate had known him, Paul had been nothing but kind. He’d claimed police work was too violent, so he’d left the force to help people find missing relatives, not put criminals away.
“Hannah, all I want is to marry you, not kill you,” Paul drew closer. “Don’t you realize how much I love you? There’s nothing I won’t do for you.”
When he reached to draw her into his arms, Hannah backed away. “Stop, Paul. The answer is no. It’s not fair at this time to say yes to you or anyone else. The time is too soon. Besides, I’m not in love with you. I’m sorry.”
Paul appeared stunned by her refusal. Then his face flushed with renewed anger, and he exploded. “You damn women are all alike, lead a man on expecting to be wined and dined, but don’t give anything in return. Well, I’ve had it with all this teasing and playing around. I love you, but I refuse to accept this as your final answer,” next, whirled around and pointed to all Nate’s pictures on display. “Look at this room. The damn place is a shrine to a dead man.” Paul whipped back to face Hannah. “Get over it. Nate’s dead and is never coming back. Just get rid of all these photos and give yourself a chance, you can learn to love me. We’re meant to be together, Hannah.” With a sharp jab, Paul knocked the picture of Nate off the table, stormed out the front door, and slammed it hard enough to rattle the windows.
Hannah burst into tears, shocked by this reaction. Paul had never even raised his voice or exhibited any aggressive behavior in the time she and Nate had known the former cop. His recent actions against her and his display of possessiveness and nasty temper just ended their short friendship.
Hannah returned Nate’s photograph to the table. Paul was right about the pictures. In all the months since his death, she hadn’t been able to put any of them away. Paul was competing with a dead man and couldn’t win. No man would. Regardless, she wasn’t about to tolerate a foul-tempered man, especially Paul.
After locking the door, Hannah stared out the window and had to wonder what had happened? Guilt made her wonder if somehow she had let Paul believe there was the beginning of love there? No. Impossible. Never, that Hannah could recall, had she implied such was the case. Maybe some women could look for someone after a year, but she couldn’t. Loving Nate had been everything. A year was not enough time to get over such a man or those feelings. No, it was too soon to care for anyone else.
Tonight, a different side of Paul’s personality had been revealed. He had managed to show his true self, a combination of mean and cruel combined. It was as if she owed Paul all her love in return for their brief friendship.
Being alone for the duration of Nate’s deployments was one thing. Having him killed was the most difficult thing to happen in her life. There were the days and nights of deep agony, trying to deal with the empty pit in her stomach, which never seemed to go away. The nights had been the worst. Curled in bed, knowing never again would she feel Nate’s warm flesh pressed against her back while falling asleep in his arms. Nor enjoy the long kisses he gave, which made her heart beat faster and blood boil. Then, there were the dreams, night after night, making love with her husband only to wake each morning to face reality.
Too many nights, she had fallen asleep, exhausted from crying. Cooper always sat beside the bed, head resting on the mattress, and whining. At last, the poor animal would jump on the bed, curl his body close, and place that massive head on her hip, guarding against the unseen enemy, causing her pain. From then on, the dog slept beside her
As time passed, the tears lessened. But the heartache never ceased. Even now, thinking about Nate and how she missed him was painful. But Hannah had to begin to let the grief go. Forget, never! Nate was the love of her life. Tomorrow was Sunday. Time to leave the past behind. To start living again. Not with Paul. Never with that man. Decision made, Hannah rose and went to the kitchen to prepare a salad for lunch and plan dinner.
Punctually at 4:00 P.M., Agnes knocked on the front door. Hannah ushered her into the kitchen. “I don’t know if you’re hungry, but I prepared dinner, spaghetti, and a salad. There’s garlic bread too.
Agnes smiled, “How nice. I can eat.” It wasn’t often Agnes cooked. Most evenings, she ate out, which stretched the monthly budget at times. After the meal was over, they each had a glass of wine. “What’s being done about this situation, Hannah? I saw Paul was here. The man drove away like a maniac.”
“Paul is furious and called you a few choice names. Claims you’ve been snooping on me to obtain all the information.”
“Hannah, I swear, that never happened. Being psychic all my life has been nothing but trouble. This blasted curse caused my parents all types of problems in Ireland and was the reason for the move to America. I started the same mess here by trying to help the police.” Agnes’ remorse was evident by the sadness in her eyes and the catch in her throat as she said, “My dad was successful in Ireland, and gave everything up to protect his only daughter.”
“What did he do?”
“Raised sheep on our farm. Sold the wool to factories. Life was good until I created the trouble.”
“Parents have to protect their children. There’s no doubt your father did what he thought was best, and to keep you safe,” Hannah said, attempting to assure Agnes her father’s sacrifice wasn’t for nothing
“You’re right. Besides, I don’t like to remember those times. Now, let’s have a look at the blasted locket and see what all the fuss is about.” Agnes said.
Hannah hurried upstairs to retrieve the necklace, returned, and spread the piece of jewelry on the table in front of Agnes, then sat down.
“Oh, how beautiful! Your father must have loved your mother a great deal to buy this.” Being careful, Agnes picked the locket up for a closer examination. “Did you ever notice these tiny hearts engraved on the front beneath the flower?”
Hannah leaned closer and took the pendant. Never having examined the details too close, now the design intrigued her. Simple, but elegant, a gold rose, each petal carved to form a support for a single diamond set in the middle. The elegant flower was attached to a half silver dollar size heart. As Agnes said, two small hearts had been engraved beneath the flower. Above, the almost undetectable number two. On the back, another number two and the symbol for infinity, a sideways eight. Even she understood the meaning, two hearts to infinity.
Not once in all the years since Aunt Pauline had given her the necklace had Hannah opened the two halves other than when Joy had. Now she did so. Inside was a man’s picture on the left, on the right, a woman, her mother, and father. The images made her choke up, so she placed the necklace back in Agnes’ palm. “Those are my parents.”
“Oh, you do resemble your mother a great deal,” the older woman said, glancing at Hannah then back at the photograph. “Your dad was a handsome man. It’s understandable why he was attracted to your mother. Is he still alive?
“I don’t know and don’t care.” Hannah went on to explain.
“How awful for any child to go through something that traumatic,” Agnes remarked. To be abandoned could leave wounds on a child that sometimes never heal. All she could do was hope Hannah had come to terms with that part of her life. But, from the anger at the mention of her father, Agnes doubted it. She handed the locket back.
Hannah studied the small round pictures trimmed to fit inside the thin gold circular frames and removed the pictures. On the left, another engraving of numbers 04/30/40. On the right, 05/04/49. After replacing each photo, looked at Agnes and said, “Outside of the gold and the diamond, is there anything so valuable about this necklace to make Paul want to kill me?”
“Not that I see,” Agnes agreed, paused, then said, “Let me see it again.”
“Those numbers are my parents’ dates of birth,” Hannah said and reinserted the photographs, and handed the locket back to Agnes. “Other than it’s a beautiful piece of jewelry, there is nothing special about the damn thing to make anyone consider murdering a person to obtain the blasted thing,” she said
Agnes studied the locket closer. “Do you know this is a double locket?” she said.
Hannah moved closer, “What do you mean?
“It’s a locket within a locket. Here, look.” Agnes opened the two sides to expose a small piece of folded paper behind her father’s photograph. Agnes removed the slip of paper and handed it to Hannah, watching as she unfolded it.
Hannah stared at the long letters and numbers without knowing what they meant, then handed the paper to Agnes. “Do you have any idea what this is?”
Agnes returned the paper to Hannah. “Yes, I’ve seen something like this before. Put that back inside the locket and hide it away. Those letters and numbers look to me like a bank account number. I suggest you put this someplace safe until you can find out what bank that account belongs to.”
“Let me put this back in the jewelry box for now. I’ll take it to my safe deposit box this week,” Hannah said, closed the locket, and made a quick trip back upstairs. When she returned, Agnes was waiting by the door.
“Thank you for dinner. I believe Paul will leave you alone now; the police have been notified of his threat. If anything happens, we can file a restraining order and get them involved again.” But Agnes was worried. Even though it was a short walk from Hannah’s to her home, the night appeared darker than usual. What gave Agnes chills was this feeling of impending danger headed her way, which refused to go away. The warning wasn’t clear. That in itself was unusual. Nate was certain to know, if only she knew where to find him, but didn’t.
Nate had returned in time to witness Paul’s violent display of temper but had not heard the verbal exchange between the man and Hannah. Concern for Hannah’s welfare was growing more with each passing hour. Every survival instinct Nate possessed was setting off alarm bells. After Paul had stormed from the house, still furious, he climbed in the Mazda and roared away with Nate beside him in the passenger seat. Paul drove like a madman from the Point all the way north on Thirty-Fourth Street to the turn at Twenty-Second Avenue South. A direct route to Gulfport. On the way, a quick call on his cell phone, and then the item was thrown on the dash. Nate wasn’t surprised when he parked in front of the house belonging to Al Carson.
Paul continued to sit in the car, his anger growing. Nate left and faded through the front door to wait for him to make an appearance. Albert Carson appeared worried. His brother Pete sat on the sofa watching. Since Nate had entered the house, the man continued to pace back and forth, now and then running stubby fingers through his thinning hair. The call from Paul to Pete was a warning; the woman had gone to the police; she’d even given them Al’s name. Not good, not good at all. If the cops looked up his record, they might connect him and Paul.
Like a fool, Al had followed his old buddy to Florida and become involved with dealing drugs for the local distributors. But Al worked both sides of the street, so to say, keeping friendly with the rival dealers. Everything had happened before Paul’s suspension. The cops would plan a raid on Al’s supplier, and Paul would warn his informant. In return, Al provided information on other gangs and their shipments plus the number of drugs and money involved.
If it were a big haul, Paul and his partner would make the bust, each backing the other before additional cops arrived on the scene. Before the money was ever counted, Paul’s swift hands would secure part of it. The partner, Al, tried to think of the man’s name, but it eluded his small mind. The man had died on one of those raids. Often Al thought how convenient the man’s death had been. That left no witnesses to any crime his old friend might have committed. Now, Al was in the spotlight, thanks to the nosey neighbor. There was only one way to solve this problem, kill the bitch and be done with it. All this shitty planning was for nothing. If Maggie’s idea failed, they’d all be doing jail time or be dead.
In the kitchen, he grabbed a beer from the fridge as the front door slammed back and hit the wall. Al wheel around. “What the hell, you scared the shit out of me. I thought you was the police bustin’ in.” Heart racing, he dropped into a metal kitchen chair to catch a breath, then took a long swig from the bottle.
Paul was doing his own pacing while Al watched. “What’s got your ass in a twist?” he asked, rose, and took a couple of steps out of reach in case Paul took a swing at him.
“None of your damn business,” Paul roared, keeping his eye averted from Pete, who remained silent.
It was clear the guy wasn’t in any mood to give be messed with. “I’m asking because we need to get the friggin’ locket or Maggie’s gonna be on both our asses.” Al tried hard to keep the nervousness out of his voice. Paul was bad enough, but Al didn’t want to rile this woman up. Maggie was meaner than a witch at the stake, and greedy when it came to money. Paul let it slip once what the woman had done to one of the elderly men in her care when the poor old soul refused to give the bitch a raise. No, sir, Al planned to stay on that female’s good side. After he got his share, he was gone.
“Piss on Maggie and this plan. Maybe I have some of my own that don’t include her.” Paul slammed his fist into the wall and jerked it back. A big hole dented the drywall. He rubbed his red knuckles and grimaced in pain, then hurried to the kitchen, grabbed a dirty hand towel, filled it with ice cubes, and held the cold cloth to the back of the swelling hand.
Intrigue by the dissension growing between the men and Maggie, Nate wondered what had happened. Paul’s fury was not directed at Al so much as someone else. Hannah? Paul had left the house in a rage about something. One of his friends in the police department had called and warned him.
“I need to see Maggie. Both of you stay here, and as soon as it gets dark, go take care of Hannah’s bitch of a neighbor. The old hag claims to be a psychic and told Hannah about us wanting her dead. Friends of mine downtown impressed on me that if anything should happen to Hannah, the department might start looking at me. One thing in our favor, the old hag has a police record as a phony fortune teller. Also, the cops believe she did a mercy killing on her dying husband. The nosy old woman is the reason my girl went to the police. This bitch needs to die! Do you hear me, kill the bitch killed tonight.” Paul wanted to hit the wall again but didn’t dare as it was still wrapped with ice. Lord, how he needed to hit something. If Al said one word, it would be him. Instead, Paul punched a finger into Al’s chest, “Make sure that damn truck is running and in good shape. Tomorrow is the deadline. Be ready to go when I call. It’s vital Hannah be grabbed and gotten out of town right away,” he said and pulled a folded map from the inside jacket pocket, tossed the thing to Al, and added, “I marked the spot on the map where you’re to take her.” And in a louder voice continued with a threat, looking from one to the other. “The two of you and had better get this right. This plan hinges on making sure Hannah disappears. Got it?”
Al nodded, but wondered when the mark had become Paul’s girl?
Nate’s heart beat faster when Paul referenced Hannah as his girl. That would never happen. From what he’d learned about him so far, Hannah would never become serious about a man like this scum. And he was right about the police. Agnes had to be warned. It didn’t matter what plans were in play, the woman had to be kept safe, and this creep had to be stopped by any means.
Finally, Pete stood and turned to his brother. “Even you should be able to handle one old woman. Take care of her and get back here. We have plans to make on how we grab this Hannah bitch. I don’t want to hear any more guff from Paul about us not doing our job. Me, I’ll be gone for a spell checking things out.”
“You’re not going with me?” Al whined.
“You’re a big boy, Al. Do the job and do it right this time or I’ll kill you myself. Do you understand me?” Pete opened the door and stopped, looking back at his brother, who only nodded before leaving Al alone and sweating.
With each passing hour, the darkness deepened, and Al fought against the dread in the pit of his stomach. Somewhere in the house, the song of a cricket sounded loud in the silence which had overtaken Al. For a change, the man remained quiet and leaned back against the sofa and smoked a cigarette, adding to the stench of the musty odor. Nate wrinkled his nose, not sure why his oratory factors could detect the smell. Tobacco, stale food, and Al’s body odor were enough to make even a ghost nauseous. But, Nate’s patience was becoming nonexistent, and his temper had turned as black as the darkness outside. Hours had been wasted waiting for something to happen. Now the men were about to put their plan into effect, Nate wasn’t sure how to prevent the outcome.
So far, after Paul and Pete left, all Al had done was sit and drink beer. The alcohol didn’t appear to affect the man much. Now and then, he’d pace around the living room, or glance at his wristwatch, then pace some more while muttering indistinguishable words. Fear was making the man sweat even more. The short-sleeved shirt armpits were soaking wet, and Al was in dire need of deodorant. Again, Al checked his watch, 8:30 P.M., then grabbed a jacket. Time to get the job done.
Nate followed and occupied the truck’s passenger seat as the man drove to Twenty-Second Avenue South, turning onto Thirty-Fourth Street. With each passing block, every effort to grab and turn the wheel didn’t work. Other than the chill in the cab, the man didn’t know Nate was there. As the vehicle drew closer to Agnes’ house, his concern was compounded by all the inability to stop Al.
Intent on warning Agnes, Nate concentrated and found himself in her living room. He called out her name, and at once, Agnes appeared in the kitchen doorway.
“Where have you been? All hell has been going on here. Your friend Paul is mad as hell at Hannah. The girl is smart to reject someone like that SOB. But you should have been here. I’m not saying it hasn’t been a relief to have you out of this house.”
“We don’t have time for this. Hannah is safe for the moment, but you are not. I’ve been keeping watch on Al for the last few hours, and you have to get out of here. Carson is on his way here to kill you.”
“Oh, my Lord. What can I do?” Agnes’ hand flew to her mouth, which was visibly shaking.
“Get in your car and go to a friend’s house,” Nate instructed. “Don’t go to Hannah’s. The bastard might follow you there. Don’t wait, go, and get out of here. I’ll take care of this guy.” Nate’s anger was growing. Anger equaled power, an increase in energy made the ability to focus on stopping the man much better. Agnes hurried to put on a coat, grabbed her purse, and exit the house through the kitchen to the garage. Within seconds, she had the car started, and had backed the car out, hit the button to lower the door, and pulled onto Pinellas Point Drive. An old brown truck pulled up to the street corner and parked. Ignoring it, Agnes drove away.
Unsure of his target’s identity, Al watched as the white Honda pulled out of the street and turned in the direction of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Street South. Exiting the truck, he walked as casually as possible on the darken street to the address Paul had given him. The living room lights were on, but no sound came from inside. The garage door was down, and the porch was dark. Harder for anyone to notice his presence.
An expert at his trade, the front door lock was easy to pick and swung open on silent hinges. Careful to hug the wall and stay clear of the undraped window, he slipped inside. After checking each room downstairs, he made his way to the second floor. A bathroom light illuminated the hallway. Nothing moved, nor was a sound to be heard. Al stood in the middle of the upstairs hallway. The old broad wasn’t home. How to explain this predicament to Paul? The man was going to be furious that he wasn’t able to eliminate the woman. Unsure whether to wait for her return or not, he stopped in the middle of the hallway to consider his options.
Al had no more started back toward the stairs than a blast of cold air filled the corridor. Stopping, he looked to the rear. Near the entrance to a bedroom, a misty shape shimmered in the dim light. Al’s heart began to pound as he backed away, one step at a time. Paul had said she talked to a ghost. Had the old witch created a curse to make him see things which weren’t there? Because now, the wavering mist was moving straight at him. Al whipped around and started to run. Icy hands shoved him hard into the wall. He stumbled. As he scrambled down the steps again, a force pushed him forward, and he almost fell at the bottom. Fear surrounded Al as he threw open the door and raced to the truck. Jumping behind the wheel, he keyed the ignition, and the vehicle roared toward MLK and escape. So he believed.
This SOB wasn’t getting away. He’d come to kill Agnes in cold-blood and had to pay. From the house to the intersection at Fifty-Fourth, Nate fought to gain control of the truck. Al was stronger than he appeared. Fear of dying gave strength to his wiry muscles. Continuously, he tried to maintain a death grip on the steering wheel. Nate wrestled the steering wheel back and forth, fighting Al for control. The truck weaved from lane to lane as it barreled along the avenue, ran red lights, careened off a young tree, and roared back into traffic. Horns blew, and people shouted cuss words at the man in the vehicle putting them in harm’s way. To avoid being struck, many drivers pulled off the pavement onto the grassy median.
At the last red light, Nate grabbed the wheel one last time, rammed his foot through Al’s and pressed the gas pedal down; and the speedometer jumped. A sharp left whip on the wheel and the truck rock back and forth, careening off an SUV, and went airborne, flipping end over end. Al screamed seconds before the truck landed in the middle of the intersection, crushing him and the top. Black smoke rose around the exposed undercarriage. Al’s spirit dragged free of the wreck, stood beside the crumpled cab and stared at Nate’s ghost, then glanced back and saw his mangle form still inside. His eyes went wide in terror. An inky cloud rose above the twisted metal. Nate backed away to stand and stare as flames erupted all around the crushed vehicle. Al’s gaze remained frozen on his mutilated body still inside the cab. Within seconds, long tentacles of fire lashed out, wrapped around his skinny frame, and pulled his screaming spirit into the inferno where he vanished.
Paul was certain all their plans would be down the toilet unless he was able to convince his old buddy Boston that he and Hannah had resolved all their problems. Maggie’s idea of running into the detective needed to be put into action tonight. He called her cell and told her the plan for the evening. The Loose Goose on Central Avenue was the best place to achieve that goal. The tavern was owned by a former police lieutenant who was now retired. It had become an immediate success due to becoming the local hangout for off-duty cops.
When Paul arrived at the cottage and walked into the living room, Maggie was waiting and already dressed in a red sweater dress, which clung to every curve on her body. The woman had even selected matching heels. With only a slight touch of makeup and her hair styled in the same manner, Maggie was a duplicate of Hannah.
“Where have you been?” she demanded, irritated because Paul was late.
Paul was stunned by the transformation. Maggie had always been a hard case. Tonight she was elegant and beautiful. But, Paul had found the woman to be self-centered with little empathy for others, not even the elderly patients for whom she cared. Even though Maggie put on a great act of being warm and loving, Paul wasn’t about to get on her bad side right now because he only had worse news to relay. “I stopped by to see Pete and Al and make sure they’re ready for tomorrow.”
Maggie glanced at the wall clock; the time was after 9:00. “I hope for their sake, they are. Let’s go and get this done,” and pulled on a lightweight black jacket, picked up a matching purse, and walked to the door.
Paul followed and opened the passenger’s side. Within fifteen minutes, he was at the seventeen hundred block of Central Avenue and pulling into the parking lot beside The Loose Goose. Located not far from the police department, it had a small dance floor with a long oak bar stretching the length of the room. Since most of the business was done by the bar, a few booths lined the wall from the back to the front door.
Paul directed Maggie to a bar stool, then slid onto the next one and glanced up and down the row of patrons. As soon as one person vacated a place, another took the seat. Sooner or later, Boston had to show up. It was sooner. A sudden hand on Paul’s shoulder made him jump and turn to face the sergeant.
“Hey Boston, you scared me, but it’s good to see you so soon.” Paul turned toward Maggie. “Sarge, you remember Hannah. She wanted to come here tonight, so you’d see everything is fine between us.”
Looking skeptical, the sergeant studied Maggie. “Is that right, Mrs. Roberts? Everything is settled between you two. You no longer believe my old buddy here,” he clasped Paul on the shoulder again, “is trying to kill you?”
“I’m so sorry for causing you so much trouble. Paul and I fought, and everything he said, I misunderstood and took wrong. We’ve straightened it all out; and we’re even talking marriage. Isn’t it wonderful? Paul has promised to buy me a big diamond,” Maggie gushed, and then gave the sergeant a big smile, then turned to Paul. “Isn’t that right, love?”
Paul took her hand and squeezed it a little too tight to shut Maggie up. If the woman kept rattling on, she was going to ruin everything. “Hey buddy, I wanted to stop in and let you know everything is okay.”
“What about Agnes Carter and this Al Carson that supposedly broke into your house?” Boston said. “At the office, when I talked to you, you sounded convinced Ms. Carter was telling you the truth about seeing your late husband’s ghost and the break-in. Your mind changed about that as well?” The sergeant watched for any type of reaction to indicate Maggie was lying. There were none.
“I came to the conclusion the old woman is crazy, and it’s best to ignore everything she said. As for someone breaking into my house, I have a large dog that would have attacked entering my home when I’m not there. So she must have fabricated that story as well. Paul and I have known each other longer than I’ve known her. We’re together now, and we’re going to be happy from now on, aren’t we, darling?” Maggie leaned into Paul for support. Her insides were quivering with fear. Nothing had been said about Agnes Carter seeing the ghost of Hannah’s dead husband. It took all her effort to remain composed and not reveal the shock of Boston’s statement.
“Baby,” she smiled up at Paul, “if we don’t leave now, we’re going to miss our friends at the beach. Shall we go?” Maggie slid off the barstool and continued to hold on to Paul’s arm to maintain a steady balance. She turned to the detective and said, “It was nice seeing you again. Sorry for causing all the trouble this morning.”
“Well,” Boston said, “I’m glad you two patched things up. Keep working at the relationship, and you’ll do great. Paul’s a good guy. It was nice seeing you again as well.” Boston tried hard to hide the smirk forming behind his lie. Before losing control and laughing out loud at the fabricated qualities of Paul, he turned and raised a hand to motion to the bartender for service.
Maggie took the opportunity to pull Paul in the direction of the door.
“See you around, Boston,” Paul called and walked Maggie to the entrance, thus didn’t see the sergeant wave him off.
Maggie didn’t wait until they reached the car before tightening her grip on Paul’s arm and demanding, “What’s all this crap Boston was saying about some old woman seeing a ghost?”
“Nothing. Boston’s talking out of his nose. Don’t pay any attention to what he says. The old bitch is crazy.” Paul needed to avoid answering. Maggie may not believe in ghosts, but no need to take a chance she might.
“Don’t go keeping anything important from me.”
“Quit worrying. I’m not.”
“There’s too much money at stake to screw this up now. Understand?” From the tone of Maggie’s voice, Paul knew the ice was thin where he was walking. There was no doubt Maggie wouldn’t hesitate to eliminate him and find someone else if there had been time. That was Paul’s one saving factor; time was running out.
“Come on, let’s go to Dubees and have a drink and dance a little,” he said, knowing Maggie hadn’t been out for some time. “Being seen together by other people looking the way you do can only aid our purpose more.” When Maggie smiled at the idea, Paul knew he’d won, this time.
Everyone have a great week and remember, NEVER GIVE UP, NEVER SURRENDER.
Sorry I didn’t get this posted yesterday I was getting ready for company and forgot.
Nathan C. Roberts sacrificed his life for his country. Now he will sacrifice his soul to save his wife.
FOR LOVE OF HANNAH
A Ghostly Romantic Suspense
Friday, November 30
Hannah stood in the shower, letting the water beat down on her head and shoulders. She continued to be shocked over what had transpired the night before. First, Paul’s declaration of love. That had been a shock. When and how had the man had ever thought he’d be able to replace Nate in her life? The few times they had encountered him in a social setting, there was never any indication he was interested in her. Where had all this attraction on his part materialized? His proposal left her stymied.
Then Agnes’ coming to the house with an insane story about seeing Nate’s ghost. The woman was deranged. What else was she to believe, everyone had lost their minds? Yes, Agnes was getting up in years, but had senility began to affect the older woman so soon? Had her mind started to deteriorate? Turning off the water, Hannah hurried to dry off and dress. Paul was due to arrive at any moment.
On the dot at 10:00 A.M., Paul parked the Mazda in front of the house, got out, and strolled up the short sidewalk. Before climbing up the steps, he stopped and looked at the balcony making a mental note of the latticework and heavy vines growing up to the second floor. Several palm trees between the houses possibly could block the view of any nosy neighbor. He smiled, climbed the steps, and knocked on the front door. Almost before his fist connected with the wood, the loud barking of the dog sounded, and he muttered, “That animal has to go.”
Purse in hand and dressed in a black London Fog Pea Coat over black jeans, a blue sweater, and boots, Hannah walked out, closed the door, and keyed the lock. The sun was shining, but the temperature was fifty-four degrees, and the wind was blowing. Thankfully, the humidity was down. Later, the house could be opened up to let fresh air flow through the rooms. Hurrying down the steps, Hannah left Paul to follow.
“You’re ready,” Paul said, hurrying after her. There went the plans for checking out the rest of the house. Something as valuable as the necklace wouldn’t be left lying around. No, Hannah would keep the locket someplace safe. With any hope, not in a safe deposit box. There had to be paperwork to indicate in what bank the box might be located. Paul would bet Maggie hadn’t thought of that. Maybe she wasn’t as smart as she believed. He was still fuming over last night’s argument.
Hannah stopped and looked back at Paul. Why was he hesitating to get into the Mazda? “Once I get the car, I have errands to run. You are okay going to Enterprise with me, aren’t you?”
“Yes. I haven’t had coffee yet and hoped we’d have time for a cup before rushing off.”
“I thought you’d be upset about last night.”
“Not at all,” Paul said, offering a smile. “I understood. But, I still want you to consider my proposal in case you change your mind.”
“I’ll keep it in mind,” Hannah said only to appease Paul and watched as a big grin spread across his face. With a desire to change the subject, she added, “You won’t believe what happened after I got home.”
“What do you mean,” he asked and stopped beside her car.
Hannah proceeded to tell him about Agnes’ visit, and the woman’s claims of seeing Nate’s ghost and the warning. “Agnes claims some man named Al Carson, broke into the house. And she had a warning about you. Your name wasn’t mentioned but said the person was the man I had been seeing. Since you’re the only male I’ve gone out with, that man has to be you. Are you dangerous to me, Paul?”
His smiled change to a serious expression when he said, “I am because I love you. If that’s dangerous to you, then yes. As for the other, I’d never pay any attention to the ramblings of some nosy neighbor. Now, let’s go get that new car.” Opening the vehicle door, he waited until Hannah slid behind the wheel, then slammed the door a little harder than he meant to. When Hannah frowned, Paul gave a slight shrug of apology then hurried to the Mazda.
Paul and followed, pissed because some old bat of a neighbor had given her a warning about Al and specifically him. The question was, how much did the old bitch know if anything? She had to be guessing? Had she heard rumors? A few calls to a couple of associates should clear up the matter. Then Al or Pete could take care of the bitch and shut her mouth. The more he thought about her talking to Hannah, the angrier he became.
The Chrysler was quickly returned to Enterprise within fifteen minutes of driving the car on the lot. Once Hannah slid into the passenger seat of the Mazda, Paul’s mood appeared to have changed, becoming more controlled and subdued. A quick side glance at his profile showed the PI kept clenching his jaw, while his eyes remained riveted to the road. As if deep in thought, not once did he change expression or did he glance in her direction. The man was angry about something, and Hannah was left to wonder if it had anything to do with what she had told him. Still, she was glad for the silence.
On the drive to the dealer, Nate stretched out behind the headrest and, once in a while, would stick his head through the convertible’s canvas top to glance at the passing scenery. Residents of St. Petersburg placed stickers on vehicle bumpers “Pray for me; I drive US19” as Thirty-Fourth Street was also known. Each morning until late at night, traffic on the roadway was heavy and prone to multiple auto accidents every day. The way Paul was driving should have scared Hannah because it scared Nate. The man was in a hurry to get to the Chevy lot and kept weaving around cars and trucks. Paul’s foot stayed pressed to the accelerator, and with each mile, he increased the speed at every chance. Ahead, on the right, Nate saw the dealership. Hannah braced a hand against the dashboard seconds before the car whipped into the driveway.
Paul pulled in, parked near the entrance, and waited long enough for Hannah to exit the sports car. As soon as the door closed and his passenger was clear, he backed up, whipped the car around, and zoomed back into traffic, almost sideswiping another vehicle.
“Well, thanks for the ride, Paul,” Hannah muttered, knowing the anger had caused the erratic driving. But he drove away and out of earshot before the words were out of her mouth.
Hannah had assumed everything would be waiting, and all she’d have to do was sign the papers, receive the car keys, and drive away. It didn’t appear to work in such a simple way.
Nate had jumped from the Mazda when Hannah exited the car. Now, he waited while the salesman had a clerk type all the paperwork before she could take possession of the vehicle. Noon came and went before everything was done, and the keys were in her hand. As she drove the car off the lot, she breathed a sigh of relief, pulled onto the street, turned at the corner, and headed south.
Even though the sun was bright, there wasn’t any warmth in the breeze. Hannah shivered. Even with a sweater and coat on, she felt chilled. Or was it nerves wearing her down? The inside of the HHR felt as if the air conditioner was on. She checked. It was off. So compensating, Hannah turned on the heater. Hot sunny days were her preference to a gray, cloudy sky. Since Nate’s death, on rainy days, she often wondered if it was God crying for all the innocent victims and the young men killed in every senseless war ever fought. Hannah chose to believe such was the case and not because of a storm rolling in from the Gulf.
Shaking her head, Hannah forced the gloomy thoughts away and considered what Agnes had said last night. Had a man been in the house without her knowledge as the woman claimed? Cooper had acted strange when she let him inside, charging upstairs and back down to the front door, growling and carrying on as if there had been someone inside he didn’t know or like. Maybe she should go see the police and ask for more patrols in the neighborhood.
Agnes had given her a name, Albert Carson, which didn’t mean anything to Hannah. But she wondered if Paul knew the man? When she’d told him of Agnes’ warning, he’d didn’t act as if he had any knowledge of the person. In fact, he had brushed the matter off with another statement of love. Why then had he acted upset the entire drive to the car lot? Paul’s sudden departure was puzzling as well. Hannah decided to make a point of asking him again about this Al Carson.
Once Hannah was safely at the dealer and waiting on the paperwork, Nate headed to the house in Gulfport. As he’d thought, Paul, Maggie, Al, and Pete were together, huddled around the dining room table.
“What’s being done about this nosy neighbor?” Al demanded.
“Nothing for now,” Paul stated, still in a bad mood. “Hannah doesn’t believe the woman’s story. I didn’t get a chance to look around this morning as planned. Hannah was in a hurry to get the new car. But, she’s going to be running errands this afternoon.” He turned to Al. “I’d have you go search again, but you’d screw up like before and get caught, a strange man going in the house when the owner’s not home. The neighbors would call the cops. The old woman probably has seen Hannah and me together, so I’ll go. The dog knows me. The mutt doesn’t like me, but I doubt if he’ll bite. While I’m there, I can check out the neighbor’s house. You two make sure everything is ready for this weekend,” Paul said as he rose and left the two men and Maggie staring after him.
Al stood. “I’m going to do a little recon of my own,” and motioned for Pete to join him, then hurried after Paul.
Al and Pete hadn’t been told about the old farmhouse yet, which was somewhere between Myakka City and Arcadia. Paul knew the exact location. Once the men grabbed Hannah, the plan was to take the woman there and dispose of her. Maggie sat in silence after the men’s departure, a smile curling her lips. These boys had no idea who they were dealing with. Her plans didn’t include any of the men. The farm would be the perfect place to take care of their bodies as well.
Nate had witnessed the look in the woman’s eyes and realized the pure evil in this duplicate of Hannah. There was no doubt in his mind that somehow, these men would become victims of Maggie’s private scheme. But he planned to stop their monstrous plan before it could be put into action.
Nate concentrated on home and was back before Paul arrived and had a surprise in store for his old friend. Cooper was aware of his master and obeyed every command given. Paul was not to be allowed inside the house. Nate planned on setting the dog on the man.
Within fifteen minutes, Paul parked the Mazda at the curb in front of the colonial home and hurried to the front door. What surprised Nate, the man appeared to have a key. After unlocking the door, as he started to open it, Cooper lunged straight at him. Paul managed to pull the door shut in the nick of time, or the dog would have grabbed an arm. Still, Cooper charged, barking continuously. The dog made it clear Paul wasn’t coming inside. Frustrated, he closed and re-locked the door, hurried to the car, and drove away. Nate stared after the vanishing vehicle, knowing this was not the last time Paul Dawson would dare to try to break into the house.
Hannah arrived home around 6:00 P.M., and called out, “Hey, Coop,” as the excited Labrador danced around. Right away, she crossed the living room to the kitchen and opened the back door, then stood back.
Cooper raced into the yard, found his favorite spot, and peed. Hannah left the door open, turned on the coffeepot to brew, tossed her purse along with the day’s mail, and grocery bags on the counter, then removed her coat and draped it over a chair. She glanced out the door at the dog. He was busy checking out the rest of the yard. While Coop ran along the fence, Hannah filled the water dish, cleaned his food bowl, and then filled it with a cup of dry food, mixed with leftover chicken from dinner the night before. Once he ran back inside, Hannah closed the door as the dog proceeded to wolf down the food.
After sorting the mail and tossing most in the recycle can, she filled a cup with hot coffee, added creamer, and carried the mug along with her purse into the living room, sighed, and sat in Nate’s old recliner. When gone for any length of time, she always left the TV tuned to Animal Planet, but now switched to a news station, while Cooper curled up on the pallet beside the chair.
Hannah was tired. In some ways, it had been a stressful day. First, having to deal with Paul, not that the man had said or done anything to upset her. Maybe the tension was because of his unexpected proposal. Hopefully, her rejection hadn’t offended him any more than she had by her abrupt departure on their date.
Taking a sip of the coffee, Hannah hoped the caffeine would give a boost to her lack of energy. The phone rang. Hannah grabbed the receiver. The caller ID listed a phone number. Paul. Which made her wonder why he was calling? Was his act of caring, genuine, or, as Agnes claimed, dangerous? He gave the appearance of being what people would consider a nice man, plus ambitious, wanting to become a novelist. Also, he seemed to like the same things she did. Yet, no matter how nice or accomplished the man might become, there was one thing Hannah had against Paul. He wasn’t Nate, which was unfair. And she was forced to acknowledge the fact Paul would never fit into her life the way Nate had.
She answered with a brisk, “Hello,” not wanting to talk to him tonight.
“It’s me, Paul,” he said as if she’d be expecting a call from another man
“Yes, I know. What’s going on?” but had already guessed the reason for the call; Paul wanted an answer to his proposal.
So she was surprised when the man instead said, “Just calling to apologize. It was a mistake to tell you how I feel. Obviously, it upset you, and for that, I’m sorry. I won’t mention it again.” hesitated, then asked, “Can we pick up from before the time I opened my big mouth? Your friendship means a lot to me. I don’t want to lose it.” The need to get back in Hannah’s good graces was paramount.
“Paul, what makes you believe I’d be interested in marriage to anyone so soon after Nate was killed? My God, I can’t believe you’d ask such a question.” Hannah’s frustration was evident. Also, she hadn’t forgotten the supposed warning from Nate. Why would her husband believe his old friend wanted to harm her? The idea was ludicrous, or was it? Hannah half-heartedly listened as Paul continued to try to convince her the main reason for the proposal was because he cared.
“Yeah, I know, I know,” he said. “I’m just asking before someone else had the chance. Hannah, I do love you,” Paul needed Hannah to believe most of the lie. Yes, the woman was beautiful; those big blue eyes drew a man in until he wasn’t sure what he was doing. That didn’t mean she had him under her control. No woman would ever control Paul Dawson. “Always have,” he went on, “Nate was aware of my feelings. Why do you think he asked me to keep an eye on you while deployed? Bet he never told you, did he?” Paul paused as if waiting for his words to sink in. “While he was overseas, I was around. You may not have been aware of it as I stayed in the background, but I was there in case you needed someone.” Again he was silent. “Can I come over and we can talk?”
Hannah didn’t want to doubt what Paul was saying. But Nate would never ask any man, even a friend, to watch out for his wife. Or did he? Her husband was always concerned for her welfare. Hannah didn’t think Nate was the trusting type when it came to the actions of other men. The fact he trusted her was never a question. Nate knew he was the love of her life.
As far as Paul was concerned, there wasn’t room in her heart for any man at this time. It was too soon. Hannah felt as if she’d be betraying Nate if she took Paul’s proposal seriously. The truth was, the man was beginning to repel her.
“Please, Hannah. I promise never to bring up the subject again. Don’t cut me out of your life,” Paul pleaded, all the while regretting jumping ahead of the plans formulated over the past two years. If Maggie ever found out, Paul was sure his life wouldn’t be worth a penny.
“Give me some time, Paul. This is all too much right now. I’ll talk to you in a few days. All I want to do is have dinner and go to bed.” A small white lie mixed in with the truth. A headache was forming behind her eyes. Not wanting to ponder the many questions in her mind, Hannah said, “Again, sorry, but I don’t plan to go anywhere tonight but early to bed,” she snapped
“Okay. You get some rest.” He softened his tone. “I’ll give you a call in a couple of days to check on you. Take care, Hannah,” he said.
“Goodnight, Paul,” she said and hung up the phone. There was too much to think about. Could she trust him to remain a friend without wanting more from her? Doubts clouded her mind. Paul was a likable man, but she could never fall in love with him. She’d never love any other man the way she had loved Nate. Paul was a pretentious man. He didn’t announce his expertise to the entire world, but when they’d met at a social event, he had boasted about his abilities. Nate had been the most unpretentious person she’d ever met.
Comparing the two men was like comparing a cubic Zirconia to a rare diamond. There was no comparison. Larger than life, Nathan C. Roberts was not your average male. Tall, over six feet, with brown eyes and dark brown hair, a perfect mouth, which gave the most delicious kisses, not to forget a body that sent her heart racing. Hannah had fallen in love with him from the first moment she had seen him.
Paul? No, he wasn’t what she needed or wanted in a man. Now, she was beginning to wonder about his true intentions. Had what Agnes revealed last night triggered the distrust? The older woman had to be wrong. But how did she know about her showering or Cooper barking so loud? And the dog did charge at the front door when she let him in. There was no way for her to have known.
A knock at the front door interrupted her thoughts and brought Cooper to his feet on alert, then he started to wiggle with excitement. Hannah didn’t have to guess who it was. Agnes.
Nate had been waiting for Agnes to show up. She had promised to talk to Hannah again today, but she hadn’t been home. This time she was keeping her promise. Dressed in a Kelly green sweater and jeans, she looked like an older woman straight out of an advertisement for Ireland, with her short red hair and blue eyes. Agnes was no frump and always stated she didn’t go to the mailbox without her makeup on and her hair done. At sixty-five, she could still be held accountable for the mercy killing of her husband if anyone found out. Nate had spoken with John. How else did he know about the overdose of morphine?
Before Hannah had time to shut the door in the woman’s face, Agnes said, “Look, I know you think I’m just a crazy old woman trying to con you, but I’m not. I don’t want anything from you except to ask for fifteen minutes to listen to what I have to say. Please,” Agnes begged. “It’s vital to your welfare.”
Opening the door wider, Hannah ushered her into the living room and pointed to the leather sofa. “Sit. I can’t believe you’d dare come back here today. If you’re going to start the same garbage again, I don’t want to hear it.
Agnes continued to stand but was beside herself. How was she going to make Hannah listen and believe she was in danger?
Close by, Nate’s voice said, “Tell her about the blue gown hanging in the back of the closet. Hannah bought it when in high school for the prom, but never attended the dance. That dress was the main incentive for her to lose weight.
Hstared at Agnes for a second and then said, came knocking at my door. I didn’t ask you to come here.”
“I’m sorry,” Agnes said, “That remark wasn’t directed at you. I,” she didn’t finish, not wanting Hannah to kick her out.
“Understand one thing. I may listen to you, but don’t expect me to believe anything you say,” Hannah stood firm as she faced Agnes.
The older woman started to pace, stopped, and said, “As I tried to make you understand last night, Nate wants to warn you.” Agnes held up both hands, “Before you call me a liar, hear what I have to say.” An urgent whisper next to her ear made Agnes hesitate. “Nate says to tell you about the blue gown in the closet. You bought it for the prom. The gown was the main reason you lost weight. He was on the balcony when you and your cousin packed his clothes in cardboard boxes.”
Suspicious, Hannah shot back, “You witnessed the truck from the veteran’s shelter picking up the boxes, and had to have known it was for Nate’s clothes. Agnes, what reason do you have to do this to me? Have I ever done anything to cause you to hurt me this way?” Trying to be helpful was one thing, but how did the woman know about the gown?
“I’m not trying to hurt you,” Agnes insisted. “Nate threatened me if I didn’t tell you. I’m not lying. Sometimes at night, I see a misty form on the balcony, and now I can hear him.” Agnes turned away and cut the air with a hand and yelled, “Can’t you see I’m trying,” then pivoted to face Hannah. “Nate is driving me crazy. He says you used to sleep in that old red flannel shirt. And, that was the last item you folded and put in the box. Then you carried the box to the garage.”
How did Agnes know she’d slept in Nate shirt, or that it was the final item packed? Stunned, Hannah dropped into the recliner.
“Nate says you’re in his chair. The other one was where you sat when you watched television together. Also, there’s a gold necklace your father gave your mother in your jewelry box. Nate says you never wear the locket because he left you as a child. When Joy was here, you showed her the piece of jewelry along with a letter from your father.” Agnes sighed and sat in the other chair.
Hannah’s jaw dropped. Nate had never known about the necklace or the letter she’d discovered. Only Aunt Pauline was aware of its hiding place. Hannah looked from side to side. “Where is Nate? Is he here?” she cried out, desperate to locate her husband.
“He’s standing by your chair,” Agnes said. Hannah would be hurt because she was not able to see him. “The fact someone wants to hurt you is the reason Nate had me convey this message.
“Why does he believe I’m in danger?” Hannah asked, shaken by what Agnes had said.
“Because a man named Al Carson is planning on coming after you. Nate wants you to go to the police. Also, there’s a woman named Maggie involved, and according to Nate, she could pass for your twin.” Agnes paused to listen. “Nate says Paul Dawson and the other two men plan to kill you so this Maggie can take your place.”
“But why? I don’t have anything of value,” Hannah said, eyes wide in amazement.
“Nate says they’re after the money your father has left to you in his will.”
“My father! I don’t even know where that son of a bitch is, let alone if he’s dead or alive. As for money from him, I don’t want it. And, I don’t have any extra of my own. What do they think; I have it hidden? My finances are secure for now, but they’re dwindling fast. So, I’m far from rich. Tell Nate, those people are crazy.” Hannah shook her head in disbelief.
Agnes had to smile, then said, “He can hear you, Hannah.”
“Well, you’re to inherit a lot. Nate says you have to go to the police. Don’t wait. Go tonight. He hasn’t discovered what or when these people are going to act, but he believes it’s soon. They have this deadline of December fourth.” The idea of involving the police made Agnes nervous.
“Okay,” Hannah said, rising from the chair. “I’ll think about it, Agnes. But I’m not going tonight. It’s too late to go anywhere this evening. The first thing in the morning will be better. All I’m going to do is get ready for bed. Which is what I was doing when you came here.”
Agnes stood, “I have to get to bed too. I have a busy day tomorrow,” she lied, not wanting to take the chance of being asked to accompany Hannah to the police, and not wanting to explain why.
Hannah locked the door behind Agnes, called to Cooper, and then hurried upstairs. If she believed she was going to have a peaceful night’s rest, she was wrong. For hours, everything she’d been told raced through Hannah’s mind. If it was all a lie, then how was it possible the woman knew the things she did? There was no reasonable way Agnes could. At last, Hannah fell into an exhausted sleep filled with dreams of being chased by an unknown man while Paul watched and laughed.
When Hannah got home from the restaurant at around nine, there was a message on the answering machine from Joy asking her to call no matter how late. After letting the dog out, then back in, she climbed the stairs to the bedroom, changed into a nightgown, robe, and slippers before returning to the living room to place the call. Joy answered on the first ring. “Where were you sitting next to the phone,” Hannah asked, thinking whatever her cousin had to say must be important.
“I’ve been waiting for your call.” Joy said, sounding upset.
“What’s going on, Cus’?” It must be bad news for Joy to be that disturbed.
“I went through the rest of Mom’s things in the cedar chest. I found something, and you’re not going to like it.”
“Whether I like it or not, isn’t important. Just tell me what you found,” Hannah insisted.
“Mom kept the newspaper article about Aunt Eugenia’s death. She was found dead at home with you beside her. Even though she was in the early stages of ovarian cancer, she wasn’t in danger of dying anytime soon. Her death was ruled suspicious, and her body sent to the State Medical Examiner for an autopsy. Hannah, Aunt Eugenia was believed to have overdosed. The police believed your father hired someone to kill her because you told them a man forced her to take pills. The autopsy revealed she had a large amount of pain medication in her system, and it was mixed with another pain drug. The article said she was taking the pills to ease her chronic pain. As for your father, he had an ironclad alibi. He was with another woman at the time.” Joy waited for the outburst she knew was coming. She wasn’t disappointed.
With her cousin’s last words, Hannah let out a cry of, “What!” Giving a sharp intake of breath, she exploded, “Are you telling me that SOB father of mine may have had my mother killed and was cheating on her too? And I was a witness. Why?”
“According to the article, it was for a life insurance policy of five-hundred thousand dollars he had on her. The police couldn’t prove he had anything to do with her death, so he walked free and received the insurance money. Right after that was when he brought you to Mom and left town. They questioned you a couple of times, but you were too young to be of any help.” Joy hated being the bearer of such horrendous news, but Hannah needed to know what had happened. Whether her Uncle Ted was guilty of the act of murder, Joy didn’t want to believe it. Yet the police said he was a suspect; only they couldn’t prove he committed the crime. She explained all the facts to Hannah and wasn’t surprised by her anger.
“Did it say what that drug was? Or what happened to his girlfriend?”
“No, but whatever it was, she died quickly. As tiny as Aunt Eugenia was, it probably killed her in no time. As for the other woman, she disappeared and was never seen again.” Joy was quiet for a moment. “At least now you know how your mother died. I’m so sorry, Hannah. I was hesitant about telling you, but you have a right to know. From everything I’ve found out, it appears your father was the main suspect, but nothing was ever proven.” With all they had been through in the past year, this was just one more tragedy to have to face and overcome. Joy felt like hell for being the bearer of the bad news.
“I asked you to find out how my mother died. You did, and I’m grateful. It’s only one more reason to despise my father,” Hannah said, her voice almost a whisper. “That helps explain my nightmares as a child. Other than that bad news, how are you? Have you kicked Fred out yet?
“Not yet. On a happier note, how was your dinner with Paul?” Joy could only hope Hannah had had a good evening.
“Terrible,” Hannah confessed. “Would you believe the man asked me to marry him? I don’t know him all that well. Joy, I’ve been out with him twice, and he told me last night, he’s always been in love with me. Good Lord, that’s impossible. When Nate was alive and knew Paul, I hardly ever saw the man. There’s no way that can be true. I rejected his proposal, and now, I think he’s angry with me.”
“What are you going to do?”
“Nothing,” Hannah said. “There no way I’d ever marry the man. We’re not compatible, and besides, it’s too soon for me.”
“Look, Cus’, don’t reject a chance to be happy. Paul may not be the one, but there is someone out there for you. Look, I have to go. Fred isn’t home yet, and there’s going to be a fight if he comes home smelling of someone’s perfume.” There was such sadness in Joy’s tone; her voice broke as she hurriedly added, “Sleep well, Hannah,” and ended the call.
Nate sat in the chair for a short time. He knew Hannah was on her way home. Still apprehensive about Paul’s scheme to make his wife disappear, Nate waited until she pulled into the driveway before focusing on the man once more. He found himself in the passenger seat of the Mazda and stared at the profile of the man he’d come to hate. As they drove along, Nate wondered if there was any way he could physically affect the man. He concentrated hard on Paul’s body, then begin to feel himself meld into the man’s flesh. With a sudden jerk, the PI corrected the direction the vehicle had taken toward the shoulder of the road.
“Damn,” Paul muttered. “I almost fell asleep.”
Surprise filled Nate’s mind. He’d almost entered his body. Perhaps he wasn’t as powerless as he’d believed. Time was running out for him and Hannah. Who was this evil man? He wasn’t some creepy stranger. Plus, Nate was convinced the intrusion at the house was not a random act of robbery for some necklace. There had to be more to the attempt since the man did not take anything. But, how Paul figured into their plans, he didn’t understand. The former cop had always seemed to care a great deal about Hannah. What had happened to change him? Her rejection of him couldn’t have caused this drastic change.
At one time, they’d been good friends. But, a friend didn’t plan on killing a person, especially not a buddy’s wife. Now, he’d hired this Al and Pete to make his Hannah disappear. This all had to do with money. And from what Paul had said about being rich, a lot of dollars. And then there was the woman. How did she figure into everything? Why was Paul asking about Joy? Somehow, he had to find out the reason for all the scheming and soon. Tonight, Nate sensed his time was growing short. Things were about to evolve into something a lot more dangerous for Hannah.
Paul pulled into the driveway of the bungalow, parked, and got out. He waited for a moment to let his temper cool. Once inside, he made his way to the bedroom, quickly undressed, and climbed into bed beside the woman hidden by the shadows. For now, all Nate could do was hide in the corner and listen.
The single light breaking the blackness came from the street lamp straight across from the window. Only a vague outline of them sitting up in bed was visible. That and the glow from the end of a lit cigarette.
“You talked to Al and Pete?” the woman asked.
“Yes, Maggie. I just came from there.”
At least he now knew the woman’s name, Nate thought. That was something. But he still hasn’t seen her face.
“They’ll do the job. But, want money upfront, as much as ten in advance.” Paul was surprised there was no angry outburst. Maggie hated to part with money.
“Okay, give them ten, if they do the job right. This operation has to be perfect. If not, all the money is lost. Make sure those two understand; it’s a bullet if they messed up. Where in the hell did you meet these guys?” Eyes narrowed, she stared hard at Paul as if reaching into the very core of his mind to expose and examine each thought.
“In a small town outside of Macon, Georgia. Al and I grew up together. Why?” Paul didn’t like anyone to inquire about his past. Too many bad memories still haunted him.
“Just wondered how you knew them. Al doesn’t appear too smart. As for his brother,” Maggie shrugged. A snob in many ways, countrified people as she called them, made her cringe. They served as a reminder of her upbringing in Ohio. Both parents being well-educated, professional people, plus considered wealthy, their lifestyle was stuffy and restrictive. She did as she pleased, and the rest be damned. That wasn’t to say she didn’t appreciate the society she had been born into.
At least her father had insisted his daughter be educated. Maggie was to go to college or get out. Maggie went. Four long years of school, she attended as he demanded. It had been rough studying and maintaining grades sufficient to keep the money flowing from her father. Becoming a nurse instead of a doctor was Daddy’s choice as a career. But the decision had worked out well. Marrying a wealthy doctor and living the easy life was the basic plan. That idea went down the drain. Most of her father’s rich friends were already married. Too soon, Maggie learned the men wanted to play, but hated to pay. But they paid, or a package of photos would be sent to their darling wives.
When things became too hot, California called. Taking jobs caring for rich old men had been profitable. Her parents were none the wiser as to the real motive for Maggie leaving. They were happy their wayward child was out of their lives.
Then she had met George Theodore Clayton and his attorney, Winston Dansworth. And then Paul Dawson had entered her life. Now, Maggie wasn’t sure if the encounter was good, or was going to end up badly. Either way, she was committed to seeing it through.
“You’d better not be getting any ideas about dumping me and marrying that woman. I can put a bullet in your sweet ass too,” she informed Paul. Not a drop of love was reflected in those words or her voice. As far as Maggie was concerned, the man was a plaything to be used and discarded at her whim.
“I have no such plans. As for, Al, he does what he’s told,” Paul said and frowned. No since mentioning the man’s background. Maggie didn’t like his choice of friends. Plus, the direction the conversation had taken was disturbing.
Dinner with Hannah and her prying questions had brought back too many bad memories, like being dirt poor, never having enough to eat. His father, Henry, drunk all the time, the beatings. Cora, his mother, too worn out from having eight kids to fight back or protect any of them. To Paul, she failed them all, his brothers and sisters. There were other things in his past never to be admitted, like the life he’d created in California after running away.
Older women found him attractive with all those muscles, dark wavy hair and ice-blue eyes. Some claimed he resembled a young, slightly rougher appearing Paul Newman. Those remarks caught the attention of the owner of an escort service. A job was offered, and Paul accepted. Now, he was getting paid for what he had been giving away. With all he earned squirreled away, the next step was an education, college. Finer things were what he wanted, and school was the first step to achieving that goal.
With an uncanny memory, college courses were easy. The idea of becoming a cop was appealing. He could work both sides of the street that way. After acquiring his GED and an Associate’s Degree in Criminal Justice, within a week after graduation, he left the state, putting miles between him and a dubious past.
One single stupid mistake almost put an end to all his plans, a stop in Georgia to visit his mother, and Al. His old buddy almost didn’t recognize him; he’d changed so much. It was a brief visit, but a beneficial one. The bastard he’d called father was no longer around. The old son of a bitch was now dead.
After leaving Georgia, he headed south to Florida and settled in St. Petersburg. With a clean record in California, having used an alias all those years as an escort as well as a fake social security number, he had no problems joining the local police force. Ten years later, with numerous contacts on the dark side of the law, he quit before being caught double-dealing. Now the biggest score of his life was about to happen if Maggie did her part.
At times, the woman had a brutal heart made of steel instead of flesh and blood. Paul had firsthand knowledge of how vicious his girlfriend could be. Their first meeting had occurred with her employer. Surprised and enthralled by such a beauty, he’d made a pact with this she-devil realizing too late he should have run. As his maw used to say when referring to his daddy, beauty was skin deep, but ugly went all the way to the bone. The expression described Maggie perfectly. She was beautiful, but as brutally ugly inside as anyone was capable of being. And now, had the woman been stupid enough to threaten him? If so, the bitch didn’t know who she was dealing with. He’d handle this woman like all those before her.
“Al won’t be a problem,” he insisted. “But we have to be careful. Everything is coming together. We’re lucky two obstacles are out of the way already. Only one is left in Kentucky and one here to deal with, and everything is set.”
The woman took a hard drag on the joint, inhaling the smoke deep into her lungs before exhaling. She coughed, tried to speak, but had to catch a breath before being able to answer. “I don’t care what happens to either Al or Pete once they do what they’re hired to do. Just make sure the job is done first. Why should scumbags, like them, be included in our take? After all, we’ve done all the research and planning. They had one thing to do, and you say Al almost fucked it up. The man has to go. No more talk,” she said and slid down into the bed, pulling Paul on top. “Now fuck me as if you love me,” she whispered.
Paul placed a hand over her mouth. “Maggie, stop Cussing, and I mean it.” Voice harsh, he continued, “Listen to what I’m saying. No more dressing like a cheap tramp either. Go buy some new clothes AND,” by now the man was almost yelling, “STOP CUSSING! If you don’t, you’re going to screw this up.”
Surprised by this aggressive version of a man who’d always been easy to handle, the woman pushed Paul away, and anger spewed with every word, “Who do you think you’re talking to, some whore off a street corner! Well, you’re not. I’ll have you know my father is a well-known surgeon in Cleveland, Ohio, and my mother is a pediatrician. So don’t talk as if I’m a nobody.” She sat up and leaned back against the pillows, still furious.
Astonished, Paul looked at her with renewed interest. “If what you’re saying is a fact, what the hell happened to cause you to end up a nurse instead of a doctor?”
Paul’s condescending tone added to the woman’s anger, and she leaned forward to slap at him. He grabbed her wrist and twisted the blow away. If there had ever been love between them, it was now lost. “If you have to know, I screwed up in college. Mom and Dad gave me a choice, go or get out. So, I went and became what they demanded. But, what they wanted was a son, another doctor, so they kicked me out,” Maggie said.
“But, until then, you had a pretty easy life, with plenty of food, and lots of clothes to wear,” Paul remembered the hand-me-down clothing donated by the church to his family. Most already well worn. He’d never had a pair of store-bought pants or shoes until he ran away and started to earn his own money. The first pair of shoes, trousers and a shirt had come from K-Mart. The feel of the brand new fabric against his skin had been exciting. He’d showered and scrubbed any residue of Georgia dirt from his body until his flesh was red and donned the new items, thrilled and feeling as if he’d won a million dollars. From then on, Paul swore he’d only have the best of everything. “So, what have you got to complain about?”
“My life wasn’t all that easy,” Maggie snapped. “Maybe your parents wanted you, but mine didn’t. Yeah, I had food and clothes, but every day of my existence, I knew I was one giant mistake in their lives. To my parents, I was to be tolerated until they could get rid of me. All I remember growing up was vying for my mother’s attention. Instead, I was turned over to a nanny’s care, and some were nothing but mean. Then my darling mother decided I was old enough to take care of myself. No more nannies.”
Paul looked at Maggie and said sarcastically, “Oh my, poor little rich girl had it rough. Try going to bed with welts on your back from the old man beating the hell out of you with his belt. Every day except Sunday, he’d find some reason to whale on me with that leather strap. So don’t expect me to feel sorry because your parents didn’t want you.”
“I’m not asking for your sympathy,” Maggie lashed out. “You want me to be more like your precious Hannah. I’m just telling you that won’t be too hard.” And she was capable of being just as sophisticated as anyone.
Maggie didn’t expect Paul to feel sorry for her. Life had not been easy for a young child starving for a mother’s love only to be rebuffed at every attempt to gain her parent’s attention and approval. Being good didn’t work, so Maggie began to act out, in school, at home, and during dinner parties hosted by dear Mom. After the second incident at a party, Maggie was confined to her room until all guests had departed, then severely reprimanded for her actions. She was never beaten, but both parents showed strong disapproval of her existence.
But then, Maggie had learned at an early age how to manipulate those around her. Taught to act and speak properly, as her mother, Adelaide Marie Hancock, always pointed out, Maggie always knew when trouble brewed. Her mother would yell out, “Regina Marie,” at the top of her lungs from the foot of the stairs and demanded she come down to receive a deserved tongue lashing. Another term, dear old Mother favored. Maggie always pictured her mother’s tongue as a long whip striking her about the head and shoulder.
Her father, Robert Sinclair Hancock, was as bad as her mother. Their expectation was she should be quiet, well behaved, and not interfere with their daily life. What her mother gave birth to was a wild child who continually caused fights with classmates and got into trouble, a little hellion.
And now the chance for the rich life was within reach as long as Paul didn’t screw everything up. “So I don’t want to hear ever again how wonderful your damn Hannah is. And don’t think I’m cheap or can be bought so easily.”
Paul was surprised Maggie had admitted to being from a wealthy family. He already knew some about that past. The old man in California had insisted on background checks on all employees. What Paul had discovered about the nurse surprised even him. Most of what the woman said was true about the doctor and his wife. The college thing was the main problem.
Plus, the name on her birth certificate, as she said, was Regina Marie Hancock. What had shocked Paul was the fact Regina Marie was a distant relative of the man who had hired him. A cousin removed too many times to count. Even Maggie didn’t know that little fact, and he’d never revealed the information to the old man.
Right now, he needed to mend this rift, or all their plans were flushed. “Now, Maggie, I know you’re no whore, and you can be as classy as Hannah pretends to be. Even more so with your background. What we need is for you to act sophisticated all the time, not just once in a while. Starting now, be Hannah in every way, and I’ll love you forever. To get this job done, we need to stay on target. Agreed,” he said.
Maggie gave Paul a Cheshire smile, leaned forward, and whispered close to his lips. “Anything you say, baby. Anything you say. Now love me and mean it.” Paul began to kiss her breast and Nate back away.
Nate faded through the wall, not wanting to witness anymore. His so-called friend was planning on killing his wife. Over money? And where was all this wealth coming from? Whatever the scheme, Nate knew he had to stop these four people from harming Hannah.
Nate remained outside the cottage pacing until the lights suddenly came on in the bedroom. Upon entering the room again, Nate was surprised to see the woman sitting on the side of the bed. Now, he could see her features clearly, and it was a shock. It was, but wasn’t, Hannah. Or at least a close, damn close, replication of his wife.
Paul pushed Maggie away, rose and walked down the hall and into the living room, while Nate remained, studying the woman’s face in amazement. Maggie, who a day or two ago had shoulder-length blonde hair, now had her hair cut in the same style as Hannah’s, curled and dyed the exact shade of dark brown. Stunned by the transformation and resemblance, Nate was unable to take his eyes off her. Where Hannah’s features were soft and loving, this woman’s had a hard edge as if she’d seen and experienced too much. Also, the eyes were not quite the same shade of blue, but close enough.
“Okay,” she called after him, “who put the burr up your ass all of a sudden?”
Paul whirled around, eyes blazing. “Look, Maggie, there’s only a few days before the deadline the old bastard put in the will runs out. Now, I’ve done my part. Do we have all the documents we need?” he said and took a deep breath to help quell his anger, and then added, “Al didn’t get the necklace.”
Maggie yelled at Paul and stormed after him. “Son of a bitch. This plan can’t work without that damn locket,” paused for a moment and studied Paul, and then said, “You’ll have to get it.”
“How in the hell am I supposed to get it?”
“You have no choice. I didn’t spend the last two years taking care of that old bastard, feeding him, bathing him, and wiping his nasty ass to settle for the lousy hundred grand. There are millions to be had. He made promises he didn’t keep. Now, I want all of it. I spent months getting all the information on Hannah, her relatives. If you think I’ll let anything or anyone screw this up, you’re nuts.” Maggie looked straight at Paul as if issuing a warning. “You eliminated the aunt, one of the problems, in Kentucky. There’s still the cousin. What have you done to take care of her? Or have you been trying to romance the bitch, Hannah?” She stopped as if thinking, then added, “Well, keep at it, romance her right out of the necklace.” When Paul looked surprised at the statement, Maggie glared at Paul. “Do you think I’m stupid? I know you have a thing for her. Get over it, or you’ll never see one dime of the money.” Maggie inhaled, let the air out slowly, and continued, “Everything is right on schedule. All the paperwork came in today’s mail. It’s here,” she said, and went to the kitchen table and sat down.
“If it weren’t for me, this opportunity wouldn’t be happening.” Still angry, Paul snapped, “The day the old man hired me, and I saw you, I thought up this idea. So, I don’t want to hear any shit from you. You’d have settled for the lousy hundred thousand. The old fool supplied all the information, the daughter’s name, where to start the search, all of it. The stupid SOB made it easy. George T. Clayton wasn’t as smart as he thought he was.” Paul remained focused on his anger and kept ranting. “Prestonsburg is a small town, and those people love to talk. Now all that is needed is one stupid piece of jewelry and to remove Hannah from the picture.”
Nate had followed them to the table and peered at the numerous sheets of paper spread out on the wooden surface. There was a copy of a will in the name of George T. Clayton, a copy of a birth certificate in Hannah’s name.
The last item Maggie handed to Paul, “Here’s my new driver’s license.”
He looked at Maggie and then back at the license. “My God,” he said. “You look just like Hannah,” studied the license again, then asked, “I thought this needed to be in your name. Why isn’t it?”
Maggie gave him a weird look, “Because, the signature has to match the one on the license and the documents for this to work. Hannah has to vanish so I can take her place. And, that damn dog has to be taken care of too. The beast will know I’m not his owner. Paul, if by some freak chance her body is ever found, with my license in her purse, everyone will think it’s me. No one will question my identity as long as I have the locket. Everything hinges on one fucking piece of jewelry. That old bastard said the jewelry has the Swiss bank account number in it. You or Pete had better get the damn thing.”
Time had run out. The plan to kill Hannah was to happen within a day, two at the most. Fear and anger roared through Nate. Nate rushed at Paul, but passed right through him, whipped around to stare at the man’s back. Nate was all too aware he was unable to hit Paul in any way. How then was he going to protect Hannah if he couldn’t touch anything? There had to be some way to stop anyone who came after his wife.
Nate continued to watch the two as Paul studied the pile of papers on the table, then muttered, “At least, we don’t have to worry about Nate any longer. The war took care of one problem.”
“Yeah,” Maggie said. “Lucky us. Now, you don’t have to deal with him.”
Miffed, Paul snapped back, “I’d been able to handle him. Nate wasn’t so tough. As far as Hannah’s body being discovered, the cops will never find it,” he said, as the thought of his father came to mind. They had made sure Henry did a good vanishing act. The same could be done to Hannah or Maggie, for that matter, especially if Hannah had a change of mind and married him. Paul doubted it would ever happen.
Maggie patted him on the arm and muttered, “Yeah, right, baby. I’m sure you could have. Be sure Hannah disappears for good.”
Paul whirled around to glare at her. “Don’t mess with me, Maggie. I can handle you too. There’s a place near Myakka City where no one will ever find a body.” Or you either. The words flashed in his mind like razors, ready to slash and injure.
Maggie realized she’d pushed Paul too far; the look on his face actually scared her. To ease the moment, she stood and wrapped both arms around his neck, and whispered close to his lips, “Baby, you can handle me any day of the week,” then kissed him.
Paul pushed her away and stalked into the kitchen, opened the refrigerator to grab a beer, then slammed the door shut. The bitch thought she was in control, no way.
Maggie had not appeased Paul at all. She had to be careful not to antagonize him any further. Paul was unpredictable, and when it came to money would turn on anyone in a second. When he returned to the dining room and took a seat back at the table, she said, “We have to get the necklace. Do you know where Hannah keeps the thing?”
“I’m sure it’s in the jewelry box. That’s the most logical place.” Paul had discovered as a PI that most women liked to keep good jewelry close at hand.
“Is she going back to work soon?” Maggie asked.
A sly smile spread across Paul’s features. “No way of knowing. But, I’m driving her to pick up a new car tomorrow. After I drop her off, I’ll go to the house. Hannah will be busy with paperwork at the dealer for about an hour, which should give me plenty of time to get in and get out.”
“What about the dog?” Maggie said.
“Hamburger laced with a sedative should do the trick.”
“Be careful. No wrinkles. We need to stay on schedule. The lawyer has her correct address. The man already thinks I’m Hannah. Old man Clayton instructed the Attorney Dansworth to give her the news this Monday. So that gives us time to get rid of the bitch. Once I take her place, I’ll have access to all the new bank accounts and property. We can transfer the money to a Swiss account for us and be set for life, live anywhere we want. The Mediterranean sounds great to me.” Maggie slipped her arms around Paul’s neck and tried to kiss him again, but he pushed her away.
“I know, Maggie,” he said. “There’s no need to remind me. Everything will be ready and on time. This job can’t be rushed. That will screw everything up.” Did the woman believe he was so stupid? Paul decided to take care of this little problem once they were married. He’d be a perfect grieving widower.
Now, Nate knew their plan. They were planning on killing Hannah, so this crazy bitch could take her place. And what, Nate wondered, was the money the woman kept referring to? Drifting closer, Nate stared down at the last will of the man with whom Maggie had been employed. As he read, everything became clear. As he thought when viewing the contract between Paul and George T. Clayton, the man was Hannah’s missing father. The document stated Hannah was to inherit the entire estate. The amount was staggering, over ten million dollars, in cash, and property. Nate had never felt as helpless as he did at that moment. How was he going to protect her?
Somehow there had to be a way to move objects. The theory was that everything was made up of atoms. The electrons, within the atom, created the electrical force. If so, wasn’t a spirit nothing more than energy, an electrical force created by atoms? To move objects had to be a matter of focusing one’s mental energy on the object at hand until it was easy to move. If so, Nate needed to learn how to achieve that ability, fast. He hesitated a second and then made a mad dash through the door to the front lawn.
Once outside, he began to search for something, anything to attempt to move. He walked past each house on the street without finding an object until he reached the corner. There next to the curb was the remains of a cardboard pizza box. Nate stared at the object, centering every ounce of energy on that one piece of cardboard and praying the thing would move, just an inch even. Nothing. Once more, he repeated the procedure to no avail. Then again. And again. Then several times more. The box still didn’t move.
All the rage over dying and leaving Hannah was in the force behind the final attempt to strike the container with his foot. Wham! The box went sailing down the street. Nate almost fell backward in surprise. Was that what it took? The emotional intensity of anger? If so, he was packed with rage at leaving Hannah unprotected and in danger. He rushed to where the container landed. Again Nate kicked it. Again, the object flew across the pavement. Over and over, he continued to lob the cardboard up and down the street and back to the front of the house.
Now pleased with his progress, Nate sat down on the curb, thrilled to find he wasn’t as helpless as he’d believed. How much he could do remained to be discovered. But at least now he’d be able to attempt to defend Hannah. Pete, Al, Maggie, and Paul’s final plan to get rid of Hannah had been revealed, but he’d have to watch for any sign they were ready to act. From the sound of things, they were on a tight schedule and had to get things done before time ran out. Hannah had to be warned. Now, his only hope of saving his wife was Agnes.
Immediately he returned to Agnes’ house and pushed through the wall into the living room. Nate knew he had left the woman in the process of going to bed. Now she was out of bed. From the kitchen came the sounds of Agnes humming her Irish tune again. Not wanting to scare her any more than he had, he melded into the shadows once more.
Within a minute, she entered carrying a tray loaded with a teapot, a cup and a saucer of cookies, and stopped. Apprehensive, Agnes looked around the room, eyes searching each corner for Nate’s misty form. She didn’t see it. “Who’s here?” she called out. “Someone is here. I can feel the chill in the room. Is it you, John dear? Come out, I’m not afraid of you, love.” Agnes kept surveying the shadows, then hurried to place the tray on the coffee table before taking a seat of the sofa. “Nate? Whoever is here, don’t be afraid. I’m not easily frightened.”
Oh yes, you are, Nate thought but took a step forward toward Agnes.
“Oh goodness,” she cried and put a hand to her mouth. “It is you, Nate. Why are you back? What do you want?”
“Agnes, you have to go see Hannah tonight. A man was in the house today looking for a piece of jewelry he needs. She was in the shower, so she didn’t see him. Thankfully, Cooper’s barking and Hannah coming out of the bathroom scared the creep away.”
“Oh Lord,” Agnes cried. “Is she all right? He didn’t hurt her?”
“Hannah’s fine for now, but the man will be coming back. You have to talk to her tonight,” Nate had to be persistent, Hannah’s life depended on it. “Go to the house now before she goes to bed.” He turned, zipped to the house, and back before Agnes realized what was happening. “She’s still up and just now let the dog out.”
“But, it’s after ten, Nate. I’m not dressed,” Agnes complained and glanced down at the fuzzy light blue robe. “Hannah will think I’m crazy. Isn’t there another way? I don’t want to do this.”
“I have a message for you from John, if you want it, you’ll do it.” Nate was being forced to use unfair tactics. What Agnes didn’t realize, he really did have a message from her husband. John had been one of several spirits asking to send word to a relative. Nate had made the promise to John to tell Agnes because the man’s wife was a neighbor. Now the woman was being stubborn. “Agnes,” he growled, voice rising an octave, “if you don’t do this, I will haunt you forever. You’ll never get any sleep and never see John in your dreams again.” Nate stopped, backed up a couple of steps. He’d gotten the older woman’s attention now.
“How do you know about my dreams of John?” Agnes demanded, almost convinced. “Which one are you talking about?”
Now Nate had her. “The one about the overdose of morphine and John’s spirit coming to thank you.”
Nate did have a message from her husband; otherwise, there was no way he could have known what she’d done. Still reluctant, she sighed and said, “I’ll get dressed,” looked in Nate’s direction, but still saw only a hazy outline of the man. “Stay here. I’ll be right back,” turned and hurried to the bedroom.
Agnes took no longer than five minutes to dress. Spry for her age, Nate didn’t expect the woman to be so fast. She must want to get the task over as fast as possible, and emerged from the bedroom, dressed in jeans, a blue sweater, and sneakers, and hurried out the front door before Nate had time to say a word. Once at the house, she hesitated, then rapped hard on the door.
“Who’s there?” Hannah called.
“Hannah, it’s me, Agnes,” and begin to wring her hands.
The door opened. Loud barking sounded in the kitchen. Cooper was in the yard alternating between a bark and a whine. “Come in. Is anything wrong?” Hannah turned, “Let me get the boy inside before the animal wakes the entire neighborhood,” and hurried to open the back door. The Lab bound into the living room and dances around Agnes.
Hannah returned and appraised Agnes’ wrinkled brow and troubled features. “What’s going on, you look upset? Has anything happened?”
“Oh God,” escaped from the older woman. “Look, there no other way to say this,” Agnes stuttered for a moment then blurted out everything. “Your husband’s ghost has contacted me. Nate is sending you a warning.” The look on Hannah’s face stopped the rush of words.
“What!” The young woman backed away and sat in the recliner. “Have you gone crazy? Nate’s ghost is talking to you! Impossible. I don’t believe you.” The woman was getting up in age, but Hannah didn’t believe she had mental problems. Now she was talking to spirits? Insane was a better description of what Agnes was claiming.
“You have to believe me. Nate says you’re in danger. A man named Al Carson broke into your house today. He lives in Gulfport. Nate said he was searching for something in your bedroom. Cooper’s barking, and you coming out of the shower scared him away. You need to go to the police. Also, he wants me to warn you about this man you’ve been seeing. He’s dangerous. There, I’ve warned you as I promised.” Agnes paused to catch a breath and didn’t get a chance to say anything else.
“Stop this. I don’t believe in ghosts. Nate’s dead! It’s cruel for you to come here to my home,” Hannah’s temper was on the rise, “and claim to have talked to his spirit. Being the first anniversary was only last week. How could you?” Tears began to well up. “I don’t want to hear any more of this nonsense. Get out! Get out of my house!” Hannah physically turned Agnes around and pushed the woman through the door and onto the porch. “Go home and don’t come back here with such a story again,” she shouted and then slammed it shut.
Angry at Nate, Agnes trudged home and stood on the front walk for a moment, staring back at the two-story house, then glanced over at the wispy mist hovering in the shadows. “Well,” she said, “that went as predicted. Didn’t I tell you Hannah wasn’t going to believe a word of this? Now the girl thinks I’m crazier than a loon. Why did you have to insist I do this? Now, damn you, tell me the message from John.”
“Because they’re planning on killing Hannah, Agnes. Paul and this woman, Maggie, need some damn necklace to make their plan work,” Nate shot back, the wavering mist appearing to pace. “You’re the one hope I have of preventing my wife’s death. I have to get back to the house in case they try something tonight. Oh, and John said the both of you will be together again in the future, that he loves you and always will.” Nate started to drift back to his house, but Agnes stopped him.
“Kill Hannah! My God, I didn’t realize. I’ll try again tomorrow. Perhaps then, she’ll listen to me. Thank you for telling me John’s message.”
“Hopefully, Hannah will listen and not be stubborn. And, you’re welcome,” was all Nate said, before leaving for the balcony, on guard for the rest of the night, in case a brown truck or a red Mazda appeared.
Agnes went back inside to bed, trying to imagine where in the future she’d be reunited with John.
Everyone have a good week and stay in, stay safe. Remember, NEVER GIVE UP, NEVER SURRENDER.
After Hannah left, Nate followed Paul, still reeling from the man’s declaration of love. In all the years during his association with the man, he’d never given any indication of an attraction to Hannah. She was not Paul’s type at all. The guy preferred women a little rough around the edges. Hannah was too classy. Something was going on, more than had transpired throughout the evening, and what he’d discovered so far. Nate had to find out what.
Paul drove south on Gulf Boulevard to the Treasure Island Causeway. Gulfport was a straight shot off Fifty-Eighth Street South. Paul kept muttering, “Rejected, she actually rejected me! Me!” he fumed. Most women didn’t turn away his advances. “Does the woman think she’s too good for me? Bitch!” he said, under his breath.
Paul’s fury scared Nate. If he was this angry over at being told no, there was no telling what he would do.
He drove down a residential street to a small house on the south side of the city and parked. Nate followed the PI through the front door and into a large living room. As the temperature dropped, Paul walked through Nate to check the heating thermostat and turned it higher. Then picked up an expensive sweater from a modern leather chair, pulled it on. Various pieces of well-made clothing were tossed carelessly across costly furniture, some landing on the floor. The house smelled of old pizza, even though the interior design was sleek, modern, and lavish. Several Dominos boxes, stacked at one end of the oversized coffee table, were the source of the odor.
Nate leaned against the door frame and watched as Paul went to a large desk piled with mail. Plucking one envelope from the stack, he pulled out what appeared to be a letter. Paul unfolded the paper and stood to peruse the longer form, tapping his finger along the side of what appeared to be a legal document.
Curious, Nate moved closer and stood reading over his shoulder. It was a copy of a contract between Paul and one, Winston Dansworth, Attorney, for services in locating someone.
Paul shivered. The chill settled around him as Nate moved closer. The private investigator had received five hundred dollars a day plus expenses to locate Hannah Noel Clayton. Why was someone trying to find his wife? And how was it all this related? Was this man, Dansworth, Hannah’s father? Nate didn’t recall her ever mentioning her dad’s name and became worried as he looked at the date on the document. It was dated a little over a year and a half ago. What did it mean? And what was this asshole planning? The deadline for finding his wife was the fourth of December, a week away.
Paul began to pace back and forth from one end of the kitchen to the other, muttering over and over. “Disappear. Must disappear,” stopped, glanced at his watch. It was 9:00 P.M. He then pulled out his cell phone and made a quick call.
Listening for a second, Paul said, “Good, you’re still up. We need to talk. I’m coming over,” ended the brief conversation, stuffed the contract in a drawer, grabbed the car keys off the counter, then headed into the night with Nate right behind him. When he climbed into the car, Nate rode along. He’d be damned if he was going to let this bastard out of his sight tonight.
Paul drove to the yellow house not far from the bungalow but in a seedier side of Gulfport. At last, he pulled into the gravel driveway, climbed out of the sports car, and marched to the front door. With a fist, he pounded on the wood. At once, it was opened to reveal Al.
The tall skinny man, looking grubbier than the last time, appeared in the open doorway. Dressed in boxer shorts and a stained tee-shirt, Al jerked his head toward the inside, indicating for Paul to enter.
“Do you know what time it is?” he stormed.
Paul ignored the remark and walked into the house. “Don’t you ever bathe?” he demanded as he passed the other man. “You stink. I’m surprised Hannah didn’t get a whiff of you today.” Nate had guessed right; Paul was behind the break-in at the house.
“What’s so damn important it can’t wait until morning,” he demanded, ignoring the remark and pushed the door shut to follow after Paul. The brother, Pete, looking as groggy as the first, sat on the sofa, rubbing his eyes. He also wore just briefs.
Nate, a mere shadow in a dark corner, listened as Paul stood in the middle of the room and addressed both men. “Here’s an offer for you, and your brother, Pete. I need someone to disappear.”
Both men listened intently. A dubious expression crossed the grubby man’s features. “Like who, and for how much? You ain’t what we call flush with coins, and I know it for a fact,” Al stated hotly. He was still angry at how Paul had treated him.
Red-faced, Paul snapped back, “I will be. How does ten thousand dollars sound? All you have to do is take care of this person, make them vanish.”
“Ten thousand?” Al glanced at Pete. “Where the fuck you gonna get that much dough?” The proposition was beginning to sound interesting. With Paul, as Al knew, cash in hand was better than a promise of payment later.
“I have ways. After this person’s gone, there’ll be plenty of money, and you’ll get paid. Don’t forget; there can’t be any evidence they’re alive anywhere. Otherwise, the plan I have won’t work. And to make sure the body isn’t discovered, there’s a place near Myakka City you can use to dump it later. There’s plenty of wild hogs down there. Understand?”
Al drew back and shivered. Wild hogs. He was all too aware of what that meant. He wanted no part of that type of operation. So he blurted out. “Oh, I understand, all right. We do the job and get screwed by you. What’d this person do, throw your rotten ass out? How’re you gonna get anything if they’re dead?” Did the man think he was an idiot? Al wanted half in advance.
“How I get the money doesn’t matter,” Paul growled. “I have a sure-fire way of getting whatever is needed. All you have to do is what you’ve been hired to do.”
“I know,” Al chuckled. His upper lip curled back as he kept talking. “You ain’t shit. Nothing but a wannabe rich guy. You hail from the same dirt poor town in Georgia we do. Don’t forget I know all about the high and mighty Paul Dawson. You didn’t even finish high school. Now Mr. Big Shot is pretending to be some smart ass, private investigator. You’re probably a janitor somewhere and nothing else.”
Paul was furious. His words sputtered out, reverting to a southern accent, “I ain’t nobody. Maybe I didn’t graduate, but I read, and I got my GED. Plus, I did go to college to study criminal justice. It was required to become a cop, as you should know, Al. So don’t give me crap. If you do what you’re supposed to, there’ll be money and lots of it.”
A greedy gleam flashed in Al’s eyes as he cocked his head to one side. “If you’re gonna be so rich,” he said, “for us to do this job, I bet you can afford twenty-five thousand instead of a mere ten.”
Paul exploded, “You greedy mother fucker. Ten sounded good a minute ago. Now you want twenty-five. Split fifteen, no more. And nothing had better lead back to me.”
“You make it twenty, and nothing will. We want half up front,” Pete piped up.
Paul hesitated for a moment. Pete was a different breed from his brother and not afraid of him, and Paul knew it. The man could hold his own in a fight and had, more than once, beaten his opponent, leaving the man nearly dead. “All right. Twenty. Ten upfront. I can swing that. But, if you try to screw me over, I won’t hesitate to put an end to your sorry ass.” He pulled several pieces of paper from a pocket. “Here’s the information. This job has to be done by December fourth. Maybe sooner. I don’t know yet. But no slip-ups. Do you understand?”
Nate looked at the piece of paper Paul had handed Al. On it was written Hannah’s name and address. Was the man that angry over being rejected he wanted to kill her?
“Sure. But, have the money here tomorrow night,” Al said. “Why December fourth? It don’t give us much time to come up with a plan.”
“Don’t worry, why. Just make sure you get it done before then.” Paul stood, ready to leave. “We got a deal?”
Al said, “Deal,” and Pete nodded, not having spoken but a few words during the entire encounter. Nervous now, Al moved to stand closer to his brother. “I got something to tell you, and you ain’t gonna like it,” he said and was visibly shaking. “You told me that bitch was going to be gone all day. Well, she wasn’t. The dog was outside, and she was in the shower, so I didn’t get the necklace. I almost got caught instead.”
Paul exploded, “You had one simple job, and you couldn’t even do that right. How do I know you’ll do this one and not screw it up?” He wanted to beat the hell out of Al but knew Pete wouldn’t tolerate anyone attacking his brother.
“Because I’ll take care of the woman, not Al. You get the piece of jewelry yourself,” Pete stated and glared at Paul as if challenging him to disagree with the arrangement.
Paul was furious, and it showed, but he said nothing.
Rage boiled inside Nate. Oh, how he wanted to strike out at Paul, to pound the man into a bloody pulp, and did charged across the room and lashed out. Over and over, he swung, throwing punches at his stomach, even his face. Nothing happened. He was unable to touch the man. Paul turned and walked right through Nate and out the door, got in his car and drove away.
Nate stared after him. How was he going to stop these men from murdering his wife if he was unable to touch anything? Somehow, he had to warn Hannah. One way was in a dream. But how to get her to believe it? He wasn’t sure. Nate thought of his neighbor, Agnes. She wasn’t psychic, or was she? He’d swear she could see him. And there was the warning she gave him before his last deployment.
There were a few things he was able to do, move from place to place, and then there was Cooper. The dog sensed his presence and seemed to hear and see the commands. If Coop continued to obey, could he make Paul Dawson feel his spirit? There had to be a way to find out.
The verbal exchange between the brothers caught Nate’s attention. “Why do you take shit off him?” Pete snarled, returning from the kitchen. “If it was me, he’d been dead a long time ago,” he bragged and planted his ass back on the sofa, a beer in one hand.
“Yeah, sure he would.” Al gave a harsh laugh and lean forward. “Besides, I know a little too much about Mr. Paul Dawson. So, he don’t scare me.” But the man did. Yeah, what he knew about Paul scared him shitless. Like when the guy came home from California. Al hesitated for a second, chewing on his lower lip. Then asked, “Remember that summer he came back for a short visit to see his momma?”
“Hell, no. That was over twenty years ago. Why?” Now Al had Pete’s attention.
“You weren’t there at the time. Maybe you were in Atlanta on a job or somewhere. Anyway, Paul was no longer that skinny kid who run away. He’d gotten big and muscular. So I asked him about it. Said he’d studied Karate,” co-rot-tee was the way Al pronounced the word, “and worked out a lot. Anyway, late one night, I drove him over to see Ms. Dawson at the farm. The old man was there and drunk as usual for all the religious preaching he did. Paul was around twenty-two at the time, and we was close to the same age then.” He paused, thinking about how Paul hadn’t aged much over the past twenty-some years. There was gray in his hair, but not a lot, and his face was almost wrinkle-free. Paul and he were the same age, but Al felt as if he’d lived fifty years since that terrible night. Each morning, his joints popped and cracked, causing a lot of pain until he was able to work out the kinks.
“The old man was raisin’ a bunch of hogs at that time, I think.” His eyes appeared as if he was viewing another year and place. “I drove Paul to the house and was waiting in my truck.” Al stopped speaking, remembering the horror he’d watched from inside the vehicle and the sound of the loud and angry voices. Slowly, he recounted to Pete what was heard and witnessed, scene by scene.
This particular night, the old man was drunk and angry, his foul mood spewed out when he saw his son. “What the hell are you doing here,” he had demanded in a drunken stupor.
“Not to see you,” Paul had snapped. “I came to see Maw.” When Cora Dawson heard her son’s voice, she came to the front door. One look and even Al could tell the old bastard had been beating on her as usual. “The son of a bitch still knocking you about, Maw?” Al heard Paul ask, and noted the black eye and bruises on the woman’s face and arms.
What brothers and sisters, Paul had left behind, were nowhere to be seen. Three young and frightened children hid behind their mother and were the only youngsters Al saw. No more than three or four years old, they must have been born after the boy had run away. And Paul had been gone over six years.
“Don’t you worry none, Maw, the bastard ain’t going to be doing that no more,” Al heard him say. Out of the corner of his eye, Paul had seen the old man charge across the yard toward him, hands balled into fists, his face filled with rage. Without hesitation, the son whirled and planted a kick directly to his father’s throat. The expression on Henry Dawson’s face was one of shock, disbelief, and then he dropped to the ground gasping for air. After a minute or two, he didn’t move, both eyes remained open, staring at nothing.
Paul had stood over the body and looked down at the man he had hated all his life. Al didn’t want to remember what Paul had confessed to him once when drunk. The beatings and the vile things the old bastard had done to the boys. But as Al knew, those memories were there, buried in his mind to haunt Paul forever. At least now, the old bastard was dead. Al had no doubt Paul had planned to kill him as soon as he saw his mother’s face. Now it was a matter of cleaning up the mess.
Paul’s mother had knelt beside the body and checked for a pulse before looking up and smiling. “I’m free,” she’d whispered, giving Al chills, then turned and looked at the three frightened faces of the young children and yelled, “Get back in the house and shut the door. Don’t you come out until I tell you.” At once, each child scampered to obey.
Standing, Al remembered, she’d pointed toward the rickety old barn next to several hog pens. “Let’s get him in there,” she’d ordered. And from his hiding place in the truck, Al had watched as the dead man’s body was picked up then hauled into the shed and the battered door shut tight.
An hour later, they emerged. Paul hugged his mother and hurried to the truck. Cowering in the vehicle, Al had stared at his friend. Without saying a word, he eased behind the wheel and drove away. Not once in all the years since it happened had that night been mentioned. He was sure Paul was glad. That way, the former cop didn’t have to dispose of his body.
“I ain’t never seen no man move that fast,” Al said, shaking with the memory. “One kick. One single kick to the throat and Henry was on the ground choking. Paul continued to stare at him, smiling as the old man died. Ms. Cora actually spit on the old bastard. I had slid down in the seat so no one could see me and was peering over the dashboard watching everything. After, they dragged his dead ass to the barn, Paul and his maw was in there too long for anything other than cuttin’ up the carcass. When Paul came back to the truck, his clothes were wet, and his maw hurried back in the house and shut the door.”
Outside, Al had watched what happened and was trembling in fear, knowing all too well what the makeshift barn was used for, to slaughter the hogs. Old man Dawson and his woman were proficient at skinning and dismembering a large pig within an hour. It was terrifying to think what those two were doing to the old bastard’s body. He’d stayed hidden, afraid he was next.
“What happened afterward?” Pete demanded. There had to be more to the story, or Al wouldn’t have brought it up.
“Paul left the next morning. Anyway, the old woman, she never went to the sheriff or nothing. A week later, she tells the man at the store that Henry had left her. She was getting ready to slaughter a hog and wanted to sell the meat. I made a point of staying clear of her and those kids from then on. Paul killed his daddy and fed his body to those damn hogs. I know they did, had to. The old bastard was never seen again. And I ain’t been able to eat pork since.” Al shuddered and made a face.
“Well, can you blame the man? That old bastard beat those kids and their maw most every day for one reason or another. I’m surprised Paul hadn’t killed the son of a bitch before then. But, thanks, little brother. That bit of information will come in handy if he gives us any trouble or tries to cheat us out of that money.”
“Well, the bastard didn’t say whether he wanted the woman dead, did he? I forget.” Thinking about the past had only confused Al more than he was.
“You got ass for brains?” Pete yelled. “If she’s disappearing without a trace, don’t you think he wants her dead?” This wasn’t the first time Pete was forced to wonder about the head injuries Al had suffered as a child. It had happened on three occasions. One had been his fault. He’d bumped Al, and the boy had fallen out of a tree. A knot on the back of his head and a broken arm was the result. The other two times, he fell out of the barn loft into a haystack and hit his head on a rock. Then, there was the time Paw had clobbered him in the head once for sassing. The old drunk had come near to killing them both that day.
Being the oldest, Pete had been blamed for all the trouble they’d both gotten into growing up. Admittedly, a lot was his fault. But Al did a good job of causing his mishaps. Booze and women were the boy’s downfall. It didn’t matter the ladies didn’t like him all that much because of his lack of personal hygiene. But the stupid fool kept trying before realizing he had to pay for their services.
“Tomorrow’s going to be a busy day if we’re to plan this right. So, we need to get some sleep.” Scratching his bare belly, Pete stretched and walked down the short hallway toward one of the two bedrooms. Al, still muttering and shaking his head followed, the images of hogs chomping away on body parts played over and over in his mind.
Knowing Hannah was safe from the two men for the moment was a relief for Nate. He concentrated on home and found himself standing on the front portico. Trouble was coming within the next two days. Nate turned to stare across at the Agnes’ house. A crack of light was shining between the closed drapes. She was at home.
Agnes was a silver-haired, medium height woman, who was still attractive for her age. Now, living alone, she kept busy crocheting sweaters, bikinis, or Afghans, which she sold to a shop on the beach. Other times, during the winter months, she spent her days tending the flowers planted in a bed in the front yard.
Her husband, John, was dead, so after moving in, Nate and Hannah made a point to keep a check on Agnes since she had no living family in the United States. When they cooked, a plate was prepared for Agnes to make sure she was getting enough to eat. Other times, she baked homemade banana bread and would bring them a loaf hot out of the oven and wrapped in aluminum foil.
“Just being a good neighbor and returning your kindness,” was what Agnes claimed.
If she was able to see him as Nate believed, was it possible to enlist her help to warn Hannah? God, he didn’t want to cause the elderly woman to have a heart attack, or scared her to death. He needed her. Making contact was best done in daylight, but now that was impossible. Being confronted at night by a dead man’s spirit was certain to frighten anyone. Nate had planned to go slow and give the woman time to adjust to seeing or hearing him. But even the best-laid plans can get screwed up. Time had run out.
In a flash, Nate was on her porch and through the front door. From the kitchen came the sounds of the Agnes humming an Irish tune. So, he faded into the shadows and waited. Being cautious, he surveyed the room. Having never been inside her home, Nate was surprised to see it had a similar layout to his house, living room, dining area with the kitchen at the back of the house. From what he could see, a den and bathroom were down a hallway. The stairway off the living room led to the second-floor bedrooms.
The living room was cozy with a sofa, two comfortable overstuffed chairs covered in a cream-colored material sporting cabbage roses, and placed before a stone fireplace. The room reminded Nate of an old Irish cottage with family photos lining the walls. A large portrait of her late husband, John, was centered above the mantel. A tall brass table lamp, turned low, cast a soft light in the room. All types of knickknacks were displayed on the tables and walls. This home was filled with everything Irish.
A floor lamp sat next to a wing-backed chair near the front picture window. Nate had seen Agnes seated at that same window from his position on the upper balcony. Each morning, he had witnessed Agnes having tea and keeping tabs on the street’s activity from her vantage point. Noise from the kitchen and the whistling of a kettle announced the older woman was boiling water for tea. Nate hugged the darkest part of the wall and didn’t move.
When Agnes did walk into the room carrying a cup of steaming tea and a saucer of cookies, she stopped, eyes wide, face turning pale, and looked from side to side, searching the shadows of the room. With a quiver in her voice, asked, “Who’s here?” she called out. “Someone is here. I can feel the chill in the room. Come out. Who are you, and what do you want?” Agnes was shaking so much the cup rattled on the saucer.
“I don’t want to frighten you,” Nate said. A quick intake of breath from Agnes said she was frightened. “You heard me. Oh, thank God. I was afraid you wouldn’t be able to.” Nate eased out of the shadows and moved forward, a wavering mist without a definite form.
Agnes let out a yell, “Oh, dear Lord!” and dropped the cup. It crashed to the floor, spraying tea down the front of the fuzzy blue bathrobe and onto the carpet, then rolled unbroken near a chair. Agnes dropped into a chair, her heartbeat rapid, and her hand flew to her throat. “Don’t come any closer,” she said. Brushing the hot liquid off the fabric, she retrieved the cup. “Go away. I don’t know if my heart can handle this.”
“I can’t.” Nate stopped, remaining still so as not to terrify the poor woman any more than she was. He was desperate for her help. Time was short.
“Please, go away. I don’t want to see or hear you. Go! Please go!” Agnes pleaded.
Did he dare speak again? Nate had to try. “I can’t, Agnes. What can I do so you won’t be afraid?”
Voice trembling, she said, “Leave and not come back.”
“That’s not possible. I need your help,” Nate insisted, not budging from in front of her.
“Then let me catch my breath.” Agnes fanned herself with a hand in hopes of easing the fluttering in her chest. This had never happened before, and it scared the hell out of her. Sensing a ghost was a hell of a lot different from being able to see and hear one. Trying to muster as much courage as possible, she demanded, “I’ve sensed spirits, but you’re the first I’ve ever seen or heard. Why are you haunting me?”
“Not you. I’m here to help my wife.”
“Nate, it’s you, isn’t it?” she paused and then said, “Why haven’t you crossed over like you’re supposed to?” Agnes didn’t want to be able to see any spirit and certainly not a neighbor’s. The living shouldn’t be confronted by the spirits of the dead. Having a loved one visit your dreams was one thing. But having it happen while wide awake was terrifying.
“It’s me, Agnes. Sorry for scaring you,” and he was. No matter how much he hated the idea, Nate had no choice but to involve the elderly woman. If Agnes hadn’t appeared to be aware of his existence, he wouldn’t have come to the house. Now he wondered how visible was his body? He could only hope this form was intact and did not reveal the extensive damage done by the bullet and the IED when he had died.
“You shouldn’t be here, and should have moved on a year ago,” Agnes insisted, knowing some ghosts lingered. They wanted to be sure relatives were okay and adjusting to life without them before they crossed over. None that she was aware of had ever stayed for more than a week.
“Hannah needs me, which is why I can’t leave. Agnes, she’s in danger.” Nate waited for his words to sink in. “You have to help warn her,” he pleaded, the words rushing out in one long stream without a breath. Nate started to move forward again, but Agnes put up a hand for him to stop.
“Wait, wait. Don’t come any closer. Just give me a minute. Please. All I see of you is a faint glow, not your form. You’re more like a voice in my head, and it’s scaring the hell out of me. This is more than unnerving. It’s almost terrifying. Please, I need a shot of something stronger than tea.” Agnes rose and hurried into the kitchen. Nate heard the clinking of glass against glass. Within a minute, she returned to sit once more in the chair and held a tumbler, half full of amber liquid. Immediately, she downed the contents in one long gulp. “Now, the drink should steady my nerves,” she stated. “Why do you think Hannah’s in trouble? And why do you think I can help?”
“Do you remember a friend of mine, Paul Dawson?”
Agnes thought for a moment, then shook her head. “Can’t say I do. Did I ever meet him?” But she was sure she hadn’t. “How can someone like me help?” I’m an old woman, she thought but feared she knew how Nate wanted her assistance. She and Hannah were not that close. The girl wasn’t going to pay any attention to anyone’s claim of being able to see and hear the dead, especially her deceased husband. Hannah was going to think she was crazy. It sounded crazy, even to her. “How will I know what this man looks like?”
“I’m not sure, but Paul came to the house the other night to see Hannah. Did you see him?” Nate asked.
Agnes didn’t remember seeing anyone but could have been busy doing something else. Contrary to what the neighbors thought, she was not always watching out the front window.
When no response came, Nate continued, “He’s a big good looking man and appears to be a friend to Hannah. That’s only for show. Agnes, the guy’s dangerous. He used to be a cop, but was suspended from the force.”
“Can’t say I’ve noticed the fellow. If I was in the kitchen or watching television, he might have come and gone without my noticing. Most nights, I close the drapes as soon as darkness sets in. One night, you appeared as a faint glow on the upstairs balcony not long after Hannah was notified of your death. Anyway, that’s when I saw you for the first time. Since then, I’ve seen you sitting in the chair waiting, scratching Cooper’s head, and wondered why you were here. Now you say it’s because trouble is headed at Hannah.”
“Yes. What I need you to do is warn Hannah about Paul. Tell her to stay away from him. Will you do this for me?” Nate hoped Agnes would agree.
“Hannah’s not going to believe me. She’s going to want to know why I’d warn her against a friend.”
“Tell her that I’m sending the message.” Nate was grasping at anything to convince his wife to believe Agnes.
“Look, she’s going to believe I’m crazy,” Agnes insisted. “I’ve been told that too many times because of my ability, and that everything I see is my imagination.” Maybe it was. To disprove the theory, Agnes pinched the skin on her arm as hard as possible, let out a squeak of pain, and muttered, “Damn, I’m awake.” Lord, how she had hoped it was all a bad dream. Thinking for a minute, then she asked, “How do I get Hannah to believe me?” The girl was no fool. After all, she’d been through in the past year, there was no way Hannah would believe Nate’s spirit was visiting a neighbor.
As his form began to fade, Nate pleaded, “Please, Agnes, you have to try, or I promise to haunt you forever until you do,” Nate threatened.
After the apparition vanished, Agnes continued to stare at the spot where Nate had disappeared. His appearing was not like John coming to visit in a dream. That had been a comforting experience. No, this was straight out of a nightmare, but at least it wasn’t terrifying. Agnes had empathy for Nate’s restless soul but didn’t want to become involved in warning anyone again.
She rose and went to the front window and parted the drapes a little so Hannah’s house was visible. There was a light on under the portico, and a faint glow from a lamp downstairs. On the second floor, the glimmer of a light showed through the French door curtains. Hannah was out but would return soon as the hour was growing late. And on the second-story balcony, a shimmering mist rested in the wicker chair. Agnes knew Nate was back on guard.
How, she wondered, to make Hannah believe Nate’s ghost had contacted her? No glimmer of an idea jumped out to offer a solution. Perhaps a good night’s sleep would generate a plan. That was Agnes’ best hope. She locked the doors and climbed the stairs to bed, but sleep was a luxury not available on this night. Agnes had no more than settled in bed and turned on her side when a voiced jarred both eyes open and jerked her upright to try to locate the source of the noise.
“When are you going to talk to Hannah?” It was Nate again.
Agnes turned to stare at the empty chair beside the bed. “Why are you back?” she demanded.
“Because I need you to talk to Hannah first thing in the morning. My wife has to be warned. Will you do it?” Nate sounded worried, and a bit panicked.
“You want her told first thing tomorrow? You know she’s too down to earth, a nurse and all, to be believing in the spirits.”
“I’ll help you. If you don’t agree to tell her, I won’t tell you about John.”
This threat got Agnes’ attention. “What about John?”
“After you talk to Hannah, and not before.”
“Is it good, or bad?” she demanded.
“Not now. After you warned my wife,” Nate persisted.
“All right!” Agnes yelled, caving to his demand, but angry at Nate for keeping information concerning John from her. “I’ll set the alarm,” and grabbed the old fashion brass clock, with two bells on top, and proceed to set the time for 6:00 A.M. “Happy now?” she demanded. “Maybe I can catch Hannah before she leaves for work.”
“There was a car accident, so she won’t be going to the hospital,” Nate stated.
Concern filled Agnes. “Is she all right?”
“She will be.”
“Okay. Well, let me go to sleep now. And, you’d better tell me about John right after I speak with Hannah, or it’s the last time I help you.” The more Agnes thought about it, the madder she became. She didn’t like being threatened by anyone, even if they were dead.
Giving Agnes a quick wave and a big smile, Nate faded through the wall and rushed back to the balcony to wait for Hannah before continuing his search for answers.
Everyone stay in and stay safe. Remember, NEVER GIVE UP, NEVER SURRENDER.
At 7:00 A.M., the next shift of doctors and nurses arrived for morning report. At 8:00, an exhausted Hannah emerged from the cubicle, discharge papers, and two prescriptions in hand, hobbled to the desk, and placed a call for a cab. The cabbie must have been close because the vehicle arrived at the emergency room patient entrance within five minutes. Hannah scooted into the back seat and gave her address.
The driver dropped her at the house around 8:15 A.M. Low clouds hid the sun, and the air was warm and moist, but Hannah didn’t notice as she hobbled up the porch steps to the door. Inside, Cooper was dancing around and barking, showing how glad he was to see her. After unlocking the door, and dropping her purse in a chair, she hurried to let the dog into the yard. Cooper wasn’t out long and came back in to jump around her feet again. With care, Hannah prepared his food and placed the bowl on the floor, holding onto the counter to keep from toppling over. She was too tired and a little dizzy. Once Coop had cleaned the bowl, he sat down and stared up as if to ask, where have you been? A pat on the head and she headed upstairs, the dog following.
Getting a glass of water in the bathroom, Hannah downed two Advil. A trip to the pharmacy could wait until later. With her entire body aching, and so tired she was almost falling asleep standing up, a hot shower was what was needed to help ease all the aches and pains. Hannah made a mental note to call the auto insurance the next day and arrange for a rental car to be delivered.
What, she wondered, was going on? Someone in a brown truck seemed to be following her. But why? What transgression had she committed for someone to stalk her? For what? Trying to answer those questions was only making her headache worse.
Cooper jumped on the bed and laid down, head between his paws, eyes darting between Hannah and the bedside chair occupied by Nate, who watched as his wife undress and headed for the bathroom. Bruises ran the length of both forearms, from the elbow to the wrist with the right arm sporting the bandaged lacerations. The bump on her forehead was turning bluer. In his entire life, Nate had never experienced such helplessness. It twisted his insides until he wanted to hit something in frustration.
After Hannah emerged wearing a towel, then pulled on a nightgown. She reentered the bathroom again and emerged with her right arm wearing a fresh bandage before climbing into bed. Nate moved to the balcony to wait until she fell asleep. Again the man paced. The cool air from the Gulf wafted around him without notice, and the white sails of a ship at a distance out on the water remained unseen, he was so absorbed in thought. At last, he took a seat in the wicker chair to ponder any possible options to protect his wife. There were none. The only thing he could do was to watch and wait for something to happen other than the accident.
Monday afternoon Hannah rolled out of bed stiff and sore, both knees aching. Standing in front of the dresser, she checked her reflection in the mirror and examined the black and blue bruise surrounding the knot on her forehead. It wasn’t large but big enough to let her know she’d suffered a blow to the head. Both forearms were a different story. From the elbow to the base of each wrist, the flesh looked ugly, and the cuts on her arm ached. Considering the damage to the vehicle, Hannah thought, things could have been worse. She examined her knees and was happy to discover no blue place. Hitting the dashboard had made them sore, but that was all.
Turning away from the dresser, she returned to sit on the bed. Going to work was out of the question considering Dr. McGhee’s instructions. Her boss had to be notified. Hannah placed the call to Karen Watts and learned the woman had been informed of the accident. With enough sick days accrued to stay off work for a month, Hannah knew the hospital required a doctor’s return to work slip. Without one, there was no way she’d be going back to work any time soon.
“Deal with it,” Karen said when Hannah had called. “Do, as Dr. McGhee ordered. If you’re a good girl, I might let you come back in a few days. Otherwise, no.” The cheerful “Bye,” made Hannah frown and give a frustrated sigh.
She pulled the auto insurance card from her wallet and placed the call. Next, a quick call to Enterprise auto rental and, within an hour, a newer Chrysler 300 sedan was delivered to the house. The vehicle was comfortable, but too big. Hannah preferred the compact interior of the HHR. With her authorization, Toney’s Auto Repair towed the Chevy from the police lot to his shop. Hannah was disappointed when, an hour later, the man called to say the vehicle was a total loss, and the insurance company notified. Hannah had hoped Charlie, as she called the car, could be repaired. Now, she had to find a new vehicle.
Not experiencing any nausea or dizziness today, and so far, the Advil had alleviated most of the pain, the more powerful drug was not needed. With her right forearm aching, with care, Hannah dressed in jeans and a pink sweater with long sleeves to cover her arms, then pulled on socks and sneakers. To the bruise on her forehead, she used makeup concealer to hide the injury.
With Cooper in tow, Hannah felt a need to visit the cemetery. Months had passed since she’d visited Nate’s grave. For a time, every morning, she had gone to stand and stare at the headstone with his name carved in the granite.
For some reason, she never understood, even though his corpse had been sent home, at the funeral, the casket had remained closed. So it was difficult to associate the man with the grave. Not having seen a body, in some ways for a while, it was as if her husband was still off fighting in Afghanistan. But when no letters or face time calls came, Hannah was forced to accept Nate was dead and did occupy the plot of ground.
On those visits, she had cried and spent hours talking about how she missed him and the anger she harbored against that damn war. Hannah was proud of Nate for serving his country but resented the military for the loss of his life. Too many deployments robbed families of a loved one. The last time had been Nate’s fourth. No soldier should have to go back to Afghanistan more than once, two at the most. The odds were against the man returning safely home.
After a month of daily trips, Hannah came to the realization all the anger and visits were feeding an unhealthy emotional state. Joining the Marines was Nate’s choice. So the visits were cut to allow her heart to heal. The wound was deep, but the healing process had to begin. Hannah was coming to terms with the loss.
Today, as she entered Rosewood Cemetery and drove down the narrow road to the gravesite, she noticed how sad and depressing the place appeared. The once green grass was now brown and sparse with nests of fire ants milling around the graves. The rain in the summer kept everything green, but during the winter months, the place took on a dismal appearance.
After parking the car next to a large red granite monument, Hannah exited with Cooper on a leash. Carved in the red stone was the name Hanover, and she wondered if her street was named in honor of this particular family.
Then, she noticed the brown truck as the vehicle slowly drove past the rental car before continuing down the road toward the exit. The right bumper appeared dented, which gave her a chill. Was this the same truck that had run her off the road Sunday night? Hannah dismissed the idea as improbable. The vehicle was old and had more than one caved in places on the front end. There were lots of old banged up trucks in St. Petersburg. Was this the same vehicle that had been following her? Or was she becoming paranoid? All Hannah felt was a relief as it pulled into traffic on First Avenue South. She watched the vehicle until it was out of sight.
Limping all the way, she urged Cooper toward Nate’s plot. The canine seemed sorrowful as if comprehending this was his master’s final resting place. Once at the graveside, the animal laid across the grave, head between his paws and whimpered. Hannah knelt and patted his head, trying to give comfort for the grief he was again exhibiting, and said, “I know old boy,” as tears welled in her eyes.
At a distance, Nate stood next to a tree, watching as she made her way slowly to the gravesite. Considering the injuries she had suffered, this was not one of Hannah’s better ideas. But, being a nurse, she had never been one to follow the doctor’s orders.
She should have stayed home, Hannah concluded as a few raindrops struck the top of her head. Cooper had grieved and lost weight so much after Nate’s death, she had feared he was going to die too. There were stories of dogs mourning the loss of their owner until they too passed away. Now she had exposed him to a painful memory again. She rose and said, “Coop. Come on, let’s go,” and carefully led the way back to the car before the shower turned into a downpour.
On the way to the Point, Hannah drove through a McDonald’s and ordered a plain hamburger for the pup and a milkshake for her. Both ears perked up when the bag was passed to her at the drive-thru window. Pulling into a parking space, Hannah removed the treat from the sack. Cooper wiggled all over in the passenger seat, unable to remain still while she unwrapped the burger. Breaking the meal in half, Hannah handed him one piece at a time, which he woofed down as if starving. At least, he appeared to be feeling better. Never again would she expose the Lab to such sorrow as she’d witness at the grave. Today had been hard enough for her, let alone the effect on the dog.
Once home, a cup of hot tea to chase the cold away and another pain pill sounded good. Curled up in the recliner with a heating pad on her back, Hannah sat watching the evening news. Cooper emitted a low growl, charged at the front door, stood on his hind legs and pawed at the knob. Hannah rose and looked out the front window in time to see the back end of a dark truck turn the corner. A chill rippled over her skin. This was the fourth time she’d seen a brown truck. Who could it be? And again, the question of why charged through her mind?
Uneasy, she picked up the phone and called Joy’s cell number. It rang several times and then went to voice mail. Again, she tried, this time dialing the house phone. This call also was picked up by an answering machine. Now she was quite concerned. Talking to her cousin would have to wait until later as she didn’t have Fred’s cell information. Needing to feel safer, Hannah locked the front door and called Cooper to his pallet beside the chair.
It was useless to call the police. A crazy woman was what they’d think. What was there to say? “Officer, I believe a brown truck has been following me over the last couple of days. Four times I’ve seen what appears to be the same vehicle. Once at Publix, once where I work, today at the cemetery and again rounding the street corner near my house.”
The next question asked, “How can you be sure it’s the same vehicle? There have to be numerous brown trucks in St. Petersburg.”
And she’d have to admit, “I can’t be. But, it had a dent on the right side.” Then she’d have to tell them about the accident.
They’d exchange looks before asking, “Was there any other damage to the truck?”
Again she’d have to say, “Yes. It was an old truck and was all banged up.”
Another question, “At any of these incidents, were you able to get a license plate number?”
That would put an end to the inquiry. No. Not once had she been able to see a plate number on the rear of the vehicle. It had been too far away or driven off too fast. So, calling the police was not an option.
Hannah checked her watch. It was after eight. Once more, she dialed Joy’s cell. This time her cousin picked up.
“Hey Cus’, what’s going on. You never call this late. Are you all right?” Joy sounded worried.
Hannah explained about the accident, the trip to the ER, the injuries, and the incidents with the truck.
“My God, what’s going on?” Joy questioned. “First, Mom’s killed in an auto accident, and now you’re involved in one. Do you think it was intentional?”
“I don’t know,” Hannah admitted. “The hour was late, and the driver had to be fighting sleep. I was. Maybe it was a simple accident. Maybe I’m going crazy. Anyway, there’s no reason anyone should want to harm me.” And she couldn’t think of a single reason someone could be keeping tabs on her activities. All her life, she’d been taught to be considerate of others, and even kind to those few people who were resentful of her so-called her easy life. Well, she’d had to fight for everything she had accomplished. “Just wanted to say hello and let you know I’m all right, or will be soon.” Then queried, “Have you found out anything new about my mother?”
“Not yet, but I’m checking with the police department in Prestonsburg to see what records they have about your mother’s death. I’ll let you know what I find.” Joy gave a sigh, then said, “Listen, you be careful. There are a lot of nuts in St Petersburg,” she said.
Hannah asked, “Did you find anything in Mom’s papers?”
“No. I went through the photo albums too. Nothing so far. I’ll keep looking. Oh, I ordered two copies of Aunt Eugenia’s death certificate. At least, I can now tell you her date of death, February 18, 1986. I expect the copies to be mailed here within a day or two. I’ll send a copy to you as soon as I get the papers.”
“Fantastic. I’ll look for it.” Hannah knew it would be good to have a copy of her mother’s death certificate in case she ever needed one.
“What did you do for Thanksgiving?” Joy asked.
“Worked. It was the best thing for me.”
“Well, you should have come to Lexington,” Joy insisted.
Hannah gave a soft laugh. “I wish I could have been with you at Thanksgiving. But I would have tried to kill the SOB who’s been cheating on you all these years. Joy, you know I wouldn’t be able to be in the same room with Fred without saying something.” Even the thought of him cheating made Hannah’s blood boil with anger.
“Yeah, I guess it was best you stayed home. All my plans would have been blown. Go back to bed and get some more sleep. “I’ll let you know if I find out anything. Talk to you later. Love you, Cus’,” Joy said.
“Look, I hate to ask,” Hannah said before Joy has a chance to hang up, “is there any way you could fly down for a few days? The doctor insisted, and I promised to call and ask.” Hannah explained about the head injury and Dr. McGhee’s cautions for her not be alone. “The man’s afraid I’ll fall or pass out. The pain pills are working, and there’s no reason to worry. Even he says I have a hard head.” Hannah thought for a moment, then said, “This is so unnecessary, as I don’t have any symptoms. Forget, I asked. You have enough problems. Stay there. If things get worse, I’ll call.”
“Dammit, I’d be there if not for the fact Fred found out I went to a lawyer. Boy, is he pissed off. Oh, and that SOB is planning something. To screw me over, probably.” Silence followed for a few seconds. “Oh, to hell with it. The bastard doesn’t stand a chance with all the evidence I have on him. There might be a flight out tomorrow. Give me a day to have the locks and security code changed, and I’ll come.” Angry wheels were spinning in Joy’s head. How to prevent Fred from emptying the house and leaving her with nothing while she was out of town?
“No, don’t,” Hannah insisted. “Take care, and do what needs to be done. I’m doing nothing other than what the doctor said, rest,” she said, having followed orders and made the call. Joy didn’t need to come and sit around looking bored. That would drive her crazy. The woman was unable to sit still for any length of time and always had to be up doing something.
“Are you sure?” Concern was evident in her cousin’s voice, but there was also a touch of relief.
“Positive. You watch out, and I’ll do the same. Goodnight,” Hannah muttered and hung up before Joy could say anything else. Knowing someone else was aware of the situation and what had happened was reassuring. All of a sudden, exhaustion weighted heavy in each limb. Perhaps the doctor was right; a good night’s sleep was the best thing for now. In the morning, the fogginess in her head should be clearer. So she trudged up the stairs to change her clothes.
Nate retreated to the balcony, unable to watch as she stripped off her clothes, bra, and underwear and slipped on a nightgown. When Coop started in his direction, Nate stopped him with a wave of his hand. The canine jumped on the bed and lay down, facing the doors, ears listening, eyes questioning. Nate turned away and resumed his pacing.
The air held a chill that evening, but it didn’t affect him in any way. Hannah had closed the French doors to keep the damp air out, so Nate pushed through the glass as she donned her robe and called the dog. She was going downstairs to let Cooper out one last time. He followed the animal into the backyard. The dog danced around until commanded to go do his business. When Coop went to the door to go back inside, he stopped and looked back. Hannah called to him, but he refused to budge until Nate followed.
Once inside, Hannah locked the door and returned to the bedroom. After opening the French doors, she stepped out onto the balcony. Resting a hand on the back of the wicker chair, Hannah whispered, “Where are you, Nate? Are you with God? I pray so.” Her breath caught as she fought back a sob. “Oh, how I miss you. This old house is so big and empty without your voice and laugh to make it a home.” Wiping the tears away, she continued, “Come visit me in my dreams, please. I need you,” and hurried back inside. Once in bed, the pain pill continued to work magic, and Hannah slipped into a deep sleep in a matter of minutes.
By Tuesday morning, November 27, the fogginess was almost gone, and the aches and pains in her limbs had decreased more than she had expected. Now, the only places on her body that still hurt were her arms and knees. They continued to be sore to the touch.
Hannah followed Cooper down to the back door, turned on the coffee to brew, and filled his food bowl seconds before the dog was scratching to get back in. Once inside, she watched as he hurried to the dish and began to eat. The animal had an insatiable appetite. Any food she was eating, he acted as if entitled to half. Now, ignoring him, she carried the cup to the table and sat down. The brew was hot and laced with lots of powdered cream, a perfect mixture.
By the second cup, she placed a call to the local Chevy dealer to inquire if another Chevy HHR was available. There were two on the lot, so Hannah made arrangements to test drive the newest one the next day. Until then, she’d have to put up with the rental for another day or two.
The rest of the morning was spent lazing around on the heating pad aided by a couple more Advil. Around noon, wrapped in a blanket, Hannah went to the bedroom and out on the back balcony to sit in the wicker chair and stared at the waters of Tampa Bay. The air was much cooler than the day before, and, off and on, clouds drifted across the sky, blocking the sun. Once again, the humidity had dropped, but the air still felt chilly. At one time, she almost fell asleep but jerked awake when Cooper nudged her hand.
All of a sudden, her stomach let out a growl. Taking pain pills without eating first was a bad idea. Tossing the blanket on the bed, but keeping the French doors open, she went downstairs to the kitchen to prepare a sandwich of peanut butter and orange marmalade along with a cup of hot tea. The food helped clear her muddled senses. Still feeling sleepy, Hannah grabbed a crocheted afghan her aunt had made, tossed it over both legs, and curled up in Nate’s recliner for a short nap.
The phone’s loud ring around 3:00 roused her out of a pleasant dream about swimming with dolphins. A glance at the caller ID showed it was her brother-in-law. Dreading the conversation, Hannah picked up the receiver. “Hello, Fred, you bastard. How could you be unfaithful to Joy?” she stormed.
“Hannah, it’s not true. Don’t believe everything you’ve been told. The only woman I love is your cousin,” he protested. “I’ve always been faithful to my wife.”
“Liar. Joy has proof of your affairs,” the words were out before she was able to stop them. Too late now to wonder if Fred knew about the photographs Joy possessed. There was a long pause on the line.
“Like what?” he asked, in a more subdued voice.
“Talk to Joy, because I have nothing to say to a man who cheats. Goodbye, Fred,” and slammed down the landline receiver. Too upset and worried she’d spoken out of turn, Hannah, both knees now aching, hobbled to the kitchen for a glass of water, then returned to the recliner. For an hour more, she remained curled in the recliner on a heating pad, then rose to retrieve the mail from the box on the front porch. Standing under the portico, she was sorting the envelopes when she glanced up in time to see a brown truck drive slowly past the entrance to Hanover Street. This time, she went inside, locked the front door, and phoned the police. After talking with the officer on the phone, soon realized without actual proof of who the driver was or a license plate number, there was nothing they could do unless the vehicle remained stationary at her location, or she could supply more valid information.
It was a helpless feeling that washed over Hannah as she cradled the receiver. Determined, she went to the hall linen closet and pulled a metal box from the top shelf. Inside the locked container was the gun Nate had bought for her. He was always concerned with her living in such a big house all alone, so had insisted she learn to shoot a gun. As much as she abhorred the weapon, now, she was glad to have it for protection. Whoever the creep was driving the truck, at least if her stalker turned out to be dangerous, she could defend herself.
With the front door locked, the gun on the table, and Cooper on the bed beside the chair, Hannah returned to the recliner and the heating pad. She hated the idea of having to inflict injury on anyone. But, whoever was after her regardless of the reason, if attacked, she was not going down without a fight.
Wednesday morning, November 28, Hannah stayed in bed until 9:30 A. M., then with care rose and went to the bathroom. Still wearing the robe, she went downstairs, let Cooper out, taking note of how much colder the weather had turned. Hurrying back inside, she fixed the dog’s food and then turned on the coffee pot and the heat up.
The day before, the pain pills had masked most of the numerous aches and pains in both arms, knees, and shoulders. Now, every joint hurt to remind her of the accident. Even her forehead was still sore to the touch. A gurgle from the coffee pot announced the coffee had finished brewing. With a full cup in one hand, Hannah opened the front door and grabbed the newspaper off the porch, then closed and re-locked the entryway. With a sigh, she sat down in the recliner, and turned the television to the weather channel, and listened to the latest report. High of fifty-seven for the day was cold as far as she was concerned. And forty-nine for the night seemed like an arctic blast. Today’s weather was going to require a sweater, heavy slacks, socks, and boots.
She let Coop in and place his food dish on the floor. A bowl of cereal was all that sounded good to her stomach. After breakfast, she curled up in the recliner and turned on the television. For most of the day, she kept the heating pad on her knees and watch MASH reruns all afternoon. Another day of rest wouldn’t hurt, so she called the Chevy dealer and rescheduled the test drive for Thursday.
By four o’clock, her stomach was growling, but nothing sounded good for dinner. So she went to the kitchen to see what she could find to eat. A plate of cheese and crackers would do for the evening, so she sat at the kitchen table, munching on the snack.
At 4:30 P.M., the phone rang. It was Paul. “How about I come by and see how you’re doing. I can bring a pizza.”
Hannah thought for a moment. A pizza would mean no cooking, but she wasn’t all that hungry.
Before giving her a chance to answer, Paul said, “If anything needs to be repaired while I’m there, I’ll take care of it.”
“Thanks,” Hannah’s said, “But I’m not in the mood for company.”
“Hannah, I’m harmless,” he said. “And, I’ve already gotten the pizza. Eating alone is not healthy, and I can’t eat the entire thing. I do have to watch my weight. Help me out by sharing this thing,” he added.
Paul was right, she admitted. And she had told him to call. Plus, there were few men in her life. Two were neighbors other than Agnes; the rest were snowbirds to give a waved to when running off to work. Richard and Harvey were the gay couple next door but kept to themselves most of the time. All others were coworkers, male nurses, or doctors with whom she didn’t socialize.
“All right, company and a pizza might do me good. Do you remember the address?”
“No,” he said.
Hannah rattled off the address on the Point. Placing the gun back in the case, she left the boxed weapon on the table next to the recliner.
Within ten minutes, Paul was knocking at the door. Hannah was sure he’d phoned from the car. Opening the door, he entered carrying the pizza in one hand and a bottle of wine in the other and kept staring at her as he made he came inside. Hannah eyed the bottle, arched an eyebrow and gave a sigh, “I’m glad you brought wine, after what happened Sunday night, I’d like a glass. And there isn’t any in the house.” She hesitated, then added. “Maybe, I shouldn’t, but the wine sounds good. One glass can’t hurt.”
Cooper, who had been uttering a low growl ever since Paul had entered the room, stayed between Hannah and this stranger. After motioning for the Lab to go lay down, he did but planted his body in the doorway, eyes riveted on Paul.
“Okay,” he said, puzzled, and followed Hannah into the kitchen. “A glass will go great with the pizza, and it’s a delicious wine.” Taking note of the blue place on her forehead and bandaged right arm, Paul placed the box on the kitchen table and waited while she retrieved glasses, plates, and napkins. After opening the bottle, he filled the glasses and took a seat, but continued to stare, and seemed concerned when asking, “What happened Sunday night which makes you so glad I brought wine? And, what’s with the bandage and those bruises? You look as if you’d been in a fight or something.”
Paul, sitting across from Hannah, made Nate uneasy. He stood near the kitchen counter, keeping a close eye on the former cop. The man appeared more worried about something else than concerned about his wife’s actual welfare even though he mouthed the appropriate words.
“My God, how terrible,” Paul said after Hannah explained what happened. “Other than the injuries I can see, are you all right?” he asked.
“I’m banged up a bit, but will be fine,” she said and proceeded to tell about the brown truck and witnessing the same type of vehicle three more times in various places.
Sitting up straighter, his attention now focused on Hannah, his body tense, Paul inquired, “Can you identify the driver?” before taking a bite of the pizza.
With a knife, Hannah cut the slice into bite-size pieces, took a drink of the wine, then said, “No, I never saw the person driving the vehicle,” but wished she had. To be able to identify the man or woman would have been nice. Slowly, she ate each piece, and after each bite took a sip of the wine. As the amount in the glass became less, Paul added more. Her head was starting to spin a little, and Hannah began to feel more tired and sleepy by the moment. How stupid, she thought and knew better. Her tolerance for alcohol was low.
Paul appeared to be relaxed but again glanced at his wristwatch. “Well, I say it was all a coincidence you saw the same type of vehicle multiple times. A lot of people drive trucks, and many of them are brown,” he said and finished off his third slice, and drank the last of his wine.
If he was trying to be reassuring, the man had failed as far as Hannah was concerned.
“Why don’t I go and let you rest,” he said, rose and walked into the living room. He stopped and stared at the gun case. “What’s with the gun?” he asked. “Do you actually know how to shoot it?”
“Oh yes,” Hannah stated. “Nate made sure I could fire the thing and hit what I aimed at and also disassemble it and put it back together.”
“My God, does seeing a truck scare you that much?” Paul appeared shocked she could fire a weapon.
“Yes. I don’t know who or why someone is following me. But, I plan on defending myself against this stalker. Anyway, you wanted to go out to dinner. Where and when?” Hannah asked to get the subject off the gun.
Paul appeared distracted for a moment, then smiled and said, “Tomorrow night, I’ll take you to dinner to get you out of the house. That should take your mind off your problems for a while.” Paul smiled and added, “Right now, you look as if you need to go to bed after this.”
At least Paul was concerned enough not to keep Hannah from resting Nate thought from where he had been keeping watch from the sofa. The look in the man’s eyes reminded Nate of a predatory wolf salivating over a helpless baby fawn. It was obvious the man was still attracted to Hannah. But why? Paul had to be close to fifteen years older than Hannah. Too old to try to romance his wife, as far as Nate was concerned. As battered and bruised as she was, Nate was surprised when Hannah agreed.
“All right. Tomorrow, I’ll be gone most of the day. The Chevy dealer has a vehicle I want, and I’m going to test drive it. Plus, I have to arrange to return the rental to Enterprise. If possible, Friday morning, could you follow me to the rental place and take me to pick up my new car?” It would solve her problem of returning the rental.
“Love to. I’m here to assist you in any way I can,” Paul said.
“Great. And dinner will be fine. And you’re right, going to bed is what I need to do. Thanks for the pizza,” she said. Another dinner with Paul didn’t appeal to Hannah, but it would get her out of the house. Instead of sitting around tired, depressed, and stressed over being followed. Joy was right; she had to move forward, and Paul would keep her safe. “Where do you want to go?”
“Why don’t we go to the same bar where we were last Friday,” he said. “The food is good. You can’t stay cooped up forever. And, I’m the one man to see you get out and have a good time.” Again Paul glanced at his watch. “Look, I have to go. A late appointment. I’m sure this was a simple accident, and you have nothing to worry about.” He didn’t wait for Hannah to disagree but headed for the front door. “Why don’t I pick you up around seven, and we can go enjoy the music after dinner.” Then, before she had a chance to change her mind, he called out something which she didn’t catch and rushed out the door and drove away.
Hannah followed and stood on the porch for a moment to stare after the red Mazda. Paul had assumed a lot. She didn’t want him to get any ideas their friendship could go any further. Yes, the man was attractive, but there wasn’t any chemistry between them, nor did they have much in common. What exactly did she know about the PI? The little information he’d offered about his former life was minimal compared to the questions he’d asked about hers. It made her wonder why he was so inquisitive. She needed to find out more about Paul Dawson if she continued to see him.
Tomorrow was going to be a busy day. Besides, there was nothing more to be done tonight. Hannah glanced at an Agnes’ house and saw a thin line of light down the center of the window drapes. Was the woman keeping tabs on her activities?
She made a mental note to call Paul and arrange for them to meet at the restaurant. Decision made, she went back inside, locked the door, then called Cooper and hurried to bed.
When Paul headed for the Mazda, Nate was right behind him. He jumped into the passenger seat before the car left the driveway. He was curious about who Paul had an appointment. All the way north on Thirty-Fourth Street, the man kept muttering, “Fuck, fuck, fuck. The stupid son of a bitch. I’m going to kill him,” as he drove in the direction of Gulfport.
The Mazda was barely parked before Paul was out of the vehicle and beating on the front door of a small yellow house. When a man opened it, Paul stormed past and straight into a kitchen where dirty dishes were stacked in the sink and on the counter. “What the hell are you trying to do, fuck up all my plans,” he yelled.
The stranger charged after him, jerked open the refrigerator, and grabbed a beer, twisted the cap, and started to take a long swig. His hands were shaking so the bottle slipped from his grasp and crashed to the floor, spewing the amber liquid over both bare feet.
Afraid, he back up to face Paul and shouted back, “Don’t come in here yelling at me! All I was doing was following the bitch instead of pussyfooting around. It was an accident. I didn’t mean to cause her to wreck. All this sittin’ around with nothing to show for it makes a man tired. And, what have you been doing other than playing up to the broad? Hoping to get in her pant?” he sneered.
Paul turned on him. “Don’t worry about what I’m doing. Pay attention to what I’ve told you. If you screwed this up for me, I swear I’ll blow your fucking head off. Do you understand? Now, she’ll be gone tomorrow afternoon. I need you to go to that house and find a necklace,” and he went on to describe the piece of jewelry. By this time, Paul had shoved the man back into a corner, his voice a lethal whisper, their faces only an inch apart. Nate’s blood was chilled by the viciousness displayed by the former cop. This was a different side of Paul, which he had never seen. “And you’d better not mess this up.” He glanced around the room. “Where’s your fucking brother?” Paul demanded, still gripping the front of the man’s shirt.
With a twist, the man jerked free. “Ain’t here. Out somewhere. But he’s gonna be pissed at how you threatened me. He’s not afraid of you, and you know it.” He edged away from Paul and removed the last beer from the fridge. His hands continued to shake as he took a seat on the grungy couch. “I’m sorry. I’ve been following the broad to find out her routine. Now get the fuck off my back.”
Nate watched as Paul stood glaring back at the man and wondered what the hell was going down? Was the PI hoping to marry Hannah? Was that the reason for all his anger, fear this man was going to destroy his chance with his wife? Or was he only trying to protect her?
Paul continued to rage at the man. “You keep the fuck away from Hannah. Do you understand me?” His face was so red with anger, the veins in his forehead bulged.
The man stared up at him, trying to hide the fear, nodded, and didn’t move as Paul turned and rushed out, slamming the door shut.
This was the son of a bitch that had run Hannah off the road. He’d beat the hell out of the man for injuring his wife if it were possible. But he was helpless for now. Curious as to what the grubby thug was going to do, Nate remained in the room in the shadows near the kitchen. All the man did was pace the floor muttering softly, “Bastard. Who does he think he is telling me what to do? I could kill that son of a bitch so easily.” He returned to the couch, turned on the TV, leaned back, and continued to nurse the now warm beer, as the anger against Paul grew. Once more, the door burst open, and another man walked in, carrying a six-pack of beer.
“What the hell was that bastard doing here?” the stranger demanded.
“He came to threaten me cause I made the little lady have a car accident Sunday. Now, the son of a bitch is all pissed off.” He sounded almost pouty.
“What?” Anger turned the other man’s face red.
“I swear it was just an accident. I wasn’t trying to hurt her, just followed the broad,” he whined.
This new person at least seemed to know about personal hygiene. Dressed in tan slacks, a blue flannel shirt, and loafers, he appeared showered and clean-shaven. The complete opposite of the other man who appeared to have refrained from showering for some time. He was also older with a thick head of salt and pepper hair, and the coldest blue eyes Nate had ever seen. Those eyes reflected no emotion, just a cold calculation of what was happening around him.
“Look, little brother,” the guy stormed, “try something like that again, I’ll kill you myself. This deal is far from finalized, understand?” the brother yelled and towered over the younger one.
So, the two were brothers, Nate whispered. That was good to know, but why were they following Hannah? Also, what was this deal the older one was talking about?
“Don’t yell at me. I was trying to help,” the grungy one whimpered.
“How? By being stupid,” the older brother yelled. “Now I have to try to patch this up with Paul,” he said and pulled a cell phone from a pocket and proceeded to place a call.
Nate didn’t stay to listen to the one-sided conversation but left to return to his seat in the wicker chair, once more on guard throughout the night.
On Thursday, November 29, the disturbance Nate had sensed in the black void immediately after death was growing stronger, and trouble was headed straight for his wife. Also, Nate didn’t doubt he’d been allowed to stay to help Hannah. And, he was thankful but had to acknowledge a time limit had been placed on his continued stay on earth. Before too long, his need to depart would come. Whatever was about to transpire, Nate had to stop the threat before it happened. But for now, he had to stick close to Hannah for her safety and in hopes of discovering the exact danger ahead.
Right after a quick breakfast, Hannah returned to the bedroom and dressed in heavy black corduroy slacks, a pink sweater, and short boots. The need to get to the Chevy dealer to buy a new vehicle was the day’s goal. Before leaving the house, she popped two pain pills to get through the rest of the morning, then headed to the car lot.
When Hannah pulled out of the driveway, he was beside her in the car. On the ride to the dealership on north Thirty-Fourth Street, he kept an eye out for the brown truck. Thankfully, none appeared, which made Nate breathe a little easier. At the lot, Hannah found a used 2011 Chevy HHR and negotiated a lesser price for paying cash. Then, she arranged to pick up the vehicle on Friday, after a thorough maintenance check. The main chore accomplished, she headed home. Finding the right vehicle hadn’t taken as long as she’d thought, so she was glad for the chance to relax for a few hours before having to meet Paul. She parked the car in the garage, entered the house, and then retrieved the day’s mail from the box on the porch. After closing and locking the door, she tossed the advertisements on the kitchen counter, opting to leave the rest until later. Taking a seat in the recliner, Hannah called Joy.
“Hey, Cus’, just checking in to see how everything is going,” she explained when Joy answered.
“How are you? Are you still in pain? Do you still want me there?” Joy asked.
“Not too bad. No need to come down. I’m doing better today. This will make you happy; I’m taking your advice about getting out more. I ran into an old friend of Nate’s last Friday night. Do you remember Paul Dawson? He used to be a cop. He and Nate knew each other for several years before he joined the Marines,” Hannah explained.
There was silence for a moment, then “No, not really. Is he good looking,” Joy asked and then gave a short laugh.
Hannah smiled. Of course, her cousin had to ask such a question. “Yes, in a tough-guy sort of way. If you must know, he’s a man who looks capable of taking care of himself. But he’s around forty-five or fifty, and just a friend, so don’t get excited or any ideas.”
“Well, I’m glad you’re starting to get out of the house. Have fun, and enjoy yourself. But, don’t do anything to aggravate those injuries. Now, are you certain you don’t need me to come to St. Pete? I can be on a plane in the morning.” Joy insisted.
“Positive. I will be fine. Stay in Kentucky and take Fred for all his money.” Hannah gave a soft laugh. Her brother-in-law was in for one hell of a fight. “Have you found out any more about my mother?” she asked.
“Only what I told you. I did begin to go through the chest in the attic. There’s a lot to search, so I haven’t gotten too far. I’ll keep looking this weekend and let you know what I find. Also, give me a call later and tell me if you see this Paul guy again,” Joy said.
“Actually, I’m having dinner with him tonight. I’ll call you on Saturday and tell you all about it. I have to pick up my new car tomorrow.”
“Really! That sounds promising. Oh, what kind of car did you get?”
“Another used HHR. I love the vehicle. Too bad Chevy stopped making them.” And it was. It was a perfect vehicle for her, Hannah thought.
“Enjoy your new car. I’ll talk to you later,” Joy said.
“Knock the hell out of Fred for me,” Hannah urged.
“Don’t worry, Cus’. A big blow is coming his way sooner than the man knows. Goodnight,” she said and hung up.
Hannah replaced the receiver and sat back, relaxing. Her eyes drifted shut, and she began to doze. All of a sudden, she jerked awake, surprised that the hands on the wall clock showed it was after three, later than she’d hoped. So she hurried to feed Cooper and let the poor creature out into the yard for a short time while she got ready for the date.
While Hannah showered, Nate paced the balcony. There was an electric current running through the air, yet the sky appeared clear. Even the breeze seemed electrified. Trouble was heading straight this way and coming faster than he’d anticipated. Somehow, he had to try to head it off. Hell, Nate thought, it would help to know how to do so. All this waiting around was driving this ghost nuts. But there was nothing else to be done at this time. As for his wife’s date with Paul, she’d not be meeting him alone.
Cooper’s constant barking and scratching at the back door drew Nate back inside the bedroom. Hannah didn’t seem to hear the noise and continued showering. He hurried downstairs in time to see the front door being open. Whoever it was had picked the lock.
A man, the same one Paul had visited, gun in hand, slipped on soft sole shoes silently into the living room. He glanced around, fearful, unsure what to expect, and a little surprised to find the dog was outside. He kept whispering to himself, angered by something, then gave a low snort as if disgusted.
The intruder tested each step for squeaks as he made his way to the second floor. The entire time Nate tried to shove the man backward, but he passed right through Nate. Eyes darting up and down the hall, the man headed straight to the bedroom and the dresser. The sound of water running in the bathroom was loud, coming through the cracked of the door. He stopped and listened, then hurried to the dresser. The jewelry box was the logical place to find what he came to retrieve.
“God,” he muttered low, “don’t let this be a music box.” If it were, that would complicate matters. Slowly, he opened the lid and sighed with relief. It was just a wooden box. With one ear listening for any change to the noise in the shower and being careful not to disturb the contents any more than necessary, he removed and replaced each item without locating what he needed.
Nate stood between the man and the bathroom door, frantic at being helpless if the bastard decided to attack Hannah. It was useless to swing at the man; every effort to stop him had been to no avail.
The intruder stopped in mid-stride and listened, then shut the lid to the box. In the bathroom, the sound of the running water had stopped. Now the barking of the dog was louder and could be heard. “Time to get the hell out of here,” he whispered. As the bathroom door started to open, the man rushed down the stairs, the carpet muffling his footsteps, and charged out the door, being careful to shut it quietly behind him.
The entire time the prowler had been inside, Nate had been frantic. If Hannah’s head hadn’t been under the shower, she’d have heard the dog, and emerged from the bathroom to come face to face with the burglar. Thank God that hadn’t happened was all Nate could think as the interloper raced to a brown truck parked at the corner with Nate right behind him. He slid into the passenger seat as the guy started the engine and roared around the corner out of sight from the house.
The stranger drove as fast as possible to the small yellow house in Gulfport and hurried inside. Nate followed and perched on the back of the grungy sofa, repulsed by the fabric. Even for a ghost, the sofa was nasty. Besides the couch, the room held two old worn leather chairs, a coffee table, and a couple of floor lamps. A small table and two straight back metal folding chairs were in the kitchen. The house held the bare minimum of furniture, and the interior, like the exterior, was in dire need of a fresh paint job.
The second man he had seen before walked out of the kitchen and stood in the doorway, beer in hand, and demanded, “Well, did you get it?”
The younger of the two gave a negative shake of his head.
“Why not?” The taller one demanded, advancing in his direction.
The first one began backing away. “Look, Pete, the bitch was supposed to be gone all day. Well, she wasn’t. When I got there, the dog was outside, and she was in the shower. I searched the jewelry box, but didn’t find it.” There was a whine in his voice as he continued, “The damn dog was barking his head off. I had to get out of there,” and kept moving backward until his calfs touched the sofa, and he was forced to sit.
Nate moved out of the way in case he came in contact with his body. He continued to listen as he stood by the end table, holding a lamp with a battered shade. This piece of furniture also held unopened mail. The top envelope was addressed to one, Albert Carson, at the same address. Was this Al the man who had invaded the house?
His name was confirmed when the other man named Pete advanced toward the other. Pete’s eyes blazed. “For your sake, Al, I hope you didn’t hurt her. You know what will happen if you did.” If the son of a bitch had harmed the woman at this point, it would ruin all the plans. “You know he’ll kill if you touch her.”
With a sneer, Al shot back, “I didn’t harm a hair on the bitch’s head. Not that I didn’t want to, though, both her and the damn dog. The mutt almost got me caught. I got out in the nick of time. She was coming out of the shower,” then paused as if a thought had occurred to him. “I should have stayed and had me a bit of fun.” Instantly Al became aware of the angry look on Pete’s face. He raised his hands as if to ward off a blow and yelled, “I didn’t touch the woman, I swear.”
“It’s a good thing.” With that statement, Pete gave Al a deadly glare. “The man isn’t going to be happy you fucked up.” Still angry, he continued to storm, “How many times do you have to be told not to screw up? Now, here again, you’ve done it. I should have gone myself. Bullshit. Now we’re in trouble again.” All his life, he’d had to clean up Al’s messes. And Pete was tired of it. This was their final job together, and then the bastard was on his own.
“The broad’s dog caused the problem,” Al kept saying, certain Pete would side with him. “The damn thing was raisin’ hell in the backyard. If I’d stuck around, the woman would have caught me when she came out of the shower. Nobody saw me. Maybe, I can try again later.”
“Like hell, you will. Do what you’re told and stay away from the woman. I’ll try to get the job done some other time,” Pete said, then plopped down on the sofa and took a swallow of beer and made a face. The brew was hot. Going to the refrigerator, it was devoid of any cold bottles. The brother’s anger grew. Al hadn’t replaced the Budweiser. Pete grabbed his jacket and charged out the door.
In a state of shock from what he’d heard, Nate knew the men were trying to locate the necklace from Hannah’s father and was surprised he hadn’t found it. The one named Al had searched the jewelry box but had not taken anything. What they were after didn’t matter now. Hannah had to be warned. Immediately Nate thought of Agnes. Soon, he would have to locate the older woman and, if she was as perceptive as he believed, she could tell Hannah what had happened. For now, Nate had to get home. There was no way Hannah would be meeting Paul alone.
Back at the house, Hannah, with a large towel wrapped around her body, had heard Cooper’s frantic barking. She slipped on a robe and hurried down to the back door. As soon as it was opened, the dog charged inside, up the stairs, and then back down, growling the entire way to the front of the house. Hannah opened the door, and all that prevented Coop from dashing out was the screen door. There was nothing outside to have caused the aggressive commotion from the dog. Had it been a wild animal? There were plenty of possums and raccoons in the area, but most times, the dog ignored the creatures. No, something else had upset Coop. Whatever had been outside was now gone. Hannah closed the door, this time turned the lock and hurried upstairs to dry her hair and get dressed.
The temperature had dropped into the middle sixties. Outside, the breeze was dancing the Spanish moss to a merry tune played by the wind chimes hanging from the ceiling of the porch. Hannah stepped out onto the balcony to listen for a moment. The image of her husband climbing the ladder to hang the dancing dragonflies came to mind. The chimes had been purchased by Nate one fall as a gift, and not for any special occasion, only to show his love. “Time to put those memories away,” she muttered and went inside to choose black slacks and a white and gold sweater to wear, topped off by a lightweight gold leather jacket to ward off the chill as the breeze off the water would be colder at the restaurant where she was meeting Paul. Ready to go, Hannah patted Coop on the head and hurried to the car.
After parking in the lot at Dubees, she met Paul just inside at the bar. The place had a fair size crowd for a weeknight, not as large as the weekend group, but big enough to keep the business going. The band was playing a slow waltz as they maneuvered their way around the tables until locating an empty one.
Impeccably dressed in black slacks, a white shirt under a navy pullover crew-neck sweater, down to the worn but comfortable looking black leather shoes polished to a high gloss, Paul appeared quite handsome. For some reason, he seemed excited as he escorted Hannah past the patrons. As they took their seats, a waitress arrived and took their order for a bourbon and water and a Coke. Nate plopped down at a table nearby to watch and listen.
“How’s the novel coming?” Hannah asked.
A blank expression spread across Paul’s face as if he misunderstood the question. Then a light went off in his brain. “Great,” he said. “But let’s not talk about the book tonight. I brought you out to have fun this evening. First, how was your day?”
“Fine. I talked to my cousin for a few minutes this evening,” Hannah said.
“How’s she doing? You said your aunt died in June? That has to be hard on both of you,” an offer of sympathetic words without meeting Hannah’s gaze. Paul seemed to have inquired out of politeness rather than any real concern for their loss.
“Like me, still a little numb after losing her mother, but otherwise doing well. Other than talking to Joy, I didn’t do much besides come here,” Hannah said.
“Did you locate a car today? If not, I can drive you to a couple of dealers,” he said.
“Thanks for the offer, but I found another Chevy. Would you go with me tomorrow to return the rental car, and then give me a ride to the dealer to pick up the new vehicle,” she said.
“What about the paperwork? I’m good with insurance forms,” he offered and gave a bright smile.
“Is there anything you’re not good at doing?” Hannah asked, unable to imagine Paul failing at much. Being a former cop had to signify intelligence and capabilities.
“Not a lot. But,” now serious, “there is something important I want to ask,” he said. “Now, don’t get angry, but just think about what I’m going to say.”
Hannah gave him a questioning look.
Paul took her left hand and continued, “We’ve known each other off and on for some time.”
“Not all that long, Paul. You were more Nate’s friend,” she insisted, a little apprehensive.
“Look, I was yours too,” he countered. “And you have to know I was before, and still am, crazy about you,” and pulled a small box from his jacket pocket. “Not now, but consider this, whenever you’re ready, I want you to marry me,” opened the box to reveal a white gold ring with a large diamond.
“Impossible,” burst out of Hannah’s mouth as she sat back and stared at the man. “Nate has been dead just over a year, and you’re asking me to marry you? No. I can’t,” and shook her head from side to side. “I can’t even consider any proposal right now, Paul.”
“I’ve been in love with you for a long time, Hannah,” he insisted. “We’re good together. I know you care about me a little. Let go of the past and get on with life,” he continued to insist. Paul had admired Hannah’s grace and beauty from the first day Nate had introduced them, never dreaming he’d someday be in this current position.
Unsure of what to do, she hesitated. “Look, yes, I care about you, but I’m not in love with you. Nate was the one I loved, and no one can take his place, not you either. Paul. I’m sorry.”
Not satisfied with her answer, he stated, “I know I’m not Nate. No one can be. But you still have to have a life, and I want to be part of that life. There’s no hurry, Hannah,” he lied. “I can wait for you to learn to love me.” If she said yes, she could have all the time she needed.
Hannah again shook her head, not believing what she was hearing. “No, Paul. It will be a long time before I’m over Nate. Don’t wait for me; find someone else.”
He studied her face and then muttered, “I see.” There was an angry glint in his eyes, but Paul managed to shake it off. “Well, I wanted you to know how I felt.” Again paused, then said, “Let’s drink to at least friendship, we still have that, don’t we?” he raised the glass and downed the bourbon, not waiting for Hannah.
Dinner hadn’t been ordered yet, but the words coming from Paul sounded a little slurred and made Hannah wonder how much the man had to drink before she arrived. Saying she was shocked by his declaration was mild. An urgent need to leave without offending him filled her. Idle fingers, unheard, drummed on the side of her leg under the table. After he downed another drink, “I have to get home, Paul,” Hannah insisted, having dinner no longer an option. Before he might attempt to kiss her, Hannah rose and hurried toward the exit, calling out, “Goodnight, Paul,” and left the PI standing to stew over the rejection.
I keep praying for all those out on the front lines of this pandemic. Everyone, please stay home and stay safe.
Nate, still puzzled by the prior evening’s revelation that Paul had a girlfriend, was sitting in the chair by the bed when Hannah opened her eyes and looked at the bedside clock. It was after ten. At once, she threw back the blanket, got out of bed, and pulled on a robe. Calling for Cooper, hurried downstairs and opened the back door. The dog ran out in dire need to go pee. She had overslept and was surprised the animal hadn’t tried to wake her. The evening shift was three to eleven-thirty. It gave her a little over four hours before having to be at the hospital. Plenty of time to make a run by the bank on the way.
Nate didn’t follow her into the bathroom as she took a quick shower. It was too painful to see his wife in the nude and not be able to make love to her. So he continued to occupy the balcony chair as she emerged and proceeded to dress in pink scrubs and comfortable sneakers. He was up and ready to follow as soon as she grabbed her purse, called Cooper back inside, gave him fresh water and food, and then headed to the car.
It was cool, and the humidity was low enough, so the car’s air conditioner wasn’t needed. Hannah rolled down the driver’s side window to let the fresh warm salt air fill the interior. As she drove north on MLK Jr, sitting in the passenger seat, Nate became conscious of a brown truck getting too close to the Chevy’s back bumper. It would speed up, then slowed down. Hannah was aware of the other vehicle, and it made her so nervous, she increased the car’s speed. Once on Fifty-fourth Avenue south, she whipped into the bank parking lot and headed for the drive-thru lane to make a deposit. Nate felt relieved when the truck continued down the avenue toward Thirty-Fourth Street. During the rest of the drive to the hospital, he kept watching for the brown truck to reappear. It didn’t.
As soon as Hannah entered the emergency room, she sighed with relief, but barely had time to secure her purse in a locker before being called to assist with a trauma. There was no time to ponder whether or not the truck she’d seen on the way to the bank was the one from Publix, the cemetery, and at the ER.
As she hurried to help with the patient, she glimpsed Suzanne in what was termed the surgical ward, meaning anyone who needed stitches was admitted to that particular section. The ER was a large room with a huge circular counter in the middle of the floor. Inside the circle, a large table was placed with racks that held numerous patient charts, and where the doctors and nurses sat doing the necessary paperwork for each patient in the ER. Also, the work area contained computers and monitors keeping track of the vital signs of every seriously ill man or woman in the beds. Other rooms in the ER surrounding the counter were for different specialties, such as cardiac for heart-related issues, the cast-room for broken bones and sprains, gynecology, pediatrics, and last, the trauma room was for life-threatening situations due to major injuries or cardiac arrest.
Hannah walked into the trauma section just as the doctor called the time of death. A woman had been struck by a vehicle while crossing Ninth Street South. The police were standing at the counter, searching through the victim’s purse for identification and an address. After helping to transport the deceased to the morgue, Hannah hurried to wait for the next incoming patient.
Karen Watts, the head nurse, was working the evening shift as well. As Hannah rushed to follow the doctor into the surgical room, she was stopped by Karen.
“How are you doing this evening?” she asked. Tall, blonde, blue-eyed, and beautiful, she was one of the youngest head nurses at the hospital.
“Fine,” Hannah said, anxious not to keep the doctor waiting.
“You’ve had a rough year, but I want you to call me if I can help in any way.” Karen was also the one who had been the most supportive after Nate was killed, making sure Hannah took the time needed to recover, and her position in the ER was secure.
“Thanks, Karen. I appreciate all you’ve done,” she said and glanced back when her name was called by the doctor. “I have to go help with this patient. Thank you again,” and hurried into surgery.
“What was taking so long,” the young doctor demanded as he examined a large laceration on the forearm of a male patient. James Story was a new resident of the hospital’s sponsored intern program and wasn’t well-liked by the staff. A little overbearing with demands at times, which were met with resistance by other doctors. Most tolerated the young man as he had a lot to learn about bedside manner and dealing with the nurses. But, as a doctor, he was considered exceptionally good.
“Sorry, the head nurse stopped me.”
“Oh. Well, get a suture tray,” he said and rattled off the size needle, type of sutures, and dressings needed.
Hannah hurried to comply, glad she didn’t work the evening shift often. And as was expected, the rest of the evening was either a cold, a knife wound, broken bones, or the arrival of a baby, right up to quitting time. Thankful the long shift was over, she clocked out, and hurried to the garage.
It was after midnight when Hannah drove south on Ninth Street, heading for the Point. The traffic was scarce. As Hannah checked the rearview mirror, all she saw were two bright headlights a good distance away. Otherwise, traffic was scarce. She was nearing Lake Maggiore when the truck closed the space between the two. Tired and glad to be going home, yet suspicious as to what the other driver was doing, Hannah nervously tightened her grip on the steering wheel. The four hours’ sleep last night was not enough rest when working the late shift. As exhausted as she was, trouble on the way home was not what she needed.
Hannah fought against the weight of her eyelids closing and noticed on the inside lane, the truck was now next to her Chevy and inching closer and closer to the driver’s side. Aware of how near the other vehicle was, she turned the steering wheel right until the front tire was so close to the curb Hannah was afraid it was going to hit, and the HHR would end up on the sidewalk. Without warning, the truck whipped right and into the Chevy’s door. Hannah lost her grip on the steering wheel and fought to control the fear racing through her mind. The vehicle jumped the curb and headed straight for the lake.
Terrified, Nate grabbed at the wheel and while Hannah struggled to control the dangerous swerving. His hands merged over hers but were useless as she wrestled to regain control. At last, she was able to twist the steering wheel back to the left to avoid the water. The car rocked back and forth several times on its wheels, then careened across the street and slammed into a road sign, hitting hard, bounced off, and came to a sudden stop on the sidewalk. Thrown forward, Hannah’s head struck the rearview mirror. The driver of the truck accelerated and drove away.
In pain, Hannah managed to push the gearshift into park and sat with hands over her face, unable to stop shaking. A sore place on her forehead made her touch a knot, which was starting to rise. Body aching from being slammed into the steering wheel, and both knees into the dashboard, it was then she realized the airbag had deployed late and hadn’t prevented her from being thrown forward. Confused, she raised her right arm. Three long ragged crescent-shaped slashes were oozing drops of bright red blood onto her pants.
At once, a voice from OnStar came through the radio. “Sensors indicate you’ve had an accident. Do you need assistance? Are you injured?” the women demanded.
“Yes,” Hannah said. “My arm is cut, and I’m bleeding. Also, I hit my head,” she admitted. “Send the police. A man ran me off the road.”
“An ambulance and the police are on the way. Is your vehicle leaking fuel? Can you smell gasoline?”
“No gas odor. The driver’s door and front bumper are caved in. And I’m all banged up and in pain. I don’t think I’m seriously hurt other than my arm and the knot on my forehead.”
Hannah was aware a blow to the frontal lobe had serious consequences and was relieved when the voice said, “I’ll stay on the line until help arrives.” She sat back in the seat to wait for the police.
Nate was frantic and helpless. How seriously Hannah was injured, there was no way to tell. He was a voyeur of everything happening, unable to assist in any way, left only to occupy the passenger seat, and be pissed as hell over the stupidity of the other driver. Plus, the bastard didn’t have the guts to stick around; he fumed. Nate wanted to comfort Hannah. It was tearing him apart to be so useless.
Within a matter of a few minutes, a police car, Fire Rescue, and an ambulance pulled in behind the Chevy. The rescue team pried the door open, then with care, two EMTs extracted Hannah from behind the steering wheel, placed a brace around her neck, and strapped her on a backboard. The police officers waited until Hannah was secure on the ambulance gurney before asking questions.
Frantic, Nate, arms waving, his shouts unheard by the cops, “Go after that son of a bitch. He almost killed my wife.” The fact the truck was long gone and out of sight didn’t appear to matter to the police; they were more concerned with Hannah’s welfare.
“How bad is she?” one cop asked the EMT.
Before the man had time to answer, “Shaken up, but I don’t think I’m injured too badly.” Hannah went on to explain what had happened.
“Did you see the driver, Miss.?” the younger of the two asked.
“No.” The only description of the truck she was able to give was that the vehicle was brown, old, no make, no model, or much else. The dark interior had hidden the driver’s face from view. So, she was unable to say if it was a man or woman, nor offer a description.
Nate paced back and forth near the totaled vehicle the entire time, his frustration growing with each passing second. He stopped and looked at the officer. The cop’s face said it all. There was little hope of the person being caught unless another witness came forward to offer information.
Assessing the vehicle and after calling a tow truck, the officer said, “I’ll get the rest of the story at the hospital.” He gave a wave, and the ambulance, sirens blaring, slammed the doors shut and drove away. Within minutes of arrival at the emergency entrance, Hannah was whisked into the surgical room, and the doctor entered.
She looked up into the serious face of Dr. Samuel McGhee, the ER doctor she had followed around all day Friday.
“Well, I never expected to see you here as a patient. Too tired to drive home?” Dr. McGhee asked and began to exam first the knot on her forehead, then each arm and leg for possible broken bones.
“No,” Hannah shot back. “Some idiot ran me off the road.”
“I’m going to order a CAT scan of your head. The police officer said you struck it on something,” he stated while examining the skin where a knot and a bruise had popped up, then raised her right arm to check the cuts.
“Yes, I broke my rear-view mirror.”
“You must have a thick skull,” Dr. McGhee said and looked surprised. “You had to have hit hard to break it,” hesitated as if debating his next question, then, each word measured, asked, “Was your husband a Marine named Nathan Roberts?”
Surprised by the question, Hannah started to sit up but was pushed back on the bed by the doctor. “Yes. Why?”
Dr. McGhee gave a slight shrug. “I believe I met him on his last deployment.”
Eyebrows knitted together, and with a pained expression, Hannah asked, “Where?”
“On the plane ride over to Afghanistan. I was headed to the field hospital there. We talked,” he said, glancing up, “a lot about you,” and stared at Hannah. “He showed me a photograph of you and asked if I got back before he did, to look you up. I didn’t know he’d been killed. I’m sorry.”
Dr. McGhee had just finished checking her eyes when a nurse rushed in. “A trauma is coming in, right now,” she said.
He handed the chart to the woman, “Have someone clean and dress the cuts on her arm and get her to CT,” he ordered, then hurried from the room.
Nate stared after the doctor. A tall, broad-shouldered man, with dark hair, dressed in blue scrubs under a white lab coat, hurried to the room next door. Nate followed and stood in the doorway. Now he understood why the man seemed familiar. The doctor was right. They had met on the plane ride to their final destination. While Nate was headed to Helmand Province, the doctor’s final stop was Kandahar Air Field to initiate the treatment of the severely wounded brought in from the front lines. The man appeared to have survived his tour of duty without injury. With any hope, he’d overcome the horrors etched in each soldier’s mind, as many had been unable to rid themselves of the images.
There was a seriousness about the man while waiting for the patient to arrive. Suddenly, the doctor stared at the door, as if sensing he was being watched, but unable to see anyone. Nate turned as the automatic doors burst open to reveal an ambulance pulling up. How he wasn’t sure, but this doctor was destined to play a part in Hannah’s life.
Nate moved out of the way, not wanting to distract the surgeon or evoke the man’s senses more than had been. Two EMTs wheeled a blood-covered patient in and transferred the man from the gurney to the bed. The elderly patient had taken the wrong ramp and driven head-on into an SUV on I-275. Nate stood and watched as the doctors and nurses worked with precision, frantic to save his life. Outside the room’s door, an older woman stood sobbing. Nate heard her cry out.
“Oh, Charlie, why did you do it?” she sobbed, then covered her face with both hands. After a minute or two, the sound of the heart monitor flat-lined, and the woman looked up. The doctors had been unable to revive the man. She turned away and stood next to Nate, unable to watch any longer. She stopped crying as if accepting what was to come.
Without warning, a hand rested on Nate’s shoulder. “Do you have someone here, son,” she asked, between sobs, turning a tear-streaked face to look back at the body of the man in the trauma room.
Shocked the woman had spoken to him, Nate faced her. “You can see me?”
“Why, yes. I’m Iris. Like you, a spirit. Are you recently deceased? It’s been three months for me. When did you die?” the elderly woman stated as if being a ghost was an everyday occurrence.
“In Afghanistan, a year ago.” Nate hated to recall the loss of his men. They’d also been good friends and damn good soldiers.
“A military man, then,” a simple observation, not a question.
“Yes, a Marine.” There was pride in Nate’s statement.
“Good for you.” A slight smile appeared on her tear-streaked face. “Who do you have here?” she asked.
“My wife was in an accident this evening. I’m waiting to see if she goes home.” Nate jerked a thumb toward the man on the gurney. “Did you know the patient?”
“That’s my husband, Charlie,” she explained and tried to stop the tears. “Oh, he’s made such a mess of things. He didn’t want to live without me, so crashed our vehicle head-on into another car and killed a woman and two children. Now, we can never be together.” Once more, tears slid down her cheeks as her shoulders shook with sobs. She pointed back at the gurney occupied by her husband and whispered. “See what I mean. Here they come.”
The man’s spirit sat up and looked in the direction of Iris. He stood beside the gurney with a bright smile on his face for a brief second before he realized where his wife was pointing. Then Charlie looked back, and terror contorted his features. A cloud of dark smoke rose and hovered over his now still form. He turned to stare at his wife, arms outstretched, reaching in desperation. Long fingers of flames lashed out and wrapped around the man’s waist and shoulders. Charlie’s spirit was jerked back into the dark mass. One minute he was there, his screams echoing around the room, and then gone.
Iris stood sobbing. Nate stared in disbelief at the spot where Charlie had disappeared. The man had committed the worst of sins, had killed three innocent souls. All of a sudden, Iris was surrounded by a golden glow, open in the center to reveal a pure white light. Still crying, she turned to face the luminescence, tears drying as a smile spread across her face. Welcoming shadowy figures came to greet and lead her toward the bright beam. As she was lifted and drawn into the brightness, seconds before vanishing, Iris turned and gave Nate a sad smile. Then the light disappeared, and he was alone.
Was it that simple? If a person lived a good life, they went into the light? What about soldiers, Nate wondered? As a civilian, he’d lived as best as possible, never wanting to hurt anyone and doing what he could as a fireman. But what about a man’s military time? Having done his duty as ordered and killed the enemy, did that evil outweigh all his attempts to live an exemplary life? At the original beckoning of the light, he’d refused to enter because of Hannah. Did wartime mean the sin of killing during a battle was possibly understood or even forgiven? He hoped that’s what the first appearance of the white beam meant. It must be so, or the light would never have appeared and beckoned to him. The other possibility was too frightening, the darkness and fire. The prospect of the dark cloud made Nate shudder. There were wars in biblical times. Didn’t David slay Goliath? A little more hopeful that perhaps in God’s eyes, concessions were made for military personnel who had to do their duty. It was a question to ponder while he waited.
Nate was right outside the door of the surgical room, waiting for Hannah to return when he noticed a young boy about six years old sitting on top of the counter. The child was beautiful with dark curls framing a sweet angelic face, and the bluest eyes Nate had ever seen. The boy reminded him of Hannah in some ways. He was surprised to see someone so young resting on such a high place without an adult nearby. Then again, he was amazed when the child looked in his direction and crooked his finger, motioning for Nate to come closer. At first, he was uncertain the boy meant him until the kid pointed and nodded. Stunned to see the ghost of someone so young, Nate went to stand next to him.
“Who are you and what happened to you,” he asked, wondering why a child so young had died. The kid had never had a chance to grow up.
“My name was Jonathan, and my daddy killed me,” the boy stated as if it was just a matter of fact.
“Oh my God, why?” How could a father hurt his child? Nate knew such terrible things happened, but never understood why any man harmed a child. Only a coward would hurt the young and innocent, and their space in hell was reserved.
“Daddy got angry at my mommy and shot us both.” Again the words were said without emotion as if now, they meant nothing.
“Aren’t you upset about what happened?” Perhaps the child didn’t understand what had transpired to cause his death.
“No. Mommy no longer cries herself to sleep, and she’s happy and at peace. As for me, I’m waiting for my new mom. She’s here. I asked to come to see her. So here I am.”
“Where is she?” As far as Nate knew, Hannah was the last female patient in that particular room. Was it possible the child meant his wife?
“Oh, she’s not here right now. A man took her in a wheelchair to have a test. But she’ll be back soon.” The smile Jonathan gave Nate was one of pure joy as if aware his next time on earth was to be a life of happiness.
“Do all young children come back for a chance at a better life?” Nate asked, hoping it was so. The young deserved a chance to be happy.
“Oh, yes. Anyway, the ones who have suffered and died at the hands of parents or someone else, receive a second chance. There are a lot of us waiting to be reborn. Soon, it will be my turn. So I asked to come to see who my new mother was going to be.” The boy made the statement as if Nate should have known that was common knowledge in the spirit world.
Nate had to ask, “What about soldiers? Do we come back,” but feared the answer.
“Soldiers are exempt because they have to follow orders, and can’t be held accountable. They get to be reborn after a certain amount of time. But the ones who started the war pay for those crimes forever.” The boy’s face brightened, “Oh look,” and pointed to the automatic doors where Hannah was being wheeled back into the room.
Nate did not sense he was talking to a child, but a wise older adult hiding inside a kid’s body. And the youngster was talking about Hannah. “Is she the one with dark hair like you?” Nate was right.
“Yes. Do you know her?”
“Yes, she was my wife when I was alive.” He watched as Jonathan jumped down from the counter and stood to face him.
“I promise to work hard to make her smile and keep her happy. She will always remember you, but will be busy with a new life,” glanced back over his shoulder as the boy walked toward the automatic door, added. “My new name will be Nathan after you. I’ll try to grow up to deserve your sacrifice.”
“Do you know who your father will be?” Curiosity made Nate ask.
“Yes,” Jonathan said, “A doctor, the one taking care of her. And, he will be very good for and to her. I promise.” The lad raised a hand, waved, and then called out, “Gotta go now. Don’t worry; your time will come,” before walking through the automatic doors leading to the outside.
Nate stared after Jonathan’s vanished form. In many ways, he had been reassured of forgiveness for his war actions, and a sense of peace settled over him. He thanked God for the opportunity he’d been given to protect his wife. Then hurried to stand next to the gurney as Hannah rested back against the raised head of the bed.
Back in the room, Hannah waited to see Dr. McGhee for the test results before being discharged. The blood work and radiology report on the scan was taking forever. She sat up on the side of the bed and watched as four patients were wheeled into the Trauma Room. Another auto accident on I-275, injured, two adults and two children. Nurses and doctors worked hard to save the family. After fifteen minutes, the man and woman were rolled out, on their way to the Intensive Care Unit. Dr. McGhee, appearing exhausted and saddened, enter the room with her chart in hand.
“Did the kids survive,” Hannah asked. Every time a patient was lost due to an accident or any reason, those deaths impacted the lives of the doctors and nurses. For some, their demise was a given, but when the staff went home after a bad shift’s end, each person hugged a husband, or wife and children a little tighter and gave thanks for their safety.
“The parents did. The boy and girl didn’t.” Again, he had lost the tug of war with death. Dr. McGhee was angry by his defeat and issued a bitter rant against the grim reaper. “Losing a soldier after a firefight, I understand. That’s war. Still, I fought like hell to save everyone, man or woman. They all knew the risk of going into battle. Death is waiting to harvest each one, and it’s just a matter of time. But, for some, the fight is over before their life even begins, just like those two kids who never had a chance. What a waste,” he said, head bowed, and pinching the bridge of his nose. The doctor gave a slight shake of his body as if ridding himself of the pain and loss.
“I’m discharging you,” he told Hannah. “Go home. You have a slight concussion, so no wild activities for the next ten days. Get plenty of rest. You know it will take a week to a month to recover fully,” he said, jotting down instruction and writing two prescriptions, one for a pain pill, the other to combat dizziness and nausea. “Do you have anyone who will stay with you?”
“Joy, my cousin in Kentucky, might fly down,” and would be on the next plane arriving in Tampa if she called her. Hannah thought the best idea was to wait a couple of days to see how she felt.
Dr. McGhee seemed to be a mind reader. “Don’t wait. Make the call. You might have problems with headaches, possible nausea and even vomiting,” and rattled off dizzy, tired and not sleeping well as other symptoms.
As an ER nurse, Hannah was aware of the problems due to a head injury. As for the not sleeping well, what else was new.
“Be careful and get back here if you run into more severe problems.” The doctor turned to leave, stopped, and said, “I thought your husband was an okay guy. For your sake, I wish he had survived. So again, I’m sorry he didn’t.” Dr. McGhee didn’t wait for Hannah to say anything, only added, “Nate was right,” and left.
Hannah stared after him, baffled. Nate and the doctor had met. But, what did he mean, Nate was right? With care, she hobbled to the doorway to catch him, but the man had vanished into another room. The questions had to wait. At home was where she needed to be. Cooper was no doubt in dire need to go outside. The sun was already up, and she, as the doctor said, was tired from little or no sleep.
Nate knew what Dr. McGhee was referencing with his last statement. He had shown the doctor Hannah’s photograph and said, “After meeting my wife and discovering that not only is she beautiful, but she’s a warm, caring person, most men fall in love with her and are soon heartbroken she is unavailable.”
Thanksgiving loomed as cool as the day before. The weather report predicted the temperature was to hit the high sixties. Might even reach seventy. Hannah wore a lightweight white cotton turtleneck sweater under the top of her blue scrubs and tossed a leather jacket in the car before leaving. She was glad to be going to work. The memory of last year’s holiday was too tough to handle. Being away from home on this day was best. So at 6:30 A.M. Hannah backed the car out of the garage and hoped the memories of last year’s Thanksgiving remained in the back of her mind.
Hannah appreciated working the emergency room at this time of year, but couldn’t help comparing last year to the current one. The prior year, Aunt Pauline and Joy had been with her in Florida, aiding in preparing for Nate’s funeral. Every effort was made to fill the hours with things to keep Hannah busy. Even though her aunt cooked a turkey with all the trimmings, but as hard as she tried, Hannah wasn’t thankful. Fate had pulled the plug on her happiness. There was nothing to be thankful for; half her heart was missing.
The second week of December, her aunt and cousin had returned to Somerset, Kentucky. Once again, Hannah was left alone to face the passing hours. There was no holding back time. Most days were a fight to get out of bed. Each daily trip to the cemetery dwindled from every morning to three times a week, then to two, and at last, none. Those visits kept the massive wound in her heart from healing. Even Hannah knew the constant trips to Nate’s grave were not healthy for her mental state.
When times were rougher than usual, all Hannah could do was hug Cooper and fight back the tears. The nights were the worst. The dog seemed to sense Nate was gone forever and began to sleep on his master’s side of the bed, instead of the pallet on the floor. Hannah left the balcony door open, praying the animal might find some peace and settle down outside beside the white wicker chair. Cooper did on occasion, but would stare continually out at the bay. He was watching for Nate. It added to Hannah’s sorry. The animal was grieving as much as she. So, in the mornings, she always found the Lab snuggled close by on Nate’s side of the bed. It only intensified her grief.
Then, all too soon, Christmas arrived. The day was difficult, but she had managed to survive it, as well as that New Year’s Eve. January 2018 had been ushered in with celebrations all around the world. For Hannah, too many empty days stretched ahead, days spent wandering through the big old house trying to stay busy so as not to think. She had cleaned, mopped, and vacuumed so many times, the mop and vacuum were close to being worn out. Everywhere she looked, memories and images jumped into her path. The matching recliners in the living room. The flagstone patio in the backyard. In each room, something sprang at her to bring back a memory. At times, she would sit in her husband’s chair and stare into space as scenes of their life together crawled across her mind. Inside, she felt as if someone had slammed a fist into her chest. The memories were that painful. She was desperate for a release.
By the end of January, she was going crazy. Then the head nurse at the ER called. Karen Watts asked, if possible, could she return to work? They were short-staffed. Hannah jumped at the chance and went to work the next morning. It was good to be back where her mind was forced to concentrate on patients instead of Nate’s death.
The ER nurses and doctors were supportive, offering words of encouragement, which Hannah appreciated. Still, memories of little things shared with Nate sprang forth at unexpected times. Filling the hours with work helped to drive the depression away. These days, she was functioning better, and the sorrow was lessening. But, the ache would remain, no matter how much time passed.
On this year’s holiday, Hannah was glad to be working. As in most ERs, it was either a mad rush of activity or nothing but a steady stream of patients. Hannah welcomed those moments when she was too busy to think. Today that wish was granted. Even though it was Thanksgiving, one car accident after another arrived during the morning hours, and by the afternoon, multiple patients with gunshot wounds were brought in by ambulance.
Hannah was standing at the counter documenting notes on a patient’s care in the chart when a shiver raced over her body. She raised her eyes from the page and looked around the ER. The rest of the nurses and doctors were also completing the required paperwork for each person seeking help. As her gaze traveled the circumference of the room, her eyes came to rest on the automatic doors of the ambulance entrance. A short distance across the driveway from the doors, a man stood, his gaze fixed on Hannah. He was wearing a baseball cap, and the bill was pulled down so that it shaded his features. All she could see was the lower half of his face, and the evil grin curving his lips as he stared at her. When she hurried in his direction for a better view, the man turned and rushed down the driveway to a battered truck parked down the street, jumped in and drove away, tire squealing.
All during the day, Nate had kept pace with the hustle and bustle of the ER, following Hannah from room to room. Curious, at times he’d peer over her shoulder to see what she was doing. At other times, he’d sit beside a seriously ill patient to offer what tranquility he could to the dying. For some who could see him, it was a comfort; for others, they were terrified. As soon as he saw their frightened eyes, he hastened away, not wanting to add to their fear of death. But, when Hannah quickly walked outside, Nate followed in time to see a truck peel out of a parking space and speed off toward Eighth Street.
Back inside, but a little rattled by what had happened, Hannah stared at the patient’s papers on the clipboard without really seeing them. As she attempted to complete her notes, her hand was shaking as her boss walked up.
“Anything wrong, Hannah?” Karen Watts asked.
“No, not really,” she answered, but had to wonder why she had seen what appeared to be the same track twice in as many days driven by what appeared to be the same man. Why had he stared at her so intently? Was he following her?
A new doctor was on duty, and every time he needed assistance in the surgery room, Hannah was the one he called. As she completed the last notation on the patient, he motioned for her to follow him into the Surgery Room. Nate kept studying the man, trying to remember where he had seen him before. But, the memory refused to surface.
By three-thirty, all Hannah wanted was to go home and forget the weird incident with the strange man and all the bloody wounds she had seen that day. The things people did to each other was difficult to comprehend the why of it all.
After a fellow nurse, Suzanne Watson, and she left the hospital and walked to the garage, Hannah kept looking behind her, then asked, “Who’s the new ER doctor?”
“Oh, you mean Dr. McGhee?” The petite brunette asked. Not more than five feet four, Suzanne was charged with more energy than two people. Pretty, with large brown eyes, and full lips, when off duty, Suzanne liked to dress in wild, vivid colors and declared all blue scrubs boring. Also, she claimed to own over two-hundred pairs of heels, one to match each outfit. Hannah couldn’t imagine owning more clothes or shoes than a person could wear in a year.
“If he’s the one I followed around all day, yeah, that’s the doctor.” Earlier in the morning, a patient involved in an auto accident was rushed into Trauma Room One. After the trauma team worked on the man for an hour, the patient was admitted to the care of the new surgeon and scheduled for surgery the next day.
Hannah had heard some nurses’ whisper about the new physician, specifically a fellow nurse, Beverly Jordan, who had also worked with him. Hannah laughed at the woman’s remark that the doctor was a hunk and could eat anything he wanted in her bed. The only man Hannah had ever considered a hunk, was Nate. This particular day, she’d been his assistant for the entire shift.
“He’s been at the hospital for about a month,” Suzanne explained. “This is Dr. McGhee’s first week working in the ER. From what I heard, the man was in the Army and stationed at a hospital overseas. I guess he witnessed too much. Anyway, after he left the military, he came to St. Petersburg to open a medical practice. He claimed to need a slower pace. There was a lot of intense action where he was stationed, and a lot of war casualties. Now, he expects everyone to jump at his command. Once you get to know him, he’s a nice guy.” Giving Hannah a wicked grin, she added, “Oh, and by the way, the man is single.” Before getting an objection for the remark, Suzanne held up a hand and added, “If and when you’re ready, I’m just saying a single doctor is a good prospect.”
At the remark the doctor had worked on war casualties, Nate wondered if they had met in Afghanistan. He frowned at Suzanne’s implication that Hannah might be interested in dating the man. So when Hannah stopped to face the woman with fire in her eyes, he smiled.
Hannah placed a hand on each hip and glared at the Suzanne. “How could you say that Suzanne, knowing Nate’s been dead barely a year!”
With a guilty look, Suzanne shrugged, “Sorry. I know it’s been a short time to you, Hannah,” Suzanne said. “But you can’t stay locked away forever. Change is good for everyone. Girl, it’s time to get back out in the real world. Other than work, you don’t go anywhere. It’s a shame for someone so young to become celibate or a hermit.” After studying Hannah for a second, she added, “Look, I’m going to Dubees tomorrow night. Please, say you’ll come too,” she pleaded, “Charlie won’t go, and I want to get out and relax. I’m trying to pull you out of that deep rut you’ve dug yourself in. A girl’s night out will do wonders for your disposition. I’ll even pay for dinner if you come.”
Charlie Staples, a good looking EMT working for the local ambulance company, was Suzanne’s live-in boyfriend and never wanted to go anywhere. The man claimed the job gave him all the excitement he’d ever need in a lifetime. Staying home and watching football was his preference. To Hannah, it was a great sounding idea. Nate had loved football. She had tried to learn to enjoy the sport, but working as a nurse made her aware of how serious head injuries were to players. Every time one got hit in the head, she cringed.
Suzanne’s mention of the restaurant brought back fond memories of the place. In the past, she and Nate had dined at Dubees and then gone dancing in the bar area. Hannah was surprised it was still open. Unless the food was consistently good, most restaurants didn’t last long on the beach, but somehow this one had managed to stay in business. A night out at Dubees sounded like a good idea and might help her depressed state of mind.
And, because Suzanne wasn’t going to stop nagging, Hannah agreed. “All right, I’ll come on Friday night. But I’m not going to the bar. Tomorrow, I work the morning shift, and on Saturday, I have things to do at home.” It was a lie, but predictable Suzanne was sure to want to listen to the local band and close the place. If possible, Hannah wasn’t having any part of the bar scene.
“Great! I’ll meet you at seven.” Suzanne gave Hannah a victory smile.
Hannah wasn’t going to let the woman think she was getting away with manipulating the situation. “Remember, dinner only. I’m leaving right after we eat. Friday night or not, I’m not staying out until the wee hours of the morning. You can, but I’m not. Keep what I said in mind, Suzanne.”
Suzanne patted her shoulder and hurried away before Hannah had a chance to change her mind.
All the way home, Nate could see Hannah was nervous and kept glancing in the rearview mirror. That she regretted the decision to go to Dubees was also clear. A nice quiet night at home would appeal more to his wife than going out. But she had committed to having dinner with Suzanne and would make every attempt to enjoy herself. If the evening turned into a disaster, from now on, she’d stay home.
Friday morning, November 23,at work, Hannah was surprised at how slowly the hours were passing. Off and on during the shift, she would look out the ER automatic doors expecting to see someone standing across the driveway and staring in her direction. It never happened.
On this day, not many patients with serious complaints appeared for care at the ER. So far, there had been a woman with a migraine headache, a boy with a broken leg, and a man who had opened his thigh with a chainsaw. Sometimes the warmer weather encouraged the residents and snowbirds to go to the beach instead of getting out and injuring themselves or others. Everyone was relieved the following hours went just as smoothly with minor problems.
By quitting time, Hannah was happy to leave work. She rushed to the garage and slid behind the wheel of her car. She contributed to believing the prior day’s incident with the stranger was just her overly active imagination. There was no reason for anyone to be following her and dismissed the idea as ludicrous and put the idea out of her mind. But a grain of suspicion she was right refused to go away.
It was almost four when she pulled out of the hospital garage and drove toward Ninth Street South. Once home, she’d have time to let Cooper out and feed him before getting ready to leave for Dubees. She wasn’t looking forward all that much to the evening, instead preferred to curl up and watch television. Yes, it was an excuse. Like Joy had said, she had to start to live again, not just exist. Tonight was the start of moving forward, putting her life back together. One day at a time, she told herself, one day at a time, slow but steady.
At home, Hannah’s priority was to take care of Cooper. Then, she checked the answering machine to see if her cousin had called with any news about searching Aunt Pauline’s papers. There were no messages. After letting the dog back in, she rushed to the bedroom for a quick shower to clean the ER grime from her body. Now, standing in front of the closet, what to wear seemed to be a difficult decision. Nothing flashy, something classic was a good choice. Selecting a simple, stylish black dress and matching pumps, Hannah added a long strand of pearls, a gift from Nate one Christmas. Clutching the precious necklace to her breasts, she remembered how thrilled she’d been with the present. It was just another reminder of what was lost.
Nate sat in the chair by the bed, admiring how beautiful Hannah looked in the dress with the pearls. Even he had to admit her apparel was suited more for a funeral than a night out. As much as it tore at him, Nate acknowledged it was time for Hannah to come to terms with his death. She was too young to go on grieving this way. She had to move on with her life. But that couldn’t happen until whatever disaster was rushing in her direction was stopped. Then he would leave, and she could start a new life.
Shaking off the gray cloud which threatened to invade the evening, Hannah finished dressing, called to Cooper and placed his food dish on the floor, and hurried to the garage. When she climbed behind the wheel, Nate was in the passenger seat. After crossing the Bayway, she drove toward Gulf Boulevard, then continued north several miles, and then pulled into the parking lot of Dubees, a place Nate recognized.
He and Hannah had visited the restaurant for an occasional night out. Dubees occupied a large building on the street corner off Gulf Boulevard. The restaurant faced the beach and was known for its fresh seafood, steaks, and a lavish salad bar. On one side was the dining area, on the other was a lounge with a live band and a dance floor, and was considered one of the safer places for single women to go. Patrons were able to dine on the patio, watch the sunset, go inside to eat or drink and enjoy the band’s music every night except Sunday. A hot spot for the more affluent crowd, and a favorite place for women hoping to catch a wealthy husband.
When Hannah arrived, Suzanne met her at the entrance, stopped and placed both hands on her hips and gave her a frown. “Don’t we look a little gloomy this evening,” she said. “If I’d known you were going to dress in mourning clothes, I’d have worn something a little more somber.” Her sparkling bright red sweater, winter-white slacks, and matching short boots were in stark contrast to Hannah’s outfit.
“I’m not trying to be gloomy,” Hannah snapped. “I thought this was fitting for going out to dinner.”
“Not if you want to have a good time. Try to start wearing more color instead of black.” Suzanne jerked the door open and entered, leaving Hannah open-mouthed and a little pissed at the remark.
Once inside, and shown to a table, their dinner order was placed, they sat in silence. Hannah was still seething and trying to hold her temper. The woman had begged her to come to dinner. What right did Suzanne have to criticize how she dressed? Deciding to leave immediately after dinner, Hannah was finishing the meal, when the sound of music reached her. A favorite Stevie Nicks’ song, “Landslide.” All anger evaporated and made her wonder. Was she afraid of the changes in her world? Granted, she had built her world around Nate, but her former life was no longer possible.
Hannah didn’t consider herself to be unique. Other military wives had lost their husbands. Did they experience the same intense grief? They must. Those with children had no choice but to move forward with their lives. While she’d remained stagnated, merely existing, not living. As the song said, would time make her bolder? Perhaps. Hannah didn’t think so, plus as Joy had reminded her, she was getting older. Time moved on, and so must she. The self-evaluation was interrupted by Suzanne.
“A nice change of music for this place,” the woman said, giving Hannah a side glance. “Wonder who the band is tonight?” and gazed with interest at the bar entrance. “At least we can stop in for one drink.” she cast a pleading glance at Hannah. Holding up her hands, she continued, “I swear one drink to find out what band is playing. Then we’re out of here.”
“Dinner and that was it, I told you.” Hannah gave a half-hearted protest, knowing she wasn’t going to win this argument.
“I know, I know. One drink won’t keep you out more than thirty minutes longer,” Suzanne insisted. “What the hell is one drink going to harm? For Christ’s sake, Hannah. It won’t hurt you to have a drink and then go home. You live just over the Bayway, for Christ’s sake.”
“You’re impossible, Suzanne. Never again. One, and only one, then I’m leaving with or without you.”
“All right,” Suzanne barked, glad to have won again, but still a little miffed. When Hannah said she’d leave with or without her, Suzanne knew she meant it. But, having driven herself to the bar, Suzanne knew she’d be able to stay as long as she wanted.
The waitress brought the checks, and they each paid their bill. Suzanne didn’t wait for Hannah, but rose and started toward the entrance to the lounge. What a manipulator, Hannah thought, and what was worse, she allowed herself to be controlled. With a shake of her head, she followed, catching up with Suzanne just as the woman slid onto a barstool and gave the bartender her order.
At the entrance to Dubees, while the women were having dinner, Nate wandered around the room and into the lounge area. A band was warming up and preparing to play. He stationed himself at the bar, not far from Hannah, back against the wood facing the room, and listening to the music for a few minutes.
As he gazed around at the crowded tables, Nate thought he recognized Paul sitting in a dark corner with two men. Paul was facing the entrance while his companions sat with their backs to the door. He stared in their direction, but couldn’t make out their faces as the light on the table was a small candle in a container. It was clear they were in a deep conversation as they huddle close, talking. Nate was amazed that with all the noise in the room, it was possible to catch any sound from the person sitting in the next chair.
When Hannah and the other woman entered the bar, Paul nudged the man in the next chair and tilted his head in her direction. Both men turned to look, then nodded to Paul. Nate was still unable to see their faces; the corner was too dark. After the two women took a seat at the curved bar, he rose and walked in their direction. As Nate watched Paul walk toward his wife, he noticed how crowded the room had become. Patrons filled the tables circling the small dance floor. Couples pressed close against each other, swayed to the music. Paul, dressed in slacks, deck shoes, and a white shirt under a lightweight jacket, walked up behind Hannah and tapped her on the shoulder. She turned and recognized him at once. Nate stood next to Suzanne to listen.
“I thought that was you,” Paul said. Not giving Hannah a chance to respond, he added, “How about dancing with me?”
Surprised to see him at Dubees, she said, “I don’t think so. I just ordered a drink.”
“I promise I won’t bite. If Nate were here, I’m sure he wouldn’t mind. Come on, one dance. Give me a break from talking business,” and pointed to a small table where two older men sat with their back to them. Paul gave a big smile and offered his hand.
“Go on, Hannah,” Suzanne urged. “You have to have a little fun. Besides, one dance won’t hurt. Wasn’t he one of Nate’s friends?” Suzanne pushed her off the stool and almost into Paul’s arms. Downing the drink, the woman ordered another.
God, Hannah thought, I hope she’s not going to get drunk. Suzanne was known for liking to party and drink plus being the biggest gossip in the ER. Several times, Karen Watts, the head nurse, had counseled her about coming to work with a hangover.
“Oh hell,” Suzanne said, giving Hannah a slight push. “Go! Enjoy yourself for a change.”
Hannah let herself be led to the dance floor as Nate remained at the bar watching and feeling jealous, not able to know what they were saying. Paul didn’t try to pull her close, but held her away from his body, and continued to smile as he whirled her around to the music of an old Sinatra song, “I’ve Got You Under My Skin.” Still keeping his distance as they danced, asked, “How’s your aunt and cousin? Did they come down for Thanksgiving?”
Hannah was surprised the man remembered them, having met them only once. “Joy is fine. Aunt Pauline was killed in an auto accident this past June. They stayed with me last Thanksgiving and help with all the funeral arrangements. This year, I worked at the hospital.”
“My God, I’m so sorry to hear about your aunt. You’ve had a rough year. At least they were here when you needed them the most. How is your cousin holding up?” he asked, concerned.
“Like me, surviving. Fred, her husband, and children are there, so she’s not alone, thank God. After Aunt Pauline died, I stayed for a couple of weeks but had to get back. Cooper was at a neighbor’s house, and the hospital was short-staffed.” The Lab was happy to see Hannah when she picked him up from Mrs. Carters. The woman had taken a little too good care of the animal. Cooper had gained almost five pounds from too many treats. Hannah immediately put him back on his diet, but thanked Agnes for caring for the dog while she was away.
“For you to have gone through such a major ordeal by yourself would have been terrible. Thank God for relatives who’re there when you need them, right?” Paul said, and twirled her around, then pulled Hannah a little closer. The music ended, and they returned to the bar.
“Thank you,” Hannah said.
Nate’s eyes remained riveted on the pair as they danced. Once the music stopped, he relaxed and continued to monitor their conversation.
“Let me buy you ladies, a drink,” Paul insisted and gave the bartender a wave. Hannah ordered a Coke, and Suzanne requested a Manhattan.
“I’m driving, so I’m not drinking,” Hannah said, and frowned at Suzanne. “You shouldn’t drink either since you have to drive home.”
“Don’t worry, Mother Hannah. This,” and she raised the glass, “is my last one. From now on, I’m switching to water. Besides,” Suzanne said, a little testy, “I know my capacity.”
“Okay,” Hannah said, backing away from the subject and turned to Paul. “It was nice seeing you again so soon. Don’t forget to give me a call. Nate would want me to stay in touch with our friends.” Picking up her purse, she slid off the barstool. “Tomorrow’s a big day, so I’m going home.” then touched Suzanne on the shoulder. “Be careful driving home.”
“Yes, Mother,” Suzanne retorted.
Paul placed a hand on her arm, stopping Hannah from walking away.
He continued to study her face for a moment. A startled expression crossed his features. “You are even more beautiful than I remember.”
Yes, Hannah was beautiful, and Nate knew Paul had always admired his wife. But the man had never acted on that attraction or tried anything inappropriate with Hannah. If he had, she would have said something, and that would have been the end of his relationship with Paul. Now, he was hoping the man still cared enough to watch over her welfare. Nate kept his eyes on his wife.
Hannah blushed. “Well, thank you,” she stammered, a little embarrassed by the flattery.
All at once, Paul asked, “How about I take you to dinner.”
She hesitated. Joy and Suzanne might be right about getting out more. The thought riddled her with guilt, even with an old friend. But it was not time; she was still grieving. Although it had been a year, the loss still seemed too fresh and raw. “Thanks. I’m not much for going out these days.”
He smiled and then said, “It won’t hurt for you to go out, Hannah. You have to eat, and I’m offering to feed you. Having dinner with an old friend won’t hurt Nate’s memory.”
Paul was right. Nate knew she needed to get out and enjoy herself. Eating was necessary. But he could see it didn’t quell her regret for even thinking of accepting the invitation. It was something to do besides sitting at home grieving.
At last, still a little reluctant, Hannah agreed, “I guess it won’t hurt anything.” Other than coworkers, she had no one in St Petersburg. The people at the hospital were acquaintances, not what she considered close friends. Sure, she went out with Suzanne now and then but was wise enough to never confide in the woman.
At least, Paul had been a close friend of Nate’s she reasoned. Not hers so much. Maybe she should at least give him a chance to be a friend to her. The man had also lost and understood her pain.
“All right,” she agreed, “When and where?”
“How about tomorrow night at the Beach Club downtown?” The Beach Club was a restaurant on the corner of Central Avenue and Beach Drive, a well-lighted street known for exclusive shops, art galleries, and fine dining. It was a wide avenue, across from a huge parking garage and the St. Pete Yacht Club, just south of Straub Park, and not far from where the city’s new pier was under construction. “The place is nice and has good food. You’ll like it,” he said, and then gave her a big smile, pleased Hannah had accepted.
The Club was a nice restaurant, a bit pricey, but known for having an outstanding cuisine. “Why don’t I meet you there at seven-thirty,” Hannah agreed.
“Okay then, seven-thirty sounds great. See you then.”
They danced once more, then Hannah begged off, told Suzanne goodnight, and headed for the exit. Tired and in need of a good night’s sleep, she was eager to get home.
Nate watched as Paul returned to his table and sat with his head bent close, again whispering to the younger of the two men, the one with close-cropped graying hair, and the shadow of a beard and rugged feature. This man wasn’t dressed as nice as Paul, but sported jeans, a T-shirt, and sneakers. The other individual appeared cleaner and wore dark slacks, a red short-sleeved shirt, with feet encased in socks and dark sneakers. The three men rose and followed Hannah out of the bar with Nate close behind. As Paul walked to his little red sports car, the others walked in the opposite direction and away from Hannah, their backs to Nate.
Hurrying to catch up with his wife, Nate rode home in the passenger seat. When he followed her inside, Cooper danced around then whirled in a circle in front of Nate, acting as excited as when the soldier had returned from the deployment.
“You crazy pup. It’s me,” Hannah admonished. “What are you doing? No one else is here, so stop jumping around,” and opened the back door.
Nate waved his hand, and the animal dashed outside. Unable to offer comfort, he could only watch as Hannah turned, leaned on the kitchen island, and buried her face in her hands, shoulders shaking with grief. She straightened, grabbed a tissue, and dabbed at her eyes as Cooper scratched at the back door. Once back inside, the dog bound up the stair alongside Hannah.
The pain Nate was experiencing at his inability to comfort his wife was as excruciating as the bullet which took his life. On the few occasions he’d visited her dreams, he discovered it was causing more harm than good. If he continued, Hannah might never come to terms with his death.
To stop invading her nights was going to be difficult, but he vowed to quit even though each visit seemed to give a small amount of comfort. To him or her, he wasn’t sure which. Hannah needed to sleep in peace from now on. He’d promised to stay as long as needed to protect his wife, but that time was limited. There had to be enough days left to keep her safe.
On Saturday, November 24, Hannah ignored the bright sunshine and warm air and stayed busy doing three loads of laundry, folded, and put everything away in the linen closet and drawers. In between loads, she sat at the desk in the small front office, going through old computer files and deleting each one. The photographs she avoided as the agony of losing Nate would return if she reminisced over their pictures together. It was best to leave the wound alone and let it continue to heal.
It was mid-afternoon when she picked up the phone to call Joy. Her cousin’s cell phone rang several times before she answered with a brisk, “Hello.”
“Hey, Cus’,” Hannah said. “Are you okay? You sound stressed.” Of course, Joy would be having to continue to live in the same house with the man you were about to divorce.
“I’m fine. I’m in the attic going through Mom’s old cedar chest.”
“Did you find anything interesting?” Hannah prayed if Joy did find a copy of the death certificate; the cause wouldn’t be related to anything criminal.
“So far, just a copy of the newspaper relating to your mother dying. All it says is she expired due to cancer. I don’t remember Mom saying anything about Aunt Eugenia having cancer. But then I was only ten when she passed. The paper gives the date of death and lists her surviving relatives, and that’s about it. Also, Mom didn’t have a copy of her death certificate.” The frustration in Joy’s voice was evident. “I did find some letters from a Winston C. Dansworth, an attorney from Los Angeles. They are brief, but supposedly money was sent from California for your care. I called LA, but there’s no such person listed as a practicing lawyer or anyone by that name with a listed phone number. What I wonder is if this man was sending money from your father.” She gave a tired sigh, “Anyway, that’s all I’ve found out so far. I’ll keep digging and let you know if I found anything else in the chest.”
Hannah could hear the rustling of papers, “Thanks, Joy. I appreciate all you’re doing. Is Fred still alive and at the house?” Hannah was sure Joy wanted the divorce over with as soon as possible.
“Yes, unfortunately. After the holidays, he’ll be gone. I can wait until then. Anyway, I hope so. Let me get back to the job at hand, and I’ll give you a call next week,” Joy said, sounding exhausted.
“Joy, you don’t sound very well. Are you sick?” Concerned filled Hannah.
“No, just tired and frustrated by everything that’s happened to us. Today’s just been a bad day. But I’ll be all right. I can survive living with my dear rotten husband for another month or until after the New Year. Listen, stop worrying about me. You know I’m always fine.” Joy muttered a quick, “Love you, Cus’,” then hung up before Hannah could say another word.
Baffled, Hannah continued to sit, phone in hand, and contemplated calling Joy back. There was something else other than the divorce on her cousin’s mind. The woman was like a tightly sealed clam when it came to talking about her problems. She’d tell Hannah when she was ready and not before. She replaced the receiver and returned to what she was doing, now and then glancing at the phone wanting to know what was happening in Kentucky.
By 5:30 P.M., Cooper was hungry, so she placed a bowl of food on the kitchen floor. As if sensing she was going out, the animal lay down and gazed up, eyebrows twitching back and forth. He wasn’t going to eat until she returned. “I won’t be gone long, so quit pouting. I’ll be home before you know it.”
Nate had remained close to the house all day and had listened to the one-sided conversation between his wife and Joy. Now, he watched as Hannah dressed for dinner with Paul. The outside temperature had dropped to a comfortable seventy-five degrees. The black slacks, white blouse, and black pearls under a gold leather jacket were not clothes he remembered. Perhaps they were new. Tonight, as she slid behind the wheel of the Chevy, the breeze was a soft kiss caressing Hannah’s face and fluffing her hair.
Nate was beside her as she parked the car at a meter across the street from the restaurant. Paul was waiting on the corner, and waved a greeting, letting out a low whistle as she approached.
She took his arm, and once inside, Hannah looked around at the number of people already seated. The interior hadn’t changed since the last time she was here. The room was massive and divided in half by a long wooden bar. One area was again split into two sections by a wrought-iron railing, the one closest to the front sported a baby grand piano with tall round tables and stools, and the remaining space was used as the main dining room. Fifteen large tables, covered with round white linen tablecloths and comfortable padded chairs, were arranged around a massive stone fireplace. After Paul and Hannah were seated near the hearth, a waiter appeared almost at once to take their order. Nate’s attention was focused on Paul’s responses, half hearing Hannah’s questions as the man gazed in admiration at his wife.
“So,” Hannah asked, “what have you been doing with yourself? Are you still a private detective? And were you in California on business?” It was odd, she thought, how she’d never noticed that Paul was heavier than Nate. Where Nate was all muscle from hard work and exercise, Paul’s bulk resembled the form of a bodybuilder. Maybe he needed to work out a lot for his job.
“Not doing too much, to answer your first question. And, yes, I’m still a private detective and was in California on business,” he said and noted how elegant Hannah appeared. “By the way, I want to say how nice you look.”
“Thank you, Paul. It’s nice to have an occasion to dress for a night out. There haven’t been many for some time.” She blushed at the compliment.
Paul smiled and continued, “Anyway, a client hired me to find someone. It took a while, but I was successful. If the client is happy, then I’m satisfied I did a good job. Happy clients pay well and give good recommendations.” The smile now was replaced by a slight frown.
Hannah caught a note of bitterness in his voice. “Is anything wrong? Were you not happy with the job?”
“It isn’t that I don’t find the work satisfying, I do. Some clients are more difficult than others. This was one of those cases.” Paul glanced around the restaurant and waved down a waitress.
“Was your client anyone I know?” Hannah asked.
“No, I don’t think so. He was a dying old man looking to make amends for past mistakes. I did my job; he had to do the rest,” gave a slight shake to his head, smiled, and then said, “Enough about me. Have you talked to your cousin lately? Is she doing okay?”
“Doing as well as can be expected considering everything. Joy was here the other day to help pack up Nate’s belonging. But, she has her own problems and had to fly back home right away.” Hannah missed Joy. Having someone across the hall had been nice, even if it was only for one night. Now, the house seemed too big and too empty. Why hadn’t it appeared so before Nate was killed? Back then, the place was home. Now it was just a house without her husband to make it a haven. Hannah didn’t mention the discovery of her father’s letter or anything about the locket feeling close personal things should be kept private.
Curiosity made Paul ask, “What’s the name of the town your cousin moved to?”
“Lexington, Kentucky. Aunt Pauline lived in Somerset,” she said and smiled. “Joy’s husband, Fred, wanted to move to a farm and open a practice in a larger city. Don’t ask why, because I don’t know. He had a thriving practice here in St. Pete. But, he wanted to move, so Joy agreed. Aunt Pauline left first. She had lots of friends in Somerset.” Hannah had no desire to live in a small town anymore. St. Petersburg, Florida was what was considered small, being a peninsula, it was a mere fourteen miles across from the Gulf of Mexico to Tampa Bay at the widest part. But, every inch of the peninsula was crammed with homes or businesses, and the population had swelled to nearly three-hundred thousand residents and was continuing to grow. Too many people on too little land as far as Hannah was concerned.
“So she followed your aunt,” he stated.
“Joy wanted to be closer to her mother, so they moved soon after Aunt Pauline did.” Hannah gave a sad smile at the thought of her vibrant aunt no longer being alive. God, how she was going to miss her. Her melancholy was broken by Paul’s voice.
“Do you plan on leaving St. Pete,” he asked.
“God, no. Can you see me living in a small town? I’d go crazy. I have a job I love, and it keeps me too busy to think. Now, more than ever, I need it.” At the hospital each day, Hannah worked until exhausted, then went home to care for Cooper. Work and the dog kept her going. Those two things were all she had left to combat the loneliness and drive the depression away.
“Did you grow up in Somerset?”
“No. Prestonsburg, Kentucky.”
“So you’re from a small town too,” he said.
“Are you?” Hannah didn’t know much about Paul’s background, and Nate had never mentioned anything about the former cop. Now, Hannah was curious.
“Actually, I grew up on a farm outside Macon, Georgia. Tibble is not what you can call a town. But, it did, and may still have, one red light, a gas station/grocery store combined, and a post office. Oh yeah, a school. Which taught grades one through twelve, and churches, we had five to be exact. The people in Tibble have lots of religion.” Paul smirked while making the last statement as thoughts of his bible-thumping father came to mind. Forcing the memories away, Paul returned to the conversation at hand. “Tell me about Prestonsburg.”
“There’s not much to tell. The town’s spread over a valley surrounded by hills. There’s not a lot to do, but it was home until my aunt moved the family. I graduated from high school in Somerset.” Hannah remembered those years as happy times. Aunt Pauline worked hard to give them a good life. There were some tough times, but in such a small town, life was hard for everyone.
“Nate told me you were in the service. I’ve tried to picture you in an Army uniform and can’t.” He seemed to find the idea funny, Hannah Roberts serving in the military? Looking at her, it seemed hard for him to believe.
“I did,” she said, bursting his visionary bubble. “But not the Army. I joined the Air Force right out of high school. The main reason, so I’d be able to go to college to become a nurse. Aunt Pauline didn’t have the money for tuition. So I served four years, saved everything, and after being discharged, earned my nursing degree.
“My God, you’re amazing. No wonder Nate was so in love with you.” He was surprised she’d had the nerve to join the military. “That took guts to go off on your own. Weren’t you scared of leaving everything familiar?” Paul asked and thought of another woman who had also struck out on her own. Hannah was a rose next to a dandelion weed in a garden. Elegant, refined, a shining diamond among broken glass compared to another. This beautiful person wouldn’t say fuck no matter what.
Hannah had to smile at the question. “You have no idea how frightened I was. There I was eighteen, not wanting to go, but knowing it was the best way to get an education and maybe see the world. Aunt Pauline encouraged me to go. Besides, I have to admit the rigid discipline was a good experience and gave me confidence. Basic training was either a sink or swim situation. A lot of girls washed out. But I survived.”
“Good for you,” Paul said, as the waitress brought their dinners. While they ate, the conversation lagged. After the waiter cleared the dishes, Paul ordered a bourbon and water.
Hannah declined a drink. “I may sound like a prude, but I’m driving. Besides, my alcohol tolerance is low, but thanks, anyway.” Paul had revealed minimal about his past. So far, the one fact that he was from a small town in Georgia. Hannah wanted to know more. “Are your parents still alive? What about brothers or sisters? Do you have any?” These were easy questions for anyone.
Paul sat, thinking before answering. “Yes, we were a large family of four boys and three girls. As for my parents, I haven’t seen them since running away from home.” It wasn’t quite true. Paul had made a stop to see his mother before moving to Florida.
Hannah was surprised Paul confessed to running away. Most kids ran because their home life was terrible. Regardless, maybe he stayed in touch with the family. “How long has it been?”
Paul wasn’t sure. Everything had happened a long ago. Taking a deep breath, he exhaled slow and easy then said, “I was seventeen when I left.” Paul cleared his throat. “If you don’t mind, Hannah, I’d rather not talk about that period of my life. Let’s say it was bad for me, my siblings, and more so for my mother and let it go,” grimaced and added, “Okay?” Waving down the waitress, he ordered another drink.
Hannah felt she had far overstepped the boundaries with all her inquiries into his past. From Paul’s expression, his life must have been hell. Ashamed for being so nosy, she wasn’t about to pry further. “I’m sorry, Paul. But, if you ever need to talk, I’m a good listener.”
“No, thanks. I came to terms with my past a long time ago. It was what it was and can’t be changed. The best way for anyone is to continue moving forward, don’t you agree?” But never would he forgive his bastard father or mother for failing to protect her children, not that she would have been able to shield them. “Let’s change the subject. I don’t want to talk about the past. How about a bit of good news, and one on which I would like your opinion?”
“Of course. What?” Hannah was glad to change the uncomfortable subject.
“Well, I’m in the process of completing a thriller novel,” he said, keeping close to the truth. An idea he had contemplated now and then, but never endeavored to try. “With my experience in the investigative field, I think I can do a fair job of telling a story. Give me your opinion.” And he believed he could if he managed to stick with the idea. Finding people was easier than sitting, trying to write all day.
“That’s a wonderful idea, and you’ll do great. Please, I’d love to read it,” Hannah said, mysteries and thrillers being her favorite type of book. And, no doubt, Paul was capable of telling an intriguing story.
“Not until the book is finished.”
“What’s it about?” she insisted.
“A real-life case. Do you remember a news story years ago? This man took his wife sailing, threw her overboard, and then circled the poor woman until she drowned, solely to collect the insurance money?” At the time, and in need of money, Paul had thought the idea was close to foolproof. Then again, the killer had involved another man, and both had gotten caught.
Hannah thought for a moment, then said, “Sorry, no.”
“Well, it’s based on that specific case. There’s still a lot of research to do first. Afterward, I’d like your thoughts on the story.”
“Okay. I’ll be happy to look at the manuscript.” Casting a glance at her watch, said. “Tomorrow, I work the evening shift at the hospital and have a couple of things to do before going to work, so I need to leave.” It was a small white lie, but Hannah was tired and wanted to go home. Being out with Paul had been enjoyable, but she hated the feeling of guilt associated with that enjoyment.
“Let me pay the bill; then, I’ll walk you to your car.” Paul paused, then asked, “How about I come by the hospital and buy you a cup of coffee tomorrow?”
“My car is parked across the street, but coffee is out of the question,” she said, “The ER will be busy, and we don’t have a set break time. Sometimes, we don’t even take a break or lunch. So no, but thanks for the offer.”
“I’ll give you a call then. And if possible, stop by to check on how you’re doing later in the week. I promise not to be a stranger. Nate wouldn’t like me deserting you. It’s the least I can do for him. Besides, if something needs to be repaired, I’m good at fixing things. So call if anything breaks.” He stood as Hannah rose and picked up her purse.
“Good to know,” she said. “There’s always some problem needing to be resolved at an old house.” After a brief smile, she leaned over and hugged Paul, and started to walk away, turned back, and said, “It’s been great seeing you again. Thanks’ for dinner.”
“My pleasure,” he said, and took her hand. “I’m here for you, Hannah. How about I come by later this coming week? We could have coffee someplace, maybe visit the museum downtown and see the latest exhibit, or go for a walk around town? Getting out of the house will do you good.”
“I’ll think about it,” she said and left Paul sitting at the table with a smile on his face while Nate remained at the table.
When the waiter brought the check, Paul pulled a credit card from a wallet and presented it to the employee. The bill was almost a hundred and twenty five-five dollars. A lot to spend on dinner, but a good investment in the long run. The waiter took the card to the register and returned at once.
“Sorry, Sir, it was declined.”
Red-faced, Paul pulled out another card and said, “Split the charges between these two. It’ll go through then.”
The man did as Paul requested, returning with the two receipts for his signature. Decidedly, it was a good thing the gratuity was added to the bill, as he wasn’t about to leave a tip. All the way to the car, Paul kept muttering low, “Soon, dammit, this type of shit won’t be a problem.”
After his old friend paid the bill, Nate followed as every survival instinct was setting off alarm bells. Paul slid behind the wheel of a small red Mazda MX-5 Miata parked down the street from the Beach Club. Before the vehicle pulled away from the curb, Nate was in the passenger seat.
The time was 11:55 P.M., as Paul sped east toward the small town of Gulfport, bordering St. Petersburg and Boca Ciega Bay. The population, when Nate had gone to Afghanistan, was a little over twelve thousand. From what he saw as they traveled along the beachfront, Gulfport was now a thriving small town with clean beaches, an art community, and several new restaurants.
Paul drove along Shore Boulevard to a small, but well maintained, bungalow off Fifty-Seventh Street, which faced a parking lot and the beach. After stopping in the driveway, he unlocked the front door of the house and entered, followed by Nate, then walked as quietly as possible to the bedroom to undress. The outside streetlight cuts the darkness in the room enough to show a woman lying curled on her side, face hidden in shadow. As he eased down on the mattress, she muttered a groggy, “You’re back.”
Paul pulled her body against his and whispered in one ear as she came awake. After gently pushing her down onto the bed, he said, “It’s a go, baby, it’s a go. We’re going to be rich.” Paul said and stripped off his clothes and lay down beside the woman.
Nate stared at the dark forms on the bed. What the hell did Paul mean they were going to be rich, and it was a go? What the hell was “it”? Did it have anything to do with Hannah? Nate was left to hide in the shadows as a brief ray of light caught a mass of long blonde hair. The woman snuggled close against Paul and muttered as she drifted back to sleep, “That’s great. Rich is better than being poor. But we’ll need to get that necklace. Now go to sleep.”
Everyone stay safe and remember, NEVER GIVE UP, NEVER SURRENDER.