June 6, early a.m.
Sarra was dreaming. In the dream, she was a little girl, and the combination of hot sand and the smell of brine permeated the breeze off the water. Some sea gulls winged along the beach, while others appeared motionless, riding the air currents high overhead. She pointed to the waves lapping at the shore where sandpipers scurried along the water’s edge before a great stone castle. Oh, how she wanted to play in the water with her bucket and shovel.
Beside her, a beautiful dark-haired woman shook her head, and then she spoke to an older boy who was standing next to them. Kneeling, the woman hugged them, kissed first the boy, then her cheek. Love was a warm, safe cocoon within her arms.
Suddenly the dream changed. All the warmth and sunlight faded as the woman walked away. There was only the boy. . . Another pair of arms was holding her hard, tight. She struggled, but they were too strong. Then, she wasn’t a child any more. A man with dead shark eyes and an evil leer towered over her, pinning her down on a bed.
Sarra Gray bolted upright, breathless, fists clenched, her skin cold and clammy.
Dream. . . she thought in a panic, it was a dream. It was the same old nightmare which had been part of her sleep for as long as she could remember. Each time, she reacted as if it was the first, waking violently, then fighting to catch her breath and slow the pounding of her heart.
Since leaving Kentucky, the dream had changed. Now, she dreamed about the woman first, then that whole sequence slid into, and was shattered by, the hideous entrapment of her night of terror; the night when she had learned how brutal and vicious a man could be. Whenever she allowed herself to relax a little, to begin to feel safe or secure, the horror she had experienced years ago took over from the first dream to twist and pervert it. It was a warning that her assailant was still free. Once again, that nightmare had interrupted her sleep, and now she sat in bed, tense and uneasy.
Around her, the house was quiet. But her senses still tingled. Across the hall a nightlight in the bathroom gave off a faint glow. Otherwise her room was dark. She sat still, listening. She could hear nothing unusual. There was something though. . . She could feel it. The back of her neck felt tight, as though she was being watched.
Quietly, furtively, she got out of bed and padded barefoot through the house ignoring the chill from the air conditioning on her bare arms and legs. She hugged her purple satin nightshirt closer around her. First, she checked the bedroom where her daughter, Amanda, and Sarra’s best friend, Pearl Ann Burke, slept in twin beds. The windows were locked and both of the room’s occupants were sound asleep.
She paused to gaze at the sleeping woman and child. They were the most important people in her whole world. Pearl Ann had given her shelter, unconditional love and support many years ago when she had no place to hide, and no one to help her. Her past life had been built on a web of lies and secrets.
Sarra dreaded even the idea of having the woman she called Gran learn the truth about her previous life, let alone what she had been forced to do to survive years ago.
In Madison, Kentucky, she had found anonymity because Pearl Ann had given her a new identity by claiming she was a distant relative from New York. For eleven years Sarra had loved her new life, had loved the small town and its friendly residents. The big old, three-story wood framed house with its wrap-around porch had been a real home. Pearl Ann had made it so, and for Sarra it was the first true home she had ever known. After Amanda was born, the three of them had become a family, with Pearl Ann sharing the care of her daughter. To Pearl Ann, having lost her husband to cancer and with her daughter long missing as an untraceable runaway, the baby had given new meaning to her life. Over the years, as they had grown closer, they had filled a void in one another.
Sarra knew she had changed greatly during those years. A largely illiterate young girl, under Pearl Ann’s tutelage, she had gotten her GED, and then attended and graduated from college. She had made something of herself. But it was her growing reputation as a small town portrait artist that had led two killers to their doorstep. As a surprise, her painting, The Fallen Madonna, had been submitted to a portrait artists’ contest in New York by Pearl Ann. That simple, thoughtful act had been their downfall. It had forced them to flee for their lives.
After that, Sarra had finally told Pearl Ann that she had been a witness to a murder and that the killers were still after her. When Gran had insisted she go to the police, she had refused, too afraid to tell the complete truth, saying that the police couldn’t protect her. So, they had traveled south to escape. Here, Sarra prayed fervently, they had a chance to be safe, for a while anyway.
Her nerves still ragged, Sarra tiptoed out of the bedroom and left the door cracked. Amanda hated a dark room. So did she. She moved on to check all the windows and doors. In the dining room, she stepped to the side door and flipped the light switch for the garage to peer through the diamond-shaped window. It was empty also. She even checked the bathroom, at which point she knew she was being silly. No one was hiding in the bathroom. But, she could not relax until every nook and cranny in the house had been checked. All was quiet. Still. . . which, for some reason, made her tension worse.
The spare bedroom was empty as well, except for her wooden artist’s easel, a large box filled with canvases and a small table stacked with tubes of oil paints and jars filled with brushes. Still feeling paranoid, she even opened the door to the large closet and turned on the light. There was no one there either. She checked the front and back doors again, feeling a fraction safer as she returned to bed.
She would have a busy day tomorrow in the Bay Memorial Emergency Room, where she was employed as a Registration Clerk. Without enough sleep, Sarra knew she would be dragging by noon. The bedside alarm clock read four-thirty, she noted with disgust. She had to be at work by seven. She turned off the light and closed her eyes, but sleep refused to come. From a distance she heard the faint sound of a siren and wondered if it was an ambulance on the way to the hospital.
Day after day at her job, she witnessed disasters, including the cruelty people inflicted on one another. What affected her most were the abused children, helpless victims brought in who had bruises, burns, fractured bones or internal injuries. The medical staff could tell when the welts, swelling and burns or abrasions were inflicted by the parents or relatives. In such cases, the police were immediately called in to investigate. Sarra wondered why some women had bothered to have children.
She forced those thoughts from her mind and tried to fall back to sleep. After tossing and turning for the next forty minutes, she gave up, threw the blankets aside and headed for the shower. Afterwards, dressed in her uniform of a navy suit and white blouse, she slipped on her matching pumps. After leaving a note for Pearl Ann about dinner, she grabbed her purse and headed for the door, locking it carefully behind her as she left.
In keeping with the current heat wave, the sun was already cooking the morning air and blazing above the horizon as Sarra drove north to work. The tourist traffic was as heavy and fast as always, but as she drove past it, she slowed a little to glance at the early light skipping across Egret Lake. The lake attracted numerous species of Florida’s water birds. This morning its surface was like polished glass that reflected the puffy clouds floating in the blue sky. A great blue heron and one graceful white egret stood poised and still at the shore’s edge, waiting for breakfast to swim close enough to spear. Two knobby eyes and a long snout floated on the glassy surface a short distance, away an alligator eyeing the birds. Life was a cruel cycle, she thought as she drove on toward the hospital.
On reaching the employees’ garage, she parked on the fourth floor, and then joined Addie Newsome for the block-long walk to the ER. The hospital was a Level II Trauma center. The emergency room’s central work station, surrounded with circular, waist-high, white wooden counters, cabinets, desks and chairs, had the latest computer equipment, and screens for tracking patients. It was always crowded with nurses and doctors writing notes on charts or ordering tests, while others hurried back and forth carrying out orders. The one constant factor was the noise, comprised of the low roar of voices, beeping machines, radio calls, rushing people and the on-and-off sound of approaching sirens.
Sarra was required to know the name and location of every examination room and cubicles in the ER. Her job was to obtain information on each patient. This data had to be taken down fast, and entered in the computer system, with a chart printed and delivered to the secretary as quickly as possible. Some days, it was as if the ambulance drivers were in a race to see who could bring in the most patients. The dregs of humanity, as well as the best, came through the ER doors. She had realized that fact after two days on the job.
Upon arrival in the ER, a quick trip to the lounge for a cup of coffee was essential. As she settled at her desk, Sarra noticed a number of uniformed police officers standing outside Trauma Room A, while another man in a white shirt hurried out the automatic glass doors. The set of the man’s shoulders reminded her vaguely of someone, but she had no idea who. He was probably one of the doctors on staff at the hospital, she thought, and then wondered what poor soul was now being worked on in Trauma. From the looks of things, it was already a busy day.
Another three hectic hours passed. The paramedics brought in a young man with a knife wound running from the left corner of his mouth almost to his ear. The bandage pressed to his face was soaked with blood. Sarra filled out the emergency sheet with information obtained from the driver’s license and insurance card from his wallet. Turning to go, she almost ran into a doctor in green scrubs.
“Excuse me,” she said and hurried back to her cubicle to enter the patient information into the computer. Within minutes, she rushed the printed chart to the Unit Clerk. She returned to her desk, checked the clock, and prepared to go on her coffee break. As she walked past the surgical room where the injured man now lay on a bed, she stopped and stared at the doctor working on the facial wound of the patient. This was the first time she had seen this surgeon in the ER, although all she could see was a partial view of his face and a mass of curly dark hair above wide shoulders. He sat at the bedside, stitching the slash on the man’s face.
As if feeling her gaze on him, he looked up and stared at her with widening eyes. Then his skin paled above the surgical mask. Sarra started. The doctor was acting as if he recognized her. That was impossible, she thought. She had never been in Half Moon Bay before and did not know anyone other than Addie and her next-door neighbor Barbara. Maybe she was overreacting and the surgeon just did not like anyone disturbing him as he worked. Perhaps that was it. She turned and hurried away, anxious to be out of his line of sight. Sarra was well aware that trauma doctors could be temperamental at times.
Fifteen minutes later, she returned from the cafeteria to find the same doctor seated in one of the typing chairs. He stood up when she walked through the door. Oh God, she thought, I’m in trouble.
“I thought I was seeing a ghost,” he said stepping toward her, staring. “But you’re real. I can’t believe this!” He fidgeted, clearly excited. “This can’t really be happening, but you’re here.”
Sarra eyed the man warily, edging around him, trying to decide if he was crazy or just mistaking her for someone else. He was a good-looking man, handsome enough to be a movie star or a model, the sort that would tempt most women to feign an illness just to be seen by him.
“Can I help you in some way?” she asked carefully, frowning.
“Er, yes, you certainly can! Will you have coffee with me so we can talk?” He gave her a sudden, radiant smile that would have enthralled many a patient.
Sarra did not trust anyone who looked that good in blood-stained scrubs, and she certainly was not about to trust this stranger. “I just came back from break. I can’t go again. Thank you just the same,” she said briskly. It was a legitimate evasion. But, she had to wonder why he was acting so delighted to see her? She was certain that they had never met. She started to sit down, but he grabbed her arm and turned her to face him again, deadly serious now.
“You don’t understand. It’s important that we talk,” he insisted, keeping a firm grip on her wrist, as if afraid she’d run away.
Sarra immediately pried his fingers loose and fought to keep both her fear and anger in check. “Doctor, I really have to get back to work,” she told him sharply. “If you insist, we can talk while I’m working.”
Undeterred, he glanced around the small office, at the watching eyes and pricked ears of coworkers and patients. “No,” he said. “We have to talk in private. Look, can you come to my house for dinner tonight?”
Relieved, Sarra gave him an understanding smile. Ever since starting to work at the hospital, she had been hit on by male nurses, paramedics and even some of the police officers, but this was the first doctor. She gave him the same answer she had used on the others. “Well, Doctor, I must admit you have a new approach in asking for a date, but I’m busy tonight.” She turned away and called out the name of the next patient. A moment later, a large woman in a flowered print dress sat down in the chair at the counter.
Behind her, the doctor’s voice rose in frustration. “Look, I’m not asking for a date, damn it! I’m a married man.” He yanked a prescription pad from his shirt pocket and scribbled something, tore off the sheet and handed it to Sarra. “It’s really important. I need to talk to you! Here, I have patients to see and I don’t have time to explain further. That’s my home address. Please, I beg you, be at my house at seven. My wife, Helen, will be there in case you’re worried. This is vital,” he paused to catch his breath. “I’m gambling that you’ll show up out of curiosity. Seriously, we have a lot to discuss.” He walked out the door, leaving Sarra standing with a piece of paper in her hand and her mouth gaping open.
She almost started after him to tell him she would not be accepting his dinner invitation, but he had already disappeared through the exit doors. Slowly taking her seat, she glanced at the slender redhead who was grinning at her from the next desk. “What are you smiling about, Addie?”
Addie Newsome was the only other woman outside of Pearl Ann that Sarra felt was a friend. While she, Sarra, was reserved even with the patients, Addie was open and friendly with everyone. From the social derelicts dragged in by the police to those dressed in designer clothes, it didn’t matter, it was her job to ease their anxiety, and she did so superbly. A tall slender woman, with big brown eyes, an easy manner, and a wide grin, she was striking, rather than beautiful, and she was good at her job. She had put Sarra at ease from the first day they met. Now they worked side by side in the same registration section.
Occasionally, they ventured out together to the Den, a dimly lit piano bar on Beach Drive, to hear Addie’s friend Sandy sing and play. Pearl Ann had insisted Sarra needed to “get out, enjoy some music, relax and laugh for a change.” It was true, she did enjoy herself. Besides, Addie was fun to be around. At the moment, she was beaming.
“Well?” Sarra demanded.
If it was possible, Addie’s grin widened. “I’m just surprised at Straight Laced Corbett, that’s all. I’ve worked here for over nine years, and you’re the first woman I’ve seen him take a tumble over. You have no idea how many women here have the hot’s for Doctor Gene Corbett.”
“You’re wrong Addie,” Sarra frowned, recalling his insistent invitation and wondering why she’d never seen him around before. “He said his wife would be at home, so he can’t be after me that way.” Her mind raced with questions. Why did the good doctor feel a talk was so vital? About what? He was right though, she was curious, she admitted, but she wasn’t stupid enough to risk everything by going to some stranger’s house.
“Yeah, I heard what he said.” Addie gave her a knowing grin before turning her attention to the man who stood with a bloody rag wrapped around his hand in front of her desk.
Sarra stuffed the piece of paper with the doctor’s address in her skirt pocket and returned to work. All too soon she was caught up in the fast paced routine of the emergency room as ambulance after ambulance rolled in with all sorts of trauma cases, broken bones, heart attacks, car accidents, and the odd gunshot wound. At noon, she grabbed a quick lunch, the doctor and his request forgotten. By three-thirty, she was more than ready to scrub the sweat of a hard day from her tired body.
After their shift ended, on the way to the parking garage, Sarra pulled the slip of paper from her pocket and read the address. She handed it to Addie and asked, “Where is this street?”
Addie read the address and let out a soft whistle. “That, girlfriend, is one of the prime sections of Half Moon Bay! That’s what they call the “pink streets” north of the Castle just off the Point. It’s an older section of town with those big fancy homes on the water. You have to have lots of money to live there.”
Sarra arched an eyebrow. “So, Dr. Corbett is wealthy, is he?”
“If it was me, I wouldn’t have to even think about it. I’d go and hope he hated his wife. That man is gorgeous, with those piercing hazel eyes and that thick curly black hair. And that mouth of his! I could kiss that mouth forever! He positively gives me shivers,” Addie said, grinning wickedly.
Sarra laughed at her friend and shook her head. “My Gran says beauty is skin deep, but ugly goes all the way to the bone. I’d have to get to know him before I decide if I like him or not. Besides, married is married. I don’t want any part of that kind of mess,” she countered and frowned as she thought of how he seemed to have recognized her. How? She would not let curiosity draw her into a dangerous situation, or one she would live to regret. But, she had to wonder, what was so important?
There were times she wished she could be more like Addie, daring, able to live for the moment. But, it was impossible. She had to be wary of everything because the safety of her daughter and Pearl Ann depended upon it. She decided she would discuss the doctor’s invitation with Pearl Ann before making a decision.
Addie sensed her hesitation. “Oh, come on, Sarra. You could at least have dinner and find out what he has to say,” she persisted. “You could snoop for me and find out if he likes redheads.” Patting her dark red hair, Addie’s eyes danced with mischief. “Besides, I hear he’s unhappily married. His wife likes to throw temper tantrums. She’s thrown some good ones in the doctors’ lounge.”
“All right. I’ll think about it. I am curious about what he has to say. But, you’re dying to know about his wife and that house, aren’t you? You’ve worked here nine years and he’s been on staff at the hospital all that time?” Sarra asked as they entered the elevator and rode up.
“He’s been on staff for eight years, for sure. He’s a trauma surgeon. Don’t see him around much, though, only when there’s a patient with major injuries. He hasn’t been in on our shift for quite some time until today. I’ve been lusting after that gorgeous body of his for each and every one of those years! I know he is a Florida native,” she continued as they exited on the fourth floor of the garage. “He was born and raised in Half Moon Bay. So, please, for me, go find out if he’s unhappily married or not.”
As Sarra unlocked the door to the Camaro, Addie continued on toward her vehicle, then stopped, turned and called out. “Call me later and let me know if you go.”
Sarra waved, climbed in and started the car. The Camaro did not have an air conditioner, so by the time she pulled into the driveway, a cooling shower was all she could think about. She did not want to think about the doctor or his invitation.
Five months ago, she and Pearl Ann had rented the house within a week after arriving in Half Moon Bay. It was perfect. Set on a quiet side street off the main artery of Ninth Street, the house was only five miles from the hospital. The branches of four tall oak trees created a canopy of shade over the front yard, offering relief from the blazing sun and tropical heat.
The backyard was fenced with a concrete block wall topped with another three feet of white stockade wood fencing. The gate was fastened with a hooked latch, low and out of reach from outside. All this afforded privacy and a certain amount of security. In the center of the yard, a lattice-covered stone patio was sheltered by a giant maple and two other oak trees. Large pots of geraniums, impatiens and asparagus ferns lined the patio to add vivid color to the lush green of the lawn. A passion vine with deep blue flowers climbed one corner patio post and spread across part of the lattice roof. On the opposite corner, a black-eyed Susan vine, with its deep gold, black-centered flowers, wound up the post and across to merge with the other plant.
Watching two squirrels chasing each other around the trunk of the maple tree and listening to a mockingbird’s song had made them relax. The quiet serenity of the walled garden had offered a momentary peace. Breathing the spicy scent of jasmine in the air, this, they had decided, was the house for them. Sarra had signed the papers for a year, paid for three months’ rent in cash, and the realtor had happily turned over the keys that afternoon.
The house had three bedrooms, two baths, a large kitchen and dining room, with a long living room next to what Floridians called a Florida room. Once, it had been a screened porch that had been converted into an enclosed room with large windows. The house had been cleaned, freshly painted, and was unfurnished. For the first week, they had slept on air mattresses they purchased at Wal-Mart. Garage sales provided an odd collection of furniture, including a used sofa, a recliner and, a small kitchen table with mismatched chairs. They had improved the inexpensive pieces by adding bright gold and orange pillows, and then had added faux wood slat blinds and sheer curtains to the windows to shield the interior from the intense sun. Area rugs now hid the terrazzo floor.
Sarra had wanted the house to be as homey as possible. The masonry block building with its vaulted ceilings and simple design could never replace their Kentucky home, but for now, anyway, it was a decent and safe place to live. The only other mandatory purchases had been quality mattresses on twin-size metal frames. Pearl Ann had insisted on sharing the largest room with Amanda, while Sarra took the other, mid-sized room, as her bedroom, and had turned the smallest room into her art studio. They had left the walls bare except for her one painting, The Fallen Madonna, which now hung above the living room sofa.
It was a self-portrait, started when she was pregnant with Amanda and finished after her child’s birth. It had been a Christmas present for Pearl Ann. The background was of overlapping diamonds of color from black along the outside edges that morphed into assorted purples, lavenders, and various shades of pink and finally became a soft white that surrounded and backlit the figures of a mother and child dressed in soft rose gowns. Of all the commissioned portraits she had done in Madison, this, she believed, was her finest work.
It was easier to blend in and disappear among the denser, more populous and much larger town of Half Moon Bay, where thousands of people were crowded onto the peninsula, than it had been in Madison. They were just three more snow birds who had moved south to get away from the frigid northern winters. Since their main income consisted of Pearl Ann’s Social Security check, the last of their savings had been growing short. It had become necessary for Sarra to find a job.
Other than her daughter and Pearl Ann, painting was Sarra’s passion. She didn’t want a career, just a job she could leave quickly, if and when necessary. With her limited office skills, Sarra had been lucky to land a job at Bay Memorial Hospital. The pay was standard for the area, low, but between her salary and Pearl Ann’s check, they would not starve. If their situation were to become desperate, there were other assets she had tucked away in that old flight bag for an emergency.
Sarra knew that in this town, she could not use her art to supplement their income. Even though her portfolio was extensive, she could not risk it. Her artistic ability was what had sent them on the run. She had not touched a brush to canvas since they had arrived, and hated not being able to paint. That had to change. She could do the paintings she longed to do, and do them for herself. It was her stress outlet. Even if she never exhibited her work, she needed to paint. There were portraits of Amanda and Pearl Ann she wanted to paint; one portrait in particular she badly wanted to try.
Tucked away, her sketch books were filled with drawings of Kentucky landscapes and familiar faces. There was one face that she had sketched over and over until she knew every plane and angle and nuance. His image haunted her dreams. Too often she had wondered about the young man she had met all those years ago, on her night of terror. He was probably married with children, happy and content with his life. Sometimes she had even allowed herself to fantasize about him, imagining that she was his wife and Amanda was his child. But, fairy tales did not have a place in her life. Wondering what might have been did not change the facts. Thoughts like those only left her feeling desolate inside.
Their lives had touched so briefly, and then had gone in different directions, lost moments that could not be recaptured. “Put the past behind you,” Pearl Ann was fond of saying. It was good advice, and Sarra tried to follow it. But, she also knew from bitter experience that sometimes the past refused to stay buried.
As the days passed, they had developed a routine. Knowing it was a strange town and that children left alone were vulnerable, Sarra kept Amanda close to home. She would watch television or play with the little girl next door. As for herself, Sarra knew a few coworkers. Except for Addie, she did not make any effort to extend her circle of acquaintances. She minded her own business and kept that business to herself. That was the general idea, anyway. Now some doctor she didn’t know wanted her to come to his house for some sort of important discussion. It frightened her.
The house seemed too quiet when she entered. There was a message taped to the refrigerator from Pearl Ann saying she was taking Amanda to buy new shoes. Sarra smiled. She loved being a mother and having Pearl Ann with her, but there was never a moment for herself. She didn’t want a lot of time, just an occasion such as this one, when she had the house all to herself so she could enjoy some peace and quiet. Pearl Ann must have sensed that need today and decided to give her a break.
After locking the door, she stripped off her clothes and dropped them across a wicker chair on her way to the bathroom. She showered and washed her hair, thankful for her natural curl. The Florida humidity, however, made it curl more than usual. Quickly drying her hair with the blow dryer, she donned her pink terry cloth robe as protection against the blast of frigid air blowing down the hallway from the vent in the ceiling. She had time for a short nap, she decided, and yawned. Stretching out on the bed, she wrapped the spread around her and closed her eyes.