Tag Archives: revenge



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.



June 6, early morning

For Northern tourists, Half Moon Bay was a haven from winter snow and ice.  Fourteen miles wide, the peninsula was attached to Florida’s mainland by a natural land barrier called Raider’s Bridge.  During September and October, the population doubled from fifty to one hundred thousand or more.  Also famous for its white sandy beaches, it offered easy access to all the tourist spots from Orlando to the Florida Keys.

The Bay, as the locals call it, was an easy town to navigate.  All the avenues ran east and west and streets north and south.  Lined with palm trees, white wrought iron lamp posts and benches placed under shady oak trees, Central Avenue cut through the downtown area from the Bay to the Gulf.

Central Avenue also divided the wealthy from the working class.  On the north side, the wealthy residents lived on erotically named streets such as Le Cafe’ Boulevard, the Isle of Shells, Treasure Lane, and Captain’s Row.  The houses began in price from a paltry nine hundred thousand and went up from there.

Celebrities regularly came to perform at the Arts Center, but if they wanted to party, it was at Crooks Castle.  The big pink hotel had the best rooms, dining, dancing and was close to the Performing Arts Center.  Legend had it that the original builder was the second son of an English Duke who had turned to piracy to make his fortune, then settled in Florida and built his fortress on the Gulf.  The building had been a private home, a hotel, and stood empty for too many years until it became an eyesore for the town.  Luckily a wealthy investor purchased the building and all the land including the marina.  Currently, it had been successively refurbished and converted back into a pricey hotel, with extensive additions to the north side.

South of Central, where the local working class residents lived, the homes were compact masonry ranch style dwellings with two or three bedrooms and were substantially less expensive.  The streets were lined with oaks, poor man’s orchid, crepe myrtles or other exotic flowering trees.

Some parts of town were not so nice.  On Highland Street, in the poorer section, there was an abandoned, two-story derelict monster where rotting drapes prevented the sunshine from penetrating the shadows of a dank interior.  The heavy odors of dust and mildew emanated from the building like the smell of rotten food.  Outside, the front yard was a jungle of weeds that grew around an old refrigerator that had been dumped next to a rusting Pontiac parked in an unkempt gravel driveway.  A dirt path led from the rickety front porch steps, past a rotting clothesline to an equally overgrown rear yard that backed up to a deep drainage ditch.

Dawn was barely breaking across the hot morning sky when Homicide Detective Jarrett Blackwell parked his restored 1976, burgundy El Camino truck behind a new gold Toyota Camry.  The Camry belonged to Harvey Coleman, the Medical Examiner.  He could see the big man through his front windshield and wondered how Harvey’s short three hundred and twenty-five pound bulk was handling the heat and the humidity.  Not too well, from the looks of the underarms of his white, short sleeve shirt, the sweat stains clearly visible.  Harvey’s tan trousers looked just as rumpled.

The M.E. stood resting his thick forearms on the open car door of the Toyota.  As a white and red striped ambulance pulled up and parked behind the El Camino, Harvey closed his car door and turned to wait for Jarrett.

Six blue and white police vehicles were parked at the end of the street behind a red Fire Rescue truck.  Yellow crime scene tape had already been put up to mark off the large overgrown triangular lot.  Tall cabbage palms lined the street side of the lot, and a large oak tree-shaded the front of the house.  No breeze at all.

Jarrett saw a familiar black Chevy sedan parked in front of Harvey’s car.  He glanced around but did not see any sign of his six-foot-four partner.  Caruso Jones must be canvassing the neighborhood for other witnesses and information.

“Is Forensics on the way?” Jarrett called as he got out of the vehicle and then retrieved his large yellow flashlight from behind the driver’s seat.  “Damn it,” he muttered.  Was there ever going to be a break from the heat, even at this hour of the morning?

The odor of wood smoke permeated the morning air, at times strong enough to burn the insides of his nostrils.  He was not sure if the smell was from a local fire or a carryover from other fires that kept erupting up and down the state.  The drought was so bad that the Governor had banned all sales or individual use of firecrackers for the entire state, other than for specific scheduled Fourth of July events.  Florida’s west coast had been lucky so far, but Jarrett had plenty of other problems to keep him focused.  Young girls were turning up dead, one each month since January.  So far, they had few leads and the bodies kept piling up.

He removed his jacket and tossed the garment on the front seat.  After stripping off his tie, he unbuttoned the top two buttons of his white cotton shirt.  Sweat had beaded on his back and now was trickling down to soak the waistband of his lightweight tan slacks.  Even his deck shoes felt hot on his feet.

“Forensics is here.” Harvey said as Jarrett joined him.  “They’re down in the ditch with the body, and the paramedics just got here.  I was waiting for you to show up before I take a closer look.  I didn’t want to chance falling down that bank.”  Harvey added with a chuckle, “Don’t think you or the boys are in the mood to haul my ass back up!”

“No, I don’t need to give myself a hernia, Harvey!  Besides, it’s too damn hot to be hauling anyone up from some ditch.  What have you got so far?” Jarrett asked, slapping at a mosquito buzzing around his face.

“I have the crime scene unit snapping pictures, taking video and checking for evidence.  It’s a bad one.  The girl looks to be between fourteen and sixteen.”  His tone changed.  “Her face looks like ground hamburger, Jarrett.”

“How many more young girls have to die before we catch this bastard?” Jarrett muttered.

“So far, the patrolman who was first on the scene has thrown up three times,” Harvey said with relish.  “I think this is his first body.”

Jarrett gave him a dirty look.  “What are you doing here, Harvey?  You rarely come to a crime scene.”

“I just happened to be over at Bay Memorial when the call came over the radio.  Thought I’d come see you guys in action, so to speak.”  He changed the subject.  “Heard you took a trip to Kentucky.  Was it related to this case?”

“No, just a personal matter.”  Jarrett shrugged off the question.  “Who’s the Reporting Officer?” he asked.  He would never discuss anything personal with a gossip like Harvey.  Everyone in the department would know his business within hours.  Besides, it had been a wasted trip.

“Johnson called it in, but didn’t touch anything.  It was hard to see her at first. So he aimed his flashlight beam over the bank, and then proceeded to throw up.”  Harvey said, slapping at a mosquito biting his neck.  “According to the kid, the old woman who made the call said she was up and heard a car door slam.”  He pointed in the direction of a one-story masonry house next door that was in desperate need of repair and a paint job.  “She said it sounded as if it was in front of her house.  At three in the morning that worried her, because she knew this house was vacant, having been foreclosed on.  So she left the lights off and peeked out the front windows.  That’s when she saw a big dark car parked in front of this rat trap.

“No one she knows in this block owns a big shiny car like that.  Then, she sees someone haul this big bundle out of the trunk and carry it around the back of this house.  She couldn’t see too clearly because it was so dark, and she didn’t have her glasses on.  Anyway, she thinks it was a man. . .  She goes back to bed and gets up two hours later to let her cat out.  The big car is gone, but she gets this bad feeling that something bad had happened.  So she called the police.  Better late than never, I guess.  Anyway, her backyard runs parallel to this one,” he added.

Jarrett spotted several uniformed officers standing in a group near the front of the house.  Across Ninth Street, he could see television trucks parked near the intersection with their antennas stretched high above the street.  Like vultures, the reporters had heard the call over the police band and now hovered, eager for a glimpse of a body, or an interview with a cop about the crime, trying to get a jump on the story.

He didn’t like reporters, and with good reason.  After his mother’s murder, they had made his and his father’s life miserable with their relentless and invasive pursuit.  Knowing it was futile he hoped they would go away.  But, they rarely did.

The fat man started walking behind the paramedics across the damp grass.  “Let’s go see what we got.”

Jarrett followed, pointing the flashlight beam ahead, trying not to destroy evidence they might miss in the near dark.  They stopped at a spot near the crest of the trench.  From what could be seen in the light’s beam, the victim appeared to be a nude young girl.  As Harvey had said, she was young and appeared fragile, a small, skinny little thing.  She had been dumped at the bank’s edge and rolled into the ditch.  Grass stems bent in one direction showed the path the body had taken down the slope.  Her descent had been stopped by a bush ten feet down the steep embankment.

The girl lay on her stomach, her upper back to her waist partially hidden by green branches.  Two paramedics carefully made their way down the bank and moved to bend over her checking for vital signs.

Jarrett pointed the light at her head.  The left side of her face was visible, and even he had to fight the bile rising in his throat.  From what he could see of her profile, her face was badly beaten and resembled ground meat just as Harvey had described.  A great black bruise surrounded the left eye and there were wounds heavily clotted with blood and dirt high up on the cheek.  Her mouth was so swollen it was difficult to tell what was left of her lips.

Rage rushed through him.  The kind of animals that killed and robbed young girls of their innocence deserved the same kind of bloody fate, he thought.  And, just as infuriating, cops spent countless hours busting their butts to solve such cases, only to see many of the criminals walk away on some minor technicality or through a plea bargain.  For those who received a prison sentence, jail time was a comparatively easy trip.  He felt that the punishment should fit the crime, especially in cases involving children.  However, that was not up to him and never would be.  All he could do was track down the monsters who committed these atrocities and leave the punishment to the courts.

Jarrett knew the system was far from perfect.  His own father’s death had proven that.  Anger still raged inside him over the injustice of that whole mess and the waste of his father’s life.  He kept it tightly locked down where it festered deep inside.  But at times like these it took all his strength to maintain his control.

He had become a cop so that he could do everything in his power to stop such insane brutality.  But, far too often, some sadistic bastard shoved it in his face, and then, at times, he was forced to watch the perpetrator walk free.  The only way he could help this child now was to find her killer and enough evidence to nail him down.  He backed up a few paces and took a deep breath to cap his temper and clear his head.

In front of him, Harvey squatted on the lip of the ditch and tried to make a visual inspection from there.  The M.E. was trying hard not to lose his balance and disturb the crime scene by falling over the wooden rail and rolling down the bank.  Flashes from the photographer’s camera blinded him for a second.

“Ah, damn.  I can’t see a thing,” Harvey yelled, blinking as spots danced before his eyes, aware that he would have to wait to fix the exact time of death.  Even with the sun coming up, he was having trouble seeing.  “Son of a bitch,” he exclaimed and huffed as he pushed upright and stood rubbing his eyes.  He picked his way to where Jarrett waited.  “Her face is pretty mangled, which may make identification difficult.  I can’t say definitely until I get her on the table and, from this distance, I can only guess, but I’ll bet she was strangled and raped just like the others.  She’s young like they were.”

Taking his handkerchief from his pocket, Harvey mopped the sweat from his eyes and beefy face and then blew his nose.  “It’s a piss poor world anymore, Jarrett, when children are brutalized and tossed away like so much garbage.  It’s a damned perverted waste.”  He eyed Jarrett and shoved the handkerchief into his back pocket.  “As soon as I finish the autopsy, I’ll get the report to you.” Then, “God, I wish we’d get a break from this heat.”  He patted Jarrett on the shoulder and started to walk toward the road, then stopped.  “How many does this one make?”

“She’s the seventh, assuming she’s connected to the other cases,” Jarrett told him harshly, scowling.  Even one body was one too many.  Seven young girls, between the ages of fourteen and sixteen had been abducted, molested, beaten and murdered.  Each had been someone’s daughter and, from what they’d been able to piece together, likely runaways and an easy target for a predator.  The girls had believed they were streetwise and safe.  Sooner or later, too many such kids frequently turned up as rape, overdose or homicide victims.  It pissed him off.  He was no closer to finding the killer today, with this girl, than he was with the first one.  And they could have been, if the woman next door had promptly called the police.

As Harvey continued walking towards his vehicle, Jarrett stayed to watch as the two paramedics continued to work on the body.  One of the men straightened, removed the stethoscope from the girl’s back, and looked at his partner with a puzzled expression.  “I have a faint heart beat,” he shouted.  Then, barely audible, a faint moan came from between her torn and swollen lips.  They all stopped, stunned, as a weak breath was gasped from the bloody mouth.

“My God, she’s still alive!”  One of the technicians called into his radio.  “We have a live one here.  Get down here with a stretcher, fast!”  He yelled.  “She’s alive, but not for long.  There’s a pulse, faint, but a pulse.  We have to transport now or we’ll lose her.”

Jarrett stepped aside as the ambulance driver and police officers raced to the aid of the paramedics with a Stokes basket stretcher and ropes.  Once they had the victim safely secured and up the steep incline, the EMT yelled ahead to the ambulance driver.  “Call Bay Memorial and tell them we’re on the way.”  The two men raced with the girl to the waiting ambulance where needed equipment waited.

Jarrett’s stomach lurched and knotted strangely as he caught a glimpse of long dark hair.  “My God, it can’t be!” he whispered.  “She’d be older, surely. . . .“  He shook his head to dispel the surge of dread, the sudden feeling that he was seeing . . .  “Harvey!” he shouted, and ran to stop the fat man from leaving.  “The girl just made a noise.  I don’t know how, but she’s still alive.  They’re taking her to Bay Memorial.  I’ll meet you there,” he yelled at the lowered window.

Harvey stared at him for a moment.  “My God, you’re kidding me!  I can’t believe it!  What luck!”  He grinned quickly.  “Okay, I’ll see you there.”  Starting his engine, Harvey pulled out behind the ambulance as it sped away.

Jarrett hurried to his own vehicle then followed Harvey to the emergency room entrance.  Arriving several minutes after the ambulance, they stepped into a wild scene as nurses and doctors rushed the stretcher into the Trauma Room just inside the automatic doors.

The doctor, a tall man with dark curly hair, dressed in green scrubs, his face obscured from view by a mask as he worked over the patient, was snapping out orders for IV’s, drugs and portable x-rays. As the medical staff sprang into action, the police officers and detectives were forced out of the room to stand outside the doors and wait.  This victim, Jarrett thought, could be their first break in a case that was giving them all ulcers and gray hairs.  All these months with relatively little evidence, here was their first real chance to stop the killings, if the girl survived.  If she did, could she identify her attacker?  All he could do now was wait and hope.

Other ambulances with patients arrived and were assigned to rooms.  Jarrett, unable to stand the waiting, stepped outside to catch a breath of fresh air.  He watched nurses, clerks and other personnel who were arriving for the morning shift change at seven.

This was the first time he had been to Bay Memorial’s Emergency Room since he had stopped dating one of the nurses who worked there.  His relationships were short affairs, mainly because he couldn’t bring himself to open up the way women seemed to want.  They dated him knowing he was, as he described himself, skeptical, reticent, and jaded.  Each one thought she could change him.  However, it was the woman who usually ended the affair after they reached a point where he could not, or would not become more deeply involved.

Jarrett stared at his surroundings without really seeing them, immersed in his thoughts.  He had believed in love once, had chased after it like the naive kid he had been.  It had proven to be an illusion that had cost him everything and everyone he cared about.  And, ever since then, he had refused to expose himself to that level of pain again.  That had not stopped him from dreaming of green eyes and a face that had driven him to what felt like the brink of a mad obsession.

It had happened eleven years ago at his parents’ Christmas party.  He had been young then and idealistically romantic.  He had had a beautiful fiancée and all the advantages of family wealth and close, devoted parents as well.  Then, he had watched as, coming up the steps near the front door of his father’s mansion on Long Island, New York, a young woman had slipped on the ice.  Because he had lunged to help, she had fallen into his arms.  The moment he had looked into those green eyes, he was lost.

Even after all these years, he vividly remembered the later image of her coming across the dance floor in a cream-colored, crocheted lace dress that had made his blood burn with desire.  From a distance, she had appeared nude beneath the dress.  All he had done during that particular party was to make an ass out of himself by following her from room to room.  Like an immature love struck school boy, he had pulled her aside and professed his love to a girl he did not know.  A stunning girl.  An illusion.  He had not known how evil she could be as he held her for a single dance.  That dance was followed by the destruction of all he had ever known.  That memory still tied his guts in knots.

Those experiences had not stopped his fantasies however.  Even now, at night, he still had dreams of the exotic, intoxicating fragrance of her, of long dark hair that made him wild with the desire to run his fingers through it, dreams of kissing her sensuous lips or making love to her.  Dreams in which he knew how her lips would taste and that her skin would feel like silk.

It was all nothing more than illusions.

He shook his head to dispel the images that fogged his brain and resurrected memories that were best kept buried since he couldn’t get rid of them.  Besides, Jarrett thought, he did not have time to get tangled up with anyone.  It was better to focus on the work at hand.  He and his partner had needed a break on this case and had finally gotten one.  Maybe the Captain and the Sergeant would get off their backs for a while and give them room to work.  The murders were considered a high-profile case and had generated a lot of public interest, so Captain Whitmore and Sergeant Angst were always pressing for the latest reports.

There had been little to go on until this morning.  The butchered and murdered girls always had long dark hair and pretty faces.  They were all teenagers, but their disappearances did not follow a set pattern.  Each had been abducted from a different location, at a different time on a different day of the month.  But, all had disappeared from Half Moon Bay.  Their bodies had been dumped in trash bins from one end of town all the way to the Bay, so far.  This girl was different.  Jarrett was not sure if this crime was connected to the others since this victim had been found in a ditch, but he would know soon enough.  Harvey, he knew, was good at his job.  He would take the information from the doctors and make a comparison to the other cases.  If there was a connection, the M.E. would find it.  Jarrett leaned back against the side of the building and took a deep breath.  He was thinking too deeply for this hour of the morning.

The sun was fully up, now.  It was not quite seven.  The steamy heat he could see rising from the pavement was caused by morning dew.  It was going to be another scorcher of a day, he thought.  He dreaded it, because the heat seemed to bring out the worst in people.  He would try to take a week off once this case was solved and the killer was securely behind bars or preferably dead.

He looked toward the Bay and watched the distant flashing of a white sail against the dark blue of the water.  Some people had all the luck, he thought, being out for a cool early morning run across the Bay then south to the Gulf of Mexico.  He missed sailing, especially those never forgotten daylong jaunts with his dad.

He shut his eyes, unable to avoid seeing, again, his last view of his father.  Matthew W. Blackwell, had been draped over the desk in his study with a small black hole in his right temple and a bright red bloody pool around his head.  He had died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound, believing he had somehow murdered his wife while in a drunken stupor.

Those old memories dredged up too much pain, and so Jarrett tried to focus on the Bay and the sailboats instead.

When he had first driven into Half Moon Bay nine years ago, after two long prior years spent traveling from town to town, he was still searching  At the time he had not known if he was still looking for the girl involved in his parent’s death or simply trying to find his own way.  All he had known for sure was that he longed for one day that was filled with peace of mind.  He had parked his truck outside the Black Pearl restaurant and had sat for hours at a table on the deck, staring out at the marina.

Even then, the day had been hot and the large umbrella shading the table had been a relief from the sun.  Line after line of sailing sloops and several good-sized yachts had been moored in the marina, their tall masts swaying in time with the waves that rocked their hulls.  Great mountains of white cumulus clouds had floated above the horizon, intensifying the blue of the sky as sea birds rode the air currents over the water.

Behind him, in the tall palms that lined the roadway had come the screeching of Quaker parrots mixed with the chirping of sparrows.  Later, he would discover the parrots could be heard announcing their flight over the city at all times of the day.  Some claimed the birds had escaped after Hurricane Andrew tore up the southern tip of Florida and had never returned south.  On a dark stormy day, their racket was almost a guarantee that the sun was going to shine again.

As he had sat there, the pain that had ridden him hard for over eleven years had been eased by the smell of the salt air and the sound of the birds.  He had munched on a turkey sandwich, watching the gulls and pelicans which had perched on nearby pilings, waiting for a morsel of food to be tossed their way.  Signs along the deck rail had forbidden feeding them.  He had been tempted to ignore the warning.  The longer he had sat there, the more at peace he had felt.  That was when he had decided to stay.  It was that simple.  Within two days, he had found an apartment, notified his attorney to wire him money, and where to send the monthly check from his trust fund.

A whiff of wood smoke brought Jarrett back to the present as the sound of laughter was carried up from the street.  He glanced toward the corner of the hospital building in time to see the backs of two women, one with long red hair, and the other with dark mahogany hair cascading below her shoulders.  They were dressed alike in navy skirts and white blouses as they strolled past him and out of view.  His heart lurched and the old ache flared.

“No!” he muttered violently.  Up until this string of murders, he had found some sort of peace during his stay in Half Moon Bay.  He refused to let his obsessive search start all over again.

“No what?” Harvey asked, coming up beside him.

“Nothing!” Jarrett growled.

Raising his eyebrows, the M.E. retorted, “Sorry I asked!”

Jarrett frowned and inhaled sharply.  “I saw a woman who reminded me of someone I met a long time ago, that’s all.  Not her, obviously.  Sorry for taking your head off.”  He had been thrown off-balance by the sight of all that dark hair, first with the victim, now with this other woman.  He had deluded himself into believing he had buried those tangled love, hate feelings, and that he did not care anymore.  It had all roared back all because of long legs, a shapely, slender backside and precisely remembered long curly dark hair.

Jarrett concentrated on blocking Harvey’s curiosity.  “What’s the word on the girl?” he asked.

“Comatose.  Dr. Corbett is admitting her to the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit.  He won’t know anything definite until tomorrow.  If she lives through the night, she may make it.  Otherwise, all we can do is sit and wait,” Harvey said.

Jarrett nodded.  “I’ll order a guard on her room around the clock.  No one is to know what happened to her.  As far as anyone here is concerned, she was mugged and is over twenty-one.  Keep all information on your end quiet.  I’ll control this end,” he finished and hurried back inside to speak with the doctor and to squelch any leaks to the press.

He had spotted the TV trucks parked on the street, which meant the reporters were still around and inside.  They had to be put off at all costs.  Once he established the routine concerning the girl, he leaned against the counter to relax for a moment, and wished for a cup of hot black coffee.  His shoulders sagging with exhaustion, Jarrett wondered what progress his partner was making at the crime scene.  Caruso probably had every person in the neighborhood up and interviewed, then had swept the area with the proverbial vacuum cleaner.

Any possible piece of evidence could point to the killer and it all had to be tagged, documented and processed as valid, or eliminated.  It took time, valuable time, before the next victim turned up.  First, they had to identify this girl.  Given that the assault had happened last night, maybe Missing Persons had a report that might be just now coming into the office.  He had little hopes of identifying the car.  The eyewitness had not been sure of the make and had been unable to see the license plate.  There were no tire tracks either.

Jarrett rubbed his eyes.  He had not slept well before getting the call at four-fifty that morning.  Now it was after seven.  He needed to go home and sleep for about three hours, but it was impossible.  There was too much work to do.  He removed the cell phone from his pocket and started to dial his office, but stopped, finger poised above the numbers, staring, as before him, coming through the door from the ER waiting room was, beyond question, the same woman who had destroyed his life.  Who had ever since haunted and filled his nights with turbulent dreams.  His mind reeling, Jarrett whirled and fled out of the glass doors before she could see his face.  Once outside, he leaned against the building with his insides knotting up and his heart pounding.

It was her. She was actually here in this town.  By sheer, freakish luck, his search was now over.  All he had to do was walk back through the automatic doors and confront the woman he had been obsessed with for the past eleven years. . .  Which was a bad idea, and he knew it.  He could not face her.  Not yet.  His feelings just had been ripped open by the sight of her.  He might lose control.  Besides, if she saw him, she might run.  If that happened, he might never get the answers he desperately needed.  He was not going to take that chance.  Their meeting had to be carefully planned.  And they would meet. . . .  Keeping that in mind, Jarrett pushed away from the building and headed for his truck.  He needed to find Caruso and proceed with this investigation.  But now, and amazingly, at last, he knew where to find her.