Friday, September 28, 2012

Chapter 23 (part 1)

We were heading west on I-80.  Dominic obeyed the speed limits.  Allison read and played her DS in the back seat.  I stared out the window, willing my mind to go blank.

The soft, melted chocolate of Dominic’s voice invaded my attempts.  “I want to stay on eighty till lunch time.  We’ll find a little town to eat lunch and get a map.  When we have a map, we make a more educated decision on our route and destination for the night.”

I turned from watching the world go by and fixed my eyes on his face.  He looked relaxed.  Except for the muscle jumping in his cheek.  His head turned, those green eyes locking with mine just long enough before going back to watch the road.  His hand found my knee and squeezed.  

“It’s gong to be okay, Ella.  We’ve done this before.  Not to this degree, but still, we’ve done it just fine.  I’m more skilled now.  More informed.  And I have the feds backing me up.  I have the locations of safe houses throughout the country.  We can use them if we have to, but we’ll be okay.  I won’t let anything happen to you two.”

I was glad he included Allison when he said that.  I didn’t want to have to keep reminding him that she was there, too.  “I believe you.  But that doesn’t make it easier.”  

Four hours of driving, with one short stop for a bathroom break and stretch of the legs, had all three of us ready to stop to linger over lunch and some small town USA main street shopping.  

We had left the westbound interstate near Akron, Ohio to take a more scenic route heading southwest along OH-3.  Along the road was a low, red building that looked like it might have spent the first part of its life as a large chicken coop.  The sign out front indicated it was the Iron Pony Saloon.  Under the name was the declaration of “Best Prime Rib in Ohio.”  

Dominic pulled into the worn and cracked parking lot, parking at the far end of the building near the ramp that led up to the door.  There were only a handful of vehicles in the lot, mostly dirty trucks. But then again, we were in the middle of nowhere.  There probably weren’t more than twenty vehicles in the surrounding area, and most of them were probably dirty trucks.

“This place looks good for lunch.”  Dominic said, eyeing the building.  He turned to me and Allison.  “What do you think?”

Allison was looking around.  “Where are we?” she asked.

“The Iron Pony Saloon,” Dominic provided with a big grin.  “Sign says they have the best prime rib in the state.  Wanna see if it’s true?”

I watched her think it over.  Then she smiled at him.  “Are you buying?”

I couldn’t help it.  I laughed.  “Does it matter who buys?” I asked her.

With a shrug, she said, “Well, if Mr. Dominic drove us all this way for the best prime rib in Ohio. . . and if it’s a date sort of thing. . . Then, yes.  It matters.  He should pay.  The man pays on a date.”  She was very confident in her answer.

And, of course, Dominic humored her.  “Well, beautiful, since you put it that way, I guess I’ll be paying for my date.  But what about your mom?  Do I pay for her, or does she pay for herself since you’re my date?”

A giggle bubbled from Allison’s throat, and she gave him a playful shove.  “Silly!  Mom is your date, not me.”

Shock at what she had said choked my laughter in my throat.  “Why would I be his date, honey?”

Her blue eyes met mine.  “Well. . .”  The word drug out.  “You need to go on dates, Mom.  Daddy can’t take you out anymore, but you still need to go.  I think Daddy would want you to be happy.”

“Oh, baby,” I cried as I wrapped her in my arms over the console.  Tears fell while I held her.  My little girl was wise beyond her years, and, while it was refreshing in someways, it broke my heart in others.  

I gave her a big squeeze and pulled away, wiping the tears from my cheeks.  “Let’s go try this famous prime rib,” I said, and we piled out of the car.

The meal was good, if the atmosphere was something I’d rather not expose my daughter to again.  But the food filled our empty stomachs.  

Heading off the road we had been traveling, we came to the small, backwoods town of Lakeville.  It was picturesque, especially given the spring season.  The trees were just unfurling their leaves in bright yellow-green hues.  The fields were plowed, the freshly turned earth a rich umber, ready for planting.

The aura of the town insisted that visitors feel at ease, and it was working it’s magic on me.  The air was warm and fresh as it whipped in through my open window.  The place just felt right.

I turned to Dominic as he slowed his speed.  We were entering the main town.  “We should stop here if we can.  Maybe there’s a motel or something.”  His eyes questioned me when he glanced my way.  “I can’t explain it, but I think we should stop here.  If we can.”

“We could still drive through the afternoon,” he said, not arguing exactly.  More like he was pointing out something that I’d failed to notice.

“I know.  But I think it would be better to stop somewhere quiet.  Somewhere inconspicuous.  Somewhere where life isn’t so different.”  I hoped he caught my meaning.

“Mommy?  What does inconspicuous mean?” came Allison’s sweet voice from the back.

“It means not obvious, baby,” I answered her.

“Oh,” was all she said before resuming her game.

“Here, Dominic,” I said as I eyed an opportunity.  “Stop at the little store.  I’ll run in and ask if there’s lodging anywhere.”

He pulled into the lot.  The little building looked like a photo from the 1950s come to life.    Even the colors were faded into muted tones of their original appearance.  

I climbed out of the car, telling Allison I’d be right back and walked into the store.  The photo scene played out inside, as well.  Complete with an older man behind the counter wearing a white button-down and black slacks, his round glasses perched on the middle of his nose.

“Afternoon, miss.  Can I help you with anything?” he asked with a bright smile.  The strength of his voice surprised me.  

“Actually, I was wondering if there might me a place to stay around here?” I returned his contagious smile.

“Well, there’s no hotels, if that’s what you’re wantin’.  But there is a bed and breakfast down off Spring Run Road.  Bubblin’ Brook Inn, it’s called.  ‘Bout a half hour ride from here.”  He slid his thin body onto a stool, waiting for my reply.

“That sounds like just the place I’m looking for,” I said with a smile.  “Do you have a map I can buy?”

He pointed a wrinkled, age-spotted finger at a small rack at the far corner of the counter.

I scanned the selection, and picked up the state map.  After a quick glance, I found the maps for the county we were in and the two closest counties.  It seemed Lakeville was at the northern end of the county and just below the point where two other counties intersected.  Better to be prepared with four maps, than lost in the middle of a cornfield in no-man’s-land, Ohio.

I paid for the maps and took written and verbal directions to the bed and breakfast.  Then I thanked the man with a friendly smile and went back to the car.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Chapter 22 (part 2)

I packed the small amount of things we had unpacked while Allison still slept.  Then I gently shook her.  “Allison.  Honey, you need to wake up now,” I murmured in her ear.

She stretched, her eyes fluttering open.  Lucky for me, my baby girl was a morning person--pleasant and easy to wake.  “Mom?”  Her voice still scratchy with sleep, she looked a me and then glanced around the room.  “Are we going home now?”

“No baby.  But we have to leave.  Mr. Dominic is coming with us.  Get dressed quickly.  We’ll stop at wherever you want of breakfast.”

She hopped out of bed and ran to the bathroom.  Back a minute later, she stripped her pajamas and slipped on a t-shirt and jeans.  “What’s wrong, Mom?  Are we taking Mr. Dominic’s car?”

Leave it to a ten-year-old to ask two so opposite questions back to back.  “I’ll explain once we’re on the road, and after you’ve eaten.  And, yes, we’ll be in the Mustang.”  I tossed her night clothes into her duffle bag.  “Do you want to carry Buzzles, or pack him?”

“It’ll be easier if I pack him, won’t it?”  It was more statement than question.  My girl was intuitive, and her fairly recent past had forced her to grow up way too soon.  Combine that with her sharp intellect, and she definitely knew something was up.

We met Dominic by the front door, bag and keys in hand.  “You ladies ready?” he asked in a jovial tone that belied the true nature of why we were leaving.

I helped Allison climb in the back seat, asking, “Where would you like to stop for breakfast, sweetie?  It has to be drive through.”

She buckled her seat belt and dug in her book bag, pulling out the novel she was reading for class.  “Um.  Can we do McDonald’s?”

“Sure, baby.  Anything you want.”  I flipped the seat back into place.  The book bag had slipped my mind.  It was good that she would have other things to do besides play video games.  And it would give a sense of normalcy to an otherwise very abnormal situation.

A police cruiser pulled up, blocking the driveway.  Officer Brecky climbed out of the passenger side, and Dominic met her halfway to the Mustang.  The angle of his body--very straight and rigid--said confrontational, so I closed the door and waited by the car, watching.

“You taking them somewhere, Mr. Sterling?”  Brecky’s tone was firm and almost menacing as she stood with her hands on her hips, the right only an inch from her pistol.  If she hand’t been in uniform, her voice edged in cold steel, she could’ve been having a casual conversation.  

“Yes, Officer.  Allison wants McDonald’s for breakfast, so I’m treating.  Then we’re taking a leisurely drive.  The girl loves my car, and since she can’t go home, I thought it would be better to take her for a ride than coup her up in a strange house.”  

He was way too good at this twisting the truth stuff.

Brecky shifted her emerald gaze to me.  “You okay, Ella?”

I shrugged.  “As good as I can be, considering.”  I was surprised to find that under pressure I was pretty good at skirting the truth, too.  I didn’t lie, but I didn’t give any information, either.  

Brecky took note of it.  “Uh-huh,” she said, a corner of her mouth pulling back to show she wasn’t buying any of it.  

She turned back to Dominic.  “Don’t go far, Sterling.  Ella may trust you, but I don’t.  As far as I’m concerned, you’re a suspect in all of this.”

I could’t see his face, but the sound of his voice told me Dominic had turned on his charming smile.  Not that it would work on the cop.  She wasn’t the type that melted for guys like him.  “Officer, I don’t want to step on your toes, but Ella and Allison are under my protection.  The person giving me orders outranks you quite a bit.  If he tells me to fly them to Paris, I will.

“Given the people being investigated, I think you’ll find the case stripped from your desk very soon.  Possibly today.”

He sighed and ran a hand through is hair.  Dropping his voice so I had to strain to hear him, he added, “Look Brecky.  I like you.  You’re a good cop.  But this goes way over your head.  I’m working for the FBI on this.  It’s why I’m here to begin with.  I care about Ella very much, and if my boss tells me to take her and Allison and go, that’s what I’m gonna do.  

“You’ll get more information when they come to collect your files on the case.  If I’m not mistaken, you like Ella, and you won’t give this up easily.  So, consider this a warning.  The FBI is coming, and they will confiscate your records.  If you want to stay on this, cover your bases.  They won’t work with you on this one.  It’s too big.”

She let the information set in, then gave a slight nod, glanced at me, and said, “Take care of them, Sterling.”  She turned and walked the short distance back to the cruiser.  When the door had shut, she gave me a little wave while Dominic walked back to the Mustang.

We both climbed in, and I watched the neighborhood where I had raised my little girl roll past for what could very well be the last time.  Tears stung as memories flooded me.  

All too soon we were at the McDonald’s drive-through ordering egg McMuffins, hash browns, coffee, and orange juice.  We headed for the entry ramp to the interstate while I helped Allison poke the straw into her juice.

Church Hill and Summerville were behind us in a matter of minutes.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Chapter 21 & 22 (part 1)

I looked at him over my glass.  Maybe the doubt showed in my eyes, but I had to be honest.  This relationship, whatever it may be, would depend on honesty and trust.  “I really don’t know Dominic.  But the fact is, my life was going along perfectly fine until you popped up.  About two weeks ago.  Now my husband and best friend are both dead.  Murdered.  Along with my husband’s nurse.  All three of them had no clue as to my past, and how you fit so nicely into it.  Now I fear for my ten year old daughter’s life, along with my own.”

“Ella. . .”

“No, Dominic.  You asked.  You listen.”  I took a gulp of my wine before continuing, the  sting boosting my conviction.  “You admitted that Luke Ritter may be after you, and using me and my family to get there.  But you haven’t told me why, specifically.  You also mentioned that you work as a correspondent for the FBI, and that’s why you’re here tracking Luke.

“You’ve only given me bits of information.  Enough to appease me while I deal with the rocketing chaos you’ve brought to my family.”  

I took another swig, and plummeted on.  “I want to trust you, Dominic.  To be honest, I need to trust you.  I’m not naive enough to think Allison and I can make it through this without your help.  But you’re gonna have to give me reason not to run.  And you know I will if I feel I have to.”

He took a deep breath and blew it out through puffed cheeks while his hands ran through his hair.  Then he downed the half glass of wine sitting on the table.  When his eyes met mine, I was shocked at the turmoil of emotions swirling in the green depths, each fighting for dominance.  

I braced myself for the blow.  I could tell whatever he was about to say went deeper than anything he’d told me yet.  A lot deeper.

“When you left me, Ella--when I was arrested--I was in deep shit.  If I didn’t cut a deal, give names, I was going away for a long time.  So that’s what I did.  I had a good lawyer, and with the names I gave, he was able to get me off with a much lighter sentence.  It was all kept away from the media because the names I gave brought in the DEA, ATF, and FBI.”

My mouth fell open.  “Oh, my God, Dominic.”

“Yeah,” he said, simply.  “Anyway, the FBI offered a deal that would mean no jail time if I worked with them in helping to take those guys down.  I took it.  

“Luke was one of those guys.  I rolled on him, then was instrumental in his arrest in Miami.  Needless to say, he’s got it in for me.  I’m sorry that you got caught up in this.”  His eyes showed his sincerity as he reached over and laid his hand on my knee.

“Who was Luke in Miami?” I asked.  

“He was Big Ben’s boss’s boss,” Dominic said as he refilled our glasses.

“Holy shit.”  It came out as a whisper from the shock of the information.  “I didn’t realize the chain went that far.  I though Big Ben’s boss was the top.”

“Yeah, well, I tried to keep you away from those top guys.  Ben was bad enough, but he had a thing for you, so I knew you were safe with him.  The guys above him in the ring were dangerous.  I didn’t want you near them.  Ben knew that, so he kept you away from them, too.”

“Did you roll on Ben?” I asked.  While Big Ben, as we called him, was into some bad stuff, he was a nice guy.  I liked him.

Dominic’s head fell, and he swirled the pink liquid in his glass.  “I did.”  His eyes found mine again.  “But then he rolled on his boss, Dave.  There were a few other top guys, too.  And then there was Luke. 

“As you can imagine, Luke had the best lawyers in Florida.  He got off with a minimal sentence, but somehow he found out who gave his name.

“When he was arrested, I left.  I could’t leave the country, but I was under FBI protection, so I had the freedom to go anywhere within the lower forty-eight.  I chose the middle of nowhere, Montana and stayed there until I was offered a job with Between the Lines.  The feds got me the job, they wanted me more in the thick of things again.  I was valuable to them for the information I could get, but I was always dispensable because I was a felon.

“The main reason they wanted me back on the East coast was because Ben had been killed, execution style, and Luke Ritter had disappeared as soon as he was out of jail.”

I refilled my glass again, emptying the bottle.  The warm fuzzy blanket the wine wrapped around me made it easier to deal with all this information.  “He killed Ben,” I said.


“After about a year, my connections lead me to Luke here in Summerville.  A little more research also showed you were here.  My gut told me it wasn’t a coincidence, so I told the agent I deal with that I had to come here.  He helped get me here.”

“The store?”

“Corporate was looking in the area for a location for a new store, so the FBI helped them pick and had me placed as the GM.  They helped me get the house, too.”

I put my empty glass on the table and rubbed my face.  “Geez, Dominic.  This is a lot to take in.”  I looked up at him.  “On thing I don’t get, though.  Why did Luke get married?  Wouldn’t that tie him down and make him vulnerable?”

“They’re not really married.  Luke has a lot of power.  He had the marriage document forged so he would look more normal.”  He made quoting motions in the air.  “Beth is more like his secretary and one of his spies.  An employee with benefits.”

“How long did you know who she was?”  I was suddenly mad at him for not telling me.  If he knew I was in danger, why didn’t he say something?

“I just found out yesterday.  Like I said, Luke is powerful.  The papers were totally legit within the state’s system.  It took federal resources to find the fraud.”

“Why didn’t you tell me yesterday?” I asked, my tone accusatory.

“Because I didn’t realize the full extent of the role she plays for him.  I really thought she was just his secretary.  I didn’t know she was on his higher pay role.”  He sounded like he was berating himself internally for being stupid.

I reached out and touched him, laying my hand over his on the plush arm of the chair.  “Dominic, it’s not your fault.  You can only do so much.”  I squeezed his hand before letting go.  “But I wish you would have told me all this when you first came to town.  Maybe certain things could’ve been avoided.”

“I know, but I wasn’t sure if you were in danger at first.  I also wasn’t allowed to tell you anything.  The FBI didn’t even want you to know I was here, but that was inevitable.  It’s a small town.  You would’ve found out sooner or later.”

I yawned.  “Sorry.  It’s been a long day.”

“Yeah.  You need your sleep.  I’ll go up with you.”  He stood and held out a hand to help me up.  When I was on my feet, he hugged me again.  “I really am sorry, Ella.  I didn’t want any of this.  And I hate that you’re hurting.”

I hugged him back, squeezing tight.  Hugs were such good medicine.  “I believe you.”

His body relaxed at my words, and I felt his breath rush through my hair.

I followed him upstairs and to the room I would share with Allison.  He walked in with me, checking as I did to make sure she was all right.  It warmed my heart.  As I climbed under the covers, he leaned down and brushed his lips over my forehead in a gentle caress.  “Good night, Ella,” he whispered in my ear.

“Good night, Dominic,” I whispered back.

The door didn’t click as he shut it, but the light from the hall peeked underneath until he turned it off.  The room became dark, but as my eyes adjusted, the light beachy colors almost glowed.

I wasn’t sure how long I laid there trying to push the days events to the back of my mind so I could sleep.  Eventually the sweet darkness that is dreamless sleep enveloped me.

Chapter 22

I woke up to the pattering drum song of rain on the window.  Allison was still sleeping beside me in bed.  I stroked her blond waves, and ran my finger along her jaw in the most tender of motherly touches.  

Leaving her to sleep, I left the room as quietly as I could and headed downstairs to the smell of hot coffee.  

“Morning, beautiful,” Dominic said, a bit too perky for the hour.  Definitely too perky without coffee.

But, since I was his guest I bit my tongue and returned his greeting.  “Morning.”

“There’s a mug by the pot and sugar in the second smallest canister.”  He knew not to talk to me too much before that first cup.  I was a badger in the morning.  Not cute and cuddly, and always ready to rip into anyone who messed with me in any way.  That included talking.

I sat at the table with my steaming cup and pulled a section of the morning paper Dominic was reading in front of me.  But I didn’t read it.  I didn’t want to see what news might be in there.  

The latest copy of People magazine plopped in front of me.  “Thanks,” I said to an all too understanding Dominic.  Sometimes I swore he could read my mind.

“Sure.  The paper is safe, though.  I pulled out the news section, but even still. . .”  He took a sip of coffee.  “Ritter runs the paper.  It’ll only be a short blurb so it doesn’t draw too much attention.  May have facts altered, too.”

Dominic’s phone rang.  The land line.  For some reason, a chill went down my spine.  I tried to listen as he talked, but he was too quiet.  When he came back to the table, there was a sense of urgency in his movements.

I watched him for a brief moment before my curiosity took over.  “What’s up, Dominic?”

“That was the FBI agent,” he said without looking at me.

I waited a beat, but no more information came.  “And?” I prompted.

Now those sea green eyes met mine, and what I saw in them terrified me.  “We need to go, Ella.”

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Chapter 20 (part 3)

I held the screen door so it would close quietly, shut the front door with the same care, and made sure it was locked tight before heading back to the living room.  The sight of my baby girl sleeping so peacefully on Dominic’s lap caused more turmoil in my heart.  That she trusted and felt safe with him eased my worry about her rejecting him and his help.  But it also scared me.  She had only just met this man.  He was a stranger to her, yet there she slept.  Would she trust other people as willingly?

I decided that we needed to have a talk in the morning.

“Do you want me to carry her up?”  His voice was soft silk as he whispered to me.

“Would you mind?” I whispered back.  “She’s too big for me to carry up the stairs.”

“Not at all.”  He moved slowly, being careful not to wake her as he repositioned her into his arms.  With impressive strength, he stood with Allison in his arms.  I followed a few steps behind as he carried her up the stairs and down a short hall to a door on the right.

I pulled the comforter and sheet down so he could lay her on the bed.  Then I took off her shoes and socks and covered her up.  The duffle bags were on the bed, and I dug into hers looking for Buzzles, her purple stuffed bunny.  I found it tucked to the side, and inwardly thanked Brecky for making sure it was easy to find.

Soft yellow light sent a warm glow through the room without flooding it with light when Dominic turned on a small table lamp sitting on a dresser in the corner.  The room was a pale blue color with white accents.  A white wicker chair sat by the window by a small stand of the same material.  It was a cozy room, and bit of a surprise in the home of a bachelor.

I went to the bed and sifted through the duffle Brecky had packed for me.  I found a soft t-shirt to sleep in.  My toothbrush was packed in a cosmetic bag with dental floss and my hair brush.  Brecky had really gone beyond what I had expected.  I turned to Dominic.

“Can I use your toothpaste?” I asked in a whisper.

“Yeah.”  He left the room, and I took the opportunity to quickly change my clothes before following him down the hall.  

I knew he had gone into the master bath in his bedroom, but I stepped into the large, green and blue bathroom at the top of the stairs.  The light was bright, but soft, allowing an honest view of my disheveled appearance in the mirror.  I looked horrible.  My eyes puffy and red, my skin pasty.  

I rested my hands on the white porcelain counter, leaning my weight on them as I rocked forward to look myself in the eye.  “What are you going to do, girl?” I asked my reflection.  

The woman staring back at me didn’t answer, but I knew what she would do.  She’d do anything she had to do to keep he daughter safe.  Anything.  And deep down she knew the eventuality of that.  The consequences of her younger life were being paid by the family that she had built and grown.  It was her duty to end it.

Dominic came in, laying a tube of toothpaste and a set of towels on the counter.  His eyes found mine in the mirror, a deep sadness in them.  Then he rested his hands on my tense shoulders and slid them down my arms and up again in a comforting movement.  

Tears that had been waiting for hours began to pool.  When the first one spilled down my cheek, his arms wrapped around me, the subtle roughness of stubble on his jaw scraping my sensitive skin as he hugged me.

“I’ll help you through this, Ella.  We’ll get through it together.”

I closed my eyes and let the tears fall.  My shoulders hitched with the first sob, and he turned me in his arms.  Wrapped in the warmth of his embrace, I let loose the grief eating at my heart.  He let me cry until my eyes had dried out, holding me in silence the entire time.  

When I finally pulled my head up, I asked him the same question I’d asked myself.  “What am I going to do, Dominic?”

His arms released their hold.  His hands gripped my arms, and he looked me in the eye again.  “We’ll figure it out,” he said with determination.  Resting a finger under my chin, he added, “We will get through this, Ella.  I won’t let anything happen to you or Allison.”

I gave a meek nod.

He kissed my forehead.  “Get cleaned up so you feel better.  There’s a towel and washcloth here so you can shower.  I’ll check on Allison.  Come downstairs when you’re finished, and have a nightcap with me.  Then we’ll go to bed.”

“All right.  Thanks.”

I went downstairs feeling refreshed.  Well, as refreshed as was possible considering the murky turmoil I was swimming in.

Dominic was sitting on the sofa with his legs stretched out down the length of the cushions.  A floor lamp provided a circle of light as he read his book, and a bottle of blushing wine and two empty glasses waited on the coffee table.  He smiled when he saw me.

“You’re looking a little better.”

“I feel a little better.  Thanks,” I said as I sat on the warm cushion where his had just been.

He pulled the cork out of the bottle and poured us each a glass of wine.  I took mine, thanking him, and downed half of it in one swallow.  I knew I could’t get drunk, but I longed for the sweet relief the pink liquid offered.  That, and I knew it would help me sleep.

Dominic didn’t say anything as we sat drinking our wine.  We sat in silence through two glasses.  “Thanks you for doing all of this,” I said as he poured my third glass.

He set the bottle down and looked at me as he handed me my glass.  “You don’t have to thank me, Ella.  I’m just glad I’m here to help.”  His eyes dropped, and he looked sheepish.  His hand found my knee, squeezing lightly.  “I’m so sorry.  I can’t help thinking that this is all because of me.”  He found my eyes again, pain, sorrow, and something I could’t identify swimming in the green depths.  “I’m so sorry.”

I sighed and put my hand over his.  “Dominic, you have no control over other people’s actions.  From what Officer Brecky said, Luke Ritter may have been watching me before you ever came here.  It may be that your presence pushed him to this, but that’s not your fault.”

He looked down at our hands.  “It feels like it’s my fault.”

“Unless you ordered the hit, it’s not.”

His head snapped up, those eyes drowning in the agony my almost-accusation incurred.  “You can’t possibly think that of me?”  His voice cracked with the question.  “Ella?  You think I could do something like that?”

Monday, September 17, 2012

Chapter 20 (part 2)

When we pulled in Dominic’s driveway, I felt Allison’s hand on my shoulder.  “Mommy?  Where are we?  Why aren’t we home?”

I unbuckled my seat belt and turned to look at her.  “This is Mr. Dominic’s house, sweetie.  We’re going to eat dinner here, and afterward you and I will sit down and talk.  Okay?”

“Okay,” she agreed, still confused.

We ate a modest dinner of pork chops, macaroni and cheese, and green beans, although I mostly pushed the food around with my fork.  When we were finished, Dominic stayed in the kitchen to clean up while I took Allison into the living room.  I wasn’t at all sure how to approach this.  In fact, I was terrified, and I hoped Allison could’t read it on my face as we sat next to each other on the sofa.

“What’s going on, Mom?”

Taking a deep breath to stoke my courage, I took her hands in mine and looked into her eyes.  “It’s Daddy, baby.  Something’s happened to him.”  Tears welled in my eyes and spilled down my cheeks.

Her innocent blue eyes, so like her father’s, took in the emotion on my face, and I watched the realization dawn deep within and give birth to a rising despair that bordered on panic.  “What happened to Daddy?  Is he okay?”

I squeezed her hands in mine and shook my head.  “No, baby.  He’s not okay.  Daddy passed away today.”  I couldn’t say died.  That word was too harsh.  Too raw.  And I didn’t want to tell her he had been killed.  That was far to profound for her precious little heart to handle.

She sat there staring at me for what seemed like hours.  Her mouth opened and closed as the information clicked into place and her brain allowed her to accept what I had said.  “Daddy’s dead?”  Her voice broke on the question, and I folded her in my arms.

“Oh, baby.  I’m so sorry.”  We sat there on Dominic’s sofa wrapped in each other’s arms, and cried.  We cried for a long time.  

My phone rang, and I pulled an arm out to answer.  “Hello?”  My voice was rough from the tears.

“Mrs. Boothe, it’s Officer Brecky.  I have your belongings.  Can I bring them by?”

“Oh.  Yes.  You should talk to Dominic for directions.  Hold on.”  I helped Allison stand up, and we walked out to the kitchen together.  I could see the sorrow in his eyes as he took in our disheveled appearance.  “She needs directions,” I said, handing him the phone.


I turned around and guided Allison back to the other room.  “Do you want to watch TV?” I asked as we sat back down.

“I guess so.”  Her voice was soft as she snuggled against me.  

We watched cartoons for a while, then switched to a Disney movie.  I avoided the news channels for fear of seeing the image of our house, police lights flooding the peaceful street, plastered on the screen.

I heard the knock on the door and Dominic answering.  He carried the duffel bags Officer Brecky brought into the room.  She followed him.

“I’ll take these upstairs to the guest rooms.”

I lifted my head.  “Put them in the same room, please.  Allison and I can share a bed.”  I squeezed her as I said it.

“All right,” he said with a slight nod before turning to walk up the steps.

Brecky sat in a chair by the sofa.  She was good at reading people, so she could tell that Allison knew something of what was going on.  “How are you doing?” she asked me.

“Hanging on,” I said, turning my attention to her.  “This is my daughter, Allison.”  I gave her another squeeze.  “Allison, this is Officer Brecky.  She’s working on Aunt Cassie’s case.”  I said the last with a pointed look at Brecky.  Allison doesn’t know, my eyes said, I don’t want her to know.

Her voice was soft when she spoke to Allison.  “Hello, Allison.  I know you must be having a really hard time right now.  I’m very sorry for everything you’re going through.  But, you have your mom, and she has you.  That’s what’s important now.

“I want you to know that you can always call me if anything’s wrong.”  She pulled out a card and handing it to Allison.  “Keep this in your pocket.  If you or your mom are in trouble, you call me.  Okay?”

Allison took the card and looked at it.  She tucked it in her pocket and snuggled closer to me.  “Okay,” she said in a mousy voice.

“I found everything on your list, Ella.  I hope you’re okay with the shirts I picked.”

“Anything is fine for now.  Thank you so much.  For everything.”  

Dominic came back down the stairs and joined us, sitting in a chair opposite Brecky.

I kissed Allison on the top of her head and asked, “Are you okay staying with Mr. Dominic while I talk to Officer Brecky?”

She mm-hmm’d faintly.  “I’m just going to go in the kitchen,” I told her.

“Okay, Mom.”

I stood with reluctance at leaving her, but I had to know what the police had found.  If they found anything.  

In the kitchen, Brecky and I sat at the table.  “Your house was pretty clean.  We’re focusing on two scenarios right now.  The first is that Cassie was forced, either physically or emotionally, to shoot Lynnette and Michael, and then shoot herself.  The second is that a third party shot Lynnette and Michael, then forced Cassie to shoot herself.”

“How do you know Cassie was forced to shoot herself?” I asked.  

“The gunpowder residue on her hands indicates that someone else was holding the gun hand when it was fired.”

I hung my head, shaking it back and forth very slowly while I digested this pit of information.  “Cassie wouldn’t have shot Michael.  We’re like family to her.”

“You’d be surprised at what people will do when pushed beyond their limits,” Brecky said.

I looked into her eyes.  “If Cassie shot Michael, she would’ve shot herself without having to be forced.  That’s just who she is.  She wouldn’t be able to live with herself.”

Those emerald eyes flicked back and forth between mine, studying.  “Okay,” she said finally.  “That would mean someone else did it, then forced her to hold the gun while. . .”  She trailed off, perhaps realizing that going into detail with me wasn’t a good idea.  Nor was it necessary.  I understood perfectly what it all meant.  Cassie’s kidnapper took her to my house, killed my husband and his nurse, then forced Cassie to hold the gun while they pointed it at her head and pulled the trigger.  Whoever was behind all this, or their hired muscle, was one sick bastard.  

Brecky and I sat looking at each other in silence for a long moment.  Then she heaved her shoulders in a deep sigh laid her hand on mine.  “Call me if you think of anything that could help us.  And call me if you need anything else.  You’re comfortable here with Dominic?”

“Yeah.  Why wouldn’t I be?  I’ve known him a long time.”

“I know, but time has a way of changing people.  You haven’t seen him for what, fifteen years or so?  You don’t really know him anymore.  He could be a totally different person now.”

“I know.  And I’m counting on that.  I’m a different person than the girl he knew way back when, and I hope he’s made similar changes to his life.  But I trust him.  Mostly.  Right now I trust him to keep me and Allison safe.  That’s all that matters.”

We pulled away from each other at the same time, sitting back in our chairs and looking at different things around the room.  

Brecky stood first.  “Well, you know how to reach me if you need to.”

I stood with her.  “I do.  Thank you for everything.  You’ve been a huge help.”

We walked back to the living room to find Allison curled up on Dominic’s lap, sound asleep.  Officer Brecky shook both our hands, and I walked her to the door.  

“Good night, Officer Brecky.  And thanks again,” I said as she stepped out the door.  

“Good night, Mrs. Boothe.”  She gave a slight bob of her head to acknowledge my thanks.  Then she turned and walked to her cruiser.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Chapter 20 (part 1)

My mouth was dry.  I had to wake up to get a drink, but I could’t seem to pull myself out of the deep hole I had fallen into.  My mind grasped at the edges of consciousness, trying to pull the weight of my thoughts out of the hole.  

Then the fumes invaded my senses.  Ammonia.  I gasped and woke up like a gun shot went off in the room.  The broken stick of smelling salts was still being held under my nose, and I pulled away from it.

Looking around, I realized I was on the floor of the interrogation room.  Dominic held me  propped against him while Brecky stood to the side.  A paramedic was kneeling next to me, the offensive smelling salts in his hand.  He began to check my vitals and ask questions about how I was feeling.  Once he was satisfied, he offered a paper cup filled with water.

After downing the water I turned to Brecky.  “Allison,” I said, the panic rising again.  “My daughter will be getting off the bus at four.”

She stooped down to my level.  “We sent a car to her school.  She will be kept there until you can pick her up.  But, Ella, you won’t be able to stay in your home until the investigation is completed.  A few days at least.  We need to get you and your daughter the things you’ll need for a week’s stay in a hotel.  Can you give me a list of items and the locations?”

Still dazed from the news and fainting, I gave her a weak nod.  She and Dominic helped me to my feet so I could sit at the table and write a list.  The problem was that I knew I had to leave, so I wasn’t sure how much to pack.  I looked at Dominic for help.  

“Three t-shirts and a sweatshirt, each,” he began.  He took the pen and paper from me because my hands were shaking so bad I couldn’t write.

“I’ll leave you alone for this.  Just open the door when you’re ready for me.”  With that, Brecky stood and left the room.

Dominic relaxed a little.  “Okay.  T-shirts, sweatshirts, one pair of shorts and pants for each of you.  Underwear is small, so you can take five each if you want.  Three pairs of socks each.”  He looked at what I was wearing.  “You’ll need sneakers.  Do you know what Allison is wearing?”

“She should be wearing sneakers.  She wears them every day, and I think she has gym today.”

“All right.  You’ll need your bathroom stuff like hair and tooth brushes.  We’ll get travel toothpaste and use hotel shampoo.  Are there any meds you need?”

I shook my head.  “No, but Allison needs her Poochie.  She can’t sleep with out her.”

He wrote Poochie on the pad.  “Now, where is all this stuff inside your house?”

I gave him the location of every item, giving specifics for Allison’s clothing so she would at least be in clothes she liked while we were hiding out.  Or running.  We added things like cell phone chargers and Allison’s Nintendo DS, although the cell phones would probably get tossed along the way if we had to run.  I told him where to find duffel bags for each of us as well.

“I’ll take you to get Allison.  The cops’ll probably have you pick up your stuff here, but it may take a while.  In the meantime, you and Allison should stay with me.  I know my house is secure.  I’ll feel better if you’re with me where I can protect you.”

Again, I nodded.  I wasn’t sure about staying at his house, but I was too overwhelmed to argue with anything.  

We opened the door and Officer Brecky came back in.  Dominic gave her the legal pad with the supply list.  

“Thanks,” she said to him.  “Ella, we’ll get this stuff together as soon as possible.  I’ll take care of it, myself.  If I can’t find anything, I’ll call you on your cell.”  

She turned back to Dominic.  “I assume she’ll be with you?” she stated more than asked.

He nodded.  “Yeah.  I’ll take her to the school, then to my house.”

Concern crossed the woman’s face.  “Do you think your house is safe?  If this is Ritter, and he’s after you a hotel may be better.  We can have a car stay outside your house if you want.”

“That would probably be a good idea.  I do think my house is safe, though.  I have a very good security system that includes surveillance, so I would feel safer with Ella and Allison there.”

Brecky conceded, although she didn’t seem too keen on the idea.  She escorted us to the door of the station promising to call soon.

After a silent trip to Allison’s school, I climbed out of the Mustang and trudged up to the door.  I rang the bell, gave my name, and was buzzed in.  My heels clicked on the tiled floor, the sound echoing in the emptiness.  Echoing through my soul.

Allison was sitting at a desk in the office reading a book.  She stood when I entered, “Mom!”  But I held up a hand for her to wait.  She didn’t know about her father, but I had to inform the school that she would be out for the next week.  At least the next week.

I leaned close to the secretary.  “Can I talk to you in private, please?”

“Sure.”  She walked around the desk and led me down a short hall to a conference room.  I closed the door.

I could’t speak right away.  It seemed that voicing the truth out loud solidified it and made it real.  Until now, it was still just a horrific dream.  

“Mrs. Boothe?  Is something wrong?  The police showed up here and asked us to hold Allison after school until you showed up.  Do we need to know something?”  I could never remember this woman’s name.  Why?  Her words were spoken gently, but they yanked on the tattered edges of my life.  

I sat in a chair at the long table and cradled my head in my hands.  My voice was quiet, but pained.  “Allison’s father died.”  There.  Straight to the point.  The quicker the needle went in, the less it hurt, right?  Wrong.

I felt the woman plop in the chair next to me.  Her hand fell like a feather on my back.  “Oh, no.  Mrs. Boothe, I’m so sorry.  You take all the time you need.  I’ll help Allison get her things.”

I sat up, startling her.  I wouldn’t fall apart here.  “No.  I’ll help her.  She’ll be out for at least the next week.  If you can gather her school work, I can pick it up at some point.  Right now, I just want to take her home.”

We stood at the same time and walked back to the main office.  I thanked the secretary as I walked to Allison.  “Hi, baby,” I said stooping down to hug her.  “Let’s go home.”

My little girl had gone through enough tragedy in the past year or so to know when to ask questions.  “Okay, mom,” she said, and kept quiet until we walked out the front door.  

The sight of Dominic’s car broke her silence.  “Wow, mom.  Look at that car.”

Smiling down at her, I asked, “You like that car?”

“Yeah.”  Her voice was awed.  

“That’s our ride, baby.  It’s a friend of mine’s car.”  I opened the door and pushed the seat forward for Allison to climb in the back.  As she buckled up, I slid in the front and turned around to look at her.  “Allison, this is Mr. Dominic.”  I gestured toward him before turning to him and saying, “Dominic, this is my daughter, Allison.”

He smiled his best smile.  “Hello, Allison.  It’s nice to meet you.  Your mom tells me you’re very smart.  Straight A’s.  And first chair flute in the band, too.”  

My modest little girl flushed at the praise.  “Hi, Mr. Dominic.  It’s nice to meet you, too.  I like your car.”

“Thank you.  Maybe I’ll teach you how to drive it when you’re old enough.”  He smiled at her again, then turned to look at me.  “You ready?”

Well that was a loaded question if I’d ever heard one, but I nodded.  “We should pick up dinner,” I said.

Dominic shook his head.  “I have food at home.  I think it’s best if we just go there.”

“Okay.”  I needed to ease the tension in the car, so I pulled my visor down and flipped open the mirror to reflect the back seat.  “How was school, Allison?”

“Good.  We started a new unit in science today.  And I got my test back for the last unit,” she said with typical ten year-old boredom.

“What did you get on your test?” I asked, although I knew the answer.

“An A.”  So matter-of-fact, because she knew I knew.  She always got A’s.

“What was the percentage?”

“One-hundred and eight percent,” she said with a shrug.  

“One-hundred and eight percent?” Dominic joined in with enthusiasm.  “Is that all?  What happened?”

Allison giggled.  “Mr. Dominic, that’s a really good grade.  Better than perfect.  I got all the answers right, plus the extra-credit question.”

“Oh!  Schew!” he replied, holding his hand to his chest in mock relief.  “For a second there I thought it was like one was the best, ‘cause, you know, first place is number one.  You had me scared there.”

Allison was all bubbles.  “No, silly!  That’s only for sports teams and things like that.  One-hundred percent is the best grade you can get.  Plus extra credit, of course.”

“Of course,” Dominic said seriously.

I could’t help but smile.  The two of them hit it off right away with no awkwardness at all.  That was good, considering we were going to be staying with Dominic for a while.