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[ Read more about author La Juana Williams ]

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Something evil has invaded the town of Tiller and women are dying. Robert Whittier, a recent parolee from California, has come to Tiller to do a job. It entails killing successful businesswomen and homemakers, not his usual demographic, but he has a job to do. Since her recent accident, Ray Taylor has been having dreams and visions of sorts, some that relate to the murders. But Ray’s fledgling psychic abilities are erratic and not terribly accurate. When she sees a local farmer in mortal danger, she ignores her usual instinct to stay out of other people’s business, and warns him. The results are more tragic than she could have imagined and some of the town’s folk think her involvement was far more sinister than a mere premonition. The notoriety causes ugly rumors to surface about events that took place in her family when she was a child. She turns to Forrest Black, the new reporter at the Tiller Times, to help her dig up clues from the past that might reveal her father’s killer. Forrest is also a new arrival from California, carrying his own dark secret. Through a series of events and fragmented psychic clues, Ray realizes the killer is a close, somehow connected to her inner circle and if he isn’t stopped she and those closest to her could become his next victims.

Cats Don't Fly

by La Juana Williams


Jerry was in downtown Las Vegas. An uncanopied downtown back in the sixties.

It was a summer night and he'd been killing time in the Horse Shoe and the Four

Queens. He decided to smoke a joint and moved away from the noise and the

throngs of people.

As he stepped into an alley behind the buildings he came fact to face with a Werewolf. Before he had a chance to react he heard someone yell, "Cut!"

Lights flooded the alley and he realized he had walked onto a movie set. I

remember asking him if he believed it was a real Werewolf. He said, at that

moment, he believed.


I was nearly done tilling a little six by eight foot section of dirt I called

my garden. It was early spring and I was planning on planting a few tomato

plants, some peppers and the obligatory squash. Max, who is a part French

Bulldog, part Pug, part mystery ingredient mongrel was at my side when the sky

opened up.

Torrents of rain slammed against us and he started dancing his nervous little "let's go in the house now" dance.

I decided he was right and propped the hoe against the tool shed and was

heading for the back door when everything went black. I heard a tremendous crack of thunder, then silence. I felt myself falling. Then a noise like a freight train enveloped me and grew louder and louder as I swirled faster and faster away from the earth. I was in the tunnel, the one you hear about on daytime talk shows. The one where Christ shows up on the other side and everything is wonderful.

There was just one problem. I didn't believe in Christ. Not that I discriminated.

I didn't believe in Mohammed or Buddha or low that salt causes high blood

pressure. But at that moment, I like Jerry, believed.

Chapter One

Robert Whittier checked the rearview mirror for headlights. One thing he liked about Texas, you could see for miles. Big sky country they called it. He liked that too. There were no lights behind him, no sign of life on either side of the barren stretch of highway. He rolled the beat up Dodge van onto the shoulder, stopped and killed the engine. He pulled out a pair of latex gloves from the glove compartment and carefully slipped his hands into them.

The van's side door screeched as he rolled it open and he took another quick look around to make sure there was no one there to hear it. The full moon cast an eerie light over the gruesome scene inside the rusted hull.

"God dammit." Robert said aloud.

Blood had pooled beneath the woman's body and spilled over the side of the thin plastic shower curtain filling the grooves in the van floor. He would have to clean it later. Too risky to do it here, no matter how desolate it seemed.

He grabbed the woman's shoulders and repositioned her squarely on top of the shower curtain. He gripped both wrists and pulled her out of the van. Her head bounced slightly on the pavement like an under-inflated volleyball. It was then he noticed the lipstick smeared around her mouth.

He pulled a worn red hanky from his back pocket and delicately wiped the lipstick from her face. Then he dug into the right hand pocket of his jeans and pulled out a silver tube. He pulled the top off of the silver tube gave the bottom a twist until a quarter of an inch of bright pink glistened in the moonlight like wet paint. Then, with a practiced hand, he re-applied the lipstick, perfectly following the curve of her lips.

"There." He said. He replaced the lipstick and hanky back in his pockets and drug her further from the van. As soon as he hit the shoulder the dirt and rocks began to tear at the thin plastic, slowing his progress. When he reached the edge of the dry wash he took a minute to catch his breath. He gave her a shove with his boot and watched as she rolled into the gully. He stood for a moment, hands on his hips, relishing the completion of a job well done.

Robert picked up one corner of the torn and bloody shower curtain and wadded it into a tight ball, careful not to get any blood on his clothing. He ripped a heavy green trash bag from the thick plastic roll inside the van and stuffed the shower curtain into it. He did the same with the woman's clothes and shoes. He rifled through her purse, found forty-five dollars and stuck it in the pocket of his jeans, then threw the purse in the garbage bag as well. He hadn't checked for plastic. Hooker's rarely had credit cards and even when they did; using them would leave a trail of electronic breadcrumbs for the cops to follow. No, thank you very much; Robert was strictly a cash man, greenbacks only.

He rolled the van door shut, gave a two-fingered salute towards the dry gulch and jumped in the van.

"Wahoo!" He yelled out the window as he drove away, adrenalin coursing through his veins. Another clean getaway. Well, not exactly, he still had to get rid of the trash bag and clean the van out but that was no problem. He'd stop at a construction site or somewhere equally impersonal when he got to Dallas and dump the bag. A coin-operated car wash would do for the van, just open the back doors and spray it out. Still, it was something he shouldn't have to do. Sloppy work, pure and simple and he was irritated with himself for being so careless.

He hadn't been careful at first. The first time it happened it surprised Robert as much as his victim. It wasn't like he had planned to go out and kill someone. He was no different from any other guy that went out to have a good time, and most of the time that's exactly what happened, nothing more.

But then there was that night in Las Cruces. He was just passing through and decided to stop for a drink. He always looked for blue-collar bars with names like "The Dew Drop Inn" or "The Pit Stop". If the name included "club", "saloon" or "brewery" it was probably too fancy. His kind of bar was small, usually cinder block or wood frame, gravel parking lot, maybe a sign with one or two letters missing. A place where people were friendly enough to let a stranger come in and drink, but not so friendly that they tried to get in your business.

He was tired from driving all day. He'd stop for two or three beers then find a place to park the van, crawl into his sleeping bag and get a few hours shuteye.

She said her name was Darla. She draped herself across the bar stool next to his and ordered a drink from the bartender. It was chilly out but you wouldn't have known it from the way she was dressed. The straps of her red thong twisted and turned in the ridge of fat around her hips above her low cut jeans. A cropped T-shirt was stretched tight across a nice pair of tits. She sat next to him for a few minutes, nursing her drink and mangling the words to Bob Seger's "Turn the Page" playing on the juke box. She rummaged through her purse and fished out a cigarette. She rummaged some more, and came up empty.

"Got a light?" She held the cigarette to her lips and smiled at Robert. He picked up a pack of matches lying in plain sight on the bar and lit the cigarette and then handed her the matches.


Robert didn't answer, hoping she would leave him alone, but that wasn't to be. She caught the bartender's eye and nodded at Roberts's nearly empty beer. When the bartender sat a fresh bottle in front of him, she pushed two dollars across the bar.

"It's on me." She said.

It may have been the first time a woman had paid for his drink. Maybe he had her wrong; she might be all right after all. They talked for a while.

"It's not everyday we get someone as good looking as you in here." She said, running a finger along his jaw.

No one ever said he wasn't good looking. His thick wavy hair was several shades of blond. Women paid good money to have hair like his. In sharp contrast, his brows and lashes were dark, framing eyes so light they looked supernatural. His was six feet of lean, hard muscle whether he took care of himself or not. But he did take care of himself. Robert believed there were two kinds of people, hard and soft. Most people were soft and sooner or later they'd get stomped down by one of the hard ones. He wasn't about to let that happen to him.

He started to like Darla somewhere after the third beer. She had a way about her, a way of making Robert feel good.

"It's a shame you're just passing through. A girl could get to like having someone like you around. But that doesn't mean we can't party." She said.

"I've got a bottle of Jack in the van. We could make it a private party." Robert suggested. He liked New Mexico. He liked Darla. What he had to do wasn't so pressing he couldn't put it off for a while.

Darla shivered inside the cold van.

"Here, have a shot of this, it'll warm you up real quick." Robert handed her the bottle of Jack Daniels. He leaned over to kiss her after she took two big swallows.

"Well, not here." She said, gently pushing him away. "Let's go somewhere everybody in town can't see us."

"Where to?" Robert asked, driving aimlessly down the street they were on.

"My place." She said, directing him through town.

She pointed to a driveway that lead under a carport that leaned to one side. The house itself was small and dark. A piece of plywood covered one of the front windows.

"You live here?" Robert asked. Darla gave a harsh laugh.

"It ain't much but its home." She said, stepping out of the van. Robert followed.

Darla unlocked the door and walked in. Clothes were strewn across a threadbare sofa. Dirty dishes littered the coffee table. A T.V. sat atop a stack of concrete blocks against the far wall, its rolling black and white screen providing the only light.

"Did you bring that Jack in?" Darla asked. Robert held the bottle up in reply. "Good. I'll get a couple of glasses. Wait for me in the bedroom. The door on the right."

The bedroom door stuck. Robert pushed on it and it gave way with a squeal. A queen size bed dominated the close space; a dirty blanket wadded into a ball on a dinghy gray sheet. On one side of the room a small dresser with one drawer missing provided a home for several framed photos. A lamp stood on a nightstand beside the bed with a black shawl draped over the top of the shade. Robert turned on the lamp and started to examine the pictures. The first one showed a younger, prettier Darla in a wedding dress, standing next to a dark, good-looking man in uniform. Before he could look any further Darla walked in.

"Here you go baby." She said handing him a tumbler half filled with whiskey.

She took a swig from her own glass, sat down on the edge of the bed and kicked her shoes off. She leaned back on her elbows, raised her leg and started fondling Robert with her bare foot.

"Mommy?" A small voice came from behind them. Robert turned to see a little girl of seven or eight, leaning against the door jam.

"What do you want, Kalilah?" Darla asked impatiently.

"I'm hungry." The girl said.

"Go to bed. You should have already ate your dinner." Darla snapped. The girl started to cry.

"There wasn't nothing to eat." The girl said.

"There's Corn Flakes in there." Darla countered.

"But no milk." The girl said.

"Then you drank it all, I sure didn't get any of that milk." Darla said.

"Have you got a phone?" Robert asked.

"No, are you kidding? I'm lucky I've still got power. I got the second notice from them on Friday." Darla said.

"Then we're going to need to go to a payphone." He said. He took a twenty out of his wallet and held it out to the little girl.

"I don't want it." She said, wrapping her small arms around her middle and sinking to the floor.

The girl started to cry. Robert leaned over to help her up. She screamed and skittered away on the floor.

"Leave me alone. I don't have to do anything I don't want." She spit out between sobs.

"All I want you to do is pay for a pizza when it gets here. Your Mom and I are going to stop and order it to be delivered. The money is to give the deliveryman when he brings the pizza. O.K.?" He asked.

She nodded but stayed curled up a tight ball.

"Put your shoes back on. We're going to order this little lady a pizza and then go for a drive." Robert told Darla.

"She don't need any..." Darla began.

"Just do it." Robert barked, then smiled to take the edge off. He knew the moment he saw the little girl what had to be done.

Robert drove until he found a store with a pay phone outside the building. He handed Darla the money to make the call and listened to make sure she actually ordered the pizza.

"I just don't feel right you're little girl being there and all. There's a mattress in the back of the van. It's cheaper than a motel when I'm on the road. All we need is a place to park." He said.

"Don't make a difference to me. Turn right at the next light and stay on that road for about three miles. It'll take us right out of town. There's a couple of dirt roads that go off into the desert."

Robert followed her directions and turned off of the main road about a mile out of town. The van bounced along the deep ruts in the road and it was slow going.

"Stop! This is far enough. I can't take it anymore." Darla laughed.

Robert pulled the van off of the road a few feet. She offered him the bottle and he took a big drink.

"Whoa! We should have brought a couple of beers to wash that stuff down with." He said, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand.

"Let me show you how it's done." Darla taunted, chugging three or four ounces of the dark liquor.

"Not bad. Now let me show you how something else is done." Robert nodded his head toward the back of the van. Darla looked back.

"Nice. So is this where you take all the girls?" She smiled coyly.

"Only the special ones, and you're real special." He leaned over to kiss her.

"Hold on, honey. Not so fast." Darla's tone was sweet, but her grip was firm as she held Robert at arms length. "I may be cheap, but I'm not free."

"You're kidding me, right?" After the visit to her house, Robert wasn't surprised to hear she expected to be paid for her attentions.

"A girl's gotta eat, pay bills, you know the drill." She cupped her hand around his crotch and gave him a peck on the lips.

"I knew that. I just thought we'd take care of it after." Robert lied as he pulled out his billfold. "Two hundred do it?"

"Oh baby, that'll do just fine." Darla slipped through the seats onto the mattress in the back of the van. Robert took a quick look out of the front and side windows and leaned across to get something out of the glove box.

"Whatcha doing baby?" Darla asked, her tone still playful.

"Just getting some protection, is all." He said, pulling the latex gloves on and grabbing one of the rubbers. He tossed it to Darla. "Want to help me put this on?"

It was dark in the van, too dark for Darla to see the gloves on Robert's hands. He knew she would feel them, though, so he leaned back on them while she fitted the rubber over him. He kept the gloves handy for when he needed to do a little breaking and entering to keep his bankroll healthy. He also kept a knife in the pouch behind the driver's seat just in case he needed it.

"Take your clothes off." He ordered.

"You're the boss." She smiled and started a slow striptease on her knees.

"Lay down." He said and she did.

One hand went around her throat holding her down while he reached for the knife with the other.

"Let go! What are you doing?" Darla twisted and smacked him in the nose with the palm of her hand.

"Goddammit!" Robert backhanded her as the blood started spurting out of his nose.

"You can have the money back, just let me go." She pleaded

"Oh, I'll get my money back." He said quietly.

She could feel the sharp tip of the blade against her throat and stopped struggling to keep it from cutting her. Robert reached under the driver's seat and grabbed a roll of silver duct tape. Darla saw the tape and struggled to scoot away from him. The knife cut into her neck and it started to bleed, but she didn't notice.

"You're just making this harder on yourself." Robert grabbed both of her shoulders, lifted her up and then slammed her head against the van floor. It stunned her long enough for him to bind her wrists together with the tape.

"You don't have to do this. I'll do anything you want. And I won't tell, I promise." She pleaded.

"You don't get it. This is what I want." He laughed, once again holding the knife tightly against her throat. He slid higher on her chest until his penis was inches away from her mouth. "Now, why don't you do something useful with that pretty mouth of yours, and be real careful with those teeth if you want to live to tell about it."

On hearing `if you want to live to tell about it', a gleam of hope lit Darla's eyes. She slipped the rubber off and used all of her expertise to please Robert. It only took a minute before Robert groaned with pleasure. He closed his eyes and loosened his grip on the knife. Darla took advantage of the moment and tried to buck him off of her while she grabbed for the knife. He jerked it back and the blade slid down her hands, deeply slicing the fingers on her right hand. The bleeding was profuse and covered Robert's genitalia as well as Darla's bare breasts.

"God Dammit! Now look what you did." Robert drew back his arm and punched Darla squarely in the jaw. This time she went out. He then grabbed some rags from a pile and cleaned himself up as best he could and then did the same to Darla just as she began to stir.

"Good, you're awake. I wouldn't want you to miss this." He said, then entered her while allowing the sharp edge of the blade to sink into her flesh right below her navel. He inched the knife upward in time with his thrusts. She screamed, twisting and turning wildly to no avail. Just before he climaxed he pulled the blade out and drove it through her heart as he came. Darla's dying breath rattled through her chest and she was silent.

Robert dressed in some clean clothes he kept in the van and drove another three miles down the rough road. He was on a high like he'd never known before. Even though he should have been worried about getting caught, he wasn't. He felt strong and powerful, superhuman, nothing or nobody could touch him. He relived the moment he plunged the knife into Darla, getting hard all over again.

Finally he pulled over, not because he had found the perfect spot, but because the urge was too strong. He grabbed another rubber from the glove box and went around to the side door of the van. He jerked it open and pulled Darla, feet first until her legs hung out of the van. He pushed them open, hurriedly put the rubber on and took her again.

After catching his breath, he pulled her the rest of the way out of the van and pushed her body to the road's edge. He grabbed the last of the rags and sopped up the blood pooling in the van's floor. He found a half full garbage bag and stuffed his bloody clothes, the rags and Darla's clothes into it. He checked her purse, took the three dollars and fifty-nine cents and a silver tube of lipstick, then tossed it into the bag. The mattress was ruined, covered in blood. He'd have to dump it, but far enough away from Las Cruces that no one would make the connection.

Before he left Robert carefully brushed Darla's hair from her face and outlined her lips with the bright pink lipstick. She was covered in blood and he knew some of it was his. He knew bleach would wash away DNA, but he didn't have any. What he did have was a five-gallon can of gas he kept for emergencies.

He took a good look around. The lights of Las Cruces were miles away. Chances were that no one would notice a fire burning this far out of town. Even if they did, he'd be long gone before anyone could be at the scene.

He doused her body with the gas, tossed a match on it, waited a few seconds to make sure the fire was going good and then drove away.

Robert thought back to that night. He had been impulsive and careless. It was just a matter of luck that he hadn't been connected to the murder. At least, as far as he knew, he hadn't been.

But it was definitely time to quit taking so many chances. Time to think things through, be better prepared. He knew all about forensics. In the New Folsom T.V. room the favorites were shows like "America's Most Wanted", "The New Detectives" and "Cold Cases". They became well educated in DNA evidence, hair testing and the rest. Robert knew how a single fiber or tire print could mess you up.

An orange glow began to filter across the eastern horizon as the sun rose. Robert turned on the radio and flipped the dial until he found a decent country station. Country music always made him feel sad and little lonely. He thought about the girl in the dry wash. She said her name was Amber but her driver's license said Karen Boothe, twenty-seven from Hurst. She said she was twenty-three, another lie. Robert had known she wasn't twenty-three, in fact, he thought she was more like thirty-three.

The papery skin and fine, dry lines that fanned out from her lips were dead give always. He knew the type, too much sun and too many cigarettes. The drinking and drugging hadn't helped, but she had that fair complexion going against her. Robert had noticed women with blue eyes and blond hair aged early. Ones who boozed it up and partied, like his mother, were old before their time.

Chapter Two

When I opened my eyes there was a man smiling down at me. It was my father and he looked exactly as I had remembered him. Actually he looked more like himself than I remembered. There was a pockmark between his eyebrows I had forgotten he had. He wore the sixties uniform; faded jeans, bare feet and tie-died T-shirt.

He stood there whole and alive, no bullet holes, no blood. He said something. I couldn't hear it.

"What Daddy?"

The smile was gone. He looked past me at someone or something behind me and the expression on his face was chilling. I looked back but there was nothing there. When I turned to him, he was gone and the darkness had returned.

"Daddy?" I called out.

"It's O.K." A voice answered me.

I opened my eyes to a white-hot glow and shut them again.

"Stay with me." The voice said.

I saw a woman. She was dressed in white.

"Am I dead?" I asked. I had always been afraid of dying, afraid that when we died, it wasn't the end. Because if it was the end, we wouldn't know it, couldn't miss something we weren't aware of. No, what scared me was that we might go on. But instead of harps and peace and happiness, we would just go on the way already have; scared, confused and basically alone, not understanding anything more than we do now. That's what scared me about dying.

"God, I hope not." The woman said.


"If you're dead, that means I'm dead too and I am not going through eternity thirty pounds overweight. That is not happening." She laughed.

I took another look around. Paintings of pastel flowers adorned otherwise drab walls. On my right a thin white curtain hanging from a rail along the ceiling separated me from the rest of the room. I was in a hospital bed. Darkness flanked a row of windows across the wall to my left. The woman gazed at her watch while her right hand held my limp wrist.

"What am I doing here?" I asked, the last thing I remembered was, well I couldn't really remember much at the moment.

"As near as we can tell, you were struck by lightening." The nurse informed her.

"You're kidding me."

"No, we don't kid." The nurse wrote something in a chart and smiled. "Welcome back."

I struggled to sit up, but stopped when a sharp pain shot through my elbow. I looked down to see an I.V. tube running from my arm up to a metal stand holding two plastic bags full of a clear liquid.

"What`s in those?" I asked, looking up at the bags.

"Something to keep you hydrated and infection free. Lie back, you're not in any condition to make any sudden moves." The nurse's touch was gentle but firm as she guided me back into a prone position.

Her nametag read "Rebecca". She was somewhere in her early fifties. She wore very little make-up on a face framed by short brown, permed hair. She was a pretty woman despite the lines etched in her face like rungs on a tree. She wore the traditional white nurses' dress rather than the colorful smocks more common today. Her feet nestled in comfortable white wedged shoes.

"You're not fat." She was tall, close to six feet, and big busted which gave the illusion of heaviness.

"What?" Rebecca asked.

"What you said earlier, about being fat, you're not."

"Patient is mildly delusional." Rebecca laughed.

"So, what makes you think I was hit by lightening?" More alert now, pain radiated from at least three places I could pinpoint.

"Hmmm, let's see. We found you unconscious in your yard yesterday. Did I mention it was during a pretty nasty thunderstorm? You're left shoulder and right foot show burn marks, indicative of entry and exit wounds. Since you were admitted, we've run every test known to man on you. The results indicate that you are a disgustingly healthy individual. Lightening was the only thing we could come up with unless you have some better ideas." The nurse rattled off.

"Oh my God!" I jumped up, but the I.V. held me in place.

"What it is it, dear?"

"Max! Where's Max?"

"Who's Max?" The nurse asked, appropriately alarmed.

"My dog. He would have been with me. He's not a doggy dog, the kind who can take care of himself. He's a pug, bulldog, helpless type dog. Oh God, oh God, oh God." My panic was full-blown and overwhelming. I gave Max ten minutes, twenty max, existing without me.

"I'm sure he's all right." Rebecca tried to reassure me, but it wasn't happening. She just didn't understand the situation. Fortunately, at that moment, Sara walked in the door.

"You're awake!" She screamed, running to the bed. "Thank God! I've been so worried. I didn't think you were ever going to wake up. I'm so relieved."

"I'm sorry." I said automatically. Chances were, if there was a problem, I was responsible.

"Don't be silly." She said between sobs, "It's not your fault."

"Sara, you've got to find Max. He was with me. You know Max, he's not O.K." I broke off, not able to say anymore without breaking down.

"He's fine, he's with Margaret." Sara smiled and wiped the tears from her face.

"Are you sure? Positive?" Sara nodded, a silly smile spreading across her face. Margaret was my neighbor and as neighbors went, she was golden. She never snooped, never interfered. She didn't even complain when I went on my loud music/house cleaning binges. She had lived in the house across the street before I was born and was always there when I needed her. I would be there for her too, but she'd never asked.

"He saved your life, you know." Sara informed me.

"Max, no way! How?" I knew my little dog could be heroic, I just knew it.

"You were unconscious, face down in the yard. Max run up and down the street, barking and barking, until Margaret heard him. She found you and called the ambulance." Sara said.

"Crap! She called an ambulance?" Great, that's all I needed, a huge bill for an ambulance.

"Of course, what did you expect her to do? Carry you piggyback to the hospital?"

"She could have called a cab."

"May I interject?" Rebecca chimed in. We both looked at her expectantly.

"You could be dead? Isn't your life worth a few hundred dollars?"

"I'm not sure about that, but it's definitely worth ten bucks for a cab. Besides I might have woken up five minutes later and been fine." I argued.

"Or not." The nurse said sharply. "You were unconscious, lying in mud, exposed to the elements. In fact, you were lying face down. You might have drowned."

"You're right. I don't mean to sound ungrateful. It's only money, right?" I agreed.

Sara's eyes narrowed as she listened. She knew me well enough to know I wouldn't brush off a large debt that easily.

"Right. A minor inconvenience to the problems you might have had." Rebecca said.

"It's a lot to process. Would it be all right if I had a few moments alone with my friend?" I smiled sweetly, hoping it looked sincere.

"Let me get your temp first. Then I'll let the Doc know you're awake. I'm sure he'll want to visit with you." Rebecca had already taken my blood pressure and now scanned my ear with a thermometer.

"Did I pass?"

"With flying colors. 98.6 and your blood pressure is 110 over 75. Doesn't get much better than that. I'll give you ten minutes or so." Rebecca said as she walked out.

As soon as the door closed behind her, I pushed the blankets off of my leg and struggled to sit up, forgetting the I.V. needle lodged in my right arm until it stopped me short.

"You're going to sneak out of here, aren't you?" Sara asked in a hushed voice.

"There won't be any sneaking about it. I'm going to get dressed, get my things and leave. See if you can find my clothes." I pointed at the small closet behind her.

"I hate when you involve me in these things." Sara protested but headed towards the closet while I jerked the I.V. out of my arm.

"What things? Ouch!" It hurt and it started bleeding. I grabbed a Kleenex off the nightstand and applied pressure to the inside of my elbow, lifting my arm over my head. I pushed the covers the rest of the way off and sat up with my feet dangling over the side of the bed. "I don't feel so great, a little dizzy."

"I can't imagine why. Oh wait, you were struck by lightening. Hmmm, could that be it?" I didn't care for Sara's tone. She was choosing to be difficult instead of supportive. She pulled a crumpled, muddy pair of jeans from the closet floor and held them at arm's length.

"They'll have to do. Can you help me get into them?" I asked.

"I can, but I don't really want to. I'm worried Ray. Can't you at least stay long enough for the Dr. to examine you? I don't know what the repercussions of being struck by lightening are, but they can't be good."

"Sara, just slip them over my feet. I can take it from there."

"All right." She shook the jeans out then knelt down so I could angle my feet into them. "It couldn't hurt to talk to him. He might even release you."

"I'm sure he would once he learns I don't have any insurance. Another Dr. visit will be that much more I can't afford. Sam's idea of benefits at the diner is being closed on Christmas day." I pulled my jeans up, zipped them and then leaned back against the bed, out of breath.

"J.C. and I could lend you the money." She said as she walked back to the closet and retrieved my equally filthy T-shirt.

"He'd love that."

"He wouldn't mind at all." Sara said too quickly.

"I can't. I appreciate the offer, but you know how long it's taken me to get back on track since the divorce. The thought of being in debt again is just too scary. I just can't do it." I didn't add that I'd rather cut off my pinkie than ask J.C. for money. I resented the fact that she would even consult him about helping me financially. Sara's money, and it was considerable, had been Sara's long before J.C. rolled into town. He'd appeared out of nowhere five years earlier and swept Sara off of her feet. He talked her into eloping in Vegas before anyone even knew they were engaged. It wasn't that I didn't believe a good looking, younger man couldn't fall in love with my stunning friend. I just didn't believe this one had.

"I know. I'm just worried about you." She said.

"Don't be. I'll be fine. All there going to do here is slap some suave on my burns, serve me some really bad food and charge me several thousand dollars." My arm had quit bleeding so I slipped my T-shirt on and walked over to the mirror to assess the damage. I looked like hell. My dark brown hair was caked in darker brown mud. Mascara was smudged beneath my eyes and normally olive complexion was pale with a yellowish cast. Sara walked up behind me and pulled my hair back into make shift ponytail.

"You have looked better." She said.

"Thanks." And then I noticed Sara was wearing a pair of faded jeans, dirty tennis shoes and a Cowboy's T-shirt that had seen better days. "You look kind of scruffy yourself."

"Because all I've been able to think about is that I might be losing my best friend. Here, let me." Sara wet a washrag and dabbed at my face. "I wish you'd let me do something with your hair. You've worn it this way for the last ten years."

"Too bad I didn't stay unconscious longer, you could have done a complete make-over."

"That's a great idea. It'll be my get-well gift to you. What do you say?" She really seemed excited at the prospect. Sara owned and operated "The Fifth Flamingo", the town's largest and most successful beauty salon.

It had taken me so long to get dressed I was afraid Rebecca would be back before we could make our escape, so I agreed to the make-over to get Sara moving. I peeked out of the doorway to make sure no one would see us. It was clear so I motioned Sara to follow and headed towards the nearest bank of elevators. The corridor was brightly lit but the carpeting muffled our steps and I tried to walk at a normal gate but the tenderness in my right foot was making it difficult. There was a nurse engrossed in a chart at the Nurses Station, but it wasn't Rebecca. I kept my head down as we walked by.

"Excuse me." She called out. We picked up the pace, neither of us looking back.

"Excuse me." Louder and more insistent this time, she sounded like she was right behind us. I stopped and turned to face her.

"Where do you think you're going?" She asked primly, staring at the hospital band around my wrist I hadn't thought to remove.


"You can't do that." She crossed her arms over a purple smock sporting tropical fish and glared at me. She was in her mid-thirties with long black hair pulled tightly into a ponytail on the back of her head. Her wide, flat features were frozen in a zero tolerance expression.

"What kind of shoes are those?" Asked Sara who had been staring at the floor during the entire encounter.

"They're Z-Coil." The nurse turned sideways and balanced her right foot on its toe. A huge spring was embedded in what would normally be the heel of her shoe. "They're great, like walking on air."

"Where on earth did you find them?" Sara asked, intrigued.

"I bought these online but then I found out there's an outlet in Lawton."

"Expensive?" Sara asked.

"But worth every penny." The nurse nodded.

"Very, very cool." I said and then turned to walk away. The Nurse Ratchet personality resurfaced immediately.

"If you leave against doctors orders we cannot be responsible for anything that happens to you." She snapped.

"Then I guess I'll have to hold someone else responsible. Thanks anyway." I grabbed Sara's elbow and propelled her away. "Let's get out of here before she calls out the troops."

Sara started to say something but thought better of it. When we got to the first floor, I shoved my hand in my pants pockets to hide the hospital bracelet. People still started but probably because I looked like a mud wrestler. Finally we were outside and Sara pointed to the third row of cars to our right, but I was exhausted to go any farther.

"I'll wait here. Hurry." I gasped.

She took me literally and started jogging across the parking lot. She was the jogging type, a star volleyball player in high school, and still in shape some twenty years later. She usually took the stairs instead of the elevator and parked in the back forty of every parking lot. She had thickened a little around the middle over the years but her long legs and Norwegian good looks were still attention getters.

In less than three minutes she was back. She leaned across her new Toyota Avalon and pushed open the passenger door. I slid into the seat and managed to pull the door closed, but fastening the seat belt would have to wait until I caught my breath.

Sara insisted we stop on the grocery store on the way home. My brain was so scrambled I couldn't remember what I had at home or what I needed. Sara knew me well enough to get the essentials; dog food, diet coke and toilet paper. Anything else I could live without.

I used her cell while she was in the store to call Margaret and ask her to deliver Max to the house so I wouldn't have to make an extra stop. After reassuring her I was O.K., she agreed.

I needed to call Sam, my boss, and let him know why I had been a "no call, no show" and that I probably wouldn't be in tomorrow, maybe not for a couple of days. I dreaded doing though because of the way Sam always made me feel. He had never refused a request for a day off from me, but he managed to let me know what a burden it would be for everyone else to work short handed. So, unless it was major I usually ended up going in. This was major, but I decided it would be easier to let Sara call him for me. I felt a little like a kid having their Mom write them a phony excuse to skip P.E.

Sitting alone in the car, I realized I was afraid to go home.

Chapter Three

Max was thrilled to see me. No doubt he was concerned that becoming an orphan might impose on his "Kibbles and Bits and monthly visit to the doggy spa" lifestyle. He tucked his tail under his back legs and flung his compact body around in tight little circles.

"Look Sara, he's doing three-sixties." He only did three-sixties on special occasions, like after a visit to the vet or long ride in the car. I held the door open for Sara while she carried the groceries into the house.

"He's so glad to see his momma. Poor thing, he must have been terrified."

I closed the door and plopped down in my favorite chair, a brown leather recliner that had seen better days. Sara carried the groceries into the kitchen and started putting them away. Max followed her into the kitchen hoping for a treat. Evidently she didn't give him one because he walked back into the living room with his empty food bowl in his mouth. He tossed it on the floor, his subtle way of telling me he was ready to eat.

"Forget it. You had pork chops. How dumb do you think I am?"

"He's such a little con artist." She said, returning from the kitchen. "Do you want me to stay?"

My first reaction was to say no, falling into the `I don't need help from anybody' routine. The fact of the matter was that I wasn't looking forward to being alone. I wasn't feeling tough at all, in fact, quite the opposite. The journey home from the hospital had left me very weak and I was still shaken up over seeing my father. Still, I didn't want to impose on Sara.

"Don't you have to work tomorrow?" I asked her. She not only owned the Salon, but worked there five and sometimes six days a week.

"My first appointment isn't until ten thirty. I could be there in plenty of time." She said.

"You really wouldn't mind?"

"No, it would be fun, like the good old days before, I mean, when you were single." She stumbled over the words.

"I'm still single. You mean the good old days before I married Tom, the sociopath?"

"Well yes." She admitted.

I resented Sara bringing up my marriage to Tom even though it had been a disaster. He blew into my life like an F5 and when he left there was debris everywhere. Everyone I knew saw him for what he was long before I did, and most of them told me so. I nearly lost my job, all my money was gone, but the psychological damage was by far the worst. I felt like a fool, a gullible stupid useless fool.

So suddenly I was single again with injured pride and a boatload of shame and my life in a shambles. My friends stood beside me, Sara in the forefront, but what I couldn't tell them was how much I hurt. I had loved Tom, maybe I still did. How could I tell them that I loved this man who had cheated on, lied to and stolen from me? I couldn't. I didn't. The loss I felt was never acknowledged as everyone celebrated my escape from the jerk.

And then there was J.C. Wagoner, Sara's husband. I didn't like the man and I didn't trust him. Being a long haul trucker, he spent a lot of time on the road, and I had a feeling all of his activities weren't exactly above board. But Sara had never shared suspicions with me and I wasn't about to voice my concern without some hard evidence to back me up. Besides, at the moment there was another man weighing heavily on my mind.

"Something really weird happened." I said. Sara raised an eyebrow queuing me to go on. "While I was unconscious I saw my father."


"Yes, it was really strange. I could see him, even smell him, but I couldn't hear what he was saying. At first he was smiling like he was happy to see me, but then his face changed. He was pointing over my shoulder and I'm sure he was trying to warn me about something." I went on.

Sara knew about my father, the bare facts at least. It had always been difficult for me to talk about his death. I was young, seven at the time, my little brother was three. He and my mother had separated. I've heard that he was cheating on her and that she was cheating on him. I really don't know the truth. We were staying with my grandmother; in the house I now occupied.

My father had rented a house on Pine Street, not in the best part of town. I thought they were going to work things out. We were going to visit him. I remember my mother talking to him on the phone right before we left. She smiled a lot while they were talking and had that dreamy look on her face she only had around my Dad.

We parked in the driveway and I ran inside while my mother got my little brother out of the car. I walked in the front door and the house exploded with noise. I knew right away it was a gunshot. I raced into the bedroom to find my father propped up against the headboard on his bed, bleeding from the head. His 38 lay next to him on the floor.

His death certificate stated the cause of death as accidental but everyone believed it was a suicide, everyone but me. I never knew what my mother thought, she wouldn't say. In fact, that's about the time she crawled inside a whiskey bottle. After that she never had much to say about anything.

"What do you think that was about?" Sara asked.

"I don't know. It was so real. It was like he was really there."

"Maybe it was your subconscious trying to reassure you or something. Your father would represent a strong, protective person in your life and you were certainly in a stressful situation." She said.

"Maybe so." That was the most logical explanation, but I knew better. Sara didn't seem receptive to anything other than a logical explanation, so I dropped it.

She laughed at me when I had asked her to call Sam and tell I'd likely miss a couple days of work. It seemed Sam and the whole town knew what had happened to me. I was a celebrity of sorts. Sara assured me that Sam didn't expect me in any time soon.

"Let's get a movie." She suggested.

"Good idea, it'll be like old times. I'll shower while you go get one."

"Maybe you should wait until I get back." She said.

"No, just go. I'll be fine. We need popcorn and chocolate."

"Goes without saying. O.K., I'll be back in a flash." She promised.

I sat for a moment after she left. Max sat contentedly at my feet chewing his favorite squeaky toy. I looked around the room and tried to see things the way other people might. It was discouraging. Most of the furniture was left over from my grandmother's era. The blue floral patterned couch sagged and a block of wood had replaced a broken leg. An afghan lay across the back, dusty and in need of a good washing it might not survive. A layer of dust coated the coffee table, bookshelves and television and the carpet needed shampooed. I knew there were dirty dishes in the kitchen, not a lot, but still.

"Max, we've got to start keeping this place up better." He looked up at me and cocked his head as if considering it.

The red light on my answering machine blinked relentlessly. I had noticed it when we arrived but didn't really want to deal with it. At the same time I knew I couldn't relax until I had checked it. The first one was from my boss.

"I heard what happened. Give me a call when you're feeling better. Don't worry about us, we can get by without you. I mean, we need you... Shit, I hate these..." followed by a beep prematurely ending Sam's message.

The second one was from Margaret telling me she had Max. I didn't recognize the last voice. Someone by the name of Forrest Black, from the Tiller Times, asking me to call him. Poor guy, his parents must have had a sense of humor to saddle him with a name like that. Must have been a slow news day like most days in Tiller. Still, I had no intention of returning that call.

I decided I'd better hurry or Sara would be back before I was out of the shower. I removed my filthy clothes as gingerly as possible making sure my jeans didn't rake across the bottom of my burned sole. When I tried to check out the shoulder wound in the mirror I was distracted by my hair. I couldn't believe how filthy it was, there was even dried mud in my eyebrows. That hospital had better not charge me for a sponge bath.

Finally I was able to twist around enough to see the back of my shoulder. It was swollen and puffy and way too red, but didn't feel as bad as it looked. Until the hot water hit, then if felt like someone was stabbing me with a hot poker.

Fortunately the pain in my foot took my mind off of the pain in my shoulder. I shampooed my hair in seconds, moving like a contortionist to keep the water from running over my burns.

I dried off as delicately as possible and opted for a long oversized T-shirt and panties. I could smell popcorn. Sara was back.

"Some reporter from the Tiller Times left a message. Wants me to call him." I told her.

"I'm not surprised. You made the six and ten o'clock news."

"You're kidding me."

"Nope, I told you, you're a celebrity." She laughed.

"That's so embarrassing. What movie did you get?"

"Pirates of the Caribbean, Dead Man's Chest."

"Sara, we've both seen that." I protested.

"Johnny Depp in a pirate costume?" She said with a big grin.

"You're right, of course. What was I thinking? We should probably buy a copy."

Chapter Four

It was ten o'clock when I woke up. I couldn't believe it. I couldn't tell you the last time I had slept until ten. It left me totally disorientated. For a second I thought I was late to work and then I remembered. No work today.

I called Sara's name but I knew she was already gone to work. The house just had that empty feel. Max pranced around the room, waiting for me to get up and let him out. I automatically rolled over on my side and began to sit up. The pressure of my weight against the mattress sent a searing pain through my shoulder. I collapsed back onto the bed.

"Whew! That hurts so bad it almost feels good." I said to Max, who was watching me with his ears up and head cocked to one side.

"Let's try it again." This time I rolled onto the opposite shoulder and pushed slowly into a sitting position. I took a deep breath and put my feet on the floor. I could feel the tenderness in her right foot just resting it on the cool hardwood, but it was nothing compared to my shoulder. The pain subsided into a steady throb. It was too deep for a burn; I must have wrenched it when I fell.

But pain or no pain, Max needed to go outside. I leaned against the wall and took a good look at my injured foot. The most badly burned area was in the arch. I tried walking on the toes and ball of my foot. The skin stretched uncomfortably, but it was bearable.

Max ran ahead of me into the kitchen and danced impatiently at the back door. I let him out and then plopped down in the booth wedged under her kitchen window. The seats were upholstered in red Naugahyde that matched the red swirls on the Formica tabletop. The chrome trim around the table was reflected in the retro appliances that adorned the kitchen.

The booth had been a gift from Sam when he remodeled the diner last year. It had taken some work and the sacrifice of some precious cabinet space but in the end, the booth fit perfectly beneath the kitchen window and had turned the room into one of my favorites.

A lazy river of dust particles rode the sunlight that filtered through the red and white checked curtains. The effect was hypnotic and I found my thoughts wandering aimlessly over the events of the past few days. I couldn't remember anything after starting to work in the garden. I kept seeing my father's face. I don't know what I found more frightening, seeing my dead father or the expression he was wearing. Something had terrified him and he was frantic to warn me about it.

"O.K. Ray, take it easy." I said out loud. Yes, I talk to myself and to Max and to the plants. I think that most people who live alone do. I don't see anything wrong with it. I try to avoid talking to myself when I'm driving though, because that's entirely too embarrassing when you realize the guy in the car next to you is watching.

Max scratched on the screen door and brought me out of my reverie.

Something was bothering me, something I kept pushing back into murky depths of my subconscious, but in unguarded moments it would push its way to the surface and demand attention.

The problem was I no longer felt comfortable being alone. I had lived alone since Tom and I split up three years ago and I had been alone a long time before he showed up. In the beginning I missed having someone else around. Even with the constant barrage from the television or radio, the house seemed big and empty. But in time I grew to enjoy the solidarity. If I felt like cooking, I cooked. The same went for cleaning, yard work and everything else. I liked deciding what television programs to watch. If I was late getting home from work, there was no one waiting to interrogate me, no one to accuse me of squandering money if I decided to buy a new outfit.

Now I found myself feeling anxious, vulnerable. Often I had the feeling someone or something was watching me. Shadowy shapes took form only to vanish when I looked squarely at them. I was hearing strange noises at night. I'd actually climb out of bed, check the doors and windows and peek through the blinds, but there was never anything there.

It was probably nothing. Maybe a little post traumatic stress from the lightening strike. Once I was on the mend and back in my usual routine it would probably go away.


After two days of bed rest and more daytime T.V. than anyone should have to endure, I was ready to go back to work. It was either that or give the house a good spring-cleaning. The days were growing longer and the thermometer on my front porch crept close to the ninety-degree mark by mid-afternoon. The strengthening sun illuminated cobwebs in hard to reach corners and dust along the baseboards. I was fastidious at the diner but could never quite generate the same enthusiasm at home.

Bored, restless and unwilling to take on the house, I called Sam to let him know I would be in the following morning.

"You sure you're up to it?" He asked.

"As sure as I can be without actually trying it."

"All right then. Guess it won't hurt to have Jimmy work mornings for a week or so." He suggested.

"Probably wouldn't hurt."

Jimmy Langley bussed tables, washed dishes, did side work and sometimes even cooked at the diner. He dreamed of being a famous rock star and played with a rag tag band on weekends in some of the local clubs. There were a couple of problems with that. Jimmy was only mildly talented, but the real problem was his looks. His bright orange hair looked like a perm gone bad though it was natural. He tall, rail thin and his skin so freckled it formed red splotches where they ran together. He reminded me of an adolescent giraffe.

Jimmy was a good kid but lacked initiative and always had to be told what to do. He kept an empty quart-sized tin can behind the counter full of Dr. Pepper. After he'd finish one job, he'd take a seat at the counter and nurse his Dr. Pepper until someone gave him something else to do. But any help was better than none at all and I was glad Jimmy would be there for my first days back.


The first couple of days back at the diner went fairly well. Jimmy, bussed all of the tables, helped stock, clean and even took a few orders. Sam was uncharacteristically patient and the customers were great. The regulars were anxious to have a look and ask me what it was like to be struck by lightening. The rest of the customers heard about it soon enough from the general buzz in the diner and the extra tips almost made up for the days I had missed.

Day three did not go as well. It started out like any other morning. Among the breakfast crowd was Cecil Crepps and his two sons, Daniel and David. It was their custom to stop in for pancakes once a week when they came to town for supplies.

The Crepps had lived on the same ten-acre dirt farm twelve miles out of town for four generations. They raised vegetables, hay and watermelon, sold fresh eggs when their hens were laying. During the winter months the boys, nearly grown now, picked up odd jobs. I had had gotten to know the boys a little when I had hired them to tear down the old smoke house on the property two winters ago. Cecil was wearing a red flannel shirt and a pair of faded bib overalls. The two boys wore jeans, David with a red and white striped polo shirt and Daniel in green flannel like his father.

They had eaten and I was warming Cecil's coffee when it happened. I started feeling a band of pressure around my head, as if I were wearing a tight headband. Then I noticed movement outside the window next to their booth.

Different scenes, each one lasting for only a second, spilled across the window. I saw a tractor. Then a man was driving it down a dirt road. It looked like Cecil. Suddenly the tractor was on its side and the man was pinned under it.

"Hey little lady, watch what you're doing!" Cecil snapped as the coffee filled his cup and began to spill onto the table.

"Oh, I'm sorry." As soon as he spoke the scene outside the window evaporated, replaced by a car driving by and a homeless man talking to himself. I sat the coffee pot on an empty table and ran to the counter for a dishtowel. I still didn't feel quite right, kind of light headed.

"I am so sorry." I lifted Cecil's plate to mop up the spilled coffee.

"No harm done." Cecil said.

I finished wiping the table, then stood staring at Cecil, trying to find the words to tell him about what I had just seen. It didn't occur to me to keep quiet about it, I knew he had to know.

"Are you all right?" Cecil asked.

"No, I'm not. Were you planning on plowing today?" I asked.

"Yes." He said, staring at me as if I'd lost my mind.

"You can't. Don't go anywhere near a tractor today. Something terrible will happen. I saw it, just now, that's why I spilled the coffee."

Cecil didn't say anything at all. He looked at each boy in turn and then raised an eyebrow ever so slightly. As if on cue, the boys began to laugh. My cheeks burned with embarrassment, but I kept on.

"You've got to listen to me Cecil. If you get on that tractor today, you'll die." I knew how ridiculous I sounded, but at the same time, I knew it was true.

"All right." He said, cutting the boys off in mid-laugh. They stared at their father in amazement. "Not that I put any stock in this kind of thing, but you've never seemed particularly flighty. If it means that much to you, I guess one of the boys can plow today."

"Thank you." I said, weak with relief.

"No need to thank me. You're only looking out for me. Daniel, guess you'll be plowing today. No lolly gagging after school, you get right home and get to it."

"Why me? Why not David?" Daniel protested.

"I'm not having my fields look like they was plowed by a drunken mule and David can't plow a straight row to save his soul." Cecil said.

"That's a fact." David solemnly agreed.

Cecil finished his coffee quickly and went to the Tiller Times to pay. I felt more than a little foolish, but forced myself to make eye contact with him for a second and thanked him for coming to the diner. He nodded, but quickly looked away.

After the breakfast rush, I took a much-needed break. Sam came through the swinging door from the kitchen, poured him and me a cup of coffee, then sat on the stool next beside me. Grease stains marched across the front of his thin white t-shirt though his fingers and nails were scrubbed clean.

"Jimmy's talking some craziness about you telling Cecil Crepps he was gonna die." He said.

"It's true. That's what I saw, Sam, clear as day."

"What do you mean `you saw it'? Sam asked.

"I saw something out of the corner of my eye and when I looked to see what it was I saw Cecil on his tractor and then I saw it turn over and he was killed." Sam was the last person I wanted to share this with, knowing what a no-nonsense type of guy he was. His attitude was summed up the bumper sticker on his truck that said, "I believe in gun control, that's why I use two hands."

"Hmmm." Sam said.

"I had to tell him, Sam. Even if it was only my imagination, I had to say something. I couldn't live with myself if I hadn't said anything and he was killed."

"Ray, you've been through a lot. Maybe you came back to work too soon. Maybe you should take a little more time off." Sam suggested.

"I can't do that, Sam. I can't afford it and you know that. I know I'm not one hundred percent yet and I've been leaning on Jimmy a lot, but I'm already doing a lot better than I was my first day back." I couldn't stand the thought of going back to that house all alone and I really did need the money.

"That's not what worries me, Ray. God knows it won't hurt Jimmie to do a little extra around here. It's what happened with Cecil. I can't have you telling customers they're going to die." Sam said.

"Well, what would you have me do? What if...."

"I just can't have it, RayAnn. I can't have it." The only other time Ray remembered Sam addressing her as "RayAnn" was when she had been interrupted while putting the grocery delivery away and left fifteen pounds of shrimp out to spoil.

"All right, it won't happen again." Before I could say anything else the bell above the front door chimed, signaling the arrival of two new customers.

Sam took the opportunity to retreat to the kitchen while I made my way to their table to greet them and hand out menus. When I returned to the counter for the coffee pot Jimmie was waiting.

"Sorry." He said, eyes downcast.

"It's O.K." I smiled to let him know she wasn't angry.

"I didn't tell him about it to get you in trouble. I was just talking." He explained.

"I know. Don't worry about it."

It was tough getting through the rest of her shift. I was exhausted. I don't know if it was because of the accident or the incident with the Crepps. When Carol came in thirty minutes early to relieve her, I was thrilled.

"You're early."

"I had a hair appointment and there wasn't any sense in driving all the way home and back again. I didn't think you'd mind getting off a little early, but if you do I can sit at the counter and have a Coke." Carol said.

Carol paid a weekly visit to Sara's salon to have her hair done. Carol's fifty-one years were starting to show in the little roll around her middle and the skin that sagged around her jaw line. Even though she carefully applied her make up everyday and vigilantly colored the gray from her hair she wasn't now, nor ever had been a pretty woman. Yet she was never without a boyfriend, sometimes more than one.

"No way! Give me a minute to balance the till and I'm gone." Ray said.

"Hey, did you hook up with that reporter from the Tiller Times yesterday?" Carol asked.

"No. There was a message on my machine from a reporter when I got home from the hospital. He had a weird name like Dark Forrest or something."

"Forrest Black."

"That's it. No, I never called him back. Did he come in here looking for me?" I asked.

"Yesterday, a few minutes after you left. You should call him, Ray. He was really nice and not at all bad looking." Carol said.

"The last thing I need in my life right now is a man."

"There are some good ones out there, you know." Carol said.

"I've got one. He thinks I'm wonderful, he doesn't snore, well he snores a little and his name is Max." I told her.

"Well, I gave him your number and told him to call you." Carol said.

"If it weren't for the fact that my number is in the book and he has already called me, that would make me really mad. I don't want you playing matchmaker, Carol. Need I remind you of the last guy you set me up with?"

"A lot of people are Elvis fans." Carol said.

"Yes, but their walls aren't covered, and I mean literally covered, with his pictures and they don't wear their sideburns like he did."

"I thought the sideburns kind of made him look like he had more hair." Carol tried to keep a straight face but couldn't.

"This conversation is over."

I counted the Tiller Times three times before accepting the fact it was ten dollars short. I wasn't surprised. The money was always off anytime Jimmy handled more than two transactions. He wasn't taking the money. I had worked with him long enough to know that. He just couldn't count. Even though the Tiller Times told him exactly how much the change should be he always managed to give back too much or too little. Customers were quick to point out when they were shortchanged, but not all of them spoke up when the mistake was in their favor. Normally I would make Jimmy split the difference with her, but I just didn't have the heart today. I couldn't have made it through the morning without him. I counted ten ones from my tip money and put them in the Tiller Times.

I was beat and should have headed for home. But no, that would have been the

smart thing to do. Instead, I headed out to find the Crepp's place. Later I would consider that one of the worst decisions I'd ever made.


Robert was instinctively drawn to the seedy underbelly of every town. Fort Worth was no different. He drove past the high-end shops and festive sidewalk cafes downtown, until he began to see bars on storefront windows. The street corners were home for hookers and dope fiends looking to score. He could spot the drug dealers as they drove by canvassing the streets and sidewalks for potential buyers. These days they were more mainstream than they had been before he went to prison. Back then they had dressed the part, driving big cars with tinted windows and looking every bit as sleazy as they were. At some point they wised up and now were as likely to be seen in a Honda Accord as in a souped up El Camino. But the eyes were the same, eyes that took in every detail, sized a person up and categorized them in an instant.

There were three main categories. The first and the largest was everyday people, wives on their way to the grocery store, businessmen catching a bite to eat, Moms picking up their kids. They were quickly identified and dismissed. Most of them were harmless and completely oblivious to what was going on around them. You could do a dope deal right under their noses and they'd never know.

There were exceptions. Usually they had been victimized in one way or another by the drug world. Their son or wife or sister or brother had been part of the dope scene and they had paid the price, financially, emotionally or both. They recognized the players and knew what was going down. Smoldering hatred seeped from their eyes, but most had been scarred enough to walk away and leave it alone.

Next were the snitches and narcs. The dealers, their senses honed by living on the edge, easily recognized a false note and quickly caught the scent of fear. For most Narcs fear, even low-key, was a constant companion. One wrong move, one small lie floating to the surface could mean their life.

The snitches were the really dangerous ones. Maybe someone the dealer grew up with, got himself in a jam, then gave up the dealer to save himself. Others made their living at it. Information became a commodity to trade for dope money. Of course, there was never enough money, so they'd still be doing robberies, or mooching off relatives, whatever their particular m.o. happened to be. To outward appearances they seemed to be the same person they always had been and it was usually only by chance that their extra curricular activities with the cops came to light

Last but not least were the actual customers, a treacherous crowd. There was an occasional tourist just looking for a buzz, but the regulars, they were the ones to look out for. Junkies, desperate to get their fix for the day, looking to stay well. Then after they were well, looking to get high. The dope never bought them any peace because they were on a never ending vigil to lie, cheat, steal, beg, borrow or trade their way into that next bag. Robert learned that at a young age at the hands of his mother. The welfare check went fast, followed by an endless parade of strangers with leering eyes and groping hands.

At first Robert hated his mother for what she did, but later he was relieved when they followed her into the bedroom. It meant he was safe, at least until the next one came along. Robert learned nothing, not even her children, was too precious to trade for drug money.

Wedged between a narrow alley and a pawnshop Robert spotted a bar called the "Rusty Bucket". A sign posted next to the solitary darkened window announced "Parking in rear". Perfect. Robert pulled into the alley and around back. Dirt, weeds, broken bottles and several empty pallets had been pushed into a mound leaving room for six or seven vehicles. An old Chevy pick up was parked next to the back door and from the looks of it, had been there quite a while. Robert backed the van into the adjacent spot, checked his hair in the mirror and got out.

The first order of business was to connect with one of the local dealers and score a dime bag or two. Not for himself, he never touched the stuff. He rarely drank and when he did it was no more than a beer or two. Robert equated getting high or drunk with being out of control and not having complete and absolute control was unacceptable. That's what made his stint in the state pen so unbearable.

Small spaces didn't bother him. Three hots and a cot was great, not to mention cable television. The other inmates didn't bother him, not twice anyway. It was the guards, the warden, the parole board. Each had their own agenda, their own game, and the rules were ever changing. They had you by the short hairs and they got off on that. Robert was steadfast in proclaiming his innocence of her murder, even to the other inmates, until the first parole hearing. It was then he realized they had no interest in his guilt or innocence, only that he had been convicted. Once convicted all they were interested in was remorse. Admit you did it and then say you were sorry, real real sorry.

The door had barely closed behind him after his first hearing when he changed his tune. He became the model prisoner, was even promoted to kitchen duty and did his best to buddy up to the guards. That and overcrowding got him out after serving only twelve of his twenty-year sentence. Sure, he'd be on parole till kingdom come, but a newly purchased identity had taken care of that problem. If he played his cards right they'd never connect the dots back to California.

Robert spied of group of young Latinos milling around a liquor store down the block. He pulled two twenties out of his wallet and folded them into his palm. He could tell they were watching him as he drew near. He nodded, one of them nodded back. Robert stopped next to him keeping his eyes on the street.

"Chiva?" He asked, Mexican for heroin.

"How much?" Robert noticed a jailhouse cross tattooed on the kid's right hand and knew he was with one of his own.

"Forty." Robert said, giving him a glimpse of the money.

The kid palmed a couple of balloons into his left hand and Robert slipped him the money. Without looking at the merchandise, he walked casually into the liquor store. It wouldn't hurt to pick a bottle of Jim Beam to have on hand. He knew there was a special lady somewhere in the Rusty Bucket waiting to take a ride on the now fully stocked Robert Express.

It took a moment for Robert's eyes to adjust to the gloom inside the Rusty Bucket. He took a seat at the far corner of the bar where he would have the best view of everyone already there and anyone entering. The bartender was a tired looking man in his fifties. He grabbed the bar towel that was draped over one shoulder, wiped a small circular spot in front of Robert and plopped down a faded cardboard coaster.

"What'll it be?" He asked, disinterestedly.

"Coors Lite."

"Tap or bottle?"

"Bottle." Robert said. No one could convince him these cheap dives didn't water down everything on tap to get more bang for their buck.

After taking a couple of sips of the bitter brew, Robert began to case the bar. An old man sat opposite him at the other end of the bar. He was drinking shots of what looked to be bourbon with a water back. Obviously a seasoned Alkie, Robert knew he'd probably drink him self into a near coma by one or two, stumble home, sleep it off and start all over again the next day. The only other person in the bar was a long hair wearing a shirt with the arms torn off at the shoulders and a pair of grease stained jeans. He played with a can of Sprite while glancing alternately at his watch and the door.

Waiting for his connection, no doubt, Robert thought.

After nursing his beer for twenty minutes, Robert was beginning to get discouraged when he was momentarily blinded by white hot sunlight as two figures came through the door. He could tell by their voices they were female even before his eyes had a chance to adjust.

He dismissed the first woman immediately, too old. The other one might do nicely though, if he could get her alone. She was blond and looked to be in her late twenties. Bleached blond, but the real McCoy so was so hard to find, Robert didn't waste his time anymore. She was poured into a pair of yellow cotton capris and wore a white T-shirt knotted in front to reveal her tanned mid-drift. Her face could almost pass for pretty but she was thin to the point of emaciation. That was a good thing, Robert thought, probably a junkie, probably interested in what he had in his pocket.

"Barkeep." Robert pointed to the girl and laid a twenty on the bar. She must have been a regular because the bartender poured her a greyhound without even asking her what she wanted. He sat the glass in front of her and motioned toward Robert.

She smiled at Robert and nodded. The other woman was talking to the bartender and pretended not to notice. Then the girl took a cigarette out of the pack she had placed on the bar and held it between her lips. She checked her pockets and then glanced around as if she had lost something. Drink in hand, she stood up and walked towards Robert.

"Got a light?" She asked, sliding onto the barstool next to him.

"For a pretty lady? Always." He said, pulling a Zippo out of his pocket and lighting the cigarette for her.

"Haven't seen you in here before." She said.

"Aint' been in here. Killing time, thought I'd stop and see if anything was going on." Robert said.

"And so, is anything going on?" She asked, leaning her head back and slowly exhaling.

Chapter Six

It had been so easy to get her in the van. The magic words, "Wanta get high?" had worked like a charm. Something for nothing, man, they were all alike. Free dope, free booze, they just figured the pleasure of their company was payment enough.

Robert started the van.

"Hey man, what are you doing?" The girl stopped digging through her purse and gave Robert a wary look.

"You don't think we're gonna fix parked behind the bar, do ya?" His tone implied it would be an act of lunacy.

"Done it a million times. Nobody ever comes back here." She said.

"Well, not this time, pretty lady. The last time I did something like that an undercover cop followed me to my car and busted me before I even got off." He said.

"That sucks. Well, all right then, but let's get somewhere quick." She was anxious to do the dope and would agree to go anywhere or do just about anything to get it.

"Here's something to tide you over." Robert reached under his seat and handed her the whiskey. "You gotta rig? Mines so dull you need a hammer to drive it in."

She smiled, opened the bottle of jack and took a swig. Then she reached in her purse and took out an eye glass case. She opened it to show Robert the contents; a spoon; a piece of cotton; syringe and a cigarette lighter and a small brown glass vial.

"Water." She said holding the bottle so the sunlight filtered through it.

"Good deal. Everything but the main ingredient and I've got that." He patted his shirt pocket.

Robert drove a few blocks, looking to his right and left, as if to find the perfect spot. The direction he headed took them into an industrial area. It was Sunday and most of the buildings looked deserted. He turned off the main road unto a side street to avoid any passing traffic.

"I'll cook this up while you find us the perfect spot. It'll save time." She suggested, impatient to get high.

Robert took one of the balloons of heroin out of his pocket and dangled it in front of her. She reached to grab it and he jerked it away.

"You didn't think this was going to be for free, did ya?" He asked, with a smile.

"What are you trying to pull?" She demanded, on the alert now.

Robert realized he had scared her and didn't want to make things any more difficult then they had to be.

"Relax. Sorry. You don't have to do anything you don't want to. You're just so good looking a guy can't help but want you." He said soothingly.

"Well, O.K. That I can handle. You had me freaked out there for a minute. Just pull over, will you? We're already in the middle of nowhere. Nobody's gonna bust us." She said, apparently reassured.

Robert drove the van behind a large warehouse and parked it next to an industrial sized dumpster. He handed her the dope. She immediately set to work getting it ready to inject. In no time at all the dope was cooked up. Very carefully, using a small piece of cotton as a filter, she sucked the brown liquid into the syringe. She offered the syringe to Robert.

"Ladies first, you go ahead."

She pulled a scarf from her purse and tied her arm off just above the elbow. With a practiced hand, she quickly found a vein, registered and pushed the plunger to the hilt. Immediately her head rolled back, her eyes closed and she sighed.

"This is some good shit." She muttered.

After a few seconds, she turned to look at Robert and held the syringe to him.

"I think I'll wait." Was all he said.

Robert was smiling but his eyes were reptilian, cold and dead. As high as she was, she knew she was in trouble and reached for the door handle. It wasn't where she thought it should be and she took her eyes off of Robert long enough to find it. Instead she found two bare bolts in the hollow where the door handle had once been.

Panicked she looked back at Robert, but he had slid out from behind the steering wheel and stepped over the console. In one swift move, he grabbed her under the arms and jerked her roughly into the back of the van.

"What are you doing? Let me go." She screamed, kicking and clawing at Robert. One of her nails connected with the tender flesh just under the corner of his left eye and he yelped in pain.

"Stupid bitch!" He punched her hard in the face and she was still. "Now look what you made me do. I was gonna let you go, but there's no way I can do that now."

Her nose started to bleed and she stirred slightly. Robert grabbed a rag and wiped her face with it. There hadn't been time to lay the shower curtain under her and he didn't want blood everywhere. After he sopped up most of the blood he stuffed the rag into her mouth to keep her quiet.

The erection in his jeans was growing more insistent, urging him to hurry. Quickly he pulled her top over her head and then peeled her pants off.

She wasn't wearing any panties. Slut.

She started to moan and her eyelids fluttered open. Good. He liked an active participant. He was sitting on her hips and had her pinned down, but her arms were free and she took another swing at him. He grabbed her arms and held them together at the wrist with one hand while he reached for a roll of duct tape with the other.

"Well, look who's back." He laughed and tried to unroll a piece of the tape. Her struggling made it difficult and finally he threw the tape down in frustration.

"All right, I guess we do it the hard way."

He reached over her head, under the passenger seat and pulled out a hunting knife. The blade was about six inches long and razor sharp. Still holding both wrists with one hand, he brought the blade close to her face.

"Take a good look, because if you want to get out of this alive, you better do everything I say."

Unable to speak, eyes wide with fear, the girl nodded in submission.

"Good. Now I'm going to take the gag out of your mouth, because you're going to be using it for what it was made for, but if you make a sound I'll cut your throat. Understand?" He asked.

She nodded again and he removed the gag.

"Please let me go. I'll do anything....."

"Shut up!" He yelled. Suddenly the knife was in her face, the blade lifting one nostril. She froze, knowing an increase in pressure would send the blade slicing through her nose.

"Now," He said, lowering the knife. " I want you to get that shower curtain from the back of the van and spread it out."

She smoothed the shower curtain over the ragged mattress, her eyes on Robert the entire time. He moved back, pulled the plastic taut over his end of the mattress, then knelt on it. He pulled his pants down to just above the knee. He saw the girl eyeing his erection.

"You know what I want and watch those teeth. One wrong move and it's all over for you darling." He instructed.

The girl, her lip swollen and nose bloody, moved towards him slowly. When she was close enough he grabbed her by the hair and forced himself into her mouth. She gagged reflexively but quickly regained control. She knew displeasing Robert would insight another violent outburst and if she was to stay alive, she needed to stay conscious.

He let her touch him and lick him, let her bring him to the brink. Abruptly he jerked her head back.

"Lay down." He said, moving to one side so that she would be centered on the shower curtain.

She looked at him, unmoving, and started to cry.

"Shut up! God, you keep pissing me off. How stupid can you get? Shut up and lay down now!" He ordered.

With silent tears rolling down her cheeks, the girl obeyed. Robert pulled his T-shirt over his head and tossed it into the back of the van. Then he sat the knife down, out of the girls reach and pulled a condom from his pocket.

"You can't be too careful." He said when the condom was in place.

As he drove himself into her held the knife blade sunk as far into her throat as possible without breaking the skin. Within seconds he was breathing heavily. Sounds like those of a wounded animal came from somewhere deep within him and he began to convulse.

As he recovered from his orgasm he looked at the girl tenderly.

"See, that wasn't so bad, was it?" He asked.

"No, it was wonderful. You were great. I've never been with anyone as good as you." She did her best to sound convincing.


"You bet honey, the best. So why don't we go somewhere and have a drink or something." She said, attempting to sit up.

"I don't think so." He said, slamming her back unto the floor of the van. "That was just the appetizer. Now it's time for the main course."

"No, please, don't." She whimpered.

"Shush." He whispered and slit her throat before she had a chance to struggle.

Happily humming Willy Nelson's "Whiskey River", he grabbed a towel and covered her throat. He pulled his pants back up and zipped them. He reached in his pants pocket and pulled out the silver tube of lipstick and very carefully outlined her full lips. Stepping back off of the shower curtain, he tucked one side of it under her and then rolled her up in it. Climbing back up front, he took a look around. Not a soul in sight. And the dumpster was so handy.

Wasting no time, he got out of the van and slid the side door open. Being careful not to let any blood spill onto the van floor, he hoisted her over his shoulder and headed for the dumpster. He had some trouble climbing up the ladder to reach the top of the dumpster. Finally he was high enough so that all he had to do was lean forward and let her fall in. He looked around again. All clear.

Back at the van, he put his T-shirt back on, gathered her things and put them in one of the trash bags he always carried. Those he would have to dump somewhere else. He didn't want her to be quickly or easily identified. Time was on his side.

He realized he was hungry and glanced at his watch. It was nearly two and he hadn't eaten. Maybe he's stop at a fast food joint on the way back to town.

Chapter 7

I got in the car and rolled the two front windows down to let the heat escape. I still had a bit of a headache so I took the barrette out of my hair and shook it loose. I had planned on going by the Fifth Flamingo but there was something I had to do first.

Before I left the diner I looked up Cecil Crepps' address in the phone book. It was west of town about ten miles on Farm Road 407.

The tired little Toyota roared to life like the champ it was. I stayed on Main St. because it had fewer lights than Kirby, which turned into F.M. 407 just out of town. I cut across 3rd street to Kirby and in minutes left all traces of civilization behind.

Time seemed to loosen its grip the further I drove down the country road. The cows grazing behind the rusted barbed wire would have looked the same thirty years ago as they did today. The warm spring wind whipped through the car windows, smelling of freshly plowed earth and wildflowers. A newly built "Quick-Stop" on my left around the next bend marred the scene.

After gauging what I thought to be nine miles or so, I slowed the car and checked the numbers on the next mailboxes sailing by. Twenty four seventeen, and the Crepps address was thirty-two oh five. I was getting close. A noise in the distance grew into the jarring sound of sirens. I could make out an ambulance in the rear view mirror coming up fast so I pulled over and stopped. The paramedic glanced at me as the ambulance whipped by.

After checking to make sure there were no more emergency vehicles behind I climbed back on the road and followed the ambulance. It made a right turn about a quarter of mile further down the road and in that instant I knew. It was the Crepps' place, it had to be. My stomach tightened into a small hard ball and a chill started behind my knees and ran up my spine. I slowed down but kept going.

The Crepps' mailbox was the center of three mailboxes mounted on an old buggy wheel. The house was a simple two story white farmhouse with baskets of petunias hanging from the front porch. A huge Magnolia, laden with unopened blooms, dominated the front lawn. The house next door to it was a single story brick home landscaped with cacti, succulents and palms. Across the street a doublewide mobile home sat nestled between two ancient elms. A wooden silhouette out of a woman's pantalooned derriere and legs sat in the midst of plastic tulips, daises and calla lilies in the flower bed that ran the length of the screened in front porch.

I knew the Crepps family had farmed their land for several generations, so unless they had torn down the original structure and replaced it with the doublewide; theirs had to be one of the two other homes. Upon closer inspection I realized the brick home was also fairly new. It too closely resembled one of the four prevalent models offered in the modern day subdivisions that were spreading across Texas like a bad case of the flu.

The ambulance was no where in sight but a dirt road ran between the two houses. I edged the car forward until I could see. Even in the bright light of day I could see the red glare from the ambulance washing the trees and bushes along the road. People were everywhere. The ambulance hadn't been the first to arrive, a police car was parked between it and what could only be the overturned tractor.

The paramedics were carrying a stretcher back to the open rear doors of the ambulance. There was no mistaking the shape of a body under the thin sheet that covered it. I wanted to get closer to find out exactly what was going on but didn't dare.

It was too late anyway. Cecil hadn't listened to me and now he was dead. A movement to my right caught my eye. It was only a cat walking across the porch, but for a second I imagined it was Cecil's wife coming for me. So far no one had seemed to notice me and I decided to leave rather than having to answer any questions about why I was here.

I drove past the driveway, made a quick U-turn and headed back to town. "Oh, Cecil, why didn't you listen to me?"

Chapter Eight

Forrest Black saved the story on his computer screen, stretched and headed for the coffee pot. He'd made a deal with himself. No coffee until the lead story was done. He needed to cut back and hated that he didn't have the self-discipline to just quit. He also hated the fact that he seldom honored these deals he made with himself.

The piece was a good one though. Forrest felt a little guilty about the fact that it took a tragic event like a local farm boy's death to make his day. I don't make the news, I just report it, he told himself. It wasn't everyday Tiller offered up such interesting fare. It wasn't even every month. Last week there had been harsh words at the school board meeting over some proposed budget cuts. For a month prior to that the only newsworthy event had been an 18 wheeler jack-knifing on the Interstate and detouring traffic through downtown Tiller. And then there was that woman who had been struck by lightening.

So far she hadn't returned his calls and he had missed her at the diner where she worked. Finally, he wrote the story on information he had gotten from the police and hospital, pretty dry stuff. Tiller Times was a weekly paper so it would have been too late anyway. With any luck he could do a follow up in this week's edition with more sizzle.

He reminded himself that the small town atmosphere and lack of "news" was exactly why he had left his high paying position in Anaheim, California and moved to Texas. Well, it was one of the reasons. He'd grown tired of the constant pressure and one-up-man-ship from his so called colleagues. Not that he was so different from them.

He was the one who had thrown away everything to chase a story. He told himself it was an important story, full of bad people who needed to be exposed. That much was true, and it worked for a while, but the deeper truth nagged at him until he had to face.

They were bad people and they had hurt other people, even killed some, but his determination to expose them was not to make the world a better place. He had been that noble once, when he was young and idealistic. He had believed if he wrote the truth, stood strong for the masses, that he would make a difference. What he did would matter. And maybe some of it did, he just didn't know anymore.

What he did know was that the lines got blurred somewhere along the way. His rivals said he was self-serving and arrogant. They claimed he chose his subject matter by the acclaim it would bring, sensationalized it to insure it would.

He knew that wasn't true, not a hundred percent. None of that mattered now. It was all over now, his career, his life. The worst part about it was that he couldn't deny his own culpability in what happened. It was a great story, the kind that can make a career. He saw it as his ticket out of print and onto the airwaves, maybe CNN.

He got a little crazy, took chances he shouldn't have. It had frightened Linda; she had begged him to let it go. He tried to make her understand what it would mean to them, that it was worth the risk. When she told him she thought someone was following her, he'd laughed, told her she was being paranoid. She decided to go and stay with her mother for a while. He'd told her to go ahead if that's what she wanted to do.

She never made it. Now she was gone forever, along with everything else their life had entailed. Her family wouldn't even accept his calls and all their friends turned out to be her friends in the end. And it was all for nothing. After his wife's death, he had been removed from the case and Lou Pollack broke the story. Lou Pollack, the editor's nephew, who couldn't write his way out of a paper bag.

So when he saw the ad for a newspaper reporter at the Tiller Times in Tiller Texas, he jumped at it. He should have known when the editor hired him the first time he called that something was up, but he was more focused on what he was running from rather than what he was running to and didn't really pay attention. The ad should have said the Tiller Times was looking for someone to fill the reporter position, not a reporter, because basically, Forrest was the only one.

He wrote the bulk of the paper. The secretary, Marie Blankenship took care of the phones, advertising and day-to-day accounting. Her most challenging task was conveying to the public the impression that George Campbell, the editor, did anything at the paper other than show up at the Chamber luncheon every third Wednesday.

Marie did have a high school girl named Susan who came in every day after school for a few hours. Susan was in charge of obits, weddings, engagements, fire runs and police reports. If she ran across anything juicy she was supposed to notify Forrest. Forrest liked Shad, the Photog. He didn't know if Shad's mother couldn't spell Chad, or if she wanted to name her son after a fish, but he was a lot of help. If Forrest couldn't make it, or didn't want to make it somewhere, he'd send Shad off with a list of questions to ask while he was taking pictures. Another quality Forrest admired in Shad was his complete devotion to the local High School sporting events. After a couple of months he turned the entire sports section over to him.

So with tomorrow mornings lead story done, Forrest was ready to head home. That was when he missed home the most, his home back in California with Linda. He'd been in Tiller a little over six months now but it still felt brand new. People were slow to accept him, the big time reporter from California. In reality, it was the guy from California. No one here knew or cared if he'd been a big time reporter. Back home there were three or four different bars he could go to after work and hang out with other of his kind and share a beer or two. Tiller had almost as many bars as it had churches and Forrest had visited a few.

One place, deceptively named "Mary's", was the local hotspot for bikers and their entourage. They weren't the business-men-by-day, weekend Harley warriors either. The bikes parked out front wore the same polished shine, but there was nothing starched or pressed about these guys. Forrest ordered a beer at the bar and downed it as quickly as he could and still look at ease. He tossed a five on the bar, gave the bartender a nod and took off, carefully avoiding eye contact with anyone on his way out.

A couple places catered to the older residents of Tiller. Country music played quietly in the background, low enough not to interfere with conversation. The men, most over the age of fifty, all looked to be brothers. They wore the same uniform of plaid shirts, jeans, boots and a large belt buckle that expressed some piece of their Texas heritage. After eavesdropping on their conversations for a few minutes it was apparent these men had known each other for years and weren't recruiting new members.

The majority of bars, or "clubs", as they liked to refer to themselves, were trendy western themed places with names like "The Chili Pepper" or "Trails End". The patrons were equally trendy, the men wearing new jeans and boots broken in on asphalt rather than pastures. The women were tan year round, with bare midriffs sporting navel rings above painted on blue jeans

Forrest had frequented one of these places, Whiskey Pete's, for a while. The beer was always cold and bottomless bowls of unshelled peanuts sat along the bar and on every table. Forrest carefully stacked the empty husks in an ashtray until one of the waitresses came by, grabbed it and dumped its contents on the floor.

"This ain't New York, Mister." She said and was cheered on by half a dozen drugstore cowboys at the bar, never mind that Forrest had never even been to New York.

He hadn't gone back and had pretty much given up on finding another place that suited him. So Forrest had taken to picking up a six pack at the corner market run by a Middle Eastern gentleman whom Forrest imagined felt even more out of place in Tiller than he did.

On the plus side, his apartment was within walking distance of the newspaper and the corner market. It was a two bedroom one bath stationed above The Sweetwater Gift shop. The shop closed at six, so Forrest was rarely bothered by any noise from downstairs. It was one of Tiller's historic brick buildings and had been renovated some years ago. Forrest loved it. The floor plan was very open, the living room and kitchen separated only by a bar. Three huge floor to ceiling windows overlooked Main Street and kept the apartment bright and cheery. A large claw-foot bathtub dominated the bathroom and Forrest had crowded the shelf behind it with spider plants, begonias and ivy.

The second bedroom he used as an office. Actually it was a more a computer graveyard. Forrest had a weakness for the latest technology, but he couldn't bear to part with any of his old stuff. The desk and bookcases were littered with printers, a VCR that wouldn't eject, a broken TV/DVD combo, two ergonomically correct keyboards, a black and white monitor, an oversized color monitor, two flat screens, several mice, a palm pilot, a camcorder and a large family of cell phones. A large sepia old world map hung on the wall behind his working computer. A ships portal along the adjacent wall mounted next to a brass and wood barometer gave the room a nautical feel.

Forrest shared the apartment and his life, for that matter, with Miss Kitty. She was a seven-year-old, fifteen-pound calico that Forrest had rescued from a drug house he was doing a story on in Santa Ana. She had been a kitten at the time, at risk for consumption by the owner's rottweiler. Forrest didn't have the heart to leave the forlorn little thing on the front porch. When he asked the gnarly biker how much he wanted for her, he said, "Take her. You'd be doing me a favor." And so it began. Forrest doted on Miss Kitty, serving her gourmet canned food daily along with a diet of her favorite crunchies and the occasional bowl of cream.

Part of the reason he had taken the job in Tiller was so that he could focus on the novel he was writing. Forrest was especially fond of sharing this tidbit with people who asked him how in the world he ended up in Tiller. He didn't tell him that he was actually working on his fifth or sixth novel since he came to Tiller, or more accurately, the fifth or sixth novel he had started and never completed since he came to Tiller.

The sad truth was that night after night, he would make himself a sandwich, grab a beer and sit down to work on the novel. Then he would decide he'd better check his e-mail, then check his bank account balance and then make sure he hadn't forgotten to pay any bills. Next he'd find himself checking out the Journal's site, his former employer, to see who was doing what. He'd then visit a couple of sites on his "favorites" list.

But worst of all, in his mind, was the fact that he had become a regular in a current events chat room. They knew him by name, his screen name, Tex421. He found it ironic that he took some perverse pleasure in masquerading as a Texan. Maybe it was because he knew his chat room friends probably pictured him long and lean wearing a cowboy hat and Clint Eastwood squint. Little did they know that he only wore tennis shoes because he had a corn on his little toe that killed him if he tried to cram them into a shoe, let alone a boot. And the only hat he ever wore was his Chicago Cubs baseball cap. But he wasn't short, no, he was nearly five nine and a half and everyone agreed he had great hair. His hair framed his face in thick dark curls and showed no sign of receding even though he was on the backside of forty. He had a nice face too, with a strong jaw and big brown eyes to match his dark hair. Maybe they wouldn't be so disappointed after all. The pathetic thing, he thought, is that he even cared what they thought; that he'd turned into one of those people whose lives were so bleak they had to invent a fictional one online.

"This is ridiculous." He said aloud. "Miss Ray Taylor, I'm coming to see you whether you like it or not."

Forrest grabbed his hat, keys, one of his digital cameras and headed out the door.

Chapter Nine

I spent the rest of the afternoon pacing between the living room and kitchen. Every two minutes or so I peeked through the front blinds to see if any police cars had pulled into the drive. Max faithfully followed behind as I roamed from one end of the house to the other. The television was tuned to the local channel and so far there had been no interruptions to announce Cecil's death or flash a composite drawing of my face across the screen. The Six O'clock news would surely have the story.

Finally it was six and I dropped into the overstuffed chair next to the couch and cranked up the volume. That's when the knocking started.

"Open up. Police."

Oh my God, they were here. Max barked furiously at the door as I stood to open it.

"Max, be quiet!" He kept barking.

I looked through the peephole to make sure it was the police. Even though I was afraid they would show up I'd heard enough stories about women being attacked by Police impersonators to make sure. It was a policeman all right, in fact it was one Officer Nelson Bradley, someone I had babysat as a teenager. I had known the Bradley family for years and changed Nelson and his little sister's diapers.

"Max, hush!" This time he listened and I opened the door. "Nelson?"

"Officer Bradley, Ma'm." Nelson flashed his badge at me as if to prove it.

"Come on in Nelson. Have a seat." I motioned him towards the couch but he stood motionless in the doorway, staring at Max. "I know he's fierce looking, but he's harmless."

"I'm here on official Police business." He tone implied he didn't appreciate my humor or maybe he just didn't get it.

He sat ramrod straight as if his spine had been fused even when Max jumped on the couch and started sniffing him. I took a seat in the chair.

"What's this all about Nelson?" I asked, scooping Max up and holding him in my lap.

"I'm doing you a big favor, Ray. When I found out it was you I insisted on being the one to come out. So, don't start out being cagey." He said solemnly.

"I'm not really cagey, Nelson, I'm just drawn that way." I stole and morphed a line out of Roger Rabbit. Nelson was not amused.

"Tell me about the Crepps."

"Well, let's see. Cecil Crepps is a heart attack waiting to happen. Orders pancakes slathered in butter, pours half a bottle of maple syrup over them and his bacon, puts cream and sugar in his coffee. The boys aren't much better. What else do you want to know?" I knew I was coming off like a smart-ass teenager but couldn't seem to help it. I hadn't done anything wrong, so why did I feel so guilty?

"Ray, come on now. The more upfront you are with me the easier it'll go on you." He coaxed.

"What do you mean, `the easier it will go on me'? You can't honestly believe I had anything to do with Cecil's death, can you?"

"Who said anything about Cecil being dead?" He asked with a sly grin.

"God, I'm no good at this." I couldn't believe my blunder.

"At what?" He asked, gently pushing Max away from him.

"Being a criminal. No, not being a criminal. I'm not a criminal, being evasive, I guess." I kept digging the whole deeper.

"You're being evasive, uncooperative and if I didn't know better, I'd think you were in over your head."

"So you believe I didn't do anything wrong? You know I would never hurt anyone." I asked, feeling a bit better.

"I don't know anything. I don't think you would do anything to harm anybody, but then you just got struck by lightening. Maybe it did something to you. You need to fill me in, starting with what happened this morning at the diner."

"Well, Cecil and his boys came into the diner this morning for breakfast." I knew the police had probably already talked to any number of people who had witnessed the scene at the diner.

"And?" He prodded.

"It was really strange, Nelson. I was warming Cecil's coffee and then it was like I wasn't in the diner any longer. I was on a farm. I could see Cecil on the ground next to a tractor. He was dead."

"Like a vision?" Nelson asked.

"I guess. A vision, premonition, whatever you want to call it."

"Kind of like the woman who can see what animals are thinking on T.V.?"

"I don't know. I don't have cable so I've never seen the show." I told him.

"Oh, I don't watch it either. It might not even be on anymore. Loretta watches that kind of stuff and I've caught bits and pieces when she's had it on. It's not like I deliberately watch it or anything." He emphasized.

"Anyway, it was crazy. I didn't know what had happened, but I was afraid if I didn't warn Cecil it might come to pass." I waited while Nelson finished scribbling in a small spiral notebook.

"And then what?" He asked, watching me expectantly.

"Then they left."

"No, what happened later, after your shift, this afternoon?"

"Nelson, I had nothing to do with Cecil's death." I didn't like where the conversation was headed and didn't know how best to deal with it. This might be the part where I should say I'm not saying anymore without my lawyer present. The problem with that was I didn't have a lawyer. I was always amazed when on television and the movies the suspects always wanted to call their lawyers like they kept them on retainer or something. I didn't even know a lawyer, and besides, people who called their attorneys right away were usually guilty. Or maybe they were smarter than the rest of us.

"Again Ray, I never said Cecil was dead."

"Well obviously something happened, unless you're here to cite me for having a vision without a license." I snapped at him.

Before he could answer someone started ringing the doorbell sending Max into a barking fit.

"Max! No!" He wasn't used to me shouting and to my amazement, he shut up. Then he looked at me with those big browns and I felt like a heel. He was only trying to protect me, after all. I leaned over and picked him up before I opened the door. Through the peephole I could see some guy in a Chicago Cubs cap.

"Yes?" I only opened the door a few inches.

"Ray Taylor?"

"How can I help you?" I asked coldly.

"Forrest Black." He held out his hand but I ignored it. "I called. I'm from the paper. I was hoping to interview you."

"This is really not a good time."

"I can see that." He said, looking pointedly at the police cruiser in the driveway. "When would be a good time?"

"I don't know. I'll call you." I tried closing the door but he lodged his foot between it and the frame.

"Tonight? You'll call tonight? Because the police reports are always so vague and I'd hate to put out any misinformation." He smiled but it wasn't endearing.

"Gosh, that almost sounds like a threat." I smiled back.

"Is there a problem here?" Nelson asked, joining us at the door.

"Officer Bradley, good to see you." The reporter snaked his arm over my shoulder to shake hands with Nelson.

"Forrest, how are you? What are you doing out here?" Nelson asked.

"Wanted to talk to Ms. Taylor, but if she's not going to be available maybe you could spare a few minutes." The reporter said.

"Why don't I call you as soon as I'm free?" I didn't wanting him pumping Nelson for information.

"And when will that be? Ten to twenty?" Forrest laughed, but stopped when both Nelson and I remained silent.

"It shouldn't be too much longer, should it Nelson?" I asked.

"Maybe fifteen minutes, not long." He said.

"I'll call you." I said, but his foot still blocked the door. "Is there something else?"

"No, unless you want me to wait. I don't mind."

"I will call you." I enunciated every word clearly and slowly hoping he would leave.

"All right. Here's my card." He fished a card out of his back pocket and handed it to me, finally removing his foot from the door.

After we sat back down I decided to come clean with Nelson, since he probably already knew everything anyway.

"I went out to the Crepps' place after work." I said and he nodded knowingly.

"I know you were there, I just don't know why."

"Curiosity. I wanted to see if it was their place I had seen in the vision. The ambulance passed me on the way and the police were already there when I drove by. It was just like I saw it and I knew Cecil hadn't listened to me after all." I told him.

"Why didn't you stop?"

"I thought about it, but then I realized how strange it would sound. Telling the police I had a premonition and had come by to see if it came true. It even sounds suspicious to me and I know it's the truth." I explained.

"You shouldn't have done that Ray. It doesn't look good."

"I got scared, Nelson. I panicked."

"It just doesn't look good." He said again.

"You keep saying that Nelson. Do you really believe I tipped that tractor over on Cecil?"

"Cecil's fine Ray." He said.

"Well then what's all the fuss about?" I wanted to kiss him she was so relieved, but his something in his expression stopped me.

"Daniel is dead."

"What? That can't be. That's all wrong." I stammered.

"It's wrong all right. Had his whole life ahead of him."

"It was Cecil I saw, not Daniel." I couldn't believe it.

"Ray, let me give you a little advice. Just drop this whole crazy story about premonitions of people dying. Nobody believes a word of it and they'll think you had something to do with it if you keep on." Nelson said.

"You don't think I had anything to do with this, do you?"

"I'd have a hard time believing it, but all that really matters right now is what the M.E. thinks." He said.

"The M.E.? You mean Doc Holliday?"

The Medical Examiner's name was actually Dr. Holloway, but most people called him Doc Holliday. He was a retired G.P. who filled in as Medical Examiner when the need arose, which wasn't often. There had been only two homicides in the past two years and both of those had been the result of gunshot wounds.

The first was Mary Fletcher, who was shot during a burglary while working the graveyard shift at the only twenty-four convenience store in town. As it turned out, the killer hadn't been a resident of Tiller, but a drifter who ran out of cash on his way through town.

The other had been Casey O'Donnell. He and his wife, Gina, were separated when she asked him to baby-sit their nine-year-old daughter Lisa, while she and her sister went to a friend's wedding. On the way home from her father's apartment, Lisa told her mother what her father had done to her while they were at the wedding. Gina didn't know if that was the first time he had done something like that to their daughter, but she knew it would be the last. Later that night Gina paid her ex a visit. He died from a shotgun blast to the groin. Gina served two years and was released on Parole. People said she wouldn't have served any time at all if she hadn't waited so long to shoot him.

The bulk of the Dr.'s duties consisted of determining cause of death for the elderly residents of Tiller who were fortunate enough to die at home. Fortunately for the Dr. and the town of Tiller, his job as medical examiner had not been very challenging to date. It was common knowledge that the Doc liked to tip the bottle on a pretty regular basis.

"I'm sure the Dr. is capable of determining cause of death." Nelson read my mind.

"I guess that would depend on how much he's had to drink."

"Ray, I've never once seen him drink on the job, and whatever he does on his own time is his business. I'd think you'd be a little more charitable with your family history and all."

"What's that supposed to mean?" I asked the question, not because I didn't know the answer, but rather to let Nelson know he was out of line.

"You know. Your Mom and all." He said sheepishly.

My mother had started drinking after my father's death and that was pretty much what killed her. Nelson knew it. He also knew the money I made babysitting and at all the other odd jobs wasn't money I blew on movies or make-up. It was money that went to my grandmother to help buy groceries and pay utilities or wherever it was needed most. I knew I had issues about things my mother had done, but that was between me and her and Nelson had no right mentioning her.

"My Mom drank. She didn't drink and drive, and she sure as hell didn't drink and practice medicine."

"I know. I'm sorry I brought it up. There was just some talk at the station. Never mind, forget I said anything." He said.

"What kind of talk? What does any of this have to do with my mother?" This was getting crazier and crazier.

"Oh you know, it's just a little strange. Your Dad, your Grandfather and now Daniel. You gotta admit, it's a little strange."

"That's about the stupidest thing I've ever heard, Nelson." He was really starting to push my buttons. "My Grandfather walked out on us. My father shot himself, at least that's what I've always been told."

"See, you're not even sure."

"What are you saying? That my mother murdered my father? Is that what people are saying?" I couldn't believe people even remembered what happened to my father, let alone gossiped about it.

"I'm just saying. First your grandfather disappears, then your father gets shot while your mother is supposedly in the other room. Now Daniel's dead. You tell me." He said.

"O.K. Nelson, just for the sake of argument, let's say you're right. My grandmother killed her husband and my mother did the same. What has that got to do with Daniel? I barely knew the kid. Besides that, if I did want to murder someone do you think I would predict their death in a public place, or that my weapon of choice would be a tractor?" My head was starting to pound and I knew my blood pressure was spiking.

"Ray, it's getting late and I don't want to keep you from your date. You working tomorrow?" Nelson asked.

"It's not a date and yes, I'll be there until three or so."

"Why don't you come by the station after you get off. We can officially take your statement then, and with any luck we'll have the results on Daniel." He said.

I wanted to protest some more. The whole thing was so completely in left field and being told I had to make a statement felt really intimidating. But I did have to meet the reporter and arguing with Nelson was getting me nowhere, so I just nodded and told him goodnight.

I called the reporter's number as soon as Nelson was out the door to let him know I'd meet him at the Trail's End. He didn't sound thrilled about the location but when I asked him if there was somewhere else he'd rather go he didn't have any suggestions.

Chapter Ten

I put on a clean shirt, ran a brush through my hair and checked the mirror. My mascara was smeared under one eye and the blush had worn away on the opposite cheek. I didn't have time to do any thing but minor touch-up, so I wiped the mascara from under my eye, then washed the blush off entirely. I was going to re-apply the blush and maybe add a little lip-gloss but decided against it. It was unlikely I'd see anyone I knew at The Trail's End and I couldn't care less what Forrest Black thought.

I already couldn't stand the guy. One of my pet peeves is being manipulated, and he'd already manipulated me by implying he would go to Nelson if I didn't meet him. He was probably passive aggressive too.

I parked around back and went in through the back door. I spotted him immediately. He was sitting in a booth watching the front door. I slid in across from him before he realized I was there.

"You came." He sounded surprised.

"I told you I would." I took a look around. It was pretty crowded for a weeknight but I didn't see anyone I knew.

"Do you always do what you say you will?" He asked.


"Good to know. Let me get you a drink. What would you like?"

"Whatever you're having." Then I noticed he was drinking a dark beer. "On second thought, make it a Whiskey Sour."

Forrest immediately headed for the bar. He made the mistake of whistling at the bartender. She glanced at him then turned her back and made a production of wiping down the bar. He glanced back at me and smiled apologetically. I almost felt a little sorry for him, he looked so out of place. I'm not sure what it was, he wasn't dressed much differently than anyone else there but something about him screamed, `I'm not from around here.' The bartender finally sauntered back his way and after a moment he walked back to the table carrying two Whiskey Sours and another beer.

"You afraid they're going to run out?" I asked him after he sat down.

"No, but I am afraid I'll have to set myself on fire to get the bartender's attention again, so I'm planning ahead."

"That's O.K., I'm in a drinking mood tonight." I took one of the whiskey sours and took a healthy drink.

"Bad day?" He asked.

"Nothing worth writing home about, or writing in the paper about for that matter."

"Hey, I really didn't mean to come so hardcore at your place. I really do appreciate you meeting me." He said.

"You really didn't give me much choice." I said.

Forrest slipped out of the booth, kneeled on one knee and took my hand.

"Please forgive me."

People were starting to stare.

"Get up, you're embarrassing me." I tried to pull my hand away but he had a death grip on it. People were starting to gather in a semi-circle about ten feet from us.

"Please!" He begged loudly.

"Say yes." Someone in the crowd shouted and then the entire crowd started chanting, "Yes, says yes."

"Yes." I yelled out, threw my arms around Forrest and whispered in his ear. "You're going to pay for this."

Forrest slid in the booth next to me and put his arm around my shoulders. The crowd clapped and cheered and finally went back to their business.

"Are you completely insane?" I asked him, shrugging his arm off of my back and moving several inches away.

"Not completely." He said after taking a moment to consider the question.

"Those people think you just proposed. You're lucky no one asked to see the ring. What would you have done then?"

"Told them I couldn't afford one and then passed the hat." He took off his cap to demonstrate.

"Stop, and get back on your side of the booth." I pushed his hat away and then tried to scoot him off of the bench onto the floor. He finally took a seat opposite me.

"I'll sit over here if that's the way you want it, but I don't think that's a great way for a newly engaged couple to start off."

"How about we get back to the interview." I didn't know if he was flirting with me or if this was how he always acted, but it was making me uncomfortable.

He agreed, asked my permission to record what was said and started asking questions. I told him what I remembered and what others had filled in for me. It was pretty boring stuff. He seemed to think so too.

"You've got to give me something to work with here. Did you hear the thunder before you were struck? No, I guess that works the other way around, doesn't it? You see it first and then hear it. How about any near death experiences, go down any tunnels, anything like that?"

I thought of seeing my father and then what happened in the diner but there was no way I was going to share any of that with a newspaper reporter.

"Sorry. You see the lightening and then hear the thunder. I heard it. Sounded like someone fired a shotgun next to my head. Then I woke up in the hospital." I said.

He picked my brain for another twenty minutes, asking questions about the accident, the garden, even Max. By then I had finished another drink and wasn't in the most patient of moods.

"Enough already. I'm sick of talking about this. I'm going to the restroom and when I get back I think we need to wind this up."

I had used the restroom and was washing my hands when a woman of about thirty walked in. She leaned in close to the mirror and brushed my arm when she did.

"Sorry." She said, but didn't move away. Instead she started applying a dark red lipstick. I gave her an indignant look which she ignored, then the look turned into a stare. She was dressed so strangely for the Trail's End. She was wearing black dress pants and boots with a silver lame top and huge rhinestone earrings. It was dressy in a cheap sort of way but still too glamorous for this place.

I pulled a paper towel from the dispenser and dried my hands. I glanced at her in the mirror and gasped. Rather than the pretty girl I had stood next to, I saw a skull with no eyes and rotting flesh hanging in pieces. Her hair was matted and maggots wriggled through to bald patches.

"You O.K.?" She asked, turning to face me. Her face looked normal once more. I glanced in the mirror to see the back of a perfectly natural head of hair.

"Yeah, thanks." I said. She raised an eyebrow, shook her head and resumed inspecting her make-up. I left the bathroom in a daze and walked on autopilot back to the table.

"Forrest, I really need another drink."

"But I thought, never mind, right away." Forrest headed toward the bar with a sense of urgency that must have been apparent even to the bartender who was quick to serve him this time. I watched for the girl to leave the restroom while he got the drink but she never did. She must have slipped out while I was returning to the table. I didn't see her anywhere but she could have gone out the back door.

He sat the drink in front of me and then slid next to me instead of returning to where he had been sitting. This time I didn't mind. It felt good to have someone close.

"What's the matter Ray? You look like you've seen a ghost."

"Maybe I did." I said, taking a drink.


"I'm sorry. I'm all right. I was just feeling a little odd. Thanks for the drink."

I glanced at my watch and realized how late it had gotten. I finished the drink and started to say goodnight to Forrest, but he insisted on walking me to the car. The cool night air cleared my head a little. I got in the car but when I tried to close the door, Forrest held it open. He seemed to have a thing about doors.

"Would it be O.K. if I called you?" He asked.


"No, sometime, to go out to dinner or something." He sounded nonchalant but it looked like he was blushing.

"Like a date?" I didn't mean to put him on the spot; I just didn't know where he was going with it.

"More like a friend thing." He stammered, definitely blushing now.

"I guess that would be O.K." I said.

"Great. I'll call you, or you can call me, like a friend would do." He said.

He closed the car door before I could say anything else but he was smiling.

I was feeling a little warm and fuzzy on the drive home, thinking about Forrest. Initially I took a real dislike to him but spending some time with him had changed that. I think it was his sense of humor; I never could resist a man who made me laugh. It was nice to feel desirable too. Add to that he found me attractive with most of my makeup worn off and when I wasn't even trying. Lately the only men who had shown me any attention were the truckers who stopped to eat on their way through town but I was willing to bet they treated every waitress up and down tornado alley the same way.

I would have loved to have spent the rest of the evening fantasizing about Forrest but the unpleasant business with the Crepps pushed its way front and center. I still couldn't believe how things had spiraled out of control. Could anyone seriously think I was in any way involved in Daniel's death? Even more disturbing than that were the remarks Nelson had made about my mother's drinking and my father's death. There was someone who might have some answers on that subject, Margaret my neighbor. I intended to have a visit with her real soon.

Chapter Eleven

I should have stayed up and watched infomercials for all the sleep I got. As ridiculous as it was, my mind was taking me down the worst-case scenario regarding Daniel's death. What if I went to prison? Who would take care of Max? Sara would take him because she felt obligated to but her heart wouldn't be in it and Max would die if he had to live life as an ordinary dog. He might die anyway just being separated from me.

I'd lose the farm, not that it really was a farm any longer. I had sold off all but two acres that the house sat on to get through some lean times. But I'd lose that. I wouldn't be able to pay property taxes or keep the insurance up. So, if I ever got out of prison, I'd have nowhere to go. I wasn't too worried about the whole forced sex thing. Surely they would be attracted to someone younger and more petite. Still, prison would not be good.

Then there were the things Nelson insinuated about the Bodine women.

They had bad luck with men, that was true, but hadn't killed any that I knew of. My grandmother, Elise Marshall married T. Milton Bodine when she was seventeen. T. Milton was known for his expertise with a fishing pole. Some said the "T" stood for trout; other said it stood for trouble. Life hadn't with easy for my grandmother. They moved in with her parents when it became apparent T. Milton couldn't or wouldn't hold a job longer than three months.

Elise hoped that he would pull his weight by helping her father with running the farm, but he didn't contribute any noticeable amount. My mother, Nadine, was born soon after that. One day T. Milton walked to the store for a pack of cigarettes and never came home. No one was terribly surprised and there was no talk of foul play that I ever heard about. Everyone thought he'd turn up sometime and pretty much forgot about it.

Nadine grew up to marry Roger Taylor. He killed himself and she became a drunk. I always thought that was legacy was dark enough without adding suspicions of murder. Maybe Margaret could shed some light on the matter.

If all that wasn't enough to keep my mind spinning, there was the woman at the Trail's End in the bathroom. Granted, I had drunk more than I usually do, but not enough to hallucinate. In fact, I don't ever recall hallucinating drunk or otherwise. I was afraid this too was connected to the lightening strike. What did it mean? Was she going to die too? If so, you could rest assured I'm going to stay out of it. Basically I had no choice, since I had no idea who she was.


The diner was still dark when I got there. Normally Sam would be there before me, firing up the grill, but not today. I barely had the lights on when the phone rang. It was Jimmy, letting me know he wouldn't be in today. He must have decided I had fully recovered, so it was back to business as usual, calling in once a week.

It was an especially busy morning and I did miss Jimmy being there. The breakfast crowd was starting to thin when the bell over the front door jangled and in walked in Officer Nelson Bradley in all of his official glory. He removed the aviator shades, caught my eye and motioned me towards him.

"Daniel's death was ruled accidental." He said quietly.

"Thank God." My knees started to buckle and I grabbed the counter for support.

"Anything like this happens again, you call me. Don't try to handle it yourself." He ordered.

"I will, don't worry." I said.

Nelson left and I made a round with the coffee pot. The place was fairly empty, only an older couple at one of the tables and a lone customer at the counter. They never took their eyes off of me as I re-filled their cups as if I owed them an explanation for Nelson's visit.

I totaled everyone's checks and distributed them to the correct tables, then began bussing the other tables, trying to act as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened. Within fifteen minutes or so, everyone paid up and left.

I started a fresh pot of coffee after everything was cleaned and stocked, then collapsed on a stool at the counter.

"You all right?" Sam asked, sitting next to me at the counter.

"I guess. Nelson just tom me that they determined Daniel's death was an accident." Sam put his arm around me and I broke down. I took a deep breath and rolled my eyes skyward to stop the tears but they just kept coming.

"Oh now don't do that." Sam said, clearly uncomfortable. He pulled a handful of napkins from the silver dispenser on the counter and handed them to me.

"Thanks." I wiped the tears off and blew my nose. I managed to get the tears under control but not the embarrassment of crying in public.

"Ray, I know you well enough to know you didn't have anything to do with that kids' death, but what in the world were you doing out there when it happened?" Sam asked.

"I had to know, Sam, if what I saw was real. Nothing like that had ever happened to me before. I didn't know if I was going crazy or what. I only went out there to see if the place looked the same as what I saw in the vision, or whatever you want to call it. "

"Was Daniel already...what happened when you got there?" He asked.

"The ambulance passed me on the way. The police were already there when I got there. I pulled over in front of the house. I got scared. I didn't think anyone saw me and I left." I said.

"But someone did?"

"Sure did." I said.

"So they thought you had something to do with it since you took off like that?"

"I guess."

"Well, it would have been better if you had gone over to help or something." Sam said.

"I know that Sam, but I wasn't thinking straight." I was on the verge of tears again.

"Well, it's all over. They know it was an accident and you had nothing to do with it." He said, patting me on the back.

"I hope you're right, that it really is over."

"Best thing to do is get back to business as usual and put this behind you." He said.

"You're probably right."

"And I know you've learned a lesson from all this." He said.

"What lesson is that, Sam?"

"That if you have another weird spell, you keep whatever it is to yourself. Look at all the trouble it caused and didn't do no one a bit of good."

"Well, you've got a point there. I don't even want to think about anything like that happening again. It was probably just a fluke." I said. Sam nodded in agreement,

"Then it's settled. Things can get back to normal around here." Sam said.

"I guess, if you call things around here normal."

"Ain't that the truth?" Sam said with a laugh. "I've got to run over to the hardware store, but I'll be back before the lunch crowd.

"Take you're time, I can throw a burger on the grill if I have to."

Sam left and I had the diner to myself. Normally I would have used the time to do a little extra cleaning, maybe do some inventory, but I felt so drained I just sat on the stool at the counter.

The bell above the door jangled and I jumped. A teenage boy in a brown uniform stood there holding a beautiful bouquet of spring flowers.

"Ray Taylor?" He asked hopefully.

"That's me."

"Sign for these please." He held out a clipboard and I quickly scratched my signature across the bottom of the sheet.

I snatched the card from the flowers, waited for the boy to leave and the tore open the envelope.

"Thanks for last night. Your friend Forrest." It read. Instantly my mood lifted, the ugliness of the morning melting away and I found myself humming as I found a vase for the flowers. I put them by the cash Till so everyone could enjoy them, and yes, so everyone would know that a man had sent me flowers.

Chapter Twelve

Sheila Johnson tossed the checkbook across the kitchen table and sighed long and hard.

"What's the matter Babe?" Rick asked as he rummaged through the fridge for a beer.

"It's a little early for that, isn't it? It's not even lunchtime." She complained.

Rick popped the top of the longneck, pulled a chair out from under the table, turned it around and straddled it.

"What's really going on? And when did I put you in charge of when I drink my first beer?" Rick grinned and Sheila melted.

Rick had movie star good looks and he knew it. He was dressed only in a pair of faded jeans that hung loosely across his narrow hips and flat stomach. Just the right amount of dark curly hair adorned his chest, but it was that face that got her. He reminded Sheila of James Dean, with thick dark hair, huge eyes and sharp, well defined features.

"Why do you stay with me, Rick? You could have any girl you want." Sheila was honest with herself and she knew that time hadn't been kind to her. She had never completely lost the baby fat after her daughter was born and even though she was still in her twenties, though barely, she saw the fine lines in the mirror. When she took the time and effort to fix herself up she knew she qualified for "cute" at best.

"I've had every girl I wanted and you're the best. You're sexy, beautiful and best of all, you put up with me." He grinned his irresistible grin again.

"You've got a point there." She said, not believing most of what he said, but smiling anyway. He had a way of making her feel better.

"So, you never answered my question. What's really going on?" He repeated.

"It's the money. A year and a half ago I had over twenty eight thousand dollars and there's barely three thousand left." She said, picking up the checkbook and running her finger down the ledger.

"I wish I had three thousand dollars, that's still a big chunk of change. You get your disability every month and Jess thinks he can get me an interview at the plant. You've got nothing to worry about."

"How could it go that fast? And what do I have to show for it?" She asked, returning to her black mood.

"Are you kidding? You've got this place. You never could of come up with enough money on your own to buy a house. This is your home. No one can ever kick you out or take it away from you." He offered.

"Yeah, long as I keep up the payments." She said.

"That's right, and you've got close to a thousand a month coming in that more than covers it. Why, if worse came to worse, you could rent out that other bedroom." He said, but knew it was a mistake before the words were out of his mouth.

"No! That's Katy's room and when she comes home it will be ready for her."

"I know that. I meant down the road, when she's grown and gone off on her own." He said. From what Sheila had told him about the situation with Katy, he knew the chances of Children's Services returning her were slim to none.

"Well yeah, I guess I could do that if I needed to someday. What the hell! Hand me a beer." Sheila stuck the checkbook safely away in her purse.

"That's my girl." Rick grabbed a beer out of the fridge, screwed it open and sat it on the table with a flourish.

"Let's sit on the porch before it gets too hot." Sheila, beer in hand, walked out onto the porch and took a seat in the wooden swing. Rick sat next to her.

A car drove slowly by and the driver waived. Sheila smiled and waived back.

"Who was that?" Rick asked.

"Shauna Greene. Bitch. You watch, she'll run and tell my sister she saw me sitting on the porch drinking a beer first thing in the morning. Then my sister will call, chew me out and tell me how I'm screwing up my life." Sheila predicted.

"I don't even know why you talk to her." Rick said.

"She's my sister."

And Sheila was right. DuRene would call. Not that she cares about me, Sheila thought. DuRene claimed that once while she was getting her hair done she overheard a two other women talking. One was ridiculing her son's girlfriend. The woman described her as not yet twenty-one, with two kids and living off welfare. She went on to say, "You know, another Sheila Johnson."

DuRene said she was so embarrassed, she kept her head down the whole time she was there, hoping no one would recognize her. She was so worried about her own image she hadn't even stopped to think how hearing that might make Sheila feel.

Things hadn't always been that way for Sheila. Looking back, she realized it was a series of poor choices. The first one had been marrying Joe Johnson. It didn't seem like such a bad idea at the time. He'd been good looking and easy going, or so it seemed. He worked at Johnson's Hardware, a family owned store that lent him a certain respectability as well as job security as long as the store prospered.

They'd only been dating three months when he proposed. Sheila had been thrilled. He had done it right, too. Taken her to the nicest restaurant in town and gotten down on bended knee in front of everyone. When she said yes, everyone cheered. The ring had been beautiful and his father had rented them a little house not far from the store.

Joe didn't want her to work. All he wanted her to do was keep a clean house, have dinner ready when he got home and welcome his frequent demands for sex. Sheila had been content and when the she had started to feel the first tiniest bit bored, she found she was pregnant with Katy.

Joe hadn't been taken the news like she had hoped. He was worried she would get fat. Once she assured him that she would work hard and get in shape as soon as the baby was born, he accepted the idea. And even though she tried to keep her eating under control, she ballooned out in not time. At four months people were asking when the baby was due. Joe smiled in public, but made no attempt to hide his disgust behind closed doors.

Sometime during her fifth month he started making a habit of showering right after dinner and taking off. He'd stay gone until midnight, then come home and fall into bed. When she's ask him where he'd been he'd say, "Out with the guys." if he answered at all.

One evening he came home all smiles. He hugged her and told her how sorry he was for the way he had been acting. He made her close her eyes. She heard the front door open and a moment later he told her to put her hands out. She felt something warm and furry and couldn't help but open her eyes. She was holding the most beautiful kitten she had ever seen. It had long soft white fur trimmed in orange and its little face was almost perfectly flat.

"It's a Himalayan." He explained. "Very expensive. I'm not even going to tell you how much money I shelled out for it. I know how lonely you get being alone here all day. Now the cat can keep you company."

Sheila was so thrilled that she didn't even mention that it wasn't the days, but the empty nights that made her lonely. Besides, she didn't want to spoil the moment. That evening he was the old Joe she had fallen in love with. She hoped things would stay that way.

But that wasn't the case. She realized Snowball was a way for Joe to ease his guilt about leaving her alone. Sheila had lost contact with most of her friends. Some of them had left town to go to college or find a decent job. When she and Joe were first married he demanded so much of her attention and didn't seem to care for any of her friends, so she had seen little of them. Now she couldn't bear to tell them how her fairy tale life had soured. So, there was no one. Her parents had been killed in a car accident, hit by a drunk driver, when she was twelve. Her grandmother had raised her and her older sister. Their grandmother hadn't been well when the girls first came to stay with her, but she held on long enough to see them both graduate. She died in her sleep not quite a month after Sheila's eighteenth birthday. Sheila and her older sister had never gotten along well and Sheila would rather have cut her own tongue out then admit to her sister that she had made a mistake marrying Joe.

So Snowball and comfort food were her only companions. Her eating began to escalate and she just couldn't seem to stop it. As she grew so did the distance between her and Joe. Sheila knew he was seeing other women. She could smell them on him and there were the phone calls.

The phone would ring, usually not long after he had left for the evening. She would say hello, and a female voice she couldn't quite place would ask for Joe. She would ask who it was and they would hang up. She would dial star "69" only to hear that caller I.D. was not available.

Night after night she waited up for Joe. He rarely made it home before midnight and even more rarely did he make it home sober. At first when she asked him about who might be calling feigned innocence and said he couldn't imagine who might call. After a while, his innocence turned to righteous indignation and from there to anger. Eventually Sheila was too frightened to ask him anything about the calls or where he was spending his evenings.

She hoped that once the baby came, his affection for her might return. The problem was that his continued coldness was starting to erode her feelings for him. At least he provided a decent income and she knew she and her child would need that.

As her due date drew near Sheila became concerned about how she would get to the hospital if she went into labor in the evening and Joe wasn't around. He suggested she call his Mom.

It was to become a self-fulfilling prophecy. One Friday night around 7:30 she went into labor, or so she thought. She called Joe's friends, but no one had seen him. Fearful she would have to deliver the baby alone, she called his mother. Joe's mother was at the house in less than ten minutes. She asked about Joe's whereabouts but didn't seem overly concerned.

At the hospital they examined her, timed her contractions, told her it was false labor and sent her home. It was midnight when Joe's mother pulled into the driveway and Joe still wasn't home. Sheila thanked her and exhausted, fell into bed.

The next evening Sheila's world turned upside down. After work Joe flew through the door in a rage.

"What did you tell my mother?" He demanded.

"Nothing. I thought the baby was coming. I needed someone to take me to the hospital." She said, sensing that the wrong answer might bring serious consequences.

He grabbed her by the throat and pushed her against the living room wall.

"If you ever involve my mother or my father in our affairs again, I will kill you. Do you understand?" He asked slowly and deliberately.

She nodded weakly, unable to speak.

"Good. Now, what's for dinner?"

"Pork chops, baked potatoes and corn." She said, choking back the tears.

They ate in silence. For once, Sheila didn't have an appetite but she ate anyway trying for some semblance of normalcy.

"I'm meeting the guys for a drink. I'll call home every hour to make sure you're O.K. If you need to go to the hospital, I'll be here in no time. Got it?" He asked.

"Yes." She said.

Sheila could hear Joe changing clothes while she cleared the table. She was numb from what had happened earlier and it took her a moment to understand what Joe was swearing about. Snowball had a bad habit of sharpening her claws on one of the four wooden posts of their bed. Sheila scolded her whenever she caught her in the act, but she didn't always catch her and the damage from her sharp claws was all too apparent.

He cursed again and she knew. She ran toward the bedroom, but it was too late. She came through the door just in time to see Joe kick Snowball against the wall.

"No!" She screamed and flung herself against Joe. He caught her under the arms and slung her onto the bed.

"Stupid bitch! If I catch that cat clawing anything in this house again, you better tell it goodbye." He threatened.

Sheila thought Snowball was dead, but she was only stunned. The cat picked herself up and stared at Joe for a moment. The look in her eyes broke Sheila's heart. Snowball loved Joe and met him at the door every night. In that look Sheila saw her hurt and confusion and in the moment she realized that neither she nor Snowball had done anything to warrant their mistreatment. But the warm flow of liquid down her legs moved her focus to the baby.

"Joe, my water broke." She said.

"And?" He asked coldly.

"And you will take me to the hospital now, or not only will I tell your parents what you're really like, I'll call the paper and tell them. It would make a good story, don't you think? `What the charming Joe Johnson is like behind closed doors', I can see it now.

Something in her tone, or maybe it was in her eyes, made a believer out of Joe. He even grabbed her hospital suitcase and helped her to the car.

After Katy was born Joe spent even less time at home and drank more when he was there. He nagged Sheila to loosen up, drink with him. At first she took tiny sips of her drank and dumped most of it out in one of the sinks when he wasn't watching. One Saturday night he fixed them both a drink, downed his and left. But this time she decided to finish it. She was pleasantly surprised as the liquor enveloped her like a warm blanket on a chilly night. For the first time in months she wasn't anxious.

After that night Joe no longer needed to coax her into a drink. In fact she usually had her first when she put Katy down for her afternoon nap. Soon she was sneaking to the liquor store to replenish Joe's rum and scotch. The night Joe told Sheila he was leaving her for someone else, she didn't really care. Her only concern was how she would support Katy and herself.

She shouldn't have worried. Joe had arranged a job for her at the paper mill. The pay was decent and there was plenty of overtime. That with the child support would be enough to rent a small apartment and keep food on the table. Joe even bought her a car that was only a couple of years old to make sure she could get back and forth to work.

It was while she was working at the plant that she got hurt and was able to go on disability.

When it came to the guys she picked if it wasn't for bad luck she wouldn't have any luck at all but nobody in her past could hold a candle to the guy she was fixing to hook up with.

Chapter Thirteen

Robert swore, pulled the van onto the shoulder and grabbed the map from the passenger seat.

"Texans!" He said out loud. Everything had been fine until he'd gotten off I-35 and headed west. But for the last twenty miles the only sign he'd seen said, "Narrow Bridge". None of the roads were marked. Evidently if you were a Texan you knew where you were and if you weren't, well, that was your problem. The map was no help since he didn't know what road he was on. He might be in Oklahoma for all he knew.

"Guess I'll keep going. I've got to run into some kind of town eventually." He said, although he knew Texas was big. It was big, dry and hot. You could drive for hours without running into a town, car or any sign of civilization.

He was nervous. On one hand he was excited about finally reaching his destination and carrying out his plan. But on the other hand he wasn't absolutely sure what he would find when he got there and that worried him. He hated feeling anxious. He felt like he was going to burst right out of his skin. He only knew one way to feel better and as luck would have it, there she was. Standing along side of the road out here in the middle of nowhere.

"Where you headed?" He asked through the open passenger window.

"Tiller." She answered.

"Well this is your lucky day, darlin! So am I and I'm lost. Hop in." He flashed his most disarming smile.

"Thanks." She said. She tossed her backpack behind the console and leaned back against the seat. "It's hot out there."

"I hate to tell you this but my A.C. went out on me about thirty miles back." Robert said as the van began to gather speed.

"Don't matter. At least there's wind coming in the window. Beats standing out in that sun. You got anything to drink?" She asked.

"Like what?" He asked.

"I'll take whatever you got, but a cold beer would be nice." She said with a laugh.

"I've got some warm whiskey." He said and reached behind his seat for the bottle of Jack.

"That'll work." She immediately took a big swig and grimaced. "Whew!"

She held the bottle out for Robert but he refused.

"I'll wait for that beer. That is if we ever run across a store in this God forsaken place." He said.

"You're not from these parts, are you?" She asked.

"Nope." Was all he said.

"Well about twenty miles up the road is a little place called Haleville. If you blink you'll miss it, but there's a store there, even a bar if you want to cool off."

"How about we have a drink or two and buy a six pack for the road?" He asked.

"Sounds good. I'm Sheila by the way." She said, offering her hand.

"Randy." He said, shaking her hand.

"So why are you headed to Tiller?" She asked.

"Gonna look up an old friend."

"What's his name? I've lived in Tiller all my life. If I don't know him I probly know of him." She said.

"Williams, his first name is Tom but his friends call him Shorty." Robert said.

"Williams? Well there are a lot of Williams in Tiller but I don't recall one named Tom. I bet I know some of his relations though." She said.

"I bet you do." Robert agreed.

They drove in silence for a while. She took another couple of hits from the bottle of Jack along the way. Soon they begin to pass small farm houses with a few head of cattle grazing behind the barbed wire fences. Then a sign announced the city limits of Haleville, population six hundred and forty three.

"Just up ahead on your right. It's called "The Watering Hole". Slow down or you'll miss it." She warned.

"There it is." Robert said, pulling over and parking the van next to the only other car in the gravel parking lot.

There were two people in the bar. One was the bartender and the other was a woman somewhere between the ages of fifty and sixty nursing what looked like a double shot of bourbon. Robert could tell from the glazed look in her eyes it wasn't her first.

"Want to sit at the bar or get a booth?" Sheila asked.

Robert sliding into one of the booth's answered her question. She sat opposite him.

"A booth, I guess." She said.

"What can I get ya?" The barkeep yelled from behind the bar.

His no nonsense tone matched his down to earth appearance. He too appeared to be in his fifties. He wore his hair short and combed back. His clothes, like the bar itself, were practical, nothing fancy. He obviously saw no good reason to walk all the way to the booth, take their order, walk back to the bar to get it and then repeat the process.

"I'll have a beer, whatever's on tap. What about you?" Robert asked Sheila.

"Shot of Jack with a Dr. Pepper back, no ice. Make it a double." She told the bartender.

He nodded and went to work getting their drinks.

"You don't mind that I got a double, do ya?" She asked Robert.

He thought it was a little late to be asking but he smiled and said no.

"That'll be $5.50." The bartender said, setting the drinks on the table.

Robert handed him a five and two quarters. The bartender took the money and headed back to the bar without a word. The woman at the bar was openly staring at the two until Robert gave her a hard look. At that, she turned back to her drink.

Robert gave Sheila a chance to down most of her drink before he started any serious conversation.

"So, what was a pretty girl like you doing all alone in the middle of nowhere on such a hot Texas day?" He finally asked.

"Haven't felt like a girl for quite some time." Sheila rolled the dark liquid around the bottom of her glass and then downed it.

"Barkeep! Another double for my lady." Robert called to the bartender, who sighed, rolled his eyes but poured the drink.

"You still haven't answered my question." Robert prodded.

"Man trouble, what else?" She said after the bartender was out of earshot.

"Hard to believe someone that looks like you would have any kind of man trouble, except maybe having to beat them off with a stick." Robert layed it on thick.

"Please." Sheila laughed.

"I mean it." Robert said solemnly, looking directly into Sheila's eyes.

"Thanks." Sheila's blush softened the hard lines in her face and Robert saw the traces of the beauty that once had been. For a moment he felt a connection to her, her lost beauty reminding him of his own lost innocence.

"If you don't want to talk about it, that's O.K." He said, patting her hand.

"I really don't. I got off lucky I guess. At least I found out what a pig he is before things got any more serious. But hey, at least he took the trash out. " She laughed and raised her glass in a toast. Robert met her glass with his bottle and a new plan began to form.

"You deserve better, that's for sure. Why is it that when you treat someone good they end up treating you like a dog?" He asked.

"You got me, but you're right. Makes you wonder." She stirred her drink with her index finger and appeared lost in thought.

"Don't go getting all sad on me. Today's a new day and it's gonna be a good one!" Robert lifted her chin up with his hand. He let his fingers linger a moment before letting go. Sheila gave him an odd look.

"So where will you be staying in Tiller?" She asked.

"Oh, I'll stay with Shorty." He said.

"Is he married?" She asked.

"I don't really know, to tell the truth. He wasn't the last time I talked to him." He said.

"How long ago was that?"

"Bout a year ago I guess." Robert said.

"You're kidding! You haven't talked to this guy in a year and you're just gonna show up on his doorstep?" She asked.

"We were in the army together. We worked in the body shop on base. We used to call Shorty the Bondo King. He was good, real good. I'm thinking maybe we can get some business going again." Robert said.

"So you're thinking of staying?" Sheila asked.

"That's the plan. And I sure hope it works, because that's the only plan I've got." Robert said.

"So you're just going to waltz into town, look up this guy Shorty and tell him you'll be staying with him while the two of you start a business? What if he doesn't want to? What if he's married with kids and his wife doesn't want any part of you? What then?" Sheila asked

"Then I don't know. All I know is I'm not going back to Dallas, ever." Robert said.

"Are you in trouble with the law?" Sheila asked.

"No, wish that was all it was." Robert said.

"Then what? Or is it none of my business?" Sheila asked.

"It's not that, it's just hard to talk about. But I like talking to you, I feel comfortable with you like I can trust you." Robert smiled at Sheila and touched her hand, but just for a moment. "My brother has an auto body shop in Dallas. I've been working for him for over three years now. I'm not married but I've been living with a gal for about a year. I came home last Friday and she was gone."

"That's tough." Sheila said, shaking her head in sympathy.

"That's not the worst part. She cleaned me out. The apartment was empty, my bank account was empty and she even took my truck. That's why I'm driving that old beater out there." He continued.

"That's awful. Did she leave or note or anything?" Sheila asked.


"Well maybe she didn't leave, maybe she was kidnapped. Or maybe she had some kind of emergency." Sheila offered.

"I don't know what kind of emergency you'd have where you need your living room furniture, but anyway, that's not what happened." He said.

"What did happen?" Sheila asked.

"I called my brother to see if he knew anything and that's when he told me." Robert said.

"Oh no." Sheila said.

"Oh yes...they were in love. They didn't want to hurt me but they couldn't help it."

"Your own brother, that's horrible. What did you do?" Sheila asked.

"I left. What else could I do? I couldn't bear the thought of ever seeing either one of them again. I wanted to kill them both. The two people I love most in the world and I wanted to see them dead." He finished.

"I'm so sorry." Sheila said.

"Yeah, me too. Drink up. Let's get back on the road."

Chapter Fourteen

The first thing Sheila did after Robert dropped her off at the house was check the answering machine. Sure enough, the red link blinked ferociously. There were six messages, and she imagined they were all from Rick. Pig. Rick the Pig.

How could she have been so wrong about him? Thank God for the road trip or she might never have known how he really was. And to think she might have married him, or at least considered it. And that was saying a lot. After her divorce from Joe, Sheila swore she'd never marry again, never put herself in that position.

Rick had gotten a call from a friend of his in Denton, Texas. He offered to sell Rick a really nice set of wheels for the truck for next to nothing. Rick asked her to ride down with him. That was Tuesday morning. They got pulled into Denton about 2 in the afternoon and went by the station where Derrick worked. Rick loved the wheels and Derrick told them to come back after work and he'd help Rick put them on the truck. He scratched his address across a tattered business card and told them to wait there until closing. He said there was beer in the fridge and his girlfriend would let them in.

The girl that opened the door to the apartment looked liked Dallas cheerleaders reject. Her bleach blond hair was teased, brushed back from her face and then lacquered into place. She wore enough make up to last three days and her tongue was pierced by a silver barbell. A red checked sleeveless cotton shirt was tied beneath her breasts and the denim skirt she wore looked wider than it was long. But the crowning touch was undoubtedly, the calf high white cowboy boots.

"Ya'll come on in. Derrick called and said you'd be by. I'm Deby." She said.

"Deby does Dallas." Sheila muttered.

"No, hon, Deby Mack, like the truck." She giggled.

Sheila nodded and stepped inside. She couldn't help but notice the big grin on Rick's face. But men always did make fools of themselves in front of pretty women, especially cheap looking pretty women. And Sheila had to admit, Deby wasn't that bad. Her face was O.K., nothing special really, but her body! Even Sheila found herself staring. Deby's waist looked too small to be anatomically possible and Sheila was sure you could bounce a quarter off of the girls' backside. So she couldn't be too upset with Rick for looking.

She stayed at the house with Deby while Rick went to get the wheels put on the truck. After a few beers, she found herself almost liking the girl and when Deby asked her to walk with her to the liquor store she went along. They bought a big bottle of Jim Beam and then walked across the street to a Circle K for more beer. Sheila bought a six pack of Dr. Pepper, but Deby paid for everything else.

Rick and Derrick were back at the house when they got home. They all stood outside admiring the new wheels. Once inside the drinking began. There was no mention of eating dinner and that seemed to suit everyone. Sheila hadn't eaten all day long and the liquor went straight to her head. About nine O'clock she told Rick she needed to lie down.

Derrick invited them to stay the night and Deby threw a comforter over a mattress sprawled across the floor in the spare bedroom. She grabbed a couple of pillows off of the couch and tossed those on as well. The comforter was none to clean but Sheila was in too sad a shape to protest. She lay down and prayed the room would quit spinning. She must have prayed out loud because Deby told her to put one foot on the floor and it would quit. She was right. The spinning stopped and though Sheila was fairly uncomfortable she stayed in that position until she fell asleep.

The sun streaming in the window woke her up. She glanced at her watch. It was nine thirty and Rick was no where to be seen. Sheila sat up and rubbed her aching head. That's when she heard them. The sounds were unmistakable and she recognized one of the participants as Rick.

She walked down the hall to the other bedroom and listened outside the door for a moment to be sure. It was him. She threw open the door. He lay naked on his back. Deby was naked too and had him in her mouth. At the sight of Sheila he shoved Deby aside and grabbed a sheet to cover himself.

"Don't bother." Sheila said.

"Wait! Hon, it's not what it looks like." He cried, scrambling to find his clothes.

"Go to hell!" Sheila yelled and slammed the door closed.

Fortunately she was still dressed except for her shoes. She found them in the living room next to her purse. She didn't even bother putting them on. She ran out of the door and down the street in the direction they had driven in from, stopping only long enough to put her shoes on to keep the hot pavement from scorching her feet. She wanted to be around the corner and out of sight before Rick had a chance to follow her.

As soon as she was far enough away she held out her thumb and as luck would have it, someone stopped right away. She didn't even look to see who was driving, she just jumped in.

Now she was finally home. She hit the button on the answering machine.

"Sheila, hon, I'm so sorry." Rick's voice said before she hit delete. She listened to the beginning of each message just long enough to make sure it was him and then pressed delete. She wasn't having it.

Sheila locked the debt bolt, poured herself a stiff one and flopped onto the couch. Only then did she allow herself the luxury of a good cry. She sure hadn't seen that one coming. One of Rick's saving graces had been that Sheila was sure he would never stray. Goes to show you, she thought.

After a few tears and another drink, she was feeling better. She decided to take a shower, but first she took a good look out the front window to make sure Rick hadn't pulled in. There was no key to the deadbolt so if he came home while she was in the shower he wouldn't be able to get into the house. Not that she knew if he was planning on coming back or not. She thought about gathering all of his things and throwing them on the front lawn, but would take more energy than she had at the moment so she didn't.

Sheila was towel drying her hair when she heard someone knocking on the front door. She ran a brush through her hair and ran to the front door, loaded for bear, fully expecting to see Rick. She threw the door open only to find Robert standing on her front porch.

"Randy, what are you doing here?"

"Can I come in?" Robert asked.

"Of course." Sheila motioned him inside the house. Once inside he held out a new unopened bottle of Jack and gave her a big grin.

"I'd like a little of that if you don't mind." He said.

"Sure. Sit down. Sit down and I'll fix us both one. Want some Dr. Pepper or 7-Up to go with it?" She called back from the kitchen.

"Whatever you've got. I could go to the store and get some if you don't." He offered.

"That's O.K., there are two things I never run out of and one of them is Dr. Pepper." She answered. A minute later she walked back into the living room and with his drink and sat it on the end table next to the couch where he was sitting. She then went back into the kitchen for her own drink, this time sitting a rocking chair next to the couch.

"What's the other?" Robert asked.

"The other what?" She repeated.

"The other thing you never run out of."

"Oh, that!" She laughed. "Toilet paper."

Robert laughed too.

"So, if you don't mind my asking, what are you doing here?" Sheila asked.

"Well, you were right. I went to the last address I had for Shorty, a place over on Sterling Court. The woman who came to the door was about fifty five and black. Shorty's white, so I knew it wasn't his Mom or nothing. She knew him though. Said he'd moved away about four months ago. She thinks he went to Colorado for work." Robert said.

"Oh no." Sheila said. "Now what?"

"I don't know. I just don't know. That's why I stopped by. I was hoping maybe I could sleep on your couch and figure something out in the morning." He looked exhausted.

"Sure, why not. You were decent enough to give me a ride home. It's the least I can do." Sheila offered.

Chapter Fifteen

Robert and Sheila talked until Sheila felt herself getting very sleepy. She had given Robert the complete history of her relationship with Rick. A user himself, it was easy for Robert to see how thoroughly Rick had been using Sheila. He asked some pointed questions about Rick, hoping Sheila would see it for herself. He made some headway. She agreed that Rick was lazy and did very little to help her out, but still insisted that he loved her.

"Let me get you a pillow and blanket." She said, heading for the linen closet in the hall. Just then someone started pounding on the door.

"Do you want me to get that?"

"No! Don't answer it." She called out and ran to peek out the living room blinds.

"I knew it. It's Rick, that sleazebag."

Sheila didn't answer the door, but Rick could see the light on in the living room. The doorknob turned as he opened it with his key, but the deadbolt was still latched so he wasn't able to open the door.

"Come on Sheila, let me in. I know you're in there." He yelled through the door.

"Go away, I don't want to see you." She yelled back.

"I just want to talk to you. Just hear me out, then if you want me to leave, I will." He said.

"No. Go away." She remained firm but Rick started beating on the door again. Robert pushed Sheila aside and opened the door.

"The lady doesn't want to talk to you right now." Robert said quietly in a very low voice.

"Who the hell are you?" Rick snarled.

"The last person you'll ever see if you don't get the fuck outta here." Robert answered.

"Is that right, tough guy? Why don't you just step outside and let's see what you got." Rick taunted.

"Stop it." Sheila put her arm across Robert's chest to keep him from going after Rick. "Rick, just go, please. Call me tomorrow. We'll talk then."

"All right." Rick said reluctantly. "I'll call you in the morning."

"Fine." Sheila pulled Robert back inside the living room and shut the door, making sure the deadbolt was in place.

"Jerk." Robert said.

"I know."

"Well, you can rest easy tonight. Even if he makes it through the door he won't get through me." Robert said.

"He won't be back tonight. I appreciate your help, but I can handle him. He's not the violent type. I'll talk to him in the morning all right. I'll tell him to come over and pick up his things and that will be the end of that." Sheila said.

Sheila went back to the linen closet to get a blanket and pillow for Robert. She tossed them on the couch.

"The bathroom's right across the hall. If you need anything else, just holler." She instructed.

"Thanks. See you in the morning."

"Good night." Sheila said and headed for bed.


The next morning Sheila awoke to the smell of bacon frying. She put on a purple terrycloth robe that had seen better days and walked into the kitchen.

"Good morning Sunshine." Robert said with a grin. "Sit down and I'll get you some coffee."

"You're kidding." Sheila sat down at the kitchen table.

"No, I'm not. You deserve to be waited on for a change. My impression of Rick is that he's not the kind to do that. What do you take in your coffee?" He asked after pouring her a cup.

"Sweet & Low. There's some right here." Sheila pulled out a small pink packet from Knott's Berry Farm jar on the table and waved it at him.

"Then I guess my next question is, how do you like your eggs?"

"Over easy but I'm not picky. I'll take them anyway you cook them." She said.

"Over easy it is."

Robert cracked four eggs over the big wrought iron skillet. He buttered two pieces of toast and put two more in the toaster. By the time those were toasted the eggs were done and he fixed a plate for Sheila and himself. He grabbed two forks and a roll of paper towels and sat opposite Sheila.

"This is great. Who taught you to cook?" She asked, sampling the eggs.

"Nobody, I taught myself. I used to have to cook for me and my little brother." He said.

"How come? Where was your Mom?" Sheila asked.

"I nearly forgot! How about some fresh squeezed orange juice?" He got from the table and filled two small juice glasses from a pitcher on the sink.

"You must have gone to the store. I didn't have any oranges in the house and I think there were only 3 eggs left in the carton in the fridge." Sheila surmised.

"Woke up early and couldn't sleep. I was hungry and figured you would be too." He explained.

"Thanks. This is really nice." She said, noticing how blue his eyes were in the morning light.

"So what have you decided about the guy beating on your door last night?" He asked.

"Rick? There's nothing to decide. There are certain things I don't put up with. Cheating is one." She said, her mood turning dark at the thought.

"Sorry, I didn't mean to bum you out. I was just thinking about something." Robert said.

"Thinking about what?" She asked.

"Well. I don't know how to put it really, it sounds kinda crazy." Robert said.

"Just say it Randy." Sheila urged, curious as to what it was.

"Well, I was really counting on finding Shorty, but that's not gonna happen. Bottom line is I've got no place to go." Robert said.

"You want to stay here?" Sheila asked hesitantly.

"No, I mean, I could but I don't have to. I'm not going back to Ft. Worth. I've got to start over somewhere." He paused.

"I thought you said you were from Dallas." Sheila said.

"Worked in Dallas, lived in Ft. Worth." He corrected. "And I don't mean that there would be anything between the two of us. Not that you're not attractive. You are. But what I'm talking about is more like roommates. What's his name is gone now and I'm sure you could use some help with the bills."

"That's the truth, though Rick wasn't much help in that department." Sheila said, thinking over the offer.

"It wouldn't take me anytime to find work, I can do pretty much anything. I'm good around the house too. I pick up after myself and I like cooking." He added.

"I don't know." Sheila said.

"Why don't we give it a shot. If it doesn't work, say the word and I'll be gone."

"Well, I guess you could stay in Katy's room." Sheila said.

"Who's Katy?"

"My daughter." Sheila said.

"Where is she?" Robert asked, not thrilled about having a kid around.

"She's staying with her Aunt and Uncle in Houston right now." Sheila said.

"When she coming home?"

"I don't know for sure. I got tangled up with Children's Services. You know how that goes."

"Oh." Robert said, not knowing what else to say.

"It's all bullshit." Sheila said and was surprised to find herself tearing up. She took the paper towel she had been using for a napkin and blew her nose. Robert refilled their coffee, patted her on the back and sat down.

"Tell me about it." He said.

"Her Dad and I split up when she was about three. There's a factory in town that makes paper products. The work's hard but the money is good. Anyway, I'd been working there almost two years when I hurt my back. I've had two surgeries on it." She said.

"It must have been rough going through that all alone and trying to take care of a kid." He said.

"It was. But I was doing it. Then, right before the second surgery Joe's sister offered to take Katy home with her and look after her until I recovered. I'd always liked her and thought it was a great idea. I should have known better. I knew she couldn't have kids of her own but I never thought she'd double cross me like she did.

I hadn't been home a week after the second surgery when child services turned up. They said that someone had reported that I was addicted to pain killers and was an alcoholic. Well, sure enough, there was a bottle of Vicodin sitting right there on the end table next to the couch. Then they started snooping through my kitchen cabinets and found a fifth of rum. I'd had that rum for nearly two weeks before I went in the hospital." She explained.

"It took you over two weeks to go through a fifth and they called you an alcoholic? Unbelievable!" Robert sympathized.

"No shit. But they did. They awarded temporary custody to Joe's sister and her husband. The funny part is I thought they were helping me out. They said they'd keep her because everyone knows the terrible things that happen to foster kids. They said she'd be safe with them until I got things cleared up. I actually thanked them. Two years passed before I found out they were the ones who started the whole mess. They planned it all along. His whole family was in on it." Her sadness turned to anger as she relived that terrible time.

"What about after you got over the surgery? Did you try to get her back then?" Robert asked.

"Of course I did. By then there were more problems. I quit taking the pills but the pain didn't go away, so I drank. It was the only way I could deal with it." Robert nodded in agreement. "I couldn't work, so there was no money."

"Didn't you file for unemployment or anything?" He asked.

"I couldn't get unemployment because you have to be able to work. I had a settlement coming from workmen's comp, but that took months. I filed for disability but they wait to see if maybe you'll die first and they won't have to give it to you."

"So what happened?" He asked.

"I lost my apartment and had to move in with my sister. She watched me like a hawk. No drinking allowed. I kept the place up and did all the cooking but after a while I just couldn't take it anymore. She didn't want me drinking in the house so I started going out to the bars at night. Finally she kicked me out. I moved in with a loser I had met at the bar. That lasted about a month and then I moved in with a friend for a while. I knew I couldn't get Katy back until I had my own place and had some way to support her." She paused and took a sip of her coffee.

"So how did you wind up here?" He prompted.

"I got my settlement from workman's comp but I went through that pretty quick. Then finally, after two and a half years, I got my disability. They have to pay you from the time you file the claim so I had a lot coming to me. I put fifteen thousand down on this place which makes my payments pretty decent. And I get a check every month."

"Not bad. But they still won't let you have Katy back?"

"They haven't so far, but I'm fixing to get a lawyer." Sheila said. "So, I guess it won't hurt if you stay here till I get Katy back. That'll give you time to save up for your own place."

"Great! You won't regret it." Robert jumped up and kissed Sheila on the cheek. "The first thing I'm gonna do is mow that grass. You got a lawn mower?"

"In the shed in the backyard." She laughed.


Copyright © 2008 by La Juana Williams . All rights reserved unless specified otherwise above.

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