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Pelican Book Group / Harbour Light Books in Ebook & Print!
Also at Amazon (Kindle)
“I have set watchmen on thy walls, O Jerusalem, which shall never hold their peace, day nor night. . .” Isaiah 62:10
What if you knew you could learn the deepest, darkest secrets of anyone you touched, but it would cost you emotionally? What if from your earliest childhood you could disappear in thirty-minute intervals and while invisible you could move through solid objects with impunity? What if these anomalies came as natural as breathing—clothing and anything in pockets or hand disappeared—an unknown field that surrounded you erasing everything inside?
What would you do with such powers?
I’d settled that question long ago, but this afternoon, as I focused on the scene outside my car window, it occurred to me perhaps I needed to rethink my mission. I’d covered domestic abuse cases during my five years with the Hebron Police Department, and I’d put away a lot of bad people. Different scenario here. I was no longer a cop.
Ahead, a small boy stepped from a school bus into the upscale Crown Heights neighborhood. Dead leaves and powered snow swirled around his high-end sneakers as he shuffled along the sidewalk.
My foot hovered over the gas pedal. The image disturbed me, and I almost drove away. His small shoulders slumped forward, and I was hooked. I had to know.
He stopped and turned around as if he might go back to the bus stop. He reversed and faced me again.
Cute kid, maybe six years old. The designer logo on his backpack bounced with each step. Blonde locks pressed against his brow under a blue baseball cap, reminding me of another little boy—minus the designer gear.
Decision made, I swung the SUV to the curb, snatched the cell phone from its holder, and texted my friend.
Got 2 bow out of dinner talk 2 u later.
I left the car and stepped to the sidewalk. With a glance both ways, I moved into the boy’s path. Slow and easy. Not too close, not too fast. I didn’t want to frighten him.
With my friendliest smile, I took a step closer. “Hey, son, can you tell me where to find Oak Street?”
He gazed up at me and shook his head. Eyes dull, as if he’d lived life and found it wanting.
I patted his shoulder. “Thanks, anyway.”
He winced and jerked away as if I’d slapped him. I’d suspected abuse, but his pain caught me by surprise. In an instant his life opened up, film clips at the speed of light. Visuals of physical pain, overwhelming fear, helplessness, and a silent scream for help. Emotions too heavy for a child to carry streamed through my consciousness. With proof of abuse came certainty. The violence at home was escalating.
Something frightening rose within me―rage against the defenselessness of children and those who caused them pain. Abuse cases drew and repelled me at the same time, reviving memories I’d long ago buried.
I inhaled a resolute breath. When had I ever walked away from a troubled child? I couldn’t save the world—just the small corner God gave me. A common man, given uncommon gifts—a watchman on the wall.
I scanned the area for traffic and pedestrians. When I turned back, the boy had quickened his pace through the gated entrance to his home.
Invisible, I wheeled and followed him.
Inside the house, a woman’s voice called from the kitchen. “Cody, is that you?”
“Yes, Mom.” The boy took the stairs two at a time to his room with me close behind.
“Get ready for dinner. Hurry, your father will be home any minute.”
At the top of the second-floor landing, a spacious lounge area came into view.
Kid-friendly furniture, bookshelves, stereo components, and a wide-screen plasma television filled an area with scattered group seating. Four doors opened onto the landing. The boy’s bedroom was the first one on the left at the top of the stairs.
Cody tossed his jacket and backpack on the bedpost, and darted into the bathroom. Hands shaking, he turned on the tap, splashed water on his face, and grabbed a towel from the rack. After a swipe at his cheeks, he bounded to the stairs. Halfway down, he stopped, and then hurried back to the bathroom. He wiped down the sink with the damp towel and dropped it into the clothes hamper. With a quick glance, he scanned the room before heading back downstairs.
At the ground floor, the stairway emptied into the living room. The accoutrements of wealth spread out before me. More showroom than a home—decorative and spotless. The room held no smiling family photos, books, or personal touches, no warmth. Even the Christmas tree with its silver and glass ornaments seemed cold and sterile. Not my taste, but what did a former Marine know about interior design?
On the right, a formal dining room opened into a kitchen exuding homey smells of spices and yeast.
Cody took a seat in the bay window, drew up his legs, and wrapped thin arms around his knees. His gaze followed his mother as she put finishing touches on the evening meal.
The woman examined each piece of china with care, and then replaced the dish on the placemat. She picked up the silverware and polished each piece with a towel. Her frantic actions told a story. A lump formed in my throat. I knew the drill by heart. Perfection was an elusive goal she could never attain.
From the back entrance, a car hummed into the garage.
With quick, deft movements, she placed Beef Wellington, browned to perfection, on the table. She must have spent half the day preparing this meal.
A door slammed. “Rachel,” a male voice called.
“We’re in the kitchen, Harry.” Her mouth formed a thin, strained smile.
Harry’s linebacker form filled the doorway. Tough guy. He could beat up a woman and child.
He took the chair at the head of the table. Cody and his mother joined him, taking seats across from each other.
Rachel rose and filled Harry’s wine glass as he cut the beef into precise, small bites, seemingly oblivious to the tremor in her hand.
The chimes of the analog wall clock sent a reminder my time limit had run out. I could leave or let the family find an intruder observing their evening meal.
I left with reservations.
Cody should be OK for a short time. His father would look for a reason to justify his cruelty, a reason to convince Cody the abuse was his own fault. Tactics used by abusive parents everywhere.
Back in my car, I drove to the front gate and forced my attention to the job. Cody needed a champion, and like it or not, I’d been tagged his designated knight.
Half an hour later, again invisible, I re-entered the kitchen. The meal had ended, and Harry sipped coffee from an engraved demitasse cup.
I braced for the explosion, and it didn’t take long.
Cody removed the napkin from his lap, folded it, and laid it on the placemat. When he released the napkin, his hand hit the milk glass. The crystal tumbler spilled onto the tablecloth, bounced to the floor, and shattered, sending glass shards across the tile.
Harry’s glare flashed at Cody. “You clumsy little fool. Look what you’ve done.”
Rachel jumped to her feet, darted to the kitchen, and grabbed a handful of paper towels. “Don’t yell at him. It was an accident. You make him nervous.”
A vein popped out on Harry’s left temple. “Proper table manners are important to his future, regardless of his feelings. Obviously, a lesson he’ll never learn from his mother.” Harry turned to Cody. “Go to your room. I’ll be there in a minute.”
Cody pushed back from the table and stumbled upstairs. I followed his dejected form back to his room.
Rachel’s pleas echoed up the stairwell. “Leave him alone, Harry. He’s just a little boy. Accidents happen.”
A sharp slap sounded, followed by dead silence.
Doors slammed downstairs as though Harry searched for something. Heavy, deliberate steps ascended upward. Cody’s eyes widened as his father drew nearer.
The knob turned, and Harry stood in the doorway, a leather belt clasped in his hand. He strode to Cody’s window and closed the blinds.
Rachel slid into the room. She skirted around Harry and stood between Cody and his father.
Cody screamed. “No, Mom. He’ll hurt you.” He tried to get around her, but she held him back.
“Get out of the way, Rachel.” Harry bit out each word.
Rachel’s chin went up, and her shoulders squared. “I’m not moving an inch. Not now—not ever.”
My hands shook so badly I had to squeeze them into fists to keep from decking Harry. Breaking his jaw would ease the chaos in my gut and let him feel the pain he’d dealt Rachel and Cody. Inwardly, I railed against my limitations, but common sense prevailed. I couldn’t just materialize in Cody’s room without serious repercussions.
I had to leave again, but this wasn’t the end. I was coming back for Cody and Rachel.
Outside the gate, once more flesh and blood, I punched 911 on my cell. “I want to report a disturbance at 1220 Cedar Hills Drive. I hear a child screaming.” I gave my name and waited.
The authorities wouldn't take long, but that didn't stop me from pacing. Crown Heights’ four-man police department received few emergency calls. Vanity cops more than a law enforcement unit, but this wasn’t the time to be picky.
In less than five minutes a patrol car passed. Brake lights came on, and the vehicle backed up and eased to the curb in front of the estate. Two officers emerged and marched to where I stood. They could have been brothers, both thin and athletic with neat dark hair and brown eyes.
“Officer Ryan,” he said and thrust his thumb toward his colleague. “That’s Officer Duncan. Did you report the disturbance?”
“That would be me. I’m Noah Adams.”
“Did you witness an altercation of any kind?”
“No, only the child’s screams. Sounded frantic. Perhaps someone should check it out.”
Duncan strode to the gate and spoke into the intercom. “Police. Open the gate, please.”
Ryan pulled a notebook from his jacket. He cocked an eyebrow. “Got some ID? You look familiar. You a cop?”
“Used to be. Five years on the HPD. Private investigator, now.”
“Goes with the job.” I handed him my license and concealed weapon permit.
He examined them carefully and handed them back. “You don’t live in the neighborhood?”
“No, just passing through.”
“How did you come to be outside the home? You couldn’t hear anyone scream driving by.”
I looked the cop straight in the eye and lied. It didn’t sit well, but I justified it—a kid’s safety was on the line. “I pulled over to make a call on my cell phone. I don’t like to drive through residential areas while I’m on the phone.” That much was true.
Ryan pointed at me. “Wait here.” He joined Duncan in the squad car. Someone buzzed them through the gate, and the cruiser inched up the drive.
Cody’s mother waited in the doorway under the portico as the two cops walked up the steps. Voices drifted from the entrance, too low for me to understand.
Before long, an irate Harry stood at the door. He pointed in my direction and shouted something unintelligible, and probably unflattering.
Duncan motioned me inside.
Ryan took a step toward me as I reached the group. “You said you heard screams?”
“That’s right.” If the police didn’t believe me, I could always confess an honest mistake. At least Harry would know someone knew his secret.
“You’re a liar.” The vein in Harry’s temple popped out again. “No one here screamed.” He glared at Ryan. “He’s got the wrong house.”
“I’m certain the sounds came from here. Where’s your son?” In an instant, I realized my error. The screams could have been those of a daughter. I glanced at the group around me. No weird looks. I eased out the breath I’d been holding.
Harry’s gaze turned hard. “What do you want with my son?”
Duncan turned, and locked in on Harry. “Get your son, sir.”
Harry disappeared and after a short wait, he appeared with Cody in tow.
“What’s your name?” Ryan asked the boy in a soft tone.
“C-Cody.” He moved close to his mother.
“I’m Officer Ryan, and I’m here to make sure you’re safe. You OK?”
“Has anyone hurt you?”
The boy shook his head, but his hands trembled, and he chewed at his lower lip.
I moved into his line of vision. “Cody, turn around and lift your shirt.”
Cody blanched and backed closer to Rachel. Apparently he didn’t recognize me from our earlier encounter. If so, he gave no indication.
Ryan turned a hard glare at me. “You’re out of line, Adams. We’ll handle this.” He turned to the boy. “It’s OK, Cody. No one will harm you. Lift your shirt.”
Harry’s confidence appeared to slip. A red flush started at his neck and spread over his face. He seemed to weigh the danger of refusal. “Do you know who I am? I’m Judge Harold London! You can’t come into my home and undress my son. I’m calling my attorney.” Harry swung around to face his wife. “Bring me the phone.”
“Bring me the phone!”
The two cops looked at each other, and then back at me. “You sure about this?” Ryan asked.
I couldn’t back down now. “Sure as death and judgment.”
Cody huddled against his mother. Right cheek red, her left arm held at an awkward angle, Rachel reached down, turned Cody around, and raised his shirt. Long black bruises stretched from the top of his shoulder to his waist. Two swollen red welts stood out among the older stripes on his back.
Echoes from my past reared their ugly head, but I pushed them away. This wasn’t the time.
Suppressed anger mottled Harry’s face. Hard dark eyes stared back at me. In that moment, I knew he wouldn’t admit abusing Cody. Survival would supersede any sense of wrongdoing.
Duncan gave his partner a knowing nod and drew Rachel aside.
Ryan returned to the patrol car and came back with a camera and handed it to Duncan. He motioned Rachel and Cody to follow him indoors, presumably to photograph Cody’s bruises.
Ten minutes later, Crown Height’s finest led a cursing, handcuffed, Judge Harold London away, shoved him none too gently into the cruiser’s backseat, and slammed the door.
Large snowflakes fell as the squad car moved down the driveway and onto the street. Arms clasped around her body against the cold, Rachel stood there, Cody at her side, and watched the cruiser until it disappeared from sight.
She looked down at her son. “Do you want something for pain?”
He shook his head. “No, Mom. I’m good. It doesn’t hurt.” He turned and disappeared through the entryway.
For the first time, I noticed Rachel London was a lovely woman. Tall, slim, with classic high cheekbones and large green eyes. Pale, bruised, and frightened, but strikingly beautiful.
I caught her gaze. “If you’d like, I’ll take you and Cody to the hospital or to a shelter—somewhere your husband can’t get to you.”
She gave a short, sardonic laugh that wrinkled her mouth. “That would be useless. Harry knows the location of the Hebron shelter. We don’t need a doctor; we need to get far away from here as fast as possible.”
”Do you have any family?”
She stared at some point in the distance then turned to me. “No. I grew up in an orphanage in Cheyenne.”
Typical abuse victim. A woman alone with no family. “I’m sorry.”
Silence filled the space between us for a moment. She gave a dismissive shrug. “It was a long time ago. I’m over it.” Her voice dropped to a husky tone and she looked up at me. “How did you know? Cody didn’t scream.”
“Are you sure? Perhaps you were too frightened to hear.”
“Maybe.” Uncertainty clouded her features. “Mr... I don’t even know your name.”
“It’s Adams, Noah Adams. I’m a private investigator.” I searched my jacket and handed her my card.
She studied it with blank eyes and slipped it into her pocket. A shiver ran through her body, her eyes wide. “We have to leave. Right away. Harry will never see the inside of a cell. My husband is a powerful man, Mr. Adams. A charter member of the good-old-boys network downtown. He’ll be home within the hour, and he’ll be raving mad. I don’t even want to think what might happen.” She shivered again. “We’ve left before. Wherever we go, he always finds us.” Angry tears pooled in her eyes. “Harry said he would take Cody away from me if I tried to leave again. I’d go mad knowing Cody had to face his father alone.” Her jaw clenched. “Harry London will be a dead man before I let him take Cody away from me.” Desperation resonated in her stiff posture and jerky motions.
“Murder isn’t the answer. Cody needs you with him, not in prison. There’s a place I can take you, a place where your husband can’t find you. You’ll need to pack extra-warm clothing for the trip. It’s colder in the valley.”
Her eyes brightened. “Where?”
“A friend’s ranch near Green River. I’ll call and make sure it’s all right.” I reached for my cell-phone. “I won’t let him hurt either of you again. I promise.”
She stood motionless, not making eye contact.
The toll of clock chimes from the entryway spurred her into action. “Cody, we’re leaving. Gather up any toys you want to bring. Hurry. Your father will be home soon.”
He appeared at her side. “Where are we going?”
She gave him a gentle nudge toward the open doorway. “We’ll talk about it later. Right now, we must hurry.” Her gaze tracked him down the hallway, and then she followed him inside.
While they packed, I called my friend Emma Hand.
Rachel returned with two suitcases. She blinked rapidly, trying to convey her sense of despair. “I appreciate what you’re doing. I...I have to trust someone. There’s no place else for us to go. But if you let me down and Harry finds us―.” She dropped her gaze and drew a long, shuddering breath. After a pause, she raised her head, and looked into my eyes. “It could cost us our lives.”
Somewhere on Highway 80
City lights disappeared in the rearview mirror as we trekked west toward Green River. An exhausted Cody fell asleep in the backseat soon after we left Hebron. The glow of the dash lights reflected Rachel huddled close to the door, eyes glued to the blackness, white-knuckled hands clasped in her lap.
My mind focused on the small family. They had lived with pain for a long time. Thank God, Emma agreed to take them in.
Emma Hand’s place sat two hundred miles from Hebron, off Highway 80, the interstate that ran across the lower half of Wyoming. A desolate, sometimes dangerous drive this time of year. Relentless winds sheered across the highway, and violent snow gusts often shut down the road for hours.
God’s hand guided us through the storm. Red taillights from the tanker in front of us cut a path through the darkness, a shield from the heavy storm.
The long day wore on me, and I began to depressurize from the adrenaline rush of the past hours. I glanced at my silent companion. “If you’re in pain, there’s aspirin in the glove box.”
She tucked a strand of blonde hair behind her left ear. “I’m fine.”
Wind danced flakes on the pavement before us like confetti at a Christmas parade. Through the flurries, I spotted a fast food restaurant sign at the next exit. “I need a caffeine fix. How about you?”
“I’ll take a soda. I’m not much on coffee.”
The drive-thru lane stood empty. I placed the order at the intercom, moved forward, and paid the pimple-faced kid at the first window. He handed me my change and I inched to the second opening.
Rachel’s troubled gaze searched my face. When she spoke, the timbre of her voice hardened. “The first time I left Harry, we went to the shelter. I thought we’d be safe there. Of course, as a judge, he knew where to find me. Harry produced a letter from my doctor saying I’d had a nervous breakdown, and he took us back home. I paid dearly for that little indiscretion.”
“Why would your doctor lie? He could lose his medical license.”
“Dr. Saunders is a personal friend of Harry’s. I’m sure my husband applied a great deal of pressure. Anyway, after that I decided to try something new. The last time, Cody and I packed my car after Harry left for work. We headed for California. I’d stashed money for six months so I wouldn’t leave a trail he could follow. Somehow, he knew we had left. Before we reached the state line, the police stopped me and brought us back. That’s when I knew I’d have to kill Harry to get away.”
While we waited for our drinks, I scanned her face in the dim lighting. Where did she find the courage to keep going with such odds against her? She’d kept herself and her son alive through sheer strength and bravery.
“I can only imagine how hopeless you must have felt.”
She gave a short laugh. “Whoever you are, it’s difficult to imagine we could be worse off than we’ve been with Harry.”
Her chest rose as she inhaled a deep breath. “You’re my last hope. I don’t know if you’re a guardian angel or a serial killer—a stranger who showed up at my door. And yet here I am taking my son on a trip to God-only-knows where.”
“I mean you no harm, Rachel. Though a serial killer would probably say that as well.” I managed a half grin. “But killers rarely call the police, give them their license number, and home address before kidnapping victims. You and Cody were in trouble. I wanted to help. It’s as uncomplicated as that. Emma Hand is a fine woman. You’ll be safe there, and you can leave whenever you want.”
She frowned and gave her head a slow shake. “I have an appalling record of making the wrong choices where men are concerned.” She lifted her chin. “But this time, I’m leaving Harry for good, and I don’t intend to become someone else’s victim.”
“Point taken. You’re right to be wary of strangers.”
Wind-driven snow speckled the windshield under the drive-through portico. “Do you have access to a bank account or other funds?”
Her eyes widened.
“You won’t need money at the ranch, but you will need an attorney, and Cody should see a doctor. You‘ll have to prove ongoing abuse.”
Her posture eased. “We have medical insurance, but Harry can trace us if we use it. I also have credit cards, but he’ll cancel them before morning. He always cancels the cards when I leave.”
“Half of everything he has belongs to you and Cody. But you’ll have to file for a divorce to get it.”
Her jaw set in an oddly vulnerable way. “Like I would ever do that. Stand alone against Harry in Hebron. He would have Dr. Saunders as a witness. It would be my word against two highly respected professionals. Taking him to court would be the mother of lost causes.”
“I’d be there for you, and I know a good attorney. The sooner you take legal action against your husband, the sooner you’ll be free of him.”
The young woman at the window passed two cups out. I handed one to Rachel, took a sip from mine, and placed it in the console holder. “Do you guys have passports?”
“Why?” she asked.
“Just in case I need to move you into Canada.”
She unsheathed the straw and punched it into her drink. “They’re in a safe at home along with a large amount of cash. Harry brags there is more than a $100,000 dollars inside.” She shook her head. “But I can’t get my part of the money, or the passports. I don’t have the combination.”
Not surprising Harry denied her access. Money meant freedom, and abusers liked to keep their victims dependent.
“Does he open the safe often?”
She consider the question for a moment before she answered. “He opens it every Monday before he goes to work to pulls cash for the week. And probably other times I’m not aware of.”
“Where’s the safe?”
“In the library, behind an ugly modern painting.” She lifted an eyebrow. “Don’t tell me you crack safes in your spare time.”
I shook my head and chuckled. “I can barely crack an egg.”
“Too bad. I was getting ready to hand you my housekey.”
“ No promises, but there’s a good chance I can help you get access to the passports and money when you need them.”
She twisted the straw but didn’t drink from it. “As hard as I’ve tried, I haven’t been able to start a life for Cody away from his father. I’m a miserable failure as a mother. Cody has lived a nightmare every day of his life—thanks to me.”
“How did you reach that conclusion?”
“I married his father, didn’t I?”
“You can’t change the past, Rachel. You can change what comes next. The blame for Cody’s abuse lies squarely on Harry London’s shoulders. Not yours. Just keep repeating your promise to never again be a victim.”
Hand Me Down Ranch
We reached the ranch just before midnight. The sheep farm lay in a valley surrounded by mountains and a few scattered pines. Next to a nearby barn stood a water tower and large corral, the landscape covered in snow. A low, rambling structure glowed in the distance like a beacon guiding us to a safe haven.
Emma must have heard the car pull in. The front door opened, and a welcoming smile wreathed her face. She swung the door wide for us to enter.
Cold wind nipped at my face and stung my eyes. With Cody in my arms, I hurried inside, making hasty introductions as we crossed the threshold.
Emma pointed down the hallway. “Take the boy to the third bedroom on the left.”
Rachel followed me to the designated room and tucked Cody into bed. She pulled the covers up around his neck and smoothed a damp, blonde curls from his brow. I left her there, dashed back to the car, and brought their luggage inside to the entryway.
Emma gave me a hug when I entered the den. “I’ve made a bed for you. It’s too late to drive back to the city tonight.”
I nodded and hustled close to the fire, absorbing the warmth, letting it thaw the chill that numbed my feet and hands.
She turned to Rachel as she entered. “Your room is next to Cody. I lit the pellet stoves earlier. You should be cozy if you leave the doors open a little.”
“We’ll be fine.” Rachel crossed the room to stand beside me in front of the crackling blaze, her hands outstretched to the heat.
“Can I get you folks some coffee or tea?” Emma asked. “It’ll only take a minute to make.”
Rachel looked utterly undone. The day’s events showed, her mouth drawn tight, her posture strained. “Thanks, but none for me. If you don’t mind, I’ll go to bed.” She started toward the hallway, and then turned back to Emma. “I’m not good at expressing my feelings, but I appreciate...what you’re doing...for Cody and me. I hope I can repay you, somehow.”
Emma crossed the room and gave Rachel a long hug. “You don’t have to repay me, girl. I’m glad to help. There are blankets in the cedar chest at the foot of the bed if you get cold. Let me know if you need anything.”
“Goodnight,” Rachel said and headed down the hallway.
I soaked up the heat for a few minutes, then picked up the bags and followed her. She’d moved Cody to her bed. Trust didn’t come easy for her.
We met just inside the room. Her eyes misted as she touched my arm. “You’re a good man, Noah. One of the very few I’ve met.”
I console weepy women about as well as I tap danced. I squeezed her hand and withdrew it quickly. She flashed a weak smile and closed the door.
Her brief touch revealed more than I wanted to know about the tragedy of her life—the premature death of her parents, her troubled years with Harry, the ache of disillusionment, and the defensive wall she’d built to ward off pain. The enormity of it staggered me. I leaned against the wall for support and closed my eyes. Adrenalin bubbled in my chest and the horrors of abuse made me gasp for air like a loose vacuum cleaner hose.
After a moment, I inhaled a deep, calming breath, and rejoined Emma. “I’ll take you up on that coffee, unless you’re too tired.”
“You know me, I’m a night owl. I’d like some myself.” She led the way into the kitchen.
The room was large and rustic with a sit-down island in the center. A working kitchen, with brick floors and knotted pine-cabinetry. The large window at the breakfast nook looked out over the distant hills and trees in the daytime. Dark now, reflecting moonlight on the pristine snow.
An attractive widow in her mid-fifties, Emma Hand looked exactly like what she was, a sheep rancher with a big heart and kind face. Slim, with salt-and-pepper gray hair, she moved with easy grace while she fussed over the coffee pot.
I took a seat at the island and filled her in on the circumstances surrounding her guests. “I won’t lie to you, this could be dangerous. Rachel’s husband is a nasty piece of work. He won’t stop until he gets his family back under his control. Feel free to back out of this deal anytime.”
Minutes later, the coffee pot’s red light came on, filling the kitchen with its fresh-brewed aroma. Emma poured two large mugs and placed one in front of me.
My stomach growled a reminder that I’d missed dinner. I nodded toward an apple pie on the counter. “If you’ll cut me a piece of pie, you’ll save a man in the throes of starvation.”
A deep chuckle rumbled in her throat. “Deal. If you really think this London fella is dangerous, I’d best ask Bill to move into the guest house for a while.”
Emma’s son was ex-Army Ranger, and pastor of a local church. He was also a friend. A good man to have on our side. And Rachel needed all the help she could get.
Emma cut a large wedge of pie and set it in front of me, then topped-off my coffee. “I can make you a sandwich if you like.”
I shook my head. “This will do just fine.” I took a bite, and the buttery crust melted in my mouth, the apples sweet and tart. “Delicious. Thanks.”
“You’re welcome. Sure you don’t want that sandwich?”
“I’m sure,” I swallowed a mouthful. “Rachel’s husband may try to have me followed, so I won’t come back to the ranch unless it’s necessary. He’ll also have my home and office calls traced, so I’ll pick up a throwaway and give you the number when I get back to town. Don’t try to call me until I give you the new number.” I wolfed down the last bite. “He’ll also pull my phone records, and your number will be there. I’m hoping he won’t realize its significance.”
With a peck on her cheek, I said goodnight and went to my room.
Well after midnight, I stretched out on the feather mattress. The excitement of the past six hours faded as my body melded into the bed’s softness. Folding my arms behind my head, I waited for sleep to conquer my overactive mind.
Rachel faced serious danger from her demented husband. The Hand Me Down would be difficult to find unless Harry somehow discovered my relationship with Emma. I had to face reality. With his unlimited funds and infinite resources, eventually Harry would find them if they remained in one place.
I couldn’t afford complacency. With that unpleasant certainty, I fell asleep.
Next morning, Bill Hand sat in the kitchen with a steaming cup to his lips. He placed the mug on the counter, stuck out his hand, and squeezed mine with an iron grip. Bill stood a little over six feet tall. All muscle. His steel-blue eyes twinkled. “You been out lookin’ for trouble again, Noah?”
“Don’t have to look. I’m a bona fide trouble magnet.” I took a seat at the bar. “Sorry I’ve put Emma in such a precarious position. This situation with Rachel and Cody happened so fast, I couldn’t think of any other place to take them.”
I selected a cup from the countertop and poured coffee from an insulated carafe. “A shelter was out of the question. Her husband’s a judge and knew the location. I’ll find a permanent place as soon as I can.”
Emma bustled around the refrigerator and pulled out bacon and eggs. “Don’t worry about that for now. That’s why I asked Bill to stay for a while. This place is certainly big enough. Besides, it gets lonely out here. I’m glad to have the company.”
A chorus of good mornings greeted Rachel and Cody when they eased into the kitchen. Cody clutched his mother’s hand in a death-grip.
“Rachel, this is Bill Hand, Emma’s son.” I turned to Emma and Bill. “And the big guy holding Rachel’s hand is Cody.”
Rachel nodded a shy smile at Bill, placed Cody on a stool, and sat beside him.
Warm rays of sunlight filtered through the windows and bathed Rachel’s face in a soft glow. The dark shadows under her emerald eyes had vanished overnight. The angry bruise on her cheek remained. She tugged at the sleeve of her sweater in an obvious attempt to cover the black marks on her wrist.
“Hi, Cody, I didn’t get a chance to meet you last night.” Emma ruffled Cody’s hair. “You folks ready for breakfast?”
The boy gave Emma a wisp of a smile and shied away.
“Let me help. I make great pancakes,” Rachel said. She moved to the counter beside Emma.
“You got yourself a job. I’ll fix the eggs and bacon while you rustle up the pancakes.” Emma pulled mix from the pantry and handed it to her houseguest.
Bill turned to Rachel. “Don’t suppose you’ve had time to think about school for Cody?”
Rachel stopped stirring the batter and shook her head. “Not really. My only concern last night was getting away from Hebron. Christmas break starts next week. I’ll have to make a decision soon. Enrolling him in public school would run up a flag his father would see.”
“Just FYI, a number of women in my church homeschool their children,” Bill said. “They use the church for things like science and social events. That lets the kids interact with each other. It works well for them.”
Cody glanced at his mother. “Mom, could I do that?”
“We’ll talk about it later. It’s certainly an option.” Rachel leveled her gaze at me. “I’m not sure how long we’ll be here.”
Emma flipped the sizzling bacon and glanced at Bill. “Why don’t you and Noah take Cody to see the horses while we finish making breakfast?”
The boy’s face brightened like someone lit a candle behind it. “Really?”
Bill smiled down at Cody. “Really. Come on. I’ll give you a short tour before we feed you.”
We struggled into our jackets and braced for the cold. Cody ran ahead to the corral.
Bill’s smile disappeared and he lowered his voice. “I didn’t want to say anything in front of Mom, but if there’s any hint that Rachel’s husband will show up here, you’ll have to move her and the boy. I can’t let Mom’s big heart put her in danger.”
I couldn’t fault him for his concern. “I hear you. At the first sign of trouble I’ll find another safe house.”
Snow crunched underfoot as we caught up with Cody at the paddock next to the stable. Our breaths hung in frosty clouds in the morning air.
Two colts played tag in the field, oblivious to the frigid conditions.
Cody’s eyes danced with excitement. “What do they eat? Don’t they get cold? Could I ride one? Please?”
“Whoa.” Bill laughed and hefted the boy onto the corral fence “One question at a time, champ. They eat grass, oats, and hay. The weather doesn’t bother them too much. God gives them a thick coat in the winter. We’ll talk about riding later.”
Bill whistled and the big roan came over to him. Bill reached in his pocket and pulled out a carrot. “Here, give his to him, and watch your fingers.”
The morning chill added a red flush to Cody’s cheeks, erasing the former pallor. The ranch could be good for him, a place to enjoy the animals while his mental and physical wounds mended.
Emma stepped out of the kitchen door. “Come on in, fellas. Breakfast is ready.” The door banged shut with a loud crack when she re-entered the house.
Cody jumped, and in the next instant, his arms were around my waist, his face pressed against my side.
I looked away, numb as gall churned in my gut. The judge had done a number on this child. “It’s OK, Cody.” I placed my hand on his head. “The noise startled me, too.”
Wind blew snow dust in behind us as we entered the kitchen. The smell of bacon and maple syrup left me feeling better, but not much.
Cody picked up Rachel’s iPhone on the counter. He punched a few buttons, thumbs clicking away as he played a video game.
Food was on the table, and we sat down. After Bill said grace, Rachel smiled at her son. “Cody will love it here. He always wanted a pet, but Harry―.” She paused. “Cody played with his friend Ethan’s dog. Bullet stayed in our yard more than he stayed at home.”
I looked at the phone next to the boy and the hair on my arms prickled. “Cody, did you call anyone this morning?”
He nodded and swallowed a bite of pancake. “I called Ethan, to tell him I wouldn’t be able to play today. He wanted to come over after school.”
Stupid. I should have asked about cell phones last night.
Rachel’s gaze held Cody’s. “You used my phone? Did you tell him where you were?”
Cody shook his head. “I used your phone, but I don’t know where we are.”
Bill’s gaze met mine.
Cody didn’t have to know. If Harry traced Rachel’s mobile calls, he could track them to the nearest cell tower, and right to Emma’s front door.
Somewhere on Highway 80
Later that morning I hurried back to Hebron. Strong winds from Canada carried ominous gray clouds that portended heavy snowfall before the day ended.
I’d confiscated Rachel’s cell phone before leaving the valley, in case it had the family map feature that told the location of family members at all times. My brain scrambled for a solution to overcome Cody’s cell call. I needed to find a new safe house as soon as possible.
Halfway to Hebron, I pulled into a truck stop hoping a jolt of caffeine would spur some creative thinking. I stomped snow off my shoes, entered the café, and took a seat at the counter. The aroma of fried food and bacon made my decision. I ordered chicken fried steak with all the trimmings. The waitress filled a cup with coffee and gave my order to the cook at the back of the counter.
A stiff, cold wind blew a giant trucker into the entrance. He wore a Stetson, and a heavy down-filled jacket. With long strides he crossed the black-tiled floor to the counter and took the stool next to me.
The waitress placed a menu and a steaming cup in front of him. “How’s it going Howie?”
He took a long drag on the coffee. “Going good, Maybell. But it’ll be better after you feed me.” He handed the menu back.
“The usual?” she asked.
“Yep, and keep the caffeine coming.”
“Where you headed?” I asked.
He shot a friendly glance my way. “San Francisco, and I can’t wait to get out of this weather. It can get cold there, but nothing like this. I hate Wyoming in the winter, and it’s always winter.”
“I hear you. It’s something you get used to, but never learn to like.”
I had a light-bulb moment. A long shot. I needed a minor miracle, but if I made this guy mad, he could sweep the floor with my broken body. “Howie, how would you like to do a favor for an abused woman and child, and make a little money on the side?”
His eyes narrowed, and then he arched an eyebrow. “You peddling something illegal, mister? I don’t kill people.”
I shook my head. This wasn’t going well. “No, I’m a detective.” I reached into my jacket pocket, took out a card, and handed it to him. “I work for a lady who has an abusive husband—a powerful man. Her son made a call on her cell phone that could help this man find them.”
The skeptical expression never left his face and his clenched jaw made me nervous. “So where do I come in?”
I pulled Rachel’s phone from my pocket. “I’d like you to take this and make as many calls as possible along your journey. When you get to California, toss the phone into the Bay. I hope to throw her husband off the trail. Think you could help me?”
Howie removed his Stetson, replaced it, and furrowed his brow. “I guess I could do that. Can’t see how it would be illegal.” He pulled out his own phone, looked down at my card and punched numbers. My phone rang.
He grinned. “Just checking to make sure the card is legit. What are you driving?”
I pointed to my black Ford Explorer XLT parked out front.
Howie walked over to the window and wrote my license plate number on the back of my business card. He returned to his seat. “Let me see your driver’s license.”
When I gave it to him, he scanned it, listed the number, and handed back my ID.
He nodded. “Give me the phone.”
I handed him a hundred dollar bill along with the phone. “You need a charger? I’ve got one in the car.”
“Nope.” He took the phone, but waved the money away. “Don’t want the cash. No man worth his salt beats women and children.”
I finished my meal and then slapped the trucker’s shoulder as I left. “Thanks. And, Howie, if you ever decide to change careers, I could use a good man.”
Howie would keep a GPS trace on Rachel’s phone busy for quite a while.
God loves me.
At the Hebron exit, I took a right and drove under the bridge to the city’s main drag. Hebron is not a pretty town except in winter. Carved out of the mountain in layers with evergreen trees scattered in patches across the landscape, it only shines when covered in a white blanket, and that happened often at an altitude of seven thousand feet.
After a stop at Walmart to pick up a throw away phone, I arrived at the office around one o’clock to check my mail and messages. The woman who runs the employment office across the hall stuck her head out.
“Morning, Mrs. Davis,” I said.
She closed the door. No good morning. Still sore because I haven’t hired a secretary from her. What Mrs. Davis didn’t understand is that I would love to have a sexy blonde to answer my phone and greet clients. But a private detective was the only profession society deems lower than lawyers, and the pay wasn’t as good.
Ergo, I couldn’t afford to hire extra help. If business didn’t pick up soon, I couldn’t even afford the office space. I depended on the telephone and voicemail to keep in touch with clients. It might not be sexy, but was cheap.
A burst of cold, tropical scented air filled my nostrils as I pushed open the office door and entered the empty reception area. My Hawaiian air-freshner still worked.
It felt like forty below as I flicked on the foyer lights and heat. I picked up the mail from the faded blue carpet under the letter slot. Mail in one hand, overcoat in the other, I shivered down the hallway past the bathroom on the left to my private cubbyhole. I placed the letters in the in-box and put the coat back on. With luck, the heat would overcome the chill before I froze to death.
The letter-opener sliced easily through the envelopes as Cody’s call buzzed through my mind like a persistent bee, zeroing in for a sting. I grabbed my newly-purchased cell phone and called the ranch. While I waited for the call to connect, I put away the mail in the desk file. All bills.
Emma answered, and I asked to speak to Rachel. She picked up the extension. A click signaled Emma had disconnected.
I cleared my throat. “You haven’t heard from Harry, have you?”
A slight tremor entered Rachel’s voice. “No. I guess we dodged the bullet one more time. I’ve forbidden Cody to go near any of the house phones.”
“How are things at the ranch? I’ll find another safe house whenever you’re ready.” I wanted them to stay put, at least until we knew what her husband’s next move would be.
“Emma and Bill are wonderful hosts, and Cody loves it here. He would hate to leave.”
Cody and Bill’s laughter rang in the background. Tense muscles in my neck relaxed and I exhaled a long breath I didn’t realize I’d been holding. Looked like the family had settled into The Hand Me Down’s peaceful rhythm. Maybe they wouldn’t be leaving anytime soon. If my luck held, the ploy with Howie and the cell phone would keep the judge far away from them.
My backup plan included asking a police detective friend, Amos Horne, to let me know if the judge asked for a trace on Rachel’s cell calls. From my days on the Hebron police force, I knew tracing wouldn’t take much time. Maybe an early warning from Amos would give me enough head start to move the family if needed.
After I finished the conversation with Rachel, I checked my call center and found a number of hang-ups. Only one message recorded. Wealthy industrialist Lincoln Webster Armstrong left his cell number. A call from Armstrong equaled a summons from the White House—not an everyday occurrence for a lowly PI. A national mover-and-shaker, Armstrong headed Hebron’s short celebrity A-list.
From the middle drawer, I retrieved a yellow legal pad and pen. The room had warmed enough my hand had stopped shaking. I punched Armstrong’s number and he picked up on the first ring. No pretense, no call screener. I could learn to like this guy.
“This is Noah Adams, sir, returning your call. How may I help you?”
“Thanks for getting back to me so promptly. Mayor Thornton suggested I contact you. He told me about your rescue of that child in Texas, and assured me you were the best. I need the best.” There was a slight pause. “I’d like you to look into the death of my wife.”
A vote of confidence from Mayor Thornton surprised me. We had a history that didn’t include being best buddies. “Thank you. That was kind of the Mayor. The Texas thing was a lucky break, and please, call me Noah.”
“Fine,” he said. “But no false modesty, Noah. You insult my intelligence. I never take someone else’s word on anything important. I did a comprehensive background check on you.”
“Can you meet me at my home this afternoon at two o’clock? I’ll fill you in on the details then.” He gave me directions and ended the call.
After disconnecting, I scurried across the street to the Hebron Herald office to scan back issues on the Armstrong case. A small newspaper, it hadn’t yet gone digital. The newspaper morgue was small, crowded with file cabinets and dusty back issues. But everything was well organized and I soon found the back issues I needed.
The disappearance of Abigail Armstrong made national headlines for months when she vanished three years ago. Blood covered the interior of her abandoned car, but the police never found a body. Officially, she was still a missing person. Curious that Armstrong wanted me to investigate the case now.
After the prominent socialite vanished, The Herald’s front page screamed:
WIFE OF TYCOON MISSING
ARMSTRONG A PERSON OF INTEREST IN WIFE’S DISAPPEARANCE
The last word on her turbulent life rested in a dusty cold-case file in the basement of the County Courthouse. It appeared Abigail’s husband no longer accepted that as the final word on his missing wife.
Copies of pertinent articles in hand, I returned to the office and made a case file.
Skepticism was a by-product of my profession, and statistically speaking, the odds weighed against finding out what happened to Abigail Armstrong. Three years can be a lifetime in a missing person case. However, if I determined Armstrong hadn’t been involved in his wife’s disappearance, I would take the case. The idea of anyone getting away with murder, no matter how famous or how wealthy, stuck in my craw.
Lincoln Armstrong’s Home
The Armstrong mansion sat on prime lakefront property almost ten miles from the city. At a distance, it appeared half the size of the Biltmore Estates. Which made it a thousand times the size of my digs.
In this part of the country, only fashionable neighborhoods bothered with landscaping—and there were few fashionable neighborhoods. Most residents left their tiny plots of land barren. Why bother with a lawn covered in snow ten months of the year? Armstrong must have spent a small fortune on his. Terraced rock gardens led to the front door where hearty shrubbery and foliage struggled valiantly against layers of snow. Pushing aside the comparisons to my place, I rang the bell.
Armstrong opened the massive door, dressed in jeans, a long-sleeved sweater, denim jacket, and boots. I must have missed the casual-dress memo. A little insecure in my business suit and overcoat, I shook his hand.
My touch let me see the man perhaps better than he knew himself. I’d met few with his credentials. An honorable man with a strict code of ethics, and living proof that wealth doesn’t guarantee happiness.
Armstrong stepped outside and the door made a soft click behind him. “Let’s walk.”
In silence, he led me to a pathway that meandered toward the lake through tall ponderosa pines and mountain cedars. As we walked, the lake played peek-a-boo through thick snow-laden limbs in the dense woods.
The spectacular shoreline came into view. The smooth surface showed only an occasional ripple as snow sludge washed ashore, the water so blue it looked unreal against the white backdrop. A light breeze tickled the tips of branches and left a whiff of cedar in the air. We reached a sheltered redwood bench close to the lake’s edge. Armstrong dusted snow away with a gloved hand and motioned for me to sit.
He remained standing. “Abby and I came here often before her...” He paused. “It may sound irrational, but I feel her presence when I come here.”He turned and gazed at the horizon for a moment.
I took the time to study him. Distinguished best described Lincoln Armstrong. Refined, not handsome. Neat gray hair covered a well-shaped head. His confident, direct gaze spelled power in capital letters.
“When we met, Abigail was this frail, ethereal beauty with lovely, haunted eyes. She brought out the knight-in-shining-armor in me. Before we married, Abby never spoke about the past, but I knew she’d lived a hard life. I wanted to protect her, to erase the shadows in her eyes. I succeeded for more than five years.” He expelled a deep breath. “I let her down in the end. Someone got to her, and I wasn’t there to protect her.”
Perhaps if she had confided in Armstrong, he could have prevented the tragedy. “I doubt you could have done anything to stop it.”
He shrugged. “For more than two years the authorities tried to pin her disappearance on me. By the time the police decided to look elsewhere, any trace evidence had long since vanished. Witnesses disappeared, or their memories dimmed. Six months ago, after I realized the police had given up, I investigated Abby’s past on my own.”
“The authorities still have her listed as missing.” I stated the obvious.
Armstrong shook his head. “If Abby was alive, she would have contacted me.”
“You think someone from her past killed her?”
“That was my initial thought. It seemed the logical place to start. Now, I’m not sure.” Armstrong tore his gaze from the view, punched his hands into his jacket pockets, and sat beside me. “My contact in California couldn’t find anyone there who wished her harm. At that point, I realized I needed a professional investigator. That’s when I decided to hire you.”
He shifted his position on the seat, and his features tightened—a sea of sorrow in his gaze. “Abigail was married before we met. She had a son. At first, she wouldn’t talk about that part of her life. Over time, I learned the ex-husband died in a riot while a prisoner at San Quentin and her five-year-old son was killed in an auto accident in San Francisco.”
“I’ll need copies of any reports you have. Who handled the California investigation for you?”
He waved a dismissive hand. “A friend in the San Francisco district attorney’s office, for all the good it did. You’re welcome to the report, but I doubt it will be of much help.”
“Did you notice any change in your wife’s behavior before she disappeared?”
He heaved a deep breath and nodded. “I covered all that with the police when she first went missing. Four days before Abby vanished, we went to a charity dinner at the country club. About an hour after we arrived, she asked me to take her home, said she had a headache. We left right away.” Armstrong rose from the bench, paced a few steps, and then turned back. “The old haunted expression was back in her eyes. I asked what happened, but she wouldn’t tell me. For the next four days, she took all meals in our bedroom. On the fourth day, she received a phone call and left home at noon. No one has seen her since.”
“Did the police know who made the call?”
He shook his head. “It originated from an untraceable cell phone. The police never found out who placed it.”
“Did you notice who she talked with at the country club that evening?”
“The usual club members. I’ve plumbed my memory for years trying to remember everything...but I never noticed any strange faces.”
Banks of clouds moved in and the temperature dropped. I had to concentrate to keep my teeth from chattering. “You gave this information to the authorities? They checked out the country club members and staff?”
Armstrong seemed oblivious to the sudden chill. “As far as I know. It’s all in the report I obtained from the police.” He grinned. “I had to pull some strings to get copies.”
He stared at the lake again before shifting his gaze back to me. Deep creases ran across his brow, giving him a tired expression. When he spoke, it seemed almost a plea. “Find out what happened to my wife, Noah. She deserves a proper end to her life. I owe her that much. A final place to rest—here by the lake.”
A surge of compassion ran through me. I’d never become immune to the unhappiness that came with my job. I got to my feet and clasped his hand. “I’ll do all that’s within my power to make that happen, sir.”
He appeared to notice me for the first time. “You’ll have to forgive me, Noah. I’ve kept you out in the cold too long. Come. Let’s go back to the house. I’ll give you those reports and some hot coffee and we’ll settle the financial arrangements.”
Noah’s Home, Hebron, Wyoming
The predawn nightmare returned, and refused to loosen its grip. The images swirled and engulfed me in their depths. My heart squeezed with fright, foreshadowing events to come, and I couldn’t breathe. The sequence varied, but the scenes never changed.
It’s my tenth birthday and a bright Sunday afternoon. I ride home with my grandmother. I’ve spent the weekend with her. Warmth and happiness envelop me as we ease around the corner onto my street.
The day turns dark as the car pulls to the curb. I get out. Foreboding washes away the pleasure. A street lamp snaps on, shattering the blackness that suddenly settles over the neighborhood.
I trudge along the broken sidewalk toward the front door. My feet drag on the cement as I move forward. What lies beyond the entrance terrifies me. Each time I reach the door, it leaps farther away. Finally, I grab hold with a desperate grip and turn the knob.
On quiet feet, I ease inside.
Shouts and curses blast at me like noise from a boom box. Sounds become a physical force that drive me back into the entrance. My little brother sits wide-eyed, scrunched into the sofa’s corner, his thumb in his mouth. I drop my overnight bag near the stairs and move toward the tirade that washes over me like waves before a hurricane.
Damp and breathless, I woke up hard. The familiar fear of the recurring nightmare—that didn’t want to let go. After a few gulps of air, my sleep-fogged brain relaxed.
My heavy lids open, greeted by two pairs of hazel eyes just inches from my nose.
Bella and Brutus, two-year-old Saint Bernards, smiled at me. The pups didn’t bark. They just grinned and stared. Staring can be incredibly effective.
I slipped into the warmth of a wool bathrobe and my gaze fell on a photograph of my father on the dresser. He wore his Air Force dress uniform, his cap position according to regulations, over dark hair. Square jawed, and deep blue eyes that sparkled with life. I didn’t remember him, his plane was shot down over a Vietnamese jungle when I was four. At six-feet-four, I’d inherited my height from him. My grandmother said I was his spittin’ image, and her assessment was confirmed every time I looked in the mirror.
Half asleep, I stumbled downstairs and picked up the newspaper on the front stoop. Bella and Brutus plunged ahead into the kitchen, where I tossed them a couple of fake-bacon treats. I filled a mug with hot, black liquid. Thank God for whoever invented the automatic coffee maker.
Bella nosed my arm. I scratched her ear with one hand and unfolded the Sunday newspaper with the other. The dogs were family. Their presence kept me grounded.
Insistent door chimes ended doggie family time.
Craning my neck to the right, I checked the time on the microwave. 8:00 AM. That would be my neighbor, Ted Bennett. Coordinated Universal Time called Ted to verify their accuracy. I left my cup on the table, and hurried to answer the summons.
I’d given Ted a key more than two years ago when he started walking the animals for me. Even so, whenever my car was in the drive, he always rang the bell.
At thirty, Ted was a little overweight with the mentality of an eager fourth-grader. He lived across the street with his grandmother, Mabel Bennett.
The pups rushed past me to greet Ted––their second favorite human in the world. Ted dropped to his knees, relishing the affectionate slobber the dogs spread across his face. “Mornin’, Noah. Can I walk the dogs now?”
“Sure, Ted. Come over after church and we’ll watch the game together.”
In a flurry of white and brown fur, Ted leashed the animals and grinned at me. “I’ll come back soon. I like to see the Cowboys play.” Brutus strained to get through the door, Bella following in his paw prints.
Ted turned honest brown eyes toward me. “Grandma gets on my nerves a little, sometimes.”
There was a story behind that, but I knew better than to ask. I clapped Ted on the back as he let the dogs pull him out the door.
While Ted was gone, I cleaned house. I checked in with Rachel to make sure things were still good, and the situation still under control. A Marine trained neatnik I caught up on my laundry and housework, and then dressed for church.
After the service ended, I came home and grilled burgers, made a big bowl of popcorn, and went next door to find Ted.
Mabel answered my knock, a smile in her blue eyes. “Hi, neighbor.”
“Hi, Mabel. Ted wanted to watch the game with me. Is he around? You’re invited too, if you want to hang out with a couple of jocks.”
She laughed. “Thanks, but I have to go back to the restaurant.”
“How did the court hearing go?”
She motioned me into the entryway. “We won. I’m now and forever officially Ted’s legal guardian.”
Mabel rescued Ted two years ago from the state mental institution where her son had placed him.
I pulled her into a hug. “Congratulations.”
“Your grandmother wears combat boots” was a description that fit Mabel Bennett perfectly—her attitude––not her dress code. She had three passions in life. God, Ted, and her business, the Chateau Bennett, Hebron’s only steak house. Mabel handled Ted like a fully functioning adult. And heaven help anyone who treated him otherwise in her presence.
She returned the hug with gusto. “Thanks. Wait a minute and I’ll get Ted for you.” She moved to the bottom of the stairs and called his name.
Soon, Ted hurried into the room in his weeble-wobble gait, and we strolled back to my place.
A navy blue sedan that caught my attention earlier in the morning still sat down the street. I’d never seen the car in the neighborhood before. Tinted windows hid the occupant from view.
I nodded at the car. “Did a new family move into the Clarkson place?”
Ted rooted his feet in the middle of the street and stared at the vehicle. He shook his head. “Nope. The Clarksons left to spend Christmas in Louisiana.”
Ted knew almost everything about the neighbors. They shared their lives with him as though he was the neighborhood mascot.
“Wait for me on the curb, Ted. I’m going to introduce myself.”
“I’ll come with you, Noah. I like to meet new people.”
“No, Ted. Wait on the curb like I asked.” I spoke sharper than I intended, but there was no way of knowing who or what the automobile contained.
Ted dropped his head and shuffled to the curb.
With Ted stationed a safe distance away, I walked toward the car. Six feet from the vehicle, the motor revved and the car whipped around me, too fast to get a good look at the driver. The car disappeared around the corner.
Real unfriendly for neighbors.
Big surprise, the license plate’s surface was caked with a mixture of snow and mud, making the tag illegible.
“Why’d the car do that, Noah?”
I shrugged. “Maybe they were late for an appointment.”
We entered the front door and I opened a couple of soft drinks. We took the burgers down to my man-cave in the basement, and I gave two to pups. Ted and I settled in to stuff ourselves and watch the game. Life didn’t get any better.
At half time, I took Bella and Brutus outside for a stretch.
The blue sedan hadn’t returned.
Harold London’s Home
Early Monday morning, I drove to Crown Heights, and parked a few blocks from the London home. I hurried through the gate in stealth mode, and into the library that lay just to the right off the living room. The ugly painting Rachel mentioned hung in prominence above a massive desk.
I scanned the room and my gaze rested on the opposite wall. As expected, a man with Harry’s conceit had a wall dedicated to his accomplishments. The trophy collection mirrored his sense of self, with a local Chamber of Commerce man-of-the-year plaque in the center. Must have been a bad year for qualified candidates.
The awards didn’t impress me. I had nothing but disgust for any man who used physical force on a woman and child.
I hadn’t always used my God-given gifts altruistically. In my teens, I’d tormented a thug who bullied me—revealed his secrets—messed with his head. Power over others can be as addictive as drugs. Did revenge bring satisfaction? Far from it. Not even a shower could scrub away my self-disgust. That experience made me understand why the Lord said, “Vengeance is mine.”
Harry London probably never had an emotion remotely close to remorse.
Twenty minutes after my arrival at the London home, Harry entered the library and crossed to the safe.
Rachel was right. He didn’t go to jail, and he had shaved my time limit close.
Peering over Harry’s shoulder I noted the spins and reverses his hands made on the dial, and then committed the data to memory. Before he jerked open the vault door, Harry wheeled around and stared directly at me. For one insecure moment, I panicked. Had I materialized? After a quick glance at the grandfather clock in the corner, only 6:27. I relaxed. Three minutes left.
Time is the enemy when I’m invisible.
Anxious to leave the premises, I scurried down the hallway. Passing through the den, I shot a quick look at the timepiece above the fireplace, 6:29 and counting. I had less than a minute.
So much for the accuracy of antique clocks.
From the library, I heard the safe door snap shut, just as my reflection appeared in the plasma television screen on the wall. I scrambled into the kitchen and stepped into the walk-in pantry.
Harry’s footsteps echoed on the tile floor moving toward me, they faltered, and then continued on, as if he looked for something or someone. With my back pressed against the wall in a gap at the end of a huge upright freezer, I sucked in my breath as Harry stalked into the food closet. I could kiss my P.I. license goodbye if he saw me. The profession frowned on breaking and entering.
Harry stood in the doorway for what seemed an eternity, then closed and locked the door. Locked the door? The man was seriously paranoid. The access had been unbolted when I entered. Why secure it now? Only a major control freak put a lock on a pantry, anyway. Probably made Rachel account for everything she used.
The ping of the security system told me Harry had set the alarm at the garage entrance. Within minutes, the car started and the sounds faded into silence.
Harry’s behavior unnerved me—too crafty and suspicious for my comfort. He could decide to return, and I didn’t intend to wait another twenty-five minutes to become invisible again. I opened the pantry with a credit card, and wiped away my prints.
As I left, I switched the sugar and salt. Juvenile? Yeah. But it felt good.
Aware I would break the Arrow Security circuit, I ran through the kitchen door. Outside, I checked the exterior for security cameras. None occupied the usual places. I scanned the street before opening the gate and took a less than casual stroll to my vehicle. I covered the two blocks, wrote the safe combination on a notepad and placed it in the console. The information would give Rachel access to the money and passports.
The imminent arrival of Crown Height’s finest was a real possibility, so I started the engine and pulled away. A few blocks later a squad car passed, headed in the opposite direction. I groaned when the cruiser made a u-turn, switched on the strobe lights, and eased in behind me.
I swung to the curb and watched as the Irish twins, Ryan and Duncan, did the same. My luck had taken its usual turn. Out of Crown Heights’ six-man police force, these two guys had drawn patrol duty in this section again.
Duncan sauntered over and pecked on the window. I lowered the glass.
He leaned forward. “Hey, Adams, what brings you to this neighborhood? You live around here?” He already knew the answer. I’d given him my address Friday night.
My excuse was ready. “No, can’t afford it. My attorney lives one street over, Jacob Stein. You know Jake?”
Duncan ignored my question. “Isn’t it a little early to call on your attorney?”
“Not for Jake. He retired last year, and he gets up with the birds. I’d ask you boys to come along, but he isn’t fond of cops.”
Duncan didn’t smile. “The security system went off at Judge London’s home a few minutes ago. You know anything about that?”
“Why should I?”
“No reason. It just seems strange, you call us Friday to report abuse at the judge’s home, and when his security alarm goes off this morning, we find you a few blocks away.”
“Life’s full of coincidences. I’m just a guy on his way to breakfast. May I ask if someone has broken into the judge’s home, why you’re stopping me? Shouldn’t you try to catch the burglars before they get away?”
Duncan’s jaw tightened. “You telling me how to do my job?”
I shook my head. “Just a suggestion from a concerned taxpayer.”
“You should know, mister taxpayer, Crown Heights has more than one unit on the streets. It might also interest you to know Judge London has cameras throughout his home.” Duncan gave the top of my SUV a sharp slap and strolled back toward the patrol car. “Watch your step, Adams,” he called over his shoulder. “The good judge doesn’t like you even a little bit.”
“That makes us even. I don’t like him either.”
If the judge’s cameras caught any part of my reappearance, it would mean trouble in more ways than I wanted to consider.
Jake Stein’s Home
I eased my SUV back onto the street and Ryan and Duncan moved in behind me. They stayed in my rearview mirror until I reached Jake’s elegant address, and watched as I picked up the intercom phone at the gate. When the portal swung open, they drove away.
I intended to visit Jake Stein soon, anyway, and this seemed a good time. However, I had embellished the truth a tad. Jake wasn’t an early riser.
A former client introduced me to Jacob Stein six years ago at the athletic club. I played a couple of racquetball games with Jake. He hammered me like a jackhammer on the court that day. That’s why he liked me. He becomes attached to people he can beat.
He was twice my age and half my size but most people never noticed Jake’s stature. Intellectually, he was usually the biggest man in the room.
Imposing white columns greeted me as I drove up the circular drive and parked at the front door. Jake built the anti-bellum in the heart of one of the coldest places on the continent. The five-acre estate stood ankle deep in snow, stark and conspicuous with its southern architecture.
Jake opened the door wearing a silk bathrobe and cravat with a scowl on his handsome face. “Adams, do you know what time it is?”
“Yeah, it’s time grumpy old men were out of bed. You’re burning daylight, Stein.”
He stepped back for me to enter. “Who’s old and grumpy? I’m just a retired gentleman trying to enjoy his retirement.”
“Well, get up and enjoy it. I have a couple of clients for you.”
“Do you know what the word retired means? I have a dictionary in the library; I’ll look it up for you. You probably can’t spell it. Is this another freebie case you found for me?”
“She doesn’t have a dime, but her husband’s loaded. What do you need with money? You’re richer than Bill Gates.”
“That’s because all the cases I had before I retired weren’t pro bono.”
“Think of it this way, Jake, you’ll be doing God’s work.”
He scowled. “God doesn’t pay until you die, and I’m not ready to go.”
“Stop complaining and fix me some breakfast while I tell you about my case.”
“You drag me out of bed at seven in the morning, and you want breakfast, too?” He shook his head and moved toward the kitchen. “The day we met must have been my lucky day, Adams. I can’t imagine what I did to God to deserve you.” Jake really loved me. He just liked to complain.
A maid clad in gray rayon entered from the den. “Do you want me to make breakfast, Mr. Stein?”
He waved her off with a grin. “No, Ruby, I’ll take care of this freeloader myself.”
He led me into a gourmet kitchen and pulled down a pan from over the island. While Jake whipped up omelets, I made toast and coffee, and filled him in on Rachel and Cody. Jake’s a great cook. He could make another fortune in the restaurant business.
I continued my story while we ate.
Jake gave a long low whistle. “If you take on Harry London, you’ll take on a world of trouble. You know that, don’t you? I heard about this at the club over the weekend. London didn’t go to jail. He claimed his son fell out of his tree house. The police chose to believe him rather than deal with it.” Jake lifted a carafe from the table and refilled our cups. “London said his wife cooked up the stunt with a private eye to get the kid away from him. I should have known it was you. He’ll be coming after you, big time.”
“What can he do?”
“He can file kidnapping charges against you, for one. In any court system other than Hebron’s, it wouldn’t be so easy. You know the corruption downtown as well as I do. The best way to fight it is for your client to file for a divorce.”
“What would happen to Cody during the divorce proceeding?”
“Courts almost always lean toward split-custody. I don’t think I could get her full guardianship without proof of abuse. Has the kid seen a doctor?”
Rachel wouldn’t leave Cody alone with his father for a minute, much less part time. I couldn’t blame her. He might go into a rage and kill the kid.
“Rachel is taking Cody as soon as she can get an appointment. She’ll never go for anything less than full custody.”
Jake sipped the coffee, his brow wrinkled in a frown. “Then you’d better keep the family out of sight for a while. I don’t want to know where you’ve hidden them. London might try to force me to tell where they are. Let me know when you get the x-rays and report from the physician. If they prove mistreatment, then I can take him on.”
Jake folded his napkin and placed it beside his plate. “This thing could turn ugly very fast. You need to avoid the police; London will be gunning for you. My sources tell me he has some heavy connection with the less desirable elements up Chicago way. His rise to power was too fast to be honest.”
Just what I needed. Harry London and the mob.
“You realize I haven’t handled anything in the divorce and domestic violence field in years.”
“Jake, I would trust you with anything. This family needs help, and you’re the best man I know for the job.”
“I’ll do what I can.” Jake sounded almost humble. He picked up a piece of toast and offered one to me. I shook my head. “You never said how you solved that Texas case so quickly. Want to enlighten me?”
A subject I preferred not to discuss, but I owed Jake the details. He financed the trip. My bank balance at the time hovered around five dollars.
“Some things are difficult to explain, but I’ll try. The news covered the kids disappearing in the Dallas area, five in just over a year. The morning I borrowed the money from you, I’d watched the news and learned a little girl had just vanished. The reporter at the scene stood in front of the parents’ home, lots of people milling around in the background.”
Jake waved his hand in a rolling motion, anxious for me to get on with the story.
“One guy in the crowd caught my attention. At first, I figured he just wanted to get his mug on the news, but he looked into the camera as most fifteen-minutes-of-fame jerks do. He seemed please with himself, rather than ‘hey-look-I’m-on-TV’. It hit me that this might be the killer. Don’t ask me how I knew...but I did, and if the police didn’t catch him that day, he would kill that little girl.
“George flew me all the way to DFW, and I hopped a cab to police headquarters. You can imagine my reception. Like they needed an unknown private eye from Wyoming riding in to tell them their business.”
Jake scowled at me. “And this perp took one look at your Honest-Joe face and spilled his guts.”
I grinned and shrugged. “Pretty much.” I sipped my coffee. Some of the details I couldn’t confide to Jake.
One of the detectives gave me a friendly ear, and I convinced him to get the news tapes from all the disappearances. This wasn’t anything new for police departments. They routinely check bystanders after a crime and in fact they still had the tapes. They’d already checked out my guy and cut him loose.
We viewed the tapes and the guy was visible in every crowd scene filmed after the children vanished. I asked them to bring him back in for questioning.
Police interviewers got nowhere with the perp, Willy Jackson. He stalled for two precious hours. Finally, I asked if they’d give me a shot at him and they agreed to let me have thirty minutes. What did they have to lose? Their case was going nowhere.
My friendly detective let me into the interview room.
Willy Jackson was a short man, about fifty pounds overweight with thinning brown hair.
“Hi Willy. I’m detective Noah Adams. You want something to drink? Coke, coffee, water?” I reached out and shook his hand. I almost gagged. It felt like sticking my hand in an open sewer but it gave me all the details I needed.
“I’ll take a water,” he said.
I had to keep it together. A child’s life depended on turning this creep. The problem, how to get the information to the cops watching me in the room next door, without revealing how I knew.
I leaned forward in the chair, watching his eyes. “We know you took that little girl, Willy. People saw you. We even know the area where you took her. You can make it easy on yourself by giving us the address. Maybe keep you off death row.”
He scoffed. “Sure you do. You don’t know squat.”
“Ah, but we do. You were careless, Willy. We know your history, what your father did to you. I understand, Willy. What you’re doing...it isn’t your fault.”
He danced me around until my time was up, and I gave it one last shot. “Willy, have you ever considered that little girl feels exactly like you did after your father abused you? She’s hurting, Willy. You can stop the pain.”
His eyes filled with tears. He broke down and gave me the address.
The sad part was his father helped create the monster Willy became.
Naturally, the cops were curious about my knowledge of his past. I convinced them it was just lucky profiling.
What happened to those five children still haunted my dreams.
Solving that case brought me a lot of notoriety I didn’t need and calls from hurting parents across the country whom I couldn’t help. I didn’t have all the answers. I wished to God I had.
Jake and I finished breakfast in silence. I pushed back my chair, slapped his shoulder, and went to the entryway. A fast scan of the street told me I could leave. Not a patrol car in sight.
Reaching for the doorknob, I shifted back to Jake. “Thanks for breakfast. By the way, you should know. Harry London may have pictures of me inside his home, taken this morning by his security cameras.”
A deep groan from behind me reached my ears as the door clicked shut.
Hole In-The-Wall Café, Hebron
I left Jake’s place, called Amos Horne, and invited him to a late lunch. Since I stood him up Friday he accepted and said he’d meet me at one o’clock. We usually met at The Hole in the Wall, one of his favorite places. Appropriately named, the café looked like a dump, but a clean dump. I’d never figured out whether it was designed ambiance or just run down, but they served the best hamburgers in the free world.
In most situations, Amos would provide details on a case. I wanted to pick his brain about the disappearance of Abigail Armstrong. The department frowned on sharing police records with civilians, but Amos never worried about the rules.
I arrived early and took a seat by the window. Amos pulled his unmarked car in beside my SUV and untangled his big frame from behind the wheel. He glanced around taking in everything at once and then sauntered into the entrance. A cop’s habit. High cheekbones and an easy grace reflected his Cherokee heritage. Amos wore his ethnicity with pride. At thirty-five, and a twelve-year veteran of the HPD, he held the distinction of being the youngest detective in the department. But then, there were only two.
I’d learned to live with it, but never enjoyed the freaky nature of my gifts. The sorrow, almost pain, to discover someone I admired and trusted could have feet of clay. This probably explained why I’d only found three real friends in my lifetime.
Jake and Amos were two of the three―not perfect, but good people. Public faces seldom reveal what goes on inside. Outward confidence can hide a mass of internal turmoil. With Jake and Amos, what you saw was what you got. Jake was complicated, precise, organized and crafty, where Amos tilted to the other extreme.
Amos had developed a paunch from lack of exercise and eating the wrong foods, but the diet hadn’t affected his investigative skills. We partnered on the force after going through the police academy together. Our friendship remained strong, even though he never forgave me for deserting him to go into the PI racket.
Life as a rookie cop hadn’t worked for me. A loner by nature, I had an aversion to getting trapped in a job with too many rules and too many bosses. Not to mention some of the cops made the crooks I hauled off to jail look like saints. So I bailed.
As my own boss, I could choose the people I worked with. The pay wasn’t much better and the benefits lousy, but I slept well at night.
I joined Amos at the order line. We worked our way to the front and Marie, the clerk behind the cash register, greeted us with a bright smile on her pretty black face. “Hi, Amos, Noah. What’ll it be today, the usual?” Marie had a photographic memory.
The usual for me consisted of a burger with everything, fries, and a large iced tea. The usual for Amos was a gastronomic nightmare. Two cheeseburgers with the works, which included jalapeno peppers, a double order of onion rings, and a super size soda.
Marie wrote our order and names on two brown paper bags. Later the cook would place the finished order in the paper sacks. Efficiency in action.
We sat in a shabby booth near the window while waiting for the food. Amos placed a thick manila folder on the table and shoved it across to me.
He grinned. “I made a copy of the case book for you.”
He pulled the envelope back, opened the flap and fanned glossy photos before me. “Brought the crime scene shots. I’ll have to take’em back, but you can make copies at Walmart if you like.”
I shook my head. “Thanks, I don’t need copies, but I do appreciate getting a look at them. Hope you don’t get in trouble over this.”
Having the photos and investigation details was the next best thing to being at the crime scene.
“Not hardly. This case is as cold as a dead Alaskan salmon.”
The first photo of the car’s interior caught my eye. Sometimes people try to fake their disappearance by leaving blood samples behind. Not so in this case—too much blood. It’s hard to fake the splatter. All outward appearances indicated Abigail Armstrong died from wounds sustained in her car.
An expensive handbag and car keys lay on the floorboard. Obviously, robbery wasn’t the motive.
“Where did they find the vehicle?”
Amos shifted his large frame and fingered the snapshots. “In a very rough neighborhood on the south side. Some kid was trying to remove the tires when the police spotted him. A crack house sat across the street, and a meth lab operated one block down. We’ve cleared the drugs from that area at least a dozen times. They come back like roaches.”
We didn’t have a problem with gangs in Hebron, or as far as I know, in most parts of Wyoming. My theory is it’s just too cold to hang out on street corners. However, we do have a drug problem. Meth was a big deal here.
I looked over the case book copies. “Any reason to believe she might have been a user?”
“The blood stains had no trace of drugs. Since we didn’t have a body, we couldn’t be certain. None of the evidence pointed in that direction.”
The pictures bothered me, so I turned them face down on the table. “Did anyone question her doctor? Most physicians suspect when a patient is an addict.”
“The doctor said Abigail Armstrong wasn’t the type to do narcotics. Much too level headed. Those were her words, not mine.” He tapped the envelope. “It’s all in here.”
I handed the photos back to him and placed the file on the seat beside me. “Having access to your interviews will be a big help, save me a ton of time. Since she left home after getting a phone call, it’s a sure bet she knew her assailant.”
“You’re probably right. Now all you have to do is find out which of the ten thousand people in town placed the call.” He followed the comment with a smart-aleck grin.
“What’s the theory in the department?”
“The popular guess—a stalker killed her. Abigail Armstrong was a looker. She must‘a been forty, but could have easily passed for thirty at the time she vanished. We checked Lincoln Armstrong inside and out, but we couldn’t find a motive. We never found an affair on either side. If he did it, he’s one smart hombre.”
“He is that. Intelligent, I mean. Armstrong didn’t kill his wife. Trust me on that.”
“If you say so.” He gave me a mock salute.
“Any evidence she was being stalked?”
“A couple of neighbors remembered a man parked in a car outside the Armstrong property several times the week she vanished. They couldn’t agree on the model or even the color. We didn’t have enough information to find the guy.”
“Did you follow up on the country club angle?”
“Sure we did. It wasn’t my case, but I helped Art, the detective who caught the assignment. We interviewed the staff and every guest there that night. Considering who she was, and the press frenzy, the mayor was on our backs. The people we talked to all agreed she seemed fine when she arrived, but her mood changed just before she left.”
Marie called us to pick up our order, and we dropped the case while we ate.
“I hope my reward in Heaven will be a mountain of cheeseburgers just like this,” Amos said, and wiped his mouth with a paper napkin. “With a hill of banana pudding on the side.”
I chuckled. “You’re a man of simple needs, Amos Horne.”
“Hey guy’s.You plotting the downfall of the Republic?” A slender brunette laughed and slid into the booth beside me. The collar of her blue police uniform couldn’t quite hide the ugly white scar that ran across her throat. Jessie Bolton and I were old friends. I’d been the officer on duty the night her husband tried to kill her.
“Nothing that easy, Jess. I’m trying to rescue and abused family.”
“Anybody I know?” She took one of my fries and dragged it through Amos’ ketchup.
I shoved the rest of the fries in front of her. “Do you know Rachel London?”
She dropped the food back on the tray and wiped her mouth with a napkin. “Yeah. I’ve met her, and I’ve met the judge. Ask me if I’m surprised. Mrs. London had the look of a whipped puppy.”
“What are you doing these days,” I asked. “Still patrolling the streets?”
She shook her head. “Mostly babysitting drunks in the county jail. It’s worked out better for me. Regular hours and I get to spend more time with my two kids.”
“Have you had lunch?” Amos asked. “Noah will spring for a burger if you want.”
“Thanks, but I was on my way out when I saw you guys. Wanted to say hi since I haven’t seen you in a while.” She leaned in and kissed my cheek. “Take care, big guy.”
The touch of her lips on my cheek told me all was not well with Jessie. Her husband would finish his prison sentence in ten months. And she knew he would be coming after her.
I watched her leave with more than a little concern. Jessie needed to get out of Hebron soon, without leaving a trail her husband could follow.
Amos tapped his finger on the Armstrong case book. “You gonna solve this, Noah, and make us look bad?”
“That’s what I’ll try to do. Not to make you look bad, but to help a very sad man find out what happened to the woman he loved.”
“That would be Armstrong.”
“You never cease to amaze me with your perceptive grasp of the obvious.”
“You have to remember, I’m just an underpaid detective, not a big-bucks P. I.”
If only he knew how seldom a client like Armstrong came along. The lunch crowd began to trickle out to go do whatever they did. I leaned back in the booth and smiled. “I get paid for my infinite knowledge of the criminal mind.”
“Speaking of Judge London, what’s the scuttlebutt at the precinct on him?”
A dark expression came over Amos’s face. “We catch’em he lets’em go. The DA hates him with a purple passion, but lawyers love to get their clients before London. He’s the guy who sentenced Jessie’s husband to five years for capital attempted murder.”
“London’s wife and son are clients of mine as of last Friday night. That’s why I cancelled dinner.”
“Yeah, I figured that out from what you told Jessie.” Amos shook his head. “You trying to redefine stupid? London’s trouble with a capital T. Deal me out on this one, buddy. I want to retire with a full pension. If I were you, I’d back off while I still could.”
I peered across the table at my old friend. “You wouldn’t if you’d met his family.”