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Authors: Gayle Roper

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BOOK: Caught in the Middle
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Curt shook his head. “I’ll just listen for a while, if you don’t mind.”

Ned nodded. “Okay, choir, let’s take it from measure fifty-four, treble clef upstems only, on the runs. One-and-two-and-ready-and-play-and…”

I followed along, thankful that I was in the bass clef, which had many fewer runs. Beside me, Maddie muttered to herself as she counted the beats.

“Now, everyone, bells up,” Ned said.

My world narrowed to my four notes. I exchanged my Cs and C-sharps at the correct time and only missed two notes the entire piece. I felt pleased with myself as practice ended and I returned my bells to their velvet cases.

I began collecting the thick foam cushions that covered the tables. Other choir members collected music, folded cloth covers and turned tables on their sides to collapse their legs.

Curt worked his way across the room toward me, talking to people as he moved.

“I knew I’d seen you somewhere before,” he said, taking the cushions from me. “As soon as I came in and heard the bells, I knew where.”

I felt self-conscious in a way I hadn’t this morning. Then, I was supposed to interview him, and talking was my job. Now, he looked very large and somewhat overwhelming, his vitality directed at me, not his work.

“I take it you go to church here,” I said. Now there was a piece of sharp deduction.

“From a little tyke,” Maddie said as she walked past with an armful of music notebooks. “He used to lob spitballs at me in Sunday school.”

“Only to pay you back for the sore shins you always gave me,” Curt said.

“I used to kick him every time I saw him,” Maddie said. “Just on general principles. I knew I had to or he’d cream me.”

“And who would have blamed me?”

“One of these days we’re going to marry him off,” Maddie said. “Doug and I have been trying for years. But until then, I keep an eye out for prospective candidates.” She pretended to study me closely.

Curt shook his head, almost embarrassed. “Get lost, Maddie.”

Laughing unrepentantly, she carried the choir notebooks to the storage closet.

I slid into my coat. “I would have thought you’d be at City Hall doing last-minute things for your show rather than coming to some meeting at church. Which, by the way, you’re missing.”

“No meeting,” he said. “And I am doing last-minute work for tomorrow. Come with me—I’ll show you.”

I was conscious of people watching us as we walked out of the practice room together.
Grist for the mill,
I thought.
I bet he’s the church’s most eligible bachelor.

“You’ll make certain the church is locked?” Ned called after us as he shepherded the rest of the choir out the door before him.

Curt nodded as he touched a switch that illuminated another hall. “Don’t worry. I’ll take care of it.”

“It’s eerie in here at night,” I said as we walked by dark and deserted classrooms. “Too empty.”

Curt pulled a key from his pocket and slipped it into the lock on a door marked
Hal Brinkley.

“Why are we breaking into Pastor Brinkley’s office?” I asked, waiting for alarms to clang and whistles to shrill.

“Look on the wall above his desk.”

There hung a Curtis Carlyle of a stone springhouse with a wreath on its door and a battered milk can leaning against the lintel. A storm sky of deep, brooding blues and violets was about to tear open and inundate the fragile scene. Stark, barren trees bent before the force of an invisible wind.

“It’s wonderful!” I said. “Especially the sky!”

“It’s the original of the print I released last year. I’m borrowing it to hang at the show. Maybe it will convince someone to buy a print.”

I hesitated. “I’ve got a question that’s sort of awkward,” I said, stiff with anxiety about how he would receive it.

He looked at me expectantly.

“Isn’t it a bit insensitive or crass or something to have this show at City Hall with Trudy just dead?”

Curt took a deep breath. “I thought the same thing myself, so I called Forbes Raleigh, one of the commissioners. He felt I should go on with things because the invitations were out, the show half-hung, everything moving full bore. He polled the others, and they agreed. To my relief.”

“You don’t think there will be an emotional backlash?”

“I sure hope not. This show provides well over half my income for the entire year.”

I blinked. “You’re kidding.”

Curt reached behind the painting and eased it from its position. “Spread that popcorn wrap on the floor, will you? And I’m not kidding. I’ve a lot riding on this weekend.”

I helped Curt wrap the picture securely, and we left the office, taking care to turn out the lights and lock the door. We walked down the quiet, shadowy hall. When Curt turned out the hall light, we were in darkness except for the faint red gleam of the emergency light and the weak glow of a streetlight that shone in the parking lot.

Unconsciously I moved closer to Curt.

When we went outside, the bitter wind leaped upon us, pushing its way up sleeves and down collars.

“It feels like your picture looks,” I said.

We looked skyward: no stars. Chicago’s snowstorm would soon be ours.

I hunched my shoulders against the wind and wished my car were parked in front of the church like Curt’s instead of in the side lot where the choir always parked. I looked across the barren expanse of macadam and shivered. It seemed so far from here to there.

“Let me put this picture in the car, and I’ll walk you over,” Curt said.

Grateful for his thoughtfulness, I nodded and waited. Undoubtedly Jack would have let me go ahead by myself, never thinking to accompany me such a short distance, never understanding that I might feel vulnerable and exposed in the darkness.

As Curt and I walked across the empty, echoing lot, our footfalls were loud in the silence. The light from the streetlamp shone coldly on my car, illuminating the driver’s side and casting deep shadows on the passenger’s side. Shivering, I thought of the great darkness by the lilac near the driveway at home.

I pulled my glove off and fished in my purse until I found my keys.

“Here. Let me.” Curt held out his hand.

“Thanks, but I can do it.”

“Of course you can. But let me.” He extended his hand farther.

Frowning, I reluctantly gave him the keys. Or I tried to give them to him. Somehow in the exchange, made awkward by his gloves, they fell to the ground.

“Uh-oh.” I should have just unlocked the door myself. When was I ever going to stop listening to guys who told me what to do?

“Sorry,” Curt said. “I’ll get them.”

“It’s okay. Don’t bother,” I said.

We both bent to retrieve the keys, gently bumping heads.

Simultaneously a loud sound tore the night, making me jump. I lurched and fell against the car door. Straightening, I stared in disbelief at the small hole in my windshield and the cobwebby cracks that radiated from it.

SIX

I
barely had time to register “shot” when Curt, gloves off and on his knees looking for my keys, grabbed the back of my coat and pulled me abruptly down. I landed with a teeth-jarring thud on an uneven surface I realized was his foot. I heard him grunt.

“Someone’s shooting!” I squawked. “In a populated neighborhood!”

“Idiot,” muttered Curt, pushing me off him.

“What? Me?” I got very defensive.
“You’re
the one who yanked me over! I didn’t mean to land on you.”

“Not you,” Curt said impatiently. “Him. Whoever it is.”

A second shot fragmented the side window above our heads. Little pieces of glass rained down on us, stinging our faces and getting caught in our hair.

“I thought windows in cars were shatterproof,” I said inanely.

“Around to the other side of the car,” Curt ordered. “Hurry! We’re too exposed here!”

I needed no prompting. The shadows were suddenly a haven.

“And keep down,” he ordered, as if I needed to be told.

I tucked my head as low on my shoulders as I could get it and duckwalked around the car past my MERRY license plate.

I don’t think I’m too happy at the moment, Sam!

The spot between my shoulder blades itched, and I felt like I had a bull’s-eye outlined there in fluorescent paint. “You’d think he was shooting at us on purpose,” I hissed, anticipating the killing blow.

I noted that Curt crawled very quickly for a man his size. Of course, he was an athlete, an athlete who might have just saved my life by dropping my keys.

We crouched low in the darkness, hugging the car in the relative safety of the shadows, waiting without breathing to see what would happen next. At least, I waited without breathing until I almost passed out from dizziness. Anxiety can do that to me.

“Breathe, woman,” Curt ordered as he pulled out his cell phone. “He won’t hear you.”

As I inhaled greedily, he flipped the phone open. No comforting screen lit.

“Dial tone?” I asked.

He held the phone to his ear and shook his head. He hit 911 just in case, but the look on his face clearly indicated no ring.

“Did you fall on it?”

He shrugged. “Or I’m out of juice. Either way, we’re stuck.”

We huddled against the car, listening for some movement, some noise—but heard only silence.

“Where did the shots come from?” I whispered.

“I don’t know,” Curt said, squinting into the night, trying to see. He squatted and peered cautiously through the good side window. “I couldn’t tell.”

“You mean he could be in front or behind or on either side?” My voice squeaked.

Curt nodded. “But I think—”

“Then don’t put your head up like that,” I yelled, grabbing at him. Caught off balance, he went over with a startled gasp. With his right hand he caught himself just before he slammed into the macadam. His hand slid along the small stones that littered the parking lot, and he hissed in pain.

When he stopped sliding, he lay still, looking at me. “But I think he’s over there.” He spit out each word individually as he pointed to the far side of the car and beyond with his uninjured hand.

“Are you all right?” I asked, reaching out to pull him back close to the car.

“I’m fine,” he said, but I saw him wince as he tried to brush the dirt and little stones from his hand.

“Let me see,” I said.

He held out his hand obediently, and little pieces of glass fell from my hair as I bent over, bouncing off his hand. It was too dark for me to see much of anything, so I feathered my fingers gently across his palm and felt the stickiness of blood.

“Here.” I pulled a molting tissue from my pocket. “It’s the best I can do. Use it as a pressure bandage.”

I thought longingly of the neat, clean package of Kleenex in my purse, but the purse had fallen on the other side of the car and been left there with the keys and Curt’s gloves. And my cell phone.

“If you don’t mind,” said Curt, eyeing my tissue with disgust, “I think I’ll use my handkerchief. It won’t disintegrate under pressure.”

“Is it clean?” I asked.

“Cleaner than that is.” And he pointed to my tissue as if it carried plague germs.

I watched with interest as he tried to get his handkerchief out of his right trouser pocket with his uninjured left hand. The man would never be a contortionist. He hadn’t the flexibility. After much grunting and twisting, he gave up and gingerly used his right hand, carefully extracting the handkerchief with two fingers.

He struggled with his left hand to make a neat square of the wrinkly white material.

“I don’t know,” I said as I took it from him and made a neat square of it. “This doesn’t look much better than my tissue.”

I handed it to him, and he pressed it carefully into place.

I couldn’t decide whether he winced theatrically or because he really hurt. Probably he overreacted to pain like Jack did.

“Now what?” I asked, after he had lavished so much time and attention on his hand that he might have been stanching the blood of a gaping, life-threatening wound instead of his piddly scratches.

He shrugged. “I don’t know.” He rolled onto his stomach and inched forward soldier-style. He tried to peer around the front wheel.

I grabbed at him. “Get back here! What if he’s still there and shoots you?”

“Don’t worry. He can’t see me. And if he hasn’t shot again, he’s probably gone. My guess is that he realized he almost hit a couple of innocent people, and he’s running before someone reports him or before the cops show up.”

Another explosive noise ripped the night. Curt retracted his protruding head like a turtle, and I threw myself flat on the ground, sliding halfway under the car. For a suspended moment neither of us moved. I stopped breathing again.

Then we looked at each other, slightly embarrassed.

“That was just a car door slamming, wasn’t it?” I asked.

“Sounded like it.”

Somewhere close by, a car’s engine caught, revved and drove away.

“Him?” I said.

“Who knows? Probably.”

“Probably,” I repeated. I was suddenly shaking with cold and fear, and I realized my cheek was resting on a patch of ice. “Well, if he’s probably gone…” I sat up, leaning back against the car door and wrapping my arms around my knees. Curt leaned against the car beside me.

“This isn’t some accident, you know,” I said. “This isn’t some guy getting careless during target practice. It’s got something to do with Patrick Marten.”

“Who’s Patrick Marten?”

“He’s the dead man I found in my trunk last night.”

I felt rather than saw Curt’s incredulous reaction.

“There was a dead man in your trunk?”

I nodded. “Don’t you read
The News?”

“Not if I can help it.”

I looked at him in surprise. “Why not? It’s a good little paper.”

“No offense, but I’d rather not talk about it. How’d you get a body in your trunk?”

“I don’t know,” I answered testily. “Why does everybody think I know?”

“Well, he was in your car.”

I glared at him. “Somebody put him there when I wasn’t looking, okay? And whoever did it neglected to tell me why.”

BOOK: Caught in the Middle
4.02Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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