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Authors: Brinda Berry

Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #Contemporary, #New Adult, #Suspense

Chasing Luck (6 page)

BOOK: Chasing Luck
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"Call 911." I hand my cell phone to her. "I think he's had a heart attack."

Malerie gives directions to the 911 operator on the phone. I begin CPR. My gaze is drawn to a porch light shining on the front door. Bullet holes splinter the wood around the lion’s head doorknocker.

She had a right to be afraid.

10
Malerie


T
emptation is
a fool waiting for permission.” ~Jelly Bean Queen

A
ce drives
us to the hospital. The emergency room is packed with people and I resist clawing at the collar of my shirt.

His eyes are on me the entire time. He thinks I’m a freak. Of course, what else can he think? I’m sweaty and as jumpy as a hip-hop dancer resisting an Usher tune.

My mind wanders back to the two bullet holes through the front door of the house and the wrecked foyer. The entry table lies upended.

I wouldn’t know if anything is missing. But I know it’s not a burglary. Someone wants to kill me. If it’s not the terrorist-of-the-week, it’s a hitman.
Get in line, buddy.

“Miss Toombs?” The police officer wears his game face. No smiling. No shaking hands. No sympathy.

“Yes.”

“I’m Officer Smithy. Let’s step outside where I can ask you a few questions,” he says.

We obediently follow the officer to the outside of the hospital where he folds his arms and doesn’t say a word.

“Do we need to file a report?” Ace asks.

The officer nods and stares at Ace. He coughs with a stalling engine sound. Finally, he answers. “Since Miss Toombs is the resident at the scene of the break-in, she does need to file a report.”

“Sure.” I’m shaky and tired and worried about Billy, but I guess that doesn’t matter. I answer a series of questions that make me feel oddly like I’ve done something wrong.

“That’s all I need for now,” Officer Smithy says to me. “Mr. Sloan. Let’s go through this one more time. The blood on your shirt. How did that happen?”

“Tree branch clipped me on the neck,” Ace answers with what I assume is his poker face.

I resist closing my eyes at hearing this lie the second time. City boys. Like our diligent officer is going to believe that.

He asks a few more questions before he’s satisfied. Ace and I watch as their car pulls away from the hospital parade-car-slow.

“Wanna hold up the emergency room nurse with me? Demand all the narcotics?” Ace squints at the receding police car taillights. “Our wonderful judicial system just treated us like suspects.”

He takes a lighter from his pocket and flips it around and around in his palm.

“So, you smoke?” I rub my forehead. If I could curl up on the sidewalk and nap, I would. “You don’t smell like a smoker.”

“No.” He doesn’t elaborate.

“Then why the lighter?”

Ace shrugs. “Quit a year ago but still put this in my pocket. Habits die hard.” He shoves the lighter into his jeans pocket.

"Why didn't you tell the cops the truth—that I cut you?" I figure he has a reason, but I can't come up with it. "You don't protect people you barely know. You've done it twice—at the restaurant and today."

"They didn't need to know. I tell them that and they might think you were trying to … well, hurt me. You were protecting yourself, not trying to kill me." He has a comforting voice. It's even and sure.

"Well, I'm really sorry about—"

"I told you it's all right."

"There was a man with a gun. He was walking from the back lawn and I panicked and—"

He holds up his hand. "Hey. Let's start over. Can we do that?"

I nod.

"I got to your place as fast as I could. Billy called me saying you'd run off."

I screw up my face at him. "Why did he call you?"

"He's offered me a job."

"Oh. The security thing."

"Hmm…" The sound is low like he's thinking about what he'll say next. "I'm going to be honest with you and you're going to be honest with me."

"Sure.”

"Billy didn't exactly tell you the truth that day.”

I frown. “What do you mean, exactly? Something’s true or not true. Period.”

“He said I would be putting in the security system and that's true. But he also asked me to keep an eye on things. I didn't know that some bat-shit crazy stuff was going on. I thought he was being paranoid."

I can't help squeezing my eyes together at the lies people keep telling me. At this moment, a guy I recognize from the emergency room desk comes out to let us know the doctor wants to talk to us about Billy.

I
blink
to a gentle shake of my shoulders.

“We’re here.” Ace leans down and his face is so close to mine, but I’m too sleepy to move. With the truck’s dome light illuminating his face, he has this otherworldly glow.

“Oh.” He helps me out of the car, up the front steps, and to the front room.

“I’m locking up.” He shakes his head. “I’ll order a new door tomorrow and start on the security system I’d planned for this mausoleum.”

I can’t stop my frown.

“Sorry, didn’t mean anything negative.” He laughs. “Well, you have to admit. This place is gigantic.”

I lean against the mantel hearth and close my eyes.

“You okay?”

"If I die, Billy inherits a fortune. I thought Billy would be tempted by that. So, I turned my back on him and now it’s my fault he's dying."

Ace shakes his head. "Malerie, you've been through a lot with losing JT…"

"I see everything clearly now, Ace. Whoever killed JT tried to get rid of Billy." I bend down and take an ornamental globe out of his hands and slide it to the far corner of the table out of his reach.

"The old guy is at least eighty, right? He probably couldn't even get out of the way of someone breaking in here." Ace scrubs both hands over his head and leaves them laced at the top. "But you may be right. Someone shot at us out there. House burglars usually don't stop to shoot people in the woods." Ace drops his hands, stands, and looks around. "I'll sleep here tonight on the sofa. The arrangement with Billy was that I'd live in the guesthouse, but I don't want to be that far away. Just in case."

"Don't be silly. There are beds upstairs. You don't have to sleep down here. I won't think you have plans to rape and pillage if you happen to sleep in the next room."

"I figured, but I'd like to be on this floor near the entrances."

"Oh." I gaze at the front door. "Have you done this sort of thing before?"

One corner of his mouth lifts. "Sleep over with a girl?"

I roll my eyes. "The whole security thing."

"Not like this. I mean, I install systems and Billy saw on my employment history that I had worked as a security guard, but this? No."

I suddenly feel more qualified than he is. At least JT gave me taekwondo lessons. "And this is supposed to make me feel better how?"

"You ever play softball?"

I stare at him. "Um … no."

"I could use a baseball bat or something. Just for tonight. I don't have my weapon."

"You own a gun?"

He ignores my question and looks around the room in a searching way. His mouth is set in a line that tells me he's not planning to answer.

"What about a samurai sword?" I raise one eyebrow.

He laughs and the sound volleys around in the pit of my stomach, a pleasant feeling I wish could last and make me forget about all the darkness I see in myself.

"That'll do. Works better than a kitchen knife. A lot scarier." He nods. "Where is it?"

"Second door down the hall. JT's study. Anything else you need?"

"A pillow would be great."

"You grab the sword and I'll get a pillow." I turn and leave in search of the bedding.

When I return, he's closed the front drapery, something I never do. He's lifted a panel aside and peers through the opening. Then he walks over and sinks down into the middle of the sofa.

“You’re not turning all the lights out, are you?”

“Well, I’d planned on it.” He smiles. “You afraid of the dark?”

I don’t answer and motion that he should move off the sofa for a moment as I grab pillows and toss them to a chair.

What to tell him? What to keep hidden away? Who to trust? So many decisions press down on my shoulders.

Ace grabs one end of the sheet and flings it out to cover the sofa. It parachutes for a second, suspends in midair, and our gazes meet. The sheet drops to the surface and I look away from his eyes. He takes the pillow and blanket from me and I avoid touching his fingers. I'm suddenly aware that we are alone in the house.

"There’s something else I’m afraid to tell you. You thought the other things I said were hard to believe. There's not a chance you will believe this." My voice comes out in barely more than a hesitant whisper.

"It sounds like you don't believe it."

I bolster up some courage. On the one hand, I feel like it takes courage for me to walk outside of the house every time I'm forced to go. I know that's not the case with everyone.

On the other hand, I'm afraid I'll discover my entire life might be some theatrical production that others are watching and I'm the reluctant actor.

I sit in the club chair beside the sofa, tuck my feet underneath my legs, and place my forehead on my knees. My hair curtains my face and eyes and fears.

He waits like he has nothing else to do in the world but hear my answer. The sound of a mantel clock ticking counts the moments it takes for me to sum up my courage. I peek up at him.

Ace thumbs though a magazine from the coffee table.

I stand, stride forward and tug the magazine from his hands and pitch it to the coffee table. “Say what you’re thinking.”

"I'm trying to give you time. Listen, you don't really have to tell me. It's been a long night and I'm sure we're both too tired to make sense of what is going on."

I squirm nervously under his sudden and probing full gaze. "I don’t trust you.”

"Who are you going to trust if you don’t trust me?" He bends his head and catches my eye.

"I don't know what to do.”

“You should trust me.” His voice reaches across to me, so low and sincere. His eyes are so clear blue, calming as a summer sky.

My throat tightens. I have no one and I want to believe. He saved me in the restaurant when he could have stayed uninvolved.

I make the choice. "When I was a kid, I lived in Chicago with my mom. Then one day, we dropped by her office on the way to my dental appointment. We were only supposed to be there for a few minutes. She had to get something or forgot something or who knows why…" My hands shake, but my voice doesn't. I press my hands down, digging fingers into the cushion of the chair.

He doesn't say a word or rush me. I don't even know if he's still looking at me and I can't look up at him. I'll stop talking if I do.

My voice is as impersonal as a newscaster. "Somebody bombed the building. I was a survivor. The only survivor. I had multiple breaks and fractures, a collapsed lung … I should have been dead. But I wasn't."

"Holy Christ. You're one lucky girl."

I scowl at him. "Depends on your definition of luck. My mom died that day. Lots of people died."

"Sorry. Didn't mean to imply…" He never finishes his thought.

I toss his apologies aside with a headshake. "You were thinking what everyone thinks."

"Everyone but you?" he asks.

I don't answer that question. Instead I continue. "I flat-lined in the emergency room."

The sentence hangs in the air and I can see he's working out a feeling of deja-vu. It hits him. "You flat-lined in the hospital after the shooting."

"True."

Silence settles over the room for what may have been five minutes, or fifteen, or thirty.

"And then you ended up with JT."

"He came to the hospital. I was there for a while. I woke one day feeling miserable and wanting to die. And then the next thing I knew, JT was there. I didn't even know I had an uncle. He took care of me from then on."

"What does this have to do with tonight?" His voice is patient, but it's the patience you show a cranky child.

"I need to show you."

"Show me what?"

"Come with me." I move quickly to the staircase, hesitating only to see if he follows. I lead the way up without another glance over my shoulder.

11
Ace


I
’ve
dreamt of you with my eyes wide open. I’ve longed for you in my sleep. I tell you I’m not like other men. You smile without missing a beat.” ~Jelly Bean Queen

T
he house shines
with the amount of lighting I equate to a baseball field. Lamps light every room. Malerie pauses at every wall plate to flick on another and another overhead light. It's not my electric bill, so I shake my head instead of saying anything.

I barely hold back a smirk. A smirk would not go over well at the moment.

It's not that I'm insensitive to the full-on seriousness of the situation. Malerie's face tells me she is full of serious right now. Walking up the stairs behind her, I train my gaze to stick to her shoulders. There's a lot going on and it's easy to let my thoughts wander to the place where they shouldn't.

Tomorrow, I'll start getting the security in place to ensure nobody's getting near the house without me knowing about it.

I quicken my steps to catch up to Malerie. Her ponytail swings from side to side, like her hips. And there I've gone to thinking about the thing I shouldn't in one slip of concentration.

A pink bra strap peeks from the back of her shirt near her neckline and tantalizes. I wouldn't have pegged her to have sexy underwear. She’s too uptight. The mere fact that she has the unexpected makes me want to push back that shirt and—

"Did you hear me? Billy hid my present from me,” she says.

"So?"

She makes a frustrated, growly sound and gives me a look like she's contemplating an accidental shove down the stairs.

I'm glad to get a chance to look around her room again. The setlist posters intrigue me, but I know it's not why she's brought me here.

She turns on several lights. I hold up one hand to shield the brightness.

"I could see pretty well with the one lamp. Is that really necessary?" I cringe at the irritation in my voice, but reality can't be helped. It's been a long day. My head has begun to pound, and I need a shower or sleep. And I'm thinking about other things I know I can't do with this girl.

"Come and sit here," she orders, motioning toward the bed.

She sits at her desk and pulls the chair away where she won't block her demonstration. A swath of papers sits at one side and some charcoal sticks in one of the kits you get when you like to play around with art supplies sit at the other.

"Here’s a book JT had in his study." She reverently runs her fingers over the outside binding of the book.

The book is large, a fairly old book if the hardcover indicates age and use. I half-expect dust to fly up in a cloud from the cover when Malerie places it on the desk. Malerie opens the front to reveal the first page. The title, "The Tale of Lucky Koi" is visible in black ink and raised markings of some sort below it.

"It's nice Malerie. Really nice," I say, watching her face. "Does this mean anything?"

"Yes. It’s Moon type. A rarely used language for the blind."

"Hmm. Learn something new every day. Never heard of it. I thought all blind people read Braille."

"Yes, it's rare. Braille is more widely known. The book belongs in a museum. Here's the part that you'll see matters." Malerie pushes the book to the far edge of her desk, still open to a section written in the raised curves and lines in a language looking faintly like hieroglyphics to me.

She picks up a box with both hands, places it on the table, and looks at me to see if I'm still watching.

"Go ahead. I'm ready for whatever." I adjust my tone to a friendlier one in case she's the sensitive type who'll get her feelings hurt for no valid reason.

I've known that type and now that I think about it, most females I've ever known are that type. It's a disappointing revelation.

She neatly positions thumb and finger at the top edge of the box to pry it, pulls upward, and demonstrates that the box breaks apart. A perfect cut in the middle allows the top half to lift off as a lid.

Malerie then lifts the box and continues to perform the same action continuously while reassembling each now empty box and placing it on the desk. When she finishes, I see that four red boxes sit in a row.

"Neat trick, Malerie, but I'm assuming there's more."

"Much more…" she murmurs. "These boxes are the ones JT gave me.”

Malerie places the book in my lap and grabs the largest of the previously nested boxes. I like the brush of her fingers against my thigh. She then arranges a white piece of copy paper on the box side. She opens a drawer to the desk to remove a sketching charcoal and rubs it back and forth over the box's side until she has covered a large section of the paper. I watch the rubbing reveal an image. I haven't seen that done since I was a kid.

It makes me think of coloring with my little brother.

"Well, it's not something you notice on the box, is it?"

She makes a face at me. "Don't humor me. I'm not trying to amuse you."

"Settle down. No humoring. Show me what you see."

The rubbing reveals an intricate Asian village scene. A courtyard gate lines the upper edge of the drawing.

"Right. At first I didn't see anything special. Since the entire piece is one color, it's hard to see that picture. And here, notice these marks at the top."

I nod and lean forward, my elbows resting on my knees.

She places her finger at the top of the drawing. "See this?"

Malerie takes a red colored pencil from the desk drawer and begins marking, emphasizing loops, lines, and circles in the pattern that mark the top of the courtyard wall.

I watch her as she works. Her forehead is lined and her mouth parted with her concentration.

She takes her time making the marks. A straight line. A crooked one. A slash. Malerie completes her task and places the red pencil on the desk. She looks up at me expectantly.

"I'm lost here. Why the red marks?" I rub my eyes.

She opens the leather bound book to the back pages and places it in my lap.

I look at black ink and the embossing of the Moon alphabet legend displayed before me.

Malerie places the paper from the desk onto the open book. She points at the first red mark. "It's the letter C. Then the letter O. There's a word hidden in this drawing. It spells ‘collapse’ in Moon type."

I shake my head. "I can see why you would think this is connected, but you're under a lot of stress. Sometimes, we see things we want to see."

"I'm not imagining things. It's right here. You know it." Her voice trembles, but the tone of indignation wins out.

"I know you're scared and tired and trying to make sense of all that's happened. I think … I don’t know what to think."

"That's not all. There's more. Here are numbers at the bottom. I looked at these numbers until I thought I'd go crazy, wondering if it's a manufacturer's lot number or something for sales. No. It's connected." She puts her fingers on the tiny numbers that are engraved at the bottom of the box. "This is a date."

"It’s a string of numbers." I look at the numbers lining the bottom of the box. Ten meaningless numbers.

"That's what I thought, too. But I wasn't satisfied so I started brainstorming and searching for any clue I could find. At least I thought I could connect this piece with an artist or distributor. But when I started searching online, I found something that finally made sense." She takes a deep breath.

I notice her voice sounds more excited than afraid. "Go on."

"It's a UNIX timestamp. I know enough about computer programming that I knew about this way of notating a specific date and time with ten digits."

I grimace. "And now we’re discussing computer languages? Sorry. I’m too tired.”

She smiles and shrugs her shoulders. "It doesn't matter. UNIX is an older computer operating system. The point is what the numbers mean to me. It translates to the exact date and time of the bombing that happened when I was a little girl. The building collapsed and everyone died. Well, except for one."

I could hear my own heart beating.

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