Authors: Maggie Shayne
There were other dishes in the cooler, and bottles of water, as well. He didn't go through them, just peeled the remaining meat off the chicken bone for Rex, then put the bone itself back into the container, because he didn't want the dog eating that, and set the container back in the cooler. He helped himself to a bottle of water, and only as he took his first sip did it occur to him that he hadn't had a drop of water since before leaving the hospitalâaside from the icy pond water he'd swallowed last night.
He drained the bottle, too thirsty, suddenly, to take it slow. And then his stomach convulsed and heaved. He ran off the porch, the dog at his heels, and only just made it into the thick brush across the road before he lost his lunch. The heaving left him weak and trembling, his stomach feeling far too queasy for him to even consider trying again to put food into it.
Rex nudged his thigh, whined a little.
He petted the dog's neck and straightened. “It's okay, boy. I'll live. Maybe.” Lifting his head, he eyed the house. “You don't suppose I could crawl under that porch with you, rest up for the day, do you?”
The dog barked once, and then the two of them made their way back across the street. River paused long enough to go through the box of clothing. Men's clothing, all of it. There were jeans and flannel shirts, T-shirts and button-down shirts, ties, several pairs of shoes, and best of all, sweaters. Four of them, thick and heavy and warm. And a denim coat with a fleece lining, and even a knit cap.
“Heaven,” he said again. He took the jeans, T-shirts, sweaters, socks and the coat. He took only one pair of shoes, a pair of lined, waterproof boots that were more valuable to him right then than a million dollars would have been. He tried to arrange the remaining itemsâthe dress shirts, ties, suit pants and jacketsâin such a way that it wasn't utterly obvious things were missing from the box. But it was pretty clear.
He bundled up his treasures, and went, with the dog, to the open spot under the porch, then knelt and crawled in.
And then he let his eyes adjust to the darkness. When they did, he realized that the woman who lived here was a pushover. There was a brand-new dog bed under the porch.
But there was something else even better. Something he had known about, once, but forgotten long ago. There was a hole in the cinder block foundation, made for a casement window. But there was no window in the hole.
He peeked through, into the house's cellar. The furnace was running. The warmth of it touched his face.
He closed his eyes, told himself this woman was too nice to be treated this way. She didn't deserve to have a confessed murderer, much less an escapee from a mental hospital, hiding out in her basement.
And yet he didn't see that he had much of a choice in the matter.
He tossed the clothes into the basement, then went back to the porch to get the bottles of water, the chicken and the rolls from the cooler, and took those back with him. His list of earthly possessions was growing. He had clothes now. He had food and water, and he had shelter. He also had a knife with a six-inch, razor sharp blade and his assailant's fingerprints, he hoped, preserved on the handle. He'd wrapped it in a rag he'd found along the roadside to keep the prints from being smudged. A plastic zipper bag would have been better.
This time, when he crawled underneath the porch, he kept on going, through the missing window, into the cellar.
Turning, he wondered if Rex would try to come in, too. If he did, and she came home, the dog would surely give him away. But Rex was happily curled up on his dog bed, already snoring.
* * *
Dawn came out of the laundry room with an overflowing basket of clothes. She tended to let her laundry pile up at the dorm, so she'd brought it all with her to wash during the holiday break. And this was the last of it.
Everyone had been watching her too closely today. It made her want to cut and run, but she kept reminding herself it was only because they cared about her. Still, the searching looks, the leading questionsâit was wearing thin.
She walked through the living room with her basket of clothes, and felt the chill as soon as she entered the room. That
chillâit wasn't a normal one. It only came when one of
was close, and Dawn's entire body tensed with anticipation.
Beth stood there, talking to a man as a woman stood nearby. The man was tall, slender, dignified looking and soft spoken. He had a worried look about him, and his shoulders nearly slumped from whatever weight they were carrying.
The womanâ¦oh. Her again.
She was semisolid, her white nightgown stained with soot and black spots, as if it had been burned. So was her face, for that matter. One side of it was twisted and scarred. She held a baby in her arms, wrapped in a scorched, sooty blanket, and she stared. Not at Beth, or at the man, but at Dawn.
Dawn's fear turned to anger. It was one thing for them to harass her, entirely another to get within a mile of her family. Screw this. She set the basket down on the floor and marched forward, making her stride aggressive and sending the dead woman a look meant to chase her off.
Beth turned, and Dawn plastered a more pleasant expression on her face, but not before Beth had seen her.
“You feeling all right, Dawn?”
“Fine,” she said. And she beamed a smile at the man who was looking her way.
“This is Dr. Melrose, Dawn,” Beth said. “He's taking a room for a couple of days.”
“It seems silly, my living only an hour from here,” he said. “But then again, driving back and forth until my business in town is finished would be even sillier.”
“Dawn Jones,” she said, taking his hand, which was so icy it nearly made her pull hers away. “Welcome to the Blackberry Inn.”
“So you're a doctor.”
Dawn shot Beth a look, wondering just for a moment if this
was some kind of setup. Had she managed to convince her birth mother that she was losing her mind? Hell, why not? She was half convinced of it herself.
She glanced past the man. The dead woman was gone.
hen Jax came home from work that afternoon, her father's four-wheel-drive pickup sat in the driveway with the tailgate down. Her front door was unlocked, and when she went inside, she found her house brimming withâ¦stuff. A brown velour sofa stood in her living room, with a glass-topped coffee table in front of it. A television set sat opposite. It wasn't a floor model, so it looked odd there. There were a couple of mismatched, overstuffed chairs, too. A burnt orange one big enough for a linebacker, and a pale blue rocker-recliner. Underneath all of it, a big, braided, oval area rug covered the floor.
Her parents had been busy.
She moved through the dining room, which still held no furniture, and into the kitchen, where her mother was stacking plates in a cupboard and her father was carefully applying caulk to the windowpane in the back door.
“You guys are going to spoil me, aren't you?” Jax asked, leaning in the doorway and folding her arms over her chest.
Her mother looked up, a kerchief over her hair, and beamed a bright smile at her. “Give the independent streak a rest, Cassie. I couldn't have you living here without the barest essentials. Honestly, I don't know how you got by last nightâthe place was Spartan.”
“I didn't need to do anything but sleep, Mom.” Jax moved across the room to give her mother a hug, then looked past her into the cupboard, which was stocked with plates, bowls, saucers, coffee cups and glasses. She opened another door to find mixing bowls and measuring cups, and yet another where cookware and bakeware filled the shelves. There was a small kitchen tableâmetal legs, red Formica topâin the center of the room, with old-fashioned chairs around itâmetal frames with padded red vinyl seats and backs. She opened the fridge, found it clean, fresh smelling and stocked with food. The red cooler sat empty on the floor. She wondered briefly if they'd noticed the box of castoffs on her porch as well, but got distracted when she realized the light in the fridge had come on when she'd opened the door.
“Power's on?” she asked, needlessly.
“Phone lines, too,” her mother said, pointing to the brand-new cordless telephone resting in its base, which was mounted to the wall. They had to have bought it for her.
“What happened to the window?” her father asked. “You have trouble out here last night?”
Jax sent him a bright smile, one designed to hide the lie. “Trouble? Hell, no. Who in their right mind would give me any trouble? I was clumsy. I, uh, was carrying some wood in, from the pile out back, and I slipped. A log flew out of my hand and smashed right through the window.” She shook her head and then moved on to a new subject. “Dad, you didn't see a dog outside when you arrived, did you?”
He shook his head slowly, wiping the caulking knife on a rag and dropping it into his tool belt. The windowpane was repaired and perfect. Her father was just as capable with a hammer and nails as he was with a scalpel and clamps. Just as comfortable in a pair of overalls as he had once been in an expensive suit or surgical scrubs.
“No, I didn't see any. Did see the box of stuff we sent home
with youâ¦” He smiled. “I see you helped yourself to a few things. It was considerably lighter when I took it to the Goodwill. So are you expecting a dog?”
She nodded. “That stray we spotted here the first day. It's been hiding out under the porch sometimes.” Her father frowned, and she rushed on. “He's all alone, Dad. Doesn't seem aggressive at all, just wary. I left some food for him and he ate it.”
Ben nodded. “I saw the empty bowl. You shouldn't get too close until I've had a look at him. Make sure he's all right.”
“I'll be careful. Wait till you get a good look at him, Dad. He's kind of scrawny, a little rough around the edges, but underneath all that, he's gorgeous.” She found the fugitive's face, not the dog's, creeping into her mind. “You can tell he's something special. Frankie says he's been making a nuisance of himself for a while, but no one's been able to corner him.”
Her dad's lips pulled into a rare smile, not a full one, kind of sad, like all his smiles were. “You thinking of making a pet out of him?”
She was startled by the question, considering where her thoughts had taken her. “I don't even know if I'm staying yet.”
“Of course you know,” her mother muttered. She picked up the dishpan full of soapy water and poured it down the sink, then wiped her hands on a dish towel. “Well, I know I'll feel better knowing you've at least got the necessities.”
“How much did you two spend?”
“Nothing at all,” Mariah said. “The dishes have been in my cupboards for years. How many can two people use, after all? Ditto with the extra towels and linens and bedding. Oh, and I didn't get a chance to hang them yet, but we brought you a pile of curtains and rods, too. Just stuff I had in the closets.”
“And the food?” Jax opened another cupboard door. “You've stocked the cupboards and the fridge. There's enough here to feed me for six monthsâif I have half the town in for
snacks every day, that is. And that telephone is new.” She looked upward. “You even put lightbulbs in all the fixtures.” She sent her mother a suspicious look. “Did you stock the bathroom, as well?”
“It makes your mother happy, being able to do things for you, Cassie. Don't you hurt her feelings by trying to pay us for this stuff.” Ben shrugged. “Besides, we do fine at the clinic.”
Jax smiled and put a hand on her father's cheek. “I want to spend a morning over there with you one of these days, Dad. I'd love to see you work.”
“I enjoy it,” he said, and she knew it was nothing short of the truth. There didn't seem to be much in life that gave him pleasure anymore, so that was worth a lot. Jax mourned the loss of his former careerâsometimes, she thought, more than he did. “Animals are great,” he went on. “They don't argue. They don't judge and they don't hate.”
“And they almost never sue,” Mariah added, to lighten the weight of Ben's words.
Jax pretended to laugh, but damn, her father's mood worried her. “Do you guys want to stay for dinner? The least I can do is feed you after all this.”
“Perfect!” Mariah said, clapping her hands together. “That'll just give me time to hang those curtains.”
* * *
Her mother, Jax thought, after her parents said good-night, was the Jackson family's answer to Martha Stewart. Sunflower patterned curtains hung in the kitchen windows and there were matching towels and potholders dangling from every cupboard doorknob. The kitchen was fully functional. She'd set a toaster beside Jax's coffeepot on the counter, mounted a paper towel holder to the wall and filled it, set a coffee mug tree on the table and hung clean cups from every branch, filled a sugar bowl and salt and pepper shakers, too.
Even left a pack of sponges and a scrubber near the sink. The place looked as if someone had been living there comfortably for years.
The other rooms were not as complete, but Mariah had made a good start. The dining room was still empty, and begging for furniture. But it had curtains nowâMariah had insisted on hanging them after dinner. The living room was furnished, aside from the lack of a TV stand, and felt cozy. Lacy doilies lay on the arms of the sofa and chairs, a runner on the coffee table, and a stack of coasters sat in the center, next to the TV remote. She'd even placed a framed family photo on the mantelâan old one, from a long time ago, that included the whole family, even Carrie.
Seeing that brought a lump to her throat, but Jax didn't say anything. Her mother didn't like to talk about the past. She rememberedâbut quietly. It was her way.
Mariah had even hit the bathrooms, filling them with stacks of towels and washcloths, new shower curtains and bath mats, curtains in the windows, toilet paper on the rollers. The woman was a wizard.
By the time her parents left, the house felt much more like a home, and as Jax settled down in the living room with a cup of hot coffee, and the bulging file folder full of photocopies she'd brought home from the Blackberry PD, she couldn't help thinking about how the things from her old apartment back in Syracuse would look here. The wildlife prints on her walls, the entertainment center. Her own TVâwide-screen with surround sound. And her stereo system.
she decided to stay.
She leaned back in the sofa with a contented sigh, listening to the quiet. Hell, who was she kidding? She was going to stay. She wanted this job.
And that thought brought another: the fact that she may have already blundered herself right out of this job, by giv
ing refuge to a fugitive. Surely, the best thing she could have done this morning would have been to come clean, immediately. And yetâ¦there was something wrong. Something off about this whole thing. She'd dealt with a lot of criminals, prided herself on her instinct. And that man last night hadn't seemed like a criminal to her. Wounded, wary and probably under the influence of heavy chemicals. Now that she knew he had just escaped from a mental ward, she could understand that a little better. But criminals did not risk their lives to save the lives of strangers. Especially strangers who could turn around and blow the whistle on them the very next day. And he was a cop, on top of all that. A good one, Frankie had said.
If she'd learned nothing more in her life, Jax had learned to give the apparently guilty the benefit of the doubt.
God, how she'd learned that.
So she'd decided to give it one more night. Frankie had let her make copies of the files on the Corbett case, so she could take them home and read them. Get caught up on the facts of the case.
Frankie Parker, Jax discovered as she opened the bulging folder, was one thorough cop.
At the top of the pile were records of Michael Corbett's service with the NYPD. Jax scanned page after page of them, noting several commendations, a nearly spotless record, until a shooting incident in which he had been injured, and which had been investigated by the Internal Affairs Division. Which meant nothingâanytime an officer fired his weapon in the line of duty, it had to be investigated.
She sipped her coffee, flipped a page and found one officer's report on the shooting. She waded through the dry language of the account, knowing from experience she'd find no hint of emotion anywhere within its pages. “Just the facts, ma'am” was more than just a catchphrase. What it came down to was that Corbett and other officers had responded to nu
merous complaints about a crack house. Suspects in the house opened fire on the police officers almost as soon as they were out of their vehicles, and they returned it. One of the suspects' bullets had hit Corbett in the head before the shooters fled the scene, evading officers who gave chase. Other officers remained with the wounded Corbett until paramedics arrived.
Jax scanned pages until she located the I.A.D.'s final report on the investigation, which cleared Corbett and his fellow officers of any wrongdoing. She frowned, wondering what any of this had to do with the investigation into the murder of Corbett's wife. But then she found her answers. Corbett had been left with a bullet in his brain, and side effects that made it impossible for him to continue in his job. He'd been retired with a clean record and full pension.
Frankie had made her own notes, detailing Corbett's health situation according to information she'd gleaned from interviews with his doctor. She wrote that he was prone to blackouts, periods during which he would lose time, and return to himself with no idea what had transpired. It was during one of those blackouts that his house had been torched, his wife killed.
Neither Frankie nor the state of Vermont were eager to prosecute him for murder, not with the testimony of his doctor likely to get him off on an insanity plea, anyway. The result would have been confinement in a mental hospital. And he'd been willing to take that sentence voluntarily, which saved the state the cost of a trial they might have lost. A hero cop, wounded in the line of duty, didn't make for the easiest defendant.
Jax stared at the pages, but she wasn't seeing the print. Instead, she was recalling the look in the man's eyes last night. The desperate, haunted look about him. No wonderâif he'd killed his wife, and couldn't even remember doing itâhell, that would be enough to haunt anyone. But why would he have risked prison by busting out of the state hospital?
By killing an orderly and then busting out,
her inner voice reminded her.
There was more, reams more in the folder, and she turned to a new page and read, and read, until her eyes grew so weary that they drooped slowly closed, and her head fell to one side.
Then there was a soundâa soft sound, like weeping. A woman weepingâand then it changed, and became the gentle coo of a very young baby crying. That snuffly, congested newborn bleat. The smell of smoke touched her nostrils, and a strangled voice whisperedâ¦.
Help me! Please!
She sat up fast, her eyes flying wide.
The living room was perfectly empty. There were no sounds. No whispers. No babies crying. No smell of smoke. She'd fallen asleep.
No such things as ghosts, she reminded herself, rubbing down the goose bumps that had risen on her arms. Hell, she was letting Kurt Parker's spook stories get to her.