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Authors: Maggie Shayne

Darker Than Midnight (37 page)

BOOK: Darker Than Midnight
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“I escaped the hospital to save my life,” River said. “I haven't left this town since. My only goal was to find the truth. I could have run a hundred times since my escape, but I didn't. And I won't.”

The judge rubbed his chin. “Would he be in danger again, if he were put into custody?”

“He could be,” Brown said. “We can't be sure until all of this is settled.”

“Chances are I wouldn't, Your Honor,” River stated. “Ethan Melrose was shot by his wife earlier tonight. She was aiming for me. He's in the hospital and in no condition to pose any real threat to me.”

“I like your honesty, son.” The judge nodded. “I hesitate to put a man behind bars who may have already done time in a mental ward for nothing. But I'd prefer to release him into the custody of a responsible person.”

“He's been staying with Lieutenant Cassandra Jackson,” Frankie said. “She's next in line for my job, came here to train for it, as a matter of fact. I trust her.”

“Your Honor,” the D.A. said, “that's the same woman who's been aiding and abetting him all along.”

“Actually, she made the same decision I would have,” Frankie interjected. “Had she turned him in, he could have been murdered while in custody. Had she turned him away, he could have been long gone, for all she knew. Keeping him secure while investigating his claims was a stroke of genius.”

“It was also completely unprofessional and inappropriate, and I think you know it, Chief Parker,” the judge declared. “That said, I don't doubt for one minute you'd have done the same.” He looked around the room. “Where is this Jackson?”

“Home, nursing injuries she received in a hit-and-run earlier today.”

“Ahh, that was her.” Judge Henry nodded. “Then she's in no condition to guard a prisoner. I'll release him into your custody, Chief Parker. And you'd best keep him with you. I don't want any more screwups. I'll have my court clerk contact you two gentleman as soon as she's set up a formal hearing on all of this.” He looked at the D.A. “How long do you need?”

“A month,” the D.A. began.

The judge waved a hand. “A week is plenty. Just to be nice, I'll give you two.” He turned again to River. “One thing I just can't get straight in my head, son. Why did you listen to this man? What would possess you to put so much stock in the opinion of one doctor?”

River lowered his head to hide the surge of emotion welling inside him at the question. “He was my best friend, Judge. Like a brother to me, since I was just a kid. I trusted him.”

The judge shook his head slowly. “Makes it that much worse, doesn't it? Yeah. I know. Chief Parker, get him home, give him a good meal and a warm place to sleep. I intend to do the same for myself.”

He got up, shook River's hand. “Son, although it's far from official, it's pretty clear to me what's happened here. You
have my sincere apology for what you've been through. I know it's not worth much, but—”

“It's worth a lot, sir. But you don't have anything to apologize for. I'm the one who entered the plea.” He held the man's eyes. “Thank you for coming out here to listen to me, Your Honor.”

The old man nodded, and left the police station. Within a few minutes, the others went as well. River promised his lawyer a lengthy meeting the next day. Then he turned to Frankie, when they were alone together in the station.

“Oh, no,” she said. “Don't turn those big eyes on me, young man. I'm too old to fall for it.”

“She's waiting for me, Frankie.”

“You can call her from my house,” she said. “I've stuck my neck out for you plenty—from here on in, son, this goes by the book.”

He sighed, a deep yawning chasm opening up inside him. And he recognized it for what it was—the emptiness he would always feel without Cassandra by his side.

* * *

Dawn turned to look back into her bedroom before she closed the door. “I'm going to need you with me,” she told Mordecai. It galled her to say it. She didn't want any part of her father—not even his ghost. But she needed to see this thing through to the end. She needed him in order to do that.

And after that—never again.

“Of course we're going with you,” Beth said from the hallway.

Dawn looked at her, smiled and tried to avoid Bryan's knowing eyes. He was scared to death for her. And until she got this sorted out, figured out exactly what it all meant, he would keep right on being scared for her.

He deserved better than that.

He took her hand when she came out of the bedroom. She
let him hold it only until they reached the stairs, then pulled hers free as if she needed to hold the railing on the way down. She didn't. And she thought he knew it.

An hour later, they were clustered around the nurses' desk in the ICU, asking about Ethan Melrose. But before the nurse could even answer, there was a shriek from one of the rooms, then the door opened and a woman staggered out, supported by an older man Dawn didn't recognize.

She recognized the woman, though. It was Ethan Melrose's wife. She'd seen her in the photograph in the doctor's office. And from the way she was sobbing…

“I'm sorry, dear,” the nurse at the desk said. “Dr. Melrose passed away a few moments ago. That's his wife over there. She needed some time with him.”

Dawn nodded slowly, her eyes still on the woman, as the man—her father, Dawn realized, in the way she realized so many things—helped her down the hall. She was leaving, going home, getting out of here. They ought to sedate her, Dawn thought. Imagine shooting your own husband and having to live with that.

“Are you a family member?” the nurse asked.

Dawn looked back at her, ignoring the eyes on her. Bryan's, Beth's, Joshua's. Even her father's. Mordecai stood near the doorway to Ethan's room, staring intently at her. “I'm his niece,” Dawn lied smoothly. “Would it be all right if I saw him? Just for a minute?”

The nurse blinked, then nodded slightly. “Sure. Go ahead.”

Dawn thanked her, then turned toward the door.

“Dawn, you can't,” Beth said. “There's no reason in world to put yourself through this—”

“I have to,” Dawn told her, and she took a moment to look her birth mother in the eyes, to let her see into her own. “I
really
have to.”

Beth frowned, and then her brows rose, and there was
something like horror in her eyes. “Oh, no,” she whispered, as if it was finally hitting her what was happening to Dawn.

“I have to,” Dawn said again, and she tugged her hands free and walked alone toward the dead man's room.

She went inside, her gaze focusing automatically on the body in the bed. It was pale, and very still, the head swathed in bandages, eyes closed. There was nothing all that horrible about it.

But the man who stood in the corner of the room was considerably creepier. He was staring at the body and looking horrified. And there was a hole in one side of his head, and blood on his face.

He wasn't fading in and out as he had before. He was solid, as solid as Mordecai or any of the other ghosts ever were, but terrified. His mouth was moving, but Dawn couldn't hear what he was saying.

She glanced at Mordecai. He nodded at her. So she reached out for his hand, and he took it.

“What…what happened?” Dr. Melrose asked. “I don't understand. What happened to me? How can I be here, and in that bed, and why was Victoria crying that way?”

“Dr. Melrose,” Dawn said.

He didn't look at her, kept staring at the bed, babbling. “I remember—God, it was awful. It hurt, and then it didn't, and then I was here—but I wasn't. Not really. Hell, how can this be? What's going on? Why couldn't Vicki hear me? What's—”

“Dr. Melrose,” Dawn said again. “Ethan.” She said it firmly, loudly, and he looked at her that time. He frowned. “You can see me? Thank God. No one else seems to realize I'm here. What's going on?”

She blinked slowly, shooting a look at Mordecai. He nodded at her. “Tell him, Dawn.”

Dawn took a breath and told herself she could do this. Some
one had to. “You've died, Ethan,” she said. “That's your body, there in the bed. You're not in it anymore. Do you understand?”

His eyes widened, and shot back to the body. He moved closer to it, reached out a hand to touch it, but his hand moved right through, and he jerked backward in surprise. “Oh, God. Oh, no. I can't be—”

“You are,” Dawn said. “Do you remember what happened?”

“No. No. No, this isn't—it's a dream, that's what it is. It's all a dream.”

“It's real, Ethan. I'm sorry. But your physical lifetime is over.” She searched her mind for something to say that could comfort him. Even if he had done all the things she believed he had, he didn't deserve the stark terror she saw in his eyes. No one did. “There's a whole lot more to life than what you knew before, Ethan. Look at you. Your body's dead, but you're not. There's a whole new kind of existence for you. It's going to be all right.”

He stared at her, shaking his head slowly. “I remember you,” he said. “You came to my office. You knew things—”

“Stephanie told me things,” she said. “She wanted me to help River prove he didn't kill her.”

He nodded slowly. “River didn't kill her. He didn't. I tried to stop it—God, it was too late. When I got there, it was just too late.”

“What do you mean?”

He was lowering his head, shaking it. “River came to me, demanding to know the truth. He thought it was me. He thought I was the one—and I let him.”

“Are you saying you aren't the one who killed Stephanie Corbett?”

Lifting his head, he met her eyes. “You don't know?”

“That's why I'm here. Stephanie said I had to come here. To talk to you. I don't think she knows who killed her, either. But you do. Don't you, Dr. Melrose?”

Sighing, he nodded slowly. “I'll never tell. I won't. I have to protect her.”

Dawn blinked. “Protect who?” And then she knew—it was his wife. Who else would he want so badly to protect? “It was Victoria,” she said.

He met her eyes, closed his. “It wasn't her fault. She found out about my affair with Stephanie and it—it did something to her. The trauma. She couldn't handle it, her mind—”

“So you covered it up?”

He nodded. “The house was already burning when I got there. River was already outside, lost in one of his blackouts, and the gas can was right there. Right beside him. There was a little left in the bottom, so I doused his hands with it. I took Vicki home, after. I wasn't even sure she remembered the next day what had happened. We never…we never talked about it again.” He shook his head slowly. “When I found Arty Mullins's body in that spare freezer in our garage—I had to cover it up. I couldn't let my wife go to prison. It was all my fault—if I hadn't had the affair—”

Dawn didn't know about these things. “Who is Arty Mullins?”

“A handyman. He must have seen…what happened that night. I think he may have been trying to blackmail Victoria. She'd given him money, bought him a bus ticket out of town, told me it was just to be nice to him—he'd helped us so much in the past. Everyone thought he'd moved away. But he hadn't. Victoria killed him and hid his body in the freezer. I didn't know what to do. I had some of River's things at my house—fishing poles, tackle boxes—so I asked his lawyer for the key to the storage unit he'd rented for River, so I could put them there. He didn't think anything of it at the time. I stored the freezer there, believing no one would ever find it. But then he did, so I burned the unit down—would have burned poor Arty, too, but the remains would have been found. And that
would have stirred up questions. So I moved the body to the cabin.”

“Okay. Okay.” She wasn't clear on that part of it, but she sensed the need to move on. “What about River?” she asked. “What about his mental illness?”

He closed his eyes. “Is there a hell? If there is, you know that's where I'll go—for what I did to him. Letting him believe he'd done it—killed Stephanie. And the baby.” He closed his eyes. “My baby.” He shook his head. “The drugs helped. I thought…he wouldn't remember the truth, and he wouldn't be in pain.”

“So he wasn't really insane?”

“No.”

“And the attempt on his life in the hospital?”

He looked up sharply. “I had nothing to do with that.” Then his mouth contorted as if he were fighting back tears. “It must have been Victoria. I didn't want to believe it.”

“What about the hit-and-run—trying to kill Lieutenant Jackson, putting her in that cabin and setting it on fire?”

“No,” he said. “No, it wasn't me. When River said it was my car that hit her, I knew—oh, God, I knew. Vicki
did
remember. And it was happening all over again.”

BOOK: Darker Than Midnight
13.99Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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