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Authors: Catherine Coulter

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BOOK: Riptide
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B
ecca pulled the brush through her brown hair. It was long now, to her shoulders. She pulled it back in a ponytail, then stared at herself in the mirror. She hadn't worn a ponytail since she was thirteen years old. Then she hadn't known what evil was.
No, don't think about him.
He would never find her. She looked back at herself. The glasses changed her looks quite a bit, as did her darkened eyebrows.

She looked over at her small portable television and knew that during the news they'd soon show another photo of her. They did. It was from her driver's license. She was grateful they hadn't gotten a more up-to-date shot. She didn't much resemble that photo, except maybe on an excruciatingly bad day. With the slight alterations she'd made to her looks just before coming to Riptide, she felt reasonably sure that none of the townspeople would find her out. Only Tyler would make the connection, and she felt she could trust him. Now that her story was being flashed on CNN, she'd have to tell him the truth. She should have told him right away, but she couldn't, just couldn't, not then, not at first. Now there was no choice.

But Tyler beat her to the punch. Not fifteen minutes after her story aired, her doorbell rang.

“You lied to me.” It was Tyler. He stood on the front porch, stiff all over, so angry he nearly stuttered.

“Yes, I know. I'm sorry, Tyler. Please come in. I need to throw myself on your mercy.”

She told him the whole story, and was amazed at how relieved she was to confide in him. “I still don't know why the cops didn't believe me. But I'm not hiding because of them. I'm hiding because of the madman who's been terrorizing me. Maybe he wants to kill me now, I don't know.” She kept shaking her head, saying over and over, “I can't believe he actually shot the governor. He really shot him.”

“The cops could protect you.” Tyler wasn't standing so stiffly now, thank God, and his eyes had calmed. Just a minute before they'd been flat and very dark.

“Yes, probably, but they would have to believe I was in danger first. They would have to believe there really was a stalker. There's the rub.”

Tyler fell silent. He pulled a small wooden carving of a pyramid out of his pants pocket and began fiddling with it. “This isn't good, Becca.”

“No. Is that Ramses the Second's tomb?”

“What? Oh this. No, I won it in a geometry competition when I was a senior in high school. You changed your name to Powell.”

“Yes. You're the only one who knows the truth, about everything. Do you think you can keep it quiet?”

“You're not married, then?”

She shook her head. “No. Also, I would have run sooner but I couldn't leave my mother. She was dying of cancer. After she died, there was nothing holding me back.”

“I'm very sorry, Becca. My mom died when I was sixteen. I remember what it was like.”

“Thank you.” She wasn't going to cry, she wasn't. She looked toward an ancient humidor that sat in the corner and
jumped to her feet. She'd just realized what she'd done. “Oh God, I can't believe this. I'm a jerk. This is a big mistake. Listen, Tyler, you've got to forget all of this. I don't know what's going to happen. I don't want you in harm's way. And I just thought of Sam. I can't take a chance on anything happening to him. It's too risky. Whoever this maniac is, he'll do anything, I'm convinced of it. Then there's the cops. I don't want them to arrest you for keeping quiet about me. I'll just go somewhere else that isn't on the map. Jesus, I'm so sorry I spilled my guts to you.”

He stood, taller than she by a good five inches. No more anger in him, just determination. It calmed her. “Forget it. It's a done deal. I'm now up to my neck in this with you. Don't worry, Becca. I don't think they'll ever find you.” He paused a moment and looked down at the pyramid lying in the palm of his left hand. “Actually, I've already told a few folks in town that my old college friend Becca Powell has come to live here. Even if someone thinks you look like this Rebecca Matlock they saw on TV, they won't make the connection. I've already vouched for you, and that makes a difference. Also those glasses really alter your looks. You don't wear them usually, do you? And your eyes aren't really brown.”

“You're right on both counts. I'm wearing brown contacts. The glasses are just window dressing; they're not prescription, just plain glass. I also darkened my hair and my eyebrows.”

He nodded, then suddenly he grinned. “Yeah. I remember you as a blonde. All the guys wanted to go out with you, but you weren't really interested.”

“I was only a freshman, too young to know what I wanted, particularly in guys.”

“I remember there were some bets in the frat houses on who would get you in the sack first.”

“I never heard about that.” She shook her head, wanting to laugh and surprised by it. “Guys are immensely focused, aren't they?”

“Oh, yeah. I was, too, only it never did me any good, at
least not then. I remember wishing somehow that it would be me you'd go out with, but I was too chicken ever to ask. Now, we'll get through this, Becca. You're not alone anymore.”

She couldn't believe he'd do this for her. She threw her arms around him and hugged him tight. “Thank you, Tyler. Thank you very much.” She felt his arms tighten around her back. She felt safe for the first time in a very long time. No, not safe. She didn't feel alone anymore. That was it.

When she finally stepped back, he said, “It might even help if you go out with me, be seen with me around town. You know, lull any suspicions, if there are any. You'll fit in if you're seen with me, since I'm a native. I'll always call you Becca, too. That's a very different name from Rebecca. I believe that's the only name the media has used.”

“To the best of my knowledge it is.”

Tyler slid the wooden pyramid back into his jeans pocket and hugged her once more. He said against her left ear, “I wish you'd trusted me right away, but I understand. I think it'll be over soon. A three-day news hit and then it's gone.”

As she pulled away from him, she devoutly prayed he was right. But how could it be? The man had tried to murder the governor of New York. He was still at large. They couldn't just forget about it. The thing was, there was simply nothing more she could tell the authorities. What if she called Detective Morales and told him she didn't know anything more, that she'd already told them everything? Immediately after Tyler left, she went back into the living room and picked up the phone before she could second-guess herself. She had to try to make him believe her. She didn't know the sophistication of their tracing equipment. Well, she'd just have to get it over with, quickly, before they could get a lock on her location. She got through very quickly to Morales, which had to be a miracle in itself. “Detective Morales, this is Becca Matlock. I want you to listen to me now. I'm well hidden. No one's going to find me, nor is there any reason for anyone to find me. I'm not
hiding from you, I'm hiding from the stalker who terrorized me and then shot the governor. You do believe me now, don't you? After all, I'm sure not the one who shot him.”

“Look, Ms. Matlock, why don't you come in and let's talk about it? Nothing's for sure right now, but we need you here. We have a lead you could help us with—”

She unclenched her teeth and spoke very slowly. “I can't tell you anything more than I already did. I told you the truth. I still don't have any idea why none of you ever believed me, but it was the truth, all of it. I can't help you with any so-called lead. Oh, that's a lie, isn't it? Anything to get me back. But why?” She paused for a moment. Time was passing, he didn't answer her. She said, “Listen, you still don't believe me, do you? You believe I shot the governor?”

“Not you yourself, no. Ms. Matlock—Rebecca—let's talk about it. We can all sit down and work this out. If you don't want to come back to New York, I can come wherever you are to talk.”

“I don't think so. Now, I don't want you to be able to trace this call. I will say it once more: The madman who shot the governor is out there and I've told you everything I know about him. Everything. I never lied to you. Never. Goodbye.”

“Ms. Matlock, wait—”

She hung up the phone, aware that her heart was pounding deep and hard. She'd done her duty. There was nothing more she could do to help them.

Why didn't they believe her?

She had dinner that night with Tyler McBride at Pollyanna's Restaurant nearly at the end of West Hemlock, on a small curved cul-de-sac called Black Cabbage Court.

She said over their appetizer, “What's with the names in this town?”

He laughed as he speared a cold shrimp, dipped it in horseradish, and forked it into his mouth. “Are you ready for this? Okay, there was this rumor that began floating
around in 1912 that Jacob Marley Senior found out his wife was sleeping with the local dry-goods merchant. He was so upset that he poisoned her, and that's why he renamed all the central streets after plants that are toxic.”

“That's amazing. Any proof of it?”

“Nope, but hey, it makes for a good tale. Maybe he was a closet Borgia, who knows? I think my favorite is Foxglove Avenue. It runs parallel to West Hemlock.”

“What are some more?”

“There's Venus Fly Trap Boulevard, which runs parallel to West Hemlock to the north, Night Shade Alley, that's where my gym is, and Poison Ivy Lane, just to the south of us.”

“Wait, isn't the Food Fort on Poison Oak Circle?”

“Yes. Since I live outside the center of town, it's just Gum Shoe Lane for the likes of me. However, since you're in Marley's house, you get his pièce de résistance—Belladonna Drive. Even better, you're not in a big house next to all the peasants, no, you're out there all by yourself, surrounded by all those beautiful trees and just that narrow driveway to get to you.”

She was laughing as she said, “Why did he name his own street Belladonna Way?”

“That's supposedly what Marley Senior used to poison his unfaithful wife. Pollyanna's Restaurant is on Black Cabbage Court. That's the name for this plant in Indonesia that'll kill you with a single lick. It evidently has this sugary-sweet smell and taste, and that's how it gets its victims.”

She was laughing when a man came up to their table and said, “Hello, Tyler. Who's this?”

Becca looked up at the older man, who had lots of white hair, a good-sized belly, and a big smile. He said, frowning down at her, “Hey, you look familiar, you—”

“I've known Becca for nearly ten years, Bernie. We were at Dartmouth together. She got tired of the rat race in New York City and decided to move here. She's a journalist. You want to hire her for the
Independent?

She hadn't gone to see Bernie Bradstreet for the simple reason that it had dawned on her that she didn't have any legitimate ID and now her face was plastered all over TV. She just sat there, smiling stupidly, not knowing what to say. She'd forgotten to say anything to Tyler. She was a fool.

Very sharp gray eyes focused on her. He held out his hand, with large, blunt fingers. “I'm Bernie Bradstreet.”

“Becca Powell.”

“You write what? Crime coverage? Weddings? Local charities? Obits?”

“None of those things. I mainly write human interest articles about strange and wonderful things that are all around us. I try to amuse people and perhaps give them a different perspective on things. I'm a luxury for a newspaper, Mr. Bradstreet, not a necessity. I'm the last sort of frill a small newspaper needs.”

She'd whetted his appetite. Just great. He said, a brow arched, “Like what, Ms. Powell?”

“Why feta cheese and glazed pecans taste so delicious in a spinach salad.”

“I suppose you went into all sorts of folklore, nutrition information, stuff like that?”

“That's right. For example, with the feta, pecans, and spinach, it all has to do with a chemical reaction that zings the taste buds.”

Bernie Bradstreet looked too interested. She drew back, lowered her eyes to the napkin Tyler had tossed beside his plate.

Tyler said, “Dessert, Becca?”

She said, grinning up at Mr. Bradstreet, “Yep, that's what I am, dessert for a newspaper. I'm low on a priority list, very low.”

“No,” Tyler said. “I mean real dessert. Coffee and dessert for you, Bernie?”

Bernie couldn't stay. His wife was at the far table with one of their grandkids. “They make special hot dogs for kids here,” he said; then, “Why don't you drop by with
some of the articles you've written, Ms. Powell? Actually, bring me the feta cheese article.”

“I didn't bring any of them with me, sir, sorry.”

Tyler gave her a look but didn't say anything. But his eyes had widened just a bit. He'd finally realized that this was the last thing she needed. Good, she thought, she was out of it. But no, he just ruminated awhile, looking at her, then said, “All right, write me up one—whatever topic you like—not over five hundred words, and we'll see.”

BOOK: Riptide
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