Angie stood stiff, her hand in a frozen wave as she watched the red tail lights retreat into the pitch-black night. Her ‘Guardian Angels’ -as she would later refer to Syms and Dyson- nodded to each other and one of them took her by the hand. “Time to settle in now, ma’am.” Syms said gently and Dyson agreed with a nod.
“Oh, forgive my manners, gentlemen!” Angie replied with a start. “Of course, let’s get in the house! I know you must be starving. I believe there’s still some Chess Pie. I’ll make some fresh coffee too…”
With that, her two protectors picked up their gear as the befuddled woman motioned to Jip. The old farm dog and Molly had sniffed each other out and agreed on a ‘wait and see’ partnership. Together they all headed to the house that was soon to become their fortress.
Jessie steered her car past the stubbled corn fields and down the dirt road, kicking up a trail of dust that glowed behind them like a ghost in the moonlight. The fleeing trio traveled for a bit in silence until Jesse finally spoke. “Find us some tunes, Theresa.”
Theresa switched the dial from station to station, filling the car with bits and pieces of melodies until she settled on a late night Jazz program; the clearest signal she could find for such a late hour in the middle of nowhere. They rode on and the music seemed to bring them a welcomed sense of normalcy.
Into the third set of old standards, Jessie and Theresa were startled to hear a sound coming from the back seat and were astounded to find ‘Blue Eyes’ sitting upright, her eyes closed, humming along and occasionally repeating a word or two of the lyrics.
This phenomenon repeated itself for several tunes.
“SO! She sings!” Jessie laughed in amazement. “That’s a breakthrough, I’d say!” Theresa caught Jessie’s eye and raised her eyebrow incredulously.
There was barely any late night traffic on State Highway 9- just as Jessie had hoped- but still she kept her eyes peeled to the rearview mirror.
Time passed and now it was approaching dawn as they passed through the tiny hamlets heading for Jessie’s destination.
Turning off the main road, she was rather shocked to see that the old private, rickety bridge to Drag Island was officially closed. She pulled the car to a standstill and sat for a moment collecting her thoughts. Peering at a sign posted on the bridge railing, Jessie was relieved to find directions listed there detailing an alternate route. Reversing their course, the trio entered Garden State Parkway for the remaining few miles to their planned destination.
The retreat that had been a cherished childhood vacation spot in Jessie’s youth was now sadly in a state of disrepair. The sign to the cottages was hanging by one nail and swinging in the early morning coastal breeze. Still, SeaGull Cottages would suit them just fine.
Parking the car in front of the office, Jessie walked up the weathered steps and rang the bell. After a long wait, a portly woman in a chenille bathrobe opened the door a crack and peered out warily.
“What’cha want?”, the question came in a disgruntled voice.
“Hello!”, Jessie tried to sound pleasant in spite of her misgivings. “I used to come here years ago as a kid – the Smalley’s owned it then. Do you still have cabins for rent?”
‘Well…”, the word was drawn out and hesitant as if it were a far out possibility. “I guess so…let me get my husband – we don’t get too many folks stoppin’ anymore- especially so close to the end of the season.” With that, the woman let the door slam with a bang, leaving Jessie waiting.
Soon, the woman’s marital counterpart appeared, pulling up suspenders over a greasy shirt. “So, it’s a cabin you’d be wanting?” the man asked with a yawn. “How long you stayin’ for and how many?”
“My cousins and I were just wanting to come back here for a little retreat and maybe some fishing.” Came Jessie’s rehearsed answer. “I told your wife we used to come here years ago when the Smalleys owned the place.”
‘Well, they died, the daughter married and sold out. We’ve had it for 15 years now.” Came the terse reply. He peered over Jessie’s shoulder at the car and then looked back at Jessie. “So there’s the three of ya then’?” He turned away and spoke over his shoulder, ‘Min! Get the key to number Five.”
Key in hand, he motioned Jessie down the steps and led her to a tiny cabin in equally sad disrepair. A pungent, musty smell came rushing out the newly opened door, revealing a scene that time had long forgotten. The 1950’s décor had seemed antiquated even when Jessie stayed here in her youth. Charming then – now it just seemed ominous. A slight grimace past over her face but she brushed it off quickly.
“That’ll be $50 a night-cash. Sheets, blankets in the cupboard behind that curtain and if you want to do any cookin’- Propane’s extra. I’ll turn up the heat if you want hot water.”
“Yes!” We’ll definitely be wanting hot water and some Propane.” Jessie was losing her patience and her sweet façade. The man left and returning to the car, she pulled up and parked between the cabins, out of sight from the road.
Jessie and Theresa helped ‘Blue Eyes’ into number Five and onto one of the two lumpy beds. They opened the windows to the cool sea breeze. Jessie closed the door and sat down in a dilapidated arm chair. Once again, straining to sound calm and composed, she looked at her two companions.
“Let’s don’t judge by appearances here…” Jessie began. “The beach is still glorious and the warm sun and sand will revive us while we rest! At least we’re still one step ahead and I feel sure we’ve bought some time by coming here even if it’s …. well – This!” Theresa kicked off her shoes, smiling wanly as she did so.
Going to the cupboard, Jessie retrieved a blanket and she and Theresa helped ‘Blue Eyes’ out to the sandy beach. ‘Blue Eyes’ seemed to understand and was more coherent than she had been before.
For a moment Jessie was back to her childhood – a world away in time. They all three stretched out on the blanket and snuggled their toes in the sand as if grounding themselves for a future as yet unknown.
Gus pulled his car onto the shoulder and came to a stop. Dialing Angie’s number, he waited impatiently for someone to answer. After several rings, a faint voice picked up.
“Hello, Angie!” Gus’s voice was anxious and relieved. “It’s Gus! Are you and the girls OK?” I’m finally back from Chicago….”
With relief Angie haltingly filled Gus in on all that had transpired and he asked to speak to one of The Dawgs. Dyson got on the line and was quick to reassure, satisfying Gus that Angie was indeed in good hands. Once again, he was aware of just how perfect Jessie was at assessing a situation and supplying just the right solution to every problem. He owed her so very much.
He would try to reach her by phone but for now, he needed to go to Madison General. One more reassuring word to Angie and Gus closed his phone.
He sat for a moment, leaning on the steering wheel. He realized that he’d been leaning forward all these last few days- as if racing toward something-yet at the same time, simultaneously feeling himself pulling away from something. He was the Hunter and also the Hunted and in only one of those did he feel fully equipped.
For the past few days Gus had been pained by a nagging feeling deep in his gut. Wracking his brain, he repeatedly ran through each and every person on his carefully compiled team in this Race against Death. One of them, it was clear, was a mole. And he now knew which one. The cruelest and most unexpected twist in the road and where it would lead was not a happy place.
Gathering his strength, Gus took a deep breath, started the car and drove on – back to where it all had begun – what now seemed a lifetime ago.
At Madison General Hospital, Mark Anderson sat at his desk, nervously fidgeting with a pencil until it snapped in two, shaking him back to reality. He buzzed the intercom and spoke with as much authority as his shaking voice could muster.
“Miss Hall, why don’t you take the rest of the day off? You can come in early tomorrow before the auditors arrive. We’ve got it all together.” He waited for her reply and then the sound of files being put away.
“See you in the morning, Mr. Anderson. It will be a long day!” and with that, the outer door closed leaving him alone.
Within ten minutes the expected phone call came. Sweating profusely and wiping his face on his handkerchief, Mark picked up the receiver with trembling hands.
The voice and words he most dreaded came hissing out of the phone and he tried to steady himself for his reply.
‘Yes, I know, but I thought… when I gave you the information you wanted …those debts were to be forgiven or… at least postponed. The auditors are coming tomorrow and they’re sure to find the discrepancy in the books! I can’t justify any more missing drugs either! I‘ve already tried to pin those on that handyman who’s in custody but that won’t stick. I simply can’t pay you…I just can’t get my hands on any more cash and NO I don’t have any more information to share! You’ve got to believe me!!”
Mark Anderson was sobbing and gasping for air now- his throat tight with fear-but to no avail. The ultimatum that came was horrifying- but so was the guilt and shame.
He hung up the phone and sat staring out wild-eyed at the hospital parking lot. In his dazed terror, he never saw Gus walking toward the front door.
Gus walked with a determined gait, making his way across the parking lot and up to the large glass entry. As the automatic doors opened, he found himself face to face with Mark’s Administrative Assistant, Julie Hall. Glancing at his watch, he looked up, caught her eye and shot her a smile. “Off so early in the afternoon? You must be livin’ right!” Julie grinned and nodded.
“Mark inside?” Gus asked as the two passed.
Julie nodded again. “I’m sure he’s still in the office. Auditors are coming tomorrow and he’s probably checking out some last minute figures. He sent me home early for the big day. It’s good to have you back, Gus.” And with that, she kept on in the direction of her parking space.
Gus entered the back stairwell to the third floor. As he began the ascent, his jaw clenched and thoughts began to pound in his head.
A lifetime of friendly rivalry had decayed to this: the ultimate double-cross, and now Gus’s life-Theresa’s life- lives of people near and dear- were all on the line- and one stranger’s life sat teetering in the brink, in ways Gus still didn’t understand. Yet one thing he did know with crystal clarity: his longtime friend, Mark Anderson, had caused all of it—but why?
Gus’s breath came quicker now and he felt himself began to tremble with anger. Stopping at Mark’s office door, he paused for a moment to catch his breath and then burst in. The scene before him almost knocked Gus to his knees.
Mark sat at his desk, tears streaming down his face, a crumpled piece of paper lay in front of him and a revolver barrel planted firmly in his mouth.
© copyright 2018 Laurie Allyn all rights reserved
Laurie Allyn is a professional jazz singer with a storied past. Singing in smoky clubs in Chicago during the 1950’s and 60’s, she went on to record an album in Hollywood. When the recording label went bankrupt, she turned her attention to professional modeling. Now living outside Seattle, she writes mysteries and continues her singing career.