Carolina moon, p.34
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       Carolina Moon, p.34

           Nora Roberts
 

  "After I closed for the day, I wanted a walk. I decided I'd take one through the park and drop by her apartment. That way, if she was in, I could discuss the job with her."

  "You went over there with Faith Lavelle?"

  "No. I went over alone. I ran into Faith outside the building, the back of the building. She said Sherry's dog had been injured earlier in the day. He'd been hit by a car and Wade had treated him. She'd come over as a favor to Wade, as they'd been unable to reach her."

  "So you got there at the same time."

  "Yes, more or less. That would have been around six-thirty, as I closed up and left the shop about six-ten or six-fifteen."

  "And when Miss Bellows didn't answer, you went on in looking for her."

  "No. Neither of us went inside."

  "But you saw something that worried you." He looked up from his pad. She sat perfectly still, kept her eyes on his, and said nothing. "You were worried enough to call the police."

  "She didn't return my call, though she appeared to be very eager for the job. She didn't return Wade's, though it was obvious to me from our one and only meeting that she adored her dog. Her blinds were shut, the door was closed. I called the police. Neither Faith nor I went inside. Neither of us saw anything. So I can't tell you anything."

  He sat back, gnawed on his pencil. "Did you try the door?"

  "No."

  "It wasn't locked." He let the silence hang, filled the time by getting out his pack of gum, offering it to Tory. When she shook her head he took out a stick, unwrapped it, carefully folded the wrapper.

  Tory's heart began to dance in her chest.

  "So . . ." Carl D. folded the gum as carefully as he had its wrapper, slipped it into his mouth. "You two had gone over. Now, knowing Faith Lavelle, I'd say she'd have poked her head in—curiosity if nothing else. What's this new teacher got in her place, that kind of thing."

  "She didn't."

  "You knocked? Called out?"

  "No, we—" She broke off, fell silent.

  "You just stopped there at the door and decided to call the police." He let out a sigh. "You're going to make me pull some teeth here. Now, I'm a simple man, got simple ways. And I've been a cop more'n twenty years. Cop's got instincts, gets hunches in the gut. Can't always explain them. They just are. Could be you got like a hunch today outside the door of Sherry Bellows's apartment."

  "It's possible."

  "Some people tend toward hunches. You might say you had one eighteen years ago when you led us to Hope Lavelle. You had more of them up in New York. A lot of people were glad you did."

  His voice was kind, a soft roll of words, but his eyes, she noted, were watchful. "What happened in New York has nothing to do with this."

  "It has to do with you. Six kids got back home because you had hunches."

  "And one didn't."

  "Six did," Carl D. repeated.

  "I can't tell you any more than I've told you."

  "Maybe you can't. Strikes me as more that you won't. I was there eighteen years ago when you led us to that little girl. I'm a simple man with simple ways, but I was there. And I was there today, looking down at that young woman and what had been done to her. It took me back. I was at both those places, saw both those things. And so did you."

  "I didn't go in."

  "But you saw."

  "No!" She surged to her feet. "I didn't. I felt. I didn't see, and I didn't look. There was nothing I could do. She was dead, and there was nothing I could do for her. Or for Hope. Or any of them. I don't want that inside me again. I've told you everything I know, exactly as it happened. Why isn't that enough?"

  "All right. Now, all right, Miss Tory. Why don't you sit down there, try to relax, while I go down and talk to Faith."

  "I'd like to go home now."

  "You just sit down and catch your breath a little. We'll see you get home soon enough."

  He chewed over his thoughts on her and her reaction to his questions as he walked downstairs. The girl, he decided, was a basket of troubles. He could be sorry for it. But that wouldn't stop him from using her if it suited his purposes. He had a murder in his town. It wasn't the first, but it was damn near the ugliest in a good many years. And he was a man who had hunches. His gut told him Tory Bodeen was the key.

  He found Cade pacing at the bottom of the stairs. "You can go on up to her. I expect she could use a shoulder. Your sister around?"

  "She's in the back, with Wade. He's checking on the dog." "Too bad that dog can't talk. Was Piney clipped him, wasn't it?"

  "So I'm told."

  "Yeah, too bad that dog can't talk." He patted his notebook pocket and wandered into the back.

  Cade found Tory still sitting on the sofa.

  "I should have just walked away. Or better, smarter, I should have let Faith go in the way she wanted to. Faith would have found her, we'd have called the police, and there'd have been no questions."

  He moved over to sit beside her. "Why didn't you?"

  "I didn't want her to see what was in there. I didn't want to see it, either. And now Chief Russ expects me to go into a trance and give him the name of the killer. It was Professor Plum in the conservatory with the candlestick. I'm not a goddamn board game."

  He took her hand. "You've every right to be angry. With him, with the situation. Why are you angry with yourself?"

  "I'm not. Why would I be?" She looked down at their joined hands. "You bruised your knuckles."

  "Hurts like a son of a bitch."

  "Really? It didn't seem like it when you hit him. It didn't seem like you felt anything but mild annoyance. I really must swat this pesky fly, then get back to my book."

  He grinned at that, brought her hand to his lips. "As a Lavelle, one must maintain one's dignity."

  "Bull. I said that's what it seemed like, but that wasn't the reality of it. Rage and disgust were the reality, and you enjoyed flattening him. I know," she said with a sigh. "Because that's what I was feeling. He's an ugly man, and he'll try to find another way to hurt you now. But he'll come at your back, because he's afraid of you. And no, that's just good sense and a reasonable understanding of human nature, not my fabulous psychic powers."

  "Clampett doesn't worry me." He rubbed his bruised knuckles over her cheek. "Don't let him worry you."

  "I wish I could." She got to her feet. "I wish I could worry about him so it would occupy my mind. Why should I feel guilty?"

  "I don't know, Tory. Why should you?"

  "I barely knew Sherry Bellows. I spent less than an hour with her, no more than a brush on my life. I'm sorry for what happened to her, but does that mean I have to get involved?"

  "No. "

  "It won't change what happened to her. Nothing I do will change what happened. So what's the point? Even if Chief Russ pretends he's open to whatever I could do, m the end he'll be just like the others. Why should I put myself in the middle of it only to be laughed at and dismissed?"

  She rounded on him. "Don't you have anything to say?" "I'm waiting for you to come around to it."

  "You think you're smart, don't you? You think you know me so well. You don t know me at all. I didn't come back here to right wrongs or avenge a dead friend. I came back here to live my life and run my business."

  "All right."

  "Don't say all right to me in that patient tone, when your eyes are telling me I’m a liar."

  Because her breath was starting to hitch, he rose and went to her. "I'll go with you." She stared at him another moment, then just went into his arms. "God. Oh God. "We'll go on down and tell the chief. I'll stay with you."

  She nodded, held on another minute. And she accepted that after she was done in Sherry's apartment, he might never want to hold her again.

  22

  "You need anything before we go in?"

  Tory was still fighting to calm her nerves, but met Carl D.'s gaze levelly. "What, like a crystal ball? A pack of tarot cards?"

  He'd gone in the front as she'd requested, and unlock
ed the patio door from the inside, cut the seal, and stepped out where she waited with Cade.

  There was less chance of being seen going in through the rear. The killer had known that, too. Now Carl D. pushed back his hat to scratch his wide brow. "Guess you're a mite put-out with me."

  "You pushed where I don't like to be pushed. This isn't going to be pleasant for me, and could very well be useless to you."

  "Miss Tory, I got a young woman about your age lying on a table down at the funeral parlor. County ME's got his job to do on her. Her family's coming down tomorrow morning. Wouldn't call any of that pleasant for anybody."

  He'd wanted her to have that picture in her head. Tory acknowledged it with a nod. "You're a harder man than I remember."

  "You're a harder woman. I guess we both got reason." "Don't talk to me." She opened the door herself, stepped inside.

  She'd braced herself, and concentrated on the light first. The light in the room as he'd flicked the switch. The light Sherry had permeated through the air.

  It was a long time before she spoke. A long time, while what was left in the room slid inside her.

  "She liked music. She liked noise. Being alone just wasn't natural to her. She liked to have people over. Voices, movement. They're all so fascinating to her. She loved to talk."

  There was fingerprint dust on the phone. She didn't notice that it smeared her own fingers as she trailed them over it. Who was Sherry Bellows? That had to come first.

  "Conversations were like food to her. She'd have starved to death without them. She liked to find out about people, to listen to them talk about themselves. She was very happy here."

  She paused, letting her fingers brush over picture frames, the arm of a chair.

  "Most people don't really want to hear what people say, but she did. Her questions weren't a ploy to wheedle an opening to talk about herself. She had such plans. Teaching was an adventure to her. All those minds to feed."

  She walked past Cade and Carl D. Though she was aware of them, they were becoming less important to her, their presence less real.

  "She loved to read." Tory spoke quietly as she wandered toward a cheap, brass-plated shelf filled with books.

  Images floated through her mind of a pretty young woman tucking books on the shelf, taking them out, curled up with them on the chair on the patio with a big, shaggy dog snoring at her feet.

  It was easy to blend into those images, to open to them, become part of them. She tasted salt—potato chips—on her tongue, and felt a lovely wave of contentment.

  "But that's just another way to be with people. You slide into the book. You become a character, your favorite character. You experience.

  "The dog gets up on the sofa with you, or in the bed. He leaves hair everywhere. You swear you could make a coat out of the hair he sheds, but he's such a sweetheart. So you run the vacuum most every day. Turn the music up so you can hear it over the motor."

  Music pulsed inside her head. Loud, cheerfully loud. Her foot tapped to it. "Mr. Rice next door, he complained about that. But you bake him some cookies and bring him around. Everyone's so nice in this town. It's just where you wanted to be."

  She turned from the bookshelf. Her eyes were blurry, blank, but she was smiling.

  Cade's heart skipped a beat as her smoky gaze passed over him. Passed through him.

  "Jerry, the little boy from upstairs, he's just crazy about Mongo. Jerry's just as cute as a bug and twice as pesky. One day you want a little boy just like him, all eyes and grins and sticky fingers."

  She turned in a circle, her lips curved, her eyes blind.

  "Sometimes in the afternoon after school they'll go out and run around together, or he'll throw Mongo tennis balls. Fuzzy yellow balls that get all wet and messy. It's fun to sit on the patio and watch them. Jerry has to go in, his mother called him in to do his chores before supper. Mongo's just plain worn out, so he'll sleep out on the patio. You want the music on, loud as you can without bothering Mr. Rice, because you're feeling so happy. So hopeful. A glass of wine. White wine. Not really good wine, but you can't afford better. Still it's nice enough and you can sip and listen to the music and plan."

  She walked to the patio doors, looked out. Instead of dark she saw early twilight. The big dog spread out on the concrete like a shaggy welcome mat and snoring lightly.

  "Lots to think about, so many plans. So much to do. You feel so good about things and just can't wait to get started. You want to have a party, have the rooms crowded with people, and flirt with that gorgeous vet, and that slick-looking Cade Lavelle. My, my, they sure grow them handsome in Progress. But now you should make a meal. You have to feed the dog. Maybe another glass of wine while you're putting it together."

  She strolled into the kitchen, humming the tune she heard in her head. Sheryl Crow. "A salad. A nice big salad, with extra carrots because Mongo likes them. You'll mix them in with his kibble." She reached down, brushed her fingers over the handle of the cupboard, then let out a gasp, stumbled back.

  Instinctively Cade moved toward her, but Carl D. gripped his arm. "Don't." He spoke in a whisper, as though in church. "Let her be."

  "He was there. Just there." Tory's breathing came in quick, short bursts now. She had both hands fisted at her throat. "You didn't hear him. You can't see him. There's a knife. He has a knife. Oh God, oh God, oh God. His hand's over your mouth, squeezing. The knife's at your throat. You're so scared. So scared. You won't scream. You won't. You'll do anything if he doesn't hurt you.

  "His voice is at your ear, soft, quiet. What did he do with Mongo? Did he hurt him? It's all tumbling in your head. It's not real. It can't be real. But the knife's so sharp. He pushes you and you're afraid you'll stumble and the knife ... "

  She shuffled out of the kitchen, braced a hand on the wall when she swayed. "The blinds are drawn. No one can see. No one can help. He wants you in the bedroom, and you know what he's going to do. If you could only get away, away from the knife."

  Tory froze at the door to the bedroom. Nausea rolled into her in short, choppy waves. "I can't. I can't." She turned her face to the wall, struggling to find herself through all the fear and violence. "I don't want to see this. He killed her here, why do I have to see it?"

  "That's enough." Cade shoved away Carl D.'s restraining hand. "Goddamn it, that's enough."

  But when he reached for Tory, she stumbled away. "It's in my head. I'll never get it out of my head. Don't talk to me. Don't touch me."

  She pressed her hands to her face, trapping her own breath, and let it claw back inside her.

  "Oh. Oh. He pushes you on the bed, facedown. And he's on top of you. He's already hard, and feeling him, feeling him pressing against you, you struggle. The fear's wild inside you. Huge, choking. There's a heat to it. Fear burns."

  She moaned, went down to her knees beside the bed. "He hits you. Hard. The back of the neck. The pain's so sharp, it rushes through you, stuns you. He hits you again, the side of your face explodes with it. You taste blood. Your own blood. Blood tastes the same as terror. The same. He yanks your arms behind your back, and the pain of that's just another layer."

  Tentacles of that pain slithered and groped inside her, tangled with a horror so huge it seemed the mass of it all would burst out of her brain. She pressed her face to the side of the mattress, dug her fingers into it.

  "It's dark. The room's dark, and the music's playing and you can't think over the pain. You're crying. You try to plead with him, but he's tied a cloth over your mouth. He hits you again and you start sliding away somewhere. Half conscious, you hardly feel it when he cuts your clothes away. The knife nicks you, but it's worse, so much worse when he uses his hands on you."

  Tory doubled over, wrapped her arms around her belly, and began to rock. "It hurts. It hurts. You can't even cry when he's raping you. Just let it be over, but he keeps beating himself into you and you have to go away. You have to be somewhere else. You have to go away."

  Exhausted, Tory laid her head on
the side of the bed, closed her eyes. It was like being smothered, she thought dimly. Like being buried alive, so the blood rings in your ears like a thousand bells and the sweat that coats your body is cold. So viciously cold.

  She had to fight her way back into the air.

 
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