Dark Hunger


Part Two. REHAB Chapter Twelve


He wanted to get into the barn, and Ford figured if he tried it, it would add a few more layers to the suspect cake the cops were baking for him.

He was a suspect. It was actually kind of cool.

God, once a nerd always a nerd, he thought as he went through a series of lats and flys.

Once he'd worked up a sweat and an appetite, he checked in with the hospital, downed some cereal. Showered, shaved, dressed, he stepped into his office, up to his workstation.

He closed his eyes, held up his hands and said, "Draco braz minto." The childhood ritual put everything outside the work, and Ford into it. He sat, picked up his tools and began to draw the first panel for Brid.

CILLA HAD her chair angled toward the bed so she could look directly into Steve's face as she spoke. And she spoke, keeping up a constant one-sided conversation, as if any appreciable stretch of silence could be deadly.

"So it's moving. Clicking along better than I anticipated, even with the changes and additions I made to the original plans. The attic space shows real promise. Later on, I'm going to go pick out the flooring for up there, and the fixtures and tiles for that bath, and the master. We'll be able to have a beer out on the patio, soon as you're ready. What I need is pots. A couple of big-ass pots. Monsters. Oh, and I'm going to plant tomatoes. I think it's about the right time to do that. And, like, peppers, maybe carrots and beans. I should wait until next year when the house is done, but I think I could scratch out a square for a little garden now. Then-"

"Miss McGowan."

Cilla took a breath. When it hurt her chest to draw it in, it told her she'd been pushing too hard. "Yes." What was the nurse's name, the nurse with the curly blond hair and warm brown eyes? "Dee. It's Cilla."

"Cilla. The police are out there. A couple of detectives. They asked to speak to you."

"Oh. Sure. Just a sec. I've got to do this thing," she told Steve. "I'll be back."

Spotting the cops was the easiest thing she'd done all day, Cilla thought. She stepped up to them. "I'm Cilla McGowan."

"Detective Wilson. My partner, Detective Urick. Is there somewhere we could talk?"

"There's a little waiting room down here. They've got something they call coffee. You're looking into what happened to Steve now," she said as she led the way.

"Yes, ma'am."

"Then you know he didn't trip over his own feet, bash himself in the head and fall under his own bike." She hit the coffeepot, added powdered creamer. "Do you know what did happen?"

"We're looking into it," Urick said. "Do you know anyone who'd wish Mr. Chensky harm?"

"No. He's only been here a few days. Steve makes friends, not enemies."

"You were married."

"That's right."

"No hard feelings?" Wilson prompted.

"None. We were friends before we got married. We've stayed friends."

"He's living with you."

"No, he's visiting me, and giving me a hand for a couple of weeks on the house. I'm rehabbing the house. He's in the business."

"Rock the House," Urick commented. "I've caught the show."

"Best there is. You want to know if we're sleeping together. No. We have, but we're not."

Wilson pursed his lips, nodded. "Your neighbor, Mr. Sawyer, states that he saw a prowler on your property a few nights ago."

"Yeah, the night Steve got in. Steve heard something outside."

"You didn't."

"No, I sleep like a rock. But Steve woke me up, said he heard something. I brushed it off." The guilt wormed its way back. "Then Ford mentioned the flashlight he'd seen. I was supposed to get a padlock for the barn, and I let it slip by."

"We noticed you seem to be using the barn to store things. Boxes, furniture..."

"Junk," Cilla finished, and nodded at Urick. "I brought it down from the attic. I'm having the attic finished off and needed to clear it out. I've been sorting, but it's a big job. I thought I'd separated what struck me as potentially valuable, but it's hard to tell on a couple of passes."

"You didn't notice anything missing?"

"Not at this point."

"Some of the boxes were crushed, the furniture knocked over." Wilson gestured. "It looked, possibly, as if Mr. Chensky drove his bike into the barn, lost control, went down."

"That's not what happened. You know he wasn't drunk or stoned."

"His alcohol level was well under the legal limit," Urick agreed. "There were no drugs in his system."

Inside her chest, her heart began a tripping beat. "A sober man, and one who's straddled a Harley for about a dozen years, doesn't get off the bike, open the door, get back on the bike and yee-haw drive in over a bunch of boxes and furniture."

"The X-rays indicate Mr. Chensky was struck at the base of the skull. Probably a crowbar or tire iron."

Cilla pressed her hand to her heart as it tightened to a fist. "Oh, God."

"The force of the blow pitched him forward, dropped him so that he hit the concrete floor, which caused the second fracture. Our reconstruction indicates the Harley was rolled to where Mr. Chensky lay, then pushed over on top of him, breaking two of his ribs and bruising his kidney."

Urick waited, watched as Cilla set her coffee down, as her hand trembled. Her color went from pale to ghostly. "Now, let me ask you again. Do you know anyone who'd wish Mr. Chensky harm?"

"No. No, I don't know anyone who'd want to hurt him. Who'd do something like that to him."

"How did Sawyer get along with him?"

"Ford?" For a moment she went blank. "Fine. They hit it off. Big-time. Steve's a fan. He's even got... Oh, for God's sake."

Understanding, Cilla pressed her fingers to her eyes, then dragged them back through her hair. "Okay, follow the dots, please. I am not and was not sleeping with Steve. I am not and was not sleeping with Ford, though that is on the table. Ford did not attack Steve in a jealous rage as I don't think he has a lot of rage in the first place and, more importantly, he knew there was nothing to be jealous about. I was up front with him regarding my relationship with Steve, and in fact was out with Ford the night Steve got hurt. The night both myself and Ford knew Steve had gone out to sniff around Shanna Stiles. There's no romantic or sexual triangle here. This isn't about sex."

"Miss McGowan, it looks as though someone was in your barn, and may have been lying in wait. You and Sawyer knew Mr. Chensky had gone out for the evening, and that he stored his motorcycle in the barn."

"That's right, that's absolutely right, Detective Wilson. Just like we both knew he'd gone out to try to score with a very attractive brunette. Neither of us could know if he'd get lucky or bomb out. So you're suggesting that after spending the evening with me, Ford snuck back, hid out in my barn, just in case Steve came back. It doesn't make any sense."

Shock, anger, guilt, annoyance all drained into sheer misery. "None of this makes any sense."

"We'd like you to go through the items you have stored in the barn, see if anything's been disturbed or taken."

"All right."

"Your grandmother left a deep mark," Wilson continued. "I'd guess most people figured anything of hers in that house was taken away a long time ago. Word gets out, as word will, there's still some things around, someone might be interested enough to break into a barn."

"And fracture a man's skull. Yeah. The thing is? Most of what's in the barn is from the McGowans. The ordinary side of the family."

She went back to Steve, but this time sat in silence.

When she left, walked to the elevator, she saw her father get off the car. "Dad."

"Cilla." He strode quickly toward her, took her shoulders. "How is he?"

"The same, I guess. He's critical. He came through the surgery, and that's a plus, but...A lot of buts and ifs and maybes."

"I'm so sorry." He pulled her tight for a moment. "I know I only met him a couple of times, but I liked him. What can I do?"

"I just don't know."

"Let me take you downstairs, get some food in you."

"No, actually, I'm just leaving for a while. I have some errands." To get out, to do, to stop thinking for just a couple of hours. "Maybe... Do you think you could go in and sit with him for a little bit? Talk to him? He liked you, too."

"Sure, I will."

"And when you leave? Remind him that I'll be back later. I'll be back."

"All right."

Nodding, she pressed for the elevator, hitched her bag on her shoulder. "I appreciate... I really appreciate you coming. You barely know him. Hell, you barely know me."

"Cilla-"

"But you came." She stepped into the elevator, turned, met her father'seyes. "You came. It means a lot," she said as the doors closed between them.

WORK. WORK GOT HER THROUGH the day.And the next day. She was better at work, she thought, than at sentiment, at expressing emotions- unless they were scripted. She made her schedule, and stuck to it. So many hours on the house, on the landscaping, so many at the hospital, so many in the barn.

That left her so many hours to fall on her air mattress and clock out.

So far, she thought, so good.

Except Steve's mother had jumped down off her broomstick and thrown the schedule into the Dumpster. So, more time for work, Cilla told herself. More time to get things done.

She picked up a pole lamp, scowled at the six funnel-shaped shades running down the spotted brass rod. "What were they smoking when they bought this?"

On impulse, she took a few running steps and launched it at the open barn doors like a javelin. Then yipped when Ford stepped into view. He jumped back so the lamp whizzed by his face with a few layers of dust to spare.

"Jesus Christ!"

"I'm sorry, I'm sorry. I didn't see you."

"Shouldn't you yell 'fore,' or something?" he demanded. "How the hell would I have explained that one? Yes, Doctor, I've been impaled through the brain by perhaps the ugliest pole lamp in the history of pole lamps."

"I don't think it would've impaled. More dented. Anyway, it offended my eye."

"Yeah, mine too. Almost literally. What are you doing back here? It's early for you," he added when she frowned at him. "I saw your car. I thought maybe..."

"No. Nothing new. Except Steve's mother's there."

"Yeah. I ran into her this morning for a minute." He dipped his hands into his pockets, hunched a little. "She's scary."

"She hates me. For marrying Steve, for divorcing him. She doesn't actually like Steve all that much, but me? She hates. So I cleared the field. Deserted, actually. I don't do well with mothers."

"You do okay with your stepmom. She sent over that nice casserole last night."

"Tuna noodle. I'm not sure that's a sign of affection."

"It is, take my word." He stepped through and around some of the mess to get to her, to touch her cheek. "You're working too hard, beautiful blond girl."

"I'm not." She pulled away, kicked at one of the boxes. "The cops want me to go through this stuff, to see if anything's missing."

"Yeah. I think I've been bumped down the suspect list, which is oddly disappointing. Tall White Guy asked me to sign a copy of The Seeker: Indestructible for his grandson."

"Tall... oh, Urick. I told them it wasn't about you or Steve or me. But what the hell is here? What's here somebody would want so damn bad? It's junk. It's trash. It should be tossed, all of it. I'm tossing it," she decided in an instant. "Help me toss it."

He grabbed her, pulled her back up as she started to drag up a box. "No. You don't toss when you're churned up. And you know that what someone might have wanted isn't here. Because you already found it and put it somewhere else."

"The letters."

"That's right. Did you tell the cops about the letters?"

"No."

"Why not?"

"I don't know, exactly. Partly because all I could really think about at first was Steve. And what would they do with the letters? Thirty-five-year-old letters, unsigned, no return address."

"Fingerprints, DNA. Don't you watch CSI?"

"Fact, fantasy. And it'll leak. It always leaks, that is a fact. Letters from a lover, days before her death. Was it suicide? Was it murder? Was she carrying a love child? All the speculation, the print, the airtime, the reporters, the obsessed fans, it all pumps up. Any chance I had here, at peace, at a life, pretty much goes up in flames."

"Why?"

"I don't want to live like that, in the crosshairs of the camera lens. I want this to be my home." She heard the edge of desperation in her own voice but couldn't dull it. "I wanted to bring something back from her, and for her. But I wanted it to be mine at the end of the day."

"You don't want to know who wrote those letters?"

"Yes, I do. I do. But I don't want to ruin his life, Ford, or his children's lives because he had an affair, because he broke off the affair. Even if he was cruel about it. There has to be a statute of limitations. Thirty years should cover it."

"Agreed."

He said nothing more, just watched her, looked into her eyes until she closed them.

"How could anyone prove it?" she demanded. "If, if, if she didn't kill herself. If, if, if some of the conspiracy theories have been close to true and someone-this someone-made her take the pills, or slipped them to her. How could we prove it?"

"I don't know, but the first step would be asking the right people the right questions."

"I don't know the people or the questions, and I can't think about this. Not now. I need to get through today, then get through tomorrow. I need-"

She threw herself against him, locking her arms around his neck while her mouth latched on to his. He wasn't prepared for the eruption, the bursts of desperation and appetite. Who could have been? With quick, catchy gasps, low, sexy moans, she devoured. She hooked one of those long, long legs around him, sank her teeth into his bottom lip, tugged. And he went instantly, helplessly, hard as stone.

She rubbed her body against his until he could literally feel the blood draining out of his head and heading south. "Lock the door." Her lips moved to his ear, parted on a breathless whisper. "Lock the door."

He quivered, felt the shock of need ram into him-head, belly, loins- like fists. "Wait." Even as he said it his mouth collided with hers again for one more greedy gulp. But he managed to order himself to pull back, to get his hands on her shoulders to peel her away, a couple of inches.

"Wait," he repeated, and momentarily forgot his train of thought as those brilliant blue eyes burned into his.

"No. Now."

"Cilla. Whoa. Jeez. I can pretty much feel myself growing breasts as I say this."

She took his hands, pulled them down, pressed. "Those are mine."

"Yeah." Soft, firm. "They are."And with considerable regret, and what he considered heroic restraint, he put his hands back on her shoulders. "Where was I? I meant to say, even at the risk of sounding like a girl, this isn't right."

She slid her hand over his crotch. "Then what's this?"

"The penis has a mind of its own. And boy, oh boy," he managed as he took her wandering hand and yanked it up. "I should get an award for this. A monument. Let's just step back."

"Step back?" Shock and insult leaped out with the words. "Why? What the hell is wrong with you?"

"The penis is asking those exact questions. But the thing is... wait," he ordered, taking a firm hold of her arms when she started to jerk away. "The thing is, Cilla, you don't toss stuff out when you're churned up. Just like when you're churned up, you don't... lock the barn door."

"It's just sex."

"Maybe. Maybe. But when it happens? It's going to be just you and me. Just you." He tested his willpower by leaning down and taking her mouth in a slow, soft kiss. "Just me. No Steve or Steve's mom, no Janet Hardy, no letters. Just us, Cilla. I want lots of alone with you."

She let out a sigh, gave one of the boxes a halfhearted kick. "How am I supposed to feel pissed off and rejected after that?" Hooking her thumbs in her pockets, she lowered her gaze deliberately to his crotch. "Looks like that's still doing a lot of thinking. What are you going to do about it?"

"I just need to get a picture of Maylene Gunner in my head."

"Maylene Gunner."

"Maylene was mean as a snake, big as a battleship and ugly as homemade sin. She beat the living snot out of me when I was eight."

No, she couldn't possibly stay pissed off. "Why would Maylene do that?"

"Because I had drawn a very unflattering portrait of her. I didn't possess the talent to draw a flattering one. Da Vinci didn't possess that much talent. I drew her as a kind of Goodyear Blimp, soaring and farting. Very colorful. Little people on the ground clutching themselves or lying sprawled and unconscious, running for cover."

"Cruel," Cilla said as her lips twitched.

"I was eight. In any case, she got wind-so to speak-and ambushed me and proceeded to pound me to dust. So when I need to, I just picture that Jupiter-sized face, and..." He glanced down, smiled. "There we go. Retired from the field."

Cilla studied him a moment. "You're a very strange man, Ford. Yet oddly appealing. Like your dog."

"Don't get me started again. Even Maylene Gunner has only so much power. Why don't I give you a hand here, then we'll go see Steve together. Between the two of us, we can take his mama."

Yes, she thought, a very strange and appealing man. "Okay. You can start by taking what's left of that pole lamp out there to the Dumpster."

SHE GOT THROUGH THE DAY, got through the night. And Cilla geared herself up for her second visit of the day, and second confrontation with Steve's mother. Pacing in front of the hospital entrance, she gave herself a pep talk.

It wasn't about her, wasn't about old business, grudges, one-upmanship.It wasn't about tossing a bucket of water on the Wicked Witch of the West.

It was about Steve.

She bounced her shoulders to loosen them like a boxer before a bout, and stepped toward the doors as someone called her name.

Relief at the temporary interruption might have been cowardly, but she'd take what she could get. Turning, she smiled at Cathy and Tom Morrow.

Cathy reached out to rub a hand along Cilla's arm. "How's your friend?"

"The same. Pretty much the same. I want to thank you again for your help when Steve was in surgery."

"It was nothing."

"It was a lot to me. Are you volunteering today?"

"Actually, we're here to see our goddaughter. She had a baby."

"That's nice. Well..." Cilla looked back toward the doors.

"Would you like me to go up with you first?" Cathy offered.

"No, no, I'm fine. It's just... Steve's mother's probably up there. She harbors extreme dislike for me. It makes it pretty tight in that room with both of us in there."

"I can fix that." Cathy held up a finger. "Why don't I go up, lure her away for fifteen or twenty minutes."

"How?"

"Volunteer mode. I'll buy her a cup of coffee, lend a shoulder. It'll give her a break and give you a few minutes alone with your friend."

"She can do it," Tom said with a shake of his head. "Nobody resists Cathy."

"I'd be so grateful."

"Nothing to it. Tom, keep Cilla company for a few minutes. Five should do it." With a cheery wave, Cathy strode into the hospital.

"She's great."

"Best there is," Tom agreed. "Let's sit down over here, give her that head start. I was sorry to hear about your friend."

"Thank you." Three days, she thought. Three days in a coma.

"Do the police have any idea how it happened?"

"Not really. I guess we're all hoping Steve can tell us if... when," she corrected, "he wakes up."

She caught a glimpse of a white van crossing the parking lot and, with a shudder, looked away.

"I hope that's soon." Tom gave her hand an encouraging pat. "How's Brian doing on your place?"

"It's shaping up. He does good work. You must be proud of him."

"Every day. It's an ambitious project you've taken on. The grounds, the house. A lot of time, money and sweat. Word gets around," he added.

"It'll be worth it. You should drop by sometime, look at the progress."

"I was hoping you'd ask." He winked at her.

"Anytime, Mr. Morrow."

"Tom."

"Anytime," Cilla repeated, and pushed to her feet. "I'm going to sneak up, see if Cathy had any success."

"You can take it to the bank. I'll say a prayer for your friend."

"Thanks."

And this, Cilla thought as she crossed the lobby to the elevators, was the reason to make this home. People like the Morrows, and like Dee and Vicki and Mike, the ICU nurses she saw every day. People who cared, who took time.

People like Ford.

Hell, even people like cranky, dyspeptic Buddy.

She stepped off the elevator and spotted Mike at the nurses' station. "How's he doing?"

"Holding steady. Kidney functions are normal. That's an improvement. "

"Yeah, it is. Is anyone with him?"

Mike wiggled his eyebrows. "Mrs. Morrow breezed in and took Mrs. Chensky down for coffee. You got a clear road."

"Hallelujah."

Bruises still covered his face, but they were turning yellow at the edges. Thick stubble masked his jawline and pricked her when she leaned over to kiss him. "I'm back. It's hot out this afternoon. Strip-it-off weather."

She tuned out the machines, started to turn to the window to describe the view for him before she relayed construction progress. And she saw the sketch taped to the glass wall.

"What have we got here? Con the Immortal?" She glanced back at Steve. "Did you see this? Striking resemblance."

Ford had drawn it. Cilla didn't need to see the signature looped in the bottom corner to know it. Steve stood, wearing what she supposed was a loincloth, with thick black straps crossing over his chest, and knee boots. His hair flew out as if in a strong wind, and his face was set in a fierce, fuck-you grin. His hands rested on the hilt of a sword, with its point planted between his spread feet.

"Big sword, obvious symbolism. You'd love that. And the biceps bulging over the armbands, the tats, the necklace of fangs. Con the Immortal. He's got you pegged, doesn't he?"

Tears rose hot in her throat, were ruthlessly swallowed down. "You've really got to see this, okay?" She crossed back to take Steve's hand. "You've got to wake up and see this. It's been long enough now, Steve, I mean it. Goddamn it. This bullshit's gone on long enough, so stop screwing around and... oh God."

Had his hand moved? Had it moved in hers or had she imagined it? She let her breath out slowly, stared down at the fingers she held in hers. "Don't make me yell at you again. You know if I cut loose I can out-bitch your mother. Who's going to come back here pretty soon, so..."

The fingers twitched, curled. The lightest of pressure on hers.

"Okay, okay, stay there, don't go anywhere." She reached for the call button, held her finger down on it. "Steve, come on, Steve, do it again." She lifted his hand, pressed her lips to it. Then, narrowing her eyes, bit. And laughed when his fingers twitched and curled again.

"He squeezed my hand," she called out as Mike came in. "He squeezed it twice. Is he waking up? Is he?"

"Talk to him." Mike moved to the side of the bed, lifted one of Mike's eyelids. "Let him hear your voice."

"Come on, Steve. It's Cill. Wake up, you lazy bastard. I've got better things to do than stand around here and watch you sleep."

On the other side of the bed, Mike checked pulse, pupils, BP. Then pinched Steve hard on the forearm. The arm jerked.

"He felt that. He moved. Steve, you're killing me. Open your eyes." Cilla grabbed his face, put her nose nearly to his. "Open your eyes."

They fluttered, and she felt another flutter on her chin. More than his breath, she realized. A word.

"What? What? Say it again."

She leaned down, her ear at his lips. She caught his slow, indrawn breath, and heard the hoarse, raw whisper of a single word. He said, "Shit."

Cilla let out a sob that choked into a laugh. "Shit. He said shit!"

"Can't blame him." Quickly, Mike strode to the door to signal another nurse. "Page Dr. North. His patient's waking up."

"Can you see me?" Cilla demanded when his eyes opened. "Steve? Can you see me?"

He let out a weary sigh. "Hi, doll."

SHE SPOKE to the doctor, even managed to smile genuinely at Steve's mother before she locked herself in a bathroom stall for a jag of weeping relief. After she'd washed her face, slapped on makeup and sunglasses to hide the damage, she went back to the nurses' station.

"He's sleeping," Mike told her. "Natural sleep. He's weak, and he's still got a lot of healing to do. You should go home, Cilla. Get a good night's sleep yourself."

"I will. If he asks for me-"

"We'll call you."

For the first time Cilla stepped into the elevator with an easy heart. As she crossed the lobby, she pulled out her phone and called Ford.

"Hey, beautiful blond girl."

"He woke up." She moved down the sidewalk toward the parking lot with a bounce in every step. "He woke up, Ford. He talked to me."

"What'd he say?"

" 'Shit' came first."

"As it should."

"He knew me, his name and all that. His left side's a little weaker than his right, just now. But the doctor says he's looking good. They have to do tests, and-"

"Looking good works. Do you want me to come by, bring you some dinner?"

"No, I'm heading home now. He's sleeping. Just sleeping. I wanted to tell you. I just wanted to say that I saw your sketch, and I was teasing him about it right before... I think it might have done the trick."

"Nothing stops Con the Immortal for long."

"You are so- Oh God! Son of a bitch!"

"What? What was that?"

She stared down at the door of her truck. "I'll be home in a few minutes. I'll come by."

She clicked off before Ford could respond. And read what someone had written on the driver's-side door in black marker.

WHORES BEGET WHORES!

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