Dark Hunger


Part Two. REHAB Chapter Fifteen


Cilla sweated over the long, tedious process most of the day, with breaks to handle scheduled work. She concentrated on the ob-scenities first as people slowed on the drive by, or stopped altogether to comment or question.

Sometime during the process, the burning edge of her rage banked down to simple frustration. Why had the asshole written so damn much?

She picked up the task again the next morning, before the mason or any of the crew arrived. Two new trees flanked her entrance. She thought of them as defiant now rather than sweet. And that pumped up her energy.

"Hey."

She glanced around to see Ford, ratty sweatpants and T-shirt, standing on the opposite shoulder of the road with a red bandanna-sporting Spock quivering, but sitting obediently at his feet. "Early for you," she responded.

"I set the alarm. It must be love. Come over here a minute."

"Busy."

"When aren't you? Honey, you can wear me out just watching. Come on, take a minute. I got coffee." He held up one of the oversized mugs he carried.

He'd set the alarm, and though she didn't know quite what to think about that, she owed him for it. And for the time he'd put in the day before, even after she'd been rude and snarly. She set the bristle brush down, crossed the road.

He handed her the coffee, gestured to the wall as she greeted Spock. "Read it from here. Out loud."

She shrugged, turned, and even as she took a gulp of the coffee felt a little bubble of amusement rise in her throat. "Go to Hollywood, live like an ore ike."

"Ore-ike," he mused. "I can use that. Seems to me he tried to hurt and intimidate you, and you've made him a joke. Nicely done."

"Unexpectedly ridiculous. I guess that's a plus. I've nearly run out of mad. You don't have to get into this again today, Ford. How are you going to make me a warrior goddess if you're scrubbing off graffiti?"

"That's cruising along pretty well. I can give you a couple of hours before I get back to it. Spock's looking forward to being what Brian and Matt call a job dog today. He's just going to go over and hang out with the guys. Hence the bandanna."

"You know, I'm probably going to have sex with you, without the offer of manual labor."

"I'm hoping." He gave her an easy, uncomplicated smile. "You know I'd offer the labor even if you weren't going to have sex with me."

She took a contemplative sip of coffee. "I guess that evens it out. I do better on even ground. Well." She started back across the street, and he and Spock fell into step beside her. "My father heard about this, called me last night. What could he do? How could he help? Why didn't I come stay there for a while, until the police figured it out? Which is looking like, hmm, never. Then my stepmother got on the phone. She wants to take me shopping."

"For a new wall? This one's cleaning up okay."

"No, not a new wall." She gave him a light punch, then handed him protective gloves. "Patty, Angie and Cilla do the outlets. Like trolling for bargains would solve my problem."

"I take it you're not going?"

"I don't have the time or the inclination to search out peek-toe pumps or a flirty summer dress."

"Red shoes, white dress. Sorry," he added at her quiet stare. "I think in visuals."

"Uh-huh. The point, I guess, is that I'm not used to people offering- time or company or help-without any number of strings attached."

"That's a shame, or perhaps living like an ore-ike."

She laughed, began to scrub.

"Go play," he told Spock, who trotted off toward the house in his red bandanna.

"I'm trying to learn to accept the offers without the lingering haze of cynicism. It's going to take a little while."

He worked for a few moments in silence. "You know what I see when I look over here?"

"Trucks, big-ass Dumpster, a house in desperate need of paint?"

"Sleeping Beauty's castle."

"How? Where? Why?"

"First, I risk impinging my manhood by admitting I dug on those kind of stories as a kid, as much as I did the Dark Knight, X-Men, and so on. And consider Disney's version solid, with Maleficent one of the top villains of all time. Anyway."

He shrugged as she continued to stare at him. "You know how the evil Maleficent cast the spell, and surrounded the castle with giant briar, those big, wicked thorns. Closed it in to a dark, forbidding place that held sorrow and, well, trapped beauty."

"Okay."

"The hero had to fight his way through the blocks, the thorns, the traps. A lot of risk, a lot of work, but when he reached the goal, the castle came back to life. And, you know, peace reigned across the land."

She worked her wire brush against the wall. "I have to kiss the princess?"

"Okay, new visual. Interesting. There are some flaws in the metaphor, but basically, the trapped, sleeping castle needs a hero to wake it up. Some people like having a part in that. And some..." He tapped his brush on a large black E. "They like to fuck it up."

"I find myself fascinated by a man who admits to enjoying fairy tales and uses the word 'impinge'-and barely misses a beat while indulging in a brief girl-on-girl fantasy. You're a man of layers, Ford."

"Me and Shrek, we're onions."

Oh yeah, she thought. Falling for him, and falling fast.

She stopped as Buddy's truck pulled up beside them. The plumber leaned out the window, scowled. "What the hell is that supposed to mean?"

"According to Ford, it means some people like to mess things up."

"Damn kids. No respect."

"I don't want Steve to hear about this. He's got enough on his mind. I need to talk to you about the venting for the steam shower. I took another look last night, and... I really need to go over this with Buddy on site," she said to Ford.

"Go ahead. I've got this for a while."

"Thanks. Give me a lift, Buddy." She hopped into the cab of the truck, and as Buddy turned in the drive, tried to imagine the house as Sleeping Beauty's castle, with about half of the briars hacked away.

FORD GOT IN a solid day before stepping back from the work to take a long look at the panels and the pencils. The story had turned on him a bit, but he considered that a good thing. He'd edit the script later that evening to suit the new images and action that had come to mind.

To do that, he needed to let it stew. To stop pushing while it cooked on one of the back burners of the brain. Which meant, for his process, it was probably time for a beer and a little PlayStation.

Downstairs, he opened the front door to take a quick look at what he thought of as Cilla World before wandering back to the kitchen. He saw Steve picking his way up the walk, the cane in one hand, a six-pack in the other.

"This is what I call superior timing."

Beside Ford, Spock all but jumped up and applauded.

"I escaped. The warden had to make a supply run, so I stole her beer and booked."

"Who could blame you?" Ford took the beer, flicked a thumb at a chair.

"Doc cleared me. I'm heading out tomorrow." He sat, with an audible whoosh of breath, then scrubbed his hand over Spock's head.

"You'll be missed." Ford popped the tops on two beers, passed one over.

"I'm going to try to come back out in the fall, if I can manage it. The way she's going, she'll be down to punch-out work."

Ford glanced dubiously across the road. "If you say so."

"I'm mostly in her way now."

"She doesn't see it that way."

Steve took a long pull on the beer. "She reamed my ass for going up in the attic to hang out with the guys. Wanted to set me out in a rocker like her grandfather, and give me a paint fan to play with. Jesus, next thing it'll be crossword puzzles or some such shit."

"Could be worse. Could be knitting."

With a grunt, Steve frowned at the stone wall across the road. "What's your take on what went down on that?"

"Sorry?"

"Don't bullshit. My brain's not that damaged. Guys on construction crews gossip like girls. I heard some asshole tagged the wall. Got about six different versions of what it said, but all the same basic idea."

"My take is some asshole tagged the wall, and he's got a mean streak. It might be the same one that went after you, or it might not. She thinks it's old man Hennessy."

"And you don't."

"Old man's the defining term. Then again, I can't think of anybody who has anything against her except him. And he's tough. Stringy, but tough."

"If I was a hundred percent-or closer to it-I'd stay. But I wouldn't be much help to her right now." He tipped his beer at Ford. "Up to you, Sparky, and your little dog, too."

"We've got it."

"Yeah." Steve took another sip of beer. "I think you do."

SHE DIDN'T CRY when Steve climbed into the passenger seat of the RV on the cool and wet Saturday. She censored herself from making any suggestion he wait until the weather cleared to begin the long trip cross-country. Instead, she kissed him goodbye and stood in the rain to wave him off.

And felt horribly, painfully alone.

So alone, she closed herself in the house. The rain took planting or painting off the slate. She considered moving her things into the guest room Steve had vacated, but that struck her as too much housekeeping. She wanted work, not chores.

She switched on the radio, turned up the volume to fill the house with sound. And got down to the business of building the shelving and framing out the storage closet for the utility room off the kitchen. The task wasn't on the agenda for weeks yet, but it was exactly the kind of job that smoothed out nerves, soothed the mind.

She measured, marked, sawed, lost herself in the rhythm of carpentry. Content again, she sang along with the radio as her cordless screwdriver spun a wood screw home.

She nearly dropped the drill on her foot when she turned and caught a movement out of the corner of her eye.

"I'm sorry! I'm sorry!" Patty threw up her hands, as if the tool were a loaded gun. "I didn't mean to scare you. We knocked, but... It's so loud in here."

Cilla walked over to shut off the radio. "I need it loud to hear it over the tools."

"I got worried when you didn't answer the door, and there was all the noise, and your car out front. So we just came in."

"It's all right. You just startled me. We?"

"Angie and Cathy. We tried to get Penny, but she's covering the store. It's such a poopy day we decided we'd brave the mall, then catch a movie and round it out with dinner. We came to kidnap you."

"Oh, that sounds like fun." Like torture, she thought. "I appreciate it, but I'm in the middle of this."

"You deserve a day off. My treat." "Patty-"

"I can hardly believe..." Cathy stepped in, trailed off with a wide-eyed stare at Cilla. "We've invaded. Gosh, you look so HGTV. I'm nervous about banging a nail into the wall to hang a picture, and look at you."

"My sister, the handyman." Perky in a pink hoodie, Angie beamed at her. "Can we look around? Is it all right? The buzz is the action's on the second floor."

"Sure. Um, it's got a ways to go. Actually, it all has a ways."

"I confess, I've been dying to get a look inside this place for years." Cathy glanced around at the bare walls, the bare floors, the stacks and piles of lumber and supplies. "How do you manage without a kitchen?"

"I'm not much of a cook anyway. I'm having the stove and refrigerator that were in here retrofitted-they're fairly fabulous. It takes time, so the kitchen's way down on the list. Ah, the dining area's over there, so it makes it an open floor plan. It's good light, nice views."

"The back gardens look so pretty!" Patty stepped closer to the French doors. "Was this patio here?"

"It needed work, and we redesigned it. The gardens have been a job. Your son does good work," she said to Cathy. "And he's got a real talent for landscape design."

"Thank you. We certainly think so."

"The dining room opens to the patio, and from the interior flows into this area I'm going to use as a sort of sitting/TV room off the living area. Powder room there's getting new tiles, new fixtures. Coat closet here off the entryway. It's a lot of space. It's good space."

"I love that you can step outside from every room." Angie turned a circle.

Cilla led them upstairs where the three unexpected guests cooed over the tiles and fixtures of the completed bath, chattered over the projected master.

"I don't know what I'd do with a steam shower, but I would love heated tile floors in my bathroom." Patty beamed at Cilla. "I don't know how you know all of this, and figure it out, but the two finished rooms are just beautiful. Like something out of a magazine."

"The resale value's going to skyrocket," Cathy commented.

"I think it would, if I were planning on selling."

"Sorry, my husband's influence." Cathy chuckled. "And I know without asking him he'd want first crack if you ever change your mind about selling. What wonderful views. It seems so solitary, even with the other houses around. I admit I like the convenience and the security of living closer to town, but if I had more country girl in me, this would be the spot."

"Do you ever feel her around? Janet?"

"Angie."

At her mother's frown, Angie blinked. "I'm sorry. Is that the wrong thing to ask?"

"It's all right," Cilla told her. "I do sometimes. I like to think she'd approve of what I'm doing, even the changes I'm making. It matters to me."

"There's such history in this house," Cathy added. "All the people who came here, the parties, the music. The tragedy, too. It makes it more than a house. It's a legend, isn't it? I remember when it happened. I was pregnant with my middle child-just a couple months along, and had such morning sickness. I'd just had a bout, and Tom was trying to feed Marianna-our oldest-breakfast. She wasn't quite two, and there was oatmeal everywhere. My next-door neighbor-Abby Fox, you remember her, Patty?"

"I do. If there was a drop of gossip, she squeezed out more."

"Knew everything first, and this was no exception. She came over and told us. I burst right into tears. Hormones, I guess. I got sick again, and I remember how Tom was at his wit's end trying to figure out how to deal with me and the baby. It was an awful day. I'm sorry." She shook herself. "I don't know why I started on that."

"The house stirs it up," Patty decided. "Go on, Cilla, get cleaned up and come with us. This rain and gloom's going to make us sad. We're just not taking no for an answer."

She supposed she went along as it was three against one, and because Cathy's memory had made her sad. It surprised her that she enjoyed herself, poking around a mall, sitting through a weepy chick flick, drinking margaritas and eating grilled chicken Caesar salad.

In the restaurant ladies' room, Angie joined her to fuss with her hair and lip gloss. "It's no Rodeo Drive, premiere and dinner at the latest hot spot, but it was a pretty good day, huh?"

"I had fun. And Rodeo Drive wasn't my usual stomping grounds."

"It would be mine, if I lived out there. Even if I could only window-shop and fantasize. You really don't miss it?"

"I really don't miss it. I- Sorry," she said when her phone rang. Drawing it out, Cilla saw her mother's number on the readout, put it away without answering.

"You can take it. I'll step out."

"No. It's the kind of call that's guaranteed to spoil my nice, subtle margarita buzz. Do you do this a lot? Hang out with your mother on a rainy Saturday?"

"I guess. She's fun to be around. We always tried to have a day together, and since I went to college, we try harder when I'm home on break. Sometimes we have friends along, sometimes just the two of us."

"You're lucky."

Angie laid a hand on Cilla's arm. "I know she's not your mother, but I know, too, she'd really like to be your friend."

"She is my friend. We just don't know each other very well."

"Yet?"

"Yet," Cilla agreed, and made Angie smile.

WHEN SHE GOT HOME, Cilla checked her voice mail. Two from Ford, she noted-probably when she'd turned off her phone in the movie- and one from her mother.

She got her mother's over with. It ran long, as expected, covering the gamut from cold disdain to angry resentment, with a short stint of teary tremor between.

Cilla deleted it, played Ford's first.

"Hey. My mother decided to cook up spaghetti and meatballs, and told me to come over to pig out and bring a friend. You didn't answer the door, and you're not answering this. So now I'm wondering if I should worry, mind my own business or be insanely jealous because you ran off with some piece of beefcake named Antonio. Anyway, give me a call so I know."

She played the second. "Ignore that message. My father ran into your father, so have fun with the girls. Ah, that was your father's term. The girls. You're going to miss some seriously awesome meatballs."

"God, you're so cute," Cilla murmured. "And if I wasn't so tired, I'd walk right over there and jump your bones."

Yawning, she climbed the steps with two shopping bags. A real bed waited upstairs, she remembered. She could curl up on an actual mattress with actual sheets. Snuggle right in, sleep as late as she liked. The idea shimmered like heaven in her mind as she turned into the guest bath.

It was like being struck in the heart. The lovely floor lay broken-tiles chipped, shattered, heaved up from long cracks. The bowl of the new sink lay scattered over it in pieces. Shocked, she staggered back, the bags dropping out of her hands. The contents spilled out as she turned, with a fist twisting in her belly, to run to the newly tiled master.

The same senseless destruction met her.

A sledgehammer, she thought, maybe a pick. Someone had pounded, chipped, gashed the tiles, the glass block, the walls. Hours and hours of work, destroyed.

With ice coating that fist in her belly, she walked downstairs and outside into the rain to make the now familiar call to the police.

"CAME IN THROUGH the back door," Wilson told her. "Broke the glass, reached in, turned the lock. It appears he used your tools-that short-handled sledgehammer, the pickax-to do the damage. Who knew you'd be out for the evening?"

"Nobody. I didn't know I'd be out. It was spur of the moment."

"And your car remained here, in full view from the road?"

"Yes. I left the veranda light on, and two lights on inside-one up, one down."

"And you left here about two in the afternoon, you said?"

"Yes, about then. We went to the mall, to the movies, to dinner. I got back about ten-thirty."

"The three women you were with knew your house would be vacant?"

"That's right. My neighbor knew, as he called me while I was out. My father knew, and my neighbor's parents. I suppose Mrs. Morrow's husband knew, or could have. Basically, Detective, pretty much anyone who had any interest in my whereabouts could have known or found out."

"Miss McGowan, I'm going to suggest you get yourself a security system."

"Is that what you'd suggest?"

"This area is lightly developed, it's part of its charm. You're relatively remote here, and your property has been a repeated target of vandalism. We're doing what we can. But if I were you, I'd take steps to protect my property."

"You can believe I will."

Cilla pushed to her feet when she heard Ford's voice, raised in obvious frustration as he argued with one of the cops currently prowling her house and grounds. "That's my neighbor. I'd like him to come in."

Wilson signaled. A moment later Ford rushed in. "Are you hurt? Are you all right?" He took her face in his hands. "What happened now?"

"Someone broke in while I was out. They did a number on two of the second-floor bathrooms."

"Mr. Sawyer, where were you this afternoon and evening, between two and eleven?"

"Detective Wilson-"

"It's okay." Ford took Cilla's hand, squeezed it. "I was home working until about four. I went out to buy some wine and some flowers for my mother. I had dinner at my parents', got there about five. Got home, I don't know, about nine, maybe nine-thirty. I watched some TV, fell asleep on the couch. When I surfaced, I started upstairs. I looked out the front door-it's a habit now-and I saw the cops."

"Ms. McGowan stated you knew she wasn't home."

"Yeah, I called her to invite her to dinner at my parents'. No, walked over first to invite her. She didn't answer, and I got a little worried with everything that's been going on. Then I called. And a little while later, I talked to my father; my mother wanted me to stop and pick up some milk. I told him I was trying to reach Cilla to ask her over, and he said he'd run into her dad, and that she was out with girlfriends."

"What time did you come over here?"

"Ah, about three, some after, I guess. I walked to the barn when you didn't answer, but the lock was on, and I walked around the house. I was worried, a little. Everything looked okay. Where did they break in?"

"Back door," she told him.

"The back door was fine when I did the walk-around. How bad is it?"

"Way bad enough."

"You can fix it." He reached for her hand. "You know how."

She shook her head, walked over to sit on the steps. "I'm tired." After scrubbing her hands over her face, she dropped them into her lap. "I'm tired of it all."

"Why don't you go over to my place, get some sleep? I'll bunk here so somebody's in the house."

"If I leave, I'm not going to come back. I need to think about that. I need to see if staying here matters anymore. Because right now? I just don't know."

"I'll stay with you. I'll take the sleeping bag. Are you going to leave any cops here?" Ford demanded of Wilson.

Wilson nodded. "We'll leave a radio car and two officers outside. Ms. McGowan? I don't know if it makes any difference to the way you're feeling, but this is starting to piss me off."

She offered Wilson a sigh. "Get in line."

WHILE FORD WENT over to get the dog, she fixed plywood over the broken glass herself-a kind of symbol. At that moment, Cilla wasn't sure if it was a symbol of defense or defeat. When she set down the hammer, all she felt was brutal fatigue.

"You don't have to take the sleeping bag. It's a big bed, and you're too decent a guy to try anything under the circumstances. And the fact is, I don't want to sleep alone."

"Okay. Come on. We'll figure everything out tomorrow."

"He used my own tools to ruin things." She let Ford lead her through the house, up the stairs. "It makes it worse somehow."

In the bedroom, she toed off her shoes. Then pulled off her shirt. And had just enough left in her to be touched and amused when Ford cleared his throat, turned his back.

Spock, on the other hand, cocked his head and-if it was possible- ogled.

"He didn't bust up the johns," she said as she changed into a tank and cotton pants. "I don't know if he ran out of steam, or if he knew the tiles, the sinks, the block were all more expensive and would take more time and trouble to replace. He'd be right about that. But you don't have to go outside if you have to pee."

"I'm good, thanks."

"You can turn around now."

She crawled onto the bed, didn't bother to turn it down. "You don't have to sleep in your clothes. I don't know if I'm as decent as you, but I'm too damn tired to start up anything."

Taking her at her word, he stripped down to his boxers, then stretched out on the bed, leaving plenty of space between them.

She reached out, turned off the light. "I'm not going to cry," she said after a few moments of silence. "But if you wouldn't mind, I'd like you to hold on to me for a while."

He shifted to her, turned, then, draping an arm around her, drew her back against his body. "Better?"

"Yeah." She closed her eyes. "I don't know what to do. What I want, what I need, what I should, what I shouldn't. I just don't know."

He kissed the back of her head, and the quiet gesture pushed tears into her throat. "Whatever it is, you'll figure it out. Listen, it's starting to rain again. It's a nice sound, this time of night. It's like music. You can just lie here and listen to the music."

She listened to the music, how it played on and around the house she'd come to love. And, with his arm curled around her, slipped into exhausted sleep.

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