Dark Hunger


Part One. DEMO Chapter Two



With her hammer weighted on her shoulder and her safety goggles in place, Cilla took a good look at the man strolling down her driveway. A cartoonishly ugly black-and-white dog with an enormous box of a head on a small, stocky body trotted beside him.

She liked dogs, and hoped to have one eventually. But this was one odd-looking creature, with bulbous eyes bulging out of, and little pointed devil ears stuck on top of, that oversized head. A short, skinny whip of a tail ticked at his behind.

As for the man, he was a big improvement over the dog. The faded, frayed-at-the-hem jeans and baggy gray sweatshirt covered what she judged to be about six feet, four inches of lanky, long-legged male. He wore wire-framed sunglasses, and the jeans had a horizontal tear in one knee. A day or two's worth of stubble prickled over his cheeks and jaw in a look she'd always found too studied to be hip. Still, it fit with the abundance of brown streaky hair that curled messily over his ears.

She distrusted a man who had his hair streaked, and imagined he'd paid for the golden boy tan in a flash parlor. Hadn't she left this type out in L.A.? While those elements added up to mostly harmless to her, and a casual how-ya-doing smile curved on a nicely defined mouth, she tightened her grip on the hammer.

She could use it for more than bashing out rotted boards, if necessary.

She didn't have to see his eyes to know they were taking a good look, too.

He stopped at the base of the porch steps while the dog climbed right up to sniff-though the sound was more of a pig snuffle-at her boots. "Hey," he said, and the smile ratcheted up another notch. "Can I help you?"

She cocked her head. "With what?"

"With whatever you've got in mind. I'm wondering what that might be, seeing as you're holding a pretty big hammer there, and this is private property." He hooked his thumbs in his front pockets as he continued in that same easy Virginia drawl. "You don't look much like a vandal."

"Are you a cop?"

The smile made the lightning strike to grin. "I don't look any more like a cop than you do a vandal. Listen, I hate getting in your way, but if you're thinking about bashing out some pieces of the house here, putting them up on eBay, I have to ask you to reconsider."

Because it was heavy, she lifted the hammer off her shoulder. He didn't move as she brought it down, then rested the head on the porch. But she sensed him brace. "EBay?"

"More trouble than it's worth. Who's going to believe you're selling a genuine hunk of Janet Hardy's house anyway? So, why don't you load it up? I'll close up behind you, and no harm, no foul."

"Are you the custodian?"

"No. Somebody keeps firing them. I know it looks like nobody gives a half a damn about the place, but you can't just come around and beat on it."

Fascinated, Cilla shoved her safety goggles to the top of her head. "If nobody gives a half a damn, why do you?"

"Can't seem to help myself. And maybe I admire the balls it takes to pick locks and wield sledgehammers in broad daylight, but, seriously, you need to load it up now. Janet Hardy's family may not care if this place falls over in the next good wind, but-" He broke off, sliding his sunglassesdown his nose, peering over them before he took them off to swing them idly by one earpiece.

"I'm slow this morning," he said. "Chalk it up to only getting a swallow of coffee in before I noticed your truck here, and the open gate and such. Cilla... McGowan. Took me a minute. You've got your grandmother's eyes."

His were green, she noted, with the sun bringing out the rims and flecks of gold. "Right on both. Who are you?"

"Ford. Ford Sawyer. And the dog licking your boots is Spock. We live across the road." He jerked a thumb over his shoulder, drawing her gaze up and over to the rambling old Victorian on a pretty knoll across the way. "You aren't going to try to brain me with that if I come up on the porch?"

"Probably not. If you tell me why you showed up this morning, and didn't happen to see me here all day yesterday, or notice Buddy the plumber and assorted subcontractors leaving a half hour ago."

"I was still in the Caymans yesterday. Had myself a little vacation. I expect I missed assorted subcontractors as I was just rolling out of bed a half hour ago. Took my first cup of coffee out on the front veranda. That's when I saw the truck, the gate. Okay?"

Seemed reasonable, Cilla decided. And maybe he'd come by the tan and sun streaks naturally. She leaned the hammer against the porch rail. "As one of the people who gives a half a damn and more about this place, I appreciate you looking out for it."

"No problem." He walked up until he stood on the step just below her. As they were eye level, and she hit five-nine, she decided her estimate of six-four was on the mark. "What're you planning to do with the hammer?"

"Rotten boards. The porch needs to be rebuilt. Can't rebuild until you demo."

"New porch, Buddy the plumber-who seems to know his stuff, by the way-assorted subcontractors. Sounds like you're planning to fix the place up."

"I am. You look like you've got a strong back. Want a job?"

"Got one, and I haven't found tools to be my friend. But thanks. Spock, say hello."

The dog sat, cocked his big box of a head and held up a paw.

"Cute." Cilla obliged by leaning down, giving the paw a shake while Spock's bulging eyes gleamed at her. "What kind of dog is this?"

"The four-legged kind. It'll be nice to look over here and see this place the way I imagine it used to be. You fixing to sell?"

"No. I'm fixing to live. For now."

"Well, it's a pretty spot. Or could be. Your daddy's Gavin McGowan, right?"

"Yes. Do you know him?"

"He was my English teacher, senior year of high school. I aced it in the end, but not without a lot of sweat and pain. Mr. McGowan made you work your ass straight off. Well, I'll let you get on bashing your boards. I work at home, so I'm there most of the time. If you need anything, give a holler."

"Thanks," she said without any intention of following through. She fit her goggles back in place, picked up the hammer as he started back down the drive with the dog once again trotting beside him. Then gave in to impulse. "Hey! Who names their kid after a car?"

He turned, walked backward. "My mama has a considerable and somewhat unusual sense of humor. She claims my daddy planted me in her while they were steaming up the windows of his Ford Cutlass one chilly spring night. It may be true."

"If not, it should be. See you around."

"More than likely."

FASCINATING DEVELOPMENTS, Ford mused as he took a fresh cup of coffee onto the veranda for his postponed morning ritual. There she was, the long drink of water with the ice blue eyes, beating the living crap out of the old veranda.

That hammer was probably damn heavy. Girl had some muscle on her.

"Cilla McGowan," he said to Spock as the dog raced after invisible cats in the yard, "moved in right across the road." Wasn't that a kick in the ass? Ford recalled his own sister had all but worshipped Katie Lawrence, the kid Cilla had played for five? six? seven years? Who the hell knew? He remembered Alice carting around an Our Family lunch box, playing with her Katie doll and wearing her Katie backpack proudly.

As Alice tended to hoard everything, he suspected she still had the Our Family and Katie memorabilia somewhere up in Ohio, where she lived now. He was going to make a point of e-mailing her and rubbing her face in who he'd just copped as a neighbor.

The long-running show had been too tame for him back in the day. He'd preferred the action of The Transformers, and the fantasy of Knight Rider. He remembered after a bitter battle with Alice over God knew what, he'd exacted his revenge by stripping Katie naked, gagging her with duct tape and tying her to a tree, guarded by his army of Storm Troopers.

He'd caught hell for it, but it had been worth it.

It seemed a bit twisted to stand here now, watching the adult, live-action version of Katie switch sledgehammer for some sort of pry bar. And imagining her naked.

He had a damn good imagination.

Four years, Ford thought, since he'd moved in across the road. He'd seen two caretakers come and go, the second in just under six months. And not once had he seen any of Janet Hardy's family before today. Subtracting the almost two years he'd lived in New York, he'd lived in the area the whole of his life, and seen none of them before today. Heard of Mr. McGowan's girl Cilla passing through a time or two, but he'd never caught a glimpse.

Now she was talking to plumbers, tearing down porches and... He paused when he recognized the black pickup turning into the drive across the road as belonging to his friend Matt Brewster, a local carpenter. When a second truck pulled in barely thirty seconds later, Ford decided to get himself another cup of coffee, maybe a bowl of cereal, and take his breakfast out on the veranda so he could watch the goings-on.

He should be working, Ford told himself an hour later. Vacation was over and done, and he had a deadline. But it was so damn interesting out here. Another truck joined the first two, and he recognized that one as well. Brian Morrow, former top jock and wide receiver, and the third in the pretty much lifelong triumvirate of Matt, Ford and Brian, ran his own landscaping company. From his perch, Ford watched Cilla make the circuit of the grounds with Brian, watched her gesture, then consult the thick notebook she carried.

He had to admire the way she moved. Must be all that leg, he supposed, that had her eating up the ground so efficiently while appearing to take her time. All that energy so tightly packed in that willowy frame, the glacier blue eyes and china-doll skin masking the muscle it took to...

"Whoa, wait a minute." He sat up straighter, narrowed his eyes and pictured her with the hammer hefted on her shoulder again. "Shorter handle," he muttered. "Two-sided head. Yeah, yeah. Looks like I am working."

He went inside, grabbed a sketch pad and pencils and, inspired, dug out his binoculars. Back on the veranda, he focused on Cilla through the glasses, studying the shape of her face, the line of her jaw, her build. She had a fascinating, sexy mouth, he mused, with that deep middle dip in the top lip.

As he began the first sketch, he rolled around scenarios, dismissing them almost as soon as he considered.

It would come to him, he thought. The concept often came from the sketches. He saw her... Diane, Maggie, Nadine. No, no, no. Cass. Simple, a little androgynous. Cass Murphy. Cass Murphy. Intelligent, intense, solitary, even lonely. Attractive. He looked through the glasses again. "Oh yeah, attractive."

The rough clothes didn't disguise that, but they played it down. He continued to sketch, full body, close-up face, profile. Then stopped to tap his pencil and consider. Glasses might be a clich, but they were shorthand for smarts. And always a good mask for the alter ego.

He sketched them on, trying out simple, dark frames, rectangular lenses. "There you are, Cass. Or should I say, Dr. Murphy?"

He flipped a page over, began again. Safari shirt, khakis, boots, wide-brimmed hat. Out of the lab or classroom, into the field. His lips curved as he flipped the page again, and his mind raced as he sketched out who and what his newly minted Cass would become. The leather, the breastplate-and the very nice pair rising over it. Silver armbands, long bare legs, the wild swirl of hair with the circlet of rank crowning the head. Jeweled belt? he wondered. Maybe. The ancient weapon- double-headed hammer. Gleaming silver when gripped by the hand of the blood descendant of the warrior goddess...

And yeah, he needed a name for her.

Roman? Greek? Viking? Celt?

Celtic. It fit.

He held up the pad, and found himself grinning at the image. "Hello, gorgeous. We're going to kick some major ass together."

He glanced back across the road. The trucks were gone now, and while Cilla was nowhere in sight, the front door of the farmhouse stood open.

"Thanks, neighbor," Ford said, and, rising, went inside to call his agent.

SURREAL WAS the best way to describe Cilla's view on finding herself sitting on the pretty patio of her father's tidy brick colonial, sipping iced sun tea fussily served by her stepmother. The scene simply didn't fit in with any previous phase of her life. As a child, her visits east had been few and far between. Work trumped visitations, at least in her mother's game.

He'd come to her now and then, Cilla remembered. And taken her to the zoo or to Disneyland. But at least during the heyday of her series, there'd always been paparazzi, or kids swarming her, and their parents snapping photos. Work trumps Fantasyland, Cilla thought, whether you wanted it to or not.

Then, of course, her father and Patty had their own daughter, Angie, their own home, their own lives on the other side of the country. Which, Cilla mused, equated to the other side of the world.

She'd never fit into that world.

Isn't that what her father had tried to tell her? A long way, and not just the miles.

"It's nice out here," Cilla said, groping.

"Our favorite sitting spot," Patty answered with a smile that tried too hard. "It's a little chilly yet, I know."

"It feels good." Cilla racked her brain. What did she say to this sweet, motherly woman with her pleasant face, dark bob of hair and nervous eyes? "I, ah, bet the gardens will be great in a week or two, when everything starts to pop."

She scanned the bed, the shrubs and vines, the trim swath of lawn that would fill with pockets of shade when the red maple and weeping cherry leafed out. "You've put a lot of work into it."

"Oh, I putter." Patty flicked her fingers over her short, dark bob, twisted the little silver hoop in her ear. "It's Gavin who's the gardener in the house."

"Oh." Cilla shifted her gaze to her father. "Really?"

"I like playing in the dirt. Guess I never grew out of it."

"His grandfather was a farmer." Patty sent Gavin a quick beam. "So it came down through the blood."

Had she known that? Why hadn't she known that? "Here, in Virginia?"

Patty's eyes widened in surprise, then slid toward Gavin. "Ummm."

"I thought you knew-your grandmother bought my grandfather's farm."

"I- What? The Little Farm? That was yours?"

"It was never mine, sweetie. My grandfather sold it when I was just a boy. I do remember chasing chickens there, and getting scolded for it. My father didn't want to farm, and his brothers and sisters-those living at the time-had mostly scattered off. So, well, he sold it. Janet was here, filming on location. Barn Dance."

"I know that part of the story. She fell in love with the farm they used and bought it on the spot."

"More or less on the spot," Gavin said with a smile. "And Grandpa bought himself a Winnebago-I swear-and he and Grandma hit the road. Traveled all over hell and back again for the next six, seven years, till she had a stroke."

"It was McGowan land."


"Still is." Still smiling, Gavin sipped his tea. "Isn't it?"

"I think it's a lovely kind of circle." Patty reached out, patted her hand over Cilla's. "I remember how the lights would shine in that house when Janet Hardy was there. And how in the summer, if you drove by with the windows open, you could hear music, and maybe see women in beautiful clothes, and the most handsome men. Now and then, she'd come into town, or just drive around in her convertible. A picture she made."

Patty picked up the pitcher again, as if she had to keep her hands busy. "She stopped by our house once, when we had a litter of puppies for sale. Five dollars. Our collie had herself a liaison with a traveling salesman of indeterminate origin. She bought a puppy from us. Sat right down on the ground and let those pups jump and crawl all over her. And laughed and laughed. She had such a wonderful laugh.

"I'm sorry. I'm going on, aren't I?"

"No. I didn't know any of this. I don't know nearly enough. Was that the dog that..."

"It was. She called him Hero. Old Fred Bates found him wandering the road and loaded him in his pickup, took him back. He was the one who found her that morning. It was a sad day. But now you're here." Again, Patty laid a hand over Cilla's. "There'll be lights and music again."

"She bought the dog from you," Cilla murmured, "and the farm from your grandfather." She looked at Gavin. "I guess it's another circle. Maybe you could help me with the gardens."

"I'd like that."

"I hired a landscaper today, but I have to decide what I want put in. I've got a book on gardening in this zone, but I could use some direction."

"It's a deal. And I've got a couple of gardening books that might give you more ideas."

"A couple?"

Gavin grinned at his wife's rolling eyes. "A few more than a couple. Who'd you hire?"

"Morrow? Brian Morrow?"

"Good choice. He does good work, and he's reliable. Was a football star back in high school, and never pushed himself to be more than a dead average student. But he's built up a good business and reputation for himself."

"So I hear. I met another of your former students today. Ford Sawyer."

"Of course," Patty put in. "He lives right across the road."

"Clever boy, always was." Gavin nodded over his tea. "Tended to day-dream, but if you engaged his mind, he'd use it. He's done well for himself, too."

"Has he? How?"

"He writes graphic novels. Illustrates them, too, which isn't usual, I'm told. The Seeker? That's his. It's interesting work."

"The Seeker. Super-crime-fighter sort of thing?"

"Along those lines. A down-on-his-luck private investigator stumbles across a madman's plot to destroy the world's great art through the use of a molecular scrambler that renders them invisible. His hopes to stop them-and secure his own fame and fortune-result in the murder of his devoted girlfriend. He himself is left for dead, but he's also exposed to the scrambler."

"And is imbued with the power of invisibility," Cilla finished. "I've heard of this. A couple of the guys who worked on my flips were into graphic novels. God knows Steve was," she said, referring to her ex-husband. "They'd argue the Seeker versus the Dark Knight or X-Men as compared to the Fantastic Four half the day. When I said something about grown men and comic books, I got the fish eye."

"Gavin enjoys them. Well, Ford's in particular."

"Do you really?" The image of the quiet-natured high school teacher poring over superhero comics amused her. "Because he's a former student?"

"That's certainly a factor. And the boy tells a good, meaty story centered on a complicated character who seeks redemption by seeking out evil. He attempted to do the right thing, but for all the wrong reasons. To stop a madman but for his own personal gain. And that single act cost the life of the woman who loved him, and whom he'd treated carelessly. His power of invisibility becomes a metaphor-he becomes a hero but will never be seen. Interesting work."

"He's single," Patty added, and made Gavin laugh. "Well, I'm only mentioning it because he lives right across the road, and Cilla's going to be alone at the farm. She might want some company now and again."

Head that one off at the pass, Cilla thought. "Actually, I'm going to be spending my days on the rehab, and my evenings plotting out the phases of the job. I'll be too busy for much company for a while. In fact, I should get back to it. I've got a full day scheduled tomorrow."

"Oh, but can't you stay for dinner?" Patty protested. "Let's get a nice home-cooked meal into you before you go. I've got lasagna all made up and ready to pop into the oven. It won't take long."

"That sounds great." Cilla realized it did just that. "I'd love to stay for dinner."

"You sit right here, have another glass of tea with your father."

Cilla watched while Patty popped up, then bustled across the patio and into the house. "Should I go help her?"

"She likes to fuss with meals. It relaxes her, the way gardening does me. She'll like it better if you sit out here and let her."

"I make her nervous."

"A little. It'll pass. I can tell you she'd have been disappointed if you'd said no to dinner. Lasagna's Patty's specialty. She makes the sauce from my tomato harvest every summer and cans it."

"You're kidding."

His lips quirked at her quick and absolute surprise. "It's a different world, sweetie."

"I'll say."

In this world, Cilla discovered, people ate homemade lasagna and apple cobbler, and treated a meal as food rather than a performance. And a guest or family-she thought she fell somewhere in the middle-was given a plate of each covered in tinfoil to take home for leftovers. If the guest/family was driving, she was offered a single glass of wine with dinner, then plied with coffee afterward.

Cilla glanced at her watch, smiled. And could be walking in her own door by eight.

After stowing the two plates in her trusty cooler, Cilla planted her hands on her hips and looked around. The bare bulbs cast harsh light and hard shadows, spotlighted cracked plaster and scarred floorboards. Poor old girl, she thought. You're in desperate need of a face-lift.

She picked up her flashlight, switched it on before turning off the overhead bulbs and, using it to guide her way, started toward the steps.

A glance out the front window showed her the lights sparkling from homes scattered across the hills and fields. Other people had finished their home-cooked meals, she supposed, and were settled down to watch 'TV or finish up a little paperwork. Maybe kids were being tucked into bed, or being told to settle down and finish their homework.

She doubted any of them sat reading changes in the script for tomorrow's shoot, or yawned through another running of her lines. Foolish to envy them, Cilla thought, for having what she never had.

Standing there, she picked out the lights in Ford's house.

Was he crafting the Seeker's next adventure? Maybe chowing down on frozen pizza, what she imagined the bachelor's version of a home-cooked meal might be? And what was a comic book writer-pardon me, graphic novelist-doing living in a beautifully restored old Victorian in rural Virginia?

A single graphic novelist, she remembered with a smirk, with an unquestionably sexy Southern drawl and a lazy gait that edged up toward a swagger. And an odd little dog.

Whatever the reasons were, it was nice to see the lights shining across the road. Close but not too close. Oddly comforted by them, she turned away to continue upstairs, where she intended to slide into her sleeping bag and work on her plans.

HER CELL PHONE woke her out of a dead sleep, had her eyes flashing open, then slamming shut again against the glare of the light she'd neglected to turn off before dropping off. Cursing, Cilla pried one eye partially open as she slid a hand over the floor for the phone.

What the hell time was it?

Heart pounding, she read the time on the phone-3:28 A.M.-and her mother's data on the display.

"Crap." Cilla flipped the phone open. "What's wrong?"

"Is that any way to answer the phone? You don't bother to say hello?"

"Hello, Mom. What's wrong?"

"I'm not happy with you, Cilla."

What else is new? Cilla thought. And you're drunk or stoned. Ditto. "Well, I'm sorry to hear that, especially at three-thirty in the morning, East Coast time. Which is where I am, remember?"

"I know where you are." Bedelia's voice sharpened even as it slurred. "I know damn well. You're in my mother's house, which you tricked me into giving you. I want it back."

"I'm in my grandmother's house, which you sold to me. And you can't have it back. Where's Mario?" she asked, referring to her mother's current husband.

"This has nothing to do with Mario. This is between you and me. We're all that's left of her! You know very well you caught me in a weak moment. You took advantage of my vulnerability and my pain. I want you to come back immediately and tear up the transfer papers or whatever they are."

"And you'll tear up the cashier's check for the purchase price?"

There was a long, brittle silence during which Cilla lay back down and yawned.

"You're cold and ungrateful."

The thin sheen of tears on the words was much too calculated, and too usual, to get a rise. "Yes, I am."

"After everything I did for you, all the sacrifices I made, all of which you tossed away. Now, instead of you willing to pay me back for all the years I put you first, you're tossing money in my face."

"You could look at it that way. I'm keeping the farm. And don't, please don't, waste my time or your own trying to convince either of us this place matters to you. I'm in it, I've seen just how much you care about it."

"She was my mother!"

"Yeah, and you're mine. Those are the crosses we have to bear." Cilla heard the crash, and pictured the glass holding her mother's preferred nighttime Ketel One on the rocks hitting the nearest wall. Then the weeping began. "How can you say such a horrible thing to me!"

Lying on her back, Cilla swung her arm over her eyes and let the ranting, the sobbing play out. "You should go to bed, Mom. You shouldn't make these calls when you've been drinking."

"A lot you care. Maybe I'll do what she did. Maybe I'll just end it."

"Don't say that. You'll feel better in the morning." Possibly. "You need to get a good night's sleep. You've got your show to plan."

"Everyone wants me to be her."

"No, they don't." Mostly, that's just you. "Go on to bed now, Mom."

"Mario. I want Mario."

"Go on to bed. I'll take care of it. He'll be there. Promise me you'll go up to bed."

"All right, all right. I don't want to talk to you anyway."

When the phone clicked in her ear, Cilla lay as she was a moment. The whining snub at the end signaled that Dilly was done, would go to bed or simply lie down on the handiest surface and pass out. But they'd passed through the danger zone.

Cilla pushed the speed-dial button she'd designated as Number Five. "Mario," she said when he answered. "Where are you?"

It took less than a minute to recap the situation, so she cut off Mario's distress and hung up. Cilla had no doubt he'd rush home and provide Dilly with the sympathy, the attention and the comfort she wanted.

Wide awake and irritated, she climbed out of her sleeping bag. Carting her flashlight, she used the bathroom, then trudged downstairs for a fresh bottle of water. Before going back to the kitchen, she opened the front door and stepped out onto the short section of porch that remained.

All the pretty sparkling lights were gone now, she noted, and the hills were utterly, utterly dark. Even with the thin scatter of stars piercing through the clouds overhead, she thought it was like stepping into a tomb. Black and silent and cold. The mountains seemed to have folded in for the night, and the air was so still, so absolutely still, she thought she could hear the house breathing behind her.

"Friend or foe?" she asked aloud.

Mario would rush into the house in Bel Air, murmur and stroke, flatter and cajole, and ultimately sweep his drunken wreck of a wife into his toned (and younger) Italian arms to carry her up to their bed.

Dilly would say-and say often-that she was alone, always so alone. But she didn't know the meaning of it, Cilla thought. She didn't know the depths of it.

"Did you?" she asked Janet. "I think you knew what it was to be alone. To be surrounded, and completely, miserably alone. Well, hey, me too. And this is better."

Better, Cilla thought, to be alone on a quiet night than to be alone in a crowd. Much better.

She stepped back inside, closed and locked the door.

And let the house sigh around her.

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