Dark Hunger


Part Three. FINISH TRIM Chapter Twenty-Two


Ford knew he had a strong imagination. He considered himself to be a man of some vision. As far as Cilla's "little Cape Cod" went, he couldn't imagine how anyone could define it, however loosely, as a house, and could only visualize it being mercifully razed.

Stains of a suspicious and undoubtedly unpleasant nature stamped and streaked the carpet in the pint-sized living room. He could only be grateful he'd let Spock play job dog again, otherwise Spock would've been honor bound to re-mark all the previously marked areas.

Either an animal or an army of rodents had gnawed on the baseboard. The ceiling, also unpleasantly stained in one corner, was bumpy with what Cilla called popcorn.

The kitchen was a truly ugly hodgepodge of mismatched appliances, torn linoleum and a rusted sink. The stingy counters carried the round burn marks of pans carelessly set on blue-speckled white Formica. Grime, and God knew what else, lived in the corners.

In his mind's eye he imagined cockroaches flooding out of that rusted sink, armed with automatic weapons, driving tanks and armored vehicles to wage war against spiders in combat gear firing bazookas.

He found it easy to let Cilla do the talking. He was speechless.

The second floor consisted of two bedrooms scattered with the debris of former tenants and a bathroom he wouldn't have entered while wearing a hazmat suit.

"As you can see, there's work to be done!" Vicky showed white, white teeth in what could only be a pained, somewhat desperate smile. "But with some elbow grease and sweat equity, it could be a little dollhouse! Such a cute starter home for a young couple like yourselves."

"A couple of what?" Ford said and got the fish eye from Cilla.

"Vicky, would you mind if we just looked around on our own for a few minutes? Talked about it?"

"Of course not! Take all the time you want. I'll just step outside and make some calls. Don't rush on my account!"

"Why does she say everything in exclamation points?" Ford asked when Vicky was out of earshot. "Is it fear? Excitement? Does she have multiple, spontaneous orgasms?"

"Cute."

"Cilla, I think that pile of what may have once been clothing in that corner just moved. There may be a body in there. Possibly an army of cockroaches waiting to ambush. We should leave. And never come back."

"If there was a body, it would smell a lot worse than it does in here."

"How much worse?" he muttered. "And have you ever actually smelled a body?"

She gave him the fish eye again. "Cockroaches may be a factor, however. If the seller had any brains, he'd have cleaned this place out, ripped up this incredibly smelly carpet. But his loss could be our gain."

"You've got to be kidding. The only thing we could gain from this place is a rampant case of typhoid. Or bubonic plague." He kept a wary eye on the pile of rags. He wasn't entirely sure it hadn't moved. "Cilla, this place has no possible redeeming value."

"Because you don't know where to look. Deal was, you don't want to risk it, you don't. But let me give you the idea first. There's hardwood under this carpet. I checked when I went through before."

She walked over, crouched to pull up a loose corner. "Random-length oak, and in surprisingly good shape."

"Okay, it's got a floor."

"And a good foundation, a nice-sized lot."

"That looks like a minefield. Probably booby-trapped by the atomic spiders."

"New sod," she continued, undaunted, "some plantings, a pretty little deck on the back. Gut the bathroom."

"Wouldn't it be more humane to bomb it?"

"New tub, new sink, a nice ceramic tile. For a room that size, I could probably find enough of a discontinued style, neutral color. All the carpet goes. Replace the closet doors, add shelves. Redo the ceilings, paint. You've got a couple of nice kids' rooms."

"And where would the parents sleep?" He slid his hands into his pockets rather than risk accidentally touching something. "In a hotel if they have any sense."

She crooked her finger. "This wall moves out fifteen feet."

"It does?"

"It will and, running the width of the house, will hold the master suite, overlooking the backyard. Walk-in closet, attached bath with soaking tub and separate shower. Double sinks, granite countertop. Maybe slate tile. Have to price that out."

"What holds it up? Hopes and dreams?"

"The new kitchen/great room."

"Oh, that." But oddly enough, he began to see it as she did. Or as he thought she did.

"Horrible carpet treads out, oak treads in," she said as she started down the steps. "Replace skinny banister. Carpet goes, ceilings redone, new trim, some crown molding. New windows throughout. Gut kitchen."

"Thank the Lord."

"Half bath and laundry room here. Kitchen, dining area and family room, open floor plan, breakfast bar for the casual, family meal, all leading out through atrium doors to the nice little deck. Exterior paint in a cheerful color, replace the cracked concrete walkway with pavers, plug in some plants, a little dogwood tree. And that's about it."

"Oh, well, that's hardly anything."

She laughed. "It's a lot, but it'll be a lot. Poor, sad thing. Sixteen weeks. It could be done in twelve, but not with juggling, so I'd say sixteen. With the top offer I'd make and materials and labor, mortgage payments for, we'll say, five months, and the market value after improvements in this neighborhood, you could see between forty and forty-five K in profit."

"Seriously?"

"Oh yeah. Depending on the market when it's done, that could be closer to sixty thousand. The neighborhood's on an upswing." She began ticking items off on her fingers. "Younger couples, small families moving in, prettying things up. It's in a good school district, only about ten minutes from a shopping center. Master suites, kitchens and baths- that's where the sales are made and you get your biggest return on your investment."

"Okay."

"No, you have to be sure. Take a little time to think about it. I'll draw up some floor plans."

"No, I'm sold. Let's go make Vicky's day." And get the hell out while the cockroaches and spiders have their moratorium.

"Wait, wait. We need to let her suffer more. You're going to steal this place, Ford." He found the sly delight on her face infectious. "It deserves to be stolen because the seller couldn't even be bothered to make an attempt. We're going to tell her, very unconvincingly, that we'll think about it. Then we're going to walk away. In a week, ten days, I'll call her back."

"If somebody buys it in the meantime?"

"When it's been sitting here for over four months, even with two price reductions? I don't think so. We're going to go give Vicky the disappointment she's expecting. Then I want to go home, soak in your hot tub and relax."

RELAXING PROVED PROBLEMATIC because of the half-dozen reporters camped at her wall.

"Not much interest, you said?"

"This is nothing." And hardly more than she'd expected. "Just a spillover from the statement. They'll mostly be local, or out of D.C., maybe. We're close enough for that. You go inside. I'll handle it."

"You're going to give them interviews?"

"Not exactly. A few crumbs. They'll take the crumbs and fly away. There's no reason for you to be involved in this. And you'll just give them another angle."

But the minute they stepped out of the car, cameras lifted. Like one entity, reporters surged across the road, shouting Cilla's name, calling out questions. As it struck Ford as a kind of attack, he moved instinctively to Cilla's side.

"Georgia Vassar, WMWA-TV. Can you tell us your thoughts on the altercation yesterday with James Robert Hennessy?"

"How serious are your injuries?"

"Is it true Hennessy believes you're the reincarnation of Janet Hardy?"

"I've already issued a statement about the incident," Cilla said coolly. "I don't have any more to say."

"Isn't it true that Hennessy threatened you previously? And, in fact, assaulted Steve Chensky, your ex-husband, while Chensky lived with you? Was that assault the reason for your failed reconciliation?"

"To my knowledge, Mr. Hennessy hasn't been charged with the assault on Steve, who was visiting me for a short time this spring. We've been friends before, during and after our marriage. There was no reconciliation. "

"Is that due to your relationship with Ford Sawyer? Mr. Sawyer, how do you feel about the attack on Ms. McGowan?"

"There's speculation that you and Steve fought over Cilla, and he was injured. How do you answer that?"

"No comment. Gosh, you guys seem to be on my property. We're pretty friendly around here, but you're going to want to step off."

"I won't be as friendly if any of you trespass on mine," Cilla warned.

"Is it true that you came here in an attempt to commune with the spirit of your grandmother?" someone shouted as she turned with Ford toward the house.

"Tabloid crap," Cilla stated. "I'm sorry. Most of that was tabloid crap."

"No problem." Ford shut the door behind them, locked it. "I've always wanted the opportunity to say 'No comment' in a stern voice."

"They'll give up. It won't play more than a day or two, and most of that'll be in the supermarket sheets alongside stories of alien babies being homeschooled in Utah."

"I knew it!" He shot a finger in the air. "I knew that was the reason for Utah. How about a glass of wine with that soak, while I figure out how to get my dog back?"

"Not a good idea. The wine, yeah, and Spock, but you've got a lot of glass in your gym." She offered an apologetic look, the best she could give him. "Glass, telephoto lenses. No point in handing it to them. They've got your name. You're going to find yourself alongside the alien babies, too."

"Finally, a lifelong dream fulfilled." He reached for glasses, glanced down at his answering machine. "Aren't I the popular guy today? Forty-eight messages." Even as he spoke, the phone rang.

"You should screen, Ford. I really thought by issuing a short, clear statement I'd head this off. Kim, the publicist, agreed with me. But for whatever reason, some of the media wants to run with it, and turn down cockeyed angles."

"Let's do this." He lifted the phone, switched off the ringer. "I'll do the same with the others. My family, my friends have my cell number if they need to reach me. I'll call Brian, see if he'll take Spock home with him tonight. We'll take some wine, cook up a frozen pizza and camp upstairs in the bedroom behind the curtains. At last, the opportunity to expose you to a marathon running of Battlestar Galactica."

She leaned back on the counter as the tension in her shoulders dissolved. Not angry, she realized. Not upset. Not even especially irked. How had she ever managed to connect with someone so blessedly stable?

"You really know how to keep it simple."

"Unless the Cylons are bent on destroying your entire species, it usually is simple. You get the pizza, I'll get the wine."

CILLA WOKE at five A.M. to the beep of the internal clock she'd set in the middle of the night after the alarms had sounded at the Little Farm. Something else she should have expected, she thought as she went to shower. There were some members of some media who routinely ignored the law in pursuit of a story. So she'd spent an hour with the police and Ford across the road.

And she had a lock set on her back door bearing the scratches of a botched jimmy attempt.

She dressed, left a note for Ford. The radio car remained in her drive, where it had been posted after the attempted break-in. Birds chirped, and she caught sight of a trio of deer at her pond. But no reporters camped outside her walls.

Maybe she'd gotten lucky, she thought, and that was that. Using Ford's car, she drove into town. She was back by six-thirty, and carried a box of doughnuts and two large coffees down her drive.

The cop behind the wheel rolled down his window.

"I know it's a cliche," she said, "but."

"Hey. That was nice of you, Miss McGowan. It's been quiet."

"And a long night for both of you. It looks like the invaders have retired the field. I'm going to start work. Some of the crew will be coming along by seven."

"It's a nice spot you've got here." The second cop pulled a glazed with sprinkles out of the box. "Heck of a bathroom up there on the second floor. My wife's been wanting to update ours."

"If you decide to, give me a call. Free consult."

"Might do that. We'll be going off shift pretty soon. Do you want us to call in and request another car?"

"I think we'll be fine now. Thanks for looking out for me."

Inside, she set up to finish her run of baseboard. By eight, the hive of activity buzzed. Grouting, drywall mudding, consults on driveway pavers and pond work. Turning her attention to the third bedroom, Cilla checked her closet measurements. As she removed the door, Matt stepped in.

"Cilla, I think you'd better take a look outside."

"What? Is there a problem?"

"I guess you need to look, decide that for yourself."

She propped the door against the wall, hustled after him. One look out the front window of the master bedroom had her gasping.

Six reporters had been a nuisance, and not unexpected. Sixty was a disaster.

"They just started showing up, kind of all at once," Matt told her. "Kinda like there was a signal. Brian called me out, said some of them are yelling questions at his crew. Jesus, there's TV cameras and everything."

"Okay, okay, I need to think." She had at least a dozen crew working between the house and the grounds. A dozen people she couldn't possibly censor or control.

"There shouldn't be this kind of interest in me being in a wreck, even with the circumstances. A few blips on the entertainment news maybe, reports locally. I need to make a call. Matt, if you could try to keep the men from talking to them, at least for now. I need a few minutes to..." She trailed off as the gleaming black limo streamed through her entrance.

"Man, look at that."

"Yes, look at that," Cilla echoed. She didn't have to see Mario climb out of the back to know who'd arrived. Or why.

By the time Cilla reached the veranda, Bedelia Hardy stood under the supportive protection of her husband's arm. She tilted her face out at the perfect angle, Cilla thought with burning resentment, so those long lenses could capture her poignant expression. She wore her hair loose so it shone in the sun over the linen jacket the same color as her eyes.

As Cilla let the screen door slam behind her, Dilly threw open her arms, keeping her body angled for the profile shots. "Baby!"

She came forward in rather spectacular Jimmy Choo sandals with three-inch heels. Trapped, Cilla walked down the steps in her work boots and into the maternal arms and clouds of Soir de Paris. Janet's signature scent that had become her daughter's.

"My baby, my baby."

"You did this," Cilla whispered in Dilly's ear. "You leaked to the press you were coming."

"Of course I did. All press is good press." She leaned back, and through the amber lenses of Dilly's sunglasses, Cilla saw the calculatedly misted eyes widen in genuine concern. "Oh, Cilla, your face. You said you weren't hurt. Oh, Cilla."

It was that, that moment of sincere shock and worry, Cilla supposed, that dulled the sharpest edge of resentment. "I got some bumps, that's all."

"What did the doctor say? Oh, that horrible man, that Hennessy. I remember him. Pinched-faced bastard. My God, Cilla, you're hurt."

"I'm fine."

"Well, why don't you at least put on some makeup? No time for that now, and it's probably better this way. Let's go. I've worked it all out. You'll just follow my lead."

"You sicced them on me, Mom. You know this is exactly what I didn't want."

"It's not all about you, and what you want." Dilly looked past Cilla to the house, then turned away. And again, Cilla saw genuine feeling. Pain. "It never has been. I need the column inches, the airtime. I need the exposure, and I'm going to take it. What happened, happened. Now you can let them keep pushing on that, on you, or you can help spin some of it, maybe most of it, around to me.

"Jesus! What is that?"

Cilla glanced down and saw Spock sitting patiently, paw out, big, bulbous eyes latched onto Dilly.

"That's my neighbor's dog. He wants you to shake."

"He wants... Does it bite?"

"No. Just shake his paw, Mom. He's decided you're friendly because you hugged me."

"All right." She leaned over carefully and, to her credit, in Cilla's mind, gave Spock's paw a firm shake. Then smiled a little. "He's so ugly, but in a weirdly sweet way. Shoo now."

Dilly turned, her arm firm around Cilla's waist, and flung out a hand to her husband. "Mario!"

He trotted up, took her hand, kissed it.

"We're ready," she told him.

"You look beautiful. Only a few minutes this time, darling. You shouldn't be out in the sun too long."

"Stay close."

"Always."

Clutching Cilla, Dilly began to move toward the entrance, toward the cameras.

"Great shoes," Cilla complimented. "Poor choice for grass and gravel."

"I know what- Who's this? We can't have reporters breaking ranks."

"He's not a reporter." Cilla watched Ford shove through the lines. "Keep going," she told him when he reached them. "You don't want any part of this."

"This would be your mother? It's unexpected to meet you here, Miss Hardy."

"Where else would I be when my daughter's been hurt? The new love interest?" She scoped him head to toe. "I've heard a little about you. Not from you," she said with a glance at Cilla. "We'll have to talk. But now, just wait with Mario."

"No. He's no Mario, and he won't be hanging back at heel like a trained lapdog. Don't give them that, Ford."

"I'm going to go in and get some coffee," he decided. "Want me to call the cops while I'm at it?"

"No. But thanks."

"Isn't he all southern-fried and yummy," Dilly commented as Ford continued toward the house. "Your taste's improved."

"I'm so angry with you now." Indeed, the anger vibrated and pulsed inside her chest. "Be careful, very careful, what buttons you push."

"You think this is easy for me, coming to this place? I'm doing what I need to do." Dilly lifted her chin, the brave mother, supporting her injured child. Questions hurled out, but Dilly walked through them, a soldier stoically braving the front line.

"Please. Please." She held up a hand, lifting her voice. "I understand your interest, and even on some level appreciate it. I know your viewers and your readers care, and that touches me. But you must understand that our family is, once again, going through a difficult time. And this is... painful. My daughter has been through a terrible experience. I'm here for her, as any mother would be."

"Dilly! Dilly! When did you hear about Cilla's accident?"

"She called me as soon as she was able. No matter how grown up, a child still wants her mother when she's hurt. Even though she told me not to come, not to break off rehearsals for my cabaret act, not to expose myself to the grief and the memories this place holds for me, of course I came to her."

"You haven't been back, by your own statements, to this house since shortly after Janet Hardy's suicide. How does it feel, being here now?"

"I can't think of it. Not yet. My daughter is my only concern. Later, when we've had time to be together, in private, I'll explore those feelings. My mother..." Her voice cracked, on cue. "My mother would want me to give my daughter, her granddaughter, all my energies."

"Cilla, what are your plans? Will you open the house to the public? There's speculation you hope to house memorabilia here."

"No. I plan to live here. I am living here," she corrected, cold, clear-voiced, while the temper beat and beat. "The property has been in my family, on both the Hardy and the McGowan sides, for generations. I'm restoring and remodeling it, and it will be, as it's always been, a private home."

"Is it true that you've been plagued by break-ins, by vandalism during your restoration?"

"There have been incidents. I don't consider them a plague."

"What do you say to the claims that Janet Hardy's spirit haunts the house?"

"My mother's spirit is here," Dilly said before Cilla could answer. "She loved her little farm, and I believe her spirit, her voice, her beauty and her grace remain. We're proof of that." Dilly drew Cilla closer. "Her spirit's in us. In me, in my daughter. And now, in some way, three generations of Hardy women are here. Now please, I need to get my daughter inside, where she can rest. I ask you, as a mother, to respect our privacy. If you have any more questions, my husband will try to answer them."

Tipping her head close to Cilla's, Dilly turned and walked with her toward the house.

"A little heavy on the mother card," Cilla told her.

"I don't think so. What happened to the tree?"

"What tree?"

"That one, with the red leaves. It was bigger. A lot bigger."

"It was damaged, dead and dying. I replaced it."

"It looks different. There were more flowers." Dilly's voice shook, but Cilla knew it was uncalculated this time. "Mama loved flowers."

"There will be more when it's done." Cilla felt the dynamic shift with every step until she supported Dilly. "You've trapped yourself. You have to go inside now."

"I know it. The porch was white. Why isn't it white?"

"I had to replace most of it. It's not painted yet."

"The door's not right." Her breath quickened, as if they were running instead of walking. "That's not her door. Why is everything changed?"

"There was damage, there was mold and dry rot. My God, Mom, there's only been the very minimum of maintenance in the last decade, and not much more than that for twenty years before. You can't neglect without incurring damage."

"I didn't neglect it. I wanted to forget it. Now I can't, can I?"

Cilla felt her mother quiver, and would have soothed, but Dilly nudged her away as they walked inside.

"This is wrong. It's all wrong. Where are the walls? The little parlor? The paint's the wrong color."

"I made changes."

Eyes hot and gleaming, she whirled toward Cilla on her fabulous shoes. "You said you were restoring it."

"I said I was rehabbing it, and I am. I'm making it mine, and respecting what it was."

"I'd never have sold it to you if I'd known you'd tear it apart."

"Yes, you would," Cilla said coolly. "You wanted the money, and I want to live here. If you'd wanted it caught in amber, Mom, you had decades to do it. You don't love this house, it's a jagged edge for you. But I do love it."

"You don't know what I feel! I had more of her here than anywhere else. Second to Johnnie, of course, always second to her beloved son." Tears ripped through the words. "But I had more of her when we were here than anywhere. And now it's all changed."

"No, not all. I had the plaster repaired, and the floor will be refinished. The floors she walked on. I'm having the stove and refrigerator she used retrofitted, and I'll use them."

"That big old stove?"

"Yeah."

Dilly pressed her fingers to her lips. "She'd try to bake cookies sometimes. She was terrible at it. She'd always burn them, and laugh. We'd eat them anyway. Damn it, Cilla. Damn it. I loved her so much."

"I know you did."

"She was going to take me to Paris. Just the two of us. It was all planned. Then Johnnie died. He always did spoil everything for me."

"God, Mom."

"That's how I felt then. After the shock, and that first awful grief because I did love him. I did love him even when I wanted to hate him.

But after that, and when she wouldn't go to Paris, I thought, he's spoiled that for me." Dilly took a slow, hitching breath. "She loved him more dead than she did me alive. No matter how hard I ran, I could never catch up."

I know how you feel, Cilla thought. Just exactly. In her way, Dilly loved her mother dead more than she could love her daughter alive.

Maybe this was about redemption, too. So Cilla took another step. "I think she loved you very, very much. I think things got horribly twisted and broken the summer he died. And she never fully mended. If she'd had more time-"

"Why didn't she take it, then? She took the pills instead. She left me. She left me. Accident or not-and I'll always, always believe it was an accident-she took the pills, when she could've taken me."

"Mom." Moving to her, Cilla touched Dilly's cheek. "Why didn't you ever tell me that before? How you felt?"

"It's this house. It upsets me. It dredges everything up. I don't want it. I just don't want it." She opened her purse, took out a silver pill case. "Get me some water, Cilla. Bottled."

The irony, Cilla thought, would forever be lost on Dilly. The daughter who grieved because her mother chose pills over her, perpetuated the same behavior.

"All right."

In the kitchen, Cilla pulled a bottle of water out of her mini fridge. She got a glass, added ice. Dilly would have to live without her usual slice of lemon, she mused. Pouring the water, she glanced out.

Ford stood with Brian and her pond expert by the choked waters. He held a mug of coffee, and the thumb of his other hand was hooked through one of the belt loops of his jeans.

Long and lean, she thought, with just that hint of gawky. Messy brown hair with sun-kissed tips. So wonderfully, blessedly normal. It steadied her just to look at him, to know he'd stay-this man who created super-villains and heroes, who had every season of Battlestar Galactica-both series-on DVD. A man who, she was fairly certain, didn't know an Allen wrench from a Crescent, and trusted her to handle herself. Until he decided she couldn't.

"Thank God you're here," she murmured. "Wait for me."

She took the water back to her mother, so Dilly could wash down her tranquilizer du jour.

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