Dark Hunger


Part Three. FINISH TRIM Chapter Twenty-Eight


Enough was enough, Ford decided. The cops had the doll; the cops would investigate. And so far, the cops hadn't been able to do dick-all about stopping the threats against Cilla.

They weren't pranks, they weren't harassment. They were threats. Dusting the damn doll and the mailbox, asking questions, even determining-if they could-what caliber of bullet had been used wasn't going to solve the problem. None of those things would prevent that look of shocked horror from covering Cilla's face the next time.

Everyone knew there'd be a next time. And the next time, at any time, it could be Cilla instead of a doll.

Yeah, enough was more than enough.

He pulled up in front of the Hennessy place. It was somewhere to start, he thought. Maybe it was somewhere to finish. He walked up, banged on the door.

"Wasting your time." A woman under an enormous straw gardening hat walked over to stand at the picket fence that formed the boundary between houses. "Nobody's in there."

"Do you know where they are?"

"Everybody knows where he is. Locked up." She tapped her temple under the brim of the hat, then circled it. "Tried to kill a woman over on Meadowbrook Road a couple months back. Janet Hardy's granddaughter-theone who was the little girl in that TV show? You want to talk to him, you'll have to try Central State Hospital, down in Petersburg. "

"What about Mrs. Hennessy?"

"Haven't seen a sign of her the last couple weeks. Selling the place, as you can see there." She pointed to the Century 21 sign, then slipped a small pair of clippers into a pocket of her gardening belt. Settling in, Ford knew, for a little over-the-fence chat.

"She's had a hard life. Her boy was crippled back when he was a teenager. Died a year or so ago. That husband of hers never had a good word to say to anybody around here. Shouting or shaking his fist at kids for playing too loud, or telling people to mind their own if they offered a helping hand. Me, I'd've left him after the boy died, but she stuck. Could be she's taken off now he's locked up, but more likely, she's gone down to Petersburg. Don't know if anybody's looked at the house yet. I'm going to hope somebody buys it who knows how to be neighborly."

It was a haul to Petersburg and back, Ford considered. "I guess you'd have noticed if she moved out. I mean, furniture, luggage."

"Might have, if I was home." She gave Ford a harder measure from under the wide brim of her hat. "You're not kin to them, are you?"

"No, ma'am."

"Well, I can tell you I haven't seen her or heard a peep out of the house for days now. In fact, I've taken to watering what flowers she put in. I can't stand to watch something die of neglect."

CILLA TRIED to take a page out of Ford's book and look at the bright side. The bright side could be that a defaced doll in the mailbox did no damage to her property. It cost her nothing but time and stress.

A bright side could be the police took the whole ugly business very seriously. True, they'd had no luck tracing any of the dolls so far, not when they were sold regularly on eBay or in secondhand and specialty shops, or could have been taken out of someone's personal collection. But it brought her a measure of comfort to know the police were doing whatever the hell the police did.

And her crew was pissed off on her behalf. Having people in your corner, even if it was only to express outrage and support, was always a bright side.

Plus her new countertops and backsplash kicked serious ass. That knocked her level of stress down several notches. The streaks and specks of warm gold, flecks of black and white against rich chocolate brown set off her cabinets. And, Jesus, her copper hardware would just pop. She'd been right, so absolutely right, to go for the waterfall edging. She couldn't believe how long and hard she'd stressed over that. It gave the counters such presence, such authority.

Cilla ran her hand over the island as she might a lover's warm, naked flesh, and all but purred.

"Pretty dark, especially with this half acre of the stuff you've got in here."

Cilla merely looked over, tipped her head and spoke in the tone she'd use to a naughty little boy. "Buddy."

His lips twisted, but the attempt to defeat the smile failed. "I guess it looks all right. Cabinets are nice, anyway. Got a forest of them in here, but having the glass fronts on some breaks it up a little. I'll get your sinks mounted. Be back tomorrow after they've cured to hook up the plumbing, the dishwasher and the faucets. Don't know why anybody'd want copper for faucets."

"I'm just crazy that way."

"Crazy some way. Are you going to help me mount these sinks, or just stand around looking like the canary-eating cat?"

While they worked on the first undermount, Buddy whistled through his teeth. A few bars in, Cilla caught herself humming with him.

"'I'll Get By,'" Cilla said. "My grandmother's signature song."

"Guess the mind wanders to her in here. Got that clamp on there?"

"It's on."

"Let's test the fit then. Second time I put a sink in this place."

"Really?"

"Put in the one you're replacing for your grandmother. That's been going on forty, forty-five years, I expect. Probably time for a new. That's right, that's right," he murmured. "That's a good fit. That's a good one." He marked the location for the mounting clips.

"Let's lift her out."

Cilla gripped the two-by-four clamped to the sink. "You and your father did a lot of the work around here back then."

"Still got plenty."

"You did a lot for Andrew Morrow."

"That's a fact. We did all the plumbing for Skyline Development. Thirty-three houses," he said, taking out his drill. "That job made it so I could buy one of those houses. Lived there thirty-seven years come October. A lot of people got their homes because of Drew Morrow. I've fixed the johns in most of them."

AFTER THE TWO sinks were mounted, Cilla went outside to hunt up her father. She'd kept him off the scaffolding that morning, conning him into "doing her a favor" and painting her shutters.

It looked as if he was having as much fun running the paint sprayer as he had hanging up three stories. "Take a break?" she asked and offered a bottle of water.

"Sure can." He gave her arm a quick rub. "How're you feeling?"

"Better since I got to work. Better yet when I stand staring at my counters with a big, sloppy smile on my face. Something occurred to me when I was working with Buddy. How he and his father did some work here. Dobby did, too. I'm wondering who else who's working here now, or who I didn't hire, or who's retired, might've worked on the place when Janet had it. Maybe they're pissed off because I'm changing it. It's no crazier than Hennessy trying to run me down for something that happened before I was born."

"I'd have to think about it. I was a teenager, Cilla. I can't say I'd have paid much attention."

He took off his hat, ran a hand through his hair. "There were gardeners, of course. The grounds were a showplace. I'll ask Charlie if he remembers who she had for that. I do remember she had what you'd call caretakers. A couple who'd look after things when she wasn't here, which was more than not. They'd open the house up when she was expected, that sort of thing. Mr. and Mrs. Jorganson. They've both been gone for years."

"What about carpentry, electrical, painting?"

"Maybe Carl Kroger. He did a lot of handyman work back then. I'll ask about that, but I know he retired some years ago. Florida maybe. I only remember that because I went to school with his daughter, and I ended up teaching her daughter. I can't see Mary Beth Kroger-that's Marks, now-giving you this kind of trouble."

"It's probably a stupid idea. Just another straw grasped at."

"Cilla, I don't mean to make it worse, or give you more to worry about, but have you considered that whoever's doing this has a grudge directed at you? You, not Janet Hardy's granddaughter?"

"For what? I'm a former child star, a failed adult actress who recorded a couple of moderately successful CDs. My only ties to this area were to her, and you. You, Patty and Angie were literally the only people I knew when I came here. And let's be honest, I didn't know any of you that well. I've dumped a few hundred thousand into the local economy. I can't see how that would piss anyone off."

"You're right. I know you're right. It's the dolls. It's such a direct strike at you. More than the vandalism, Cilla. Mutilating those dolls, the child you were, seems so much more personal than the rest."

She studied him. "Are you here to paint, or to keep an eye on me?"

"I can do both. At least until school starts up. The summer's flown by," he said, looking past her. "I'll miss being around here, the way I've been able to. We've made a lot of progress since June."

You and I. She understood the words he didn't say. "We have. Despite everything, it's been the best summer of my life."

FORD WATCHED WHILE Cilla hung shutters her father had painted on the front windows. The scent of the paint hung in the air, along with grass, heat and the dianthus in a big blue pot on the veranda.

"I just want to finish this off. You don't have to hover."

"I'm not hovering. I'm observing. There's something satisfying about sitting on a summer day and watching somebody else work."

She spared him a glance as he sat, at ease. "You know, I could teach you how to set a few screws."

"Why would I need to do that when I've got you?"

"I'll ignore that since you bought me that very pretty planter. And the steaks you've promised to grill-on the grill I assembled."

"Corn on the cob, too, and tomatoes fresh from the roadside stand. We'll have ourselves a feast."

She tested the shutter, checked it with her level, then moved to the next.

"Before we move to feasting," he continued, "let's get less pleasant business out of the way. I went by the Hennessy place this morning. She's not there," he added when Cilla glanced back. "Hasn't been there, according to her neighbor, for a couple of weeks. One supposition is she went down to Petersburg, to be close to the state hospital where they have him. That's proved out."

"How do you know?"

"I called the most likely hotels and motels in the area. She's registered at the Holiday Inn Express."

"Aren't you the clever detective?" she replied.

"Taught the Seeker everything he knows. Or vice versa. Anyway, I considered driving down, but it struck me as a waste of time. It's better than a hundred miles one way, Cilla. It's hard to believe she'd drive more than two hundred miles, in what had to be the middle of the night, to pose a doll she'd shot in the damn head in your mailbox. If she wanted to get at you, why move herself so far off when she's got a house twenty minutes away?"

He knew how to put things together, Cilla thought. Into panels that followed a logical line. "I hate that that's realistic, that it rings true for me. Because it would be easier, simpler, if it was her. If I can't believe that, I have to know it's someone else. That someone else hates me."

She tipped back her cap, idly watched Spock stalking one of his cats in the front yard. "I'm looking at Buddy today because he's whistling one of my grandmother's songs, and I'm thinking, Hey, Buddy, did you happen to start a mad, passionate affair with my grandmother one night when you came by to fix a leak? Or, did she maybe reject your advances in a way that causes you to want to hurt me? I went through that same process with Dobby, who is, yes, entirely too old. But he had a son, and his son has a son. And I was just twisted up enough today to wonder if the very affable Jack was spending time shooting my plastic image because of something-anything-that went on with Janet three and a half decades ago. Or maybe my father had a point, and someone took a vicious and pathological dislike to Katie, and seeks to take revenge on me."

"Your father thinks you're being threatened by somebody who hates a TV character?"

"No. Not exactly. He suggested whoever's doing this has some grudge against me, personally. But that doesn't make any sense, either." She sighed, lowered the screwdriver. "And because it doesn't make any sense, none of it, I keep going around in circles, which leaves me dizzy and annoyed. Added to that, I'm going to have dozens of people here in a few days. And I know I'm going to be wondering, even as I pass the potato salad, if that person's the one. If the person looking at me and smiling, thanking me kindly for the potato salad, would like to shoot me in the head."

He pushed up, walked to her. "I may have gotten my ass kicked with some regularity as a boy, but that-as my mother liked to say-builds character. The kind of character that means I can say to you, and you can believe me when I say it, nobody, Cilla, nobody is going to hurt you while I'm around."

"Keeping me from being hurt hasn't been anyone's priority up till now. Because of that, I do believe you. I feel safer with you, Ford, than I ever have with anyone."

He kissed her very gently, eased back and said, "Well?"


"Oh, damn it! I walked right into it. I gave you a damn cue." She pulled away, picked up her screwdriver. "Look, it's been a really long day. I just don't want to get into this now."

He simply put a hand under her chin, lifted it until their eyes met.

"I don't know. I don't know. I haven't made the lists yet."

He rubbed his thumb over her jawline. "What lists would that be?"

"My lists, for and against. And if you're going to push at this point, I'll warn you that I can rattle off a ten-minute monologue of the againsts. The ones I've already given you and more."

"Give me one of the fors." He tightened his grip when she shook her head. "Just one."

"You love me. I know that you do, I know that you mean it. But they call it 'falling into' for a reason. It's the floundering around after you surface, the wondering what the hell you're doing there and looking for the escape that make the falling-out-of part so horrible. And it's not a practical for," she insisted, when he just smiled and rubbed her jawline. "One of us has to be practical. What if I said yes, yes, let's run off to Vegas-as both my grandmother and mother have done before me-and hit The Chapel of Love? What-"

"I'd say you pack, I'll book the flight."

"Oh, don't be ridiculous." She tried to be annoyed, but nerves kept jumping in the way. "You don't want some tacky Vegas fly-by. You're serious. You're serious about friendships, about your work, your family. You're serious about Star Wars, and your active dislike of Jar Jar Binks-"

"Well, God. Come on, anyone who-"

"You're serious," she continued before he went on a Jar Jar rant, "about living your life on your terms, and being easygoing doesn't negate that one bit. You're serious about what kind of kryptonite is more lethal to Superman."

"You have to go with the classic green. I told you, the gold can strip Kryptonians' powers permanently, but-"

"Ford."

"Sorry. We'll skip that and go back to Vegas."

"We're not going to Vegas. God, you make my head spin. You're not thinking of a single practicality, of the reality."

"Test the theory. Give me one."

"Fine. Fine. Where would we live? Do we flip a coin, ask your Magic 8-Ball. Or maybe we'd-"

"Well, for God's sake, Cilla, we'd live here. Here," he repeated, knocking his knuckles against the wall of the house.

His instant answer tipped her off balance. "What about your house? You love your house. It's a great house. It's tailor-made for you."

"Yeah, for me. Not for us. Sure, I love my house, and it's got a lot of me in it. But it's just a house for me, and Spock." He glanced around in time to see Spock catch and destroy the hated invisible cat. "He's happy anywhere. I haven't poured myself into my place the way you have this one. This is home for you, Cilla. I've watched you make it." Now he picked up her screwdriver. "With more than this. A lot more than tools and nails and gallons of paint. It's your place. I want it to be ours."

"But..." But, but, her mind was full of buts. "What about your studio?"

"Yeah, it's a great space. You'll think of something." He handed her back the screwdriver. "Make all the lists you want, Cilla. Love? It's green kryptonite. It powers out all the rest. I'll go out back and start the grill."

She stood, stunned, a power tool in her hand, as the screen door slapped shut behind him. And thought: What? Love is kryptonite? She'd think of something?

How could she understand, much less marry, a man whose mind worked that way? One who could make statements like that, then stroll off to start the grill? Where were his anger, his angst, his annoyance? And to suggest he could give up his place and move into hers without any real thought to where he'd work? It didn't make any sense. It made no sense at all.

Of course if she added the home gym off the south side of the house the way she'd been toying with, she could put on a second story, tying that into the existing house. Angle it for a little interest. Tight-winder stairs would work, and be fun to do. It would keep the work spaces entirely separate, give them both privacy. Plus the southern exposure would give a studio excellent light. Then she could...

Well, God, she realized. She'd thought of something. A damn good something, too, she added and put down her tool to pace the veranda. Having destroyed his quota, Spock trotted up to pace with her.

The sort of something that would not only work, not only blend in with the existing structure, Cilla realized, but enhance it. Break up the roof line, finish it off with a sweet little balcony. Jib windows for access.

Damn it, damn it, damn it! Now she could see it. Now she wanted it. She stalked down the steps, around to the south side of the house with Spock bounding happily behind her. Oh yeah, yeah, not only doable, she thought, but it now seemed the house begged for it.

She jammed her hands into her pockets, and her fingers hit the ring box she carried there. Kryptonite, she thought, pulling it out. That was the trouble, the big trouble. She did understand him. And more terrifying, more wonderful, he understood her.

Trusted her. Loved her. Believed in her.

WHEN SHE WALKED to the patio, Ford had the grill smoking. The corn, husks in place, were submerged in a big bowl of water for reasons that eluded her. He'd brought out the wine. The scents of roses, sweet peas, jasmine tangled in the air as he poured her a glass. Sun streamed through the trees, glinted off the pond where Spock wandered to drink.

For a moment, she thought of the glamour that had once lived there, the colored lights, the beautiful people wafting like perfume over the lawns. Then she thought of him, just him, standing on stones she'd helped place with her own hands, offering her a glass of wine, and a life she'd never believed she could have.

She stood with him, one hand in her pocket, and took the first sip. "I have some questions. First, just to get it off my mind, why are you drowning the corn?"

"My mother said to."

"Okay. If I thought of something, how do you know it's something you'd want?"

"If I didn't," he said, picking up the conversation as if there had been no break, "I know how to say I don't want that. I learned how to do that at an early age, with mixed results. But the odds are, if we're talking about construction and design, whatever you thought of would work."

"Next. Could I hurt you?"

"Cilla, you could rip my heart out in bloody pieces."

She understood that, understood he could do the same to her. And wasn't that a hell of a thing? Wasn't that a miracle? "I couldn't have done that to Steve, or him to me. As much as we loved each other. As much as we still do."

"Cilla-"

"Wait. One more question. Did you ask me to carry the ring around with me because you hoped it would act as kryptonite, and weaken me over time until I agreed to marry you?"

He shifted his feet, took another drink of wine. "It might have been a factor."

With a nod, she drew her hand out of her pocket, studied the ring sparkling on it. "Apparently, it works."

His grin flashed, quicksilver delight. But when he moved to her, she slapped a hand on his chest. "Just hold on."

"That was my plan."

"Wait. Wait," she said again, softly. "Everything I said before, it's true. I'd made up my mind never to get married again. Why go through the process when the odds are so stacked for failure? I failed a lot. Some was my fault, some was just the way it was. Marriage seemed so unnecessary, so hard, so full of tangles that can never really be fully unknotted. It was easy with Steve. We were friends, and we'd always be friends. As much as I love him, it was never hard or scary. There wasn't any risk, for either of us."

Her throat filled, so much emotion rising up. But she wanted- needed-to get the rest out. "It's not like that with you because we're going to hurt each other along the way. If this screws up, we won't be friends. If this screws up, I'll hate you every day for the rest of my life."

"I'll hate you more."

"Why is that absolutely the best thing you could've said? We're not going to Vegas."

"Okay, but I think we're missing a real opportunity. How do you feel about backyard weddings?"

"I feel that's what you had in mind all along."

"You're what I had in mind all along."

She shook her head, then laid her hands on his cheeks. "I'd love a backyard wedding. I'd love to share this house with you. I don't know how anything that scares me this much can make me so happy."

He took her lips with his, soft, soft, spinning the kiss out in the perfumed air, with the sun streaming through the trees. "I believe in us." He kissed her again, swayed with her. "You're the one I can dance with."

She laid her head on his shoulder, closed her eyes.

THE LITTLE FARM

1973

"I believed in love," Janet said as she sat back on the white silk pillows on the lipstick-pink couch. "Why else would I have thrown myself into it so often? It never lasted, and my heart would break, or close. But I never stopped opening it again. Again and again. You know that. You've read all the books, heard all the stories, and the letters. You have the letters so you know I loved, right to the end."

"It never made you happy. Not the kind that lasted." Sitting cross-legged on the floor, Cilla sorted through photographs. "Here's one taken the day you married Frankie Bennett. You're so young, so happy. And it fell apart."

"He wanted the star more than the woman. That was a lesson I had to learn. But he gave me Johnnie. My beautiful boy. Johnnie's gone now. I lost my beautiful boy. It's been a year, and still I wait for him to come home. Maybe this one will be a boy."

She laid a hand on her belly, picked up a short glass, rattled the ice chilling the vodka.

"You shouldn't drink while you're pregnant."

Janet jerked a shoulder, sipped. "They didn't make such a to-do about it when I was. Besides, I'll be dead soon anyway. What will you do with all those pictures?"

"I don't know. I think I'll pick the ones I like best, have them framed. I want pictures of you in the house. Especially pictures of you at the farm. You were happy here."

"Some of my happiest moments, some of my most desolate. I gave Carlos-Chavez, my third husband-his walking papers right in this room. We had a vicious fight, almost passionate enough to have me consider taking him back. But I'd had enough. How he hated it here. 'Janet,' he'd say in that Spanish toreador's voice that seduced me in the first place, 'why must we camp out in the middle of nowhere? There isn't a decent restaurant for miles.' Carlos," she added and lifted her glass, "he could make love like a king. But outside of bed, he bored me brainless. The problem there was we didn't spend enough time outside of bed before I married him. Sex is no reason to get married."

"Ford never bores me. He made me a goddess, and still when he looks at me, he sees me. Too many of them didn't see you."

"I stopped seeing me."

"But in the letters, the letters you kept, he called you Trudy."

"The last love, the last chance. I couldn't know. Yet maybe some part of me did. Maybe I wanted to love and be loved by what I'd lost, or given up. For a little while, I could be Trudy again." She stroked her fingers over one of the white pillows. "But that was a lie, too. I could never get her back, and he never saw her."

"The last chance," Cilla repeated with photos spread before her, and Janet on the bright pink couch. "Why was it the last? You lost your son, and that was horrible and tragic. But you had a daughter who needed you. You had a child inside you. You left your daughter, and that's haunted her all her life-and I guess it's haunted me too. You left her, and you ended the child when you ended yourself. Why?"

Janet sipped her drink. "If there's one thing you can do for me, it would be to answer that question."

"How?"

"You've got everything you need. It's your dream, for God's sake. Pay attention."

Copyright © novelfull thefreeonlinenovel.com All Rights Reserved.