Malicious Pursuit KG MacGregor
Watching out for a new home piqued Jessie's interest for an hour or so as they moved south on I-81 through eastern Pennsylvania; but eventually, the child returned to dreamland, worn out by her night on the road.
In Harrisburg, Ruth drifted over to I-83 toward Baltimore, but as she approached the outskirts of the Maryland capital, she knew that she wasn't cut out to live in a place like that, no matter how much she wanted to leave the small town behind.
She'd never lived in a big city, but from what she'd heard from her friend Arlene, it meant that people lived close to you, but you never got to know them. Workers came home and went inside their houses, closed their doors, and retreated to their fenced-in back yards. There was more traffic, longer lines, and people were more anonymous. Being anonymous had its advantages, for sure, but some people figured that it gave them permission to be flaming assholes, since the chances were pretty low you'd ever see the same people again.
Ruth laughed to herself as she recalled Arlene's most embarrassing moment. Driving in Boston one day, she'd flipped off somebody once who cut her off, and by the time she got home, she was horrified to find out it was her neighbor in a new car.
No, Ruth wanted something a little more out of the way, but a place large enough to afford at least a modicum of anonymity. Places like Madison guaranteed that everyone knew your business; it wouldn't do for people in a new place to start asking questions of the newcomer, and to start comparing notes.
Skirting the maze of interstates and parkways, the young mother continued south into Virginia, noting with interest their proximity to Washington, DC. It might be nice to live close enough to visit a place like this, she thought, with its monuments and museums.
A series of turns landed the old Taurus wagon on the outskirts of Manassas, Virginia. It was sort of a bustling town, lots of shoppers out on Saturday, even in this rain. The stops and starts at the busy intersections woke Jessie and she sat up to look around.
"Are you getting hungry?" her mother asked.
Jessie nodded grumpily. Her usually pleasant personality always got displaced for those first few minutes after waking up.
What Ruth wanted was a place where she could sit in a booth and drink a bottomless cup of coffee. Instead, to her daughter's delight, she pulled into a fast food restaurant that boasted a playground protected from the rain by a large overhang. Ten minutes later, she was shivering outside at a picnic table, watching the four-year-old blow off steam climbing through one tunnel to slide down another.
"Watch this!" the little girl shouted, suddenly appearing head first and landing on the carpet with a thud. Predictably, her face contorted as she began to cry.
"Sweetheart, you came out of there like a rocket. People aren't supposed to be rockets," she teased gently. "Maybe you should come and eat for a few minutes until you feel better."
Jessie did as she was asked, tearfully climbing up onto to the bench and taking a big bite of her cheeseburger.
As a mom, Ruth felt pretty guilty about how she'd handled the care and feeding of this child over the last eighteen hours a cheeseburger for dinner, sleeping in the car, a sweet roll for breakfast, and another cheeseburger for lunch. But it wasn't the food that was important here; it was the playground, and the chance for Jessie to be a kid for just a few minutes. Ruth was asking a lot of her daughter right now, and she wasn't going to lose sight of the fact that this was all about what was good for Jessie.
"I'm going to go get some more coffee, honey. I'll be right back." The playground's only access was from inside the store, and Ruth could keep an eye on Jessie easily as she drew another cup of coffee from the large dispenser. On her way back out, she picked up a complimentary copy of the Journal-Messenger, the local paper in Manassas. Once back at their table, she was pleased to see that her daughter had recovered from her spill and was back on the slide.
A couple of the stories on the front page on local businesses and an arts and crafts fair confirmed for Ruth that this was a thriving community, and yet a small town. Flipping to the back, she found the classifieds, which included several job ads, mostly entry level or service jobs. But it was a "for rent" ad that got her attention:
For Rent: 2BR/1B trailer furn $150 utl incl. Owner needs help w/errands & lt chores.
Ruth had figured on paying at least five hundred a month for something already furnished, and then to have to pay utilities on top of that. It was probably a dump, she reasoned. But maybe not.
Lowering the paper, she took a closer look at the community of Manassas. Traffic was moderate, the buildings new and modern. Signs to Old Town and to the Manassas Battlefield suggested that it was a tourist destination, and that the city's history was a source of great local pride.
"Megan?" The little girl's new name didn't register. "Megan, sweetheart?"
The sweetheart part got the little girl's attention, and it reminded her once again that she would be called Megan from now on.
"Look, honey, I need to make a phone call. Can you put your shoes back on?"
"One more time?" the girl asked hopefully as she started toward the ladder. Ruth smiled and nodded. One more time was the unwritten rule.
Turning off the main highway, Ruth counted the rows of mailboxes on the left side of the road. At the third one, she turned as instructed. The pavement ended almost immediately; and she hugged the right side of the rutted road until she reached the second driveway on the right. She'd feared from the woman's directions that the place would be way out in the boondocks, but it didn't seem that far out of the city at all.
"Is that it?" Jessie was sitting up straight, straining to see over the dashboard as they turned into the drive.
Ruth saw the white frame house as soon as she turned, but the trailer in the back didn't come into view until she pulled even with the porch. It was pretty close to the house, she realized with disappointment. She'd hoped it would have been set back more for privacy.
Coming to a stop, she spotted a thin, gray-haired woman of about sixty dressed in jeans and an oversized denim shirt stepping from the porch into the driveway. As she got out of the car, Ruth was momentarily intimidated by the woman's obvious appraisal, but relaxed at once when she cracked a smile at seeing Jessie.
"Hi, I'm Karen Oliver. And this is my daughter, Megan."
The woman smiled and stuck out her hand in greeting. "I'm Viv Walters. "Did you have any trouble finding the place?"
"No, your directions were perfect."
"Good," she said, nodding her head toward the back. "Well, it isn't much, but if you want to see it, it's out back."
"I'm sure it's really nice," Ruth offered politely.
Viv chuckled. "I don't know about nice, but it's clean. I had to get in there and scrape up all the dirt and dog sh," she stopped herself. "Sorry. The woman that lived here before asked me if she could keep a dog. I told her yes, but then she got another one, and another one, and before I knew it, she had eight dogs living in that little trailer. I had to pull up the carpet and put down vinyl, so the floor's new."
Viv didn't seem to know much about salesmanship, Ruth thought. Was she trying to find a renter or trying to warn people away?
"You don't have any pets, do you?" the gray-haired woman asked pointedly.
"No, no pets. Just my daughter and me."
"That's good. Course, if you wanted to have a pet, I guess that would be alright. No cats, though."
"I don't think we'll be getting"
"Thor and Maggie don't like cats much."
Ruth looked around to see if she could spot Thor and Maggie.
"They're my Labradors. I had to lock em up on the back porch so they wouldn't jump all over you when you got here. Labradors are like that. Never met a soul that wasn't their best friend. Now if you'd been a man calling about the trailer, I might have had em out here with me, you know, just for show."
"You've had some trouble?"
"Oh, no! And I'm not liable to have any as long as they're here. They're sweet, but I don't think they'd ever let anybody hurt me. You want to meet em?"
"Maybe later," Ruth said tentatively. "Could we see the trailer?"
"Of course. Right this way."
As they rounded the house, two big dogs let loose with a cacophony of rich, throaty barks. Through the screen at the back door, they could see a black and a yellow Lab, eager to get out and meet these new friends.
Viv led them across the muddy back driveway to the trailer's wooden porch.
"You'd have this spot to park in. I keep my Jeep in that shed over there."
As she opened the door, Ruth got a nasal clearing blast of disinfectant, welcome, she considered, in light of the previous renter. Viv stepped in and flipped on the overhead light switch to reveal a small living room and kitchen area finished in the standard dark wooden paneling. A couch, a recliner, and a straight back armchair practically filled up the entry, and the dining table was a built in bar with two stools and room for a third. A quick perusal of the cabinets found an array of mismatched plates, bowls, glasses and mugs. A few aluminum pots and pans were stored beneath the stove. A tray of assorted silverware and utensils lay inside one of the drawers, and the other held dishcloths and hand towels.
"It's fully furnished, except for sheets and towels. You'll have to get them yourself."
"Just sheets and towels?"
"Yep. Everything else is here already. I mean, it's not the best stuff, but it beats nothing at all, I guess. My daughter used to live here with her husband, but then she ran off with another man, and her husband didn't want to stay, so I inherited everything. That was almost fifteen years ago."
Ruth would have guessed that, given the wear on the counters and appliances.
"Now like it said in the ad, it's got two bedrooms and one bath." Leading the way down a darkened hall, Viv once again flipped a wall switch, this time getting no response. "Damn light bulb! Oops! I did it again. Sorry."
Ruth took it in stride, sure that her daughter had picked up these words and worse from Skip. But even at four years old, Jessie had the discretion not to use them in conversation with her mother.
The first bedroom held a twin bed and had a built in dresser, a stack of drawers, and a closet. Next was the bathroom, a simple tub and shower combination, with a toilet and sink, all in harvest gold. The back bedroom had windows on both sides, a double bed against the end wall, two nightstands, and a dresser with six drawers. Given the motif, Ruth found herself immensely glad that the carpet was gone. It had probably been shag brown and orange shag.
"So it's a hundred and fifty a month including utilities?" Even for a place like this, that seemed like a pretty good deal.
"That's right. You got water, electricity, and Jerry from the church ran the cable over here and spliced it in, so you have that too."
"And your ad also mentioned some errands and light chores. Could I get an idea of what that involves?"
"Well, it isn't a whole lot, really," Viv began casually. Now her salesmanship was creeping in. "See, I can't drive at night because I don't see so good. I get most things done during the day, so it usually don't make no difference. But on Wednesday nights I like to go to bingo down at the church and I need a ride. Now you can drop me off and come back for me, or if you want to try your luck, you can stick around." A crooked grin popped out as she scuffed her foot on the vinyl floor.
"That's all you need? Just a ride to bingo?"
"Well," she hesitated, "once in awhile I need a little help around the house. You know, those things that are easier with two people, like holding a ladder or picking up something heavy or giving the dogs a bath."
Ruth gulped noticeably.
"They're usually pretty good, but they get excited and sometimes I need help holding em still," she explained.
Ruth stood there quietly and looked around. At one-fifty a month, she wouldn't have to worry about making the rent for a while. If she could get Jessie into a pre-school or daycare, she could start looking for work. Even a low-wage job would be enough for the time being if she lived here.
"Would you mind if I talked it over with my daughter?"
"No, not at all," Viv answered. "I'll just wait outside."
Ruth had made up her mind, but she wanted Jessie to like it and to feel at home. Kneeling down, she pulled her daughter close.
"So what do you think, punkin? How would you like to have that little room with pretty flowered sheets?"
"It's dark in here."
"I know, but it won't be when we open the windows." She walked over and tugged gently on the bottom of the shade. Abruptly, it flew to the top with a snap. "Oops, glad I didn't have my nose over there," she teased, covering her nose.
That made Jessie laugh, and she covered her own nose as well.
"What do you say, honey? We can make it pretty, and there's a closet for all your toys in the little bedroom. I think we'll like it here."
"Do you think Daddy will find us here?" the girl asked seriously.
"No, sweetie, I don't. Not if we keep our secret Megan. Okay?"
Finally, Jessie nodded her agreement. This wasn't as big and bright as the house she'd shared with her father, but it already felt a lot happier than that one.
Together, the pair walked out onto the porch, just as the rain began falling more steadily.
The gray-haired woman opened her back porch door. "Did you decide?"
"Yeah, we're going to take it. I think Megan and I are going to like living here," she shouted across the back yard.
Viv smiled and waved them in. "Well come on in here and say hello to these hounds so they'll know you're the good guys."
Spencer throttled back when she exited onto Lee Highway heading west. Her sudden move had caught both the deputy and federal agent unaware, and she was long gone before they got back into the flow of traffic. This time, though, she wasn't going to take any chances running up on another law enforcement officer from behind. She was a sitting duck on these interstates and highways, exposed and at the mercy of the exit ramps and crossroads. She'd have a better chance of staying out of sight on a two-lane road, especially if she could get off road quickly and into a place where she couldn't be pursued.
At the first chance, Spencer turned off the highway, heading south onto a two-lane road with moderate traffic. She needed to find a place to regroup. Her shoulder-length brown hair was wet and stringy, and the blood on her arm had soaked through the nylon, discoloring the white sleeve. She wasn't going to be able to walk into any old public building and hang out unnoticed.
When the road ended, she turned west on 620, away from the city. That road became New Braddock Road, and traffic picked up a bit. Not good, she realized, looking again for something more out of the way. Most of the surface streets looked like they looped back into residential areas, which meant there was likely no thru-way. It wouldn't do at all to get trapped in a place like that.
From highway to back road to dead end and back, she rode in the rain, searching in vain for a place she could stop. Her eyes were peeled for a closed business, a parking garage, or even a dugout on a little league ball field. She needed a place where she could sort out this mess. What was this all about? Had Henry really stumbled across something sinister? And how were the feds involved?
Finally, she ended up in the one place she hadn't wanted to be: on a road leading back to the interstate. No doubt, the highway patrol and every other badge on earth had her description by now. Cynically, she imagined also that their orders now were "shoot to kill." Spencer couldn't risk being out here anymore. She needed to get off the road now. After dark, she'd venture out and try to call Elena again.
On her left was a large wooded area; on her right, an open field. Straight ahead was I-66 and behind her was a town, filled with stoplights, traffic, and inevitably, police. The lesser of evils was the woods on the left and she turned down a side road to find the best place to sneak in without being seen.
Most of the leaves on the taller trees were gone, but the scrub pines and rhododendrons offered a little cover down low. Still, she'd have to go pretty deep into the woods to be completely hidden to anyone driving by. Spencer had given up on finding shelter, but the rain had lessened somewhat. There was a poncho in her other saddlebag, and she could drape it over the bike to make a tent.
Picking her way up the bank and over a fallen log, the tall rider chuckled at the image of her coworkers trying to get their fancy Harley's in here. Hell, could their big touring bikes have jumped the fence at Margadon? Hell, no! Could they have climbed the curbs and medians? Doubtful! Could they clear underbrush like the Kawasaki? Not fucking likely! Her last twenty hours on the dual purpose KL650 could have been a sales video. Take that, Harley Davidson!
Spencer was winding slowly back into the woods when she heard the dreaded sound, a siren closing in fast. Eager to get deeper into the cover, she accelerated a bit, turning back to see if she could catch a glimpse of the cruiser through the trees.
That was pretty unwise for someone without a helmet.
The instant she turned back around, she was smacked in the face by a stiff branch of a barren white oak. Lying flat on her back as her bike crashed ahead into the shrubbery, Spencer lay there for all of about eight seconds, marveling at the fact that she knew what hit her. Then she took an unplanned nap.
For the second time that same day, the injured cyclist awoke to rain in her face. Immediately, her right hand now the only one she could lift went to her forehead, where it found a sticky mass she knew was congealed blood. That had been a nasty spill, and she'd obviously been out for hours, as the last traces of daylight were nearly gone.
Spencer struggled to sit up, reeling at the dull ache from her newest injury. Moving only slightly brought shooting pains that seemed to wrap around her head, and she was almost overcome by a wave of dizziness and nausea.
It was just twenty-four hours ago that she had bid Henry Estes goodnight and walked out of Margadon, her mind already on the fun-filled night ahead. Since then, she'd seen her friend murdered; she'd been chased all over Maryland and Virginia; she'd spent the night outside in the cold rain; and she'd been shot at, for god's sake. Bruises and a punctured arm were bad enough; but now, she worried that she might have a concussion, or even a fractured skull.
More now than ever, she needed help.
Spencer struggled to her feet and reached out for a branch to steady herself. That branch! Fuck, no wonder it hurt so bad, she thought. It was as big as a baseball bat.
Her bike lay in a heap a few feet away, but that didn't matter now. She was in no condition to ride.
As the woods darkened around her, Spencer saw that straight ahead where she had first thought was deeper into the woods there was a glow of lights. Apparently, if she'd continued on, she would have emerged on the other side, back at the edge of the town she'd passed.
Steadying herself now on a tree, she stooped to the side pocket on her bike, pulling out the black poncho and dropping it over her head. It didn't matter that she was soaking wet already; the poncho would cover the blood on her arm, and the hood would hide her wet hair and battered face. It was hard not to look like an idiot when you were out wandering around in the pouring rain, bleeding like a stuck pig. At least with the poncho, she could hide the worst of it and maybe not call undue attention to herself.
Slowly, Spencer stumbled through the woods in the direction of the light, not knowing what she'd find when she finally got to the end. With luck, there would be a phone, and a place where she could be warm and dry while she waited for Elena to come pick her up.
Nearing the edge of the woods, the source of light came into view. It was a Wal-Mart, the giant discount department store. Even in the pouring rain on a Saturday night, the store was doing a good business, evidenced by the crowded parking lot. By now, her instincts demanded that she watch out for a dark sedan with government plates, and for law enforcement vehicles of any type. Seeing neither in the darkened lot, Spencer scooted down the embankment, finally reaching the edge of the paved lot on the side of the store.
Tentatively rounding the building, she spotted a pair of payphones mounted on the outside wall next to the vending machines. The slim overhang high above offered little shelter from the rain, which now was coming down much heavier than before. At the entrance, she could see the shoppers gather, all waiting for the deluge to let up so they could run to their cars with their packages.
Spencer knew she must look like a fool out in the rain, but she had no choice. Dropping two quarters into the phone farthest from the door, she placed her call to Elena's home number. Anxiously, she counted the rings, almost hanging up before she finally heard the response.
"Spence, is that you?" The agent had spent the whole day trying to find her friend.
"Yeah," she sighed with relief. "God, Elena, I'm in so much trouble."
"Where are you? I'll come get you." Elena knew that no matter what had happened, it was all some kind of mistake. The FBI had questioned her that afternoon about her ex-lover's whereabouts the night before. They were convinced that Spencer Rollins had killed her coworker, but Elena knew better and said so.
"I'm in Virginia, at a Wal-Mart near I-66. I'm not sure exactly." Spencer looked around for a clue as to what this area or city was called. "Elena, Henry's dead. I saw the guys that did it. I think I think it was the feds. And now they're after me."
Like she had this morning, Spencer related the truth as she knew it and waited for her friend's response. And like this morning, it never came.
"Elena?" Not again! "Elena?"
At that instant, the programmer realized what she'd just done. The fuckers had found her cell phone and they were probably the goddamned FBI. That meant they knew about Elena, about all the calls they made to one another. And if they were looking for her, all they had to do was wait for her to call her friend. They had listened in to every word, and both times they had cut her off just as she started to explain what had happened. By tapping Elena's phone, they'd found her this morning at the gas station, and goddamn it, that's how they were going to find her right here.
Suddenly panicked, Spencer hung up the phone and stepped back, looking at once toward the parking lot entrance for the telltale police car. Hurrying as fast as she could with her injuries to the nearest row of parked vehicles, she ducked low as she looked for a hiding place.
Her first choice was a pickup truck with a small camper top, but it was locked. Likewise with the SUV two spaces over and the van parked next to it. Finally she reached a red station wagon and gave the door a yank. To her surprise and relief, it opened; and she quickly crawled into the back, covering herself with a black tarpaulin that was already spread out.
Waiting anxiously to see if she'd been spotted, Spencer listened to the sounds around her. Only occasionally would a door slam or an engine start. The rain was obviously keeping shoppers inside.
Five minutes passed, then five more. Warm and dry for the first time today, she gave in to her exhaustion.
As soon as the door opened, Elena Diaz charged through. "I need to use your phone." Not even saying hello, she went straight for the kitchen and grabbed the cordless off the wall.
"What did you find out?" Kelly had waited all day for Elena to call her about Spencer.
"They're after Spencer, the FBI. Somebody killed the guy she works with last night, and they say it was her. Did you talk to Kaitlyn?"
"Yeah, she said Spencer blew her off right after they walked out. She got a phone call and said she needed to go."
Elena paced nervously. Spencer had said she was in trouble. And that she was in Virginia, and then the line went dead, just as it had this morning.
"Do you think she killed him, Elena?"
"No, there's no way. But I don't know how to find out what happened. The FBI agents who talked to me today asked a lot of questions, but they didn't answer any of mine." The tall woman practically snarled as she remembered Calvin Akers' cocky attitude. "Listen, I need to call my cousin."
Elena dialed the number and spoke at once in Spanish to a woman, then a man. Hanging up, she turned to her lover. "Spencer didn't do this, Kelly. I don't want you wondering about it, no matter what you hear. She didn't do it."
"Okay." Kelly liked Elena's programmer friend, and she figured they had probably been lovers once. Elena had been lovers with nearly everyone, she was learning.
"Thanks for the phone. I gotta go back to my house."
"You came all the way over here just to use the phone?"
"Yeah, I think mine's bugged."
"Okay, are you ready to make a run for it, Megan?" As much as she could, Ruth practiced saying her daughter's new name.
The little girl nodded and pulled her shopping bag close. It held her brand new Lisa doll, which her mother had rejoiced to find on sale for only thirty-five bucks.
Ruth took the child's free hand in her own, her other carrying a heavy bag of sheets, towels, and a few dry goods from the food aisle, including a jar of spaghetti sauce and a box of noodles.
"Let's hurry," she cried, jogging across the parking lot during a letup in the deluge. Quickly, she opened the passenger door and guided the child into her seat. Next, she opened the door behind Jessie and heaved the shopping bag onto the crumpled tarp. Before the heavy rains could start again, she was in the driver's seat checking the seat belt on her daughter's side.
Ruth felt her stomach knot as two police cars pulled into the parking lot just as she reached the exit. Right this minute, she hadn't broken any laws, but all that was going to change tomorrow at six o'clock when she was due back at the restaurant with Jessie. They weren't coming for her, she knew; it was probably just someone in the store who had tried to pick up something without paying.
"Can I watch TV tonight?"
Ruth chuckled and shook her head in resignation. She hadn't even had a television at her other house. Instead, they played games and told stories, always finishing the night with the book of Jessie's choice. But life was different when the little girl had gone back to live with her father. Barbara Drummond used the television to keep her granddaughter occupied all day, and Skip spent virtually every evening at home in front of the tube; so despite Ruth's aversion, television was undeniably a part of her daughter's life.
"It's may I' and maybe for just a little while," she conceded. "Tell you what. We'll have some spaghetti; then you can watch TV while I'll put the new sheets on your bed. Maybe after that we'll find a book and have a story. Okay?"
That sounded pretty good and Jessie readily agreed.
Ruth was exhausted, even though they'd had a two-hour nap together that afternoon on the scratchy couch. It would take her a few days to get back on the right sleeping and eating schedule, but it was more important to get Jessie into a routine.
Finding the right turnoff in the dark proved a bit of an adventure, but soon, they were turning onto the gravel driveway, pulling around to park between the trailer and the house. Ruth turned off the lights and reached behind her to grab the heavy bag.
"Can you take Lisa?"
"Uh-huh," the little girl agreed, turning around as the interior light came on. "Mommy!"
"Who's who?" Ruth turned in alarm to see what her daughter was talking about, nearly jumping out of her skin at the sight of a woman's bloody face.
"She has a hurt," the child observed.
"Jessie, I need you to run into the house, okay? Take Lisa and go now." Ruth was trembling with fright, and her maternal instincts were on high alert. She couldn't comprehend why this woman was in their car, but whoever she was, she was big trouble.
The four-year-old reluctantly got out of the car. "Who is it?" she turned and asked.
"I don't know. Go on inside," she repeated. Ruth had no idea what she was going to do. Clearly, she couldn't just ask Viv to call the police. The last thing she wanted was to call attention to herself on this, their first day in town.
Quietly, she climbed out of the car and opened the back door. She shook the woman gently, hoping like hell she was only asleep. What if she was dead!
To her relief, the woman shifted as though pulling away.
"Hey, wake up. Come on, wake up," she coaxed.
The eyes fluttered open and squinted against the dome light.
"Come on. You got in the wrong car or something." That was the only explanation that made any sense at all. "I can take you back, but you need to wake up."
"No," the woman moaned. "Can't go back."
"Look, you're hurt. You need to find your family, and see a doctor," she urged.
"I can't," she murmured.
"Come on, you can't stay here." Perhaps a threat would work. "I'm going to go call the police."
"No!" she pleaded, suddenly fully awake and obviously panicked. "No police, please."
Ruth knew it was an empty threat. With the stowaway unwilling to leave, she had few options open to her that wouldn't put her at the center of the very thing she needed to avoid. She couldn't very well drive back to the Wal-Mart and dump her in the parking lot. Thoughts of the store brought back the image of police cars pulling onto the lot. God, was this who they were looking for?
"Are the police after you?"
"Yes ," she was barely whispering, "trying to kill me. Please help me."
Kill her? Surely she didn't mean the police were trying to kill her. But by the battered face, it looked like somebody was. Ruth's sensibilities told her that she shouldn't get involved, but it was too late for that. Of all the cars in the lot, this woman had picked hers. Something else her instincts, perhaps said that she couldn't just turn the injured woman out; that a dreadful fate awaited her.
"Let's get you inside."
"Jessie, go outside and get the green blanket from the car. Bring it to my bedroom, okay?" Ruth was guiding the injured woman down the dark hallway to the bedroom in the back.
The child quickly ran back out to the car, returning with a plastic package almost too large for her to carry.
"That's it, honey. Good girl. Can you pull the plastic off?"
Ruth eased the woman down to sit on the edge of the bed, holding her upright with one hand while her other released the blanket from its packaging and flung it haphazardly across the center of the bed. Lifting the sides of the nylon poncho, she pulled it over the woman's head and dropped it on the floor. Without the cover, she could see the trail of blood running from the deep gash above the brow, and another splotch that covered her upper arm.
Wrapping an arm around the sagging shoulders, Ruth edged her backward onto the bed, propping a foam pillow beneath her head. Then she lifted the feet and swung them to the end of the bed.
"Sweetie, I'm going to let you watch television by yourself for awhile, okay? I need to help this lady."
Jessie nodded, clearly afraid of this stranger. "Will she hurt us?"
"No, honey, she isn't going to hurt us. We're going to help her feel better. Then she'll be able to go back to her house by herself." Ruth hoped it was that simple. It was bad enough to have a bleeding stranger in her home; it was worse having someone like that so close to Jessie.
She walked her daughter back to the living room, settled her into the recliner with a carton of juice, and tuned in a children's channel on the TV. Next, she unpacked her first aid supplies from the box of toiletries and cosmetics in the bathroom. There wasn't much: some plastic bandages with pictures of cartoon characters, a few cotton balls, tape, anti-biotic cream, and rubbing alcohol. This was the standard kit for Jessie's skinned knees and elbows, and she hoped it would be enough to treat this mysterious woman's injuries.
The first priority was to stop the bleeding above the woman's eye and on her arm. Filling a mixing bowl with water, Ruth wet a cloth and began to wipe away the dried blood. The cut was only about an inch wide, just above the brow, but it went all the way to the bone. From the bruising on the forehead, it looked as though she'd been hit with something blunt that split the skin. Pressing the woman's shoulder to the bed to hold her still, Ruth used a cotton ball to dab the alcohol directly into the wound.
The injured woman moaned without opening her eyes.
"Yeah, I know it hurts. I'm sorry," she soothed. Next, she gently applied the anti-biotic cream and closed the wound with two narrow strips of tape. The woman shivered and Ruth folded the blanket over her. She would deal with the arm after she fed her child.
"Are you going to sleep with that hurt lady?" Jessie asked innocently as she crawled into bed.
"No, honey. Tonight I'm going to sleep on the couch like we did this afternoon."
"You can sleep in my bed," the child offered.
That was a tempting offer, but it wasn't fair to disrupt Jessie's sleep for a second night in a row. "You're sweet, little Megan," she smiled, nuzzling her daughter's hair. "And I love you. But I'll be okay on the couch."
"I love you too, Mommy."
Ruth pulled the door almost closed and headed back to the bigger bedroom to check on their patient. During dinner, she had become suddenly anxious that the woman might actually die in their trailer, and she'd jumped up to find her resting peacefully, but feverish. That, no doubt, was from being out in the rain.
With a fresh bowl of warm water, Ruth prepared to tend to the arm injury. Pulling the blanket back, she noticed for the first time that the woman was wearing some sort of rainproof jumpsuit. Why was she dressed to be out in the rain? Had she been riding a motorcycle? That was the most logical explanation, and maybe the pouring rain would then explain why she sought refuge in the car.
As she unsnapped the top, she saw a denim jacket underneath, and a white t-shirt under that. Starting with the boots, she carefully undressed her patient, stopping when she reached the jeans and t-shirt.
Carefully, she pushed up the reddened sleeve of the shirt, gasping in horror as the source of the blood was revealed: a swollen and discolored puncture wound, festering with infection. Was this a bullet wound? This, she realized, was the real source of the fever.
The overhead light in the room wasn't bright enough to allow a close inspection, so she retrieved a small lamp from the living room. Holding it close, she could barely make out something brown and solid in the center of the wound, a stick or something. Gently brushing her fingertip across the opening, she could feel a jagged point. Whatever it was, it needed to come out, and the hole needed to be cleaned.
Soaking a cotton ball with alcohol, she dripped a little of the fluid onto the wound, causing the woman to wake up and jerk away.
"Shhh, I'm trying to help you here. You need to relax."
"It's a stick broken."
"Yeah, I can see that. I'm going to have to try to pull it out, and it's going to hurt like hell."
"It already does," she gasped.
With the tweezers from her cosmetic bag, Ruth pinched the end of the stick and gently started to work it out. Unable to stand the pain, the injured woman flinched and tried to sit up.
"You have to be still. I'll be as careful as I can." With her left hand, she gently pressed the woman's collarbone and urged her back against the blanket. As the anguished face contorted in pain, Ruth tugged the stick, this time pulling it clean amidst a new flow of blood. That would help cleanse the wound, but the alcohol would be better. As she trickled it again directly into the wound, the woman flailed, her flesh on fire.
"Shhh, that's it. You can go back to sleep," Ruth soothed.
"These fuckers are the Keystone Cops," Akers groused into his cell phone. "'Urgent' means after they've had their goddamned donuts and taken a dump. Rollins was long gone before they ever got there." The agent was driving back to the city for the night. They would put out an APB tomorrow. The more time that lapsed, the more dangerous this got for everybody.
"Diaz went out right after the call, but she wasn't gone more than twenty minutes," Pollard reported. "And she came back alone."
"I don't trust that dyke. We're going to need some rookie backup to keep her under surveillance 24/7, home and office. Rollins will call her again. Hell, she might be stupid enough to walk into her office. We just need to make sure we're there when she does."
"Okay, I'll line up a couple of guys in the morning," the junior agent said. He didn't agree at all with the senior agent about Rollins being stupid. Hell, she'd slipped away from them three times already; not many people could say that.
As tired as she was, Ruth had expected a better night's sleep, even on the cramped couch. But the anxiety about being on the run, coupled with the presence of an injured stranger in their home, robbed her of the peace of mind she needed to completely rest. Now the sun was up, and it already looked as though today, it might actually shine.
It was Sunday. She'd give her right arm to know what was going on back in Madison today. Chances were no one had even missed her yet. Skip never contacted her over the weekend, and she'd told her friends at work that they planned to stay indoors and play. Friends rarely called when she had Jessie, not wanting to interrupt her time.
Coffee would be good, she thought, tossing back the thin blanket as she set her bare feet on the cold vinyl floor. All she had was a packet of instant that she'd nicked from work. They'd have to hit the grocery today.
As she shuffled over to the kitchen area, she was startled by a pounding on the door, accompanied by animated shouts from her landlady.
Jesus! Flinging open the door, Ruth squinted in the light of day as she greeted a beaming Viv on the porch. How could people be so jolly at this hour of the morning?
"Still in bed, huh?"
"What time is it?" A brisk autumn breeze blew into the room, and she hugged herself as she shivered.
"It's almost nine o'clock."
"You're kidding!" Maybe she had slept better than she thought.
"You're just in time to witness the miracle of birth."
A still sleepy Jessie joined her mother at the door, wearing her favorite blue pajamas. "Puppies?" she asked excitedly.
"Yes, ma'am! They're coming now." Viv had told them both yesterday that Maggie was overdue.
"Can we go see?" the little girl begged.
"Sure. Let me get my ," the child stepped off the porch into Viv's waiting arms and was gone before she could blink, "shoes."
Before leaving, Ruth tiptoed down the hall to check on her patient. The cut over her eye had seeped a little, but all in all, it was a hell of a lot better than it had been last night. The arm looked better already, swathed in ointment and covered in a Fred Flintstone bandage. The woman had hardly moved in the night, and seemed to be resting without distress.
Ruth looked for the first time at the mysterious woman in her bed. Her face was pretty, despite the swollen eye that would probably be black by tomorrow. The hair was disheveled and stringy from being wet, but it was a nice shade of brown with auburn highlights. The woman was calm today, compared to the night before when she'd been agitated and anxious about no one knowing she was there. That was certainly an ironic coincidence, Ruth thought. Neither of them wanted anyone to know she was there. Now if they could just get her well and get her out before anyone Shit! Please don't say anything, Jessie.
Ruth donned her shoes and robe, grabbing the same for her daughter before she bolted across the yard to the back door. In the utility room off the kitchen, Maggie was doing her thing as Viv, Jessie and proud papa Thor looked on in fascination.
"Look, Mommy, four puppies!"
"Here, put these on, sweetie." She handed the child her slippers and robe.
"And more on the way," Viv added, pressing a welcome mug of hot coffee into her tenant's hand. "You want cream or sugar?"
"No thanks. This is perfect. Thank you."
The black lab had produced two chocolates, one black, and one yellow offspring thus far.
"How many do you think she'll have?"
"A usual litter is anywhere between six and ten. I'm hoping for more because they'll fetch about four hundred dollars apiece."
"You're kidding! People really pay that much for a dog?" Ruth asked.
"Full-blooded Labradors aren't just any dog, I'll have you know. Thor's a champion, and Maggie's won Best of Opposite Sex three times."
"What does that mean?"
Viv went on to tell about their successes in the area dog shows. She'd given that up last year when Thor won his champion status. It was a lot of work to show dogs, she explained.
Jessie watched Maggie with excitement as Viv led Ruth to her den, where ribbons, trophies, and photos documented her dogs' illustrious careers in the ring.
"You don't show anymore?"
"Naw, I mean, it was alright." Viv turned out the light in the den and led them back to the action off the kitchen. "It's just that after a while, the dogs didn't seem to like it all that much, and it didn't seem right to put em through all that training and grooming and traveling when they weren't having any fun."
That seemed like a fair response to Ruth. She'd always heard you could tell a lot about people from the way they treated animals, and Viv, she thought, was probably a pretty good soul.
A half hour later, the mother's work was done, a grand total of eight puppies, all seemingly healthy and squirming contentedly. Maggie poked each one with her nose as if counting off, then licked them clean and guided them to her teats.
"I like that one," Jessie proclaimed, pointing to a fat chocolate pup on the top of the pile.
"Then I'll save that one for you," Viv promised.
"Oh, we better wait and see," Ruth interjected. She was, after all, the mommy. "I don't think I can afford four hundred dollars for a dog, Viv."
"This one's a gift for Megan and for you, of course." Viv already liked these two and she wanted them to be happy here and stay for a long time.
Pleading looks from both her landlady and daughter erased Ruth's hesitation. Jessie needed something fun in her life, and it looked like they would be sticking around for a while.
"Okay, but you're going to have to help take care of it," she told her daughter.
"Oh, I will," the happy child promised. She'd never had a puppy before.
To Ruth, this had all the feeling of a bad sitcom. She could already see herself walking the dog alone in the snow and cleaning up its mess. And it would probably end up sleeping at the foot of her bed. "Megan, why don't we go get some breakfast while Maggie takes a nap?"
"I've got plenty to eat here. I bet you're not even set up in your kitchen yet. Why don't ya'll come on in and I'll whip up some pancakes and bacon?" Viv was getting a kick out of having her tenants around, especially Megan. Neither her daughter nor her son had given her grandchildren to spoil, and she hadn't been around little ones in thirty years.
"We don't want to be any trouble," Ruth answered, all the while thinking that pancakes and bacon sounded a lot better than cold cereal with powdered milk.
"I'm gonna fix breakfast anyway. It's no trouble to just add a little more. Come on and stay."
"Alright, then thank you. We accept." But she had to talk privately to Jessie before she said anything about the woman back at the trailer. "Could we wash up? And then I'll come back and help."
"Sure, right down that hall on the left."
Ruth guided her daughter into the room and closed the door. Turning on the water, she began to speak. "You like Viv, don't you?"
Jessie nodded happily.
Despite the self-imposed distance, Ruth had to admit that she liked Viv too.
"Sweetie, don't forget that we have a secret. Even if we like Viv, we can't tell her our secret, okay?"
"And you know what? We have another secret, too. Do you remember last night when we found that lady in the car and she was hurt?"
Jessie's eyes grew big with fright. She had forgotten about that.
"Honey, that has to be a secret too. We're going to help her until she's all better, and then she'll leave. But we can't tell anybody she's here, not even Viv. Okay?"
Good question, Jessie. Damn good question. "It's really complicated, sweetheart. I guess the best answer is that if we tell somebody she's here, they might find out about our other secret."
It was complicated alright. She could tell by the confused look on her daughter's face that she had more questions. It was just that Jessie hadn't figured out what to ask next.
Spencer stirred and opened her eyes, struggling to get her bearings. She was in an unfamiliar room with brown paneled walls and windows on each side that rolled out. The room was narrow, and there weren't any pictures or personal items in here.
It was coming back to her. The woods the call to Elena the car. She hadn't expected to be driven away. She just needed to hide for awhile, but she must have fallen asleep. It was a miracle that she was here today and not in jail.
Vaguely, she remembered the woman who had tended to her last night the long blonde hair, the pretty green eyes the soft, comforting voice . Where the hell was this place? And why hadn't that woman called the police?
Her arm hurt like a son of a bitch, but it no longer felt swollen or hot to the touch. There was a bandage of some sort covering the wound. When she twisted her head to look at it, she was reminded of another injury, the one above her eye from where that branch had come out of nowhere and smacked her.
With a colossal effort, Spencer leaned forward and swung her legs over the side of the bed. She was very thirsty and her head was pounding like a jackhammer. Pushing herself off the bed, she started for the door, growing dizzier by the step. Flailing wildly, she lunged for the doorknob, hoping to get her balance.
Then it all went black.
"And you haven't heard from her since, huh?"
"No. That was last night, right after dark. She said she was in trouble, Rico. I'm really afraid for her." The worry in Elena's voice was genuine, even if the conversation wasn't. As was their habit with family, they spoke in their native Spanish.
"Do you really think she could have done something like this?"
"I don't know what to think."
Elena and her cousin kept the mindless banter going while his buddy Luis combed the townhouse for surveillance devices. In a handwritten note, the spy-wear hobbyist had already confirmed that her phone was tapped, and Elena assumed that these bastards were also listening in on her cell phone, and most likely, monitoring her ISP.
"What do you think, Luis?" The IRS agent had noticed earlier the van down the street and assumed that whoever was watching had seen the two men come in. If they were listening, she didn't want them to suspect the real purpose of Luis' visit.
"I don't know. You know, I only met her a couple of times. She didn't really strike me as the type, though." Excitedly, he motioned Elena and Rico to the end table, pointing toward a listening device that was affixed to the back of the leg.
"Yeah, I'm with you," she agreed. "I just wish the FBI would tell me what's going on. I tell you, those agents can be such pricks."
The word "pricks" didn't translate into Spanish, so that would save a little time for the boys taping the exchange.
All through breakfast, Ruth fought the urge to excuse herself to run back to the house to check on the injured woman. She'd been fine when they left her, still sleeping off whatever war she'd fought over the last couple of days. But she and Jessie shouldn't stay too long at Viv's, she knew. It wouldn't do at all for the woman to get up and come looking for her.
Viv prepared a veritable feast for their Sunday breakfast: blueberry pancakes with warm maple syrup, bacon, cantaloupe, coffee and milk. She'd even wanted to set everything up in the dining room, but Ruth insisted that the kitchen table was perfect.
From the outside, no one would have guessed that the simple frame structure was like two separate houses inside, one side resembling an antique museum; the other, a comfortable old shoe. The formal living room, the dining room, and the guest bedroom were packed with polished antiques of dark rich woods and brass. The overstuffed chairs and davenport weren't particularly inviting, but they were lovely to look at. Given what she already knew about Viv's down-to-earth nature, Ruth had trouble envisioning the woman living in a setting so elegant.
In contrast, the kitchen, den, and Viv's bedroom held a modern but worn décor that seemed to encourage staying a while and making yourself at home. That was truer to the image the landlady presented, and it was, in fact, the kind of home Ruth wanted for her daughter and herself.
"No, we can't bring him home yet," she answered Jessie's happy pleas about the little brown dog. "He has to stay with his mother until he's bigger so he'll be healthy."
"Can I visit him?"
"It's may I' and if it's okay with Viv, I don't see why not," she assured.
"You can come whenever you want, Megan," their hostess politely replied.
Ruth laughed to herself and bit her tongue not to automatically correct her landlady with "may." It was nice having Jessie exposed to an older woman who was patient and attentive. The little girl had been destined to miss out on that kind of relationship in Madison. Barbara Drummond was distant and stern; Ruth's own mother Mildred had never quite gotten past the fact that Jessie had been conceived outside of marriage.
"What are you going to name him? Have you decided?" Viv asked.
Jessie cocked her head sideways while she thought about it. "Brownie?"
"That's okay. He's brown." Ruth nodded her head thoughtfully.
"Or Hershey?" Viv suggested. "Since he's chocolate."
"Hershey! We'll call him Hershey." Jessie squealed with delight. She had heard of the famous candy maker.
"I wonder how many chocolate labs are named Hershey," Ruth mused.
"Probably thousands. But Ghirardelli doesn't really suit him," Viv laughed.
"Hey, sweetie, there's another chocolate maker you like. Do you remember his name?"
"What if we called him Willy?"
"Or Wonka," Jessie argued.
"I like Willy better than Wonka," her mom answered seriously, shooting Viv a pleading look.
"I think I like Willy too," she agreed.
"Willy!" The little girl got down from the table and ran into the little utility room. "Yeah, he looks like a Willy."
Stuffed to the gills, mother and daughter climbed the wooden steps to their new home, the youngster heading immediately for her room where she picked up her Lisa doll and returned to take a seat on the couch.
"Can I watch TV?"
"It's may I watch TV'," Ruth corrected gently. "And, yes you may." That would give her a chance to look in on their uninvited guest. She didn't want Jessie around the woman anymore than was absolutely necessary. There was no telling what kind of person got herself in this condition.
Ruth helped her daughter find the children's channel, and then headed back down the darkened hallway. She met resistance as she pushed the door, seeing with alarm that the woman was crumpled in the entry. Ruth shoved harder and rushed in immediately to check that the collapsed figure was breathing okay and not losing any more blood.
"Hey, wake up," she coaxed softly. Please don't die on me! Lifting the dark head off the hard floor, she prodded, "Are you okay?"
"I think I got dizzy," the woman murmured, slowly opening her eyes to once again find herself face to face with this soothing presence.
"You need to stay in bed until you're better. Let me help you back there." Ruth was frightened now at what could have happened and what still might happen and desperate to get this woman well so she could leave.
Spencer tried to stand, leaning heavily on the smaller woman. "I'm so thirsty."
"I'll bring you something to drink. Come on, get back in bed."
Spencer collapsed again on the bed, mystified at where her energy had gone. Besides the pain in her arm, side, and head, her legs felt like cement, and the dizziness was disorienting.
Lying on her back, she tried again to get a grip on where she was and what had happened to her. Last night, there had been a little girl, too.
"Here you go." The blonde woman returned presenting a glass of cold water and three tablets. "And you should take these too. I think you have a fever."
Spencer tried to sit up, and the woman reached behind her to steady her back. She swallowed the tablets and started to sip from the glass, but her overpowering thirst got the better of her and soon she was gulping it down in huge swallows. Too much water too fast caused her to choke and cough, which in turn, made her clutch her battered ribs in agony. The blue eyes watered as she slumped forward, the kind woman patting her softly on the back.
"You want to try again?" the blonde offered, this time holding the glass herself to control the amount.
Spencer took another couple of drinks, and then lay back against the pillow, tugging up her t-shirt to display a dark purple bruise the size of two hands just beneath her left breast, and another that covered her hipbone.
"Oh my god, that's awful! What happened to you?"
"A motorcycle wreck," Spencer answered breathlessly, "on Friday night."
"Friday night!" That was almost two days ago. "Why didn't you go to the doctor?"
The dark haired woman shook her head. "I can't," was all she said.
"But you have to. Your arm's infected and it looks like your ribs might be broken."
She shook her head again. "No, I can't." Spencer tried again to pull herself upright, worried that this woman would call someone now that she'd seen the extent of her injuries.
"Wait no! It's okay." Ruth guided her back against the pillows, where she closed her eyes. "You can stay here until you're better. I won't call anyone," she promised.
Spencer reached out and clasped her savior's hand, squeezing it hard. "Thank you." It was barely a whisper.
After a few minutes, the dark-haired woman relaxed and her breathing slowed, a sure sign that she'd drifted off again. No doubt, her body was fighting the arm infection as best it could, but it wouldn't hurt to reapply the ointment and change the small bandage.
"Just don't die on me. That would be pretty hard to explain," Ruth said softly, pretty sure that her words had fallen on undiscerning ears.
Ruth had no idea what to do if the ribs were broken, but she remembered one of the guys that Skip had played ball with wearing an elastic bandage around his torso. She made a mental note to pick one up that day when they went out for groceries. Whatever she could do to get this stranger fixed up and on her way was worth it.
Against the backdrop of cartoons, Ruth and Jessie fell asleep together on the couch, the former still trying to recover from the overnight drive from Maine. When they awoke, she began her grocery list with her new budget in mind. Ruth had plenty to get set up, but she needed to be mindful that the cash she'd garnered might have to go a long way, especially if she had trouble finding work that would accommodate Jessie's hours in day care.
Ruth checked on the injured woman again, relieved to see her resting comfortably. Satisfied that this time she'd stay put, the mother grabbed her jacket and pulled it on.
"Sweetie, we have to go to the grocery. Can you put your coat on?"
"You mean may I,'" the child corrected haughtily.
Ruth really had to stop and think before responding. "No, not in this case, honey. You use may' when you're asking permission and can' when you're asking if you're able."
"That's too hard to remember."
"I know. But you'll get the hang of it one of these days," she said with encouragement. "You're a really smart girl."
Jessie loved hearing that from her mother. Her daddy had never said anything that nice to her.
"Do you think Daddy's looking for us now?"
Talk about out of the mouths of babes. Ruth had awakened from their nap, uneasy and anxious about the impending hour of six, the moment that she officially became a fugitive. The feeling would probably intensify over the next few weeks, and then maybe she could really start to put it all behind them.
"I don't know, sweetie. But he isn't going to find Karen and Megan Oliver, is he?"
Jessie grinned and shook her head. They were hiding.
Before going into the grocery, Ruth checked out the pharmacy next door. The elastic bandages big enough for someone's torso were expensive, but the woman back at the trailer needed something in case those ribs were really broken.
Returning from their errands just before dark, Jessie asked to visit Willy, and when Viv said it was okay, they took a quick peek and headed for the trailer. When the groceries were put away, the two shared a cheese pizza before settling in the living room for their first real night together at home.
"Will you play Candy Land with me?" Jessie asked.
"Sure. Do you remember where we put the games?" Ruth had brought as many games, toys, and books as she could squeeze into the little car.
"It's under my bed." To Jessie, this was one of the best things about living with her mom. Her daddy never wanted to play games or read stories or play with toys like her mom did. "I want to be blue!" she called.
"Then I'll be what color should I be?"
"Okay, I'll be red."
For forty minutes, they took turns drawing the cards and marching their gingerbread men to the castle. Ruth got there first in the first game, and they played again. By skipping the shortcuts, she made sure that Jessie won the second time, and that was always a good stopping point.
Next up was a bath and a book, and soon, the four-year-old was down for the count.
As she had done practically every hour, Ruth returned to the back bedroom to check on the injured woman once again. She'd slept for most of the last twenty-four hours, still fighting the infection and probably the effects of being out in the rain so long. The wounds on her arm and eyebrow were definitely better, though, and maybe tomorrow she'd be well enough to be taken somewhere and dropped off.
Ruth grabbed one of the pillows and headed back out to the couch. Last night, she'd used a thin blanket, but tonight she decided to spread out a sheet on the scratchy upholstery. With any luck, this would be her last night on the couch.
Settling in, she used the remote to turn on the television, lowering the volume so as not to disturb Jessie in the next room. Flipping through the channels, she stopped for a local newscast at ten o'clock. Barely able to hold her eyes open, she listened to the report, her worst fear being that the authorities would be on her trail already, broadcasting her picture and a description of the station wagon with Maine tags.
"Authorities in the metro DC area are seeking your help tonight in finding these two employees of Margadon Industries in Bethesda. Spencer Rollins and James Crowell are wanted in connection with the murder of Henry Estes, a programmer at Margadon. Estes was found strangled in his office late Friday evening; Rollins and Crowell were seen leaving the scene about the time of the murder. If you have information ."
Ruth suddenly sat up, now wide awake and staring at the picture on the screen, her whole body trembling. The mysterious woman down the hall the woman sleeping in her bed the woman whose wounds she'd so carefully treated was wanted for murder. She turned, her heart nearly stopping as she saw the tall figure standing over her shoulder in the hallway.
"It's not true," the woman said, falling to a knee as she grabbed the end table for support. "I didn't do it."
"I need you to leave," Ruth pleaded, her voice shaking with fear. How could she have let a murderer into her home, so close to where her daughter slept? "My daughter ."
"It isn't true," the woman repeated. "I didn't kill that man. He was my best friend," she said sadly, her eyes filling with tears.
"Then why don't you go to the police?" Ruth herself had stood and taken a step backward toward the kitchen.
"Because I saw who did it, and now they want to kill me."
Ruth shook again with panic. What if whoever was looking for her came to this place?
"You have to leave."
"I will. I promise. And I won't hurt you," the injured woman pleaded, pulling herself to her feet. "I didn't kill him."
"Was it that other man they showed? Crowell? He's missing too, they said."
"No, if James is really missing, he's probably dead too by now. He was with the killers on Friday night." Spencer slowly stood and slid over the arm of the old leather recliner. "Can I have water? And maybe something to eat? Please?"
Ruth walked nervously into the kitchen area where she ran a glass of water from the tap. "Ice?"
Spencer shook her head as the blonde woman returned, stretching out to hand her the glass.
"I can make you a cheese sandwich or some soup or I have some leftover spaghetti I could heat up." It struck Ruth that the moment was actually surreal. Here she was offering dinner options to an accused murderer who was hiding in her house.
"Anything. I'm sorry I'm so much trouble." Her head was still swimming, but she needed a plan for saving her ass, and that wasn't going to happen with her lying in the bed all day. "You've been I really appreciate everything you've done."
Ruth took the bowl of spaghetti from the refrigerator and spooned some of the sticky pasta into a saucepan, adding a small bit of water so it would stir. From this distance, the stranger wasn't so intimidating, especially since she looked as weak as a kitten.
"So what really happened?"
Off and on all day, Spencer had been trying to make sense of the events of the last two days.
"Henry and I found a problem in one of our routines on Friday afternoon. We're programmers at Margadon," she explained. "He stayed to work on it; I left to go to a friend's party."
Telling the story out loud brought unexpected pangs of guilt. If she'd stayed with Henry, maybe this wouldn't have happened.
"He called me around midnight to say that he'd found something big. He asked me to come back to the office and look at it. I was doing something else and I didn't really want to go, but then he said he'd already called James, so I knew that whatever it was must have been a pretty big deal. Henry didn't get excited about much, and he was wild."
"James. Is that the Crowell guy?" Ruth scooped the now steaming spaghetti onto a plate and grabbed a fork.
"Yeah, James is our boss. He's the controller, the one in charge of the inventory flow. So when I got to work, it was dark everything was dark. And it shouldn't have been, so that was the first sign that something was weird. I went up to our floor and I could see James and some other guy standing over Henry's terminal. I started to walk in, but they were I don't know, acting funny. I don't know how to describe it, but it's like they were whispering and nervous. So when I got to the office, I could see in, and Henry was lying on the floor ," Spencer shuddered at the horrible image in her mind, "and he had a power cord tied in a knot around his neck."
Ruth had been waiting to hand the woman the plate, but she set it on the counter when it was clear that she'd lost her composure.
"I tried to get out without anyone seeing me I would have gone straight to the cops but they must have seen me go out and the next thing I knew, they were chasing me all over the parking lot. I had to jump the fence on my bike. That's how all this happened," she indicated her injuries.
"So why didn't you go to the police when you got away?"
"Because because the guys who were chasing me were the feds."
"The feds? You mean the federal government?"
"Yeah, like the FBI or something."
"How do you know?"
"Because the car that stopped me in the parking lot had government plates."
"Maybe they just wanted to talk to you," she reasoned.
"No, see that's what was so weird. The guy that was upstairs with James had to be an agent too, because when he came out chasing me, he went straight to the car. And then they both started chasing me. That's why I got scared and ran."
Ruth wanted to believe every word, but it sounded preposterous. "I still don't understand why you don't just go to the police. I mean, if you told them this story, they'd be able to find these guys and figure out who's really guilty."
Spencer shook her head in frustration. "It's gotten so much more complicated than that. I got away from those guys on Friday night, and I spent the night out in the rain in a park. But the next morning I tried to call my friend and the line went dead right when I was telling her what happened. Next thing I know, I'm getting chased again, this time by the cops and the feds. And one of them was even shooting at me. So if I go to the police, I'm going to end up dead just like Henry. And probably just like James. They'll say I was shot trying to escape or something. I saw what they did and they have to shut me up."
"You called your friend and the line just happened to go dead when you started to tell her about it?" Ruth knew now that the woman was making this up as she went.
"Yeah. Look, I know how that sounds. I don't think I'd believe me either, so I know exactly why you're looking at me like that." The look was one of complete incredulity. "But I swear to god, it's the truth. Or at least it's the truth as I know it. The woman I called is an agent with the IRS, an investigative agent. She's law enforcement, just like these guys. I lost my cell phone when I crashed the bike, so if they found it, they'd know I call her all the time. Outside of Henry and Elena, I really don't have any other friends. Probably the last twenty calls on my log were to one or the other. And these guys had to be listening in when I called. Otherwise, they wouldn't have gotten to me so fast."
"Let me tell you how I see it," the blonde woman started. "You say that you saw your friend dead. Your boss was there and so was this other guy. Maybe they found him like that and they saw you run away. The reason they're trying to catch you is because they think you're the killer."
Spencer drew a deep breath and blew it out.
"Henry was my best friend," she said simply. "We've worked three feet away from each other for the last six years. We pushed each other; we challenged each other. That's why he stayed late on Friday. We found a problem and he wanted to find the answer because it was all this great big puzzle to him. He loved that, and so did I. I'd have been there too if I hadn't made plans for Friday night. It was our code and it had this big ass glitch in it and we both wanted it fixed. That's why I dropped what I was doing and came back to the office when he called me."
Again, her eyes clouded with tears as she shook her head sadly. "You have no idea how unreal it is that somebody would kill a person like Henry. He never hurt a soul, even when people gave him a reason to."
"What do you mean?"
"Henry was Albino. People made fun of him a lot, but it just rolled off his back. He was one of the nicest people I ever knew."
As Ruth listened to the woman talk about her friend, and as she heard and saw the sadness in her story, she became wholly convinced that the woman in her house was not Henry's murderer. But she just couldn't buy that federal agents had done such a deplorable deed.
"You need to tell them that, just like you've told me. If they could hear how you talk about him, they'd have to believe you."
"It isn't a matter of believing me. Those assholes already know I didn't do it, because they're the ones that did." she said angrily.
"Can't you hear how bizarre that sounds? It's like something right out of a spy novel or something. Why would federal agents kill your friend?" Ruth could see the growing frustration, but maybe the programmer was too close to everything to look at it all objectively.
"Because he found something in the code!" Spencer said with exasperation. She never really grasped that others didn't understand programming the way she did.
"I don't know what that means," Ruth groaned. She too was growing frustrated.
The dark haired woman blew out another deep breath.
"It's like this. We have these programs to keep track of production. Margadon makes pharmaceuticals drugs. You need certain amounts of A, B, and C to make D. We track everything by lot number so we not only know how much A goes in, but what box it came out of, and where it ends up. You ever hear those stories about products being taken of the shelves because there's something wrong?"
"Well, that's how we know which lot numbers are affected when something like that happens. We might find out that there was something wrong with a shipment of B, so we have to recall all of D that was put together with that shipment. You with me?"
"I think so. You wrote some sort of accounting program to track what went into pharmaceutical products and then you found a glitch in it."
"Exactly! But what we found what Henry found was that we weren't putting enough of one of the active ingredients into the batches of Kryfex that we're making for a government contract. But then, somebody fucked with our program so they could cover it up. That way, they're billing the government the full amount, but they're shorting the key ingredient, which also just happened to be the most expensive ingredient. And somebody is pocketing the difference."
Spencer was seeing it better herself now that she was saying it all out loud. Could the government contract have anything to do with why the feds were involved in this?
"I'm confused. You mean you were shorting the shipments but charging the same thing?"
"More or less, that's right."
"So maybe that's why the feds were there, because they found out about it and were investigating."
Spencer shook her head. "No, the feds were there because James must have called them when Henry told him what he'd found. Something was going down in the office when I got up there. They were fucking around with Henry's computer and neither one of them acted like they gave a shit that there was a guy lying there with a goddamned power cord tied around his neck." Again, her eyes filled with tears as she thought of the terror Henry had known in his last minutes.
After a few long quiet minutes, Ruth stood up to get the plate from the kitchen. "Here, you need to eat."
"Thank you." She'd had a single bite of a sweet roll in the last two days. "I guess I should also say thanks for taking care of me these last couple of days and for not just calling the cops."
Ruth chuckled at the irony. "Fat chance of that," she mumbled.
Spencer heard it, but let it go.
"Look, I don't mean to be unsympathetic, but you can't stay here. I can take you somewhere, to a friend's house or something, but I really don't want to be in the middle of this. I've got my own problems."
Spencer nodded solemnly. She didn't want to cause any trouble for this woman or her little girl.
"Can you take me back to where I hid my bike in the morning? It's near that Wal-Mart."
"I'll, uh stay out here on the couch tonight. You can have your bed back."
"That's okay. You could probably use another good night's sleep. How's the arm?"
"And your side?"
Spencer glanced at the door as a little girl appeared.
"Mommy?" Keeping her distance as much as possible, Jessie crossed the room toward where her mother sat.
"Yes, sweetie. Come here." For some reason, Ruth's stomach knotted at the thought of her daughter being in the room with this suspicious woman, though she had concluded to her own satisfaction that Spencer Rollins hadn't killed anyone. However, she couldn't help but be skeptical about the rest of the story. It seemed pretty outrageous to think that the feds were really trying to kill her.
"Hi, I'm Spencer. You don't have to be afraid of me." Spencer set her empty plate on the floor beside the recliner.
"My name's Karen, and this is my daughter, Megan."
"Hello, Megan. Your mom and I were just talking. I'm going to leave tomorrow so you don't have to worry about anything."
Jessie wouldn't answer.
"Did we wake you up?" Ruth asked tenderly, brushing the blonde curls back. "Why don't I come in a read another story? We're all ready to go to sleep now."
Spencer took that as her cue to head back down the hall. She felt a lot better now that she'd eaten, but another night's sleep would be a good thing. She was still exhausted.
And tomorrow she'd be a target again.
No, you may not go to sleep yet. Keep reading! Part 3.
Return to the Academy