For disclaimers and all that business, please see Part I.
Thanks again to the seemingly inexhaustible patience of Ruth, who read this time and time again…thanks Kamouraskan, and Jo, for your encouragement.
And feel free to keep 'em coming…
Christina panted heavily as she ran.
She was pushing herself to the limits in terms of speed and distance. But it didn't matter. The memories, the overwhelming feelings of self-pity and despair threatened to engulf her. She kept hoping if she ran far enough or fast enough, she would leave them all behind the easy way.
It never worked.
Occasional thoughts of stepping in front of a stray car to stop the pain flickered through her mind like a candlewick. She wouldn't do it. She couldn't do it.
That she knew. Like drinking, suicide was not an option for her.
Sweat glistened as it ran like rain down her body. She was back at the boat. And the sun was already up on the horizon. The water lapped the boat lazily, as if mocking the maelstrom of her soul. Her stomach protested its emptiness, a grim reminder of scheduled events of the morning.
Breakfast with Owen and Abigail. Great.
The thought of using the tools her recovery program had given her escaped her. Letting the truth set her free from the torment she carried had too great a risk. And how could she really expect Abigail to understand, anyway?
Alone. That was how she felt.
She stopped by her bathroom sink to splash water on her face, to cool down before her shower. As she looked at her hands, they were red. Like they were covered in blood.
Her heart began pounding wildly in her chest. She washed her hands once, maybe twice before forcing herself to stop this compulsion.
Finally able to calm down, she took her shower and prepared for her breakfast with the two most important people in her life.
Owen, who knew her for what she really was.
Abigail, the love she treasured, who didn't.
Abigail stayed at Trish's. There was no point in trying to sleep in her apartment, after Lita Tomlinson had violated it. Again.
She was tired. Not that she was a morning person anyway, but she felt more reluctant to drag herself out of bed. Sleep eluded her, and she rested neither mentally nor physically.
At least she had somewhere safe to stay. She reflected on group therapy, years ago, where some of the abused women really had nowhere to go, until that halfway house finally opened.
The telephone mocked her. She should call her parents, let them know what was going on and that she was okay. It was a call she dreaded to make.
Not because she didn't get along with her parents; they'd worked through the wreckage of emotions and tried to accept each other on their own terms. It was just the worry, the concern she would have to deal with. Too many emotions, her own and theirs, attacking her at once.
The telephone sat there, waiting for her to pick up the receiver. She sighed and made the call.
"Good Morning." Her mother's sleepy voiced answered on the other end.
"Gail? Is that you?" Fear reverberated through her voice, shaking the timbers. She stared at the clock, trying to focus. Six a.m. "What's wrong?" One thing Mrs. Thanis knew was that her daughter was never up this early by choice.
"Nothing, Mom." Abigail paused for a moment, the lie gagging her. "That isn't true."
"I'm awake, honey. Tell me what's wrong." She heard her mother's voice gently pleading and the distance washed away as the tears ebbed. "Honey?"
"I'm here." She gathered herself together. "Do you remember Lita Tomlinson?"
"You mean that maniac that killed Michael?" Her mother's voice had a sharp edge. "Isn't she in prison?"
Silence hung over the telephone line like a wet dishrag.
"Gail, isn't that psychopath still in prison?" Again, the fear filled her mother's voice. "You don't mean to tell me she's out, do you?"
"Yes, ma'am." She sighed deeply before she continued. "She's out, she's here in town, and she's been paying me little calling cards."
"What?" Shock exploded across the receiver as Abigail heard her father's morning growl.
"It looks like she's been to my apartment twice. I've reported it both times."
"And where are you now? Surely not there?"
"No, ma'am." She was thoroughly amazed at how together she was able to keep herself for this conversation. "I'm staying with Trish and Nick."
"Oh." An old jealousy was evident in her mother's voice. "I'm glad." Her mother paused, trying to swallow the envy. "Really, I am."
"Well, your father and I would like to come see for ourselves." Her mother's tone was one that used to brook no argument.
"Mom, I'm okay." Her voice was softer, trying to persuade her mother that wasn't necessary. They lived almost three hours away. "Really."
"We'd still like to see." She could hear her mother backing down slightly. "You're my daughter. Our daughter. We love you very much."
"I know." Abigail's voice cracked slightly. "Please."
"My Abigail." She could hear her mother quietly crying. "You don't still think…" Her voice trailed off, the sadness and grief overwhelming her.
"No, no, Mom." Abigail protested, hating the pain she heard. "I love you and Dad. That isn't it at all."
"Then what is it?" Her mother's voice grew stronger. "Tell me. Help me understand."
A small smile formed under the tears that slid down Abigail's cheeks as she listened to her mother's request.
"Help me understand."
"If I don't do this my way, I'll always be her victim." The conviction in her voice was strong. "And I don't want that. I'm tired of being her victim."
Her mother held her peace for a moment. It was so hard to let her child grow up and do what she needed to do. Especially in a situation like this. She wanted to shelter her, to keep her safe. But that wasn't the answer and she knew it. All that therapy, rebuilding the relationship with Abigail was not for nothing.
"I'm here." She heard her mother sigh, then reconcile herself to the inevitable. "We won't come. For now."
"I love you, Mom."
"I love you, too, Gail."
She replaced the receiver in its cradle and wondered if she should have relented. Dark circles were evident under her eyes as she stared in the mirror. She straightened her shoulders as she noticed them slump over from all the emotional baggage she was carrying.
There was a bright spot to all this. At least she would see Christina for breakfast.
"Hey." Owen smiled when he saw Christina enter the coffee shop. He half-expected her not to show up, after their conversation last night.
"What's up, Owen?" She sat down across from him in the booth and ordered a coffee.
"Just the sun and us." He paused to enjoy his orange juice. "How'd you sleep?"
She stared at him, the lie thick on her lips. She really wanted to tell him that she slept well, that their conversation from the previous evening had no effect on her. But her tongue betrayed her and she said nothing.
"Be nice." He sounded smug to her and she didn't like it.
"Christina, I'm only concerned about you. I can't turn that on and off like a faucet."
She drew her stony blue eyes away from him and glanced at the door. Warmness filled her as she saw Abigail approach. A closer look at her girlfriend revealed a tired, drawn face and bags under her verdant eyes.
"You must be Owen," she said, once she reached the table. She extended her hand to him as she sat down beside Christina. "I'm Abigail."
"It's a pleasure to meet you on a personal level, Abigail." He gripped her hand firmly, and noted that she meant business when she shook hands. "Order what you like, this one's on me." He handed her the one page menu. "The steak and eggs are pretty good, if you're looking for suggestions."
"Oh, I couldn't possibly let you pay for mine."
"I insist." Her protests fell on deaf ears as he held up his hands. "Christina's family to me, and I won't take no for an answer."
"He won't. Trust me." Christina shrugged her shoulders in agreement. "He's like a broken record. He just keeps on playing the same verse until you agree."
"Okay, I get the picture." Abigail laughed, some of the tension finally leaving her.
"You okay?" Christina briefly touched Abigail's leg under the table.
"It's been a long night."
"Wanna talk about it?" She had to restrain herself from smoothing out her girlfriend's strawberry-blonde hair.
"No," she stated emphatically. "I'd rather have a nice breakfast and get to know your wannabe brother." She motioned across the table and smiled, trying to lighten the conversation.
"Me?" Owen looked around in mock amazement. "Little ole me?"
Christina rolled her eyes.
The server came and took their order.
"What would you like to know about me, Abigail?"
"Well," she began. "How did you meet Christina, how did you get started in restaurants, that sort of thing, I guess."
"I met Christina when she was about seventeen." His mahogany eyes twinkled as he began his story. "As you know, she used to have a very serious problem with alcohol. In fact, you probably wouldn't recognize her from those days."
"What do you mean?" Abigail glanced from Owen to Christina, then back to Owen.
"For one thing, she has more life in her eyes. And she smiles now. Back then, her face was like stone. I think it hurt her to laugh."
Christina raised her right eyebrow in warning.
"But how did you meet her? She told me she didn't live at home, so it wasn't through her family."
Owen's words came crashing back to Christina as she looked across the table.
"It's true that she didn't live at home." He paused as he watched Christina's shoulders straighten up, filled with tension. "I met her through a friend. And she reminded me a lot of my dearly departed sister. She was an alcoholic that died from her disease."
"When Owen met me," Christina interjected. "I was scraping at the bottom of the barrel. I really had nowhere to go. He was like a lifesaver, if an annoying one."
"Look who's talking!"
"Well, it's true." She smirked, confident that the uncomfortable circumstances had been avoided. "He's a nice guy, but irritating as hell."
Lita watched from a distance as Jack's car was towed away. The jet-black windows she saw gave her a sense of accomplishment.
But toying with Jack was too easy.
She liked a challenge in her work.
Vengeance against the bane of her existence was almost at hand. She could taste the sweetness of revenge as it lingered in the distance. But patience - that was the key.
She didn't know where Special K lived. She couldn't allow herself that luxury. Temptation might strike her too strongly, forcing her to act before she was ready.
But little Miss Abigail was another story. How she enjoyed the thought of bringing her to emotional ruin now, laying her soul at the feet of Special K. And watching Special K crumble, completely undone, as her little Abigail lay there, beyond hope.
A moment she never believed possible now was within her grasp.
The tow-truck faded away as she walked down the road. The morning sun threatened to blind her in its brilliance, causing her to hide behind her sunglasses. She detested hiding, unless it served a purpose. It was too much like what she supposed Special K did, in her camouflaged new life.
Hiding from everyone and everything, afraid to see who she really was. Her brother's killer.
Stupid bitch. The past is like a snake in the grass. And the future is just a shade of all that has come before and shall come again. My move, my turn. Check, my dear.
If there was a game Lita found that she really enjoyed while incarcerated, it was playing chess. It reminded her of her situation with Abigail.
She had the queen cornered and the king in check. Perhaps backing off slightly, allowing the principals in her script to get comfortable and cozy, then moving in for the kill.
No need to rush.
Andrew awoke with a sense of impending doom. Or maybe it was just a horrible hangover.
It was hard for him to tell these days. He placed his hands on his head in a vain attempt to stop his brain from pounding outside his skull.
There was something he had to do today, something important, but the thought evaded him.
Something to do with Lita.
That had a slightly sobering effect.
Okay…this is just a small hangover, a slight setback in plans. Can't let Lita down.
Even his thoughts resounded in his head as if pronounced with a bullhorn.
He lifted himself up from the bed in his dilapidated motel room. Never one to squander money on mere surroundings, he watched as cockroaches ran across the fried chicken he left on the table.
Wonderful. Didn't feel much like eating, anyway.
The bottle of aspirin he'd purchased along with his nightcap was on the table next to the bed. He fumbled with the stupid bottle, unable to open the childproof cap. In frustration, he began stabbing at the bottle with his keys, until he broke through the plastic. Two aspirin were swallowed without any water as he took a moment to let the pills attempt to work their magic.
He grunted as the throbbing eased off. Just a moment's relief was like heaven.
Looking for breakfast money, he rifled through his clothing he left on the floor. He found Lita's note.
It all came crashing back to him, causing the pounding in his head to increase again.
With an amazing willpower, he got into the shower and began the process of disguising his hangover. He couldn't afford to mess up this meeting.
If he screwed this up, Lita would kill him. Or maybe TopCat would.
He nearly scrubbed the skin off his face as he trembled. All the time now, it seemed, he was shaking. Maybe he was coming down with some disease. Putting those thoughts out of his mind, he continued getting ready. Running a hand along his cheek, he figured he could get away without shaving.
Remembering he had clean, pressed clothes in his car for this meeting, he threw on his clothes from the previous night and retrieved the fresh ones from his car. He sniffed them, satisfied there was no lingering scent of alcohol on them.
Finally, he was ready.
He drove to the harbor, where he would meet with Jimmy, be blindfolded and taken to meet TopCat. He watched the small wake of the Gulf as it moved like a dancer on a stage. The gentle roll of the water gave him a sense of serenity and peace.
"Andy!" He heard Jimmy's voice call out.
"Hey, Jimmy." He turned around and saw Jimmy standing with two, hulking brutes.
Great. Wonder if I'm gonna be their punching bag?
"As ready as I'll ever be." He took a step forward and forced a grin. "Let's go."
Abigail joined Christina on the boat after breakfast. She liked Owen. He was an attractive man, and very funny. And they both had something wonderful in common: Christina.
She pulled the photograph out of her windbreaker and stared at it again. No matter how many times she looked at it, it didn't make any sense to her.
"Hey." Christina handed her a glass of Tropical Splash as she sat next to her. "What are you looking at?"
"Nothing much." She put the photograph back in her windbreaker and drank the Tropical Splash. "Nothing I want to talk about, anyway."
"No," she replied as she held Christina's hand. "I'd rather talk about you and me. Or Owen."
"Owen?" Christina gripped her chair with her free hand. "Him?"
"Of course." She held her girlfriend's hand to her cheek, then kissed it lightly. "He's like your brother, you said. Of course I want to know about him, get to know him better. If he's important to you, he's important to me."
"Oh." Her forehead crinkled as she thought for a moment. "Well, I met him during a nasty period of my life. I was very fortunate that he was gay. Otherwise, his help might have been very expensive."
"You know, like maybe he would take it out in trade or something?"
Abigail turned slightly red. Her small town roots were showing.
"Anyway, he ended up being one of the best friends I could ever have. He helped me get to the halfway house, out of my old environment, and into recovery. "
"Wow." Abigail's embarrassment turned to amazement. "He sounds pretty incredible."
"No different than you and Trish. Or Nick." She could almost feel the trout calling to her as she stared across the slight chop of the Gulf. "Feel like fishing?"
"Always." The strawberry-blonde wondered what all was in her girlfriend's background that was so painful it caused her to change the subject so frequently.
"Feel like steering?" Christina stood up and stretched, her tee shirt riding up, revealing a wonderfully trim midsection, laced with muscles.
"It's sleep for you, is it?" She smiled and Abigail could feel her involuntary response to such a gorgeous woman.
"I think so." She stood up and yawned. "Hey, after we get out there, do you think you could come cuddle me for a while?" Her verdant eyes burned with a need for comfort.
"It would be my pleasure."
Andrew felt the blindfold being removed from his eyes. He squinted as he tried to adjust to the flood of light that hit him. He felt eyes staring through him, with the same intensity that Lita generally had.
Just great. I'm dead.
He forced his hands to stay still.
"Andrew," he heard a male voice roll out. "You requested an audience?" This voice was heavy with authority and self-importance. Not nearly the control that Lita had. He relaxed slightly.
"Yes, sir." He wondered about proper protocol. Obviously, this was not someone he dared shake hands with.
"Tell me," the voice boomed as his vision finally cleared. "What is that you want from me?" At last he saw the man, who he assumed must be TopCat, sitting behind a desk. He had short, thick black hair, impeccably cut into layers, and deep, mahogany eyes. His face and templed fingers were evidence of the physical strength this man possessed. Andrew was certain there was not an ounce of fat on this stranger.
"Sir," he said as he realized for the first time he had no idea how to properly address this man. "I'm from Pinkston."
A flicker of impatience crossed the stranger's face and faded away. Andrew. His mind flashed through names like a computer, and then it clicked. Right. Andrew. Disappeared from my little acquirement in that podunk town.
"I would like to…" Andrew's voice trailed off as the stranger held up a finger for him to be quiet.
"I know you." Andrew squirmed, as one of his worst fears was realized. "You were in with Jimmy's bunch."
Andrew meekly nodded his head as his future flashed before him. It wasn't a pretty sight.
"And you were a courier."
He again nodded, knowing what was next.
"And you disappeared."
Andrew's head bobbed as he wished he were somewhere else. He watched the large stranger as he emerged from behind the desk. He was at least six foot, two inches, thick and solid. All muscle. Even the expensive, dark business suit the man wore couldn't hide that.
"What happened to you? I don't like it when my friends disappear like that." He strode towards Andrew, looking very unhappy.
"Well, I, uh," he stammered, unable to complete his sentence. With the amount of fear he had, he was surprised that he could stand.
"Spit it out, boy."
"I just kind of split." He kept his voice low; he was sure he was going to pee his pants.
"I just kind of split," the stranger mocked. "Gentlemen, is that an acceptable reason?"
The room filled with snickers. Andrew didn't even realize there were other people in the room, he was so terrified.
"Will anyone here," he continued loudly, drawing his audience in from the shadows. "Stand up for Andrew?"
The sounds of fists hitting skin intermingled with laughter got Andrew's attention.
"I will." Jimmy stepped forward, sponsoring Andrew into the gang.
The room moaned. Their sport for the morning had been saved.
"You know what to do." The stranger turned on his heel and reached the door. Without glancing back, he finished his instructions. "Handle it."
Christina took her time steering to the sandbar. It was a pretty day, and neither of them had to work.
They had all the time in the world.
She shut off the engine and guided the boat on land.
The water looked inviting. A swim would be great.
Warm water of the Gulf surrounded her with each stroke. She needed this swim, to release the anxiety from her talk with Owen and then that breakfast.
As she thought of the breakfast, she remembered the request of the petite server, who lay in her bed. Waiting for her.
She got back on the boat, using the drop ladder and headed for the shower. As she dried off, gnawing reminders of her conversation threatened to permeate her happy mood, but she tried to keep those thoughts at bay. All that was important was now, this very moment.
A guilty feeling crept into her mind as she dried off, but she ignored it. She threw back a cup of cold coffee and nearly gagged on the nasty taste. Still, it was better than alcohol. It soothed her throat and filled her need to act out drinking.
As she looked over to the small bed, she saw a contented smile on her girlfriend's face.
She couldn't disturb that with the past, could she? Was it really that important?
She walked over to the bed, stepping quietly. As she began gently caressing Abigail's face, her girlfriend reached up with a sleepy hand and took it to her bosom.
"Mine," Abigail said in her sleep. "All mine."
"Yeah." Mentally pushing the past aside, Christina got in bed with Abigail and held her close. "I'm all yours."
Lita sat alone on the jetties. The cool, autumn breeze ran through her bleached-blonde hair as the sunlight gently touched her. As the golden glow danced upon the Gulf, she smiled.
It was all falling into place.
She watched a fisherman in the distance, as he brought in his catch. He quickly unhooked it and released the fish.
Ignorant fool. What's the point of toying with your victim if not to finish it?
She thought of Andrew. Now there was a true fool, one she would continue to endure, as a means to an end. He still had connections that were denied her while in prison. And he was reacquainting himself, on her behalf, with Jimmy and that idiot who stole her friends and took her power. Even so, the idiot was of no consequence to her; he was little more than one of the guards she had to deal with while incarcerated.
That brought back bitter memories, of being told when to sleep, when to eat; the humiliation of having to give her name, inmate number, and race every night. The revulsion of not being even slightly involved in the decision-making process for herself. For five years, being ordered, from one place to the next, without care or concern.
Those two women owed her.
Abigail Thanis, the entire reason she was behind bars. As far as Lita was concerned, the strawberry-blonde was a waste of space. Anyone who gave damning testimony was not worth the air they inhaled.
And Special K. How might have her life evolved if not for the death of Timmy? She would never know.
Andrew struggled to sit up. There was not a place on his body that did not ache, no muscle that was not incredibly sore.
He wasn't surprised.
He expected it.
As his eyes began to focus, he saw that he had been dumped back on the dock where he'd met Jimmy earlier. He touched his sore head lightly, feeling for blood. They were professionals. Beat him senseless without bloodshed. That meant no one used brass knuckles.
He couldn't remember, having been knocked out quickly. And he was thankful for it. Jimmy must have taken mercy on him.
Just sitting up was a feat. The pain he felt was overwhelmingly intense.
His car was fifty feet away. As far as he was concerned, it might have well as been fifty miles.
Grasping onto a piling, he pulled himself up and attempted to stand on his own volition.
"Ugh." The concrete slapped his sensitive skin as it made contact.
He hoisted himself up, grateful for the first time, in a long time, that he wasn't drunk. That would only complicate matters and mask his physical pain.
On the other hand, maybe that wasn't such a bad thing.
That gave him the inspiration to try to stand again. Then he could walk. In fact, maybe he could make it to his car, to the burning relief that was just footsteps away.
Again, he latched onto the piling and slowly pulled himself up. He held on tightly as his legs trembled, trying to support his weight. Both of his ankles moved involuntarily from side to side. Not a good sign.
Still, he was determined. If he fell again, he may not be able to get up for a while.
And then, he would be stuck, without any sort of relief, having to deal with his tormented body.
He took his first faltering step, keeping a hand on the piling. His legs wobbled, and he latched back onto the piling with both hands.
His legs were tingling but numb. He might have broken bones.
All the more reason to make it to safety.
With great trepidation, he stepped, letting go of the piling.
He fell. Hard.
To hell with this. I'll crawl.
Continued in Part XI
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