Shifting the car into park in the gravel driveway, she was nervous to turn off the engine. She had driven to the old house a million times before but never in the middle of the night like this. And in fact, she couldn't think of a time when she had ever stayed the night in the house. But now that her uncle had died, it was time for some things to be taken care of. Her mother was anxious for someone to stay in the house and so Angela had driven out to the farm in the evening, but it was dark before she left her home two hours ago.
Her uncle's house was eerily dark without any lights on. The outside lights weren't even on, so Angela assumed that the neighbor had the electricity shut off the day that her uncle had died. No one understood why her Uncle Stephen had added his neighbor onto all of his utility bills. Angela's mother suspected for a long time that Stephen wasn't able to afford his bills or his home, but he had refused any kind of family financial loan that anyone had offered. He was incredibly adamant about not accepting monetary help.
Angela looked all around the car before finally killing the engine and stepped out of her shiny black Lexus. Her designer heels sunk into the mud and she almost fell. The shock of it unnerved her, but she quickly regained her footing and took her purse from the car. The woods surrounding the house loomed precariously overhead as she walked up to the old house. Trees heaved and groaned in the wind. Angela's hair was in her face and she could barely see to wobble across the yard in her heels. When she reached the front stairs she could easily see they were in serious need of repair. The top stair was completely missing, and the other three steps were severely broken. When she finally made it onto the porch, she scrambled to find the key to the front door. A big gust of wind opened the door for her and Angela almost fell again. She could tell it was going to be a long night.
Once inside the house she shut and locked the door. Using her cell phone as a light source she found a small battery-operated lamp and turned it on. She carried it back to the door and flipped the light switch on, but nothing happened. Roaming through the rest of the house she found several candles and some matches. She carried two to the guest room, where she found a stripped bed, with fresh linens in the hall closet. She was glad that her uncle liked to keep things neat around his house. A small investigation of the kitchen proved that the gas was still on and that the stove worked. At least she would have a way to cook tomorrow. She would have to go into town in the morning for groceries and to turn on the electricity again.
Back in the bedroom she had made the bed and blown out the candles, taking the lamp with her to the nightstand. Pulling back the covers, she called her mother on the phone.
"Hey mom," she said. "I wanted to let you know I was at the house and inside safely."
A small pause as she kicked off her shoes and tried without much effort to wipe the mud off.
"No, the electricity isn't on. I was going to have it turned on in the morning when I go to get groceries."
Another pause, this time shedding her sweater, revealing the light blue tank underneath.
"I didn't think about that, I suppose it could be because of the wind. It hasn't started raining yet though."
A soft murmur from her mother on the phone. Angela folded her sweater and put it in the nightstand drawer. She didn't really want to sleep in her jeans, but she didn't have a whole lot of choice. With the storm striking up she hadn't wanted to bring in her overnight bag.
"Yes mom, I'll be careful...okay. Okay. I love you... Goodnight."
Angela put her cell phone next to the lamp on the nightstand and crawled under the covers. She sighed. She hated storms, and this one promised to be pretty intense. She hoped that it would pass by the morning. It was going to be a long night.
Angela woke up the next morning with a start--a noise from the front of the house had brought her out of her sleepy daze. It happened again, a loud thumping sound as if someone was routinely dropping a large something on the wood floor. She crawled out of bed cautiously, digging her sweater out of the nightstand drawer. The room was still very dark from the overcast sky outside, but at least the rain had subsided for the time being. Angela struggled with her sweater for a moment before giving up; she'd just have to go adventuring in her tank top this morning. She reached for her shoes but decided the heels would make too much noise on the hardwood floors.
Instead she grabbed the lamp and switched it on, and slowly opened the bedroom door and peeked into the hallway. The door creaked a little and she paused, not wanting to alert any possible intruders. Angela managed to squeeze through the slightly open door without pushing it any further; and the lamp dimly lit the hallway around her. She noticed the walls were a deep mahogany color, darker than she remembered them being. It was possible that her uncle could have re-finished the wood stain in the whole house, but that seemed like it would have been a very daunting task.
Angela tip-toed down the hall, holding the lamp low in front of her. She didn't want to block her view and she certainly didn't want to trip. If there was any part of the inside of the house that was in as bad of shape as the outside, she wanted to know about it before she had the opportunity to trip. Angela was clumsy too, not very coordinated when it came to walking or just about anything else. Her mother had taken her to the doctor when she was a teenager, concerned that Angela wouldn't be able to have a normal life. The doctor was convinced there was nothing wrong with Angela, that she was simply prone to tripping and stubbing her toes a lot.
"It can happen to anyone," the doctor had said. "It's really nothing to worry about. Now, if she starts tripping every time she takes a step, then you should be concerned."
They left the office, her mother in a huff and Angela relieved. She was a normal teenager. Like the doctor said.
Angela realized she had paused in her journey down the hall, but also registered that the sounds she had been hearing a little while before had ceased. She stood very still, listening to the wind blow faintly outside, hearing some of the shutters on the windows creak gently. If she stood there long enough who knows what she would hear. She gave another look up and down the hallway, checking behind her. She wasn't sure what she was looking for exactly, but it never hurt to be sure.
Now that she thought about it, she probably should have tucked her phone into her jeans pocket before she left the room in case there was an emergency. She shook her head quickly, as if to expel that thought from her mind. There will be no emergency, she thought to herself. I am the only one in this house and that's that. She took a deep breath and continued down the hall. Only three more paces and she'd be in the living room, where she had found the lamp. She wondered what else she would find today as she explored the house in daylight and hopefully, electricity. She took two more steps. Only one to bring her to face the living room, with the old plaid couch with wool cushions, the crusty coffee table, and the tube television that probably didn't work anymore. She remembered tracing the permanent cup rings on the top of that coffee table when she was little. It was kind of a surprise that her uncle hadn't updated his furniture in so long. But now that she was just around the corner from all of those memories, she couldn't bring herself to face them. What was so horrible about an old outdated couch anyway? After all, she was the only one in the house. Another deep breath and she lifted her right foot to take the final step into the den. In mid-step the loud BANG resounded through the whole house. Windows rattled in their rotting panes, Angela screamed and threw the battery lamp up and behind her, she fell to the floor. Everything went topsy-turvy and she couldn't feel her legs. The batteries popped out of the lamp and landed at the end of the hall. Her eyes felt about the same. Now on the floor, she rolled to her stomach and crawled frantically toward the guest room to find her phone.
With no natural light in the hallway, it was almost pitch black. The old hardwood was starting to splinter in areas that she hadn't noticed before. But she hardly cared. Tears streamed down her pampered cheeks as she worked her way back to the room. She didn't stop to look behind her but crawled as fast as her jelly legs would allow. The thumps continued with increasing frequency until she was in her room and had slammed the door shut behind her.
Angela had collapsed against the wall almost immediately after slamming the door closed. Her breathing was out of control and tears ran freely down her cheeks. The only sound now was her sobs echoing through the broken down house. She sat there for what seemed like hours, trembling still from the sounds. A loud knock at the front door made her scream again, and the next thing she heard was the front door creaking open. Frantically she searched the room for any sort of object to defend herself with, but found nothing. She picked up her cell phone from the nightstand, having forgotten about it entirely after re-entering the room. She decided that calling the cops was the best bet, so she quickly dialed and waited for the ring to chime in her ear. She only had a bar left of battery, so she hoped that she would be able to get through. The dispatcher answered quickly and Angela explained her situation.
"My name is Angela and I'm at my deceased uncle's house at the top of Suncrest Hill. I have good cause to believe there is an intruder in the house with me. Please send someone, please."
"Ma'am, try to stay calm," Angela hadn't realized she sounded so hysterical until then, so tried to take a few calming breaths. "I have an officer on the way. Do you have any idea who the intruder might be?"
"Jesus, no. I don't live around here, I'm only here to clean up the house so it can be sold, and that's if it can be sold with its condition."
"Alright Angela, I'm going to ask you to try to leave the house if you can. Is there a detached garage or other shelter you can reach quickly?"
"I don't think you understand. I'm trapped in the guest room armed only with my cell phone. I swear nothing in here has a rough edge or sharp corner on it. The only exit is through the front door. The only window is maybe thirteen inches across. There is no way I'm getting through that."
As she said this, she did think it was strange that there was such a small window in the guest room. She hadn't noticed its size last night when she had come in the house. It was unnerving all the same to find that it wasn't big enough to climb through. It was placed high on the wall, so even if it was human-sized, there was almost no going through it.
A loud creak from the hallway brought Angela back to the present. She automatically dashed to the far side of the queen bed, putting it between her and the door. The dispatcher heard the quick movement and inquired about it.
"I think the intruder is in the hall now, outside my room. Oh," Angela whispered as quietly as she could, but she still wanted the lady on the other end of the phone to hear what was going on. Her breath started to catch in her chest again and she could feel the fear swelling in her belly, pushing on her lungs and pressuring her heart to move faster.
"Ma'am, I need you to stay calm. There should be an officer on the premises soon. Try to keep yourself hidden."
"That's what I'm doing." Angela spat. Just as she said that there was a very soft tap tap tap on the door to her bedroom. She got all the way down on the floor on the far side of the bed, and peeked underneath the bed towards the door. There were several boxes and an old pair of men's loafers obstructing her view.
"I'm going to crawl under the bed, with some other boxes that are already there." Angela told her dispatcher. "I'm going to have to put the phone down for a moment to do this."
"That's just fine Angela. Let me know when you're back on the line."
Angela wiggled her way under the bed among the half empty boxes. There were cobwebs everywhere, and the layer of dust on the floor was enough to make her gag. She prayed that she didn't see any of the eight-legged creatures that created the cobwebs or she might scream. She couldn't stand the thought of awkwardly bent legs each moving delicately but at their own time and pace; the bristles on their legs wiry and stiff, caressing her skin as it moved along, and as if the eight legs weren't enough, there were eight disgustingly reflective eyes that were always watching your every move. Angela realized she was holding her breath and clenching her fists. She wasn't sure if she had hung up on the dispatcher or not.
"Are you still there? I'm under the bed now. I'm so scared." Her voice quivered, threatening to become squeaky if she continued speaking.
"I'm still here Angela. The officer said he has just pulled up to the house, so it should be very soon that you'll be seeing him. His name is Officer Dwayne Jackson."
"Okay." Angela's hands were shaking. The tap tap tap had been steadily increasing in frequency and sounded anxious. The doorknob had rattled once or twice, but Angela couldn't remember having locked the door behind her. She wasn't even sure that it could lock. Or if it had a lock, there was nothing to say that it still worked anymore since the rest of the house was in such bad condition.
Angela was finding it hard to breathe with all the dust and cobwebs, and the cop who was supposedly in her driveway but not yet rescuing her from this torment, this tiny rotting prison that was her bedroom. Her hands stung from the splinters but she wasn't steady enough to try to dig them out, and the dust wasn't helping anything either. She started crying out of desperation and exhaustion; she didn't know what else to do.
Just then she heard some consistent footsteps in the hall, paired with a voice like red wine, deep and husky but still on the defensive.
"Angela?" It shouted. "This is Officer Jackson, if you're in the house let me know. I've not found anyone else here."
Angela whimpered underneath the bed. She heard the door open but wasn't sure if she should reveal her hiding spot just yet. But any intruder wouldn't know that the officer's name should be Jackson, so it had to be a real cop.
With a deep breath she stuck her hands out from under the bed and cried "I'm right here."
Footsteps soon attached themselves to a pair of heavy boots with a good coating of mud, and dark blue pants covering the tops. Between splotches of mud she could see that they were very shiny boots indeed. The officer kneeled down on the floor and peered under the bed at her.
"Angela? Are you okay?" He flashed his badge at her as he said this, and she let out a sigh of relief.
"I think I'm okay. My hands hurt."
"Well let's get you out of there and cleaned up." He moved to the side of the bed and Angela began wiggling her way out from under the bed. She hadn't made much progress before Officer Jackson had moved the bed out of the way for her. Angela started to push herself up with her hands but gave a yelp when the pressure reminded her of her injuries.
"Your hands look pretty bad. How did you get those looking so bad?" He helped her up and had her sit on the bed. He turned over each of her hands slowly in his own. Her pale skin was rough from scrapes and splinters, and there was blood dried on in places. What wasn't covered in blood was covered in dust from her adventure on the bedroom floor. She felt embarrassed to have her hands being examined while they were in such a poor state. His hands were strong but soft to the touch. His dark skin thrilled her in an unexpected kind of way. She avoided looking him in the eye. He asked her some question that went unregistered on her ears. She chewed her lip nervously. She never looked less than perfect in the presence of another person.
How could I let myself look like this? She thought to herself. I should have been better prepared for this interaction. Angela brought her left hand to her forehead in the realization that she was being unreasonable. She had just been scared out of her wits by who knows what and she was worried about her appearance.
"Angela?" Officer Jackson gave her a little shake. "Are you alright? You have been ignoring me."
"I'm sorry. I'm fine," she said, trying to remember what it was that he had asked her before.
"Can you tell me your full name?" He had his little notebook out now, taking down notes for his report later.
"Angela Emmaline Murray," She could feel her lip quivering.
"Birthdate?" He said this so officially, she wondered if he had forgotten all concern for her well being.
"March seventeenth, nineteen eighty-three."
"And today's date?"
Angela stalled for a moment. She had almost forgotten the date. Being so overwhelmed in the last twenty-four hours put her off her game.
"It's April. The twenty-first." Angela looked up at the officer's face, watching closely for any indication of concern. The corner of his mouth twitched in a funny way.
"Close enough," he said. "Let's get you into town to get cleaned up. I doubt there are any medical tweezers here."
Officer Jackson helped her up and handed her the cell phone that she had left on the floor. Angela closed the phone, having forgotten about the dispatcher on the other line. Chances were the dispatcher had heard the officer's voice and had disconnected the call first anyway. She carried her shoes and her keys wrapped in her sweater that she'd abandoned earlier that morning. The officer walked into the hall, leaving the door open for Angela to follow. She peeked carefully around the corner, cautious about entering the hallway. Officer Jackson stopped by the front door and looked for Angela.
"Do you need help?" He knew this question was unnecessary but asked it anyway. He walked back down the hall to where she stood and offered his arm to her.
"I would take your hand but that probably wouldn't feel very nice for you, so you can hold onto my arm and we'll walk together. How does that sound?" Angela looked him in the eyes and really saw him for the first time. His russet skin tone was just as magical as his hands had been, gently inspecting her own. His eyes were dark but had a spark to them that was entrancing. Angela had attached herself firmly to his strong arm without noticing, and when she finally broke their eye contact, he made a sound that was reminiscent of a soft chuckle.
He walked her outside, but not without some hesitation at the corner of the hall and the living room, and again at the front door. The stairs to the porch were bad enough that they would need totally replaced.
"How did you get in the house with the stairs like this?"
"I have no idea. But I did it, and it was windy too."
He shook his head in disbelief. "Windy is an understatement for last night's weather." Angela smiled at his comment, and nearly screamed when Officer Jackson picked her clear up and negotiated the stairs on his own. Once they were on solid ground again he put her down gently, and continued to let her use his arm. Angela was barefoot but they went slowly, and he even opened the door of the patrol car for her. He made her sit in the backseat, even though he wished he could get away with not following procedure this time.
She's so delicate, he thought to himself. She looks like she could use some protecting.
Twenty minutes in the back of the cop cruiser and Angela was ready to be standing up again. There wasn't much space, it was smelly, the leather seats were sticky against her bare arms. Plus she couldn't see Officer Jackson's face. She wanted to gaze into those dark, endless eyes but she was caught staring at him in the rearview three times too many, so she forced herself to look out the window. Besides, she was pretty sure that he didn't want to stare back into a pair of baby blues that were surrounded by red puffy cheeks and a raw nose. Her hair was disheveled and frizz was the ruler of all.
Wow, I look like a hot mess. How can he even stand to look at me? Angela wondered this to herself, biting her chapped lips and saving her grimaces for the tinted window. She slumped down in the seat and looked at her hands. The once pristine palms and delicate fingers were now tender from scrapes and splinters, swollen and bloody. She tried wiping her hands on her designer jeans to dispel some of the dried blood, but this was a mistake. Some of the splinters reminded her who was boss, stinging and making her hiss through her teeth. This action didn't actually rid her hands of any of their stains, but some of her wounds started seeping again, with nowhere to drip but right onto that wallet-splitting designer denim she wore so proudly.
So much for keeping a nice pair. Angela looked up to see if the cop was looking at her. He was. She expected it but she didn't at the same time. Taken a little off her guard she blushed and dropped her gaze, holding for a moment before looking at him in the mirror through her long eyelashes. Angela had been blessed with naturally long eyelashes. Most times she didn't have to curl them either.
Angela held the look for as long as she dared, which wasn't long at all. She had always made men come to her, rather than chasing after them herself. She was an up-and-coming young lady; there wasn't time for galavanting around with silly boys. She sighed, but only as an attention-getter. Stony-faced once more, she let the blur of the trees consume her thoughts.
As she looked away from the rearview mirror, she missed the brief wink that Officer Jackson had tried to send her way. He didn't know her from Eve but she seemed interesting nonetheless.
Officer Jackson made the final turn into the Sheridan County police station and thought about the girl in the backseat. She was pretty but she seemed awkward for a woman of twenty-nine. He thought she should have figured some things out by now, like how to defend herself against an intruder.
Maybe not everyone knows how to use a knife, he thought silently. Then again, violence wasn't always the best approach. Yet he had found Angela hiding under a bed behind a closed door. For a house that small, she wouldn't have been hard to find if someone had really wanted to.
Dwayne's thoughts shifted gears for a moment while he put the cruiser in park and killed the engine. He looked in the rearview mirror at Angela, her cheeks pink with the events of the day. Her hair was slightly mussed, giving her an I-just-woke-up-and-you-surprised-me look. Which he deemed rather appropriate for her situation. He smiled to himself, but she caught it when she looked at up.
"So, Officer..." Angela started slowly, lending a drop of sarcasm to her voice. "Are we getting out of the car while it's still daytime, or are we waiting on a spectacular sunset?" She followed the comment with a sly grin and a flutter of eyelids. Officer Jackson didn't say anything. Removing himself from the vehicle, he opened the door for her and held out an assisting hand.
"What, I can't stand up by myself?" Angela gave another small grin, stepping into a small pockmark in the parking lot. She keeled to the left and Officer Jackson barely caught her before she hit the ground.
"Apparently you have a hard time standing up in those shoes." He smiled back but she remained straight-faced. Angela's gaze slammed into him, leaving him speechless and gawking. Her cheeks seemed to be a deeper red than before. Still she said nothing, not even a thank you. Dwayne dropped his smile faster than Angela had fallen. He helped her achieve stability in her shoes and shut the cruiser door behind her.
"If you'll follow me, we'll get all the paperwork done and out of the way." He turned and walked into the station. Angela followed slowly, being cautious not to trip on anymore miniature craters. She wanted to say something, to break the silence and to see his striking smile again, but she didn't want to create any more tension than she already had. He's probably married already anyway, Angela thought to herself, frowning.
Inside the station Officer Jackson was greeted by a pretty brunette in a pencil skirt and silk blouse. Angela was too far behind to hear what her name was, but her silver name tag said "Jackson" in bold lettering.
So this must be his wife. Operating in the same field. Figures. Angela breezed by the woman and didn't give her a second glance, even though she greeted Angela all the same. Angela was too focused on making sure that she didn't lose sight of Officer Jackson. He had passed through a security zone and Angela followed suit, but they made her go through twice because she set off the alarm. She removed her shoes and tried again, only to be beeped at a third time. Officer Jackson waited as another officer checked her with his little baton, and allowed her to pass. Angela reclaimed her shoes and began to put them back on but was left behind by Officer Jackson.
"Can you wait for me? I don't know where you're going." She felt foolish asking him to wait for her, but he never stopped walking.
"You can wait here while I get someone to help with your hands and some generic paperwork."
The same officer that cleared her through security showed her a short row of hard plastic chairs off to one side of the hallway. Angela sat and finished putting on her shoes. She was confused by what had happened this morning; she was trapped and he saved her, treated her like a lady. Now that they were at the station he was cold towards her.
Maybe he doesn't want to arouse suspicion about how he really feels... Maybe he's hiding it from his wife. She sure didn't get a big smile from him when we walked in. Angela began losing herself in her thoughts, forgetting that she was waiting for Officer Jackson to bring her paperwork. Her hands stung a little but she was too tired to notice. She started drifting to sleep when she was snapped awake by the same woman she saw when she came in the station.
"Hi. I'm Miss Jackson, but you can call me Darla. I'm told your hands could use some bandaging." Darla smiled at Angela and held out a hand to receive one of hers. "I'll be gentle. I promise."
Angela didn't know what to say, so she held out her hands. Darla had brought a kit with her to help bandage them up.
"Oh, that's quite a lot of blood there. Let's get your hands washed before I do anything else."
"There are lots of splinters in my hands. I can feel them. I don't think washing them would be the best idea." Angela withdrew her hands from Darla's, but Darla was ready.
"That's fine dear. We'll just pour some peroxide to see where the bubbles happen. Then we can dig out those splinters and disinfect at the same time. Shall we?" Darla held out her hand again, this time as if to help Angela stand.
"I suppose." Angela got up and followed Darla to the bathroom for the peroxide treatment.
While Angela and Darla were working on clearing her hands of splinters, Officer Jackson was having a conversation with the Chief of Police, Charles Dixon. They briefly discussed the events of the morning, and had begun filing a report of the incident.
"I have a feeling that Miss Murray may not realize that today is not the twenty-first of April. She seemed reluctant to answer that question when I asked. Should we do a psych test?" Officer Jackson copied the information from his little notepad onto the official report form. His scribbles were hardly legible, but it didn't really matter for a case like this where the victim was still alive and in no obvious sort of danger.
"I'll see what Phyllis thinks about her when she's done having her hands fixed, but I don't think we would need to do a full evaluation just because she got the date mixed up. The twenty-first was only two days ago." The chief pulled a long drag from his cigar and leaned back in his chair. His Elvis-style combover was heavily grayed, but he didn't care. His wife would beg him to use Rogaine but he didn't see the point.
"Sounds fine with me. Should I follow up on her since she'll be out at that house alone?"
"That depends. How long does she intend to stay up there?" Chief Dixon leaned forward, stubbing out his cigar and placing it in the right hand drawer of his desk.
"We did not discuss her intentions of her stay, or her intentions for the house." Dwayne paused. "Now that I think of it, we didn't discuss much of anything. She was pretty quiet the whole drive down."
"Huh. I saw her walk in on the camera. She doesn't seem like the kinda gal to just 'not talk.' What's she playing at I wonder?" He squinted his eyes at the camera that showed the bathroom doors. He waited for a few moments and then shook his head as if to rid himself of a fly. "Maybe I'll order that psych eval after all."
While Chief Dixon dialed Phyllis, Officer Jackson was thinking about Angela's golden hair, flipped out a little at the bottom. She seemed harmless. But he knew better than to take anything at face value. With a flip of his hand he excused himself from the chief's office and headed back down the hall. He knocked lightly on the door of the women's bathroom.
"Darla? Miss Murray? How's it going with the splinters?"
"Really, you can't let a lady do her business alone can you?" Officer Jackson jumped back from the door when Darla opened it with her exclamation. Darla laughed, and he saw a brief smile creep across Angela's face. He couldn't be sure, but it seemed like maybe that smile was meant only for him to see.
"You have to stop jumping out at me like that Darla. You're going to get me in trouble. A poor helpless guy like me can't take a strained heart." Darla laughed again and dismissed the comment. Angela looked confused.
"Well, regardless of the condition of your heart, you should be glad to know that we got all the splinters out of Angie's hands. She's all taped up and good to go."Darla turned her smile to Angela, who grimaced back. Angela muttered a small "Thank you," and stepped around Darla.
"Thanks Darla. I appreciate your help." Officer Jackson sent her a wink, then looked toward Angela. Her pretty smile was completely disappeared now. She crossed her arms against her chest and looked down the hall, towards the chief's office.
"Miss Murray, why don't we fill out this paperwork, then we'll be done with all this official stuff."
"Great. Let's get out of here." Her words were quietly sharp, as if to soften the blow. It didn't really work. Maybe I shouldn't be so snappy, she thought to herself. But it doesn't matter anyway, he's standing here joking around with his wife in front of me. Gross.
Angela followed Officer Jackson to a small conference-like room for the paperwork forms. He handed her a pen and passed her some papers.
"I thought this room would be a little more comfortable than an actual interrogation room. Have a seat." He closed the door behind her as she entered, and she sat in one of the many office chairs around an oblong mahogany table. She wondered what this room was typically used for, when people weren't filling out paperwork.
"I'm glad we get to be alone for this part." Angela said absentmindedly, flipping through the papers for a good starting point. She looked up at Officer Jackson, but he was staring at the window. She looked back down at the papers. Full name: Angela Emmaline Murray. This was going to be a piece of cake.
Angela filled boxes in silence for a few moments before Officer Jackson started asking about the house that used to belong to her uncle.
"So what were you doing up there in that old house anyway?"
"Oh, um. That's my uncle's house. Or it was, anyway." Angela fluttered her eyelids but didn't look up at the handsome cop. Her lip quivered slightly and when she next spoke her voice was softer, more vulnerable. "He just died last week."
"I am sorry to hear that." Officer Jackson replied. Angela put down her pen a little more dramatically than necessary and covered her face with her hands. She heaved a fake sigh and peeked at the officer through her fingers.
"Shh. It will be alright. He's in a better place now." Dwayne reached across the table and pulled her hands away from her face. He held them gently in his own, marveling at the redness in her cheeks and across her freckle-flecked nose.
"We don't have to talk about it if you don't want to." He said this softly, still holding her hands in his. Dwayne reached down the table and passed her the box of Kleenex. "Let's finish this paperwork, then I'll help you find some dinner."
"Okay." Angela said this meekly, dabbing at her imaginary tears with one of the offered Kleenex. She looked up to find Dwayne looking at her dead-on. Angela held the eye contact, and with a deep breath asked, "Do I have to go back to that house tonight?" She stuck out her lip and fluttered her eyes, catching imaginary tears with the Kleenex again.
"Oh, of course not. We'll get you set up with a nice room at the bed and breakfast. I think that would do you some good."
"Thank you," Angela said. "I really appreciate it." She fluttered her eyes again.
Officer Dwayne Jackson smiled gently in response.
"This paperwork can wait until tomorrow. You've had a long day. Why don't we get some dinner?"
Angela's eyes lit up like the night sky over North Dakota.
"I would love that." Her smile was the most sincere he'd seen so far.
They walked back out to the cruiser and he escorted her to the front seat this time. He held the door open for her. She flipped her hair over her shoulder as she got in, flashing another dazzling smile his way.
She's so beautiful, he thought to himself. This is going to be difficult.
Once Angela was safely seated inside the car she flashed a wink at the handsome cop before he closed the door. He smiled back at her naturally. He walked around the nose of the cruiser and let himself in the car. He leaned to the right when he buckled his seatbelt, and Angela placed her left hand on his cheek. He looked up at her, bewildered. Dwayne took her hand and gently lowered it from his face. He placed it back on her side of the console, and straightened up in his seat. The look she had given him sent a chill straight to his core. He felt like he could have been sweating bullets.
"What's wrong?" Angela asked him. "You don't like a display of affection once in awhile?" Dwayne took a moment to respond, giving himself a few seconds to make sure his voice would be under control when he spoke.
"I would hardly call that appropriate for two people in our position." He started the car and backed out of the parking lot.
"And what position is that? Doggie?" Angela flipped her head around to face out the passenger window. She buried her bandaged hands into her sweater on her lap.
Dwayne's mouth dropped open, but he closed it quickly. He didn't want a response from him to inspire her to go any further. He could consider filing sexual harassment but it was hardly anything to go on and would really cause more trouble than it was worth. He bit his bottom lip and changed lanes smoothly. He grinned a little as he thought of a response.
"If you don't behave yourself then I'll have to make you ride in the backseat." Angela whipped her head back around to face him but was taken off guard by his bold smile.
I didn't know he had it in him. Angela thought as she smiled back at him.
"Does that mean you'll be in the backseat with me?" She fluttered her eyes and smiled. Her smile seemed more like a dare. Dwayne had no idea what to say.
"One minute I'm trying to recover from what you say, and the next minute I'm doing it all over again. Do you have a limit?"
"No." She grinned that impish smile again. "I'll crack you eventually, Dwayne."
"Officer Jackson, please. Let's at least try to keep this a formal acquaintance?" He turned onto Old Southton Highway.
"Fine. I'll call you by your official title. But only in public, Officer," Angela smirked again. "As long as we're alone together, I'll keep to calling you Dwayne."
Dwayne shook his head a little in disagreement, but gave a sigh that indicated he was giving in to the argument. If you can even call it an argument. He thought for awhile about what she had said earlier about a display of affection. It has been a very long time...
"Where are we going anyway?" Angela interrupted his train of thought, but he was okay with making conversation. He had always been a social being.
"We're going to 'Eats 'R Us.' Its a small place but they have really great food." He glanced over at Angela and found her staring at him in what he took to be disgust. Her facial expressions are so varied, it was hard to tell what was what.
"Eats 'R Us?" Seriously?" Her mouth was still open in surprise. Or awe. Dwayne chuckled softly.
"It's cozy. You'll see." He put on his blinker and moved into the left turn lane. He noticed that Angela looked anxious as he pulled into the parking lot and found a space.
"Everything okay?" He waited a moment, and she looked down at her lap. "Angela?" He put two fingers under her chin and turned her face towards him. Her eyes were cloudy, threatening rain.
"I'm fine." Angela almost managed to whisper this, but couldn't quite bring herself to that volume.
"Is it your uncle? Or is there something else bothering you?" Dwayne had dropped his hand to hold hers. She glanced at his hand, taking a deep breath.
"I'm okay. Let's go in and eat." She shook away any sign of tears and smiled softly, her cheeks turning the faintest shade of pink. Dwayne patted her arm and stepped out of the car, coming around to open Angela's door for her. He found she had already done his job for him.
Walking into the greasy diner, several patrons greeted Dwayne by his first name. He waved at some in a far off corner, but he did approach an elderly man near to the door.
"How are you doing, Walter?" Dwayne shook the old man's speckled hand vigorously. Angela thought he looked too frail for that kind of action.
"I'm doing just great Dwayne. Who is this young lass you've got with ya?" Walter's thin hair was wispy and clumped together in small tufts that branched away from his scalp in all directions, like the branches of an old gnarled tree. His face had more age spots than his hand, and on part of his neck it was hard to tell if they were age spots or if they were birthmarks.
"This is Angela. She's in town on family business." Dwayne looked at Angela and was surprised to see her staring at Walter with her eyes wide. Maybe where she's from they have plastic surgery for old chums like Walter. She's already had enough for one day.
"Well that's dandy. Who is your family that you have business with?" Walter asked Angela directly, raising his bushy white eyebrows until they too looked like the tufts of hair on his head.
"My uncle passed away and I'm in charge of selling the house." Angela responded calmly, her face going a bit back into its normal expression. She still looked uneasy, but at least it wasn't obvious now.
"Tha's too bad. S'never a good thing when you lose a loved one." Walter put a spoonful of cottage cheese in his mouth and swished it around a little, giving Dwayne some time to jump in.
"Her uncle lived up in that house at the top of Suncrest Hill, on the backside of the Laughlin's place." Dwayne looked at Angela, who nodded meekly. "You remember Old Murray don't you?"
Walter smacked his spoon down on the table, sending small flecks of cottage cheese all over. Some of it landed on Dwayne's uniform but a bigger splotch managed to hit Angela's sweater that she was still carrying around with her.
Walter turned his head slowly to face Angela, his eyes narrowed. His mouth pulled back in a grimace, showing his jaunty yellow teeth.
"Of course I remember Old Mister Murray." Walter sneered again. "How could I forget such a despicable man?"
"Alright, Walter, I'm sorry I brought it up. Let's just drop it now." Dwayne took a step and placed himself between Angela and the table where Walter sat. He could tell the room was more quiet than before, but he paid no attention.
"I'll drop it for now, but you can bet your black ass that I won't forget. No sir, there is no forgettin' a wrong that's been done to ya." Walter's yellowed teeth were exposed again in another sneer. "No, I won't be forgettin' any time soon."
"I'm sorry, Walter. I'll stop by again tomorrow then you and I can have a chat to ourselves." Dwayne took Angela by the elbow and began to lead her away. When they were a table's distance away, Walter began to get a little louder in his exclamations of exquisite memory. "I'll talk to you later, Walter."
Dwayne directed Angela to a booth in the back of the diner and sat her down with her back to the door. There was a curtain next to the booth, tied up with a dusty black cloth. Dwayne untied the curtain and let it fall between them and the rest of the diner. It was rather successful at blocking out the other diners.
"That better?" Dwayne asked Angela.
"Yeah, thanks." She gave a half smile and picked up a menu from behind the ketchup bottle.
"How do they know when we're ready to order if the curtain is down?" Angela glanced over the small menu as she asked this, glad for the security the curtain seemed to provide.
"There is a little flag we run up on the outside. The rope is behind your shoulder, just there." Angela looked around and found the worn rope. She peeked her head out of the curtain to see the lowered red flag on the outside of the booth.
"Neat." Angela played with the rope for a moment before leaving the flag in its lowered position.
"Are you getting anything, Dwayne?" He shook his head and she continued looking at the menu. Once she had decided on the chef's salad, she hoisted the flag and the waitress came over promptly.
Dwayne ordered the biscuits and gravy, with a carafe of black coffee to go along. Angela went with a water. The waitress returned with their drinks and left again, just as efficiently as before.
"So, I was wondering," Angela paused to look at Dwayne in the eye. "What was with Walter when we came in? How does he know my uncle?"
"Ah. I figured you would ask me that." Dwayne sighed. "I suppose it all began years ago, before I was even graduated from high school. The two of them used to go drinking together. They were great pals, Stephen and Walter."
"This sounds cheesy. Is this really a legitimate story you're telling me?"
"You haven't even let me finish yet, missy."
"Sorry. Please continue." Angela sipped her water and listened as patiently as she could.
"As I was saying. There was a set of twins, Marlene and Maribel. They were beautiful girls, and sharp too."
"How do you know they were beautiful if all this happened before you paid any attention?" Angela interrupted again.
"I repeat. Let me finish." Dwayne shot her a quick glance and she huffed and waved him on. "The boys were both attracted to the twins, though at first they only ever saw one girl at a time. They fought over her. The girls thought it would be funny to tease them a little, so each girl would date Stephen and Walter on the same night. The only problem was they risked running into the other group since the town was so small. So they decided to reveal themselves, and were well received."
Dwayne paused here to pour himself another coffee. A few moments later, the food had arrived, so he paused a bit longer while they ate. He was finished rather quickly, so Angela didn't have to urge him to continue the story. She continued eating while he picked up again.
"The boys were fine with the arrangement of being with beautiful girls. They were all happy until Walter decided that he wanted to be with Marlene, who was Stephen's 'steady' as they called it. Stephen wouldn't allow the switch, and Walter became furious. What Walter didn't know was that the girls still would routinely pull the switcheroo on Stephen and Walter. They kept it up even though the boys would fight, so neither one of them really knew who it was they were kissing goodnight."
"So what happened then? Didn't they just get over it?"
"No, Walter never was good at letting anything go. So one evening, they were all together, and Stephen told Walter to leave him and his girl alone. Walter refused and grabbed Marlene by the arm. She resisted but he hit her, so your uncle defended her. They began fist-fighting in the street. Maribel was standing by, and other men had come out to cheer on the fight. No one would help. So Maribel jumped in to try to break it up. It ended up that Marlene got injured in the fray, and as a result died from her injuries. At her autopsy they discovered that she was pregnant."
"Wow," Angela gaped at this unexpected turn. "What happened to Maribel?"
"Well, since it was Walter and Stephen fighting, the family never really forgave either of them. Maribel went on to marry an accountant but died a year or two afterwards from missing her twin. Or that's what they say. Walter married someone else, but she left him later on in life. Your uncle holed himself up in that house on Suncrest Hill and never showed any interest in getting married or even courting."
Angela stared at her salad. She didn't feel hungry for it anymore. The waitress brought her a refill and boxed up her salad for her. Dwayne peeked around the curtain and saw that Walter had gone home for the evening. He escorted Angela back to the car, leaving money on the table for the tab and tip.
It was quiet for a few moments. Dwayne could tell Angela had a lot on her mind.
"I know it probably hardly matters now, but do you have any idea who or what was in my house today?" Angela sounded nervous, so Dwayne answered in a soft tone.
"I don't think there was anyone there. The wind was strong last night, its possible that it knocked a branch out of a tree and that is causing some noise around the house." He glanced over at Angela, but what he had said didn't seem to have helped.
"I didn't see anyone or anything in the house when I arrived. There were no footprints, no sign of forced entry into the house, nothing seemed to be missing or out of place." He heard Angela sigh in relief.
They pulled up to Aubrey's Bed and Breakfast, and he showed her inside. Angela followed, clutching her sweater to her with her bandaged hands.
"Miss Aubrey, this is Angela Murray. She needs a bed for the next two nights if you have it."
"Why certainly, Dwayne. Anything for the best man on the force." The redhead smiled and took a key from a box on the wall. "Do you have any bags dear?"
Angela shook her head no. "I'm afraid I forgot all my things in my car."
"Don't worry about your luggage, Miss Murray. I'll pick all that up for you tomorrow." Dwayne reassured her.
"Thank you." Angela spoke in a soft tone, and followed Aubrey up the stairs. "Goodnight, Officer Jackson."
"Goodnight, Angela." Dwayne waited for Aubrey to return from showing Angela to her room.
"If she wakes up screaming, or says anything about hearing clawing sounds, please let me know." Aubrey raised her eyebrows at this statement from Dwayne, but didn't inquire further.
"Not a problem, Dwayne. Will you be back tomorrow with her belongings?"
"Yes. And I intend to help her get whatever she needs for that old house. Her uncle was Stephen Murray."
"You don't say! Well, she'll get a good night's sleep here, and a hearty breakfast in the morning."
"Thanks, Aubrey. I owe you one." Dwayne turned to leave, his hand resting on the antique doorknob.
"No, Dwayne. It's on me." She grinned again. "Get outta here. I'll see you tomorrow." Aubrey disappeared into her office, and Dwayne walked back out into the dark, crisp night.