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Authors: Carlene Thompson

In the Event of My Death

BOOK: In the Event of My Death
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Night Visitor…

Laurel crept out of bed, pulling her robe around her. She went into the living room, not bothering to turn on lamps. She had lived in this house most of her life. She could walk around the rooms blindfolded. She reached the end table and picked up the phone receiver. No dial tone. The phone was dead. That was odd. Had the snow brought down phone lines? She’d try the kitchen phone.

As soon as she stood, she noticed something wrong with the room. The corner. It didn’t look right. The angle seemed off. Or was it just moonlight reflecting off the snow in a peculiar way? She stepped away from the couch, never taking her eyes off the corner. She caught a twitch of movement. It wasn’t a trick of the light. Someone was in here with her. Her mouth went dry. “Who’s there?” she asked, barely above a whisper. A shadow separated itself from the wall. Her heart slammed against her ribs and she whirled.

She’d only managed three steps before something cracked against her skull, sending her into oblivion…

To my niece Kelsey

Prologue

Angela Ricci wished again she had a dog. She’d always wanted one, but her fastidious ex-husband said they were dirty. Stuart Burgess. How could she have ever found such a creep attractive? What a pain he’d been to live with, constantly washing his hands, throwing a fit if he found a spot on his tie, developing a migraine when he came home to find the place looking like anything other than a museum.

But she’d been divorced from Stuart for a year. The settlement had been generous. Very generous. And why not? Stuart wasn’t as fastidious about his personal liaisons as he was about the externals of his life. He would die if anyone found out about his taste for prostitutes. Young male prostitutes. She’d never threatened to tell. She
wouldn’t
have told, both because she didn’t want the negative publicity and because Stuart had a dangerous streak that frightened her. Fortunately, paranoid Stuart had perceived a threat from her and decided money would keep her silent.

He’d retreated to their large upstate home and given her the brownstone in Manhattan. Ever practical, she’d rented the second and third floors—much to Stuart’s snobbish dismay—and redecorated the first floor for herself. Now the place no longer looked like a museum. She had a warm and inviting home with a lovely courtyard in back, the perfect place for a dog—a big, protective dog. But she’d never gotten around to buying one, and now she regretted it because lately she’d begun to feel uneasy here. She couldn’t remember exactly when the uneasiness began. A week ago? No, longer. The feeling was worse when she returned from the theater at night. Even though she was exhausted from singing and dancing all evening, as the star of one of the most popular musicals on Broadway, she came back to the brownstone feeling lonely and scared. A dog would definitely make her feel less alone and much safer.

She was more tired than usual tonight. Maybe it was the cold. Or maybe it was because her new fiancé, Judson Green, had been out of town for a week. She missed him terribly. In three more days he would be home. Three endless days.

Angela stripped and stood under a hot shower for ten minutes until some of the tension began to leave her neck. She was toweling off when she thought she heard something in the house. She couldn’t identify the sound. It wasn’t like something falling over. It was much softer, much…
stealthier
.

Angela paused, startled by the word that had popped into her mind. Abruptly she dropped the towel and reached for her heavy terry cloth robe, sliding it on as if she were donning a suit of armor. Her heart thudding, she pushed her long black hair away from her face and stepped slowly into the bedroom. Everything looked neat, undisturbed. Quickly she dashed to the dresser, opened the top drawer, and withdrew the .38 automatic she’d bought after the divorce. Stuart would never have allowed her to have a gun.

Holding the weapon with trembling hands, she passed through the dining room and into the living room, flipping on lights. In the living room she punched on the security system, furious with herself for having forgotten to do so as soon as she came in tonight. Her carelessness about safety had always driven Stuart crazy.

She paced through the brownstone once more, turning on the lights in every room. Fifteen minutes later, the place blazing with electric illumination, Angela fixed a glass of brandy and sat down, the gun in her lap.

She had never been the fearful type, not even as a child. True, there was that awful period thirteen years ago when she’d been troubled by nightmares, but who wouldn’t have been after what happened? But time had eventually done its work. Although she could never forget that awful night, at least her nightmares had abated.

That awful night. A shiver passed through her. She’d been only seventeen, an exuberant, cocky seventeen. She was pretty, talented, and nothing truly bad had happened to her in her whole life. Not until that night. It had all started so innocently and ended so tragically.

Maybe that’s why she’d felt so unsettled lately, she thought. It had been this time of year when it happened. She scanned her mind for the date. My God, it had been December 13—thirteen years ago this very week. Unlucky thirteen.

But Angela didn’t believe in luck. When people told her how lucky she was to have landed this plum role on Broadway, she wanted to laugh in their faces. It hadn’t been because of good luck—it had been because of years of hard work, perseverance, and tolerating crushing rejections. And the terrible event thirteen years ago that she would remember to her dying day wasn’t caused by bad luck. It was caused by a girl’s deliberate, devastating act.

Angela shivered again and wished she could call Judson, but it was past midnight. She knew he had early morning meetings and it would be selfish of her to awaken him. No, she would just ride out her bout of nerves, and as soon as Judson returned and they began serious plans for their spring wedding, all of this uneasiness would seem silly.

An hour later she lay in bed still wide-eyed, watching television. This was ridiculous. She couldn’t sit up all night. She’d be exhausted and look like hell tomorrow. She had an interview for
New York
magazine at one in the afternoon, complete with a photo shoot, and a performance tomorrow night. No, this sleeplessness wouldn’t do at all.

Angela knew too many actresses who’d become dependent on pills. She would never let that happen to her, but there were times when a little chemical help was necessary. Reluctantly she went into the bathroom, poured a glass of water, and searched the medicine cabinet for her Seconal. It had been prescribed a year ago during her divorce, and since then she’d only taken ten of the powerful little red pills. She swallowed one now.

Later, while voices still poured from the television, Angela’s head slipped sideways on the pillow. Within minutes she was breathing deeply. Not even the creaking of a closet door in the guest room disturbed her.

A figure wafted quietly down the hall. It stopped briefly on the threshold of her room.
Angela
, the figure thought. The name was apt. She looked like an angel sleeping deeply, peacefully, her dark hair a halo on the white satin pillowcase, her lashes long and dark against ivory skin.

Such perfect skin. The figure drifted closer to the bed, casting a shadow over Angela’s calm face. She didn’t deserve such beauty. She didn’t deserve serenity. She didn’t deserve wealth, fame, adoration, her blessed life. After what she’d done, she deserved nothing.

The figure raised a tire iron, letting it hover a moment. As long as it was in the air, Angela Ricci lived. But if it came down…

Angela’s entire body jerked beneath the powerful first blow. Her skull cracked. Blood splattered and her eyes snapped open. But the movement, the awareness, were short-lived. Again and again the iron bar slammed down on her, splitting skin, breaking bones, crushing vital organs.

Two minutes later Angela Ricci lay shapeless and twisted, a horrifying crimson mass on her lovely, shining white sheets. Breathing heavily, arms trembling from the effort, the killer looked at the body and smiled. Such a good job, so carefully planned, and over so quickly. Too quickly. The killer glanced at the clock. Two-thirteen.

Unlucky thirteen.

One

A circle of girls dancing in the near darkness. Chanting. Light—leaping, growing light. Flames. A scream. A chorus of screams climbing the scale to shattering shrieks. Pain. Then darkness.

Laurel Damron felt herself kicking wildly before her eyes snapped open. She gasped, balling her hands into fists to stop their wild clawing. Her breath came in long, ragged gasps.

Suddenly weight descended on her and she looked down at her prone body to see a long-haired black and white dog, its eyes only inches from her own. “Oh, April,” Laurel breathed, unclenching a fist to stroke the dog who always climbed atop her whenever she was having the dream. She never knew whether April’s intent was to soothe or to protect. “That was a bad one. Same scene, only worse. The fire…”

She broke off, her mind wandering back to the terrible flames until she became aware of panting beside her. Alex, April’s brother, sat by the bed, stretching his neck toward her. “Did I scare you, too?” She rubbed him under the chin. “It’s okay, boy. I frightened you guys for nothing. I know you’re sick of my dream. So am I.”

Laurel ran a hand over her damp forehead and looked at the bedside clock although she knew because of the darkness in her bedroom that the sun had not yet risen. Six forty-five. Fifteen minutes before the alarm would go off. “An early start on the day,” she muttered. “
Again
.” She gave April a final stroke, then shifted beneath her fifty-pound body. “Time to get up, you two. There’s coffee to be drunk and dog food to be eaten.”

April reluctantly rose and leaped off the bed. Laurel stretched, closed her eyes briefly, then threw off the comforter.

A minute later she stood in front of the bathroom mirror. A thirty-year-old woman shouldn’t look this tired after a night’s sleep, she thought. Dark circles hovered beneath her light brown eyes and her skin was unusually pale. Her shoulder-length brown hair curled wildly out from her head. She ran her hand through it despairingly. Time for another bout of straightener, she thought. Not that Kurt Rider, the man she’d been seeing for seven months, would care. She often wondered why she even bothered dressing up for their dates. He didn’t seem to notice whether she was in jeans and barefaced, or sporting a new dress and a careful makeup job.

Not like her parents. She grimaced, remembering when she and her sister were in high school. Laurel was fifteen, Claudia seventeen. It was school-picture day and they’d both taken pains with their appearance. When they entered the kitchen, their father put down his coffee cup, beaming at Claudia. “Honey, you are a
vision
,” he’d crowed as she pirouetted, bouncing her blond waves. Then his smile flagged slightly. “Laurel, can’t you do something with your hair?” When Laurel, hurt, muttered, “I think it looks okay,” her mother had glanced up from the eggs she was scrambling. “Leave her alone, Hal,” she’d said. “They can’t all be beauties. Laurel will make a fine wife and mother someday.”

Well, I failed at that, too, Laurel thought ruefully. At thirty she was still single and childless while Claudia had married ten years ago and now awaited her third child.

Ever sensitive to her moods, April pawed at her leg, jerking her back to the moment. Laurel smiled. “Enough of this self-pity. Time to leave the past behind and get on with the day. Who wants Alpo?”

Both dogs knew the word and bolted from the bedroom. Laurel shook her head. They would not respond to “Come,” “Heel,” “Stay,” or “Sit.” Any word dealing with food, however, elicited immediate action.

She walked into the kitchen, which always cheered her up with its shining oak cabinets, stretches of pristine white Formica, and carefully placed, lush plant arrangements that gave color and life to what could have been a large, cold room. She put on coffee and while it brewed fixed food and water for April and Alex. As usual they ate as if they’d had nothing for days, April standing graceful and silky on her long legs, Alex small and compact with his short hair and stubby legs. Obviously they’d had different fathers, but exactly what their parentage was, she’d never know. She’d found them one rainy October afternoon, four weeks old, trembling and dirty, deposited under an evergreen tree beside her driveway. Someone had dumped them, and she’d happily taken them in. They’d given her more companionship the last two years than she’d known for a long time.

When the coffee finished brewing, she carried a cup over to the glass-enclosed breakfast nook. The view beyond was chilling. Acres of snow-covered ground and bare tree limbs stretching against a gunmetal gray sky. The radio she’d turned on in the kitchen announced it was thirty degrees. “Looks like we’re going to have a white Christmas, folks. Remember, only ten more shopping days to go!” the announcer warned.

So far, Laurel hadn’t bought a thing. Usually she had her shopping done by now, but this year had been hectic at the store. At least that’s what she told herself. Actually, she just hadn’t caught the holiday spirit. A vague restlessness, almost apprehension, had enveloped her for over a week, and she couldn’t seem to shake it long enough to enjoy any of her normal activities.

The phone rang and she jumped, then closed her eyes. Mom and Dad, of course. Four years ago they’d bought a small house in Florida near Claudia’s. Since her father’s heart attack two years ago, they’d moved there permanently, turning over the store and the family home to Laurel. They checked up on her frequently, though.

A moment later her mother was jabbering happily and repeating everything Laurel said to her father. “Hal, she says they have snow. It’s thirty degrees there.” Back to Laurel. “How will the weather be next week? You
will
be able to fly down for Christmas, won’t you?”

I hope not, Laurel said silently. Christmas Day with her father and Claudia’s husband shouting deafeningly at football games on television and Claudia’s two ill-behaved children incessantly squabbling was not Laurel’s idea of a good time. To top it off, Claudia, expecting her baby in a month, was swollen, nauseated, and cranky as the devil. “I’m sure I’ll make it,” Laurel said, trying to force some excitement into her voice. “But if the weather does turn nasty, you’ll have a good time without me this year.”

“Don’t be silly,” her mother replied quickly. “Your niece and nephew would be crushed.” Oh, sure, Laurel thought. The children barely took notice of her except to grab for their gifts. “We’d all miss you. Of course, if you have a good reason to
want
to stay home…” Her mother’s voice had turned coy, and Laurel inwardly groaned, knowing what was coming next. “How are things with you and Kurt going? Expecting an engagement ring this Christmas?”

“No, Mother, I’m not,” Laurel said more sharply than she’d intended. “I mean, we’re really not serious.”

“You’ve been seeing each other exclusively for seven months. In my day that meant serious.”

“Well, it doesn’t necessarily mean serious these days. Look, Mom, I’d planned to go into the store a little early this morning. Tell Dad business is fantastic this year.”

“Hal, she says business is good.”

Laurel heard her father’s voice rumbling in the background, but her mother drowned him out. “Honey, you are still
seeing
Kurt, aren’t you? You two haven’t broken up?”

“Everything is fine with us. But I really have to go. Love to you and Dad. I’ll be seeing you in a few days.”

“Good-bye, sweetie. Take good care of yourself. And don’t give up hope. I think there’s a ring coming for you this Christmas. I just feel it in my bones.”

I hope your bones are wrong, Laurel thought as she hung up. She liked Kurt tremendously, but marriage was another matter. If he actually did present her with a ring, she would have to refuse it, which would cause her mother far more grief than it probably would Kurt.

Laurel let April and Alex out for a short romp in the snow. As she watched them play, she nibbled toast, wondering how she could get out of going to Florida next week, wondering exactly what she would say if Kurt actually started talking about marriage. Finally, she tossed down the toast in annoyance. “Laurel, it’s
Christmas
,” she told herself sternly. “You used to love Christmas. This year you’re too depressing for words. Snap
out
of it!”

Half an hour later, showered, dressed in brown wool slacks and a matching angora sweater, a gold and russet scarf tied around her neck, her hair smoothed from a careful blow-drying over a big brush, eyeshadow, blusher, and lipstick in place, she felt and looked better. Relieved, she knew she could face what promised to be a long day. Customers expected to see her bright and cheerful, and her father had taught her to always try to please the customer.

The snow was two days old so roads were clear. Laurel made it from her house to the store in fifteen minutes. As always when she saw it, pride flooded through her. Located in the historic district of Wheeling, West Virginia, Damron Floral inhabited a three-story Victorian structure painted robin’s egg blue with ornate white shutters. She was the third generation of Damrons to manage the store. When her grandfather started it shortly after World War II, he and his wife and son lived on the third floor. During the fifties when business flourished and his family expanded to four children, he built the sprawling log home north of Wheeling, near the beautiful Oglebay State Park, where Laurel now lived.

She always entered by the back door and went into the tiny kitchen off the workroom to start coffee before her assistant Mary Howard arrived. She liked the store to seem inviting, even to employees. Especially to Mary. She was the best designer Laurel had ever hired. She was also the younger sister of Laurel’s friend Faith. Faith, so beautiful, so insouciant, so bold. Faith, dead now for thirteen years.

Laurel felt a chill and pushed the image of Faith from her mind. Good Lord, was she sinking into some kind of holiday depression? For some reason, she wasn’t allowing herself to be happy. She seemed determined to dwell on dark thoughts, the memory of Faith’s death being the darkest.

She went through the store turning on lights. She’d recently replaced the bland tan carpet that had covered the floor of Damron Floral for as long as she could remember. Every five to ten years when new carpet was needed, her father chose the same nondescript shade. Now floors of deep smoky blue stretched before her and soft pearl gray walls replaced the former shade of bisque. Her parents planned a trip home in the spring. She hoped her father would approve of her decorating innovations, but she doubted it. Hal Damron didn’t like change.

A quick glance out the front window assured her the street was nearly deserted. Good. She wouldn’t put up the open sign for twenty minutes, giving her time to go over the day’s orders. Aside from the usual holiday trade, three funerals were being held tomorrow. They were swamped with work.

Laurel took a quick inventory of the store’s interior. The glass shelves were loaded with lush poinsettias and holiday planters decorated with various colored ribbons and silk flowers. Grape vine wreaths hung on the walls along with the more traditional pine wreaths. Laurel breathed in the scent of pine mixed with potpourri coming from little sachet bags scattered throughout the store. The place definitely smelled of Christmas.

She heard the back door close and in a moment Mary Howard called out, “Good morning, Laurel.”

Laurel went to the back. Mary shrugged out of her long, heavy brown coat and smiled at her. She was a tall young woman of twenty-six with pale, frizzy red hair pulled back in a ponytail, light blue eyes, and a smattering of freckles over her high-bridged nose. She was attractive in a strong, rawboned way but certainly not the beauty her sister Faith had been. She didn’t come close to Faith’s vivid, sensual, almost Rita Hayworth look. Laurel had always thought of Faith as red satin, Mary as blue gingham.

“Hi,” Laurel said. “You’re early.”

“Busy day ahead.” Mary held up a bulging white paper bag. “Doughnuts.”

“Bless you! I only ate half a piece of toast this morning and I know I’ll be starving in a couple of hours.”

“Have one now with a fresh cup of coffee. In a couple of hours you won’t have time.”

Laurel hesitated, then smiled. “Okay. You twisted my arm. Any chocolate-covered ones in that bag?”

“Are you joking? I know they’re your favorite.”

Mary was right. Two hours later the phone rang every few minutes and three customers browsed. Mary worked on arrangements in the back with Laurel’s other designers, Penny and Norma, while Laurel manned the front. She’d just sold a set of artificial holly and pine candle rings when the phone rang for what seemed like the twentieth time. Sighing, she reached for her order pad. “Damron Floral.”

A moment of silence spun out before a husky female voice asked, “Laurel, is that you?”

“Yes.” The voice was familiar, but Laurel couldn’t place it. Some customers were offended when she didn’t immediately recognize their voices so she asked carefully, “How are you?”

“I’m fine. Well, actually I’m not fine this morning.”

“Oh?”

“You don’t know who this is, do you?”

God, I hate it when people make me guess their identity, Laurel thought in irritation. It’s so rude and I’m so busy…Suddenly a face with clear green eyes flashed before her. “Monica! It’s Monica Boyd.”

“Right. Pretty quick after not having seen me for twelve years.”

“We were close. Besides, you’re a hard person to forget.” A woman was holding up two pots of poinsettias, tilting them until dirt began sprinkling to the carpet. Laurel stiffened, wanting to snap, “Watch what you’re doing!” Instead she asked pleasantly, “Are you still in New York, Monica?”

“Yes. I’m on my way to making partner at Maxwell, Tate, and Goldstein.”

“Wonderful.” More dirt fell. Laurel was ready to tell Monica to hold for a moment when Mary came to ask a question, immediately saw the problem, and rushed to the woman’s side with a gracious smile and large, firm hands that relieved her of the poinsettias. “Big plans for the holidays?” Laurel asked.

“A change in plans. I’m coming back to Wheeling.”

“After all these years?”

BOOK: In the Event of My Death
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