Authors: Bill Benners
Tags: #Fiction, #Thrillers, #Suspense, #General
Can we go to the beach this weekend?” she asked as I turned off Market Street and headed into the older part of the city near the docks.
It’ll have to be early on Sunday.”
That’s okay. It’s been three years since I’ve seen the ocean.”
It hasn’t changed.”
She didn’t laugh.
The neighborhood we drove through hadn’t changed since we were kids either. Even the posters plastered on all the vacant buildings announcing the Cole Brothers Circus was coming to town looked the same. As we drove along, the trees thinned, the streets got dirtier, and the color faded to gray.
We pulled around to the back of a row of abandoned stores across from
and parked behind a hollowed-out brick shell of a building with the doors and windows missing.
I eased her wheelchair through the rubble to a spot inside from where we could watch the comings and goings at
. I clamped a bracket on an exposed water pipe to steady the camera and zoomed in on the entrance to the bar.
A short time later, a pair of city detectives walked into
and during the next five minutes, I photographed close to twenty patrons as the place emptied out. Martha watched through the binoculars while I captured images as fast as the camera would go.
Neither of us heard the two come up behind us until one spoke.
What the hell do we have going on here?”
HE LAST THING I EXPECTED was to be accosted by a couple of women. One was blond with dark eyebrows, the other had dark hair piled high in a bee-hive with a tattoo on her neck—some kind of Chinese symbol. They wore jeans, t-shirts with the sleeves and midriff area ripped off, and metal studs in both their navels and lips—like many of the women you’d run into at Wal-Mart. I saw Martha’s hand moving slowly toward her cell phone.
I cleared my throat. “We’re working undercover here. You’d better run along if you don’t want to get in trouble.”
The blond smacked a wad of gum and pointed a finger at Martha. “Just keep your hands where we can see them, Sweetie. And you,” she said looking at me, “what did Sam Jones tell you, Baimbridge?”
Sam Jones? “He—told us to stay away.”
Right. And he don’t like it when you don’t listen.”
You are endangering the lives of every officer down here. If you don’t want to be charged with interfering with an investigation, then do as you’re told.”
Martha and I said little on the way back to Mom and Dad’s. We’d had the hell scared out of us and agreed that in the future we needed to take along some kind of protection. Next time, it might not be the police.
When we arrived back at the house, Mom was loading her car for what she called her missionary work—a visit to some shut-in’s to deliver food and see to it that they had everything they needed.
She saw that our plans had changed and begged us to go.
Twelve miles southwest of Wilmington she turned up a dirt road, passed two abandoned doublewides parked in what appeared to be a makeshift trash dump, and stopped at a small farm up on a hill.
I’d been here before—dozens of times going back to my childhood. I think this was Mom’s favorite case. She’d stopped doing for most of the others, but not this one. The man that lived here was named Winston. I’d always liked him. He was younger than the rest and treated everybody special.
He’d been burned horribly in a fire. His skin had melted like a wax doll set too close to the stove. His nose and his ears were mostly gone, just enough left to show where they’d been. His eyelids always looked tight and red, and he blinked all the time. He had no hair anywhere that I could see except a tiny patch on the right side of his head. No eyebrows. No eyelashes. And no lips.
Martha and I thought his mouth looked like it belonged on a fish. I had nightmares about him that went on for more than a year after seeing him for the first time. But now I hardly notice.
He made his living raising livestock for the local meat markets. Cattle, pigs, goats, and chickens. He smoked Borkum Riff tobacco in a pipe, an aroma I could still smell in my clothes long after we were gone. To this day I love to smell it.
It had been at least ten years since I’d been there. He welcomed us in as he always did and seemed genuinely pleased that Martha and I had come. He wanted to hear all about what we’d been up to since he’d seen us last and acted like he truly cared. He was thoughtful, positive, inspiring, and way too generous. I think Mom usually took home more than she brought, but maybe having someone to talk to was more important to him than the food.
He had a quick sense of humor and was the most intelligent person I’d ever met. I don’t think I ever went there that I didn’t leave glad I’d been.
I think Mom cared a lot about Winston, too. She always cried when we left. Sometimes for days.
After a couple of hours, he and Mom went for a walk and it was obvious why she’d kept coming back all these years. It was good to be respected, needed, and appreciated.
When I arrived back at my home, I reached across a counter of dirty dishes, seized the last clean glass in the cabinet, and splashed dinner into it from a bottle of scotch.
I kept thinking about Winston and my mother. I’d never noticed before how different she was with him. She was relaxed and charming. She smiled the whole time and laughed often. I had no idea it had been so long since I’d heard her laugh. And how I do love to hear her laugh.
All that adversity and still he made others laugh. He must have been one hell of a man. I wish Dad could have been a little more like Winston.
Stepping out the back door, I took a long swig and gazed out over the hundred-acre lake behind the house. Surrounded by aging boat docks, weathered purple martin houses, and a dampness that still lingered from winter, it never failed to calm my nerves and soothe the beast within me. One more thing I was going to miss after I left.
Storm clouds moving in from the west were transforming the sky into something dark and menacing. The breeze coming off the lake died and left the air hot and muggy.
Yes sir, just as soon as this thing is over with Martha—and I finish the production I’m directing at Thalian Hall—I’m out of here. Just thinking about it was enough to lift my spirits. That and the approaching storm. God, how I do love a good storm. Especially when I’m depressed. I love the feel of it, the sound of it, and all its special effects. Some storms come up so rapidly you barely have time to get out of their way. This was the kind of storm that crept in slowly, that displayed its splendor a piece at a time like an orchestra tuning up. Maybe that’s what I like about storms. The lights, colors, sounds, and intensity. The drama of it. Nature’s theatre.
That’s the only thing in life with which I truly am in harmony. The arts. Theatre. When I step through those massive doors into Thalian Hall with its grandeur, history, and ghosts, it’s like walking into another dimension
another universe completely separate from this one. It’s a magical place where anything is possible. You only have to imagine it for it to be real. And when the intensity is high, it’s the most real place on earth.
But my father says that the theatre is a refuge for queers, drug addicts, and dreamers, and that any man that works in the theatre is a loser. So I don’t work in the theatre. I do it as a hobby—one I take very seriously. And that’s what I’m going to miss most about Wilmington. The house, the storms, my Mom, and great theatre. My father can go to hell.
Lightning streaked across the sky on the other side of the lake. Mrs. Winslow, my overweight, snoopy backdoor neighbor around the lake to my left was folding deck chairs and putting them in a weather-beaten tool shed built decades ago by her late husband. No matter what she’s doing or how she’s standing, she always seems to have one eye on me. By now you’d think she would have realized I don’t have friends over, I don’t throw parties, and I certainly do not bring women into my house. Strange or not.
Leaves swirled into the air and the neighborhood abruptly came to life. Trees swayed and thunder broke the sound barrier. I closed my eyes and rolled my head in a circle as the vibrations rumbled through my body and out my extremities. It felt good to be touched by something. Anything.
As the wind rose and drops of rain began to spatter the deck, I chugged the rest of the scotch, went inside, and turned on the six-thirty news. Evening quickly turned to night and the flickering TV became the only light in the room. With a fresh scotch in hand, I stepped to the floor-length windows just to watch the storm. It was beautiful and passionate. Delicate and gentle one moment, violent and savage the next. Like a relationship. Like sex.
I sipped the scotch. What sex? I haven’t been in a serious relationship in years. There’s something about me that women don’t like. Something they’re able to sense right away. Some flaw in my character. Maybe I drink too much. Maybe I don’t call often enough when we’re not together. Maybe it’s just too much work for a man that stays as busy as I do.
I studied my reflection in the window glass. It was a sad sight. A little too short. A little too thin. Hair hanging over my ears. Is that gray hair? I stepped closer and twisted my head side to side. No doubt, if I was ever going to date again, I needed to find a new stylist and start working out.
Lightning turned the night back into day and thunder exploded above the house with enough force to rattle the foundation and knock the power out. For a moment, everything stopped. It was spectacular.
Nature’s theatre indeed.
The power flickered back on and the refrigerator returned to its endless humming, but the TV stayed off. I slid my glass up next to the liquor bottle and was considering whether to pour another single or go for a double when the doorbell rang an odd chime.
I started for the front door, but spotted the silhouette of a woman standing on the back deck. As she struggled to keep an umbrella over her head, I realized I’d never heard the back doorbell before. I switched on the deck lights and cracked the door enough to get my face wet.
The woman at the back door held a black umbrella against her shoulder and struggled to keep her balance as she braced herself against a mighty gust of wind. She looked to be in her early twenties.
My name is Ashleigh Matthews. I live in Dr. Hardesty’s pool house next door. May I come inside for a minute?”
There was a pained look on her face that reminded me of the loneliness I often felt. The kind of loneliness that gnaws a hole in your chest, steals your youth, and makes you vulnerable.
I parted the door just enough to allow her to get past me without letting in the whole storm. “Sure. Of course. Please come in.”
Thanks,” she exhaled dashing by me. As I closed the door, I caught sight of Mrs. Winslow gazing at me from a window. I gave her a two-finger salute and flipped on the kitchen lights.
I’m sorry to impose on you on a night like this,” the woman said folding down her umbrella. She wore a pea-green raincoat over a white cotton shirt and faded jeans soaked from the knees down. Her lips were a bit too large for her face, but, still, she was extremely attractive.
It’s no problem, really. What can I do for you?”
Well…two things actually.” She looked around as if to see if I was alone. “My lights have gone off—”
Oh? You could have a circuit breaker that’s tripped. I’ll be glad to go over and take a look if you like. Would you like to sit here until the rain slacks off a bit?”
Yes. Thank you. That would be great.” Her blond shoulder-length hair had six or seven strands of multi-colored beads woven into it hanging off the right side that clinked when she moved.
And the other thing?”
Well…” She rotated the umbrella from one hand to the other and wiped the bottom of her chin on the back of her hand. It had been so long since I’d had a guest in the house, I’d forgotten how to treat one.
Oh, here, let me have that.” I reached for the umbrella. “And the raincoat, too.”
As I removed her raincoat, I caught the scent of her perfume. It was as out of place in my house as the aroma of a good home-cooked country dinner. She shook droplets out of her hair and the beads jangled. “That’s some storm, huh?”
I balanced the umbrella in the sink and hung the raincoat on a cabinet door handle. “Yes, isn’t it?” A smile spread wide across her face, but her eyes failed to hide her worry. “Would you like something to drink? Ashleigh, is it?”