Authors: Linda K. Rodante
A Christian Contemporary
Romance with Suspense
Linda K. Rodante
Lynn Stapleton gripped the steering wheel of her Lexus and questioned her sanity one more time. The approaching hurricane drove gray sheets of rain across the windshield. She narrowed her eyes to see better.
It didn’t help that during a phone conversation earlier, Sharee Jergenson had called her crazy. And maybe she was, but not checking on Victoria would be crazier still. How could she run for safety while Victoria was still out here?
The car’s wipers struggled to handle the downpour. This morning’s weather forecast predicted the storm’s landfall on Florida’s Gulf Coast in less than twenty-four hours. With winds up to a hundred miles an hour and torrential rains, Hurricane Bella had caused residents in her condominium to flee even before the evacuation order came.
When Lynn heard the order a few hours ago, she’d packed a large suitcase with clothing, personal papers, a few treasured items and vacated her beach condo immediately. But she didn’t head inland as Sharee requested. Instead, she drove north along US 19. Besides, her newly married friend didn’t need a houseguest.
Lynn’s calls to every shelter within twenty miles had benefited nothing. No one named Victoria was registered at any of them. Anxiety fanned flames throughout her whole body. Why hadn’t Victoria answered her calls or texts? She had bought the woman a prepaid phone—in case the man found her.
The winds scattered palm fronds, branches, and loose foliage across the highway. Storm-driven waters filled ditches on either side—a precursor of what was to come.
Sharee’s words played across her mind. “Lynn, you can’t run all over the county with a hurricane coming. Victoria’s probably in a shelter, and whoever you talked to just doesn’t know it. I’m sure she left with the others.”
“Then why hasn’t she called or answered her phone?”
“You might be way down on her list, girlfriend. Survival comes first.”
Sharee worked with the homeless, so Lynn didn’t argue, but she knew Victoria would call—if she could. She concentrated on the road, made a quick left turn and thanked God for the lack of traffic.
Her last option was the tent city in the woods. If Victoria wasn’t at a shelter, had she stayed behind for some reason? Lynn made another turn, and the tires sprayed mud and water from the unpaved road. She drove past wind-whipped trees and scattered debris. In a minute, the street dead-ended. She brought the car to a stop and sat back in the seat, stunned.
Devastation met her gaze. The tent city where the homeless lived had almost disappeared. Clothes, shoes, and other items littered the ground along with scattered pine needles and tree branches. Tents slumped, tangled in the mud; only a few, sheltered by large trees, still stood.
She’d visited three times before. Tents had filled the clearing then, and ropes stretched from tree to tree as makeshift clotheslines. The homeless people welcomed them—welcomed the food they brought, the clothes, and the toiletries.
What had she expected today? Lynn stared through the lessening rain, eyeing the few tents left standing. Perhaps if this squall line passed, she could get out and check them. She took a hair band from her purse and pulled her waist-length blonde hair into a ponytail.
After a few minutes, with the rain continuing to lessen, she tugged the hood of her rain jacket over her head and threw open the door. The sodden wreckage in front of her spoke of desertion. The feeling of defeat wasn’t one she was used to nor was it welcome.
She shoved the door closed, and a wind gust thrust her back against the car. Above her, the tree tops swayed and bowed. She huddled beside the Lexus until walking was possible again. Sending a thank-you to heaven, she moved forward.
Debris slowed her progress. Lynn stepped over branches and circled a downed tent before lifting her head to yell. “Victoria!”
No answer. She walked forward, cupped her hands around her mouth again and stumbled over something large and soft, something that bulged under another downed tent.
Pay attention, girl. What if you sprained your ankle out here?
She looked at the downed tent. Someone had left more than their temporary home. A blanket, maybe, or clothes or a sleeping bag lay under the bulky material. Her throat tightened just as it had the first time she’d come.
That day, while Sharee had chatted with a woman and young teen, Lynn’s comfort in her designer jeans and shirt and her Prada handbag had dissolved. She’d eyed the woman’s mismatched clothes and her daughter’s dirty pants and shirt. That might be all they owned. Lynn’s glimpse into the steamy confines of their canvas home had drawn tears she’d released on the way home.
But today, another gust of wind shook rain from the trees, and Lynn tightened the grip on her hood. The corner of the tent covered whatever was under it. Perhaps she could salvage something for someone. She leaned down and grabbed the heavy material. Stepping to the side, she tugged it up and back.
Horror shot through her. Her stomach rolled. The sodden canvas pulled free from her hands and slapped down across the hideous thing she’d just seen. She screamed.
Even though the Sheriff’s cruiser was dry and warm, Lynn fidgeted. She’d sat there answering the detective’s questions long enough.
By the time the deputy sheriff had arrived and then called for the detective, the storm’s ferocity had climbed. They were a skeleton crew, the deputy informed her, because of the hurricane. While she waited in the deputy’s cruiser, he and the detective took pictures of the scene then scouted the area for evidence. The rain and wind competed with them for anything left behind. Finally, a van arrived. Lynn turned her head away when they pulled out the body bag.
Tears collected and ran down her face. Victoria was dead.
By the time the detective slid into the driver’s seat of the cruiser, she’d almost given way to the pulsating blackness, but she steadied her insides. She’d get through this and out of here—to somewhere. She couldn’t go home—not with the evacuation—but she’d find somewhere…
Evening had darkened the interior of the car while she answered the man’s questions. Her eyes went past him to the figure outside. The deputy battled the wind to roll up the tent. He stumbled, dropped the heavy material, and started again.
“We can finish this at the office.” The detective had made the suggestion once already.
Lynn stiffened and shifted her focus back to him. He sat in partial darkness. “I told you, I don’t want to be stuck there. The hurricane’s coming, and I’d rather be with friends.” She had to get away. The hold on her ragged emotions was slipping and going to some sterile office complex surrounded by people and bright lights wouldn’t help. “You have my statement. And this street will flood soon. I’d like to leave before it does.”
Silence met her words, but she wouldn’t allow him to sway her. She’d fought the familiar blackness that had swept up and threatened to engulf her before dialing 911. Now, if she didn’t move, didn’t get away from here, it would be back. All she could see was Victoria, eyes open and staring, blood covering her hair and face. Lynn shivered and tightened the rain jacket’s collar around her neck.
They’d questioned her the other time, too…
After a moment, the detective flipped the page in his small book. “You’ll be staying with friends then? I need a name and address.”
She rattled off the information as rain pelted the car’s windshield.
He looked up. “Sharee Jergenson? You’ll be staying with her?”
“And this address—”
“Is a church. They live on the property.”
“She and her husband.”
Lynn frowned. “Yes, but how did you—”
“You had a kidnapping there. Less than a year ago. A baby.” He tapped his book. “You, Sharee and John were part of the investigation.”
Lynn hadn’t paid much attention to him or the deputy. Suppressing the horror of what she’d seen had proved hard enough. “You were the detective on the case?”
“A deputy at the time.”
A tree branch slapped against the window. She jumped. The detective glanced past her.
“The wind’s picking up.”
“Yes, I…” She swallowed. “Your name again?”
“Oh. Deputy Richards. I remember.” Intense blue eyes that she couldn’t see now were what she recalled. But what did it matter? Nothing mattered right now but getting away. She fought the tears.
“You know,” he said, “the sooner we have all the information, the sooner we’ll find out who killed your friend.”
Who killed your…
Her mind leapt back over the years, to the other time. She heard the screams, ran down the hall, and saw the woman sprawled on the hard tile floor. Her hair was splayed out, the blood a red aura around it. Lynn’s mind had, at first, refused recognition…
She shoved the memories aside, flipped up the hood of the rain jacket and threw open the cruiser’s door. She was going whether he liked it or not.
Richards stepped out the other side, ducking his head because of the rain.
“I can go, right?” Lynn raised her voice to be heard above the wind and pulled the keys from her jacket pocket.
“Yes, but I’ll be back in touch.” His shout was just loud enough to hear. “As soon as the storm passes.”
She turned and ran through the water to her car. No matter what she’d said to him, she wasn’t going to Sharee’s tonight. Sharee would have more questions than Lynn wanted to answer.
Her mind flew over the reality ahead of her. Roads flooded in this area and trying to get to US 19 and the motels there could prove disastrous. Shelters were open all over Pinellas County, and she needed time to decompress. Earlier, a television news station mentioned the high school. She could sleep on a cot or sleeping bag for one night. Lynn took a deep breath and slipped into the driver’s seat.
She flicked on the car’s lights. Her fingers closed over the seatbelt, and she tugged it into place before glancing at the rearview mirror.
Richards stood beside the cruiser, ignoring the rain now, and stared her way.
Lynn turned the Lexus back toward the highway. Mud and water flew from the tires as she shoved the accelerator to the floor.
The shelter took her name, glanced at her ID, and gave her a sleeping bag, blanket, and bottle of water. When they mentioned food, Lynn’s face became hot, and nausea squeezed her stomach. She turned away.
It wasn’t the high school. The road to it had swamped, so she’d come here, to the next nearest shelter—a church that took in the homeless on cold nights and in emergency situations. Back in February, Sharee cooked a large pot of chili to bring to those taking shelter here and coerced Lynn to ride with her. They’d fed about twenty-five people that night. Sleeping bags stretched across the floor then just as they did tonight. Men, women and children stood in line hungry for food and warmth.
It had started her occasional visits to the homeless—always with Sharee, always bringing basics for survival. Slowly, she became acquainted with the people and their stories. And she’d met Victoria…
Lynn focused on the people now sitting at nearby tables. Some whispered, and some laughed, acting as if the night added adventure to their lives. Perhaps it did. Others huddled by themselves and looked as uncomfortable as she felt.
Volunteer workers directed men to one side of the large room—the church’s Life Center—and women and children to the other side. She shifted her sleeping bag to her other arm. They’d have more homeless here than at the other shelters. She glanced around to see if she recognized anyone. Strange how, for tonight, her situation replicated those she’d helped before.
Lynn took the sleeping bag to a back corner and shook it out. She tried to shove off the sense of despair that welled to the surface. Victoria should be here. Safe and dry.
The lump in her throat threatened to become tears, and she wrapped the loneliness around her like a high wall. She hadn’t seen anyone she knew. Good. Talking and smiling was far from what she wanted to do tonight. She dropped onto the sleeping bag and curled her feet under her.
Victoria was dead. Not just dead. Murdered.
Lord, what happened? Why?
How did you let it happen?
But questions did not change the outcome. The lump in her throat threatened again. She swallowed hard and stared straight ahead.
After a few minutes, she took her shoes off and stretched out on the sleeping bag. Rain whipped against the building. The Life Center, solid and without windows, silenced most of the storm’s roar, though higher wind gusts growled as they whipped past the building.
A woman stopped next to her. “You’d better sleep on that handbag. And keep your shoes on. Or they’ll be gone by morning.”
Lynn glanced up. She didn’t want to answer, didn’t want to start a conversation; but she shoved to a sitting position anyway. The woman’s greasy blonde hair curled in an unruly bob around her head. She’d dressed in faded black pants and a dingy white shirt. Her half-smile showed a mouth that needed dental work.
“You think so?” Lynn asked and reached for the shoes.
“Oh, I know. But if anyone wants to fight you for them, don’t fight back. Nothing’s worth getting knifed over.”
Lynn swallowed. “Thank you. I think.” She tried a smile and let her gaze shift to others around the room. Surely, she should see Pedro or Maria or one of the other homeless people she knew.
“No trouble. I guess you’re here because of the hurricane.”
The woman shifted her backpack from one arm to the other and hunched down in front of her. “Listen. You’re real pretty, aren’t you? If anyone bothers you, call for me—my name’s Irene—or one of them at the desk. I mean, call loud. ‘Cause girls like you…” The woman’s gaze traveled the room and came back to Lynn. “They disappear.”