When Fall Fades (The Girl Next Door Series Book 1) (10 page)

BOOK: When Fall Fades (The Girl Next Door Series Book 1)
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Archer stifled a laugh, but Sal let one slip—attempted to cover it by merging the chuckle into a hacking cough. Pressing his fist to his chest, Sal cleared his throat. “We’ll look into that too, just to be safe.”

“Thank you, young man. You never can be too careful, you know.” Al repositioned his legs, white-knuckled his cane, and hoisted himself out of his chair. “That’s all I’ve got for you boys. Hope it helps you catch whoever killed Charlie. He was one heck of a good man.” Al gave a sad, quivering smile before shuffling to escort them out.

As Archer neared the door he noticed one of about a dozen framed photos on a buffet table—a photo of the Wexlers and the Westwicks with raised glasses at what appeared to be a holiday work party from the seventies.

What caught Archer’s attention, other than the awful polyester suits, was the man in the background glaring with blatant disdain amid the frivolity. The photo quality was poor, but the hatred displayed was unquestionable. Archer grabbed the frame and addressed Al about the identity of the glaring man.

“That sour man worked with us for two long years. Him and Charlie butted heads about every little detail. What was his name? Frank something?” Al continued to ponder for a frustrated minute. “I’m sorry son, my mind is not what it used to be. See how much you remember when you’re almost ninety years old.”

“Not a problem. Would you mind if I snap a picture of this photo?”

“Whatever helps.” Al waited while Archer returned the photo to the frame and then slowly ushered them out.

“So what are you thinkin’?” Sal shoved a stick of gum into his mouth, then another, and another, and started chewing with vigor. “Does your mouth taste like tuna? I think that smell may have soaked into my taste buds. Ack!”

Archer leaned back in his seat, smirking at his partner, and settled in for the long drive to question Roger Halwell, Charlie’s apprentice from the battalion. “Tuna aside, I’m thinking we’ve at least got a few leads. And hopefully Halwell will know what happened during the war that haunted Charlie all these years. Now gimme a piece of that gum.”

After an hour of driving around in circles looking for the elusive Manor Village Retirement Community, they pulled in to
Shady
Village Retirement Community.

Archer shot Sal a perturbed glare.

“What? It was an honest mistake. I must have put it into the system wrong. You navigate next time.” Sal stabbed at the seatbelt button and struggled against the tangling restraint before extricating himself and slamming the car door.

“A bit touchy are we?” Archer smiled, amused by Sal’s flailing overreaction.

Sal brushed him off and knocked on the door of the duplex-styled home. He waited, knocked again.

“Excuse me.” They turned their attention to an elderly lady next door who seemed to be having trouble locking up. “Are you looking for Roger?”

Archer walked over with a casual grin. “Hello, ma’am. I’m Special Agent Archer Hayes with the FBI.” He flashed his badge for her comfort. “Do you know where we might be able to find Roger Halwell?”

Worry nearly merged her overly penciled-in eyebrows, and before she could ask Archer added. “There’s no trouble, we are just looking for some information about someone he knew.”

She mouthed an “Oh” and her wrinkles relaxed. “Roger’s always at the community center near the front entrance for dinner about this time a day.”

Archer glanced at his watch. Three thirty. He tamed a smirk. “Thank you very much, you’ve been quite helpful.” He gestured to her door, held out his hand and accepted her keys. In one swift motion he set the lock and he returned the massive bundle to her palm.

She blushed and fanned her face. “Thank you, young man. Nice to know chivalry isn’t dead.”

A few minutes later Archer and Sal surveyed the crowd awaiting dinner in the dining hall, asking a hairnet-clad employee where they might be able to find Roger.

“Mr. Halwell is usually the first one in line for supper, but I haven’t seen him today. You might want to check with Kim, she’s the head of the nursing staff. She could probably track him down for you.”

Archer thanked her before he and Sal continued their wild goose chase to locate Roger Halwell.

“It’s kinda crazy that these guys served together decades ago, halfway across the world and ended up living in basically the same town.” Sal’s thoughts mimicked his own while they wandered the halls of the community center.

Then Sal threw a curve ball. “You keep in touch with any of your old army buddies, Hayes?”

For the second time today Archer’s mind returned to the final image of Jimmy. A sinking feeling settled in his gut, then twisted with the stab of loss and regret and everything ugly about war.

Jimmy had taken the last of Archer’s ability to care about someone else with him to his grave. It wasn’t right but Archer resented Jimmy for that. Hated how it smeared the memory of his once vivacious friend turned fallen soldier. Caring was a luxury Archer couldn’t afford. It was as if isolation had become his armor. And for the first time in a long time he truly wished he could change.

Archer continued walking without looking back. “No Sal, none of them are left but me.”

Chapter 10

Sadie Carson

S
adie came awake with a muffled gasp into her pillow. The sheets stuck like wet papier-mâché to her clammy skin. Her heart pounded painfully against the sweat-soaked mattress. She propped onto her elbows, head in her hands, pushing deep breaths through her quivering lungs. The dream curled in on itself, the living embers crumbling to ashes as she fought to unfold the picture now lost in a reality too painful to touch.

Her body eventually calmed but glimpses of Ryan looped in her mind like miles on a treadmill. A cloak of darkness still hung in the room. Four forty-seven glowed from the alarm clock.

“Is this some sort of test? Is that it?” She lamented, dropping her face back into her pillow to blot her tears.

She tossed and turned for another restless hour, thinking about the dreams, about Ryan, about a future that never happened. Reconciling that things don’t always turn out as planned, she had changed, adapted, set a new course for her life. But if that were true, why was it still so difficult to move on? Maybe she was still holding on to the hope that things might turn out differently and that just maybe things aren’t always what they seem.

Sadie awoke for the second time, unaware that she’d fallen back asleep after the early morning wrestling match with herself. The sudden reflux of dreams kept tearing open painfully beautiful memories she’d thought she’d boxed up long ago. Why now? Did they mean anything?

And why did she keep feeling this odd sense of betrayal when the day settled in and she found her thoughts drifting to one infuriatingly gorgeous FBI agent.

After her usual morning routine, she received a call from Charlie’s son and started planning the memorial service for the coming weekend—speaking with a few friends to help get the word out before she got to work organizing the service.

So far she intended to play an arrangement of some of Charlie’s favorite old tunes in the background while people were milling around. She’d also contacted a florist and ordered several large bouquets of white tulips, his wife Catherine’s favorites.

What else?
“Pictures.” She needed access to a box of pictures he’d kept in his basement to put out on display.

Battling a nervous flutter, she drew a deep calming breath and dialed Agent Hayes’s number. Without ringing it rolled over to voicemail. Feeling unprepared to leave a message, she fumbled the phone like a hot potato but was able to hang up before meeting dead air.
Whew.

The scuffling sound permeating the wall reminded her that there was a team next door collecting more evidence. Probably wouldn’t hurt to drop by and ask them.
Or
she could always try Agent Hayes again later.

“Okay, back to the memorial.” There was one last thing she knew she needed to do for Charlie. Aside from helping to discover the truth, that is. A coil of dread wound in her stomach as she talked herself in and out of what she’d promised she would do. 

She trudged down the hallway, the ungraceful strike of her bare feet on the wood floors more akin to the stomping hooves of a roundup than one-hundred-and-thirty
ish
pounds of girl. When she halted in front of the keyboard in the spare room, her anxiety mounted. Odd that her stage fright wasn’t prejudice to the complete lack of an audience.

The mismatched and weathered piano bench groaned upon impact. Sadie couldn’t remember the last time she’d sat to play this thing. It sure wasn’t like being at Charlie’s tickling the keys of his beautiful baby grand.

Closing her eyes and inhaling a fresh summons of strength, she let her fingers rest on the smooth faux ivory. As Charlie’s favorite song began to pour forth, the timbre of her voice quaked and her throat clogged with emotion of the last time she’d sung it for him. 

“You had the angels singing with you on that one. Sounds exactly what I ’magine heaven’ll be like. Would you sing it for me once more? I could sure use another dose of heaven today.”

The last note rang out smooth and steady, and Sadie’s heart warmed, feeling as if she could almost see Charlie’s joyful face smiling down on her. She’d do it. For Charlie.

The rest of the afternoon piddled by in a cell-phone-induced haze of wake arrangements. Sadie wrapped it up by coordinating a potluck dinner for after the service before finalizing the following week’s schedule with Andy and Elsie.

Noting that it was fast approaching six o’clock, she fixed herself up a bit, throwing on a kelly green sundress and gold sandals for the weekly Carson family dinner.

Her preference for comfy sweats was overruled in an attempt to appease her mother. Otherwise, she’d have to endure a lengthy etiquette lesson about what it means to be a lady and how a lady should “accentuate her beauty” instead of hiding it under rock ’n’ roll T-shirts and workout clothes.

Before it got too late to call, Sadie swiped her phone off the counter and dialed her last call of the day. This time it actually rang—each steady drone amping her nervous anticipation of hearing his husky baritone. But again it ended in voicemail. Sadie left a quick, and hopefully coherent, request for a return call before stuffing the phone in her purse.

Something loud clanked against the floor. The screen wall again. What were they doing over there? It sounded more like they were ransacking the place than collecting evidence. She decided to stop by, inquire about the pictures, and find out firsthand if they were doing their jobs.

Probably more effective than calling Agent Hayes anyways. And maybe they’d be more lax about her looking around.

Sure Agent Hayes had been friendly, but it was easy to see he didn’t trust her. It was also easy to see how his be-still-my-heart grin could manipulate an innocent woman into confessing to murder for the promise of one more smile. She gave a resolute nod of her head, telling herself she was relieved that Agent Hayes hadn’t answered his phone.

Locking up, Sadie strolled over to Charlie’s, the ebbing of the setting sun’s warmth still hot enough to flush her skin. The breeze kept it bearable, shimmying through her hair, whipping the long strands about her face. Her phone sang from the depths of her enormous purse as she approached Charlie’s door. After clawing the hair from her eyes, and engaging in a frantic bout of digging, she caught the caller ID just before answering.

Agent Hayes.
Unsettled by the strange little flop of her stomach, she shook her head, symbolically chasing away the jitters. “Hello?”

“Sadie, this is Agent Hayes. I just saw I missed a call from you.”

Noticing that the front door was cracked, she knocked and let herself in. “Yeah, I was calling because I’m helping Charlie’s family put together a memorial service this weekend, and I wanted to see if I could have access to some of his old photos to put on display.”

“Yeah, I don’t see why that would be a problem. I’m close to Charlie’s place. I could drop by and get those for you.”

“I’m actually at Charlie’s right now. I’ve been hearing the FBI team rummaging around here all day, and when I couldn’t get a hold of you, I thought I’d ask someone here.”

Sadie scanned Charlie’s house. Greeted with a suspicious absence of activity for the noises she’d just heard, she wandered in a few more steps. It was quiet.

Too quiet.

What were the slackers up to?

“Huh. I just heard someone here from my place, but now I don’t see anyone. And the door was left open?” Just then a crescendo of footsteps rose from the basement door. “Oh, I think someone’s coming up from downstairs.”

“Sadie, the team was at the office when I left ten minutes ago. They’re not at Charlie’s anymore.” Alarm. It was all over his voice.

Instant dread balled up and twisted in her stomach. A collision of crippling emotions hit her in one paralyzing blow. Panic. Terror. Numbness. A sinking sensation like she was getting dragged to the bottom of an icy lake froze the breath in her lungs.

She was alone in Charlie’s home with an intruder, or worse, Charlie’s killer. The basement door swung open just as she ducked behind several clustered stacks of newspapers.

“Sadie? Sadie, are you ok? What’s going on?”

Sadie winced as she squeezed the receiver to mute out the sound booming through the thin silence. Fear strangled the words she forced out in a barely audible whisper. “Someone’s here.”

“Sadie, I need to call it in. I’m still ten minutes away. Stay put.” Archer ended the call.

Muttered curses and savage searching sounds came from what sounded like twenty feet away. Footsteps approached her poor excuse for a hiding spot. Uncontrollable tremors gripped every flimsy muscle fiber in her arsenal, shaking her so hard she almost dropped the phone.

The hissing creak of the wood floors played like a haunted symphony. She dared not close her eyes for fear of what she might encounter when she opened them.

Unable to move she stared ahead, a stream of muted prayers trapped within each strained, stuttering breath.

Where was Agent Hayes? It seemed like an eternity since he’d hung up the phone. Her mind screamed for a solution, an escape, an equation, and came up empty.
Why do you not have your gun?

The steps drew closer.

Her constricting throat squeezed so tight she thought she might faint. Struggling to cling to consciousness, her heart seemed to explode as her phone suddenly blared to life. With quaking hands she silenced the call from her mom, listening for the death march to continue.

Nothing.

An impossibly long moment passed until she heard the faintest strain of the tired timbers underfoot.

Her scream crumbled to dust in her throat. A pair of piercing dark eyes cloaked by a ski mask spotted her from a breath away and widened with surprise, or rage, she couldn’t tell. The darkness funneled down through his eyes—windows to the soul of a murderer. She knew, she just knew she would die today if she didn’t act.

Her fear turned liquid, bursting through her veins. Before she could think it through, the adrenaline took over. With a panicked war cry, she lunged forward from her squatted position and drove her shoulder linebacker-style into the man’s stomach, knocking him down. She scrambled to pull herself off of him, kicking and clawing in a panic. Strong biting fingers clamped on her arm before his gloved hand lost contact and grabbed a fistful of the front of her dress, pinning her against him.

His other hand gripped her backside. A sick, feral glint sharpened in his chilling eyes just before he ground his hips against her, a rasp of a grunt muffled under the mask. His twisted moment of pleasure had softened his grip just enough for her to buck away and shove to her knees. She felt a seam in her sundress give as she jerked it from his grasp and stumbled to her feet.

The hands that grappled for her failed to connect. With only one second’s advantage, she toppled a column of newspapers over him and threw open the front door. Her legs took flight for the run of her life. Sandals slapping the pavement with a sting, she sprinted as hard as she could back toward her home and never looked back.

Several minutes later, the police knocked on Sadie’s door. With the profound effects of her terror still manifesting in her wobbly knees and trembling hands, she forced herself outside the safety of her home to give her statement. Twice in one week, what were the odds?

BOOK: When Fall Fades (The Girl Next Door Series Book 1)
11.07Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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