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Authors: Gayle Roper

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BOOK: Caught in the Middle
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I put my head on my knees, but I knew Curt was studying me.

“You really
are
Brenda Starr, girl reporter, aren’t you?” he said. “Beauty, brains, charm, and you take danger with you wherever you go.”

I snorted. “I’m no Brenda. She’s a tall, slinky redhead with stars in her eyes. She always gets her story and never gets her man. I’m a short, perky brunette, and the only thing in my eyes is fear. I must admit, though, that I’m in the middle of a story to match any of hers.”

“How about the man part?” Curt asked.

“What?”

“The man part. She never gets her man?”

I said nothing for a few minutes. Then I looked at him. “I didn’t get my man, either.”

Curt stared back, then nodded. “Good.”

I frowned at him. He was handsome, personable and very comforting to have along when you’re being shot at. But potential romance was the last thing I needed or wanted. Jack still haunted my dreams too frequently.

I changed the subject. “How do we know if it’s safe to get up? We can’t stay here all night.”

“Under normal circumstances, I’d be delighted to spend extended periods of time with you,” Curt said. “But you’re right about tonight. Too cold.”

He stood before I realized what he intended. I grabbed for him again, but he saw me coming.

“Thanks,” he said as he dodged my reaching hands, “but I think I’ll take my chances up here.”

I held my breath for a long minute, and so, I suspect, did he, in spite of his studied nonchalance.

When nothing happened, I began to breathe again.

SEVEN

T
he police responded quickly to the call from my cell, retrieved from my purse now that the world was safe for democracy once more, and Sergeant Poole and I had the privilege of talking together two nights in a row.

“Well, well, well,” he said by way of greeting. “You certainly are hard on cars.”

“It’s not my car,” I said.

“Just like it wasn’t your body, right?” His smile took the sting out of his comment.

Curt and I told our stories. I tried to keep it as unexciting as possible, but Curt made the incident sound like an Arnold Schwarzenegger action flick.

Sergeant Poole nodded and made notes, pausing to study the bullet holes in the front windshield and the upholstery to try to establish the angle of entry.

“Could you tell where the shots came from? Or the noise from the car engine that scared you?”

Curt and I looked at each other.

“Over there?” I said, pointing to a field on the south side of church.

“I think so,” agreed Curt. “It has to be over there for the bullets to strike the windshield and the driver’s-side window and bury themselves in the seats, doesn’t it?”

Sergeant Poole nodded. “Probably.” He looked around, but two people from the crime-scene unit were already on their way to the probable shooting site. “By the way, we’ll need to keep the car so we can retrieve the bullets and do ballistic studies.”

“I figured that,” I said sadly.

“You got a way home?” he asked, looking meaningfully at Curt.

“Of course,” Curt answered.

Poole nodded approval.

“So that’s it? I can go?” It felt so anticlimactic just to leave.

“Yeah,” Sergeant Poole said. “What else do you want?”

“Who are you going to put on guard outside her door?” Curt asked.

I looked hopefully at Sergeant Poole.

“Are you kidding?” Poole held his hands out, his craggy brows raised in question. “Do you really think we have extra officers waiting around in case someone needs a keeper?”

Well, I wrote about pared-down police budgets often enough. I understood.

“But someone attempted to shoot her!”

True, and shouldn’t that make a difference?

“You sure it was her and not you he was after?” Sergeant Poole asked conversationally.

Curt was so taken aback that all he could do was sputter. I tried not to laugh.

Sergeant Poole seemed to regret his attempt at humor. “I understand what you’re saying and your concern,” he said. “I really do. If I were you, I’d be screaming, too. And it’s not that I don’t think it’s a nice idea to have someone sleep on her doorstep. There’s just nobody to do it.”

He smiled at me. “We’re old friends now, Miss Kramer and me. If she needs me, she knows where to reach me.” He tipped his head goodbye and turned away. We stared at his back a minute, Curt angry, I lonesome.

Curt touched my arm. “Let’s go.” We walked to his car where he held the door for me and waited until I locked myself in before he walked around to his side. We drove out of the lot and had barely gone a block when he said, “You can’t spend the night alone in your apartment.”

“Sure, I can,” I said. I listened to the confidence in my voice and wondered where it came from.

“No, you can’t. What if he comes back?”

“Again tonight?” I said. “I don’t think so.”

What I really meant was
I hope not.

He looked at me skeptically but said nothing.

When we turned down the little alley and pulled into the parking lot beside the lilac, he looked very unhappy.

“It’s too isolated back here. You’re too vulnerable. You can’t stay alone.”

“But I’ve three sets of neighbors,” I said as I tried to peer through the lilac, searching for lurking murderers.

He waved his hand toward the dark building. “Big help they’d be. They’re all asleep.”

I looked at the blank, black windows and admitted what he couldn’t know: I’d be in trouble even if they were awake. A retiree who used a cane, an unmarried elementary school teacher who jumped whenever I spoke to her and a teenaged couple still struggling with zits and apparently deaf, to judge by the volume of their music—none would be much help at the best of times.

“Go stay with someone,” he said.

“Believe me, I would if I could. But I don’t know anyone in Amhearst well enough to call them at one in the morning.”

“There’s got to be somebody.” He seemed to be scanning the roofline for snipers. “Someone from work. Someone from the bell choir. Maddie, maybe.”

I shook my head, cursing my mother’s careful training in the area of not intruding into another’s life unbidden. “I couldn’t. I’d feel ridiculous.”

“Well, you can’t stay here alone.”

“Enough already,” I said, exasperated. “I have to stay alone. There’s no choice, and you’re not helping me feel good about it, you know. I’ll be fine.”

We walked to my front door. He stood close as I fumbled in my bag for my retrieved keys.

“I’ll stay,” he said. “I’ll sleep on the couch.”

“No!” I said more emphatically than I meant to and than his suggestion called for. “No. Not that I don’t appreciate your concern, but I’ll be fine.”

I stepped inside and turned to say good-night. I bumped my nose on his chest as he followed me through the door.

“At least let me look around to make sure everything’s all right in here.”

I watched him with mingled resentment and gratitude as he went from room to room, checking windows, searching closets, even looking under the bed. He was having a wonderful time being in charge. He stopped beside the kitchen phone.

“I’m calling Maddie,” he said, and dialed before I had time to protest. We were both disappointed when he hung up without getting an answer.

“You’re sure you don’t want me to stay?” he asked.

I shook my head. “Think what it would do to your reputation,” I said lightly. “To say nothing of mine.”

But that wasn’t the reason I was saying no. Somewhere in my heart of hearts, he scared me more than the ephemeral killer. Real flesh and blood,
male
flesh and blood, nonpolice, nonofficial male flesh and blood, was more threatening than any number of shots out of the darkness. In fact, I was appalled at how frightened I was of Curt. Jack’s wounds went deep.

I watched through my locked storm door as Curt drove away. The smaller his taillights became, the more empty my stomach felt, the more rapidly my heart beat. As soon as the taillights disappeared, I slammed the inside door and locked it. The apartment that had been so cozy and safe not five minutes ago was now cold and threatening.

But the apartment hasn’t changed! Not one iota! Get a grip on yourself, Merry!

Would that it were that easy.

Whiskers and I went to bed with all the lights in the apartment on. I knew it ought to be the other way around, that all the lights inside should be off and all the lights outside on. That way I could see any villains lurking, and they couldn’t see me.

There were two problems with that little bit of logic. One, the extent of the light outside was that weak-kneed bulb by the lilac and the forty-watt bulb outside my door. All other outside lights were beyond my control, their switches resting within the dark and silent apartments of my neighbors.

And secondly, I was not, for any reason, going to stay alone in a dark room. My imagination was too vivid.

I sat in bed, listening to Whiskers snore and telling myself I wasn’t afraid. I opened my Bible and read and reread Matthew 28:20. “And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

I’m not too worried about the end of the age, Lord. But if You could be with me tonight, I’d certainly appreciate it.

I was reading the verse for about the tenth time when a thought flashed across my mind.

God said he’d be with you. Would He lie? Stop asking Him to do what He already promised!

I lay down, and Whiskers moved to my pillow, curling himself against my shoulder.

It’s just another experience in the process of pressing on, isn’t it, Lord?

I stared at the ceiling and actually felt my eyes growing heavy. I was getting ready to fall asleep!

Then I heard a car come down the alley. I sat straight up, heart whomping in my ears, dislodging Whiskers from his spot on my pillow. He stared at me through slitted eyes, yawned and turned round and round until he was satisfied he was settling into exactly the same indentation from which I had thoughtlessly dislodged him.

I looked at him resentfully. No fear, no concerns, no threats to his life. My fate, on the other hand, appeared debatable enough to be the subject on
Crossfire.
O’Reilly and Geraldo would have an absolute field day. Regis and Kelly would offer tea and sympathy.

I strained to hear. Surely the car would drive on. There could be no reason for it to stop here.

But it didn’t drive on. It pulled into our lot.

I forced myself from bed and walked to the living room, feeling like the heroines of all the gothic novels I’d read through the years, the idiots who walked foolishly into danger and death when, if they’d stayed cozily in their beds, they’d have been fine.

I turned out several of the lights and stood in front of the closed drapes, trying to get up the nerve to peek out. Was it peeking that got those imbecilic women into trouble? Or was it running up the tower stairs or down to the deserted beach or into the moldering mausoleum? Surely peeking was safe, especially if one was careful.

After all, there might be no reason to be terrified. It could be someone who belonged in the building coming home extra late. It could be someone who had a new job with strange hours. It could be any number of things.

I straightened my spine, took a deep breath and separated the drapes enough for one eye to peek out. Sure enough, there was an extra car in the lot, parked where mine would be if the police didn’t have it.

As I watched, a man climbed out of the front seat and stretched. He was huge!

My heart palpitations would have given a pile driver a run for its money.

The man opened the rear car door and reached inside. He pulled something out and shook it. A piece of material unrolled, dangled, hung limp. He bent and placed it on the rear seat of the car, then climbed in after it.

In the few seconds the dome light was on before the door slammed shut, I got a good look at the face of the man and drew my breath in surprise.

It was Curt!

I let the curtain close, turned all the lights back on, and went thoughtfully to bed.

Curt Carlyle was spending the night in my parking lot, huddled in the backseat of his car in a sleeping bag, all to keep an eye on me. My own private watchman on the wall.

I was very taken with the chivalry of the whole thing, and his kindness was far enough removed from my actual person to induce only gratefulness and a sense of security. I sniffed disdainfully at all those gothic heroines and their solitary struggles. They just didn’t know the right people.

I actually slept well for what little remained of the night.

 

Friday dawned so dreary that I kept all the lights on. It was obvious the snow would be here shortly.

When I pulled the living-room drapes open and looked out the window, Curt was gone. Not certain whether I was more disappointed or relieved, I called the car rental man.

“You need another car, Miss Kramer?” I could hear the man’s disbelief. Well, I understood his reaction. I couldn’t believe it, either.

“Yes, I need another car. Can you help me?”

“What happened to the one you rented yesterday because your own car had a body in it and the cops took it? Your car, I mean, not the body.” He paused. “Though come to think of it, I guess they took the body, too.”

He must have picked up all that information from
The News.
So nice to do business with a loyal reader.

“The police impounded the car I rented from you yesterday because the windshield was shot out.”

“What?”

“The police impounded the car I rented from you yesterday because the windshield was shot out,” I repeated. “I suspect that, even as we speak, your car is parked next to my car in some police lot somewhere.”

There was a short silence. Then, “Do you always have problems like this with cars?”

“Of course not.” I hoped I sounded emphatic. “Today’s car will be perfectly safe with me.”

I wasn’t certain whether the noise that sounded in my ear was a snort of disbelief or a muffled sneeze.

BOOK: Caught in the Middle
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