by Frankie J. Jones
Life and love have been strained between Rylene Shelton and her partner Kate Elliott. The economy has tanked Ry’s antique store and the pressures of money and being an ER nurse have taken much of the joie out of Kate’s vivre.
Hoping to make a few dollars and pay a bill or two, Ry lugs home purchases from an estate sale, realizing too late that she’s picked up a box the seller wanted to keep. That saying about cats and curiosity? When Ry finds a pistol in the box that saying may well come true.
If they want to survive, two women must discover that the real treasures in life aren’t measured in dollar signs in this long awaited novel from treasured storyteller Frankie J. Jones.
The Lesbian Reading Room
Thoroughly enjoyable reading, a great story and likeable and believable characters "“ what's not to love..? The book is well written and, of course well edited "“ by the mistress of editing Katherine V Forrest no less. It flows off the page and into your imagination like a good book should, no thought process required. The ‘place' is very well done throughout... all are evocative and add considerably to the emotion and mood of the scenes.
More Praise for Frankie J. Jones & alter-ego Megan Carter
Frankie J. Jones: Natural, unforced dialogue - Just About Write; Edgy storytelling and sympathetic characters - Lambda Book Report.
Megan Carter: Winner, Golden Crown Literary Award for Historical Romance
As the footsteps grew steadily closer, Rylene Shelton held her breath and wished she could make herself invisible. Despite her anticipation of what was about to occur, she still flinched when the door flew open.
“I thought you weren’t going to work late tonight,” Kate said in a tone of voice Ry knew only too well. “This is the first weekend I haven’t had to work in months. I don’t want to spend it sitting at home watching you work.” Kate stood staring at her with crossed arms. Her stance and the tight pinch of her mouth left no doubt of her unhappiness.
Ry stared back at Kate, her lover of six years, an emergency room nurse who made no secret of the fact that while she loved her job, she still valued every free moment away from the hospital.
“I don’t know why you get so upset about my hours. We both knew the store would require a lot of sacrifice,” Ry said. Lately this had been an ongoing argument between them, and she had grown tired of having to defend herself. She loved the shop. Although, in a weak moment, she would admit it was much harder and more time consuming than she had ever imagined.
Previously, Ry had worked as a designer for a firm in San Antonio for five years. Then the firm began having financial problems and Ry was laid off. When she was unable to secure a position with another design firm, Kate began to urge her to follow through on her dream of opening an antique shop.
Kate had been supportive throughout the entire process of locating and opening the shop. They visited several small towns surrounding San Antonio before they decided to move to Jackson City. The location offered everything they wanted. Ry especially liked the area because it was where she had grown up. Her parents and brothers lived a few miles outside of town. Kate was happy there was a hospital that served Jackson City and the surrounding area. They agreed that Kate’s salary would have to support them until the business became financially stable. An additional bonus to relocating to Jackson City was its already booming antique trade.
They located a one-hundred-and-twelve-year-old, two-story brick building that was strong on charm and atmosphere. Ry’s father, a construction contractor, looked the building over and declared it sound. Another major plus was that they would be able to live in the twenty-one-hundred square feet space upstairs.
Ry’s father offered them the “family discount,” which meant he would provide his crew to do the work. Ry and Kate would pay for expenses only.
As they had anticipated, Kate had no problems securing a position as an emergency room nurse at the local hospital. Ry’s family pitched in and helped them move their belongings from San Antonio to Jackson City.
Ry spent hours cleaning the enormous old building, hand buffing the stunning hundred-year-old oak floor planks and bead board walls until they glowed. She climbed to the top of a ladder so high it made her head swim to shine the beautiful hand-hammered tin ceiling and brass lighting fixtures. She polished windows and antique glass display cases until they sparkled. There were times when she was so tired she could barely move, but the exhaustion magically dimmed as soon as Kate came home from work and Ry was able to share with her what had been accomplished in that day’s work.
Ry hit the road looking for merchandise to stock the store. She lost count of the number of miles she traveled going to farm auctions, estate sales, thrift stores, yard sales and business closeouts. The best times were always the ones when Kate wanted to go with her.
Finally, after weeks of hard work, The Antique Nook opened with blazing success. For the first few months, business was so brisk that Ry could barely keep up. She hired a part-time employee, Sally Watkins. Then the economy worsened and sent sales into a downward spiral. Now, the shop was barely making enough to cover expenses.
Ry stifled a groan of frustration. She wouldn’t be getting any more work done tonight, if she wanted to avoid an argument. It was clear Kate was working herself up for one. She stopped typing and couldn’t help giving one last try. “I still have to log all these items and price them.” She waved her hand toward the jumble of boxes and furniture stacked around her.
“Can’t you get Sally to help with that later?” Kate asked. “Isn’t that what you’re paying her for?” She began to examine her nails until suddenly she shoved her hands into the pockets of her gray tailored slacks.
Ry tried to ignore Kate’s fidgeting. There was always an air of nervous energy about her. Maybe it came from having to maintain such a hectic pace at the hospital. Early in their relationship, Ry had liked Kate’s nervous energy. It made Ry push herself harder to keep up. Now it mostly irritated her. She remained silent while Kate continued her tirade on Sally earning her pay.
She considered confessing to Kate that due to the decline in business Sally only worked a few hours a week now. That in fact, all of the startup money they had put aside for the store was gone, along with most of Ry’s personal savings. If business didn’t pick up soon she would have to close the store.
The business wasn’t the only thing in a downward spiral. Her relationship with Kate had recently started to take an uneasy turn. They argued constantly and seldom did anything together. These days Kate went out with her friends from the hospital.
Ry stared at Kate and finally admitted to herself that while she cared for Kate she wasn’t sure if she still loved her.
“I’m bored,” Kate said. “I don’t want to spend another Saturday night alone while you sit down here working.”
“You could go without me.” Ry hoped her eagerness for Kate to leave didn’t show.
Kate gave her a sour look. “Yeah, well that hasn’t proved to be much fun. Always being the odd wheel is starting to get old.”
“You could sit in here with me.” Ry tried to keep her rising irritation out of her voice as she pulled her hair behind her ears. In an effort to save money wherever she could, she had put off getting a haircut, and now it was much longer than she usually wore it. She had been keeping her hair pulled back into a ponytail but had lost the rubber band somewhere earlier that day and hadn’t bothered to look for another one.
“And do what?” Kate asked as she idly reached into a box and picked up a book. “I don’t want to sit around and watch you work.” She dropped the book and picked up another. “Who did you buy all this stuff from anyway?”
“There was an estate sale off of Highway Two Eleven. I was driving to San Antonio when I saw the sign on the highway.”
“You don’t normally buy books. Why did you buy these?” She crinkled her nose in distaste. The movement highlighted the sprinkling of freckles across her nose. “I hope you aren’t planning on adding a used-books section.”
Ry rubbed her forehead. “I only bought them because there are several nice current first editions. A few customers ask about books. Besides, the estate sale guy was practically giving these away. I only paid a dollar a box.” At this point, she was willing to try just about anything that would boost sales.
Kate seemed to forget her boredom as flipped through the books. “Well, since you’re so good at finding things, maybe we’ll get lucky and you’ll find a few hundred-dollar bills tucked between the pages.”
Ry smiled in spite of Kate’s sarcasm. If there was anything that Ry was truly good at, it was finding things. For as long as she could remember she had been able to find things that others lost—keys, glasses, toys, whatever. As a child, she had spent hours daydreaming about finding buried treasure.
For her twelfth birthday, her parents had bought her a metal detector. She dug so many holes in the yard that her mom quickly banned its use to the woods behind their house. For weeks, she came home each afternoon with a canvas bag filled with treasures that ranged from old bottles with corroded lids to pieces of rust-encrusted farm equipment.
As she grew older, she started antiquing. Her childhood dreams of finding buried treasure gave way to dreams of discovering some phenomenal historical object that others had overlooked. Kate on the other hand was a total realist. She thought buried treasure was better suited to children’s literature.
Ry often wondered why Kate had ever been attracted to her. In most ways, they were complete opposites. While she was tall and thin, Kate was short and constantly watched her weight. Ry’s idea of a fun weekend was camping and fishing. Kate’s perfect weekend was a five-star hotel and endless shopping in stores with prices so high they gave Ry vertigo. Ry was most comfortable in jeans and T-shirts, Kate preferred tailored suits.
Whatever sparked the original attraction between them was definitely growing dimmer. Ry shook off the thought and focused her attention on the antique school desk she had bought from the estate sale. “Did you see the desk?” she asked as she pointed out the small Chandler birch desk. “I was expecting to pay at least a hundred for it, but he only wanted twenty-five.”
Kate laid the book down and stepped over to the desk. “It’s beautiful.” She opened the lid and checked the joints and hinges. “Why did he ask so little? What’s wrong with it?”
“He didn’t have the chair, but there’s nothing wrong with the desk.” Ry pointed to the top of the piece. “Look, it still has both of the glass inkwells.”
Kate closed the lid and shrugged. “I guess he didn’t know what he had, but I know you told him.” She removed one of the glass inkwells and peered at it before she replaced it. “What’s it worth?” She ran her hand across the top.
The unexpected spark of desire that shot through her as she watched Kate’s hand move across the desk surprised Ry. She quickly turned her attention to the brass tacks studding the arm of the leather chair she was sitting in. “It’s worth a couple of hundred dollars without the chair.” The defensive tone in her voice irritated her. “And yes, I told him. I couldn’t rip him off. But it didn’t matter. Even after I told him what the desk was worth. He said he just wanted to get rid of everything as quickly as possible.” She rushed on. “You should have seen the old upright radio he had. I really wanted to buy it, but he refused every offer I made.”
“So, are we going out or what?” Kate asked as she suddenly turned back to Ry.
“I guess so. I did promise you we could do something.” Ry hit the save button on her keyboard and pushed it away. She would have to get up even earlier in the morning if she was going to get the merchandise on the show floor tomorrow. Luckily, it would be Sunday and the shop didn’t open until noon.
In a rare moment of tenderness, Kate brushed a lock of Ry’s hair back from her face. “You look tired.”
Again, Ry almost gave in and confessed her fears. She worried about how Kate would take the news of the recent setback. She had mentioned in passing that sales were down, but she hadn’t told Kate how drastically they had dropped. She knew that Kate would explode if she ever found out that Ry had cashed in her 401K and most of that money was now gone. Rather than confess, she said, “I never dreamed running a business could be so time consuming.” She fought her frustration that was on the verge of bubbling over.
“Are you sorry you opened the shop?”
Surprised by the question, Ry tried to read Kate’s face. Was Kate sorry she had moved here? “On a bad day I’m sorry, but overall, no. I love finding pieces for the shop and I like living here.”
“You know we could move back to San Antonio,” Kate said. “I can always find a job at one of the hospitals. You could take your time job hunting until you found something you would enjoy doing.”
Again, Ry tried to read Kate’s face. Where was she headed with this conversation? As usual, Kate didn’t allow much to show. “Are you tired of living here?” Ry asked. “You’re the one who’s always bored.”
Kate shrugged and moved back to one of the boxes of books. “I guess I just miss you. It seems like you’re always down here working or gone somewhere.”
Ry stood and wrapped her arms around Kate’s waist from behind. “I’m sorry. I know I spend too much time working.” She rested her forehead on Kate’s shoulder. “Give me time for a quick shower and we can go to the Cove. I’m sure Alice and Janet are still there.”
Alice and Janet were friends that Kate had met at the hospital. They had been together for twenty-two years and still acted as if they were in a brand-new relationship. Ry envied the easy way they had with each other.
They stood quietly for a moment before Kate turned and put her arms around Ry’s neck. “I have a better idea. Why don’t I stay down here and help you finish this, and then in the morning we’ll have time to go out for breakfast or even a short drive before you open the shop.”
“Are you sure?” Ry asked, hoping her relief wasn’t showing.
Kate pulled away. “Where do you want me to start?” Without waiting for an answer, she grabbed a box of books and set it on the large wooden worktable near Ry’s desk. “I’ll separate all the first editions and start researching and pricing them.” She took a book from the box and glanced back at Ry playfully. “Of course, I’m going to go through them first just to be certain there are no hidden hundred-dollar bills.”
“Feel free to keep anything you find,” Ry said. At this point, she would be grateful to find a few ten-dollar bills. “Any of the books that aren’t suitable for the store, I’ll take to the nursing home next week. I already have a stack of magazines set aside.”
Ry picked up an old cardboard cigar box and opened it. This had been her favorite find of the day. The box held eight small woodcarvings of farm animals. The rather crudely worked pieces had captured Ry’s attention. She wanted to know more about them and the person who had carved them. At first, the man at the estate sale had seemed hesitant to sell them. His grandfather had carved the pieces. Normally, that would have made Ry stop asking, but when he admitted he hadn’t bothered to look at the pieces close enough to know what they were, she persisted until he agreed to sell them. The objects obviously hadn’t held much of a sentimental value to him. She picked up the horse and studied the slightly square head. Hairline cracks in the wood suggested it was old. The blade marks were still clearly visible but worn smooth as if the piece had been handled a lot. She chose another item. It was a rabbit or at least the head of one. The body was still locked inside the small block of wood. She wondered why the carver had never finished the piece. Ry realized she was wasting time. She returned the items back to the box and quickly logged them into her inventory spreadsheet. There would be time later to decide whether she wanted to keep the pieces for herself.
When Kate finished going through the books, she tucked her shoulder-length auburn hair behind her ears and began polishing the furniture.
They worked in easy companionship until almost midnight when Ry finally checked the last item off her list. She quickly downloaded her file to an offsite data-storage service and pushed back from her desk. “That’s the last of it,” she said as she yawned and stretched. “Everything has been logged and researched. All I have to do is finish making the price tags, and I can do that tomorrow.”
Kate gave a last swipe across the small side table she had been polishing. “There’s still another box behind the desk.”
Ry glanced down at the notebook. Everything was crossed off. She used the book when she shopped. She would jot down each item as she negotiated the price. It helped her to remember the amount they had agreed upon and to make sure she didn’t leave any purchases behind. Once she was back at the shop, she would check the items off as she entered them into her inventory. “There shouldn’t be anything else. It’s probably just an empty box.”
Kate went behind the desk and bent over. “It’s definitely not empty. It has some magazines and an old metal box.”
Ry shook her head. “I didn’t buy anything like that.”
Kate placed the cardboard box on the wooden table where she had worked earlier. “There’s a stack of Old West magazines, some books and this old beat-up metal file box.” She tugged at the rusted latch. It seemed to be stuck.
When Ry saw the cardboard box, she sighed. “How did that get mixed in?” She rubbed her tired neck. “Crap. He probably thinks I stole it from him. I tried to buy the magazines, but he didn’t want to sell them. In fact, he wanted to keep everything in that box.” She tried to quell her frustration. The trip out to return the box would be another hour or more wasted tomorrow. She didn’t have a phone number for him, so she would have to drive back over there as soon as possible to return it. Hopefully, he would still be there. “With my luck, he’ll call the cops.”
Kate finally succeeded in opening the metal file box. “Well, the good news is, he can’t shoot you. At least not until you return this to him.” She held up a pistol.
Ry gasped when she saw the revolver. “Please tell me that thing isn’t loaded,” she said as she carefully took the weapon. “That box was bouncing around in the back of my truck all afternoon.” The pistol was obviously old. She checked it and frowned. What sort of fool stored a loaded weapon in a cheap file box? She pressed the cylinder release latch to open the cylinder. It was loaded with two half-moon clips. She removed them. Her father had taught her never to leave a loaded gun lying around the house. Then she examined it closer. It was a beautiful weapon.
“This is a Smith and Wesson M1917,” Ry said. “It was manufactured around World War One.” She turned it over in her hands. “It has been well taken care of.” She studied the hammered silver grips. “These grips look handmade. They must have cost a fortune.” She continued to study the revolver. “I used to have a Smith and Wesson forty-five-caliber Model 625. It was my favorite target pistol.” She took one of the half-moon clips from inside the box. It held three shells. “I’ve heard guys at the range talk about these half-moon clips, but this is the first one I’ve ever seen.”
Kate gave a loud uninterested sigh.
Ry took the hint and placed the revolver and clip back into the metal box. She had grown up around a wide assortment of target and hunting weapons. Her father, three brothers and every other male Shelton over the age of eight were avid hunters. Even though she refused to hunt, Ry’s father had encouraged her to learn how to shoot and handle a weapon. On her first trip to the range she discovered she enjoyed target shooting and by the time she was fifteen she could hit a target’s bulls-eye four out of every five shots as easily as she could tie her sneakers.
She placed the metal container back inside the cardboard box. “I’ll return it to him first thing tomorrow morning.” She glanced at Kate. After the earlier outburst, Kate had been in a decent mood, so she took a chance. “Would you like to ride out there with me?”
Kate linked her arm through Ry’s arm. “I’ll ride out with you if you buy me breakfast at the Pancake Hut afterward.”
Ry held her breath as she thought about her already burdened credit card. Surely there was enough left on her credit limit to cover a couple of pancake breakfasts. She could wait awhile longer for a haircut. Or maybe she could get her mom to cut it. Her mom had cut her brothers’ hair when they were younger.
She realized Kate was still waiting for her to answer. “That would be nice,” Ry said as she headed toward the stairs. “Would you mind checking to make sure everything is locked up? I need to shower.”
“Sure.” Kate turned and headed into the front area of the shop.
Ry rushed through her shower. She wanted to take advantage of Kate’s good mood. It had been weeks since they had made love. When she dashed out a few minutes later, Kate was in bed fast asleep.
She envied Kate’s ability to fall asleep so quickly. It was already after one in the morning, but Ry knew she would toss and turn for an hour or more before falling asleep. She considered going back downstairs to start pricing the new stock but didn’t feel like working. Too exhausted to read, she turned off the lamp and stretched out next to Kate.
Despite the fact that they lived practically in the center of town, the night was quiet. All of the surrounding shops closed between six and nine. The only business still opened at this hour would be Leroy’s, a bar nearly a mile away, out on the highway.
Ry lost track of time as she mentally arranged and rearranged the new furniture into displays. She was just beginning to doze when a loud clatter jarred her awake.
Kate groaned and rolled over. “What was that?” she asked.
Ry put an arm around her and snuggled against her back. “It sounded like the raccoons turned over the trash can again.”
“Did you put the straps back on the can?”
“Yes. Try to go back to sleep.” Ry smiled slightly. Kate’s breathing had already settled back into a steady rhythm. I wish I’d follow my own advice, she thought wearily as she stared into the darkness. Damn raccoons. If there was one creature on earth she wouldn’t mind shooting, it would be raccoons. They got into everything and destroyed anything they touched. She had to strap the trash can lids down with the vinyl-covered wire used for bicycle locks. She had tried using bungee cords, but they chewed through them. She thought about the pistol downstairs. Its six measly bullets would be useless against the destructive creatures that seemingly numbered into the hundreds.
The unexpected noise of a car engine cranking interrupted her thoughts. It sounded as though it had been at the corner. She listened as it drove away into the night. As she drifted off to sleep, she dreamed of mutant raccoons running rampant through the streets, breaking windows and stealing cars.
Ry opened her eyes to find Kate sitting in the middle of the bed drinking coffee and messing with her phone. Ry smiled. This was the private Kate who no one other than Ry was ever allowed to see. Not the never a hair out of place perfectly tailored Kate, but the Kate with one side of her hair frizzed out in a wild mess and a ratty sweatshirt that Ry had discarded long ago.
“Good morning,” Ry said as she sat up. She glanced at the clock and suppressed a groan when she saw it was after nine. She had overslept. There was no way she would be able to return the cardboard box, follow through on the promised breakfast with Kate, tag the new merchandise and move it onto the sales floor before noon. Her chest felt like a vise was squeezing it making it difficult to breathe. She closed her eyes and pushed everything but the moment at hand out of her thoughts. One thing at a time.
Kate said, “Mom wants us to have dinner with them on Friday night. Want to go?”
“Don’t you have to work on Saturday?” Ry liked Kate’s family, but the thought of working all day Friday and then driving the seventy miles roundtrip to San Antonio didn’t appeal to her. Neither did the idea of the argument that was sure to develop between Kate and her father. They couldn’t be in the same room for more than ten minutes without finding something to disagree about.
“Yes, but that’s not a problem. I’ll be fine.” Kate typed something into her phone. “I get off at three on Friday. We can leave as soon as I get home.”
Ry bit her tongue. Kate was well aware that the shop didn’t close until seven. If Ry went, she would have to ask Sally Watkins to fill in for her. More expenses she couldn’t afford. The vise around her chest began to tighten again. She fought it off. “That’s fine.”
To avoid any further conversation, Ry pulled on her clothes. “While you’re getting dressed, I’ll go see how much damage the raccoons did.” Without waiting for a response, she hurried down the stairs.
After a quick cup of coffee, Ry grabbed Kate’s keys from the table by the stairs. Kate didn’t like riding in the truck unless she had to. Ry then went to her office to retrieve the box of items she needed to return. She shivered when she stepped outside. The area had been experiencing an unusually early cold front. After she had locked the box and the gun inside the trunk of Kate’s car, she decided to take the items for the nursing home as well. She smiled as this one brief ray of sunshine brightened her day. By dropping the box for the nursing home off today, she would save a trip out there next week. After placing the nursing home box in the backseat of the car, she went to see how much of a mess the raccoons had created.
Just as she expected, the trash can had been tipped over. Luckily, the devious critters hadn’t managed to get the lid off. She set the can upright and started back into the house. As she rounded the corner leading to the back door, something on the ground caught her eye. A cigarette butt was on the ground below the back window. It lay on the narrow strip of grass that separated the building from the pavement. The paved spot, barely large enough for four cars, had once been used as the store’s parking lot.
She glanced toward their vehicles and saw something glittering on the pavement. Even before she walked around her truck, she knew what she was going to find. The driver’s side window had been smashed and the door was only partially closed.
“Oh, my gosh, what happened?”
Ry turned to find Kate behind her. She had already showered and was dressed in a pair of cream-colored slacks and a striking multihued lightweight sweater. “Somebody has broken into my truck.” Ry held onto the door for strength. Less than two weeks earlier, she had dropped everything but liability on her truck insurance. Kate was going to have a stroke when she found out. She looked at Kate’s car. It seemed to be fine. “I don’t think your car was bothered.”
“Why would someone break into your truck? Did you leave your cell phone or something valuable lying on the seat?”
Of course, it’s my fault. She swallowed her anger. “No.” She felt her hip pocket. “I have my wallet and my phone.”
“I’ll call Victor.”
Victor Orozco was the Jackson City sheriff. He’d become a good friend of theirs after his wife and two-year-old son had been seriously injured in a hit-and-run accident. She and Kate had been coming from San Antonio and happened upon the accident. Kate was able to stabilize both victims until the ambulance arrived. The doctors told Victor that Kate’s actions probably saved both of their lives.
“No. Don’t call Victor, yet,” Ry said. “Wait until we get back. I don’t know how long the report will take, and I have to return that box before it gets any later.” She decided she would wait until after Kate had finished her pancakes to tell her about the insurance. Surely, the mega-dose of sugar and carbohydrates would help curb her anger.
Kate shrugged. “Okay.” She started toward her car. “You drive.”
* * *
The estate sale sign was still posted on the side of the highway. Ry turned onto a county road that if the potholes were any indication, the county had stopped maintaining years ago. She drove slowly; the last thing she needed to do was damage one of the car’s tires or knock the wheels out of alignment. She breathed a sigh of relief when she finally spotted the white ranch-style house with the green sedan in the driveway. “I was worried he wouldn’t still be here.” Ry eased the car into the short driveway behind the green sedan.
“It’s a creepy looking place,” Kate said and shuddered. “It looks like something out of one of those slasher movies.”
Ry popped the trunk latch. She hadn’t noticed yesterday how poorly maintained the house and yard were. “It’s just old and run-down. I don’t think anyone has lived here for quite a while.” Her phone rang. She took it from her pocket and glanced at the screen. It was a vendor she knew from San Antonio. Ry decided to call her back later. She laid the phone on the console before she opened the car door and stepped out. “You can wait here if you want. I’ll only be a minute.”
Kate nodded. Then in a rare moment of playfulness she added, “Yell if anything gets after you.” She waved Ry’s phone at her. “I’ll call nine-one-one.”
“My s-hero,” Ry replied drily.
“Hey, I always leave the butch stuff up to you,” Kate replied quickly.
Ry walked to the back of the car and raised the trunk. She started to take both the metal file box containing the gun and the cardboard box, but they were so heavy she decided it would be better to make two trips. She grabbed the metal box and closed the trunk.
The smells of autumn filled the air. Fallen leaves and dead grass crunched under her shoes as she made her way across the yard. The large, dark, empty windows stared out of the forsaken house. She couldn’t stop the slight shiver that crawled up her back as she realized how quiet it was. Sounds from the main road didn’t carry this far back. Signs of neglect showed everywhere. Three sides of the isolated house were hemmed in by expansive tree-lined fields dotted with dead, shredded cornstalks, and despite the abundance of trees and brush around, there were no bird sounds. Not even the buzzing of an annoying cicada. She glanced looking for the endless grasshoppers that had been plaguing the area for weeks. Nothing moved.
Ry couldn’t help but flinch when the weathered planks squealed in protest as she stepped onto the porch. She tried to shake off the eerie feeling. This is all Kate’s fault, she told herself. Why did she have to make that dang slasher movie reference?
Ry’s unease increased when she knocked on the door and it slowly swung open with a teeth-aching squeal. No matter how hard she fought against the memories, every gruesome movie she had ever seen or heard about came back to her. Not caring whether he was home or not she turned sharply to leave and ran squarely into Kate. Ry couldn’t stop the yelp of fright.
“You scared the crap out of me,” she snapped, embarrassed that she had given way to such juvenile fears.
“I felt guilty about sending you in alone. I thought I’d help out by bringing the box of stuff up here for you.” Kate was staring at the door. “Why is the door open?”
“I don’t know. It opened when I knocked.” With Kate nearby, Ry found a new sense of confidence. She stepped back up to the door and knocked loudly on the doorframe. “Hello.” Inside she could see the large, floral print couch was still there. He had tried to give it to her after she had declined buying it, but it was too modern to be of any use to her.
“Maybe he’s still asleep,” Kate offered, as she leaned inside the doorway and shouted. “Hello! Is anyone here?”
Ry studied the car in the driveway. She hadn’t paid much attention to it the day before, but she was certain it was the same one. “It’s a new car,” she began. “I don’t think it’s something someone would just leave sitting out here.”
“It’s a rental.”
She looked at Kate in surprise. “How do you know that?”
“There’s an Avis sticker on the back window.” Kate shoved the door fully open.
“Hey, we probably shouldn’t…” Her protests were cut short as Kate bolted into the house, dropping the box of books and magazines just inside the doorway.
Ry started to follow but froze when she saw what had propelled Kate into action. A man covered in blood lay on the floor. From the pools of blood and his ashen color, Ry didn’t need a medical degree to know he was dead. Her stomach started to churn. She quickly backed out of the room. Her head spun as she struggled to breathe. She sat down on the porch and leaned her head against the cool metal of the file box. She was still sitting there when Kate came out talking on her cell phone.
Kate hung up and sat next to Ry. “Are you okay?” she asked, as she put an arm around her.
Not trusting her voice, Ry simply grunted.
“I called nine-one-one,” Kate said. “The sheriff and an ambulance are on the way.”
“He looked like it was too late for an ambulance,” Ry said as she tried to push the images away.
“A medical examiner still has to come out.”
“What happened to him?” Ry asked.
“He was shot, twice. I think. There’s so much blood, it’s hard to tell without moving him.” She stopped. “I’m sorry. I know it’s hard if you’re not used to it.”
Who could ever get used to that? “Do you think someone robbed him?” The house had been filled with furniture and household items. He had probably taken in quite a bit of cash yesterday. She had given him a little over three hundred dollars herself.
“I don’t know. All I know is he hasn’t been dead long. The blood was still fairly fresh.”
Ry’s head began to spin again as she recalled the river of blood. Just as she leaned her head down, a loud crack split the air. The bullet made a shattering thud as it dug into the wooden post and filled the air with splinters. Instantly, the side of Ry’s face was on fire as the tiny slivers of wood dug into her flesh. Before her brain had time to register why, Ry had Kate by the arm, dragging her into the house. She heard Kate screaming something about her phone as she tried to pull away. Ry tightened her grip. It had been a few years since she’d heard the sound, but that was definitely a gunshot. Another shot shattered the front window as they dove inside. They hit the floor hard.
Ry slammed the door shut with her foot as two more shots exploded in rapid succession. She rolled away from the door, knowing it wouldn’t do much toward stopping a bullet. Still hugging the floor, she crawled beneath the window that had been shot out. She had to move shards of glass out of her way as she crawled.
Kate followed. “I dropped my phone.” She was clearly angry. “Why didn’t you let me pick it up?”
“Because, we both would probably be dead now,” Ry’s voice came out in choppy spurts. She knew this wasn’t a safe location for them, but she needed to see what was going on. She couldn’t remember if the outer house covering was wood or aluminum siding. Not that it mattered much, since neither would offer much protection from a high-powered rifle.
Ry sat up slowly. To her left, beams of sunlight streamed through the bullet holes in the door. “What have we stumbled into?”
Kate started to sit up just as another shot smashed through the window to their right, showering glass around them.
Ry threw herself over Kate. When a second shot didn’t follow, she sat up and motioned for Kate to move. “Get behind that couch.” Without waiting to see if Kate moved, Ry carefully peeked through the window. She saw a blur of blue as someone disappeared behind a tree.
“Watch that glass,” Kate warned.
Ry turned back to her. “I told you to get behind the couch.” She instantly regretted the sharpness of her voice. “It’s a miracle he hasn’t hit one of us already.”
“You’re bleeding.” Kate reached to touch Ry’s face.
“It’s nothing but splinters from the post.” Ry gently moved Kate’s hand away.
Another bullet smashed through the wall on the other side of the door. “He’s not sure where we are. He’s hoping for a lucky shot,” Ry said. “We need to move.” She knew their best bet was getting back to the car and getting the hell away from there. To do so, they would have to cross the open yard. Suddenly she remembered the sunken den. She had nearly tripped on the stairs yesterday when she was looking around the house. She grabbed Kate’s hand. “Follow me, but stay as close to the floor as you can.”
Afraid the shooter would continue to pump random shots into the front of the house, Ry made her way to the middle of the room where the couch sat. From there she could see the doorway to the den. They would have to cover about twelve feet of open space before they reached the sunken den. She’d noticed yesterday that the sunken area of the room was actually below ground level. The dried water stains along the wall indicated how impractical the design had been, but right now Ry could have kissed the architect. She pointed toward the den. “We’ve got to get in there as quickly as possible.” She looked at Kate. “We’re going to belly crawl as fast as we can.”
Kate nodded. Her brown eyes looked large against her ashen face.
“Are you ready?”
Again, Kate nodded.
Ry clung to the metal file box as she began to crawl.
Another single shot entered the house and struck the floor beside the couch. The noise brought them both to their feet. Ry threw herself over the edge into the two-and-a-half-foot deep hole. She almost cried with joy when she saw the behemoth old sleeper sofa that sat against the front wall of the room.
“Help me,” she said as she bent low and made her way to the sofa.
“What are we doing?” Kate asked.
“Turn the sofa over so it’s sitting on its arms.” She started tugging on the piece. “This thing is old and it weighs a ton.” She grunted as she tugged. Cowering behind the sofa didn’t give her any real sense of safety, but at least it would help protect them from the flying debris and hopefully any stray ricochets.
It took them three more tries before they finally managed to tip the beast forward.
“Get underneath there,” Ry said, pointing to the cave-like opening the overturned sofa created.
Kate opened her mouth but whatever she had intended to say was interrupted by an explosive sound that caused the floor beneath them to vibrate. They both scrambled into the cubbyhole beneath the sofa.
Ry held Kate closely as the walls of the living room disintegrated beneath the hammering of the rapid fire. The shooter had obviously grown tired of peppering the house with a single shot or two. He was now literally tearing the house apart with an automatic weapon of some sort. After what seemed like an eternity, the noise stopped. The silence that filled the room caused Ry’s ears to ache. They continued to cling to each other.
When the silence held, Ry prayed that he had run out of ammo. She started to move away from Kate, but another round of destruction stopped her. This time the madness was directed at the wall mere inches above where they huddled. As long as he was outside all he could do was fire into the house at ground level. The only thing they had to fear was a ricochet, which was still very much a danger considering the number of bullets flying around the room.
Ry didn’t know much about assault weapons—her family had never owned any, only rifles or an occasional shotgun to hunt and pistols for target practice—but judging by the length of time he was able to maintain a constant onslaught, she guessed the shooter was using something with at least a one-hundred-round drum.
As the room continued to disintegrate around them, they flattened themselves against the floor. Ry kept her body between Kate and the wall, praying she was right in remembering that the sunken area was completely below ground level. She watched with a strange sense of detachment as pieces of glass, aluminum from the miniblinds and tattered fragments of cloth from the curtains danced in the air. Shards of wood flew across the room. The wooden spindles that ran alongside the steps leading down into the room exploded into a shower of splinters, some of which embedded themselves into the opposite wall from where she and Kate lay. She was vaguely aware of Kate’s screams or maybe they were her own. At this point, she could no longer be sure of anything. She tried to whisper words of comfort into Kate’s ear, but she felt certain that nothing she said could penetrate the deafening roar around them. She realized that he wasn’t going to stop until they were dead. “Stop screaming,” she shouted in Kate’s ear. “He won’t stop unless he thinks we’re dead.” Her words must have reached Kate because she stopped. Ry tried to determine how much time had passed since Kate’s nine-one-one call.
Ry held Kate closer and silently counted the seconds.
“The sheriff should be here any moment,” Kate said. “If you’d let me grab my phone, I could have called again. Why don’t you ever carry your phone? If you’d paid attention to what you were doing yesterday, we wouldn’t be in this mess.” Kate seemed on the verge of hysteria. Her body was trembling, her teeth clattering together. “This is entirely your fault.”
Ry ignored the accusations and held her tighter. She didn’t want to scare Kate more by reminding her that the county sheriff’s office was responsible for the safety of the entire county. There was no way to know how long it would be before they arrived. She kept counting. Would the shooter reload and continue firing? How many drums did he have? She remembered the double-sided drums as being rather large. They certainly weren’t something he could slip into his pocket. If he ran out of ammo would he leave, or would he come after them? She counted to fifty-three before the third round of destruction started pouring into the house. Everywhere she looked, there was damage. Nothing had managed to escape the havoc created by the hail of gunfire.
A thunderous crash at the front of the house startled Ry. When she flinched, her elbow struck something solid and sharp. She glanced back and saw the metal file box. It took some maneuvering, but she finally managed to get it pulled from behind her.
“What are you doing?” Kate demanded.
Ry opened the box and removed the revolver. Her hands trembled as she grabbed the clips she had unloaded from it the previous night. “He’s not going to stop until he kills us,” she said. Her voice sounded flat, even to her own ears. What was she planning on doing with six bullets? She prayed the bullets weren’t as old as the revolver. The last thing she needed was for this thing to explode in her hand when she squeezed the trigger.
“The sheriff will be here any minute,” Kate insisted.
Another burst of bullets ripped through the interior walls sending out a billowing cloud of drywall dust. From the sound of the destruction, it seemed he was now simply sweeping the weapon’s aim back and forth across the front of the house.
“Are you willing to bet our lives on that?” Ry asked, recovering her voice. “I’m sure he figures we called the police. There’s bound to be other people living nearby, they’ll hear the shots.” She pressed the cylinder release latch, inserted the two clips and carefully closed the cylinder. She wondered if he still had ammunition for the rifle. Or maybe he had other weapons. If he simply intended to drive away, why hadn’t he done so already? A shiver ran down her back. He didn’t intend to leave anyone alive here. “He’s going to get tired of standing out there and eventually he’s going to come in after us.”
“Ry, please.” Kate must have seen something in her face, because she stopped in midsentence.
This time when the pause in gunfire occurred, Ry was ready. She rolled from beneath the sofa and poked her head above the edge. The destruction that greeted her was beyond comprehension. She stood slowly as she took in the damage. Enormous holes had been blown through the outer wall. The siding, framing timbers and Sheetrock looked as if some maniacal beast had chewed them up and spat them out. A large section of the interior wall between the den and living room no longer existed. Her legs nearly buckled when she realized that had the den not been partially below ground level, she and Kate wouldn’t have had a chance of escaping. Mindful of the debris, she moved closer to the battered wall and peered over. The shooter stood less than fifteen feet away. He was loading a bolt-action rifle. She didn’t recognize the make or model but she knew enough about guns to know that the rifle he was holding was not the weapon that had created all this damage. It took her a moment to notice the discarded assault rifle lying on the ground several feet behind him. Next to it were three double round drums.
Even as her brain fought to make reason of all this, Ry couldn’t help but notice that in his white shirt and black dress pants he looked more like a man heading off to church than a mad gunman.
Sun glinted off one of the bullets he was feeding into the rifle and snapped her out of her reverie. She aimed the pistol at him. “Drop the rifle,” she yelled.
He jumped back at the sound of her voice. Several shells fell from his hand.
She saw his eyes settle on the pistol. Startling him had given Ry an odd sense of satisfaction. It quickly disappeared when he failed to drop the rifle. “I said drop the rifle.”
Time slowed for Ry as the rifle started to swing upward and at the same moment, his right hand worked the bolt to inject a shell. Without conscious thought, she widened her stance, took a deep breath, pulled back the hammer and squeezed the trigger. Her first shot struck the inner side of his left shirt pocket, shots two and three quickly followed and were exactly one inch on either side of the first. She watched the red stain spread across his white shirt. His body seemed to deflate. He fell to his knees. The rifle slipped to the ground as if the impact of his falling had jarred it from his grip. Then slowly he fell forward and landed facedown in the yard.