Coastal Los Angeles County
When I woke my face was wet. In my sleep I had cried for my friends I hadn't even realized were long dead. It's odd to find out someone gone you had thought was running around living life to the fullest. In my head I had thought my friends were fine and doing well. They had been larger than life in my memories and long in my world before I had fled. All that was gone.
It was extremely crisp in the bedroom and very dark outside. The chill in the air was weighed down by moisture and I could feel fall in the air. Near as I could tell it was well past midnight. Still huddled in the handmade crocheted blanket, I'd found in the living room last night when I finally went to bed, I absently fingered the knotted yarn of the colorful and bright granny squares that were worked together in the afghan. I pulled the blanket around my shoulders over the sweatpants and t-shirt I'd worn earlier and ended up falling asleep in. I wasn't surprised to find both Michael and Paul were still up and talking. When I darkened the doorway, their conversation dropped off.
"You feeling any better?"
"Did the sleep help?" They both spoke simultaneously.
"I'm fine," I said, suddenly self-conscious. They had been up working while I escaped into sleep. I felt bad about my abrupt departure.
"Sorry I left you guys like that," I began.
"Don't apologize," Michael interrupted, "we had no idea how to tell you. We think that there might be a connection."
Dulled by my lingering exhaustion coupled with the remnants of bad nightmare driven sleep, I stared uncomprehendingly at the two men huddled at the kitchen table. I was very well aware there was a connection between all my dead friends -- me. It wasn't my ego; it was my reality. Paul flipped his laptop around and there was a chart on the screen.
Paul had something a tad more disturbing, "See," he pointed, "they all died or disappeared on or around there two dates. April twenty-first and June twenty-first, are these dates familiar to you?"
"Are you saying you now think that Randolph had something do with all of this? It's not my imagination?" I wanted to nail down all the threads. I was somewhat relieved they finally understood my fears and what had driven me to the desert. The dates didn't help me, but that was something I could share later. I had talked too much lately and didn't see that it was making any difference.
"It sure looks that way to us. But we need to figure out our next steps carefully. Michael agrees with me," Paul broke into my jagged musings, "there havn't been any actual crimes that we could prove. You said yourself that the past evidence had either been destroyed or simply disappeared. We must keep that in mind."
"Yeah, but short of straight on confrontation, what would you suggest, given it seems Randolph is dead. At least someone's been buried." I dryly replied.
"I don't know. We need to work all that out tomorrow," Michael replied. "But first, we all need to get some real sleep. Are you okay staying up by yourself? There's some more food in the fridge." Like that would make up for human comfort -- comfort food. Honestly, I did appreciate it.
I assured them I'd be capable of making a snack if I got hungry and told them to grab some sleep. I watched them leave after they double and triple checked all the locks and doors. Picking up a pad of paper I jotted down parallels in my life to the deaths of my friends. According to the chart on his laptop that Paul had shown me, they all died on the anniversary of my wedding or my divorce. A shudder of fear kept me awake and plotting well into the early hours of the new day.
* * *
Dawn was breaking and the early sounds of waking birds and people filtered persistently through the well-draped windows. Reluctantly, I stumbled into the back and found the bedroom I'd used earlier was still empty. I vaguely heard noises later when the men woke but descended into slumber rather than socializing. Darkness enclosed my world and I slipped back into numbing sleep.
* * *
My dreams spiraled to the surface of my thoughts. I was running through the house. The comforting walls of my Indio home silently folded down flat, a black void suddenly surrounded me, pressing at my sides. A scream punctured the blackness -- the shrill tones kept repeating. The sound was growing more and more familiar, not like a scream anymore but tonal like a ring. Shaking my sleep-thick head, I awoke. There was a phone ringing right next to me. Befuddled I groggily reached for the telephone receiver. My thoughts briefly flew to Paul and Michael and I wondered why they hadn't picked up the annoying call.
"Hello?" I croaked, still half asleep.
There was silence then a click of sound. The other party had hung up. Slightly irritated I replaced the phone and figured I'd missed the call because it must have been ringing longer than I thought. Naturally Paul's buddy didn't have an answering machine for a 'safe house'. Shrugging at the aggravating wake up, I left the bed and headed for the bathroom across the hall. Once I finished there I meandered through each room along the corridor not seeing Michael or Paul. There were signs of occupancy but no humans. I expected them to be in the kitchen.
"Hey, Paul? Michael? Where are you guys?" Raising my voice I headed into the kitchen. A smoky scent greeted me. The old electric coffee pot was nearly burned up. I switched off the power and looked around at the disarray the men had left. Toast was left cold and half buttered on a plate. Some ants had begun the happy journey to and from the plate in a thick black line. Scrambled eggs had congealed in a heavy black cast iron skillet; the wooden spoon used to stir the eggs was on the floor with yellow bits of egg gluing it in place. More ants trailed around the site. Confused I looked for a reason. There were no obvious notes in view. Again I searched the rooms but more carefully than I had initially done in hopes of finding a message. Stunned -- there was nothing telling me why they had deserted the house.
The phone rang in the growing silence.
"Hello?" This time my voice demanded a response.
"Alanna -- don't!" Michael's hard breathing filled my ear. He was cut off with a muffled sound of violence.
"Michael? Michael, where are you? Hello? Michael, what's wrong?" frantically I screamed into the phone.
"Listen!" A mechanically filtered voice, similar ironically to the one I had hooked up to my home security system, commanded me. A scream cut off in the distance then silence.
I shut up. For a solid beat I strained to hear anything and then I heard, "Alanna, do what you're told or I'll die." Michael stated softly before more sounds of flesh painfully being struck accosted my ears. A quieter, more subdued cry of pain and exhaustion, then again nerve racking silence.
"You heard him. He dies if you disobey. It is all your fault if he dies." The mechanical sound disturbed me on so many levels. Not just what was being said but how it was being conveyed. I couldn't tell if it was a man or a woman. This twist frustrated me and I was more than a little scared.
"Where's Paul?" I heard myself beg into the phone. I hated myself for the weakness. A strange sound greeted my request. It took me a moment to recognize what that was. It was mechanical laughter. I felt sickened by this and all that it could mean.
"Never you mind about Paul. Michael's still with us -- for now. Why worry about something you can't change?" The laughter chased into the phone and rumbled around my brain.
I prayed this didn't mean what it sounded like. To me it sounded like Paul was dead. Gently I ventured, "Okay, what do you want?"
"What I've always wanted. Alanna -- you. You have to come to my world. I'll give you directions soon. So don't go anywhere now." With that the phone was hung up. I pounded my fist uselessly on the wall nearby.
I bit out, "Damn it, who the hell was that?"
Naturally there was nobody to answer. It could have been Randolph, whom I was assuming wasn't dead. But I didn't know anymore. The phrasing was strange, but after all these years I had no memory of how exactly Randolph phrased things. It had to be somebody I knew, but who?
The front room was still as cluttered as we left it yesterday. I flipped on the television since I saw it was now nearly noon. I had to wait for the local news to begin. Perched on the edge of the couch I waited for the news. Hopefully the top report wouldn't turn out to be personal to me. Clicking through the numbers hurriedly I found a channel that used to have sharp, precise news reporters when I'd lived in LA. I quickly found the best no-nonsense local news team. I wasn't overly crazy about the overly well-groomed mini-celebrities who were simply reading off a TelePrompTer with chatty banter that so many news stations had adopted to try to keep the public entertained rather than informed; relieved, I paid attention to the top story.
A serious-looking personality filled the screen and began relating the news thankfully in a straightforward manner. The first clip played was regarding a new trial in one of the many on-going California legal soap operas peppering our lives. Then the newscaster said that there was a late breaking incident and would go live to the street side reporter on the scene.
Standing on the edge of the curb she was properly lined up for the camera to catch her at the best possible angles. The newscaster was a conservatively dressed blonde holding her microphone a kiss away from her slightly brightly glossed lips. I caught the shine on her pouty lips and that gave lie to the conservative look she was shooting for -- definitely a bendable toy gal from what I knew about the knowing spark in her lined eyes -- and she then made my fears reality.
"Thank you, Bob!" Oh yeah, the blonde wasn't conservative in the least, her voice was pitched like a nine hundred phone sex operator trying to get the viewers to spend twenty bucks a minute to talk dirty to her. She cleared her throat and dropped her chin so she was looking directly into the camera, "Behind me is the Franklin Warehouse. This is the site of a grisly discovery made earlier this morning. A few moments ago the ambulance left with a local homicide detective. The detective, Paul Colton, is in critical condition. He had been brutally tortured and beaten and now hovers near death." She paused and a tear welled in her eye. I wanted to reach out and smack her.
"There is a body of a young woman, as of yet unidentified, still inside. We are waiting for the coroner to come and release the body so the police can begin their work. Varying reports have been given as to what has occurred but we here on the news team are awaiting official confirmation before releasing any information to the public."
The camera shot quickly cut from the scene to the newscasters and a grim faced Bob asked the reporter how the discovery was made. Quickly they shot cut back to the blonde who now had a slight frown in between her eyes -- not enough to cause marks but enough to say she was a serious reporter not some fluff piece who did adult films on the side. (My guess at her former career given her age and attributes.) Somehow even sleep deprived as I was I couldn't see her flipping burgers and selling fries to tourists at the local burger joint.
"Bob, apparently a concerned citizen called it in. As of yet we have no word on that informant. The police are being very closed mouthed. I will stay here at the scene for any fresh breaking news." They yanked her spotlight off and went back to the studio.
The newscasters went on to tell of Paul's past victories in the community and showed some stock footage of a younger Paul while replaying the details for the folks tuning in late to the noon news. Tears coursed down my face, I never figured on any of this happening. Once there seemed to be no more breaking news developments in the case I carefully searched the house for any other snippets of information I could use. I had to help Michael.