So far, so good, Kristi Bentz thought as she tossed her favorite pillow into the back seat of her ten-year-old Honda, a car that was new to her but had nearly over eighty thousand miles on the odometer. With a thump, the pillow landed atop her backpack, books, lamp, I-pod and other essentials she was taking with her to Baton Rouge. Her father was watching her move out. All the while he was glaring at her, his face a mask of frustration.
So what else was new?
At least, thank God, her father was still among the living.
She hazarded a quick glimpse in his direction.
His color was good, even robust, his cheeks red from the wind soughing through the cypress and pine trees, a few drops of rain slickening his dark hair. Sure there were a few strands of gray and he’d probably put on five or ten pounds in the last year, but at least he appeared healthy and hale, his shoulders straight, his eyes clear.
Because sometimes, it just wasn’t so. At least not to Kristi. Ever since waking up from a coma over a year and a half earlier, she’d experienced visions of him, horrifying images so that when she looked at him, he was a ghost of himself, his color gray, his eyes becoming two dark, impenetrable holes, his touch cold or clammy. She’d had nightmares of a dark night, the sizzle of lightning, an echoing split of a tree as it was struck and her father lying dead in a pool of his own blood.
And then during the daylight hours, she’d see the color leech from his skin, witness his body turning pale and gray. She knew he was going to die. And die soon. She’d seen his death often enough in a recurring nightmare. Had spent the last year and a half certain he would meet a bloody and horrifying end she’d witnessed in he dreams.
She’d spent over eighteen months worried sick for him as she’d recovered from her own injuries, but today, on this day after Christmas, Rick Bentz was the picture of health. And he was pissed.
Reluctantly he’d helped lug her suitcases out to the car while the wind chased through this part of the bayou, rattling branches, kicking up leaves and carrying the scent of rain and swamp water. She’d parked her hatchback in the puddle-strewn driveway of the little cottage home Rick shared with his second wife.
Olivia Benchet Bentz was good for Rick. No doubt about it. But she and Kristi didn’t really get a long. And while Kristi loaded the car and her father disapproved, Olivia was standing the in the doorway, twenty feet away, her smooth brow wrinkled in concern, her big eyes dark with worry, though she said nothing.
One thing about her, Olivia tried not to get between father and daughter. She was smart enough not to add her unwanted two-cents into this conversation. Yet she didn’t step back into the house and shut the door.
“I just don’t think this is the best idea,” her father said . . . for what? The two-thousandth time since Kristi had dropped the bomb that she’d registered for winter classes at All Saints College in Baton Rouge? It wasn’t like this was a major surprise. She’d told him about her decision in September. “You could stay with us and–“
“I heard you the first time and the second, and the seventeenth and the three hundred and forty second and–“
”Enough!” He held up a hand, palm out.
She snapped her mouth closed. Why was it they were always at each other? Even with everything they’d been through? Even though they’d almost lost each other several times?
“What part of ‘I’m moving out and going back to school away from New Orleans’ don’t you get, Dad? You’re wrong, I can’t stay here. I just . . . can’t. I’m way too old to be living with my dad. I need my own life.” How could she explain that looking at him day to day, seeing him healthy one minute, then gray and dying the next was impossible to take? She’d been convinced he was going to die and had stayed with him as she’d recovered from her own injuries, but watching the color drain from his face killed her and half-convinced her that she was crazy. That her vision of him was her own paranoia. For the love of God, staying here would only make things worse. An she hadn’t seen the image for a while, over a month now. Maybe she’d read the signals wrong. Anyway, it was time to get on with her own life.
She reached into her bag for her keys. No reason to argue any further.
“Forget it,” she mumbled.
“Okay, okay, you’re going. I get it.” He scowled as clouds scudded low across the sky, blotting out any chance of sunlight.
“You get it? Really? After I told you, what? Like a million times?” Kristi mocked, but flashed him a smile as she scrounged in the bottom of her purse for her keys. “See, you are a razor-sharp investigator. Just like all the papers say: Local hero: Detective Rick Bentz.”
“‘The papers don’t know crap.”
”Another shrewd observation by the New Orleans Police Department’s ace detective.”
“Cut it out,” he muttered, but one side of his hard-carved mouth curved into what might be construed as the barest of smiles. He shoved one hand through his hair, glanced back at the house, to Olivia, the woman who had become his rock. “Jesus, Kristi,” he said, “ you’re a piece of work.”
“It’s genetic.” She found the keys.
His eyes narrowed and his jaw tightened.
They both knew what he was thinking, but neither mentioned the fact that he wasn’t her biological father. “You don’t have to run away.”
“I’m not running ‘away’. Not from anything. But I am running to something. It’s called the rest of my life.”
“Look, Dad, I don’t want to hear it,” Kristi said as she tossed her purse onto the passenger seat next to three bags of books, DVDs and CDs. “You’ve known I was going back to school for months, so there’s no reason for a big scene now. It’s over. I’m an adult and I’m going to Baton Rouge, to my old alma mater, All Saints College. It’s not the ends of the earth, for God’s sake. We’re less that a couple of hours away.”
“It’s not the distance.”
“Look, Dad, I need to do this.” She glanced to the doorway where Olivia lingered, her wild blond hair backlit by the colored lights from the Christmas tree, the small cottage seeming warm and cozy in the coming storm. But it wasn’t Kristi’s home; it never had been. Olivia was her stepmother and though they got along, there still wasn’t a tight family bond between them. Maybe there never would be. This was her father’s life now and it really didn’t have much to do with her.
“There’s been trouble up there. Some co-eds missing.”
“You’ve already been checking?” she demanded incensed. He was already inserting himself into her life again.
“I just read about some missing girls.”
“You mean runaways?”
“I mean missing.”
“Don’t worry!” she said, though, she, too, had heard that a few girls had gone missing from the campus, but no foul play had been established. “Dad, girls leave college and their parents all the time.”
“Do they?” he asked.
A blast of cold wind cut across the bayou, pushing around a few wet leaves and cutting through Kristi’s hooded sweatshirt. The rain had stopped for the moment, but the sky was gray and overcast, puddles scattered across the cracked concrete. “Look, Kristi, it’s not that I don’t think you should go back to school,” Bentz said again. He was leaned one hip against the wheel well of her Honda and, today, looking the picture of health, his skin ruddy, his hair dark with only a few glints of gray. “But this whole idea of being a crime writer? Come on!”
She held up a hand, then adjusted some of her things in the back of the car, mashing them down so that she could see out of her rear-view mirror when she took off. “We’ve gone over this before. I know where you stand and you don’t want me to write about any of the cases you worked on. Okay, Dad. I get it. I won’t tread on any hallowed ground.”
“That’s not it and you know it,” he said and a bit of anger flashed in his deep-set eyes.
Fine. Let him be mad. She was irritated as well. In the last few weeks they’d really gotten on each other’s nerves.
“It’s just that I worry about your safety.”
“Well, don’t, okay?
“Hey, cut the attitude. It’s not like you haven’t already been a target.” He frowned, stared at the ground and shook his head before meeting her eyes and she knew he was reliving every terrifying second of her kidnaping and attack.
“ I’m fine.” She flashed him a smile meant to ease his need to be overprotective. Though he was a pain in the ass often enough, he was a good guy. She knew it. He was just worried about her. As always. But she didn’t need it. Somehow she managed to hold onto her patience as Hairy S, her stepmother’s scrap of a mutt streaked out the front door and chased a squirrel into a pine tree. In a flash of red and gray, the squirrel scrambled up the pine’s rough bole, to perch high upon a branch that shook as the squirrel peered down, taunting and scolding the frustrated terrier mix. Hairy S dug at the trunk with his paws as he whined and circled the tree.
“Shh…. you’ll get him next time,” Kristi said, picking up the mutt and getting wet paws prints upon her sweatshirt and a wet swipe of Hairy’s tongue over her cheek. “I’ll miss you,” she told the dog, who was wriggling to get back to the ground and his rodent chasing.
“Give it up,” Kristi said to the dog as she placed him on the ground and winced a little from some lingering pain in her neck.
“Harry! Come here!” Olivia ordered from the porch as the dog ignored her.
“You’re not completely healed.”
Kristi sighed loudly. “Look, Dad, all my varied and specialized docs said I was fine. Better than ever, right? Funny what a little time in a hospital, some physical therapy, a few sessions with a shrink and then nearly a year of intense personal training can do.”
He let out a soft snort of disbelief and as if to add credence to his worry a crow flapped its way to land upon ta bare branches of a magnolia tree, then let out a lonely, mocking caw.
“You were pretty freaked when you woke up in the hospital,” he reminded her.
“Wouldn’t you be? But that’s ancient history, for God’s sake.” And it was true. Since her stay in ICU, the whole world had changed. Hurricane Katrina had hit with the force to tear apart New Orleans and the entire Gulf Coast. The devastation, despair and destruction lingered. Though the hurricane had torn across the gulf over a before, the aftermath of Katrina’s fury was everywhere and would be for years, probably decades. There was talk that New Orleans might never be the same. Kristi didn’t want to think about that.
Her father, of course, was overworked. Okay, she got that. The entire police force had been stretched to the breaking point, as had the city itself and the scattered citizens, some of whom had been sent to places at far points across the country and just weren’t returning. Who could blame them with the hospitals, city services, transportation a mess? Sure there was revitalization, and the French Quarter which had survived was still so uniquely Old New Orleans and the tourists were venturing into some of the parts of the city least hard hit.
Kristi had spent the past six months volunteering at one of the local hospitals that was still operating, helping her father at the station, spending weekends in city cleanup, but now, she figured, and her shrink insisted, she needed to get on with her life. Slowly but surely New Orleans was returning, but it would take years, even decades, which she just didn’t have. Sure, she’d come back and lend a hand, but it was time for her to start thinking about the rest of her life and what she wanted to do.
Her father, as usual, disagreed. After the hurricane Rick Bentz had fallen back into his overly-protective parent role and it was time he gave it up. It wasn’t as if she was a child, or even a teenager. She was an adult, for crying out loud!
So act like one, get going.
She slammed the back of her hatchback shut. It didn’t catch, so she readjusted her favorite pillow, reading lamp and hand-pieced quilt her great aunt had left her, then tried again. This time the latch connected.
“Gotta go. I’ll call when I get to campus. Love ya.”
“Me, too, kiddo.”
She hugged her father and felt the crush of his embrace, fought tears as she pulled away, then blew Olivia a kiss and climbed behind the wheel. With a snap of her wrist the little car’s engine sparked to life and she backed out of the driveway, her throat thick.
She swung onto the county road and caught another glimpse of her father, arm raised as he waved good-bye. As she rammed her car into drive, the sky darkened and in the side view mirror she saw her father’s image.
All the color had drained from him and he appeared a ghost, in tones of black, white and gray . . . She could run as far away as possible, but she’d never escape the specter of her father’s death.
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