Officer Quint unfolded his body and wiped vomit from his lips with a handkerchief. Lightening flashed in the east and thunder rumbled a posthumous threat. In the ensuing darkness, red and blue lights flashed his shadow on the wet grass. As he turned, the lights of a silent ambulance bounced across the long stretch of pasture between the highway and the mangled car. There was no need to rush. They could do nothing for the occupants.
The night was alive with flashing lights and cameras. Rain still fell at a steady rate, but not like the earlier downpour driven by wind. The train crouched silent on the tracks in a feline pose, as if hovering over a kill. Behind it, sixteen cars were jammed together all the way back to the highway. Headlights were backed up as far as the eye could see, waiting impatiently for someone to direct them away from the gridlock. As bad as the wreck was, it could have been worse. The train didn’t derail...and she wasn’t in the car.
Officer Lathum met him half way to the car and lifted a bushy gray brow. “I’m going to jump to the conclusion that this is either your first fatality, or you know these people.” His tone hung somewhere between sarcastic and annoyed. His reputation for being rough on rookies was well earned. It must have worked, because his trainees were some of the best officers.
Quint dropped his head. “I know them.”
Lathum’s tone lost some of the edge. “I’m sorry about that, boy. Do you want a replacement?”
“No.” Quint straightened and lifted his chin. “I can handle it...now.”
Lathum walked beside him to their patrol car and picked up a tablet. “Give me some information. What were their names and where do they live. Do they have relatives close?”
“Their last name is Anderson. The driver’s name is John – he’s the father, and the mother’s name is Marie.”
Lathum scribbled on the pad, confirming as he wrote. “Driver John Anderson, passenger side wife, Marie Anderson?”
“Yes. The girl is Angela and the boy is Nick...Nicholas.”
“How old is the girl?”
“Thirteen, I think. The boy just turned six.”
“Next of kin?”
“Their oldest daughter, Lisa.”
Lathum’s pale blue gaze lifted from the tablet and searched Quint’s. “How old?”
“I dated her a few times, but she was way out of my league.”
Lathum returned his attention to the tablet and snorted. “I doubt that. Not if you judge by the car and their clothes.”
Quint knew he should quell the ire that surged up and pounded in his neck. He barely recognized his cold voice as the retort forced its way out. “Well sir, I don’t judge people by the clothes on their backs and the cars they drive.”
Lathum glanced up sharply, his expression unreadable. For one horrible long moment he was silent. Finally he shrugged. “Fair enough. So why did you think she was out of your league?”
Quint slowly let out his breath. “Well, for starters, I’d have had to compete with every other guy in school. I graduated two years ahead of her and didn’t keep in touch. I’m nothing special. Not like her.” It was hard to explain how Lisa’s beauty was different than so many others, but it was. She could have been a model. The soft curves on that tall slender body and those long legs were the talk of the locker room when he was a senior. She was two years younger then. That wide-eyed innocent look and those full lips reminded him of a fairytale princess. Even the way she wore her hair, with those braids wrapped around the top of her head like a crown and the long shiny blond curls falling around her shoulders and down her back – she wasn’t simply beautiful. She was exquisite. Now she had matured into an even more beautiful woman. Her voice was soft and full of music.
Lathum interrupted his thoughts. “But Mertz was good enough for her? Why, because he is the son of a prominent family doctor? Yet he was arrested last week for selling drugs to kids like little Nicholas over there?” His thumb jerked back to acknowledge Nick for the first time. “I thought you didn’t judge people by their pocketbooks.”
Quint felt the warmth flow into his face. Officer Lathum didn’t recognize the people in the car and knew nothing about the family, but it sounded like he was well informed, or maybe misinformed, about the incident involving Lisa. No one was there to explain Lisa’s side and he felt compelled to defend her.
“She didn’t know anything about what he was doing.”
Lathum dismissed the subject with a shrug. “Any idea where she is tonight?”
“Maybe at home. I heard she was pretty humiliated when she found out.”
“Well, she’s got something to take her mind off it now.” His voice was terse. “What’s she like? Will she get hysterical when you tell her?”
“Me?” The idea of talking to her again was unsettling enough, but to tell her something like this? “I don’t know her that well.”
Lathum eyed him with poorly veiled amusement. “Good, that should make this easier.” He started to turn and then stopped, his expression sober. “Better drop by and get Howard Spencer. Take him along just in case. From what I’ve heard, he and Miss Anderson are more than friends.”
Spencer and Lisa? Since when? Quint nodded and turned to the patrol car. Howard was the brother of her best friend, Connie. According to Lisa, they were the closest thing to a family that she had other than her parents and siblings. Spencer was nearly ten years older than her, but maybe she liked older men. Some women did. He was a lawyer with a growing reputation and she did work at his law firm last summer. No doubt Lathum thought she should have representation in case she might say something incriminating that might be ruled out in court because she was in a state of shock.
He reached for the door, doubt twisting his guts. One thing about Lathum, he had an uncanny way of being right about people. If Lisa was involved with both Spencer and Mertz, maybe she was an informant for Spencer. On the other hand, maybe Mertz figured she’d make a great decoy. She wouldn’t have any trouble distracting a man, that was for sure. Of course, there was always the possibility that she had come up with the idea of distracting Spencer, but he found that hard to believe. It was totally out of character for her...or was it? A person could change a lot in a few years, especially when they were that young. Maybe Lathum had a point.
He clutched the wet door handle, the click of the latch bringing his mind back to the present. He turned back to Lathum. “Sir, if I take the car, how are you...”
Lathum waved a hand in dismissal; his mind already firmly entrenched in another project. “I’ll ride with the last ambulance. Right now we have to do something about this traffic.” He walked away with his clipboard in hand, barking some orders at another officer.
Quint dropped into the seat and started the engine. He felt sick to his stomach again. It wasn’t jealousy that troubled him. It was the idea of being deceived. But then, all he’d seen in the last few weeks had certainly burned a hole in his confidence about knowing people. Being around Lathum had opened his eyes to the number of people who deceive and are deceived.
He turned the car toward the Spencer home. Right now he was wondering if he had chosen the right occupation. He’d like to believe in good and the happy-ever-after, but that innocence could never be retrieved.
Thunder growled a deep rumbling warning. Lisa pulled a curtain back to examine the sky. Early May was still tornado season in northwest Arkansas, but this storm was forecasted to be only a flash flood threat. In the hilly city of Fayetteville, that was a threat during any heavy rain. Hopefully her family would be in the restaurant now – safe from any flooding on the highway.
She stared into the early darkness of a thick cloud cover. In those last moments when it was too late, she had decided to go with them. Dad was in a hurry to beat the storm, so she had said nothing as the car backed out of the drive. Only Nick noticed her standing in the door. His bright smile with the two missing front teeth faded as he realized they were leaving without her. He pressed his face against the window and managed a forlorn goodbye wave. It was a moment that lay in her stomach like a week-long hunger, regardless of the fact that they had been gone only minutes. A long train whistle sounded several times, adding to the dark mood of the evening.
Lightning stabbed a single brilliant gnarled finger at the earth. A moment later, veins of light threaded through dark low clouds. The first raindrops slammed into the window so hard that she instinctively recoiled. Releasing the curtain, she turned away from the window. A newspaper with Allen’s picture on it lay opened on the coffee table. Two weeks was hardly long enough for the media to forget the arrest of a prominent doctor’s son for selling drugs. She folded the newspaper to shut the accusing eyes. In spite of what Allen thought, no incriminating words had crossed her lips. To an extent she had even been an unwitting accomplice. Allen’s frequent exchange of books with other students might not have been noticed by others, but for a person with journalistic ambitions, it was intrigue. To her imaginative and inexperienced mind, it was obvious that he was doing their homework. He was the Robin Hood of Literature, stealing from the education paid for by the rich and giving to the poor who lacked the skills and resources to complete their homework. It was wrong, but somehow noble. Allen was good looking, popular and exciting – at first. Even his ability to find alcohol for a party was adventurous. Sure, they were minors, but if they were old enough to sign up for the military, they should be old enough to make their own choice about alcohol.
Gradually the reality of his antics sank in. He wasn’t doing it for anyone but Allen. What was once noble morphed into irresponsible rebellion. The clever journalist shriveled into the recesses of her mind. Even so, she had never suspected the truth – the drugs. Two weeks before the arrest, she dissolved the remainder of their relationship. Allen couldn’t be rejected, so he belittled her intelligence, the close relationship with her family and accused her of cheating on him. Emotional hurt wasn’t satisfying enough. His fist was aimed at her stomach, but she managed to dodge and catch it on her rib cage. Even so, it left a large bruise and sore ribs for a few weeks.
And yet, she had honored her promise to go with him to the party the next night. Allen had been drinking at the party a little more than usual. Uncomfortable about riding in the car with him, she had offered to drive. He had enough alcohol in his veins to believe he could drive, and too much pride to leave the party in the passenger seat. There was no reasoning with him, so she accepted a ride with her best friend, Connie. Howard had insisted on picking up his little sister that night for safety reasons. It was uncanny the way he could anticipate trouble.
The minute Howard had arrived; Allen was in his face, accusing him of stealing his girl. It was as ridiculous as it was embarrassing. Howard was a good ten years older and had far more important things on his mind – like his new position as partner at the law firm. Arguing with Allen was futile, so she simply hopped in the back seat and locked the door. Howard had to pull out slowly and gradually increase his speed before Allen let go of the car. It would have been humiliating if anyone had noticed, but no one seemed to pay much attention – probably because so many others were also drinking. Maybe friends didn’t let friends drive drunk, but how did they stop them when there were so many?
In the week before his arrest, her attention had shifted to her siblings, Nick and Angela. They spent hours together after school at the mall and the park. For a full week she enjoyed the benefits of being big sister. They would all get together and wash her old car, winding up in a gleeful water fight. That car didn’t look like much even when it was clean, but it was reliable.
Then came the arrest, and with it the fear of being questioned by the police. No one in her family ever questioned her innocence. They knew about the break up and maybe they thought she knew about the drugs. Maybe they thought she never knew. Whatever the case, their unquestioning loyalty was comforting.
She sighed and wandered absently into the kitchen. Outside, the rain drummed wildly on the roof. Each boom of thunder was loud enough to rattle the window panes. Even the ambulance siren was hard to hear.
An iced cake sat on the counter, decorating icing and tips beside it. Jarred from her thoughts, she began filling a tube with blue icing. Apparently time had caught up with Mom before she could finish. It was like Mom not to ask for help. Lisa began with a rope border on the top. Lately she had been so wrapped up in her own problems that she had been a burden on her family. Mom always said lost time couldn’t be replaced. You simply had to make better use of what was left. Starting tonight, she would.
She changed the tip and wrote “Happy Birthday Dad!” on the top of the cake. After adding a bottom border, she changed to the red icing. Obviously Mrs. Anderson had something in mind and it wouldn’t have been hearts or flowers. She pondered a few minutes and then smiled. Of course, the little red truck Dad had been drooling over. She carefully drew the outline of a truck around the words on the top. On the sides of the cake, she drew the Toyota emblem, finishing up with some scrolls.
After cleaning up the counter, she opened the refrigerator. Food was more a distraction than a desire. She let the door shut without removing anything. Strange, it had never seemed lonely here before. A hollow empty feeling engulfed her, resurrecting Nicks face in the car window. She could almost hear his voice calling “Litha.” A guilty conscience, no doubt. Still, that nagging feeling in her stomach didn’t go away. Maybe Nick and Angela would like to go with her to visit the old place in the mountains after she graduated. Fayetteville was where her family had decided she would go to college – close to them and safe, but she longed for those layered mountain ranges where wildlife abounded. This part of Arkansas had a mild climate, winter and summer. A few weeks wouldn’t mean the difference in paying for college, and she could use the time to relax.
Back in the living room, she pointed the remote control at the television, jumping through a few channels before giving up. Leaning her head back, she forced the soft chair into a reclining position. It was comfortable – too comfortable. She scrambled out of the chair. Sleep meant one thing – nightmares.
She was stacking bowls on the table for ice cream and cake when lights turned into the drive. The vehicle turned hesitantly and she idly wondered if Dad was letting Angela drive again. As she pulled out the flatware drawer, the doorbell rang. For a moment she stared at the door, her heart racing. Her first thought was Allen. But of course, that wasn’t possible. He was still in jail. She crossed the living room and paused at the door, looking through the peep hole. Her heart skipped a beat and then began to pound in her ears. A police officer! So they did suspect her. She straightened her hair and collected her thoughts before opening the door.
For a moment they stared at each other. Len Quint without a smile was almost unrecognizable. How embarrassing it must be for him.
Another figure emerged from the night to stand beside Len. Howard. So they were going to question her. Two thoughts crossed her mind simultaneously. She was glad Howard was there and that her family wasn’t. It would be so disappointing for them.
“May we come in?” Howard asked, his expression grim.
“Certainly,” she replied as if it were a social visit.
Instinctively her fingers affirmed her hair was in order for the mug shot. The blue skirt and sweater were a little dressy for jail, but they’d no doubt give her some fashionable stripes to wear anyway.
“Miss Anderson,” Len began in a formal tone.
“Oh for heaven’s sake, Len. Don’t be so rigid. You have a job to do so spit it out.”
He looked startled for a moment, and then composed himself. “Connie should be here any minute. We’ll just wait for her.”
Lisa frowned. “Why involve Connie? She doesn’t know anything.”
Howard frowned. “It’s best you don’t say anything right now.”
She sat down obediently in the chair and crossed her legs. “How have you been, Len?”
Len looked uncomfortable and glanced at Howard as if for support. “This isn’t a social visit.”
Lisa sighed. “I know. So why wait for reinforcement?”
Headlights flashed on the curtains briefly and a car door slammed. Quick steps crossed the porch. Lisa started to get up but Howard motioned her to sit still while he answered the door.
“What took you so long?” His voice was sharp.
Connie glanced from him to Lisa. “Have you told her yet?”
Howard shook his head and Len cleared his throat.
“Miss Anderson, I’m here to inform you of an accident.”
Lisa stared at him. “Accident? Who?” Her gaze went from Len’s stoic face to Howard and then to Connie, who looked pale. Fear clutched at her throat. “Who?”
Len snatched the forgotten hat from his head. “Your parents.”
Her heart hesitated a moment, contracting for a race. “How bad? Where? Was someone hurt?” They wouldn’t all be there unless something terrible had happened. Her heart leaped into a gallop as she stared at Len.
“A train hit their car.” Len’s face was pasty white and for a moment she thought he was going to throw up.
“A train?” The unexpected information was coming so fast it was hard to absorb. Everyone was staring at her as if they expected her to faint or something. Slowly her mind grasped the situation. Someone must have been killed. Her mouth felt dry and her voice was barely a whisper. “Someone was killed, weren’t they? Who?”
Len had regained his composure. “I’m sorry. No one survived.”
It wasn’t real, of course. She stood on shaking knees. “My parents are at a restaurant. It’s Dad’s birthday. You must be mistaken. They should be home any minute.” The voice was not hers. It couldn’t be real, and yet...she remembered the train whistle and the ghostly voice of Nick. The blood drained from her face and goose bumps covered her arms under the sweater.
“I’m sorry,” Len said again.
Connie took her by the arm. “Sit down, Lisa. Your face is as white as a sheet.” Her gentle attempts to get Lisa to sit were futile. “I’m sorry, but there is no mistake.” She glanced up at Howard, who immediately chimed in.
“Officer Quint came from the scene of the accident. It happened about twenty minutes ago.” He hesitated a moment. “They didn’t make it to the restaurant. I guess it was storming so bad that they didn’t see or hear the train.”
“All of them?” Lisa insisted, still hoping to get a different answer. Even Angela and little Nick....”
Her knees finally gave way and she dropped into the chair. Spots flickered in her eyes as she leaned back. That was the last thing she remembered until she opened her eyes again and found all three of them hanging over her.
“Let’s move back and give her some air.” Len said. “I’ll call an ambulance.”
“She’ll be alright,” Connie said. “Just give her time to comprehend.”
Lisa leaned forward. Her head felt like it could float off her body. Her hands were trembling and she felt sick to her stomach. She covered her mouth.
Candy spilled across the coffee table and a glass bowl was shoved in front of her mouth.
“Here,” Len said to Lisa. Without looking away, he addressed his request to Connie. “Why don’t you get a wet cloth, Miss Spencer?”
Lisa stared at the bowl, the liquid frozen half way up her throat. She tried to speak, but nothing came out.
A hand gently pushed her forward. “Keep your head down,” Len said softly. His other hand removed the radio from his belt. Codes mingled with names and addresses in a request for medical assistance.
Connie returned with a cool damp rag which she placed on Lisa’s face and then the back of her neck. Somewhere in the back of her mind Lisa knew it felt good. Someone gasped and then she realized the sound came from her throat. Feeling returned with a vengeance and her head pounded mercilessly.
“I’m going to be sick.” She jumped up, pushing them all away, darting for the bathroom with a hand over her mouth. When Len walked in, she was on her knees, clinging to the stool. He grabbed a rag and wet it before wiping her mouth.
“Tell me it’s not true,” she heard her emotionless voice saying to no one in particular. “Tell me they’re going to be back.”
Len knelt beside her. “Lisa. Listen to me. We’re going to take you to the hospital.”
“Is my family there?”
“No.” He glanced up briefly as Connie walked in. “You need something to calm you down.”
“I am calm. I don’t want to go to the hospital.” In fact, now she felt nothing.
Connie knelt at her other side. “You need to go to the hospital, Lisa.”
“I’m okay. I want to see my family.” If she could talk to her family, maybe she could clear all this up. She could drive, if someone would simply tell her where they were.
“That’s not possible right now,” Len said. He patted her shoulder gently.
“But I want to be with them. I should have been with them tonight. I would have seen the train.” Her voice sounded cold and distant.
“She’s not crying,” Howard said flatly from the doorway.
“She’s in shock,” replied Len. “Watch for that ambulance.”
Lisa was barely aware of the ambulance or the people scurrying around her. Even the IV didn’t seem real. Her eyelids drooped and she lost consciousness again.
She woke several times briefly; once to see Len and an older officer with white hair talking in the hallway outside her cubicle in the emergency room. Later she woke to find Connie asleep in a chair beside her gurney. Howard was leaning against the wall. Her groggy mind wondered why they were there and why she was in the hospital – and then she fell asleep again.
Fingers caressed her hand gently and then slipped over her palm. Nick was trying to wake her up so they could go to the mall. She opened her eyes...but it wasn’t Nick holding her hand. It was Howard.
“Good,” he said, “You’re awake.” His voice was warm and gentle. “We were all getting worried about you.”
He was still holding her hand when Len entered the room. Len glanced at their joined hands, then at Lisa and Howard in turn.
“Excuse me,” he said. “I can come back.”
Howard dropped her hand like it was a hot coal. “No, come on in. She just woke up.”
Len walked further into the room. “Actually, I just got off my shift and thought I’d check in on her.”
Howard gave him a strange look. “Do you always visit the relatives of accident victims on your personal time?”
Len shot Howard a warning look. “When I know them.”
Lisa stared at him, fragments of the night before slowly fitting together like a jigsaw puzzle. “Where are they?” The entire scene was surreal.
Howard leaned over her. “Lisa, we need to get some information....”
“Howard!” Connie stood up from a chair by the wall. “At least wait until the doctor sees her.”
Lisa struggled to sit up. “What information?”
Howard hesitated and shot a questioning glance at Connie, who shrugged and turned away.
“Funeral plans,” he said uncertainly. “Do you know what they would want?”
Funeral? The facts drifted in slowly, as if attending a dreaded meeting. Fortunately, her mind was on auto-pilot. It was something she had been told often, but never expected to use.
“It’s in the freezer, in a plastic bag wrapped with foil.”
“Good - and the keys to the house?” He sounded relieved.
“I’ve got her purse over here,” Connie said, holding up a shiny red purse.
Howard looked dubious. “Could you get them out?”
Connie handed the purse to Lisa, who immediately found her house keys. “Here they are.” She handed them to Howard, who watched her face with a puzzled expression. “Are you sure you’re alright?”
Lisa dropped back to the bed. “Of course I’m not alright,” she answered with an irritated edge to her voice. “How would you feel if....” She sighed and ran fingers through her tangled hair. “My head hurts.”
Howard turned and headed for the door, indicating for Quint to follow.
Quint hesitated a moment, watching Lisa with an uncertain expression. Finally he followed Howard. “I’m off duty, you know.” Anything else they said faded down the hall after them.
Connie turned around. “I’m sorry. Howard insisted this had to be done right now.”
Lisa rolled her face away from the bright window. “He knows best.”