Instalment 21 of the collective short story, written by Bonnie, is now available!
Welcome to an exciting writing project! This is a collective short story which is being written by all of us members here at The Shameless Lions Writing Circle. Each member is being called on to add to our developing story, the opening of which was inspired by the photo above. Who knows where it will end up?
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Now, without further ado, here's the story so far:
The new watch that Grace's husband had given her the week before slipped inside the sleeve of her coat as her arm went up in the air. She felt she had no control over the movement, as though it were completely natural for her to be hailing a cab in the middle of New York. She felt as if she were being directed by remote control. 4:42pm, October 7. She made a mental note of the time, thinking it might be something she'd always want to remember.
"I just want you to drive," she said as she got in, avoiding the driver's eyes.
"Drive? Drive where, sweetheart?"
He sounded like he might be Middle Eastern, although the writing on photos and cards above his head looked like it could be Greek. She also noticed African music coming from the radio.
"I'll let you know. For now just drive anywhere. Wherever your instinct takes you."
"That is strange."
"Yes, it's strange. Please just drive. Anywhere."
"Whatever you say, sweetheart."
During the few minutes it took for the cab to rejoin the flow of angry traffic, she stared at the entrance to the subway that she'd been using to get home every night for the past 12 years. Ample time to change her mind. She turned off her mobile as the cab swung into Third Avenue. Happy trumpets played as a grainy picture of Sebastian and the two little ones faded into black. (1)
Grace sat back and tried to relax. All her muscles were tense. She moved her head a little from side to side to try and release some of the tension in her neck. She made an effort to relax her face muscles that she was sure were drawn up into a tight mask.
As the cab swooped along with the stream of homeward-bound traffic, a sudden gust of wind swirled fallen orange and red leaves into a mad dance. She found their dance mesmerising. It reflected her mood of being drawn into a wild dance, almost out of control. Where the dance would lead, she had no idea.
“Ok, sweetheart?”The cab driver sounded uncomfortable with his role of just driving anywhere.
She nodded, still not meeting his eyes. She wished he would stop calling her sweetheart. She didn't feel like anybody's sweetheart. She looked down at her tan boots and noticed one of the toes was scuffed. She fingered the money purse inside the large red shoulder-bag sitting beside her like an obedient pet. She would have to watch the fare. After all, she only had so much money to go on. She made herself stop biting her fingernails as she tried to figure out just where she wanted the taxi cab to drop her. (2)
Grace closed her eyes and thought of the gaping entrance to the subway that she'd just abandoned. It was a turning point; she'd finally turned away from him, but to what? Never back to the barren arctic mausoleum; that prison home that the train had returned her to for so many nights, so many years, devoid of warmth, of love, of anything she really needed. She refused to lose another precious moment of her life to it, she knew if she went back again, there would be no more life.
Her thoughts were a blizzard through which she could only take a step at a time; slowly, carefully, blinded by the unknown ... but feeling for it desperately, going anywhere as long as it was away. She had to escape. The storm of his loathing and anger raged around her in her mind and her heart began to pound, her pulse started to race and she knew this was it.
Reality seemed to fade into a dream and she fled the monster at her heels in uncertainty ... could she make it? Could she really leave and be free? At last? The thought of it beckoned to her like a distant star in her dark night and the shadow of an image began to take form and make its way to the forefront of her mind. Jack. It was her only chance.
The possibility of it was slim ... but, perhaps. She had to try. Leaning forward, she instructed the cab driver with urgent directions and he was relieved that she'd finally determined a destination.
For the first time in ages, she stood at the base of the stairs that led up to his door and willed herself to move. How many years had it been ... a hundred at least? What if he wasn't home? What if he didn't care about their friendship anymore? She'd let the winds of time carry it away in small fragments ... like the leaves swirling about her feet, that skittered on the air and vanished. Grace carried the weight of the world and the bulk of the past with her up the steps and hesitated before pressing the button by the large door of the brownstone.
Time never passed so slowly. Her heart pounded in her chest and blood rushed in her ears. She drew a shaky breath. He might be gone. Maybe he had company. He probably wouldn't even want to speak to her. What if he didn't recognize her? How could she even come here at all? What was she thinking? Certainly he must be angry that she'd let their friendship go. All those years ... best friends since they were children, and she'd let it go. How could she have done that for the monster she'd married? She began to breathe, shallow and quick. He had seemed so hurt the last time they'd talked.
She gasped and jerked her head up. He'd opened the door, shock and disbelief registering on his face. She froze.
"Grace?" He whispered her name like a prayer from the heart. There was more emotion in that one word than she'd felt from her husband in a year.
"Jack... I ..." she stammered, unsure that she should have come at all.
In a single movement he came through the doorway and pulled her into his arms tightly. "Are you alright? Are you hurt?" He only let her go long enough to cup her face in his hands and peer into it closely, searching for any sign of pain, as a parent might do to his long lost child. He saw it there and pulled her back into his whole embrace. Anxiety and hope filled her clenched lungs as she allowed herself to breathe deeply.
"Come. Come in and we'll take care of it," he said quietly, as he brought her into his home.
He sat with her on the couch and watched her, listening intently as she spoke.
"I'm so sorry to just show up like this ... I ..." She clasped her hands tightly in her lap and stared straight through them.
"Grace, please don't apologize, there's no need at all. We're best friends, and you know time can't touch that. It doesn't matter what brought you here, you are welcome to stay as long as you need to and you know that you are safe. No one can touch you here. I'll make sure of that."
She stared at his unwavering countenance. Into his bottomless, dark eyes. Time ceased to exist then, time that had passed and time that would have come after this moment. It was as if they'd never been apart even a day. She launched herself into his arms again.
"I've missed you so much, thank you."
"You are one of the strongest women I've ever met. You are unstoppable, vibrant and passionate, and you are so full of secrets right now! This is not the Grace that I know," he said skeptically, as he raised one eyebrow, and with his hand on her chin, turned her face from side to side. "Where's that wonder woman that could take on the world? Why have you hidden yourself away behind this mask?" He paused and whispered, "What happened to you mon ami?"
Grace looked around for an answer to his question, as though the welcoming walls in the room might offer her the words that she could not find. She opened her mouth to tell him, but somehow the brave front that she had shielded herself with crumbled in this sanctuary where she knew she could finally fall on her knees and find solace. Tears carried the pain away as they streamed down her pale cheeks like a long overdue rain on parched land. Saying nothing, Jack drew her to his chest, held her close and stroked her hair until she cried herself to sleep. He laid her head on a deep pillow and covered her with a thick quilt. Grace drifted off into a deeper slumber than she'd had in months, and Jack watched her for a long time.
It was late when he reached for his phone and dialed the number. He spoke softly, his eyes never leaving her as she slept. "Sebastian, you won't believe this. Grace is here ... she finally came; she left him. Now she can begin." (3)
Sebastian replaced the receiver and leaned back in his chair. Twelve years was a long time and Jack sounded elated, almost triumphant. Poor Grace.
He picked his way through the darkened office and across the hall to the kitchen, avoiding the light switch so as not to wake up Amanda, who was snoring softly in the bedroom next door. It had been her night noises that had woken him and not the late night call from the nearly gloating Jack. Amanda was becoming far too much of a sexual habit, it was nearly time to call it a day, but that could wait. The past had just called him up and he knew that sleep was not going to be on the cards tonight.
He made a pot of strong coffee and returned to the office, rousing the computer as he placed his cup in its usual position. That was another thing about Amanda, he thought, she would love to fill his desk with any amount of gaudy clutter. He liked his apartment the way it was, free from everyday untidiness, useless objects that could remind him of useless memories.
The screen bounced into life and he once again admired the neatness of his files. He liked the order of a computer; it reflected his attitude to life, an attitude that had developed over the last twelve years. What he didn't like was the fact that his finger had now found a file called 'Unfinished business' and was busy opening it.
Sebastian watched as the photo file revealed itself - row upon row of snapshots from another time, another place and one that he would rather not be reminded of. The photo at the top showed three friends, Jack, Mike and Sebastian, arms around each others shoulders, friends for life. The rest of the hundred or so meticulously captioned pictures ran through three years at college and showed only one woman, posed, un-posed, summer, winter, laughing, crying. Poor Grace. (4)
Sebastian leaned back in his chair, ran his hand over the stubble on his chin and afforded himself a thin smile. So, she had finally turned up in Jack's life again. Just like the proverbial bad penny. He flicked through the images on the screen. Grace laughing. Grace dancing. Grace lazing in the sun. His eyes ran over the curve of her body, lingering on the rise of her breasts, the pert roundness of her backside. Ah yes, Grace the Temptress. Grace who could have been anyone, had anyone. Grace who knew the world lay at her feet. And by god, she'd meant to conquer that world. Ultimately it hadn't mattered to her who she might trample on to grab her dreams.
Sebastian chewed his lower lip, remembering the advice he'd given her long ago. "Be careful what you wish and dream for, Gracie. Make your choices wisely." But she'd just laughed, ran a hand over his face and flicked his hair from his eyes – with that casual sense of ownership she had with every man who'd crossed her path.
Funny how things came full circle. From owning, she'd been owned. Strange that she should have fallen for Sebastian Carrebreu, the sauve Frenchman – his namesake. He had no doubt she'd long forgotten him, Sebastian Comptom – but at least she'd remembered Jack. He remembered the night she'd told them. He and Jack were on their way to the Hampton's to Jack's folks' place –Grace was supposed to join them. Instead she had waltzed into the apartment, her hair flying, her cheeks flushed and declared, "Boys, you're going to have to go without me!"
The smile on Jack’s face had crumpled. "Why, what's come up? Whatever it is, can't you cancel?"
"Absolutely not! See, I'm getting married, darlings!" The glittering diamond on her ring finger flashed as she thrust out her hand.
"To who?" He remembered how Jack had clutched the back of the sofa.
He remembered the pain, the betrayal in Jack's eyes as he'd turned to him, gasping.
"Not me," he'd said. "Dear God, she'd never marry me. Nor would I ever ask her." He'd noticed how she'd narrowed her eyes at him.
"Of course not. Don't be daft, Jack. Oh, no offence, of course, Seb." Her voice had been loaded with meaning. "No, I'm marrying Sebastian Carrebreu. Remember," she said, her eyes gleaming, "we met him at that protest and then at the conference his company gave."
"But you barely know him!" Jack cried. "You can't! He's ..."
"Why ever not?! Oh God, Jack, don't get all possessive on me now. That would be so tedious."
She'd blown air kisses at them and flounced from the room. Twelve years. It might have been yesterday. But now she was back ... and in Jack's arms. Oh how the mighty are fallen. Sebastian smiled. It was a cold smile which didn't reach his eyes. He took a last glance at the photographs in front of him, closed the images and glanced through the notes in the file. Unfinished business ... but not for much longer. He opened his email and began typing. (5)
Swimming out of her deep sleep, Grace stretched and saw Jack slumped in a chair across from her.
"Welcome back, sleeping beauty," he said quietly.
"What time is it?" she asked.
"No!" Grace sat up, holding her head. "Then Sebastian knows I didn't come home."
"I suspect so."
"I have to..."
"Grace, wait!" Jack said, coming to sit beside her on the sofa. "Let's talk."
"I can't believe I did this with no more planning than..."
"What? How can you say that? I haven't even told you why I'm here."
"I can guess, but I would rather you tell me about it."
Grace pulled back to take a good look at Jack's face. "You know something, don't you?"
He nodded. "I've sort of kept up with you over the years."
"Because we knew the man you married, and we were worried about you."
"We? We, who?"
"Sebastian and Mike and I."
"Oh, sorry, Sebastian Compton. Friends in college, remember? Not your Sebastian."
"You're telling me that someone I barely remember has been worried about me? That doesn't make sense." Grace lurched to her feet, with Jack right behind her.
"Grace, take a deep breath and listen for a minute." Jack raked his fingers through his tousled hair, wondering where to start. "We have files on your husband, files that could send his sorry ass up the river, but we sat on it until ... until ... you chose to leave him." Jack lowered his face to hers. "That is what you've done, isn't it?"
Grace closed her eyes. "I don't understand any of this. I didn't even know I was coming here until I was already in the taxi. Who are these people, Sebastian and Mike?"
"Have you totally forgotten my old college buddies? We used to hang out together, then Mike became a cop and Sebastian went to law school. Me? I'm ready to take over my dad's business when he retires, but mostly I'm the guy still trying to watch out for you, just the way I've done since kindergarten."
"But the others?"
"They think I'm crazy, but they're my friends," Jack said. "And we are so ready to take on your husband." (6)
“What do you mean Jack,” Grace inquired, the strain obvious in her weary voice. “Who exactly is going to take on Sebastian ... and why?”
Her voice trailed off to an exasperated whisper. The why was not so much a question, as an exhalation of confused frustration. She seemed to know the answer was much too complicated to address at this hour, and she was too spent, physically and emotionally, to want to hear it.
Grace turned away from Jack, head lowered. Her arms fell limp at her side, fingers splayed. She was trying her best to process what Jack was saying, to understand him –to understand the recent events that had brought her to this place in time ... to make sense of anything. Her head was spinning, and she could feel the fatigue deep in her bones.
She dropped back onto the sofa, half sitting, half lying down – an exhausted slouch. She felt paralyzed, thoughts racing through her mind – fragmented, disconnected thoughts.
She looked at her hands, palms down in her lap, her eyes glazing over. Her vision drifted to her wrists, her left wrist in particular — to her watch. Slowly it came into focus, and she realized she was staring at the broken crystal face of her Audemars Piguet Promesse.
Ever since Sebastian had given her this watch for their anniversary, her life had turned upside down – but it had also turned a corner. Fate had pushed her round that corner, and she would never turn back again. Her life as Mrs. Carrebreu was over.
She knew this, knew it as surely as she knew she missed her children. Something must be done to get them out of that house – his house. It could no longer be her home, but they would always be her children – and she feared for them. They had to be part of whatever direction fate was leading her.
It was fate that had broken the crystal – fate, and her quick reflexes, blocking Sebastian with her forearm as he struck out at her in anger, following their anniversary dinner.
He had apologized, explaining it away as the result of stress. “It will never happen again,” he’d said in his most gentle and sincere voice – but she was familiar with this empty promise. This was not the first time, and the incidents of abuse were escalating.
She’d only come into his office that evening to thank him again for the gorgeous timepiece. She thought this was where he’d retired after leaving the dining table. But she could see, in the subdued light, that he was not there. The mahogany paneled room was empty.
She loved the aroma of his Classic Port pipe tobacco that permeated the walls. Her father had also smoked that blend in his Barling Meerschaum, and the heady fragrance was comforting to her – so she lingered. That’s when she noticed it, on his desk, silhouetted by the light from the Tiffany lamp.
Her curiosity drew her to it. She’d just picked it up when Sebastian entered. “What the hell do you think you’re doing? Put that god damned box down,” he’d shouted — then flew into a rage.
Why had her discovery of the leather box sent Sebastian over the edge? What were those letters that spilled out when she dropped the box upon being struck?
They’d looked terribly official, with their seals and embossing – and written in a language that she did not recognize. Sebastian certainly scrambled frantically to collect them from the antique Persian rug, and return them to the box. But she managed to conceal one, sliding it under her hips as she lay where she’d fallen after being struck.
Sebastian’s bizarre reaction to the correspondence scattered on the floor, and the strangeness of the language they contained, had piqued Grace’s interest. Instinct drove her to hide the envelope until she was able to fold and slip it into her pocket, as her husband hurried from the room, with the leather box in tow.
Grace felt it was important that she take this letter she’d spirited out of the room, and put it in safekeeping. She’d planned to somehow learn more about its origin and content.
It was again fate that lead her the next morning to the jewelers, seeking a new watch crystal. It was while standing at the counter, waiting to be served, that she’d spied Sebastian coming out of the restaurant across the street, in the company of a woman — a stranger to Grace. They had climbed into a waiting limousine.
Grace had broken from the counter in a hurry, and bolted through the door to get a better look. Unfortunately, as she’d reached the sidewalk and acquired a reasonable view of the vehicle, it had sped away. She had noticed markings on the door, and a license plate, a type she had not immediately recognized – but she could read neither.
Fate had revealed this convoluted mystery to her, but what was she to do with it. Where could she begin to unravel it? All this was flooding through her mind when she was startled back to the present by Jack, returning to the room with pillows and a blanket.
“I will take the sofa tonight,” he said, “You’re completely burned out. I’m putting you in my room,” he continued in a kind and caring tone. “My bed is amazingly comfortable, and you need sleep – lots of good, deep sleep.”
He reached down and took Grace’s hand, helping her to her feet. Gently wrapping his arm around her waist, he escorted her down the hall and into his room. Stopping just inside the door, he said, “You will be safe in here. We’ll talk about everything in the morning,” and he gave her a warm hug, stepped back into the hall, and closed the door.
Grace realized there were too many questions to answer, too many mysteries — just too damned much to even think about right now.
“Yes, in the morning,” she mumbled to the door.
Then, hugging her red shoulder bag with the mysterious envelope tucked safely inside, Grace shuffled across the room and collapsed on the bed. (7)
As he rolled over, he was startled awake by the absence of a warm body.
Sebastian Carrebreu couldn’t remember the last time he had woken up alone. Even on his frequent business trips he never needed an extra pair of socks to keep warm, and yet here he was, caressing an unwrinkled sheet.
He sat up slowly, his head weighing down his upper half like those fishing sinkers his English grandfather used to make — only Sebastian had used whiskey and rum and whatever else had been in the liquor cabinet instead of lead. Sure felt the same now though.
Nine thirty. I can’t believe she really stayed out all night, he thought, as he wrapped his silk robe around him and shuffled to the bathroom mirror. He turned on the hot water and stared into his dark grey eyes until the steam rising from the sink snapped him out of his trance.
As he looked down and stuck his fingers under the stream of water, he noticed something glimmering on the edge of the sink. The diamond necklace he had bought for Grace as a wedding gift — the necklace she wore every single day without fail.
“That bitch!” he yelled and splashed the scalding water on his face, making it only a shade redder than it had been a moment before.
He half-toweled off his face and went immediately to his cell phone in the nightstand. He turned it on, and a drop of water from his nose hit the number 5, taunting him with Grace’s speed dial position. He managed to dial anyway, or at least simply hit # and the number 1.
A recording told him that Armand wasn’t available and so Sebastian did the only thing he could do in response. He hurled the phone at the antique carriage clock on the fireplace. His arm wasn’t as strong as it used to be, though, and it fell just short of the mantle.
He smirked at his own ineffectiveness and breathed deeply and slowly on his walk over to the fireplace. He picked up the phone and turned it on all sides to inspect the damage. It was still turned on and it looked just fine so he dropped it inside his robe pocket and headed for the kitchen.
The maid was off, so there’d be no coffee. Goodness, did he even remember how to make coffee? As he scanned the counter for a container that might hold the beans, his phone rang.
“She’s left me, Armand,” he said, without even a hello, and dropped his weight onto a stool at the bar. “And I think it’s for good this time.” As he glanced across the city skyline, nights of theatre, dinner and dancing flashing through his mind in an instant. He had never hated his window-lined penthouse more than at this moment.
His lifelong friend sighed and said flatly, “I know.”
“What do you mean you know?” Sebastian asked as he straightened his back and pulled a curtain across the window in front of him.
“Sebastian, it’s better if we talk about this in person. I know where Grace stayed last night, and you’re not going to like it — especially when I tell you what this friend of hers has been up to.”
“Armand, what ...”
“Not on the phone, Sebastian. I’ll be right over. Should I bring coffee?”
Sebastian eyed the empty liquor cabinet. “Sounds like I may need something stronger.” (8)
The next morning Jack started to fill Grace in on Sebastian's activities. Jack sat Grace down and started by stating the obvious.
"Grace, Jack is a very dangerous man, he ..."
Grace interrupted, "Don't you think I know that? Don't you think I have experienced that? Whatever he is up to ... I doubt he will get caught. He will kill you for interfering in our marriage. I don't intend to stay long. You don't know Sebastian."
"I know him well enough ... Seb and Mike have a lot of connections when it comes to getting information. It is not just your marriage that he has been cruel in.”
“What do you mean?”
“Grace, he will stop at nothing ... nothing ... even betraying the very causes he supposedly loves. All those protests and rallies ... merely a sham.
“Sebastian sees you as a valuable asset ... you protect his image of a perfect life. He is not going to let you go. He will hunt you down. We need to act quickly and expose him to the authorities and the media. Your only protection is to act quickly. Sebastian has been ..."
Just then there was the sound of a car pulling up.
“That must be Sebastian ... Compton. He is better qualified to explain. Sebastian, my Sebastian, is the only one that I can trust to keep you safe. Mike can not get too involved ... worried about his family. There are crooked cops on the force but we don't know who they are.”
“Whatever it is just tell me.”
Jack stood up. Clearly he was very nervous.
“Sebastian has been ...”
Jack still wasn't able to grasp the words to explain how grievously Grace's husband had betrayed her. He knew Grace ... and knew she had a tendency to act unwisely when afraid. Too many lives were at stake for carelessness. He knew that once she knew the truth, she might think that continuing to be the trophy wife would make it all safe.
Just as he thought of how to explain, Jack's friend Sebastian Compton was pushed roughly into the room with Armand holding a gun to his back.
"Leave him alone.”
Armand completely ignored Jack as he pushed Sebastian across the room. Sebastian tripped and landed on the sofa.
“I would choose better friends. You no longer have to worry about such matters though.”
Armand smiled as he fired the gun at Sebastian. Almost immediately there was a trickle of blood down Sebastian's face. Anyone could see that this was a fatal shot. Armand continued to smile.
Jack and Grace stared ... each temporarily frozen by fear and horror.
Armand looked at Grace with a commanding gaze.
"Mrs. Carrebreu, if you value the lives of your children as much as your husband insists you do, you will come with me immediately."
Grace screamed as Armand lifted his gun again and pointed it at Jack.
“Nothing personal actually ... you shouldn't have gotten involved.” Armand did not hesitate as he fired a bullet into Jack and grabbed at Grace's arm.
Grace struggled to look back as Armand forced her out the door. She could not tell if Jack was alive.
Armand yanked her out the door and across the lawn ... partially by the hair.
For Armand the encounter at Jack's house just wasn't long enough ... he enjoyed inflicting as much pain as possible. He hoped they would be able to dispose of this troublesome woman soon.
Grace's husband was waiting in the car. (9)
Sebastian’s voice, deceptively soft, sent a trickle of fear shimmying down her spine. She shrank away from him to the furthest corner, wishing that she could somehow dissolve into the leather seating, anything to be away from his oppressive presence.
“I missed you,” he continued in that silky tone, his smoky gray eyes unfathomable, as he peeled off his gloves. Without warning, he leaned towards her, his mouth mere inches away from her own, his hands moving, as if in slow motion, towards her neck.
A strangled scream lodged in Grace’s throat, a crippling fear squeezing every iota of rational thought from her mind. Her nails scratched jerkily at the door, vainly trying to find the button release. Its ominous click sounded like a death knell over the hum of the engine. Through the curtain of hair that had fallen into her face, she caught sight of Armand’s baleful glance in the rear view mirror. Whimpering, she pressed even harder into the unyielding seat.
Tenderly, slowly, Sebastian brushed her hair to the sides of her face, the heady scent of Classic Port tobacco, mingled with his expensive cologne, invading her senses. His breath fanned the wisps of hair at her temples. Strong fingers brushed lightly along the nape of her neck, as he murmured, “You forgot this”, before moving away swiftly to his original position. Glancing down, she saw the diamond necklace, his wedding gift to her, the one she had worn every day for 12 years. Except yesterday.
Dazedly, she stared unseeingly at the scenery rushing by into an unrecognizable blur. Jagged memories of the blood oozing down Sebastian Compton’s face, the empty stare in his eyes, and of Jack crumpling to a heap, haunted her. Never before had she felt so vulnerable, so trapped.
Feeling the weight of her husband’s gaze, she turned reluctantly to see that he was indeed watching her. Closely, like a hawk. Her mind tried to wrap around the fact that this brute was the same man who had won her heart and fathered their children. Images of their fairytale wedding and honeymoon rose up before her like a collage, taunting her. Who was this sinister stranger that had replaced the suave suitor and ardent lover? If he had hit her now, she would have welcomed the blows, rather than this eerie gentleness. It terrified her. He terrified her.
Once again, she turned her gaze to the scenery outside her window, and realized, with a start, that the surroundings were familiar. Several children swarmed the park grounds, several metres away from the road, some soaring into the air on swings, others playing catch or tag, all under the watchful gazes of their mothers or nannies. How often had she taken her children here, most times to gather her scattered thoughts while they played. Suddenly, her beloved Anna and Giovanni came into view. Her heart ached at the sight of their smiling faces, as they squealed with delight at the sight of their friends. Julia, their nanny, walked behind them, talking animatedly to another nanny.
The car slowed to a crawl. Grace hurled herself at the window, her mouth agape, palms flush against the darkly tinted glass. Suddenly she felt Sebastian’s warm breath against her ear, his hand rough in her hair. “Take a good look, darling,” he hissed softly. “You’ll never see them again.”
That’s when the scream freed itself from her throat, when she found the strength to shove him away, to lash out, fury in her fists. She saw, with pleasure, the blood that sprang to the surface, as her nails raked his face, felt sweet revenge as her other fist slammed between his legs, causing him to immediately double over with agony. Armand’s head swiveled around at the commotion behind him, a moment too late, as Grace lashed at him like a feral cat, digging her nails into his eye. He howled, momentarily losing control of the car. It swung drunkenly, tyres screaming.
Adrenaline galvanized Grace’s limbs into action, as she launched towards the row of buttons on Armand’s side of the door, and hit the door release control. His hand swung around, grabbing blindly for her arm, but she shrugged it off, and hit the button on her side of the door. She felt it give beneath her weight, saw the rushing ground inches away from her face, prepared herself for the tearing feel of clothes and flesh shredding. Instead, she felt her head being jerked back with a snap, the searing pain at the back of her head that wrenched a scream from her, saw a patch of her hair in Sebastian’s grip, felt his other hand tightening around her throat.
“Bitch!” Armand spat out, holding his face, as he righted the car and it picked up speed again. “Need any help around there?”
“Nothing I can’t handle,” Sebastian replied, stroking Grace’s hair with one hand, the other clamped tightly around her throat.
She wasn’t quite sure how much time had elapsed before the car slowed again, this time to a stop. The hectic pace of the city had been left behind, giving way to placidly rolling blue-green hills that walled the area like sentinels. The air was sharp, clean, fresh. A carpet of burnished gold, tangerine, and olive-green leaves crunched beneath her boots, as Sebastian pulled her out of the vehicle and led her to the entrance of the cottage, Armand bringing up the rear.
Inside, the rustic warmth and tasteful furnishings were lost on Grace, as they stood in the hallway, waiting. The strains of someone playing a classical piece on a violin wafted to them.
“Asia,” Armand called out. “We’re here.”
The music ended abruptly, the ensuing silence broken by the click of heels against the hardwood floor. Grace could barely contain the gasp that escaped her lips at the sight of the woman who emerged. Statuesque in an immaculately white, sleeveless, cowl-neck sweater, wine-red leather pants that hugged every contour of her lithe frame like a second skin, and boots, the dark chocolate hue of her flawless skin glowed in striking contrast. Her baldness accentuated the sleek roundness of her head and stunning, oval features. To say that she was a beauty was an understatement. Grace felt washed out and insipid in comparison.
The ebony beauty surveyed both men’s injuries, and then looked at Grace with renewed interest, an eyebrow arched elegantly. She spoke in a strange language to Sebastian, who replied in the same language. Her voice was rich, husky; her accent, thick. Her eyes ran over Grace again, this time insolently, from her disheveled head to her scuffed shoes.
Sebastian released Grace and strode over to the woman. “Asia, watch her until we return.”
Her almond-shaped eyes slid up to his. “How long will you both be gone?”
“Not long.” His hand, against the small of Asia’s back, they both walked a few steps into the adjoining sitting room, speaking in hushed tones. Grace watched as Sebastian reached into the depths of his jacket, pulled out a gun, and handed it to the woman.
Armand, who had moved closer to Grace from behind, noticed her dumbstruck gaze and laughed contemptuously. “She’s not to be messed with, that one,” he mocked. “She’ll cut your heart out before you know it.” He paused, and then leaned forward to whisper in her ear, “I hope she does.”
Grace ignored Armand’s taunts, her mind instead struggling to conjure up an elusive memory. Something about Sebastian’s and Asia’s familiarity with each other nagged at her. Something else was stirring in her subconscious, like the whisper of the changing leaves outside being rustled by the October breeze. Then, like the silent arrival of dawn, a certain scene swam before her. The jewellery store. Sebastian and a strange woman leaving a restaurant. The limousine with the unrecognizable licence plates and strange markings. The woman. Asia!
Grace inhaled sharply. Asia turned slightly, looked over her shoulder at Grace, and smiled slyly, exposing pretty, white teeth. But her eyes were ice. (10)
Nanny Julia stopped in mid-sentence and grabbed her friend Erica’s arm. The threat of kidnapping was ever present for children like those of her powerful employer and a dark, slow moving car wasn’t normal for midday. “Giovanni! Anna! Come to me now.”
“Shit, Julia, you scared me to death! I was just getting to the best part ...”
“Shhh. Look up there, and watch your mouth in front of the kids.” She watched Erica follow her gaze to the car and then opened her arms to catch the two children racing back to her.
Even at just four and six, Giovanni and Anna were and tall and slim with the same mahogany colored eyes and rich black hair of their father. But that is where the similarity ended. Grace’s children were sweet-tempered and affectionate like their mother.
“Nanny my friend wants me!” Giovanni fidgeted impatiently as he waited to hear why he’d been summoned away from his game.
“There’s a cold breeze picking up, you need to have your jackets on.” Julia dawdled at helping each of the children into their wind breakers, intending to keep them close to her just until the mysterious car had passed. Before she could finish zipping up Anna’s jacket she heard Erica gasp and looked up in time to see a face and two hands pressed against the car’s side window.
“That’s Mommy!” Giovanni yelled.
Julia grabbed his arm before he could race across the field to the slow moving car. “No, Gio, remember? Your momma is away visiting her sick mother. Your Daddy told you that just this morning.” She couldn’t tear her eyes away from the car and when it started swerving on the road and then sped off at break neck speed she could no longer ignore the niggling fear that Mr. Carrebreu’s story had been a lie.
“Could you see the license plate? I couldn’t tell who was in the back of that car, but I don’t think the lady was happy to be there,” Erica said before whistling for her own two charges to return to her side. “Too freakin’ creepy out here for me today, I think I’ll take my munchkins home for an afternoon in front of the TV.”
As loath as she was to return to the cold, rambling Carrebreu home, Julia agreed with her friend. She led the children back toward the house, her mind racing with images of her time as their nanny and the odd things she’d observed. Julia watched the children sadly climb the steps to the front door, disappointment at losing their park time evident even from behind them. For the sake of her young charges, she cleared her mind of gloomy thoughts.
“Who wants to make popcorn balls and watch Dumbo?” She called over her shoulder as she took the stairs two at a time to reach the door before the two children now squealing with laughter.
It wasn’t until bedtime that Julia again remembered the odd car at the park. Anna and Giovanni were both weepy and missing their mother as they said their prayers and she tucked them into their little beds. She found it odd that Mrs. Carrebreu hadn’t even called the children to wish them goodnight. Once both kids were breathing with the steady cadence of deep sleep, Julia slipped from the room and made her way through the silent house to the kitchen. In the center drawer of the cook’s desk, beside the wall-hung phone, she knew there was a list of important numbers. Doctors, dentists and family. She’d used the list to contact Grace’s mother just months before when her employers were away on a business trip. Julia fidgeted on the cold marble floors as she dialed the number and listened to the phone ringing.
“I’m sorry, I must have dialed the wrong number ...” Julia stammered.
“Who is the party you are trying to reach?”
“Elinore, Elinore Branigan?”
“And your name?”
“Julia, I’m Mrs. Branigan’s daughter’s nanny.” Julia felt her stomach turn with anxiety at this unexpected interrogation.
“Yes, Julia, you are on the authorized list. Mrs. Branigan has left for her annual pilgrimage to the holy lands; she’s expected to return in time for the Christmas Holidays. You may leave her a message or call back at that time.”
Julia slammed the phone receiver back on its base, fear gnawing at her conscious like a starving rat. Mr. Carrebreu had lied. Grace’s mother was out of the country. So where was Grace? And what would she tell the children? Before she could fully wrap her mind around these two questions she was startled by the sound of a slamming door. Cook ambled into the kitchen, hair in old fashioned curlers, her ample body swathed in a tent sized flannel nightgown.
“What has you up Miss Julia? Do you need a snack? Some warm milk maybe?”
Julia looked into the kindly face of the ancient old cook and told her everything that happened that day from the park up to the phone call to Grace’s mother. “I just don’t know what to do,” she said.
Cook stared at the counter top and sighed. “The missus gave me instructions several years ago for just this kind of instance.” She heaved herself off the stool she’d sat on to hear Julia’s story and waddled to the desk. Cook lifted out the center drawer and pulled up a discreetly hinged flap of wood revealing a shallow drawer beneath. Inside this cavity, a single piece of paper inscribed with the name “Mike” and a phone number. (11)
As he sat in the SICU waiting room at St. Barts, fluctuating between livid anger and cynical hope that his childhood goomba, Jack Creighton, would come out of this intact, Michael Calcatera was mulling over the events of the past few hours.
I’m sitting in the office discussing the situation in Pakistan with the team, wondering where the hell Seb is, and my cell trembles in my right hand pants’ pocket: “Mike, Jack. Been hit. Seb dead. Hurry”. Click. Buzzzzzz.
I’m like, WTF! Jack? Not my Jack. “Hold on a sec. guys, I’ve got to check something out on this call.” Hitting recall, he sees Jack’s home number comes up. He thinks to himself, “Damn it, I just talked to him last night. He’d just put that brat, Grace, to bed, and said we could put our plan into action.”
Closing his cell, he looks at his team and says, “Folks, I’ve got an emergency that needs my attention right now. We’ll continue this discussion tomorrow. Tim, call the chief and tell him to call me in fifteen on my secure phone. Thanks.”
Tim says, “Do you want one of us to go with you Mike?”
“No, I think for now it's best if I check this out alone.”
“Is this a dangerous situation?”
“I don’t think so, at least not now.”
Taking the elevator to the company garage in the basement level, Mike checks his Glock and inserts a full clip. “Jack, Jack, Jack, what have you gotten us into now.” He thinks.
Mike goes to the office and signs out a black Honda, gets the keys from the attendant and walks over to bay 2L and gets in the car.
He knows this city like the back of his hand. Fast, but not reckless, Mike Calcatera, weaves his way through traffic to his friend’s apartment.
His secure company phone vibrates and he answers by Bluetooth. “Godfather here.” “Godfather, Endpoint here, what’s the story?”
“Received message; councilor may be erased. Will check shortly and will call you with details.”
Mike ends the call and thinks now about the e-mail he’d received from Seb last night.
Jacky boy is doe-eye over his Gracie again, or, still, I guess is the better word. Apparently she’s left that overdressed camel driver in French tweeds. We’ll have to confirm, but if it’s true we can make Carrerbreu’s file active and move quickly to get him to the house in Croatia.
Talk more at conference tomorrow PM.
‘All for one and one for all,’
He thinks: That was Seb, neat and tidy. Move quick and efficiently, no frills, straight to business. He didn’t like Grace but he disliked her husband even more. He said that, that is why he recruited me to the agency 12 years ago. He said we’d keep me on the force as a cover, but he needed my head to understand how the criminal mind worked.” I was offended at first, but he said that he meant no offense, only that he admired my way of seeing the situation clearly and without too much emotion.
I’ve got plenty of emotion now, but Seb’s right, I do see right to the heart of most situations. Ah, here we are, and look at that, a parking place: "What do you mean officer? What fire hydrant? Here let me show you some ID. Heh heh, everybody has privileges according to their job."
Climbing the fourteen steps to the door of Jack’s brownstone was like climbing Everest. He hurried as fast as his fifty pound overweight frame would allow him. Out of breath, he reached the door and using the spare key Jack had given to him years ago, he unlocked the door. Simultaneously opening the door, drawing the Glock from his belt holster and flicking off the safety, he stepped into the foyer. The archway to the living room was nine steps from the door, and on the left. Back to the wall, he peeked around the edge of the archway and scanned the room. Seb was lying on the cream colored couch, head askew against the light colored matching pillow, small dark spot, dead center of the forehead and a large blot of crimson/maroon staining the pillow. There, on the floor between the couch and the coffee table, lay Jack, unconscious but chest moving shallowly.
Listening for any sound he sidled into the room, Glock ready. There didn’t appear to be anyone else present. Moving straight to Jack’s side, Mike knelt down and put his fingers on the nearside of Jack’s neck over the carotid artery. He could feel a light thready and very rapid pulsation. Putting his cheek against Jack’s nose he could feel warm air touch his skin. He gently shook Jack by the shoulder and called his name. No response. Standing up and moving toward Seb, he took out his cell and dialed 911. He proceeded to follow the identical evaluation of his mentor but it was quickly evident that Seb had left the building.
The 911 operator answered and Mike directed her to send an ambulance to Jack’s address.
Taking out his secure cell he quick-dialed the chief. At the same time he continued to search the apartment. In the bedroom he spotted a large red woman’s handbag. As he combed through the contents, the chief answered. After identifing each other by code, Mike said, "Councilor erased. Important documents found to support our case. I’ll be in your office in one half hour." (12)
“You have no idea who Bastian is, do you?” Asia said with a smirk, as she walked across the room and poured herself a drink. Grace said nothing, as her gaze quickly shifted from the tall statuesque beauty, who obviously knew her husband intimately, to the gun still sitting on the table in the adjoining room. Asia swirled her drink and met Grace’s gaze, as the ice tinkled annoyingly against the side of the glass.
“You think you’re safe, because you’re the mother of his children, but you’re nothing but a damn fool! I don’t even know why ...” Grace cut her off with an astonished laugh and shook her head in disbelief, “Safe ... did you say safe!? I haven’t felt safe in years, and you’ve got the gall to come off like you know me, or anything about me?” Asia pounced; her face so close that the alcohol on her breath stung Grace’s eyes. She locked her arms on either side of Grace and dug her nails into the back of the couch.
“I know you’re what’s keeping us from being together; you and those goddamn brats of yours!” Asia spat, with venom in her voice. At the mention of her children, a rush of adrenaline shot through Grace and she shoved Asia with every ounce of energy, sending her stumbling backward and crashing through the glass top table that sat in the center of the room.
Grace stood, frozen in shock and fear, adrenaline still pumping and nausea welling deep inside, as Asia’s lifeless eyes stared straight ahead and a trickle of blood oozed from her mouth. Grace hesitated only briefly, before running into the other room, grabbing the gun and making a quick sweep of the house, before she picked up the phone and ... (13)
Who would she call? Who could she call? Jack was probably dead by now. If she tried to contact her children it could mean a death sentence to them. Mike. She had to contact Mike. She’d left a number with cook, and she didn’t have it with her. Her bag with her address book was at Jeff’s place.
She eased her back against the wall and keeping the gun in front of her, twisted into the front hall. She moved to the door and unlatched it. She was in a panic. Frantic movements took only moments but felt like hours. Flinging the door open, she stepped out onto the porch and surveyed the land. There was a Mercedes across the lawn.
Keeping low, she moved close to the hedges and then across to the first tree. No one seemed to notice her. There had to be a gardener or staff on the premises.
From the tree it was a low run to the Mercedes. Mercifully unlocked she dove into the front seat and grabbed for the ignition. No keys. She couldn’t be lucky. She placed the gun in the passenger seat and dove under the steering wheel. She only had to lift the drivers side floor mat to find the spare.
Key in ignition, turn. Engine started.
Now what? Which way out of here?
She pulled onto the driveway and followed it to the main road, about fifty feet. Looking in the rear view mirror she realized in horror that Asia had only been knocked out by the fall.
“Bloody hell!” she said as she hit the gas. The rear window of the Mercedes was blown out by an unheard gun shot.
“Damnit, damnit, damnit,” she said through thinly pressed lips as she drove down the dusty road at break neck speeds.
It was three long dark dusty miles before she came upon the ancient Sunoco station with the last known roadside telephone stand.
She pulled in and leaped from the car. She had no change.
Removing the receiver, she forced herself to start breathing normally, taking in great gulps of air to calm her voice.
She hit Operator.
“I need to make a collect call, person to person.”
“Please give me the number.”
She did, and waited as she forced herself to calm down.
“There is a collect call from Grace to Cook. Will you accept the charges?”
“Wait one moment.”
There were some hushed movements. Then cook came on the line.
“This is cook. I will accept the charges.”
“Don’t say my name. This is a dire emergency Cook. Please don’t let on.”
“This is cook. May I help you?”
“There are two things I need you to do. I need you to give me Mike's phone number. You have it. I gave it to you years ago.”
“He has already been called.”
“Good. But I need that number, I’ve lost my bag.”
Cook retrieved the number and Grace wrote it on the back of her hand.
“Second. You must tell the nanny to get the children out of that house. Tell her to take them somewhere safe and do it now.”
“Where would you like to have that package sent?” replied the cook.
“Tell her to use her own discretion. Tell her I will call her in a few days on her cell to find her and my babies.”
“I will take care of it.”
“Anything else, sir?”
“Is Sebastian there now?”
“Yes, sir? Will there be anything else, sir?”
“Tell Julia to be careful, but please leave.”
“Yes, sir. Good night, sir.”
Hanging up the phone, Grace rested her forehead against it and prayed, “Please God. Please God.”
Then she lifted the receiver and dialed the operator.
“I need to make a collect call to this number, person to person. My name is Grace. I wish to speak to Mike.” (14)
The phone line burred softly as Grace waited for the call to connect. Time seemed to ooze past her like liquid seeping from an overturned bottle. The seconds involved in each soft burr seemed to roll further and gather themselves into minutes. “Come on, come on.”
The other end picked up.
“Collect call from Grace to Mike, will you accept?”
Grace’s mind went into hyper-drive. The last time she’d spoken to Mike had been the day after she’d told Jack and Seb about her unexpected marriage. Marry in haste, repent at leisure – oh how the words rang around her head – twelve damn long years of repentance. She remembered Mike’s dark look at her words; he hadn’t said anything. He’d just looked from her down to his coffee cup and back at her, a tight controlled expression on his face, lips pursed, dark eyebrows pulled together. He’d pulled a sip of Americano into him and clicked for the check. She’d been so full of her own delight she’d not really considered the unspoken questions in his face or the shadow that seemed to flit across his face. Funny how hindsight allowed pieces to click into place so long afterwards, another more rational part of her mind thought. She began to speak into the receiver, a stutter of words.
Mike cut across her: “Don’t say anything, Grace. You’re in something a lot bigger than you have any idea. We need to get you somewhere safe. We’ll get a lock on your position in a few seconds: then you’ll need to hide.”
Grace gasped at his coldness. “But... my babies?”
“Grace, you need to understand – you’re the key. If we lose you, we lose the lot. The children too.”
Grace reeled for a second as images from the park swam through her head; Anna and Giovanni with Julia, their smiling faces. What if they were harmed? She desperately hoped that Cook and Julia were able to act on her garbled message. “Okay Mike. What do I...” The line clicked dead. (15)
The telephone jangled harshly, making Julia start. She snatched the ornate receiver from its golden cradle.
“Get out of that house. Get out now. Do not wait to collect anything. Take the children and go!” A male voice, unfamiliar.
“Who is this? What do you mean.” Julia’s voice was shrill, cracking on the edge of a scream.
“No time to explain ... get the children and get out of the house. Mr C is coming home and he’s not happy!”
The phone went dead. Julia stared into the receiver as if the face of the caller would be etched there. Then she dropped it and ran out into the hall.
“Children!” she called as she sprinted up the stairs. “Children, we’ve just had a call. We’re going on an adventure!”
Anna and Giovanni tumbled out of their rooms, eyes bright, excited grins on their faces.
“An adventure?” Giovanni was impressed. Anna looked puzzled but followed her brother and her beloved Julia.
“Yes but it’s a bit of a mystery too! I can’t tell you where we’re going!” Julia pushed the children’s arms into their coat sleeves as she spoke. “Now, which car shall we take?”
“The Discovery!” Giovanni yelled. “Then we can go in the jungle!”
“The Discovery it is!” Julia’s voice was brittle, her smile stretched but the kids seemed unaware. They clambered into the vehicle, Julia’s fingers trembled as she fumbled at the fastenings of the children’s car seats.
Tyres scrunched on gravel. Julia froze. Someone had arrived. Car doors slammed and she heard footsteps approaching the front door of the house. If she waited until they were inside then she would have a head start. She looked back at the kids, eyes like full moons. She put her fingers to her lips.
The front door slammed. Julia clicked the remote for the garage doors. The huge sheet of metal slowly began to gate its way up. Too noisy. Too slow. Heart thundering, Julia slammed her foot on the gas. The engine screamed, filling the garage with fumes. In her rear view mirror, Julia saw the adjoining door swing open. Armand’s face glowed red in the rear lamps before being smothered by the exhaust fumes.
“Dammit!” Julia screamed and let the landrover go.
The doors were half open as the car ploughed into them, ripping the thin metal like tissue and cracking the screen. A dark figure leapt in front of them only to roll across the bonnet.
Julia gunned the engine, risking a glance in the rear view mirror. Exhaust fumes boiled from the wrecked garage door, Armand staggered out firing a wayward shot into the night. Julia allowed herself a small grin and hammered her foot to the floor.
“Are you allowed to do that to the garage, Julia?” Giovanni grinned.
“You’re not allowed to say dammit,” Anna pouted. (16)
Julia silently whispered a prayer, which she does whenever she is nervous but doesn't quite admit to it in public. Giovanni and Anna had heard the prayer before in elementary school and they joined in, assuming that's what people do before starting an adventure. They had never been on a real adventure before and were all too excited. Julia made a steep turn, got the SUV back on track and raced, as she had never done before.
Armand rose to his feet in amazement. Blood oozed out from a cut on his forehead. He tried to gain strength and aimed his modern combat pistol at the landrover, which was fast disappearing into the green fields. As Julia sped away she saw Sebastian stare at her from the corner of her eye. And the image of her angry master made her accelerate faster than ever.
No sooner did the red SUV disappear Sebastian rushed indoors to find the children. He wasn't sure if Julia had taken them with her. Armand followed, baffled and deep in thought. He was only thinking about Grace. If she was hiding in the car and went along with the children it was bad news for them. But optimistic and scheming as Armand was, he presumed that the mother had not met her calves yet and the longer they stayed apart, the easier it would be to slaughter them.
Sebastian called the cops and made a complaint about his missing children. He was too tired to talk much. He settled in an antique rocking chair, which Grace had picked up from an auction soon after they were married. Armand made two drinks and both remained silent for a while.
Julia didn't know where to go. She was sure Sebastian would have called the cops by now or sent his armed men on their trail. She turned around and looked at the kids. They were enjoying a packet of chocolate chip cookies. She felt her stomach growl. She wondered how they got that and then noticed Anna's adventure bag, which she always kept ready in case of unplanned trips. They are finally on a real adventure, she thought silently.
Then, suddenly, she remembered a trait of her favorite childhood fictional character: Miss Marple. She immediately saw an escape plan form before her. She took out a railway guide from the cabinet of the SUV. She was looking at Pennsylvania Railway Station, which was 5 kilometers away. She planned a trip to Baltimore but she knew she would be off with the kids mid-way and board another train to Boston. That way it would take Sebastian long enough to trace them. Shuffling was the key, she thought. That was her lifeline. She grabbed it as she knew it would keep the chase alive.
Relaxed, she turned and looked at the kids. "Having fun?"
"Yes Nanny! This adventure is going to be the best ever!" they yelled back.
Julia hoped (and prayed) so too.
Sebastian was staring at the ceiling rocking to and fro on his chair. He was thinking about Grace. Asia. The kids. He jumped with a start and rushed into his office. Seeing him disturbed, Armand followed. Sebastian frantically searched for the leather box which he had caught Grace with recently. He checked the draws, his file cabinet and the sleek sliding cupboard. It was nowhere to be found. Then he looked on his side desk, which was nothing but a heap of sheets. He finally found it buried under a few plastic files and CDs. Relieved, he opened it. He went through all the papers that were neatly sealed and looked "important". He remembered how Grace was curiously examining them. But his eyes began searching again. He rubbed his temples and scanned the papers with haste and impatience. Armand could see his eyes go cold with anger.
"The Radcliffe deed. It's gone!" he exclaimed. (17)
They got off the train in Boston. It was late afternoon and the children were out on their feet. They’d been travelling for hours and any sense of adventure had long since palled.
Julia picked up some milk and the makings of some sandwiches and then booked them all into a cheap and cheerful motel. She made the kids something to eat and then they all lay down.
Once Julia was sure the two exhausted children were sleeping soundly she flicked the remote for the battered TV on the high shelf in the corner of the room and avidly scanned all the news channels for any mention of their disappearance, or indeed a mention of anything to do with Sebastian Carrebreu.
There was no mention of either. Julia wasn’t sure what this meant, and she was too tired to try and figure it out.
She was woken early the next morning by the two youngsters complaints of hunger and Anna’s loud protests about the absence of her woolly monkey.
Julia realised just how caught up they must have been in the events of the previous day for little Anna to only now miss her beat-up comforter.
She washed the kids faces and cheered them up with promise of pancakes with maple syrup for breakfast. She paid the bored motel receptionist in cash from the wad of notes that Cook had pushed into her hand as they’d run from the house.
Then she steered the boy and girl towards the nearest diner where they both wolfed down a huge breakfast. After that she trawled them round a thrift shop buying a change of clothes for them all and a plastic bag to pack them in. And for once she was grateful at how easy it was to blend back into the invisible world of the have-nots.
Then she marched them all off to the bus station. They’d head for her Grandma’s old cabin up in New Hampshire. It was wasn’t much, but it was remote enough to keep the kids safe until she could figure out what the hell was going on. (18)
Grace put down the phone and slowly slumped down to the ground. All strength to fight crept out of her and her thoughts wandered in the dark areas of her mind where she was always afraid to go. Why? she cursed herself. Why had she even thought that she could get way from it all and make a new life? All it had led to was death and pain.
Her dearest friends were dead.
Her children were in danger.
Her own life was doomed and the woman who had made her life hell was out there waiting for a chance to put a bullet through her head.
The stampede of thoughts trampled through Grace’s fatigued mind and something inside her snapped like a dry branch.
“Enough,” said the voice in her head.
“En-fuckin-ough.” The word struck like a hammer driving the nail of a decision deep in her head. Grace wiped a tear from her eye with her palm and smeared dust on her cheek; she had not even realized that she was crying.
“Not any more,” she said to herself.
She got up and walked to the Mercedes sitting idly by the side of the road. The gun sat in the passenger seat like a waiting pet; Grace picked it up and checked the clip. It was full. She re-inserted the clip and clicked off the safety. The time for safety is gone, she thought.
Then Grace reversed the car and drove back three miles to the place she had just run away from. As she neared the mansion she slammed her hand down on the horn and the car became a raging, raving beast headed for the mansion.
As Grace had expected, Asia came running to the porch looking for the source of the noise. Before Asia could raise her gun, Grace gunned the accelerator and drove straight into her. The car slammed into the wall of the porch, with Asia’s lower body sandwiched between the wall and the hood of the car. The airbag deployed and it took Grace a few seconds to get out of the wreck of the vehicle. Asia lay slumped on top of the car, her breath shallow and in gasps. A splatter of blood was smeared on the wall where she was pinned. Grace picked her head up by her hair and saw that life still swam in her eyes, but so did the hate and the cruelty.
Asia took a haggard breath and spat out the word “bitch” at Grace.
Grace sighed, closed her eyes, shoved the muzzle of the gun in Asia’s mouth and pulled the trigger.
As the report of the gunshot echoed through the empty mansion, the phone in Asia’s pocket began to ring. Grace pulled it out and saw the screen showing the name ‘Seb’. She smiled and pressed answer. (19)
"Grace you've made a huge mistake ... and unless we go back in time to undo this, there'll be big problems."
" I'm sorry ... who is this?"
" Asia was meant to live. In the future, a couple of decades from now, she's a key figure in Chinese politics. She negotiates a peace agreement between China and America at the crucial point of nuclear war."
" Who are you? You're not Sebastian."
" You don't know me. It doesn't matter. What matters is that you trust me. I'm using this phone to contact you from the year 2023. Time tremors have been registered ever since a certain watch got broken."
"You mean the gift from Sebastian?"
"That was no watch. It was an Electromagnetic Geostatic Time Cookie, or E.G.T.C, if you like. And the Radcliffe Deed ... that important peice of paper is none other than the vital Peace Settlement, sent from Beijing to Washington ... ooh, in approximately two hours from where I am now."
"But why is it here?"
"Because Jack changed history."
"Jack is a time traveller who wanted to settle down. With you! But he didn't realise the significance of what he'd done. I, we, Sebastian, tried to explain - but he carried on. Cut himself off. Refused to believe that his actions would set up a chain of events that would subtly change the course of the world. The E.G.T.C was supposed to be a sort of monitoring or warning device.
"Should Jack mess up big time it would send frequencies that would enable us to track him and bring him back. As you know, the device was broken. It meant we couldn't keep tabs ... and ensuing events became increasingly violent and bizarre. And it will get worse. Grace. You've got to help us. You must come back with us to the year before you met Jack. Because it's important that you don't meet him. Ever.
"Grace, if you don't, then in a few years time this planet will be nothing but a lifeless radioactive ball of dust. Grace ... GRACE. Are you still there?" (20)
Grace started awake and realized she had been dreaming. Drained by the adreneline overload of this maddening day, she had collapsed in a heap at the roadside phone when Mike hung up on her.
She realized she couldn't stay here. Bastian might find her on the side of the road, not that far from the cottage where he'd left her. Grace was shaking when she slid into the driver's seat of the Mercedes and buckled up. Now she needed to sort out what had happened, what was real, what was not, and most of all, what to do next.
The need for action, the need to do something, anything, must have propelled Grace into that realistic dream of avenging herself against Asia. Where had that person come from, the one who thought to check the clip of a gun? Had she been watching too much television? Grace was afraid to trust her own thinking, but who else did she have?
Starting the engine, she drove off in the direction away from the cottage, trying at the same time to use the car's navigation system to figure out how to fly under the radar. She needed to make some decisions quickly before Bastian's henchmen figured out she had this car and found a way to use the car's own system to track her.
As she approached the city, she saw a Starbucks and decided coffee would give her the jolt she needed. And then she remembered she had no money, no credit cards, no way to do the necessary things for survival. Who could she call?
When she glanced into her rearview mirror, she realized that car had been following her for some time now and decided to make a few turns to get rid of it. When she turned left at an intersection, so did the other vehicle. When she turned left again, the car followed suit. Panic began to well up in her, constricting her throat. When she slowed down, the car zipped around her ... and then stopped so suddenly she had to slam on her brakes.
The man who jumped out of the car with his hands in the air looked familiar. Had she seen him with Bastian? Grace was terrified.
The man yelled, "Grace! It's okay!"
She had slammed the car into reverse and was starting to back up when he shouted, "Grace, it's me! It's Mike." And she started crying with relief as she recognized his face.
* * *
They abandoned the Mercedes behind a grocery store so that it was not visible from the road, and Mike was questioning Grace about everything that she had experienced since the day before. When she told him about ramming Asia against the wall and shoving the muzzle into her mouth to kill her, he looked at her gravely.
"That didn't happen," he said.
She began to doubt her sanity. "Did I dream it, as I thought earlier?"
"I don't know, but you didn't return to the cottage, so you didn't kill Asia. Unless she bled to death from the cuts sustained when the glass top of the table shattered," he said.
"I'm afraid to tell you about another phone call," she whispered, and he turned to look at her.
"What phone call?"
"I thought it was Bastian. The name 'Seb' showed up in the caller I.D."
"You're saying he called you?"
"No, he was calling Asia. The phone was ringing in her pocket, and I answered it."
"After you killed her?" Mike asked.
"Yes," Grace said tentatively, almost whispering.
"But that didn't happen," he reminded her gently. "If you didn't kill her, then you weren't there to answer her cell phone."
"What's happening?" Grace wailed softly. "Am I going crazy?"
"You are stressed out," he responded.
They drove several miles in silence, but he could see that Grace was beside herself. He knew he'd have to find a safe place to revive her physically and mentally, with coffee and some information. (21)
Authors So Far:
(1) Seamus at Shameless Words.
(2) Kay at As It Happens.
(3) Wanderlust Scarlett at from the shores of introspect and retrospect.
(4) Kate at Inner Minx.
(5) Absolute Vanilla at Absolute Vanilla... (&Atyllah).
(6) Bonnie at Words From A Wordsmith
(7) Rob at Image & Verse Too
(8) Sognatrice at Bleeding Espresso.
(9) The Bluest Butterfly at A Virtual Hobby Store And Coffee Shop.
(10) Jamaican Dawta at Life, Unscripted, On The Rock.
(11) Kat at Kat's Random Thoughts.
(12) Rel at Under the Microscope.
(13) Jill at Wordsmith Extraordinaire.
(14) Roberta at Turn the Page
(15) Cailleach at Barbara's Bleeuugh
(16) Jon at Writing In A Vacuum
(17) Pure Sunshine at Virtual Crossroads
(18) Apprentice at My Gap Year
(19) Nothingman at A Story A Day.
(20) Meloney at Meloney Lemon.
(21) Bonnie at Words From A Wordsmith
Next Nominated Writer:
(yet to be confirmed)
Update on those who have said "pass" (to avoid repeat nominations):
- Shelli at Shelli's Sentiments
- Pearl at Humanyms
- Canterbury Soul at Doors Left Open
- Vesper at Chick With A Quill
- Loretta at Failed Painter
- Catherine at Still Standing On Her Head
- Debi at Debi Alper
- Colleen at Loose Leaf Notes
- Dewey at The Hidden Side of a Leaf (says she would like a go later, though)
- Verilion at A Wanderer In Paris
- Maht at The Moon Topples
- Wilf at Wilf's World
The Basic Rules:
* I have taken the above photo as inspiration for an opening section. We can all make suggestions for a title when it's finished, with a ballot for the favourite.
* The last person to add to the story must nominate another member in the circle to come up with the next section. That person will then nominate another member to add to that. And so on.
* There is no limit on how much can be added, but it has to be within reason. Everyone writes what they feel is right and what takes the story on.
* Everyone is free to develop the story as they see fit - I trust no one will carry out any deliberate sabotage, such as a sudden shift to the absurd.
* There will be no time limit for coming up with the added piece, but everyone should bear in mind that we will all be waiting for the new section. Please be reasonable.
* If members are not able to participate at the time they are nominated, they have the right to decline and nominate someone else in the circle. To save time it might be a good idea for people to check ahead a little, to see if the person they want to nominate is around/able to take part.
* When a member's turn comes around they are invited to write up a post on their blog with the photo and their added piece, linking to this page at the same time. I will constantly update the full story here.
* Everyone is encouraged to promote this as much as they can on their blogs. You are welcome to regularly publish the story each time it is updated, and encourage debate on how it is turning out.
* A number at the end of each new section will identify who the author is.
* Please note that I will be the silent editor. I will correct any obvious typos and make slight changes to format and punctuation when needed, for clarity. I won't butcher though and promise that I will try to leave stuff essentially as it is. You have the right to protest against any edits you feel strongly about, by email.