Summer of 2006, somewhere in the Middle East:
“Is that the best we can get?”
“I believe so. With everything you’re accused of, you could easily be looking at life behind
Colonel Mortimer Blake stood up from his chair, turning away from the man seated in front of him; he clasped his hands behind his back as he faced the wall. At six-foot-three, dressed in his military fatigues, with broad shoulders and closely-cropped hair, he was an imposing figure. He looked more like someone planning a major battle than a man facing a court-martial for a laundry-list of serious crimes.
“And you’re confident they’ll keep to their end of the deal?”
“Well, let’s just say I’ve taken steps to ensure that they will.”
A perverse smile played across the colonel’s face. He was glad he had taken the advice of his business partners and requested Thomas Fleming as his lawyer. It had cost him close to a quarter of a million dollars personally – and that didn’t include the legal fees, which were all being picked up by his partners in the States, but getting a life sentence reduced to just ten years would be worth every penny. His smile grew slightly broader as he wondered just who had been bribed, threatened, or worse to make it happen.
But the smile faded as he recalled five names on the witness list. If it hadn’t been for those idealistic do-gooders, he wouldn’t have been put in this predicament. Ten years… He’d be fifty-five when he got out. Taking a deep breath, he drew back his shoulders, setting his jaw in that determined fashion that the men who had served under him knew so well. He wouldn’t let this beat him. He would come back even stronger.
He turned around decisively, the smile returning to his face.
“Let’s not keep the good judge waiting, then.”
As he left the room to officially make his plea and receive his greatly reduced sentence, he consoled himself with one thought. Revenge, ten years in the planning, would be sweet, indeed.
* * * * *
June 1st, thirteen years later:
Jill’s phone vibrated in her pocket, startling her. She’d been people-watching again – an occupational hazard for an author. Quickly, she fished her phone out of her pocket and answered the call.
“Hey, Jill. Sorry I’m late. Got caught in traffic. I’ll be pulling up in about two minutes. What terminal are you at?”
“Oh, let me see. Hold on.”
She pulled up the notification message that the airline had sent her with the most recent flight information. Though she had flown into Kansas City International Airport numerous times, she used different airlines depending on who had the best price. It was a flip of the coin to know which terminal she would end up in when it was all said and done.
“Great. Make sure you’re standing outside. They hate it when you park for more than sixty seconds.”
“Sure. I’m headed out now.”
“See you soon. Bye.”
After ending the call, she stood up, slung her ever-present tote bag over her shoulder, grabbed the handle on her suitcase, and began heading for the exit door.
Jill and Karen had met years before, when Karen had been teaching a May-mester class at the college where Jill had worked before she’d become a full-time writer. Karen, a nurse who had formerly served in the army, had been teaching a seminar on field-related trauma. Jill had volunteered to help give an introductory tour of the campus to the visiting lecturers, and she and Karen had become fast friends. The two had kept in touch ever since. Karen stayed with Jill whenever she taught a class in the area, and Jill alternatively came out to visit Karen in Missouri.
It wasn’t long before she caught sight of Karen’s car coming up the road. She held up her hand and waved, catching her friend’s eye.
As Karen continued the slow march around the circular drive, Jill pondered how different she and Karen were. She was the taller of the two, with conservatively cut brown hair, an admittedly less than flattering dress style, and was certainly no beauty queen (at least when she compared herself to Karen). Karen, on the other hand, had stylishly cut, close-cropped platinum blond hair, an athletic build, and dazzling blue eyes. With her ever-present bright-red lipstick, she somehow always managed to look fashionably dressed even when she wore her hospital scrubs.
After Karen had pulled up and parked, the two greeted each other with a quick hug before loading Jill’s suitcase into the trunk and heading out again.
“It’s so good to see you!” Jill exclaimed.
“I know. How long has it been?”
“Almost nine months.”
“Wow. Time flies. So, what have you been up to? No more real-life murders I hope.”
“No, no, just boring writer stuff. Well, not boring to me, but, compared to a real-life murder investigation, it is.”
“Yeah, that was crazy. I bet you never thought in a million years you’d end up in the middle of a real murder like that.”
“I know, right? I’m just glad it’s over with. I’m much happier writing about murder than being involved in one.”
“Well, hopefully this trip will be much more relaxing than that one was.”
“Amen to that! How about you? What’s going on in your life?”
“Well, you know, just the usual. Working, writing the curriculum for a new class I’m teaching—which reminds me, I want you to read over some promotional materials I’ve put together on the new class while you’re here.”
“Sure. I’d love too. So... any new guy friends you want to tell me about?”
Karen’s face turned a light shade of pink at the question, and her brow furrowed momentarily. Jill detected a slight hint of nervous tension in her voice as she replied.
“Oh, you know me. I’m so busy with everything; I just don’t have the time.”
She was hiding something, but Jill wasn’t about to push the issue. She decided to change the subject instead.
“I can understand that. How about you tell me about this new class?”
* * * * *
It was close to 5 p.m. when guests began arriving for the welcome dinner that Karen had organized in Jill’s honor. Over the years, Jill had gotten to be friends with several of Karen’s neighbors, most of whom had served together in the military. They were always in and out of each other’s houses, going shopping together, going on a group hike or what-not. Most of them even worked at the same hospital. It was a distinct contrast to Jill’s rather cloistered life back home. Sometimes she was jealous of Karen, but after visiting her friend for a few days, she always felt glad to return home to her little hobbit-hole and resume work on her next book. It was just another one of the delightful contrasts that made their friendship work, she supposed.
Jill was admiring a painting in the den when the doorbell rang and Karen let in the first guest. She smiled as she turned to see Haley enter the room. Bubbly, with an infectious smile and long, brown hair, Haley instantly brightened any room she walked into.
“Hi, Jill!” the new arrival said as she came forward to give her a hug.
“It’s good to see you, Haley. Where’s Jake?”
“He’s off flying and couldn’t make it.”
Jake, Haley’s husband, was a pilot and often worked odd hours. The pair had met through their mutual relationship with Karen, with whom Haley worked at the hospital. Jake had been smitten as soon as they’d met. They’d started dating, and six months later, he had asked her to marry him.
“Well, I’m glad you could come.”
“Me, too. How have you been?”
“I’m well, thanks. Always busy with the next project, of course.”
Karen darted back into the kitchen to check on the food that was heating up in the oven while Haley and Jill caught up. It was just a few minutes before the doorbell rang again. Haley called into the kitchen to let Karen know she’d get the door, and then welcomed Colin and Saloam inside.
The two recent arrivals couldn’t have been more of a physical contrast. Colin, with his stocky-build, pale skin, and Irish-red hair, and Saloam, who was two inches taller than Colin – five with the heels – and whose high cheekbones and dagger-red lipstick highlighted her ebony skin.
So far as Jill knew, they weren’t a couple and their arrival at the same time was a coincidence. But, all the same, she made a mental note to ask Karen about their status later.
Saloam appeared to glide across the floor as she handed the dish she’d brought to Haley and then greeted Jill, the colorful, flowing pantsuit she wore making it seem that she was levitating instead of walking.
“You look beautiful, Saloam,” Jill remarked.
“Thank you! It’s good to see you, Jill,” Saloam said as she took Jill’s hands in hers. “How was your trip?”
“It was fine. Nothing to complain about.”
Jill was about to say hello to Colin when Karen came in and recruited him to help carry some of the food into the dining room. The meal that had been assembled was simple but smelled wonderful. There was a large bowl of green beans that had been sautéed in butter. They weren’t overcooked, which was just the way Jill liked them. There was pulled pork with a choice of Carolina Gold barbeque sauce or another un-labeled sauce that appeared to be home-made from the container it was in, and potato salad, along with some sort of cornbread dish that looked enticing.
Wine was poured all around as the meal began, and it wasn’t long before everyone started peppering Jill with questions about what she’d been doing since they had last met. She gave them the short version of her previous vacation adventure at Rendsburg Resort and found out about all of the latest news and gossip from everyone at the table.
They were half-way through dinner when Terry arrived. Karen had darted out when the doorbell had rung, and the pair returned to the dining room shortly afterward.
“Sorry I’m late, everyone. Got held up at work. Hi, Jill.”
“Hi, Terry. I’m glad you could make it.”
“I did bring a peace offering,” he said as he held up a rectangular package for everyone to see.
“Ooooh. Is that the cheesecake from Phillip’s Grocery?” Haley asked.
“The one and only,” he replied.
“Jill, this stuff will melt in your mouth,” Saloam added.
Once the cheesecake was served, Jill looked at the scene before her and smiled. A dinner party like this was a welcome departure from her normally reclusive lifestyle. Listening to the banter back and forth between the friends and knowing that she was some small part of this community gave her a contented feeling inside.
As the meal came to an end, Karen suggested they move to the more comfortable chairs in the den. After helping to carry some of the dishes back into the kitchen, Jill took the opportunity to go to the bathroom. On her way back down the hall, she heard Saloam talking to someone in one of the bedrooms. She sounded distressed. No one else was in the hallway, so Jill slowed down so she could hear the conversation.
“…and there it was on the doorstep. It completely freaked me out.”
“You really think it was him?” Karen asked.
“Who else do you know who would send a single red rose with a raven’s feather, and with that message?”
“I guess you’re right. Let me see the card again.”
“I’m scared, Kar. What if it’s really him? After all this time?”
“Have you told any of the others?”
“No. It happened this afternoon, right before the party.”
“Okay. I’ll text everyone when the party is over, and we’ll meet over at Colin’s house. If we do it here, Jill will probably overhear, and I would rather keep her out of it. I’m sure Colin won’t mind. We can talk it over then.”
“Okay. This is so messed up. I thought we had been so careful.”
“Look, we can do this. If it is him, and we stick together, we’ll be okay. Let’s get back to the party. And try not to worry about it, alright?”
Jill scurried back into the bathroom and quietly closed the door, thankful that the floor didn’t squeak and give her away. She counted to twenty before she came back out and made her way to the den with unanswered questions running through her mind.