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At the Stroke of Madness
By Alex Kava
Thorndike Press Copyright © 2003 Alex Kava
All right reserved.
Chapter One Saturday, September 13 Meriden, Connecticut
It was almost midnight, and yet Joan Begley continued to wait.
She tapped her fingernails on the steering wheel and watched for headlights in her rearview mirror. She tried to ignore the streaks of lightning in the distance, telling herself the approaching storm was headed in the other direction. Occasionally, her eyes darted across the front windshield. She barely noticed the spectacular view of city lights below, more interested in getting a glimpse in the side mirrors, as if she could catch something the rearview mirror may have missed.
"Objects may be closer than they appear."
The print on the passenger-side mirror made her smile. Smile and shiver at the same time. Not like she could see anything in this blasted darkness. Probably not until it was right on top of her car.
"Oh, that's good, Joan," she admonished herself.
"Freak yourself out." She needed to think positively. She needed to keep a positive attitude. What good were all her sessions with Dr. Patterson if she threw out everything she had learned so easily?
What was taking him so long? Maybe he had gotten here earlier and had given up on her. After all, she was ten minutes late. Not intentionally. He'd forgotten to mention the fork in the road, rightbefore the final climb to the top. It had taken her on an unexpected detour. It was bad enough that it was pitch dark up here, a canopy of tree branches overhead so thick even the moonlight couldn't penetrate it. What moonlight was left. The thunderheads would soon block out, or rather they would replace, the moonlight with what promised to be a hell of a lightning show.
God, she hated thunderstorms. She could feel the electricity in the air. Could almost taste it, metallic and annoying, like leaving the dentist with a fresh filling. And it only added to her anxiety. It pricked at her nerves like a reminder that she shouldn't be here. That maybe she shouldn't be doing this ... that she shouldn't be doing this, again.
Those stupid, distracting thunderclouds had even caused her to lose her sense of direction. Or at least that's what she was blaming, though she knew full well all it took was getting into a rent-a-car. As soon as she closed the car door her ability to tell direction flew right out the window. It didn't help matters that all these Connecticut cities were made up of streets that ran every which way except at right angles or in straight lines. She had gotten lost plenty of times in the last several days. Then tonight, on the entire trip up here, she kept taking wrong turns, despite telling herself over and over that she would not, could not, get lost again. Yet, if it hadn't been for the old man and his dog, she would have been driving around in circles, looking for the West Peak.
"Walnut hunting," he had told her, and she hadn't thought anything of it at the time, because she was too anxious, too preoccupied. Now, as she waited, she remembered that he wasn't carrying a bag or bucket or sack. Just a flashlight. Who went walnut hunting in the middle of the night? Odd. Yes, there had been something quite odd about the man. A lost, faraway look in his eyes, and yet he didn't hesitate in giving her animated directions to the top of this wind-howling, branch-creaking, shadowy ridge.
Why in the world had she come?
She grabbed her cell phone and punched in the number from memory, crossing her fingers, only to be disappointed when the voice-messaging service picked up after the second ring. "You've reached Dr. Gwen Patterson. Please leave your name and phone number and I'll get back to you as soon as possible."
"As soon as possible might be too late," Joan said in place of a greeting, then laughed, regretting the words because Dr. P. would try to read between the lines. But then wasn't that what she was paying her the big bucks for? "Hey, Dr. P., yes, it's me again. Sorry to be such a pain in the ass. But you were right. I'm doing it again. So no, I guess I haven't learned my lesson, because here I am in the middle of the night, sitting in my dark car and waiting for ... yeah, you guessed it, a man. Actually Sonny is different. Remember I told you about him in my e-mail? We've been getting together to talk, just talk. At least so far. He really does seem like a nice guy. Definitely not my type, right? Not like I'm a good judge of character when it comes to men. For all I know he could be an ax murderer, huh?" Another forced laugh. "Look, I was just hoping. I don't know. Maybe I was hoping you would talk me out of this. Save me from ... oh, you know ... Save me from myself, like you always do. Who knows, maybe he won't even show up. Anyway, I'll see you Monday morning for our usual rendezvous. You can yell at me then. Okay?"
She hung up before the string of prerecorded options, one of which would have allowed her to review her message, revise it or even delete it. She didn't want to be faced with any more choices, not tonight. She was sick and tired of making decisions. That's all she had done the last few days: The Serenity Package or the Deluxe-in-case-you're-feeling-guilty Premium Package? White roses or white lilies? The walnut casket with brass trim or the mahogany with silk lining?
Good heavens! Who would have thought there were so many stupid decisions involved in burying someone?
Joan tossed the phone into her bag. She drew her fingers through her thick blond hair, batted impatiently at damp strands to push them off her forehead. She glanced in the rearview mirror, turning on the overhead light to get a look at her dark roots. She needed to take care of those soon. Being a blonde sure took a lot of work.
Excerpted from At the Stroke of Madness by Alex Kava Copyright © 2003 by Alex Kava. Excerpted by permission.
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