A haunting novel of loss and revenge inspired by true events.
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Darkness Before Dawn
By Ace Collins
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2013 Ace Collins
All rights reserved.
When it first reached the inner most depths of her dreams, meg Richards thought the distant noise came from the alarm clock rousing her for another day of work at the hospital. As she struggled to rise and shake off her deep slumber, the ringing sound stopped. As it did, she fell back onto the bed. But a second later, like a determined mosquito, it came back for a second strike. This time, awake enough to separate dream from reality, she began to understand her cell phone demanded her attention. She didn't want to leave her dreams to answer it, and, if she had known who was waiting on the other end of the line, she wouldn't have. But she couldn't let phones ring; it wasn't in her nature. When a phone rang, her curiosity always won out over everything, including her need for sleep.
Awkwardly rolling out of bed, her feet finding the cool slats of the wooden floor, she blinked a half dozen times until she could finally focus on her clock. 2:32 a.m.!
Trying to shake the grogginess from her head, she moaned, "What could anyone want at this time of night?" Even as her heavy eyelids closed out the world, she halfway fell forward toward the sound.
"Steve," she mumbled looking over her shoulder to the other side of the bed, "who could be calling at this time of the night or morning or whatever it is?" Then it hit her. There could only be one answer. "Steve, I swear, if this is the hospital calling ..."
As she glanced over her shoulder, she momentarily froze. The far side of the bed was empty; the covers hadn't even been pulled back. What had happened to her husband? Hilldale's only a couple of hours away. He should have been home long ago. Ah, nothing to worry about, probably just got delayed by something unexpected on his job. Not the first time and wouldn't be the last time that had happened. Besides, with her bizarre schedule, she had no room to complain.
Like a boxer struggling to find his balance in the late rounds of a title fight, Meg unwrapped her lithe, five-foot-two inch frame from the sheet and bedspread and stumbled out of the bedroom. Eight short steps led into the small apartment's living room. Hurrying past the couch, she sprinted to an end table on the far side of the fourteen-by-twelve-foot room.
"I should keep the charger closer to the bed," she muttered as she searched for the lamp's switch. By the time its harsh light flooded the room, the phone had completed its sixth ring. On the seventh, the voice mail would make her short trek a complete waste of time, so she had to hurry. Finally, with a few more of the sleep-induced cobwebs shaken from her mind, Meg cleared her throat, picked up the iPhone, slid it on, and tapped accept.
"Hello?" She spit her one-word greeting with a perturbed and questioning tone. She knew who it had to be. After all, who else would call at this time of the night except the hospital wanting her to come in early again. And this was not a night she wanted to give up her sleep for rounds at Springfield Community. She'd done that far too much the past few months. This week alone she had pulled two double shifts and those had left her dead on her feet. It was time for them to hire a few more nurses, ones that could be depended upon, rather than overworking the staff they already had!
Surprisingly it wasn't her boss, Hospital Administrator John Willis. This was another voice. One she didn't know. Before she had time to answer the man's first simple question, he grew more specific and demanding. "Is this the home of Megan Richards?"
What in the world did this stranger want at this time of the night and how did he get her number? She wavered for a second, questioning if it was wise to share any personal information. She glanced over to her door and made sure it was locked before hesitantly replying. "Yes, this is Megan Richards. Who are you?"
"Mrs. Richards, this is Officer Roland Johnson with the state police. Is your husband's name Steven?"
His query froze her in her tracks. Not only couldn't she answer, she couldn't even breathe, much less move. It was as if a summer fog had invaded the living room and surrounded her in a haze so deep she could barely see. She stole a glance at the wedding photo hanging on the wall just a few feet away. As it came into focus, a chill raced down her spine and then a thousand random thoughts all flashed through her head. Each of those thoughts was crowding another one for space. Her throat grew dry and her knees weak as her brain tried to push out of the fog. Surprisingly, in a few short seconds her mind had driven the fog away and she was once more processing information. And as clarity set in, she sensed the call's meaning. Something had happened! That's why Steven hadn't come home.
She knew the routine. As a nurse, she had seen it play out a hundred times. There had to have been an accident. That's the only reason the police would call. But, no, that couldn't be it. She wouldn't let herself even consider that. It had to be something much more routine. It just had to be!
It suddenly felt as if an unseen hand had found her throat and was squeezing with more force each second. Finding the corner of the couch with her free hand, she slowly crumpled into a sitting position on the arm. Glancing back to the wedding photo, she transported to the moment Steve asked her to marry him. It was in the park, the moon had been full and there were more stars than she'd ever seen. She could now smell the trees and feel the wind. Only the man's distant voice coming from her phone kept her from staying in that "safe" place.
"Mrs. Richards ... are you still there ... Mrs. Richards?"
She knew that tone all too well. She'd heard doctors use it when sharing a bleak prognosis and pastors employ it when informing a person their son or daughter had just died. She had heard it so much she had a name for it—"dark music." Now that old familiar, stormy tune had been cued up for her. That man on the phone would soon hit the chord that shattered her world into a million pieces. He'd probably been practicing the words that went with the "dark music" for at least ten minutes. He'd likely said them over and over to make sure they stung as little as possible. What if she hung up the phone and cut the "dark music" off before the song began? After all, if she didn't hear the lyrics, the story they told wouldn't be real. Would it?
Her voice still muted, her eyes glued on the wedding portrait, she studied the good-looking groom. It came to her then, the picture was speaking a phrase he'd once said and it began to bounce off the walls. At first it was just one single voice whispering the five words, but in a matter of seconds it seemed as if a thousand different people were screaming that one line in unison.
'Til death do us part! 'Til death do us part! 'Til death do us part! 'Til death do us part!
She wanted to throw the phone against the wall, cover her ears with her hands, and race back to bed. She didn't want the song to play out because the "dark music" always brought parting. No, much more than separation; the "dark music" always brought death!
"Mrs. Richards." The voice on the phone wouldn't go away. It kept demanding she rejoin the conversation. She knew she had to answer that voice and prayed her premonitions were wrong, but even as her lips began to form words, her heart demanded she remain silent. Finally, it was her lips that won the tug-of-war over her emotions.
"Yes. I'm Meg Richards." The words all but caught in her throat, hanging there like a cough drop that had gone down the wrong way, robbing her of air and stealing whatever hope she had left.
Why did this happen now? Why in the middle of the night? Why when everything had just started to go so right? After another deep breath that did nothing to slow her racing heart or ease her growing fears, she whispered the most painful words that had ever crossed her lips, "Has something happened to Steve?"
"Mrs. Richards," the man's voice was now flat, almost emotionless, as if trying to be empathetic, but lacking the knowledge as to how to accomplish that task. He forced out another "Mrs. Richards," before pausing again. Was he tone deaf or had he not been trained in how to sing the "dark music's" tune. Whatever the reason, he couldn't seem to impart the heartfelt emotion that this number called for. If something had happened to Steve, there needed to be deep emotion in the "dark music," his life demanded that much. But when the voice came back, it was flat and emotionless.
"Mrs. Richards." He was now distant and robotic. No one could do justice to the "dark music" like that. But that didn't matter now. She hadn't got to choose the singer or the song. "I am sorry to have to inform you that there has been an accident. Your husband's car was hit by a vehicle carrying a group of teenagers. I don't know if I should provide you with this information, but from what we have been able to gather, the youngsters had been drinking."
She waited for the cop to continue, but for some reason he stopped—like he had been reading a book and lost his place. As the seconds dragged on, Meg held her breath, hoping for the best but sensing the worst had yet to come. Maybe Steve had just been injured. She could even take him losing a limb or his sight. All she needed was for him to be alive. Yet a minute later those hopes were dashed as the other shoe dropped.
"Mrs. Richards," Johnson continued, "our chaplain is out of town, and I don't really know how to do this, but I guess the best way is to be straight with you. There is no easy way to say ..."
"Get on with it," a suddenly angry and frustrated Meg barked. "Just tell me what you have to say. He's dead, isn't he? If that is what it is, then say it!"
She could hear the officer breathing, but other than those deep breaths there was nothing but silence. Finally, after at least twenty horrible seconds, a time when she could feel the flames of hell creeping into the room, he continued, his voice no longer flat but now quivering like a violin string, "Mrs. Richards, your husband didn't survive the accident." He paused for another awkward moment, took another deep breath, and continued. "We believe he died instantly. If it's any consolation, he probably suffered no pain."
Meg's eyes darted back to the photo. He'd just celebrated his twenty-eighth birthday. They were just beginning to get to know each other. There were so many things they hadn't done, so many dreams they had only spoken and not lived. Only last week they'd gone house hunting and found one with a perfect little room for a nursery. They'd laughed as they viewed it, wondering if they should repaint it blue or pink. They were going to talk to the bank about a mortgage next week. Monday. But what did it matter now? For Steve, there would be no Monday. Time had stopped and her husband had been lost somewhere between the seconds.
As the reality of the horrible situation pushed beyond her mind and seeped into her heart, she again heard the words bouncing off the walls, "'Til death do us part! 'Til death do us part! 'Til death do us part!"
"Mrs. Richards? Are you all right?"
The voice instantly stopped the mocking chant, and without that chorus employing a wedding vow to rock the room and squeeze the life from her soul, Meg found she could answer the cop's question in such a calm voice that she even surprised herself. "Thank you, officer. I'll be fine."
"If you need anything, we could notify your pastor or ..."
"No," Meg answered, her tone dry and emotionless, "that won't be necessary, I'll be just fine."
She hit the end call button, deliberately putting the phone down, letting the plastic touch the table gently, almost as if she were handling a fine piece of crystal. As it sat there, under the lamp's stark light, she stared at it contemplating how this night would have been different if she hadn't answered. Why didn't she just let the call go straight to voice mail? Then she could have had a few more hours of security and hope. But those precious elements of her life were now gone, shattered like a broken plate.
Picking up the phone, she punched the button for recent calls. Steve's name jumped out. He'd called her just 304 minutes ago.
"Meg," he'd explained, his voice full of life and exuberance. "Listen, Honey. If I work just a few more hours, I can finish the books here at Wilson's and drive back tonight. That way we can start the weekend, and just as soon as you finish your shift tomorrow, we can celebrate big time."
She had told him to wait in Hilldale, that tomorrow would be soon enough to make that drive, but she hadn't voiced those thoughts with much conviction. She hadn't sincerely tried to sell him on waiting. So this happened because she'd selfishly wanted him to come home just as quickly possible. Why had she allowed emotion to overrule logic?
"Steve, Steve, Steve," she whispered. Yet no one heard her and he never would again.
Meg looked down at the blue, lace gown she had put on to surprise him. He loved her in frilly blue things. Although she preferred sleeping in old T-shirts, she'd worn alluring, sexy gowns just for him. Now she didn't need them anymore. There were so many things she no longer needed, too. Oh, why hadn't she made him wait in Hilldale? Why hadn't she insisted he wait? Why didn't she argue? How important could one day be, even if that day was their anniversary? Now instead of one more day, there were no more days. None at all!
The phone rang again and hope suddenly pushed its way back into the small apartment's suddenly cold, stale air. Meg grabbed the cell before the second ring, desperately praying the police were calling back to tell her it had all been a mistake. Maybe Steve had stayed in Hilldale and someone else had been driving his car. Maybe someone else had died. Please, Lord, let it be anyone else!
"Hello," Meg whispered as she answered.
"Meg, this is Heather."
Normally, Heather Rodgers's voice would have brought with it good gossip or a great joke. But tonight it would be something else. Tonight, it would be the voice that fully assured Meg there was no awakening from this nightmare and that all hope had evaporated into thin air.
"I don't know what to say," Heather whispered. "I-I-I was working the late shift when the call on the accident came in. It's just so terrible. No one as good as Steve should die—ever—much less so young. I mean ... I don't know what to do. Your heart must be breaking in a thousand pieces."
Good old Heather, everybody's friend, the nurse who kept them all smiling. How ironic she'd heard it first. If only she could tell a joke and make all of this disappear. Then a thought flashed through Meg's mind, a thought so bizarre that maybe only a medical professional or cop would consider it.
"Heather! Where's his body?"
The voice on the other end of the call didn't hesitate. "It's here right now. They brought it in a few minutes ago."
Why had she said it? Steve wasn't an it.
"Heather," Meg announced, "I need to see him."
"Meg, I don't think it would be a good idea for you to ..."
Meg didn't allow her friend to finish. "I'm going to come down! I'll be there in a few minutes. Don't let anyone touch him."
"Meg," Heather was now pleading, "at least wait until they take him to the funeral home. I mean, there's nothing you can do for him now. You'd only be putting yourself through ..." Heather paused as if trying to find words that would help and not hurt. Finally she blurted out, "I just don't want to see you torturing yourself."
"Heather, I'll be there in a little while. Don't let them do anything to Steve."
Cutting the call off, Meg marched resolutely to the bedroom. There was something to be done and only she could do it!
Excerpted from Darkness Before Dawn by Ace Collins. Copyright © 2013 Ace Collins. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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