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By Gwen Hunter
Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.Copyright © 2004 Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.
All right reserved.
Chapter OneAs an E.R. doctor I've seen a lot of patients die - pass on, as we say in the South - but some deaths are worse than others. Much worse. Some stay with you, tainting dreams and nightmares for years afterward. Dreams that start with a bang and drag you into them feetfirst and screaming, like a roller-coaster ride in a fun house on Halloween. Or dreams that start slow and build slower, and then suddenly you're buried deep and unable to breathe. The dreams that were left after Deacon blew into Dawkins County were like the second, slow and miserable, gathering into fierce and biting terror, roaring over me in a dark wave.
Change comes to all of us - change of jobs, addresses, lovers, friends, thought processes, beliefs and hopes. A strong person deals with the changes, rocks with the waves, bends with the winds, all that pseudo-psychobabble garbage. Dr. Phil and Dear Abby stuff. Me? I guess I'm getting pretty good at change. In some ways, I'm even starting to expect it, like it, roll with the punches. But the change that some people experience can be more transformation than the average person can withstand and survive. Maybe.
* * *
I shifted on the hard front window ledge of my little bungalow-style house. The wood cut into my thigh muscle and ground against bones higher up. It was uncomfortable, but not enough to make me move away from the ice-cold window glass. In the background, the CD player flipped to a new disc, a remix of oldies.
"Oh, Girl," came through the speakers over my head. Motown. Soft and rich and so full of broken soul it made me want to cry. Motown. The music my mother had listened to when she was on the downside of a manic-depressive swing, halfway through a bottle of Jack Daniels Black Label, one new man or another kicked out of the house and her party friends sent home. Motown. I should change the music. Put on a little seventies rock or pop. Maybe a little Carly Simon or Doobie Brothers.
But I didn't. I wasn't going to let my mother's response to music color my appreciation. Motown was my mother's crutch, not mine. I liked Motown. Always had. The window was frigid against my arm and the ledge had pressed a wedge of numbness into my flank. I should do something. Be industrious. Clean house, maybe.
Several boxes of clothes waited behind me to be sorted and put away. I was in desperate need of undies; the elastic on several pairs had come totally off. For only the second time in my life I had tossed a handful of them into the trash. My stock was so low I might be driven to hand-wash some or buy more. There were underclothes in one of the boxes, I was almost sure. And I would rather dig those out than go shopping. I had lived in this house for nearly two years, and I still hadn't unpacked completely. The only things I had unearthed from the boxes behind me were several sweaters, some T-shirts, boots and a burgundy down-filled coat that was too warm for Southern winters. The coat was left over from my three-year residency stint in Chicago, a place where winter comes early and stays late.
The song changed to "BetchaByGollyWow" by the Stylistics. Okay, maybe there was a strain of self-pity in my thoughts to match the music, but then I was PMSing, so I had an excuse. I could indulge for a moment. It was my house, I could whine if I wanted to. I grinned at the thought. The only thing that would have completed my totally female mood would have been a pound of dark chocolate and a half gallon of Bryers Fudge Ripple ice cream drenched with Kahlua.
At the thought of real chocolate, I think I actually sighed, but the sound was covered by the music. All I'd had in the house was no-brand hot cocoa, the kind with hard little marshmallows floating in it. It wasn't exactly Godiva. I sipped at my cooling mug, unsatisfied.
I wasn't a particularly introspective person. I didn't spend hours rehashing conversations that had gone wrong, or the fact that I got into the slowest line at the checkout and then got a surly employee instead of a smiling one, or that I had a flat tire while driving in a gale at rush hour. I didn't even agonize over personal decisions that had turned out bad.
Medical failures, of course, were a different matter. I spent untold hours and days trying to figure out why I had lost a patient or why a particular medical procedure had not been successful. I was a contract doctor in a small rural emergency room and failure on the job was not acceptable to me. But worry over personal stuff? No way.
Looking down the road, I spotted Miss Essie trotting along, until now the one constant in my life. She was part of the changes I was facing. Miss Essie had helped raise me, but suddenly she'd left behind her slippers and her kitchen, had practically stopped baking, and had taken up with the Internet and emailing herb-loving friends. She had bought expensive walking shoes, power walking five miles a day. Moving like the Energizer bunny dyed purple, she vanished through the bare bones of the leafless trees. It had been over a week since my last loaf of fresh baked bread.
Yeah, I was whining. Dang.
In the distance, just visible through the December-dead tree branches, a county cop car pulled into a neighbor's drive. Soon after, another joined it. The CD changed to the Chairman of the Board, a soft pain of lost love. I rocked myself on the window ledge and watched the activity up the street, feeling intrigued in spite of myself. I put the cold cocoa mug on the window ledge and leaned closer to the glass, my breath making two little spots of condensation. Stoney, the cat who had adopted me, jumped to the window ledge beside me and sniffed at the mug. Unimpressed, he walked up my leg and settled, curling tight against my waist.
Five minutes later, the county coroner pulled in behind the cops and someone started rolling out crime scene tape. Crime scene tape wasn't used for natural deaths.
Maybe I had just found another reason to avoid unpacking or shopping. It looked as if a neighbor had been killed. Straining like any rubbernecker at a roadside accident, I gawked up the street. And tightened all over.
I heard the strange pop-crack just under the beat of the bass from the speakers. Though I hadn't heard the sound in ages, I recognized it instantly. The sight of cops at a dead run from the house, sliding under the crime scene tape and behind their squad cars, was the clincher. Gunshots. I shoved the cat from my lap, jumped from the window ledge and ran for the kitchen. Grabbing my medical bag off the counter, I locked the doggie door at the rear of the house to keep the dogs inside, and ran back to the front.
I was just in time to hear someone bang on my door, five pounding hits, followed by the sound of multiple sirens approaching. Cops and ambulances, two of each, raced past my front windows and pulled across the street into the neighbor's yard. My dogs were barking wildly, racing from front entrance to back in alarm. More sirens in the distance. More gunshots. Five more thumps on the door.
I wrenched open the front door to see Miss Essie in her purple jogging suit, dark skin ashen with alarm, an arm raised to pound again. "Somebody hurt. You get yourself over to help, Missy Docta Rhea." Cops shouted in the near distance, and fainter, the sound of screams, I recognized the sound of pain. "But you take care," she said, shaking my arm, her eyes wide. "You hear me? You don't get yourself shot!"
Excerpted from Grave Concerns by Gwen Hunter Copyright © 2004 by Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.. Excerpted by permission.
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