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"I didn't kill my wife."
The voice, deep-pitched and steady, seemingly coming from nowhere, almost caused Greg Bond to drop his hammer. No one would have noticed. They were all busy. Wiping sweat from his brow, he forced himself to stay calm and listen for the sound of his own voice. It only took a moment to find the source, but the noise coming from the construction site drowned out whatever the radio news commentator might be saying next.
He located the radio. It took all Greg's will not to grab it, turn up the volume and listen to what the next chapter of his life might be.
He fell to his knees, ear pressed to the speaker, and listened as a monotone Paul Harvey wannabe managed four whole sentences.
"The body of Rachel Cooke was discovered earlier this morning in a deserted farmhouse in Yudan, Kansas. Her husband and the prime suspect, Alexander Cooke, already wanted for the murder of a security guard during a bank robbery last April, is still at large. The whereabouts of their six-year-old daughter, Amy Cooke, is unknown. Authorities believe she is still with her father and in danger. In other news "
The radio commentator switched to the weather, as if the shocking discovery of someone's wife, mother, best friend, and a fifty-percent chance of rain deserved to be mentioned in the same breath. Greg's grip on his hammer loosened abruptly. The tool dropped to the ground. In all honesty, he'd forgotten that it was in his hand.
"Hey, Greg, you all right?"
Truth. Always stick as close to the truth as possible.
At one time he believed in telling the truth. He'd said it over and over to the authorities, to himself, to God. "I did not kill my wife. I did not rob the bank."
The truth didn't seem to make much of a difference then and it wouldn't work now, so he said, "I'm fine. Thought I heard the word tornado."
Greg picked up the hammer. Right now his heart was doing all the pounding he could handle. Funny, even after all these months, six to be exact, he'd still held out hope that Rachel was alive.
Never mind the blood. Never mind the words of his friends and neighbors. Personal opinion mattered little when compared to a video.
Vince Frenci, owner of the radio, shook his head and drawled, "Tornados knock things downwe build them back up. That's life. It's also job security."
But Greg knew life wasn't that easy. And security was fragile at best.
"I'm fine," Greg repeated, slipping the hammer into his belt and heading for his toolbox. Greg's coworkers called him a man of few words. Personal stuff didn't get bantered. He didn't socialize after work, and the few times wives had suggested "Hey, let's fix Greg up with " he'd begged off.
They knew he had a daughter. They knew he'd moved to Nebraska a few months ago.
Gazing past the other five construction workers, their tools, their questioning looks, Greg focused first on the elementary school parking lot and then onto G Street. It would take him all of ten minutes to get to the truck and pick up Amber from the babysitter. What he had to decide was how to quit work without arousing suspicion, followed by an even tougher decision: whether it was time to disappear or time to take a stand. Or maybe he was right where he needed to be.
As if demanding a decision now, the vacuum that seemed to envelope him after hearing the news story suddenly ceased and the noise and hustle of "real" time returned.
"Yeah, everything's all right," Vince Frenci yelled to the owner of Konrad Construction, who no doubt had noticed Greg's momentary halt. "Greg just zoned out for a moment. I think he's checking out Mrs. Henry, the third-grade teacher. Hey, I was in her class twenty years ago. I still wake up crying."
"Maybe I'm not all right," Greg said, loud enough for Vince to hear. "I feel funnymaybe I'm dizzy. Maybe the sun's getting to me."
"Oh, dizzy?" Vince said. "Oh, la, la. Then, it's not Mrs. Henry. It must be that new first-grade teacher. She certainly made you light-headed yesterday. She makes me dizzy every time she gets outta her car. Better run down there, Greg, before she gets away."
Greg shook his head. They'd gone from teasing him about the seventyish gray-haired grandmother teacher to razzing him about the twentyish red-haired first-grade teacher. His daughter, Amber, would be in her class. Of course he was interested in her. All he'd done so far was introduce himself.
And, of course, his coworkers had noticed.
Yesterday, he'd almost enjoyed the attention. It made him feel almost normal. Now he was terrified. Normal wasn't allowed. Not until whoever had ruined his life was caught and behind bars. Today, he couldn't listen to his coworkers joke as if it were just another day, as if it were a world where everything and everyone looked and did just what they should. His world was no longer like theirs. They believed that when they left work for the day, they'd always have a home to go home to, a good woman waiting, security.
He'd believed that once, too.
The body of Rachel Cooke was discovered earlier today
The site foreman squinted at Greg and hollered. "You're dizzy? Well, sit down before you fall down. We've got forty days without accident. I want forty more."
"I'm dizzy, too," Vince called.
"Yeah, but you were born that way," the foreman snapped.
Greg wavered. He checked out his coworkers. With the exception of Vince, they were all back to work. Sweat poured down their faces as it poured down his. Dirt edged around their collars, soaked into their knees and elbows, and found its way under their fingernails. This corner of the parking lot had caved in during recent rainstorms. Their job was to repair it before the first day of school.
None of them looked like they were thinking about the words on the radio.
It was all Greg could think about.
"You want someone to drive you home?" the foreman offered.
"I'll do it!" Vince volunteered.
Greg wasn't surprised. Vince probably knew more about construction than the rest of the crew combined. He certainly knew more than Greg, yet the man never missed an opportunity to find something else to do. He was the advice giver, the joke teller, the "just a minute" excuse maker. But when all was said and done, and know-how was needed, Vince was the man.
Greg packed his tools up and headed for his truck. "I can drive. It's just a headache and some dizziness."
"All right," the foreman said. "But call if something happens."
The mad urge to laugh caused Greg to duck his head as he climbed behind the wheel. His boss's words echoed: Call if something happens. Something had already happened and every day it happened again and again in his thoughts, his memories, his dreams.
He needed to get home, turn on the television, log on to the Internet and call Burt Kelley. No, first he needed to get to his daughter, make sure she was safe, find out what she'd already heard.
Still, because it was expected, he promised, "I'll call if anything happens."
The foreman nodded, and Greg started his truck before his boss could say anything else.
Six months ago, a trip to the restroom had changed Greg's life forever. And no one on the construction crew knew how much. They couldn't know that just five minutes earlier Greg Bond, whose real name was Alexander Cooke, heard a truth he'd been both expecting and dreading for six months.
His wife was dead.
The authorities believed he'd killed her.
Some unknown entity had wiped out Greg's world and kept coming back for more.
Greg checked out the school's parking lot and put his foot on the gas.
It wasn't until he plowed into the passenger side of the first-grade teacher's car that he realized he hadn't been looking for traffic; he'd been looking for cops.
"Have I got the perfect guy for you!"
Those words, spoken barely an hour ago by one of her fellow teachers, didn't bode so well now. The perfect guy had just put a major dent in Lisa Jacoby's light blue Chevy Cavalier.
"I can't believe you hit me. Didn't you hear me honk?" Lisa shook her head as she surveyed the damage. The front bumper was twisted and bit into the passenger-side tire. The fender had crumpled like cardboard. "The cops won't even come," she said, mournfully. "This is a private parking lot."
He looked at the street, first right, then left, and muttered, "I'm so sorry."
She'd been in fender benders before, and usually the people involved looked at each other or looked at the cars. Not Greg Bondhe seemed more concerned with the scenery.
"We need to call our insurance companies," she suggested.
It took him a moment, but he brought his attention back to her and this time he was the one to shake his head. "That's not going to work. I don't have car insurance."
"He's gorgeous, about thirty, single, his little girl will be in your class."
Gillian Magee, the teacher who thought Lisa needed a date, was more than right about Mr. Bond's looks. Definitely gorgeous, with shaggy black hair, he looked about thirty but hadn't mastered the clean shave yet. He wore a wedding ring, but everyone knew he was a single father.
He was everything Gillian had advertised. Lisa figured that out yesterday when he'd introduced himself.
"Oh, man. You've really done it now." Another construction worker joined them. His hair was black, too, but not shabby.
"Vince," Greg said, looking more distressed over his coworker's involvement than over his truck's attack on her vehicle. "We've got everything under control. Thanks for coming over, though."
"You really are dizzy? Man, I thought you were making it up. You plowed right into her." Vince bent down and looked under Lisa's bumper. "Too much damage to be hammered out and you're going to need a new tire and rim."
Greg winced before turning to Lisa and saying, "I've been meaning to get insurance. Look, you know who I am, and you have a whole construction crew full of witnesses. I'll get your car towed to a garage, and I'll pay for the damages. Every last dime. I promise."
Lisa knew what her sister, Tamara, the lawyer, would say. But, then, Tamara would detain the president of the United States if he didn't have proper insurance documentation. There were no gray areas in Tamara's worldonly black and white. Her other sister, Sheilathe rebelwould simply blow the whole thing off. The car could be fixed; no one was hurt. End of story. Sheila was a writer. She'd incorporate the whole accident into a plot. Then she could even write it off on taxes.
Vince frowned. "Greg, you don't have insurance. Man, that's lame." He pulled a cell from his pocket and punched a number. "I'll call my brother. He works at a garage."
Lisa looked at Greg's truck. Not even a broken headlight. Soon she could hear Vince talking. His words were impressive enough. He correctly identified the make, model and year of her car. The assessment of damages sounded right. And, the words "Send a tow truck" were somewhat soothing.
Greg still studied the street.
"Am I keeping you from something?" Lisa asked, feeling annoyed. He'd hit her car, after all.
"Guess not," he finally muttered.
Vince grinned. "Greg's a little rusty when it comes to women. You're the new teacher. The guys were wondering why we didn't have any teachers who looked like you when we went to school here."
Lisa's cheeks flamed. She'd been in Sherman, Nebraska, all of two weeks. The first week had been spent finding a place to live. This week had been spent at Sherman Elementary School filling out paperwork, sitting through in-service meetings, and getting her classroom ready. She'd noticed the scrutiny from the construction crew, and while the other teachers laughed it offmost knew the menLisa'd wished the parking lot would return to normal: fast.
"How long before the tow truck gets here?" Greg asked, saving her.
"Instead of tow truck, I'll haul it over tonight. That will save you some money."
For the first time, Greg looked as if maybe the accident was something he should be concerned about. "How are you going to haul it?"
"I've got a hoist and a trailer at home. I'll"
Before he could finish, someone shouted from the work site. Vince grinned sheepishly. "I gotta get back. Greg, you feel well enough to drive her home?"
He didn't wait for Greg to answer, but continued talking to Lisa, "Write down your address and phone number for me and leave a key."
It took Lisa a moment to retrieve her files from the passenger side of her damaged vehicle. When Greg's truck hit her car, folders had slid to the floor and the contents had spilled out. Finally she had her files together and climbed into his truck. He was still checking out the street and looked as welcoming as a grouchy pit bull.
"Are you expecting someone?" she said.
He closed her door and came around to get behind the wheel. He gave her a guarded look. "No, why?"
"You keep checking out the street."
He didn't answer.
"I live on Elm Street. Just past the library."
He paused, definitely torn about something, and then said, "Do you mind if I pick up my daughter, Amber, from the babysitter first? It's on the way."
After five minutes of silence, she realized one thing for sure: Greg Bond wasn't into small talk. Usually, parents jumped right in, wanting to know what kind of a teacher she was, how many years' experience she had, if she volunteered time after school, and the like. Greg didn't ask a single question.
Even though she knew the answer, Lisa made an effort to bridge the silence. "How long have you lived in Sherman?"
"A little more than four months."
"Where'd you live before?"
He took his eyes off the road for a moment and studied her. He had blue eyes, stunning blue eyes, the color of cobalt. Not what she expected. Not with Indian black hair. She'd expected brooding dark-brown eyes.
"We moved around a lot. Not sure I'd call any place home. Where did you live before moving here?"
Okay, he changed the subject, from him to her, but at least she had a conversation going. "I'm from Tucson, Arizona. My family is still there."
"So what brought you to Sherman?" he asked. Not that he looked as if he cared to hear the answer. His attention was on everything but her.
"A bit of wanderlust. I graduated three months ago and didn't want to stay in Arizona. I wanted to travel, see the world. I have a good friend in Omaha, so I explored Nebraska a bit online to see where teachers were needed, and then applied here. The rest is history."
He didn't respond. Maybe he hadn't been listening.
"Like my car," she added.
He shook his head. "I deserved that. I do have something on my mind. Today's just not been a great day."