Convinced she's been touched by Heather's spirit, Hallie recalls the near telepathic bond the two shared during childhood. Is it possible that bond persists even from beyond the grave? Compelled to solve her twin's murder, Hallie finds herself drawn to Heather's husband and six-year-old son and, unknowingly, puts herself into the killer's lethal orbit. For in his twisted mind, he believes he's been given a chance to commit the perfect murder...again.
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By John Passarella
Pocket StarCopyright © 2006 John Passarella
All right reserved.
Hallie Moore looked into the camera lens, a wireless microphone in one hand and a generous strawberry ice cream cone in the other. A crowd was gathering behind her, drawn by the inevitable magnetism of fleeting fame promised by the Channel 7 News Van. And if the truck wasn't conspicuous enough, with its "NBN-7 NEWS" logo -- complete with the stylized lightning bolt seven -- painted on the front, sides and rear, the microwave dish was raised at the end of the mast, extended to its full height, around forty-two feet, in preparation for their live shot.
Hallie smiled when she realized the only way to draw more attention to their location shoot would be to fly a "NBN-7 NEWS" flag beneath the dish like the skull and crossbones of the Jolly Roger. Maybe she'd suggest that at the next story meeting. Not that she begrudged the attention. Her Hallie's Comet segments always worked better with an enthusiastic crowd behind her, even if someone eventually gave in to the overriding compulsion to shout, "Yo, Hallie!" Simple, but direct and to the point, in Rocky country. Expected variations would be "Hallie, whassup?" or "Rock on!" or the old standby maternal acknowledgment, "Hi, Mom!"
Her regular cameraman was lanky Danny "Trips" Horton, his nickname arising from hissomewhat unfortunate and ungainly relationship with his camera's tripod or any other potential tripping hazard. Most of the station's reporters, those who fell into news director Eugene Marshall's "hard news corps" (his "troops"), had rotating camera operators, but Hallie usually made her "Comet" rounds with Trips Horton. Maybe Marshall was punishing one of the "softies" -- his derisive name for the feature reporters left over from the previous regime -- with the "clumsy" cameraman, but Hallie enjoyed Horton's company on the road and, despite his proclivity for unintended pratfalls, he had a homing pigeon's unerring sense of direction, possessed good story sense, and was a wizard at Avid, the digital video editing console. With Trips at the wheel and the console, I never have to worry about missing slot, she thought.
What worried her at that moment was the unusual June heat. Her strawberry ice cream cone was beginning to resemble a Dali clock.
"Oh, Miss Hallie! Is no good!" wailed Rocco DiFranco, owner of Rocco's Ice Cream Collisions. "You gotta droopy cone!"
"Least of her problems," Trips Horton said, his mischievous smile a brief flash of white framed by his dark goatee.
"Don't expect an autograph on your next cast, Trips," Hallie said. Horton was three days out of his second ankle cast in two years. Each time he'd broken his ankle, he'd had the entire on-air staff sign his cast. "You think I don't know what you get for those on eBay."
"Hey," he said defensively. "They're legitimate collector's items."
"Like Jim's sweaty tube socks?" James Whittaker was the station's six o'clock coanchor.
"I had nothing to do with that," Trips said.
"Please...Miss Hallie?" Rocco wrung his hands together within his rainbow-stained apron. "Nobody wants droopy cone."
"Of course not," Hallie said pleasantly. "We've got a minute before air. Have Melissa bring me another one."
"Melissa," Rocco called to one of his teenaged, stripe-smocked employees. "Bring Miss Hallie another strawberry supreme." The redheaded girl nodded and raced back to the ice cream parlor.
Rocco seemed nervous and ecstatic at the same time. "Is really true? Rocco's gets one of Miss Hallie's Comets? Best ice cream parlor in the whole country."
"It's true," Hallie said with an easy smile. "Unfortunately, my Comets only have jurisdiction in the Philadelphia viewing area."
"This is still big. Is big, no?"
"It's big, yes," Hallie said, finding his excitement contagious.
"Just don't underestimate the value of your garbage, Hallie," Trips added, still dreaming of online auction riches. "You could be throwing away a fortune."
"I thought we left the Dumpster diving to Special Reports."
"Thirty seconds to air, Hallie." Voice of Reggie Bell, Noon News producer, coming through the IFB earpiece in her right ear. "All set?"
"Thirty," Hallie said. "I'm good." Empty-handed, she thought, but good.
Trips nodded. They'd transmitted the video piece -- customer and employee comments along with footage of the ice cream shop's interior -- to the station already. Hallie would bookend the package with a live intro and closing for the noon telecast. A somewhat edited version of the package would re-air during the five o'clock and eleven o'clock broadcasts.
On the crumpled three-by-five index card in her mike hand, Hallie had scrawled the names of several store employees and a few customers. While she prided herself on her extemporaneous presentation, she never left names to chance. Better to refer to the card than draw a blank while staring live into the unforgiving camera lens before thousands and thousands of viewers. At least reporters no longer had to worry about the embarrassment of forgetting a roll cue. These days a protracted pause was the cue to roll tape.
"Hair?" she asked.
"Tangled mess," Trips said with a wink.
"Teeth?" she asked, flashing him a broad smile.
"Spinach a problem?"
"Of course not," Hallie said.
"Then you're good."
"Ten seconds. Go to air."
Hallie reached behind her to the radio clipped to her waistband, turned the knob to switch her feed to air. She'd hear her introduction in the earpiece. If the broadcast stayed true to its stacking, Lynne Vickers would intro Hallie's segment after the commercial break, with Tim Boyd having teased it before the break.
Melissa hurried to Hallie's side, wearing a nervous smile as she handed her a fresh strawberry cone. Hallie thanked her, then turned back to the camera.
Lynne's perky voice came over her earpiece. "...of this heat wave, Tim, everyone wants to know where to find the best ice cream cone in the Delaware Valley. Reporting live, our own Hallie Moore has the answer in today's Comet sighting. Hallie?"
"Thanks, Lynne," Hallie said, flashing her broad, natural smile, and showing an ease with the camera the viewers recognized and responded to. With an appreciative glance at the fresh strawberry cone, Hallie continued, "Have to admit, I've had tougher assignments. But who knew there were so many ice cream flavors, or so many ice cream shops in the Delaware Valley? Even so, after dozens of cones and an assortment of toppings, I think I've finally found ice cream nirvana...." Hallie took a delicate lick of the strawberry ice cream to avoid smearing a comical blob on her nose, and smiled again. "And you'll find it too. Just step inside Rocco's Ice Cream Collisions in Woodbury, New Jersey." An unrehearsed but raucous cheer rose from the crowd gathered round her at the mention of the town name. Hallie paused, her cue for the station to roll the tape Trips transmitted earlier.
She pressed the IFB earpiece with the index finger of her mike hand to hear the tape on air. The mini ice cream shop tour and customer comments ran for about ninety seconds. Hallie listened mostly so she would know when she'd be live again. She grabbed the large "Hallie's Comet" cardboard logo from the front seat of the news van and tucked it under her left arm. Somebody was talking behind her.
"Go on. Ask her," Rocco said, shooing Melissa toward Hallie with both hands.
"Ready for the collision?" Melissa asked.
"You bet," Hallie said, smiling to put the girl at ease.
Melissa gave a curt nod and ran off to the shop again.
Hallie turned to the swelling crowd behind her and said, "Hey, you guys think you can give a big cheer when I present the comet to Rocco?" They'd seen the spots, knew the routine. They gave her a collective, enthusiastic yell. "That the best you can do?" she asked with a mischievous grin. Much louder, with several fists pumping in the air. "Super. You guys are great."
Trips smiled, shaking his head.
Rocco was beaming as Hallie turned back to the camera, just seconds before the tape ended and she was live all over the greater Delaware Valley. "You're probably asking yourself, 'What's an ice cream collision?' Who better to ask than the owner, Rocco DiFranco." She nodded toward Rocco, who stepped forward nervously into a two-shot, but was still grinning proudly.
"Is simple," Rocco said. "An ice cream collision is for when you can't decide between one flavor and another flavor."
"Understandable, since you offer fifty flavors."
"Plus, don't forget, the special flavor of the day," Rocco said. "Peach Mango Mondays, Tin Roof Tuesdays, White Chocolate Chip Wednesdays -- "
"Right," Hallie said, gently interrupting. "But getting back to collisions...?"
"Right, right! Collisions. Don't mind Rocco. I get lost in a phone booth. Collisions are for when you got a big appetite, and you can't decide between flavors."
"So, if I can't decide between banana and butter almond...?"
"Right, we make you a collision. Melissa! Bring Miss Hallie's collision!"
Melissa had returned to Hallie's side, just off-camera, with the prearranged sample collision. One cone filled with banana ice cream, with a second cone of butter almond upended on top of the first. The point of the cone stuck out at a jaunty angle, like a party hat. Melissa extended her arm, balancing the cones as she offered them to Hallie.
"Thanks, Melissa," Hallie said. "Looks delicious, but hold on to that for a second while I present this Hallie's Comet Award to Rocco. We were looking for the best ice cream shop in the Delaware Valley and we have a Comet sighting at Rocco's Ice Cream Collisions in Woodbury, New Jersey." Hallie handed the cardboard comet logo, with a stylized tail, to a beaming Rocco DiFranco and, per their prearranged instructions, the crowd erupted in cheers and applause.
"Thank you, Miss Hallie," Rocco said, gazing down at the cardboard logo. Later she'd give him the personalized decal version to place on his store window, with the award-specific information lettered on the ball of the comet, and the date on the flaring tail. After a moment, he held it over his head, eliciting another roar of approval from the crowd.
Turning back to the camera, and the watching audience, Hallie said, "There you have it, folks. Another Hallie's Comet sighting. In Woodbury, this is Hallie Moore."
Lynne's voice over the IFB: "Thanks, Hallie. Enjoy your collision."
"Count on it," Hallie said, taking the double cones from Melissa.
Lynne addressed the television audience. "Find out more about Rocco's and the four other Comet finalists for best ice cream shop on our NBN-7 website. Just click on the Hallie's Comet logo with the link that says 'Comet Tales,' then -- "
Hallie switched her radio back from air. A moment later Noon News producer Reggie Bell said, "You're clear, Hallie."
Hallie turned to the crowd. "Thanks, everyone! You were great."
With a sigh of reluctance, she handed the banana and butter almond collision back to Melissa. Rocco took Hallie's free hand in both of his and squeeze-pumped. "Thank you so much."
"You're very welcome, Rocco."
Trips leaned toward her, his bulky video camera tucked under one arm, and said, "What say we break down and grab lunch. Found a great Tex-Mex place."
"Sorry, Trips. Lunchtime errand today."
"Suit yourself, but you'll miss out on a Grande Margarita."
"Some other time," she said, distracted.
With the opportunity for television fame over, most of the crowd had dispersed. Several people edged closer, hoping to get Hallie's autograph or take her picture if they happened to have a camera on them. Clutching a ballpoint pen but lacking paper, one teenaged guy had Hallie sign the back of his hand. With the autograph seekers satisfied, Hallie swapped the oversized cardboard Hallie's Comet logo for the window decal version. After Trips stowed his video camera and lowered the microwave dish mast, he stood beside her, hands in his rear pockets, and said, "Drop you off at the station?" Hallie's red Toyota Camry was in the station's parking lot. "Or, if you want, I can chauffeur you."
"No thanks, Trips," she said, her easy smile fading away. "This is something I need to do on my own."
Tom Galloway unbuckled the booster seat in the back of the Ford Explorer and helped his son Shane down from the midnight blue SUV. As soon as his feet hit the asphalt parking lot, Shane started toward the kindergarten entrance. "Hold on, Partner! Aren't you forgetting something?" Tom said. He reached across the seat for Shane's backpack, decorated with images of Lugia, Charizard, Pikachu, and a half dozen other Pokemon characters whose names Tom had yet to memorize. The backpack was light enough for a six-year-old: Shane's lunch and juice box, an activity folder, and probably a select group of Pokemon action figures.
"Oh, yeah," Shane said, embarrassed.
Tom held the backpack as Shane slipped his arms through the straps.
"Don't forget," Tom said. "Mrs. Selby will get you after school. You can play at her house until I pick you up. Okay?"
"Best behavior, right?"
"Good," Tom said. He swallowed hard. "So what kind of day you gonna have?"
"A super day!" Shane shouted.
"That's what I like to hear," Tom said, ruffling the boy's light brown hair as they walked toward the building's entrance, where other parents and their children had begun to assemble. A couple of school buses had pulled to the curb, doors squeaking open. Kids were talking and boasting, laughing, an errant bump here, a frustrated shove there, which invoked a parental scolding, and endless chatter about cartoons, superheroes, video games, and other social concerns of the very young.
Tom looked down at his son and frowned. Shane seemed more subdued than usual, his recent enthusiasm a bit forced, as if for Tom's benefit. Tom hadn't made a big deal about the significance of the day, even though it weighed on his mind. Maybe Shane sensed Tom's melancholy and was simply mirroring it. Bad days plagued both of them. Less frequently than a year ago, but they happened, sometimes with no apparent cause. The truth of it was always there beneath the surface. They lived in the same house and there were always reminders of what they had lost.
Tom had no conscious recollection of the drive to ShowStopper Productions; the etched silver sign appeared much sooner than he would have thought possible, the demarcation of a foreign land. These are the days you live outside yourself, Tom thought. A stranger in your own life, removed from the stream of human events. A living ghost, adrift and confused.
He entered the sprawling, single-story office building with the attached warehouse, waved and nodded where appropriate, wondering if anyone was surprised to see him today. What the hell am I doing here? he asked himself more than once.
Autopilot steered him toward his office, let him field questions from the shop foreman and the manager of the graphic arts department. When actual thought was required, he promised to check back soon with a decision.
Aside from the jumble of memos, e-mail, and blueprints scattered across his desk, his office was impersonal, even generic, save for one framed photograph of Shane and him taken by a stranger at the dinosaur garden outside Camden's Adventure Aquarium. Tom was leaning against the hadrosaur while Shane was climbing out of a broken egg, a newly hatched dino-boy.
Tom logged into his computer, but found himself staring at the Excel production worksheets. Most of his exhibits were on schedule, a few needed his attention, but Tom had trouble focusing. The numbers were an incomprehensible jumble before his eyes, a Rosetta stone yet to be deciphered.
His hand had drifted to the drawer of his mahogany credenza, and his fingers slipped through the handle. Slowly, he opened the drawer. His free hand trembled as he reached for the other framed photograph that had adorned his desk for years, but now lay facedown in the drawer. Taking a deep breath, he turned the photograph over. His first reaction was a smile. But tears soon began to fill his eyes.
She was more beautiful than he remembered. Her ash blond hair was stylish but short and "practical," as she'd described it. She was wearing a white cotton blouse, and her wide green eyes and pink lips were mere spots of color amid the blooming garden around her. She stared back at him, as if about to say his name, but she was lost in time, forever beyond his reach.
"I miss you, Heather," he said, his voice a harsh echo of a whisper.
We all miss you. It's not -- not...Shane should have a mother.
Grief flared into a familiar rage. The bastard who killed you should be burning in hell.
But they'd never caught the guy. Never came close.
Tom sighed, his body trembling as if to shake off the anger. Staring at Heather's face, he imagined another face beside hers, an identical face, and wondered how Hallie was surviving today, the one-year anniversary of her twin sister's murder.
As Hallie drove north on the Blue Route, she fell into a self-induced trance. Almost missed the exit. Wondering if, subconsciously, she was trying to avoid her lunchtime appointment with the past. She waited to turn left at the traffic light, forgetting to signal her intention. The light blinked to green and she made the turn, steered into the right lane, turning her gaze to the shoulder and the guardrail beyond, looking for the exact spot. Moments later, she saw it. A white cross, just beyond the guardrail, adorned with a garland of fresh flowers. Not as many as there had been a year ago. Many had forgotten about her. Others would never forget. A few had experienced a piece of themselves die that same day. But how could it be any worse than for Hallie?
Several feet from the wooden cross, Hallie swung her red Camry onto the shoulder of the highway, shifted into park, then climbed out of the car on numb legs, clutching a fresh bouquet of flowers to her chest.
Why not visit the cemetery instead? she wondered. That would certainly be more traditional. And yet, somehow, she felt connected to this horrible place now, charged with a preternatural energy Hallie sensed but could never explain. An energy that connected Hallie not with the tragedy, but with the...essence of her twin sister. Some quacks and charlatans claimed to speak to the dead. A cemetery, a graveyard plot, seemed the natural place to commune with lost loved ones, while standing within ten feet of their earthly remains.... Made sense, almost.
Hallie had visited Heather's grave site a couple times but had felt no connection beyond acknowledging her sister's name and vital dates carved on a smooth marble tombstone. Heather's physical remains were there, but her energy -- whether you called it a spirit, a soul, or an aura -- was long gone from that mourning place, if it had ever been there.
At the roadside memorial marking the location of Heather's violent murder, Hallie sensed that energy, a sense of connectedness with her twin. She wished it were otherwise. It troubled her to think that something of Heather was forced to remain here. Deep down, Hallie recognized that this energy should move on, if that was even possible, so that Heather's spirit could be at peace. Maybe it was Hallie who trapped Heather's spirit here, by not letting go, by wanting and needing her to stay.
Hallie felt so lost without Heather in her world. But how much worse her desolation if she surrendered this last fragile link to her twin. Hallie just couldn't let go. Not yet...
Softly, "I miss you so much, Heather..."
As Hallie crouched to place her bouquet of flowers -- pink lilies and carnations, peach daisies and lemon leaves -- under the guardrail just in front of the white-painted cross, she noticed that the cross was tilted a bit to the right. Instinctively, she reached out to straighten it, as she would have adjusted a crooked painting on a wall. "This isn't right," Hallie said, speaking aloud, hoping that, maybe, Heather could hear her...or maybe just hoping to comfort herself. "I have to fix this." Her fingertips brushed against the polished wood -- and she gasped in shock.
A flash of white light enveloped her hands. A painful jolt of energy --
-- wrenched her arms in their sockets, contorting --
-- her spine and whipping --
-- her head back and slamming --
-- her jaw shut!
Slowly, on trembling legs, she stood erect...staring straight ahead without seeing the wild meadow in front of her. Instead, she relived another's memory, her mind no longer hers alone.
...flashing blue light washes across her skin, gleams across the hunting knife...
...scrape of boot heels on asphalt...
...he's not what she assumed -- a horrible mistake -- run!
...she's sprinting through high grass, her breathing ragged, her scream coming out as a wailing moan -- burning line down her back -- the knife! He's sliced her back open --
She stumbles on the uneven ground, the pain like a consuming fire -- the smothering weight of him dropping over her -- kicking-punching-screaming -- she scrambles out from under him, but he snags her ankle in his gloved hand. Pain-fire flares down the back of her thigh -- another slash of the knife!
His forearm slams against the back of her neck and she falls flat, gasping into a mouthful of grass and dirt -- his body presses against hers -- hand grabs at her short hair, tugs, pulls, yanks her head back. Cold knife, warmed with her own blood, against her throat.
"Make a sound and you die!"
(But she's already dead, Hallie knows...
...it just hasn't happened yet.)
"Understand -- bitch?"
She tries to nod -- but the sharp edge of the knife bites into the tender skin of her throat -- and she freezes.
The knife leaves her throat. He pins her to the ground with his knees, his other hand snarled in her hair. A moment later, the flat of the blade is against her back, slipping under the waistband of her drawstring yoga pants before tearing them away. The turquoise camisole she wore for her yoga class yields next, then the knife tip gouges into her hip as he hurriedly rips away her panties....
She is trapped in a blue-strobed darkness, each brutalized second -- white-hot pain -- lasting an eternity. Then, mercifully, her world begins to spin away. Her throat burns, first from her own harsh breathing and racking sobs, then again with the edge of the blade. He whispers in her ear, "See ya later, alligator!" and pulls left to right in a deep, deep cut....
(No -- NO! Hallie recoils inside herself, pulling away. She must not...)
Drowning in darkness then, darkness gorged with a cold, shivering loneliness of the soul as awareness fades, she desperately clings to images that remain bright long after everything else slides into the abyss, images of Hallie, and Tom, and Shane....
Copyright 2006 by John Passarella
Excerpted from Kindred Spirit by John Passarella Copyright © 2006 by John Passarella. Excerpted by permission.
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