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A sliding sound followed by a thump echoed through the darkened house.
Lisa Wade set her purse and two bags of groceries onto the kitchen table and listened. Was that a drawer closing? She tensed and listened for the sound to repeat, but the only thing she heard was the beating of her heart.
Someone's in the house.
She dismissed the thought as soon as it popped into her head. Her imagination was playing tricks on her. If there'd been any indication of forced entry when she had come in the back door, she would have noticed. After all, working as a dispatcher at the Ocracoke Island Sheriff's Office for three years had taught her to be observant of her surroundings.
A question flashed in her mind. What if she had overlooked something? She was distracted when she'd arrived home. The renovations of her house had occupied her mind all day, and she'd thought of little else.
She glanced at her watch. 6:00 p.m. Scott Michaels, the new deputy, had just come on duty for night patrol. He could be here within minutes and check out the house. She reached in her purse for her cell phone but drew her hand back. Even though Scott seemed like a nice guy, she didn't know him well. There was no need to give him, a former military officer, the impression she was a helpless female.
Ignoring the thoughts pounding in her head of what she should do, she glanced around the kitchen. Her breakfast dishes still sat in the sink, and the box holding the new kitchen wallpaper was on the table where she'd placed it last night. The kitchen looked as she had left it, although with her renovation in progress it was hard to tell. She stepped around two buckets of wall paint and tiptoed across the linoleum-covered floor. Her footsteps echoed like a pounding bass drum in the house.
As she moved through the dining room and into the living room, she mentally chided herself. What was there to be afraid of? After all, there hadn't been a home burglary on Ocracoke in months. And if a burglar wanted something of value, he'd choose one of the high-priced condos or vacation homes on the island, not a small bungalow that looked as though it had seen better days.
The evening light cast a flickering pattern across the worn carpet that had been on the living room floor ever since Lisa could remember. A stool lay on its side next to the stone fireplace, and she bent over to set it upright.
Another slide and thump from the direction of the bedroom sliced through the stillness in the house, and her heart leapt into her throat. She straightened and opened her mouth, but no sound came from her throat. She swallowed and tried again. "Wh-who's th-there?"
The sound she'd heard had nothing to do with imagination. Get out of the house now, her mind screamed. She wanted to run, but fear rooted her feet to the floor.
Her eyes widened at the sight of a ghostly shadow looming across the carpet. It mingled with the dancing sunray patterns on the floor as it approached from behind. "What
Before she could turn, her head exploded in a burst of pain. She grabbed at her head and staggered. She'd been struck. Her legs wobbled, and waves of dizziness washed over her. If she could make it to the front door, maybe she could escape. She shook her head to clear her blurred vision but groaned at the searing pain that flashed in her head like a burst of light.
Clawing at empty air to steady herself, she closed her eyes and toppled forward. With a thud she sprawled facedown on the floor, the impact knocking the breath from her body. Instinct warned her not to move even though she realized her attacker stood beside her. Through the narrow slit of her eyelids, she saw a hand descend as if in slow motion. It drifted downward and lifted her limp arm. Something tugged at her finger, and her grandmother's ring slid over her knuckle.
"Noooo," she moaned.
The sound of running footsteps penetrated the fog in her mind, and she heard a door close. She tried to push up, but her arms collapsed. Unable to move, Lisa gasped for breath as a kaleidoscope of brightly colored patterns flashed through her head. Her body relaxed, and she welcomed the darkness drifting into her mind. Her last conscious thoughts were of the rough carpet scratching her cheek and her grandmother's ring that had been passed down in their family for five generations.
Deputy Scott Michaels drove his squad car along the main road that twisted through Ocracoke Village. He liked this time of day, when the sidewalks weren't as crowded as they were earlier. With the summer tourist season in full swing, most visitors were getting ready for a relaxing dinner after spending a long day at the beach. Soon long lines would crowd the restaurants and wisps of smoke would curl upward from grills on the decks of condos and vacation rentals scattered throughout the village.
In the year since he'd come to live on Ocracoke Island, the small barrier island twenty-five miles off the coast of North Carolina, he'd settled in to island life and his new job as a deputy for the Hyde County Sheriff's Department. He wondered, however, if the island residents would ever really think of him as an O'cocker, as the locals called themselves.
This was the last shift for his rotation on night patrol, and he was glad. He liked the activity of the daytime when the road through town was crowded with bicycles and families enjoying their short time on the island. Nighttime patrol consisted of checking the bars and beaches for tourists who'd had too much to drink and testing the doors of businesses to make sure they were locked.
As he approached the village boundary, he spied the turnoff for Oyster Road. Lisa Wade, the pretty dispatcher at the office, lived at the end of the road in an old house she'd inherited when her grandmother died a few months ago. He'd never told her when he was on night patrol he would drive down to check out her house. She'd probably think it was crazy, but he felt uneasy with an attractive woman living alone in such a deserted area.
His sister Kate had suggested several times he ask Lisa out. No way was that going to happen. At the turnoff, he slowed and debated if he should drive down to her house. Maybe he should head on out to the beach.
Almost against his will, he turned onto the road and drove to the dead end where her house stood, next to a dune ridge that bordered a small section of beach. The remote location seemed to agree with Lisa until recently, when she'd announced she was going to renovate the house, put it up for sale, and leave the island.
Now as he approached, he studied the small bungalow. The frame house with its shutters and wicker chairs on the front porch looked like many other homes that had withstood the forces of nature in the past on Ocracoke. Fig trees sprouted from the sandy soil and dotted the front yard. Oyster shells scattered at their bases completed the picture of a typical island dwelling.
Lisa's car, the back door on the driver's side open, sat in the driveway next to the house. Scott frowned. Why would Lisa leave the car door ajar? Before he realized it, he had turned into the driveway and stopped behind her automobile.
When he stepped up to the open door, he smiled in understanding. Three sacks of groceries sat in the car's rear seat. She must have left those while she took others inside. He reached into the vehicle and pulled the bags out. He'd take them to the door and save her another trip outside.
He rounded the side of the house, stepped onto the back porch and knocked. "Lisa. It's Scott Michaels. I have the rest of your groceries."
Several seconds passed with no answer. He knocked again. When she didn't respond, he turned the knob. Locked.
The skin on the back of his neck prickled just as it had every time he'd encountered a dangerous situation in the military. His uncanny sixth sense told him something wasn't right. Lisa wouldn't lock herself in her house with three sacks of groceries still outside. He moved to the window by the swing and peered inside but could see nothing in the dark house.
Alarmed now, he dashed down the steps and around the house onto the front porch. He shook the handle of the locked front door and pounded his fist against it. "Lisa! Answer me. Are you in there?"
With no answer, he ran to the window behind the wicker chairs and squinted through the pane. His heart thudded when he caught sight of Lisa lying on the living room floor.
He turned his mouth to his lapel mike. "EMS needed at 100 Oyster Road."
"Ten-four." The answer crackled on the still air.
Scott picked up one of the chairs, crashed it against the window, and hammered at the glass until it lay splintered into pieces. Then he climbed through the opening and knelt beside Lisa's still form. Blood trickled down the side of her face.
"Lisa! Can you hear me?"
There was no response. His gaze raked her still form. He groaned and fought the deja vu settling over him. It was always the same. He closed his eyes, and attempted to block the pictures forming in his mind. It was no use. Perspiration beaded his forehead, and his heart rate accelerated.
The memory of another time and another place seared his brain. Exploding mortar shells pounded inside his head, and distant cries for help echoed above the deadly noise. He rocked back on his heels, clutched the arm of the wounded man on the ground, and turned his face to the sky.
"Medic!" he screamed.
The sound bounced off the walls and brought him back to reality. His breath caught in his throat, and his eyes blinked open. He stared at the person on the floor next to him. This wasn't a soldier, not one of his men. This was Lisa Wade, the dispatcher from the station. His fingers relaxed on her arm, and he swallowed the nausea rising in his throat.
Sirens wailed in the distance. In an effort to shake the images of the past from his head, he gulped several deep breaths of air before he jumped to his feet and ran to open the front door. The Ocracoke ambulance screeched to a stop in the front yard. Two EMTs jumped out and ran to the porch.
"In here," Scott yelled.
The men pushed past him into the living room and knelt beside Lisa. They had their emergency bags open by the time they were on their knees. One glanced up. "What happened?"
Still shaken, Scott struggled to speak. "II don't know. I couldn't get her to the door. When I looked in the window, I saw her lying on the floor in front of the fireplace. There's blood on her forehead."
Unable to watch the men work, he eased down the steps into the yard. He raised a trembling hand to his forehead and wiped at the perspiration that dotted his brow. Would his nightmare ever be over? At times he thought so, but then some event sent his mind spiraling into combat memories he'd tried to erase.