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Undying Love

by Lisa VanGalen about a year ago in grief
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When secrecy drives you apart, can death bring you closer?

Salt stung my lip as a solitary tear dribbled past my mouth to the teak surface below, creating a small pool that reflected the harsh fluorescent lighting overhead. I picked up the small collection of personal effects from the coroner's desk, confusion pushing the sorrow aside momentarily.

It had been a year since we last spoke, two since I stormed out. Yet here I stood, listed as his next of kin. My hand crept up to grasp the wedding band hanging on the filigree chain about my neck. Not-quite-forgotten love surged as the loss hit me. Regret sat like a stone in my gut, his unanswered calls and emails now laden with a deeper significance.

The lump in my throat increased as his matching ring appeared, buried beneath the hated black book. During our marriage, his constant scribbling of indecipherable images made me crazy. His shoulders would be hunched against intrusion and I would walk away in a huff, hurt by his secrets and lies. I sank to the chair as sorrow overtook me. Through the kaleidoscope of items in the bag, my mind picked out familiar shapes, giving them names, making them real. A worn leather wallet, car keys, and two torn pieces of paper. A hotel key card, breath mints. A gas receipt. Bank deposit slip. All ordinary stuff.

Except Greg didn't have a car.

So whose keys were those?

Curiosity pulled me out of my pity party. Staring at the contents, I was reluctant to break the seal. Maybe I should just burn the blasted book with his body. I sat, chewing the edge of my nail, a myriad of emotions and desires racing around my hamster wheel of a brain. Engrossed in my own thoughts, the sound of the door opening and closing behind me barely registered. The coroner's hand on my shoulder startled me back into this reality and my hand dropped to my heart as it jerked with the rest of me.

“I am so sorry, Detective,” Dr. Collins said, his voice deep and respectful, his face weary and grey. “This can't have been easy for you.” He patted my arm before moving around the desk to take a seat.

“How have you been, Edward?” I inquired, using the pleasantries to compose myself.

He ignored my question, knowing it was meaningless, his worn hands folded on the desktop in front of him. “You must know I can't tell you anything about your husband's death.”

Husband.

The word sounded wrong, but legally accurate. The unsigned divorce papers sat on my desk in Boston. Another tear formed and I smacked my hand across my face, grabbing at the offending moisture. I gave up the right to grieve when I chose my career over our marriage; when my secrets became more important than his.

Straightening, I shifted in the chair before answering.

“I know. It's a mess, isn't it?” My lip twitched as a brief smile lit my face before fading. “Gregory never gave up, did he?”

Edward sat back and sighed. Unspoken words hung on his lips.

I stood, gathering Greg's things and shoved the sheaf of official documents into my shoulder bag. “Thank you,” I said. “for taking care of him.”

Dr. Collins got to his feet. “It was good to see you, Katherine.”

My back stiffened as I turned. There was nothing good about today.

**

In the seclusion of my car, I ripped open the seal and dumped the contents of the bag out on the passenger seat. The car shook as I pounded my fist on the steering wheel. After years of begging to be involved in his work, Greg had finally succeeded in drawing me into his web.

The corner of the manila envelope peeked out of my shoulder bag, mocking me. As I reached for it, the sensation of being watched pushed through my emotion-charged state. Tingles of fear hit my stomach and I realized how exposed my position was. While I had not worked in Washington for a year, it didn't mean my enemies wouldn't find me.

I gathered up the meagre remains of Greg's life and shoved them back in the plastic bag. All except for that damn book. Carefully keeping my hands out of sight, I felt around the pockets of my jacket, searching for a hole in one of them. There. Working the threads, I made the gap big enough to squeeze the book through. Sliding it in between the lining and the leather, I wiggled it around to the side, hoping it would be hidden.

The feeling of the watcher's eyes made me squirm. Time to go.

**

I drove around aimlessly, mulling over the question of where I might be safe. Outside the car window, I spotted a familiar logo and I smiled as the Excelsior hotel came into view.

A single chuckle escaped as memories from our honeymoon surfaced. Without missing a beat, I navigated my way through the hotel and stopped in front of the door to room 1447. Now that Greg was dead, memory lane and I began getting acquainted. I dug the key card out of my bag. The lock clicked. The green light lit. And the door opened to a past long forgotten.

My smile was rueful as I sent my husband a thank you. I took my presence here as a message from Heaven. The feelings of deep love, long suppressed, were exactly what I needed right now. Dropping onto the bed, I fell back and stared at the ceiling, watching the movie of our life together as the last of my tears trickled down to dampen my hair and the blankets beneath it.

**

The kink in my back told me several hours had passed. Yawning, I shucked my jacket and tossed it over the chair on my way to the bathroom. The tired face peering from the mirror showed new lines etched into it, the dark circles deepening as I scrubbed the salt from my skin. Time doesn't stop just because you want it to. I couldn't go back to happier days. But I could figure out what Greg had been working on and it would all be detailed in that damned book.

Trusting he was a creature of habit, I crossed to the room safe and punched in the code, the numbers appearing out of thin air. Our anniversary. Predictable. And loving. My head hung, the enormity of my choice sinking in. He had never given up.

With a clang, the door unlatched and cracked open. Stunned, I pulled out stacks of small bills, each bundle neatly arranged and tied with a tag. If my math was accurate, $160,000.00 sat on the mottled carpet. Checking deep in the safe, I spied something wedged against the back wall. Shoving the cash aside, I bent to get a better look and to jam my fingers into the tiny gap along the side. A black box flew out and me with it, hitting the floor with a jarring thump, popping the package open on impact. A 9 mm pistol spilled out on the carpet.

Not good.

**

A gun? Cash? I scrambled to my feet and fumbled for the envelope. Papers drifted around the room as I violently sorted through the official documents, looking for the coroner's personal notes. I recalled Edward struggling with his restrictions, his eyes saying more than he could share about Greg's accident.

An hour later, the expected information was not there. Dumping out my bag, the items scattered on the bedspread to resemble an “I Spy” image. Can you find the gold ring? How about the bronze key? My eyes fell on the scraps of paper. The receipts meant nothing but I slipped to the floor as I opened the folded note and read the message in Greg's handwriting, a message from the grave: “If you are reading this where I think you are, run.”

Knock, knock, knock.

My head jerked to the door, heart pounding in time with the knuckles rapping on the door. Fear gripped my stomach as Greg's warning hammered home.

“Katherine? Are you in there?” The bass voice of Dr. Collins crept into the room. “It's Edward.” Obviously. “We need to talk.”

I swept the money into the closet and closed the door. Everything else he had seen and given to me. Except for the gun. That I tucked behind my back.

“Kat?” he whispered. “Let me in, if you can. You need to hear this.”

Peering through the lens, I spied the bald head of my friend, the rest of the hallway empty. With great care, I opened the door, keeping the pistol at my side as Edward entered the room. His shoulders slumped, his face paler than it had been only hours before.

Still glancing through the open door, my heart sank as I heard the snick of a safety. 'Please, God,' I thought. 'Don't make me shoot this man.'

I shook my head as I turned, the door swinging closed behind me. In the silence, the click of the latch sounded like the crack of a whip.

“Put your gun down, Edward. You're going to hurt somebody.” I moved in on him, forcing the older man to back up.

“I need the book!” he stammered. “I was supposed to pull it out of evidence, but you showed up too early this morning.”

“Can we talk about this?” I asked. “What is so important you would risk your career, your life, to take it?”

Edward's voice wavered. “I owe the wrong people a lot of money. They're gonna clear my marker if I give them that book. Don't you see? You have to give it to me!”

“Edward,” I said, “this isn't like you. Gambling debts? Really? I thought you were smarter than that.” As I spoke, I pushed further into the room scanning for the few things I couldn't leave without; my jacket, the money in the closet, the ring on the bed. Three more feet and I should be able to pick up what I needed before gunfire ended someone's day.

Dr. Collins knew he was in too deep and had played his only card. The front sight shimmied, the weight pulling it down. He valiantly lifted the gun and pointed it in my direction, but youth and experience won out over trepidation. As he sat on the floor, nursing the welt on his hand, I picked up the revolver and sank onto the bed, emptying the rounds into my hand.

“I don't know how much more of this I can take,” I said. “What were you thinking?”

Edward stared my pistol lying on the bed beside me, fear for what could be next evident in his features.

I rolled my eyes at him. “I'm not going to shoot you, for Pete's sake. We're friends. At least we used to be.” Sighing at this new predicament, I shook my head before grabbing Greg's things. I stowed the pistol in my waistband before donning my jacket, dropping his ammunition in the pocket. One last memory surfaced. My fingers skimmed the back of the mirror, disturbing a small post-it.

“Edward,” I said, inclining my head towards the closet. “There's a pile of cash in there. Take it and run. Do. Not. Follow me.” I scooped up the note before leaning over to grab a couple of stacks for myself. Stuffing them into my bag as I went, I backed myself to the door.

Out in the hallway, a faint noise drew my attention. The lights flickered before fading. Fearing for the coroner's life, I tossed the ammunition back into the room and pulled the door closed. As I sprinted for the back stairway, footsteps thundered behind me, and the whine of bullets strafed the air.

'Greg?' I asked, as the searing heat of a bullet found its mark. 'You'd better have answers for me.”

grief

About the author

Lisa VanGalen

I am a panster by nature, discovering my characters as they reveal themselves. To date, my novel writing has involved the paranormal or magick within a more familiar setting, blending it with mysteries, police procedurals, or thrillers.

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