She was washing dishes when her world began to blur.
Chelsea Adams hitched in a breath, skin pebbling. She knew the dreaded sign all too well. God was pushing a vision into her consciousness.
Black dots crowded her sight. She dropped a plate, heard it crack against the porcelain sink. Her fingers fumbled for the faucet. The hiss of water ceased.
God, I don’t want this. Please!
But this one was strong; no stopping it now. Chelsea's legs jellied. She stumbled across the kitchen and collapsed into a chair.
The room went black. Chelsea gripped the edge of her seat with palsied hands—and waited . . .
First, an overwhelming sense of evil. It rolled over her, terrifying, oppressive. Crushing her lungs as though she’d been shoved into a black, airless cave. She struggled to breathe.
Far away through the darkness, a vague image began to shimmer. The kitchen chair fell from beneath her . . .
Chelsea tumbled into the vision.
She landed . . . somewhere . . . with a jarring thud.
Chelsea blinked. Found herself staring at a dirty oval window. Filtering dim light into a small room.
Where am I?
Awareness grew. She sensed herself in someone’s body, seeing the room through this person’s eyes. Someone imprisoned there, shell-shocked and trembling. She felt the person’s bare feet against cold concrete. The place smelled dusty, close. Claustrophobic. The walls closed in. Panic seized Chelsea.
I have to get out, I have to get—
Wait. What was that, on the floor?
A barely visible figure. Hunched, head down.
A sudden noise on Chelsea's left. Her nerves flared. She heard a male voice, scratching out whispers. Vile explanations, deathly warnings too horrible to imagine. She cringed at the words, heart flinging itself against her ribs. Let me out, let me out, let me out . . .
A click, and red light filtered into the grayness. Slowly, Chelsea's eyes adjusted.
The terror of the room froze her blood.
Our nightmare started with a mundane errand.
I was driving my SUV away from the Redding Municipal Airport, my sister in the passenger seat. She aimed a martyr’s sigh out the window. "I miss my airplane already."
I shook my head. "Jenna, your precious airplane isn’t parked that far away from the house. Small price to pay for a few weeks, wouldn’t you say? Just think how much you’ll like the longer runway at Grove Landing."
"We don’t need the longer runway." She couldn’t hide the pout in her voice. "It’s our neighbors with their fancy twin engines who just have to have more space."
So that was it. I threw her a glance, a sage smile crooking my mouth.
"What?" Jenna’s velvet brown eyes glowered at me.
I affected a shrug. "Nothing."
"Don’t tell me 'nothing,' I know that look on your face."
Wow, she was in a mood today. "You’re just jealous of those neighbors. You want a bigger plane."
"I do not."
"Uh-huh." Private pilots are a strange breed, never satisfied. They always want the next electronics system, the latest turbo-charged engine. Whatever's better and bigger. Especially bigger.
Jenna huffed and folded her arms. We drove in silence.
"What’s with you anyway?" I turned north, headed for Foothill High School to pick up my daughter, Kelly, and her best friend, Erin. School would be letting out in about five minutes. "You’ve been out of sorts all morning."
Air seeped from Jenna’s throat. "Yeah, well, I have a reason. I’m mad at Eric."
"Oh." Trouble in paradise. "What happened?"
"He was a jerk last night. When it comes right down to it, all men are jerks." She frowned and turned away.
At one time I would have agreed with her, but no more. Not since Dave and I had started dating—if that’s what you could call our painfully slow process. At any rate, Dave Willit was not a jerk. My voice softened. "Tell me about it."
"We need milk."
"Huh?" Jenna pointed at a 7-Eleven ahead on the right. "Stop there so we can buy some milk. We’re out."
My sister is seven years younger than I but bosses me like a nagging mother. The trait only worsens when she’s upset. I’ve learned to roll with it. "Okay."
I slowed the SUV and turned into the small 7-Eleven parking lot, pulling up next to the walkway leading into the store. Three other cars filled spaces around us, two on our left, on the other side of the entrance walk, and one immediately to our right. Switching off the engine, I turned to Jenna. Her beautiful, heart-shaped face looked pinched. "So first tell me what happened."
She narrowed her eyes, focusing ahead at the store. "We sort of argued."
"I gathered that. And?"
She turned to me, words spilling. “He went out with someone else! Which I suppose is his right, because we’re not dating exclusively. But he lied to me about it, told me he wasn’t seeing anyone but me. When I caught him in his little fib, he tried to squirm out of it by telling a bigger lie . . .”
My peripheral vision caught frantic movement in the rear view mirror. I blinked, focused on it.
". . . and I am so sick of men who can’t tell the truth. You’d think for once . . ."
Someone sprinting across the street toward the store. A young man. Caucasian. Shoulder length blond hair.
". . . I’m just not going to put up with it . . ."
Wait. Another young man behind him, chasing.
With a gun.
My mouth opened but no sound came. I threw out my right hand, gripped Jenna’s arm. She stopped mid-sentence. "What—"
I whipped my head around. The first young man hit the curb, flew over it into the 7-Eleven parking lot. He raced toward our car, the second man barreling behind him.
"Get down!" I grabbed behind her neck, pulled her low across the console, and pressed on top of her. My eyes squeezed shut. Footsteps pounded past my window—
A body slammed into the door of the building. I raised my head a few inches, peeked through the windshield. The 7-Eleven door smacked open, the man streaking through it into the store. He swiveled left, aimed for the check-out counter. His pursuer thumped past us, hit the door as it was closing and flung it wide. The first man reached the counter and dove over it. The store clerk shouted, jumped out of the way. Somebody screamed. In seconds the pursuer rammed into the counter, flattened himself upon it. Up came the gun.
Bam. Bam, bam. Bam.
"What’s happening?" Jenna squirmed under me. I held her down.
The shooter pushed off the counter, twisted toward the door. He’d have to run right by our car . . . and this time he might notice us. I pressed my head back down, air pooling in my throat.
Jesus, protect us.
The door slammed open. My heart slammed with it.
God, please . . .
Footsteps pounded toward our car . . .
And past us.
A wail from inside the store rent the air.
I counted to ten.
Cautiously, I raised my head, glanced through the rear window. The shooter was streaking across the street toward an alley. Soon he would be out of sight.
The whole thing couldn’t have taken more than sixty seconds.
Jenna heaved herself off the console, forcing me up. Strands of her thick auburn hair were stuck to her lips. "What happened, what happened, where’s my gun?
She carries a two-inch barrel Chief Special in her purse, identical to the one in mine. But it was too late. Screams staccatoed from the store. A woman staggered outside, yelling, "Call the police, call the police!" Jenna and I shoved our doors open and hit the pavement. I reached the woman first, gripping both shoulders to steady her.
"Are you hurt?"
She shook her head, sobbing. "But a man in there, and a boy . . ." She turned a shocked expression toward the store.
Jenna ran back to the car, grabbed her purse and snatched out her cell phone. I eased the woman down on the curb and rushed into the building.
A teenage girl hunched near check-out, knuckles pressed to her mouth. I hurried around the counter. A man knelt beside the young clerk, now sprawled upon the floor, his face white. Blood oozed from his right thigh. Beside him lay the crumpled body of the young man who’d been chased. That man’s face was pressed toward the floor, hair matted red. The left side of his head had been blown away. Oh, dear God. Two bullet holes plunged into his back. He wasn’t moving.
The clerk moaned.
"Just stay still; we’ll call for help." The kneeling customer reached into his pocket and withdrew a cell phone.
"My sister’s already called." My words sounded hiccupped, ragged. I moved around the customer and clerk toward the still form. Bile rose in my throat. I leaned down to look at the face, trembling in fear of what I would see. Please, Lord, please—I sucked in a breath. Nearly gagged. One cheek and an eye were gone. Obliterated. I steadied myself, swallowed hard. Felt for a pulse in his neck. Nothing. Checked for breath. None.
Numbly, I straightened.
"How are they?" Jenna’s voice, firm, controlled, came from above me and across the counter. Both her handbag and mine hung over one arm, a cell phone at her ear. My fast-thinking sister. Even in the chaos, she’d thought about securing our purses—and the guns inside.
I shook my head." This one’s gone."
The teenage girl rattled out a wail. The woman who’d staggered outside appeared behind Jenna, face flushed. My sister spoke the news into her phone, then looked to the young clerk. “Second man down, white, maybe nineteen years old. He’s been shot in the thigh. He’s conscious.” She paused. “Yeah, I’ll stay on the line. How far away are they?” She looked to me. “Police car will be here in two minutes. Ambulance in five.”
I nodded. " Did you tell them who we are?" Any dispatcher in Redding would know my name.
"Yes." "Okay." I glanced at the young clerk’s leg. "Jenna, can you find me something to place against that wound?" I moved over to kneel beside him, gently touching his shoulder. "Hey. What’s your name?"
"T-Toby Brown." He groaned. "It hurts!"
His pain squeezed my throat. "I know. Help is going to be here real soon. You’ll be okay."
"I’m Ken." The man on the other side of Toby patted his hand. "She’s right, you’ll be fine. And we’ll get that guy who shot you, don’t you worry."
"Did you get a look at him?" I asked.
Ken shook his head. "It happened so fast, and I was in the back of the store."
"Annie, here.” Jenna held a new roll of paper towels over the counter. "I don’t see any kind of packaged cloths."
"These’ll do." I took the roll, tore off a long strip and folded the paper towels over on themselves. Carefully I pressed them against Toby’s oozing wound. He winced and I bit my lip. "Sorry. Just don’t want the bleeding to get too bad."
He managed a nod.
I bit my lip. "Toby, did you see the man who shot you?"
One for our side. I hadn’t seen the shooter at all. I'd been too busy focusing on the gun in his hand. How stupid. Of all people, I should have noticed his features.
Toby whimpered, started to shake.
"I think he’s going into shock." I looked to Ken, who wore only a short-sleeved shirt. Then to the girl. Even in the hot weather, she had on a light jacket. "Can you give me your coat? We need to keep him warm."
Words and actions flowed in those suspended minutes while we waited for the police. I covered Toby with the jacket, Jenna reporting everything to the 911 dispatcher. The teenage girl told us her name was Christine, and the woman identified herself as Mary. Neither of them had seen the shooter’s face either. All of us avoided looking at the dead body mere feet away. In its silent stillness, it screamed at me. Somewhere out there a mother and father, brother, sister, friends, would soon mourn him. Who was he? Why had he been chased like that—in broad daylight—and killed? Anger at the senselessness of his death coagulated in my chest. The man who’d done this would be found. And I’d do anything I could to help apprehend him.
Toby's face cinched with pain. Ken and I soothed him, my heart clutching. I tried to distract him, asking his age. " Eighteen," he managed, every breath careful, his chest shuddering. I pressed my eyes shut. My own son was seventeen.
"Are you in high school?" I rubbed his arm.
"Yeah.” He shivered. "A senior at Central Valley High."
Oh, God, help him. Stephen’s a senior, too. What if this had happened to my son?
Ken surveyed me, a look of recognition smoothing his face. “Now I know who you are. Annie Kingston, right? The forensic artist.”
I kept my focus on Toby, feeling the familiar self-consciousness. "Yeah, that’s me." Christine gasped. "Oh, wow. You’re the one the Poison Killer—"
"Listen." I held up a hand, glad for a reason to cut her off. Sirens sounded in the distance.
Jenna trotted to the entrance. The sirens wailed louder, suddenly upon us. "They’re here."
Police burst through the door, two ambulances not far behind. In moments the store turned into a scene of bustling uniforms, voices over radio, revolving red and blue lights. Jenna handed me my purse, and along with the other witnesses we were herded out of the store. From the parking lot we all watched as officers strung up yellow crime scene tape. Paramedics made sure Toby was stabilized, loaded him into their vehicle and bore him to the hospital. The man who had been pursued by the shooter was pronounced dead.
Even though I'd known, the official word pierced me. I grieved for the man and his family. And for the entire town. Only three months had passed since the Poison Killer was caught. Three months of calm in Redding, of newness in my own life. I was not ready to have that peace disturbed, and neither was our town. We had barely enjoyed enough time to heal from the nightmare of a serial murderer and all the national media that descended upon us when that case finally broke.
God, once again the people in Redding are going to need You.
My cell phone rang. I pulled it from my purse and saw Kelly’s number displayed on the ID. Oh, great. She and Erin would be wondering where we were. I didn't relish telling them what had happened. The girls and Stephen were protective enough of me, after all I'd been through. With a meaningful glance at Jenna, I flipped open the phone.
"Mom, where are you?" my daughter demanded.
"Oh, we’ll be there soon." Lightness forced itself into my tone. "I was just picking up Jenna after she flew the plane over to the Redding airport. Remember she has to keep it there while they lengthen the runway at home?"
A sigh. "Okay, but will you hurry? Erin and I have this major project to do for English, and we need to get started on it."
"Be there as soon as we can. Has Stephen already left for work?"
"Yeah. He had to be at the video store fifteen minutes after school let out."
Should I call and tell him what happened? I didn’t want the news to filter to him from someone else.
"All right, Kelly. Just hang around with your friends, and we’ll be there as soon as we can."
I hung up and slid the phone back into my purse. Jenna gave me an empathetic look. "You’re going to have to tell them, you know."
I shook my head at the thought. Here we go again. More disaster. "Yeah. I think I’d better call Stephen at work while we’re on the way to pick up the girls."
With ambulances gone, officers Fred Sparks and Raymond Bradet, joined by homicide detective Tim Blanche, began questioning the witnesses. On the sidewalk behind us, a curious crowd had begun to swarm like stirred-up bees. Someone said my name, and it buzzed from one mouth to another.
"That's Annie Kingston."
"You know who she is."
Even though the town hailed me a hero, the whispers stung. My mere presence spelled extra sensationalism. I couldn’t blame them; history was on their side. But I hated it.
My eyes grazed the crowd—and landed on Adam Bendershil, reporter from the Record Searchlight. He darted among people, jotting in his notepad. At that moment he looked up, and our eyes met. I turned my back on him.
Detective Tim Blanche beckoned me and Jenna into the taped-off area, his face stern. "You see the guy, Annie?" His penetrating blue eyes bore into me. I suppressed a wince. Blanche was not one of my favorites at the Redding Police Department, to say the least. He was far too arrogant, with those raised eyebrows and a frequent curl to one side of his mouth. I didn’t think he cared for me either. I’d heard rumors of his cynical remarks about my belief in God and prayer. Blanche was in his midforties with three kids, the oldest of which had recently graduated from Foothill High. He had thick, salt and pepper hair and a large mole on his left cheek.
I felt slack-limbed, shaky. "Afraid not. Everything happened way too fast."
He narrowed his eyes, almost in accusation, then glanced toward the store. "Well, let’s hope the security cameras did their job. Should have caught it, as long as the tape’s in good condition.”
"I hope so."
Jenna mumbled in agreement. The press of her lips bespoke her righteous anger over the entire affair. No doubt she was ruing her own failure to grab her gun and go after the fleeing killer. If I hadn’t been on top of her, that’s exactly what she would have done. Might have gotten herself killed too.
My sister and I gave our statements. It seemed to take forever. By the time we finished I could barely breathe. Anxiety snapped at me like some salivating beast. Get a grip, Annie, think of the poor victim. At least you and Jenna are alive. But I had a bad feeling this wouldn’t be the end of it. One man was already dead, another wounded. And we’d been witnesses.
We climbed into the SUV to head for Foothill High School, my heart skidding. Jenna insisted on driving. As we rolled through the parking lot, a television news van showed up at the curb. A man spilled out, raised his camera, the red light on. I ducked. Our car jostled as we entered the street. I could hear Adam Bendershil calling through my closed window. "Ms. Kingston, can you tell us what happened?"
After a few turns, Jenna touched my arm. "Okay, you can come up now."
I uncurled my spine, leaned back against the head-rest, wishing I could feel as strong as my sister. God, I'm the Christian here. Help me rest in Your power.
The scenes started rolling then. They always do.
In my head resides something akin to a film projector. During times of stress it tends to spit vividly colored images on my brain’s movie screen. Now it spewed sequences of
the shooter running straight toward our car, gun jerking up and down in his hand . . .
Toby’s pinched white face. "It hurts!" . . .
A bloodied, shattered head. A cheek and eye—blown away . . .
I squeezed my eyes shut. Forced the memories away.
From my purse, my cell phone sounded. I withdrew it to see Kelly's number. Pulling in a breath, I answered the call.
"Mom!" My daughter poured the impatience of a beleaguered fifteen-year-old into her voice. " What’s taking you so long?"