Listen to an audio excerpt of Life Everlasting:
The light shineth in the darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.
--John 1:5 kjv
Baxter Richardson opened his eyes. He didn't know where he was or how he had gotten there, but the pale white ceiling pushed aside the impenetrable darkness that had threatened to engulf him. He lay still, not yet aware that he couldn't do anything else.
He heard a woman singing. With the sound came a memory. He closed his eyes. Music had rescued him from the abyss and guided him through the black mist. Without the music, he would never have found his way to the light.
He opened his mouth to speak, to ask a question of the singing voice. But all that came out was a groan. The singing voice stopped. A speaking voice replaced it.
"Mr. Richardson, I'm Sarah Locklear, one of the nurses taking care of you. Can you hear me?"
Baxter tried to open his eyes a second time, but they refused to obey.
"Mr. Richardson," the voice repeated. "You're at home in Santee in the cottage next door to your house. Your wife is there now. Do you want me to get her?"
The darkness reappeared. The young man fought to drive it back.
"Did you hear the music?"
Baxter watched in terror as the darkness grew until it met over his head like a great black bowl.
"If you can hear me, make a sound."
Baxter moaned in agony of soul. The circle of darkness was complete, and the sides began to move slowly, inexorably, downward. Once the inky gloom enveloped him, he knew he would be dead. Lower and lower it came. He gasped for breath.
"Praise God!" the voice said. "Thank you, Jesus."
The darkness moved to within inches of Baxter's face and stopped, an invisible force held at bay by an unseen power.
The singing voice returned. The stalemate continued. But as the voice grew stronger, tiny flashes of light began to streak across the dark like shooting stars, glimmers of hope in a hopeless world. Baxter listened. The melody rose to a higher place. The pinpoints of light increased. Their flickering glory didn't fade.
Baxter took a deep breath.
Rena Richardson rolled over in bed and opened her eyes. Her hair had fallen over her face, and when she looked sleepily toward the bedroom door, she mistook the man standing there for a few strands of blonde hair twisted together. She brushed the hair from her face. The figure remained. She jerked awake and sat up.
"Who is it?" she called out, her voice echoing in the large bedroom. She reached for the nightstand drawer.
The man stayed in the shadows without moving. Rena opened the drawer and felt the cool barrel of the pistol. She grabbed the gun.
Her voice trembled. "I have a gun!"
The man didn't move or speak. Rena pointed the pistol, but her hand shook so badly she wasn't sure she could hit the doorway, much less an intruder half hidden in the shadows.
The man still refused to budge. Rena squinted and rubbed her eyes with her left hand. Suspicion surfaced. Still holding the gun, she reached over and turned on a small lamp. The dim beam barely reached across the room to the door, but there was no mistaking the identity of her visitor.
Rena collapsed back onto the pillow for a moment and shut her eyes before bouncing up for another look.
"Are you still there?" she asked peevishly.
The figure continued to stare at her impassively.
"You know, if you would talk, it would make everything more realistic," she said.
Usually her husband left at the sound of her voice.
"What do you want from me? I don't have anything for you!"
The figure stayed put.
"Why don't you die and get a life?" Rena yelled.
The incongruity of her question struck her as funny. She gave a short laugh.
"That's it!" she called out. "Get a life!"
Rena threw off the covers and stood. She'd had enough. Always before, her husband had disappeared when confronted. If need be, she would put her fist through his face to prove him false. She glanced down at the floor to retrieve one of her satin slippers. When she looked up, Baxter was gone. She rushed to the hallway and turned on the light. Nothing. She went to the top of the stairs and looked down. Except for the usual nighttime creaks, the old house was deserted.
"And don't come back!" she screamed. "Do you hear me? Don't come back!"
Alexia Lindale sat at the desk in her makeshift office typing the last few lines of a letter to the lawyer on the other side of a divorce case. Her phone buzzed.
"Alex, it's Rena Richardson," said the receptionist for the real-estate company where Alex was temporarily quartered. "She says it's urgent."
Everything with Rena was urgent.
The transfer went through and Alex picked up the receiver. "What is it?"
Rena's breathless voice held the twang of the Appalachian hills where she'd been raised. "Jeffrey came to see me this morning. He gave me the information you need to sue his father for using the power of attorney to transfer property out of Baxter's name."
"What kind of information?"
"Names of companies, how much Baxter owned before the accident, and the amount that he owns now."
Alex picked up a folder from the stack of Richardson files on the corner of her desk. Inside was a copy of a durable power of attorney Baxter had signed at age eighteen giving his father, Ezra, absolute control over his personal and business affairs.
"Give them to me."
Rena listed the names of the companies and percentages of ownership. Alex didn't recognize any of the entities. In a small town like Santee, the identity of every viable local business enterprise should be common knowledge.
"They're probably shell companies or subsidiaries of Richardson and Company set up for particular projects," Alex said.
"I don't know what you're talking about."
The lawyer ran her fingers through her dark hair. "I'm thinking out loud. I'll need you to fax Jeffrey's list to me. Did Jeffrey tell you why he is willing to sabotage his father?"
"He wants to help me and thinks it's wrong what Ezra's doing to me and Baxter."
Alex had heard this before, yet remained unconvinced of Jeffrey's altruism.
Her client continued, "And he still doesn't know that you know he's giving me information. He wrote down the names of several Richardson employees and said I should mention them if anyone asks how you found out what Ezra is doing."
"I'm not going to do that," Alex retorted. "And I won't let you do it either. If you're questioned under oath about your sources, you'll have to tell the truth. Jeffrey can't hide behind you."
"You don't understand," Rena said. "It's not like that. He wants to help me."
Alex drew a small target in the margin of her legal pad and put Rena's initials in the bull's-eye.
"Why would Jeffrey turn on his father and risk so much to help a woman who married his brother only six months ago? How can you trust him?"
Rena's voice revealed a hint of panic. "Don't argue with me. Just check out the information. I can't make Jeffrey . . ." she stopped.
"Mad?" Alex offered. "What is going on, Rena?"
The phone was silent for a moment.
"It's not that," Rena answered in a calmer tone. "It's best for me to cooperate with him. We can help each other. He doesn't think it will be necessary to go very far with a lawsuit before his father will back down. Then it won't be necessary to tell who gave us the information."
"I can't count on that," Alex said. "And it's foolish to think that filing a lawsuit against someone as powerful as your father-in-law is going to scare him into doing the right thing. Using the power of attorney to transfer property from Baxter's name is technically legal, and it will take a court order to stop him. A judge won't do that without convincing evidence that Ezra is wielding the power of attorney as a weapon to defraud you."
"He backed down about the money he took from our checking account and returned it," Rena countered.
"True," Alex admitted. "But that was only a few thousand dollars. How much do you think Baxter's share of these companies is worth? Did Jeffrey give you any idea?"
"No, but he said he could get whatever you need. He just doesn't want to do anything that will ruin the businesses."
"How would making Ezra restore the status quo hurt the businesses?"
"That's just what he told me."
"It's not good enough."
"Why are you giving me such a hard time? You're supposed to be helping me, not making everything more stressful than it already is."
"Okay," Alex said. "Fax over the information, and I'll think about what to do."
"Will other people at your office see it? I'm sure Jeffrey doesn't want anyone else to know what he's doing."
Alex sighed. "If you promise to send it in the next five minutes, I'll stand by the fax machine and snatch it up before anyone else can read it."
"And when will you file suit?" Rena asked. "I want to do it as soon as possible."
"I'll call you."
Alex hung up the phone and walked down the hallway to the small room that contained the fax and copy machines. In less than a minute, the fax machine began to spit out a single sheet of paper. Alex held it lightly in her fingers as it inched out of the machine. She glanced down at the list of companies. During the six years she worked at Leggitt & Freeman, Alex knew that Ezra Richardson had hired Ralph Leggitt to set up multiple companies and perform legal work in scores of business deals. Though Alex had avoided business law to focus on domestic litigation, she wasn't a total stranger to corporate structures. In divorce cases she often had to uncover information that businessmen concealed from their wives, and ferreting out key pieces of financial data was one of Alex's strengths. Many ex-husbands still bore the fiscal scars of the beatings she'd given them when they tried to hide assets.
The lawyer took Jeffrey's list back to her office and put it in her briefcase. It was late afternoon, and a new investigation would have to wait. As she snapped her briefcase shut and entered the hallway, she almost collided with Rachel Downey, the startlingly blonde real-estate broker who owned the building. Rachel, a short, jolly woman with a penchant for multiple rings, was always ready for a chat.
"Glad I caught you," Rachel said. "I drove by the house on King Street this afternoon. I'm even more convinced that it's going to make a great office for you. When is your contractor going to start the renovation?"
"Soon. We were together this afternoon, but we didn't talk business."
Rachel raised her eyebrows. "Gwen Jones told me you were spending a lot of time with your contractor. Isn't he also some kind of minister?"
Alex smiled. "Yes, he's the music minister at the Sandy Flats Church. What else did Gwen say?"
Rachel stepped closer. "That she was going to leave Leggitt & Freeman as soon as your office is up and running. She's already picked out a secretarial desk and credenza."
"Well, keep that quiet. If one of the partners finds out, they'll fire her before I'm ready to start paying her."
Rachel lowered her voice. "Your plans are safe with me."
Alex was less sure.
Rachel continued. "Tell me more about your music-loving contractor."
Alex stepped back. "There's not much to tell. He's a minister who plays the piano."
"And from what I've heard, he's quite a bit older than you are."
"He was in the seventh grade when I was born."
Alex watched as Rachel quickly did the math in her head.
"With a daughter almost as old as you are," the Realtor added.
"She's in her early twenties, Rachel. I'm pushing past thirty-one."
Rachel sniffed. "A virtual old maid. I was already on my second husband by your age."
Alex laughed. "So, what's wrong with me trying to catch up? Don't you think it's about time I got married? I need at least a couple of husband scalps under my belt before I turn forty." Alex patted Rachel on the arm. "And that's all the personal information you're prying out of me. The reason Ted and I were together today had to do with Baxter Richardson."
Rachel raised her pencil-thin eyebrows. "I didn't think the Richardson clan went to church."
"Sandy Flats is not their church. Ted asked me to go with him because I represent Rena and could get him in to see Baxter." Alex paused, not knowing how to explain to Rachel that Ted Morgan saw music as a form of prayer for a sick person. She wasn't sure about it herself.
"Is it true that Rena put Baxter in the cottage next door to their house?" Rachel asked.
"Yes. They've turned it into a long-term care facility."
"How is he doing?"
"No closer to waking up than the first time I saw him in ICU in Greenville. He's in a coma and paralyzed from the neck down. He's breathing on his own, but that's about it. His mental status is a mystery."
Rachel shook her head. "He's the best of the lot. I've brokered some deals with his father, but I had to watch him like a hawk, and Jeffrey is just as bad or worse. He tried to cheat me out of a commission but back-pedaled in a hurry when I caught him."
Rachel's tongue could be smooth as soft butter when describing a house for sale, but she wouldn't hesitate to use it as a dagger if attacked or swindled. Jeffrey was wise to back down.
"If anybody else tries to take advantage of you, call me," Alex said. "I'll write them a nasty letter."
Rachel fluffed up her hair. "That's okay. You did great work getting me out of my last huge marital mistake. I'll save you for the big problems."
"Then get a prenuptial agreement and don't fall for a guy just because he buys you rings."
Rachel held up her hands and wiggled her bejeweled fingers. "Don't worry, I've run out of room."
Rachel pointed to the lawyer's bare left hand and exclaimed as if making a grand discovery, "Look, Alex, you've got plenty of space!"