Authors: Sandra Edwards
A desire to retaliate consumed Grace, but she fought it. Pissing him off wasn’t a good idea. And the only words floating around her head right now would have only brought out his resentment.
In a nutshell, as far as Grace could see, Eric resented her. He resented her presence. And he definitely resented her predicament.
Better to resent her for splitting, than loathe her for staying.
Grace strolled up onto the sidewalk.
Eric latched onto her wrist. “Would you come on?”
Her arm felt smaller than he’d let himself remember. Eric’s head filled with compromising memories that threatened to take his sanity and wash it downriver.
“What are we doing here?” she asked, as Eric hauled her toward the entrance.
“Just be cool and let me do the talking,” he said as the sliding doors parted. “I know that’s hard, but just try. Okay?”
“Very funny.” She yanked her arm away from Eric and shot him a fierce look.
He shushed her as they approached the reception desk.
“Lt. Colonel Wayne...” The enlisted girl behind the counter rose and saluted, examining him oddly. Perhaps because she’d never seen him out of uniform.
“There’s no need to salute me.” He scanned her nameplate with a stealthy glance. “Corporal Lynch.”
“I’m out of uniform,” he said with a shrug and a wink. “Tell me, is Sergeant Billings in today?”
“Yes sir, he is.” She sat back down in her chair. “I’ll tell him you’re here,” she said, reaching for the telephone.
Eric muttered his gratitude, turned to Grace and tugged her to a row of nearby chairs.
“Now can you tell me why we’re here?” she whispered. “What’s the plan?”
“I’m just calling in a favor, that’s all.” Eric folded his arms over his chest and relaxed in the chair. He had to keep his distance, and if that meant keeping her at arm’s length on all accounts then so be it. He had to find out what happened to the General, but he didn’t have to let her under his skin in the process.
Nope. That wasn’t an option. Once this was over, Grace Hendricks could go about her merry way, which suited Eric just fine—so long as it was as far away from him as possible.
The clerk popped her head up over the counter. “Sergeant Billings will see you now, sir.”
Eric stood and reached for Grace’s hand. They walked down the corridor behind the receptionist, and he said a silent prayer of thanks for Grace’s silence.
He paused in front of Billings’ door and glanced at Grace. “Just let me do the talking, and don’t stare.” He released her hand, opened the door and stepped aside so she could enter first.
Billings shot to his feet and moved around the desk. “Lt. Colonel Wayne,” he said, saluting with his only arm. Eric returned the gesture.
“Sergeant Billings.” Eric stepped in front of Grace to shake the sergeant’s hand.
“Sir, what can I do for you and...?” his words trailed off as he studied Grace.
“Billings, this is Grace Hendricks.” Eric paused, taking a brief interlude to check her. She showed no signs of gawking at the sergeant.
“This is Grace?” Excitement poured out in Billing’s voice. “It’s a pleasure to make your acquaintance,” he said, turning toward her. “I’ve heard so much about you. All of it good.”
She cast a quick,
look at Eric, then focused on Billings. “Thank you,” she said, shaking the sergeant’s hand.
“She’s the late General Hendricks’s daughter,” Eric said.
“General who?” The sergeant displayed an expression of sheer ignorance.
“Sorry,” Eric said. “I guess that was a little before your time here.”
“So what brings you to the Point today?” Billings asked. “Believe me, if I didn’t have to be here, I wouldn’t.”
“I was wondering if I could borrow your computer terminal for a few minutes.” Eric massaged his own arm. The right one. The same as the sergeant’s only remaining arm, and Eric wasn’t going to let him forget that. What good was a limb without a life? Billings wouldn’t have either, if not for Eric, and he wasn’t above playing the guilt card now if it got him what he wanted.
“I could get into huge trouble.” Billings shook his head.
“Of course, if we look but you don’t give us permission...” Grace’s voice trailed off.
“That would require my not being in the room, now wouldn’t it?” Billings said.
“Yes, it would.” Eric slipped his fingertips inside his back pockets.
Billings shook his head and moved back toward his desk. “Sorry, Colonel, I can’t help you. I’ve got a staff meeting in ten minutes.”
“Not a problem, Sergeant. Thank you for your time.”
Eric prayed Grace didn’t object. After a few minutes in the nearby rest rooms, he and Grace could slip back into the office after Billings had left.
She made no objection as he moved her toward the door and out into the hallway. Billings followed them out and headed in the opposite direction.
“Oh, Colonel,” Billings called after Eric.
Eric glanced over his shoulder and waited.
“Enjoy your retirement, sir.”
If Billings only knew. Eric gave a little wave as the sergeant turned away. After a few steps, Billings disappeared around the corner.
Eric took Grace by the upper arm and did an about-face, heading back into the sergeant’s office.
“Did he do that on purpose?” Grace asked. “Leave like that?”
“Yes.” Eric closed and locked the door behind them.
“What happened to him anyway?”
“He was injured in Iraq a couple of years ago.” He wasted no time, parking himself at the Sergeant’s desk.
“Oh...” Grace paused. “Where’d you meet him?”
“Iraq,” he said, typing away on the keyboard. “Look, can we stop with the chitchat? We don’t have very long.” Eric didn’t want to get into the particulars of his friendship with Sergeant Jacob Billings. The Marine Corps had branded Eric a hero. But he’d only done his job—save a fellow Marine—and he didn’t need any praises and accolades.
“How long is not very long?” she asked, veering off the subject of Sergeant Billings. Thank God.
“Ten minutes. Fifteen, tops.”
“What exactly are we looking for again?” she asked, lingering over his shoulder.
“As a former commander here at Cherry Point, there should be plenty of information about your father and hopefully his grave’s whereabouts.”
The documentation had to exist. It was only eleven years ago. Plenty of people should still be around who’d remember General Michael Hendricks.
Eric stared at the computer screen and a list detailing all of Cherry Point’s commanding generals since the base’s inception during World War II. A sick, heavy feeling weighted the pit of his gut.
One name was inexplicably absent.
General Michael Hendricks
THE halls of the Reception Center at Cherry Point buzzed with military personnel and a few carefully selected civilians.
Eightball had no trouble fitting in. He strolled along, clearly comfortable in his green Service Uniform, carrying a large manila envelope tucked under one arm. With each encounter in the corridor he’d smile to the civilians and salute those in uniform, and then continue on his way.
He’d waited a long time for this day. Ever since Michael Hendricks’s untimely death. That’s how long he’d been itching to get his hands on the man’s daughter. No matter how hard Eightball and his colleagues had tried, they hadn’t been able to locate Grace Hendricks. It was like a crack in the universe had opened up and devoured her.
And, spit her back out yesterday.
Eightball continued down the hall, finally reaching his destination. He entered the office and eased the door shut behind him. Seeing the receptionist’s desk empty, he figured the Major General’s secretary was probably out running an errand. Either that, or she was—
He ordered the notion out of his thoughts, bent his head and studied his hands. Eightball had enough good in him to induce him to pause briefly, long enough to knock on the interoffice door before entering. Just in case.
But he had enough
to tempt him not to wait for an invitation. The bad outweighed the good and he opened the door. Just in case.
Inside, the Major General—code name Torpedo—also wore the traditional Marine Corps uniform. And, he was alone.
Bummer. Eightball let out a disappointed sigh and entered the roomy office, devoid of personal taste in decorations. Everything was standard military issue, from the framed aviation photographs to the blue checkered chairs and the matching lampshades on the sixties-styled side tables. Magazines, all military related, were stacked to precision on a larger table between the chairs.
Sunlight filtered through vertical blinds and cast a band of dusty haze across the desk, partially blocking his colleague’s face. A memorable scent, spicy and a bit on the androgynous side, lingered in the air. Trident had been there.
Torpedo appeared neither surprised nor upset to see Eightball. After a moment of stone-faced expression, Torpedo’s face morphed into a display of gratification.
Damn. Torpedo always spoiled Eightball’s fun. They rarely let him kill anymore. His only joy these days, the element of surprise, had been reduced to rare occasions. And now, Torpedo seemed to take pride in robbing him of that. Was it too much to ask to be able to announce his triumph, as pitiful as it was, once in a while?
Eightball paused in front of his colleague and tossed a batch of eight-by-tens onto the desk. He laced his fingers in front of him and waited.
Torpedo scanned the photographs, recent and all of Grace Hendricks. The man’s girl-friendly face, clean-shaven and with Paul Newman eyes, gave nothing away about the thoughts running through his head.
Eightball hated that. Not the good-looking part—Eightball was all about the ladies—but the part where he could never tell what Torpedo was thinking. That always got on his nerves.
“They were taken yesterday.” An optimistic patience filled Eightball’s voice. Surely they’d let him go after her now that she’d been located.
“She was here?” Torpedo commented, amused. “To see Wayne, no doubt.”
Damn it. Was nothing sacred anymore? “What are we going to do about him, now that he’s retired?” An order to kill was too much to hope for. Eightball had gotten his hopes up before and it’d all come to nothing.
“To hell with Wayne.” Torpedo gave a dismissive wave. “I’ve been watching him for eleven years, you don’t think he moved up the ranks from Captain to Lt. Colonel in such a short time on his own merit, do you? He doesn’t know squat.”
“What do you want done?” Eightball asked, an obliging gleam lighting his tone.
“Find them. See what they’re up to.” Torpedo’s mood remained calm. “But don’t do anything drastic.” He paused, shaking his head. “It may be a false alarm.”
“Whatever it is,” Eightball said. “We’ll find out.”
Eightball longed to get back into the job that suited him best. Killing. And this incident might do the trick.
Hell, they’d been prepared to let him take her out eleven years ago, if she hadn’t disappeared.
GRACE had trouble wrapping her mind around the visit to Cherry Point. Why had her father’s name been omitted from the military installation’s records? Who had that kind of power?
She glanced around Eric’s dimly lit living room. The massive fireplace, a remnant from days gone by, persuaded her to think about things she shouldn’t. Like basking in the warm glow of a toasty fire on a cold winter’s night, in the arms of a man she’d given up to the past a long time ago.
She drew in a breath and caught a glimpse of Eric from the corner of her eye. Busted. He was looking straight at her. An overwhelming fear of two very different sorts—one centered around her father and the other on Eric’s imminent inquisition—set her panic in motion.
“What’s on your mind?” he asked, propping his feet onto the coffee table.
She cut her eyes toward him sitting in the chair kitty-cornered from her, and steered the conversation as far away from her mistakes as possible. “Why do you suppose daddy’s name wasn’t on that list?”
Eric shook his head. “Try as I might, Gracie, I can’t come up with even a farfetched reason for that.”
“What do you think we should do?” She tried to hide her insecurity. If Eric bailed on her, she was toast.
“My gut tells me we need to hit the road.” He paused, clasping his hands together behind his head. “But to where, I haven’t a clue.”
“Somebody out there knows what happened to my father.”
“That they do.”
“How do we find out who that is?” Uncertainty hovered in Grace’s mind. “How do we differentiate the good guys from the bad?”
“I have a feeling, if we trust the wrong people we might end up like the General.” There was no malice in his words, just wisdom.
“If it’s all the same with you,” she said, “I’ll let you choose who we trust and who we don’t.” Her track record for making decisions hadn’t been the greatest since her father died.
Eric glimpsed at his watch and then lifted his gaze to meet Grace’s. “Why don’t you grab a couple hours rest?” he suggested. “We’re going to be leaving as soon as it gets dark.”
“Where are we going?”
“I haven’t decided yet.”
Maybe that’s why he was waiting for dark—to think of somewhere to go. No matter the reason, she decided he was right. She’d better rest while she had the chance.
Grace pushed up from the couch. “I’m going to follow your advice.” She pointed toward the hallway and the guest room he’d offered her. “Wake me when you’re ready to leave?”
“Sure.” His smile was a defeated yet determined attempt.
Plenty was left to say, but she didn’t want to go there. Instead, Grace took the easy way out, heading toward the hallway with her worries and insecurities intact. Better to hide inside the silence of a lonely, empty room than give Eric a chance to ask questions when he probably wouldn’t like the answers.
Grace opened the bedroom door and her instincts urged her to run. But she’d already done that, and look how it turned out.
It had seemed like a good idea at the time. Heading to the Cape for some alone-time was supposed to help her come to terms with her father’s death.
She hadn’t told anybody but Eric that she was leaving or where she was going. It was their special place and nobody else needed to know about it. Early in their relationship they’d gone up the coast and ended up spending a long weekend at a seaside inn. And, immediately following her father’s death, the Cape was the only place she could think of that brought her peace.
The trip was only supposed to last a few weeks, at the most. And when she left, she had every intention of coming back. She just needed a little time to accept the way her father had died. Suicide.
But her chosen path to solace had failed Grace. The only place it led was rehab, five years later.
Her instincts hadn’t exactly been reliable back then, so why should she think it’d turn out any differently now?
f any part of Eric had contemplated walking away from Grace at the cemetery, that opportunity passed when he discovered the General’s name was no longer associated with Cherry Point’s records.
Eric stared at the fireplace. Maybe he should retrieve
. Assuming it was still there. Yesterday he would have thought that likely, but in light of the General’s disappearance, anything was possible.
The General had done some odd things in the months before he died. Things to which Grace wasn’t privy. But none of the man’s past behavior could’ve prepared Eric for yesterday’s outcome.
The clock above the mantel said Grace had been in her room for a little over an hour. He let two more hours pass before he dared to make his move.
Eric stood and took quiet steps across the room before sitting on the hearth. Leaning back into the firebox, he reached up inside the chimney’s flue. The bricks were rough and covered in soot, but that didn’t deter Eric. He searched for the loose, telltale brick. Once he got a decent grip on it, it came out with relative ease. Eric lifted himself up to feel inside the hole.
The small metal container, barely larger than a matchbox, was cool to the touch. Understandable since Eric hadn’t started a fire in weeks. He popped the top and exhaled his relief upon seeing the key inside.
He’d kept it safe, and a secret, for eleven years. Before that, who knew how long the General had kept it hidden. A few weeks before his death, the General had revealed a clandestine compartment well-concealed inside his desk at home. Of course it was empty back then, and the General had never explained why it needed to be a secret.
Yet, Michael Hendricks’ gentle insistence had stayed with Eric all these years.
If anything should ever happen to him, and it was followed by strange occurrences, Eric should go to the desk, where he’d find something inside it this time. He should remove it and share its existence with no one but Grace
Eric didn’t immediately retrieve the contents after the General died. But when Grace failed to meet him at Pink’s a few weeks later, he’d gone to the Cape looking for her and found her gone. That was his cue.
He’d taken the key and hidden it with painstaking deliberation, in each new location he was stationed, and he’d never shared its existence with anyone. That had more to do with his pride than anything else because Eric had always thought it led to something to do with him and Grace, on a personal level—to which Eric didn’t care about the spoils.
In light of the last couple of days, he began to buy into the notion that whatever it led to, it was big. Maybe even dangerous.
Eric examined the General’s bounty, letting his curiosity over what the number thirty-six—the only engraving on the key—might mean.
Hearing Grace’s bedroom door open, he quickly fished his wallet out of his back pocket and stuffed the key in the compartment behind his credit cards.
“Sleep well?” he asked as she appeared around the corner.
Grace laughed. “About as well as can be expected, I guess.” She raked her gaze over Eric and it left him feeling nostalgic. “So, are we still splitting?”
“Yes, we are.” He pointed to a duffle bag beside the door leading to the kitchen. He’d tossed in a few changes of clothing while she was sleeping.
She looked like she wanted to say something, probably ask where they were going. Hell if he knew. His plan was just to get in the car and start driving.
“You still don’t know where we’re going, do you?” Her words were an inquiry but her voice didn’t deliver it that way. She’d said it like she knew what she was talking about.
She could see right through him. Eric hated that about Grace. “I don’t know what’s going on.” He shook his head. “But I get the feeling that what you’ve stumbled upon is much bigger than you. Me. Even your father.” He paused, still unable to wrap his head around it. “This could get ugly. You have to promise me that you’ll do exactly as I say, whenever I say.”
Eric couldn’t stress the importance of that enough. She had to listen to him and she had to do it without argument. Their lives just might depend upon it before this thing was over.