Savannah Fire Excerpt

ONE 


     Patricia Falcon stood on the porch just a couple of feet from Faith’s door, alert for any hint of a threat. Faith had called an hour ago ... had confirmed her husband was at work ... had said she was ready to go ... had agreed to a pickup at two. They were on time, so where was Faith?

     Patricia shivered. Had Faith’s husband bullied her again? Had he beaten her senseless? Patricia took a deep breath, cut short by her close-fitted armored vest. Had Faith’s husband found out she was leaving him? Was he in there, his gun barrel in Faith’s mouth, waiting for Patricia and her colleagues to walk away?

          She touched the holstered gun on her hip. They were citizens armed for protection, not for forced entry.
​If Faith didn’t come to the door of her own free will, they had to leave. But, there was no need to rush away. Work like this took patience, a time-taught hard lesson learned and relearned. Patricia smoothed back her shoulder-length blonde hair.
          Had Faith changed her mind? Leaving an abuser was hard for most victims. The shelter required they only come when they were ready.
          But Faith had made the call, had said she wanted to leave, and Patricia, the shelter’s voluntary emissary, was here to help. She pulled her smart phone from its hip-mounted case, highlighted the number of the cell phone the chaplain had given Faith on her discharge from the hospital, and pressed the call icon. 
          Ring. Ring.
          She shifted weight. Come on. Answer the phone. Concern rose like a high tide, then flooded her in waves. Anchored by the desire to successfully complete the task, Patricia twisted at the waist and snapped her gaze left and right, checking the surroundings for threats. The three of them were on the abuser’s porch in an unfamiliar neighborhood. A depressed realm with its own rules. They were easy targets. If the abuser wasn’t inside, had a neighbor called him and told him there were strangers on his porch? Was he on his way back home? How long did they have before he pulled up, gun in hand, to defend his property? It had happened before and the thought that it could happen today made her jumpy.
          The damn phone kept ringing. Where the hell was Faith?
          “Hello,” came a weak female voice from Patricia’s phone.
          “Faith?”
          “Ye-ah.”
          “It’s two o’clock.”
          “Oh.”
          Patricia let out an impatient breath. “We’re on your porch. You wanted to go to the shelter, didn’t you?"     
          “Ye-ah.”
          “It’s time to go. Where are you?”
          “In bed. I got tired. I suppose it was them pain killers they gabe me at the hospital. Just a sec. I’ll be right out.”
          “Is your husband at home?”
          “No. He be at work, don’t cha know. Won’t be home ‘til after five, if dat man come home at all.”
          Moments later, the weathered door eased open on squeaky hinges. Apparently Faith didn’t get many visitors. Pungent air came from within. The smell of decay. A tiny, thin middle-aged woman stood in the shadowed foyer. Patricia’s heart sank. Large purple bruises puffed the woman’s pale face and forearms. Her mousey hair was pulled back into a ponytail that seemed to accentuate her sad brown eyes. Though clearly a victim, Faith stood straight, projecting determination. Good for her.
          “Faith?”
          “Yes,” the woman said in a trembling voice.
          “I’m Patricia from the shelter.” Patricia gestured to either side. “This is Meredith and Judith. Are you ready to go?”
          Faith nodded.
          “Okay. Let’s do it.”
          Faith picked up a tattered suitcase and a limp teddy bear.
          Patricia stepped aside and Faith, tears cascading down her cheeks, shuffled out. In the outside light, some of her wounds seemed more recent than the chaplain at Falcon Memorial Hospital had described. Patricia’s heart ached.
           Faith looked around nervously as if ready to bolt at the slightest threat.
           “You’re shaking,” Patricia said more forthrightly than intended.
           Faith looked down. “It’s not easy to leave.”
           “I know. You’re very brave.”
           Faith smiled for the first time, then tears fell.
           Patricia’s throat tightened. She wanted to speak words of comfort and reassurance. She wanted Faith to be happy. But, the right words didn’t come. So, she sighed and put her arm around the stale smelling woman. No more beatings for poor Faith. Ever.

“Hey, bitch,” shouted a male voice from the side of the porch.
What the hell? Alarm ripped up Patricia’s back, sizzled into her head, and sharpened her senses. She turned and looked up into a man’s flushed, creased face framed with wild black hair. A sneering, burly man less than a yard away with alcohol on his breath. She shot a glance past him to see if he had others with him. He appeared alone. His hands were empty. Okay. Three of them to one drunk. Good odds.

She returned her attention to the man’s angular face. Their eyes met. His bore into her. She tensed. His unblinking eyes were black and hard like obsidian. They held malice. Menace. Meanness. Fear choked her. This man was likely as dangerous as he was ugly. She kept her face blank and asked, “Me?”
           “Yeah, you.” He sniffed and came closer. “What y’all doin’ on ma porch?”
           His porch? Must be the husband. “Your wife asked us over,” she said as mildly as possible considering the situation.
           His dark eyes narrowed. “Like hell she did. Sure ‘nuf she don’t know folk like y’all. Besides, you got armor on and a gun on your hip. You a cop?”
          She let out a long breath, then shook her head. “No.”
          He stepped near, gripped her arm, squeezed hard, and said, “Then get the hell off my property.”
Keeping her face an impassive mask, she peeled his fat fingers from her throbbing arm, then turned to Faith and asked, “Do want us to leave?”
         Faith, looking down and twisting her tiny hands, whispered, “Ah ... I ... I don’t know.”
        “Would you like to walk us to our car?”
        “She ain’t goin’ nowhere.” His angry voice behind her was closer, coarser.
          Summoning all the authority she could muster, Patricia squared her shoulders and pivoted to face the abuser again. He towered, inches away, like a grizzly bear poised to fight. Close enough to intimidate. Smirking. Obviously he’d done this before. Often.
He reached behind his back and, before she could get to her gun, fumbled out a small pistol. “This here says y’all are leavin’ right now, and my precious wife is going back inside.”
Oh hell. Her chest seized. Her heart thudded. She could hardly breathe. She stepped back, getting distance. Space to breathe. To think. This wasn’t the ending she’d imagined. If they left now and came back tomorrow, would Faith even be alive? And, if they didn’t leave—
Click.
       The man’s eyes bulged. His jaw dropped.
       Judith, standing behind the man, had her gun barrel pressed against his head. “And I say,” Judith said coldly. “We let Faith make her own decision about where she’s going this afternoon.”
       He laughed the harsh laugh of a defeated man trying to regain some pride as he returned the gun to his waist. “Sure. Whatever the little lady wants. But, Faith honey, you leave, don’t bother comin’ back.”
       “So what is it, Faith?” Patricia asked. “Go or stay?”
       “I ... I can’t take anymore of this life. Not another minute.” Her eyes danced. “Um ... I ... I gotta go.” She stretched her bruised arms toward the man. “Honey, I’m sorry.”
       He scowled and swept his hand toward the street. “Go and don’t cha come back, you ungrateful bitch.”
       Judith kept her gun on the man as Patricia and Meredith led Faith to the street. Once they reached the car, Judith backed down the sidewalk, all the while keeping her gun trained on the man. Her long light hair shining in the sunlight, she moved with the grace of a dancer.
       Faith tossed suitcase into the Escalade, then, teddy bear in hand, stepped inside. Once seated, she cuddled the teddy bear like a child.
        “Do you have children?” Patricia asked.
        “Thank goodness, no.”
         When everyone was buckled up, Patricia gave the okay and Alisa pulled the Escalade into traffic. Out of habit, Patricia turned and looked back. Nope. They weren’t being followed. For the first time in an hour Patricia’s tension eased. She took a deep breath and let it out slowly. She massaged her tired eyes. The trip to a better life had begun for Faith, just as it had begun for countless other souls Patricia and her colleagues had transported to her mama’s shelter.
        Battered women beaten to the point their survival instinct finally overwhelmed their fears. Brave women reaching for their dreams. A beginning.

*        *        *

       After dropping Faith at the shelter and the girls at their cars, Patricia found herself parked in her driveway, staring at her Colt .38 snub-nosed revolver. Good and bad. Ying and yang. Love and hate. Fear and respect. A vital defensive tool. An instrument of offensive death. Her heart hammered.
       Today was the first time a stranger had pulled a gun on her, and she’d hesitated when she should have reacted. Tears welled. She’d been uncertain when certainty should have been automatic. A chilling lesson she’d failed and hoped she’d never forget. She’d survived, but only because Judith intervened. Patricia wiped her wet eyes on her forearm.
       Her small arms training had been extensive and effective. Her husband had seen to that, though he had no idea how she and her friends were now using that skill. Nor did he know about the additional close combat training she’d taken after her mother had asked her to transport victims to the shelter. She was as prepared as a person could be. Yet she had hesitated.
       She shook her head. Continued failure to react properly to a gun draw would ultimately get her killed. She sighed. She’d practiced the exact situation so often she was certain to react instinctively when the time came, yet she hadn’t. Lips pursed, she turned the gun, staring at it, questioning.
       Over the years, she’d shot a lot of things. Paper targets, cans and bottles. She’d hunted successfully with her husband, mostly small game. Trey boasted that she was a good shot. But, could she actually shoot a person? She had a gun with her all the time. If she couldn’t use it when necessary, why bother?
       She wanted to be useful. Getting women out of abusive situations was important. But, was she really meant for this work?
       Work? Who was she kidding? She had carried a gun long before she started transporting abused women. She could walk away from that job, but she could never walk away from the dangers that came from being a member of the Falcon family. She had no choice. Learn to shoot to kill, or die.
       Heavy hearted, she engaged the safety and slid the gun into the special compartment in her purse. She cleared her throat. She thought she’d trained to shoot instinctively, but obviously not. She’d train harder, longer, until training became instinct and killing a necessity. Next time she wouldn’t hesitate.

*        *        *

       Ten hours later, Patricia turned her Escalade onto the dimly-lit, cobbled side street, eased to the curb, and killed the engine. She bit her lip. Not another car in sight. No pedestrians. Unusual for two in the morning in this part of historic Savannah, but entirely suitable for their ‘visit.’
       “You ready for this?” she asked.
       “Hell yes, I’m ready.” Judith gave a wide smile.
       “What are you smiling about?”
       “I’m thinking about how good it’s going to be to get the goods on Beau.”
       “If we get caught, you won’t be smiling.”
       “I’ve practiced my lines. ‘Why, Mr. Officer, we ladies weren’t doin’ nothin’ wrong. This here is my sweet husband’s office. My friend and I were out socializin’ and I realized I had forgotten my house key. He keeps one here. And ... well, I didn’t want him to know how late we were out.’”
       “Is there a house key in his office?”
       Judith turned her palms up. “Hell if I know.”
       Patricia shook her head. The price of friendship. “You realize things could happen?”
       “Things?”
       “My tracking device might malfunction. Someone might see—”
       “Patricia, stop fretting. Your tracking device is working just fine, thank you very much. And look around, do you see any drunk college students on this street? Homeless? Party animals? Anyone?”
       “No.”
       “Then let’s do it.”
       Patricia grabbed her bag and stepped out. The warm, magnolia-scented air settled her. A typical April night in Savannah. Nothin’ finer.
       Judith slipped from the car. The two headed toward the corner. At five-feet-nine, Judith not only towered over Patricia by three inches, but her long stride had Patricia on the verge of running.
       Patricia’s ankle suddenly buckled on a broken slab of concrete, sending a sharp pain through her foot. She mumbled, “Damn,” as her leg gave way and threw her off balance. Stumbling, she grabbed Judith for stability.
       “What?” Judith asked.
       “Slow down, Judith. I damn near broke my ankle on that crack. Watch your step. There’s bound to be more.”
       “Are you all right, sweetie?”
       Patricia extended and rotated her booted foot. She weight-tested her ankle and then took several cautious steps. All seemed in order. “Seems so.”
       Patricia wiped sweat from her brow with the sleeve of her black shirt. She and Judith turned the corner at The French Bakery. The restored building that housed Beau’s medical offices loomed halfway down the block. Two soldiers were walking away from them at the other end of the block. No problem there.
       Their biggest issue was the security guard who checked the status of the properties on his route. If they were caught in Beau’s office, they had a cover story, but there was always a chance that something bizarre could occur. The guard might over-react, might pull his gun, might shoot. Patricia’s heart thudded. They absolutely had to avoid the guard.
       Her purse banged against her hip. The gun made it heavy. If the guard came in gun blazing, could she defend herself? She had hesitated with Faith. Like Faith, the guard was innocent. Could she shoot an overreacting innocent man in self-defense? She wasn’t sure and didn’t want to find out. She was counting on the beacon to keep them safe.
       Yesterday, Patricia had installed an electronic beacon on the guard’s car so they could track where he was. They knew the properties he patrolled, but because he visited the properties randomly they wouldn’t know his exact route.
       At the entrance to the building, Judith fumbled with the key in the dark while Patricia removed the wireless receiver from her purse, and turned it on. “He’s four blocks away,” she announced without glancing up.
      She stuffed a wisp of blonde curl inside her black hood and pushed back a sleeve to view her heirloom Rolex. Her fingers trembled. This wasn’t her first burglary, but repetition didn’t ease her tension. She punched the timer button.
       “All right. Let’s do this thang,” Patricia said. What would her mother think if she could see her debutante daughter? Or, better yet, which appalled look would Mrs. Lee have given her most beloved etiquette and deportment student? Darkness hid Patricia’s smile as she entered the building behind her friend.
       Judith headed straight to the security pad and punched in the code that disabled her husband’s security system. Patricia was amazed that Judith had ferreted out the numbers so quickly. If only Judith could conjure up a suitable new husband as easily.
       Of the two, Judith was certainly the one best equipped to husband hunt. Though forty-five, she could easily pass for someone in their late twenties. The same forty-five years hadn’t been as kind to Patricia. Judith had it all - deportment, natural beauty, education, and a career. She also had a handsome husband who slept around.
      The two glided noiselessly down the hall to Beau’s office and went in. For a man of his worth and stature, the office was Spartan, like Beau. Tasteful but modest. More a small conference room than an office. A circular table functioned as a desk. In the darkness, the large corner suite possessed a mystique it didn’t have during the workday. Patricia’s hyper-alert senses caught the sharp hint of incense in the air, something she hadn’t known Judith’s husband to use. Had Beau converted to an Asian religion?
       “The guard is three blocks away. If Beau’s office is next on his route, we have two minutes maximum to clear out. Plenty of time,” Patricia said. She stretched to close the blinds overlooking one of the town’s original squares while Judith turned on her husband’s unsecured office computer.
       A minute later, Judith said, “Got it.”
       Patricia looked up from the tracking device. Light from the computer screen illuminated Judith’s sober face. Her green eyes, a shade darker than Patricia’s, were wide with what might have been alarm. Judith sucked air through her teeth and mumbled, “My Lord.”
       “Is it bad?” Patricia asked, coming around the table to comfort her friend.
       “I declare, it’s worse than I had imagined.” Judith cupped her face, her eyes mapping, reading, and recording. “This son-of-a-bitch has a house in St. Johns. It’s all here. Names. Places. Notes on what they did. The creep even grades them.”
       Patricia touched Judith’s hand lightly. “Don’t be getting all riled up, honey. That God-awful man isn’t worth it.” Patricia’s watch sounded. “Two minutes, Judith. We’ve been in here for two minutes. Time to go.”
      “I need a copy of this calendar,” Judith said.
       “For crying out loud,” Patricia said. “There’s no time. Move it.”
       Judith shrugged her shoulders, took a compact camera from her pocket, and snapped a photo of the screen. Glancing at the camera display, she said, “This will do for now.” She shut off the computer.
       Bright light flashed through the drawn blinds. A deafening clap of thunder erupted, and then another clap exploded too close.
       “Out. Now!” Patricia shouted.
       The two rushed to the entrance.
       “Oh, damn.” Patricia slid to a stop in the lobby. “I forgot to open the shades.”
       “No time,” Judith said.
       “We have to make time, honey. The closed blinds are a giveaway that someone was in there.”
       “Always the perfectionist.” Judith tapped her fingers on her watch. “Make it quick.”
       Patricia sprinted back into Beau’s office. One by one, she elevated the blinds.
       The desk phone rang.
       “That’s probably the security company,” Patricia shouted. “Answer it, Judith. Give them the codeword.”
       “The one I punched in the alarm box?”
       “Probably not.”
       Ring. Ring.
       “I ... I don’t know a second security word.”
       Patricia grabbed the last cord and yanked it, but the shade stayed in place. Dammit, wrong cord. With shaking hands, she fumbled with the other cord, tugged, but the blinds wouldn’t rise.
       “Come on, Patricia.”
        Ring. Ring.
       Only two cords, neither worked. Oh yes, release the catch. She pulled the cord to the side, and the shade started to elevate. As she hastily raised the last blind overlooking the square, she gasped.  A man, a stranger, stood right outside the window, just a pane of glass away.
       Coldness hit her like a winter tide, freezing her muscles and overpowering her desperate need to run. Why the hell had she agreed to do this? Patricia’s heart thumped frantically.
       He stared at her.
       Who in the hell was he? What was he doing there? If he recognized Patricia, her picture was constantly in the paper for some social event, and reported what he saw, she’d be screwed. Big time.
       Ring, ring.
       Lightning flashed.
       She jerked. Gasped.
       Startled, round eyes as large as Palmetto bugs loomed on the other side of the window. A bulky man with a prominent scar in his eyebrow. His long dark hair dangled in disarray. His eyes narrowed.
       He’d seen her. For sure. Her cheeks burned.
       Ring, ring.
       Would he report her? It depended on how much a shabby Peeping Tom like him wanted to spend time kicking with the police.
       As if reading her thoughts, the man grinned, quirked a brow, and ran away through the Azalea bushes.
       A thunderous cacophony erupted over the square and another bolt of lightning flashed blindingly close, forcing her eyes closed. She blinked and opened her eyes to see the crown of a tree split and burning from the strike.
       The flame spread quickly through the top of the oak, as revelers poured out of the bar on the corner to watch the flaming tree.
       Ring, ring.
       The last thing she and Judith needed was an audience when they left the medical office.
       She ran back to the lobby, glancing at the tracking device on the way.
       “Alarm is reset,” Judith said.
       “Okay. That’s it. Guard is a block away,” Patricia shouted. “Let’s go.”
       They stepped out. Once Judith had locked the door, they headed for the Escalade parked around the corner.
       A fire truck with sirens blaring and red lights flashing, turned onto the street. Caught in the truck’s headlights, the two froze.
       Patricia fought back rising panic. She bit her lip. Her mind spun as she tried to digest the situation. “Girl’s night out,” she shouted to Judith.
       Patricia yanked her hood down. The two entwined, laughed, and staggered like drunks toward the corner. Judith, bless her soul, started to sing “Dixie.” The girls howled with laughter.
       The fire truck, wheels thumping over the cobblestones, rushed by.
       The two turned the corner and closed the distance to the Escalade.
       Patricia tossed her thick blonde hair and ducked into the SUV just as a veil of rain descended.
       “Phew, that was exciting,” Patricia said.
       “Yeah, and we got exactly what I needed,” Judith said. “Best of all, nobody will find out we were there.”
       “I don’t know about that,” Patricia said.
       Judith blinked. “What do you mean?”
       “When I opened the blinds, a man was pressed against the window looking in at me.”


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