A novel of suspense
"Al... ice. Come... find... me."
The faint but drawn-out words, waffing on the chill November air, drifted in through the open window of Alice Rogers' aging Buick Skylark. Even though she didn't hear the taunting call or understand the words, the sound alone was loud enough to disturb her and rouse her from her Scotch-induced slumber. She woke up, shivered in the cold and blinked at the unremitting darkness that surrounded her. For a confusing, disorienting moment, Alice was afraid she had gone blind. She had no idea where she was or how she had come to be there. Fighting panic, her hands flailed out in search of clues. The first thing her trembling fingers encountered was the icy, smooth surface of the steering wheel. Next she ran her fingertips across the familiar worn plush of the Buick's upholstery.
Breathing a sigh of relief, Alice leaned back against the headrest. She was in the front seat-- the front passenger seat of a car, her own car. She had fallen asleep there. Again. The best she could hope for was that maybe none of the neighbors had seen her. If they had, word was bound to get back to the kids. That was one thing Alice knew from bitter experience. Tombstone was full of gossips who were only too happy to carry tales.
Alice stayed where she was and rested for the better part of a minute, waiting for the momentary panic to subside, for the frantic beating of her heart to slow and steady. Hoping to get her bearings, she squinted through the darkness, trying to sort out some familiar landmark that would tell her where she was and how she had come to be there.
As dark as it is, she told herself, it must be almost morning. Where the hell am I?
Vaguely she remembered something about going to dinner at Susan's house, but now she had no recollection of having driven the twenty-some miles from Tombstone out to Sierra Vista. She didn't remember coming back, either. But a taste for Scotch was one of the few things Alice and her grown daughter shared in common. And knowing how dinners with her daughter and son-in-law often turned out, not remembering every blow-by-blow was probably for the best. Alice had never held her son-in-law in very high regard. In her opinion Ross Jenkins was nothing but an arrogant jerk. The problem with drinking Scotch in his presence was that the booze might have loosened Alice's tongue enough for her to come right out and tell him exactly what she thought of him.
Not good, Alice scolded herself. Not good at all. But then again, even if she had shot her mouth off, Alice realized it wouldn't be the first time she had infuriated her daughter and son-in-law. Most likely it wouldn't be the last, either. Beyond a certain point, that was all a mother could do for her children-- hang around long enough to drive them crazy.
Alice found she was calmer now. She still didn't know where she was or how she had come to be there, but for some reason the possibility of having yanked Ross Jenkins' chain made her feel somewhat better.
Outside the open window, the chilled Sonora Desert was deathly silent. Into that silence came a sound that resembled the rattle of castanets. Several seconds passed before Alice realized that the noise was coming from inside her own head, from her upper and lower dentures clacking rhythmically against each other. The brisk November nighttime air had reached deep into Alice's bones, leaving her whole body shivering and quaking.
Automatically, Alice reached for the button that operated the Buick's power windows, but when she pressed the switch, nothing happened. The window stayed wide open.
"The key, stupid," Alice muttered aloud. "You should know by now that the window won't work if the ignition key's turned off."
In the all-enveloping darkness, she reached out again. This time she aimed her searching fingers toward the steering column, groping for the key. But where her fingers should have closed around her dangling key chain, there was nothing at all-nothing but air. The key was missing.
"Damn!" Alice exclaimed. "It must have fallen out. How am I going to find it in the dark?"
Holding the steering wheel for balance, Alice leaned down and ran her hands across the rubber-covered floorboard. She didn't find the keys. Instead, her hand shut around the neck of a bottle-- an almost empty bottle, from the feel of it. In the dark Alice couldn't read the label, but she didn't have to. Long acquaintance made the rectangular shape instantly recognizable. Dewars, of course. The singular lack of booze in the nearly empty bottle went a long way toward explaining everything else.
Carefully, Alice checked the bottle lid to make sure it was screwed on securely. No sense in spilling whatever was left. Once the bottle was propped on the seat beside her, she bent down once more and resumed her search for the missing keys.
"Alice," someone called. 'Wake up."
Wide awake now, she heard the voice distinctly. It seemed to be coming from right outside the car, from a distance of no more than a few feet.
Startled, Alice jerked upright and turned to look, but she saw no one. Still, the nearby presence of that unseen voice filled her with gratitude. That meant she wasn't alone out here in the desert after all. Someone else was here with her. Maybe whoever it was had taken the car keys.
"I am awake," Alice called back. "I just can't find the keys. If you could come help me find them..."
"I can't," the person called back. "You have to find me first. You're it."
Straining to listen, Alice wondered what was wrong with that voice. The odd falsetto defied identification. She couldn't tell if the singsong voice belonged to a man or woman; to a child or grown-up. Perhaps it was a child pretending to be a grown-up, or maybe the other way around. Whoever it was, the familiar words tugged Alice out of her failing body and back to the world of her childhood. "Come and find me," the words beckoned to her from across the years. "You're it."
A spark of memory flared briefly in Alice's heart. Was it possible that the person calling to her from the darkness just outside the Buick was someone from that far-off time in her life when she was just a child? Through the haze of booze she realized that whoever it was had to be someone who had known Alice Monroe Rogers back then, when she was a little girl. Maybe it was one of Alice's three sisters summoning her once again to an old-fashioned game of tag. Maybe it was time to resume a game of hide-and-seek that had gone unfinished for over seventy years.
As the youngest of Mary and Alfred Monroe's seven children, being "it" had been little Alice's lot in life. Being "it" had been her fate-- her curse for having been born the youngest, for being the baby. As such, she had borne the brunt of countless jokes and pranks. No doubt, she decided, this was more of the same.
The insistent voice called to her once again through a fog of memory. "Alice. Are you coming or not? What are you, a fraidycat?"
A wave of goose flesh swept over Alice's body. The temperature in the car hovered in the upper thirties, but the sudden chill she felt had nothing to do with outside temperatures. Fraidycat! Like being perpetually "it," that well-worn phrase came directly from her childhood, too. That was one of the terms her three older sisters had hurled in Alice's direction to devil her. And it wasn't just her sisters, either. Alice's brothers had called her that as well. "Fraidycat! Fraidycat. Fraidycat."
Mich of those voices was calling to her now? Alice wondered. Was it Jean, or Jessie, or Rosemary? Or could it be Thomas, William, or Jack? No, that wasn't possible. Rosemary was dead. Had been for years. So were William and Thomas. They had gone away to World War II and never returned. William had died at Guadalcanal and Thomas in a POW camp in Germany. Jack lived in an Alzheimer's group home up in Cottonwood. According to Alice's sister-in-law, Jack no longer remembered his own name, let alone those of his four sisters. Jean also lived in a nursing home, one over in Safford, near where her son and daughter-in-law had settled. She wasn't in much better shape than Jack was. Jessie, the old maid of the family, was eleven years older than Alice. At eighty-seven she still lived in Douglas in a roach-infested assisted-care facility only a few blocks from the rambling brick house on G Avenue where the seven Monroe kids had grown to adulthood.
"Al... ice. Come... find... me."
That's who it has to be, Alice decided at once. Jessie. Jessie Monroe had always been a great one for practical jokes.
Reaching for the handle, Alice wrenched open the door. She almost spilled out onto the ground as the heavy door swung open, pulling her with it.
"Jessie," Alice called back, once she righted herself. "Is that you? Are you out here? Where are you?"
Assuming that she and her invisible playmate were all alone in the vast desert, Alice blinked in astonishment when she lurched to her feet and found a great mass of people looming along the road on the far side of the broad, bull-dozed drainage ditch that lined the black-topped ribbon of pavement. The ghostly crowd of onlookers stood tall, eerie, and silent, watching her expectantly-- watching and listening.
"Who are you?" Alice demanded of the crowd, but no one responded. No one moved. No one spoke. It was as though they had all been rooted to the ground and struck dumb at the same time.
"What's the matter? Cat got your tongue?" Alice asked. Still there was no response. "Suit yourselves, then," she told them.
Reaching back inside the Buick, she dragged out the old, fraying sweater she kept there in case of emergencies. She put it on. Then, pretending the still silent crowd wasn't there, Alice cupped her hands around her mouth. "Ready or not," she called to Jessie. "Here I come."
Gamely, Alice Monroe Rogers set off across the desert, closing her mind to the cold, disregarding the darkness, and ignoring the loose pieces of rock and gravel that threatened to turn beneath her feet. It wasn't until she crossed the ditch that she discovered the ghostly shapes weren't people after all. What she had taken for a crowd of silent men and women was actually a thick stand of cholla. The tall, spine-covered cactus branches reached out in all directions, grabbing at Alice's clothing as she staggered past, snagging her skirt and tugging at the thread in her too-skimpy cotton sweater.
As she dodged between cacti, Alice came to a sudden puzzling realization. Jessie's on a walker. What in God's name is she doing out here in the middle of the desert? Susan and I must not be the only ones who are dipping into the Dewars.
Panting with effort, Alice stopped and took stock. "Jessie, come on out," she called. "I give up. You win. It's too cold to play anymore, too cold and too dark. Come help me find the car keys so we can go home."
She stood still and listened. There was no answer, but there was something-- a rustling of some kind that came from almost directly behind her. Alice was just starting to turn around to check on the noise when whatever it was crashed into her from behind. Because of her half-turn, the full body blow that should have sent her face-first into the nearest cactus hit her from the side instead. She reeled under the jarring impact and then went tottering sideways. She screamed as needle-sharp spines plunged deep into her paper-thin flesh, then she fell.
The cactus was far taller than Alice, but it was also far more delicate. The brittle, spine-covered branches dropped some of their needles and then broke off as she plowed into them.
Under her weight, one shallowly rooted trunk broke off at ground level and collapsed. That first towering plant keeled over, and an accompanying domino effect brought down several of its near neighbors. When the cacti came to rest, so did Alice. She found herself lying face-up, her body impaled on a thousand razor-sharp, three inch-long needles, each of which burned into her body with the appalling intensity of an individual bee sting.
For a moment she lay there in agony, so stunned by shock that she didn't dare move or breathe or even open her eyes. Locked in a pain-filled daze, she failed to notice the muffled sound of nearby footsteps. When they finally penetrated her consciousness, Alice realized someone was standing over her. That's when she opened her eyes.
The awful pain remained but the terrible all-consuming darkness-- a darkness that had verged on blindness itself-- was gone. Overhead, beyond the shadow of whoever was standing above her, the sky blazed with the light of a thousand pinprick stars. It was still night, but the glowing starlight made it seem almost as bright as day.
My glasses, Alice realized at once. She had been wearing her glasses, the heavy-duty wraparound sunglasses Dr. Toon had given her after her cataract surgery. The act of falling had knocked the glasses away and turned the solid darkness to silvery light.
If the cholla hadn't hurt so damned much, Alice might have laughed aloud, but this was no time for joking around.
"Jessie," Alice managed. "I'm hurt. I've fallen in the cactus. You've got to help me up, but be careful the cholla doesn't get you, too."
That's when she noticed that the person towering over her wasn't on a walker. He or she was far too tall and too broad to be Alice's sister Jessie. Not only that, the face was all wrong too. The features were distorted-- mashed together in a strange, monstrous way. Through the haze of pain Alice realized that the person leaning over her was wearing a stocking over his face.
When she spoke again, whatever booze might have once been in her system seemed long gone. "Please help me," she begged. "If you'll just take my hand . . ."
At once a gloved hand reached out and took Alice's, but instead of making an effort to lift the woman to her feet, the fingers camped shut around her wrist, imprisoning it in a bruising, viselike grip. Roughly the gloved fingers peeled back the cuff of Alice's worn sweater, exposing the bare skin of her forearm. Alice yelped in pain as the yam in the sweater moved across the cactus barbs impaled in the other side of her arm, driving them farther into her flesh.
"Stop," she commanded. "Please don't try to move the sweater. It hurts too much. Just help me--"
That was when she saw the syringe for the first time. Somehow it materialized from nowhere, appearing in her captor's other hand. His rubber-gloved fingers held it upright, ready to plunge it into the naked flesh of Alice's captive wrist.
Alice's son, Clete, was a diabetic and had been for years. As a consequence, Alice was no stranger to syringes and needles. She knew them as distributors of the life-sustaining insulin that had kept her son alive, and as devices that had delivered the pain-killing drugs that had helped ease her husband through his final illness. At first she thought the person standing over her was trying to help her, that the needle held some kind of painkiller that would somehow counteract the poison pumping into her body from the cholla needles. Maybe he was giving her something that would combat the mindnumbing pain.
The metal part of the needle flashed briefly in the starlight and then she felt the sharp jab in her wrist. "Thank you," she murmured. "I'm sure that will help. Now, if you'll just help me up.
Instead, the man produced another needle and shoved that one into her arm as well.
What if this isn't a painkiller at all? Alice wondered. What if it's something else, like poison, maybe? What if he's trying to kill me?
'What are you doing?" she asked. Her tongue seemed to grow thick in her mouth. She had a hard time forming the words, but by then he had pulled yet a third syringe out of his pocket. She struggled and tried to yank her arm free, but even the smallest movement ground hundreds of cholla spines deeper into her back, legs, and arms. Once again the needle of a loaded syringe plunged into her arm.
"Stop!" Alice commanded, but this time the word came out as little more than an unrecognizable gurgle. She moaned in agony.
"Be still, Alice!" he growled. The falsetto was gone now. It was definitely a man's voice, but whose? It sounded familiar, but Alice's pain-fogged brain couldn't make the connection.
"Who are you?" she tried to say. "What do you want?" But the words were so slurred that they sounded like gibberish, even to her.
In reply, the man dropped her wrist. Alice lay still and watched him through a confusing, misty haze as he pocketed the third syringe and gathered up the other two from where they had fallen to the ground beside her. He stuffed them into his coat pocket as well. As he turned to walk away, Alice felt a small object land on her abdomen and then roll off onto the ground.
At that moment, what was happening seemed to be of little concern to her. The body lying on the cold, hard ground might have been someone else's rather than her own. There was no getting away. Alice had no strength or breath left to scream or cry out for help. There was nothing to do but submit and hope that eventually the pain would stop.
Her tormentor walked away, and after that, time seemed to dissolve as well. The world spun out of control. Despite the cold, sweat popped out all over Alice's body. The sudden unaccountable dampness of her skin made her feel that much colder. Even so, she somehow remembered that something had fallen on her-- something small and hard that had rolled off her
Unable to turn her head without driving the cholla needles deeper into her body, she patted the earth next to her until her groping fingers closed around something small and smooth. It was a bottle, a tiny glass bottle.
She knew what the tiny vial was without even looking knew what it must have contained and what the inevitable result would be. The cholla needles were nothing compared to the hurt and betrayal that flooded through her in that awful moment of realization. Grasping the bottle in her fist, she closed her eyes and let the tears come. Hours later, when Alice Rogers finally stopped breathing, the little glass vial was still clutched tightly in her dying fist.
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