Valley of Shadows-Chapter Twenty-Two

The siblings rode in companionable silence, lost in their own thoughts. Rachel was first to break the silence, “When I woke up the other night and realized I was still in Nicole’s kitchen, I was alone. Nicole and Thomas were in the other room having some sort of heated discussion.”

“What were they saying?”

“They were talking too softly for me to make out what they were saying, but I did hear my name. The two of them came back in the room a little freaked out to find me awake. Nicole tried to find out on the sly how much I heard.”

“Had she drugged you?”

“I’ll be honest Richard. I had taken an oxy right before I left for Nicole’s house. So, I guess you could say I wasn’t feeling any pain to begin with.”

Rachel laughed at her little joke, expecting him to join in. Richard was silent. She glanced over at him curiously. Her laughter trailed off awkwardly when he glared at her.

“How can you make joke out of it?  I don’t understand why you would choose to go over there under the influence of anything knowing what that woman may have done to ma.”

“That’s exactly why I did it. I had an attack of nerves.  At the time, my emotions were very raw and I didn’t want to come off as weak to her.  I wouldn’t expect you to understand what it’s like to feel intimidated by someone.”

“What do you mean?  I’ve been uneasy a lot of times.”

“Really? You always seem so confident.”

“Having confidence doesn’t mean you never get nervous, it just means you know you can handle any situation.”

“That’s what I’m talking about. As a woman, dealing with another woman is different from dealing with a man.  It’s competitive.  I don’t know how to explain it. We kind of size each other up and the better looking woman automatically has the upper hand.  Nicole isn’t as good-looking as I am by any means, but she has a certain air about her.  The way she carries herself makes her come across as very um…high-toned.  When she looks down her nose at me, I feel kind of…low-rent.”

“Then why did you go over there?  What did you think you would accomplish by going over there all drugged up?”

“Don’t make it sound like I was blitzed out of my head.  I just had a little buzz going on.  The oxy made me a little tired, but I was doing alright until I started sipping Nicole’s coffee.  She probably did drug me.”

“So, what’s your take on her?”

“That woman is cold as ice.  Looking into her eyes is chilling.  She is always watching and waiting, like a hawk hunting a field mouse.  ”

“Waiting for what?”

“Any sign of weakness.”

Richard was still digesting her words as they turned onto Nicole’s street. He slowed down, in order to take in the layout of the block.  The affluence of his surroundings was evident even in the darkness.  He was impressed. The houses were an interesting mix of boxy, flat-roofed modern homes and more traditional designs all looking down on the street from the lofty heights of higher ground.  The manicured lawns flowed down to the street uninterrupted by sidewalks.

There were very few cars parked on the street.  Most vehicles were parked along the long, curving driveways which ran up and past the spacious houses.  The lack of cars on the street posed a challenge to Richard.  It limited the number of inconspicuous vantage points at which he could park.

He pulled over close to her house, killed the headlights and sat pondering the best place to park in the morning.  In the midst of his speculation, Rachel silently lay a hand on his arm and pointed back towards Nicole’s house.  Richard could see the silhouette of Nicole’s petite figure momentarily highlighted in the glow of the light emanating from the front doorway before she closed the door and disappeared into the shadows.

Head lights came on seconds before her car went rocketing down the driveway and shot onto the street.  Richard looked over at his sister.  They shrugged and he followed Nicole at a distance.  He hadn’t planned on tailing her until the next day, but something was obviously up.  She drove so fast that it was difficult to maintain enough distance to remain undetected and still keep her in sight.  He hissed in frustration as a slow-moving truck swerved into his path.  It had been a long time since Richard had tailed anyone.  He was a little rusty.

Nicole darted onto the next exit ramp and he ensured that there were a couple of cars between them as he followed suit.  She turned left onto the street and drove at a more sedate pace.  Before long, they were downtown in the warehouse district.  She slowed down again and Richard pulled over, anticipating that she would pull onto a nearby parking lot.

He guessed correctly.  Nicole pulled onto the lot and they watched from a line of cars parked on the street as she jumped out, unlocked the trunk of her SUV and retrieved a black bag.  She ran up to the front door, which was opened by an unseen hand on the other side.  Richard exchanged curious looks with his sister.  What was that all about? They sat staring at the building for a few minutes longer but no one emerged. Rachel spoke without looking at her brother.

“She had on scrubs and that looked like a doctor’s bag.  I thought she wasn’t a nurse anymore.”

“As far as I know, she is no longer a nurse.  Of course, this doesn’t look like any medical center that I’ve ever seen.  Wonder what’s going on in there.”

“Want me to go and find out?  I’m sure I could charm my way inside and have a look around.”

“No, we don’t want to cause them to sound the alarms by showing up when something bad is going down.  They’re probably already worked up, so they’re more likely to react with suspicion to a stranger tonight. Nobody would just happen to be over here taking a stroll, in the middle of the night.”

“How do you know something bad is happening in there?  Could just be a woman giving birth or something.”

“Call it a hunch.  Let’s just see what we can see and take down the address.  Tomorrow, I’ll do a little checking.”

“What’s the harm in looking around tonight?”

“Well, let’s say we go with your plan. If something goes wrong then, you could be dead by the time I get wind of anything out here.”

“I know how to handle myself Richard.  Believe it or not, I’ve navigated my way through more than a few sketchy situations.”

“That’s with people you know.  We don’t know anything about these people.  Just based on what you’ve said about Nicole, I’d say it’s not a good idea to go in blind.”

“You were a cop. How many times did you ever go into a risky situation knowing everything ahead of time?”

“Use your head. I’m talking logistics. We don’t know if we’re dealing with a gang, a crime syndicate or a few desperate amateurs. Imagine what might have happened to you in Nicole’s house the other night, if Thomas hadn’t been there to stop her.  We are here to do surveillance. That’s strictly an information gathering activity.”

“But I feel like I should be doing something.  I can’t just let her get away with what she did to me.”

“Grow up Rachel.  You’re not in high school anymore.  We’re not talking about a fist fight in the yard here.  These are criminals.  I doesn’t matter what you say to them. Your showing up unannounced and uninvited will be seen as a threat.  Call me crazy, but I’m guessing that whatever is going on in there isn’t legal.  If they think for one second that you’re going to upset the apple cart, they will shoot and ask questions later.”

“Well, I can’t just sit here and do nothing.  Oh look, there’s a man coming out to smoke right by the front door.  That is perfect.  You can keep an eye on me while I work my magic and get this show on the road.  This sitting in the dark is for the birds,” quipped Rachel.  She unlocked her door and was about to open it when Richard gripped her arm.

“Ouch boy, let go!”

“I’ll let go when you stop trying to get us killed!  If you open the car door then, the dome light will come on and he will see me sitting here.  Tell me that won’t seem suspicious to him.”

Rachel slumped against the seat looking disappointed.  The dispirited look Richard had seen earlier returned to her face.  He suddenly felt bad for using such a sharp tone.  She was only trying to help.  Richard reached over the seat and retrieved his binoculars from a duffel bag on the passenger’s side.  He pulled a pen and pad from his inside jacket pocket.

“Tell you what, I’ll get the address.  Why don’t you write it down for me?”

“Why can’t I be in charge of the binoculars?”

Richard sighed, “Fine, just make sure you read it correctly.  I have to be able to find this place again.”

“What am I illiterate?  Gimme a break Richard.”

Rachel snatched the binoculars and read off the numbered address on the building before locating the street sign and reading off the name.  Richard had her train the binoculars on the smoking stranger and told her to see if she could observe any distinguishing characteristics.  Rachel complied and immediately exclaimed.  Richard got excited.

“What?  What do you see?”

“He is hot!”

“Gimme those binoculars.  I should have known better than to think you would take this seriously.”

Rachel laughed and held the binoculars out of his reach. “Calm down boy.  Pry that stick out of your ass.  I was just trying to lighten the mood a little.  I did discover something about him that you might find useful.”

“Is that right,” asked Richard skeptically.

“Yes, he has done a long stretch in prison.”

“And just how do you know that?”

“He’s got a tattoo of a clock face with no hands on his arm.”

A panel van caught their attention as it rolled up the street.  Rachel read off the license plate number for her brother.  They watched as it stopped in front of the warehouse and cut the engine.  A moment later, two men climbed out and went inside.  They re-emerged carrying a heavy burden.  Rachel slowly lowered the binoculars and gazed wide-eyed at her brother.

“Is it just me or did that look like a body?”