Beyond Recognition by David Berardelli

EXTRACT FOR
Beyond Recognition

(David Berardelli)


Beyond Recognition

PART 1 - Prey

 

CHAPTER ONE

 

THURSDAY P.M.

 

Desmond Roth got off the plane at Pittsburgh International and joined the long procession of passengers shuffling toward the landside terminal at the other end of the sprawling complex. The brightly lit area, chaotic with nervous humanity, provided direct access for everyone scrambling to get on their flights or coming off them.

Roth walked briskly toward the front of the building, avoiding eye contact as much as possible. Anonymity had been his way of life the last few years, but after his close call in Orlando one year ago, staying under the radar had become an issue of life and death.

People slouched on stools at the food court, chowing down burgers and subs and drinking coffee and beer. He kept a close watch on the activity, his finely tuned senses picking up quick images. Family reunions. Loved ones departing. An impending funeral. An important business convention. As always, he checked for eyes following him, as well as eyes turning away a little too quickly.

He saw no sign, sensed no danger or tension.

As he reached the last leg of his trip through the terminal, where the ticket and car rental agencies awaited him, he caught someone eyeing him from the approaching crowd. A sloppy-dressed guy with wild black hair and a three-day growth of beard. The man quickly averted his eyes and then looked down at his feet as he kept coming.

Roth caught a bright image: a flash of hands, an instant’s distraction.

A pickpocket. I really don’t have time for this.

The man sidestepped at the last possible moment. His left shoulder bumped lightly into Roth an instant before he moved away.

Feeling the microscopic pressure touching his breast pocket at that same instant, Roth spun around. His right arm shot out, his hand latching on to the man’s shoulder.

The man froze.

Roth focused on the man’s bloodshot eyes. Roth held out his left hand.

Trembling, the other man reached inside his jacket, removed the tan camel-skin billfold, and handed it over.

“Pl-Please…please don’t call the cops…”

This man had obviously been a victim of hard times. His shirt and jeans clung to him. He’d either taken them from the local Goodwill box or had recently lost a considerate amount of weight.

Keeping his hand on the man’s shoulder, Roth glimpsed more images. This man had spent half his adult life in jail--petty theft, picking pockets, purse-snatching, burglary, grand theft auto. Booze and endless lines of coke also came into the picture.

“How many others have you taken today?” Roth asked.

The man shrugged.

“A shrug doesn’t tell me much. I prefer a number.”

“Three…”

“Take what you’ve got to the nearest church and leave it. They won’t ask questions if you just walk in, dump it in their office, and leave. Understand?”

“Yes, sir.”

Roth released the man’s shoulder. The man seemed to be in some sort of daze. He began staring at Roth’s hand.

Roth hurried away, toward the EXIT doors on the other side of the big building.

Twenty minutes later, Roth slipped behind the wheel of a gray Dodge Challenger he’d rented from one of the agencies he’d passed on his way out of the terminal. He glanced at his watch. The pickpocket had only cost him three minutes or so. He‘d make it up on the road.

Ten minutes later, he separated from the heavy flow heading for Pittsburgh, got on I-70 and headed west.

His destination was Manville, Ohio. According to his friend, this trip would take about half an hour.

***

Her eyes glazed over from staring at the computer screen the last four long hours, Laura Neilson closed the laptop and pushed her chair back from the metal desk, where she and Maddie did the books and tallied the day’s profits.

It was almost six, and Laura was tired. Good thing it was the end of the workday. Carl Gibson, Maddie’s husband and co-owner of Coffee Masters, had no doubt already flipped the sign on the front door from OPEN to CLOSED.

The coffeehouse had been nearly empty since around five. It had been a normal day, the customers trickling in shortly after nine, when the place opened. Activity stayed high from the time the lunch crowd staggered in shortly after eleven, remaining busy until four, when the work force went home for the day.

Laura had been working for Maddie and Carl nearly one year. She’d started just a few days after receiving her clean bill of health. Just two years earlier, she’d been involved in a near-fatal accident on I-70, when an idiot in a Ford F-350 pickup rear-ended her at nearly 100 miles an hour. The collision sent her silver Dodge Charger into a quarter-mile skid, causing it to flip over, roll off the Interstate and land in a ditch. The driver of the truck, a nineteen-year-old high school dropout wasted on meth, had no driver’s license or insurance, no permission to drive his uncle’s truck, and disappeared the moment he was released on bail.

The accident left Laura with two smashed vertebrae, dislocated pelvis, three cracked ribs, a broken jaw and a broken arm. The Charger was totaled.   The dream car Momma had bought for Laura for graduating from Ohio University less than a month before the accident was gone forever.

Laura carefully pushed herself up from the desk. She considered herself fortunate that she could perform such a simple task. It had taken her many months to learn to walk all over again. Now, after nearly two years, she could walk almost normally, her pronounced limp giving her character, as Momma had said several times.

Sliding the thick strap of her lightweight tan leather tote bag carefully over her right shoulder, she left the cluttered office and shuffled stiffly down the hall and into the bathroom to wash her face and fix her hair.

Under the flickering overhead fluorescent, she stepped in front of the smudged mirror. Leaning against the sink to support her back, she splashed her face with warm water. After dabbing her cheeks with paper towels, she applied fresh lipstick and then carefully unwound the red rope that held the bun she wore during working hours. Her heavy dark-brown locks thumped onto her shoulders and slid down her front. For the next few minutes, she applied the large green pick to free the knots and clumps. After some furious tugging and pulling, she grabbed the hairbrush.

Maddie came in looking tired as usual, her fine features drawn, her cornflower blue eyes slightly veined. Judging by her sour expression, she’d either been to the bank or had another argument with Carl. Their eight-year marriage was solid, but they frequently argued about how the shop should be run. Maddie had put up the money for the down payment and had the final say. Carl ached to have a free hand in running the business. Unluckily for him, Maddie was strong-willed and fiercely independent, insisting on doing things her own way. Luckily for both of them, Maddie had good business sense.

“How’d we do today?” Maddie pushed some heavy red strands away from her cheek and gave herself a quick look of disapproval in the mirror.

“The after-lunch lull seemed longer than usual.”

“It started earlier, too. Business didn’t pick up again until much later.”

“That new buffet restaurant that just opened in St. Clairsville could be slamming us.”

“It shouldn’t affect us that much. Hungry people don’t go to a place that sells coffee and croissants. We cater to the Mall shoppers.”

“I wouldn’t worry. Once the new wears off, it’ll pick up again.”

Maddie shook her head. “Why are you always so damned optimistic?”

Laura could never understand why Maddie always chose the gloomy side of everything. “It beats being depressed, doesn’t it?”

“Honey, you’re the one who almost died, remember?”

Laura smiled. “The accident made me see things in a much clearer perspective, I guess.”

“What you went through would definitely put a new slant on things. Call me weird, but I’d rather keep my negativity than go through something like that.”

“I honestly don’t recommend being rear-ended, believe me--especially at a hundred miles an hour.”

“I’ll take your word for it. While we’re on the subject, I’ve been wondering. Everything okay at home?”

“Why do you ask?”

“I saw your mom the other day in town. She seemed really deep in thought. I was just wondering if--well, if something was going on…”

“We’re both okay.”

Maddie watched her for a moment; she obviously had something on her mind. “I guess I’m just wondering if…well, I don’t know how to--”

“Just ask, Maddie.”

“All righty. You haven’t, by some strange coincidence, heard from your father, have you?”

The question took her completely by surprise. “Now why would you ask me that?”

“It was your birthday last week. I just thought--”

“You thought wrong.”

“I’m sorry, honey.”

“It’s all right.”

“You’re sure? I know I’ve never been one to mind my own business... I’m just a little concerned.”

“It’s been five years since Dad left, and still no word. I’ve grown used to it. So has Momma.”

“He didn’t come see you at all in the hospital?”

“He was in Florida at the time. I don’t know how he even heard about it, but he called a couple of days after I was brought in. I couldn’t talk to him because I was all doped up. Even if I’d been awake, I couldn’t talk very well with my jaw wired shut. Apparently he only called that one time. I never heard from him after that.”

“Never?”

“He never called again.”

“My father did his share of crap, too. I saw him once or twice after I left home, but there was no love lost between us. When he died, I discovered that I couldn’t even mourn. I obviously had no feelings left for him.”

“I didn’t know, Maddie. I’m sorry.”

“I’m over it. I can tell by what I see in your eyes that you’re over it, too. But he should’ve at least visited you in the hospital, for crying out loud.”

Laura tried once again to force away the hurt. It was tough. She’d been so angry and upset when Dad had left. Because of his actions, she’d harbored a deep resentment for all men and feared she’d never be able to trust anyone again. She’d known a few decent guys, even dated a couple of them before her accident. Even so, she remained uncomfortable in their presence and blamed it on the pain and distrust she’d developed from her father’s abandonment.

“I don’t know if I’m fully over it,” she told Maddie. “I don’t know if I’ll ever be.”

“Well, if you ever need to talk, Carl and I live upstairs. And we keep late hours.” Maddie patted her shoulder and slipped into the stall.

Laura shuffled outside through the rear entrance, where she’d parked her ten-year-old light-blue Honda Civic in the side lot facing the Ohio Valley Mall on the other side of the open thoroughfare. The Civic was a far cry from her beloved Charger, but she wasn’t making much money and had very little in her savings account. Economy had become her only option.

She slid very carefully behind the wheel, wincing at the sharp stab of bright pain. Not quite right. Gently she situated herself in the seat, giving her bones plenty of time to arrange themselves for the trip ahead. There. The pain slowly ebbed into a distant hum.

She pulled out of her space, coasted down Mall Road and got onto I-70. Traffic was heavy as usual, the rush hour still in full swing. Although she regularly used the same stretch of highway that had nearly killed her, she knew not to let such things haunt her. It was never very bright to keep looking back. It prevented you from seeing what you should be facing in the present. She’d read that in a book a while back, liked the way it sounded and never forgot it.

The drive to Manville, where she and Momma lived, was only ten miles. She pulled onto the first Manville exit and drove about a quarter of a mile down the straight stretch that went directly to town, before slowing and stopping at the red light. A dirty white van eased to a stop behind her. The driver’s visor was pulled down. She had the eerie feeling that the driver was watching her.

Your imagination, kiddo... She’d just seen a really tense thriller on Netflix, where Jennifer Lopez was being stalked. You don’t wanna think of something like that right now. She was being silly. There was no need to panic just because someone had gotten close to her in traffic.

Five minutes later, Laura pulled off the main road and eased up the two-lane street that brought her to their two-story brick house on South Elm. She pulled up the short concrete drive in front of the garage, next to Momma’s maroon Crown Vic, and killed the ignition.

It was six-thirty. She gingerly got out of the car and hobbled up the concrete walk leading to the front stoop. Before slipping the key into the slot on the front door, a strange tingling at the base of her neck made her stiffen. Mindful of her balance, she turned around.

The dirty white van hadn’t turned off. Sometime during the trip home, traffic had separated them, giving her the illusion it was gone. It sat directly across the street, next to their neighbor’s faded gray mailbox, and didn’t move away until she’d backed up against the door and dropped her keys on the concrete stoop.

***

“Everything okay, baby?”

Momma appeared in the kitchen archway, munching on a carrot stick. She’d already changed into her light-blue bathrobe.

Laura immediately flicked on a bright smile and forced herself to ignore the all-too-familiar stabbing of bright flame racing up her spine. In her panic, she’d twisted around out on the porch, shot awkwardly through the doorway and slammed the door behind her. Now she stood with her back braced against the door, holding her breath while remaining totally still, waiting for the tremors to subside.

And now she had to find some way to convince Momma that nothing was wrong.

“I’m fine. Why?”

“Why’re you standing there like that? Is your back acting up again?”

“I sort of stumbled…when I came in.”

“I wondered why I heard the door slam.”

“Sorry about that. I bumped into it before I could close it.”

“You need to be more careful. Are you sure you didn’t hurt yourself?”

“I’m sure.”

Momma went back into the kitchen.

As the pain gradually became a distant throbbing, Laura began thinking clearly again.

Someone had followed her home.

The very idea was silly. She drove an old Honda, did the books at a local coffee shop, maintained a savings account that barely covered the bank’s $8 monthly service fee, and wore reasonably priced, off-the-rack clothing.

Why would anyone be interested in someone like her?

Who would want to bother with someone who took half an hour to get out of her clothes, hobbled around and screamed in agony whenever she stumbled or raised her leg an inch too high while getting out of the tub?

Was it because she was a slender young female? Because most people thought she was pretty? Was it her thick head of hair that looked fairly good most of the time, if she brushed it just right and let it do what it wanted?

Was that what stalkers looked for these days?

She needed to stop letting her imagination run wild. Even if there really was someone following her, that didn’t mean they were actually interested in her, did it?

Momma would be a much better candidate. She was attractive and in great shape for her age, and pretty much financially independent since the house had been paid for. And, of course, her job working for Sam more than paid the bills…

Enough. This was beginning to wear on her nerves.

She straightened very carefully and slowly turned around. Trembling slightly, she moved closer to the peephole.

The street was empty.

She wanted to slap herself. Just because she’d seen a dirty white van parked across the street didn’t mean it was the one she’d seen before. There were certainly more than one or two dirty white vans in town. Even an idiot could figure that one out...

Laura suddenly noticed the thick, tangy aroma of Momma’s legendary beef stew. Her mouth watered, and the subject of the van and her imaginary stalker instantly dissolved.

She dropped her bag on the recliner on her way to the kitchen and hung her keys on the pegboard fastened to the kitchen wall. She shuffled over to the simmering coffeepot. “How was your day?”

Momma just shrugged and went over to the stove, where the stew popped and bubbled in the large blue spatterware pot.

Laura knew better than press the issue. “Maddie asked about you.”

Momma stirred the stew gently with the ladle. “How’s she doing?”

“She and Carl are both doing well.”

“Tell them I said hi.”

Laura had a swallow of coffee. She began thinking about the van again. She wanted to ask Momma if she knew anyone who drove one but knew that would be a mistake. Momma would want to know what was wrong and Laura would have to lie. Laura was a terrible liar. Besides, suggesting someone might be stalking them would not be very bright.

“Well, I’d better get out of these clothes. How’s Sam, by the way?”

“I haven’t seen him. He’s in Wheeling and probably won’t even be in town for the next few days.”

Laura grabbed her bag as she crossed the living room. Her back still ached; she’d probably have to take a pain pill after dinner.

Before she went over to the stair lift, she had another peek at the peephole.

Still no sign of the van.