Chapters 7 – 9  The streets of Creekside when night descends

Previously in Hold Gently the Shadows: Preface, Chapters 1 – 3, Chapters 4 – 6

Chapter Seven

It was already dark when Carmen stepped through the tunnel door in the basement of Briarfeldy Manor. She rode the elevator to the third floor and knocked on Paola’s door to let her know she’d arrived home.

“Grab your jacket,” said Paola. “There’s a chill in the air tonight.”

Within minutes, the two women were walking through the residential streets of town, using existing sidewalks where available and switching to roads where there were none. It was a pleasant enough evening, leaves rustling beneath their feet and stars beginning to appear overhead.

“This is the last evening stroll I’ll be taking with you for a while,” said Carmen.

“Why is that?” asked Paola, surprised.

“I’m bringing Noah home tomorrow. It’s time I became a fulltime mom. Besides, Paisley’s at the abbey now with Eula.”

“Eula will miss Noah, I’m sure.”

“But she’ll be able to focus more on her writing,” said Carmen.

“What about your writing?” asked her walking companion.

“I’ll have to learn to juggle writing with baby.”

By now they had reached streets on the edge of town. Lights were fewer here and shadows longer.

“I don’t suppose you’d consider taking Noah out in his stroller,” said Paola.

“On our nightly walks here?” asked Carmen.

“We could have them earlier in the day,” said Paola.

“Night or day, I wouldn’t dare,” said Carmen.

“Babies need fresh air,” said Paola.

“He’ll get lots of that at the abbey. They have pathways everywhere, and we’ll go there every day, rain or shine.”

“Or snow,” said Paola.

“Perhaps there will be days when we stick to the back garden here,” admitted Carmen, laughing.

They walked on in silence, each immersed in their own thoughts. Paola wondered if she might entice Owen to walk with her, maybe even adjust the time to accommodate Colin’s bedtime. No, Owen would never leave the boy unattended. Perhaps she and Nola Grady, could go walking together. Things were quiet at the Playhouse now.

Carmen was contemplating life with a baby. What would it be like having Noah sleeping nearby at night? Would she get much sleep herself? Fitting in more writing time wasn’t an issue at the moment, because she’d written very little since Noah’s arrival. She would establish a schedule, blending the roles of author and mother as seamlessly as possible. History demonstrated that female writers had accomplished just that.

Unseen behind them, another person walked the darkened streets. Keeping her distance, Robin kept to the shadows. It was a continuing disappointment to have not caught sight of a baby. She wondered if Sasha had miscarried or maybe given the infant up for adoption. More likely, the baby was hidden within Briarfeldy Manor or Black Springs Abbey. There were enough meddlers at either place to shield the heir of Ravensglen.

“Look, there she is, our mystery walker,” said Paula, unaware of the one following them.

“Where?” asked Carmen in a whisper.

“Over in that yard,” said Paula, pointing in the direction of a large two storied house.

The lower level of the house seemed unlit, but light could be seen through an upstairs window. The hooded woman was looking intently at this window while her dog lay obediently beside her.

Paola and Carmen moved from the road into a cluster of trees for a better view. To their astonishment, a young couple was undressing each other in clear view of the window. In deliberate slow motion, they tossed aside clothing piece by piece. Then, fully naked, they ran their hands through each other’s hair, over faces, necks, shoulders, breasts. Unaware or uncaring that they were on display, the young man began to plant little kisses over his beloved’s hair, face, neck, shoulders, breasts.

Paola nudged Carmen to divert her eyes to the woman on the lawn. Fixated on the couple in the window, the woman was emulating the couple’s every move. She hugged herself in the darkness and threw her head back to expose her neck to imagined kisses. Her body trembled with ecstasy.

Paola and Carmen watched in fascination. Who was this woman who walked by night and engaged in voyeuristic behaviour?

Paola wished she had a relationship as intense as these lovers. Carmen wondered how the couple could be so oblivious to their visibility to outside eyes.

Robin was watching too. She observed all of them, the walking duo who were her primary focus, the impassioned lovers in the window, the enigmatic woman on the lawn. A town inhabited by voyeurs, she thought wryly. She wondered if she had become one too before reassuring herself it was different in her case. She was on a mission, a double one, in fact. Missions of urgency.

The hooded woman ran her hands sensuously through her hair, displacing her jacket’s hood which fell to her shoulders. The side of her face was briefly illuminated by the street lights.

“It’s the library assistant!” whispered Carmen.

“Janine?” asked Paola, astonished.

“Yes.”

The spied-upon couple was no longer visible through the window. Presumably they had moved to their bed to continue their ardent lovemaking. The library assistant pulled up her hood, commanded her dog to heel, and disappeared from view behind the row of houses. Paola and Carmen walked to the end of the street before turning around to retrace their steps.

“Do you feel we’re being followed?” asked Paola suddenly.

“Do you?” asked Carmen, startled.

“Maybe not,” said Paola. “I shouldn’t scare you like that.”

“Not hard to do,” said Carmen. “I’m always wondering if I’m being followed. It’s why I came to Creekside in the first place and stayed at Emily’s Bed and Breakfast. I felt so protected there. Ironic that now I’m hiding from Emily and her Ravensglen crew, desperate to keep Noah away from them.”

“Are you starting to remember why you fear them?” asked Paola.

“No, and I’m admittedly scared to begin,” said Carmen. “What happened during those four long years?”

As they neared Briarfeldy Manor, Paola shared her dream about the man in the green truck and the children running in terror. “It was a re-enactment of Alistair’s poem only more detailed and frighteningly realistic,” she said.

She described how the olive-green truck took shape through the fog as the children approached. The truck had rust spots and the paint was faded. She was little and frightened and wanted to go home. But the boys were on an adventure. They wanted to see the truck up close and she couldn’t leave on her own. And then the man was chasing them. When they took off in different directions, the man could only chase one, and he chose the older one.

“Did you recognize anyone in the dream?” asked Carmen.

“No, but I seemed to know them at the time. Do you suppose it really happened?”

“Dreams are usually symbolic of something in real life, a situation the subconscious is sorting out,” said Carmen.

“The thing about this dream is that it feels almost like a memory being stirred back into life,” said Paola.

“Perhaps we could start having some memory-stirring sessions now that we’re curtailing our walks together,” said Carmen. “It’s time I faced up to my lost ones.”

“I’d like that,” said Paola.

With their evening walk ending, Paola and Carmen were back where they started. Bathed in streetlight, Briarfeldy Manor was clearly the most elegant building in the neighbourhood. Light shone invitingly from windows on the second and first floors. The upper storey was in darkness since the occupants of the third-floor units conscientiously turned off their lights to conserve energy when they were elsewhere.

Paola and Carmen unlocked the garden gate, entered the manor through the back door, and took the elevator up to their cozy aerie.

“Sleep well,” said Paola to her friend as she shut her door behind her. She flicked on the lights and settled onto the sofa to watch a taped sitcom before bedtime.

Inside her apartment, Carmen shivered as she peered out into the night. She could feel eyes upon her, the gaze of someone watching her as she had earlier watched the young couple. Quickly closing all her blinds, she stepped far enough away to avoid the possibility of a telltale silhouette. Tomorrow night she would have baby Noah to keep her company.

Outside, Robin smiled in the dark, satisfied to have acquired one more puzzle piece. She now knew which apartment belonged to Sasha Deleaney-Wolfe.

 

Chapter Eight                                                                                           

Two days later, Paola entered a local coffee shop and found Alistair Crawford waiting for her near the entrance.

“I haven’t ordered yet,” he said. “I’m having coffee and a blueberry muffin. What about you?”

“Sounds tempting. Think I’ll have the same,” she said.

He ordered for both of them and, over her mild protests, paid for both. They found a table near the back and Paola thanked him for meeting with her.

“My pleasure,” he said. “With no supply call-in this morning, I can’t think of a nicer way to spend a morning.”

They began with small talk, Paola telling Alistair about her work for her father’s publishing house and, additionally, as Carmen’s research assistant. Alistair related that both he and his fiancée, Gwen, had teaching contracts starting in January, and that Gwen was moving from Toronto to Creekside in late December.

Paola asked him if there would soon be wedding bells.

“During the Christmas holidays,” he said. “Gwen and her mother have been working on Christmas themes for months. I’m glad I’m a safe distance from most of the madness.”

“I wanted to talk to you about a dream I had after hearing the poem you read at the library,” said Paola. “It was exceptionally realistic and detailed, and I can’t get the dream, or your poem, out of my head.”

She described how, in the dream, she and two little boys approached a green truck through the fog, and how terrified she was when the man in the truck chased them.

“Did he catch you?” asked Alistair, intrigued.

“No, he went after the older boy instead,” she said. And that’s where the dream ended.”

“My poem was based on a dim memory from before I was adopted,” said Alistair.

“Do you think it really happened?”

“I think so.”

“How old were you when you were adopted?”

“Four.”

“That’s how old I was,” said Paola.

“You were adopted?” he asked.

“By the most wonderful parents ever.”

“I got lucky too. We lived in Owen Sound until Mom died. Dad thought we needed a fresh start so he found a teaching job in Creekside and transferred here when I was in high school. I was miserable at the time, losing Mom and switching schools. But I made friends quickly and got to like this little town.”

Alistair went on to describe earlier fragments of his life story. He was adopted privately through a lawyer chosen by the foster parents. His adoptive parents told him the process moved quickly because they had already completed a home study. Prior to the adoption, he remembered being called Dwight in a home where the foster parents, whom they called Mama and Papa, seemed to fight much of the time.

He also remembered a woman visitor who took him and two little girls out for ice cream every now and then. The three of them called her Grandma and hated when she brought them back from their outings. Alistair said he thought the little girls were called Doris and Darla.

“My name was Darla before I helped Mom and Dad choose my new name,” said Paola, her eyes widening. “Is it possible you and I were both there when we saw the man in the truck chase the boy?”

Over the next hour, they exchanged faded memories of their pre-adoption years. Alistair recalled a domineering foster mother who yelled at an equally dour foster father, accusing him of cheating and being lazy. The couple’s adult daughter came to the house daily to help look after the four live-in children plus half a dozen who were dropped off for babysitting. Mama and Papa were bright and cheerful with outsiders, making a public display of affection for the children in their care.

Paola’s memories were far vaguer. She remembered generalized neglect and the presence of other children. She wondered why Alistair remembered details she didn’t.

“Probably because I couldn’t stop telling Mom and Dad about things I remembered and pestering them with endless questions,” said Alistair. “They didn’t have answers, but they were reassuring and allowed me to tell my stories. Dad read to me every night and eventually his stories replaced the bad ones in my head.”

“Whereas I was more than willing to forget my early years and move immediately into a life enriched with books, music, dance and travel,” said Paola.

“It was shortly after the chase event described in my poem that we all moved to a remote place called Pine Gully. My adoption happened shortly afterward,” said Alistair.

“Do you know who your biological parents are?” asked Paula.

“No, I’ve never been motivated to find them.”

“Me neither,” said Paola. “Do you ever think about that boy? The one who was chased?”

“Often,” said Alistair. “His name was Emil, and we never saw him after he was chased by Papa.”

“So you think it was the foster dad who was in the truck.”

Alistair nodded. They looked at each other somberly, afraid to voice their grim thoughts.

“What about the ice cream woman? Did you ever see her again?” asked Paola.

“Not after we moved to Pine Gully.”

“Could I have been the Darla that was with you and the other girl when you went out driving?”

“Maybe so,” said Alistair.

“Do you think she really was your grandmother?”

“She could well have been,” said Alistair. “My theory is that Grandma couldn’t locate us after we moved to Pine Gully. I was adopted quickly after the move.”

Paula felt an ache in her heart, sadness over a grandmother’s futile quest, sorrow for her own loss in not knowing the woman who may well have been her grandmother.

“What about Doris and Darla? Do you think they were adopted when you were?” she asked.

“I would think so,” said Alistair, “and I’m pretty sure I know the person with the answers.”

“Who?”

“Maggie Crosby. Do you know her? She was at your library presentation.”

“Why would she know anything?”

“She has the same unforgettable face, voice and overbearing demeanor as my old foster mum,” said Alistair.

“No!” exclaimed Paola, shocked. “How long have you thought it was her?”

“Since my high school days when she moved to Creekside with her daughter, Genevieve, and her granddaughter, Janine. Genevieve began working at the hospital as an x-ray technician. Janine was in some of my classes. She was awkward, shy, never socialized much with other kids.”

Alistair then described his first encounter with Maggie. His dad had sent him to the grocery store to pick up Halloween treats. As he was making his selections, a voice behind him said, ‘Don’t be rotting out your teeth, son!’ Startled, he jumped and turned around to see her standing there. Same voice, same tight-lipped smile, same interfering attitude as that scary woman from his past.

“Do you think she knew who you were?” asked Paola.

“No. As far as she was concerned, I was just another Creekside teenager. All the same, I lost no time in grabbing some bags of treats and heading for the cashier.”

When he breathlessly told his father he had met his horrible foster mother, Crawford insisted he was imagining things. Reassured, he pushed his fears away.

“When I returned to Creekside this fall, I went to the library to return some books,” said Alistair. “The Scribes happened to be meeting, and I nodded at Dad who, as you know, is a member of the group. Then I heard an abrasive voice that made the hair stand up on the back of my neck. It was Maggie, critiquing someone’s writing, and I was more certain than ever that she was Mama.”

“Is that why you wrote that poem?” asked Paola.

“Yeah, I wanted to get under her skin, see how she reacted.”

“She’s pretty cool, though. We might be able to learn more about her through her granddaughter, Janine,” said Paola.

“Any ideas?” asked Alistair.

“As a matter of fact, I see Janine walking her dog at night. She has a bit of a fixation on one of the houses at the edge of town,” said Paola. “Would you like to join me on an evening walk?”

Chapter Nine

Paola was preparing supper when she heard the knock on the door. She opened it to Carmen, carrying Noah in a portable car seat.

“You did it!” said Paola, taking the carrier from her friend and toting it in to the kitchen. “The newest resident of Briarfeldy Manor has joined us. And he’s adorable.”

“I almost asked Eula to keep him for one more night, claiming I wasn’t feeling well,” admitted Carmen. “In fact, I was feeling queasy, though more from anxiety than a gastric bug. Being a clinical psychologist doesn’t prepare you for the practicalities of motherhood.”

“What would you tell a patient who was feeling like you are?” asked Paola.

“I would tell them to take some deep breaths, that it would get easier over time,” said Carmen.

“Exactly. So follow your own advice. Lord knows, you’ve prepared the most beautiful nursery in the world for him.”

“With the help of my unbelievable friends,” said Carmen.

As they ate, Paola excitedly told Carmen about her eventful coffee break with Alistair. “We’re going walking this evening to see if we can meet up with Janine,” she said.

“It would be amazing if you and Alistair are siblings,” said Carmen as she left Paola’s apartment with her now fussing baby. “Then we’d both be on new adventures.”

Later, as darkness cloaked the town, Paola donned her jacket and hurried outside. Although she was a few minutes late, Alistair was not waiting at the nearby corner where they had agreed to meet. Standing in the streetlight glow, Paola breathed in the autumn air, marveling as she often did at the many offerings of nature. Each season had its own scents, sounds, sights and textures.

With no sign of Alistair, she finally set out on her own. If she didn’t catch up with Alistair tonight, there would be other times, she reasoned. Moving briskly along the familiar streets, her disappointment faded in the exhilaration of walking in the chill autumn air. She smiled, imagining Owen’s reaction when she told him her incredible news.

Other walkers were out that night, though they were few, and they were mostly dog walkers. Paola crossed from Main Street, vaguely noting that all stores were, as expected, locked for the night. Leaving the downtown for the more subdued lighting of residential territory, she at once felt unreasonably alone and vulnerable.

There was something unsettling about tonight, a feeling of malevolence hanging in the air. Paola jumped when something scuttled through the leaves nearby and disappeared into the darkness. Probably a cat, she thought, shivering nonetheless as prickles traced icy fingers across her upper arms and down her spine.

She felt certain now that she was being followed and regretted arranging to meet Alistair. Brother or not, if he had forgotten their appointment, she would give him a piece of her mind.

The familiar streets she’d walked so often in Carmen’s company suddenly seemed exceptionally lonely and dark. Too early for bedrooms to be alight with bedtime preparations, upper windows stared blankly into the night. Moreover, with occupants watching television in back rooms, lower levels also presented unlit faces to the streets.

Leaves rustling dryly beneath her hurrying feet provided unnerving sound effects to a setting in which she felt increasingly exposed and vulnerable. Paola considered returning home before remembering that Alistair could be waiting ahead for her. She shuddered, almost afraid to walk wherever shadows separated pools of streetlight cast upon lawns, sidewalks and roadway.

You’re being ridiculous, she admonished herself, pushing herself onward until she neared the street where she and Carmen regularly saw Janine and her dog. It was then she felt an urgency in the core of her being demanding, not that she flee, but that she rush to assist someone in grave danger.

Paola began to run, only to be halted by an acute pain on the side of her face. She instinctively raised her hand to her head. Moments later, a jolt to the back of her head caused her to reel with dizziness and nausea. She wondered if she were having a stroke, but concern for her own wellbeing dissipated when she heard screams.

As she rounded the corner, the screams abruptly ceased. Then, breaking the deadly silence, an eerie sound filled the night, a wailing howl of terrible grief. Nearby porch lights turned on and people emerged cautiously onto their lawns. She wanted to run for home but felt herself pulled toward the place of unknown distress.

The howling waned into pitiful whimpers, and as she drew nearer, Paola realized there were two people and a dog lying on the sidewalk in close proximity to each other. The only thing that stirred was the dog who, silent now, looked at her with mournful eyes.

“Call 911!” she yelled to the small crowd gathering nearby.

Paola knew, before she bent over the figures, that the victims were Janine and Alistair. There was an oozing gash on the side of Janine’s face, and the grass beneath Alistair’s head was darkened by blood.

“Help is on the way,” she told them, uncertain if either heard the words catching in her throat.

Although the police responded promptly, it seemed like forever to Paola who waited in the darkness, trembling. The sound of approaching sirens preceded the arrival of two ambulances. Accompanied by a second detective, Owen drew up at the curb and got out.

“Did you see what happened?” he asked Paola.

She shook her head, wanting to cry.

Paramedics determined the victims were still alive, and moved them into the waiting ambulances. Paola watched numbly as the vehicles sped away, clearing the way with horn and siren warnings.

Police were already at work, surrounding the area with yellow tape, marking chalk outlines on the bloodstained sidewalk, collecting forensic evidence, taking pictures, questioning onlookers.

Owen offered Paola a ride home, promising to check in on her when he went off duty. The dog followed them to the car and stared at them expectantly.

“What about Janine’s dog?” asked Paola.

“Somebody will see to him,” said Owen.

“Who?”

Sensing an opportunity afforded by indecision, the dog pressed against his leg.

“Guess I can take him for the night,” he said.

 Standing unseen in the shadows, Robin watched Paola drive away with the man and the dog. She’d had quite an eye-opening night in Creekside. The first sighting of note was Paola standing alone outside Briarfeldy Manor without her usual walking companion. The young woman seemed to be waiting for someone.

Rather than continue her watch there, Robin began to walk toward the street where Janine walked her dog and carried out her spying behaviour. Perhaps she could meet up with her tonight to casually talk to her about her family, most specifically, her grandmother.

When she neared her destination, Robin found other strollers already on her route. Quickly leaving sidewalk for lawn, Robin overtook the others to see if she recognized anyone. Sidling along the darkened houses, she spotted Maggie’s daughter, Genevieve, in the company of a tall, wiry man, baseball cap shielding his eyes.

Genevieve and the man were tailing another pair of walkers at a discrete distance. As she came abreast of them, Robin identified Janine and one of the library workshop attendees. Yes, Alistair something. Engaged in earnest conversation, Janine and Alistair were oblivious to the others.

Shortly thereafter, Robin witnessed the brutal attack. Initially shocked, she recovered quickly, elated in knowing she now held an unexpected trump card.