tagNovels and NovellasThe Sentinel Ch. 18

The Sentinel Ch. 18

byJPMMURPHY©

Jan sat in her bedroom in the middle of her bed, wearing a silk nightshirt and panties while pouring over folders and reports. It seemed things were going exceptionally well at the office, but, instead of lessening the burden, it only seemed to pile more work on.

While she read, her mind kept wandering back to Jack. She'd never felt so close to anyone, yet she wondered if their closeness was simply two people sharing a common experience - one charged with an emotion other than love, maybe loss. While he seemed so open and honest with his feelings, there always appeared to be something hidden - a room in his mind whose door she hadn't found yet, much less opened.

Tossing the last report back onto the pile, she picked them up, straightened them in her hands, and dropped them in the outside pocket of her computer case. She looked at the zipper for a minute and wondered if she should plug it in - log in and see if Jack was around. But they had both agreed; chat was not the place to communicate for now and had stuck to phone calls and e-mail.

Abandoning the idea, she picked up her glass, a plate, and wadded napkin from where she'd had a snack earlier and padded barefoot downstairs. What are you thinking about right now, Jack, she wondered? Setting the dishes in the sink and tossing the napkin in the trash, she checked the back doors and stopped at the alarm control to check it before heading back upstairs. That's funny, she thought. How could the alarm show the front door as open? Thinking she might not have pulled it closed completely when she came home from the office, she headed for the foyer. But she realized too late that the front door had been closed when she came downstairs, just a few minutes ago; living alone, she had a habit of keeping an eye on things like that.

She froze in the entryway from the kitchen to the foyer, staring at the front door which was open a few feet, and letting a cool breeze come in from the porch.

Glancing around quickly, she noticed her purse and car keys still on the foyer table under the big mirror. Grab the keys and run, or turn around and hit the panic button on the alarm? How could someone get in here, she wondered. There's a gate and cameras all over the place with two guards sitting in the guard shack at the corner of the property that are supposed to be watching the monitors and sensors.

Spinning quietly on her heels, she retraced her steps to the alarm station on tiptoe and punched the panic button. Nothing happened. She had never used it before but seemed to recall that some kind of confirmation should come up on the display, indicating she'd pushed it. Pressing again, this time slower and firmer, she carefully watched the display as it refused to acknowledge her action. Slipping into a panic, she turned quickly and lunged at the phone on the wall beside the refrigerator. Dead. Damn. She cursed the thing and threw it to the floor, watching it shatter.

Suddenly, conscious of all the noise she was making, she crouched behind the counter and listened. Nothing - no creaking boards, rustling curtains, or clicking door latches. There was only the quiet hum of the refrigerator as it blew warm air across her bare feet. Avoiding the pieces of broken phone parts on the floor, she crept along, below the counter, to the corner closest to the kitchen entrance and the foyer.

Stopping again, she listened and couldn't even hear the refrigerator above the pounding of her heart as blood rushed to her head. Hands shaking, she raised them to balance herself on the frame of the door, forcing herself to lean forward and peer around the corner. She felt her heart stop when she saw the door was now closed.

Glancing at the entrance to the front room on the right, she could see nothing but shadows and darkness, mostly darkness. Looking over her shoulder, she peered above the counter and quickly scanned the kitchen to confirm she was still alone. She couldn't see much of the back deck with so little light, but she had checked those locks, and they were secure.

Turning back to the foyer, she inched forward a little more, centering her feet under her crouching figure, ready to make a run for her car keys and the front door. Stopping to listen again, she waited, wishing desperately, Jack were here.

Taking a deep breath, she rocked back on the balls of her feet and sprang up, charging for the table. Scooping the keys up in one hand and snagging her purse for the cell phone it contained in the other, she grabbed the door, turned the handle, and pulled. She almost fell when it didn't come open, and she couldn't figure out why. Trying again, she looked down and realized the deadbolt was set from the inside. Freezing, she listened as she tried to stifle sobs of panic and fear.

Two breaths, three. Her heart didn't slow; she had to get control of herself. Four. Five. She counted to herself as she tried to slow her breathing before she passed out. Nothing had happened yet. She was still alive. Turning the deadbolt, she turned the doorknob again and was rewarded this time when the door pulled away from the frame, allowing her to scamper out. Clicking the alarm button on her car, she was confused when the lights started flashing and the alarm wailed, piercing the quiet night with a banshee's cry of intrusion. In her rush, she had hit the car's panic button instead of the alarm button without realizing it.

Ignoring the car alarm, she ran to the driver's side, cutting her feet on loose bits of gravel strewn around the black asphalt drive. She grabbed the car's door handle; but it slipped out of her hand; the door wouldn't open. Now in a full blown panic and needing to escape, she threw the keys down. Hugging her purse to her body, she started running towards the side of the house, in the general direction of the guard house. She wasn't sure if she could run full out for 200 yards, but she planned on giving it a hell of a try.

Just as she got about 50 yards away from the house, bright lights came on behind her. Then, what seemed to be a moving light swung across from the back, making her shadow move from left to right in front of her. Glancing back across her shoulder with her feet still pumping, the sight of four big lights and a smaller one moving back and forth just pushed her harder - hard enough that she was paying no attention to where her feet fell. The pain was excruciating when she stepped into the gopher hole, trapping her foot and sending the purse flying from her arms while she tumbled into blackness.

The uniformed security guard sat on the grass beside Jan and watched her breathing. Feeling the side of her neck, he could tell her pulse was fast but strong. In the headlights of the 4x4 used to patrol the grounds, he looked at her ankle. Definitely broken. His partner appeared and asked how she looked. "She's alive, but her ankle is shot."

"I've called for an ambulance, and the county is sending a couple of units over. You stay here with her, and I'll go to the gate and let them in. First, the front gate trips an alarm and now this. What the hell was she doing running like that, anyway? And dressed like that?"

The 4x4 backed up and pulled away, racing toward the front gate, leaving the guard with only a flashlight to watch over Jan.

Jan came to in the emergency room just as a young doctor pulled gently on her foot, trying to confirm the obvious. Completely disorientated, the pain shot up her leg, and she screamed. A nurse, standing beside her head, continued with the shot she had already prepared, and Jan slumped back on the examining table as the bright lights of the emergency room faded to black.

When she awoke, she could hear whispering, but for some reason couldn't see anything. Straining to look toward the sound, her vision was blurred by a hall light behind the voices, and she raised her hand to block it out, trying to see who was there. One of the blurry forms rushed to the side of the bed.

"You gave us quite a scare, Jan." Paul's familiar baritone was comforting as she let her head fall back on the pillow. Paul Morse was one of the original investors and business partners at the office. As financial director, he was always on call for an emergency or need of Jan's'.

"What's going on, Paul? Where am I?"

"You're at County Hospital. The guards found you running across the grounds at your house in a nightshirt. Apparently, you tripped in a gopher hole and took quite a tumble. Your right ankle is broken, and they want to keep you in observation for the night. Possible concussion."

Jan grabbed his arm and pulled him close. "Someone was in my house, Paul. Did they check the house?"

"Yes, they did. They found your car keys beside your car with the alarm going; the kitchen phone smashed in front of the refrigerator; and your purse about 20 feet away from where you fell. The front door was standing open so they searched the house from top to bottom but found nothing."

"I pushed the panic button on my alarm twice. Did it go off anywhere?"

"They checked the alarm. It was working properly, and the panic button hadn't been pushed." Sitting on the edge of the bed, Paul looked down at the cast and back up at Jan. "Did you see whoever broke in?"

"No."

"We didn't find any broken windows or jimmied doors. How do you know someone broke in?"

"I found the front door standing open, Paul. A minute later, it was closed, and I didn't close it." Her jaw set a little as she heard skepticism in Paul's voice.

"We checked everything, Jan. I walked through the place myself, and there was nothing." Laying his hand on her upper arm, he continued. "We tried to find Jack, but he seems to be on a trip and out of touch. Maybe, it's just the workload. This is our busiest time of the year, Jan, and you haven't stopped since returning from New York."

Jan stared at the ceiling for a minute and sighed. Looking up at Paul, she said, "Maybe, you're right."

But she knew what she'd seen. That door didn't close itself, and there wasn't enough wind to blow it shut. Besides, how did the deadbolt get set? Resigned to the situation, they talked for a few more minutes about what to do at the office tomorrow, and Paul offered to come back around noon to take her home. She really didn't want to argue about going back to the house right now, but she was sure someone had come in, and they seemed to have a key.

"Paul, one thing you can do is have the locks changed - all of them - and early, before I get home. Also, call the alarm company, and tell them to replace the alarm unit. I don't care if it is working right or not. As much as we spend with them in a year, they can afford it. Tomorrow, have Dave or someone come by and get me." Looking down at her leg in the heavy plaster cast that kept her foot from moving and ended just below her knee, she moaned, "Damn, how am I going to move around the house now?"

Where the hell is Jack, she wondered, as the nurse injected her once again, sending her to a dreamless sleep.

*****

Jack was somewhere over Louisiana, fidgeting in first class, trying to find a position he could sleep in. After Linda shared her information, he had decided to head straight for the airport and wait for the first flight to Miami. Around midnight while waiting in the airport for a two AM flight, he found that the battery on his cell phone was dead, so he had decided to let everyone sleep and skipped checking in.

Going over it all in his mind once again, he really couldn't find a way to refute Linda's conclusions. Considering what those conclusions were, he decided the best place he could be was close to Jan. It was going to happen again. He was sure of it.

*****

Jan had never seen a more welcome sight than Dave appearing at the door of her hospital room. The only thing she wanted to do was get out of here. They must have missed something at the house, and she was sure she could find it. Her plan was to get Dave to help her get up and down the stairs as they checked the house out and tried to put together exactly what happened.

Dave seemed moody and quiet which was fine with her. She wasn't in a mood for small talk, anyway. Besides, she was still miffed about her lost package.

Tossing a small leather purse onto her lap as he pulled away from the hospital, Dave said Paul had sent it; it contained the new keys to the house. "Each one is marked with a small tag so you know what goes with what." Why does it sound like he's talking to a three-year-old, she wondered?

Thanks, Dave, she thought. Why not break my other leg while you're at it? Suddenly, she felt bad about her feelings toward Dave and realized her ankle was throbbing. Opening her purse, wearing its green war badge from its skid across the grass the previous night, she fished around until she found the bottle of pain killers they'd given her at the hospital. Reading the bottle as Dave's car bounced along, she finally made out the instructions - one every four hours or as needed. Well, this is needed, so she popped the cap and slipped the pill onto her tongue, dry swallowing it with a grimace.

Feeling guilty about being such a bitch, she asked if he had plans for Christmas. His sideways glance didn't seem to say all that much, and she decided he must have broken his ankle last night, too, because his mood seemed to match her own.

They settled into silence, and she watched the scenery slip by as they headed out of town. Wondering again where Jack was, she flipped the AC vent on her side of the car so the air blew directly at her face, hoping the cool air would help hold the tears back.

When they turned off the road onto her lane, she noticed her ankle had calmed to a gentle throb. Snapping open the pouch, she dug around for the key marked 'front door' and held it in her hand while Dave slid his card into the electronic sentry, saluting the camera as they drove through. What a boy scout, she thought.

She noticed, in passing, the tire ruts from the security guard's 4x4 where he'd raced across the grass the previous night to open the gate for the ambulance. Following them as they drove along, she saw them drop below the rise and disappear out of view.

Parking behind her own car, Dave pulled his key out of the ignition and walked around to open the door. "Here we are, home sweet home."

She couldn't put her finger on it, but something about the way he said 'home sweet home' just didn't seem right. At least, he offered her a hand, helping her out of the car and up the stairs where she waited by the front door. Not wanting to open it without Dave there for protection, she watched him pull, from the back of his car, a standard-issued, green wheelchair just like the one Jack purchased when they arrived in New York and carry it up the stairs. "Tom said you might want me to help you check out the house before I leave. I can get the rest of the stuff later."

Jan stood at the door, key in hand, looking ridiculous as she tried to put her finger on what was wrong with Dave. He seemed so... she just couldn't figure it out, but she did know this wasn't the Dave she'd known for more than two years.

She heard the click of the tumblers as she turned the key and pushed gently on the door as if pushing too hard might tell whoever was in there she had returned - wounded, but ready to fight again - something she really didn't want to do.

Seeing Jan wasn't going in, Dave finally walked past her and literally stomped into the foyer making as much noise as a small army. Using the door frame and wall, Jan hopped along behind him taking up a post in the middle of the foyer. She turned to look accusingly at the front door, as if to say, 'It's all your fault' but decided Dave would know for sure she had gone off the deep end if she actually voiced that thought.

Watching his back recede into the front room, she stood vigil in the foyer, making sure the door was going to behave while stealing glances at Dave as he walked around looking behind furniture and pulling out the drapes. He even got down on the floor and looked behind the couch which was shoved up against the wall. It was a big room, but a simple one, with no other entries or exits other than the windows and no closets.

Walking back, Dave reported all clear from the front room. She hobbled along the foyer, using the staircase for support and followed him into the kitchen, taking up post at the end of the counter where she could still keep an eye on the front door. The broken phone was spread around the floor in front of the refrigerator, and she thought she should ask Dave to check the phones, too. Looking at the mess, he kicked the pieces out of the way and looked up at the base attached to the wall. "Here it is. I found it."

Jan just stared for a moment, wondering what or who Dave thought he'd found, when it occurred to her he wasn't going to continue unless she asked. "What, Dave, you found what?"

"Why the phone didn't work."

Hobbling along the counter, she looked around his arm as he pointed at a small, slide switch on the base that seemed to be stuck between two selections. A combination cordless phone and answering machine, it required the user to select which he wanted to use. When listening to the answering machine, you weren't allowed to make outbound phone calls. "You probably hit this switch with the tip of your finger as you yanked the phone out of the cradle and pushed it out of position." Looking down at the mess on the floor, he continued. "Of course, I don't think we can check it with the handset all busted up like that, but I imagine that's why it didn't work last night."

Well, right you are, Dave. Why was he being such an ass? Before she could ask, he moved on to the alarm control panel. Glancing at the unit, he pulled a note down that was taped to the wall beside it. Studying the information, he turned to Jan. "When you tried to use the alarm last night, did you hold the large yellow button marked 'Access' down at the same time you pressed the panic button?"

She couldn't believe this. Biting back what she really wanted to say, she answered between clenched teeth, "No Dave. Why?"

"Well," holding up the note and pointing at it as if saying it was as plain as day, he summarized the message the alarm company had left for her. "It says, you have to hold down the yellow 'Access' key for the panic button to work; it goes on to say you had requested it be programmed like that to keep someone from just bumping into it and setting the alarm off. Also, it says they'd be glad to bring out their copy of the contract and go over all the features and how you wanted it programmed if you like."

It was too much, and she felt all the anger leave, taking her resolve with it. How could this be? Was Tom right? Had she been working too hard? Was the door closed the whole time? Did she leave it open, and the wind blow it shut?

"I give up, Dave. Let's get my crutches and other things out of the car, and if you can help me get upstairs, I think I'll lie down for awhile. I don't see any reason for checking the rest of the house. Do you?"

Why did she even ask? He was already through the foyer and out the front door before she finished the question. Dave came inside and stomped up the stairs, carrying her new aluminum crutches and an overnight bag her secretary had brought to the hospital this morning with the summer dress she was wearing and other personal items. "You want me to put these in your bedroom?" Dave asked as he disappeared around the landing and onto the second floor.

"Sure, Dave. That would be nice. And Dave ..." Jan called after him, deciding she had probably been a much bigger bitch all morning than Dave had been an asshole and maybe she owed him an apology.

Concentrating on where to place her hands for balance, Jan hobbled out of the kitchen and around the base of the staircase to stand where she could wait for Dave to help her up the stairs. Looking around the foyer again while she waited, she began to wonder if dear old Dave was rifling her panty drawer for a cheap thrill.

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