tagNovels and NovellasReplacement Therapy Ch. 04

Replacement Therapy Ch. 04


Chapter 4: The Haunted and the Hunted

By the beginning of June, I was pronounced fit by my doctor. I wasn't actually. I had been so careful not to overdo anything, that my real fitness was sadly lacking. But Yolanda had a plan, and when Yolanda wanted me to follow her plan, I had no intention of denying her.

We started off with aggressive walks in the morning and after supper. They were an hour long and with the warm weather now bordering on hot some days, I was really feeling the stress of these workouts. She would drop the children off at school and head directly to Meg's to meet me. In the evening, the three of them were almost constant supper guests, but I never heard a single complaint from anyone, least of all me.

We would finish our walks, bathed in sweat, stopping in the shade of the giant sycamore tree in the front yard to catch our breath and begin the cool-down process. We didn't talk much on these walks, mostly because I was too busy just breathing and trying to keep up with Yolanda. She was in much better shape than I was ... in more ways than one.

She would taunt me with a pair of tight, nylon track shorts and a lightweight tank top barely covering a sports bra. I kidded her once about her attire and she quickly stated that it was part of my "incentive program." I couldn't argue with that. In any event, by the end of June, I was in much better condition, proven during our private moments. I had gained back most of my lost weight, and the remainder wasn't needed in the first place.

The first time we made love was something I will never forget as long as I live. She had sprung it on me as a surprise, bundling me into her truck one afternoon and driving me to her home. Our foreplay was non-existent. She stripped and then helped me without a word having passed between us.

I was so caught up in the moment that I was completely unprepared for her aggressive behavior. I didn't expect to last very long that first time, and I was right. But that didn't faze Yolanda. I hadn't had a woman perform oral sex on me in almost twenty years, but she rectified that with what I can only describe as the most sensual arousal any woman could generate.

I was painfully hard that first time, but no less hard when we began the second joining. I had calmed down and was paying attention to her responses as we moved in perfect harmony. She was on top, sometimes propped up on her elbows, and other times lying on my chest. We were kissing and fondling and doing all the things that lovers do when they are lost in the moment.

I had no idea that she had arranged with her mother to pick the children up after school and take them to her house. I was keeping an eye on the bedroom clock until Yolanda noticed and told me to stop worrying. The two of them had conspired to give us the whole afternoon and evening if necessary. It was beginning to look like we would need it.

We loved, and kissed, and talked, and loved again, and lazily spent the entire afternoon in each others' arms. It had been worth the wait. She was everything and more that I had hoped for.

"I'm going to break my promise now," she said softly as we lay on our sides, facing each other."

"Which promise is that?"

"The one about not talking about your ex-wife and my husband."

"I remember. Why do you want to break it?"

"Because ... I can't resist telling you how much better a lover you are than he was. I know that's not fair ... he isn't here to defend himself, but you are so different, so much more ... passionate ... and loving. I can't help telling you how happy I am with you. You made this so good. I had hopes ... but this is better than my hopes."

"I feel the same way. I don't know what I expected, but ... like you ... this was far better. I think we communicate very well. Not just sexually, but emotionally. I'm really glad I insisted on getting to know you. I don't know what drove me to do that, but I wasn't going to go away unless it was hopeless."

"Now that I've got you back in shape, I'm going to give you a glimpse of my other personality ... the one I told you about that night out by the river. Remember? The 'wild child'?"

"Not today, please. I want to keep this day separate in my memory. This was all about anticipation, and finding out how we would be together. We'll have plenty of time to discover our other personalities. This time is special."

She smiled. "All right. I think you're right. This was special. Just the same, do you think you're good for one more?"

"With a little help from my friend," I whispered, stroking her face with my fingertips.

It was almost seven that evening when we got back to Meg's house. I think anyone who saw us would have known exactly what we had been doing that afternoon. Certainly Meg did. She was all smiles and hugs for us both. The children didn't notice anything, of course. They were too caught up in their own world to notice something as subtle as our behavior.

If it was a conspiracy between mother and daughter, I wasn't going to resist. Meg had proven that she only wanted the best for Yolanda and the children, and she had come to believe that I was the right man for them. I agreed wholeheartedly.

Two days later, I got an unexpected phone call at work. It was Detective Lofthouse, and he wanted to meet with both Yolanda and me. He said he had some information and needed our input. We arranged to have him come to Yolanda's home on Thursday afternoon at four o'clock.

"Do either of you know a man named Lucas or Luke Hightower?" he began after we'd gotten the preliminaries out of the way.

Both of us shook our heads.

"He is ... or was ... in your husband's platoon. He was a PFC under Sgt. Michaels' command. Does that help, Mrs. Michaels?"

"No ... not really. My husband seldom mentioned any of the men in his platoon by name. I don't recall anyone named Luke."

"Well ... let me tell you what I've learned. PFC Hightower was assigned to your husband's platoon almost as soon as he arrived in Kabul. He is a big man; six-foot-four, two hundred-and-forty pounds of what was described by one of his mates as 'solid granite.' He loved the Marine Corps, and he virtually worshipped your husband. Apparently, he had saved Hightower from a sniper early on, and Hightower dedicated himself to keeping Sgt. Michaels safe.

"Hightower wasn't the smartest man. In fact, his I.Q. was marginal for the Corps, but at the time the forces were so desperate for live bodies that he skimmed by. On top of that, after your husband was killed, he went a bit goofy, or so his platoon mates claimed. When his rotation was up, he re-upped for another two years. Again, the Corps was reluctant to keep him, but somehow or other, he slipped through once again.

"Now we get to the interesting part. About nine months ago, he went off the deep end during a firefight. He just went nuts, killing everything in sight, including a couple of civilians. After they got him under control, he was sent to Germany for a psychiatric examination. The results led them to confine him to a psych ward for six months until he was shipped home.

"In the infinite wisdom of the military, they decided that now that he was back in the good old U.S. of A., they could let him go. He wasn't their problem any more. My boss pulled a lot of strings and called in a lot of favors to get this information. Hightower had said a number of times that he had failed Sergeant Michaels, and that his mission was now to protect the sergeant's family. I guess no one put any credibility on his statements, so no one warned you or us to keep an eye out for him.

"I think it was Luke Hightower who beat you up, Mr. Prentice. I think he was under the misguided belief that he was protecting Mrs. Michaels. What I don't know is where he is now."

I looked at Yolanda, and she was as white as a sheet. "You mean he might come after Aaron again," she asked, wide-eyed.

"It's possible. In his mind, if he thinks Mr. Prentice is a threat to you, I'm guessing he will act."

That was something I didn't want to hear. Another two months in pain, or worse? What the hell could be done to stop this guy?

Detective Lofthouse pulled a photograph from a manila envelope. It was a picture of blonde-haired young man with a brush cut, square jaw, and penetrating blue eyes. He was dressed in desert battle fatigues. Just looking at the picture you could get a sense of his size and strength.

"We have an all points bulletin out on him. Last we know, he was driving a desert-sand-colored 1983 Chevy pickup with a crudely drawn version of the Marine Corp insignia on the doors. He should be easy to spot if he's still using that truck. Also, he was still wearing his desert uniform, so once again, he isn't exactly hiding from us.

"All I can tell you, Mr. Prentice, is to be careful. We're watching Mrs. Michael's house and Mrs. McCarty's as well. We don't know what to expect from him, but just be on your guard, sir."

I nodded. What else could they do? I had to admit I was a bit frightened. I was no match physically for this guy. On top of that, he had training in hand-to-hand combat. If he wanted me dead, there wasn't much I could do about it. I didn't own a gun, and didn't want one. All I could do was hope I could avoid him until the police caught up to him.

I had some decisions to make and my only priority was to protect Yolanda, the children, and Meg. I think I was the target, but I couldn't safely make that assumption and be confident the others would be okay. As I drove back to Meg's, I knew what I had to do.

By the time I arrived, Yolanda had quietly filled Meg in on what Detective Lofthouse had revealed. She was appalled at the danger this man presented, and just as worried about her family as I was.

Meg embraced me as I stepped into the front room. "Oh, Aaron, I'm so worried about you. I can't believe that man could think you would harm Yolanda ... or anyone."

"He doesn't know me, Meg. He doesn't know anything except what's rolling around in his confused mind. He's sure he's doing the right thing to protect your family. He just has a different idea of what protection is. I suppose this is just another manifestation of PTSD. He's got a single idea in his head, and that's all he recognizes."

"I don't care. We can't let him hurt you again," Yolanda cried.

"I'm going to look after that, right now. I'm going to move out and live elsewhere until this guy is caught. I'm sorry, dear, but you and you mother and the children are going to have do without me for a while. I can't allow you to be put in danger."

"But he's not after us, Aaron."

"I can't take the risk of you being around me if he attacks. It's just too dangerous. According to the detective, he's not trying to hide. They should be able to find him. I'm just going to have to wait it out until they do. It's the last thing I want to do ... leaving you ... any of you. But it's for your own protection."

They tried to talk me out of it, but Meg, and I think Yolanda, knew it was the safest thing for them. They had to think of the children first. They would be told I was going on a trip, but I would be back. Some tears were shed, but by nine o'clock that evening I had packed a bag, kissed everyone goodbye, and driven off in my car.

I felt like a fighter pilot every time I drove anywhere. I was constantly looking around for suspicious people and beige pickup trucks. I had found a reasonably inexpensive, clean motel out on Levee Road, south of the airport. I checked in and called Meg and Yolanda to let them know where I was. I would be working at the box plant during the weekday, but living at the motel for the foreseeable future.

My paranoia began to dissipate after a few days. There was no sign of Hightower, and with all the police out looking for what should be a very conspicuous vehicle, I began to think he may have given up his quest. Sgt. Lofthouse assured me that his department was keeping a close lookout at both residences, but so far, no sign of the truck or the suspect.

The weekends were the worst. I could distract myself during the week, catching up on work and keeping myself busy with projects at the office, even if they didn't need doing. But the weekends ... unable to be with Yolanda or the children, were frustratingly long. I would stop to watch a baseball game, but without the company of my adopted family, it wasn't the same.

By the end of the second week, I was in despair that it would be a long time before I could see Yolanda, the children, or Meg, much less return to the stately home in town. I talked to them all each evening, but it lacked the physical contact I craved. I might as well have been in Chicago. So close, and yet, so far.

On Sunday afternoon, I decided to go for a drive in the country. I started out down Levee Road south in the direction of Rio Oso. The road followed the Feather River as it meandered though the rice fields, walnut groves and other agricultural properties. It was incredible just how much was grown in the central part of California.

I didn't encounter very much traffic, but at one point I did notice a truck following me. It was dark green, but not like the metallic green of my Taurus station wagon. More like a dull, olive drab. As it drew closer, I could see the bowtie badge indicating an older model Chevrolet. The dots didn't connect immediately, but as it got closer and closer to my back bumper, I suddenly realized what it might be.

I hadn't been down Levee Road in a long time and I had forgotten the sharp right-angled turn just where the river itself took an equally sharp right-angled turn in the opposite direction. As I approached the bend, my concentration was on making the turn and not on what was going on behind me. Halfway through the turn I felt the impact as I was hit and pushed sideways toward the river bank.

There was nothing I could do to stop the momentum of my wagon from hitting the opposite shoulder. I could feel the roll beginning, almost in slow motion, as the tires dug into the soft gravel. At some point the airbags deployed, smacking me in the face. Luckily, my seat belts held me in place as the car slowly tumbled toward the river.

My driver's side-window was down, and that turned out to be my life-saver. The rolling stopped and it took me a moment to realize I was upside down in the river and the car was beginning to sink. Almost instinctively, I snapped the seatbelt catch and began the awkward process of wiggling myself out through the window opening and toward the light and the surface of the murky river. I broke the surface and sucked in a huge capture of air, looking around for the nearest shore.

I was drifting downstream with the current, quickly realizing just how cold the water was, but more intensely concentrating on swimming to shore. I made the muddy bank, exhausted from my efforts, but incredibly exhilarated at having survived. I was gasping for breath, weak from the exertion, but slowly crawling my way up the bank toward the road. It seemed to take hours to get that far, but likely it was only a couple of minutes or so.

I lay on the side of the road until I was aware of a truck coming around the corner toward me. I rolled onto my side and tried to wave it down. Apparently, the driver must have seen my feeble effort, for I heard the squeal of brakes and the next thing I knew, a man was beside me, asking me questions.

In the era of the cell phone, we expect universal coverage. Such was not the case in that particular part of the county. The man, older than me, but obviously very strong, helped me into the cab of his truck and drove me to a nearby gas station. From there, he called the county sheriff's department and we waited for them to arrive.

The man's name was Tom Harper, and he was the owner of eighty acres of walnut trees in Rio Oso. He had been heading for Yuba City to pick up a new chain for his chain saw. He needed to cut up some dead trees and prepare them for sale. Apparently, gun manufacturers would bid on the wood for stock and grip material.

I thanked Mr. Harper profusely for stopping to help me, but didn't go into detail about what had happened. When the sheriff's deputy arrived, I asked him to contact Detective Lofthouse in Yuba City. I would explain in detail to him, preferable only once. The deputy was cooperative, and within an hour, I was on my way back to my motel and some dry clothes.

"So ... you're pretty sure it was Hightower that drove you off the road," Lofthouse asked again as we sat in my motel room after I had showered and changed.

"The truck matches the description except for the color. My impression was that it was a cheap hand-brush job. Flat finish ... not professional at all. It was an older truck all right, and the pictures you showed me match the front end that I saw in my rear-view mirror. It should have a fairly large prang in it after hitting my car."

Lofthouse nodded, "Sounds like it's our guy. I'll get the word out to my people and the surrounding counties that he's now in a dark green truck with damage to the front end. I think we've got a better than even chance of finding him now."

I shook hands with the detective as he left my room. I wish I'd felt as confident as he did. I wondered how many more escapes I was going to be allowed before it was one too many.

In the meantime, I had to replace my vehicle. It was still on the bottom of the Feather River, and I had to go to work the next day. I called the local rental car agency, and they picked me up and took me to their lot where I rented a non-descript sedan, hopefully invisible to my tormentor.

When I called Yolanda, Meg, and the children, I didn't say a word about my afternoon adventure. They didn't need the additional stress, and I didn't think it would do them any good to know that Hightower was still around. As far as they knew, he was nowhere to be found.

My plan would have worked if it hadn't been for the newspaper and television news. Someone, probably at the sheriffs department, reported the incident to the local paper, and they dutifully copied down the details and published them in the Tuesday paper. In the meantime, some eagle-eyed person with a video camera recorded the recovery of my Taurus from the river. The children saw the car, and immediately informed their mother and grandmother that it looked just like Mr. Prentice's car. To add to my problems, my name was in the news story as the driver of the car. Happily, no mention was made of the second party forcing me off the road.

The first phone call came at ten past six that evening. "Why didn't you tell us about the accident? You could have been killed. Isn't it bad enough you have to stay away? Now you've almost been drowned."

"I'm sorry, Yolanda. I didn't want to upset you or Meg. You've got enough to worry about besides my careless driving."

"Are you sure that's what it was? Just an accident?"

"Yeah ... I was going too fast at that sharp right-hander on the Levee Road. I should have known better. I won't do that again."

She seemed to be buying my story, but it was another thing for her to worry about. Our romance wasn't starting off very well. God, what I wouldn't have given to have her here with me. I just couldn't take the chance.

I gave the insurance company the police report and asked them to keep it confidential. The authorities didn't want anyone to know that they believed it to be a criminal act. They wanted to give Hightower a sense of confidence that he wasn't being sought. Amazingly, my claim was settled before the end of the week. At least I could spend some time this weekend looking for a new car.

Now I was really watching around me. I had changed motels, just on the off-chance that Hightower had spotted me at my original choice. I moved to the opposite end of town, the north-east. It wasn't an ideal location. It was a fair drive to work, not that any drive in Yuba City could compare to Sacramento or San Francisco.

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