Running…again. Kellen liked making the circuit of the tiny California island. She ran close to the collapsed caverns where in World War II men had watched for a Japanese invasion. She ran through the redwood grove, absorbing the peace of two thousand years of growth. She turned toward Morgade Hall and slowed as she ran up the expanse of lawn. She climbed the steps of the back porch and stuck her head into the kitchen. “Olympia, has Dylan delivered today’s produce?”
Olympia jumped and put her hand to her heart. She breathed deeply, put her hand on her hip, and glared as if Kellen had deliberately sneaked up on her. Max confessed that when he hired Olympia, he thought her so without imagination she would be impervious to the big, old, creaky house and the wind-swept isolation of the island. But while her cooking remained exemplary, her attitude, never marvelous, had disintegrated. Her t-shirt and denim skirt were wrinkled Her hair needed cutting and gray roots were showing. Over the weeks, she had ceased to wear cosmetics and was down to a smear of lipstick. Yet her mustache was in full bloom.
In forbidding tones, Olympia said, “I haven’t seen Dylan Conkle today. He’s probably loaded.”
“Max will speak to him again.” Moving fast, Kellen ducked out. Max, Rae and Kellen had worn a path to the garage, and as she fled, she wondered—how could an island that contained only six people—she and Max, Rae and Olympia, Dylan and Jamie Conkle, who supplied their fresh food —make half of them crazy?
Kellen supposed she should wonder if the half she considered crazy also considered her half insane. But no. As an adolescent, Rae had her moments, but they were sane, united, a family. Out of loneliness, desolation and self-loathing, Olympia, Dylan and Jamie Conkle were splintering into thousands of pieces.
She walked into the garage to find Max, arms outstretched, bellowing at the 1953 year F100 Ford pick-up truck. “Why won’t you work?”
Kellen skidded to a stop.
So much for her self-assurances about the Di Lucas’ sanity.
Rae was stretched across the fender, head stuck down as far as she could under the hood. “Daddy, what’s a carburetor?”
She came up out of the depths and clearly articulated, “What…is…a…carburetor? Because there’s a carburetor kit on the work bench and I think we could rebuild it.”
Kellen slowed backed toward the door.
Too late. Max had pinned her, his wife who just happened to be a vehicle expert, under his gaze. “A carburetor kit? Rae found a carburetor kit conveniently placed on the work bench?”
Well, hell. It seemed Kellen had arrived at exactly the wrong time. “Rae’s a smart kid. Rebuilding the carburetor might get the F100 running.” She honestly thought Max was going to have steam coming out his ears. “Look. All I did was find the truck’s carburetor kit in one of the drawers. Anyway, carburetor kit or not, it’s not easy to re-build a carburetor. If you’re lucky, there’ll be instructions.”g
He still looked irked.
Which made Kellen lose what was left of her patience. “And if you’d looked in the drawers—”
Max swung away, took a breath, smoothed his hair back from his forehead. “All right. You’re right. I could have looked.” He swung back toward Kellen. “Anything else I should know about in those drawers?”
Kellen lifted one shoulder. “Maybe. Why don’t you look?”
Rae had dug herself out of the depths of the F-100 pick-up, and stood, head cocked, listening to them. “You two don’t fight very often.”
“No, but honey, it doesn’t mean we don’t love each other,” Max said.
“It’s okay,” Rae said. “It makes you seem almost normal.”
Almost normal? Max mouthed to Kellen.
Kellen smiled, but a little tightly. Rae was right, she and Max didn’t often fight; maybe the tension on the island was getting to them, too.
On the other hand, maybe she was angry because he had been a jerk.
Rae skipped back to the box that held the kit. “Can I open it? Can I?”
That got Max’s attention. “Wait! Rae! That’s got a lot of little parts and we need them all.”Kellen walked over to the wall where the mattress stood, looked at it, garish with roses, stained and dirty—and kicked the hell out of it. Front kick, side kick, left foot, right foot, turning kick, backward kick.
“I’m not going to spill it.” Rae sounded irritable, too.
Kellen walked over to the wall where the mattress stood, looked at it, garish with roses, stained and dirty—and kicked the hell out of it. Front kick, side kick, left foot, right foot, turning kick, backward kick.
She couldn’t keep it up; her legs trembled from the effort of running and kicking.
So she started punching, palms out, clenched fists, boom, boom, boom, knocking the stuffing out of the old mattress, and loving it.
“What’s Mommy doing?” Rae asked.
“Getting out her aggressions,” Max said.
“Practicing my fighting skills.” Kellen corrected him without a trace of a smile.
Max and Rae crouched over the carburator kit, reading the directions, looking into the interior of the truck.
Kellen heard a helicopter coming in fast and low.
Her heart started pounding. Why were they here? Was it good news at last? “Coast Guard,” she called to Max.
He extricated himself from the truck, and sounded as hopeful as she felt when he said, “My God. Do you suppose…?” He ran out.
Kellen and Rae followed. As the helicopter descended on a blast of air, Kellen absentmindedly began doing her finger exercises.
Like a hummingbird alighting on a limb, the helicopter settled on the edge of the lawn. The engine throttled back, the roar diminished, and the door opened to allow one of the Coasties to jump down. He surveyed Max, Kellen and Rae and as if he had every right, he asked, “Who are you?”
“We’re the Di Lucas. We’re living on the island for the summer,” Max said. “My family owns it.”
“Sure, I recognize you. I served with a couple of Di Lucas in San Diego.” He offered his hand. “Chief Petty Officer Juan Deung. Call me Juan.”
“Yes, we Di Lucas are a prolific and similar bunch.” Max shook with him.
As Max introduced Kellen and Rae, Juan offered his hand to them, too, and kept talking a mile a minute. “The Conkles used to have a radio for emergency use, but Dylan got loaded, called in and claimed there were pirates raiding the island. We arrived full force. That cost your family a bunch of money, and Jamie Conkle smashed the radio and refuses to get it fixed. So when we’re in the area, we come by to check on them, make sure they’re okay.”
“The Conkles are down the hill.” Kellen gestured.
“That’s fine,” Juan said in heartfelt relief. “Jamie Conkle always gives us a lecture about wasting the earth’s resources flying the helicopter. Because the helicopter blades might harm rare birds. It’s not like we’re out for a joy ride, you know? Some guy and his yacht have disappeared in this area. No sign of him yet, and there’s a storm out there in the Pacific churning away. Have you heard about the storm?”
“We don’t hear about much here,” Max said.
“Big storm, a typhoon right now, and some forecast models are predicting the steering currents could send it our way. No one’s getting excited yet. Except the TV weather people, because they love possible disasters. But it’s California. July storms are unlikely.”
“El Nino. Or La Nina,” Max said. “I can never can remember which is which.”
Kellen looked around at the golden landscape. “A storm wouldn’t be all bad. It’s been a dry year. We sure could use the rain.”
“I don’t suppose you’ve heard, but we’ve had some massive fires all over California.” Abruptly, Juan got to the point. “So…spending the summer here, huh? Why’s that?”
Max turned to Rae. “Why don’t you go talk to the pilot? I’ll bet he’s an interesting guy.”
“She,” Juan said.
Max stared hard into the helicopter, at the tinted windows that reflected the sun. “I see! Erroneous assumption. I’ll bet she’s even a more interesting woman.”
“Really, Dad.” Rae ran over to the helicopter’s open door and within a few minutes of hard talking, she had been invited inside.
“While on duty, we’re not supposed to let kids in, so please keep that quiet. Now, what did you want to tell me you didn’t want her to know?” Juan was one observant guy.
Max and Kellen exchanged glances.
Kellen took a step back.
Max would do the talking. “We’re on the island because we’re having trouble with a stalker.”
“Must be quite a stalker for you to come out this far.”
“She’s an escaped convict, a serial killer.”
Juan’s eyes narrowed. “Female serial killer? Not too many of those. Is this the one we’re supposed to keep an eye out for?”
“Mara Philippi. One and the same.”
“Bad news. Did you know she’s killed people all over the U.S.? When she does, she cuts off their hands and collects them as souvenirs?” Juan looked right at Kellen. “She dehydrates them.”
“We did know,” Max said. “We knew her before she went to prison.”
“Lucky you.” Juan was impressed. “Did you know after she escaped from federal prison, she had one guy exhumed so she could cut off his hands? Some kind of revenge thing.” Juan made a choking sound.
It wasn’t as if any of this was news to Kellen, but—she tried not to think about it. Now, in the face of Juan’s incredulous recitation, she began to feel frightened.
Max glanced at her. “We really do know all about Mara Philippi. We were instrumental in her capture the first time.”
“Scary, scary woman.” Juan looked toward the Coast Guard helicopter where Rae had hopped down, still talking to the pilot. “Is this Philippi person after the kid, too?”
“Mostly after my wife.” Kellen must have looked panicky, because Max reached back, wrapped his arm around her waist, and gave her his support. “But yes. Given the chance, she would kill us all.”
Kellen leaned against him and wished Juan would stop talking.
Max said, “When you landed that Coast Guard helicopter, I was really hoping—”
Kellen corrected him. “We were really hoping—”
Max nodded. “We were really hoping you were here to tell us she’d been caught.”
“I’m sorry.” Juan looked like he meant it. “I didn’t know anything about you being out here or that that female killer was in the area.”
“Possibly in the area,” Max said.
“I assume Commander is aware, and everyone else is on a need-to-know basis.”
“I’ll talk to my pilot, tell her we never saw you.”
“That would be much appreciated.”
“You do have a method of communication? In the R44? In case there’s trouble?” Juan indicated their helicopter on the other end of the lawn. “That radio works, right?”
“I check in with my law enforcement contacts once a week,” Max told him.
As Rae ran up, Juan said, “Here she is! Rae, did Carmen convince you to join the Coast Guard?”
“It’s a great job for a woman,” Rae said. “Being a Coast Guard pilot is one of the coolest jobs around.”
Juan laughed. “I knew she would sell you. Carmen would be fantastic in a recruiting office—but she won’t leave the pilot’s seat. Hey, next time we come, I hope we have better news for you all.”
“From your mouth to God’s ears,” Max looked around at Kellen and Rae, and at the island grasses waving in the salty breeze.
Kellen spoke up. “Yes, family is a blessing, and lately we have been very blessed. ”
“I hear you.” Juan headed for the helicopter. “I grew up with five brothers. That’s how I learned to dance—waiting for the bathroom.”
From Strangers She Knows, by Christina Dodd. Used with the permission of the publisher, Harlequin. Copyright © 2019 by Christina Dodd.
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