Intruder, my followup to Restless Spirits (I really need to come up with a name for this series), is still coming along, veeeeeerry slowly. My word count’s still not up to the 10K mark yet. The slowness is frustrating, but at least slow progress is still progress.
Anyway, here’s a rough draft of the synopsis, and the first chapter to whet your appetite.
Susan Daly’s abusive marriage ended the night she shot and killed her husband Reggie. A year later, just as she’s settling comfortably into her new life as a single mom, she’s once again assaulted by someone she trusts and cares about. But as the police and Susan’s family struggle to understand why Susan’s neighbor, Alan Doyle, would do such a thing, Susan knows Alan is innocent. She knows because she saw his face as he tried to strangle the life out of her, saw the rage and hatred in his eyes, and the smile on his face. Reggie’s smile. Her husband is back, and he wants her dead, and he’ll use everyone in her life like puppets to accomplish that goal if somebody doesn’t stop him. But how do you stop that kind of evil?
The Intruder: Chapter One
She needed this.
Susan Daly took another bite of her brother’s famous Memphis-style ribs and let the food-gasm wash over her. She followed it with a bite of her sister-in-law’s potato salad and washed it all down with a swig of Shiner Bock before sitting back to listen to the animated conversation between her brother, Dale, and Alan, her next-door neighbor. She wasn’t sure what they were talking about — something about whether the Thunder might make it to the playoffs this year.
Beside the picnic table, Denise, Dale’s wife, was cleaning barbecue sauce off of her pre-schooler’s face and hands, while his big brother sat on his knees in front of the playpen, entertaining Susan’s baby girl. It was one of those perfect summer moments, and as she paused to take it all in, it struck Susan that she was happy.
That hadn’t happened in a long time.
“Susan!” Dale’s voice sliced through her perfect moment.
She blinked at him. “What?”
“Haven’t you been listening? What do you think, is Durant gonna bring it this year?”
Susan gave him a blank stare. “I don’t even know who that is.” She did know, but she wasn’t a sports fan, and she didn’t want to get dragged into a basketball discussion. Better to play it clueless. As Dale burst into laughter, Susan chucked a dinner roll at her big brother.
Alan smiled, but he wasn’t laughing. “Susan’s got more important things to worry about,” he said in that quiet manner of his.
“Thank you, Alan.” Susan saluted him with her beer before taking another sip.
“Can’t we change the subject already?” Denise asked as she returned to the table. “You’ve been going on and on about the playoffs, and we’re all sick of it. Susan, how’s your business going?”
“Good, thanks for asking.” Susan had started a freelance graphic design business so she could stay home with her daughter April. It had taken almost a year of early mornings, late nights and working through her lunch hour, but she finally had enough clients that she’d been able to quit her day job the month before. “It’s keeping me busy. I’ve got two website layouts and a book cover due at the end of the month.”
“Well, if you ever need help watching April while you get your work done, you just let us know.”
“Thanks, Denise. I will.” Dale and Denise had both been great about helping Susan rebuild her life. Of course, Dale had a lot of guilt over failing to protect his baby sister, but it was hardly his fault. Susan had been too ashamed to admit what she was going through, and she’d hidden it well.
When she finally shot Reggie, it had come as a huge shock to everyone but her.
“Hey mom, look!” Her older nephew, who unfortunately had been named after her dead husband, ran over to the table and held out his cupped hands. They emitted a soft, blinking glow. “Lightening bugs!” Only then did Susan notice it was getting dark. The back yard was too well-lit to make out any stars, but the sky above was turning purple. “Aunt Susan, do you have something I can keep it in?”
Before she could answer, Denise stepped in. “You can catch fireflies at your own home, which is where we need to start heading.”
“We need to get your brother to bed, and you’ve got school tomorrow. No arguing.” She stood up and started piling up the dirty paper plates.
“You don’t have to do that, Denise. I’ve got it.”
“You sure, Sis?” Dale asked as he got to his feet.
“You guys cooked. I can clean. Besides, Denise is right. You need to get that little doodle-bug home.” She nodded over at the playpen, where Dale Junior had climbed in with April. They had both fallen asleep.
Dale nodded, and went to scoop his boy out of the pen. “Come on, doodle-bug. Let’s say bye-bye to Aunt Susan.”
She kissed and hugged both her nephews, and saw her family to the gate. “I mean it about babysitting,” Denise said while Dale got the boys buckled in. “You just let me know.”
“I will. You guys drive carefully. Love you!”
She watched them drive away, then, filled with that warm, happy feeling, turned back to her yard. Alan was still there, scooping all the plates into her trash can. “Alan, you don’t have to do that.”
He looked up at her and shrugged. “I got nothing better to do. You, on the other hand…” He gave a knowing look at April, who had woken up and started to fuss.
“Aw, sweetie.” April stretched her little arms up toward Susan as she bent to lift her out of the playpen. “Ugh, you need a bath. Which one of your cousins gave you barbecue sauce?”
Alan chuckled. “Like I said, you’ve got your hands full enough. I’ll finish up out here and let myself out.”
“Are you sure you don’t mind?”
“Not a bit. That’s what neighbors are for.” He picked up an empty beer bottle. “Recycling bin’s in the shed, right?”
“Yeah. It’s just inside the door. But you can just set the bags over there, and I’ll take care of them in the morning. The light in there stopped working.”
“Huh.” He considered the darkened shed a moment. “Tell you what. I can bring my tools over tomorrow after my shift and take a look at that for you.”
“Oh, that’s okay. I was actually planning to fix it myself, once I learn how. I feel like a single mom’s better off knowing how to do that stuff.”
“Right,” said Alan. “Good idea.”
Susan thought she saw a flicker of disappointment pass over his face, but she must have imagined it. Why on earth would he be disappointed about having to schlep his tools over here after a long day at work to do more work?
April started to squirm. “Teh-me teet,” she said.
“No, it’s time for bed. You can watch Sesame Street in the morning.” Susan turned back to Alan. “I’d better get her inside. Thanks for taking care of this.”
“No problem. It shouldn’t take much longer.” He reached over and shook April’s hand. “Night night, kiddo.”
April mumbled a barely intelligible “night night” as she rubbed her eyes sleepily on Susan’s shoulder. Susan grinned. “Night, Alan.”
“See you later,” he said, and went back to cleaning up.
“See you later,” Alan muttered to himself once Susan was inside and safely out of earshot. He jammed another paper plate into the trash bag. “Yeah, that was real heartfelt.”
He gathered up the beer bottles and carried them over to the shed. He tried the light, just to see if it might work, but of course it didn’t. “Hey, here’s an idea, idiot. How about offering to teach her how to fix the light?” Shaking his head at his belated stroke of genius, he lifted the lid on the recycle bin and chucked the bottles in. There was still enough light out that it wasn’t too difficult to discern between it and the trash can.
Not that him offering would have made a difference. Sure, it might have gotten her light fixed sooner, but his good deed would probably just further cement his apparently permanent position in the friend zone.
And is that so terrible? he asked himself. What Susan needed most was a friend. She didn’t need some lovesick loser panting around her like a lost puppy. But old habits died hard, and Alan’d had a thing for Susan since high school. Back then, she’d been a cheerleader who dated the jocks, and he’d been a band geek who couldn’t even get up the nerve to ask her to prom. Not that she would’ve gone with him, when she already had a date with Reggie. The two of them had been prom king and queen. Alan had been in the bandstand playing their fanfare.
And now? Reggie had been some big time salesman earning big commissions. Alan was just an airplane mechanic. He made a decent wage, but he was sure it was nothing like Susan was used to. Not to mention, after high school he’d gone into the Air Force instead of college. Susan was a businesswoman who was getting ready to start earning her master’s degree. She was way too good for an uneducated, blue-collar schmoe like him.
Of course, he would never hurt her like Reggie did. He still couldn’t believe the things Reggie had gotten away with doing to her. Well, at least until she’d put a stop to it for good. Alan thought of all the times he’d hung out with Reggie, told him all about how he slept all day with ear plugs and a white noise machine whenever he worked the graveyard shift. Reggie knew he could make all the noise he wanted knocking Susan around, and Alan would never hear, never call the police. It made him sick. He wished he could somehow resurrect that son of a bitch just so he could kill him all over again.
“All right, that’s enough,” he muttered as he bagged up the rest of the garbage. This had been a great evening. No point in ruining it by dwelling on things he couldn’t change. Besides, Susan had been happy, that much was obvious. He’d missed seeing her smile. At least he’d gotten to be a part of putting a grin back on her face. Just thinking about it put one back on his.
He reached the shed and raised the lid to the trash bin. As he lifted the bag to drop it inside, something came over him. He felt cold. Everything around him turned a little darker as he stumbled and dropped the garbage bag. Its contents spilled out, but Alan was too busy gripping the side of the shed to hold himself up to be worried about it. He wondered vaguely if he was having a stroke as icy, oily tendrils seemed to slide around inside him, snaking around his brain, his heart, digging into his mind. Into his soul.
Alan couldn’t move. Couldn’t shout or speak. He stared at his dark reflection in the window of the shed, and it grinned back at him.
He’d seen that grin before, and not on his reflection. His heart sped up as everything left of him went cold. His lips moved as words came out of his mouth. They were in his voice, but he didn’t speak them.
“Be careful what you wish for, buddy,” said Reggie.