Excerpt: Dead Man Talking

Excerpt: Dead Man Talking

Book 1: Happily Everlasting Series

Chapter One

Zoe Parker hurried into the hospital and up to the desk. “I’m here for Esmerelda Parker.”

The nurse frowned and lifted her hands to the keyboard.

Zoe held in a sigh. “Sapphire. Sapphire Parker.”

The nurse smiled. “Of course. You must be Zoe. I see the family resemblance. I’m Mary Josephine Harris, but everyone calls me Mary Jo. I’m a Texas transplant, but you probably figured that from the accent.”

Zoe nodded. It had crossed her mind that Mary Jo didn’t exactly sound like a local. Her poufy hair and big toothy smile were also dead giveaways. People from the north tended to be a bit more stoic. Maybe it was the cold.

“We didn’t figure you’d be able to make it right away, but I’m sure glad you did,” Mary Jo said. “Your aunt’s been raising a ruckus.”

“I’m sure,” Zoe mumbled.

Her great-aunt Esmerelda, who insisted on being called by her mystical name Sapphire, was an expert at raising a ruckus. It was probably embedded in her DNA. There was no end to the tales the fine people of Everlasting, Maine, could tell about Sapphire Parker, the crazy cat lady who lived in the old lighthouse and used an adult tricycle as her main form of transportation. Her backup “vehicle” was her Nikes, she liked to say.

But despite her many eccentricities, Sapphire held a special place in Zoe’s heart. So when she’d received a call telling her that her aunt had fallen and was unconscious with a concussion, Zoe had made a hasty phone call to her employer and hopped on the next plane out of Los Angeles. Between the waiting, the flight, and the drive in the rental car, Zoe had spent eleven hours in commute. She was exhausted, starving to death, and in desperate need of a shower and a breath mint, but she wasn’t going anywhere until she made sure her aunt was okay.

“She’s in room 28,” Mary Jo said, and pointed to the double doors to her right. “Visiting hours ended at nine, but I know you’ve been traveling a while. Go on back, but don’t stay too long. She needs her rest.”

Zoe started to ask the nurse for more details of her aunt’s condition but decided against it. She could always ask on her way out. Better to head to her aunt’s room now while Mary Jo was giving her a pass. If a doctor saw her, that leniency would probably be over. She thanked the nurse and passed through the double doors the nurse had indicated. The Intensive Care Unit lettering on the door made her tense up. Just how bad off was Sapphire?

She located room 28 and slipped inside. The overhead light was off, leaving only the soft light from the hospital bed to illuminate the room. Her aunt was propped up a bit, her head turned to the side. Her long wavy hair—dyed sapphire color—stuck out from her head in every direction, and her face was so pale that Zoe yanked her gaze to the heart monitor. If it hadn’t been for the steady pulse moving across the screen, she would have thought her aunt had passed. She was so still.

Zoe stepped up to the side of the bed and felt a wave of guilt course through her. Sapphire had just turned eighty years old but she’d never looked her age. Even though she was pale and had dark circles under her eyes, her skin still looked like that of a much younger person. But looks were deceiving. Sapphire might appear younger, but the calendar didn’t lie.

You should have visited her.

Zoe put her hands on the bed railing and clutched the cold metal. When she’d first left Everlasting after graduating from college, Sapphire had asked every holiday for Zoe to come home and celebrate with her, like the old times. At first, it had been easy to say no. Zoe was a meteorologist, and the new person on the job always had to work holidays. It’s not like the weather stopped changing so the entire staff could have time off.

So she’d worked holidays and spent her vacation time at workshops and conferences, pursuing certificates that said she was an expert in this and that. All so that she could get a promotion and be on the air. Working in the background, feeding all the cool weather information to the on-air personalities so that they could get all the credit and the glory, wasn’t what Zoe aspired to. She loved the weather. Had been fascinated by it since she was a little girl, and more than anything, she wanted to share that passion with as many people as possible.

After a couple of years, Sapphire stopped asking and Zoe didn’t have to make excuses anymore. Now she felt like the most awful person in the universe. She’d had Sapphire out to visit her as soon as she had an apartment and enough furniture to accommodate a visitor, and her aunt had loved the sunny weather and having breakfast at the pier and watching the surfers. But Sapphire loved her lighthouse in Everlasting more than any other place in the world, and Zoe had only managed to get her out of it for a visit to California that one time.

Her aunt stirred and her eyes fluttered, then they opened and she looked up at Zoe and smiled. “Zoe,” Sapphire said. “You came.”

“Of course I came.”

Sapphire smiled. “If I’d known all it took was a fall down the stairs to get you back here, I would have done it a long time ago.”

Zoe reached over and placed her hand on Sapphire’s. “I should have come to visit before now. I’m sorry I didn’t.”

“Don’t be apologizing. You have your own life to live. You’re not responsible for the failing balance of an old lady. Besides, your mother and father swing up here once a month to make sure I haven’t gotten any crazier than I already was.”

Zoe’s parents had retired four years earlier and made a mad dash to escape the cold winters they’d endured their entire lives, deciding that the tropical climate Connecticut offered was more to their liking.

That was it. All three of Sapphire’s remaining family members, and they’d scattered like mice as soon as the opportunity had presented itself. At the moment, Zoe’s parents were in Australia on a month-long vacation, which is why Zoe had sped off to the airport at a moment’s notice. If she could handle everything, then there would be no reason to alarm her parents and interfere with their vacation—the first they’d had in over a decade.

“What happened?” Zoe asked.

“I don’t remember,” Sapphire said. “The last thing I recall is going to bed. I took my knitting up with me and turned on HGTV—what a lot of complainers on that channel—and the next thing I remember is waking up here this afternoon with a doctor telling me that my brain was swollen and I’d been unconscious for a while.”

“They told me you fell.”

Sapphire shrugged. “I guess so, but I don’t know why I’d go downstairs without changing first. It’s way too chilly for me to have been traipsing around in only my nightgown, and that’s all I was wearing when they brought me in.”

“Who found you?”

“Oh, uh, a contractor I hired to update the kitchen. He starts work early. I’m finally bringing that place into this century. Only the half bath downstairs to do after the kitchen, and the whole place is done. I left your bedroom the same but the rest is updated. You’ll see. It’s beautiful.”

“It was beautiful already.”

Sapphire smiled. “You always loved it there. I’m glad you’re here. The lighthouse will be glad, too, and the cats. Don’t let Cornelius bother you. He just likes to hear himself talk.”

Zoe nodded but didn’t say anything. She seriously doubted the lighthouse would care one way or the other if she paid it a visit, and the cats were happy to see anyone with opposable thumbs. Zoe had no idea who Cornelius was. Maybe her aunt had branched out into some other species of the animal kingdom. She just hoped it was something made for indoor living. When Zoe was in high school, Sapphire had made “friends” with a wild boar she’d named Harold. The living situation hadn’t turned out well for her aunt, Harold, or the lighthouse. Sapphire’s strange ideas about things had given her quite a reputation in the small seaside community, but rather than becoming offended, her aunt had always taken the offbeat comments as compliments.

Sapphire squeezed her hand, and then her arm slid to her side. Her eyes slowly closed and within seconds, she’d slipped off into a deep sleep. Zoe backed away from the bed, careful not to bump it, and left the room. Clearly, her aunt needed to rest, and Zoe needed to find someone who could tell her exactly what had happened.

Mary Jo flashed her a hundred-watt smile as she stepped into the reception area. “Was she awake?”

“She woke up when I got there,” Zoe said. “We spoke for a bit, then she drifted off again. Can you tell me what happened? She seems a little confused about everything.”

“She took a bit of a hit to the head when she fell, and the doctor said there’s still some swelling. Also, her heartbeat was off when she got here. Between the wonky heartbeat, the swelling, and the meds, it’s no wonder she’s not up to snuff, although it does seem like her pulse has stabilized.”

“That’s good, I’m sure, but what does it mean?”

“That the symptoms were likely due to the stress of the fall and probably not indicative of a bigger problem with her heart itself.”

Zoe felt relief spread through her. Bruises would heal and the concussion would probably be all right. Heart problems were a whole different deal.

“She said she fell down the stairs but she was still wearing her pajamas,” Zoe said. “She never leaves her bedroom without getting dressed. Did she say anything when the paramedics brought her in?”

Mary Jo shook her head. “She was unconscious when they arrived. I was here this afternoon when she woke up, and the doctor asked her a bunch of questions, but she couldn’t remember anything. He said her memory might come back once the swelling goes down, but he can’t guarantee it.”

“How long had she been lying there before the contractor found her?”

“It’s hard to say, but the doctor thinks maybe a couple of hours based on the bruising.”

Zoe blew out a breath. “Thank you for letting me see her.”

“You’re family. I know rules are rules and all, but sometimes breaking them is more important than keeping them. Sapphire needed to see you. She’ll sleep better and recover faster knowing you’re here taking care of her home and her babies.”

“What time do visiting hours start tomorrow?”

“Ten a.m. Dr. Prescott has been taking care of Sapphire since he moved here a couple years ago. He’s old-school and does home visits. A lot of the older patients love that, especially the ones who don’t drive. He’s overseeing her care here and will be making rounds when visiting hours start. You can talk to him then.”

“Great. Have a good night.”

“You too, honey.”

Zoe headed to her car and pulled out of the parking lot, directing the vehicle to the road that led straight through downtown and then out to the decommissioned lighthouse that Sapphire and her untold number of cats called home. Sapphire’s babies. The last time Zoe had talked to her aunt, she said she was “down” to eight. Eight didn’t sound like a “down” sort of number to Zoe, but then with her schedule, she couldn’t even keep a cactus alive.

As she drove, she processed everything her aunt and Mary Jo had told her, but no matter how many times she rolled the facts over in her mind, she still didn’t like them. Something didn’t make sense. Other people probably wouldn’t think twice about her aunt proceeding downstairs in her pajamas, but Zoe knew better. Even if the past six years had decreased the sharpness of Sapphire’s mind, surely decades of doing the same thing held more weight.

If her aunt had gotten up before daylight and gone downstairs without putting on her “walking clothes” as she called them, then there had to be a reason. And it wasn’t a simple one. Because the master bedroom was on the third floor and the stairs were narrow and wound around in a somewhat steep circle, Sapphire maintained a small refrigerator in her bedroom. So there was no need to fall down the stairs in pursuit of something to drink in the middle of the night. She even had a Keurig on her desk for the days when she felt like having a cup of coffee and watching the sea before she went downstairs to make breakfast.

Her meds were located in her bedroom or the kitchen, depending on what time they were taken, and she kept first aid and things like cough syrup and drops in both rooms. This arrangement allowed Sapphire to go up and down the stairs only once a day. Her aunt had lived that way for longer than Zoe had been alive. Unless Zoe arrived at the lighthouse and things were completely different, then she was going to operate under the assumption that something out of the ordinary had gotten her aunt out of bed and on her way downstairs.

And Zoe wasn’t leaving until she found out what had happened.

###

The woods outside of town were denser than Zoe remembered, the trees seeming to come right up to the edge of the road, making her feel like the foliage was closing in on her. Storm clouds circled overhead, leaving the light from her headlights the only illumination in the otherwise pitch black, and she clenched the steering wheel, her anxiety over her aunt’s injuries and the impending storm increasing as she went. She’d slowed to a crawl when she rounded a corner and a burst of lightning lit up the sky, exposing the lighthouse that rose up in front of her.

Zoe had always thought the lighthouse was one of the coolest places she’d ever seen, but with the backdrop of the oncoming storm, it looked somewhat ominous and slightly ethereal. She shook her head. She’d managed two decades in Everlasting without buying into the fanciful ideas that her aunt and many of the townsfolk held. Exhaustion, worry, and hunger pangs weren’t about to send her over that edge.

She pulled up in front of the imposing tower and parked as close to the front door as the flower beds allowed, barely managing to get onto the porch with her backpack before the onslaught of rain began. She stood under the tiny awning and thought wistfully of the fuzzy pajamas that were in her suitcase in the trunk, but no way was she taking the time to retrieve the suitcase in the monsoon. She’d be soaking wet and freezing besides.

She dug the key out of her backpack, unlocked the door, and hurried inside as a huge gust of wind forced a sheet of rain under the awning. She had to shove the door a bit to get it shut with the wind working against her, but finally she got it locked and reached for the light switch. She flipped it on but nothing happened.

Great.

She pulled her cell phone out of her pocket and turned on the flashlight to guide her through the living room and into the kitchen. She flipped the light switch in the kitchen but still nothing happened. The power must be out because of the storm. She’d forgotten that part about the lighthouse. Even a gentle spring rain tended to kick the power off.

Her stomach had been rumbling for the past hour, the package of peanuts she’d eaten on the plane worn off long ago. She’d intended to find something to eat when she got to her aunt’s house, but now the thought of poking around for food and eating in the dark just made her feel even more exhausted. Even the hot shower she’d been looking forward to seemed like a whole bunch of effort.

Using her phone, she made her way up the first section of the winding staircase to the second floor. There was a small landing with two doors, then the stairs continued up to her aunt’s room on the third level of the lighthouse. Because the lighthouse began to narrow as it rose, nothing was constructed beyond the third level. After that, the stairs continued up to the top of the lighthouse tower where the light used to guide ships safely back to port.

The door to the left led into what was charitably considered a bunk room. When her aunt purchased the lighthouse, it had contained two sets of bunk beds built into the walls on each side. It had the appearance and claustrophobic feeling of being in a submarine. Her aunt had torn out the beds and turned the small room into a decent-sized closet. The door on the right led to the room her aunt had dubbed Zoe’s room. The sleigh bed was still on the front wall, offering a full view of the picture window across from it. Lightning flashed across the sky, illuminating the small space, and in that moment of brightness, Zoe could tell that nothing had been changed. The room was exactly as it was six years ago when she’d left for California.

It was both comforting and sad. Comforting that her aunt had kept the room here just for her and sad that she hadn’t bothered to change it for her own use. She tossed her backpack onto the bench at the end of the bed and pulled off her shoes and jeans. When this crisis was over, things were going to change. From now on, Zoe was going to make the time to visit at least once a year, even if she used precious vacation time to do it. Jobs would come and go, but she only had one Aunt Sapphire and she wasn’t going to be around forever. This fall was a stark reminder of that fact.

She pulled back the covers and climbed into the bed, propping herself up a bit with the pillows so that she could watch the storm. The thunder boomed so loud that it shook the walls, and the lightning flashed so brilliantly across the sky that it was momentarily blinding. Finally, the lightning stopped and all that remained was the downpour. She felt her eyes grow heavy and before she knew it, she was nodding off to the rhythmic sounds of the pouring rain.

The slumped position she’d fallen asleep in resulted in her head lolling to one side. Finally, her neck had enough of it and awakened her. She checked her watch, surprised that she’d been asleep in that position for a solid three hours. Lightning once again flashed in the distance, and the steady rain sounded against the window. She threw the covers back and headed for the bathroom, groaning when she flipped the light switch and got no response. The power was still out.

Her phone was back on the nightstand in her room, but the toilet was in between the shower and the vanity. Surely she could find it. She reached her hands out in front of her and finally connected with the toilet tank and the edge of the toilet lid, which was already up. She turned around and prepared to sit but as she lowered herself, the cold plastic she’d expected her exposed tush to connect with was furry and warm, and more importantly, angry.

She bolted upright as the cat yowled, hissed, and raked a claw across her bare bottom. She could hear its claws on the floor as it scrambled out of the room. What the hell? Sapphire told her the cats always hid during a storm. Sitting on the edge of an open toilet wasn’t the kind of hiding Zoe thought a cat would opt for.

Her butt smarting from the scratches, she half limped, half shuffled back into the bedroom to get her phone. No way was she attempting that again without light. Given the intensity of the stinging, she might be sleeping on her side the rest of the night.

She sighed. It wasn’t the least bit surprising that her return home had already become a huge pain in the rear.

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