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Page 12

THE NEXT DAY, I called Harley Dimmoch's parents to find out where their son was now. The name was not exactly common, and Columbia, South Carolina, is not that big. There were three Dimmochs; the second listing was the right one. I told Harley Dimmoch's mother that I had just bought the house the Julius family lived in. "I'm interested in the history of the house. I was hoping he could tell me about the day before they disappeared." "He doesn't like to talk about it. He was really sweet on the girl, you know."


"Yes. I hadn't thought of that in a year or two, Harley is so different now."

"Does he live in Columbia with you?"

"No, he lives close to the Gulf Coast now, working in a lumber yard. He's got a girlfriend now, oh for several years he's been seeing this young woman. He comes home to visit about once a year, to let us have a look at him." "And you say he doesn't talk about Charity's disappearance?" "No, he's real touchy about it. His dad and me, we always thought he felt kind of guilty. Like if he'd stayed instead of coming on home that night, he could have stopped whatever happened."

"So he came home the day - "

"He came home very late the night before Mrs. Totino found they were gone. Oh, the police came over here and talked to him forever, we were afraid he'd lose his temper, which he's a little prone to do, and say something that would make them think he'd done it..."

I liked this woman. She was loquacious.

"But he just seemed stunned, like. He hardly knew what he was doing. He told us a thousand times, 'Mama, Daddy, I helped Mr. Julius with the roof and I watched that man pour the concrete for the patio and I ate supper, and I left.'" "He never mentioned they were quarreling with each other, or strangers came to the door, or anything odd?" I was trolling, now. "No, everything was just as usual, he kept on telling us that like we doubted him. And the police went over and over that old car of his, like to drove us crazy. He was just nuts about Charity. He has never been the same since that time."

"Oh, really?"

"Yes, he just couldn't settle down after that. He is older than - well, Charity was fifteen or sixteen, and Harley was eighteen when it happened. It's hard to believe my baby is twenty-four now, almost twenty-five! We had hoped he'd stay with us, maybe think about going to a junior college, or something like that. He had just gotten laid off at his first job when he went over to see Charity that time. But after it happened, he just wanted to take off on his own, didn't want to stay around here. And the shock of it. It's like he don't want more surprises, ever in his life again. He don't like phone calls if he's not expecting us to call. We call him on Sunday, or not at all. We don't drive down to see him on the spur of the moment, so to speak, we tell him way in advance." I made an indeterminate sound that was meant to be encouraging. "So I'd better not give you his number, Miss. Because he wouldn't appreciate a phone call from out of the blue. But if you'll give me your number, I'll pass it on to him the next time we speak."

I gave her my name and phone number, thanked her sincerely, and hung up. I related this conversation to Angel as we sat on the front porch with lemonade two days later. The house was measured all over and we'd knocked on walls for hollow places. We'd scanned the yard. Neecy Dawson, whom I wanted to ask about the sealed-up closet, had gone to Natchez to tour antebellum homes with a busload of other ladies. Bettina Anderson had left a message on my answering machine. I'd seen my mother and John off to a real estate brokers' convention in Tucson, and the weather was swiftly getting hotter. There was never enough spring in Georgia.

Martin had called to say he'd arrived in Chicago, and Emily Kaye had called to ask me to join St. James's Altar Guild. Both calls had made me anxious, though on different levels. Martin had sounded worried but determined; it was the worried part that frightened me. Would it be easy to extricate himself from this business? Emily, in her very nicest way, had quite refused to take no for an answer and had sweetly demanded I attend the Altar Guild meeting today to find out more about it.

"So what have you learned?" Angel was asking in her flat Florida voice. "I have learned," I began slowly, "that Mrs. Julius was wearing her Sunday wig on a weekday night. I have learned that Mrs. Totino doesn't want to talk about the disappearance anymore. I have learned that there were no bodies under the concrete, and none could have been put there afterward. I have learned that Harley Dimmoch was a changed person after Charity Julius disappeared, but that at the time the police were satisfied with his story, because Mrs. Totino saw the Juliuses after he left - presumably."

"So Mrs. Totino's word is all you have that they were alive?"

"Yes," I conceded. "But after all, she's the mother of the woman who's missing.

She was part of the family. Her daughter had cancer." "Maybe you should talk to the sister. Mrs. Totino's sister. The one in Metairie."

"I don't know what she could tell me. According to Mrs. Totino, the sister's never been up here. Mrs. Totino is so in love with New Orleans she goes down there every now and then, she says, though somehow it sounded like the sister wasn't exactly happy to have her."

"Wonder why?"

"Well, she can certainly pitch a fit when she wants to, and evidently from what the security guard said the first day I visited, she has a reputation for being unpleasant."

"If she's such a bitch, how come the Juliuses wanted her around?" "To help in the house, while Mrs. Julius was having her cancer treatments, I guess."

"But wouldn't that have made everything worse? I mean, you've got a sick woman, and a teenage girl mad because she had to move away from her boyfriend, and a husband trying to start his own business in a new town. Wouldn't a woman like that be more trouble than she was worth? They could've hired a maid cheaper than building onto the garage."

Put like that, it was mysterious. I would mull it over when I had the time. Right now I had to meet with the members of the Altar Guild, presumably to talk about altar topics, whatever that might include. "I've got to go," I said reluctantly. I moved to pick up the glasses. "I'll get them," Angel said. "I'll just put them in the kitchen and lock the back door on my way out."

So we went inside together, since I needed my purse and keys. I was wearing what I hoped was a suitable tailored khaki skirt and a striped blouse with a bright yellow barrette to hold back my hair, and my soberest pair of glasses, the ones with the tortoiseshell rims. My purse was right inside, at the front door, so I was going down the front porch steps before Angel had even reached the kitchen. It was warm, but not that breathless glaring heat you get in a fullblown Georgia summer. I scuffled through the grass, thinking that buying a riding mower at Sears might be a good idea; the yard was so big. Madeleine suddenly ran from the garage, crossed the yard with speed surprising in such a fat cat, and disappeared under the bushes around the front porch. What on earth had spooked her? I looked into the shadowy interior, walking slowly now, anxious without formulating exactly why.

The tool-room door was open a crack. Surely Angel and I had shut it the day we'd been in there measuring and straightening.

Angel came out of the side kitchen door and was halfway across the sidewalk between the house and the garage.

I took another step and it seemed to me the crack widened some. "Angel," I called, panic sparking along my nerves and surely showing in my voice.

She had a reaction that even at the time struck me as extraordinary. Instead of saying "What?" or "Got a problem?" she broke into a dead run and moved so fast that she was in front of me one split second after the tool-room door had burst open. The man erupting from it was heading straight for us, and he had our ax in his hands.

"Run!" Angel said fiercely. "Run, Roe!"

That seemed extremely disloyal to me, but also intensely desirable. I couldn't abandon Angel, I decided nobly, idiotically, since the man was swinging the ax and yelling and coming straight for us. Angel ducked under his arm, attempted to grab the ax handle, lost her footing on the loose gravel, and went down. My purse was all I had, and I swung it on its long shoulder strap and had the shock of seeing the ax sever the straps and my purse hit the ground. However, that took up one swing and he had to haul back for another try, and that gave Angel time to lunge from her prone position and grab his ankles, so his next step toward me brought him down as the ax whistled harmlessly past me. He hit the driveway with a thud but kept a grip on the ax, and he was trying to maneuver to use it on Angel when I stomped on his hand.

With a howl he let go of the ax, and I stooped and grabbed the handle and slung it as far away as I could sling. I instinctively wanted the ax out of the equation, since sharp cutting edges make me very nervous. But he used his hands after that, spinning, grabbing Angel's ponytail and hitting her face against the gravel. She did not allow the pain to deflect her, but with an expression of absolute determination reached for a spot on his arm and pressed in with her strong fingers. He screamed and let go, and aimed a kick at Angel's head. Swift as a snake she rolled, and the kick landed on her shoulder instead, but I saw her mouth open in pain. She was slowed down enough for him to jump to his feet. I'd been circling futilely, trying to see a vulnerable spot, but they were so fast it was bewildering. When he jumped up, I insanely tried to block him, but he straightarmed me and my feet in their leather-soled suburban low-heeled pumps flew right out from under me, and with a whump! I landed flat on my back with all my wind knocked out. I was quite unable to move as I heard heavy running steps crunch down the driveway.

Angel's face, scraped and bleeding, appeared over me. "All right?" she asked urgently.

I managed to waggle my head a little, still waiting for the intake of breath that would make me whole.

She ran after the intruder, her footfalls lighter and swifter. But I heard a car start up, and I knew Angel would be back soon.

She was, but in no mood to sit around and rehash our experience. "Into the house, now!" she said harshly, scooping me off the ground with one movement. I drew in some air finally. The relief was immense. Angel's arm was under mine and I was being dragged/marched into the house. Angel had my damaged purse in her other hand, extracting the keys as we went, and she cast my purse down while she twisted the key in the lock. She more or less pitched me into the living room while she locked the door and shot the deadbolt behind us. While I sat there still trying to figure out what had happened, Angel ran to the kitchen, with blood from the abrasions on her face dropping down to spot the floor.

I heard her voice, quick and calm. She was on the phone calling the police.

I struggled to my feet and wobbled into the kitchen. Angel was hanging up the phone. She turned to the side kitchen door and shot the deadbolt on it; then the back kitchen door received the same treatment. She went around the kitchen yanking the curtains shut.

Then she turned to me and I realized she was furious. There was nothing slow and deliberate about Angel anymore.

"When I tell you to run, you run," she said in a low, barely controlled voice. "You don't hang around to save my ass. You were in the way out there. I told you to run."

"Angel," I said, realization dawning. "You're my bodyguard. "

We stood staring at one another. Both of us had a lot to think about.

"Why didn't you run?" she asked.

"I couldn't leave you out there." I reached behind me for a towel and handed it to her. "You're dripping all over," I said.

She took it absently and began patting at her face. She glanced down at the towel and seemed surprised at the red blotches on it. "You have to go to the doctor."

"No," she said. "We'll take care of it. We're not going anywhere until Shelby checks the road between here and town. That's what he's doing now." "That's who you called."

She nodded. She went to look out the curtains.

"You didn't call the police." I said this cautiously, feeling I was saying something quite naive.

I was right. Angel raised one eyebrow and shook her head. I didn't even have to ask why. Angel thought this attack was related to Martin's illegal activities. Angel and Shelby, of course, had known all along, I realized in an ever-widening ripple of revelation; Martin had brought them here to protect me before we were even married, had bought me the Julius house because of the garage apartment for the Youngbloods to stay in, had foreseen the possibility that something like this might happen. I got the first-aid kit from the bathroom, feeling as if I were already half-dead. I was shocked by the attack, humiliated by all I now knew. I should be grateful; I would undoubtedly be dead by now if it weren't for Angel Youngblood. But I felt cold and stony; I hated them all, Angel and Shelby and Martin. I thumped the first-aid kit down on the counter in the kitchen; I picked up the phone. Angel made a face of protest, but before she could speak I turned on her a face so dreadful that she went back to staring out a gap in the curtains.

"Emily," I said, when I heard the voice on the other end of the line, "I won't be able to come to Altar Guild this afternoon, I'm so sorry." Appropriate, but rather huffy, noises from Emily.

"Well, I fell on my way to the garage - yes, I know that's an old-lady thing to do - the gravel was slippery and my shoes are leather-soled - no, I'm fine really, I'm just bruised. I'll be there next time, for sure! Give the ladies my regrets."

I hung up the phone. I stood there, my hand on it, staring off down the black hole I'd fallen into. I got a white washrag out from under the sink, moistened it, wrung it out.

"Sit down," I told Angel.

She abandoned her post but insisted we drag a chair over to the window. She kept watch while I cleaned her face. I knew it hurt; I didn't care. Once her abrasions and cuts were clean, I dabbed antibiotic ointment all over them. She was a sight.

Shelby's car crunched down the drive. He pulled into the Youngbloods' accustomed parking spot on the far side of the garage, so he was hidden from view. Angel had appropriated a knife from my kitchen drawer; she stood watching for her husband intently, the knife gripped in her right hand. "Unlock the kitchen door," she told me.

I did it.

"Stand back from it."

I rolled my eyes and went back to lean against the counter. I could see through Angel's little gap. Finally Shelby crossed it, walking warily, eyes going everywhere at once. In his hands was a shotgun. My mouth fell open.

A number of things had hit me that day, literally and metaphorically. But the most telling thing, the moment of truth, was seeing that shotgun in Shelby Youngblood's hands.

Someone had tried to kill me. That man had been trying to get me. Angel had just been an obstacle in his eyes; he'd had no idea of her function or capability. His focus had been on killing me. I thought of that ax coming down on my head.

Suddenly my knees were wobbly.

Shelby came in the kitchen door with a rush. Angel was on hand to lock it after him the instant he was in.

"You okay?" he asked her.

She nodded. "Mad," she said. "I'm mad as hell. I couldn't get him. My feet went out from under me. She got the ax away from him, not me." Angel obviously did not need or expect any fuss about her damaged face; Shelby's dark eyes had assessed her injuries quickly and dismissed them. Angel was a professional, it was borne in on me more strongly every minute. If I was dealing with my own humiliation, so was she; she had failed in her job. "Roe got the ax?" Shelby said incredulously.

"It's in the middle of the front yard. She threw it."

"Roe did." Shelby still couldn't quite absorb it. "He got very close," Angel said angrily. "If I hadn't already been out of the house, he'd of got her."

I had to sit down quite suddenly.

I pulled one of the breakfast-table chairs out. The legs made a scraping noise.

"So I guess you didn't spot him on your way through town."

"No blue Chevy Nova."

"Tags were covered with mud," Angel said sullenly. I could tell she'd already told Shelby this on the phone and he'd been on the lookout on the way here. No one could say my married life was placid. No rut for the Bartells!

I giggled.

They glanced at me uneasily, then went back to their consultation.

"It's quiet out there now. We'd better get moving," Shelby said. "I'll call him," Angel said. She was obviously bent on confessing her failure to someone. After a beat I realized she meant she was going to call Martin, and I just snapped.

"Excuse me," I said viciously. "If anyone is going to call my husband, I am." They both looked startled at my speaking, and dismayed by what they were hearing.

"You should pack, and talk to Martin tonight," Shelby said gently. But the gentleness was costing him, I could tell. Good. "I will talk to my husband whenever I damn well please." They were considerably taken aback. Though I hadn't known the true nature of the Youngbloods, they were finding out a thing or two about me. They had Martin's telephone numbers where he was staying. They knew where he was and why he was out of town. They knew all about our lives. They were my bodyguards. I had a little shock whenever the word entered my mind. Well, Shelby with his acne-scarred face and unruly black hair was nothing like Kevin Costner.

"I will go use the phone in the other room," I told them. I stalked across the hall to sit at Martin's desk and call him in Chicago. The secretary who took the call was quite sure that Martin's meeting ("He's in conference with the president," she said severely) was more important than my call, but I said, "I really have to insist. This is his wife, and there is an emergency."

After a pause of nearly five minutes, Martin was on the phone, and at the sound of his voice I almost broke down. "What is it?" he asked tensely. "Are you all right?"

"I'm all right." My voice was shaky. I sat for a moment gathering myself. "Angel is a little hurt," I said with shameful satisfaction. "Angel? You're all right and Angel's hurt? What happened? Is Shelby there?" "Yes, Martin, Shelby is here and you can talk to him in a minute so you guys can handle everything." By golly, I was still mad at everyone. "A man was hiding in the garage, and if he'd had the sense to wait till I was in there, he would've had me. But I noticed something was wrong and he charged out and Angel was able to get there in time, and I got the ax away. But he ran and got in a car and left." Now my voice was shaking again. I certainly wished I could pick an emotion and stick with it. Fear, anger, humiliation, shock. A cocktail of feelings.

"Baby. Are you really all right? Hurt anywhere?" "Not physically, Martin," I said with great restraint. "Does Angel need to be in the hospital?"

"No, I took care of it with the first-aid kit." "That's good. Very good. Okay, honey. Here's what I need you to do. I need you to do whatever Shelby and Angel tell you to do. They're there to keep you safe. I'll catch a flight home tomorrow morning. I'll go to Guatemala once I make sure you're going to be all right."

"Okay," I said tersely. There really wasn't any point in saying anything else. "Now, I need to talk to Angel and Shelby. I'm - thank God you're okay. I'm so sorry."

I looked across the hall. They were standing close to the kitchen doorway.

Shelby had his arms around Angel. A weak moment.

"Phone," I said. "Angel."

Looking as if she'd rather face wrestling an alligator, Angel Youngblood, my protector, came to talk to Martin.

I went upstairs and lay on my bed.

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