8.15 am: May 31st, 2019: Johannesburg, South Africa:
A massive explosion rocks the city, reducing a highly regarded computer technology laboratory to a blazing pile of rubble. Before the dust has had the opportunity to settle, Edward Cullen, who is asleep in his cabin in Colorado and is oblivious to the existence of the laboratory, is already being drawn into a chain of events that could change his life forever.
Disclaimer: Some of the characters in this story belong to Stephenie Meyer. As usual, I have lots of fun with them.
SECRETS AND SPIES
June 7th, 2019:
My calf muscles are on fire even before I commence the last and steepest part of the long climb from the bay. As I hobble towards the house I cannot yet see, my dress shoes, which were hastily purchased on the internet, are pinching my toes and heels, reminding me with every step that my feet are happier in soft, forgiving tennis shoes or roomy work boots; my footwear of choice for the past fourteen years. I'd bowed to pressure to dress appropriately for the occasion I'd fled from not more than half an hour ago and I'd ordered these damned shoes when I hadn't been thinking for myself. Now I am, and I'm resolved never again to conform to tradition and pretend to be someone so opposite to the authentic Edward Cullen, even for what turned out to be only four hours of uncomfortable torment.
After about fifty more paces, the weathered-green conical-shaped turret that crowns the house I'm aiming for comes into view. Poking above other randomly shaped properties that line the street, it dominates the summit of the hill like a Disney castle. I know from years of walking this route that my destination is less than five minutes away, only these last steps will be the most painful and not because of my aching limbs.
As I ascend higher I'm not tempted to glance over my shoulder to check out the spectacular panorama behind me as the world-famous view is permanently imprinted in my memory. Nothing will have changed since the last time I observed the view; it never does. I hadn't felt inclined to look when I came back seven days ago either as I'd been concentrating on holding myself together. The bitter trauma of that day is behind me now, as are the six following days, including the events of the last four hours which were infinitely the worst of all.
Working out how many years have passed since being obliged to make this journey on foot distracts me from the pain in my feet. I can't recall the exact day or month. It must've been around the time I got my driver's license at sixteen, which I can't believe is half my lifetime ago now.
This street had been my neighborhood for the first twenty-one years of my life. Now the three-story house crowning the summit of the hill has a new owner, and the 'some might say' lucky owner is more than likely going to be me. I'd gladly have preferred the house to remain the property of the man who'd owned it for the previous thirty-five years. This would mean turning the clock back seven days and time isn't something I or anyone else can play with, unfortunately.
Every house on the hill is worth a fortune, even though they sit on top of the San Andreas Fault. I remember dad saying to me years ago, 'the folks who live on these hills have the furthest to slide when the earth decides to cough,' and even then San Francisco was dangerously overdue for a chill.
The stunning view of the famous bridge straddling the spectacular bay, which is either bathed in sparkling sunshine or veiled by a shroud of milky-white fog, is the vista the super-rich residents of San Francisco delve deep in their pockets for. Mother Nature's whims are only a small consideration when purchasing a home in one of the more exclusive roads in this ridiculously expensive neighborhood. I've always wondered why my parents chose to live here as rubbing shoulders with wealthy people is something they never aspired to do. Now I'll never know.
The individually designed properties on my route are featured on picture postcards and travel guides for the city and I can still recall every house, tree and exotic shrub which marked my up or downhill progress. It's good to see familiar plants looking healthy. I'm pissed though that some of my favorite specimens have withered through neglect, or been removed by an ignorant tenant.
Without guilt, I flick a half-smoked cigarette into the gutter before bending over to rub my legs. I can feel tendons in my ankles tightening under the strain of being confined in these uncomfortable shoes. I'd also commenced the climb wearing the one-and-only suit I've ever owned in 85 degrees of heat. The jacket and tie had come off half-way up the first street. A few steps later I'd rolled up my shirt sleeves and loosened the collar and two top buttons in an attempt to aid the cooling process. The benefit was soon lost though as the air temperature seemed to be rising the higher I traveled up the hill which made the gradient feel even steeper to my tired legs.
Most of the house is visible now, and even though I know I'll be emotional walking through the door for the first time on my own, my spirits lift. What I'm looking forward to is, at last, being able to shut out the world so I can listen to as much silence as can be achieved in this overcrowded city. "Silence" I repeat out loud, only without a corresponding smile.
I'd declined the offer of a ride home as I wanted to be on my own and out in the fresh air, even though this city's atmosphere tastes foul compared to where I live now. In Colorado, I have a good excuse to go for long, leisurely walks every morning and most evenings. During the day my busy work schedule means I'm more often tied to my desk or driving a car, which means it's time I acknowledged that my lazy attitude to proper exercise will need to be addressed sometime soon. This will only be a minor alteration to my life compared to what my uncertain future has in store for me.
From the moment I walked into the airport arrivals hall seven days ago where I was greeted by Uncle Jim, who had no doubt drawn the short straw and been handed the unenviable task of being there to meet me, I haven't been truly alone. When I first entered the house, instead of the solitude I'd been craving, I was greeted by several of my dad's friends and the remaining members of my mother's family who I hadn't seen in years. The only time I've had to myself over the last seven days has been in the bathroom, or restlessly sleeping in my teenage bed.
The good-hearted people who've surrounded me for the last seven days will still be gathered in the main hall of the University of the Pacific, along with anyone of note from Silicon Valley. I guess they'll still be speaking in hushed tones to one another about the events of the past seven days while sipping tea or coffee from china cups, or something stronger if they've sneaked it in themselves.
"Seven days," I say out loud, even though there's nobody around to listen.
Is it really only seven days since I took an early-morning call from a detective, who told me, quite bluntly, that a man who was more than likely my father had been found dead in a burnt-out vehicle on the Marin Headlands?
I hadn't believed the caller at first and for almost eight hours I'd hung on to the possibility that the partially cremated body found slumped over the steering wheel was somebody else and not my dad. It would be another unfortunate Caucasian man who just happened to be six feet tall, wearing a thin gold chain with two plain gold wedding rings around his neck, as dad did. This guy also had a bracelet on his wrist indicating he was allergic to Penicillin, and he somehow happened to be in dad's valuable classic car. Not until the police confirmed that the body was indeed Carlisle Cullen did I finally accept dad was dead. By then I was walking towards the airport arrivals hall where my late mother's brother, Jim, was there to meet me.
The drive to the house had been a blur. Jim had been respectfully quiet during the journey; either that or he had no idea what to say to me as I'd received confirmation in the most brutal of ways … by text.
'Dental records match – cadaver is that of Carlisle Cullen. Coroner's Office will be in touch shortly. Condolences. SFPD.'
Jim probably guessed I was trying not to break down so silence was the best option in the circumstances. We could talk later when I had time to get over the initial shock and digest the enormity of the situation. A funeral and memorial service needed to be arranged. The Will needed to be read. Press needed to be batted away. More importantly, I needed time to absorb the fact that according to the police my father had most likely committed suicide, even though no note had been found.
As I'm staring at the house I presume I now own as I'm dad's only living blood relative, I'm wondering whether I can afford to live in it, let alone whether I want to live in it. Until I find out how and why he died, I know I won't be able to rest easy in a house that seven days ago I remembered only with affection. If he had taken his own life, what would have been his state of mind when he walked out for the last time? How anguished must he have been to close the door of the home he loved, get into a car which was every 1970's teenage boy's wet dream, and travel to an isolated spot to die an agonizing death in the driver's seat?
I can't believe it … I'll never believe it, not until I find a note, in his hand, explaining why he had chosen to leave the world without saying goodbye either verbally or in writing, or any other type of message to his only child.
I can feel myself getting worked up and have to ram my knuckles in my eyes to stop myself weeping, not with sorrow this time but with anger and frustration. I want answers, which will be difficult to get as the police have already closed the book on dad's death. The autopsy report stated that because the body had been badly burned and there were no obvious signs he'd been in a struggle, or been shot or strangled, that unexplained death or suicide would be the only conclusions available at an inquest which would be held in about month. That was it. Finished. End of investigation.
I want to scream out loud but resist. I'll save that for when I'm indoors.
The unique and interesting façade of the pale gray, wood-boarded house is fully visible now so I stop walking to take in what I'm seeing. This typically beautiful San Franciscan home has become my responsibility and already I feel the burden, like a heavy weight around my neck.
I set off again even more anxious to get indoors. If dad's neighbors are watching, they'll think I'm impersonating the disabled hobo, Ratso Rizzo, from the movie, Midnight Cowboy as I'm walking on the outside edges of my feet. When I'm almost at the gate, I catch the distinctive aroma of Italian cooking emanating from Sue's house next door and my empty stomach growls with hunger. I'd been offered meals during the past seven days but refused; surviving only on coffee, cigarettes and cookies. I'm feeling hungry for the first time in a week and it's an uncomfortable sensation.
Almost like being slapped in the face, I realize that Sue wasn't at the funeral. In fact, I hadn't seen her at all over the last seven days. I'm curious why she's kept away when she should have been sitting on the front row with me, instead of members of mom's family who were probably only there to see famous people in the congregation. Since arriving home I hadn't wanted to speak to anyone unless I had to, and selfishly I'd become a recluse. A wave of guilt crashes over me as Sue had been so good to me during my teenage years and I cannot imagine what she's thinking.
I'm desperate to get home but curiosity is getting the better of me. I need to find out why she wasn't there today or I won't rest. Instead of walking the final few yards to the house, I back-track to Sue's and open the same low gate I used to effortlessly leap over when I was a teenager, and crawl up the flight of wooden steps leading to the flower-covered stoop outside her door.
Before leaning on her doorbell I take a few deep breaths for courage as I know this conversation is going to be painful. The familiar ding-dong-ding-dong reminds me of Big Ben, which I heard for the first time in real life when I visited London with Dad after graduating. I can't help smiling at the memory.
"Edward!" Sue cries as she flings open the door. "What a lovely surprise. Carlisle didn't tell me you were coming home. Come in."
"Sue …. Haven't …"
"Good God, Edward, what on earth's happened to you? Are you okay; you look sick?"
"Come through, make yourself at home. Let me put the coffee on."
Sue disappears at speed towards the kitchen at the back of the house; her words spilling out faster than bullets from a machine gun. "Have you lost your key, Edward? I guess Carlisle's gone out somewhere. I'm sure I've still got a key to your kitchen door in one of these drawers. Just give me a minute."
"SUE – STOP!"
Sue stops, with the jug in mid-air and one hand on the faucet.
"Edward, whatever's the matter?"
I follow her into the kitchen and put my hand on her arm. I'm trembling due to the anticipation of having to tell her that the man she loved like a brother is dead.
"Where've you been for the past week?"
"Visiting my sister in Carmel. She's had a knee operation. I've been looking after her for the past ten days. I got back three hours ago."
"So you don't know?"
"Know … what?"
Sue hesitates and I spot a questioning look forming in those dark brown eyes I know so well and can tell she's suspecting something bad is coming.
"Edward … has something happened to Carlisle?"
I nod my head as I can't speak because of the lump in my throat. I haven't actually told anyone in words that my father is dead; that onerous task has been done for me. I haven't spoken the word 'dead' either, as doing so would make what happened seven days ago seem even more real; even more so than seeing dad's sealed coffin today.
I fix my eyes on the face of the woman who was mom's best friend when she was alive and had been a mother-figure to me after her death. She was never a replacement for mom; no-one could ever fill her blessed shoes. Sue had promised mom she'd look out for me 24/7 as she knew dad would sometimes disappear into another world when a work project took over his life. This is going to be difficult, so I swallow hard to get rid of the lump and steel myself to break the bad news.
"Sue …" I draw a deep breath. "Sue, my dad's d ..."
"No!" Sue shrieks before I have a chance to say the word. Her hands fly up to her weathered face which crumples into lines of grief; her eyes instantly filling with tears. I pull her into my chest and fling my arms around her, stroking her thick black hair that recently has become streaked with silver. Sorrow and heartache pour out of her and from me again, and as I hold this diminutive woman in a tight embrace, memories of mom's death from liver cancer eighteen years previously come flooding back, and I recall, vividly, Sue holding me in her arms while I screamed at a treacherous God for taking my mom away.
"What happened?" Sue chokes when she finally stops weeping.
"Sit down, Sue. I'll make the coffee while ..."
"Fuck coffee," Sue interrupts. "I need something stronger than that. There's a bottle of Bourbon in the fridge. Pour me a large one and have one yourself."
I wander over to her enormous fridge wondering why the hell she keeps Bourbon in there. I find it at the back, lurking behind several bottles of wine and a half-empty bottle of Vodka. Sue likes alcohol and prefers weed to cigarettes. 'Once a hippy, always a hippy' she would pronounce when we shared joints in her back yard.
Her regular alcohol consumption is the reason she'd never owned a car and why she's incredibly fit for her age. She can still sprint up the hill like the proverbial mountain goat even though she's nearer seventy than sixty. Whenever I'm home if I pass her in my car I'll offer her a ride. She'd always decline, even in bad weather, saying something like, 'I'll never need a Jane-fucking-Fonda video to keep fit? I'll just keep climbing this fucking hill.' Sue also curses a lot.
I find two suitable glasses, pour shots of different sizes, and take the larger one over to Sue who's sunk into a chair next to the table. Anticipating she'll need a refill I take the bottle as well before collecting my own glass and taking a seat in front of her.
"Seven days ago I got a call from the police who told me a man's body had been found in a burnt-out car. It was dad's Mustang, Sue; the third love of his life after mom and me. I got the first flight out here. By the time I landed, the police had gotten hold of dad's dental records and confirmed the body was his."
"You mean he was murdered?" Sue growls.
"Police say no. Dad was in the driving seat which had been soaked in gasoline. An empty can was found next to him on the passenger seat. There's no evidence he tried to escape the flames. They said his posture when they found him was relaxed with his hands and head resting on the steering wheel. The key was in the ignition and the doors were locked from the inside."
"What about an autopsy? He might've been drugged, or knocked out."
"That's what I said to the detective in charge of the case. He told me the top half of his body was so badly burned, whoever carried out the autopsy couldn't tell whether there were any signs of trauma, like gunshot wounds or compression injuries on his neck bones. His lungs were destroyed so there was no way to tell whether he'd inhaled smoke so they couldn't confirm whether dad was dead before the fire started. They did get a blood sample from his feet which proved there were no substances in his system. This is why the police presume he committed suicide. I'm absolutely convinced that's not what happened as there's no way he'd kill himself with fire. If he was going to do it, he would've overdosed with a cocktail of drugs and alcohol, or jumped off El Capitan. He definitely would've needed a good reason, like being terminally ill for instance."
"So they're not investigating further? That's bat-shit fucking crazy."
"It's definitely suspicious, Sue. I've asked the detective to investigate some more. He's insisted there's no evidence a crime has taken place so there's no point. The way he dismissed my concerns convinces me he's covering something up. I feel like I'm being bullied not to interfere."
"So you think your dad was murdered?"
"Ninety-nine to one, yes. He would've left a note or informed his lawyer by letter. I've looked around the house and spoken to Jenks and come up with nothing. Another thing, the last person who saw him was probably the driver who delivered his groceries three days before he died. The fridge was stacked with good quality fresh food. If you're planning to kill yourself, would you stock up like next day's Thanksgiving?"
Sue takes a long drink of the neat Bourbon and tops up her glass. I'm only sipping mine as spirits aren't really my thing unless it's for Dutch courage when I'm about to get on a plane. Sue doesn't allow smoking in the house so the choice is Bourbon or nothing, even on an empty stomach.
As Sue is downing her second shot she lets out a gasp, slams her glass on the wooden kitchen table which makes me jump, and slaps her forehead at the same time.
"Shit! I forgot."
"What?" I exclaim.
Sue doesn't respond but springs off the chair and runs upstairs to her second-floor lounge which has a huge picture window overlooking the bay. I can hear drawers being opened and slammed followed by a cry of triumph and the sound of her running down the stairs.
She appears in the kitchen waving an envelope over her head. I can just make out it has my name on one side.
"Carlisle gave me this ten days ago on the day I left for Carmel," she interrupts. "He said if anything was to happen to him to give this to you and no-one else. I wasn't to tell anyone else I had this either. He was very insistent on that."
As I take the letter from her hand, I examine the writing on the outside. It's definitely dad's neat script and I recognize the old-fashioned pale blue envelopes which were mom's favored stationery color.
"Edward, go read it on your own while I make dinner," Sue suggests in a caring tone. I guess she suspects what's in the letter even though I'll still need a lot of convincing that dad killed himself.
I rise from my chair without responding because I'm too shocked to speak and wander along to Sue's study. Her battered antique writing desk, most of the floor and all the other pieces of furniture, are littered with books, junk mail, bills, and writing pads. The only neat shelves are the ones where she keeps first editions of the novels she's written, stacked in order of publication.
With violently shaking hands and a sick feeling in my stomach, I tear open the envelope. Inside is a single sheet of paper written on both sides. Again dad's compact writing style is easy to recognize meaning whatever's written here I'll have to accept as genuine. I read the text quickly and again slowly to take every word in, before placing the letter face down on the desk. After a few minutes of thought I pick the letter up again to double-check I've remembered correctly everything dad has written.
My dear Edward,
If you're reading this I'm either dead or at best missing.
Edward, I need you to take seriously everything I'm setting out below. This letter is FOR YOUR EYES ONLY. Do not, under any circumstances, share the contents of this letter with the Police, FBI, CIA, or any other government agency.
Do not show this letter to anyone I've ever worked with, past or present.
Do not show this letter to any member of the family, or friends, in fact, anyone at all, not even Sue, even though I've had to trust her to give it to you.
I cannot tell you the reason behind this warning as knowledge may put you in danger. All I can say is I've discovered I could be caught up in something dangerous to do with my work. It's a battle of Titans out there, Edward. Game of Thrones can't hold a candle to what goes on in the technology world.
Go back to Colorado and stay there. Do not even consider investigating what's happened to me if I'm missing. If you start playing detective, you won't know who you're dealing with until it's too late.
Be wary of any new people who come into your life in the next few months. DO NOT TRUST ANYONE – EVEN JENKS. Remember, money corrupts. Be suspicious of everyone around you. They may think you know something about my work and could be befriending you for that reason, or they could use you as leverage to get to me.
Edward, son, I'm hoping you never have to hold this letter in your hand, but if you are, I want you to know how proud I am of you and I'm truly sorry if my work got in the way of our relationship after your mother died. My obsession with creating something new and exciting that would benefit the world helped me cope with losing your mother who I loved dearly. Unfortunately, this obsession to do some good has led me to create a monster that could eventually destroy our way of life. If you're reading this because I've departed this world, I hope the monster will have perished with me and will stay below ground where it belongs forever.
Remember what I used to say to you – the smallest fruit may smell and taste the sweetest, but always be wary when you take a bite as it could have something nasty inside, (apart from Lychees of course, which always taste disgusting).
I truly hope you find such a love as I had with your mother, and you are lucky enough to grow old with her. Remember always …
I love you son,
I stare at the letter for a while longer before folding it neatly and sliding it into my back pocket. I'd spotted the subliminal message in the text, and one sentence stood out as being total nonsense. Dad had never uttered the saying about 'the smallest fruit being the sweetest', so why include this in what could be his final contact with me?
I'll read the message again before burning it when I get back to the house. After doing that, I'll need to think carefully about dad's warning, before deciding whether I either do nothing and continue living the rest of my life knowing it's highly likely he was murdered, or go against his wishes and start looking for answers?
Sue clattering around in the kitchen breaks my thought processes. Whatever she's preparing for dinner smells awesome and my stomach growls in anticipation as I know she'll insist I stay. Sue is an amazing cook and during my final years of high school after mom died I'd more often eat here than at home.
I wander along the hall and visit the downstairs bathroom. As I'm drying my hands I check my face in the mirror. My eyes are puffy from weeping but I look okay. My hair's too long so I should get it cut soon. I'll wait until I'm home and ask one of the girls to chop a few inches off the ends. I've definitely lost weight as my cheekbones are more pronounced than usual. My unhealthy eating habits will remedy that issue very soon.
Sue is pretending to be busy so I guess she's waiting to hear what was in the note. I'll have to say something innocuous to satisfy her curiosity so I go over to the range and put my arm around her shoulders.
"It wasn't a suicide note, Sue. Just an 'In Case Anything Happens to Me' letter, saying what was in the safe, instructions for our lawyer, where the Deeds to the house are; boring stuff like that. He would've been sixty-five next birthday. I guess he was either feeling his age or being cautious."
"Oh thank God," Sue sighs and turns to hug me. Her face shows she's been crying again, probably because she was imagining what I was reading. I guess she's also been wondering why she didn't spot signs of depression or despair when she last spoke to dad and was apologizing to mom's spirit. She'd told me many times she could still feel Esme's presence around her, especially in this kitchen where they'd talk for hours while sharing a bottle of wine. I'd always put her psychic pronouncements down to excess alcohol and weed, rather than actual psychic ability.
"Sit down, darling boy," she orders as she pulls away from me. "I've made my special Lasagne. I would have invited your dad over tonight or taken some to him if he was busy, so you can have his instead and enjoy it for him."
I kiss her on top of her head and take the same place at the table where I'd sit as a hungry teenager from the age of fourteen onwards. I'd come here after school, eat whatever was on offer without argument, and take a plate back to dad to heat up later when he emerged from his study. I never felt neglected though as I knew if there hadn't been a 'Sue' around after mom passed, dad would never have let me starve from lack of food or attention. Having Sue next door simply took the pressure off him being mom and dad when a work project took over his life.
We spend the next hour talking about my plans for the future. I'm guarded in my response to Sue's questions as dad's warnings are already fixed in my subconscious. I'm honest though when I say I haven't thought further ahead than next week which is when I plan to fly back to Colorado, so securing the house will have to be my number one priority. The Will is being read tomorrow so I'll have a better idea where I stand legally and financially once I've spoken to Jenks and his financial team.
The light is fading when I leave Sue's house and stroll, bare-foot, the short distance to my door. My feet aren't aching as much and the air has cooled to a reasonable temperature so I'm hoping for a good night's sleep now the house is empty and the funeral is behind me. As I climb the wooden steps while hanging on to the ornate railing because I'm dizzy from the Bourbon, I pull my key out ready to insert in the lock.
Before reaching the top step I notice the door is already open a crack. My shoulders slump as any hopes of being on my own this evening have flown out the window. I guess Uncle Jim who has a spare key has returned, even though the family said their goodbyes to me at the funeral.
"Hello," I shout as I walk through the open door.
The house is silent and instinctively I know no-one's home. Even so, I shout "Hello," again, but there's still no response. I stop in the hallway as this doesn't feel right. My skin prickles and my shoulders tense as I'm guessing someone has been in the house without permission. More worryingly, they could still be here.
Cautiously I creep along the hallway while trying not to make a noise in case they're hiding in one of the rooms. On the way, I pick up dad's walking stick from the stand to use as a weapon and turn it around so the sturdy wooden handle is at the top end. As I pass dad's study, I notice the door is ajar which is unusual. Carefully pushing it with one finger while raising the stick above my head, I prepare myself to strike at anyone who dashes out.
When the door is fully open I catch my breath. The study has been totally cleaned out. All dad's books and files have been removed. His desktop computer and laptop are gone. Every drawer of the locked filing cabinets and desk have been forced open and emptied. There isn't one scrap of paper left on dad's desk; even the trash bin is clean. The beautifully paneled room is now a mess of bare cupboards, empty shelves and broken furniture.
I sprint down the hall to the lounge at the back of the house which overlooks the garden. It's also been ransacked but thankfully not vandalized. The kitchen hasn't fared better at first glance but nothing has been deliberately smashed. Upstairs I dash from room to room on both floors and see they've all been visited by the intruders. Dad's bedroom has been obliterated, with every piece of clothing tossed on the bed and the contents of the cupboards and drawers tipped onto the floor.
The attic ladder is down so they'd been up there as well, which means they were definitely looking for something in particular and no doubt to do with dad's work, which also means they didn't find what they were after in his study.
Satisfied that no-one is in the house, I run down the stairs and out through the door, halting on the step to take some deep breaths. Fury is building up inside me as I search for the detective's number on my cell. Once my hands have stopped shaking enough to hit the icon I wait for him to pick up.
Voicemail, which makes me curse out loud.
"Detective Yorkie, it's Edward Cullen. I want you to listen very carefully to this message.
"I'm not accepting that my father's death is unexplained, or that he committed suicide. He was murdered and you know it. Whoever killed him has ransacked his home. My home. If you're determined to continue not investigating his death, every newspaper in this city will be getting to hear that Carlisle Cullen's murder is not being taken seriously.
"You have until noon tomorrow to contact me or I'm taking this higher. And another thing, I want whatever's left of my father's car returned to me. If no crime has been committed then it's not a crime scene. The car is my property, not the City's.
"Twelve noon tomorrow, Yorkie. Not one minute later."
I pull the heavy front door shut with a bang, jump over the fence between my house and Sue's and lean on her doorbell. Slumped against the wall of her porch and with violently shaking hands I manage to light a cigarette before my tired legs collapse underneath me. As the nicotine hits my lungs and brain, I slide down the wall until I'm crouched on the step, hugging my knees and weeping.
This is how Sue finds me, in the same spot, in the same hunched-up position and in the same distressed state I would be after school, eighteen years ago.
Anyway, Hi, and apologies - this was quite a long chapter. Most of the others aren't as long - promise!
For those of you who don't know me, I never start uploading until the story is finished bar some TLC on my computer, so I can tell you this tale is thirty chapters long and approximately 170k words including comments at the end (like this). As usual, I'll be uploading twice a week, on Tuesdays and Saturdays, without fail.
I hope you enjoy this story - it's been a while since I uploaded Mysterious Graffiti and this one has taken me ages to write (real life - ugh). If you have time to write a review, that's great, and thanks in anticipation. Even an :) or a :( are much appreciated as well. Your suggestions and guesses as to where the story is going are always welcome and a joy to read. Also, feel free to correct an old Brit like me when she gets her Americanisms wrong (quite often).