As she came through the door she saw Mac looking up at the oil painting of the Major. “By golly, Jeff, in that uniform you sure do look a lot like him!”
“Was that painted recently?” Randy asked. He, too, was examining the portrait with great interest.
“I can assure you, it’s an original oil from the 1860s. I agree, there is definitely a likeness. But the hair is all wrong. And that’s not my nose at all.” Jeff quickly lifted it off the wall and asked Lorie to help him carry it back into the storage room. Once again he put the soft cover across it. The painting of Jon Preston Third was returned to its original place on the wall beside the fireplace.
“Now there was a nice man,” Randy said, looking up at the strong handsome face. “He wasn’t here much, but when he was he spread his money and good will around and made everyone’s lives easier.”
But because of the evil that had come, his final illness and death had thrown the town into a frenzy of discord. “What kind of town is Randolph City?” Lorie asked Randy as Jeff disappeared back into the storage room. She had promised to stand beside him against whatever evil he had to face, and she would do that to the best of her ability. What they needed now was as much information as they could get. A computer would be of no assistance in this case.
“Small,” Randy said, answering her question about Randolph City. “But big enough for most people. Between two-, maybe three-thousand people live here, depending on what’s going on. It started with about 30 or 40 families. Scotch-Irish and French Huguenot settlers, sometimes the same thing—veterans of Indian skirmishes and the Revolution. Most of them had ancestors who’d come to this country as indentured servants, or who were escaping from indenture. They’d all had a first-hand taste of the evils of religious intolerance and slavery.
“Are the same families still here?” It could make a world of difference.
Randy thought a bit. “Yeah, I’d say the largest percentage of the people here are related in one way or another to the original settlers. There were blacks here for a time after the Civil War. But those who didn’t go north mostly intermarried—even before it was legal in this state. Maybe that’s the reason the people in this town kind of kept to themselves—they got a little clannish and darker skinned as time went by. No one ever dwelled on the past. Didn’t think about history much. It wasn’t until Jon Randolph came back to town that anyone really paid attention. He brought an influx of creative-type people, artists and writers, who appreciated the mixed heritage. I think that’s helped people to put it into context.”
“From what I’ve heard,” Lorie said, “a few of your ancestors were Union people.”
Randy laughed sharply. “No one ever asked the people in this town to vote on whether they wanted to leave the Union. They still had patriotic memories of the Revolution, and a lot of them were angry about Georgia joining the Confederacy. Angry enough to fight back. They did that very effectively with the Major’s help. But after he and Granddad Ben were killed by the Yankees, everyone closed in and became super secretive about what they’d been doing.”
Lorie frowned. “Everyone still seems to want to keep that heritage a secret.”
“No one knows for sure who was involved. Some of us are real proud of our great-granddaddies, but we keep our mouths shut. Some may have had people who sat the war out and don’t want to admit it. Or fought for the other side. And no one wants to push it, because up ’till now everyone in town has been on real friendly terms. Tight. Something bad has happened recently. We’re just not sure what.”
“I bet they were all on the same side,” Lorie mused, thinking about it.
“For the most part,” Jeff Preston agreed with a grin. He walked out of the hidden room dressed once again in jeans and his black long-sleeved shirt.
Through a crack in the draperies, Lorie spied the pinprick headlights of a car turning into the long driveway down by the country road. “Lights off,” she snapped. The room went dark. Almost immediately her phone rang.
Ewen Taylor was on the other end. “I’m bringing lights to illuminate that airfield out beyond the house. I’ll have my pilot bring the helicopter in while eyes are focused elsewhere. That way we can be packed up and out by first light.”
Moments later, Lorie opened the door to him and his three helpers. After discussing plans with Jeff, Taylor and his young technical crew eagerly agreed to stay in the house overnight to guard it, since the gates, they had discovered, were no longer functional. “How did you do that?” Taylor asked.
Jeff grinned. “Chance lightning strike.”
“And some small charges of explosive,” Jeff finished, laughing.
It was decided that Lorie would drive Taylor’s van back to Randolph City by way of Walker’s Crossroads, where she and Jeff would drop Mac and Randy off at the unmarked police car. Then they’d get some food and much needed sleep at the Baileys’ house and check with Taylor in the morning. “The chopper will be tucked away by then,” Ewen Taylor told them. “And we won’t leave if you think we can help you here.”
“I’d like to go to the Baileys’ with you,” Randy said apologetically to Lorie, “but I think it’s more important now that I get an updated briefing on what’s being found out by the highway.” He turned to Jeff. “Doesn’t any of this ring a bell somewhere? I really don’t believe in coincidences and you’re my prime suspect for our newly discovered ‘Jeff Maratti.’”
Jeff shook his head. “The memories just aren’t there.”
If any memories are left, Lorie thought sadly.
“DNA will tell all,” Mac said. “Maybe we can get the process speeded up a bit. I’ll give it a try.”
Lorie was almost sorry to see the policemen leave the van once they got to Walker’s Crossroads. Now alone with Jeff, she wasn’t sure what to say to him. He might be Jeff Maratti. But he had known things tonight he couldn’t have known unless he had been at Jon Randolph’s death bed.
Jon Randolph’s cousin Sue, who knew him well, had talked rhapsodically about the old man’s buoyant “life spirit.” How many souls might that same life essence have entered over the centuries? Had the spirit of a dying Jefferson Richard Preston entered Sara’s newborn baby on a night of fire and murder long years ago and preserved Jon Randolph Junior’s fragile life? Had it passed then to Jon Randolph Third in its turn, when Junior Randolph’s beloved wife was having difficulties with her pregnancy after her husband’s death? Sara had been at her daughter-in-law’s side when she learned her precious son would not be coming home from his hazardous night flight through the mountains. Might she have summoned that essence of awareness to her newborn grandson? Had that same spirit now entered the battle-broken mind of Sara’s great-great-grandson, grievously damaged in the service of his country, and facing death at the hands of the murderers who were threatening his grandfather?
The headlights flickered across tree limbs and branches alongside the rough road. Now and then a fence would come into view, or a postal box, and Lorie realized she was still surrounded by living human beings, a vast civilization, the whole real world. But Sara was still nearby. And Jeff had been operating in a different dimension, one he seemed to flow through when he needed to, one she could not enter. The time for their parting was very near.
As if he understood what she was feeling, he reached his left hand to her right across the space between them in the van. “I love you,” he said softly. His hand was warm. “I will always love you. Through all time and in all places.”
She glanced at his face, so beloved to her, but he seemed more a stranger; not quite—she now understood—a part of her reality. He was not hers to claim. She thought her heart would break.
“My life will always reflect yours,” she said simply, through pain. She hoped he understood those words to be the deepest, most important vow she had ever made. She would never fail this beautiful soul. No matter the cost.
At the Bailey’s house there was much commotion. “What happened?” Sue said as they got out of the car. “Come on in. We’ve got chili on the stove. Phil’s stirring it even as we speak. Tell us everything.”
Carol put her arms around Lorie, who clung tightly to her aunt. “You’re not laughing, Lorie. You scared the bejesus out of those country boys. You should be tickled pink. What happened?”
Jeff came up beside her and put a hand on her shoulder. “It was very intense, Miz Carol. She’s tired.”
“A big glass of iced tea.” Lorie unwrapped her arms from around Carol and smiled at her. “That’s all I need. And some of that chili. It smells wonderful.”
Carol sat on one side of Lorie, Jeff on the other. Once Phil and the Baileys were seated at the table across from them, Jeff made his report. “Rolf Maratti and Arthur Ehrlich were able to break away from their watchers and come out to the house. We talked with them for a good long while. We have found your love child, folks. It’s Rolf.”
A long whistle issued through Sid Bailey’s lips. And Phil Barnett said, “You’ve got to be kidding!”
“It’s true,” Lorie added tiredly. “Jon Randolph Third didn’t want to confess he’d been unfaithful to Tommy’s mother while he was in Europe during the Second World War. So the relationship has remained a secret all these years. Even to the product of that affair—Rolf Maratti himself.”
“Soap opera stuff,” Carol said.
Jeff frowned at Lorie. She smiled. “Tell you later,” she mouthed.
“Did you find the letter Mr. Jon talked about?” Sue asked.
“It was in the storage room all along,” Jeff said evenly. “On the table beside the green box. There were two letters. One was from Rolf’s mother, confirming that he was Mr. Jon’s biological son. The other was a letter of apology to Rolf from his father, explaining why he hadn’t said anything.”
Carol said with a flare of anger, “Shame on Mr. Jon! Nothing could explain that! After Tommy was killed there was no reason to withhold the information.”
“A mutual lack of trust,” Jeff answered carefully. “It compounded over the years. And when Jon Third wanted to open up to his son, he realized the occasion had passed them by.”
“A wedge had already been put between them by a third party,” Lorie put in. “And we think that person is still involved in what’s happening right now in Randolph City. We just have to find out who that person is.”
“Well, now that Rolf Maratti knows he’s Jon Randolph’s son,” Sue asked, “is he still going to sell out the town?”
Lorie sighed. “He’s being blackmailed. He’s in total lockdown, except for a brief instance of ghost-induced confusion when he and Mr. Ehrlich were able to break loose and drive out to the house.”
There was complete silence in the room. Finally Sid Bailey said, “Who’s involved?”
“That’s the problem. He doesn’t know who he’s dealing with. They’ve been holding his grandson hostage for several weeks now until he agrees to turn all the property he inherits over to the kidnappers.”
“Damn it to hell!” Sid exploded, pounding the table with his fist, with no adverse remonstrance from Sue.
“And the grandson,” Lorie continued slowly, “is a West Point-trained officer who was brain injured by an explosive device in Afghanistan, which also left him with post traumatic stress disorder.”
Phil whistled sharply and now it was Carol who exploded. “PTSD? This gets worse and worse.”
“There is evidence,” Lorie went on, “that somehow he escaped his captors. He was a tough soldier, an Airborne Ranger.” She paused a moment, and then continued softly. “Randy and Mac think it’s Jeff.”
All eyes focused on Jeff. “Whoa,” he said, straightening up in his chair. “I don’t remember anything like that.”
“But,” Carol said, “your memory—.”
“I know.” He shrugged helplessly. “I know.”
Sue Bailey asked quietly, “So does this help Randolph City? Or what?”
“Let’s think about it,” Jeff said. “And let’s talk about it tomorrow. I don’t know about anyone else, but I’m so tired I’m falling asleep in my soup.”
“Chili,” Lorie said quietly, without much thinking what she was saying, “con carne.”
When he grinned at her as if everything was still the same, she almost wept.
“To bed with you all,” Sue said. “Lorie’s in Marianne’s room upstairs. I’ll show you.” She led the way, calling back to her husband, “Jeff’s in Jim’s room. And Carol’s in the big guest room with Phil.”
“Oops,” Carol said softly. “How did they know?”
Lorie just smiled at her.
Jeff found her bed that night. First she cried softly into his gentle whispers. And then, quietly, she loved and was loved, with more passion and intensity than she had ever experienced.