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Battle of Wills

By Marolyn Caldwell All Rights Reserved ©

Mystery / Fantasy

Chapter 24

As Archie Hood came back across the room, Jeff stopped him. “Mayor Hood,” he said deferentially to the young man, “Do you have any idea who owns the roll-top desk that’s sitting upstairs in the court room?”

“Sure, It’s Judge Cragin’s desk. It’s a beauty, isn’t it?”

“It is,” Jeff agreed. “But are you aware that it’s civil war contraband?”

Lorie saw Cragin swivel around to follow the conversation. There was a scowl on his face. “What makes you think so?” He rose to his feet.

Jeff turned to face him. “Because that’s where I found this book I’m holding in my hand.”

The Judge looked as if he might explode. Some of the builders were alerted to the rising voices. “You opened my desk?”

“No. There is a hidden panel in the desk. That’s where I found it.”

“Prove it! Prove it!” Cragin headed out of the room, looking back at Jeff, who fell into step close behind.

“Don’t go,” Lorie said softly. Fear crept over her, frozen fingers playing down her spine. She got up to follow, but was pushed rudely out of the way by several of the builders headed up the steps behind Cragin and Jeff. She heard Carol’s voice at her elbow.

“We can’t let him be pinned-in by those guys!”

They followed the men up the steps into the lobby of the court house, and then into the courtroom where rested the roll top desk.

The crowd surrounding Jeff and Cragin consisted primarily of people self-identified as builders, but Lorie saw, pushing up behind her, at least two of the men she had tagged as federal agents. Randy and Mac were also pressuring their way through the crowd.

“Now show me where you found that book.” Cragin’s voice was deep and angry.

Lorie saw Jeff kneel, as he had before, and open the panel at the rear of the kneehole of the desk. “It was here.” Securing the dark glasses once more, he held the solid wooden panel as he stood up, and pointed into the darkness. Randy had finally made his way through to Jeff’s side. He crouched down under the desk and with some effort, because it had adhered to the interior wall through long years of humidity and heat, peeled away the third gray journal, companion to the two Jeff had retrieved earlier. “Here.” He handed it to Jeff, who in turn passed it into Judge Cragin’s hands.

There was no expression on the man’s face. He looked down at the journal. “So what?”

“Open it,” Jeff said.

“Go ahead,” someone behind him said. “Open it.”

Reluctantly he did so.

“Read what’s there, right at the top of the first page,” another voice called out. This time it was Sid Bailey. “If you don’t, I will.”

“It’s dated 1862.”

“And what’s that other word?”

“Riverside.”

“Riverside Plantation,” Sid Bailey repeated loudly so everyone could hear. “Down on the Chattahoochee. It was burned by Southern bushwhackers in July, 1864. This piece of furniture was stolen from the house before it was burned and everyone who lived there was murdered in cold blood.”

“How do you know?” the man called Ernest Merrill called out. He was Ernie to Will Purdy, Lorie thought. His cousin. A member of the Compact.

“Because of a journal.” Little Sue Bailey pushed her way forward to stand beside her husband. “The journal of Sara Preston Randolph Manning, who lived at Riverside Plantation when she was a child. The roll top desk was made for her father by her brother, Major Jefferson Richard Preston.”

“Who was a traitor!” yelled one of the other men, the one named Clint Samuels. “He dressed as a Confederate, but he was a spy for the Union.” When he heard the angry growl emanating from the surrounding crowd and concluded his sentiment wouldn’t make much traction in a town that had always sympathized with the Union cause, he shut his mouth and took a few steps back.

“Where did you find this journal?” the judge asked.

“At Randolph House,” Sue answered. “It’s part of the legacy of Randolph House, and this furniture should be as well.”

“It’s mine,” the judge said firmly. “I bought it and I have a receipt for it. And you—” He turned to Jeff. “Who exactly are you? Where did you come from? What’s your connection to this town?”

Jeff ignored the question. “May I see the receipt, please?”

“It’s in my chambers. Come on in and I’ll show you.”

“Don’t go in there, Jeff,” Lorie said under her breath, trying to work her way through arms, shoulders, chests, to get closer to him. The courtroom was becoming more and more crowded. He and Cragin were moving toward the door. She wished she could just scream it out. But she was working with him and this was what he had to do.

“Sandy Cragin,” Sue Bailey called out in a final reckless attempt to keep the men from disappearing into the other room. “We’d like you to prove you’re not involved in some kind of criminal conspiracy to take Randolph House away from us.”

Lorie saw one of the men near her draw a small gun and aim it. Carol saw it too and stepped in front of her cousin. There was a “crack,” and Carol went down. The crowd separated as she fell. Blood began to spread across her white shirt, her sleeve. Phil Barnett was with Carol in an instant, kneeling beside her. He looked around at Lorie. “I’ll take care of her,” he mouthed to her. “Get Jeff.”

Frantically searching the crowd, she saw Jeff with Cragin disappearing through the doorway to the Judge’s chambers. The attention of everyone else in the room was focused in silent shock on Carol and the doctor kneeling over her.

Lorie pushed her way through stunned onlookers toward the chamber door and entered. A dark opulent room. She saw only one thing. Positioned between two windows, framed by heavy draperies, stood a tall floor vase covered from top to bottom with exquisite paintings of African animals. Jeff had whipped off his dark glasses. His eyes were focused on the vase. He moved toward it, stood before it, whirled to face the judge with fury written across his face.

Cragin opened his desk drawer and pulled out an antique pistol. He pointed it at Jeff. “You left us before we could find out how good a job the Army had done on that nose and your cheek once the bandages came off! Somebody got a little cute with the peroxide, too, didn’t they? Did they think it would make you disappear into the woodwork? Well, the eyes have it this time, Major Maratti. No mistaking those baby blues. Your grandfather loses this game!” He pulled the trigger. The sound was like a cannon, leaving Lorie’s ears ringing.

Jeff dropped. The vase exploded. Diamond jewelry tumbled from it, bouncing every direction. Lorie recognized a necklace as it skidded across the polished wooden floor, the one Maria Maratti had been wearing when her portrait was painted. She saw blood spreading away from under Jeff. He tried for a moment to push himself up. He looked at her, longing and farewell in his beautiful eyes.

Another gun cracked. Jeff’s arm flung outward and his body skidded across the floor. His head bounced hard off a heavy sideboard. His eyes closed.

Lorie looked around frantically. Too late, Johnnie McDaniels, the Quartermaster, was being handcuffed by federal officers who had forcibly removed a small gun from his hand. Sudden activity erupted at the back of the room and in the courtroom outside. Loud voices. People being asked to leave. All the extraneous noise faded from Lorie’s senses as she focused on what she now had to do.

Kneeling at Jeff’s side, working with concentrated precision, she pulled his jacket down his arms and out from under him. She rolled it up and put it under his knees to raise them against the flow of blood. “Not high enough,” she murmured and grabbed for a cushion she saw on a nearby chair.

“It’s a priceless antique,” someone screamed and she looked up—straight into the eyes of Judge Sandy Cragin. His arms were pinned behind him by one of the federal officers. His face was distorted by an emotion she couldn’t even fathom.

“Tough!” she said coldly, and dragged it through pooling blood before shoving it under Jeff’s knees. “Get me some scissors,” she barked to the person whose legs had just come up beside her. Randy. He handed her a knife. She ripped away the tie, the shirt, and a white tee-shirt, saw the bloody wounds on his side and shoulder. She knew these wounds—had seen them before. She quickly tied off the shoulder wound with his tee-shirt, saying, “You’re not dying of these suckers on my watch, Jeff Preston.” She looked up into the few faces that still surrounded her, even as she sensed movement of people being evacuated from the building. “I need packing. Towels. Or clean shirts.”

Randy shucked out of his jacket, slipped off his tie, then his shirt, and handed it to her, folded. She held it tightly against Jeff’s gaping wound. “More. And call an ambulance.”

“Already called.” Randy slipped his jacket back on over his undershirt. “Carol’s down, too. But she’s going to be okay. It’s her shoulder. Clean wound.”

He handed her a shirt that someone had handed him. Blue. Then another. White. And another. Red. She packed them against the chest wound as best she could, trying to stem the heavy flow. A plaid wool shirt came into her hands.

She sniffed at it, looked up into the face of a red-headed teenager she had seen before. Micah Clark. He seemed chagrinned. She smiled gently and handed it back. Another shirt replaced it.

Jeff’s face was white, unresponsive. She checked his eyeballs. They were beginning to roll back into the sockets. “He’s dying.” She turned to Randy. “Hold the pack tight against his side. I’ll try resuscitation.” She cleaned out the blood welling in his mouth, leaned over him, blocked his nostrils, put her lips over his and began to blow. Over again and over again she gave him her air, let him exhale, again and again and again, until finally he was breathing, albeit shakily, on his own.

“He needs blood.” Rolf Maratti was kneeling beside her now, his voice reedy and anxious. “He’s so white.”

She heard Phil Barnett’s voice, calling from the other room. “Have the hospital put out an immediate call for donors. He’s got a rare type. O-Rh negative.”

“That’s my type.” Maratti looked at Lorie, startled. “That’s my type! I have some blood stored for situations just like this. Can someone do a person-to-person transfusion?”

Ewen Taylor had come up behind Maratti. “I’ve got the helicopter on the way. My pilot was a battlefield paramedic. We have an emergency kit aboard the copter. I’ll fly and he can do the transfusion. I’ve already notified the hospital that we’ll be there as soon as we can.”

“Ask people if they’ll clear out of the parking lot,” Lorie called out. Micah Clark had been lingering in a dark corner of the room. His face lit up. Calling out orders to his friends, he ran outside, plaid shirttails flapping.

“Randy,” Lorie said. “Have you secured the diamonds? Did you get those men?”

“The diamonds are safe, babe,” he told her gently. “And the Feds and State Troopers are rounding up a lot of people. Cragin’s headed to lock-up. So is McDaniels. And the guy who shot Carol. And everyone who came into this building armed. Including some local police officers. We’ll sort them all out later.”

Taylor had gone out. He returned a moment later. “The chopper is up, Lorie. It won’t take long to get here.”

“We’ve got to take Jeff out very carefully without jarring him. We don’t have a gurney.”

“We have a door,” she heard Mac say. He and Harris had removed one of the closet doors in Cragin’s office. It was lying on the floor.

“Four strong guys,” Lorie said, getting to her feet. “Make sure he’s not jiggled. I’ve got the pack secured with the sleeves of a very large shirt.”

“We’ll lift him onto this oriental rug,” Mac said, “and from there to the door. Come on, guys, let’s get him outside. I can hear that chopper.”

She went with them down a short flight of stairs and out the big doors of the court house into a warm summer night filled with the sound of a helicopter’s whirling blades. The parking lot was illuminated by a brilliant light descending from above. It had been emptied of cars and people. Everyone who had come to the court house was still there, waiting, silent, hair whipped by the wind of the rotors. The many flashing red and blue lights around the perimeter of the courthouse illustrated how seriously law enforcement had considered this confrontation.

With skilled expertise, Ewen Taylor’s pilot put the large chopper down in the middle of the lot. Taylor and Maratti got in first and helped the others move the makeshift stretcher into position. “Ready to go.” Lorie couldn’t hear Taylor’s voice over the whopping sound, but she could see his lips moving. She waved. Moments later the helicopter lifted off. Flashing red lights receded into the night. She watched until she couldn’t see it any more.

She turned back to the courthouse. Even after the thump of the blades had faded away, she heard nothing—her mind focused entirely on her beloved husband. Would she ever see those beautiful eyes again? Feel his strong arms around her? This time she thought not. He had done what he had come to do—unmask the evil that had tried to destroy his family, the town and the people he had loved and admired, the way of life he lived for. There was a big lump in her throat. She could hardly swallow.

Randy touched her arm. “Lorie, what should we do now?”

She looked at him, surprised. “What do you mean?”

“You’re in charge of this operation.”

“I am?”

He laughed. “You’ve been throwing out orders right and left, babe. I’ve never seen you like this.”

“Where’s Carol?”

“Inside, with Phil. He says it’s not too bad as gunshots go. Nothing vital hit. But I know from experience that gunshots aren’t fun. She’s a very brave lady, your aunt. And you are, too!”

“Let’s check out the Judge’s Chambers,” she said. “There’s something there I very much want to see before we go.”

He accompanied her through the building and into the chamber where Jeff had gone down. Federal agents had put Crime Scene tape across the doorways. They ducked under the tape to get in and turned on all the lights. The large room had been tastefully furnished with antiques of every sort. The desk, the chairs, the long sideboard on which sat wine and liquor bottles and every variety of glass. Lorie pointed to what was left of the shattered vase. “It was beautiful, Randy. Jeff told me he wanted me to have it if we ever found it.”

“It was pretty spectacular, wasn’t it. I only caught a glimpse.”

She walked over to the place where it had stood. A spotlight had been directed towards it. She turned it on. All that remained was the heavy base. The rest was lying in shards around the room. Much like the monument at Randolph House. She picked up a piece. On it was painted with a deft hand a dainty likeness of an African gazelle. She shook her head at the loss. Again she looked at the base. Something had caught her eye, a glint within, a faint sparkle. One of Maria’s jewels must have lodged there. She bent down to look, scraped at the clay with her fingernail, and then sat down suddenly on the floor.

Instantly Randy was at her side. “What’s wrong?”

“Look.” She picked up his knife, dropped thoughtlessly in the intensity of an earlier moment, and scraped away more of the heavy clay. Another sparkle. And another.

“It’s a big diamond,” Randy whispered. “A great big diamond.”

“The Captain of the Blackheart wanted his Zulu diamond,” she said. “Randy, he had it. He had it all along. Moses fired it into his gift to Sara. He didn’t want to be set free. Moses wanted to set others free.” She remembered the black man’s smile, and his blessing, and knew she was right.

She stood up. She looked back at the place where Jeff had fallen. Remembered his body lying there, the light going out of his eyes. The floor was dark with spilled blood, his blood—”Oh crap!” she said. “Not now!” Her knees buckled. Her eyes clouded. Everything went black.

This time when she awoke it was Randy holding her, as he had the first day she had met him. She turned her face into the rough fabric of his jacket, hung on to him, and started to bawl.

“It’s all right, honey.” He cradled her tight, rocking her. “It’s all right, babe. Let’s get you out of here. The emergency people are done with Carol and the doctor is taking her to the hospital in Marietta where Jeff is. Let’s get you into the car, too. You hit the edge of that sideboard on the way down and your forehead is bleeding like crazy. Here,” he dug into his pocket and brought out a white handkerchief. “Hold this on that cut.” He helped her to her feet. “God, you’re gonna have a hell of a headache tomorrow.”

His strong arm around her, Randy helped her move through the throng of people still milling around outside the office. “Wait, Phil,” he called out as they went out the door and down to the parking lot. “Another patient coming through.” Phil Barnett had brought the Town Car up to the building. Carol was already in the front seat, wrapped in bandages. Phil got out and opened the backdoor for Lorie. Unsteadily, she climbed in. Randy folded into the backseat beside her and put his arm around her, saying soothing words.

“What happened to her?” The doctor frowned with worry.

“She passed out,” Randy said, “and hit her head on the sideboard in Cragin’s office. She’s got blood all over her. First from Jeff, now from her own forehead. Just relax now, Lorie,” he said. “We’ll get you to the hospital. You can sit beside Jeff, honey. For better or worse, you’ll be there with him.”

Dr. Phil Barnett exceeded every speed limit getting to the hospital in Marietta. In the front passenger seat, Lorie’s aunt was trying very hard not to cry. Lorie had already lost that battle. She didn’t know if she would ever stop crying.

At the hospital, Phil Barnett whisked Carol off one direction while Randy aimed Lorie toward the Emergency Room. “It’s going to leave a scar, I expect,” he said to her later as she lay on an examination table covered by a warm blanket. Her forehead had just been stitched up by a competent woman doctor who didn’t laugh once when Lorie told her how it had happened.

Lorie looked up into Randy’s kind gray eyes. “Can you find out if he’s still alive?”

“Already did, babe. He’s had emergency surgery, with some more scheduled. He’s still alive, but he’s not anywhere near out of danger. He’s sleeping. Do you want to see him?”

She nodded, very carefully.

He was in a room in the Intensive Care Unit, surrounded by life support devices. Tubes, wires, monitors. His eyes were closed, his color looked much better, but she saw a pack of blood being infused into his vein and knew that accounted for the pink flush in his cheeks. Randy stood beside her, his hand on her shoulder. “What a brave man,” he said. “I just knew he was Jeff Maratti. I don’t believe in coincidences.”

“Jeffrey Maratti?” She stared at Randy.

“Everything came back as a fit. Fingerprints. Finally. The first time they tried it they didn’t find the match. But we checked with the army and they confirmed. The DNA—we had to pull in a lot of favors to get it so quick. But it was the blood type that sealed the deal right off the bat. It’s Maratti all right. The same blood type as his grandpa. The boots were the only anomaly. They were Major Preston’s boots.

“Jeff really did find the Major’s grave, Lorie. It saved his life—because then he was able to climb out of the ravine—and find his dark-haired angel.” He smiled at her gently, and tears came to her eyes. Randy went on softly, “Now that we know Rolf was Mr. Jon’s son, it’s no stretch that our Jeff looked so much like that painting of Major Preston. Someone must have bleached his hair to keep him from being recognized.”

She looked back at the man lying in the bed. Although it was difficult to see his features clearly through the respirator, there seemed to be only a few differences from the Jeff she had come to know so intimately. His hair was quite dark at the roots. His nose looked the same, she thought. There were scars on his face she hadn’t noticed before. The rest would have to wait.

Would he remember her when he woke up? If he woke up.

She wanted to weep again, but now was not the time. She and Randy returned to the waiting room where Rolf Maratti sat, exhausted, worried. He looked up. “Thank you for saving his life, Lorie.”

She put out her hands to him. She couldn’t keep the tears from streaming down her face. Her white slacks were soaked in his grandson’s blood. He rose and pulled her into a tight embrace. “We’ve saved him, you and I,” he said softly, into her ear alone. “I know what you’re thinking. I don’t understand it, but I don’t doubt that he was for a time exactly who he told us he was. We’ll know in good time, you and I, who he is now.”

Arthur Ehrlich came into the room with two coffee cups and handed one to Maratti. “Miss Lorie,” he said, “do you want anything? Officer Ross?”

She shook her head, as did Randy, who found a chair and sat down. She sat beside him and mopped the tears away from her eyes. They waited. It was all they could do.

More people came into the waiting room. Sue and Sid Barnett, Sue weeping copiously into a large handkerchief. “Carol could have died,” she kept saying. “Damn those people to hell! Damn them, damn them, damn them! The bastards! The bloody shitty bastards!”

“It’s okay,” her husband said. “Honey, you were so brave! It could have been you!”

They saw Lorie and came to her. Both hugged her tightly. “He’s got to be okay,” Sue said. “You kept him alive during those first golden minutes, Lorie. That’s got to count for something.”

“And now we know who he is,” Ewen Taylor said, coming up to them. “He’s the soldier they kidnapped. He’s Rolf’s grandson. What a brave talented guy. Look, Lorie, we’ll do everything we can to bring him back to you and to Rolf. If there’s anything at all you need … ?”

“Thank you,” she said to him, looking up, and for the first time he noticed the bandage on her forehead.

“What the hell happened to you?”

“I faint,” she said, “in times of stress.”

He looked at her, startled, and then let out a booming laugh, causing everyone in the room to look around. “You faint? Well, I must say, you make sure to take care of business first. So I guess you’re entitled to a little faint. But you shouldn’t hit sharp objects on the way down. Does it hurt?”

“Pretty much,” she said, touching it, suddenly realizing she really did have a hell of a headache!

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