Battle of Wills

By Marolyn Caldwell All Rights Reserved ©

Mystery / Fantasy

Chapter 3

When the ambulance finally turned into the parking lot from the driveway, sirens winding down, lights went on everywhere and people popped out of rooms, gawking. Lorie didn’t blame them. Had she not been part of the drama, she would have done the same. But with quiet efficiency, the two policemen who arrived simultaneously with the paramedics encouraged onlookers back into their rooms. She held the door open for emergency personnel and their gear.

The expression of puzzlement—even fear—in his striking eyes confused her. Didn’t he understand what was happening? Help had arrived. She wanted to talk with him now, ask questions, explain, hold his hand. But the two paramedics—a young man and an older woman working in perfect sync—were too busy treating his horrific wounds to put up with any nonsense. They asked her somewhat curtly to sit down, please, they would get back to her when they could.

Understanding, she stayed out of their way, watching their competent hands go about stabilizing the life force of a patient whose care required far more skill than she could give. “Your quick work saved his life,” the woman finally said to her, with a brief nod of her head. “Bravo, young lady. You’ve had hospital training, haven’t you?”

And then, with sirens again at full cry, they were gone, patient and all, with only two grim-faced uniformed policemen left to get what answers she could give. Officer Tim Murphy. Officer Randy Ross. The business cards they handed her reflected the nametags they wore on their shirts. Their questions were curt and to the point. She wished she had more to tell them. Her own questions about what had just happened ranged far beyond any they might even consider.

In response to a query from one of them, she turned toward the bed. In that brief moment she became all too aware of the damp blood still soaking into the bed sheets, blood spilled onto the rug, spatters everywhere she looked. Focus, she screamed frantically to herself.

But her legs had already gone all wobbly. “Crap!” she said aloud. Her mind turned to mush and in that brief moment everything disappeared into darkness.

When she regained consciousness, feeling a little sick, one of the officers—the one with freckles and sandy hair—was kneeling, holding her in his arms. She looked up into a concerned young face, kindly gray eyes. Not just a policeman. A sensitive human being. Officer Randy Ross. “I’m sorry,” she managed to say into the nametag pressed against her nose.

“That’s okay. Take it easy.”

“Damn it!” She touched her forehead, still feeling the rapid throbbing inside her skull. “It’s the blood. I never had a problem with blood. But now, for some reason ….” She sniffled a bit, holding back tears with difficulty, and let him help her to her feet. “Damn it!”

“It’s okay,” he said again, very gently. “Why don’t you lie down for awhile. I think you’ll feel better. We’ll take a look around outside.”

The two men glanced at each other, excused themselves and left. Humiliated, she stripped the bloody sheets, mattress cover and pillowcases off her bed, rolled them into a bundle with all the bedding that had previously gone willy-nilly onto the floor, and crammed everything into the closet. She gathered up her unexpected guest’s bloody clothing, the belt, the saber, and piled them into a stack on the floor. The police would require them. She pulled the quilted coverlet across the mattress and arranged all the pillows against the headboard. Lie down? She’d be damned if she’d let this unaccustomed weakness win.

She could huddle for a while anyway. She really needed to wind down. Do some mental processing. He was part of it all, this Major Preston. Part of the problems Carol had told her were happening in Randolph City. How he fit she couldn’t even guess. But that there was a connection she had no doubt.

She recalled the phone call Carol had made to her earlier in the evening. “Cousin Sue didn’t realize how quickly Mr. Jon was going downhill,” her aunt had said. “He’s been rambling aimlessly all day, talking about conspiracies, his mind in and out. We’re still hoping he’ll have a moment of clarity, recognize one of us, tell us where he put the will. Maybe he doesn’t know where it is himself. There’s a labyrinth of hidden compartments in this old mansion, Lorie, and they tell me he’s been going from one to another, shuffling things, like he’s looking for something. The will? We don’t know. Diamonds? He keeps mumbling about diamonds. I have to stay for a little while longer. Sue and Sid are frantic. If they don’t find that will, Randolph City and its big bold plans are toast! Lorie, thank you for taking care of my ancestor chart. We’ll probably need it now. You’re my hero, niece. Always!”

She just didn’t know enough about the situation, she had decided, after that conversation. Conspiracies? Well, in view of what had just happened, maybe that was a topic needing serious discussion. She hoped her aunt had at least found something to eat.

When a sharp authoritative knock came again around midnight, Lorie closed the laptop on which she had been checking useless e-mails, pushed herself out of the nest she had created for herself, and hurried to the door. It was the same two officers who had arrived with the ambulance.

As the door shut behind them, tension virtually shimmered in the room. “Can you tell me what you’ve found?”

“Not much,” the first officer admitted. Tim Murphy. Neat prematurely-white hair framed a serious rugged face. He was younger than she had first thought. A kind man.

Why did she think that? Her sudden assessment annoyed her. She’d never been so certain about these things before and it was beginning to grate at her nerves. Her arrival in Georgia had certainly started out on an odd note.

She watched Officer Murphy consult a small notebook. He was counting, his mouth moving soundlessly. “Twenty-two rooms occupied,” he finally said. “No one seems to have heard a shot or even a scuffle.”

“I didn’t hear anything either.” Lorie was reluctant to recount her short personal scuffle. “But there’s no question he was shot. Blood everywhere.”

“We found where he came up from the ravine out there beyond the safety fence,” the other policeman said. Officer Ross, wiry, compact, the picture of competence despite a sprinkle of boyish freckles across his nose and cheeks. Someone who liked to laugh, it seemed to her, although he wasn’t laughing now. “Lots of broken branches and displaced groundcover. As clear a blood trail as you could find from the bottom of the ravine to the place where you say you first saw him. It’s too dark beyond. The crime scene investigators will take a closer look at first light. But right now we’re thinking he fell or was pushed down the slope somewhere else, managed somehow to get this far, and then pulled himself back up when he saw the pool lights above him. Little mix-up out there, huh?” He grinned as he handed her the bottle of fruit juice she had dropped and her bag of trail mix. “You were lucky.” Once again deadly serious, he said, “Bringing him inside was a gamble. You’re a brave lady.”

Officer Murphy nodded. “But don’t ever do that again!” Giving his head a shake, he asked, “Did he appear to have been drinking?”

“No.” Lorie said it as authoritatively as she could manage, given the chagrin sweeping across her. Had she taken too much of a chance? Had there been an option? She didn’t think so. “He was bleeding profusely from his chest, so when he started gasping for breath I gave him mouth-to-mouth resuscitation instead of CPR. No sign of alcohol. And no indication of drug use.”

Murphy’s eyes narrowed. “How would you know that?”

“Four years pre-med. Training as a nurse. I’ve been working in the hospital emergency room back home for most of the past six months. Well …” she looked up at their surprised faces, “for some reason—you’ve got to believe me—blood has never been a problem for me. Until recently. Now I’m being told I’m overly sensitive. Too empathetic, they say. ‘Keep some emotional distance, Nurse.’” She said the despised words in a sing-song pattern, remembering all too well the voice that had thrown them at her the first time. “But as you can probably imagine, when I started fainting at every gory sight I got my walking papers. I’ve never been ‘too empathetic’ before. It’s a damned curse!”

“It’s no wonder you know so much about emergency procedures.” Murphy’s tone had shifted to one of respect. “They told us you saved his life. Miss Manning, I don’t know what your plans were when you got here, but I’m afraid we’ll have to have to ask you to stick around until we can find out what’s going on. Do you want us to arrange a clean room for you to move into?”

She tried not to let her sudden annoyance show. None of this was their fault. “No. I’ll be fine now, thanks.”

“Double-lock and chain the door the minute we leave,” Murphy continued. “If he was trying to escape from someone, it’s possible he’s being tracked. Don’t open the door unless you know who’s standing there. I’m calling in another black and white. Two officers will be sitting out there in the parking lot to keep an eye out. Feel free to call us if you have any other problems. And please, don’t take any more chances.”

“Thank you so much.” Lorie was by now thoroughly alarmed. “Could you tell me, please, where did the ambulance take him? I need to keep in touch with him.”

“Likely the Surgical Center,” Officer Ross said. “Don’t worry about him, Miss Manning. Those people are good. But he’s also lucky that someone with your particular skill set was on the scene. And don’t worry about passing out, either. It happens. Are you sure you’re okay?” He seemed genuinely concerned. And quite kind.

She felt a flush come to her face. “Yes. Yes. I’m fine. Thank you again.”

They collected the bloody clothing, the boots and the archaic weapon, logged and bagged them and left. She locked the door behind them and slipped the chain into place.

Now taking a very deep breath, she looked around her. It was daunting, but not as much of a disaster as she had feared. Before stripping out of her blood-stained sweats, she mopped up as much of the blood as she could with the less-saturated towels, threw the whole mess into the bathtub for soaking and pulled the plastic curtain shut. Once the sweats came off, she washed herself in the sink and changed into a dry nightgown. She pulled a fresh sweater around her shoulders and crawled wearily into the nest she had created on the bed. Sitting quietly now inside a wall of pillows, munching the sweet-salty trail mix and washing it down with fruit-flavored liquid, she attempted to pull her thoughts together. The snacks took the edge off her hunger and left behind a great calm. At this point she wasn’t much interested in food anyway.

The man himself: Jefferson Richard Preston. Major Preston. A brief contact only. But she could not forget the promise she had made to him. Nor those beautiful eyes … she shook herself—the nature of that observation was clearly unprofessional!

What was his connection to Jon Randolph Third? She knew his appearance was not a coincidence. The name Preston had come up at least once in the computer research she’d been doing for Carol, those endless paper tombstones she’d been creating with pen and ink to tack onto the giant bulletin board her aunt had been developing for her cousin before Sue’s frantic call for immediate help had reached her.

Lorie looked over at the corkboard she had been working on. Carol was building a terrifically useful family tree chart for her cousins. Rows of neat little tombstones were now beginning to display, in easy-to-understand terms, all that was left of three centuries of human lives. Entire lives, Lorie mused. Each reduced to two lines: a name, two dates. She sighed. Life boiled down. Two lines? Sad.

Somewhere along the way though, she had been told, her own ancestors and Jon Randolph’s family had intersected. She hadn’t found the connection yet. But it was bound to turn up. Carol always referred to Sue as her cousin. And without question Sue was related to Jon Randolph, distant though that connection might be. “We have to search out everyone living now who might be related to Jon.” Carol had said that several times during their long journey south.

Lorie’s assignment had been outlined in somewhat sketchy terms. “In case Jon Randolph dies intestate—without a will—we want those people on our side.” Carol had sighed. “We know there are other legitimate heirs. We don’t know where they are. But it’s vital that we locate them before anyone else does. Warn them of the dangers involved. Then ask them if they’ll help us save at least some of the estate for the people we know Jon wants it to go to.”

“Danger?” Lorie’s eyebrows had suddenly risen to her hairline.

“We may be dealing with the underworld, hon. You’ve heard me talk about Rolf Maratti. He’s Jon Randolph’s legally adopted son, which means that whether or not the will is found Maratti will get a big chunk of the estate. But the word is getting around that Maratti is gang-connected. There’s a lot of money and property at stake here. Cousin Sue says Maratti is in Randolph City already. With a bodyguard, if you can believe that.

“If other descendants come with claims on Mr. Jon’s estate without being warned what’s happening, they may run into a hornet’s nest of trouble. We’ll check them out to see if they’re legitimate and then try to run interference if we can.”

“Oh-kay.” There was definitely more to this family tree search than mere curiosity. And Jefferson Preston might already have become a victim.

Finally pulling herself out of her cozy nest, she stepped across to Carol’s bed and tipped up the bulletin board to see what tombstones she had thumb-tacked to it so far. A cursory search wasn’t showing any Prestons in the mix other than Jon Randolph Third’s grandmother, Sara Preston, born in 1846.

Hardly a factor here. Her children wouldn’t be named Preston. They’d be named for her first husband—Jon Randolph. The first. Here was the second Jon Randolph. And here the third, the one who had just died. All the same name. Jon Randolph. No Prestons.

It was frustrating to search when so many names were exactly the same. Only difference: birth dates, death dates. What did that say about the Randolph family? No imagination? Her children, in the unlikely event she ever had any, would never include a Junior!

Well, maybe it was time to get out the computer. She charged it up, opened the genealogy program and entered the Randolph family tree. Perhaps she could branch off Grandmother Sara’s name. Find a brother.

Settling herself back inside her cozy nest, she entered the name she wanted to see: Sara Preston. Data came up on the screen. 1846—1936. Ninety years—a long life. She zeroed in on Sara’s history and quickly discovered why her aunt—and herself by extension—was involved in this family dilemma. Surely Sue already knew about this link.

Sara was the pivot point. Her first husband was the current Jon Randolph’s grandfather. Sara Preston’s second husband, however, had been a gent named Marshal Manning.

“Ah ha!” Lorie actually said it aloud. The senior Marshal Manning was one of Lorie’s many-great-grandfathers and his name had ping-ponged down her family tree rather hit or miss through the years until it ended up attaching itself to her younger brother—the one her new acquaintance somehow seemed to know.

This was the family connection Carol had wanted her to confirm. Intrigued, Lorie examined Sara’s tree in greater detail.

It seemed that Marshal Manning was already father to a young son when Sara married him. That baby’s name was Harrison, the surname of the mother who died at his birth. Sara and Marshal’s son—second child for each parent—had been named Preston. But that was his first name, not his last. Drat! Dead end there.

Opening further windows, Lorie confirmed the family links. Sue Bailey, née Manning, Carol’s cousin (and hers, one further step removed) was one of Preston Manning’s descendants; indeed, she was the “Sue” in “Sid and Sue.” So Lorie and Carol were not related by DNA to Jon Randolph Third, but Cousin Sue was. One of the potential heirs.

Computer access to family trees, Lorie had also discovered, was all the more fascinating since relatives from any part of the country could see the tree and add their branches to it. If one needed to check out more history, one simply clicked! So she clicked on Sara’s name. The list of Sara’s siblings opened. There had been seven. Tragically, only Sara and one brother had survived to live to adulthood.

That brother’s name: Jefferson Richard Preston! “Whoa!” The word emerged as a whisper.

Not much information. Birth date: January 11, 1837. Death date? A side note: Likely killed 7/18/1864 during Atlanta campaign. Body never found.

“Damn,” she whispered again as the chill crept up her spine. “I think I just found it.” She shook her head, gave a nervous little laugh. A gentle whiff of honeysuckle tickled her nose as a light glimmered somewhere in the darkened room. She looked up abruptly. The reflection of car headlights? Carol returning earlier than she had planned? She hoped.

She pushed herself up, strode to the tightly closed window, pulled away a portion of the drape. The whole area outside their suite was dark, quiet. No movement anywhere. Even the police car was sitting dark, two policemen on silent watch to prevent a further crime. She looked at the clock. The hour hand had just passed midnight.

The scent of honeysuckle lingered in the room. Why? Well, maybe it was because the shelter beside the pool was covered by honeysuckle vines and she’d had the door propped open. She laughed uneasily.

Then there was the other thing: had she really seen a flash of light, or was she just getting too tired? She looked at her watch again. It was late. She was drooping with fatigue. That’s all it was. Or maybe she was going buggy-eyed because of the chart.

She put in a call to her aunt. “Did you just pull into the parking lot and go the wrong direction?” she said when Carol’s tired voice answered.

“Not there yet, hon. I’m on my way back, though. There was no point my staying. The coroner’s coming so he can sign off on the death certificate. I’m just in the way. I’ll be there as soon as I can get there. Another half hour, forty-five minutes, maybe.”

For a moment, vaguely troubled, Lorie didn’t know quite what to say. She finally blurted out, “Carol, something happened tonight you really need to know about.”

“What is it?”

She thought about it again. Damn it all, the whole encounter was too complicated to explain, especially to a grieving aunt driving her car through a dark rainy night. “Never mind. Just family tree business. We can talk about it when you get here.”

Still troubled, Lorie returned to her tombstone task. She had just finished attaching another tombstone to the family tree poster when again she saw a gleam of light. She looked around. It had to be real! Like before, it disappeared. Unlike before, however, there was no scent of honeysuckle. A moment later, a brisk knock sounded on the door. She hurried toward the peephole. It was a policeman, her Aunt Carol standing right behind him, eyes wide, a shocked expression on her face. “Do you know this person?” the young officer asked her when she opened the door.

“She’s my aunt.” She smiled her profound gratitude. “I expect you guys can go home now.”

“We’ll stick around for awhile.” He turned back to the police car.

Once the door closed, Carol turned to her and exploded. “What the hell is going on?”

“I met someone tonight,” Lorie said hastily. “I think he’s part of this whole thing, Carol. I just have this funny feeling ….” Her voice trailed off as she saw the way her aunt was looking at her.

“You met someone, Lorena?”

She had never heard that tone of voice before coming from her aunt. “No no no, Carol. You know me better than that. Sit down and let me explain.”

Carol sighed. “I’m sorry. I do know better and I apologize. Okay, young lady, explain: whom did you meet and why the police presence?” She dropped her handbag and her briefcase and lowered herself into the embrace of an overstuffed armchair. She looked exhausted. Her eyes were large with deep circles beneath them. Her makeup had dissolved in tears whose tracks could still be seen on her cheeks. No mascara. No lipstick. Her short dark hair looked clumpy, like something had been pulling at it. Even her once crisp khaki slacks and white shirt were wilting. Lorie had never seen her appear quite so defeated or so old. Would a hug help? Probably not.

Lorie settled herself on the edge of the bed next to Carol’s chair. “I forgot about dinner,” she said as calmly as she could, “so I went out to the pool to get some juice from the vending machine …” maybe she could just gloss over the dangerous part, “and encountered a person … well, he’d been shot.” She said it very quickly and moved on. “I gave him first aid and called for help. The thing is, I think he’s a relative, Carol. He seems to know Jon Randolph.”

But her aunt had come to her feet at that problematic word, shot. “My god, Lorie! Why do you think he’s a relative? I’ll have to call Sue. What’s his name?” She reached for her phone.

“Jefferson Richard Preston. Major US Army.” Carol looked up sharply and Lorie hurried her narrative along. “I remembered seeing ’Preston’ in my research so I looked. It doesn’t go anywhere. It kind of ends. In 1864.” She paused.

Nuts! Coincidence was just coincidence! And there was the other thing. Sudden relief, as with a sigh she remembered. “He asked me about Marsh. I think he’s family. Or family friend, at least.”

“Major Jefferson Richard Preston …” Carol was staring at her. “Asked about your brother?”

“There must be a Preston connection to Jon Randolph’s family,” Lorie said lamely, “that didn’t get entered in the family tree program.”

The continuing silence was disturbing. Carol was standing as if in shock, as if she were searching her mind and not liking what she found there. Her mouth opened and closed. Then, all of a sudden, “Where is he?”

“The ambulance took him to the emergency room at the hospital.”

“Which hospital? How hurt is he?”

“Surgical Center, perhaps? Bad hurt. Blood everywhere.”

“I’m calling Phil.” It was as if Carol were suddenly switched on, once again her cool efficient self, maybe a little manic. “He can contact the hospitals and ferret out everything we won’t have access to. Lorie, get yourself dressed. Stat.”

Surprised, she rooted through her bag and pulled out jeans and a yellow tee-shirt, with a long-sleeved shirt to guard against the chill of a drizzly night. “Phil who?”

“Dr. Philip Barnett. An old friend. You’ve met him a couple of times when he and his family visited us in Illinois. He’s the doctor who was first on the scene all those long years ago when your Uncle Bill and our baby were killed in the accident in Atlanta, and I was so banged up. He’s why I soldiered on afterwards to become a physician assistant. He runs an orthopedic clinic now—to help wounded vets.”

“Wow,” Lorie said softly. “Old friend is right.” That devastating tragedy had happened twenty years ago when she was only five. “Where are we going?”

“Phil will let us know.”

Carol was on her phone while Lorie, with a gratified sense of anticipation, scrubbed her face, dabbed on a little lipstick and quickly pulled a comb through her short cut.

They stopped by the police car to tell the waiting officers they had to go out. “Don’t leave town without letting us know,” they were told. “This is an ongoing investigation.”

“I understand,” Carol answered. “We’re meeting someone who might shed light on what’s happened. If we find anything pertinent, we’ll bring it to you immediately.”

“We’ll be here,” they promised, and handed her a business card. “Call if you need help.”

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