Chloe Atwood parked her Mustang convertible in the designated lot. Visits to The Arms of Safety Women’s Shelter were a quarterly thing for her. With the upcoming fundraiser, the largest money maker for the shelter, her visits were now bi-weekly. The anonymity of the home’s location was important. It wasn’t something the shelter wanted known for the safety of the women and children. The area wasn’t the best Dallas had to offer, but the neighborhood was safe and what the organization could afford with the non-profit budget.
The old brick building had a business appearance with apartments upstairs. Curtains covered the front windows. The only marking was the house number above the door. No one would guess this to be a shelter, she thought.
The small fenced-in yard was empty. The early August Texas heat and humidity was at its worst today. Temps were in the high nineties with no breeze for relief. She sat in her car with the air-conditioning gently blowing and looked at the time on her phone. Four o’clock. She’d be here for maybe ten minutes and be home by five-thirty depending on the traffic. That’s if it was a good day with no accidents or unexpected road construction.
She hit speed dial and waited for her fiancé to answer.
“Atwood Foundation, Andrew Lockhart.”
“Hi, Honey. Thank you again for the beautiful flowers.” He’d sent her a dozen long-stemmed red roses that arrived at the office that morning.
“You make me happy, and you deserve them.”
“They made my day.” She smiled at the remembered rose scent that filled her office. “I was calling to let you know I’m at the shelter and then going home. I won’t be here long, just dropping off Linda’s tickets for the fundraiser.”
“Why couldn’t someone else from the office take care of that? You have people who work for you. Use them,” he stated irritably.
“Andrew, she’s a friend. I like to see her every once and awhile. It won’t kill me to be here for a few minutes. Plus, it’s good for the Director of Development to make an appearance once in a while. I’ll call when I get home. I love you.”
“Back at you. Bye.”
Chloe slid her cell phone in her purse, picked up the envelope containing the tickets for Linda and stepped from the car. She moseyed to the front and up the brick steps, pulled the heavy metal door open and came to a sitting room. Thank God for air conditioning, she thought. Through another door, she entered the confines of the shelter. Stairs to the right led to the living quarters on the upper floors and to the left a small office for staff and volunteers. A large space beyond, littered with toys and games, was the designated play area for the children. In the far back of the first floor were the shared kitchen and dining room, along with bathrooms.
“Hi, Linda.” Chloe raised her voice to be heard over the children playing and women talking in the kitchen.
She waved to Linda Morris, the center’s director. Her dark hair with heavy streaks of grey was pulled into a low bun. Once a victim herself, Linda had recovered at the same shelter. Now she worked miracles with the women and their children.
“Chloe, what brings you here?” Linda approached her from the kitchen where several women prepared their dinner.
The smell of chicken wafted through the large area, followed by sizzles and pops as it fried in a pan. Chloe’s stomach growled.
“I stopped by to deliver your tickets for Saturday evening’s fundraiser. You’ll be there, right?” Chloe handed over the envelope.
“Of course! My dress from last year is hanging in the closet. Hope the darn thing fits.” Linda’s hands ran over her tiny waist to rest on her hips.
“You haven’t gained an ounce of weight since last year.” Chloe shook her head with an indulgent smile. “I’m sure it will fit.”
“I don’t have anyone to bring. My daughters and sons are too busy with the grandkids and other activities. And the other son still lives in Florida.” Linda wrapped her arm around Chloe’s waist.
“I know, but something could change.” She bent her head to rest on the top of Linda’s and squeezed her in an embrace. “I also stopped to let you know the Winlets lost a large donation from one of their lead sponsors. They wanted me to see if anyone had any connections that could possibly contribute an item for the auction or even multiple items to help make up the loss.”
“I’ll mention it to everyone working tonight and send an email. When does the committee need to know?” Together they navigated their way amid the children scattered about the play area.
“The sooner the better but even up to the day of the event will work.”
In the small office area, Linda grasped a slip of paper and scribbled notes. “I know this is the Winlets’ Fundraiser, but who should donors contact if they want to make a donation? The Winlets or the committee?” She sat on the desk chair.
“The committee. Do you have the contact information?” Chloe glanced around the tidy office. The flyer for the fundraiser was pinned on the information board. “Oh, you have it right here. Perfect.” After a brief moment of silence, she asked, “How are things here at the shelter? I know funds are getting a little tight, but I’m working on several grants. I’m hoping to hear on one within the month.”
“We’re fine, Chloe. The women and children are so grateful for what the organization can offer them.”
“You’re so understanding and supportive. Take care, and I’ll see you Saturday then.” Chloe walked into the sitting room and pulled sunglasses from inside her purse.
As she stepped into the bright sunlight, a man wearing a Dallas Cowboys leather jacket neared. A jacket in this heat? And the piercings. She’d never understand people who put gauges in their ears to leave a gaping hole. When he approached the bottom step, she stepped down into the center of the stairs to block his entrance. He didn’t belong there.
“Can I help you?” she asked politely, something instilled in her brain at a young age.
“Move, lady!” He spoke with defiance.
“I think you have the wrong building.” Although her tone was authoritative, a sudden stab of anxiety hit her gut.
Fingers spread wide, his hands grabbed her shoulders. “I said move!” He shoved Chloe down onto the step as he sprinted into the building.
A sickening wave of terror welled up from her belly. Her breath quickened as she sat where he forced her on the step. Her eyes darted around for help, but she saw no one. She frantically stood and rushed back inside. She passed through the second door into the play area. Children were lying on the floor crying with their mother’s trying to comfort them.
The guy’s nostrils flared as he stalked toward Chloe. He pulled a small woman by the arm in a tight grasp.
“No, no. Please, Tony, don’t do this!” The women wiggled in his hold.
“Bitch, I told ya you’d never get away from me. Quit your crying.” He yanked her arm, and she cried out in pain.
Chloe stood paralyzed.
He put his hand in his coat pocket. “Lady, I told ya to move.” He pulled a gun from the coat.
“Chloe, get out of his way!” Linda yelled from somewhere close by.
She couldn’t move. Her pulse roared in her ears, and her breathing came quickly. Caught in a nightmare, Chloe was tackled to the floor as gun shots rang out twice. Her breath rushed out of her lungs.
“Now look what ya’ve gone and made me do, Bitch! I’m gonna give ya something to cry about later.”
Something crashed against a wall. Chloe couldn’t see anything lying on the floor.
“Move your fat ass!”
With another slamming noise, Chloe assumed it was the entrance doors to the shelter.
She blinked in surprised shock at the horror of what had just taken place. “Linda, you can get off me now. He’s gone.” Linda wasn’t heavy, but the extra weight made it difficult to breathe.
With Linda on top of her, Chloe carefully rolled to her side, leaving Linda to sprawl on the floor on her back. Feeling something warm, Chloe sat up. Blood. A wave of acid welled up from her belly. There was a wet smear across the front of her white shirt. She hadn’t been shot. Linda!Linda’s left shoulder area was covered in blood.
“Call 911, and someone get me some towels,” Chloe wailed with alarm.
A woman ran over, setting towels next to Linda’s head. “The police are on their way. What can we do?” the woman asked shaken.
“Pray.” It was a simple statement. Chloe gazed at her friend. “Linda, I’m going to put pressure on your shoulder. You’ve been shot.” She grabbed a towel and gingerly lifted Linda’s back left side to place a towel underneath. Another towel lay on the wound, and she applied pressure.
Linda’s eyes opened to mere slits. “You’re...crazy,” she spoke slow and breathy.
“Don’t talk.” Chloe’s throat constricted. She swallowed hard, fighting tears.
Linda’s eyes closed. She held Linda’s wrist and felt her heart rate slow.
She took a breath for strength. “Linda, stay with me. We need you.” Now was not the time to break down. Her chin fell to her chest as she prayed for the ambulance to arrive soon.
Sirens screamed outside. Paramedics and police rushed inside. The piercing sound flowed through the open doorway. The twenty minutes it took them to arrive felt more like an hour.
A paramedic knelt beside Chloe. “Ma’am, we need you to move out of the way.”
She did as asked, but didn’t know where to go, stand or sit. The only words the medic spoke that stood out were critical condition. A group of uniformed officers and men in suits entered the area.
Chloe stared at a man in a suit as he frantically looked around and rushed to Linda. His face is a little fuller. He has the same narrow nose. If his hair were sandy blond...He turned, and familiar blue eyes roamed over her body in a non-sexual way.
It’s not Chad.
His gaze remained on the bloodstain below her breasts until someone yelled out, “Rogers, this is out of your district. What are you doing here?”
“I heard the call and rushed here. My mom was shot.” The Chad look-a-like stalked toward her.
This is one of Linda’s sons?
“You.” Chad’s could-be-fraternal-twin pointed at her. “Come here.”
Another man in a suit stopped the Chad double. “We got this. Go with your mom.”
The paramedics adjusted the height of the stretcher, sending a clicking sound through the large area. Chloe jumped with each click.
“Ryan, we’re leaving. Are you riding with us?” a medic called out.
“Yeah,” Linda’s son hollered, “Question her, Tony.” His finger pointed at Chloe.
Ryan’s height was close to Chad’s, but his stance differed. Even after a year of not seeing Chad, Chloe remembered everything about him.
The ambulance whisked away, and the police separated everyone in the building. Chloe sat on the office chair, closed her eyes at the pounding in her head. She leaned forward, resting her head in her hands. Willing the pain to go away.
“Ma’am, I’m Detective Fuentes. Can I get you something to drink?”
“No,” came muffled through her hands. “Wait.” She lifted her head. “Yes, I’d like some water. I need some aspirin.” Her leg jiggled nervously.
Detective Fuentes returned to the room with a glass of water, held a pink shirt and a brown paper bag. “I need the shirt you’re wearing. It’s evidence. I’ll step out of the room. Put yours in the paper bag, please. One of the women offered the shirt.”
When he closed the office door behind him, she unbuttoned the shirt with shaky hands. As she reached the bloody buttons, the tears fell. Would Linda be okay? By the way her son pointed his finger at her she knew he blamed her in some way for the shooting. But why? The bag rattled as she placed the white blouse inside. The pink shirt was two sizes too big and swam on her small frame, falling off one shoulder. She didn’t care. It was coverage.
There was a knock at the door.
“Come in.” She sat on the chair with her hands on her lap.
The detective entered, rolled the top of the bag closed and exited the room. When he came back, he pulled a notebook from his shirt pocket before sitting on the vacant chair. “I need to ask you some questions about what happened. Would you like a female officer present?”
“No. It’s fine. She needs to be with the other women.” The women at the shelter were generally uncomfortable around men. Something she’d learned early on. “I just want to go home.”
“So you don’t reside here?”
“No.” She shifted in the chair.
“Okay, first I need to get some basic information.”
After Chloe gave him her name and address, she informed him about her job and how she came to be at the women’s shelter this day. She swallowed some medication to rid herself of the worsening headache. She clenched her jaw which didn’t help matters. As soon as she released the tension in her mouth, the headache tightened again.
“Can you tell me what happened?”
She closed her eyes and relayed the events leading up to the moment of the shooting to the detective.
“Can you describe the guy?”
“He wore a loose shirt and a Dallas Cowboys leather jacket. His hair was dark and cut really short. Almost shaved.”
“Can you guess his age, height and weight?” Detective Fuentes continued scribbling in the notepad.
“I’m terrible with this. Maybe late twenties? He was short. A little guy but looked built. About five-seven? Maybe weighed one-seventy?” She couldn’t keep her hands still in her lap and brought one up to play with her lower lip while the other lay across her stomach.
“Did you see any tattoos? Piercings?”
“He had piercings.” She closed her eyes. “He had gauges. I can’t remember anything else.” Frustrated, she continued to shake her head even after answering his question.
“Do you know the woman who was forced to leave?”
“No. But she called him Tony.” She shook her head worried. “Do you think you’ll find this guy and the woman?”
“We’ll do all we can.” He put the pen in his shirt pocket. “I think we’re done here. I have your information. If we have any further questions we’ll be in touch. You’ve been a great help.”
Chloe stood on shaky legs. “I need my purse. It’s in the play area. At least that’s where it was last.”
“Come with me.” The detective stood and waited for her to step from the room.
“Thank you, all of you, for your quick response today.”
They maneuvered their way into the other room, and he picked up her purse. “Is this it?”
“Yes, thank you. Do you know where they took Linda?”
“Thank you, again.” The bloody scene pierced her vision. She barely managed to get outside without running.
* * * *
Chad Rogers earned his perspiration by cleaning stalls and moving hay bales, along with the other responsibilities of the horse ranch in the late summer heat of central Florida. The fans blowing in the arena stables provided welcome relief against his sweaty skin. Maggie Randall stood by a stall door, her pregnant belly protruding.
He strolled closer, overhearing a young client in the stall say, “My foot caught, and I tripped.”
A few more steps and Chad stood next to Maggie. “Can I help with anything?” He made himself available to assist Maggie whenever a client or group arrived. She had been restricted from riding and lifting heavy objects. They were in this venture together.
The client, a young, attractive woman, turned but spun her focus to the horse.
Not quick enough. The golden-green skin coloring around her right eye couldn’t be missed. He’d bet there would be bruises on her arms under the long sleeves of her shirt.
“No, I think we have it.” Maggie smiled graciously. “Thanks, Chad.”
“Radio if you need anything.” He strolled out of the barn and leaned against the wall. Behind closed eyes, his mother’s swollen, bloodied lip accompanied by a black eye and a broken, bloody nose flashed in front of him.
The client hadn’t tripped. She was probably making excuses. Chad kept his eyes closed and inhaled, breathing deeply as his father stepped into the visions. A lump formed in his throat. He swallowed. His backside rode down the barn wall as his knees gave way. Squatting, his head fell forward.
‘Angel’ by Areosmith played on Chad’s phone. His eyes sprung open. It was his oldest sister, Angela, the only sibling who knew his number. The small hairs on the back of his neck rose.
“Are you sitting?” Her voice was calm, which should’ve eased the worry, if a need to sit hadn’t been advised.
“Mom’s in the hospital. She was shot.”
“What the hell?” Sickness roiled in his stomach. “What happened?” His butt smacked the ground.
“She’s going to be okay, Chad. She was at work, and somehow a guy found the location of the shelter. He had a gun and took his wife. The police are searching for him. Listen, Mom’s okay.”
“I’m leaving tonight. Where’s she at?” Chad’s palms grew clammy. He wiped his free hand on his thigh, switched the phone to the other ear and wiped the other hand.
“Dallas Memorial. They have the best doctors and surgeons for gunshot victims. Call when you get here. Where are you going to stay?”
“Don’t know. I’ll find something downtown and let you know.” Chad hung up and pulled out his radio. “Trent? What’s your location?”
“Barn one,” Trent Randall replied.
“I’m on my way.” Chad stood, leaning against the stable wall to steady his mind and body. He strode across the tree shrouded trail covered with wood chippings. A quarter mile to the main property and he entered the barn. “Trent?”
“Down here.” Trent waved his hand. “What’s up, partner?”
“I need to leave for Texas tonight. My mom’s in the hospital. She was shot.” The words spewed from his mouth.
Trent stopped grooming an Arabian mare and stepped to the side wall. “What the hell? Where?” The horse startled, slightly rearing his front legs at Trent’s high pitched voice.
“At work.” Chad paced the concrete aisle of the stable.
“Is she okay? What’s the status?”
“My sister says Mom’ll be okay. I don’t know much more.” He stopped pacing and stood in a daze.
Trent seized him by the shoulders. “What do you mean you don’t know more?”
“It all just happened.” He raised his voice. “My sister’s at the hospital, and that’s all she knew.” Chad used the anger toward his father to halt crying in front of Trent.
“I’m sorry to have pushed, Chad. By all means, go. Take as long as needed. Maggie and I will arrive Wednesday morning for the engagement party on Friday night.”
Chad nodded his head. How could he forget Chloe’s engagement party? She’d invited her best friend, Maggie, but not him, her ex-lover. As much as he wanted to forget Chloe’s engagement, he couldn’t shake the idea of her being with another man.
“Before we take off, Maggie will make sure everything is covered for the riding business. Keep me posted. Do you need a ride to the airport?”
“I’d appreciate that. I’ve got to go make reservations. I’m sorry, Trent.”
“What are you apologizing for? Go.” Trent cocked his head at the door, and when Chad neared the exit, hollered, “Let me know what time we need to leave.”
Chad tipped his head in acknowledgement and stepped into the sunlight. Straw hat pulled further down his forehead, he made his way to another wooded path and jogged the mile to his house.
Inside the modest rambler, he immediately sat in front of the laptop with his credit card. Reservations made for air, hotel and a car, he took a shower and allowed the emotions to take over. The water sprays washed the tears down the drain. Although his body was warm, a chill penetrated deep within. He stood under the heat of the water until it ran cool.
His mother was his foundation in life. Years ago, their first night at the shelter, she’d held him in her arms while speaking softly in his ear. “We’re safe now. No more harm will come to us.” She had been right—until today.