CHAPTER TWENTY THREE

After leaving Tony at the airport in Portland, Jill returned to the rental car in the large, half empty parking lot just outside the main terminal. A cold front was passing through the area and she buttoned her long coat to the top. She carefully checked the back seat of the little Dodge Shadow before getting in and locking the doors. This was the first time she had been alone since Vegas and an eerie sense of foreboding hung in the air.

   By the time she reached the highway, the heater had finally taken the chill out of her bones. It seemed weird to need the heater in April. But then again this was Maine, an entirely different world from what she had grown accustomed to. Low gray clouds rolled in steadily from the ocean, threatening rain. A few degrees cooler and it would be snow. Yuk! She didn't miss that.

   As Jill fiddled with the FM stereo -- none of the stations in the area were playing anything she liked today -- a shrill noise punctuated the radio's static. She turned the volume all the way down and picked up the car's cell phone, an item she insisted on at the rental agency despite the exorbitant extra cost. Only Tony and her parents knew the number. "Yes," she answered.

   "Good morning, dahling, I've found you at last." Jill nearly drove off the road when she heard Ivana's unmistakable broken English on the other end of the line. The Hungarian was the last person on earth she had expected to hear from .Her eyes still wide with disbelief, all Jill could say was, "Ivana?"

   "You are in a grave danger, my little friend," the authoritative voice said. "I contacted with your parents, they gave me this number. You are at Portland's airport?"Even over the phone Jill could feel Ivana's enormous presence. "I...just left," she said meekly. She sounded like a schoolgirl explaining to her teacher why she was late for class.

   "Good, go back there and I meet you at the bar outside American Airlines. Two hours." It was a command, not a request, and before Jill could answer Ivana broke the connection and the line went dead. Within a mile she had reversed her direction and was on her way back to the airport. She briefly considered not going, but quickly dismissed the idea. It wasn't simply that Ivana was her boss. For some reason, despite all that had happened to her, she still found it impossible to say no to this woman .

   Exactly two hours later the American Airlines late morning flight from New York arrived. One of Ivana's many high standards, for both herself and her employees, was perfect punctuality. If the plane was going to be late due to fog, she would insist that the pilots land anyway, Jill thought to herself with a chuckle. As she lit up her fifth cigarette in a row, a tall, magnificently attired lady entered the dimly lit bar. In typical style, Ivana looked like she had just stepped off the runway at the latest Paris fashion show. Her long black dress was tailored perfectly for her voluptuous body. Her obscenely expensive Italian shoes gleamed. And, as always, her sparkling diamond and gold jewelry completed this portrait of sheer elegance. She immediately spotted Jill and strode regally to the booth she had taken in a quiet corner. The younger woman stood as she approached. ""Please, do sit down, m'amour." Once again it sounded like a command, not a request. Nonetheless, Jill did sit down, almost immediately, despite her simmering resentment of Ivana's condescending manner.
   "I have to say, I'm very surprised to see you here," Jill said, trying to get to the point with a minimum of words. She inhaled some more smoke, very slowly. "I hope there isn't some sort of an emergency." Without missing a beat, Ivana put up one of her gloved hands in a "Stop" motion. "Please, my little Jill, let us not play games," she said haughtily. "We both know what you have been up to these past few weeks now. Don't we?"

   Jill took another long drag on her cigarette, not quite sure what to say. She decided to say nothing at all and steadfastly maintained her most neutral poker face. Best to keep the ball in Ivana's court. Ivana suddenly laughed. A deep, throaty laugh from deep within. It was a sound Jill had heard only rarely, when Ivana was on the verge of closing a particularly tough deal. "Ah, yes, I have taught you well, have I not?" She let the laughter fade from her face. "But remember who you are dealing with, my dear, and let us stop the nonsense."

   Only silence reigned between them. Jill knew that keeping her cool was vital when dealing with Ivana. But the waiting was almost painful. What the hell does she have up her sleeve?. "I know that you have been trying to find out about Lisa Donnelly, how she died," Ivana finally said. "I will answer your questions for you." She focused her feline green eyes dead on the young matchmaker. "But this must remain only between you and I. Strict confidentiality, as you know." Ivana hesitated, waiting for a response. Jill resisted the impulse to answer her. She continued. "It was not quite an accident, as they reported. She was killed by a man named Edward." The shiny emerald eyes tore into Jill once again. "He works for me."

   It was like a an explosion. The words her boss were saying hit Jill with the impact of a bomb. It was hard enough to think that Donnelly had killed Lisa. But Ivana? Jill squirmed back in her seat visibly, as if Ivana were going to lunge at her. "Not quite an accident?" she blurted out, more loudly than she intended. "How does somebody get killed `not quite' by accident?"

   Ivana switched into a different mode now, more subdued, open to a dialogue. She smiled carefully. "I have had a...special...relationship with Senator Donnelly for many years," she explained. "Soon, his new wife finds this out. She comes to Beverly Hills, to me, tells me she will tell the media about Phillip and I if we do not -- how do you say? -- cool it. I try to reason with her, but she runs off. Nobody can find her. She went to your cabin, but Edward got there too late. We begin to worry that she may do something foolish."

   Jill was starting to get the picture now. And her blood was beginning to boil. "Something foolish," she repeated. "Like exposing your affair in the media?" "Precisely. So I directed this man Edward to find her at all costs." Ivana jabbed her finger into the air. "Not to kill her, just to talk some sense into her. I did not know at the time how...unstable...this man was. He apparently is a brute, forces himself on women. He struggled with her . She resisted. And..." Ivana spread out her hands in front of her. She seemed to be asking for absolution. It was almost impossible for Jill to digest everything she was hearing. She snuffed out her cigarette in the ash tray, her eyes suspicious. "I really don't think I understand, Ivana. Why did you come up here to tell me all of this?"

   "Because Edward knows you are trying to find him, to have him punished for what he did. And he will not stop looking for you until you are dead."This was getting more and more bizarre, and Jill felt like she was being deceived. "So now you want to help me all of a sudden. Why?" Her expression was hard. Cold. A look she had never shown to her boss before. But she didn't care anymore, all of that became irrelevant in a heartbeat.

    "Jill, I am now totally honest with you. This situation has gone beyond my control. Edward has killed again, that reporter man. But I have a proposal that can solve this whole messy problem.". A proposal? Jill thought. What is she up to now? "I'm listening," she said.

   "Just tell me that you will stop trying to catch Edward. If you do this, five hundred thousand dollars will be placed in a private bank account in your name in the Bahamas." Ivana spoke as if she were negotiating a legitimate business deal. "And I will tell Edward that he no longer has to have a fear of you. With that, I am sure he will go away and never bother you again. He understands the power of money. I hope you do." Ivana sat back in the little booth, satisfied with the pitch she had just made. Jill had seen that same smug expression many times before. Once she had admired it, now it was something to be loathed. "And, as a by-product of this little deal, if this Edward character is never caught, you will never be implicated either," Jill said, her voice becoming hoarse. "You say that you didn't order him to kill Lisa, but I'm sure he'd tell a court of law a very different story."

   "Yes, my friend," Ivana said with a wicked grin, "of course there is something in this for me. You wouldn't expect me to just give away half a million dollars for nothing?" She waited for her words to sink in. "But I also do this to save you, m'amour. In you, I see much of what was in me when I first started out. You can go far in this business, my little Jill." She aimed her mesmerizing big green eyes directly on target. Jill saw her own reflection in them, staring back at her. "But only if you stay alive." Ivana stood up, and from her seat Jill looked up cautiously at the imposing woman looming in front of her. "I'm sure you will make the right decision," she said, handing her a small slip of paper. "Call me on this voice pager when you have made up your mind. Don't take long to decide. You are one of my best. It would be a pity for you to turn up dead." And as briskly as she had come into the bar, Ivana was gone. Later that afternoon, back in Bucksport, Jill awoke from a long nap she had taken in her old bedroom in her parents' house. Everything in the small, pink wallpapered room, from the flowered bedspread to Jill's carousel horse collection, was exactly as it was when she had left for college a dozen years ago. Her mother never fully accepted losing "her baby" and refused to convert the room into a study, as her father wanted. Jill noticed that the carousel horses had been dusted and polished recently. Her mother would never change. And that felt good.

   The cold snap that the weatherman predicted had arrived now and Jill shivered as she left the warmth of her blankets. She slipped on a pair of comfortable jeans and an oversized white wool sweater. Downstairs, the house was empty. Her parents must have gone to the supermarket over in Jonesville like they had said yesterday. Jill put on a sleeveless ski jacket and walked out the front door. She had to bend slightly into the strong east wind as she walked down the quiet little road with no particular destination. As she crossed a desolate field, still frozen hard, too cold for plowing, her thoughts once again turned to Ivana. The brief "vacation" she had had from her career, though filled with danger, was nonetheless a relief that she had needed much more than she had imagined. How caught up have I become in all of this? she thought. Ivana said that I reminded her of herself. Is she right?

   Jill reached the edge of the field, bordered by a typically crooked New England stone wall, and started down a narrow dirt path through the woods. Like everything else here, it was just as she had remembered it. She thought about Ivana's offer. And how accepting it was probably the only realistic way out. She wanted to live without fear, without the nightmares, and this was the only way it was going to happen. The money would ensure that she would always be able to enjoy the kind of lifestyle that she had so often dreamed of. Especially since moving to Beverly Hills. Finally, she would be in the big leagues, just like her wealthy clients.

   But what about Lisa? Not to mention Kramer. Wouldn't this mean that a crazed killer would be allowed to get away with two murders? Hell, I'm not a cop. Let them catch him. I've already done more than any friend should be obligated to do anyway.

   Her mind turned to Tony, the new love of her life. Then again, maybe new was the wrong way to look at it. Maybe, instead, this was the first time that it was genuine. Jill had thought that she had loved other men -- her ex husband and perhaps Brent -- but this was different. Yes, like the others, the physical attraction was a big part of the equation. But only in the beginning. With the other two, it never really went beyond that. Tony, on the other hand, was a lover she could actually relate to as a friend. This time, she found herself attracted to the whole man.

   At the end of the trail was a graveyard, filled with a few dozen tombstones, many of them in sorry shape, most of them long forgotten. The Yankee names inscribed on the old stones were in some cases impossible to decipher, battered by the years and by the rugged Maine winters. Jill approached two simple marble tombstones perched on top of a tiny slope of land, too small to justify calling it a hill. The wording was ragged, but readable: Barnabas and Esther Sands. They were Jill's grandparents, two people whose mere mention always conjured up warm, pleasant memories. She fondly recalled the endless summer days at their farm, riding horses and playing stickball with her cousins, all under her grandparents' loving, watchful eyes. They died in an auto accident when she was a teenager. They were together now in death as they had always been in life, and even though she thought it was sort of crazy, Jill sensed that she could somehow still feel their presence, guiding her.

   Jill sat, with her legs straight out and her back propped up against an old oak tree, on the cold earth in between the two stones. She reached into her coat pocket for her Virginia Slims and cupped her hands to light one against the damp breeze. It felt just like when she used to come here to sneak a smoke in high school. The dark clouds had already stifled most of the sunlight, now the moon began to appear in the twilight as the sun slowly ended yet another day. In the distance, she could hear the timeless pounding of the surf on the beach, a sound that always made her feel so very small. Minuscule. Part of something much, much larger than herself. But an important part, indispensable.

   She again thought about Ivana, and this time she found that she was no longer in awe of her. Ivana had offered her a large sum of money, but what else did Ivana have to offer? Nothing. Jill knew people, and for the first time it was finally dawning on her just exactly who Ivana was. A phony. She preaches love and marriage, yet she steals another woman's husband. She says that her employees are like family, but then she lets a madman try to kill her. Her "change of heart" only came when she started thinking that this guy might take her down with him. Then she tried to solve everything with money.

   The remnants of the day continued to fade. An owl hooted mournfully in a nearby cluster of trees as the moon peeked through the dense cloud cover. Jill placed her hand on her grandmother's cold, solid tombstone. She felt the strength of this honest woman's old fashioned integrity. And Jill knew that she could never live with herself if she profited from Lisa's murder. Lisa deserved better than that. She deserved justice. "Screw you and screw your money, Ivana!" she shouted into the emptiness. Jill stood. She decided to go back to the house, page Ivana, and tell her that she didn't want her deal. She dropped her cigarette on the ground and stepped on it, then started back down the trail toward her parents' house. It was quite dark now and Jill had to walk a little slower than before to avoid tripping over boulders and raised tree roots. She jammed her hands into her pockets and shivered as the wind picked up and a cold drizzle began to fall. Halfway, she thought she heard something. Footfall on dead branches. She stopped and checked over her shoulder. Nothing. She faced forward again. And looked straight into the face of the man who haunted her nightmares. Even with the beard shaved off and his hair cut short, with only a few feet between them she was certain. It was him.

   He jumped out in front of her from behind some thick bushes. Panic flooded her mind as she pivoted clumsily and ran back toward the cemetery. She poured all of her strength into her legs, running much faster than she thought possible in the darkness. There was no time to look back, and the constant sound of her own breathing made it impossible to hear anything, but she could sense that he was right behind her. Screaming would use up too much energy -- and there was nobody around to hear her. Jill ascended the little hill leading to the graves at full throttle and ran straight through the area as fast as she could. The light drizzle had made the ground soggy. As Jill raced out of the cemetery and toward a thin strip of beach, she lost her footing and tumbled onto a an oblong sand dune. She scrambled to get up but she wasn't fast enough. He dove on top of her, beating the back of her head with his fists and screaming crazily. "You're fucking dead bitch! You're mine!" His voice was shrill and almost incoherent.

   The smashing on the back of her skull came like hammer blows, each one harder than the last. Jill felt herself losing consciousness, and she was certain that she would soon be dead. "No!" she howled in a voice totally unlike her own. She wasn't ready to die. She didn't deserve to. And she refused to. Pain, fear and fury all mingled into one. Jill fixed her mind on a solitary thought: You're gonna die, you bastard. Not me! Twisting all of her muscles, she squirmed out from under him and dug her long nails deeply into the damp sand, flinging a large clump of it into his eyes. He stumbled backwards momentarily, just long enough for Jill to escape his grasp and get her legs pumping again. She ran straight ahead, toward a scattering of vacation cottages perched on the beach.
   Her only hope was for someone to be home in one of the cottages. Dread overcame her as she got closer and realized that the summer vacation season was still months away. She reached the nearest cottage, a weather-beaten little place with gray shingles, and tried to open the front door. It wouldn't budge. As she dashed away from it he came into sight in her side vision, breathing heavily as he tried to catch up to her. Jill gave up on the cottages and ran directly for the beach. Her years of jogging on sand back in Santa Monica made this terrain a natural for her. If she ran flat out here, maybe she could lose him.
   Jill's head was throbbing with white hot pain as she raced down the lonely, deserted beach. The ocean was to her right and roaring loudly in the darkness, the big waves crashing with awesome power, the spray drenching her. She couldn't really see where she was going and actually ran into the surf a few times, slowing her down. She was hoping that maybe he had given up the chase, but she didn't dare to look behind her. The fear was overtaking her again. And she knew if that happened she was finished.

   Up ahead, atop a rocky ledge, stood an abandoned lighthouse, vacant since Jill was a child. Something inside of her told her to run there. Its peeling white paint beckoned to her in the blackness and she somehow summoned the strength to pick up her pace. She climbed up onto the sharp, slippery boulders with the agility of a mountain goat, her footing firm despite the thunderous rumbling of her heart.

   The entrance to the lighthouse was wide open, the padlock torn off by local kids years ago. Jill was completely spent when she slipped inside and crouched on the ground to catch her breath. Sweat poured from her body and she felt dizzy and nauseated. She heard nothing but the raging sea. God, please let this be the end of it. Let me live! she prayed in the darkness. But then, from only a few yards away, she once again heard the deranged man's crazed shouting. "You're mine now, sweetie. You're gonna die!" Jill slammed her open palm against the craggy concrete wall, anger welling inside of her. In front of her was a dilapidated spiral staircase, leading to the ships' beacon high atop the tower. Without thinking she bolted up the steps, the rickety structure shaking violently. His footsteps thundered hard against the corroded metal steps, right behind her.

   Her head popped up through the trap door at the top of the stairs only a few seconds ahead of him. They were now on the roof. The old, dormant beacon was housed in the middle, a small viewing platform around it. Nowhere left to run. She turned to see where he was and he was on top of her, tackling her onto the steel grating with an enormous thud. Jill flailed wildly and struggled with all of her might as he lifted her to her feet and pinned her back against the rusty railing, inches from the roof's edge.

   For the first time she saw him up close. The scar tissue where she had gouged his eye was still raw. It flashed across her mind that she would die staring into her killer's sneering face. He wrapped his long, powerful fingers tightly around her throat and bent her backwards from the waist over the railing. The tumbling sea fuzzed in her upside down vision, looking close enough to touch. "Another tragic accident," she heard his raspy voice say. His breath came in short spurts. Jill could hardly breathe at all. She clawed desperately at his hands but he just laughed. "Another hot little bitch found dead on the rocks. What a shame."

   Jill felt herself going numb, her body stretched to its limit. The pounding of the sea crashed in her eardrums. His glaring face pushed closer to hers, snarling inhumanly, his eyes glazed in a savage blood lust. She tried punching him in the ribs, but missed, hitting him in the side. Her hand found a solid object and she grabbed at it blindly, her vision going black. It was his knife. Jill yanked the shiny weapon from its sheath and pulled it back, out over the railing, dangling high above the stormy waters. He saw it and lunged for her wrist, his other hand still clamped around her throat. He grunted heavily as the sharp blade tore into the warm flesh of his left side.

   His grip loosened and Jill struggled to break free, turning their locked bodies around in a twisted shuffle. Now he was the one with his back to the surging ocean. But he still had her by the throat, again with both hands. She gasped for air as the very life was choked from her. Pure animal survival instinct was all she had left. With one last burst of energy, Jill ripped the knife from her attacker's gaping wound and thrust it with all of her might deep into his sinewy stomach. She saw his eyes roll back in his head as she shoved him hard and spun herself loose. The tall man shrieked like a demon as his upper body tumbled over the railing, disappearing into the night.

   Jill went down to her hands and knees as she tried to re-gain her breath. The salty wind blew roughly on her soft skin, the misty drizzle damp against her scalp. She crawled over to the railing and peered out from the little one inch opening just above the floor. Far below on the jagged rocks, white with foam, lay the mangled carnage of her worst nightmare. Gone forever.

 

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