Shadows in the Light: Oscar’s Story – Chapter Five
“So this is a gilded cage?”
Max’s voice grated on my nerves when he got like this. I’d explained to him several times over the last two weeks why he couldn’t leave the property. I very carefully let him know that he could go to the beach. I showed him where and how to dig for the clams he seemed to enjoy for dinner, how he could catch fish, and shit like that. Each time he had to be reminded he couldn’t leave, he bristled and it started an argument between us.
Admittedly, angry Max was better than the bouts of sadness that followed him around. He could go from sixty to zero in point two seconds if he saw something that reminded him of his family. Having been there myself, I got it. Not that I was going to explain that to him.
He crossed his arms, blew out a breath, and glared at me.
It was cute, really.
“I want to go to town. I’d like to get some art supplies, if that’s okay with you.”
I scratched my head. “Art supplies?” I’d already ordered him clothes so he had something beyond my oversized workout gear to wear. And now he wanted more?
He grumbled, got up from the couch and stepped out onto the porch that wrapped around three-fourths of the house. I followed, because I wanted to hear more about why he wanted art supplies.
The days following his coming here with me, I found he wasn’t so bad to have around. At least when he wasn’t in one of his ‘moods’. I came in from my workout one morning and found him in the kitchen. He had the coffee brewed and was in the process of making pancakes and sausage. It smelled amazing.
“I didn’t even know I had the stuff to make pancakes.”
His cheeks pinked. “I may have had to work some magic. Not sure you’re going to like them, but with what you’ve got on hand, it’s the best I could do.” He waved the spatula toward the table. “Sit, I’ll bring it over.”
The cakes were light and fluffy, drizzled with butter, and covered in raspberry jam. After the first mouthful, I was sure I’d died and gone to heaven. Or wherever people like me were going to go.
After that, he started making breakfast most mornings. I didn’t complain, because my idea of a morning meal was some toast to go with my coffee. I’d come in from my morning exercise, sit at the table and wait until he’d put a plate in front of me. He’d given me a list of things he’d like to have in the kitchen, and I contacted a few stores in the area that I did business with. While Max was out on the deck one day watching the waves of the sea as they lapped up onto the beach, Peter Cox, the son of a friend from town, delivered a huge batch of groceries. When he left, Max came in and his eyes went wide.
Funny thing… After spending time together, I’d gotten accustomed to seeing his eyes and found them to be his best feature. Weird, huh? He explained to me about heterochromia, how he’d worn contacts so people would stop staring at him. He’d been teased about them since he was a kid, and I couldn’t understand it, because they made him unique, not the freak they’d told him he was.
“Are you even listening to me?”
His voice went up an octave, which meant that the argument I’d been hoping to avoid was about to kick into high gear.
“Honestly? No. Look, I told you and I told you, going outside of the property is dangerous to you. I get you hate being cooped up, and I wish things were different, but right now they’re not. And if you want to stay safe, you’re going to do what you’re told.”
He narrowed his gaze and his lower lip jutted out a bit. “Fine.”
In an attempt to smooth his ruffled feathers, I grabbed the laptop. “Tell you what. You sit down, make a list of everything you want, and I’ll get it for you.”
He reared back, a look of absolute horror on his face. “Oh my God, you don’t get it at all, do you? Are you really that clueless?”
His cheeks were stained scarlet, and I had a knot in my stomach that whatever I thought I was avoiding was about to bite me in the ass big time. He stood there pouting, and I had to keep myself from throwing him over my knee and treating him like the spoiled brat he had been acting like. But none of this had been his fault, and as Lilah said, I needed to dial it back.
“I don’t order stuff online. I go to the shop.” His expression reminded me of an adult who was trying to explain something to a child. “I need to get a feel for the paper to see if it will hold the paint. I check the brushes. I look through their new stuff to see if any of it would be useful.” He sighed. “I need the world, Citadel. It gives me inspiration.”
I grabbed his wrist and dragged him out into the yard. I swept my hand around the property. “That little bridge that crosses the creek? The birds hovering over the sea? That lone gull snatching food from the shore? That airplane silhouetted against the clouds? Every tree, shrub, bush, droplet of water here is an inspiration. You say you’re an ‘artist’, then let the world around you be your fucking muse.”
He had the decency to appear sheepish at least. “I’m sorry. I’m tired of being cooped up.”
I rubbed the bridge of my nose. “I know. I really wish I could take you out, show you around town, introduce you to some of the people I know. But like I said, right now it’s dangerous. I’ve reached out to some people I know, but so far I haven’t learned anything. I—”
The phone rang. When I looked at the screen, my curiosity was piqued. I didn’t recognize the number, and that had me wondering who would be calling. I pushed the accept button.
“Good morning, is this Mr. Oscar Goodwin?”
“My name is Margaret, I’m one of the sisters at St. Cecilia’s Convent.”
Aw, shit. Gina. I’d totally forgotten I was supposed to meet her. “Yes, of course. I assume you work with Gina—I mean Sister Mary Catherine?”
Her breath hitched.
“Is something wrong? My throat tightened.
There’s been… The police said she was mugged, but whoever did it…” She whimpered and my gut clenched. “Gina’s been hurt. I found your name in her calendar, and was hoping you might be able to shed some light on what happened to her. When I mentioned you to her, she simply said you were a friend.”
Max stepped into my space and put a hand on my arm. He slid the fingers of his left hand over my straining arm muscles. He may have thought I was nervous or anxious, but that wasn’t the case. I was pissed beyond belief.
I glanced over at Max. He’d been calling me ‘Citadel’ since he’d come to the house. He hadn’t asked me any details and seemed content calling me that. I had already dragged him into something, so maybe a little bone on my part would help.
“Oscar, please.” Max’s eyes went wide. “Yes, I was supposed to meet Gina for…” I didn’t want to say drinks, because I had no idea what they’d say to that. “Pizza. We got talking while we were on the plane, and I thought she was funny. Can you tell me what happened?”
She hesitated a moment. “Someone found her in an alley. She’d been beaten and…and…” She sobbed. “Someone set her on fire.”
My blood boiled. “They what?”
“She’s been burned pretty badly. Her legs, stomach, and chest all received third degree burns. We were grateful that someone found her and was able to put the flames out. She was released into our care a few days ago. She’s upset and angry, but she won’t talk to us. We were hoping you might know something.”
My tone so cold, even Max stepped back. “I don’t, but I will find out. Tell me where she is.”
This event put a new wrinkle in things. I couldn’t very well take Max with me, but I also couldn’t leave him unprotected. I reached out to the only person I could think of.
“It’ll just be a few days, Lilah. I need to go check on Gina.”
“It’s fine. I’ll be there tomorrow.”
I hated asking for favors. “Is there any way you can be here today? I need to go, but I can’t leave Max by himself. Maybe Kelly might know someone if you’re not available. Do you think Haven is trustworthy?” I knew he was. I’d run one mission with him, and the man was a beast. And he looked fucking edible in the shower.
“I said I’d be there. I have to take a commercial flight if you don’t want anyone knowing, but I’ll see what I can do to expedite it.”
“Whatever you need. I’ll pay for it, of course.”
“Oh, you know you will.” Her teasing put me at ease.
Max sat on the deck, staring out at the sea. He’d been pensive since I got off the phone with Knight. I hated that I needed his help on this, but he had resources I didn’t. He got me the information, and when I told him what was going on, he promised he’d have my back. There may have been a twinge of guilt on my part, but I pushed it away.
After I hung up, I went to my room and packed my bag. Damn, it was times like this I wished I had a major domo to make these things a little easier. Maybe I shouldn’t have scared off my last one…four. I packed quickly, my flight to Milwaukee booked for tomorrow afternoon. When I finished, I put the bag back in the case, checked my weapons, then went out to see what was up with Max.
He still sat, staring out at the water. The wind had picked up, creating small whitecaps that sloshed on the shore.
“How’s it going?”
He didn’t even turn. “Can I go with you?”
I bit back a sigh. “No. I wouldn’t be leaving if it wasn’t important, I need you to know that. Gina is… a friend.”
I didn’t want to tell him that I was supposed to meet her after I completed my assignment. As it stood, Max knew more than he should about me—where I lived, and my name—all things that I’d rarely shared. Plus, I’d broken a cardinal rule by telling him about the organization. I hadn’t mentioned names so if things went south, I’d be the one who was out a life. I’d have to give up my house and the connections I’d made, which would suck, because I liked where I was. Then there’s the fact that Knight would have to get me another new identity. And but the risks were a small price to pay for Max’s cooperation.
“I’m sorry. I know I promised I’d be here for you, but—” Fuck. How could I even explain this to him?
“Will you kill him?”
I reared back. We hadn’t talked about… my job since I admitted why I’d been at his house. “Who?”
“The man who hurt your friend. Will you kill him?”
“Why would you ask me that?”
He rolled his eyes. “You told me you were there to kill me and what your job is. So I’m asking now, is that where you’re going?”
Though I had no proof, I suspected it had been Gina’s ex-husband. I had no solid evidence, but when I talked with her, I would get the information I needed. When we spoke, Knight seemed surprised to hear from me, but when I explained what I needed, he got to work. I’d thumbed through the file that Knight had sent me. As expected, he tried to give me shit about being friends with a nun, but he stopped as soon as he realized how angry I was. When I asked how he knew about her, he told me the police had run down the name on the phone, which led them to him. He gave them an ironclad alibi, which meant they wouldn’t be looking at me as a suspect. This news had me doubting what I’d learned about him. Still, right now, it wasn’t something I could think about.
Kevin Gardner had a history of hurting people. Like Gina had said, when he’d been drunk, common sense went out the window. There were a few brawls, and another report of domestic violence filed by a woman he had been seeing after Gina dumped his stupid ass.
Max bit his lower lip and his breathing hitched as he asked the question.
“I don’t know.” It was the truth. Until I spoke with Gina, nothing would be decided.
Nashville was known for more than country and western music. Over the last few years, they had a large uptick in the number of people joining the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia convent, which went against the national trend. I couldn’t imagine people voluntarily going into a dark, musty place and actually giving their lives over to it. Of course, when the cab pulled up, I found what I’d pictured in my head wasn’t quite the truth.
The convent looked more like the place I went to school as a kid. The only difference being the building had several statues outside the building of men, hands clasped in prayer. I got out, paid the driver, and strode to the door of the place. Opening it was like a step back in time. I found myself in similar hallways, with the sounds of laughing children coming from one of the rooms. To be honest, it was a little surreal. I found the office and stepped inside.
“Good morning, sir. May I help you?”
“I’m here to see Sister Margaret. My name is Oscar Goodwin.”
She smiled at me. “ If you’d like to take a seat, I’ll let Sister Margaret know you’re here, Mr. Goodwin.”
It took only a few minutes before a tall, frail woman of about fifty stepped over to me. She had on a white habit with a black head covering. She gave me a toothy smile, but it seemed to me that there was a sadness behind her eyes. She held out her hand, and I took it in mine.
She kept hold of my hand as I stood. “Oscar, please.”
She beckoned me to follow her. We left the school and approached another building. I figured they must be the living quarters. “Thank you for coming. When I called, I wasn’t sure who you were when I called. I went through her phone, hoping to find someone who might talk to her. Mary Catherine has… Well, to be honest, she’s shut down. She refuses to take meals with us, barely speaks with the spiritual advisor, nothing. She’s already told him she’s planning to leave the order as soon as she’s able.”
None of it came as a surprise, really. She’d told me as much she wasn’t sure if this was her true calling anymore. Though I figured it would be longer than a few weeks. Then again, I didn’t expect she would have been attacked either.
“The police have questioned her, but she won’t talk with them, either. They’re frustrated, and so am I to be honest. Mary Catherine is a bright, bubbly girl. We’ve gotten many letters about her lectures and how engaging she is. It hurts us to see her like this.”
We entered the building, which looked like an apartment, with a lobby and several doors with different numbers on them. Sister Margaret escorted me to the elevator which took us to the third floor, then to a room at the end of a long corridor. She knocked, but no one answered. This went on for the next four days. Each time I showed up, they ended up apologizing for me wasting my time. As far as I was concerned, this wasn’t over.
On the fifth day, I was a man on a mission. Today Gina would talk to me, no matter what.
The pattern repeated itself. We got to the room, knocked on the door, and were met with silence. The sister turned to me, a frown on her face. “Perhaps she’s taking a nap.”
Enough was enough. I stepped forward and pounded on the door. “Gina, it’s Oscar!”
I waited two seconds before I flung it open and stepped inside. The room smelled of antiseptic and flowers. Gina lay on the bed, staring out the small window in her room. The room, filled to bursting with blooms of different colors, was bright and airy. Not at all what I expected. And yes, I realize I was saying that a lot where nuns were concerned. I’m not a man who likes to admit when he’s wrong, but I was.
“Sister Mary? Oscar came to see you.”
I heard the catch of her breath. “I’ll take it from here, Sister.”
“Oh, I’m not sure—”
I closed the door, then strode over to the bed. A small, black chair was tucked under the desk. I pulled it out, spun it around, and sat backward on it.
“Mind telling me what happened?”
Finally she faced me, and I could see the anger simmering beneath the surface. Her cheeks were mottled red and her eyes were filled with fire.
“You were supposed to meet me.”
The accusatory tone I totally deserved. I had known since the phone call that this was on me. In trying to protect Max, I had failed Gina.
“I won’t make excuses. I should have been there. Sorry isn’t enough, I know.”
“Why weren’t you there?”
Tears spilled over the lids of her eyes, rushing to join those that had already stained her pillows.
“Remember when I told you that I had gone to Milwaukee on business? Things went—please forgive the expression—to hell. Nothing was like I’d been told, and a young man ended up in deep trouble.”
He features softened. “Is he okay?”
This was the Gina I expected to see. The one who was more concerned for the wellbeing of another before herself.
“Honestly? Right now I’m not sure.”
She reached out and put a hand over mine. “I’m sorry.”
I made a face. “Sorry for what? That mess was my fault and this… I’m so sorry. I should have been there for you.”
She turned away and went back to looking out the window. “If you have been there, you may have ended up dead.” Her breathing hitched. “Just like I almost did.”
“It’s been weeks. Why didn’t you call me? Or why not have someone let me know?”
Her expression morphed again. This time into disbelief. “For what? It was a one-time thing. We met at the airport. I mean it’s not like we were friends or anything, right?”
We weren’t, she was right. And I knew good and well that she had every right to be angry with me.
“I thought we were building on that. You’re not like I expected. I figured, you know, a nun would be all snooty and carrying around a ruler to whack kids on the hands for not listening.”
It was a slow change, she grinned, and a weight lifted from my chest.
“How are you feeling?”
She rubbed a hand over her stomach. “If I move wrong, it hurts. If I stay still, it hurts. If I get up to poop, it hurts.”
I couldn’t help the snort. Really. Okay, I didn’t even try. “You can still make me laugh.”
She winced. “I’m not joking.”
That familiar anger surged again. Someone had done this to Gina, a woman who I considered a friend. I needed to know who, because it was time for them to pay for what they’d done.
Gina was the only person who held the details I needed, and it was time to get some answers.