Down and Dead in EvenShort Story, Clean Read, Romantic Suspense, Cozy Mystery
Magnolia Leaf Press
A Down & Dead, Inc. Short Story. . .
Caroline Branch Easton has been trapped, a victim of domestic violence, and her husband has just delivered the final straw. Now she’s getting out, or trying to get out. She’s tried before. It didn’t end well. But this time she has a secret weapon: a sister willing to do anything and a member of the Down and Dead, Inc. group on her side.
Will she get to safety at Sampson Park alive, or be intimidated by threats of harm to herself and her sister and return to the luxurious life that had been her prison?
DOWN AND DEAD IN EVEN
©2014, Vicki Hinze
(Down & Dead, Inc.)
Caroline Easton awakened sprawled on the floor in her New York penthouse. She ached from head to toe and the smell of her own blood and sweat made her nauseous. For a moment, she struggled to orient—What had happened to her? Why was she burning up? It was June, but her husband Martin insisted on regimented climate control in the apartment and tolerated no temperature above a crisp sixty-seven degrees . . .
Then she remembered, and wished she could forget forever. Last night, Martin had come home in a foul mood, and within fifteen minutes, he’d taken it out on her. Again.
In their five-year marriage, she’d spent more time black-and-blue than normal. She comforted herself with the rationalization that if her twin, Christine, hadn’t expended Herculean effort to keep her from marrying Martin Easton, and if her parents wouldn’t have stroked out at their daughter getting a divorce from him—Caroline would have left him early on. While both reasons were true, and a divorce in the family would have devastated her parents since there hadn’t been a single divorce in the Branch family’s two-hundred year history, the real truth was Caroline feared Martin too much to try to leave him again. She had once. It hadn’t worked out well for her. It had worked out worse for Pepper. Poor, helpless Pepper.
Swiping at carpet fibers, Caroline brushed her face. It stung, jaw to nose to eye. Her line of thought was moot anyway. By the time her parents had died in the train derailment, Martin had seen to it that Caroline had no choice left but to stay put under his controlling thumb. Oh, in between the bad times there were good times, or there had been. But for the past six months, since his company had ceased performing to his expectations, anything good had been sparse, and her fear and resentment had been at war on what she should, and realistically could, do about her life. Last night, her resentment won.
Before she’d passed out face down on the carpet, she’d finally asked herself the question Christine had warned her would eventually come. And Caroline had answered it. Now she had to have the courage to follow through on her recognition.
Caroline Branch Easton was an abused wife. An angry, abused wife. Seething and beyond furious actually, and admittedly still stunned. When and why had this happened to her? How had this happened to her?
Oh, like most abusers, Martin had systematically and methodically whittled away at her. First, he’d isolated her from all her friends. Then, he’d started on her family. When he’d accomplished that and only he remained in her close circle, he’d started working on breaking her, destroying what was left of her self-esteem. What he failed to talk her out of forfeiting, he’d beaten her into forfeiting. And like most victims, she woke up one morning, looked in the mirror and wondered when all this had happened and how she’d gotten trapped in the hell she now called her life.
That was the problem. It didn’t happen all in one big event. It happened day by day. Minute by minute. In little, insidious ways until the truth slammed into her with the force of a sledgehammer.
For her, that truth culminated in her learning Martin had seized control of her inheritance and it had disappeared. Shocked, in a sheer panic, she’d defied Martin and had taken a huge risk. For the first time in over three years, she’d called Christine.
They had talked then and they’d talked ever since: a fact Martin didn’t know and would never be told for safety reasons—hers and Christine’s. Understanding your situation and being able to do something about it are two different things. Caroline was stuck. She knew it, Martin knew it, and because he had her trapped, he had progressively gotten more and more controlling and more and more abusive.
At first, it was just little verbal digs. Ones that made her question herself as to whether or not he realized he had done them, that they hurt or if he intended them to hurt. Surely not, she’d thought. He loved her. But time passed and his behavior digressed to a point beyond doubt or deniability. Then things got worse.
He insisted she provide him with receipts accounting for every penny she spent—for tax purposes. Reasonable explanation, right? For a time. But having gotten away with that, he pushed harder. When he’d leave home, he’d take her car keys and money. Even possessing an enormous ability to rationalize, Caroline found no room for doubt about his intentions in that being deliberate. Yet by then, not only did she have nowhere to go and no one to go to, she had no means to go anywhere. No way to run away from him.
The one time she dared to try, he’d beaten her and their dog. She’d survived. The dog hadn’t. She still mourned Pepper and resented the kind of monster who would harm a helpless animal. It was wrong to hate, but she hated Martin for that. And now, she hated him for even more. He’d known hurting Pepper was harder for Caroline to stomach than his hurting her, and he’d used it against her. Since then, he’d threatened to buy another dog at least a hundred times, but Caroline never said a word. He despised her for that and made her pay. But better her than another innocent animal. Only a fool wouldn’t know he wanted another pet to use for leverage to keep Caroline in line. She couldn’t let that happen, regardless of the costs to herself.
But that was then.
Last night changed everything. Everything. He’d made a fatal mistake, and she’d been just desperate enough to seize the opportunity in it. She’d won, and soon he’d realize the steep costs of doing all he’d done to her. He wouldn’t regret. He’d be beyond outraged. And unless she moved very carefully . . . she couldn’t think of that. Didn’t dare to think of that.
Was she scared? Oh, yes. Absolutely terrified. She never had been strong like Christine, but even weak women had their limits. Enough was enough. And last night on the floor, the truth hit her with more force than his fists. He spat his threats—I’ll kill you. So help me, I’ll kill you—and he meant them. All because she’d bumped into his assistant and the man had dropped a sheaf of papers. She’d helped him gather them, and as soon as he’d left, Martin had started pummeling her. But the truth slammed into her even deeper. No backing down. This time, you go all the way. There are worse things than death. Living like this is far, far worse than death.
“Good. You’re awake.” Martin came into the living room, a towel slung around his hips, another draping his head. He ruffled it, drying his shower-mused hair. “I’m hungry.”
Martin was a big man, muscular and toned from daily workouts, and he had the patience of a gnat. He looked nothing like a successful financial advisor, and worked hard at making sure he never would. She’d learned the hard way not to confront him directly. She’d done it and lost one too many times. And the penalty of inconveniencing him? Steep. Really steep. Oh how she’d come to hate hearing him utter the word inconvenience.
Anger burned in her. She averted her eyes, afraid he’d see the truth in them. She’d dared to do what she had to do to reclaim her life and herself. She’d asked and answered her question, and she’d made a promise to herself. Never again would he hit her. Never again. Bolstered at knowing it, she bided her time. “What do you want to eat?”
Looking down at her still sitting on the floor, he frowned. “I can’t believe you slept like that. Go clean up. It’s hard to think about food, looking at a bloody face.” He flicked a finger at her. “And put on some sleeves.”
She checked her arms. Peppered with bruises. Usually he made sure bruises he inflicted wouldn’t show, but he’d been angrier than she’d ever seen him last night. Why had she slipped? When he’d asked what was for dinner, why had she admitted the recipe was one of Christine’s? Martin hated Christine. Single. A successful software developer. She wanted and needed nothing, and he had absolutely no control over her or anything to do with her. He hated that most of all. A woman who looked identical to his wife that he couldn’t control or manipulate. That, to Martin, was inconvenient and intolerable. Maybe even a threat. She might just help Caroline escape him.
Caroline couldn’t overtly put Christine in his path, of course. Martin had been explicitly clear. If Christine interfered in any way, Caroline would regret it. Whether he’d meant he’d kill her, Christine, or them both, she wasn’t sure. But Caroline totally grasped the threat as a threat and had no doubt he’d carry through on it—and she couldn’t discount the Pepper factor.
The one saving grace was that Christine lived in Dallas and not New York, but even that wouldn’t save either of them if he discovered what Christine had done for his wife unbidden. On her own, Christine had sent Caroline a package. She’d called immediately about returning it and warned her sister about Martin’s worst, but Christine had insisted Caroline keep it. She’d known Martin would be livid. That’s why she’d had the package hand-delivered to Caroline while she was at the grocery store with the unsigned, enclosed note that read: When you’re ready, leave. Use these things.
Caroline’s gratitude left her weepy and breathless.
“Will you get a move on?” Martin elevated his voice.
Swallowing a groan, Caroline struggled to her feet. Her head throbbed; her ribs ached. None felt broken this time. Grateful for that since hospital visits that would document his abuse were strictly forbidden, she hobbled to the bathroom and washed up.
In the mirror above the sink, she looked into her own dull eyes. Her face was swollen, her jaw bruised. Makeup and sunglasses would help but the choke marks on her neck stood out stark red. She’d have to wear a scarf . . .
“Hurry up, Caroline,” Martin shouted from the kitchen. “Are you seriously going to make me late for work?”
She imagined him sitting at the table reading his newspaper, acting as if nothing had happened or changed.
Her hands shook. Everything had changed. Maybe it was talking to Christine yesterday. Maybe it was Martin demanding she go to yet another doctor to find out why she hadn’t conceived. There was nothing wrong with her, and two doctors already had confirmed it. So she wasn’t strong like her sister, and she was weak and afraid and stayed in this hell when she should have left long ago but, despite his best efforts to convince her otherwise, she was not stupid. If he beat her, beat her dog, then he certainly would beat their child. The best protection she could offer a baby was to not have one.
“At least there’s that much sense and dignity left in you,” she told her mirrored reflection.
She quickly finished up and then prepared Martin’s breakfast. He ate it in silence, not so much as glancing at her until he had grabbed his briefcase and was walking out the door. Her purse and both house phone handsets were tucked under his arm. Her cell phone had disappeared months ago. When she’d told him it appeared lost, he’d blustered and “handled” cancelling it. She hadn’t been given another one.
Pausing at the door, he sent her a sober look. “I keep hoping your judgment will improve and you won’t make me do what you know I hate to do. But I won’t shirk my responsibility. I will always do what I have to do, Caroline. Still, I’m really tired of you disappointing me.”
Acid poured in her stomach and her anger burned deep. Everything in her wanted to lash out, to hold him responsible and accountable, but she didn’t dare. He pushed and blamed her for his own lack of control, but no way would she respond or say so. He wanted her to, yearned for her to; she’d seen that look too many times before to not recognize it. Simply put, he wanted an excuse to hurt her again. It pounded off him in waves, set off every alarm in her body. Any excuse would do. So she held her silence, refusing him.
He waited and waited. When it became clear she had no intention of giving him even a bad excuse, he walked out and shut the door.
Caroline slumped, limp against the table. Drew in three breaths. Not too deep. Deep, hurt. It’s time.
Rushing over to the window, she stood tense until he slid into his waiting limo and it pulled away from the curb. Certain he had gone, she hurried to the spare bedroom and flung open the closet doors. In the back near the floor, she lifted the carpet, pried loose the exposed floorboard and then set it aside. She reached down into the hole, fished out a small plastic bag, then hastily replaced the board and carpet.
Back in the living room, she checked again to be sure he hadn’t returned. Nasty habit, his doubling back on her. The limo wasn’t in sight. Her mouth stone-dry, she removed the contents of the plastic bag: a mobile phone, a duplicate issue of Christine’s Texas Driver’s License, and a credit card. Caroline phoned the airline and then her sister, her hands shaking so badly she had to dial the number three times.
Christine answered on the first ring. “Caroline? You okay?”
Their emergency phone had to have been close by. Knowing Christine, it stayed close to her. “No, but I will be. My flight lands at 3:30 this afternoon.” She shared the airline and flight number.
“Did he hit you again?”
She would see the swelling and bruises soon enough. “I’m fine.”
“I know he did, Caro.” Christine muttered a string of curses on his head. “Do you need medical attention?”
“No, I’m okay. Or I will be as soon as I get out of here.”
“You’re really leaving him this time?”
“Yes.” She’d made it as far as the airport multiple times but she’d never actually gotten on the plane before fear won and she’d backed down like a meek mouse and returned to the apartment. “It’s different.”
“I stole back what is mine. I can’t touch it until after I divorce him, but I seized control.”
“Does he know?”
“Not yet.” She had to get out of here before he discovered it. That’s the only way she had a chance to survive. “Last night, he started. I asked the question and answered it.”
“What did you answer?”
A lump formed in her throat. She swallowed hard but still had to talk around it. “I’d rather be dead than live like this even one more day.”
“That’s it then.” Her sister’s voice shook with relief. “Thank you, God.”
“Do you have what you need to get here?”
“I have what you gave me—phone, ID and credit card. That’s it. He took my purse and my emergency stash is depleted from the incident two weeks ago.” She pulled on her running clothes and sneakers, then shoved the ID and credit card into her pocket. “I can’t be seen leaving the building carrying a bag. He pays the doorman to report every move I make. A bag would warrant a phone call to him.”
“Just get out of there and don’t worry about taking anything. When you get to Dallas, we can get whatever you need.”
Tears burned Caroline’s eyes. “Christine, I’m scared. So scared. Especially to come to you. I shouldn’t drag you into any of this.”
“I know you’re scared, honey.” Strength infused her voice. “But you can do this, Caro, and of course you should come to me. I’m your sister. I’d be heartbroken if you didn’t come to me.”
“It’s not your heart getting broken that worries me.”
“It’s handled, okay? Just get out of there and get here. You’ll be safe and so will I. I’ve been waiting for this day a long time.”
And while waiting, she’d prepared—because that’s what Christine did. She always prepared. “You have a plan.”
“Definitely. There’s no way he’ll find you this time.”
Did she dare to dream that possible? It sounded so good, but imagining it would have to wait. Now, the danger ran high. Caroline turned and checked the clock. “I’ve got to hurry or I’ll miss the flight.”
“I’ll meet you at the gate. Be careful.”
She owed it to Christine to make sure she understood the gravity of the situation. “You know he’ll come for me.”
“He’ll try. And he’ll fail.”
Even with that unequivocal reassurance, Caroline shook all over. “And you understand completely that helping me could be really dangerous for you. It certainly will be.”
“Not helping you would be worse. We’ll both be fine. I promise.”
Moving toward the door far less confident of that than her sister, Caroline spotted Martin’s dirty dishes still on the table. The urge to wash them rolled over her. “In this case, being eight minutes older doesn’t make you wiser. You don’t know him.” She kept walking, glanced back at the luxurious apartment that had been her prison, and then walked out, deliberately leaving the door unlocked. “This plan of yours better be a good one. You need to know . . .” Her voice cracked. She tried again. “If he finds me this time, he will kill me.”
Down and Dead, Inc. Projects
Down and Dead in Dixie. (A novel being released in January 2014.)
Down and Dead in Even. (An original novella included in the My Evil Valentine Collection.) Post Valentine’s Day, this story will be available in other formats.
Down and Dead in Fern. (A novel being released in late spring 2014.)