Closer Than You Think
Mt Carmel, Ohio, Sunday 2 November, 5:45 P.M.
"It's only a house." Dr Faith Corcoran gripped the steering wheel, willing herself to look at the house in question as she slowed her Jeep to a crawl. "Just four walls and some floors."
She drove past, eyes stubbornly pointed forward. She didn't need to see. She knew exactly what it looked like. She knew that it was three stories of gray brick and hewn stone. That it had fifty-two windows and a square central tower that pointed straight to heaven. She knew that the foyer floor was Italian marble, that the wide staircase had an elegantly curved banister made out of mahogany, and that the chandelier in the dining room could sparkle like a million diamonds. She knew the house, top to bottom.
And she also knew that it wasn't the four walls and floors that she really feared, but what lay beneath them. Twelve steps and a basement.
She did a U-turn and stopped the Jeep in front of the house. Her heart was beating faster, she thought clinically. "That's a normal physiological response. It's just stress. It will pass."
As the words slipped out, she wondered who she was trying to convince. The dread had been steadily building with every mile she'd driven the last two days. By the time she crossed the river into Cincinnati, it had become a physical pain in her chest. Thirty minutes later, she was close to hyperventilating, which was both ridiculous and unacceptable.
"For God's sake, grow the hell up," she snapped, killing the engine and yanking her keys from the ignition. She leapt from the Jeep, angry when her knees wobbled. Angry that, after all the time, the thought of the house could make her feel like she was nine years old.
You are not nine. You are a thirty-two year old adult who has survived multiple attempts on your life. You are not afraid of an old house.
Drawing strength from her anger, Fatih lifted her eyes, looking at the place directly for the first time in twenty-three years. It looked... not that different, she thought, drawing an easier breath. It's old and massive. Oppressive. It was more than a little run-down, yet still imposing.
It looked old because it was old. The house had stood on O'Bannion land for more than a hundred and fifty years, a testament to a way of life long gone. The three stories of brick and stone loomed large and dark, the tower demanding all visitors to look up.
Faith obeyed, of course. As a child, she'd never been able to resist the tower. That hadn't changed. Nor had the tower. It maintained its solitary dignity, even with its windows boarded up.
All fifty-two windows were boarded up, in fact, because the O'Bannion house had been abandoned twenty-three years ago. And it showed.
The brick stood, weathered but intact, but the gingerbread woodwork she'd once loved was faded and cracked. The porch sagged, the glass of the front door covered with decades of grime.
Gingerly she picked her way across the patchy grass to the front gate. The fence was wrought iron. Old-fashioned. Built to last, like the house itself. The hinges were rusty, but the gate swung open. The sidewalk was cracked, allowing weeds to flourish.
Faith took a moment to calm her racing heart before testing the first step up to the porch.
No, not the porch. The veranda. Her grandmother had always called it the veranda because it wrapped around the entire house. They used to sit out here and sip lemonade, she and Gran. And Mama too. Before, of course. Afterward... there was no lemonade.
There was no anything. For a long time, there was absolutely nothing.
Faith swallowed hard against the acrid taste that filled her mouth, but the memory of her mother remained. Don't think about her. Think about Gran and how she loved this old place. She'd be so sad to see it like this.
But of course Gran would never see it again, because she was dead. Which is why I'm here. The house and all it contained now belonged to Faith. Whether she wanted it or not.
"You don't have to live here," she told herself. "Just sell the property and go..."
Go where? Not back to Miami, that was for damn sure. You're just running away.
Well, yeah. Duh. Of course she'd run away. Any sensible person would run if she'd been stalked for the past year by a homicidal ex-con who'd nearly killed her once before.
Some had said that she shouldn't be surprised that she'd been stalked, that by doing therapy with scum-of-the-earth sex offenders, she'd put herself in harm's way. Some even said she cared more about the criminals than the victims.
Those people were wrong. None of them knew what she'd done to keep the offenders from hurting anyone else. What she'd risked.
Peter Combs had attacked her four years ago because he'd believed that her 'snitching' to his probation officer about missed therapy sessions had sent his reoffending ass to prison. Faith shuddered to think of what he would have done had he known the truth back then: that her role in his reincarceration had been far more than marking him absent. But given the cat-and-mouse game he'd played with her in the year following his release, the fact that his stalking had escalated to attempted murder four times now... Maybe he did know. Maybe he'd figured it out.
Slipping her hand into the pocket of her jacket, Faith's fingers brushed the cold barrel of the Walther PK380 she hadn't left her Miami apartment without in almost four years. Miami PD hadn't been any help at all, so she'd taken her safety into her own hands.
She was sensible. Prepared. But still scared. I'm so tired of being afraid.
Suddenly aware that she'd dropped her gaze to her feet, she defiantly lifted her chin to look up at the house. Yeah, she'd run all right. She'd run to the one place she feared almost as much as the place she'd left behind. Which sounded about as crazy now as it had when she'd fled Miami two days ago. But it had been her only choice. No one else will die because of me.
She'd packed the Jeep with as many of her possessions as she could make fit and left everything else behind, including her career as a mental health therapist and the name under which she'd built it. A legal name change, sealed by the court for confidentiality, had ensured that Faith Frye was no more.
Faith Corcoran was a clean slate. She was starting fresh. No one she'd left behind in Miami - friend or foe - knew about this house. No one knew her grandmother had died, so no one could tell Peter Combs. He would never think to look for her here.
She even had a new job - a sensible job in the HR department of a bank in downtown Cincinnati. She would have co-workers who wore conservative suits and stared at spreadsheets. She would make an actual living wage and receive benefits for the very first time. But the most valuable benefit would be the security, just in case her efforts to lose Faith Frye hadn't been quite good enough.
Lightly she touched her throat. Although the wound had healed long ago, the scar remained, a permanent illustration of what the man who hunted her was capable of doing. But at least she'd lived. Gordon hadn't been so fortunate.
She couldn't bring Gordon back. But she could do everything in her power to make sure it never happened again. If Combs couldn't find her, he couldn't hurt her or anyone else. Her grandmother's passing had presented her with a place to run to when she'd needed it most.
The house was a gift. That it was also her oldest nightmare couldn't stop her from accepting it. Forcing her feet to move, she marched up the remaining two steps to the front door, dug the key from her pocket, and went to open the door.
But the key wouldn't turn in the lock. After the third try, it finally sank in that it didn't fit. Her grandmother's attorney had given her the wrong key.
She couldn't go inside if she wanted to. Not today, anyway. The relief that geysered up inside her made her a little ashamed. You're a coward, Faith.
It was just a delay of one day, she reasoned. Tomorrow she would get the right key, but for the moment her inability to enter bolstered her courage.
Peeking through the dirty glass on the front door, she saw a room full of furniture, draped in sheets. Her grandmother had taken only a few favorite pieces when she'd left the house for a town house in the city twenty-three years ago. The rest she'd left to Faith.
The thought of unveiling the furnishings elicited the first spark of excitement Faith had felt in a long time. Many of the items were museum quality, or so her mother had told her on many occasions. This will all be mine some day, Faith, and when I die it'll be yours, so pay attention. This is your legacy and it's high time you learned to appreciate it.
The memory of her mother's voice doused her excitement. She could recall the fear that had filled her at her mother's words like it was yesterday. But I don't want my legacy, she'd replied. Not if it makes you die, Mama.
An affectionate tug on her pigtail. Silly girl, I'm not going anywhere for years and years. You'll be Gran's age before this place is yours.
And in her eight-year-old eyes Gran was already ancient. Then I have lots of time to learn about my legacy, don't I? She'd hidden her relief with a roll of her eyes, she remembered. She also remembered being far more interested in the cook's son's Golden Retriever than the silver teapot in her mother's hands. Can I go outside and play? Pleeeease?
An exasperated sigh had escaped her mother's lips. Fine. Just don't get dirty. Your father will be back soon with the car and we'll head home. But next time we're here, young lady... Her mother had shaken her finger at her with a smile. We do teapots, 101.
But the next time Faith had come to this house, there had been no talk of teapots or anything else that was happy. Her mother was gone, leaving her life irrevocably changed.
Faith ruthlessly shoved the memory from her mind. Dwelling on the past would make her crazy. She had enough problems in the present without dredging up old hurts.
Except... this was a hurt that needed dredging. And then purging. She hadn't been back to this place since that last horrible day. Never told her mother how angry she was. She'd never told anyone. She'd covered up her rage and hurt and fear and moved forward. Or so she'd told herself, but here she was, twenty-three years later. Still hurting. Still angry. And still afraid.
Time to deal, Faith. Do it now. Resolute, she walked around the house before she could change her mind, not realizing that she was holding her breath until it came rushing out.