NEVER LOOK BACK
Phantom Hollow Series #2
“As far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us.” Psalm 103:12
Johnson McRae tucked his gun in the waistband of his trousers and stepped over the three corpses that lay sprawled on the warehouse floor, trying to decide what he wanted to have for dinner.
He bent down and retrieved the black velvet pouch that now belonged to him alone and entertained thoughts of the lavish lifestyle that awaited him. A smile tugged at the corners of his mouth. Why was it that now, when he could finally afford to dine in the finest restaurants on the planet, he was craving a Big Mac and fries?
Probably just as well. Why risk being seen in a public place when he could get what he wanted using the drive-thru? Only four thieves in North America were capable of pulling off a heist this sophisticated, and the cops knew he was one of them. He wondered how long it would be before they discovered what was left of the other three suspects he had just eliminated—or if they ever would. What reason would anyone have to come to this abandoned warehouse?
Johnson stepped back and stole one last glance at the lifeless trio that had helped to make him a rich man. “So long, suckers. Like they say, ‘there’s no honor among thieves.’”
He picked up the battery-operated lantern that burned brightly atop a plastic crate and used it to light the way back to the entrance. He slid open the rusty door just enough to squeeze through and closed it behind him.
He put on his sunglasses and walked over to the getaway van he had rented with one of several ill-gotten credit cards. He dropped the lantern on the front seat and put the van in neutral and released the brake, then pushed it into a wooded area where it couldn’t be seen from the road.
He brushed his hands together and stood thinking for a moment. Had he forgotten anything? Every detail had gone according to plan—except for the unfortunate encounter with the gallery security guard. A dead body would likely ensure that the cops would turn up the heat, and maybe even involve the feds. Which meant he needed to find a place to lay low and let the hype die down.
A grin stretched his cheeks. Colorado was invigorating this time of year. He might as well enjoy a little R & R till it was safe to deliver the rare jewels to his contact in Argentina—and walk away with the entire six million dollars.
Johnson heard voices and turned. Through the trees, he spotted two boys on bicycles coming down the unpaved road.
What are they doing here?
He hurried back inside the warehouse and squatted behind a stack of shipping containers wrought with cobwebs. He waited for several minutes, then saw daylight as the entrance door slid to one side and a pair of short silhouettes filled the opening.
“I’ve been in here before, Patrick, and there’s no ghost,” the taller boy said. “I don’t care what those guys swore they saw.”
“Well, somethin’ freaked ’em out,” Patrick insisted. “Anyway, the sign said no trespassing. I don’t think we should go in.”
“I’m not chicken, Kenny! I don’t wanna get grounded, okay? My parents told me not to come down here.”
“Well, I’m not gonna tell them. You going in with me or not?”
Patrick shook his head. “You go, if you’re so sure there’s nothin’ in there.”
“Okay, you big baby. Watch this.”
Kenny stepped inside, his hands cupped around his mouth. “Hey, spook, you big white bag of hot air, we’re over here! Come and get us!” He snickered, his hands held defensively in front of him as if he were prepared to execute some debilitating karate move. “See? I told you there’s no ghost in here.”
“Good,” Patrick said. “Then let’s go.”
“I say we walk all the way through the building and prove it’s no big deal. Then we go get those wusses and do it again to show we’ve got more guts that they do.”
“I don’t know, it’s pretty dark…”
“There’s enough light if we leave the door open. I could always go get your little sister. I’ll bet she’s not scared.”
There was a long stretch of silence, then Patrick tentatively stepped inside.
“Good man.” Kenny gave Patrick a slap on the back. “Come on. I’ll go first.”
Kenny moved slowly down the center of the massive warehouse, Patrick closer than a shadow.
“There’s nothing in here but empty shelves,” Kenny said. “If we go down this aisle, we’ll run into the back door.”
Not without tripping over those dead bodies, you won’t, Johnson thought. The last thing I need is the two of you running to the cops before I can get out of town. He picked up a nail and threw it into the dark vacuum and heard a tinkling metallic sound when it hit the concrete.
“What was that? Did you hear that?” Patrick said.
“It’s just the wind. It blew something in the door. Keep moving.”
“We should go back. What if those guys really did see a ghost?”
“They didn’t,” Kenny said, sounding less convinced. “Don’t freak on me. We can do this.”
Johnson got up and moved surreptitiously behind the boys, knowing what he’d have to do if they discovered the bodies.
“I can’t see where I’m going,” Patrick whined.
“See that crack of light in front of us? That’s the back door.”
Too bad you’re never going to reach it! Johnson waited until the boys were just a few yards shy of where the corpses lay, then rushed them from behind. He grabbed firmly to the neck of their T-shirts and bellowed a fiendish laugh that reverberated in the blackness.
The boys screamed, their arms flailing, as he tightened his grip and relished the adrenaline rush.
“Don’t fiiiiiight me!” Johnson roared, the cadence of his voice decidedly ghoulish. “I’m going to let you liiiiive! Run! Run awaaaaay while you can and never come baaaaack, or next time will be your laaaaast!”
He made a one-hundred-and-eighty-degree turn, maintaining a choking grip on the neck of the T-shirts, and gave the daredevils a hearty shove toward the front entrance, his sinister laughter nipping at their heels.
The pair dashed toward the light and scrambled almost cartoon-like to squeeze through the door at the same time, then hopped on their bikes and high-tailed it up the unpaved road.
Johnson laughed till he cried, wishing he could have seen the expression on their faces. He waited sixty seconds, then poked his head out the entrance and looked up the road, satisfied the scared boys were long gone. He stepped outside and slid the door closed, still chuckling and trying to remember the last time he’d had that much fun.
He put on his dark glasses and trudged into the woods, past the van, and down a gentle slope in the direction of the Wal-Mart parking lot, where the real getaway car awaited him.
He wondered what the parents of the traumatized boys would make of their sons’ ghost story, and was sobered by the thought that if those kids had caught even a glimpse of his face there would be five dead bodies on the warehouse floor instead of only three.
Ivy Griffith approached the last gray security door and pressed the release button, her heart galloping and her legs as wobbly as a foal’s. She glanced up at the camera as she had been instructed to do and waited until she heard the lock disengage and the alarm sound, then pulled the door open and entered the public sector of the Tanner County Jail—a free woman!
She was surprised to see so many people scurrying about. She made her way over to the far wall and leaned against it, feeling a little light-headed and suddenly wishing she had eaten breakfast. She blew the bangs off her forehead and forced a smile for two female deputies who were eyeing her.
Lord, please don’t let me pass out and make a scene. I just want to go home!
“Ivy! Over here!”
She turned toward the unmistakable voice and spotted her father in congested corridor, his hand waving in the air. She hurried toward him, zigzagging around several people before she finally caught up to him and lost herself in his embrace.
“Let’s go home, honey,” Elam Griffith finally said. “It’s over.”
Over. How the thought excited her! She had paid her debt to society and wanted nothing more than to move on with her life.
Ivy walked arm-in-arm with her father to the exit door and stepped outside into the bright November sunshine. She inhaled deeply, drawing in the fresh mountain air, and whispered a prayer of thanks. She wondered how long it would be before any of this seemed real.
“Well, I’ll tell you one thing,” Elam said. “Montana was too wired to sleep last night. That boy can hardly wait to see you.”
“You explained why I didn’t want him to come down here, didn’t you?”
“Sure, but I really don’t think it would’ve bothered him. All he’s talked about for weeks is your coming home.”
“I just didn’t think it was necessary to saddle a seven-year-old with the memory of his mother being released from jail. I want him to remember this day as my coming home, not my getting out.”
Elam smiled. “Well, however he looks at it, I expect that little scamp has his nose pressed against the living room window. Let’s don’t keep him waiting. Come on, the Suburban’s parked across the street.”
“He seems to be thriving,” Ivy said. “Every time we’ve talked he’s gone on and on about all the things he’s involved in. You and Mom have done a great job with him. I can never thank you enough.”
“No need to thank us, honey. We love Montana and have gotten really close to him. But he needs his mother.”
Ivy got in the Suburban and looked out at the towering San Juan Mountains that encircled the town of Jacob’s Ear with postcard beauty. “After six months in that place, you can’t imagine how wonderful it is not to be looking through iron bars.”
“I suppose I can’t,” Elam said. “But it’s sure great seeing you dressed in your own clothes instead of that orange jumpsuit.”
“I promise you I’m going to give away everything in my closet that’s orange or has even a speck of orange in it.”
“Good, because your mother can hardly wait to take you shopping and is already mapping out some elaborate strategy for hitting all the after Thanksgiving sales.”
“Is she planning a big Thanksgiving dinner?”
Elam chortled. “Are you kidding? We’ll need to take both cars into town when she does her shopping. Rusty and his family are driving in from Albuquerque. Our Thanksgiving table will be full for the first time in ages.”
Ivy wished she shared her father’s enthusiasm but wondered if she would even know her brother after all this time. And how he would react to all the trouble she had caused?
Elam started the car and pulled onto Main Street. “By the way, I ran into Mr. and Mrs. Hadley at the post office the other day. They were polite but never mentioned your getting out.”
“Do you think they’ve forgiven me?”
“I honestly don’t know.”
Ivy sighed. “It had to be devastating when they found out I covered up their son’s murder for ten years and let them live with false hope that he’d be found alive.”
“I’m sure it was, honey. But you can’t undo what was done. You served your time.”
Ivy looked over at Jewel’s Café as they passed by and noticed the green and white gingham curtains still framing the windows. “How’s Jewel?”
“Same old spitfire. She’d like you come back to work for her.”
“Really? That’s surprising.”
“Oh, you know Jewel. She looks at the heart. It’s irrelevant whether you were away on vacation or did time in jail. She was happy with your work and has a job for you any time you want it.”
“What a sweetheart. I enjoyed working at the café, but I can’t make a living waiting tables. I’ve got to figure out something else.”
“Funny, but your mother and I have been discussing this very thing.” Elam stroked his mustache. “We wondered if you’d consider being in charge of registration at the conference center? It pays three dollars more an hour than you were making at Jewel’s, and we’d let you and Montana live in one of the chalet cabins as a perk. Interested?”
“Are you serious?”
“Absolutely. And full time staff people get medical insurance. It’s up to you, but we think it’s a good option.”
Ivy sat stunned, gratitude knotting up in her throat. “I—I never dreamed you’d let me work at the camp.”
“I have a criminal record now. You’ve got nice Christian people coming in and out of there. Just doesn’t seem appropriate.”
“Baloney. It’s appropriate if I say it’s appropriate. For crying out loud, Ivy, you recommitted your life to Christ. Besides, your mom and I own the place, remember?” He turned to her and winked, the corners of his mouth twitching. “You’d be good at it. Give it some thought.”
As they drove out of the city limits and onto Three Peaks Road, her father waved at someone in a red pickup, then put his cell phone to his ear. “Carolyn, it’s me…Yeah, it went fine. Only took us a minute to hook up…She looks great…I know he’s chomping at the bit. Tell him we’re about fifteen minutes from home…”
Home. Ivy nestled in the heated leather seat, her heart racing with hope. She looked out across Phantom Hollow at the jagged, snow-capped peaks that still took her breath away, confident that Montana would grow up loving and respecting this unspoiled beauty the way she had—and that her parents would be the stabilizing force in his life.
She closed her eyes, the sun warming her face, and let herself dream about what the future might hold. The idea of living with her son in their own home and her finally being able to support him was very exciting, even if was possible only because of her parents’ generosity. She wasn’t about to pass up her dad’s job offer but wondered if the Three Peaks staff would resent him hiring a family member—worse yet, one who’d been in jail—with no job experience beyond waiting tables.
“Dad, how do Jake and Brandon feel about me coming to work at the camp? I mean, it sounds like you pulled rank on them.”
“Think so, do you?” Elam’s tone was playful. “Why don’t you let them speak for themselves? Take a look…”
Ivy opened her eyes as the car slowed and finally stopped in front of the entrance to Three Peaks Christian Camp and Conference Center. Huge yellow ribbons had been tied on either side of the stone entrance, and all along the road beyond staff people stood waving yellow streamers.
“Welcome home, Ivy!” they shouted, almost in unison.
“Oh, Dad…” Ivy put her hand over her mouth but was unable to keep the tightness in her throat from turning to sobs.
She heard Brandon Jones’s unique whistle above all the cheering; but as the car moved slowly forward, all she saw was a blurry mass of smiling faces.
“Hey, Mom! Over here! Mom!”
Ivy’s heart leapt. She wiped her eyes and surveyed the wall of well-wishers until she spotted Montana jumping up and down and waving his arms in the air. She flung open the door and ran to him, then picked him up and twirled him around in a circle before planting kisses all over his cold, soft cheeks.
“I’ve missed you so much!”
Montana Griffith giggled, a jack-o’-lantern smile taking up half his face. “Do you like our surprise?”
“I love your surprise!” It was a million times better their being reunited at the jail.
“It was Kelsey and Brandon’s idea. Cool, huh?”
“Very.” Ivy felt a hand squeeze her shoulder and looked up into the most loving gaze she’d ever seen. “Mom…” Ivy threw her arms around her mother and just let the tears go. “It’s so great to be home.”
“There’s been such a void since you left,” Carolyn Griffith said. “This family just isn’t complete without you.”
Family. The word warmed her down to her soul, like hot cocoa on a blustery day.
Before Ivy could let go of her mother, she was completely enveloped in a group hug. When everyone finally let go and stepped back, her gaze fell on Kelsey Jones’s radiant face.
“Guess you can you tell we’re glad to see you,” Kelsey said.
“Goodness, I never expected anything like this.” Ivy laughed and cried at the same time. “Montana said this was your and Brandon’s idea.”
Brandon Jones smiled, tongue in cheek, and reached for Kelsey’s hand. “What can we say? We’re just a couple of party animals.”
Ivy moved her eyes from person to person, touched by the acceptance she saw on their faces.
“Elam said you might like to work registration,” Jake Compton said. “I really need someone to take it over ASAP. Brandon’s been pinch hitting since summer camp ended, but he’s really lousy at it.”
Brandon elbowed Jake in the ribs. “Okay, Ivy, you going to get me off the hook here? If you don’t come onboard, heaven only knows how long I’ll have to put up with this abuse.”
“Mom, take the job!” Montana said. “You should see the house we get to live in. It’s got this really cool loft that can be my room.”
Ivy brushed her fingers through her son’s thick auburn hair, and reveled in the moment, hoping she wasn’t going to wake up in her bunk at the county jail and realize she’d been dreaming.
Sheriff Flint Carter sat at his desk scanning the arrest listings in Friday’s edition of the Tri-County Courier, hoping nothing would happen between then and five o’clock to interfere with his having a relaxing weekend. He heard footsteps in the hallway and glanced up just as Lieutenant Bobby Knolls appeared in the doorway.
“There you are,” Flint said. “Did you follow up on that tip?”
Bobby blew a pink bubble and sucked the gum into his mouth. “Yeah, we spent all morning searchin’ the area around Jacob’s mine. Sure would help if the caller had told us what we’re supposed to be lookin’ for. If there is somethin’ suspicious goin’ on out there, we sure couldn’t find it. Seemed like a big waste of time. So anything interesting goin’ on here? Was Ivy Griffith released?”
“At nine o’clock this morning. I feel really good about it.”
“Some folks think it stinks that she only served half her sentence.”
“Tough. Her time was reduced exactly the same as every other inmate rewarded for good behavior. Until the taxpayers are willing to approve funding for a bigger jail, they’re just going to have to live with our system of two days credit for each day served.”
“Yeah, if we kept every inmate for the duration of his sentence, we’d have to start usin’ office space and chainin’ them to the radiators.”
“Exactly. So let the whiners put their tax money where their mouth is.”
Bobby stepped inside Flint’s office and leaned against the wall, his arms folded across his chest. “Actually, I think it’s more personal than that. A lot of folks want someone punished for Joe Hadley’s murder. It’s almost like they don’t even remember that it was Ivy’s boyfriend and two of his teammates that did it. Since those guys are dead, she’s the only one left to blame.”
“The girl was guilty of covering for her friends. She’s not a murderer. And in all my years as sheriff, I’ve never seen anyone else voluntarily come forward, ten years after the crime, and insist on being charged, even though the statute of limitations had run. Ivy asked for the maximum when she could’ve walked.” Flint took off his reading glasses and laid them on the desk. “People should try cutting her some slack.”
“Let’s hope they do. Think you and Elam’ll ever be friends again?”
“I don’t know, Bobby. It’d be awkward trying to go back to the way things were before I put his daughter in jail.”
“Have you ever talked to him about it?”
“I meant to. But things got busy over the summer, and time got away from me.”
“Are you goin’ to?”
“What’s with all the questions? Have you finished your end-of-the-week report yet?”
Bobby unfolded his arms and walked over to the doorway, then stopped and spun around. “Look, Sheriff. It’s really none of my business. But it’s a shame that you and Elam haven’t spoken since Ivy went to jail. You were just doin’ your job. He wouldn’t have respected you for doin’ less.”
“Go back to work, Bobby.”
“Most guys never have a close friend like that. Maybe you shouldn’t let it go so easily.”
“I never said anything about letting it go. I just said it was awkward.”
Bobby held his gaze, one eyebrow arched. “Then why don’t you deal with it so it won’t be?”