Three O'Clock's Dark Night ~ The Number Mysteries


Prologue

Richard Howard Brennan was a walking dead man. He wondered when he would make it official. What he didn't know was that someone would do it for him.

He hunched over his beer mug at the stained bar in Iggy's Den where he'd been beaten up numerous times. If this wasn't Hell he thought, rubbing bloodshot eyes, it was the pit next door. But he really didn't care how much he got hammered because he figured he deserved the abuse. He was the one behind the wheel the night of the accident. And now she was gone.

Brennan's head dropped to his chest. He drew a breath so deep it seemed to come from the bottom of his soul. As a moan escaped his lips, he closed his eyes against the pain.

Smoke roiled beneath the low ceiling of the cinder block bar. Cue balls rumbling on nearby pool tables underscored the curses that erupted from throats tight with anger and resentment and despair. From the jukebox, Clint Black's voice wailed about a lost love. The words pierced Brennan's heart like the Devil's poisoned pitchfork.

He clasped his fingers behind his neck and moaned again.

Suddenly, a hand clapped hard on his back. He jolted forward.

"Hey, dick! Heard Benny's after you. You owe him money, too?"

There was no mistaking the deep timbre of that voice. In a happier time, Brennan could have imagined an affable Sam Elliott with the distinctive bushy moustache gracing his top lip, his head tipped to one side, a twinkle in his eyes, his hand extended in an invitation to buy you a beer at the town's only saloon. But this was not a happy time. And the velvety voice had a razor edge to it that could slice to the bone.

Slowly Richard Brennan lifted his head and turned to his right, squinting through the haze at the barrel-chested man.

"Christ, Quinn. You practically knocked me off the stool."

In place of the trademark moustache, Quentin "Quinn" Stevens had a thick curly beard that festooned halfway down his chest. One gold tooth glistened amongst stark white stalactites behind sneering lips. He wore a blue bandana tied around his head and a black leather vest studded with badges and buttons and one large safety pin. Dirty jeans hung below his burgeoning belly and tattoos decorated his huge biceps. He smelled of beer and bad cologne.

"You'll be lucky if that's all I do to you," Quinn growled in that ironically soothing voice. "You having a good time spending my money on suds?" The sneer faded into the black web of his beard. "Listen, dickey-boy. I don't care how much you owe or who you owe it to. I'll knock you from here to Sunday if you don't pay me the fifty bucks you borrowed two weeks ago." His eyes turned flinty as he leaned close to Brennan's ear. "You don't want to see me mad, man. I can think of things to do to you that you can't even imagine."

Quinn straightened up and clapped Brennan's shoulder again, this time hard enough to send Brennan's face flying into his beer mug.

Sputtering, Brennan lifted his head with a grimace. He wiped a figure eight pattern over his face and cleaned his hand on his shirtfront. With both hands, he raked back his greasy hair.

In the streaked mirror behind the bar, Brennan could just make out a red outline curved around the outer edge of his left eye and halfway over his eyebrow. He could also see the mountain of flesh looming behind him. A cold shiver ran down his spine.

"I'll have it for you tomorrow, Quinn, honest."

Quinn's eyes were heavy with hate.

"Tomorrow, I promise," Brennan pleaded. "I'll meet you here about this time. Okay?" He coughed smoke and foam out of his lungs. "Really."

Quinn stared at him for a long moment, and then said with terrifying Sam Elliott softness, "You'd better be here tomorrow night, Brennan, unless you plan on crawling the rest of your life." He gave Brennan a look that caused prickles to run down his arms and vibrate at his fingertips. Quinn Stevens moved off toward the restrooms and disappeared through the door marked HOGS.

At the same moment, two women emerged from the SOWS quarters. Brennan massaged his fingertips with his thumbs as he gazed at the jugs on the brunette. He wondered why women went to the bathroom in pairs. Sort of like boarding the Ark, he thought, and snuffed.

But the joke was short-lived. He looked down at his trembling fingers, then touched at the spot between his eyes. He'd been avoiding Quinn successfully up until tonight. Quinn was bad enough. He could handle this threat, even if it was from the big biker. But now, according to Stevens, Benny Madden was after him too. Jesus Christ! He was in deeper shit than he thought.

The cold shiver again. Richard Brennan knew he had to disappear.

An hour later, Quinn Stevens straddled his Harley in the gravel parking lot outside the bar, the place known unaffectionately by the residents of Georgetown, New Hampshire, as the Pigpen. He stared at the blinking neon sign that read IGGY'S DEN. A large cutout resembling the letter P was duct-taped beside the word IGGY'S so that the sign read PIGGY'S DEN. This year's high school seniors had already performed their annual spring ritual.

However, the history of the Pigpen was not on Quinn's mind this night as he sat on his Harley in the filtered yellow light from the bar's one plate glass window, his right hand under his leather jacket idly stroking a spot above his heart. He stared at the sign but he didn't see it. He didn't feel the cold. He didn't hear the peepers in the boggy lowland behind the bar or the traffic zooming out on Route 125. He didn't see the Full Flower Moon that celebrated the life that burst forth during this month of May. There was no celebration in his heart.

There was only the pain.

His mind was on the memory of her.

It was when he'd gone to the Mall of New Hampshire on his Hog to pick up some Garth Brooks CD's that he'd seen her standing in front of Mrs. Field's Cookies counter. His heart had almost stopped. He'd felt as if he were in a time warp, a sort of suspended animation, that limbo where there is no sense of sound or movement. There had been only her.

She'd been wearing a pink sweater and blue jeans, and her blond hair had fallen in soft curls to her shoulders. She and her friends had been munching chocolate chip cookies, licking the chocolate from their fingers, and laughing at whatever girls laugh at.

He'd been cleaner cut then, still in leather and chains, but about twenty-five pounds lighter. He'd known that a lot of women were attracted to his bad boy sexuality, and he'd used his animal magnetism successfully on more than one occasion.

After more than two years, the scene was still vivid in his mind.

He watched her.

She sucked at the chocolate on her thumb, glanced at him, then looked away. He leaned against a wall, more to support his weak knees than to look cool. He watched to see if she'd look again. If she did, she was interested.

She tipped her head to one side as if trying to peek at him without being noticed. A lock of hair fell over one eye. She used her forefinger to tuck that loose strand behind one ear.

To Quinn, she looked like an angel with only a brief passport into this life. Liquid heat pulsed through his veins. His heart beat so hard against his chest that he thought everyone passing by could hear it.

It was then that she looked at him again.

His heart stopped.

Quinn Stevens would never forget how his body had gone electric. At that moment, he had fallen in love with Lynda Johanssen.



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Chapter 1

Saturday 5:32 A.M.

Nick stood in the doorway peering at his watch. "What are you doing, Sam? It's five-thirty in the morning."

On the sun porch of their Cape Cod home, Samantha's hands paused over her split keyboard. She grabbed the green sponge roller from her bangs, hid it between the two small spider plants next to her computer and fluffed her bangs. "Haiku," she called over her shoulder.

"Gesundheit," Nick replied. He did a jaw breaking yawn and scrubbed his face with both hands.

"What?" Sam asked.

They exchanged puzzled looks until Sam realized his mistake. "No, Nick. I didn't say 'ah-choo', I said 'haiku'."

Nick leaned against the doorframe. He smiled and stuck his hands in his jean pockets. "Is that contagious?"

Sam smiled back. "Not unless you read it."

Nick gazed through the wall of windows that faced into their backyard, breathing in deeply, sloughing off sleep. The baseboard crackled with incoming heat. A lone bird sang to the lifting morning.

Sam stifled a companion yawn and tugged at the neck of her red plaid nightshirt, one of three purchased some years ago during a desperate foray into the bowels of the mall. These were added to a wardrobe comprised mostly of sweats and tee shirts. She hated to shop and usually waited until she was threadbare to venture into the department stores.

For a brief moment she contemplated the pitfalls of continuing the conversation then, in customary fashion, threw caution to the wind.

"A haiku is an unrhymed Japanese poem," she explained. "It refers, in some manner, to the seasons of the year. The poem is conveyed in three lines, using seventeen syllables: five, seven and five. It's a good mental exercise because each word must be chosen carefully. One has to be spare with her words."

"No one has ever accused you of that," Nick said. His right dimple deepened as his eyes caressed her. After twenty-six years, she still loved that look.

She tipped her head at him. "Tread lightly, big boy." Her eyes took in his six foot one inches. She was amazed that his dark hair hadn't yet shown signs of age.

"I guess I'd better," he said, "since I've convinced you to go camping with me, even if it's only down to Pottle's Pond for two nights. You know, you might really like it." He grinned, as if that would convince her how much fun it was going to be.

Sam leaned back in her swivel chair and folded her hands across her belly bulge. She sniffed. "Yeah, maybe."

She looked down at the cellophane evidence from the package of Ring Dings she had just easten and thought about the thirty pounds she wanted to lose. That thought segued to her doubts about preparing meals in a motor home and the notion that camping was not that much fun no matter how you looked at it. But at least they'd be inside a heated camper, not lying on the cold ground. Even though it was May, the nights could still be chilly in New Hampshire.

"Want to hear my haiku?" Sam asked.

"Sure," Nick said, settling into the stuffed green rocker in the corner by the ficus plant. He crossed his ankles. "Achoo away."

Sam read her verse.

Nick nodded.

"Do you get it?" she asked.

"Yeah." He frowned. "I think." He rocked as he gazed at the matching red chair on the other side of the corner table. "Well, I'm not sure." . . .

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