Nighttime noises are torture. When a midnight wind shrieks through our window jambs, or footsteps clomp past the house, I think, It could be anything. Once a snow bank slid from our roof and thundered onto the deck. I awoke, heart pounding, convinced I'd been shot.
It isn't logical, of course. But living with terror for seven years had not made me the most rational of thinkers, least of all when roused from sleep. A sound could be anything? No.
It was something.
When I awoke at four o'clock on Monday morning, February ninth, those years of dread were long over. Still, I was certain I'd heard a tiny scraping noise, like boots chafing against ice. Think, I warned myself. Don't panic.
Heart pulsing, throat dry, I waited for my brain to clear, for the sound to come again. My husband Tom was out of town. Even when he's at home, noise rarely interrupts his slumber. Tom is a big hulking cop, and isn't afraid of much.
I shifted in the chilled sheets. The temperature outside was close to zero. Frigid air poured through tiny leaks in our bedroom windows. The noise had come from outdoors, from below, of that I was fairly certain.
Now all was quiet. No sound emanated from Arch's room down the hall. Two months from turning fifteen, my son slept so soundly even a howling blizzard would not rouse him. On the first floor, our bloodhound, Jake, was not growling or pacing in his enclosed area next to the kitchen. These were good signs.
Maybe I was imagining things. I'd gone to bed too late, after cooking all evening for today's catered event. And I was stressed out, anyway. In December, our family life had been in an uproar. My in-home commercial kitchen had been shut down, and Tom and I had ended up involved in a homicide case at a nearby ski area. To make things worse, on New Year's Eve, right after the official reopening of my kitchen, I'd catered my first party in months. It had gone very badly.
Wait. Another unmistakable scrape was followed by a tiny crack. It was like . . . what? Elk hooves shattering ice? A pine bough creaking under its burden of snow? Like . . . someone opening a suitcase across the street?
Who unpacks bags at four in the morning?
Henry Kissinger said, Even a paranoid has real enemies. With that in mind, I decided against getting out of bed and peering out a window. My eyes traveled to the bedside table and I reached stealthily for the portable phone. In addition to being paranoid, I sometimes suspected I was an alarmist, or, as the ninth-grade tough guys at Arch's school would say, a wimp. Now, I bargained with myself. One more sound, and I would speed-dial the sheriff's department.
I shivered, waited, and longed for the heavy terry-cloth robe hanging in my closet, an early Valentine's present from Tom. Caterers need to rest after cooking, Miss G., he'd said. Wrap yourself in this when I'm gone, and pretend it's me.
Of course, I would have much preferred Tom himself to the robe. For the past week, he'd been in New Jersey working a case. There, he reported, the weather was rainy. In Aspen Meadow, I'd told him in our evening calls, each day had brought more snow. Arch and I had made a morning ritual of shoveling our front walk. But daytime temperatures in the mid-thirties had melted our man-made snow banks, and the nightly freezes transformed the sidewalk into a sheet of ice.
So. If someone was on our sidewalk, he or she was on a very slippery slope.
I propped myself up on my elbow, yanked up the bedspread, and listened intently. In the neon light cast by the street lamp outside, I could just make out my own reflection in our mirror: blond curly hair, dark eyes, thirty-four-year-old face just a tad round from an excess of chocolate. It was a face that had been happy for almost two years, since I'd married Tom. But now Tom's absence was an ache.
Back in my old life, my ex-husband had often stumbled in late. I'd become used to the drunken harangues, the flaunted infidelities, the midnight arguments. Sometimes I even thought his girlfriends used to follow him home, to stake out our house.
Of course, I absolutely believed in Tom's fidelity, even if he had been both secretive and preoccupied lately. Before he left, he'd even seemed low. I hadn't quite known how to help. Try as I might, I was still getting used to being a cop's wife.
Five minutes went by with no sound. My mind continued to meander. I wondered again about Tom. Six a.m. on the East Coast; was he up? Was he still planning on flying back this morning, as he'd promised us? Had he made any progress in his investigation?
The case Tom was working on involved the hijacking--on a Furman County road--of a FedEx delivery truck. The driver had been killed. Only one of the suspected three hijackers had been arrested. His name was Ray Wolff, and he was now in the same cell block as my ex-husband, Dr. John Richard Korman. The Jerk, as his other ex-wife and I called him, was currently serving a sentence for assault.
During Arch's weekly visit, John Richard had boasted to his son of his acquaintance with Ray Wolff, the famous killer-hijacker. How low things had sunk, I thought, when a father reveled in his own criminal infamy.
I shivered again and tried not to think of the threats my ex-husband had sent from jail. They'd been both implied and overt. When I get out of here, I'll set you straight, Goldy. To Arch, he'd said, You can tell your mother your father has a plan. I guess I wasn't surprised that those tiny signs of remorse John Richard had shown at his trial had all been for the benefit of the judge.
I jumped at the sound of a third, louder crack. Downstairs, Jake let out a tentative woof. I hit the phone's power button as an explosion rocked our house.
What was that? My brain reeled. Cold and trembling, I realized I'd fallen off the bed. A gunshot? A bomb? It had sounded like a rocket launcher. A grenade. An earthquake. Downstairs, glass crashed to the floor. What the hell is going on?
I clutched the phone, scuttled across the cold floor, and tried to call for Arch. Unfortunately, my voice no longer seemed to be working. Below, our security system shrieked. I cursed as I made a tripping dash down the unlit hall.
The noise had been a gunshot. It had to have been. Someone had shot at our home. At least one downstairs window had been shattered, of that I was certain. Where is the shooter now? Where is my son?
"Arch!" I squawked in the dark hallway. Dwarfed by the alarm, my voice sounded tinny and far away. "Are you all right? Can you hear me?"
The alarm's wail melded with Jake's baying. What good did a security system do, anyway? Alarms are meant to protect you from intruders wanting your stuff--not from shooters wanting your life. Yelling that it was me, it was Mom, I stumbled through my son's bedroom door.
Arch had turned on his aquarium light and was sitting up in bed. In the eerie light, his pale face glowed. His toast-brown hair had fanned out in an electric halo, and his hastily donned tortoiseshell glasses were askew. He clutched a raised sword--a gleaming foil used for his school fencing practice. I punched the phone buttons for 911, but was trembling so badly I messed it up. Now the phone was braying in my ear.
Panic tensed Arch's face as he leaned toward the watery light and squinted at me.
"Mom! What was that?"
Shuddering, I fumbled with the phone again and finally pushed the automatic dial for the Furman County Sheriff's Department.
"I don't know," I managed to shout to Arch. Blood gurgled in my ears. I wanted to be in control, to be comforting, to be a good mother. I wanted to assure him this was all some terrible mistake. "Better get on the--" With the phone, I gestured toward the floor.
Still gripping the sword, Arch obediently scrambled onto a braided rug I'd made during our financial dark days. He was wearing a navy sweat suit--his substitute for pajamas--and thick gray socks, protection from the cold. Protection. I thought belatedly of Tom's rifle and the handgun he kept hidden behind a false wall in our detached garage. Lot of good they did me now, especially since I didn't know how to shoot.
"We'll be right there," announced a distant telephone voice after I babbled where we were and what had happened. Jake's howl and the screaming security system made it almost impossible to make out the operator's clipped instructions. "Mrs. Schulz?" she repeated. "Lock the bedroom door. If any of your neighbors call, tell them not to do anything. We should have a car there in less than fifteen minutes."
Please, God, I prayed, disconnecting. With numb fingers, I locked Arch's door, then eased to the floor beside him. I glanced upward. Could the glow from the aquarium light be seen from outside? Could the shooter get a good purchase on Arch's window?
"Somebody has to go get Jake," Arch whispered. "We can't just leave him barking. You told the operator you heard a shot. Did you really think it was from a gun? I thought it was a cannonball."
"I don't know." If any of your neighbors call . . . My neighbors' names had all slid from my head.
The front doorbell rang. My eyes locked with Arch's. Neither of us moved. The bell rang again. A male voice shouted, "Goldy? Arch? It's Bill! Three other guys are here with me!" Bill? Ah, Bill Quincy . . . from next door. "Goldy," Bill boomed. "We're armed!"
I took a steadying breath. This was Colorado, not England or Canada or some other place where folks don't keep guns and wield them freely. In Aspen Meadow, no self-respecting gun-owner who heard a shot at four a.m. was going to wait to be summoned. One man had even glued a decal over the Neighborhood Watch sign: This Street Guarded by Colts. Although the county had sent out a graffiti-removal company to scrape off the sticker, the sentiment remained the same.
"Goldy? Arch?" Bill Quincy hollered again. "You okay? It doesn't look as if anybody's broken in! Could you let me check? Goldy!"
Would the cops object? I didn't know.
"Goldy?" Bill bellowed. "Answer me, or I'm breaking down the door!"
"All right!" I called. "I'm coming!" I told Arch to stay put and tentatively made my way down the stairs.
Freezing air swirled through the first floor. In the living room, glass shards glittered where they'd landed on the couch, chairs, and carpet. I turned off the deafening alarm, flipped on the outside light, and swung open the door.
Four grizzled, goose-down-jacketed men stood on my front step. I was wearing red plaid flannel pj's and my feet were bare, but I told them law enforcement was en route and invited them in. Clouds of steam billowed from the men's mouths as Bill insisted his companions weren't budging. As if to make his point, Bill's posse settled creakily onto our frosted porch. The men's weapons--two rifles and two pistols--glinted in the ghostly light.
Bill Quincy, his wide, chinless face grim, his broad shoulders tense, announced that he intended to go through the house, to see if the shooter had broken in. I should wait until he'd inspected the first floor, he ordered, pushing past me without further ceremony. Bill stomped resolutely through the kitchen and dining room, peered into the tiny half-bath, then returned to the hallway and cocked his head at me. I tiptoed behind him to the kitchen. He shouted a warning into the basement, then banged down the steps. If the intruder was indeed inside, there could be no mistake that my neighbor intended to roust him out.
Jake bounded up to Arch's room ahead of me. Scout, our adopted stray cat, slunk along behind the bloodhound, his long gray-and-brown hair, like Arch's, turned electric from being suddenly roused. Following my animal escort, I silently thanked God that none of us had been hurt, and that we had great neighbors. The cat scooted under the bed used by Julian Teller, our former boarder, now a sophomore at the University of Colorado. Arch asked for a third time what had happened. I didn't want to frighten him. So I lied.
"It just . . . looks as if some drunk staggered up from the Grizzly Saloon, took aim at our living-room window, and shot it out. I don't know whether the guy used a shotgun or a rifle. Whatever it was, he wasn't too plastered to miss."
My son nodded slowly, not sure whether to believe me. He shouldn't have, of course. The Grizzly closed early on Sunday night.
I stared at the hands on Arch's new clock, a gift from his fencing coach. The clock was in the shape of a tiny knight holding a sword, from which a timepiece dangled. When the hands pointed to four-twenty-five, a wail of sirens broke the tense silence. I pushed aside Arch's faded orange curtains and peeked out his window. Two sheriff's department vehicles hurtled down our street and parked at the curb.
I raced back to Tom's and my bedroom and slid into jeans, a sweatshirt, and clogs. Had someone unintentionally fired a gun? Was the damage to our window just some stupid accident? Surely it couldn't have been deliberate. And of all the times for this to happen . . .
I started downstairs. Today was supposed to herald my first big job in five weeks, a luncheon gig at a Gothic chapel on an estate dominated by a genuine English castle. The castle was one of Aspen Meadow's gorgeous-but-weird landmarks. If things went well, the castle owner--who was hoping to open a conference center at the site--promised to be a huge client. I didn't want anything to mess up today's job.
Then again, I fretted as I gripped the railing, I was a caterer married to a cop, a cop working on a case so difficult he'd been forced to search for a suspect two thousand miles away. Perhaps the gunshot had been a message for Tom.
Outside, the red-and-blue lights flashing on snow-covered pines created monstrous shadows. The sight of cop cars was not unfamiliar to me. Still, my throat tightened as I wrenched open our front door. Bill and the other gun-toters looked at me sympathetically.
Why would someone shoot at the house of a caterer?
I swallowed hard.
Excerpted from Sticks & Scones by Diane Mott Davidson. Copyright © 2002 by Diane Mott Davidson. Excerpted by permission of Bantam, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.