For The Least Of These, page 24
Bella handled the curves like a pro as we wound our way down out of the Smoky Mountains. I tried to stay calm and drive the speed limit, but I couldn’t help but worry about Adam. I honestly didn’t even know where to look for him once I arrived in Pensacola – heck, I didn’t even know for sure that he was still in Pensacola. At least I remembered Brandy’s last name – Moretti. I only remembered it because she, Adam, Alicia, and I had eaten in a restaurant with the same name, and I had taken a matchbook as we left that day. I guess I took it as a memento. I wanted to always remember that time with Alicia – and with Adam and Brandy. It had been a good day. One of the best ones I could recall. Of course I also knew Alicia’s last name was Meyers. Hopefully I would be able to locate one of them.
Traffic was fairly light as I started my trip. Unfortunately, there was a five car pileup in Atlanta and traffic was stalled for miles. By the time I reached the backup, I was past the exit for the by-pass, so I had to wait out the delay. For nearly an hour, I was at an almost complete standstill. Ever so occasionally, traffic would move a few thousand feet, and then we would stop again. We finally began moving at a snail’s pace of thirty-five miles an hour. There was still a good bit of stopping and starting, but it was mostly due to impatient drivers continuously switching lanes. When at last I made it to the turn-off leading towards Montgomery, traffic started moving at a normal pace. By this time, I had lost nearly two hours and I was physically drained. A few exits passed the Hartsfield-Jackson Airport, I stopped for gas and a bathroom break. I decided to stretch my legs for a few minutes, and I also bought an Amp energy drink to keep me alert. I wasted another twenty minutes and calculated that I would now reach Pensacola between ten and ten-thirty that night. Traffic dwindled once I got clear of Atlanta. I stopped for dinner at a Chick-fil-a in Opelika, Alabama and once more for gas at the Flomaton exit. It was just about ten-thirty when I arrived in Pensacola.
Since it was too late to figure out where Brandy or Alicia lived, I tried to get a room at the Red Roof Inn. The hotel was full, and that’s when I learned there was a hurricane headed straight for Pensacola. The hotel clerk was astonished that I was unaware of the storm, especially given the weather. I had noticed the rain and wind, but I’d thought it was just a summer storm. I used the hotel’s phone book to call around for a room, but I came up empty. While the book was in my hand, I looked for a phone number for Meyers. There were quite a few, and none of them were for an Alicia Meyers. I had just found a listing for a Vincenzo Moretti when the desk clerk came over to me.
“Mr. Hartwood?” She was beaming at me. She hadn’t seemed to recognize me earlier, but now it was plain to see that she knew exactly who I was.
“Yes?” I was expecting her to ask for my autograph.
“I’ve just been talking to my manager. She knew who you were right away. I’m sorry I didn’t recognize you at first…Well, anyway, she told me that we had a couple of rooms that we were holding for some Admiral or something from out of town. It seems that he called in just a little while ago to say that he wasn’t coming because of the storm. Both rooms are suites. Would you be interested in one of them?”
“Of course,” I told her. I was somewhat perturbed that she even had to ask and I said, “What? Do you think I can’t afford a suite?”
“Uh…no, sir,” she replied. She seemed to be almost in tears and I regretted the attitude I had adopted. “I’m sorry, Mr. Hartwood.”
“It’s okay. I’m just a little tired.” I then booked the room for the remainder of the week.
Once I got to my room, I grabbed the phone book and turned back to the listing for Vincenzo Moretti. There were only two other listings for Moretti and they were both for women. I had heard Brandy mention her father, so I hoped this was his number. Just in case, I wrote down all three Moretti numbers to call the next morning. With any luck, one of them would know something about Brandy and possibly Adam.
I was hoping to get up early the next morning but that wasn’t to be. Apparently someone in the hotel had recognized me – or maybe the hurt little desk clerk was getting revenge. Whatever the reason, someone kept ringing my room all night and hanging up. Someone also kept knocking on my door. These were things well-known stars put up with. Normally I would have complained to the management, but I felt guilty about snapping at the clerk and didn’t want to cause her more trouble. I didn’t report any of the disturbances; I just covered my head and made the best of it.
I didn’t wake up on Wednesday morning until almost noon, and even then my body implored me to stay in bed. I resisted the urge to grab another half-hour’s sleep, but I did allow myself a quick shower to help wash away the drowsiness. Afterwards, I dialed the number for Vincenzo Moretti. A man answered angrily, “Don’t you know there’s a storm coming? For the last time, we don’t want any magazine subscriptions!”
Obviously, Mr. Moretti had been inundated with telemarketing calls. “Mr. Moretti, please! Don’t hang up, Sir. I’m a friend of Brandy’s.”
“Brandy?” For a moment I thought I had gotten the wrong Moretti, but then he said, “She’s not here. She left this morning, ignoring my passionate protests and my fresh baked brioche.”
“That was rather rude of her. I’ve heard your brioche is extraordinary.” Of course I hadn’t heard anything about his brioche – I didn’t even know what brioche was. But I did want to get Mr. Moretti to reveal Brandy’s location. Buttering him up wouldn’t hurt. “Do you know where Brandy was going? It must have been pretty important to skip a homemade breakfast with her dad…”
“I don’t know how Brandy became so popular. Everyone is looking for her. She was going over to talk to her friend Alicia. Do you know where she lives?”
“No, Sir. Would it be possible for you to give me her address or her phone number?”
“I’m really not in the habit of giving out that information. I don’t know who you are.”
“I apologize, Mr. Moretti. I’m Rick Hartwood…”
“Really now. THE Rick Hartwood?”
“Umm…yes, I guess you could say that I’m THE Rick Hartwood. “
“Sure you are. And I’m THE Dean Martin. I’ve also got some ocean front property in Death Valley that I’d like to sell you.”
“Ha-ha, Mr. Moretti. You are too funny. But I really am Rick Hartwood. I met Brandy a couple of months ago in Mississippi. I think she’s been seeing my best friend, Adam Considine…”
“Well, she has mentioned Adam before, but that doesn’t prove anything. Rick Hartwood is Brandy’s favorite singer. I think she would have mentioned it if she had met him.”
“No, Sir, I don’t think she would. I was a pretty big jerk to her. That’s one of the reasons I’m looking for her. I want to apologize. Look, I can sing one of my songs over the phone if that will convince you…”
“No, no, please don’t do that. You really know how to torture a man. Here’s her address – write it down. Just be aware that her friend Alicia is dating a cop, and he’s probably over there too.”
Mr. Moretti gave me Alicia’s address and then hung up the phone. I had managed to write the address down, but I was reeling from his statement about Alicia dating a cop. Hopefully he had made that part up to dissuade me from going to Alicia’s if I were anyone other than Rick Hartwood. I tried to put it out of my head as I consulted a map I had located in the nightstand next to my bed. I marked my route, and then headed downstairs. I started out the door of the hotel and stopped long enough to assess the weather. Buckets of rain were falling almost horizontally in the intense wind. I knew I would be soaked by the time I reached my car, but I had to try and reach Adam. I still wasn’t sure how I was going to help, but I had to do something. I was reaching to open the door when a voice said, “Sir, you really shouldn’t go outside. The police have issued a warning. No one should be out in this weather.”
It was the morning desk clerk, or maybe a bellhop. The young man couldn’t have been over twenty years old. His reddish-blonde hair was spiked up on
“You can call the police. I believe they are still responding to calls at this point. I’m sure they can help your friend.”
“Look, do you have any authority to stop me from leaving – like are you a policeman or fireman or anything?”
“Well, no, sir. But I’ve been instructed by management to ask all guests to stay inside.”
“Noted. You can tell your boss that I refused to cooperate. If I get hurt, it won’t be the hotel’s responsibility. Now, do you have any rain gear I could borrow?”
His face brightened a little. “I have an umbrella. Oh, and a raincoat.”
“I’ll take the raincoat. I don’t think an umbrella will be much help.”
“Oh, right! How stupid of me. Let me get that raincoat for you.”
He disappeared down the hallway and I believed that I would be on my way soon. When he didn’t return after several minutes, I figured something was up and decided to make a go of it without the raincoat. Just then, the young man returned. A taller gray-haired man was accompanying him. The older man was dressed in a suit, and I imagined that he was the manager. I had been duped by my young friend.
The older gentleman approached me as the younger man stepped behind the desk – probably to avoid any angry words I might wish to say to him. “Mr. Hartwood, I cannot let you go out in this weather. Perhaps you are unfamiliar with hurricane force winds. They can cause you to lose control of your vehicle or blow you off your feet. In addition, there could be tornados, and there is already flooding in many low-lying areas. You wouldn’t want to get stranded outside. Even if you are used to getting your way, I can’t allow you to go out in this. Please go back to your room.”
I was really starting to lose my patience. I knew these two were trying to prevent an accident – either to protect my life or to avoid a lawsuit. I was also aware that it was dangerous outside. I didn’t care. I had risked my life so many times in the past just for the sake of a good time, but now I had to try and help Adam. I had come to realize that he was one of the most important things in my life, and I was willing to give up everything for him: my money, my fame, even my own existence. So what if I didn’t have the greatest timing in the world and my epiphany had come in the face of a hurricane? Nothing was going to stop me.
“Mister, don’t try to stop me. I’m going out to save my friend, and you don’t want to get in my way. If you have a raincoat, I’d appreciate the use of it. Otherwise, I’ll just be going. Your conscience can be clear – I understand the danger and I’m willing to take my chances.”
“You’re a crazy fool,” he said to me. Then he turned to the younger man and said, “Josh, get that rain poncho from under the desk and give it to this jackass. Oh, and be sure to charge it to his credit card since he probably won’t be bringing it back.”
Josh brought me a plastic pouch and handed it to me without ever meeting my eyes. I opened the pouch and pulled out a yellow nylon poncho, unfolded it, and pulled it over my head. Without another word, I left out the front door and ran into the parking lot. The wind was strong, but I didn’t feel the urge to grab hold of a tree or a light post or anything. I got into Bella and glanced over the map once more, and then I cautiously pulled out onto the road.
The streets were mostly empty, but I was far from being the only driver on the road. A couple of police cars drove past me in the opposite direction, but they kept on their way as though oblivious to me. I drove well below the speed limit and viewed all rain puddles warily. Time was passing way too quickly. I was relieved when I finally located Alicia’s address.
I pulled into a paved driveway on the side of the brick house and parked next to a Chevy truck. I started to approach the house, but then I remembered that Alicia had told me that she lived in a detached apartment behind her parents’ house, so I passed by the main house and headed into the back yard. As I rounded the corner, I saw a small house that was identical to the larger one, and I knew that had to be where Alicia lived. There was a second driveway between the main house and the apartment where a Toyota, a Honda, and a Volkswagen were parked. None of these were cars Adam would be driving – his one remaining vice was an addiction to flashy, expensive sports cars. Of course he could be riding with Brandy, and I didn’t know what kind of car she had. I rushed on towards the small porch and the front door of the apartment. The wind was becoming more violent with each passing moment. I reached the door and started to knock, but then realized that it had already been forced open. Before I had time to process that thought, I saw blood – lots of it. There was a small stain on the arm of the sofa, but more disturbing was the huge puddle on the floor. My heart jumped into my throat and I raced towards the blood stain on the floor. I jumped back when I saw a big burly man lying there in the blood. Since there was enough blood around him to supply the nearest blood bank, I knew he wasn’t ever getting up again. I looked around the rest of the apartment, but it was empty. For just a moment, I tried to suppose what might have occurred in Alicia’s home, but I quickly decided that I’d better check the big house on the property for more victims.
Before going back into the rain and wind, I tried using Alicia’s phone to call 911 and report the dead body. I gently used a paper towel to pick up the phone so I wouldn’t disturb – or leave – any fingerprints. The phone was dead. I had my cell phone, but I wasn’t going to get a signal in this weather. I left the apartment and tried to close the door as best I could. The wind was coming from the opposite direction, so the door held for the moment. As I crossed the yard, I noticed that the Volkswagen was no longer in the drive. Had that car belonged to the killer who had now escaped? As much as I wanted to be a more altruistic version of Rick Hartwood, Superstar, I was still relieved by the thought that the killer had left the premises. I didn’t want Adam – or anyone else – to be dead, but most of all, I didn’t want to be dead.
I now felt a little more daring as I approached the back door. I had convinced myself that the killer was gone, so I could now become the hero without risking my own life. I decided to knock before trying the door. I let myself hope that someone was still alive inside the house. The door flew open with such a jolt that I feared that the killer was still here and that I was about to become his next victim. If this was the killer, he was disguised as a tired looking old man.
“What do you want?” he barked.
“I’m Rick Hartwood, a friend of Adam’s.” I tried to be cautious, just in case this man was part of the crime next door.
“Who the hell is Adam?” he barked again.
Just then, a sweet looking little old lady came up beside the man. “Adam is Brandy’s friend, dear. Let the young man come in out of the weather.” She pushed the old man aside so I could enter.
“Oh, damn!” the old man yelled. “Now he’s dripping all over the floor, Agnes!”
I apologized for dripping on the floor. And since this was Mr. Meyers’ main concern, I was certain that this couple didn’t know anything about the dead man on Alicia’s floor.
“We’re Alicia’s parents, the Meyers. I’m afraid you just missed Adam.” This was Agnes.
“Really? Do you know where he went?”
“Does it matter? The fool is driving around with our daughter in a hurricane. If he brings her back alive, I’m going to kill him.” This was Dear – also known as Mr. Meyers.
“What are they driving? I’ll find them and bring them back if you can tell me where they were going.”
Mrs. Meyers tried to remember, “It was that little black car. Dear, did you notice what kind of car it was?”
I jumped in, “Was it a Volkswagen?”
Mr. Meyers replied, “Yes, it was a Jetta. And it was black.” He was about to say more, but his wife interrupted.
“They were going over tow
Something wasn’t adding up. Brandy’s cell phone wouldn’t work in this weather any more than mine would. Whatever was going on wasn’t as important as finding Adam and Alicia. They had just left, so I might be able to catch up with them. “Can you tell me how to get to Brandy’s house?”
Mrs. Meyers decided to draw me a rough map. While she was doing this, Mr. Meyers softened a bit. “You’ll never survive in that little car you drove up in. I think you’d better take my Silverado. I was going to offer it to Alicia and that boy, but they took off so fast that I didn’t get the chance. It has four-wheel drive if you need to use it. It’s got an extended cab, so you can fit all five of you in there if need be.”
“Thank you, Sir. That would be wonderful,” I said earnestly. I hadn’t really thought out my plan, but it would be hard to rescue someone in Bella – especially if she choked out in a large puddle of water.
After Mrs. Meyers had given me the crude map, I remembered the body in the apartment. I now realized that Adam and Alicia had kept the body a secret, but I wasn’t sure why. The right thing to do would be to call the police on the Meyers’ phone, but in order to do that, I would have to alert them to the body. Then if their phone wasn’t working, I would have upset them for no reason. The body wasn’t going anywhere – unless the wind really picked up – so I decided to follow Adam’s lead and not tell the Meyers.
As I darted for the truck, I was struck by some dreadful thoughts. Mr. Moretti had mentioned that Alicia was dating a cop. What if the big man on the floor was that cop? And what if the cop tried to arrest Adam? Did Adam shoot the cop to insure his escape? Did he force Alicia to go with him? I had known Adam for a lot of years, and even at his worst, he would have never done anything like that. There had to be another explanation. And where was Brandy? I hurried out of the driveway and drove in the direction Mrs. Meyers had indicated.
I drove faster than I had earlier, but I still tried to stay cautious by avoiding standing water. When I reached the highway, there was still a good bit of traffic on the road. The rain was unrelenting, but luckily, Mr. Meyers had new wiper blades on the truck. Even so, it wasn’t easy to see through the deluge. I stayed on the main road, as Mrs. Meyers had instructed, and I was soon within a few blocks of Brandy’s neighborhood. I started slowing down when I saw blue lights heading towards me. I didn’t have time to deal with law enforcement, so I quickly turned onto the next street and then pulled into the nearest driveway. The police cruiser continued down the highway – assuring me that I wasn’t the focus of his pursuit.
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