When he was home it was his custom to handle the ghosts with a shot of whiskey. But tonight he had nothing to take the edge off. He would just have to deal with it. Wouldn’t be the first time.
From out of the depths the phantoms arose, right on schedule. The scene was a twilight-shrouded jungle drenched with the smell of death and gut-wrenching fear. The worst part had been knowing that the night was inevitable and that there was no hope of rescue until dawn.
He and Sullivan had made it through that hellish night together because they had both understood that their survival depended on staying in control of the panic. They had both understood the need for absolute silence and absolute stillness. Side by side in the unrelenting darkness, they had somehow managed to reinforce that grim knowledge in each other without words or movement of any kind. And without words or movement they had managed to keep each other from slipping over the edge into that place where the fear took over and got you killed.
At dawn, he and Sullivan had still been alive. A lot of the others had not been so lucky.
He wondered if Sullivan went through the same ritual every evening. Waiting. Knowing the night was inevitable.
“What, exactly, did you say to Lillian?” Gabe asked.
Mitchell watched the light disappear, unable to look away. “Just told her flat-out that it looked to me like you were fallin’ for her in a big way and that I didn’t want her to stomp all over your heart.”
“Those were your exact words?”
Mitchell thought back to the conversation in the greenhouse. “Pretty close.”
“Did Lillian imply that she intended to, uh, stomp all over my heart?” Gabe asked.
What the hell was it about this time of day? The shift from day to night always seemed to take forever.
“In a manner of speaking,” he said.
Gabe gazed steadily at the road unwinding in front of the car. “Doesn’t sound like something Lillian would say. What were her precise words, Mitch?”
“Well, she got irritated when I told her that I didn’t want you gettin’ hurt. Said something about how she was the one who stood to get stomped on account of everyone was so sure you were after her because you wanted a chunk of Harte Investments.”
Gabe nodded. “I can see where she’d get that impression. Lot of people have been saying that lately.”
“Natural assumption, under the circumstances.”
“I told her that was garbage. Said you were a Madison and Madisons never marry for money. Not that practical, when you get right down to it.”
“Good point.” Gabe waited a beat. “So, how did she respond to that observation?”
“She reminded me how everyone said that you were a different kind of Madison. I told her you were different, but not that different.”
“What else did she say?”
“Well, let’s see. I believe I may have pointed out that Madison Commercial is your passion and that when it comes to a Madison and his passion—”
“Nothing gets in the way. Yeah, right, I’ve heard that. She say anything else?”
The transition to night was complete at last. The phantom images receded into the darkness.
Mitchell exhaled slowly. “Seemed to think I’d maybe given you the wrong impression.”
“About what you’ve done with Madison Commercial.”
Gabe’s hands tightened a little on the wheel. “For the past year and a half you’ve been telling me that I’ve spent too much time fooling around with the company. Maybe you were right.”
Mitchell had to swallow twice to keep from sputtering. “Shoot and damn, son, you built that company from the ground up. You sweated blood to prove something to the whole damn world.”
“What did I prove?”
“You know what you proved. Hell, after you created Madison Commercial no one could say that every Madison who came along was doomed to screw up everything he touched.”
“You consider that a major accomplishment?”
“Damn right, I do.” He stared at the road. “More important than you’ll ever know.”
“Because after Madison Commercial, folks had to quit sayin’ that I had screwed up both my grandsons’
lives the same way I had messed up your father’s life.”
A crystalline silence enveloped the front seat of the car.
“Did people really say that?” Gabe asked after a while. “To your face?”
“Some said it to my face. Most folks said it behind my back. They were all pretty much agreed that I wasn’t fit to raise you and Rafe after Sinclair killed himself and your mother on that damn motorcycle.”
“They said I set a piss-poor example for a couple of young boys.” He rubbed his jaw. “To tell you the truth, they were right. But what the hell was I gonna do? Not like there was anyone else around to take over the job.”
“You could have walked out. Disappeared. Let the social workers deal with us.”
“Bullshit. You don’t turn your grandkids over to the state to raise.”
“Some people would.”
“Madisons don’t do stuff like that.”
Gabe smiled slightly. “Got it.”
Mitchell suddenly realized that he wanted to explain things, but he didn’t know how to go about it. He wasn’t good at this kind of situation. He groped for the right words.
“The point I’m trying to make,” he said, “is that you were smart enough not to follow my bad example.
You made something of yourself, Gabe. When you built M.C. you broke the Madison curse or jinx or whatever that made us all failures.”
“What the hell do you mean? That’s exactly what you did and don’t you ever forget it.”
“It wasn’t me who broke the jinx,” Gabe said. “It was you.”
“Don’t you get it? You’re the one who changed after Dad’s death. And when you changed, you altered the future for Rafe and me.”
Lillian stopped the car in the drive, opened the door and checked her watch in the weak overhead light.
Just after seven. There was no sign of Gabe and Mitchell yet but they would be here any minute. Gabe had called her from the outskirts of town a short while ago.
She had left the porch light on as well as several lamps inside the house. The cottage was illuminated with a warm, welcoming glow. Keys in hand, she collected the two sacks of groceries she had picked up at Fulton’s Supermarket and went up the porch steps. With a little jockeying, she managed to get the front door open without having to put down one of the grocery bags.