Editor’s note: Suspended Aggravation is an original, Wheeling-centric novel by Nora Edinger and is published exclusively through Weelunk. While some of the places mentioned in Suspended Aggravation are real (or nearly real), the storyline and most characters (with the exception of a few cameo appearances by actual city residents) exist only in the author’s imagination. For the backstory, read our Q&A with the author.
Location: the streets of downtown Wheeling, West Virginia
Emotion: “Every breath you take, every move you make…”
Allie looked in the rearview mirror of her Cooper one more time and frowned. She was in no way distracted by the bumper-to-bumper crawl that was Friday late afternoon. It was that car. Again. Right behind her — down Main Street, onto 16th and, now, heading north on Chapline.
She wasn’t a car person other than her own sweet ride, but she could recognize this vehicle — or at least thought she could — by the odd circles on the headlights. She’d looked them up on line. They were called “halo rings” and were intended to make cars look “high-end and aggressive,” according to one website that sold them for what she considered to be inordinate prices.
The car certainly felt aggressive. Whenever it appeared, it was never more than a car length behind her. And the driver — a non-descript man with a beard and dark glasses — made no attempt at subterfuge. If she turned, he turned. If she stopped, he stopped. When he was tailing her, he was somehow just suddenly there and he didn’t leave her until she parked somewhere. Other times, the car was nowhere to be seen.
Given the fact Allie was a journalist, she had seen such stuff before. More than once.
In the most memorable threaten-the-reporter-by-car-stalking incident, an innocuous feature had revealed a bit of fraud she suspected involved organized crime. A sedan with tinted windows had followed her on and off for days — apparently until it was clear to the dark-hearted powers that be that she was done with the story. And, she was, both with the news of it and the risk of it.
Allie peered into the mirror again. It was even possible the vehicle was the same SUV that she and Gabe had seen while they were in Charleston, the one involved in the most recent photo. But, with all the new following, there hadn’t been any new pictures —even after she had seen what she thought was the very same car pass by as she and Gabe were saying goodbye after another dinner out last night.
She’d watched Gabe watch the car go by, too. Neither of them said anything. She wasn’t sure why.
Not that she wanted to think at the moment about strange cars that might or might not be following her — or both of them, as she suddenly realized the car’s occasional absence from her own rearview mirror might mean. It could be coincidence. It could. Besides, she wanted to look ahead, not literally behind.
So, she did. Allie turned into the parking garage next to the courthouse and watched her “friend” disappear down the street. She smiled and slid into a “compact cars only” space. God bless her itty-bitty, super-duper Cooper.
Allie lowered the mirror on her sun visor, applied some fresh lipstick and brushed out her hair. Wriggling out of the pink shrug sweater and the gauzy scarf she’d kept wound around her neck at work to avoid looking overly bridal in her white dress, she checked the mirror one more time. Given the speed of their wedding plans and the intensity of her end-of-week work deadlines, this was the best she was able to do and still make it here on time. She grabbed her purse and the shopping bag that discreetly hid her bouquet of white daisies and baby’s breath — in case she ran into someone she knew —and headed for the courthouse’s riverside entrance.
Gabe was already there, at the top of the steps, all dreamy handsome in a dark blue suit and open-collared white shirt. Now, he was smiling broadly and breathtakingly. Allie practically ran to him, but playfully turned her face away when he tried to kiss her.
“Not until we’re married, Mr. Morelli,” she teased, smiling with shy pleasure at the sudden fire in his eyes.
Location: Ohio County Courthouse, 40.0645° N, 80.7206° W
Emotion: “Bring me a higher love.”
Gabe wouldn’t have thought a courthouse ceremony would be as, well, reverent as theirs turned out to be. When the magistrate led them through the traditional vows they had requested, a gilded cathedral could not have made the words any more solemn. They were promising each other everything. They were promising God everything. It really didn’t matter where they were or who else was there.
“I, Gabriel Anthony, take you, Allison Elizabeth, to be my lawfully wedded wife.” That sentence alone filled Allie’s eyes with tears and nearly did the same to him. “To have and to hold, from this day forward. For better, for worse; for richer, for poorer; in sickness and in health; to love and to cherish until death do us part.”
Rings purchased in an online rush lest they give their plans away. A barely-there black band for her and a thicker one for him. They were made in a lab out of carbon fiber or something, which made Allie somehow happy. He just liked that they looked like the coal his grandfather had mined not really that long ago. Rock solid in a West Virginia kind of way.
Then, there was Allie’s trembling smile and her sweet little dress and her daisies. He was in love. He was in awe. The magistrate actually had to remind Gabe to kiss his bride.
Even then, he barely touched her lips with his own. The world had seen enough of their kisses, thank you. “Let’s wait until we don’t have an audience,” he whispered in her ear.
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Allie giggled at that. Wanting a photo record for their families and friends, they handed their phones to court staffers — all of whom seemed to know Allie and who were clearly excited to be part of a secret Bridge BAE’z moment. But, Gabe couldn’t wrap things up with the magistrate and get them out of the courtroom and into a shadowy corner of the hallway outside quickly enough.
“Wow,” he whispered again as he pulled her behind a marble pillar and into his arms. “We are married.”
“Yes, we are,” she said quietly, smiling as his mouth claimed hers in a kiss that somehow accelerated from 0 to autobahnin way less than 60 seconds.
“Holy matrimony, Mrs. Morelli!” Gabe teased, his lips now against her ear. “Where did you learn to kiss like that?”
“Hanging around high school hallways and a certain bridge,” Allie said dryly. “I seem to remember you being there.”
Gabe pulled back from her to laugh. “That I was.”
He kissed her again, his mouth straying to the soft hollows of her throat this time. He smiled at her soft gasp but soon released her with a sigh. Gabe pulled his phone from a jacket pocket and looked at the time. “I wish we didn’t have to split up to drop off your car at the house. The ceremony was great, but it took longer than I thought it would.”
“It’ll just take a few minutes.”
“I know,” he said with another sigh, instantly deciding to take the interstate to Canaan Valley rather than the scenic route. It was faster and would make life easier for the shadows, who, ironically enough, knew all about their wedding and honeymoon plans even though no one else did.
He frowned briefly, wondering yet again what was up with the black SUV that came way too close last night and that had openly tailed each of them here and there over the last day or so. The way in which the car was following suggested either open malice or amateur hour. Phone contact with the shadows had already revealed it was a rental leased to a wannabe photographer of celebrities from Los Angeles. The car seemed like little more than a nuisance, but he was suddenly glad his eyes weren’t the only ones watching, especially on their actual honeymoon.
“Let’s go, African Queen,” he said, happily redirecting his attention to his wife.
They held hands until they reached the bottom of the courthouse steps, stopping to look joyfully at each other for a long moment before she would head for the parking garage and he to the street space he had miraculously managed to snag. Gabe surveyed the courthouse plaza, which was nearly empty given it was Friday afternoon. Her dress and the flowers already gave everything away if anyone was actually paying attention outside of the shadows. And, he seriously doubted the court staffers would stay mum for long. Why not? The deal was done. He bent his head forward for a broad-daylight kiss.
This time, neither of them saw the black SUV with the halo lights passing by on the street in front of them. Nor, did they see its driver’s-side window slide down and something small and dark emerge.
The shadows saw. One who was on foot moved swiftly into the street, appearing to be an oblivious, texting “teen.” The SUV braked fast and hard before it swerved sharply to the left and sped away.
Gabe and Allie looked up in alarm, but neither they nor that shadow saw the second car that was following too closely behind. As car No. 1 jerked left, car No. 2 jerked right, popping the curb. It was only a sharp squeal of brakes and tires skidding across the broad concrete plaza where they stood that alerted them all to its terrifying nearness.
By then, it was too late.
The shadow fled and, for an instant, there was just the two of them. Allie, slammed hard against Gabe’s chest. The crack of the limestone steps against his side, then his head as they fell back and back.
Another shadow flitted past where they now lay in a tangle. “… camera … gun … you’re covered … ambulance on way…don’t let her move,” that one whispered in Gabe’s ear before disappearing into a crowd that had already gathered around them.
Gabe heard the words and wasn’t entirely sure what they meant, but he instinctively tightened his arms around his bride. Warmth soaked into the sleeve of his jacket as he did so. He knew without looking that it was blood. He just wasn’t sure if it was hers or his. There wasn’t time to check. He was out.
INSIDE THE STORY:
•Wheeling is blessed with an astounding amount of stellar architecture — from downtown glory to outlying neighborhoods where cozy homes stretch into the river and creek valleys. Our actual courthouse — a mid-century brick box known formally as the City-County Building — isn’t on this particular roll call. For this story, I opted to give us a better one -— at no cost to the taxpayer.
•Gabe and Allie’s wedding rings and how they bought them are a Wheeling-inspired rewrite. Originally, I had the characters purchase rings separately at big box stores. Then, while doing a Weelunk story on COVID-19 and the elopement of an Elm Grove couple, I learned they bought their rings — and everything else — online during a five-day wedding-planning blitz. Of course that’s what Millennials such as Gabe and Allie would do, I realized. I immediately changed the scene.
• A long-time journalist, Nora Edinger also blogs at noraedinger.com and Facebook and writes books. Her Christian chick lit and faith-related non-fiction are available on Amazon. She lives in Wheeling, where she is part of a three-generation, two-species household.