Authors: Maggie Shayne
“Why don't we meet at the restaurant instead? Say seven o'clock?”
He nodded. “I'll be looking forward to it.”
“So will I.” She wanted to take her hand away from his, but she couldn't do that and still seem flirtatious, so she let it remain there, until he finally lowered his own.
“Good night then,” he said.
She nodded, and kept the smile on her face as she paid for her purchases and headed back to her car. When she drove back to the house, she told herself this dinner was an excellent opportunity to get more information about Ethan, and about his diagnosis and treatment of River.
* * *
When she got back to the house, River was sitting in a chair at the small kitchen table. His hair was wet from the cool bath. He wore jeans and a T-shirt. He didn't look up when she came in.
She closed and locked the door, set the grocery bag on the
counter and began taking items out of it. “Are you feeling any better?” she asked.
He didn't reply.
She set the tea bags on a cupboard shelf, then several cans of soup and packets of gelatin mix. “Are you hungry? Dad said you should be eating as much as you can manage. You need to get your strength back.”
He still didn't reply, and when she took the bottle of ginger ale from the bag and turned to the fridge, she looked at him, wondering why.
He sat still, hands in his lap, gaze seemingly turned inward. He wasn't looking at her. He didn't even appear to be hearing her.
Jax put the bottles in the fridge and then went to him. She knelt beside his chair to put her eyes level with his. “River?”
Nothing. She touched his face, felt no trace of any remaining fever. Then she tried snapping her fingers in front of his eyes. “River? Come on, talk to me.” She gripped his shoulders, shook him slightly.
Rex came toward her, growling a warning, so she stopped. “All right. All right, boy, I'm not going to hurt him.”
The dog whined and then lay down on River's feet.
Frowning, and completely unsure what to do, Jax put away the remaining groceries, set the pain reliever on the counter, folded the paper bag and tucked it into a drawer under the sink. She kept a close eye on him as she got a glass down and filled it with ginger ale. Returning to the table, she touched his face again. Seemed she couldn't stop herself from touching him.
She was still standing there, one hand on his cheek, when he blinked, sucked in a sharp breath and looked right into her eyes, his own completely confused. “Whatâ¦?”
“It's okay. I thinkâ¦you zoned out for a few minutes. That's all.”
River's eyes widened and he surged to his feet. “Oh God.
Are you all right?” He gripped her shoulders, searching her face. “Did I hurt you, did Iâ”
“River, for crying out loud, I'm fine.” She clasped his face between her palms to make him stand still. “I'm fine. Okay?”
He sighed, lowering his head slowly. “How long have I beenâ¦out?”
“That's what this was, then? One of your blackouts?”
He nodded, not looking at her. “I don't remember anything since I got out of the tub and got dressed.”
She nodded. “Well, depending on how long you were in the tub, I'd say this lasted fifteen to twenty minutes, at the most. I just got back from the store.”
Slowly, he lifted his head. “Did I do anything? Threaten you orâ”
“River, you didn't do anything but sit there and stare at the empty space in front of your nose. I don't think you could have done anything if you'd wanted to.”
He frowned and sank into his chair. “I never know. Steph always said it was like I was asleep with my eyes open.”
“That's exactly what it was like.”
“But it's not
“No?” Jax sighed and pulled out a chair to sit beside him. “River, has anyone ever witnessed you doing anything
sitting still during one of these blackouts?”
He lowered his head. “Yeah. I'm afraid so. That's another reason I shouldn't be staying here, Cassandra. I could hurt you. I get violent sometimes, agitated. I lash out at whatever or whoever is close enough.”
She nodded slowly. “Your wife told you that?”
“No. She never saw me like that. At leastâ¦not untilâ¦” He closed his eyes, shook his head, not able or maybe not willing to complete the sentence.
seen you like that? Who told you that you get violent when you black out?”
He sighed. “Ethan.”
“Ethan,” she repeated. “And he's the only one?”
“Yeah. Thank God.”
She pursed her lips. “Yeah. Thank God for friends like Ethan.”
“Don't. Don't sound like you doubt his motives. Ethan's the only person who's stood by me through all of this. God, I'd have fallen apart without him.”
“River, I hate to be the one to break it to you, but you pretty much fell apart
He gnawed his lip, shook his head. “He did the best he could. No one could have done better.”
“Maybe. Maybe not. Listen, I want you to contact your lawyer. The man who brought your plea to the D.A. and negotiated on your behalf. His name was in the file on your case. Derrick Brown. Do you remember him?”
“Yeah. But I already wrote him once and it didn't do any good.”
“Are you sure he ever got the letter?”
Clearly he hadn't considered that.
“I want you to tell him to get copies of all your medical records from the state hospital, and swear him to secrecy. Don't tell him where you are. He'll be obligated to pass along any information as to your whereabouts, if he's asked. Maybe even if he's not. Depends on how ethical he is and what he believes about you, I imagine. But he can damn well get your records.”
“What's that going to tell us?”
She sighed, and decided against voicing her growing gut feeling that Ethan Melrose might not be as good a friend as he seemed. Yet she couldn't keep the whole truth from River. “My father says you don't treat a brain injury with Haldol.”
He frowned, lifting his head. “I thought you said your father is a surgeon, not a psychiatrist.”
“He's a veterinarian, actually. Was a surgeon once. And he's going to confirm it with some psychiatrist friends of his, but his initial reaction is that you are either schizophrenic or being treated incorrectly. We need to know which it is.”
“Ethan never said I was schizophrenic.”
“That's because you're not.”
He was quiet, maybe mulling that over in his mind. So she got out the big envelope from Frankie and set it on the table. “I'm gonna make us some dinner. And then we're going to comb through these files, okay?”
He looked at her, and seemingly forgot about the matter at hand as he did. “And you're going to tell me why your dad worries so much about your safety,” he reminded her.
“Isn't it normal for a father to worry about his little girl?”
“Not when the little girl is the sharpest and maybe the toughest cop I've met in twenty years, no.”
She lifted her brows at the compliment. “You'd be one of very few people to know my secrets, River. But hell, maybe that would make you feel better about being forced to trust me with so many of yours, huh?”
“I do trust you. We're way past the point where you could have been orchestrating all of this just to get a pair of handcuffs on me and take me to the nearest jail cell.”
“Hey, don't rule out the handcuffs just yet.” She sent him a wink, caught the surprised and interested look he sent in return. But even then she sensed there were things he was holding back. She sensed it right to her core. “I got some ham and cheese, and an excellent loaf of twelve grain bread. Soup and sandwiches sound good?”
“Sounds good to my head. I'll have to let you know about my stomach.”
“How is the rest of you feeling?”
He shrugged. “My chest is kind ofâ¦heavy. My throat's a
little sore and my head aches. And even with all that I feel better than I have in a year.”
She smiled. “You keep doing that well and I might even let you have a potato chip.”
“Not really. I didn't buy any junk food, but it was tempting.”
He smiled. “I like you, Cassandra Jackson. I don't know why the hell you're trying to save my worthless ass, but I'm grateful.”
She turned to the counter, reached for a can of soup and took out a loaf of bread. “Well, then, maybe I should tell you why.” Drawing a breath, she said, “When I was sixteen, I had a sister.”
“I saw the photo on the hearth. She's gorgeous. You two look a lot alike.”
“She was killed.”
She heard him suck in a breath. “When?”
“Shortly after that photo was taken, as a matter of fact.”
As she made the sandwiches, warmed the soup and spilled her guts, River listened in what seemed like rapt interest. She found herself telling him more than she'd ever told anyone, talking about her feelings of helplessness, her anger at her father for the act that had robbed her and her mom of him for twelve long years, when they'd already lost Carrie. Her admiration of her parentsâthe power of their marriage at having survived two such devastating crises. And on and on.
By the time she finished, she had sliced the sandwiches diagonally and put them on plates on the table. She'd poured the soup into two bowls and got herself a Diet Coke from the fridge. He already had the glass of ginger ale she'd poured for him.
She sat down and found him staring at her.
“So that's the story,” she said.
He sighed, seemingly amazed. “It explains a lot.”
He nodded. “It's why you're so self-sufficient, so independent. Almost fiercely so.”
“And how does it explain that?”
He shrugged. “You were the baby of the family. And then all of the sudden, you wereâ¦well, basically, the head of the family. Your big sister was gone. Your dad was in prison and you said yourself your mom was barely functional for years after. You had to step up. Seems to me you never stepped back down.”
She tilted her head to one side, studying his eyes, nodded a little. “That makes sense, I guess. Maybe it's true. I know I'm as uncomfortable as hell with the notion of needing anyone. Depending on anyone, for any reason, you know?”
“Sure you are.” He shook his head slowly. “Your father's done time. Hard time. I can't quite wrap my mind around that. He doesn'tâ¦he doesn't fit the profile of an ex-con.”
“He didn't fit the profile of a killer, either.”
River's eyes were focused on her face. “I'm even more confused, Cassandra. The man who killed your sister was about to get off on an insanity plea.”
“Just like you did?” she said, reading his thoughts.
“Yeah. It would stand to reason you'd be the first person to throw me back in the pit.”
“I know. Believe me, I know it looks odd.”
He searched her face. “But there's more to the story, isn't there?”
She met his eyes, swallowed hard, wanted to tell him, and told herself that was a stupid thing to want.
“You can trust me, you know. I owe you more than anyone probably ever will. You can tell me, Cassandra.”
“Iâ¦I've never told anyone.”
“Maybe you need to.”
Maybe she did. “It's sensitive, River. You can never tell another soul. Promise me. It would kill my father. It would
him, and he doesn't deserve that.”
River frowned and studied her face. “I promise. I won't repeat it. Not even under torture. And besides, I have a feeling I already know what you're going to say.”
He did. She could see in his eyes that he'd guessed. And she let herself say the words she had never said to anyone in her life. “Jeffrey Allen Dunkirk didn't do it. He didn't kill my sister. My father shot an innocent man.”
ax felt panicky the minute the words left her lips. Why the hell was she telling this man her deepest secret? Giving him the power to destroy her family?
She didn't know. Hell, she didn't know.
“I shouldn't haveâ”
“It's all right.” His hand covered hers on the table. “I'll take it to my grave, Cassandra. I promise you that. I'll take it to my grave.”
She lifted her head and stared into his eyes. They were intense and honest. And she found herself believing in that honesty, and cursed herself for a sap all at once. She closed her eyes, lowered her head. “Dunkirk had a lousy lawyer. They had my sister's DNA in his car, his semen in her body. He'd had sex with her. I'll never know if it was against her will. She always seemed to like him way more thanâ¦than made sense. You know?”
“Young girl, older man. It's been known to happen.”
“Yeah. Maybe. But he didn't kill her.”
“You know who did?”
Jax nodded slowly. “She had a boyfriendâJarredâbut she was getting ready to break up with him. I knew thatâI never knew if she'd told him or was about to. He went to hell after her death, started drinking. Eight years later he hanged
himself. Didn't leave a note, at least not that we knew of at the time.”
She closed her eyes. “I never saw it. I was a rookie cop at SPD by then. Jarred's mother came to me. Told me she didn't want her son's memory sullied, but couldn't carry the guilt of not telling someone about it. He
left a note. She'd concealed it. In it, he confessed to murdering my sister. Apparently, he saw her with Dunkirk, and it sent him into a rage. He waited until she was alone, then told her he needed to talk to her, and convinced her to get into his car. He took her outside of town and strangled her, ditched her body. He took her clothes off after, to make it look like a rape. He knew she'd just had sex with Dunkirk. I guess he figured they'd both be punished that way. And he was right.”
River closed his eyes tightly, as if he were in pain.
“His mother told me it was up to me whether my parents should know the truth, but she said she would deny she ever said anything if I took it to the police or the D.A. Her son was dead. She didn't want his memory destroyed, and she didn't think it would do any good, anyway.” Jax sighed. “I couldn't argue with her. And I couldn't tell my parents. My father was a healer, you know? It's been hard enough on him living with the fact that he took the life of a killer. It eats away at him, day and night. He'll never forgive himself, even though he feels it was the only way to see justice done. What would it do to him to know he actually murdered an innocent man?”
“Not entirely innocent,” River said. “He had sex with a teenage girl. Willing or otherwise, that's pretty low.”
“I agree. But it's not worthy of a death sentence.” She shook her head. “It would kill Dad. It would
him. And I can't think of a single reason to make him and Mom suffer more than they already have. They lost a daughter. Dad did twelve years hard time. Lost his career, his license to practice medicine, their home, their savings, their reputation. Everything.”
“They didn't lose you.”
She smiled softly. “More importantly, they didn't lose each other. They're still together, despite it all. They've picked up the pieces and built a life for themselves. I can't rob them of that.”
“You're doing the right thing,” River said. “I'd do exactly the same.”
She drew a breath, looked at her soup, sitting there on the table getting cold.
“Lose your appetite?” he asked her.
“Actually, I feelâ¦good. I've been keeping that secret for a long time. Maybe I needed to tell someone.”
“I'm glad it was me.”
She wondered if she was, too. But somehow, she didn't believe River would betray her. And maybe that didn't make a lot of sense, but her instincts had never steered her wrong. If she'd been the woman she was now, instead of the girl she'd been at sixteen, those instincts would have told her something was off. In hindsight, she could see the signs. Dunkirk had been faking his mental illness, but not his grief. And not his fear. She'd seen a lot of killers try to show remorse they didn't really feel. His had been real. It had broken his heart that Carrie had been killed. He'd had a shadow of the same haunted, hollow look of loss in his eyes that she had seen in her parents'. Not to the same degree, of course, but stillâ¦Hell, maybe he'd really cared for her sister.
It was the same look she saw in River's eyes when he talked about his wifeâthough he really hadn't talked about her much, so far.
Jax picked up a triangle-shaped half of her sandwich, dipped it into the soup and took a bite. River did likewise. Then he said, “Has it occurred to you, Cassandra, that just because Dunkirk was innocent, it doesn't mean that I am?”
She swallowed her food and met his eyes. “I know that. And I know you don't remember whether you set that fire or
not. I'm not deluding myself about you, River. But I also know there's something not right about all of this. I don't think that orderly just decided to apply for a job under a false name and kill a mental patient for the hell of it. Someone hired him, someone put him up to it.”
“That doesn't prove anything.”
“It proves someone wants you dead, and if they do, they must have a motive. And maybe that motive is to make sure you never remember what really happened that night.”
“I'd like to believe that. But I was a cop, Cassandra. I put a lot of people behind bars. There are a lot of people out there with reason to want me dead. It might not have had anything to do with what happened to Stephanie.”
Jax nodded. “So we take this like any other case. We start ruling them out, one by one.” She was warming up now, and she wolfed down the rest of her sandwich, then reached for the envelope Frankie had given her. “But let's go through what we have first, huh? And how about that call to your lawyer? We need to get that done, too.”
“He's going to have to report it if he hears from me.”
“I know. That's why we should phone him from somewhere besides here. We don't want to tip him off to where you are right away. You look a lot better. You up for a drive?”
* * *
River could have kicked himself for the urges that kept slipping into his thoughts. The ones that whispered through his mind the entire time she was telling her story.
Touch her. Hug her. Hold her.
Bad ideas, every last one of them. And not only because he was still feeling like hell. Cassandra Jackson was not the kind of woman who needed comfort. She was the kind who gave it freely, but would probably shun it if offered in return. She seemed to prize her independence too highly to need any emotional support from anyone else. Besides, he was a man
scraping bottom. Hardly in a position to have a damn thing to offer. He'd slipped once, his hand sliding over hers before his brain even knew what it was up to. And once there, he'd had a hell of a time convincing it to let go. The brush of her warm skin against his was the closest thing to ecstasy he'd known sinceâ¦since he'd kissed her. He'd been in the grips of a fever, not thinking clearly. When her face hovered close to his, instinct had taken over and he'd been in no condition to argue. And he could taste her mouth, still.
He wished he couldn't. The last woman he'd cared about had wound up dead. If he had any freaking honor left in him, he'd get as far away from Cassandra Jackson as he could. She was risking more than just her career by helping him. She might very well be risking her life.
“Come on,” she said. “I feel a plan coming on.” She took his hand again, drawing him to his feet.
“You can't afford to be seen with me.” He said it more as a means to distract his mind from the power of her touch than for any other reason. And he knew, now, that it wasn't just any human touch he cravedâit was hers. Every time she touched him he wanted it more.
“It's dark outside,” she said. “The car's close to the house. And you can duck down if we meet traffic.”
“That'll look even more suspicious.”
“Shit, the locals see me with some stranger's head in my lap, they'll just think I got lucky.” She smiled at him in a way that sent his pulse racing and put ideas into his head.
There wasn't a shy bone in her body.
He wasn't used to a woman like her. He wasn't used to any woman at all.
She opened the door, stepped out onto the porch. Rex pushed past River and loped out to stand beside her. The way he looked around, River could almost believe he knew what was going on.
“All clear, come on,” she said. She reached back and took River's hand again, and he jogged beside her to the car and quickly got in the passenger side.
Cassandra went to the driver's door, but opened the back one first. He was surprised to see Rex jump easily into the car, and sit upright on the back seat. Cassandra got behind the wheel. And she had that envelope in her hands. He hadn't noticed her grabbing it on the way out.
“You're bringing the dog?” he asked.
“He wanted a ride.” She shrugged. “Brought this, too. Figured we could read on the way.”
He nodded, and she drove. River opened the envelope, began pulling things out, one by one, curious as to what the file contained. But when he got to the file folder marked Autopsy Report, he stopped.
“God,” he whispered.
Cassandra glanced at him, then at the folder in his lap. It bore his wife's name. The corner of a photograph was visible inside. Just the white edge, nothing else. His imagination filled in a lot more, but before he could open the file, it had been snatched from his lap.
He looked up at Cassandra. She was tucking the autopsy folder above the visor. “Not that. Not yet, River. That one we need to go over when we're home, sitting down, and ready for it. Okay?”
She was protecting him. He knew that, and it chafed, and yet he couldn't even argue that he didn't need it. If she hadn't stopped him, he'd have immersed himself in that file and probably plunged himself into despair, regret, maybe even another blackout. He needed to be sharp to talk to his lawyer.
He flipped through the other contents of the folder. There were a lot of interviews. With his neighbors, men and women who'd worked with him at NYPD, men he'd arrestedâ¦. “Hell,” he muttered.
“Frankieâshe has a list here. It has to include damn near every violent offender I ever had a hand in busting. Notes next to every name.”
“What kinds of notes?”
He read a few. “Deceased. Incarcerated. Alibi.” He blinked. “A few just have question marks next to their names.”
She nodded. “She must have checked them out herself. I bet the question marks are the ones whose whereabouts on the night of the fire can't be verified.”
“Damn. The woman is good.”
“The woman didn't believe you did it.” Jax shook her head. “I don't think she does even now.” She nodded and kept driving. “This is great. She's done a lot of the work for us. We can just pick up where she left off.”
He shook his own head. It was hard to believe someone had been that convinced of his innocence at a time when he'd thought the entire world believed him guilty.
“Let's make a list of what you're going to say to the lawyer when you get him on the phone. You don't want to stay on too long. It's unlikely they messed with his lines, being that any conversations you have with him are confidential. But your location is not. They might try to run a trace.”
He found a pen in the cup holder between the seats, flipped over a sheet of paper from the envelope and took notes on the back as they planned.
“Here we are,” she said, pulling her car into a convenience store parking lot twenty miles north of Blackberry. “Pay phone's right here. And the store's closed, so no witnesses. I'll get the home number. Better than leaving a message.”
He nodded. “If it's listed. Derrick Brown. Burlington.”
She nodded and they both got out of the car, leaving Rex in the back seat. Cassandra dropped a quarter and dialed in
formation. A moment later, she was punching in the lawyer's home number. Then she handed the phone to River and said, “It's ringing.”
He swallowed hard and lifted the cheat sheet. There was a streetlight above the convenience store parking lot, so he could see all right.
A man finally answered. “Hello?”
“I'm calling for Derrick Brown,” River said.
“Speaking. What can I do for you?”
“Brown, this is Michael Corbett. I need your help.”
“Jesus!” The lawyer lowered his voice, caught his breath. “Listen, do you realize I'm obligated to tell the police I heard from you, and where you're calling from?”