Authors: Colleen Thompson
He still wondered, during that time, how he’d continued working in the emergency department of a busy Houston hospital. And how many of his patients had suffered for it, lost to his black haze.
She stared at him, emotion welling in her dark gaze. Then, to his astonishment, she hugged him without even glancing around to see who might be watching. “Thanks, Ross. You make me feel…almost like I might deserve…”
Before he could react, the door beside them opened and Justine backed away.
“Mr. Cordero,” she said as the bald man in the dark suit walked out. An expensive dark suit, with fine black shoes to go with it. No tie, though, just an open collar, a look he managed to pull off, along with the single diamond stud in each of his earlobes.
Ross realized this was Simon Cordero, the band’s agent, whom Ross had never met in person. Ross pegged him for early forties, though it was tough to tell, with the shaved head and his barely lined olive complexion. About Ross’s height, too, he noticed.
Cordero turned to look at Justine, a crease deepening between his dark brows. Yet he didn’t look irritated, merely puzzled. “May I help you…is it Sheriff?”
She nodded. “Justine Wofford. We spoke earlier by phone. I appreciate your willingness to answer questions.”
“Of course.” He gave a self-deprecating shrug. “I only wish I’d known anything useful.”
Ross extended his hand and introduced himself. He’d completely forgotten the agent was coming in from Austin for Caleb’s funeral. But Ross had been so rushed when he’d called Cordero, so desperate for information about Laney’s whereabouts, he’d given no more thought to the agent, except to ask Trudy to let him know they’d found Laney.
There was no mistaking the concern in Cordero’s expression. “How is she? I’ve called, but she won’t talk to me. I’m worried.”
Does he know, too, what happened?
But Trudy wouldn’t have shared such private information with a stranger. Nor would Ross, though hospital or sheriff’s department gossip might have spread it God only knew how far already.
“She’s pretty upset about her friends,” he explained. “And she’s had some other problems. Threats against her, for one thing.”
Alarm flashed over Cordero’s expression. “Not again.”
“You were aware of previous threats?” Justine asked.
“Caleb mentioned that there had been a few notes. My God.” Cordero’s eyes widened and his color deepened. “You don’t think this could all be related?”
“Caleb told you?” Ross asked, remembering that Laney had said she hadn’t told him. Had Caleb discovered the messages on his own, or had Laney lied about it?
“It’s an ongoing investigation,” Justine said in response to the agent’s question.
“What’s going on with Laney?” he asked. “And what can I do to help?”
Before either Ross or Justine could answer, Cordero added, “You want me to get her out of town? I’ll do it. I have a condo on Lake Travis, a little getaway of mine. It’s in a gated community with a good burglar alarm, too, and security close by. My wife and I will take good care of her, Mr. Bollinger.”
Ross had worked with doctors who would have corrected
him about the “Mr.,” but he wasn’t one of them. “It’s kind of you to offer, but the family wants to keep her close so we can—”
“That’s very generous of you,” Justine interrupted. “And I understand you covered the cost of Caleb’s funeral, too?”
Cordero glanced over his shoulder, as if to assure himself no one else had overheard. Raising his palms, he lowered his voice. “Mr. Richardson assured me we could keep the arrangement quiet. Caleb…Caleb always said that if the band could catch a label’s interest, come up with a recording contract, he wanted to get his little ones and his mother into a new house, take care of them the way a real man ought to. And he was staying out of trouble, finally living up to his responsibilities.”
His voice hoarsened as he spoke, hinting that he grieved for the lost human potential in the most rough-edged member of Hangman’s Bayou. Ross felt a moment’s guilt about his earlier suspicions that the agent might be some sort of shyster looking to rip off Laney and her friends.
“That’s commendable,” Justine said. “But do you become this personally involved with all your clients?”
Cordero shook his head. “Of course not. For one thing, a lot of them would bleed you dry with their needs, their addictions. But I’m a man who’s been blessed in this business, and from time to time, my wife and I help where we can, without calling attention to it. So we’d both appreciate if we could keep this between us, Sheriff.”
“Because if you have to crow about it, where’s the altruism?” Ross nodded his agreement, liking Cordero even more.
“Exactly.” Cordero paused as he noticed Justine scrutinizing his left hand. Holding it up, he displayed a heavy gold band.
“We’ve been married fifteen years now. My Serafina remains as beautiful as the day she was crowned Miss Venezuela, and better yet, she can bait a hook as well any man I
keep me in line. Which, she can tell you, is no small feat.”
“Fifteen years.” Justine smiled indulgently at Cordero’s pride, then glanced down, leading Ross to notice she’d recently removed her own ring.
“You’re a very lucky man,” she added.
“That I surely am.” Cordero’s phone interrupted, ringing, and he reached inside his pocket, his face coloring. “Can’t believe I forgot to mute this at a funeral. Please excuse me.”
Frowning at the screen, he added, “I’m sorry. Would you mind if I took this? Problem client, I’m afraid.”
Justine nodded. “I’ll wait.”
Cordero took a few steps from them and spoke quietly, his back to them.
Checking his watch, Ross said, “I’d better get going. I have a shift starting in an hour, and I need to run home and change first. Was there something you needed from me, other than to ask if I would talk to Laney?”
“Just to catch some air, Ross, that’s all.” Justine’s espressorich eyes sent an answering warmth through him. “There’s nothing more to read into it.”
But there was, he knew, as he said good-bye and left her. Because with the two of them, there was always the subtext of a story still unwinding toward its end.
Or perhaps to a beginning, if they were brave enough to claim it. Smiling at the thought, Ross started up his Mustang, and he turned the music high, listening to the raucous strains of Hangman’s Bayou, somehow sounding more alive than they ever had onstage.
The greatest blunders, like the thickest ropes, are often compounded of a multitude of strands. Take the rope apart, separate it into the small threads that compose it, and you can break them one by one. You think, “That is all there was!” But twist them all together and you have something tremendous.
Sunday, October 25
“There you go, Noah. That’s right,” Justine said as her son sleeked the brush along the curve of Moonshadow’s swollen belly.
Without warning, anxiety sank in its teeth, and a sharpclawed awareness of time’s passage followed. Forget the first “golden” forty-eight hours of an investigation. Already, it had been four days since Laney Thibodeaux’s assault and Roger’s murder. Days with little progress, despite the fact that Justine and many of her deputies had been working nearly nonstop on the investigation. Together, they’d generated a mountain of reports after tracking down and interviewing area sex offenders, working their way through everyone from bartenders to the owner and some regulars at both Hammett’s and the Tin Roof, and questioning anyone even tangentially involved with any of Roger Savoy’s open cases.
At the moment, however, they were in a holding pattern, waiting for state assistance in tracking down a few disturbing
but nonspecific messages sent anonymously to Laney’s e-mail account. Waiting for DNA tests to come back on the semen found on Laney’s clothing and the cheek swab Dr. Kenneth Fleming had been quick enough to volunteer. Waiting for anything that might break the logjam of ideas.
Justine warned herself.
For this small stretch of Sunday afternoon, she was here, at home with her son. She thought of times, so many times in her childhood, when her father, his head in some investigation, had snapped at or ignored her. She vowed not to do that to her son, too, not to ever let him believe he ran a distant second to the job.
“That’s it.” She smiled at how carefully, how gently Noah worked. As if he truly cared about the old mare’s comfort. As if he’d been watching and listening to Justine.
Progress, with a disabled child, wasn’t the stuff one engraved on trophies or boasted of in Christmas letters. Instead, it was measured in the tiniest of increments, accomplishments Justine celebrated in the private sanctuary of her mind. Which only made them more sacred, she thought, like the charitable acts of men like Ross Bollinger and Simon Cordero.
“Careful there,” she warned Noah as she pulled him slightly backward. “She’s a little ticklish. See that?”
Shivering, the old mare stamped a hoof and snorted. Laughing at the sound, Noah reached inside his pocket for his digital recorder, then held it to the horse’s nose with an eager grunt.
“You found your recorder,” Justine said. “And here I thought you’d lost it.”
When the horse didn’t snort again, Noah started pointing at her emphatically, then making impatient noises at his mother, the expression on his face imploring.
“Sorry, guy,” Justine said. “Moonshadow doesn’t speak, so she can’t understand what you want.”
Reddening with frustration and clenching his fist, Noah appeared to be gearing up to throw a first-class tantrum. So much for today’s progress. Justine quickly glanced around in hopes of a distraction.
“Look, Noah. There’s Grandpa coming home, see?” Justine pointed out the black pickup rolling up the driveway. As she took note of stacked boxes in the bed, her stomach dropped, weighed down by a strange mixture of relief and dread.
Relief at the rare smile blooming on her son’s face. And dread, because her dad was moving in for what he called “the duration,” since he’d convinced himself she couldn’t get along without his help.
When he’d first brought up the subject last week, Justine had already been attempting to convince Gwen Bollinger to live in, at least until the bastard who’d snatched Noah was caught. With both a place of her own and a new romance commanding much of her attention, Gwen had resisted the idea. Still, Justine had wondered if she might find someone else.
Someone other than her father, who had merely shook his head at her arguments and said,
If you’d lower those blasted barricades of yours for one minute, you’d think about what’s best for Noah. Make a rational decision for once in your damned life.
Though stung, Justine had done just that. And finally, she’d admitted that her dad was the best person to keep her son safe and provide the consistency he needed to regain the ground he’d lost. So for Noah’s sake, she’d said yes, even if she still wasn’t so sure the arrangement wouldn’t end in bloodshed. Laughing when she said so, he’d gone home to pack up some of his belongings and deal with a few chores before closing up his house.
After turning Moonshadow loose back in the pasture, Justine went with Noah to meet her father as he put down the truck’s tailgate.
“Come to lend an old man a hand?” he asked, rubbing at the small of his back.
“Old man-a-hand,” Noah echoed happily as he eyed the boxes.
“In a minute.” Justine gave her father a quick but fierce hug and kissed the sandpaper roughness of his cheek. “But first, I want to thank you. And tell you I’m sorry. I wasn’t as grateful as I should’ve been when you offered to put your life on hold to help—”
“You’re getting it wrong, as usual. I might’ve…might’ve not always been the dad you needed, but you
my life, Chili Pepper, you and…” He ruffled Noah’s hair, a playful movement that belied the suspicious glint of moisture in his brown eyes. “You and this young man here.”
Touched, Justine smiled at him. At least until she heard the whimpering from inside the cab of her dad’s truck.
“Tell me you didn’t.” Mouth tightening, she tried to peer inside the tinted window.
Her father stayed put, blocking her view and grinning up a storm. “Then I’d be lyin’, wouldn’t I? And we can’t have that.”
His eyes alight, Noah whipped out his digital recorder and pointed it in the direction of the yipping.
“Take it back, Dad,” Justine pleaded. How could he simply move in and take over, steamrolling her wishes as if she were a child? “I told you, I don’t have time for a puppy. And you know I can’t afford it.”
And we both know the other reasons. Reasons you wouldn’t admit under threat of torture.
“Relax, Justine. It’ll be just fine. I’ll take care of everything. Shots and vet bills, even the housebreaking. Smart little critter like this, it shouldn’t take—”
“That’s not the point.”
Tell me you haven’t forgotten Jelly and the way you…the way you blamed me after Eddie…?
She looked away quickly, because sheriffs couldn’t cry.
Nor could any daughter of the great Ed Truitt. “Take it back, Dad. Right now.
Noah, having slipped around the truck unnoticed, opened the passenger-side door and was greeted by a joyful yapping—a sound that had him squealing with delight.
By the time Justine jogged over, the genie had well and truly escaped the bottle. A little red-and-white hound pup rolled on the dry grass with Noah and licked at his face, with its tail wagging hard enough that Justine half expected its little rear to levitate off the ground. The puppy turned its chestnut head to look at Justine, its ears flopping and its big eyes the clear golden brown of amber.
She’d had a hard enough time not getting too attached to Lou’s big ranch dogs. But this…How did a person steel her heart against a damned hush puppy?
“Nice touch,” Noah shouted as the little hound scrabbled on his chest to lick his face again. “Nice touch.”
Wheeling around, Justine glared at her father. “Yeah, Dad, a real nice touch. Thanks a whole hell of a lot.”
“You’re sure welcome, sugar,” he said, as if he’d been immunized against sarcasm. “Now, if you could help me with these boxes, we can call it even.”
Refreshed after sleeping off the effects of his shift, Ross stopped by Trudy’s house, an older one-story near the elementary school. Though Trudy and her husband had a far more modest budget than did Ross, the redbrick house with the green shutters was as homey as it was clean. Spatula in hand, Trudy let him inside, inviting him into a kitchen that smelled of brown sugar and cinnamon-sweet baking.
“Nice to see you,” she said. “You’re looking good, Ross. Rested, for a change.”
“So where’re Mutt and the monsters?” Ross looked around, preparing for an ambush by Trudy’s daughters, who, at two and four, loved nothing more than surprising the man they
called “Uncle” with flying tackles. Their dog, a big, good-natured hairball that drove Trudy crazy with his shedding and his slobber, was usually not far behind.
With his own house all too quiet, Ross drank in the chaos and commotion.
Trudy’s cheeks rounded, and she raised an eyebrow. “You mean the little monsters or the big one in my guest room?”
“Um, both.” Ross swiped an oatmeal-raisin cookie from the platter. Too hot, it burned his fingers, so he switched it back and forth between his hands and blew on it.
When the cookie collapsed into crumbs, Trudy laughed. “Serves you right, you big mooch. Now grab a paper towel and—”
“Got it.” Ross picked up the mess, though he was pretty sure his germ-phobic cousin would clean up after his cleanup later.
Nevertheless, Trudy rewarded his efforts with a properly cooled cookie when he finished. “To answer your question, Ray took the girls over to the park with Cousin Itt. They all needed a good romp. Almost as much as I needed them to have one.”
“This is great.” Ross closed his eyes, savoring his first blissful bite. “Is Laney up? I need to talk to her about the sheriff.”
“The sheriff? I don’t understand.”
“She asked me to tell Laney she’s going to have to clear up a few questions. Justine—Sheriff Wofford said you were giving her a little static.”
“I don’t know why she’d say that.” Trudy nibbled the cookie she’d selected. “I let her in last night when she came, and I talked Laney into seeing her.”
“Last night?” But that would mean Justine had stopped over after he’d seen her at the funeral.
he’d said he wanted to be present when she questioned Laney.
Ross swore, his anger building.
“What?” Trudy flushed, bright splashes appearing at her cheeks. “What’s wrong? Shouldn’t I have—”
“It’s nothing you did, Trudy. It’s…The sheriff asked me about it yesterday after Caleb’s service. And I thought for certain she was going to hold off till I could bring Laney to her. So what did Laney tell her?” he asked. “Did you stay?”
Trudy’s color deepened. “I, uh, I stood outside the bedroom. The sheriff left the door open a crack.”
“Good move. What did Laney say about the phone call?”
“The one Deputy Savoy made to her cell, right? I could tell that question was important. The sheriff kept circling around back to it, telling Laney it was a two-minute call, that they must have discussed something. But Laney never changed her story, just told her she couldn’t remember anything about it.”
Trudy’s gaze shifted just as Ross heard footsteps behind him. Turning, he saw Laney had joined them in the kitchen.
“After everything I’ve gone through,” she said, “that woman thinks I’m lying. I just know it. I told her and told her I never saw Roger Savoy again after that night with the noose, but she just sat there staring at me like she knows everything I’m thinking.
“I can’t stand her,” Laney added, her voice clipped and angry as she stared at Ross. Still in her pajamas, though it was well past noon now, and with her hair a wild tangle, she demanded, “Do you think she’s out to hang this on me?”
Ross frowned at the unfortunate word choice. “I don’t think Justine’s out to get you. I think she’s out to get the truth.”
Laney sneered the name. “So now you’re on a first-name basis with her? I knew there was something weird about the way you two looked at each other in her office.”
Trudy slid a surprised look his way before arching one dark brow. “You know, Ross, Gwen and I
you were up to
something, always sneaking off so quietly. Last summer, right?”
Ignoring the question, Ross shrugged. “I’ve known her for a while. And I’ve talked to her enough to know she wants to find whoever hurt you and killed the others. Isn’t that what you want, Laney? Isn’t that what all of us want?”
“But she suspects
She’s made that clear,” Laney insisted, a lone tear skimming the curve of her cheek. “Whose side are you on in all this? You’re supposed to be on my side, no matter what the others—”
“You know where I stand.” Ross gentled his voice to reassure her. “Where we all stand—behind you. So if there’s anything you need to tell us…or even if you’d be more comfortable talking to a lawyer—”
“Why should I need a
? After someone drugged me,
Trudy looked desperately from her cousin to her youngest sister. “Laney. Laney, sweetie, we’re all just looking out for your best interests. Ross isn’t
you’ve done something. He only wants to be sure we’ve covered all the bases to protect you.”
“It’s bad enough that woman thinks I could possibly have anything to do with that horrible, rude deputy getting himself murdered.” Voice cracking under the strain of her emotions, Laney locked a wounded gaze on Ross’s face. “But to imagine for a moment
of all the people in the world, believe it…Do you think I wanted Jake and my friends dead, too, or to be trapped here watching Trudy play Becky Home-Ecky with her babies?”
Trudy’s face flared red. “There’s no reason to get nasty.”
Ross knew Laney was going through a lot, but he needed to shut down the histrionics. “I know you’re hurt, and I can take it, but give your sister a break, will you? Trudy’s bending over backward to—”
“She doesn’t need to. I can go back home. If you’re worried, maybe you could add an extra lock or—”
“Forget it.” Ross cared too much about Laney’s safety to be anything but blunt. “You can stay with me or Dara, or one of my sisters, but you are absolutely, positively not going anywhere alone. And if you set one foot out of the house on your own, I swear to you, I’ll have Justine put you in protective custody. In a cell.”