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It’s one month after their wedding, and the future looks bright for Judge Deborah Knott and Sheriff Deputy Dwight Bryant––until a disturbing call from Dwight’s 8-year-old son Cal calls him back to Virginia. When he arrives, he is shocked to find that his ex-wife has left the boy alone for almost 24 hours. Worse, as Dwight tries to confront her, she takes the child and leaves town without a word. As Dwight embarks on an all-points search, Deborah hurries to his side. But will they be able to work together to decipher the ex-wife’s motives––and, more importantly, will they find young Cal before he comes to harm?
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For Marilyn, Linda, Nancy, Lia, Judy, and Sue—y'all know who and y'all know why (also the when, what, where, and how).
It might seem that the turbulent squall cloud is very vigorous compared with the gentle air currents which build it, but it must be remembered that the squall cloud is near the axis of the whirl.
—Willis Isbister Milham
The signs of rain, wind, storm, and fair weather we have described so far as was attainable, partly from our own observation, partly from the information of persons of credit.
The call came through to the Colleton County Sheriff's Department just after sunset on a chilly Thursday evening in mid-January. A pickup truck had crashed on a back road near Possum Creek.
From the sound of her voice the caller was an older woman and more than a little upset. "I think he's dead. There's so much blood, and he's not moving."
The dispatcher made soothing noises and promised that help would be there very shortly. "Where are you now, ma'am?"
"Rideout Road, off Old Forty-Eight. I'm not sure of the number."
The dispatcher heard her speak to someone, then a second woman came on the line. "Mrs. Victor Johnson here," she said and gave the house number as a man's excited voice could be heard in the background. "My husband just came back from looking. He says it's J.D. Rouse."
"We'll have someone there in just a few minutes," said the dispatcher and put out calls to the nearest patrol unit and to the rescue service.
Dwight Bryant, chief deputy and head of the department's detective division, was halfway home and had just turned on his headlights when he heard the calls. He mentally shook his head. J.D. Rouse dead from a vehicular accident? Rouse had been picked up for DWI at least once that Dwight knew of, so perhaps it wasn't totally surprising that he'd crashed his truck.
On the other hand, if he'd ever been asked how he thought Rouse might meet his maker, he would have said, "Barroom brawl. Shot by someone's disgruntled husband. Hell, maybe even stabbed with a butcher knife by his own wife the night she finally got tired of him knocking her around—assuming he had a wife. And assuming he'd treat her the same as he seemed to treat anyone weaker than himself."
Rideout Road was less than three miles from home. He switched on the blue lights and siren behind the grille of his truck and floored the gas pedal. It wouldn't be out of his way to swing by, he thought, as homebound traffic moved aside for him. His wife—and it was still a thing of wonder that Deborah had really married him—had a late meeting so she wouldn't be there for a couple of hours yet.
By the time he arrived, it was almost full dark, but the night was lit up by a patrol unit's flashing blue lights. A thick stand of scrub pines lined one side of the road, the other side was an open pasture that adjoined a farmyard. There, too, a thin row of pines and cedars had grown up along the right-of-way. Despite the rapidly dropping temperature, three or four cars had stopped opposite the wreck and several people had gotten out to watch and exclaim, their warm breaths blowing little clouds of steam with every word.
A bundled-up deputy was emerging from his patrol car with his torchlight as Dwight pulled in behind him. Dwight zipped his own jacket and put on gloves before stepping out into the bone-chilling wind.
"Hey, Major. You heard the call, too, huh?"
Together they approached the white Ford pickup that lay nose down across the shallow ditch.
"Straight stretch of road," the younger man mused. He flashed his torch back along the pavement. "No skid marks. You reckon he had a heart attack?"
Sam Dalton was a fairly new recruit and Dwight had not yet taken his measure, but he liked it that Dalton did not jump to immediate conclusions without all the facts.
Siren wailing, a rescue truck crested the rise and its emergency lights flashed through the pickup's front windshield. As the two deputies approached the driver's side of the pickup, Dwight paused.
"What does that look like to you?" he asked, nodding toward the back window. The glass had shattered in a telltale spiderweb pattern that radiated out from a small hole just behind the driver's seat.
"Well, damn!" said Dalton. "He was shot?"
A few moments later, the EMT who drove the rescue truck confirmed that J.D. Rouse was dead and yes, he had indeed been shot through the back of the head.
"No exit wound, so the bullet's still in there," she said.
There was an open six-pack on the seat beside the dead man. It held three cold Bud Lights. A fourth can lay on the floor in a pool of beer and blood. Otherwise the interior of the truck was uncluttered. No fast-food boxes or plastic drink cups, but the open ashtray was full of butts and there were burn marks on the vinyl seats as if hot cigarette coals had fallen on them. A smoker, thought Dwight, and a careless one at that. It went with what he knew of Rouse, who had grown up in the same community: a man who grabbed what he wanted with greedy hands and with no regard for what he might be wrecking.
"Looks like he'd just popped the top on his beer when he got hit," said the med tech.
Rouse had worn a fleece-lined denim jacket, jeans, and heavy work boots when he died. The jacket was unzipped to reveal a blue plaid flannel shirt even though it was a cold night and the passenger-side window was open about four inches.
While Dalton secured the area, Dwight called for the crime scene van and a couple of his detectives, then he walked over to the people standing across the road. "Which one of you reported it?"
"That was us," said the older gray-haired man, whom Dwight immediately recognized.
Victor Johnson was a generation older and had lived on this farm all his life, so he had known Dwight's family long enough to speak familiarly, but tonight's circumstance made him more formal.
"Did you see it happen?" asked Dwight.
"No, sir. It was getting on for dark and my wife had just called me to the table when we heard Miz Harper banging at the door. She was the one actually called y'all. Soon as she said a truck'd run off the road, Catherine showed her the phone and I come out here to see about it."
"Was the motor still running?"
"Yessir. I opened the door and reached in under him to cut it off. Knowed it was J.D. soon as I seen the truck. He lives on the other side of Old Forty-Eight and cuts through here all the time. Young man like that?" He shook his head. "And there's that poor wife of his with two or three little ones. Somebody needs to go tell her."
"We'll do that," said Dwight. "This Mrs. Harper. Which one is she?"
"Oh, she ain't here. She was so shook up, she wanted to go on home. I tried to get her to let me drive her, but she had her dog and her wagon with her and I couldn't talk her into leaving the wagon here."
"Harper?" Dwight asked, trying to place the woman. "Eddie Harper's mother?"
"No, I doubt you'd know her," said Johnson. "She's one of the new people."
"She lives just over the rise there," said Mrs. Johnson, stepping forward. "First little white house on the right when you turn into that Holly Ridge development. They moved here from Virginia about ten or twelve years ago. Daughter's remarried now and lives in Raleigh."
The woman paused and beamed at him. "I heard you got married last month yourself."
"Kezzie Knott's girl."
"Yes, ma'am," he said and waited for the sly grins that usually accompanied his admission that Sheriff Bo Poole's chief deputy had married the daughter of a man who used to run moonshine from Canada to Florida in his long-ago youth.
There was nothing sly in the older woman's smile. "I knew her mother. One of the nicest people God ever put on this earth. I hope y'all are half as happy together as her and Mr. Kezzie were."
"So far, so good," said Dwight, smiling back at her. "So this Mrs. Harper was walking along the shoulder and saw it happen?"
Husband and wife both nodded vigorously. "She's out two or three times a week picking up trash. Said that just about the time he got even with her, she heard a big bang, like the tire blew out or something, and then the pickup slowed down and ran right off the road and into the ditch."
Ten minutes later, Dwight stopped his truck in front of the neat little house at the corner of one of those cheaply built developments that had popped up around the county in the last few years like mildew after a summer rain. No sidewalks and the street was already pockmarked with potholes. The porch light was on and a child's red metal wagon stood near the steps. Its carrying capacity was increased by removable wooden rails and was lined with a large black plastic garbage bag whose sides had been snugged back over the rails. The bag was half full of dirty drink cups, plastic bottles that seemed to have been run over a couple of times, beer cans, scrap paper, yellow Bojangles' boxes, and fast-food bags. A soiled pair of thin leather driving gloves lay on top.
When he rang, a dog barked from within, then the door was opened by a wiry gray-haired woman. She wore gray warm-up pants and a blue Fair Isle sweater and Dwight put her age at somewhere on the other side of sixty.
She shushed the small brown dog, waved aside the ID Dwight tried to show her, and held the door open wide. "Come on in out of the cold, Major—Bryant, did you say? Such an awful thing. Mr. Johnson was right, wasn't he? That man really is dead, isn't he?"
"I'm afraid so, ma'am. Did you know him?"
Mrs. Harper shook her head. "I've seen the truck lots of times, but I never met the driver. Didn't even know his name till Mr. Johnson said it. Probably wouldn't recognize him if he walked through the door."
The house was small—what real estate agents call a "starter home"—and was almost obsessively neat and orderly. Cozy, but nothing out of place. Magazines were stacked according to size on the coffee table, and a family portrait was precisely centered above the couch. Dwight recognized a much younger Mrs. Harper. The child on her lap was probably the married daughter Mrs. Johnson had mentioned. The older man seated next to her was no doubt her father. He wore an Army uniform, as did the younger man who stood in back, almost like an afterthought. Colonel and captain.
"My dad," said Mrs. Harper, when she saw him looking at the picture. "I was an Army brat who went and married one."
"They're not with you now?"
"No. Bill and I split up about a year after that was painted, and the Colonel died three years ago this month." Pride and love mingled in her voice as she spoke of her father. "He was a wonderful man. Would have been eighty-five if he'd lived."
More family pictures and framed mementos hung in neat rows along a wall that led down a hallway. "Those his medals?" Dwight asked. He had similar ones stowed away somewhere from his own Army days.
Mrs. Harper nodded. "But do come and sit. May I get you something? Coffee? A nice cup of tea?"
Through the archway to the kitchen, Dwight could see a teapot and a single mug on the table. "Hot tea would be great this cold night," he said, taking off his gloves and stuffing them in his jacket pocket.
He trailed along as Mrs. Harper went out to the kitchen stove and turned the burner on under a shiny red kettle. She put a tea bag in a second mug and laid a spoon beside it. The kettle was hot from before and began to whistle almost instantly. "I always find that a good cup of tea helps settle my nerves," she said.
Even so, she was still so rattled that hot water splashed onto the Formica tabletop as she filled his cup. "I'm sorry. It was such a shock. The Colonel used to say—but he was in battle and war is different, isn't it? I never…"
Dwight took the kettle from her shaking hands and set it back on the stove, then pulled out a chair across the table from her.
"Could you tell me what happened? Cold as it is, I'm a little surprised that you were out walking so late with night coming on. It's not terribly safe."
"I can take care of myself," she said sharply, then immediately softened her sharp words with a smile toward the dog. "She doesn't look fierce, but she's very protective. But you're right. It was later than usual. I always mean to go early but I'm not a morning person and, I don't know, one thing and another, I just seem to piddle around till it's usually four o'clock before Dixie and I set out."
The little dog cocked an ear at hearing its name.
"The Johnsons say you were picking up trash along the roadside?"
Mrs. Harper smiled and nodded. "I adopted Rideout Road two years ago to honor my father. Maybe you saw the sign at the crossroads? Colonel James T. Frampton?"
As part of its anti-littering campaign, North Carolina allows individuals or corporations to "adopt" a road or a two-mile stretch of highway and will put up a sign to that effect if the volunteers agree to clean their stretch at least four times a year.
"My wife's family has the road that cuts through their farms," Dwight said, "but I don't think they're out picking up litter every week. And for sure not when the weather's this cold."
Mrs. Harper shrugged her rounded shoulders. "It's not bad once you get to moving good. I just can't bear to see trash build up on a road dedicated to the Colonel. Besides, it's good exercise for Dixie and me and neither of us is getting any younger, I'm afraid."
This time, the corgi put a paw on her mistress's trousered leg and she smiled down indulgently. "With all the excitement, I forgot all about your treat, didn't I, girl?"
Dwight waited while she took a Milk-Bone from the cut-glass candy dish in the center of the table and gave it to the dog.
"Tell me about this evening," he said.
"There's really not much to tell." She lifted the mug to her pale lips, then set it down again. Despite her obvious distress, though, she was able to convey a good sense of the circumstances. "It's so cold that the wind made my eyes water. I had picked up what little there was on the eastbound side and we were on our way back down the westbound side. It was too early for what you'd call rush hour out here and the road doesn't get all that much traffic anyhow. There's only fourteen houses till you get to this subdivision, and most of the people who live here and work in Raleigh usually take Old Forty-Eight. It's a little more direct, although enough do use Rideout. Maybe because it's still country along here? Used to be an older man who would park out of sight of any houses and have himself a couple of beers before going home and he'd just dump the evidence on the shoulder. When I called him on it, he apologized and started getting out and hiding his empties in the trunk. And another time—oh, but why am I going on like this? You don't want to hear about litterbugs. You want to know about tonight."
Dwight smiled encouragingly, knowing how some people have to take a running start to launch into the horror of what they have witnessed.
"Anyhow, I was fishing a McDonald's bag out of the ditch when I heard the truck coming. About the time it got even with me, I heard a loud bang. Like a backfire or something. And then the truck just rolled on off the road. I thought maybe it'd blown a tire."
She hesitated and looked at him. "I was wrong, though, wasn't I? I hear enough hunters, and the Colonel was in the infantry. It was a gunshot, wasn't it?"
"Yes, ma'am," said Dwight. "I'm afraid so."
Her hand shook as she tried to bring the mug to her lips again.
"Could you tell where the shot came from?" he asked. "Which side of the road?"
"Which side?" She considered for a long moment, then shook her head. "I'm sorry, Major Bryant. It happened so fast. The truck. The bang. The crash. All I know is that it came from behind me somewhere, but whether it was from the woods or the Johnson farm, I just can't say."
J.D. Rouse's place of residence was a whole different experience from Mrs. Harper's tidy home.
Three generations ago, this had been a modest farm, but dividing the land among six children, none of whom wanted to farm, had reduced the current generation's holdings to less than two acres. A typical eastern Carolina one-story clapboard farmhouse in bad need of paint stood amid mature oaks and pecan trees at the front of the lot. Dwight seemed to recall that the house was now inhabited by Rouse's widowed mother and older sister. Behind it lay a dilapidated hay barn, and farther down the rutted driveway was a shabby double-wide that had been parked out in what was once a tobacco field. The mobile home was sheltered by a single pine tree that had no doubt planted itself, since his headlights revealed no other trees or shrubs in the yard to indicate an interest in landscaping.
Weather-stained and sun-faded plastic toys littered the yard along with abandoned buckets, and his lights picked up a vacant dog pen and the rusted frame of a child's swing set. The original swings were long gone, replaced with a single tire suspended by a rope. It swayed a little in the icy wind. An old Toyota sedan sat on concrete blocks off to the side, and more blocks served as makeshift steps. When he knocked on the metal door, it rattled in its frame like ice cubes in an empty glass. The place was dark inside and no one responded. He went back to his truck and tapped the horn.
As he started back down the rutted drive, he saw that the back-porch light had come on at the old Rouse home and a heavyset woman was standing in the open doorway, so he turned into the yard beside the back door and got out to speak to her.
It had been years since they had been in school together and he was not sure whether or not this was J.D. Rouse's sister. The Marsha Rouse he remembered had been beanpole skinny, with long brown hair. This woman was carrying at least sixty extra pounds and her short hair was bright orange. She wore baggy gray knit pants and a thick black sweater over a bright purple turtleneck, and she hunched into her clothes with her arms folded across her ample chest as if to stay warm.
If she recognized him here in the darkness, it was not evident by the suspicious tone in her voice as he approached. "You looking for J.D.? He ain't home yet."
"Marsha?" he asked.
She peered at him more closely as he stepped into the light. "Dwight? Dwight Bryant? Lord, it must be a hundred years since I seen you. What brings you out here? J.D. in trouble again?"
"I was hoping to speak to his wife, but she doesn't seem to be at home."
"Naw, she's left him. Packed up the girls this morning and went to her brother's. Is that what you're here about? She take out papers on him this time?"
"This time?" he asked.
She shrugged. "J.D.'s got a temper. Always did. And he can have a mean streak when he gets to drinking too much. Is that why you want to see him?"
Dwight hesitated. A victim's next of kin was usually the first one to be notified, but Marsha was his sister, while his wife was who knows where.
"I'm sorry to have to tell you this, Marsha, but J.D.'s dead."
"Somebody shot him about an hour ago."
"Shot him? Oh my God! Who?"
"We don't know yet. He was in his truck on Rideout Road when a bullet came through the back window. We don't even know if it was an accident or deliberate."
An elderly woman in a blue cardigan over a print housedress appeared in the doorway behind Rouse's sister. She was pushing an aluminum walker and shuffled along in thick woolly bedroom slippers. "Marsha? Who you talking to? And how come you're standing out in that cold with the door wide open? You won't raised in no barn."
"Go back inside, Mama," Marsha said harshly. "I'll be there in a minute."
She pulled the door closed and shook her head at Dwight. "This is going to pure out kill her. She thinks J.D. hung the moon."
"You don't sound like you think he did," said Dwight.
"Easy enough to be the favorite if you bring her a Butterfinger every week and sweet-talk her for two minutes and then don't lift your finger to do a damn thing to help out the rest of the time. Nita does more for her than he ever does and she's a Mexican."
"J.D. have anybody gunning for him that you know of?"
"Nita's brother maybe? He cussed J.D. out in Mexican and said he'd put a beating on him if he ever hit Nita or the kids again. But that was just talk. He's not even tall as me. J.D. punched him in the face and that was two months ago. Mexicans, they got hot tempers, too, and I don't know as he'd wait two months and then come after him with a gun, do you? Less'n Nita got him riled up today?"
Dwight sighed and asked for directions to Nita Rouse's brother's house.
"What about J.D., Dwight? What'll I tell Mama when she wants to know where he is?"
Dwight explained the need for an autopsy before the body could be released for burial and promised that someone would notify the family.
Back at the site of the wreck, more people on their way home had stopped to gawk and ask questions. The crime scene van was there now and Percy Denning had set up floodlights to facilitate taking pictures that might one day bolster the State's case against the shooter. Assuming they could find him.
Or her, thought Dwight with a wry tip of his hat to his wife. Not that he needed Deborah's opinionated reminder that women are just as capable of murder as men.
He watched as Rouse's body was moved to the rescue truck to be transported to the medical examiner in Chapel Hill.
Among his officers working the scene was Deputy Mayleen Richards and he motioned to her. "You speak Spanish, don't you?"
Tall and sturdily built with a face full of freckles inherited from her redheaded father, the younger woman nodded. "A little. I've been taking lessons out at Colleton Community."
"Way the state's going, I probably ought to join you," he said. "How 'bout you come with me to tell his wife she's a widow now? I understand she's Mexican."
"Sure," said Richards, grateful that darkness hid the hot flush she had felt in her cheeks when he spoke of joining her in Spanish class.
She lifted her head to the cold north wind, grateful for its bite, and started toward the patrol unit she and Jamison had driven out from Dobbs, but her boss gestured toward his truck. "Ride with me and I'll tell you what we have so far."
With a flaming red face, Richards did as she was told.
Stop it, she told herself as she opened the passenger door of the truck. He's married now. To the woman everybody says he's loved for years. She's a judge. She's smart and she's beautiful. The only thing he cares about you is whether you do the job right.
Nevertheless, as he turned the key in the ignition, she could not suppress the surge of happiness she felt sitting there beside him.
He greeted me courteously, and after he had spoke of the weather and the promise of the sky, he mentioned, incidentally, that he was going to Paris.
—Robert Neilson Stephens
After court adjourned that chilly Thursday evening, I killed time till my meeting with a quick visit to my friend Portland Brewer, who was still on maternity leave from the law practice she shares with her husband, Avery.
Carolyn Deborah Brewer is about eighteen hours younger than my nearly one-month marriage to Dwight Bryant, and I was still enchanted with both of them. She's twenty-one inches long, has fuzzy little black curls all over her tiny head, and smells of baby powder. He's six-three, has a head of thick brown hair, and smells of Old Spice. I love kissing both, but only one kisses back, and as soon as my meeting adjourned a little after eight, I phoned to let that one know I was on my way.
"I was just about to call you," he said. "I'm running late, too. Want me to pick up something for supper?"
"We still have half of that roast chicken and some gravy from yesterday," I reminded him. "Hot sandwiches and a green salad?"
"Sounds good to me. I'll be there as soon as I drop Richards off and see if Denning has anything else for us right now."
I rang off without asking questions. Denning? That meant a crime scene. And if he had Richards with him, that meant at least one other detective on the scene with Denning.
Which all added up to something serious.
I'm as curious as the next person—"Curious?" say my brothers. "Try nosy."—but a cell phone is not the best place to ask questions. If the incident was something Dwight could tell me about, he would be more open face-to-face over a hot meal.
I'm a district court judge, he's chief deputy of the Colleton County Sheriff's Department, which generates a large proportion of the cases that get tried in our judicial district. We had forged a separation of powers treaty shortly after our engagement back in October—he doesn't talk about things that have a chance of showing up in my courtroom, I don't ask questions till after they are disposed of, and everyone at the courthouse knows not to schedule me for any district court cases where he has to testify. Fortunately, most of Dwight's work concerns major felonies that are automatically tried in superior court, so we actually have more freedom of communication than we had originally expected.
We got home about the same time, and as we put together a supper of leftovers, he told me about the killing. I was surprised, but not really shocked to hear that J.D. Rouse had been shot. He was a couple of years ahead of me in school and his reputation was already unsavory back then. As a teenager, I may have flirted around with a lot of pot-smoking, beer-drinking boys—the wild boys who drove too fast, sassed the teachers, and cared more about carburetors and carom shots than physics and philosophy, but they were basically good-hearted slackers, loyal to their friends.
Wild is one thing, mean is a whole 'nother ball game.
- On Sale
- Aug 1, 2007
- Page Count
- 352 pages
- Grand Central Publishing