Some evil shouts from rooftops, some scuttles in the dark. The greatest evil tips its face toward light with shining innocence.
Baxter Jackson shone with the worst of them.
In my sister’s kitchen I focused out the sliding glass door to her backyard. Relentless rain pummeled the night. The weather matched my mood. The Vonita Times, our town’s weekly paper, lay on the square wooden table across from me. Its front-page headline glared: Skip Tracer Accuses Police Chief of Shirking Duty.
My sister followed my gaze. “Maybe it really was an accident, Joanne.”
I shot her a look of accusation and hurt. “You too?” As if the rest of the town weren’t enough. “I thought you agreed with me.”
She drew a long breath. “I don’t know what to think. Two wives gone does look suspicious, but there’s no proof Baxter did anything. Once Cherisse’s death was ruled an accident — ”
“How many people fall down stairs and die, Dineen, even if they are hardwood? That only happens in old movies.”
“But that’s what the coroner said.”
“And he’s up for reelection next year, and who do you suppose gave the most to his last campaign?”
“I know, but I just can’t believe any coroner would find signs of a murder and look the other way, especially this man. I mean, I know Bud Gidst. So do you.”
I pushed back my chair, picked up my plate, and stacked hers on top. Marched them over to the sink and set them down none too gently. I loved my sister like crazy, always had. She was twelve years younger, and I’d always looked after her. I steered her clear of bratty, bully girls in grade school, the wrong guys in high school. I urged her to fight her self-serving ex in court until he paid the two years’ worth of child support he owed for Jimmy. But the fact was, Dineen had always been too trusting. She just couldn’t believe anything bad about anybody until it hit her in the face.
“Sometimes people don’t want to see the truth, Dineen.” I rinsed the plates, the water hissing. “Autopsy findings are open to interpretation. To say all those bruises and contusions on Cherisse’s head didn’t match a fall down the stairs would be calling Baxter Jackson a liar. Maybe Bud didn’t want to believe that.”
Or maybe his ruling was far more sinister. Baxter Jackson was the richest man in Vonita and practically ran the town. He sponsored a Little League baseball team and personally paid for Vonita’s Fourth of July fireworks. He was everybody’s best friend. Nobody in the county ever spoke against Baxter.
I turned off the water. If only I could wring that eavesdropping reporter’s neck. My argument with the chief of police had not been intended for the public’s ear.
“Yeah, maybe.” My sister sounded only half convinced. She pushed a lock of dark hair behind her ears, then hugged herself.
Voices from the TV drifted in from the den. Nine-year-old Jimmy was watching some reality cop show. My head hurt. I walked back to my chair and slumped into it, suddenly feeling old at fifty-two. Dineen pressed her lips together and regarded me with a beleaguered expression. Her hazel eyes held concern. “I’m just sorry you’ve gotten yourself mixed up in this.”
Thursday’s newspaper headline fairly shouted at me. I reached out and flipped it over. “I know.” I gave her a wan smile. “But I shouldn’t be worrying you about it. You’ve got enough to deal with right now, given your stress at work.”
Dineen shrugged. “It’s not that bad. Things are just crazy because Doug’s so wrapped up in the lawsuit. It’s almost over. He’ll win, as usual, and he and his client will walk away with lots of cash. Everybody will be happy again.”
Everyone except the San Jose hospital he was suing.
I made a face. “Including you, I hope. Happy, as in getting a big honking present for all the abuse you’ve taken.” Dineen answered phones at Doug Brewer’s firm, nothing more. She wasn’t a law clerk. She didn’t deserve his snapping temper. But when Doug was fighting a big case, everyone around him bore the brunt of his impatience.
“Were things any different for you on Friday, after that came out?” I gestured with my chin toward the newspaper. Doug and Baxter were good friends. I didn’t want my sister taking any heat for me.
My sister fiddled with her hair. “Not really.”
“What does ‘not really’ mean, Dineen?”
She tilted her head. “A few people did ask me what you were thinking. I didn’t even see Doug. He went straight to court.”
Yeah, what was I thinking? Who was I to go up against Baxter Jackson?
“Know what?” I sounded sorry for myself, and I hated it. My nerves were just too worn to care. “Right now you and Jimmy are about my only friends in town.”
“Come on, that’s not true.”
“It is, Dineen. You should see the looks I’ve gotten the last few days. The disgusted whispers.” Sudden tears bit my eyes. I looked at the table.
Dineen made an empathic sound in her throat. “What about all your friends at church? You’ll see them tomorrow.”
Her words pierced. I shook my head. “I can’t go back there, not now. With Baxter as head elder? Which side do you think would win? And anyway, I don’t want those dear people taking sides. I can’t put them in that position. They loved Cherisse, and Linda before that.” My voice tightened. “They’re like family to Baxter. They’re grieving along with him.”
Cherisse had died only two weeks ago. I could imagine church members’ reactions as they read that newspaper article. Even though they loved me. Even though I’d attended that church for fifteen years, long before my husband, Tom, died of a heart attack. I was the one who always got things done. Led committees, rallied the troops for fund-raisers, taught Sunday school. They knew my heart for helping others. But how dare I talk against Baxter Jackson — especially as he mourned the death of his second wife? How could I be so cruel?
Dineen laid a hand on my arm. “I’m sorry. I know how much you miss Linda.”
Yes, I did miss her. Terribly. Linda, the irrepressible woman who encouraged everyone around her. Even in those moments when some inner pain she refused to share fleeted across her face, she would shake it off, flash that dazzling smile of hers. Now, six years later, Linda’s disappearance still haunted me. Baxter claimed she’d left the house one night and never returned. A few days later her car was found some twenty miles away, smears of her blood on the front seat. Her body was never recovered. I didn’t believe Baxter’s story about my best friend — not after what she’d told me. And she hadn’t been herself for weeks before her disappearance, would barely even return my calls.
But Chief Eddington hadn’t listened to me then either. Indignation bubbled inside me once more. I raised my eyes. “Two wives in six years, Dineen.” One unsolved murder and one accident. “A total of one million dollars’ life insurance. One million. Why would he even take out policies on his wives in the first place, when neither of them worked?” Linda’s policy had taken three years to come through. The courts had to declare her dead first, aided by the fact that her credit cards, bank account, nothing had been touched since the night of her disappearance. Even so, I wouldn’t be surprised if Baxter’s influence swayed that legal process as well.
Dineen lifted a shoulder. There was nothing in this argument we hadn’t covered a dozen times before.
Sometimes I wished I could be more like her. More of an accepter, less of a fighter. Life would be so much easier. But I just hadn’t been wired that way.
I leaned back and pressed my hands to my temples.
“Another headache?” Dineen asked.
Dineen rose and walked to the cabinet by her refrigerator, where she pulled out a bottle of heavy-duty aspirin. She shook out two and handed them to me. “Here.”
“Thanks.” I swallowed them with the last gulp of water from my glass. A gust of wind pelted rain against the sliding door. It was nasty out there. February in Vonita, California, forty miles south of San Jose, was balmy compared to some parts of the country. The current temperature hovered in the low forties. But the dampness made it feel so much colder. I hated winter rain. It reminded me of death and despair. Five years ago I’d buried my husband on a day like this.
I pushed from my chair. “Better go.”
“Want a Jelly Belly hit?” Dineen gestured toward my favorite cabinet.
“Always.” I managed a smile. “Especially if you’ve got Grape Jelly or Watermelon. They’re my headache flavors.”
Dineen fetched a large glass bowl from the cabinet. “I don’t know what’s what in here. You figure it out.”
I leaned over the bowl, moving the candies around with a finger. Grape Jelly ones are dark purple. Watermelon are green. I found a few of each and popped them in my mouth one by one, relishing each bite. Nothing in this world beat Jelly Belly jelly beans. Particularly on a night like this.
In the den I leaned over the couch to brush my fingers against Jimmy’s cheek. He was recovering from a nasty bout of flu. Jimmy looked pale and tired, but he smiled at me all the same. His brown hair stuck out in all directions — a casualty of lying against all the gathered throw pillows. “G’night, Aunt Joanne.”
“Good night, favorite nephew.”
“I’m your only nephew.”
“Well, if I had a hundred, you’d still be my favorite.”
At the front door I pulled on a raincoat and picked up my umbrella. Dineen hugged me hard. “This mess will all blow over, you’ll see. Chief Eddington can’t stay mad at you forever.”
“Sure.” I slid my purse over my arm. No point in disagreeing, even though I knew better. Wayne Eddington and Baxter Jackson went way back. “Thanks for dinner, as always.”
Dineen nodded. “See ya next Saturday.”
She opened the door, and the monster wind blew its clammy breath over us. I stuck my umbrella outside, hit the button on its handle, and hurried down the porch steps to my Toyota 4Runner. By the time I slid into the car my ankles were wet and chilled.
The loud battering on the roof turned up my headache. Gritting my teeth, I started the car. The digital clock read 8:33 p.m.
My house lay about five miles from Dineen’s on Stillton, a rural road at the edge of town. I drove stiff-backed, fat raindrops cascading through my headlights and bouncing off the pavement like spilled popcorn. My thoughts eddied with increasing frustration. In my own business as a skip tracer I spent my workdays hunting down people, many of them criminals. I’d built a good reputation for finding my skips. Now I had a possible double murderer in my sites, one of his victims my best friend. A friend I could have saved, if I’d only pushed harder.
And now I couldn’t do a thing about my suspicions.
I passed through the last stoplight on Elmer and turned left onto Stillton. Two miles of narrow road and curves, and I’d reach my warm, dry house. I turned up the heat in the car. Eyes narrowed, I drove slowly, frowning at the headlights of an oncoming vehicle until it swished by. My windshield wipers drummed a furious beat.
“Why didn’t you investigate Cherisse’s death?” I’d demanded of Chief Eddington four days ago. We stood in his office at the station, the door open. I tried to keep my voice low.
The chief’s face reddened. He planted both hands on his thick hips. “So now you’re going to rag me about this case for the next six years? They’re over, Joanne. Both Jackson cases are closed.”
“And you’re happy about that, aren’t you? Now life can just go on, and Baxter remains your favorite pal.”
The rest of our heated argument ran through my head. I’d never even seen reporter Andy Wangler in the station, much less in proximity to hear us. He must have salivated all over his notepad.
My last bend before home approached. I eased off the accelerator.
A hooded figure darted into the road.
I gasped and punched the brake. The anti-lock system shuddered. The figure jerked its head half toward me, one side of a man’s face lit skeletal white. A rivulet of blood jagged down his bony cheek. The eye on the shadowed half of his face shrunk as black and deep as an empty socket.
He raised his arms.
My car slid toward him.
I whipped the steering wheel left. The figure jumped backward.
I heard a sickening bump on my right fender. In peripheral vision I glimpsed the body knocked aside. My Toyota kicked into a spiral over slickened asphalt. The world dizzied as I spun, my widened eyes taking in a dancing fence on the road’s left side... the curve I’d already traveled...a gnarled oak straight ahead...a crumpled figure on the ground. My wet tires sang and sizzled, the smell of my own sweat acrid in my nostrils.
A hysterical thought flashed in my brain: I hit the Grim Reaper.
With a final nauseating jolt my SUV carved to a stop in the middle of the dark and rain-pelted road.