Excerpt from Fatal Error
It is an uncomfortable fact that human remains are sacred only to the human race. To the scavengers, our dead are a food source only, no better or worse than the carrion of other species.
In the rugged backcountry of Southwest Texas, the margin for survival is thinner than most places. The gaunt coyotes can no more afford to stand on ceremony than the turkey vultures or the badgers, the flies or stinging ants.
Yet even the hungriest leave something: a bone too hard for jaws to shatter, an indigestible mass of matted hair, a scrap of bloodstained denim. The scattered remnants linger, bearing witness to an ending as inexplicable as it was inhumane.
But not inhuman, no matter how vile the circumstances. And not unmourned, however lonely and remote the grave. For no heart can be defined by the fatal errors that lead it down the path to stillness, but rather by what drives it while it beats.
When Susan took her seat at one of the barbecue joint’s tables, the rancher parents of one of her ex-students stood up and walked out of the place. But not before the graying redhead who had been one of her high school’s most fervent volunteers shot her a world-class go-to-hell look. And not before the pain of it had the chance to seep into Susan’s soul.
She ought to be used to it by now: the dark looks and the whispers, the speculation about whether she was getting away with murder. Somehow, though, it never ceased to shock her; it never ceased to hurt.
As the Harrises’ pick-up left the parking lot, Susan made out a dust devil working its way across the arid valley. When the smoky plume resolved itself into a motorcycle, her breath caught in her throat.
“Let him help me out of family loyalty or guilt over his brother’s bad behavior or, I-don’t-care, even that one night we’ve tried so long to forget. Just let him say he’ll do it.”
Not the most orthodox of prayers, she knew, but maybe she’d earn points for desperation. She had a perfect right to worry, because after an hour-long bounce from Clementine across a ranch road that saw more lizards, tumbleweeds, and roadrunners than car traffic, Luke was bound to be long on sweat and short on temper.
Worse yet, he was a Maddox, the last person she should trust.
“You take that box and turn it in to the . . .” Her mom had leaned on her walker, searching her mind for the elusive word. Frustration glittered in her brown eyes before she wrestled the damaged speech center of her brain into obedience. “To the sheriff, like you ought to. You give it to one of them Maddoxes, he’ll just make — just make you more trouble. Or haven’t you learned yet?”
Susan had learned, all right. A person learned a hell of a lot when her husband of six years ran off with the local banker’s wife, a fortune in false loans, and God knows how much stolen from the family business.
But the toughest lessons in the world couldn’t keep her from concluding that her husband’s brother was her and her mother’s only chance. Even if he’d be furious once he learned she’d lied to get him to drive out to a third-rate barbeque joint at the intersection of the ranch road that connected Clementine, the county seat, with busy Highway 90.
Susan might be in a foul mood herself – she’d spent most of the eight months since Brian vanished mad as hell – but she wasn’t stupid. If ever there was a time to play nice, this was it.
Despite her resolution, when all six-feet, four inches of Luke blew through the front door, his expression did nothing to ease the tension knotted in her stomach. With his helmet tucked beneath his arm and his dark hair damp with sweat, he strode directly toward her, a scowl plastered across his face. A puff of dust rose from his jeans with every step.
After pulling off his sunglasses, he glared down at her, clearly not fooled by her red lipstick or the wide-brimmed hat that hid her shoulder-length brown hair. But then, even seated, Susan couldn’t hide her athletic, six-foot frame.
“That’s your red Jeep parked outside, right? The one you called about?” His tone warned he already knew the answer. “Tires look fine to me.”
At least they were now the only customers. She had the feeling this was going to get loud, and the last thing she needed was a public scene.
“Have a seat – please,” she suggested, trying the same note of calm she used to defuse her biology students’ daily dramas. She faked a half-hearted smile. “Wash some of the bugs out of those teeth.”
He didn’t smile back. “It’s ninety-three degrees out there. The bugs are all at home enjoying their air conditioning.”
“So why didn’t you grab one of the demos and crank up the AC?”
After all, she’d called him at the dealership – the same dealership that had been her husband Brian’s second home – with a story about frozen lug nuts on a flat. But it shouldn’t surprise her that he’d ridden his motorcycle instead. Luke had never been the Maddox brother known for sanity. Then again, that brother was probably in Mexico by now, soaking up the sun on some beach and grinning over what a naïve fool his wife had been.
And nobody seemed to give a damn about finding him but her – and maybe Hal Beecher, whose wife had disappeared at the same time.
“Because those cars don’t belong to me, or my family either,” Luke said. “Not since the meeting your call interrupted.”
“Corporate came to seize the dealership this morning. Mom couldn’t bear to turn it over – not after all the years Dad sank into that place. She asked me to take care of it for her.”
Susan winced at the reminder that she hadn’t been the only one hurt by her husband’s betrayal. Apparently, he’d been ordering and selling vehicles but had failed to pay the automakers or properly clear the titles. What he’d done with the hundreds of thousands of dollars owed, no one could say. So now the dealership his late father had worked a lifetime to establish was gone.
“Sorry,” Susan fought the urge to add that she was even sorrier for not guessing what her own husband had been up to, for not paying more attention to his behavior in the months leading to his disappearance.
If she hadn’t been distracted by her mother’s stroke, would she have noticed? Ruthlessly, she thrust the thought aside and imagined jabbing yet another pin into the Brian voodoo doll she kept tucked inside a mental pocket.
She fought back a smile as she fantasized that somewhere on that Mexican beach, a man’s severed penis had just dropped out of the leg of his swim trunks. She hoped Jessica Beecher had brought along a vibrator…
“I’m sorry too.” Luke dropped into the seat across from Susan. “Sorry my mother trusted Brian with the business in the first place.”
Susan shrugged a shoulder. “How could she have predicted? How could any of us?”
“Sometimes people choose not to see what’s too painful. Sort of like hysterical blindness. You ever hear of that?”
Heat suffused her face, and she felt her temper rising. Still, she measured her words, mindful of her need – and the narrow box inside her purse.
“You imagine you would have done better, if you’d been around,” she said carefully.
He shook his head. “I’m not saying that at all. We talked on the phone every now and then, but Brian and I weren’t really close. You know that. But I am around now. I’ll be doing some long-distance telecommuting for at least a month or so. That eight-hundred mile round trip between here and Austin got old really fast.”
She wasn’t too surprised that the facts differed from the version she’d heard – that he’d been fired from his computer security firm because of all the time he’d spent dealing with the fallout of Brian’s disappearance. She’d learned the hard way that West Texas gossip painted every story a more interesting shade.
“Nice of your boss to let you do that,” she said.
He gave a shrug. “I hate dealing with bosses – so I bought him out a while back.”
Susan was surprised she hadn’t heard this through the grapevine. But knowing Luke, he’d kept it to himself.
The moment Luke’s attention turned to his empty glass, the waitress materialized, though she had been steadfastly ignoring Susan’s presence for nearly fifteen minutes. A hard-looking blonde on the verge of middle age, the woman bore a pitcher of caramel-colored tea and a tar-stained smile. Susan made note of her name tag, which read Cyndee, and laid a mental bet the woman had changed the spelling back in junior high.
“Would you like some?” Cyndee asked, her heavily made-up gaze a compass needle to the lodestone of Luke Maddox and his killer hazel eyes.
At his nod, she poured without once glancing in Susan’s direction. After setting the pitcher on the table, the waitress stretched provocatively toward the controls of a wall-mounted window unit. Still staring at Luke, she added, “Thought I’d turn that up for you. You look awfully hot.”
Susan rolled her eyes. Fifteen years past their high school graduation, and Luke’s broad shoulders and chiseled features were still turning females into fools. She ought to know; once upon a time, she’d been the president of that club. Thank God, her mom had put a stop to that.
She filled her own glass before asking the blonde, “How about leaving the pitcher and bringing us two specials?”
Cyndee blinked at Susan. “What?” she asked, her tone unmistakably annoyed.
Susan had to repeat the order twice before the woman beat a lightning-quick retreat into the kitchen. Probably to spit into her sandwich.
Luke drained half his tea, then said, “Now tell me why you lied to get me here. It’s sure as hell not for the service.”
“I picked this place because it’s private,” she explained. “No one from Clementine ever darkens the door.”
No one except the Harrises, anyway. But at least they hadn’t seen her here with Luke.
“Why all the secrecy?” he asked. “Surely, you aren’t that intimidated by my mother.”
Her laughter sounded brittle.
“Maybe not yours,” she lied, realizing she was stalling. “But mine scares me half to death.”
Her mother was so adamant on the subject, Susan had had to say that she was going to the sheriff. She couldn’t recall the last day she had played so fast and loose with truth.
“How is Maggie?” Luke asked.
Real interest softened his expression, and she couldn’t help feeling grateful. Since Brian’s disappearance, Susan had almost forgotten what it felt like to see eyes that didn’t teem with unvoiced questions.
Could you have done it? Did you?
Friends and neighbors, co-workers and parents of her students might look directly at her, but Susan knew they were seeing her picture in the paper. Right next to the missing Jessica Beecher, Brian, and the photo of her husband’s burned-out car still smoldering in a remote arroyo in the desert.
She still couldn’t believe the jerk had been heartless enough to create such a cruel diversion. Mentally, she stuck another pin into his eye.
“Mom’s doing so much better,” she told Luke. “The therapy’s made a big difference, with her speech especially. But she’s still weak on her right side, and mentally — well, let’s just say I can’t see her living on her own.”
“So you two are roommates now?”
“Yeah, can you believe it? After all the grief I gave her raising me, now I get to be the responsible party. But it’s been good for me, having someone to look after. It takes my mind off everything. Well,” she said with a shrug, “that’s a lie, but it does give me someone to pretend for.”
A span of silence stretched between them as she searched his gaze. No suspicion there, thank God, only troubled comprehension.
The polite thing would be to ask about his mother now, but even though the woman had been through her own brand of hell, Susan couldn’t make herself. Not without choking on the memory of the older woman’s accusations.
Luke’s voice jarred Susan out of the unpleasant thoughts. “Let’s get to the point. Why’d you really bring me all the way out here?”
Her stomach crawled into her throat, but she forced the truth out past it. A truth she’d been keeping from her mother for a week. “The superintendent called me. He said – he said the board’s decided to terminate my teaching contract.”
The panic that had been building burst out in an unstoppable torrent. “I can’t let them do this. If I can’t teach this fall, I’ll have to leave town to look for work and pack my mom off to my sister’s. And you know Carol. She’ll park Mom in some California nursing home the minute she gets inconvenient. And God, Luke, that would kill her. Mom’s lived around Clementine her whole life. Her friends are here, and all her memories. I’m not about to let those bast -”
“Hold on. Let’s back up a minute,” Luke said. “Why would they fire you?”
“He says parents have been calling, saying they don’t trust me with their kids. He says I’ve become a ‘distraction to the learning process.'” Her laughter made a harsh sound. “It’s funny. The last time Dr. Winthrop called, it was to tell me I’d been named the district’s teacher of the year. Spineless little weasel.”
“What I don’t get is why would anyone complain?” Luke said. “Brian’s alive – hell, two witnesses saw him and Jessica Beecher at that New Mexico gas station a couple of days after the sheriff found his car. And didn’t Jessica leave some kind of message on her answering machine?”
“A story that was buried on page seven. But I don’t think it would matter anyway. It was that first article that did it.” Her throat ached with the anger she had swallowed back. “No one’s forgotten those pictures – especially the ones of the deputies hauling evidence out of my house. And I’m sure they’ve all been talking about what that ass Ramirez said.”
Every word of the deputy’s quote was seared into her memory: “Susan Maddox claims she was hiking out around the national park the day her husband disappeared, but so far, we’ve found no witnesses to verify her story.”
Her story, as if she’d made up the whole thing – and if her photos, stamped with the date, weren’t evidence enough, what would be? She decided on the spot she’d make room for Manuel Ramirez’s picture next to Brian’s on her dartboard.
“But the sheriff cleared you the next day,” Luke argued. “He said neither you nor Hal Beecher was a suspect.”
“Beecher’s never had a problem.” She could barely keep the resentment from her voice. While old friends turned their backs on her, Jessica Beecher’s husband was being showered with casseroles and kindness. But then, on the day their spouses disappeared, Hal Beecher had been in a meeting in El Paso, with a dozen witnesses. Better yet, he’d gone there to raise money for a clinic for the indigent he wanted to establish in his late daughter’s memory.
What sport would there be in suspecting the father of a little girl who’d died of leukemia two years before? And the stress of the Beechers’ loss gave a perfectly plausible explanation as to why Jessica might have fled. As if grief excused the things that she had done.
“Beecher’s had a problem, all right,” Luke said. “In case you’ve forgotten, his whole world has caved in. Brian not only stole his wife, he put a hell of a dent in his bank, too, with those loans. And now the guy has a four-year-old to raise alone – a kid who’s lost his mother.”
“I know, I know. Brian’s been the son of a bitch, and it’s everybody else who’s paying. Not just me.” She shut up when she saw the waitress coming with their orders.
With a smile for Luke, Cyndee put down both plates. Pretending not to hear Susan’s request for ketchup, she stalked back to the kitchen. Susan began to wonder if the blonde’s antagonism was more than simple rudeness. Did the woman also recognize – and condemn – her from the paper?
Susan told herself she must be getting paranoid. The Cyndees of this world skipped the front page and flipped straight to the Health and Beauty section. If they read at all.
Luke stood, and for one heart-stopping moment, Susan was certain he was walking out the door. Instead, he snagged a ketchup bottle from another table and came back to hand it to her.
“Here you go,” he said, his fingers brushing hers as he withdrew them. “I think we’ve seen the last of our waitress for a while.”
Susan couldn’t answer. She was too stunned by the impulse that had nearly driven her to grasp his hand and hold it. If she’d been quick and bold enough, would he have held hers back?
What was happening to her? He’d barely swept his fingers past hers, and worse yet, he was Brian’s brother. Not the boy she’d known back in high school, the troublemaker whose reputation for tinkering under the hoods of fast cars and faster girls had scared her into refusing him each time he’d asked her out. Until that one time, when he’d talked her into sneaking out for that ride in his convertible at night. The night the yucca blossoms had perfumed a star-drunk sky . . . the night she’d been fool enough to let him charm her out of her virginity. The next day, she’d been grounded for two weeks after Carol squealed that she’d seen the two of them by Susan’s locker “leaning way too close.” If Carol had known the whole of it, Susan figured she would still be grounded now.
Even as it was, by the time she’d managed to escape her mother and sister’s scrutiny, Luke had gone on to bigger and better B-cups – as if their time together hadn’t meant a thing to him. Certainly, neither of them had brought up the incident again.
Thinking of Brian, Susan wondered if a short attention span was a genetic trait or simply something carved into the Y chromosome. Which would explain so much about remote controls and men . . .
“So what do you need?” Luke was asking. “A good lawyer? Seems to me you could sue the hell out of Dr. Winthrop and the whole damned school board for that matter. They can’t just fire a good teacher because a few hysterical parents complain.”
“I’m not so certain all those callers were hysterical parents,” Susan told him. “Dr. Winthrop mentioned a few names. Names you’d recognize from the roster of the
She let it sink in for a moment, the knowledge that school board elections, along with several others, would be held this November. And that not one official had been elected without the CLC’s endorsement in more than forty years. In Ocotillo County, the Conservative Ladies’ Coalition ruled. And Luke and Brian’s mother, Virginia Maddox, was the one who ruled it.
“Oh, hell,” Luke said. “I know what you’re thinking. And I know the two of you have had your problems, but you’re still a Maddox. Mom would never –”
“I’ve filed for divorce, Luke – months ago. My attorney said I had to, to legally protect myself from everything Brian’s done.” She shrugged. “Of course, I would have filed anyway, but your mother didn’t understand.”
He grimaced. “She wouldn’t. She’s still saying Brian’ll turn up with an explanation if we give him enough time. Either that or that you -”
He cut himself off abruptly.
“What?” Susan prompted, as if she couldn’t guess.
He shook his head. “Let’s just say, in her mind, it must be someone else’s fault. Anyone’s but Brian’s.”
Susan nodded, suddenly buried in a landslide of raw memories of Virginia Maddox’s fury and frustration in those first awful days when they had waited together by the phone.
“He never would have left you,” her mother-in-law would begin, “if you’d only been . . .”
More traditional. More pliant. More reasonable. Less stubborn. The attacks had gone on and on, each one a knife thrust, each one making Susan wonder if the older woman might be right. Until she’d finally gone too far and said, “If you’d only given him a child.”
That had been the last straw, one that finally shocked Susan out of self-blame and started her blood boiling. She had given Virginia thirty seconds to grab her purse, climb on her broomstick, and get on the road back to her own place. They hadn’t spoken since until her mother-in-law called to blast her about the filing. How the devil had she found out anyway?
“I’ll talk to Mother,” Luke said, “but I seriously doubt she’s part of some conspiracy against you. For one thing, she hasn’t been the CLC’s president in years. I don’t think she’s even active anymore.”
“Guess you’ve forgotten how things work around here,” she said. “Of course, you’re a Maddox. Maybe Maddoxes don’t have to think about the rules.”
“I’ve heard that sorry bullshit all my life,” he fired back. “It never had a thing to do with me.”
He started to get up, and her hand shot out to clamp down on his wrist.
“Please don’t go,” she begged. “I’m sorry. It’s just that –”
“It’s just that one – make that two – Maddoxes have already kicked you in the teeth,” he finished for her.
As he spoke, he stared at his wrist so intently that she released him. And held her breath until she could be sure he wouldn’t rise.
“The question is,” he continued, looking in her eyes now, “what the hell would drive you to try your luck on a third?”
Her trembling hand found its way inside her purse and pulled out a box about the size of a standard paperback.
This was what she’d come for, the long shot she was betting could save her. As she passed it to Luke, tightness gripped her chest, and perspiration boiled to the surface. Swallowing back her emotions, she tugged at the creeping hemline of her denim skirt, then crossed her bare legs to unstick them from the vinyl seat.
“Last night, I found this,” Susan told him. “And I’m hoping – praying, really – that it might hold some answers.”
Luke took it from her and glanced down at the packaging. “A hard drive? Brian’s?” At her nod, he added, “I thought the sheriff’s department confiscated his computer.”
“They didn’t get this part.”
He raised his brows, an unmistakable invitation to explain.
“Our hard drive went belly-up about two weeks before Brian disappeared. He was really upset about it, said he had a bunch of tax stuff stored there he didn’t want to spend the next three months inputting.”
Luke muttered, “I told him he needed a good backup routine. Some people never learn their lesson.”
“Brian and half the computing world.” Including her, thought Susan, though she certainly knew better.
“I shouldn’t gripe. It’s the same half that keeps a lot of us tech guys in business.”
“He wanted it fixed right away,” said Susan, “so he drove the computer all the way to an electronics superstore in El Paso. The guy ended up selling him a new drive. Said he couldn’t fix the old one.”
“Typical superstore geek move,” Luke said. “Installing a new hard drive’s a lot simpler than trying to restore lost information – if the guy knew how. Real data recovery specialists charge thousands, and they don’t guarantee a thing.”
“Afterwards,” she said, “he gave Brian the box with the warranty information inside. I was packing away some of Brian’s stuff when it fell off the top shelf of his closet. I picked it up and noticed the old drive was in there too. Then I got to thinking, maybe there’s a chance that someone with your background could fix it, find a way into Brian’s e-mail and financial records –”
Luke laid the box back on the table, outside the range of crumbs. And used the tops of his fingernails to slide it back to her.
“The state has experts trained to do that. You don’t want me touching this.”
“Why not?” The pitch of her voice climbed with her rising panic. “I know you’re really good, with all those industry awards. You’ve been in high tech almost all your li –”
“Exactly,” Luke said. “And I’m Brian’s brother. Assuming I could get anything out of this old hard drive – and that’s a huge assumption – the information would be tainted. Do you know how easy it would be for someone like me to falsify computer files?”
“But you wouldn’t. And what would it matter anyway, if something in those files helped me track down Brian?”
He shook his head. “I want Brian back here just as much as you do. I want to hear from him what the hell he was thinking, and then I want to see the bastard pay.”
“After we show everyone he’s alive, we can –”
“No. I don’t want him paying with some chickenshit family scolding that’ll end up with my mom selling off the ranch to bail him out. I don’t even want him paying with a good ass-kicking, which I would happily dispense. Brian needs to go to jail for what he’s done. He’s screwed up a lot of lives, and for once, he’s going to have to face the music.”
Resentment burned in Luke’s expression, and Susan could guess the reason. How many times had she heard Virginia Maddox dismiss his job as “monkeying around with those fool contraptions” or call him “a tumbleweed, hardly better than oilfield trash” for his frequent job changes within the volatile technology sector? From personal experience, Susan knew that Brian had the market cornered on the rare commodity of that old bat’s approval, but how much worse would it have been had Virginia Maddox been her mother?
Hot as the day was, she shuddered at the thought.
“You’re going to have to take this to the sheriff,” Luke said. “I can’t understand why you didn’t in the first place.”
“The man’s been in office since Sam Houston was in grade school,” she erupted. “It would take me hours to explain to Hector Abbott exactly what a hard drive is.”
The last time she’d gone to see the white-haired grandfather, he’d been plunking away hunt-and-peck style on an old manual typewriter. He worked with his elbows locked straight so he could see what he was doing.
“He has younger deputies to call on, not to mention the resources of the Texas Rangers,” Luke said. “Didn’t they send your computer to the state lab at the Department of Motor Vehicles?”
“Ages ago. Sheriff Abbott tells me he’s still waiting to hear back from the DMV about it,” Susan explained. “But he doesn’t seem to care much about their results – or anything else these last few months. Every time I talk to him, he just pats me on the hand and says, ‘These things take time, Miz Maddox.’ When I’d finally had enough of his patronizing garbage, he told me that as far as he’s concerned, this is more of a domestic issue than a crime.”
Luke frowned as he reached for a fry. “Maybe he just wanted to get you off his back. Something tells me you’ve been calling his office every day and pestering.”
Susan thought about the days she’d phoned twice, even three times, wanting to know what progress the sheriff had made. “I hate sitting on my rear and waiting,” she admitted. “I’m no damned good at it.”
“Maybe not, but you have other talents. Aggravating people and telling lies, for starters. I don’t think you should add obstructing justice to the list.”
“I don’t lie.”
Luke hooked a thumb in the direction of her red Jeep and its four, perfectly-inflated tires.
She grimaced, remembering, too, what she had told her mother. And worse yet, what she hadn’t. Sooner or later, her mom would have to know of her dismissal before she heard it elsewhere. Thank God the school board hadn’t leaked it yet. Legally, they couldn’t discuss the personnel issue since she’d told them she planned to appeal. But in a small community, Susan knew her secret would spread faster than cold sores on prom night.
“Yeah, I did lie, but I had good reason. And I’m not planning on getting in the way of justice. All I want to do is hurry it along.” Her eyes burned and her vision wavered. She blinked, telling herself she would be damned if she would cry. “I’m going to find my husband – and I have to do it in the next two weeks. That’s when the board will be hearing my appeal.”
She pushed the hard drive back toward him. “Luke, you have to help me, please. There’s isn’t time to play this game by their rules anymore. I’m already going to lose the house – Beecher has no choice but to foreclose – but once my paycheck’s gone, I won’t even be able to keep up the rent on Mom’s apartment.”
Luke didn’t touch the box. “Take it in to Hector. This is his investigation, not ours. But if you need some money –”
This time, she was the one who stood and stared him down. “I don’t need your damned money. Luke Maddox, I need you.”