Excerpt from Touch of Evil
“In the spider-web of facts, many a truth is strangled.”
— Paul Eldridge
The fog slips in on death’s feet, then stoops to drink at the water’s mirrored surface. In the eerie lakeside stillness, the silvery layers mute everything, from the outraged caws of disturbed crows to huge cypress trees grown shaggy with wiry, gray-green moss.
But along the wild shores of the big lake straddling the Texas and Louisiana borders, some things cannot be softened. Not by mist or deepening gloom or the chill rain that patters through the gold-and-blood-hued autumn foliage. Certain sounds, so out of place here, stand out starkly: the slap and rattle of a rope tossed over a stout oak branch, the panicked scrape of human breath, a guttural curse and stumble of footsteps. The harsh cacophony of a struggle quickly silenced.
Quickly silenced but for a single, strangled cry, followed by the rhythmic creaking of the newly burdened tree.
Monday, October 19th
Death notifications were the worst part of Sheriff Justine Wofford’s job. Worse even than the state’s efforts to nail her on charges of corruption, the Dogwood Sentinel’s calls for her head, and the county’s demands that she slash her operating budget. Eight months after she’d claimed the remainder of her late husband’s unfilled term, Justine’s professional life was circling the drain, and not even her deputies were bothering to disguise their relief about their boss’s imminent demise. Nor were most inclined to follow orders, including her request for someone to accompany her on this hideous detail.
But the lack of support didn’t matter. What mattered to Justine most was the knowledge that she was about to shatter the fragile shell of a family’s well-being, as her own had been destroyed eleven months before.
Except she was for damned sure going to do this thing right, with all the care and compassion she’d been denied by the young physician who had delivered the news — with one foot out the door — that a sudden stroke had killed Justine’s husband. Inconvenienced by her meltdown, the newly-minted doctor had had the nerve to say, “What was he, twenty, twenty-five years older? I would have thought you’d have prepared yourself for something like this.”
“Lou’s sixty. Sixty, that’s all,” she had argued, as if she might talk the little pissant into a different diagnosis. “He’s healthy, active, watches his diet. We still have plenty of time left.”
With his gaze already straying to the nurse urgently flagging him down, the doctor had spared her a pitying look before leaving her alone with her nine-year-old autistic son, who could no more comprehend grief than he could decipher hieroglyphics but had keened in harmony with his mother’s weeping because he liked the sound.
Yet as her decaying department SUV veered onto a dirt road so rough it shook her fillings, Justine counted her blessings. Shocking as it was, Lou’s passing had at least been natural. Not like this atrocity, the third hanging death discovered in the last month in rural Preston County.
“Suicides tend to cluster like that. Not uncommon to see a group of running buddies do themselves in, one by one,” Chief Deputy Roger Savoy had lectured. Not only was the asshole gunning for her office in next year’s election, he still felt it was his place to school her like a rookie.
Which was why it had given her a twisted burst of pleasure to point out a faint set of ligature marks on the man’s untied wrists and a swollen bump behind his head. “Except this one’s no suicide,” she said loudly enough that he couldn’t lay claim to the discovery later.
As Justine jounced over the road’s chuck holes, any lingering satisfaction was swallowed by her growing dread. But in spite of the gut-churning apprehension, she noticed the play of late afternoon’s light as it filtered through breeze-stirred boughs and the flutter of leaf shadow that leant deceptive charm to the ramshackle cabins she passed. Near the wooden steps beside a swaybacked trailer home, a trio of flop-eared pups wrestled, and yellow-breasted warblers darted through the underbrush.
She slowed, lowering her window to wave at a pair of skinny white girls whacking the heads off squat brown mushrooms with what looked like rusted golf clubs. Eight and ten, she recalled, with streaming yellow-brown hair and piping laughter that dried up when they saw her. The taller of the two flipped Justine the bird before she and her sister raced inside the small rental cabin that now served as the overcrowded residence of three kids and two adults.
“Make that one adult,” Justine said. She parked beneath the gnarled arms of a primeval oak and stared at the tire swing suspended nearby. Hanging, while the Expedition’s cooling engine ticked like an old clock. When she was finally able to tear her gaze away, she spotted the twitch of a stained curtain and the fierce glares of small faces pressed against the filmy window.
Doubtless, the children figured she had come to talk to their grandmother about getting them to school more often, or to report their daddy was in jail again for public intoxication, disorderly conduct, or any one of the penny ante misdemeanors that so often left them in the sole care of their half-blind grandmother.
But for all of Caleb LeJeune’s flaws, for all the rough poverty of the part-time fiddle player’s home near the southernmost portion of Bone Lake, Justine reminded herself she faced a family that loved him. A family that would forever carry not only her words, but the tone and body language of the message that would irrevocably change their lives.
Steeling herself, Justine slid out of her truck. She brushed crumbled smears of crime-scene dirt from the dark suit she wore, took another deep breath, then strode toward the cabin’s front door.
She didn’t have to knock before it opened to a swirl of cigarette smoke and a round face braced for bad news. Dee LeJeune asked, “What’s he done now, Sheriff?” in her two-pack-a-day voice.
Before Justine could think of how to answer, Dee flicked her cigarette into the yard and narrowed her gaze. “And don’t be thinkin’ I’m gonna pad the county’s pockets bailin’ him out this time. Not when I can’t hardly feed these kids he’s saddled me with.”
In spite of her harsh words, her fingers skimmed the fine hair of a boy not five years old, and Justine knew Dee would rip the throat out of anyone who came between her and these children.
But it wouldn’t matter in the long haul. In the end, the state would take Caleb’s kids, would more than likely have to split them up.
“Ma’am, may I step inside and have a word?” Justine asked, her throat tightening in anticipation of the cabin’s smoke-and-Pine-Sol reek.
Dee must have heard a new brand of misfortune in Justine’s voice, for with a stricken look, she shooed the grandkids outside. “And mind you two, you keep a close eye on your brother. Don’t go nowhere near the water, and I mean it.”
Once they’d slunk away, Dee said, “All right, then,” her milky eyes already leaking tears.
By the time Justine stepped back outside, her eyes burned as well, and not only from the odors. She didn’t see the kids around, so she headed back toward her mud-spattered Expedition, only to stop short when she noticed it was listing toward the driver’s side.
“Shit.” Leave it to Caleb LeJeune’s brood to have the gall to puncture her tire. Justine broke into a jog, hustling past the giant oak in the hope of catching the budding delinquents in action.
But what Justine caught instead was a hard crack to the side of her skull. A blow that splashed like black paint over the jewel-bright October day.
With ER physicians almost impossible to replace, Dr. Ross Bollinger’s boss had promised the moon, the stars, and coddled half-shifts if he would come back early on a trial basis. So it stood to reason that by seven PM on his third day, Ross had already been on for thirteen hours, chewed out for his ignorance of a new record-keeping protocol, and sworn at by a habitual drug-seeker. Not to mention having been exposed to vast legions of germs by a pair of preschoolers he’d mentally rechristened Snotzilla and Vomitus Maximus.
In spite of the grueling work he’d done to build back his stamina, he was feeling every one of his thirty-nine years as he scrubbed his hands for the fiftieth time that day.
His favorite R.N., Debbie Brown, stopped mid-stride to look him over, concern in her blue eyes. “You all right?”
Ross grimaced, wishing he had staged a comeback somewhere no one would remember the day he had keeled over. “I could do another twenty-four,” he assured her. An outright lie, but he’d rather drop in his tracks than cop to the slightest hint of fatigue. Especially to the veteran charge nurse who all but ran the emergency department.
“Good,” she said as she adjusted her clip to recapture a loose strand of auburn hair, “because Dr. Fleming’s still AWOL, and EMS just radioed. We have a big one in the works, just a couple of minutes out. Thirty-eight-year-old female, blunt head trauma, unresponsive and bleeding from a laceration to the skull. It’s Sheriff Wofford, Doctor —”
“Justine?” Ross felt a jolt deep inside his chest that had nothing to do with his new implant.
Debbie’s gaze sharpened, and her head tilted slightly. “That’s right,” she said after a brief pause. “You’re the one she always asks for when she brings in her son.”
That was how Ross’s affair with Justine had started this past summer, a little over four months earlier. Another set of stitches and an x-ray for her autistic nine-year-old. Another conversation about ways to keep the boy from harm. And suddenly, stupidly, he’d blurted out that they ought to discuss it over coffee.
Burning fast and hot, the relationship had flamed out only six weeks later. And to Ross’s knowledge, no one else suspected anything had ever happened. Justine had insisted on that from the very start.
A recent widow — her husband had been dead just seven months when it had started — she had insisted on a lot of things, promises he’d broken. Not to hope for more from her. Not to press her on it. Since he’d ended their relationship, not a day had gone by when he didn’t think about her, not even those days when the virus that had slammed him seemed more likely to kill him than relax its icy grip.
Debbie went on to say, “She was injured on duty, so we’ll be ass-deep in badges before we know it.”
Still shaken, Ross nodded, remembering from his Houston trauma center days how protective first responders were when it came to their own.
With no other choice but to set aside his own emotions, he downed an energy drink to keep him going and emerged from the lounge as a pair of EMTs wheeled in the sheriff, limp and bleeding through the gauze that partially covered her loose, dark-brown hair. Strapped tightly to a backboard with her neck in a C-collar, the patient was pale, with her shadowed eyes closed.
Justine. God. His adrenaline-steeped brain flashed on images of the way they’d parted, the pain in her dark eyes as she had turned to leave him. Pain that reminded him of his wife’s, when they had argued the last day he had seen her. The last time before the car she’d driven was broadsided, killing her on the spot.
Five years’ worth of guilt washed over grief. Guilt that hit him harder than the virus that had attacked his heart. I can’t let Justine die, too. I have to stop it this time.
One of the EMTs rattled off vitals as he and his partner whisked the stretcher past a handful of waiting patients and the usual check-in at the triage station. “Injury wasn’t witnessed, but deputies found an old golf club lying near her, blood and hair on the business end.”
“A golf club?” A newly-graduated nurse gaped, still green enough to be surprised at the damage one human being could inflict upon another.
In the exam room, Ross fell back on training and experience to complete the primary assessment. As he checked the patient’s airway, breathing, and circulation, he called repeatedly, “Sheriff Wofford. Justine, can you hear me?”
No response, but she gasped and pulled away, her eyelids flashing open when he pressed the base of her nail bed to check her response to pain. She attempted speech, too, though the words came out a jumbled murmur.
With a groan, she struggled to turn, and Debbie had a basin out in time to catch the vomit.
“We’re going to need a chest x-ray, then head and spinal CT, CBC and let’s type and screen,” Ross said as they began the secondary assessment.
“Justine, are you with us?” he repeated. “I need you looking at me.”
No discharge from the ears or nose, and the laceration above her right ear seemed to have mostly clotted. No bruising patterns that would indicate a basilar skull fracture, either, and her pupils looked and reacted normally.
Yet she seemed disoriented and lethargic, drifting off as he used a pair of trauma shears and both nurses’ assistance to remove her clothing. Swallowing hard, he tried not to think about the last time he had seen her naked. Tried not to recall the way she had responded when he’d trailed kisses to her navel, laving his tongue in the depression before —
You’re a damned professional. Act like one.
Ross wrenched his mind back on track and completed the head to toe check. Finding no further injuries visible and her blood pressure holding steady, he refocused on the head wound.
With years of emergencies under his belt, he had the procedure down cold. Yet the work itself, the adrenaline rush that went hand in hand with trauma, left him spent, reminding him it had been months since he had done this. But part of his fatigue, he suspected, was the backwash of emotion, the flood of memories of times when he and Justine had laughed and fought and made love with such intensity that the outside world, even their past lives, disappeared.
A half-hour later, he was looking at Justine’s CAT scans when Carolyn, the triage nurse, came in, a flush creeping from her neckline toward the roots of her cropped gray hair. “There’s getting to be quite a crowd out in the waiting room.” Above her squared-off glasses, her brow settled into well-worn worry grooves. “They’re getting awfully impatient.”
Ross nodded, understanding that, federal privacy laws or not, Justine’s deputies would come down hard on anybody refusing to disclose details of her condition. Which still worried him, though nothing on the films jumped out as serious.
“Family member out there I can talk to? Patient’s father, maybe?” He remembered the man, a weathered rancher type with woolly white brows and a John Wayne-style swagger, who’d come in the last time Noah cut himself.
Ross recalled the warning in Justine’s dark eyes, her unspoken plea that he say nothing, do nothing to give away the fact that the two of them were intimate. That moment, the realization that he would never be anything to her but a dirty little secret had been what led to their unraveling, even more than her unwillingness to explain the newspaper’s allegations.
“He’s on his way, I’m told.” Carolyn looked desperate. “If you could — just offer a word on her condition. Deputy’s out there. Roger Savoy. He seems to speak for the rest, and he’s giving me all kinds of attitude.”
Ross glanced back toward his patient. “Why don’t you let them know we’re still waiting for the —”
Justine opened her eyes before speaking, her words so low Ross had to lean in to hear them. “You can tell that bastard Savoy — tell all of them they’re not getting rid of me this easy.”
Ross took her hand and squeezed it, smiling to hear her more coherent. Her contrariness was music to his ears. “I’ll let them know if that’s what you’d like. But first, can you tell me your name?”
“You know — Justine Truitt. And my head’s killing me.”
It was her maiden name, he remembered, and asked her to tell him the day of the week and the current President. She couldn’t recall the first and started out wrong on the latter, but corrected herself quickly before adding, “Come on, Ross. You have something in this place for a headache? And coffee — Good Lord, do I need coffee.”
Stroking her hand with his thumb, he ignored his body’s surge of recognition, the relief of homecoming and reminded himself she was a patient. “Do you know where you are?”
She looked up at him. “My home away from home, right? County Regional. But I usually bring…” She stiffened. “Where’s Noah? Was there an accident? Was he with me in the—”
“He wasn’t with you when you were brought in. You were hurt on duty. Can you tell me what happened?”
Justine shook her head slightly, then squinched her eyes and groaned. “Stomach hurts.”
Debbie, who’d stepped back in the room at Carolyn’s bidding, grabbed a basin, but this time, Justine managed to regroup.
Still, Ross ordered an anti-nausea medication, as well as something for the pain. “You took quite a knock to the head. Do you remember any of it?”
“I was… driving out to Tanager Trail. I have to tell Mrs. LeJeune her son is — somebody has to let her know Caleb’s dead. I get in a wreck on the way there?”
Caleb LeJeune’s dead? But Ross kept his focus on his patient.
“The EMTs said you were found outside your vehicle,” he said. “I think Charlie mentioned it was Dee LeJeune called it in.”
“Dee… did I? Does she know? About her son? And the little ones, are they—?”
“Right now you need to concentrate on feeling better. We’ll be checking you over and admitting you for observation. You were out cold for quite a while, so we need to watch for—”
“I have to get home right now. My sitter’ll be so pissed if I’m late. She has a really hot date… I think. Was that tonight?” Justine struggled to sit up.
Ross pressed a firm hand to her shoulder. Though she six feet tall or close to it, she was in no shape to fight him. “You’re hurt, Justine, and still disoriented. You’re not going anywhere.”
Her nearly-black eyes caught his gaze and held it, her expression so intent it made him want to confess that even now, three months after their affair had ended, he dreamed of Justine in vivid detail, reliving the silken glide of her long hair past his erection, the way her dark eyes watched him take her breast into his mouth. Reliving and regretting that he’d left her thinking that he had had his fill of her. That he ever could.
“What do you care?” Her tone reminded him he’d been the one to end it. “What do you care if I leave?”
“I’m your doctor.” Ross picked up her chart and pretended to check his notes. Better that than seeing the accusation, the lingering pain in her face. “But even if I weren’t, I’d still—”
“Do you have any idea how tough it is to find qualified caregivers for a boy like Noah?”
He risked frowning at her, thinking she must break down criminals every day at work with that look of hers. “Do you have any idea how tough it is to find a qualified parent? Especially for a boy like Noah, should you, let’s say, end up a drooler if there’s a brain bleed I’ve missed.” He was still waiting for a Dallas radiologist to fax him an official verdict. “Or if you simply walk out of here and drop dead.”
Justine grimaced, splashes of color coming to her cheeks, reminding him of their final argument. But she needed a swift dose of reality, and a blunt delivery drove the risks home faster than a barrage of med-school jargon.
“Point taken, Doctor…” she said after a pause. “And you — how are you doing? I heard about…”
She patted the hospital gown she had been dressed in, just above her left breast, concern in her expression. But there was caution there, too, the wariness of a woman who’d been burned.
“I’m fine now,” he answered easily. “Got your card. Thanks.”
“I wanted to — You left town.” She avoided his eyes.
Uncomfortable, he changed the subject. “Tell me the year again.”
Her face flushed. “I don’t want to do this. I don’t think we should… Is there another doctor on duty?”
“Not right now, unless you want me to call in someone.” When she hesitated, he added, “Come on, Justine. We can be professional about this… or would you rather have the nurses wondering what the problem could be?”