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Authors: Harper Connelly Mysteries Quartet

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BOOK: Charlaine Harris
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“Yeah, I get that, but still.” I shrugged. “I'd be more useful.”

“You look on your job as useful?”

“Sure. Everyone needs closure, right? Uncertainty eats at you; well, I meant ‘you' in the general sense, but didn't it make you feel better when you knew what had happened to your wife? Plus, if people believe me, I can save lots of money. Like, ‘Don't dredge that pond or send in divers. No body there.' Or, ‘You don't need to search through the landfill.' Stuff like that.”

“If people believe you.”

“Yeah. Lots don't.”

“How do you handle that?”

“I've learned to let it go and walk away.”

“It must be tough.”

“At first it was. Not now. What about your job?”

“Oh about what you'd expect. Drunk drivers, mostly. Neighbor disputes. Sometimes some shoplifting. Burglary. Not too much that's mysterious or even very serious. Every now and then a wife-beater, or someone with a gun on a Saturday night. I never get to see anyone at their best.” He gave me a crooked half-smile.

I'd wondered what we could possibly find to talk about,
but the next couple of hours went easier than I'd anticipated. He talked about deer hunting, and told me about the time he'd fallen out of his shooting stand and gotten nothing worse than a sprained ankle, the same year his friend John Harley had fallen from a stand and broken his back. I had once hurt my back playing basketball. He had played basketball in high school. He'd had a great time in high school, but never wanted to revisit those days. I didn't either. I had spent my high school years trying to keep my head down and my mouth shut so no one would find out how truly weird my life was. Because of my mother and my stepfather, I didn't want to bring anyone home with me. I'd managed pretty well until Cameron vanished. Her disappearance had been so spectacular, so media-saturated, that it had drawn a lot of unwanted attention to me.

“Seems like I remember that,” Hollis said thoughtfully. He was on his third beer. I was still nursing my second. “Wasn't she taken by a man in a blue pickup?”

I nodded. “Grabbed on her way home. She'd been decorating the gym for some dance. I'd walked home earlier, so she was alone. This guy took her right off the street. There were witnesses. But no one ever found her.”

“I'm sorry,” he said.

I nodded in acknowledgment. “Someday I'll find her,” I said. “Someday it'll be her, when I feel that buzz. And we'll know what happened to her.”

“Are your parents still alive?”

“My father is, I think. My mother died last year.” Her addictions had finally succeeded in eating up her body.

“What's your connection with Tolliver?”

“Tolliver's dad married my mother. We were brought up
as family, after that.” If we'd been “brought up” at all, I added to myself. Mostly, we'd fended for ourselves. After a while, we'd become good at presenting a facade to the authorities who might separate us. Tolliver watched over Cameron and me, I watched over the two littler girls, Mariella and Gracie. Tolliver's older brother Mark stopped by on a regular basis to make sure we were eating. If we weren't, Mark would bring groceries. Tolliver got a job at a restaurant as soon as he was old enough, and he brought home all the food he could.

Sometimes our parents were both working, sometimes we got government assistance. But mostly the money went down their throats or into their veins.

We learned to survive on very little, and we learned how to pick clothes at the thrift store and at yard sales, clothes that wouldn't give away our situation. Mark would lecture us on how important it was to make good grades. “As long as you keep clean and neat, don't skip school, and make at least average grades, social services won't come by,” he'd taught us, and he'd been right. Until Cameron vanished.

I tried explaining those years to Hollis.

“That sounds horrible,” Hollis said. His face looked sad, sad for the girl I had been, God bless him. “Did they hit you?”

“No,” I said. “Neglect was the key to their parenting system, even for Mariella and Gracie. My mom tried to take care of them when they were babies, but after that, it was kind of up to Cameron and me, mostly me. It was hard for us not to go down the same drain.” I had clung to my memory of what life had been like before—before my mother had begun using drugs, before my father had gone to jail.
I'd promised myself I could have that life again. My two younger sisters hadn't had as hard a time; they had no memory of anything better.

The tension of maintaining the status quo had almost killed me. But we'd managed, until Cameron got snatched.

“What happened then?” Hollis asked.

I fidgeted, looked anywhere else. “Let's talk about something else,” I said. “The summary is that I spent my senior year living with a foster family, and my little half-sisters stayed with my aunt and uncle.”

“How was the foster family?”

“They were decent people,” I said. “Not child molesters, not slavedrivers. As long as I did my assigned chores and finished my homework, I wasn't unhappy.” It had been an acute pleasure to live in a household that valued order and cleanliness.

“Any trace of your sister ever found?”

“Her purse. Her backpack.” I shifted my right leg, which tended to numb if I didn't move it around.

“Tough.”

“Yeah, I'd say we've both had lives that had a few bumps.”

Hollis nodded. “Here's to trying to live a better life,” he said, and we bumped glasses.

We went to his small house later, gaining a little comfort and warmth from each other. But I wouldn't spend the night, though he wanted me to stay. About three in the morning, I kissed him goodbye at the door to my motel room, and we held each other for a long minute. I went inside by myself, cold to my bones.

seven

IT
was a good morning for running: the third clear day in a row, chilly, with the promise of brilliance in the early sky. I ran a brush through my hair and put on my dogtag engraved with my name and Tolliver's cell phone number. I dressed in a sports bra and three-quarter length Lycra running pants. An old “Race for the Cure” T-shirt covered the little canister of pepper spray clipped to my pants. I'd found a plastic slotted cover with a hole punched in one end, and I slipped my room key in it and put it on the same chain with my dogtag.

After some warm-up stretches, I decided I'd run from the motel until I'd reached the Kroger that was at the other end of town. I didn't want to follow the main drag; even in Sarne, there'd be traffic, and I hated inhaling truck exhaust fumes. I had picked out a route that involved backstreets
lined with small businesses and homes. With an inner feeling of release, I began running.

When I was able to pick up my pace, it was possible to think of something other than the act of running. A little to my surprise, I felt better than I had expected: relaxed, not guilty. Though I was fairly inexperienced, Hollis had seemed a tender and considerate lover. He'd also seemed to need the contact, the basic act of joining flesh, as much as I had.
So
, I told myself,
that was actually an okay thing to do
.

Absorbed in my thoughts, I gradually realized a pickup was moving just behind me. The growl of the motor had been chewing at the edge of my awareness for a minute or two. My heart began pounding with an unpleasant desperation when I realized the driver was definitely dogging me. The dark shadow in the corner of my left eye turned into a rumbling presence. Though I kept running at a steady pace, all my attention was focused on the truck creeping along like a lion through high grass, waiting for my inattention to prove fatal. I flipped open the little holster and eased the canister of pepper spray out of it. Was Arkansas one of the states where the spray was legal? I couldn't remember, and at the moment I decided that was the least of my worries. I was at least half a mile from the motel, and there were few cars stirring in the streets. I couldn't count on any help. The little canister was almost completely concealed in my hand.

I was in front of a little strip of businesses that hadn't yet opened; a laundry, a jewelry store, an insurance agency. No cars, no passersby. The tension roiled under my skin as I waited for whoever was in the pickup to act. If they would just wait until we were closer to the main street, or if I could
angle through the downtown buildings to the police station . . . but then the suspense was over.

The pickup swerved to pull across the sidewalk, blocking my path, and three young men hopped out. Of course! Alpha male, the high school boy Mary Nell had called Scotty. He had his two buddies with him, naturally.

I stopped, and they ranged themselves in front of me, their faces ugly with tension. Incongruously, the three were wearing high school football jackets. Scotty was in the middle, and a smaller black-haired boy was on my right. There was a husky brown-haired boy, uniformly thick through the chest and middle, on my left. They didn't have weapons, at first glance. But they all had clenched fists.

“Hey bitch, we told you to leave town,” Scotty said. His words' ugliness twisted his face. The three were suppressing so much excitement they were literally shifting from foot to foot, shoulders moving restlessly.

My eyes went from face to face as I wondered who would charge first. They were cocked and primed and ready to fire.

“You guys thinking of raping me?” I asked, wanting to have it clear in my mind.

They looked shocked.
Shocked.
The two followers looked at the alpha, so he could answer for them. Or maybe they needed to find out what they wanted to do.

“We don't want any part of you, you skanky ho,” Scotty said, trying to sound scornful, to square his lack of rape aspiration with his need to assert his manhood. Of course, real men should be ready to have any sort of sex, any time. So if they didn't want to rape me, I must not be desirable.

“That's good,” I said, and then I saw that the
black-haired boy on my right had gotten too tense to hold back any longer. His arm had gone back to hit me. Stupid to telegraph like that. I sprayed him right in the face, and he turned red and began clawing at his eyes and shrieking.

“It's burning! I can't see!” he screamed. While his two buddies were staring at him with their mouths open, I sprayed them, too, though Scotty tried to dodge at the last minute, and I didn't get his eyes.

The blip of a police siren scared me out of what wits I had left. When I'd recovered from the shock, I was delighted to see the police car, and even more delighted to see that the driver was Sheriff Harvey Branscom.

He was not as glad to see me as I was to see him.

“What happened here?” he asked, surveying the young men with disgust. They were crying and moaning, and the black-haired boy was actually on the ground.

“They swerved in front of me and got out of the truck to threaten me,” I said.

“No, Sheriff,” wailed the black-haired boy who'd swung his fist first. “It was her! She—”

“She pulled your truck over to the sidewalk, dragged you out, and made you stand in a row in front of her so she could squirt you with pepper spray?” Harvey Branscom would have loved a credible reason to blame me, but he was honest enough not to manufacture one. “You three make me sick. Scot, if I see you even cast a glance at my niece after this little incident, I'll find a way to stick you in jail, and you won't like it one little bit.”

I wasn't sure if Scot was absorbing any of Sheriff Branscom's threats, since he was doubled over rubbing at his burning face. That was exactly the wrong thing to do,
according to the booklet that came with the pepper spray. Sheriff Branscom sighed heavily and pulled a six-pack of Ozark Mountain bottled water out of the police car. “Lucky I ride around with this,” he muttered. He opened a bottle and made the boys stand still while he poured it over their faces.

“I hope you're all ashamed of yourselves. Not only were you on the edge of committing a felony, you were three big guys about to beat up a lone woman. Not only
that,
but you're tardy for school, and that means you're all going to be in detention this afternoon, which means you're going to miss football practice. I'm going to be interested to hear what the coach puts you through after I call him and explain the reason. And I will call him.” Harvey raised his eyebrows at me. “That is, unless this lady wants to bring charges against you? If she does, you ain't going to get to school anytime today.”

I knew a cue when I heard one. I hesitated. Then I nodded, and I saw the tension leave the sheriff's shoulders. “If you call their football coach, and you're sure he can give them a good punishment, I'll be satisfied with that. After all,” I said pointedly, “if I bring charges against them, they'll be off the team, at least for a while.”

Harvey looked relieved. “Yes, they would be off the team. And of course, their parents would know all about this little fiasco. I figure a felony arrest would sure screw up their college applications, huh? Your dad would love to hear your explanation for this, Scot, especially since he just had to pay for three new mailboxes on Bainbridge Road. Justin, I know your mama had a hard time buying that football jacket.” Justin was weeping too hard to reply, but he did
look a little more miserable. “Cody, what do you think your grandmother would have to say about you attacking a woman?”

“We just wanted her to leave town,” Cody muttered. I must not have aimed well when I sprayed him.

My heart was still thumping like a rabbit's when it hears the dog in the bushes. It was an unpleasant and humiliating feeling, being this frightened. If I hadn't had my pepper spray, or if the sheriff hadn't intervened, by this time I'd have a broken jaw, or some fractured ribs. Three big boy/men, only a few years younger than I . . . they might have killed me by sheer stupid accident.

Harvey Branscom was as good as his word. He whipped out his cell phone and called the football coach at the high school, and without spelling out what the boys had almost done, he let the coach know they deserved the worst punishment the coach could hand out. I knew a football coach could hand out plenty, especially in season. I wasn't dissatisfied with the bargain I'd struck with the sheriff. I thought that in Sarne it was the best I would manage.

When he thought Scot could see well enough to drive his pickup, Branscom sent the boys on their way to school. After they'd driven out of sight, and my heart had calmed down to a normal rate, Sheriff Branscom said, “Miss Connelly, I guess you aren't popular here in Sarne.” I sure wasn't popular with the elder law enforcement segment. His face was hard with repressed distaste. “I'm sorry that happened to you. Scot's had it bad for Mary Nell since they were in the first grade together.”

I was still bouncing on the balls of my feet with adrenaline. “And he shows it by beating up another woman?”

“No, the idiot shows it by defending my niece against someone he imagines is going to hurt her,” Branscom said heavily. He leaned against his car. At this moment, he looked far older than his years. “People around here just can't understand you or what you do, Ms. Connelly. It makes it worse that you're for real, I think. You did find Teenie, sure enough. But we're not closer to finding out who killed her, and there's still no way to prove Dale didn't. Somehow, finding Teenie has led to Helen getting killed, too. In fact, I guess we'll be burying Teenie and her mother at the same time, side by side, right in the plot with Sally. According to what you told Hollis, that's three murder victims in the same family. I wish that bolt of lightning had struck you a little harder. Maybe you would have seen enough to straighten out this mess.”

Or maybe, his unspoken thought continued, I would have been killed and none of this would be a problem. I was swept with a wave of overwhelming disbelief. “You've had months and months to solve any mystery surrounding Dell's death and Teenie's disappearance,” I said, almost whispering in an effort not to shout. “You have a police force and a police lab at your service in solving Helen's murder. I'm
one woman
who can find bodies, and I never claimed to be more. Don't you dare try to shift any of the blame for this whole mess to me.”

Another police car pulled up behind the sheriff's. Hollis, creaking and heavily laden in his cop gear, was out of the car and beside us before I could make my mouth try to smile at him.

“Are you all right?” he asked, his hand cupping the curve of my shoulder. He leaned down to look in my face. What
he saw there made him angry. “I stopped the Briscoe boy over by the high school for speeding, and he looked so bad I asked what happened to him. He told me everything, didn't understand why I didn't applaud.”

I felt old. In the chilly breeze, my running clothes seemed inadequate, and the only warmth in the world was my skin under Hollis's hand. “I'm all right,” I said steadily. “I think I'll finish my run and get back to the motel.”

“Where's your brother? You want me to go get him and bring him here?”

Suddenly, my head felt as light as a balloon. I realized that the combination of intense fear followed by intense relief—and then equally intense anger—had just made me numb. And it was something, you know . . . hearing Hollis be intuitive enough to hit on the one thing I found I wanted above all else. But I wasn't going to ask him for it.

“I appreciate your concern,” I said very softly. “But I'm just going to run, now.”

I don't know if he understood or not; I hope he did grasp my sincerity. Since we were on the side of a public road, I didn't want to hug him. Even if we'd been in a more private situation, I'm not sure I'd have hugged him. But I tried to smile at him as I began to jog down the road. I moved very slowly, because my body chemistry was all screwed up; my muscles didn't know if they were cold from inactivity or warm from adrenaline, and my mind was scurrying around many different corners, but focused on one thing—finishing this run, out of pride.

I got back to the motel with no further incident. I had completed my self-assigned distance. I was walking around the parking lot outside my room, cooling down, trying
hard to put the fear behind me. Stupid. I was stupid, stupid, stupid.

BOOK: Charlaine Harris
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