Authors: Brenda Novak
Tags: #Fathers and daughters, #Private Investigators, #Fiction, #Romance, #Suspense, #General
For Joy, who left this life far too soon.
Not a day goes by that I don’t think of you—
and miss you.
as his body inside?
Hunched against the freezing January rain, Madeline Barker felt her fingernails cut into her palms. Standing with her stepbrother, stepsister and stepmother, she watched the police and several volunteers attempt to pul her father’s car out of the abandoned water-fil ed quarry. Her head pounded from lack of sleep, and her chest was so tight she almost couldn’t breathe, yet she stood perfectly stil …
waiting. After almost twenty years, she might final y have some answers about her father’s disappearance.
Toby Pontiff, Stil water, Mississippi’s, police chief, knelt at the lip of the yawning hole. “Careful, careful there, Rex,”
he cal ed over the high-pitched whine of the winch attached to a massive tow truck.
Joe Vincel i and his brother, Roger, Madeline’s first cousins, hovered on the other side of the quarry, their faces betraying their anticipation. They spoke animatedly to each other, but Madeline couldn’t hear them above the noise.
She was fairly sure she didn’t want to. What they had to say would only upset her. They’d long blamed her father’s disappearance on certain members of her stepfamily—
Irene, Clay and Grace—who were gathered around her now. Unfortunately, the fact that the Cadil ac had been found in the quarry five miles outside of town would only convince them they’d been right al along. It’d certainly prove that her father hadn’t driven off into the sunset.
The black seal-like heads of two divers who’d gone down a few minutes earlier popped up and, with a gasp, Madeline realized she could see the front gril e of her dad’s car through the murky water. With a sudden rush of tears, she instinctively moved closer to Clay, who remained as dark and silent as the surrounding rocks.
The car didn’t break the surface. Rex hit a button that stopped the clamoring winch, halting its progress, and the silence made Madeline’s ears ring.
Her stepmother, a short buxom woman with hair like Loretta Lynn’s, whimpered at the sight of the barely visible car. Grace shifted to try and comfort her, but Clay didn’t move. Madeline looked up at him, wondering what was going on behind his intense blue eyes.
As usual, it was difficult to tel . His expression mirrored the gray, overcast sky. Maybe he wasn’t thinking. Maybe, like her, he was simply surviving the cataclysm of emotions.
It’ll be over soon. No matter what happens, knowing is
better than not knowing.
“This is making me nervous,” Rex complained. Short and wiry with the tattoo of a woman partly visible at his neck, he frowned as he joined Chief Pontiff. “What if we clip the rocks? The car could get hung up.”
“It’s not gonna get hung up,” a police officer by the name of Radcliffe said.
The tow-truck driver ignored the unsolicited input, keeping his focus on the man in charge. “I don’t think this is gonna work,” he insisted. “I say we bring a crane in here, Toby, before someone gets hurt or we ruin my truck.”
Toby, a slight blond man with a neatly trimmed mustache, had become Chief Pontiff six months earlier and was a friend of Madeline’s. They’d grown up together; she’d been close to his future wife al through high school.
He shot Madeline a sympathetic glance then, lowering his voice, he turned away from her.
Stil , she could make out his words. “That’l take another few days. Look at that group over there. See the woman in the middle? The one who’s white as a ghost? Her mother kil ed herself when she was ten years old. Her father went missing when she was sixteen. And she’s been standing here since dawn, getting soaked. I’m not going to send her home until I get her father’s car out of this damn quarry. We need to see if his remains are inside. It’s already taken me a week to arrange it.”
“If she’s waited that long, what’s another two or three days?” Rex asked.
“It’s another two or three days!” Toby nearly shouted.
“And she’s not the only one with an interest in what’s happening here, as you can tel .”
Obviously, he was talking about the Vincel is, who’d been impatient with police for being unable to solve the disappearance of their beloved uncle. No doubt Pontiff didn’t want them going over his head to the mayor again, as they’d done with the previous chief.
“My most prominent citizens are sitting on pins and needles,” Toby said, his voice growing calmer. “I’m going to catch more grief than you can imagine if I don’t put an end to it. Soon.”
The man cal ed Rex scowled and shoved his hands in the pockets of his heavy coat. Madeline had never met him before. A distant relation of Toby’s, he’d been cal ed in from a neighboring town when their local tow truck owner said his truck wasn’t capable of getting the job done. “I’m sorry,” Rex said. “But with al this water and silt, combined with the weight of the car, I don’t wanna risk burning out the engine of my—”
“If we wanted to wait, we would’ve waited,” Toby interrupted. “We wouldn’t be standing out here in the cold, freezing our asses off. But we cal ed you, and you said you could do it. So can we please get this damn thing out of the water? Your truck’s powerful enough to tow a semi, for cryin’ out loud!”
Madeline flinched, her nerves too raw to cope with the anxiety and frustration swirling around her. It had been an emotional seven days. A week ago, a group of teenagers had come here to party; a girl had fal en in the water and been too drunk to climb out. She’d slipped under the surface before anyone could reach her and the resulting search for her body, which police located as darkness set in almost twenty-four hours later, had turned up the Cadil ac missing since Lee Barker disappeared.
As the owner, editor and primary writer of
Madeline had fol owed the tragedy of the girl’s death since the first frantic cal . But she’d never dreamed it would lead to this. Had her father’s car been here, so close, al this time? Since she was sixteen? That was the question she’d been asking herself for seven interminable days, while the town dealt with the immediate tragedy of losing Rachel Simmons.
Rex spat on the ground. “Toby, the divers don’t know what the hel they’re doin’. With the color of this water, they can hardly see down there, even with a light. I can’t be sure we won’t break a tow cable and send that car crashing right back to the bottom.”
Clay spoke up for the first time. “The divers said they found the windows down, right?”
Toby and Rex turned to face him. “What does that have to do with anything?” Rex asked.
“If the windows were down, they were able to get the cables through. You’l be fine. Just pul it out.”
Clay was respected for his physical power and mental acuity, but he’d also endured enough suspicion where her father was concerned to give him a pretty big stake in al of this. Madeline knew the chief of police had to be thinking of that as he considered the stubborn set of Clay’s jaw. She could almost read Toby’s thoughts:
Are you trying to help
because you don’t know what’s in that car? Or are you
trying to cover the fact that you do?
Madeline wanted to scream, for the mil ionth time, that her stepbrother didn’t have anything to do with whatever had happened to her father.
“Let me handle this, Clay,” Toby said, but there was no real edge to his voice, and his hazel eyes returned to the water-fil ed quarry before his words could be taken as any sort of chal enge. Even the chief of police was careful around Clay. At six feet four inches tal and two hundred and forty pounds of lean muscle, Clay looked formidable.
But it was his manner that made folks uneasy. He was so self-contained, so emotional y aloof, some people had convinced themselves he was capable of murder.
“Rex,” Chief Pontiff prodded. “Let’s get this done.”
Rex indulged in a particularly colorful string of expletives but stalked to his truck, and the winch started again, slowly pul ing the car from the water.
Madeline caught her breath.
God, this is it.
“Watch those divers,” Rex cal ed.
Chief Pontiff had already motioned them away. “Let the winch do the work, boys,” he shouted. “Stay back.”
The scrape of metal against rock made Madeline shudder. It was an awful sound—almost as awful as watching the dark, dirty water seep out of the car that had belonged to her parents when she was a child. Why was the Cadil ac in the quarry? Who had driven it there? And—
the question that had plagued her for twenty years—what had happened to her father? Would she final y know?
As the tow truck driver had predicted, the car got caught on a large rock. “I told you!” he yel ed, cursing again. But before he could shut down the winch, the rusty rear axle broke and the Cadil ac continued to emerge, groaning as it climbed out of its watery grave.
Madeline’s nails cut more deeply into her palms. The familiarity of that vehicle threw her back to her childhood—
as if someone had yanked her up by the shoulders and deposited her in the front seat. At age five or six, she used to sit beside her mother while Eliza drove around town, visiting members of her father’s congregation, bringing food and consolation to the sick and needy.
Madeline had believed, back then, that her mother was an angel.
Squeezing her eyes shut, she pressed a hand to her forehead, trying to stave off the memories. She rarely al owed herself to think about Eliza. Her mother had been a gentle soul; she’d represented everything good to Madeline. But, as Madeline’s father had pointed out so often after Eliza’s suicide, she was also weak and fragile.
He’d had little that was positive to say about his first wife, but Madeline had never blamed him. She hadn’t been able to forgive Eliza, either.
Clay’s arm went around her shoulders, and she turned into his coat. She wasn’t sure she could watch what was coming next.
“It’s okay, Maddy,” he murmured.
She took what comfort she could from his warm strength.
He was capable of surviving anything. Secretly, she wished she was as tough. She also wished Kirk was here with her.
They’d dated for nearly five years, but she’d broken off the relationship a few weeks ago.
“That’s it.” Pontiff waved the divers out of the water as Rex towed the Cadil ac onto stable ground.
This time when he stopped the winch, Rex shut off the truck’s engine, too. Madeline felt Clay tense, so she forced herself to look and saw her cousins hurrying to the car.
Chief Pontiff sent her an anxious glance, adjusted the hat keeping the rain out of his face and intercepted them.
“Give us some room,” he said, barring them from getting too close.
Madeline was glad that Irene, Clay and Grace stayed put, or she would’ve been standing there alone. She didn’t want to move any closer to that car. She had no idea what she might see and feared it would only fuel her nightmares.
Every few weeks, she dreamed that her father was knocking on her front door in the middle of the night. He was always wearing a heavy coat that parted to reveal a skeleton.
Grace, a more refined, elegant version of Clay, took her hand and Irene edged closer. Clay stepped in front, but he seemed even more reserved than usual. No doubt he was thinking of his new wife and stepdaughter and how this might affect them. Since marrying Al ie, he was happy at last. But for how long? The police were quick to point a finger at him. Last summer they’d nearly put him on trial for her father’s murder—without a body, without an eyewitness, without any forensic evidence at al . Unless there was something in the car that proved Clay
involved, this could put him at risk again.