Authors: Polly Iyer
The phone rang. He let it go to the answering machine. When he heard the voice, he picked up. “Hey, Carl.”
“Deciding whether you feel like answering your phone, big brother?”
“I couldn’t check the number in time.” Sometimes Reece answered, sometimes he didn’t, depending on his mood. Carl knew that.
His brother laughed.
“What’s up?” Reece noted the hesitation. “Carl?”
“Dad’s in the hospital. He had another heart attack.”
Reece stiffened at the mention of his father, a reaction over which he had no control. “What do the doctors say?”
“It doesn’t look good. He’s conscious but weak. It’s only a matter of time.”
“Well, keep me informed.”
“Jesus, Reece. That’s cold. Your father is dying and all you can say is ‘keep me informed’?”
“We’ve gone over this a hundred times. Sorry, but I can’t fake that I care. Wish I could, but that’s not my style.” He pulled a beer from the fridge.
“You’re still his son.”
Reece wanted to laugh, but the humor eluded him. “He should have thought about that twenty-one years ago.” He took a long draft from the bottle. It did nothing to cool his heat.
“He could have handled it differently, I agree, but―”
“Look, I’ve gotta go. Let me know when it’s over.”
Reece clicked the off button before Carl could argue. He finished the beer, then took another. He’d worked hard over the years to control his anger and sense of betrayal, but times like these brought them back like a knife twisting in his belly. How could he forget? One day he and Carl were drawing up plans to expand the family’s home-building business—Reece, the architect, designing a new type of energy-efficient structure; Carl the business head, making them affordable. The next day he was locked in a cement cell with the echoing sound of steel doors clanging shut to keep him rotting inside. One day he had dozens of friends; the next only Carl and his mother stood in his corner. When he saw the toll it took on his mother to sneak away and visit, he asked her not to come any more. That, more than anything, had torn him up.
Now she was gone, and he hoped the old bastard would soon follow, freeing him of at least part of the rage that consumed him and, yes, the hatred for the old man he carried in his chest like one of his stones. How could he feel anything for a man who believed his son capable of slicing a woman’s throat, almost severing her head from her body? Who probably still believed it with his dying breath?
Reece looked around the house he built with his own two hands. Stone and wood and glass. It fit the new life he’d made for himself. A life he liked. He wasn’t designing the buildings he’d envisioned all those years ago, except for his own, but he was creating something he considered beautiful. Others thought so too, which gave him pleasure. He worked when the spirit moved him, nourished his passion for reading, fished, and ran the mountain roads—all the things he couldn’t do inside, except for the reading, which had saved his sanity.
His thoughts roamed back to Dana Minette without conscious effort. He couldn’t decide whether she was cute, pretty, or beautiful, though his skill judging women was twenty-one-years rusty. He didn’t score the trifecta in honky-tonk bars, but he wasn’t after looks in those places.
Dana Minette possessed something quite different. Determination, humor, and warmth, all wrapped up in an attractive package about sixty-three inches in height. Better still, she didn’t appear the type to genuflect for money or position. So how did a creep like Robert Minette get a woman like her to stay with him for twenty years?
He remembered the first time he saw Minette, with his white-collared, pin-striped shirt, suspenders, and shiny suit. The man had done everything to rally the townspeople against the murderer who wanted to live among them. Reece had run too far and too long to run again. He fought Minette and won. So where did the lawyer find the nerve to drive into his yard, say he had no hard feelings, and act like Reece should fall at his feet and say
“No one refuses Robert
,” he’d said, slicked-back hair glistening in the morning sun. “Robert Minette gets what he wants.”
Reece laughed and ordered him off his property. The attorney stormed away in his Escalade, a spray of gravel spitting from its tires.
Not this time, bub, and good riddance to you.
ana drove home with Daughtry’s promise to meet at eight the next morning to draw up plans for her fireplace. Harris told her Daughtry was a strange man, and he was right. But after he’d spent fifteen years caged like an animal, rarely seeing the light of day or a kind face, she couldn’t blame him for being antisocial. Especially after being wrongly convicted. If he was. But she didn’t believe a man who fitted a menagerie of animals with electronic collars could ever kill. She saw three more dogs roaming the property before she left. How many more were in the house?
There were many types of prisons. Dana could have walked away from hers sooner, but the penalty would have been unbearable. After her younger son left for college and a TV movie deal for one of her books gave her financial independence, she thrust her middle finger at Robert and left his house with nothing but the clothes on her back. She would have left those too, but walking naked into the cold mountain air didn’t seem like an option. She filed for divorce shortly after. Robert dumped her? What a joke. Yes, Dana knew the freedom Daughtry must feel.
Robert would blow a gasket when he found out Daughtry was building her a fireplace. A smile curled her lips. No one rejected Robert Minette, and no one called him Bob or Bobby or Rob or any of the pat-on-the-back nicknames most Roberts answered to. It was Robert Minette, and don’t you forget it. She hated him with a passion she never thought herself capable of.
She sat with a glass of wine in her unfinished great room and stared at the fireplace wall. What magnificence would Daughtry construct? The magazine pictures and the breathtaking beauty of his house sparked her imagination. She drank another glass of wine and sat there until dark, then went to bed to wait for morning.
* * * * *
ana usually rose at six, but the wine had put her into a deep sleep, and she woke a few minutes after seven. She hopped out of bed, padded into the kitchen, and ground coffee for a full pot rather than her usual two cups. Maybe Daughtry didn’t drink coffee, but if he did…
After a quick shower, she fluffed her short wet hair to dry naturally and threw on a pair of jeans and a T-shirt. She rarely wore more than a dab of lipstick and didn’t put on any more than that this morning.
With a mug of coffee in hand, she slid open the glass door and went outside to enjoy the morning sun, scaring off a cardinal perched on her bird feeder. Dew covered the blanket of winter turf, interrupted by a few sprouts of green struggling to make an appearance. May mornings in the North Carolina mountains still held the nip of late winter instead of late spring. A brisk gust of wind sent her back inside for a sweater.
Her house overlooked the picture-postcard view of the valley. Houses and farms peppering the countryside, church steeples, pastures, and barns. No lake like Daughtry’s, but that was okay. She preferred this.
A truck groaned up the steep drive. A door opened and closed. She waited until he saw her on the patio and joined her, the little three-legged mutt trailing behind. Daughtry wore jeans, a plaid flannel shirt over a white T-shirt, and work boots.
The dog hobbled straight to her and put his two front paws in her lap while he balanced on his one hind leg. “Hey, Pooch.” She glanced at Daughtry. “He’s a cute little fellow.”
“Got hit by a car near my house. He didn’t have any tags or collar, so he’s mine. Vet fixed him up, but he can’t run after cars anymore.”
“Because he can’t get off your property without being shocked.”
“Better than dead,” he said with a penetrating stare.
She couldn’t argue that. “Coffee?”
She went inside, Pooch on her heels, and came out with a mug of coffee. He took it.
“Looks like you have a new friend,” he said.
“I love dogs.”
“How come you don’t have one?”
“Maybe now that I have my own place, I’ll get one.”
Daughtry looked long at her, then shifted his focus to the hillside. “Beautiful view.”
“It is, isn’t it?”
“Want to show me the fireplace?”
“Come inside. I want the whole wall designed, like the picture in the magazine.”
He put on his glasses, unhooked a large tape measure from his belt, and measured up and across the wall. A collapsible ruler measured the depth of the fireplace opening. He lifted a small pad from his shirt pocket, wrote the dimensions, then returned his glasses and notebook to the same pocket. He told her his price for the work. She agreed.
“Wouldn’t mind another cup of coffee if you have some.”
She took his cup and refilled it. He’d taken a seat and was staring at the wall, trancelike. There was something appealing about the man. She knew it when they first met. She felt sympathy for his ordeal and cautioned herself not to be influenced by that. But caution fell to the wind when she thought about what it must have been like for a young man to be plucked from the wealthy life he knew and thrown into a netherworld of hard convicts. What did it take to survive?
He caught her looking at him. “Something wrong?”
“You were looking at me kind of funny.” He rubbed the back of his neck. “I’m going to get this out in the open because that’s how I am. Whatever you heard about me—the gossip—it’s all true. I was in prison for fifteen years for a crime I didn’t commit. Some people still think I did it, and probably nothing’s going to change their minds. But if you’re worried—”
“It wasn’t that at all.” She looked away, debating whether she should let it pass and decided not to. “I was wondering what it must have been like.” She doubted the question had come up. People felt more comfortable talking behind backs than face to face. He met her gaze with an intensity that made her heart race.
“Wonder no more. It was hell.” He stood to leave. “If you’re comfortable with me being around, I’ll be here at seven-thirty tomorrow morning.”
He nodded, then he was gone.
rickly heat rose on Robert Minette’s face. He found Harris Stroud in the office of the
Regal Falls Banner
, redlining an article that would make the morning paper. Harris didn’t like being interrupted when he was working, but Robert didn’t care.
“I heard that ex-con was at my wife’s new house? Don’t tell me he’s building her a fireplace.”
“Who told you that?”
“One of her neighbors.”
“Are you paying someone to keep watch?”
“What if I am?”
Harris pushed back from the desk, looking relieved that the massive piece of mahogany furniture acted as a buffer between them. He shook his head. “You’re unbelievable. First of all, Robert, the charges against Daughtry were dropped. Second, she’s your
-wife, a fact you keep forgetting. And third, yes, Daughtry is building Dana a fireplace.”
“Of all the…son of a bitch. And Dana’s my wife, Harris. She’s always been my wife, and she’ll always be my wife. She’ll come back, you’ll see. But that stone man is building her a fireplace to get back at me. You know that, don’t you?”
“Have you forgotten you did everything to stop him from buying his land. You brought it to court, for chrissakes. You think he might have remembered that when you asked him to build you a fireplace? Hell, you’re the last person he’d build one for.”
“I was trying to protect the children of this county from a murderer.”
“By stepping on his civil rights? Bullshit. You were looking for publicity, and it backfired when his lawyer made you look like a second-year law student. Christ, lucky you weren’t disbarred for incompetence. Give it up, Robert. Go pick on someone who can’t fight back. That’s your
“You can’t talk to Robert Minette that way.”
“Speaking of yourself in the third person sounds at best like you’re having an out of body experience and at worst like you have multiple personality disorder. That’s what I think.”
“Never mind how I refer to myself. I asked you a question. You’ve met the guy. He’s building it for Dana to piss me off, isn’t he?”
Harris released a long sigh. “Possibly, but far be it from me to figure out why anyone does anything. I’ve been a newspaperman my whole adult life, and I still don’t understand people. Knowing what I know about Daughtry, I seriously doubt he gives a shit what you or anyone else thinks about who he builds fireplaces for.”
“He murdered that girl, no matter he got off. His semen was inside her. He never disputed that. His lawyer beat it on a technicality. Contaminated crime scene, my ass. That only meant someone hadn’t done his job properly. Daughtry’s guilty. Plain and simple.” Robert pumped a finger at the editor. “You should do a piece on that, Harris. Tell the public we have a murderer in our midst. I tried, but no one listened. He chopped that girl’s head almost clear off. He might do it again too. People like him can’t help themselves. I know. I’ve prosecuted enough of them.”