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Tumbleweeds, p.37
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       Tumbleweeds, p.37

           Leila Meacham
 

  Deke dropped back into his chair, the wind knocked out of him. Well, there it was. The missing piece. He’d collect the final bit tonight and disturb Charles’s and Randy’s Friday night happy hour to insist they meet him at the crime lab in Amarillo. He wouldn’t be able to rest until Y’s set of prints in the evidence box was compared to those he’d snitch tonight. It saddened him to think it, but he was sure the outcome would plug the last gaping hole in the puzzle.

  CATHY TOOK A LAST LOOK in the mirror and drew on the bright blue cardigan that matched the print in her pique sundress. Trey had liked her in azure blue. She glanced at her watch again. It was five thirty. Finally! Time to go. She’d thought the moment would never arrive, but she had to make sure that John would be on his way to mass and out of the picture before she arrived at Harbison House to talk with Trey. She was counting on the house being relatively quiet with Lou and most of the children at mass. The front door was always unlocked until bedtime. If Betty was in the kitchen and the kids in the TV room, she might be able to slip quietly inside and up the stairs to the guest room to conduct her business in private without being seen or heard. Later, when Trey disappeared, no one could report to John that she had been there unless her car was spotted outside the house.

  Shadows of old sins… They only dogged the good, she thought. The wicked always escaped them. But not this time. She believed she could convince Trey Don Hall to die with the sin upon his conscience he’d come to confess.

  UPSTAIRS IN JOHN’S ROOM, Trey sat down at his desk and pulled Deke’s check from his pocket, the mock orange blossom coming with it. He took a pen from its holder and wrote his name on the back of the check, attaching a note that read: “For the kids. I’m leaving, Tiger. I’ve reconsidered and have decided not to go through with it. I’m trusting you to keep your silence as you always have. Spare me that blight on my name. I’d appreciate your prayers. Love to the end, Trey.”

  He placed the mock orange blossom on top. It had wilted, only the fragrance remaining of its former perfection. When he was dead and gone, what would linger of him?

  Without saying good-bye, he drove away from the house. The sun had set and left a sky striated with the colors of red and purple, orange and yellow that the region was famous for. He’d forgotten the magnificence of the Panhandle’s sunsets in June, the quiet of the prairie at the end of the day. It would have been a melancholy time for him as a boy if it hadn’t been for John and Cathy.

  The slow fading of the light made him think of the days he had left, but the thought of his approaching death did not fill him with the usual suffocating panic. He felt calm and satisfied, the kind of deep gratification he’d known only during moments in a football game when—against the order from the sidelines—he called the right play. With one of those memory tricks his brain played on him these days, he found himself back at Miami his sophomore year. It is fourth down and Miami is on the six-yard line, seven seconds remaining in the game. The Hurricanes call their last time-out to discuss the final play of the contest. He and the coaches huddle on the sidelines, the season and any hope of a national championship riding on their decision. The offensive coordinator calls 76 Double Seam; the head coach wants 62 Topper Z Sail. They agree to go with 76. He returns to the huddle unconvinced. His team eyes him, trust in their stares. He goes with his gut and calls a different play that wins the game.

  And so he’d done today. Last play of the game, and he’d called it different from what conventional wisdom—or self-interest—would have him do, but he couldn’t jam up his best friend. He couldn’t give John cause to fall on his sword. He’d have to die without the measure of redemption he’d hoped to earn by facing the Harbisons with what he had done. He was sorry for their pain, their brokenness, but he wouldn’t take a second son from them. He’d burn in hell before he’d ruin John’s life and his wonderful work to save his rotten soul. When he got home to Carlsbad, he’d take back the letter he’d given to his lawyer to be mailed after his death. He’d written it before he’d decided to come in person to face the music and seek forgiveness, but now he could not risk the danger it might pose for John.

  A white car was coming toward him. It was almost abreast of the BMW when he recognized the driver. Trey couldn’t believe it. With a happy whoop, he waved and blew the horn long and hard as the Lexus passed by, his heart filling with surprise and gratitude. He pulled over to the shoulder, and sure enough, the Lexus slowed and made a U-turn on the empty country road and headed back, pulling behind the BMW. Its door opened, and Trey got out of his car, a broad smile splitting his face. He held his arms wide. “Well, I’ll be damned.”

  “I certainly hope so.”

  “What?”

  “I said I certainly hope so—that you’ll be damned.”

  When Trey saw the gun raised, his arms fell. “Catherine Ann!” he cried as the rifle was aimed and fired and a bullet ripped through his heart.

  Chapter Fifty-Seven

  The newest employees and the secretary of the Morgan Petroleum Company were expected to man its offices until six o’clock, even on a Friday night when the whole business world knocked off early, so it was not like Will Benson to log out at five thirty. Linda, the secretary, ever curious about details of the handsome young petroleum engineer’s life, remarked, “Got a hot date, Will?” when he bid her and a fledgling colleague like himself good night.

  “You might say that.”

  “Might? Don’t you know?” his fellow worker chortled with a wink at Linda.

  “I expect a cold reception,” Will said, scrawling his name to the sign-out sheet.

  From the office, driving fast, it would take him almost an hour to get to Harbison House, and, unfortunately, he’d have to stop for gas. That would put him at the front gate approximately a half hour after six, thirty minutes or so after his mother’s arrival to have it out with his deadbeat father. He could think of no other place she’d take off to at this time on a Friday evening and leave Bebe to handle the crowd alone when the entire county ate out at Bennie’s. His mother had fired up his worry a while ago when she’d called to ask him to meet her and Father John at her house after mass. She’d refused to tell him why, and her voice had sounded both tense and excited. “Just do as I ask, darling,” she said, aware he’d have to break his usual Friday night date with his girlfriend, Misty.

  “Has he contacted you?” Will had asked.

  “No, Son, and now I don’t expect him to. Believe me, you shouldn’t, either.”

  The now had implied she had some new knowledge of his father, but she’d hung up before he could question her further. When he’d telephoned the café minutes later to have her explain herself, Bebe had said she’d left around one o’clock and had not been back or called in. He’d then dialed his mother’s house and received no answer. He’d tried her cell phone and got her voice mail. That’s when he’d left his desk and said to hell with it. He wasn’t leaving his mother to face Trey Don Hall alone.

  Will couldn’t blame her for wanting to see him again, if only to confront him with the truth of what a shit he was. All afternoon, every time the phone rang or a car drove up he’d thought it might be Trey Don Hall attempting to get in touch with him. Curiosity alone might lead him to make contact with the son he’d never seen. Whatever his explanation, it wouldn’t mean a damn to him, Will told himself, yet in a way it would mean everything. It would give him the chance to tell the jerk what he thought of him. He’d have the satisfaction of giving Trey Don Hall a taste of the rejection he and his mother had suffered all these years.

  By late afternoon, just before his mother had telephoned, he’d realized his father was not going to telephone or come by. He’d leave town without ever laying eyes on him, and that likelihood made him feel a surprising dismay. Even before the call from his mother, he’d almost decided he would not allow his father to escape that easily. Trey Don Hall was going to meet his son, know what he looked like, learn how much he hated him. Now he’d made up his mind to drive ou
t to Harbison House himself.

  It was close to six fifteen when he saw his mother in her Lexus at the intersection of the road that led to the orphanage. He had filled the gas tank of his Jeep and was folding his receipt when he spotted her car stopped at the traffic light. He saw his mother glance both ways before turning onto the highway toward Kersey—furtively, Will thought, as if she didn’t wish to be seen. He was shocked by her white, drawn face. She looked badly shaken.

  Will let her go without hailing her down. She was wearing something in bright blue, and her hair was bouncy and shiny, done up in a perky way for her meeting with the man she supposedly no longer cared for. Heat warmed Will’s neck. Why had she dolled up like that? Had his mother gone to Harbison House to make up with his father? Seduce him? Only it hadn’t gone so well. Trey Hall had sent her packing and hurt her once again. Will’s jaw clenched. He jerked his Jeep into gear. The bastard wouldn’t send him packing.

  He came upon the body five minutes later. He saw the gray BMW first, parked on the shoulder, and then the long length of a man lying faceup near the back wheels of the car. His heartbeat deadening the sound of his cry, Will pulled to the opposite side of the road, jumped out, and approached the figure on the ground. He stared, slack jawed, down at the still face of the legendary Trey Don Hall, his father. Oh, God, no…

  He dropped to the sandy shoulder and folded the man’s hand in his grip. It was stiff but not cold, enough life in it for Will to feel the touch of his father without his father feeling his. He began to cry, his tears falling on the gray silk shirt, adding splotches to the dark red circle where a bullet had entered. A wave of loss coursed through him. Now he would never know the man who was his father, the man his mother had killed with the .30-30 rifle she kept under her bed.

  BACK AT HER HOUSE, Cathy hurried to the medicine cabinet to search for a bottle of long-expired tranquilizers she’d never taken. Her hands trembled so that when she finally pried off the childproof lid the bottle tipped and the contents spilled to the tiled floor. Laboring for breath, her heart beating so fast she thought it would lift her off her feet, she retrieved two pills and gulped them down with a glass of warm tap water to loosen the tensed muscles of her throat. The sight in the mirror made her gasp. Her face was as white as Sheetrock and her eyes stark and raw. Turning the water off, she was horrified to see a dark blotch on the sleeve edge of her blue sweater. Examining it, she realized it was a spot of blood she must have picked up from the wound when she felt Trey’s neck for a pulse. Wildly she tore off the sweater and, unsure of what else to do with it, pushed it down among the other items in the clothes hamper.

  She made a conscious effort to breathe in a lungful of air slowly through her nose and went into her bedroom to sit down in her reading chair. Slowly she exhaled. She sucked in her stomach—“try for your backbone,” she could remember her grandmother instructing her from a manual on how to relieve the symptoms of selective mutism. Cathy held the position for ten seconds and continued the breathing and tension-release exercises she recalled from that time until she began to feel warm and limp. Finally, when her body had relaxed, she tried her voice.

  “Dear God, Trey,” she said aloud. “Who could have done this to you?”

  She would have given all she owned to go back and undo her movements, but the shock of finding Trey murdered had aimed straight for her voice box and dictated her actions and thoughts from the second she’d spotted his body by his car. She’d cried his name as she ran to him, but no sound came. All her old feelings for him had rushed from their bolted rooms as she saw him lying inert on the road with the wind gently ruffling the collar of his shirt, his hair, the dust on which he lay. Frozen dumb, she’d stared into the familiar dark eyes, locked open in sightless astonishment, and wanted to shake recognition into them. It’s me, Trey. It’s me! She’d knelt on rubbery knees to press his neck for a pulse but could feel nothing through her numb fingers. He had utterly left this world, the boy who had been so full of life and the love of hers.

  She’d fumbled for her cell to call 911, then realized with a feeling of helpless paralysis she could not speak. She could only cry powerlessly, tears wetting the useless instrument in her hand. She did not want to leave Trey uncovered and vulnerable to the elements, but she must get help. She heard the sound of a tractor in a far-off field but wasn’t sure of its direction. She would drive to Harbison House, write out to Betty what had happened, and Betty would call the sheriff’s department. Who could have done this? Who would have reason to kill Trey besides herself?

  Oh, God.

  From that point, the flight response of her condition had taken over. Cathy could hardly believe her actions. With robotic precision, she’d turned her car around, stopped, and brushed all evidence of the Lexus’s wheel tracks from the shoulder with the whisk broom she used for clearing debris from her grandmother’s and Mabel’s graves. She’d driven off, leaving Trey’s body where it had fallen, untended and exposed to the chill of dusk falling, but her foot was frozen to the pedal, and she could not breathe.

  The tranquilizers were beginning to take effect. Calmer, she rose from the chair. What was done was done. She regretted her actions. They were those of a guilty person. She should have reported Trey’s death and trusted in her innocence, but she’d avoided a lot of unnecessary hullabaloo by not being found at the crime scene. Once again Will’s mother would have been the center of public scrutiny and gossip, and tongues would wag fast enough when it was learned that John was the father of her child.

  Initially suspicion would fall on her anyway. Randy Wallace would have no choice but to question her, but he’d do it quietly and have nothing to tie her to the crime except his guess that at times she must have wished Trey dead. Once the police learned Trey had come back to tell John the truth of Will’s paternity, what reason would she have to kill him? She could only be elated over the news and grateful that Trey had made his confession before he was killed. If need be, DNA would support Trey’s claim. And Father John had told her of Trey’s terminal illness. Why would she want to kill a man she knew was going to die anyway? Her gun would not match the ballistics of the bullet that had killed Trey. All she was lacking was an alibi, and she believed she could establish a credible story of where she was at the time of the murder.

  Randy must never learn she was on that road or her reason for being there. She’d gone to prevent Trey from revealing a secret that could mean possible ruin for the father of her child and the man she loved, and now his lips were forever sealed. She must keep her whereabouts this afternoon from John, too. He would never believe her capable of murder, but he’d known there was murder in her heart when he left her. No need to give him worry that the police had reason to suspect her of the crime.

  He and Will would be arriving in less than an hour, and she must look and act as if she did not know that Trey was dead. This was to be a joyous and memorable night when Will finally met his father. She would not let Trey in death—as he’d done so often in life—destroy this precious moment in their lives. When Randy came to question her she’d say she’d left the café early to prepare dinner for her son and Father John to celebrate a special occasion. How could he know that her famous lasagna and cheesecake that usually took hours to prepare had been put together and frozen on a winter day when she was in the mood to cook?

  DEKE WAS SURPRISED TO FIND nearly a full house attending mass on a Friday night. He was of Presbyterian stock himself and couldn’t imagine attending church at any other time than on Sunday, certainly not on the last night of the workweek. Friday nights were for kicking back and unwinding at home unless it was high school football season. It must be the June moon, he decided, having no choice but to take a seat in one of the front pews.

  He was late, and the service had well begun. John Caldwell sat on the left of the altar in his white vestments, and Deke drew a surprised stare from him as he came down the aisle. For a long second, their gazes engaged, John’s registering a small shock, Deke’s open an
d candid. Deke thought he’d aged slightly since he last saw him.

  Then Father John began his sermon—the homily, Deke believed it was called.

  Immediately Deke understood that the full moon had nothing to do with it. What drew the crowd was the priest behind the pulpit and the relevance of his simple but eloquent message. In Deke’s church in Amarillo, the congregation was restless, easily distracted, oftentimes downright noisy, but not here. In St. Matthew’s, only an occasional soft cough disturbed the listening hush and concentration on Father John’s words, enhanced by the strong sincerity in his voice.

  Deke stirred uncomfortably. How could Father John ever be replaced? How would these parishioners ever trust a priest again once they lost their belief in a spiritual leader like John Caldwell? These were faith-shattering times. The Catholic Church was already reeling from allegations of sexual abuse by its priests, not to mention the scandals of corruption and greed that had caused the loss of belief in the country’s most revered government leaders and financial institutions.

  Not for him to agonize over, Deke reminded himself, ignoring a spate of remorse. John Caldwell, however young he’d been, whatever his justification at the time, had helped to cover up either a murder or an accident and assigned a loving set of parents to a lasting hell on earth.

  The moment came that he’d been waiting for. He watched Father John withdraw a water glass from a recess in the altar and drink from it. He slipped it back before raising his white-robed arms to the congregation. “The peace of the Lord be with you always,” he intoned.

  “And also with you,” the congregation responded.

  Deke recognized this part in the order of the service as the passing of the peace, the place where the congregation greet one another by embracing or shaking hands. To his surprise, Father John left the altar and approached him.

 
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