Presumption of guilt, p.20
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       Presumption of Guilt, p.20

           Terri Blackstock
 
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“You don’t know what her life was like, Beth.”

  “I know what my life has been like, Nick. I know that if everybody turned to drugs because of a horrible past, then I’d be the worst junkie in town.”

  “You’re right. You have more strength. More character. You’ve risen above your past. There’s something about you, Beth, that some people just don’t have. It’s what’s so attractive about you.”

  She looked as if she didn’t know how to respond to such a compliment. Nick sighed and rubbed his eyes. “But God’s grace covers people like Tracy, too. When I found her, she was lying there helpless, almost dead. I don’t know why God put it in my head to go look for her that day, of all days, but I did, and if I hadn’t, she’d be dead now. That means that God loves her, for some reason that you and I may not be able to fathom. And she has the same opportunity for heaven that we have.”

  “That’s absurd,” she said. “God doesn’t send junkies and child abusers to heaven. Tracy Westin has never done anything for God or anyone else. Even if she were to repent now and turn into Mother Theresa for the rest of her life, all the junk in her life up until now would still outweigh any good she could do. Even God’s grace couldn’t balance all that out.”

  “But that’s the great thing about grace. It doesn’t have anything to do with a balance sheet,” he said with a smile. “How do you think that thief on the cross came out when God looked at his balance sheet?” Beth tried to think. “I don’t know. I still say he hadn’t done that much wrong.”

  “He was crucified, Beth. Whatever he did wrong was bad enough to get him executed. The Bible calls him a thief.”

  She was getting confused. “But God wouldn’t take someone like Tracy—or even me, for that matter—and give us the same reward he gives someone like you or Lynda! You’ve done good things all your life, Nick. You’ve probably never really done anything displeasing to God.”

  “Don’t bet on it,” Nick said. “In God’s eyes, there’s no real difference between your life and mine. The only thing either of us has ever done that would win us admission to heaven is to believe in and trust in Christ.”

  Her face paled again, and she sank down into the chair.“That’s not enough. Not for someone like me. It wouldn’t be fair to people like you.”

  He knelt in front of her, his eyes riveting into hers. “Yes, it is.” He grabbed the Gideon’s Bible off her bed table and flipped through the pages. “Here,” he said. “Matthew 20:1.” He read to her the parable of the landowner who paid the same wages to those hired at the end of the day as he paid those who had worked all day.Those who had worked all day complained.

  Nick read, “‘“I want to give the man who was hired last the same as I gave you. Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?” So the last will be first and the first will be last.’”

  He handed her the Bible so that she could see it for herself.

  Tears came to her eyes. “But what about redemption? I’m not stupid, Nick. There’s a price for the secrets I’ve kept all these years.”

  “Christ redeemed you when he gave his life for you, Beth.”

  She just couldn’t buy it. Not the Messiah, dying for her, leaving her blameless. It was too unbelievable. “I’m not sure I agree with your theology, Nick.”

  “All right,” he said. “Just promise me you’ll think about it.Pray about it, too.”

  “I will.” She took in a deep, shaky breath. “Faith is a hard thing for me, Nick. Sometimes I feel like I’ve got holes punched in me. If I walk carefully, I can keep everything in, but if the slightest thing shakes me, it all comes pouring out. All the putrid, ugly things about me that I don’t want anyone to see.”

  “Well, we’ll see what we can do about patching up those holes.”

  CHAPTER FORTY-SEVEN

  Darkness seemed inviting to Tracy Westin. She watched lethargically out her window as the sun went down and twilight overwhelmed the sky. It would be night soon. But she needed more darkness than this; she needed enough to hide in.

  She looked around her cold, sterile hospital room. It was better than anything she’d had in a long time, but she hated it. She didn’t belong here. She didn’t belong anywhere. Her life was hopeless, futile, and she didn’t know where she had gone wrong.

  Liar, she told herself. That was just one of the myths she’d been clinging to for years. She knew where she’d gone wrong—she’d gone wrong the first time she’d taken crack. It wasn’t as if she hadn’t known better. She had just wanted to be a part of things. She had wanted to fit in, to be a part of that group of people she admired who seemed so glamorous and exciting.

  She’d never forget her first experience with the drug. It had been a high like she’d never experienced, yet afterwards she’d felt so low, so hungry for more, that it had changed her thinking. While she was pregnant, she had managed to stay off it, though she had occasionally smoked marijuana. She had told herself that she would clean up her act as soon as the baby was born. But it hadn’t happened either time.

  For years, she had blamed Jimmy and Lisa’s fathers, the men who had wooed, then abandoned her when she’d needed them most. For years, she had told herself that she wasn’t really to blame; she was just a victim, after all. But right now she didn’t feel much like a victim. She felt like a monster who had ruined two young lives for no good reason. And that was hard to live with. So hard, in fact, that she really didn’t want to live at all.

  She was angry that Nick had found her lying in her room. If he’d just left her alone, she’d be at peace now. Or would she?

  Was there really an afterlife? Was there a god cruel enough to prolong what she wanted so desperately to end? Would she pay the price for the sins she’d committed during her unhappy life? No, she told herself. If there was a god, he couldn’t be that cruel.

  Desperate enough to gamble that death meant an end to her existence and peace at last, she tore the IV needles out of her hands, peeled off the monitors glued to her chest, and threw down the oxygen mask that was making it so much easier for her to breathe. She didn’t need this. She didn’t need life. She didn’t need another moment of it.

  She pulled herself to the edge of the bed, sitting, trying to balance. If she got on the elevator and went straight up, would there be a window at the top from which she could hurl herself? It would be so easy. Just one step, and there would be an end to it all.And she couldn’t get in anyone’s way again, and she couldn’t hurt anyone else, least of all herself. It would be the greatest act of kindness she had ever done for herself.

  She touched the floor with her bare feet and tried to stand.Her legs wobbled beneath her, and she remembered how weak she had been when Nick had found her. She had thought she’d been getting stronger during these days in the hospital, but she knew now she was mistaken. She took a step, reached out to hold onto the bed table, then another step. She began to sweat and grow dizzy. How would she ever make it all the way to the elevator?

  Finally, she backed up to the bed and sat again. She was too weak to kill herself, she thought bitterly. Wasn’t that the way it always went? Finally had the courage, and now she didn’t have the strength.

  She wilted into tears and pulled her wobbly, bony knees up to her chest and hugged them tightly. She was sickened by her own frailty.

  “What are you doing?” came the voice at the doorway. It was a stern nurse, and Tracy didn’t have the energy to argue. “What do you mean taking that IV out of your hand? Girl, get that mask back on your face and get back under those covers!”

  Tracy did as she was told. She didn’t want to talk. She just closed her eyes, wishing to shut out the reality around her. The voices. The guilt. The demands.

  She lay still as the woman reinserted the IV. It hurt—but that was fair. It was comfort that she couldn’t endure. Never comfort.

  “Where were you going, honey?” the nurse asked.

  Tracy still couldn’t talk, and as the woman put the m
ask back over her face, she felt sleep pulling her under. But not far enough.

  CHAPTER FORTY-EIGHT

  It was already six-thirty, and Judge Wyatt hadn’t yet left the courthouse. Tony sat at the wheel of his car, tapping his fingers impatiently.

  The telephone on his seat rang, and he picked it up. “Hello?” I “Tony, it’s me.” Larry sounded excited.

  “You got anything?”

  Larry, who had been staking out the children’s home from the hardware store across the street, began to chuckle. “He just came out and headed to a storehouse at the back of the campus. He opened the door, and voila! Inside sits a green van. I’m in my car; as soon as he hits the street, I’ll be on his tail.”

  “Up to no good?” Tony asked.

  “Definitely no good.”

  “Any kids with him?”

  “No,” he said. “He’s alone.”

  The door to the side of the courthouse opened, and a cluster of people spilled out. At the back of the group, he saw Judge Wyatt walking regally, carrying his briefcase. He wondered if the briefcase contained the evidence they had given him, and if he indeed planned to “take it under advisement.”

  “Well, guess what. Our boy just came out, too. Call me if Brandon does anything.”

  “Yeah, you do the same,” Larry said.

  Tony clicked off the telephone and cranked his engine, waiting inconspicuously as the judge got into his Lexus and backed out. Tony waited until two or three cars got between them, then pulled out and followed the judge out into the downtown traffic. He had looked up the judge’s home address, so he knew his likely route home—but that wasn’t the direction that Wyatt headed. Curious, Tony followed at a distance, keeping a mental record of their exact route.

  The judge slowed as they came to a gas station with a convenience store attached. Tony braked as the Lexus pulled into the parking lot next to a pay phone. He didn’t follow, only pulled to the side of the road far enough away that the judge wouldn’t spot him, and watched as Wyatt got out of his car and stood at the pay phone.

  Who was he calling? Tony wondered. There was a cellular antenna on Wyatt’s car, so Tony knew the judge had a car phone. The only reason he would have for calling from a pay phone was that he didn’t want any record of the phone call—or didn’t want it traced. Tony grabbed his phone, punched out the number of the police station, and asked for one of the cops that he knew would be around this time of day. “Hey, Mac, I need you to do me a favor. Find out the phone number for a pay phone on the corner of Lems Boulevard and Stone Street, and see if you can get a record of the last few numbers called from that phone. There’s a call taking place right now; I want to know who’s on the other end of the line.”

  “Okay, Tony, I’ll try.”

  “Call me back on my cell phone. I’m keeping my radio off so my cover isn’t blown.”

  He hung up as Judge Wyatt finished the call and jumped back into his car. When the judge pulled back onto the street, Tony let a couple of other cars get between them before he began to follow.

  He still wasn’t heading home, and he wasn’t going back to the courthouse. Tony recorded every turn; the route had gotten too complicated to remember, so he scribbled the information without looking on a piece of paper on the seat next to him.

  The phone rang, and he clicked it on. “Yeah?”

  “Tony, I got the number of the latest phone call from that phone. It was a cellular phone number. 555–4257. It’s registered to the St. Clair Children’s Home.”

  Tony’s heart tripped. “Are you serious?”

  “That’s right.”

  He watched the judge make another turn, and he followed.

  “Then my hunch seems to be right on the mark. Thanks, Mac.”

  The Lexus turned down a road that looked as if it was rarely traveled. Tony waited until the judge had rounded a curve before he turned in behind him. The road curved like an S, cutting through a dense forest. Tony passed an abandoned warehouse here and an old, dilapidated structure there. He started to get suspicious—was this some kind of trap? Had the judge spotted him?

  No, not likely. Whatever Wyatt was doing, it had nothing to do with Tony. But Tony suspected that it had everything to do with Bill Brandon.

  As he slowly rounded the final curve, a big warehouse came into view. Adrenaline pulsed through Tony, and he pulled off the road and into a cluster of bushes where he wouldn’t be seen. He got out and pushed through the brush until he had a clear view of the warehouse.

  “Bingo,” he muttered. “Just what we’ve been looking for!”

  Tony peered through his binoculars and read the sign on the building. He wrote down the name Winrite, Inc., along with the address, and waited for the judge to come back out.

  He would look up the owner of the building when he got back to the station to determine what kind of business operated from here. A light went on in one of the rooms. After a few minutes, the light went out, and the judge reappeared in the doorway, locked up, and got back into his Lexus.

  Tony got back in his car but kept his engine off as the judge pulled out of the parking lot and back onto the street.

  Again, the judge headed away from home, and Tony found his heart beating faster as he tailed him. His gut told him something was going on. The judge was going to lead him someplace that he didn’t want anyone to see.

  The Lexus turned onto a street that took them near the underside of a bridge on the outskirts of town. It was hard to stay close enough to the Lexus without losing him and still not be seen, but Tony was good at this; he’d done it often enough.

  When the judge pulled his car over near the bridge, Tony pulled his car off the road behind a grove of trees. After a minute or two, he saw another car approaching. It pulled alongside the Lexus and idled there a moment.

  The phone rang again.

  “Yeah?”

  “It’s me,” Larry said. “Looks like Brandon’s meeting with somebody. It’s a light-colored Lexus.”

  “A Lexus?” Tony’s heart pounded.

  “That’s right.”

  “Larry, I’ve been following the Lexus.”

  “You what? Who is it?”

  “One guess.”

  There was a brief silence, then: “Bingo.”

  “Looks like we figured out why we can’t get our warrant,” Tony said.

  “You were right all along, buddy.”

  “Wish I could hear what they’re saying.”

  “I’ll tell you what they’re saying. Judge Wyatt’s filling him in on the gory details of our meeting this afternoon. And Brandon’s trying to figure out a way to get out of this whole mess. More buildings to burn down. More people to try to kill.”

  “No,” Tony said. “Just one. Beth Wright.”

  “Don’t forget the kid.”

  “Jimmy’s safe. He’s with Jake and Lynda.”

  “Called the hospital lately to see if Beth’s all right?”

  “I called earlier. She’s getting out tonight as soon as the doctor makes his rounds.”

  “So where’s she going?” Larry asked.

  “Not sure yet, but I’ll find out.”

  “Do that,” Larry said. “I’d feel better if we had somebody watching her.”

  “We’re low on manpower, buddy. With us watching these two, I don’t know who’s going to do it.”

  “Somebody’ll have to,” Larry said. “I’ll take care of it.”

  CHAPTER FORTY-NINE

  Lynda and Jake had talked through everything—the injustice of the judge’s delays in issuing a warrant for Bill Brandon, the difficulty of Jimmy’s reaction to his mother, the feelings of rejection that reaction must have caused in Tracy, their worry for Lisa, still in Brandon’s clutches . . .

  But they would solve nothing sitting at Lynda’s kitchen table, so after a while Lynda went into the living room to check on Jimmy. Although the noise from the computer game had been consistent for the past hour, Jimmy wasn’t sitting there. Shrugging, Lynda w
alked on past the living room, down the hall, and to the bedroom where he had been staying. There was no sign of him.

  “Jimmy,” she called. “Jimmy!”

  When she got no answer, she went to the back door and looked out into the yard. He wasn’t there. “Jake!”

  Jake came from the kitchen. “What is it?”

  “Jimmy’s gone!”

  “I thought he was playing on the computer.”

  “He’s not.” Growing alarm sent her running from one room to another, searching for the boy and calling for him at the top of her lungs, but there was no answer.

  “Where could he be?” she asked Jake.

  “I don’t know. You don’t think—”

  “He’s run away.” Lynda headed for the telephone. “We have to call Larry and Tony.”

  Jake got to the phone first and punched out the number of the St. Clair Police Department. Larry and Tony were out, he was told, so he left a message and hung up. He didn’t want to report the runaway, not yet, not until he’d consulted with Larry and Tony, and even Nick, on how to proceed. So far, Jimmy hadn’t been officially reported missing. Reporting it now to people who didn’t know the case might do more harm than good; if Jimmy were found, he’d probably be taken back to SCCH.

  “I’m calling Nick,” he said. “Then I’ll call Beth. Maybe he went there, to the hospital.”

  “Do you think he may have gone to see his mother?” she asked.

  “Doubtful,” he said, “judging from the way he reacted today. On the other hand, sometimes our first reactions aren’t what we really mean. Maybe he did go back to finally confront her.”

  “Why didn’t he just ask us to take him? He knew we would.”

  “He was pretty upset,” Jake said. “I guess we underestimated how much.”

  “But he seemed content in there playing on the computer.”

  “It was a ruse,” Jake said. “He was just trying to distract us so we wouldn’t see him when he ran away.”

  Lynda paced across the floor, running her fingers through her hair. “We should have kept an eye on him. We should have been watching him.”

 
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