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Chapter 37

Four hours after the fire department rescued me-maybe twenty hours after Blue last injected me-I was lying in a bed in an intensive care unit, cold sweat bursting from my pores. By the twenty-four-hour mark, my skeletal muscles were cramping, twisting me into a fetal position. After thirty hours, every cell in my body was screaming for heroin. My father had to send a nurse to Jackson for methadone; there was none available in Natchez. An addiction expert he consulted by phone attributed my severe withdrawal after such a short experience with heroin to the likelihood that I’d received a steady flow of extremely pure product for six and a half days.

But it wasn’t completely pure.

When I arrived in the ER, Dad immediately diagnosed me with a dangerous vascular condition called hypersensitivity vasculitis. My guess had been right. Whatever had been used to cut the heroin had triggered my immune system to attack my own body, particularly my veins. My bone marrow had begun churning out proteins called immune complexes, which immediately began clogging my smallest veins-the venules. This silting process started in my extremities and steadily moved toward my core organs. A blood-pressure reading taken on my arm in the ER was 140/95, but a reading taken from a cuff on my finger was 145/180. I had an irregular heartbeat, and tiny patches of skin on my toes and penis had died. I assumed that stopping the injections of contaminated heroin would short-circuit this immune reaction, but Dad soberly informed me that as long as the adulterant remained in my system-and he feared that some of it was embedded in the walls of my veins-the potentially deadly immune reaction would continue. He was considering a treatment called chelation, but after he described it to me, I felt more inclined to wait it out and hope for the best.

My legs had been peppered with shrapnel from the exploding batteries. The wounds themselves weren’t severe-my bones had escaped damage-but since the shrapnel was mostly lead fragments from the battery plates, poisoning was a serious concern. A surgeon spent two hours under a fluoroscope digging every fragment out of my body.

Before Dad admitted any visitors into my glass-walled cubicle in the ICU, he drew the curtains and stood close beside my bed. The white hair and beard gave him the look of a doctor who had seen everything, but I could tell that he’d never dreamed of seeing his son like this.

”Annie’s had a tough time these past few days,“ he said. ”We all have, but she had it the worst. She thought you were dead. And nothing we said to her would change her mind. I guess losing her mother so young proved to her that the worst nightmares do come true. You need to spend a lot of time with her, Penn.“

”You can count on it. How’s Mom?“

Dad shook his head. ”She’s a tough old girl, but this just about did her in. She sat by the telephone day and night, waiting for word. I don’t believe she slept more than three consecutive hours the whole time you were gone. She was afraid they were going to find you in a ditch somewhere.“

”I’m sorry. I’m sorry I got myself into this mess.“

A small smile touched my father’s lips. ”That’s your nature, son. I understand it. But you’ve got a family to think about.“

I nodded.

Dad looked through a crack in the curtains at the nurse’s station. ”When they brought you into the ER, they put you on the same treatment table they put Kate Townsend on two weeks ago. I saw Jenny Townsend that night. And I felt just like her when I saw you.“ Dad’s jaw muscles flexed with the effort of holding in his emotion. ”I’m not burying my son,“ he said in a shaky voice. ”I won’t do it.“

I reached up and gripped his wrist, squeezing as hard as I could.

”I couldn’t just sit and wait,“ he said. ”I knew if there was a way to stay alive, you’d manage it. After meeting with Sheriff Byrd and Chief Logan, I called your old assistant and got the names of every FBI agent you’d ever worked with. I called them all, and they lit a fire under the task force here. I still wasn’t convinced that was enough, so I called Dan Kelly’s security company in Houston.“

Daniel Kelly is the former Delta operator I considered bringing in to protect Annie. My father got to know him well during the Del Payton case.

”Kelly was still in Afghanistan, but twelve hours later, he returned my call. When he heard you were missing, he promised to get back to the U.S. by hook or by crook. It took three days for a replacement to arrive in Kabul, but forty-eight hours ago Kelly arrived in Natchez and started searching for you. He even brought a buddy with him to protect Annie. You may not believe it, but Kelly was planning to search the Triton Battery plant the day after you escaped. I saw it in his daybook.“

”He has good instincts. But I probably would have been dead when he found me.“

Dad shook his head slowly. ”No doubt about it.“

”Is he still in town?“

”Yes. He said to tell you he’s waiting for instructions.“

For some reason, Kelly’s continued presence brings me a blessed feeling of relief.

”Now,“ Dad said, ”there are some people waiting to see you.“

He turned to go, but I said, ”Wait.“

”What is it?“

”What about Cyrus White? Did they bring him into the ER?“

Dad nodded but said nothing.

”Did he make it?“

”No. He died. Bad.“

Dad left me in silence with my memories of Cyrus and Blue. I felt no satisfaction at having killed them. New predators would soon take their places in the local drug hierarchy, and probably already had. Cyrus and Blue had never meant to kill me, but they had been content to watch me die by a process they didn’t understand. Now they are dead, and I am alive, and that is all that matters.

Two minutes after Dad left the ICU, Caitlin led Annie into my room. When Annie stared at me as if unsure I was real, I told her to climb up into my bed. I hugged her tight, and Caitlin hugged us both from behind Annie. We watched an episode of Leave It to Beaver on TV Land, hardly speaking as we did, but words didn’t matter at that point. My mother came into the room during the show. She sat on the edge of my bed for a while with her hand on my knee. She had aged visibly since I last saw her, but I sensed that she was still far from broken. When Leave It to Beaver ended, she kissed me on the forehead, then lifted a sleeping Annie into her arms and left for home.

Finally alone, Caitlin and I simply held each other, both shivering from an emotion we could not name. After a while, she asked to see the damage done to my body by the vasculitis. She cried then, but she knew the outcome could have been much worse. Though I was still suffering from the reaction, at least no more skin had died.

As for Drew’s trial, the news was almost all bad. A few hours before Caitlin’s visit, Shad had stunned the court by providing proof that Kate had been visiting Cyrus to procure drugs for Drew, who had then given them to his addicted wife. To prove this, Shad produced four different witnesses, each of whom knew only part of the story. The most powerful of those witnesses, Caitlin said, was Ellen Elliott herself. Because Ellen was testifying about her drug habit, and not giving direct testimony against her husband, her testimony was allowed. I figured Ellen would be glad to give testimony that might convict Drew, but Caitlin said Ellen had been very hostile to Shad during direct examination, and as she left the witness box, she appeared to have been shattered by the ordeal. This testimony had fulfilled Quentin Avery’s worst fear, and it left me deeply troubled. Cyrus himself had not known whom Kate was buying the Lorcet for, so how had Shad Johnson divined that the hydrocodone was for Ellen? I resolved to discover this as soon as possible.

According to Caitlin, Quentin had been playing catch-up throughout the trial. He had little inside information to work with, and he was saddled with a client who seemed bent on self-destruction. Drew remained firm in his belief that he should tell the whole truth about everything, and he was still demanding to take the stand in his own defense. That might happen as soon as tomorrow.

After Caitlin returned to the newspaper office, I settled back in my bed and tried to rest, but my withdrawal symptoms made it impossible. I was shaking like an epileptic when Daniel Kelly walked into my room.

I hadn’t seen him for five years, but he looked the same: curly blond hair, sea blue eyes, an Irish smile, and a reserved manner. Kelly also sported a desert tan, which somehow added to the aura of centeredness he always projected. Kelly knows how to go unnoticed in a crowd, but when he reveals himself, you know you’re in the presence of a man of supreme competence.

I asked him what he’d been doing in Afghanistan, and he gave me a typical one-word answer: ”Babysitting.“ I thanked him for dumping his contract and playing seventh cavalry on my behalf, but then I told him I was fine and that he could go back to Asia. Kelly gave a small shake of his head and said, ”I’ve been checking things out for a couple of days. Been to the trial, been out in the street. This thing isn’t over, Penn.“

”It is for me.“

Kelly raised his eyebrows. ”That may not be your choice. I went out to Triton Battery and looked at the lab where they held you-what was left of it. And I found two pounds of ninety-eight percent pure heroin.“

Youfound it? Not the cops?“

”They took drug dogs out there, but Cyrus had figured a way to beat the dogs. Probably learned it in the air force. I’ve seen most of those tricks in my time, so I knew where to look.“

I’ve learned to expect Kelly to amaze me. ”Two pounds of pure heroin. What’s the street value of that?“

”You could buy a small island. And the people who lost that dope are going to be mighty angry.“

He gave me his cell number and told me he would stay within reach for the next couple of days, at least. Then he squeezed my right hand in both of his and walked to the glass door. ”By the way,“ he said, turning back to me, ”that was a neat trick you pulled. Couldn’t have done better myself.“

I blew out a stream of air, fighting a memory of Blue’s massive body crushing mine. ”Necessity’s the mother of invention, right?“

Kelly smiled. Then his eyes twinkled and he was gone.

Not long afterward, Quentin Avery called me. He apologized for not coming to the hospital, but I understood. A lawyer defending a client on a capital murder charge is one of the busiest people on earth. Quentin let me know he was glad that I’d survived, but then he quickly asked if I had any rabbits I could pull out of my hat for him. Had I learned anything during my captivity that might help Drew in the courtroom? I had to tell him no. When I asked for a summary of Shad Johnson’s strategy, Quentin told a depressing tale.

Though Shad’s case remained circumstantial, he had painted a compelling picture of Marko Bakic as the ”mystery man“ who’d had consensual sex with Kate within seventy-two hours of her death, and then of Drew as the older man who’d discovered this infidelity and killed his underage paramour in a jealous rage. DNA analysis of the fetus in Kate’s womb had proved it to be Drew’s child. But Drew, Shad told the jury, had no way of knowing that. He might have believed the child belonged to Marko (or any other man). Shad’s hypothesis was helped greatly by the fact that no one had seen Marko since the night of the X-rave at Oakfield. Shad had even suggested that Drew had paid to have Marko killed, which would explain the Croatian’s disappearance.

While Don Logan’s police department had been searching frantically for Marko, Sheriff Byrd had taken a more leisurely approach. I wanted to laugh at the irony when Quentin griped about this; he himself had ordered me not to hunt down Cyrus for the same reason. It suited both lawyers’ purposes to work with a myth in court, rather than a flesh-and-blood person who could contradict their theories. I offered to put Daniel Kelly at Quentin’s disposal, but Quentin demurred. He didn’t seem to grasp the value of Kelly’s help-probably because Kelly has no inside knowledge of Natchez.

Late on my second night in the hospital, Mia called. She told me she had wanted to visit earlier, but that Caitlin had told her it was best that I have as few visitors as possible. This surprised and even angered me, but on reflection I understood. It took me a while to realize that Mia was crying softly. To raise her spirits, I asked her to update me on the progress of her investigation. I knew better than to believe my absence would end her Nancy Drew efforts.

Mia had deduced that I’d been kidnapped or killed by either Cyrus White or the Asians, since I had provoked both parties. Because she had no way to work the Asian angle, she had focused on Cyrus. The only possible line Mia had into Cyrus’s organization was Marko, so for the past week, she had talked to every high school student in town, trying to find some clue to Marko’s whereabouts. She’d badgered Alicia Reynolds, Marko’s girlfriend, but Alicia had blown her off. When Mia tried to follow Alicia in her car, she quickly discovered that the police were doing the same thing. After being warned off, she went home and fell into a mild depression. I thanked her profusely for everything she’d done, but this didn’t bring her out of her mood. She’d cut school twice to attend Drew’s trial, she said, and she had a bad feeling about the way it was going.

I wanted to see for myself, but my withdrawal symptoms grew worse, not better. The methadone helped, but it didn’t stop the pain that bored like rusty nails into my bones. I still had an irregular heartbeat, as well, but Dad told me that was caused by the vasculitis, not the withdrawal.

This morning I learned that Shad and Quentin were scheduled to give their closing statements, but as badly as I wanted to hear them, I simply couldn’t function well enough to go to the courthouse. It was all I could do to stand beside my bed for five minutes, or sit in the visitors’ chair watching television. I got so agitated at my failure that Dad finally sedated me. I lay in the bed half conscious, waiting for an update from Caitlin, who was in the courtroom.

I waited in vain. Caitlin wasn’t about to give up her seat in the packed courtroom to call someone who couldn’t do anything about what was happening anyway. I switched on the TV and tried to think about something else, but it was no use. I’d never felt so impotent in my life. I lay shaking under the blanket, troubled by thoughts of Blue, almost wishing the big man would appear at my bedside with his blessed syringe. But he couldn’t do that, of course. He was dead. I’d cut the top of his head off with a battery plate. When the sedative finally overwhelmed me, I almost wept with relief.

”Penn? Penn, wake up.“

I blink my eyes in confusion. My mother is standing beside my bed.

”What’s the matter?“

”Caitlin’s on the phone. The jury’s back.“

A bolus of adrenaline shoots through my body. ”Give it to me!“

Mom passes me the phone. ”Caitlin?“

”The jury’s coming back in,“ she whispers. ”They deliberated ninety-four minutes.“

My face goes cold.

”What do you think?“

”Guilty.“

”If they see me on this phone, they’ll kick me out,“ Caitlin says. ”I’m going to leave the connection open. If you can’t hear the verdict, I’ll tell you as soon as I can.“

My phone begins hissing like a link to outer space. I’ve never listened to a jury verdict this way before. A friend of mine once called me and held up his cell phone at a Paul McCartney concert: ”Eleanor Rigby,“ I think.

”Who is the foreperson?“ asks Judge Arthel Minor, his voice replacing the hiss with amazing clarity.

For some reason, I don’t hear the reply. Probably because the judge has a microphone while the jury box doesn’t.

”Have you reached a verdict?“ Judge Minor asks.

Again nothing.

”Please pass the verdict to the clerk.“

Silence now, but I know what’s happening. The clerk is giving the verdict to Judge Minor, who will check to see if the jury has worded it correctly. Minor will then pass it to the clerk, who will read the verdict aloud. At least three deputies will surround Drew to keep him from bolting in panic in the event of a guilty verdict, or to protect him from angry relatives of the victim in the opposite event.

”Ladies and gentlemen,“ says Judge Minor, ”I’m warning you. There will be no outbursts when the verdict is read, or afterward. There will be quiet and order. Do not test me, or you will find yourself in the custody of the sheriff.“

After a brief silence, Minor says, ”Read the verdict.“

A female voice says, ”In the matter of the State of Mississippi versus Drew Elliott, we find the accused guilty on two counts of the charge of first-degree murder during commission of a felony.“

I sag against my pillow.

”Did you hear that?“ Caitlin whispers.

”I heard.“

”I can’t believe it.“

”Believe it.“

”Are you okay?“

”Yes. Go. I know you need to work.“

”Wait. Judge Minor’s going to poll the jury.“

”They always do that in capital cases. It’s over, Caitlin.“

”I’ll call you as soon as I can,“ she promises.

I let the phone drop and reach for my water glass.

I wish there were some way I could talk to Drew. Right now he’s standing at his table in shock, Quentin Avery beside him, watching Judge Minor excuse the family of the victim-Jenny Townsend and perhaps her ex-husband. Next Drew’s family will be excused. I wonder who was there for him. His parents are dead. Ellen? Probably not. Timmy is certainly not there. But after whoever is there for him has left the courtroom, Drew will be escorted straight back to the county jail. What can he be thinking? An innocent man convicted of capital murder. The realization that twelve citizens believed him capable of brutally raping and murdering a young girl will stun Drew into shock. If it wasn’t for Tim, I’d be afraid he might try to kill himself.

”Penn, are you all right?“ asks my mother.

”Yes.“

”What happened?“

”Guilty. They found Drew guilty.“

”Oh, my God. Oh, no.“

Peggy Cage takes several steps around the room, then stops, shaking her head. ”I just don’t believe it. I watched that boy grow up. He ate tuna fish sandwiches in my house every day, every summer, for years. That boy was raised right. There’s no way on earth he hurt that poor girl like that. No way. This world has turned upside down.“

”I agree with you. But twelve other people don’t.“

”Fools,“ she says conclusively. ”Poor protoplasm.“

”It was a solid case, Mom. But it doesn’t matter now. Now Drew has to look toward the appeal.“

”Did he get the death penalty?“

”That’s a separate phase of the trial. They may do that today, or they might wait until tomorrow.“

Mom walks back to my bed, her eyes worried. ”You look bad, Penn. Worse than you did two minutes ago.“

”I don’t feel too good,“ I admit.

”I’m going to get your father to give you something. Something to help you sleep.“

”I don’t need anything, Mom.“

”You let me worry about that.“

Ten minutes later, my father appears, a syringe in his hand. If only he had what Blue used to bring me…

But soon enough, I’m gone again.

”Penn?“

I groan and force myself to open my eyes.

”Who is it?“ I croak, squinting against the light.

”Me.“

”Who?“

”Ellen. Ellen Elliott. My God…are you all right?“

”It’s not as bad as it looks.“

”It’s probably worse.“

I can see her now, her skin greenish under the fluorescent lights. Ellen doesn’t look too good herself. She’s lost weight over the past two weeks. A lot of weight. Her color job is fading, the Nordic blond hair now rooted with brown and gray.

”What time is it, Ellen? Did you hear the verdict?“

She nods. ”That was two hours ago, Penn.“

”Oh. Were you in court?“

”No. I couldn’t watch. I wanted to be with Timmy.“ Ellen tries to force a smile, but the effort goes in vain. ”It’s very difficult to go out in public now. People just stare and point like I’m some circus animal. They don’t spare Timmy, either. The kids at school…they’re awful.“

”That’s what happens in these trials. I don’t blame you, Ellen. I know Drew missed you being in there for him, though.“

She gives me a mistrustful glance. ”Do you really think so?“

”I know it, no matter what’s happened between you. Today could mean the end of Drew’s life. And he’s spent most of that life with you.“

She blinks several times, and then tears begin streaming down her cheeks. ”How could they do that to him?“ She raises a shaking hand to wipe her face. ”He’s given so much to this town, to so many of those people. How could they believe Drew could do that?“

”I thought you believed it, too.“

Ellen seems not to have heard me. ”What am I supposed to do now? I have a son, Penn. What do I tell Timmy?“

”Try to explain things, I guess. Tim’s old enough to understand some of it.“

She shakes her head violently. ”No. He’s younger than you think. Emotionally, I mean.“

Ellen sits beside my bed, then stands again immediately. I can’t get a handle on her emotional state. Maybe she can’t either. As I study her face, her lips smeared with too much lipstick, it hits me that she might be deep into drug withdrawal, just like me. With Drew in jail and Kate dead, her sources for Lorcet have dried up.

”Did you come just to visit me?“ I ask. ”Or is there something I can do for you?“

She sucks in her lips and knits her brow. Then she shakes her head several times, as though having a silent conversation with herself.

”Ellen?“

”I want you to know something, Penn. I don’t…don’t know who else to tell.“

”You can tell me. Whatever it is, I’m sure it’s all right.“

”No, it’s not.“ Her red eyes burn into mine. ”I killed Kate, Penn.“

It takes a moment for the words to register. It’s as though Ellen said, ”I just arrived from the planet Tralfamadore.“ But she didn’t say that. She said, I killed Kate. And she meant it.

”Tell me what you’re talking about, Ellen. Are you speaking figuratively?“

”I’m afraid not. No, I killed her.“ She holds up her hands. ”I killed her with these…my own two hands.“

For a moment I wonder if I’m hallucinating. But Dad is giving me sedatives, not LSD. Then it hits me: Ellen is lying. She’s trying to save Drew’s life.

”How did you kill her, Ellen?“

”I choked her.“

”I thought you were with your sister when Kate died.“

She shakes her head again.

”Your sister lied to protect you?“

”Yes. Don’t blame Jackie, though.“

My pulse is returning to normal. Overcome with guilt about her past behavior in the marriage, Ellen is trying to save Drew by sacrificing herself. ”Why don’t you tell me what happened? Just sit down in that chair and let it out.“

She looks at the chair with disdain. ”I don’t need to sit. It’s simple really. The day it happened, I was supposed to be shopping with Jackie. But before I met her, I stopped by Drew’s office. I wanted to show him some paint samples I’d gotten from Sherwin-Williams, for the living room.“

”Did Drew know you were coming?“

”No. Anyway, when I got to his office, I happened to walk past his car. The Volvo. I saw a piece of paper taped to his window, and something made me stop. Probably because it didn’t look like an advertisement. It looked like a note. Like, ’I backed into your car by accident, here’s my phone number‘-that kind of thing.“ Confusion enters Ellen’s face. ”But it wasn’t. It was a note from Kate.“

Fresh anxiety wakes in my gut. ”What did it say?“

”’I need to see you. Meet me at the creek.‘ “

”That’s it?“

”Yes.“

”Did she sign it?“

”No.“

”How did you know it was from Kate?“

Ellen’s eyes crinkle at the corners. ”I didn’t really. Not for sure. But Kate worked for us two summers. I’d seen her handwriting lots of times. So when I saw the note, I think…on some level I recognized it.“

”Keep going. Tell me sequentially.“

”I drove back home and walked down to the creek.“

”Did you leave the note on Drew’s car?“

”No. I took it with me.“

”Why?“

Ellen touches her forefinger to her chin and taps it softly. ”I don’t know.“

”Go on.“

”I took the path I used to take when I walked Henry.“ Henry was their black Lab, now dead. ”There’s only a couple down there anyway. I wasn’t sure I was headed to the right spot, and yet…it was like the handwriting. I had the same instinct. If Kate had written the note, then I was going the right way.“

”I understand.“

”I walked down to this place about halfway between our two neighborhoods.“ Ellen’s gaze drops, and she speaks like someone under hypnosis. ”She was sitting on a log when I saw her. She looked upset. When I was about thirty feet away, she looked up. She didn’t see me, because I was under the trees. Then I stepped into the sunlight. The look on her face…I can’t describe it.“

My fists are tight under the covers. ”Tell me.“

”She was afraid, of course. But there was something else.“

”What?“

”Relief. That the truth was finally out, I guess. She must have been holding in so much for so long.“

Ellen actually sounds sympathetic. But her feelings had to be much different on the day these events transpired. ”What happened then?“

”I called out her name. Like a question. ’Kate?‘ She stood up then, as though my words had brought her to life. God, she was a beautiful girl.“ Ellen suddenly fixes me with a furious glare. ”I hate Drew for what he did. Not to me-though it’s almost destroyed me-but toher. He had no right to alter Kate’s life like that. He disrupted the natural order of things. She had so much to offer, she was so fresh, and he stole that from her. Her whole future.“

”Please go on, Ellen. What happened next?“

”I showed her the note.“

I close my eyes briefly. ”And?“

”I asked her to explain it to me. I think at that point I was still hoping for some sort of innocent explanation. I know that sounds pathetic, but it’s true. Kate got very upset, but she didn’t even try to lie. She told me she was in love with Drew, and that he loved her back. It was a wife’s worst nightmare, really. I just…I couldn’t process it, you know? But when I finally got what she was trying to tell me, I saw red. I couldn’t believe she’d deceived me that way. I couldn’t believe that this child had made such a fool of me. How stupid I’d been! And she wasn’t talking about sex, oh, no. She was talking about love. She lost her embarrassment very quickly. She was almost crowing, really. Or I felt that she was.“

”What did you do, Ellen?“

”I told Kate she was a fool, that Drew was lost in a midlife crisis, that she was giving up her youth for an affair that would come to nothing. I told her Drew would never leave Tim. And-that’s when it happened.“

”What?“

”Kate got this serene smile on her face. She told me they were running away together.“ Ellen is staring at the wall as though she can still see Kate before her. ”I told her she was crazy. Nuts. But she just kept smiling. Then she said, ’I’m pregnant, Ellen. Drew and I are going to have a baby.‘ “ Ellen’s mouth hangs slack for a few moments, as though she’s still in shock. ”I don’t think I was functioning normally from that point on.“

”Go on.“

”I screamed at her. I called her a slut and a liar. She just laughed. That made me so furious. I couldn’t stand it! I got right up in her face and slapped her. Hard. She started screaming then. Cruel things…terrible things. She told me I could never make Drew happy, that he was miserable, that I was killing him. Then she told me why. And…she was right about a lot of it.“

”Ellen, you don’t have to go there. Just-“

”Let me finish. I have to tell it all. Kate knew all about my drug problem. That hurt me so badly, that he’d told her about that. She said she’d been getting me my Lorcet to keep Drew from losing his medical license. She acted like I was some kind of pathetic monster. And she wasright. But that only made me angrier. I wanted her to shut up, Penn. I had to make her shut up. I slapped her five or six times, yelling, ’Shut up! Shut up!‘ But she wouldn’t. She just laughed like a maniac. That’s when I grabbed her. I got my hands around her throat and squeezed as hard as I could. She knew then how angry I was. Her eyes almost bugged out of her head. She tried to push me off, but she didn’t have a chance. Kate could beat me at tennis, but that was touch, not strength.“ Ellen shakes her head slowly, remembering. ”She went out so quickly, I couldn’t believe it.“

I nod. ”It only takes seven seconds without direct blood flow to the brain to cause unconsciousness. Did she fall?“

”Into the water,“ Ellen says distantly. ”But her head hit something. A rusty wheel rim, half buried in the sand. The sound was awful, like hearing a kid’s ACL pop on the basketball court. The sound did something to me. It snapped me out of whatever trance I was in. I dragged Kate’s head and shoulders onto the bank and started trying to revive her. I couldn’t believe what I’d done. Thirty seconds before, I’d looked at her like a ruthless home wrecker. Now all I could see was the little girl who’d sold me lemonade on the corner when she was six. I was crying, hyperventilating…I was losing it, Penn.“

”Did you have a cell phone?“

”No. It was in my purse, back up at the house.“

Watching Ellen now-telling her story with almost the same stunned detachment that Drew exhibited when describing his discovery of Kate’s body-I realize that she’s telling the truth. Ellen did kill Kate. Only she did it without meaning to. With this realization comes a memory of Ellen lingering behind at Kate’s burial to offer her condolences to Jenny Townsend. My God, the torment she must have been going through. What the hell am I going to do now? I wonder.What will Quentin say about this? And what about Drew?

”What did you do then?“ I ask.

”I couldn’t wake her up. There was no respiration. I realized then that she was probably dead.“

”Why didn’t you report it, Ellen?“

Her eyes lock onto mine, silently begging for understanding.

”As terrible as it was, I just can’t imagine you not reporting what happened.“

”I know. I feel exactly the same way. It’s like it wasn’t me, Penn. Kate and Drew had turned me into a different person. But more than that…I just didn’t have time to think.“

”What do you mean?“

”While I was kneeling there, staring at her in disbelief, I heard something. At first I thought it was my mind playing tricks on me. But then I heard it for real-someone coming through the woods. And instinct just took over. I couldn’t sit there and wait to be caught. I can’t explain it. It was a primitive reaction-fight or flight.“

”Who was in the woods?“

”Well, Drew, I guess. I mean, I know that now. But in my mind he was still at his office. I’d taken the note off his car, so why would he show up there? Anyway, the louder the noise got, the more I panicked. I just couldn’t wait around to see. I’m not even sure why I was so afraid, except…God, I’ve been wondering if part of me-and I hate to admit this, Penn-if even then part of me was afraid it was Drew. You know? I was afraid that if Drew knew I’d killed Kate, he might kill me in a rage.“

”Has Drew ever been violent to you?“

”Never. Oh, he slapped me once, but I was in withdrawal. I was slugging him like some redneck bitch. He should have hit me with a hammer.“

The pitch of Ellen’s voice is rising, and her words are coming faster. Though she appears to be in control, I sense that she’s headed for some sort of breakdown.

”Where’s the note now? Kate’s note?“

”I burned it.“

Damn.”Listen to me, Ellen. I want you to be very calm, all right?“

”I am calm.“

”Now that you’ve told me all this, what do you want me to do?“

She looks at me as though I’ve asked the world’s stupidest question. ”I want you to tell the district attorney,“ she says in a brittle voice. ”I want you to get Drew out of jail. I mean, you have to tell the D.A., don’t you? Now that I’ve confessed?“

If only it were that simple.”Was there anyone in my room when you walked in?“

”Your mother was reading by the bed. I asked her to leave me alone with you.“

”All right. She’s probably still outside. I’m going to talk to her, and then I want you to wait outside with her. Go to the cafeteria and have some coffee.“

”That’s all right. Jackie’s here with me.“

”Tell Jackie to go home.“

Ellen looks confused again, but then she seems to get it. ”All right. I’ll tell her.“

”Don’t tell my mother anything you just told me. Okay?“

”What are you going to do, Penn?“

”Try to get Drew out of jail.“

Relief smooths the lines of Ellen’s face. ”Thank you. My God…it’s finally out. I couldn’t go one more minute carrying that around.“

I force a smile and pick up my bedside phone.

Quentin Avery is staring at me like he would an insane person. He has just listened to Ellen Elliot repeat her tale of murder-or manslaughter, in my book-and Ellen has just walked out to rejoin my mother in the hospital cafeteria.

”You believe that story?“ Quentin asks.

”Every word.“

He nods slowly. ”I do, too. But it doesn’t make a damn bit of difference.“

”What?“

”It doesn’t change anything.“

”What?“

Quentin runs both hands through his gray Afro, then looks down at me like a patient law professor. ”Drew Elliot was just convicted of capital murder. That woman is his wife. Nobody’s going to see this as anything but a last-ditch effort to save her husband from the death penalty.“

”By risking prison herself?“

”Hell, yes.“ Quentin snorts in frustration. ”I’ve seen this a half dozen times, at least. Mothers try it all the time. And you can bet Judge Minor has seen it, too.“

”But it’s the truth, Quentin.“

He looks at me with something like pity. ”Are you a lawyer or a philosopher? The person you’d have to take this story to is Shad Johnson, who at this moment is celebrating the biggest triumph of his career. Shad thinks this conviction’s going to propel him straight into the mayor’s office. Do you think he’s going to bend over backwards to overturn that conviction? Throw away Drew and capital murder to nail the wife for manslaughter? You think he’s even gonnalisten?

”We’ll go to Judge Minor, then.“

Quentin throws up his hands. ”You told me yourself that he’s on Shad’s side, and you were right. Judge Minor so blatantly favored the state that I have no doubt about the outcome of the appeal.“ Quentin lays a hand on my shoulder. ”Forget this craziness, Penn. Drew’s best bet is the appeals process.“

”He’s innocent, Quentin. And they’re about to enter the death phase of the trial. At the least, Ellen’s story could introduce enough doubt to keep the jury from voting for execution.“

Quentin looks down at a vase of wilted flowers. After about a minute, he looks up, his eyes filled with resolve. ”All my experience and instinct tell me that would be a mistake. With this D.A. and judge, it’s the wrong way to play it. We should save the impact of Ellen’s story for the appeal.“

”Fuck the appeal,“ I mutter. ”I want a new trial.“

Quentin’s eyes darken. ”I’m chief counsel, Penn.“

”This isn’t your call. It’s Drew’s.“

The old lawyer sighs angrily. ”If you really want to upset him like that, I’ll go down to the jail and put this to him.“

I shake my head. ”I’m going with you.“

”You can barely make it to the bathroom.“

I raise myself onto my hands and sit up. ”I’m going with you, Quentin.“

He picks up his coat and walks to the door.

”Go back to the hotel,“ I tell him. ”If I haven’t called you in a half hour, go talk to Drew alone. Fair enough?“

He nods once. I expect him to offer an olive branch-or fire a parting shot-before he goes, but he does neither.

After he’s gone, I pick up the plastic device that connects me to the nurses’ station and punch the Call button.

”Yes, Mr. Cage?“

”Is my father still in the hospital?“

”His light’s on.“

”Would you page him and ask him to come to my room?“

”Yes, sir.“

”Thank you.“

Ten minutes later, my father walks into my room and closes the door.

”What’s the matter?“ he asks.

”I need to get out of here, Dad. You’ve got to help me.“

”What’s going on? I heard they convicted Drew.“

”Ellen Elliott just confessed to Kate’s murder. Right here in this room.“

Dad’s mouth opens, but no sound emerges. Then he says, ”You believe her?“

”I do.“

”Jesus Christ.“

”You’ve got to get me out of this bed. I’ve got to see Drew face-to-face, and that means going to the jail. I want to overturn his conviction, but Quentin doesn’t see eye to eye with me on that. I’ve got to make sure Drew has a chance to save himself. If nothing changes between now and the sentencing phase, I’m afraid he’ll be sentenced to death. His son shouldn’t have to go through that, even if the decision is reversed six months from now.“

Dad sits on the side of my bed and surveys me from head to toe. ”You’re in bad shape, Penn.“

”How bad?“

He sighs deeply. ”Your heart’s sounding better, but the vasculitis is still a serious problem. If you start moving around, you’re going to have hydrostatic problems with your blood pressure. You could faint very easily.“

”It’s not my blood vessels that are keeping me in this bed. It’s the withdrawal. I get horrible muscle cramps when I move. If I stand for ten minutes, I fall down and twist into a ball of agony. That’s what I need help with.“

”The methadone’s not helping?“

”Not enough.“

Dad makes a clucking sound with his tongue.

”Drew saved my life,“ I say quietly. ”You remember.“

”I remember, all right.“ Dad taps his right fist into his open palm. ”There’s one thing I could try. It’s unethical as hell, but…Hang on, I’ll be back in a minute.“

”Where are you going?“

”Hospital pharmacy.“

He’s back in less than five minutes. In his left hand is a bottle of pills, in his right, a mortar and pestle.

”What’s that?“

”Oxycontin.“

”Will that help me?“

His eyes glint beneath raised brows. ”We’re about to find out.“

He takes out two yellow tablets, drops them into the china vessel, and crushes them to powder. ”Abusers crush the tablets because they’re time-release formulas,“ he says. ”Crushing them gives you the full dose almost instantaneously. It’s a lot more like mainlining heroin.“ He takes a white card from the flowers by my bed and carefully brushes three quarters of the powder into the glass of water on my bedside table.

”Drink it down.“

I swallow the bitter mixture.

”That ought to give you some relief.“

”How long will it last?“

”I don’t know. But don’t do that yourself. When the pain comes back, just take one pill by mouth.“

Dad dons his stethoscope and lays its cold bell against the skin beneath my left nipple, over the apex of my heart.

”What are you listening for?“ I ask. ”My heart slowing down?“

”No. With a narcotic dose like this, your respiration will slow down, but your heart may race to try to provide more oxygen. It’s called reflex tachycardia.“

The rush doesn’t come as quickly as the one from Blue’s syringe, but come it does. After five minutes, I feel the warmth spreading from beneath my heart. ”Jesus,“ I murmur. ”That’s it. The pain is gone. “ I flex my arms, then stretch gloriously in the bed. ”Talk about a miracle drug.“

”There’s a reason opium has hung around since Alexander the Great.“ After a while, Dad removes his stethoscope and says, ”Your heartbeat’s within normal limits.“

I take several deep breaths, then sit up and hang my feet over the edge of the bed. Dad takes hold of my arms and helps me stand.

”I feel like a new man. Literally.“

”Only while the drug lasts,“ he says. ”Remember that. You’re like Cinderella at the ball.“

”Right.“

”Your mother would boil me in oil if she knew about this.“

”Don’t tell her.“ I suddenly feel light-headed, but I mask my difficulty by sitting on the bed again.

”Are you going to the jail now?“ Dad asks.

”Yes.“

”I’ll drive you.“

”That’s all right. Kelly will take me.“

”Even better.“ Dad looks me from head to toe again. ”Let’s get some clothes on you.“


Chapter 36 | Turning Angel | Chapter 38