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Chapter 7

Drews blackmailers lost no time making him pay for his indecisiveness. At 11:10 the next morning, I was helping my mother paint some bookshelves in her garage when my cell phone rang. The screen showed Drew as the caller. I walked out of the garage under the pretext of getting better cell reception, then answered by saying, Are you as sore as I am?

You were right, he said. Im fucked.

A current of anxiety shot through me, but experience kept my voice calm. Whats happened?

I just got off the phone with Shad Johnson. He got an anonymous call this morning.

Let me guess. The caller said you were having an affair with Kate Townsend and that you might have killed her.

Yep.

Did he give any details?

Johnson didnt say so.

What did Shad ask you during the call? Did he ask straight out if the accusation was true?

No. He basically said, Doc, I hate to have to call you about this, but I got this call with an accusation, and I wouldnt be doing my duty if I didnt ask you about it. He was pretty friendly, actually.

Shad Johnson is not your friend.

I understand that. I was just giving you his tone. He said he wanted to give me a chance to deny it as soon as possible, so that it doesnt become any kind of thing.

Thing? That was his word?

Yeah.

Its already a thing, Drew. You can bet your ass on that. Did you flat-out deny that you were seeing Kate?

No.

I sighed with relief.

I acted stunned, he said, which I was. I told him I was too shocked even to respond to such an outrageous accusation, that Kate was a close friend of our family, and that wed been shattered by her death. Shad said he understood. He said hed like to talk to me about it at his office. He said I might have information about Kate that could help them piece together a better picture of her than they have now.

What did you say to that?

What could I say? I told him I wanted to do everything I could to assist the investigation.

Okay. When is this meeting?

Lunch today. Fifty minutes from now.

Shit.Was it a short call? Long? What?

Short.

Thats because Shad got what he wanted. He thinks hes going to question you on his territory.

Hes not?

Not unless youre a complete moron-which, after last night, Im starting to believe.

Penn-

Damn it, why didnt you volunteer the information last night like I told you to?

You know why! I didnt want Tim and Ellen to have to deal with it if they didnt have to.

Well, now they have to.

What do I do, Penn?

You really need a lawyer now.

I told you that last night.

And I told you I wasnt your guy. Not for this.

The meetings in fifty minutes!

I bowed my head in resignation. The odds of finding a Natchez lawyer qualified to take that meeting were low, and the odds of adequately briefing one in time were nil. Where are you now?

At my office. Seeing patients.

Youre off at twelve?

Yeah.

You just had an emergency.

Drew was silent for a moment. Im skipping the meeting?

Im going in your place.

Is that the best thing?

We need to get some idea of what Shad is thinking. Id also like to know what the autopsy turned up. Shad probably has the pathologists report in hand by now.

I dont want to think about that. This is Kate were talking about.

Youd better get used to it.Sorry. Nowwe have a tricky little problem to deal with. Think before you answer me, okay?

Okay.

The first thing Shad is going to ask me is where you were when Kate was murdered. He wont be obvious about it, but hell ask. And I happen to know you were at the murder scene. Where did you go after you left the creek?

Home.

I was silent long enough for Drew to realize that if he was lying, he had better come clean then or stick with his story. Was Ellen there?

No. She was at her sisters place.

What about Tim?

The maid had taken him to his music lesson.

So nobody can verify that you were home?

I answered some e-mails soon after I got there. Couldnt we use those?

Maybe. But depending on how narrow a window theyve established as time of death, the e-mails probably wont put you in the safety zone.

Tim got home around five, and Ellen about six.

Okay. Its also possible that someone saw your car parked in that vacant lot in Pinehaven. For that reason, and for others I cant predict now, I may decide I need to tell Shad the truth. Everything. Today. The affair, the blackmail, everything.

Drew said nothing.

In fact, the more I think about it, the more I think coming clean may still be the best option we have. Even lying by omission digs a hole they can bury you in later.

A woman on Drews end of the line called out a blood pressure reading. Drew lowered his voice. Youre my lawyer, Penn. I trust your instincts. Say whatever you think you need to. Im innocent-of murder, anyway-and Im not going to hide anything except to protect my son.

What could I say to that? Ill call you when the meetings over. Keep your cell phone wired to your hip, and dont answer any calls until you hear from me. Dont talk to anybody.

I wont.

I hung up and turned back to the garage. My mother was watching me with a quizzical look on her face. In that moment I realized just how far my life had already slid off its accustomed track. After dropping Annie at school this morning, I drove down to the football field and searched it for my lost pistol. Failing to find it, I went up to the high school and told Coach Wade Anders to keep an eye out for it. Anders is the athletic director of St. Stephens, and he promised to have his assistants search the bowl again before any kids were allowed into it. He also asked if I knew anything about the switch box for the stadium lights being shot up. I told him I didnt, but that Id send someone to install a new box as soon as possible. He looked at me in silence for a little while, then nodded as though we shared a special understanding. Like everybody, Anders was building up capital where he could.

The lost gun problem didnt end there. The land that Drew and I chased the blackmailer over is owned by a group of investors who use it as a hunting camp. I called the doctor who heads the group to tell him I might have lost a pistol on their land, and to ask his members to keep an eye out for it. When he asked what I was doing on their land, I made up a story about a troublesome armadillo rooting up the St. Stephens football field-an armadillo I chased onto their land in my single-minded quest to kill it. Remarkably, he laughed as though he understood completely.

Mom, Im sorry, I said, but I need to go take care of something.

Is everything all right? she asked, her eyes making it clear that she knew better.

Yes.

Its not Annie, is it?

No, no.

Are you and Caitlin all right?

Were fine, Mom. This is just some legal business.

She went back to painting the shelves with long, smooth strokes of her brush. At sixty-eight, she works with the strength and flexibility of someone twenty years her junior. Being raised in the country does that for some people.

When I arrived at the house this morning, Mom held up the newspaper and asked me about Kates death. Thankfully, Caitlins staff had reported only the known facts, which left my mother as curious as the rest of the town. And like most of the town, Mom believes Drew Elliott hung the moon. She often says that Drew is the only young doctor who practices medicine with the conscientiousness of my father. What would she say if she knew that he was sleeping with Kate Townsend until the day she died?

Be careful, Mom called as I walked to my car.

I will, I called, thinking that was good advice to follow when dealing with Shadrach Johnson.



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