Authors: Jodi Thomas
THURSDAY, 8:30 A.M.
SHERIFF ALEXANDRA MCALLEN CLIPPED A CELL PHONE onto her belt and moved toward her cruiser. She’d rather arrest a drunk or pat down a drug offender than have to play the Grim Reaper. But there was no way she could pass off this duty to one of her deputies.
She had to drive out to Jeremiah Truman’s place and tell him his sister was dead. It was her job but a hell of a way to start the day.
As she backed out of the parking lot, it occurred to her that the old man might have a heart attack and die on the spot at the news. He had to be close to ninety by now; he’d been old all her life.
She swung around to the fire station. Maybe she could talk one of the firemen into going with her. It made more sense than going alone. Most of the men who volunteered at the station had more training in emergency care than she did; Hank had seen to that over the years.
Alex smiled. At least she wouldn’t have to worry about Hank being at the firehouse. He always worked his ranch during the week. If he did come into the station, it was usually before dawn to work out or at night for a meeting.
She told herself she could care less about his habits, but it was hard to miss his huge Dodge pickup when it was parked directly across from her office. She pulled into the empty spot marked as his and ran up the steps.
“Morning, Sheriff,” Willie Davis yelled from beside the fire truck’s engine.
Willie was the youngest volunteer fireman. He was rail thin and had hair that always seemed a month past needing a cut.
Willie had quit school two years ago, but Hank hadn’t let him start training until he was eighteen. Then, he couldn’t get enough of the station. If Hank had allowed it, Willie would have moved in permanently.
“You missed a spot.” She pointed at the dirty bumper.
He sloshed his bucket back a few steps and frowned. “You’re right.”
Alex didn’t step closer, fearing he’d accidentally turn the water hose toward her. “Anyone else around?” Willie would be little help on her mission. At the rate he was learning, he’d be in training for another ten years.
“Hank’s in the office. He had to drop his truck off for an oil change, so he said he’d catch up on paperwork till the work was done. You want me to go get him?”
She backed away. “No. Never mind. I don’t want to bother him.”
Hank stepped out of the office before she could get out of sight. “What do you need, Sheriff?” he asked as if they barely knew each other.
He kept staring at her with those dark eyes she swore were more black than brown. He had chameleon eyes, she decided, changing with his moods.
She knew he’d never believe she’d dropped by to visit, so she decided the truth would be the best way not to look like a fool. “I was just headed out to Truman’s place to give him some bad news, and I thought there might be one of your men around who’d come along in case the old man takes it hard.” She started backing out the door. “But I see everyone is busy.”
“I’ll go with you.” He grabbed his jacket and hat. “Willie, load up one of the medical aid kits in the back of the sheriff’s car.”
Alex wanted to argue that he didn’t need to come, but she wouldn’t risk a life just because she hated the thought of being with Hank. They were both professionals. They could ride a few miles out of town and back without yelling or hitting one another. After all, this was Thursday morning, not Saturday night.
Heading out to her car, she tried not to think about what happened at ten every Saturday night. Her life felt like some kind of reverse fairy tale. When the clock struck ten, her mind filled with the memory of her brother lying spread out on the center stripe of a two-lane road. He’d bled so much a river of red had run off the asphalt and into the dirt.
It had been three years ago. She’d just returned to Harmony that night, a week away from graduation and wanting to celebrate. Alex had been waiting in her brother’s office for him to get off work when the call came in that he was in trouble. She’d ridden out with one of the patrolmen, thinking her brother must have had a flat or dead battery.
But his patrol car was still running, its lights on bright, shining across his body. She’d watched from the shadows as Hank Matheson and two medics fought for her brother’s life . . . Hank had kept fighting even after the others stopped. Finally, he’d held his best friend, her brother, and cried as he said good-bye.
And she’d watched and said nothing . . . done nothing.
Silently, Hank now climbed into her cruiser. Alex pushed her memories aside as she threw the car into reverse before he closed the door.
They were almost out of town before he asked, “What’s the bad news for old Jeremiah Truman?”
“Beverly Truman died almost a week ago. It took a few days to find anyone to call who knew her next of kin, and then the morgue in Oklahoma City couldn’t get in touch with Jeremiah. Apparently he doesn’t have a phone. They overnighted him a letter three days ago, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the old guy never bothered to open it.”
“So they called you?”
“Right.” She glanced over at Hank, who was frowning as usual. “How do you think he’ll take the news that his last relative has died?”
“I don’t know. He’s had two heart attacks that I know of. My aunt checks on him now and then since we’re neighbors, but every time she does, she comes back mad and claiming the old guy doesn’t have a heart. Last time she took him her Christmas sponge cake, he declared it to be far more sponge than cake, and you know how Aunt Pat feels about her prizewinning cakes.” Hank grinned. “Aunt Pat says it’s hell being a good Methodist with old Truman for a neighbor.”
Alex smiled, finding it hard to imagine Miss Pat ever saying
. The old woman and her sister were in church every time the door was unlocked.
Hank was silent for a minute, then added, “You were right to come get me. The old man may take it hard. He’s not the last Truman, though. His great-niece is living with him.”
Alex turned off the main road. “What niece?”
“The one we—” Hank stopped. “Never mind, you wouldn’t remember. Edith said the girl is Beverly’s granddaughter. I don’t know where she came from, but she’s been out there since Saturday night.”
Alex kept her eyes on the road. “How old is she?”
“About fifteen or sixteen, I guess. She’d be in school right now.”
“I’ll go there next. She may want to come home.” Alex turned off Lone Oak Road and into the long tunnel of evergreens that led up to the house. The road was neglected, with steep drop-offs in places where pavement should have been, and trees blocked the sun. “Overgrown,” she said to herself as she looked at the tumbleweeds and trash caught in the low branches.
“Fire hazard,” Hank added. “One spark and these trees would burn all the way to the house. Half of them are more brown than green.”
They pulled to a stop. Hank followed her up to the front door.
Nobody answered when she knocked.
“His truck is here.” Hank pointed at an old pickup parked beside the house. “He’s probably in the orchard.”
“If he were around the house, that dog of his would be barking.” Alex looked around. “Last time the old canine chased me all the way back to my car. I don’t know if he has enough teeth left to bite anyone, but I didn’t want to take a chance.”
Alex walked back to her car and reached in. She honked twice and waited. “When I got the news,” she said quietly to Hank, who had joined her by the car, “I called Tyler Wright and woke him up. He said he’d take care of the details. The body’s already been embalmed so it could be shipped, but Tyler said he’d go get it. He said Miss Beverly would want it that way.”
From a distance, they heard the puttering sound of the cart Jeremiah drove around his place. The dog was riding shotgun, growling louder than the motor.
Alex stood straight, waiting, dreading her duty. After more than a hundred years, the three of them represented the original families of Harmony: the McAllens, the Mathesons, and the Trumans. How strange it seemed that two of the families had multiplied many times over but the Trumans were almost all gone.
Beverly had been Jeremiah’s only sister. She’d had two children, both already buried in the Harmony Cemetery. The son divorced without children. No one had ever heard of the daughter marrying, though she’d been gone from Harmony for twenty years before she died. She could have had ten husbands and a dozen kids from the time she left until Beverly brought her home to be buried. Apparently she’d had at least the one. Strange that Beverly never mentioned Reagan. Maybe she hadn’t approved of her daughter’s choices or known about children left abandoned along the way. Maybe her daughter wanted nothing to do with Beverly or the town she grew up in and had kept secrets. Most people leave out details they don’t like about their family but it seemed odd that Beverly Truman left out a granddaughter.
The cart came into view from between the trees. The old man leaned over the steering wheel, his body so thin she swore she could see the outline of his bones from a hundred yards away.
Sucking in a breath, she steeled herself for what she had to do. Hank’s hand pressed lightly against the middle of her back. “Breathe,” he said in a none-too-friendly order.
She pushed his hand away. “I hate doing this.”
“I know,” he whispered.
“What’re you two doing here?” Jeremiah yelled when he was ten feet away. “It’s too far away from Halloween for you to be coming dressed up like civil servants.”
Alex waited until he came to a stop. Just as he’d always been old to her, she’d probably always be a kid to him, she thought. “Good morning, Mr. Truman.”
He unfolded from the cart without offering his hand in greeting. “What do you need? I’m betting you didn’t come out to pass the time and since I don’t smell smoke, Matheson, it must be the sheriff making an official visit.”
“You’re right,” Hank said. “Why don’t we step into the shade on the porch?”
Jeremiah tugged off his hat and let stringy white hair blow in the breeze. “Bad news don’t taste better in the shade. I’ll take it in the sun, thanks anyway.”
Alex cleared her throat and did her job. Efficiently, cleanly, without emotion.
Jeremiah stood in front of them and took the news of the death of his sister with no change of expression. His hard face must have frozen into a frown years ago. Only a nod told Alex he’d even heard her words.
Hank had moved close enough to Truman to be able to catch the old man if he collapsed.
When Alex finished talking, Jeremiah looked out at the orchard and said nothing.
“Would you like me to drive you to town so you can talk to Tyler Wright later about the arrangements?” she finally asked.
“No,” he responded. “He’ll know more what Beverly would want than I would. Tell him to just do it and send me the bill.” He dropped his hat, but didn’t seem to notice.
Hank picked it up and tried to hand it to the old man, but Jeremiah just looked at his feet. Hank placed the hat in the back of the cart.
“What about your niece?” Alex wished the old guy would at least look at her. “Hank said she moved in with you last week. I could go get her from school so you wouldn’t be alone out here.”
“My niece?” Truman huffed as if he’d forgotten he ever had a niece.
“Mr. Truman,” Hank said politely. “You remember her. Reagan.”
Truman looked at Hank as if he’d just noticed the man was there. “Of course I remember Reagan. She’s been helping me for almost a week. Good worker, that one, even if she can down more eggs than a lumberjack.”
“I’ll go get her.” Alex glanced at Hank.
He seemed to read her mind. “I’ll stay here until you get back, Sheriff.”
Truman grumbled that he didn’t need a babysitter, but Alex ignored him. If Truman could forget he had a niece, he didn’t need to be left alone.
In her car, she circled back down the tree-lined road to the pavement and headed toward town.
Five minutes later, she walked into the high school office and asked to see Reagan Truman.
REAGAN WATCHED A STUDENT OFFICE AIDE DELIVER A NOTE to the worst history teacher in the world. The teacher paused in his dull lecture to read the note and then look directly at her.
She was in trouble. She knew it.
“Reagan Truman,” he snapped. “You’re wanted in the office.”
As she gathered up her books, Reagan heard the aide whisper to one of her friends in the front row, “By the sheriff.”
The urge to run bubbled in Reagan’s blood. Big trouble. She tried to think of something she’d done lately. She had been in school only four days . . . not long enough even to have skipped a class. She did steal that pint of whiskey she’d paid for her ride from Oklahoma City to Harmony with . . . but surely the law wouldn’t track her across the state line for that.
As she walked past Noah McAllen, he winked at her. “Maybe you won the lottery, Rea.”
She tried to smile. “I didn’t buy a ticket, Preacher.”
“Tell me about it at lunch,” he offered.
“If I’m still on the loose.”
He laughed. Apparently he thought she was kidding.
Just outside the door, the tall woman sheriff was waiting. She was too pretty to be a warden in a B movie, but she was all business just the same. Even if Reagan had thought of an escape plan, she wouldn’t have had time. Sheriff McAllen looked totally sober today and perfectly capable of arresting her.