Authors: Jeanette Baker
Tags: #Novel, #Fiction, #Contemporary Romance, #Adult, #Sex, #Law Enforcement, #Man Made Disaster, #Land Pollution, #Water Pollution, #Radioactivity Pollution, #Detective Mystery, #Rural, #Small Town, #Suburban, #Urban, #Wilderness, #Louisiana, #Maryland, #Christianity-Catholicism, #Science-Marine Biology, #Social Sciences-Geography, #Fishing-Fresh Water, #Fishing-Salt Water, #Boat Transportation, #2000-2010, #1960-1969
“Are you accusing me of something, Libba Jane?”
“That's all? No explanation.”
“Just say yes or no, Russ. It doesn't require anything beyond that. If you say yes, I'll believe you. If it's no, we can leave it at that.”
“Negotiating terms is a hell of a way to begin a relationship.”
“We're not beginning a relationship. We already have one, or we did,” she amended. “We're discussing whether you're willing to be sexually faithful. This is a small town. We both have children. It can't be any other way for me.”
“There won't be anyone else. If there was, I wouldn't be here with you.”
“When you don't want me anymore or if you decide you want someone else, you have to tell me before it happens. I don't want to be made a fool of.”
His voice gentled. “What happened to you, Libba?”
“I grew up. Fairy tales are for children.”
“You didn't just grow up, honey. You've been emotionally beaten and you have the scars to prove it.”
Libby didn't answer.
“Do you want to tell me about it, tomorrow, over dinner? I'll take you out for the best crab cakes on either side of the bay. And then we'll talk about telling our girls about us.”
She wanted to, more than anything, if only for the look on his face when she told him that he was the one who'd done the beating. But she wouldn't. The damage had already been done and he couldn't take it back. “Dinner sounds great,” she said, “but let's keep the conversation light.”
“I'll pick you up at seven.”
It was while driving back to her office that Libby had her first serious doubts, and every one of them had Chloe's name on it. She sighed, summoning her stiffest resolve. Thirty-seven was too young to throw in the towel on the rest of her life. Chloe would have to adjust.
ole Delacourte leaned back in his well-padded chair and fingered his notes. The courtroom in Salisbury where he'd practiced for more than three decades had changed enormously. Court reporters had replaced stenographers, typewriters had given way to computers, and an efficient air conditioner kept the rooms at a constant and comfortable sixty-eight degrees. A different type of attorney now walked the halls. She was usually female or black or both. Jurors lounged about in sandals and T-shirts, carrying laptops and cellular phones, and smoking was no longer allowed in the main building.
There was no doubt about it. Things had changed and not necessarily for the better. Cole missed the old days. There had been a grandeur to the bench that he could no longer find. It had disappeared along with the mildew when the new air conditioner was installed. He missed waking the heat-stunned jury with an eloquent opening. He missed the deference of his secretary and the way she would knock softly on his door every hour to ask if he would like his coffee or iced tea freshened. He missed the hum of portable fans set up in the four corners of the courtroom. He missed the grateful looks on the faces of the court when he asked for an early dismissal on account of the weather.
He should have retired. Others his age had. There were few lawyers in Maryland or Virginia who worked beyond the age of sixty-five. If he'd listened to Nola Ruth he wouldn't be sitting here now watching a mere child make her case against a woman older than he was who'd acted on her conscience and done society a favor.
The bailiff addressed the courtroom. “Please rise. Court is in session. Judge Quentin Wentworth presiding.”
Cole sighed, stood and helped Drusilla to her feet.
“What have you to say for yourself, Mrs. Washington?” the judge asked.
“Nuthin' much, suh. I ain' to blame for that chile's mizry.”
“What about the bruises on the infant's neck?”
“I don' know nuthin' 'bout those.”
The judge frowned. “Are the parents here?”
Cole stood. “Yes, Your Honor.” He acknowledged a young black couple in the last row. The woman looked tired and confused. She clung tightly to her husband's hand.
“Are they pressing charges?”
“No, Your Honor,” Cole assured him. “They have the utmost respect for Ms. Washington's midwifery, as does Dr. Balieu.” He looked across the aisle at the assistant district attorney. “He is ready to be called as a witness.”
“That won't be necessary.” The mention of a respected friend and family doctor reassured the judge as Cole knew it would. Martin Balieu would never countenance murder, no matter what the circumstances.
The judge stood. “I'll read the transcripts in my office and render my decision. Court dismissed until tomorrow. Cole, if I could have a moment with you in my chambers.”
Cole frowned. Now what? He rubbed the back of his neck and watched the courtroom empty. Picking up the envelope that contained his copy of the newly submitted pictorial evidence and several sworn statements, he said goodbye to Drusilla and her granddaughter, assuring them he would call later in the day. Then he walked back through the courtroom and down the hall into Judge Quentin Wentworth's chambers. He smiled at the secretary. “Mornin', Norma Rae.”
“Good morning, Cole.” She gestured toward the door. “Go right in. He's expecting you. I'll bring y'all some iced tea in a minute.”
Immediately, Cole felt better. Quentin was old school. He wouldn't suffer a bright new administrative assistant who refused to bring him coffee.
Wentworth, a red-faced man vain enough to part his hair on the side of his head and comb it over his balding dome, sat behind his desk. The shades were drawn and a fan hummed from the far corner. “C'mon in, Cole, and sit down.” He pulled out a bottle of Jack Daniel's. “Care for a drink?”
Cole sat down and stretched his legs. “I wouldn't say no.”
“You like it neat, if I remember.”
“Don't worry about the Washington case,” Wentworth said. He poured two glasses half full and set one in front of Cole. “I'm declaring the charges dropped.”
Cole's eyebrows rose. “Why?”
“I would have thought it was obvious.”
“Not to me.”
ââIt's a high-profile case and not the kind we need to make the papers.”
“I don't understand.”
“How many anglers do you think we'll see if something like this gets out? How many small businesses will be ruined? Who'll want to buy fruit and vegetables from our farms and orchards?”
“What has that got to do with Drusilla Washington murdering a deformed baby?”
“C'mon, Cole. No one could tell where the deformities ended and the strangling began. Doc Balieu hasn't seen anything like it in all his years of practice. That's good enough for me.”
Cole thought of Libba. “Maybe we need the exposure.”
“Now I'm the one who doesn't understand.”
“Maybe we should make this so big every environmental expert and every newspaper in the States sends someone here. For God's sake, Quentin, we live here. Our children and grandchildren live here. What if we're being poisoned?”
“Is it? You put everything together, same as I did.”
“Now, Cole, this isn't one of your human rights violation cases. This is too damn dangerous for you to be terrifying people when it could amount to nothing.”
“Wouldn't you rather be sure?”
“I am sure, Cole.”
Cole Delacourte finished his drink and stood. “Thanks for the refreshment, Quentin. I'll be in touch.”
“I'm dropping the case, Cole.”
Cole nodded. “Mrs. Washington and her granddaughter will be relieved. I'll tell them right away.”
He left the courtroom and walked down the tree-lined street to a renovated old brick building set back beneath shady poplars. He greeted the woman at the front desk and proceeded directly to his office. He sat down in his chair and sighed. In the old days, before Lily retired, there would have been ham and cheese on rye and a fresh cup of coffee on his desk. His new secretary was a different breed entirely. She'd frozen him silent the first time he'd asked her to order up a sandwich. That wasn't her job, she'd informed him. Maybe it wasn't. The funny thing was, more often than not, he'd ordered sandwiches for Lily when she stayed late. Poured her coffee, too. Yes, times had changed.
Settling back into his chair, he pulled out the pictures, trying to focus. He frowned, searched his pockets for his reading glasses and put them on.
The film was color, thirty-five millimeter, newly developed by the district attorney's office and sent over for his perusal. It was the first time he'd seen the pictures. Cole's eyes widened. Good God! He blinked, stared and blinked again. Just before his face paled and his stomach began to twist, there was the strangest feeling in his chest. Could this really be a human child? Had the attractive, dark-skinned woman sitting in the back of his courtyard actually given birth to this... this creature? Bile rose in his throat. He swallowed, reached for his water glass, only to find it empty. Hastily pushing back his chair he ran for the bathroom and heaved up the remains of his stomach. Shaking, he turned on the faucet and splashed cold water over his forehead and cheeks. Weakness washed over him. His legs buckled. He sat down on the toilet seat and dried his face.
Cole Delacourte had seen nearly every abomination there was to see in his three decades serving the public, but this one was different. This one involved a child whose mother had given birth less than two miles from his own front door. Terrifying thoughts flickered through his mind: the red globular masses on the baby's chest and abdomen, the high incidence of leukemia, the mutated crabs Libba Jane was so worried about. It could be coincidental, of course. Quentin could be right. There was no telling where a family of sharecroppers had been or whether the crabs were directly affected by something in the local waters. It could just as likely have been pesticides dumped into the bay much farther north where the farmers polluted the Susquehanna.
Chloe looked around the crowded lunchroom at the sea of unfamiliar faces hunched over trays at the long, banquet-style tables. It wasn't much different than it was at home, she thought, watching the cliques gather and settle in, trade jibes, conversation and gossip as they wolfed down whatever they could in the thirty minutes allotted for the noon break. Skylar Taft and her group of girls were in the center of the action. Already acknowledged as queen of the in-crowd, she held court at one of the noisier tables.
Tess caught Chloe's eye and beckoned to her. Chloe pretended not to see her. While she wouldn't have minded trading impressions of the morning with Tess, she couldn't stomach Skylar for lunch. She glanced around the room, her eyes lingering occasionally on a straight, dark-haired head, and then moving on when she saw that it wasn't Bailey. Where was he? He'd told her he might not make the first day, but she hadn't believed him. No one missed the first day of school.
Someone jostled her from behind. Tess's exasperated voice sounded above the din in the lunchroom. “I've been waving to you for five minutes. Didn't you see me?”
“I was looking for Bailey.”
“Bailey Jones?” Tess drew back in horror. “Oh, Chloe,” she wailed, “please don't.”
“Bailey isn't a good person for you to be around, especially when no one knows you yet.”
“I like him.”
Tess's eyes widened.
“Not that way,” Chloe assured her. “He's a friend. I wonder why he's missing the first day.”
“Bailey comes and goes as he pleases,” Tess explained. “You don't have to worry about him. He can take care of himself. Besides, he won't thank you for feeling sorry for him. Bailey Jones can be the meanest thing when he wants to be.” She pronounced it
“I can't believe you like him.” Her voice turned conciliatory. “C'mon, Chloe. I saved you a seat at Skylar's table. When people see you there, it won't matter who you're friends with. It'll be okay. You'll see.”
Chloe relented and followed Tess, who picked her way around chairs and over backpacks through the crowded room to where Skylar sat with her friends. “Why is it
table?” she asked.
Tess shrugged impatiently. “Why are you always asking
Some things just are. It's easier that way.” She pasted a bright artificial smile on her face. “Hi, y'all. Look who I brought.”
Skylar moved over. “Where have you been all morning?” she asked Chloe. “We looked for you at snack.”
“I was working on my locker combination,” replied Chloe. She was very aware of the glances in her direction. They were curious, considering glances, neither hostile nor friendly.
“Who's your partner?”
Skylar nodded. “Marsha's all right. She's a swimmer so you won't see much of her.”
Chloe wasn't hungry. She looked at the clock. Three more hours before she could go home. It would be nine o'clock in the morning in California. She would be checking over her schedule with Sharon Simms and Casey Reilly, to see if they shared any classes. They would be planning whose house to go to after school and which clubs they would join. Chloe would be signing up for auditions for the fall play.
Her vision blurred. Horrified, she blinked back tears. She would not cry in front of Skylar Taft. They could pull out her fingernails and she wouldn't give them the satisfaction of a single tear.
Suddenly, for an instant, the room went silent. A single titter broke the stillness and then the hum of conversation continued. Confused, Chloe looked around. Her glance settled on the thin, ragged figure sauntering defiantly toward the cafeteria line.
Their eyes met and held. He looked terrible. Chloe's heart sank. She smiled tentatively and waved, but he turned away. She tried to stand, but Tess's hand pressed down hard on her knee.
“Don't do it, Chloe,” she whispered. “He doesn't want you to say anything.”
“I don't care,” muttered Chloe, furious at both Tess and Bailey.
Tess looked her full in the face, her brown eyes dark with worry. “If everyone starts talking about you and saying awful things, you'll care.”
“He's my friend.”
“That's why he ignored you. Think about it,” Tess pleaded.
Chloe frowned. “You're not just saying this, are you? You're really worried about me.”
Tess smiled shyly. “I like you. You're funny and interesting. I don't want you to hate it here. Bailey Jones isn't your only friend, Chloe.”
“Wow,” Chloe said, completely disarmed. “Thanks.”
Tess sighed and bit into her apple. “Just don't do anything stupid.”
Chloe looked at the clock again. Somehow, she would find Bailey and make him talk to her.
Later that afternoon, Cole found Libby and Chloe in the kitchen. “What a nice surprise,” he said, kissing his daughter's cheek. “You haven't been home early all week.”
Libby licked ice cream off the back of her spoon. “I wanted to see how Chloe's day went.”
Cole poured himself a glass of iced tea and sat down at the table. “How did it go, Chloe?”
“Better than I expected,” Chloe replied. “The teachers are okay and the kids are nice enough.” She stood up to rinse her plate and stack it in the dishwasher. “I already have homework, so I guess I'll go upstairs and start on it.”
Cole watched her leave. “She's a winner, Libba Jane. I'm sure you know that.”
“Thanks, Daddy.” Libby reached for a glass and held it under the faucet. “I really should be getting back. I have that meeting with the watermen tonight. I only stopped in for a minute to check on Chloe.” She lifted the glass to her lips.