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
They came together on the warm, salty sand of Assateague Island, hands clinging, hearts pounding, blood running, in as desperate and fierce and sensual a mating as that of the Spanish stallions credited with populating the island.
When he could breathe normally again, Russ opened his eyes. Libba was asleep. Her hair, a mess of sand and salt, cushioned her head. Wine-dark lashes rested against her cheeks and her skin was gold from a combination of sun and Beauchamp genes. Russ ran his finger over the slope of her shoulder. She had beautiful skin, clear and poreless, warm and dark, skin made to absorb the rays of the merciless Chesapeake sun.
He leaned over and pressed his lips to hers. He felt her response. Slowly her eyes opened. When he took his mouth away, she smiled.
“Now I am hungry,” she said, “for food. But first I want to swim.” She stood, a fluid, graceful motion of loose sand and naked, golden skin. “Are you coming?”
“In a minute. You go first.”
“Too tired?” she teased him, lifting her arm to flip her hair over her shoulder.
“Not exactly,” he hedged, his eyes on the shape of her breasts.
She laughed and turned her back to walk toward the water.
Russ looked down at his lap. Fatigue was hardly his problem. He wondered if she realized that she hadn't a stitch on, and then he wondered why he was embarrassed to have her see that he wanted her all over again.
After he regained sufficient control to join her in the water, the day passed too quickly. They swam to the sandbar, scooped up clams and ate them raw. Hiking around the half mile loop that made up the bird sanctuary, they spotted Canada geese, blue herons and terns lining the inlet. In the distance, nearly out of sight, the famous Chincoteague ponies, their stomachs rounded from marsh grass, grazed in the shadows.
Sated with sun and sand and food, Libby lay beside Russ, whose eyes were closed. She'd nearly drifted off to sleep when he spoke.
“You never told me when you changed direction.”
“How do you mean?”
“You wanted to be an actress. You're a long way from that.”
She opened one eye. “It started with a volunteer assignment on Catalina Island. Have you ever heard of it?”
“It's one of the Channels, isn't it?”
“Yes. Chloe went to camp and I earned a few units. We were sent there because a necropsy on a bald eagle revealed that the bird was riddled with DDT, two hundred and twelve parts per million in its brain, to be specific. That's a larger amount than any found in the wild for thirty years. After that, I was hooked. It was so much more important than anything else.”
Russ frowned. “DDT was banned twenty-five years ago. No one uses it.”
“That's the point. An investigation showed that the entire food chain around the islands, from benthic worms and kelp bass to gulls, falcons and eagles are still lethally contaminated.”
“How can that be?”
“Apparently, from 1947 to 1971, Barnaby Chemical Corporation flushed DDT-contaminated waste into Los Angeles County sewers that empty into the ocean. The deposit covers thirty miles of coastal shelf. Everyone thought it would go away in time. But it didn't. We know now that ecological problems will occur for another century because DDT is slowly leaking to the surface from the ocean floor. Most of the animals are surviving, but because of the poison accumulated in their bodies, their offspring die. None of the fifty bald eagles introduced to Catalina Island since 1980 have been able to reproduce. Their eggs contain ten times more DDT than the amount that causes fatal shell thinning. We're talking about complete reproductive failure.”
A strange tingling began at the base of his spine.
“Because DDT is soluble in fat, it doesn't break down or become diluted. It binds to silt on the ocean floor and converts to a chemical that is equally toxic. It clings to bottom sediment where shrimp, worms and fish burrow down, stir it up and store it in their fat.” Her face was very close, very intense. “This is the terrifying part. Each step up the food chain, the concentration in an animal's fat roughly doubles. Two parts per million in a worm magnifies to four parts in a fish that eats the worm and eight parts in a bird that eats the fish. At the top of the food chain, predators absorb the biggest doses, predators like eagles and falcons and seals.”
“And people,” Russ said grimly. “People who eat fish caught in Pacific waters.”
Libby nodded. “People who eat contaminated fish caught in areas around San Pedro face an elevated cancer risk, a sharply elevated risk.”
“Is that what's happening here?” he asked.
She shook her head.
“I don't think so. I'm not sure what is happening here, only something's not adding up. The reports from the lab don't indicate enough toxins in the water to be dangerous at all, and yet there's a fishing alert, crabs have mutated and people are dying of leukemia. It doesn't make sense, and Cliff Jackson is deliberately stonewalling me. I don't know what to do.”
Russ sat up. “Is the Barnaby company being prosecuted?”
“There was a lawsuit pending.”
“A judge threw it out. He said the statute of limitations had passed.”
Libby nodded. “Exactly.”
“Whoever is contaminating the bay is in trouble. It won't be easy to stop them. It might even be dangerous.”
“I've thought of that, but I can't start a riot based on speculation. I need test results and so far I don't have them.”
“When you asked for help at the meeting, you didn't mention that.”
She stared straight ahead. “No.”
“Why not? People's lives could be at risk.”
She wiped the sand off her hands, her thighs and her knees, anything to keep from looking at him. Even now, after all this time, it was painful to know he disapproved of something she'd done. “I don't think you understand the gravity of the situation,” she began slowly. “The food chain is compromised. Women are giving birth to babies with horrible deformities.” She lifted her eyes to his face. “Sterility and cancer are on the rise. People are dying.
of our lives are at risk. Just because no one is pointing a shotgun doesn't mean the end result isn't the same. Do you really think those men don't know they need to be careful?”
She was right. It was a hell of a situation. “How difficult is it to find out what's going on here?”
“About as difficult as finding a needle in a haystack.”
“In other words, it's not gonna happen.”
“It could,” Libby hedged, “if we're lucky or if someone responsible is honest and puts two and two together.”
“It doesn't sound good.”
She shook her head.
“What are our options?”
She pulled a sandwich from the basket, unwrapped it and handed it to him. Then she took one for herself. “If Cliff won't push to make this a red flag with the EPA, I'm going over his head. But I can't continue here indefinitely and allow my daughter to be poisoned.”
“Does that mean you'll leave the rest of us to fend for ourselves?”
“Of course not,” she said, stung that he would suggest such a thing. “I'm not giving up. The situation here needs to be exposed. I'm going to make a full report and recommendation, but as a newly hired staff member I don't have a lot of credibility. Our current administration doesn't consider environmental concerns a priority.”
“What about the press?”
“That's a possibility. People should be informed. If this becomes public enough we'll find the source of contamination. But that doesn't mean it's over. An ecosystem takes time to reestablish itself and it isn't cheap. Valdez, Alaska, is still recovering after twelve years. Once the people of this area have the facts, they're on their own. Decisions about relocating or taking extra precautions are individual matters.”
“So, you're leaving.”
She sighed. “I didn't say that for sure, Russ. It's a possibility, but only if Cliff stonewalls me.”
He bit into his sandwich. “Are you scared?”
He reached for her hand. “Be terrified with me.”
She swallowed. “All right.”
hloe stood by the snack machine and pretended to look at the various choices sitting isolated in their refrigerated cubicles. She didn't feel like eating. She would probably never feel like eating again. There were two kinds of people, she decided. One kind ate more when they were nervous and the other couldn't eat at all. She was the other kind. Her stomach was twisted into tight, angry knots and the thought of anything sliding down her throat brought on an immediate gagging reflex.
Where was Bailey? She had seen his truck in the parking lot, but there was no sign of him. It was lunchtime. The benches under the trees were filling up with brown-baggers and the line for the cafeteria was lengthening by the minute.
“Hi, Chloe.” Tess Hennessey had materialized beside her. “Are you buying today?”
Chloe shook her head. “I'm not hungry.”
Tess shifted her books into her other arm and nodded toward the cafeteria. “Sit with us, anyway.”
Slowly, keeping her eye out for Bailey, Chloe followed Tess into the air-conditioned cafeteria. She slid onto the bench, leaving room for Tess to follow.
As usual, Skylar Taft was holding court. “Hey, Chloe. We missed you this morning.”
“I came late,” Chloe mumbled.
“I was tired. My mom let me sleep.”
Skylar leaned forward, her shiny dark hair swinging against her cheeks. “Is it true?”
“That you were with Bailey Jones in his trailer just minutes after he killed his mother?”
Chloe reared back. Her cheeks were the color of bleached bone. She opened her mouth to speak, but the words wouldn't come.
Tess spoke for her. “Skylar Taft. What an awful thing to say.”
Skylar shrugged. “All I did was ask if Chloe was there.”
All eyes were on Chloe. She cleared her throat. “Bailey didn't kill his mother,” she said clearly. “Lizzie Jones was sick.”
“My dad said he smothered her. He got word of it from the sheriff.”
“Stop it, Skylar. You know those are only rumors.” Under the table, Tess squeezed Chloe's hand.
“Chloe can tell me to stop,” said Skylar. “She doesn't need you to speak for her.”
Suddenly Chloe was angry. “Stop asking stupid questions, Skylar. I don't know what you're talking about.”
Suddenly the room went quiet. Chloe closed her eyes and prayed for the impossible. Then, slowly, like a film in slow motion, she turned toward the door. Bailey Jones, in a frayed shirt and faded jeans, stood at the entrance. For a fraction of a second, he hesitated and then walked toward the serving line. Chloe's heart plummeted.
Why had he come?
All eyes followed Bailey as he picked up a tray and took his turn through the line. The hush was absolute. Chloe could hear the clock ticking on the wall. Coins in the register clinked as the cashier made change. Time slowed. The hole in her stomach burned. Her eyes blurred. She wished herself a million miles away. Her mother was right. Why hadn't she stayed home today?
Suddenly, a whistle pierced the quiet. Then a voice called out, “How's your mama, Bailey?”
Chloe cringed. She looked at Bailey. The line of his jaw was tight and hard and his skin was stained a dark, passionate red. He walked with his tray to a table half filled with students and sat down. Within seconds, the table was quickly and silently evacuated. Bailey picked up his fork and began to eat.
A serious drumming began in Chloe's ears. She picked up her books.
Tess's hand snaked out and clutched her arm. “Don't, Chloe,” she whispered.
Chloe pulled her arm away, and under the regard of a roomful of hostile eyes, walked across the room to sit beside Bailey.
He didn't look up.
She pitched her voice at a slightly lower-than-normal level. “How are you?”
“How do you think?”
Voices around them had started up again.
“Have you heard what they're saying?” she asked.
“What are you going to do?”
Bailey looked at her. “Nothing I can do.”
Chloe swallowed. “Bailey, Iâ”
“Go away, Chloe. It's only gonna get worse for you.”
“Why did you come here?” she asked. “You had to know what would happen.”
He looked at her and the rage in his black eyes was a palpable thing. She swallowed and forced herself to keep eye contact.
“I couldn't stay there,” he said, his voice so low she barely heard him. “I had to do something normal, be where people are.”
She didn't hear him. Her eyes were fixed on the door. Two men in police uniforms stood at the entrance. They'd taken up positions at the door, steely-eyed, hands on their belts. One stayed behind. The other walked deliberately toward Bailey.
Chloe struggled for air.
her mind screamed. She said nothing.
The policeman stopped behind Bailey. “Stand up, kid,” he said.
Bailey stood and started to turn. He was pushed forward. His arms were pulled back and cuffs slapped on his wrists.
“Bailey Jones, you're under arrest,” the man began. “You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say may be held against you in a court of law.”
Bailey said nothing.
Tears streaked down Chloe's cheeks. “No,” she said out loud. “No.”
“Go home, Chloe,” Bailey muttered. “Go home now.”
Unable to muster enough strength to stand, she buried her head in her arms. She did not want to watch Bailey being taken away in handcuffs.
Minutes passed. She felt a small hand on her shoulder.
“It'll be all right, Chloe,” Tess said. “C'mon. Let's go.”
“I don't think I can,” Chloe mumbled into the crook of her arm.
Tess's breath was warm against her ear. “Don't cry. Just stand up and walk out of here with me now.”
Somehow, Chloe managed to collect her belongings. Keeping her eyes on Tess's back, she followed her out of the building, across the cool, shaded grass and out to the sidewalk leading into town. Two blocks later, Tess was still walking.
Chloe caught up with her. “Where are we going?”
“I don't know,” Tess confessed. “Maybe my dad is in his office.”
“I don't think so,” Chloe said. “He took my mom to the beach on some island.”
Tess slowed her pace. “Oh.”
“I don't care anymore,” Chloe said. “Not after everything else. Do you?”
“You mean about them being together?” Tess shook her head. “It doesn't bother me. I don't remember my parents being married and I like your mom. It's just that my mom's insane. It's going to bother her and she'll figure out a way to make everything worse.” She waved her hand. “Never mind. That isn't important now. We have to figure out what to do.”
“Do you realize that we're ditching school?”
Tess nodded. “It was that or be emotionally stoned to death.”
Chloe stared at her, pleasantly surprised. Tess Hennessey had insights she never would have imagined. It suddenly occurred to her that the mousy, brown-eyed girl she'd dismissed as shallow and boring had a spine of steel. Suddenly she was ashamed. “Thanks, Tess. I really appreciate your standing up for me the way you did.”
“You're welcome.” Shock had loosened Tess's reticent tongue. “I didn't only do it for you. I did it for Bailey, too. They persecute him for no reason. I can't stand Skylar Taft. I can't imagine why I have anything to do with her, except that there wasn't anyone else until you came along. She controls everybody.”
“Where are we going?” Chloe asked.
“I don't know,” Tess confessed. “We can't go to my house. My mom will be furious.”
“Mine would understand, I think,” said Chloe, “but she's not home.”
“What about your grandparents?”
Chloe shook her head “My grandma's not doing very well and my granddad has enough on his plate right now.” Suddenly she brightened. “I know. We'll go to Verna Lee's.”
Tess frowned. “Why would we go there?”
“She's a friend of Bailey's and she's my friend, too. She'll let us hang out there for a while.”
Tess stopped and turned to Chloe. “We're going to have to tell them, you know. It's just that I'd rather wait for my dad. He's more rational.”
Chloe nodded. “My mom isn't always rational, but we didn't do anything wrong.”
“We left school in the middle of the day without permission,” Tess reminded her. “My mom is going to flip out and my grandpa will be even worse.”
“Why did you do it?”
Tess shrugged. “I knew I had to do something. I mean, you were just sitting there all alone. What are friends for?”
Chloe's heart was full. She felt like crying. “I don't know, Tess,” she said softly. “I'm beginning to think I never had one until you.”
Perks was empty. Verna Lee, dressed in a bright yellow sarong skirt and peasant blouse, was cleaning the counter. She smiled when she saw Chloe. “Hi, sweetie. Did school let out early today?”
Chloe flopped down on to one of the soft couches. “It's a long story.” She glanced at Tess. “This is Tess Hennessey.”
“I know Tess,” said Verna Lee. “Her daddy talks about her all the time. Make yourself at home, honey.”
Tess sat down beside Chloe, leaned her head back against the pillowed back and moaned. “This feels so good.”
Verna Lee filled two large glasses with apple juice and set them down in front of the girls. She sat down on the couch facing them and crossed her legs. “Tell me what's going on,” she said.
“Bailey was arrested,” Chloe said.
“It was at school, in front of everybody,” Tess added. “They're saying he killed his mother.”
“Holy shiâMoses.” Verna Lee's yellow eyes took up half her face. “That can't be right.”
“It is.” Chloe sat up. “It happened like this.” She proceeded to explain the events of the last forty-eight hours, beginning with her strange foreboding the day she'd bicycled to see Bailey and ending with Tess leading her out of the cafeteria and toward Main Street.
Verna Lee's voice shook. “That poor boy. Have you told your grandfather about this, Chloe? If anyone can help, he can.”
“He already knows. He's the one who told my mother.”
“Does he know what happened at school?”
Chloe shook her head. “We came straight here.”
A smile hovered at the corners of Verna Lee's mouth. “I'm flattered that you would come here first. It's a wonderful compliment. But your grandfather needs to know what happened.” She stood. “C'mon. I'll drive you home.”
“What about Tess?” Chloe asked.
“I'm coming with you,” Tess said quickly. “Your mom and my dad will be home at the same time. I can wait at your house and he can take me home.”
Verna Lee knew Tracy Wentworth by reputation and said nothing.
The trip from Assateague Island was filled with comfortable silence. Libby was tired and Russ concentrated on motoring the boat back to the Cove. It was nearly six o'clock when they arrived. Without a word, Libby jumped out on to the dock to secure the line to a piling. Russ turned off the motor and checked the ropes, turning to see if she would wait for him. She stopped at the end of the dock and leaned against the railing. He caught up with her and took her hand. “It's been a great day.”
“If only we didn't have to face my mother.”
Russ frowned. “Is there a problem with your mother?”
“I'm beginning to think there has always been a problem with my mother, only I didn't know it.”
“I thought girls got along with their mothers.”
“That's because you had no sisters.”
Their banter was light and superficial the rest of the way home. Libby felt good, not excited or euphoric, but a contented kind of good that relaxed her muscles and brought a smile to her lips.
Russ turned down the long driveway. The sun was directly in front of the windshield. At first Libby didn't see the red car parked in front of the house. When she did, it was too late to hide her reaction. “This is ridiculous,” she exploded. “Why doesn't she just move in?”
Russ frowned. “That's Verna Lee's coupe. What's going on, Libba?”
“I'm tired of the lies and secrets. Why don't they just come out with it?”
“You leaked some of it the other day.”
“I can't say anything else. Not yet.”
He shrugged, turned off the engine and walked around the car to open the door. “Shall we brave them together?”
“I'd appreciate it very much.”
The front door opened and Tess ran down the steps into her father's arms. “Where have you been? I've been waiting for hours,” she cried.
“Waiting for what? Where's your mother?”
Tess pulled away. “She's really mad at me, Daddy. I left school early. I guess you could say I ditched, but I couldn't help it. Chloe was in really bad shape and I was the only one who could help.”
Panic rose in Libby's throat. “Where is Chloe?”
Chloe appeared at the door. “I'm here, Mom.”
“Thank God.” Libby ran up the porch steps and threw her arms around her daughter.
“Bailey was arrested at school.” Chloe's lip quivered. “I couldn'tâ” She stopped, unable to continue.
“Chloe was sitting with him,” Tess continued. “Everybody's saying he murdered his mother. Chloe couldn't go back to class, Daddy.”
“Of course not,” Libby said quickly, tightening her arms protectively around Chloe. “Why didn't you go to the office and ask to come home?”
“My mother wouldn't have understood,” Tess said.
“I knew you weren't home,” Chloe added. “We went to Verna Lee's and she brought us home. Granddad is with Bailey, wherever that is.”