They hadn’t meant to kill him. That should’ve mattered. It probably would have–in a different time, a different place. But this was Stillwater, Mississippi, and the only thing smaller than the town itself was the minds of the people living in it. They never forgot and they never forgave. Nineteen years had passed since Reverend Barker disappeared, but they wanted someone to pay for the loss of their beloved preacher.
And they’d had their eye on Clay Montgomery almost from the beginning.
The only bit of luck that had gone Clay’s way was the fact that, without a body, the police couldn’t prove Clay had done anything. But that didn’t stop them–and others–from constantly poking around his farm, asking questions, suggesting scenarios, attempting to piece together the past in hopes of solving the biggest mystery Stillwater had ever known.
“Do you think someday he’ll come back? Your step-daddy, I mean?” Beth Ann Cole plumped her pillow and arranged one arm above her head.
Annoyance ripped through Clay despite the beautiful eyes that regarded him from beneath thick golden lashes. Beth Ann typically didn’t press him about to his missing stepfather. She knew he’d show her the door. But he’d let her come over too much lately and she was beginning to overrate her value to him.
Without answering, he kicked off the blankets and began to get out of bed, only to have her grab hold of his arm. “Wait, that’s it? Wham, bam, thank you ma’am? You’re not usually so selfish.”
“You didn’t have any complaints a minute ago,” he drawled, glancing pointedly over his shoulder at the claw marks she’d left on his back.
Her bottom lip jutted out. “I want more.”
“You always want more. Of everything. More than I’m willing to give.” He stared at the delicate white fingers clinging to his darker forearm. Normally, she would’ve recognized the warning in his expression and let him go. Tonight, however, she went straight into her “how can you use me like this” mode, an act she put on whenever her impatience overcame her good sense.
But the cloying sound to Beth Ann’s voice bothered Clay worse than usual. Probably because he’d so recently had bad news. The police chief’s daughter, a police officer herself, had returned to town.
And she was asking questions.
Clay had seen her. A small woman, Allie McCormick didn’t look like much of a threat. But Clay’s sister had called to tell him she’d been a cold case detective in Chicago–a damn good one.
And Allie wasn’t his only problem…
Swallowing a curse, he rubbed his temples, trying to alleviate the beginning of a headache. But the pounding only grew worse when Beth Ann’s voice rose dramatically.
“Clay, are we ever gonna move beyond a physical relationship? Is sex all you want from me?”
Beth Ann had a gorgeous body and occasionally used it to get what she wanted–and he knew what she wanted right now was him. She often wheedled or pouted, trying to coax him into a marriage proposal. But he didn’t love her, and she understood that, even if she liked to pretend otherwise. He rarely called her, hardly ever asked her out, never made any promises. He paid her way if they went anywhere, but that was a matter of courtesy, not a declaration of undying devotion. She initiated most of their contact.
He remembered the first time she’d come to his door. From the moment she’d moved to town nearly two years ago, she’d flirted with him whenever possible. She worked in the bakery of the local supermarket and did her damnedest to corner him the moment he crossed the threshold. But when he didn’t immediately fall and worship at her feet, like all the other single men in Stillwater, she’d decided he was a challenge worthy of her best efforts. One night, after a brief encounter at the store where she’d made some innuendo he’d purposely ignored, she’d appeared on his doorstep wearing a trench coat–and not a stitch of clothing underneath.
She knew he couldn’t ignore that. And he hadn’t. But at least he didn’t feel guilty about his involvement in her life. Of course, if it suited her purposes–usually when she was hinting that he should buy her some necklace or other gift–she liked to act as though he was the sex-fiend and she the benevolent provider. But after experiencing her voracious appetite over the past several months, he definitely had his own opinions about who’d become the provider.
“Let go of my arm,” he said.
She blinked at the edge in his voice, looking uncertain, and then released him. “I thought you were starting to care about me.
Presenting his back to her, he pulled on his jeans. Normally, sex relaxed him, helped him sleep. Which was why he’d let his relationship with Beth Ann continue for so long. But they’d just made love twice, and he felt more wound up than ever. He couldn’t quit thinking about Officer Allie McCormick and her extensive background in forensics. Would she finally bring an end to it all?
Beth Ann was getting on his last nerve. “I think maybe it’s time we quit seeing each other,” he said as he yanked on a clean T-shirt.
When she didn’t answer, he turned to see her gaping at him.
“How can you say that?” she cried. “I asked one question. One!” She laughed in a manner than indicated he’d completely overreacted. “You’re so jumpy.”
“My stepfather is not a subject I’m prepared to discuss.”
She opened her mouth, then seemed to reconsider what she was about to say. “Okay, I get it. I was tired and didn’t realize how much it would upset you. I’m sorry.”
He scowled. She hadn’t told him to go to hell and walked out, as she would’ve done a week ago, which indicated that their relationship was changing. Although he’d tried to make it clear to her that he was the most emotionally unavailable man she’d probably ever meet, she was becoming attached. He didn’t understand how, but there it was, written all over her face.
He couldn’t allow her to come back. He wasn’t even willing to admit he had a heart, let alone open it to anyone. “Get dressed, okay?” he said.
“Clay, you don’t really want me to leave, do you?”
He used to send her home as soon as they were finished, so there could be no confusion about the nature of their relationship. But the past few times he and Beth Ann had been together, she’d faked sleep and he’d let her spend the night.
Now he knew that softening his stance had been a mistake, although he had to admit they probably would’ve ended up at this point sooner or later. Eventually, whoever he was seeing got tired of guessing at his thoughts and feelings and gave up on him. Only occasionally did he have to prod someone out the door.
To his chagrin, Beth Ann seemed to be falling into the “needs prodding” category. “I’ve got work to do, Beth Ann.”
“At one in the morning?”
“Come on, Clay. Stop being a grump. Get in bed, and I’ll give you a massage. I owe you for that dress you bought me.”
She grinned enticingly but with enough desperation to make his neck prickle. He hated what he had to do, wished he could avoid it. But it was long past due. He should’ve said goodbye a month ago.
“You don’t owe me anything. Forget me and be happy.”
Her eyebrows shot up. “If you want me to be happy, that means I matter to you, right?”
Determined to be completely honest–or at least stay in keeping with his hard-ass image–he shook his head. “No one matters to me.”
Tears slipped down her cheeks, and he silently cursed himself for not seeing this coming. Perhaps he’d relied too heavily on the fact that Beth Ann wasn’t a particularly deep person. Anyway, she’d get over him as soon as some other man strolled through the Piggly Wiggly.
“What about your sisters? You love them,” she said. “You’d take a bullet for Grace or Molly, even Madeline.”
What he had done for his sisters was a case of too little, too late. But Beth Ann wouldn’t understand that. She didn’t know what had happened that night long ago. No one did, besides him, his mother and his two natural sisters. Even his stepsister Madeline, Reverend Barker’s only natural child, had no clue. She’d been living with them at the time, but she’d spent the night at a girlfriend’s.
“That’s different,” he said.
Silence. Hurt. Then, “You’re an asshole, you know that?”
“Probably better than you do.”
When he wouldn’t give her a target, she drew herself up onto her knees. “You’ve been using me all along, haven’t you!”
“No more than you’ve been using me,” he replied calmly, and pulled on his boots.
“I haven’t been using you. I want to marry you!”
“You only want what you can’t have.”
“That’s not true!”
“You knew what you were getting into from the start. I warned you before you ever peeled off that trench coat.”
She glanced wildly around the room as though stunned to realize he was really through with her.
“But I thought…I thought I could change you. That…that for me you might–”
“Stop it,” he said.
“No. Clay.” Climbing out of bed, she came toward him as if she’d wrap her arms around his neck and cling on for dear life.
He put up a hand to stop her before she could reach him. Not even the sight of her full breasts, swinging above her flat stomach and toned legs, could change his mind. Part of him wanted to live and love like any other man. To have a family. But he felt empty inside. Dead. As dead as the man in his cellar. “I’m sorry,” he said.
When she recognized how little her pleading affected him, her top lip curled and her eyes hardened into shiny emeralds. “You son of a bitch! You…you’re not going to get away with this. I…I’m going to…” She gave a desperate sob and lunged toward the nightstand, grabbing for the phone.
Because Beth Ann was so prone to histrionics, Clay guessed she was playing some kind of dramatic game, possibly hoping to get one of her many male admirers to pick her up, even though she had a car parked outside. He watched dispassionately. He didn’t care if she used the phone, as long as she left right afterward. This was a blow to her pride, not her heart, and it couldn’t have come as a surprise.
But she pressed only three buttons and, in the next second, screamed into the receiver: “Help! Police! Clay Montgomery is trying to k-kill me! He knows I know what he did to the rev–”
Crossing the room in three long strides, Clay wrenched the phone from her and slammed down the receiver. “Have you lost your mind?” he growled.
She was breathing hard. With her gleaming, frantic eyes and curly blond hair falling in tangles about her shoulders, she looked like an evil witch. No longer pretty.
“I hope they put you in prison,” she breathed, her voice a low, hateful murmur. “I hope they put you away for life!”
Scooping her clothing off the floor, she hurried into the hall, leaving Clay shaking his head. Evidently she didn’t realize that she already had her wish. Maybe he wasn’t in a physical prison, but he was paying the price for what had happened nineteen years ago–and would be for the rest of his life.
Officer Allie McCormick couldn’t believe what came through her police radio. Pulling onto the shoulder of the empty country road she’d been patrolling since midnight, she put her cruiser in Park. “What did you say?”
The county dispatcher finally swallowed whatever she had in her mouth. “I said I just got a call from 10682 Old Barn Road.”
Allie recognized the address. It was written all over the case files she’d been studying since she’d moved back to Stillwater six weeks ago. “That’s the Montgomery farm.”
“There’s a possible 10-31 C in progress.”
“A homicide?” Allie thought there might have been one murder committed on that property, long ago. But she had a hard time believing there was about to be another. For starters, if Reverend Barker was dead and not missing, as some claimed, Stillwater had already exceeded its fifty-year quota for violent crimes. Secondly, Clay lived on the farm alone and, judging from what she knew of him, he led a pretty solitary life.
“That’s what the caller said,” the dispatcher responded.
Who would he kill? And why? Certainly not any member of his family. He was the poster child for absolute loyalty. It was the Montgomerys against the world, not against each other.
It was probably some kind of prank.
“Was it a man or woman you spoke to?”
“A woman. And she seemed damn convincing. She was so panicked I could barely understand her. Then the call was disconnected.”
Shit. That didn’t sound good. “I’m not far. I can be there in less than five minutes.” Peeling out, Allie shot down the road.
“You want me to rouse Hendricks for backup?” the dispatcher asked, still on the line.
The other officer who worked graveyard wasn’t the best Allie had ever worked with, but if there was trouble, he’d be better than nothing. “Might as well try. I’ll bet he’s sleeping at the station again, though. I caught him with his chin on his chest an hour ago, and once he’s out an earthquake won’t raise him.”
“I could call your dad at home.”
“No. Don’t bother him. If you can’t get Hendricks, I’ll handle this on my own.” Hanging up, she flipped on her strobe lights to warn any vehicles she might encounter that she was in a hurry, but didn’t bother with the siren. Once she approached the farmhouse, she’d turn it on to let the panicking victim know that help had arrived. But until then, the noise would only rattle her nerves. She wasn’t completely comfortable being a street cop again. She was too rusty at the job. She’d spent the past five years working mostly in an office as a cold case detective in Chicago. But her divorce, and coming home so that she and her daughter would be closer to family, meant she’d had to make some sacrifices. Hitting the streets was one of them.
Rain began to plink against her windshield as she raced down Pine Road and hung a skidding left at the highway. It had been a wet spring, but she preferred it to the terrible humidity they were facing as June approached.
Staring intently at the shiny pavement ahead of her, she ignored the rapid swish, swish, swish of her windshield wipers, which were on high but beating only half as fast as her heart. “You wouldn’t kill again,” she muttered. “You’re not that stupid.” Heck, she didn’t even know Clay had killed the first time. She only knew that Reverend Barker’s disappearance–an incident she still clearly remembered–was highly suspicious. She didn’t believe such a well-respected man, the community’s spiritual leader, would drive off without saying a word to anyone and without packing a stitch of clothing or withdrawing any money from his bank account. No one would do that without good reason. And what reason, good or otherwise, could Barker have had to leave his farm, which was the only property he owned? If he was alive, someone would’ve heard from him by now. He still had plenty of family in town: a wife, a daughter, two stepdaughters, a stepson, a sister, a brother-in-law and two nephews.
His daughter Madeline was certain he’d met with foul play. She refused to accept that he might have abandoned her.
Allie had seen fathers walk away from their children before, knew it was a distinct possibility. But in this situation, she tended to agree with everyone else. Something violent had happened to Reverend Barker.
She was determined to find out what. For Madeline. For Barker’s nephew, Joe, who was also pressing her to solve the case. For the whole town.
Gravel spun as she reached the farm and whipped into the long driveway. Briefly, she realized that the property looked far better than when Reverend Barker had lived there. The junk he’d stacked all around–the rusty old appliances, flat tires, bits of scrap metal and other odds and ends–were gone. The house and buildings appeared to be in good repair. But she didn’t have time to look the place over very carefully. She was too busy coming to a screeching halt and turning off her lights and siren.
Jumping out of the car as soon as she rammed the transmission into Park, she hurried toward the front door, only to be intercepted by a woman wearing a pair of slacks unbuttoned at the waist and holding a shirt and purse to her bare chest. “There you are,” she cried, stumbling toward Allie from the direction of the carport.
The woman appeared to be alone, so Allie relaxed the hand she’d put on her gun and reached out to steady her. It was Beth Ann Cole, the woman who worked in the bakery at the Piggly Wiggley. Allie had seen her several times. Beth Ann wasn’t someone she–or anyone else– was likely to forget. Mostly because she had the kind of face and body people admired. Tall, elegant and model-pretty, she had porcelain skin, long blond hair and slanted, cat-green eyes.
Allie had most recently spotted her with Clay at church. Like a lot of others, Allie hadn’t been able to stop staring at them. With their impressive height and exceptional looks, they made the most stunning couple imaginable. Yet Allie couldn’t really claim she’d thought they were an item, even after seeing them together. Clay’s body language hadn’t indicated that he felt the slightest bit connected to Beth Ann. Mrs. Peabody, sitting in the pew next to Allie, had whispered that he showed up with someone new almost every time he attended–which wasn’t often enough to save his soul, the old lady had added with a judgmental sniff.
Of course, Allie had only watched Clay and Beth Ann through only one service, which wasn’t efficient to draw any conclusions about someone like Clay Montgomery. She’d never met a more difficult man to read. She’d gone to high school with him–he’d been a senior when she was a junior–and had certainly noticed his swarthy good looks. But she’d never gotten close to him. No one had. Even back then he’d made it abundantly clear that he wasn’t interested in making friends.
“Tell me what’s going on,” she said to Beth Ann.
Suddenly, the other woman was crying so hard she couldn’t speak.
“Try to get hold of yourself, okay?” Allie used her “cop” voice, hoping to cut through Beth Ann’s near-hysteria, and it seemed to work.
“I-I’m cold,” she managed, glancing toward the house as if she was afraid Clay Montgomery might come charging out after her. “C-can we get in your car?”
“Of course.” Allie didn’t hear or see anything that made her feel threatened, but until she knew exactly what had happened, she didn’t want to approach Clay, anyway. If she waited, maybe her back-up would arrive.
She helped Beth Ann to the passenger side. Then, once again checking to make sure Clay wasn’t about to spring out of the azalea bushes near the house, she circled the car and slid behind the wheel.
After locking the doors, she twisted in her seat and studied the other woman as well as she could in the dark. A flood light attached to the barn had come on when she pulled in, revealing Beth Ann’s smudged mascara. But it had been activated by a motion sensor and chose that moment to go off, and Allie didn’t want to turn on the car’s interior light until Beth Ann was fully dressed.
“Take a deep breath,” she said, and tried starting with a simple question to relax the crying woman.
“How’d you get out here?”
“I drove.” She pointed to a green Toyota Avalon not far from where Allie had parked. “That’s my car right there.”
“Do you have the keys?”
She nodded and sniffed. “In my purse.”
“What time was it when you arrived?”
“Are you the one who called in the complaint?”
“Yes, he’s an animal,” Beth Ann responded, crying some more. “He-he killed that reverend guy everyone’s always talking about. The man who’s been missing for so long.”
The hair rose on the back of Allie’s arms. Beth Ann had stated it so matter-of-factly, as though she had no doubt. And her words definitely supported the majority opinion. “How do you know?”
She rocked back and forth, still covering herself with her shirt but making no attempt to put it on. “He told me. He said if I didn’t shut up, he’d beat me to a bloody pulp, like he did his stepfather.”
Clay was physically capable of beating just about anyone. Nearly six-four, he had a well-defined body with shoulders broader than any Allie had ever seen. The long, physically grueling hours he worked maintaining a farm that should easily have taken two or more people to run, kept him in shape.
But he hadn’t been very big at sixteen. From the pictures, and Allie’s own memory, he’d been a tall, lanky kid with a shock of shiny black hair and cobalt-blue eyes. When he wasn’t aware of being watched, he occasionally looked lost, even weary, yet he consistently resisted any and all kindness. He hadn’t filled out until after she’d left for college–presumably in his early twenties.
“Did he explain how he killed his stepfather?” she asked.
“I told you. He-he beat him.” Much to Allie’s relief, Beth Ann finally pulled on her shirt. Allie had seen a lot in her days working for the law–more dead bodies than she cared to count–but having the very busty Beth Ann sitting next to her bare-chested, and knowing she’d probably just left Clay’s bed, was a little too up close and personal. There was no cushion of anonymity in Stillwater.
“You’re telling me he killed Reverend Barker with his bare hands? At sixteen?” Now that Beth Ann was dressed, Allie snapped on the interior light so she could read the nuances of the other woman’s expressions. But storm clouds covered the pale, waning moon outside, and the cabin light was too dim to banish all the shadows.
“He’s strong. You have no idea how strong he is.”
Allie knew Clay’s reputation. He’d broken all kinds of weight- lifting records in high school. But that was as a senior, when he’d had a little more meat on him, not as a skinny sophomore. “He probably weighed 160 pounds at the time,” she pointed out.
Silence met the skepticism in her voice, then Beth Ann said, “Oh, I think he used a bat. Yeah, he used a bat.”
Something about this interview wasn’t right, but she tried to go with it, just in case. If Beth Ann was telling the truth, what could Reverend Barker have done to cause Clay to take a bat to him? Had he grown too strict? Was his discipline too severe?
It was possible. Allie remembered Barker as a particularly zealous preacher, and Clay had never been puritanical. He’d always liked women–there’d never been a shortage of females eager and willing to do whatever he wanted–and he’d been involved in a few fights. But he was kind to his mother and sisters. And, as far as she knew, he had no problems with drugs or alcohol.
“The police never found a murder weapon,” she said, hoping to draw more information out of Beth Ann.
“He must’ve gotten rid of it somehow.”
“Did he tell you he used a bat?”
She glanced outside at the house. “No, but he must have.”
He must have… Allie bit back a sigh. “When did Clay make this confession to you?”
“A…a few weeks ago.”
“Did you tell anyone?”
“What about your mother or father? A friend?”
“I didn’t talk about it. I-I was too afraid of him.”
“I see,” Allie said. But she didn’t see at all. Beth Ann had shown no fear of Clay on Sunday. She’d touched him at every opportunity, clung to him like lint when she could, even though he continually brushed her off. “And you came out here tonight, although you’re afraid of him because…” She let the sentence dangle.
“I’m in love with him.”
“He attacked me!”
“What precipitated the attack?”
“We…had an argument.”
Allie said nothing, merely waited for Beth Ann to continue. Generally, people kept talking when the silence in a conversation stretched, often revealing more than they intended to. Sometimes it was the best way to reach the truth.
“I-I told him I was pregnant.” She wiped at a falling tear. “He…insisted I get an abortion. When I refused, he started slapping me around.”
It was difficult to tell in the eerie glow of the interior light, but Allie couldn’t see anything more than smeared make-up on Beth Ann’s face. Certainly there was no blood. “Where?”
“In the house.”
The rain began to fall harder, drumming against the hood of the car and making the air smell of wet vegetation. “No, where did he hit you?”
Beth Ann made a general motion with her hands. “Everywhere. He wanted to kill me!”
Allie cleared her throat. She wasn’t sure how she felt about Clay Montgomery, but he’d been pretty tight-lipped over the past two decades. She doubted he’d suddenly divulge his culpability in a capital crime to someone like Beth Ann, and then let her run straight to the police. Besides, if he’d really wanted to hurt her, she wouldn’t be sitting here safe and sound–in his driveway, no less. By her own admission, Beth Ann had her car and her keys. Yet she’d chosen to wait for Allie instead of speeding away from danger. “How did you manage to escape him?”
“I-I don’t know,” she said. “It’s all a blur.”
Allie pursed her lips. Apparently only Clay’s confession was crystal clear.
Grabbing the notepad she kept in her car, she scribbled down Beth Ann’s exact words. Then she peered thoughtfully outside. “Stay here. I’d like to hear what Clay has to say. Afterward, you can follow me downtown and give me a sworn statement. Unless you feel you need to go to the hospital first,” she added, her hand on the door latch.
Beth Ann didn’t even respond to the hospital suggestion. “A sworn statement?”
“Attempted murder is no small crime, Ms. Cole. You want the D.A. to press charges, don’t you?”
Beth Ann tucked her hair behind her ears. “I-I think so.”
“You told me he assaulted you. That he tried to kill you.”
“He did. See this?” Beth Ann shoved her arm out.
Allie saw a rather superficial wound that resembled claw marks. Hardly the type of damage she would’ve expected Clay to inflict. In a fight, a man typically aimed for the face or midsection. But it was her job to document the injury, just in case. “We’ll get pictures of that. Do you have any other scrapes, cuts or bruises?”
“And yet he hit you how many times?”
“I guess he didn’t hit me that hard,” she replied, suddenly retracting what she’d said earlier. “He grazed me with his nails when I was trying to get away. It frightened me more than it hurt me.”
An accidental scratch was a far cry from attempted murder. “What about his confession? Is that how you remembered it?”
“Yes. Of course.”
Allie had her doubts about that, too. “You’ll swear to it?”
Beth Ann stared at the house. “Will he go to jail if I do?”
“Would it make you happy if he did?”
“Me and almost everyone else in this town.”
Allie hesitated before answering. “If what you say is true, prison is a possibility. But your story would require corroboration. Can you offer any supporting evidence?”
“The location of Reverend Barker’s body? The location of Reverend Barker’s car? The murder weapon? A taped or signed confession?”
“No, but Clay told me he killed him. I heard it with my own ears.”
Allie didn’t believe a word of it. She didn’t even believe Beth Ann had been attacked. But she radioed dispatch to see if her back-up was en route, just in case.
“I couldn’t reach Hendricks,” the dispatcher told her. “Are you sure you don’t want me to wake your father?”
Allie flipped off the interior light and considered the quiet farm. Getting wet seemed to be the only threat within fifty yards of them. So she decided to check it out alone. “No, I’ll take care of it. If you don’t hear from me in fifteen minutes or so, go ahead and rouse him.”
“You got it.”
Adjusting the gun on her belt to keep it from biting into her waist, Allie stepped out of the car. “Sit tight and lock the doors.”
“What will you say to Clay?” Beth Ann asked.
“I’m going to tell him what you’ve told me and see how he reacts to it.”
Beth Ann stopped her from closing the door. “Why? You can’t trust someone with his reputation.”
Allie didn’t respond. She knew there’d be plenty of people willing and eager to put Clay away based on such flimsy testimony. But she wasn’t one of them. She wanted the truth. And she was going to use everything she’d ever learned about solving cold cases to find it.