Read an Excerpt from Dead Right

Stillwater Trilogy, Book 3

Chapter 1

The first condition of human goodness is something to love;
the second something to reverence.”

George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans, English novelist 1819-80

Was his body inside?

Hunched against the freezing January rain, Madeline Barker’s fingernails cut into her palms as, along with her stepbrother, stepsister and stepmother, she watched police and several volunteers attempt to pull her father’s car out of the abandoned water-filled rock quarry. Her head pounded from lack of sleep, and her chest was almost too tight to breathe, yet she stood perfectly still…waiting. Everything she’d ever believed about the disappearance of her father rested on the next few minutes. After twenty years, she might finally have some answers.

Toby Pontiff, Stillwater, Mississippi’s police chief, knelt at the lip of the yawning hole. “Careful, careful there Rex,” he called above the high-pitched whine of the winch attached to a massive tow truck.

Joe Vincelli and his brother Roger, Madeline’s first cousins, hovered on the other side of the quarry, their faces filled with eager anticipation. They spoke animatedly to each other, but Madeline couldn’t hear them above the grating noise. She was fairly certain she didn’t want to. What they had to say would only upset her. They’d long blamed her father’s disappearance on her stepfamily–Irene, Grace and Clay–who were gathered around her now. Unfortunately, finding the Cadillac in the quarry barely five miles outside of town would only convince them that they’d been right all along. It would certainly prove that her father hadn’t driven off into the sunset.

The black seal-like heads of two divers who had gone down a few minutes earlier popped up and, with a gasp, Madeline realized that she could see the front grill of her dad’s car through the murky water. Experiencing a sudden rush of tears, she instinctively moved closer to her stepbrother, Clay, who remained as dark and silent as the surrounding rocks.

The car didn’t break the surface. Rex hit a button that stopped the clamoring winch, halting progress. The sudden silence made Madeline’s ears ring.

Her stepmother, a short busty woman with hair like Loretta Lynn, whimpered at the sight of the barely visible car. Grace shifted to try and comfort her. But Clay didn’t move. Madeline glanced up at him, wondering what was going on behind his intense blue eyes.

As usual, it was difficult to tell. His expression mirrored the gray, overcast sky. Maybe he wasn’t thinking. Maybe, like her, he was simply surviving the cataclysm of emotions.

It’ll be over soon. No matter what happens, knowing is better than not knowing. She hoped….

“This is starting to make me nervous,” Rex complained. Short and wiry with the tattoo of a woman partly visible on his neck, he frowned as he joined Chief Pontiff. “What if we clip the edges of the rocks? The car could get hung up.”

“It’s not gonna get hung up,” a police officer by the name of Radcliffe said.

The tow truck driver ignored the unsolicited input in favor of keeping his focus on the man in charge. “I don’t think this is gonna work,” he insisted. “I say we get a crane in here, Toby, before someone gets hurt or we ruin my truck.”

Toby, a slight blond man with a neatly trimmed mustache, had become Chief Pontiff only six months earlier and was a friend of Madeline’s. They’d grown up together; she’d been close with his future wife all through high school. He shot Madeline a sympathetic glance then, lowering his voice, turned away from her.

Still, she could–barely–make out his words. “That’ll take another day or two. Look at that group over there. See the woman in the middle? The one who’s white as a ghost? Her mother killed herself when she was ten years old. Her father went missing when she was sixteen. And she’s been standing here since dawn, getting soaked. I’m not going to send her home until I get her father’s car out of this damn quarry and see if his remains are inside. It’s already taken me a week to arrange it.”

“If she’s waited so long, what’s another two or three days?” Rex asked.

“It’s another two or three days!” Toby nearly shouted. “And she’s not the only one with an interest in what’s happening here, as you can tell.”

Obviously, he was talking about the Vincellis, who’d long been impatient with police for being unable to discover what, exactly, had happened to their beloved uncle. No doubt Pontiff didn’t want them going over his head to the mayor again, as they’d done with the previous police chief.

“My entire town is sitting on pins and needles,” Toby continued, his voice evening out. “I’m going to catch more grief than you can imagine if I don’t put an end to it. Soon.”

The man called Rex scowled and shoved his hands into the pockets of his heavy coat. Madeline had never met him before. A distant relation of Toby’s, he’d been called in from a neighboring town when their local tow truck owner said his truck wasn’t capable of getting the job done. “I’m sorry,” Rex said. “But with all this water and silt, combined with the weight of the car, there’s no need to take the chance of burning up the engine of my–”

“If we wanted to wait, we would have waited,” Toby interrupted. “We wouldn’t be standing out here in the cold, freezing our asses off. But we called you, and you said you could do it. So can we please get this damn thing out of the water? Your truck’s powerful enough to tow a semi, for cryin’ out loud!”

Madeline flinched, her nerves too raw to cope with the anxiety and frustration swirling through the men working around her. It had been an emotional seven days. A week ago, a group of teenagers had come here to party and a girl had fallen into the water who was too drunk to climb out. She slipped under the surface before anyone could reach her and the resulting search for her body, which police located as darkness set in almost twenty-four hours later, had finally turned up the Cadillac missing since Lee Barker disappeared.

As the owner, editor and largest contributing writer of the Stillwater Independent, Madeline had followed the tragedy of the teenage girl since the first frantic call. But she’d never dreamed that the incident would lead to this. Had her father’s car been here, so close, since she was sixteen? That was the question she’d been asking herself for seven interminable days, while the town first dealt with the immediate tragedy of losing Rachel Simmons.

Rex spat on the ground. “Toby, the divers don’t know what the hell they’re doin’. With the color of this water, they can barely see down there, even with a light. I can’t trust that we won’t break a tow cable and send that car crashing right back to the bottom.”

Clay spoke up for the first time. “The divers said they found the windows down, right?”

Toby and Rex turned to face him. “What does that have to do with anything?” Rex asked.

“If the windows were down, they were able to get the cables through. You’re going to be fine. Just pull it out.”

Typically the strong silent type, Clay was respected for his physical power and mental acuity, but he’d also endured enough suspicion where her father was concerned to give him a pretty big stake in all of this. Madeline knew the Chief of Police had to be thinking of that as he considered the stubborn set of Clay’s jaw. She could almost read Toby’s thoughts: Are you trying to help because you don’t know what’s in that car? Or are you merely trying to cover the fact that you do?

Madeline wanted to scream, for the millionth time, that her stepbrother couldn’t have had anything to do with what happened to her father. Clay could be fierce, but she’d only seen him that way in defense of someone he loved.

“Let me handle this, Clay,” Toby said, but there was no real edge to his voice, and his hazel eyes returned to the water-filled quarry before his words could be taken as any sort of challenge. Apparently, even the Chief of Police was a little uneasy around Clay. At 6’4” tall and 240 pounds of lean muscle, Clay certainly looked formidable. But it was his manner more than anything else that made folks uneasy. He was so self-contained, so emotionally aloof it was easy for others to believe him capable of murder.

“Rex,” Chief Pontiff prodded. “Let’s get this done.”

Rex indulged in a particularly colorful string of curses but finally stalked to his truck. The winch started again, slowly pulling the car from the water.

Madeline caught her breath. God, this is it.

“Watch those divers,” Rex called.

Chief Pontiff had already motioned them away. “Let the winch do the work, boys,” he called. “Stay back.”

The scrape of metal against rock made Madeline shudder. It was an awful sound–almost as awful as watching the dark, dirty water seep out of the car that had belonged to her parents when she was a child. Why was the Cadillac in the quarry? Who had driven it there? And–the question that had plagued her for twenty years–what had happened to her father? Would she finally know?

As the tow truck driver had predicted, the car got caught up on a particularly large, sharp rock. “I told you!” he shouted, cursing again. But before he could shut down the winch, the rusty rear axle broke and the Cadillac continued to emerge like a soulless zombie, groaning as it climbed out of its watery grave.

Madeline’s nails cut more deeply into her palms. The familiarity of that vehicle threw her back to her childhood–almost as if someone had yanked her by the shoulders and deposited her in the front seat at age five, six or seven. She used to sit right beside her mother while Eliza drove around town, visiting various members of her father’s congregation, taking food and comfort to the sick and needy.

Madeline had believed, then, that her mother was an angel.

Squeezing her eyes shut, she pressed a hand to her forehead, trying to stave off the memories. She rarely allowed herself to think about Eliza. Her mother had been a gentle soul; she’d represented everything good to Madeline. But, as Madeline’s father had pointed out so often after Eliza’s suicide, she was also weak and fragile. He’d had little that was positive to say about his first wife, but Madeline had never blamed him. She hadn’t been able to forgive Eliza, either.

Clay’s arm went around her shoulders, and she turned into his coat. She wasn’t sure she could watch what was coming next.

“It’s okay, Maddy,” he murmured.

She took what comfort she could from his warm strength. He was capable of surviving anything. Secretly, she wished she was as tough. She also wished Kirk was here with her. They’d dated for nearly five years, but she’d broken off the relationship a few weeks ago.

“That’s it.” Pontiff waved the divers out of the water as Rex towed the Cadillac onto stable ground.

This time when he stopped the winch, Rex shut off the truck’s engine, too. Madeline felt Clay tense, so she forced herself to look and saw her cousins hurrying to the car.

Chief Pontiff sent her an anxious glance, adjusted the hat keeping the rain out of his face and intercepted them. “Give us some room,” he said, barring them from getting too close.

Madeline was glad that Irene, Clay and Grace stayed put, or she would’ve been standing there alone. She didn’t want to move any closer to that car. She had no idea what she might see and feared it would only fuel her nightmares. Every few weeks, she dreamed that her father was knocking on her front door in the middle of the night. He was always wearing a heavy coat that parted to reveal a skeleton.

Grace, a more refined, elegant version of Clay, took her hand and Irene edged closer. Clay stepped in front, but he seemed even more reserved than usual. No doubt he was thinking of his new wife and stepdaughter and how this might affect them. Since marrying Allie, he was happy at last. But for how long? The police were quick to point a finger at him. Last summer they’d nearly put him on trial for her father’s murder—without a body, without an eyewitness, without any forensic evidence at all. Unless there was something in the car that proved Clay wasn’t involved, this could put him at risk again.

“Door’s rusted shut,” Pontiff said. “Get a crowbar.”

Radcliffe, who was in his early twenties, returned to one of the police cars and produced the crowbar, which he carried to his chief.

As Pontiff began to pry open the door, the car complained loudly, ratcheting up the tension that made Madeline’s muscles ache. Then her heart lurched as the metal gave way and water from inside came pouring out over everyone’s shoes.

Pontiff didn’t seem to notice. No one did. They were all busy staring at the gush of water as if they expected parts of her father to come floating out with it.

How could this be happening? she wondered. How could she have lost her mother and her father—in two separate incidents?

She didn’t see anything that could be connected to a human being, so she inched closer, straining her eyes for the smallest bit of clothing or—she grimaced—bone. At least, if her father’s remains were in the car, she’d know he hadn’t meant to leave her. She’d never been able to accept that he’d walked out on her. As the town’s beloved pastor, he was a God-fearing man, always ready to help out in an emergency, always a leader. He would never abandon his flock, his farm, his family.

Which meant someone must’ve killed him, But who?

As the water seeped over the ground to the lip of the quarry, mixing with the runoff from the rain, Madeline clenched her jaw. Nothing macabre. Yet.

They were opening the trunk. The Cadillac’s keys had been left dangling in the ignition, but the locks were corroded so they were using the crowbar again.

Bile rose in Madeline’s throat as the minutes stretched on. She tried to keep her mind busy. But what did one think about at a time like this? The teenage girl they’d buried on Wednesday? The miserable weather? The years she’d lived without her father?

Pontiff lifted something with one hand. “You recognize this?”

Belatedly, Madeline realized he was speaking to her and nodded. It was the Polaroid camera she’d seen her father use on various occasions. A chill crawled down her spine. Seeing his camera made him seem so close, but it didn’t tell her anything.

“Is that all?” she asked around the lump in her throat.

The police chief pulled out some jumper cables, a couple of quarts of oil, a sopping blanket. Familiar items that could be found in any trunk.

There’ll be something that’ll finally reveal the truth.

Madeline was praying so hard she almost couldn’t believe it when she heard him say, “That’s it.”

“What?” she cried. “There’s nothing that tells us where he went?”

Pontiff shrugged uncomfortably. “I’m afraid not.”

She didn’t move—felt absolutely rooted to the spot—as Clay wiped her tears with his thumb. “I’m sorry, Maddy.”

Sorry didn’t have any meaning. She’d been expecting so much more. It couldn’t be over. If so, she was right back where she’d been before they discovered the car. Where she’d been all along—faced with this nagging mystery and the prospect that she might never know.

“There…” Her teeth chattered from the cold. “There h-has to be…something else here,” she said. “You’ll…look, won’t you? You’ll…let the car dray out and…and go over it inch by inch?”

Chief Pontiff nodded, but she could tell he wasn’t optimistic.

“Will you let Allie help?” Her sister-in-law had been a cold case detective in Chicago. Surely, she’d uncover some kind of clue.

With a grudging glance at Joe and Roger, Pontiff scowled. “You know I can’t do that.”

“Don’t let the…the Vincellis dictate how you handle this,” Madeline said. “She’s the most qualified…p-person around here.”

“She’s also married to the man who did it!” Joe shouted.

The cleft in Joe’s chin was a little too deep to be attractive. Or maybe it was his close-set eyes that gave him a shifty air. He stood six feet tall and was almost as muscular as Clay, but Madeline had never found him good-looking. “Stop it,” she murmured, but he talked right over her.

“Give me a break! Will you listen to yourself? Maddy, if you want to know what happened to your father, ask that man right there!”

He pointed at Clay, but wilted when Clay pinned him with a steely gaze. Not many men could stand up to Clay, and Joe was no exception. He shuffled back, muttering, “Tell ‘em, Roger.”

Joe’s brother was even less handsome. His teeth were straighter, but he was thinner, a full three inches shorter, and had a severely receding hairline. Although he was the older brother, he tended to stay in Joe’s shadow. “It’s true,” he said, but weakly, as if he didn’t really want to incite Clay.

Chief Pontiff ignored them both. Madeline knew he was well aware of the suspicion and accusations of the past. He’d been on the force when Clay’s future wife had returned to town and begun following up on the Barker case. He’d been around when Allie’s father, the former chief of police, charged Clay with murder and put him in jail last summer. He’d also been around when they let Clay go because there wasn’t, and never had been, any real evidence linking him to the crime.

“This car has been submerged for more than half our lives,” Pontiff said, his attention on Madeline. “Look at it. Even the metal’s begun to corrode. Much as I hate to say it, the Caddy might not tell us what we want to know. You need to prepare yourself, just in case.”

“No!” She hugged herself to stop the shaking. “There could be a…a tooth, or a comb stuck way down between the seats. Some evidence, some lead.” She watched those forensics shows on TV religiously, recorded them if she wasn’t going to be home. She’d seen dozens of cases solved with the tiniest scrap of evidence.

“We’ll check, like I said, but…” His words dwindled away.

“Oh, Maddy,” Grace said softly.

Madeline didn’t respond to her stepsister. She wanted to calm down, for her family’s sake. They didn’t need the added stress of her breaking down. They’d been through a lot, too. At least no one had blamed her for her father’s disappearance. But she couldn’t seem to restrain herself. Not this time. “Don’t prepare an excuse before you even try,” she said. “Find s-something. I want to know what happened. I need to know what happened.” She grabbed Chief Pontiff’s arm. “Do your job!”

Pontiff blinked in surprise, and Clay quickly pulled her into his arms. “Maddy, stop,” he murmured against her hair.

If anyone else had asked her, she wouldn’t have—couldn’t have—gained control of her wayward emotions. But regardless of the turmoil inside her, she had too much respect for Clay to ignore his wishes or embarrass him further. Burying her face in his chest, she started to cry as she hadn’t cried since she was a child, with big wracking sobs that shook her whole body.

He hugged her close. “It’s okay,” he murmured. “It’s okay.”

“You’re hugging the man who killed him,” Joe whispered.

“Shut up, Joe,” she snapped. Clay had been the one to keep their family safe through the dark years after her father was gone. At times, he’d been the only thing standing between them and destitution.

“I’m sorry,” she told Clay. She didn’t want to draw attention to him. She knew he simply wanted to go on with his life and forget. She wished she could forget. But it was impossible. She’d tried.

“You have nothing to be sorry about,” he said.

With a sniff, she pulled away and dashed a hand across her cheeks. “I’m going home.”

“I’ll call you if we find anything,” Pontiff said.

Joe and his brother were still there, but one look from Clay kept them shuffling around the perimeter of the group like jackals attracted to a carcass. They obviously wanted to come closer, to say more, but were afraid to risk the consequences.

Madeline turned to her car. The police always said they’d keep digging, keep asking questions, go back through the files, whatever. But they never found anything solid. They didn’t really care about the truth. They just wanted to pin it on the Montgomerys to satisfy the Vincellis, who held political power in this town. Maybe Pontiff was a friend of sorts, but he was subject to the same political pressures as his predecessors and would probably follow in their footsteps. Nothing would change.

But Madeline couldn’t accept “nothing” any longer. She had to take more aggressive action, do something that would finally provide answers.

She was pretty sure what that something had to be. But her stepfamily wouldn’t like it. And there was no guarantee it’d work.

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