Forty Acres and a Soggy Grave - Excerpt

C h a p t e r1

A Warrior’s Death

WEDNESDAY, AUGUST 11,
NEWPORT, RHODE ISLAND

“John’s woman?” Bobby pulled his glance away from the night ocean, shim­mering, iridescent. “Her name’s Lizzie, right?”

The knife flashed in the moonlight.

I screwed up, Bobby thought. Oh, God, I screwed up.

He pressed his hand to his throat. Blood seeped between his fingers.

His legs buckled under him.

But he had sent the message.

The photograph.

Blood brothers, John. Don’t let a brother down.

The braves whooped their victory. Their war cries washed over him.

He heard the sound of his own heartbeat in his ears.

Thumping . . . thumping . . . slowing.

“Right. Her name’s Lizzie.” The words echoed, faded away.

 

 

C h a p t e r2

Talk to Me

FRIDAY, SEPTEMBER 10,
EASTERN SHORE OF VIRGINIA

All I needed to do was get through this weekend without making Quinn’s friends wonder what on earth he saw in me. All I needed to do was charm their socks off.

But first I needed to get him to tell me what was wrong. Preferably before we were in the midst of the weekend gathering of his old West Point buddies.

I replaced the cap on my yellow highlighter, closed the guidebook to “off the beaten track” Eastern Shore that I had been trying to read, and twisted in my seat to face Quinn.

John Quinn. As enigmatic as 007 in his dark glasses that shielded his eyes from both the late afternoon sun and me.

He should have been driving an Aston Martin instead of my Ford Focus.

“We need to talk,” I said.

“About what?”

“About whatever’s been bothering you. If there’s a problem with our rela­tionship, I’d like you to tell me.”

“Our relationship is fine as far as I’m concerned.”

“Then what’s wrong? And don’t say ‘nothing’ like you did the last two times I asked.”

“You may not have considered this, Lizabeth, but not everything requires discussion.”

“Are you saying you want me to ignore the fact that you’ve been restless and preoccupied for the past week?”

“Yes, that’s what I’m saying.”

“In a good relationship—”

“Lizabeth, I’m not in the habit of sharing the odds and ends of my life. After years of being a cop and not taking my work home—”

“I know about that, Quinn. I learned about that in those policing classes I took back in grad school. I know about cops not taking home what happens on the job.” I reached for my water bottle and unscrewed the top. “But we’re not talking about your work. And you aren’t a cop anymore.”

“The point I was about to make is that I’m not in the habit of doing a therapy session about every damn detail of my life.”

“I don’t need you to do a therapy session about every damn detail of your life. But I do need to know the details that affect the two of us.”

“What I have on my mind right now has nothing to do with the two of us.”

“How do I know that? You say our relationship is fine as far as you’re con­cerned. But if you won’t talk to me . . . if you don’t tell me things . . . for example, not telling me about the money.”

“We’ve already been over that. When I resigned as university police chief, I told you—”

“That you were ‘okay’ financially. But you waited until last week when I came right out and asked how you would be able to afford to become a partner in Wade’s company. You waited until then to tell me that you’re rich.”

“Dammit, Lizabeth, I’m not rich.”

“Aren’t you?” I took a long swallow of water and put the bottle back in the cup holder. “It might be a matter of perspective, Quinn. It might be because I grew up poor. But having ‘several million’ dollars—how many exactly?—stashed away sure sounds rich to me.”

“Rich is money to burn. Rich is being able to live extravagantly. What I have is a safety net.”

“A safety net?”

“Interest I can draw on.”

“All right. Whatever it is you have, the point is, you didn’t tell me.”

“I didn’t tell you because it never came up in the conversation.”

That’s what he’d said the first time we discussed the money. Presumably it was inappropriate to mention one’s bank balance.

And my fault for not asking sooner. My fault that I hadn’t questioned him about whether he could afford the expensive gifts he sometimes gave me, including the antique ruby engagement ring on my finger.

Back in June, I should have asked who was paying the private investigators that Wade’s security firm provided when I wanted to find my long-lost mother. I should have asked about the high-powered New Orleans attorney Quinn had gotten to come right on down to the police station to get me out of trouble.

Absolutely my fault that I hadn’t asked about the credit rating that went along with the gold card I had seen in his wallet. But then he tended to use the credit card that earned airline points. He had said that was why we’d flown first class on our trip home from New Orleans. All those travel points he’d accumulated.

Dense of me, wasn’t it? I should have suspected that a former-military-police-officer-turned-Philadelphia-homicide-detective-turned-university-police-chief might have a seven-figure bank account.

The scenery along US Route 13 provided few distractions. Farmland with late summer crops alternated with seafood restaurants, fast-food places, motels, churches, and houses. The guidebook had said as much, that to appreciate the Eastern Shore you had to get off the main road and meander through the numerous villages and small towns.

But I had been hoping for more from Route 13. The drive was anti­climactic after the breathtaking experience of being out in the channel on the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel.

My conversation with Quinn had gone the same way. I had been hoping for more.

Now we had silence. Quinn would have been content to leave it that way. Or to change the topic.

But I couldn’t let it go.

I picked up my tote bag from the floor. “Would you like some grapes?”

“No, thanks,” he said. “I’m still full from the chocolate chip cookie.”

I put the tote bag back down by my feet. “You don’t talk about your father, you know.”

“My father? What does not talking about my father have to do with anything?”

“It has a lot to do with everything, Quinn. The relationships we have or don’t have with our parents are important. I’ve talked about my mother until there’s nothing left to say. But you haven’t said—”

“So now you’d like me to take my turn and ramble on about my father?”

“You listened when I talked about Becca. It’s only fair that you have a turn.”

“We had to discuss your mother. She created havoc in her wake.”

“And if she should surface again, she could do more of the same. But you know that already. I don’t know a lot about your father.”

“My father’s dead, Lizabeth.”

“So are my grandparents,” I said. “But how they raised me is crucial to understanding who I am. You were twelve when your parents divorced. Your father raised you after that. I think a psychologist might say that your reluc­tance to talk about—”

“Assuming with the logic that psychologists are prone to, that if I don’t want to talk about something, then it’s important to my mental health and our relationship that we do?” His fingers flexed on the steering wheel, contradict­ing the touch of amusement in his voice. Quinn’s hands sometimes revealed more about how he was reacting to a conversation than his expression or tone of voice.

“Are you mocking me, sir?” I paused. “Quinn, I know you don’t like to talk about—”

“Whatever happened to that shy woman it took me forever to woo?”

“I don’t know. I guess she figured out being shy wasn’t working. Do you miss her?”

“She was sweet. Kind of endearing. On the other hand, it did worry me that I seemed to scare her silly.”

What had scared me silly was how much I was attracted to Quinn. That coupled with my doubts about getting involved with him. My concerns about all the things we didn’t have in common. Including the fact he was white and I was black.

“You never scared me,” I said. You made me nervous. There’s a difference.”

“Is there?”

“Yes. I’ll be happy to explain it to you later. Right now, we were discussing your father.”

“No, you were discussing my father. You could give a bull dog lessons, Lizabeth.”

“Thank you. I’m glad you appreciate my ability to stay focused in the face of repeated attempts to distract.”

“You aren’t going to let this go, are you? My father was a soldier. That was his life. That was how he defined himself. When I was a kid, I called him ‘sir.’ When I was an adult and a fellow soldier, that was how we related to each other.”

“You said your father sold the hydraulics company that your grandfather had founded. And then he just went on with his military career? He didn’t spend—”

“The Army provided for his needs. He had no expensive hobbies or vices.”

“And so he left you all that money. Were you . . . did you and your father see each other often?”

“A couple of times a year. For dinner and conversation, followed by brandy and a good cigar.”

A cigar? I had never seen Quinn smoke. I tried to imagine him puffing on a cigar as he sat across the table from his father, who had been a two-star general when he died.

Maybe they had dined at the officers’ club.

“How did he feel about your leaving the Army?” I said.

“He would have preferred I stay in. But he acknowledged that not every man is cut out to be career military.”

“And when you became a homicide detective, he must have been proud of you.”

“I had been in law enforcement in the Army. He considered it a natural transference of skills to become a civilian cop.”

I had other questions I wanted to ask about Nathan Quinn. But that was enough for now. “Thank you for telling me about your . . . for sharing that.”

“My pleasure, Lizabeth. I love sharing.”

“I know you don’t think your relationship with your father is relevant. But I’ve been reading this book—”

“Now, why doesn’t that surprise me?”

All right. Point made. I had been reading books about relationships since our relationship began.

That was because before we’d met, I’d never had a real relationship.

Our meeting two years earlier in Cornwall, England, had come at a time when we were both trying to escape from grief. My grandmother. His wife. Both of us on vacations that had gone awry. Then a year later, we had both ended up in Gallagher, Virginia. An awkward acquaintance had become a friendship. Friendship had led to dating. And then to a relationship.

The slowness of that process and the one step backward for every two steps forward had been more my fault than his. But now we were together. And our relationship seemed to be evolving with all the deliberate speed of a slow-moving­ barge.

After six months of physical intimacy, we were not even close to achieving the emotional intimacy supposed to be the hallmark of a strong relationship.

That didn’t seem to bother Quinn at all.

And it did no good to tell myself to be patient and he would eventually open up.

“How about some music?” I pressed the scan button on the radio. “Classical? Country? Or are you in the mood for golden oldies?”

He caught my hand, tugged it gently toward him. “I love you.”

“I know. I love you too.”

“But sometimes, Lizabeth . . . sometimes you don’t leave me anyplace to hide.”

His words stunned me. “I don’t mean to do that,” I said. “I don’t mean to push you into a corner and strip you bare.”

“Now, that particular image does have a certain—”

“I meant emotionally bare,” I said, feeling my face go hot.

“She isn’t completely gone,” he said.

No, shy Lizzie wasn’t completely gone.

“Quinn, when you were married . . . didn’t you and your wife . . . didn’t you and Claire talk to each other?”

“After a while we didn’t have a lot left to talk about.”

He had never gone into the details. His wife had had an affair with a part­ner in the firm where she was a rising corporate attorney. She and Quinn were about to separate when she discovered she had cancer. He had stayed with her until she died.

That was his summary of his life with Claire. But I was not Claire.

He had asked me to trust him. He had said he trusted me.

“I want this to work, Lizabeth. I’ll try to be more communicative.”

“Thank you. I’d appreciate that. With Claire . . . did you stop wanting it to work with her?”

He was focused on the road, expression hidden by his sunglasses.

Absolutely the wrong time for a conversation like this. I shouldn’t have started it.

“Sorry,” I said. “Forget I asked that.”

“No, I didn’t stop wanting it to work. But sometimes that isn’t enough.”

“No, it probably isn’t.”

His fingers brushed mine. “It’s different with us, Lizabeth.”

“Different how, Quinn? How can you be sure we—”

He cursed and grabbed the steering wheel with both hands, sending the car into a swerve. I saw the blur of another car. Metal grated against metal, and Quinn grunted as his airbag exploded out of the steering wheel.

The car rocked once, twice. Came to a stop. The scent of chemicals released from the airbag filled the car. I coughed and choked.

We were on the shoulder of the road facing in the wrong direction. Cars had scattered across the two northbound lanes. Cars that had slammed on their brakes to avoid crashing into us.

Quinn turned off the ignition. He unbuckled his seat belt and rubbed at his chest. Then he took off his sunglasses and put them down on the console. “Are you all right?” he said.

“Yes.” The radio had continued scanning through stations. I reached out and pressed the off button.

Quinn grabbed his cell phone and got out of the car. I sat there, willing my heartbeat to slow.

I noticed the edge of a green leather folder sticking out from beneath the driver’s seat. I unbuckled my seat belt and reached over to pick it up.

The folder was embossed with a US Army insignia.

Inside was a photograph. Four soldiers standing shoulder to shoulder. Quinn was on the far right. The man standing next to him was Wade Garner. I recognized him from family photos. The other two men must be Mitch and Clive.

Regulation crew cuts, taupe T-shirts with mottled fatigue pants, laced boots. Streaks of black grease on their cheekbones, intended to deflect the sun’s glare that threw the desert terrain into stark relief.

The four of them seemed at ease in their barren surroundings. They were laughing as if someone, maybe the person who had snapped the picture, had told a joke.

Each man cradled an M16 in his well-muscled arms as if the weapon were an extension of his own body.

I looked out the car window at Quinn in his short-sleeve knit shirt and faded jeans, six-one, a lanky runner’s build. His dark auburn hair brushed his collar, grayer at the temples than when we’d met two years ago, but still thick.

Last night, my fingers had been in his hair when he leaned over me to nuzzle his favorite spot on my neck.

I knew that man. I knew his smell and his taste and his slow smile that could turn my bones to water.

I did not know the man in the photograph. I had been told of his existence. But until now, Quinn the soldier had existed in my mind as traces of military bearing and a habit of command.

I would meet the other three men in the photograph at this reunion to celebrate Wade’s birthday. All of them could probably still do one-armed push-ups.

Fortunately, I had been boning up on the military and West Point.

I was about to put the folder back when I saw the edge of a piece of paper beneath the photograph. A scrap of an old newspaper?

I glanced in the side mirror. Quinn, holding his cell phone to his ear, was looking for something in the trunk of the car.

I lifted the photograph out of the tabs holding it in place. Underneath was a section of newspaper, precisely clipped and folded in half. The crease was deep and the paper yellowed.

I opened it, expecting to see a story related to the photograph. An article from a military newspaper about a training exercise or a planned operation.

Instead, the article was datelined Indianapolis, April 12, 1989.

“Former Female Soldier Attempts Life Infant Daughter, Kills Self,” read the headline. “Denise Schaffer, 28 . . . served in Germany . . . psychiatric dis­charge . . . four-week-old daughter . . . bathtub . . . grandmother resuscitated . . . heard shot . . .”

I heard the trunk lid slam. Quinn was coming around the car with the haz­ard triangles from the emergency kit he had given me.

I slid the photograph back into place, shoved the folder under the driver’s seat, and got out of the car.

“Are you okay?” he said.

I nodded. “Fine.”

“Are you sure? You look—”

“A little shaky, but I’m okay. Go do whatever you need to do.”

I watched him put down the triangles.

The article about Denise Schaffer. He had put it there behind the photo­graph for a reason. Quinn did everything for a reason. She must have been someone he had known.

He had been a major. Maybe she had been one of his soldiers.

Or maybe she was another West Point grad, someone all of the men in the photograph had known.

No, she had been twenty-eight in 1989.

That meant she would have been only fourteen in 1975. Too young to be in one of those first classes of women cadets at West Point when Quinn and his buddies were there.

Well, whoever she was, now was not the time to be curious about old pho­tographs and newspaper articles.

 

 

C h a p t e r3

Needed but Not Wanted

Across the road, the driver had shoved open the bashed-in door of the blue Subaru and staggered out onto the grass of the median. He was leaning against the car, clutching his side. The passenger, hyped up and jittery, paced back and forth.

Quinn was busy clearing away the several pieces of jangled metal that threatened the tires of cars easing past our accident.

I thought I should go speak to the two men.

“Damn Mexicans,” Good Samaritan said.

I had forgotten for a moment that he was there. Pink cheeks, plaid pants, and golf cap, he had stopped to offer assistance.

Did he assume all black people shared his dislike of Mexicans? Or did he think I had a fabulous suntan?

“Pardon me?” I said.

“Migrant workers,” he said, expanding on his remark. “We need them for the harvest, but they’re a real menace. I bet you, those two over there are drunk as skunks.”

I could have told him that a skunk had started all this. The encounter between a skunk and Quinn’s yellow Lab mix, George, was the reason we had gotten a late start on this trip, the reason Quinn had been driving my car instead of his own.

As for the two men, I couldn’t tell if they were drunk. Clad in dirty jeans and sweat-stained shirts, they looked as if they had put in a hard day’s labor in the fields. They looked young and scared.

“I’m going to go see if they’re all right,” I said to Good Samaritan.

“I wouldn’t do that,” he said. “They might be—”

His words were cut off by the roar of the car that erupted from the same side road the Subaru had come from. The second car skidded to a stop a few feet beyond the Subaru. The back door swung open.

The Subaru’s passenger sprinted around the wrecked car and grabbed his injured friend by the arm. He half dragged him toward the second car.

Hands reached out and pulled the Subaru driver inside. The passenger tum­bled in after him. The second car fishtailed across the median and into the path of southbound traffic. Horns blared in protest.

Tires squealing, the second car sped back toward the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel.

“Wow!” I said. “That was—”

“You see that?” Good Samaritan said. “They’re making their getaway before the cops get here. That’s what they do.”

“Are you saying this kind of thing has happened before?”

“They run and leave the car when they get in an accident. That car over there, the one they ditched, is probably stolen or has black-market license plates. And you can bet your aunt Sue’s petunias they don’t have insurance.” He gestured toward my car. “You got some damage. But not as much as you would have had if your friend hadn’t whipped around sideways like that. That was some fancy driving.”

Quinn, my friend, was scowling in the direction of the getaway car. His words to the 911 dispatcher floated in our direction.

“Quick of him to get that license plate number,” Good Samaritan said. “Happened so fast, I sure didn’t think to notice it.”

“Training,” I said. “He’s an ex-cop.”

“Heck, they sure ’nough picked the wrong car to get into an accident with this time, didn’t they?”

The abandoned Subaru’s license plate was hanging at a crazy angle. But I had been born and raised in Kentucky. I could spot a Tennessee license plate even when it was dangling sideways. Quinn had told the dispatcher that the getaway car was an older model blue Camaro with a Virginia license plate.

“Damn Mexicans,” Good Samaritan said again.

He walked around to the other side of my car, studying the damage. “They’ve already killed a bunch of people driving like bats out of hell. Going to kill some more if the law don’t start cracking down.”

In this particular accident, the driver of the Subaru had been the one who was injured. Would his friends risk taking him to a hospital?

They had no hope of getting through the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel. An alert on the getaway car already would be out. Maybe they would try to double back in the other direction and head north into Maryland.

On the map, US Route 13 runs for seventy miles from the Bridge-Tunnel straight into Maryland. On the Virginia portion of the peninsula, side roads branch off from the highway into the villages and small towns on the bay side or the sea side.

Someone on the run on the Eastern Shore would not find a lot of places to hide. Even the woods were frequented by hikers and birders. And hiding out among the wild ponies on Assateague Island was not an option because of the constant flow of visitors to the wildlife refuge.

I looked again at the Subaru’s dangling license plate. Then I turned to con­template the raw gash along the side of my car and the crunched-in fender.

No problem about insurance. The conscientious type, I was insured up to my eyebrows. The only difficulty might be if my insurance company wanted to give me grief because Quinn wasn’t listed on my policy.

My injured wrist was a good enough excuse for why I hadn’t driven on the five-hour trip from Gallagher, near the North Carolina border, to the Eastern Shore. Driving with the leather brace on my left wrist was possible but annoying.

And who could argue with allowing a former cop to drive one’s car? The fact that we hadn’t hit the Subaru head-on could no doubt be attributed to the high-speed and obstacle driving courses Quinn had taken. Including the one he’d done with some cops on backcountry roads down in Georgia.

Not that he’d volunteered that bit of trivia about his life and career. He had only told me when I asked why he kept a dusty Mason jar labeled “A-1 Moonshine” on a shelf in his garage.

But what Quinn told me or decided I had no reason to know was not the issue at the moment. Right now, the question was whether my insurance com­pany would be satisfied if I explained Quinn was a cop. Or, rather, an ex-cop.

Not that he seemed to remember that.

He was off the phone, and after a glance in my direction to make sure I hadn’t keeled over, he headed across the road to the abandoned car. He shoved his cell phone into the back pocket of his jeans and flipped open the small notebook he always carried. Then he began a slow survey of the exterior of the Subaru.

He paused when he got to the back of the car and wrote down the number of the dangling Tennessee license plate. He was careful not to touch the door­frame on the driver side, obviously concerned about preserving fingerprints and blood evidence.

But I suspected the caution with which he bent down to peer inside the open door had less to do with forensics than with the airbag that had exploded against his chest when we hit the other car.

“Here comes some backup for your friend,” Good Samaritan said.

Sirens in the distance came closer. It occurred to me that I’d better remind Quinn to call Wade and Bree to let them know what had happened.

The bad news was that we would arrive late for the dinner that would launch the weekend gathering to celebrate Wade’s birthday.

The good news was that we were alive and would get there eventually.

I turned to Good Samaritan. “Excuse me, I’m going to go remind—”

Too late. The first police cruiser came into view, lights flashing. Another was right behind it. Both sirens stopped as the two vehicles pulled in behind the Subaru.

After an exchange of handshakes, the two officers and Quinn turned their attention to the abandoned car.

All in all, the weekend was getting off to a splendid start. I had sprained my wrist. George had irritated a skunk. Now Quinn and I had been in a hit-and-run accident and Quinn was busy conferring with two of his former brethren.

The sun had faded to muted gold in the cloudless sky. No sign yet of a storm. But according to the weatherman, in the coming few days, the Eastern Shore could expect to see at least the remnants of the hurricane due to hit Florida and make its way up the coast.

I heard another siren and saw a paramedic unit streaking toward us.

Quinn must have requested medical assistance for the men in the Subaru. Now that the paramedics were here, they could check him instead.