| CRYBABY FALLS
Text Copyright © 2014 by Paula Graves. Permission to reproduce text granted by Harlequin Books S.A.
The roadside memorial wasn’t tattered or faded as so many monuments to the departed were. The simple wooden cross planted in the ground off Black Creek Road gleamed white in the midday sunlight, and the flowers in the resin urn were real, not plastic, still dewy with recent life.
Sara Lindsey crouched beside the small display and touched the big red Gerbera daisy in the center of the urn. A chill skittered through her, as if someone had touched the back of her neck with cold fingers, and she nearly knocked herself on her backside turning to look.
Nobody’s there, Sara. Get a grip.
Turning back to face the monument, she silently read the name etched there, darkened with black paint by whoever had planted this latest incarnation in the ground. Donnie Lindsey. Beloved son and husband.
Today was the third anniversary of the accident. Some days, Donnie’s death seemed like a distant memory, as if life since the accident had slowed to an interminable crawl, each minute stretching to hours or even days. And other times, like now, the raw realization that he was gone forever ached and bled like a brand-new wound.
Joyce must be the unseen caretaker, Sara thought. For her mother-in-law, the wound never stopped bleeding. Her grief was a physical thing, a heavy pall hanging over whatever space she occupied these days. How her husband, Gary, lived with her constant state of mourning, Sara couldn’t imagine. As painful as her grief for Donnie had been for the past three years, Sara still managed to find moments of happiness within the sadness.
Joyce never seemed to. Grief had aged her a decade in the past three years, her pain exacerbated by the loss of her daughter years before. And as much as she mourned the loss of her children, Joyce craved someone to blame for their deaths.
For Renee’s death, there was no closure. Her murder remained unsolved. But for Donnie’s death, Joyce had found a target for her silent wrath.
After all, Sara had been behind the wheel of Donnie’s truck the night of the accident. And she’d refused to play by her mother-in-law’s rules of grieving widowhood, choosing to honor her husband in her own way.
She checked her watch. Almost noon. Joyce, Gary and all of Donnie’s childhood friends who still lived near Purgatory would be leaving the cemetery now, heading back to the Lindsey’s home for a potluck dinner. This was the second year of what Joyce called “The Remembering,” and for the second year in a row, Sara hadn’t been able to bring herself to go, even though everyone clearly expected her to make an appearance.
As the widow and part of the reason Donnie was dead, the least she could do was show up and take part in the ritual show of grief, right?
But grief was a private thing for her. She wasn’t going to put on a show or stand around and watch others grieve just because people expected it. So she’d come here instead, to the hairpin turn on Black Creek Road, the place where everything had fallen apart, for her own personal memorial. And if she allowed no tears to dampen her cheeks or sobs to escape her throat, there was no one else around to pass judgment on her restrained style of grief.
Bitter much, Lindsey?
With a sigh, she pushed to her feet, grimacing at the lingering pain in her joints, and turned toward the drop-off only a few short yards from the roadside. Donnie hadn’t actually died here, at the site of his monument, but nearly forty feet down the gorge that ended where Little Black Creek snaked its way through the foothills of the Smoky Mountains.
Sara wasn’t sure how she’d survived the accident. She remembered none of it, not even why she and Donnie had been in Purgatory that night in the first place. She knew Donnie had been following a new lead about his sister’s murder, but thanks to the head injury she’d sustained in the crash, she couldn’t even remember what the lead had been or how he’d come by it. She’d spent a month in the hospital, missing Donnie’s funeral and wallowing in a toxic combination of grief and pain until she’d finally talked her doctors into letting her go before the hospital killed her.
Recuperation had taken a year, and to this day, though she was pretty much back to normal physically, the memory loss lingered like a big blank hole in the middle of her upended life. And the memory she most wanted to recover was what had happened in those last few seconds before the truck had left Black Creek Road and spun over the cliff edge.
What had caused the accident? Was it something she could have avoided? The question had haunted her for three years.
“Must’ve fallen asleep and missed the hairpin turn,” had been the accident investigator’s best assessment. But she’d never been able to picture the accident happening that way. She was so careful behind the wheel. She never drove sleepy or even distracted by the radio or her cell phone, because her first two years as a Birmingham police officer had been spent in the traffic division. She’d seen a lifetime’s worth of the grim results of inattention behind the wheel in those two years.
She wouldn’t have been driving impaired. And she couldn’t imagine how anything but impairment would have led her over that cliff at such a high rate of speed.
She heard a faint rustle in the woods nearby, and the creeping sensation that had followed her down from the scenic overlook where she’d parked intensified until the hair on the back of her neck prickled to attention. She eased around in a full circle, studying her surroundings with the eye of an investigator.
The woods around her bristled with life, leaves fluttering in the late September breeze that ruffled her hair into disarray. She spotted a squirrel shinning up a tree with quick, darting movements, its black eyes scanning the area for threats much the same way her own gaze was seeking some cause for the unsettled sensation that had set her heart pounding and scattered goose bumps across her limbs.
You’re alone, she told herself, firmly turning her gaze back to the road and the long walk uphill to the scenic overlook.
With the skin on the back of her neck still twitching as if brushed by invisible fingers, she took one last look at the roadside memorial before heading up the mountain road.
CAIN SHOULD HAVE known Sara Lindsey wouldn’t show up for the graveside memorial. From what he’d heard around Purgatory over the past couple of weeks, she hadn’t been back to Ridge County more than a handful of times since the accident.
Thanks to being laid up in ICU, she’d missed the funeral. Even her in-laws couldn’t fault her for that. But what had kept her away after that?
A hunch had brought him out here to Black Creek Road and the roadside memorial Joyce Lindsey tended with obsessive attention. And sure enough, here she was, the grieving widow crouched beside the gleaming white cross, her head bent, a glossy curtain of dark hair hiding her face from his curious gaze.
She couldn’t remember the accident, people said. Unfortunate for her if it was true, because without any memory of what had happened that night, there was no way for her to refute the whispered rumors about what might have led her to drive their truck off the road and down the steep bluff.
There had been no witnesses. Nobody to say, one way or another, whether she’d been reckless or even careless. The hospital wouldn’t release the records of the tests they’d done on her, but he knew they’d have checked her blood alcohol level and probably even done a tox screen, since she’d been found behind the wheel. If anything had turned up, she’d have been charged.
Her husband, on the other hand, had gone through the windshield. He’d been dead before anyone arrived on the scene.
Cain knew that for a fact. Because he’d been the one to find them.
A few yards away, Sara stood and looked around, her shoulders hunched and her eyes narrowed as if she sensed his presence. He stood very still, knowing that motion, more than the color of his clothing, would betray his location. His drab clothing would blend in well enough with his woodsy surroundings, but a turn of the head or a flick of a hand would give away his position in a heartbeat.
She had become a beautiful woman, a combination of age and tragedy carving away any vestige of baby softness from her features, leaving the fine bone structure in full view. A stirring sensation in his chest caught him by surprise, and he averted his gaze without moving a muscle.
After a moment, she seemed to shake off her nervous tension, turned back to the road and started walking uphill toward the scenic overlook located a quarter mile up the mountain.
He watched until she was out of sight around the next curve. Then he pulled out his cell phone and pressed the speed dial for his office.
Alexander Quinn answered on the second ring. He didn’t bother with a salutation. “Did you find her?”
“Any clue why she didn’t show for the memorial?”
“Oh, she showed for a memorial. Just not the one at the cemetery.” That strange flutter he’d felt in his chest earlier recurred. He tried to ignore it.
“I didn’t hire you to be cryptic.” Though Quinn’s voice barely changed tone, Cain knew his boss was annoyed. In fact, something about this case had been making the old spymaster cranky from the moment Joyce Lindsey had showed up at Quinn’s detective agency, The Gates, and hired him to look into the deaths of her two children.
“Sorry.” Cain started walking along the narrow shoulder, keeping an eye out for cars coming around the blind curve. “I found her at the roadside memorial her mother-in-law maintains.”
“Thought those weren’t legal in Tennessee.”
“What’s legal and what’s tolerated can be two different things.” Cain paused as he reached the small white cross. “From what I hear, Joyce Lindsey sets up a new one almost as fast as the state can remove the old one.”
“She’s lost a great deal.” Coming from almost anyone else, the comment might have been a statement of sympathy. But Quinn was anything but sentimental, and what Cain heard in his voice was unease.
“You think you were wrong to take her case?”
“Cases,” Quinn corrected. “She lost two children. But I don’t need to remind you of that, do I?”
Cain tightened his grip on the cell phone. “No, you don’t.”
“She wants justice. I don’t blame her for that.”
“But she seems very sure she already knows the answers,” Quinn answered. “I wonder whether she’ll accept a truth that conflicts with what she already believes.”
“Just a second.” Hearing the sound of a vehicle engine approaching around the curve, Cain edged away from the shoulder of the road, taking care not to get too close to the drop-off. A sturdy thicket of wild hydrangea offered a hiding spot; he crouched behind the thick leaves until the truck passed. He caught a glimpse of Sara Lindsey’s fine profile before sunlight bounced off the driver’s window with a blinding glare. The flutter in his chest migrated down to his lower belly, and he knew instantly what that feeling was.
Desire. Raw, visceral and entirely unwelcome.
“You think she wants us to confirm her beliefs rather than find the truth,” Cain continued after the truck was safely past, dragging his mind out of dangerous territory. “For instance, if we find that her daughter-in-law didn’t cause the accident—”
“The police looked into the accident pretty thoroughly. They found nothing to prove the widow was at fault.”
“So they say,” Cain murmured, remembering the flicker of guilt he’d seen on Sara Lindsey’s face as she looked back at the small white cross before heading up to the overlook.
“You think they missed something?”
Cain started up the mountain, where he’d left his own truck parked at the overlook. “Maybe. It would help a whole lot if Sara Lindsey could remember anything about that night.”
“How sure are you that she doesn’t?”
A three-year-old memory pricked Cain’s mind. Sara Lindsey, bloodied and panic-stricken as she lay strapped upside down in the crumpled truck cab. She had looked straight at Cain, but he could tell she wasn’t really seeing him. Her breathing had been fast and labored, but she’d managed to find air enough to scream her husband’s name in terror, over and over, until she’d gone quiet and still, falling unconscious.
He shut the memory away, not wanting to let it taint his present investigation. “From all accounts, she and her husband had been happily in love since they were both in grade school. Even the people who think she must have caused the accident don’t reckon she did it on purpose.”
“And the sister’s death?”
“We know Renee’s death was murder,” Cain said grimly. “We just don’t know who did it.”
“Joyce Lindsey still thinks you did it, doesn’t she?”
Cain crossed the road to the wider shoulder on the other side while there was no traffic approaching from either direction. “You should have told her you were assigning me to the case. She’ll find out sooner or later. Nothing stays secret in a town this small unless you bury it.”
“I didn’t want to give her the chance to say no.”
“She’ll just fire you later rather than now.”
“We’ll deal with that when it happens.”
“What’s this case to you, Quinn? Why are you misleading a client in order to keep investigating?”
“It’s not what the case is to me, Dennison. It’s what the case is to you.”
Cain pressed his mouth to a thin line, torn between irritation and an unexpected flicker of gratitude. “I’ve lived this long without answers.”
“Too long. You almost turned down a job with The Gates because of what happened here in Purgatory eighteen years ago. Nobody should have to live his life under a constant cloud. Believe me.”
Cain almost laughed. Quinn’s whole life was lived smack-dab in the middle of an impervious cloud of secrecy and lies. Little of what Cain knew about his boss’s life and history was reliable. Quinn had spent two decades in the CIA, fabricating an identity as impossible to penetrate as a Smoky Mountain midnight.
He sighed. “Okay, fine. But how am I supposed to investigate Renee Lindsey’s murder when half the town still thinks I did it? Who’s going to be willing to talk to me?”
“You had an alibi. There was never any evidence to implicate you. You weren’t charged with anything.”
“Small-town gossip doesn’t deal in evidence and legal outcomes.” Cain reached the summit of the hill, where a scenic overlook offered parking for a half-dozen vehicles and an observation deck with a panoramic view of the Smoky Mountains. “People know what they know, the truth be damned.”
As he unlocked the cab of his Ford F-150, he spared a moment to gaze out across the spectacular mountain vista. The sight tugged at something deep inside him, something he’d have sworn died years ago when he’d shaken the dust of Purgatory, Tennessee, off his boots.
Yet, thanks to Alexander Quinn, here he was again, back in the hills he’d left behind, ready to face a past he’d long been determined to forget.
What the hell was he thinking?
“Don’t you want to know who killed Renee Lindsey?”
If Cain didn’t know better, he might have imagined a touch of sympathy in Quinn’s soft question. But Cain did know better. If there was any emotion in Quinn’s voice, it was carefully planted there for a reason. To disarm him, perhaps. To get him to spill his own secrets.
To prod him into doing whatever it was Quinn wanted for whatever reason he wanted it.
“Of course I do,” Cain answered, keeping his tone businesslike and free of the emotion that burned like a furnace in the center of his chest.
Of course he wanted to know who’d killed Renee Lindsey. In his own way, he’d loved her almost as much as her family had. And when he’d found her body at the base of Crybaby Falls, he’d felt so much rage he’d thought he’d combust. She’d been a sweet girl. A good girl, despite her foolish choices. She hadn’t deserved to die for her mistakes.
“Keep me informed.” Quinn hung up without saying goodbye.
“Goodbye to you, too,” Cain muttered, shoving his phone into his pocket and climbing into the truck cab.
As he belted himself in, he stared through the windshield at the cool blue mountains spreading out in front of him as far as the eye could see. Just over the closest rise, he thought, was Crybaby Falls. He could be there in five minutes. Maybe less.
He tried to quell the thought. He’d spent too many hours haunting the falls all those years ago before he’d left Purgatory behind. Too many hours beating his head against an invisible wall of secrets and lies, grieving the loss of his friend and the colossal unfairness of a world where Renee Lindsey had to die while Cain’s bastard of a father got to live. He’d buried the boy he’d been deep in the rocky soil of Mulberry Rise when he left Purgatory behind. He hadn’t been back to the falls in years.
But when he reached the turnoff to Old Bridge Road, he took a right and headed down the narrow, rutted one-lane that would take him straight to the footbridge over the falls.
A WOODEN BRIDGE crossed Warrior Creek mere yards from the top of Crybaby Falls, close enough to the water’s surface that a strong rain could raise the creek high enough to swamp the rough wood slats that made up the floor of the bridge. But even though the afternoon sun had surrendered to clouds and a light shower, the rainfall never made it past a slow, steady drizzle, cooling air shrouding the woods in a misty fog that made the trees and rocks look like an alien landscape, full of mystery and danger.
Or maybe it was this landscape in particular. These rocks, these trees, these thundering falls.
Sara tucked her knees up closer to her chest as a rising breeze blew the rainfall under the rocky outcropping providing her with shelter. She wondered, not for the first time, if she and Donnie had stopped here at Crybaby Falls before heading up the mountain the night of the accident. Had they lingered here, Donnie stewing in a toxic blend of grief and obsession? Had she tried to coax him back to the present, to what he still had rather than what he’d lost so many years ago?
She’d tried to understand his driving need for answers. He and Renee had been close, despite the four-year difference in their ages. When Renee had died at eighteen, Donnie and Sara had been high school freshman, just starting to transition from their innocent childhood flirtation to the complexity of a high school romance. At fourteen, Sara hadn’t known how to comfort her grief-stunned boyfriend.
At twenty-nine, she still hadn’t known how to comfort Donnie. And she’d begun to fear what his intensifying obsession was doing not just to him but to their marriage, as well.
They’d both been Birmingham police officers. But while Donnie had been content in uniform, she’d been pushing her way up the ranks, making detective and settling into a professional life she’d loved, despite the pressures of the job.
Ironic, she supposed, that the strain on their marriage hadn’t come from the stress of her work but from her husband’s inability to get past that one, tragic moment from his past.
She’d wanted answers, too. But if she’d learned anything in her time as a Birmingham police detective, it was the awful truth that some murders never got solved. Some killers never saw justice.
And she’d had a sinking feeling that Renee Lindsey’s murder was going to turn out to be one of those cases that went permanently cold.
“I won’t accept that,” Donnie had told her as he’d packed his bags for a trip back to Purgatory the morning before the accident that took his life. It was the last moment of her life she could remember before waking up in a Knoxville hospital, drowning in bandages and a relentless tide of pain.
She rubbed her gritty eyes. They’d come here to Purgatory to follow a new lead. That much she knew.
But what new lead? Had Donnie told her? Or had he kept it to himself, the way he’d begun to hide all aspects of his investigation into his sister’s murder from Sara, as if he no longer trusted her to listen to his theories with an open mind?
Had she forced him into such secrecy with her growing impatience? She didn’t want to believe she’d made him feel he couldn’t trust her with his thoughts, but if she was truthful with herself, she knew it was possible. The more she’d settled into her new life in Birmingham, the more distance had seemed to grow between her and Donnie. His mind, his heart, was still in Tennessee. It was as if the world had stopped turning for him fifteen years earlier, when the Ridge County sheriff had shown up at the Lindsey house to break the wretched news of Renee’s death.
She had wanted to understand. But his grief wasn’t hers, no matter how much she’d wanted to bear it for him.
Had they been arguing in the car? Had she let his anger, her growing impatience, distract her at the wrong moment?
Pressing the heel of her palm to her forehead as if she could somehow quell the throbbing ache behind her eyes, she tried to remember something, anything, from that night.
She’d been driving Donnie’s Silverado. His baby. He’d bought the truck used when he’d turned eighteen with money he’d made working at a tourist trap in Sevierville. He’d pampered the old truck as if it were a beloved pet and rarely let Sara drive it, not because he didn’t think she was a good driver but because he found such simple joy behind the wheel of the tough old Chevy.
So why had she been driving that night? Had he been impaired in some way? Donnie had never been much of a drinker, but he’d had a beer now and then if he was socializing with friends who drank. The police hadn’t checked his blood alcohol level, as far as she knew, since he hadn’t been driving.
They’d checked hers in the hospital, of course, and found no alcohol in her system. She’d have been shocked if they had; she had avoided alcohol like the plague ever since one nightmarish teenage binge on prom night her senior year. When she’d vowed “never again,” she’d meant it.
The tox screen had come up clean, as well.
But something had caused her to veer off Black Creek Road, a road she’d traveled nearly every day of her life until she was eighteen. A road as familiar to her as her own face in the mirror. She knew every turn, every twist, every incline and straightaway of Black Creek Road, from the old marble quarry north of town to where the road ended ten miles past Bitterwood to the south. She wouldn’t have missed the hairpin turn. Not even at midnight in a snowstorm.
But it hadn’t been midnight. The crash had happened a little after nine. And the night had been clear and mild, according to reports.
She hadn’t hit an animal. There weren’t any signs that she’d swerved or braked to miss an animal, either. There hadn’t even been any skid marks to indicate she’d tried to stop their plummet over the cliff.
How the hell could that be? If she hadn’t been drunk or incapacitated, why wouldn’t she have tried to stop the car from going over the edge?
Somewhere outside her hiding spot came a distinct snap of a twig, loud enough to make her nerves jangle. On instinct, she tugged her knees more tightly to her chest, like a child hiding from detection.
Was this how Renee Lindsey had felt? she wondered suddenly as her pulse sped up and her skin broke out in goose bumps. Had this been the last thing she felt before she’d died?
A man strode into view, moving in quick, powerful strides that exuded barely leashed anger. He was tall and lean, all sinew and muscle.
And dangerous, Sara thought, staring out from her hiding place with her heart in her throat.
This particular man was as dangerous as hell.