Thursday, October 16th
The grocery bag slipped.
Mandy pivoted on the sidewalk to keep from dropping it and, at the curve, spotted a flood of police cars in the street in front of her mother’s house. Her heart rate shot up. Her pulse throbbing in her throat, in her temple, she ran toward them, cut across the lawn, veered onto the walkway to the wide front porch, and then climbed up the bottom step.
A uniformed police officer in his fifties raised his hand, blocked her path. “Stop. You can’t go in there, ma’am.”
Mandy shook her shoulder, trying to shoot past him, letting the grocery bag bump against his chest. “Of course, I can go in.”
“Detective Walton.” He called out then motioned for a man in a gray suit to join him. “Over here.”
“Yeah, Hank.” The detective said to the officer.
Out of patience and fighting panic, Mandy interrupted. “What are you people doing here?” She let her gaze slide between the two men, hoping one of them would answer her. The detective was a good ten years younger than the uniformed officer but looked far more rumpled, worn and weary.
A guard slid down over the detective’s eyes. “Do you know Olivia Dixon?”
“Yes, I know her. She’s my mother.” Mandy frowned at him. “What’s going on? Why are you here—and where is my mother?”
“I’m Detective Walton. Maddsen P.D.” He reached for the two grocery bags she’d forgotten she held. “Let me take those for you. Why don’t you sit down, Miss . . .?”
She instinctively passed the bags. “Madeline Dixon—Mandy,” she said, a sinking feeling dragging at her stomach, broadening the growing fissure of fear inside her. All around them, officers went in and out of the house. One rushing past brushed against her back, mumbled an apology, but didn’t slow his steps. “No more questions. I want you to take me to my mother. Are you going to do it or not?”
“I can’t take you to her right now, Miss Dixon.” Regret flashed through Walton’s eyes and his tone softened. “Won’t you sit down here on the step? Please.”
If she didn’t, he’d tell her nothing. Clear on that much, Mandy sat down on the rough, top concrete step. “Is something wrong with her?” No. Please, no. Not her. Please, not her. “Is she sick?” She couldn’t let herself think anything worse. This many cops didn’t show up for someone sick, but she couldn’t wrap her mind around more.
“We didn’t know who to call.” Walton passed the bags to the uniformed officer, then sat down beside Mandy on the top step. “None of the neighbors knew her or your name, though some had seen a woman fitting your description come and go from here.”
Of course, she wasn’t sick. Something bad had happened. Cops swarmed like bees all around her, and one was stretching yellow crime-scene tape between the trees separating her yard from the next-door neighbor’s. Something wickedly bad. “She’s lived here a relatively short time—maybe a year.”
“A year, and none of her neighbors know her?” He clearly found that odd.
“Mom has always kept to herself.” She’s a recluse for good reason. Mandy shunned the thought, vowing she wouldn’t whisper another word until he told her what had happened. She stared at him, and then waited . . . and waited.
Realizing she would stay clammed up, he shifted on his concrete seat, resigned. “I’m sorry, Miss Dixon. There’s no easy way to say this. I wish there were.” Regret flashed through his eyes, genuine and sincere. “Your mother is dead.”
The bottom dropped out of her stomach. “Dead?” He had to be mistaken. Wrong. Dead? Impossible. “No. No, you’ve made some kind of mistake. She can’t be dead.” Mandy disputed him and shunned the shock pumping through her body. “We just talked a few hours ago. We’re having dinner together here tonight. I’m cooking. I—I brought the groceries.”
“There’s no mistake.” Walton spoke slowly, distinctly, giving Mandy time to absorb his words. “Your mother is dead. I’m so sorry for your loss, Miss Dixon.”
“No,” she insisted. “I talked to her. We’re having lasagna and a Caesar salad—“
Walton didn’t dispute her, just continued on. “The neighbor across the street called.“ He pointed to the white house trimmed in yellow, one house over and opposite her mother’s. The neighbor who’d had an insane amount of flowers in her front yard last summer. “She was out winterizing her flowerbeds, heard shots fired, and phoned us. We responded right away, but we arrived too late. We found your mother inside the house. The coroner is with her now.”
Her mother? Dead? Dead. Oh God, dead! No. No . . . No! Spots formed before her eyes and her stomach pitched. Hot and cold at once, she broke into a clammy sweat and her trembling intensified to shaking. Her world tilted and fighting to clear her head, she screamed inside.
Outwardly, she took a moment and then forced cold-steel calm into her voice. “If you’re telling me she killed herself, you’re wrong. My mother would never do that.” She might want to; heaven knew she’d threatened to often enough over the years, but she wouldn’t do it for the same reason she never had: she wouldn’t deliberately leave Mandy alone in the world.
“No.” Walton let his gaze slide away. “She didn’t . . . hurt . . . herself.” He dragged his gaze to Mandy’s. “It’s clear to us,” he said, and then paused as if seeking the right words. Apparently deciding he wouldn’t find any, he leveled his tone and went on. “Your mother was murdered.”
More shock. More pain. A full-out assault. Murdered. Mandy hissed in a sharp breath, and then another. And then yet another. Her mother was dead. Murdered? “By who? She didn’t associate with anyone but me.”
“That’s what we have to try to figure out.” Walton looked past his shoulder to the uniformed officer he’d called Hank. “Time the grocery receipt.”
Walton returned his focus to her. “I really am sorry, Miss Dixon.” He blinked hard and fast. “You shouldn’t be alone. Is there anyone I can call for you?”
Tim’s image filled her mind and her heart shattered yet again. She wanted and needed him, but she couldn’t call him. “Give me a minute to think. Just a minute to think.” Scanning her mind, she thought of her father. She definitely couldn’t call him. He’d never forgive her.
She had learned young that she could never contact him under any circumstances. That no matter how hard she wished or prayed he might be like other fathers, he wasn’t and he never would be, and he certainly would never be a dad to her—not like other dads. Every single day in each of her twenty-eight years, she’d had no choice but to accept those facts and to live with them. Neither he, nor her mother, had ever permitted her to harbor any fantasies. No, she couldn’t call him. But when he heard about her mother, he would be devastated.
At least, Mandy thought he would. Please, let him be devastated. Please.
The idea of her mother sacrificing all she had and him not being devastated inflicted more pain than Mandy could bear.
“Any other family?” Detective Walton asked. “A grandmother or cousin?”
Biting her lip, she nodded that there wasn’t any. Bitterness settled in her stomach. Her father had always kept them isolated.
“What about a friend?” Walton asked, lacing his fingers and draping his arms between his knees.
Again, she nodded negatively. Friends were for families not keeping secrets.
“Detective, excuse me. I need to see you inside.”
He lifted a finger at the man, then looked at Mandy. “I’ll be right back. If you need anything, just tell Hank.”
Mandy nodded and watched the detective ease inside. He must have signaled Hank. He kept his distance at the edge of the porch, but stood watching her.
They were suspicious of her. She couldn’t blame them, but that too, was her father’s fault. Dirty secrets required distance, silence, staying apart.
She sought solace. Her father would be devastated at losing her mother. He had loved her. Even as a child, on his Tuesday visits, Mandy had picked up enough evidence of that to never doubt it. He’d always been a part of their lives, but they never really had been a part of his life. He’d never lived with them, or been the husband her mother deserved, or the father that her mother claimed Mandy deserved, but he’d loved her mother, and for reasons clear only to her, she had loved him.
And how that grated at Mandy.
Charles Travest might be a high-powered attorney and he might have every single material trapping that went with it, but all he had ever shared with her mother had been money and leftover crumbs of affection. With Mandy, he had shared even less.
Not once in her whole life had he ever said he loved her. Sometimes when he looked at her, she thought he might. But then he’d say, “You remind me so much of your mother” or “You look more like your mother every day,” and Mandy had known. It wasn’t her he saw or loved. His feelings for her were, in his own strange way, an extension of his love for her mother. Nothing more. Mandy surmised long ago she had been, was, and would never be anything more to him than an inconvenient complication.
At seventeen, when the truth revealed itself in all its sordid ugliness, her theory proved fact. Until then, she’d tried to win his affection by being clever and witty. She hadn’t succeeded, though now and then, he had found her amusing. Starved for anything, his amusement had seemed like a lot to her hungry heart. At least it had, until the event. That day, everything had changed forever.
She’d seen him in St. Augustine. He’d passed her on the street and looked right through her as if he’d never before in his life seen her. He hadn’t been alone . . . and Mandy had discovered the truth about him.
Later, her mother had confirmed Mandy’s deductions, and that was that . . . until Mandy had met Tim Branson three years ago.
The conversations going on around her faded to a dull drone of voices, and she let herself find comfort in her memories.
Tim Branson. From the very beginning, Tim saw her. Outside and inside. He’d walked into her jewelry store, charming and sophisticated, approachable and emotionally wide open. He spoke his mind, and his honesty arrowed right into her heart.
When he had invited her to dinner, no one had been more surprised. Lured by his openness, his straight talk, Tim fascinated her. So much so that she ignored her better judgment warning her that, while he was nothing like her father, men like Tim were never seriously interested in women like her and she had to keep everyone distant, and she accepted the invitation.
One dinner turned into another and then another. He listened to her dreams. Looked at her with tenderness and truth. He trusted and cherished her, sought her opinions, and respected her ideas. When he told her he loved her the first time on a walk through town square, he became the one man in her life that she knew with total and complete certainty did love her.
That was far more precious to her than all the diamonds and jewels in her well-stocked store.
Detective Walton returned to her, still sitting quietly on the step. He looked concerned and even more weary. “You didn’t call anyone?”
A nodding Hank confirmed that, and Walton looked back at her, almost desperate. “Surely there’s someone I can call for you, Mandy.”
Memories flooded her, stacked and tumbled and shattered. Her heart squeezed her chest tight. Her eyes filled with tears that blurred her vision. His proposal had stunned her—still stunned her. At the time, she’d been beyond stunned. Awed. Awed and, in her eyes, witnessing a miracle. He wanted to spend his life with her? She challenged him. Men like you don’t marry women like me. You marry women who have it all.
You have it all.
I don’t. I—I She’d looked away. There are things about me you don’t know.
There are things about me you don’t know, too. We’ll learn together.
It took him a while, but he’d convinced her. She was the one for him.
And heaven knew he had been the one for her. No one touched her heart, captivated her like Tim. No one else ever had, or would again.
An ache hollowed her heart. They would have been married—should have been married—now. But she’d been warned off. Persuasively. Permanently. Irrevocably. And so she’d done the hardest thing she’d been asked to do in her life. She’d walked away from Tim and closed the door on his love.
She had regretted that decision since the moment she’d made it.
Now, she regretted it even more.
She looked directly into the detective’s eyes. “No. There is no one to call.” Her throat went tight and her chest felt squeezed. “Not anymore.”
Tim was a former Shadow Watcher—one of the secrets about himself he revealed after she had accepted his proposal. A spy who spied on spies. He was part of a team of them and, after an incident, the details of which he had not shared, his entire team had left active-duty and had started their own private-security consultant firm. They—Tim—could find out who had murdered her mother.
She considered reaching into her purse for the secure phone they always had used to talk. It never rang anymore; it hadn’t since she’d broken their engagement. But she couldn’t make herself put the phone away or get rid of it and break their final physical connection. She’d tried—many times—but she just couldn’t do it anymore than she could stop loving him.
Temptation escalated to an urge to phone him and it fired through her with the force of a physical blow. She absorbed that, too, and then the successive series of urges that followed, denying them all. She couldn’t call Tim any more than she could call her father. After what she’d done to him? Knowing what could happen? No. No, she had no right . . .
Resignation slid onto her like a heavy coat. With a sigh, she faced Detective Walton, who sat patiently, giving her time to fight her way through the first wave of emotional turmoil his news had triggered. “No, but thank you for your kindnesses. There’s no one to call. It’s always been just my mother and me.”
“What about co-workers?” Walton pushed. “Employees?”
That stung. “Yes, I have employees, but they are not involved in my personal life.”
“What about neighbors from an old neighborhood?” He frowned, either not believing her or surprised. “Surely you and your mother interacted with someone.”
Charles Travest. The idea of disclosing him flitted through her mind, but the potential consequences halted her. It would only cause more pain. She’d been on the receiving end of that pain in St. Augustine. No way would she willingly inflict the nightmare on another. He might have sacrificed her, but responsibility for that rested on his head. She wouldn’t sacrifice him or destroy his life. “Afraid not. There’s no one.”
Her chest ached with shame and embarrassment. In Walton’s line of work, he’d seen and heard it all, and clearly he thought their isolation was odd. She agreed with him, but she couldn’t admit it.
“I’m sorry.” Walton said and meant that, too. Pity burned in his eyes.
When seeing it stopped putting spasms into her throat, she swallowed hard. “I want to see my mother.”
“Soon. But I can’t allow that right now.” He glanced down at Mandy’s feet, avoiding her eyes. “We’re still gathering evidence.”
She’d contaminate the crime scene. “I understand.” Protecting the scene, she could grasp. Her mother being dead just didn’t make sense. “You, personally, are certain it’s her?”
“I am. I found her driver’s license in her handbag. There’s no doubt.”
Dead. Her mother was dead. Why?
Immediately, Mandy’s mind went to the threats against Tim. But surely not. She’d done exactly what she’d had to do and hadn’t heard a word about it since then. There had been no contact. None. No, this couldn’t be about him. It had to be unrelated.
“I know it is terrible to bother you with questions, but time isn’t on our side. If we’re going to stand a chance of catching whoever did this . . .”
Get it together, Mandy. Clear your mind. Focus. “I understand. Go ahead.”
“You say there was no one else, so I have to ask.” His voice softened. “Did you kill your mother?”
“I have to ask,” he repeated. “It’s my job, Mandy.”
“I told you. It’s been her and me my whole life.” Mandy looked him right in the eye, let him see her pain. Alone. Vulnerable. Lost. Empty. “She was all I have.” Her broken heart shattered again. “No, Detective. I didn’t kill her.”
His expression didn’t alter. “Where were you at about six tonight?”
Routine questions? Or he suspected her, anyway? Could that be possible? Seriously? That it might, strained at her fragile composure and the fissure of fear she’d been fighting internally cracked wider, stretched and yawned like a canyon. “Buying the groceries I needed. I told you, I came over to make her dinner.”
“Sir?” the uniformed officer interrupted. “Timed receipt. She was at the store at 6:10.”
“So Miss Dixon is clear?” Walton pointedly asked.
“Thanks.” Walton looked back at her. “Sorry, Miss Dixon. I want to find who did this to your mother. I can’t take anything for granted.”
A part of her felt deeply offended, but the more practical side she used to run her jewelry store appreciated his thorough approach. “No problem.” A hard lump settled in her chest. Who could have done this? What was done? “How did she . . .?” Mandy couldn’t say the word out loud. Her voice failed. She ordered herself to be strong, to suck it up, and tried again. “How was my mother murdered?”
“She was shot, Miss Dixon.”
“Shot?” That stunned Mandy.
“We received a shots fired call—from the neighbor. Remember?”
A shadowed memory returned. Walton telling her that the flower-lady neighbor had heard gunfire and called the police. “Yes, I remember now.”
“Your mother was shot,” he repeated slowly, as if realizing Mandy needed still more time to absorb and process.
She did need more time. None of this fit. It just didn’t. “But my mother hated guns and forbid them in the house.” Mandy looked from the crime-scene tape, twisting and crackling in the wind, back to Walton. “She must have known the person.”
“Or he or she entered the house without your mother knowing it.”
That was possible, and a little less terrifying. A stranger was bad, but someone you knew turning on you like that had to be worse.
“Excuse me, sir.” Hank again interrupted. “May I speak to you a second?”
The detective stood up and stepped away, down to the end of the wide front porch, beyond the tall fichus, near the two white rockers. “What is it, Hank?” Walton asked, his voice carrying clearly to Mandy, still seated on the step.
“We found the point of entry in her bedroom—a window close to the corner of the house.”
“Get forensics on it. Maybe we’ll get lucky and pick up some prints.” The detective looked over the slope of his shoulder at Mandy and elevated his voice. “Do you live here, Miss Dixon? With your mom, I mean?”
“No. I have a house on the water near my jewelry store.”
“And so far as you know, no one else has been here. Just you, when you visit, and your mom.”
Guilt stabbed at her. “I haven’t seen anyone else here, and she hasn’t mentioned anyone else being here.” True, but not the whole truth. They didn’t talk about her father, so she honestly didn’t know if he had been here. Did he still come over every Tuesday? Mandy had no idea but, if she were a betting woman, she would bet he did. Today, however, was Thursday. From the time she was born until she had left and built her own home, she knew of no time when Charles Travest ever deviated from his scheduled Tuesday visits.
Had he deviated today?
Could he have killed her mother?
Honestly, she didn’t know. Uncertainty had her again clammy and breaking into a cold sweat. He had been decent and kind to her mother and to her, and Mandy had never seen a hint of violence in him. But he’d been always been clear. If either of them crossed his lines . . .
Lines like the one her mother had set against her marrying Tim. It isn’t just your life you’re putting at risk . . .
Oh, yes. The warning had been clear and irrevocable.
Mandy’s chest grew heavy, her heart tattered and weary. She could, and probably should mention that. But she didn’t dare.
Oh, you’ve no idea how badly I wish I could talk to you. You’d know what to do. Tears threatened. She swallowed hard three times, trying to avoid them. I—I don’t know what to do…
* * *
Tuesday, October 21st
Five days later, the coroner released the body. Mandy had made arrangements with a local funeral home and withstood, without withering, the director’s surprise that there’d be no service other than graveside.
The world spun on, seemingly unchanged and without notice—as arrogant as can be to someone heartbroken and mourning—and the sun shone and laughter flowed, grating at her eyes and ears and every frayed nerve in her body. For everyone else, it was a normal, largely unremarkable day.
For Mandy it was terrifying.
Little memories of her mother ran like film loops through her mind. Last week, last month, her childhood. Regardless of what she did, they wouldn’t turn off. She considered going to the jewelry store to work, but she couldn’t think; she’d only be in the way. Her assistant manager, Erin, had things well in hand there, so Mandy stayed home.
She’d spent years dreaming of her business and more years building it, but today she honestly couldn’t care less about it. It, or anything else. Grief ruled, and ravaged and tormented her. Too weakened to fight it, she curled up on the sofa in her bathrobe with a box of tissues and let herself grieve. She had no one now. No one who cared if she lived or died. No one for her to care about or to share triumphs or troubles. No one to comfort her and assure her that no matter how dark things were now, they wouldn’t always be dark.
This too shall pass. She tried comforting herself.
It rang hollow, like tin to her ears. Would it pass? Logically, she believed it would. But her heart doubted it, bombarding her with questions she didn’t want to hear much less try to answer. Is this all there really is to life? If so, why bother?
Aching, lost, Mandy cried until she had no more tears, then cried some more. And long after the arrogant sun set for the day and the pink streaks in the sky faded to deep blue, she lay curled on her sofa, hugging the box of tissues, half of which lay wadded on the coffee table. Help me find my way. Can you just please help me find my way?
* * *
The following Friday, Mandy stood on the outskirts of Maddsen Cemetery at her mother’s graveside. She’d always said that’s where she wanted to be buried.
It was a picturesque small cemetery, very peaceful and shaded by huge, old oaks. Fresh flowers always sprinkled the graves; Mandy had seen them many times when driving by.
Thunder rumbled overhead.
It wasn’t supposed to rain today so no tent stood stretched above the coffin to protect it or mourners from the weather. It sat in the open above the gaping hole prepared to receive it once the service was done.
In the distance, lightning flashed. The faint scent of it carried on the wind. The minister she’d hired reacted accordingly and spoke faster, but not fast enough. Mid-service, the sky split open and rain poured down, pinging against the top and sides of the coffin, spitting droplets that pounded the flowers placed on its top. Water gathered among the leaves and spilled over, running in rivulets down the coffin’s coppery sides and dripping off into the gaping hole.
God was mourning with her.
The thought oddly comforted Mandy, and she opened her umbrella, held it over herself and the minister. Between intermittent claps of thunder and jagged streaks and flashes of lightning, she listened to him lay her mother’s body to rest.
When he was done, she couldn’t recall a word he’d said. Over and again in her mind, she’d remembered herself as a child playing wedding with her mother. Her mother at the piano, playing the Wedding March, while Mandy walked down a makeshift aisle of throw-rugs with a scarf-draped lampshade on her head. Her mother always added an extra note at the end of the chorus. They’d giggled about it so many times. It’s my signature note, darling . . .
The minister claimed her attention. “I’m so sorry for your loss, Miss Dixon. Is there anything I can do for you?”
Pity burned in his eyes. Pity and curiosity that she’d stood alone to bury her mother.
She’d covertly notified Charles Travest of her mother’s passing, and until she had stood through the service with only her and the minister present, she had believed her father would be here. Not that he’d said he would, but because he loved her mother. She’d even held out a glimmer of hope that, while he wouldn’t live his life with his daughter, he would at least mourn her mother’s passing with her. Yet, he had failed them again. One more time in a long list of times.
Oh, Mandy had sensed him nearby. Somewhere in the distant shadows watching the service. But he hadn’t risked actually coming to the service or showing his face. Coward.
Cowardly, yes, and unfortunately typical for him. He hadn’t phoned, emailed, or even sent her mother flowers with an impersonal note. No one had. The lone bouquet on top of the casket, Mandy had ordered. A white rose in her hand was the only other flower for her mother.
A tidal wave of new resentment washed over Mandy, partnered with the old. She steeled herself against its weight, lifted her chin, and then answered the minister. “No, there’s nothing to be done, but thank you. I’m fine on my own.”
She placed the rose onto her mother’s coffin with a loving stroke, and then turned and walked away.
Safely in her car, she blotted the rain from her face and arms with a tissue, then drove off . . . and cried all the way home, shedding the tears she hadn’t permitted herself to shed at the service.
Why couldn’t she cry? Would that be so awful—to cry at your own mother’s funeral?
Maybe not for ordinary people. But they were not ordinary. Her mother wouldn’t approve the absence of emotional control; she never had. But even if she didn’t disapprove this time, under these circumstances, she would need to know Mandy would be all right without her as much as Mandy needed to know her mother was all right now that she’d passed. Tears would rock her mother’s confidence. Mandy couldn’t do that. She wanted to imagine her mother resting in peace, not worried sick her daughter was a basket case.
That night, alone on her backyard deck, Mandy sat staring at the phone used only for secure conversations between Tim and her. Since dusk, she’d picked it up and put it back down on the little wooden side table a thousand times. Once, she’d even dialed him. Well, all but the last number. Then her mother’s warning came rushing back, kicking in, and Mandy had set the phone down and had not touched it again.
Now, she fell to temptation and reached for it. She wouldn’t call Tim, but she would send him a text message. He was free to respond or not without a direct confrontation. She could live with that—and if she didn’t talk to someone, she was surely going to lose what was left of her mind. No one was safer or more trustworthy than Tim Branson.
Still, her heart beat hard and fast. She keyed in the text then stared at it a long moment. Her hands shook, her pulse throbbed in her throat, her head. Please, don’t let this be a mistake. Please . . .
Before she could second-guess herself yet again or let fear back her down and force her to change her mind, she quickly pushed Send.