Southern storm, p.2

Southern Storm, page 2

 

Southern Storm
 



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  “Blair, think about it for a minute,” Gerald said, wiping the beads of perspiration from above his lip. “The mayor’s seat is empty since Fred got thrown in jail. Some real lowlifes are running. Sam Sullivan doesn’t have the brains of a shrimp, and Ben Jackson hates big business.”

  Blair grinned and shook her head. “Gerald, Cape Refuge doesn’t have any big business.”

  “You know what he means!” Jerry Ann piped in. “Blair, he’s an electrician and thinks he needs to stick it to every business owner in town. We need somebody with a clear head and a backbone. Somebody honest. Somebody who can’t be pushed around.”

  “Oh, brother.” Blair felt the scars on the right side of her face burning. It always happened when she was surprised or embarrassed or, in this case, amazed. She got up and went to the pot of coffee she had brewed for this Sunday afternoon mystery meeting. Glancing out the door into the room stacked with books, she saw that Gray Foster was still studying at one of the reading tables, his nose buried in a book.

  She turned back to the group. “This is crazy. Just crazy. I’m not the political type. I hate that kind of stuff. I’d much rather fight city hall than run it. Besides that, I’m not all that committed to living here since my parents died. One day I might pick up and move. You don’t want a mayor who’d do that, do you?”

  Matt Pearl, dressed in a designer suit with a black T-shirt underneath, crossed his sockless foot over his knee. “We know you, Blair. If you were elected mayor, you’d stay.”

  She poured her coffee and took a sip. “See, that’s just it, Matt. I couldn’t get elected. I’ve insulted ninety percent of the residents of Cape Refuge at one time or another. No, you’ve got to find yourself another patsy.”

  The four of them looked at each other with brooding eyes. “Well, who then? We’ve got to come up with our own candidate so some rube doesn’t take the mayor’s seat.”

  Jerry Ann began to rub her temples. “It’s awful, you know. For our town to be without a judge, a mayor, and a newspaper all in one fell swoop.”

  “That’s the way it goes.” Blair came back to her seat. “But I’m not the one.”

  The phone rang, and she excused herself and dashed out into the book room and across to her office to answer it. “Cape Refuge Public Library, may I help you?”

  “Blair, it’s Morgan.”

  “Let me call you back, Sis. I’ve got people here.”

  “It’s important. Did you hear about Cade?”

  Blair stiffened. “No, what about him?”

  “He hit a pedestrian. The man might die.”

  Blair caught her breath. “You’re kidding.”

  “Melba Jefferson saw the whole thing. Cade’s on his way to the hospital.”

  Blair shoved her blonde hair back. “Is Cade hurt?”

  “I don’t think so. Melba didn’t mention it. She just said he’s pretty torn up about it.”

  “Okay, I’m closing shop and going to the hospital.”

  “Come by and get me,” Morgan said. “I’ll go too.”

  “Five minutes. Be ready.” Blair reached for her keys hanging on a hook on the wall. She hung up and ran back into the conference room. “Meeting’s over, guys. Thanks for coming by. I have to run to Savannah.”

  She herded the four out of the library and turned back to the college student. “Gray, you have to go.”

  “Let me stay, Blair,” he said. “Come on, I’m right in the middle of something. I’ll lock up when I leave.”

  She didn’t have time to argue, so she gave in. “All right. But don’t leave me a mess to clean up.”

  “I won’t.”

  She hurried out to her car, hoping the streets weren’t too flooded to get through.

  Cade was hurting, and she didn’t want him to be alone.

  Morgan set the phone back in its cradle and took off her apron. At twenty-eight, she was responsible for Hanover House, a bed-and- breakfast that served as a halfway house for the down-and-out instead of a haven for tourists. In an attempt to foster a family atmosphere for the tenants, she cooked a full meal each night and expected everyone to eat together. But tonight, Cade, her husband’s best friend, was in trouble. She wished she could reach Jonathan to tell him, but he’d gone to Savannah for his Sunday Bible study at the county jail.

  “Sadie, can you watch Caleb and get dinner out when it’s done? I’ve got everything in the oven. It should be ready at six.”

  Her seventeen-year-old foster daughter bounced baby Caleb on her hip. “Sure, no problem.”

  Morgan smiled at the young girl she had found hiding in her boathouse just a few months ago. She’d had a broken arm and was desperately hiding from the man who had beaten her. Only later had Morgan learned about Caleb, Sadie’s baby brother, still in the man’s possession.

  Thank goodness that was behind them and Sadie’s mother had given Morgan and Jonathan legal guardianship over both of them while she served her prison term. Sadie was more help than responsibility, and seventeen-month-old Caleb was pure joy.

  Morgan heard Blair’s horn outside, and she pressed a kiss on Caleb’s cheek, then Sadie’s. “Don’t forget dinner. And when Jonathan gets home tell him I went to the hospital with Blair.”

  “I didn’t think we had a hospital on Cape Refuge,” Sadie said.

  “We don’t. They took the man to Savannah.” She pulled on her raincoat, grabbed an umbrella, and dashed out the door.

  The umbrella did little good. By the time she’d climbed inside Blair’s old Volvo, her long hair was soaked. “Look at me,” she said with disgust.

  “Yeah, look at you.” Blair put the car into reverse and, wrenching her neck around, backed out. “You’re the only one I know whose hair can take a rainstorm.”

  Morgan didn’t answer. She’d always hated her curls; Blair had always coveted them. “Hey, you might want to cut through the island, since Ocean Boulevard is blocked off at the South Beach Pier.”

  “I’m on it,” Blair said and pulled her car out of the driveway.

  CHAPTER 3

  The tempest still raged in Savannah as the tropical storm pushed inland. Trees bent like bows in the wind, their leaves and branches reaching west. Water rose on some of the streets, making them impassable, but Blair navigated her way through the detours and reached Seventy-third Street and Candler Hospital at last.

  The white building with its black windows loomed up in front of them, and she drove around to the emergency room and pulled up to the door. “Here, I’ll let you out and park.”

  Morgan looked relieved. “Thanks. I’ll find Cade. Use my umbrella.”

  Blair watched as Morgan rushed in. Pulling out of the covered drive, she found a parking place not far from the door. Normally, she wouldn’t have used the umbrella, but she didn’t like the idea of looking like a wet puppy in front of Cade.

  The moment that thought flashed through her mind, she rebuked herself. This wasn’t a fashion show, for heaven’s sake. She had come to support Cade, not impress him.

  Still, she used the umbrella and made a run for it. She made it inside without too much damage, and shaking out the umbrella, she looked around for Morgan or Cade.

  Morgan stood at the reception desk. Blair joined her. “What’s the story?”

  “The man’s still alive,” Morgan said. “They said Cade is back there, that we could go to him.”

  Blair followed Morgan through the doors and into the wide antiseptic hall. She saw Cade farther down, sitting outside an examining room, his chair tipped back on two legs. His head leaned back against the wall, and he stared into space with reflective brown eyes. She could see he was troubled.

  Something in her chest tightened.

  Blair slowed her step as they approached. “Cade?”

  Cade turned and dropped the front two legs of his chair. Surprise registered on his face as he got to his feet. “Blair . . . Morgan. What are you doing here?”

  Morgan went to hug him. It was natural for her, the Earth Mother. Wh
o wouldn’t want a hug from her? Blair hung back.

  “We heard what happened,” Morgan said. “How is he?”

  “I don’t know. He’s in surgery.” He looked at Blair and offered a half-smile. “You’re wet.”

  She smiled. “So are you.”

  He looked down at his wet uniform, then regarded her again. “I can’t believe you came here in this storm.”

  She shrugged. “We couldn’t let you go through this alone.” Blair sat down in the chair beside him, and he dropped back into his own. His dark hair was still damp and disheveled, and the lines around his eyes gave him the look of a man much older than thirty-three. Those lines were part sun, part laughter, part stress. Today’s accident had added at least another ten years.

  “Cade, are you all right?” Morgan asked. “Were you hurt at all?”

  “No, not me. But this guy’s in really bad shape.”

  His chair went back on two legs again. Blair saw clearly that he was not all right. “I can’t believe this happened.”

  “How did it happen, Cade?” Blair asked.

  He swallowed and crossed his arms over his chest. “I was trying to hurry over to a downed power line, and I saw him standing on the side of the road, looking straight at me. And then he just stepped out in front of me. I slammed on my brakes, but the car skidded because the road was too wet. . . .” His voice broke off, and she saw the slight tremor in the muscles of his chin.

  Blair wished she had a little Earth Mother in her. “Who is he?”

  Cade shook his head again. “That’s just it. I don’t know. He was trying to speak, but he didn’t make any sense. The paramedics said he had no identification on him. None. Not even a wallet. Not a penny in his pocket.”

  “Well, that’s not so unusual on Cape Refuge,” Blair said. “Tourists leave their stuff in hotel rooms or glove compartments all the time while they go to the beach or sightsee.”

  Cade’s eyes glistened as he stared straight ahead. “He just stood there. People spraying him as they went by. Why did he step in front of me?”

  “Maybe he was drunk,” Blair offered.

  “Who knows?” He rubbed his eyes. “I can’t notify anybody until we find out who he is. They need consent forms signed, insurance. I don’t even know who to call.”

  His nostrils flared with the effort of holding back tears.

  Cade was tough, but he had a sensitive heart. She knew what this was costing him. She wanted to touch his hand, but that kind of gesture didn’t come as naturally for her as it did for Morgan.

  She looked away, hoping to make him feel less vulnerable.

  A door opened near them, and a doctor came out in green scrubs with his mask pulled below his chin. Cade got up and looked at him hopefully.

  “Chief Cade?”

  Cade nodded. “I’ve got my men trying to figure out who he is, so we can notify the family and get the insurance—”

  “I’m sorry, Chief.” The doctor’s words cut Cade off, and the rest of his sentence hung in the air. “He didn’t make it.”

  Cade’s mouth dropped open, and he looked as though he hadn’t heard right. Then understanding dawned. “Oh, no,” he whispered.

  “We did what we could,” the surgeon said, “but he had multiple injuries. A very serious head injury, and the gunshot wound through his torso.”

  Cade stared at him blankly for a moment. “No, there was no gunshot. Just the impact of the car. He was walking and he came out in front of me—”

  The surgeon shook his head. “He was shot, all right. Maybe that’s why he stumbled out in front of you.”

  Blair looked up at Cade and saw the confusion on his face. “You mean, he was already shot, trying to wave down help? And I came along and ran him over?”

  The surgeon took off his surgical cap and wadded it in his hand. “I’m sure you tried to avoid it, Chief. But yes, there was probably already an injury. It looks like he was shot at very close range. Possibly a suicide attempt. Maybe he lost his nerve and went for help.”

  Blair saw the color draining from Cade’s face, and for a minute she thought he might just hit the ground. “He might have lived,” Cade said. “I might have gotten him help.”

  Blair forgot her inhibitions and pulled Cade into a hug, and he slumped over her. She felt his body shaking, his breath catching as he tried to calm himself. She touched his damp hair.

  “I killed a man . . . a perfectly innocent man whose name I don’t even know.”

  Blair knew he had killed men before in the line of duty, men with guns who were trying to use them, men who were intent on murder.

  But this was different. “Cade, it’s not your fault.”

  “Why didn’t I stop sooner? Why wasn’t I going slower? A man standing there bleeding to death in the rain, and I didn’t even see that he was in distress.”

  “How could you have known?” She would have pulled back then, but he clung so tightly that she kept holding him. Morgan began to rub his back.

  The surgeon looked as if he didn’t know whether to stay or go. “Chief, given the gunshot, how would you like us to proceed?”

  Cade straightened and looked back at him, clearly trying to think. “Well, the gunshot changes everything. I’ll call the medical examiner. I’ll need to see the body, take pictures, examine his clothes for evidence.” He paused, his eyes moving back and forth as he thought through the proper steps. “Just give me a minute, Doc.”

  Cade watched the doctor head back to the operating rooms. Morgan had tears in her eyes as she touched Cade’s face. “Look at me, Cade,” she whispered.

  Cade looked down at her.

  “You know you didn’t do it on purpose,” she said. “The man was already dying. You can’t blame yourself.”

  Cade raked his hands through his wet black hair. “I killed a man who was in trouble. How are we going to notify his family? There could be a wife, children . . . ?”

  Blair wished she knew what to do. “We’ll figure out who he is, Cade.”

  Cade started to pace. “I need to call the station, tell them to change it from an accident scene to a possible crime scene. We have to figure out where he was walking from, so we can determine if it was suicide or homicide. His car’s probably parked at the South Beach Pier, since he seemed to be coming from there. It’s raining, so the parking lot wouldn’t be full. Maybe we can figure out which car it is and find the weapon. . . .”

  Blair wished she could help. “Cade, what can I do?”

  “Nothing,” he said. “I just need to get busy. Thanks, you two, for coming.”

  Blair watched him head down the hall.

  “Well, I don’t guess there’s anything else we can do here,” Morgan said. “We might as well go.”

  But Blair just stared in the direction he had gone. “I think I’ll stay. Take my car and go on home.”

  “Why?”

  “Because I think after he examines the body he’s going to need some support. I want to be here. I’ll ride home with him.”

  Morgan just looked at her for a moment. “Are you sure? It could be hours.”

  “That’s fine. I can wait.”

  “What about the library?”

  “Gray Foster said he’d lock up.”

  Morgan sighed. “Well, all right. If it goes too long, call me and I’ll come back to get you.”

  As Morgan left her, Blair took the seat Cade had abandoned, and waited.

  Two hours later, she watched as the Medical Examiner and some orderlies wheeled the body out to an ambulance for transport to the morgue. Cade and Joe McCormick, his detective who had rushed to the hospital as soon as Cade had called with news of the shooting, walked out behind them.

  Blair got up, and as Cade turned around, she saw that he looked pale and defeated. Surprise registered on his face at the sight of her. “You’re still here.”

  She felt a little silly. “I figured you might want some company for the ride home. Morgan took my car.”

  His eyes softened
as he gazed down at her. “I appreciate that, Blair.”

  The scars on her face felt hot, and she knew they were flaming. She turned her face away and glanced toward where Joe and the medical examiner stood at the exit. “So what do you think? Homicide or suicide?”

  “Hard to say,” Cade muttered. “All I know is the impact of my car did more damage than the gun shot. He might have made it if—“

  “If he hadn’t walked out in front of you?” Cade was going to try to shoulder the whole burden of guilt. She couldn’t let that happen.

  He raked his hands through his rain-styled hair. “Guess we’d better hit the road. I have a ton of work when I get back.”

  She fell into step beside him. “Have they identified the man yet?”

  “No, but we should have something soon. Joe’s running his prints through AFIS.”

  “AFIS?”

  “Automated Fingerprint Identification Systems. If the guy’s ever been fingerprinted before, we should find a match pretty quickly. But they still haven’t found a car or apartment or hotel room yet. The rain isn’t helping. His tracks were washed away, so they haven’t been able to determine where he came from.”

  They went through the ER to the overhang just outside the door, and stood there for a moment as Cade stared out at the storm. Blair saw in his eyes that he wasn’t hanging back because of the weather. He was still working through the facts, dealing with that dead body he’d just had to examine, trying to make some logical sense of it all.

  “I could go get the truck,” she said. “Bring it up for you.”

  Still staring at the rain, he shook his head. “I’m okay. I won’t have you getting drenched to keep me from it. I’ll get the car and come get you.”

  “No way.” She grabbed his keys out of his hand and started for the truck. But he launched out behind her, reached it before she did, and unlocked her side. She slipped in, soaking wet.

  Cade got in on the other side, slammed the door shut, and set his hands on the steering wheel. For a moment he stared out through the blurred windshield, as if gathering his strength for the drive home. The sound of the rain against the roof was punctuated by the thunder cracking at unexpected intervals. “You didn’t have to stay all this time, Blair.”

 
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