One full moon a month was bad enough, Sheriff Jackson Brody thought sourly; two should be outlawed. Nature's rule of survival of the fittest had been all but negated by humans, with advances in modem medicine and the generally held view that all life was worth saving, with the result that there were a lot of very weird, and/or stupid people out there, and they all seemed to surface during a full moon.
He was not in a good mood after working a car accident on a county road. As sheriff, his duties were not supposed to include working wrecks, but damned if every full moon he didn't find himself doing exactly that. The county was small and poor, mostly rural, and couldn't afford the number of deputies he needed, so he was always juggling schedules anyway. Add the madness of a full moon to an understaffed department, and the problems multiplied.
The accident he had just worked made him so furious he had been stretching the limits of his willpower not to cuss at the participants. He couldn't call them victims, unless it was of their own stupidity. The only victim was the poor little boy who had been in the passenger seat of the car.
It all started when the driver of the first vehicle, a pickup truck, woke up and realized he had missed his turn by about a quarter of a mile. Instead of going on and finding a place to turn around, the idiot began backing up, going the wrong way down a narrow two-lane blacktop, around a blind curve. He was an accident waiting to happen, and he hadn't had to wait long. A woman came speeding around the curve, doing over sixty miles an hour on a road with a posted speed limit of thirty-five, and plowed into the rear of the pickup. She wasn't wearing a seatbelt. Neither was the four-year-old sitting in the front seat. For that matter, neither was the driver of the pickup. It was nothing less than a miracle that all three had survived, though the little boy was severely injured and Jackson had seen enough accident victims to know his chances were no better than fifty-fifty, at best. The car had had airbags, at least, which had kept the two in the car from going through the windshield.
He had given the woman citations for reckless driving, not wearing a seatbelt, and not properly securing her child, and she began screaming at him. Had he ever tried to make a four-year-old sit down and wear a seatbelt? The blankety-blank things chafed her blankety-blank neck, and the state had no business telling people what they could do on their private property, which her car was, and the car had airbags anyway so there was no need for seatbelts, blah blah blah. There she was, with bulging eyes and unkempt hair, a living testament to the destructive power of recessive genes, throwing a hissy fit about getting traffic tickets while her screaming child was being carried away in an ambulance. Privately, Jackson thought people like her had no business having children in their care, but he made a heroic effort and kept the observation to himself.
Then the driver of the pickup, he of the bulging beer belly and breath that would fell a moose at fifty paces, added his opinion that he thought her driver's license should be taken away because this was all her fault for rear-ending him. When Jackson then gave him citations for reckless driving and driving in the wrong lane, he was enraged. This accident wasn't his fault, he bellowed, and damned if he was going to get stuck with higher insurance premiums because a stupid hick sheriff didn't know an accident was always the fault of the one doing the rear-ending. Any fool could look at where his truck was hit and tell who was at fault here.
Jackson didn't bother explaining the difference between the truck's hood being pointed in the right direction while the truck itself was going in reverse. He just wrote the tickets and in the accident report stated that both drivers were at fault, and seriously pondered whether or not he should lock these two up for the safety of the universe. Terminal stupidity wasn't on the books as a chargeable offense, but it should be, in his opinion.
But he restrained himself, and oversaw the transportation of both furious drivers to the local hospital to be checked out, and the removal of the damaged vehicles. When he finally crawled back into his jeep Cherokee it was pushing four o'clock, long past lunch time. He was tired, hungry, and both angry and discouraged.
Generally he loved his work. It was a job where he could make a difference in people's lives, in society. Granted, it was usually scut work; he dealt with the worst of society, while having to maneuver on tippy-toes through a tangle of laws and regulations. But when everything worked and a drug dealer got sent away for a few years, or a murderer was put away forever, or a burglary gang was rounded up and an old lady on Social Security got her 19-inch television back, that made it all worthwhile.
He was a good sheriff, though he hated the political side of it, hated having to campaign for office. He was just thirty-five, young for the office, but the county was so poor it couldn't afford someone who was both good and with a lot of experience, because those people went where the pay was better. The citizens had taken a chance with him two years ago and he'd been doing his best at a job he loved. Not many people had that chance.
During full moons, however, he doubted his own sanity. He had to be a fool or an idiot, or both, to want a job that put him on the front lines during the periods of rampant weirdness. Cops and emergency room personnel could all testify to the craziness that went on during a full moon.
A nurse at the local hospital, after reading a report that the tales about full moons were just myths, that the accident rate didn't really go up, kept a record for a year. Not only did the number of accidents go up, but that was when they got the really strange ones, like the guy who had his buddy nail his hands together so his wife wouldn't ask him to help with the housework on his day off. It was obvious to them: a man couldn't very well work with his hands nailed together, now could he? The scariest thing about it was that both of them had been sober.
So one full moon a month was all Jackson felt any human should be called upon to endure. A blue moon, the second full moon in a single month, fell under the heading of cruel and unusual punishment.
And because it was a blue moon, he wasn't surprised, when he radioed in that he was finished with the accident and heading for a bite to eat, that the dispatcher said, "You might want to hold off on the food, and check in on a secure line."
Jackson stifled a groan. A couple of clues told him he really didn't want to know what this one was. For one thing, though the radio traffic was usually businesslike, for the benefit of the good citizens who listened in on their scanners, the dispatcher had fallen into a more personal tone. And they didn't bother to check in on a secure line unless there was something going on they didn't want the listeners to know about, which meant it was either something sensitive like one of the town fathers acting up, or something personal. He hoped the issue was sensitive, because he sure as hell didn't feel like dealing with anything personal, like his mother running amuck at her regular Wednesday bingo game.
He picked up his digital cell phone and checked whether or not he had service in this part of the county; he did, though it wasn't the strongest signal. He flipped the cover open and dialed the dispatcher. "This is Brody. What's up?"
Jo Vaughn had been the dispatcher for ten years, and he couldn't think of anyone he would rather have on the job. Not only did she know just about every inhabitant of the small south Alabama county, something that had been a tremendous aid to him, but she also had an eerily accurate instinct for what was urgent and what wasn't. Sometimes the citizens involved might not agree, but Jackson always did.
"I've got a bad feeling," she announced. "Shirley Waters saw Thaniel Vargas hauling his flat-bottom down Old Boggy Road. There's nothing out that way except the Jones's place, and you know how Thaniel is."
Jackson took a moment to reflect. This was one of those times when growing up in west Texas instead of south Alabama was a definite handicap. He knew where Old Boggy Road was, but only because he had spent days looking at county maps and memorizing the roads. He had never personally been on Old Boggy, though. And he knew who Thaniel Vargas was; a slightly thick-headed troublemaker, the type found in every community. Thaniel was hot-tempered, a bit of a bully, and he liked his beer a little too much. He'd been in some trouble with the law, but nothing serious enough to rate more than a few fines and warnings.
Other than that, though, Jackson drew a blank. "Refresh me."
"Well, you know how superstitious he is."
His eyebrows lifted. He hadn't expected that. "No, I didn't know," he said drily. "What does that have to do with him taking his boat down Old Boggy Road, and who are the Joneses?"
"Jones," Jo corrected. "There's just one now, since old man Jones died four -- no, let's see, it was right after Beatrice Marbut's husband died in his girlfriend's trailer, so that would make it five years ago -- "
Jackson closed his eyes and refrained from asking what difference it made how lone ago old man Jones died. Hurrying a Southerner through a conversation was like trying to push a rope, though sometimes he couldn't stop himself from trying.
" -- and Delilah's been out there alone ever since."
He took a wild stab at getting to the point of Jo's anxiety. "And Thaniel Vargas dislikes Mrs. Jones?"
"Miss. She's never been married."
The wild stab hadn't worked. "Then old man Jones was -- "
"Okay." He tried again. "Why does Thaniel dislike Miss Jones?"
"Oh, I wouldn't say he dislikes her. It's more like he's scared to death of her."
He took a deep breath. "Because...?"
"Because of the witch thing, of course."
That did it. Some things just weren't worth fighting. Jackson surrendered and let himself go with the flow. "Witch thing," he repeated. That was twice in one minute Jo had surprised him.
"You mean you never heard about that?" Jo sounded surprised.
"Not a word." He wished he wasn't hearing about it now.
Well, folks think she's a witch. Not that I think so, mind, but I can see where some would be uneasy."
"Why is that?"
Oh, she keeps to herself, hardly ever comes to town. And old man Jones was strange, didn't let anyone come around. Even the mail is delivered by boat, because there's no road going out to the Jones place. The only way to get there is to hike in, or by the river." Background established, she settled into her explanation.
"Now, if Thaniel was going fishing, the best fishing is down river, not up. There's no reason he'd be launching a boat from the Old Boggy ramp unless he was going up river, and there's nothing up there but the Jones place. He wouldn't have the nerve unless he'd been drinking, because he's so afraid of Delilah, so I think you need to go out there and make sure he's not up to no good."
Jackson wondered how many sheriffs were bossed around by their dispatchers. He wondered just what the hell he was supposed to do, since Jo had just told him the only way to get to the Jones place was by boat. And he wondered, not for the first time, whether or not he was going to survive this damn blue moon.
Well, until it killed him, he had a job to do. He assessed the situation and began solving the most immediate problems. "Call Frank at the Rescue Squad and tell him to meet me at the launch ramp on Old Boggy -- "
"You don't want one of the Rescue Squad boats," Jo interrupted. "They're too slow, and the guys are all helping with the clean-up at the tractor-trailer wreck out on the big highway, anyway. I called Charlotte Watkins. Her husband's a bass fisherman -- you know Jerry Watkins, don't you?"
"I've met both of them," Jackson said.
"He's got one of those real fast boats. He's gone to Chattanooga on business, but Charlotte was going to hook up the boat and take it to the ramp. She should be there by the time you get there."
"Okay," he said, "I'm on my way." He pinched the top of his nose, between his eyebrows, feeling a headache beginning to form. He wished he could ignore Jo's intuition, but it was too accurate for him to doubt her. "Send some backup as soon as someone comes available. And how in hell do I find the Jones place?"
"Just go upriver, you can't miss it. It's about five miles up. The house is hard to see, it kind of blends in, but it's dead ahead and you'll think you're going to run right into it, but then the river curves real sharp to the right and gets too shallow to go much farther. Oh, and be careful of the snags. Stay in the middle of the river." She paused. "You do know how to drive a boat, don't you?"
"I'll figure it out," he said, and flipped the phone cover down to end the call. Let her stew for a while, wondering if she had made a bad mistake sending the sheriff out alone into a possibly dangerous situation, on a river he didn't know and in a piece of powerful equipment he didn't know how to operate. He'd driven a boat for the first time at the age of eleven, but Jo didn't know that, and it would do her good to realize she wasn't omnipotent.
He didn't use his lights or siren, but he did jam his boot down on the accelerator and keep it there. By his estimation he was at least fifteen minutes from Old Bog Road, and he had no idea how far down the road the launch ramp was. In a powerful boat he could easily go sixty miles an hour, putting him at the Jones place in five minutes or less, once he was on the water. That meant it would take him at least twenty minutes to get there, probably longer. If Thaniel Vargas was up to no good, Jackson was afraid he would have plenty of time to accomplish it.
He felt a surge of adrenaline, the surge every law enforcement officer felt when going into a potentially dangerous situation. He hoped he wouldn't find any thing out of the ordinary, though. He hoped like hell he out, because if he did, that would mean Miss Jones -- had Jo actually said her name was Delilah? -- was either hurt or dead.
Witch? Why hadn't he heard anything about this before? He'd lived here for three years, been sheriff for two, and in that time he thought he'd learned about all the county's unusual citizens. There hadn't been a peep about Delilah Jones, though, not from his deputies, not from the mayor or her secretary, who was the most gossipy person Jackson had ever met, not from the bar crowd or the women he dated, not from the blue-hair bingo circuit, not even from Jo. He hadn't missed the fact that Jo seemed well-informed on how to get to the Jones house. How would she know that, unless she'd been there? And why would she go, considering everything she'd said about the Jones woman being reclusive and her father being strange?
If anyone was practicing witchcraft in his county, he should have known about it. It was all bullshit, in his opinion, but if anyone else took it seriously then there could be trouble. From the sound of things, that was exactly what was happening.
First there was the general blue moon craziness, then the wreck between the two idiots, and now this. He was hungry, tired, and had a headache. He was beginning to get severely pissed.
Copyright © 1999 by Linda Howington
A Dazzling Collection Of All New Summertime Love Stories
Under The Boardwalk
A Dazzling Collection Of All New Summertime Love Stories
Under the Boardwalk
New York Times bestselling author Linda Howard lures a sheriff into a scorching murder mystery -- and into the arms of a lover from the heart of the South: the wet and wild bayou. Geralyn Dawson traces a precious heirloom -- and heats up a past marriage -- on a a secluded Texas island. Jillian Hunter sparks romance off the English coast, when a London beauty in distress is rescued by the very man who could ruin her reputation. Miranda Jarrett ships a rogue pirate back to shore to rekindle a summertime romance. But did his sweetheart wait for him? Mariah Stewart crosses a successful oceanside chef with the man of her dreams -- a P.I. with secrets of his own -- at a vacation spot packed with memories for them both.