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When the shotgun went off, April Presley dropped her thermos and screamed.
Hearing her own scream scared her almost as much as the man with the gun did, and April clamped both hands over her mouth as she watched her next-door neighbor, Levon Rivers, crumple in the middle of the newly plowed section of his field. Levon and his killer were almost fifty yards away, but even at that distance, April could see the blossom of red on Levon's chest and a cold brace of fear flooded through her.
Then another screech burst through her tightly clamped hands as the killer swung around toward her, his face a blurry mask to her dazed, bewildered eyes. Without hesitation, he lifted the gun and fired again.
The morning had started out so peacefully.
As usual, April had spent her morning half on business and half on enjoying the luscious garden of flowers, herbs and vegetables behind her cottage. Since moving to the tiny town of Caralinda, Tennessee, April had found solace and a kind of spiritual comfort in her gardening. Levon, whose cornfield ran right up to the edge of April's yard, had given her tips that had turned the wimpy cluster of plants into a thriving garden that filled the morning air with the scent of roses, lavender, sage, fuchsia, rosemary and a whole forest of day lilies.
In turn, April brought Levon a thermos of cold lemonade every day that he worked in the field. The sound of his tractor or truck thumping down the field road that ran alongside her house was her cue. Around ten in the morning, she'd wend her way through his cornfield to wherever he worked. Lemonade in the mornings was her token of thanks, and delivering it was usually much more of a joy than achore.
Yet today, she had barely stepped from between the dense rows of stalks when the shot rang out, her gesture of friendship suddenly putting her in the line of fire. April fled, grateful for high summer and a corn patch thick enough to hide her, grateful that she had walked this field enough with Levon to keep her footing among the dry ruts and clumps of earth. She knew how to keep her head low and her arms out to push away the sharp green blades that slapped around her as she ran.
She was especially grateful that a shotgun had a limited range.
All these things helped her evade the killer, and April could hear his grunts of frustration as he tried to catch her through the corn, then heard the blast that did little but rain shotgun pellets harmlessly over the field. Finally April stopped, holding her sides and trying to catch her breath. She couldn't run any farther. She'd have to take her chances with staying hidden. She could still hear him stomping about, raging through the corn, the noise growing closer, then moving away, constantly demanding that she show herself. She could stay hidden a long time in Levon's expansive field, especially if the killer kept making a racket covering the sounds of her own movements as she slipped out of his path. But April knew if someone didn't come, he'd continue to search. And eventually find her.
April's knees buckled, and she dropped to the ground. Adrenaline and fear fogged her mind and made her arms and legs tremble uncontrollably. She needed to rest, make a plan. Calm down, girl. Lord, I need Your help. Guide me out of this. Show me what I need to do. She drew her knees to her chest and hugged them to her, trying to still her quivering limbs. If she could only get home, call for help. But she'd gotten so turned around she knew she wouldn't be able to find the path without standing up fully to get her bearings…and putting herself back in the killer's sight. How would she get out of the field without the killer seeing her? And had he seen her well enough to know who she was?
These questions echoed in her mind. Her muscle tremors quieted, but her thoughts still swirled out of control, pushing her close to panic. She fought to sit still, to focus.
Normally the smell of the ripening corn and tangy scent of the leaves refreshed her. Today, they were oppressive. The hard-packed earth absorbed the sun while the dense rows of corn blocked most of the wind. April felt as if she were sitting in an oven. Her stomach growled, and she held her breath, waiting to see if the killer had heard it. What do I do now?
He hadn't. The killer's calls actually lessened as he moved farther away. But she could still hear him, his actions muffled by the plants and the stifling air of midday. April dared to stand up just enough to get her position, then ducked back down and closed her eyes, trying to plan. Her home and Levon's bordered a field road south of these acres of corn, but the shooter still prowled between her and those points of safety. To the east lay the open field where the shooting had occurred and west of her, a narrow country road wandered through the landscape. The open land in both of those directions could easily put her into direct contact or line of sight with the killer, with no place to hide. Not a good idea.
North? April opened her eyes. Now that direction held a glimmer of hope. Just beyond the cornfield…
Soft footsteps padded in the dirt behind her, and April spun around, her heart almost stopping with fear. An old woman stood there, her long white hair held down by a wide-brimmed straw hat and her finger pressed to her lips, indicating that April should remain silent. Beside her, a white German shepherd stood, head held low and pressed against the woman's hip.
Gulping air in relief, April nodded, and the woman motioned for her to follow her. Moving slowly, the three of them headed north, and April's hope bloomed as her panic faded enough for her to realize exactly who she followed.
Everyone in Caralinda called Lucretia Stockard "Aunt Suke," but April hadn't yet been able to find out why. And, at this moment, she cared very little about the odd nickname. All that mattered was the woman's house, just past the northern corner of Levon's property. She followed Aunt Suke's careful, silent footsteps as they moved slowly toward the edge of the field. At the end of the row, Aunt Suke paused and turned her head, listening. The dog stood still, head tilted to watch Aunt Suke, waiting for her command. The angry shouts had stopped, but April could still hear the sound of cornstalks being slashed aside not too far away and rapidly coming closer. Aunt Suke took one step forward, looked left and right, then motioned for April to come up next to her.
They were standing at the edge of Aunt Suke's backyard. The soft expanse of dark green grass led right to the back of the brick antebellum Stockard mansion. At the back of the house, slanted double doors leading to a root cellar stood open, their white slats gleaming in the summer sun.
Aunt Suke pointed at the root cellar and said one word. "Run."
April fled toward the safety of the 170-year-old house, even though the yard felt as if it were the size of a football field. Out of the corners of her eyes, she could see Aunt Suke and the dog running alongside her. As the three neared the doors, she heard a rage-filled roar echo over the field. He'd seen them, and even as Aunt Suke shoved her hard down the stone steps into the cellar and slammed the doors, April knew the planks of wood wouldn't hold against the killer's rage.
With a movement made familiar by years of living in the giant home, Aunt Suke slid a wooden bar through the handles of the cellar doors and swung around, eyes bright with command. "Polly!" Her voice snapped the word out in a harsh whisper. "Upstairs! And stay!"
April watched as the white shepherd turned toward a set of steps to the left of the doors and trotted upward. Aunt Suke then motioned April to the right, where a trapdoor was barely visible in the shadows. Aunt Suke hustled her down the ladder and followed quickly behind her into the pitch-dark room.
The older woman pulled the door shut, just as the first blast of the shotgun thundered against the cellar doors.
Daniel Rivers refused to believe what he'd heard over the radio. The county dispatcher who took the 911 call apparently did believe it, however, and her usually dispassionate voice shook as she alerted the units. Daniel stared at the radio a moment. This had to be a prank. Or he'd not heard it right.
Why would there be a shooting at Dad's?
He picked up the radio mike. "Unit A12. Base, repeat the call."
Silence followed, then his cell phone rang. He checked the number. It was the station. His fingers trembled a bit when he answered. "Rivers."
Martha Williams had been a dispatcher for the Bell County sheriff's department for almost forty years, and her nasal, drawling voice normally was as steady as a low river on a hot day. Now the voice shook with shock. "Daniel, it's true. The 911 call came fromAunt Suke. She says someone shot Levon and is trying to shoot April Presley."
Ice formed in Daniel's gut, and the images of his father and April Presley flashed through his mind. His father's face, leathery and creased from long years of hot sun and bright laughter, brought forth memories of their last fight, just a few days ago. Daniel loved his dad, but their relationship had evolved into what Daniel thought of as "civil animosity."
April, on the other hand… "April," Daniel whispered. From the moment he'd met her at one of his dad's infamous barbecues, Daniel had responded to her as he had no other woman. His chest tightened whenever she came near him, and the urge to hold her close and protect her surged through him.
She'd been gentle as she had turned down his invitation to dinner, explaining that it was too soon after her divorce. Daniel knew he should have moved on to other women, but he couldn't. In his heart he knew April was the one he was supposed to wait for.
Now he just hoped he hadn't waited too long.
"This has to be wrong." He cleared his throat.
"Aunt Suke's getting on in years. Her eyes aren't as sharp as they used to be. Maybe… maybe there's been a mistake."
"Maybe. The sheriff is on his way, though, to check it out."
Daniel reached to start the engine on his patrol cruiser. "I am, too. Thanks, Martha."
"Be careful, baby."
"You know I will." Daniel dropped the phone and gravel spun as he slid the car into a U-turn away from the speed trap he'd been watching and toward his father's farm. He hit the siren, which screamed as the cruiser raced down the road. Daniel pushed it hard through the curves of roads he'd driven since he was fifteen.
He didn't want to think about what Martha had said. It had to be wrong. Why would anyone want to shoot his father or April? Everyone in town loved Levon, and April— No, he couldn't even stand the thought of anyone hurting April. He pressed down harder on the accelerator. He'd be there soon, and then he'd see that this was all just a big mistake.
Suke Stockard was wrong. She had to be wrong.
"Please, Lord," Daniel whispered under his breath. "Please let her be wrong."
April flinched as the killer crashed into the cellar, the wooden door splintering under his assault. Aunt Suke clutched her arm, pressing her harder against the gritty wall at their backs. The room, pitch-black as any cave, smelled sour and acidic, like old dough, potatoes, onions and garlic. The taste in her mouth was acidic, too—a mix of adrenaline and fear.
"April Presley!" The killer's voice sounded flat and cold and far too close. "You can't hide forever. You, too, Suke Stockard. I will kill you."
Upstairs, Polly set up a raucous series of barks and yelps, and they could hear her running through the rooms.
A second blast from the gun made both women jump, and April bit her fist to keep from screaming. Terror clenched tight around her, making her shake.
Aunt Suke slid an arm around her, pulling her tight against her. Her thin limbs were wiry with tense muscles, and April wished she could draw in some of the older woman's strength. She inhaled deeply, trying to remain still and silent, not daring to relax, even as they heard his footsteps on the stairs, hard thumps headed upward.
Then another sound reached April, one that made her heart leap for joy. Police sirens.
The killer heard them, as well. "This ain't over!" His hoarse, raspy voice echoed through the house as he ascended the stairs and headed toward the backyard. "The cops can't protect you. Before this day is out, you're both dead!"
Daniel skidded the car into the familiar driveway, then turned down the field road that ran along the edge of the corn, toward the police lights he could see flashing up ahead. A cluster of emergency vehicles circled the crime scene, and he stopped the cruiser near the sheriff's car. He got out, still denying the growing dread in his heart.
When Daniel saw the strained horror in Sheriff Ray Taylor's face, however, he knew there had been no mistake. Then he spotted the blue tarp over the body on the ground, and plunged toward it with a gasp of pain. It took Ray and two other deputies to stop him, and he shoved back hard, his shoes digging into the dirt and scuffing backward as he pushed. "Let me see him!"
Ray blocked his way. "Daniel! Listen! I'm not going to keep you from seeing him, but you have to listen first. Look at me!"
Daniel stopped pushing against the older man, but couldn't seem to take his eyes off the blue tarp until Ray repeated the command with all the power of his Marine training. "Rivers, look at me!"
Daniel did, and Ray's voice softened. "Your father took a shotgun blast to the chest at close range. Probably 12-gauge, from the look of it. It's not something you really want to see, and I don't care what you saw on the streets of Nashville. This is your father."
Daniel felt like a block of ice, numb and distant. "I have to see him."
Ray nodded. "We've cleared a spot so the coroner can get to him without messing up any evidence. There are footprints we still have to cast. I'll take you."