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Lillie Beaumont gasped for air and fought her way through the dream that came too often. Her heart pounded a warning as she blinked open her eyes, allowing the dark outline of her bedroom to sweep into focus. She lifted her head off the pillow and anticipated the distant thunder before the sound reached her ears.
Low. Rumbling. Menacing, like cannon fire at nearby Fort Rickman, Georgia.
Weeding her fingers through the sheets, she grasped for anything that would calm her spinning stomach and racing pulse.
Another rumble, this time closer.
Then another and another in rapid succession, each encroaching on her space, her air, her life.
The thunder escalated, its cadence steady like the giant footfalls of an evil predator, stalking an unsuspecting prey. Only Lillie wasn't oblivious to its approach. She knew the storm, felt it in her inner being, breathed it into her soul where she battled the terror and torment of a thousand deaths.
Another volley. Her airway constricted. She touched her throat, yearning to be free of the stranglehold of fear that wrapped around her neck.
Don't cower. Face your phobia. The words of reason echoed in her head.
"Something happened before she came to us," her foster parents had told concerned friends after taking Lillie into their home when she was a child. "Our little girl is terrified of storms."
She wanted to laugh at the understatement. Instead, tears trickled from the corners of her eyes.
The musky scent of wet earth and damp air seeped through the partially open window and filled her nostrils, like the cloying odor of that night so long ago. Eyes wide, she stared into the darkness, anticipating the next bright burst of lightning.
A blast of thunder rocked her world, hurling her from the bed. She ran, as she always did, her footfalls echoing on the hardwood floor. No matter how much she longed to ignore the gathering storm, she had no control over the memories that made her relive the terror of that night so long ago.
In her mind's eye, she was once again four years old.
"Mama," young Lillie had cried, longing to be swooped into her mother's outstretched arms.
Instead, he had opened the bedroom door.
"Go back to bed, child."
The door had closed, leaving Lillie alone in the hallway, huddled in a ball, shivering with fear, tears streaking her face and trembling body.
Another round of thunder, followed by a kaleidoscope of light that blinded her eyes and made the past fade and the present come back into focus.
Finding the corner, the twenty-nine-year-old Lillie crouched, knees to her chest, heart on a marathon race as thunder continued to bellow. Rain pummeled her copper roof, the incessant pings reminding her of the gossip of the townspeople after her mother's remains had been found fifteen years ago.
Murdered. Sealed in a steel drum. Buried beneath the earth.
"Mama," she whimpered, trying to be strong enough to fight off the memories.
Outside, the storm raged as if good and evil battled for her soul, only she was too weak, too crazed, to fight off the attacks.
Close, persistent. Rap, rap, rap. "Lillie?"
Someone called her name. "Lillie, open the door."
She ran to the front of the house, undid the lock and flung open the door. Frigid rain stung her face, soaking her pajamas and mixing with her tears.
"Help me, Lillie."
A man she knew only from newspaper photos stood before her. Mid-fifties, with gray, rumpled hair and weatherworn skin stretched across a bruised and bloodied face. Doleful eyes, swollen, suffering, seemingly entreated her to forget the past and think only of his need. "They they found me beat me."
His hand stretched to hers. A small metal key dropped into her palm.
"I uncovered information. The the answers I've been looking for," he said. She took a step back.
"I never" He shook his head. "Your mother" A shot rang out.
He gasped, his face awash with pain. "Free us " He reached for her. "Free us from the past."
Slipping through her fingers, he collapsed onto the rain-drenched step. She screamed, seeing not only her own bloodied hands but also the battered body of her mother's killer.
The phone call dragged Dawson Timmons from a dead sleep. Flipping on the bedside lamp, he rubbed his hand over his face and raised the receiver. "Special Agent Timmons."
"Sorry to wake you, sir." Corporal Raynard Otis from the Criminal Investigation Division.
"What's the problem, Ray?"
"Agent Steele is on duty tonight, sir, but he's tied up, handling a possible overdose, and we're short-staffed since Agents Patterson and McQueen were transferred."
With the recent reduction in force, the whole army was short-staffed. "I'm aware of the situation, Ray. Plus, the chief's on leave until Monday."
"Yes, sir. That's why Agent Steele asked that I contact you." The corporal's voice was strained. "The Freemont police just notified us about a shooting."
"Negative, sir. But the location has bearing."
"No, sir. Freemont."
"What's the tie-in?"
"The house where the shooting took place belongs to the general's secretary."
Dawson groaned inwardly, dropped his feet to the floor and stood. "General Cameron's secretary? The commanding general?"
"Yes, sir. The deceased pounded on the secretary's door in the middle of the storm. She answered the knock just before the victim was shot."
"A drive-by shooting?"
"I'm not sure, sir."
"We're talking about Lillie Beaumont?"
"Was she hurt?"
"The victim.. " Dawson swallowed, hoping to keep his voice level and free of inflection. "Do you have a positive ID?"
"Granger Ford. The guy was serving time for the murder of Ms. Beaumont's mother. Fifteen years ago he was tried and found guilty. His case was recently reviewed, and new DNA testing exonerated him. Ten days have passed since he got out of prison in Atlanta. Now he's dead."
Dawson hung his head. Ringing filled his ears. His stomach soured, and for an instant, his world went dark. Granger had called him three nights ago. Not that Dawson had expected or wanted the phone call from his past.
"Shall I notify the staff duty officer at post headquarters?" Ray asked.
"Let headquarters know, and call General Cameron's aide as well. Tell him I'll check out the situation and report back to the general when I return to post."
Dawson would tell the commanding general what the Freemont police had determined about the shooting and Lillie Beaumont's involvement in the case. He wouldn't reveal the truth about Granger Ford and the child he had fathered thirty-one years ago. A little boy raised by an unwed mother who had hardened her son's heart to his drifter dad.
Dawson could forgive his mother's bitterness, but he never forgave his father's rejection. Now, with his death, the truth would come out. The last thing Dawson wanted was for the military to know his father was a murderer.
The storm had subsided by the time Dawson climbed behind the wheel of his Camry. Twigs and leaves cluttered the roadway as he left post and headed to the far side of Freemont, where Lillie lived. Turning his headlights to high beam, he pressed down on the accelerator and reached for his cell phone.
"I'm on my way into town," Dawson said when Jamison Steele answered. Working together, the two agents had formed a strong friendship. Trust ran deep, and just days earlier Dawson had told Jamison about his past and the father he had never met.
"Otis said you agreed to handle the shooting." Jamison let out a breath. "Look, I'm sorry about what happened and that you have to be the one to handle the case."
"It's not like Granger and I had a relationship. The last thing he wanted was a kid. My mother said he hightailed it out of town as soon as she told him she was pregnant. I never met him."
"Still, it puts you in a difficult spot. I'll explain the situation to Chief Wilson when he gets back to work on Monday."
Dawson pursed his lips. "No need. I can fight my own battles. Besides, tonight should be fairly straightforward. I'll ensure the Freemont cops handle the case appropriately. Once I share the information with General Cameron concerning his secretary, I'll file my report and move on to the next case."
"It's Friday, Dawson. I'm hoping the weekend is crimefree."
"Which might be wishful thinking."
Jamison hesitated. "Have have you told anyone else about your dad?"
"I didn't see the need." Dawson stared into the roadway ahead. "Of course, his death changes everything."
"We'll talk at the office."
Dawson disconnected and shook his head with frustration. Granger had made a huge mistake visiting the daughter of the woman he was supposed to have murdered. From what Dawson had pieced together about his wayward father, Granger's life had been as littered as the pavement with a series of wrong places, wrong times. Exactly what tonight felt likea wrong turn that could end up detouring Dawson off the straight course he had chosen for his career in the army.
When he saw the secretary's house in the distance, his gut tightened. Police lights flashed from the driveway. The crime-scene crew hovered around the front porch, where a man's body lay spotlighted in the rain. Maybe this homicide wouldn't be as cut-and-dried as he had first imagined.
Pulling to a stop, Dawson sucked in a deep breath before he stepped into the wet night. His left leg ached. More than a year had passed since he'd taken a bullet, but the pain remained and grew more insistent with the cold weather.
He rubbed his hands together and grabbed the keys from the ignition, his mouth dry. Steeling himself against any unwanted rush of emotion, he approached the crime-scene tape and held up his identification to the closest cop.
"CID, from Fort Rickman. Who's in charge?"
The guy pointed to the house. "Head through the kitchen. Sergeant Ron Pritchard's inside with Ms. Beaumont."
"Is she a suspect?"
The cop shrugged. "All I know is that we found her huddled in the hallway, crying like a baby."
Dawson hesitated for a moment and then glanced down at the victim's twisted body. Regret washed over him. This wasn't the way life should end. Granger had been shot in the back, probably with a forty-five caliber hollow point from the appearance of the wound.
In stark contrast to the grisly death scene, beds of yellow pansies edged the small front stoop. Ignoring the flowers, Dawson circled the house, picking his way through the wet grass. The back porch, trimmed in white latticework, was graced with more winter blooms that danced in the wind, oblivious to the crime that had recently been committed.
Stepping into the kitchen, he opened his navy wind-breaker and wiped his shoes on the small entry rug. The smell of the wet outdoors followed him inside and mixed with the homey scent of pumpkin and spice. A large melon-colored candle sat on the counter near a bouquet of yellow mums and a plaque that read, God bless this home and all those who enter.
The irony wasn't lost on Dawson, yet surely death hadn't been Granger's just reward. The estranged son might have argued the point before the phone call, before Granger had asked forgiveness. Something Dawson hadn't been able to give. Now he wasn't sure how he felt. A little numb, a bit confused, even angry. Long ago, he had realized it was better not to feel anything than to feel too much.
Entering the living area, he signaled to the officer in charge, held up his badge and nodded as the local cop continued to question the woman huddled on the couch.
Lillie's life had been inexplicably intertwined with Dawson's, although he doubted she was aware her mother's killer had a son. They'd never been introduced, but Dawson had seen her on post. It was hard not to notice the tall and slender secretary. Usually she was stylishly dressed and perfectly coiffed. Tonight wild, honey-brown tresses fell across the collar of what appeared to be flannel pajamas. Even from where he stood, Dawson noticed the blood spatters on the thick fabric.
She turned, hearing him behind her.
He hadn't expected her eyes to be so green or so lucid. She wore her pain in the knit of her brow, in the downward tug on her full lips, in the tear-streaked eyes whose sadness wrapped around his heart. His breath hitched, and time stood still for one long moment.
Pritchard asked another question. She turned back to the lead cop, leaving Dawson dangling. He straightened his neck, trying to work his way back to reality.
Long ago, Dawson had learned to weigh everything, never to take a chance. He put his faith in what he could do and affect and impact, not on emotions that left him hanging in thin air.
"The middle of a stormy night." Pritchard restated the last question. "Yet you opened your door when Mr. Ford knocked?"
"I.ah." She searched for an answer.
"Do you always open your door to strangers, Ms. Beaumont?" Pritchard pressed.
She shook her head. "Of course not, but"
Once again, she glanced at Dawson, as if asking him to clear the confusion written on her oval face.
"Had you been asleep?" Dawson knew better than to prompt a witness, yet the question sprang from his lips before he could weigh the consequences.
She nodded, her brow raised and lips upturned for the briefest of moments. "I was dreaming. The knock sounded. Before I realized what I was doing, I was staring at him through the open doorway."
Pritchard cleared his throat and jotted her answer in a notebook. After recording the statement, he glared at Dawson. "I'm finished questioning Ms. Beaumont. If there's anything you want to ask her, go right ahead. I'll be outside."
Dawson read between the lines. Pritchard didn't want his interrogation compromised by a newcomer from post. A subtle reprimand, perhaps? Not that Dawson would be intimidated by a small-town cop.
As Pritchard left through the kitchen, Dawson took a seat on the chair next to Lillie and held up his identification.
"Special Agent Dawson Timmons, ma'am. I'm with the Criminal Investigation Division at Fort Rickman. The Freemont Police Department is handling the murder investigation, but the CID was called in because you work on post. I'm here as a liaison between the local police and the military."
"Does does General Cameron know what happened?" Lillie asked.
"He's being notified."
"I don't want anything to"
"To jeopardize your job? I don't see how that could happen. Unless your position as the general's secretary has a bearing on this crime."
"No, no." She held up her hand. "This has nothing to do with General Cameron."
"What does it involve, Ms. Beaumont?" He leaned closer.
"May I call you Lillie?"
She nodded. "You're not from around here?"
"Georgia born and raised, but my home's in Cotton Grove, close to the Florida border."
She swallowed, the tendons in her graceful neck tight. "I don't know where to start."
"How 'bout at the beginning."
She tucked a strand of hair behind her ear. "I was born in Atlanta and moved to Freemont with my mother when I was a baby. We lived in a remote area, not far from the highway."
Dawson pulled a notebook and pen from his pocket.
"My my mother disappeared when I was four." Lillie's voice was weak. She cleared her throat. "Most folks thought she had abandoned me and returned to Atlanta with a man." She shrugged. "Her lover. Sugar daddy. Whatever you want to call him."
"No. The man she was seeing at the time."
"How can you be sure it wasn't Granger?"
"There was a storm the night she disappeared. The thunder awakened me. I was frightened and ran to my mother's bedroom."
Dawson's could envision young Lillie, green eyes wide with fear, golden-brown hair tumbling around her sweet face, scurrying down a darkened hallway.