|Publisher:||Greenleaf Book Group, LLC|
|Product dimensions:||5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.83(d)|
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BLUE SUEDE SHOESa novel
By DEBORAH REARDON
River Grove BooksCopyright © 2013 Deborah Reardon
All right reserved.
Chapter OneClare had finally gotten deep into the Sunday newspaper late in the evening, and she might not have noticed her childhood friend Derek Watkins at all had she not accidentally glimpsed his truck headlamps lighting up the edge of her driveway over the top of the newsprint. It was a sight that wouldn't have ordinarily fazed her—he stopped by often enough—but it was so late on a Sunday, and he hadn't called. Through the filmy sheers covering the window, she saw him crossing the porch. She didn't lounge and wait for him to knock; something in his demeanor made her run to the door.
"Good Lord, Derek, what happened?" Clare demanded. His shirt was torn, he was soaking wet, and there was mud and dried blood all over him. Without waiting for an answer, she struggled to yank all 240 pounds of him inside; whoever had done this to him might be close behind. As soon as he was in, she bolted the door.
"You're hurt!" she said.
"I'm not." She reached out to check him for injuries; he resisted.
"You've got to listen to me," he said, and he grabbed hold of her shoulders. "I'm not hurt, Clare! It's about Mary. I just got done at the police station; it's a really big mess."
Clare froze. "What are you saying? Did they find Mary?"
Weeks had gone by since four-year-old Mary Martin had vanished. Her disappearance had been weighing heavily on their tight-knit town of Danfield, Wisconsin, a small community of 5,500 citizens outside of Milwaukee, many of whom had sprung into action to help the authorities when the news first broke. Clare was still reluctant to consciously accept what she felt deep down: time was no longer on Mary's side for survival. But maybe her shaken friend had brought news that could finally help the traumatic case move forward.
"Come on Derek, take a breath! What happened?"
"I was fishing," he said. "Just fishing. I was getting ready to leave when Coach started barking and running around frantically. And, and I found the spot where Mary might have died ..."
He wasn't making sense, and he must have realized it, because his gravelly voice trailed off in disbelief. He shook his head and kept talking. "Damn, Clare! She was the sweetest little girl—what kind of monster could have done this? Can you imagine what her parents are going through? Russell and Courtney will be heartbroken ..."
Clare's heart plummeted while she privately repeated the word monster, a term that had been universally invoked since Mary had disappeared. The beloved little girl had become the poster child for the community, smashing its reputation as one of the safest places anywhere to raise a family.
She stood there silently with him, letting him calm down, as water dripped to the wood floor from his soaked clothes.
"Let's get these wet things off you and go sit down," Clare finally said. "I'll get some coffee going."
"It'll have to be stronger than that," Derek argued.
The two had frequented each other's homes over the years since grade school, so Derek felt comfortable peeling off his soiled jacket and flannel shirt. He hung both on the coat rack and then unbolted the door and stepped back out front to leave his muddy boots on the porch. Clare tossed him an old pair of his sweat bottoms that she let him keep in the hallway closet for days when he'd come to help shovel the walkway after the worst storms.
In the stress of the moment, Clare was overcome by the familiar tug of their youth that had been abated by careers, adult responsibilities, and her time away at Northwestern University. Their closeness had been somewhat marred when she grabbed at the opportunity at twenty-five to pursue a long-desired degree in law enforcement in Chicago and made too big a deal about the chance to shed her small-town roots. But their connection, resumed upon her coming back to Danfield, was irrefutable, as evidenced by his choice to lean on her tonight.
"Grab a garbage bag if you could, Clare," Derek called and stepped into the hall bathroom.
While he scrubbed down to his dry duds behind the hall bathroom door, Clare let him ramble and get the story straight in his head. He had been a longtime employee and manager of Marwood's Hardware, and he was telling her every detail of how he'd tweaked his October work schedule in order to nab some late-afternoon fishing at the end of the season. She wanted to know what had happened and would have been annoyed by these tidbits if they had been coming from anyone else. But instead she worried; it wasn't like Derek to be this rattled.
The bathroom door opened. "Give me a towel," Derek said, motioning to the mess on the floor.
"Not now, Derek," she said. "I'll get that later; this is not the time to be a neat freak. I know this is painful, but I've got to know what happened."
Clare brought a couple of beers, and the two of them went to the couch. He was finally putting substantive sentences together.
"Like I said, I was fishing," he began again. "I kept saying, Coach, come on, let's go! He didn't even look at me."
Derek's breath got shorter with every detail.
"It was getting later, and I was cold," he pressed on. "It had been drizzling, and I'd left my raincoat at the truck. The temperatures started dropping so quickly, so at first I turned up the path so that I could get it and stay longer, but as I kept walking I decided it felt too late to stay and Coach and I should just go home. And you know Coach always follows me, but tonight, when I was halfway up the path to the truck, he suddenly shot back down to the creek toward the spillway."
He trailed off again.
"I'm listening; it doesn't sound like Coach." Clare said.
Derek wiped his sweaty forehead and changed the subject. "Clare, this is really awful. I shouldn't be here throwing all this at you. But I went by my house and it was surrounded with reporters."
"What? Don't be ridiculous; I would have done the same thing. And I can't imagine your mom's reaction if you'd have brought the media hounds over to her house."
Her favorite denim shirt had been soaked, earlier, when she had helped him in the foyer, and it now lay cold and clammy against her chest. She began to shiver from the dampness, but the discomfort was a small inconvenience, given what Derek had just gone through.
"I could see Coach moving and jumping around from a distance," he said, a bit more animated now. "He was growling ... but he wouldn't even look up when I tried to get his attention. That just wasn't like him."
Clare wished he could get past the dog part of the story, but Coach's behavior also struck her as odd. Derek and his dog had been virtually inseparable since he had found the mangy, homeless collie mix dragging a floating piece of bark out of the lake. His instinctive reaction to scrub and nourish the poor mutt had grown into the colossal efforts he'd undertaken to return the dog—who right from the beginning he'd nicknamed Coach—to his rightful owner. The two of them, man and canine, had hobbled about town hanging posters, inquiring with neighbors, and checking the local kennels before they'd finally called an end to the search.
"How did you get Coach's attention, Derek?" Clare prompted.
"I was freezing, but instead of continuing to get my jacket, I had to chase Coach ... I was just freezing," he repeated. "I accidentally slipped down the creek bed at one point and my boots got soaked."
He was staring at the rug in the entryway, caked with mud and soaked with water.
"Please don't worry about that right now," Clare pleaded. "It'll get clean."
"If you could have seen her little underwear, Clare," Derek said, "and Coach had grabbed her shirt and was shaking it ..."
His voice was emotionless; it was like he'd gone into a trance.
"There was so much blood ... and her body wasn't anywhere. Clare, it appears she's gone," he said.
Her stomach was getting more nauseous with each sickening detail, but she had to know; tomorrow everyone would be talking about it.
"She's gone? Is that what the police say?" she asked. "Did you talk to the chief?" She was personally curious about how Chief Jared Grady would handle this new development in the most notable case in Danfield's history.
"Jared came out to the crime scene and to the interview at the station," Derek said. "I can't even think about all this, Clare ..." Sweaty moisture zigzagged the wrinkles on his cheeks, minor creases that were now noticeably pronounced crevasses, evidence that the evening had taken its toll. Derek had always been renowned for his calm, rational temperament, and she knew how uncomfortable he must have been with this sort of outward expression.
From that point, his story was all about his running to his truck and out to the road to flag somebody down for help. He remained pinned to his truck until the emergency team found him. He didn't make eye contact with Clare until she nudged him sideways.
"Where's Coach now?" she asked.
"They got him. The police said he could have evidence on him. They're going to inspect him and clean him up, I guess. I can bring him home in a couple of days. I'm sure he's freaking out right now." Derek clutched his calloused hands again.
Clare embraced his large shoulders and pulled him close; her five-foot-seven, 135-pound body seemed miniature in comparison. His restlessness subsided, and he was speechless except for his hollow wheezing. The two childhood buddies sat glued together. Clare was utterly horrified for Derek's misfortune, but she still felt some relief. It had been a tremendous break for the investigation. She resisted any urge to talk about what the impact might be on Mary's parents, their grade-school friends Russell and Courtney. Instead, she focused on a spot on ceiling and thought about the eerie first moments at her mother Yvonne's house, when they had first heard the news that Mary had gone missing.
* * *
Yvonne had no sooner joined Clare at the kitchen table with a bowl of green beans and clutched her daughter's hand for the dinner prayer when the phone rang. Yvonne had sprung to grab the corded phone in the other room.
"Mom, just let it ring," she remembered insisting. She remembered it so vividly because it had been one of their eternal sore points, one of a laundry list of annoying traits that had ravaged her mother since the disappearance of Clare's father Ray Paxton when Clare was just seven. No note, no trail, no nothing; he had just dropped from sight, and here they were dealing with the aftermath of his leaving over two decades later.
She had begun to eat without her mother when she heard Yvonne shout. "Get in here, Clare!" She figured it was her mother being her neurotic self, so she took her sweet time moving to the living room. It took only a glance at her mother's face for her to realize that something was very wrong.
"Here, listen to Vivian," Yvonne said, nervously offering Clare the phone so that she could turn on the TV.
Clare waved away talking to Yvonne's friend Vivian Fox, engrossed by the television images that appeared: Russell and Courtney Martin huddled front and center on the police station steps, pleading frantically for the return of their daughter Mary. For some time they had been estranged, and this was an extraordinary display of unity amid the uncertainty of their bitter divorce, Clare remembered thinking.
"What a terrible thing!" Yvonne rattled to her friend on the other end of the line, looking ten years older than her forty-eight. "It's just frightening to think of what could have happened to that precious little child ..."
Clare held up her hand to shush her mother's endless chattering with Vivian and motioned for Yvonne to hang up so that she could hear the news anchor continue with the breaking story. Courtney had returned to the house from working with the gardeners on a flowerbed arrangement. One minute little Mary Martin had been napping; the next she was nowhere to be found. The hair was immediately up on the back of Clare's neck. Her mind began to turn over any number of crazy inferences, an inevitable reflex spawned by her high-school summer jobs at the Danfield police station and by the few short years she had spent working on her criminal psychology degree in Chicago.
* * *
Aside from the obvious frightening fact that a well-known small child was missing, there was something extraordinary that Clare could not put her finger on that first night of Mary's disappearance. That extraordinary feeling came back to her in force now, sitting next to a shocked and silent Derek on her couch.
She felt the heaviness of his breathing and sat feeling tense beside him, wondering whether she dared turn on the news. Neither had moved much for a while, and her left arm was almost completely numb from clutching his shoulder when the phone rang. She scrambled to pick it up, nearly spilling one of the half-consumed, warm beers.
"Yes?" Clare whispered.
Clare listened to Derek's father's frantic request for his son.
"Oh ... Mr. Watkins! He's here. We should have called sooner."
Like Clare, Derek was an only child, and so he stayed very close to his parents, despite his independent and resourceful nature. She could see Derek waving his arm for the phone.
Mr. Watkins was relieved and then continued to ramble about his quest to find his son, all the phone calls, and the news. His TV was playing in the background.
"It sounds pretty horrible," she said before he could keep going. "But we're under control now. And he's already finished at the police station and they kept Coach for evidence or something. I'm guessing he'll just crash here ..."
She felt a nudge. Derek took hold of the phone. "Hey Dad, don't take everything miss busybody has to say too seriously," he said.
Clare rolled her eyes.
Derek paused, listening.
"We can go over all the details, Dad, but not over the phone." Derek's voice cracked slightly. "Yeah, there was a little media troop out in front of my house ... sounds like you have some visitors in your neighborhood as well, if you don't recognize the vehicles."
While Derek carried on the conversation, apologizing over and over for not calling, Clare cleaned up an earlier mess in the kitchen. She rummaged through the hallway linen closet, organizing the amenities for Derek to stay in the guest room downstairs, and then darted upstairs to get ready for bed. When she came back down to say good night, he was off the phone. She eased through the living room to the larger-than-life version of the little boy she'd befriended in the fourth grade. He was leaning back in the corner of her couch, propped against two couch pillows with one arm resting across his forehead.
"What did you decide after all that?" she asked. "I assume you're staying put for the night?"
"How long has it been since I stayed over because we drank too much? Remember those days? If I still drank tequila, I'd be skunked by now."
"This is a bit different. You're staying clear of the cameras. The guest room is all set up." She folded her body into the armchair beside the couch where he sat drained of all emotion. Derek had the most moderate personality of all her male friends growing up, neither hot-tempered nor overly softhearted. From the first moments when he had entered the classroom mid-semester, she could see the teachers and male classmates instantly start to size him up for his future football and basketball potential. Ultimately, Derek participated in sports quite gamely throughout the years, but he didn't have the same raw desire for competition and focus on athletics as those who suited him up. Instead, he channeled what desire he had into his engineering mindset and his talent for building things. He wasn't quite geeky enough to make fun of, and he wasn't inclined to pound his chest with the rest of his testosterone-laden male counterparts, so in the end, he blended in without fanfare.
Once his ten-year-old classmates had dared him to pinch off the tail of a stray cat they found, and he was strong enough do it with just his thumb and his forefinger. Yet he had been so overwhelmed by his horrific act that he had secretly nurtured the cat back to health. She knew him well enough to know that the events of tonight could eat him alive if he couldn't make it better or let it go, but at the same time, Clare felt oddly uneasy by his listlessness.
"Clare, you go on up," he said finally. "I'll probably sneak out in a while. Not sure yet."
"I am going up," Clare tossed a couch throw to Derek that was barely long enough to cover him down to his knees. "You might as well stay here and head home in the daylight. The guest room is all made up."
His nod was almost imperceptible.
"Good night," he said.
Clare turned off the stairwell light, Chief Jared Grady on her mind.
Excerpted from BLUE SUEDE SHOES by DEBORAH REARDON Copyright © 2013 by Deborah Reardon. Excerpted by permission of River Grove Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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