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Tuesday, March 21
Whoever had dubbed the town Silence must have gotten a laugh out of it, Nell thought as she closed the door of her Jeep and stood on the curb beside the vehicle. For a relatively small town, it was not what anyone would have called peaceful even on an average day; on this mild weekday in late March, at least three school groups appeared to be trying to raise money for something or other with loud and cheerful car washes in two small parking lots and a bake sale going on in the grassy town square. And there were plenty of willing customers for the kids, even with building clouds promising a storm later on.
Nell hunched her shoulders and slid her cold hands into the pockets of her jacket. Her restless gaze warily scanned the area, studying the occasional face even as she listened to snatches of conversation as people walked past her. Calm faces, innocuous talk. Nothing out of the ordinary.
It didn't look or sound like a town in trouble.
Nell glanced through the window of her Jeep at the newspaper folded on the passenger seat; there hadn't been much in yesterday's local daily to indicate trouble. Not much, but definitely hints, especially for anyone who knew how to read between the lines.
Not far from where she stood was a newspaper vendor selling today's edition, and she could easily make out the headline announcing the town council's decision to acquire property on which to build a new middle school. There was, as far as she could see, no mention on the front page of anything of greater importance than that.
Nell walked over to buy herself a paper and returned to stand beside her Jeep as she quickly scanned the three thin sections. She found it where she expected to find it, among the obituaries.
George Thomas Caldwell,
42, Unexpectedly, at Home.
There was more, of course. A long list of accomplishments for the relatively young man, local and state honors, business accolades. He had been very successful, George Caldwell, and unusually well-liked for a man in his position.
But it was the unexpectedly Nell couldn't get past. Someone's idea of a joke in very poor taste? Or was the sheriff's department refusing to confirm media speculation of only a day or so ago about the violent cause of George Caldwell's death?
Unexpected. Oh, yeah. Murder usually was.
She refolded the newspaper methodically and tucked it under her arm as she turned to face him. It was easy to keep her expression unrevealing, her voice steady. She'd had a lot of practice--and this was one meeting she had been ready for.
Standing no more than an arm's length away, Max Tanner looked at her, she decided, rather the way he'd look at something distasteful he discovered on the bottom of his shoe. Hardly surprising, she supposed.
"What the hell are you doing here?" His voice was just uneven enough to make it obvious he couldn't sound as impersonal and indifferent as he wanted to.
"I could say I was just passing through."
"You could. What's the truth?"
Nell shrugged, keeping the gesture casual. "I imagine you can guess. The will's finally through probate, so there's a lot I have to do. Go through things, clear out the house, arrange to sell it. If that's what I end up doing, of course."
"You mean you're not sure?"
"About selling out?" Nell allowed her mouth to curve in a wry smile. "I've had a few doubts."
"Banish them," he said tightly. "You don't belong here, Nell. You never did."
She pretended that didn't hurt. "Well, we agree on that much. Still, people change, especially in--what?--a dozen years? Maybe I could learn to belong."
He laughed shortly. "Yeah? Why would you want to? What could there possibly be in this pissant little town to interest you?"
Nell had learned patience in those dozen years, and caution. So all she said in response to that harsh question was a mild "Maybe nothing. We'll see."
Max drew a breath and shoved his hands into the pockets of his leather jacket, gazing off toward the center of town as if the bake sale going on there fascinated him.
While he was deciding what to say next, Nell studied him. He hadn't changed much, she thought. Older, of course. Physically more powerful now in his mid-thirties; he probably still ran, still practiced the martial arts that had been a lifelong interest. In addition, of course, to the daily physical labors of a cattle rancher. Whatever he was doing, it was certainly keeping him in excellent shape.
His lean face was a bit more lived-in than it had been, but just as with so many really good-looking men, the almost-too-pretty features of youth were maturing with age into genuine and striking male beauty--beauty that was hardly spoiled at all by the thin, grim line of his mouth. The passage of the years had barely marked that face in any negative way. There might have been a few threads of silver in the dark hair at his temples, and she didn't remember the laugh lines at the corners of his heavy-lidded brown eyes. . . .
Bedroom eyes. He'd been known for them all through school, for bedroom eyes and a hot temper, both gifts from a Creole grandmother. Maturity had done nothing to dampen the smoldering heat lurking in those dark eyes; she wondered if it had taught him to control the temper.
It had certainly taught her to control hers.
"You've got a hell of a nerve, I'll say that for you," he said finally, that intense gaze returning to her face.
"Because I came back? You must have known I would. With Hailey gone, there was no one else to . . . take care of things."
"You didn't come back for the funeral."
"No." She offered no explanation, no defense.
His mouth tightened even more. "Most people around here said you wouldn't."
"What did you say?" She asked because she had to.
"I was a fool. I said you would."
"Sorry to disappoint you."
Max shook his head once, an almost violent negation, and his voice was hard. "You can't disappoint me, Nell. I lost ten bucks on a bet, that's all."
Nell didn't know what she would have said to that, but she was saved from replying when an astonished female voice exclaimed her name.
"Nell Gallagher? My God, is that you?"
Nell half turned and managed a faint smile for the stunning redhead hurrying toward her. "It's me, Shelby."
Shelby Theriot shook her head and repeated, "My God," as she joined them beside Nell's car. For a moment, it seemed she would throw her arms around Nell in an exuberant hug, but in the end she just grinned. "I thought you'd probably show up here eventually, what with the house and everything to take care of, but I guess I figured it'd be later, maybe summer or something, though I don't know why. Hey, Max."
"Hey, Shelby." He stood there with his hands in his pockets, expressionless now, dark eyes flicking back and forth between the two women.
Nell kept her own gaze on Shelby's glowing face. "I thought about waiting until fall or until storm season was mostly past," she said easily, "but it worked out that I had some time now before beginning a new job, so I came on down."
"Down from where?" Shelby demanded. "Last we heard, you were out west somewhere."
"Heard from Hailey?"
"Yeah. She said you were--well, I think the word she used was entangled, with some guy in Los Angeles. Or maybe it was Las Vegas. Anyway, out west somewhere. And that you were taking college courses at night. At least, I think that's what she said."
Rather than commenting on the information, Nell merely said, "I live in D.C. now."
"Did you ever get married? Hailey said you came close once or twice."
"No. I never married."
Shelby grimaced. "Me either. Matter of fact, half our graduating class seems to be single these days, even though most of us have hit thirty. Depressing, isn't it?"
"Maybe some of us are better off alone," Nell offered, keeping her tone light.
"I think there's something in the water," Shelby said darkly. "Honest, Nell, this is getting to be a weird place. Have you heard about the murders?"
Nell lifted an eyebrow. "Murders?"
"Yeah. Four so far, if you count George Caldwell--remember him, Nell? 'Course, the sheriff hasn't been eager to put this latest death on the list with the others, but--"
Max cut her off to say, "We've had killings here before, Shelby, just like any other town."
"Not like these," Shelby insisted. "People around here get themselves killed, the reason why is generally pretty obvious, just like who the killer is. No locked-room mysteries or other baffling whodunits, not in Silence. But these deaths? All fine, upstanding men of the town with reputations the next best thing to lily-white, then they're murdered and all their nasty secrets come spilling out like a dam broke wide open."
"Secrets?" Nell asked curiously.
"I'll say. Adultery, embezzlement, gambling, pornography--you name it, we've had it. It's been a regular Peyton Place around here. We haven't heard anything about poor George's secrets so far, but it's early days yet. The other three, their secrets became public knowledge within a couple of weeks of their deaths. So I'm afraid it's just a matter of time until we find out more about George than we ever wanted to know."
"Have the killers been caught?"
"Nope. Which is another weird thing, if you ask me. Four prominent citizens killed in the last eight months, and the sheriff can't solve even one of the murders? He's going to have a hell of a time getting himself reelected."
Nell glanced at Max, who was frowning slightly but didn't offer a comment, then looked back at Shelby. "It does sound a little strange, but I'm sure the sheriff knows his job, Shelby. You always did fret too much."
Shelby shook her head but laughed as well. "Yeah, I guess I did at that. Oh, hell--is that the time? I've gotta go, I'm late. Listen, Nell, I really want to catch up--can I give you a call in a day or two, after you've settled in? We can have lunch or something."
"Sure, I'd love to."
"Great. And if you get lonesome in that big old house and want somebody to talk to in the meantime, you call me, okay? I'm still a night owl, so anytime's fine."
"Gotcha. See you later, Shelby."
With a wave to Max, the redhead rushed off, and Nell murmured, "She hasn't changed much."
Nell knew her best bet would be to get in her car and just leave, but she heard herself saying slowly, "These murders do sound pretty unusual. And to go unsolved for so long . . . Doesn't the sheriff have at least a few suspects?"
Max uttered an odd little laugh. "Oh, yeah, he has a few. One, in particular."
"Yeah, one. Me." With another laugh, he turned on his heel and walked away.
Nell gazed after him until he disappeared around the next corner. Then she looked at the busy little town that seemed oblivious to the storm clouds moving in and, half under her breath, murmured, "Welcome home, Nell. Welcome home."
Ethan Cole stood at the window of his office and looked down on Main Street. He had an excellent view of most of the street, especially the area around the newsstand. So he saw the visibly tense encounter between Nell Gallagher and Max Tanner, saw Shelby Theriot join them for a few moments before hurrying on in a characteristic rush. Saw Max stalk away and Nell watch him until she could no longer see him.
Well, now. How about that?
Ethan had known Nell was coming back to Silence, of course. Wade Keever wasn't as closemouthed as he should have been about the legal affairs he handled, especially with a couple of drinks in him, and Ethan usually bought him a couple or three at least twice a month, just to keep on top of things. So he knew that Nell had--somewhat reluctantly, according to Wade--agreed to come home at least long enough to clear out the old house, see what family possessions she wanted to keep, do whatever else needed doing by the last blood Gallagher left with ties to this place.
Hell, maybe she'd just have a big-ass yard sale and then set a match to the ancestral home and drive back to D.C. purged of the past.
Ethan doubted she'd want to keep much, at least if all the old stories and rumors had any truth to them. And since she hadn't returned home even for family funerals in the past twelve years, it certainly looked like at least some of those stories were true.
Ethan pursed his lips unconsciously as he watched Nell get back into her very nice Grand Cherokee and drive away. He'd run the plates later, he decided, just to make sure, but he didn't expect there'd be anything he didn't already know.
He knew a lot.
Being sheriff of a small, generally close-knit community required that, of course. Good police work in Lacombe Parish, and particularly here in Silence, so often came down to what he knew about the people here long before he had a crime to solve. So he made it his business to know what most everybody was up to, whether or not it was illegal.
He turned from the window to find one of his CID detectives, Justin Byers, standing in front of the desk. He encouraged his people to come seek him out if they needed to talk, avoiding the outdated intercom system mostly because it was outdated but also because he hated the tinny, almost eerie sounds of voices run through the things.
"What's up, Justin?"
"I'm having a little trouble running down all the financial information on George Caldwell. Nothing really suspicious, just some pretty scattered investments and a few too many details unexplained for my taste. I thought maybe if we got a warrant for his personal records--"
Ethan smiled. "I appreciate your enthusiasm, Justin, but I doubt Judge Buchanan will issue a warrant based on our uneasiness. Find out what you can, but don't push anybody, and don't call on his widow, okay?"
"Does Sue Caldwell even consider herself his widow? I mean, they'd been separated--what?--two or three years?"
"About that." Ethan shrugged. "But they were still married, and she's his legal heir. From what I hear, she's grieving. So leave her alone."
"Okay, sure. Just so you know, it's going to take a while to gather all the info you wanted--"