Excerpt: Come Home to Me, Child
Things don’t work out as intended for Elaine Randolph when her doctors send her, with her young family, to the sleepy Texas town of Veil to aid her recovery from a serious illness.
Much as she tries to rest, Elaine just keeps stumbling onto old, unsolved kidnappings, disappearances and cover ups. Veil, she discovers, has concealed a lot. Quirky neighbors, doubting family and growing danger draw the readers to a thrilling, deadly conclusion that is anything but restful.
“What’s wrong with the gazebo where it is?”
Elaine shuddered. She glanced over her shoulder in the direction of the stranger’s voice, her mouth open, her eyes wide.
He was already too close to her and drew even closer as he reached out. For an instant she only stared at him, still trying to gather herself. She felt his hand, firm and powerful, grasp hers.
“I’m Larry Daughtry, the Chief of Police.” He let go and stepped back. Lifting a thumb in the direction of the simple, one- story house next door, he grinned boyishly. “I’m also your neighbor.”
At last she was able to respond. “Hello. My name is Elaine—”
“Elaine Randolph.” The police chief completed her sentence. “And you and your family just moved here from Dallas.”
“Same difference to me. All big city.” He put his hands back in his pockets. “Welcome to Veil, the best hometown in North Texas.”
“Th-thank you, Mr. . . .”
“Daughtry. Larry Daughtry. Most folks call me ‘Chief’. But since we’re neighbors, why don’t you call me ‘Larry’?”
Elaine struggled to recall the little ritual she had been taught by her physical therapist. When flustered, it was okay to close her eyes, take a deep breath and say something about what she felt right then.
“You just surprised me, Mr. Daughtry.” She opened her eyes. “I didn’t realize anyone else was here. I was talking with our contractor, Mr.—”
“Tim Starling!” The chief interrupted her again. He stepped around her and punched the smaller, quiet man on the shoulder playfully. “Oh, Tim and I know each other very well. We go way back. How long we been knowing each other, son?”
Starling shook his head, annoyed at the intrusion. “Don’t get me to lying.”
“Well, we graduated high school together over at Blue Ridge.”
Elaine had calmed enough to study the chief more carefully. He wore the tan of a person who spent hours outside every day. His thinning, yellow hair and mustache were pale against his weathered face. And he was strongly built. Not as tall as her husband Jim, but thicker. Muscled.
“Mr. Starling is going to move our gazebo.”
“Yeah, that’s what I overheard.” The chief grasped one of the thick timbers of the shelter. “I’m sort of attached to it, really. I guess Tim told you he was the builder who constructed it originally?”
“Well did he tell you I helped him?” His voice had a conspiratorial tone. “I was glad to help the Blanchard’s. They were great neighbors.” He faced her and smiled. “’Course you and Jim will be too, I’m sure.”
“I’m sorry,” Elaine said. “You—you have the better of me. You seem to know all about us.”
He hung his head in mock humility. “Well, it’s only gossip, Miss Randolph. In a town no bigger than Veil, new people moving in makes everybody curious—especially when they’re going to be your new neighbors. When Janet, your realtor—”
“Yeah. When she put the ‘sold’ sign in the yard, my wife Sheila and I came right out and started quizzing her about you all. I suspect she didn’t tell us anymore than is public record.”
“Well, we don’t have any big secrets, Sheriff.”
“’Chief,’ ma’am. I understand your husband is a big executive downtown.”
She nodded. “He’s the Vice-President of Sales for DCC, a wholesale supply company.”
“Yes, ma’am. And I understand he’s keeping his job in Dallas and commuting every day?”
Elaine sighed. “Yes.”
“Quite a drive. And you have two young kids, right?”
“Yes. Our son Jake is almost sixteen. He’ll be a junior when school starts. And Camille, our daughter, is—” She stopped, her mind suddenly completely blank. “—I’m sorry. Sometimes my memory plays tricks on me.”
“That’s quite all right, ma’am.” For an instant the chief seemed truly sincere. “I believe Janet said she’s going to be in the sixth grade.”
“That’s right. Eleven. She’s eleven.”
“Sheila and I have a daughter ourselves. Well, that’s the rumor. We don’t see her much anymore now that she’s twenty-four. Her name’s Susan. She has an apartment in Bedford and works at DFW. We only see her when she runs out of groceries before the end of the month.”
“I see.” Elaine smiled. He seemed a bit more human to her as he talked about his child.
“So.” He pounded his hand against the upright timber again. “How come you’re moving the old gazebo?”
“Puttin’ in a hot tub,” Starling said.
“It’s a therapeutic spa for me,” Elaine said slowly. “I’m recovering from some surgery on my brain, which can take a long time. This spa is part of my treatment.”
“Well, while recognizing it ain’t my business,” the chief said, “do you mind me asking why you don’t just put the tub on the far side and leave the gazebo where it is?”
“I’d have to dig under it anyway to run the plumbing,” Starling explained, looking down. “There’s not much to digging under the footings, bringing it back fifteen feet, setting it in and bringing it to level. Then we’ll build a low deck around the new site for the tub. Having the hot tub closer to the house makes it easier for Mrs. Randolph to get into and out of the water. Plus it offers a little more privacy. When we get it in place, we’ll put a fortress fence around the backyard.”
“Fence? Oh!” Daughtry acquired a surprised, chastened expression. “Well, Miss Randolph, just speaking from a nosy policeman’s point of view, it sure does make it more difficult to spy on your neighbors when they have a fence.”
They all laughed.
“Speaking of policing, I got to get to work. It’s nice to meet you and you’re in good hands with my old buddy Tim here. He really is a good contractor, for a guy who played the trombone. If you ever have an emergency or you need anything—you or anyone in your family—I’m here to protect and serve.”
“Nice—nice to meet you, Chief Daughtry,” she stammered.
“Please do call me ‘Larry,’ ma’am.”
He turned and walked away, hands in his pockets. It seemed to her that he made no noise as he moved. She couldn’t hear him leaving any more than she heard him come up behind her.
Elaine glanced toward Starling. “Trombone player?”
He smiled, shaking his head. “You aren’t from Texas I take it, Mrs. Randolph?”
“Well in Texas, all high school boys are divided into two groups: those who play football and those who don’t. Those footballers like Larry, who was a nose tackle on defense and a tight end on offense, are accorded a special distinction of ‘near sainthood’. I liked music and I played in the marching band.” He began making notes again on the pad that held a large diagram of the backyard. “Actually I was all-district band three years in a row. And—” He pulled out his tape measure. “—when I went out to Commerce, to East Texas State, to study drafting and construction, I played in the marching band there as well.”
Her gaze followed Daughtry, who had disappeared through the row of cedars shielding his house from theirs.
“What about the chief?”
“He went into the Marines. Became a military policeman or shore patrol—whatever they call ‘em. Did three or four hitches and came back to work in law enforcement around here. He started as a Cochran County deputy and, about five years ago when the chief’s spot came open in Veil, he was the natural choice. I guess.”
“He seemed happier to see you than you were to see him.”
Starling chuckled. “I always thought Larry was a kind of a thug. He bullied me. Not that he was the only one.” He began to stretch his tape measure along the yard. “It’s the divine right of football players to torment band guys.”
“He seemed a little concerned that we were going to move the gazebo.”
“Well.” Starling shook his head. “It’s your gazebo. You can do what you want with it.” He let the tape slide back with a snap and wrote a series of numbers on the paper. “I didn’t realize this hot tub was for health reasons, Mrs. Randolph.”
“Oh. My children think it’s going to be for them. But actually its main purpose is to help me get better. I haven’t always been this way, Mr. Starling.”
“You’re kind. I haven’t always stuttered and lost words and gotten flustered at little things.”
“You had a brain tumor, did you?” He pulled the tape out again, setting it perpendicular to the point of his previous set of measurements.
“Not a tumor. An aneurysm.”
“Oh, yes.” He began to write again. “I heard of those. A ballooning blood vessel.”
“Yes. I never—never knew I had it. Until the day it burst.”
“You’re lucky to be alive.”
“Would you mind?” He handed her the end of the tape. “Stand right there and hold this.” He backed away from the house and the tape made a little gurgling sound as he pulled it. “My Uncle Horace died with an aneurysm.”
“I was in the hospital. Already, I mean. I’m a nurse. I was a nurse, anyway. I was what they call a ‘med-surg’ nurse.”
“Uh huh. Ma’am, would you hold the end to the edge of that post?”
“Okay. And I was feeling so strange. . . . I said to my friend . . .”
He was in front of her suddenly, gently taking the tape from her hand. “Are you all right, Mrs. Randolph?”
She gazed at his face, seeing the genuine concern in his eyes. “How long?”
“Mmm. Five or ten seconds, I suppose.”
“Oh. That’s not so bad.” She straightened herself. “Did I tell you about Marci?”
“My friend. We were working together that day on my last shift. I turned to her and said, ‘The room is turning left and blue.’” She laughed. “Isn’t that funny? ‘The room is turning left and blue.’ That’s the last thing I remember. My next true memory was in the ICU and I had been there two weeks. I collapsed and they took me right away. If I had been anywhere else, I would’ve died. I had eight hours of surgery. They shaved my head.”
He had stopped taking measurements and closed his notepad. His expression sober, he stood listening to her.
“Well, at first they just shaved where they went in. Later they shaved it all to keep an EEG running on me.” She smiled. “They kept waving at my brain to see if it would wave back.”
“. . . You lived. You got well.”
“Mostly. I had to learn to walk and talk. And feed myself. I didn’t get home from rehabilitation for six weeks after the surgery. Most of my mental abilities have come back at least part way. The worst part is not knowing sometimes if I’m awake or dreaming.” She climbed into the gazebo. “Can we sit down here and rest for a minute, Mr. Starling?”
“Of course.” He stepped into the shelter and sat across from her. “I have pretty much what I need. I guess I didn’t realize this was part of your recovery process. We’ll get it finished just as quickly as we can.”
“You know,” she said, “this whole move is supposed to be therapy for me. My neurologist told my husband I needed to get away from the city. He said I needed a quiet, restful environment where things were stable and there wouldn’t be a lot of excitement. He said we should find the most boring place we could.”
“Well that’s Veil. You’ve succeeded in following your doctor’s orders.”
“Ha. Jim—my husband—has been so wonderful about this. So have my children. We haven’t sold our house in Richardson. We leased it out for a year. Furnished. My kids will go to Veil schools for a year. Jim will commute sixty miles each way five days a week for a year.” She shrugged. “I sure hope I get better.”
“If I don’t miss my guess,” the contractor said, “watching you continue to recover will be all it takes to make their sacrifice worthwhile.”
She smiled. “You’re very kind, Mr. Starling.”
He stood. “Well, this afternoon one of the guys on my crew, Antonio, will come over and dig around the footings of the gazebo. We need to see what shape they’re in and exactly how hard it will be to move them.”
“Okay. Antonio, right? I’ll be watching for him.”
“Is there anything you need help with before I leave? Anything you need carried or moved?”
“Oh, thank you. No. It’s actually time for my afternoon medication and nap. When I wake up from that, Jim will be here with my kids and we can start putting away all the boxes the movers brought in last night.”
He leaned against one of the gazebo posts. “You know, this will work out okay for you all. I know you’ve had to give up your life in Richardson for a year, but a lot of good things will happen for you. The economy is bound to keep getting better. These changes to your property—the new deck and built in hot tub, the fence—all these things will increase the value of this house for when you sell it.” He straightened. “Okay then. Tomorrow we’ll start by lifting up the gazebo and setting it yonder. It’ll all be over in a week.
“Did they have a daughter, Mom?”
Elaine sat on the unmade bed in Camille’s new room. “I don’t know much about the Blanchard’s, sweetie. This room is so feminine, though, it makes me think they must have a girl about your age.”
“I wonder if she had friends around here? If there are more girls my age?”
“Don’t know. Maybe we’ll find out in the next few days.”
Do you like this lavender okay? I know you prefer yellow. We can paint it.”
Camille walked away from the box of clothes she was unpacking and sat down beside her mother. “This is weird, Mom. I hope you don’t mind me saying this.”
“You can say anything you want, Cammie.”
Her face grew dark. “I had to leave all my friends. And tell them, ‘Well, I’ll be back. Maybe.’ And I’m coming here and I’d like to make new friends. Only, in a year or so I may have to give them up too.”
Elaine nodded. “It is unfair, isn’t it?” She toyed with her daughter’s long auburn hair. “I don’t know how to make it up to you.”
Camille set her jaw. “How about a pony?”
“Ha! That’s my girl. I think you have to run that one by your dad. He’s in charge of horses and all other livestock.”
“All that. Have you noticed your brother is strangely quiet?”
“The Jakester?” He didn’t unpack much. Last I saw he set up his Xbox and was playing some disgusting game. He plugged in his ear buds so no one would hear him.”
“Ah, teenage boys. Maybe I should go encourage him to finish putting away his stuff.”
“What’s for supper, Mom?” she called as Elaine walked out of the corner bedroom.
“’Dad’s Surprise’.” She replied. “I have no idea. Are there any restaurants in this burg?”
She padded toward the other end of the “L” shaped house, through the kitchen and living room and down the hall toward the other two bedrooms. Elaine stood in front of her son’s closed door.
“Jake.” When he did not answer, as she had anticipated he would not, she tapped on the door. “Jacob James…. All right. You asked for it.”
She pushed the door open. He was listening to his iPod and stuffing clothes into his large, old chest of drawers. With his signature yank, he pulled the ear buds out with a single tug.
“Ola, Mammacita. Como esta?”
“Mammacita is okay. Are you making progress?”
“Yeah. I’ve been thinking.”
“Every time you think, son, it costs me money.”
“Oh, Mom.” He flopped on his bed, putting his hands behind his head between the first and second bounce. “You want me to get acclimated here in Hicksville, right.”
She tipped her head warily to one side.
“Just saying. I’m going to need a whole new wardrobe. You know, bib overalls, tacky western shirts with pearl buttons. Probably some suede work boots. We’ll get those at the ‘Cowboy Consignment Shop.’ That way they’ll already have cow manure stains.”
“I can see now you’re gonna fit right in.”
“I’ll give it my best, Mom”
“People do not like smart aleck strangers making fun of them.”
“Ah, Mom!” He covered his ears in mock annoyance. “Dad already gave me this speech.”
“Do tell? And what did he say?”
“He said I couldn’t make fun of anybody either to their face or behind their back. He said I couldn’t ju-jitsu anybody no matter how much they asked for it. He said if you two get a call from the police or the principal, you’re automatically not on my side.”
“Well it sounds like he’s covered most of the bases.”
Jake sighed. “He said we’re going home this weekend for Gram Lou’s birthday.”
“It is her birthday, isn’t it? I don’t know what kind of present we can get her out here.”
“He said he might let me practice driving when we get to her house.”
Elaine pulled the chair away from his desk and sat on it. “I’m sorry, son. I should be letting you drive every day.”
“I know, Mom. The thing is, this is a much better place to learn to drive. It’s not like North Dallas or Central Expressway. There is no traffic. No crazy drivers. Well, except for all the tractors on the road.”
She smiled at him. “We’ll be back in Richardson before long. Maybe that’s where you should be practicing on the streets.”
“I’m adaptable. Just give me the key and I’m booking.” He caught her eyes, suddenly sincere. “I am a good driver, you know.”
From somewhere in the direction of the kitchen, Jim Randolph’s voice called out. “Dad is home! He’s got pizza.”
“All right!” Jake leaped off his bed and shot out the bedroom door.
Elaine followed him. “Wonderful teenager.”
Jim sat two large flat boxes and two two-liter soda bottles on the table. Packing paper flew around him as he dug inside the boxes stacked by the cupboards. Watching his form—tall, lean, still youthful—made Elaine feel a bit more like an invalid. And guilty that she had not unpacked the dishes, even though he had told her to leave them alone.
“Plates coming,” Jim said. “Glasses coming. . . . Get your own ice.”
“You’re welcome. Have the kids got all their stuff put away?”
She slid into a chair at the kitchen table. “They got started. They have good attitudes.”
“Well I guess that ought to be worth something. You want pepperoni and mushroom or supreme or both?”
“One of each, please.”
“Coming up.” He plopped a stoneware saucer in front of her with two slices of pizza on it.
“This is not bad,” Jake said.
“Is there a napkin?” Camille waved her fingers like they were on fire. “It’s a little greasy.”
“Here, kid,” her father said. “Explain to your brother what these are for.”
“That’s what jeans are for,” Jake mumbled around his pepperoni.
“I have a question,” Jim continued. “This little town has one pizza parlor, one hamburger joint, one greasy spoon diner and three Mexican restaurants. What’s up with that?”
“Dad, would you fill up my glass?” Camille asked. “I like burritos.”
“You remember, Jim, when we lived in California and you applied for that job up in Marin County ten or eleven years ago?”
“Remember remarking about how that little town had one fast food place, one American bistro and four Thai restaurants?”
“Ah! You’re right I do. I guess every place has it’s own special weirdness.”
“That was California,” Jake said. “California is supposed to be weird. Texas is supposed to be old-school.”
Elaine took a drink and set her glass on the table. “I meant to tell you I met our next door neighbor.”
“You mean the cop? Sandy headed guy with a mustache. A couple inches shorter than me?”
It startled her. “You met him too?”
“Well, actually he pulled up alongside me when I was leaving the pizza place. I’m opening the door and this police car eases up beside me. The passenger window rolls down and the driver says, ‘Hi, Jim!’”
She nodded. “That’s Larry Daughtry all right.”
“My first thought was that something happened to you and they called an ambulance and they sent this guy to find me.”
“I’m fine, dear.”
“Yes, I know. Anyway, this guy parks, gets out and comes around. He tells me he’s our neighbor and if we need anything, we shouldn’t hesitate to ask.”
She gazed at him, waiting for him to continue. “So? What’d you think?”
“What’d I think? Seems like a nice enough guy. Why? Don’t you like him?”
“You know, I can’t say what it is exactly, but somehow the chief makes me feel a little uncomfortable.”
“Is that why you had a spell?” Camille asked.
“Oh,” Jim said, “was it a bad one?”
Elaine shrugged. “It was only five or ten seconds. I was talking to Mr. Starling, the contractor. He caught me and set me down in the gazebo.” She frowned at Camille. “What are you, the seizure police?”
“What did Larry Daughtry have to do with it?”
“Oh, nothing, hon. I mean, I had just been talking to him. I think it had to do with me being on my feet all morning and standing outside for half-an-hour talking to Tim. I just overdid it.”
Jim looked at her skeptically. “Well . . . why did you say that about Daughtry making you uncomfortable?”
“He was just real nosy, is all. Well, first he just seemed to appear out of nowhere. And he just inserted himself into my conversation with Tim Starling and took over. And he seemed to know everything about us: where you worked, how many kids we have, how old they are.”
“That’s cop skills for you,” Jake said, his mouth full.
“That’s our realtor,” Elaine replied. “When Janet put out the ‘sold’ sign, apparently Daughtry and his wife Sheila saw her and asked her about us.”
Jim shrugged. “Sounds like he has what it takes to make a good police officer.”
“Suppose he does that with all new Veil residents?” she asked. “You know, just to let us know that we’re being watched. Maybe it’s his way of telling us to mind our P’s and Q’s.”
“Or what?” Jim asked.
“Or they burn a pile of cow shit in your front yard.”
“Daddy, Mom told me today I could have a kitten.”
“Cammie! What’s wrong with you two? I told you to ask your dad. I didn’t make you any promises.”
“Mom’s promises don’t count anyway,” Jake said casually. “She’s not right in the head.”
“I’m right enough to confiscate your Xbox, smart guy.”
The teenager grinned. “Oops! Did I say that out loud? I must have an aneurysm.”
“Cammie,” Jim said, “if I wouldn’t let you have a cat in Richardson, why would I let you have a cat in Veil?”
“Not a cat. A kitten.”
“Kittens have a way of becoming cats.”
“Not if you’re lucky.”
“This doesn’t concern you, Jake.”
“Come on, Daddy. We’re out in the country.”
“We’re in a subdivision, missy.”
“Cats are not pets are around anyway,” Jake persisted.
“Oh really.” His father’s voice was testy. “And what are they?”
“They serve a purpose out here on the frontier. You know. They’re meant for keeping down mice. And for target practice.”
Jim shook his head. “He’s just saying that to get a rise out of you, missy.”
Elaine began to laugh aloud. The others stopped eating and talking and turned to her.
“Are you okay, E?”
“Yes, yes I am.” She sighed and smiled. “I spent most of the morning worrying about whether or not we would ever have a normal family day here in Veil. And I shouldn’t have. This is just like being back home.”
She sat on the edge of the bed listening to Jim’s peaceful snoring and trying to assure herself she was truly awake.
Nights like this one were the worst for her. The dreams could be so incredibly vivid, as well as macabre and full of anxiety. Waking up offered little relief to her because of the hallucinations that often attended her unfinished dreams, breaking into her consciousness, as a doctor had explained it. It was only when she was awake in broad daylight she was truly aware of what was happening around her.
The medicine helped. The act of simply getting out of bed and going to the kitchen for a glass of water and opening the pill bottle often helped her shake the dreams and illusions. It was the desire of that small comfort that caused her to stand, unsteady at first, and walk quietly out of the bedroom. The clock glowed “2:30” in pale crimson.
In anticipation of a night like this, she had strategically placed night lights throughout the little house, glowing breadcrumbs intended to lead her to the kitchen and back in this new, unfamiliar place without tripping over something and hurting herself or waking her family.
As she walked through the dining room with its large plate glass windows, she glanced out at the backyard. In the moonless night, the only thing obvious to her was the dark outline of the gazebo. Then, it seemed, something in the gazebo moved.
Elaine stopped inadvertently. She heard herself draw a surprised breath. Shaking her head, she closed her eyes. Hallucinations. She glanced back, expecting to see only the straight, rigid lines of the wooden structure. Instead she saw again the moving shadow.
The dark form was not in the gazebo, but rather behind it. Entranced, she watched the shadow moving rhythmically. This was a mind trick to end all tricks. The gazebo was morphing into a living thing, looking like some great insect emerging from a cocoon. She could make no sense of the repeated motions she saw, until the shadow splintered, a long, thin branch standing apart.
“A handle,” she whispered. “A broom—no a shovel handle.” She felt herself smile. “I’m dreaming that Antonio came back. He’s digging around the foundation again.”
The flowing shadow disappeared. Elaine stepped toward the plate glass.
“There. You see. All in my head.”
Just as suddenly, the shadow appeared again—only half as tall as before and not behind the gazebo, but to one side of it. Smoothly the shadow grew and remained still. It had assumed the shape of a man.
Elaine stared at it. She knew this shape. She recognized it from somewhere. Whose shadow was it? And then the thought dawned upon her that the dark form was either staring at her or standing with its back to her, looking in the opposite direction. And it occurred to her that she was not engulfed in darkness. If the figure in the backyard was actually a person, it could clearly see her watching it in the dull nightlights of the dining room.
She shivered, embarrassed and impatient at the illusion. Crossing her arms over her chest, she went on into the kitchen. The pill bottle cap made a satisfying pop as she thumbed it off. She dropped the pill onto her tongue and washed it down with lukewarm tap water and started back to her bed.
Passing through the dining room, she stopped to make sure the shadow was gone. There was a slight movement in the far corner of her vision. Something disappeared through the cedars that marked the edge of the Daughtry’s property.
That was the familiar outline. It was the police chief whose shadow had been by her gazebo.
Sally Jones, long an aficionado of murder mysteries, at last steps forward to try her own hand. In her first effort she has penned a cozy, engaging novel of suspense that readers will not want to put down. Though she has written for years, Jones finds the effort and concentration required to write a seamless mystery both exhausting and exhilarating. The professional administrator and paralegal is now developing a second thriller.
Lazarus Barnhill, a veteran novelist known for work that crosses genres and captivates readers, has melded his distinctive writing style with that of Jones in this, his first collaboration with another author. After a three year absence from the literary scene, Barnhill returned in 2012 with two new novels, as well as participating in the multi-author thriller Rubicon Ranch.
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