Achilles trotted into my office, reared back to put his front paws on my desk, and lobbed his tennis ball onto my keyboard.
I hit Undo and confiscated the ball. “Later. After my ‘urgent’ four o’clock appointment.” I glanced down at my sage-green silk dress, my standard office attire in Vienna six months ago but a rare departure from my jeans and t-shirt in Laycock, Missouri. “And after I change. Go check on your hummingbirds.” Worrying that he would take it personally when the hummingbirds fled northern Missouri for a warmer winter climate, I rose to go let him out.
He turned right toward the back door and then whirled and sniffed. When the front doorbell rang, he looked to me for instructions, a sign the visitor’s scent disturbed him.
My hand automatically moved to my right hip, but I’d put my Glock 27 in my desk drawer. I studied Achilles. He appeared more puzzled than alarmed. I stepped back to my desk and brought up the view from the front security camera on my computer monitor. A sandy-haired, middle-aged woman, surely my four o’clock, stood on the bottom step beside a small child obscured by a big black-and-white stuffed dog. They posed no threat. Leaving my Glock in the desk, I went down the hall and through the house-wide front room to unlock the door and let them in. I smiled a welcome as I opened the storm door. “Come in, please. I’m Phoenix Smith, the foundation’s chief financial officer.”
“Beatrix Hew,” the woman said, stepping toward me.
The little girl, her complexion like Halle Berry’s, held back. Loosely braided black pigtails fell over the toy she clutched against her red flannel shirt. Her brown eyes widened and her pink mouth rounded when she saw my Belgian Malinois behind me.
He sat down and lifted his paw for her to shake.
“Achilles says hello,” I told her.
She rushed up the steps, thrust out the stuffed animal’s leg to meet Achilles’ paw, and then held the toy in one arm and shook the paw herself.
The petite woman, who had the same heart-shaped face as the child, reached out a restraining, manicured hand. “She’s crazy about dogs. Is he safe?”
“Yes, Achilles enjoys children.” Or hides from them. I pointed to a yellow Frisbee he’d left on the piano bench. “They can play fetch in the backyard while we discuss your problem.”
“I’d rather they play inside.” The woman glanced to her right at the sparsely furnished reception room, once my parents’ living room. “This is Hermione Hew, my granddaughter.”
The child pointed to the scruffy stuffed dog.
“And that’s Harvey Hew.” The woman stepped to her left to put a red tote bag on the conference table that had replaced the dining-room table.
“A pleasure to meet all of you,” I said. “Please come into my office, Beatrix.”
She followed me slowly, adjusting a lovely hand-woven blue and gray shawl over the shoulders of her navy blue dress and watching the child stroke Achilles. I guessed the grandmother to be close to fifty, a few years younger than I. Skillfully applied makeup didn’t quite conceal her pallor.
In the office, I motioned her to the chair in front of my desk and took my place behind it. I anticipated hearing about a real problem rather than the fraud and frivolity that had frustrated me during the foundation’s first two weeks.
She licked her lips. “Did you recognize my name? Do you know why I contacted you?”
“Sorry, no. I grew up in Laycock, but I came back only last May.”
“That’s good. You can be objective.” She spoke quickly in the local border-state drawl and knotted her fingers in her lap. “I’ve heard how generous you are, how you came to visit Annalynn and stayed to help her learn the truth about her husband’s passing, how you started the Coping After Crime Foundation to help crime victims.” She paused for breath.
I didn’t correct her overestimation of my character. I’d learned to take credit even when I hadn’t earned it.
“I desperately need your help.” She placed her hands together in the traditional attitude of prayer. “You’re my last hope of proving my daughter is innocent and getting her released from prison.”
The woman had misunderstood the foundation’s function. And mine. Why hadn’t she gone straight to Annalynn, the temporary sheriff and a permanent do-gooder? Beatrix Hew’s intensity cautioned me to keep my face neutral and my voice businesslike. “What was the charge against your daughter?”
“Manslaughter and arson. She didn’t kill him, and she didn’t set the fire.” Beatrix waited a moment for my reaction. Getting none, she continued, “The sheriff’s department questioned Jolene when she was addled by drugs and scared her into a false confession. They wouldn’t let me see her, and the public defender talked her into accepting a plea deal for six to eight years. That was more than a year ago. She has almost five years to serve.”
Cynicism kicked in. This well-dressed, well-spoken woman had expressed a mother’s wishes, not necessarily the facts. Besides, she was accusing Annalynn’s late husband, an incompetent sheriff but a caring man, of railroading a young woman. “I’m afraid you’ve misinterpreted what the foundation, and I, can do. You need an experienced criminal lawyer.”
“Good criminal lawyers charge much more money than I can raise. I’ve already gone to special groups who clear people wrongly convicted, but they won’t even consider the case for another six months, and I’m running out of time.” She reached into her bag and placed a large white envelope on the desk. “Here’s my application for assistance and all the information I could bring together on Jolene’s case. You’ve solved three crimes that baffled local and federal officers since you came back to Laycock. I’m sure you can prove that Hermione’s mother couldn’t have killed that awful man.” She leaned forward and shoved the envelope toward me. “Believe me, I wouldn’t come to you if I knew of any other possibility.”
“I’m sorry,” I said, surprised at my genuine regret. “The Coping After Crime Foundation doesn’t investigate crimes. We provide short-term assistance to help victims and their families deal with the aftermath.”
She slumped in her chair. Then she straightened. “My daughter was a crime victim. She was drugged and assaulted. My granddaughter is a victim. She cries for her mother every night. The child barely speaks outside our house. I scramble to earn enough to feed and clothe her. Oh, yes, Ms. Smith, my family meets the foundation’s criteria for assistance. Every single one of them.” She reached into her bag and withdrew a printout from our website. “I went through your guidelines carefully to be sure. Please. Hear me out.”
“Certainly, and call me Phoenix.” No one else had cited the criteria. “Fair warning: If I’m to consider your application, you’ll have to convince me your daughter didn’t commit a crime.”
“Thank you.” She pitched forward, barely cushioning her head with her hand before it hit the desk.
Suspecting theatrics, I clasped her wrist to check the pulse. Fast and thready. Hard to fake that. “Should I call 9-1-1?”
“No. Give me a moment,” she said, her voice muffled. “Could I have a glass of water, please?”
I hurried to the kitchen and filled glasses for the woman and the child, now sitting on the floor stroking Achilles and humming in his bullet-scarred right ear.
Beatrix raised her head from between her knees as I came back into the office. She’d dropped the shawl from her shoulders to the back of the chair. Perspiration had smudged her makeup. I recognized her effort to stay conscious. After being wounded during a mission in Istanbul, I’d spent weeks doing the same. Even now, six months later, sudden pain sometimes rendered me dizzy and breathless. I handed the water to her and opened a bottle of pills she’d put on the desk, strong pills. I shook one, and then another, onto the desk.
She dropped one back in the bottle with a trembling hand. “If I take two, I won’t be able to drive back to Green Springs.” She washed down the pill.
“You’re quite ill,” I said matter-of-factly.
“Please, promise me you won’t tell anyone, not even Annalynn.” She waited until I nodded. “Two weeks ago I learned that I have pancreatic cancer. The doctor gives me only a few months. No one else knows yet.” She blinked rapidly. “I’m the sole support of both my disabled mother and my granddaughter. I’m desperate to free Hermione’s mother right away.”
Hermione’s mother, not Beatrix’s daughter. The illness and responsibilities certainly made a compelling argument for investigating in the foundation’s name, but not one for letting emotion override reason. “Why weren’t you desperate when your daughter was arrested?”
The woman sipped the water and avoided eye contact. “I never imagined they would send her to prison. When they sentenced her, I couldn’t get anyone—the sheriff, the prosecutor, the public defender—to listen to me. Jolene wouldn’t talk to me. She wrote a note saying that going to prison would atone for her sins and that I could take care of Hermione better than she could.” Beatrix lowered her forehead to the desk.
A soap-opera tale of mother-daughter tensions lay behind her words, but I could delve into that later if necessary. More important, that little girl clinging to Achilles had lost her mother for years and would soon lose her grandmother forever. Everything else on my boring schedule paled beside this. I returned to my desk chair and waited for her to raise her head. When she did, I said, “Tell me what happened, how you know your daughter is innocent.”
She nodded and leaned her elbows on the desk for support. “Jolene worked as a waitress at the Bushwhacker’s Den in Green Springs. That’s where it all happened. The owner, Cork Klang, closed at one that night and left Jolene to clean up. A man named Edwin Wiler had been hitting on her earlier, and off and on other nights. After Cork was gone, Wiler came back and insisted she have a drink with him. She poured herself a beer and him a vodka. He slipped one of those date-rape drugs into her drink.”
Finally a fact we could verify. “You have a toxicology report proving that?”
“No, the police tested only for alcohol.” She took a deep, tremulous breath. “I saw how out of it she was that night. A beer wouldn’t make her that groggy.”
Any tests would be in the department’s case files. Annalynn could pull them. “Go on.”
“Edwin Wiler attacked her—cut her lip and yanked off her bra. She fought back. She scratched his cheek with a ballpoint pen, and he knocked her out.” She paused. “That’s in the police report. Nobody disputes that he attacked her.”
Clear self-defense. “I don’t understand why she was charged.”
“He died from blunt force trauma. The confession she signed said she hit him on the head with the vodka bottle, went home, and came back and set a fire to cover up what she’d done.” Beatrix raised her right hand, palm out. “I swear on the blood of my Savior that’s not true.”
I nodded even as my skepticism mounted. Ninety percent of the agents I’d encountered in Eastern Europe had sworn to blatant lies. The international bankers and entrepreneurs I’d dealt with in my cover and post-CIA jobs had been little more truthful. “How do you know her confession is false?”
“I was at the Den.” She pulled a tissue from her bag and patted perspiration from her forehead. “Hermione woke me at one fifteen, the time Jolene usually got home. I put the baby in bed with my mother, threw on some clothes, and walked to the Den. It’s less than two blocks away. I saw candlelight inside.” Her voice had quickened. “I opened the door. Jolene lay on the floor right in front of the bar, her mouth bleeding. Wiler was crouched over her on his knees. He drew back his fist. I threw my flashlight at him, and he turned toward me. I picked up a chair to hit him. He pulled it out of my hands and flung it behind the bar.” She closed her eyes. “He yelled at me, ‘Take your slut home.’ Somehow I got her up.”
The way she’d repeated his insult convinced me she could be telling the truth. “So he was alive when you left the bar.”
“I swear to God.” She cleared her throat and sipped the water. “I half carried her home. I could smell alcohol on her, so I thought she was drunk. I didn’t realize he’d drugged her. I couldn’t get her up the stairs to her bedroom, so I put her on the living-room couch and cleaned the blood off her face. I should have called the police right then, but I was afraid people would blame her. There’d been a lot of nasty talk when she came home with a dark-skinned baby and no wedding ring. She’s never told me who the father is.”
I guessed that Beatrix had chastised her daughter but doted on the child. “Did you or your daughter go back to the Den?”
“No. Jolene fell into a deep sleep. I stretched out in the recliner and dozed until I heard the volunteer fire department’s siren about four thirty. I went out into the front yard and saw flames at the Den. I was glad the awful place would be gone. I had no idea that man was still in there.”
Her story had some huge gaps. “Why did the officers arrest Jolene?”
“I didn’t know it then, but they found a bra with the body. They came and woke her up to see if it was hers and then took her to Laycock. I’d already gone to work. When I heard, I thought they wanted to ask her about how he got into the bar, not how he died. I went to the jail as soon as my mother learned they were holding her. They wouldn’t let me see her. They said she had a lawyer. I finally cornered Boom—he was sheriff then—in the parking lot as he left that afternoon and told him what happened.”
Scheisse! Annalynn’s good ol’ boy husband had been an administrator, not an investigator. Surely he hadn’t handled this case himself. “Did Boom believe you?”
“No. He claimed Jolene had confessed to killing Edwin Wiler and to starting the fire. Boom said he understood how a mother would lie to protect her child and he wouldn’t report it. He said I could go to prison for perjury.”
I pushed my concern about Boom’s role aside. “Surely you told Jolene’s defense attorney what happened.”
She grimaced. “Yes, two days later when he finally ‘had time’ to see me. He was a public defender just out of law school. He told me Jolene swore no one else was there. He bragged that he’d gotten her a great plea deal. He said to keep my mouth shut or I’d make it worse for her.”
I weighed her claims. Could Boom and the public defender both have been so sure of the young woman’s guilt that they refused to investigate her mother’s story? Of course they could. They, like the dead man, probably viewed the unwed mother of a biracial child as fair game. Any accused person’s mother lacked credibility as a defense witness. Besides, prosecution and defense undoubtedly were pleased to close the case quickly. Jolene Hew may well have received a raw deal, but I had to have the facts before I offended my best friend by questioning her late husband’s handling of the case. “I’ll have to go over the file and make other inquiries before I decide whether to accept your application.”
“Of course.” She stood up. “I feel stronger now. I need to go home while I’m able to drive. Call me there or at my beauty salon when you’re ready to talk again. My numbers are on my application.”
“You’ll hear from me in two or three days.” I went around the desk in case she needed an arm to lean on. “If I can verify your story, I’ll do what I can to get the case reopened. For now, I have one more question: Who killed Edwin Wiler?”
She smiled for the first time. “When you answer that question, Jolene can come home to her daughter, and I can go home to my Heavenly Father.”