Authors: Polly Iyer
ensconced at a corner table in the Pine House dining room when she arrived. Wearing the same clothes and looking as fresh as she had that morning, Jeraldine dominated the half-empty room. Dana had changed into her only good pair of slacks, a shirt, and jacket. Nothing fancy, but better than jeans.
“Hi, honey. God, I needed this.” She pointed to what looked like a double of either bourbon or scotch. “What’ll you have?” She waved at the waiter. “Honey, come take my friend’s order.”
Dana was beginning to think everyone was “honey” to Jeraldine. “Hi, Chaz,” Dana said to the young waiter. “How’s college?”
“Great, Mrs. Minette. Made Dean’s List.”
“Good for you. Hard work wins in the end.”
“What can I get for you?”
“A glass of pinot noir, please.”
Jeraldine beamed at the young waiter. “So that’s your name. I like that. Sounds preppy.”
Chaz left the table with a smile for Dana. “He’s worked here every summer for years, only now he’s old enough to take drink orders.”
“Cute thing, isn’t he? Oh, if I were twenty years younger.”
“Okay, thirty, but who’s counting?” Her infectious laugh filled the room before she focused on Dana. “How’ya doing, honey?”
“Antsy. I want to go to him.”
“He won’t see you.”
“It’s the way he is. Give him time, Dana. This isn’t about you.”
Jeraldine’s words hit home. No, this wasn’t about her. It was about Reece. Chaz brought Dana’s wine, and she took a long sip. “Hmm, I guess I needed this too.”
“I told Chaz honey we weren’t in a rush, so drink up. Then you can have another. I’m going to. We’ll order later.”
Dana had thought about this meeting all afternoon. There was so much she didn’t know. “So tell me.”
Jeraldine spread some of Pine House’s special cheese over a warm roll. “Remember I said we had a problem? Well, they found a matchbook in Reece’s house from a bar the dead woman frequented. Reece said he went there a time or two, but he doesn’t recall her. That’s not a smoking gun. He could have picked up a matchbook anytime. But there’s a witness who says he saw Reece at the bar Friday night. Reece says he wasn’t there, and I believe him. Clarence will find out.”
“I think I might be sick.”
“Now don’t you go losing faith in your man, honey. He told you he screwed around. He’s a man. Men have needs.”
Then Dana remembered what Reece had said the day he told her he wanted to take her to bed. “He mentioned that. How did he put it? That all he’d had the last six years were random fucks. Yes, that was what he said.”
“Sounds like Reece. He says what he means. No sugarcoating. A lot of men wouldn’t have mentioned it.”
But Dana didn’t want to hear that Reece went to the bar after he left her. She couldn’t bear that. Was that why he wouldn’t stay the night at her house?
As if Jeraldine read her mind, she said, “I know Reece. He spoke your name with reverence. He’s not a man who can hide his feelings. That’s what’s so special about him. There’s not a phony bone in his body. He loves you or I don’t know people, and I know him well enough to be sure he wouldn’t have gone there after making love to you. That’s not Reece Daughtry’s style. Believe me, and believe him.”
“I do, but I want to hear him tell me.”
Jeraldine lifted her drink. She swirled the liquid in the glass and took a deep swallow before speaking. “That’s not trust, Dana. That’s doubt. Don’t you think he’s been doubted enough?”
Guilt washed over her. “I do trust him, Jeraldine. I do.”
“Then when he gets out, don’t ask him where he went after he left you. Don’t.” Jeraldine’s steady fix on Dana’s face bordered on a scowl. Dana looked away, ashamed.
“He didn’t stay at my house Friday night. I asked him to, but he wouldn’t.”
“It’s not you, honey. He has trouble with closed-in spaces. That’s why he built his house with skylights. He has to see the outside, know it’s there. Now, tell me. Anyone you know have it in for Reece besides your ex? Yeah, I heard all about that.”
“I’ve only known him a little over a month. I don’t think he talks enough to make anyone mad.”
“No, you’re right. He’s a quiet man. Always was.” Jeraldine reached across the table and covered Dana’s hand with hers. “I said not to go to him because Reece won’t see you behind bars. When he gets out, which looks like tomorrow at the earliest, he’ll need some time alone.”
Dana had finished her wine without realizing. Jeraldine had waved for another round, and Dana raised the fresh one to her lips. She wasn’t much of a drinker, but tonight the wine calmed the flutters in her stomach. Jeraldine still had her hand on Dana’s, and her rich, comforting voice brought her back from a place where she felt like bursting into tears.
“You know, honey, there are people we meet in this life who touch us in some indefinable way. Reece did that for me, and I see he’s had the same effect on you. It doesn’t matter how long we know a person to have those feelings. It might be a year or an hour. That’s the way it is sometimes. But don’t hold back because you’re afraid he’s going to break. He came close for a while, but if he didn’t in that hellhole, he won’t now. He’s sensitive, but he’s also tough, and he knows to get help if he’s on the edge. He’ll come back to his normal, which is what you knew before this happened.”
“What was he like? I mean before.”
Jeraldine blew out a breath and took a deep pull on her drink. “Ah, Reece. Such a beautiful man. You should have seen him back then. Pretty boy. He’s tall, but he was big, like a linebacker, all blond hair and pink cheeks. Looked like some kind of Norse warrior. But talk about a babe in the woods. He didn’t know what the fuck was going on. He’s hard now. Pink gone to the sun, all angles and sinewy muscle. Must’ve lost forty pounds.
“When the police arrested him, his father sent this big-money prick to defend him, but the bastard wanted to close it out and be done with him. Have Reece say he committed the murder so he’d get life with the possibility of parole. Massachusetts doesn’t have the death penalty, although a recent governor tried to reinstate it. Anyway, Reece told the guy to go fuck himself and asked for a public defender. Said he couldn’t do worse.”
“That was where you came in.”
Jeraldine nodded. “I knew he was being railroaded. He admitted to having sexual relations with the victim. Unfortunately, so did a bunch of other guys. He found out at a table full of people that night. Prosecution called it motive—jealousy and humiliation, and, of course, they found them in bed, her head half sliced off. It shocked the city. The media vilified him. The DA needed to close the case. Everything and everybody was against him. I felt like I’d let him down and wondered if I could have done things differently.”
“You did the best you could.”
“Did I?” Jeraldine kept her gaze on Dana over the rim of her glass while she took another swallow. “I was just starting out, older than most. Didn’t know some of the tricks I know now.” She fell back in her chair. “Failure is a mighty teacher.”
“After what you’ve learned, would you have done anything differently?”
Jeraldine pinched her chin, thought. “I’ve asked myself that question a hundred times. Honestly? I don’t think so, unless I had someone like Clarence to really do the digging. Because I didn’t, I still can’t help feeling I missed something.”
“Didn’t they realize someone had drugged Reece?”
“Things weren’t so technical twenty-one years ago. He had alcohol in his bloodstream, maybe drugs, but they couldn’t pin it to any drug in particular. Nowadays, considering he was out cold and couldn’t remember anything, they’d test him for roofies or special K or one of the other date rape drugs, though they all leave the system quickly. But back then…Of course, there was the semen, and though Karen Sitton was quite an active lady, Reece’s was the only one in her when they found the body.”
“It doesn’t seem fair.”
“No, honey. It wasn’t. Reece couldn’t believe it was happening. Messed him up good. I watched him grow more distant, lose weight, and become less communicative with every visit, and there wasn’t a damn thing I could do. I appealed, tried to get a new trial, and they turned me down every time. I prayed I wouldn’t lose him.”
“What…what do you mean?”
“I worried he’d kill himself. I wouldn’t have been surprised. I would have cried my heart out if that had happened. His father turned his back on him. His mother sneaked visits, and his brother tried to help as much as possible. He bugged me constantly, hoping I’d find some way to get Reece out. After a while Reece wouldn’t see either of them. He said it was killing his mother, and he felt he’d let his brother down. I didn’t understand his reasoning, but that’s Reece.”
Dana gasped. “His father didn’t come? Friends?”
“Apparently, his father didn’t want the Daughtry name ruined by one bad apple. As for friends—you don’t have any when you’re convicted of a vicious murder. They scatter like cockroaches when the light goes on.” Jeraldine slathered another piece of roll with cheese and bit into it. She chewed slowly, swallowed, her eyes focused on Dana. “I’m telling you this so you know what you’re dealing with.”
I dealing with?”
“A man who’s been through hell. Something happened in prison early on. I could guess, but I don’t know the particulars. After, he had a protector.”
Dana didn’t believe for a minute that Jeraldine didn’t know the particulars. She knew, but she wasn’t going to tell Dana. “What does that mean, protector?”
“A tough con by the name of Frank Vance saved Reece’s life. I guess Vance didn’t like Reece’s odds against all the bad boys inside. He looked after Reece, taught him how to take care of himself, and Reece toughened up. In exchange, Reece taught Vance how to read. I don’t think it was a sexual thing, although I never asked and he never told me.” She stopped, obviously catching the shock Dana knew showed on her face.
“Prison’s tough, Dana. It can be brutal on men used to the mean streets. It sure as hell’s not for a boy raised with a silver spoon in his mouth. That fact made Reece a target from day one, despite his size. Bad guys can smell fear like bloodhounds, and they don’t miss a chance to swoop down and dig in their claws. Later on, much later, Reece saved Vance, but he almost died doing it, if you’ve seen the scar down the side of his torso. I haven’t, but I heard about it.”
Dana couldn’t slow the drumbeat in her chest. “I’ve seen it.”
Jeraldine ordered another round of drinks. “I persisted, finally proving the crime scene had been contaminated, thanks to a retired cop who’d kept his mouth shut for fear of bringing trouble to his friends in blue. His silence helped convict Reece. He really believed Reece guilty, so he didn’t have too much trouble with his conscience. They had no physical evidence other than the semen, no weapon, so the prosecutor said Reece had served enough time and refused to retry him. A judge dismissed the charges. One day in prison was a day too much, but I held my tongue, afraid to make waves. I wanted him out.
“When Reece knew he’d be released, I expected elation, excitement, but all he said was, ‘Who am I now, Jeraldine? Who have I become?’”
Jeraldine tried to hide her moist eyes by taking another drink, but Dana saw.
“I didn’t know what to say, other than he had changed from the person who went into that place fifteen years before. I didn’t say it, of course. Christ, he broke my heart all over again.”
Dana swallowed the lump in her throat. “What happened when he left prison?”
“He had trouble adjusting. Happens a lot with ex-cons. Every place he went, people pointed him out as the man who had decapitated a woman and got off. He was angry. He’d lost his life, his career, his family, and he couldn’t deal with the fallout. After a few months, he spent some time in therapy at my suggestion. I don’t know if it helped. I think it did.”
“He still has moods, he says.”
“Yes, he does. He was in one today, and I suspect it won’t go away quickly.”
This time Jeraldine’s eyes did fill. Dana had a hard enough time holding back the tears herself.
“No one wanted him around, and no place was safe, so he came down here, bought that nice piece of land, and built his house. He doubted anyone would hire him as an architect, no license for one thing, so he took a job building a whole wall around a fireplace for this rich guy in Tennessee. Then another, and word got around. The way he designs them, those things are goddamn beautiful. But he’d really pulled into himself, and I still worried.”
Dana didn’t want to hear all this, but at the same time she wanted to hear every word. She likened it to watching a horror movie through splayed fingers. She didn’t want to see it, but she didn’t want to miss anything either. “I know one thing. He’s not a murderer.”
“No, honey, he isn’t. That’s the one thing I’m sure of too. But I’m afraid he’ll spend the rest of his life defending himself. The only way that will cease is if they find out who killed Karen Sitton, and if the Cambridge police haven’t found the real killer by now, I doubt they ever will. Six years ago, they said they’d reopen the case, but if they did, I haven’t heard about it, and they don’t want to answer my questions. Clarence has been poking around for the last few months in his spare time, digging deeper. If anyone can find what went undiscovered twenty-one years ago, Clarence can. He worked cold cases when he was a cop in Detroit. I met him there when I attended a lawyer’s symposium and convinced him to come work for me.”