John 3:16

APRIL 1999

The call came at three o’clock in the morning.

“Mama … ”

Her grip on the telephone receiver tightened and her heart thundered. “What, baby? What’s wrong?”

“I’m in a lot of trouble, Mama.”

She took a deep breath and released it over a trembling lip. “Where are you?”

“Chouteau City, Missouri.”

She licked her suddenly dry lips. “Give me an address.”

“I don’t know it. Just call the sheriff when you get here. I gotta go.”

“Rachel, wait—”

But the phone only clicked and when the dial tone took the place of silence, she turned the thing off and threw it against the wall. The plastic held, but the clip that held the battery in fell off and clattered onto the hardwood floor.

Leah Wincott sat up in her bed alone, unable to cry though she knew she should. She wanted to. She took another long, shuddering breath and released it slowly.

She might as well start packing. Sleep usually eluded her and had since the day McLean died three years before.

Leah went to the bathroom first, determined not to think about it, not to deal with it until she had to, not hypothesize about what trouble Rachel was in. She brushed her teeth, made her bed, threw some clothes in a sports bag, found a map. She had no idea where Chouteau City, Missouri was.

No thoughts entered her mind as she drove north in the darkness, listening to sad country songs, crying for no reason.

At three o’clock the next afternoon, she stopped at a Phillips station on the south side of Kansas City for gas and a burrito. She didn’t feel like eating, but she thought she must. Caffeine. She needed caffeine—so she bought a liter of Mountain Dew.

“Afternoon, ma’am. Gorgeous day, ain’t it? Will this be all for you? You had the premium unleaded on six? On the card, okay. It’ll be just a second. If you could sign right there, uh hunh. Whereya headed?”

“Chouteau City,” Leah muttered as she stuffed the receipt in her jeans pocket and the food in the sack the cashier had given her. “How much farther?”

“Tops—coupla hours ’cause you gotta go all the way through town an’ rush hour’s started. Whatcha goin’ there for? It’s a nothin’ place—right in the middle o’ farm country, y’know. Might as well be a hunnerd miles from Kansas City ’stead o’ ten for all the civilization they got up there.”

“Business,” she muttered curtly. Giving the cashier a watery smile, she turned to go, her head down to escape the glances of the other customers.

She bumped into someone and looked up to apologize, but the words froze in her throat as she peered into the face of a very handsome man. Her stomach flipped over when the corner of his mouth turned up at her.

Shocked, ashamed, that she found a total stranger so very attractive, she mumbled, “Excuse me,” and slipped past him but his voice stopped her.

“You headin’ to Chouteau City?”

Leah looked over her shoulder at him. Tall, with an early afternoon blond shadow, he was quite a bit younger than she by at least a decade. His ice blue eyes made a shiver pass through her, but that didn’t lessen the pang of—desire?—she felt. She swallowed a lump of shame.

“Yes,” she finally said. “Why?”

He ignored her ersatz rude tone and answered politely enough, “Chouteau City’s a tough town, ma’am. No place for a lady. Lotsa kooks up there.”

“I have business in Chouteau City,” she answered coolly, her sense of fairness and decency disallowing any kind of blatant setdown.

Leah stared at him until his mouth pursed and his eyebrows rose. Finally, he tipped an imaginary hat to her and said, “Ma’am.” She turned on her boot heel. She heard the beginnings of the cashier’s comments to the man about her behavior. She didn’t hear the man’s reply.

The radio came on when the engine did.

“ … teau City today, thirty-one-year-old Joe Walker was charged with first degree murder for the brutal slaying of a gas station attendant during a robbery attempt. Chouteau County prosecutor Knox Hilliard is expected to charge Block’s accomplice, eighteen-year-old Rachel Wincott, with murder one tomorrow morning … ”

And the only thing Leah could do was choke back a sob and lay her forehead on the steering wheel, wondering what she had done to deserve such a child and why she still loved her.

• • •

“Here’s the deal, Miz Wincott. Your daughter’s as good as committed. Folks around here don’t put up with stuff like that and whether Rachel was helpin’ or not don’t make no difference.”

Leah gulped at the implications of the public defender’s words. His interest did not lie in defending Rachel, though Leah thought that might be sheer laziness on his part.

“But—what’s going to happen to her?”

The man leaned back in his chair, his steepled fingers playing with his chin. Leah didn’t like the way he looked at her and tried to ignore her disgust.

“She’s going to prison, ma’am. Can’t tell for how long.”

“Rachel just turned eighteen last week. Surely she’s—”

“Not a juvenile. It don’t make no difference when her eighteenth birthday was, Miz Wincott, as long as it happened afore she helped rob that store.”

“But she didn’t! She was in the car, waiting for him to come back with groceries.”

“Frankly, ma’am, it ain’t the first gas station that good ol’ boy’s knocked over. An’ it ain’t the first one Rachel’s been seen with him at.” He shrugged. “Sorry. She don’t have a chance. Murder one, murder two at the least.”

Leah’s eyes closed and hate flooded through her. Hatred for McLean for giving her such an ungrateful, wayward daughter; for Rachel for being so self-centered and manipulative; for Joe whats-his-name for taking Rachel away from her; for the man who should have defended Rachel but wouldn’t.

What would Jesus do, Leah? Think, think.

But the question whose answers had guided Leah all her life couldn’t be answered this time—at least not by her. She opened her eyes.

“Tell you what, Miz Wincott,” the defense attorney finally drawled, drawing his finger across his nose as he sniffed. “I’ll take you over to the prosecutor’s and you can see what kind of a deal you can make, okay?”

“That’s your job,” Leah pointed out.

He shrugged. “Well, if you don’t wanna go, ain’t nothin’ gonna get done.”

Leah rose, angrier than she remembered ever being in her entire life. “You’re fired,” she said calmly, looking down at him as he smirked, seeming for all the world like every redneck stereotype come to life.

“Okay. Go find yourself another attorney. Like to see what you can get in this town. And seein’ as how the prosecutor only deals with me, well … ” He sat up to shuffle through the papers on his desk as if she were a bothersome insect he had just smashed. “Your daughter’s nothin’ but a two-bit whore anyway.”

Rage exploded in Leah’s heart.

What would Jesus do?

Rebuke him, but she wasn’t as clever as Christ, nor as strong, so she did nothing but turn and walk out.

• • •

Leah hugged Rachel tight, because she knew that was what she was supposed to do. It didn’t matter that she didn’t much like her daughter; what mattered was that Leah loved Rachel and would try to help her smooth out the wrinkles in the bed she had made. Leah hoped that one day, when Rachel grew up, she could come to like her, to love her even.

“Oh, honey,” Leah whispered, running her fingers through Rachel’s chemically damaged and bone-dry hair. It was a hideous cut and a hideous color, but she was still Rachel, still the daughter made and birthed in love. “I’ve missed you so much.” And it was true.

“Me, too, Mama. I’m sorry. So very sorry.” The girl’s voice broke.

“I love you, baby. Never forget that.”

“What’s gonna happen to me, Mama?”

“I don’t know, Rachel. This is something I don’t think I can rescue you from.”

“All rise.”

The imperious voice of the bailiff interrupted the reunion between mother and daughter. It was when the two drew apart that Leah saw the prosecutor for the first time, who instead of studying notes or watching the judge come in and settle himself, was watching her.

It was the man from the Phillips station in Grandview, the man whose cynical blue eyes had perused her from top to bottom and had made her body tingle.

She looked away from him and sat when the bailiff instructed the court to do so.

The attorney Leah had been forced to hire—because no one else would take the case—was late and created quite a stir when he came bumbling in, a confused old lush who had difficulty balancing his briefcases. Leah looked at the prosecutor, who met her gaze with a raised eyebrow and a wry grin.

She closed her eyes in despair as the judge reprimanded the man for his tardiness and the arraignment began.

“Mama, I don’t want to spend another night in jail! Can’t you post my bond?” Rachel cried through the Plexiglas that night after having waived the preliminary hearing and been held over for trial.

“Rachel, I don’t have that kind of money. Don’t you understand that your boyfriend could get the death sentence for what he did and that just by being there you helped murder that man?”

“No! I didn’t! I didn’t know he was going to do that. I thought we were just going to get gas and something to eat.”

Leah’s eyes narrowed then. Typical. “You thought he was just going to rob the store.”

“No, Mama!”

“You did, because it’s not the first time it’s happened.”

Rachel’s mouth tightened and she sat back, her arms crossed over her chest.

“You’re not a juvenile anymore, Rachel. Things start counting now.”

Rachel looked away. “I have never robbed anybody.”

“Oh, I believe you,” Leah informed her with alacrity. “You just didn’t mind hanging out with men who made their livings robbing people.”

“Don’t you think I’m being punished enough without getting a lecture too?”

“I certainly hope so. Maybe being charged with first degree murder will teach you something. Rachel, your father and I reared you to be a God-fearing, productive citizen of this country. We took you to church every Sunday, you got saved, you were baptized, you went to revival with us, you dedicated yourself to Jesus. We did what we were supposed to do, but you dropped the ball. Why?”

“I never believed all that stuff!”

“You’re lying,” Leah snapped, heartbroken. Angry. “You allowed yourself to be seduced by the wrong crowd because it was easier than standing up for what you knew was right. Now you’re paying for it. All I ever wanted was for you to be happy.”

“Are you happy, Mama?” Rachel asked, her voice filled with hate and ingratitude. “You go to church and to work and you do your little crafts and don’t go out much. Does that make you happy?”

Leah thought about that a moment, for the picture Rachel painted of her life did indeed seem bleak.

“Yes,” she said finally, decisively. “Because I do what’s right and I live in peace.”

“Time’s up,” boomed a large uniformed black woman above Leah. Leah nodded and turned back to her daughter.

“I do love you, Rachel, and I’ll do what I can.”

As Rachel was taken away into the bowels of the jail, Leah stood and glanced at her watch. “Thank you for the extra time,” she murmured to the guard.

“No problem.”

Leah was watching Letterman in her motel room that night when a knock sounded on her door. She threw on her thick robe and yanked the door open.

Oh, my God.

“You shouldn’t have opened the door like that without finding out who it was first.”

She cleared her throat. “I was expecting Mr. Nocek.”

The prosecutor snorted and rolled his eyes at the mention of her attorney. “You would’ve done better with the public defender.”

“He didn’t want to do his job.”

His mouth pursed. “May I come in? I’d like to talk to you about Rachel.”

Leah chewed on her bottom lip in indecision.

“Please,” he purred ominously, the request a command.

Once inside, the door closed behind him, he sat, causing his faded jeans to tighten over the muscles of his legs and his plain white tee shirt to stretch across his chest. Leah sat across from him, but she blinked in an effort to rid herself of unbidden and unwelcome attraction.

“What about Rachel?”

His gaze was speculative. “I’ll let Rachel off on one condition,” he said.

Leah drew back, wary. “What condition?”

“You spend a week in my bed.”

Thoroughly and unabashedly shocked, Leah’s hand went to her mouth and she leapt up from her chair, away from him. She backed herself against the wall, still staring wide-eyed at him.

“Get out!” she choked. “Now.”

He smiled in hard, triumphant amusement as he got to his feet. Shifting his jeans down his legs, he said, “I’ll let you think about that for a while, but when you decide that this is your best hope to get your daughter out of prison, you come see me.” He drew a card out of his back pocket and laid it on the table before opening the door. He turned to her before exiting and said in a most conversational tone of voice, “How did you get Nocek to take your case?”

Leah stared at him, watching his emotionless face and hard eyes. She swallowed. “With difficulty,” she finally whispered.

He left then, closing the door behind him, but not before Leah caught the flash of a victorious smile.

• • •

His name was Knox. Knox Hilliard. And he expected her to sacrifice her virtue for Rachel’s freedom. It sickened her to her core.

The case was clearly hopeless and as the days passed until it came up on the docket, Leah wracked her brain to think of ways to help Rachel. She called McLean’s law colleagues back in Houston, but they were all too busy. Three years after McLean’s death was too long for their promises of “Anything we can do for you, Leah” to stay fresh.

She called a few attorneys in Kansas City, but they weren’t interested, especially considering the amount of money she could pay. Or couldn’t, as it were. Legal aid didn’t exist in Chouteau County.

Rachel, after having been painted as a “two-bit whore” by not only the defender but Hilliard as well, was despondent.

“Mama, I didn’t kill him! I didn’t even want to rob the store! Joe did that. It wasn’t me!”

“I know, baby, I know.”

Two weeks passed and bruises began to appear on Rachel’s face and arms.

“What’s happening to you, Rachel?”

“Mama,” she cried, “I can’t hold my own in here. These women—they’re mean. I get beat up every single day for something stupid. They want to—” she gulped and lowered her voice. “They want to have sex with me, Mama.”

Leah’s breath caught in her throat and she said with as much confidence as she could muster, “Don’t worry, honey. I’ll think of something.”

But the day came when Rachel didn’t appear at the Plexiglas and Leah asked the guard where she was. The old black woman who always gave them extra time to talk looked back at her with something akin to sorrow. “She’s in the infirmary, Miz Wincott. They done beat her up too bad.”

Leah’s stomach soured and she thought she was going to be sick on the floor. “Is she—is she going to be all right?”

The guard shook her head. “I don’t know, ma’am. I surely don’t know.”

The trial was delayed because of Rachel’s condition and Knox Hilliard looked at Leah across the courtroom, eyebrow cocked and mouth pursed.

Leah looked away, numb.

He didn’t seem surprised when he opened the door and silently allowed Leah into his home that night. There was an air of triumph about him that humiliated her and she bowed her head.

“Let me have your coat, Leah.”

She took it off and gave it to him; what he did with it she didn’t see.

He held out his hand and she took it, allowing herself to be led into the innards of an early ’60s ranch.

He pointed to the bed. “Sit.”

She sat.

He flipped open his cell and dialed some numbers. Looking at Leah, he said, “Nocek. Hilliard … I don’t give a shit what time it is, listen up. I’m dropping all the charges against Rachel Wincott. Yeah. See you in the morning.” Then he put the receiver down, picked up Leah’s hand, and kissed it. Expecting to feel revulsion, she bit her lip as a thimble full of long-forgotten sensation snaked through her.

“How can I help you?” he asked, not really caring.

“Let me go,” she breathed raggedly.

“No.”

“Why me?” she whispered as she looked up at him, tears rolling down her cheeks. “Why couldn’t you have just let her off if it was that easy? You can see how hard this is for me.”

He wiped away the wetness on her cheeks with the pads of his thumbs. “I want you.”

That was it? He wanted her, so he made sure he did what he had to do to get her, including manipulating everything around her?

“What about money?”

He snorted and rolled his eyes. “Don’t waste your breath. I only take money from men and ugly women and you don’t have enough to make it worth my while.”

Leah stared at him, then whispered, “You’re corrupt.”

A slow smile spread on his face and he caressed her cheek. “Thoroughly.”

Guilt. It wasn’t Leah’s place to atone for Rachel’s crimes, but she could no more allow her daughter to suffer than she could quell her shameful desire for this man’s touch.

He kissed her when her tears began to abate and brought her to her feet. He didn’t rely on Leah to do anything but stand there and be seduced, and Leah was glad, because she knew she wouldn’t have been able to help the process along.

But Knox kissed and caressed her finally bare body until Leah was quivering with desire, her shame only a remnant. When his bare skin touched hers, Leah forgot all about Rachel.

Saying nothing, he laid her carefully on the bed, sliding in beside her, and continued his onslaught. The night was quiet, except for the lone call of cicadas, and dark, except for the light of the full moon that shone through the window and splashed across Leah’s smooth white belly.

He touched her there, his big tanned hand covering her flesh from her ribs to the apex of her thighs.

“You’re beautiful,” he whispered as he nuzzled her ear, though she didn’t believe he meant it. Still, the words, the atmosphere, the memory of the loneliness she had acutely suffered since her husband died worked on her until when at last he entered her, she was a willing and eager participant.

• • •

Rachel, bruised and battered, in her own clothes, hobbled down the hallway outside the courtroom to throw herself in Leah’s arms.

Leah squeezed her hard, her eyes trying to dam tears that would not be dammed. “Oh, baby,” she said, her lips against Rachel’s cheek and her hand stroking her thinning hair. “We did it, Rachel. I love you so much.”

“Oh, Mama, thank you,” she cried in Leah’s ear. “How did you do it? What happened?”

Leah sniffed and laughed with no humor whatsoever. “Just a bit of luck, I guess.”

“Can we go home now?”

Leah looked up and over Rachel’s shoulder, and met Knox’s gaze across the hall. “Not for another week or so, honey. We’ve got paperwork to finish up.”

“But—” Rachel protested, pushing her away. “I’m done. I can go home. They said so.”

“Rachel—”

“Mama!” Rachel cried, tears flowing down her cheeks. “I want to leave here! Now! I can’t stand to stay another second.”

“Rachel! The prosecutor and Mr. Nocek still have things to finish up and I have to be here. A week’s not going to make much difference to you one way or another.”

But it made a lot of difference to Leah. She wanted to stay.

“Mama,” Rachel choked and Leah’s brow wrinkled at her daughter’s hysteria. “They raped me, Mama. Last night. I couldn’t stop them. Please, please, please take me home!”

Leah closed her eyes and breathed deeply. The significance was too vivid to contemplate. She opened her eyes, raised her hand, smoothed Rachel’s hair. “We have to stay,” Leah whispered. “It’s important. I’m sorry I didn’t do what I needed to do earlier to get you out.” Her voice quavered. “So sorry.” For both of them.

“Where are you going, Mama?” Rachel cried that evening. “Please don’t leave me here alone!”

“I won’t be gone very long, Rachel,” she said as she opened the motel room door. “Lock the door real good and don’t let anybody in. You’ll be all right.”

“But where are you going?”

“Just to get something to eat and to read.”

“Oh, okay.”

Knox wouldn’t let her go. “A week, Leah,” he growled in her ear as he held onto her when she would have gotten out of bed, propelled by guilt she knew she should feel. “That meant all night, every night. Don’t forget—I can put her back in prison as fast as I got her out.”

“No, you can’t,” Leah sighed. “You dismissed the charges without prejudice.”

He released her then, his mouth hard. “Not true. I can reopen it within a year.”

“You bastard,” Leah whispered.

“Count on it,” he snarled. “What’s it gonna be, Leah? You and me, or Rachel and the prison butches? ’Cause I don’t give a shit one way or another.”

She stayed.

As the week progressed, it grew more difficult to think of lies to keep Rachel satisfied. But she had to, not because Knox would reopen the case against Rachel, but because she didn’t want Rachel to know what she was doing.

Or that she liked it.

Her last night with Knox was bittersweet and she felt tears form in her eyes when he began to nuzzle her jaw, to start all over, to give her what she’d come to crave from him. She started at the sound of the doorbell just after midnight. Knox rolled out of Leah’s arms to answer it, leaving her alone and missing his warmth. He came back and stood naked over Leah. Her eyes raked him and stopped at his arousal. She licked her lips in memory of what he had taught her to do, what she wanted to do again. He chuckled.

“Rachel’s here.”

Leah’s shocked gaze met his coldly amused one and she bounded out of bed searching for her clothes. Knox handed her his robe and she snatched it out of his hand without a word, covering her naked body with it as she scurried out of the bedroom. She halted at the threshold of the living room and stared at her daughter, who stood in the tiled entryway, a soft night light reflecting off her beautiful face.

Rachel stared between Leah and Knox, still nude, who leaned dispassionately against the wall, his arms crossed over his chest.

“You’re fucking him?” Rachel squeaked in disbelief.

“Rachel—”

“I was worried about you. I thought you were mad at me and I wanted to talk to you so I followed you. I thought, you know, you had a friend or something you were talking to and I’d wait for you. When you didn’t come out … ”

“Rachel, I—”

She stomped her foot and pressed her fists against her cheeks. “I can’t believe you’re fucking him!” she screamed. “What about all that stuff about virtue and chastity you were always spouting at me? If you weren’t married, you didn’t do it. That’s what you said! And what about Daddy? Don’t you love him anymore?” She choked on a sob and pointed at Knox. “He wanted to put me in prison and you fucked him! You are such a hypocrite! I hate you, I hate you, I hate you!”

Leah stood numbed, her whole world crashing down around her ears, unable even to react to the vile word her daughter used so liberally that Leah herself had never uttered.

… gave His only begotten Son …

So vain. So arrogant.

Knox brushed past Leah and captured Rachel’s chin in his hand, jerking her head up to look at him. “The only reason you’re here and not behind bars is because of your mother,” he snarled at her, uncaring that her eyes were wide with fear. “She put herself in your place to save your sorry ass.”

Knox released her and Rachel spit in his face, but fell against the wall with the force of Knox’s back-handed slap. Leah felt she should step forward and did, but Knox pointed at her. She halted. “If you’d done that fifteen years ago, Leah, you wouldn’t be here right now.”

Rachel held her face and glared at Leah. “Did you like it?” she hissed. “Did you like fucking this asshole?”

Leah didn’t have to look at Knox to see that he was staring at her, daring her to deny what she had felt. She kept her eyes on Rachel, drew herself up. “Yes, Rachel,” she finally murmured with a confidence she hadn’t felt in years. “I did.”

“I hope I never see you again.”

• • •

“In national news today, a twenty-two-year-old woman was arrested for armed robbery. Rachel Wincott, suspected leader of a gang of female burglars, was caught as she came out of a liquor store … ”

Leah sighed as she flipped the television off and went to bed.

The call came at one o’clock and was not unexpected.

“Rachel? Hi, baby. Where are you? All right, honey. Yes, I love you too. I know you’re sorry. I’ll be there as soon as I can.”

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