Reb turned as if noticing the other woman for the first time. “Yeah.” Who the hell was she? And what might she know about any of this?
“Reb, meet Wanda Kerr. The good sheriff’s wife.” Stacey answered both questions. But how the hell had the woman ended up at Agartha?
He took a step back as Stacey continued, “She and her girls are some of Indie’s refuge seekers.” They did not have time for any further explanation, but something in the way the other woman shifted her weight side-to-side rang alarms in his mind.
“What do you know, Wanda?” his woman demanded.
“I’m not sure. Maybe it’s nothing. Perhaps I’m putting one and one together and getting five. But that’s always what I thought about Daddy’s death. Until Earl threatened me with a little accident like Daddy’s.” Reb was not sure what the woman was talking about, but Stacey’s quick nod told him it was important.
The woman’s blond head dropped, and she studied the dry red dirt beneath her shoes. Finally, after a long moment, she lifted her blue eyes and met Stacey’s stare. Whatever unspoken communication transpired between the women seemed intense.
“The last vacation that Earl took us on was to Mexico. We stopped in Torreon. At this big house outside of the city. Earl said it belonged to an old friend of his. He made us wait in the car even though he was in there for a couple of hours. It was blazing hot, but we did not dare get out.”
The woman stammered, her hands fidgeting as she continued. “But it’s not just that. Sometimes he’d take things of Beth’s. I asked him once why he needed a teenage girl’s clothes. But he only backhanded me. I wondered about that. Earl was always so careful not to leave any bruises on my face, where people could see or talk. But not that time. I thought I must have touched a nerve.”
Reb nodded, “Did he tell you his friend’s name?”
“No. He never told me anything. But I did overhear him once. Speaking to someone on the phone. He said that Diego would not be happy about that.”
Stacey’s eyes sought Reb’s, and he saw the recognition there as well. “There is suspicion that your husband was involved with smuggling drugs, but not just that. With human trafficking as well. With abducting young girls and sneaking them across to the border…”
The woman collapsed on her knees in the dirt. Her fingers ran nervously through her hair. She rocked back and forth, her whole body shaking and crying. “Oh, god, no. He meant it. He really could make her disappear.”
Stacey knelt beside the woman, grabbing her hands and pulling them down to her side. “Look at me, Wanda. Look at me. Make who disappear.”
“Beth. My girls. He said that if I ever left him, he had a better way of punishing me than just killing me. He said that he would take the girls from me. That he could make them disappear so far down the hole no one could ever find them.”
“Down the hole?” Stacey looked to Reb, “Isn’t that what Mercy said he told her?”
“Yeah, it is.” He, too, knelt next to the woman though he remained far enough away that Wanda Kerr would not be threatened. “Think. Please think. Is there anything else? Did you ever see him with a young girl? A woman you did not recognize? Anything?”
“Yeah, just once. This pretty light-skinned black girl. She looked a bit older than Beth. I asked if he wanted to bring her into the house since it was hot. He said that she was a runaway. He was taking her to jail until her family came from Dallas to pick her up. I didn’t think much of it. I mean, Sebida is between Dallas and Houston. I thought maybe he had picked her up hitchhiking or something.”
“But when I went by the jail later to check on her, the dispatcher told me there was no girl there. Then Earl came in. He told Dottie that I must be confused, that I was probably drinking again. But I swear, Stacey, I’m not a drunk. Only a little bit now and then. To deaden the pain.”
Reb watched his partner stiffen at the woman’s words. He knew that this must all be tearing her up inside. He was confident that even he did not know the full details of what happened between her and this woman’s husband. But he knew enough.
Had this woman been involved? Was she an enabler? Or another victim? He would have asked, no, demanded, that his mother and sister break confidentiality. He needed to know what threat her presence presented to Stacey. But there was no time.
After a long pause, Stacey forced a smile and held out her hand. “Don’t worry about it, Wanda.”
“There’s something else. I can’t know for sure. But Earl spent an awful lot of time at Daddy’s old fishing cabin. Maybe that’s where he took them?”
“Where is it? Can you draw me a map? Sebida is only a short detour from Chad’s place. Maybe we can check it out on the way?” Stacey looked to him for confirmation.
He shook his head. He was not prepared to share any more information around this woman whom they did not know.
The woman rose to her feet. “I have to get the girls. We have to go. We aren’t safe here anymore.” Wanda grabbed her hair and pulled as she wailed, “We’ll never be safe. No matter where we go.”
There was something desperate and wild in the other woman’s eyes that sent a chill down Reb’s spine. Stacey wrapped her arms around the woman. “Shhhh, you and the girls will be safe here. Reb and I will speak to his mother and sister. They’ll increase the security while we’re gone. You have to think of your girls. You can’t just run away when they are just starting to heal.”
But even as she spoke the words of reassurance, they rang hollow in Reb’s ears. How could one man wreak such havoc in so many lives? Even of those closest to him? His own children? That depth of depravity boggled his mind.
And Stacey’s family? Was any of them safe? Would they ever be? As long as Earl Kerr lived? Maybe her plan hadn’t been such a bad idea after all? Perhaps Earl had to die? Perhaps it wasn’t about right or wrong? Maybe it was just the only way.
They all turned back and walked towards Shangrila. Reb knew that he would have a battle on his hands to convince Stacey to remain here. Hell, he was not sure he would win it. Maybe that was not even their best option? She was right; the woman was a damned good shot. What was more, if anything did happen to Mercy… He did not want to even think about it.
They had just reached the end of the path. Stacey turned towards the other woman, “Go, take care of those girls. Like Reb said, we’ll talk to his mother and make sure ya’ll are safe.”
The woman shook her head, but before she could say anything, a small group approached them from the building. The first one he noticed was his sister. Of course, waddling from side-to-side, Indie looked more like a human beach ball. One that was over-inflated and about to burst. Not that he dared say any of that to his sister.
He stiffened as he saw the man walking just behind her. Over the past weeks, he had learned more of Mason Jamison’s history. A highly decorated, but mostly classified, military record in the SEALs, the man was babysitting some celebrity experiencing a ‘breakdown’ when he came here. His mother ‘sensed’ something in him. If that was what she was calling it these days, who was he to argue? As long as the man did not cause any trouble, and so far, he had not.
Reb frowned as he noticed Barry and his mother, arm and arm behind them. “What are you doing here?” Although he did not specifically address the question to any of them.
His father was the one to speak, “Your mother and I have spoken, son. It sounds like you could use a bit of help. So, Mason and I are going with you.”
He shook his head, “No fucking way. I hate to point this out, dad, but you ain’t a young man anymore.”
“Which is what makes me so valuable. Who’s gonna suspect an old man?”
He turned to his mother, “Talk some sense into him. I don’t have time. I need to get on the road.” He opened the back of Elvira and threw in the gun case. He wished now that he had bought a couple more of his own these past weeks. He was not sure what he had been thinking.
“I tried, Rebel. But you get your stubbornness from your father.” It was as close to an admission of what he had long suspected as the woman had ever come. But he had no time now to dwell on any of it.
“Listen, I know we haven’t gotten off to the best of starts, but let me help,” the younger man reached out and touched his arms.
Reb breathed deeply and fought back the urge to beat the man to the ground, or at least try. “I don’t have time to wait.”
“That’s fine; we can be right behind you, son. Half an hour tops. Just let us load up a truck, and we’ll meet you wherever you say.”
He was about to shake his head again when he felt the small hand on his other arm. He looked down into her face. He could read the worry in every line around Stacey’s mouth, eyes, and forehead. “Please. If we’re going up against a drug cartel, we could use all the help we can get.”
Wasn’t that the very argument he had used to bully Chad into agreeing to cooperate? Was it any less accurate now? “Okay, but I am not waiting. I’ll message you coordinates of the meeting point when I have them.”
“We. We are not waiting,” Stacey squeezed his arm. He wanted to argue. Demand that she remain here, where she would be safe. But something deep inside told him that would that be futile, that she would only follow him. And he was no longer sure that was even the right thing.
This was her family, her daughter’s life, that was on the line. She had every right to be there, to be part of the decisions, more than he did. He would just have to make damned sure to protect her. He nodded slowly, “We.”
“I’m coming, too.” The voice was barely audible. When Reb turned, the woman’s blond head was bent, her eyes glued to red sand for which this region was famous.
He was about to argue, but Stacey beat him to it. “No, Wanda, you can’t. You have those girls to think about. Like I said earlier, they need you here. They’re happy. You said so yourself that they’re finally settling in.”
Tears were streaming down Wanda Kerr’s face, and her voice trembled, “You, of all people, should understand, Stacey. How can my girls ever be safe when that man is alive? I have to go. I have to.”
Reb could hear the panic, desperation, perhaps even a touch of insanity, in each word. He was unsure there was anything that any of them could do to stop the woman. She turned to his mother. He was frightened for a moment by the wild look in her blue eyes, but she only gripped his mother’s dress.
“Please, I have to go. I just know it. You said to trust your instinct. I never did with Earl. He was so handsome, so much older. All my friends said I was lucky to have a man like that interested in me. And I listened to them rather than my gut. I’ve paid for that for twenty years. My girls have paid, too. But this time, I know, I have to follow my gut.”
His mother’s eyes sought his. He read her concern in their depths. But he recognized resignation as well. He did not like this. An old man and two women, none of whom had any business going into such danger. But his gut, that instinct which, as Kerr’s wife said he had turned off long ago, was screaming loud and clear now. This was how it was meant to be. His shoulders slumped in defeat. “We’re not waiting.”
His mother nodded as Mason spoke, “She can come with us.” The man looked to his mother, who now had her arms wrapped about the woman, almost holding her up. “An hour. No more, Cellie.”
Reb cringed at the man’s use of his mother’s nickname, but that was the least of his worries as he turned to Stacey. “Let’s go.”
“Elvira, Elvira. My heart’s on fire for Elvira.” She sang.
Reb laughed as he wrapped his arm about her and drew her into his embrace. Even in this darkness, she was his light. “My secret weapon. Just let you sing, darlin.’”
Her punch to his side was only glancing, “No, that would be you. Come on, let’s get back…”
“On the road again, making music with my friends. I can’t wait to get on the road again.”
The somber mood was broken with laughter as the others turned back to Shangrila.