"Homesick" –Part I
Dedicated to the memory of Hugh O'Connor
(April 7, 1962-March 28, 1995)
It was a slow day at the Sparta Police Department. Lieutenant Lonnie Jamison was leaning on the front desk, looking through some papers, though he wasn't really paying attention to them. Instead, he was thinking of how unbearable summer in the station used to be before the air conditioning was installed. Even as he was thinking this, the front door opened, and a blast of warm air hit his face. He looked up instinctively, but his eyes were met with an unexpected sight. It was not one of his fellow officers as he had supposed, but an unfamiliar and stunningly beautiful woman. She could have been a model or an actress.
"Can I help you, Ma'am?" Lonnie asked.
"Ooh, I hope so," she said somewhat suggestively as she looked him over. "I'm Detective Crystal Collins, Chicago PD."
She showed him her badge.
"What business does the Chicago PD have all the way down here in Sparta, Mississippi?" Lonnie asked.
"Actually, I'm here on unofficial business," Crystal replied, "personal business. I came here to find my biological parents. It wouldn't be of concern to the police, but last night I received an anonymous phone call telling me to give up my search and go home. Now, Lieutenant, can you tell me why someone would want to prevent me from finding my parents?"
"No, Ma'am, I can't," Lonnie replied, "unless your parents just don't want to be found."
"That's definitely a possibility," said Crystal, "but I need to know the truth regardless. That phone call only made more anxious to do so."
"Did you receive any specific threats in that phone call?" Lonnie asked.
"No," she said, "but the guy sure sounded threatening, or at least he was trying to sound threatening."
"Twelve o'clock," called Sergeant Parker Williams.
"You wanna' discuss this over lunch?" Lonnie asked.
Crystal's face brightened, and she flashed him a brilliant smile.
"I'd love to," she said. "I could go for some good southern cooking."
"How does barbecue sound?" Lonnie asked.
"Sounds great," she said. "I've been mostly living off the vending machine for the past day or so."
Crystal left her car at the station and rode with Lonnie. A few minutes later, Captain Bubba Skinner walked in the door of the police station.
"Whose car is that parked out front?" he asked.
"It must belong to that gorgeous woman that was just in here," said Parker. "She left with Lonnie for lunch."
"I didn't know Lonnie was seeing anybody," said Bubba.
"Oh, he's not," said Parker, "at least, not that I know of. This woman was from out of town, said she was a detective from Chicago."
"Chicago? That's a long way from Sparta." Bubba shrugged. "Well, come on, Parker, let's get something to eat."
"Sure thing, Bubba," said Parker.
The two men left to pick up something from the Magnolia Café. Meanwhile, Lonnie and Crystal had gone to Fat Eddy's barbecue place and were seated at an outside table.
"Do you know anything at all about your parents?" Lonnie asked.
"Just that they were from Sparta," Crystal replied. "I was adopted illegally, so there are no records whatsoever. My adopted parents didn't even deal with my real parents, and I can't find any doctor that saw me when I was a baby. I know this isn't much to go on, but that phone call gave me some hope. Somebody here knows who I am. If I can just find that somebody, I may find the answers I'm looking for."
"I'll help you in any way I can," said Lonnie.
"Thank you, Lieutenant," said Crystal. "That means a lot. It's nice just to know that I'm not entirely alone in this."
The food arrived then, and Crystal eagerly dug in.
"Mm, this is good," she said. "Maybe my stay in Sparta will help me get rid of my awful eating habits."
"I should hope so," said Lonnie. "I don't imagine there's much nourishment in the vending machine."
"True," she said, "although, occasionally one can find fruit snacks with vitamin C."
Lonnie laughed, but then he heard Bubba's voice coming over the radio.
"Yeah, Bubba, I hear you," he said.
"Hey Lonnie, sorry to interrupt lunch," said Bubba, "but we just got a call about a break-in and homicide at the Heart of Sparta Motel."
"I knew all this quiet was too good to be true," said Lonnie. "I'm on my way."
"Did he say Heart of Sparta?" asked Crystal. "I'm staying there."
Lonnie raised his eyebrows.
"You could find a lot nicer place to stay than that," he said.
"That's good to know," said Crystal.
The two hurried back to Lonnie's car and headed over to the motel. Crystal was hardly surprised to find that her room was the one that had been broken into. What did surprise her was that an elderly black man was lying dead on the floor by the bed.
"His name is Melvin Harris," said Bubba. "He lives alone down in the bottom."
"Any idea what he was doing in my room?" asked Crystal.
"No, Ma'am," said Bubba. "That's the strangest thing about this. The manager says he saw two white guys running away from the scene, but he could only give me a vague description, and he didn't see any car at all."
Crystal looked through her things and found that nothing was missing, though it was obvious someone had been looking for something.
"They wanted to know if I had any information," she said.
Lonnie filled in Bubba, Parker, and Sergeant Dee Shepherd concerning Crystal's search and the phone call she had received the night before.
"Well, Detective," said Bubba, "if I were you, I would consider moving out of this motel. This isn't the first time we've had trouble here."
"Maybe you could suggest somewhere better?" said Crystal. "I could be here in Sparta as long as a month. "
"If you like, you can come and stay with me," said Dee. "I have a guest bedroom, so there's plenty of room for you, and it would save you from having to pay a huge bill."
"Are you sure it wouldn't be too much of an inconvenience?" asked Crystal.
"I'd be glad for the company," said Dee.
"Thanks, Sergeant. What they say about southern hospitality must be true."
Crystal gathered up her things and rode with Dee, first to the station to get Crystal's car, then to Dee's house. Crystal was glad to have a comfortable place to stay, but as soon as she got settled in she felt restless again, so it was a nice surprise when Lonnie stopped by to see her later that afternoon.
"Did you find out anything?" she asked him.
"No, not yet, but I had an idea," said Lonnie. "I haven't found anything linking Melvin Harris to you, but I know somebody who might be able to shed some light on it for us. I thought you'd want to ride with me to see him."
Lonnie took Crystal to see Sheriff Bill Gillespie. No one knew Sparta like Gillespie did, except maybe Parker Williams, but Parker wouldn't know anything about old history. Lonnie had phoned a short while ago, and Bill had told him to come right over. The Sheriff was always glad to see the men and women who had served under him when he was Chief of Police; he had been like a father to many of them.
When they got to the Sheriff's office, Lonnie introduced Crystal to him, and she filled the Sheriff in on the details of her story.
"I do know a Melvin Harris," Bill said. "Years ago, he worked as a gardener for the Huntington family. I remember that because he was the only servant of theirs who didn't disappear from Sparta when they left. The Huntingtons were the wealthiest family in Sparta back then, but one day they up and moved, and nobody knows where they went or why. Now, I wouldn't get my hopes too high, Ms. Collins, but it's just possible that those people headed up north when they left here. They did have four lovely daughters, all blonde."
Crystal thanked him for the information and said she would look into it right away.
"I hope you find what you're looking for," said Bill. "And if there's anything else I can do, don't hesitate to give me a call."
"Thank you," she said again. "I really appreciate everything you all have done for me. I've only been here a few days, and already I've been given so much help and hospitality by the officers. It's something I'm not used to back home."
Back in the car with Lonnie, Crystal inquired further about the Huntington estate.
"It's up by Purvis Lake," Lonnie told her.
Lonnie was still on duty, so he had to get back to the station after their visit to the Sheriff. Crystal asked him to drop her by the library on his way.
"Do you want me to come back later?" he asked.
"No, thank you," she replied. "I'll be fine."
Crystal spent the rest of the day researching the Huntington family. She didn't find a lot of information that was helpful –the articles about them mainly concerned social functions and charity work –but she was able to see pictures of the family. Just as Gillespie had said, there were four blonde daughters: Charlotte, Rachel, Marian, and Juliette. Crystal was afraid to draw any conclusions concerning their facial features, for she feared that her mind might play tricks on her.
That night she couldn't get to sleep. She kept running over in her mind all the events of the day, all the information that she had learned and the pictures she had seen. She tossed and turned until she was too exhausted to stay awake any longer, and in the morning she slept through the time that she would normally have taken her morning run. She got up and ate a late breakfast, then she put on her running clothes and took off in a random direction. She didn't even pay attention to where she was going, but eventually she ended up at the police station, as if her subconscious had led here there. Tired and sweaty, she went inside the station. She shivered at the rush of cold air, and she stood still for a moment while her eyes adjusted to the dimmer light. Parker greeted her at the front desk.
"Good afternoon, Ms. Collins," he said cheerily. "Is there something I can do for you?"
"Actually, some water would be nice," she replied.
"Sure thing," said Parker. "Come on back here and have a seat."
Crystal sat down at an empty desk while Parker went to get her some water. Bubba Skinner was sitting at the next desk.
"Hey, Bubba," said Crystal. "Can I call you Bubba?"
"Most people do," he said.
"You have such a cozy police department here," said Crystal. "It's kind of nice."
Parker came back with a glass of water for her and sat down on the edge of the
"You look like you've been out jogging," he said.
"I have," she said. "I generally go in the mornings, but I overslept today."
"Well, if you get up tomorrow, you should go over to Legion Park," said Parker. "It's a real nice place for jogging."
Parker had a grin on his face as he said this. Bubba looked at him and shook his head.
"I may just do that," said Crystal.
During this conversation, Chief Hampton Forbes came out of his office and introduced himself.
"Lieutenant Jamison filled me in on your situation yesterday," said the Chief. "I believe he's out working on the case right now."
"I had no idea that things would get so messy," said Crystal. "It seems like trouble follows me wherever I go."
"Trouble seems to follow a lot of people to Sparta," said the Chief.
"Has Lonnie been gone long?" Crystal asked.
"Since this morning," said Chief Forbes. "I expect him back any time."
As if summoned, Lonnie Jamison walked in the front door.
"There you are," he said to Crystal. "I tried to get in touch with you this morning."
"Sorry about that," said Crystal. "You have news?"
"Yeah, I got a search warrant for Harris's place, and I thought you'd want to go with me to take a look around, but since I couldn't find you, I went ahead anyway. Looks like somebody was looking for something, but there's no way to tell whether they found it or not, since there are no close relatives or friends to say. There was one witness –she says she saw two white guys go in, but they didn't appear to be carrying anything when they came out."
Crystal nodded. She didn't need to state the obvious, that she wanted to know what those guys were looking for. Whatever it was, they hadn't found it in her hotel room, and they apparently hadn't found it at Melvin Harris's place either.
"I'm going to do a search, see if I can find any of the other servants who worked at the Huntington estate," said Lonnie. "If Harris knew something, maybe they know something too, if I can just find them."
"You're an angel, Lonnie," said Crystal.
"Just doing my job," he said.
"Well, I guess I'll get going now," said Crystal. "I need to get back and get a shower, change clothes, but I'll see you around."
She touched his arm before turning to go. Parker was grinning again when Lonnie turned back around, but Lonnie chose to ignore it. Bubba just sat shaking his head.
Parker's scheme worked out even more perfectly than he could have planned. Crystal took his advice the following morning and went to Legion Park to run, and she nearly ran headlong into Lonnie on the footbridge.
"You're a runner, too, huh?" she said.
"Yeah. I help coach the track team over at the high school sometimes."
"Parker suggested this place to me yesterday," said Crystal. "He was right; it's nice."
"This is a favorite place of his," said Lonnie. "I like it pretty well myself."
"Well, maybe I can run with you, then," said Crystal, "that is, unless you're afraid a girl can't keep up with you."
"Somehow I don't think that would be a problem," said Lonnie. "C'mon, let's see what you can do."
The two ran side by side until they were nearly out of breath, then they stopped for some bottled water.
"So, have you checked out the estate yet?" Lonnie asked.
"Not yet," said Crystal. "I've been doing some more research, trying to find out where the Huntingtons went when they left here. Not having much luck, though."
"Same here," said Lonnie. "It's like the whole household just disappeared."
"Yes, it is," said Crystal. "So the estate is near a lake?"
"That sounds nice today," said Crystal. "It's so hot here in the south!"
"Well, if you want, we could go out there on Saturday, look at the estate, maybe go for a swim."
"I'd like that," she said. "It's a date."
The morning felt somewhat surreal to Lonnie as he drove to Dee's house to pick up Crystal for their day at the lake. Crystal Collins had whipped into his life like a whirlwind, suddenly and powerfully, and he did not know what devastation might be left when she was gone. In a matter of a few hours, she had gained a place in both his professional and his personal life. He barely knew her, had only just met her, and here he was on the way to his second date with her –if date was what it was. Like their lunch together on the day she had come to the station, this was some strange mixture of work and pleasure. Crystal herself hadn't come to Sparta to work, but she had nevertheless put the Sparta police department to work for her, and through no fault of her own. She couldn't have known that her natural and innocent pursuit of her roots would open up a web of secrets and violence.
Crystal was sitting at the kitchen table while she waited for him, looking over a disturbing piece of correspondence. That morning she had gone outside and found an envelope on the doorstep with her name on it. Inside the envelope was an anonymous typewritten note, warning her that if she continued to snoop around, she would end up like Melvin Harris.
"Don't they know that they're only fueling my suspicion and encouraging me to stay?" she said aloud. "Just because I'm a woman doesn't mean I scare easily. I'm a cop, for heaven's sake."
When she heard the knock on the door, she put the note back in the envelope and shoved it into her bag. She didn't intend to tell Lonnie about it, at least not yet. She was not overly worried –she dealt with threats on a regular basis in Chicago –and she didn't want to put a damper on their day. She pushed the threatening note to the back of her mind and greeted Lonnie at the door with a cheery smile. Lonnie, of course, had no notion that she had received threats, but his instincts were alert, and when they arrived at the estate, he warned Crystal to be careful.
"Somebody's obviously been keeping an eye on things for the Huntingtons," he said. "They could be watching us right now."
Crystal pulled her gun out of her bag and clipped it to her shorts.
"Shall we go in?" she said.
"This is still private property, you know," said Lonnie.
"But nobody's been here in ages, right?"
Inside the house they found all the furniture still in place, covered in old dusty sheets. It looked as if the family had taken almost nothing with them when they left. There were expensive things there –crystal chandeliers, antique chairs, Tiffany lamps. There were still some clothes in the closets, and some personal effects in the bathrooms.
"They definitely left in a hurry," said Crystal. "What could have been so shameful that they had to abandon their home, and cover their tracks so meticulously?"
Lonnie had no answer for her, so he merely shook his head.
"I don't think they ever had any intention of coming back here," said Crystal, "despite all they left behind."
"Like I said, they must have been keeping any eye on the place over the years," said Lonnie. "If not, I doubt this stuff would still be here."
Crystal left the house with even more questions in her mind than when she had started. It was a relief to her to be able to relax and have a little fun at the lake. She hadn't known Lonnie long, but she enjoyed his company, and there was nothing like a swim on a hot day.
"So a handsome man like you doesn't have a girlfriend?" she asked.
"I guess you could say I haven't had much luck with women," Lonnie replied.
"Are the women in this town blind?"
Lonnie smiled modestly.
"What about you?" he asked. "You must have men in Chicago that are anxious for you to get back there."
"Well, I guess there is one," said Crystal, "but I'm sure he's amusing himself just fine without me. My partner Peter and I have been involved on and off for a while, but we were never anything officially. We have a no-commitment arrangement. Boy, that sounds awful when you say it out loud. It just always seemed to make sense. He's not a one-woman type of guy, and when I met him, I'd just come out of a horrible relationship. And being a cop, our lives are always in danger. Any one of us could die tomorrow."
"That's true," said Lonnie, "but if you might die tomorrow, don't you think you should make the most of what you have now?"
"You're probably right," said Crystal, "but to be honest, I don't know if I have the guts to take that kind of risk."
"Do you care for this guy?" Lonnie asked.
"Sure I do," Crystal replied. "He's my partner. I'm sure you care for every officer you work with; you guys are like a family. It's the same thing with him and me. I'm not in love with him, if that's what you mean. But if I stopped seeing him altogether, and went to look for somebody serious, then it would open up a new set of problems in my life. With him, I know what to expect."
Lonnie wondered what she was so afraid of. He assumed her fear had something to do with that "horrible relationship" she had mentioned, but he didn't want to pry too much. He was more or less a stranger to her, and before long, she would be headed back to Chicago, and he would never see her again, so he figured her personal life really wasn't his business. He did think it tragic, however, that someone so beautiful and seemingly so confident should be so afraid of love.
When they were done swimming, they headed for the bathrooms to shower and change into dry clothes. Crystal was lost in thought concerning what they had just discussed, so she was especially surprised when she heard the sound of guns being cocked behind them; she hadn't even heard anyone approaching. Lonnie, on the other hand, had heard them but hadn't thought anything of it, since it wasn't unusual for people to be at the lake on a hot summer's day.
"Didn't you get my note, Ms. Collins?" said a man's voice.
It was the voice that Crystal had heard on the phone at the motel, she was sure of it. The man walked around to stand in front of them, while his partner remained behind them.
"Yeah, I got it," Crystal said. "You didn't really think I'd take that seriously, did you?"
"I thought I'd give you a chance," he said. "In fact, I've given you two chances. I've been very generous."
He came closer, pointing the gun in her face.
"You are a pretty thing," he said. "You look like your mama."
"You know my mother?" Crystal asked. "Is she alive?"
"Whether she is or not," he said, "it won't do you any good. It's a shame to waste this, though. What do you say we have a little fun before I kill you?"
He touched her cheek, and she jerked her face away.
"I think I'll enjoy this," he said.
Lonnie wanted to protect her, but he felt helpless himself with two guns pointed at him.
"Why should you get to have all the fun?" said the second man.
"I'm not opposed to sharing," said the first, "but I called it. You just take Ms. Collins' friend behind those trees there and shoot him."
"No!" Crystal protested. "This is between you and me; leave him out of it."
He laughed at her in response.
"He's mixed up in this as much as you are now," he said.
The man grabbed Crystal and placed the barrel of the gun against her head. She watched as Lonnie was led away, then her captor turned her around and dragged her in the opposite direction. She heard a gunshot behind her a few moments later. The horror she felt gave her a sudden rush of adrenaline, and she made a sharp movement that sent both her and her captor to the ground. They struggled over the gun for what seemed like an eternity. Out of the corner of her eye, Crystal saw someone approaching, but she was unable to see who it was because her suspect somehow managed to get control of the gun and hit her hard in the side of the head with it. She blacked out, and when she came to, she found herself lying in a hospital bed. Lonnie was sitting in a chair next to her.
"I thought you were dead," she whispered.
"Everything's all right now," he said.
Lonnie told her how he had managed to wrest the gun away from his captor, a shot being fired in the process which had hit the man in the arm, how he had run out to help Crystal and had been forced to shoot and kill the man who had attacked her. Now one man was dead, and another had gotten away, since Lonnie had been preoccupied with saving Crystal's life.
"I should have told you about the note," Crystal said. "I didn't think it was a big deal this morning, but that was obviously a bad call. I put your life in danger, and now they may be hunting you just as much as me. I almost wish, for your sake, that I had never come here."
"You said yourself that a cop is always in danger," said Lonnie. "It's just another day on the job."
"I know I said that, but if anything had happened to you, I never would have forgiven myself," said Crystal. "You put me to shame, Lonnie Jamison, in more ways than one. I almost got you killed today, and here you are being noble, trying to make me feel better. We would have both died today if you weren't such a darn good cop."
The doctor came back with medication for her, and Lonnie left the two of them alone. Sheriff Gillespie was waiting outside the room for him and handed him a folder containing information on the two suspects. Their names were Robert Zafer and Mike Reese.
"This is them," said Lonnie.
"Both men work for Huntington security," said Bill. "Apparently, the family has been keeping an eye on things all these years."
"Looks that way," said Lonnie. "They must have something to hide."
Lonnie went back in and showed Crystal the information he had gotten.
"If those men work for the Huntingtons, and this guy, this Robert Zafer, knows my mother," said Crystal, "then my mother must be one of the Huntington daughters."
Lonnie did a see a resemblance in her to the women in the pictures he had seen, but he didn't want to say so since they didn't have any definite proof.
"Too bad we don't know where they are," said Lonnie. "If you could get a dna test done, you'd know for sure."
"Lonnie, you're brilliant," said Crystal. "We have to go back to the estate."
"I don't think that's a good idea," said Lonnie.
"But if I could get a hairbrush or something out of the house, maybe I could get that dna test," Crystal said.
"Even if you could get something from the house, how would you know which daughter it belonged to?" Lonnie asked.
"I guess you're right."
She let the matter drop, but she returned to the estate on her own that night anyway. To her chagrin, all the personal effects she had seen earlier were now gone. Feeling a great deal of anxiety, she returned to Dee's house and called her partner in Chicago.
"I just needed to talk," she said. "This thing's got me really worked up."
"Even when you do take some time off, you can't get a break," he said.
"Tell me about it," said Crystal. "It's been an intense week."
"Do you want me to come down there?" Peter asked.
"What's the matter –not enough to do in Chicago?"
"I just thought you could use your partner," he said.
"No, thank you," said Crystal. "I'm fine here. Sparta has an excellent police department. They've given me a place to stay, helped me with my search, not to mention that Lonnie Jamison saved my life today."
"Lonnie, is it? So you've got a new partner. That's why you don't need me."
"I guess you could say that," Crystal replied. "He's definitely watching my back."
"No doubt," said Peter.
"It's not like that," said Crystal. "Lonnie is much too sweet and too pure to be drawn into my sick world of shallow relationships. We're just friends."
"Okay, Crys, whatever you say. Just keep me posted, okay?"
Despite the new information and renewed optimism, two weeks went by with no further developments. Reese had seemed to disappear entirely, and the police had no leads. The Huntington family was untouchable. Crystal was understandably frustrated and agitated at the lack of progress, but she was always calmed by Lonnie's presence. She went running with him every morning, and she often ate lunch or dinner with him, and sometimes with both him and the other officers. There had been an immediate physical attraction between the two of them, but as they spent more time together, their feelings developed into genuine respect and admiration, and they became good friends. Crystal felt something with him that she had seldom felt before –the desire to be just a woman, the freedom to be vulnerable rather than tough. It was a nice feeling, but it was also disconcerting, being so unusual and so unexpected for her. She was not used to being disarmed.
They both felt a bit unsteadied, but both hid it well. Lonnie was known for his calm demeanor, but those who knew him best could recognize the signs of emotional tumult in him. He was waiting for Crystal in the town square one day at noon when he happened to run into Sheriff Gillespie. Bill inquired after Ms. Collins.
"She's doing just fine," said Lonnie. "I think this time away from the big city is doing her good."
"Good. And how are you?"
"Doing just fine too," said Lonnie.
"Well, just be careful," said Bill. "A beautiful woman can be dangerous in more ways than one."
Lonnie knew exactly what he meant. This wasn't the first time that Lonnie Jamison had found himself falling for a beautiful blonde woman who had come to town bringing trouble with her. The difference this time was that the woman was responsive to him. He didn't take any flirtation on her part seriously, though, given what Crystal had said about her partner in Chicago. She obviously had a different set of rules for relationships. And any day now, she would be headed back home, and this would all be over. For these reasons, Lonnie treated her only as a friend. It was the same old story for him; he always seemed to have more women as friends than actual girlfriends.
Lonnie had full respect for Crystal's ability as a cop, but he still felt it his responsibility to protect her while she was in Sparta. She refused to have a guard put on her, but he had her watched as much as he could without arousing her suspicion. After the incident at the lake, he had asked for an extra patrol on the area, and that was how he discovered that Crystal visited the Huntington estate when she was alone. He confronted her about it one day at the station.
"How often have you been going to the Huntington estate?" he asked.
"How did you know I was there?" Crystal returned.
At his desk, Parker lowered his eyes and pretended not to hear them; he was the one who had told Lonnie about her being at the estate.
"That house may be my only connection to my family," said Crystal. "I just like to be there."
"Well it could be dangerous," said Lonnie.
"I'm a big girl," said Crystal. "Don't forget that I'm a cop too."
"And you're out of your jurisdiction," said Lonnie. "I'm telling you not to go back there."
Parker and Bubba both looked up cautiously, but Crystal did not protest further. She found something irresistible in Lonnie's authoritative tone, so she merely smiled and held up her hands. She didn't listen to him, though. One day she had a hunch, and she looked carefully over all the furniture and decorative objects in the house until she found what she was looking for in one of the silk roses in a vase –it was a tiny camera.
"Game's up," she said aloud. "I don't know why you're hiding, unless you're scared."
Crystal reported her findings to Lonnie. He wasn't happy that she had ignored his warnings, or that she had gone on a search of private property without a search warrant. The discovery of the camera did little to help the case. There was certainly nothing criminal about having a security system installed in one's own home, however odd the circumstances might be.
"Now will you listen to me and stay away from that place?" Lonnie asked. "You're lucky they haven't made a target out of you while you were there."
Lonnie didn't know how ironic his own words were. It was on the morning directly following that Crystal's enemies decided to answer her challenge. She was running with Lonnie, when out of the stillness there came the sound of a gunshot, and she felt a sharp stinging in her leg as she tumbled face forward to the ground. She rolled over onto her back, raised up on her elbows, and looked down. Her thigh was bleeding profusely and was painful, but she gritted her teeth and made a move to stand up. Lonnie held out his hand and shook his head, and she was in too much pain to argue. He took off his shirt and tied it around her leg, then he picked her up and carried her to his car. He called the station as he drove her to the hospital, and the police hurried to the scene, but of course there was very little there to be found. No one had seen the shooter, and he hadn't left anything behind.
Crystal had to go into surgery to have the bullet removed from her leg. Lonnie didn't want to leave her, but he needed to return home for a shower and a change of clothes. He got back to the hospital as soon as he could and waited for word on her condition. She came through the surgery just fine, but she was less than thrilled to be in the hospital again. During her stay there, the officers she had befriended stopped by to see her whenever they could; even the Chief came by a few times. While she lay idle in bed, she pondered the strangeness of her position. She wondered why the person who shot her had not killed her –was he trying to torture her, or was he just a bad shot? This was her second brush with death in less than a month, and though she was used to being close to death, this just felt too personal. At times it depressed her, but her negative thoughts alternated with more positive ones, such as the memory of Lonnie Jamison whipping off his shirt to help a damsel in distress. He's so sexy when he's being protective, she thought.
The time passed slowly for her, but finally she was allowed to leave the hospital. It was a relief to get out, but not as much of one as she would have hoped. Now instead of lying in the hospital bed, she found herself sitting around on Dee's couch most of the time, and when she did get up, she was forced to walk on crutches. Being stationary was not a favorite pastime of hers. One evening as she sat in her usual spot watching t.v., she thought of how much she wished that she could go out and play a game of pool with the guys, and go running with Lonnie in the morning, and a thousand other things that she usually took for granted.
"Crystal, I'm going out to the store," said Dee. "Anything I can get you?"
"No thanks, Dee."
"All right, I'll be back as soon as I can."
Dee left for the store, and Crystal continued to flip channels absentmindedly. A few minutes later, the phone rang. Crystal was startled at first, but she felt some hope that there might be something worthwhile on the other line, something to break this monotony.
"Ms. Collins?" said a male voice.
"Yes, this is Crystal Collins," she replied.
"I have something to say to you, Ms. Collins. I know you don't take too well to threats, so consider this a warning from a friend. Leave town now, while you still can."
"Who are you?" Crystal asked.
"I was a friend of your mama's," he said, "and I work for the family. There's nothing left for you here. Your parents are both dead."
"Why are you telling me this?" Crystal asked.
"Because I promised your mama that I would try and protect you if you should ever come looking for her."
"Well, you've done a real good job of that," said Crystal.
"You don't know what you're dealing with," he said. "You may think you've seen the worst of it, but these people are ruthless. If you don't leave now, there is nothing I can do for you."
"Wait," said Crystal. "Can you meet me somewhere?"
"I don't think you're listening to me, Ms. Collins. I am not willing to give my life for this."
"But my mother meant something to you, didn't she? Please, I just want to know something about my parents. You may be my only hope."
"How do I know I can trust you?" he asked.
"That's an odd question coming from you," said Crystal. "You know a lot more about me than I know about you. Look, just tell me what I want to know, and I'll leave town."
"All right, meet me at the falls," he said, "but don't even think of telling anyone where you're going, and make sure you're not being followed by any of these Sparta cops."
"You have my word," said Crystal, "but you'll have to give me some directions."
She wrote down the directions he gave her on a notepad by the phone and stuffed the piece of paper in her jeans pocket. With some difficulty, she made her way to her car, got in, and pulled out of the driveway. Once she was on the road, she realized that she had lost her directions. She figured she must have dropped the paper somewhere, but she didn't have time now to go back and look for it, so she relied on her memory to get her to the falls. Fortunately, that was enough. She parked her car and got out, and she moved towards the figure that she saw in the shadows. When she reached him, she discovered that he was a middle-aged man with graying hair and narrow eyes. He wore a blazer over his collared shirt; Crystal supposed he must be wearing a gun underneath. His name was Paul Farnell, though Crystal as yet had no way of knowing his identity.
"Let's make this quick, Ms. Collins," he said. "Ask your questions, but know that there are things I can't tell you."
"You can't, or you won't?"
"Let's not waste time," he said. "You want to know about your mama? I knew her well. I can see something of her in you."
"Which one was my mother?" Crystal asked.
"Juliette, the youngest," he replied.
"How did she die?"
"She fell ill in Africa," he said. "After she left Chicago, she went on a tour of third world countries. She used her money to help those less fortunate, especially children. She was a good woman, and though it was beyond her control, she always felt guilty for what happened to you and your daddy."
"What was she to you exactly?" Crystal asked.
"I was one of her bodyguards," he said. "My specific instructions were to keep her away from Sparta, and away from your daddy. Keeping her away from him wasn't necessary, though, since your daddy committed suicide shortly after Juliette's departure."
"Who was my father?" Crystal asked.
"Knowing that will do you more harm than good. The more you know, the more your life is in danger."
"They're already trying to kill me," said Crystal. "I don't think it can get much worse than that. Although, they could have killed me in the park that day, and they didn't. Why?"
"I'm the one who shot you," he said. "I did it to buy you some time, to give you a chance to live. But I can't do any more for you. Know that your parents didn't give you up of their own free will, and be content with that. The best thing for you to do now would be to get on the next plane out of Sparta and go home."
"Where is home?" Crystal replied. "I'm not sure I know anymore."
When Dee returned home from the store, she found the note that Crystal had dropped in the driveway. Dee figured that Lonnie would want to know about it, so she phoned him at home.
"Lieutenant, this is Dee. I thought you might want to know that Crystal left the house while I was out, and I think she was going to the falls."
"Why would she want to go there?" asked Lonnie.
"I don't know, but I found a note in the driveway with directions to the falls. Maybe she got a call while I was out."
"Thanks, Dee. I'd better get over there."
Lonnie hurried out to his car and picked up his radio.
"This is Lieutenant Jamison," he said. "Is anybody near the falls?"
"Yeah, Lonnie, this is Bubba. I'm almost there now."
"I think Crystal's gone to meet somebody there," said Lonnie. "Could be trouble."
"Okay, I'll check it out," said Bubba.
"I'll meet you there."
Bubba pulled up beside Crystal's car a few minutes later. He got out and looked around, and he saw two figures in the dark. He approached cautiously.
"I thought you didn't tell anybody you were coming here," said Farnell.
"I didn't, I swear," said Crystal.
Farnell pulled out his gun and pointed it at her.
"I thought you were trying to save my life," she said.
"If I go down, you're going down with me," he said. "I told you your chances were up."
Bubba pulled out his gun as he neared them.
"Stay back!" Farnell shouted. "I'll kill her!"
"C'mon, man," said Bubba. "Don't be stupid. Let her go."
"I'm afraid I can't do that. She'll have to go with me. Now put your gun down and slide it, or I'll kill her right here."
Bubba did as he was told. He didn't feel that he had any other option.
"Good," said Farnell. "Now keep your hands up and stay put, or I'll kill you too. Let's go, Ms. Collins."
Crystal made a move forward, but one of her crutches seemed to strike a rock, and it fell to the ground.
"Sorry," she said. "This is rocky ground."
"Hurry up," said Farnell.
She knelt slowly as if to pick up the crutch, but with a lightning-quick movement, she rose again and used the crutch to knock Farnell's gun from his hand. The exertion upset her balance, and she tumbled to the ground, landing on her wounded leg and narrowly missing a fall into the rushing water. Bubba was as surprised as Farnell was at this development, but he reacted quickly, taking Farnell to the ground before the man could recover. He placed his knee on Farnell's back and pulled out his cuffs. With his suspect in custody, he looked to Crystal to see if she was all right. She was sitting up now, and she was holding her wounded leg, but despite the pain she felt, her face was beaming.
"What a rush," she said.
Bubba's face broke into a smile, and he joined her in relieved laughter. When Lonnie arrived, Bubba was getting his prisoner up off of the ground.
"Looks like you got everything under control," said Lonnie.
"Yeah, thanks to one Detective Collins," said Bubba. "I have to say, that's the first time I have ever seen a suspect taken out with a crutch."
He laughed again.
"You thought she was incapacitated, didn't you?" he said to Farnell.
Bubba led the prisoner away, and Lonnie rushed to help Crystal up off of the ground.
"We should get you to the hospital and get you checked out," he said.
"No, I need to be there when you question him," she said. "I promise I'll go to the hospital first thing tomorrow."
"Yeah, you will, 'cause I'm going to drive you myself," Lonnie said.
"All right, fine," said Crystal. "I should get frequent flyer miles for that place."
Crystal, Lonnie, Bubba, and Chief Forbes were all present at Farnell's questioning. Now that they were in the light, Crystal could see that the man looked weary. He told them his name, and his voice sounded tired, as if he were ready for it all to be over.
"Do you know a man by the name of Mike Reese?" Lonnie asked.
"You'll never find him," said Farnell. "He's probably dead now; he made too many mistakes."
"What kind of mistakes?"
"You saw for yourself, didn't you?" asked Farnell. "He failed to carry out his orders."
"What about stealing something from Melvin Harris's residence?" asked Lonnie. "Was that in his orders?"
"You won't find that either," said Farnell."
"You're not being very helpful," said Lonnie. "Answer the question."
"Yes, it was in his orders. But there again, he failed. He didn't find what he was looking for."
"What was he supposed to take?" asked Lonnie.
"It isn't there, so what does it matter?" Farnell relied.
"C'mon, Farnell," said Crystal. "If you loved my mother the way you say you did, then help me!"
"All right," he said at last. "Just listen, and I'll tell you everything. It's all over for me anyway. Your daddy was a cop in this department. His name was John Mayfair. He and Juliette were crazy about each other, but he wasn't sophisticated enough for the Huntingtons. They forbade Juliette to see him, but she didn't listen, of course. When she got pregnant, they forced her to go with them to Chicago, and when you were born, they took you away from her. She tried to find you, but they made sure that was impossible. There was nothing left for her here, so she got on a plane to Africa, where she died a few years later.
"I told you that your father committed suicide, but that was a lie. I killed him myself and made it look like a suicide."
She had been holding her emotions in all night, but now she finally began to break down. There was a tremor in her voice when she asked Farnell what it was that Reese was supposed to have stolen.
"It was a box containing things of your mama's," he replied. "Journals, letters, photographs. She gave it to Melvin Harris before she left Sparta, but the family didn't know anything about it at the time. She told me about it on her deathbed. Melvin hadn't worked for the family long, and they thought he was harmless. He went and got another job, as a gravedigger, I think. As far as I know, Melvin buried the box somewhere on the estate. I never told anyone that; I figured it was better off staying buried."
Bubba took Farnell to a jail cell when the questioning was over, and Lonnie sat down next to Crystal to comfort her. Her tears ran down her face now. Lonnie put his arm around her.
"We'll find that box," he assured her.
In the coming days, the police were able to track down the Mayfair family, who had also moved from Sparta, not because they were forced to, but because there were just too many painful memories. They were not eager to relive the past, but they recognized the necessity, and they gave permission for John's body to be exhumed so that a dna test could be done. It was extremely difficult for Crystal to stand by and watch her father's grave being dug up, but there was a bittersweet surprise awaiting her –sitting atop the body inside the coffin was a metal box. Ironically, Melvin Harris had been the one to bury John Mayfair's body. Lonnie broke the lock on the box for her, and she sat down on the ground to look. She trembled as she opened it, and when she saw its contents, she broke into tears again. Sitting on top was a photograph of her mother and father together, wrapped in each other's arms and smiling as if they hadn't a care in the world. There were also letters in the box –letters from her father to her mother –and at the bottom of the pile sat her mother's journal. She waited until she was alone again to read these. It was clear that her parents had been in love, but most striking to her were the words that they both used concerning their child. It seemed they were eager to be parents. They had plans to elope, to live somewhere in the country and raise their child, and be happy. They were not concerned with material wealth or prestige; love was enough for them.
The dna test proved definitively that Crystal was the daughter of John Mayfair, and on the day that his body was reburied, she stood with her new-found family by the grave, and for the first time she felt a sense of belonging. Lonnie was there with her, to offer her moral support, and Sheriff Gillespie was there as well, for he had once been a friend and fellow officer of John.
Crystal spent as much time as she could with the Mayfairs during the remainder of her time in Sparta, but when her wounded leg was healed, she packed her things to return to Chicago. She had made a second home in Sparta, but she was now feeling a need to return to the life that was familiar to her. Lonnie drove her to the airport on the day of her departure, and he handed her the going-away present that he had bought her –it was a gold locket containing a picture of the two of them together.
"So you won't forget the good times we had in Sparta," he explained.
"I could never forget that," she said.
Saying good bye was more difficult than she had imagined it would be. She hesitated a moment, then she leaned forward and kissed him on the mouth before hurrying away to catch her plane. Lonnie was in a daze as he watched her go. That kiss had taken him by surprise, and its repercussions would remain with him for a long time to come.
To Be Continued…