Shades of Twilight (Chapter 5)
"There's a bath with a shower next to the kitchen. Would you have a deputy bring me some clean clothes?"
"Sure." The arrangements were made, and Webb left to
clean up. The voices behind her resumed a more normal rhythm. Watching them, Roanna could tell that both Aunt Yvonne and Aunt Sandra were furious with the others.
Then suddenly her view of the room was blotted out as Sheriff Watts appeared directly behind her.
"Roanna, do you feel up to answering some questions?" he asked in a tone so gentle it seemed out of place, coming from such a rough, burly man.
She clutched the blanket even tighter and silently turned around. His huge hand closed over her elbow.
"Let's go where it's quieter," he said, helping her to slide from the window seat. He wasn't quite as tall as Webb but was easily twice as wide. He was built like a wrestler, with a barrel chest and thick belly, and without any jiggle to his middle.
He led her into Webb's study, seating her on the sofa rather than in one of the big leather armchairs, and eased down beside her.
"I know it's hard for you to talk about it, but I need to know what happened tonight, and this morning."
"Webb and Jessie were arguing," Sheriff Watts said, watching her carefully.
"Do you know-" "It was my fault," Roanna interrupted, her voice flat and hollow and strangely raspy. Her brown eyes, usually so lively and full of golden lights, were dull and haunted.
"I was in the kitchen trying to eat when Webb came home from Nashville. I-I'd missed supper. I was upset … Anyway, I k-kissed him, and that's when Jessie came in."
"You kissed him? He didn't kiss you?"
Miserably Roanna nodded. It didn't matter that, after a few seconds, Webb had held her tight and returned her kiss. She had initiated it.
"Has Webb ever kissed you?"
"Some. Mostly he ruffles my hair."
The sheriff's lips twitched.
"I mean on the mouth."
"Do you have a crush on him, Roanna?"
She went still, even the breath halting in her chest. Then she squared her thin shoulders and gave him a took of such naked despair that he swallowed.
"No," she said with pitiful dignity.
"I love him." She paused.
"He doesn't love me, though. Not like that."
"Is that why you kissed him?"
She began to rock back and forth, the movement slight but significant as she fought to control her pain.
"I know I shouldn't have done it," she whispered. "I knew it then. I never would have done anything to cause Webb so much trouble. Jessie said I'd done it on purpose, that I knew she was coming down, but I didn't. I swear I didn't. He was being so sweet to me, and all of a sudden I couldn't resist it. I just grabbed him. He never had a chance."
"What did Jessie do?"
"She just started screaming at us. She called me all sorts of ugly names, and Webb, too. She accused us of-you know. Webb tried to tell her it wasn't like that, but Jessie never listened to anybody when she was pitching one of her fits."
The sheriff put his hand over hers, patting it.
"Roanna, I have to ask you this, and I want you to tell me the truth. Are you sure there's nothing between you and Webb? Have you ever had sex with him? This is a serious situation, honey, and nothing but the truth will do."
She gave him a blank look, then hot color washed into her white face.
"No!" she sputtered, and turned an even darker red.
"I've never-with anyone! I mean-" He patted her hand again, mercifully interrupting her mangled reply.
"There's no need to be embarrassed," he said kindly.
"You're doing the smart thing, placing such a high value on yourself."
Miserably Roanna thought that she didn't have a high value on herself at all; if at any time Webb had so much as crooked his finger at her, she would have come running and let him do whatever he wanted to her. Her virginity was due to his lack of interest, not her own morals.
"What happened then?" he prompted.
"They went upstairs, still arguing. Or rather, Jessie was. She was screaming at him, and Webb was trying to calm her down, but she wouldn't listen."
"Did she threaten to have him cut out of Lucinda's will?" Roanna nodded.
"But Grandmother just looked surprised. I was so relieved, because I couldn't have stood it if I caused Webb to lose Davencourt."
"Did you hear anything violent happening in their room?"
"Some glass breaking, then Webb yelled at her to go ahead and get a divorce, and he left."
"Did he tell her he'd do anything to get rid of her?"
"I think so," Roanna answered readily, knowing that the others had likely confirmed this. "I don't blame him. I'd have added my allowance to her alimony, if that would have helped."
The sheriff's lips twitched again.
"You didn't like Jessie?" She shook her head.
"She was always hateful to me."
"Were you jealous of her?"
Roanna's lips trembled.
"She had Webb. But even if she hadn't, I know that he wouldn't be interested in m-me. He never has been. He was nice to me because he felt sorry for me. After she caused such a ruckus last night-I mean after I caused it-I decided I might as well go away to college the way they'd been wanting me to do. Maybe then I could make some friends."
"Did you hear anything from their room last night after Webb left?"
Roanna shuddered, an image of Jessie as she'd last seen her flashing through her brain. She gulped.
"I don't know. Everybody was mad at me, even Webb. I was upset and went to my room. It's at the back of the house."
"All right now, Roanna, I want you to think carefully. When you go up the stairs, their rooms are across the front hall to the left. If there's a light on in the room, you can see it under the door. I checked that myself. When you went to your room, did you look in that direction?"
She remembered that very well. She had cast a fearful glance at Jessie's door, afraid she would come storming out of it like the Wicked Witch in The Wizard of Oz, and she had tried to be very quiet so Jessie wouldn't hear her. She nodded.
"Was there a light on?"
"Yes." She was certain of it, because otherwise she would have thought Jessie had gone on into the connecting bedroom and thus wouldn't hear her.
"Okay, now tell me about later, when you found her. What time was it?"
"After two. I hadn't been asleep. I kept thinking how I'd messed everything up and caused Webb so much trouble."
"You were awake the entire time?" the sheriff asked sharply.
"Did you hear anything?"
She shook her head.
"I told you, my bedroom's on the back, away from everyone else. It's real quiet back there. That's why I like it."
"Could you tell when the others came up to bed?" "I heard Aunt Gloria in the hall about nine-thirty, but my door was closed and I couldn't tell what she was saying."
"Harlan said that he started watching a movie about eight. It shouldn't have been off at nine-thirty."
"Maybe he finished watching it in their room. I know they have a television in there, because Grandmother had a connection run for them before they moved in."
He pulled out his notebook and scribbled a few words, then said, "Okay, let's go back to when you went to Jessie's room this morning. Was the light on then?"
"No. I turned it on when I went in. I thought Jessie was in bed, and I was going in there to wake her up so I could talk to her. The light was bright, and I couldn't see good for a few minutes, and I-I stumbled over h-her."
She shuddered again and started shaking. The bright color of a moment before leached out of her face, leaving it chalky again.
"Why were you going to talk to her?"
"I was going to tell her that it wasn't Webb's fault, that he didn't do anything wrong. It was just me-being stupid, as
usual," she said dully.
"I never meant to cause him any trouble."
"Why not wait until morning?"
"Because I wanted to fix it before then."
"Then why didn't you talk to her before you went to bed?"
"I was a coward." She gave him an ashamed took.
"You don't know how nasty Jessie could be."
"I don't think you're a coward at all, honey. It takes guts to say something's your fault. A lot of grown-ups never do learn how to do it."
She began rocking again, and the haunted look came back.
"I didn't want anything bad to happen to Jessie, not bad like that. I'd have laughed if her hair fell out or something. But when I saw her head … and the blood … I didn't even recognize her at first. She was always so beautiful."
Her voice trailed off, and Booley sat in silence beside her, thinking hard. Roanna said she'd turned on the light. All doorknobs and light switches had already been dusted for fingerprints, so it should be her print on that particular switch, something easy enough to check. If the light had been on when she'd gone to her room, and off when she went to talk to Jessie, then that meant either Jessie had turned off the light herself after Webb had gone, or someone else had. Either way, Jessie had been alive when Webb had left the house.
That didn't mean he couldn't have returned later and gone up the outside stairs. If his alibi at the Waffle Hut checked out, though, that meant they likely didn't have enough circumstantial evidence to charge him. Hell, there was no motive anyway. He wasn't having an affair with Roanna, not that Booley had pinned much credence to that theory to begin with. It had been a shot in the dark, nothing more. The hard facts were, Webb and Jessie had argued over something Roanna said was her fault while totally absolving Webb. Jessie had threatened him with the loss of Davencourt, but no one had believed her, so that didn't count. In a temper, Webb had yelled at her to go ahead and get a divorce, and slammed out of the house. Jessie had been alive then, according to both Roanna's testimony and the coroner's estimate of time of death, based on the degree of rigor mortis and the temperature of Jessie's body. No one had seen or heard anything. Webb had been at the Waffle Hut close to the time of Jessie's death. Now, they weren't talking about any great distance here, nothing that couldn't be driven in about fifteen or twenty minutes, so it was still within the realm of possibility that he could have returned, bashed her in the head, and then calmly driven to the Waffle Hut to establish his alibi, but the odds of convincing any jury of that were pretty slim. Hell, the odds of convincing the county prosecutor to press charges on that basis were even slimmer.
Someone had killed Jessie Tallant. Not Roanna. The girl was so painfully open and vulnerable, he doubted she knew how to lie. Besides, he'd have bet money she didn't have the strength to pick up that andiron, which was one of the heaviest he'd ever seen, specially made for the oversize fireplaces here in Davencourt. Someone strong had killed Jessie, pointing to a man. The two other men at Davencourt, Harlan Ames and the stableman, Loyal Wise, had no motive.
So, the killer was either Webb-and unless Webb confessed, Booley knew there was no way of proving it-or a stranger. There was no sign of forced entry, but to his amazement he'd discovered that none of the people here locked their balcony doors, so force wouldn't have been necessary. Nor was there anything stolen, which would have given them robbery as a motive. The plain fact was, Jessie was dead for no good reason that he could tell, and it was damn hard to make a murder charge stick without giving a jury a motive it could believe.
This was one murder that wasn't going to be solved. He could feel it in his bones, and it made him sick. He didn't like for law-breaking slime to get away with so much as stealing a pack of chewing gum, much less murder. It didn't
make any difference that Jessie had evidently been a bitch of the first water; she still hadn't deserved to have her head bashed in.
Well, he'd try. He'd check out all the angles, verify Webb's alibi, and present what he had to Simmons, but he knew the prosecutor was going to say they didn't have a case.
He sighed, got to his feet, and looked down at the forlorn little figure still on the sofa, and he was moved to offer her some comfort.
"I don't think you give yourself enough credit, honey. You aren't stupid, and you aren't a coward. You're a sweet, smart girl, and I like you fine." She didn't reply, and he wondered if she'd even heard him. She'd been through so much in the last twelve hours, it was a wonder she hadn't cracked under the strain. He patted her on the shoulder and quietly left the room, leaving her alone with her regrets, and her nightmare images.
The next few days were hell.
The entire Shoals area, which consisted of Tuscumbia, Muscle Shoals, Sheffield, and Florence, the four towns that butted together where Colbert and Lauderdale Counties met at the Tennessee River, were riveted by the spectacle of the bloody murder of a member of Colbert County's premier family and the ensuing investigation of her husband as the killer. Webb was as well known, if not quite as respected yet, as Marshall Davenport had been, and of course everyone who was anyone had known Jessie, the star of the local top society. Gossip ran rampant. Webb hadn't been arrested, and Sheriff Watts would say only that he had been questioned and released, but as far as everyone was concerned that was as good as saying he'd done it.
Why, look at how his only family treated him, the whispers ran. Lucinda cried every time she saw him, and she couldn't bring herself to talk to him yet. Gloria and Harlan Ames were convinced Webb had killed Jessie, and though publicly they didn't say anything, they had made a few comments to their closest friends, the "just between you and me" kind. The more moral souls were disapproving
when the confidential gossip was spread, but that didn't stop it from growing like kudzu.
Gloria and Harlan's two children, Baron and Lanette, kept their respective families as far away from Webb as they could.
Only Webb's mother, Yvonne, and his aunt Sandra seemed convinced of his innocence, but of course they would be. He'd always been Sandra's favorite, while she practically ignored Gloria's grandchildren. A definite rift was growing in the family. And as for Roanna, who had discovered the body, she was said to be suffering from shock and had all but sequestered herself. She had always been like a puppy dog at Webb's heels, but not even she had anything to do with him. Word was that they hadn't spoken since Jessie's death.
The insidious vines of gossip spread the rumor that Jessie had been savagely beaten before she'd been killed; someone else said she'd been mutilated. They said that Webb had been caught in flagrante delicto with Roanna, the little cousin, but credulity stopped short of actually believing that. Maybe he'd been caught, but with Roanna? Why, she was skinny as a rail, unattractive, and had no idea how to make herself appealing to a man.
Anyway, obviously Webb had been caught with someone, and gossip ran hot with speculation on the unknown woman's identity.
The autopsy on Jessie's body was completed, but the results weren't released pending the results of the investigation. Funeral arrangements were made, and so many people attended the service that the church couldn't hold everyone. Even people who hadn't known her personally attended out of curiosity. Webb stood alone, an island around which everyone else moved but never quite touched. The minister extended his sympathies. No one else did.
At the cemetery, it was much the same thing. Lucinda was heartbroken, weeping uncontrollably as she stared at Jessie's flower-laden casket, supported on brass rails over the raw, open mouth of the grave. It was a hot summer day,
without a cloud to mar the sky, and the white-molten sun soon had everyone dripping with sweat. Handkerchiefs and miscellaneous bits of paper were used to languidly fan perspiring faces.
Webb sat on one end of the first row of folding chairs that had been placed under the canopy for the immediate family. Yvonne sat beside him, firmly holding his hand, and Sandra sat beside her. The rest of the family had taken the other chairs, though no one seemed eager to be the one sitting directly behind Webb. Finally Roanna. slipped into that chair, a frail wraith who had grown even thinner in the days since Jessie's murder. For once, she didn't stumble or drop anything. Her face was white and remote. Her dark chestnut hair, usually so untidy, was pulled sternly back from her face and tied with a black bow. She had always jittered around, as if she had too much energy to control, but now she was oddly still. Several people gave her curious glances, as if not quite certain of her identity. Her too-big features, so unsuited for the thinness of her face, somehow looked better suited to the remote severity that now swathed her. She still wasn't pretty, but there was some. thing … The prayers were said, and the mourners tactfully steered away from the gravesite so the casket could be lowered and the grave filled. No one actually left the cemetery, except for a few who had other things to do and couldn't wait around any longer for something to happen. The rest milled around, pressing Lucinda's hand, kissing her cheek. No one approached Webb. He stood alone, just as he had at the funeral home and then the church, his expression hard and closed.
Roanna stood it as long as she could. She had avoided him, knowing how he must hate her, but the way people were treating him made her bleed inside. She moved to his side and slipped her hand into his, her cold, frail fingers clinging to the hard, warm strength of his. He glanced down at her, his green eyes as welcoming as ice.
"I'm sorry," she whispered, her words audible only to
him. She was acutely aware of all the avid eyes trained on them, speculating on her gesture.
"It's all my fault people are treating you like this." Tears swam in her eyes, blurring his outline as she looked up at him.
"I just wanted you to know that I didn't … I didn't do it on purpose. I didn't know Jessie was coming downstairs. I hadn't talked to her since lunch that day."
Something flickered in his eyes, and he drew in a long, controlled breath.
"It doesn't matter," he said, and gently but firmly removed his hand from her grip.
The rejection was like a blow to the face. Roanna swayed under the impact, her expression stark with despair. Webb muttered a curse under his breath and reluctantly lifted his hand to steady her, but Roanna stepped back.
"I understand," she said, still in a whisper.
"I won't bother you anymore." Then she slipped away, as insubstantial as a black-clad ghost.
Somehow she kept her control. It was easier now, as if the layer of ice that encased her kept everything from spilling out. Webb's rejection had almost cracked the ice, but after the initial blow, the layer had thickened in self-defense, becoming even stronger. The hot sun beat down on her, but Roanna wondered if she would ever be warm again.
She had scarcely slept since the night she'd found Jessie's body. Every time she closed her eyes, the bloody image seemed to be painted on the inside of her eyelids, where she couldn't escape it. Guilt and misery kept her from eating more than a few bites, and she had lost even more weight, The family was being kinder to her, perhaps because of their own guilt about the way they had treated her immediately after she'd found Jessie's body, when they had thought Roanna had killed her cousin, but it didn't matter. It was too little, too late. Roanna felt so distant from them, from everything, that sometimes it was as if she wasn't even there.
After the grave had been filled and the multitude of flowers positioned to cover the raw earth, all of the family and a good many others drove back to Davencourt. The upstairs had been off-limits for two days, then Sheriff Watts had simply sealed off the murder scene and let the remainder of the floor be used, though everyone had felt strange at first. Only Cousin Baron and his family were staying at the house, though, since all of the other relatives lived close by. Webb hadn't slept at Davencourt since Jessie's murder. He spent his days there, but at night he went to a motel. Aunt Gloria had said that she was relieved, because she wouldn't have felt safe with him in the house at night, and Roanna had wanted to slap her. Only a desire not to cause Grandmother more stress had restrained her.
Tansy had prepared huge amounts of food to feed the expected crowd and had been glad of the opportunity to keep herself busy. People wandered in and out of the dining room where the buffet had been arranged, filling plates and returning to gather in small groups where they discussed the situation in hushed voices.
Webb shut himself in the study. Roanna walked down to the stables and stood at the fence, finding comfort in watching the horses graze. Buckley saw her and trotted over, thrusting his head over the fence to be patted. Roanna hadn't been riding since Jessie's death; in fact, this was her first visit to the stables. She scratched behind Buckley's ears and crooned soothingly to him, but her mind wasn't on what she was saying, it was just automatic noise. He didn't seem to mind, though; his eyes half closed in delight, and he made a grunting noise.
"He's missed you," Loyal said, coming up behind her. He had changed out of the suit he'd worn to the funeral and was now clad in his more familiar khakis and boots.
"I've missed him, too." Loyal propped his arms on the top railing and surveyed his kingdom, his gaze warming as he watched the sleek, healthy animals he loved.
"You don't look too good," he said bluntly.
"You need to take better care of yourself. The horses need you."
"It's been a bad time," she replied, her voice lifeless.
"Sure has," he agreed.
"It still don't seem real. And it's a
shame how folks are treating Mr. Webb. Why, he no more killed Miss Jessie than I did. Anybody who knows anything about him would know that." Loyal had been extensively questioned about the night of the murder. He'd heard Webb leave and agreed with everyone else that the time was between eight and eight-thirty, but hadn't heard any cars after that until the sheriff had been called and the county vehicles arrived on the scene. He'd been awakened from a sound sleep by Roanna's scream, a sound that could still make him wince when he remembered it.
"People only see what they want to see," Roanna said.
"Uncle Harlan just likes the sound of his own voice, and Aunt Gloria's a fool."
"What do you reckon will happen now? With them living here, I mean."
"I don't know."
"How's Miss Lucinda holding up?"
Roanna shook her head.
"Dr. Graves is keeping her on mild sedatives. She loved Jessie a lot. She still cries all the time." Lucinda had been frighteningly diminished by Jessie's death, as if this had been one blow too many for even her nature. She had pinned all her hopes for the future on Webb and Jessie, and now it looked as if her plans had been destroyed, with Jessie dead and Webb suspected of her murder. Roanna. had kept waiting for Grandmother to go to Webb and put her arms around him, tell him that she believed in him. But for whatever reason, whether Grandmother was too paralyzed with grief or maybe because she did think Webb could have killed Jessie, it hadn't happened. Couldn't Grandmother see how much Webb needed her? Or was she in so much pain that she couldn't see his?
Roanna felt nothing but dread for the coming days.
"We got the results of the autopsy back," Booley said to Webb the day after the funeral. They were in Booley's office again. Webb felt as if he'd spent more time there since Jessie's death than he had anywhere else.
The initial shock had passed, but the grief and anger were still bottled up inside him, all the more potent for having to be kept under restraint. He didn't dare let his control slip, or his rage would explode over everyone: his so-called friends, who had stayed as far away from him as if he'd been a leper; his business associates, some of whom had seemed secretly pleased at his trouble, the bastards; and most of all his loving family, who all apparently thought him a murderer. Only Roanna had approached him and said she was sorry. Because she'd accidentally killed Jessie herself, and was afraid to say so? He couldn't know for certain, no matter what he suspected. What he did know was that she too had avoided him, Roanna who had always done her best to stay right at his heels, and that she was definitely feeling guilty about something.
He couldn't help worrying about her. He could tell that she wasn't eating, and she was alarmingly pale. She had changed in other, more subtle ways, too, ways he couldn't analyze because he was still so angry he couldn't focus on those tiny differences.
"Did you know Jessie was pregnant?" Booley asked.
If he hadn't already been sitting, Webb's legs would have folded beneath him. He stared at Booley in silent shock.
"I guess not," Booley said. Damn, this case had as many hidden little twists as a maze. Webb was still the best bet for Jessie's killer, which -wasn't saying much, but the evidence wasn't there. There wasn't much evidence, period; no witnesses and no known motive. He couldn't convict a gnat on the evidence he had. Webb's alibi had checked out, Roanna's testimony had established that Jessie had been alive when Webb had stormed out, so they had nothing but a corpse. A pregnant corpse, as it turned out.
"She was about seven weeks along, according to the report. Had she been puking or anything?"
Webb shook his head. His lips felt numb. Seven weeks. The baby wasn't his. Jessie had been cheating on him. He swallowed the lump in his throat, trying to consider what this meant. He'd had no indication she'd been unfaithful, and there hadn't been any gossip either; in a small town,
there would have been gossip, and Booley's investigation would have turned up something. If he told Booley that the baby wasn't his, that would be considered a believable motive for killing her. But what if her lover had killed her? Without even a guess as to who the man might be, there was no way of finding out, even assuming Booley would listen to him.
He had kept quiet when he thought Roanna might have killed Jessie, and now he found himself forced into the same position again. For whatever reason, because he couldn't bring himself to destroy Ro or because disclosing that Jessie's baby wasn't his and bringing even more suspicion down on his own head, his wife's murderer was going to go unpunished. The impotent rage welled up again, eating him alive like acid; rage at Jessie, at Roanna, at everyone, and most of all at himself.
"If she knew," he finally said, his voice hoarse, "she hadn't told me."
"Well, some women know right off, and some don't. My wife didn't miss a period for four months with our first; we had no idea why she was throwing up all the time. Don't know why they call it morning sickness, because Bethalyn puked all hours of the day and night. We never knew what would set it off. But now, with the others, she knew pretty soon. Guess she learned how to spot it. Anyway, I'm sorry about this, Webb. About the baby and all. And, uh, we'll keep the case open, but frankly we don't have jack shit to go on. 11 Webb sat for a moment, staring at the whiteness of his knuckles as he gripped the arms of the chair.
"Does this mean you're not investigating me anymore?"
"I guess it does."