Kiss of Fate
THE WARM SPRING sun shone bright and cheerful on the open hillside while trees danced in the capricious breeze. It was a beautiful day. Too beautiful for one funeral, let alone three, but there were three graves dug in the red Georgia clay on the hillside, two situated near the rest of Tavey Collins’s family, and one farther off, in a section of the family graveyard where the grass had only recently been cut, close to the tree line. Raquel Weaver and her two best friends stood together, slightly apart from the other mourners, as they considered the casket of Robert Carlson, a man none of them had known or even liked, even though he was Chris’s father.
Raquel held Chris’s hand, trying to conceal the bone-deep rage that filled her at the idea of Robert Carlson being anywhere near the other graves. One of them belonged to her grandmother, Bessie Weaver. She didn’t want Chris to feel guilty, especially if she was upset about her father’s death, but Robert Carlson didn’t matter the way Bessie did—he just didn’t.
Chris wasn’t crying, though; she was unusually expressionless, her lips set beneath her sunglasses. Tavey held Chris’s other hand, but she was also watching Chris’s face, studying her friend for some sign that she was distraught. In other circumstances, Raquel would have left Tavey to her perusal and the barrage of questions that would follow, knowing that Chris would talk in her own good time, but recent events had left them all shaken, and Raquel didn’t feel like anything was quite the same.
“I’m fine,” Chris said to them both. “It’s not like I knew him. Bessie and Atohi are the ones I’m upset about. I don’t think he belongs here.”
Raquel squeezed Chris’s hand. Chris meant that her father didn’t belong in the small family graveyard on Tavey’s property, because Chris’s father hadn’t been family or a lifetime servant of the Collinses like Bessie or Atohi, the man who’d helped breed and train the Collinses’ hounds for generations. Robert Carlson was an ex–real estate broker and former convict who had ignored Chris—his illegitimate child—for her entire life. They’d only recently learned that he’d also been involved in a plot thirty years earlier to move drugs through Fate with Tavey’s father, Charlie, and Mark Arrowdale, Summer’s brother-in-law, though the details surrounding what had happened were still unclear. Robert Carlson had been a liar, an addict, and, in all likelihood, a murderer. Raquel didn’t think he deserved to be on the same planet as her grandmother Bessie, much less in the same graveyard.
Tavey lifted her chin and replied mildly, “Apparently my father’s grave shouldn’t be here, either, and not just because he didn’t die when everyone thought. We can’t always choose our family.” Tavey paused for a moment, looking at Raquel and Chris. “Unfortunately.”
Raquel noted the paleness of her face and knew that beneath her sunglasses, Tavey’s eyes were dark circled and red rimmed. Her equanimity was part of her character, at least in front of others. In private she was more open about how hurt she’d been to learn that her father had faked his own death in 1982 to avoid his debts, that he’d been involved in running drugs. Mostly, however, Raquel thought Tavey was upset about Tyler, the Cherokee County investigator who had inherited Summer’s cold case. He was in the hospital—shot by Summer’s brother-in-law Mark, the same man who had killed Bessie and Atohi—and Tavey was blaming herself. She’d loved him for a long time, and they’d finally gotten together amid the turmoil of Mark Arrowdale’s return and the death of Tyler’s uncle, Abraham, who’d lived on a small slice of property between Tavey’s and the Havens’, where Summer’s family still resided.
Tavey continued, releasing Chris’s hand to brush aside a stray lock of dark brown hair that the wind had blown in her face. “But if we all agree, I’ll let the minister know that we don’t need to have a service for Robert Carlson.”
Chris shrugged. “I wanted to cremate him and put his ashes in a Folgers can since his legitimate family couldn’t be bothered. You’re the one who wanted to bury him.”
Tavey took that as a yes and went to speak with the minister.
Raquel glanced back at the small crowd just behind them, which was made up of various people who were either family or close friends, so there was no real reason they were keeping their distance, except that they seemed to realize that she, Chris, and Tavey had needed some space. Chris’s lover, Ryan Helmer, who also happened to be the FBI agent who had helped catch a serial killer who’d targeted Chris last fall, had his gaze fastened on the back of Chris’s head, his handsome face concerned. Only one person was looking back at Raquel—Brent Burns.
Brent was a documentary filmmaker and a complete pain in her ass. His lips, usually smiling with a good-natured insouciance that belied his calculating intelligence, were set in a frown, his eyes dark with concern for her.
Raquel ignored him and focused on Sylvia, the Collinses’ housekeeper and Chris’s mother. Her narrow face was strained, her dark hair pulled back in an achingly tight bun. She was watching her daughter’s back, but she didn’t make any move to come closer. Sylvia had always seemed to feel ashamed of the affair she’d had with Robert Carlson back when she had been his housekeeper in the late seventies, and had been distant with Chris. Raquel thought of her own mother. There are worse things than distance.
“I’ll be back in a second,” Chris muttered, drawing Raquel’s attention back to her.
Chris was walking across the hill, toward the graves of Bessie and Atohi, where Summer’s nieces, identical triplets, were standing silently, wildflowers in hand, their dog Penny sitting on the grass next to them. The girls, Datura, Schisandra, and Yarrow, looked younger than their fifteen years in dark blue dresses and sandals, their hair in blond fishtail braids that reminded Raquel of Summer. Chris had developed a close relationship with the girls when they had all been captured by Joe Sherman—the “string killer”—last fall and held in a crumbling old paper mill deep in the nearby woods. How they’d escaped death was something of a mystery, neither Chris nor the girls had ever been able to clearly explain what led up to Joe Sherman’s demise, but Raquel wasn’t surprised when strange things happened around anyone in Summer’s family. There were rumors in town that the three sisters had strange talents, and Ryan said they’d warned him that Tavey and Tyler were in danger.
I wonder what else they know, Raquel thought, but was distracted when Brent stepped to her side.
“Hey—” he began.
Raquel cut him off, “I don’t want to talk.”
He exhaled in a deep sigh, but he didn’t respond to her rudeness in kind. “I just wanted to tell you that I’m sorry about Bessie. I liked her.” He touched her elbow briefly in comfort, a warm, soft touch that she remembered well, a touch that made her shiver briefly in remembrance. Involuntarily, her eyes followed his big muscled body as he strode off toward chairs that had been set up near the graves.
More people were moving in that direction, but Raquel waited, not wanting to approach and have to talk to anyone. She was looking at the caskets rigged above the holes that had been dug in the earth by hand by several laborers who were taking a break in the shade of the trees at the edge of the cemetery. There weren’t any roads to get heavy machinery up on this side of the hill. She distracted herself with idle thoughts about how long it must have taken while she waited for Tavey.
Her lips felt chapped. She kept licking them even though the day was slightly humid, and the bright sunshine felt too bright, like it was an alien sun shining on a strange world. She’d felt the same way when Summer had disappeared, like the world suddenly didn’t make sense. She’d never known a world without the constant, steady presence of her grandmother, and the rage that bubbled and rolled inside her had nowhere to go.
Tavey came back from speaking with the minister and took Raquel’s arm. “He doesn’t agree, but he understands.” Tavey paused, looking closely at Raquel’s face. “I’m so sorry, Raquel.”
Raquel ignored the hot burn of tears and straightened to her full height, which wasn’t much. “Not your fault.”
They walked together to stand with Chris and Ryan by the graves, and a small crowd followed, drifting closer as it became obvious that the funerals were about to begin. There was no music, just the shuffle and hush of a small group of people who all felt the terrible loss. Bessie and Atohi had lived and worked on Collins land longer than anyone, even Tavey.
After a brief service by the minister, Raquel gave a short speech about her grandmother, which afterward she couldn’t remember, and Tavey spoke about Atohi. Time seemed to be moving more slowly than usual, especially when the men who’d dug the graves returned and began turning the cranks that lowered the coffins into the earth. The smell of roses and the bright sunshine mocked Raquel, mocked the hole in the center of her chest. Her grandmother—the woman who had raised her when her mother had abandoned her—was gone, and she couldn’t even kill the man who’d murdered her, couldn’t torture him as he’d tortured her grandmother. Mark Arrowdale was already dead. He’d shot Tyler, and Ryan had fired in return, killing him and any chance that he could shed light on why he’d tortured Bessie for information, what had really happened on that night in 1986, and what he knew about Summer.
The minister had already closed his Bible and was approaching the three women, moving quickly for such a big man. The dark skin of his bald head glistened in the heat, and Raquel pitied him for the suit he was wearing.
He shook Tavey’s hand first, even though Bessie had been Raquel’s grandmother, but that’s just how it was in Fate. Everyone knew Tavey Collins; she was wealthy beyond imagining, and everyone knew that Bessie and Atohi had worked for her forever.
After he’d greeted Tavey, he moved to stand in front of Raquel. “I’m so sorry about your loss,” he said gently. “She was a lovely woman.”
She had been a lovely woman, and a good one, too. Raquel couldn’t say the same for her own mother, Gloria Belle, or the man who had killed Bessie. Mark Arrowdale had been a bastard; he’d married Summer’s older sister, Jane, around 1985, but no one had known him well. Apparently he was the leader of the group that had been running the drug and sex-trafficking ring, the group that included Chris and Tavey’s fathers, Raquel’s mother, Gloria Belle, and Jane. He’d disappeared for so long that Raquel had nearly forgotten he’d existed. Now Jane and Gloria Belle were the only two still alive who had been around back then, the only ones who could shed any light on what happened.
Unfortunately, Jane—or Circe, as she liked to call herself—had never been more than half sane, and the events of the past month had traumatized her beyond coherence. She was in the hospital for minor injuries, but she was being held in the psychiatric ward as they evaluated her condition. Her account of what had happened back in 1986 was fragmented, contradictory, and not particularly helpful. She still claimed not to know anything about what had happened to her little sister, Summer.
“Thank you,” Raquel replied absently, her attention caught on the Triplets as they walked toward the descending caskets. She suddenly realized that she hadn’t seen their mother, or Ninny, their great-aunt, anywhere at the service. Raquel hoped the girls hadn’t walked through the woods to get to the small graveyard. Even with Penny, the tracking dog Tavey had given them, they’d been told not to walk through the woods. They were stubborn, though, just like Summer had been, and were usually cared for by Jane since their mother was busy being mayor—which meant that they were largely left to their own devices, especially now that Jane was in the psych ward. Their father, John, had been Summer’s older brother; he’d died in a training accident at Fort Benning just before the girls were born.
Raquel walked toward them, wondering what they intended to do. They were standing between Bessie and Atohi’s graves, and seemed to be dividing the bundles of wildflowers they carried. They threw flowers in both graves. Their slightly chubby faces were solemn, their mouths held in grim lines. As if choreographed, the three sisters joined hands and sang something too soft and low for Raquel to make out the words. She thought it had the same melody as one of her mother’s most famous blues songs, “The Place Below”:
In the place below,
It’s another time
In the place below,
The world is mine
Under the meadow,
Beneath the moon,
I’m always waiting
Looking for you.
Despite the warm breeze, Raquel felt chilled, and she rubbed her hands over her skin discreetly, trying to erase the bumps. She approached the girls slowly from behind, not wanting to interrupt, but they stopped singing when she drew near.
“Hey, girls,” Raquel greeted them, and Yarrow, who liked to be called Ro, turned and stepped away from her sisters. Her eyes were sky blue and a smattering of freckles covered her nose. The neckline of her dress revealed a small heart-shaped birthmark at the base of her throat.
“We’re sorry about Bessie.” Ro waved a hand in the direction of Bessie’s grave. Penny had approached with her and was panting in the heat.
“And your mom,” said Tira—short for Datura—moving a little closer.
Raquel froze, startled by the mention of her mother. People in Fate usually didn’t mention Gloria Belle to Raquel, simply because she’d made it clear on several occasions that she didn’t wish to talk about her mother. Raquel wasn’t surprised that the girls knew Gloria Belle had been kidnapped days earlier, but she was surprised that they’d mention it now, at Bessie’s funeral.
“Do you know anything about that?” she asked them, glancing around to make sure no one was listening.
“How could we?” Ro evaded the question, her eyes darting down to Penny. “We need to get Penny some water. Bye, Raquel,” she said sweetly, and dragged her sisters off. The dog obediently followed.
Raquel watched them go, wondering what they really knew about Gloria Belle, wondering why they’d chosen one of her mother’s songs to sing at her grandmother’s grave—especially that song.
It didn’t make any more sense than Gloria Belle’s kidnapping. Raquel still didn’t understand why her mother had been taken. Initially, she’d thought Mark must have kidnapped Gloria Belle in addition to Bessie, trying to find out what had happened to some money that Charlie had stolen from the leader of the biker gang, but that had turned out to be incorrect. Raquel didn’t know who had taken her mother, but she’d been checking in with the detectives on the case regularly, even chasing down a few leads herself. So far nothing had turned up. No one had witnessed Gloria Belle’s kidnapping besides Brent and herself, and no one remembered seeing her after the car had sped away. Not even the press coverage, sensationalist pictures of her famous mother passed out at parties, or rumors of a massive fortune from her singing career had brought any substantial leads. She intended to find her mother, though, and get her to talk about what had happened all those years ago, especially since Jane wasn’t making any sense.
Raquel still couldn’t quite believe that Gloria Belle had known all these years that Charlie Collins—Tavey’s father—had faked his own death. Couldn’t believe that she’d known about the drugs and the bodies that had been dumped in a millpond at the old paper mill but hadn’t said anything. She’d filled her veins with poison and had neglected to mention for almost thirty years that her activities might have had something to do with Summer’s disappearance. Had she been hiding her own culpability? Raquel wondered. Or had she been afraid of someone else, someone more powerful?
Raquel wished she knew. She felt like her chance to find out what had happened back then, what had happened to Summer, was slipping away with every moment that passed. For so long there had been nothing to go on in Summer’s case. They’d searched and searched. She, Tavey, and Chris had started Once Was Lost, a nonprofit that searched for missing and exploited children. Tavey had begun working with tracking dogs, Chris had hunted predators online, and Raquel had become a cop with Major Crimes in Atlanta, working with a group that trapped and arrested people who preyed on children. In all that time they’d never even come close to finding a clue. But when they’d found Chris and the Triplets at that millpond last fall, they’d also discovered a book with Summer’s name in it, and several decomposing bodies in the mill’s waste pond—one of whom had been Brent’s missing sister. Just weeks ago, Tavey’s dogs located an old ribbon that could have been Summer’s—they were waiting for DNA to come back.
All the signs seemed to say that Summer was close to being found, and Raquel knew better than anyone else how important it was to pay attention to signs. Summer had taught her that. She was so afraid, afraid that she would never find Summer, afraid that something would happen to these girls, or to someone else she loved. She hated being afraid.
The shadow of someone tall and broad shouldered fell over her, and Raquel stiffened. Brent. She didn’t want to be comforted by him. Fucking him was amazing—she enjoyed sex, especially with Brent, who had the delicious patience and confidence of an older man, but she didn’t want to care about him, and she certainly didn’t want him to care about her. She’d barely spoken to him since her mother had been kidnapped several weeks earlier. The only thing that mattered now was finding out what had happened to Summer.
He didn’t touch her, but he did speak in his low voice, “We’ll find out what happened. We’ll find out who else was involved and what happened to Charlie’s body. Summer—” He stopped when she didn’t turn around at the sound of his voice.
“Raquel,” he said, clearly frustrated, but she interrupted, turning around to face him.
“You found Jessica. You gave us the lead on Abraham’s connection to the motorcycle gang. You can go on with your life. Take that opportunity you mentioned.” Raquel had overheard him tell Tavey about ideas he’d had for his next project, and he had mentioned that he’d been invited to film at the South-by-Southwest festival in Austin in a few months.
His eyes, already squinting from the sun, narrowed even more, and his rough-hewn face, with its sharp blade of a nose and a high forehead, tightened. She’d never seen him look so serious, so dangerous. Even when they were amid gunfire, he’d seemed relaxed, almost amused, like he thought nothing bad would ever happen to him. Raquel knew he was wrong. Bad things could happen to anyone, anytime, and life was never fair.
As far as Raquel was concerned, Brent had what he’d wanted. He’d come to Tavey’s property with a story that he wanted to film a documentary about the Collins family, but he’d really been trying to find out what had happened to his sister, Jessica, whose bones they’d identified in the remains from the old millpond. His sister had been found.
Granted, he would want to know the story of what had happened to her. The man always wanted to know the story. That was what made him a great filmmaker, but Raquel wasn’t here to make him a great film. She didn’t want his help anymore, not with the search for Summer or details of what happened. Too many people had gotten hurt. She didn’t want him to be one more.
“Just leave me alone,” she told him, just as she had when she was nineteen, and he’d asked if he could interview her about her mother. He’d listened then. Odds were he’d listen now.
BRENT BURNS DID his best not to show how irritated he was with Raquel as the group walked back to where they’d left their cars.
Leave her alone. He hadn’t missed the long-ago reference to his documentary, but he had no intention of listening this time. He deliberately walked next to her, enjoying the stretch in his legs as they made their way downhill. He’d played soccer when he was younger, and he liked to run when he could, but he’d spent most of his time the past few weeks in his Jeep or hunched over his computer or old documents, looking for any connections among his sister, a biker gang called the Warlocks, and Abraham Jones—Tavey’s neighbor, Tyler’s uncle, and for many years the lead suspect in Summer’s disappearance. He’d found one—Abraham had served in Vietnam with Jessop Chance, the leader of the Warlocks, but they’d found out recently that Abraham, while possibly aware of what was going on near his property, hadn’t been harming anyone. Someone had been, though. Someone still was.
Raquel was wearing a black dress that wrapped around her small but curvy frame. Her arms were bare and lightly muscled, her dark cocoa skin glowing.
“Thank you for coming,” Raquel told him grudgingly, seeming to want to say something rather than walk in silence, but the look in her eyes was pure resolve. He still felt like he’d won a battle. Sure, she was being cold to him, but she’d spoken. Brent had never seen her cold before. He’d seen her angry. He’d seen her turned on. He hadn’t minded either, but this was something else. She was dismissing him, from both her presence now and her life in general. He didn’t care for it, but he wasn’t going to push her now, not when she was grieving for her grandmother.
“You’re welcome,” he replied, looking at her face out of the corner of his eye.
The rest of her friends and family were a few yards behind them, following them down the hill to the path that led to the cars. They’d had to hike, even in funeral clothing, up the side of a ridge to the small family plot that had been in Tavey’s family for generations.
“Are you going to be here most of the day?” he asked. There were refreshments and food back at Tavey’s mansion, and people from Fate would undoubtedly stop by to visit and offer their condolences.
“No.” She shook her head. “Tavey is going to greet people for a while and then go talk to Tyler—finally. Ryan is going to try and talk to Jane again, and I’m going to try and find out what happened to my mother.”
“I’ll go with you—”
She cut him off. “Listen, Brent, I meant what I said earlier. I appreciate the help you’ve given us so far. The lead you gave us about Abraham’s connection to the leader of that motorcycle gang is solid. Chris found evidence to back up the idea that they were active in this area. It gives Ryan, Tyler, and me somewhere to start, but you’re a civilian. You don’t need to be caught up in this.”
Brent ran his tongue over his teeth and considered just how insulted he should feel. Pretty insulted, he decided. He’d heard the word civilian said as if it was an epithet only around cops and people in the military, which made sense. Raquel was a cop, but she didn’t usually act like one.
He started to ask her what had crawled up her ass and died, but luckily he had a pretty strong rein on his temper and an excellent sense of timing. She was hurt, grieving, and worried—whether she admitted it or not—about her mother. He’d bide his time. He had plenty to research about what had happened to his sister. The connection to the Warlocks was one thing, but he had other leads to follow. Give her a little space, he told himself, even as his body rejected the idea, and he moved until he was walking closer to her, his arm brushing hers.
He heard her breath catch, and she didn’t move away.
“Okay, Raquel. I’ll let you know if I find out anything else.”
She slowed her pace a little and tilted her head back to keep her eyes on his, her chin firming. “Fine.”
“See you back at the house, then,” he said almost cheerfully, and lengthened his stride, letting his long legs do the work, knowing that she wouldn’t be able to catch up, not in those heels.
She would try, though; he knew her well enough to know that. She could tell herself she wasn’t interested, that she didn’t want his help, but her body told a different story, and it was that story he was going to listen to.