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Page 26

“Tollie lives here. We’ve known him since he was good friends with my dad’s older brother. My folks were close to him, and I was too. Tollie knows lots of people—he used to be in law enforcement—and I knew he’d help us.”

Ethan said, “Yes, Autumn mentioned Tollie. You’re right about his knowing people, he’s former FBI. So you didn’t know about his yearly trek out to the Everglades? You came here without talking to him?”

“We couldn’t reach him by phone, so we just drove here. We’ve been waiting for him. It doesn’t matter now, it’s too late. They’ve found us.”

“Who is ‘they’? The Backmans?”

She nodded. “There’s a nest of them, Sheriff. I thank you for all you’ve done, I really do, but Autumn and I are going to be leaving now. I will keep in touch.”

“How many times did you rehearse that little departure speech?”

“Three, four times, in front of the mirror. That doesn’t change the facts. Autumn’s in danger here. I want to take her away from the danger, it’s that simple.”

“Blessed would have murdered you, probably me as well.”

“Yes, I suppose so, through Ox.”

“I’ll bet Ox feels really lousy that it was his finger on the trigger.”

“Look, I’m really sorry about what happened to Ox.” She set the mug on the coffee table beside his and rose, smoothing down her creased jeans with her palms. He slowly rose to stand in front of her. He was big and barefoot, he hadn’t shaved, and his Beretta was clipped to his jeans. He imagined he looked like a thug who needed a shower. He hoped she might be intimidated, but he gave it up when she merely raised an eyebrow at him and looked amused. He said, “I don’t think it’d be too bright to ignore this. You know, running from trouble might save you for the short term, but trouble always catches up. Always.”

She stared down at his grandpa’s mug.

“Look, Joanna, I get that you’re afraid for your daughter.”

“Yes, and myself.”

“Tell me about Blessed and the ‘mad old woman.’ Tell me all about the Backmans. Blessed referred to his ma?”

She sighed. “I could tell you, and maybe you could even talk the local police chief into going to see them, but trust me on this—nothing would be done, and that’s because everyone’s afraid of them, even that good-old-boy sheriff, Burris Cole.”

“Where is this? Where do they live?”

Since she ignored the question, he continued, “I can see being scared spitless of them, after seeing what Blessed can do to another human being. What makes you think when we find Blessed our charges won’t stick? After all, he’ll be here, not with his own local sheriff.”

“Maybe because the judge would look at Blessed and dismiss the case, or the prosecutor would look at him and never bring a case, or, better yet, the cops sent to arrest him would look at him and they’d let him go, maybe even give him a lift to wherever he wanted to go—better yet, even forget why they were there in the first place. This is not what could be possible. This is exactly what would happen. Believe me, Sheriff.”

He said, “I gotta admit, you’ve hit a solid point there. We’ll get to that in a moment. I don’t want you to think I’m just this boondocks sheriff who doesn’t know his butt from his boots. I was this big law enforcement honcho back in Washington, a DEA agent.”

That drew her up short. “DEA?”

“You know, the Drug Enforcement Administration. Maybe I wasn’t a real big honcho, but I think I did some good.”

“Then how did you get to be a sheriff in the boondocks?”

He gave her a big grin. “Like you, I couldn’t stand being trapped inside a building, wearing a suit and wing tips. Don’t get me wrong, if they’d let me out in the field, I’d have been happy as a clam, but they wanted me in a Washington tactical desk job.”

She picked up his grandfather’s mug. “I need a refill.”

“No, you don’t. Step away from the mug, Joanna.”

She laughed, couldn’t help it.

“So tell me about Blessed. All he has to do to hypnotize someone is to look them straight in the eye, that’s it? Can he do it to anyone?”

How had he gotten her off on this track, and talking? This was bad. She wasn’t amused at his macho show now, probably because he wasn’t playing at it any longer, that hard look on his face all too real. Because she’d known such fear in the last two weeks, felt so paralyzed, it almost hurt to say it, but she did.

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