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Knock Out

Knock Out

Page 30

“Grace is thin as a rail, holds himself real quiet. But you’re always aware of him when he’s around. He’s creepy.”

She started to say something again, and he sat forward, touched her wrist. “What? Say what you have to say.”

“I could be wrong, really wrong.”

“What, Joanna?”

“I only heard Grace speak a very little bit. His voice was soft, sort of hollow, almost dead.” She shuddered. “That sounds ridiculous. I can’t really explain it, but—”

“But what?”

“Ox, last night, when he spoke—”

He waited.

“Ox sort of sounded like Grace. Not all soft and quiet like Grace, but the cadence of his voice.

“It sounds crazy, I know. It’s not that it was Grace’s voice, but it was the way he spaced out his words, like I said, the cadence—it was so familiar.”

17

LATER, HE THOUGHT, he’d visit that snake pit later. Ethan knew there was even more; he knew it. He had to keep her talking. Maybe all of it would come out at last.

“Are you ready to tell me where this happened? Where they live?”

“In a strange little town called Bricker’s Bowl. It’s near the Alabama border.”

“Bricker’s Bowl? I’ve never heard of it.”

“It really is more a bowl than a valley, curves up on both sides with houses marching right up the hills. I guess, from the air, what with the houses on the surrounding hills, it does indeed look like a bowl. Their family’s been there for generations, his mother told me.”

“Tell me about Ma.”

“She’s rich. She, Blessed, and Grace live in a huge Victorian mansion, filled with expensive antiques, mostly nineteenth-century English, and lots of manicured grounds. They have a six-car garage, although I never saw the cars inside, so I can’t tell you what they are. They’ve got their own private cemetery.

“She’s very proud of their wealth. She loves to show you every antique in the place—and there are a lot of them, since there are maybe fifteen rooms. She told me this is all due to her husband’s talent.”

“Was the husband around?”

She shook her head. “He’s dead. When she first told me about him, I thought she was batty, but now I’m not so sure. She confided in me that Theodore had the most useful talent in the family. That’s what she called it—a useful talent.”

Ethan found himself sitting forward. “What could Theodore do?”

“She said he had this beautiful gift, discovered quite by accident when he was in Las Vegas once and played the slot machines. He won.”

“Yeah. So what?”

“Evidently he won a great deal. Actually, she told me he never lost.”

“What? You’re telling me Theodore Backman was some sort of diviner?”

She had to grin, but it fell off her face fast enough. Ethan was staring at her, an eyebrow arched.

“As Shepherd explained it, where the reels stop is supposed to be random, but somehow Theodore could make the reels stop where he wished. She said he talked to the slots.”

“Oh, come on, Joanna. You mean he had this force field that reacted to the reels themselves? Or he had this internal magnet that brought the reels to a stop? What?”

“Look, I thought it was nuts too, even though Mrs. Backman told me he’d made them all rich.”

“It sounds like one of the crazy stories they’d tell us in the DEA as a cover for illegal income,” Ethan said. “It never flew in court. How’d he die?”

“Mrs. Backman told me he walked out of a casino in Reno and a mugger killed him. He hit the mugger with his cane, but the mugger hit him on the head with a hammer and left him to die, which he did.”

“A cane? How old was Theodore when the mugger got him?”

“Mid-seventies.”

“How old is Blessed? Grace?”

“Blessed is in his fifties. Grace is a bit younger, late forties, maybe.”

“So you’re telling me Blessed and Grace and their mother—what’s her name?”

“Shepherd.”

“Like the guy on FOX News?”

“More like the guy who herds the sheep. She told me, all preening, that her husband gave her that name, the mother of his small flock. I wondered what her birth name was, but I was too freaked out to ask.”

“Okay, so these folk say they’re rich because of a man who could line up three cherries. Now the million-dollar question. How did you hook up with these people? If they’re your husband’s family, why did you only just meet them?”

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