CHAPTER THREE: LURED
Jude slowed then stopped fifteen feet from the two sheriff’s cruisers, a coroner’s van and a Pontiac GT. The official vehicles were blocking the two-lane highway that led into Forest Glenn. The GT was sitting on the side of the road as if someone had pulled over to change a tire or take a leak. There was something about it that made him think it was abandoned though now. As if the driver had gone into the woods and … vanished.
The motorcycle’s engine purred beneath him, but he didn’t hear it as he saw a stretcher being brought out of the dense woods that bordered both sides of the road. There was a black, zipped body bag on top of it. So the driver hadn’t vanished. He or she was just coming out of the woods in a very different way then they had gone in.
A car accident? No, car’s fine. So what’s going on here?
The dark, suspicious glare the deputy -- whose nametag read “Reynolds” -- gave him told him that whatever was going on wasn’t good. The deputy stomped towards him on tree-trunk sized legs. He was over six feet tall and reminded Jude of a Cyberman with the stiff, almost mechanical way that he walked. The man’s eyes were covered by reflective sunglasses, but his lips were peeled back from his teeth slightly making his anger apparent.
Why the Hell is he angry at me?
“You! Who are you?” Reynolds snapped at Jude.
Jude’s bewilderment immediately was replaced with a familiar desire to push back at authority wrongfully used. He was allergic to police of any kind, because they always seemed to see him as trouble, especially when he was on a motorcycle. They all assumed he was up to no good and he assumed they were going to abuse their power. Most cops hadn’t disappointed him in his beliefs. But the wrong move was to give them more reason to be aggressive towards him by being surly or rude so Jude smoothed his expression into one of perfect calmness.
“Jude Connor. I’m Sophia Leonard’s grandson. I’ve come to visit her,” he said politely, making sure to connect himself to a member of the community.
But instead of this establishing a measure of trust between them it made Reynolds angrier. “Nice try. Sophia Leonard is black. You’re clearly not.”
Jude gritted his jaw. All the answers he wanted to give to Reynolds’ ignorance -- or rather how he wanted to give them -- to explain how he could have a black grandmother would likely get him sent to jail so he just answered tightly, “Her foster grandson.”
A flicker of annoyance crossed Reynold’s face. He clearly recognized his mistake and maybe even the stupidity of his statement, but he was not the kind of man to admit it. So he plowed on, “What brings you here now? What business do you have in Forest Glenn?”
“Like I said, I’m visiting,” Jude answered tightly. He didn’t have to explain himself. He wouldn’t be kept from Grandmother Sophia by this mechanical man.
Reynolds planted his tree-trunk like legs farther apart and put his fists on his hips. “I’ll have to check that you really have business here. Don’t move while I --”
“Reynolds, what are you saying to that good citizen?” It was a woman’s voice who asked this. She didn’t shout. Her tone wasn’t particularly sharp either. She had a calm, conversational, and completely pleasant tenor but it had Reynolds straightening up so fast that Jude wouldn’t have been surprised if the man got whiplash.
“I was just checking to see if he belongs here, Sheriff,” Reynolds explained.
Belongs? I belong here as much as anyone else! But though Jude’s anger whipped up like a cobra deep down he agreed with Reynolds. He didn’t belong. Not here. Not anywhere. And he was fine with that. The pit that seemed to open in his stomach, the sense of aloneness and alienation, though gave lie to those beliefs.
He was distracted from his self-pity by the appearance of a petite woman with ginger hair who stepped around Reynolds’ side. Her approach had been hidden from Jude’s view by Reynolds’ body. She was barely five feet and slender as a reed yet she practically had her massive deputy quivering with nerves.
“I think I’ll take over from here. Why don’t you go oversee the crime scene technicians?” she suggested in that quiet way that had even Jude wanting to do as she said.
“Of course, Sheriff.” Jude wouldn’t have been surprised if Reynolds saluted her, but he didn’t. Instead he did a neat about-face and strode off in that stiff, mechanical way.
Both of them waited to speak until Reynolds was out of earshot then she smoothed a hand down her neatly pressed brown uniform before offering Jude that now dry hand for a shake and introduced herself, “Sheriff Georgia Fairweather.”
He took her hand and said, “Jude Connor.”
“Ah, Tessa’s brother!” She gave him a Crest-white smile. Tessa had that effect on everyone, even opposing counsel, though she often wiped the floor with them in court. “She told me to expect you.”
“I guess you’re the only one who realized I belong here,” Jude said, thinking on Reynolds’ earlier words.
She sighed and her grass-green eyes looked very tired for a moment. “I want to apologize for Reynolds. I would say that it’s the circumstances that are making him so impolite, but that would be a lie. He’s always that way. Just know that it’s not personal” She gestured back to the forest which had seemed to swallow Reynolds up. “We’re all a little on edge, but that’s no excuse for such behavior. Forest Glenn is a friendly town … or it used to be.”
She looked so troubled by that last fact that he almost felt sympathy for her. But he had found all towns, big or small, to not be as friendly as those in power liked to think they were.
“What happened here? Traffic accident? Heart attack?” Jude asked as he watched the crime scene techs load the coroner’s van with the body.
“We’ve had a rash of wolf attacks, if you can believe it.” She took off her broad brimmed hat and wiped sweat off of her forehead with a handkerchief. “This time it wasn’t a local. Since the attacks started we’ve been getting a lot of out of towners who want to kill a man-eater wolf. Not that an outsider’s death is any less a tragedy.” She added the last quickly.
He thought it was normal for a stranger’s death to hit less hard than someone whom she had known and maybe was friends with. But he appreciated that she didn’t want him to think that a stranger’s death -- like, for instance, his own -- wouldn’t get her full attention, let alone her empathy. But it was not that part of what she had said that had struck him.
“Wolves?” His voice sounded amazed and unnerved, which was exactly what he felt. He had meant for it to come out just curious.
“They’ve been making a comeback recently, but never like this. Wolves are normally afraid of human beings. They might go after livestock or pets, but people? Full-grown men with guns? Never.” She had mistaken Jude’s shock with the idea of wolves being in Michigan, but what Jude was really reacting to was the dream he’d had earlier.
How weird to dream of wolves and find out that Forest Glenn is having wolf attacks. Strange coincidence.
His right hand went up to his throat and lingered there as he remembered the pressure of the white wolf’s jaws on his neck. It was strange that even now he, face with what a real live wolf could do, the remembered sensation of that pressure wasn’t unpleasant.
“So other people have died from these wolf attacks?” he asked as the silence had stretched on too long.
She nodded. “Five so far. Actually, this will be the sixth. That’s another reason I’m so glad you’re here. Sophia lives out in the woods and that’s where the attacks are mostly taking place. This one was the closest to civilization.”
“What do you think happened?”
She let out a breath that stirred a few strands of her ginger-colored hair. When she spoke she did so with an almost distracted air, “I think the driver saw something in the woods, pulled over and was lured out to his death.”
“Lured?” The use of that word struck him. It held such a note of menace. “Wolves can do that? Think like that? Plan an attack that gets a man out of his car?”
She blinked as if realizing then that she had spoken her private thoughts outloud. “Oh, don’t listen to me. It’s just been a long few months.” She had her professional face back on. “And with people here hunting the wolf there have been even more injuries and all around complaints. I haven’t had a chance to sleep for the week I need.”
“So Reynolds thought I was another person here to shoot the wolf then? I don’t think I look like a hunter,” Jude said with sudden understanding though he was still inclined to think of the deputy as an asshole. “But with a wolf about maybe I should look into getting a weapon.”
“Sophia has a shotgun and knows how to use it.” She flashed him that bright smile again and he wondered how old she was. She had the bearing of someone in her fifties, but there were few wrinkles on her face.
“Well, I should let you get back. Is there another way I can get into town?” He pointed towards the blocked highway. He could just maneuver his bike around the cars, but he wasn’t sure if that was part of the crime scene.
“The coroner’s van is leaving now. You should be able to get through here,” she said and sure enough the white van was performing a neat three-point turn and driving off. With the body gone it seemed like nature turned back on. He hadn’t realized that the there had been no bird calls or insect whirrs until now when they came back on in full force as if a switch had been flipped.
“Sophia’s place in on White Hen Road. I get there by going through town and then taking a right –” he began asking for directions.
“It’ll be the first road after you leave the downtown,” She explained. “She’s about two miles down White Hen. House is tucked back in the trees, but you’ll see an ancient blue mailbox at the end of a gravel drive. That’s hers.”
“Thanks so much,” he said and genuinely meant it.
She pulled out her card and handed it to him. “Those are all my numbers. Home, cell and the station. Please let me know if Sophia needs any help. She’s a real character and the world could always use more of those. We’re glad to have her in Forest Glenn.”
He tucked the car in his back pocket. “I will. Thanks, Sheriff Fairweather.”
“Georgia, please. Take good care of yourself, Jude.” She waved him on.
He dipped his head to her and rode through the space between the cruisers. He headed down the road for only a few miles before the downtown of Forest Glenn appeared on the horizon. It wasn’t as small as he had assumed it would be, having been to many small Midwestern towns that seemed to have little reason to exist any longer, not being near any highways or any larger cities where the jobs were. But these towns clung to existence nonetheless.
The downtown consisted of a main drag and three crossroads. There was a grocery store, three bars, a few restaurants though nothing fancy, surprisingly, no chains either, various shops that sold everything from animal feed to bicycles to books, and a small motel whose parking lot was stuffed with too many pickup trucks and men in camo.
These must be the out of town hunters. God, how much firepower do these people think they need for one wolf?
The men with bristling with rifles, shotguns and side arms. There looked to be enough weaponry to fight a small war. But then Jude thought of six people dead and, supposedly, how the last victim was lured from his car into the woods. Jude revised his opinion. Maybe they didn’t have enough guns.
He found White Hen Road just where Sheriff Fairweather said it would be and sure enough, two miles in, he caught sight of a faded blue mailbox. He opened the front of it and took out a roll of bills, circulars and magazines. He stuffed these into his right saddlebag. Grandmother Sophia would be glad he was sure not to have to make the trip down to get the junk mail and bills. Then he rode up the gravel drive for about a hundred feet before a house appeared under the shadow of the forest.
The house was two stories, but compact with a neat front porch up two rickety steps. The house had green shutters and peeling white paint. There was a hanging swing on the right side of the door also painted as green as the shutters. There were a few pots with flowers that were nodding in the afternoon’s drowsy passing on the porch’s railing. All the windows were open. He saw white curtains fluttering in a stray breeze. There was a scrubby little garden around the right side and the grass needed to be mowed. It was a lush green that gave off a sweet yet earthy fragrance.
He started mentally making a list of things he could fix for Grandmother Sophia while he was here. Scrape and repaint the house. Replace the front steps. Rewire the screens. Mow the lawn. Weed the garden. He was sure there would be plenty of other things to do inside as well. The satisfaction of being of use to the woman who had saved him from others and himself flowed through him.
He stopped the motorcycle and turned off the key in the ignition before bringing down the kickstand and swinging his leg over the bike to dismount. He fished out the mail from his right saddlebag and hopped up the two stairs that creaked alarmingly under his weight to the front porch. He would definitely would have to replace these though the porch itself appeared sturdy. The thought of one of those steps though snapping under an elderly foot and sending Grandmother Sophia to the ground, breaking her leg or a dreaded hip, caused him to swallow down bile. This would be his first task.
He rapped smartly on the frame of the screened front door as he brightly called, “Grandmother Sophia! It’s Jude! You in there?”
He could see a short hall in front of him. There were pretty redwood floors and the ceiling was high and molded with a fleur de lis pattern in the plaster. There was a soft creak and a shadowy figure appeared at the end of the hall holding a frying pan. The delicious scent of bacon wafted out to him.
“Jude?” Grandmother Sophia’s voice was still rich and redolent of the feeling of home.
Jude found his heart beating a little faster and a rare real smile lighting up his beautiful face. “It’s me. Can I come in?”
“Of course, child! What are you doing standing on the porch? My house is your house. Always,” she replied gaily.
My house is your house. Always. That was the first thing she had ever said to him when he came to her as a surly fifteen year old who thought that no one could be trusted.. He had thought she was full of it when he heard it from her that first time, but it was true. Totally and utterly true.
He came inside and she was already extending her arms to him, having set down the frying pan back onto the burner from which the delicious smell of bacon rose up. As he embraced her, he heard the spatter-pop of hot fat.
Grandmother Sophia was a small woman, barely five foot two inches. Her back was bowed forward probably taking a few more inches off her height. Her formerly black hair was now completely white. Her nut brown skin though was still soft and mostly unlined. He kissed one of her cheeks and looked into her deep brown eyes.
“It’s so good to see you,” his voice was hoarse with love for her. Tears actually pricked his eyes. It had been too long since he’d seen her. He was so glad that he’d used Tessa’s credit card and so glad that his foster sister had urged him here.
She patted his cheek and with a twinkle in those brown eyes she said, “And just in time for lunch, too.”
“BLTs?” he guessed.
“On fresh bread! Oh, and the bacon is from a local farmer. I actually think I met this pig, too. Hopefully, I didn’t name him,” she said then gave a soft laugh.
She had gone back to the stove where she expertly removed the sizzling bacon from the cast iron pan and put it on folded paper towels to drain the fat away. He saw that there was a loaf of very fresh bread sitting on the countertop with a serrated blade beside it. Jude headed towards it to begin cutting thick slices of it for the bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwiches.
They worked in companionable silence. He sliced bread and tomatoes. She lathered mayonnaise on the bread and then layered on the bacon, ripe tomatoes and crisp lettuce before capping it off with another slice of breath also covered in rich, creamy mayo. Jude brought the bright yellow plates with the sandwiches over to a small formica table by a window that looked out onto the overgrown back yard. Grandmother Sophia put down two mason jars and brought out a pitcher of what suspiciously looked like fresh lemonade.
Seeing that, Jude laughed. “I see the country agrees with you. Fresh bread and homemade lemonade? I think I’m moving back in!”
She chuckled as she took the chair opposite his. “Now that I’m not dealing with ten children’s schooling and after school activities and sports games and my work at the County Clerk’s office, it’s amazing how much time I have to do things like bake fresh bread.”
“You loved every minute of being crazy busy though,” he said as he bit into his sandwich. The statement ended in a moan as the salty bacon, yeasty bread and sweetness of the tomato and mayo. “God, this is good.”
“Yes, it is. Even better to share it with someone, especially if that someone is my favorite son.” She grinned at him and took a small ladylike bite of sandwich.
“You say that to all your foster sons, Grandmother Sophia,” Jude pointed out. When he had come into her house, he had only met a few of them as he was the last foster child she had taken in before retiring.
“I do and it’s true. You’re all my favorites,” she said and sipped some lemonade.
“You look … really good.” Jude had been watching her carefully and, though he was no doctor, she didn’t seem senile to him at all. She appeared a bit more frail than he liked, but her mind seemed terribly sharp.
Her dark brown eyes narrowed. “Tessa been telling you that I’m not good?”
He squirmed a bit in his chair. “She may have mentioned something.”
Grandmother Sophia leaned back in her chair and let out a tired sigh. “You would think with a successful law practice and a partner that that girl would have enough to occupy her time without worrying about me.”
“She loves you more than anyone or anything. You sort of take top billing in her life,” Jude pointed out.
Grandmother Sophia dabbed at her mouth with a napkin. “Forget a pot on the stove one time and you’re labeled senile! I might be old, but I’m not batty. Not any more than I’ve ever been. Truth is that I … fell asleep. I didn’t forget the pot, but just drifted off. Woke up and there was black smoke pouring out. Scared myself half to death.”
She looked so disgusted with herself that a wave of pity and understanding went through him. He reached over and covered one of her hands with his.
“That could happen to anyone,” he said loyally.
“It could!” She lifted her chin up, but then lowered it. “Not that I’m saying I’m as spry and alert as I was ten years ago. I love this house, but it’s quite a bit to upkeep. I thought I could hire some local children to help, but there aren’t many of those around.”
Jude immediately thought of his mental checklist. “Well, would you be willing to hire someone maybe a little older?”
“You making me an offer, Jude Connor?” She gave him a wink.
“Maybe I am.”
“Jude, I don’t want you to stay here because of anything that Tessa said or even --”
“I’m not.” He held up a hand to stop the flow of reasons why he shouldn’t stay. He found himself telling her some of what was really going on with him. “The truth is that I could really use a break from the road. Things haven’t been …” He thought of Merv the Perv, the gas station attendant, and swallowed. “Things haven’t been going so hot for me and I could use a place to stay for awhile. If that’s okay with you.”
He looked up at her, half hopefully, half ashamed that he couldn’t hack it out there right now.
I’ll be of use to her. It won’t be freeloading.
Those deep brown eyes seemed to see into his soul right then. She cupped his cheek and said gently, “I think you may be the forgetful one between the two of us, Jude. My house is your house. Always.”
Jude found himself smiling even as his chest clenched with gratefulness. For the first time in a long time he felt like maybe things were looking up for him.