Forty years of atonement ought to count for something. After all, Billie Warren was just nine years old when she did what she did. She’d hoped the memory of that one horrible act would be diluted by time, by the birth of her daughter, and the death of her father. But the recollection was always there, following her around like a pack of lost dogs.
Lately, the dogs hadn’t stirred, and, if they did, Billie didn’t have time to notice them. At forty-nine, she considered herself too young to have a grandson and too old to deal with his teenage mother, both of whom lived with her. She was the police chief of Stanton, which really meant she was the glorified mom of a tiny Lowcountry town near Charleston that was barely a speck on a map. Throw in her mother’s Alzheimer’s, and Billie was in the middle of a shit storm that had no end in sight.
The admission yanked hard at the left side of her chest, and the landscape was nearly black by the time she jerked the squad car onto the shoulder that overlooked the marsh. She threw the car in park, her finger stabbing wildly at the button until the window was all the way down. She gulped at the thick salty air and pressed her palm into the tight spot on her chest, her thumb digging into the muscle like she could push clean through to her heart.
God, she used to love riding patrol because it gave her time to think. Now she hated it for the same reason. But riding patrol also gave her moments like this, with the full moon suspended just above the creek like a giant dollop of butter. The silvery glow illuminated the marsh grass and bathed the pluffmud in a dreamy light that made the oyster shells laced across the surface glow like rhinestones.
Billie drew in a long steady breath and let the sweet musty smell of the marsh take her mind away the way a dog-eared black-and-white photo from a dresser drawer could, the way an old beach tune always did. It took a while, but the tightness in her chest began to ease. Her breathing was near normal until the police radio sent all that flying with a garbled message. Billie fiddled with the knobs until she caught the tail end of the dispatcher’s message. “Come again?”
“911 call, Chief,” Delores snapped. “Melvin Gifford’s wife has winged him good. County dispatcher sent the sheriff for back up. Ambulance is on its way.”
“Shit,” Billie hissed.
“Copy that,” Delores said.
Billie flipped the light on as she pulled onto the highway and headed back toward town. Delores had said winged, hadn’t she? Billie couldn’t remember, so she turned on the siren and picked up speed. She hung a left on Cherry Vale Lane and proceeded down the street lined with neat white-washed clapboard houses until she reached the tiny red brick home that was the crime scene. The ambulance and the county’s boys were already there. Jimmy Malden, old Chief Malden’s nephew, was holding court on the front porch with two other cops who were barely wet behind the ears.
The screen door flew open and two hefty medics navigated the gurney onto the porch. Melvin Gifford was lying on his belly as they wheeled him toward the ambulance, his backside full of lead. He wasn’t dead, but as often as he had knocked his wife around, he ought to be. The front door was open and Billie could see Penny Gifford sitting on the edge of a tattered blue Lazy Boy with a lace doily where Melvin’s greasy head had lain for most of his sorry life.
The hairs on the back of Billie’s neck prickled as she got out of the car and walked toward the front porch. She ignored the smirk on Jimmy’s face over the fact that he’d beaten her to the scene of the crime. She recognized only one of the other cops. Donnie Shepherd was boy band cute and had always had a thing for Billie.
Jimmy had shared that little tidbit over more beers than Billie cared to count and then laughed his ass off over the very idea of Billie with a twenty-three-year-old. But Jimmy wasn’t laughing several beers later when he confessed that after his uncle disappeared, he’d wanted to be the police chief of Stanton more than anything. Jimmy Malden was a natural born smug bastard, so it had thrilled Billie’s soul that he’d actually cried when he confessed that a Malden belonged in her job.
“Hey, Billie.” Donnie was the only one of the three officers with his hat in his hands. “We all tried to talk to Mrs. Gifford. Sergeant Malden even acted like he was going to put the cuffs on her, but she says she’s not talking to anybody but you.”
“He’s exaggerating,” Jimmy said. “I’m just letting her simmer down.”
Billie didn’t speak, just nodded to them and opened the screen door. Before it closed, a bleary-eyed Penny was up and out of the Lazy Boy.
“I know,” Billie said, and she did know. Billie wrapped her arms around the sobbing woman. She’d been called to the Gifford home too many times to count over the past twenty years, mostly by the neighbors who feared for Penny’s life. Penny was always glad when Billie responded to the call, but she was too afraid to press charges. Too afraid that some good old boy judge would turn Melvin loose, and he would kill her for putting him away.
Billie couldn’t blame Penny for not sending Melvin to jail. Judicial wisdom in domestic cases like Penny’s was legendary, and not just in little podunk towns in South Carolina. But if anything had kept Penny Gifford in her place all those years, it was the raw power that a man like Melvin Gifford wields that makes women like Penny believe there is no place they can go where they won’t be found. No wonder she shot him.
“Oh, Billie.” Penny sputtered and held tight while Billie stroked her hair and the cop in her looked around the room. Blood was splattered on the wall behind the easy chair. Just off the living room of the tiny house, the kitchen was spotless. There were two plates and two jelly jar glasses in the dish drain, a pair of wire spectacles on top of a well-worn Bible on the dinette.
Best guess, Penny cleaned up the supper dishes, did her daily devotional before she got the same shot gun Melvin had shoved up under her chin a thousand times, and shot him as he was treading toward his sacred chair.
“Oh, Billie—I just couldn’t—”
“Shhh. You’re alright now.”
“No.” Penny pulled away and looked at Billie like she was back to believing she was worthless, a know-nothing who couldn’t do anything right. “I was aiming at his head,” she sobbed as Billie pulled her close again.
Jimmy took a long draw off his cigarette and threw it down on the concrete stoop. “Billie.” The smugness was gone, but he didn’t sound like he was going to throw his arms around them for a group hug.
Billie looked Jimmy Malden straight in the eyes to let him know he had better take good care of Penny Gifford if he knew what was good for him. Maybe he half-nodded his head as he snuffed out his cigarette with the heel of his boot; Billie wasn’t sure. But it tore at her gut when Penny took a deep breath and pulled away like she was ready to go anywhere, even to hell if it was better than the one she’d been living in for the past thirty-four years.
“They told you they have to take you to the sheriff’s office for processing?” Billie asked. Penny nodded at the floor. “I’m so sorry.”
“Chief Warren doesn’t have a jailhouse in Stanton, Miss Gifford, or she’d take you herself,” Donnie said.
“I know.” Penny wiped her eyes. “I don’t mean to be no trouble.”
Donnie gave Billie a sheepish look as he led Penny Gifford to the squad car. They didn’t cuff her, even though procedure said they should. Jimmy’s sidekicks were young, but Billie knew between the four officers, they’d seen enough women like Penny to know they were carting the wrong person off to jail. If things went the way they normally did during domestic calls, Melvin wouldn’t file charges; men like Melvin Gifford prefer to administer their own brand of justice.
“We didn’t cuff her,” Jimmy said, like that was some big consolation. “There aren’t any kids to take to social services.”
“No, they’re all grown and gone,” Billie said. “And you can bet wherever they are, they’re carrying on the proud family tradition of beating the shit out of their loved ones.”
Jimmy was quiet for once as Billie leaned in the driver’s side window of the squad car. Penny’s hands were folded in her lap. She was whispering the Twenty-third Psalm. Billie knew she didn’t have to remind Donnie how to treat Penny and appreciated the way he’d handled the situation. She started to tell him so until she noticed him staring down her shirt.
Billie rose up enough to stop the peep show. “Penny, whether you’re at home or—you’re going to be okay. I’ll call you tomorrow.”
Jimmy rapped on the top of the squad car, and Donnie obediently pulled out of the yard. “We got this one covered, Billie.” Even with all the drama, he was smiling over one of his young pups trying to sneak a peek. “He must like little tits.”
“Jesus, Jimmy, don’t you read? They’re ample breasts.”
“It’s no fun to give you shit, Billie Warren. Nothing gets to you.”
Jimmy was half-flirting, but he was dead wrong. Things did get to Billie in a big way, especially lately. Seeing Penny Gifford carted away in a squad car was an undeniably hard pill to swallow. If she added up all the other shit in her life, the odds that she could muster enough objectivity and detachment to do her job were impossible.
She got back into her piece of crap Ford and radioed Delores. “Penny okay?”
“Yes,” Billie said, “but it’s a damn shame her daddy never taught her how to shoot a gun.”
“They arrest her?”
“She shot the man, Delores. Not much anybody can do to pretty that up.”
“Penny ought to know better than to just wing the bastard. Tell her next time, make that bullet count.”
Billie’s lips tipped up. “Thinking I’ll let you pass that tip along to her.”
“Glad to,” Delores snorted. “Half an hour ‘til the day is done. You be careful out there.”
The squad car meandered through the city streets and then seemed to have a mind of its own as it headed out past the city limits. This was Jimmy Malden’s territory, but Billie always came out this way after her shift was over. The Ford followed the highway toward Rainbow Row. Not the pristine Row fifty miles away in Charleston. The one just nine miles outside the Stanton City limits where funky old houses painted electric shades of eggplant and fuchsia, chameleon green and sunshine yellow dotted the Edisto riverbank.
The lights of the Row came into sight. She turned off the county highway and onto a dirt road that wound its way toward the homes of folks who had found a way to make a living out of their art. Tiny houses and workshops filled with creativity spilling over into front yards and into the back eased the knot in Billie’s stomach that had tightened hard when Donnie put Penny in the squad car. Although she still felt like somebody, maybe a small toddler, was standing on her chest.
The headlights flashed across the Devil Oak, the centerpiece of the Row and a counterpart to the famous Angel Oak on Johns Island, near Charleston. While neither of them had anything to do with the angel or the devil, both were southern live oaks as old as time, with branches sixty yards long. The Devil Oak was the most prized work of art on the riverbank and was said to be sculpted by God himself. But Billie was more interested in the other sculptor on the Row.
The thought of letting the car follow the slight hill into Cole Sullivan’s front yard was tempting, not to see if he had anything new displayed or because he was a great artist. Her favorite pieces weren’t the pricey burled wood or metal ones in the shop or on his front lawn. She loved the ones in the garden, just off his bedroom, people made out of old fence posts that looked real in the early morning shadows.
For six months, Billie had had the good sense to turn around before she got within sight of Cole’s house. Shoot, with all that had been going on with Mamab and Amber, the last thing Billie Warren needed was man troubles. But something inside begged her to take her foot off the brake. The road was slightly downhill. If she let it, the car would roll right into Cole’s front yard. He would meet her on the porch with a smile that said he was glad she was back. It would feel good to put her arms around him, to wake up with him and look out at those fence post people.
To be fair, Cole was no trouble. He was one of the best things that had ever happened to her, and yet she denied herself. Why was that? Why couldn’t she just save the world five days a week from three to eleven and then fall into his arms? Why does any woman do that—reject the very things she knows are best for her, whether it’s a man, a little extra sleep, copious amounts of chocolate? If she could answer that question Oprah would offer Billie her own show. If she could answer that question, she could be Oprah.
The key was a good excuse, and the one that worked best for Billie was that she didn’t have time for Cole. Granted, it wasn’t real sexy, but it sounded good and kept people like Delores and Amber off her back. The lack of time made so much sense to Delores, she’d taken it upon herself lately to check in on Mama for Billie because it was on her way home from work. Billie was grateful for Delores’s little gift, but not so she could slip between the sheets with Cole. It stung that Mama never called her by her name anymore and never recognized her face.
Before she could fall down that rabbit hole again, the clock on the dashboard blinked 11:00. She pulled the squad car back onto the highway and was headed toward home when her radio chirped.
“You ain’t gonna believe this. You close by?”
“I’m done, Delores.” Beyond done. “Unless there’s been another shooting, whatever it is will keep until tomorrow.”
“Honest to God, Billie, you better get to the station,” Delores hissed. “Now.”