THE LAST WORD
Sophie Trace Trilogy #2
I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile. Romans 1:16
The shadow of death seemed to suck the life out of Vanessa Jessup as she pushed open the glass door at Planned Parenthood and staggered across College Boulevard. She slid behind the wheel of her old Honda Accord and locked the door as if that would somehow keep out the stark reality that threatened to rewrite her future.
Abortion would be the easy way out, though everything in her screamed in defiance. How was she going to take care of a baby? Did she even want to? What about getting her teaching degree? Backpacking across Europe after graduation? Spring break! By then she would look as if she’d swallowed a basketball.
This just couldn’t be happening. Not now. Not when she was halfway through her sophomore year in college and had a clear direction for her life. The words of Psalm 139 reverberated in her mind.
For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
Not this child. According to the Bible, it was conceived in sin. But the chemistry between Ty and her was so magnetic and overpowering that making love to him didn’t seem wrong. They were soul mates—a perfect match. How could she have foreseen this? They had been so careful. It wasn’t fair.
Did she even have the courage to tell her parents that she had redefined her Christian ideals and slept with her psychology professor—and not because she wanted a good grade? Would they understand that her relationship with Ty was electric, and that she loved him more than she ever dreamed she could love anyone?
She laid her head on the back of the seat and sighed. So much for the white dress and church wedding her parents always dreamed of. She dreaded their tears of disappointment and the lecture that would follow. But right now, it mattered more to her what Ty thought.
She sat for a minute and tried to relax, then opened her cell phone and pressed auto dial. She listened as it rang three times. Come on. Pick up. I know you’re finished lecturing for the day.
“Ty, I need to see you. It’s really important.”
“I’m with someone at the moment. Is this concerning your grade?”
“Look, I get it,” Vanessa said. “You can’t talk. But I know you have a faculty meeting tonight, and this can’t wait till tomorrow.”
“I could meet you in my office in forty-five minutes.”
“I’d rather meet at Chelsea Park at our usual spot.”
“That should work fine. I’ll be glad to discuss whatever details are concerning you then.”
Vanessa disconnected the call, another verse of Psalm 139 barging into her thoughts.
Your eyes saw my unformed body. All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.
She groaned. How was she supposed to think of this “positive pregnancy test” as a human being whose steps had been preordained by God? This pregnancy was a mistake—an incredible inconvenience that would ruin her chance to get her teaching degree.
Perhaps allowing the child to be adopted was the best course of action. But if she carried this baby to term, could she bear to part with it? Could Ty? And if they decided to keep the baby and take on the rigors of parenting, were they ready for marriage? As much as she loved Ty, the thought of having the rest of her life nailed down was both suffocating and terrifying. But choosing just to live together and raise the baby would alienate her parents. Caring for a baby alone was unthinkable. How was she supposed to make all these decisions? She needed time to process.
She blinked away the raw disappointment she knew she would see in her parents’ eyes. They expected better from her. Hadn’t she promised herself and the Lord that she would save her virginity for her husband? How would they react when they realized she had broken her promise unashamedly—and with an unbeliever?
Then again, wasn’t she the child who always seemed to disappoint? How was she supposed to compete with a pre-law scholar like her older brother, Ryan? Or a gifted and talented math whiz like her little sister, Emily? It wasn’t as though her grades weren’t satisfactory. And she was working diligently toward her elementary teaching degree—a worthy, achievable goal if she didn’t lose the momentum. A baby would change everything. How could she find time to study if she was caring for an infant?
Her mind flashed back to when Emily was born. So tiny. So perfect. So demanding. Each person in the family took turns holding her, feeding her, changing her, rocking her, and it seemed never ending.
Vanessa felt as if her lungs were in a vise and she couldn’t breathe. She rolled down the windows and let the crisp January breeze flood her face. She took a slow, deep breath. And then another. And another.
She started the car, pulled onto College, and drove toward Chelsea Park. At least she had just been home for Christmas break, and her parents wouldn’t be expecting to see her again for a while. That would give her time to think through her situation and make a decision.
Vanessa sat under a gigantic oak tree on the wrought-iron bench closest to the bandstand in Chelsea Park. Despite the biting north wind, she was uncomfortably warm and sticky under her wool peacoat.
She looked up just as Professor Tyson Nicholson got out of his yellow Corvette and strolled across the brown, crunchy lawn toward her. He waved, looking handsome in his tan London Fog and black trousers, his thick, dark hair a striking contrast to his reddish beard.
He hurried over to her and pressed his warm lips to her cheek, then sat next to her on the bench and warmed her hand with both of his.
“Sorry I’m late,” he said. “I was with Professor Roberts. The man doesn’t know how to end a conversation. What’s up? You look stressed.”
Vanessa felt robotic, almost as if someone had pushed a button to make her speak. “I’ve tried to think of an easy way to tell you this, but there isn’t one … I’m pregnant.” She stopped breathing.
The silence that followed seemed charged, like those seconds between a flash of lightning and the boom of thunder.
Ty leaned forward, his elbows resting on his knees, and combed his fingers through his hair. “How could this happen when we always used protection? Are you absolutely sure?”
“I just left Planned Parenthood. There’s no question. I’m about eight weeks along. I’m as shocked as you are.”
Ty’s silence sent a chill crawling up her spine.
Finally he said, “Okay. What’s done is done. Set up the abortion, and I’ll pay for it. Let’s get this out of the way.”
Vanessa felt as if her tongue was a lead weight and her stomach was falling down an elevator shaft. That’s it? Couldn’t he at least think about it? Consider the options? Ask to hear her thoughts on the matter?
Ty slipped his arm around her. “You’ll hardly skip a beat. Set it up for a Thursday or Friday and give yourself the weekend to recuperate.” He put his lips to her ear. “It’s the best solution, honey. You’ve got your education to think about. And I have to guard my reputation.”
“Are you ashamed people will find out we’re together?”
“This isn’t about shame. You know how I feel about us. But we agreed to keep our relationship a secret as long as you’re my student. That’s one issue. The other is I have zero interest in being a dad, now or in the future. You know that. Why do you look surprised?”
Tears welled, and Vanessa couldn’t see anything. “I-I don’t know. I guess I was hoping you might change your mind.”
“I’ve been completely honest with you from day one. I live from day to day. I’m just not into permanent.”
“Does this mean you’re breaking up with me?”
“What it means”—Ty cupped her cheek in his hand—“is that a baby would require a permanent commitment that I have no interest in and that you shouldn’t even consider until you get your teaching degree.”
Vanessa realized she was shivering. “I’m not … I don’t think … I-I’m just not sure I can handle getting an abortion.”
“Of course you can. You’re an intelligent young woman. It’s the best option.”
“It’s the convenient option.” Vanessa fiddled with the button her coat. “But it’s not the only option. We have others.”
“No, we don’t. I’m sorry this happened, but under no circumstances am I taking on the role of dad. And you’re not equipped to be a single mom.”
“Abortion just seems wrong, especially when there are couples waiting to adopt babies.”
“Vanessa, honey, look at me.” He tilted her chin, his evocative brown eyes reaching to her very soul. “What’s wrong is letting all that religious nonsense you grew up with strong-arm you into carrying this baby to term and then giving it up. I refuse to be a party to that. There can’t be any doubt in your mind how I feel about you. But if you want us to be together, there’s only one option.”
Ty’s pronouncement came like the clanging of cymbals and resonated in her heart with stark finality.
Vanessa wiped the runaway tear that trickled down her cheek. She couldn’t lose Ty. She just couldn’t. She glanced up through the bare branches that swayed in the wind like bony hands applauding her demise and noticed that gray winter clouds had hidden the sun. A sense of utter desolation came over her, and she thought it fitting for one who was about to sell her soul to the devil.
Police Chief Brill Jessup pored over the department’s budget for the rest of the fiscal year and couldn’t see any way she could afford to hire another patrol officer without going to the city council. She sighed. The last time she asked those tightwads for additional funds she practically had to beg.
A strange noise interrupted her thoughts. She peered through the blinds on the glass wall into the bustling detective bureau and listened intently. There it was again.
A burly man appeared in the doorway. He bumped off either side, then staggered into her office. Face down. Hands dripping with blood, clutching his abdomen.
“What in the world …?” She jumped to her feet, frozen in place.
Detective Sean O’Toole looked up and stretched out his hand toward her, his eyes screaming with pain. He collapsed in front of her desk and hit the floor.
“Officer down!” she shouted. “I need an ambulance—now!”
She hurried around the side of her desk, grabbed the clean hand towel next to the coffeepot, and got down on her knees. She laid the towel over the bloody wound and applied pressure.
“Sean, talk to me. What happened?”
The detective’s face was ashen. “He c-came from behind … put me in a chokehold … stuck a knife in my gut … said he was coming after you—to f-finish the job.”
“You never saw his face?”
“No. Hairy arms. White guy. Navy-blue short sleeves. Smelled like c-cigarettes. Deep voice.”
“Where did this happen?”
“Hallway. Water cooler.”
Sean moaned, his face pallid and contorted with pain, his eyes slits of icy blue.
“Come on, Sean, stay with me.”
Detective Captain Trent Norris burst into her office. “I’ll take it from here, Chief.”
“How did he get from the water cooler to my office without someone in the DB seeing he needed help?
“I guess we were all focused on other things. It’s been crazy.”
Trent got down on the floor and swapped places with her, his palms pressed over the wound. “Hang in there, buddy. The paramedics are just down the block. They’ll be here any second. You’re going to be fine. Stay with me. Talk to me.”
Brill sprang to her feet and hurried over to the officers who crowded outside her door. “O’Toole was just stabbed by some lowlife who snuck up behind him at the water cooler. We’re looking for a white man wearing a short-sleeve, navy-blue shirt, possibly bloodstained.”
She locked gazes with Sean’s partner. “Detective Rousseaux, secure the scene and make sure it’s not compromised.
“Captain Dickson, lock down the building and search every corner of every room.”
“Sergeant Chavez, set up a containment for two blocks around the building.
“Sergeant Huntman, clear the route to St. Luke’s and make sure we have officers in radio cars ready to escort the ambulance. Come on, people, move it!”
The officers scrambled in all directions, and she ran out to the restroom.
She tore off paper towels until she had a stack, folded them in half and held them under the faucet, then pressed out the excess water and rushed back to her office.
She got on her knees and gently pressed the wet towels onto Sean’s forehead, all too aware he was sweating profusely and still bleeding despite the pressure Trent was keeping on the wound. “We need something to elevate his legs.”
She went over to the bookshelf and grabbed several thick books and put them under Sean’s feet, hoping he wouldn’t die of shock before the paramedics arrived.
Lord, don’t take him now. He’s young. He’s got a wife and three kids.
“Come on, buddy, talk to me.” Trent patted Sean’s cheeks. “What else do you remember about this creep?”
“Tell Jessica I love her. The kids, too. Promise me.”
“You’re not going to die,” Trent said. “The bleeding’s slowing down. Talk to me, Sean. We want whoever did this to you.”
“He’s coming after the chief. Going to kill her.”
“Who’s going to kill her?” Trent’s dark eyes shot Brill a glance. “Give us something else. You’re too sharp of a detective to have missed anything.”
“Had a mark. Top of right hand.”
“What kind of mark?”
“A tattoo. Or b-birth mark. Size of a quarter.”
Brill heard voices and heavy footsteps in the DB, and seconds later two paramedics glided through the door and asked her to stand aside with Trent.
She observed in disbelief as the pair worked to save her detective’s life, heartsick that she might have to tell his wife and children he’d been murdered on her watch—and just feet away from armed police officers.
She started to brush the hair out of her eyes and realized her hands were bloody. She shuddered with the realization that whoever thrust a knife into Sean O’Toole had threatened to finish the job when he got to her.
Five hours later Brill sat at the conference table in her office with Detective Captain Trent Norris, Detective Beau Jack Rousseaux, Patrol Captain Pate Dickson, and Sheriff Sam Parker trying to assess where they were in the case.
“It’s a miracle Sean made it through surgery.” Brill looked from man to man. “We could be sitting here planning his funeral.”
“He’s too stubborn to die,” Beau Jack said.
“Stubborn’s no match for a knife blade, Detective. I want this animal locked up.”
“Don’t forget he threatened to come after you,” Trent said. “How’d he get in here, anyway?”
Pate’s face turned pink. “One of my sergeants, Tiller, reported that a white man dressed in navy blue coveralls with the Miller’s Air Conditioning logo on the pocket was standing outside the door when he arrived this morning. The guy said was here to fix the AC. He had a toolbox and big smile. Dark hair and mustache. Big guy. Looked fifty to fifty-five.”
“So the sergeant just keyed in the combination and let him in without checking with maintenance?” Beau Jack said. “Real smart move.”
Pate stroked his chin. “Come on, Miller’s service people are in here all the time. The sergeant let down his guard. We’ve all done it.”
“Yeah, well, my partner nearly died because Sergeant Tiller let down his guard.”
“What’s done is done,” Brill said. “It’s not like we have a precedent for this kind of thing in the Sophie Trace PD.”
Beau Jack stuck a Tootsie Pop in his mouth. “I guess we do now.”
“We definitely need to tighten security,” Trent said. “Since we have no idea who this guy is, everyone we bring into the DB to be interviewed will be suspect.”
“I can’t spend the rest of my life in fear of this nutcase coming after me,” Brill said. “I have a job to do. Trent, you take charge of tightening security. All of us need to heighten our awareness of our surroundings. Anything or anyone that doesn’t feel right, check it out.”
Sam’s white eyebrows came together. “I can’t believe y’all were that trusting. My deputies would never let unauthorized individuals into a secured area. They’re trained to follow protocol.”
“So are my officers.” Brill forced herself not to sound defensive. “But those of you in the county sheriff’s department deal with a broader range of criminals. Until now, the Sophie Trace PD had no reason to fear an officer being attacked in a secured area.”
“I’ll cover it in each briefing,” Trent said. “From this day forward, no one gets in the secured area until he has clearance. I don’t care how inconvenient it is to check him out.”
Brill looked over at Pate. “Tell me about your search of the building.”
“No evidence was found in the building, ma’am. My officers searched every nook and cranny and checked the sinks for hair and blood. Doesn’t appear the attacker stopped to clean up.”
“How’d Chavez do with the containment?” she said.
“He contained a two-block area around city hall, checked license plates, and talked with pedestrians. That yielded one female witness who passed the suspect on the sidewalk around 10:45—just after O’Toole was stabbed. The suspect was headed down First Street at a pretty good clip. Our witness says he was overweight, average height, dressed in navy blue coveralls and a black windbreaker and carrying a gray toolbox. She said he was wearing sunglasses and did not have a mustache. She’s working with Tiller and our sketch artist. We ought to have something soon.”
“Did she see which way he went?” Trent said.
Pate shook his head. “Once he passed her, she didn’t give him a second thought until Chavez questioned her.”
“Well,” Brill said, “I’m eager to see the sketch. If this man has threatened to come after me, I’d sure like to see if I recognize him.”
A short time later, Brill sat at her desk and studied the artist’s sketch of the man who stabbed Sean O’Toole. Sergeant Tiller was the only one who saw the suspect’s eyes, and the female witness was the only one who saw his mouth without the mustache. He looked vaguely familiar, but she couldn’t put a name to the face or even explain what it was about him that looked familiar.
Her cell phone vibrated, and she read the display screen.
“There you are,” she said. “I guess you got my message?”
“Honey, I’m so sorry,” Kurt Jessup said. “I’ve been following the news. I’m glad Sean pulled through. Must’ve been horrible for you.”
“I thought we were going to lose him.”
She told Kurt everything that had happened from the time Sean O’Toole staggered into her office until the paramedics took him to St. Luke’s in an ambulance—except that the assailant told O’Toole he was coming after her to “finish the job.” Why get into that over the phone?
“Sounds intense. You must be emotionally drained.”
“I don’t think it’s caught up with me yet. It was surreal washing Sean’s blood off my hands, and I had to throw away my uniform shirt. Beau Jack lent me the extra shirt he had in his locker so Emily wouldn’t have to see the mess. Does she know about the stabbing?”
“Yes, but I made sure she’s not planted in front of the TV, listening to the gory details. It’ll just trigger thoughts of the hostage ordeal, and we both know she’s not over it.”
Are any of us? Brill glanced up at the clock. “I’ll be home in forty-five minutes. Is Vanessa there yet? I can hardly wait to see her.”
“She’ll be here between seven and eight. Said not to plan on her for dinner.”
“By the time I get home, it’ll be too late to cook anything,” Brill said. “And you know what Friday night is like. If we go out, we’ll have to wait forever, and I don’t want Vanessa to come home to an empty house.”
“I’ve got it covered, honey. I bought a baked chicken and quart of potato salad at the grocery store. We’ve got stuff here for a green salad. That should work.”
“What would I do without you?”
Kurt laughed. “I have no idea.”
“I’ll see you soon. I love you.”
“Love you, too.”
Brill hung up the phone and looked out the window. Through the leafy trees and beyond the ridges of hazy green foothills, the blue-gray silhouette of the Great Smoky Mountains dominated the early evening sky. She sat for a moment and just enjoyed the beauty and the calm.
Lord, thank you for letting Sean pull through.
Her office phone rang, and she picked it up. “Yes, LaTeesha.”
“Captain Donovan from the Memphis PD is on line one for you.”
“Thanks.” She pushed the blinking button. “Hello, John.”
“Hey. It’s great to hear your voice. Saw you on the news last fall. I figured you’d make a name for yourself, but I didn’t think you’d go to such extreme measures.”
She smiled. “Things got pretty crazy, all right. So are you enjoying my old office?”
“Not today. I’ve got bad news … Zack Rogers was stabbed night before last. Happened in his driveway. Some worthless piece of garbage came up behind him and stuck a knife in his gut, and said to tell District Attorney Cromwell he was coming after him. I didn’t call you because the doc said Zack was going to be all right. But his heart gave out …”—John’s voice cracked—“an hour ago. None one saw it coming. His kids are still in high school, and with their mother dead … well, it’s a tragic loss. I knew you’d want to know since you and Zack were partners for so long.”
Brill felt a wave of nausea sweep over her, a decade of memories flashing through her mind in an instant.
“The thing is,” John said, “we knew Zack was being targeted because one of my detectives was stabbed last week, and the perp told him he was coming after Zack. We offered Zack protection, but you know how independent he was—bound and determined he could take care of himself.”
Brill’s heart pounded so hard she was sure he could hear it. “John, one of my detectives was stabbed today just outside the detective bureau. The attacker told him he was coming after me, to finish the job. This can’t be a coincidence.”
There was a long moment of dead air, and she figured John was processing the implications.
“You and Zack helped put away lots of perps, Brill. And Jason Cromwell was district attorney during the time you two were partners. Did anybody ever threaten you?”
“Are you kidding? All the time. We blew it off.”
“Well, looks like one of them was dead serious. Anybody in particular stand out?”
“Sure, Bart and Sampson Rhodes. But they’re lifers and not eligible for parole. Zack and I busted them what, nine or ten years ago? If they had been serious about taking us out, they could’ve snapped their fingers and gotten it done in nine or ten minutes.”
“Maybe they’re patient,”
“Or maybe this is someone else,” Brill said. “Someone who was forced to wait a long time for the chance to get even—someone who served out his sentence. Someone who wouldn’t think of hiring a hit man, but rather delights in the systematic elimination of the people who put him away. Someone who enhances his enjoyment by first stabbing a person who is close to the intended victim and making sure that person lives long enough to tell the intended victim that he or she is next.”
“You’ve worked with the FBI profilers so long you actually sound like one.”
“Unfortunately, John, I think I’m right.”