THE REAL ENEMY
Sophie Trace Trilogy #1
“Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”
Rosa Mendez crouched behind the rubble of a razed brick building and held her breath. Had he seen her? She listened for his footsteps moving toward her, but the only distinguishable sound was the squawking of two grackles fighting over a potato chip wrapper stuck in the storm drain.
She gingerly peeked around the side of the brick pile and caught a glimpse of her cousin Eduardo’s red hightops and the Super Bowl cap she gave him for his birthday as he bounded up the front steps of the abandoned Pentecostal church. What was drawing him to this empty old building?
She wanted to follow him inside and ask what he was doing here. If he had been the Eduardo she had idolized nearly all her life, she would have. But this new Eduardo? Her heart trembled when she thought of how he might react if he knew she was spying on him.
Deep voices resonated from inside the church. They sounded mean, but she couldn’t make out what they were saying. She glanced at her watch. Surely her younger sister Carmen could baby sit four little girls by herself for a few more minutes. She might not have another chance to find out what Eduardo was up to.
She crept around to the side window and peered in through the broken glass. About a dozen men stood in a straight line, their arms folded across their chests, Eduardo and two others facing them. She ducked just below the windowsill, still as stone, and listened to what they were saying.
“We’re unstoppable. The question is: are you? Few men are shrewd enough or tough enough to succeed at this. Ready to show us what you’ve got?”
“So am I.”
“Excellent. Make sure they never get the chance to scream. ”The man laughed. “Oh…and if you get caught? We never heard of you. Rat us out to the cops and you’re dead men. There’s no place you can hide that we can’t get to you. Any questions?”
Silence filled the room.
Rosa leaned against the side of the church, her knees about to buckle, her heart pounding like a kettledrum. What was her cousin doing with these thugs?
A few seconds later, feet shuffled across the creaky floor and it sounded as if the front door opened. She ran to the rear of the building and hid behind the overgrown shrubs near the steps, studying the guys as they crossed the street and strutted toward the railroad tracks. Their backs were to her, but Eduardo was easy to spot in his red athletic shoes.
Whatever it was they were up to, they had picked the most secluded part of town to meet. After the woolen mill closed down, blocks of old buildings on this side of Sophie Trace had been demolished and replaced with rows of metal storage facilities. This dilapidated church was about the only remnant left standing.
Rosa waited until the men disappeared, then sat on the crumbling steps, hugging herself and rocking back and forth. How could Eduardo be stupid enough to get pulled into something that might put lives in danger and get him sent to prison? Was she brave enough to confront him? Would it even do any good?
Until the past few months, she could talk to him about anything. But along with his increasing indifference came a mean temper that frightened her. He had shoved her a few times when she pressed him about why he was avoiding her, and he had even started yelling at the younger cousins any time they got on his nerves.
Rosa blinked the stinging from her eyes. What happened to the Eduardo she had idolized for as long as she could remember? The doting cousin who taught her how to swim when no one else could even coax her into the water? Who taught her to ride a bike? Not to be afraid of dogs? The Math whiz who helped her make an adventure out of everything from times tables to algebra? Eduardo had always been her hero—the big brother she never had.
If only she hadn’t eavesdropped. What if he was in danger? Clearly someone was.
Rosa’s mind screamed with possibilities and the skin on her arms turned to goose flesh. What if they were smuggling illegals into the country? Or what if it was even worse than that? Her mind flashed back to a recent TV documentary about slavery in the twenty-first century.
She shuddered. Was Eduardo involved in that? The guy who threatened him sounded capable of anything.
A train whistle startled her. She shivered. The air had turned chilly and the sun had dropped behind the metal roofs of the storage facilities. She pulled the windbreaker out of her backpack, her hands shaking, and slipped it on, the stranger’s threat replaying in her mind like a stuck CD.
Rat us out to the cops and you’re dead men.
Rosa began to run and then run faster and faster, lamenting that she had shirked her babysitting responsibility and had stumbled into something she had no business knowing but couldn’t ignore. She raced past the high school, vaguely aware that the clock at city hall had chimed five times, and came to a stop at the red light at Stanton and First.
She leaned over, her hands grasping her knees, and tried to catch her breath. What should she do? If she confided in her parents, they would feel obligated to tell the police. No, Eduardo was the one she needed to talk to. Maybe she could reason with him and get him to stay away from these dangerous men.
The light turned green and she darted across Stanton and raced toward Mockingbird Lane. But what if it was too late? What if Eduardo had become just like them? What if he was capable of hurting her—doing whatever it took to shut her up? What if he knew she had followed him and decided just to deal with her later?
Make sure they never get a chance to scream, one had said. She swallowed a sob and kept running, trying not to think what that meant.
Police Chief Brill Jessup yanked her hand away from the stuck desk drawer and shook it a few times, keenly aware of her broken thumbnail and the heat scalding her face. She stole a glance through the blinds covering the glass wall, pretending not to notice Detective Captain Trent Norris’s seeming amusement. She wasn’t about to ask him for help. How hard could it be to get the stupid thing open?
“Everything okay, Chief?” Trent’s voice sounded patronizing.
“Yes, just fine.”
Brill reached for the stack of Thursday’s mail in her inbox, and sat back in the well-worn brown leather chair, her thumb throbbing, and her feet barely touching the floor. The desk chair was still too high, but she wasn’t going to call the maintenance engineer and have him adjust it again. Why draw attention to the fact that she was a foot shorter than her predecessor and utterly useless with a screwdriver? She could live with it until she was off duty and could get her husband Kurt to help her.
She wiggled out of the chair and ambled over to the window, her back to the glass wall and Trent’s curious glances, and looked out through the magnificent trees of gold and orange and crimson that shaded the grounds around city hall. In the distance, beyond the ridge of rolling hills, the hazy outline of The Great Smoky Mountains looked almost surreal against the bluebird sky. She had always admired the grandeur of the Mississippi River when she lived in Memphis, but it couldn’t compare with the heart-stopping view on the other side of the state. Outside, anyway.
She turned around and cringed at the monstrous bookcase that swallowed up the entire wall behind her desk. The other walls were dingy beige and bare except for a few framed pencil sketches of Civil War heroes and an abundance of nail holes—glaring reminders of Chief Hennessey’s passing.
Brill remembered seeing the framed portrait of the chief that hung in the main corridor of city hall at the end of a long row of portraits of the other police chiefs who had served the community of Sophie Trace. How honored she felt to be counted among them, even if she was the first “redheaded spitfire” to run the department. She smiled. Trent would probably be embarrassed if he knew she’d overheard him refer to her that way while talking with his wife on the phone. Not that he meant any disrespect. Perhaps it was even intended to be complimentary. But she wondered if he would have described her that way if she were male.
She went over to her desk, took a nail file out of her pencil cup, and began to smooth her jagged thumbnail. Hadn’t she made up her mind when she accepted this position that she wasn’t going to allow gender to be an issue nor was she going to overreact if someone tried to make it one? Her eighteen-year record on the Memphis police force spoke for itself. Had any detective cracked more cases than she? It was her captain who first nicknamed her Brill—short for brilliant—and it eventually stuck. When she moved here, she planned to use her given name but Kurt talked her out of it. She’d been known as Brill for so long that the only person who still called her Colleen was her mother.
Police Chief Brill Jessup did have a nice ring to it. She chuckled aloud without meaning to, recalling that when she was in the second grade, she announced to her teacher and classmates that she wanted to be a lion tamer when she grew up.
A voice came over the intercom on her phone. “Chief, line one is for you. It’s Kurt.”
“Thanks, LaTeesha.” Brill picked up the receiver and pushed the blinking button. “So how’s your day going?”
“Great,” Kurt Jessup said. “I’m in Pigeon Forge at the new store. The SpeedWay sign was put up this morning. I thought it might look lost with all the glitzy signs along the main drag, but actually it’s not hard to spot.”
“I think your little quick copy business just turned into a chain.”
“Yeah, I’m starting to think five stores is enough unless I want to hire someone to handle HR. I’ve got all I can say grace over.”
“Good. The last thing you need is time on your hands.” Brill felt her neck muscles tighten in the dead air that followed. Had she subconsciously intended to turn the knife? She wondered if Kurt was thinking the same thing.
“What time will you be home?” she said.
“I’m not sure yet. I want to stop by the church and finalize my class notes for Sunday.”
Brill sighed under her breath. What made Kurt think he was qualified to teach Sunday school? And didn’t he care that it put pressure on her to attend? It’s not as though she could opt out without raising a few eyebrows. “So you’re really going through with it?”
“I told you I was. I wish you’d at least pretend to be supportive.”
“Sorry. I think you’re biting off too much too soon.” Okay, so she was turning the knife. Was she supposed to pretend he was worthy?
“I guess we’ll just have to agree to disagree,” Kurt said. “I’ve put the past behind me. I want to get involved at church, and I really feel called to do this.”
Called? Convenient choice of words. How was she supposed to argue with that? “Did you remember Emily has gymnastics at four?”
“It’s right here on my phone. I’ll get her there on time. So how’re things at the station?”
Brill leaned on the side of her desk and looked down at the cars parked at the meters. “Let’s see…we investigated multiple vehicle break-ins in the employee parking lot at the tire plant. Responded to a domestic disturbance on Fifth. Racked up a few speeding violations. Made a report on a fender bender in front of the high school. Checked out a ‘popping noise’ on Beech Street—a possible drive-by shooting we haven’t been able to confirm. Feels strange not having a big case hanging over me. The real challenge of the day has been trying to get this stubborn file drawer open. I got it open once, but I’m not sure what I did.”
“Why don’t you just ask Trent to show you?”
“I can figure it out by myself, Kurt.”
There was that uncomfortable dead air again.
“What I would like help with,” she stood and turned around, “is making this office look like it’s mine.”
“I’ll help. Where do we start?”
“With a coat of fresh paint—something cheery. These walls are disgustingly drab, and I doubt they’ve been painted since Chief Hennessey was sworn in. I could use a few plants in here, too—something alive to offset the abundance of dead oak. I’ll bet if we cut this conference table and chairs into firewood, there’d be enough to burn till the next century. We could burn this old desk chair while we’re at it.”
Kurt laughed. “So how do you really feel about your new office?”
Brill smiled in spite of herself. “Oh, you know how I am. When the walls look grotty, I feel grotty I’m sure once it’s brightened up, I can make do with what’s here. But I would appreciate your lowering the desk chair a notch. I’ll tell you one thing, I doubt there’s a prettier view of the Smokies anywhere in town.”
“I think you’re right. It shouldn’t take more than the weekend to do the job—unless you actually want that big bookcase moved. In which case, you’ll have to wait till I can round up some young bucks to help.”
“Forget it, you’d need a forklift.” Brill scanned the rows of books that rose almost to the ceiling. “Let’s just paint around it. I’ll weed out some of the books and put a few family photographs on the shelves. At least there’s plenty of light in here.”
“It’ll look more professional after we hang your diplomas and award certificates,” Kurt said. “So are you starting to feel settled?”
“I’m comfortable with my position, though it still feels strange being called Chief.”
“Especially with a Cherokee reservation just across the border.”
“Very funny, Kurt.”
“Sorry, bad joke.”
“Not to mention politically incorrect. You read the literature the chamber of commerce gave us. You know how Sophie Trace got its name. There’s a rich Cherokee history in this region.”
“And some bad blood that wasn’t mentioned in the brochures. Wait’ll you hear what I found out at the barbershop this morning.”
Brill smirked. “And they say women are gossips.”
“This wasn’t gossip. There’s a legend. Some people actually believe that the spirits of the Cherokee who were driven off this land have come back to get even with the descendents of white people who settled here.”
“That’s about the craziest thing I’ve ever heard.”
“They refer to the spirits as red shadows. I kept my mouth shut and just listened to the barber and a couple old duffers bat the legend back and forth. Apparently there have been a number of bizarre, unsolved crimes over the years, including an axe murder in 2006—seven people were found dismembered.”
“Up in the foothills, not in Sophie Trace,” she said. “And the victims were shot first. I read the case file. The sheriff, along with the FBI, ATF, and DEA determined it was drug related. The victims were tied to a Venezuelan drug cartel. It was likely a territorial issue.” “Try telling that to my barber and his cronies. They’re convinced it was the work of red shadows—also last week’s seven-car pileup on I-40.”
Brill rolled her eyes. “We arrested a drunk driver at the scene with a blood alcohol level three times the legal limit. Come on, Kurt. Those guys were pulling your leg. You’re new in town, and they were having some fun.”
“I don’t think so. You should’ve heard them.”
Brill, a grin tugging at her cheeks, got up and closed the blinds on the glass wall. “Well, you can tell the keepers of the legend down at the barbershop that I’ll gladly get an arrest warrant for whichever red shadow or shadows poured a fifth of Jack Daniels down our drunk driver’s throat. But I’ll need names and addresses.” She chortled into the receiver.
“I knew you’d find it entertaining. At least a little folklore will keep the case interesting.”
“At the barbershop, maybe. Not here. The guilty party is already behind bars. Case closed.”
“And now you’re sitting around twiddling your thumbs?”
“I’ve got a stack of paperwork to keep me busy.” Brill put the nail file back in the pencil cup. “Actually it’s nice not to be stressed out for a change.”
“I know. I’m just concerned this job isn’t going to be challenging enough.”
“Well, we both know I didn’t pursue this position for the challenge.” The words cut, and she knew it. Let him bleed a little.
There was a long pause, and she could hear Kurt breathing into the phone. Finally he said, “Maybe after dinner, we can go over to that big home improvement center. You can choose the paint for your office.” His tone was even and non-defensive.
“I’m leaning toward deep yellow.” She let her gaze glide around the room. “Maybe a shade of mustard that won’t make it look like a nursery.”
“You pick the color, and I’ll do the painting. You’ll have a fresh new look on Monday morning. How’s that sound?”
It sounded great. But was she using Kurt by taking advantage of his willingness to please her, especially when she had no intention of letting him back into her heart or her bed? Probably. But wasn’t it better than shutting him out altogether? For Emily’s sake, she could pretend to love him. But she could never forgive him—not ever.
“Brill, you still there?”
“Yeah, I’m here. Okay, sounds like a plan.” But if you think being nice to me is going to change anything, think again.