St. Louis, he was finding, had just not been quite a far enough distance to run.
Oh, there were plenty of nooks and crannies in which a hunted man could keep out of sight. Side streets, overflowing with mud and garbage this time of year. Saloons and gambling halls. Even the grand old Mississip’, should he decide to venture north or south through its churning waters, to seek greener pastures in another, safer direction.
During the past year of being in pursuit, of being pursued, he had deliberately kept a low profile. No social events, at which he might be photographed or recognized; no political gatherings or Sunday go-to-meetings at some local church.
He had, however, the lonely man’s occasional longing for comradeship with those of his fellows.
“Hey, Pickwick! Whatchoo up to tonight, old son?”
A tight smile as he returned the greeting, in kind. The name he had chosen for himself was not the one by which he had been christened, but it would do. And somehow Chadwick Lassiter, as he was now known, had degenerated according to the user, and the familiarity with which it was spoken.
“H’lo, Charlie. Not so much. How’re things with you?”
“Oh, fair to middlin’, fair to middlin’. Mind if I sit for a spell?”
Wick had decided to interrupt the monotonous routine of his life—and his self-inflicted exile—with a visit to the bright lights and spritely music of The Mud Room. It was a place scrabbling for survival along the banks of the Father of Waters, and offered amusement and entertainment for anyone in quest of a night on the town. Nothing so famous as The Green Tree or the Sauganash, in Chicago, of course.
But, here, he could sit in a corner, back to the wall as always, and enjoy a glass of lager, or five-card stud, or simply the view of what was going on around him.
And that was plenty.
Men just finished with their shift at Adam Lemp’s brewery had begun to pour in, raucous and ready for action, whatever it might be. Their filling and overflowing of the large space immediately drew the bar girls, like yellow jackets to sugar water, swarming through the crowd. Patrons with cash in their pockets and anxious to spend it on women and song proved themselves to be irresistible.
“Look at ’em,” scoffed Charlie, returning with his own glass of beer to pull out a chair opposite his friend’s. “Pie-faced fools; all too ready to throw away their week’s earnin’s on somethin’ frivolous, with nothin’ to show for it later.”
Wick raised one thick black brow. “You plannin’ to do the same, shortly?”
An embarrassed grin and silence gave away the answer. Charlie quickly buried his mustache in the cold foam, probably hoping to avoid a lecture from the man fellow workers sometimes called The Preacher. And not in an affectionate way, either.
Charles Prescott, standing one rung higher up the ladder above Wick at Trickle Construction, was considered his boss and foreman. Together they managed an efficient and mostly talented crew, building commercial properties and some of the more elaborate mansions around Lafayette Square and Lucas Place.
Master Patrick Trickle, company founder and owner, had often been heard to bemoan the fact that his bid, back in 1867, to erect the monumental Eads Bridge across the river, an arch design with three spans, had been rejected. No matter that bridge-building was a project quite out of his league. Here it was, thirteen years later, and he was still complaining about the loss of any contract for such a prestigious undertaking.
“That’s quite some house in the new area—Vandeventer—that we’re gonna be startin’ on next week. Weather permittin’, anyway,” Charlie dug himself out of his beer to comment. “Didja see the plans?”
“I got a glimpse. Four stories tall, ain’t it?”
“Huh. And an attic. Five separate wings. Nothin’ like bein’ one of the super-rich, to be able to afford all that.”
The breadth of Wick’s shoulders stood out even in this sea of brawny men’s broad shoulders. He lifted one now, so that his muscles rippled, and the soft old flannel sleeve creased. “S’pose so. Reckon we’d oughta be glad to have a good job, and decent pay, though, ’steada grousin’ about what we ain’t got compared to somebody else.”
A heavy sigh. “Mighta known you’d tell me that, Pickwick, when all I wanna do sometimes is grouse. You got religion, or somethin’?”
The smile this time was genuine, adding sudden lightness and warmth to Wick’s rather somber expression. “Now just what would I do with religion, Charlie, if I did get it?”
For a few minutes they slouched at the small table in friendly silence, watching the action. A minor altercation had broken out at the far end of the bar, possibly caused by someone’s elbow being poked into someone else’s ribs. Sharp words ensued, and several fists made glancing contact with other fists, and a full stein of beer was overturned before order was restored. That due mainly to the bartender’s expert use of a baseball bat.
One of the flunkeys emerged with a pail of sawdust to pour into the puddle on the floor. Judging by the resigned expression on his face, this was a regular occurrence, and it was his job to clean up the mess.
A mediocre pianist was pounding the keys of an old upright, while some purported musician strummed absent-mindedly at the strings of a battered guitar. Several of the scantily attired painted ladies were hanging over their chosen victims, billing and cooing, enticing for drinks, entreating for dances. A few were actually successful in their quest, dragging enthusiastic, if inept, males out to join in a gallop or a pound-the-floorboards polka.
“That’n, right there.” Wick inclined his head slightly to indicate a pert young blonde, hair tortured into ringlets, bright red costume plunging fore and aft. “Reckon she’s got an eye out for you, Charlie.”
From Charlie’s nose and throat came some noise like the snort of a restive horse. “You forget, Pickwick, I’m a man soon to be wed. Wouldn’t wanna go upsettin’ my woman, now, would I? B’sides, she looks to be more your type.”
Why on earth would he even consider an association with someone so used and tawdry when he’d already had—and lost—the best that life could have offered?
“Not really seekin’ for female companionship right at the moment,” said Wick quietly. And, just like that, a shutter seemed to slam closed across his face, locking away all emotion.
He was an attractive man, this bricklayer, this roustabout, this man-of-all-work. Sturdy and appealing, rather than vainly handsome like some oily opera star. Ringlets of soft black hair, comparable to that of a Grecian statue, and seemingly impervious to the dedicated use of a comb, tumbled down his brow and over his ears.
His eyes held all the mystical quality of the sea, their color dependent as much upon mood as upon choice of garment: now deep greenish-blue, now stormy gray, now an iridescent and striking teal. Physical labor over the years had kept his tall body in fighting trim, and his hands, though well-shaped and groomed, wore their calluses rightfully and proudly earned.
If any of The Mud Room’s soiled doves were casting covetous looks his way, Chadwick was paying little attention. Nor was he interested.
“Man, hard breathin’ today,” commented his companion, after a hearty cough that emphasized his point. “Too much black air.”
Wick wholeheartedly agreed. “We got factories everywhere you look, burnin’ coal to keep the steam boilers goin’. So the dust and smoke gotta go somewhere. And this time of year, with all the rain and light snow comin’ down, seems to just hold that stuff close to the ground.”
“Yeah, straight into my lungs. Makes you wonder why we live here. And the noise! I swear, I’m gonna be deaf before I’m thirty.”
Homage thus paid to the local problems caused by industrialization, Charlie changed the subject to sports, usually a safe venue (unless one were a rabid fan), and the formation of the St. Louis Brown Stockings just a few years earlier. The team had thrashed the Chicago White Stockings in their opener, and then closed in 1878. Charlie was still mourning the loss of a home club.
Time for another change of topic.
“How long you been workin’ for Trickle, Preacher?”
Wick took a moment to consider. “Started last January … reckon it’s been some six months or so.”
“Ahuh. And you said you were from where—Chicago?”
Charlie hauled his glass a little closer across the tabletop and grabbed a long and satisfying gulp. “Dunno that you ever said why you left.”
The posture straightened, just a little; the eyes narrowed slightly and lightened with frost. “Dunno that it’s anybody’s business but mine.”
“Don’t get your long johns in a knot. I got reasons for askin’.”
“You don’t say. And just what is that, pray tell?”
Usually, this man of the enigmatic background was able to guard his words more carefully; he’d certainly had enough time to practice the art. He’d even roughened both his appearance and his speech to fit the new person he had become. But sometimes, usually under stress of the moment, he accidentally let slip more than he had intended.
Charlie, a towhead, raised one sandy brow. “Well, now, Preacher, b’cause I had a feller come by the shop today, after you left, askin’ about you.”
The contrast between the positions of the two men was striking: Charlie had leaned back into his chair, entirely at ease, one leg slung casually across the other thigh, glass of beer drained to its dregs; Chadwick sitting as staunch and upright as if a broomstick had been strapped to his spine. Meanwhile, all around them swirled music and laughter, loud voices, and the clink of poker chips.
“Never seen ’im before, so I didn’t tell ’im nothin’. Other than to hit the road.”
Wick had no doubt as to the man’s identity. It could only be the one he had managed to elude thus far, across half the country. And, much as he appreciated this show of loyalty from someone he had come to consider his friend, Wick realized this was exactly the sort of reaction that wouldn’t quell the fires of continued investigation from an outsider but, rather, stoke its flames.
“Got a description?”
“Oh—forties, maybe. About your height, thinner—not much meat on his bones. Reddish hair, kinda goin’ gray. Sound like anybody you know?”
“Nope.” Not a single hesitation in the answer, for he spoke the truth.
He’d ferreted out the other hired lackey easily enough, back in Chicago, when he’d been trailed; failing so far to ensnare his prey—that being Chadwick Lassiter—Mick the cabal leader must have decided to try a new tactic, and a new bloodhound. It is extremely difficult, Wick was finding, to exist as hunter and hunted, both at once.
“Huh. Well, he didn’t tell me what he wanted with you. Should I dig a little more, if he comes back?”
“Sure, you could. But you prob’ly won’t see him again. He’ll just be out and about, hangin’ round town.”
Hanging around town. And shadowing amiable Charlie, at a safe distance, to flush out his quarry like a bird from the bush. Or just watching the Trickle Construction office, where daily assignments were handed out, until Chadwick Lassiter could be trapped and attacked, unaware.
Shortly, Wick would slip out the back door and skulk through the alleys until he reached his rooming house. There he would hastily pack his few belongings.
With the news he had just received about Mick’s henchman, and the information he had managed to garner concerning his own quest, it was time to move on to another city, another state.
He had been born, slightly more than a quarter-century ago, in the most respectable of neighborhoods outside of Albany, New York, with the most respectable of given names (John Frederick), to the most respectable of families (the Suttons).
To all appearances, John Frederick Sutton was the golden boy, backed by wealth and privilege, so that every door magically fell open to him. He led what many an envious soul would consider a charmed life. He took that as his just due, never questioning what he had done to deserve such good fortune.
His upbringing, as the eldest son, had been stellar but less than spectacular; rather routine, in fact, marked by only a few mild boyhood pranks but no serious infraction of established rules. There was his attendance at a private academy and, later on, an exclusive boarding school; matriculation into Columbia University and then Columbia Law; recruitment into the hallowed halls of his father’s firm of Sutton, Sutton, and Smythe; marriage to a lovely young woman with whom he had fallen violently, wildly, and passionately in love, almost upon his first meeting.
“Bryony,” he had murmured, repeating her name with delight. “Bryony.”
They had been introduced by mutual friends at one of Hawthorne Hill Country Club’s usual spring soirées. The orchestra music was sweet and unobtrusive, the refreshments sublime, the twilit surroundings touched by fairy dust and magic. Because the most beautiful girl ever created had just accepted his hand and was, with the clasp, smiling up at him to show a charming set of dimples and a demure flash of green eyes.
John was immediately bewitched.
Little Miss Bryony Cavanaugh, a debutante recently released into society, was equally smitten. Although, like all well-bred young ladies of her time, she would never dream of admitting the fact.
“May I fetch you a cup of punch?” he finally tore himself away from staring dumbly down at this vision in white silk and lace to inquire.
“I would love a cup of punch,” Bryony assured him.
And he had immediately loped away in pursuit of whatever might be needed to fulfill her wishes. The aforementioned punch—nonalcoholic, of course. A carpet of moonbeams to lay under her buckled slippers. The silver moon, up above, as ornament to adorn the riotous curls tumbling over her one bare shoulder.
Propriety did not prevent him from pressing her for a tête-à-tête in the garden, where privacy beckoned, walkways and carved wooden benches offered solitude, and the heavy scent of exotic roses and the more common phlox, mock orange shrubbery and brilliant peony bushes, could be wafted everywhere. Propriety did not prevent her from accepting.
“Tell me all about yourself,” John urged, once they had been seated.
Laughing, she had glinted those amazing dimples once again. “Shall I start from the moment of my birth, or would you prefer to hear a condensed version of my autobiography?”
“Either. Neither. Most important, are you pledged to anyone?”
Fortunately for his deranged state of mind, she was not. And he could breathe more easily.
That was the first of many weekday evenings—and weekend days—they spent together, during a wonderfully idyllic summer that John wanted never to end. In between the increasing hours he spent working and learning at his father’s law firm, he escorted the tawny-haired Miss Cavanaugh to various dances at the Club, to musicales at private homes, to performances at the Belmont Shakespearian Theatre.
Such fun. Such laughter. Such a growing connection between the two. In some ways, John felt he had known Bryony all his life. In others, he wondered if he knew anything about her at all.
However many hours he spent in her company, it was never enough; he wanted more. He wanted to see her first thing in the morning and last thing at night. She was the woman of his dreams, his ideal; he was becoming obsessed with her beauty, her charm, her innocence, her sweet character. She was perfection itself, devoid of any flaw.
Things were not quite so rosy on the home front.
Word had gotten out, spreading quickly, about this social newcomer in whom he was taking such marked interest. His father, John Frederick Sutton, Sr. (known in the business as J.F.), pressed for details, and his mother, Solange, pleaded for more information as to the girl’s family.
“After all, John, dear, she arrived here only last autumn,” Solange reminded him, almost tearfully, when the three of them had retired after dinner to the library for a little parental chat, “and she has been staying with her aunt for the season. We know nothing of her background or her antecedents. Unless you—” She paused delicately, hoping for a response.
“What particulars I gleaned have already been shared with you, Mother.” John glanced unobtrusively, but impatiently, at his pocket watch; he had promised to stop by the Cavanaugh home for a visit this evening, and he was already late.
“Ah, yes, you said the young lady mentioned a brother that—”
“Stepbrother. Both her parents are recently deceased, as the result of a carriage accident; that’s why she’s come here. Her only other living relative, besides the aunt, is a stepbrother, who lives somewhere farther downstate. In the City, I believe. If you really need to be told more, I shall be happy to speak with Miss Cavanaugh and provide you with his particulars, as well.”
This room was his father’s province. J.F. had made his wishes known as to general furnishings, and his mother had provided the rest. There was the requisite desk, of course: a monstrous thing of carved rosewood that stood on its heavy bowed legs, like some great creature of legend, to guard all who entered. Walls had been paneled with old English wainscot, and the parquet floor was nearly hidden under scatterings of costly Persian rugs. As a testament to his learning, J.F. had actually read most of the books bound in Moroccan leather and gilt, which filled the shelves.
It was an ostentatious, showy place. And John hated it.
“You’re a wealthy young man,” his father put in at this juncture, “and you will inherit a good deal of our estate when your mother and I are no longer around. Is she after your money?”
“Father!” Outraged, John surged to his feet. “Of course she isn’t! I assure you that unlike some others of your acquaintance, Bryony isn’t some fortune-hunting gold digger!”
Bushy eyebrows raised, J.F., standing before the Sienna marble hearth, with its array of fresh flowers, flapped his coattails. It was a habit he had acquired long ago, and every flap indicated the force and depth of his displeasure. “You’ve known her—what, two months now? I’ve been married to your mother for thirty years, and what I know about her to this day could be put into a thimble.”
“Why, J.F.,” Solange, surprised, cooed in an aside. She was a handsome woman, rather than beautiful, with dignity and respect written into every feature. Her husband rarely offered such a compliment. At least, she assumed this was a compliment. “What a nice thing to say.”
His semi-disgusted look at her from across the room immediately proved that the comment hadn’t been meant as flattering, at all. “Do pay attention to the conversation, Solange, I beg of you. We need to find out what’s going on with this girl. Our son has years ahead of him before settling down, and I intend that when the proper time comes, it will be with someone of similar rank and prominence.”
John was still standing to be on equal level with his irascible parent—a tactic he had learned from that very individual, and learned well. The muscles of his jaw were clenched as tightly with set teeth as were his fingers into fists. As if drawn into battle, he might resort to physical violence.
“I don’t care what sort of background Miss Cavanaugh has,” he went on, “or whether her family is one of means. She is becoming more and more important in my life, and that should be enough for both of you to accept.”
“But, John, dear …” Once more, his mother attempted to intercede. “You must think about your prospects, and your future. Go ahead, enjoy your time, have your little fling—as men seem compelled to do—” Here she dared shoot a cool glance toward her husband. “But, for goodness’ sake, don’t let your relationship become serious. You have more than just yourself to consider.”
“Fling! You think of my interest in this lady as just a fling!” His temper was rising, and his gut was churning; the color of his remarkable eyes had gone from azure-blue to thunderstorm-gray in a matter of seconds. “You do her a great dishonor, Mother, and I can frankly say I’m ashamed of your attitude. I intend to ask Bryony to be my wife!”
After the noisy gasp of Solange reacting to this announcement, came silence. Utter, stone-cold silence. The quiet ticking of his mother’s heirloom wall clock sounded reliable and steady as the beat of a metronome. Every large window of the spacious library had been opened to the pleasant evening air and a hum and whine and flutter of insects on parade. From somewhere in the house, John’s younger brother, Henry, could be heard calling to their sister, Penelope—something about a tennis game tomorrow, with luncheon after at the Club.
John was an adult, now. He was intelligent and mature, willing to take on responsibility and stand up for (and to) those he loved. His father could no longer cow him with bluster; his mother could no longer shrivel him with guilt.
“You intend to what?” J.F. said in a low, chilling voice.
“You heard me.”
“You plan to marry some little nobody without a penny to her name? Over my dead body!”
“That,” John, standing firm on his principles, said quietly, “can probably be arranged.”
J.F. slammed his hand down on the mantle, so forcefully that several of his wife’s cherished (and priceless) porcelain bibelots toppled over, with a soft tinkle of protest. “Be careful, young man,” he roared. “You have not yet reached your majority. I can very easily change all that.”
“Do so.” John’s shrug bordered on insolence, and he refused to quail. “Yours is not the only law firm in town. Nor, I daresay, in the state. I have credentials, Father; I have experience. I have tried cases in court. Make more threats, and I’ll be gone.”
“J.F.!” cried Solange. “John! Stop this nonsense, immediately. The two of you are tearing this family apart, and I won’t have it. I won’t have it; do you hear me?” Pressed beyond measure, she suddenly burst into tears.
“Mother!” Shocked by his own temerity, driven only by an outside impetus (his father), and the pure ugliness of this scene, John turned to kneel before her, contritely clasping her hands. “Mother, I am so sorry! It was just—just words spoken in the heat of anger, on the spur of the moment. Please don’t cry.”
She freed one hand to dab delicately at her eyes with the handkerchief she always carried, tucked into her sleeve. “J.F.?”
“Father, I do sincerely apologize.” John felt he had no other choice but to man up about the whole thing. “I had no right to speak to you as I did.”
“J.F.,” his wife reproached him, with more intensity.
He harrumphed a few times, flapped his coattails again, and managed to maintain his usual demeanor. Superiority, ever and always. “Apology accepted,” he finally muttered.
“Good.” On his feet once more, John reached out. “Then please also accept what I’ve said tonight as gospel, both of you. I’m leaving now to visit Bryony. When we’re alone together, I intend to ask for her hand in marriage. After that, we can all meet as a group to make wedding plans.”
The door closed silently and suddenly upon his abrupt departure, leaving his parents to stare at each other in dismay.
The Cavanaugh-Sutton nuptials shone, according to a gushing article on the society page of Albany’s local newspaper, as the event of the season.
To John’s proposal, made in the privacy of her home’s back garden, Bryony had happily and eagerly acquiesced, shedding a few tears in the process. He had dared to snatch a quick kiss, and then another, not so quick and far more potent. Which led him to beg that a wedding date might be set without delay, as soon as possible.
Mrs. Evelina Cavanaugh, Bryony’s aunt, was horrified.
“But of course that is out of the question!” she had fluttered at him in alarm. “No bride could ever complete all her arrangements in less than a year. You absolutely must reconsider, Mr. Sutton. Pray, do speak to your mother; she’ll understand.”
They were currently enjoying the cooling temperatures of an evening in late July. John tried for a wedding date in October; Mrs. Cavanaugh countered with October of the following year. Eventually, after some heated discourse, they managed to compromise (although John, feeling at a distinct disadvantage when it came to the lady’s excellent bargaining skills, would always complain he had given up far more than she) with a marriage celebration next June.
He was, naturally, forced to bow to the inevitable. Very soon, he was also caught up in what he called “the three-ring circus” of matrimonial schemes. Flowers. Colors. Venue. Décor. Attendants. Fittings. And on and on. Many of these details were left to the prospective bride’s discretion, but she did want to discuss such preparatory measures with the prospective groom—for his opinion, negligible though it might be.
Somehow the affianced couple made it through summer, and fall, and winter, and into a truly glorious spring, with John growing more and more impatient. And anxious to use his lawyerly parlance to seal the deal, he had placed a respectable emerald ring upon her finger (to match her eyes); he had followed every direction meekly and to the letter—he had purchased a modest, furnished home that would certainly serve their needs for the present.
Saturday, June 22nd, dawned on a hint of golden sunlight and dew scattered like iridescent pearls amongst every garden rosebud. An omen, surely, of happiness still to come. With this day, the culmination of a year’s preparations had finally arrived; and, soon, after a few swift-moving hours had passed by, the newlyweds would be on their way from church to reception hall to train station.
St. Mark’s Cathedral boasted seating for five hundred parishioners. The pews, each decorated with white gauze looped around a spray of yellow calla lilies and brilliant cerulean forget-me-nots, had been filled with the cream (and some not so much cream) of Albany society.
At 2 p.m., John, attired in a blue morning coat, white waistcoat, and doeskin trousers, stood before the altar, along with his six groomsmen, similarly attired. He was feeling indescribably nervous and excited, all at once. Especially once he got a glimpse of his bride, Bryony Fidelia Cavanaugh, being escorted down the aisle by her ponderous uncle, Morton.
Truly, she was an angel arrived straight from heaven, to walk lightly and sweetly among mere mortals, and, at the sight of her, John unashamedly tipped away a joyous tear with one gloved finger.
She had protested the pomp and circumstance—and expense—demanded by her aunt during their earlier planning. Nonsense, that good lady had stoutly replied. Since she and Morton had no children of their own, and since that absentee stepbrother had apparently disappeared somewhere, it was only fitting that she be treated as the daughter of the house.
So Bryony glided slowly, probably tense and trembling, toward her expectant groom, in a wondrous creation dictated by culture and couture.
Since Queen Victoria’s decision to be married to her beloved Prince Consort in white, nearly forty years ago, the style had taken hold, and most current wedding finery had swerved away from the colors of the past.
So it was in virginal white that Bryony had arrayed herself today.
Sewn from silk gauze, the gown boasted trimmings of embroidered net lace, satin ribbon bows, and a belt sash of silk satin. Flared sleeves and a semi-long bodice helped to accentuate the draped polonaise overskirt; several flounces of more net lace decorated the full underskirt.
Yes, indeed, truly a wondrous creation.
But all John could see was a vision from on high, who would soon be sharing his life.
Hidden under the floor-length veil though she was.
Bryony’s small hands felt frost-cold, once she had finally reached him and he could actually share the warmth of his clasp. At his smile, and his teasing wink, he watched her visibly relax.
And the ceremony began.
A man doesn’t get married just any old day of the week. J.F., who had fought against this particular wedding to this particular bride every step of the way, had capitulated at last. Enough that his wedding gift turned out to be a month-long trip to Florence, Italy (truly a honeymoon) and time away from the law office to enjoy it.
Upon their return from abroad, they settled into their new home. John got back to work at the firm, putting his nose to the grindstone with such diligence that a number of new clients were added to the roster, mainly due to his influence. Bryony, meanwhile, took charge of the house: having this painted or that papered, changing the arrangement of furniture or buying new. They socialized, attended dances and lectures, and visited his parents and her aunt and uncle.
The couple was so blissfully happy that it made one’s heart ache just seeing them together. Could every union be so joyous, there might be many more and fewer spinsters and bachelors.
The junior Suttons enjoyed a year of euphoria.
Then everything came crashing down in a hail of torment and a storm of dizzying turmoil.
Because John entered his own front door, one sweet summer night, to find Bryony’s blood-covered body lying lifeless on the parlor floor.
One could get lost in this place of more than a million inhabitants, and that was just what John Sutton, escaped murderer, was hoping to do. Highways and byways, crooked streets and straight, all led into the heart of New York City where John, with smatterings of knowledge from occasional travels there, could find a bolt hole.
For the two weeks of a diligent investigation by every police officer, every detective, every county sheriff and every roadside onlooker, John’s life had been turned upside down, his very soul scraped raw and bleeding. Already desolated by the loss of the woman he loved most on this earth, he was rendered nearly incoherent and incapacitated by what followed the day when she was laid to rest in the family plot.
“There are no clues as to what happened,” said J.F. heavily. “No footprints, no sign of break-in, no strangers seen in the area. Nothing. Therefore, according to Police Chief Marshall Brennan, you, John, are the only suspect in the death of your wife.”
“Death? Homicide, you mean.”
More than a week had passed since Bryony’s funeral, and both Sutton houses were closed away in deep mourning, with black wreaths and black veils and black armbands everywhere. Solange, at least, had had the luxury of being able to take to her bed in despair, and both Henry and Penelope, neither wishing to further disturb their brother, had retired upstairs.
For the two elder male Suttons, however, life must go on.
And that meant a very serious, very momentous, discussion about John’s future.
In the library, of course, his least favorite room. Now the one from which he would forever carry memories of what had been deliberated about, and why.
J.F. was standing in his usual position, by the hearth. A small fire was blazing today, despite this being mid-summer, because a cold and dreary rain had been blanketing the whole town and its surrounds for some time. It was as if the skies themselves were weeping in sympathy for the beloved departed.
He and his older son had occasionally been at loggerheads since John had reached maturity; too much alike, in too many ways, claimed (perhaps rightfully) Mrs. Sutton. Despite an infrequent clash, however, the two men did love and respect each other, and J.F. scrutinized his offspring now with compassion and foreboding for what must inevitably come.
“I have no grounding in criminal law,” he said quietly. “So I’ve done some research, and I’ve hired the best man in the state—according to reputation, at any rate—to represent you.”
John was staring at the window, where rain slashed down against the panes in maniacal force, with empty eyes. During just this brief time, he had lost weight, and his skin had lost color. He looked downright unhealthy. And sad. So unbearably sad.
“Do I need representation?”
“I’m afraid you do, my boy. I’m afraid you do.”
No repetition of that fact was necessary. Now that every law agency was zeroing in on the younger John Sutton as primary accused, he was subject to being called in for questioning, “on just one more small matter,” at any time—and had been, the frequency itself raising mistrust. He had gotten to feel quite familiar with the ugly beige walls in the chief’s office, gotten to know most of the officers on a first-name basis.
For anyone else put through the inconvenience and increasing discourtesy of such visits, tempers would have flared and heads rolled.
At this point, John didn’t care.
He simply dragged himself through the motions of every day, privately grieving, allowing to be done whatever must be done, accepting any orders, any suggestions. His father told him to eat, he ate; his father told him to put on a clean suit, he changed clothing. Nothing mattered. It was as if he had buried his entire spirit in the coffin with his wife.
“John, he’s waiting to see you today.”
“Oh? Who’s waiting?”
Understandably, J.F. felt a surge of impatience. “Your criminal defense attorney. He’s in the hallway now, and he’s coming in to talk to you. To us. Are you up to that?”
A shrug. “Sure. Bring him along. Can’t be worse than anything else so far.”
The Honorable Hadley McClennon, a gruff, practical, no-nonsense sort of fellow in his mid-fifties, was willing to spend whatever amount of time necessary to speak with and advise his potential client. He wasn’t willing, however, to waste time. A consultation required full compliance, honest answers, and a fat wallet. Failing any of those criteria meant McClennon took himself right out the door again without a backward glance.
One of the maids brought in a tea tray, with all the supplements, and slipped away again carrying the visitor’s rain-drenched overcoat and top hat for drying. Quick introductions, a few aimless comments about the weather, and the amenities were finished.
Upon his host’s invitation, McClennon seated himself behind the massive desk with paper in hand to begin taking notes. “Tell me what happened,” he directed. “Right from the beginning.”
John was slumped into the depths of a needlepoint parlor chair, thin face turned slightly sideways to rest on the palm of his right hand. He had recounted the story of his ordeal again and again to authorities until it seemed he might be able to chronicle each detail in his sleep.
“Bryony—” his voice thickened, and he was forced to pause for a moment. “Bryony and I—we were going out to dinner that evening. I was held up, due to some business—at the courthouse, and it was—it was almost dusk … when I got home …”
Home. Normally warm and welcoming, thanks to Bryony’s charming, cheerful presence. Dark, on this fateful night; no lamps lit, no door open.
Surprised, a trifle concerned, he had walked inside, calling her name.
And found her, sprawled flat upon the Aubusson carpet she had chosen for the parlor, her bountiful heart stilled, her breath stopped, her body just barely chilled.
Sucking in a gasp, John worked to bring his voice under control and his features into alignment. Briefly he described what he had seen. A deep slash across the throat, still weeping blood. Stab wounds to the breast and the abdomen, gashes on arms and hands. She had fought her attacker. She had fought to stay alive.
He remembered, with a shudder, his own reaction. Bursting out with an agonized howl that came straight from the gut, he had flung aside hat and briefcase to kneel beside her, this woman whose being was so intimately a part of his own, and gathered her limp, flaccid form into his quivering arms.
“Was the house torn apart?”
Mutely, numbly, John shook his head.
“Anything of value stolen? Jewelry, gewgaws, important papers, the like?”
Another slow shake.
Theirs was a small house, in a neighborhood of small to medium sized houses, with property sized to correspond. Neighbors, living close by, had heard the clamor and run to help; others had raced to the local police station.
Then the nightmare had really begun.
McClennon was writing furiously. “The authorities began to question your statement,” he hazarded a correct guess. “Soon you yourself came under suspicion, and the police have looked no further for the killer. Has anyone mentioned that arrest is probably imminent?”
Once again, John shook his head, but this time more in bafflement and disbelief. “Me? I loved Bryony more than—more than …” He gulped for air. “I have no motive, Mr. McClennon.”
“So you say. Unfortunately, the law functions in a little world of its own. Anyone you know have a grudge against you? Anyone you bested in an argument, or a tennis game—whatever—who might want to take you down?”
“By k-k-killing my wife—? Surely, sir, you cannot be serious.”
The attorney looked over the top rim of his spectacles. “I assure you, Mr. Sutton, I am absolutely serious. I will take on your case, sir. But I need you to think very carefully about your past history, and that of your late wife, about any enemy you might have made or any feud in which you might have been involved. No detail is too small.”
“I’ve already told you—”
McClennon wagged a finger slowly back and forth. “There’s something missing, and you may not even know that you know it. For the record, I believe you. And I shall represent you to the very best of my ability. Which means that from here I’ll go have a little chat with the Police Chief, see what other tidbits I can dig up. But, I must tell you, this looks bad. It looks very bad.”
“Hadley—” began J.F., who, up until this point of the interview, had remained silent.
He was gathering together the notes he had taken, to stuff everything into his bulging briefcase. “Will you see me out, J.F.?”
A look of utter helplessness thrown back upon his son, then a nod of surrender. “Of course. This way, if you will.”
John remained behind, sunk in despair. He had lost the love of his life; what worse could anyone else do to him?
He was about to find out.
Returning a few minutes later, his father quietly closed the door and then took the chair beside him. “John.”
“We need to talk.”
At the moment, with all the details he had received thus far, Mr. McLennon felt it very likely that John Sutton would soon be arrested, charged, and arraigned. Although the attorney would continue to work on a defense case, sending out private investigators, seeking more information, he quite frankly held out very little hope for an acquittal. It would be best if the young man were not present.
“Not present?” John echoed, sitting up straight with shock. “What do you mean? Run?”
“He cannot advise that, my boy. Nor can I. Neither of us can afford the charge of collusion. But neither will I allow you to be put in jail, like a—like a common criminal,” he paused, briefly overcome, “because the police have not properly done their jobs!”
And here was what would transpire.
J.F. planned to place a packet containing a substantial sum of cash in his middle desk drawer. After all, one never could be sure when one might need cash available, for whatever household emergency. Then he must leave for his law office. Many details there requiring his attention. If, when he came back, his son was no longer in the house, well, it could only be assumed he had gone to his own dwelling, painful as that might be.
Clearly the older man and his attorney cohort had already worked out the particulars.
It remained only for John to put the plan into effect.
His father was not one to wear his heart on his sleeve, nor to show emotion, even if his son were about to disappear, perhaps forever. But he reached out awkwardly to clasp John on the shoulder, with a tight grip; and a few tears actually welled up to blur his sharp gaze.
“I’ll explain the bare minimum to your mother,” he said softly. “Stay in touch, if you can, and—and—be safe, my boy. Be safe.”
It was the work of just a few moments, after his father had set off into the rain, to throw necessary items into a leather valise, grab the bank notes, and rob the stables of his favorite mare.
New York was the nearest large city in which to get lost.
New York it would be.
“A Dangerous Road to Salvation” is an Amazon Best-Selling novel, check it out here!
John seems to be the proverbial golden child, born with all the advantages of New York, class, and culture. He is good-humored, charming and married to a beautiful young woman, whom he adores. Everything goes perfect in his life, until a dramatic incident changes it all… After finding his wife dead, and being accused for her murder, John will have to run away, change his identity and find the real killer. But in order to stay alive he will need something more than his own powers… Will he find the right person in the right moment or will he get lost in the dangerous road for redemption?
Ardelia is young, full of life and craving for life experiences. Bored of the mundane-hosting endless teas, she’s suffocating in the lifestyle her class is imposing on her. But when a terrible truth about her family comes to light and a malicious man keeps making her suffer, she will make the crucial decision to escape from it all. She will then board in despair on a ship to America in order to meet her future husband as a mail order bride, hoping for a better life. Are things going to be the way she was dreaming of there or will she get trapped into a new circle of lies and deception?
As new secrets will be revealed and Arelia will start wondering if she can ever really trust anyone, John will have to make difficult choices… Will he let his wife to aid him with her affection and make himself complete once again? And is their emerging love enough to keep them safe during their risky pursuit of justice?
“A Dangerous Road to Salvation” is a historical western romance novel of approximately 80,000 words. No cheating, no cliffhangers, and a guaranteed happily ever after.