Chapter Sixteen

His Physicke must be Rue (ev’n Rue for Sinne).

George Wither, 1628

Why, what a ruthlesse thing is this, to take away

life…

William Shakespeare Measure for Measure

Every minute of the drive to the Carr County Hospital, I could feel that cross burning in my pocket like a hot coal straight from hell. Based on the information I had now, it belonged either to Tom or his father, both of whom were members of the Knights of Columbus.

Tom or his father. One or the other had attempted to murder Sadie Marsh, but I didn’t know which. And I couldn’t imagine why either one would have done it-until I remembered the short bit of conversation at the Lone Star the night before. The old man had been deeply upset at the idea that Sadie had invited me to the board meeting. What’s that woman up to, anyway? he had demanded. Tom had answered, sharply, I’ll take care of Sadie, Dad.

And then, when I pulled up in front of the hospital just before three o’clock, I remembered something else: the envelope I had retrieved from Sadie’s kitchen table this morning. The fat, sealed envelope Sadie had shown me the day before. She had implied that the contents had to do with the foundation’s trust accounts, which were under the control of the bank-under the control of Tom Rowan, Senior

and Junior. The trust accounts that by now should amount to fourteen or fifteen million dollars.

But maybe not. You know as well as I do, Sadie had said, what goes in don’t necessarily come out.

I took the envelope out of the back pocket of my cords and unfolded it. It wasn’t sealed. And it wasn’t fat. It contained just one sheet of paper.

I’ll never know what else Sadie had stashed in the envelope-records of the actual transactions, probably, with account numbers and balances, obtained from Mother Hi-laria. What was left was only one sheet of paper, filled with single-spaced typing, dated yesterday and signed “Sadie Marsh.” It was the text of a statement she must have planned to read at the board meeting-and, from the look of it, to release to the county attorney. Whoever had taken the other pages probably meant to take this one as well.

What goes in don’t necessarily come out. The first paragraph told me why Sadie had made that bitter remark. The accounts that had been opened with something close to seven million dollars now amounted to two hundred ninety-some thousand and change.

I stared at the page, incredulous. St. Theresa’s legacy had been stolen! Who had done it? How had it been done?

When I finished Sadie’s report, I knew how, more or less, although the financial transactions were complicated and the details confusing. But I still didn’t know who, or rather, which. I sat for a long time studying the paper, trying to see in it the face of the man who feared so deeply for his reputation-his, and his family’s, and the bank’s-that he was willing to murder to protect it.

Was it Tom? The Tom Rowan I’d known in Houston, the wheeler-dealer, the boy banking wonder, would certainly have been slick enough to pull off a complicated fraud like this one. According to Sadie’s statement, the first transaction hadn’t taken place until after he’d returned to Carr and gone to work at the bank. Yes, Tom certainly had the ability-the means-to pull something like this off, and

the opportunity. And the potential millions were a strong -otive.

Or was it his father? The old man had both opportunity Hid motive, yes. But did he have the means? He’d been a snail-town banker all his life. Was he capable of the complex financial maneuvering required for an embezzlement?f this size? And the attack on Sadie had certainly required some strength-was he capable of using the weapon, whatever it was, that had injured her?

Or maybe it was both of them. Maybe they had worked together to carry off the fraud, one calling the shots, the other providing the expertise. Perhaps both of them had gone to see Sadie early this morning, to plead with her not to expose them, maybe even offer her some sort of enticement. When she’d refused, they had bludgeoned her. Tom had seemed shocked enough when we discovered her lying in the stall, and even more shocked when he found that she was still alive. But he was certainly capable of faking it. He’d tried pretty hard to convince me that the horse had done it, too. And Sunday afternoon, when I’d told him about Mother Hilaria’s diary and mentioned the leverage Sadie might have, he’d been very curious and even apprehensive. His reaction had seemed suspicious then. Now, in the light of the attack on Sadie, it seemed even more suspicious.

The report had nothing more to tell me. I folded it into the envelope and put the envelope in my purse, feeling infinitely sad. It was time to talk with the Rowans, father and son.

The yellow happy face was still bouncing across the computer monitor on the reception desk in the Carr County Hospital, and the desk was once again deserted. I pushed through the doors and walked rapidly to the nurses’ station. A different nurse was there, wearing different glasses- plastic-rimmed, with sharp cat’s-eye points at the outer corners-but the same stiff white uniform and the same starchy annoyance with the world. Her badge identified her as Vera Williams, RN.

“I’m looking for Sadie Marsh’s room,” I said.

She glanced up to see if she recognized me, discovered that she didn’t, and went back to the form she was filling out. “Patient information is available from the receptionist in the lobby. Back through those double doors, please.”

I leaned on the counter and assumed a cheerful drawl. “I checked there first, Vera, but Cherie Lee’s on her break, wouldn’t you just know? She’s my cousin-my daddy’s sister’s second girl. O’ course, you’d never know it from lookin’ at us. She got all the purty in the fam’ly,” I chuckled. “I c’n see you’re real busy, but I wonder-could we take just one eentsy peek in your computer?”

Thus propitiated, Vera became almost human. ‘ ‘Who are you looking for?”

“Sadie Marsh.”

“Oh, yes. Intensive Care. Down the hall, to the left.”

There was another nurses’ station in Intensive Care, this one staffed by a redhead with freckles and a cheery expression.

“I’ve come about Sadie Marsh,” I said. “She was admitted earlier today.”

The cheeriness vanished as if it had been wiped off her face. “Are you a member of the family?”

“No,” I said. This time, I opted for something closer to the truth. “I’m her attorney. I found her.”

She shook her head. “I’m very sorry.”

“Excuse me?”

“We did everything we could.”

“Oh,” I said. In my pocket, the cross blazed brighter and hotter.

She leaned over and began to shuffle pieces of paper. “Maybe you can help us fill in the deceased’s personal info. Do you know the name of her next of kin? Husband? Children?”

“No,” I said bleakly. “She lived alone. I don’t know

that she was ever married.” I leaned forward. “What was the cause of death?”

She kept on rummaging among the papers. “Let’s see, what am I looking for? Lord, sometimes I’d forget my head if it wasn’t-Oh, yes, here it is.” She found a piece of paper. “We need a social security number. And insurance information.” She fixed her gaze on me, inquiring. “Did she have coverage?”

“I don’t know. How did she die?”

She frowned. “I thought you said you found her.”

“I did. But-“

“She was kicked in the head by a horse, wasn’t she? That’s what the EMS guys said.”

“That’s what it looked like. But there was reason to believe that someone-” I stopped. “Was the cause of death confirmed by the doctor who examined the wounds?”

“Of course,” she said. “Doctor Townsend went ahead and put it on the death certificate.”

I was startled. “He’s already signed the death certificate?”

“Well, yes.” She shuffled a few other papers. “He was on the floor when she died so he just went ahead and wrote it up. He’s the JP, too, you know, which makes it convenient. He likes to be prompt. He never leaves paperwork lying around for later.” She thrust a form at me. “Here it is. See?” She pointed with an inch-long pearly pink nail. “Accidental death due to head trauma. Kicked by a horse. Now, about that insurance coverage-“

“Did Doctor Townsend look closely at the wound?”

She raised her chin and compressed her lips, a clear signal that my questions were trying her patience. “I really don’t know. Now, if I can just get you to give me the insurance information so we can get the billing wrapped up-“

“I’m sorry. I can’t tell you anything about Sadie Marsh’s insurance. Did Deputy Walters come over from the sheriff’s office?”

She was almost amused. “The sheriff’s office? You’ve got to be kidding. They don’t bother about people who get kicked by horses or run over by bulls or bit by rattlesnakes. Or stung by bees. You’d be surprised how many people nearly die from bee stings. Why would the sheriff bother about a horse?”

Why indeed? And who knows what happened between the time I called Stu Walters and the time Sadie Marsh died? Maybe the deputy had a political reason for not investigating. Maybe he talked to the EMS techs or Tom and they convinced him it was an accident. Or maybe he just hadn’t gotten his investigation in gear before Royce Town-send, MD and JP, made the accidental-death theory official.

Whatever the reasons behind it, the result was an accomplished fact. Now that Townsend had recorded the cause of death, it would be damned difficult, if not impossible, to get it changed. A doctor-especially Townsend-would be reluctant to admit that he’d failed to examine a fatal injury closely enough to determine what had caused it. And a JP would hate to confess that he’d closed a possible murder case before the sheriff’s office had started to look into it. I could talk to Townsend, but I wouldn’t get very far. As far as Carr County was concerned, Sadie had been kicked to death by a horse, and that was that.

I took a different tack. “Let me ask you about Mr. Rowan. Mr. Tom Rowan, Senior. He was admitted this morning as well.”

“I’m afraid that-“

“Don’t tell me he’s dead, too!”

“He’s in guarded condition. His son is with him now, and I really can’t permit another-“

“What’s the room number?”

“I’m sorry. I can’t-“

I assumed my sternest courtroom demeanor. “I am an attorney, Nurse. Mr. Rowan, Junior, would not be pleased if I were not permitted to see his father in order to discuss certain urgent legal matters.”

She hesitated. “Well, since he’s your client-“

“What room?”

“One-ten.”

“Thank you.”

“You’re welcome. When you have a chance, will you have your secretary call us with Miss Marsh’s insurance information and social security number?”

“Oh, absolutely.” I turned and walked away.

The blinds had been adjusted to block the sun streaming in through the west window. Tom Senior was lying motionless under a white sheet on a narrow, railed bed. His nose and mouth were covered by a plastic respirator mask, and his skin was a lifeless gray. He was hooked up to some sort of humming apparatus on a cart beside him-life support, I supposed. A respirator. Tom Junior was standing at the end of the bed, shoulders slumped, hands in his pockets. His face was bleak.

“How is he?” I asked quietly.

“Hanging in there.”

“What happened?”

“Coronary. The last thing he needs with his lungs in the shape mey’re in.” He gestured at the machine. “Doc’s got him on a respirator.”

The old man raised his hand, feebly gesturing at the mask.

“Take it easy, Pop,” Tom said. He stepped forward, bent over his father, and gently eased off the mask. ‘ ‘Doc says you can’t leave tins off too long, or you’ll be in trouble.”

The old man turned his head toward me. He looked like a cadaver, his eyes, dark-rimmed, sunk into his skull, his cheeks fallen in. His voice was faint and raspy. “That your girl, boy? The one we ate with last night?”

Last night? Was it only last night that I’d had dinner with Tom and his father? And only yesterday that Sadie had been ready to blow the whistle? Twenty-four hours had changed everything.

“Yeah, Dad.” Tom took my hand and pulled me forward. “It’s China.”

“Good.” The old man stretched thin lips in a ghastly smile. “Glad you’ve got somebody, now that I’m checkin’ out. You’re not too old for kids, either of you. Get to it”

Tom dropped my hand and shook his father’s shoulder lightly. “Hey, you old coot. I don’t want to hear that kind of talk. You’re not in any danger of-“

“Don’t give me that, boy. Now’s no time to screw with the truth.” With an effort, the old man picked up the mask and put it over his face, breathing heavily. He pulled it aside enough to ask, “Where’s Father Steven? Thought you called him.”

“I left a message.” Tom forced a grin. “What do you want the priest for, anyway? You’re not in that” bad a shape.”

“You can’t lie for shit, boy.”

“It’s true, Dad,” Tom protested. “You’ll be up and around-“

The old man’s sigh was slow and heavy. “Yeah, sure. Up and around, and then what? Back down again in a month or two. And in the end-” He turned his head to look at the respirator. “More of this, and nurses messin’ with you every ten minutes, and a helluva lot of pain.” He closed his eyes. His eyelids were thin parchment. “Forget the priest. He can’t absolve me, anyway.”

Tom’s eyes slid to me. “You’re not thinking straight, Pop. Wait until you can-“

“Listen to me, boy. You’ve got to handle this so the bank doesn’t get hurt. I killed-“

“Shut up, Dad,” Tom said fiercely.

The old man closed his eyes. “You keep a civil tongue in your head, Tom-boy. I killed that meddlin’ woman, and I’m not goin’ to be around to suffer the consequences. But you are, and so’s the bank.” His breathing was more and more labored. “It’s up to you, Tom. You got your work cut out for you. Damage control, that’s what they call it.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” Tom sounded desperate. “Sadie got kicked in the head. Anyway, she’s not dead. She’s right down the hall in Intensive-“

I touched his arm. He started, as if he’d forgotten I was there, and looked at me. I shook my head slightly.

His eyes went dark. “She’s dead?”

I nodded, and he seemed to slump. He turned aside as I went to the bed and leaned over it. The old man had pulled the mask back over his face and was breathing raspily.

“What happened in the barn, Mr. Rowan?” I asked.

I thought he might object to my being the one to ask the question, but he seemed to welcome it. He slipped the mask aside. “My kinda woman,” he said. “You get that boy to handle this right, or it’ll ruin his name. He’s got to fix it, before it brings down the bank.” With great effort, punctuated by periods of silence imposed by the mask-longer and longer, as the story went on-he told the whole story.

Tom Senior had called Sadie the night before to ask her what she had up her sleeve, and she’d told him that she intended to blow the whistle on the bank fraud. If she did that, he knew it was all over. It might take a while, but the bank would go under, like the Singapore bank that was sunk by a junior official speculating in Japanese investments. Or like the one in Orange County, California, which filed for bankruptcy after an investment officer lost a billion or two in derivatives-risky stock ventures that lure investors out of the safe shallows into the treacherous deeps.

And it was derivatives, of course, that had been the devil in the old man’s woodpile. He had begun his term as trust official by investing conservatively, as he always had. But Carr County had been struck by a three-year drought that forced a couple of big ranchers to go under, leaving their loans unpaid. To cover those losses, he had borrowed from the Laney Trust, using its assets as leverage in increasingly speculative markets. Occasionally he did well, and once or twice had brought the trust account almost back to where it should have been. But one spectacular loss forced him to

double up on his stock purchases in order to make the money back before anybody found out. When that attempt failed, the Laney Trust was left holding the bag-an empty bag. –

He stopped at last, exhausted. I pulled the mask over his face again. He lay there, eyes closed, pulling in each breath as if there wouldn’t be another. Tom sat in a chair on the other side of the bed, his face buried in his hands.

I turned to Tom. “Why didn’t he just let Sadie tell and be done with it?” I asked. “A lot of people-experienced investors, big-time brokers-have lost their shirts in derivatives. Your father was the foundation’s legally designated fiduciary officer. Unless it could be proved that he intended fraud, neither the board nor the order had any recourse against him, or against the bank. Even if he’d been brought to trial, he probably wouldn’t have been convicted.”

Not in this county, anyway, where the bank, like the company store, had a hand in the pocket of every prospective juror. A good defense lawyer would have convinced everybody that Mr. Rowan had done what he did to save the bank, the town, and the county from financial disaster. Anyway, the junior official in Singapore only got six years. Even if the county attorney had managed to wring a conviction out of the jury, Mr. Rowan’s sentence would have been probated on account of age and physical condition.

Tom didn’t answer, and I couldn’t tell whether he had heard me. A nurse came in to check the respirator and the electrical apparatus, and left again. After a moment, the old man’s eyes opened. He signaled me to remove the mask.

“Why didn’t I let Sadie spill it?” he asked hoarsely. “Because all I needed was time. Just a few weeks, a couple of months at the most. I could’ve turned the situation around.”

Tom’s head came up swiftly. “I told you, Dad. There’s nothing left to leverage.”

“When did you find out about all this?” I asked Tom Junior.

“Last night, after Sadie told him what she planned to do. We were up half the night talking about it. I told him I’d take care of it, although I wasn’t sure what that meant.” He closed his eyes, numb and defeated. “Honest to God, China. I never figured he’d go out there to see her.”

The old man’s face seemed even grayer as he gasped out die words. “It was worth a shot, wasn’t it? Sadie has… had a lot of respect for you, Tom. I figgered she’d hold off if she knew you were takin’ over. I told her you’d make sure the foundation got its money.”

“That’s a lie, Pop.” Tom shook his head sadly. “You’ve got to face it: Jesus Christ himself couldn’t bring that money back.”

The old man ignored him. “I told her to just sit tight. I told her you’d fix it so nobody’d know diddly. But she wouldn’t listen.” His frail voice soured. “Truth is, she was happy as a hog in mud that the money was gone. She didn’t want it back. Can you b’lieve it? She was glad it was gone.” He was shaken by a fit of coughing, and when it was over, he pulled at the mask like a drowning diver.

“Glad?” Tom asked dryly. “That’s hard to believe.”

I believed it. Sure, the deed restrictions tied up the land. But for all Sadie knew, an aggressive, hard-nosed church lawyer might get those restrictions set aside. With the trust fund depleted, however, there wouldn’t be a nickel to build a retreat center or a golf course or a tennis court. St. Theresa’s eight hundred acres would stay exactly as Helen Laney had wished, and the nuns would go on as they were, contemplatively growing garlic.

“So it wasn’t you she was after,” I said to Mr. Rowan, “or even the bank. It was the order all along.”

“Yeah, but it wouldn’t have stopped there. Once she started talking, it’d have been like a tornado through a tomato patch. The bank would’ ve gone, and once the bank went, the town would have dried up too.”

His voice trailed off. He was running out of steam. “So what happened?” I prompted gently.

“The more she held out, the madder I got,” he said. “She went out to the barn to feed her horse, and I followed her, still arguin’. I finally just… lost it. There was a mattock leanin’ against the wall. I grabbed it and swung. She went down like a sack of corn and I hit her again.”

Across the bed, Tom groaned.

The old man turned his face away. “Go look under the hay bales at the north end of the barn. That’s where I hid the mattock.”

Tom looked at me, his face a mask of desperation. “What are we going to do?”

The old man roused himself. “I’ll tell you what we’re goin’ to do,” he said with unexpected clarity.

Tom looked down. “Oh, yeah? You got some more bright ideas, Pop?”

His father snorted. “You bet. See that switch?” He gestured with his eyes at the humming electrical equipment. “I can’t reach it. You’re goin’ to flip it for me.”

“You’re crazy,” Tom said. “I can’t do that!”

“Sure you can,” his father replied. “You can turn it back on again when I’m gone. Who do you think is goin’ to know? Doc Townsend?” He grunted. “That turkey is dumb as a dodo bird. Dumb as a box of rocks.”

Tom’s mouth hardened. “If you think I’m going to help you kill yourself, you’ve got another think coming.”

The old man lifted a trembling hand, his voice wispy, failing. “You want me to beg, son? Well, I’m beggin’.”

“Forget it,” Tom said. “There’s no way-“

“Look at me, boy,” the old man whispered desperately. “I can’t go on livin’ like this, tied to a bed. I’m beggin’, damn it!”

This was between father and son. I went out into the hall.

A half-hour later, Tom came out of the room, red-eyed. “It’s over,” he said. He sagged against the wall. “People have the right to choose how they want to die.”

“Sadie didn’t.”

There was a silence. After a minute, I said, “Did you mnk your dad might still be there when we drove over to sbe ranch this morning?”

He shook his head. “I left home before seven. I thought I’d talked him out of going to see her. But when she didn’t show up, I knew the old man had out-foxed me.” He pushed himself away from the wall. “I guess I’d better go ?Ear to the sheriff’s office. This isn’t the kind of thing I can tell Stu Walters over the phone.”

“‘Why tell him anything?”

He looked at me. “Because Sadie’s dead. My father killed her. And then he committed suicide, with my help. Or I killed him, if that’s how the county attorney wants to look at it.”

I shook my head. “Sadie was kicked in the head by a horse. Her death certificate says so.”

His eyes were large and staring. “You’re kidding.”

“It’s Doctor Townsend’s expert opinion,” I said, “ratified by the local JP.” I shook my head. The old man was right. Dumb as a box of rocks.

“You knew that, and you let Dad commit-“

“People have the right to choose how they want to die,” I said again. ‘ ‘What would you have chosen for him? That he drag out his dying for another month? Maybe even two or three?”

“Oh, Jesus, China,” he whispered, agonized, and reached for me. He pulled me against him, burying his face blindly in my shoulder, weeping for his father. I wept, too, but my tears were for Sadie.

After a moment I pushed Tom away and stepped back. “What do you know about your father’s will?” I asked.

‘ ‘His will?” He wiped his eyes with the back of his hand. “I’m his sole heir, I suppose. Why?”

I reached into my pocket and pulled out the cross, the only evidence that Tom Rowan, Senior, had been with Sadie Marsh that morning. “This belongs to you now,” I said,

and put it in his hand. Sadie’s death would be mourned, but not avenged.

But perhaps it had been. Her killer lay dead beyond the door. I figured she’d call it even.

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