Twenty-Four

T he chief was right, it was impossible to miss the Andersons’ house. Not only was it beautifully huge in the Southern style of miniature Taras, there were tricycles, toys, multiple discarded gloves and a small batterypowered minicar parked on the front lawn, damning evidence of a juvenile invasion. Children’s laughter rang in the air, shouts of joy that made Taylor’s stomach hurt. When was the last time she’d been so innocent and carefree? So very happy?

They pulled up to the curb, watched as a gang of little boys tore around the edge of the house into the dead grass of the front yard. Playing cowboys and Indians, it seemed, all bundled up against the cold.

Taylor smiled. She did love kids, so long as they weren’t hers.

She and Baldwin wended their way through the game to the front porch. One of the boys, a towhead with incredibly light blue eyes, stopped to gawk at them. When Taylor grinned at him, he picked his nose and ran off toward the back of the house.

“Charming,” Taylor said.

“Little boys,” Baldwin replied. There was something strange in his tone. She glanced over at him. His face was shuttered, he looked lost in thought. He’d been acting weird for two days now, and she was pretty sure it didn’t have anything to do with his suspension, though finding out about that had gone a long way toward settling her down. She’d had a crazy moment when he’d looked at her sideways in the car and she wondered, for the briefest of seconds, if he was having an affair. It was a silly thought. Baldwin wasn’t the kind of guy to sneak around behind her back, but something was up. She let it go-they had enough on their plates. He’d tell her when he was good and ready.

They crossed the porch and knocked on the door. Taylor could smell a wood fire burning, and was suddenly chilled through. She tucked her hands under her arms. She should have asked the waitress at Smith’s to make her a to-go cup of tea or hot chocolate.

The door was opened by a woman with liberal gray streaks running through her dark brown hair. She was of an indefinable age, anywhere from forty to sixty, with either laugh lines or crow’s feet surrounding her eyes, and deep vertical wrinkles sprouting from her upper lip like perfectly planted rows of corn, the telltale sign of a lifelong smoker. Taylor blessed her decision to quit the previous year-it was the idea of having those wrinkles that had forced her to stop.

“Mrs. Anderson? Stephanie Anderson?” Taylor asked.

The woman smiled. “That’s me. What can I do you for?”

Open, guileless. Maybe there was something to the notion of a small town. She pulled out her badge, Baldwin followed suit with his credentials.

“I’m Lieutenant Taylor Jackson, from Nashville, Tennessee. This is Supervisory Special Agent John Baldwin, with the FBI. May we come in? We need to ask you some questions.”

The woman’s face closed, the smile faded. She hesitated for a brief moment, then said, “What’s this all about, if you don’t mind me asking?”

Baldwin turned on the charm, smiling in encouragement. “We’re here doing background on a former student from this town. We won’t take much of your time, I promise.”

Mrs. Anderson’s eyes narrowed, but she pulled the door open wider. “Come in then. I’m just making the kids some dinner. I hope you don’t mind if I keep cooking while we talk.”

They followed her into the warm, inviting kitchen. It was purely country-oak cupboards with glass insets, cabbage rose wallpaper and flouncy lace curtains, a huge open fireplace at the far end. Taylor crossed to the fire and stood, warming her hands. “That’s nice,” she said.

Mrs. Anderson’s face creased in dismay. “Your nose and cheeks are bright red. I didn’t realize it had gotten so cold out there, we had a right nice afternoon. The fire keeps things so toasty in here, and you know how it is with kids. They love to play in the cold, then come in, warm up, and go back out again. I should probably round them up before they catch their death.”

Taylor did know. When she was a kid, they’d had a lot of snow in Nashville during the winters. She and Sam would spend hours sledding, then decamp back to one or the other’s house to defrost and drink cocoa. She felt almost wistful for a moment, then pulled herself together.

“If you can wait for just a second, Mrs. Anderson, it would be better to talk without the kids running around.”

“Oh. Of course. Certainly.” Mrs. Anderson went to the stove and took the lid off a huge stoneware Crock-Pot. Steam billowed off the contents. She took a wooden spoon and stirred, and Taylor smelled chili. Despite the meal she’d just had, her stomach rumbled. She loved good chili.

Mrs. Anderson started chattering about the boys, her grandkids, bragging on how sweet they were. Baldwin looked at the pictures she pointed to on the wall and murmured his approval. They were dillydallying. It was time to ruin the woman’s good mood.

Taylor settled on a stool at the wide counter. “Mrs. Anderson, we want to talk to you about Roger Copeland.”

The woman’s body stilled, though her arm still rotated the spoon in the pot. She sniffed twice, then with great care, she removed the spoon and laid it gently on the counter in a white ceramic holder shaped like a cauliflower. Despite her attempt to keep things clean, some of it spilled over onto the white Corian counter. The red of the chili sauce looked like blood.

“Roger’s been dead a long time,” she said, soft and gentle.

“We know. We’re sorry to have to bring up bad memories.”

She smiled. “Oh, they’re pretty good memories. I loved that man like nobody’s business. He loved me right back. It was terrible, what that woman did to him.”

“Betty Copeland,” Taylor said.

“That’s right. Betty. Mean as a snake, and crazy as a bedbug. He used to say she was a charmer, that she put some sort of spell on him. Then he woke up and saw the light, and it was too late. Three little boys, a nutty wife, a career to manage. He was on the road a lot. That helped. When we got together, he wanted out. He just didn’t know how to end it with her. He was scared of that woman.” Her soft Southern accent broadened. “Scairt to death of her, really. Looks like he was right to be, don’t you think?”

Taylor glanced at Baldwin, who met her eyes and raised his eyebrow. Something here, his look said. She agreed. They stayed silent, watching Mrs. Anderson as she chewed on her lip for a moment, lost in thought. A gauzy smile appeared on her face.

“At least I have Ruth to remember him by. Not that I’d ever forget him, of course. But time, it does heal all wounds. He never got to meet her, more’s the pity. She’s a lovely girl. Smart as a whip. Looks just like him, too. All the good parts. Roger was such a handsome man.”

Baldwin sat at the counter next to Taylor. “Mrs. Anderson, do you ever hear from Ewan Copeland?”

Mrs. Anderson clutched her throat. “Ewan? Oh, no. That boy. That poor, poor boy. Wrong in the head, just like his mama. You know he raped a girl when he was only sixteen? How does a young man learn how to do that? How do they even know? Movies, I guess, or those girly magazines. The state, they shipped him off quicker than you could say jiminy, that’s the last any of us heard from him.”

“So these are Ruth’s boys you’re babysitting?” Taylor asked.

“Oh, no. Ruth doesn’t live here in Forest City. She’s not married either, though I nag her about it constantly. No, she ended up going to school to be a scientist, up in Raleigh. She works for the city up there.”

Baldwin shifted on his stool. “Oh? Doing what?”

“Crime lab stuff. Like that TV show, CSI? Though she tells me that it’s a pack of lies-her job’s nothing like that. ‘It’s drudgery, Mama,’ she tells me. ‘Nothing cool and glamorous, and we don’t get to carry guns.’”

“She’s a forensic scientist?” Taylor asked.

“Yeah, that’s the right term. Smart girl, my Ruth. I bet she’d love to talk with you, Agent Baldwin. She’s always talked about the FBI, getting into the academy. The selection process is hard though.”

“Yes, it surely is. Do you have a picture of Ruth?” Baldwin asked. Taylor didn’t need to look at him; she could feel that he was practically quivering. It dawned on her why. Oh, my God.

Mrs. Anderson was back to her cheerful self, pride in her offspring’s accomplishments overshadowing the sorrow she’d been feeling about losing the girl’s father. “Well, sure. Right here in the living room. Come on, you can see it, it’s up on the wall with the rest of the family photos.”

The formal living room was painted a glossy eggshell-white, the thick red Turkish rug whisper silent on their feet. The family photographs took up the entire back wall, a huge montage of generations. Taylor’s heart thudded with every step she took across the floor.

Mrs. Anderson pointed to a picture dead center of the collection.

“This is the best one, here. Taken just after her college graduation, see? She’s still wearing her cap and gown. She looks so lovely in blue.”

Taylor covered her mouth so she wouldn’t swear aloud.

When she smiled, Renee Sansom’s imposter was almost pretty.

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