J. T. Ellison



W ould the bastard ever call?

Smoke drifted from the ashtray where a fine Cohiba lay unattended. Several burned-out butts crowded the glass, competing for space. The man looked at his watch. Had it been done?

He smashed the lit cigar into the thick-cut crystal. It smoldered with the rest as he moved through his office. He went to the window, grimy panes lightly frosted with a thin layer of freezing condensation. It was cold early this year. With one gloved finger, he traced an X in the frost. He stared out into the night. Though nearly midnight, the skyline was bright and raucous. Some festival on the grounds of Cheekwood, good cheer, grand times. If he squinted, he could make out headlights flashing by as overpaid valets squired the vehicles around the curves of the Boulevard.

He tapped his fingers against the glass, wiping his drawing away with a swipe of leather. Turning, he surveyed the room. So empty. So dark. Ghosts lurked in the murky recesses. The shadows were growing, threatening. Breath coming short, he snapped on the desk lamp. He gasped, drawing air into his lungs as deeply as he could, the panic stripped away by a fluorescent bulb. The light was feeble in the cavernous space, but it was illumination. Some things never change. After all these years, still afraid of the dark.

The bare desk was smeared with ashes, empty except for the fine rosewood box, the ashtray and the now- silent telephone. The room, too, was spartan, the monotony broken only by the simple desk, a high-back leather chair on wheels and three folding chairs. He opened the humidor and extracted another of the fortieth anniversary Cohibas. He followed the ritual-snipping off the tip, holding the lighter to the end, slowly twirling the cigar in the flame until the tobacco caught. He drew deeply, soothing smoke pouring into his lungs. There. That was better.

The isolation was necessary. He didn’t like people seeing him this way. It was better if they perceived him as the strong, capable man he’d always been, not this crippled creature, this dark entity with gnarled hands and a bent back. How would that image strike fear?

Not long now. Fear would be his pale horse, ridden from the backs of red-lipped girls. His duplicates. His surrogates. His replacements.

The ringing of the phone made him jump. Finally. He answered with a brusque “Yes?” He listened, then ended the call.

An unhurried smile spread across his face, the first of the night. It was time. Time to start again, to resurface. A new face, a new body, a new soul. With a last glance out the window, he snubbed out the cigar, closed up the humidor and braved the shadows. Moving resolutely toward the door, he disappeared into the gloom.

The phone was ringing. Somewhere in the recesses of her brain, she recognized the sound, knew she’d have to answer. But damn it, she was having a really nice dream. Without opening her eyes, Taylor Jackson reached across the warm body next to her, positioned the receiver next to her ear and grunted, “Hello?”

“Taylor, this is your mother.”

Taylor cracked an eyelid, tried to focus one eye on the glowing clock face-2:48 a.m.

“Who’s dead?”

“Goodness, Taylor, you don’t have to be so gruff.”

“Mother, it’s the middle of the night. Why are you calling me in the middle of the night? Because you have some kind of bad news. So if you could just spit it out so I can go back to sleep, I’d appreciate it.”

“Fine. It’s your father. He’s gone missing. From THE SHIVER. ”

A rush of emotion filled her, and she sat up, swinging her legs over the side of the bed. Win Jackson. Winthrop Thomas Stewart Jackson IV, to be exact. Her illustrious father, gone missing? Taylor let the lump settle in her throat, blinked back the uncharacteristic tears that came to the surface.

Her father. Her chest tightened. Oh, man, she didn’t even want to think what this might mean. Missing. That equals dead when you’re gone from a boat in the high seas, doesn’t it?

Father. Amazing how that one word could trigger an avalanche of bitterness. She heard the rumors fly through her head like migrating birds. Daddy got his little girl a place in the academy. Daddy bought his little girl a transfer out of uniform into Homicide. Daddy gave the mayor a major campaign contribution and bought his little girl the lieutenant’s title. Good ole Win Jackson. Corporate raider, investment banker, lawyer, politician. An all-around crook, wrapped up with a hearty laugh into a deceptively handsome package. Win was a Nashville legend. A legend Taylor tried to stay as far away from as possible.

Sitting on the edge of her bed in the darkened bedroom, the thought of him evoked a rich scent, some expensive cologne he’d gotten in London and insisted on importing every year for Christmas.

She heard her mother shouting in her ear.

“Taylor? Taylor, are you there?”

“Yes, Mother, I’m here. What was he doing out on THE SHIVER anyway? I didn’t think he was sailing anymore.”

“Well, you know your father.”

No, I don’t.

“He decided to take the yacht to St. Bart’s. St. Kitts. Saint, oh, who knows. One of those Caribbean islands. I’m sure he had some little slut with him, sailed off into the sunset. And now it seems he may have gone overboard.”

There was no emotion in Kitty Jackson’s voice. Devoid of emotion, of love, of feelings. Taylor wondered sometimes if her mother’s heart had ceased to beat.

“Have the Coast Guard been called in?”

“Taylor, you’re the law enforcement…person. I certainly don’t know the answer to that. Besides, I’m leaving the country. I’m wintering in Gstaad.”


“Skiing. October through January. Don’t you remember? I sent you the itinerary. I won’t have time to deal with this and get packed.”

The petulant tone made razor cuts up Taylor’s spine. Kitty’s first concern had always been Kitty. For Christ’s sake, her husband was missing. It was possible he had gone overboard, was dead…but that was Kitty for you. Always ready with a self-absorbed tale of woe.

“Thank you for letting me know, Mother. I’ll look into it. Have a lovely vacation, won’t you? Goodbye.”

Taylor clicked off the phone before her mother could respond.

Jesus, Win. What kind of trouble have you gotten yourself into now?

Taylor started to roll back into place, determined to get at least another hour of sleep, when the phone rang again. Now what? She looked at the caller ID, recognized the number. Answered in a more professional tone than she’d used with her mother.

“Taylor Jackson.”

“Got a dead girl you need to come see.”

“I’ll be right there.”


Two months later Nashville, Tennessee Sunday, December 14 7:00 p.m.

A vermilion puddle reflected off the halogen lamps. It was frosting over, lightening as it inched toward the

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