Shades of Twilight (Chapter 22)
He kicked off his shoes and silently went to the door.
"What are you going to do?" Roanna asked fiercely, trying to keep her voice down. It was difficult, with anger and fear rushing through her veins with every beat of her heart. She trembled with the need to go with him, but she forced herself to stand still. She had no means of protecting herself, and the last thing he needed was to have to worry about her.
"Try to get behind him." He opened the door the tiniest crack, looking down the hallway for the intruder. He couldn't see anything. He decided to wait, hoping the man would give away his position. He thought he heard a faint whisper of sound but couldn't be certain.
Seconds ticked past, and Webb took the risk of opening the door a bit more. He could see all the way to the front of the house now, on this side of the house, and the hallway was empty. He slipped out of the room and down the back hallway, his bare feet soundless on the carpet, keeping close to the wall. When he approached the corner he slowed, lifting the pistol and pulling the hammer back. With his back flattened against the wall, he took a quick look around the corner. A dark figure loomed at the other end of the hallway. Webb jerked back, but not in time-he'd been seen. A thunderous shot reverberated through the house, and plaster flew from the wall.
Webb swore viciously even as he threw himself into the open, rolling, bringing his own weapon around. He squeezed off a shot, the heavy pistol bucking in his hand, but the dark figure at the other end darted toward Lucinda's door. Smoke filled the hallway, and the stench of cordite burned in his nostrils as Webb scrambled to his feet and threw himself forward.
As he'd expected, the shots had the entire family opening their doors, poking their heads out.
"God damn it, get back in your rooms," he yelled furiously.
Gloria ignored him and stepped completely out into the hallway.
"Don't swear at me!" she snapped.
"What on earth is going on?"
Behind her, the assailant stepped out into the hallway, but Gloria was between them and Webb couldn't get off a shot. Roughly he shoved her, and with a cry she sprawled to the floor.
And he froze, suddenly helpless. The man had one arm hooked around Lucinda's neck, holding the frail old woman in front of him as a shield. The gun was steady in his other hand, the barrel laid against Lucinda's temple, and a savage grin was on his face.
"Unload the gun real slow," he ordered, backing toward the front hallway. Webb didn't hesitate. There was an
expression on the man's face that told him Lucinda would be dead if he didn't obey. With deliberate movements he flipped open the cylinder and removed all the bullets.
"Throw them behind you," the man said, and Webb obeyed, tossing the bullets down the hallway.
"Now kick the gun toward me."
Carefully he bent and placed the empty weapon on the carpet, then took his foot and shoved it toward the man, who made no move to pick it up. He didn't have to; he had separated the bullets from the weapon, so there was no way anyone could pick up a bullet, get to the pistol and reload it, then fire, before he could shoot them.
Lucinda was standing very still in his grip, as colorless as her nightgown. Her white hair was rumpled as if he had dragged her from her bed, and perhaps he had, though more likely she had jumped up at the first shot and was coming to see what had happened when he grabbed her. The man looked around, his savage grin growing even bigger as he saw all the people standing frozen in their bedroom doors, except for Gloria, who was still lying on the carpet and whimpering softly.
"Everybody!" he suddenly bellowed.
"I want to see everybody! I know who you all are, so if anybody tries to hide, I'll put a bullet in the old biddy's head. You got five seconds! One-two-three-" Harlan stepped out of the bedroom and bent to help Gloria to her feet. She clung to him, still whimpering. Greg and Lanette came out of their rooms, ashen faced.
11four-" Webb saw Corliss and Brock appear from the other hallway.
The man looked around.
"There's one more," he said, sneering.
"We're missing your little brood mare, Tallant. Where is she? You think I'm fooling around about killing this old bitch?"
No, Webb thought. No. As much as he loved Lucinda, he couldn't bear the thought of risking Roanna. Run, he silently pleaded with her. Run, darling. Get help. Run!
The man looked to the left and gave a pleased laugh.
"There she is. Come on out, darling. Join the happy crowd." Roanna slipped forward, moving to stand between Corliss and the front double doors of the veranda. She was as pale as Lucinda, her slender figure almost insubstantial. She stared at the man and gasped, going even whiter.
"Well, ain't this nice?" the man crowed, grinning at Roanna.
"I see you remember me."
"Yes," she said faintly.
"That's good, because I remember you real well. Me and you got some unfinished business. You gave me a scare when you walked up on me here in the hall that night, but I heard tell that little bump on the head gave you a concussion, and you don't remember nothing about it. That right?"
"Yes," she said again, her eyes huge and dark in her white face.
He laughed, evidently pleased by the irony, His cold eyes swept over them all.
"A real family reunion. All of you get together, over here in the front hall, under the light so I can see all of you real good." He moved back, out of reach, holding Lucinda's head arched back as Webb silently shepherded the others forward, grouping them together with Corliss, Brock, and Roanna.
Webb spared a single murderous look at Corliss. She was watching the man as if fascinated, but there wasn't a single flicker of fear on her face. She had let him in, and she was too stupid to realize he would kill her, too. All of them were dead, unless he did something.
He tried to move closer to Roanna, hoping that perhaps he could shield her with his body, that somehow she might survive.
"Uh-uh," the man said, shaking his head.
"You stand still, you bastard. ""Who are you?" Gloria shrilled.
"Turn loose of my sister!" "Shut up, bitch, or I'll feed the first bullet to you."
"It's a good question," Webb said. He stared at the man with a cool, hard gaze.
"Who the bell are you?"
Lucinda spoke, her bloodless lips moving.
"His name," she said clearly, "is Harper Neeley."
The man gave a rough, feral laugh.
"I see you've heard of me. 11 "I know who you are. I made it a point to find out."
"Did you, now? That's real interesting. Wonder why you never visited. We're family, after all." He laughed again.
Webb didn't want his attention on Lucinda, didn't want him watching any of them except himself.
"Why, God damn it?" he snarled.
"What do you want? I don't know you, I've never even heard of you." If he could stall long enough, Loyal might be able to work himself into position and do something, or the sheriff would arrive. All he had to do was stall.
"Because you killed her," Neeley said viciously.
"You killed my girl, you fucking bastard."
"Jessie?" Webb stared at him, astonished.
"I didn't kill Jessie."
"God damn you, don't lie!" Neeley roared, jerking the pistol from Lucinda's temple to point it at Webb.
"You found out about us, and you killed her!"
"No," Webb said sharply.
"I didn't. I didn't have any idea she was cheating on me. I didn't know until after the autopsy when the sheriff told me she was pregnant. I knew it couldn't be mine."
"You knew! You knew and you killed her! You killed my girl and you killed my baby, and I'm going to make you watch while I kill your baby. I'm going to shoot this little bitch right in the stomach and you're going to stand there and watch her die, and then I'm going to do you-" "He didn't kill Jessie!" Lucinda's voice rang out over Neeley's. She lifted her white head high.
The pistol wavered slightly.
"Don't try to mess with me, old woman," Neeley panted.
Webb kept his attention glued to Neeley; the man's eyes were gleaming hotly, sweat beading on his face as he worked himself into a frenzy. He was planning to kill nine people. He'd already wasted one shot. The pistol was an automatic;
how many bullets did it have in the clip? Some carried as many as seventeen, but still, after the first shot he could hardly expect them all to stand there like sheep waiting for the slaughter. He had to realize that he was in an almost impossible situation, but that made him all the more unstable. He had nothing to lose.
"I killed her," Lucinda repeated.
"You're lying. It was him, everybody knows it was him."
"I didn't mean to kill her," Lucinda said calmly. "it was an accident. I was scared, I didn't know what to do. if Webb had actually been arrested, I would have confessed, but Booley couldn't find any evidence because there wasn't any. Webb didn't do it." She gave Webb a look of sorrow, of love, of regret.
"I'm sorry," she whispered.
"You're lying!" Neeley howled, jerking her hard against him and tightening his arm around her throat.
"I'll break your goddamn neck if you don't shut up!"
Greg jumped for him. Quiet, unassuming Greg, who had let Lanette run their lives without even opening his mouth to give an opinion. Lanette screamed, and Neeley jerked back, firing once. Greg stumbled and fell forward, all of his coordination suddenly gone, his legs and arms moving spasmodically. He sprawled on the floor, his chest heaving and his eyes wide with surprise. Then he gave a funny little cough that turned into a moan, as blood slowly spread beneath him.
Lanette stuffed her fingers into her mouth, staring in horror at her husband. She started forward, instinctively going to him.
"Don't move!" Neeley screamed, waving the pistol erratically.
"I'll kill the next one who moves!"
Corliss was staring down at her father, her mouth open, her expression stunned.
"You shot my daddy," she said in amazement.
"Shut up, you fucking bitch. Stupid," he sneered. "You're so fucking stupid."
Webb caught the faintest movement out of the corner of his eyes. He didn't dare move, didn't dare turn his head, as
terror seized him. Roanna shifted again, just the slightest of movements, taking her a fraction of an inch closer to the doors.
On the code box to the left of the doors, Webb saw the green light change to red.
Roanna had opened the door.
Fifteen seconds. The deafening blare would be all the diversion he would get. He began counting, hoping he could time it right.
Tears streamed down Corliss's face as she stared down at Greg, feebly writhing on the floor.
"Daddy," she said. She looked back at Neeley and her face twisted with rage, and something else.
"You shot my daddy!" she screamed, lunging at Neeley, her hands extended like claws.
He pulled the trigger again.
Corliss skidded, her torso jerked backward even as her feet tried to keep moving. Lanette screamed hoarsely, and the pistol swung unevenly toward her.
The alarm went off, the shrill, deafening sound painful in its intensity. Neeley's finger tightened on the trigger even as Webb was moving, and the bullet plowed into the wall right over Lanette's head. Neeley shoved Lucinda to the side, his free hand coming up to cover one ear as he tried to bring the pistol around. Webb hit him, driving one shoulder hard into the man's stomach, slamming him back against the wall. With his left hand he grabbed Neeley's right wrist, holding it up so he couldn't shoot anyone else even if he pulled the trigger.
Neeley shoved back, gathering himself. He was enraged, and as strong as an ox. Brock threw himself into the fray, adding his strength to Webb's as they both forced Neeley's arm back, pinning it to the wall, but still the man pushed back against them. Webb drove his knee upward, slamming it into Neeley's groin. A choked, guttural sound exploded from him, then he gasped soundlessly, his mouth working. He began sliding down the wall, taking them with him, and the movement wrenched his arm free of their grasp.
Webb grabbed for the gun as the three of them sprawled on the floor in a tangle. Neeley got his breath back with a high-pitched shriek of laughter, and only then did Webb realize that the shriek of the alarm had stopped, that Roanna had silenced it as quickly as she had set it off.
Neeley was scrabbling around, turning his body, still laughing in that shrill, maniacal tone that made the hair stand up on Webb's neck. He was staring at something, and laughing as he struggled, squirming on the floor, trying to bring the pistol around one more time to Roanna. She was kneeling beside Lucinda, tears running down her face as she looked from her grandmother to where Webb was struggling with Neeley, obviously torn between the two of them.
Roanna. She was a perfect target, a little isolated from everyone else because Lanette, Gloria, and Harlan had rushed to Greg and Corliss. Her nightgown was a pristine white, perfect, impossible to miss at this range.
The gray metal of the barrel inched around, despite his and Brock's best efforts to hold Neeley's arm still, to wrestle the gun away from him.
Webb roared with fury, a great rush of it that surged through his muscles, his brain, obscuring everything in a red tide. He lunged forward that extra inch, his hand clamping down on Neeley's, slowly forcing the gun back, back, until he literally broke it free as the bones in Neeley's thick fingers popped under the pressure.
He screamed, writhing on the floor, his eyes going blank with pain.
Webb staggered to his feet, still holding the gun.
"Brock," he said in a low, harsh voice.
"Move. 91 Brock scrambled away from Neeley.
Webb's face was cold, and Neeley must have read his death there. He tried to surge upward, reaching for the gun, and Webb pulled the trigger.
At almost point blank range, one shot was all he needed. The reverberation faded away, and in the distance he could hear the faint wail of sirens.
Lucinda was trying feebly to sit up. Roanna helped her, bracing the old woman with her own body. Lucinda was gasping for breath, her color absolutely gray as she pressed her hand to her chest.
"He-he was her father," she gasped desperately, reaching out to Webb, trying to make him understand.
"I couldn't-I couldn't let her h-have that baby." She choked and grimaced, pressing harder on her chest with her other hand. She collapsed back against Roanna, her body going limp and sagging to the floor.
Webb looked around at his family, at the blood and destruction and grief. Over the groans of pain, the sobs, he said in a steely voice, "This stays in the family, do you understand? I'll do the talking. Neeley was Jessie's father. He thought I killed her, and he was out for revenge. That's it, do you understand? All of you, do you understand? No one knows who really killed Jessie."
They looked back at him, the survivors, and they understood. Lucinda's terrible secret remained just that, a secret.
Three days later, Roanna sat by Lucinda's bed in the cardiac intensive care unit, holding the old lady's hand and gently stroking it as she talked to her. Her grandmother had suffered a massive heart attack, and her body was already so frail that the doctors hadn't expected her to live through the night.
Roanna had been by her bedside all that night, whispering to her, telling her of the great-grandchild that was on its way, and despite all logic and medical knowledge, Lucinda had rallied. Roanna stayed until Webb had forced her to go home and rest, but was back as soon as he would, allow it.
They all marched to Webb's orders, the family closing ranks behind him. There was so much to get through that they were all numb. They had buried Corliss the day before. Greg was in intensive care in Birmingham. The bullet had clipped his spine and the doctors expected him to have some paralysis, but they thought he would be able to walk with the aid of a cane. Only time would tell.
Lanette was like a zombie, moving silently between her daughter's funeral and her husband's hospital bed. Gloria and Harlan were in almost the same state, shocked and bewildered. Brock handled the funeral arrangements and took care of the others, his good-looking face lined with grief and fatigue, but his fianc�e was at his side the entire time, and he took comfort from her.
Roanna looked up when Webb came into the small cubicle. Lucinda's eyes brightened when she saw him, then filmed with tears. It was the first time she had been awake when he'd been to visit. She groped for his hand, and he reached out to gently take her fingers in his.
"So sorry," she whispered, gasping for breath.
"I should have … said something. I never meant for you … to take the blame."
"I know," he murmured.
"I was so scared," she continued, determined to get it said now after all the years of silence.
"I went to your rooms … after you left … try to talk some sense into her. She was … wild. Wouldn't listen. Said she was … going to teach you … a lesson." The confession came hard. She had to gasp for breath between every few words, and the effort was making perspiration shine on her face, but she focused her gaze on Webb's face and refused to rest.
"She said she would … have Harper Neeley's baby … and pass it off … as yours. I couldn't … let her do it. Knew who he was … her own father … abomination."
She drew a deep breath, shuddering with the effort. On her other side, Roanna held tightly to her hand.
"I told her … no. Told her she had to … get rid of it. Abortion. She laughed … and I slapped her. She went wild … knocked me down … kicked me. I think … trying to kill me. I got away … picked up the andiron … She came at me again. I hit her," she said, tears rolling down her face.
"I … loved her," she said weakly, closing her eyes. "But I couldn't … let her have that baby."
There was a soft scraping sound at the sliding glass doors. Webb turned his head to see Booley standing there, his expression weary. He gave Booley a hard stare and turned back to Lucinda.
"I know," he murmured as he bent over her.
"I understand. You just get well now. You have to be at our wedding, or I'll be mighty disappointed, and I won't forgive you for that. " He glanced at Roanna. She too was staring at Booley, a cool look in those brown eyes that dared him to do or say anything that would upset Lucinda.
Booley jerked his head at Webb, indicating that he wanted to talk to him outside. Webb patted Lucinda's hand, carefully placed it on the bed, and joined the former sheriff.
Silently they walked out of the CICU and down the long hall, past the waiting room where relatives kept endless vigils. Booley glanced into the crowded room and continued strolling.
"Guess it all makes sense now," he finally said. Webb remained silent.
"No point in it going any further," Booley mused.
"Neeley's dead, and there wouldn't be any use in pressing any sort of charges against Lucinda. No evidence anyway, just the ramblings of a dying old woman. No point in stirring up a lot of talk, all for nothing."
"I appreciate it, Booley," said Webb.
The old man clapped him on the back and gave him a level, knowing look.
"It's over, son," he said.
"Get on with your life." Then he turned and walked slowly to the elevator, and Webb retraced his steps to the CICU. He knew what Booley had been telling him. Beshears hadn't asked too many questions about Neeley's death, had in fact skirted around some things that were fairly obvious.
Beshears had been around. He knew an execution when he saw one.
Webb quietly reentered the cubicle, where Roanna was once again talking softly to Lucinda, who seemed to be dozing. She looked up, and he felt his breath catch in his chest as he stared at her. He wanted to grab her in his arms and never let her go, because he had come so close to losing her. When she had explained about her confrontation with Neeley over his treatment of his horse, Webb's blood had run cold. It had been just after that when Neeley had broken into the house for the first time, and when Roanna walked up on him, he had to have thought she would recognize him. He would have killed her then, Webb was certain, if Roanna hadn't awakened enough to scream when Neeley hit her. His idea of putting it about that the concussion had caused her to lose her memory about that night, just as a precaution, had undoubtedly saved her life, because otherwise Neeley would have tried to get to her sooner, before Webb managed to have the alarm installed.
As it was, Neeley had been within a hair's breadth of settling that pistol sight on her, and that had signed his death warrant.
Webb went to her, gently touching her chestnut hair, stroking one finger down her cheek. She rested her head on him, sighing as she rubbed her cheek against his shirt. She knew. She had been watching. And as she had knelt beside Lucinda, when he had turned back to her after pulling the trigger, she had given him a tiny nod.
"She's asleep," Roanna said now, keeping her voice to a whisper.
"But she's going to come home again. I know it." She paused.
"I told her about the baby."
Webb knelt on the floor and put his arms around her, and she bent her head down to him, and he knew that he held his entire world there in his arms.
Their wedding was very quiet, very small, and took place over a month later than they had originally planned.
It was held in the garden, just after sunset. The gentle shades of twilight lay softly over the land. Peach lights glowed in the arbor where Webb waited beside the minister.
A few rows of white chairs had been set up on each side of
the aisle, and every face was turned toward Roanna as she walked down the carpet laid out on the grass. Every face was beaming.
Greg and Lanette sat in the first row; Greg was in a wheelchair, but his prognosis was good. With physical therapy, the doctors said, he would likely regain most of the use of his left leg, though he would always limp. Lanette had cared for her husband with a fierce devotion that refused to let him give up, even when his grief over Corliss had almost defeated him.
Gloria and Harlan were also in the first row, both of them looking much older as they held hands, but they too were smiling.
Brock pushed Lucinda's wheelchair to keep pace with Roanna's stately stride. Lucinda was dressed in her favorite peach, and she wore her pearls and makeup. She smiled at everyone as they passed. Her frail, gnarled fingers were linked with the slender ones of her granddaughter, and they went together up the aisle, just as Roanna had wanted.
They reached the arbor and Webb reached out for Roanna's hand, drawing her to his side. Brock positioned Lucinda's wheelchair so that she was in the traditional place as matron of honor, then took up his own position as best man.
Webb's gaze briefly met Lucinda's. There was a serene, almost translucent quality to her. The doctors had said she wouldn't have long, but she had confounded them once again, and it was beginning to look as if she might make it through the winter after all. She was saying now that she wanted to wait until she knew if her great-grandchild was a boy or a girl. Roanna had immediately stated that she had no intention of letting the doctor or ultrasound technician tell her the baby's sex before its birth, and Lucinda had laughed.
Forgive me, she had said, and he had. He couldn't hold on to anger, to hurt, when he had so much to look forward to. Roanna turned her radiant face up to him, and he almost kissed her right then, before the ceremony even started.
"Woof," he whispered, so low that only she could hear him, and he felt her stifle a giggle at what had turned into their private code for "I want you."
She smiled more readily these days. He'd lost count, at least in his mind. His heart still noted each and every curve of her lips.
Their fingers twined together, and he lost himself in her whiskey-colored eyes as the words began, washing over them in the soft purple twilight: "Dearly beloved, we are gathered here together ..