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Deep Down (I), Page 2

Karen Harper

  She walked as steadily as she could, though she felt the urge to run. Had the other-side-of-the-world time zone difference given her delayed jet lag? At least her headache wasn’t caused by staring too long into a microscope at floating ginsenosides attacking tiny cancer cells and tumors in the test tubes. Hours of research sometimes made her eyes cross and her brain blank out. She felt like that now and, worse, as if something in the midst of these towering skyscrapers in old-new Hong Kong were chasing her.

  The shrill ring-ring, ring-ring dragged Jessie from deep, dream-haunted sleep. It took her a moment to recall she was in her Hong Kong hotel room. Exhausted, she’d collapsed in bed after her visit to Ko Shing St., almost as if that strange smell in the herb shop had drugged her. Her bedside table clock read 7:17 p.m. She’d missed the afternoon lectures and the tour of the city she’d signed up for. Maybe it was some conference attenders on the phone, wondering if she could meet them for dinner or why she’d missed the tour bus.

  She grabbed the receiver. “Dr. Jessica Lockwood.”

  “Jess? Sheriff Webb in Deep Down—Drew.”

  Her heartbeat kicked up even more. No one has ever called her Jess but Drew. Despite the coolness of the room, she shoved the duvet and covers off. She began to sweat. She’d know that voice anywhere, deep, husky. It was a voice she’d known since her earliest memories, one that haunted her. Something must be wrong at home, very wrong.

  “Drew, what is it?”

  “You were hard to trace. Cassie gave me your Lexington apartment and your lab number, but then I found this Hong Kong hotel number with a note in your mother’s kitchen. Jess, I know you’re thousands of miles away, but can you come home right away? I’m sorry to inform you that your mother’s missing.”

  She gasped. “Missing? What happened? Missing how?”

  “As best I can tell she went out counting sang and just didn’t come back. Vern Tarver dropped by her house after dinner yesterday evening but couldn’t find her, though her truck was there. He checked all around, called people, but she wasn’t at Cassie’s—nowhere—so he called me. I rechecked her neighbors and friends but no leads. I’ve had a search party out since daybreak—they’re still out, some even with hounds. But she covers a wide area, and I don’t know her sang counting spots. Do you?”

  She raked her fingers through her hair. “Some. I—I’m not supposed to head home until tomorrow. Maybe she twisted her ankle or something like that. Please keep looking. She knows those woods like the back of her hand.”

  “Yeah, but some of those spots are secret and deep in. I’m really sorry to have to call you like this. Be assured we’ll keep looking, all of us. You—you did know I’m sheriff here now?”

  “She told me. Be a good one, Drew. Please, please find her safe and sound. I’ll make arrangements to fly back as soon as I can, and I’ll call you. Here’s my cell number if you need it.” She recited it to him, and he gave her his.

  “But you know it’s better to use the landlines around here,” he reminded her. “Even now, the mountains make a difference. Jess, take care and see you soon.”

  The line went dead. For one moment, she stared at the sleek receiver in her hand, seeing Drew that last night, furious, hurt—naked. She’d just been told the last thing in the world she could bear to hear. And from the last and only man she had ever really loved.

  Chapter 2


  “Y ou want me to call in more guys with their hounds tomorrow?” Sheriff Chuck Akers asked Drew over the two-way radio. His former boss and mentor, sheriff of the Lowe County seat in Highboro, was out in the woods with one of the search parties for Mariah Lockwood.

  Drew was running the rescue effort—he hoped to hell it wasn’t a recovery operation—out of the old house that was now his police station: an apartment where he lived upstairs; downstairs, a reception desk and phone center behind a counter, both run by Emmy Enloe; his office; a supply room and two holding cells. He had no deputy, so Emmy was his entire staff. Today he’d moved her onto the front porch to keep track of volunteer searchers. Usually as quiet as the grave, his office and the whole town were in chaos today.

  Drew had just come in from using a search warrant to go through Mariah’s unlocked front door, which he’d secured and put police tape across when he left. Two days ago, he hadn’t gone farther than the kitchen when he went in, looking for Jess’s contact information when the numbers her friend Cassie had given him turned out to be dead ends. Mariah’s place looked neat enough. He’d need Jess to tell him if anything was really disturbed or missing, other than two pairs of old shoes he’d taken to scent the hounds with.

  “Drew, you read me?” came Akers’s scratchy voice.

  “I read, Sheriff. You’re breaking up, but go ahead.”

  “I got me two more groups I can send out tomorrow.”

  “I’ll let you know first thing in the morning. We need to call it a night now before it gets pitch-dark. Besides, I don’t trust some of the volunteers to just look for signs of her instead of shooting at anything that moves, like the Shelton kid did. Said he saw a huge buck. I’ve got the woods full of search parties, and I don’t need someone killed,” he said and signed off.

  Someone killed. The words echoed in his head. He’d been praying that something terrible hadn’t happened to Mariah. If it had, he didn’t know how he could tell Jess. But then, he wasn’t sure how he could face her, anyway, after all this time. Water way over the dam, sure, but it still ate at him. She was twenty-eight now and he was thirty-four, so that meant they hadn’t spoken for nearly twelve years before that brief international phone call. What happened between them was so long ago—almost in another life. So why did it still haunt him?

  He startled when someone spoke close behind him. He prided himself on being aware of people sneaking up, but then Cassie Keenan had always moved as silently as a wraith.

  “She’s just nowhere I knew to look,” Cassie called out as she poked her red head in the front door.

  “Thanks for searching, anyway,” Drew told her.

  Once Jess’s best friend, Cassie was the local beauty, if you could look past the vacant stares, when she sometimes seemed to drift off to somewhere else. For once she didn’t have her darling little four-year-old, Pearl, with her. A wildcrafter like Mariah, Cassie had no husband, never had.

  Though an illegitimate child was fairly common around here, she’d never told anyone who Pearl’s father was, and she was such a loner no one yet had managed a good guess. Just the other day, Drew had told Vern Tarver to shut his yap when he’d joked about Pearl being the second child ever born by immaculate conception.

  If Cassie wanted to keep that secret, it was fine with Drew, except she was barely making it financially on her own. More than once he’d bought her groceries, using the excuse he appreciated her cooking a meal for him. That was a big lie since she always put strange plants and herbs in about everything she made, and Drew had always favored meat and potatoes—or since his years in Italy, pasta.

  “I been to lots of spots with Mariah to gather moss and herbs,” Cassie went on, “but can’t find hide nor hair of her in any of them, nor the sang spots I know. Guess she had to keep her counting spots real quiet, so they didn’t get poached or dug up. I can ’preciate that—her keeping something to herself. But if she was counting sang at her secret sites, Jessie’s the only one might know all of them.”

  “That’s what I figured, too. She’ll be home—here—in a couple of hours. She called when her plane landed in Cincinnati before she caught a commuter to Lexington.”

  “Poor thing, driving in the dark to all this. Too bad Dr. Gering died last year, or she would’ve come with her sure. I’m praying she’s not lost her blood mother, well as her foster one. You just let me know when she’s here now, ’cause maybe I can help her some.” With a flutter of one delicate hand, she was gone.

  Cassie’s comments made Drew realize how much of Jess’s life he had missed. He’d never met the woman who had been
a second mother to her. After the big blowup here over Jess and him, Mariah had sent her to live with a UK professor who specialized in Appalachian dialect. Jess had come home every August, so he’d heard, but, except for a couple of month-long leaves, he’d been away for years, first overseas with the marines and then as a deputy in Highboro, around the other side of Big Blue.

  He thought he’d made a good life for himself, but so had Jess. Though some in town resented her “fancy book-learning,” as far as he was concerned, she was Deep Down’s big success story. He thought Jessica Lockwood made a mockery of the stale, old joke that the only good thing that ever came out of Deep Down was an empty bus.

  “Sheriff, how ’bout I fetch you some more coffee or apple pie? Or you in dire need of a good back rub?”

  Audrey Doyle, who ran the only restaurant in town, the Soup to Pie, draped herself in his doorway. He had to admit she’d been helping with things today, offering free coffee to search parties. Unfortunately, ever since he’d been back in town, she’d been offering him a lot more than that and she didn’t like to take no for an answer. With her long, platinum hair and too tight jeans holding in a voluptuous figure, Audrey was cruising for a third husband. He was not interested in more than food and local information from her.

  “No, thanks. I’m fine.”

  “You sure are. You’re doing a great job.”

  “I’m not doing a great job, because we haven’t found her,” he said, as he brushed past her onto the porch where Emmy and two other girls were sitting at a card table, manning the lists and locations of searchers. He saw several groups coming back into town, some walking, some in their pickups with yapping hounds in the back. He wondered if anyone had taken sang from Mariah’s precious sites, so carefully counted.

  Audrey sidled up behind him, close enough that he could feel her breath on the nape of his neck. “I know some folks resent having a sheriff here, but I think it’s long overdue,” she whispered.

  “Thanks for the vote of confidence,” he said and bent over Emmy’s shoulder to skim the lists. Audrey took the hint and sashayed back toward the Soup to Pie three doors down.

  Despite Audrey’s soft-soap compliments, Sheriff Drew Webb knew he had a lot to prove to Deep Downers and those in the surrounding rural areas of his jurisdiction. He had things to prove to himself, too. And now to Jess Lockwood.

  Despite the fact he’d been hell on wheels in his younger days, Drew had been sent from Highboro to his old stomping grounds as their first sheriff for three reasons: first, he’d earned a good reputation both in the marines and in Highboro; second, Sheriff Akers was getting too old to leave Highboro and police this area every time something went wrong; and third, because the town, despite its sleepy demeanor and rural charm, was smack in the center of this area’s lucrative ginseng trade, and the state was really cracking down on sang as an endangered herb.

  Strange that a plant, a root, had got him his job. But it meant he made enemies, too, every time he enforced the Lacey Act antipoaching laws against those who illegally took or bought sang in these hills. Worse, Deep Downers thought that gathering sang, even in the cultivated forest patches planted by others, was their right. Drew knew he had to watch his back—and he was starting to fear Mariah Lockwood should have watched hers, too.

  Jessie Lockwood ached all over from holding herself tense, waiting to hear news about her mother on the cell phone she kept on the car seat beside her—not that cells worked well more than half the time in the eastern part of the “Great Commonwealth of Kentucky,” as she’d so often heard the state called. She felt stiff from the endless flight back to the U.S., mentally fogged from the jet lag and now from this three-and-a-half-hour, twisting drive from Lexington to Deep Down. On a short straightaway, she snatched another swig from her now-cold coffee container.

  Darkness had descended like a steel trap about halfway home—if Deep Down was really home anymore—but she knew the roads well. Over and over, she agonized about what could have happened to her mother: a sprained or broken ankle in a groundhog hole; tripping on a tree root; a slip on a mossy stone in a creek, so that she fell and knocked herself out. Maybe she’d run into illegal diggers who had been more than she could handle and had tied or beat her up. But then, why didn’t the searchers find her?

  Familiar landmarks swept by as Jessie fought to keep her mind on her driving, her bloodshot eyes on the corkscrew road between Big Blue and Sunrise Mountains. Despite her visit during the Christmas holidays last year, she should have come home in August as usual. She should have visited more often, not let the breakthrough in her lab work and her nerves about facing Drew Webb keep her away. As much as she was grateful for her life outside the hills, she didn’t need a shrink to tell her she still had a deep-seated anger issue at her mother for giving her away. Nev ertheless, she should have phoned her from Hong Kong, whatever it cost, to say she was all right and to check how her mother was.

  What if she never saw her again? What if she could never tell her that she was grateful for the sacrifice she had made to let her live with Elinor and get an education and—

  Deep Down, 3 miles. The sign leapt into her headlights from the darkness.

  Three miles and a lifetime back. She was twenty-eight, but it suddenly seemed only yesterday she’d left with Elinor…

  “You can call your mother and speak to her anytime you want, you know, Jessica.” She heard Elinor’s voice now as clearly as she had in that big sedan twelve years ago, heading the other way on this road. “My work brings me back into this area often, and I’ll bring you for visits, of course.”

  “I still don’t want to leave. What’d you mean when you said on the phone that I was your lies and do little? I don’t lie and I been a hard worker, both me and Mommy, ever since Daddy died.”

  A little smile peeked at the corners of Elinor’s mouth. “Of course you’re truthful and a hard worker. Mariah is, too. I’ve been impressed by both of you ever since you first helped me with the vocabulary and the definitions. You see, I didn’t say ‘your lies’ and ‘do little.’ Eliza Doolittle is a character in a play—in a Broadway musical, too. A man named Professor Henry Higgins took her into his home to study the way she spoke and to help her to speak more properly, and I’m hoping that’s one of the gifts I can give you. A bright girl like you doesn’t need to spend her whole life looking for herbs and moss in the woods like Mariah and your friend Cassandra.”

  “I was fixin’ to be a wildcrafter, too. It takes lots of know-how in the woods.”

  “Of course it does. But there’s an entire world outside places like Highboro and Deep Down. Jessica, as I told your mother, I don’t have a child, and I will give you that wide world—my world—as best I can. Besides, that Webb boy who accosted you is a no-account. He’d ruin you and never look back…”

  But Jess was looking back now.

  Deep Down, 2 miles

  Drew had not accosted her. She wasn’t sure back then what that even meant, but she knew what they’d been caught doing had been powerful and mutual, despite the fact they weren’t even sweethearting and he had another girl. She guessed that was mostly why her mother decided she should go live with Elinor. “I don’t want you breeding Webb young-uns, living in some trailer in a holler!” she’d screeched at her that night. Later, Jessie heard Drew had left, too, joining the marines and living overseas.

  But now she was going back to where she and Drew might have to work together to find her mother, going back to where she needed him in a whole new way from how she used to…

  Drew Webb had been the most handsome, exciting—if hellfire raised—boy she’d ever known. Sure, he was six years older than her sixteen when everything blew up, but that was real exciting. He’d seemed so experienced compared to her. Why, back then, he’d been to far places like Frankfort and even Ohio, visiting kin. Of course, from the time she fell for him at age twelve till that only night he’d touched her, he hadn’t known she was alive, at least not the way she’d wanted him to. “S
kinny and bug-bit,” Cassie said he’d called her once.

  That night, Drew had beat up his own father because he was roughing up Drew’s mother. Jessie had seen it all. She’d been taking Gaynell Webb salve for her bruises, from supposedly falling down some steps. When Jessie saw the fight, then Drew take off, she followed him down to Skitter Run, past Fancy Gap Hollow where Cassie still lived today.

  He hadn’t gone to see Cassie or her folks, though. He’d gone to wash his wounds and be alone. But Jessie had seen the beating he’d taken and given, seen how Lem Webb treated his wife and kids, though about everybody knew it. So when Drew stalked off, limping and bleeding, she’d followed, to help or comfort him. Fran MacCrimmon was his girl, but Jessie couldn’t help herself. She’d loved him from afar, with his black Irish looks of rakish, raven hair, his don’t-give-a-damn slouch, even his frown below those steel-blue eyes. Writing about him in the diary Elinor had given her the first time she’d visited them, putting herself in his path just to say hi, even following him and Fran one time into the woods to see what they done there…

  Deep Down, 1 mile

  What they did there, she corrected her thoughts. For years Elinor had teased that she could take the girl out of the mountains, but not take the mountains out of the girl. But Elinor had given her a whole new world. Though it had been a painful transition, Jessie had come to love Lexington and the University of Kentucky campus where Dr. Gering spent so much of her time teaching and researching. They had lived nearby; Jessie could even walk to campus. Since Elinor taught graduate courses in sociology and linguistics, Jessie had come to know many of her academic colleagues and students—people whose interests were a far cry from those of her little hometown. Elinor’s research had taken them to the British Isles, especially to Scotland and Northern Ireland, where the Appalachian dialect had originated.

  Jessie’s expanding mind had soaked it all in; soon she’d seen huge gaps between where she’d been and where she wanted to go. How hard it had been to be a curiosity to Elinor’s associates at first. But Elinor had not only studied her but taught and loved her and, slowly, life in Lexington—or visiting New York or London—had become part of her, the new Jessica, a different woman from Jessie of Deep Down.