But here's some news! My latest Montlake title, After You Were Gone, is available for pre-order now at Amazon and will go on sale February 7, 2017. And even more exciting, this is my first contemporary. This story percolated in one form or another, one era and then another, for several years. Finally I settled on contemporary, small-town Texas.
Family secrets can alter or even destroy lives, and dark secrets abound in After You Were Gone.
Presidio County Courthouse
Violence begets violence.
It was an old saying—maybe it was from the Bible. Maybe not. Julianne Emerson couldn’t remember. But she knew what it meant. More than that, she knew how it felt, because it was in her now. That hot, insistent desire for revenge.
She sat in the front row of the witness chairs, the ones right behind the railing, sensing the eyes of the other spectators ping-ponging between her, the judge, and him. Tension and anticipation filled the courtroom like a sickening green vapor.
Up front at a table off to her left sat the man who had been found guilty of killing her husband, Wes. The days of testimony, of watching the prosecution re-create the horrible event in excruciating detail, of sitting on the witness stand and facing him—she could barely think his name, much less say it to herself—had all come down to this moment. Julianne’s heart beat nearly as fast as the child’s she carried in her womb. The indecent irony of wanting to see a life ended while carrying another was not lost on her.
But she maintained her gaze on the partial profile of the man whose punishment was about to be announced. She wished she were sitting up there on the bench, instead of the Honorable Carlos Schmidt. She would sentence that guilty man to old-fashioned Texas justice. She’d do the same thing to him that he had done to Wes. She’d shut him in a tinder-dry barn, set it on fire, and watch the flames engulf him. The only mercy she would show him would be to make sure he was dead, and to not let him linger for two days of hell in an ICU, as charred as a hickory log in a barbecue pit.
The judge shuffled some papers, then looked over his black-rimmed reading glasses at the condemned man.
“The defendant will rise.”
The defendant pushed back his chair and stood there in his cheap, go-to-trial suit, probably the only one he’d ever worn in his life. His court-appointed lawyer rose with him. Deputies stood close by, as if expecting an eruption of chaos. They’d probably watched too many judicial dramas on Law & Order.
“In accordance with the laws of the State of Texas, you have asked that the court rather than the jury impose your sentence. You committed a grievous act, Mitchell Brett Tucker. You took a life. You might not have meant to, but you did. You deprived a woman of her husband, their unborn child of its daddy, and the town of Gila Rock of an upstanding citizen.” He paused and glanced at the rest of the Tucker clan across the aisle from Julianne. Everyone in Presidio County knew the Tuckers could be called a lot of things. Upstanding wasn’t one of them. “We just don’t tolerate that kind of business here.” Judge Schmidt tapped the edges of his papers on the desk. “But I am also taking into consideration the circumstances of your crime and your youth, although I’d expect a nineteen-year-old to know better. During testimony, you repeatedly stated that you had no idea Mr. Emerson was in the barn when you started that fire, and I believe you.”
The silence in the courtroom was a palpable thing, as if the world itself held its breath.
“In light of that, I’m sentencing you to seven years in the state prison in Amarillo. That should give you some time to think about how you want to lead the rest of your life. For your sake, and society’s, I hope you come to the right decision.”
Julianne let out an involuntary cry, and for a moment her vision seemed to narrow and darken like the picture tube in an old TV set. She felt as if she’d been punched in the head. Seven years? Seven? For killing a man? For burning down the barn? Drug dealers got worse for selling cocaine from the trunks of their cars.
The rest of the Tucker men lurched out of their chairs, voicing loud complaints. A buzz erupted among the onlookers and continued until the judge banged his gavel on its sound block, demanding order and threatening to clear the courtroom.
Only Mitchell was quiet. His jaw was clenched, and he said nothing.
She had seen that stony look just one other time: the day she’d told him she was marrying Wes.
Big Bend Country
Gila Rock, Texas
Eight Years Later
Eight Years Later
Welcome to Gila Rock. The trucker nodded at a tourist-grabbing sign. “Looks like this is the place.”
“Thanks, man, I appreciate it.” Yeah, this was the place. Mitchell Tucker jumped down from the air-conditioned, long-nose Peterbilt that had brought him to the outskirts of a town he’d once known as well as he knew his own name. Dragging his duffel bag after him, he slammed the cranberry-red cab door, gave it a slap with his hand, and waved to the driver hauling a load of cattle feed. The man had picked him up about forty miles south of here, and not a moment too soon—he’d been walking and trying to hitch a ride since morning.
West Texas. Mitchell had once heard an old fart at Lupe’s Roadhouse say that it was so flat out here, a body could stand on a case of beer and see all the way to the next county. To prove his point, the guy had even gotten Lupe Mendoza herself to give him a case of Lone Star empties, which he lugged out to the bare dirt parking lot. With a group of the tavern’s noontime regulars tagging after him to watch, he climbed onto the cardboard and glass. Yup, he claimed, there was Jeff Davis County up there to the north. He added that he’d probably have been able to see past it to Culberson County if the bottles had been full. Mitchell almost believed it.
This was still the real West, a wild place where scrubs of creosote, sage, cactus, and an occasional patch of fading bluebonnets were all that relieved the endless vista of Big Bend Country. The far-off hills seemed so remote they might as well have been on the moon. Between here and those hills, it was flat, hot, and desolate, the kind of place that was only right for him to have come from. Given the events of his life, it was also the kind of place he had to come back to.
In the near distance, Gila Rock waited for him under a chrome-blue sky. Except for a few old brick buildings like the high school and the library that stood out, the main structures looked as bleached and weather-beaten as their surroundings. He could still picture most of them. After all, there wasn’t much more than a couple of silos, some taverns, and two churches, bracketed by sorghum fields, a hog farm or two, and miles of cattle range. This was the vast area where the movie Giant had been filmed back in the fifties, and rain was damn near a miracle. There was no Walmart here, no Kmart, no Valero gas station or H-E-B grocery store—none of the big chain businesses that Mitchell had seen in the past year, knocking around the state. Gila Rock probably hadn’t changed at all.
But Mitchell Tucker had.
Seven years in prison could do that to a man. It changed the way he walked and talked, how he looked at other people and the world in general. He had a whole new vocabulary that he’d acquired over time, one that most people on the outside heard as a foreign language. And he was about as different as he could be from the scared, angry . . . kid who’d been sent off to the state penitentiary eight years before.
Originally, he’d planned never to come back—there was nothing for him here but that crappy single-wide he’d shared with his brothers and his old man down by the slow, muddy creek. At least that’s what he’d thought.
There was more, though, something he needed to take care of. Some unfinished business that had nagged at him for more than two thousand days and nights.
He could still see her sitting in the Presidio County Courthouse during his trial, flinging daggers at him with her ice-cold stares. He could hear her voice as she’d testified against him on the witness stand, tear-choked and accusing. It still made his gut twist to think about it, even after all these years. Mitchell had taken his chances by letting the judge decide his sentence, and he’d lost.
Under the glare of the afternoon sun, sweat popped out on his forehead, and he rubbed at it with the sleeve of his T-shirt. Then he picked up his duffel bag and started walking toward town. His boot heels made a dull, rhythmic thud on the hot asphalt.
Oh yeah, he had business here, all right. He would finish that business, then move on again.