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J. A. Jance

Devil’s Claw

The eighth book in the Joanna Brady series, 2000

PROLOGUE

The yellow school bus rumbled down the long dirt trail known as Middlemarch Road, throwing up a thick cloud of red dust that swirled high into the air behind it. Approaching a shotgun-pellet-pocked CURVES sign, the bus slowed and then stopped beside a peeling blue mailbox sitting atop a crooked wooden post. Switching on the blinking red lights, the driver, Agnes Hooper, waited until the trailing dust blew past before she opened the door to discharge her only remaining passenger.

Moving slowly, Lucinda Ridder dragged her heavy backpack down the center aisle. Even though she had been alone on the bus for several miles, Lucy Ridder never left her designated spot in the very back row. That was the place where some of the older kids had decreed she sit two years earlier, when she had first enrolled in Elfrida High School, and that was where she remained to this day-in the back of the bus. To Agnes Hooper’s personal knowledge, none of the other kids ever spoke to the scrawny, homely girl with her bone-thin arms and her thick, eye-shrinking glasses. Lucy had come to Elfrida’s high school after attending grade school in Pearce, a tiny community just up the road, but she had evidently been just as friendless there. None of the other girls ever offered to share that lonely backseat spot with her or whispered silly secrets in her ear. No one ever offered her a bite of the afternoon snacks that sometimes found their forbidden way onto Agnes Hooper’s supposedly food-free bus. It seemed to Agnes that the girl’s stubborn silence had rendered her so invisible that the other kids no longer even noticed her. In a way, that was a blessing, since it meant they no longer bothered to tease her, either.

The bus driver’s kind heart went out to this strange and fiercely silent girl. After all, it wasn’t Lucinda Ridder’s fault that her father was dead, that her mother was in prison, and that she herself had been forced to come live with her widowed grandmother, Catherine Yates, whose own great-grandfather had been a noted Apache chief. Lucy’s Indian blood had been diluted enough by both her grandfather and her father, so she didn’t look particularly Indian. Still, in that part of rural southeastern Arizona where what went on during the Apache Wars still mattered, people knew who she was and where she came from. And, as far as Apaches were concerned, what could you expect?

Peering into the hazy reflection of her dusty rearview mirror, Agnes tried to catch Lucy’s sad, downcast eyes as she trudged disconsolately down the narrow aisle of the bus. Agnes was struck by the girl’s obvious reluctance to exit the bus. Everything about going to school and riding the bus had to be pure torture for her. Still, on this blustery spring afternoon, it seemed to Agnes that whatever fate awaited her at home must be far worse.

As Lucy finally stepped off the bus onto the weed-clogged shoulder, Agnes called after her. “You-all have a good weekend, now,” the driver said as cheerily as she could manage. “See you on Monday.”

Lucinda Ridder nodded, but she didn’t answer. Once clear of the bus, she stood watching while Mrs. Hooper switched off the flashing lights and ground the bus into gear. It took several moves to maneuver the ungainly bus in the narrow turnaround space that had been bulldozed into the shoulders of the road. All the while, Lucinda Ridder gazed in that direction. Caught by the stiff spring breeze, her hair fanned out around her face in lank brown strands. She squinted her eyes to keep out the dust, but she didn’t raise a hand to ward off the flying gravel and grit. Her fingers remained frozen stiffly at her side until the turn was complete and the bus had rumbled back past her, down the road, and out of sight. Only then did she raise her hand in a halfhearted wave. Of all the people at Pearce Elementary and Elfrida High schools, Mrs. Hooper-the bus driver-was the only person who had ever shown Lucinda Ridder the slightest kindness.

Once the bus was gone, Lucy opened the mailbox. She pulled out several pieces of mail and stowed them in her frayed backpack. But while the backpack was open, she removed another envelope. This one, previously opened, was addressed to her in pencil. Sinking to the ground along the rock-strewn shoulder, she raised the flap and fumbled out a scrap of cheap lined notebook paper. Standing there with the paper flapping in the breeze, she read her mother’s note through once again, shaking her head as she did so.

Dear Baby,

Guess what? They’re letting me out. Friday of this week. Don’t tell Grandma. I have some things I need to do before I come home, and I want to surprise her. I probably won’t be there until Sunday afternoon or so. See you then.

Love,

Mom

The last words swam on the paper, blurred by the tears that filled Lucy’s eyes. For years-ever since the morning eight years earlier when she had awakened to find her father dead and her mother being loaded into a police car, Lucy Ridder had been afraid this would happen. She had prayed that somehow her mother would never return, that she would die in prison, but clearly those prayers had not been answered. Or, if God had answered them, his reply was no. Her mother was coming home, and that would ruin everything. The kids at school had almost forgotten who she was or why Lucy had come to live there all those years earlier. Once her mother showed up, though, once people caught sight of Sandra Ridder in the post office or the grocery store, everyone would remember, and the ugly torment and teasing would begin anew.

Unconsciously, Lucy reached up and touched the solitary charm she wore on a fine silver chain around her thin neck. It was a tiny silver-and-turquoise replica of the two-pronged gourd called devil’s claw. Her great-grandmother, Christina Bagwell, had had it made for Lucy by a friend, a silversmith who lived in Gallup, New Mexico. Even though Christina had been dead for nearly five years now, just touching the charm which had been her great-grandmother’s last gift to Lucinda still comforted her, putting her in touch with her great-grandmother’s spirit as well as her wisdom.

Lucy had received her mother’s disturbing note three days earlier, and she hadn’t mentioned a word about it to her grandmother-not so much because Sandra Ridder had wanted her daughter to keep her impending arrival secret, but because Lucy herself had not yet decided what to do. Now, on the day of her mother’s scheduled release, Lucy made up her mind.

Sighing, she refolded the single piece of paper several times-first in half and then into quarters. Finally, when she had folded it as small as she could, she tore it up. Once the letter had been shredded into a fistful of tiny, confetti-sized pieces, Lucy tossed them up into the air and watched as the wind blew them away, scattering them far and wide. When the last traces of the letter had disappeared into the newly plowed field across Middlemarch Road, Lucy did the same thing to the envelope itself. Then she rummaged in her pack once more and retrieved a worn square of deer hide, which she placed over one narrow shoulder.

Rising to her feet, Lucy hiked the backpack onto her other arm. With her feet spread wide, she threw back her head and let out a wild, piercing scream. The high-pitched screech was loud enough to travel great distances over the seemingly empty and parched terrain at the foot of the Dragoon Mountains. Moments later, the eerie sound was greeted by an answering, keening cry.

Far away, across a tangle of blackened, winter-dead mesquite, a big bird took wing. Majestically, the red-tailed hawk rose high into the air and then circled lazily overhead, his wings spread wide and dark beneath an azure sky. For the better part of a minute he stayed there, floating gracefully on the updrafts, before putting himself into a steep dive. He plummeted straight toward the girl who stood, head unbent, waiting. Mere feet away, the falling bird banked sharply. Striking his great wings, he settled softly onto her shoulder with a gentle flap and clamped his golden talons harmlessly on the scrap of protective leather that covered Lucy’s long-sleeved shirt.

     

 

2011 - 2018