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"Nope. Vernell's not the type," I answered.

Marshall's eyes hardened a little as he asked his next question. "Did it occur to you that he drained his accounts and ran off? I mean, face it, Maggie, the man's not exactly reliable. He ran out on you. What makes you think he hasn't done it again?"

That stung. I sat in silence for a moment, my throat closing with pain and not trusting my voice to speak.

"Vernell Spivey is many things," I said slowly. "And true, his zipper flies up and down like a flag on the opening day of a Boy Scout jamboree, but he wouldn't leave his little girl, even if she is almost grown. Vernell doesn't get in trouble because he's mean. He gets in trouble because he's stupid and believes the best about women, even when the evidence lies to the contrary." I looked Marshall squarely in the eyes and continued. "Sheila's birthday was yesterday and Vernell missed it. He's never done that. He'd never do that."

Marshall Weathers slowly closed the notebook and put it back in his pocket. He sighed and ran his hand through his hair. He was putting off saying what was on his mind.

"Maggie, my guess is that Vernell's fine. I know you don't think so, but most times, the simplest explanations are the best. I think he's run off, but I'm going to see what I can find out. It would help if you could go over to his house and see if you can find anything at all that might give me some more information."

I nodded. "Will you do the missing persons thing?" I asked. "You know, tell everybody to look out for him? Let other departments know?"

He sighed again. "Honey, I don't think it'll do a lot of good, but of course I will. But I'm betting he's holed up in a hotel room somewhere, drinking. I don't think he wants to be found."

I stood up and stared down at him. "Thank you," I said, "I'll be in touch." I said it with all the dignity I could muster. I said it when I wanted to ask him a thousand other questions. Then I turned to leave.

"Maggie?" His voice rolled over my shoulder, a plea, not a command.

I turned around, waiting, my hand still clutching the door handle.

"I know you're wondering…"

I was. I was so wondering, but the doorknob suddenly lurched in my hand. I turned back, reacting to the movement, and felt my world dissolve into a fiery explosion of red, black, and pain.

Chapter Two

I grabbed my nose, the world went starry and black, and I was propelled backward into the desk.

A voice said, "Oh, man!"

Marshall Weathers was suddenly right there, grabbing my shoulders and pushing me right back into the chair I'd just come from.

"She's bleeding," the door pusher said. "I'll get some paper towels and ice. Oh, man! I'm sorry." My attacker was a female, a sumo wrestler, if the strength of her pushing was any indication.

My hands were covering my face. I could feel blood seeping through my fingers as my nose started to swell. Great. This was all I needed.

"Maggie," Weathers said, "just lean back." His hands tenderly brushed my curls out away from my face. "Do you think it's broken?"

"It can't be," I wailed. "I've gotta sing for a living!"

Marshall slipped his arm around my shoulders and pulled my head to his chest.

"Shhh," he said softly, "it'll be all right."

I wanted to cry, partly because I hurt so bad and partly because it took a broken nose for him to take me in his arms again, but I was cried out. Telling Marshall about Vernell and hearing the reality of the situation had drained me.

The door swung open, cautiously this time, and the pusher stepped back into the room. I looked up and took in the fresh-scrubbed, young, blonde officer, carrying a roll of paper towels and a bucket of ice.

"I'm so sorry," she said again.

"Me, too," I said, before I could remember my manners. "But I'll be fine."

She was staring at Marshall Weathers the same way I had when I first met him. I could tell right then and there that she was smitten. Marshall smiled up at her, took the towels and ice from her hands, then said, "Thanks, Trace."

She blushed. "I was just coming to see if we're still on for tonight," she said softly.

Weathers looked at me, then back at her. "Um, yeah, sure."

"Five thirty okay?" she asked.

He nodded and I jumped up out of my seat, a paper towel jammed against my nose.

"I'm fine," I muttered through the thick cloth. "And I have to go. Right now. I'm late."

"Maggie, wait," Marshall said.

I favored him with my nicest glance, considering that all he could see was eyes and a blob of white towel. I wasn't Einstein, but I wasn't stupid, either. "Let me know as soon as you find out about Vernell," I said. "Be sweet."

"Be sweet." That's southern for "curl up and die, you idiot!" A true southern woman never betrays her temper. Instead, she kills you with kindness. She lowers her voice almost to a whisper, looks you straight in the eye, and wishes you to stay as sweet as you are. It's her eyes that tell you the true story. Marshall Weathers was a Southerner. He knew exactly what I was saying.

I walked off through the Homicide Unit, weaving through the gray partition walls, heading for the lobby and the outside exit. People glanced up, then just as quickly looked away. I was guessing they didn't want to think too hard about what had happened to the Reba McEntire look-alike who had only minutes before strolled past with Marshall Weathers.

I wasted no time walking to my aging white VW Beetle and taking off. I drove through Greensboro's rush-hour traffic, heading for College Hills and my tiny Victorian bungalow. I hardly noticed the five-minute trip home or the beautiful fall colors that accented the tree-lined streets; I was too busy thinking. Besides, my nose ached and I just knew I was going to have two black eyes.

What was I going to tell Sheila? She was probably home, waiting for me. I hadn't let her in on how worried I was about her daddy, but now I was going to have to tell her.

When Vernell left us two years ago for Jolene, the Dish Girl in his satellite dish commercials, Sheila was just turning fifteen. I was a beautician and co-owned the Curly-Que Beauty Salon, and while it wasn't enough to keep us in luxury, it did afford me the little cottage off Mendenhall Street. Sheila hated the house, said it was a dump, but I loved it. It was full of character. It was just like me, waiting to be rediscovered and loved.

Sheila couldn't see that. No, she took up with a dope dealer down the street and eventually ran off to live in her father's pressed-cement, nouveau riche mansion in snobby New Irving Park. Time won out, though. Money can't buy a mother's love, especially when your stepmother is a greedy schemer bent on separating you from your father and his money. Poor Sheila.

I thought about Vernell for a minute. After his brother died, Vernell had started back drinking the hard stuff on a daily basis. I remembered sitting on a sidewalk curb one night, Vernell sick and crying beside me, and realizing that for all his restless meandering, Vernell truly loved me. He just couldn't live up to it. And try as I might, I couldn't hate him for that. Vernell was a just a junkyard dog trying to live indoors.

I drove down the alleyway and up into my small stamp of a backyard, trudged up the steps, and unlocked the door that opened into my bedroom, a converted sleeping porch. Sheila was lying across the bed, her head on her arms, wailing. From the sound of it, she'd turned up the volume as she heard my key fit into the lock.