A House by the Side of the Road
A sunlit fall afternoon in the Garrison Hills section of Niceville. Kate was waiting for Rainey Teague and Axel Deitz to come home from Regiopolis Prep. She did this whenever she could, waited on the stairway like this, so Rainey and Axel would see her standing there when they turned the corner. Both boys needed to see someone waiting for them.
Axel’s mother was working from Mondays to Fridays down in Cap City, as a civilian employee of the FBI, a job engineered for her by Boonie Hackendorff, the Special Agent in Charge and a family friend. -Beth’s daughter, Hannah, just turned five, spent the week in Cap City with her mother, at a day care facility maintained for FBI staff. Beth and Hannah made it home on weekends.
Their father was still in Twin Counties Correctional, awaiting the outcome of a long and complicated federal appeal demanding that he be remanded to Washington, D.C., to face a charge that he had conspired to sell national defense information to a foreign nation, specifically China. Apparently the Chinese government had taken the view that the death of their people was an act of aggression on the part of the U.S. intelligence agencies.
The matter was being fought out in various jurisdictions, from the State Department and Justice all the way down to the screamers on talk radio. Kate had followed the ins and outs of the case. She felt it could go either way. Byron might get sent to Cap City for a trial, or he could end up on a plane to Beijing, wrapped in heavy chains.
As for Rainey, his father, Miles, was lying stiff, cold, and dead in the white Greek Revival temple that was the Teague family crypt in the New Hill section of Niceville’s Confederate Cemetery. Miles was on the second shelf from the top, just below an ancestor named Jubal Teague, and across the way from Jubal’s brother, Tyree Teague. Miles had a small mahogany box tucked under his right hand that contained what little they could find of his head.
Jubal and Tyree were the sons of the infamous London Teague.
He -wasn’t there. No one knew where London Teague’s body was. No one cared. He was rumored to have died of syphilis in a brothel in Baton Rouge, or possibly it was Biloxi, a bitter old man given to gin and violence.
London’s son Jubal seemed to have lived an honorable life, serving with distinction as a Confederate cavalry officer during the Civil War, the same war that saw his brother, Tyree, cut down by Union grapeshot at Front Royal.
Jubal Teague went on to become the father of a deeply unpleasant man named Abel Teague. Deeply unpleasant men seemed to reappear in the Teague line fairly often. Like his grandfather London’s, Abel Teague’s body was not in the family crypt either, for roughly the same reasons.
Kate had undertaken an informal study of the Teague line, keeping her interest a secret from Nick, whose instinctive unease around Rainey had, over time, receded, or had appeared to recede. She had no desire to have that unease flare up again. So here she was, standing on the landing, waiting for the last of the Teagues to come down Beauregard Lane. And there they were.
Her heartbeat jumped a groove, like a needle in an old vinyl record, but she calmed herself. Lately she had been doing a lot of that. Two weeks ago, she’d gotten a -heads‑up call from Alice Bayer, Delia Cotton’s -ex--housekeeper. Nick had gotten Alice a job as attendance secretary at Regiopolis.
Alice had called to say that Rainey and Axel had been skipping a lot of classes lately, and she wanted to know if there was anything she could do to help, because “she -really felt for those young men, for what they’d both been through.”
This was very much on -Kate’s mind as she watched the boys coming up the sidewalk. They were wearing baggy gray slacks and white shirts, each with a sky-blue-and-gold-striped tie and a navy blue blazer with a gold pocket crest, a crucifix bound up in roses and thorns, the insignia of Regiopolis Prep. This was the Regiopolis school uniform, a uniform Rainey had worn since he was four, but Axel had only recently acquired.
About Rainey, the Jesuits at Regiopolis Prep and the therapists from the Belfair and Cullen County Child Protection Agency and the doctors and the various law enforcement agencies involved in the Rainey Teague -Case—-it was one of those cases that seemed to demand -capitals—-had all agreed that, after the emotional trauma he had been through, what Rainey Teague needed most was continuity and predictability.
Rainey had grown two inches in the last months, and his physiotherapy had ended weeks ago. Now he was a strong, fit young boy. Axel adored him, as younger brothers sometimes worship older brothers. Axel felt that Rainey could do no wrong. Kate hoped he was right.
Rainey and Axel reached the foot of the steps, heads down, immersed in a low and, from the sound of it, intense conversation, neither of them seeing Kate standing there.
Kate was about to speak when she caught a flash of green over in the square, in a patch of slanting sunlight, by the sparkling fountain.
A woman was standing there, in a white dress, or perhaps a nightgown, looking back at her.
By some trick of the afternoon light through the trees, the air around her had a greenish glow, as if she were standing inside a swirling cloud of emerald sparks. The woman was thin, and looked as if she had been ill for a long time, but she had glossy black hair. Her face looked familiar, as if Kate had seen her once, in a dream, or perhaps an old movie. The woman was very still and seemed to be staring intently at the house.
Kate was overcome with a strong sense of déjà vu. A name floated up into her consciousness.
A tremor ran through her body. Not fear. Painful regret? Vertigo? Was she losing her mind?
Kate lifted a hand to her, and the -woman—-if she was there at -all—-raised her hand in response.
Kate almost called out to her.
A wind stirred the trees around her and the sunlight shimmered into a translucent green shadow and when it steadied again the image was gone.
Kate heard Axel call her name, and when she looked back down at him, he was staring up at her.
Her smile faltered and died away.
“Axel, you look terrible. What happened?”
Axel tilted his head and looked at her through his long brown hair, his eyes dark with anger. His shirttail was hanging out and the knees of his slacks were stained with mud.
Kate came down the stairs and took him by the shoulders. He was vibrating like a plucked string. When he opened his mouth to speak, Kate saw blood on his teeth. She looked over at Rainey, who was standing over Axel with a protective arm laid across the smaller boy’s shoulders.
“He had a fight with Coleman Mauldar,” said Rainey. Kate felt her heart sink.
Coleman Mauldar was the only child of the mayor of Niceville, a jovial and ruthless man whom everybody called Little Rock.
Coleman was barely fourteen, but thanks to the roulette wheel of genetics, sixty pounds heavier and a foot taller than either Rainey or Axel, strong and quick, a gifted athlete, full of charm and mischief. He and his followers, Jay Dials and Owen Coors, had been making Rainey’s school days a misery ever since he had been abducted a year and a half ago. Now that Axel was living with him, Axel was getting his share of the abuse.
“What happened, Rainey?”
Axel wiped his face, straightened his back, cut in before Rainey could speak.
“They were calling him Crypt Boy again. So this time I smacked him one.”
“We got into a fight with them,” said Rainey. “But it -didn’t last long.”
“Father Casey broke it up. He said it -wasn’t fair, because they were bigger than us.”
Axel wiped his nose on his sleeve.
“They’re never gonna stop,” Rainey said. “I’m Crypt Boy and Axel is Cop Killer’s Kid. They followed us home today, calling us names, until we got to the corner there. I wish my dad were here. He would have taken care of them.”
This of course cracked her heart, but she kept it hidden from the boys.
Kate had resolved to talk to the boys about Alice Bayer’s call, about skipping -classes—-this was her main reason for being here today to greet -them—-though what they had just said made it difficult to bring it up right now.
But her sense of injustice was on fire.
Working as a family practice lawyer had brought her in contact with a lot of childish stupidity and meanness, not all of it committed by children.
But when it was . . . Rousseau thought that all children were innocent until corrupted by the adult world. Rousseau was dead wrong.
There was a bit of grave evil in every child, but in a few children, grave evil was all there was and all there ever would be.
People -didn’t like to think this, but in family law, and in -Nick’s world, it was a fact of life. On his own, Jay Dials was a decent kid, from a good -family—-his father owned Billy Dials Town and Country, a building supply store on South -Gwinnett—-and Owen Coors was the son of a state police captain, Marty Coors, a close friend of -Nick’s.
Jay and Owen knew right from wrong well enough. But in -Kate’s opinion, when they got with Coleman, things changed.
Behind his good looks and his cheerful manner, Kate believed, Coleman Mauldar was a sadistic monster, and right at this moment she felt she could do almost anything to him, hurt him badly, just to make him stop.
Axel and Rainey were looking at her and what she was feeling must have been written on her face.
“So if Coleman is bad,” Axel asked, “is it okay to hurt him back?”
I’d love to, Kate was thinking.
“We’re going to have to do something about this. Axel, your mom and I will go have a talk with Father Casey about all of this. In the meantime, both of you come in. We’ll get you cleaned up.”
Axel nodded, seemed to shake off his bad mood. Axel was a resilient kid, in some ways tougher than Rainey. He came up the stairs in a lighter mood.
Rainey stayed down on the street, looking across at the park with the fountain.
Kate, coming up behind him, caught the hunted look in his large brown eyes.
She turned to follow his look, thinking about Coleman Mauldar and his . . . his minions. If they had the nerve to follow him here, if they were loitering in the park over there, they were going to bitterly regret it. They were going to bitterly regret a lot from now on. Kate was going to make a project out of Coleman Mauldar.
“Are you looking for Coleman?”
Rainey looked up at her, his expression blank, and then back out at the square.
“No. I was looking for somebody else.”
“Somebody else? Who?”
“Nobody,” he said, turning away. “Just a person I saw once.”
“In the park over there? Just now? Because I thought I saw a lady in white standing in—”
“No,” said Rainey, slipping away. “It was nobody. Nobody at all.”