It All Falls Down
Rose Gardner Investigations #7
February 9, 2021
The final book of the series
Your turn,” I said, reaching out blindly for Joe in the darkness. My hand connected with his elbow, and I gave him a shove as the baby’s wails grew louder.
He tugged the sheet over his head, but I still heard his muffled response. “I got up last time.”
Had he? I was so sleep deprived I couldn’t be sure, but baby Hope didn’t appreciate our debate and cried even louder.
“I’m so tired I think I might be brain dead,” I groaned as I rolled out of bed and stumbled across the hall to the nursery. Hope had worked herself up to a decibel level that would have been fitting for a fire alarm. My dog, Muffy, was giving me an anxious glare from her new bed next to the crib. The day we brought Hope home from the hospital Muffy had appointed herself my daughter’s guardian, and she rarely left her side.
“It’s okay. Momma’s here,” I said as I reached into the crib and scooped Hope up. “What’s wrong? Are you missin’ us, sweet girl? You just ate.”
Her response was to cry louder. Muffy got out of her bed and gave me a look that begged me to do something.
“Okay. Okay,” I said, soothing them both as I cuddled Hope close to my chest. I sat in the rocking chair and lifted my pajama T-shirt so I could nurse her. She latched on immediately and settled down, putting Muffy at ease. My little dog went back to her bed and resumed her guard post.
Hope nursed for less than five minutes before she dozed off. I was so tired, I leaned the back of my head against the high back of the rocking chair as I fought to stay awake. Between the two of us, Joe and I had been up at least five times tonight—thank God she took bottled breast milk from Joe—but this had become a pattern for the past several nights. Nurse for a few minutes, then fall asleep and wake up soon afterward, wanting to nurse again. We’d moved her from the bassinet next to our bed to her crib in the nursery in the hopes it would help—Joe had to wake up at a specific time for work, and it always roused her, plus he occasionally got work calls or alerts in the middle of the night—but it hadn’t helped.
My head knew she needed to learn to put herself back to sleep, but my heart couldn’t handle letting her cry. Thankfully—or not—Joe felt the same way. There was no question about Muffy’s opinion on the matter.
I must have fallen asleep, because the next thing I knew, Joe was leaning in front of me, his hand on my arm.
“Rose, come to bed,” he whispered.
Hope was in the crook of my arm, fast asleep.
“She’s just gonna wake up again,” I said, so tired I was close to tears. “Maybe I should stay in here.”
“Bring her to bed with us.”
“Back in the bassinet, you mean?”
He cradled my upper arm and gently pulled me out of the rocking chair. “It’ll be more of the same if you put her in there. Let her sleep in the bed tonight. It’s obvious she wants us. She barely takes any milk from either of us before dozing off. Just bring her to bed so we all can get some sleep.”
“But the experts—”
“Screw the experts,” he whispered, wrapping an arm around my back and leading me toward the door. “We need sleep, and I refuse to let her cry, thinkin’ her parents won’t be there when she needs them.”
I couldn’t argue with that, so I didn’t. I felt exactly the same way. Instead, I let him help me into bed. I was scared we would roll over and smother her, so I carefully laid her on the middle of the bed, and Joe put two narrow throw pillows on either side of her.
Muffy hopped up onto the bed, using the bench at the end as a springboard, and curled up into a ball.
Hope started to fuss now that she wasn’t pressed against my body, so Joe lay down on his side facing her. He rested his head on his pillow and placed a hand on her chest. “Daddy’s here, Hope,” he cooed softly. “You’re safe.”
At his touch, her whimpering stopped.
I lay down on my side, facing him in the semi-darkness. My heart melted into a puddle of goo as I saw him looking down at her. His gaze lifted to mine, and I could barely make out his soft smile. “Get some sleep. I’ve got this.”
And he did. He’d been with me every step of the way over the last six weeks. He’d taken a week of vacation on top of his two-week parental leave so he could help with her nightly feedings and make sure I napped during the day. He’d gone with me to her doctor checkups, helped keep her mountain of laundry maintained, taken turns cooking and cleaning, and insisted I leave the house from time to time so I got a break. I had no idea how I would have managed without him.
He’d been back to work for nearly three weeks, and I’d missed him being around so much that I’d started back to work part-time at the landscaping business I co-owned, bringing Hope with me. My business partner, Bruce Wayne, was trying to stay on top of things, but March through June was our busiest time, which meant we were plenty behind. Especially since I wasn’t the only one being pulled in different directions. Neely Kate, my best friend and the third full-time employee in the landscaping business, had just gotten married a matter of weeks ago. Before long, she’d have her own newborn baby—she and Jed were adopting, and their baby’s birth mama was over a week overdue. Babies didn’t stay in the womb forever, though, so it was a matter of days, not weeks. I figured it was best to try to catch up while we could.
The dark and the quiet lulled me back to sleep, and I was deep under by the time a ringing phone jolted me to wakefulness.
“Simmons,” Joe answered quietly in the dark, and I felt the bed shift as he got up and left the room.
Hope whimpered again, so I placed a hand on her stomach. She settled immediately, letting me catch a snippet from Joe’s conversation.
“When was he found?” he asked, then said, “Uh-huh.”
His voice was stiff, and given the way he’d answered the phone and the dark sky beyond the curtains, I knew this was an official call. Something bad had happened in Fenton County, and Chief Deputy Joe Simmons was being called into action.
My heart sank. Other than the usual burglaries and minor assaults, the crime world had been relatively quiet since my niece and nephew’s kidnapping and Hope’s birth.
Six weeks ago, a prepper family—the Collards—had kidnapped the kids for the Hardshaw Group, a crime syndicate from Dallas that was trying to get a foothold in Fenton County. Mike had done some work for them, and they’d felt a powerful interest in keeping him quiet. We still weren’t sure what role he’d played for them and why, let alone for how long, but he’d wanted access to the county courthouse. Vera Pullman, the woman who’d brought me to my niece and nephew—at gunpoint—had told me as much. Mike had gone into hiding after the kids were taken, but he’d reemerged as soon as I found them and marched himself to the state police to tell his side of the story.
I’d gone into labor while helping the kids escape, and Hope had been born in the woods with the help of Tim Dermot, a former nurse and present crime boss. After her traumatic birth, we’d both been admitted to the hospital to recover, and Ashley and Mikey had gone to stay with Mike’s parents. Two days later, they’d disappeared again. According to Mike’s parents, they were with him, and he was in protective custody. Joe had tried to get more details from the state police, but they were tight-lipped, only assuring him that Mike and the kids were safe. No one would tell us anything.
There wasn’t a thing I could do about it, but I knew my sister was likely rolling over in her grave. She’d wanted me to get custody of her kids, which was an impossible request given their father very much wanted them and—until their kidnapping—had been a great father. She’d left me a flash drive in her will, something that would supposedly change everything, but I still didn’t know what was on it, because the sealed manila envelope that held it had been stolen from her attorney’s safe.
I might never see Violet’s kids again. The thought was even more painful because I wanted Hope to know them—and for them to know her.
Joe slipped back into the room, his phone in his hand.
“What’s goin’ on?” I asked softly.
His glance dropped to Hope as he walked around the end of the bed. “I have to go to a crime scene,” he said, stopping next to me.
“A murder?” I wasn’t out of line for asking. Not much else would drag him out before the sun rose.
He grimaced. “They found a body.” But he didn’t admit it was a murder, which meant they were still keeping it under wraps.
“Do you think it has anything to do with James or the Collards?”
While the sheriff’s department had arrested Gerard Collard and two of his sons after a standoff, his son Brox, a man who had helped me on more than one occasion, was missing, and I had a hard time believing he’d been part of their scheme. But Gerard must have a lot of money and/or assets, because he and his sons had posted bail. Then again, I knew he’d been dealing in arms.
And Hope’s biological father, James Malcolm, had been supplying them.
Joe hesitated, then said, “It’s too soon to tell.”
My chest tightened, and I sat up, struggling to draw a breath. “Joe, please be careful.”
He sat down on the edge of the bed, wrapping his arms around me and holding me close. “I will,” he whispered in my ear. “I have too much to lose.”
“Skeeter Malcolm is many things, but stupid isn’t one of them. He’s not gonna kill me.”
“But my vision—”
He pulled back slightly. “Have another.”
I sucked in a breath.
“Have another,” he said, cupping the side of my face.
I was scared to try again. I’d had the first vision the day Hope was born…and twice since. Both repeat visions had shown me the same thing: Joe’s murder by James.
Joe pressed a soft kiss to my lips. “Knowledge is power.”
James had told me the same thing what seemed like a lifetime ago. No matter who said it, there was truth in the statement. I nodded. “Okay.”
Leaning my face into his palm, I reached up and covered his hand with mine, then closed my eyes. Does James shoot Joe?
The vision was immediate. James stood about six feet in front of me, his brown eyes full of hate. “You thought you could take what was mine, Simmons?”
“You could never deserve them, Malcolm,” I snarled in Joe’s voice.
“Maybe not, but neither do you.” Then James pulled the trigger, hitting me square in the chest. A white-hot heat spread through my body, and I fell to the ground.
The vision faded, and I found myself staring into Joe’s worried eyes, my heart pounding so hard I was surprised it didn’t burst out of my chest. “He’s gonna kill you.”
He gave me a tight smile. “No. He’s not. Did you see where we were this time?”
I shook my head as tears stung my eyes. “No. It was dark, so it must have been night, but I couldn’t tell if you were outside.”
“I have no intention of forcing a confrontation with Skeeter Malcolm, inside or out. We’ll figure out how to stop it, so try not to worry.” He gave me a lingering kiss, then stood. “I need to get dressed and head out.”
He made quick work of shaving and putting on his uniform. “You gonna head into the office today?”
“Just for a few hours. Bruce Wayne’s doin’ the best he can, but he’s overwhelmed. His specialty is overseeing installments, not makin’ designs and meetin’ with clients.”
His gaze shifted to Hope.
“We’ll be careful,” I said. “I’ll lock the office door.”
“Okay…” I could tell he wanted to tell me to stay home, but he bit his tongue and trusted me to use my best judgment. He knew I’d never knowingly put our baby in danger. “Check in with me today.”
“And you let me know when you have something you can share.”
He leaned over and kissed Hope on the forehead. Then he stood, gave me another kiss, and walked out the door.
I couldn’t go back to sleep after Joe left. I was too worried about him and what he was investigating. So I moved Hope to her bassinet, shocked when she didn’t wake up, and coerced Muffy to come downstairs and go out to pee. Muffy shot out the back door quickly enough that no one would have guessed she’d been hit by a car a month and a half earlier. It was as if having a new purpose—guarding Hope—had given her a burst of energy. As soon as she did her business, she ran back inside and back up the stairs to the bedroom.
Deciding to take advantage of the quiet, I grabbed my laptop and headed back upstairs and into the small sunroom off my bedroom, which I’d turned into an office so I could be close to Hope while she slept. Being in there made me happy, because so many of the people I loved had worked together to make it special. Joe had made me a desk from an old wooden door he’d found at an auction, and Neely Kate had found a pretty blue rug that popped against the crisp white walls. Bruce Wayne had brought me an ergonomic office chair, and Maeve, who’d been managing the nursery since Violet’s death, had brought in several decor pieces from the shop. We’d hung some curtains and added a chair, and other than the nursery, it had become my favorite part of the house.
The sun began to rise, and the trees behind the barn at the back of my property were suffused with a soft pink glow. It was a beautiful sunrise, but I struggled to enjoy it. My vision of Joe haunted me, and I had a bad feeling the crime scene he was investigating might be the start of something ominous.
I tried to work on a backyard redesign based on the measurements and photos Bruce Wayne had taken during his consultation with the clients, but I was too distracted to focus. I needed to know what was going on, and I knew someone who might be able to tell me.
I got up and peered through the open door to my room to check on Hope. She was still sleeping, and Muffy had resumed her place on the bed. Then I sat in my office chair and tapped out a text to Tim Dermot.
Would you like a home-cooked breakfast and a chance to see your goddaughter?
It was around six, so I didn’t expect an answer for at least another hour or so, but he responded right away.
Will there be three at breakfast or four?
He was asking if Joe would be there.
I wasn’t surprised. Dermot was a big player in the criminal world, although I was still unsure exactly what he did, and I preferred to keep it that way. Plausible deniability and all. But Dermot had helped me out of more than one difficult situation, including delivering Hope under extremely harrowing conditions. I owed the man my life. Joe recognized that fact, but he was still the chief deputy sheriff, so I tried not to put him in awkward situations.
Two until Hope wakes up, which will likely be sooner than later.
Give me an hour. I’m dealing with a situation.
A situation. Did it involve whatever crime had driven Joe out of the house before dawn?
Okay. See you then.
Work was impossible, so I headed into Hope’s room to grab her laundry basket. Although we’d moved the monitor set up to her bedroom, I wasn’t concerned about hearing her once she woke up. She had a set of lungs on her that could be heard throughout the house. I carted her laundry downstairs to the basement and put a load in the washing machine. Just as I was heading back upstairs, I paused. Something didn’t feel right, but I couldn’t pinpoint what it was. It was like something was out of place.
I glanced around the unfinished space, trying to figure out what was making me uneasy, and I realized that some of the boxes along the far wall looked like they’d been moved around. When I’d inherited the house, I’d also inherited boxes of photos and keepsakes that had been stored in the house for decades. Joe and I had been going through them, trying to determine what to keep and what to toss out. It must have been from the last time he was down here.
Feeling more at ease, I headed back upstairs to figure out what to make for breakfast. I got the impression Dermot didn’t cook for himself, so I tried to spoil him on the rare occasions when he ate with me. I decided on waffles, bacon, and fried eggs, and of course, a pot of coffee. I’d started the bacon frying, made the waffle fixings, and set the iron to heating when I heard a soft knock at the back door.
I hurried over and opened the door when I saw Dermot on the stoop. “Something smells good,” he said as he walked inside.
“It’s the bacon. Coffee’s in the pot.”
Dark semi-circles hung under his eyes, and he gave me a weary smile. “I could drink a gallon.”
“I think I’m more rested than you, which is saying something,” I said wryly. “Especially since Hope has decided sleep is for losers.”
He released a laugh and headed to the coffee pot. “I remember those days.” There was plenty of longing in his tone.
Before Hope was born, Dermot had told me that he’d had a wife and children, but he hadn’t said what had become of them, and I hadn’t asked.
“You want to get to business right away or stick to pleasantries for now?” he asked as he poured coffee into a mug I’d left on the counter.
I spread batter into the waffle iron and closed it. “I say we get the business out of the way, then we can do pleasantries when Hope wakes up.”
“Okay,” he said, taking a sip of his coffee, then turning around and leaning his butt against the counter. “I take it Joe isn’t here is because he’s dealing with the murder south of town.”
“So it was a murder?” I asked. “He only told me they found a body.”
One side of his mouth quirked up. “A bullet to the back of the head is usually due to murder.”
A chill ran down my back. “Anyone I might know?”
“It was one of Malcolm’s men, but someone he brought on after the two of you split. I doubt you’d know him.”
James “Skeeter” Malcolm was the king of the crime world in Fenton County, Arkansas. He had a long criminal career, but he’d bought his crown a year and a half ago with my reluctant help. I’d seen his murder in a vision. It had happened at the auction for the top dog position in the Fenton County underworld, and rather than skip the event, he’d insisted I come with him. Since I was dating the assistant district attorney at the time, I’d needed a disguise—a sexy black dress, heels, and a hat with a thick veil to hide my face.
And so the Lady in Black was born.
I’d donned that hat and veil for several months, using my visions to help James figure out who was trying to sabotage him. Although I was helping James, I wasn’t doing it for him; in exchange, he’d agreed to protect my then-boyfriend, Mason (unbeknownst to Mason). But a funny thing happened over those months—James and I had become friends, and we’d stayed friends even after Mason broke up with me, and I (temporarily, it turned out) retired my hat and veil. We continued to be friends for several months, meeting once a week behind the abandoned Sinclair gas station on the west side of town. That was how I discovered something most people didn’t realize about the man most of the county feared. James Malcolm—Skeeter to everyone else—had a good heart.
I hadn’t meant to give him mine.
Our fling had begun with clandestine meetings that were dangerous and seductive and exciting. We would meet at his secret house in the woods south of town and play a beautiful game of pretend. Because James had made it very clear he had no interest in marriage or a family, and I had always dreamed of having both. We weren’t supposed to fall in love, only we had, and it had made everything more complicated.
Then I got pregnant, despite having been careful with birth control, and everything fell apart. He’d given me an ultimatum: him or the baby, but it hadn’t been a choice at all. He’d made his decision the moment he uttered those words.
He’d told me that if I aligned myself with the criminals who were joining forces to keep the Hardshaw Group out of the county, we would be enemies.
So that had been his choice too. Because from what I’d learned, Hardshaw had infiltrated other counties like a disease, bringing in hard drugs and harder people. Having Hardshaw in Fenton County wouldn’t be good for anyone other than the few people it enriched, and I had no intention of allowing them to destroy my home. Hope’s home.
“Any idea who did it?”
“If I had to guess, Denny Carmichael.” He took a sip of his coffee, then added, “I doubt he did it personally. Probably had a goon do it.”
“Do you think Denny is about to make a play for James’ position?”
“Hard to say. It could be that Carmichael found Malcolm’s guy snoopin’ around on his property and decided to teach him a lesson. Could be things are escalating. Carmichael is none too pleased with Malcolm’s involvement with Hardshaw. Maybe he’s acting on that. Especially in light of the news that Hardshaw kidnapped the kids.”
I nodded as I took the last of the bacon out of the skillet and cracked a couple of eggs into the pan. The waffle iron beeped, and I took the first one out, pouring batter for a second.
“You know you can’t tell Simmons any of this, right?” he asked in a nonchalant tone, but there was an edge to his voice.
“I know. What we discuss is purely confidential. Always has been. Always will be.”
He gave me a tight smile. I suspected he understood how hard it was for me to keep secrets from Joe. My life had been full of secrets, and I wanted to be done with them. But I also knew sharing certain things would cause more harm than good.
“Where do you think we stand with Hardshaw’s presence in the county?” I asked.
“Two months ago, I would have said they didn’t have much of one,” he said with a sigh. “Seemed like they’d retreated with their tail between their legs. But their connection to Sonder Tech makes me think they never fully left. Are they lying low, trying to sneak in under the radar? Or are they cleaning up loose ends before they leave town for good? Given their recent troubles with the FBI in Dallas, I suspect it’s the latter. Especially with your brother-in-law turning himself in to the state police.”
Sonder Tech had come to town last fall to open up shop in Henryetta, which seemed strange since most legitimate businesses were hanging shutters and leaving town. But we’d figured out they were tied to Hardshaw, even if the manager hadn’t realized it.
“Which leaves James vulnerable,” I said. “Hence the murder of one of his men.”
He shrugged. “Maybe. Maybe not.”
“But if you had to lean one way or the other…?” I gave him an expectant look.
“I’d say Malcolm best be watching his back.”
My blood turned icy with fear. I’d made my choice, and I didn’t regret it, but I still didn’t want anything to happen to James.
“Have you heard from him since he reached out before Hope’s birth?” Dermot asked.
“No.” James had told me he didn’t want anything to do with the baby, yet he’d refused to sign papers abdicating his claim to paternity…until recently. On the day of Hope’s birth, James had told me he’d sign the papers on two conditions. One, that I stop inquiring about the evidence stolen from Violet’s attorney’s office, and two, that I spend forty-eight hours with him before I gave birth, with no contact with anyone until our time was up.
That hadn’t come to pass, for obvious reasons, and I hadn’t heard from him since then. I had no idea what he’d intended, although Dermot had voiced his suspicions. None of them good.
“Did you find out if he’d tried to hire a midwife?” I asked.
He shook his head. “No. But he could have been planning to take you to Louisiana.”
“Kidnapping me across state lines?” I asked, dubious.
“It wouldn’t have been kidnapping. You would have been gone ‘willingly,’ but it’s all a moot point. It didn’t happen. Still, it’s worrying that we don’t know why he wanted that time with you.”
I just nodded, because he was right, and I’d devoted plenty of worrying to it.
The waffle iron alarm went off again, and I pulled it out and put it on a plate. I added eggs and bacon to each, then brought them back to the table with some utensils.
Glancing around, he said, “Where’s Muffy? I’m surprised she’s not after the bacon.”
I released a laugh. “She’s abandoned me for the baby. She’s her guard dog now.”
He grinned at that, an approving grin, then asked, “How’s it goin’ with the horses? Any trouble with Margi?”
I’d dated Margi’s brother, Levi, briefly, what felt like a million years ago. So I’d understood why she’d been standoffish with me in the beginning, only she’d changed her tune on a dime after learning I had an unused horse barn and pasture. Then she’d treated me like her new best friend, not backing off until I agreed to board her rescue horses.
“No,” I said. “I rarely see her. She has a teenage girl come out to tend to them in the morning, and a woman in her thirties in the afternoons. Margi only comes out when one of them can’t make it.”
He gave a nod, then asked me if I’d been working, frowning when I admitted I had been putting in a few hours a day for the past couple of weeks. He told me that Hope’s birth had been traumatic and I needed to give myself time to heal, but I waved away his concerns, assuring him I was just fine.
I’d eaten half my breakfast when I heard Hope’s cries.
Dermot’s eyes lit up, and I released a laugh. “I’ll go get her.”
Muffy was standing at the edge of my bed, sending me an anxious look when I walked into the room. I scooped Hope up and took her into her room to change her diaper. She stopped crying as she stared up at me.
“Good morning, sweet baby,” I cooed. “Are you ready to see Uncle Dermot?”
She released a gurgling sound that I took for a yes.
When I finished, I picked her up and carried her downstairs with Muffy in tow.
“Look who’s up,” I said as we walked into the kitchen.
Dermot broke into a huge smile, and it struck me that I’d never seen him look so happy.
“Want to hold her?”
He reached for her, then cradled her in his arms.
He’d come to see her twice since her birth. The first time Joe had insisted on being there so he could thank Dermot for saving both of our lives. They’d traded handshakes, Dermot had assured him it had been his pleasure, and Joe had taken off. I knew it was hard for him to have Dermot around. Dermot was a criminal, the very thing he was trying to clean out of the county, and now he felt beholden to him.
I took advantage of Hope being distracted and finished my breakfast, then picked up our empty plates and took them to the sink. Muffy watched Hope vigilantly, but I convinced her to eat her food even though someone other than Mommy or Daddy was holding her charge.
Dermot talked to Hope about the weather, the horses, and her personal guard dog.
He’d held her for nearly ten minutes before she remembered she hadn’t had a full meal in many hours and started to wail.
Dermot laughed and stood. “I think this is the part where you take over. Thanks for breakfast and time with Hope.”
“Of course, Dermot,” I said, getting up too. “You have a standing invitation as far as I’m concerned.”
“Thanks,” he said again with a soft smile, but there was no denying the pain in his eyes. Once again, I wondered what had happened to his family. But he didn’t give me time to ask, even if I’d been inclined. He placed Hope in my arms and walked out the back door.
Continue the rest of It All Falls Down on February 9