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Breaking Point

By Marji Laine

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Chapter One

From her straight-back chair, Alynne Stone kept her eyes trained on the enlarged, black-and-white photograph hanging on the bare wall behind her boss's head. The man's silence unnerved her. She'd half-expected to be congratulated over this morning's casework, but David Fulton appeared more thoughtful than joyful. Almost sullen.

So, the picture was the safer bet. Albeit an unnerving one. The finger of the 1950’s deadly tornado that had ripped apart much of South Dallas reached from a bank of boiling clouds to the ground within a mile of downtown. The black funnel kicked up a cloud of debris made up of homes, cars, and businesses that flew from its base. The sight both excited and terrified her at the same time.

Mr. Fulton smacked his palms on the desktop, making her jump. He wiped the wood with his fingertips almost as if he apologized for the earlier offense. Then he leveled a look on Alynne that she'd seen him use countless times in the courtroom. Only he'd never used it on her.

“This sort of sloppiness is not to be tolerated. You made the entire firm look foolish.”

Sloppy? Her jaw muscle went slack for a moment, and she brushed an errant strand of hair back into her tight, businesslike bun. “I don't understand.”

“Did you think Mr. Brevard would just conjure a beneficial outcome to the lawsuit? Without any evidence or documentation? What happened to the deposition from the man in France?”

Those papers had been included in the packet she'd given the team. And every one of the sheets was formatted, notarized, signed, whatever they had needed. “Mr. Fulton, I'm sure the paperwork was all in order and included in the packet.” Not that she wanted to get Mr. Brevard into any trouble. The man and his wife had been so kind to her—like adopted parents now that her own had moved out to hicksville. She wouldn't hurt him for anything.

“What packet?” He pulled his briefcase to the top of his spotless desk. He winced when he set the case down a little roughly, likely leaving dents in the glossy, walnut finish. “This packet?”

She took the flimsy white envelope that had been considerably thicker this morning. “I don't understand,” she said again. The collection had the same cover sheet and finance report, but the important documents, the ones she'd discovered a few days ago, the ones the case hinged on, were gone. “I had signed testimonials in here, notarized. And Mr. Razier's deposition...”

He rounded the desk and snatched the envelope back. “Where?” He withdrew several pages. “This useless notice of concealment?” He held it out, but when she reached for it, he tossed it on the desk. “These bank statements?” He turned, flinging the pages over his shoulder so that they scattered across the wooden surface. Stopping at the opposite corner, he turned the empty envelope upside down.

Well, not quite empty. The receipt from her Starbucks run a few days ago fell out with another page, and both drifted to the floor near her. Probably got stuck in there as she did her late-night final check. She reached for the receipt on the floor and tucked it into her shoe. No reason to get herself in any deeper with an unintentional reimbursement request.

To cover her movement, she picked up the other page that had slipped out with it and laid it on the desk. “That packet was full, Mr. Fulton. Stuffed. I can't imagine where all those pages went. I personally spoke with the owner of the Hadimon Spa where the other work had broken down. I had pictures and documentation all properly witnessed.”

He stared at her, the lines between his eyebrows deepening. “By the time this reached Mr. Brevard, it was exactly as you see it.”

How could that be? She looked at her boss's normally pristine desk, covered in a chaos of paperwork and an open briefcase. Mr. Fulton's normally meticulous habits had flown out the window with his outrage.

“I don't know what to say. Everything was there when I put it on the file clerk's desk.” Madeline Carson. A pimple inside her ear couldn't annoy her half as much as that competitive shark. Sure, she'd say anything to make Alynne look bad, especially after losing the executive research assistant promotion to her. But she wouldn't have set up their clients to lose such a huge case just to get rid of Alynne. Would she?

“Ah, so now you're blaming your oversight on Miss Carson?” He gripped one hand with the other as if he cracked his knuckles. “I should think you could be more creative in your excuses, Miss Stone.” He leaned over on the wood with his palms stretched wide on the messy surface. Like a panther, he poised before his final attack, unless she did something to offset the knife plunging into her heart. She'd worked way too hard to get where she was to simply sit here and let him lambaste her without a fight.

She stood, her gaze steady on the bridge of the man's nose, a trick she'd learned from her speech teacher in high school. “I'm not blaming anyone, Mr. Fulton. I'm willing to investigate to learn what happened to the file before I start flinging accusations.”

“Take care, young lady.” His lowered voice sounded like the hiss he used in the courtroom, but she would not be intimidated. He appreciated people with passion, willing to take a stand.

And stand she would. She folded her arms. “Mr. Brevard's case should have been easily won with the extra details I was able to unearth. What's more, I have never let a member of your team, nor the clients they represent, down. My reputation here should count for something.”

He lowered himself into his seat, his view not wavering from hers. “How long have you been at Fulton, Brevard, and Sawyer?”

“Seven years.” She answered with a strong tone. She'd been hired straight out of college to this firm by Mr. Brevard himself since he was an acquaintance of her father's. But she'd certainly proved herself worthy of the job. Her work had resulted in millions for their clients and handsome commissions and bonuses for the attorneys and their teams. “And in that time, never once has my work been questioned.”

“So I recall.” He broke eye contact and focused on his messy desk. He picked up some of the scattered papers and stacked them together, popping the edges on the surface.

She braced her hands against her side. He'd used this tactic in court many times, performing some mundane task until the witness was distracted and then hammering home the final deafening blow.

The trick wouldn't work on her. If he was going to fire her, he'd have to look her in the eyes to do so.

He finished repacking the envelope and placed it inside his briefcase. Then the sleek leather case disappeared over the side and landed on the carpet with a muffled thump.

He swiped his hand over the area several times. Several dents and a couple of scratches had appeared where the case had been. Though he’d probably have it buffed and perfect again before Monday, it served him right for wrongly accusing her. Hopefully, he’d figure that out before Monday as well.

How strange to feel embattled against a boss she'd come to appreciate and respect. Even if he didn't fire her, she felt a long, hard cry coming on. The look of disappointment on his face was enough to assure that.

He clasped his hands in front of him and once again looked up at her. “Very well, Miss Stone. We will call this matter closed. I will speak to Brevard and the judge in hopes that a new suit can be filed on behalf of our clients. Of course, another researcher will be placed on the team.”

“I understand.” He could bet she'd be looking into where the mess-up had occurred in this instance. And if Madeline had anything to do with it, she wasn't going to back down from that either.

“I suggest that you make your apologies to Mr. Brevard. He's the one who was made to look the fool and had to listen to a tirade from the clients. Of course, if they sue him, we'll have to take responsibility.”

She wouldn't apologize, not even to Mr. Brevard. Not if it meant taking the responsibility for the error. The envelope, when she’d set it in the organizer, had completely filled one of the folder gaps on Madeline's desk. The envelope he'd just put away was less than a third of what it had been. “I will certainly give my regrets to Mr. Brevard.”

“You do that.”

Dismissal. Finally. Keeping her chin high and her tears at bay, she turned toward his door.

“You know if anything of this sort ever happens again...”

“Yes, sir.” She'd likely be booted without discussion. But it wouldn't happen again. It had better not.

Shutting the door behind her, she rushed past the desk of his administrative assistant. The woman was amazingly efficient, and always so nice. And kindness was the last thing she needed right now. The first sign of sympathy would make her erupt in weak blubbering.

With her eyes locked onto the elevator doors, she strode the length of the hallway with purposeful steps, holding her breath and the welling tears that clouded her vision.

Yet even through the blur, determination to learn the source of the sabotage burned in her soul.

***

“What do you mean he's missing?” Lt. Jason Danvers set his fishing pole aside. Myra Stone wasn't given to panic. He'd never even noticed the lady flustered. Until this phone call.

“I found a note this morning. I thought he'd taken an early walk, but then I saw that his car was gone and found the note taped to the kitchen faucet that he’d gone to the store for some of his hot chocolate.” The older woman's voice broke, though she struggled to lower her volume. “And I called his phone, but it was plugged into the charger in the office.”

He pulled a pad out of his jacket pocket and the stub of a pencil. “When did you see him last?”

“I went to bed last night about eleven. He was watching a baseball game that we'd recorded earlier.”

“And you don't know when he left?” Who ventured out in the middle of the night for a silly can of cocoa? Jason jotted the quick details in case he needed to remember them later.

“No. I didn’t hear him leave, and didn’t… Oh, dear.” She was losing control.

“Myra, I'll call Chief Tate, and we'll start a search.” He needed to do better than that if he wanted to settle her tension. “He probably ran out of gas or maybe had a flat. With no phone, he couldn't very well call for help.”

She stayed silent for a moment. “Yes. I'm sure you're right about that. Please find him for me.”

Her plea ripped at a piece of his heart. He ended the call and reeled in his empty line. He'd pack stuff up later. Palming his phone, he jogged to his black Jeep and climbed in.

Pulling onto the gravel road that ran alongside this forgotten branch of Grayson Lake, he called Heath's Point Chief of Police and filled him in on the details. “I'm north of town, but I can swing west a few miles and try some of the back roads from Dallas.” That late at night, Ellis would have had to go into the city or at least the suburbs to find his favorite chocolate powder.

“You take that side, and I'll check in town for his car.” Chief Dell Tate's normally gruff voice held a tone of worry. “Chances are he came in for donuts or something and just forgot to pick up the note he'd left before going fishing or something.”

Reasonable. But Jason would still feel better when they found the man. He turned onto the county road and tuned in his police radio. He tried to keep the darn thing off on his free days, but this situation warranted his monitoring the feed. Setting it to scan the local agencies, he tried to relax. Ellis Stone would be found. He'd be fine. This would be a non-issue.

But something in his gut argued against all of that.

God, please, calm Myra right now. Help us find Ellis, so she doesn't have to worry.

The Lord knew where Ellis was. Given a little time, He'd allow Jason or Dell to find him. And Jason had the time—part of the charm of working for a small-town police department. The fish probably wouldn't even know they'd been stood up.

He traversed one country road after another, each slick and shiny from the overnight rains, but found no little white sedan stopped alongside the asphalt.

“Cruiser 10, single vehicle accident near Farm-to-Market 457.” His gut clenched with the call from the county dispatcher. But there was no reason to assume that Ellis had an accident.

Still, he wasn't far from the area. He'd travel that direction if only to get a look at the vehicle and ease his mind that it wasn't Ellis. Jason glanced at his dashboard clock. Almost ten. He'd have been tired of fishing by now anyway.

His cell buzzed from the pocket of his gray-green shirt. “Danvers.”
“You hear that call?” His superior's gruff voice barely echoed over the background sounds of his noisy patrol car.

“Yes, sir. I'm already headed in that direction.” Thankfully, he hadn't picked up his cruiser. Nothing official. Maybe the deputy he always seemed to butt heads with wouldn't be too hostile toward him since he wasn't in the uniform or the painted car.

“I'll meet you there.” Chief Tate snorted. “Those county boys don't like you much.”

“I know how to play nice.” Too bad the sheriff's office treated every accident and crime as some sort of competition with all the local agencies. “Besides, they don't like you either.” Antagonizing them didn't take much.

“That's because they think I'll toss my hat in the ring for sheriff someday.”

Sheriff Beauregard Kindrich had been in charge of the county for almost two decades, and he wasn't about to relinquish his power to anyone. Especially not to Chief Dell Tate, fifteen years younger than Kindrich and exponentially better at his job. Tate had hinted more than once—even within the sheriff's hearing—that he might like to run for the elected position.

The chief scoffed. “But they still don't dare shove me around like they do you.”

Who would shove a rattler with his bare hands? Jason kept the image to himself. After all, he was still the newcomer to the HPPD, only here for a few years. An outsider to many people, even in town but especially to the sheriff and his deputies. “I'll stay out of sight until you arrive, then.”

He turned onto County Road 457, a narrow, asphalt road still glistening in the morning sunlight. This wouldn't have been a direct route to the store that Myra claimed her husband visited, but it might have been his choice to avoid the more direct route, which often flooded in a heavy sprinkle.

After following it for a few miles without spotting anything, he resisted the urge to turn off and head for Myra's place, Sunrise Inn. Maybe Ellis had returned home by now.

Cresting another hill, he sighted a small gathering of county cruisers. Looked like he'd located their accident. He pulled off the road some distance from the other vehicles. No need to poke the brown bears, as the local police tended to call them.

Jason did a quick, three-point turn and found a wide area on the other side where he could park. He jogged back to the curve and stood at the crest of the hill overlooking a sorghum field which was soggy from last night's showers. Sounded like the entire sheriff's department was down there except for one sad lackey on the far side of the curve who'd been stuck with traffic duty.

From his position, Jason couldn't see any accident. The curve jutted out a bit, blocking his view. But he could hear the men talking. Unfortunately, one voice rang out above the others.

Deputy Martin Cain. The man practically worshiped at the feet of the sheriff, probably in hopes of being his successor someday. Cain, one of the senior deputies, had probably taken charge of the scene.

Jason wouldn't get a blade of grass from that guy.

Before the traffic lackey turned toward him, Jason eyed the incline off the side of the road. Steep, but with little flat areas spaced at good intervals. Jason dropped off the edge of the embankment and cut downhill to a grove of leafy cottonwoods on the edge of the sorghum field. If Deputy Cain searched, he might distinguish Jason's pale mossy shirt or his light tan hat in the undergrowth, but Cain missed more than he caught.

Jason had a clear view of a white sedan resting on its roof in the gully at the edge of the field.

A sick feeling punched his gut. He'd held out hope for any other color. But even so, this was East Texas. Every third vehicle was white to reflect the blistering, summer sun.

None of the county people seemed to be moving very fast. He wanted to believe that they’d already transported the injured driver away, but he knew better. This was a new scene. The fact that they weren’t moving could only mean one thing. Someone was dead. No need to hurry. Even after almost a decade of law enforcement, he'd never gotten used to seeing the dead. Especially after what had happened to him in Chicago.

But even without that tragedy, he couldn't fathom how law enforcement professionals were supposed to simply shrug off the ending of a life, callously discarding the dreams and potential of the victim? That went for any victim, but especially for a nice, old man who had made Jason a member of the family, welcoming him with a goodhearted laugh and a firm handshake.

Not that the driver was Ellis. Maybe Chief Tate had found him by now. Jason pulled out his phone and texted in order to keep things quiet. “Found the accident. Deputy Cain's in charge. White car. Tell me you’ve found Ellis.” With nothing to do except wait for his boss’s response, he picked a wide leaf from a nearby branch and absently tore it into thin strips while he listened to the discussions from those at the scene.

“Been dead since about midnight, if I had to guess.” The county coroner, Dr. Barnes, was a plumpish, middle-aged man with dark hair under his trademark Texas Rangers Baseball cap.

“Don't want chur guessing Charlie. I could do that misself.” Deputy Cain didn't tend to make friends even within his department.

“Medical Examiner'll get closer.” The coroner pulled off the cap, scratched his bald spot, and put the cap back on. “Take a while to hear from him.”

“Un-Ax-ceptable.” Cain's volume rose. “This case'll be wrapped up with a bow by Sunday's paper.”

Two days? Cain was dreaming. This was probably a simple accident, but the county ME, Doc Umbridge, wouldn't even see the data before sometime next week. Maybe the week after if he was busy.

“Like I said....” The coroner looked meek and amiable, but he had enough gusto to stand up to Deputy Martin Cain. “'Bout midnight. Maybe one. Best guess you'll get it for Sunday's paper.”

Jason edged to the right, staying in the tree line but hoping to get a view of the driver. He spotted the chief’s cruiser coming around the bend.

Good, he'd get some answers.

The county crime scene investigators measured, marked, and photographed every aspect of the scene. Cain stood to one side with his arms folded.

“What you got going on down here, Cain?” The chief made his way down the hill, and his booming voice seemed to fill the entire valley.

“Nothing you LEOs need to worry about.” Cain might have jurisdiction over the Local Enforcement Officers, but he had no sense when it came to talking to the chief.

Jason strode from his camouflage and climbed through the slats of the fence. “I should think after all the help we gave the county a few months ago, during those drug raids, that Deputy Cain would at least extend respect, Chief.”

“Great, so the outsider is here, too.” Cain glared at Jason.

“The important people show respect, Jason. Others show immaturity.” The chief sniffed in Cain's direction as he rounded the car.

Jason joined the county coroner who stood taking notes in a little booklet. “One occupant?”

The coroner didn't even glance at Cain's thundercloud face before nodding. “Late sixties, maybe earlier seventies.”

Not what Jason wanted to hear.

“And that ain't none of their business, Charlie.” Cain stepped between the two, bending over the shorter coroner as if chastising an errant youth.

Dell scratched at his whitish beard. “Son, you need to learn how to work and play nice with others.”

The coroner snickered.

Dell continued, laying his palm on the deputy's shoulder. “Normal for a cop like Jason to be concerned about something like this.”

“He ain't got no jurisdiction here.” Cain used that mantra like a business card. “And neither do you.”

“Shoot, son. Just because a career officer is hanging around don't mean he wants to take over. Stop getting your shorts in a wad about a fight that ain't even there.” Dell's comment raised a rumble of chuckles from the others working the scene and a couple of firemen sent to retrieve the body.

The chief bent over to peer through the shattered back glass. “So. This Ellis Stone's car?”

Jason's gut twisted. Someone say no. It belonged to some stranger.

This time the coroner glanced at Cain. The deputy shook his head, but the older man turned toward Dell. “You recognize the man's car in this condition?”

“Good friend.” Dell's tone lowered.

To both of them. The knot in Jason's gut tightened. He squatted, avoiding the view of the man hunched against the passenger window.

“I'm sorry, Chief. Wallet belongs to Ellis Stone. Picture matches.” The coroner continued to speak about details to the chief and the deputy. Jason stopped listening.

Victim. Ellis was the victim. And Jason needed to see him in that way to stay detached enough to let his observations connect.

He glanced around the interior of the car. No wires on the accelerator. The car was in gear. The victim wasn't belted into the seat. That was strange. Ellis was always automatic in buckling his seatbelt. His blue jeans were soaking wet in places.

Jason put a knee down in the wet grass.

“Keep your fingerprints to yourself, Danvers.” Cain stepped around the car from the other direction.

“Just making observations.”

The chief knelt beside him. “Awful way to go.”

Jason pointed to a puddle of water that soaked the headliner. “Where did all that water come from?”

“It rained last night, of course.” Cain hadn't bothered to get a glimpse of it for himself. He would've seen how unlikely that was.

“Didn't rain that hard last night. Less than a quarter-inch.” The chief stood and pointed it out to the coroner.

The man bent down next to Jason. “I'm not an investigator, but it looks strange to me.” He turned to Cain. “You should make a note. There's almost an inch of water pooling near the dome light.” He stood and looked expectantly at Cain.

“This is a waste of time.” But the deputy pulled out his tablet and tapped a few keys.

“Maybe.” Jason took another look, particularly scanning the backseat. A smashed Whataburger cup was near the back window. A discarded receipt with a burger wrapper was near it. “Maybe not. You going to collect all of the items in the car?” Jason stood.

“This is an accident scene, Lieutenant.” Cain narrowed the gap between them, elbows back like a banty rooster and staring up from the height of Jason's chin. “And this ain't none of your business.”

Jason stood firm, looking over the man's head at the chief.

The older man patted Cain on the shoulder. “There's no call for that, son. Procedure says you collect everything from the scene, even of an accident. Insurance, you know.” He patted him again, persuading him to turn away from Jason. “And I tell you what, you make sure all of those little details get collected and we get access to them, and we'll go tell the family about their loss.”

Cain huffed, but released his attitude. “The sheriff will appreciate that, Chief.”

“Of course.” Dell eyed the junior bear. “Rather it come from me.”

“Sorry for your loss.” To Cain's credit, he delivered the blow with a semblance of regret instead of a victory dance. “If it's any comfort, he went quickly.”

The coroner chimed in. “Broken neck, head wounds. Didn't have time to even be afraid.”

“Probably saw the Lord before he even saw the ground.” Leave it to Dell to put things into perspective, but that wouldn't make the loss any easier. He nodded at the two men. “Jason and I will break the news to his wife.”

Cain nodded then raised one eyebrow. “But you'll need to contact the sheriff right after you've spoken to her and let him announce it to the media.”

So much for Cain's credit. His intention to use Ellis's death to secure voters for the sheriff left a putrid taste in Jason's mouth.

Dell lifted his eyes heavenward but agreed and gestured for Jason to join him on a trek back toward the road.

“Not the way I'd hoped to find Ellis.” Jason dug his hiking boots into the soft dirt of the incline.

“Me neither, though I'd never known the man to disappear. Knew something had happened.” He fingered his tuft of beard again above his light-blue uniform shirt. “I hate what this is gonna do to Myra.”

“Especially with no family around.” Though they had a daughter, maybe two, he'd never met them. Myra's closest friend, Cat Alexander, was out of town. “Should we let Cat and Ray know?”

“No. they deserve to finish their honeymoon in ignorant bliss.” Dell shot him a look. “And until they get back, we'll make sure Myra has plenty of help and support, starting with you taking her out to Howie-Mem to wait for her husband's body.”

Howerton Memorial Hospital served as a temporary morgue until the county could build one of their own. “I'll take care of her.” Jason ached for Myra. Losing a soulmate was hard enough without having to go through the loss all alone. He knew the feeling well.

A position he'd vowed to never relive.

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