Authors: Carys Jones
Aiden Connelly’s first case…
Lawyer Aiden Connelly has traded the frenzy of Chicago for a slower pace in sleepy Avalon – and his first case appears to be as open-and-shut as he could hope for. Hired to defend a local ex-beauty queen accused of murdering her husband, he’s confident that he’ll have the case closed in record time. But below the surface lurks a darker truth…
Will be one he’ll never forget.
Suddenly, a quiet backwater has transformed into a dangerous pressure cooker. In a town where everyone knows everyone, gathering evidence should be easy… but the harder Aiden searches, the more he appreciates how tangled this net of loyalties is. And as he digs deeper, Aiden begins to realise that his very first case in Avalon could be the beginning of his undoing…
First to Fall
Chapter One: Welcome to Avalon
Chapter Two: First Encounters
Chapter Three: Little Miss Southern Star
Chapter Four: He’s Our Hero
Chapter Five: It Will Be All White
Chapter Six: Superhuman?
Chapter Seven: Shattered Glass
Chapter Eight: Unhappy Families
Chapter Nine: Don’t Be Fooled
Chapter Ten: Father, Can You Hear Me?
Chapter Eleven: People in Glass Houses
Chapter Twelve: Let God Be the Judge
Chapter Thirteen: Unlucky for Some
CARYS JONESloves nothing more than to write and create stories which ignite the reader’s imagination. Based in Shropshire, England, Carys lives with her husband, two guinea pigs and her adored canine companion Rollo. When she’s not writing, Carys likes to indulge her inner geek by watching science fiction films or playing video games. She lists John Green, Jodi Picoult and Virginia Andrews as her favourite authors and draws inspiration for her own work from anything and everything. To Carys, there is no greater feeling than when you lose yourself in a great story and it is that feeling of ultimate escapism which she tries to bring to her books.
For my number one fan; my Dad
Chapter One: Welcome to Avalon
The dusty road lay empty before him in the fading light. Aiden Connelly rubbed his eyes wearily wondering just how much of his journey was left. Behind him, his little angel, Meegan, slept soundly, oblivious to the dramatic change her life was currently undergoing. His wife stirred in her sleep and Aiden could not help but smile at her tangle of mahogany curls splayed widely around her head. She was usually so immaculate, yet in the throes of sleep she had wrestled around on the uncomfortable seat of the rented car and now resembled a wild woman. This was how Aiden liked his wife, Isla, best. Relaxed, carefree. For so long they had both been so consumed by everything. Even the birth of Meegan had felt like yet another chore, something else to be responsible for, rather than the joy that it should have brought them.
That was why they were here, now. Travelling down an old highway that seemed to be leading them into the middle of nowhere. In reality it was taking them away from it all: the stress, the chaos, the ridiculous pace of the city to a new, quieter life. It was what they needed. Aiden could feel himself becoming a stranger to his family; the hours he needed to spend at the office were increasing daily and he had begun to question his motives in life and the choices he had made. Initially he got into law for the money, but as he progressed through the course he developed a passion for it. Two years working for one of the most prestigious law firms in Chicago was slowly sucking any positive feeling he had had towards his job out of him. He dealt with high-profile cases, they lived in a beautiful penthouse, but Aiden was in serious danger of having no soul.
‘The rat race isn’t for everyone,’ his late father had advised him. ‘Happiness is true wealth.’ It was rather cliché but Aiden could not help but be inspired by the old man’s words. He had grown up in the country, on a farm, and had only happy memories of his childhood. He wanted the same for Meegan. Finding another job was easy considering his previous experience; convincing Isla was the hard part. She loved living in the city, she was always shopping and lunching with friends. As Aiden had pointed out to her, her first love, art, had taken a back seat over the past few years. She had not painted a thing since three summers ago. Admittedly, she had been preoccupied with the arrival of Meegan, but still… Aiden helped her realise that a clean break was what they all needed, surrounded by nature she would undoubtedly be inspired and start painting again in no time.
Dusk was fast turning into night as the headlights of the rented car gleamed upon the approaching roadside.
Avalon – 20 miles
‘Not far now,’ Aiden said aloud.
‘Huh?’ Isla stirred, awoken by his voice.
‘Not far now, honey. We will soon be in Avalon.’
‘Oh good,’ she yawned. ‘I’m really tired.’
‘Tired? You’ve been asleep for half of the journey!’
‘You try sleeping on these chairs; it’s like lying on a rock!’ She snapped her visor down and studied her reflection. ‘Ugh, just look at my hair. Thank God it will be dark when we arrive.’ She turned to check their daughter. ‘Has Meegan been asleep this whole time?’
The couple smiled at one another. It felt good. Aiden dared himself to hope that this was all going to be the start of something wonderful.
Less than an hour later the Connelly family pulled into the driveway of their new home. After driving down what Aiden had assumed was the high street, he had quickly located his new neighbourhood. Avalon was a small, sparse town; he had only spotted one convenience store, along with two churches, a hair salon, a doctor’s surgery and a florist. From various flyers dotted around he had quickly assessed that there was a high school nearby with an impending football match that was obviously of great importance to the community. Given that they didn’t seem to have much else going on this did not surprise him. He had yet to locate his new offices, Cope and May Solicitors at Law, but he had a few days yet before he had to start work so that could wait. Given the size of Avalon he doubted that they would be far away.
‘Well…it’s quaint.’ Isla stood surveying the wooden one-storey property before her. It had certainly seen better days. Like an ageing movie star, if you looked hard enough you could still see the glimmer of something special, that many years ago it had been something magnificent, but now the years had performed their devastating trick and what was once glorious was now faded and lacklustre. Isla imagined that the house had once been a beautiful blue, as bright and wonderful as a summer’s day, but that blue had dulled to a sad shade of grey. The white of the windows had yellowed and the front lawn exposed more dirt than grass. It really was a far cry from the modern, immaculate penthouse she had left behind. It was all she could do not to burst into tears. She hoped that tomorrow things might seem brighter but she knew that in the harsh light of day even more flaws would be exposed to her. This was Aiden’s dream, not hers. But she loved him, and she loved Meegan. In her heart she knew that this had to work, it was their last chance.
‘It certainly has character.’ Aiden wrapped a strong arm around his wife’s delicate shoulders. Instinctively she leant into him.
‘You can paint the house, decorate it inside. Do whatever you like. Just think how great it will feel to be doing something creative again.’
‘And the garden?’
‘Well, now I’m working less I’ll do the garden up a real treat. Get a jungle gym for Meegan, maybe a small pond for you. You’ve always been saying how you would love to have some fish, that you find water soothing.’
Isla smiled, and it was genuine. She could feel the clean air of Avalon filling up her lungs and it felt good. Above her the night sky sparkled and she was amazed at how many stars she could see.
‘I think we can make this work,’ she told her husband hopefully.
‘I know we can, hun. You, me and Meegan, it will be wonderful.’
‘Dada,’ Meegan called from the car, the cool breeze from the open doors awakening her from her slumber.
‘Hey princess,’ Aiden cooed as he lifted her from her car seat. ‘Do you like your new home?’ He turned the tiny toddler to face the house and she rubbed her hazel eyes.
‘Night, night,’ she murmured grumpily, indicating that she wanted to sleep.
‘I second that,’ Isla yawned.
‘Hopefully the movers put everything in the right place.’
Aiden lay in bed counting the cracks on the ceiling. Isla was already fast asleep. The gentle hum of crickets gave a comforting soundtrack to his muddle of thoughts. The house needed a lot of work, the realtor had been very clear about that and he wasn’t lying. The profit they had made on the penthouse would more than cover any costs for maintenance work. Before she had slipped into that oh-so-wonderful world of dreams, Isla had asked him why he had chosen to move to Avalon of all the towns in America. She had drifted to sleep before he could respond, and lying awake next to her, a good hour later, he was still struggling to find an answer.
After three days of intense unpacking, Aiden pulled up outside Cope and May Solicitors at Law. It hadn’t taken him long to locate the modest office since Avalon was so small and it was the only local law firm. Two days previous he had enquired about his future workplace whilst buying groceries and the clerk had been more than helpful, informing him how the business was once run by Edmond Cope and Howard May, but since Howard’s death three years ago Edmond had been going it alone. Apparently he managed fine at first but even a town as small as Avalon has its fair share of legal affairs that needed tending to so, apparently reluctantly, he had advertised for a new partner. This revelation made Aiden a little anxious; Mr. Cope probably had his own way of doing things and would no doubt take all the better cases for himself. Assuming there were any cases at all. Even though he had been there for just a few days, Aiden was already noticing that the pace of life in Avalon was remarkably slow, it was the kind of place where you didn’t bother locking your doors and would happily let your kids play out on the front lawn.
Cope and May was located between Smith’s Pharmacy and Redd Books. In total his journey to work had taken him about ten minutes. Aiden liked the thought of being able to go home for dinner, in Chicago his commute had taken two hours in total. At night he was almost always too exhausted to do anything besides collapse on his bed. Most nights he came home way past Meegan’s bedtime, much to Isla’s annoyance. The past three nights, being there to bath his little girl and read her a goodnight story had been amazing. He had no idea how much he had been missing out on and sacrificing for his job. Even though he knew that working in Avalon would be worlds away from what he was used to, he knew that he was already reaping the benefits. Taking a deep breath he braced himself and walked through the glass front door to the cheerful chimes of a small bell.
‘Good morning,’ a cheerful elderly lady seated at a mahogany desk along the far wall greeted him. Her ashen hair sat atop her wrinkled face like a giant choux bun. Her small frame was adorned with a tight, crisp, white shirt and her glasses hung down from a chain around her neck. The words ‘prim and proper’ sprang to Aiden’s mind.
‘Well good morning, I’m Aiden Connelly.’
‘Ah, Mr. Connelly. How lovely to meet you! I’m Betty Hales, I’ve been secretary here for the past twenty years. Oh, it is most exciting to have you here working with us. Please, do take a seat, I’ll let Edmond, Mr. Cope, know that you are here.’
Aiden obliged and settled himself on one of the two battered leather couches that occupied the waiting room. There was a coffee table littered with magazines, ranging fromHorse and HoundtoVogue, all clearly out of date. The hardwood flooring was surprisingly tasteful and the walls were painted a calming pale shade of green. Aiden guessed that the room had recently been decorated, leaving the ancient-seeming furniture, including the leather couches, one of which he was rapidly sinking into. He hoisted himself up using the arm into a less comfortable-looking position.
‘Oh, Mr. Cope.’ Betty had pressed the intercom on her desk. ‘I have Mr. Connelly for you.’
‘Send him in.’
‘In you go then, dear. Best of luck,’ she smiled. Aiden nodded and lifted himself up from the absorbing couch and entered the door beside Betty’s desk, which he assumed was the office as the only other door in the room was marked ‘lavatory’.
The main office was a large room, painted in the same soothing green as the waiting area. Two large desks with computers occupied a majority of the space and numerous filing cabinets lined two of the walls. The desk nearest to the door was immaculate whilst the other was awash with papers and files. A man hastily got up from the cluttered desk and quickly smoothed down his blue shirt.
Edmond Cope was getting on in years. As his hairline decreased his waistline had expanded until now he was basically bald and quite rotund. It was common knowledge that he enjoyed his drink; if Aiden played his cards right he would learn of the generous amount of liquor the old man kept in his desk drawer. It had been common practice for himself and his old partner, Howard May, to indulge in an afternoon tipple when work was slow. Since Howard’s death, the afternoon tipple had increased to occasionally include mornings too. Three years was a long time to be in an office alone and Edmond was a sociable man. He loved nothing more than entertaining his large family at his equally large home. In all honesty he had opened up the position for a new partner out of loneliness rather than necessity. When he read Aiden’s profile he could scarcely believe his luck: a young hotshot lawyer wanting to work in Avalon? With his pending retirement looming he was hoping that Aiden may well indeed be someone who could take over the business. But this was all jumping the gun somewhat. Edmond stuck out his podgy hand and Aiden shook it enthusiastically.
‘Edmond Cope, welcome, welcome!’
‘Thank you, Mr. Cope.’
‘Please, Edmond, Mr. Cope was my father! Your desk is there, my boy, do take time to familiarise yourself with it. The computer is all set up, she may not look it but Betty is a whiz with technology!’
Aiden smiled but was inwardly flinching at the ‘my boy’ comment.
‘I would give you a tour of the place but there isn’t much to see. There is the waiting area where Betty is, the toilets and here, the epicentre of it all! I expect you are used to much bigger places but this serves us all right.’
‘Bigger is not always better.’
‘True, true. So…’ Edmond was still standing in the centre of the room, his ample chest puffed out in an attitude of grandeur. ‘Cope and May has been serving the legal needs of Avalon for a good thirty years come this fall. I myself founded the company, along with my dear friend and colleague Howard May, God rest his soul. We went to college together you see, studied law, wanted to make a change and that. We thought about going to work in the city but were perhaps too attached to our families and whatnot to leave. But the town has been good to us; we are never short of work.’
‘Glad to hear it.’
‘That was why the position of partner came up. I was getting bogged down by it all, some days I wasn’t getting home until 6pm! The wife said enough is enough! I work to live, I don’t live to work. You know, son?’
‘I hear you loud and clear.’
‘Good, good.’ Edmond now settled himself once more at his desk.
‘When I read your profile I knew you could handle things here. It will most likely seem a doddle compared to what you had to deal with in the city. The thing is to remember that Avalon is full of good people, for the most part. There is the odd bad apple but most cases are property disputes, drunken brawls, that kind of thing. Nothing too wayward. It may seem menial at times but it is ultimately rewarding. Like I said, it is a town full of good people and they are always more than grateful for our help. Only the other day Mrs. McKenzie from the small farm down the road sent me a basket of lovely apples to thank me for helping her husband when he got sentenced a DUI.’
‘We get a lot of DUIs. Folk just don’t think, but we have a good relationship with the local law enforcement who keeps us up to speed on things. Buck Fern is the local sheriff and has been as long as I can remember. Straight as an arrow that man. Folks round her respect him and that’s important in keeping the peace and all that. I’ll get him to pop by later this week; no doubt he’ll be keen to meet you.’
‘Yes, of course.’
‘You got family, Mr. Connelly?’
‘Yes, a wife and daughter.’ Aiden’s reply clearly pleased Edmond. ‘And please, call me Aiden,’ he added.
‘Well Aiden, how old is your little ray of sunshine?’
‘Meegan turns two next month.’
‘Two, how wonderful! My grandson Grant was two just last week. Lovely age. Well, I suppose I need to stop smacking my gums with you and get down to working. We are starting to sound like a couple of hens with our cackling!’
Aiden could feel himself warming towards the old man. You couldn’t help but like him.
‘But first things first, you cannot work without coffee.’ Edmond pressed the intercom on his desk. ‘Betty, my dear.’
‘Yes, Mr. Cope.’ Her response came back crackly through the machine.
‘Can we have two coffees?’ To Aiden he whispered, ‘You do drink coffee, son?’ Aiden nodded. ‘Yes, two coffees please, Betty.’
‘Thank you, my dear.’
After Betty has bustled in with two steaming coffees and a plate of biscuits, Edmond handed Aiden a thin brown file. On the front it read:
Case no. 2315
Aiden assumed it was a routine DUI and was about to read the notes when Edmond stopped him.
‘Now that there is an unusual case. It is pretty much open, shut, not much to be done. I’m giving it to you as I thought you would have experience in that sort of thing, and being new to town, folk might not want you delving into their personal matters quite so fast.’
Intrigued, Aiden opened the file.
‘A murder case?’ He could not conceal his shock. A shiver of excitement ran down his spine. He was prepared to deal with domestic disputes, unruly neighbours, but a murder! This was legal gold!
‘Don’t get too excited there, Aiden. Like I said, open, shut. Mrs.White is a resident here in Avalon, we represent her as an obligation, not through choice. She has already confessed to the crime and is awaiting sentencing over at Eastham Ladies Penitentiary, about twenty miles east of here.’
‘I see,’ Aiden muttered, his eyes scanning the records before him.
‘She murdered her husband in cold blood, terrible matter. Shook the town to its core. He was a beloved town hero. She must have been possessed by the devil himself to do such a thing.’
‘When is the hearing?’
‘Three weeks from now. You just need to go over, give her legal support, explain what will likely occur after her guilty plea.’
‘So, she is down for first degree murder?’
‘So under state law…?’
‘It will be the death penalty, son. No messing about here.’
‘My God, she’s only twenty-four.’
‘It ain’t pretty, son. Murder never is. If you feel this case is a little too heavy for you, just say. Personally, I knew Brandon and know his father well, we go to the same church. It wouldn’t feel right representing Mrs. White myself. I’m sure you understand.’
‘That is the downside of working in such a small town. You know pretty much everyone who walks through them doors and it is hard not to be attached or emotionally involved. Especially this case. Everyone round here is still reeling from it all.’
‘Any idea why she did it?’
‘None at all. As her lawyer I guess it is your job to suss that out. That’s if you want the case?’
‘Yeah, yes, of course! I dealt with a lot of murder suspects in Chicago so it is not a problem at all.’
‘Well then, I most heartily welcome you to Cope and May Solicitors at Law. May we enjoy a long and prosperous working relationship together.’ Edmond raised his coffee mug in celebration, as did Aiden. In his mind, Edmond was all too aware of the bottle of sweet, sweet liquor nestling just inches from him but reasoned it was too early on in his relationship with Aiden to break it out, even when a toast was in order. Besides, it was only half past nine in the morning. To drink before noon was something only winos did.
Aiden spent the rest of the day researching the Brandy White case. Edmond had been right when he had said that it was open, shut. Mrs. White had confessed to the murder of her husband almost immediately, in fact she had been the one who had dialled 911. He had seen this kind of thing before, domestic argument gotten out of hand. They had only intended to fire a warning shot. The police report made for chilling reading: Mr. White had been stabbed in the chest six times. Mrs. White was apparently covered in his blood and hysterical when police arrived at the scene. Aiden made a call to Eastham to arrange a visit for the following day.
It was early afternoon and Aiden felt that he was all wrapped up with his work and prepared for his visit to Brandy the next day. Edmond must have sensed this as at 2pm he looked over from his desk. He had been typing furiously at his computer pretty much all day, apart from the occasional call to Betty for coffee.
‘Fancy calling it a day, Aiden? I’ve got Mr. and Mrs. Johnson in here this afternoon to discuss setting up a will so I’ll be needing the office to myself anyways.’
‘Only if you are sure?’
‘Yes, its fine. There are no strict hours here, just get the work done. So you are popping over to Eastham tomorrow?’
‘I like your style, just dive right in. If you could pop by on your way back, just to report in and that?’
‘Wonderful. Betty has some directions to Eastham in her desk, I’m sure she won’t mind fishing those out for you.’
Aiden said his goodbyes, gathered up his briefcase and jacket and went out to talk to Betty. Left alone, Edmond felt that he more than deserved the small drink which he was already pouring for himself.
‘Terrible business.’ Betty was shaking her head as she riffled through her drawer looking for the directions. ‘He was a lovely young man, so handsome. And she…well, beauty clearly is more than skin deep. Ah, here it is.’ She handed Aiden a crumpled piece of typed paper with a faded map on the back. ‘I’m sorry it isn’t very clear, dear. We rarely have the need to visit the Ladies’ prison you see. Usually the men making all the trouble, no offence.’
‘If you get stranded just give me a call, I’ve lived here all my life and know my way around Avalon like the back of my hand.’
‘Thanks, I will.’
‘Well, best of luck with your first case, Mr. Connelly. Not that you’ll need it.’
‘Thank you, Betty.’
Aiden was satisfied with his first day at work. He had a decent case; he was leaving at a very reasonable hour. He couldn’t wait to get home and spend the evening with his wife and daughter.
‘Well, I could certainly get used to this!’ Isla exclaimed as her husband entered the kitchen at 2.30pm. ‘On work days I’m not used to seeing you during daylight hours!’
‘I know, great isn’t it?’ Aiden beamed as he kissed his wife on the cheek. ‘And how is Daddy’s favourite girl?’ Meegan was sat in her high chair and squealed with excitement when she saw Aiden.
‘She’s been helping Mommy wash up.’
‘Good girl.’ He ruffled her fine hair and placed his briefcase down on the table.
‘So, good day?’
‘Yeah, really good. The place is small but I expected that. I really like the guy, Edmond Cope, seems really genuine.’
‘You should invite him round for dinner. I take it he is married?’
‘Woah, get you Suzie Homemaker! Since when do we invite people round for dinner? Four days in Avalon and you are a changed woman!’
‘Give over.’ Isla dried her hands on the tea towel and playfully flicked him with it. ‘We are in a new town and it will be good for us to make friends with people. Besides, with you working I’m going to get lonely and be in need of adult companionship, there is only so much baby talk I can handle.’
‘Well, I’ll ask him then, although I don’t want to blur the lines between work and home.’
‘This isn’t Chicago, Aid. People here aren’t ruthless and spineless, they are kind.’
‘What makes you so sure?’
‘Well, since being here I’ve been to the grocery store and today the salon and everyone is always super nice, although they keep inviting me to church…’
‘They are already trying to ram their belief system down our throats.’
‘Don’t be so silly. They are just trying to make us feel part of the community. We are going on Sunday and that’s final End of discussion.’
‘What?’ Aiden made a mock face of disgust at Meegan who burst into fits of giggles.
‘It will be good for us. Besides, Meegan has never even been christened.’
‘Since when were you interested in all that religious stuff?’
‘Jeez, Aid, I’m just trying to make a good impression. Whilst you are at work I’ve got to be here holding down the fort and I don’t want us to be the heathen family who don’t attend church. If we plan on settling here we are going to need friends.’ Isla’s hands were now placed firmly on her hips as she stared him down.
‘I’m just jossling you, honey. Of course I’ll go to church Sunday. I need to start making contacts of my own. Edmond was saying how he’d introduce me to the local sheriff soon.’
‘Sounds good. So was it all cattle ownership suits and someone erecting a fence on another’s lawn?’
‘Actually, I got a murder case.’ Isla’s eyes widened.
‘What, here? I thought this was a safe place!’
‘It is, it is. I haven’t established much yet, but it seems a simple domestic case. Wife stabs husband in a frenzy.’
‘I can relate to that,’ Isla teased.
‘It is nothing I haven’t dealt with before. I’m going to meet the suspect tomorrow.’
‘Local Women’s Prison. I’ll let you know what it’s like, for when they take you in for losing it with me.’
‘Cheek!’ Isla threw the tea towel from beside her at Aiden but he caught it mid-air.
‘Nice try,’ he laughed, and Meegan joined in.
‘Well, I am busy tomorrow, too.’
‘Meegan and I are going to get beautified at the local salon. They were more than happy for me to take her there whilst I got my hair done. I could never have done that in Chicago.’
‘See, we are already reaping the benefits. I’m home; you are now a God-fearing housewife…’
‘And since you are home, you can prepare tea tonight with me for a change.’
‘What is on the menu for chez Connelly?’
That evening was one of the most pleasant Aiden had experienced in a long time. He cooked dinner with his wife, played with his daughter, and as the sun set he didn’t feel exhausted and drained, he felt alive. He sprawled across the couch, glass of wine in hand, surrounded by cardboard boxes in various stages of unpacking. The house was slowly starting to come together and feel like home. Isla had already started to paint some of the walls which made a huge difference. A little time and a little love and it would be amazing. He looked out into the garden wistfully, imagining summer barbeques with friends, Meegan playing happily with Edmond’s grandson, Grant. The men enjoying ice-cold beers, the women nattering over some wine. Isla seemed to be settling in which was good news. This was all such a culture shock for her but she was taking it really well. Aiden assumed that finding the beauty salon had made a big impact on her mood. His wife loved to pamper and shop. Since shopping was confined to the few stores Avalon had to offer she would have to make do with pampering for now, not that he was complaining.
‘You coming to bed, baby?’ Isla asked from the doorway.
Aiden craned his neck to see her and noticed a familiar, knowing glint in her eyes. He sprang up from the couch and bounded upstairs like an excited schoolboy. Oh yes, he most certainly could get used to this life.
Chapter Two: First Encounters
From the little research that Aiden had done, he knew that Eastham Ladies Penitentiary was a maximum security prison for the most serious offenders. This didn’t unnerve him too much as he had expected as much. In his ignorance he felt mildly relieved that it was a female prison, knowing how much more intimidated he would feel about his impending visit if it were a men’s institution. He had seen one too many prison movies and avoided male prisons as much as he could.
The previous night he had enjoyed a deep, dreamless sleep and had awoken so refreshed he truly felt that he could take on the world. Full of optimism he kissed his wife and daughter goodbye and, with Betty’s directions, headed out to Eastham.
The prison was not hard to find, it was well signposted for pretty much the entire journey. Aiden had been driving along empty roads that seemed to lead to nowhere for a good forty minutes when a huge, grey castle appeared on the horizon. Instead of a moat there were rolling fields with various layers of electrical fencing. The gate was dozens of barriers and enforced metal doors which grudgingly slid open when he stated his name and purpose to the hard-faced security man. From a distance Eastham seemed strangely beautiful. A huge blot on the endless expanse of rolling prairies, it looked like something from another world. Aiden half expected to be greeted by Spock as he parked up and headed towards yet another guarded entrance.
All the outer walls were a dense grey, the only fleck of colour coming from the blue uniform worn by the guards. Despite being surrounded by luscious acres of green grass, none grew within the walls of the immense prison. Aiden wondered if this was a result of all the electrical fencing, or if nature just knew that she was not welcome here. This was a place for those who did not deserve to hear the sweet lullaby of birdsong, or breathe in the luscious scent of a blooming flower. Here, the condemned were at the last outpost before hell, but no doubt many felt like they were already there. Whilst from a distance Eastham looked impressive, once inside you realised just how imposing a structure can really be. Aiden had only just arrived but was already looking forward to being able to drive away.
‘Freedom’, he mused to himself, ‘is much too underrated’.
Inside was not much better. The air felt decidedly cooler and the indifferent grey of the stone had crept along the interior walls in the form of paint. Green doors, though the colour of baby sick, were a welcome break from the dismal decorating. Aiden was led along countless corridors, his footsteps echoing on the plastic-tiled floors. He was ushered through so many security gates that he began to worry if he was ever going to be able to get back out.
‘Prisoner 929 is in maximum security,’ the burly female guard had told him when he had finally made it to reception, her voice monotonous as if she had forgotten how to express emotion. He was currently being led by another, equally ample female form, down a labyrinth of corridors. His palms were sweaty and his attempts to make small talk had not even been acknowledged. The women who worked there were tough, he supposed that they had to be. But no matter how tough they were, he knew that they would be no match for what lay behind the locked doors which they were now passing by. Aiden had expected hands grasping through railings, voices crying out their innocence, but all was quiet. Those cells he passed where you could see in, the lone occupants were sat, sometimes reading, sometimes just staring space; none so much as fluttered an eyelid as he clomped past.
Finally he was motioned into a small room where one wall was made entirely of Perspex glass. Beyond the glass, there was a lone chair facing him which was flanked by two guards. On Aiden’s side of the glass there was a basic desk and chair.
‘929 will be with you shortly,’ the woman told him. ‘I’ll wait for you outside.’
Aiden nodded and thanked her but she was already gone before the words had even left his mouth. He moved the chair and positioned himself opposite the currently vacant chair. Placing his briefcase on the desk he took out a Dictaphone and a notebook. He had no idea what to expect from Prisoner 929.
‘Are you ready?’ one of the guards asked from the other side. Aiden merely nodded in response.
‘Send her in!’ the other guard yelled. Her. It was the first acknowledgment that Brandy White was indeed a woman and not just a number.
Prisoner 929 was ushered into the room. She was wearing a garish orange jumpsuit and her hands were handcuffed. Eyes trained to the floor she obediently followed the guard’s instructions and sat herself down in the chair opposite Aiden. Still she did not look up. She placed her cuffed hands in her lap and he noticed how tiny they were. The thick metal bracelets overwhelmed her small wrists so much so that he wondered if she could easily free herself from her constraints if she so desired. Not that the guards needed to worry if she did come free. When she shuffled in Aiden assessed that she was no more than 5ft 1 and incredibly petite in build. They could easily lift her up with one arm. Her bleach-blonde hair fell in waves upon her shoulders and down her back. She appeared like a fairy child, not a murdering monster. Finally she raised her eyes to meet his and Aiden looked upon his first client in Avalon.
His breath caught in his throat for a moment as he gazed at Brandy White. She was devastatingly beautiful. Her lips were a deep red, plump and permanently pouting, the skin which was exposed on her face and hands was as white and as delicate as the finest china. Her face was a perfect heart shape, with a delicate button nose. But it was her eyes which had captivated Aiden. They were so round and wide in her little head, the colour of autumn leaves, fringed with dark, curled lashes. Her eyes bore into his, questioning, confused.
‘Mrs. White, I am your attorney, my name is Aiden Connelly.’ He noticed her relax at his introduction.
‘How do you do, Mr. Connelly?’ Her voice was soft and melodic, laced in a lazy Southern drawl. ‘I thought you might be a priest.’
‘Yes, sir. I asked them if I could see a priest but I haven’t been visited yet.’
‘Why do you want to see a priest?’
Brandy seemed alarmed by his question.
‘Why, Mr.Connelly, I have not been to church in well over a month, it is a matter of urgency that I see a priest, my immortal soul is at stake!’ He wondered if she was joking but he could tell by her anxiety that she was being quite earnest.
‘Well then, I will see if I can set that up for you, Mrs. White.’
‘Please, call me Brandy. It just doesn’t feel right being called Mrs. White.’
‘Very well, Brandy, I am here to represent your case at your upcoming trial. I will need to go over details of the event with you, verify your statement with the one you gave to the police. If you have any questions at all…’
‘Are you from Avalon?’ she interrupted.
‘Yes, I am.’
She furrowed her brow.
‘I do not mean to be rude, Mr. Connelly, but I don’t recall ever seeing you around and Avalon is a mighty small place.’
‘I’m new, moved there less than a week ago.’ He felt uncomfortable that the conversation was moving towards him; it was important to never reveal personal information to clients.
‘Must be different from living in a big city.’
‘City?’ He nervously wondered how she could possibly know where he was from.
‘Relax,’ she smiled, noticing his tense expression. ‘Your suit gave you away. You can’t buy smart suits like that in Avalon, and if you did you would find little occasion to wear them. In all honesty I’m mighty touched that you made such an effort to come and see little old me!’
He searched for the cynicism in her comment, but saw only a warm smile and kind, yet frightened eyes.
‘Well, let us get down to it.’ Aiden leant and retrieved a file from his briefcase and switched on the Dictaphone. ‘Can you please just state your name and age, for the recording?’
‘Brandy White. I’m twenty-four.’
‘Thank you. So on April 6thof this year, you were charged with the murder of your husband, Brandon White.’
‘Records state that you yourself made the distress call to 911 at approximately 11.23pm.’
Brandy nodded. ‘Can you please answer vocally for the recording?’
‘Oh, yes, I made the call.’
‘Did you call because you regretted what had just happened?’
‘Oh no, sir. I waited until he was dead, then called.’
‘So, you admit that you deliberately stabbed your husband,’ he checked his notes, ‘six times in the back and chest?’
‘Waiting until he was dead and then called 911?’
‘Would you say that you were of sound mind when the incident occurred?’
‘Oh yes, for the first time in my life I saw things clearly.’ Aiden found her responses puzzling and was beginning to question the young woman’s sanity. She did not appear to be the least bit remorseful and was quick to admit her guilt. On all accounts she should come across as callous and cold, but there was a warmth in her eyes and in her smile that suggested that deliberate murder was something she could never have committed, even in her wildest dreams.
‘Was the murder pre-meditated?’
Brandy flushed with embarrassment and Aiden realised that she had not fully understood his question. ‘Was it planned out?’
‘Yes and no.’
‘Can you be more clear, please.’
‘Well, I knew it had to be done, I just didn’t know when until the opportunity arose. So I guess that it was sort of planned.’
‘OK.’ Aiden jotted down a few notes. ‘So that you understand, Brandy, you have pleaded guilty to the murder of Brandon White and say that you did this of your own free will whilst of sound mind.’
‘This means that at your trial, if the Judge is satisfied that you are guilty of first degree murder, under state law, you will receive the death penalty.’ Aiden felt sick to his stomach as he said it. Brandy nodded in understanding and tears pricked her eyes but they did not wash down upon her cheeks. She took a deep breath, quickly composing herself.
‘I am happy to accept the consequences of my actions.’ There was something bizarrely noble about her attitude.
‘Very well, then. As your attorney you can address any questions you have to me.’
‘Oh good, since no one talks to me in here. I’ve been getting kind of lonely.’ A sadness seemed to envelope her tiny frame. Aiden wondered if the reality of what she had done was beginning to set in.
‘Well, I’ll come back in a few days so that we can discuss things further.’
‘I’d like that,’ she smiled. The guards moved forward as their time together came to an end.
‘Will you be attending church this Sunday, Mr Connelly?’ Her question caught him off guard.
‘Why yes, I believe I will be.’
‘Well then be sure to send Father West my regards.’ With that she left the room and the atmosphere suddenly grew much more oppressive. She was a light and Aiden felt a pang of guilt that he would be assisting in helping to extinguish it.
As Aiden passed through the security gates and started his journey back to Avalon he reflected upon his first meeting with Brandy. During his career in law he had encountered many men and women accused of murder, some guilty, some not so guilty. They varied in age, ethnic background, financial status, but one trait that they all had in common was that when you were with them, no matter what they were saying, be it professing their innocence or describing the murder in gruesome detail, there was always an element of anger and, dare Aiden say, evil, lurking behind their eyes. Whilst these people may seem perfectly normal on the outside, he could always sense that malignant rage and malice which would drive them to do something as terrible as taking another life. What puzzled him about Brandy was that in her eyes all he saw was sadness. Something about the case just wasn’t adding up.
Besides the fact that she did not seem in any way monstrous, which was a silly conclusion anyway, she was more than likely putting on a show for Aiden, hiding her true self. But even if that were the case, there were the simple physics of it all. Brandy White was tiny; she could not weigh more thana hundred and ten pounds. How had she managed to overpower her husband? It was hard to imagine that her husband could have been of even slighter build than she. It was possible but still, he couldn’t make a sound judgement whilst Brandon remained an enigma. Aiden noted that he needed to do more background research on Brandon White. He needed to know why a seemingly sweet and innocent woman would murder her own husband in cold blood and then so freely admit to it.
His mind had been racing so much that Aiden had failed to realise that he was already back in Avalon. The sky had now clouded over with the threat of rain. A small voice in the back of his mind reminded him that this was tornado country but he dismissed it. He parked up outside Cope and May; he was quickly getting to know his way around town.
‘Well, hello, Mr. Connelly,’ Betty greeted him warmly as his arrival was declared through the gentle jingle at the door.
‘Hello, Betty, how are you today?’
‘Very well, thank you, dear. And yourself? Did you find Eastham all right?’
‘Oh yes, no trouble at all.’ He was about to walk into the office when he added, ‘Your directions really helped.’
Betty beamed at this, and, maybe he imagined it, seemed to blush slightly. Isla was always teasing Aiden about his effect on women but he failed to notice it. Looking back, he reasoned that he had never chatted a woman up before, had never needed to as they seemed more than happy to approach him. Isla had cornered him at a mutual friend’s party when they were at college together. She later told him that she only did it because he looked like James Dean. Not that Aiden was complaining. Yes, he had never been short of female attention and had never pursued a woman. The macho side of him would have welcomed the challenge of the chase, but the lazier side felt why run after what you already have, on a plate no less?
‘Hey there, champ!’ Edmond was at his desk typing away, surrounded by stacks of paper and three empty coffee mugs. He was clearly having a busy day. ‘How did it go at Eastham?’
‘It went well,’ Aiden said as he sat down and switched on his computer, ready to write up his report of his first meeting with Brandy. ‘Although…’ He stopped himself from going further. Edmond would surely think him a fool if he confessed to his mixed feelings about the case.
‘No, nothing.’ Aiden waved his hand dismissively.
‘No, go on, son. You can talk freely here, you are amongst friends.’
Aiden took a deep breath.
‘Brandy White, she is so, you know, small? And very well spoken. She even expressed her desire to see a priest. She just doesn’t fit the stereotypical role of a cold killer.’
Edmond stiffened in his chair and locked eyes with Aiden. His face was set in a stern expression.
‘Brandon White was a good, decent man. A pillar of the community. Small she may be but her wickedness knows no bounds. I’ve no doubt she fluttered her eyelashes and pouted her big red lips. To look at, you would think she was the sweetest thing. Do not be taken in by her. She is beautiful, but deadly. Keep your distance.’
Aiden was surprised by Edmond’s hostile tone and knew better than to push the conversation further.
‘You are right, of course.’ Edmond relaxed at this and his eyes drifted back to his computer screen. ‘I just need to do some more research on the case; I need to get more background on Mr. White.’
‘Well, you won’t be short of information around here. He’s a local hero, led his high school football team, the Avalon Angels, to win their first ever State Championship. It was wonderful. He attended church every Sunday without fail and worked for his father, Clyde, over at his timber company. He was Clyde’s only son, he has been in pieces ever since.’
Aiden just nodded as he jotted down football, church and timber. He wanted to get a better idea of who Brandon was. Everyone in Avalon seemed to idolise him, but if he was such a great man, why would his young, beautiful wife kill him? If a story like this had occurred in Chicago the papers would have had a field day.
‘Was there a lot of media coverage on the murder?’
‘Oh, tons. The local paper, of course, and once word got out about what had happened more and more started turning up and asking questions. Things have died down a bit lately but I expect the media circus will come to town again around the trial. You best be ready, my boy. Once they get wind that you are her lawyer they will come sniffing round and asking questions. It is always best just to stay schtum.’
‘Yes, no worries, I won’t say anything to the press.’ He added newspapers to his list.
‘Before I forget, my wife, Isla, would like to have yourself and your wife round for dinner one night.’
‘Oh how splendid!’ Edmond smiled ear to ear. ‘I’ll have a word with Mrs. Cope tonight. Although I should warn you, she does like a drink or two.’
The clouds still hung heavy with the threat of rain when Aiden pulled into his driveway. He had spent the afternoon going over his notes and listening to the audio recording of his meeting with Brandy. He had assembled a number of questions for when he next went to visit the prison and was determined to find out more about her deceased husband, Brandon.
The sweet smell of apple pie floated on the air and enticed his senses. He hoped that the delicious aroma was coming from his own home but did not want to get his hopes up as it would be completely out of character for Isla to bake.
To Aiden’s delight, when he entered the kitchen he was greeted by a glorious pie sitting proudly in the centre of the table.
‘Well, well,’ he called out. Meegan came hurrying in to greet him, throwing herself clumsily into his legs for a hug.
‘Hey, tiny dancer.’ He scooped her up in his arms and noted how quickly she was growing and gaining weight these days. He was thankful to now be having the chance to savour each and every precious moment of all her too fleeting childhood.
‘Pie, pie!’ she squealed, pointing over at the table.
‘Yes, I can see a lovely pie. Did Mommy make it?’
‘Oh, of course, and you.’
‘She helped crush apples,’ Isla informed him as she entered the kitchen.
‘Clever girl.’ Meegan was beaming with pride.
‘How was work?’
Aiden set his daughter down and she ran off into the lounge. He admired the pie again and gave his wife an approving smile.
‘Well this is certainly nice to come home to. Makes a change from takeaway!’
‘The nearest takeaway is two towns over so you better get used to good old-fashioned home cooking!’
‘Work was good thanks, hun. Went to the prison, it was quite interesting. I can’t make her out.’
‘The suspect. She seems, well, not like a killer.’
‘But she is though, isn’t she?’
‘Well, yes, she confessed.’
‘There you go then. Don’t go over-thinking it. Just enjoy handling a simple case.’ Isla began to lay the table for dinner.
‘So what delicacy have you whipped up for tonight?’
‘Macaroni and cheese.’
‘Oh.’ Aiden found it hard to conceal his disappointment at the meal which had been his staple diet whilst a struggling student.
‘I know, it isn’t the most exciting but the pie took forever. I’m still getting used to this whole Stepford Wives scenario.’
‘I’m grateful, don’t get me wrong. I love mac and cheese, and I know Meegan is crazy for it. Thanks.’ He went over and planted a kiss on her cheek.
‘So, what do you think?’ Isla stepped back from him and held her hands out expectantly, her face full of excitement.
‘So?’ Aiden was confused.
‘Come on Aid, don’t kid, you like it, right?’
‘Erm…’ He looked his wife up and down, unsure what the answer was she was looking for.
‘God, Aid!’ Her tone made it clear he had given a very wrong answer.
‘My hair, jeez! I had my hair done, remember? Shorter, new colour. God, you just live in your own little world, just like you did in Chicago!’ Her face was flush with anger, and now that she mentioned it, her hair did look a bit different.
‘Hey,’ Aiden was getting defensive, ‘there is no need to be like that. I’ve just got in; give me chance to get myself together.’
‘There was a time when you would notice something like that straight away!’
‘Well, excuse me for not being the most perceptive man in the world! Your hair looks great, Isla. Sorry I did not notice it the second you walked into the room. Maybe you shouldn’t have distracted me with the pie if you wanted to be the centre of attention!’
‘Oh, that’s right, I think it’s all about me.’ Her hands were folded across her chest, her eyes locked onto Aiden in a death stare and her voice was now eerily calm. He hated women’s mood swings. He hated arguing because he knew that whatever he said was inevitably going to be the wrong answer.
‘It usually is always about you.’
Now her eyes bulged with rage and the calmness was once again swept away by her anger.
‘Oh yes, Aid. Me, me me! We are here because of ME! Isn’t that right? How dare you! I movedmy lifeforyou.And this is how you repay me? Great! I’m trying my best to keep it together, this place is so unbelievably backwards, getting my hair done at least helps me get some sense of normality.’
‘Do you know how shallow that sounds?’
‘I do not care! I’m here and I’m really trying. I don’t want to become some housewife who fades into the background of your life!’
‘Isla, I see you. All I could think when I came in was how proud I was of you baking a pie, which is so much more important to me than your hair being immaculate. That is why we are here, to get our values right. You look beautiful to me no matter what. I don’t want Meegan to grow up being image-obsessed. I don’t want her to get sick like you did.’
Isla’s eyes grew teary at the mention of her battle with anorexia which, while a distant memory, still had the power to cut her like a knife. Aiden crossed the space between them which was littered with insults and spite. He held his wife in his arms and kissed her new hair.
‘You look beautiful, baby, you always do.’ She was now crying into his shoulder.
‘It’s just hard, Aid,’ Isla spluttered through her tears. ‘This isn’t my home. Chicago was my home and I’m lonely here. I had a life, I had friends and now I have…nothing. I’m sorry, I’m just finding it hard to adjust.’
‘I know,’ Aiden whispered soothingly in to his wife’s ear. ‘It will take time, baby. We’ve just got to stick together.’
‘Mommy?’ Meegan was looking up at them, bewilderment in her little face and tears streaking her podgy cheeks.
‘Oh, baby girl,’ Isla gasped, hurriedly wiping the tears from her own cheeks.
‘What…is…wrong?’ the little girl sobbed, the confusion of seeing her mother cry overwhelming her.
‘Nothing, honey.’ Isla was now hugging her little girl as her sobs turned into hiccups.
‘Daddy told Mommy he was going to eat the whole pie because it looks so good and I’m very hungry,’ Aiden offered as an explanation.
‘No!’ Meegan screamed and started hitting his legs in fury.
‘Hey,’ he protested, grabbing her little arms mid-punch. ‘I’m sure that there is enough for us all to share, you and Mommy did a great job and I’m very proud.’
Isla smiled warmly at them both.
‘And doesn’t Mommy look super pretty with her hair?’
‘Oh yes.’ Meegan was now smiling again. Aiden felt exhausted; living with two women was far from easy.
‘They made my nails pink!’ She showed her dad her tiny nails which now glistened and sparkled. He hid his true feelings with a smile as he couldn’t handle another argument. Meegan was two; she didn’t need to be getting caught up in all that beauty stuff yet. He would discuss it with Isla another time. For now, they were going to enjoy a nice family evening together.
As they sat down to eat that evening, rain began splashing against the windows with a sudden fury, the tension in the air finally lifted.
Chapter Three: Little Miss Southern Star
Aiden took a long drink from his coffee and looked down sadly at his half-eaten breakfast, knowing that he was going to have to admit defeat.
‘Whats wrong?’ Isla asked from across the table. ‘Don’t you like your breakfast?’
‘It is wonderful,’ he began.
‘Don’t you feel well?’
‘I feel fine.’
‘So what is it?’
Aiden hesitated. Isla was getting really prickly about things lately and he didn’t want another argument. The truth of it was, that every day since moving to Avalon she insisted on cooking him a massive breakfast each morning, ‘to build him up for the day’ apparently, but it was just too much. Aiden was used to a liquid breakfast; on the rare occasions that he did eat it was usually just a bagel snatched from a vendor on his dash into work. Being confronted with a plate overflowing with bacon rashers, eggs both scrambled and fried, grits, French toast and beans was starting to make him feel sick. He knew he had to tread gently when expressing his thoughts to Isla; she was just being nice to him after all.
‘I don’t normally eat a big breakfast, and whilst it is lovely sometimes, some days, just cereal would do.’
To his relief, Isla just nodded in agreement.
‘That is fine, Aid. As long as it isn’t because you don’t like my cooking or something! It is hard to know when enough is enough. I’ve never normally cooked for you before and I’m still getting used to my new role. I guess I need to pull back a bit else you and Meegan are going to become whales!’
He reached out and touched her hand.
‘You are doing an amazing job. I had no idea that you had all this in you!’
‘Well, you were never around that much before to see.’
‘I’m here now and I don’t want to miss a thing!’ The couple smiled warmly at one another.
‘If you are all finished, I’ll start clearing up.’ Isla began collecting together the various plates and cutlery from the table.
‘I’ll help,’ Aiden offered, rising to his feet.
‘No, no, you’ve got work, let me handle this. Finish your coffee.’ Without any further persuasion he sat back down and returned to drinking the jet-black stimulant from his favourite blue mug. It was chipped and cracked all over but he loved it. Coffee just didn’t taste the same in anything else. He had lost count of the times Isla had tried to throw it out, she thought it tacky and old. But Aiden had developed a strange attachment to his mug. Perhaps it was because it had been a gift from his mother before she had passed away. Whatever the reason, his favourite start to the day was enjoying putting his old mug to his lips and savouring the contents from inside as they slid down the back of his throat.
‘Oh,’ Isla called to him over the sound of the faucet filling up the sink with soapy water. ‘Don’t forget we’re going to church this Sunday. It’ll give us a chance to meet people and that. I saw the local priest when I was walking into town with Meegan. Nice man. Father somebody, I don’t remember. He was super friendly, not creepy or anything, so I said we would go.’ The tone of her voice suggested that this was aimed more as a question than a statement.
‘That is fine, honey.’ Aiden noticed that outside the sun was shining and the sky was a dazzling crystal blue. He always felt better about his upcoming day when the sun was shining, often taking it as a good omen of things to come.
‘Nice day today, you taking Meegan anywhere?’
‘I thought I might drive out of town a bit, pick up some paints.’
‘Great idea, you two will enjoy painting the house together!’
‘Any colours you would like?’
‘I don’t mind,’ then, looking at his mug, he added, ‘a deep blue, like my mug.’
‘Ugh,’ Isla sighed in disgust. ‘That damn mug. Fine, I’ll check out the manky blues for you.’
‘It is not a manky blue; it is dark like the depths of the ocean.’
‘You say dark, I say dull.’
He was about to protest when Isla yelled out in sudden anger, ‘Meegan!’
He looked up at his little daughter to see her wearing her Elmo breakfast bowl as a hat, oatmeal all over her head. She was giggling hysterically. Aiden had to stifle a laugh.
‘Oh, you can laugh,’ Isla said angrily as she removed the bowl and began mopping up the stone-coloured gloop. ‘You are not the one who has to clean this mess up! I’ve already washed her once this morning!’
Meegan was still giggling away.
‘No, Meegan. Bad girl!’ her mother scolded. Still the giggles refused to subside. Isla looked over to Aiden for support.
‘Breakfast is for eating, Meegs. Not wearing.’
At her father’s stern words the little girl’s face scrunched up into a ball and her skin began to turn crimson.
‘Now look what you have done!’ Isla moaned as Aiden braced himself for what was coming next. Meegan let out a huge scream and began wailing at the top of her lungs. Aiden was relieved to be leaving for work, baffled at how something so small could make a sound so immense. Her wails vibrated throughout his body, making his very bones shake.
‘I’m sorry, honey, but I have to go now else I’ll be late.’ Isla just waved her hand at him, not even turning her head as she continued to clean up the mess surrounding Meegan.
‘Are you sure you areOK?’ he yelled over the screaming.
‘I’m fine, just go!’ She still didn’t look at him.
Aiden lingered in the doorway, knowing from experience that when awoman said she was feeling fine, more often than not she meant the complete opposite. On not hearing the door slam to announce his departure, Isla looked up.
‘Go!’ she cried again, getting more and more agitated by Meegan’s frantic cries. Her eyes said stay but she was telling him to go. Confused, Aiden went with the vocal direction and left. He could still hear Meegan as he got into his car and felt a pang of guilt at driving away when she was so distressed. He hoped that everything would be calmer when he got home. He turned out of the driveway and headed back towards Eastham. He was going to visit Brandy again and had a few questions that he wanted answers to.
After the straightforward drive and the maze of corridors and gates, Aiden found himself once again sat before the Perspex pane of glass, looking into the amber eyes of Brandy White. She seemed even smaller than he remembered, and her skin was so pale it was almost translucent. Her eyes seemed so dark and sunken , it was as if her spirit was finally crushed and that her body was just fading away.
‘How are you doing?’ he asked softly.
‘Did you manage to see Father West?’
Aiden shook his head.
‘Oh, please, Mr. Connelly. I am so, so worried about my soul. I need to see him to make things right.’
‘So, you are feeling remorse about your husband’s death?’ This was good, she was finally beginning to show more normal emotions which would help the case flow more easily.
‘No,’ she replied flatly.
‘I just thought…’
‘I want to see Father West because I have always gone and made my peace with God every Sunday since I can remember. Call it comfort or whatever, but feeling like I do not have a connection to him, well, I feel truly dreadful.’
Aiden had to admit that she did look dreadful. Today the orange jumpsuit drowned her tiny frame and she seemed to shiver in her seat even though the room, at least on his side, felt far from cold.
‘Would you describe yourself as religious, Brandy?’
‘Do you not think that God will be angered by what you did to your husband?’ He was eager for answers and saw her faith as a way in.
‘No, I think he will understand.’
Aiden frowned, bemused by her response.
‘Brandy?’ He locked eyes with her, but not before double-checking that the Dictaphone was recording on the table beside him. ‘Why did you kill your husband?’
She smiled, not a cynical, wry smile, but a sweet, warm one, as if she were impressed by Aiden’s question.
‘Mr. Connelly, you are the first person to ask me that. Isn’t that strange?’
‘That is strange,’ he agreed, baffled at why he had failed to ask her that sooner himself.
‘When the police came, everybody was shouting, it was chaos. They put the handcuffs on me and just sent me straight here. I was put in a cell on my own; I suppose they think I am dangerous maybe. No one has been to see me. I hear people talking as they walk by, but no one has asked me why. Even when the police took my statement, they asked me what happened and that was that. They didn’t want to know why.’
‘So why did you do it?’
‘Well…it…’ Brandy suddenly became extremely agitated. Tears welled up in her eyes and her lips began quivering. She wrung her hands together in an attempt to alleviate her anxiety but it did no good. Her body shook like she was sobbing deep within her soul but she barely made a sound.
‘Hey, it’sOK,’ Aiden tried to calm her. Without really knowing what he was doing, he placed his palm upon the glass. The guards watched him intently, unsure of what he was doing.
Brandy understood and placed her hand against his; the glass was cool to the touch but no longer seemed such a huge barrier.
‘I am here,’ he almost whispered, ‘to help you. I know this is hard.’
She began to calm down.
‘I need to know what happened, and why it happened. Take as long as you need, but you must tell me everything.’
She nodded slowly with understanding.
‘I remember hearing somebody say once that the beginning is a very good place to start, so that is what I’ll do.’
She withdrew into herself for a moment, then taking a deep breath, she began.
‘I have lived in Avalon all my life. You couldn’t find a nicer town. The sun seems to always shine and most people greet you with a smile and a kind word, at least they used to… ‘I was raised by my Ma. My Pa had took off long before I was even born. I don’t even know his name. Sometimes I wonder if she even knew who he was for sure. We lived in a trailer, out on Clapham Way. I know what you must be thinking, trash, right?’
Aiden shook his head. Brandy bit her lip, unsure whether to carry on.
‘Please, continue,’ he urged.
‘See, lots of folk live in trailers at some point, when times get hard. Without a steady man and a kid in town, it was all my Ma could afford. I had a nice childhood for the most part. I played with friends; some lived in nice, fancy houses and had nice things. I never brought anybody home, I wasn’t ashamed as such, I just didn’t want to be judged. Every Sunday Ma dressed me up real nice and we went to church and we fitted in with everyone else. I was happiest there. Life felt normal when we were at church and Ma seemed happy. But I noticed something was wrong when I was around eight. She had just broken up with, I think his name was Jamie, and it had hit her hard. I’m pretty sure she loved him but I think he had a wife as he wasn’t around too much but was always talking about one day making us all a real family. When he left she just seemed to give up. At first it was just drinking, but then she turned to drugs.’
Brandy appeared pained by the memories, but seemed determined to carry on.
‘Trailer parks don’t attract the best people so it was easy for her to get drugs. I’m not sure what she took. She smoked it, used needles, anything. I lost count of the times I would come home from school to find her passed out. I’d have to run to the doctor’s house, no matter what time it was, to get help. It got so bad he gave me his home number to call in an emergency, but since we didn’t have a phone I never used it. Things got worse and she would often be out of it for days. Often it felt like she didn’t even know I was there. I knew she needed help but she wouldn’t listen to me and there was no way I was going to leave her. She was all I had.’
Aiden was listening intently but Brandy stopped again.
‘Before I carry on, you must promise me something.’
‘You must not pity me, Mr.Connelly. I know I didn’t have the best upbringing and a part of me hates my Ma, hates her for not having the strength to cope without a man by her side. But no good ever came of pity. Maybe how things were then is why I’m sitting here today, but I’d rather you left here having learned something than pitying me.’
‘It can’t have been easy but I don’t pity you,’ Aiden lied, feeling guilty of how easy and sheltered his own childhood was.
‘Sometimes she would make me go collect drugs for her, I didn’t realise what was going on at first. Then, as I got older, men started to look at me more. I got breasts and a butt and Ma realised that she could use me as currency to get drugs.’
Aiden felt his breath catch in his throat as he took in what she was saying.
‘I’ve blacked out the worst of it. Thanks to Father West, he helped me make sense of it all. But what with taking care of Ma and everything else, I just stopped going to school. I tried to keep it up as much as I could but, well, I dropped out at fifteen. Of all the things I have done in this life, leaving school is what fills me with the most shame.’
She wiped a stray tear that had fallen down her cheek.
‘God is testing us you see. Life is just one big test and I would hate to think that I had failed. At fifteen things looked really bad. I didn’t know what I was going to do with my life. That’s when Ma found out about the Little Miss Southern Star pageant. The prize money was $10,000. With that kind of money we could buy a house and finally have a proper life. She signed me up and I was really excited. We both were. She started doing my hair pretty and showing me how to wear make-up. I just loved that she was finally taking notice of me and seemed to be drinking less but, looking back, she was only bothering with me because she saw that I could make her some money. Still, she was acting like a mother and I was determined not to let her down.
‘Miss Southern Star is open to girls from all the Southern States aged between sixteen and nineteen. The main competition was just two days after my sixteenth birthday so I only just made it in. The first few rounds went by in a blur. It seemed unreal when I made it to the final. The local paper interviewed me, I became a local celebrity! I was so excited about representing Avalon. My dress was beautiful; pink satin with sequins. The church held a fundraiser to help pay for my various costumes, but that dress, it just took my breath away. It was by far the nicest thing I had ever owned.’
As she spoke about the competition, the colour returned to Brandy’s cheeks and the light within her began to glow again. It was clear to Aiden that this had been a very happy time in her life.
‘I was so nervous the day of the finals, I couldn’t eat a thing. I threw up twice on the way there! Ma cussed me and said it was important that I kept my nerve. She told me that as long as I got up on that stage and kept smiling that everything would be all right. There were so many people there, it was crazy. I felt so special in my pink gown, with Ma there cheering me on. She had even started to drink less; I think that with the attention we were getting in town she didn’t want to ruin it all by her problems coming out. I even started to have this daydream that my Dad would see me in the papers and come find me and make Ma happy again.
‘In the end there were three finalists. I can still remember their names; Andie-Mae Watkins from Georgia. She was so pretty with green eyes and the reddest hair, like fire. And Kaitlin Banks, can’t recall where she was from. She had black hair and the whitest skin. She reminded me of Snow White. Then there was little old me. Those two girls were so stunning; I never dreamt that I could possibly win. When they read out my name as the winner I thought that I was going to faint with joy! It was amazing! I can’t tell you, Mr. Connelly, just how glorious it felt. It was like every birthday and Christmas at once. They put this gorgeous crown on my head; it was so delicate, made of gold with emerald stones in it. Oh, and the sash. Looking down and seeing Miss Southern Star written across me, well, I broke down and cried. Ma had told me that no matter what, I mustn’t cry as I’d ruin my make-up but I couldn’t help it. It was just all too wonderful.’
For a moment, Brandy was lost in her memory. Back there on the stage, engulfed in the deafening rumble of applause. A thousand tiny lights sparkled before her, the flash of a camera forever capturing her elation. Then her happiness began to fade once more as the memory gave way to the present.
‘I was so amazingly happy. Ma was so proud, I thought that I had it made,’ she told Aiden. ‘But then…’ Her voice broke off, wracked with emotion.
‘What happened?’ Aiden asked softly.
‘After I won, the officials wanted documents, you know, to verify everything. I had always failed to produce my high school diploma you see. On account of the fact that I never got it. However, I’d lied on the application. I guess I wanted to enter so bad I never thought that it would matter that I had dropped out of school. I was stupid enough to believe that all they cared about were my looks. But it mattered. It mattered a lot. Apparently I was an unsuitable role model to be Miss Southern Star and because I lied, I was disqualified. They stripped me of my crown, it was the worst moment of my life. The shame, it was unbearable. Everyone in Avalon turned against me, calling me a liar and a cheat. I couldn’t walk down the street without people yelling cruel things at me. I wanted to leave but I had nowhere to go.
‘Ma took it worse than everyone else. She started to hate me. She told me I’d ruined the last chance we had at happiness. She stopped talking to me and just drank all day and did drugs all night. She was a mess. I didn’t know what to do, so in desperation I turned to Father West. I hadn’t been to church in a long time; I was too ashamed to face everyone there. But Father West, he reached out to me and offered me kindness that only someone close to God could. I had no choice but to tell him about Ma.’
Brandy held her head in her hands, her fingers digging into her scalp.
‘You have to understand, Mr.Connelly, I could not cope with her any more. She was going to die!’
‘I understand, Brandy. So what did Father West do?’
‘He took her away. Her problems were so bad that she had to be sanctioned. I tried to visit her a couple of times but she always refused to see me. Then, the last time I went, they said she had been discharged. I’ve no idea where she went. Apparently she met another addict in there and went to live with him. I kept hoping her anger would subside and she would come see me, or at least write, but she never has. I’ve no idea where she is to this day.’
She sat up again and sighed deeply, her face pained with regret.
‘So it was just me, in the trailer. I got a job at the florist, helping arrange flowers and that. I kept myself to myself. I felt that everyone always kept me at a safe distance, by now everyone knew about Ma’s troubles and I think that they assumed I was trouble too. I had no friends, no family. It was a lonely time. I met Brandon just after I’d turned seventeen. I couldn’t believe it when he started talking to me. He was the local hero, I felt like the local whore. He was so handsome and popular, he took me to parties and because I was with him people started to talk to me more.’
‘Time’s up,’ the guard to the left of Brandy suddenly informed them.
‘That is fine.’ Aiden began collecting together his things. ‘We will continue this another time.’
Brandy nodded sadly, still overcome by the painful emotions of her past.
‘Sharing pain does not ease the burden you carry, it just makes others hurt,’ she said wistfully as she was being escorted out.
The main church in Avalon stood proud opposite the local hair salon. It was a modest building; the windows were not made from stained glass and the fence around the front had seen better days. It reminded Aiden of a well-loved toy, the cracks that appeared on the surface merely an indication of how much the building was loved and frequented by the people of the town.
It was a beautiful sunny Sunday morning so the family had decided to walk to the church. Isla was wearing a floral sundress which emphasized her beautiful curves, Aiden was in a shirt and khaki pants and Meegan had been allowed to wear one of her Disney princess dresses. She was skipping along merrily, a parent holding each of her little hands. Most people had the same idea as them, it seemed, as numerous families were meandering along the roads, all heading towards the same destination.
Outside the church, the noticeboard read: ‘Trinity Church will be cheering on the Avalon Angels this Wednesday!’ Aiden thought it was endearing how the whole town got behind the high school football team.
‘We should go,’ he nodded at the notice as they walked in.
‘To the game?’ Isla asked.
‘Yeah, I think it would be fun.’
Inside the church was bustling as the parishioners piled into the wooden pews. Aiden swiftly ushered Isla and Meegan into an empty row at the back; he didn’t feel comfortable being up at the front with the more hard-core churchgoers. The wood was stiff and hard beneath his back, reminding him why he hadn’t been to church in so long.
Meegan couldn’t get settled and climbed up onto her father’s lap.
‘Woah, you just get heavier and heavier,’ he joked, tickling her sides.
‘Make sure she keeps quiet during the service,’ Isla hissed. She was taking this all rather seriously.
‘Aiden!’ A man called from a few rows ahead, waving furiously. He looked up to see Edmond Cope, surrounded by a huge brood of a family. He waved back, as did Meegan. ‘We will talk later,’ he mouthed to Aiden.
After a few more people had settled in the service began. The church was packed, some late arrivals were forced to stand at the back. It wasn’t as formal and dull as Aiden had feared, Father West was an engaging man who had an amazing connection with the people. He looked to be somewhere in his mid-forties, with dark curly hair which was showing no sign of turning grey. He had bright blue eyes and stood at an impressive 6ft. He was a handsome man for sure. Just to clarify, he whispered to Isla during the service, ‘What do you think of Father West?’
‘He seems lovely,’ she cooed, not even taking her eyes off the priest to answer her husband.
An hour later, when the service had ended, Aiden hung back, wanting to speak with Father West about Brandy. He was lingering outside, Meegan asleep in his arms, when Edmond Cope came ambling over.
‘Aiden, my boy, so lovely to see you here. And this must be your darling wife.’ He shook Isla’s hand. ‘A pleasure to meet you, my dear. How are you finding Avalon?’
‘Oh, it is really lovely, we are starting to find our feet now.’
‘Good, good.’ A portly woman with white hair came over. ‘Allow me to introduce my wife, Carol.’ Aiden politely shook her hand, as did Isla.
‘I’ve been meaning to see you,’ she told his wife. ‘Knowing that you are new in town, I wondered if you’d like to join my book club…’ The two women wandered off, lost in their own chitchat. He watched Isla for a moment, in case she flashed him her ‘I need saving’ face, but she appeared to be happy in Carol’s company.
As Aiden and Edmond stood declaring what a fine day it was, a tall, thin man walked out of the church, some while later than everyone else. Edmond immediately cornered him and shook his hand furiously.
‘Aiden, I am pleased to introduce Buck Fern, our local sheriff. Buck, this is my new partner, Aiden Connelly. Came here all the way from Chicago!’
Aiden offered his hand to Buck but he ignored it.
‘Pardon my rudeness,’ he explained in a slow, southern drawl which was laced with a slight lisp, ‘but until I know a man, I will not shake his hand.’ Aiden was put out by his attitude but decided against saying anything; he was, after all, the sheriff. Buck Fern had small slits for eyes and a face ravaged by age. His thinning hair had been strategically combed over but it wasn’t fooling anyone. He regarded Aiden with suspicion.
‘Ed tells me you are handling the White case?’
‘That wretched whore deserves to burn in hell.’ Aiden was shocked at the sheriff’s harsh words.
‘Buck is always more than happy to assist us with our cases,’ Edmond said awkwardly, feeling uncomfortable with Buck’s surly behaviour.
‘Is that so?’ Aiden queried the old man, trying to keep his temper in check. ‘In that case, I need to see the police report from the night of the murder.’
Buck’s cheeks flushed and he pursed his small lips in anger. ‘Why might that be?’
Aiden was enjoying making the old dinosaur cross. ‘Protocol in any murder case. I need to review all the evidence.’
‘Protocol?’ Buck spat at him. Edmond was looking decidedly uncomfortable and made his excuses and scampered off. The old man stared Aiden down for a moment but the younger man refused to flinch.
‘Fine,’ the sheriff said, admitting defeat. ‘But be careful, if you shake too many trees, a bee might just come out and sting you,’ and with that strange threat Buck Fern ambled off. Aiden was seething after his encounter with the sheriff. He was all riled up and ready to go home and let off some steam when he saw Father West. Isla was now beside him again so he grabbed her arm and walked over to the priest.
‘Yes, can I help you?’ He looked Aiden and Isla over. ‘I don’t believe that we have met before.’
‘I’m Aiden Connelly, this is my wife, Isla, and this lump over my shoulder responds to Meegan when she is awake. We recently moved here.’
‘Ahhh yes, you are working with Edmond Cope?’ Aiden nodded. ‘News travels fast in a town this small. Welcome to Avalon, I hope that you enjoyed the service.’
‘Oh, yes, father, it was wonderful,’ Isla told him a little too enthusiastically. He smiled at her warmly.
‘Some found it not so interesting.’ He nodded at Meegan and laughed.
‘Actually,’ Aiden passed Meegan to his wife, a not so subtle hint that he wanted to be left alone with Father West, ‘I need to talk with you.’
The priest nodded solemnly as Isla began walking back to the house, Meegan still sleeping soundly.
Father West led Aiden back inside the cool of the church.
‘I’m representing Brandy White,’ he began. At the mention of her name Father West seemed pained. ‘You were close with her.’
‘Yes, I was, she was a very troubled young woman, such a terrible business.’
‘Well, she has been asking to see you, over at Eastham. I wondered if you could possibly go and see her?’
Father West nodded slowly. ‘No doubt she wants to make peace with God. I will go and see her, that is not a problem. I’ve known her many years and have been deeply troubled by all that has occurred.’
Aiden found himself lingering, unsure of how to proceed.
‘Everyone is quick to judge her,’ Father West offered, sensing what was troubling Aiden. ‘But I think for someone as spiritual as she is, to do what she did, well, there must be some form of logic in her mind, don’t you think?’
‘Yes,’ Aiden agreed, wondering if Father West knew more than he was letting on. ‘I need to find out more about the case as a whole. Brandon appears to be very loved around here.’
‘Oh, yes, indeed.’ Aiden didn’t want to press Father West for any more information; it didn’t seem right, especially in a church. He was about to leave when the priest called after him.
‘Tread carefully, Mr.Connelly.’ Aiden nodded solemnly and turned to walk home, even more sure that there was much more to this case than met the eye.
Chapter Four : He’s Our Hero
BRANDONWHITE– OURSHININGKNIGHT, was the headline. Aiden Connelly was sat in a library, scouring old newspapers for stories about Brandon White. His high school football career had been heavily documented by the local paper,The Avalon Informer, and when his team won the state championship, he appeared in even more publications. In each article he was hailed as a true team player, who was not lacking in courage or passion. The numerous pictures showed that he was strikingly handsome, he had a chiselled jaw and a deep tan with soft blue eyes. Aiden learned that, like Brandy, he had lived in Avalon all his life, yet his childhood had been a much more stable one. His father owned a successful local company, Avalon Pine, where Aiden later went to work after graduating from high school. He was 6ft 2 and well built, once again highlighting Aiden’s confusion as to how Brandy had managed to overpower him. In the brief police report that Edmond had given to him there had been no record of toxins in his blood which means that he can’t have been drunk.
He read how Brandon had taken his high school football team, the now famous Avalon Angels, to win their first ever state championship almost ten years ago. It was the first time they had won such a prestigious award and his success has yet to be repeated, which undoubtedly had helped cement his reputation as a local saviour.
Aiden had been disturbed by his encounters with Buck Fern and Father West at church, so the following day he had driven out of town to a college library to gather some sources and find out more about the enigma that was Brandon White. In every interview he gave he was polite and well spoken, constantly praised for his gentlemanly manner. It was getting increasingly difficult to understand why Brandy would have killed him.
As Aiden scanned through the papers, he came across an exerpt marking their wedding day. He did the math: Brandy was a young bride at nineteen and Brandon was twenty-three. That was five years ago. In the small photograph the couple are beaming happily and seem the picture of wedded bliss. The byline described how ‘local football hero marries former beauty queen’. The reference to Brandy’s shambolic time as Miss Southern Star surprised him; perhaps enough time had passed by the time she wed for the bad blood over her disqualification to have passed.
The final entry for Brandon White was his obituary. It was a glowing review of a young man who loved his family, served his community and basically never put a foot wrong. Brandy was only mentioned in the conclusion, when she was named as the prime suspect for his murder. Having been married for five years, Aiden wondered if those closest to the couple had ever sensed that something was wrong. There would be no point in tracking down Brandy’s mother as she would not even be aware that her daughter had been married. Clyde White seemed like a good source. He was Brandon’s father and from the articles Aiden guessed that they were very close. Perhaps he could shed some light on his son’s marriage.
Once he felt he had successfully found all the articles relating to Brandon, Aiden turned his attention to Brandy, in particular the Miss Southern Star competition. A small voice in his head queried if she was being entirely honest with him and he wanted to silence it.
When Brandy had said that the whole town had turned against her she wasn’t exaggerating. At first theAvalon Informerhad championed its young beauty queen; from the moment she made it past the preliminary rounds she was receiving a mention within the front pages, and when she won, a photograph of her smiling proudly made the front page. The paper gushed how she was a sweet local girl done good, there was no mention that she lived in a trailer or of her mother’s troubles. However, all that changed once news broke of her disqualification.
LITTLEMISSSCHEMINGSTAR, was one of the kinder headlines. Her controversial stripping of the crown even made national papers. They called her trailer trash, mocked her mother’s addictions and said that she had brought shame upon Avalon. She then disappeared off the radar, her name only reappearing once she was connected to Brandon. Considering she was made a local hate figure, people must have wondered what Brandon saw in her. She was stunningly beautiful, but having the reputation that he did, he must have been able to have any girl he wanted.
Aiden sat there pondering on it all. He realised that he needed to press Brandy further for answers. He felt relieved that thus far she had told him the truth. It was always so much easier to represent a client when you felt that you could trust them.
Seated in his car, before he started the engine to travel back to Avalon, Aiden fished out his mobile phone. He called Eastham to inform them that he would be visiting Brandy again the following day. Then he called Betty to tell her that he wouldn’t be in until the afternoon –Edmond was also working away from the office. Finally, he dialled Avalon Pine from the number he had sourced on the internet moments earlier, and a pleasant woman informed him that Clyde White would be on site all day. Aiden turned the key in the ignition and set off to pay Brandon’s father a visit.
Avalon Pine was located on the outskirts of town. Aiden parked in the designated customer lot and walked over to what he presumed were the offices; a long log cabin with the company logo emblazoned on the side. Inside the wooden structure it was blissfully cool, thanks to half a dozen fans whirring away. It was an insanely hot day; Aiden was thankful that his car had air conditioning. In Chicago, air conditioning came as standard wherever you went, but in Avalon, things were different. Only the well-to-do could afford such a commodity; most people made do with electric fans scattered around the place, as was the case with the offices at Avalon Pine.
A heavily made-up young blonde woman was seated behind an ample desk filing away at her nails. She greeted him with the fakest smile he had ever seen, her lips a most unnatural shade of fluorescent pink.
‘I’m looking for Clyde White,’ he told her.
‘Is Mr. White expecting you?’ she asked insincerely, obviously not really caring what answer he gave.
‘No, but if he has five minutes I’d really like to talk to him. It is regarding the trial of Brandy White.’ The false lashes framing her eyes widened in interest. She was suddenly much more attentive, realising that she was witnessing some potential high-level gossip.
‘Please, take a seat and I’ll call him, Mr…?’
‘Connelly.’ Aiden settled himself down on a pine bench in the lobby area, watching as her lacquered nails furiously clicked numbers into the phone on her desk.
‘Mr. White, sorry to disturb you, I have a Mr. Connelly here to see you.’
Aiden was too far away to be able to hear Clyde’s response. The receptionist lowered her tone.
‘I think it is something to do with Brandon, he must be a lawyer or something.’ More silence as she nodded whilst her boss responded. At last she put the phone down and flashed her Barbie smile at Aiden once again.
‘He says that you can go right through. His office is just across the lumber yard, you can’t miss it.’ Aiden thanked her and stepped back out into his heat. He was beginning to thoroughly regret wearing a suit.
Avalon Pine was clearly a successful business. The lumber yard was bustling, as various burly men in T-shirts and jeans carried huge planks of wood here and there. Aiden could make out what appeared to be a warehouse; the huge open doors revealed garden sheds in various stages of production. Across the large yard was another pine log cabin, identical to the one he had just been in. As he got closer he could make out the sign on the door: Clyde White, Site Manager. He knocked twice.
‘Come in,’ came a voice from within. Aiden pushed open the door and was greeted with refreshing cold air, yet there were no fans in sight. This was an air-conditioned building, another indication of Clyde White’s success.
Inside there was large desk, with two leather chairs opposite it. The walls were lined with framed photographs and newspaper clippings. Aiden immediately recognised Brandon in a number of them.
Clyde White was immaculately dressed. He wore a crisp white shirt and grey trousers. His black hair was streaked with silver and his face was heavily lined, yet he was strikingly handsome. He was what Isla would refer to as a ‘silver fox’, meaning that he was a very attractive older man. Beneath the shirt, it was clear that he was in good shape. Aiden felt slightly intimated as he held out his hand and introduced himself.
‘Do take a seat,’ Clyde instructed him. He had the same chiselled jaw and pale blue eyes as his son.
‘Thank you for agreeing to see me,’ Aiden began. ‘I work for Cope and May Solicitors at Law. I am currently representing Brandy White, and as part of my investigations into the case, I am eager to learn more about your son, Brandon.’ At the mention of his son, Clyde White seemed to age ten years.
‘That is, only if it is not too painful to talk about,’ Aiden added, starting to wonder if it had been a bad idea to come and see Mr. White.
‘No, Mr. Connelly, I am always more than happy to talk about my son. He was a truly wonderful young man, an inspiration.’
‘Of course.’ Father West’s cryptic warning to tread carefully lingered in his mind. He knew that if he was going to get any useful information about Brandon from his father he needed to gain his trust first.
‘I’ve read about his triumphant days on his school football team.’ Clyde smiled proudly at this. ‘Did he ever think about going pro?’
Clyde leaned back in his chair, thinking hard. ‘He had the talent, no doubt about that, but he loved his family too much to leave. The good teams, where you could make a career out of playing, were all too far away.’
‘So he worked here?’
‘Sure did. He was my right-hand man and the hardest worker I ever knew. All the guys loved him, I’d hoped that one day he would take over the business for me but now…’ Clyde gazed at his desk in sadness. ‘He was my only son, my only child.’
Any preconceived theories that Aiden had once had were slipping away. Clyde White was shaken to the core over the death of his son whom he had loved dearly. If Brandon was at all like his father – well spoken, intelligent – it was making it even harder to identify a motive for Brandy to have killed him. He knew that he had to dig deeper.
‘What did you think of Brandy?’ Clyde’s face suddenly distorted with disgust.
‘Little tramp. Blinded my son with her butter-wouldn’t-melt face and then…’ Aiden noticed that his fists were now clenched tightly in anger.
‘They were together a long time before it happened. Five years. How did she and Brandon get along?’
‘Fine, they seemed in love. She never came down to the yard when he was working so I didn’t see all that much of her, except the odd weekend when they came over for lunch and on the holidays. She was always polite, bit too quiet really. She never said much, it was clear Brandon didn’t marry her for her brains.’
As discreetly as possible, Aiden switched on the Dictaphone which was concealed in his jacket pocket. Clyde’s perception of Brandy could prove invaluable later on in court.
‘She had a rather, unconventional upbringing,’ he said, trying not to sound too sensitive towards Brandy.
‘Oh yeah, her mother was a whack job. Whole town knew about her troubles. And then that whole beauty pageant thing. We weren’t happy when Brandon started knocking about with her, to say the least.’
‘What else was Brandon interested in, besides football?’
‘The usual, hanging with guys, watching sports, movies. He never read books or anything, his grades were average. His talents lay in the more physical aspects of things.’
‘So he didn’t gamble or drink excessively?’
‘No!’ Clyde White snapped. ‘My son was a gentleman through and through.’
‘I only asked as I’m trying to ascertain a motive for his murder. I didn’t know your son, but from what I can gather from the people of Avalon he was a great man.’
‘So it must have been one hell of a shock when Brandy murdered him.’
‘Truly shocking,’ Clyde agreed, but something in his eyes gave him away. Was it regret, sadness? Aiden could not tell so he tried to push him further.
‘Do you have any idea what may have driven her to do it?’
‘None at all. Isn’t it your job to find out why she did it? She is probably as crazy as her jacked-up mother. It wouldn’t surprise me if she had been high as a kite for years.’
‘Well, I sincerely hope to get to the bottom of it all.’
‘As long as that little witch pays for what she has done.’ Clyde’s voice shook with emotion, his eyes narrowed in spite.
‘Do you know if Brandy had any friends in town, anyone I could talk to?’
Clyde shook his head.
‘That girl was all about Brandon. Once they got married she stopped working and just stayed home. She was always at church though, seemed quite friendly with Father West, but then he was the one who had sent her mother away.’ Clyde glanced at his watch and seemed anxious.
‘I am very sorry, Mr. Connelly, but I have got work to attend to.’
‘Well, thank you very much for your time.’ Both men rose to their feet and shook hands.
‘If I can be of any further help, do not hesitate to call.’ Clyde handed him a business card.
‘I will.’ Aiden had one hand on the door handle and was about to leave when Clyde called him back.
‘One more thing. This Wednesday, it is a big game for the Avalon Angels. You should really try and come. That team meant everything to Brandon, thought you might want to check it out.’
‘Yes, I will, always been a big football fan anyway.’
‘Oh yeah, who is your team?’
‘Awww no, Dallas Cowboys all the way. I never miss a game!’ Clyde smiled and waved goodbye.
Outside and back in the heat Aiden felt no closer to finding the truth; if anything he felt that he was edging further away from it. He needed to talk to Brandy again as soon as possible.
Betty was sat at her desk, two fans billowing air at her, her normally immaculate hair dishevelled and soaked with sweat.
‘Too hot for you, Betty?’
‘Oh, I have always struggled with the heat. Ever since I was a girl. And these damn fans do nothing, they just circulate warm air! Edmond has said that I can leave as soon as all the admin for today is sorted. I honestly don’t know why he doesn’t just get air conditioning like everybody else!’ Her cheeks were flushed and she seemed extremely agitated. Aiden decided against asking her for a coffee.
In the main office Edmond was looking equally flustered in the heat. There were fans on in the room but none were directed at him as they would cause havoc on the mounds of paperwork scattered around. He was sweating profusely as he typed away on his keyboard.
‘Aiden, my boy, how are you holding up in this weather? It is not normally this hot in Avalon!’
Aiden undid the top few buttons of his shirt but that offered little comfort from the stifling heat. The air outside was so still, there wasn’t even the slightest breeze. It was unbearable.
‘All this mounting heat is no good,’ Edmond moaned. ‘There will be one hell of a storm soon, that’s for sure.’ The air in Avalon was indeed electric; you didn’t need to be a weatherman to know that some turbulent weather was heading their way.
‘Hope it comes before Wednesday,’ he added. ‘The boys can’t play good football in this damned heat!’
‘Speaking of football…’ Aiden was already typing away on his computer, writing up his conclusions from his encounter with Clyde. ‘You follow the Dallas Cowboys?’
‘Sure do, son. Think everyone around here does. Why do you ask?’
‘I went to see Clyde White before and he mentioned it. Figured Avalon was pretty big on sport, what with all the support the Angels get and that.’
‘You went to see Clyde?’ Edmond asked curiously.
‘Yeah, I’m trying to piece together an idea of what Brandon White was like. No one says a bad word against him.’
‘Well, people aren’t going to speak ill of the dead.’
Aiden looked over at Edmond in surprise. ‘So, you think if he weren’t dead people’s opinion of him would be different?’
‘No, no.’ Edmond was sweating even more; was it the heat or was he feeling suddenly under pressure? ‘It is just an expression. Folks around here have always loved Brandon.’
‘Oh, I get that. The sheriff, Buck Fern wasn’t it? He seems…’ Aiden struggled to find the right word. ‘Protective of Brandon.’
‘Old Buck can be like that. I’m sorry if he came across as rude yesterday. He just isn’t the sociable type, never has been. I’m sure that once he gets to know you he will be as nice as pie.’ Aiden doubted that somehow.
‘So how was Clyde holding up? I keep meaning to go over and see him but I’ve been bogged down with work lately. Once the Brandy White case is all sorted I’m afraid I’ve got a nice pile of divorce proceedings I could really use your help with.’
‘Can’t wait,’ Aiden laughed sarcastically. ‘Clyde White seems like a genuine guy. Got a nice setup with his company. Losing his son must have hit him real hard.’
‘He’s not been the same since,’ Edmond offered. ‘Always been such a composed man though. Takes himself very seriously as a businessman. I don’t think he is all that comfortable with the scandal of it all. He hasn’t been to church in a long while, probably isn’t up to facing the whole town yet, but you would think he would want to find some solace in God. Who knows?’
‘Mr. Cope.’ Betty’s voice was disjointed through the intercom.
‘I really cannot stand this heat any longer. I’m afraid I’ve got to clock off. I’ll be in all the earlier tomorrow to make up for lost time.’
‘Don’t be silly, Betty, my love. Go home and have some iced tea and come in usual time tomorrow.’
‘Thank you, Mr. Cope. Goodnight, and goodnight to Mr. Connelly, too.’ A few moments later the two men heard the soft whisper of chimes as Betty left for a cooler climate.
‘This heat is utterly ridiculous, poor old girl. I think it is worse for her, because, you know, she is going through that phase.’
‘Phase?’ Aiden was confused.
‘You know.’ Edmond seemed embarrassed by what he was trying to convey to his younger colleague. ‘They call it “the change”.’
‘Oh.’ Aiden felt his face flush. Why do men always fall apart at the mere mention of female problems? Every time Isla was on her period Aiden felt like an awkward twelve-year-old all over again. He hated it when she used to ask him to pick up tampons at the store, and he always got the wrong ones as in his haste he never read the labels properly. When she said words to him like ‘heavy flow’, he would just shut down and try to blank it all out. You would think he would have the maturity to deal with it all, but as Edmond had proved, men fail to grow out of their awkwardness with the female anatomy.
‘I suppose we should head home too,’ Edmond sighed, succumbing to the intensifying heat. ‘I think I am beginning to melt into this chair.’ He peeled himself up from the leather seat which was now soaked in his sweat.
‘I’m going to battle it out a bit longer. I need to get some paperwork sorted, I’m heading to Eastham again tomorrow.’
‘Ah, right. Well I’ll leave you with the keys then. Which reminds me, I need to get Betty to cut you your own set. We both have one, makes sense that you do too. Just in case you ever get the urge to come into the office at ungodly hours, not that I ever do, but there you go.’ He tossed a set of brass keys on a Dallas Cowboys keychain over to Aiden.
‘Just drop them off on your way home.’
‘Thanks, I will.’
‘And don’t work too late!’ Edmond called as he retreated to the sanctuary of his air-conditioned car.
Aiden was lost in his own world as he wrote up reams of notes and scoured the internet for as much information as he could find. As he had suspected, Avalon Pine was a long-established company which had enjoyed moderate success over the years. He needed to get Brandy to open up about her marriage with Brandon. He was definitely missing some pieces of the puzzle and he felt that a majority of them lay with her. When Aiden glanced up at the clock it was 6.30pm.
‘Dammit,’ he muttered angrily, hastily switching off his computer and gathering his things together. He was late for dinner and he knew that Isla would not be happy.
‘You’re late,’ Isla snapped before he had chance to even come through the door.
‘I know, I know.’ Aiden held his hands up defensively. ‘I was busy at work and I lost track of time.’ His wife’s face was set in a harsh glare, her arms folded across her chest. He could tell that she was in the mood for an argument, but feeling tired and hot, all he wanted to do was relax with an ice-cold beer.
‘I thought the whole point of being here was that you didn’t have to work late!’
‘It was…it is. I just got caught up with stuff. Isla, I’m sorry, it won’t happen again.’ He was happy to admit defeat and say whatever she wanted in order to diffuse the situation quickly.
‘Fine,’ she sighed. ‘I fed Meegan but put our dinners in the oven.’ Aiden watched as she removed a whole pizza from the oven. He unbuttoned his shirt nearly halfway down and helped himself to a beer from the fridge. The cool glass felt like heaven in his hands, and when the amber liquid slid down his dry throat he felt himself reach a euphoric state of ecstasy.
‘Ah,’ he gasped in satisfaction.
‘You know, I slaved over dinner.’
‘Babe, it’s a pepperoni pizza, which I doubt you made from scratch.’ Isla was chomping through her first slice and replied to him whilst still chewing.
‘No, but still, I had to heat it, and do Meegan her dinner.’
Aiden just nodded and began to eat the meal that had been so lovingly prepared for him.
Two bottles of beer and half a pizza later, Aiden was feeling flushed with contentment. He was sprawled out on the couch, watching a baseball match on the television through drooping eyes.
‘Daddy!’ Meegan came running in and bounced on his chest.
‘Owww,’ he cried in protest as she began using him as a human trampoline. ‘Get off Daddy!’
After a few more jumps she obeyed. She was wearing a bright pink nightdress and from the minty smell on her breath had just brushed her teeth and so was all ready for bed.
‘Will you read me a bedtime story?’
‘Sure thing, princess.’ He groggily sat up and shook his head in an attempt to wake up. ‘Where’s Mommy?’
‘Right here.’ Isla came down the stairs. She still seemed to be annoyed with Aiden so he had been doing his best to avoid her until she calmed down.
‘I had a bath!’ Meegan told her Dad proudly.
‘Good girl, at least you don’t smell then.’
‘Come on.’ She was tugging on his hand, leading him towards the staircase.
‘OK, OK, I’m coming.’
‘Aid, I was thinking we could watch a movie or something.’ Isla grabbed onto his arms, her fingertips gently caressing the soft skin, letting him know what she really meant.
‘Honey, I’m pretty beat.’ She immediately let go of him and turned away, her shoulders slumping with disappointment. Aiden sighed in frustration and followed Meegan upstairs, thankful for the temporary distraction from yet another disagreement with his wife. He’d known it would be a difficult transition for them but Isla was struggling to adapt to her new life. She’d been so comfortable in Chicago; the city suited her. Sometimes Aiden feared he’d made a mistake taking her to a town so far removed from all that she had known and loved.
He stood and watched Meegan sleeping for a while. She looked so angelic and peaceful. She had only made it up until Snow White meets the dwarfs in the woods when her eyelids grew too heavy and she slipped into that beautiful, dreamless serenity of sleep that only the innocence of youth can bring.
Downstairs Aiden could hear cupboards banging; Isla was clearly still mad. Her immature attitude really grated on him sometimes. Meegan was trying to sleep yet she was still childishly making a commotion to get his attention. As much as he just wanted to ignore her and get to bed himself, he could not risk her waking their daughter so he went downstairs to face the fire.
‘Oh, here you are,’ she said nastily, placing the remains of the night’s dishes into the appropriate cupboards.
‘I’m sorry I worked late.’
‘I know you are.’
‘Then what is wrong?’
She sat down at the table and looked up at him with sad eyes.
‘I’m worried you are not attracted to me any more.’
‘Don’t be silly.’ He reached out to stroke her cheek but she pushed him away.
‘I’m not being silly, we used to do it all the time and now…’
‘Now, we have a little girl to think about.’ Aiden sat down opposite her and held her hands in his. ‘Isla, you are beautiful, I fancy the pants off you baby, you know that.’ She began to smile and her anger seemed to subside. As usual, Aiden found that complimenting her was the best way to get her to calm down.
‘When you were late home, and then when you blew me off, it just felt like we were slipping back into our old ways and I don’t want that.’
‘I don’t want that either. And we are not. Tonight was a one-off, I swear. This case is just bigger than I thought, that’s all.’
‘Bigger? I thought it was an open, shut case?’
Aiden ran his hands through his hair. He wasn’t in the right frame of mind to start discussing the case, he just wanted to switch off for the night. He went to the fridge to get another beer, hoping to avoid her questions.
‘Want one?’ He asked from the welcoming cool of the open fridge door. Isla nodded so he grabbed a second bottle and handed it to her.
‘Aid, the case, why is it bigger than you thought?’
‘I don’t know, honey,’ he took a deep, long swig from his bottle. ‘It is a murder case, sure as hell. But I don’t get why she did it.’
‘Could it be what the French call a “crime of passion”?’
‘I suppose…perhaps.’ Aiden thought it over.
‘Maybe the husband was having an affair.’
‘It’s a possibility. I just need to do some more digging around. I’m heading to the prison tomorrow.’
‘Yes, again, I need to ask her a few more questions.’
‘What else can she say apart from, I’m guilty?’
‘It is more complicated than that.’
‘I can’t go into it,’ Aiden explained dismissively.
‘You’re too attached to this case,’ Isla noted, her eyes narrowing. She’d developed a keen perception of men over the years and she sensed something in her husband now that she didn’t like.
‘No, it’s not the case you are attached to, it’s the girl, the accused,’ she declared, her tone growing cold.
‘Don’t be ridiculous!’ Aiden replied empathically. ‘It’s just that this is my first case here and I want to make a good impression.’
Isla’s face remained frozen in annoyance, her lips pouting.
‘Why don’t we go upstairs?’ Aiden asked suggestively, deciding to change tack and not wanting to discuss things about Brandy further.
‘I thought you were tired?’ Isla’s eyelashes fluttered flirtatiously, her whole demeanour changing from ice-maiden to temptress in a second.
‘Yes, but seeing you there, well, you are a beautiful woman, Mrs. Connelly, and I’m a lucky, lucky man.’
‘Oh, yes you are!’ She took his hand and Aiden was once more led up the stairs by a female, only this time he hoped he would be able to make it to the end of the story with her.
Chapter Five: It Will Be All White
Despite the raging heat outside, within the walls of Eastham prison it was eerily cool. Brandy was sat across from him, and he wondered if on her side of the Perspex glass the temperature was even colder as she shivered intermittently as they talked.
‘I went to church on Sunday and spoke with Father West,’ he informed her.
‘He is such a truly kind man,’ she cooed. Aiden was impressed at the priest’s apparent ability to woo women.
‘He has said that he will try and come and see you.’ At this news Brandy broke into a beaming smile, showing Aiden exactly how she could have been originally crowned Miss Southern Star.
‘That is wonderful, thank you so, so much, Mr. Connelly.’ Aiden felt himself blushing at her gratitude.
‘It is no problem, Brandy, just doing my job.’ He hesitated before continuing. He needed to gain more insight into her relationship with Brandon but knew he had to go about it carefully. She had led a tumultuous life and he reasoned that her marriage had probably been no different.
‘So, last time we spoke we got up to the point where you met Brandon.’
‘Can I ask how you met?’
‘Sure. That day is burnt in my memory. I can still see him now, clear as day. At school I had grown up knowing all about his football glory, heck, I’d even been there to cheer him on some games when I was younger! He always looked so handsome and dashing, all the girls went crazy for him. I think he used to date a couple of cheerleaders back in high school, only the prettiest, of course. After school he would knock around town with his friends, cruise down the high street on Friday nights, hang out and drink beer, typical guy stuff. I’d seen him around before, Avalon is a small town, sooner or later you get to see just about everybody. I’ve never been all that confident with men, I mostly just walked around looking at the floor, didn’t want no attention. But after winning Little Miss Southern Star, even though they had taken my crown away and Ma was gone, some days I felt like I was still wearing it. In my mind, I pretended that I was still a winner and would walk around and hold my head high! It was on one of these days that Brandon started talking to me.’ She giggled girlishly and blushed. ‘I feel like such a fool, telling you this story, Mr. Connelly. You must surely think I’m just a stupid girl.’
‘No, of course not, Brandy. What did Brandon say to you?’
‘He said –’ Brandy deepened her voice in an attempt to sound masculine, which Aiden found humorous, ‘hey, ain’t you that Beauty girl, Brandy Cotton? I’ve seen you around.’ Then her voice returned to normal. ‘Cotton was my maiden name.’
Aiden nodded although he was already aware of that. He had searched briefly for her mother, Janice Cotton. He’d considered that perhaps the woman was owed the truth about her daughter’s predicament but he’d had no success in locating her.
‘He asked me if I wanted to hang out with him and the guys, of course I said yes. He was the most handsome guy I’d ever seen. At first there was always a group of us, then we started to be alone more, sometimes even driving to the next town over to catch a movie, and things just sort of, you know, developed.’
‘You fell in love?’
‘Yes, I did. And it was wonderful. Love is such an amazing thing, it is easy to see why so many people sing and write about it. I cared about Brandon more than anything.’ Aiden was touched by her romantic outlook.
‘So you two became serious quite quickly?’
‘Well…’ She bit her lip as she debated how to carry on. ‘We went steady for like two years before he proposed. I think that we were both too young to rush things, but by then we knew, it was the real thing. He treated me like an absolute princess, taking me out to fancy restaurants, buying me gifts. It was like being crowned Miss Southern Star on a daily basis! One time, he turned up at the trailer at 3am, with a dozen red roses, saying he couldn’t sleep because he missed me so much, and that he had driven eighty miles to find a 24-hour store, just to get me flowers to show me how much he cared. Isn’t that just a wonderful thing to do?’
‘Yes, it is.’
‘Mr. Connelly, what is the most romantic thing you have done?’ Aiden was about to answer and then stopped himself. He didn’t want to get too close to Brandy; sharing information about himself could mislead her into thinking that they were friends. But then, he needed her to confide in him, so perhaps he needed to open up a bit about himself in order for her to reveal more.
‘Well,’ he began thinking out loud. ‘I guess…’ He was shocked to find that he was struggling to think of an answer. In the early haze of dating, he had been hot and heavy with Isla, often opting to stay in and go at it like animals rather than go out. When he met her she wasn’t the kind of girl who needed wining and dining. His proposal had been more out of necessity than love; she thought that she was pregnant and his parents pressured him to do the right thing. It turned out to be a false alarm, but he knew the right thing to do was to carry on with the engagement and get married. The pregnancy scare had been the push he needed, at least that’s what he told himself. He asked her one morning over breakfast, the way someone might enquire about the weather. Despite the poor delivery Isla had been delighted. Six months later they wed on a yacht at dusk. It was a beautiful ceremony. At twenty-four he wondered if he had been too young to wed. He would have been a year older than Brandon was. Two years later, Meegan joined them.
‘I once wrote a girl a poem and then sung it to her, to the tune of her favourite song.’ As he told her his heart panged when he realised that this was something he did in high school and not for Isla.
‘That is really sweet,’ Brandy smiled. ‘What was the song?’
Aiden laughed as he thought back.
‘It was “Wake Me Up Before You Go Go”, by Wham!’ They both laughed at this. Her entire face lit up when she laughed, it was almost magical to watch.
‘Well, like I said, Brandon could be quite the romantic when he wanted to be. One night there was a raging thunderstorm, I hate storms. I hate them so bad. I saw lightning strike a trailer when I was younger and it caught on fire and killed the people in it who were sleeping. It was the worst thing I’d ever seen. Now every time I hear thunder my blood runs cold. Like today, I know a storm is coming, I can feel it in the air, and even locked away in here I know I’ll be scared. So this storm was raging, and I was sat in the trailer on my own, terrified, when Brandon came knocking at the door, soaked to the skin. He said he had been out drinking with the guys but when he heard thunder he knew he had to get to me, to protect me. The rain had come whilst he was running over. He had risked his life to be by my side, and I told him that my life was his, that I wanted to give myself to him forever. He got down on one knee and took off his class ring and handed it to me, saying that he wanted to hold me to that promise and make me his wife. It was such a beautiful moment.’
‘Sounds like he was a good husband.’
‘No, he was a good boyfriend, a great boyfriend. But people change.’
‘Well, first of all, we got married.
‘Brandon’s family were well off. His Dad owns a big pine company where Brandon also worked, and they had a gorgeous big house. When I first went round, I couldn’t believe how beautiful it was. I felt so ashamed of my trailer and my Ma, but his family welcomed me in as one of their own. Mrs. White helped me arrange all the wedding, she was brilliant. She booked the venue, invited all the guests, helped me choose my wedding dress, and they paid for everything.
‘Once we had set a date, I tried desperately to find my Ma. I wanted her there more than anything, I wanted her to be proud of me again, but she was long gone. As it drew closer I was so wrapped up in flowers, cake, favours and gift listings that I grew less and less bothered by the fact that my Ma wouldn’t be there.
‘Father West performed the service for us, it was so gorgeous. The church was decked out in white ribbons and red roses, it looked like something straight out of a fairy tale. I arrived in a limousine, I felt like a celebrity! Brandon’s father, Clyde, gave me away. It felt right after how good he had been to me.’
Aiden recalled how Clyde White had stated that he and his wife weren’t happy when Brandon started dating Brandy. Perhaps they had finally warmed to her by the time the young couple were due to wed, although when he had spoken to him, Clyde had only hate for his daughter-in-law, which, under the circumstances, was understandable.
‘So, you had a good relationship with Brandon’s parents?’
‘Oh, the best. We used to be there all the time. But after we got married, we got our own place and we stopped visiting so much.
‘Everyone from town was there.’ She was still recollecting her wedding day, a blissful smile on her face. ‘Brandon was so popular, and people seemed to have forgotten, or at least forgiven me about Miss Southern Star. I had my hair done up and a wonderful dress. Pure white, and mark my words, Mr. Connelly, I had every right to wear white. Not like some girls, no sir, I had saved myself. At least, you know, with Brandon. Back in the trailer park, when Ma had gotten real bad, things had happened… But I’d moved on from that. I wanted our wedding night to be special, I wanted to do everything right!
‘After the service we went back to Brandon’s house. There was a massive marquee in the garden where we were having the reception. We had a band and everything! It was the talk of the town for weeks after. Sheriff Fern even said it was the most wonderful wedding he had ever attended. I felt like a princess, it was almost as good as when I won my title, if my Ma had been there it would easily have been better. But I missed her. Brandon had so many people there for him, his family, friends, work mates. I had no one. It hurt like hell when the photographer took pictures with his family and then quietly asked where mine were. But I told him, “this is my family now”. And that was how I felt, that I finally had a proper family now. Marrying Brandon felt right, and I loved him so much I used to worry that I might burst!’
She was still smiling but there was a sadness in her eyes, still she continued: ‘Our first dance was to the Buddy Holly song, “True Love Ways”. Brandon didn’t want that, he had fought me tooth and nail right up until the very last moment. He wanted “Always” by Bon Jovi, but I’m not much a fan of rock music. I was so surprised when Buddy Holly came on, to me, it just proved how much Brandon cared about me, that he was willing to let me have my song over his. Becoming Mrs. White was truly wonderful, in every sense. He gave me the wedding of my dreams, and in exchange, I gave him myself, unconditionally. Which I guess is what marriage is.’
‘I suppose,’ Aiden agreed. ‘Although, you shouldn’t lose sight of the person you are, else it affects the marriage.’
‘Maybe that is where we went wrong, we lost sight of ourselves. We changed.’
‘How did you change?’
‘Well.’ Brandy’s smile was now entirely gone, replaced with a face shrouded in sadness. Grief was clearly weighing heavily on her mind as she contemplated how to continue.
‘As I said, we got our own house. Lovely little place, two bedrooms, one bathroom, a porch and huge lawn out at the back. On a clear day you could sit out and see for miles. Our house was just outside town, all alone except for the Allens’ place two miles down the road to the east. I wasn’t all too happy about living a bit out like that. I was used to living alone but not being completely alone, there was always people about in the trailer park. There was never complete silence. But out in my house, you could honestly have heard a pin drop some days when there was no breeze. It could be quite creepy, especially at night. Brandon didn’t mind where it was, he could drive and had to work most days. But me, I couldn’t drive and I didn’t know anyone who I could ask to pick me up and take me places. I had to rely on Brandon whenever I wanted to go anywhere.’
‘So, the dynamic of the relationship changed?’
‘Not right away, but slowly, as more and more time passed he got more and more annoyed about things. Some nights he went out with the lads and wouldn’t return home until the following day. I did wonder if perhaps he was cheating on me, but I was giving him what he wanted in the bedroom so he had no reason to stray.
‘I cooked his meals for him; on the table at 6pm sharp for when he got in from work. I washed his clothes, cleaned the house. I did everything but it was so lonely. I asked him time and again for a dog to keep me company but he was having none of it. He stopped treating me like a princess; I guess he started taking me for granted. But he began to change. After our first anniversary Brandon was gone, and what I was left with for a husband, I grew to hate.’
‘Is that what drove you to kill him, your hatred for the man he had become?’
Aiden knew all too well the changes that people undergo once they enter into marriage. He and Isla had practically become strangers in Chicago, occasionally passing like ships in the night as they went about their lives. He had even started to feel estranged from Meegan as he worked longer and longer hours, and to be distant from his own child he could not bear. One day he came home from work and when he took her in his arms she bawled her eyes out, as if she did not recognise him. That was the last straw; Aiden knew that if he didn’t move his family away from the city they would ultimately be destroyed. He sympathised with Brandy, although he knew not to tell her so.
‘Brandon took to drinking a lot. Or so I thought. The more time I lived as his wife, the more I realised how I had never known him at all. He had shown me just one face whilst we were dating, now I was being introduced to a host of others, and some of them terrified me. He had a drinking problem and it was nothing new. Even at the wedding, he drank so much that when he took me to our marital bed to, you know, do it, he just passed out. He awoke two hours later being sick everywhere. He threw up on my dress, it was terrible. The Brandon I knew would have been ashamed by his behaviour, but the next day he wasn’t sorry. He even shouted at me for insisting that he pay for my dress to be dry cleaned! The day I became Mrs. White, everything changed, and not for the good.’
Brandy hugged herself with her arms and rested her head on her chest. Aiden noted that they didn’t have long left before he would have to leave. They were making good progress but he needed to know more. All marriages have their problems, yet he found it hard to believe that she murdered her husband because he had a drinking problem. There was something else.
‘He had a temper.’ She said it so quietly, that through the Perspex glass Aiden could hardly hear her.
‘Was he violent?’ Tears were now running down her cheeks.
‘Can I trust you, Mr. Connelly?’
‘Yes, of course.’
‘Because…everyone loves Brandon…’ She was sobbing. ‘They don’t listen to me…they just looked away and let him…’
Brandy broke down and cried so hard her tiny body shook. Distressed, Aiden pressed his palm to the glass. Through her cries she recognised the gesture, what he was trying to convey to her, and shakily she pressed her hand against his and the sobs slowly began to subside.
‘He did terrible things,’ she whispered.
‘Brandy, you need to tell me what he did.’
She looked at Aiden through her watery eyes and slowly lifted up the orange sleeves of her jump suit to reveal her arms. They were slender and white, but they made Aiden grimace in horror. The perfect white of her skin was littered with scars, a majority appeared to be cigarette burns, but there were also cuts. She quickly pulled her sleeves back down in shame.
‘They don’t look so bad these days.’
‘He did that to you?’
‘He did much more than that.’
Aiden wanted to ask more but the guards were moving forward to usher her away. He watched her leave, dumbfounded. The local hero, Avalon’s Saint, had cruelly beaten his wife, to what extent it was currently unclear, and in order to save herself, she had killed him, yet she was the villain. A shiver ran down his spine as he realised that he may no longer be dealing with a murder case; he would just need more proof to back up Brandy’s allegations. He would also need to get her to confess to exactly what he did to her, no matter how awful.
His skin was soaked in sweat before he had even got to his car. The heat was ridiculous. Grey clouds hung ominously on the horizon. Aiden began his drive home, his mind awash with broken heroes and tortured beauty queens.
Isla came up with the idea that since it was so hot, they should have a barbeque for dinner. Meegan was in the kitchen, helping prepare the salad, whilst Aiden did the man thing and cooked the meat. He was flipping over the steaks, mulling over Brandy’s case in his mind. If she really had been abused, there were hopefully some records to back up her claims hospital files, police reports, probably disguised as ‘accidents’ rather than violently inflicted injuries.
The grey clouds had now swallowed the entire sky but the heat remained, and if anything had intensified. On his way home Aiden had dropped into work, only to find that neither Edmond nor Betty were there; a brief note explained that the heat was too much and that they would see him tomorrow. However, Edmond had stated in the note that installing air conditioning was now on the top of his to-do list! Aiden was grateful to be able to head home and get out of his suit. Standing outside in just a T-shirt and shorts he felt incredibly relaxed and settled in his new house. Avalon was a huge adjustment for the family but they seemed to be doing well.
‘Baby, how are those steaks doing?’ Isla called from the kitchen. Aiden skewered the largest steak with a knife, and clear liquid oozed onto the burning coals below.
‘Nearly done!’ he shouted back.
‘I want to see.’ Meegan came running over on her podgy legs but Aiden held his hand up sternly.
‘No, princess, it is too hot. Help Mommy with the salad.’ She looked grumpy, and then her lip started to quiver and Aiden braced himself for the tantrum, but luckily Isla intervened.
‘Want to help Mommy with the strawberries for dessert?’
‘Strawberries!’ Meegan cried gleefully, instantly forgetting her banishment from the barbeque area.
‘Thanks for averting that storm,’ Aiden laughed.
‘No problem, don’t think I can stop that one though.’ She pointed out into the distance. Aiden looked up and sure enough, silver forks of lightning were dancing across the sky and didn’t appear to be that far away.
‘I’ll just finish up here; we had better eat inside, just to be safe.’
The family were happily tucking into their steaks when rain started to lash at the windows.
‘Here it comes,’ Isla sighed.
‘Here what comes?’ her little daughter asked innocently.
‘Just a storm, honey, nothing to worry about.’
Aiden found that he didn’t have much of an appetite. Perhaps it was the heat, but he wagered that it had more to do with the uproar his mind was in.
‘Babe, are youOK?’ Isla asked, concerned over the amount of food left on his plate.
‘I’m just not hungry.’
‘Probably this heat.’ He was glad that she wasn’t going to interrogate him further.
‘Although someone can still eat like a horse!’ She rustled her daughter’s hair as the little girl proudly lifted up her empty plate.
‘I like salad,’ she told her parents.
‘Good girl, fruit and vegetables will help you grow big and strong,’ Aiden told her. Meegan raised her arms above her head, showing how big she already was.
‘Wow, you are huge!’ he laughed.
‘Nobody is going to mess with our little girl,’ Isla giggled. Aiden smiled but felt a pang of sadness wash over him. How would he feel if a man attacked Meegan? Small, innocent, beautiful Meegan. Surely any man who could raise his fists to a woman is a monster? If that was the case, then the heroic image Avalon had of Brandon White was all just a sham. How would the town feel towards Aiden if he shattered their dream of their golden boy?
‘Penny for your thoughts?’ Isla tapped his arm.
‘Penny for your thoughts!’ Meegan echoed.
‘Nothing,’ he told the two women in his life. ‘Just work stuff.’ Thunder rumbled from far away, a warning of what was to come. Meegan looked uneasy. She held her hands out to her mother, indicating that she wanted to be out of her high chair and safe in her arms.
‘Why don’t we all go sit in the lounge?’ Isla offered, hoisting the toddler out. ‘Aiden?’
‘When you are with us,be with us,’ she muttered to him angrily under her breath. She couldn’t ignore the distant look he had in his eyes each night after work. She feared that something, or someone, was constantly on his mind.
The rain intensified and as the thunder grew louder, flashes of lightning began to illuminate the sky. Meegan was nestled safely between her parents, cowering in fear at each rumble. Aiden had wanted to put the television on but Isla wouldn’t allow him. So there they sat, waiting for the storm to pass. After a while, even he had to admit that it was an immense storm. Once or twice he thought he heard trees splitting as they were struck by lightning. It was so dark it felt like the dead of night. Despite the noise, Meegan had managed to fall asleep, her hand on Aiden’s chest.
‘I’ll take her up to bed,’ he whispered.
‘No, if she wakes up in bed and the storm is still raging she will be terrified. Leave her here till it passes,’ his wife ordered.
They sat in near enough silence, for fear of waking Meegan. Aiden’s thoughts drifted to Brandy. She must be terrified in her cell as the storm raged outside. At least he had Isla and Meegan; she had no one. He almost felt guilty that she was alone. No doubt the storm was bringing back memories of Brandon and that fateful night when he proposed. Aiden watched his wife. She was doing amazingly well and he should tell her more often. There was no doubt that he could be a better husband. He leant over Meegan and squeezed Isla’s hand. She repaid the gesture.
‘Scared?’ she teased.
‘As long as I have you, what is there to be scared of?’ Isla blushed.
‘I don’t mean to be distant, honey. Work is just a little heavy at the moment.’
‘Well, itsOK, it will be over soon.’ Over. The word lingered in Aiden’s mind. It wasn’t just the case that would be over, it would be Brandy’s life. He shifted uncomfortably beneath his growing concerns.
‘Aid, are you all right?’ Isla asked.
‘Yes, baby, just stiff beneath this weight.’ He nodded towards a sleeping Meegan and laughed.
‘I don’t know how she does it, but that kid can sleep anywhere,’ Isla said as she stroked her daughter’s soft hair fondly.
Once the storm had finally passed Aiden tucked Meegan up in bed and went and grabbed a cool beer from the fridge. The tension in the air had lifted, leaving a calm atmosphere, full of hope and new beginnings. He was curious about the damage inflicted by the storm but by now it was too dark to go out exploring. He curled up on the sofa beside Isla. She was already on her second glass of wine and was getting sleepy.
‘Baby, do you remember our wedding song?’
‘“You are my destiny, you are my one and only.”’ She softly sang the lyrics to the popular Lionel Richie song in response. He smiled and wrapped his arm around her.
‘Remember how much my college buddies ribbed me about that?’
‘But we did love a bit of Lionel. It was our guilty pleasure.’ Her head was rested on his shoulder and Aiden breathed in the intoxicating aroma of her hair.
‘The world always feels so peaceful after a storm,’ she observed.
‘I like it.’
‘Me too. I’m going to start painting tomorrow now it won’t be as hot. I got some manky blue, like you asked.’
‘I’m thinking that will do for the bathroom.’
‘Uh huh,’ in the fading light outside stars began to pierce through the now departing clouds. Isla rubbed a hand along Aiden’s inner thigh, but it was affectionate not suggestive. He could tell that tonight, all they would be doing in bed was sleeping, and he was OKwith that. It had been a stressful day and all he wanted to do was lay his head upon his pillow and drift away to somewhere free from the pain and strife of reality.
‘You know what comes after a storm?’ his wife mused in her sleepy, drunken haze.
‘No, baby, what comes after a storm?’
‘A rainbow. A beautiful, multi-coloured rainbow that makes everything seem better.’
Aiden could sense his own rainbow appearing. If Brandy could back up her claims about Brandon’s violent nature, Aiden could save her from the gas chamber. And surely there is no greater calling than to save a life? With a new sense of purpose, he finished his beer and let sleep take hold as he lay with his wife sprawled across him. Outside, thunder rumbled in the distance, as the storm moved on; preparing to shake up another town.
Chapter Six: Superhuman?
Buck Fern lived and breathed Avalon. Nothing happened in the town without him knowing about it and he liked it that way. He felt that his dedication was what made him so good at his job. He had held his position as sheriff for a good two decades. People around town respected and trusted him. He upheld the law and helped maintain the balance between right and wrong. Buck enjoyed his job and felt that it gave his life purpose. There were two things that he did not like: outsiders, and those that questioned him. Aiden Connelly was both of these things, which meant that Buck disliked him intensely. When he saw the young lawyer approaching the Sheriff’s Office early Wednesday morning he cursed under his breath. He knew from past experience that people from the city always think that they know best. They are quick to try and impress their fancy lifestyle and way of thinking onto the people of Avalon. But there was a system in town, and it worked. Buck had worked hard to instil this system and he’d be damned if some hotshot kid was going to try and undermine him. As Aiden pushed open the office doors Buck tensed all over and prepared himself for what would undoubtedly be an unpleasant encounter.
Aiden was relieved to find that since the storm the weather was decidedly cooler. However, as he entered Avalon Sheriff’s Department, he felt that the air grew even colder as Buck Fern gave him a frosty reception. Again, Aiden politely offered his hand to the old man, who merely regarded it and grunted. Buck was sat on a desk, rather than behind it, and when Aiden approached, appeared to be idly gazing out of the front windows of the office.
‘Must be a slow day,’ Aiden mused to himself.
Buck made no attempt to hide his disdain for the young man. He didn’t even raise himself from his perch when Aiden had entered, preferring to continue to gaze out of the window until his visitor was directly in front of him. Buck Fern was being downright rude, it was childish and uncalled for but it was all the old man knew. When he didn’t like somebody, he either punched them square in the face, which, being sheriff, wasn’t the best approach, or he did his best to completely ignore them. Aiden was being annoyingly persistent which meant that Buck had to reconsider his strategy. He would have loved nothing more than to wipe the smug look of his boyish face, but he knew that he needed to restrain himself, at least for the time being.
‘We meet again, Sheriff.’
‘So it would seem.’
‘As you know, I’m currently in charge of the Brandy White case.’
‘You did mention it.’ Aiden felt his frustration growing. Dealing with Buck was like dealing with a petulant teenager, which was ridiculous considering he was a grown man and sheriff of a town no less! He was starting to think that coming to try and gather information from him was not a good idea.
‘Then, you’ll remember that I also mentioned that I’d be needing access to certain files relating to the case.’
Buck ran a wrinkled hand across his equally aged face and shot Aiden a dirty look.
‘Protocol?’ he queried.
‘I can’t disclose any information to you I’m afraid. I trust that you will cooperate with my investigations?’
Buck raised himself up from the desk so that he was standing. Aiden assumed that this movement was meant to somehow intimidate him but it failed to have the desired effect.
‘I need to have the files relating to the arrest of Brandy White, including the police report from the night of the murder.’
‘Fine, I’ll have those sorted out for you in due time.’
‘Due time? I need those files quickly, so if you can make haste, Sheriff. The trial is in just over two weeks.’
‘I’m aware of when the trial is. The whole town is. You will get your damn files when you get them.’ Aiden didn’t want to argue with the old man.
‘I also need any other files regarding Brandon White.’
‘Other files?’ Buck seemed taken aback by this request.
‘Yes, past indiscretions. Speeding fines, pub brawls, DUIs, anything like that.’
‘What are you implying?’
Aiden was cautious not to give too much away. At least not yet.
‘I need to have a clear legal history of both Brandy and Brandon. As I said, I can’t tell you much, it is all part of my investigation.’
‘Brandon never got in no trouble,’ Buck hissed at him angrily.
‘You are telling me that he was whiter than white?’ The sheriff remained silent. ‘Yeah, I didn’t think so.’
‘This town loved Brandon.’
‘So I keep hearing.’
‘That devil woman murdered him in cold blood. What more do you need to know?’
‘A lot more, actually. I’ll come for the files tomorrow.’
‘If I were you, I’d stop digging.’
‘You don’t scare me.’
‘You going to the big game tonight, Mr. Connelly?’ The change of topic threw Aiden off guard.
‘The football game, over at the High School. Big event, the whole town comes out to give the boys some support. I expect you’ll be taking your lovely wife and daughter along with you.’
‘Are you threatening me?’ Aiden asked, shocked.
‘Heavens no,’ Buck laughed, but there was a menacing glint in his eyes. ‘I was just trying to make conversation. New kid in town, will do you good to go to the game, get in with the townsfolk. It is important to make friends somewhere as small as Avalon. You might remember that.’
‘Thanks, I will.’ Aiden was starting to become unnerved by Buck’s behaviour and didn’t want to antagonise him further.
‘I’ll be off then, I’ll be back around the same time tomorrow.’
‘Can’t wait,’ Buck called after him, sarcasm coating his words.
Aiden waved half-heartedly as he left, glad to be away, as he got back into his car and headed towards work.
‘Good morning, Mr. Connelly,’ Betty greeted him as he walked through the door. Now that the weather had cooled considerably she was back to her normal, immaculate self.
‘Terrible storm last night.’
‘Yes, it was, I think we needed it though.’
‘Well, I cannot bear the heat. Plays havoc with me! Oh, before you go in, you have a visitor in there waiting for you.’
‘A visitor?’ Aiden was intrigued.
‘Yes, Father West arrived about ten minutes ago asking to see you. Edmond is out of the office for the morning and it didn’t feel right leaving a man of God to wait out here on the sofas. Hope you don’t mind. I’ve given him a cup of coffee. Would you believe that he takes two sugars?’
Aiden thanked Betty and headed into his office, puzzled at what this impromptu meeting with Father West could be about.
As Aiden entered the room Father West rose to his feet and extended his hand in greeting. They shook hands vigorously and exchanged pleasantries. Aiden was thankful for the gesture after his uncomfortable encounter with Buck Fern. Even dressed down in jeans and a blue shirt, Father West’s dog collar still gave him away. Aiden noted again how devastatingly handsome he was. He couldn’t help but wonder what had made him choose this particular path in life. He was certain that priests could not enjoy the company of a woman until they entered into marriage and, looking like he did, Father West would certainly find temptation around every corner. Aiden toyed with the idea that perhaps, if the two men managed to strike up a friendship, he may one day be able to ask him what drew him to devote his life to God. He was genuinely curious.
‘So, to what do I owe this pleasure?’ Aiden asked as he settled himself behind his desk.
‘How are you settling into town?’
‘Fine,’ Aiden replied, bemused. Surely Father West had not troubled himself to come into his offices just to enquire about his wellbeing?
‘I was glad that you came to church on Sunday.’
‘We never normally go. But, a new start and everything, can’t hurt to have God on your side.’
Father West smiled. ‘It will be good for you and your family to meet people from around town. Your wife must be feeling quite isolated.’
A shiver crept up Aiden’s spine as he feared that he had grossly misjudged Father West. The next thing he knew, he would be offering to stop by his house and keep Isla company during the day and one thing would lead to another…
Aiden cursed himself for being so childish.
‘Perhaps she may like to join the gardening club that a few of the local ladies set up?’
‘Yes, might be good. We need to start looking into nurseries for our daughter.’
‘I could recommend a few.’
‘That would be great.’
Aiden watched Father West drain his coffee cup and sensed that the priest wanted to say something more.
‘You enjoy working here?’
‘Sure do.’ Aiden was growing tired of the constant questions regarding his life. ‘Edmond is a great man, I’m enjoying working with him immensely.’
‘Didn’t you say that you were handling the Brandy White case?’ Bingo. Father West was here to dig.
‘Yeah, I am. It is an interesting one. Have you been over to Eastham to see her yet?’
‘No, but I will as soon as I can.’
‘She would really appreciate that.’
‘I imagine she is in a very dark place.’ Father West merely nodded. ‘You knew her well, didn’t you, Father?’
‘She attended church regularly when she was younger, yes.’ Aiden couldn’t help but notice that Father West was blushing profusely.
‘Wasn’t it you that had her mother sanctioned?’ The dynamic of the conversation had changed, placing Father West in the hot seat.
‘Yes, many years ago. Janice Cotton. Poor woman had truly lost her way, sad that she never returned. You can only hope that wherever she is, she is doing better than she was.’
‘Indeed.’ Aiden was still unsure as to why Father West had come to see him. He felt uneasy quizzing a priest but continued nonetheless.
‘And weren’t you the priest who married Brandy and Brandon?’
‘Yes, I was.’ Father West looked sad. Or did he look guilty? Aiden couldn’t tell.
‘How well did you know Brandon?’
‘Not very well.’
‘It seems like he was very popular around town.’
‘Yes, he was.’
The two men sat in silence for a moment. Father West was struggling with a number of things, least of all his conscience. Aiden Connelly had barely been in town five minutes, it would be foolish to assume that he could trust him. Yet Patrick West had always prided himself on being an accurate judge of character. His instincts had almost always been right, sometimes to the point where he found himself resenting the profession he was in. Too many people came and sat before him to profess their love and devotion to God whilst hiding a multitude of sins.
‘Brandy says that Brandon hit her.’ Aiden felt the words shoot out of his mouth before he had a chance to think. Father West’s eyebrows rose in surprise, but his face remained deadpan, leading Aiden to believe what he had suspected: that Father West already knew.
‘She told you that?’
‘Yes, and she has marks all up her arms. I’ve no doubt that there are more. I’m hoping to go and see her again tomorrow.’
Silence once again settled between them. Both men, in their minds, said a thousand words, but neither knew how to vocalise their thoughts to the other. Finally, Father West spoke.
‘Brandy led a very troubled life…’
‘Yeah, I know all about the beauty pageant scandal and her mother, what I’m talking about is her marriage.’
‘Even after her vows,’ Father West concluded.
‘So you knew about the abuse?’ The priest suddenly looked his age, worn down by the burden of carrying other people’s troubles for so long.
‘She came to me, often very distraught, saying she had fallen over, or walked into a wall. But I knew.’
‘Why didn’t you do anything?’
‘What could I do? I’m her priest. She came to me in confidence, and never directly blamed Brandon.’
‘Everyone around here sees him as some kind of saint.’ Aiden felt anger boiling up in his blood. ‘How bad was it?’
‘I don’t know.’ Father West was lying, he sensed it. Aiden was growing tired of playing games with him.
‘Father, why did you come here?’ There it was, blunt and to the point. He expected Father West to be taken aback by the question, instead he nodded thoughtfully.
‘I’m wondering that too.’ He drummed his fingers against his coffee cup as his mind worked furiously to seek an answer.
‘You are new in town and handling a very sensitive case. I guess what I’m trying to say is…listen to Brandy. Let her tell her story. People around here are so quick to judge, but there is more to this than meets the eye.’
‘You know more than you are saying,’ Aiden accused.
‘That is all I can tell you for now. Just be careful. Brandon was loved by this town, and some people would do anything to see Brandy go down.’
‘Like Sheriff Fern?’
‘He can be dangerous.’ Aiden was beginning to feel uneasy. Was Father West warning him? Had Buck Fern sent him? He didn’t know what to think.
‘Can I trust you?’ The question caught Aiden off guard. Here he was, wondering if the priest was on his side, whilst all along Father West had been thinking the same thing of him.
‘As long as I can trust you.’
‘Good, then we will talk again. First, you need to see Brandy. Tell her to tell you everything. Tell her you have spoken with me.’ They shook hands, only this time with more sincerity.
‘Take care, Mr. Connelly. May God be with you.’
Aiden felt shell-shocked after speaking with Father West. In the tranquillity of the empty office his mind was a tangled maze of questions, but one thing he knew was that Brandy held a majority of the answers. He was debating whether to go over to Eastham that very afternoon when Edmond came through the door, a beaming smile across his face, followed by two men in blue overalls.
‘Well, Aiden my boy, I’ve gone and done it!’ He clapped his hands together in glee.
‘Today, a momentous occasion,’ he began as Betty came in to see what all the commotion was. ‘I am bringing this office into the 21stcentury. We are having air conditioning fitted!’
‘Oh how simply marvellous!’ Betty cried out in glee.
‘In your own time, boys,’ he said to the workmen, enjoying his moment of empowerment.
‘Coffees?’ Betty asked excitedly.
‘Ta, love.’ The workmen accepted her offer gratefully. Edmond and Aiden both decided to indulge in a caffeine fix also.
‘This heat wave made me realise it was high time we modernised the office,’ Edmond was explaining. ‘I thought it would be a nice surprise for you all!’
‘Very thoughtful of you, Edmond.’
‘Thanks, my lad. Now we can work in a cool, calm environment. I think it is a blinding investment. It was Betty really that swayed me. The old girl told me she was worried she was suffering from heat exhaustion!’
‘Said she was feeling faint, having shortness of breath. Sounds like the change to me, but you can’t say that to a lady. My wife taught me that the hard way!’ He chuckled to himself. ‘Well then, let’s get down to it. The law doesn’t represent itself, you know!’
Edmond sneakily made his coffee Irish,. He was tempted to extend this offer to Aiden, but the lad seemed distant, so he thought better of it.
Aiden decided against visiting Brandy that afternoon. He decided that he first wanted to speak with Clyde White again, and the football game that evening would give him the perfect opportunity.
It was the night of the big game and the air buzzed with electric tension. Aiden, like many other residents of Avalon, had driven to the High School, parked up and was now walking towards the football field. For such a small town there was certainly an impressive turnout. The game didn’t start until seven, Aiden had arrived at a quarter past six, on Edmond’s advice, and had still struggled to find a parking space. He could already hear a steady chorus of chanting coming from up ahead. It was a modest football field, flanked on two sides by tiered seating. The floodlights were already on as dusk was disappearing fast, being replaced by the dark void of night.
Meegan was finding it all quite wonderful. Seated high up on her father’s shoulders she was merrily waving a small flag an avid fan had kindly given her when they had arrived. There was a slight chill in the air so the family had layered up in sweaters, knowing that when standing around at night, you can get very cold, very quickly.
Aiden had anticipated that a majority of the crowd would be high school students, but he couldn’t have been more wrong. The game attracted fans young and old alike, in fact the students appeared to be outnumbered by the more senior residents which he found amusing. Everyone was in good spirits, exchanging kind hellos and the more excitable were already whooping and cheering. Aiden had missed all this, the sense of community. Isla, however, didn’t appear to be having a good time.
‘It is all very loud,’ she whispered to Aiden as they sat down in the bleachers, and he could tell from her tone that she was annoyed. She hadn’t wanted to come. Isla was never one for sports, that, as she put it, ‘you had to drink beer to enjoy’. Aiden had always loved football; he had even played in High School. Admittedly he wasn’t very good, but he had loved it all the same.
‘Just try and relax, honey, have a good time,’ he said to his wife. He now had Meegan on his lap but she was throwing herself around everywhere.
‘Oi,’ he said to her sternly. ‘Stop wriggling like a worm!’
‘But I want to see the fussble.’
‘We will see the football in a minute. The players will only come out if you sit down like a good little girl.’ Meegan huffed but did as her father said.
‘Didn’t you go to many games when you were at school?’ he asked Isla.
‘Nope. We were a basketball school.’
‘Oh, right. I guess you are quite tall!’
‘Fool! I didn’t play!’ She nudged him playfully.
‘Ladies and gentlemen!’ avoice boomed from the overhead speakers. Meegan cowered in terror.
‘For your entertainment, your Avalon Angels Cheering Squad!’ The crowd erupted in cheers, the more zealous even rose to their feet and wolf-whistled.
A dozen teenage girls dressed in skimpy red and white dresses came out onto the field and took up formation before the home side.
‘Give me an A!’ shouted a perky blonde at the front.
‘A!’ the crowd echoed. Aiden chanted along and watched as the cheerleaders cartwheeled and pivoted around the field, building up support for their team, and remembered all too fondly how much he loved cheerleaders.
In high school, being on the football team meant two things: you got to cut classes and you got laid. In his experience, all the stereotypes regarding cheerleaders had been wonderfully true, and watching this gaggle of gorgeous girls dancing before him he couldn’t help but hope that Isla had once been a cheerleader and that she had kept her uniform…
After the cheerleading routine the voice returned from the heavens, this time to announce the arrival of the Avalon Angels football team. This time the crowd went wild, everyone was on their feet, Aiden and Isla included. He was glad to see that she was finally entering into the spirit of things.
The strapping lads of the football team were full of youth and energy. Aiden envied them. If only the feelings of euphoria you experience as a teenager could be crystallised and you could keep them with you forever. But then he remembered the more awkward memories high school can bring; from your first kiss to an outbreak of spots. He was glad to be beyond the learning stage of life, although it frightened him to think that in the not too distant future Meegan would be experiencing all the things that he did.
‘Aid, I’m having trouble following the game,’ Isla confided ten minutes in. Aiden did his best to relay to her the rules regarding American football but it was difficult to be heard over the whoops and chanting of the crowd. He concluded that he probably should have explained the basics to her before they had left the house.
As the third quarter got under way Aiden turned his attention away from the game and started seeking out familiar faces in the crowd, in particular he was looking for Clyde White. From where he was sitting there was no sign of him. He did, however, spot Edmond and family who waved enthusiastically. Thankfully he couldn’t see Buck Fern.
‘Daddy, I’m tired,’ Meegan moaned, flopping her head dramatically against her father’s chest.
‘I know, baby, not long now.’ The crowd were now more subdued as the Avalon Angels were trailing behind. The cheerleaders did their best to rally support but as the closing minutes ticked by, the home team had to admit defeat. Disheartened, the people of Avalon began returning to their cars. Heads leant down in shame, the football players cleared the field, although Aiden noticed them quickly perk up as the cheerleaders came skipping over to lick their wounds and massage their egos.
Meegan was now fast asleep as they made their way with the crowd towards the parking lot.
‘Is your daughter ever awake?’ a friendly voice called.
‘Oh, Father West.’ Isla grinned girlishly. Aiden nodded in greeting.
‘Did you enjoy the game? Shame we didn’t win.’
‘It was good. The team are pretty popular.’
‘They sure are. A decent side this year, some impressive players coming along.’
‘The team got a lot of history?’ Father West eyed Aiden nervously at this question.
‘Most men in Avalon played for the Angels at some point, so everyone has a personal connection and knows somebody playing now, be it a son, nephew or neighbour.’
‘Did you notice the black armbands?’
‘Yeah, for Brandon?’
‘Yeah.’ The two men exchanged knowing glances. Aiden was going to say more when Father West was dragged into conversation with an elderly man, who was being quite vocal in his complaint about the upkeep of his wife’s grave. Aiden felt sorry for Father West, he must feel that he was at work 24/7, although he would probably feed him some line like ‘doing the lord’s work is no chore’. Aiden knew that his lack of patience would preclude him from doing any such job. He got annoyed even at dinner parties when, as soon as people got wind that he was a lawyer, started asking for legal advice.
Aiden had just settled Meegan into her car seat when Edmond cornered him.
‘Well, hello there, my boy! I hope you enjoyed your first game!’ Aiden almost reeled back from the smell of liquor on his colleague’s breath.
‘Having a good night, Edmond?’
‘Splendid, splendid. Shame we lost, but you can’t win them all! My dear!’ he exclaimed as he saw Isla, before promptly wrapping his arms around her. Her wide eyes looked pleadingly at Aiden as she was stuck fast in Edmond’s embrace.
‘Such a great game,’ he said as he finally let her go. ‘I told Betty she should come, but she said it isn’t her thing. Yet I invite her, every game. The old girl needs to get out more!’
‘I thought Clyde White would be here but I haven’t seen him.’
‘Clyde? Yes, he is normally always here. The team means a lot to him. He’s probably here somewhere.’ Aiden scanned the assortment of people bustling around him into various vehicles but could see no sign of the Avalon Pine owner.
‘Ed, Ed!’ a female voice was calling. ‘Oh there you are!’ Carol Cope came staggering over, equally as drunk as her husband.‘Oh, Aiden, hello!’ This time it was his turn for the over-familiar embrace. Squashed up against Carol’s ample bosom he could see his wife giggling.
‘Hello, Carol, good to see you again,’ he said timidly once she had let him go and he had refilled his lungs.
‘Well, we best be off.’ Edmond bowed and linked arms with his wife and the pair tilted left, then right before aligning themselves and wandering off.
‘Quite a pair, aren’t they?’ Isla laughed.
‘Meegan told me that she wants to be a cheerleader.’
‘Oh no,’ Aiden said as he got into the car. ‘I know what cheerleaders are like and my daughter will be a lady!’ Isla giggled at this.
‘Why did you want to see Clyde White?’ she asked as they were driving along.
‘No reason,’ Aiden lied. ‘Just work stuff.’ Isla rolled her eyes.
‘Don’t you ever clock off?’ she moaned.
‘Yes, of course. I just wanted to ask him something, that’s all.’
‘Well, I’m sure it can wait.’
‘Yes, I guess it will have to.’
Aiden’s car rolled along the darkened streets until they were back home. That night his sleep was troubled, his dreams haunted by demonic football players. He awoke in a sweat, gasping for breath. Isla remained curled up beside him, peaceful in her slumber. Alone, he turned his mind to Clyde White. He was certain that he had not been present at the game. If this was the case, Aiden could only come to one conclusion to explain his absence: either Clyde was sick, which he doubted as he had only seen him not long ago and he was fit and well; which left Aiden to believe that Clyde had not attended the game because he was avoiding him. Which meant that he had something to hide.
Chapter Seven: Shattered Glass
It was an unseasonably cold morning when Aiden drove out to Eastham. The sun was refusing to show its face and dark grey clouds dominated the sky. The roads were empty as usual as he made his way towards the prison which was Brandy’s cage.
Aiden took up his usual position before the Perspex glass wall, carefully setting up his Dictaphone and arranging his notes before prisoner 929’s arrival. The walls were as dull as the sky outside, as if all colours had been drained away from the world. Eastham felt even more oppressive than usual. One of the guards announced Brandy’s arrival but she need not have bothered; the moment the prisoner entered the room it was as if the entire universe shifted. She appeared to be glowing, from her luminous hair to the harsh orange of her regulation clothing. It felt as if Brandy was the sun in a dark, never-ending universe and you could not help but be drawn to her. Her cheeks were flushed and she seemed happy, and Aiden felt his heart soar. He berated himself for it, but couldn’t help feeling a sense of delight at seeing that Brandy was happy. Even the guards seemed in a more favourable mood. Brandy was blissfully unaware of the power she held over them all as she delicately sat down and gazed at Aiden, awaiting his direction for how the meeting was to proceed.
‘So, Brandy, how are you feeling today?’ He knew he was making small talk and wasting valuable time but he couldn’t help it.
‘Today, Mr. Connelly, I am feeling mighty fine. I feel as if that storm took all my problems away with it.’
‘That is good to hear.’ He shuffled his papers nervously, apprehensive about carrying on. Brandy seemed to be in a good place, and he knew that what he needed to ask her, what he needed her to recall, would no doubt return her to the darkest place she had ever been, and guilt overwhelmed him.
‘I went to the game last night.’ He was stalling.
‘Oh, the Angels? Oh wow, I bet you had a real good time! Everyone loves the Angels!’
‘Did you used to go watch them?’
‘Sometimes, not all that much. I never was around enough to get caught up in that whole school spirit thing.’
Aiden took a deep breath. He needed to get answers, even if that meant stealing the sparkle from her eyes.
‘Brandy,’ he spoke softly, ‘I need you to tell me, in detail, about your marriage to Brandon.’
As Aiden had feared, at the mention of Brandon the glow within Brandy immediately vanished and the room plunged into a depressive state of darkness. Her eyes became dark and her skin grey.
‘Very, well, Mr. Connelly.’ Her voice was calm and steady. ‘But I must warn you, it isn’t a pretty tale to tell.’ And with her warning out of the way, she recalled her time as Mrs. Brandon White.
‘As I told you, Brandon liked a drink. He always had. His drinking got him in trouble all over town, drink driving and the like. But old Buck Fern always turned the other cheek, his status as a football hero made him almost untouchable. He was used to always getting his own way, when people went against him, he would lash out. Not at them, just me. At first it was just words, which I could handle. If he’d had a bad day at work he’d come in, shouting, swearing. Then the anger was directed at me, he’d call me stupid, lazy, that sort of thing. After that, he grew violent, throwing things around, smashing glasses. At this point I wasn’t too bothered. I could see that he had a temper and when he was in one of his foul moods I’d just stay away from him. Normally, he was still the sweetest man in the world so I could easily forgive him for a few cruel words. But then, about eight months after we had gotten married, he turned on me.’
Aiden wished he could pass his hand through the glass and hold hers but he couldn’t. She had to push through the pain of her memories alone.
‘I can still remember that night. I wish I’d had the strength then to pack my bags and leave but I had nowhere to go. He was my everything. He knew that, I think that was how he knew he could get away with treating me how he did. He had been out with his friends and he was very drunk. He came in demanding that I cook him dinner, so I told him that he’d had dinner before he went out. Well, that was enough to send him crazy. His eyes got all screwed up in rage, he called me a lying whore and a bitch, then he punched me square in the face. The force threw me onto my back and I just lay there in shock. He yelled at me to get up but I was afraid. When I wouldn’t get up he kicked me in my sides. The pain was unbearable, I felt like all my insides were being crushed. After a bit he got bored and wandered off into the bedroom where he collapsed on the bed.
‘The next day, I looked so awful that I was too ashamed to leave and seek help, I didn’t want anyone seeing me like this. I had two black eyes, a cut lip and my whole body was beaten black and blue. I ran myself a bath and just lay in it, crying for hours. When Brandon sobered up he couldn’t apologise enough. He bought me flowers, told me how much he loved me, that he would never touch me again.’
She pressed her palms against her eyes, holding back tears. ‘He lied.’
‘So, that was the first time he was violent towards you?’ Aiden asked gently. Brandy nodded in response.
‘But soon…’ She breathed in deep, trying to stop her emotions overwhelming her. ‘It became a regular thing. Most weekends he would knock me about so that I stopped leaving the house at all, for fear of people seeing me. Each time it was the same, he would attack me in a rage, then later tell me how sorry he was and that he would get help. I wanted to go to someone, but foolishly I believed that he could change. How could I have been so stupid?’
‘Did you tell anyone?’
‘Yes, in the end I felt that he’d left me with no choice. It was my twentieth birthday and he was supposed to finish work early and take me for dinner and a movie. I was all dressed up in the nicest dress I had and so excited about finally getting out of the damn house. I told myself that this was the beginning of something good with Brandon, that we were beginning to put all our problems behind us. Well, six o clock came and went and he didn’t come home. I sat at the tablewatching the hours pass by. It was eleven when he came rolling in through the door. He was blind drunk as he had been out with the boys. I was fuming. I asked where he’d been and he flipped. I’d never seen him so mad before, he was like a monster. We had a beautiful glass vase on the table, it had been a wedding gift, full of his last batch of forgiveness flowers. He grabbed the vase and smashed it against the wall. I was devastated, so I fell to my knees and began trying to pick up the shards of glass. I loved that vase, so much.’ Brandy was crying now, tears forming a river down her soft cheeks.
‘He yelled at me, saying I cared more for the vase than him. Then he…he…’ She wiped her eyes with the sleeve of her jumpsuit. ‘He knelt down and picked up a large shard of glass and ran it down my arm.’ She pulled up her sleeve to reveal afrighteningly large scar. ‘Hedid it all down my legs too. When he was satisfied that he had punished me enough he went and got into the shower. I had no choice but to call 911, I was going to bleed to death.’
‘So the police came round?’
‘Sheriff Fern himself came out. When he asked what had happened Brandon was cool as a cucumber, saying that the vase had fallen onto me by accident. I screamed that he was lying, that he had done this. Brandon, still so terribly calm, said that I was just trying to get back at him for forgetting my birthday. Buck Fern sided with Brandon, saying that women can get far too emotional and that I should be less clumsy. They took me to hospital and dressed my wounds and no one said any more about it. I thought that Brandon would be mad, but for a while he calmed down, I expect it had all been a bit too close for him and he was worried about being found out.’
Aiden was writing away in his notebook.
‘What date is your birthday?’
‘March 18th.’ He scribbled the date down. ‘You thinking of sending me a card?’ She smiled weakly, her eyes red from crying.
‘Maybe,’ Aiden replied, aware that she would probably not live to see her next birthday. ‘I’m actually interested as there would be a police report from when you called the police and I’d like to see it.’
‘So how was Brandon after that had happened?’
‘For a while he seemed to calm down. Then, maybe a month or so later the drunken beatings started again. He had taken to smoking now too so he was getting creative with his cruelty, sometimes burning me. I was getting pretty scarred up by this time. I couldn’t wear T-shirts or pretty dresses any more as my arms and legs were such a mess. If people suspected anything no one dared say a word against Brandon. Even in searing heat I’d be wearing jeans and a sweater. But then, around Christmas time, I found out I was pregnant. I was overjoyed, I thought that a baby would help calm Brandon down, and that in carrying our baby he would ease off on me. And he did. For the first few months he was wonderful, he even painted the spare bedroom blue as he was convinced we were going to have a little boy. But then…he started drinking again…as I got bigger he would call me fat, telling me that he didn’t find me attractive any more. He made me cover up my bump in baggy clothes as he didn’t want no one knowing I was pregnant. He said he was tired of the town always being all over his business. He started beating me again, but he was always careful to just do my legs and arms, where no one could see.’
Brandy was subconsciously rubbing her arms as she recalled her husband’s cruelty.
‘Then, he had to go away one weekend, it was around Easter. I think it was something to do with work. I saw my chance to finally go to church, I hadn’t been in so long. And now that I was expecting a child, I knew I needed to find peace with God again, for the sake of my unborn baby. I walked all the way into town, my feet were near bleeding by the time I got there. I just sat in a pew, shattered, when Father West came over. He was worried as he hadn’t seen me in a long time. I was so hot, it was a warm day, I was sweating like a dog from all the walking, and without thinking I rolled up my sleeves. I heard him gasp when he saw my arms and my heart sank.’
‘Did you tell Father West what had been going on?’
‘I had no choice. You can’t lie to a priest. When he saw that I was pregnant too, he was outraged. He begged me to leave him, he said he would find somewhere safe for me to go but I wouldn’t have it. I knew how hard it was to grow up without a father and I didn’t want to do that to my child. I was a fool, if I’d run away when I had the chance things would have been so different…’ Her voice trailed off, wracked with emotion.
‘What did Father West do?’ Aiden felt terrible at pushing her to continue but knew that their time would soon be up.
‘He said he would talk to Brandon. And he did. He came round one day, it was another gorgeous, sunny day. They sat and talked, I was hanging laundry out to dry in the garden so I’ve no idea what was said. With Father West, Brandon was all smiles, the perfect gentleman. Then, as he waved goodbye to Father, he closed the door and turned to me, his smile was gone and his eyes were black with hate. He was beyond furious that I had gone to Father West. He said that he was going to teach me a lesson. He went out back and when he came back…’ Brandy shook her head through the tears, still in disbelief at just how cruel her husband had been. ‘When he came back he had a shovel.’
Aiden wasn’t sure if he could bear to hear any more. Brandy became engulfed by her tears, unable to continue. He could only imagine what had occurred after the priest had left.
After a while, the tears subsided.
‘They took me to hospital, but I lost the baby,’ she whispered. ‘Brandon said I’d fallen down the stairs. He said that if I told anyone about him again he’d kill me, and I knew that he would. I lived in fear of him. You know the worst part?’
‘What was the worst part?’
‘That no one would believe that he could have done these things. He said that I fell down the stairs. Thing is, we don’t have no stairs. But no one questioned him, and I was too scared to say anything.’
‘Did you plan to kill him?’
‘No, but he was about to kill me. I had no choice.’
Their time was up and an emotionally drained Brandy was led away, leaving Aiden with a lot to think about.
As Aiden had expected, Buck Fern was nowhere to be seen when he arrived at the Sheriff’s Offices to collect the files he had requested. A polite young girl who was working there kindly informed him that he was off doing his daily rounds of Avalon. Aiden was relieved. His encounters with the old sheriff were becoming increasingly strained and he just wasn’t in the mood for another awkward conversation. He just wanted to get the files and go. He waited patiently whilst the girl wandered into a back room to get his documents for him. As the minutes passed by he felt anger welling up inside him, as he thought that the stubborn old sheriff had failed to sort out the files for him in a deliberate attempt to withhold evidence. Luckily, just as his patience was about to wear out, the girl returned, laden down with numerous cardboard folders.
‘Here you are, Mr. Connelly. I’m afraid that these aren’t the originals; we can only let photocopies out of the building you see. So these are yours to keep.’
Taking the files, Aiden thanked her and left, feeling slightly annoyed that he wasn’t being given access to the original files, feeling sure that this was just a ploy to keep something vital hidden from him.
Sat at his desk in his now cool office, Aiden began going over the police reports. Edmond was in court all day so he had the place to himself. Betty had bustled in and out with coffee a few times, but apart from that he was undisturbed.
There were no surprises amongst the reports. Brandon had, as Aiden had suspected, had a few run-ins with the law. Nothing too serious, a few DUIs, two counts of being drunk and disorderly in a public place. It was always the same outcome: Brandon was given a verbal warning and a smack on the wrist. Each time the arresting officer was Buck Fern. This was probably just a coincidence, since it was a small town with an equally small police department, but Aiden wasn’t convinced.
He flicked through the files until he found what he was looking for. March 18th. He opened the folder and began to read.
At 11.52pm, a 911 call from a woman at a local residence saying she had been attacked. Possible domestic dispute. Sheriff Fern and Officers Bark and Simmons were dispatched to investigate.
Aiden read on…
Sheriff Fern arrived at the scene at 00.03am. Shortly followed by Officers Bark and Simmons. A young woman was severely wounded by cut glass from a fallen vase. No sign of foul play. Woman sent to St. Mary’s Hospital for further treatment. Outcome: severe accidental damage. No further investigation required.
The report was signed off by Buck Fern, but what intrigued Aiden was how the sheriff had arrived on the scene before his deputies. Had he quickly constructed a cover-up story with Brandon to protect him? It just didn’t add up. After March 18ththere were no further incidents, at least none that had been documented. Aiden thought about the second time that Brandy said she had ended up in hospital, when she had lost her baby, but there was no record of any police involvement that time.
Aiden wasn’t sure what to think, but he knew one thing, that Brandy was telling the truth. In his line of work, he rarely listened to his gut instinct, but this time his guts were screaming at him. It was clear that Brandon had beaten her, what he was unsure of was why anyone would want to cover it up. He read through the file again. St. Mary’s Hospital treated Brandy after the attack on her birthday. Perhaps the files that they held would have more answers; also, if they were the nearest hospital, it was logical to think that they had treated Brandy when she ‘fell down the stairs’.
‘Betty?’ He peered round his office door and could see the elderly lady typing away at her computer.
‘Oh, Mr. Connelly.’ She stopped immediately on hearing his voice. ‘Another coffee? I’ll get it for you right away!’
‘No, no coffee, thanks. I actually need directions as I’ll be out of the office this afternoon.’
‘Directions? Certainly. To where?’
‘St. Mary’s Hospital.’ Betty regarded him with a worried expression.
‘Is everything all right, Mr. Connelly?’
‘Yes, yes, everything is fine. I just need to go there, following a lead. It is all regarding the case.’
‘Oh right, yes, well St. Mary’s is a good few miles away. It will take you at least an hour to get there.’
Aiden checked his watch. It was already 2pm which didn’t leave him much time but he knew that he needed to go there.
‘It is always a bother for folks round here when they have to go to the hospital,’ she continued. ‘A couple of years ago, my left foot was playing up and I was back and forth for appointments. Ridiculous. Our doctor round here is too quick to send people for referrals. Good hospital though. Very modern.’ She was talking as the directions were printing out of the printer located by her feet. Once it had finished, she whipped out the sheet and handed Aiden the neatly typed directions.
‘I’m afraid we don’t have a map, but if you have any trouble at all, just call. Edmond often has to head over to St. Mary’s, usually with clients injured at work or whatever who want to file a complaint from their hospital bed! I tell you now, if I were in hospital a law suit would be the last thing on my mind! But you know how people are…’
‘Yes, well thank you, Betty.’
‘Watch how you go, Mr. Connelly.’
Betty watched the handsome young lawyer leave, knowing that if she were twenty years younger she would be offering to do a whole lot more than print directions for him, whether he was married or not. She sighed wistfully, her mind drifting away to indulge in memories of her youth. As Aiden drove away, she decided that her afternoon would be much better spent at home, rather than lingering in an empty office with only her memories for company. She promptly switched off her computer, slung her handbag over her shoulder and locked up Cope and May Solicitors at Law for the day. Any urgent legal matters the people of Avalon had would have to wait until the following day.
It was 3.15pm when Aiden pulled into the parking lot of St. Mary’s Hospital. Having been driving for just over an hour he felt groggy and tired. Luckily, the cool, crisp air that greeted him as he exited his car quickly revived him from his daze. As Betty had told him, St. Mary’s was an impressive, modern hospital. However, now that he was here, he was unsure where to go. He decided that Reception would be his best bet.
‘Yes?’ The receptionist, a fat man with an acne-ridden face and glasses, was clearly not interested in Aiden’s response.
‘I was wondering if you could help me?’ he began.
‘Patient name?’ the man said in a dead pan voice, as if it was the hundredth time today he had been approached with the same query.
‘No, I’m not looking for a patient. I’m looking for the…archive section…where files for past patients are kept.’
The man eyed him with disdain.
‘I’m a lawyer,’ Aiden explained, hoping to hurry the guy up a bit. The receptionist rolled his eyes in a bored manner and began typing into his computer.
‘Down the corridor, left, three doors down on the right.’
‘Right, OK, thanks.’ Aiden headed off along the hospital corridors, following the directions until he came to a door labelled Patient Enquiries. He reasoned that this must be the place and knocked briskly on the door.
A middle-aged woman with a blonde perm answered. ‘Can I help you?’
‘Yes, I hope so, I need to have access to some files on someone who was a patient here.’
‘That sort of information is classified,’ she said as she eased the door behind her closed, as if fearing that Aiden was some crazy man who would rush her at any moment in an attempt to get to the files she presided over.
‘I’m the lawyer of the patient in question.’
‘I see, so you have made an appointment to view the files and have written consent from your client?’
‘Well…no.’ Aiden was starting to feel very foolish. He was all too aware of protocol when it came to the disclosure of sensitive information. He had been careless and too impetuous in heading out here without properly thinking it through. He was better than this; it wasn’t like him to behave in such an unprofessional manner. However, now that he had come all this way he wasn’t prepared to leave empty-handed. He didn’t know if he would have the chance to come all the way out to St. Mary’s again before the trial, which was now just over a week away. He needed to see Brandy’s files; he had no time to waste.
‘The thing is…’ As he began the woman sighed, clearly annoyed that he was continuing to waste her time. ‘This is a highly sensitive, high-profile case. I couldn’t risk you knowing about my arrival in case the media got wind of it.’
‘I can assure you that we deal with all our patients with the highest level of confidentiality!’ she said indignantly.
‘I have no doubt.’ Aiden was uncomfortable conducting their conversation in the hospital corridor with people frequently bustling past them. ‘But it was a risk I couldn’t take. A woman’s life is at stake. I really have no time, please. I know I’m asking a lot of you.’ He flashed her his most dashing smile and it seemed to work as her shoulders sank in defeat.
‘Luckily for you, Mr….’
‘Luckily for you, Mr. Connelly, I’m in a good mood today. I can give you twenty minutes with the files you want, no more.’ He thanked her as she opened the door and led him into a small room which was a hallway to another room, currently locked. This door was flanked by two desks, at one of which the woman presumably sat. She instructed Aiden to make himself comfortable at the other as she went to get his requested files. When he said Brandy’s name he watched for any flicker of recognition but she didn’t show any signs of being aware of the scandal. But then this wasn’t Avalon, Brandy’s case was probably small news, if newsworthy at all.
It wasn’t long before Aiden was gazing down at the patient files for Brandy White née Cotton. Her patient history wasn’t that extensive. The incident with the glass vase had been her first admission. She had been treated for severe cuts and abrasions, needing numerous stitches and a blood transfusion. She was then kept in under observation for two nights. As he scanned the notes he saw that at one point there had been a request by the on-call doctor for a psychiatric consultant to come and see Brandy. They must have thought that she had done it to herself. However, she was discharged before she was seen. It was noted that her body was covered in multiple bruises which weren’t related to the smashed vase accident, but the doctor seemed to reach the wrong conclusion, that Brandy was self-harming. There was no connection made to Brandon at all.
The second time Brandy had been admitted was when she had lost her baby. The report made for more interesting reading:
Female, 22, came in after falling at home. Took a huge blow to the stomach. Was measuring at 24 weeks pregnant. Emergency ultra sound shows that baby did not survive the blow. Female also has numerous lacerations and bruising on body consistent with self, or inflicted abuse.
Note – to contact Avalon police department in order to pursue further enquiry after discharge.
Aiden re-read the last statement, shock and surprise surging through his body. So, the hospital made the connection and contacted Buck Fern. And what did he do about it? According to the police files, he did nothing. But here was proof that he was aware of the situation of the young White couple. The old sheriff was undoubtedly withholding information from Aiden.
‘May I please take a copy of this?’
‘Yes, if you are quick, the copier is just there.’ The woman pointed to a bulky machine in the far corner. Aiden hurriedly made a copy of both documents.
‘Thank you so much,’ he told her as he gathered his things to leave. ‘You may well have just saved somebody’s life.’
When Aiden arrived home, drained and exhausted, his tea lay waiting on the table and a sleeping Isla and Meegan were laid out on the couch. It was fairly late – past seven – when he got in, he had got stuck in traffic, so he just sat down to eat his dinner alone.
He must have made too much noise as a grumpy-looking Isla soon came in to join him, rubbing her eyes.
‘I had tea ready at half five as you had said you’d be finishing early today. I called the office but there was no one there.’
‘Sorry, babe,’ Aiden mumbled between mouthfuls.
‘Where were you?’
‘At the hospital.’
‘The hospital?’ He got up and fetched himself a beer and took a deep, refreshing swig from the bottle before answering his wife.
‘Don’t worry, I’mOK, it was to do with the case.’
‘The case, oh, of course,’ she said bitterly.
‘Don’t be like that.’
‘You could have let me know you’d be home late.’
‘I got stuck in traffic.’ Isla was pouting in annoyance. He reached out across the table and grabbed her hand. ‘I’m sorry, I should have called. But thanks so much for dinner, honey, it is just what I needed.’
‘Well, thank God dinner is on the table!’ Isla yelled, pulling away from his hand and rising to her feet. ‘I’m just being a good little wifey and doing my bit for my big, working husband!’
‘Isla, calm down, you’ll wake Meegan.’
‘Well, you don’t want that, because then you’ll have to bother yourself with putting her to bed, best she stay sleeping! Makes it easier for you, maybe I should have just stayed asleep too!’
‘You’re being ridiculous,’ he snapped angrily. Fatigue was setting in and he hadn’t the energy to argue with her but she was testing his patience.
‘No, you are the ridiculous one, Aid. Coming home at all hours and thinking it is fine!’
‘All hours, Isla, it is seven! I used to come home much later than this in Chicago!’
‘But this isn’t Chicago, is it? I was happy in Chicago. I knew who I was in Chicago, I wasn’t trying to be some housewife that I’m not! I’m lonely here, Aid. You are supposed to be home at a decent hour!’ Their raised voices woke Meegan who promptly burst into tears.
‘Now look what you’ve done!’ Isla screamed at him.
‘Me?’ he asked in disbelief. With a huff, she stormed off into the lounge to comfort their daughter. Aiden shook his head wearily and drained his beer bottle.
Outside, dusk had settled in and shadows were fading fast. Soon it would be dark. Aiden enjoyed the dark void that came with night. When all colour was drained from the world, it felt as though the earth died, and each morning, with sunshine, she was reborn. A new start. Aiden’s new start in Avalon wasn’t going as well as he’d planned, but this was just the adapting period. Soon his family would feel more settled here and life would fall into a comfortable rhythm. For now, he was just riding out the storm of Isla’s mood swings. He contemplated following her into the lounge and attempting to make up but he didn’t see the point. He had done nothing wrong and wanted nothing more than to enjoy a deep, dreamless sleep. He headed upstairs to bed as Isla sat rocking Meegan back and forth, the little girl calm once more. When Aiden’s head hit the pillow he left this world for another, and for eight blissful hours, everything felt perfect.