Color of Blood by Les Coalson - Read Online
Color of Blood
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Summary

Clay Aker and friends deal with the disappearance of his brother, Jack in this award-winning second novel in the Clay Aker Mystery Series. A mother’s love and concern for a missing child, environmental pollution, kidnapping, murder, arson, euthanasia, race relations, and human emotions ranging from dismay, regret and loss to new love and romance swirl around the characters and plot in this novel set along the Texas coast and in the Hill Country. The Midwest Press called Color of Blood “a riveting novel with many excellent twists and turns…a great thriller sure to please fans of the genre” (October 2008, Small Press Bookwatch Index). Nancy Glass West, Book Shelf Columnist for the San Antonio Women’s Magazine, wrote that “Les Coalson brings Texas history and landscape alive with suspense. ..[And] uses his knowledge of agriculture, development of natural resources and business as background…. As characters comb Texas from New Braunfels to the coastal bays, readers learn about the history, livestock and vegetation of the area” (Jan/Feb 2009, pages 90-93). Readerviews.com named Color of Blood a 2009 award winner in the Mystery/Suspense/Thriller Awards category.
Mildred Aker becomes troubled when Jack, her youngest son and environmental activist, doesn’t return with his girlfriend Vicky Sloan from sampling Lavaca Bay for mercury contamination. Activists are amassing data that will result in the bay being named an EPA Super Fund Site. Mildred calls her oldest son, Clay for help. He is assisted by Texas Ranger Julio Ramirez, a friend who has his own family issues to resolve. Jack’s abandoned boat is found with his wallet and soil samples. The only lead is a thin film of refined oil coated along the water line. A pollution expert determines the oil was refined outside the Gulf Coast, raising questions how it got into a Texas bay.

Clay and Mildred are unaware that Jack was murdered and Vicky kidnapped after witnessing two lawbreakers dump waste oil in the bay. Vicky is being kept hostage aboard a shrimp trawler by Cajun Etienne le Maurais and Jacob Brown, the handicapped black skipper of the trawler, who argue over her fate. Etienne forces Jacob to leave safe harbor in the midst of a dangerous storm with the intent to kill him and Vicky. The storm capsizes the trawler in a remote area along the Gulf Coast. All three survive, but are separated as they swim to shore. Jacob and Vicky walk over twenty miles to a small town steal a boat and head for the Brazos River bottoms where Jacob was raised. Meanwhile, Bert Taylor is stalking Mary Frances, Clay’s girl friend, who is alone at home managing her canoe and campground business on the Guadalupe River. Bert and his influential banker- father have been unsuccessful in getting Mary Frances to drop fraud charges against Bert (read background in 'Sever the Darkness'). His only option to avoid prison is to kill Mary Frances. Bert locks her inside the office and sets it on fire, but she escapes and is hospitalized. Ranger Julio Ramirez faces a moral decision whether to order doctors to remove his comatose wife’s feeding tube. She was shot in the head in an ambush intended for him. His wife’s mother makes the situation public and the Ranger makes local headlines as an uncaring husband, further escalating the conflict with his mother-in-law in a public forum.

The story climaxes as Bert tracks Mary Frances to the hospital and intensifies his efforts to kill her. A Coast Guard buoy tender finds Jack’s body during a scheduled maintenance stop. Etienne errs by using Jack Aker’s credit card and Ranger Ramirez is fast on his trail. A local TV news piece convinces Etienne that Jacob and Vicky did not die when the trawler capsized, and he heads for Jacob’s home town to silence his former partner. His network of criminal contacts soon reveals the whereabouts of his prey and he closes in to kill them just as Ranger Ramirez arrives. Who will survive?

Olivera Baumgartner-Jackson reviewed the novel for Re
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ISBN: 9780985045500
List price: $1.99
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CHAPTER ONE

Sunday Night

The ear-splitting crack of thunder jolted Mildred Aker from her fitful sleep. The night light was off, she observed as she looked out the window. The barn yard was completely dark. A disconcerting feeling crept over Mildred as she realized there was no power to the farm. Amid the flashes of heat lighting and jagged bolts of energy she saw sheets of rain blowing over the farmland. She thought she heard hail hitting the metal roof, but saw no proof of ice on the graveled barnyard.

The blue norther sweeping southward from Canada that the weather men talked about for the last few days had arrived, driving the low pressure system with its heat and stifling humidity toward the Gulf. Rolling black clouds containing the green tint of potential tornadoes spread across the horizon, releasing energy in the forms of lightning, wind, and precipitation. Cold rain squeezed from the atmosphere promised welcomed relief from the long summer of record breaking heat and scant rainfall.

It was 3:30 according to the fluorescent arms of the windup alarm clock. Mildred arose and slipped on the frayed terrycloth robe draped over the foot of the bed. The robe and accompanying pink slippers were Herman’s last gift before he died. She wore them every night.

Lightning flashes lit her path as she shuffled toward the hallway. She caught sight of her reflection in the mirror. In the coming year she would be sixty-two. At five foot, four inches she was only ten pounds heavier than her wedding day. Once chestnut hair, now intermingled with gray, hung to her waist. Her angular face was complimented by a narrow nose and high cheek bones. The darkness was kind, hiding the wrinkles from too much sun and hands roughened from doing a man’s job on the farm.

She walked down the hallway past her oldest son Clay’s former room and knocked on the third bedroom door. Jack? Jack, are you there? Her voice was soft and low as becomes one used to being alone with herself, but not to loneliness. This early morning it was filled with worry. Brown eyes that usually sparkled when she laughed reflected concern for her youngest son. It wasn’t like Jack to be out this late. Where was he?

She pushed open the door. The bed was still empty. Lightning flashes lit up the room like pulsating strobe lights. His chair was pushed against the desk. All was in order save the gnawing anxiety in her chest that something was amiss.

Another crack of thunder shook the house and the rain increased the intensity of its dance on the metal roof. Mildred felt her way into the kitchen and removed the flashlight and a box of matches from the pantry. Reassured by the beam of light, she walked through the living room and out onto the front porch. From here she could survey half the farm and the long stretch of shell road leading from the blacktop to the house. There were no lights to be seen on the flat coastal prairie. She sank into the rocking chair that her grandmother’s kin had brought from Tennessee and clutched the robe tighter to ward off the increasing cold. Herman’s empty rocker to her right swayed to and fro, driven by the wind whipping around the corner of the house. Mildred eyed with concern the antique roses, morning glories, and mums that lined the fence, and shined the flashlight on the transplants. The wind had shredded the pink rose petals and tossed them into the air. She worried that the long leaf blades of her mother’s amaryllis would face a similar fate. In the spring they would produce deep-red and pink blooms and serve as a reminder of the linkage between generations. She would hate to see them damaged.

An odd scratching noise caused her heart to skip a beat. She focused the flashlight beam toward the edge of the porch as Hard Times, the multi-colored mongrel with three legs, emerged from underneath the planks of timber. She gimped to Mildred’s side and put her front paw on her lap. The dog rose up on her hind legs whimpering. Mildred reached out and caressed her behind the ears. The dog was shivering. She remembered when Herman brought the cur home after a driver hit her on the paved road. That was only months before he fell underneath the crushing wheels of the tractor. Heart attack, the doctors said. But she wondered, given her husband’s active lifestyle.

What’s wrong, girl? Are you cold? Mildred asked. The dog whimpered as she tried to crawl onto her lap, but Mildred drew back. The noise of the wind howling through the trees and whipping the shrubs lining the fence rose in proportion as the rain slightly lessened in intensity. Herman’s chair had assumed a life of its own, seemingly racing violently with the wind. Mildred watched the chair in fascination. An unexplained expectation that something extraordinary was happening sent shivers over her body and caused the hair on her arms and neck to stand up.

Another crack of lightning momentarily illuminated the porch. In that instant Mildred saw, or thought she saw Jack sitting in Herman’s rocker. She screamed and Hard Times wormed her way under Mildred’s arms. With shaking hands she focused the flashlight beam on the rocker. It was empty. Was she seeing things?

Mildred quickly returned to the living room, now colder than only minutes earlier. It wasn’t her habit to have pets in the house, but she opened the screened door and let Hard Times into the room. Again she surveyed the road; no car lights were visible. Another look at Herman’s rocking chair showed it was empty. Was she imagining things? Where was Jack? It was not like her youngest son to call and let her know what he was doing and what time he would be home. She knew instinctively that something was wrong; she felt it in her bones. This would never have happened had he not met that Vicky Sloan.

Mildred did not like Vicky and Jack knew it. Vicky was hard, had lived too much. Mildred could see that she was playing Jack along. He spent all his spare time with her. He had never been in love before, not even a high school crush. He didn’t know he was being used, blinded by the emotions of one’s first love. No matter what Mildred said, Jack turned a deaf ear to her warnings. Even now he was probably at Vicky’s apartment. The thought of him in bed with this vile woman made Mildred that more upset. She was still hurt from the way Jack slighted her early Saturday morning, leaving with the boat in tow without even coming into the house to talk. Mildred remained angry at Jack all day. That anger was now replaced with concern. Why was Jack so bent on taking Vicky out in the boat, she wondered. Maybe it had to do with that environmental coalition he’d joined. She remembered he mentioned something about sampling for pollutants, but she hadn’t paid attention. She didn’t know where they had gone or their plans, and that only increased her anxiety.

Mildred shut and locked the front door. Jack had a key. She removed the matches from the robe pocket and walked to the nook holding the chipped statute of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. She lit the candle and said a prayer for Jack, and one for a blessing to protect her and her home from evil spirits. She lingered there in the soft glow of the candle as if it offered solace for her spirit. The front edge of the cold front had passed, with a gentle drizzle and slight wind replacing the fury of the storm. Mildred returned to her room and crawled under the covers as Hard Times curled up on the horse-hair rug beside the bed. She lay there for the longest time, the flashlight firmly in her grasp as she listened to the fading storm. Was she seeing things, or had Jack’s spirit actually been in the rocker? She tried to dismiss the thought as she drifted into a fretful sleep that would last until dawn.

Vicky was thrown into consciousness as her body rolled and shifted on the hard surface beneath her. A putrid, nauseating odor assaulted her senses and jarred her fully awake. She fought for air, struggling to rise from the platform that jabbed her already sore body. Her hands flayed the darkness above her, searching for something solid to grasp, but there was nothing there but the void. She rolled to her knees, feeling with her hands the uneven platform on which she lay. As she pushed herself upward her head hit a solid object. The pain reverberated through her skull and forced her back down. She massaged her forehead and discovered a small knot on the left side of her head. Where did that come from?

The odor was sickening. Vicky arched her back and attempted to stand again, only to hit the top of the compartment with her back. She couldn’t breathe. Her stomach rebelled against the sickening odor and she gagged, her throat tightening on gases hurling upward from her insides. The platform was unfamiliar. It slanted downward and was interrupted every foot or so by what seemed to be a series of beams. Was this what a coffin was like? She heard a screech and did not realize it was her own until the small stream of vomit rushing up from her stomach choked off the scream. She collapsed on the flooring and curled into the shape of a fetus and cried. She must be dying. No, she must be buried alive. Then the compartment moved sideways and she heard a smattering of objects hitting the outside at a rapid rate, like machine gun bullets hitting the side of a barn, only softer. A coffin would not move like this. Then, through the nausea and throbbing headache she remembered the boat … the boat and Jack … the boat and Jack and the man with the wild eyes and the scar.

She had not wanted to go with him that morning, but he insisted in showing her the oyster beds where he and his father and brother harvested the shellfish years ago before the bay was closed to fishing. She feigned interest in his excitement about the coalition fighting to haul the Environmental Protection Agency into court … something about stopping mercury poisoning caused as a by-product by the manufacturing industries surrounding the bay. Floating down the Lavaca River into the bay was okay, but once they were on the open waters the seasickness set in, just as she knew it would. Her sexual prowess that had proven so successful in manipulating this country bumpkin failed her as Jack jokingly refused to take her back to the boat ramp until he completed taking all the samples needed. Even the ruse that she might be pregnant—heaven forbid his seed would impregnate her—failed to divert him from his task. It may have worked out had he not discovered the oil slick and followed it to a rusting shrimp trawler spewing heavy oil behind it. By then she was too nauseated to care.

Lying in the cold darkness, Vicky forced herself to think beyond her pain and to focus on what happened. Jack pulled up beside the shrimp trawler to warn the crew there was a leak. The smell of dead fish was too much. She recalled leaning over the gunwales of Jack’s fishing boat and vomiting. She did not open her eyes but remembered hearing sharp words exchanged between Jack and a man who spoke in an unfamiliar accent … then shuffling on the trawler while she held onto the side of the boat and vomited again. She remembered being vaguely aware that Jack left the boat, as she sensed the buoyancy increase. Then she felt the weight of someone getting onto the boat. The next thing she knew the man with the strange accent was behind her, his arms circled around her waist, forcing her chin into the air. When she opened her eyes she saw Jack suspended from the trawler’s boom, kicking frantically as blood gushed from his throat. She screamed and the man turned her face to his and said something before slapping her so hard she fell backwards into the boat. The vividness of the pulsating scar across his cheek and the rabid look in his eyes sent a chill through her soul. She remembered being dragged out of the boat and onto the trawler by her hair … the color of blood pooling on the deck as she was dragged into the pilot house … the presence of another man opening a hatch door in the floor of the pilot house … being shoved face first into the hole … then nothing until now. Judging from the lump and the pain in her forehead she must have hit her head hard on the way down.

Vicky curled herself into a tighter ball, her body shaking with cold and fear. The overpowering odor of diesel fuel assaulted her senses. Why was she here? What was going to happen to her? She was well aware of the effect her almost perfect body had on men. She bore no guilt in using her physical assets to her advantage and her conscious had long ago closed itself to the morality of stealing from others. But the men who did this had not seen her at her best—glamorized in a clinging min-dress with plunging neckline, auburn hair up to flaunt her perfect skin and long neck, a learned smile with whitened teeth and come hither look in her eyes learned from studying super models—these men had seen her in jeans and a windbreaker. What did they want? She almost uttered a prayer for deliverance, but she knew there was no God to hear her. Those nights when her preacher uncle came to her bedroom despite her fervent prayers to stop him from touching her told her God did not exist. She was as helpless now as she was then to do anything about her fate. She lay shivering in the darkness, too empty to cry for herself or for Jack, and too afraid about the man with the scar to hope for the best.

CHAPTER TWO

Monday

Clay was fully awake, relishing the toasty warmth of the feather comforter and the physical sensation of Mary Frances lying next to him. He lay on his side with one hand supporting his head and the fingertips of the other making small circles on her hip. He kept some part of his body touching hers as he’d done since they began sleeping together the past summer. Clay was not conscious of his need for physical contact. Had he been given the opportunity to visit a psychologist, he would have learned this need arose from Conchetta’s murder at the hand of the South American drug lords while he was on patrol. His sense of guilt for not being at the hacienda when they killed her and their unborn baby was the root cause of the fear of loss he faced regarding his future with Mary Frances. But Clay had not been to a psychologist so knew only that he did not feel whole unless he was touching the woman he loved.

The temperature was in the upper forties, driven down by the high-pressure ridge accompanying the norther. They slept with the windows open, allowing the softness of autumn to creep into their bedroom and drive out the remaining vestiges of summer heat. One of the things they were going to include in their new cabin was a fireplace, Clay promised himself. Fireplaces were for cold nights and cuddling on the floor and reveling in the heat and smell of burning oak. He would be glad to be out of the trailer and away from the memories it held for Mary Frances in connection with Terry, her deceased husband.

The first signs of dawn crept along the edges of the curtains. Clay turned and gently brushed the nape of her neck with his lips.

Mmmmm, she responded sleepily. At that moment the automatic timer on the coffee pot went off and the sound of dripping liquid floated into the bedroom. Mary Frances turned her body fully toward Clay and wiped the sleep from her eyes. He looked into her deep green eyes and smiled.

Morn’ng, sleepy head, he said and agitated her sandy brown hair with his hand. Her hair was darker now, no longer highlighted by the summer sun. He bent down to kiss her when the shrill ring of the telephone resounded inches away on the nightstand. Clay reached over Mary Frances’ head for the telephone; probably one of the work crew calling in to say they would be late—not unusual for Monday morning. He handed her the phone and began kissing her neck. He felt her shiver as his lips moved gently over her skin.

Mary Frances, she said and paused.

Yes, Mrs. Aker, she said again. He’s right here.

She handed Clay the phone and slid out of bed. Clay rolled to his side and sat with his back against the headboard as he watched Mary Frances walk into the bathroom. That woman had fantastic hips.

Good morn’in, Mama, he said and paused. No, Jack hasn’t called. Why? Another pause. I don’t think it’s so unusual for him to be out. Mary Frances peaked around the corner of the bedroom and gave Clay a quizzical look. Clay shrugged.

Maybe he’s with his girlfriend, he said as he got out of bed and opened the window blinds. It was going to be a cloudless day judging from the sky. I know you don’t like that girl he’s seeing, he continued. Did you call the sheriff? Clay reached for his bluejeans and put them on as he cradled the phone between his shoulder and ear. What did they say? He picked up his work boots and moved them to the edge of the bed and sat down.

Well, then, why don’t you wait like they suggest and see what turns up? I’m sure Jack will call in the next couple hours. You’re probably worrying about noth’in, he said as he pulled on the boots.

Mary Frances walked into the bedroom, twisting her hair into a ponytail as she hummed a vaguely familiar tune. She wore her work jeans with the green and black checkered workshirt. Today they would begin clearing the land on the ridge north of the campgrounds. This was the site they had selected to build the cabin. Although he had not formally asked Mary Frances to marry him, Clay had as much said their wedding night would be spent in their own place and not in this trailer where she and Terry had begun their married life five years earlier.

Sure, I can drive down, Clay responded to his mother as he looked approvingly at his lover. We are clearing land. I need to put in three to four hours of work. I’ll call around by 11 and check if you’ve heard anything. All right? Bye.

Anything serious? Mary Frances asked as Clay hung up the phone.

Ahhh, it’s my brother! Mama hasn’t seen Jack since Saturday morning and she’s worried, he responded with a hint of anxiety.

Doesn’t he have a girlfriend? I imagine he’s staying over at her house if he’s anything like his big brother, she kidded.

Jack hasn’t had a girlfriend his entire life, Clay answered as he pulled on a gray cotton sweater. At least not until now if you listen to what Mama says, and what she says is none too kind.

His mind was racing. It wasn’t like Mama to be so worried. Maybe she feared letting Jack go. After all, he’d stayed on after Dad died, working the farm and pretty much becoming his mother’s companion. Clay and Jack didn’t talk all that often, so what he knew came primarily from his mother’s viewpoint. He knew she resented this Vicky person because she felt she wasn’t the right person for Jack. He wondered if his mother was really thinking what was best for Jack, or was it her own future that she was most concerned about.

Clay walked into the kitchen and poured two cups of coffee and they walked out the kitchen door onto the small cypress deck butting against the rear of the trailer. The trailer set in a grove of pecan trees on the upper portion of Guadalupe Adventures Campgrounds facing Farm-to-Market road 306. A large wooden deck jutted off the front of the mobile home facing the main road. Mary Frances and Clay sat comfortably sprawled on the wicker rockers on the rear deck and sipped their coffee. The view was northward through a small valley nestled between the rise of the river bank and the undulating hills that stretched toward San Marcos. The golden hues of early morning sunshine reflected off hay-colored grasses and yellowing deciduous trees glowed like honey amidst the darker evergreens. A scattering of bare limestone outcroppings served as reminders of the larger bluffs and sheer cliffs that exposed eons of geological history further downstream. A half-dozen small brush piles, neatly stacked and clear of debris around their edges dotted the landscape.

Clay and Tom Currie, experienced outdoorsman and new manager of the campgrounds, had convinced Mary Frances that she could expand her business by clearing the brush for native pasture. That would enhance hunting and wildlife photography opportunities and give better access to the river for solitary fishing experiences. Clay and Tom used chain saws to remove water-thirsty cedars and brush that were piled into the small stacks seen from the deck. They would work with the Sattler Volunteer Fire Department to burn the piles once the rains came. It was too dry and windy now for that.

Mary Frances smiled contently as she cradled the coffee cup between her hands, enjoying the warmth of the ceramic container. She had outlasted the drought and with the help of good friends gotten a new loan that removed the threat of foreclosure on her 1,500-acre property by Bert Taylor and his cronies. They rebuilt the vandalized campground office and restocked the destroyed inventory all in a matter of weeks, thanks primarily to her good fortune of hiring Tom Currie. New ideas for marketing innertube and canoe rentals, rafting trips, primitive and RV camping, photography and fishing packages were exciting and full of promise. Most of all, she had Clay in her life to replace the loneliness of widowhood. Her eyes sparkled with the unmistakable shine of growing love for Clay Aker.

Clay, his normal jubilant and optimistic nature subdued by his mother’s early call, had likewise found healing and purpose in his relationship with Mary Frances. He reveled in her beauty and common-sense approach to life. He listed her address as his home of record rather than his mother’s farm near Victoria, a fact he was certain didn’t set well with Mama.

The hard physical labor of working the land was balanced with the creative aspects of writing a twice-weekly column for the Houston Observer, a calling that took him throughout East and South Central Texas gathering material for his readers. Clay’s on-scene coverage of the Guadalupe River serial murders the past summer and subsequent follow-on report of their impact upon the close knit German community of New Braunfels won accolades among his fellow Texans. Clay was firmly established professionally as the outdoors editor for the Observer. His newfound friend and father-figure, Tom Currie, was a big help, arranging meetings and contacts with outdoors professionals throughout the state for Clay to interview.

Clay’s eyebrows furrowed as he brought the coffee mug to his lips and sipped. Was Jack okay? He had heard the panic in his mother’s voice and uncertainty was gnawing at him. He had thus far successfully buried his concerns about his mother in the crevices of his mind, but now wild ideas were beginning to surface and he struggled to erase them from his thoughts. But the damage was done and other unpleasant bits of buried information flooded his brain, specifically the whereabouts of Bert Taylor and Bear Richter.

Bert Taylor. Clay could still envision the once arrogant wheeler-dealer being lead away in handcuffs by Sheriff Thatcher. In fact, Clay was reminded of Bert on a daily basis when he just looked at the office on the river bank that Bert had ordered vandalized. Bert’s scheme to foreclose on Mary Frances’ business and property was thwarted at the last minute by new friend and mentor, Sharkbait Guy, who wrote for the Corpus Christi Post. Mary Frances had received notification of Bert’s hearing that was scheduled for next week at the Comal County courthouse. Clay would be there for moral support.

They had heard nothing more about or from Bear, although eventually his case would be placed on the court docket. Clay believed Mary Frances was hurt more by Bear’s disloyalty than by Bert Taylor’s ruse to steal her land. Bear had worked by her side for years, helping her start the business after her husband died when his pickup rolled after hitting a deer. In the end Bear sided with Bert in trying to destroy her business. Although she never talked about it, Clay sensed it was his arrival and the immediate attraction between him and Mary Frances that caused Bear to betray her. It was evident to him that Bear had deep feelings for Mary Frances. Her interest in Clay was evidently more than Bear could handle. At this point, however, Clay preferred to keep this theory to himself.

Do you think Jack’s okay? asked Mary Frances, breaking the silence.

Clay stared into the distance. He was listening to the morning doves cooing in the outlying trees and the sound of the river rushing along the limestone corridor at the edge of the property. Sure hope so, he replied. Sad to say, but I haven’t been around home that much to know what’s been on his mind. He’s supposed to graduate in December, but I don’t know his plans after that. Mama says he’s gotten involved with some kind of environmental group protesting pollution along the coast and has gone weird on her. Meeting this Vicky Sloan person hasn’t helped. It ain’t like her to worry; or, at least to let on like she’s worried, but I know she is.

Now what’s the plan for the day? Mary Frances asked

Guess we’ll start fencing the new pasture. Tom’s probably wait’n on us to get down there, he replied. Their eyes shifted to the campground office. Sure enough, his black pickup was parked on the side beneath the cypress tree.

If Jack hasn’t shown up by noon will you be headed to Victoria? Mary Frances asked. Clay nodded affirmatively.

Okay, said Mary Frances. Then let’s get moving, lazy boy, she teased as she stood and playfully kicked one of Clay’s legs. Clay grabbed her waist. He set her mug on the small patio table along with his and pulled her closer, staring lovingly into her sea-green eyes.

You know what you do with a Lazy Boy, don’t you? he asked, suddenly serious.

A questioning look came across her face. What?

You recline on it. Want to try it?

She pressed herself against him and they embraced each other tightly. Mary Frances eased back and put both hands on his chest as he stood with his arms encircling her.

I’ll remember that, she teased. "But you missed your chance. There’ll be no reclining this morning. Do a good job today and we’ll see what evening brings. Comprende?"

Clay’s passionate kiss told her he got the message.

Clay was becoming increasingly anxious. When he called before noon there was still no word from Jack. Mama checked again with the police and there was no record of an incident involving Jack Aker. Within minutes Clay had said goodbye to Mary Frances and was driving out the gate. He put his notepad and pen in the passenger seat alongside his jacket in case ideas for an article surfaced. A three-hour drive would give him plenty of time to think.

Clay circled around New Braunfels toward Seguin. Blue sky greeted his every turn. Sunlight glistened off the Purple Threeawn and Halls Panicum alongside the roadside with their maroon seedheads waving in the wind. The scene reminded Clay of the Texas A&M Aggies swaying together as they sang the Aggie War Hymn during football games. Stands of KR Bluestem and Arizona Cottontop with white-tipped seedheads were like the sea, moving in waves as the wind swept over the rangeland, sunlight reflecting off the grasses like crests of ocean waves.