House of Secrets
Read the Excerpt
“I did not kill Pastor David.” June Presley Eaton tried to swallow her fear as well as the lump of grief in her throat. Her upraised hands trembled, and she felt the phone clutched in her left hand slip slightly. I have to maintain control. June lifted both hands a bit higher and forced her voice lower. “I found him. I wanted to help,” she said to the man standing behind her.
Please, Lord, let him believe me. It was a desperate prayer, and June fought a tightening sense of panic. She had a dead pastor lying at her feet and, she was pretty certain, Sheriff Ray Taylor and his deputies at her back, guns drawn. Without turning, June wagged the cordless phone in her hand. From it, the flattened and tinny screeches of the Bell County dispatcher bounced off the kitchen walls of the Victorian parsonage.
“June Presley Eaton! Is that you? Don’t tell me you decided to upset Pastor David right before his big event! Someone already heard the fight and called us and Ray is on his way right now, and—”
June hit the off button with her thumb. “I just got here, Ray. I wasn’t the one fighting with him. There are footprints leading farther into the house. See them? And when I got here, I could still hear someone back there.” The lump in her throat had eased, but the fear still bore into her, tensing every muscle in her lower back and sending a shudder up her spine. Please, Lord.
No response came from the sheriff, however, and in the silence that followed, June knew that all of Ray’s instincts had kicked into gear. His brown eyes scanning the room, he’d assess the scene in front of him with that precise, military-trained way he had of observing everything quickly before making a judgment. He would calmly evaluate the crime scene while she stood over a dead body, covered in blood, hands raised, cops clustered at her back with their guns pointing at her. June knew that only the phone in her hand kept her from looking like a suspect. She closed her eyes, praying that Ray would see the same thing she had as she’d approached the broad back porch of the White Hills Gospel Immanuel Chapel’s parsonage: bloody footprints leading away from the door and out into the yard.
That had been her cue to fly into the house, calling David Gallagher’s name. June had entered the kitchen, moving fast, and her sneakers had hit the red pool gathering around David’s body before she could stop. She’d skidded and fallen forward, hitting the floor with a painful thud, her hands splashing down on either side of the butcher knife protruding from David’s ribs.
Even during her years as a street kid, she’d never come face-to-face with violence like this.
Once June had stopped screaming, she’d scrambled to her feet and lunged for the phone, barely having time to dial 911 before the screen door had banged open and Ray’s command to “Freeze!” had brought everything to a standstill.
In the silence, a fly buzzed around her blood-coated right hand. Trying to look over her shoulder, June struggled to speak in a quieter tone. Control. Stay in control. “Please, Ray. I’m a witness, not a suspect.” She took another deep breath, working to sound much more dignified than she felt. “And please close that door. You’re letting the flies into the house.”
No one moved. Then, after a few seconds that felt like at least a decade, Ray spoke, his baritone voice even and thoroughly professional. “Rivers. Gage. Clear the house.”
Silently, Ray’s deputies, Daniel Rivers and Jeff Gage, moved through the kitchen and past June and the pastor’s body into the main areas of the grand old Victorian. Over the next few minutes, their calls of “Clear!” echoed through the rooms.
“Can I at least put my arms down?”
“Why are you here, June?”
“I came to confront David about what he’d said—” She broke off, suddenly realizing how suspicious that sounded.
“About what?” Ray’s tone grew more agitated as he holstered his gun, stepped over David’s legs and moved in front of her. “What did you need to confront him about?”
June straightened her back and took the holstered gun for a sign she could lower her arms. “What he said yesterday morning from the pulpit.”
The tension in Ray’s voice revealed his impatience. “About what?”
Silence reigned in the room again as Ray simply waited, eyes dark and demanding.
June’s hands suddenly shook at her sides, and she looked around for a place to put the phone, her words picking up speed. “Hunter Bridges is a canker sore on the face of this town and you know it. I don’t care how much David wants to see him in the state senate. He’s a lying, manipulative, womanizing cheat, and I don’t want him representing me or to have my name connected to his.” She lowered her voice. “I’ve witnessed his ability to manipulate people to get what he wants. He’s propositioned two married friends of mine. I’m done with him.” With no flat surface close enough, the phone grew awkward in her hand. A wicked pain snapped through her head, making her grimace. “David’s implied before that I support Hunter, and I’ve politely asked him not to. He did it again yesterday morning, in front of the whole church, and I knew polite just wasn’t going to cut it anymore.”
“So you were here to yell at him. You were mad.”
“Well, yes! I won’t have my name mixed up with that no-good politician Hunter Bridges.” She threw up a hand in front of her face, then stopped, taking a deep breath to calm down. “But I was too late. When I got here, I saw the bloody footprints on the porch and I ran in. I slipped ” She paused, pointing down at the floor.
“Is that why you’re covered in his blood?” She nodded.
Ray’s gaze held an intensity that aggravated her growing sense of panic. “But you didn’t kill him.”
June’s knees began trembling, and she fought the urge to throw the phone at him. He’s just doing his job. Don’t lose it! “No, I did not kill him. David and I have been disagreeing about Hunter Bridges for weeks. We’ve debated over coffee, over lunch. He wouldn’t give up trying to convince me. He thought Hunter had great things ahead of him. I think Hunter should be locked in his office and kept away from sharp objects.”
She shook her head and pointed at a stack of flyers lying on the kitchen counter. “I don’t know why David suddenly wanted to be politically active. He never had before. I thought he followed JR’s philosophy of keeping politics out of the church. But that’s his business. Then he started in on me to support Hunter because, for some unfathomable reason, he thinks people in this county still listen to me. I warned him that if he didn’t stop, I was going to take out a full-page ad in the paper explaining exactly what I thought of Hunter Bridges, his career and his mother. David thought I was stubborn, and I thought him politically naive. That may be grounds for an argument, but not murder.”
“Wasn’t David hosting a political dinner tomorrow night?”
“Yes, and he invited me. But I told him I’d rather chew glass. You know I don’t like mixing politics with religion any more than JR did.”
The pain spiked under her scalp at the mention of her dead husband, and June pressed her palm to her forehead, trying to push the headache away. Her whole body seemed to quiver now. Even her voice held a tremor, and tears abruptly stung her eyes. “You know how hard JR worked to keep politics out of the church.”
Ray’s low voice turned gentle. “Yes. Everyone knows.”
June took a deep, ragged breath and closed her eyes, trying to stave off the tears. Of course everyone knows. David, why didn’t you follow his guidance? After three years, what changed? June tried to push away a sudden flood of memories of JR, from their wedding day in a tiny mountain chapel to the instant a heart attack took him from her—and the entire congregation.
“Come back to me, June,” Ray urged. “Don’t retreat from this. Stay in control.” Ray’s soft bass tones resonated in an almost comforting way. “You’ve been trembling like a leaf since I walked in, and you’re about to have the worst adrenaline headache of your life, if you don’t already. But you have to hang on to it, girl. We’ll get through this. I’ll get you through it.”
June stared down at her hands. The red had darkened, the blood turning brownish as it dried. Suddenly, a foul scent from David’s body reached her and June realized it must have been there all along. Her entire body shook, and the impact of the situation hit her anew. David’s dead. Murdered. No wonder I’m babbling like an idiot. Lord, I need calm. And I need Your strength.
Nodding, she looked back up at Ray and let out the breath she’d been holding. “You know I didn’t do this.”
“We have to clear you with evidence before I can let you go.” His dark eyes shifted as he looked behind her, and she turned toward Rivers and Gage, who both shook their heads.
“Nothing,” said Rivers. “All clear, although the study has been partially ransacked. Looks like the search might have been interrupted, but if anyone was here, he’s long gone.”
June shook her head. “I know he was still here. I could hear him in the study. Did you check the tunnel?”
The three men stared at June, and Ray stiffened.
Ray held the flashlight in his left hand, shoulder level and pointed slightly down. The earthen tunnel in front of him soaked up the light, and the air smelled acrid and moldy, reminding Ray of a flooded riverbank after a hard rain. Ray ran the beam of his light back and forth across the floor of the narrow tunnel. Behind him, his chief deputy, Daniel Rivers, searched the walls.
Daniel paused to examine a lump, which turned out to be the end of a tree root. “I can’t believe there’s a tunnel under the parsonage.”
“By now, I suspect we’re out under the backyard. A lot of houses this old have secret rooms and passages, but not usually tunnels.”
“An escape route for slaves, maybe?”
Ray paused and ran his light over one of the wooden support arches to check its strength. “I doubt it. This house wasn’t built until around 1900. June told me once that the original builder had been seriously paranoid about fire. Since the only entrance is from the second floor, I’d say he built it from a fear of fire or intruders.”
Daniel cleared his throat. “You think she did it?”
Ray, trying desperately to forget the feelings he had for his number-one suspect, resumed his examination of the floor. “She’s your sister-in-law. What do you think?”
Daniel, who’d married June’s sister April less than a year ago, paused a moment. “No.”
“June likes a good argument, and she likes to win, but she’s worked hard over the years to leave behind the street kid that she was. She wouldn’t resort to violence. She’s so in control most days, I forget she’s not from a privileged background. April once said June lived with violence so long that she abhorred it. They both do. June might yell, but she’d never lift a hand to hurt anyone.” Daniel sniffed, then coughed. “Besides, she kept referring to Pastor Gallagher in the present tense, as if he were still alive. Plus, the blood pattern on her clothes is all wrong.”
Ray smiled grimly, glad Daniel couldn’t see the flash of pride in his face. Daniel got better at his job every day. “How so?”
“The killer would have blood on him in streaks and smudges from the attack. June looked like she’d wallowed in it. Plus the footprints on the back porch don’t match the ones that skidded through the blood. So there were at least two people in that kitchen. June and whoever made the prints.”
“Maybe three, if the set leading away from—” Ray froze, his light focused on something on the ground.
Daniel came to his side, on alert. “What did you find?”
Ray nodded toward the floor, then they both squatted, examining the small white button that seemed to glitter in the light. A tiny piece of navy-blue fabric still clung to it, and both had a distinctive red smear on them.
“Strange place to lose a button.”
Ray shined his light farther down the tunnel, where it illuminated a pile of plaid cloth. Red streaks had soaked the navy-blue and dark green squares. “Not if you were jerking your shirt off.”
Daniel stood. send Gage down with the crime-scene kit.”
Ray pulled his handcuffs from his belt and placed them carefully next to the button, so it would be easier to find. Standing, he shined his light back toward the house, noticing how distinct his and Daniel’s footprints were in the earth. He noticed other prints that seemed recent as well, and he skirted them as he turned back and made his way deeper into the tunnel, toward the shirt.
Using his pen, Ray prodded at the thick flannel until he found the collar. The shirt was a man’s extra large, which made it useless for judging the suspect’s size. Small shirts are only worn by small people, but large shirts are popular with all sizes of folks. The dirt ring around the collar meant that the shirt could be old—and filled with DNA. Two dark smears on the cloth bore an unmistakable resemblance to tobacco juice.
Ray replaced the pen in his pocket and stood again, his mind turning over a hundred possibilities. He ignored the relief he felt at finding some possible evidence that pointed away from June. Tobacco stains didn’t exactly narrow the suspect pool much—Bell County remained tobacco country and there were as many fields of the bright, wide-leafed plants around here as there were of corn and soybeans—but it might not be a bad place to start looking. Especially if it could help clear the name of the woman he could not get off his mind. The woman who just wanted to be “friends.”
The scuff of shoes on dirt made Ray look up, and he shined his light down the tunnel behind him, expecting to see Daniel and his lone crime-scene investigator, Jeff Gage, heading his way. Instead, the beam of his flashlight faded away into the darkness.
Then the scuffing sounded again, now clearly from the opposite direction. Ray drew his pistol and swung around, dropping to a crouch.