Friday morning before school found the girls sitting next to Tiana’s bed. Gracie painted pink swirls of glitter and then fine outlines of rose petals. Willow was talking about how much she was looking forward to burning her crutches. They were all three groaning about the practice schedule for the next two weeks leading to Nationals. Their Gramma Doreen sat idly listening to their chatter.
This was the way girls were supposed to hang out together at home or at school, not in a hospital because one of them was dangerously dehydrated and malnourished due to being pregnant. A pregnancy which was the result of a terrible crime against a young girl’s innocence. Camille had showered, and changed and then left to find Tiana’s mother, to drag her to the hospital. It had been years since Doreen had seen Camille that worked up but she supposed sitting in the hospital all night had stirred up too many of her own bad memories and her vicious need for justice.
“Girls, it’s time to go. I’ll get your homework and bring it back to you, Tiana,” Doreen smiled patiently as the girls mutter complaints but wished their friend goodbye. Tiana suddenly looked afraid of being alone. “Can I bring you a deaf from the cafe, sweetie, or a hot chocolate?” Doreen offered.
“Thanks Gramma Wallace, a hot chocolate and...” Tiana hesitated.
“And what, darling?”
“Some chips and guacamole, I have really been craving it but mom gets so mad if I eat stuff like that,′ Tiana seemed to shrink on herself.
“Oh Tiana, you’ll learn to eat what you crave while you’re pregnant. You eat what the baby wants no matter how weird it seems. When Camille was pregnant with Gracie, she ate chocolate frosting and sweet pickle sandwiches,” Doreen laughed as Gracie stared at her horrified. Willow made fake gagging noise, and Tiana just looked afraid.
“I won’t want to eat that, will I?” Tiana sounded terrified.
“No wonder I hate pickles,” Gracie shuddered in disgust.
“Who knows,” Doreen shrugged, “But guacamole and corn chips with hot chocolate is a start on the sweet, sour, spicy, and savory craving mix. The Japanese call the blending of opposite flavors Umami.”
“'Eww-Mommy' is right,” Willow said, as her face twisted in disgust.
“Come, girls. See you in a while, Tiana.” Doreen ushered them out after they promised to come and see their friend after dive practice.
Driving through town on his way back out on patrol, Tank stopped to get fuel at Rusty’s Wrench. As he refilled his travel mug, he saw Antonia’s car up on the lift in the garage.
“Rusty, how long have you had Ms Ballard’s car here?”
The old mechanic glanced at the car. “Oh, my boy towed it in after the storm last week, she bent the axle and that fancy developer fella is paying for the repairs. Took over a week just to get the parts.”
“Do you know what she is driving now?” Tank asked, getting even angrier about Antonia not returning his calls.
“Some rental Audi, silver I think,” Rusty scratched his beard. “Ms Ballard in some sorta trouble?”
“Why would you think she’s in trouble?” Tank asked.
" ’cause, well... she’s got some peculiar visitors sometimes. But that’s none of my business,” Rusty shrugged.
“Rusty, did you meet the man she had here over Thanksgiving week?” Tank didn’t have much hope, but the mechanic seemed to remember everyone he ever met, not their names but any work he had done for them. If Tonia had come in that week, Rusty might remember. It was a long shot but it was the only lead he had since Tiana did not know the man’s last name or where he came from.
“Hmmm, let me think. Thanksgiving week... Yeah, she did have a feller with her, funny accent, out-of-state. I think he bought her some tires. I can look in the old receipts. I knew that feller was trouble. He had them beady eyes and combed back city slicker hair.”
Tank nodded, “I would appreciate it, Rusty. You said she was driving a silver Audi rental?”
“Yep, one of them Flex fuel cars. She had me put that cheap ethanol fuel in it. People don’t realize that stuff eats right through the rings. Cheaper now, but ya pay for it later. Guess she didn’t care it being a rental and all,” Rusty shrugged.
“If you could get me a name, that would help me a lot,” Tank headed out the door with a wave. It was a long shot but it was the first chance to discover the identity of the man who attacked Tiana.
Getting into his Durango, he picked up the radio, “Tanner to Dispatch.”
“Dispatch here, you find Mrs. Ballard yet?”
“No, but her BMW is at Rusty’s. She is driving a silver Audi rental. I am heading out to 160 to check where she had her accident. Tanner out.” Tank scowled, he needed to talk to Hightower about why he was paying for repairs and why Antonia was at Hidden Springs.
“Got it, Sheriff. I’ll let Lloyd and Vick know about the vehicle description change. Dispatch out.”
As Tank drove toward Hidden Springs, he prayed that Kyle had not been taken in by Antonia’s charms. He believed the developer had more sense, but men as smart as they came had fallen for her wiles.
He was surprised to be stopped by a large gate on the drive up to Hidden Springs. He lifted the phone in the callbox.
“Blue Water Resorts, can I help you?” A gruff man’s voice answered.
“Sheriff Tanner to see Mr. Hightower.” Tank waited.
“Drive on up, Sheriff. The gate will open automatically.” The man invited.
The gate slid to the side. The drive was graveled and obviously being used by heavy equipment. Snow still clung to the bases of many trees and he was shocked when he pulled over the crest of the hill that hid the valley from 160. Heavy equipment was working around partially excavated holes, large and irregular shaped. Most of the cabins were at some stage of being torn down, and a row of trailers was lined up in the old parking lot. Men in hard hats were walking everywhere. Tank spotted Hightower standing on the porch of the main house and parked next to his Hummer.
“Are you here to stop my project?” Kyle asked cautiously. Tank’s surprised look answered his question.
“No, I am here to ask you about Antonia Ballard’s rental car. I was told you were paying for it,” Tank responded. “Care to elaborate on your relationship with the lady.”
“There’s no relationship and she’s no lady,” Kyle answered coldly. “She damaged her car driving up here the day Willow got hurt. Blue Water property means my responsibility. Did she wreck the rental?”
“No, but she is missing, no one had seen or talked to her since she left the school yesterday and her daughter is in the hospital,” Tank explained.
“She was here yesterday and threatened to stop my project when I wouldn’t go out on a date with her,” Kyle sighed, “I had Jon escort her off the property after she slapped me.”
Tank chuckled, “Damn Hightower, slapped by two women in a week’s time. You are definitely not a ladies’ man.”
Kyle laughed too. “Never claimed to be one, in spite of what my project manager thinks”
Tank looked around at the busy workers, “You got busy.”
“I learned a long time ago that when a member of the community threatens a project that my best course of action is to finish it before the court battles can begin,” Kyle sighed, “This project was the first one in my brother’s dream resorts book and the last one I am building. If you’re not busy Independence Day, I am planning a little opening party.”
Grinning Tank asked, “Will there be steak and beer?”
“Draft or bottle?”
They chuckled, then Tank reassured him, “Don’t worry about Tonia, she doesn’t have the influence she thinks she does. She might be able to cause a little trouble but this community needs the business the resort will bring. If she comes back, tell her to call me or Wally immediately.”
“She won’t, I was pretty rude. Nothing I hate more than gold-digging husband-jumpers. How... how’s Camille?” Kyle actually sounded nervous.
“She’s in a tiff but it isn’t you this time,” Tank grinned. “There are some things that came up with a member of the dive team. Maybe you should take her out to dinner; she needs a break from the stress.”
“I don’t think she’d say yes yet,” Kyle said regretfully.
“She still owes me a dinner after the unfortunate pool incident on Valentine’s.” Tank wiggled his eyebrows, “Now If I couldn’t make it and you went in my place, as a favor to a friend...”
“She’d drown us both.” Kyle announced amused.
“But would it be worth it?” Tank smirked.
Kyle rolled his eyes, “You’re already working a missing person; are you so bored you need a murder too?”
“That isn’t a no. See you around, Hightower.”
“Keep a toe tag with my name on it.” Kyle decided if he was going to die, he might as well die trying.
The Sheriff tipped his hat and drove off with a significantly lighter mood. Back on the highway, he hands-free called Camille’s cell phone.
Doreen spent the morning with Tiana; the girl had finished her school work remarkably quickly. The doctor was unwilling to release her until her mother came but by noon, they still hadn’t found Tonia. Tonia’s third ex, Deputy Lloyd McConnell had stopped in at lunch time and brought Tiana a large order of onion rings and a chocolate shake, asking if she needed anything. He had paled when he realized her condition, but smiled and said goodbye kindly. Doreen followed him outside, because he was obviously shaken.
“Lloyd, are you okay?” Doreen’s grandmotherly concern reached far beyond her family, she had lived in this community her whole life and knew most of this generation’s grandparents.
“She’s only 17, does her boyfriend know? Tonia is going to have a meltdown,” he answered shakily.
“She doesn’t have a boyfriend and if she did, it wasn’t him,” Doreen’s soft voice met his wide eyes, then rage fired in them as he realized what she was implying. She knew she needed to calm him. Lloyd could be a hot head when provoked, just like his father and uncles, his cousin was Tiana’s father.
“You need to be calm; we don’t know the whole story. Sheriff Tanner already took Tiana’s statement. As far as we know, Tonia doesn’t know what happened or that Tiana is here.”
He muttered a curse under his breath and ran his hand over his crew cut. “I knew I should have taken her with me when I left.”
“Lloyd, you had no parental rights, she’s not yours. And until your cousin comes home from the Pacific, there is no one who can take her in unless she is emancipated. Mrs. Pence says there is no history of abuse,” Doreen explained rationally.
“No history of abuse! Tonia treats her terribly, always belittling her, mocking her, and pushing her to find out things about her friends’ parents. Tonia makes her do all the housework, cooking, and forcing her to always look and act perfect, even when T stays at home. She is a heartless bit ch and I can’t believe I fell for her act. I thought Tim was exaggerating, he wasn’t. Then that judge gave her so much alimony and child support, Tim had to leave the country to make enough to pay it.”
His jaw worked as he gritted his teeth, Doreen just waited for him to start talking again. When he did, his voice was low and hate-filled, “Tonia is the most selfish and cruelest woman I know. I filed a report about how she treated that girl, and she got the report I made dismissed. She claimed I was being vindictive because she left me. The truth is I left her because she spent more money that we had every week and got viciously mean when she ran out of pocket money. Doreen, I know everyone in this town thinks she is a saint because she “volunteers” with all the local charities, but she isn’t, she is the F*ing devil.”
“Lloyd, you need to calm down. You don’t know for sure Tonia caused this. When you find her, bring her here and let Sheriff Tanner deal with her,” Doreen cautioned.
He clenched his fist, looking down at the trembling ball of flesh as if he wanted to pummel something or someone. “Mrs. Wallace, if what you’re not telling me directly is that Tiana is pregnant because she was raped by one of Tonia’s ‘guests’, then I can guarantee Tonia let it happen because she damn well got something out of it, just like she stole that money from First Church.”
“Lloyd, listen to me. You have a good career and have worked hard to get the respect of the community back. Don’t throw it away on her. Tim needs you to keep an eye out for Tiana, now more than ever,” Doreen soothed,
Lloyd nodded, “I’ll keep that in mind Mrs. Wallace. I... I apologize for losing my temper and my language.”
Doreen smiled and patted his arm, “You’re a good young man, Lloyd McConnell. You always have been.”
“Thank you, Ma’am. If Tiana needs anything, you call me first.”
Doreen smiled again at him, “I’ll put you on the list. But you might have to get in line behind Camille.”
A thought shined in his eyes malevolently, “If Coach Wally takes that Tonia down the way she did Asher Colmer after he vandalized the Wild Anemone B&B and slandered the Ms Milli, I would pay to see it.”
Doreen gave him a tolerant smile, “I have never been one to advocate violence, but my granddaughter does have a way with words, Ben used to call her Hurricane Camille.”
Lloyd smirked, “Like I said, I’ll take a ticket front row center.”
Ice Cold Coach Wally stormed through the halls of the school like an arctic front, the students, on their way to lunch, parted like the Red Sea before her. Her voice was sharp as she talked on her cell phone and her scowl left no doubt that whomever she was mad at was going to suffer. Rumors were already circulating about Tiana falling into the pool and many wondered why. Camille had told her team to only say Tiana was ill with some stomach thing. Willow and Gracie knew the truth, but Camille trusted her girls to keep Tiana’s secret. The gossip vine would just have to keep guessing.
“She wasn’t in her room this morning. Her teaching assistant Liz said she called and said she wouldn’t be in today. Liz assumed it was to be with Tiana. She isn’t at home I already went by her house before coming in, and Willow noticed Tiana’s car is gone from her assigned spot in the Junior parking row.”
Tank sounded as angry as Camille felt, “I have a deputy cruiser sitting on her house and, no one answered the door. Her Beemer isn’t there because it’s at Rusty’s shop, we just found out she is driving a silver Audi rental.”
“I didn’t see any cars there but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t in the garage,” Camille huffed, when she got her hands on Tonia, the English Teacher was going to learn the hard meaning of ‘words are weapons’. “How could she not be wondering where Tiana is?”
“Maybe because Tiana is almost an adult?” Tank offered and Camille practically growled at him. So he reminded, “Look, we don’t know where she went or why but we’ll track her down and if we don’t, Lloyd offered to keep Tiana until Tim gets back. Have you tried to call her again?”
“Of course, I have tried every half hour since 6AM,” In the echoing expanse of the pool room Camille realized how shrewish she sounded and apologized, “Thomas, I’m sorry. I shouldn’t be snapping at you. It’s been a long morning.”
His heavy sigh came through the earpiece, “Darlin’, I am just as mad. I know this is hard for you, I wish I could hug you. I need a hug; I guess this big, bad sheriff is just a giant softy.”
Camille actually smiled as she entered her office, “I won’t tell anyone there’s a plushy teddy bear under your badge, I promise.” He laughed.
They were quiet for a moment, finally Tank said, “I’ll keep looking, you keep calling. One of us in bound to find her. Enjoy your lunch and you still owe me a steak dinner. Bye, Wally.”
He could hear her smile, “Bye, Tank.”