THE LAW OF BETRAYAL
THE LAW OF BETRAYAL is now available as an ebook. This is the third book of the Appalachian Trilogy and is also published in Trade and Hardback editions.
When she was ten years old attorney Alma Bashears's father disappeared. The only man who knows the true story is brutally killed and an old enemy comes out of the shadows.
To defend herself against an accusation of murder Alma must face the ancient mystery of her own heritage that stems from a misunderstood race of people called the Melungeons. Their land holds secrets of the ages.
THE LAW OF BETRAYAL was a 2003 finalist for ForeWord Magazine's Book of the Year in the mystery category.
"THE LAW OF BETRAYAL brings together an intrepid sleuth, prosecutor Alma Bashears, a rich and unique setting in the mountain hollows of Kentucky, a cast of quirky characters that kept me off balance, and a twenty-year-old mystery that demands to be solved. All of which add up to a tale that kept me guessing until the very end."
—Margaret Coel, author of THE SHADOW DANCER
"A thoroughly enjoyable novel. A fascinating look at Appalachia and the impact the past can have on the present."
—Lauren Haney, author of A CRUEL DECEIT
"In THE LAW OF BETRAYAL, Tess Collins writes about theh ills of Kentucky as only a native can, weaving folklore, generational ties, and the ever present connection to the land, into an exciting tale of justice."
—Judy Fitzwater, author of DYING TO GET HER MAN
Chapter One of THE LAW OF BETRAYAL
"Have another slice of pizza," the Commonwealth Attorney offered the man who pointed a revolver at her. "You'll think clearer on a full stomach." Alma Bashears offered him a tense smile, as well.
Sweat poured down Quincy Pollard's face in pencil-thin streaks. His eyes darted from the courtroom door, to the oversized windows that formed the west wall, to the four remaining hostages. Willard Yokum and Chester Sanders were jurors; Barry Cage, a state's witness; Jake Moreland, the bailiff who lost his service revolver to Quincy, a petty criminal about to be convicted of stabbing a bank teller in a fit of rage.
"Why's it so hot in here?" Quincy stated, rather than asked. "Air-conditioning's been turned off." Alma shifted in her curled-up position on the floor and pushed the pizza box toward him with one hand. "It's only a matter of time before the electricity is disconnected, too, Quincy."
She leaned her head against the wall. Thoughts of all she might have done to prevent this situation filled her head. She was the prosecutor. Of all people, she should have anticipated that a two-time county jail escapee with a hair-trigger temper might attempt another break for freedom. If the forty-year old Quincy had been about sixty pounds thinner, he could have succeeded. He tripped trying to jump the gate separating the defense table and seating section. Had he been able to flee the building and jump into the truck his brother had waiting near the rear entrance of the courthouse, they both might have disappeared into the Cumberland Mountains, never be found again. They would not have been the first.
Quincy bit his bottom lip hard enough to leave an impression, and then slid opposite her, careful to keep from showing himself in the windows. He fiddled with the tuner of a radio propped up on a bench. "They better not kill the electricity," he said, rubbing his forehead and smearing the sweat into a dense forelock of thick brown hair. "I have to hear myself on the radio. I have to know that my side of the story gets out."
"I'm sure Chief Forester is working as hard as he can on getting you that connection," Alma said.
"He better. He will. With you here, he'll get it."
Knowing Quincy was counting on her relationship with Police Chief Grady Forester gave Alma a short term sense of security. At the same time, she was the Commonwealth prosecutor and, if this was to end peacefully, she would have to make him forget her official role and establish a personal connection. "Why don't you tell me your side of the story?" she asked soothingly and leaned back against an overturned bench that formed part of the barricade in the southwest corner of the room.
"I tried to tell you," he spit out. "You wouldn't hear! That thievin' bank was a'cheating my ass, jacked up the interest, forged my name, and threatened to take my house." He wiggled around in the cramped space between toppled benches and tables. "I don't let people cheat me, not and get away with it."
Alma shifted and stretched out her legs to unfurl a twitch in her calf muscle. Every time Quincy turned to the radio, she peeked over the furniture that partially blocked the sightlines to the windows and doors. "Don't you think it's time to let another hostage go?" She paused, making eye contact when he turned back toward her. "You promised Chief Forester you would if he brought the pizza and sodas."
"If you'd only listened," he said, pressing his lips together as if holding back a surge of regret, "none of this would've happened." He stared at the four men at the far end of the room, high in the witness box where he could control them without being taken out by a sharpshooter. Gripping the revolver tightly in one hand and aiming it at the hostages, he nodded toward the men. "Go ahead. You choose."
Alma stood. Outside the window, she could see law enforcement vehicles spread throughout the parking lot. Sharpshooters on the roof of the opposite building trained their weapons on the courtroom and watched her through scopes. She caught a glimpse of a mirror being lowered to the window ledge so that the police on the roof could see what was going on in the room. Slowly she walked toward the men, knowing that Quincy's gun was pointed at her back. "We're going to send one more of you out," she said, then lowered her voice to a whisper. "Remember what I told you." A deep cut on Jake's forehead still bled and he leaned against the wall to compensate for an injured leg. Alma touched his arm. "You."
"Alma," Jake said through a thinly drawn mouth, "I am not going out of here before you—"
"Jake, you're bleeding badly and if I can get you out of his line of fire, the rest of us can make a duck-and-cover behind the Judge's bench should the need arise." She pulled a bloody rag from his forehead and pressed a clean paper towel in its place. "Patience is not one of the chief's talents. I give this another hour before he storms the place. You need to go out and—"
"Don't even ask me," he pleaded, trying to sound firm, but his voice wavered with the pain of his wounds.
Alma sensed the guilt that coursed through his veins—guilt at having lost his weapon—and she was partly afraid he might try to make up for it with some uncalled for heroics. "You represent authority to him," she explained.
"What about me?" Barry Cage asked. "I was set to testify against him."
"Mr. Cage, you were a by-stander. He doesn't hold that against you."
"Says you." Barry shot a fearful look toward the corner where Quincy hid well out of sight of police sharpshooters.
"He'll target Jake. Best that he leaves next."
"And what are you—the fairy godmother?" Jake cynically rolled his eyes. "You're prosecuting him, for Godssakes."
Alma tried to smile with comforting confidence, but suspected that she was not succeeding. "I have an ace," she whispered, "and as soon as I have you out of the way, I'm going to play it." She squeezed his arm. "You have to trust me on this."
"I'm sorry, Alma," Jake said, unable to look her in the eye.
"You didn't do anything. He did this, not you."
Barry and Willard helped Jake to his feet. Quincy shouted. "Not the men! Only you, Alma. Only you and stop five feet from the door."
She anchored herself underneath Jake's arm, helping him walk. All the while, she kept Quincy in sight. Each time he turned to listen to the radio, she took the opportunity to talk to Jake. "Tell Grady to hang tight." She kicked the disabled access unit and the door swung outward. "Give me some time."
Outside in the hallway, Grady kneeled behind a trash container, gun pointed. He stood, holstering his weapon while two paramedics rushed forward to assist Jake. "I know what I'm doing," Alma whispered. Jake nodded and limped the remaining few feet into the paramedic's arms.
As the outer door behind them shut, Alma glimpsed the black helmeted force of men that Grady had been training for the last year for just such an occurrence. Many of Crimson County's local law enforcement agencies had laughed behind his back, thinking that this kind of thing would never happen in their small Kentucky county. He had the last laugh, but at what price?
Alma prayed that no one on the force would overreact. As long as she was still a hostage, she was fairly certain they would not. Looking over at Willard Yokum, Chester Sanders and Barry Cage, she felt relieved that all were in good physical shape. She had talked Quincy into holding them in the witness box and, when his attention had been diverted by the pizza delivery, she had pointed out to the hostages that there was a route to safety behind the bullet-proof judge's bench. She hoped that jump would not be necessary.
The sun dipped lower in the sky, caused a blinding glare on the windows and intensified the temperature in the room. Alma wiped the nape of her neck and returned to the floor between the over-turned bench and the defense table that Quincy used as a back brace.
"Quincy, can I tell you something?"
His eyes narrowed and he looked away from her, but nodded.
"You're not the first person that bank cheated. There are at least a dozen people that I personally know about. Louise Miller, Johnny Clark, Freddy Nixon, to name a few. They're not stupid people. The bank pulled the same fraud on them."
"What?" He twisted to face her. "Why didn't you do something about it?"
"I was." She opened her hands palm up. "I've had an investigation going on for almost a year. We were a month away from arresting not only a few bank tellers, but Vice-President Carl Richie. Criminal fraud, embezzlement, grand larceny. Hell, I've even got the Feds looking into racketeering charges. He'll be in jail a long time."
"I didn't know that."
"I couldn't very well announce what I was up to by giving a newspaper interview, now could I?"
He let his head sink to a bent knee and closed his eyes as if he were wishing the situation could all just go away. "I didn't know."
"Quincy," she said, continuing to use his name and nurture the growing bond between them, "if you'd only come to me instead of taking the law into your own hands, I could have helped. Not only that, you could have helped me."
He looked up, not quite understanding, but willing to listen. "What am I going to do?"
Alma reached out to hesitantly pat his shoulder. He jerked at her touch, but kept the gun barrel resting on the bottom of an upturned chair. "Maybe there's something we can work out."
"It's too late." He nodded toward the door. "They're going to kill me."
"Not if you're a State's witness."
"What do you mean?" His attention perked up and, for the first time, his tightly drawn features began to soften.
"No one here has been seriously hurt," she explained. "If this ends peacefully, and you testify for the State, then I'll give the judge a good sentencing recommendation. You'll be out in five years-max." She waited as he processed her words, but knew that she was not completely forthcoming. It would not be easy to lessen the consequences for a person who had held a courtroom hostage, but as long as he believed her, she might be able to conclude this without someone dying.
"At the end of the night, ya got to be able to sleep," he said.
"My father used to tell me the same thing," Alma mused, letting her lips curl into a smile as if remembering. She watched him carefully, hoping he would relax enough to set aside the gun.
Quincy bit his bottom lip and his eyes took on an unfocused look. "I think your daddy was the first person ever to say it to me," he said, letting himself drift into memory. "Gotta be able to sleep."
"You knew my father?" she asked, her skin prickling.
"Met him in Pollyhollow. Me and Isham Thunderheart was drunk and fightin' over a girl."
"Go on," she said, knowing she was creating firmer ground with him. She was equally eager to hear about her father.
He sighed, looking down at the floor. "Things were just so different back then. All that stuff that happened."
"Stuff?" She hardly realized she had said the word. The conversation was taking a different track than she expected. Could he know something about her father's disappearance? Information she had never been able to pry from anyone else? She told herself to play it carefully, not only because of the fact that she was being held hostage, but because the man knew what she had been trying to learn for over twenty-five years. She would spend the entire night there if it led to information about her father.
"Well," she said slowly and deliberately, "that kind of stuff can't hurt anybody now."
Quincy let out a short hiss and shook his head in uncertainty. "The past can strangle the future, if you let it." His grip on the revolver loosened as he brought it to his chest, then rested his hand in his lap. "You really think a deal can be worked out?"
"You're looking at the person who made the offer."
He exhaled a long, slow breath. His eyes narrowed and his forehead furrowed deeply in thought, but slowly a look of trust seeped into his expression. "You're a lot like your dad, helping people who don't have nobody to depend on."
She nodded and spoke softly. "Why don't you give me the gun?"
His weary expression gave way to resignation. He raised the revolver and started to hand it to her. "All I ever wanted was justice." Hesitating mid-way, he stared at the barrel.
"Did you marry the girl?" she asked to recapture his attention.
"Allafair Adair... no, I don't think that girl'd ever lend out her heart."
The name stunned Alma. "Allafair Adair?" she echoed. "I've been trying to find her for nearly five years." She held her breath, then forced herself to speak. "What was her connection to my father?"
"You mean, you don't know?" Quincy cocked his head to one side, squinting as he studied her. "You really don't know about them?" Dark shadows swung across the gleaming window panes and he jerked around.
"It's a bird," Alma said, hoping to distract him, but Quincy jumped up and aimed the gun. The windows broke in a shattering cacophony, sending glass spraying across the room.
"No!" he yelled, firing wildly into the glare of the sun.
"No!" Alma repeated as a black-suited figure landed on her, knocking the breath from her lungs as they hit the floor. The crackle of gunfire mixed with her screams for it to stop. The room spun in slow motion before her. Bullets ripped into Quincy's body and sent sprays of blood to spatter the room. His arms jerked like a puppet tangled in its own strings; then, in a slow twist, he dropped to the floor.
The officer covering Alma held her down even when the only sound was a single set of boots crunching on broken glass. "Get off me!" she yelled, wiggling out from underneath him. She swung up on to her knees as the three hostages ran past her and the rest of the police force pushed into the courtroom.
The black boots belonged to a husky, six-footer; he was fortyish with steel-gray hair that grew back from his strong-featured face. Grady Forester stood above Quincy, aiming his gun at the man's head. He grinned the smirk of a cop who taken down his man.
"Damn it, Grady!" Alma yelled. "He was about to surrender!"
His surprised expression was matched only by a defensive spike of anger. "He was pointing a gun at you." He holstered his weapon now that he had secured the scene and moved toward Alma.
She pushed him away and dropped to Quincy's side. His eyes stared straight ahead, a trickle of blood running from his nose as faint breath panted between his chapped lips. "Quincy?" She rubbed his shoulder, the only part of his shirt that was not gushing blood. "Where are the paramedics?" she demanded and swung her head toward the door.
"Tending Jake," said a voice behind her. "They're on the way back up."
"Stay calm," she told Quincy, "breath slow."
His frightened eyes locked with hers. "Too late," he said.
"It's not too late." Her voice dropped to a hoarse whisper as she realized the man was dying.
He reached up to grab her collar, and Grady leaned down to disengage the grip.
"Leave him alone," she growled.
Grady pulled back, his confusion evident in his furrowed brow. His cheeks reddened. He glanced quickly at his men, who tried not to look at him.
"Quincy," she said, "tell me..."
He coughed a bubble of blood and struggled to form words. "People... know," he said.
"I can hear you," Alma encouraged him. "What do they know?"
His pupils grew wide and dark, then still and flat. His lips moved, but no sound came from his throat as the coldness of death filled him.
Alma shook him, squeezing the hand that still clung to her collar. "Come on, Quincy," she said louder, trying to keep him conscious. "What was my father doing with Allafair?" Her voice broke. She leaned her face as close to his as she could. The metallic smell of blood filled her nostrils.
He forced one last word from his lips. "Allafair."