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    CHAPTER FIVE

    Two days later, Madison wondered how things had gone so terribly wrong. What would Granny Bert say when she heard about this?

    It began as an ordinary day. After getting the kids off to school, Madison ran errands for a few of her clients, took care of some phone calls, and did the laundry. By the time the twins got home, she had their shopping list sorted and prioritized.

    Even though Granny Bert favored shopping local, Madison knew she could get more for her money in Bryan-College Station. It was an hour away, but had the nearest shopping mall and big box stores, as well as a variety of specialty shops, three Wal-Marts, and more restaurants than Blake could ever eat his way through, no matter how hard he tried.

    The Angel Tree had an alarming number of needy children this year, and fewer benefactors than usual. It broke Madison’s heart to think there might be disillusioned children on Christmas morning. Along with the money collected for the Angel Tree, she and the twins were donating a portion of their meager budget to brighten the lives of some of those less fortunate.

    She asked Blake to supervise the athletic needs of the children on their list. He knew more about what sport enthusiasts wanted. Bethani took care of fashion needs and little girl toys. Madison added the practical side of the gifts—warm socks, jackets, and feel-good throws and pillows. By the time they finished shopping, her car was so full that she allowed Blake to catch a ride home with friends they saw in the mall.

    “At the risk of sounding like my twin, Mr. Garbage Disposal, I’m hungry,” Bethani announced.

    “We ate dinner!”

    “That was like three hours ago. Can we stop and get something to eat? Please?”

    “What about your brother?”

    “What about him? If he gets home before us, he’s a big boy, he has a key. But if I know him, he’ll con Mrs. Baines into stopping somewhere, too. Oh, can we stop at Tasty’s?” Bethani asked eagerly. “They have awesome cheddar fries!”

    “I’ve heard a lot about them, but I haven’t tried them yet.”

    “Momma Matt took us by there the other day. You have to try the Caramel Crazy Latte. It’s like super delish!”

    Laughing at her daughter’s enthusiasm, Madison agreed to try the new restaurant. Handily situated on their way of town, it also stayed open late. Good thing, she thought, since many other places were already closed. Bethani confirmed the fact by checking on her phone. She liked the place so well, she downloaded their app after visiting the first time.

    Five minutes later, they saw the line at the drive-through window. “Are you sure you want to eat here?”

    “Yes, Mom, it is crazy good. Trust me. It’s worth the wait.”

    “It better be. It’s almost an hour drive home and you have school tomorrow, young lady.”

    “I could skip,” the teen offered innocently. “You know, stay home and wrap all these gifts we bought, that kind of thing.”

    “How generous of you, Beth.”

    Bethani ignored the sarcasm in her mother’s voice. “Just doing my part for mankind.” She flashed an innocent smile so charming, for a moment, it reminded Madison of Genny.

    Maybe we’re blood-kin, after all, she mused. But no, that smile actually looked more like her father’s. Back when Gray smiled all the time. Back before…

    Madison shook herself from her reverie. She didn’t want to go there, not tonight. Her capricious teenager was in a good mood right now, and she wanted to enjoy every moment of it. With the hormonal tidal waves of a sixteen-year-old girl, that could change at any moment.

    “I was proud of you and Blake today, babe. I know some of that was your own money, and you freely spent it on others. That shows not only maturity, but generosity and compassion.”

    “It felt good today, you know, buying gifts for all those kids. I know I don’t always show it, but I know how fortunate Blake and I are. Not just because we have the Big House and all our stuff, but… you know. Because of family, and all that.”

    Madison’s eyes misted with emotion. “Yes, Beth, we’re fortunate, indeed,” she agreed softly.

    Rolling up to the menu board, they placed their order and patiently sat in the pick-up line. “At least the line is moving fairly quickly,” Madison said.

    The teen slid her mother a sly glance. “No hurry, since I’m not going to school tomorrow.”

    “Nice try, no cigar. I never agreed to your generous offer, my dear.”

    While they waited for their food, they discussed some of their better buys of the day. When they reached the window to collect their food, Bethani was still laughing about the spectacle her brother made while trying to squeeze a particularly large box into the backseat. The young woman at the window overheard enough of the story to lean out and peer into the over-stuffed backseat.

    “Wow, I bet that was tough getting in there! Let me guess,” she grinned. “Christmas shopping?” She had vivid pink streaks in her hair that matched her nail polish.

    “For the Angel Tree!” Bethani volunteered jovially from across the car, leaning low to share her smile.

    “Ah, that’s nice. Giving to others.”

    “We do what we can,” Madison smiled as she accepted the bag of food. “Mmm, smells great. Did you include straws?”

    “There should be some inside, but here you go, just in case.”

    “Okay, thanks!”

    Bethani leaned back down. “Merry Christmas!”

    As they pulled back onto the highway, Madison asked, “Did you know that girl?”

    “I think I’ve seen her around before. Someone said Addison’s cousin worked here. Maybe that’s her, I don’t know.” The teen shrugged as she pulled out her cheesy fries. “I was just being friendly. Here, try one of these and tell me they aren’t the best you’ve ever tasted!”

    It was a rare treat to share time alone with her daughter, so Madison took full advantage. She kept the conversation light and playful. They discussed what cookies they would make when Granny Bert came home, sang along with the Christmas carols on CD, and laughed all the way back to River County.

    The laughter died a few miles before they reached Juliet.

    “Mom, I think that’s a cop. He’s flashing his lights at you.”

    Madison looked into her rear-view mirror and saw a car quickly approaching, flashing its lights. Something about the overhead bar looked wrong. “Those aren’t cop lights, are they?”

    “I don’t know, but he definitely wants you to stop!”

    “I’m not stopping just because someone flashes their lights at me. It could be a scam. Haven’t you heard about those girls that were kidnapped? They pulled over on a deserted road, much like this one, for what they thought was a patrolman. Turned out to be a pervert.”

    Panic rose in Bethani’s voice. “Then what are we going to do? He’s gaining on us. He might try to shoot out the tires or something!”

    “He’s not going to shoot out the tires!” she snapped, hoping she sounded more confident than she felt. What would she do if he did? Could she control the car at this speed? Reluctantly, Madison eased off the accelerator. “Scroll down to Brash’s number. Don’t call him yet, but have it ready to press if I tell you to.”

    “Mom, I’m scared.”

    “There’s no need to be scared. I’m not stopping until I know it’s legit. And if it is legit, I haven’t done anything wrong.”

    “Except refuse to stop!”

    “We’ll cross that bridge when we get there.” As the car came up alongside her, she added, “Which could be any moment now.”

    For a moment, Madison feared the car would edge her off the road. Then she saw the emblem on the side, identifying it as part of the state wildlife department.

    Relief flooded through her, weakening her knees. “Oh, thank goodness. It’s a game warden.”

    “What do they want with us?” Bethani cried.

    “I don’t know, but they want us to pull over.” She found a safe place to pull onto the shoulder and eased the car to a stop. The game warden pulled in directly behind her, his bright lights blinding them. All Madison could see was a man’s silhouette approaching her stopped vehicle.

    Rolling down the window, she asked, “Is something wrong, officer?” She wasn’t sure it was the right title, but it never hurt to flatter someone wearing a badge.

    It struck her as odd that the man’s hair was as long as it was. Most men on the state payroll wore neatly cropped hair and clean-shaven faces. If they did have a beard, they were always neat and properly groomed. This man’s shaggy beard and long hair were the first things Madison noticed.

    The second thing she noticed was that he kept his head bent, so that his ranger-style hat shadowed his face. Which was the third oddity. Where was his customary cowboy hat? And unlike most law enforcement authorities, his clothes were ill fitting and wrinkled.

    Madison got an uneasy feeling, even before he spoke.

    “I need to search your car,” he said without preamble.

    “Excuse me?”

    “Said I need to search your car. We had reports of a car matching this description carrying illegal hides across county lines. You’ll have to get out of the car.”

    She heard Bethani sputtering in the seat beside her, but Madison motioned for her to be quiet. She offered the man her best smile. “As I think you can see, there’s not an extra bit of space in this car. We don’t have room for any hides in here!” She forced a laugh, but the man didn’t share her humor.

    “Could be hidden beneath all the junk.”

    “Junk? Those are Christmas gifts for the Angel Tree!”

    “Don’t matter. Gotta search your car. Now step out.”

    His lack of manners and his grammar were the final clues. Officers of the law, particularly those in the South, were polite and referred to women with the respectful title of ‘ma’am.’ This man was definitely a fraud.

    “I don’t believe I will,” Madison said. She heard Bethani gasp in surprise. Very subtly, Maddy raised her hand to her face and pretended to smooth back her hair. She hoped that Bethani saw the position of her thumb and little finger, in the universal sign of ‘call me.’ Or, in this case, ‘call Brash.’ She sent the teen a pointed look, sweeping her gaze down to the phone in her hands. A tiny flick of her head warned her to hide the device.

    “I’d like to see your warrant, please,” Madison continued. She leaned forward just enough to shield Bethani from the man’s view. From the corner of her eye, she saw her daughter slip the phone out of sight as she pressed a button.

    “Don’t need a warrant,” the man claimed. “Have probable cause. For a game warden, that’s all that’s needed.”

    Madison vaguely remembered reading something to that effect while working with a client on a property dispute. They had investigated a variety of options, including calling in the wildlife department for alleged poaching.

    She tried stalling. “What kind of hides are you looking for?”

    Her resistance surprised the man, but he was quick to answer, “Coon hides.”

    Madison used her haughtiest expression, one she hoped mimicked her mother-in-law. “Seriously, do I look like someone who hunts raccoons?”

    “You might not hunt ‘em. You might be trying to sell ‘em. Same difference. Now get out while I search your vehicle.”

    “I will do no such thing!”

    A radio crackled at his waist, and Madison had her first hint of doubt. What if he were a true game warden? A rude one, but legally certified? Was she breaking the law by refusing him?

    “Look, lady, don’t make this harder on yourself. I can have the sheriff here in five minutes. He’ll arrest you, of course, but I can call him if you want.”

    She briefly considered mentioning Brash’s name, but she discarded the thought immediately. She refused to take advantage of her relationship with him, even if he was a special investigator with the county. Besides, he was probably already on his way.

    “I’ll tell you what. I’ll allow you to search my car, but only if I can remain inside, and only if you go ahead and make that call.”

    “Mom!”

    She brushed Bethani’s protest aside. Knowing Brash was on his way gave her a confidence she didn’t feel.

    The game warden shrugged his thin shoulders. “Up to you, lady. I’ll make that call and you can unlock the car. Start with the trunk.”

    He stepped to the back of her car and she heard him talking, presumably calling for an officer. If nothing else, her license number would go out over the air, dispatch would hear it, and alert Brash. Hoping she had made the right choice, Madison pressed the remote button for the trunk.

    “Mom!” Bethani hissed. “Mr. de didn’t pick up!”

    Refusing to panic, Madison tried to remain calm. “Send him a text. The game warden is at the back of the car and won’t see you.”

    Her blue eyes wide, Bethani said, “Mom, I don’t think he’s a real game warden.”

    “Neither do I,” Madison admitted. “Tell Brash where we are and tag it 9-1-1 so he’ll know it’s an emergency. Send it to Cutter, too. I’ll try to reach my phone and call 9-1-1 in earnest.”

    The teen looked at her phone. “I don’t have any service!”

    They kept trying to get a message out, until the uniformed man came back to the window. Both quickly slid their phones out of sight.

    “See, I told you I didn’t have any hides,” Maddy said. “Now may we go?”

    “Not until I search the backseat. I’ll make it quick.”

    He jerked open the door and removed her purchases. With the lights from his car still blinding her, Madison couldn’t see where he put the presents. “Please don’t damage my purchases. As I said, they are for the Angel Tree in The Sisters.”

    “Oh, I aim to take real good care of your purchases, lady.” When he grinned, she saw his decaying teeth, a definite hint that he used meth.

    After just a few minutes, he had the backseat empty. He stood back as he slammed the door. “Well, looks like you were right. Don’t see any hides in there, after all. You’re free to go.”

    “What? Not without my purchases, I’m not!”

    “Oh, we gotta keep those as evidence,” he grinned. “Book ’em into… into evidence.” He grappled for a more official-sounding term and came up short.

    “I don’t think so!” Maddy stormed. “I demand you give me my gifts back!”

    “I don’t think you’re in a position to demand a thing, missy, but I’ll see what the sheriff has to say.” He turned on his heel and she saw his silhouette retreating against the bright lights as he walked back to his car. She thought she saw a door open.

    Before she knew what was happening, the car spun out and made a U-turn in the middle of the highway, racing off in the other direction.

    “Mom, he left!” Bethani screeched. “Where are all our things?”

    With a sinking feeling, Madison opened her door to peer into the night. Using the light of her cell phone, she got out and circled around the car. She returned with her lower lip trembling.

    “Beth,” she whispered, breathlessly. She soon found her voice and blurted out, “We’ve been robbed!”

    ***

    With no cell service, Madison knew she had to drive into town to report the robbery. She marked the spot by tying the bag from Tasty’s on a nearby bush, then drove as fast as she could to the police station. Brash wasn’t on duty, but she gave her statement to Officer Schimanski.

    By the time she was finished with her initial report, Brash arrived.

    “Oh, Brash, I feel so foolish!” was the first thing she said.

    “Foolish? You are a victim, Maddy! That man falsely impersonated an officer of the law.”

    “But I knew he wasn’t legit. We both did!” She made frantic hand motions as she described the discrepancies. “His speech was wrong, he didn’t call me ma’am, his hair was long and needed a cut. He—He had a long, shaggy beard, but the more I think about it, I think it was fake. It looked just like those on that show you like to watch.”

    “Duck Dynasty?”

    “Yes, yes. Just like that. But it was the wrong color for his complexion, and—and the whole thing was just a set-up, and I fell for it!” she wailed.

    Brash gathered her into his arms. He reached out and included Bethani in the embrace. “It doesn’t sound like you did, sweetheart. It sounds like you knew he was a fraud and that you did just the right thing. Bethani was smart to hide her phone and try to make the call. I got the message about two minutes ago,” he smiled ruefully. “But she put all the right things in it, so good girl, Beth.” He gave her a warm wink and a quick squeeze. “And you did the right thing by refusing to get out of the car and demanding that he call the sheriff. If he had been legit, the sheriff would have understood a woman’s reluctance to leave her car in a situation such as that.”

    “When—When he didn’t call me ‘ma’am,’ I knew he was a fraud.”

    Brash smiled. “That speaks well for the state of Texas and law officers everywhere.”

    “I can give you a description, Brash. He was about five feet ten, and very thin. He had dirty blond hair and—”

    “I have a picture of him,” Bethani announced. She wiggled out of Brash’s arms and pulled her phone from her back pocket. “Mom’s hair is in the way on this one.” She swiped the screen for the next image. “And there’s her nose. But there! There’s the guy!”

    “Good work, honey! And smart thinking!” Brash hugged the teen, who couldn’t help but glow from his praise.

    Bethani broke out in unexpected laughter. “You should have heard Mom! She looked down her nose at the man and spoke to him like she was some sort of diva or something. ‘Seriously, do I look like someone who hunts raccoons?’ It was hilarious!” She doubled over in mirth as she impersonated her mother.

    Nerves made the situation seem funnier than it actually was. It took both women several minutes to quieten down and sober. Once they did, reality came crashing back in.

    “We lost all the gifts, Brash!” Madison wailed in misery. “The presents for the Angel Tree. He must have had someone with him, loading the packages as he took them out. The lights were too bright for me to see a thing. We spent the entire afternoon shopping, and now they’re gone. Just gone! Just like Vanessa Hutchins and those Carr people.” A new thought occurred to her, and a look of horror crossed her face. She slapped her hands to her mouth. “Granny Bert,” she moaned. “How will I ever explain this to Granny Bert?”

    ***

    After taking Madison and Bethani home and staying with them until they were settled and calm, Brash returned to the office. He studied the photo Bethani had taken with her cell phone. It wasn’t the best of pictures, but it showed enough for him to make a tentative identification. Unless he was badly mistaken, that was Dickey Fowler in that wrinkled game warden suit.

    Pulling out his trusty lists of names, he scanned over them for the name. There it was, Dickey Fowler, underlined three times. Once for petty theft, once for assault and battery, once for drug possession. Only two of the charges had stuck, landing him in the River County Jail for dual visits.

    He searched his memory banks for what he knew about the man. He lived just out of town in a rundown shack a few years past inhabitable for decent folk, yet suitable for riffraff like Fowler. Brash doubted the shack even had indoor plumbing. If he was right, the twenty-something-year-old was kin to Bernie Havlicek in a roundabout way. He would make a call to his mother for the specifics. She didn’t know the town’s history as well as Granny Bert, but she was a close second.

    In the meantime, Vina could pull up the official records. Between the two, he would have a better idea of how Dickey Fowler fit into all this.

    One thing was for certain. Tonight had been no coincidence.

    At best, it was the latest Christmas crime, an alarming situation that was quickly escalating.

    At worst, it was a warning. He had been sniffing around, asking questions, letting folks know he was watching. Targeting Madison may have been their response: he was getting too close