Welcome to Last Chance
Jane sat on the hard chair under the bright fluorescent light. She wore a Day-Glo jail jumpsuit that was several sizes too large. Someone had given her a cup of coffee and a blanket. She was still cold, even though she was no longer wet.
She had made a full confession to FBI Agents Hannigan and Wilkes during the car ride from Golfing for God to the Allenberg County jail. She made a clean breast of everything. Not just the location of the Cambodian Camel, but a blow-by-blow description of her life for the last seven years.
They had recovered the necklace from Haley before the EMTs left for the hospital, and they had listened with avid interest about Joey Hamil and Woody West and the stupid things Jane had done in her life.
Then they had brought her here and left her alone so she could ponder the Universe and her place in it. During this time, Jane concluded that she sucked at manifesting change in her life. She decided that when they got around to booking her, she would destroy Dr. Goodbody’s tapes. They were not particularly useful.
While she was waiting, she also did a lot of thinking about Clay. She decided that she would always hold the memory of the last twenty-four hours close. She would let herself remember that for one instant, she had been on the point of having a remarkable man tell her he loved her.
She sniffled and shivered as a single tear left her right eye and trickled down her cheek. She was too depressed to wipe it away.
Her morose thoughts were interrupted by Agent Hannigan, who entered the room carrying a bundle that looked a whole lot like the soggy clothes she had given up for this ugly, oversized jumpsuit with the words Allenberg County stenciled on the back.
He sat down across from her. “Turns out you were right about the necklace you gave to Haley Rhodes.”
He shrugged and gave her a warm smile that had his Irish eyes sparkling. “Turns out the necklace is, in fact, an item that you can find at any Value Mart. It’s not even gold.”
She blinked at him for a few moments as her brain processed this. “Are you telling me Woody the weasel went on a crime spree over a discount-store necklace?”
He nodded, and a little blush crawled up his face. “I’m afraid so.”
“And just exactly how did he get the idea that this necklace was valuable?” She was warming up a little bit. A dose of healthy anger percolated down in her belly. Ruby Rhodes got shot over a piece-of-crap necklace? It was too awful to even consider.
Hannigan cleared his throat. “Well, ma’am, I’m afraid the FBI gave him that idea. We had gotten a tip from a reliable source.”
“Turns out our Miami Office has recovered the real Cambodian Camel.”
“Do tell. And where did they find it?”
“In a vault deep beneath Oliver Cromwell Jones’s compound in Palm Springs. Seems the old goat was a little strapped for cash and stole it himself.”
“Say that again?”
“For the insurance, you know. Apparently, Jones faked the robbery and then passed a forgery to Freddie the Fence, who runs one of the largest high-end stolen property rings in the country. Freddie was probably in on the scam, and being a wily kind of guy, he arranged to have Jones’s fake transported to a buyer in Los Angeles.”
“Los Angeles? So what does that have to do with Woody and the necklace he gave me? We were going to Nashville.”
“Well, see, Freddie was fed up with Woody. Near as we can figure, Woody’s gambling had become a huge liability for Freddie, so he set Woody up. Gave him a fake Cambodian Camel, told him to give it you, and then we think he was the one who provided the anonymous tip that my partner and I followed.”
The anger was really making her hot now. She shrugged off the blanket. “You mean Woody only asked me along because this Freddie guy wanted me to wear the necklace?”
“It looks like that’s what happened. At least that’s what Woody says. Woody was a decoy, designed to keep us off the scent. And by having us pick up Woody, Freddie also allowed the Colombian’s goons to take care of Freddie’s little problem.”
“Woody works for Freddie the Fence?”
“’Fraid so. There is no honor among thieves, Jane. That’s for sure.”
“I see.” But she didn’t see at all.
“If you want my advice, you’d do a whole lot better if you avoided jerks like Woodrow Arnold West and Joseph Andrew Hamil in the future.”
“So you checked out the whole Lexington thing, huh? Are you going to arrest me for Jane Coblentz’s murder?”
“No, ma’am, I’m not. Jane Coblentz isn’t dead.”
Jane blinked a few times. “You believe me?”
He nodded. “Seems the Last Chance chief of police has a DNA report that proves you are Jane Coblentz. And your story about the miscarriage squares with what Hamil told authorities years ago.”
“And no one believed him back then?”
“No one had reason to believe him. You gave the impression of being a pretty responsible girl until you ran away.”
“So what happens now?” she asked.
“You’re free to go, although I’m pretty sure the state of South Carolina and the federal government are both going to want you as a witness at Woody’s trials.”
She nodded. “I’d like nothing better than to put that peckerwood away.”
“Well, I’m sure that will happen. But look on the bright side: Maybe you’ll luck out, and the state will negotiate a plea bargain, and we can put this sorry and embarrassing situation behind us.”
Sorry and embarrassing? Is that what he thought? Woody had shot Ruby right there in the parking lot of the Cut ’n Curl. That was not sorry or embarrassing. That was a disaster. It was something she would regret for the rest of her life.
And a piece of cheap jewelry from Value Mart was the reason Ruby might be dead.
Hannigan cleared his throat. “Look, it’s going to be all right, Jane. The worst is over, and we appreciate the way you cooperated with us. Sheriff Bennett says you can keep the jumpsuit since your clothes are soaked. But I wanted to make sure you didn’t lose this.”
He put a copper penny down on the Formica tabletop and pushed it across the surface with his index finger.
Jane stared down at the 1943 wheat penny, as her anger transformed itself into a grief so deep she could hardly breathe.
She should have told Clay and Stone that there were bad guys on her tail. She should never have taken a job babysitting Stone’s kids. That was just dumb, and neither of those men would ever forgive her for it.
She stared down at that penny through a smear of tears. She would keep it with her for the rest of her life as a reminder. What had Clay said when he found it? Oh, yeah, that it was something special hiding out in plain sight. That its worth was not measured by its value.
She reached for it, and took it into her palm, and squeezed it. When he’d said those words, he’d been halfway talking about her.
“So where’d you find it?” Hannigan asked.
She looked up at him. His tone had been more than casual. “Why?” She sniffled back her tears.
“Because if it’s real, it’s worth a great deal of money.”
“If it’s real?”
He grinned. “You have no idea, do you?”
She shook her head.
Hannigan folded his arms and leaned on the table. “I do a lot of stolen property work, and we come across cases all the time involving rare and valuable coins. I’m not much of an expert, but if that’s an authentic 1943 copper penny, it’s very rare and valuable. The U.S. wasn’t supposed to make any copper pennies in 1943 because copper was needed for the war effort during World War II. All of the pennies struck in that year were supposed to be made of steel. Only a mistake was made, and an unknown, but small, number of copper pennies were made. If it’s real, that penny is worth thousands of dollars.”
“You’re kidding, right?”
“No, ma’am, I’m not kidding. But here’s the catch. People fake 1943 pennies all the time. The usual methods are to put a copper coating on a 1943 steel penny or to alter the eight in a 1948 copper penny. I used a refrigerator magnet to see if your penny was steel. It’s not. So it’s not copper-plated. It appears to be real copper. You should have someone appraise it.”
“A refrigerator magnet?”
“Yeah. A magnet can pick up a steel penny, but it won’t pick up a copper penny.”
She opened her palm and looked down at the penny and almost laughed. It might be a rare and precious object, or it might be a bad penny. But that wasn’t right. It wasn’t a bad penny. It was the penny Clay had found in the bottom of her purse last Thursday morning. It was her good luck charm.
That made it priceless. Worth more than the value of the thing itself. Like a MasterCard commercial.
“Thanks,” Jane said in a shaky voice.
“There’s just one more thing,” the agent said.
“I’ve been meaning to ask you about that shirt.”
Hannigan nodded toward Sharon Rhodes’s pink T-shirt that lay in a soggy pile on the table. “I guess it’s your lucky shirt, huh?”
She didn’t really know what he meant by that, so she unwadded the T-shirt until she could read what was written on its back. Two angels, standing with wings outstretched, framed a verse from Psalm 91:
No evil shall befall you,
Nor shall any plague come near to your dwelling,
For He shall give His angels charge over you,
To keep you in all your ways.
Her vision blurred with tears. What was the Universe trying to tell her? What was Hannigan trying to tell her?
“Look, Jane, don’t beat yourself up over Woody,” Hannigan said. “The fact is, you saved that little girl’s life today… you were her guardian angel in a really tight spot. That’s probably why she’s coping with the trauma the way she is.”
Jane blinked away the tears. “Uh, Agent Hannigan, do you know how Ruby Rhodes is doing?”
He shrugged. “She’s in the hospital up in Orangeburg with a head injury. I don’t know the details, but the county is watching it closely. That woman dies and Woody’s up for murder, instead of just assault and kidnapping.”
“Oh, God, I need to go there.”
“If you want, I can give you a lift.”
She closed her eyes as the monumental truth settled into her head. She didn’t have anywhere else she wanted to go. And Miriam Randall had been so right. Jane needed to ask for more.
“I really need a lift up there,” she said in a tiny voice.
She had to apologize to Stone and Clay and the rest of the Rhodes family. For once, she had to face the mistakes she had made.
Then she had to fight for what she wanted. That was the point. Running away had never solved anything in her life. She had saved Haley. And she had tried to warn Ruby. She wasn’t a bad person, even though bad things had happened.
She was worthy of Clay’s love. She needed to make that statement right out loud—like the biggest affirmation of all. She needed to rescue herself.
Clay stepped out of Ruby’s hospital room, making a place for Tulane, his younger brother, who had just driven down from Florence. Since Momma was in the critical care unit, they only allowed two family members at a time, and Daddy was one of them. Daddy hadn’t left Momma’s side, even though she hadn’t regained consciousness yet.
Clay walked down the hall to the waiting room, where the family and a few of Momma’s church friends kept vigil. Stone and his children; Clay’s little sister, Rocky; Aunt Arlene; and Uncle Pete had all come up here to wait. Reverend Ellis had come along with Thelma Hanks and Miriam Randall, to sit with the family and do whatever was needed. Clay knew good and well that the rest of the Ladies Auxiliary were back in Last Chance cooking up more than enough food to feed everyone for the next month. There was nothing like a life-and-death emergency to bring out the banana pudding and squash casserole.
Clay sagged against the wall for a moment trying to find the positives in this awful situation. There were a few that came to mind. Woodrow West had turned out to be a lousy shot, having only grazed Momma’s head. Bobbi Lee Andrews, who worked at the doughnut shop next to the Cut ’n Curl, had seen Ruby go down and immediately called for help. The flooding that blocked the road from Last Chance to Orangeburg had lasted all of fifteen minutes, so the EMTs had been able to get Ruby to the hospital fast.
Even so, the .45-caliber bullet had knocked Momma back, and she’d fractured her skull in the fall. The doctors were guardedly optimistic, despite the brain swelling. They said her EEG and CAT scan looked good.
But the scenario reminded Clay of the night Ray hit his head on the windshield of Clay’s old Dodge. The doctors were optimistic then, too, only Ray hadn’t come out of that in one piece.
How was he supposed to feel guardedly optimistic? What the heck did that mean, anyway? He felt weary and used up… and alone.
He pushed away from the wall and found himself a seat on one of the hard waiting-room chairs between Stone on his right and Miriam Randall on his left.
His older brother had shed his uniform, and his puffy shiners made the rest of his face look pale and sallow. Stone had lost all composure this afternoon after Haley started babbling about angels. Stone might be “due” for a breakdown, but Clay didn’t like the idea of Stone losing his composure. Stone was supposed to be a rock. Now Stone sat with Haley in his lap, holding her with a death grip—like if he let her go something bad would happen to her.
Unfortunately, something bad had already happened to her. Haley sported scrapes on both knees and a purple bruise on her noggin. The doctors said the little bruise wasn’t much to worry about. However, they had suggested Haley needed the services of a psychologist to help her over the trauma of the experience. Haley had always been scared of lightning, and they figured she had seized upon the idea of angels as a coping mechanism. Lord only knew, she had heard enough talk around the dinner table about Daddy and his angels. Apparently, Haley had invented a few just to help her through what must have been a terrifying situation.
Of course, angels had not rescued Haley from the criminals Jane had brought to Last Chance. The very lightning that Haley feared had been responsible for everything that had happened. The lightning strike had exploded the propane tank, and that set off a cascading series of events that ended in the complete failure of Golfing for God’s water management system.
Stone had tried to explain the situation to his young daughter, but Haley didn’t really understand the engineering.
Clay looked away from Haley and tried not to think about what she had endured. Instead, he became uncomfortably aware that Miriam Randall was scrutinizing him with a pair of wise and knowing eyes.
Boy, he was a dunce. How could he have ever misunderstood the things Miriam had said to him yesterday at church? Obviously, Miriam didn’t think Jane was his soulmate. How could his soulmate be a criminal?
“There’s one thing I don’t understand,” Miriam said suddenly, into the silence that hung in the room.
“What’s that?” Thelma Hanks asked.
“The floods. Have you ever heard of a fifteen-minute flood?”
Thelma shook her head. “No, can’t say as I ever have.”
“It was the angels,” Haley said in a surprisingly chipper voice.
“It was not,” Lizzy said in a defiant voice. Lizzy slumped in a chair on the other side of the room, as far from Stone as a person could get. The thirteen-year-old and her father had a stormy relationship, and the kid was going through a real obnoxious teenager phase.
Lizzy leaned forward and gave her little sister a snotty look. “Just get off the angels, okay? Nobody wants to hear it. They all think you’re crazy.”
“Lizzy, don’t be ugly,” Thelma said in that churchlady tone of voice. “Your granddaddy talks to angels all the time.”
Lizzy folded her arms across her chest and looked away from Thelma. Thank goodness, she had the good sense not to challenge authority, for once. Clay felt terrible for the kid. She’d already lost a mother at a young age. And now this. He couldn’t imagine what losing her grandmother would do to Lizzy. Clay read the fear in Lizzy like she was an open book. He wanted to tell her everything was going to be okay, but he didn’t believe that.
And he wasn’t going to lie. Not to Lizzy.
Clay’s throat clogged and he had to swallow back his own fear.
“Well,” Miriam said in her little-old-lady voice, “I don’t think Haley’s crazy. Don’t you believe in angels, Lizzy?”
Lizzy rolled her eyes. “Yeah, sure I do. In the Bible. But not at Golfing for God in the middle of a thunderstorm.”
Haley squirmed out of her daddy’s arms and scrambled down onto her feet. She turned toward Clay and leaned her little hands onto his knees. His skin warmed under her touch.
Haley stared up at him for a long, uncomfortable moment. She wore a pink T-shirt with the words “Girls Rule” across the chest, and she looked dangerous and adorable. All Clay could think was thank God she was whole and in one piece.
“They were beautiful angels,” Haley said, looking up into his face with her big, innocent eyes. “They had white wings, and there were boy angels and girl angels, and they were all around us. Some of them protected us, and the rest smited the bad guys. The Sorrowful Angel was the one who smited them hardest of all. She was really, really angry.”
“Haley, stop it,” Stone said in a low voice that sounded near the breaking point.
She leaned in toward Clay, something lighting up her face in a preternatural way. “The Sorrowful Angel is here all the time, but the rest of them came when Jane called ’em. She said it would be good if they could come and help out, and they did.” Haley whispered this last bit, so that her daddy wouldn’t hear what she said.
Clay stared down at the child. “What?”
Haley nodded her head once, and then she turned around and went back to her father. She climbed up into his lap, and for the life of him, Clay got the feeling that the child was comforting the adult, not the other way around.
Miriam took that moment to touch his hand. Her fingers were cold, and her ancient skin felt papery, but there was something alive in that touch.
“Innocent faith is such a wonderful thing,” she murmured. “It can move mountains, sometimes.”
And that’s when enlightenment hit him, like a hammer blow to his hard head.
Oh, crap. He was an idiot.
He stood up. “I gotta go,” he said, looking down at the old woman.
Miriam smiled up at him like an angel herself. “I was starting to think you were never going to figure it out, boy. For a sensitive man, you sure are boneheaded.”
Oh, yeah, he sure was.
The only thing Jane had done today was save Haley’s life. Even if she hadn’t summoned angels, that woman had run half a mile with Haley on her hip. Maybe she had brought trouble to Last Chance, but she hadn’t done that on purpose. Trouble had followed her. And Clay knew how it felt to have trouble follow you.
She deserved another chance.
And anyway, he loved Jane. He believed in her. She was the center of his universe just like Chad was the center of Tricia’s universe. He wasn’t going to be stupid like Chad. He was a better man, by far, than that jerk.
Why hadn’t he seen this before?
He knew the answer right away. He’d been too busy looking at the bad things that had happened to see the good things. He’d made the mistake he always made. He forgot to count his blessings. He’d lost faith.
He was never going to do that again. If Jane had taught him one thing, it was that. There were positive things coming out of this disaster. All he had to do was look for them.
He was blessed. He had the good fortune to love a woman who could summon angels, even if they were just figments of a little girl’s mind.
She was his true love, not just some shadow of a love that he was going to settle for. This was a gift, not a complication. Love came straight from the higher powers of the Universe, and sometimes love was hard and painful. Love came from God Himself. You didn’t look a gift horse like that in the mouth. You accepted it.
And just like that, the hole in his stomach disappeared, and the emptiness in his heart filled up, and he knew that it would take more strength to walk away from Jane than to love her, even with all her imperfections. And with that knowledge came the understanding that he was no longer alone.
He turned on his heel, intent on getting himself back to Allenberg and the sheriff’s office. Jane needed his help more than Momma did. He would be guardedly optimistic about Momma, but in the meantime, he needed to rescue Jane before she got it in her head to run away again.
Clay headed down the hallway to the elevators and that’s as far as he got, because the elevator opened, and like some apparition that he had manifested through his own sheer will, out stepped Wanda Jane Coblenz, wearing an ugly orange jumpsuit and carrying a plastic bag that said “Allenberg County Jail” on it.
She looked like a hollow-eyed criminal in that getup, but there was determination in the set of her shoulders and a dry-eyed look on her face, and the handcuffs she’d lately worn were conspicuously absent.
“The FBI let you go?” Clay said and almost winced. This was not the way he wanted to start this conversation. But he couldn’t help feeling a little cheated. The woman was either Houdini or she had rescued herself—again.
“I’ve been cleared of all charges. Clay, I’m so sorry, but I had no way of knowing Woody would follow me here. I just wanted to get away from him and the loan sharks who were hounding him. Those guys took everything from me. All my money and my pride and…”
Her voice began to shake, but she was not crying this time. “Look,” she continued, “I know you don’t want me here. I know you probably hate me, but I came to apologize. To you and to everyone.”
“Oh, baby.” He reached out to caress her cheek. Her skin felt so wonderful under his hands. “Why would you apologize? None of this was your fault. We’re all grateful that you protected Haley the way you did.”
Jane opened her mouth and then closed it. Something relaxed in her face and her body. “I was coming here to fight for you,” she said.
“And I was heading out to the police station to rescue you,” he replied.
“I don’t need to fight, do I?”
“No, and it’s clear I don’t need to rescue you.” Despite his worry about Momma, he felt the smile hit his lips. It felt so good to smile in the face of uncertainty.
“I love you,” Jane said.
“I love you back.”
Clay stepped close enough to smell her shampoo and feel the heat coming off her body. Awareness jolted through him. It was like his body was tuned to hers or something. There was no doubt that she was the one for him. He reached for her with both hands, and she came into his arms like a lover and a friend. It felt like home with her there. Like it was meant to be.
“How’s Ruby?” she asked against his chest.
“She’s got a skull fracture. But it could be worse. I’m guardedly optimistic.”
“Really?” He heard a mote of amusement in her voice.
“Yes, ma’am. I’ve decided I’m going to look on the bright side, for once.”
“Is she really going to be okay? The police made it sound like she might die.” Her voice cracked.
“Oh, honey, she’s not going to die. The doctors made that clear. But it’s a head injury, and you never know how that might affect her. But even the docs are guardedly optimistic.”
She sank into his chest then. “Hold me,” Jane whispered. “Don’t ever let me go. When I’m in your arms, it feels safe.”
“I promise you I won’t let you go, ever again.”
At that moment, Daddy came running down the hall from Momma’s room. “She’s awake, y’all, she’s awake,” he said, his voice wavering with joy and relief.
Elbert came to a stop by the waiting area and looked down the hall toward the elevators. He cocked his head the way he sometimes did. “Are you Jane?” he asked.
“Yes,” she answered. “Are you the guy who sees angels?”
He laughed. “I am. I’m Elbert. And I’m really glad to see you here. C’mon, Ruby wants to talk to you. You were the first person she asked after. Get your butt down this hall, girl.” He turned and practically sailed back down the hall toward the ICU.
Something eased deep inside Clay’s chest. His optimism had not been misplaced. It was going to be okay. Everything was going to be okay.
The Christ Church Ladies could sometimes be annoying, but they were a force to be reckoned with. In the days that followed Woody’s crime spree, the ladies mobilized like an army. They descended upon Ruby and Elbert’s house like reverse locusts bearing casseroles, fried chicken, coleslaw, potato salad, banana pudding, and two chocolate cakes. They took care of Elbert, until Ruby came home a week later.
Neither Elbert nor Stone and his family could eat all that food. So, the overflow ended up filling Clay’s refrigerator at his little bungalow on Baruch Street, which was a good thing because Jane was not a very good cook.
She had moved in with Clay, ceding her apartment above the Cut ’n Curl to Ricki Wilson, who was waitressing down at the Kountry Kitchen on account of the fact that Betty and Ray had absconded to Las Vegas to get married.
The ladies were pretty shocked about that one. Which was good, because it gave them something else to talk about besides the fact that Jane was living with Clay without the benefit of marriage.
Clay was ready to haul her down to the preacher, but Jane wanted to wait at least six months. Clay agreed that was probably a sane and sober thing to do. And during that period, they were going to see what happened with Uncle Pete’s health, and think about whether they wanted to go back to Nashville or whether Clay wanted to explore his options as a songwriter, here.
Clay really didn’t want to go back to Nashville. Which was okay with Jane, because she was realizing that she had a lot to learn about singing.
Like right now, standing up on this stage at Dot’s Spot with the Wild Horses behind her. This terrified her.
It wasn’t the same as singing karaoke. She had to rely on her voice, instead of all the hip shaking she’d done back in Fort Myers. She clutched the mic and looked out through the haze.
Dash Randall sat at the corner of the bar watching ESPN on the muted television, drinking a Diet Coke and battling his demons, as always. Bubba Lockheart sat next to him, already unsteady in his seat.
Dottie, wearing a chartreuse tank top that displayed her cleavage, was handing out beers and advice to the good ol’ boys and Country Pride Chicken workers from behind the bar.
This was a really tough audience. She understood that now. And she understood that singing for an audience like this was part of paying her dues.
She glanced at Clay, who stood beside her, his fiddle under his chin. He gave her a steady, heartwarming look out of his big gray eyes. She drew strength from that look.
He expected her to stand up on her own feet when she was on stage. But he was there for her and would rescue her if she lost her way or forgot the words. He was an unbelievably patient teacher.
The band struck up the opening bars and she hit her first cue right on time. Then she breathed in for the next phrase and gave it all she had.
“I will always love you,” she sang and put her heart and soul into the words. Which was easy, because no truer words had ever been sung.