The air in Sheriff Tucker’s office was too close. Hot and stuffy. Resisting the urge to tug at my shirt collar, I sat staring at the table in front of me. Waiting.
Jayme, my family’s scary-as-hell lawyer, stood behind me. Dressed in head-to-toe black with a pair of heels that looked like they could puncture a guy’s nuts, she was a force in the small office. Not much intimidated me, but Jayme came close. I wouldn’t have wanted to be on the business end of those heels.
At least she was on my side. Sort of. I could see her out of the corner of my eye, and by the glare she was giving me, she was none too pleased with this turn of events.
Less than twenty-four hours ago, we’d all been celebrating Bowie and Cassidy’s wedding. People dancing, eating, drinking, having a good time. Then Misty Lynn had lost her shit in front of everyone. I’d publicly rejected her—not for the first time—and she’d gone and stolen my damn wallet.
Then turned it in when she found what was inside.
“One more time. You got something you need to tell me before Sheriff Tucker comes back?” Jayme asked, her voice quiet but sharp.
The door opened and the sheriff came in. His snow-white mustache twitched on his upper lip. I didn’t look up. Didn’t trust myself to meet his eyes. I was too fucking angry. And I knew this wasn’t his fault. The problem was, I never should have kept the pictures. That was on me.
Sheriff Tucker—I couldn’t think of him as Harlan right now, not under these circumstances—took his seat across from me. I flicked my eyes up for half a second. He looked uncomfortable. Maybe even apologetic.
“Gibson, I take it you know why I asked you to come in here?”
He took out my wallet and pushed it toward me. “Do you recognize this?”
“It’s my wallet. Misty Lynn stole it and I assume she’s the one who gave it to you.”
He nodded. “She found something inside that had her rightfully concerned.”
It was my turn to nod.
He pulled out the strip of photos. Four of them. We’d jumped in a photo booth and made silly faces. In the last one, we were laughing. They were thirteen years old, now, and faded with age. Bent from being kept in my wallet all that time.
“Can you tell me who’s in these photos?”
My eyes skimmed over them. Although I’d carried them around with me for years, I hadn’t looked at them in a long time. Hurt too much.
“They’re me with Callie Kendall.”
“When were these taken?”
“The day before she disappeared.”
Sheriff Tucker took a deep breath, his eyes on the photos. I could practically feel Jayme holding herself back from telling me—for the millionth time—that I didn’t have to answer his questions. She made a throaty noise that sounded an awful lot like a growl.
“And what was the nature of your relationship with Callie Kendall?”
There it was. The real question. Or one of them, anyway.
“We were friends.”
“Just friends?” he asked. “You look awfully cozy in these pictures.”
I shook my head. Of course he’d think the worst. Everyone would. “I was twenty to her sixteen. We were definitely just friends.”
I slammed my hand on the table. “I never touched her. Not once. This town might think I’m a piece of shit, but I would never have crossed that line with her. We were friends. That was all.”
Sheriff Tucker crossed his arms. “Gibs, I’ve known you your whole life. I know you ain’t a piece of shit. But you seem to have been carrying around photos of you and Callie all these years and damn it all if no one in Bootleg knew the two of you were ever together. So I need to know how it is you were friends with her without the whole town knowing. And why you never said a word about it, even after she disappeared.”
I took a deep breath. “She liked music.”
“What’s that?” he asked.
“Callie liked music. So did I. Sometimes we’d go off and meet in the woods. I’d bring my guitar and she’d sing along while I played. We liked all the same bands, the same songs. She had a little notebook where she’d write song lyrics and I’d help her put melodies to them.”
“That was all?”
“Yeah, that was all.” And she didn’t look at me like everyone else did. The son of the town drunk. A piece of crap going nowhere.
“So you’re saying your relationship with her was entirely innocent.”
“Then why hide it?” he asked. “Why didn’t anyone know?”
I met his eyes. “I’m Gibson Bodine, Sheriff. How do you think her daddy would have felt about his sixteen-year-old daughter spending time with the worst of ‘those Bodine boys’? Do you think he’d have believed us if we said we weren’t doing anything wrong? Do you think anyone would have believed that?”
He cleared his throat. “Tell me about the photos.”
“There was a band we both liked playing out in Perrinville. It was a big outdoor thing, festival style. We met in secret and I took her out there to see them play. Afterward, we saw a photo booth, so we jumped in and took these.”
“And that was the day before she disappeared?” he asked.
“Gibson, you need to level with me here,” he said. “Did you have anything to do with her disappearance?”
I met his eyes again. “No.”
“Where were you when she disappeared?”
“I was at home. I didn’t even see her that day, I had to work. She was with all the high school kids down at the lake. Plus, she was worried about getting caught after leaving with me the day before, so I kept my distance.”
“I’m still tryin’ to wrap my head around no one knowing,” Sheriff said, more to himself than me.
I shrugged. “The town doesn’t know everything. Hell, an entire person disappeared and no one knew what happened. Or at least, no one who knew anything spoke up.”
My damn father. I didn’t know what to think about Jenny Leland’s story—that my dad had helped Callie get out of town. The asshole had taken that secret to his grave. He’d let me believe all those years that she was dead. Of course, I’d kept a secret about her, too.
Jenny swore she was alive. She had postcards with her handwriting. I remembered it from her song journals. She’d even said she’d met Callie in person—a year ago, in Seattle. She swore up and down that Callie was alive.
I believed her. Maybe it was just because I wanted to believe her so badly. But I did.
“Do you have any idea what might have happened to her?” he asked. “Why she was hurt? Why she was trying to get away from home?”
Clenching my teeth, my nostrils flaring, I fought back the surge of anger. Someone—signs seemed to be pointing to her father—had hurt her. Badly. Enough that she’d begged my dad for help on the side of the road, and he’d apparently helped sneak her out of town. There was no kind of Bootleg Justice good enough for a man who’d hurt his own daughter. Made me furious.
I cleared my throat. “No. She never said anything about her parents or what things were like at home. I wish she would have.”
I would have dealt with that asshole.
“Why didn’t you tell anyone, Gibs? You had to have known this could come out someday. It’s suspicious.”
“Because I knew people would assume the worst. That I was preying on a teenage girl. That we had an inappropriate relationship.” My voice rose with every word. “What did Gibson Bodine do now? Did he get her pregnant? Is he keeping her in a cabin in the woods somewhere? Did he kill her and dump her body in the lake?”
“Gibson, enough,” Jayme said.
“I didn’t do anything wrong, unless playing music with a girl is a crime.”
“Have you had any contact with her since she disappeared?” he asked.
“No. Not a word.” I thought she was dead. All this time, I didn’t think there was any hope.
The sheriff sat back in his seat and pitched his fingers together. “All right, Gibs. You’re free to go.”
Without a word, I scooped up my wallet—and the strip of photos. Jayme’s heels were already clicking their way out the door.
I paused in the doorway and glanced over my shoulder. “Sheriff?”
“Is this investigation aiming to find her? Or to bring down whoever hurt her?”
His gaze went steely and his voice was hard. “Both.”
I nodded once. “Good.”
“Let me remind you that this is a matter for law enforcement,” he said, shuffling some papers on his desk. “You need to let us handle it.”
I did know. But I wasn’t making any promises.