Chapter One The female of the species is more deadly than the male.
-- Rudyard Kipling
Baxter Richardson pried the cork from the wine bottle and tossed it past Rena into the clear, rushing water of the narrow stream. It immediately bobbed to the surface and joined several red and orange leaves drifting unaware toward the nearby waterfall. A few feet before the waterway cascaded over the edge of the cliff a large boulder squatted in the middle of the stream and caused the water to divide in two. It then plunged over the precipice in equal explosions of foaming white that many years before had inspired the name Double-Barrel Falls. Seventy-five feet below, the stream splattered onto several large boulders before it coalesced and continued its journey through the forest toward Lake Jocassee, a cold mountain reservoir that on a clear day could be seen as a hint of blue at the edge of the horizon. Rena Richardson had visited the secluded spot many times, but it was the first trip to the area for her husband Baxter, a sandy-haired, South Carolina coast-dweller with light brown eyes and an easygoing smile.
Baxter filled two clear plastic cups with the deep red liquid and set them on a flat rock in the autumn sun. He emptied his backpack and carefully positioned the rest of the food on a paper napkin beside the wine. The bread had been sliced by a chef at an expensive bakery where they'd bought it early that morning in Greenville. A light wind stirred the air. Rena ran her fingers through her blonde hair and pushed some wayward strands away from her pale blue eyes. She was a month past her twenty-fifth birthday. Baxter, a year older, sliced the soft cheese into chunks with a small knife while Rena watched in silence.
The young couple were alone in the clearing at the top of the waterfall. It was the first hike of their marriage, and they'd not seen another person during the three-mile trek from the trailhead. Soon, as October began, the trees would fully bloom with fall colors, and the number of hikers and tourists coming to the area would increase. This afternoon Baxter and Rena had the wilderness to themselves.
"I'm sorry I didn't bring a white tablecloth or silver candlesticks," Baxter said. "Too much weight for a hike."
Rena didn't answer. She'd been quiet all day. While Baxter strolled along the well-worn path, her thoughts revisited secret images of pain more familiar to her than the bends and twists of the trail. The scars of her soul rivaled the depth of the gorge below them.
Baxter handed her a cup of wine. "What do you want to toast?" he asked.
Rena looked past her husband to the place where she and her brothers had camped with her stepfather. She spoke with an accent that revealed a hint of her Appalachian Mountain roots.
"To the death of childhood monsters."
Baxter gave her a puzzled look. "That's a strange toast. What do you mean?"
"It fits," she responded simply.
Baxter shrugged. Holding up his cup, he proclaimed, "To the death of childhood monsters. Send them over the edge, never to return."
They touched cups and each took a sip.
The bread was chewy and the cheese soft, but even average fare tastes better in the woods after a hike. Baxter quickly drank a cup of wine and poured another. Rena nibbled a piece of bread but wasn't interested in food or drink.
She stared past Baxter. Glimpses of scenes from the past demanded her attention like a pack of wild dogs.
Her stepfather, Vernon Swafford, stood at the edge of the cliff with his back toward her as the sun descended behind the distant hills. He was a tall, broad-shouldered man with black hair swept back and held in place by hair tonic that smelled like stale vinegar. The smoke from his cigarette floated up above his head and lingered for a second before being dispersed by the breeze that blew across the ridge.
Thirteen-year-old Rena crouched in the shadows, trying to find the courage in her teenage soul to leap forward and push him over the edge. She rubbed the back of her leg and felt the tender spot that remained from the last time he'd taken off his belt to teach her a lesson. Her brothers were inside the tent, arguing in loud voices. Their noise would mask her footsteps. She inched closer. Her stepfather flipped the cigarette into the gorge and then immediately took out another one. Rena waited until he lit the fresh cigarette and took a deep drag.
It was her chance. She rose to her feet and took two quick steps. It would be over in a matter of seconds, and she would be free.
"What do you think you're doing, Rena?" Vernon Swafford's low voice stopped her in her tracks. His back was still turned toward her.
"Uh, nothin'," she stammered.
He turned sideways, and Rena could see the glint of evil in his eyes.
"Come over here and don't try to run away. If'n you do, it will only be worse on you later."
Hanging her head, Rena walked slowly forward. When she was within arm's reach, he grabbed her by the back of her cotton shirt, flung her around, and held her out over the edge of the cliff. Rena looked down into the deepening shadows of the gorge and tightly closed her eyes in anticipation of the feeling of falling through the air. Her shirt began to rip. She cried out, and at the sound, her stepfather grabbed her hair with his other hand and set her back on the stony ground. Rena's knees buckled, and she almost fell forward over the edge.
"Be careful," he said with mock concern. "You don't want to fall. It would be an awful mess for someone to clean up."
"I didn't realize how hungry I was until I started eating," Baxter said, oblivious to his beautiful young wife's thoughts. "Being outdoors gives you a big appetite. Do you want any more wine or bread?"
Rena shook her head.
"What's wrong with you?" Baxter responded in frustration.
Rena turned away. "Don't ask."
Baxter reached out and grabbed her arm. "Talk to me! I brought you here because you wanted to come, and then you clam up and act weird about it!"
Rena recoiled and jerked her arm from his grasp. "Don't touch me!"
Baxter's eyes flashed with anger, and Rena saw reflected in her husband's gaze the same malevolent glare that had threatened her in the past. Too much alcohol always brought out the worst in her stepfather, and Baxter's countenance betrayed a companion darkness. Rena's eyes narrowed, and her jaw grew rigid. She was no longer a helpless child without the ability to escape and find security for the future. She stood to her feet.
"Let's go," she said.
Baxter stared at her for a few seconds before turning up his cup of wine and draining it. Any other words would only provoke a fight. He put the remains of their food and the empty wine bottle into his backpack. Rena retrieved their hiking sticks from the place they'd dropped them near the waterfall.
"I'm going to need that stick," Baxter said curtly.
"Come and get it," Rena challenged.
Baxter stood and stepped toward her. She held the stick out toward him but didn't let go when he grabbed one end.
"I'm not interested in playing tug of war," he said.
"Do you want the stick or not?" she shot back.
Baxter pulled harder, but Rena kept a firm grasp on her end of the stick. She moved away from the falls and to her right until her husband's back was toward the edge of the drop-off, his silhouette framed against the panorama of the mountains behind him.
"That's enough, Rena," Baxter said, dropping his end of the stick. "Game over. Let's go. This is not a good place."
Rena didn't answer. Channeling all her rage and misplaced revenge into the stick, she raised it like a battering ram and lunged forward. It hit Baxter squarely in the stomach. He grunted and staggered backward until he was less than two feet from the edge of the cliff. Shock and surprise flashed across his face. His eyes filled with fear.
"No!" he shouted.
Abandoning all pretense of sanity, Rena screamed at the top of her lungs and charged again. The stick glanced off Baxter's chest, moved upward, and gouged a deep swath along the side of his neck. Rena lost her balance and crashed forward into her husband as he teetered on the edge of the cliff. In a last desperate act of survival, he stretched out his right hand and scraped it down Rena's left forearm. He grasped her fingers with his hand for a split second, gave her a frantic look, then slipped over the edge into nothingness. Rena fell to her hands and knees.
Breathing heavily, she listened.
No screams. No sounds. Just the roar of the waterfall plummeting toward the rocks below. Chapter Two We are betrayed by what is false within.
Dressed in a conservative blue suit with a white, silk blouse, Alexia Lindale scribbled a final note on her legal pad. Known as "Alex" since childhood, the petite attorney with short, dark hair and green eyes took a quick sip of water as she waited for Judge Garland to nod in her direction.
"Ms. Lindale, you may conduct your cross-examination of the witness."
Alex was representing Marilyn Simpson, the estranged wife of Gregory Lamar Simpson, a real-estate developer who was seated in the witness chair. Alex's shoes tapped lightly on the polished wooden floor of the courtroom as she walked slowly to a spot in front of the jury box.
"Thank you, Your Honor," she said in a high-pitched voice that was a shade girlish. She then focused her attention on her adversary.
"Mr. Simpson, how old were you when you met your wife?"
"Seventeen or eighteen."
"Had you graduated from high school?"
"No, we started dating during our senior year. "
"And you testified on direct examination that you were married in August a few months after high-scho...