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The Scent of Rain and Lightning: A Novel

Pickard, Nancy

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One beautiful summer afternoon, from her bedroom window on the second floor, Jody Linder is unnerved to see her three uncles parking their pickups in front of her parents’ house—or what she calls her parents’ house, even though Jay and Laurie Jo Linder have been gone almost all of Jody’s life. “What is this fearsome thing I see?” the young high school English teacher whispers, mimicking Shakespeare. Polished boots, pressed jeans, fresh white shirts, Stetsons—her uncles’ suspiciously clean visiting clothes are a disturbing sign.

The three bring shocking news: The man convicted of murdering Jody’s father is being released from prison and returning to the small town of Rose, Kansas. It has been twenty-six years since that stormy night when, as baby Jody lay asleep in her crib, her father was shot and killed and her mother disappeared, presumed dead. Neither the protective embrace of Jody’s uncles nor the safe haven of her grandparents’ ranch could erase the pain caused by Billy Crosby on that catastrophic night.

Now Billy Crosby has been granted a new trial, thanks in large part to the efforts of his son, Collin, a lawyer who has spent most of his life trying to prove his father’s innocence. As Jody lives only a few doors down from the Crosbys, she knows that sooner or later she’ll come face-to-face with the man who she believes destroyed her family.
 
What she doesn’t expect are the heated exchanges with Collin. Having grown up practically side by side in this very small town, Jody and Collin have had a long history of carefully avoiding each other’s eyes. Now Jody discovers that underneath their antagonism is a shared sense of loss that no one else could possibly understand. As she revisits old wounds, startling revelations compel her to uncover the dangerous truth about her family’s tragic past.

Engrossing, lyrical, and suspenseful, The Scent of Rain and Lightning captures the essence of small-town America—its heartfelt intimacy and its darkest secrets—where through struggle and hardship people still dare to hope for a better future. For Jody Linder, maybe even love.

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About the Author:

Nancy Pickard is a four-time Edgar Award nominee, most recently for her Ballantine debut, The Virgin of Small Plains. She is the winner of the Anthony Award, the Macavity Award, and three Agatha Awards. Her short stories have also won numerous accolades. Pickard has been a national board member of the Mystery Writers of America and president of Sisters in Crime, and she is a member of PEN. She lives in Merriam, Kansas.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Chapter One


June 9, 2009

Until she was twenty-six, Jody Linder felt suspicious of happiness.

She hated that about herself, because it tended to sour some otherwise pretty damn fine moments, but this was Rose, Kansas, after all. Only the year before, a pencil tornado had dropped down and killed three people only a few miles from her hometown. A tornado, when the sun was shining! In the winter, there were ice storms. In the summer, there were grass fires. At all times, people she knew went bankrupt, lost their homes, their ranches, their jobs. Or, they died just when you least expected them to. A person could, for instance, belong to a nice family living an ordinary life in a small town in the middle of nowhere, and on some innocent Saturday night, violent men could drop in like those tornadoes and turn those nice people into the dead stars of a Truman Capote book. Such things happened. That wasn't paranoia. It was a terrible fact that Jody knew better than anybody--or at least better than anybody whose father had not been murdered when she was three years old and whose mother had not disappeared the same night.

Such things happened, and she was proof of it.

Therefore--the past having proved to her the unreliability of the present--happiness made Jody Linder anxious. Feelings of safety and security got her checking around corners, lifting lids off bins, and parting shower curtains for fear of what might be hiding there, because you just never knew. A killer could hide in the corner, bugs lurked in bins, spiders jumped out of bathtubs.

Happiness was fragile, precious, and suspect.

"No peak not followed by a fall," she believed, which explained her flutter of worry as she lay naked on top of her bed with Red Bosch in the middle of a suspiciously beautiful Kansas afternoon. The air smelled too good for such a hot day, the light penetrating her eyelet curtains looked too delicate for noon. Most foreboding of all, the sex with this man she didn't love had been too damned good to be trusted beyond the (admittedly fine) moments of her satisfaction and his. She'd kept her eyes open during the finale, which meant she'd caught Red smirking down at her, looking pleased with himself.

Don't flatter yourself, she'd nearly blurted, but then she thought, first of all, that wasn't kind and he didn't deserve it, and second of all, why shouldn't he flatter himself? Red was good at riding horses, rounding up cattle, baling hay, and this. She could hardly think of better talents in a man.

"Pretty girl," Red murmured, tracing a lazy finger down her sternum.

"Sweaty girl," Jody said, lifting his hand off and laying it back on his own damp belly.

He laughed, a self-satisfied growl, deep in his chest.

A hot, pollen-scented breeze blew through the open windows.

She smelled honeysuckle, which wasn't blooming yet, and lilac, which had already bloomed and gone. These things were impossible, they were all in her imagination, she knew, and they were just the sort of deceptions that the smallest feeling of contentment might spring on her.

She and Red lay sprawled on their backs like sated puppies who'd just had their bellies scratched for half an hour. Lying a few inches away from him, so their limbs couldn't touch and stick, Jody let out an irrepressible sigh of pleasure. Immediately, she wanted to take it back, suck the breath right back into her lungs, because God knew she couldn't let the universe be hearing any of that.

No peak not followed by a fall . . .

The sound of a vehicle turning onto her street made her turn her face toward the windows, alert to the possibility of unpleasant surprise.

"Did you hear that, Red?"

"What?"

"Shh!"

The sound of the single vehicle turned into the sound of a second truck and then another, which multiplied her alertness exponentially. Jody pressed her elbows into the bottom sheet and raised her head and shoulders to get a better listen. Traffic might not have been worth noticing in a place like Kansas City, 350 miles to the east, or in Denver, 250 miles to the west. But this was one of the quietest streets in a town so small she could hear people she knew start their cars in their garages on the other side of Main Street and know if they were late to work.

"Somebody just pulled up outside."

"Who?"

She threw him a look.

Sometimes she wondered if Red was one post short of a fence.

"What?" he repeated, half laughing.

He was thirteen years older than she, but sometimes Jody felt as if she were the more mature one. Abandoning him as he lay naked and limp on her bed, she peeled herself off her new white sheets. She slid down off the high old walnut bed with its new pillows and mattress cover and its new mattress and box springs. Once her bare feet landed on the equally bare walnut floorboards that she had polished and buffed until they glowed in the sunshine, she bounded to the windows--much taller than her own five feet four inches, their panes shining and cleaned, their borders rimmed in polished walnut--to check what was up. A road crew? Unlikely, given that Rose barely had the budget to keep its half dozen traffic lights changing colors.

Jody peeked outside and got a shock that panicked her.

"Ohmygod. Red! Get up! Get dressed! You've got to leave now!"

What she saw from two stories up was the unnerving sight of her three uncles parking their pickup trucks in front of her parents' house, when she hadn't even known that two of the uncles were in town. She still called it her parents' house even though Hugh-Jay and Laurie Jo Linder had been gone almost all of her life. It was still their home to their only child--the descendent of a famous, violent night twenty-three years earlier--and it was still their home to everybody else in Henderson County, which was named for Jody's great-great-grandfather on her father's mother's side of the family.

"What is this fearsome thing I see?" she whispered at the high windows, mimicking Shakespeare. Her master's degree in English literature was a happy achievement, which, upon attainment, she had automatically shaded with doubts that she could ever find a job for teaching it.

"Who is it, your other boyfriend?"

Red's tone was joking, with an insecure edge to it.

"I don't have another one. I don't even have one."

That was blunt enough to be mean, and she immediately regretted it.

"What am I?" Red asked quietly.

Convenient was the adjective that popped into Jody's head but which she didn't say aloud. He was that, along with being the only available male for miles around who wasn't a child or a grandfather. Or a relative. She glanced back at her current lover-not-boyfriend, at his wiry cowboy self sprawled across her sheets. Her fingers knew that his long frame was checkered and slashed with scars, bruises, odd bumps where bones had healed awkwardly, and fresh little wounds. Red wasn't the most careful of cowboys. He tended to get bucked, bounced, and "rode over," more than your average rodeo rider, and he wasn't even one of those anymore, he was just an ordinary ranch hand. Maybe that's why she liked him, she sometimes thought, because that's all and everything Red was--just a cowboy, with no pretense of anything else, or more. It was also true that other men's bodies--the bodies of accountants, for instance, or lawyers, not that she'd ever been with such and really knew--were boring to her compared to the interesting terrain of cowboy skin.

"Well?" he challenged her.

She gave him an exasperated look--because the question irritated her and she couldn't think of any answer that was true without also being hurtful. She turned her bare back on him, returning her attention to the disturbing view from her window, hiding her naked self behind the new white eyelet curtains. The hot breeze coming through the open window blew dangerously around her, threatening to expose her nakedness to the street and to any uncle who happened to look up.

Jody sucked in her upper lip and held it between her teeth.

Red had sucked on a breath mint after lunch at the Rose Cafe, right before slipping into her house, her bedroom, and her. She could still taste peppermint in her own mouth, along with a tangy hint of hot sauce and an even tangier taste of him. She could still feel his callused touch on her skin, too, a feeling so real she would have sworn his rough hands had followed her to the window. They were not sensations she wanted to have with her uncles arriving.

They were also not activities the local high school had looked for on her resume when they hired her to be their new English teacher in two and a half months. She had whooped with joy upon landing that job, but immediately tamped down her exuberance, because who knew how long she could stay employed in such an iffy economy? And what if she wasn't a good teacher, or the kids hated her, or their parents objected to Catcher in the Rye? There were so many things that could go wrong after something went right.

Tense as fresh-strung barbed wire, she watched from the second floor.

Three truck doors slammed, bang, bang, bang, with the solid thud of well-built vehicles. Now her uncles were walking toward each other. What were they doing here, and why didn't she know anything about it? Uncle Chase was supposed to be in Colorado, running the family's ranch on the high plains east of the Rockies; Uncle Bobby was supposed to be in Nebraska, where he ran a third ranch the family owned, in the Sand Hills. Uncle Meryl was supposed to be at his law office in Henderson City, the county seat, twenty-five miles away.

"Hey," Red said, in the tone of a man feeling ignored.

"Shh!"

From her hidden vantage point, she watched with growing alarm.

Now her uncles were meeting in a tall, wide-shouldered trio on the sidewalk in front of her porch, and now her uncle Chase was grinding out a cigarette on the cement, and now he picked it up and put it in his shirt pocket--not be...

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