Introduction: Upon the sudden and mysterious death of her brother, Danny, Sayre Lynch is called home to Destiny, Louisiana, for his funeral. Having fled the town and her iron-fisted father, Huff Hoyle, ten years earlier, she must now return to confront him, her spoiled brother, Chris, and their unscrupulous lawyer, Beck Merchant.
The church parking lot was already overflowing into the surrounding neighborhood streets. [Sayre] had to park several blocks away from the picture book church with the stained glass windows and tall white steeple. Just as she stepped onto the columned porch, the bell chimed the hour of eleven.
The vestibule was cool compared to outdoors, but Sayre noticed that many in the sanctuary were waving paper fans to supplement the inadequate air conditioning. As she slipped into the back row, the choir finished singing the opening hymn and the pastor stepped up to the pulpit.
While everyone else bowed their heads for prayer, Sayre looked at the casket in front of the chancel rail. It was simple, silver, and sealed. She was glad of that. She didn’t think she could bear her last image of Danny to be his lying like a wax doll in a satin lined coffin. To prevent thoughts of that, she concentrated on the elegant purity of the arrangement of white calla lilies on top of the casket.
She couldn’t see either Huff or Chris for the crowd, but she supposed they were seated in the front row pew, looking appropriately bereaved. The hypocrisy of it all made her nauseous.
She was named among the surviving family members. “A sister, Sayre Hoyle of San Francisco,” the minister intoned.
She wanted to stand up and shout that Hoyle was no longer her name. After her second divorce, she had begun using her middle name, which had been her mother’s maiden name. She’d had her name legally changed to Lynch. That was the name on her college degree, her business stationery, her California drivers licence, and her passport.
She wasn’t a Hoyle any longer, but she had no doubt that whoever had supplied the minister with the information had intentionally given him the incorrect name.
The homily was straight out of a how-to clerical textbook, delivered by a shiny-faced minister who looked too young to vote. His remarks were directed toward mankind in general. There was very little mention of Danny as an individual, nothing poignant or personal, which seemed particularly sad since his own sister had refused his telephone call.
As the service concluded with the singing of “Amazing Grace,” there were sniffles among the congregation. The pall bearers were Chris, a fair-haired man she didn’t know, and four others whom she recognized as executives of Hoyle Enterprises. They carried the casket up the center aisle of the church.
It was slow-going, giving her time to study her brother. He was as trim and handsome as ever, with the suavity of a 1930s matinee idol. The only thing missing was a thin mustache. His hair was still as black as a raven’s wing, but he was wearing it shorter than he used to. It was spiked up in front with gel, a rather hip look for a man in his late thirties, but nonetheless the style suited Chris. His eyes were disconcerting because the pupils were indistinguishable from the dark irises.
Huff followed the casket. Even on this occasion he carried himself with an air of superiority. His shoulders were back, his head high. Each footstep was firmly planted, as though he was a conqueror with the sovereign right to claim the ground beneath him.
His lips were set in the hard, thin, resolute line that she remembered well. His eyes glittered like the black bead eyes of a stuffed toy. They were dry and clear; he hadn’t cried for Danny. Since she’d last seen him, his hair had turned from salt-and-pepper to solid white, but he still wore it in a flat-top of military preciseness. He had put on a few pounds around his mid-section but appeared as robust as she remembered.
Fortunately neither Chris nor Huff saw her.
To avoid the crowd and risk being recognized, she slipped out a side door of the sanctuary. Her car was last in the procession to the cemetery. She parked quite a distance from the tent that had been set up over the newly dug grave.
In somber groups and singly, people made their way up the slight rise for the grave site service. For the most part, they were dressed in their Sunday best, although armholes had sweat rings and hat bands were stained with perspiration. They walked in shoes that were too tight from infrequent wear.
Sayre recognized and remembered many of these people by name. They were townsfolk who had lived in Destiny all their lives. Some owned small businesses, but most worked for the Hoyles in one capacity or another.
She spotted several faculty members from the public school system. Her mother’s fondest desire had been to send her children to the most exclusive private schools in the South, but Huff had been adamant. He wanted them to grow up tough and under his tutelage.
Whenever the argument recurred, he would say, “A sissy prep school isn’t the place to learn about life and how to muscle your way through it.” Like all their arguments, her mother had conceded with a relinquishing sigh.
Sayre remained in her car with the motor idling. The service was mercifully brief. As soon as it concluded, the crowd dispersed and returned to their cars, making an effort to conceal their haste.
Huff and Chris were the last to leave the tent after shaking hands with the minister. Sayre watched them make their way to the waiting limousine provided by Weir’s Funeral Home. Amazingly the ancient Mr. Weir was still plying his trade when he was way past due going to his own reward.
He opened the limo door for Chris and Huff, then stood at a discreet distance while they conducted a short conversation with the blond-haired pall bearer. When the conversation concluded, they climbed into the limo, the man waved them off, Mr. Weir got behind the wheel and chauffeured them away. Sayre was glad to see them go.
She waited another ten minutes, until the last of the mourners had left. Only then did she kill her engine and get out of her car.
“I’ve been asked by your family to escort you to the house for the wake.”
Startled, she spun around so quickly that her shoes sent up a shower of dusty gravel.
He was leaning against the rear bumper of her car. He’d taken off his suit jacket and folded it over his arm. His necktie was askew, and the collar button of his shirt was undone, shirt sleeves rolled up to his elbows. He’d put on a pair of dark sunglasses.
“I’m Beck Merchant.”
She had only seen his name in print and had wondered if he used the French pronunciation. He didn’t. It was the standard pronunciation, and his appearance was as American as apple pie, from his dark blond hair, to his easy smile and straight teeth, to the Ralph Lauren cut of his trousers.
Giving no heed to her ungracious tone, he said, “Pleased to meet you, Ms. Hoyle.”
“I stand corrected.” He spoke with utmost courtesy, but his smile mocked her.
“Does delivering messages fall into your job description? I thought you were their lawyer,” she said.
“Lawyer, errand boy -- ”
He laid his hand over his heart and flashed an even wider grin. “You give me far too much credit.”
“I doubt it.” She slammed shut her car door. “You’ve extended their invitation. Tell them I decline. Now, I would appreciate some time alone to say goodbye to Danny.” She turned and headed up the rise.
“Take your time. I’ll wait for you.”
She came back around. “I’m not going to their damn wake. As soon as I’m done here, I’m returning to New Orleans and catching a flight back to San Francisco.”
“You could do that. Or you could do the decent thing and attend your brother’s wake. Then later this evening, Hoyle Enterprises’s corporate jet could whisk you back to San Francisco without all the hassle of commercial flight.”
“I can charter my own jet.”
She’d walked right into that one and hated herself for it. She had been back in Destiny barely an hour, and already she was reverting to old habits. But she had learned how to recognize the traps and avoid them.
“No thank you. Goodbye, Mr. Merchant.” Once again started up the rise toward the grave.
“Do you believe Danny killed himself?”
Of all the things he could have said, she didn’t expect that. She turned to face him again. He was no longer leaning indolently against the car fender, but had taken a few steps toward her as though not only to hear her answer but to gauge her reaction to his surprising question.
“Don’t you?” she asked.
“Doesn’t matter what I believe,” he said. “It’s the sheriff’s office that’s questioning the suicide.”
Copyright 2004 Sandra Brown Management Ltd
Published by Simon and Schuster, Inc.