They had been married forty years to the day and Judith still
felt like she didn’t know everything about her husband. Forty
years of cooking Henry’s dinner, forty years of ironing his
shirts, forty years of sleeping in his bed, and he was still a
mystery. Maybe that was why she kept doing all these things for him
with little or no complaint. There was a lot to be said for a man
who, after forty years, still managed to hold your attention.
Judith rolled down the car window, letting in some of the cool,
spring air. Downtown Atlanta was only thirty minutes away, but out
here in Conyers, you could still find areas of undeveloped land,
even some small farms. It was a quiet place, and Atlanta was just
far enough away so that she could appreciate the peace. Still,
Judith sighed as she caught a quick glimpse of the city’s
skyscrapers on the distant horizon, thinking, home.
She was surprised at the thought, that Atlanta was now a place
she considered her home. Her life until recently had been suburban,
even rural. She preferred the open spaces to the concrete sidewalks
of the city, even while she admitted that it was nice living in so
central a location that you could walk to the corner store or a
little café if the mood struck you.
Days would pass without her even having to get into a car ---
the type of life she would have never dreamed of ten years ago. She
could tell Henry felt the same. His shoulders bunched up around his
ears with tight resolve as he navigated the Buick down a narrow
country road. After decades of driving just about every highway and
interstate in the country, he instinctively knew all the back
routes, the doglegs and shortcuts.
Judith trusted him to get them home safely. She sat back in her
seat, staring out the window, blurring her eyes so that the trees
bordering the road seemed more like a thick forest. She made the
trip to Conyers at least once a week, and every time she felt like
she saw something new --- a small house she’d never noticed,
a bridge she’d bumped over many times but never paid
attention to. Life was like that. You didn’t realize what was
passing you by until you slowed down a little bit to get a better
They’d just come from an anniversary party in their honor,
thrown together by their son. Well, more likely thrown together by
Tom’s wife, who managed his life like an executive assistant,
housekeeper, babysitter, cook and --- presumably --- concubine all
rolled up into one. Tom had been a joyful surprise, his birth an
event doctors had said would never come about. Judith had loved
every part of him on first sight, accepted him as a gift that she
would cherish with every bone in her body. She had done everything
for him, and now that Tom was in his thirties, he still seemed to
need an awful lot of taking care of. Perhaps Judith had been too
conventional a wife, too subservient a mother, so that her son had
grown into the sort of man who needed --- expected --- a wife to do
everything for him. Judith certainly had not enslaved herself to
Henry. They had married in 1969, a time when women could actually
have interests other than cooking the perfect pot roast and
discovering the best method to get stains out of the carpet. From
the start, Judith had been determined to make her life as
interesting as possible. She’d been a room mother at
Tom’s school. She’d volunteered at the local homeless
shelter and helped start a recycling group in the neighborhood.
When Tom was older, Judith took a job doing light bookkeeping for a
local business and joined a running team through the church to
train for marathons. This active lifestyle stood in stark contrast
to that of Judith’s own mother, a woman who toward the end of
her life was so ravaged from raising nine children, so drained from
the constant physical demands of being a farmer’s wife, that
some days she was too depressed to even speak.
Though, Judith had to admit, she had herself been a somewhat
typical woman in those early years. Embarrassingly, she was one of
those girls who had gone to college specifically to find a husband.
She had grown up near Scranton, Pennsylvania, in a town so small it
didn’t merit a dot on the map. The only men available to her
were farmers, and they were hardly interested in Judith. Judith
could not blame them. The mirror told no lies. She was a bit too
plump, a bit too bucktoothed, and a bit too much of everything
else, to be the sort of woman Scranton men took for a wife. And
then there was her father, a stern disciplinarian whom no sane man
would seek out for a father-in-law, at least not in exchange for a
bucktoothed, pearshaped girl who had no natural talent for
The truth was that Judith had always been the odd one in the
family, the one who didn’t quite fit in. She read too much.
She hated farmwork. Even as a young girl, she was not drawn to
animals and did not want to be responsible for their care and
feeding. None of her sisters and brothers had been sent away for
higher education. There were two brothers who had dropped out of
ninth grade, and an older sister who had married rather quickly and
given birth to her first child seven months later. Not that anyone
bothered to do the math. Enveloped in a constant state of denial,
her mother had remarked to her dying day that her first grandchild
had always been big-boned, even as an infant. Thankfully,
Judith’s father had seen the writing on the wall so far as
his middle girl was concerned. There would be no marriage of
convenience with any of the local boys, not least of all because
none of them found her remotely convenient. Bible college, he
decided, was not just Judith’s last --- but her only ---
chance. At the age of six, Judith had been struck in the eye by a
flying piece of debris as she chased after the tractor. From that
moment on, she’d always worn glasses. People assumed she was
cerebral because of the glasses, when in fact the opposite was
true. Yes, she loved to read, but her tastes ran more toward trashy
dime novel than literary. Still, the egghead label had stuck. What
was it they used to say? “Men don’t make passes at
women who wear glasses.” So, it was surprising --- no, more
like shocking --- when on Judith’s first day of college in
her first class, the teaching assistant had winked at her.
She had thought something was in his eye, but there was no
mistaking Henry Coldfield’s intentions when, after class, he
had pulled her aside and asked her if she’d like to go down
to the drugstore and have a soda with him. The wink, apparently,
was the beginning and end of his gregariousness. Henry was a very
shy man in person; strange, considering he later became the top
salesman for a liquor distribution company --- a job he
passionately despised even three years past retirement.
Judith supposed Henry’s ability to blend had come from
being the son of an Army colonel, moving around the country so
often, never staying at one base more than a few years at a time.
There was no passionate love at first sight --- that came later.
Initially, Judith had simply been attracted to the fact that Henry
was attracted to her. It was a novelty for the pear from Scranton,
but Judith had always been at the opposite spectrum of Marx’s
philosophy --- Groucho, not Karl: She was more than willing to join
any club that would have her as a member. Henry was a club unto
himself. He was neither handsome nor ugly; forward nor reticent.
With his neatly parted hair and flat accent, average would be the
best way to describe him, which Judith later did in a letter to her
older sister. Rosa’s response had been something along the
lines of, “Well, I suppose that’s the best you can hope
for.” In her defense, Rosa was pregnant at the time with her
third child while her second was still in diapers, but still,
Judith had never forgiven her sister for the slight --- not against
herself, but against Henry. If Rosa failed to notice how special
Henry was, it was because Judith was a poor writer; Henry too
nuanced a man for mere words on a page. Perhaps it was all for the
best. Rosa’s sour observation had given Judith a reason to
break from her family and embrace this winkingly introverted,
Henry’s gregarious shyness was only the first of many
dichotomies Judith had observed in her husband over the years. He
was terrified of heights, but had earned his amateur pilot’s
license as a teenager. He sold alcohol but never imbibed. He was a
homebody, but he spent most of his adult life traveling through the
Northwest, then the Midwest, as promotions moved them around the
country much like the Army had done when Henry was a child. His
life, it seemed, was all about making himself do things he did not
want to do. And yet, he often told Judith that her company was the
one thing that he truly enjoyed.
Forty years, and so many surprises.
Sadly, Judith doubted her son held any such surprises for his
spouse. While Tom was growing up, Henry was on the road three weeks
out of every four, and his parenting came in spurts that
didn’t necessarily highlight his more compassionate side.
Subsequently, Tom became everything his father had shown him during
those growing years: strict, unbending, driven.
There was something else to it as well. Judith didn’t know
if it was because Henry saw his sales job as a duty to his family
rather than his passion, or because he hated being away from home
so much, but it seemed that every interaction he had with their son
held an underlying tension: Don’t make the same mistakes
I’ve made. Don’t get trapped in a job you despise.
Don’t compromise your beliefs to put food on the table. The
only positive thing he recommended to the boy was marrying a good
woman. If only he had been more specific. If only he hadn’t
been so hard.
Why was it that men were such exacting parents to their male
children? Judith guessed they wanted their sons to succeed in
places they had not. In those early days, when Judith was first
pregnant, the thought of a daughter had spread a rapid warmth
through her body, followed by a searing cold. A young girl like
Judith, out there in the world, defying her mother, defying the
world. It gave her an understanding of Henry’s desire that
Tom do better, be better, have everything that he wanted and
Tom had certainly succeeded at his job, though his mouse of a
wife was a disappointment. Every time Judith came face-to-face with
her daughter-in-law, she itched to tell the woman to stand up
straight, speak up and, for the love of God, grow a backbone. One
of the volunteers at the church had said the other week that men
married their mothers. Judith hadn’t argued with the woman,
but she’d defy anyone to find a lick of similarity she shared
with her son’s wife.
Except for the desire to spend time with her grandchildren,
Judith could never see her daughter-in-law again and be perfectly
happy. The grandchildren were the sole reason they had moved to
Atlanta, after all. She and Henry had uprooted their retirement
life in Arizona and moved almost two thousand miles to this hot
city with its smog alerts and gang killings just so they could be
close to two of the most spoiled and ungrateful little things this
side of the Appalachia.
Judith glanced at Henry as he tapped his fingers on the steering
wheel, humming tunelessly as he drove. They never talked about
their grandchildren except in glowing terms, possibly because a fit
of honesty might reveal that they didn’t much like them ---
and then where would they be? Their lives turned upside down for
two small children who were on gluten-free diets, strictly
regimented naptimes and tightly scheduled playdates, but only with
“like-minded children who shared the same goals.”
So far as Judith could see, the only goal her grandchildren had
was to be the center of attention. She imagined you couldn’t
sneeze without finding a like-minded, self-centered child, but
according to her daughter-in-law, it was an almost impossible task.
Wasn’t that the whole point of youth, to be self-centered?
And wasn’t it the job of the parent to drill that out of you?
Certainly, it was clear to all involved that it wasn’t the
job of the grandparents.
When little Mark had spilled his unpasteurized juice on
Henry’s slacks and Lilly had eaten so many of the
Hershey’s Kisses she’d found in Judith’s purse
that she’d reminded Judith of a homeless woman at the shelter
last month who was tweaking so badly on methamphetamines that
she’d wet herself, Henry and Judith had merely smiled ---
chuckled, even --- as if these were merely wonderful little quirks
that the children would soon grow out of.
Soon was not coming soon enough, however, and now that
they’d reached the ages of seven and nine, Judith was
starting to lose faith that one day, her grandchildren would turn
into polite and loving young adults who did not feel the urge to
constantly interrupt adult conversation and run around the house
screaming at such high decibels that animals two counties over
started howling. Judith’s only consolation was that Tom took
them to church every Sunday. She of course wanted her grandchildren
exposed to a life in Christ, but more importantly, she wanted them
to learn the lessons taught in Sunday School. Honor thy mother and
father. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
Don’t think you’re going to waste your life, drop out
of school and move in with Grandma and Grandpa any time soon.
“Hey!” Henry barked as a car in the oncoming lane shot
past them so close that the Buick actually shook on its tires.
“Kids,” he grumbled, gripping the wheel tightly in his
The closer he got to seventy, the more Henry seemed to embrace
the role of cranky old man. Sometimes, this was endearing. Other
times, Judith wondered how long it would be before he started
shaking his fist in the air, blaming all the ills of the world on
“kids.” The age of these kids seemed to range anywhere
from four to forty, and his irritation ticked up exponentially when
he caught them doing something that he used to do himself, but now
could no longer enjoy. Judith dreaded the day they took away his
pilot’s license, something that might come sooner rather than
later, considering that his last checkup at the cardiologist had
shown some irregularities. It was one of the reasons they had
decided to retire to Arizona, where there was no snow to shovel or
lawn to maintain.
She said, “Looks like rain.”
Henry craned up his neck to see the clouds.
“Good night to start my book.”
His lips curled up in a smile. Henry had given her a thick
historical romance for their anniversary. Judith had given him a
new cooler to take to the golf course.
She squinted her eyes at the road ahead, deciding she should
have her vision checked again. She was not so far from seventy
herself, and her eyes seemed to be getting worse every year. Dusk
was a particularly bad time for her, and her vision tended to blur
on objects that were at a distance. So it was that she blinked
several times before she was sure of what she was seeing, and only
opened her mouth to warn Henry when the animal was right in front
“Jude!” Henry yelled, one arm shooting out in front
of Judith chest as he wrenched the steering wheel to the left,
trying to avoid the poor creature. Judith thought, oddly, about how
the movies were right. Everything slowed down, time inching by so
that each second seemed to take an eternity. She felt Henry’s
strong arm bolt across her breasts, the seatbelt biting into her
hip bones. Her head jerked, slamming into the door as the car
swerved. The windshield cracked as the animal bounced against the
glass, then hit the roof of the car, then the trunk. It
wasn’t until the car shuddered to a stop, spinning a full 180
degrees on the road, that the sounds caught up with Judith: the
crack, thunk, thunk, all overlaid with a high-pitched screaming
that she realized was coming from her own mouth. She must have been
in shock, because Henry had to yell at her several times,
“Judith! Judith!” before she stopped screaming.
Henry’s hand was tight on her arm, sending pain up her
shoulder. She rubbed the back of his hand, saying, “I’m
all right. I’m all right.” Her glasses were askew, her
vision off-kilter. She put her fingers to the side of her head,
feeling a sticky wetness. When she took away her hand, she saw
“It must’ve been a deer or . . .” Henry put
his hand to his mouth, stopping his words. He looked calm but for
the telltale up and down of his chest as he tried to catch his
breath. The air bag had deployed. A fine, white powder covered his
Her breath caught as she looked ahead. Blood had spattered the
windshield like a sudden, violent rain.
Henry pushed open the door but did not get out. Judith took off
her glasses to wipe her eyes. The lenses were both broken, the
bottom part of her bifocal on the right side missing. She saw that
the glasses were shaking, and realized that the tremor came from
her own hands. Henry got out of the car, and she made herself put
on her glasses and follow him.
The creature was on the road, legs moving. Judith’s head
ached where it had smacked into the door. Blood was in her eyes.
That was the only explanation she had for the fact that the animal
--- surely a deer --- appeared to have the shapely white legs of a
woman. “Oh, dear God,” Henry whispered.
“It’s --- Judith --- it’s---”
Judith heard a car behind her. Wheels screeched against asphalt.
Doors opened and closed. Two men joined them on the road, one
running toward the animal.
He screamed, “Call 9-1-1!” kneeling down beside the
Judith stepped closer, then closer yet. The legs moved again ---
the perfect legs of a woman. She was completely nude. Bruises
blackened her inner thighs --- dark bruises. Old bruises. Dried
blood caked around her legs. A burgundy film seemed to cover her
torso, a rip at her side showing white bone. Judith glanced at her
face. The nose was askew. The eyes were swollen, lips chapped and
split. Blood matted the woman’s dark hair and pooled around
her head as if in a halo. Judith stepped closer, unable to stop
herself --- suddenly a voyeur, after a lifetime of politely looking
away. Glass crunched beneath her feet, and the woman’s eyes
shot open in panic. She stared somewhere past Judith, a dull
lifelessness to her gaze. Just as suddenly, her eyelids fluttered
closed, but Judith could not suppress the shudder that went through
her body. It was as if someone had walked over her grave.
“Dear Lord,” Henry mumbled, almost in prayer. Judith
turned to find her husband gripping his hand to his chest. His
knuckles were white. He stared at the woman, looking as if he might
be ill. “How did this happen?” he whispered, horror
twisting his face. “How in God’s name did this
Sara linton leaned back in her chair, mumbling a soft
“Yes, Mama” into her cell phone. She wondered briefly
if there would ever come a point in time when this felt normal
again, when a phone call with her mother brought her happiness the
way it used to instead of feeling like it was dragging a piece of
her heart out of her chest.
“Baby,” Cathy soothed. “It’s all
right. You’re taking care of yourself, and that’s all
Daddy and I need to know.”
Sara felt tears sting her eyes. This would hardly be the first
time she had cried in the doctor’s lounge at Grady Hospital,
but she was sick of crying --- sick of feeling, really.
Wasn’t that the reason that, two years ago, she had left her
family, left her life, in rural Georgia, and moved to Atlanta ---
so that she would no longer have the constant reminder of what had
“Promise me you’ll try to go to church next
Sara mumbled something that might sound like a promise. Her
mother was no fool, and they both knew that the possibility of Sara
ending up on a pew this Easter Sunday was highly unlikely, but
Cathy didn’t press.
Sara looked at the stack of charts in front of her. She was at
the end of her shift and needed to call in her dictation.
“Mama, I’m sorry, but I need to go.”
Cathy exacted a promise of another phone call next week, then
rang off. Sara kept her cell phone in her hand for a few minutes,
looking at the faded numbers, her thumb tracing the seven and five,
dialing out a familiar number but not sending through the call. She
dropped the phone into her pocket and felt the letter brush against
the back of her hand.
The Letter. She thought of it as its own entity.
Sara normally checked her mail after work so she didn’t
have to drag it around with her, but one morning, for some unknown
reason,she had checked her mail as she was heading out. A cold
sweat had come over her as she recognized the return address on the
plain white envelope. She had tucked the unopened envelope into the
pocket of her lab coat as she left for work, thinking she would
read itat lunch. Lunch had come and gone, and the letter had
remained unopened, traveling back home, then out to work again the
next day. Months passed, and the letter went everywhere with Sara,
sometimes in her coat, sometimes in her purse to the grocery store
or on errands. It became a talisman, and often, she would reach her
hand in herpocket and touch it, just to remind herself that it was
Over time, the corners of the sealed envelope had become
dogeared and the Grant County postmark had started to fade. Every
day pushed Sara further away from opening it and discovering what
the woman who had killed her husband could possibly have to
“Dr. Linton?” Mary Schroder, one of the nurses,
knocked on the door. She spoke in the practiced code of the ER.
“We’ve got a P-O-P-T-A female, thirty-three, weak and
Sara glanced at the charts, then her watch. A
thirty-three-yearold woman who had passed out prior to admission
was a puzzle that would take time to solve. It was almost seven
o’clock. Sara’s shift was over in ten minutes.
“Can Krakauer take her?”
“Krakauer did take her,” Mary countered.
“He ordered a CMP, then went to get coffee with the new
bimbo.” She was obviously perturbed by this, and added,
“The patient’s a cop.”
Mary was married to a cop; hardly shocking considering she had
worked in the emergency room at Grady Hospital for almost twenty
years. Even without that, it was understood at every hospital in
the world that anyone in law enforcement got the best and quickest
treatment. Apparently, Otto Krakauer hadn’t gotten the
Sara relented. “How long did she lose
“She says about a minute.” Mary shook her head,
because patients were hardly the most honest reporters when it came
to their health.
“She doesn’t look right.”
That last part was what got Sara out of her chair. Grady was the
only Level One trauma center in the region, as well as one of the
few remaining public hospitals in Georgia. The nurses at Grady saw
car wrecks, shootings, stabbings, overdoses, and any number of
crimes against humanity on an almost daily basis. They had a
practiced eye for spotting serious problems. And, of course, cops
usually didn’t admit themselves to the hospital unless they
were at death’s door.
Sara skimmed the woman’s chart as she walked through the
emergency department. Otto Krakauer hadn’t done more than
take a medical history and order the usual bloodwork, which told
Sara there was no obvious diagnosis. Faith Mitchell was an
otherwise healthy thirty-three-year-old woman with no previous
conditions and no recent trauma. Her test results would hopefully
give them a better idea about what was going on.
Sara mumbled an apology as she bumped into a gurney in the
hallway. As usual, the rooms were overflowing and patients were
stacked in the halls, some in beds, some sitting in wheelchairs,
all looking more miserable than they probably had when they’d
first arrived for treatment. Most of them had probably come here
right after work because they couldn’t afford to miss a
day’s wages. They saw Sara’s white coat and called to
her, but she ignored them as she read
through the chart.
Mary said, “I’ll catch up with you. She’s in
three,” before letting herself get pulled away by an elderly
woman on a stretcher.
Sara knocked on the open door of exam room 3 --- privacy:
another perk afforded cops. A petite blonde woman was sitting on
the edge of the bed, fully dressed and clearly irritated. Mary was
good at her job, but a blind person could see that Faith Mitchell
was unwell. She was as pale as the sheet on the bed; even from a
distance, her skin looked clammy.
Her husband did not seem to be helping matters as he paced the
room. He was an attractive man, well over six feet, with sandy
blond hair cut close to his head. A jagged scar ran down the side
of his face, probably from a childhood accident where his jaw slid
across the asphalt under his bicycle or along the hard-packed dirt
to home plate. He was thin and lean, probably a runner, and his
three-piece suit showed the broad chest and shoulders of someone
who spent a lot time in the gym.
He stopped pacing, his gaze going from Sara to his wife and back
again. “Where’s the other doctor?”
“He got called away on an emergency.” She walked to
the sink and washed her hands, saying, “I’m Dr. Linton.
Can you catch me up to speed here? What happened?”
“She passed out,” the man said, nervously twisting
his wedding ring around his finger. He seemed to realize he was
coming off as a bit frantic, and moderated his tone.
“She’s never passed out before.”
Faith Mitchell seemed aggravated by his concern.
“I’m fine,” she insisted, then told Sara,
“It’s the same thing I said to the other doctor. I feel
like I’ve been coming down with a cold. That’s
Sara pressed her fingers to Faith’s wrist, checking her
pulse. “Howare you feeling now?”
She glanced at her husband. “Annoyed.”
Sara smiled, shining her penlight into Faith’s eyes,
checking her throat, running through the usual physical exam and
finding nothing alarming. She agreed with Krakauer’s initial
evaluation: Faith was probably a little dehydrated. Her heart
sounded good, though, and it didn’t seem like she’d
suffered from a seizure. “Did you hit your headwhen you
She started to answer, but the man interjected, “It was in
the parking lot. Her head hit the pavement.”
Sara asked the woman, “Any other problems?”
Faith answered, “Just a few headaches.” She seemed
to be holding something back, even as she revealed, “I
haven’t really eaten today. I was feeling a little sick to my
stomach this morning. And yesterday morning.”
Sara opened one of the drawers for a neuro-hammer to check
reflexes, only to find nothing there. “Have you had any
recent weight loss or gain?”
Faith said “No” just as her husband said
The man looked contrite, but tried, “I think it looks good
Faith took a deep breath and let it out slowly. Sara studied the
man again, thinking he was probably an accountant or lawyer. His
head was turned toward his wife, and Sara noticed another, lighter
scar lining his upper lip --- obviously not a surgical incision.
The skin had been sewn together crookedly, so that the scar running
vertically between his lip and nose was slightly uneven. He had
probably boxed in college, or maybe just been hit in the head one
too many times, because he obviously didn’t seem to know that
the only way out of a hole was to stop digging. “Faith, I
think the extra weight looks great on you. You could stand to gain
She shut him up with a look.
“All right.” Sara flipped open the chart, writing
down some orders.
“We’ll need to do an X-ray of your skull and
I’d like to do a few more tests. Don’t worry, we can
use the blood samples from earlier, so there won’t be any
more needles for now.” She scribbled a notation and checked
some boxes before looking up at Faith. “I promise we’ll
rush this as much as we can, but you can see we’ve got a
pretty full house today. X-ray’s backed up at least an hour.
I’ll do what I can to push it through, but you might want to
get a book or magazine while you wait.”
Faith didn’t respond, but something in her demeanor
changed. She glanced at her husband, then back at Sara. “Do
you need me to sign that?” She indicated the chart.
There was nothing to sign, but Sara handed her the chart anyway.
Faith wrote something on the bottom of the page and gave it back.
Sara read the words I’m pregnant.
Excerpted from UNDONE © Copyright 2011 by Karin Slaughter.
Reprinted with permission by Delacorte Press, a division of Random
House, Inc. All rights reserved.