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Detective Jack Grant frowned at his phone's caller ID and swore softly. He put down his case notes and took the call.
"If you're about to read from a script, you can save your breath by hanging up," Jack growled into the receiver, his throat tight and dry from too many hours without sleep or food.
He glanced at the clock over his kitchen table. Eight-fifteen in the morning. He'd been working nonstop since he got home from the precinct the night before.
The caller hesitated before speaking, and for a split second Jack thought he might get lucky and avoid conversation completely. He thought wrong.
"I wondered if you'd seen the latest blog at Don't Say a Word?"
Don't Say a Word? The name rang a bell, but Jack couldn't pry a connection loose from the jumble of facts and evidence his current case had planted in his mind.
"The confession site?" the caller continued.
The caller's voice indicated he was male, older, and either a heavy smoker or someone with a serious bronchial condition.
"Buddy," Jack said, "I think you've got the wrong number."
The caller began to cougha sputtering, choking sound that made Jack feel as though he was violating the man's privacy by listening.
He thought about asking if the man was all right, but that would indicate concern on his part, and concern was something Jack offered to no one, not if he could avoid it. Concern indicated vulnerability, and vulnerability indicated weakness.
Jack hated weakness.
He held the phone away from his ear until the sound of coughing subsided.
"It's about Melinda," the caller ground out as if struggling for air between choking spasms.
Jack had no doubtthere were millions of Melindas in the world, but the combination of the caller's voice and the name Melinda shifted Jack's thoughts from the present to the pasteleven years past, to be exact.
"How have you been, Mr. Simmons?"
"Have you seen it?" the man asked, ignoring Jack's question.
Melinda Simmons had gone missing from a New Mexico university campus not long after Jack's sister, Emma, had vanished from a college fifty miles to the east.
Unlike Emma, Melinda's body had never been found.
Her case had joined a handful of othersunsolved, their connection suspected, but never proved. The man Jack had thought responsible for the rash of college coed abductions and murders had been a self-proclaimed photographer who'd been in possession of photos of Emma, as well as of Melinda and the others upon his arrest.
Boone Shaw had walked free after a trial that had blown up in the prosecution's face. The press had blamed the acquittal on a lack of evidence and an airtight alibi the defense attorney had presented immediately before closing arguments.
Life for Jack had tilted on its axis the day his sister's lifeless body had been found.
Life for the Simmons family hadn't fared much better.
Melinda Simmons's mother had succumbed to her lung cancer not long after the trial.
Her father, Herb, had dropped out of society instead of facing his daughter's tragic disappearance and presumed death alone.
Jack had figured him dead years ago. But here the man was on the other end of the phone, resurrected like the heartache Jack had denied since the day he'd buried Emma, since the day Boone Shaw had walked free.
"Are you near a computer?" Simmons asked.
"Give me a second." Jack settled in front of his PC, clicking the icon to gain Internet access.
He waited for the entry page to open, cursing the cable connection under his breath. He initiated a search for the Don't Say a Word Web site, then clicked onto the site via the list generated by the search engine.
As the site's entry page came into focus, Jack's chest tightened.
Apparently Herb Simmons wasn't the only family member back from the dead. Anyone looking at the modeling shot of Melinda would never guess the young woman had allegedly been strangled and left in the desert eleven years earlier.
"Is he back?" Herb Simmons asked, his voice faltering, his emotion palpable across the phone line.
Damn Boone Shaw for causing so many families so much pain.
"Could be," Jack answered as he skimmed the site for an indication of just who was responsible for posting the girl's photograph.
Jack remembered now where he'd heard the confession site's name. The Web site and its cofounders had been profiled a few weeks back in People magazine.
The site promised an anonymous means for the public to air their most personal secrets, the thought being that confession was good for the soul.
According to the feature story, the public visited the site in droves, their morbid curiosity no doubt driving them to salivate over the suffering of others.
So much for keeping a secret.
Broken promises. Broken marriages. Broken dreams.
As if any of the bull the confessor spouted was true.
Each Saturday the site's blog featured a sampling of handmade postcards received during the previous week.
Today was Thursday. That meant the posted blog had gone up five days ago, and apparently the selected "confession" had been strong enough to carry the site alone.
The faded black-and-white modeling shot of Melanie Simmons filled the majority of the visible page, and included only a one-line caption.
I didn't mean to kill her.
Jack raked a hand through his close-cropped hair and winced. "Sonofa"
"I thought you'd want to know."
"You thought right."
"Don't let him get away this time." Simmons's tone dropped soft, yet suddenly clear.
"I didn't let him"
But the line had gone dead in Jack's ear.
"get away the first time," Jack said for the benefit of no one but himself.
He'd always thought that if he uttered the statement often enough, one day he'd believe the Shaw acquittal to be no fault of his own.
That theory hadn't paid off yet.
Jack might have been a rookie detective at the time, and the powers that be might have kept him as far away from the actual casework as they could, but still, the thought that he might have done somethinganythingdifferently haunted his every moment.
He'd failed to keep his baby sister safe, and he'd failed ever since to find a way to bring her killer to justice.
Jack woke each morning, wondering how he might have saved Emma from the monster that had taken her life. He went to bed each night determined to find a way to make Boone Shaw pay for what Jack knew he did.
He'd never doubted the man's guilt. He never would. And he'd never stop trying to bring the brutal killer to justice, not while there was a breath of life left inside him.
Jack dropped the now silent phone to his lap and pulled his chair close to his desk, studying the blog entrythe reproduced photo postcard, the card's typewritten message, and the weekly editorial.
Apparently the site owner responsible for writing the weekly comments had deemed the postcard a crank.
Jack scrubbed a hand across his tired face and laughed.
What an idiot.
Had the woman even thought to touch base with the local police or the FBI?
No matter. Abby Conroy had just given Jack the first new lead he'd had in years. Maybe he'd have to say thanks in person.
Jack's gaze shifted from the monitor screen to the calendar tacked haphazardly to the wall. Nine days until Christmas.
The calendar illustration consisted of a holiday wreath draped over a cactus, no doubt someone in the Southwest's idea of holiday cheer.
But the timing of the Don't Say a Word posting gnawed at Jack.
Melinda, Emma and the other coeds had vanished during a ten-day period leading up to Christmas.
Had Boone Shaw decided to resurrect his own special brand of holiday cheer? And if so, why now? Why wait eleven years?
Granted, the man's trial had dragged out over the course of two years, but after Shaw had gone free, he'd never so much as been pulled over for a speeding ticket again.
And Jack would know. He'd kept tabs on the man's every move.
As crazy as the thought of Shaw sending a postcard to a secret confession site seemed, Jack had seen far stranger things during his years on the force.
He'd seen killers tire with getting away with their own crimes. He'd seen men who might never have been caught, commit purposeful acts to gain notoriety.
Who was to say somethingor someonehadn't motivated Shaw to come forward now?
Jack rocked back in his chair, lifting the hand-carved front legs from the floor as the possibilities wound through his brain.
Truth was he wouldn't sleep again until he'd held that postcard in his own hand.
He blew out a slow breath.
On the East Coast.
In the cold.
He supposed there were worse things in life. Hell, he knew there were.
He pulled up the Weather Channel Web site and keyed in the zip code for the Don't Say a Word post office box. Then Jack leaned even closer to the monitor and studied the forecast.
Cold, cold and more cold.
Jack hated the cold.
Almost as much as he hated Christmas.
"Ho, ho, ho," he muttered as he dialed his chief's home number.
The senior officer answered on the second ring, and Jack didn't waste a moment on niceties, clicking back to the image of Melinda Simmons's smiling, alive face as he spoke.
"I'm going to need some time off."
Abby Conroy covered the ground between her post office box and the Don't Say a Word office in record time. The morning air was cold and raw, teasing at the possibility of a white Christmas the region hadn't seen in years.
"Good morning, Mrs. Hanover," she called out to an elderly woman walking a pair of toy poodles, each dressed in full holiday outerwear complete with tiny Santa hats and jingle bell collars.
Now there was something worthy of confession.
Abby stifled a laugh and pulled the collar of her wool pea coat tighter around her neck.
The local retail merchants' association had gone all-out this year in an effort to draw tourists into the Trolley Square section of town from the nearby attractions such as Winterthur, Brandywine Art Museum and Montchanin.
Thanks to their hard work, the Christmas holiday proclaimed its approach from every available storefront, lamppost and street sign.
Good thing Abby loved the holidaysor should she say, had loved the holidays.
This Christmas marked an anniversary she'd just as soon forget, but knew she never would.
Abby shoved the depressing thought far into the recesses of her mind and glanced at the stack of postcards in her hands.
She'd started the Don't Say a Word online secret confession site just shy of a year earlier, and as the site's anniversary approached, so had the number of "secrets" shared anonymously by the public each week.
Sure, the profile in People magazine hadn't hurt. Sadly, it had also drawn the phonies and the cranks out of the woodwork.
Whereas Don't Say a Word had started small and had grown via word of mouth, helping those who truly needed to share something from their past in order to ease their souls, the recent media attention had drawn confessions above and beyond anything Abby had ever imagined, including last week's.
She tightened her grip on the mail as she pictured the card featured in this week's blog. Typically she chose three or four for the blog, but last week she'd chosen only one.
I didn't mean to kill her.
Anger raised the small hairs at the back of her neck. She'd shown the card to a local police detective before she'd published the photographan older black-and-white shot of a young woman sporting a ponytail and huge grin.
Even the officer had shared her first reaction. Someone wanted his or her fifteen minutes of fame and had decided to take the sensational route to get there.
Well, perhaps Abby had made a mistake by giving the so-called confession space on the very public blog, but she'd wanted to call attention to the sender's callousness.
The site and service were for people who spoke from the heart, not for someone who found sending a card like last week's feature amusing.
She'd been a bit harsh in her blog, but so what? There were thousands of people out there with secrets, secrets that needed to be told in order to ease the keeper's heart and mind. Abby wasn't about to tolerate anyone's sick humor at the expense of her site or her readers.
Her business partner, Robert Walker, had wanted her to toss the card in the trash, but she hadn't been able to. Matter of fact, instead of archiving the card in the office files after she'd written her blog, she'd tucked it into her briefcase, where it still sat as a reminder of her commitment to preserve her site's integrity.
Abby crossed a side street then hopped up onto the sidewalk running alongside her office building. The heels of her well-loved boots clicked against the cobblestone walkway as she headed for the entrance.
She glanced again at the stack of cards in her hand, but instead of flipping through them, she tucked them into her coat pocket. The cold had found its way beneath the heavy wool and under her skin. The only thing she cared about right now was finding the biggest, hottest, strongest cup of coffee she could.
"Good morning, Natalie," she called out to the receptionist as she entered the building.
The young woman looked up with a grin, her blunt-cut hair swinging against her slender neck. "Cold enough for you?"
Abby faked a shudder as she headed for the office kitchen.
Theirs was a shared space. One receptionist and administrative assistant for several tenants, allowing each company to share basic expenses with several other start-ups. Perfect for the work she did.
A few moments later, she headed toward her office space, steaming cup of coffee in hand, just as she liked it, heavy on the cream, no sugar.
She reached into her pocket to pull out the mail, but stopped in her tracks when she realized someone had reached the office ahead of her.
A broad-shouldered man stood talking to Robert. Based on the look on Robert's face, the call was anything but social. Robert's typically laughing eyes were serious and intent, focused on the other man's every word.
As she approached, Robert ran a hand over his close-cropped blond hair and frowned. When he caught sight of Abby he nodded in her direction.
The visitor turned to face her and Abby blinked, stunned momentarily by the intensity of the man's gaze. She'd never quite understood the term dark and smoldering until that moment. No matter, she wasn't about to let the man intimidate her, and certainly not because of his looks.
"Abby" Robert tipped his chin toward the visitor "this is Jack Grant, a detective from Phoenix, Arizona."
She'd heard stories from other Web site owners such as herself about law enforcement trying to gain access to information on certain postcard senders, but Abby had made a promise to her blog visitors. A secret was a secret. Let the police do their own detective work.
"Detective," she said as she lowered the coffee to her desk and reached to shake the man's hand. "Welcome to Delaware."
He said nothing as he gave her hand a quick shake, all business and confident as could be. The contact sent a tremor through her system.