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By KEVIN O'BRIEN
PINNACLE BOOKSCopyright © 2011 Kevin O'Brien
All right reserved.
Chapter One"Erin ... sweetie, eat your waffle," Jeff Dennehy told his six-year-old daughter.
There were four curved-hardback chairs around the circular, pine table with a lazy Susan in the middle of it. On top of the lazy Susan was a hand-painted vase with a bouquet of pipe-cleaner-and-tissue daisies. The creator of that slightly tacky centerpiece was seated beside Jeff. The cute, solemn-faced blond girl gazed over her shoulder at the TV and a commercial for toilet paper—something with cartoon bears. They'd been watching the Today show on the small TV at the end of the kitchen counter.
"C'mon, Erin," Jeff said over his coffee cup. "Molly made the waffles from scratch, and you haven't even put a dent in them."
With a sigh, Erin turned toward her plate, curled her lip at it, and pressed down on the waffle with the underside of her fork. "It's mushy," she murmured. "I want waffles from a toaster."
Dressed in a T-shirt, sweatpants, and slippers, Molly had her strawberry-blond hair swept back in a ponytail. She leaned against the counter and sipped her coffee. She thought maybe if her stepdaughter hadn't drowned the waffle in a quart of maple syrup, it wouldn't be so mushy. But Molly bit her lip, set down her coffee cup, and retreated to the refrigerator. She opened the freezer in search of some Eggos, anything to put an end to the father–daughter standoff. She didn't need the aggravation this morning.
"You know, peanut," Jeff was saying patiently. "Fresh waffles are better than ones from the toaster. Good waffles aren't supposed to have the consistency of old drywall."
Of course, Jeff wouldn't touch a waffle—fresh, toasted, or otherwise—if his life depended on it. He was having his usual bran flakes to help maintain his lean, muscular build. Molly's husband was a bit vain—and had good reason to be. Dressed for work in his black Hugo Boss suit, crisp white shirt, and a striped tie, he looked very handsome. He was forty-four, with a light olive complexion, brown eyes, and black hair that was just starting to cede to gray.
"C'mon, just a few bites," he coaxed his daughter. "Molly cooked this breakfast, special for you and Chris. You don't want to hurt her feelings, do you?"
Molly couldn't find any Eggos in the freezer, so she fetched a box of Corn Pops from the kitchen cabinet.
She and Jeff had been married for ten months. Whenever Erin and her seventeen-year-old brother, Chris, returned from a weekend with their mother, Molly felt extra compelled to show them what a great stepmother she was. So she'd cooked bacon and homemade waffles for their breakfast this Monday morning.
Molly had her theories, but still didn't know exactly why Angela Dennehy had moved out of her own house, surrendered custody of her kids, and settled for visitation rights. One thing for certain, Angela didn't want her kids warming up to their dad's new and younger wife.
Molly was thirty-two and still adjusting to stepmotherhood. Obviously, her breakfast strategy wasn't scoring points with Jeff's younger child. Molly poured some Corn Pops and milk into a bowl, took away Erin's plate, and set the cereal in front of her. She patted Erin's shoulder. "Eat up, honey. You don't want to miss your bus."
Jeff gave his daughter a frown, which she ignored while eating her Corn Pops. On TV, Matt Lauer announced that Today would be right back after a local news break.
Molly set Erin's plate in the sink, and then unplugged the waffle iron. With a fork, she carefully pried a fresh waffle from the hot grid. "Chris!" she called. "Chris! Your breakfast is ready!"
Her stepson hadn't yet emerged from his bedroom. This elaborate breakfast—at least, elaborate for a weekday—was mostly for him. One of the first breakfasts she'd cooked in Jeff's house had been waffles, and Chris had proclaimed they were "awesome." Maybe he was just being polite, or perhaps Jeff had told him to say that. Nevertheless, Molly always unearthed the waffle iron when she wanted to get in her stepson's good graces.
"Chris, breakfast!" Molly set the plate in front of his empty chair. "I made waffles...."
"Okay, in a minute!" he shouted from upstairs.
On TV, Molly glanced at the pretty, thirtysomething Asian anchorwoman with a pageboy hairstyle. "Seattle's Arboretum became the site of a grisly murder early this morning," she announced.
Molly reached for the coffeepot and refilled Jeff's cup.
"Thanks, babe," he said, wiping his mouth with his napkin. "C'mon, Chris, your breakfast is getting cold!" he yelled. "Molly's gone to a lot of trouble this morning!"
She didn't want him browbeating the kids on her account. That was no way to win them over. "It's no biggie," Molly murmured, moving to the counter, and topping off her own cup of coffee.
On the television, they showed an ambulance and several police cars encircling a small parking lot. Yellow police tape was wrapped around some trees at the edge of the lot. It fluttered in the breeze. Paramedics loaded a blanket-covered corpse into the back of the ambulance. "The victim, according to early reports, was robbed and then shot execution-style after his car broke down along Lake Washington Boulevard," the anchorwoman explained with a somber voiceover. "He has been identified as forty-two-year-old, Raymond Corson, a former guidance counselor at James Monroe High School ..."
"Oh, God, no," Molly murmured, stunned. For a moment, she couldn't breathe.
She forgot she was holding the quarter-full coffeepot. It slipped out of her hand and crashed against the tiled floor. Glass shattered, and hot coffee splashed the front of her sweatpants. But it didn't burn her. Molly glanced down at the mess for only a moment. Then she went right back to staring at the TV—and that covered-up thing they were shoving into the back of an ambulance.
Ray Corson had been Chris's guidance counselor at the high school—until he'd been forced to leave last December. Chris still blamed himself for that. He blamed her, too.
She was barely aware of Jeff asking if she was all right or of Erin fussing about the glass and coffee on the floor. All Molly really heard was the anchorwoman on TV: "Ray Corson left behind a wife and two children...."
"God, no," Molly whispered again, shaking her head.
"... Corson telephoned Triple-A, reporting car trouble shortly after one o'clock Monday morning," the handsome blond-haired TV news correspondent said into his microphone. He was in his mid-thirties and wore a Windbreaker. He stood in front of a parked police car; its red strobe swirled in the early morning light.
On the TV in Chris's bedroom, another local station covered the same news story Molly had viewed down in the kitchen just two minutes before. She recognized the crime scene, a small parking lot by the Arboretum.
Molly stood in his doorway. With the curtains still closed, Chris's bedroom was dark. Swimming trophies, graphic novels, and waggle-headed Family Guy figurines occupied his bookcase. On his walls were movie posters for Old School and Inglourious Basterds. One wall panel was cork-board—on which he'd tacked college pennants, pictures of him with his swim team buddies, and about a dozen family photos. Of course, while his mother was in several of the snapshots, Molly wasn't in any. She often had to remind herself this was his bedroom, and he was free to decorate it any way he wanted. Still, would it kill him to put up one lousy little photo of her? It didn't even have to be one of her alone, either. She'd be happy if he tacked up a photo of her and Jeff, or her with Erin, or even one with her in the background, for pity's sake. Throw me a bone here, Chris, she wanted to tell him. Then again, she wasn't in his bedroom much—except briefly, to put his folded laundry on the end of his bed every few days. Molly told herself that he was a nice kid and certainly polite enough to her.
The TV glowed in one corner of the room, where Chris had a beanbag chair close enough to the set to ensure he'd go blind by age fifty. But he wasn't sitting in that chair right now. He stood barefoot by his unmade bed, his eyes riveted to the TV screen. He was tall and lean, with unruly brown hair and a sweet, handsome face. His rumpled, half-buttoned blue striped shirt wasn't tucked into his jeans. He didn't seem to notice Molly in his doorway.
On TV, they showed a station wagon—with the driver's door open. Two cops lingered nearby, discussing something. "According to Brad Reece, the Triple-A responder, he pulled into the parking lot here off Lake Washington Boulevard at the Arboretum at 1:45," the reporter was saying. "He found this empty station wagon. Reece tried to call Ray Corson's cell phone, but didn't get an answer. Then he noticed something down this trail...." The camera tracked along a crooked pathway, through some foliage until it reached a strip of yellow police tape stretched across the bushes. In bold black letters, the tape carried a printed warning: CRIME SCENE—DO NOT PASS BEYOND THIS POINT. The image froze on that police barrier—and the darkness that lay beyond it. "Reece discovered the victim a few feet past this point. Ray Corson had been shot. I'm told the police found his wallet in a field just north of this spot. The cash and credit cards were missing. Investigators are still searching for the cell phone Corson used to call Triple-A." The solemn-faced reporter came back on the screen again. "Reporting from Seattle's Arboretum, I'm John Flick, KOMO News."
At that moment, Chris seemed to realize someone else was there. He turned and gazed at her.
"Are you okay, Chris?" she asked, still hesitating in his doorway.
"I'm fine," he said, his voice raspy. He started making his bed.
"Listen, if you don't feel like going to school today, I can call and tell them you're sick," Molly offered.
"It's okay, I'm fine," he murmured, straightening the bed sheets. He looked at her again and blinked. "What happened to you?"
She glanced down at the coffee stains on the front of her gray sweatpants. "I dropped the coffeepot. Your dad's still cleaning up the mess. There might still be some glass on the floor. So—ah, put your shoes on before you come down to the kitchen, okay?"
He just nodded, then pulled the quilted spread over his bed. He stopped for a moment to wipe his eyes again.
"I made waffles," she said, suddenly feeling stupid for mentioning it.
"Thanks, Molly, but I'm not really hungry," he murmured.
She wanted to hug him, and assure him that what happened to Mr. Corson last night had nothing to do with him—and it had nothing to do with the messy business at school five months ago. But the front of her was soaked with cold coffee, and besides, Chris wasn't big on doling out hugs—at least, not with her. So Molly just tentatively stood in his doorway with her arms folded.
He finished making the bed, then sank down on the end of it, his back to her. "I'll be down in a minute," he said, his voice strained. "Could you—could you close the door?"
Molly nodded, even though he couldn't see her. Stepping back, she shut the door and listened for a moment. She thought he might be crying. But she only heard the TV, and the weatherman, predicting dark skies and rain for the day ahead.
In a stupor, Chris wandered downstairs to the kitchen.
Molly was still up in the master bedroom, changing her clothes. Erin sat at the breakfast table, finishing a bowl of cereal and staring at the TV. Chris's dad was cleaning up the broken glass and spilt coffee. He had his suit jacket off, sleeves rolled up, and tie tucked inside his shirt to keep it from getting soiled. One faint streak of brown liquid remained on the tiled floor. You missed a spot, Chris wanted to say, as his dad straightened up and set a soaked paper towel on the counter.
He wiped his hands and gave Chris a hug. "Molly said you were watching the news about Ray Corson," he whispered. Obviously, he didn't want Erin to hear. "How are you holding up? Are you doing okay?"
"I'm fine, thanks, Dad," he muttered, starting to back away.
But his father held on to him and looked him in the eye. "You know I wasn't a big fan of his, but still, I'm—I'm sorry this happened. Do you want to talk about it?"
Chris shook his head. "Not really."
I don't want to talk to anybody, he felt like saying. I just want to be left alone. He still couldn't believe his former guidance counselor and friend was dead. If it weren't for Mr. Corson, he never would have made it through last year. The only person he wanted to talk to right now was Mr. Corson, and he couldn't.
His dad hugged him again. He always smelled like the Old Spice cologne Chris gave him every Father's Day. "Thanks, Dad, I'm okay," he murmured. He grabbed his books and his jacket.
He heard the car horn honking—four times. That was Courtney's signal. His ride to school was here. Molly called to him from upstairs to take a couple of her Special K breakfast bars "to keep body and soul together" until lunch—whatever the hell that meant. She had some weird expressions—like that one, and beats having a sharp stick in the eye, and six of one, half a dozen of the other, and a bunch more. Maybe they were Midwestern expressions or something. He wasn't sure.
His dad had married Molly less than a year ago, and it had seemed way too rushed for Chris. He'd still been adjusting to his mother moving out and his parents divorcing, and then wham, his dad got remarried. Suddenly, this pretty artist was taking his mother's place. Nice as Molly was to him, Chris still couldn't get used to her constant presence in the house.
He yelled upstairs to her that he wasn't hungry; then he hurried out the front door.
"Did you hear about Corson?"
It was Courtney calling to him from the open window of her red Neon.
Chris was halfway up the driveway, but he could see the iPhone in her grasp. Courtney Hahn was always texting or Twittering. That damn iPhone was practically glued to her hand. It didn't matter to her that it was against the law in Washington state to operate a handheld phone while driving. Courtney considered herself the exception. Her and her iPhone—it was one of several things about her that drove him crazy for the two months they dated last year. Still, she was blond, pretty, and popular—so for a while, he'd convinced himself that he was damn lucky to be her boyfriend. Well, maybe not that lucky. Except for feeling her breasts on a few occasions, and three intense make-out sessions during which he'd come in his jeans, they'd never gotten very far in the sex department. They'd had a pretty amicable breakup, probably because they hadn't been all that crazy about each other in the first place. But Courtney was a good kisser—and a good sport. As part of her campaign that they remain friends, she still gave him a lift to school in the mornings.
"Did you hear the news about Corson?" she repeated, glancing up from her iPhone keypad for a moment. "Somebody shot him...."
Chris nodded glumly, and then he opened the passenger door and scooted into the front seat.
"If you ask me, it just proves Corson was a major perv," Courtney's best friend forever, Madison Garvey, remarked from the backseat. "The guy probably went to the Arboretum last night to have sex in the bushes or something. Ha! He went there to get blown, and got blown away instead."
Chris buckled his seat belt and sighed. "Gosh, Madison, think maybe you could wait until lunch—or at least third period—before you start making bad jokes about our guidance counselor getting murdered last night? I don't think his body's cold yet."
"Yeah, Maddie, shut up," Courtney said. With a tiny smirk, she glanced in the rearview mirror at her friend.
Excerpted from DISTURBED by KEVIN O'BRIEN Copyright © 2011 by Kevin O'Brien. Excerpted by permission of PINNACLE BOOKS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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