Read an Excerpt
Bryan Kendall awoke with a crushing headache that turned into blinding dizziness when he rolled over. It was only then, as his hand swung out and hit something cold and hard, that he realized he wasn't in his bed.
He was on the bathroom floor.
"Hell," he muttered. "Must've been some party."
He tried to think back but remembered nothing, and really didn't care all that much at the moment. He had a case of cottonmouth that made anything short of the house being on fire uninteresting in comparison. He needed liquid. Any liquid. Now.
He opened his eyes, then squeezed them shut against the morning light slanting in through the bathroom windowpane. The sun seemed unreasonably bright this morning. Gripping the sink with one hand, he pulled himself up onto his feet, then leaned over it and cranked on the taps. He bent closer, cupped his hands and drank. The lukewarm water wet his mouth but was nowhere near enough to quench his thirst. His head was spinning and pounding, his stomach churning, and it occurred to him that this didn't feel like an ordinary hangover.
He'd never been drunk enough to pass out on his own bathroom floor.
Lifting his throbbing head, he peered into the mirror and then closed his eyes again. This was too much effort. He needed to drink a vat of water, take a handful of aspirin, crawl into bed and sleep for another eight hours or so. Then he could try again.
He turned in the direction of the door and shuffled through it, feet dragging, because the percussion of actual steps was too painful. It was only a few feet to the bedroom and a few more to the bed, and then he was sinking gratefully onto the queen-size pillow-top mattress, pulling the covers over himself as he rolled onto his side. His arm hit Bette before he remembered she was there.
"Sorry, babe," he muttered, closing his eyes and letting his head sink into the pillow.
She didn't answer. Good. He hadn't woken her. Feeling cold, he tightened his arm around her waist and snuggled up a little closer. But she didn't move. Didn't roll up onto her side and press her back to him the way she normally would. Didn't stroke his forearm where it draped over her.
And she felt cool.
Colder than he did.
Frowning, he lifted his head and looked at her in the early-morning sunlight that was just beginning to stream in through the tiny gap where the curtains didn't quite meet. She was lying on her back, staring at the ceiling, eyes open wide. Something hit him as he stared at her, and it felt as if he'd stuck his finger into a live socket. It slammed into the middle of his chest, just like a shock, and woke him entirely. Bryan blinked to clear the haze from his vision and sat up straighter. A chill ran up his spine, as if some part of him knew what he was seeing before his mind caught up.
"Bette?" He reached out to touch her cheek and found it unnaturally cold. Not cold as if she'd been outside in a snowstorm, but cold like raw meat. There was a huge difference. And that was when his brain caught up to what his instincts had already known.
Bettina Wright was dead.
Bryan scrambled backward out of the bed, suddenly more wide-awake than he'd ever been in his life. He stood there for a moment, staring at her, gasping for breath. "Bette?" he said. "What the hell? What the hell?" Finally the cop in him kicked in. He ran around the foot of the bed, to her side and bent to feel for a pulse, but stopped himself when, again, he felt how cold she was. His brain was ten steps ahead of him now, thinking, telling him to drag her off the bed, onto the floor, start CPR, call the EMTs. But he didn't do any of those things, because reality had outshouted training. She must have been dead for several hours. There was nothing he, or anyone else, could do for her now. She'd been lying here, getting stiff and cold, while he'd been passed out in the bathroom. Useless.
He struggled to remember anything that might have happened last night that would have given him a clue something like this could happen. He didn't think she'd seemed sick or particularly tired. She hadn't complained about anything. He knew she didn't do drugs, nor would he have had any at the party. Hell, most of the guests had been cops.
Had her heart given out without any warning at all? Had this been some kind of allergic reaction or alcohol poisoning or—
"Oh, no." He spoke aloud, as his gaze settled on her neck. On the ligature marks there. They were obvious, even in this feeble light. "No no no…" Backing up two steps, he jerked the curtain wider and let the sun pour in on her body. The angry, bruised ring around her neck was unmistakable, as were the still-protruding tongue and dried spittle on her chin. Bettina Wright had been strangled to death in his bed while he slept, drunk, in next room. She'd been murdered while he'd been ten feet away, too plastered to help her.
He was a cop, for God's sake, and he'd—
Hell. Oh, hell.
He looked around the room again, spotted his cell phone and picked it up, then he walked back through the house without touching anything. He was wearing jeans, and nothing else, and he didn't grab anything on the way. His home was a crime scene now. Jesus, he couldn't believe it. Bette. Dead.
He opened the front door, using a sock he found on the floor and only two fingers to turn the knob, trying not to smear any prints. Then he left the door open and sat on the front steps, where he flipped open the phone. There were two men who were more important to Bryan than anyone else in his life: his father and his mentor, retired cop Nick Di Marco, and he wanted to phone them both at the same time, but since he had to make a choice… Of the two, Di Marco was physically closer and could get to him faster. Decision made.
He called Nick, then held his head in his free hand while waiting for him to pick up.
"Di Marco, and this better be good, being 6:00 a.m. on a Saturday, pal."
"Kendall? You sound like hell." The older man paused. "Are you okay?"
"No. I… It's Bette—"
"The girl I'm…sort of seeing. She's…she's dead, Nick. She's fuckin' dead." Bryan's voice broke, but he kept forcing out words. "Strangled, I think. In my bed. Damn, Nick, she's—"
"Whoa, hold up, hold up. Where are you right now?"
"Sitting on the front step. She's inside. She's dead. How could I not have heard something? How could I—"
"You sure? You do CPR? You check for a pulse?"
"She's cold, Nick. She's ice fucking cold."
Nick swore under his breath. Then, "Have you called anyone else?"
"Okay, okay, we do this by the book. It's the only way to go here. You're a cop—you do this right. You gotta be beyond suspicion, you got that?"
"Sus-suspicion? Shit, Nick, why would I—"
"You're there, aren't you? You woke up with her. You're the last one to see her alive, the one to find the body. You know how this works, kid. You're a cop."
Everything in Bryan tightened until he thought he was going to break. "Yeah. I mean…yeah."
"Hang up and call your father. I'm gonna call the chief, and I'll get there by the time he does. You just wait for us. Don't call anyone else—don't, for the love of God, call her family. Just your dad. Tell him to get here A-SAP. I'm on my way. Don't go back inside. Don't touch anything. Don't take a shower or change clothes. Just sit there, you understand?"
"Yeah. Yeah. I just—"
"I know, kid. You hang in. I'm on this. I'm gonna be there in a matter of minutes, okay?"
"Just breathe. It's gonna be all right."
"Where's your sidearm, Kendall?"
Bryan blinked as he thought for a second and remembered where he'd put the gun the last time he'd had it out. It had been a while. He'd been on paid leave since a recent hostage standoff, waiting for the department shrink to give him the all clear. "In the lockbox, hall closet."
"You sure no one else is in the house?"
Bryan's head came up slowly, and he looked behind him through the still-open door. "I didn't really check."
"Don't. Get yourself a little distance away, but maintain line of sight, just in case."
"Be careful, kid. I'll see you soon."
Bryan closed his eyes, disconnected and felt as if his world had turned upside down. He got to his feet and looked back inside the house, feeling a little more certain there was no one lurking inside. Then again, a few minutes ago, if asked, he would have been fairly certain he wasn't going to find a dead woman in his bed.
So he walked several steps down the driveway, but only got as far as his brand-new, candy-apple-red Mustang Shelby GT, before he had to stop and throw up. And he didn't think it had anything to do with the alcohol he'd imbibed the night before. Dammit, how could Bette be dead? Much less strangled? Maybe he was wrong. Maybe he'd imagined the marks on her throat. Maybe the chief had been right to put him on leave, and he did have some kind of PTSD or something going on, and he'd just imagined all of this. Maybe if he walked back into the house right now, he would find Bette sitting up in bed and griping about being late for whatever early-morning class she had.
He could almost believe it. He nearly turned and walked back inside. But something stopped him. The weight of the phone on his hand, he guessed. He needed to call his dad.
He wanted to call Dawn instead.
He wanted to hear her voice right now even more than he wanted to quell the waves of nausea battering his stomach. But that wasn't going to happen. He and Dawn hadn't spoken in five years. There was too much space between them now. Too much hurt. Too little effort to remedy or even address it. He couldn't call Dawn, even though hearing her voice on the phone would make things better in a way nothing else could.
No. Not even Dawn could fix this.
He opened the car door, sat down inside and stared for a long moment at the dark, hulking shape in the distance, where the waterfall that gave this town its name shot off the end of a rocky ledge and tumbled down. The craggy flat-topped beast of a cliff was positioned in such a way that the waterfall itself was nearly always in shadow, making it dark and ominous looking, rather than cheerful or sparkly, the way most waterfalls seemed. Shadow Falls, the landmark, was not beautiful. It was downright spooky. But Shadow Falls, the town, had been the place with an opening on the police force after he'd finished college. And it was only an hour from what he considered home. And so it was perfect.
Or he'd thought it was.
But the town seemed far from perfect right now. Because it concealed something in its shadowy depths.
Something evil. A cold-blooded killer was lurking here. And he'd never even known.
Sighing, Bryan called his father, fifty miles away in his hometown of Blackberry, Vermont.
Nick Di Marco was a big man. And it wasn't entirely a physical thing. He was tall enough at five foot eleven, and his shoulders were wide and solid, even though he was lugging around some extra belly fat these days. His once raven-black hair was streaked with silver, his intense brown eyes lined with crow's-feet that made his smiles more infectious, and his frowns downright scary. Beneath all of that, he was the best cop Bryan had ever had the honor to know. Retired or not.
And he wasn't the only one who felt that way. Di Marco was a hero cop, and everyone in Shadow Falls knew it.
So Bryan felt a little lighter when he saw Nick get out of his black, big-as-a-boat, old Crown Victoria and come striding toward him. Bryan got out of his own car, whose payments were as much as his rent, and tried to hide the fact that his knees were shaking. It was warm outside, the summer sun already beating down on them.