Rebel Ridge, Kentucky
Ryal Walker couldn't sleep. He'd fought the bed until the covers were in a mess before he finally gave up, thinking maybe a little fresh air would help clear his mind. It was nearly 2:00 a.m. when he pulled on a pair of sweatpants, then walked barefoot through the darkened rooms of his home and out onto the front porch. Upon his arrival, an owl took flight from a nearby pine.
"Sorry about that," he said softly, aware that he'd trespassed by disturbing the status quo around the house.
A slight breeze quickly cooled the sweat from his body as he sat down on the porch steps and rested his elbows on his knees. He couldn't figure out what was bugging him. He hated to admit it, but he knew something bad was going to happen. He'd had the same feeling ten years ago when he learned Beth's parents had moved in the night, taking her away from him. He hadn't understood it then any more than he understood it now. Up on the mountain, it wasn't uncommon for distant cousins to marry. Her mother and his mother had been fourth cousins and not even close friends at that. And the difference in his and Beth's ages wasn't uncommon, either. He'd been twenty-five to her seventeen.
It was weeks later before he learned the move had nothing to do with their love for each other. Instead, he and Beth had been the victims of a much larger problem. Once he'd found out what had happened, he'd tried to contact her, but all his letters had been returned unopened.
None of the other Venables would talk to him or seemed willing to interfere with her family's decision to cut themselves off from Rebel Ridge. Today, people would call their unrequited love affair collateral damage, but back then it had been a tragedy, at least for him.
He put the thought of her back in his memory, where she belonged, as he gazed into the trees surrounding his home. He wasn't one to dwell on lost causes, but he couldn't help but wonder what their lives would have been like if her family had stayed.
Just then something rustled in the bushes beside the house. He turned to look just as a possum wandered out from beneath a lilac bush and ambled across the yard. Solitude was a good thing in daylight, but sometimes at night it could feel threatening. Tonight was one of those nights.
He kept scanning the tree line, looking for something that seemed out of place, but saw nothing at which he should feel alarmed. Still, it wasn't the first time he'd had a feeling like this, and he'd learned long ago not to ignore his instincts, so he waited, hoping for an answer.
Sound carried in the mountains, and he could hear someone running his dogs on the next ridge over. The animals' barks and yips were high-pitched and frantic, but when they suddenly shifted to baying howls, he knew they'd just treed whatever they'd been chasing.
At that moment the skin crawled on the back of his neck. That was exactly how he felttreedwhich made no sense. He wasn't trappedin fact, far from it. There were few places on this earth more free than the vastness of the Appalachian Mountains. He liked his life, even though it was, despite his large extended family, sometimes a lonely one.
He liked building things, and over the years he had created a decent business building handcrafted, one-of-a-kind pieces of furniture. And, despite the persistence of various young women in the area, he'd never found one to replace the love he'd had for Beth.
As he listened to the hunting dogs' frenzy, he heard another soundmore poignant, more frantic. It was the death screams of the animal they had treed.
Ryal had heard that sound plenty of times over the thirty-five years of his life, but for some reason, hearing the creature's death throes in the midst of his uneasiness seemed like another omen of something bad.
He stood up, eyes carefully sweeping the darkened tree line around his home, then went back into the house, locking the door behind him.
Los Angeles, California
Some believe that the fate of every living thing hinges upon little more than chance.
For twenty-seven-year-old Beth Venable, it began with a gas leak in her Los Angeles apartment building, followed by a phone call to her friend Sarah Steinman, asking if she might spend the night at her place until the all clear was given for the residents to go back. Pleased to get to spend a night with her friend, Sarah happily agreed, and Beth's dilemma was over.
That night, as Beth bedded down on Sarah's living room sofa, the unfamiliar surroundings and the huge bank of curtainless windows made it difficult for her to fall asleep. After tossing and turning for what seemed like hours, she got up to get a drink. Outside, the moon was full, the sky cloudless.
The night view of the city pulled her toward the windows with their bird's-eye view of the steady stream of traffic on the streets below. She watched the cars weaving in and out of line without really focusing. She was more worried about her apartment, hoping they got the leak repaired before the entire building blew up. Everything she owned was in it.
She glanced up at the sky, and not without a little bit of regret. This was definitely not the same view of the night sky that she remembered from where she'd lived as a child, although it had been ten years since she'd been back to Kentucky. There, heaven looked as if it were within reachthe unending array of stars so clear they looked like diamonds on black velvet. Here, the only stars anyone was interested in seeing walked on two legs, and heaven wasn't on their radar as often as it should have been.
She rarely let herself think about those years in Kentucky, because the memories brought back nothing but pain. She'd loved Ryal Walker with a passion far beyond her seventeen years, and when they were abruptly separated, she'd expected him to follow. For weeks she'd watched the streets and haunted the mailbox, certain he would find a way to contact her, but the weeks had turned to months and the months to a year. By that time she had learned how to hide her emotions and to live with a broken heart. Losing Ryal had taught her one thing: to never count on anyone but herself.
A phalanx of cop cars followed by a fire truck went flying past on the street below. She said a quiet prayer of safekeeping for whomever was in danger, then turned away from the window. As she did, she noticed a telescope in the corner. It was mounted on a tripod and aimed at the sky. She knew Sarah was into astrology but had not known that included stargazing, as well.
Curious, she pulled the telescope out of the corner, dragged it to the window and aimed it skyward. It took a couple of moments to adjust the focus to her eyesight, but then she was pleasantly surprised to discover how clearly she could see distant objects. After a couple of minutes of scanning the heavens, she turned the telescope to the view of the city, then, a couple of minutes later, to the apartment building directly across the street.
Most of the windows were darkened, like hersexcept for one apartment. Not only were all the lights still on, but the curtains had also not been drawn. She could see a couple standing at the windows, and from their expressions, they were having an argument.
Before she had time to feel guilty for spying, they went from shouting to physical violence. The man suddenly shoved the woman against the back of a sofa. She reacted with a hard, vicious slap to his jaw. Beth saw rage sweep across his face, and then all of a sudden there was a knife in his hand. He slit the woman's throat so quickly that, had it not been for the arterial spray that abruptly splashed across the window, Beth would have thought she'd imagined it.
She let out a scream, and then started jumping up and down.
"Oh, my God, oh, my God! Sarah! Sarah! Help!"
Sarah burst into the room carrying a baseball bat, a frantic expression on her face. When she realized Beth was in the room alone, she shrieked, "What the hell's wrong?"
Beth was shaking so hard she felt ill. She kept pointing at the window and shouted, "He killed her. They were fighting, and then he just slashed her throat."
"There, in that apartment across the streetthe one with all the lights still on."
Beth looked back into the telescope just as the man turned toward the windows. She gasped, then froze, suddenly afraid he could see her.
"I need lights," Sarah muttered, and reached for the switch.
"Don't!" Beth screamed. "No lights. Oh, my God, no lights!"
"Good grief, Beth. Are you sure you weren't dreaming?"
"I wish," Beth said. "Come here. See for yourself."
Even though the lights were still off, the man's studied focus gave her an eerie feeling. She feared he could see her silhouette at the window but resisted the urge to hide as she mentally mapped the contours of his features, the sharp beak of a nose set in a middle-aged face, olive complexion, low forehead and no hair. His eyes were dark and deep-set, with equally dark bushy eyebrows.
She watched as he took a handkerchief from his pocket and methodically wiped the blood spray from his face. As he turned away, his movement reminded her of the moment's urgencythat he would be gone before they alerted the authorities.
"Let me see," Sarah said.
Beth stepped back as Sarah peered through the scope.
"I don't see anyone," Sarah said.
Beth shoved her aside. "Well, I did! Call the police. Hurry. Hurry! The apartment is on the same floor as this one, the corner unit."
Beth's anxiety seemed to be catching. Sarah made the call, her voice shaking as she rattled off the address of the apartment building where the murder had occurred, then gave them her name and address. As soon as she hung up, she ran back to where Beth was standing.
"Is he still there?"
"Yes," Beth said.
"Let me see," Sarah begged, but all she saw was the back of the man as he walked out the door. "He's gone!"
Beth groaned. "Maybe he'll come out the front door. You watch to see if a car comes out of the alley. I'll watch the front of the building."
Within a couple of minutes they heard sirens, just as a black sports car came shooting out of the alley beside the building and turned north, driving away from the approaching sirens.
Sarah groaned. "If that's him, he's getting away."
"Get back on the phone and tell the police about the car," Beth said, as she began pulling on her clothes.
"What are you doing?" Sarah asked.
"I'm getting dressed. You gave the police your name and address, didn't you?"
Beth reached for her slacks. "Then they'll be coming to talk to us."
"Oh, Beth, you can't
Beth yanked her shirt down over her head. "Sarah! He killed her. I can't ignore what I saw."
"I know, I know
it's just scary, that's all," Sarah said.