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"Caesar Valdez, please return to your seat." Elise Johnson struggled to look calm and keep her voice even. She pushed a hand through her damp hair and sighed. Why was the air conditioner on the fritz again? How could she teach in such stifling heat?
Caesar glared at her and slumped into his assigned seat, grumbling, "I don't know why we have to study history, anyway. It's lame. Only losers care about history."
Elise couldn't blame the students for being fractious. The temperature in the room had to be nearing the mideighties. Outside the South Texas summer had stretched well into the one hundreds and it was October, for heaven's sake!
A transplant from North Dakota, Elise suffered in anything above seventy degrees Fahrenheit. She sighed. If she could just make it another few minutes, the day would be done and they could all go home. "Can anyone tell Caesar why we study world history?"
Ashley Finch flicked her straight strawberry-blond hair over her shoulder and looked down her perfect nose at Elise. "Because teachers like to torture teenagers?"
The students laughed.
Elise nodded, already used to the young people posturing in front of their peers. A cheerleader, Ashley liked to be the center of attention and had no trouble speaking up in class; it got her in trouble often. She never knew when to shut up. After several conferences with Ashley's mother, Elise understood where the girl got her mouth and attitude.
"Thank you, Ashley." She stared around at the sea of bored faces, each watching the clock on the wall, waiting for the bell to ring and school to end for the day. "Anyone else know of another reason why we might want tostudy history?"
Alex Mendoza glanced from left to right and inched his hand upward.
As one, the entire class moaned.
Alex was the brainiac of the class. He'd already blown the class curve, earning him the disdain of his less fortunate and less studious classmates.
Elise liked him because he was voracious in his desire to learn and his ability to retain what he'd digested. "Yes, Alex?"
"We study history so that we don't repeat the mistakes of our past. If we don't learn from the past, we are destined to do it all over again." His words started out slow, tentative, and sped up as if he were afraid the class would pummel him with spit wads for being so verbose. "Who wants another Hitler or Hussein?"
Before the class could bombard him with a barrage of answers to his question, the bell rang.
Students grabbed their books and backpacks and scrambled for the door.
Elise straightened her desk and gathered the quiz papers from a previous class. She liked to be home when the boys got off the bus. As a teacher, she had the latitude to be with her young sons when they got out of school. As a single parent, she liked to maintain a certain amount of stability in their lives. They'd been through so much.
Alex Mendoza and Kendall Laughlin were the last to leave, as usual. The two were best friends and partners on the school newspaper. They went everywhere together—joined at the hip, as Elise's mother would have said before she passed away last year.
Kendall stopped in front of Elise's desk. "Ms. Johnson, remember if you need me to babysit, all you have to do is let me know. I'm available practically anytime, and you're just down the street, so I could ride my bike."
Elise chewed her bottom lip. She hadn't been out with adults since she'd come to Breuer, Texas, the small traditionally German town on the outskirts of San Antonio. "Thanks, Kendall, I'll keep you in mind."
For when she actually met some adults she could hang out with after teaching school all day.
"Alex, don't let Caesar's comments get you down. You two will go far because you aren't afraid or too lazy to learn."
Alex shrugged. "I wasn't worried. While I'm at Stanford earning my doctorate, Caesar will still be bagging groceries."
"Come on, Alex," Kendall said. "My mom's waiting to take us to the library so we can dig up more scoop on Jack the Ripper."
A chill slithered its way down Elise's spine. "Why are you doing a report on Jack the Ripper?"
"We had to pick someone famous in history, and who wants to do the same ol' same ol'?" Kendall grinned.
Alex rolled his eyes. "It was her idea. I wanted Albert Einstein."
Kendall's eyes glowed with enthusiasm. "There's something about an unsolved mystery that appeals to me." She jerked her head toward the door. "Are we going or not? My mom's probably waiting in the parking lot."
Alex smiled and scooted out the door after Kendall.
After the kids had cleared the room Elise hurried down the hallway, her footsteps clicking along the tiled floors. She had to stop at the office where she'd drop off parent permission forms for their field trip to Enchanted Rock at the end of next week.
Elise tried to shake the uneasy feeling creeping across her skin. All Alex and Kendall's talk of Jack the Ripper brought up memories best forgotten.
Students and teachers milled in and out of the office. Elise had to squeeze through to get to the front desk.
"Hi, Elise." Becky McNabb, the school secretary, looked up from her computer terminal at her desk. "How was class?"
"Challenging," she answered, her tone flat, her lips twisting into a wry grin.
"I don't know how you teachers do it." She glanced back at the computer. "I'd have to shoot myself."
"They have their moments." Both good and bad. Elise handed Becky the stack of crumpled papers. "Could you file these?"
"Sure." She stuck a paper clip on them and laid them on the stack in her in-box. "Hey, don't forget to check your cubby before you leave. You got mail today."
Behind the counter a plain white envelope leaned to the side of her box. She retrieved it and stuffed it in her purse for later.
The small town was just what she and her boys had needed. Not much traffic and plenty of room to grow. Most of all, it was a long way from North Dakota. A long way from the past she'd tried her damnedest to erase. She'd changed her name and her sons' to ensure no one could trace them or know their real identities. The only people who knew where they'd gone were her sister, Brenna, and Brenna's FBI husband, Nick Tarver—the only people she trusted with her children's lives.
For the past four months, she and her sons had lived in the small Texas town with no one aware of what had happened in North Dakota.
A long funeral procession wended its way down Main Street, bringing traffic to a complete standstill. Elise glanced at the clock on the dash. She had a good fifteen minutes before Luke and Brandon got off the bus and she was only five minutes from home once the procession made it past. After shifting her metallic gray sedan into Park, she reached into her purse for the envelope, slipped her fingernail beneath the flap and ripped it open. The sharp edge of the flap sliced into her skin and she jerked her hand back.
Damn. She hated paper cuts. She dabbed at the dot of blood oozing from her finger and opened the envelope. Inside she found a single white sheet of paper.
Careful not to bleed on the writing, she unfolded the paper and flattened it. The message was short and it didn't take Elise long to read the three simple lines.
For better or worse, until death do us part.
Let death begin.
Cold consumed her, penetrating straight to her bones.
No. This was a mistake. No one knew her here. No one.
She grabbed the envelope. On the outside written in crisp clean computer print was Elise Johnson. There was no postage, no return address.
Her hands shook so hard, the paper and envelope fluttered from her grip and fell to the seat beside her.
Brenna. I have to call Brenna. She hesitated for a few seconds. Should she? Married now, Brenna was eight months pregnant with her first child. Should Elise call her and upset her?
The words on the note stared up at her, pushing her past any kind of reason. She had to talk to her sister. Brenna would know what to do.
Elise fumbled in her purse for her cell phone and hit the speed-dial button that would connect her with her sister living in Minneapolis.
After four rings, Elise's teeth were chattering and she almost threw the phone out the window. "Where is she?"
"Al—Elise?" Brenna was still trying to get used to the different name, but her voice sounded so calm over the line.
"Brenna." Elise Johnson's fingers trembled as she held the phone to her ear with one hand and snatched up the letter in the other.
"What's wrong?" Her younger sister had a way of reading her voice, even from over a thousand miles away.
"Brenna. I'm scared."
"Are the boys okay?" Brenna's voice, clear and crisp, snapped over the line.
"The boys are f-fine." Elise sucked in a deep breath and fought back the sob rising in her throat. Fear clenched a hand around her gut and squeezed. "I got a letter today."
As the procession of cars crawled by one by one with their headlights on like so many zombies, Elise whispered, "I don't know."
"What did it say?"
For several seconds, Elise stared down at the boxy print, her hand shaking so hard, she couldn't read the words. But
then, she didn't have to. She could recite them word for word without seeing the paper.
"Elise!" At Brenna's shout, Elise pulled herself together.
She took a deep breath. "The letter said, 'Dear Alice, For better or for worse, until death do us part. Let death begin.'"
"What the hell does that mean?" A street cop turned detective, Brenna didn't tone down her words. "And who the hell knows you're Alice?"
"I don't know. But I'm so scared I can't think." A car honked behind her. Elise jumped and glanced around, realizing the funeral procession had passed and traffic had resumed, except where she held up a dozen cars. "I'm in traffic and I have to go. I'll call you when I get home." She wished her sister was in Texas where she could go straight to her.
"Do that. And, Elise, don't worry. We'll figure this out."
God, she hoped so. This all had to be a big mistake—a really big mistake. The letter was much like the ones Brenna had received in North Dakota when she'd been on the trail of a serial killer.
That serial killer had turned out to be none other than Elise's husband. He'd very nearly killed Brenna. Hysterical laughter bubbled up in her throat. What woman ever suspected her husband of being a serial killer? Especially a deacon in the church, a man most of the community looked up to and trusted.
They'd told her Stan had died in the fire he'd set in his attempt to kill Brenna. Elise still had nightmares about that time. She'd almost lost her only sister.
Elise had always wondered if Stan really died in that fire.
Memories flowed in like the floodwaters of the Red River that had swept away the burning house with Stan inside two years ago. No body had been recovered, but then he'd been burned and carried away, so what had they expected to find?
Her husband the serial killer was dead.
Elise shifted the car into gear and pulled forward, suddenly overwhelmed with the need to hug her children. She wished she had someone big and strong to hug her.
How could anyone know where she was? How could he have found out her secret? Was it really Stan?
Damn it. Stan Klaus had to be dead.
Elise couldn't live through all that again.
Then again… maybe that was the plan.
Paul Fletcher stepped out into the bright afternoon sun. The heat radiating off the pavement warmed his air-conditioner-chilled arms. The contrast between the conference room inside and the South Texas heat had to be at least thirty degrees. He might never acclimate if he didn't get out of the office more often.
He marveled at the number of trucks in the parking lot. Hardly anyone in the urban areas of the East Coast owned pickups. Paul had succumbed to the lure of the four-wheel-drive vehicle within a week of arriving and bought a pewter-gray 4x4 truck, glad he'd passed on shiny black like the SUV parked in the space next to his. It looked good, but in the Texas sunshine, black absorbed more heat, making it blistering hot in the long summers.
Before he stepped off the curb onto the sticky black asphalt, Melissa Bradley's bright red truck pulled up next to him. Her automatic window slid down. "Get in."
"Why? I was on my way to the house for a cold beer."
"Change of plans."
Paul climbed into the passenger seat, the dream of relaxing by the apartment-complex pool with a beer fading as Melissa pulled onto Interstate 10, headed toward El Paso. "Where are we going?"
"Breuer." Dressed in jeans and Dingo boots, Melissa had made the transition from the East Coast like she'd been born and raised in Texas. She'd even picked up a little of the local dialect.
"Remember Alice Klaus?" She glanced at him before returning her attention to the San Antonio afternoon traffic. Slowing, she allowed cars from the access ramp to ease onto the busy interstate, headed to the suburbs after a day at work.
"Alice from the Dakota Strangler case in North Dakota?" An image of a pretty lady with pale blond hair and two cute little boys swam into his head. "The wife of the serial killer Alice?"
"That's the one."
"What does she have to do with Breuer?"
"Her sister, Brenna, called a few minutes ago. Apparently, Alice Klaus, now Elise Johnson, settled in Breuer and hired on as a high school history teacher."
A smile lifted the corners of Paul's lips. He remembered her, all right. Pretty blonde, killer husband. "She changed her name." He nodded. "A good thing."
"Yeah. Only someone's found her."
Paul tensed and sucked in his breath. "Found her or killed her?" He'd barely known the woman more than a few days, but he remembered feeling regret. If the circumstances had been different, she was someone he wouldn't mind getting to know better.
Melissa shot a glance at Paul. "Found. She's alive."
Paul let the air out of his lungs and leaned back in his seat for the twenty-minute drive to the hill country outside San Antonio.
When they pulled onto Main Street in Breuer, Paul scanned the small town with a critical eye. White limestone buildings intermingled with old, German-style gingerbread houses.
People smiled and waved to each other from the sidewalks and children played in their front yards. Paul would bet most residents didn't even lock their doors at night.
A veritable nightmare if a killer ran loose in their midst.