Sunflower: A Novelby Martha Powers
In this riveting debut, a female detective and single mother in a small Wisconsin town pursues a serial killer of little girls--only to discover that he intends "her" to be his last victim.
- Simon & Schuster
- Publication date:
- Product dimensions:
- 6.63(w) x 9.59(h) x 1.03(d)
Read an Excerpt
"Stop that," Sheila snapped as the cat continued to wail.
Elmo's reaction unnerved her. She scanned the empty street. The box didn't look threatening, but the fact that it had been delivered in such a surreptitious fashion made her extremely cautious.
She nudged the carton with her foot. Nothing inside moved. With Elmo's reaction, she half expected to hear the scurrying of some animal. Gingerly, she picked it up. The box wasn't heavy. No more than a pound or two. Bringing it inside, she set it on the throw rug in the front hall, closed the door, and locked it.
Elmo had retreated to the kitchen archway. His body was close to the floor, his shoulder blades sticking out as his head jutted forward, ears flat against his head. His cry was replaced by a higher pitched keening sound.
"For God's sake, shut up."
At her sharp command, the cat fell silent.
She stared down at the shipping box, debating whether to call Chief Harker before she opened it. She could almost see the expressionless moonface staring back at her with a single raised eyebrow. In her infrequent dealings with the chief, she had tried to convince him she was a cop first, not a woman. Calling him would be a definite show of weakness.
"Well, Elmo. It's up to us guys."
She blew out her breath in three quick puffs of air and then, before she could lose her nerve, leaned over and grasped the corner of one of the flaps with her first finger and thumb. As the edge rose, it pulled the other sides away from the center. Using the tips of her index fingers, she pushed back the flaps, exposing the contents.
In the bottom of the box was a doll.
It was about a foot tall, one of a series of fairy-tale dolls Sheila had seen in the toy stores. The doll was wearing a yellow dress. The skirt and sleeves were trimmed with a white lace ruffle. A matching bonnet covered the head of curly yellow hair. The front of the doll's dress was splattered with blood.
Fastened to the doll's wrist was a tag in the shape of a book. The title was Goldilocks and the Three Bears.
A shudder ran through Sheila's body. Who could have sent her something so nasty?
Carefully, she leaned over and used her fingertips to close the flaps on the box. The cat edged forward, nose twitching as he sniffed the air.
"Sorry, Elmo, I need to take this package into the lab in the morning. Cat hair will only confuse them."
She picked him up and closed him up in Meg's room, then returned to the kitchen. Checking the emergency list on the side of the refrigerator, she dialed Chief Harker's beeper. While she waited for his return call, she stood in the archway staring at the box in the front hall. When the phone rang, she whirled around to pick up the receiver.
Harker's greeting was typical. After nine months, he still treated her with polite formality, never using her first name, only her rank.
"Sorry for disturbing you so late, Chief."
Briefly she told him about the arrival of the package and described the contents. He listened without interruption until she completed her report.
"Was your daughter there when the package arrived?" he asked.
"No. I was here by myself Meg's staying overnight with a friend."
"Good. Kids shouldn't have to see stuff like this." She heard anger in his voice and could picture his blond eyebrows lowered over narrowed brown eyes. "Probably spooked you though. You OK?"
"Yes. I'm fine. It was a bit of a jolt."
"It was meant to shock you. Be thankful that it wasn't anything worse." He didn't give her time to dwell on his words. "Take the box to the crime lab in Madison."
"You have something better to do?"
"No. I -- I just didn't think the lab was open this late," she stammered, her hand tightening on the receiver.
"It's not, but I'll put a call in to the head of the lab and ask if someone can come in for a rush job," he said. "Tell them to fax a preliminary report first thing tomorrow. I've got a meeting with Mayor Perkins in the morning, and I want to talk to you after that. Let's say eleven o'clock. In the meantime, get the box to the lab."
Without another word, he hung up. On the verge of asking a question, Sheila's mouth remained open as she listened to the dial tone. She pulled the receiver away from her ear and glared at it before she replaced it.
Dealing with Harker was never easy. He always made her feel slightly off balance.
She wondered if he was at home. Harker was divorced and lived in a white clapboard house several blocks from the center of town. When she'd first moved to River Oaks, she'd driven past the place. Expecting brick, unyielding and cold, she'd been surprised to find the house inviting with its green shutters, window boxes, and a porch across the front.
Would she ever be comfortable working for Henry Harker? He was forty-three, eleven years her senior; average height, maybe five feet ten; yet, he radiated a sense of power that was intimidating. His body was hard, well-muscled from daily workouts. She couldn't imagine him sprawled in an easy chair in front of the television. He probably sat in a wooden straight chair.
On her first day at work she'd learned he hadn't wanted to hire her.
His attitude was similar to that of a lot of the instructors at the police academy and most unit heads. The "It's OK for women to be cops but not in my department" type of response.
Ever since her arrival in River Oaks she'd been on probation, and she wondered if that was why Harker wanted to see her. Maybe he had a reply to the report she'd given him. If her theory panned out, she'd been planning to request further involvement in the murders. She bit her lip, wondering if the arrival of the mystery package would affect his decision.
Police Chief Hank Harker leaned his shoulder against the window casing in Mayor Perkins's office, staring down at Hodges Park. One side of the park faced City Hall, an imposing stone building, a monument to cheap labor and Old World craftsmen. Dotted along the other three sides were small clothing stores, an old-fashioned pharmacy, a movie theater, a bookstore, and other local businesses. With its small playground, walking track, flower gardens, and plenty of park benches, it still looked much the way it had when he was a kid, but much had changed.
River Oaks had been a sleepy Wisconsin farm town when he was growing up. It had been about a hard hour's drive to Madison until five years earlier, when the new freeway made for a quick commute to the capital. In five years the population of the town had shot from three thousand to ten thousand.
The character of the town had changed with the boost in population. The merchants were the only original residents who appreciated the expansion. There were shopping malls and fast-food places and stores that sold cutesy crap. The old movie theater had been gutted and rebuilt into two sterile little boxes so that two movies could be shown at the same time. Some called it progress; he called it a shame.
Hank looked down at his watch. The mayor was ten minutes late. One more reason to dislike the man, Hank thought.
Dick Perkins had decided to run for mayor after the second child was kidnapped and murdered. He'd exploited the parents' fear by promising to set up a citizens' patrol after his election.
He'd been elected, and Parent Watch was formed.
The organization reminded Hank of cops and robbers, grown-up style. The patrols rode around in four-wheel-drive vehicles and talked into their radios. He wondered if they had a secret handshake and maybe even a song. That sort of stuff would appeal to Dick Perkins.
If the patrols had been able to keep the killer from taking another child, Hank would have been grateful for the help. But none of those sporty cars with their fancy technical equipment had done a damn bit of good for either Meredith Whitford or Lindy Pottinger.
"Sorry I'm late," Dick Perkins said as he strode into the room and shook Hank's hand. "Grab a chair."
Perkins set his briefcase on the corner of the teak desk, then sat down in the high-backed red leather chair, his fingers rubbing the soft upholstery on the arm. The way the mayor was stroking it, Hank thought, he either had a leather fetish or suffered from a nervous twitch.
"How do you like what my decorator did in here? Mayor Grange's style was a lot different than mine."
"I never spent a lot of time up here with Patrick. We usually met across the park at the Duck Inn," Hank said. "I'd say the changes are pretty impressive."
"Your office could use some updating." Perkins swiveled around to indicate the abstract explosion of red and black paint behind his desk. "You know, Hank, a little artwork really sets the tone."
"I've got just the thing at home. It's a woodcut that says 'Fish, Fight, or Fuck Off.'"
For a moment Hank thought he might have gone too far. Perkins's face went blank, then suddenly his mouth stretched in a grin and he chuckled.
"You're quite the kidder, Harker."
Hank sighed. He really didn't want to antagonize Perkins. He might feel contempt for the man, but that didn't mean he couldn't work with him. After fifteen years, he was enough of a political animal to know it wouldn't do to piss off the mayor.
"I wanted to talk to you, Dick, because we've got a problem brewing with Parent Watch. In my book, citizen patrols rank right up there with vigilante justice. For the most part, I've had no cause to complain. God knows, help would be appreciated -- my officers are doing double duty. But now the group's getting into some deep shit."
A pained look crossed Perkins's face. "I don't know as I'd say that, Hank. The purpose of Parent Watch is to add to the protection of the children of River Oaks. I've cautioned the members that they are merely an adjunct to the police force."
Spoken like a true politician, Hank thought. Rumor had it that Perkins had his sights set on a pond bigger than a small Wisconsin town. Some said he was angling to be the next state senator. After that, governor, and maybe eventually Washington.
It was possible, Hank thought. He had the look. A Harvard lawyer in his late thirties, he was at the top of his form with his fashionably styled hair starting to gray at the temples, handsome features, and tanned face. He was a good speaker, jumping on all the trendy buzzwords to elicit the right reaction. Too bad the guy was such a mealy-mouthed jerk.
Hank cleared his throat.
"Word is that some of your patrols are talking about doing a little more than driving around the streets."
"Technically, Hank, they're not my patrols. Ruth O'Brien is the head of Parent Watch."
"That's just a load of bull crap, Dick," Hank said. "Everyone knows Parent Watch is your baby. It's mostly folks from the Estates. Your neighbors. They'll listen to what you tell them to do."
Perkins shifted in his chair, recrossed his legs, and smoothed the chino material over his knees. "Everyone's got the best interest of the children at heart, and some think it wouldn't be such a terrible idea to carry weapons."
"Parent Watch exists because I permit it, and I can disband it tomorrow if I have good reason." Hank spoke slowly so that later there would be no question over what he had said. "If any patrol member is found with a gun, I will personally arrest him and charge him with disorderly conduct. No excuses. No exceptions. Do I make my position clear?"
"Perfectly clear," Dick said. Other than a slight tightening of his mouth, the mayor showed little outward reaction to Hank's words.
"We've received complaints that the patrols are more frequent in the Estates than they are in the old section of town."
Dick shrugged, spreading his hands wide. "It's only logical. The four children who were killed were all from the Estates. It seems like the children there are the most at risk."
"When you're dealing with a killer like this, every child is at risk."
"You don't have to tell me that, Hank. I've got two kids of my own." He motioned to the picture of his wife and children, prominently displayed on the corner of his desk.
Hank rubbed his hand across the top and down the back of his head, massaging the tight muscles of his neck. "If I had young kids, I'd feel the same way. But guns aren't the answer."
Perkins stood up. He moved around the room, then returned to lean on the back of his chair, his fingers stroking across the leather back, his expression contemplative.
"I took a lot of psychology courses at Harvard," he said, "and I've been doing some reading on serial killers."
Hank groaned. Just what he needed. Psychobabble from an arrogant prick with a penchant for leather.
"I'm sure you know most of this, Hank," Dick generously conceded. "But once a serial killer has established a pattern, his actions take on a ritual quality with import given to each action, at least in his own mind. Then each killing becomes a ceremonial event, and it's almost impossible for him to make any changes."
Hank was reminded of one of the many reasons he disliked Dick Perkins. The man spoke as if he were getting paid by the syllable, wordiness overriding brevity in most exchanges.
"Bullshit," Hank said. "You can never count on anything when you're dealing with a murderer. Don't get lulled into feeling secure just because you see a pattern. Today it's blond girls, but tomorrow it could be redheaded boys."
"And you've got nothing?"
Hank could feel his eyes narrow at the condemnation in the man's voice. Civilians always wanted quick action. An arrest. Cops knew it was never that simple.
"I told you right after the election that this bastard wasn't going to be easy to catch. In a normal murder investigation we tie the murderer to the victim. In this case only the victims connect."
"Were they friends?"
"Not as far as we can determine. The girls all came from the Estates, but you know yourself the development is the size of a small town."
"What about the physical evidence? Once you have a suspect, you'll have enough to make a case, won't you?"
"When we get him, we'll have enough to bury him."
"It's rather ironic," Dick said. "Most of the people in the Estates moved out of Madison to get their kids away from the dangers of city life. They moved here because it was safer. Sometimes I wonder if they brought this evil with them."
"Damn politicians," Hank muttered as he made his way down the marble steps of City Hall.
The more time he spent with the mayor, the less he liked the man. Maybe it was Perkins's hair. Hank had never trusted men who wore mousse.
I'm probably jealous, Hank thought. He'd noticed his own hair was thinning, and he wondered how long he'd be able to wear the brush cut he'd sported since he'd been in the Marines.
The one good thing about the mayor was that he kept a well-stocked humidor. He pulled a cigar out of his pocket, ran it under his nose, and snipped the end off. Reaching into his pants pocket for one of the wooden matches he carried, he flicked the end with his thumbnail, cupping his hand to light the cigar. He puffed greedily until it was going nicely.
Damn, he loved a good cigar.
He was early for his meeting with Sheila Brady. Not wanting to waste the Indian summer day, he walked across Hodges Park and sat down on one of the benches.
Despite the fact that it was Saturday, the park was empty. It had rained earlier and the grass looked thick, the color deep and mossy. The white wrought-iron benches stood out against all that green. With City Hall on one side and stores fronting the other three sides, the park had always been a natural gathering place. Mothers used to sit and gossip while their kids played on the swings. The benches were vacant now, and the swings hung limp, mute reminders of the fear that gripped the town.
He wasn't surprised that the Parent Watch group had started talking about guns. Fear was a prod to violence. Ever since Lindy Pottinger's body was found, there'd been an increase in traffic accidents, domestic disturbances, and property damage. And not a week went by that there weren't at least two calls from hysterical parents who were convinced their children had been kidnapped.
When Hank finished his cigar, he crossed the street to the police station.
Upstairs in his office, he dropped down into the swivel chair, contrasting the worn patches on the arms to the flawless leather on the mayor's chairs. He read the lab reports on his desk and glanced out the glass wall of windows at the bullpen.
Since becoming chief, he'd impressed on his officers the need to keep order within the station house. No matter what crisis they had to deal with, he expected them to perform in a well-disciplined manner. He put rookies through a rigorous training period so that in an emergency they'd fall back on established routines.
Hank's eyes moved to Sheila Brady. She was at her desk in an alcove next to the coffee machine. Her hands busy on the keyboard of her computer, she was oblivious to his scrutiny.
Sheila had been one of three candidates for the vacant detective job. He'd rejected her application; the town council reversed his decision.
It was only later that he discovered Dick Perkins had pressured the council to hire her. Hank suspected that the mayor had a personal interest in Sheila Brady despite his much-publicized campaign platform of family values.
Hank had to admit that it would be easy to be interested in Lieutenant Brady. At thirty-two, she was about five foot six, slender with nicely proportioned breasts and hips. At first glimpse she looked fragile, but Hank knew she was well schooled in the art of self-defense. The muscles in her arms and legs were clearly delineated yet still retained a soft, feminine appearance.
It wasn't just her body that was a distraction. She had enormous blue eyes fringed by thick lashes, a long straight nose, and full lips. Her hair was blond, thick, and silky. She usually wore it in some kind of flat braided affair. He'd seen rookies get tongue-tied when they spoke to her.
For fifteen years he'd encouraged a tightly knit police department. He supposed he was a male chauvinist because he'd never been convinced that women could be equal to men on the police force. Informal social networks were essential to a successful unit. And for the most part the locker room was where many of the decisions were made. Segregated facilities kept women out of the loop.
The clock on the wall gave a metallic click as the second hand jerked straight up, bringing Hank out of his reverie. As if she had heard the sound too, Sheila looked up. He beckoned to her and she rose without haste, walking across the room to his office.
He waved her to a seat across the desk. She'd been shaken when she called him the night before. Today she was back in control of her emotions.
"I've got the preliminary report back on your mystery package," he said.
"Only yours. Nowadays any idiot who watches television knows how to avoid leaving fingerprints." He picked up the lab report and scanned it again. "You were right. The blood was paint. They'll try to match the profile against company samples."
She nodded. "I talked to the manager at Wal-Mart and then stopped at Taylor's Toys. Maike Taylor said it's a series of six dolls. Goldilocks, Cinderella, Rapunzel, Sleeping Beauty, Little Red Riding Hood, and Snow White. Cinderella is the big seller. Neither place had sold any of the Goldilocks dolls in the last six months."
"What's your gut feeling here?" He placed the report on the corner of his desk. "Do you think the package was from the murderer?"
Hank watched as Sheila considered the question. He liked the fact that she didn't leap to judgment but sorted through the available information until she came up with a logical conclusion.
She shook her head. "I don't think so. Whoever sent it either didn't know or didn't care about the details of the case. The killer takes pride in his work. The doll would have been naked, and instead of the blood there would have been flowers."
With the toe of his shoe, Hank pulled open the bottom drawer of his desk, then he leaned back in his chair and propped his feet on the open drawer.
"Any idea who might have sent it?"
"None. It doesn't seem like a kid's prank. I'll check the neighbors to see if they saw anyone." She touched the scar beside her eye, her mouth pinched in concentration. Sitting up straighter in her chair, she looked across at him. "I do have a hunch why it was sent."
"I hate hunches."
"Occasionally they pay off. In this case I think it's in response to a comment I made to a reporter. Did you catch the news out of Madison yesterday?"
His tone was neutral, but it was obvious by his raised eyebrow that he had seen the interview with Melinda Lawson. Sheila shifted in her seat, and the color rose to her cheeks.
"A camera crew ambushed me in the parking lot on my way home last night. In Melinda's defense, I did agree to speak on camera."
"Melinda might be charming when you're talking to her off camera, but she's a pit bull when it comes to a story."
"That may be true, but it doesn't excuse the fact that I lost my temper when she referred to the murderer as the Goldilocks Killer."
Hank grimaced, knowing it was just the kind of remark that could be picked up by someone on the edge. The inability to prevent another murder had made the police easy targets for local anger.
"If your comment prompted this, it's probably someone in River Oaks. I don't know if a nutcase would drive out from Madison, or beyond, to drop a bloody doll on your doorstep," Hank said. "The segment aired at six and then a shorter version at ten. You got the package at ten-thirty. Sounds like someone local."
He didn't like the dark circles under her eyes. She'd probably been up late worrying about who in River Oaks hated her enough to send the doll.
"Considering the tone of Melinda's questions, you handled her very well. So you lost it at the end." He shrugged. "If it's any comfort to you, not everyone saw the news," he said. "I had a meeting with Dick Perkins this morning, and if he'd seen it you can be sure I'd have heard about it."
Sheila brushed a strand of blond hair off her forehead, her expression troubled.
"The fact that the box was delivered to my house instead of the police station makes me very uncomfortable. What if Meg had been home and had answered the door? I'm sure she would have opened the box without giving it a thought."
"You'll need to warn her, Lieutenant." Hank could sympathize with Sheila but could offer little comfort. Being a cop invited danger into the home. It was part of the life. "Don't overreact. My guess is that the package was delivered to your house because it was less risky than sending it to the station. Be warned, but don't put too much emphasis on it."
"I'll do a follow-up on the lab reports."
Hank shook his head. "No. Leave that to someone else. I'm putting Lois Coren on it. She's been working traffic, but I think she's got potential. She has an inquisitive mind, and her detail work is good. This will be a good chance to see what she can do."
"I'd really like to work it."
"Your time's too valuable for something this low priority." He grinned at her raised eyebrow. "No offense meant, but I'm convinced it's somebody's idea of a sick joke. Lois can handle it. I'm reassigning you."
"Reassigning me to do what?" Her eyes took on a deeper blue in her confusion. "And what about my caseload?"
"Talk to Vivian Mortensen. I told her I want you part time. She'll farm out some of your cases to the guys working local crime."
Before she could ask questions, he pushed his chair away from the desk, stood up, and walked across to the window.
"Did you know I turned down your application for the job?"
She was startled by the abrupt question. "Mayor Perkins was kind enough to let me know I owed my job to him. When I asked if there were strings attached to the employment, he backed off."
Hank chuckled. "A hint at sexual harassment. That must have cooled his jets. Lawyers always think they're going to be sued."
He could just picture Perkins's expression in the face of her challenge. Sheila's stock rose a notch. He let the humor of the situation fade before he continued.
"Yesterday I talked to Barbara Davis, the mother of the first victim. She agreed to look at those pictures you gave me."
He returned to his desk and set several pictures on the edge close to Sheila. The photos were closeups of Janette Davis, taken at the time her body had been discovered and then later in the morgue. Sheila had marked black circles on each of the pictures. Hank touched a fingertip to each of the circles.
"Mrs. Davis checked each picture with a magnifying glass," he said. "She confirmed the fact that a piece of Janette's hair had been cut off."
"I knew it," Sheila said. "The killer cut a piece of hair from each of his victims."
She let out her breath in a whistled stream. Hank touched his temple in a quick two-finger salute.
"That was a great piece of police work, Lieutenant. I didn't spot it. Neither did anyone else."
"Women are more conscious of hair," she said. "I'd seen Lindy Pottinger two days before she was killed. When I looked at the autopsy pictures, I noticed that a piece of her hair had been cut. I started checking the other victims. It was easy enough to miss. The killer didn't cut off much."
"Well, at least you caught it. And it gives us a positive link between Janette Davis and the other three victims."
He scooped up the pictures and put them back into the folder before sitting down again.
"Can we keep this out of the paper?" Sheila asked.
"We're going to try. Once I realized we had a serial killer, I talked to Wynn Foster, the Weekly Sentinel's owner. She agreed to keep certain things quiet on the promise that her paper would have an exclusive on the story when it broke."
Hank sighed, knowing there had been leaks before and there probably would be again. After a moment he continued.
"Wynn's been pretty good about keeping the stories low key. She knows the news coverage feeds the killer's ego. Like most psychos, I'm sure this guy loves publicity."
Hank could see the flash of light in Sheila's eyes at the mention of the murderer. He wondered how he would feel if he had a young child. Frightened. Dedicated. Probably obsessed with finding the killer. That could work in their favor. Nothing short of obsession would crack the case.
"I'm reassigning you to work part of the time on the murders." He liked the way she took the news: quiet elation, with only a slight smile touching her mouth. "Every Monday we have a team meeting to discuss new developments. You can ask any questions you've got at this point."
"Owen James is the head of the investigation. Does he know about this?" Sheila asked.
"Actually it was Owen's idea."
"He suggested it? I didn't think he even knew I was a cop."
Hank's mouth widened in a grin. "Owen's got seniority, so he's allowed to ignore you. I think he's been waiting to see if you'd turn tail and run."
Sheila looked directly at him. "Last night I considered it."
"We all have at one time or another." Hank looked straight at her, his eyes hard. "For the moment, you'll be working on your own, free to follow up any tangent. You'll need to go back to the first killing and read through everything again in chronological order. Hopefully you'll pick up something we've missed."
"Just because I caught the hair cutting doesn't mean I'll discover anything more."
"Agreed. But it's worth a shot. So what's it to be? Will you take the reassignment?"
"I will." Her words sounded like a blood oath.
"Time's running out." Hank eyed the calendar on his desk. "The period between each of the deaths is shortening. The excitement from the last killing is fading. When it does, he'll strike again."
Sheila took a deep breath. "I wish I didn't believe it."
"Believe it," Hank said.
He opened the center drawer of his desk, pulled out an unmarked folder, and set it down on the blotter. Carefully he turned back the cover, revealing a letter enclosed in a protective plastic sleeve that had arrived in the morning's mail. He turned the letter around so Sheila could see it.
Black letters cut out of newsprint were pasted on a single sheet of white paper. The sentence was short, stark in its brevity.
THE TEACHER IS SELECTING A NEW PUPIL.
Copyright © 1998 by Martha Powers
Meet the Author
Martha Powers, a native of Cleveland, Ohio, and currently a resident of Park Ridge, Illinois, is the author of nine previous novels, all historical romances. Her acclaimed thrillers, Sunflower and Bleeding Heart are available from Pocket Books.
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This is the first time I read Ms. Powers's books and it won't be the last. This story has a fast-paced and gripping plot that grabs the reader's attention from the beginning till the end. Highly recommended.
This was the first book I had read by this author. I was captivated from the first page. I hope that Martha Powers writes future suspense books as great as this one.