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Nick was climbing in his car to drive back to Pittsburgh when his phone registered the voice mail. It was Dom. The message was short and characteristically brief: "Hey, Nick, I heard you were in town for a few days. I found a body. We need to talk." So much for quick escapes.
The forecast called for rain in the afternoon, but the clouds were already gathering. They blotted the sky in a shapeless gray mat, swollen thick with moisture. Nick parked at the far end of the lot without more than a brief thought to the threat. What did he care if he was caught in the rain on his way out of town? That would be appropriate. A dark end to a dark visit.
His footsteps fell heavy in his ears as he paced toward the building. An architect had attempted to disguise the facade of the Arbor Falls police station, to make it more in keeping with the surrounding historic architecture. The result was a single-story brick building with black shingles that exactly resembled a police station posing as Victorian Era construction. It had been like that since day one, a real-life version of a game Nick used to enjoy as a kid, where he would pick out the object in a picture that didn't belong. As he approached the station today, he felt a kinship with that building and all of its ungainliness. A sympathy shared amongst those who don't belong.
Before he left Arbor Falls nearly three years ago, he'd spent years plotting his escape. This is where he grew up, sheltered from the rest of the world in a too-small town in too-Upstate New York. He felt no fondness for the collection of office buildings that the locals referred to, without irony, as the downtown area. He didn't miss the narrow roads that curled like black snakes through the valley. He'd buried this life long ago. Nick scratched at the skin below his collar. One more stop, and then he could leave it again.
He pressed his palm against the glass door and strolled inside without more than a brief wave to the familiar faces working behind their desks. Everything was still the same. The same cracks splintered across the parking lot asphalt. The same ivy clawed up the side of the building. The same anemic faces aged behind the same industrial gray metal desks. He silently thanked fate for leading him away from Arbor Falls. Had it not, he'd have suffered a similar stagnation.
"Nick Foster. It's good to see you again, man." Domingo Vasquez rounded his desk when he saw Nick in the doorway. "How's the FBI treating you?" He extended his hand.
Nick accepted Dom's handshake with a smile and a firm grip. "The coffee sucks and the red tape is even redder than it is here."
"Now, you can't talk about red tape in the Arbor Falls P.D. anymore. In case you haven't noticed, I am the red tape." Dom pointed to his name plate. Sergeant.
Nick and Dom had been partners for almost four years when Nick was still on the police force. Dom had never aspired to anything, but then again he didn't need to be ambitious. He was good at his job, and the promotions followed. "Congratulations, Sergeant."
Dom's eyes were glossed by a new wariness, his brow lined by the weight of his responsibility. "I didn't ask you to come down here to congratulate me. Let's walk."
Nick followed Dom down the hallway. The cinder-block walls were coated in a fresh layer of institutional green paint. New paint on an outdated building didn't make the building look new, it just called attention to its problems. Air circulation was one, and the smell of the paint would haunt the hall for weeks. All of the windows in the station were sealed shut.
The familiarity of the surroundings coaxed memories to the surface. He'd walked this hallway too many times to count, imagining his escape to a more exciting career where he wasn't spending Saturday night busting drunk teens for cow tipping and watching them puke in the holding cell. He'd scratched each day he'd served in this station into some corner of his memory and walled it off when he'd left. Nick had a list of significant obligations that could draw him back to town. Holidays. His mother's birthday. Weddings for close friends. He didn't return to Arbor Falls any more often than he had to. Returning felt like someone chipping away at that wall.
This weekend he'd returned to pay his final respects to a man who'd despised him. He'd known Judge Andrews for twenty years. He could still smell his breath tinged with a musty odor and hear the rattle of a cough the man seemed to have fought for decades. As he'd stood in the back of the church staring at the oak casket, Nick had tried not to also hear his voice. Twenty years, and each one was spent in love with the judge's daughter. That had earned Nick plenty of words.
"You be careful, son." The judge could deliver his statements like a fist to flesh. "My Libby is going places. Don't get any ideas."
A challenge if he'd ever heard one, and Nick had gotten ideas, all right. He'd dated Libby, then he'd asked her to marry him. After only six months she'd broken the engagement. "I don't want to marry you. I don't love you." Her voice had been edged like a razor blade, the words designed to slice. She'd learned from the best.
That was almost three years ago. At the judge's funeral, he'd stood in the back of the church and watched Libby and her sister clutching each other in grief. He didn't know why he was there. If he was looking for forgiveness for the man who'd wronged him, it didn't come. He'd slipped out the back of the church without offering condolences to the family. Libby wouldn't want to see him, not ever. The feeling was mutual.
Dom flicked on the light switch in the conference room. The fluorescent bulb sputtered and hummed but eventually cooperated. "We had a murder overnight. Found the body a few hours ago. I know you work violent crime for the FBI, so I wanted your opinion."
"You told me over the phone that you suspect you're dealing with a serial killer."
Dom paused. "It's only one body."
Dom thrust a stack of files across the table. "But we've got a young prostitute who appears to have been manually asphyxiated. No big deal, right? Happens all too often. Well, the sick prick severed three fingers while she was still alive."
Tension pulled at Nick's forehead as he opened the first file and viewed the gruesome crime scene photos. He'd worked in violent crime long enough to have developed a mollusklike shell against the gore he saw on a regular basis, but every now and then, a case would still turn his stomach.
He frowned. "A prostitute, you said? She's wearing a business suit."
"Yeah. Looks like she was dressed postmortem. Like her hair? It's a wig. The girl was blonde."
Nick's pulse quickened inexplicably. "A fetishist, maybe. Nothing the FBI would take an interest in. Not now, anyway."
He didn't like the darkness in Dom's eyes. "I'm not thinking about the FBI. I'm thinking about you." He slid two plastic evidence bags across the table. "We found this letter by the body. The bastard promises six signs over six days followed by another murder on the seventh. Then he was kind enough to leave sign number one. A picture of your girl."
Nick's heart arrested as he looked at the image of Libby Andrews. She was coming out of the courthouse dressed in a navy blue skirt suit. Her black hair was pulled back from her face and she was looking at the camera through dark-rimmed glasses. He hadn't seen her in glasses in years. Hell, he hadn't seen much of her in years, aside from her father's funeral. The photograph was typical Libby: sexy buttoned up in a power suit, a look those in the Arbor Falls P.D. referred to as "Ice Princess."
"She's not my girl," he mumbled. Hadn't been for years. Louder he said, "This looks like it's been ripped from the paper."
"7he Journal. Last Tuesday, April tenth, page one. It's from the Brislin trial. You know, the state senator who was found guilty of felony corruption charges. Libby was the prosecutor."
Of course Nick knew all about it. Even living in Pittsburgh, he maintained ties to Arbor Falls, and he'd have to have been living under a rock not to have known about that trial. Brislin was considered to be a shoo-in for the United States Senate until Libby got ahold of him.
He pushed the evidence bags and the files back at Dom. "I don't know what you want from me. It's your case. Take care of it."
The crease between Dom's eyebrows deepened. "Six days, Nick. That doesn't give us much time."
"And what do you want me to do about it?" He fought to maintain control of his voice. "I live five hours away. I have other responsibilities. Does she know?"
"Not yet. I sent a car over to her house. The officer rang the doorbell a few times, but she wasn't home. Must've stayed somewhere else last night. She didn't answer her phone. I was going to head over to the District Attorney's office this afternoon, tell her myself."
"Damn it, Dom. You haven't told her?" His stomach churned. Libby's life was in danger and she didn't even know it yet.
"She hasn't been home." Dom's jaw tensed. "We only found the body early this morning. We're still processing the evidence. We're doing the best"
"Don't tell me you're doing the best you can." Nick felt electricity surge through his body. "What's your plan to protect her?"
"We have a car parked outside of her house now. We can have another one there tonight."
"It's not good enough."
"Nick, get real"
"It's not good enough, Dom." Nick pushed away from the table. He was due back at work tomorrow morning. His case load was heavy and there'd be hell to pay if he took time off. "And what am I supposed to do about this? She hates me."
Dom had folded his arms across his chest and was standing with the air of someone who'd decided to play the role of neutral messenger. "You're a good man," Dom said slowly. "You'll do the right thing."
Nick ground his teeth together. "I'll tell her myself," he said.
Dom nodded. "I thought you might want to do that." The fluorescent light flickered as he gathered the files and evidence bags. "It should come from someone she trusts."
"Yeah, it should," Nick mumbled as he zipped his jacket. "But instead, it's gonna come from me."
Libby had already circled the block three times when she turned the corner of Marbury Street and noticed a man standing in the middle of the only empty parking space. The driving spring rain dripped from his black umbrella in rivulets, gathering in the already sizable puddle at his feet. Her lips went cold. He'd owned that umbrella since, well, forever, and he was wearing the black windbreaker jacket she'd bought for his birthday. Libby swallowed a sudden knot in her throat. Nick.
His face was characteristically inscrutable as she approached. It wasn't until he stepped backward onto the sidewalk that she realized he'd been saving the parking space for her. A thoughtful gesture, and yet his mouth was fixed in a tight line, and the hand that gripped the umbrella was white on the knuckles. His gesture hadn't been warm and fuzzy. Libby turned her eyes to the road in front of her, taking unusual care with her parking.
Damn her nerves. Her fingertips had turned to ice hours ago in anticipation of this meeting, and all the calming breaths in the world weren't going to slow her pulse. She fumbled for her purse and pretended to look for something inside, buying a few precious seconds to steady herself. Then she looked up and saw Nick standing by her car door, holding the umbrella. Waiting for her. She took a deep breath and opened the door.
"I saw you driving around." He held out a hand and gripped her forearm, steadying her as she climbed out of the car. "Watch out for that puddle," he murmured.
He led her to the sidewalk, keeping one hand pressed lightly on her lower back. His fingers rested awkwardly against the base of her spine. He cleared his throat. "I thought we could grab a coffee. It's that time of the day when I start to drag."
"I don't have much time." The words flew out of her mouth too quickly. For a flash of a second he looked injured and Libby's gut twisted with guilt. She'd agreed to the meeting, and she was going to be civil. "Coffee's fine," she continued. "I have time for coffee."
"Good." He didn't smile.
A cold breeze penetrated to her bones and Libby pulled her trench coat tighter. Nick held the door to Coffee On Main and waited as she brushed past him and headed for a small round table in the corner, relieved to be in the dry warmth of the little cafe. This was where she'd studied for the bar exam, drinking coffee until her hands trembled. Six years ago she'd known every staff member by name and she'd committed the menu to memory, but she hadn't been back since then. The walls were painted the same reddish-brown, obstructed in spots by flyers advertising local concerts and household furniture for sale. Libby rested her hands on the wooden table, which felt faintly tacky.
Nick shook off the rainwater that had pebbled on his jacket sleeves, filling the empty space in Libby's line of vision with his broad shoulders. When he was finished he flicked his fingers, scattering droplets on the floor. He reached into his jacket for his wallet. "Skinny cappuccino with a double shot of espresso?"
"I've quit coffee. I'll just have a cup of Earl Grey."
She sat back in her seat and leaned an arm across the table, feigning a casual indifference to the meeting. Nick stood in place with his hands in his pockets. It was on the tip of her tongue to ask him in a rude tone whether he had something he wanted to say to her, but she caught herself just in time, her face hot with realization. "Oh, you're waiting for me to pay you."
"It's not a date," he said curtly.
"No, it's not." Clearly. She unclasped her bag and removed several dollars from her wallet. "That should cover it. Keep the change."
He lifted the corner of his mouth in a condescending smirk. "I don't need your charity."
She narrowed her eyes. "Then put it in the tip jar." She snapped her pocketbook shut and turned away.
She watched his reflection in the window as he took long strides to the counter. He was pleasant to the barista, but his back was rigid, almost as if he were on high alert, waiting for an attack of some kind. Then he turned a frostbitten glare at her and she momentarily lost her sense of place, gripped by the emptiness in his stare. She'd long wondered if Nick still hated her for ending things the way she had. It seemed the answer was yes.
Libby tugged at the hem of her skirt. If he wanted to hold on to his anger, that was his business. During the years they'd dated and the months of their engagement, she'd never been unfaithful to him. She'd gone to college and then law school, and she'd built her career, and she'd never excluded Nick from any of it. In contrast, he'd joined the FBI and demanded that she move to Pittsburgh with him. Give up her family, sell her house and leave her jobleave everything in New York and all that she'd worked so hard for and start over, all because that's what Nick wanted. Even now resentment coiled in her belly.