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Where was he?
Frustrated, Suzy Burris dropped the curtain she'd pushed back from the living room window and sighed loudly. Of all the evenings for Peter to be late getting home, he had to pick this one.
Probably seeing one of his women, she thought angrily.
And if she asked him about it, he'd look at her with that engaging smile of his and tell her he was busy with official business. "County sheriff business," he'd clarify, and then he'd tell her that he wasn't at liberty to share that "business" with her. Because she had "no need to know." Bull.
That's all it was. Pure and simple bull. Like all the other times.
And she was tired of it.
Tired of the lies, tired of going through the motions and pretending that everything was all right, when it wasn't.
And it hadn't been for a long, long time.
Suzy could feel her whole body vibrating with impatience. She'd finally, finally made up her mind that despite the beautiful two-month-old baby boy mercifully asleep now in the nursery, her marriage to Peter was not about to recover. It had been on life support for a long time now and it was currently in its very last death throes. And while it really bothered her that she'd never loved him the way a wife was supposed to love a husband, there was nothing she could do to change the situation.
Like an epiphany, it had suddenly become crystal clear to her this morning that they, she and Peter, both needed to move on.
Suzy wanted a divorce and although he'd mentioned nothing along those lines himself, she was fairly convinced that her husband wanted it, too.
Why else had Peter been tomcatting around like that, turning to other women when she was right there, at home?
It had been hard for her, with her emotional state less than rock solid thanks to what having given birth had done to her hormones. But she'd had to admit to herself that there was no hope for them. No light at the end of the tunnel.
Just more tunnel.
The baby was supposed to have been that light, and his conception and subsequent birth clearly was a tactic that had misfired.
The baby had been a mistake.
Not that she didn't love Andy more than she'd ever thought humanly possible, but as far as his being the miracle that would heal and save their marriage, well, that just wasn't going to happen.
Suzy realized that she was back at the living room window, lifting the curtain and staring off into the darkness.
She wanted this to be over with, wanted it behind her.
Breaking her own rule, she'd even tried to call Peter a couple of times, to no avail. The phone had gone to voice mail immediately each time.
He had to be with a woman.
When Peter was on the job as the county's sheriff, he never shut off his phone. He'd told her that was because he never knew who might be trying to reach him. So if he wasn't with a woman, why was it off now?
Her frustration mounted as she continued to scan the darkness for some sign that he was finally approaching the driveway.
What was all this drama and mystery about? Or was she reading into things because her impatience insisted on steadily rising with each passing minute?
Given a choice, she wanted to avoid scenes like this morning at breakfast. Despite getting very little sleep the night before because Andy kept fussing, she'd done her best to give patching things up between Peter and her one more try this morning. She'd made Peter breakfastwaffles with eggs and sausages, his favoriteand tried to get some sort of a conversation going.
But she might as well have been trying to program a robot. The words she all but wound up pulling out of her husband had been stilted, cold, as if they were two strangers who'd just met and hadn't clicked, the way they had at that glitzy Dallas nightclub where she'd first met him.
She had come to socialize that night and Peter had been working private security at the club. The second their eyes met, the attraction had been instant and intense.
The trouble was, that strong physical attraction had never deepened, at least, not for her. At the time, she'd thought that it had for him, that Peter loved her. When he'd asked her to marry him, she'd accepted because she'd hoped that her own feelings would grow somewhere along the line and turn into the kind of love that was the foundation of every strong marriage.
She'd said "I do" praying that would somehow trigger the everlasting love she'd secretly always dreamed about.
She'd wanted the perfect fairy tale, happily-ever-after marriage.
But it never happened.
Although Pete seemed to love her, and he'd never laid a hand on her or physically mistreated her, Suzy knew deep down in her heart that she needed more to lay the foundations for a lasting relationship.
She also felt as if Peter was keeping things from her. Not work-related things but just things. He seemed to lead a secret life apart from the one he shared with her. It got to the point where she felt as if she were dealing with a photograph of a man and the actual three-dimensional man was out of reach.
On the surface, Peter was friendly, outgoing, gregarious, but after several years of marriage, she still knew very little about him. And no details about his childhood.
What husband keeps his past from his wife? What was it that Peter was hiding?
Or was she just being completely paranoid?
Just because you 're paranoid doesn't mean that there isn't someone after you.
She supposed that she'd been hoping for some sort of last-minute breakthrough with this baby, and that was why, when Peter, completely out of the blue, had suggested having a baby, she'd agreed.
It had been an irresponsible way to go about patching up their relationship. First you had a stable home with two people who loved each other, and then you brought a baby into the equation. You didn't do it the other way around. You didn't just make a baby, and then hope everything turned out for the best.
Suzy admitted to herself that she'd been trying to create the exact opposite of what she'd grown up with: two alcoholic parents who were either drunk and passed out on any available flat or semi-flat surface, or going at one another with anything they could get their hands on when they were sober.
And whatever verbal and physical blows they threw that didn't land on each other, found their target in heror her younger sister, Lori.
All she'd ever wanted was to be loved and to have someone to lean on. Someone who could be her protector if the occasion arose.
Or at least, that was what she thought she wanted when she'd married Peter. Only recently she realized she wanted more. She wanted someone to talk to. Someone who really talked to her as well. In essence, she wanted someone to share a life with.
That wasn't Peter.
"Come on, Peter. Come home. I need to get this over with before I lose my nerve," she pleaded. Only the darkness heard her.
At thirty-eight, Nick Jeffries felt he'd seen it alland for the most part, he'd left it behind him. As a former fifteen-year veteran detective on the Houston police force, he'd accepted a position on Vengeance's police force thinking that it would be a walk in the park and that chilling, stomach-turning homicides were a thing of the past. Vengeance, Texas, was one of those sleepy, picturesque little towns people dreamed about while trapped in a rat race, struggling to stay abreast of the bills, the tax man and soul-numbing, time-sapping boredom.
Apparently that wasn't the case anymore, Nick thought, looking down at the gruesome discovery made earlier that day by some enterprising geology graduate students. The students had initially been assigned to dig up and catalog several mineral specimens on the private land just on the outskirts of Darby College.
Instead, what they'd found were three male bodies buried in shallow graves and located fairly close to one another.
"Three for the price of one, huh?" Nick murmured sardonically.
The flippant comment was intended for the young man he'd been partnered with but when he looked up, he saw that the tall, baby-faced detective had done a quick about-face and was currentlyand miserablythrowing up his breakfast behind the nearest tree.
"That's okay, Juarez," Nick assured the younger man, raising his voice so that it carried. "I did the same thing when I saw my first dead body."
It actually wasn't true. For the most part, Nick Jeffries had practically been born unshakeable, but he thought it might give the young detective a measure of comfort to know that he wasn't alone or unique in his misery.
Shaking his head, Nick looked down at the three dead bodies that had been lifted from their graves.
Three separate, shallow gravesnot one. Did that mean there were three separate killers, or just one with an odd reverence for the sanctity of death that had made him dig the multiple graves rather than just toss the bodies one on top of another?
And why these particular three people? Was it just convenience? The luck of the draw?
He highly doubted it.
What did these three have in common with each other, other than being buried out here just off the college campus? Did they all die at the same time, or did they meet their respective ends at different times by the same hand?
He supposed at least part of the latter question would be answered by the medical examiner after the autopsies were performed.
He wondered how long that would take and if they even had a medical examiner around here. If not, they were going to have to find one, fast.
There were times when he really missed being in a city like Houston.
"So much for this being a sleepy little college town," Nick said, talking to Juarez as if the man had rejoined him instead of still heaving up his by now meager stomach contents behind a tree. "And let me tell you, if you thought that the media seemed frenzied and out of control when they converged here, asking questions about that Grayson woman's kidnapping, wait'll you see what happens when they get wind of this triple homicide," he predicted.
With a handkerchief held close to his mouth in case he wasn't quite finished throwing up what was left of his insides, Jason Juarez, his eyes watering, made his way back to his partner.
When he looked at Nick, his eyes appeared to be bloodshot, definitely the worse for wear.
Nick was tempted to tell him to go home, but that wouldn't solve anything. The kid needed to tough it out, Nick thought. Still, he couldn't help feeling sorry for him.
"You think that this is a triple homicide?" Juarez asked him.
It was obvious that the young detective was deliberately avoiding looking down at the uncovered bodies, which had already been on their way to becoming lunch a la carte for all the local rodents, wild animals and insects in the area.
Had he ever been this naive? Nick wondered. Somehow, he didn't think so.
"Well, there are three bodies buried pretty close to one another," he said to Juarez, doing his best not to let his impatience show, "and they're definitely dead, so, logically speaking, I'd say yes, there's a pretty good possibility that we're looking at a triple homicide. But if you're asking me if I think that the same person killed all three victims, that's something we're going to have to find"
Nick abruptly stopped talking and he suddenly squatted down beside the body that was nearest to him. With an unreadable expression on his face, he gave the body a very slow once-over.
The face was not so destroyed that it prevented him from making an identification. "Correct me if I'm wrong, but isn't this the county sheriff, Peter Burris?" If that were the case, then this just took on a whole new spectrum of ramifications.
Juarez paled slightly beneath his peaked complexion. "Are you asking me to look closer?" he asked warily.
Nick rolled his eyes. "That might be helpful, yeah," he retorted.
One of the uniformed policemen, older by a couple of decades than the queasy detective, took pity on Juarezwho looked as if he wanted to bolt for the trees againand made his way over to the body in question.
Looking at what was left of the man on the ground, the officer nodded, confirming Nick's query.
"It's the sheriff all right." Somewhat intrigued rather than repulsed, the policeman squinted and took a closer look at the other two bodies that had been unearthed at the same time. Genuine surprise registered on his leathery face. "And that looks like Senator Merris. Saw him at a fund-raiser once. I was part of the security detail." His own words seemed to hit him and he appeared properly stunned. "Holy cow, this is a real live senator."
"Not quite," Nick pointed out.
"Yeah," the policeman agreed. "There's that." He looked up at Nick, the magnitude of the situation finally hitting him. "This is big."
Rather than comment on what seemed to be very obviousand since Juarez was still struggling even to glance down, Nick directed the officer's attention to the third body. "You know him?"
The older man shuffled closer and looked at the last dead man intently for several seconds. He frowned, frustrated.
"He seems familiar, but" he shook his head helplessly. "Sorry, can't place him."
Striking out, Nick looked pointedly at Juarez. "How about you?"
Unable to get around his duty any longer, Juarez was forced to take a look. Actually, it was more like taking a fleeting glance in the body's direction. Exhaling the breath he'd been holding, Juarez shook his dark head adamantly.
"No, I don't know him," he confirmed with relief.
But the policeman wasn't through as he continued to study the only unidentified man. Circling the body, he looked at the face from every angle.
Finally, he said, "I think he used to live around here before he went off to Californiaor maybe it was some other place out West." He glanced up at Nick. "He had family here if it's the guy I'm thinking of. I can ask around," he offered.
"You do that," Nick turned the offer into an instruction.
Then he turned to his boy partner. Juarez's face still lacked color. He made up his mind that come tomorrow, if things didn't change, he was working this case solo. Juarez's wife was due soon with their first child. Maybe the younger detective could take some time off and be of some use to her.
But that still left today. "You up to doing a little traveling?" he asked.
Rather than immediately answering, Juarez asked uneasily, "To where?"
"I think we need to inform the sheriff's wife that she just became his widow."
In his experience, approximately 50 percent of the men and women who were killed died at the hands of their spouse. Whether this was the case in Burris's murder remained to be seen. The sooner he ruled out the sheriff's other half, the sooner he could move on and maybe even find out exactly who was responsible for this modern-day bloodbath in a sleepy town.
He scanned what might or might not have been the actual crime scene. Things would never be the same.
Not for a lot of people.