The latest murders are bizarre and baffling. The victims are killed in a ritual fashion, a series of numbers tattooed into their bodies. 212. 101. 111. 323. There is no clue to their meaning, no connection to the victims except one: Our Lady of Virtues Hospital, the crumbling old asylum that was once the scene of unspeakable madness. For Eve, it was a second home as a child. Her father was a doctor there, and she spent hours exploring its secret chambers, hidden rooms, and forbidden passageways. Somewhere in its decaying rooms lies the key to a terrible crime, a betrayal beyond imagining whose echoes are now being felt with a vengeance—a crime that seems to lead to Eve herself. And the only man she can trust with the search is Cole, her former lover and, just possibly, a cold-blooded killer.
As forgotten memories begin to surface, bodies are found and each twist leads to another terrifying piece of the puzzle. Someone is watching, planning, luring her back to the ruins of Our Lady and the shocking truths hidden there—someone who has been waiting for this moment to strike. He is deadlier than she knows. For the sins of the past must be revealed, the crimes brought to justice, and the price paid—in blood.
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By LISA JACKSON
KENSINGTON BOOKSCopyright © 2007 Susan Lisa Jackson
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThree months later
"This is a big mistake, Eve. Big! You can't leave yet; you're not ready." Anna Maria, in a bathrobe, fuzzy slippers, and no makeup, was chasing Eve down the driveway of her home.
"Watch me." Eve wasn't going to get into it with Anna again. Not now. It was morning, barely light, the street lamps still offering some bit of illumination as dawn crept down the manicured street of this suburb tucked between Marietta and Atlanta. Time to leave.
Holding a cigarette in one hand and a cup of sloshing coffee in the other, Anna somehow managed to keep up with her sister-in-law. "You're not through with physical therapy, you can't remember jackshit about the night you were attacked, and for God's sake, there's a rumor, probably a good one, that Cole Dennis is going to be released. Did you hear me? The man you think tried to kill you is going to walk!"
At the mention of Cole's name, Eve's heart clutched. Just as it always did. And she ignored it. Just like she always did.
"We've had this argument a kazillion times. I need to get home." Lugging a cat carrier, Eve made her way to her Camry as Samson, her long-haired stray, howled from within. "No matter what you think, you're not dying," she assured the unhappy animal as she scrounged in her purse for her keys with her free hand. The carrier bobbed wildly, and Samson, freaked out of his mind, hissed loudly. She placed the plastic crate on the driveway near the back tire of her car as she kept searching for the damned keys.
"Don't start." Glancing up at her sister-in-law, Eve shook her head, short strands of hair brushing the back of her neck. "You know I have to leave." She managed to slide her key ring from a side pocket, but as she did, her cell phone, tangled in the keys, popped out of the purse and dropped onto the concrete, landing with a sickening smack. "Oh great!" Just what she needed; another reason for Anna, supposedly a devout Roman Catholic but as superstitious as anyone Eve had ever met, to find an excuse for Eve to linger. It amazed Eve how Anna was forever seeing "curses," "signs," or "omens" in everyday life-so much so that Samson, being a black cat, was nearly banished from Anna and Kyle's home.
"I saw that!" Anna announced. "God is trying to tell you something."
"Yeah, like I need a new cell-phone carrier," Eve muttered through clenched teeth.
"Not funny, Eve."
"You're wrong. It was really funny." She managed a smile and looked up at her sister-in-law as dark clouds, heavy with the promise of rain, moved slowly across a low Georgia sky. Only the slightest breath of wind rattled the spreading branches of a magnolia tree growing close to the drive, but it was enough to cool the sweat that was already sprouting on Eve's neck and spine. Picking up the phone, she saw that the screen was still illuminated. Hitting the speakerphone button, she heard the familiar hum of a dial tone. "Still working. Guess I won't have to switch networks." She tucked the phone more securely into a pocket of her purse, unlocked the door, and slid the cat carrier onto the backseat.
"For the record, I'm against this," Anna said, her arms crossed beneath her large breasts.
"For the record, I know."
"You could at least wait until Kyle gets home. He just ran out for milk and cigarettes. He'll be back any minute."
All the more reason to leave. Eve and her oldest brother had never gotten along. Having her camp out at his house while recovering from a gunshot wound and trauma-induced amnesia hadn't improved their relationship.
"You're not talking me out of this, so don't even try. Nita says I'm eighty-five percent of normal, whatever that is."
"Nita's an idiot." Anna Maria took a long drag on her cigarette and shot smoke out of the side of her mouth.
"Nita's a board-certified physical therapist."
"What does your shrink say?"
Eve paused. "Low blow, Anna." She'd quit going to the psychiatrist after just three sessions. She hadn't "clicked" with him and knew enough about psychiatry to realize a patient had to trust in her doctor completely. She didn't. Dr. Calvin Byrd was too guarded, too quiet, too studious. The way he'd leaned back in his chair, pen in hand, as she'd confided in him had given her a bad feeling. She'd felt as if he were more interested in judging her than healing or helping her. So she'd quit the sessions. She'd been around enough shrinks in her lifetime to know the good from the bad. Wasn't her own father proof enough of that? Not to mention that she herself had been working on her PhD in psychology before her life had been shattered at that cabin in the woods. Bottom line: no doctor should make a patient nervous.
"He might be able to help you with your memory," Anna argued.
"I told you, I don't like him. End of story."
"He's well respected. One of the best psychiatrists in Atlanta."
"I know." Eve had seen all the degrees, awards, and letters of commendation so proudly displayed in Dr. Byrd's office. "It's personal-just a gut feeling." She was already walking back to the house, to the breezeway, where her luggage was stacked. Eve passed by her brother's work van-a dirty paneled truck with the predictable words WASH ME scribbled into the dust on the back windows. Obviously he'd taken his Porsche for his morning run to the store. "Look, Anna, I'm not arguing about this anymore. You can either help me load up the car or stand there and rant and rave to no good end. So what's it going to be?"
"This is nuts, Eve."
Eve smiled gently. "Oh, come on. Things aren't that bad."
"Not that bad? For the love of God! When did you become such a Pollyanna? You were shot. Shot! The bullet hit your shoulder and ricocheted to your temple, and your brain was bruised. Bruised. You didn't end up dead or paralyzed or God only knows what else, but pul-eeze don't tell me things aren't bad. I know better." Anna took a long drag on her cigarette and glared at her sister-in-law over the glowing tip. "You were almost killed. By that son of a bitch you thought you might marry! C'mon, Eve. Things are definitely 'that bad' and probably a helluva lot worse. The problem is, you just can't remember."
Done with arguing, Eve picked up a duffel bag and her computer case, then started hauling them back to the Camry, where Samson was crying loud enough to wake the dead. Yes, she had big holes in her memory. But her amnesia wasn't complete. She did recall bits from that night. Painful little shards that cut through her brain. She remembered being late. She remembered seeing Roy lying on the floor, bleeding out, barely hanging on to life. She remembered the bloody number 212 scrawled on the wall. She remembered reaching for her cell phone, hesitating, her fingers shaking too badly to dial, dropping the damned thing, seeing NO SERVICE in bold letters against a glowing LCD. She remembered seeing the gun leveled through the window before it went off. And she remembered blood. Everywhere. Splattered on the wall, pooling on the floor, making the touch pad of her cell phone sticky, oozing from Roy's neck and forehead ...
She closed her eyes for a second and drew a long breath. Guilt, ever lurking, loomed again. Deep, dark and deadly. It ate at her at night. Cut through her dreams. If only she'd been at the cabin earlier as she'd promised, if only she hadn't hesitated or dropped her phone before dialing 911, her friend Roy might still be alive.... Shaking inside, she opened her eyes to the somber morning. The clouds overhead seemed even more ominous.
"The doctors think my memory will return," Eve said as she reached her car and tossed the duffel onto the floor of the backseat. She slid her computer next to the cat carrier. She noticed Samson, pupils dilated, glaring through the tiny windows of the crate.
"Maybe getting your memory back isn't a good thing."
Boy, was Anna on a tear this morning. First one side of the argument, then the other. Eve tossed her purse onto the front passenger seat then turned to find her sister-in-law standing within inches of her.
"Aren't you the one who told me that the brain shuts down because of trauma, to protect itself?" Anna pushed her long hair from her eyes. She was close enough that Eve smelled the smoke and coffee on her breath, the hint of perfume clinging to her skin. "Maybe you don't want to know what happened."
"I want to know," Eve responded evenly.
Across the street, a door opened. In a striped terry robe and slippers, a balding man pushing eighty stepped onto his porch and shot a glance their way from behind thick glasses. He sketched out a wave then bent to retrieve his newspaper.
"Morning, Mr. Watters," Anna said, waving back as her neighbor scanned the headlines and disappeared inside. She lowered her voice and moved closer to Eve. "I'm just asking you to wait. A week. Maybe two. 'Til you're stronger, and maybe by then we'll know what Cole is up to. Stay here until we're certain you're safe."
Eve had already started up the drive again. "Besides, I'm thinking of getting a dog ... a puppy."
Anna Maria took a final hit on her Virginia Slim and sent it to the concrete of the driveway, where she stomped the butt out with her pink mule. "A puppy? Like that'll keep the bad guys at bay!"
"I'm talking about a really, really tough puppy."
There wasn't the slightest hint of humor in Anna's worried eyes. "Look, Eve, you can laugh and make light about this all you want, but the bottom line is: someone tried to kill you."
"I was at the wrong place at the wrong time."
Anna tossed her an exasperated look. "You think it was Cole. You were going to testify that he shot you. And now ... now they expect him to be released from prison. The whole case against him has fallen apart. But that doesn't mean he won't come after you. He did before, didn't he? When he was out on bail? He called. Planned to meet with you, and you, being some kind of idealistic numbskull, were actually going to see him! What the hell were you thinking?"
Eve's stomach knotted. The headache that never seemed to quite go away began to beat slowly inside her skull. She didn't want to think about all this again.
"Cole thought you were having an affair. Probably with Roy."
Anxiety clamped over Eve's lungs. The truth of the matter was that she couldn't remember. Her headache thundered. "Damn it all." She found her purse in the car, scrounged through a zippered pocket, came up with a nearly empty bottle of ibuprofen, and tossed two pills into her mouth. "I told you, I don't want to rehash this. I'm done arguing." She grabbed Anna's cup and washed down the tablets with a swallow of tepid, milky coffee. "God, this is awful."
Anna snagged her cup.
Feeling a tic develop beneath her eye, Eve sensed another panic attack in the making. Her heart was racing, and she felt as if her lungs were strapped by steel bands.
Not now. Not here. A full-blown anxiety attack will only add fuel to Anna Maria's you-aren't-ready-to-leave fire.... One ... Breathe! ... Two ... Think calm thoughts.... Three ... Slow your heartbeat.... Four ...
By the time she reached ten, she was taking normal breaths again, but Anna was watching her closely. "I gotta go." Eve grabbed her makeup kit, not that it would do much good. Her face was still a bit puffy, the plastic surgery around her right eye not quite healed. She placed the makeup bag beside the cat carrier, then turned to reach for her large roller-bag.
"Okay, fine. Hey! No! Stop! For God's sake, don't lift that. Just wait a sec, will ya?" Anna set her cup down then grabbed Eve's roller-bag. "Jesus, this weighs a ton. What've you got in here, lead weights?"
Eve smiled faintly. "At least you didn't say a dead body."
"I thought about it."
"I know you did."
From within the interior of the car came the pitiful sound of a cat who thought he was being tortured. "Won't that drive you nuts?" Anna asked.
"Probably." Eve flipped up the lid of the trunk. "But I'll survive."
"You know you're impossible, don't you? As stubborn as your brothers." Anna refused Eve's help as she hoisted the bag into the trunk. "And don't give me any of that crap about you not being from the same genetic pool as Kyle and Van. It doesn't matter. You were all raised under the same roof, and that's why you're all so bullheaded."
Eve had given up arguing. There was just no point to it. Not when Anna Maria got going. Logic didn't count, and the fact that Eve's older brothers were from their mother's first marriage, that they were twelve and ten years old when Eve, as an infant, was adopted by Melody and Terrence Renner, wasn't going to change Anna's mind. Eve suspected that the only reason she'd ended up living with Kyle and Anna after being released from the hospital was that Anna Maria had insisted upon it. It hadn't been any bit of brotherly love, or nobility, or even guilt on Kyle's part.
Anna picked up her cup, took a swallow, and scowled. "You're right. This is really bad." She tossed the dregs into the dirt beneath the magnolia tree.
"So, if you're going to go," Anna said, glancing up at the menacing sky, "go already. And Eve?"
"Avoid Cole. He's just plain bad news."
"That's not the answer I want to hear." Anna wrapped her arms around Eve and held her tight, as if she didn't want to let go, and Eve wondered if it was because she was worried for Eve or because she didn't want to be left alone with her husband. Eve knew only too well what a brooding, moody tyrant her oldest brother could be. The fact that Anna had never bent to Kyle's will or had let him break her spirit was testament to her strength.
"Take care of yourself, Anna," Eve whispered emotionally. "Thanks for everything. I owe you!"
"I'll try. You too." Before the whole scene got any more difficult, Eve extracted herself from Anna's embrace, slid behind the wheel of her car, ignored the yowling cat, and fired up the engine. "Bye!"
Anna was already reaching into her pocket for her pack of cigarettes. She shook out the last one before crumpling the empty pack.
As Eve headed out the drive, drops of rain began to pepper the ground. Just what she needed. She had over four hundred miles of asphalt between here and New Orleans.
And once you get there, then what?
"God only knows." She flipped on the wipers and pressed her toe to the accelerator. To drown out Samson's mournful cries, she turned on the radio, found a country station, and wondered which was worse, the wailing guitar or the unhappy cat.
The rest of her life, whatever that was going to be, was waiting.
* * *
"Get me the hell out of here!" Cole Dennis paced from one end of the small holding cell to the other. He was tense. Agitated. This tiny room, with its scarred cinder-block walls and steel bars, smelled of must, dirt, and broken dreams. Worse yet, beneath the strong odor of some pine-scented cleaner was the whiff of ammonia and urine, as if the someone who'd been here last had been scared enough to lose control of his bladder. Or maybe he'd pissed on purpose to mark his territory or just make a defiant, in-your-face point to the cops.
Cole's attorney, Sam Deeds, was seated at the simple table that was bolted to the floor. Impeccable in an Armani suit, a silk tie, and a haircut that cost what some men made in a month, Deeds looked the part of the slick attorney: clean shaven and hawkeyed, his expression serious, his dark eyes missing nothing as Cole paced from one end of the cell to the other.
How many times had Cole himself sat in that very chair, dressed like Deeds, telling his client not to sweat, never once noticing the odor of desperation that clung to these chipped walls?
"We're just waiting for all the paperwork. You know the drill," Deeds said.
"Like hell. They're stalling. And why am I locked in here? I'm supposed to be getting out. This is an interrogation room, for God's sake."
"Your case is high profile."
"So this is for my protection? So that I'm hidden from the press?" Cole snorted his contempt. "Bullshit!"
"Cool it." Deeds tossed a look to the large mirror on one side of the room as if in silent reminder about the two-way glass.
Cole shut up. He knew all about the mirror and about the pricks standing on the other side watching him squirm, hoping against hope that there was some way to nail his hide for the Royal Kajak murder. Jesus, what a mess. He shoved one hand through his hair and felt warm drops of sweat on his scalp. Just like he'd seen hundreds of times on the poor sons of bitches that he'd represented.
Excerpted from Absolute Fear by LISA JACKSON Copyright © 2007 by Susan Lisa Jackson. Excerpted by permission.
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