The last sounds Dean Wilson hears are a clock striking twelve and a killer’s taunting words. And his death is just the first. One by one, victims are stalked and shot at close range. Only the killer knows their sins, and who will be the next to die at midnight . . .
AND IN LIFE . . .
In the ten years since her Hollywood career imploded, Lorie Hammonds has built a good life in her Alabama hometown. When the first death threat arrives, she assumes it’s a joke. Then she gets a second note. Sheriff Mike Birkett, her high-school sweetheart, has avoided Lorie since she returned to Dunmore, but when investigators uncover her connection to a string of recent murders, he’s drawn into a case that’s terrifyingly personal.
TIMING IS EVERYTHING
With every murder, the killer edges closer. Soon Lorie’s will be the last name left on his list. Her only hope is to unearth a deadly secret—before the clock runs out for good . . .
Praise for the novels of Beverly Barton
—Linda Howard, New York Times bestselling author on Cold Hearted
“A powerful story that kept me up very late—with all the lights on.”
—Kay Hooper, New York Times bestselling author on As Good as Dead
About the Author
Date of Birth:December 23, 1946
Date of Death:April 21, 2011
Place of Birth:Tuscumbia, AL
Place of Death:Tuscumbia, AL
Read an Excerpt
Dead by Midnight
By BEVERLY BARTON
ZEBRA BOOKSCopyright © 2010 Beverly Beaver
All right reserved.
Chapter OneLorie Hammonds slept until nearly eleven and woke with a mild hangover from having drunk too much champagne at Cathy and Jack's wedding. The moment her feet hit the wooden floor, she moaned. It was too damn cold for mid-March. As she reached down to the footboard of her bed to retrieve her robe, she danced her toes over the floor searching for her house shoes. Her big toe encountered one of the satin slippers. She slid her foot inside the soft warmth and glanced down to see if she could locate its mate. Only after getting out of bed and bending over to look under the bed did she find her other shoe. As she rounded the end of the bed, her hip accidentally made contact with the edge of the antique, gold metal storage bench.
Cursing softly under her breath, she realized this was probably not going to be a good day. After peeing, washing her hands, and splashing cool water on her face, she avoided glancing in the mirror and went straight down the hall to the kitchen. She checked the coffeemaker to see if she had remembered to prepare it last night. She hadn't. Great. That meant she'd have to wait for her morning pick-me-up. Working hurriedly, she ground the coffee beans, ran tap water through the faucet filter, and got everything ready.
While the coffee brewed, she tried to focus on her usualSunday-morning routine. Not being a churchgoer, she saved the first day of the week for leisure. Reading the morning newspaper from cover to cover, giving herself a manicure and a pedicure, spending the afternoon lounging in her easy chair with a good book, going to the movies, having dinner out with a friend.
But her best friend-her only true friend in Dunmore-was off on her honeymoon and would be gone two weeks. She didn't begrudge Cathy her happiness, her fourteen glorious days of uninterrupted lovemaking with her new husband. But Cathy's romantic dreams finally coming true only reminded Lorie of the impossibility of that ever happening for her.
Padding through the house to the front door of her 1920s clapboard bungalow located just outside the city limits of downtown Dunmore, Lorie sighed. Romantic dreams didn't come true for women like her. She'd had her one chance at happily ever after and she'd blown it big-time. Just because Cathy had gotten a second chance didn't mean she would.
She opened the front door, scanned the porch, sidewalk, and front yard, and located the Sunday paper hanging precariously between two small azalea bushes. Damn! It was raining like crazy, had probably set in for the day, and the cold March breeze felt more like a February wind. She shivered as she rushed down the steps, grasped the cellophane-wrapped paper, and ran back into the house.
She could smell the delicious coffee brewing. By the time she peeled off her wet housecoat and gown and put on something warm and dry, the coffee would be ready. After taking a couple of tentative steps down the hall, she stopped, said damn, and then turned and went back to the front door. She had forgotten to get Saturday's mail out of the box at the end of her driveway. She might as well do that now while she was already soaked.
After retrieving the mail and getting drenched to the skin, Lorie tossed the small stack of envelopes and the Sunday newspaper down on the half-moon table in her tiny foyer before she headed for the bedroom.
Ten minutes later, drinking her first cup of morning coffee, dressed in lightweight fleece lounge pants and a matching pullover, Lorie slipped the newspaper out of its protective cellophane sleeve and took the paper and her unopened mail into the living room. She relaxed in her plush easy chair, placed her feet on the matching ottoman, and scanned the morning headlines. The Life section of the paper was what interested her today. A color wedding photo of her best friend, Catherine Cantrell-no, she was Catherine Perdue now-stared up at her from the wedding announcements page. Cathy had never looked more beautiful.
Tears threatened, reaching Lorie's throat and lodging there. She swallowed hard. Be happy, Cathy. Be happy. You so deserve it.
And maybe that was the reason she would never be truly happy. Lorie Hammonds didn't deserve to be happy.
She folded back the page and laid the newspaper aside. She would cut out Cathy's picture and then look through the rest of the paper later. As a general rule, Saturday's mail was light, even at Treasures of the Past, the antique shop she co-owned with Cathy, but better to go through it now and toss out everything except the bills. She picked up one envelope after another, discarding half a dozen requests from various charities. If she regularly donated to each of these organizations, she would quickly give away her entire paycheck. She laid the one bill-her credit card statement-on the end table. She would write a check tomorrow and mail it off. Sooner or later, she would have to move into the twenty-first century and pay all her bills electronically.
One envelope remained in her lap. She picked it up and looked at it. Her breath caught in her throat.
No, it can't be. Please, don't let it be another one.
Don't jump to conclusions. Just because it looks like the other one doesn't mean it's from the same person.
She flipped over the envelope a couple of times, studying both sides carefully. Her name and address had been printed on a white mailing label. No return name or address.
Just like the other letter.
And just like the first one, it had been mailed from Tennessee, but this one was postmarked Memphis instead of Knoxville.
Lorie ripped open one end of the envelope and pulled out a single sheet of white paper. Her hands trembled as she unfolded the letter. For a half second, her vision blurred as she looked down at the message. Her heartbeat accelerated.
Midnight is coming. Say your prayers. Ask for forgiveness. Get your affairs in order. You're on the list. Be prepared. You don't know when it will be your turn. Will you be the next to die?
Lorie sat there staring at the letter until the words on the page began to run together into an unfocused blur. Her fingers tightened, crunching the edge of the letter. Closing her eyes, she tried to calm her erratic heartbeat.
This letter was identical to the first one she had received a month ago. The original letter had worried her, but she'd been in the midst of preparing for Cathy's bridal showers and upcoming wedding. She had decided it was nothing more than a crank letter from some nut who had nothing better to do with his time. After all, why would anyone want to kill her? It wasn't as if she was rich or famous. And as far as she knew she didn't have any enemies who would go so far as to threaten to kill her.
But here it was-a second letter. A second death threat. Could she simply ignore this one and toss it in the trash as she had the first one?
One really could have been a silly prank.
But two could mean that someone out there wanted, at the very least, to frighten her.
Or did they actually want to kill her?
Mike Birkett poured cereal into three bowls, added milk and blueberries, and set the bowls on the table. His nine-year-old daughter, Hannah, picked up her spoon and dug in while his eleven-year-old son, M.J., curled up his nose as he eyed the berries with disdain.
"Do I have to eat those?" M.J. asked, a slight whine in his voice.
"Yeah," Mike told him. "At least some of them. Okay? Blueberries are good for you."
"I'll bet it was Ms. Sherman," Hannah said. "I've heard her talking about what she eats-stuff like protein shakes and tofu and soy milk and all kinds of yucky things like that."
"Figures," M.J. mumbled under his breath.
Mike knew that neither of his children especially liked Abby Sherman, the woman he'd been dating the past few months. And he really didn't understand why. Abby had gone out of her way to try to make the kids like her, and she'd been very understanding when they had been rude to her on more than one occasion. What really puzzled him about their attitude was the fact that Abby actually reminded him of his late wife, Molly. It was one of the reasons he'd thought the kids would automatically accept her. Abby had the same cute look that Molly had, with her blue eyes and strawberry-blond hair. She was slender, athletic, and wholesome.
Abby was the sort of person he needed in his life, the type of woman who would make a good wife and mother.
Mike hurriedly wolfed down his cereal and forced himself to eat the blueberries he'd sprinkled on top. When he finished the last bite, he took a sip of his third cup of coffee and found it lukewarm.
"You two hurry up," he told his children. "Sunday school starts in less than an hour. If we're late again this Sunday, Grams will give us all a good scolding."
Since Molly's death nearly four years ago, his mother had stepped in and helped him. He didn't know what he would have done without her. His kids lived with him and he usually managed to get them off to school every morning. But his mother picked them up in the afternoons and looked after them until he came home from work. And whenever his duties as the county sheriff called him away at odd hours, all he had to do was phone his mom. She'd been a lifesaver.
After being up late last night, dancing at his best friend's wedding, he would have liked nothing better than to have slept in this morning and let his mom pick the kids up for Sunday school. But as a single parent, he always tried to set a good example for his son and daughter, going so far as to eat blueberries.
Mike dumped the remainder of his cool coffee into the sink, rinsed out the cup, and left it in the sink along with his bowl and spoon. Glancing out the window, he groaned quietly. He wished the rain had held off for another day. Not only did they have Sunday school and church services this morning, but they were taking Abby out to lunch and then to an afternoon matinee in Decatur.
"I ate all the cereal and some of the blueberries," M.J. said as he dumped a few drops of leftover milk and three-fourths of the blueberries into the garbage.
Mike nodded and smiled. Whenever he looked at his son, he saw Molly. He had her red-blond hair, blue eyes, and freckles. Hannah, on the other hand, resembled him. Same wide mouth, square jaw, dark hair, and blue eyes. But Hannah had Molly's sweet, easygoing disposition and his son definitely showed the potential to be the hell-raiser Mike had been as a teenager.
When Hannah placed her empty bowl in the sink, she looked at Mike and asked, "May I wear the dress I wore to Jack and Cathy's wedding to church this morning?"
"It's a little fancy for church, isn't it?" Mike knew little to nothing about young girls' clothes, but the floor-length green dress his mother had chosen for her to wear to the wedding wasn't something he thought appropriate for Sunday school.
"I like it a lot, Daddy. It's so pretty. It's the same color as Miss Lorie's maid of honor dress." Mike groaned again. Lorie Hammonds was the last woman on earth he wanted his daughter to emulate.
"Wear that little blue dress with the white collar," Mike told Hannah.
"I wore that last Sunday."
"Then pick out something else. But you cannot wear the green dress you wore to the wedding."
"Oh, all right."
"Go on now. Brush your teeth and get dressed." Mike tapped the face of his wristwatch. "I want you two ready to go in twenty minutes. You can recite your Bible verses to me on the way there."
Mike left the kitchen as it was. He could load the dishwasher and wipe off the table and countertops later. He needed a quick shower and a shave.
As he walked through the house, heading for his bathroom, he tried his damnedest not to think about Lorie. He had spent more time with her this past week than he had in all the years since she returned to Dunmore. Usually, he avoided her like the plague. But they had been thrown together constantly the past few days because he had been Jack's best man and she had been Cathy's maid of honor. Now that the wedding was over, there was no reason for him to see her again, which suited him just fine.
Mike turned on the shower, stripped out of his pajama bottoms and T-shirt, and stepped under the warm water. Okay, so he had a hard-on just thinking about Lorie. So what? She was a beautiful, desirable woman and he was a normal guy whose body reacted in a normal way when he thought about someone he found attractive. Lorie was extremely desirable, but she was all wrong for him and his kids. Thoughts of Abby Sherman might not cause an instant arousal, but Abby was a lady, someone he could be proud of, someone suitable as a stepmother for his children.
Lorie Hammonds was a slut!
The weather fit her mood to perfection. Dark, dreary, and dismal. Maleah Perdue stood at the kitchen window and watched the morning rainfall, the heavy downpour veiling the backyard in a watery mist. She had spent her first night alone in her childhood home, the place that held many happy memories from the first seven years of her life. And a place that inspired nightmares if she allowed herself to think of the other eleven years she had lived here. Eleven years under the tyrannical rule of her cruel, abusive stepfather.
Shaking her head slightly to dislodge the unpleasant memories, she turned away from the window and picked up her coffee mug from the counter. She wasn't a breakfast eater. A piece of fruit or a glass of juice usually held her until midday, but she couldn't make it without at least half a pot of coffee. She was addicted to caffeine.
Carrying the half-full mug with her as she wandered leisurely from the kitchen to the small den at the back of the house, she wondered if the newlyweds had arrived in the Bahamas yet. Her older brother, Jack, and his bride, Cathy, had gotten married yesterday. She had been a bridesmaid.
Maleah groaned. God, she hated weddings. But she loved Jack and thought the world of Cathy, so she had agreed to be in the wedding party. The idea of a happy marriage was an alien concept to her. Jack remembered her parents being happy, back when the four of them had been your normal, average American family. But she'd been in the first grade when her father had died in a car accident and her memories of him were at best sketchy. What she remembered was her mother's marriage to Nolan Reaves.
By the time she was old enough to date, she had known that she would never get married. She would never be able to trust a man enough to pledge until death do us part.
When she sat down and curled up on the lush leather sofa, one hand holding her mug, she reached out for the TV remote. She surfed through the channels until she found a local station's early morning news program. Keeping the sound muted, she lifted the mug to her lips and sipped on the strong, sweet coffee. Black, heavy on the sugar, or rather the sugar substitute. A girl had to watch her figure, and in Maleah's case, being only five-four and curvy, keeping trim was a constant battle. Just as she settled back and relaxed, her phone rang. When she'd come downstairs half an hour ago, she had slipped her phone into the pocket of her cotton knit sweater. Four years as an agent for the Powell Private Security and Investigation Agency, based in Knoxville, had taught her to never be without her iPhone.
Checking caller ID, she smiled and placed her mug atop a coaster on the end table. "Morning," she said. "What's up?"
Nicole Powell, Maleah's boss and close friend, laughed. It was good to hear Nic laughing again. She'd had a rough year. For a while, Maleah had wondered if Nic and Griff's marriage could survive, but recently they seemed to have worked through their problems. And even though Maleah knew that Griff still kept secrets from Nic, it wasn't her place to interfere in her best friend's marriage.
"I wanted to let you know that Griff and I are going away for a week, just the two of us. Sort of a second honeymoon. And I have no idea where we're going. Griff's keeping it top secret to surprise me."
What is it suddenly with all these honeymoons?
Only two honeymoons, she reminded herself. Just because you're allergic to marriage and all the trimmings doesn't mean other people don't have the right to take a chance on happily ever after.
"That's great. It sounds so romantic."
"If for any reason you need something while I'm gone, you'll have to go through Sanders," Nic said. "Naturally, Griff's leaving him in charge."
Excerpted from Dead by Midnight by BEVERLY BARTON Copyright © 2010 by Beverly Beaver. Excerpted by permission.
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