A serial killer terrorizes a small California town in this gripping thriller from #1 New York Times bestselling author Tami Hoag.
California, 1985—Four children and young teacher Anne Navarre make a gruesome discovery: a partially buried female body, her eyes and mouth glued shut. A serial killer is at large, and the very bonds that hold their idyllic town together are about to be tested to the breaking point.
Tasked with finding the killer, FBI investigator Vince Leone employs a new and controversial FBI technique called “profiling,” which plunges him into the lives of the four children—and the young teacher whose need to uncover the truth is as intense as his own.
But as new victims are found and pressure from the media grows, Vince and Anne find themselves circling the same small group of local suspects, unsure if those who suffer most are the victims themselves—or those close to the killer, blissfully unaware that someone very near to them is a murderous psychopath…
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My hero is my dad. He is a great person. He workshard, is nice to everyone, and tries to help people.
His victim would have screamed if she could have. He had seen toit she could not open her mouth. There would have been terror in hereyes. He had made certain she could not open them. He had renderedher blind and mute, making her the perfect woman. Beautiful. Seenand not heard. Obedient. He had immobilized her so she could notfight him.Sometimes he helps me with my homework becausehe is good at math and science. Sometimes weplay catch in the backyard, which is really funand cool. But he is very busy. He works very hard.
Her uncontrollable trembling and the sweat that ran down the sidesof her face showed her terror. He had locked her inside the prison ofher own body and mind, and there would be no escape.
The cords stood out in her neck as she strained against the bindings.Sweat and blood ran in thin rivulets down the slopes of her small,round breasts.My dad tells me no matter what I should alwaysbe polite and respect people. I should treat otherpeople the way I would like to be treated.
She had to respect him now. She had no choice. The power was allhis. In this game, he always won. He had stripped away all of her pretense,the mask of beauty, to reveal the plain raw truth: that she wasnothing and he was God.
It was important for her to know that before he killed her.My dad is a very important man in the community.
It was important that she had the time to reflect on that truth. Becauseof that, he wouldn't kill her just yet. Besides, he didn't have thetime.My dad. My hero.
It was nearly three o'clock. He had to go pick up his child fromschool.
Five Days Later
Tuesday, October 8, 1985
"You suck, Crane."
Tommy Crane sighed and stared straight ahead.
Dennis Farman leaned over from his desk, right across from Tommy's,his fat face screwed up into what he probably thought was a reallytough look.
Tommy tried to tell himself it was just a stupid look. Asinine. Thatwas his new word of the week. Asinine: marked by inexcusable failureto exercise intelligence or sound judgment. Definition number two: of,relating to, or resembling an ass.
That was Dennis, all the way around.
He tried not to think about the fact that Dennis Farman was biggerthan he was, a whole year older than he was, and just plain mean."You suck donkey dicks," Farman said, laughing to himself like hethought he was brilliant or something.
Tommy sighed again and looked at the clock on the wall above thedoor. Two more minutes.
Wendy Morgan turned around in her seat and looked at him withfrustration. "Say something, Tommy. Tell him he's a dork."
"Say something, Tommy,'" Farman parroted, making his voicereally high, like a girl's. "Or let your girlfriend talk for you."
"He doesn't have a girlfriend," Cody Roache, Farman's scrawnytoady, chimed in. "He's gay. He's gay and she's a lesbo."
Wendy rolled her eyes. "Shut up, Cockroach. You don't even knowwhat that means."
"Yes, I do."
"Because you are."
Tommy watched the clock tick one minute closer to freedom. Atthe front of the room, Miss Navarre walked back to her desk from thedoor with a yellow note in her hand.
If someone had tortured him, held fire to his feet, or stuck bambooshoots under his fingernails, he would have had to admit he was kindof in love with Miss Navarre. She was smart and kind, and reallypretty with big brown eyes and dark hair tucked behind her ears.
"Twat," Cockroach said, just loud enough that the bad word shotlike a poisoned dart straight to Miss Navarre's ear, and her attentionsnapped in their direction.
"Mr. Roache," she said in that tone of voice that cut like a knife."Would you like to come to the front of the room now and explain tothe rest of the class exactly why you will be staying in the room forrecess and lunch hour tomorrow?"
Roache wore his most stupid expression behind his too-big glasses."Uh, no."
Miss Navarre arched an eyebrow. She could say a lot with thateyebrow. She was sweet and kind, but she was no pushover.Cody Roache swallowed hard and tried again. "Um…; no,ma'am?"
The bell rang loudly, and everyone started to bolt from their seats.Miss Navarre held up one finger and they all froze like they were insuspended animation.
"Mr. Roache," she said. It was never a good thing when she calledsomeone Mr. or Miss. "I'll see you first thing tomorrow morning atmy desk."
She turned her attention to Dennis Farman, holding up the note inher hand. "Dennis, your father called to say he won't be able to pickyou up today, and you should walk home."
The second Miss Navarre dropped her hand, the entire fifth-gradeclass bolted for the door like a herd of wild horses.
"Why don't you stand up to him, Tommy?" Wendy demanded as theywalked away from Oak Knoll Elementary School and toward the park.Tommy hiked his backpack up on one shoulder. "'Cause he couldpound me into a pile of broken bones."
"He's all talk."
"That's easy for you to say. He hit me once in dodgeball and Ididn't breathe for like a week."
"You have to stand up for yourself," Wendy insisted, blue eyesflashing. She had long, wavy blonde hair like a mermaid's, which shewas always wearing in the styles of rock stars Tommy had never heardof. "Otherwise, what kind of man are you?"
"I'm not a man. I'm a kid, and I want to stay that way for a while."
"What if he went after me?" she asked. "What if he tried to hit meor kidnap me?"
Tommy frowned. "That's different. That's you. Sure, I'd try to saveyou. That's what a guy is supposed to do. It's called chivalry. Like inthe Knights of the Round Table or Star Wars."
Wendy flashed a smile and wound one blonde braid into a shapelike a cinnamon roll pressed against her ear. "Does that make mePrincess Leia?" she said, batting her eyelashes.
Tommy rolled his eyes. They turned off the sidewalk and onto atrail that cut through Oakwoods Park.
Oakwoods was a big park with part of it clipped and cleared andset up with picnic pavilions and a bandstand and playground. The restof it was more wild, like a forest with simple trails cut through it.A lot of kids wouldn't cut through the park because there werestories about it being haunted and homeless weirdos living in it, andsomeone claimed they once saw Bigfoot. But it was the shortest wayhome, and he and Wendy had been going this way since they were inthe third grade. Nothing bad had ever happened.
"And you're Luke Skywalker," Wendy said.
Tommy didn't want to be Luke Skywalker. Han Solo had all thefun, blasting around the galaxy with Chewbacca, breaking the rulesand doing whatever they liked.
Tommy had never broken a rule in his life. His day-to-day existencewas orderly and scheduled. Up at seven, breakfast at seven fifteen, toschool by eight. School let out at three ten. He had to be home by threeforty-five. Sometimes he walked. Sometimes one of his or Wendy'sparents picked them up, depending. When he got home he would havea snack and tell his mother everything that happened that day. From four until six fifteen he could go out and play—unless he had a pianolesson—but he had to be cleaned up and at the dinner table at sixthirty sharp.
It would have been a lot more fun to be Han Solo.
Wendy had moved on to other topics, chattering about her latestfavorite singer, Madonna, who Tommy had never heard of because hismother insisted they only listen to public radio. She wanted him togrow up to be a concert pianist and/or a brain surgeon. Tommy wantedto grow up to be a baseball player, but he didn't tell his mother that.That was between him and his dad.
Suddenly, behind them, came a blood-curdling war cry and whatsounded like wild animals crashing through the woods.
"RUN!!" Tommy yelled.
Dennis Farman and Cody Roache came leaping over a fallen log,their faces red from shouting.
Tommy grabbed Wendy's wrist and took off, dragging her alongbehind him. He was faster than Dennis. He'd outrun him before.Wendy was fast for a girl, but not as fast as he was.
Farman and Roache were catching up to them, their eyes buggingout of their heads like a gargoyle's. Their mouths were wide-open.They were still yelling, but Tommy could only hear the pounding ofhis heart and the crashing sound they made as they bounded throughthe woods.
"This way!" he yelled, veering off the trail.
Wendy looked back, yelling, "FART-MAN!!"
"JUMP!!" Tommy shouted.
They went over the edge of an embankment and flew through theair. Farman and Roache came flying after them. They landed like somany stones, hitting the ground and tumbling.
All the colors of the forest whirled past Tommy's eyes like a kaleidoscopeas he rolled, until he finally came to a stop on a soft moundof dirt.
He lay still for a moment, holding his breath, waiting for DennisFarman to jump on him. But he could hear Dennis moaning loudlysomewhere behind him.
Slowly Tommy pushed himself up on his hands and knees. Theground he was on had been turned over recently. It smelled like earth and wet leaves, and something else he couldn't name. It was soft anddamp and crumbly like someone had dug it up with a shovel. Likesomeone had buried something…; or somebody.
His heart jumped into the back of his throat as he raised hishead…; and came face-to-face with death.
At first, all Tommy could see was that the woman was pretty. Shelooked peaceful, like in The Lady of the Lake. Her skin was pale andkind of blue. Her eyes were closed.
Then slowly other things came into focus: blood that had drizzleddown her chin and dried, a slash mark across one cheek, ants marchinginto and out of her nostrils.
Tommy's stomach flipped over.
"Holy shit!" Dennis exclaimed as he came to stand beside thegrave.
Cody Roache, dirt on his face, glasses askew, screamed like a girl,bolted, and ran back the way they had come.
Wendy was as white as a sheet as she stared at the dead woman,but, as always, she had her wits about her. She turned to Dennis andsaid, "You have to go call your dad."
Dennis wasn't listening to her. He got down on his hands and kneesfor a closer look. "Is she really dead?"
"Don't touch her!" Tommy snapped as Dennis reached out a grubbyfinger to poke at the woman's face.
He had only ever seen one dead person in his whole life—his grandmotheron his father's side—and she was in a coffin. But he knew it justwasn't right to touch this woman. It was disrespectful or something."What if she's just asleep?" Dennis said. "What if she was buriedalive and she's in a coma?"
He tried to push up one of the woman's eyelids, but it wouldn'tbudge. He couldn't seem to take his eyes off the woman's face.To Tommy it looked as if something had been digging at the grave.One of the woman's hands was out of the dirt, as if she had been trying to reach out for help. The hand was mangled, like maybe someanimal had chewed on her fingers, tearing flesh and exposing bones.
He had fallen right on top of a dead woman. His head swam. Hefelt like someone had just poured cold water over him.
As Dennis reached out to touch the woman again, a dog steppedout of some bushes on the other side of the body and growled deep inits throat.
None of them moved then. The dog was mean-looking, white witha big black spot around one beady eye and over the small ear. The dogmoved forward. The kids moved backward.
"He's protecting her," Tommy said.
"Maybe he killed her," Dennis said. "Maybe he killed her and buriedher like a bone, and now he's back to eat the body."
He said it as if he hoped that was the case, and he couldn't wait towatch the next gruesome scene.
Then as suddenly as it had appeared, the dog stepped back into thebushes and was gone.
In the next second, a man in a sheriff's deputy's uniform appearedat the top of the bank the kids had tumbled over. He looked like agiant looking down at them, his hair buzzed flat on top, his eyes hiddenby mirrored sunglasses. He was Dennis Farman's father.
Tommy stood well back from the deputies who had come with yellowcrime-scene tape to mark off the area around the shallow grave.
He should have been home by now. His mother was going to be reallymad. He had a piano lesson at five. But he couldn't seem to make himselfleave, and he thought maybe he wasn't supposed to.
The light was fading in the thick woods. Somewhere out there wasa mad dog, and maybe even a murderer. He didn't want to walk homeanymore.
The adults on the other side of the tape weren't paying any attentionto him or Wendy. Dennis hung around just outside the tape, tryingto get a better look as the deputies did their jobs.
Cody Roache had run all the way back to the street and nearly gothimself run over by Dennis's father in his squad car. Tommy had heardthe deputies telling each other. Mr. Farman had come straight to thescene, but Cody had not come back.
"I wonder who she is," Wendy said quietly. She sat on the stump ofa tree that had been cut down over the summer. "I wonder how shedied."
"Somebody killed her," Tommy said.
"I think I want to go home now," Wendy said. "Don't you?"
Tommy didn't answer her. He felt like he was inside of a bubble,and if he tried to move the bubble would burst and all sorts of feelingswould wash over him and drown him.
People had come into the park to see what was going on. Theystood up on the bank—teenagers, a mailman, one of the janitors fromschool.
As he watched them, Miss Navarre appeared at the edge of thegroup. She spotted him and Wendy right away and made her way downto them.
"Are you guys all right?" she asked.
"Tommy fell on a dead person!" Wendy said.
Tommy said nothing. He had started to shake all over. Inside hishead all he could see was the dead woman's face—the blood, the gashin her cheek, the ants crawling on her.
"A deputy came into the school and said something had happened,"Miss Navarre said, looking over at the place where the deadlady was. She turned back then and touched Tommy's forehead andbrushed some dead leaves out of his hair. "You're really pale, Tommy.You should sit down."
Dutifully he sat down on the stump beside Wendy. Miss Navarrelooked as pale as either of them, but there was no more room on thestump.
"Tell me what happened," she said.
The tale spilled out of Wendy like rushing water. When she cameto the part where Tommy fell on the grave, Miss Navarre closed hereyes and said, "Oh my God."
She bent down to Tommy's level and looked him straight in theeyes. "Are you all right?"
Tommy gave the smallest nod. "I'm okay."
His voice sounded like it came from far away.
"Wait here," she said. "I'm going to ask the deputies if I can takeyou home."
She walked over to the yellow tape stretched between the trees andtried to get the attention of Dennis Farman's dad, who seemed to bethe big shot on the scene.
The two exchanged words. Miss Navarre gestured toward Dennis.Farman's father shook his head. They were arguing. Tommy could tellby the way they were standing—Miss Navarre with her hands on herhips, Mr. Farman puffing himself up and leaning over her. Then MissNavarre raised a hand and ended the discussion.
She was angry when she came back, although she did her best tohide it. Tommy could feel it all around her like frozen air.
"Come on," she said, reaching out her hands to them. "I'm takingyou home."
At ten Tommy generally considered himself too old to hold handswith an adult. He couldn't remember the last time his mother had heldhis hand. Kindergarten, maybe. But he didn't feel so grown-up now,and he took Miss Navarre's soft, smooth hand and held on tight as sheled them away from the terrible scene and out of the woods.
But the scene came with Tommy, stuck in his head; he felt sick atthe idea that it might never go away.