It was the murder that triggered everything. The moment Laurel HodgesVivian Stewart as of two years agoheard about it, everything she'd been through, everything she'd done to escape her past, came rushing back at her. And it happened at a place where she'd felt completely safe only seconds before. She was having highlights put in her hair at Claire's Salon, which wasn't much of a salon, just an add-on to her friend's small home.
Although Claire had grown up here, Vivian had lived in Pineview only since she'd assumed her most recent identity. She'd chosen this town because it had an extremely low crime rate, it was so far from where she'd been before and it was on the backside of nowhere. She'd never dreamed the people who'd been chasing her for four years would think to look here. And it'd been a long enough stretch of peace and quiet to believe the terrible years were over. She'd left her old self behind, adjusted, established her fledgling purse-design business and begun to live again. She and her two childrenMia, seven, and Jake, ninewere finally starting to belong.
And now, in the blink of an eye, everything they'd created here felt threatened.
"What'd you say?" Lifting the hood of the commercial hair dryer, she leaned out so she could hear. The postman, George Grannuto, had just walked through the doors Claire had flung wide so they could enjoy the breezy June morning while she vented the fumes of the hair-coloring chemicals.
"Pat Stueben's dead," he repeated, handing Claire her mail. "He's been murdered." His face, drained of its usual ruddy color, made him appear years older than he was. Vivian knew his exact agefifty-fivebecause she'd attended his birthday party last month. His wife was part of her Thursday-night book group.
Claire, only five foot three or so, leaned on the broom she'd been using to sweep up hair. Vivian had wanted a sassy cut to signify the freedom and happiness she'd been experiencing so often of late. She'd also gone back to being a blonde, which was her natural color. But going so short was a big change. Now she couldn't help staring at the dark brown locks lying on the floor, feeling as if she'd just shed her skin.
"How? When?" Claire brought a hand to her chest. George's words had obviously shocked her as much as they had Vivian. With the disappearance of her mother fifteen years ago and the death of her husband after only a few years of marriage, Claire had had more than her share of bad news. And now this
"Leanne and I saw him and Gertie at Fresh Ketch last night," she said. "They were in the booth next to ours."
Tall and bony, George resembled a cartoon stork delivering a baby when he carried his bulging mailbag down Claire's little dead-end street, and the shorts that went with his warm-weather uniform didn't improve his appearance. They revealed stiltlike legs with knobby knees and varicose veins. But he always wore a smile. Except today.
"Someone called him," he explained, "wanting to rent one of those cabins he owns over on the north shore. So after breakfast he drove around the lake to show the propertyand never came back."
If he'd said that Pat had died of a heart attack, Vivian wouldn't have found it difficult to believe. Pat was no longer as svelte as the picture posted on his real-estate signs. But
murdered? That couldn't be. They still didn't know what'd happened to Claire's mother, but no one had ever been killed in this tranquil place, not in recent memory. Folks here didn't even lock their doors at night. If the community had more deaths than some, that was because it had more seniors.
The old cloying fear welled up, making it hard for Vivian to breathe, let alone talk. After two attempts to clear her throat, she managed to find her voice. "Who discovered him?"
"Gertie." The clicking sound George made with his tongue was shorthand for "this makes it even worse."
"When he didn't come home, she drove over to see what was keeping him. You know how close they are. Were," he corrected. "The scene when she walked in was" He shook his head.
"She got there too late?" Claire asked this question; Vivian was still chasing words around the vortex of panic in her head.
George lowered his voice. "She found him lying in a pool of blood, beaten senseless. He died before he could tell her anything."
The hair on the back of Vivian's neck stood on end. Beaten senseless? Who could hate Pat enough to kill himand in such a violent manner? No one from Pine-view. He was popular, jovial, well-liked.
Did this tragedy mean what she thought it might?
"Do they know who did it?" Claire beat Vivian to the question that was uppermost in her mind. It was obviously important to Claire, too, and it wasn't hard to guess why, not with a mother who'd been missing for nearly two decades.
"I don't think so," George replied. "Maybe that would be different if we had cell phone service here, but we don't. And if the sheriff knows anything, he's not talking."
Sheriff King happened to be Vivian's next-door neighbor, so she knew him, at least a little. He wasn't the type to divulge details until he was good and ready, especially if doing so might jeopardize a case. Myles was a by-the-book kind of cop. He was also a handsome widower with a thirteen-year-old daughter. He'd asked Vivian out on occasion, but she'd never accepted. Claire said she was crazy for rejecting him, but she was still trying to get over Rex McCready, her brother's best friend who'd entered WitSecwitness protectionwhen she did. Besides, she was afraid to get too close to anyone who was unaware of her real situation for fear her past would come crashing into her present, just like it seemed to be doing today.
"How do you know all this?" There. She'd found her voice again. She'd also come to her feet.
"My route covers the whole lake." He gestured toward Crystal Lake, even though they couldn't see it from this part of town. Claire's house was artsy, in a hippie sort of way, but it was located on the poor side of Pineview.
Claire started to speak, but Vivian plowed over her. "You were at the scene?"
"I was. So was the coroner, the sheriff, some detectives and forensic techs from the county. Boy, were they were a grim bunch. The sheriff was downright stone-faced."
For good reason
Heedless of the hair clippings that remained on the floor, Claire set her broom aside. "Is he the one who told you about Pat?"
"No, C. C. Larsen did. When Gertie found him, she ran to C.C.'s to use the phone."
"But C.C.'s house is a quarter of a mile from those rentals," Claire said. Having lived here her whole life, she knew every street, every alley, every empty field and rental cabin. She'd searched them all, at some point, for her mother.
He adjusted his bag to redistribute the weight. "She didn't want to go to another rental for fear of who might be there. You can understand." Wrinkling his nose, he added, "C.C. and I watched 'em cart out the body."
"This is terrible," Vivian muttered, but she wasn't really thinking about what she was saying. She was wondering if the panic intensifying her sadness over Pat's death was justified or simply an echo of an earlier time.
"I tried to get a few more details from the sheriff, but
it was useless," George said. "He told me he's 'investigating the incident' and that he'll know more later. He also said everything will be okay. But I don't see how it can ever be okay for Gertie."
The sheriff had answered without really answering.
Vivian recognized his "cop-speak" because she'd heard it before. When her stepfather had been shot and killed, the investigators wouldn't tell her or her family anything. Not knowing what was really going on had been almost as agonizing as learning that they were placing the blame on Virgil, her older brother, and prosecuting him, at eighteen, for murder.
"We've got a right to more information than that," Claire complained. "It's our community, too."
George nodded. "I see those shows on TV. I know what can happen when a serial killer gets started. Psychopaths don't quit till someone stops 'em. And this sounds like a psychopath to me. Who else would beat a man to death for no reason?"
"Do you think maybe some drug addict wanted Pat's wallet and he wouldn't give it up?" Vivian grasped at any feasible explanation, hoping the truth wasn't what she feared.
"It's possible, I suppose," George replied. "C.C. told me that Gertie said his wallet was missing. But there was only about fifty bucks inside. Still, a bungled robbery would be better than a serial killer. Imagine someone like that Zodiac fella oror BTK setting up shop here in the Chain of Lakes."
Vivian couldn't imagine it. That was the problem. Claire's mother disappearing fifteen years ago was the only blemish on this town, and most folks believed she'd run off. Pineview, nestled so close to Crystal Lake, was picture-perfect. Safe. Close-knit. Stunningly beautiful. Untouched by the rest of the world. Apart from it, too. As George had said, Pineview didn't even have cell-phone reception.
It did, however, have its first modern-day murder.
"The FBI would descend on us. The media, too." George was expanding on his psychopath theory.
Claire checked the street, probably hoping to see her sister, Leanne, roll toward them in her motorized wheelchair. Crippled in a sledding accident when she was thirteen, Leanne drove it everywhere, even through the ruts on their road. "Maybe Chester over at the paper will get a letter from the killer, taunting Sheriff King."
George staggered under the weight of his bag. "Or someone else will die."
A real-estate agent beaten to death inside his own vacation rental spoke more of rage than a stalking type of murder, but Vivian didn't say so. She preferred to fade into the background, didn't want Claire or George to think she knew anything about the subject. No one here had any idea that her stepfather had been murdered, or that her brother had served fourteen years in prison before being exonerated. They had no idea of the problems that had started upon his release, either. Because all of that had happened to Laurel Hodges, not Vivian Stewart.
"If there's a serial killer running around, the danger is far from over," Claire said, but Vivian wasn't so sure this perpetrator had killed just for the thrill of it. If the violent gang her brother had joined while he was in prison had caught up with her yet again, it could be that Pat had merely gotten in the way. Like that U.S. marshal in one of the places she'd been before. The Crew had slit his throat and left him bleeding out on the floor. They would've killed her, too, if not for
She couldn't even think of what had almost happened, because it involved her children. The men who belonged to The Crew were ruthless. They'd proven that, hadn't they? They'd also proven that they could get hold of whatever information they wanted. Vivian was convinced that someone in the very agency charged with their protection had been talking. That was the only way The Crew could've found them before, when they were all living in D.C. So they'd left the witness protection program, assumed new identities yet again and separated. Other than Virgil, his wife, Peyton, and Rex, who lived in Buffalo, New York, no one knew where she was, not even their handler from WitSec who'd helped them relocate the first time. After all that, what more could she possibly do to keep her small family safe?
Should she have changed her children's names, too? Because children were so difficult to tracethey didn't sign up for credit cards or get jobs or do any of the other things that left a trailshe'd opted to keep their first names. They had a different last name, though, which they understood was because of her divorce. Her new first name, she'd told them, was because she liked it better. Even that had taken them a while to get used to.
"We need to look out for each other, report any strangers we see," Claire said.
"But it's tourist season," George responded. "There're always strangers this time of year, most of 'em young guys who've come to hunt or fish or canoe. And you know how rough some of 'em can look, with all their tattoos and body piercings."
"Then we'll have to keep an eye on all of them." Claire glanced at Vivian, anticipating her full agreement, and did a double take. "Oh, my God! We've got to get you rinsed!"