There are few authors who can weave nail-biting thrills, edge-of-your-seat drama, and romantic suspense as masterfully as Julie Garwood. Now she ratchets up the tension with Murder List, in which evil is on the hunt– and proves to be methodically organized and chillingly successful.
When Chicago detective Alec Buchanan is offered a prime position with the FBI, it is the perfect opportunity to leave the Windy City and follow in his brothers’ footsteps to the top echelons of law enforcement. But first he must complete one last assignment (and one that he is not too happy about): acting as a glorified bodyguard to hotel heiress Regan Hamilton Madison. The gorgeous exec has become entangled in some potentially deadly business. Someone has e-mailed her a graphic crime-scene photo–and the victim is no stranger.
Regan suspects that the trouble started when she agreed to help a journalist friend expose a shady self-help guru who preys on lonely, vulnerable women. In fact, the smooth-as-an-oil-slick Dr. Lawrence Shields may be responsible for the death of one of his devotees, which was ruled a suicide. Hoping to find some damning evidence, Regan attends a Shields seminar.
At the gathering, the doctor persuades his guests to partake in an innocent little “cleansing” exercise. He asks them to make a list of the people who have hurt or deceived them over the years, posing the question: Would your world be a better place if these people ceased to exist? Treating the exercise as a game, Regan plays along. After ten minutes, Shields instructs the participants to bring their sheets of paper to the fireplace and throw them into the flames. But Regan misses this part of the program when she exits the room to take a call–and barely escapes a menacing individual in the parking lot.
The experience is all but forgotten–until the first person on Regan’s list turns up dead. Shock turns to horror when other bodies from the list start to surface, as a harrowing tango of desire and death is set into motion. Now brutal murders seem to stalk her every move–and a growing attraction to Alec may compromise her safety, while stirring up tender emotions she thought she could no longer feel. Yet as the danger intensifies and a serial killer circles ever closer, Regan must discover who has turned her private revenge fantasies into grisly reality.
About the Author
JULIE GARWOOD is the author of many New York Times bestsellers, including Killjoy, Mercy, Heartbreaker, Ransom, and Come the Spring. There are more than thirty-two million copies of her books in print.
Read an Excerpt
Chapter One THE DEMON WANTED OUT.
The man wasn’t surprised or alarmed. The beast always began to stir at the end of the day when his mind wasn’t consumed with his job, and his body so desperately needed to relax.
For a long time, nearly a full year, the demon had hidden from him, and he hadn’t known it was there. And so he’d naively believed that he was having panic attacks, or spells, as he liked to think of them, because that somehow made them less threatening. They started with a yearning deep in his belly. It wasn’t altogether unpleasant. He likened the sensation to wrapping his arms around a hot stone to warm his freezing body, but as the day progressed, the stone began to get hotter and hotter, until it radiated unbearable heat. Anxiety would come over him then, horrific anxiety that would make his skin crawl and his lungs burn with the need to scream and scream and scream, and in desperation he would think about taking one of his special pills the doctor had prescribed, but he never did take anything, not even an aspirin, for fear the medication would weaken him.
He believed he was a good man. He paid his taxes, went to church on Sundays, and held down a full-time job. It was a stressful, had-to-stay-on-his-toes kind of job, requiring his full concentration, and there wasn’t time to think or worry about the heavy burden waiting for him at home. He didn’t mind the long hours. In fact, there were times he was grateful for them. He never ran from his responsibilities in his professional or his personal life. He took care of his invalid wife, Nina. At her insistence they had moved to Chicago for a new start after the accident. He’d found employment within two weeks of his arrival and had felt that was a good omen. It was a hectic but joyful time. He and Nina decided to use a small portion of the settlement money to purchase a spacious story-and-a-half house on the outskirts of the city, and once they were unpacked, he spent the summer evenings putting in ramps and modifying the first floor so that Nina wouldn’t have any trouble getting around in her new state-of-the-art, featherweight wheelchair. Nina’s legs had been mangled in the accident, and she would, of course, never walk again. He accepted what fate had dealt them and moved forward. He was relieved when his wife slowly regained her strength and learned to do for herself during the day.
When he was home, he insisted on pampering her. He prepared their dinner every night and did the dishes, then spent the rest of the evening with her watching their favorite television shows.
They’d been married ten years, and in all that time their love hadn’t diminished. If anything, the terrible accident had removed any possibility of their falling into complacency or taking each other for granted. And no wonder. His sweet, gentle Nina had died on that operating table, and then, miracle of miracles, had come back to him. The surgeons had worked through the night to save her. When he heard the news that she would recover, he got down on his knees in the hospital chapel and vowed to spend the rest of his life making her happy.
He lived a rich, full life . . . with one little exception.
Awareness of the demon hadn’t been gradual. No, enlightenment had come all at once.
It was the middle of the night. He hadn’t been able to sleep, and rather than toss and turn and possibly wake Nina, he went to the kitchen on the opposite end of the house and paced about. He thought a glass of warm milk might help calm his jitters and make him sleepy, but it really didn’t do much good. He was putting the empty glass in the sink when it slipped out of his hand and shattered in the basin. The sound seemed to reverberate throughout the house. He rushed to the bedroom door and stood outside, waiting and listening. The noise hadn’t awakened his wife, and he felt a moment of relief as he padded back to the kitchen.
His anxiety was building. Was he losing his mind? No, no. He was having one of his spells. That was all. And this one wasn’t so terrible. He could handle it.
The newspaper was on the counter where he’d left it. He picked it up and carried it to the table. He decided he would read every single page, or until he was so sleepy he couldn’t keep his eyes open.
He started with the sports section, read every word, and then moved on to the metropolitan news. He scanned an article about the dedication of a new park and jogging path, spread the paper wide and immediately saw the photo of a beautiful young woman standing in front of a group of men. She was posed with scissors ready to cut a ribbon draped from one stake to another across the path. And she was smiling at him.
He couldn’t take his eyes off her.
He was reading the names under the photo when it happened. He suddenly felt a crushing tightness, and he couldn’t catch his breath. A jolt very much like lightning raced through his heart causing excruciating pain. Was he having a heart attack, or was it another panic attack?
Try to calm down, he told himself. Just calm down. Take deep breaths.
The anxiety was growing even stronger, and with it came the horrific yet familiar terror. Then his skin began to burn and itch, and he frantically scratched his arms and legs as he jumped up and paced around the kitchen island. What was happening to him?
He realized he was running and forced himself to stop. Looking down, he saw the long, jagged scratches. There were bloody streaks on his arms and legs, some cuts so deep, blood dripped on the floor. He was close to exploding. He tore at his hair and whimpered, but the terror was taunting him now. Then, like a blinding light, the epiphany came. He suddenly realized he no longer had control over his own body. He couldn’t even make himself breathe.
With startling clarity he saw and understood. Someone else was breathing for him.
He awakened the following morning curled up in the fetal position on the kitchen floor. Had he fainted? He thought maybe he had. He staggered to his feet and braced his hands on the island to steady himself. Closing his eyes, he took several deep breaths and slowly straightened. He spotted the scissors on top of the folded newspaper. Had he placed them there? He couldn’t remember. He put the scissors back in the drawer where they belonged and picked up the newspaper to throw it into the recycle bin in the garage. He saw the clipping from the newspaper then. Both the article and the photo of the smiling woman were there in the center of his table, waiting for him. He knew who had placed them there. And he knew why.
The demon wanted her.
He buried his face in his hands and wept.
He knew that he must find another way to placate the beast. Physical activity seemed to help. He went to the gym and began to work out like a man obsessed. One of his favorite routines was to put on boxing gloves and pound the bag as hard as he could for as long as he could. He would lose track of time and stop only when he couldn’t raise his arms without suffering unbearable pain.
For days he’d kept his body in the state of perpetual exhaustion. Then, even that wasn’t enough.
Time was running out. The demon was consuming him. Ironically, it was his wife who gave him the idea. One evening, while she kept him company as he did the dishes, she suggested that he should have a night out. A night, she insisted, when he could enjoy himself and have some fun with his friends.
He put up quite an argument. There were already too many nights when he had to be away from her because of pressing commitments at work. And what about all the time he left to go running or to work out at the gym? Surely that was enough alone time.
She was more stubborn than he was and wouldn’t stop cajoling. He finally agreed, only to make her happy.
And so, tonight would be his first night out. He could already feel the adrenaline pumping. He was as nervous and excited as he had been when he had gone on his first date.
Before leaving home, he told Nina he would be heading into the city after work to meet some friends at Sully’s, a popular bar and grill, but she wasn’t to worry; if he had more than one drink, he wouldn’t drive home. He’d take a cab.
All of it was a lie.
No, he wasn’t going to the city to relax. He was going there to hunt.
Chapter Two REGAN MADISON HAD SPENT THREE MISERABLE DAYS AND NIGHTS surrounded by sleazebags. They seemed to be everywhere—in the airports, at the hotel, and on the streets of Rome as well. A sleazebag, as she defined him, was a lecherous but rich old man with a mistress less than half his age hanging on his arm. Regan had never really paid any attention to such couples be- fore her stepfather, Emerson, married Cindy, his child bride. Regan understood the appeal. Cindy had the body of a strip- per. She also had the IQ of plywood. And that made her perfect for him.
Fortunately for Regan, the deliriously happy and definitely dysfunctional couple stayed on in Rome while she flew home to Chicago. Exhausted from her long flight, she went to bed early and slept a full eight hours thinking that tomorrow would be a better day.
She was wrong about that.
She awakened at six o’clock the following morning feeling as though a thousand rubber bands were wrapped around her left knee, cutting off her circulation. She had banged it on her dresser the night before and hadn’t taken the time to ice it. The pain was nearly unbearable. Throwing her covers back, she sat up and rubbed her knee until the throbbing subsided.
Her bad knee was the result of an injury in a charity baseball game. She had been playing first base, doing a creditable job too, until she pivoted the wrong way and tore her meniscal cartilage. The orthopedic surgeon she’d consulted advised surgery and assured her she’d be back in action in just a few days, but Regan kept putting the procedure off.
She swung her feet off the bed and leaned forward to stand, cautiously putting her weight on the sore knee. Then, as if she weren’t miserable enough, she started sneezing, and her eyes began to water.
Regan had a love/hate relationship with her hometown. She loved the galleries and the museums, thought the shopping was every bit as wonderful as it was in New York—an opinion her two best friends, Sophie and Cordelia, vehemently disagreed with—and she believed that at least eighty percent of the inhabitants were good, decent, law-abiding citizens. Most smiled when she passed them on the street; some even said hello. Like the majority of Midwesterners, they were friendly and polite, but not intrusive. They were hardy souls, even though they loved to complain about the weather, especially in the winter months when the wind really did feel like knives slicing through your back or chest, depend- ing on whether you were walking away from Lake Michigan or toward it.
For Regan, however, spring was a real nuisance. She suffered from allergies, and each spring, while ragweed and mold flourished, she turned into a walking pharmacy. Yet, she refused to let it slow her down. On the days when the air was heavy or the pol- len count was sky high, she stuffed packets of tissues, aspirin, antihistamines, decongestants, and eyedrops into her purse and kept on going.
She had a full day scheduled and knew she should get cracking, but all she wanted to do was crawl under the soft down comforter in her soft warm bed. It was so good to be home.
Home for Regan was a suite at The Hamilton, one of the five-star hotels owned and operated by her family. It was located in the fashionable Water Tower district of Chicago and boasted a reputation for elegance, sophistication, and comfort. For the time being, she was satisfied with her living arrangements. She had everything she needed at the hotel. The corporate offices were there, and so her work was conveniently an elevator ride away. Besides, she had known most of the staff her entire life and thought of them as family.
As much as she wanted to go back to bed, she didn’t give in to the urge. Shoving her hair out of her eyes, she staggered into the bathroom, washed her face and brushed her teeth, then put on her workout clothes, clipped her hair in a ponytail, and took the elevator up to the eighteenth floor to do two miles on the new, indoor track. She wasn’t about to let a little bout of hay fever or any aches and pains in her knee set her back. Two miles every day, no matter what.
By seven-thirty she was back in her room and had showered, dressed, and eaten her standard breakfast of wheat toast, grapefruit, and hot tea.
Regan had just sat down at the desk in the parlor suite to go over her notes when the phone rang.
Cordelia was calling to check in. “How was Rome?”
“Was your stepfather there?”
“Yes, he was.”
“So how could the trip have been okay? Come on, Regan. You’re talking to me, Cordie.”
Regan sighed. “It was awful,” she admitted. “Just awful.”
“I take it stepdaddy had his new bride with him?”
“Oh, yes, she was there.”
“Is she still hanging out of everything Escada?”
Regan smiled. Cordie did have a way of making the most horrid situations amusing. She knew what her friend was doing— trying to lighten the mood. It worked too. “Not Escada,” she corrected. “Versace. And yes, she’s still spilling out of everything Versace.”
Cordie snorted. “I can just picture it. Were your brothers there?”
“Aiden was, of course. The hotel in Rome was his pet project, and he was his usually serious self. I don’t think I’ve seen him smile in years. Guess that goes with being the oldest.”
“What about Spencer and Walker?”
“Spencer had to stay in Melbourne. Some last-minute problems developed with the design for the new hotel. Walker was there, but only for the reception. He wanted to rest up before the race.”
“So did you speak to him?”
“Yes, I did.”
“Good for you. You’ve finally forgiven him then, haven’t you?”
“I guess I have. He was only doing what he thought was right. Time has given me some perspective, as you predicted, so go ahead and gloat. Besides, I’d feel terrible if he used up all of his lives before I let him know I’d forgiven him. He wrecked another car last month,” she added.
“And walked away without a scratch on him, right?”
“I’m glad you aren’t mad at him anymore.”
“I just wish he wouldn’t jump the gun the way he does. He’s so impulsive. I have a couple of dates with a man, and he’s hiring people to investigate him.”
“Excuse me. You had more than a couple of dates with Dennis.”
“Yes, well . . .”
“At least you didn’t let him break your heart. I know for a fact you didn’t love him.”
“How did you know?”
“When you broke up, you didn’t shed a tear. Face it, Regan, you cry at Puppy Chow commercials. If you didn’t cry over Dennis, your heart wasn’t really in it. And just for the record, I’m thrilled you dumped him. He was all wrong for you.”
“At the time I didn’t think he was all wrong. I thought he was close to perfect. We had so much in common. He loved the theater, the ballet, and the opera, and he didn’t mind attending all those fund-raisers. I thought we had the same values—”
“But that wasn’t the real Dennis, was it? He was after your money, Regan, and you’ve got too much going for you to put up with that nonsense.”
“You aren’t going to give me another pep talk about how pretty and smart I am, are you?”
“No, I don’t have time to do the pep talk now. I’ve got to get back to the lab before one of my students blows it up. I’m calling to make sure you got home okay and to ask if you want to have dinner tonight. I’m starting my grapefruit diet tomorrow.”
“I wish I could, but I’m swamped with work. I’m going to be playing catch-up for a week,” she said.
“Okay, then plan on Friday, and I’ll start the diet on Saturday. We both need to have some fun,” Cordie protested. “Last week was awful for me. Monday one of the kids dropped a box of supplies, and every one of the new beakers broke. Then Tuesday I found out my budget for next year has been cut in half. In half,” she stressed. “Oh, and on Wednesday Sophie called and asked me to do an errand for her, and that turned out to be pretty awful too.”
“What was the errand?”
“She made me go to the police station to check on something.”
“You’ll have to wait to hear the gory details. Sophie made me promise not to say anything. She wants to explain it to you.”
“She’s cooking up another scheme, isn’t she?”
“Maybe,” she answered. “Uh-oh. One of my students is frantically waving to me. Gotta go.”
She hung up before Regan could say good-bye. Five mintues later Sophie called. She didn’t waste time on pleasantries.
“I need a favor. A big one.”
“Rome was fine. Thank you for asking. What kind of favor?”
“Say yes first.”
Regan laughed. “I haven’t fallen for that ploy since kindergarten.”
“Then meet me for lunch. Not today,” she hurried to add. “I know you’re probably swamped with work, and I’ve got two meetings back to back I can’t miss. Maybe we could do it tomorrow or the day after. I’ll need a couple of hours.”
“A couple of hours for lunch?”
“Lunch and a favor,” she corrected. “We could meet at The Palms at twelve-thirty on Friday. Cordie’s through at noon, and she could join us. Can you do Friday?”
“I’m not sure I—”
“I really need your help.”
She sounded pitiful. Regan knew it was deliberate manipulation, but she decided to let her get away with it.
“If it’s that important . . . ,” she began.
“Okay, I’ll make it work.”
“I knew I could count on you. Oh, by the way, I checked with Henry to make sure your calendar was clear next weekend, and I told him to pencil me in.”
“For the entire weekend? Sophie, what’s going on?”
“I’ll explain it to you at lunch, and you’ll have a whole week to think about it.”
“I loved the picture in the newspaper. Your hair looked great.”
“Sophie, I want to know—”
“I’ve got to get going. I’ll see you Friday at twelve-thirty at The Palms.”
Regan wanted to argue, but it was pointless since Sophie had already hung up the phone. She checked the time, then grabbed her PDA and rushed out the door. Paul Greenfield, a senior staff member and a dear friend, was waiting in the lobby. Regan had known Paul since she was a teenager. She’d worked as his in- tern during the summer months of her junior year in high school, and for those three months she’d been madly in love with him. Paul had known about her infatuation—she’d been ridiculously obvious about what her mother called a bad crush—but he was very sweet about it. Married now with four children of his own who ran him ragged, he always had a ready smile for her. Paul’s hair was graying at the temples and he wore bottle-thick glasses, but Regan still thought he was extremely handsome. He was holding what looked like a five-hundred-page printout in his arms.
“Good morning, Paul. Looks like you’ve got your hands full.”
“Good morning,” he replied. “Actually, these are for you.”
“Oh?” she took a step back.
He grinned. “Sorry, but about an hour ago I got an e-mail from your brother Aiden.”
“Yes?” she asked when he hesitated.
“He was wondering why he hasn’t heard from you.”
He tried to hand the stack of papers to her. She took another step back and smiled. “What exactly does Aiden want to hear?”
“Your opinion of his report.”
“He wrote all that? When in heaven’s name did he have time to write a five-hundred-page report?”
“Two hundred and ten pages,” he corrected.
“Okay. When did he have time to write a two-hundred-and-ten-page report?”
“You know your brother doesn’t sleep.”
Or have a life, she thought but didn’t dare say because it would have been disloyal. “Apparently not,” she said. “What kind of report is it?”
Paul smiled. She was looking at the pages as though she expected a jack-in-the-box to jump out at her. “Aiden’s plans for expansion,” he said. “He needs to know what you think before he can go forward. All the numbers are there. Spencer and Walker have already gotten on board.”
“Bet they didn’t have to read the thing.”
“Actually, no, they didn’t.”
She could see the guilty look on his face as he transferred the pages into her arms. She balanced the PDA on top.
“Aiden didn’t even mention this when we were in Rome. He now thinks I should have already read it?”
“There’s obviously been a mix-up. This is the second time I’ve had to have the pages printed for you. The first copy seems to have disappeared. I gave it to Emily,” he said, referring to Aiden’s assistant. “She insists she gave it to Henry to pass on to you.”
“If she had given the report to Henry, he would have given it to me.”
Paul was always diplomatic. “It’s a puzzle, but I don’t believe either one of us should waste time or energy trying to figure it out.”
“Yes, right. A puzzle.” She couldn’t keep the irritation out of her voice. “We both know that Emily—”
He didn’t let her continue. “We shouldn’t speculate. How- ever, your brother is waiting to hear from you, hopefully by noon today.”
“He told me to tell you not to worry about the time difference.”
She gritted her teeth. “Okay. I’ll read it this morning.”
His smile indicated he was pleased with her decision. “If you have any questions, I’ll be in my office until eleven. Then I’m on my way to Miami.”
He was walking away when she called out, “You knew I’d cave, didn’t you?”
His laughter was her answer. Regan checked the time, groaned, and then straightened her shoulders and headed to her office.
Chapter Three THE MURDER WAS A MISTAKE.
He stood in the shadows of a building near the Water Tower district watching the entrance, waiting for the chosen one to appear. The damp, cool night air settled in his bones. He was miserable but didn’t dare give up, and so he continued to hide there waiting and hoping for over two hours. Then he finally accepted that he had failed.
Defeated, he climbed back into his Jeep and headed home. Tears came into his eyes, so severe was his disappointment and shame. He heard someone sob, realized that he had made the sound, and impatiently wiped the tears from his cheeks.
He couldn’t stop shaking. He had failed. What would the demon do to him now? He sobbed again.
And then, just as he was about to scream with the despair, the answer came. He saw the entrance to Conrad Park and suddenly knew the demon had guided him to where he needed to go. The jogging trail circled the university and the park in a per- fect figure eight. He remembered seeing the diagram in the news- paper along with a long article about a festival. The proceeds would go to some sort of charity, but he couldn’t remember which one.
You’ll find her here, the demon whispered.
He was suddenly relieved. He found a perfect parking spot along the street next to the university. He pulled up beside a telephone pole. There was a poster for a coming race north of the city nailed to it. The poster showed a pretty young woman crossing a finish line.
He started to open the door and then froze. He wasn’t dressed properly. He’d worn his cheap but serviceable black suit with a white shirt and pinstriped tie because he thought he’d find her down by the Water Tower district, and he wanted to blend in with the other businessmen going home from work. He had stuffed a baseball cap in his pocket and planned to put it on once he started following her so that no one else on the street would be able to identify him after the fact.
What should he do?
Make the best of it, the demon hissed.
He grabbed his briefcase and decided to act as though he were a professor at the university, walking in a hurry. It wasn’t such a stretch. Yes, he could pull it off.
The weather had turned foul again. It had rained hard every day for the past four days, but it was supposed to be clear tonight. The weatherman had obviously been wrong. Damn, he should have thought to bring his umbrella along. It was too late to get one now.
Gripping the vinyl handle of the briefcase in his left hand, he walked quickly along the trail, trying to act as though he knew where he was headed. He walked for almost a mile, a fine mist covering his clothes, the urgency building inside him as he searched for the perfect spot. There weren’t many wooded areas, and he knew the specimen would be more cautious and watchful there.
He wasn’t too concerned that the mist would keep her away. Runners run, no matter the weather. And there was an impor- tant race to get ready for, he thought. Oh, yes, he would find her there.
But where should he hide? He kept walking, looking for a good spot. New lights designed to look like old-fashioned gas lamps were spaced along the path about twenty feet apart, some even closer together near the back of a building he was approaching. A sign with an arrow pointing to the building indicated it was a lecture hall. “Won’t do, won’t do,” he muttered. Too much light for what he intended.
His suit was soaked through, and still he continued on. What was that against the wall? He walked closer, stepped off the path, and then stopped. A shovel? Yes, that’s what it was.
There were three large holes along the side of the stone building where shrubs had been pulled out to make room for new ones. One of the workmen had obviously left the shovel be- hind. And a few other items as well. On the ground next to the shovel was an orange tarp folded haphazardly, and sticking out from one edge was a hammer, rusty but adequate. He seized it, measured the weight and grip in his hand, and held it close to his side. He hadn’t thought to bring a weapon. He was strong, ter- ribly strong, and he believed he could subdue any woman, no matter her size, with his bare hands. The hammer might make it easier to convince her not to struggle. Better safe than sorry, he thought.
He walked around the curve in the path and gasped with excitement. A renovation was in progress. There was a pyramid of dead shrubs and trees, the roots like dried-up octopus tentacles reaching into the path. The trash was waiting to be carted away. He looked around for signs of anyone who could see or hear, then picked up a rock, and with his first pitch, broke the lamplight nearest the pile. Still too bright, he decided and threw another rock to break a second lamp.
“Perfect,” he whispered. A perfect little nest.
He kept thinking about those big, deep holes someone had thoughtfully left for him. A couple of them were on the south side of the building, but there were two more adjacent to the path with neon orange cones around them. Although he was wearing gloves, he still brushed his palms against his pants as he hunkered down behind the stack of foul-smelling, decomposing rot. His loafers sank into the mud. He gingerly placed the cheap attaché case on the ground next to him and took a deep, calming breath.
His senses were heightened by adrenaline, and he was more attuned to his surroundings. He could hear every little sound, smell every musty scent.
He heard the pounding of feet against the pavement as a runner approached. He smiled with satisfaction. Runners run, no matter what. He scrunched down lower still and squinted through the triangular opening he’d made between the branches. He watched the spot under a bright light he knew the runner would have to pass.
“Yes.” The runner was indeed a woman. But was she the right woman? Was she the perfect chosen one? He couldn’t see her face—she was looking down at the path as she sped along. He could see her slim, atheletic body, though, and her thick, dark hair pulled back in a ponytail. She had to be the one. He stared at her long, luscious, incredibly perfect legs.
Clutching the hammer like a baseball bat, he prepared to spring.
He didn’t mean to kill her. He wanted only to daze her. Too late, he discovered his timing was off. He should have let her get past him and then struck her from behind, at the base of her skull, but he was too eager and too inexperienced. She was a fighter, clawing at his face as he struggled to take her down.
He dodged her hands, and when he was finally able to get a good look at her face, he realized she was seeing him clearly. Panic set in, and then fury.
She was pulling pepper spray from her pocket and screaming at the top of her lungs. He struck her hard—one blow from the hammer—and she collapsed. The demon wouldn’t let it end there. Again and again he struck her legs, pounding her knees and her thighs and her ankles.
There was blood everywhere.
Luck stayed on his side, for the mist had turned into a hard rain. He turned his face up to the sky and let the cold rainwater wash the blood away. The crimson stream flowed under his shirt collar giving him goose bumps. He closed his eyes to rest.
He suddenly bolted upright. How long had he been squatting next to her body, stupidly looking up at the black sky while anyone and his uncle could have wandered by?
He shook his head. He had to hide the body.
The holes. Those beautiful, big holes on the side of the building. Dare he risk carrying her all that way? Or should he use the shovel and dig a better hole underneath all the dead shrubs. Yes, that’s what he would do. But not yet. He quickly hid her under some branches, then found a spot near the shovel to hunker down and wait. After midnight, when he was sure no one would disturb him, he moved the dead branches and dug a pit for her. He made sure it was deep enough to cover her folded body. As he dragged her to the hole, both shoes and one of her socks came off, so he threw them in. He stuffed her into the hole butt first, shoveled dirt on top of her and patted it down, and then dragged the rotting branches and dead shrubs over his work.
After he covered his footprints as best he could, he stood off to the side of the path to survey his handiwork. He was relieved to see that the rain had already washed the blood away from the walk.
The shaking started when he got back in his Jeep. He could barely get the key into the ignition, so undone was he by what had just happened. By the time he got home, an overwhelming sensation of peace and tranquility eased through his limbs, and he was feeling just like he used to after sex. Satisfied, content, relaxed.
And guilt free. That surprised him a little. He really didn’t feel any guilt at all. But then, why should he? The woman had tricked him, and for that reason alone she deserved to die.
Two other runners had passed by while he’d waited to bury the body, and either one of them, both males, might have noticed the bloodstains the rain hadn’t completely washed away yet. Yes, he’d taken quite a risk tonight.
He flipped the car lights off before he turned the corner so the nosy bitch neighbor wouldn’t see him pulling into his drive. Several weeks before, he’d removed the garage door light. As he approached his house, he drove at a snail’s pace. There she was, standing at her kitchen window, staring out. She was always checking on the neighbors.
She disappeared just as the garage door went up. Her name was Carolyn, and she was becoming more than just a pain in the ass. Too bad Carolyn didn’t live alone. She took care of her mother. One would think that the old woman would keep her occupied, but apparently that wasn’t so. Carolyn was a busybody and intrusive, always wondering when she could stop by to meet Nina. If she kept it up, he would have to do something about her.
After he parked in his garage, he pulled a wooden crate from a shelf and laid the bloody hammer in the bottom. Then he emptied his pockets. The pepper spray and driver’s license he’d impulsively taken from the woman went into the box next. He shoved the crate and the attaché case into a corner. After that, he stripped and put his muddy clothes and shoes in a trash bag.
He had to be quiet. He didn’t want to awaken Nina, and so he decided he’d sleep in the guest room. He silently crossed the house and climbed the stairs. When he saw his face in the bathroom mirror, he gasped and recoiled in horror. What had the woman done to him? His face looked like raw hamburger. He quickly turned on the faucet and used a cloth to gently wash the blood away. Her nails had ripped long tears in his skin on both sides of his face. There was even one long scratch down the side of his neck. He raged against her as he stepped into the shower and turned the water on. His arms were a mess, too.
My God, what if someone had seen him on the drive home? How many times had he sat at stoplights looking left and right. Maybe one of the other drivers had already called the police and given them his license plate number.
He began to bang his head against the tile. They’ll catch me; they’ll catch me. What will I do? Oh, God, what will happen to Nina? Who will take care of her? Will she be forced to watch me being dragged away in handcuffs? That humiliation was too appalling to think about, and so he did what he had trained himself to do while Nina was in the critical care unit at the hospital. He forced himself to block the image until it disappeared.
He stayed inside his house all weekend, glued to the television set, waiting to hear the newscasters talk about the murder. As time went by, he became strangely detached because the woman hadn’t been discovered. By Tuesday, he counted himself lucky and was feeling quite confident.
Not bad, he told himself. Not bad at all for a dress rehearsal.
He’d even come up with the perfect explanation for his scratches. The rain had made the ground slick and he’d slipped and fallen into some thorny bushes.
His department head, a pissant of a man, called him into his office on Wednesday at four to tell him that everyone had noticed how hard he was working and how cheerful he had been these past three days. Why, one of his colleagues had mentioned that he’d even told a joke. The pissant hoped that he would continue with this bright, fresh, wonderful attitude.
As he was leaving his boss’s office, he was asked a question. What had caused this transformation? Spring, he’d told him. He was ignoring the foul weather and relandscaping his entire backyard. He was having a delightful time, but he wasn’t doing any planting yet. The ground was warm now, and he was tearing up everything. Out with the old and in with the new. He was even thinking about building a gazebo.
“Do be careful pulling out those shrubs,” the pissant cautioned. “You don’t want to fall into any more thorny bushes and get hurt again. You’re lucky the scratches didn’t become infected.”
Indeed. He most certainly didn’t want any more scratches, and yes, he was a very lucky man.