Read an Excerpt
Present Day, Honey Ridge, Tennessee
Brody hated Fridays. He knew what would happen if he went home. So he didn't. He hung out at the library until it closed, and then, wishing he had money for a hamburger, he wandered down to his spot on Magnolia Creek. It was a pretty good hike, a couple of miles out of town past the Griffin sisters' peach orchard and through a hundred yards of tangled weeds, but at eleven, he was up for it. He could have run that far and not been out of breath.
When the night surrounded him and clouds gathered in the inky sky, he once more contemplated going home. He was hungry, but food wasn't always worth the trouble. He wasn't afraid of the dark or of being alone deep in the country. Home was a whole lot scarier.
Stretched out on the cool earth with his hands stacked behind his head, he listened to the peaceful night sounds, the sawing rhythm of katydids that sometimes grew so loud he felt as if they were inside him, and the splash of bullfrogs diving from the nearby bank.
A rumble of thunder sounded in the distance. It was probably somewhere far off, clean over in the mountains. He wouldn't worry about that. He didn't mind a little rain. If he had to, he could hightail it past the inn to the abandoned gristmill, even though the place was kind of spooky.
The mill was probably haunted. That's what his buddy Spence said. The last time they'd gone there to explore, Spence had heard something and freaked out, so Brody would rather not go to the mill unless he had to.
Would the old man be passed out by now? Or would he be waiting with clenched fist and a hankering to take out his hatred of life on the good-for-nothing son of the good-forless woman who'd left them both so long ago the boy had forgotten her? Mostly. Somehow it was Brody's fault that his mother had left, and the old man never let him forget it, though he never gave a reason. Brody was pretty much clueless about his absentee mother. His angry father he understood, but thoughts of his mother left him lonely and nursing guilt he didn't understand. He must have done something really bad to make her up and leave that way.
A mosquito buzzed somewhere in the humid darkness. He listened close while the pest came in for a landing, waited until the sound stopped and then he swatted. A few bug bites was better than the alternative.
He didn't like killing anything, even bugs, but as the old man would say, "It's a dog-eat-dog world. Eat the dog before he eats you."
Something about that didn't sound right to Brody, but what did he know? That's what the old man always said. A punk kid like Brody didn't know nothing.
He sighed at the moon and closed his eyes.
Better catch some z's and wait awhile longer. The old man was a bull, and once enraged, he had blood in his eyes. Clint Thomson was seldom anything but enraged on payday, especially when it came to his good-for-nothing son.
* * *
It was a dark and stormy night, a cliché Hayden Winters dearly loved. These broody, moody nights of lightning and thunder and violent wind fueled his imagination like no other. A man intent on committing murder
The storm had moved in around midnight, interrupting his original plans to sleep. He could never sleep on a night like this. Didn't want to, especially here in a house filled with memories and secrets.
Everyone, he believed, had a secret, and the South was filled with them. That's why he'd come.
Hayden had a secret, too, a psychological cankerworm. One that was eating a raw, black hole in his soul. Not that he'd ever let anyone see inside to know that much about him. To the world, Hayden Winters was a winner, a success, a man who brushed problems away with a charming smile. He was a man invited to the best parties he seldom attended and who gave rare but coveted interviews. A man with a charmed life. But on these dark, moody, broody nights the demons danced around the edges of his fertile mind. He wondered at his sanity, and he knew it was only by a merciful God that he was strong of constitution and could keep the demons in their rightful place. Most of the time.
So he killed people. Dozens of them. Books littered with bodies fed some perverse need in the populace and kept his bank account fat and happy.
In the elegant rented bedroomthe Mulberry Roomlit only by the glow of his laptop, Hayden rose, went to the windows to watch and listen as rain lashed the sides of Peach Orchard Inn with its silver-on-black fingers clawing to get in.
The view outside was far different from what it had been upon his arrival earlier today. An Australian shepherd, graying around the edges, had drowsed on the long and glorious antebellum veranda. Hayden had immediately envisioned himself on the wicker furniture, feet up on the railing with a glass of Julia Presley's almost-famous peach tea and his imagination in flight.
The two-story columned mansion had shone in the sun, glowing in its whiteness with dark-trimmed shutters, flowers spilling everywhere and thick vines twining like great green arms around the oak trees. He'd driven down the winding lane of massive magnolias right into an antebellum past, far from the distractions and manic pace of the modern world.
Peach Orchard Inn, a simple name for a magnificent house, restored, he would bet, to better than its former glory. His assistant, who knew him better than most, though not well, had discovered the inn while on vacation and suggested he write the next bestseller here. Exhausted by the city bustle and another romance gone sour, he'd jumped at the idea. His ex should have taken him at his word. He'd told her from the beginning that he was neither husband nor father material. The reasons for this aversion he'd kept to himself, more for her protection than his. She didn't know that, though, and had been hurt.
He hated hurting people. Other than in his books. And the latest episode had driven him deeper into himself. A man like him ought not to need other people.
He could work here, rest here, research small-town secrets for the next thriller. There were plenty of interesting places to commit murder.
Across the road, a single light glowed like a beacon in the storm. The source was the abandoned, dilapidated gristmill that had once been part of this farm. He knew this because he was ferociously curious and knowing was his business. Abandoned buildings provided perfect places to get away with murder. He'd be suitably inspired here among the hills and hollows of southern Tennessee.
A blue-fire javelin of lightning, fierce as a bolt straight from the hand of Zeus, slit the night like a fiery blade. Gorgeous stuff.
Hayden stretched, rolled his neck, considered a walk in the violence.
He'd be up most of the night during a wild thunderstorm of this magnitude. He could feel the yet-unformed story brewing in his blood, a bubbling cauldron of energy and creativity.
Coffee, and plenty of it, was a must. He wasn't a Red Bull kind of guy. Something about it seemed addictive to him, and if there was anything he feared greater than losing his only useful resourcehis fertile mindit was addiction. Addictions came, he knew, in many forms.
Leaving the laptop curser to blink a blind eye, he let himself out of the luxurious Mulberry Room and made his way down shadowy stairs carpeted in bloodred, his hand on the smooth wooden banister, taking care on the creaky third step he'd noticed earlier. No self-respecting author of murder and mayhem missed a creaky step.
Lightning illuminated the curved staircase, and thunder rumbled like a thousand kettle drums. The house stood steady, quiet even, as if it had weathered too much to be bothered by a thunderstorm. There were stories here. He could feel them.
Hayden's Scots-Irish blood heard the dance of his ancestors in the thunder, saw wave-tossed fishing vessels on storm-gray seas and imagined a woman standing on the shore, hand to her forehead, watching while in the misty shadows lurked the equally watchful predator, biding his time.
Hayden tucked away the image for future reference. The new book was to explore the dark undercurrents hidden behind the welcoming smiles and sweet tea of a small town in the rural South, not the storm-tossed coasts of Ireland.
At the base of the stairs, he crossed the foyer through to an area the proprietress had termed the front parlor, a room of times past with a marble fireplace enclosure and Victorian decor, and into the much more modern kitchen. He fumbled for a light switch, mildly concerned about waking the sister-owners who resided somewhere on the first floor, but dismissed the concern in favor of coffee.
A quick survey of the brown granite countertops revealed no coffeemaker. He cursed himself for not remembering to ask about essential coffee equipment in his rented room, of which there was none. Here, in the large copper-and-cream kitchen, the coffee machine could be anywhere. He had no luck locating it but found a tea bag caddie, a discovery that made him snarl.
While he pondered the usefulness of lemon zinger tea, his cell phone buzzed against his hip. He winced at the sudden racket, though if the thunder didn't wake the house, a ringtone shouldn't. Still, out of consideration and being the new guest in the place, he slapped the phone silent. He'd intended to dump the device in the bottom of his suitcase and forget it for a few days, but out of habit, he'd stuck the phone in his back pocket.
"A pity," he grumbled. "And stupid."
He knew who the caller was. The only person who ever called him in the dead of night. She'd been the one who taught him never to sleep too soundly.
"Hello, Dora Lee."
He heard her quivery intake of breath and braced himself for the histrionics or cursing. One or the other was inevitable.
When she didn't respond, a tingle of worry forced a regrettable question. "Are you all right?"
"No, I'm not all right, though a lot you care. I'm sick. You know I'm sick, and you don't help me. How am I supposed to get my medicine?"
Hayden closed his eyes and leaned against the hard counter edge. He could imagine her there in the cluttered trailer among unwashed dishes and fast-food containers filled with dry, half-eaten meals, hair wild and eyes wilder, hands shaking in desperation. "What did you do with the last money?"
"You think that's enough? You think I can pay rent and buy food and keep the lights on with that?"
His sigh was heavy. "Is the electricity off again?"
"Been off. I had to have my medicine. What good is lights if a body hurts too bad to open her eyes."
"Dora Lee, I won't send money for any more pills." God knew, he'd contributed to her addiction too long already with the ever-raw hope that she'd change, a hope that even now burned with a flickering flame. "You're killing yourself. I'll come to Kentucky, get you into a clinic"
The scream in his ear was louder than the thunder. "Shut up! Shut upyou hear me? You ungrateful scum. I should have drowned you when I had the chance, for all the good you've done me. Keep your filthy money." The line went dead in his ear.
Weariness of the past few months pressed in. His stir of creative energy seeped out like lifeblood on the kitchen tile.
He should never have given her his cell phone number, but the desperate little boy inside him still yearned to make things better with his embittered, addicted nightmare of a mother. Even when he was small, before the dark and deadly underbelly of a coal mine had killed his gentle father, Dora Lee had popped illegally gotten pills for imaginary headaches and hated her only child. And he didn't know why.
His mother had no idea the same hated son was now Hayden Winters, successful novelist. It was a secret he would never share with her. Could never share. The ramifications were too deep and disturbing to consider.
Long ago, he'd changed his name and re-created his past in an effort to become something besides the dirtiest little boy in the worst part of Appalachia. Suave, confident Hayden Winters was as fictitious as the novels he wrote. Dora Lee wouldn't have cared anyway. All she cared about was that he sent money.
For her unconcerned ignorance, Hayden would ever be grateful to the God who'd rescued him from the mines and Dora Lee Briggs. If the press got hold of his mother, Hayden could kiss his tightly controlled privacy goodbye.
He was glad she couldn't read, though as a needy boy, hoping to please his mother, he'd offered to teach her. For his offer, she'd battered him with the book until the binding loosened and the pages ripped, raging that she wasn't as stupid as he thought.
At least a couple of times a year, he made the trek to see her, again out of some psychological wound that needed to be fed. Each time, he'd leave behind another piece of himself along with a parting gift that she would trade, in addition to her monthly draw, for OxyContin or whatever pills she could get that would take her away from reality for a while.
Dora Lee Briggs was his ugly secret. One of them.
With the wound in his soul open and throbbing, Hayden stuck a cup of water in the microwave. Lemon zinger would have to do.