A RACE FOR SALVATION
For the past decade, psychologist Erin Sims has been helping victims of violent crimes move on with life . . . but the one person she can't save is the one who matters most. In only seven days, her brother will be executed for a murder he didn't commit. Convinced she knows the identity of the real killer, Erin is determined to find the man and bring him to justice.
A COUNTDOWN TO DESTRUCTION
Sheriff Nick Mann moved to rural Ohio hoping to forget the tragedies of his past. When Erin shows up in town, bringing scandal and unwanted media attention with her, Nick knows she's trouble. No one believes sleepy Hopewell could harbor a serial killer . . . until residents begin to disappear. Now as Nick untangles the dark secrets plaguing his town, he can't help falling for the beautiful woman with the warm heart and iron will. And, as the days tick by, the truth becomes clear: Erin is hunting a vicious murderer-one whose only escape is to silence her forever.
|Publisher:||Grand Central Publishing|
|Product dimensions:||4.36(w) x 6.62(h) x 1.00(d)|
About the Author
Kate Brady is a RITA Award winning author, choral director, university professor, wife, mother, and caretaker of a variety of furry, feathered, and scaly pets. She lives with her family in Georgia, where she is currently at work on her next novel.
Read an Excerpt
Where Angels Rest
By Kate Brady
ForeverCopyright © 2012 Kate Brady
All right reserved.
A LONELY ROOM, naked wires clawing from the outlets and a heap of cold ash huddled in the fireplace. The ceiling joists crisscrossed in a matrix ten feet up, the floors and walls stripped to bare concrete and plaster, making the tiniest sound ricochet in the rafters. Even the faint moans of a woman nearly dead echoed like whispers in a cathedral.
The Angelmaker studied the woman, faceup on a wooden table with duct tape binding her wrists and ankles. Her eyes stared at nothing in the rafters.
What do you see now, bitch?
Nothing, of course; she was almost finished. It rankled, actually. She should have held up better.
But it was too late to worry about that now. The clock was ticking, lives counted in minutes. A week ago, who’d have thought the grand finale would come so soon, or be so exhilarating? And yet, here she lay, ready for her transformation.
The Angelmaker pried a hunk of cold earth from a pile, kneaded it like artist’s clay, then smeared it onto her jaw. Got another handful and pushed it over the edge of the first, thumbing it smooth with practiced strokes—not too thick and not too thin. Over the slender nose, over the high cheekbone, over the seam of ugly stitches at her temple. The Angelmaker smiled at that. On the inside of this mask would be something special: the imprint of stitches and the swell of a nasty welt on the side of her face. When the authorities found this mask, there would be no doubt whose face had provided the mold.
The mighty Erin Sims. Her death would come just in time to join her brother in hell. A twofer.
That thought brought a snicker and the Angelmaker worked faster. Tick-tock, Dr. Sims.
Seven days earlier…
Thursday, November 8
Outside the Florida State Prison, Starke, Florida
LET ME GO.”
Erin Sims jerked against handcuffs, the metal rings biting into her wrists. Tears rose to her throat but she held them back: Time was almost up. What was it, twenty ’til twelve? Quarter ’til? She couldn’t see her watch but it was late. God, she had to stop them before midnight.
She took a step and a guard snagged her arm. “No,” he said. He was a burly black man with tattoos vining his neck and an earring winking in the darkness. His tag read Collier but people called him Collie. Erin had been coming here long enough to remember when his son made the varsity football team and his wife beat breast cancer. Now he and another guard stood on either side of her, each with a hand on her elbows. Just in case she decided to throw herself at one of the demonstrators or incite a riot.
“Stay back here,” he said. “You’re already hurt.”
She followed his glance to her legs, where her jeans were torn and the skin of both knees ripped open. Sheriff’s deputies had dragged her from the prison entrance. “I won’t do anything this time,” she said. “Just let me go back to the front. I need to see.” I need to be close to him.
“There’s nothing more you can do,” the second guard said.
The words brushed a chill over Erin’s skin. There had to be something more. Eleven years of fighting couldn’t end with—
The chant started up again, cycling through thirty friends and relatives of Lauren McAllister, all gathered to witness justice, cheering and crying and waving handwritten signs: Death to Justin Sims, An Eye for An Eye, We Love You, Lauren. Nine reporters, the most permitted at an execution by law, wove among the demonstrators with their photographers trailing behind like cyclopes. On Erin’s side of the drive, three people—strangers—carried worn signs reading Stop the Death Penalty and Two Wrongs Don’t Make a Right. Otherwise, Justin had no supporters. He was the murderer of a senator’s daughter.
Erin drew a shuddering breath. “What time is it?”
“Quarter ’til,” Collie said. “Fifteen more minutes.”
Illogically, as if to confirm the time, Erin glanced to the sky. It was a night made for tragedy: black clouds grumbling with thunder, security lights casting the air in thin shades of gray. A slivered moon had slunk out of sight, as if cowering from the travesty about to happen.
“They can’t do this,” Erin said, her voice coming out on a thread. “Victor Santos is still with the Attorney General. He’s presenting new evidence.”
Collie shook his head. “That might not matt—”
“It has to matter.” She rounded on him. “Damn it, I found John Huggins. After all these years, I know where he is and gave them more evidence. He murdered Lauren McAllister, not Justin. How can the Attorney General ignore that? He has to listen.”
Her own words stopped her. You have to listen, Mommy. Please. He scares me. She’d learned long ago that people don’t listen to things they don’t want to hear.
A finger of panic touched her heart. Even if Justin’s attorney had gotten a last-minute audience with the Attorney General and convinced him there was enough evidence to warrant investigating John Huggins again, even if just now they were waking up a judge and working through paper or chewing through levels of bureaucracy, what if it was too late? Where was Justin? Strapped to a gurney already, an IV dripping into his arm, awaiting the toxins that would end his life?
The unspeakable passed her lips. “What if it’s not enough? What if—”
She couldn’t finish. She had to save Justin. People didn’t see him the way she did; no one else would keep up the fight. He needed her.
No, he didn’t. And he didn’t want her, either.
Erin cursed. Damn it, she was a shrink, an advocate. She’d made her career unearthing the emotions of people who were victims, and serving as their voice when they couldn’t do it themselves. She ought to understand why Justin had pushed her away.
But she didn’t.
“I should be in there,” she said, tears stinging the backs of her eyes. “He could have had three people in there with him. Why didn’t he let me—?”
A siren cut her off. She whirled and the crowd turned en masse to see a deputy’s car swing in, the wail of the siren lopping off with a whoomp. A guard stepped out, talked to the driver in the strobe of blue and red lights, then waved the car through and picked up his radio. From a nearby tower a voice roared through a bullhorn, commanding people to clear the way and make a path.
Erin held her breath. Three men spilled from the car. Deputies who had been stationed outside the prison to aid security guards swooped in to provide escort, and the group rushed through the gates. Erin rose on tiptoe trying to see. She caught Victor Santos’s eye a second before he was swallowed into the maximum security prison.
A wave of hope washed over her. “Oh, God,” she whispered. Collie and the guard behind her stood like pillars. A pall of silence lowered on the larger crowd—the McAllister camp—like a damp wool blanket on fiery coals.
Please. Please, Erin prayed. Let me have done enough.
Moments passed, the crowd holding its collective breath; then the front doors opened. Erin’s throat tightened into a knot. From the black maw of the entrance, a handful of people plodded outside with their heads down. The sobs of a woman scraped the air.
“It’s the senator,” Collie said, and Erin could hardly believe it. She noticed hands at her back, and heard the cuffs jangle as the second guard said in her ear, “That means they didn’t do it. They stopped it.”
Erin stared, her hands coming free. What? It was over?
Like a giant beast that had been thrashing just seconds before, the crowd gaped at their fallen warriors emerging from the prison. Senator and Mrs. McAllister made their way through the inner and outer gates, and as realization crept through the bystanders, the great beast collapsed into groans and sobs and curses. Erin stood rigid, afraid to move. Beside her, the three anti–death penalty activists issued kudos, but their triumph was bathed in macabre tones, like a dream that wasn’t yet real. Lauren McAllister’s father, supporting his wife with an arm, glared at Erin as they drew near, a security guard handing them off to a local police escort. McAllister stopped in front of her.
“You,” he said, his voice like chipped ice. “You did this.”
She nearly wilted with relief. Dear God, Justin was alive.
“Yes,” she managed, and couldn’t suppress the joy that bubbled into her voice. It was over. At least for now. “Justin didn’t kill your daughter, Senator. I’ve found the man who did.”
McAllister’s head moved back and forth, the hot emotion Erin had seen in the early years now gone cold. He’d heard it all before. Never listened.
His wife stepped forward. “May you rot in hell,” she said to Erin, her voice trembling with emotion. “My angel is dead. He should have paid. Someone has to pay—”
A cop nudged her and piloted the couple past. Mrs. McAllister walked as if a steel rod held her, her skirt tangling below her knees as she twisted to keep her eyes glued to Erin. News cameras flashed, catching it all.
Erin steeled her spine. She ought to be used to it; she and the McAllisters had faced off more than once over the years, sometimes in public and other times in private. But this time, Erin realized, they’d believed Justin would finally be put to death.
Dear God. This time, so had she.
The crowd fragmented, clusters of mourners following the McAllisters, others trailing to the parking lot with defeat dragging their steps. Erin pushed through a handful of lingering reporters and saw Victor. He paused outside the prison gates to give a statement to the press, then said “no more” with his hands and walked over to Erin.
Collie gave her a nod and both guards stepped away. She could hardly speak.
“Thank you, Victor,” she began, but he held up a hand.
She blinked. “What?”
“The judge stayed the execution for a week.”
“No.” The momentary high of knowing Justin had escaped death gave way to a surge of alarm. “That’s not enough time.”
“It’s more than I thought you’d get. Even if you’re right and this man you found on the Internet in Ohio really is John Huggins, it doesn’t mean he’s the man who shot Lauren McAllister through the heart and scrubbed her face with paint thinner. You’ve accused Huggins before and they cleared him.”
“John Huggins had an affair with Lauren McAllister. She was afraid of him. He changed his name and ran away. He had another affair with a woman in Virginia and she’s believed dead, too. Besides, Justin wasn’t with her that night. He wasn’t.”
“So he claimed,” Victor said, a weary sigh in his voice. “But you’re the only one who believes that. You have no proof, Erin.”
“What about the picture of Huggins that Lauren drew?”
“It was dismissed as irrelevant—again—just like everything Justin claimed to know about Huggins and Lauren. Look, Erin, this is a stay, not an acquittal. It doesn’t mean you won’t be here next Thursday night, doing the same thing you’re doing now.”
Erin closed her eyes. Damn him, he sounded just like David. Giving up without a fight. On the trial, on their marriage, on Justin’s life.
Well, she wouldn’t give up. She couldn’t. “Then why the reprieve?”
“The AG’s giving authorities a week to talk to the Calloway fellow you found in Ohio and see if he’s really Huggins. And to look into the Virginia woman’s disappearance.”
Erin balled her hands into fists. “Authorities?”
“The sheriff in Hopewell, Ohio—the town where Calloway lives,” Victor said, rooting in his breast pocket for a scrap of paper. He unfolded and handed it to her. “Nikolaus Mann. A good German name, probably a no-nonsense kind of guy. He’ll determine if Jack Calloway on the Internet is really John Huggins.”
Victor hedged. “It’s the weekend…”
“Justin has seven days,” she snapped. “A weekend is a third of his life.” Every tendon in her body constricted. She couldn’t leave this to the authorities over their precious weekend—
“Erin,” Victor said, with a warning in his voice, “don’t even think about it. Leave it to Sheriff Mann. Don’t forget that Huggins still has a restraining order against you in North Carolina. Let the system do its thing.”
“The system just tried to kill my brother.” Her voice vibrated with emotion, but Victor was unfazed. He was a lawyer; he belonged to the system. Or, she thought—the expression on Victor’s face lifting the hairs on the back of her neck—there was something more. Something he wasn’t telling her.
“Victor?” she asked.
He dropped his head, then blew out a breath and looked at her. “I’m finished, Erin. If you want to go forward you need to find another lawyer.”
“If I want—” Her blood stopped moving. “You don’t mean that.”
He took her arm, lowering his voice. “Do you know that my secretary was afraid to come to work today? That I found graffiti painted on my car when I left my office this afternoon?” Frustration morphed to something that sounded like true fear. “Damn it, I don’t want to be on the wrong side of McAllister anymore.”
Erin’s bones went cold. She glared in the direction McAllister had gone, anger and powerlessness colliding in her chest. She couldn’t believe Victor was bailing. He was a friend; he’d stood up with David at their wedding and stuck by her when even David hadn’t. To lose him now, when a sliver of hope glimmered on the horizon…
“One more week, Vict—”
“No,” he said, with a finality she knew was real. He glanced around, as if an assailant might be lurking along the dark edges of the prison yard. “I wish you luck, Erin. Really, I do. But I’ve got a wife, kids. I’m finished.”
He turned away and Erin snagged his arm. “Wait,” she said. Tears came in a flash. “Did you see him? Did he see you?”
“I saw him, through the one-way window. He didn’t see me.”
“He’s thin but strong; his hair’s long again. He looks—He looks okay.” Victor put up a hand before she could ask more. “Don’t picture the details, Erin. It won’t help.”
He headed for the parking lot and Erin looked at the stone sprawl of buildings that made up the Florida State Prison, forcing herself to visualize Justin no longer strapped to a gurney with IVs in his veins and witnesses watching through one-way glass. She closed her eyes. Picture him in his cell, no IVs, sitting up. Alive.
She pulled out a copy of the Internet picture she’d given to Victor three days ago. It was too dark to see the details, but they were emblazoned in her memory: a large, scenic inn in rural Ohio, with a folksy Pennsylvania Dutch pineapple stenciled on a sign that said WELCOME TO HILLTOP HOUSE. It did indeed appear to be set on a hill, surrounded by sprawling yew and chesty oak trees, with a whitewashed porch and homey ferns hanging at even intervals. Along the front walkway, ceramic sculptures of a girl and boy waded through beds of coreopsis and snapdragons. And on the front steps of the inn, the proprietor leaned against the porch railing with a caption that read, OWNER: JACK CALLOWAY.
Erin didn’t think so. This had to be Huggins. Even if the photo was too distant to see his eye color, even if there were thousands of men of his age and build, even if it were true that everyone had a look-alike somewhere in the world, those two ceramic sculptures in the garden gave it away. Erin would swear Huggins’s wife had made those.
The adrenaline that had sustained her for the past three days leaked from her limbs. She tucked away the picture, then put a finger to her lips and breathed a kiss and a promise toward the prison. She started for the parking lot. A security guard muttered, “ ’Night, miss” as he pushed the various buttons that swung the final gate open and closed behind her. She headed across the pavement toward her car, fifty yards away, and squinted when she glimpsed a straggling figure standing in the far corner of the lot. A woman, she realized, the silhouette of a long, flowing skirt moving as the figure scurried into the darkness.
Mrs. McAllister? She glanced around. The skirt was right, but the senator’s entourage was gone. Bitterness rose to Erin’s throat: just one more gawker. Executions were good entertainment.
A raindrop hit her cheek and she looked up. A thin smile of moon slipped out from behind a cloud, mocking her, the same moon that looked down just now on John Huggins a thousand miles away. Hopewell, Ohio. A small town with a quaint bed-and-breakfast and a no-nonsense sheriff. Online, it had all the earmarks of a Norman Rockwell painting, a place so peaceful people probably didn’t even lock their doors. The perfect haven for a murderer.
Determination straightened Erin’s spine. She did the math: a five-hour drive back to Miami, put her caseload on hold, pack a bag. She could be in Ohio by tomorrow afternoon. Erin knew the way authorities worked. No way would she leave her brother’s life to some sheriff who wouldn’t care whether he lived or died, and if Victor wasn’t going to help her anymore, then she’d do it alone. God knows, she’d learned how to fight her own battles when she was sixteen years old.
An engine turned over. Erin jumped; she hadn’t noticed another vehicle. She glanced around. Nothing. Just the hum of an engine somewhere in the darkness.
Her pulse kicked up and she clicked her key fob—twice, three times—but her car was still too far away to read the signal. The engine grew louder and she picked up her pace, her skin pulling into goose bumps. She looked behind her. Darkness, but instinct pushed her to start jogging, her fingers frantically working the key fob to her car. Finally, her headlights blinked but the phantom engine drew nearer. Two columns of lights swept across her back.
She veered right, running now, the headlights bearing down. She glanced over her shoulder and winced, blinded by the glare. The white disks barreled in, the car coming fast. She lunged for the fence and tried to scream to the guard.
The sound never came.
Thursday, November 8
MIDNIGHT, a sliver of moon hanging over the rooftops and a couple of chimneys still breathing into the air. It was a settled neighborhood, the kind grown comfortable with squeaky screen doors and broken sidewalks. The kind that leeched kids into the streets on Saturday mornings and where folks let themselves into the house next door to borrow an egg. The kind whose residents would be seen on tomorrow morning’s news, white-faced, saying, “We never thought something like this could happen here…”
The Angelmaker sat in a new Ford F-150, munching saltines, keeping track as the last few night owls turned in. A couple of houses down the street, the Richardsons’ front door cracked open to swallow a howling cat. A half-block behind the truck, the lights of Yaeger’s television snapped to black. And at the end of the street, where a single light burned in the front window, Rebecca Engel stepped out onto the porch.
The Angelmaker stopped chewing. Rebecca. Right there, just yards away, and alone. She was one of the chosen ones—able to see things she shouldn’t—yet there she was, oblivious to the fact that she was about to die.
She dropped down the front porch steps, hunching into her coat and throwing a scarf around her face to ward off the sleet. She climbed into an old Camry and headed east, then north out of town. The Angelmaker followed, headlights picking out thin veins of fog. Easy now. No need to hang too close—there was no doubt where she was going. She’d be headed to Ace Holmes’s place, twenty miles out on County Road 219, just over the Hopewell County line. The middle of nowhere.
Rebecca’s car led the way for fifteen minutes; then the Angelmaker hustled around back roads and jumped ahead, got back on 219 and nosed the big Ford halfway across the double yellow line. Parked and popped the hood to wait. Two minutes after the truck was in position, the Camry’s headlights pierced the mist.
Rebecca neared, slowing her car. Blood rushing now, the Angelmaker got out and circled the truck, exhaust fumes rousing a cough. It was a nice touch: a lone driver stranded at night in the cold, hacking up a lung…
The Camry rolled closer, unable to pass, and the driver’s side window cracked an inch. The Angelmaker’s fingers tightened around a stun gun, a surge of power flooding in. Such a simple device: plastic-cum-mother-of-pearl, one hundred thousand volts, seventy-five bucks on the Internet. It was no bigger than a cell phone, no louder than a whisper, and for twelve years now, all it had ever needed was a couple of three-volt lithium batteries.
“Rebecca.” Use her name, take away that edge of natural fear.
Her window slid open a little farther—just a few inches, but enough for the stun gun. The Angelmaker stepped closer. “Rebecca, I need help. I need a phone. Do you have a phone?”
“What?” she said. Cautious, but not overly fearful.
Another cough. “P-please, a phone.”
“Hold on.” She cranked the car into park and twisted toward the passenger seat to find her phone. The Angelmaker reached in. Pzzt. The stun gun sizzled against her shoulder.
Now time surged forward, racing as if God had pushed a button on a remote. Move, move. Ditch the car, get the truck turned around and get Rebecca home and into the workshop. So much to do—the transformation, the possession, the preservation—and the clock started running from the first shock of the stun gun.
The Angelmaker opened the driver’s side door and Rebecca lolled sideways, hanging half out onto the pavement. A click of the seat belt released her and she tumbled to the ground, a baffled uhhhh vibrating in her throat and the scarf dragging from her face. She was a pretty girl, but wore too much makeup. Always caked on like—
The Angelmaker froze. What? The girl’s face glowed in the truck’s headlights.
Panic leaked in. This wasn’t right; this wasn’t right. Who was this girl? Not Rebecca. This girl was a stranger, a nobody. She was nothing.
Shock hardened to sheer rage. Stupid, stupid girl. Goddamn, stupid bitch, pretending to be Rebecca—
Her arm moved, trying to fight the leaden state brought on by the stun gun. No. The Angelmaker swallowed back a primordial scream, hooked a foot beneath her rib cage and shoved. Her body rotated half a turn. Again, another half-turn, and again and again, and five kicks later, gravity took over and rolled her into the gully along the road. She groaned and the Angelmaker followed, dropped a knee into the middle of her back and straight-armed her face—that wrong face—into the mud, pressing down on the back of her head and neck. The girl who wasn’t Rebecca gasped for air, sucking rain and wet clay up into her nostrils. Her sinuses filled with mud and her lungs seized and the Angelmaker held tight, muscles screaming with tension while the girl made a series of wet, rasping sounds, jerked, then went limp.
Bitch. Stupid girl. Wrong girl. How dare she?
The Angelmaker staggered out of the ditch, panting. The wrong girl lay dead in the mud. Not Rebecca. A nobody.
The magnitude of that error clenched inside, and the weight of failure bore down like a hand from heaven, pushing, pushing. The Angelmaker fought the invisible weight, tapping every last ounce of strength, and looked up at the sky.
The sight set every bone to shaking: The moon was smiling.
The dream was the same as always—a three-year-old boy hiding in a cardboard box while his mother lay in a Dumpster, choking on the fragments of her own hyoid bone—except this time the phone cut in. Nick Mann jolted from bed, reaching for his gun and the phone in one motion, then stood by the bed blinking details of the here-and-now into focus. Thursday night. Friday morning, really. The house was empty, the clock on the nightstand punching red numbers into the darkness: three-sixteen a.m.
The phone rang again and Nick frowned. Eight deputies had the overnight shift. If a call was coming through in the middle of the night—
His gut tightened and he grabbed the phone. “Yeah,” he said, trying to holster the gun. No place to put it. He was wearing SpongeBob pajama bottoms.
“Sheriff.” The dispatcher’s voice vibrated with tension. “Jensen just took a call at LeeAnn Davis’s out on Pine Lake Road. There’s an intruder in the house.”
“Inside? Inside, with her and the kids?”
“Just the kids. LeeAnn’s at work.”
“Ah, God.” The dregs of the nightmare vanished. “I’m on my way.”
Pine Lake Road ran due east and west across the south end of Hopewell County, a ten-minute ride outside of town. Nick did it in six, his mind revving as fast as the Tahoe’s engine. LeeAnn Davis was a single mom who rented an old farmhouse from a neighbor, Jerry Gaffe. Gaffe ran the rural equivalent of a slumlord’s dwellings, but LeeAnn, like his other tenants, couldn’t afford any better. A forty-something divorcée, she’d quit college to pay for her husband’s dental school, and just about the time the fourth kid was born, he found heaven in the arms of his hygienist. Now LeeAnn worked days at the middle school cafeteria and nights at the 7-Eleven on Gritt Road. Out of necessity, the kids were largely left to take care of themselves, but as far as Nick could tell, they were pretty good kids.
With an intruder in the house.
He batted back a thump of fear and dumped the SUV in LeeAnn’s driveway. Chris Jensen had beaten him there by one minute, his cruiser door hanging open and flashers off. He held a phone pressed to his ear.
“Dispatch put one of the kids through to me,” he said to Nick, his breath frosting the air. Another cruiser swerved into the driveway. The troops were rolling in. Two men climbed out and hurried into vests. “It’s Kayla,” Jensen continued. “She’s hiding in the bathtub with the youngest girl.”
Toddler hiding in a cardboard box. Mother in a Dumpster, choking…
Focus. “Any reports of nearby robberies, escaped prisoners, like that?” Nick asked.
“No, sir. Quiet night, like usual.”
Nick took the phone. “Kayla, this is Sheriff Mann. Everything’s gonna be all right.”
“Someone’s h-here,” she whispered. “He was on the porch. He came inside.”
Nick pointed, wordlessly sending the new pair of deputies around to the back. “Was the front door locked?” he asked into the phone.
“I think..,” Kayla said. “Unless Josh came in that way.”
“Are the others locked? Can we get in?”
“Y-yes. No. They’re locked. I heard the front door open. It squeaks.” The last was issued under her breath, her voice breaking. She was only thirteen years old. Terrified, losing it.
Two more deputies wheeled into the driveway. Bishop and Fruth.
“Kayla,” Nick said, “where are the other kids?”
“Lizzie’s with me. Josh and Kimmie are asleep, down the ha—Oh, God!” Her voice jumped a notch. “I hear something. H-he’s coming, he’s coming.”
“Hang on, sweetie.”
“What happened?” Bishop asked.
Nick traded him the phone for a vest and jammed his arms into it. He pulled out his gun. “Someone may have gone in the front, from the porch. The kids are all upstairs.”
“Surround the house?” Jensen asked.
Nick nodded and said, “The front’s probably open. Bishop, stay here. Keep Kayla on the phone and keep her where she is. You,” he said to Jensen and Fruth, “we’re going in.”
LeeAnn’s screen door lay on its side, propped against the porch rail. Nick flashed a light on it: cobwebs—down a while. But Kayla was right about the wood door. It was open a foot.
Jensen and Fruth flanked Nick and he pressed on the door with an outstretched hand. He stepped inside, leading with his 9 mm and a flashlight, with Jensen coming in behind. The house smelled of firewood and musty curtains, and he blinked to let his eyes adjust. Listened.
They stepped into the living room, the hairs on Nick’s forearms standing up. It had been a long time since he’d shot anybody—close to seven years. The memory wasn’t a bad one.
He tightened his fingers on the gun, then caught a sound from the stairwell. He spun on it, searching. Jensen did, too, but Fruth stayed with the living room, covering the doorways and clearing the other rooms as Nick and Jensen moved toward the place where the sound had been two seconds before. Silent now, but someone was there; Nick could feel it. He skimmed the stairwell with his gun hand, saw nothing in the narrow column of light. He jerked his head to the wall behind Jensen. A light switch right there.
Jensen flipped it but nothing happened. Bulb out. Nick took a step closer, swung the flashlight beam back and forth again, above the landing and lower, then finally low enough. He caught the culprit square in the eyes.
THE INTRUDER DIDN’T MOVE. For half a second, Nick wanted to fire a round just to release the tension in his body; then he cursed and loosened his fingers on the gun.
He should have known.
“Go on through the rest of the downstairs,” he said to Jensen, “but I think this is it.”
Nick pinned the intruder in place with the light beam, stepped around him, and climbed the rest of the stairs. He stalked through the upper level of the house, checking closets and under beds, behind the shower curtain in a second bathroom. Kim, about eleven, stirred when Nick swept through her room, then fell back out without really waking. Josh, the fifteen-year-old who lay sprawled across a high bed in the next room, never budged.
Nick called to Kayla as he entered the hall bathroom. “Kayla, it’s Sheriff Mann.” He tucked his gun away and crooked the shower curtain back with a finger. “You’re safe, honey. Come on out.”
He picked up the littlest girl and propped her on his hip, then offered a hand to Kayla. She was shaking.
“Did you find him? He’s gone?”
“We found him. He’s not gone yet; I thought you might wanna meet him.”
Out in the hallway, Kim had rolled from bed, wearing a Snow White nightgown and rubbing her eyes. “What happened?” she asked, and fell in behind them.
They went to the top of the stairs. Jensen had finally found a working light switch.
“Your intruder,” Nick said, gesturing to the possum on the stairs. It hadn’t budged. He set down Lizzie and bent to his haunches. “You ever heard the expression ‘playing possum’? It’s that: frozen like a statue in order to fool someone. No, no,” he said, pulling the five-year-old back when she started toward the creature. “They can be nasty.” He turned to Kayla, who was finally breathing again. “Have you got a blanket I can use?”
Rodent removal took ten minutes. No, not rodent: marsupial, Nick remembered, as he carried the blanket out the front door. He went fifty yards to the side of the house and dropped the animal on the ground. It stood frozen a minute, then, getting comfortable with the darkness, waddled into the tall grass.
Nick walked back to the house with the empty blanket. Three more cars had arrived and he groaned. One belonged to LeeAnn, who hugged each of her three daughters hard. But the other two cars belonged to Leslie Roach and company. Roach was a reporter for the local newspaper, good enough to freelance for the bigger papers now and then, and ambitious enough to make a story out of anything. Nick thought her name must offend the insect world.
“Sheriff,” she said, coming at him with a digital recorder, trailed by a cameraman. “What happened?”
“It was nothing.” The irony of that statement sank under his skin like a bee sting. In LeeAnn’s front yard were seven vehicles, the county sheriff, five deputies, one reporter, and two photographers. Even as they spoke, Jerry Gaffe’s truck bumped into the drive.
Not nothing. Not for Hopewell, Ohio.
A muscle twitched in Nick’s cheek. Easy, man. Someone has to save the world from dumb, blind marsupials.
“Sheriff,” Leslie Roach said, “give me a statement.”
“Damn it, Nick. What happened?”
“Nothing happened.” He picked up his pace but she jogged along beside him in her heels. Nick placed reporters in a stratum of society just below whale shit. The fact that he’d taken this one to bed before he’d learned she was a reporter had only affirmed his opinion.
“Did anyone get hurt?” she asked.
“The citizens of Hopewell deserve to know what their elected official is doing out here in a single woman’s home in the middle of the night.”
Nick turned on her, baring his teeth.
“Gotcha,” Leslie said, smiling. “Now what happened?”
“Goddamn it. We got a report of an intruder. Turned out to be a fucking possum. Do you want me to spell that for you?”
“I know how to spell ‘possum.’ Sometimes it starts with O.”
“I meant ‘fucking.’ It’s an adjective.”
“Nick, Nick, Nick. Do the citizens of Hopewell have to worry about rabies, wild animals encroaching the city limits, anything like that?”
He might have chuckled if it weren’t so sad. “Sorry. No public terror to sell the paper tomorrow. The only thing the citizens of Hopewell have to worry about is making sure their teenage boys shut the front door.”
Jerry Gaffe was out of his truck, surveying his property. “What happened?” he asked.
Nick spent the next ten minutes settling Gaffe down—nothing damaged, no one hurt, no lawsuits coming—while Leslie Roach crawled around the scene, interviewing anyone who would talk to her. Finally, it was over. The photography floodlights came down, the patrol cars eased back to the streets, and Roach’s entourage rolled out. Just as Nick said good-bye to LeeAnn, fifteen-year-old Josh appeared at the front door he’d left open. He wore polka-dot boxers and an Adio t-shirt, and looked out over his front lawn while scratching a spot on his stomach.
“What happened?” he asked.
Nick followed Jensen back to the office, filed the paperwork on LeeAnn’s intruder, then dialed the Hopewell Daily Gazette. Got Ralph Winston, the editorial supervisor in the mornings.
“It was nothing,” Nick said when Ralph came on the line. “Don’t let Roach turn it into a story.”
“It got four county cars and newspaper coverage in the middle of the night, cost the taxpayers a little chunk of change. Like it or not, Sheriff, that’s a story.”
“Damn it, Ralph.”
“Tell you what. I’ll have McCoy walk over there to get a statement from you, too.”
Nick looked at his watch. “Make it fast. I’m leaving town.”
“Oh, yeah, November ninth. I forgot.”
At the core, Ralph was a newspaper guy. He never forgot. “I’m going hunting up at the cabin for the weekend.”
“Right. You know, Mann, no one believes you go up there to hunt. Wanna know what I think?”
“I think there’s a lover from your past life in the glamour world—Jennifer Lopez, maybe, or Angelina Jolie, or both”—he hesitated and Nick thought he heard a faint Mmm—“and they meet you there once a year for a weekend of hot, wild sex. Either that or you staff the place with a harem and every November ninth you live out my oldest fantasy.”
“Wow, Ralph. That’s exactly right.”
“Take your pick. Journalist’s prerogative, right?”
“Keep the story down, Ralph. It was a fucking possum.”
“Can you spell that for me?”
And that was the start of his weekend. Nick drove home a little before seven in the morning, his temper illogically frayed, his headlights picking out tacky signs of the season. A pumpkin the size of a beach ball sat at the end of the Myers’s drive. Indian corn hung on every fifth or six mailbox, and at those homes lacking corn, a cardboard turkey or pilgrim adorned the front door. Mrs. Piltzecker, whom Nick had always thought was aesthetically challenged, had put a pair of plastic fawns in her dead garden every winter since Nick was old enough to remember. He and his brothers had gotten caught once trying to hoist them onto her roof on Christmas Eve.
He rolled past the timeworn deer and hooked into his driveway, the thought passing that life here could be a Kodak commercial: festooned yards, affable neighbors, thriving businesses. Hopewell had a respected private college, an active community theater, an historic bed-and-breakfast, and even a sculptor who was a little bit famous. In Hopewell, youth groups caroled door-to-door at Christmas and kids set up lemonade stands for the Fourth of July. In Hopewell, the local rodent population—marsupial—posed the greatest challenge a sheriff would ever face.
Nick forced himself to stop grinding his jaw. This was what he’d wanted: no gangs, no drug warfare, no organized crime. None of the day-in, day-out crises of urban detective work, and except for the likes of Leslie Roach, no relentless buzz of media. All that had been a high for Nick when he was a young, hungry cop in L.A., but now what he wanted was peace and calm. A sanctuary where he could keep the people he cared about safe.
He got out of the Tahoe and popped open the back, the urge to get to the cabin gnawing at his bones. Frost hung in the air—not the picturesque kind that would shimmer in a winter calendar photo, but the wet kind that went up your nostrils and opened your sinuses, and clung to your skin like a cold rubber sheet. He zipped his bomber jacket and started loading the truck.
The long guns went in first: a 12-gauge shotgun and scoped Remington rifle. A pair of 45-caliber Hechler & Koch machine pistols followed, guns that made his county-issue 9 mm Glock feel like a toy. Three bottles of tequila were next—the good kind from Mexico, illegal and complete with the worm. Then a Styrofoam cooler with beer and cold cuts. Ten boxes of ammunition.
A sickly sun edged over the horizon as he drove out of town, the radio weatherman euphemistically pronouncing the morning “brisk” and promising a break in the sleet and rain. It would turn into a classic November weekend in the Midwest, the voice promised, perfect for playing tag football or raking leaves or roasting marshmallows at a bonfire.
Nick would spend it shooting demons.
He was thinking about that when he pushed the Tahoe to seventy-five, crossed the county line, and ran over a woman.
The Tahoe pitched, riding up on two left tires. It bounced to four wheels again and Nick stood on the brakes, fishtailed to a stop. His heart thrashed in his chest.
Jesus Christ, he’d just hit a woman. The sound echoed in his ears—dlmmp—like when he’d run over a raccoon once, only the coon hadn’t bumped his truck nearly off the road. He wrenched the gear shift into PARK and threw open the truck door, grabbed a flashlight and ran back up the road, squinting through the dawn. Hoping, praying he was wrong.
He froze when he saw her.
Ah, God, it was a woman, and horror seized him by the throat. She lay partway across the gravel shoulder, twisted half onto her side, stretching up onto the pavement. She looked dead.
Nick tried to think past the terrible drumming in his chest, then said that to himself again: She looked dead. Not dead from having just been hit, but an old dead—the stiff, gray dead of having been dead a while. He squatted and touched her neck. She was cold and he nudged one of her fingers. Rigor mortis already coming on.
Okay. Dead, but not from him. His lungs started working again.
He scanned the road for any other traffic, then aimed the flashlight on her body. Her front was coated with mud while her back and one side of her face appeared to have been drizzled on during the night and washed mostly clean. She was young, maybe even a teenager. Her lips had a bluish tint and her eyes, which were open, showed broken blood vessels.
Nick’s head cleared a fraction and he dialed Dispatch. Asked for Anson Bell, the Carroll County sheriff. While he waited, he spotted the girl’s car and climbed down into the ditch to look at it. It was an older-model Camry, dark, with Cuyahoga plates, and the driver’s side door stood open. Nick peered inside. Her purse was open and her cell phone half out. There were no food wrappers or half-eaten snacks.
He circled the car. The front bumper barely kissed a tree and Nick’s hackles lifted: The slant of the embankment should have caused more impact than that. He looked up to where the girl lay, choked but with no food in sight, and a knot of dread tightened in his chest.
“Anson,” he said, when Bell came on the line. Let it go. This one wouldn’t belong to him. “This is Nick Mann. I just ran over a dead woman on 219.”
“Her car’s in the ditch. I’m looking at the body.”
“Eighteen, maybe twenty years old. Jesus, I thought I’d killed her, but she’s been dead a while. Probably been out here all night.”
“Aw, man.” Nick could picture him pushing away his bacon and eggs, running a hand over his head and mentally forfeiting whatever weekend activities he’d had planned. “You got anyone coming?”
Nick could just make out the sign for the Carroll County line through the mist behind him. The knot of dread loosened just a touch. “Hell, no. This is your county.”
Bell and three deputies pulled up within minutes.
“I could’ve lived a long time without another one of these talks with parents,” Bell said. He’d been sheriff for thirty years. Had seen more than one young driver in a heap on the road.
Maybe never one that wasn’t an accident, though. Nick closed his eyes. Stop it. She’d probably gagged on a piece of chewing gum, pulled off the road, and clambered up the embankment in a panic. An autopsy would find a lump of hard candy or gum in her throat; a search of the car would find the wrapper. Case closed.
One of Bell’s deputies produced a driver’s license from the purse in the Camry. “Carrie Sitton,” he read, “born ten-twelve-ninety-three. From Cleveland.” He pushed a button on her cell phone and shook his head. “No calls last night.”
Bell walked to the front of the car and looked at the bumper just grazing the tree. His gaze followed a trodden path from there to where Carrie’s body now lay. “You hit her right there?” he asked Nick.
“She was out farther in the road, facedown, I’d say, from the way the rain washed off the back of her clothes. My wheels must’ve bumped her over.”
“Looks like she dragged herself up here. But that car couldn’t’ve been going more than five or ten miles an hour when it hit the tree. Why didn’t she walk?” Bell stopped at the body. He reached down and fingered her collar back from her throat. Nothing. He tugged a little farther to expose the back of her neck.
Nick’s gut tightened. He cursed and walked away, putting space between himself and the dead girl. Not his problem. Nick didn’t chase murderers anymore; he chased possums.
Bell took a few more minutes with the scene, then walked over to Nick. He took off his hat. “We don’t have murders in Carroll County.”
“We don’t have murders in Hopewell County, either,” Nick said. Time to go. Guns and tequila waiting.
“Whoa. All those years as a bigwig in L.A.,” Bell said. “You’ve worked more murder cases than anyone in this state.”
“Past tense. This one’s yours, Anson. Are you finished with me?”
“What’s your hurry?”
“No hurry, just on my way to my cabin.”
Bell hiked his brows, then looked at Nick’s truck, where a deputy had been shooting pictures, checking the undercarriage. There was no reason to doubt Nick’s story, but there was no reason not to, either. Taking pictures was the right thing to do.
Bell said, “That cabin of yours borders Weaver’s Clay Mine to the north, right?”
“Right. On Lake Barrow, about an hour from here.”
“So if I were gonna try to reach you—”
“He’ll be hunting,” the deputy with the camera said, joining them. He shrugged at Nick. “I saw the guns in your truck.”
“Right. Hunting,” Nick said. “I’ll be back on Monday. By then, you’ll either have this all wrapped up or you’ll have a helluva lot of questions for me.”
Friday, November 9
Bradford Hospital, Starke, FL
Erin woke in a bed, looked around. Her brain felt like damp wool. Everything hurt. She felt like she’d been hit by a—
The previous night rushed in. Justin—alive. The senator and his wife, Lauren’s family and friends all appalled by the Attorney General’s decision. A stray woman in the parking lot and a car bearing down. A last-second nosedive toward the fence.
She closed her eyes, putting the pieces of the week back together. John Huggins was in Ohio: She’d raised enough questions about him that the Attorney General had ordered Ohio authorities to follow up. But there wasn’t much time.
She looked out the window. It was morning already—she’d been in and out of a daze all night. It was Friday now. The first of Justin’s seven days.
Dear God, she had to go.
She pulled the blanket down and sat up, wincing. Pain cut into her hip and she edged the hospital gown back to see. Her body told the tale. She’d landed on her side when she dove from the path of the car and there was an ugly bruise on her hip that felt bone-deep.
She got out of bed and looked in the mirror. Her cheek had an ugly scrape—road burn from playing dodge-car in the dark—but otherwise she seemed okay. She changed into her clothes and a nurse caught her, tried to convince her to stay and wait for a doctor to check her out.
She didn’t. She headed straight for the Starke County Sheriff’s Department.
“We don’t know who was in the car,” the investigator told her, around bites of a tuna fish sandwich. “Could’ve been anyone.”
“There had to be cameras,” Erin said. “Didn’t they catch it?”
“There are, and they did,” he said, “but the driver had parked out of camera range until the last minute. The cameras only picked up the car when it came into the frame taking the run at you.”
A chill ran down Erin’s spine. That didn’t sound like a disgruntled protester acting on impulse. It sounded like someone who’d been out there watching, waiting. And when the opportunity was right, he—or she, Erin acknowledged, with an eerie memory of the long-skirted shadow she’d seen—wheeled in, hit the lights, and gunned the gas.
“What was on the cameras?”
The deputy wiped mayonnaise from his chin. “Besides you leaping out of the way like a scalded cat?” He cracked a smile at her, then tossed down his napkin. “It was a dark Hyundai. A rental.”
He put up a hand. “The ID used at the rental agency was bogus. Fake driver’s license, fake credit card, fake insurance.”
The starch went out of Erin’s body. It was planned. And the investigation had already hit a dead end.
“We’ll keep on it,” the deputy said, though Erin doubted it. “We’re talking to everyone who attended the execution—er, the almost-execution—and everyone who’s been active in the senator’s campaign against your brother.”
“Even Mrs. McAllister?”
The man stared.
“There was a woman in the parking lot when I left. I could see the silhouette of a skirt, just below the knees, like the one the Senator’s wife was wearing.”
“Aw, God,” he said, wiping his face with a beefy palm. As if he could rub away what she had just said.
“Put it in your report,” Erin said.
He jotted down a note. The cynic in Erin made her wonder if it would go into the file or if he’d toss it into the trash the minute she walked out. When he looked back up, his gaze grazed the scrape down her cheek. “Look, miss, this isn’t going to go away. It’s already in this morning’s news and there’ll be a lot of hype for the next week, and now you’re asking me to look at a U.S. Senator’s wife.” He shook his head, reminding Erin of a badgered grandfather. “It wouldn’t hurt for you to disappear while the sheriff up in Ohio does his thing. Just get out of sight for a bit.”
Erin was a step ahead of him. She stood, remembering Sheriff Nikolaus Mann and his quaint little town. “Thanks,” she said, gathering her purse. “I think you’re right. It is a good idea to get away for a while.”
She knew exactly where she’d go.
Friday, November 9
Lake Barrow, Ohio
NICK STRAIGHTENED HIS GUN ARM, homed in on the target, and fired. Staggered backward and almost fell. That’s what happened when you mixed alcohol, tobacco, and firearms. Mostly alcohol.
He lowered the Hechler & Koch, swayed, and peered into the woods at the target. Evening now, getting too dark for this shit. But he could still make out a few man-shaped pieces of paper hanging on trees, black circles closing around the centers. The closest one was Malcolm Hersher, stuck to a tree forty feet away.
Nick took another hit of tequila, aimed, and emptied the cartridge into the center of Hersher’s chest. Wobbled backward and wondered why he didn’t feel any better. Malcolm Hersher deserved every bullet. The retired math teacher behind the counter of an L.A. convenience store, dead from Hersher’s sawed-off shotgun, hadn’t.
He lit up a cigarette, shoved in a new cartridge, and carried his bottle and gun around the corner of the cabin’s deep porch. Took aim at another target hanging on another tree. Darren Hall. Hall was a gangbanger, had stabbed a guy in the name of “initiation” and raped a twenty-four-year-old mother in front of her son. When he was done, he pressed his thumbs into her hyoid bone until it gave, tossed her body into a Dumpster, and left her three-year-old hiding in a cardboard box. Nick chased Hall for two weeks before he collared him on the rape, but a judge sprang him on the claim that the sex was consensual and someone else had killed her afterward. Before they could pull indictments for murder, Hall went underground.
He was one of the ones who got away.
Correction: He was one of the ones Nick had given up on. Moved to Ohio and took up possum patrol, instead.
Boom. Nick nailed Hall in the shoulder. He cursed and squeezed off another shot, a better one, then proceeded around the perimeter of the house, taking out targets until only one remained. Nick glared at it. Bertrand Yost. It didn’t matter that Yost wasn’t on the streets anymore. It didn’t matter that Nick had hunted him down like a dog and fucked him up so bad he spent weeks in a hospital and months in rehab. It didn’t matter that Yost eventually wound up in court, and was found guilty.
What mattered was that a battalion of shrinks yanked a jury around until they bought diminished capacity. What mattered was that Bertrand Yost wound up in a cushy mental facility while Nick’s wife wound up in the morgue. Seven years ago, on November ninth.
Allison’s dead, Nick. Yost got her. And Hannah took a bullet…
He clenched his jaw and took aim but a breeze caught the ghostlike page of Yost and lifted the edges. No good. Nick staggered out to the tree and jammed the tip of his pocketknife through the bottom, pinning it down. Hold still, motherfucker. It’s our anniversary.
He ambled back to the front porch of the cabin and traded the Magnum for a Remington 7 mm. A thread of cognition in the back of his mind warned that a rifle at this range would turn the tree to rubble, but the tequila had him now, along with a rage so bitter he could taste it. He propped the barrel of the rifle on the porch rail, folded down to line up the shot and imagined every detail of Yost’s features—broad nose, steel-gray eyes, bushy brows.
Boom. The first shot jolted Nick, ripped through Yost, and splintered the trunk of the tree. Nick maneuvered the bolt action of the rifle and pulled off another. Boom. Reloaded and kept at it until his ears rang and his shoulder ached, until Yost was confetti and the center of the tree was kindling.
He sank against the porch rail, tipping his face skyward. Sleet caught his cheeks like darts, in spite of the weatherman’s promise, and he propped the rifle on end under the eave and closed his eyes. Wondered how long Carrie Sitton had been alive on the road last night, feeling the sleet through the clay caked on her cheek.
Damn it, stop thinking about her; she wasn’t his. Nick had some 20,000 residents he’d sworn to protect, including 16,000 in Hopewell proper and another 4,000 who lived in the outer stretches of the county. Carrie Sitton wasn’t one of them. Her killer was out of his hands.
Just like Yost and all the others out there in the dark.
Nick unrolled another paper human and walked it out to a tree. He stuck in a tack and pulled a marker from his pocket, the same one with which he’d labeled the others H-A-L-L and H-E-R-S-H-E-R and Y-O-S-T. He stared at the blank target for a long moment, trying to picture the son of a bitch who would leave an eighteen-year-old girl to claw her way to the shoulder of the road and die there in the cold. Finally, he drew a question mark on the target, strode back to the porch, and picked up his rifle.
“For you, Carrie,” he said.
Saturday, November 10
Columbus International Airport, Columbus, Ohio
The Angelmaker watched from beneath a hat in a blue vinyl chair, pulse kicking up as a woman walked past just a few feet away. She carried a laptop and purse, and a fat nylon suitcase that would have just barely squeezed into an overhead compartment. Her strides were swift, a woman on a mission.
No surprise that she’d come. As soon as the news reported a reprieve for her brother pending an investigation in Ohio, there had been no doubt she’d show up. A little knowledge of her character and a check of the airline schedule was all it took: She would take the first flight she could, no layovers. And since American Airlines flew the only nonstop route between Miami and Columbus, it hadn’t been taxing to get comfortable near baggage claim and simply wait her out.
Now she passed nearly within arm’s reach of the chair, and the Angelmaker studied her. She hadn’t changed much, except that she looked a little worse for wear—like she’d taken a fall or something. But she was still slender and leggy, tall for a woman, and sporting thick waves of shoulder-length hair that could be brown or auburn depending on the light. She wasn’t beautiful in the traditional sense; her nose had a faint bend and her jaw was too square. But her lips were full and her eyes resembled green glass—big and bright and fringed with lashes so long there probably wasn’t a man alive who could look at her without imagining her on her knees, using her lips and batting those lashes up at him.
No doubt she would bat them at authorities in Ohio just as she had in Miami and Raleigh. Determined to make everyone listen to her lies.
The Angelmaker fell in behind her, sneering. The authorities wouldn’t believe her; they never had.
The angels, though, were different. They saw truths they shouldn’t. And when they did, they had to die.
Something Erin Sims might want to keep in mind.
She hoisted her bag over her shoulder and walked away from a Hertz kiosk, fingering a new key fob, deep in thought. Busy planning her strategy, no doubt.
Predictable as rain, the Angelmaker thought, and didn’t bother following her out of the airport. She wouldn’t be hard to keep track of. She’d probably show up at Hilltop before the night was over.
And how far would she get this time? Apparently, there was some sort of new evidence, but the news hadn’t said what it was. Enough for authorities to issue a stay of execution for Justin Sims. Enough to bring his dogged big sister to Hopewell on a quest to unearth the truth.
The Angelmaker smiled. Don’t look too closely, Dr. Sims. If you find what you’re looking for, it will be the last thing you see. You could be an angel, after all.
Ohio greeted Erin with open hostility: a sky like steel wool, forty-one degrees and spitting. Two hours after her flight landed, her phone’s nav-system had her tooling through sparsely populated cattle pastures and dead corn fields. A couple of gallons of coffee wore off near a town called Tiffin, so she stopped at a gas station for a Mountain Dew and Snickers bar, then drove five miles out of her way to find a Kinkos and bought a ream of bright yellow card stock—just in case. Yellow, advertisers said, was eye-catching.
A mile into Hopewell County, the Chamber of Commerce’s welcome station came up, a white building with dark beams that made it look like a German cottage. Erin considered it, then pulled in and looked at the wall of information. Hopewell, the county seat, boasted a population of 16,000. It was the site of Mansfeld College (“home of the 2007 and 2008 National Champion Women’s volleyball team”), an annual Oktoberfest, and a “Spring Arts Fling” each May. Next weekend, a kids’ soccer league would host regional finals at Blue Limestone Park. And at a newly renovated vaudeville theater called “The Palace,” a community group had done the opera Hansel and Gretel last weekend.
“Geesh,” Erin muttered. “I wonder where Aunt Bea and Andy live.”
She found a phone book—the thickness of a magazine—beside an old pay phone and flipped through the scant yellow pages. There it was. SPACIOUS ROOMS, FULLY FURNISHED, HISTORIC ATMOSPHERE. MAKE YOUR STAY THE HILLTOP WAY, CALL 1-800-555-6038. VISIT OUR ART POTTERY GIFT SHOP. OWNED AND OPERATED BY JACK AND MARGARET CALLOWAY, SERVING GUESTS SINCE 2007.
Her heart bumped. The bastard, living his Norman Rockwell existence while Justin sat on Death Row. Well, no longer. This time, she’d make someone listen to what she knew: Lauren McAllister had an affair with Huggins. She’d confided to Justin that he scared her. She’d drawn a picture of him before her death that could only be interpreted as disturbed.
And while none of that had been sufficient to get anyone to look at the case again, Erin’s discovery last week was different. Her PI learned that Huggins had fled to Virginia after she chased him from Raleigh, and another young woman—a woman just like Lauren—had an affair with him and then disappeared. She’d been gone for five years now, presumed dead. Erin had spoken with the girl’s parents last week, got enough information that the PI traced the lover to Hopewell and found a man who could be John Huggins.
Could be. Erin’s own turn of thought drained some of the strength from her limbs. She looked at the ad in the yellow pages. What if the owners of this inn weren’t John and Maggie Huggins?
Time to find out. She’d dealt with enough indifferent sheriffs over the years to know she wasn’t going to leave the job to this one. She wanted to go to Huggins herself, see him with her own eyes and hear his voice. Then, when she was armed with the certainty that she’d found Huggins, she’d bully the sheriff into listening to her.
She checked into a Red Roof Inn, washed her face and added a sweater and denim jacket, then headed to Hilltop House. She tooled up the winding drive and parked the rental car in a gravel lot with three others. She looked around. The main house was huge, in the middle of a spread of outbuildings: an enormous barn, an old-fashioned carriage house, a modern garage. A pickup truck crouched outside the garage, freshly washed and looking out of place among the other vehicles, with undercarriages smattered with slush and salt. The flower beds that had bloomed so colorfully in the online photo were empty now, but the boy and girl sculptures still stood in the garden.
Dead giveaways, Huggins, she thought, eyeing the sculptures. His wife, Maggie, was one of the most drop-dead beautiful women Erin had ever seen. Her sculptures were equally beautiful.
Erin started to get out, then stopped, a thump of fear holding her back. She scanned the area. No cars waiting to run her down.
She cursed. Stupid thought. Whoever had taken a run at her at the prison certainly hadn’t followed her to Ohio.
She walked up the wide front porch, through an elegant wood-and-etched-glass door, and into Huggins’s lair. She stared. As soon as she’d seen the Internet listing for Hilltop House, she’d given no thought to the inn itself—only to what the discovery of Huggins with a new identity might mean for Justin. Now, standing in a grand foyer with the smell of sweet, spiced cider flaring her nostrils and the sound of a fire crackling nearby, she felt as if the world had tipped sideways.
Not the home of a vicious murderer at all: It was gorgeous. Twelve-foot ceilings with tiered crown molding and wine-red walls, cherry floors splashed with thick rugs. A wide staircase rose to second and third stories and on the wall of the grand foyer hung a set of beautifully decorated clay masks. Mrs. Calloway, Erin thought, and couldn’t help but be impressed by her talent. There were seven of them—all approximately the same size and shape, like the classic comedy-tragedy masks, but each adorned like a fabulous Mardi Gras mask, with jewels and feathers and designs all crafted from clay. They were stunni—
Her breath caught: Something moved in the hallway at the top of the stairs. She peered into the dimness only to see a shadow slip out of sight. Huggins? No. Huggins sauntered. This person… skittered.
She rubbed her hands over the goose bumps on her arms and stepped beneath an archway, looking into a large room. Against the far wall sat a sideboard covered with cheeses, crackers, and bunches of grapes, and a tureen of what must be the hot cider she smelled. The tiny glands beneath her tongue came to life and she realized that except for the Snickers bar, she hadn’t eaten since… this morning? Last night? She wasn’t sure.
She went back through the foyer and through an opposite archway. Another rich, spacious room. In the center burned a fire in a double-sided stone fireplace and on the chimney, a hand-painted sign pointed the way to the gift shop. On either side of the fireplace sat a collection of armchairs, footrests, and lamp tables, perfect for cozying up on a cold winter evening.
Two men had done exactly that. One, an older gentleman with an unlit pipe in one hand and a brandy snifter in the other, sported a graying shock of hair and a magazine on his lap. Back issues of Field & Stream sat in a stack at his feet. He lifted his glass when he noticed Erin. The other man, a younger version of the same features and body type, set aside a laptop computer and stood. Erin started to say something to him, then noticed his jaw go slack and heard a click behind her. She turned, the hairs on her neck standing up.
John Huggins aimed a shotgun at her chest.
ERIN FLINCHED; then the shotgun faded from view and the only thing in the world was the man behind it. Huggins. His eyes struck her first—one green and one blue—both pale and piercing and cold. Then the rest of the details filtered in… six feet tall, well-toned for a man of his age. His waist was a few pounds thicker, his temples a touch grayer, the crow’s feet a bit deeper in his skin. But he was the same man.
Dear God, she’d found him. It’s going to be okay, Justin.
“Misters McCormick,” he said, without moving the shotgun even fractionally, “move out of the room, if you please. I don’t want anyone to get hurt.”
“What the hell?” the older McCormick boomed. “Jack, what are you doing?”
“Move out, Wilson. You too, Evan,” he said. “I’m not the marksman the two of you are, and I don’t want you getting hurt.”
“Son of a bitch,” the younger man said. Erin noticed that he saved and shut down his document before closing his laptop, as if more inconvenienced than frightened by the appearance of John Huggins with a shotgun. The two guests moved behind Huggins like lazy dogs being nudged from their evening naps.
“Now, Wilson,” Huggins said, once they were safely behind him, “pick up that phone in the foyer and call nine-one-one. Tell Sheriff Mann there’s an intruder on my premises.”
“Have you lost your mind?” the man asked.
“You might also tell him that this particular intruder is in violation of a restraining order.”
Erin thought the older man picked up the phone, but couldn’t strip her eyes from John Huggins long enough to be sure. Her body had gone to stone, her mouth so dry she couldn’t swallow. She was going to heave the near-nothing in her stomach if she stood in the same room with him any longer. Eleven years. More than a third of Justin’s life had been spent in prison because of the man now aiming a gun at her, calmly issuing directives to his guests.
She groped for the name he’d used. “Mr. McCormick?” she said. The man at the phone looked at her, startled. “Did Jack Calloway ever tell you that his real name is John Huggins? Did you know that he was accused of killing a young wo—”
“Wilson McCormick has been coming to Hilltop since we opened and is one of my wife’s most loyal patrons,” Huggins interrupted. “He’s not likely to be bothered by your ranting and raving.”
“Listen to me,” Erin grated out. She looked at the McCormicks behind him. “You have to understand.”
“All they need to understand,” Huggins said, “is that you are a poor, misguided woman who believes her brother’s lies instead of the facts. I’ve told you before, Dr. Sims, I didn’t murder Lauren McAllister. And I will not let you ruin my reputation or hurt my wife again by spouting your lies.”
Erin gritted her teeth. The bastard, standing there, pointing a shotgun at her and somehow making himself appear the victim. “So what are you going to do, shoot me right here in front of God and everyone?” She glanced at the younger McCormick, who’d gone wide-eyed, then the elder, who had the phone pressed to his ear and occasionally said something into it. She had to make them listen. Somehow—
“Jack.” The front door swung wide. The newcomer stopped short when he saw the standoff. He was forty-something, and looked like he’d just stepped out of the casual section of Gentleman’s Quarterly. He glanced around, keeping one eye on the gun. “What’s going on?”
“I’ll tell you,” Erin jumped in, but they spoke right over her.
“This is the woman I told you about, Dorian,” Huggins said.
“His real name is John Huggins—”
“She’s the reason Margaret and I changed names and—”
“He killed a girl and let my brother go to prison for it.” Fury carried Erin forward. As if in some sort of out-of-body experience, she realized she was walking toward him, right toward the shotgun. She didn’t care; he wouldn’t shoot her. That wasn’t his style and there were too many witnesses. But they weren’t listening to her. No one believed her.
Listen to me, Mom. You have to believe me.
“I want her arrested, Dorian,” Huggins said.
“It’s you who should be arres—” A hand clamped over her mouth, cutting off her breath. Panic struck and she flailed, then realized it was the younger McCormick who had grabbed her from behind.
“Stop it, lady,” he ground against her ear. “He’s got a gun.”
She writhed, trying to yank free, and everything dragged into slow motion. Sirens whined outside the door. Boots stomped in, voices shouting over one another. A handful of strangers appeared on the stairwell and the man from GQ kept talking and wagging a finger and Huggins’s wife came in from the back, still strikingly beautiful and standing in front of her masks wringing her hands. Huggins’s shotgun finally came down and Erin shook off the hands that held her.
She caught her breath and glanced at a clock over the mantel: six-thirty. Nearly two days gone of Justin’s seven, but she was on her way. She’d identified Huggins and the police were here. Next would come the media and soon people would hear the truth and Justin would have another chance. She would have another chance. To do what she’d never been able to do before, even when they were children.
To protect him.
“I want to see Sheriff Nikolaus Mann,” she said to a deputy who might have been twelve. He had red-blond hair that stuck up like an elf’s and had been reaching for his belt when she spoke. For handcuffs, Erin realized.
He seemed startled by her demand but relaxed his hand. “Uh… Okay. Come with me.”
Huggins intercepted them. “Deputy Jensen, this woman is trespassing, committing slander, and in violation of a restraining order.”
“I’ll take care of it, Jack,” Jensen said, and walked her out, seeming in a hurry to have it over. Erin held Huggins’s gaze as they passed him, and his blue-green eyes bore into her like daggers.
She shook it off and they stepped into the cold night air. Erin noticed the two deputies’ cars, both with blue lights flashing. “Where can I find the sheriff?” she asked.
“He’ll be back Monday,” the young deputy said. His badge read C. JENSEN. “Come on to headquarters and we’ll write up your complaint. Or, Jack’s complaint. Or…” He stopped. Confused.
Erin steeled her spine.
“This can’t wait until Monday. I need to see him now.”
“Ma’am, I’m sorry. He’s not here.” But he’d blinked. Weakening.
She stuck her hands on her hips. “And does he have a phone?”
“And do you know how to dial his number?”
“Then do it.”
Somewhere in the distance, funky music played. Nick stirred, lying on the floor of the cabin. A tequila bottle lounged in his fingers; cigarette butts littered the hearth of the fireplace. His brain sloshed at the bottom of his skull.
A minute passed and the music stopped. He climbed to his feet and humped to a chair—a rickety wooden grab from a yard sale three years ago. There was a table, too, also with one leg shorter than the other. “A matched set,” the seller had said, right before Nick gave him ten dollars for all three pieces of junk. The third was an old mattress on the floor in front of the fireplace.
Otherwise, the cabin was empty. Nick had paid a guy to haul away the Italian leather sofa and chairs, the cherry dining room set, the king-size bed in the master bedroom and the princess furniture in the adjoining room. A salvage guy had even pulled out the carpet and molding.
The music came again and Nick frowned. It seemed to be coming from his ass. He shifted and it got louder. It was coming from his ass.
He pulled the phone from his hip pocket, cursed at the number. Chris Jensen. He opened the phone and snarled into it. “What the hell are you doing, calling me?”
“It’s not Monday yet. Leave me alone.”
“Sheriff, we have a situation.”
“Is Hannah okay?”
“My mom okay?”
“Has Hopewell been attacked by terrorists, burned down, or washed away in a flood?” That long of a speech actually left him dizzy.
Then Nick remembered, and an instant of sobriety threatened. “Did they find the son of a bitch who killed Carrie Sitton?”
“Uh, no. But there is one thing on that. Turns out she was a friend of Rebecca Engel’s.”
“Carrie was on her way home from Rebecca’s house when she was murdered. Cleveland cops were down here interviewing Rebecca today.”
Aw, hell. Rebecca Engel lived in Hopewell. She was Nick’s. Too close, too close.
Jensen went on. “Rebecca didn’t know anything about Carrie’s plans after she left the house. They met doing some barhopping up in Cleveland and had started hanging out a little. Sheriff Bell is putting two of his men with the Cleveland Robbery-Homicide team. They’ve got a pretty good group working it.”
Uneasiness roiled in Nick’s belly and that alone pissed him off. He shouldn’t be feeling it. At this advanced stage of this particular weekend, he shouldn’t be feeling anything. And yet, after two days of deliberate self-destruction, he’d identified the music in his ass as his phone, formulated coherent sentences, and felt something in his chest that bordered on true emotion.
Not acceptable. It was Saturday night. He still had thirty-six more hours before he was back on duty.
“Sheriff,” Jensen said, and a chair creaked in his ear. Nick recognized it as the one at the front desk at the station. “There’s a request here for you to check something for a case pending in Florida. It came in yesterday but you were gone already so Valeria left it on your desk. She was afraid to call you.”
“And now there’s someone here insisting that you follow up on it. She says it’s urgent. It’s about Jack Calloway.”
A thread of interest threatened to unravel but Nick stopped it. There wasn’t one fucking thing that happened in Hopewell, Ohio, that couldn’t wait.
“Will she still be there Monday?”
Jensen hesitated. “Uh, well, sir, I imagine so. She’s booked at the Red Roof Inn.”
“Well, good. That’s just when I’ll be home.”
“Monday?” Erin bunched her fists on the desk, wincing at echoes of pain in her body. It was nine o’clock at night, and this cherub-faced deputy named Jensen had spent the past two hours taking her through her story, writing down notes, and reading the online reports related to Justin. Finally, he’d deemed her situation significant enough to phone the almighty, not-to-be-disturbed sheriff.
For all the good it did, she thought, looking around at the sheriff’s office. Not exactly a paragon of high-tech law enforcement: a lobby with a couple of large wooden desks and some file cabinets, a set of holding cells down one hallway, a handful of offices Erin couldn’t see, and a mysterious miasma of odors. A second deputy had gone searching for someone to open the courthouse across the street on a Saturday night, ostensibly to dig up details about the restraining order against her. Erin had been left to try to convince Deputy Jensen that Huggins should be behind bars and not her.
“Let me talk to him. Call him again,” she said.
“Look, Mis—” He caught himself. “Doctor. Technically, I could have you in lockup. Jack wants you charged with trespassing, at the least. I don’t think you want Sheriff Mann coming back here until the judge gets a chance to look at the restraining order.”
“The judge,” she snapped. “The one who’s deer hunting?”
“Judge Watkins always goes deer hunting the week after Oktoberfest ends, ever since I was a kid. He’ll be back M—”
“Monday,” she chorused. She’d heard it all already and dread clawed through her breast. In the hours left before then, how much could John Huggins do? Pack up and get away? If he vanished again, what would that mean for Justin?
Erin closed her eyes. She knew what it meant.
The printer against the wall started spitting out pages again and Jensen got up to collect them. “I’m doing what the sheriff would do, anyway—gathering the information on your brother’s case. By the time he gets back, I’ll have everything ready for him.”
Excerpted from Where Angels Rest by Kate Brady Copyright © 2012 by Kate Brady. Excerpted by permission.
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