—Publishers Weekly (starred review)
At first, it sounds like the answer to a parent’s prayers: an elite boarding school in the Oregon mountains where wayward kids turn their lives around. But behind the idyllic veneer lie disturbing rumors of missing students and questionable treatments.
“A NAIL-BITING ROLLER-COASTER RIDE.”
Jules Farentino knows her half-sister, Shaylee, has been going off the rails lately. She’s just not sure Blue Rock Academy is the answer. Accepting a teaching position there lets Jules keep an eye on Shay, but also confirms her fears. One student is found hanged, another near death. Something sinister is at hand—and Jules may already be too late to stop it.
“THE BOOK’S ENDING WILL THROW MOST READERS FOR A LOOP.”
—The Free Lance-Star
As a brutal snowstorm sweeps in, cutting off the remote campus from the rest of the world, Jules will discover the Academy’s dark secrets, and confront a murderous evil without limits, without remorse, without mercy . . .
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Help me ... Oh, God, please someone help me. ..." The voice was a desperate plea, barely audible over the sounds of a familiar song and the steady drip of liquid splashing, like a single drop of rainwater hitting the ground. Over and over again.
Her heartbeat pounding in her eardrums, Jules Farentino, barefoot and wearing only a nightgown, made her way toward the den where a fluttering blue light was barely visible through the sheers on the French doors.
"Hurry ... there isn't much time. ..."
She wanted to call out but held her tongue. The feeling that something was wrong here — something dark and evil — caused her to creep silently along the icy floors.
Slowly, she pushed open the door to the den and peered inside. The L-shaped couch and a recliner were illuminated by the weird, flickering light of the muted television.
Michael Jackson's voice sang about Billie Jean through the speakers.
Above the melody:
Drip. Drip. Drip.
Like rolling thunder in her aching head.
Liquid warmth splashed on the tops of her bare feet, and she looked down quickly. Her eyes rounded as she saw the blood dripping from the long blade of the knife in her hand, the red stain spreading into a pool.
She tried to scream but couldn't, and as she looked toward the open French doors, she saw her father lying on the floor near the coffee table.
"Help me, Jules," he said, lips barely moving. He stared up at her, eyes unblinking, a jagged gash on his forehead, a stain spreading on the front of his rumpled white shirt.
Blood gurgled from the corner of Rip Delaney's mouth as he stared up at her, whispering in a wet rasp, "Why?"
Transfixed, her hand now sticky with blood, she started to scream —
"Seven forty-five in the morning. It's a chilly thirty-seven now. That's only five degrees above freezing, you know, but temperatures will climb until midafternoon, topping out near fifty. It's going to be a cold, wet one today, a major storm expected to roll in later this morning. Now for the traffic report ..."
Jules awoke with a jerk.
Her heart was pounding, her head splitting, the radio announcer's voice an irritant. She slapped off the alarm and shivered. Her bedroom was freezing, her window open a crack, wind rushing inside, rain beating a steady tattoo against the roof.
"Damn," she whispered, wiping her face, the vestiges of her ever-recurring dream slipping back to the dark corners of her mind. She glanced at the clock and groaned, realizing with a sinking feeling that she'd forgotten to reset her alarm.
Rolling off the bed, she disturbed her cat that had been sleeping in a ball on the second pillow. He lifted his gray head and stretched, yawning to show off his needle-sharp teeth as she snagged her bathrobe from the foot of the bed and threw it on. She didn't have time for a shower, much less a jog.
Instead, she threw water over her face, tossed a couple of extra-strength Excedrin into her mouth, and washed them down by tilting her head under the faucet. After yanking on jeans and an oversized sweatshirt, she found an old Trail Blazers cap. Then she searched for her keys, scrounging in her purse and in the pockets of the jacket she'd worn the day before.
Her cell phone rang, and she found it plugged in to the charger on the floor near her bed.
Flipping it open, she saw Shay's face on the small LED screen.
"Where are you?" her sister demanded.
"I'm on my way."
"It's too late. We're almost there!"
"Already?" Jules tugged on one sneaker as she glanced back at the clock. "I thought you were leaving at nine."
"The pilot called. There's a storm or something. I don't know. He has to fly out earlier."
"Oh, no! Make him wait."
"I can't! Don't you get it? She's really doing it, Jules," Shay said, and some of the toughness in her voice disappeared. "Edie's getting rid of me."
That was a little overly dramatic, but so was Shay, through and through.
Jules finished lacing her running shoes. "Then tell her to wait."
"You tell her," Shay said, and a second later Jules heard her mother's voice say, "Look, Julia, there's no reason to argue with me; this is beyond my control. I told Shaylee that she has to go whenever the pilot can fly her safely to the school, and he says they need to go earlier because of the storm."
"No, Mom, wait. You can't just send her to —"
"I damned well can. She's underage. I'm her guardian. And she's got a court order. We've had this conversation before. Let's not rehash it."
"It's either this or juvenile detention again. This is her last chance, Julia! The judge ordered her to make a choice, and she, smart as she is, took the school. It was also her choice to hang out with that criminal and take part in a crime. Her boyfriend wasn't so fortunate; he didn't have a rich father to get him a lawyer. Dawg will be going to prison for a long time, so your sister should count herself lucky!"
The connection was severed, leaving Jules to worry from the middle of her messy bedroom. She couldn't believe her mother was actually shipping Shaylee off to a distant school for troubled teens, one that was in the middle of no-damned-where. She flew out of her condo and waved to Mrs. Dixon, her neighbor, as the woman carried her wet newspaper into her unit.
Once inside her old Volvo, she drove toward Lake Washington and the address she'd gotten from Edie earlier, the spot from which Shaylee was to be picked up by seaplane for her ride to Blue Rock Academy in southern Oregon. Edie had given Jules the address the day before.
Jules floored it.
However, the freeway was a parking lot, and the latest traffic report blaring from Jules's radio didn't make her feel any better. Apparently everyone who owned a car in the state of Washington was sitting on the I-5 freeway in the drizzling rain, as evidenced by the line of blazing taillights stretching ahead of her Volvo. Jules peered wearily past the slapping windshield wiper as the traffic crawled north. Still fighting a headache, she drummed her fingers on her steering wheel and wished she knew a faster way to get to Lake Washington.
She'd battled rush hour down in Portland, Oregon, when she'd worked at Bateman High, but since losing her teaching job last June, she'd been spared the annoyance of rush hour. In her current position as a waitress at 101, a highend restaurant on the waterfront, she covered the night shift and usually avoided traffic. One of the few perks of the job.
The radio did little to calm her nerves, and the windshield wipers slapping away the rain only added to her case of jitters. Jules was too late. Shay was going to fly off without a good-bye, and there was nothing anyone could do about it. Not even Edie could fix this. A judge had ruled that Shay was to be sent away for rehabilitation.
She tuned the radio to a station where songs from the eighties were peppered with rapid-fire traffic updates from Brenda, the serious reporter who rattled off trouble spots on the freeway system so fast it was hard to keep up.
Not that it helped.
Basically, it seemed, every freeway was a snarled mess this miserable February morning.
"Come on, come on," Jules muttered, glancing at the clock on the dash of her twenty-year-old sedan. Eight-seventeen. The height of rush hour. And she was supposed to be on the dock by eight-thirty, or it would be too late. She flipped on her blinker and bullied her way into the lane that was curving toward the Evergreen Point Bridge that spanned Lake Washington.
A semi driver reluctantly allowed her to squeeze in, and she offered him a smile and a wave as she wedged her way into the far right lane and nosed her car east. She was nearly clipped by a guy in a black Toyota who was talking on his cell phone.
"Idiot!" She slammed on her brakes and slid into the spot just as the first notes of "Billie Jean" by Michael Jackson filled the interior of her Volvo. "Oh, God." She pushed the radio's button to another preset station, but the strains of the song reverberated through her head.
In her mind's eye, again she saw her father, lying in a pool of his own blood, his dying eyes staring upward as the song played over and over.
Jules nearly smashed into the pickup in front of her.
"Oh, Jesus." Calm down. Don't kill yourself getting there! Adrenaline from the near wreck sang through her veins. Jittery, she took three breaths, then, with one hand, fished inside her purse for a bottle of painkillers. The stuff she'd taken earlier hadn't worked.
She found the bottle and popped off the cap with her thumb. Pills sprayed over her, but she didn't care, washing two tablets down quickly with the remains of yesterday's Diet Coke that she'd left in the car's cup holder.
The bad mix of caffeine-laden syrup and headache medicine made her wince as the refrain of "Billie Jean" kept pounding through her brain. "You're a head case," she told her reflection in the rearview mirror. "No wonder you're out of work." Well, technically she had a job waiting tables, but her teaching career was over. Her recurring nightmare and blinding headaches had taken care of that.
In the mirror, beneath the bill of her cap, she caught a quick glimpse of gray eyes that held a hint of rebellion — that same disguised mutiny that was so evident in her younger sister.
At least Shaylee wasn't a hypocrite.
Jules could hardly say the same of herself.
A siren wailed in the distance; then she spied an ambulance threading through the clogged lanes of freeway traffic, going in the opposite direction.
God, her head throbbed.
Even though it was a cloudy day, the glare got to her.
She found her pair of driving shades tucked in the visor and slipped them on.
"Come on, come on," she muttered at the truck belching exhaust in front of her.
It took another twenty minutes and one more near collision before she reached her exit and eased along a winding road that hugged the shoreline of the lake.
She rounded a sharp curve and pulled through the open wrought-iron gates of a private residence. With a long, brick driveway, the building that appeared through the spruce and fir trees was more castle than house, a huge stone and brick edifice that rose three full stories on the shores of the lake.
She parked near the front door, next to her mother's Lexus SUV. Then, without locking her car, she dashed through the spitting rain to the porch. Under the cover of the porch, she rang the bell and waited near the thick double doors.
Within a few seconds, a fussy-looking, wasp-thin woman answered. "Can I help you?" The woman was dressed in black slacks and a sleek sweater tied at her tiny waist. Ashblond hair, salon cut and teased, increased the size of her head and masked her age. Perfectly applied makeup accentuated her sharp features. Her smooth skin screamed facelift, and she glared at Jules as if she'd been interrupted from doing something very important.
Jules realized that in her decade-old jeans topped by her favorite UW sweatshirt, sunglasses, and faded baseball cap, she probably looked more like a bank robber than a worried family member. But, really, who cared? "I'm looking for Edie Stillman. She's with her daughter, and they were going on a seaplane to —"
"I believe they're at the dock," the woman said with a smooth, practiced smile that didn't hide her disapproval. Nor did she ask for any kind of ID or what Jules's part in Shaylee's departure was. She waved a disinterested hand toward a stone path leading around the house. "But I think you may be too late. The plane's about to take off."
Over the steady beat of rain, Jules heard the distinct sound of an engine sputtering to life. Hell! She was already running in the direction the woman had pointed as the engine caught and roared with the sound of acceleration.CHAPTER 2
"Don't let the dogs out!" the impossibly thin woman warned loudly as Jules, desperate to stave off the inevitable, dashed through the rain, over the uneven stones, and around the corner of the majestic house where rhododendrons shivered in the wind. She flipped up the hood of her sweatshirt, though cold rain was already dripping down the back of her neck.
Not that she cared.
She just wanted a minute with Shay.
A tall wrought-iron gate stopped her for a second, but a key was in the lock, so she pulled the gate open and heard it clang shut behind her as she flew down a series of steps.
The dogs — two black standard poodles — raced up to her. She barely gave them a second glance as she hurried to the dock and boathouse, where Edie stood under an umbrella that trembled in the wind. Beyond her, a seaplane skimmed along the top of the steely water, then made its ascent into the gray Seattle sky.
"Great!" Jules's stomach dropped. She was too late. Damn it all to hell. "You put her on the plane?"
"I said I was going to. For the love of God, Julia, she's just complying with a judge's orders!" Edie Stillman, dressed in a blue silk jogging suit, turned to face her oldest daughter. Her expression said it all as she eyed Jules's clothes with distaste. "Didn't you have anything to wear?" she said, obviously embarrassed. "You look like some kind of thug."
Rain battered the hood of Jules's sweatshirt, dripping down the bill of her baseball cap. "Just the look I was going for."
"I can't even tell that you're a woman, for God's sake!"
"What's that got to do with anything?" Through her shaded lenses, Jules looked up to the sky and saw the seaplane vanish into the clouds. "Damn it, Mom, I said I'd take her in!"
"And Shay said ... let's see, what was that darling little quote?" Edie touched the edge of her lips and pretended to think as raindrops peppered the decking and pimpled the lake. "Oh, now I remember. She said, 'I'd rather puke up dead dogs than live with Jules!' Wasn't that just the sweetest way of saying, 'No thanks'?"
Jules bristled. "Okay. I know she wasn't crazy about the idea, but, really, this place you're sending her, it's like a prison."
"A pretty nice 'prison.' It looks more like a camp or a retreat. Have you seen the brochures?"
"Of course, I looked online, but they've got guards and fences and —"
"Then maybe she'll learn the value of freedom." Edie was unmoved.
"At what price?" Jules demanded as rain drizzled down her cheeks and stained the shoulders of her sweatshirt. The sound of the seaplane's engine faded into nothing. She remembered the articles she'd pulled up on the Internet when she'd first learned of the plan to ship Shaylee off to Blue Rock Academy. "I've done some research, and they've had their share of trouble. The school's gotten some bad press in the past year. A girl disappeared last fall, and there was something about a teacher being involved with a student and —"
"As for teachers and students, it happens everywhere — not that I condone it, of course. At least he was found out."
"She," Jules corrected. "The teacher was a woman."
"That seems to be the new crime du jour, doesn't it?" Edie scowled. "As for that girl, Lauren Conrad —"
"Her name was Conway."
"Whatever. She was a runaway," Edie said, lines cracking her evenly applied makeup. Though in her early fifties, she worked hard at looking fifteen years younger than her age. Today, with the stress of sending her wayward child away, all her carefully applied makeup and semiannual injections of Botox weren't doing their jobs.
"No one knows what happened to Lauren Conway, Mom," Jules objected. "I know because ever since you told me Shay was going there, I've done some research. Lauren still hasn't turned up."
"I think she had a history of taking off and disappearing. Really, Jules, it is a school for delinquents."
"And that makes it okay for a student to go missing? Even if she did take off, isn't the place supposed to be secure? Isn't that the whole point of the school? To keep at-risk kids safe?"
"Give it up." Edie's lips pulled tight, as if from invisible purse strings. "I can't quote their mission statement, but trust me, this is what's best for Shaylee and me. You know I've tried everything and nothing worked. I took her to counselors when she was depressed, got her into tae kwon do and even kickboxing to help her deal with her aggression. I gave her art, dance, and voice lessons to support her creative expression. Beading. Remember that? Beading, for the love of God! And how did she pay me back? Huh?"
Edie's temper was sizzling now. "I'll tell you how. She got into drugs. She's been picked up for theft and vandalism, not to mention being kicked out of three schools." Edie held up a trio of shaking, bejeweled fingers, which she shook in front of Jules's face. "Three!" she huffed. "With an IQ in the stratosphere and all the privileges I could afford, this is what she does? Goes out with a criminal named Dawg?"
"She's a kid. Maybe she just needed some special attention."
"Oh, give me a break. I lavished attention on her. More than I ever did with you!"
Jules wasn't sure that was necessarily true.
"This isn't about mother love or father love or the lack thereof, so cut that pseudopsychological garbage, Jules. It's not working on me!"
"Just calm down."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Without Mercy"
Copyright © 2010 Lisa Jackson, LLC.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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