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Trade Paperback
353 pages
Oct 2004

Stain of Guilt

by Brandilyn Collins

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He should have called the police.

Emily Tarell stood in the wide entryway of her executive home, one hand on the staircase banister. The rich parquet floor gleamed under light cascading from the crystal chandelier.

Emily loved that polished look of molten gold. But tonight it almost mocked her. Its sheen was too bright, too perfect for the stain that had soiled this house and the Tarell family business.

A chill traced spindly fingers between Emily’s shoulder blades. She watched as the carved wooden door to her husband’s private study began to close. At the last moment Don angled his head through the narrowing space to give her one of his now-don’t-worry-dear looks.

Little good that did. Emily could not shake the darkling premonition that hovered about her shoulders, ghost-whispering the approach of unseen evil. It rasped and sputtered, heard yet not heard, cautions uttered across a chasm.

Sometimes Don was just too bighearted.Too quick to forgive.

If he’d listened to her, Bill Bland would be interrogated by the police in a dirty little room down at the station instead of settled into an easy chair in his boss’s home study.

Click. The door latched, shutting off the four men.

Emily swallowed. What should she do now? She couldn’t just stand there, waiting, haunted by the sibilance of broiling wrath. She’d already been far too obvious with her emotions, answering the door with a nervous hello to Peter Dessinger, barely able to look Bill Bland in the eye when he’d arrived a half hour later. If Bill hadn’t known he’d been caught, he knew it now, just by her transparency. Her son, Edwin, had nodded to Emily, mouthing, It’ll be okay. Just like his dad.

Both soothing her, even as they refused to heed her sense that something, something slithered toward them, looking to consume.

Hadn’t the same feeling writhed in the pit of her stomach the day Wade had his accident?

Emily pushed away from the banister and headed for the kitchen, her flat-heeled shoes shushing against the hardwood floor. Some herbal tea was what she needed. Calming spearmint flavor. Then she would sit in the family room with a book. No television. That way she could keep an ear cocked toward the study for a raised voice, any sign of how the confrontation was going. She selected a tea bag from a glazed canister and dropped it into the bottom of her favorite mug. The one Wade gave her for a birthday when he was twelve.


Emily steeled herself against the familiar wash of emotions as she filled the teakettle with water. Her youngest son was killed in a car wreck a little over a year ago. Just back from his sophomore year at college, he drove off to meet up with some of his high school buddies . . . and never returned.

The pain of that loss would never subside.

Firming her lips, she pushed the heart-ripping thoughts away. She couldn’t deal with them right now, on this night. Not a sound emanated from the study. Emily strained to listen. The silence snapped and clacked in her ears.What were they doing in there? Had Don told Bill that they’d uncovered his embezzlement? That his sinful trail was undeniable?

Whatever would Bill do?

Tea made, Emily made her way into the family room, aware of her own breathing—of the catch she felt in the back of her throat. She lowered herself onto the couch, set her cup down on an end table, then stared at the brick fireplace. She’d forgotten to choose a novel from the bookcases lining the walls. No matter; she couldn’t concentrate enough to read.

That premonition eeling through her . . .

Her last look at Wade’s smiling face before he got into that car . . .

Stop it, Emily. You’re overreacting.

She clenched her drink, staring without seeing at the plush blue carpet. The house was so still. What could—?


The furious sound shattered the air. Emily froze.What was that? It sounded almost—


The long, muffled cry squeezed her heart. Edwin’s voice, but as she’d never heard it, raucous and distorted with shock.

A second bang split through her ears.

Emily dropped her tea. The near-boiling liquid leached through her slacks and attacked her legs with the bite of a thousand fire ants. Her mind scrambled to rationalize, to tell herself that what she’d heard could not be.

Get up, get up!

By some strength outside herself she shoved to her feet, stumbled around the end table, the couch. She raced across the shining parquet, nearly slipping, and jerked open the study door.

In a brain-searing instant, she took in the scene. Don, crumpled on the floor by his desk. Peter sprawled on the couch. Edwin on top of Bill Bland, her son fighting for his life.

Emily screamed.

“Mom, get away!”

Edwin’s and Bill’s hands flailed between their bodies, fighting over something. In the blur of movement, she couldn’t see the object until it was knocked aside. A gun! It hit the floor with a dull thud, then spun. Bill’s right hand scrabbled for it. Missed. Skittered again like a frenetic spider seeking prey, fingers closing around the barrel. He yanked the weapon up and smashed the butt end into Edwin’s cheek.

“Aahh!” Edwin’s face contorted, his hands flying toward the wound. Bill gave a mighty shove and pushed him off. Rising to a crouch, Bill scuttled for the door. Edwin caught him by an ankle, crashing him again to the floor. Bill’s head hit the hardwood with a smack.

Emily melted away from him into the door frame.

Both dazed men lurched to their feet. Bill still held the gun by the barrel. Edwin lunged.With an awkward two-step, Bill swayed out of his reach and veered toward the door. His glazed eyes locked with Emily’s, and in that split second she saw the fear in his murderous soul. He knew Edwin would kill him for what he’d done.

Before Edwin could launch again, Bill stumbled past Emily and through the hallway. He wrenched open the front door and pounded down the porch steps.

Edwin started after him.

“No!” Emily threw herself in his path. “He’s got a gun!”

Her son hunched before her, breathing hard, indecision jagging furrows across his forehead. Outside, a car engine gunned. Tires squealed away. Edwin’s shoulders sagged. He blinked once, twice, then turned toward his father. Grim resolve firmed his face. Together he and Emily staggered toward Don, sinking to their knees on either side of the still form. Emily had to shuffle backward as Edwin turned Don onto his back.

“Dad, Dad!” Edwin pushed fingers against his father’s neck, feeling for a pulse.A keen rose in Emily’s throat. Blood stained the front of Don’s shirt, a bullet hole over his heart.

“No, no, no, no, no,” gurgled a voice that could not be her own, a voice that would leak from a drowning woman. Emily cast herself across her husband’s chest.

“Mom, get back! Let me see if I can help him!”

Edwin pushed her shoulder, and she lifted away, hands up and trembling in the air. She waited for Don to say something, for his eyelids to flicker, for something to tell her he still lived. In vain Edwin again sought a pulse from his father’s neck, his wrist. He grabbed his dad’s face, fingers digging into the cheeks, and shook it.

“Dad! Come on, Dad, come on!”

Sobs gurgling in his throat, he tore open his father’s dress shirt, popping the buttons. Deep red stained the T-shirt beneath. Edwin yanked it up, exposing a fatal wound. “No, no.” He pressed his palm against it and rubbed, as if to erase it, erase the unthinkable events of the last two minutes.

It’s so small. The thought echoed in Emily’s head. So small. A wound this compact, this neat, could spill so much blood? Could take away her husband, her life?

Edwin fell back on his haunches, blood on his hands. “He’s gone.” The words squeezed from his throat.

Emily blinked rapidly, trying to form words, to think. Cold acid dribbled through her veins, eating away her energy.

Edwin’s chest heaved. He drew a palm across his mouth, smearing blood onto his mouth and chin. “I’ve got to . . . There’s . . .”

Shaking his head, he pushed to his feet and made his way across the room. Emily crouched on the floor and hugged herself, dazed eyes following her son’s movements toward Peter Dessinger. Peter slumped over on the couch, one hand trapped beneath his torso, the other dangling toward the floor.His neck twisted at an odd angle, his face half buried in the cushions.

He’s dead too. The knowledge blew through Emily. Don’s dead. Peter’s dead.Wade’s dead. I’m dead.

Distantly, she watched Edwin ease Peter’s body onto the floor, examine a bullet hole in the center of his forehead. Peter’s eyes were wide open and fixed.

Nausea slimed into Emily’s throat. She barely had time to turn her head away from Don before she threw up.When her stomach held nothing more, she dry heaved.

She could hear Edwin beating the floor with his fist, crying, “No, no.” Then she sensed him pushing to his feet, his denials intensifying, anger mounting. Still she held her sides, jaw open and gagging. Edwin’s cries churned into waves of rage that crashed him through the room, sweeping knickknacks off tables, throwing books, overturning a chair.

“I’ll kill him!” A figurine smashed into a hundred pieces against the wall. “I’ll kill him!”

Emily listed to one side, shrinking into herself. Trying to block out the guttural threats, the smell of vomit and blood. Through a blur she saw her son drag himself to the doorway of the study. “I’m going after him.” The words cut from his throat.

“Edwin.” Her voice shook, a mere whisper. “No.”

“Call 911. I’m going after him.”

“Edwin! Don’t!”

Her son never looked back. He shoved himself over the study threshold and toward the open front door. Emily wailed as his footsteps slapped down the front sidewalk and melted into the dusk.

Chapter 1

The grandfather clock chimed 1:00 P.M.

My visitors were all too prompt.

I stood in the great room of my executive-style log home, peering through an expansive window at the white Mercedes that had just pulled up to the curb. Pressing my knuckles into my chin, I watched the front car doors open. A man got out of the driver’s seat. That would be Edwin. Midforties. Brown hair, slightly receding. My artist’s eye took in the thick eyebrows, a strong nose. The natural upward curve of his lips, now weighted by downward furrows. From the passenger side emerged a stately looking woman in perhaps her late sixties.

Her gray hair was well coiffed. She had a soft mouth and wide-set eyes. I saw little resemblance between mother and son. Perhaps Edwin looked more like his late father.

Falling into step side by side, they began a purposeful walk toward my front door. Neither spoke. I knew only a few details of what they wanted. These were enough to set me on edge.

With a deep breath I started toward the door.

“Mrs.Tarell.” I forced a smile.“Mr.Tarell. Please come in.”

“Thank you. Please call me Emily.” The woman’s voice poured over me like molasses, thick and sweet.

“And I’m Edwin.” He shook my hand with the firm grip of a confident businessman. Seeing him up close, I thought him handsome in a melancholy sort of way. As if life had painted his features to profess the tragedy he’d seen.“You are so kind to see us on such short notice.”

“Of course. And call me Annie, by the way.” I gestured toward the couches and arm chair grouped around the massive rock fireplace. “My kids are at school so we can sit here.

Would you like something to drink?”

“Oh, no, we’re fine.” Emily tipped her elegant head up, surveying the huge room and its twenty-five-foot ceiling.

“Beautiful place you have. Absolutely beautiful. Have you been here long?”

“Only since last spring. My father had it built almost six years ago. My sister and I inherited it when he died unexpectedly. A heart attack.”

Emily closed her eyes.“Oh, I’m sorry to hear that.” Edwin murmured similar condolences.

As I nodded my thanks, Emily made her way to sit, straight-backed, on one of the oversized couches. Edwin waited as I chose the couch opposite Emily, a large, glasstopped coffee table between us.He sat in an armchair in the middle, facing the fireplace.

“Your children are how old?” Emily asked.

“Kelly’s thirteen and Stephen’s sixteen.” I gave a little wince. “Two teenagers.”

“Oh, boy, I remember those days. But you’ll make it.We all do.”

At the last comment her eyes drifted toward the fireplace, and I sensed she looked through a spiraling tunnel into the past.

“Mom?” Edwin’s voice was gentle. “Do you want me to tell Ms. Kingston—Annie—why we’re here?”

“No, no, I’ll do it.” Emily lifted her shoulders, suddenly all business. “I’d like to start at the beginning, if I may. So you can fully understand how important this is to me. First, as I told you on the phone, I’ve known of you since last summer, when all the news stories covered your daring face-off with that horrible murderer.”

Face-off. Ironic way to put it.

“In the fall, Annie, I read the follow-up feature story about you—how through that experience you’d decided to become a forensic artist and were now taking classes. I was interested, you see, because in the back of my mind, my own plan was forming.” Emily smoothed her skirt. “I told you that twenty years ago this spring my husband, Don—Edwin’s father—was shot and killed. Along with his vice president, Peter Dessinger.”

“Yes. I’m so sorry.”

She nodded. “My husband was a keen-minded businessman. When we were newly married, he founded a small plastics manufacturing company. Over the years he built it into a very successful business—one he would pass on to his two sons. Since Don’s death, Edwin has been running the company. He was very young when he took over so suddenly, but he’s done well . . .” She glanced at Edwin.

“And your other son?”

Emily’s mouthed pinched. “Our younger son,Wade, was killed in an auto accident shortly after his twenty-first birthday. Just a little over a year before Don died.”

I swallowed, searching for an appropriate response. Losing a son and a husband in such a short span of time? I couldn’t imagine the grief. Emily noted my stricken expression and gave me a sad smile.

Edwin looked at his hands. Even all these years later, he apparently found it difficult to watch his mother’s pain. “Peter Dessinger had been with Tarell Plastics for over fifteen years,” Emily continued. “He and Don were not only business associates, they were the best of friends, and our families knew each other well. In 1980 Don hired a new chief financial officer who was quite young—only twenty-nine. This was the man I told you about over the phone. Bill Bland.” Emily shook her head. “Can you believe a name like that? And he looked bland too. Average height and weight, light brown hair combed to one side. Glasses. Sort of a doughy face. Absolutely . . . banal. He had little sense of humor, few hobbies other than reading.He was very reserved, almost standoffish. In short, what one might consider a stereotypical accountant type.”

Maybe, but he must have hidden a mind-boggling secret life. The stereotypical CFO didn’t commit double homicide.

I repressed a cringe.My overactive brain was already hurtling me down speculative paths.What would make a person like Bill Bland do what he did?

Edwin seemed to read my mind. “The man my father hired wasn’t the same man I came to know. There was a dark side to Bill Bland. Even so, we never would have guessed what would happen. Not in a million years.”

“People are often not what we think.” I gave him a wry smile even as my ex-husband’s face taunted my thoughts.

Three years ago, out of the blue,Vic announced he was leaving me for someone named Sheryl—a girl much younger and prettier than I. Not in a million years would I have seen that coming.

Emily looked me in the eye as if sizing me up. For some reason she seemed to like what she saw. Maybe she’d made a fatal mistake about Bill Bland, but I sensed she still believed in her ability to judge people.

“So.” She sighed. “Things went fine for the first three years. Then Bill began to have trouble at home.We didn’t hear about it at first; he was so private. And when Susan, his wife, didn’t show up for the company Christmas party, we believed his story that she needed to stay home with their sick one-year-old. But in time the truth started coming out. They were having trouble—real trouble. She’d left him for another man, who would soon be moving out of state. She’d taken the baby with her. By the spring she and Bill were divorced. Bill could hardly function. He loved his family deeply. I could almost say fiercely. Seemed to me he wanted to control his wife too much. And he was so meticulous, you see—every part of his life in a certain order. His work, his home, his finances. Now all was in shambles.”

Edwin rubbed the arm of his chair—an unconscious gesture of concentration that I could imagine him making as he solved problems at work. “Bill was a control freak, all right. I knew him better than Mom did. Still, he was very private in a lot of ways. Later I learned from Susan that Bill didn’t have the money to buy out her half of their house. And he really wanted to stay in that house.”

“And he faced monthly expenses of alimony and child care,” Emily added. “Susan was cunning, not planning to marry her new man, so the alimony would keep flowing.”

That hit home. Sheryl had been cunning in her own way.

Later I realized how she’d set her sights on Vic the moment she met him. Bill Bland, like I, had been left adrift, a castaway on a bleak and rugged island. He’d even had his child taken . . .Watch it, Annie.

Ambivalence weighed my thoughts in equal balances. If the Tarells’ request proved what I expected, such empathetic thoughts about this murderer would be necessary. But oh, so uncomfortable. Not that it mattered. I wouldn’t accept their assignment.

Emily lifted a hand from her lap. “Of course, these are only our assumptions as to why he embezzled the money.We never did get a full explanation from him.”

“Because he fled, you mean.”

“Well—” Edwin’s fingers now drummed the chair arm—“that’s true. But he said enough that night when we confronted him about the money. So I’d say it’s more than just assumptions.” He drew a breath. “I think my mother told you I was in the room that night my father and Peter were killed. See, I worked for the company in the finance department. I was the one who discovered the missing funds in the first place. It was clear to me from the beginning there was only one person who could have done it.”

Emily made a little sound in her throat. “And of course after . . . everything happened, and the detectives looked into the business side of things, the trail was very clear. It led straight to Bill’s personal checking account, if you can imagine the stupidity of that.”

She fell silent, fiddling with the hem of her skirt. For a moment, none of us spoke.

Emily looked up abruptly. “Tell me, Annie, about the forensic art courses you’ve been taking.”

I blinked at the change in subject. “Okay.”

I’d been fortunate that quite a number of courses were available in the past school year. I explained to Emily and Edwin that through various institutions such as the Scottsdale Artists’ School in Arizona and Sam Houston State University in Texas, I’d taken weeklong workshops, including introduction to forensic art, basic and advanced facial reconstruction sculpture, comprehensive composite drawing, understanding the human face, the aging process, and advanced two-dimensional identification techniques. Many of the basic drawing concepts were already familiar to me, since I’d majored in art and had ten years’ experience as a courtroom artist, but I wanted to start my new career from the beginning.

“That’s a lot of time away from home and your children.”

“Yes. But I have a terrific sister. Jenna. She loves to boss me around. She had a lot to do with pushing me into this field in the first place. So when I need someone to stay with the kids, I sort of . . . remind her of that.”

Mild amusement played over Emily’s lips. “Serves her right.”

“Certainly does.”

The grandfather clock bonged 1:30. Emily pulled in a breath. Her gaze lingered upon the clock, making me think of the painstaking passage of time during the last twenty years. Every day, week, month, spent healing from grief meant an equal time of Don Tarell’s murderer evading justice.

“Do you believe in God, Annie?” Emily turned her eyes back on me.

Well. How was that for an unexpected question? I looked to Edwin, who turned his eyes away. Evidently, he’d leave any personal probings to his mother. For a moment I considered sloughing off the inquiry, but something in Emily’s eyes stopped me.


“Good. And do you believe He wants to lead our lives?”

I hesitated. Did Emily somehow sense my private soulsearching? Surely she couldn’t know.A year ago I would not have hesitated to answer her question with a no. But a year ago was before my neighbor Lisa was killed, before The Face.

Before my promise to God, made out of sheer desperation, to seek Him.

“Well—” I searched for the right words—“I’ve been going to church this year and . . . learning things. The people there certainly seem to think that God wants to lead us.”

She studied me, no doubt wondering at my evasive answer. “I believe that too.” Her words were quiet but firm.

“And I don’t mean to scare you or put you off, but I do think He’s led me here today. To you.”

I could find no response. Edwin studied the floor.

Emily shifted, crossing her ankles. “For twenty years, Annie, I’ve prayed for justice concerning my husband’s and Peter’s murders. Twenty long years. All this time Bill Bland has been a fugitive. Hard to believe that he could just disappear into thin air, but he has. Over the years the trail has grown cold. The case is still open, but the Shasta County Sheriff’s Department hasn’t been actively looking for him. Now we’re approaching a major anniversary. I’d been praying for a way to put the case before the public again, and God answered my prayer. Most creatively, I must say. As I mentioned on the phone, American Fugitive wants to run the story of the murders—with an updated sketch of Bill Bland. That’s where you come in.”

Edwin raised his eyes to my face. I worked to keep my expression from sagging. I’d guessed right: they wanted me to create the adult age progression; specifically, a fugitive update. An update of twenty years. In my studies of forensic art in the past year, this kind of assignment was the one I’d hoped never to receive.

“Annie? You’re awfully quiet.”

I laced my fingers and squeezed. I would not relish disappointing this woman. Or Edwin. “Do you realize what’s involved in a fugitive update?”

Emily lifted a shoulder. “I know you have to understand how the face ages.Which would require knowledge of facial anatomy and how it changes. But you’ve studied that, haven’t you?”

“Yes. But I have to be honest with you, it’s not the anatomy part that bothers me. It’s the inside part.”

Her eyebrows knit.

“I’d have to study the suspect, Emily. I’d have to learn everything I could about him. His genetic background. His habits, his facial expressions, how he eats, how he moves. How he thinks. All these things determine how a face ages. For instance, his eating habits affect how much weight he’ll gain. Certain facial expressions, like squinting, will affect how wrinkles appear.”

Edwin nodded slowly. “I see. You said you would have to learn these things. As if . . . you won’t?”

I tipped my head toward the ceiling. How to explain to these strangers that my stubborn, independent brain made me the worst possible candidate for such a task? My mind ran its own movie projector on a daily basis, envisioning in screaming color any stray thought that ventured its way. I could only imagine the insanity it would wreak upon me if I embarked on this assignment. The deeper I dug into understanding Bill Bland and his murderous brain, the more I would “see” every picture in my head. I’d play captive audience to his abandonment by his wife. To his heart-banging fear at his first stealing of the company’s money.To the black and desperate moment of his decision to kill.

“You fear—how to put it—descending into the mind of a murderer. Is that right?” The worry lines in Emily’s forehead deepened. “I do imagine that would be a frightening proposition. But isn’t this what you’re training for?”

“Yes, but there are all kinds of assignments in forensic art. Drawing composites, aging children who have been missing, reconstructing skulls. I’m training for all of them, but it’s just this one—”

“Please.” Emily held up her hand. “Please just think about it.We don’t need your answer right this moment. Although we do need it very soon.” She pressed two fingers against her mouth. “What do I have to say to convince you?”

I sought diversion in details. “Why are you asking me to do this? Shouldn’t someone from American Fugitive be choosing the artist?”

“Normally, no doubt.” Edwin’s hand lifted from the chair arm, then began drumming again. “But—”

“This is where God’s answer to my prayers comes in.”

Emily leaned forward. “Sharon Dessinger, Peter’s wife? She moved back east years ago. Her daughter, Stacey, lives in New York. Last Christmas Stacey finally began dating again—five years after a messy divorce. And who does she end up going

out with? A man who writes for American Fugitive. Now you see why I cannot think of this as mere coincidence. Neither can Sharon. This show was her idea.”

It was quite amazing. American Fugitive had a track record of success that would make even the most cool-minded criminal on the lam lose sleep. In the past ten years the series had seen hundreds of murderers, rapists, burglars, and con men brought to justice. If an on-target drawing of Bill Bland was televised on the show, he most likely would be caught.

Had God opened this door for Sharon and the Tarells?

“But why me? Why doesn’t the show pick someone in New York?”

Emily smiled. “Because you’re here. Right near the Shasta County Sheriff’s Department, which handled the case.You’ve even worked with detectives in that office. They’ll trust you with the whole file. You can go over it, read it, absorb it—”

She pulled back, mouth closing, as if realizing she’d used the wrong word.

“Plus—” she raised her chin—“you have easy access to the people you’d need to interview—people who knew Bill Bland. Edwin would be a good place to start.”

“I see.” I looked from Emily to her son. “It does make sense that you have someone local—and I’m about the only forensic artist around. But I’m afraid I’m not qualified to take on such a major assignment yet.”

Since my first case last summer of drawing The Face, when I wasn’t even a forensic artist, I’d completed five other sketches of suspects in the Redding area, mostly for smallscale robberies.A grand total of six—a far cry from the minimum twenty-five needed to be certified even at Level I.And this bereaved widow and fatherless man wanted my work to be on a national television show?

“Annie.” Emily’s voice firmed.“You’re qualified.You handled that case last summer like you’d been doing it for years.”

That was a laugh. If she only knew half of what I went through.

“Well, I . . . thank you for your confidence.” How lame my words sounded.

“Nothing to thank me for.You’ve earned it.” She patted both palms against her thighs. “All right then. It doesn’t seem there’s any more that we can say. Edwin, do you have anything?”

He cleared his throat. “No. Well, yes.” He cupped his hands, resting both elbows on the arm of the chair. “Let me be honest with you, Annie. I sense your hesitation. I just ask that you not start this unless you think you can do it successfully. My mother has been through enough, and I don’t want her disappointed.”

“Oh, Edwin.” Emily frowned at him, then fixed me with a determined look. “You’ll have to forgive my son; the executive in him is coming out. I’ll be disappointed if you don’t do this. Very disappointed. Because I know you can, Annie. And I know you’re God’s answer to my prayers. To put an end to this . . . purgatory of waiting. To finally see justice done.” Her voice dropped. “And I’ll tell you this plainly. If ever you’ll be given a case that demands justice more loudly, I’ll be surprised.”

She held my gaze as I absorbed her words. Emily seemed to know she’d found the point of my weakness. In my darkest moments of pursuing The Face, only my strong desire for bringing Lisa Willit’s killer to justice had kept me going. I couldn’t let Dave and Erin Willit down. And every day I spotted them now in their yard across the street, every time Erin came over to see Kelly, I felt a satisfaction in the depth of my being. Despite the danger I’d encountered, I’d made the right choice.

“One thing,” I hedged. “You can’t even know if Bill Bland is still alive.”

“True.” Edwin dipped his head.

His mother lifted a hand. “If he’s not, I’d like to find that out.We’d still need your drawing to do that.”

My drawing.

My heart panged. I so wanted to help these people. If I was in a position to bring an end to their purgatory, why shouldn’t I? Focusing on the circular oak stairway across the great room, I thought of my own losses—Vic and our marriage; my father’s sudden death; Lisa’s murder; my son’s rebellion and drugs.

“Emily,what would be the timeline for this assignment?”

She raised her brows. “I’ll admit time is tight. Sharon received a late go-ahead for the show, and the drawing has to be done in a few weeks.” She shook her head. “All the more reason, Annie, that you are the person for this job. Besides, you’ve got the talent to do it quickly, and more important, you’ve got the heart.Yes, I know about your way with people and your tenacity. I talked to Detective Ralph Chetterling at the Sheriff’s Department before coming here.He assured me you’d accept the assignment. And that you’d succeed.”

Oh, really. How presumptuous of Chetterling! But I could not dwell on that. Instead, I wondered at the man’s confidence in me. How could I tell the Tarells no when he’d given me such rave reviews? Even if they were undeserved.

I stared at my feet, Sharon’s and Edwin’s request sucking at me like quicksand. I wanted to help. But I so feared the process of creating a fugitive update. How had Emily put it?

Descending into the mind of a murderer. I did not welcome such a descent.

“Okay, tell you what.” I spoke the words to the floor. “I’ll . . . think about it and give you a call tonight or tomorrow. How’s that?”

A tired smile creased Emily’s face. “I suppose that’s all we can ask. Thank you.” She rose, Edwin doing the same. “Don’t worry about your fears,Annie. If you take this on—when you take it on—I will pray for you. God has helped me through the last twenty years. He’ll see you through this.”

Descending into the mind . . .

A shiver snaked down my spine.

If I took on this assignment, I’d need all the prayers Emily Tarell could muster.