Not so pretty in death, are you.
Head twisted, back arched. Contorted mouth, eyes wide in shock, limbs all locked tight.
Now your outside looks like your inside—a black soul, an immoral soul, a horrified and horrifying soul, bound for the black pits, the depths of darkness, for eternity, ever and ever on.
Skin still warm, clothes all askew, bleached blonde hair tangled around your devious head, fragile wisps caught on your evil tongue. Dead, dead, dead and gone, and who will miss you now?
Sit back and look at you, deserving the work of my hands.
Look you up and down, your shoes kicked off in the convulsions, wrists bent, fingers curled like the limbs of an arthritic tree, one knee drawn up toward your chest.
How hard they fall, the proud and vain and shallow.
But . . .
Sweep aside the coarse, white-yellow hair. There it is.
Pretty earring. Pretty, pretty bauble, so shiny, with a big blue stone and little white stones around it, playing with the spectrum like shimmery fairies. Put my finger behind your earlobe, move it this way and that, watch the dancing colors catch the light. My earring now, only mine, to keep and smile at and watch it shine.
How to take it? It is connected to your ear, right through it.
Silly, arrogant woman, piercing holes in your body in the name of beauty. Like her. She was self-absorbed and flirtatious, making eyes at the men, swaying hips and pouting lips, and meanwhile the child saw and was unseen, and no one else knew, and no one else cared, and who would tend the child?
Pull. Tug. Rip at the earring, and still it will not come. It latches to your ear like a leech. You defy me, even in death, you shout to me in your silence that you will not be dejeweled, not be robbed of the sparkly outward display of your wretched and gaudy heart.
Hurry away,my footsteps scuffing the kitchen floor to grab what I need. I grip the handle, one finger testing the blade. I will take the prize from you, and your yawning mouth will scream in silence, but no one else knows, and no one else cares, and who will tend to you?
The earring is mine.
Hold it close to my eyes. Feel the hardness of the stone with my finger, tip it, turn it, watch the light play, the fading light of the setting sun. Darkness creeps toward the earth like it has crept over you, and to the ground you will go, ashes to ashes and dust to dust, to be remembered no more, to wither and rot.
In the dead of night you will be taken. As the dead of night, so shall you ever be.
The moment before it began, I stood in my bedroom, folding clothes.
In the last year I’ve developed a kind of sixth sense—a lingering smudge from my brushes with death. A sense that jerks my head up and sets my eyes roving, my ears attentive to the slightest sound. Nerves tingle at the back of my neck, then pinprickle down my arms and spine. The sensations surge through my body almost before I consciously register what caused them. Sometimes they are right; sometimes they are overreactions to mere surprise.
Experience has taught me to err on the side of caution.
And with five local murders in as many months, I was already on edge.
Something . . . something downstairs . . .
My arms stopped to hover over my bed, a half-folded shirt dangling from both hands.
The male voice echoed up from our great room one floor below—a voice I didn’t recognize. It mixed surliness with a throaty growl, like stirred gravel.
I didn’t hear the doorbell.
“Hey!” The voice again, impatient.
My thoughts flashed to Kelly, my fourteen-year-old. She’d fallen asleep down there, on one of the oversize couches near the fireplace. My daughter in a vulnerable position . . . some man I didn’t know standing over her?
Kelly gasped—loudly enough for me to hear.With the expansive wooden floor and the wood wainscoting of our great room, sounds echo. The fear in that gasp jolted me into action. Almost before I knew what I was doing, I’d run for my purse on the nightstand. My fingers fumbled, looking, searching.Within seconds I felt the smooth, frightening comfort of my gun.
I yanked it out.
No time to think. Pure instinct took over. Hadn’t Chetterling told me it would? I wrapped my hands around the gun, trigger finger ready, and sneak-sprinted down the hall.
Below me, the great room jerked into view through banister railings. I skidded to a halt at the landing and nearly dropped the gun. My terrified eyes fixed on an unknown man in profile to me, hulking over Kelly. He was in his early twenties.
Big—maybe six two?—with vein-laden, bulging biceps. The wide nose and lips of an African American, but with dusty-colored skin. Light brown hair in thick dreadlocks. Kelly had raised up on one elbow, mouth open, her expression a freeze-frame of shock.
My legs assumed the stance Chetterling had taught me.
Feet apart and planted firmly. My arms stretched before me over the banister, gun pointed at the man’s head.
He jerked toward me, eyes widening. Both arms raised shoulder height, large fingers spread. “Hello.Wait one minute. I was just looking for Stephen.”
His cultured tone so surprised me that I almost lowered the gun. From the looks of him, I’d expected more of an urban hip-hop. Annie, keep it together; he’s right near Kelly! I stared at him, breath shuddering. How could this be happening?
I’d drawn a gun on someone. Someone who stood right next to my daughter. “Back away from her.”
He retreated one step.
What if this was the man who’d killed those five women?
“Would you mind putting the gun away?” He shuffled back two more steps, but he couldn’t go far. Another three feet and he’d hit the armchair facing the fireplace. To his left sat a big glass-topped coffee table, to his right the sofa where Kelly lay.
Any second he could lunge for her, pull her in front of him as a shield. What would I do? Chetterling, we never practiced anything like this!
“Look.” Sulkiness and an arrogant irritation now coated his voice. “I was just going to ask her about Stephen; you don’t have to threaten my life.”
My insides shook, but my hands did not waver. When I spoke, my voice carried the cynical disgust of a policeman on patrol. “I don’t recall anyone letting you in the house.”
“The door was unlocked.”
Unlocked. Still, that was hardly an invitation. My jaw clenched. “You in the habit of just walking into people’s homes?”
Anger tromped up my spine. How dare he act so nonchalant?
“Well, let me tell you something—you picked the wrong house to walk in to.”
“So I noticed.” A smirk etched his lips. “Is Stephen here?”
Kelly still had not moved. He could be upon her in a heartbeat.
God, help me! How do I get her to safety?
“Kelly.” I kept my eyes on the man. “Get up now. Run into my office and lock the door.”
My daughter blinked, as if trying to rouse herself from a bad dream. Then she scrambled to her feet. I watched my target, the two-inch barrel Chief Special aimed at his head. A double action revolver, the gun didn’t need to be cocked to fire. My finger remained poised to pull the trigger if he gave me reason.
In my peripheral, I saw Kelly back away from the man, then turn and run toward the office. She disappeared beneath the landing where I stood, her bare feet slapping against the hardwood floor. My office door banged shut. The lock clicked.
Relief flooded my chest. At least my daughter was safe. I knew she would call 911.With experiences like we’ve had, you don’t fool around.
“All right.” I forced strength into my words. “Now. Who are you?”
He flicked an impatient look at the ceiling. “Are you going to put that gun down or not?”
“I asked you a question.”
Cold eyes glared at me. “Blake.”
Who knew if he was telling the truth? “Blake who?”
“Smith, all right? S-m-i-t-h.”
Yeah, sure. His cockiness rattled me. This was not a man who’d bow an inch for authority. I could feel sweat beading on my forehead. My only hope was that he couldn’t see it.
“What do you want with my son?”
His arms lowered until both hands were in front of his chest, fingers still spread. “I simply need to talk to him.”
Business? “Really. And what kind of business would that be?”
He stuck his tongue under his top teeth, then pulled it away with a sucking sound. “You’re his mother, correct? The famous forensic artist.”
The way he said those words. His insolence might as well have been a backhanded slap. If we were close enough, I’d bet anything he would jump at me, swipe the gun from my hands. My palms grew clammy. I tightened my grip on the weapon.
Blake eyed me with belligerence, then slowly lowered his left hand. He pointed his right index finger at me. “You will give Stephen a message for me.”
Anger ballooned my lungs, pinned them against my chest.
Now he was telling me what do? When he’d walked into my home? Stood over my sleeping, innocent daughter? My fingers began to tremble. “Get out of my house!”
“All right, all right, I’m going.”
He turned his back on me, as if I posed not the slightest threat, and ambled around the far side of the coffee table like some languid lion aroused from sleep. I almost expected him to yawn. Then he took his time moving around the couch.
Only then did he face me once more.
“You tell your son that Blake is looking for him, you hear? He’ll know why. And you tell him this.” His eyes narrowed, sharpening blades that would cut steel. “He won’t be able to hide from me.”
With a sneer, he turned and stalked away, the satiated predator from a death-spared deer.
I did not move, gun still pointed. He strode onto the porch and slammed the door.
My legs wobbled as I made my way down our wide curving staircase of polished wood. Dear God, what now? All the terrible murders around Redding, now this. Vaguely, I heard a car door slam outside, the squeal of tires. Fear for Stephen gripped me. What had he done this time? My seventeen-year-old son had been nothing but trouble for a couple years, this
last twelve months in particular. A year ago he’d faced his first court appearance for drug possession, receiving six months’ probation—which he hadn’t obeyed. After that came rounds of weekend work detail, then time in juvenile hall. Lately I’d begun to suspect he was selling drugs.Where else had he gotten the new clothes, the constant stream of new CDs? His “a-friend-gave-it-to-me” explanations had long since worn thin.
I hit the bottom of the steps and ran across the long great room. Gun still in hand, I locked and bolted the front door, then peeked through our tall windows to check outside. No sign of Blake. No unknown car. For a moment I leaned against the glass, forehead on my arm, and tried to steady my breathing.
Only then did a thought cross my mind, irreverent in its timing. My sister would be so proud of me. Gun-toting Jenna’s insistence that I learn to shoot had finally paid off.
Far behind me, the lock on my office door clicked.
“Mom?” Kelly’s voice pinched with fear.
I veered from the window. “Yes, honey, it’s okay. He’s gone.” The forced lightness in my tone sank like lead.
Kelly sidled from around the hall corner, hiccuping a sob. She ran toward me, hands outstretched, not even noticing that I still held a loaded gun. What to do with it? I barely had time to lay it on the windowsill before she flew against my chest and burst into tears. “Oh, Kelly, I’m so sorry.”Wrapping my arms around her, I rocked her as if she were a little girl.
“It’s okay, now, everything’s all right. He didn’t really want to hurt you. He was just trying to wake you up to ask about Stephen.”
Her body shook. “At first I thought . . .”
Of course she had. “I know, I know.” Even though the murders had occurred on the other side of Redding, anyone in Kelly’s position would have feared the same thing. All denials had ceased after the third body was found in March.
A serial killer roamed the area. A killer with remarkable cunning and a chilling manner of murdering his victims.
“But who is he?” Kelly’s voice hitched. “I’ve never seen him before, and I know a lot of Stephen’s friends.”
I closed my eyes. If only I could close my mind to the questions. Kelly had just finished her freshman year of high school, and Stephen, his junior year. For the first time since we’d moved to Grove Landing, they attended the same school, which had afforded Kelly an all-too-vivid knowledge of the kids Stephen hung out with. But even the worst of them couldn’t measure down to this Blake Smith. If that was his real name.
“He looked older than a high schooler to me.” I rubbed Kelly’s back. “That’s probably why you haven’t seen him.”
But why was Stephen hanging around with someone like that? Someone so threatening? Only one answer came to mind: drugs.
A shiver rolled across my shoulders.
“Kelly.” I kept my tone as gentle as possible. “You didn’t lock the door when you came in from Erin’s. I know it’s hard to remember in the summer, when you two are running back and forth so much, but you really do need to.”
“I know. I’m sorry. Believe me, I won’t forget again.”
I patted her back.
She pulled away to look at me, her eyes red. “I called 911. You’d better call them back—I hung up when I saw the guy drive away.”
“Yeah, okay.” I loosened a strand of brown hair from her cheek, struck for the millionth time by her beauty.When had my daughter grown as tall as I was? “You sure were brave, Kelly. That must have been really scary.”
She blew out air and stepped away, summoning the fortitude of her fourteen years. “Yeah, scary all right. I’ve never seen you pull a gun on somebody.”
“I meant the man, Kelly.”
We managed to smile at each other.
Speaking of the gun, I needed to put it away. But first I had to call the Shasta County Sheriff’s Department. If Detective Ralph Chetterling had heard that 911 call, he’d no doubt be speeding here like a freight train. So would anyone else from the department, for that matter.With a massive hunt for a predatory killer under way, every member of local law enforcement had the jitters.
“Kelly, I need to make that call.” I turned to pick up my weapon, and she flinched from it. Kelly felt the same way I did about guns—she was scared to death of them.
I headed into the kitchen for the phone, my artist’s mind conjuring Blake Smith’s features. The wide nose, the deepset eyes. Thick, almost straight eyebrows.As soon as I got the chance, I would draw that face from memory. Give it to Chetterling, have him show it around the department. Maybe some deputy would know this guy. Although I wasn’t sure which would be worse—if a member of law enforcement did know Blake . . . or didn’t.
What had Stephen done?
I laid the gun down on the kitchen counter and picked up the phone to dial 911, my mother’s heart quailing. If only I could stop the wreckage of my son’s life. My call was answered on the first ring. “Hi, it’s Annie Kingston.”
“Annie! Are you all right, what’s going on? We’ve got a car on the way.”
“Thanks. The immediate danger is over. No need for any deputies to hurry now, but I’d still like someone to come so I can make a report.” I explained what had happened and described Blake. “The deputy coming here should keep an eye out for this guy. Unfortunately I didn’t see what kind of car he was driving.”
“Okay, we’ve got it. The unit will be there in about five minutes. Stay safe,Annie.”
Yeah. Stay safe.
Back upstairs, as I placed my gun into my purse, a dark precognition swooped over me. I had driven Blake Smith out of my house, but not out of our lives. Stephen was in real trouble this time.
Not with law enforcement, but with the criminals themselves.