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|Conspiracy of Silence|
after leaving the expressway for a series of two lane asphalt highways,
Clare Prentice drove through an opening in the trees above Grand Rapids,
Minnesota. Accustomed to the bustling life of Chicago, she had been
apprehensive about her arrival in such an isolated area. The picturesque
view of the houses nestled along the shoreline and the businesses lining
the edges of a park came as a pleasant surprise.
Martha distributed these temporary tattoos as part of her promotion for Bleeding Heart
Awards for Bleeding Heart:
Winner 2001 Volusia County Laurel Wreath Contest, Long Contemporary Category
Second Place 2001 Daphne Du Maurier Award, Romantic Suspense Category
Two and a half year old Tyler McKenzie opened his mouth in a wide circle and blew against the front of the jewelry counter. A cloud of wet air frosted the glass, then slowly disappeared. Inside, the bright stones shimmered on the blanket of shiny gold. He liked the blue ones best. Like mommy's eyes.
"Don't do that, sweetheart," Barbara McKenzie said, pulling him back against her side. "A couple more minutes, Tyler. Then we'll go home."
She knew he was tired. They'd been returning presents for more than an hour. He leaned against her leg. He rocked from side to side, then slid down to the floor. The tether attached to his wrist snagged on her belt loop and he tugged to get it loose.
"Don't pull, honey. You'll tear Mommy's coat."
She unwound the coiled plastic tubing until the strap swung free, one continuous loop from Tyler's wrist to hers. She was glad that she'd remembered to bring it. Between after-Christmas sales and people returned rejected presents, the department store was dreadfully crowded. She always worried about Tyler getting lost.
From his seat on the floor, he stared up at her. His mouth stretched into a lopsided grin but his brown eyes dropped sleepily. She ruffled the top of his blond head.
"What a love you are, Tiger," Barbara said. "Mommy's hurrying."
Tyler nuzzled her leg, purring like a cat. They'd taken him to the zoo Thanksgiving weekend. They'd made a special trip to see the lion cubs because Tyler loved the Disney movie, The Lion King. It was the tiger however that had drawn his interest. Barbara had to admit it was her choice too. Tyler wasn't afraid of the huge animal. For him it was nothing more than a big cat.
She checked to see that the velcro strap was secure around his wrist, unable to resist touching the soft skin on his cheek as she straightened up to sign the return slip. Finished, she put her wallet back in her purse, picked up the shopping bag beside Tyler and helped him to his feet.
"Only one more stop," she said as she dusted the seat of his pants with her hand.
Now that Tyler was standing, he was anxious to be on his way. His short leges moved like pistons to get ahead of her as she walked down the aisle toward the escalator.
"Wait for Mommy," she said as he strained against the tether.
She took his hand, making sure the strap that joined them wrist to wrist didn't catch on the moving treads of the escalator. Ken never used the tether when he took Tyler out. He said it reminded him of a leash for a dog. Easy for him to say, she thought. Husbands didn't have a million errands to run while trying to keep track of an active child.
"Jump jump?" Tyler asked.
"Almost." She tightened her grip on his pudgy little hand and as the escalator steps flattened out, she said, "OK, Tiger. Jump."
She raised his arm as he hurled his body forward, then steadied him as he came down in a two-footed landing at the top. He cocked his head, crowing with triumph as he smiled up at her.
"Tyler good," he said.
"Very good. That was an excellent jump," she agreed, giving his hand another squeeze before she released him.
He had just begun talked in two-word phrases. It wasn't always easy to know what he meant but it was fun hearing the sound of his voice and anticipating what it would be like when he could verbalize more. He'd learned his colors and shpaes and even learned the first part of the ABC song.
She let him pull her along as they followed the aisle around to the women's department. She opened her shopping bag and pulled out the knit tunic her brother Grant had given her for Christmas and placed it on the counter in front of the sales girl.
"Last stop," she said, leaning over to kiss Tyler on the top of his head.
He rubbed his face against the sweaters hanging on a circular rack beside the counter. His mouth puckered and he chirped in pleasure. "Soft dog."
"Right." Barbara nodded. "Soft like the dog. Soft like Barney."
Making small smacking sounds, he pushed through the sweaters until he reached the open space in the center of the rack. The tether stretched and Barbara hunkered down to peer under the clothing. Tyler was sitting on the floor, his back again the center pole.
"Tyler's hide," he said. He clutched the sleeve of a navy blue sweater, brushing it against his cheek as he tucked the thumb of his other hand into his mouth.
"It's a very good hideout," she said to the heavy-lidded child. "You can take a rest and I'll be right here."
She straightened up and turned back to the salesgirl, explaining that the tunic was too long and the wrong color. She rummaged through her purse until she found the correct receipt.
The sweaters on the rack shook and she heard Tyler cooing within his soft nest. At least he was still awake. Her parents and brother had stayed in the house over Christmas and Tyler had overdosed on excitement and was short of sleep. She knew it was a mistake to let him nod off. He'd be crabby when she woke him.
Leaning tiredly on the counter, Barbara pulled the tether. From under the rack of sweaters, Tyler pulled back. She turned around to face the counter waiting for the clerk to complete the transaction. The girl pressed the keys on the computer, pausing after each action to stare blankly at the monitor. Finally the machine spit out several sheets of paper.
"Here you are, Mrs. McKenzie," the sales clerk said.
She set the receipt down on the counter along with a pen. Barbara signed her name, waiting as the girl stapled the two receipts together. Tucking the charge card back in her wallet, Barbara stuffed everything back into her purse.
"Time to go, Tyler. Mommy's all finished."
She pulled the strap, sighing at the lack of response. He must be sound asleep. She'd have to carry him all the way to the car.
"Come on, Tyler. Wake up and we'll go home."
Settling her purse strap on her shoulder, she spread the sweaters apart, following the coiled plastic wire to the center of Tyler's hideout.
The velcro wrist strap of the child tether was attached to the metal center pole.
Tyler was gone.
The Renaissance Faire was in full swing. Coming to Delbrook, Wisconsin the weekend after Labor Day, it was an event of pure performance art. A whimsical imitation of a medieval market town was erected in a field above Falcon Lake. The costumed players provided a day's worth of events that ranged form plays and musical entertainments to nature exhibits and crafts to a finale of jousting, mock battles and horsemanship.
Traditionally the local schools called a day off so that the children could attend. It gave the teachers a welcome chance to catch their breath after the hectic opening days of the school year. Now that the lake crowd had closed up their summer cottages and returned to the cities where they lived and worked, the residents of Delbrook observed the weekend of the Renaissance Faire as a time for celebration.
The Warrior was cold.
Beads of sweat stood out on his forehead and slid down the side of his neck to pool at the indentation below his Adam's apple. The late afternoon heat pressed against the top of his head but a chill, a combination of anticipation and fear, fanned out from the core of his being. His arms and legs tingled and his stomach cramped as he leaned against the railing, absorbing the atmosphere around him.
To the Warrior, the carnival atmosphere was alien to the serious purpose of the day's visit. The inherent danger of proximity to his home made it a dangerous choice. He had never worked within his own territory, and had strong misgivings. Even though the risk factor was very high, he had chosen the Faire for the apprentice's first test because it offered the greatest opportunity of success for the boy.
All week the Warrior had been restless. He had spent long nights establishing the guidelines, working out every detail to minimize the danger to both himself and the boy. The first trial in the initiation process was always the most important, setting the tone for eventual success or failure.
Despite the long training period, the boy's youth was a decided disadvantage. The test would prove whether, at four, the boy had mastered the necessary discipline to follow orders without question with all the distractions of a public place.
The Warrior had chosen his vantage point well. From the top of the hill, the outdoor patio of Ye Olde Ale House had a panoramic view of the entire fairground.
Rising from the cooking pots and the open fires, smoke hung in a thick pall above the gaudily painted buildings of the mock town, pressed down by the humidity left behind by the recent thunderstorm. The ground was soaked and dotted with pools of standing water. In a futile effort to lessen the impact of the rain, the organizers had strewn loose straw on the main traffic areas but despite that the ground had become a quagmire. The wet, mud-streaked crowd added a measure of veracity to the appearance and smell of the make-believe medieval fair.
The Friday attendees had thinned out during the rain but the hardy bunch who remained had weathered the storm in the refreshment areas. Well fed on turkey legs and sausage pasties and fortified by foaming steins of beer, they staggered outside, jostling each other in good-natured camaraderie along the paths that led down the hill away from the lake to the arena for the final events of the day.
The Warrior bit his lip. A sense of unease invaded his body. He hadn't counted on the rainstorm that had changed the temperament of the crowd. The sheer boisterousness worried him. In this atmosphere, anything could happen and in an instant he could lose control of the situation.
Instinct urged him to abort the trial.
His eyes flicked across the crowd milling around the wooden benches next to the jousting field. It was easy to spot the blond boy sitting alone at the far end of the bench closest to the arena. Against the shifting movements of the excited audience, the child's immobility created an oasis of stillness.
One Who Cries was waiting for the signal. It was time for the boy to take the first step on his journey.
The Warrior could remember when he began his own training.
He had been older than One Who Cries. Twelve and lost in a world of pain and despair. He'd found the answers to his search for freedom in reading about the culture of the American Indian. The tough disciplining of young boys captured his imagination, especially the tests that led to becoming a warrior. He'd steeped himself in the rituals and the customs, picking and choosing the elements he liked best and the ones he thought would enhance his own spirit.
The warrior symbolized power. And counting coup brought ultimate power.
A coup was a war honor that emphasized bravery, cunning and stealth over actual killing. It was the greatest achievement to touch an enemy with a coup stick in the heat of battle and leave him alive to wallow in shame and self-reproach. The triumphant warrior captured the enemy's spirit, which was worse than death to a man of the People.
Like a young American Indian boy, he began to train so that he would be worthy to take on the mantle of the warrior. In this he had no mentor to guide him. He would be his own teacher.
He had invented the first test when he was twelve.
During a week of planning he had fine-tuned the rules. He would select an enemy in a public place. For the coup to count, he had to touch the very center of the target's back. It must be a one-fingered touch, solid enough to elicit some reaction from the victim.
Level one had been easy to master.
Suddenly the Warrior straightened, hands tightening on the railing as he noticed the activity in the arena. Several horses had entered the jousting field.
The crowd applauded and shouted as the colorfully draped mounts with costumed knights on their backs pranced nervously around the ring. A loudspeaker bellowed over the noise of the audience but the words were unintelligible at this distance.
Soon. It would be soon.
Eyes intent on the back of the blond head, the Warrior waited. He stood tall so that the boy would be able to see him clearly when he turned to catch the signal. The noise and commotion faded into the background as the Warrior concentrated on the child. He narrowed his focus as if by sheer willpower he could guarantee success.
Still seated on the bench while all around him people shouted and gestured at the activity, One Who Cries looked too frail for the test ahead.
Despite appearance, the boy was in peak physical condition. He had been prepared for this moment through a strict regimen of healthy food, exercise and a highly structured schedule of activities.
The Warrior had made today's test extremely simple. It was the first time that the boy had been release from confinement in a year and a half. Primarily the test was to see if the Warrior could maintain control of the four year old without all the distraction of the real world and an opportunity to escape.
What the boy had to do was neither demanding nor dangerous. He needed to wait for the appointed signal that initiated the coup, touch the wooden fence around the jousting field then look to the Warrior for the signal to retreat and return to the rendezvous point. If he could it would prove that the boy could be trusted on his own to obey his mentor's instructions.
A trumpet blew, the shrill notes cutting through the cacophony and leaving a pulsing silence in its wake.
One Who Cries rose to his feet and turned around until he was facing the Warrior. His right hand came up just below his chin and his fingers formed the sign to indicate he was ready. The Warrior raised his own hand and gave the go ahead.
Heart racing in anticipation, the Warrior watched the boy walk up with steady steps to the edge of the jousting arena. He reached out with his left hand and placed his palm flat on the wooden fencing.
One Who Cries turned around and even at a distance, the Warrior could see the pride written clearly in the straight carriage of the boy. Now all that remained was the retreat. The Warrior raised his hand but before he could give the signal for withdrawal, he heard a piercing cry. The boy's body jerked at the sound. His head tilted back, mouth open slightly, eyes trained upward.
A falcon soared high overhead. Even at that height, her silhouette was easily recognizable. With her strong wings, she dug into the air and climbed steeply above the arena. Wings and tail spread wide, she circled in a lazy spiral. A shiver of fear ran through the Warrior's body. This was not a part of the trial.
The Falcon was a harbinger. An omen of disaster.
The Warrior started to move forward, watching the boy who remained transfixed by the bird. The falcon slipped sideways, riding the rising currents of heat, then folding her wings against her body, she dived straight down toward the earth, swooping above the crowd before she started to climb again.
One Who Cries opened his mouth in a silent scream.
Covering the top of his head with his arms, the boy raced down the aisle away from the arena. Seeing his distress, people reached out to him but the boy dodged all attempts to hold him, ducking beneath the outstretched arms until he was beyond the jousting field.
Free of the crowd, One Who Cries slowed. His eyes were open but he appeared to travel blindly, mind far from the motion of his body. the mud sucked at his feet, holding him to the earth, as he staggered from side to side up the hill. The Warrior could see the heaviness that invaded the small body as exhaustion overcame his initial panic.
The Warrior drew upon his own training to guard his face from showing any interest or emotion but inside he twisted with frustration.
One Who Cries had failed the test.
The boy was in total shutdown, unable or unwilling to obey the signals. He passed the rendezvous point without the slightest mark of hesitation.
The Warrior pushed away from the railing, charting a path that would intersect with the boy. His hands curled into fists, held tightly against his sides as he strode across the crest of the hill and angled toward One Who Cries. This was the moment of maximum danger where recognition could result in the loss of the child. He tried to clear his mind of negative thoughts. His first priority was to regain control of the child.
Later there would be time for analysis. He would have to discover what flaw in the training process had resulted in another failure. At least it was not a total disaster like the last time. Bad enough, but not unalterable.
It was important to keep in mind how much time he had invested in the boy's training. Well worth finding the weakness in the program so that he could modify it for the next time. Not much time remained until the final test. it was painful to think that the boy might be a poor choice.
Like the others however, One Who Cries was expendable.
* * *
"Look, Mom. It's Grampa's car," Jake yelled.
The car lights illuminated George Collier as Maggie pulled into her parking space behind the house. As the tall slim figure rose from the swing on the side porch, she sighed, knowing she didn't look her best. One look in the rearview mirror confirmed the fact she couldn't look much worse.
"Hi, Grampa," Jake shouted as he got out of the car. "We just got back from my birthday party."
"It was getting late and I was beginning to worry that you'd run into trouble," George said.
"No trouble. I had to drop off the other boys," Maggie said, following more sedately as Jake bounded up the stairs to the porch. "Don't get too close, George. We're both absolutely filthy."
"Good Heavens," the older man said as they came into the light. "What happened?"
"We got caught in the rain." Jake held out his dirt-streaked arms for his grandfather's approval.
"Was the party a disaster?" George asked.
"Actually it was a great success," Maggie said. "Start taking your shoes and socks off, Jake, so you don't drag all that dirt into the house."
She brushed at the front of her once white blouse wondering if the splatters of mud would come out in the wash. A damp strand of reddish brown hair brushed against the side of her cheek and she raised her hands to anchor the curly mess behind her ears. Her sneakers made squishing sounds as she crossed the wooden floor.
She frowned at the acrid smell of smoke. She knew George's doctor had told him to give up cigars, but, other than to make her father-in-law sneak his guilty pleasures, the injunction seemed to have had little effect. Oh damn! She bit her lip. No point in nagging him. He'd just shrug and ignore her, just like Jake did.
"How was the carnival?" George asked.
"Super," Jake said. "Extra super. None of the boys had ever been to the Renaissance Faire. Not even Kenny Rossiter. It was awesome."
"Despite the rain?" George asked.
"Probably because of it," Maggie said. "The whole places was one huge mud hole. If you were eight years old what could be better. The boys loved it. Believe it or not we cleaned up a bit before we came home. After a day of slogging through the muck and mire, we were a pretty nasty looking group. And you should see the car. I'll have to have it washed, inside and out."
Jake pulled at the sleeve of George's jacket to get his grandfather's attention.
"These two guys got into a fight and they wrestled in the middle of this mud puddle. They were all covered except for their eyeballs. They looked like white marbles. And when they were all done, another guy squirted them with a hose. Oh, and Grampa, if you gave this guy a dollar, he'd eat a whole handful of mud."
"Good Lord." George turned to Maggie. "How on earth did
Since Jake was too excited to be very helpful, she knelt down on the porch and grabbed one foot as he braced himself with a dirty hand on her shoulder. She removed his shoes and peeled off his socks as he regaled his grandfather with the events of the day.
Male bonding, she thought wistfully as they chattered away, oblivious to her presence. That was the one thing she could never give her son. After all these many days since Mark's death and all she'd done to help him, she couldn't hold back a twinge of jealousy that George could give Jake more than she could.
"Grampa, they had these horses and these knights with poles and they'd run at each other. And smash! They'd knock each other off the horses and then finish the fight with swords. I don't think anyone got killed." There was a trace of disappointment in his voice.
"Well I should hope not." George shook his head. "I'm sorry I missed it. It must have been a real spectacle."
"Just wait'll you see. Mom bought me one of those cardboard cameras and I took tons of pictures. I even got one of Kenny throwing up."
"A bit too much pizza and cotton candy," Maggie explained, standing up. "He was back in action almost immediately."
"Sounds like quite a day," George said, smiling down at the excited child. "I can't wait to see the pictures.'
"We took them to Kruckmeyer's Pharmacy to be developed. I'll have them back tomorrow so you can see them before we go to dinner."
In the dim porch light, Maggie noted the bright color rising high on George's cheek and guessed the reason he had been waiting for them.
"Well, you see, son," George said. "I know we talked about going to dinner and a movie tomorrow but I've run into a problem."
Jake's eyes narrowed slightly as he stared up at his grandfather.
"I got a call this afternoon and I have to go to the country club tomorrow. There's going to be a poker game." His eyes shifted between Jake and Maggie. "We won't be able to go to a movie but there's no reason we can't have dinner together. I thought you and your mom could have dinner at the country club and then we'd take in a move on another night."
"That's OK, Grampa," Jake said. "Mom already planned a special dinner for tomorrow. We can go to a movie next weekend, if you want."
His voice was flat and Maggie felt a lump in her throat at his lie. She dug the house keys out of her pocket.
"It's still pretty warm out," she said, "but I don't want you catching cold. Here are the keys, Jake. Give Grampa a careful hug, then run along upstairs and take a shower."
She ignored the relief on George's face as Jake hugged him then raced up the stairs of the house. He sprinted across the porch to the side door of the house that led to the apartment on the second floor. Maggie sighed as he slammed the screen door.
"Is he ever still?" George asked.
"Not often." Maggie listened as he pounded up the carpeted stairs. "Even in his sleep, he tosses and turns as if he's fighting dragons or herding cattle in some imaginary world."
"I don't recall his father being quite so physical," George said. "Mark read a lot and at Jake's age he was content to play with his collection of action figures."
Maggie chuckled. "Jake is his own action figure."
"The boy seems to be more cheerful. Not so sad and moody as when you first moved here."
"He's better. He's made some friends in this past year and that's helped. But if you look beneath the surface, the anger's there. Deep down, he still blames me for his father's death."
"I though he was over that nonsense," George said. "He must know it wasn't your fault. It was a car accident, for God's sake."
Maggie shrugged. "I know that but Jake sees it differently."
"Do you have any regrets about moving here?"
"Not when I see how well he's adjusted. Right after Mark died I thought it would be better to stay in our house in Chicago." Maggie shrugged. "I suppose part of it was an attempt to keep as much the same as I could for Jake's sake. The other part was inertia."
"I can understand that," George said. "Mark's death was a shock to us all."
He took a deep breath and blew it out as if to cut off any more discussion. Maggie knew that George had never really come to terms with his son's death. He rarely spoke about that first year but Maggie knew from others in Delbrook that her father-in-law had lived as a recluse, only coming out when he could find a card game or when he'd run out of alcohol.
It had been a letter from her mother's friend, Nell Gleason, mentioning George's situation that convinced Maggie to move to Delbrook.
"Don't worry George. I'm very glad we came. With you here, Jake has a real sense of family. He misses his father a lot and loves spending time with you."
"I like it too," George said. He reached out and squeezed Maggie's shoulder. He ducked his head, his words mumbled as he continued. "I know these last two years have been hard but you've done a damn fine job with the lad."
Maggie was surprised and touched by her father-in-law's momentary softness. Normally he was not a demonstrative man. Mark had referred to his father as The Tall Silence and the nickname fit. George was the first to admit he wasn't into that 'new age touch-feely crap" but in the last two years Maggie had grown to love her father-in-law dearly.
"Thank you George." She leaned forward to kiss his cheek.
"I'm sorry it didn't work out for the movie tonight," he mumbled. "They're counting on me to be at the poker game and I'd hate to disappoint them."
Better to disillusion one small boy, she though. Aloud she said, "There will be other times for a movie."
"I hate letting Jake down," George said, echoing her own thoughts.
It was difficult to be angry with George. He was far too aware of his own weaknesses. She knew he had done his best since Mark's death to be a strong male influence for his grandson. For that she would forgive a great deal.
"Why don't you come over Sunday for dinner? Jake's dying to tell you all about the birthday party."
"I'd like that," George said. "In fact, tomorrow I go right past Kruckmeyer's Pharmacy on the way to the country club. If they're ready, I'll pick up the photographs from the Renaissance Faire."
"That would save me a trip. I played hooky today but Saturday I'm working all day. Come about five on Sunday."
It was clear that George was pleased with the olive branch. "Jake's a good kid, Maggie. Every day he looks more and more like his father. He'll be a real heartbreaker when he grows up. Just like his dad."
A heartbreaker just like his dad. His words kept repeating in her ears as she watched her father-in-law walk down the stairs to his car.
"A heartbreaker? Not if I can help it," Maggie muttered aloud, sitting down on the porch swing.
George's weakness was cards; Mark's had been women.
Mark with the bedroom eyes, who had attempted to sleep with every woman he met. Mark, who had ignored his marriage vows the moment the ink was dry on the wedding license. Mark, whose car had swerved off the road, killing himself along with the twenty-five year old woman carrying his child.
Oh yes. Mark had been a real heartbreaker.
He had broken her heart long ago. And for different reasons his death had broken the hearts of his father and his son. There were times when she wondered if any of them would ever heal.
He had been gone for two years and yet Maggie had not been able to move beyond her anger. To George and Jake, Marks had been a wonderful son and father. Dead, he had become Saint Mark. They both assumed that she was as devastated as they were.
Maggie jumped at the voice behind her. "Sorry, Jake, I was day dreaming."
"I knew you didn't hear me when I came down." He plopped down on the wooden seat beside her, leaning his head against her shoulder. "Grampa gone?"
"Yes." She put her arm around his bathrobed figure and leaned close to smell the shampoo in his hair.
"No movie. That really bites," Jake said. "Big time."
Although Maggie might have worded it more strongly, she forced out a motherly response. "Life is like that sometimes. You could see that Grampa was sorry."
"He's always sorry."
Maggie heard the hurt in his voice. "And what's this about the special dinner I had planned?"
He grimaced. "I guess I sort of lied, Mom."
"Lies stink. They always end up hurting people. Even when you're trying not to." She smiled to take the sting out of her words. "Do you know what I've been thinking about?" He shook his head. "A big pepperoni pizza."
Jake's expression lightened. "DeNato's makes really great pizza."
"Excellent plan. And on the way back we'll stop at Hoffman's Video and pick up Godzilla. You haven't seen that in at least a week or two."
"It's my favorite."
"Don't I know it."
She pulled him to his feet. He put his arms around her waist and when he spoke his voice was muffled against her ribcage.
It was times like this that were the toughest for Maggie. Jake was only eight but his father's death had made him more aware of her feelings than he normally would be. He knew she was trying to make it up to him because George had bailed out of the movie. Jake's forced sensitivity to her emotions was one more things she blamed on Mark. Tears pricked her eyelids as Jake pulled away.
"And thanks for the party. It was the best."
She grasped the chains to haul herself out of the swing. She was stiff. Jakes' clean smell made her far too aware of her own odor. Definitely time for a shower.
"Race you," she said.
She released the swing chain and ran across to the open doorway. He was right behind her as she swung open the screen door. He slammed the inside door and then, crowing with delight, he shot past her and scrambled up the narrow flight of stairs.
"What if Hoffman's don't have the Godzilla tape?" he called back over his shoulder.
"Then we'll rent a wonderful old musical with lots of signing, not to mention tap dancing."
"Yuck." He groaned.
With what little breath she had left, Maggie sighed. It was good to hear him laugh. For a long time after Mark's death, Jake would barely speak to her. She had thought he was asleep the night that Mark had asked her for a divorce. But Jake had been awake. He'd heard them arguing and heard his father slam out of the house in anger. The next day Mark had been killed.
Jake had blamed Maggie. If she hadn't fought with Mark, he reasoned, there wouldn't have been a car accident. Therefore it was Maggie's fault that his father was dead.
Although she had told George that Jake would eventually understand, she wondered if he ever would.
Thursday, July 4th
To the east of River Oaks, Wisconsin, the light from the rising sun overlay the blackness of the sky with a widening veil of luminescence. The woods to the south of town clung to the night, trees harboring pockets of shadow as if afraid of giving up their secrets to the day. Slanted shafts of sunlight broke through the cloud cover, pulling objects out of the surrounding darkness. The trails and the open areas were the first to gather the light, lines and parches of bleached color surrounded by a gray mist that shrouded everything beyond the fringes of the woods. The silence of the night still dominated, challenged only by the stirring of insects beneath the cover of last fall's leaves.
Timmie Schneider stood perfectly still in the middle of the track, eyes closed, head cocked to the side as he strained to hear above the beating of his heart. His breathing was so rapic that he couldn't get enough air through his nose. He opened his mouth to relieve the feeling of suffocation.
It was going to be hot today. A muggy fourth of July. Perfect for the picnic and fireworks at the high school tonight. He remembered last year when he lay on his back, oohing and aahing as each new color burst, filling the sky with snow glitters that burned out before they touched the ground. His sister Alice was such a baby that she'd hidden under Mom's skirt and wailed.
He heard the rustle of leaves up ahead and edged his foot forward on the path. His father had shown him how to walk soundlessly in the woods. Dad had been in the army and knew about the need for silence. He'd been shot up in 'Nam. Timmie'd seen the puckered scars on his side and his leg. His dad said it happened one time when he hadn't been quiet enough.
Timmie touched the ground with the toe of one shoe, testing for try twigs or loose gravel before he shifted his weight. He inched forward with such slow deliberation that he didn't appear to be moving at all. His mouth stretched wide in silent laughter as a squirrel bounced across the path not even noting his presence.
Holygod was heading toward the open field.
The big deer had gotten his nickname when Timmie and his dad first spotted him last fall. "Holy God! I never saw a rack that size," his dad had said. Timmie knew how much his dad wanted that big old buck and if he could help he would. He'd thought about it since then and finally come up with the prefect plan.
He'd been stalking the buck for the last two weeks. He planned to keep at it right through July and August. When hunting season started, he'd be so familiar with the movements of the big deer that he'd be able to tell his father exactly where to set up his stand. His dad had promised he could come along on the first day of hunting even though Mom said he wasn't old enough, at ten, to shoot. It didn't matter. He'd act as his father's scout. The kill would be as much his as his dad's.
It was tough getting up before sunrise but the excitement of sneaking out the bedroom window and crawling across the front porch roof right beneath his parent's window made it worth the loss of sleep. In the last couple days he'd seen his father watchin him at the breakfast table. His eyes were narrowed and his nostrils flared as if he could smell the outdoors on Timmie's clothing and in his hair. Timmie didn't want his dad to find out where he'd been.
He'd been forbidden to enter Worley Woods.
All the adults in town were spooked. Two dead kids had been found in Worley Woods. And now, with Lindy Pottinger missing, his mom would go ballistic if she found out where he was going every morning.
He wasn't afraid. The area had been searched yesterday. He'd seen all the people standing around the parking lot when he'd gone grocery shopping with his mom and he'd hurried over to the edge of the crowd in time to hear Police Chief Harker explaining how they were going to do the search.
It was just getting exciting with his mom grabbed him by the arm and dragged him into Sandrik's Grocery Store. He didn't argue. She had that look in her eye that he knew meant things weren't negotiable. She'd plunked Alice in the grocery cart and ignored her squawking. Lately Mom had kept his sister practically under house arrest.
Timmie didn't think anybody's snatch Alice. The dead girls were eleven and twelve. Alice was only four and a real nuisance. A born whiner, Dad said. And her nose was always running. Alice wouldn't be his choice for the next victim.
Besides, his family had lived in River Oaks forever. All the dead girls were from the Estates, the new development east of town. He'd heard his mom and dad whispering about it when he got up one night to go to the bathroom. His dad had said, "Fist Janette, then Tiffany and Meredith. Maybe the guy has a thing about Yuppie names."
A twig snapped up ahead and to the left.
Timmie's heart pounded hard in his ears but he forced himself to keep to his slow, steady pace along the trail. He heard the sound of leaves sweeping across the ground. He grinned. Maybe he'd catch Holygod making a scraping. That'd be something to tell Reed Whitney. And while he wasn't even sure what a 'yuppie' was, he knew what 'yucky' meant. Even though he was Timmie's best friend, Reed had a stupid yucky name.
The light was getting stronger. Through the tangle of bushes, Timmie spotted a small clearing and saw a flash of movement. He hunkered down on the edge of the path, scanning ahead for an animal trail that would lead into the woods. The rustle of leaves and branches cut through the silence of the morning as the deer scuffed the ground. Keeping low, Timmie crept forward, using the animal sounds to cover his own movements.
A narrow trail slanted in toward the clearing. The wind was in his face so Holygod wouldn't smell him. His beating heart practically deafened him as he eased his way into the woods. It was awkward walking crouched over but he wanted to get as close as possible before the deer spotted him.
Three feet to go. Two. Almost to the opening.
The clearing was fifty feet across. The light held a bluish cast against the darkness of the woods that closed in around the small open space. A movement caught Timmie's attention.
On the far side, a dark creature was silhouetted against the trees. Not the buck.
Timmie sucked air in a sharp sibilant breath. The figure whirled, facing him for one split second, then turned and plunged into the woods. Despite the roaring of blood in his ears, Timmie heard the slap of branches as whoever it was fled in panic. The noise faded into the distance. Finally the woods were quiet.
Even as he sagged in relief, he felt a prickle of sensation down his spine. He'd been in the woods so often that he knew when something was wrong. The silence was artificial. The normal sounds of bugs and small animals were absent as if the wildlife, instincts alert to danger, was frozen in place.
He shivered. Still hunched over on the path, his view of the clearing was blocked by waist-high bushes and he couldn't see the whole area until he stood up and took several steps forward.
A girl was lying on a brown blanket in the center of the open space.
"Oh shit! Oh shit!" he chanted under his breath.
It was the missing kid. He recognized Lindy from school. She was just a year older than he was and she was in the class ahead of him. She'd been gone for two days. Without knowing how, he knew she was dead.
Fear rooted him to the ground. His mouth was open, his breath coming in gasps. His heartbeat pulsed in his neck and he blinked several times to clear his vision, his eyelids stretched wide as he searched the fringe of trees for any hovering presence.
Worley Woods felt empty.
Timmie's breathing eased. Curiosity touched him. he'd never seen a dead body, except on television and that didn't count. With one more lightening glance around the clearing, he took a step forward, then another, stopping beside the body of the little girl.
Lindy Pottinger looked so peaceful she might have been asleep. She was lying on her back, eyes closed, arms crossed over her chest.
She was naked.
Timmie took in the details only as impressions of color. White blond curls, lifeless against blue-white skin. Lips slightly parted, painted with red lipstick. Stiff fingers holding four red roses.
Behind him a branch broke and fell to the ground. The sound cut through his rigidity and his feet scrambled to find purchase on the dew-slick grass.
Lindy Pottinger, the fourth victim of the River Oaks killer, had come home.
Friday, September 6th
Lieutenant Sheila Brady picked up the glossy photographs and fanned them out like a deck of cards. Four children had been murdered in River Oaks, Wisconsin in the last two years. Blond, blue-eyes, preteen girls. Sheila's eyes registered and identified each face: Janette Davis; Tiffany Chastain; Meredith Whitford.
And now the most recent victim, Lindy Pottinger.
It had been two months since Lindy's death and they still were unable to identify the killer.
Sheila leaned back in the swivel chair. It was a hot day for early September and the conference room of the police station was stuffy. She unbuttoned the collar of her uniform shirt. As a detective, she wasn't required to wear a uniform but she usually did. It helped her blend in with the other officers.
She'd have to watch her time. Meg got out of school at three thirty. Staring down at the photos in her hand, Sheila tried to block out the image of her daughter. Lindy Pottinger and Meg had been in the same class at River Oaks Elementary.
Since the murders, most River Oaks parents had become overly protective. Unfortunately for Meg, Sheila was already paranoid. After seven years of police work in Milwaukee, she'd seen too much to be indifferent to her daughter's safety.
With her index finger, she touched the small raised scar close to the outside corner of her right eye. The cut had given her the impetus she needed to join the police force. Along with working for a more ordered world, she would be able to protect herself and Meg.
Meg was growing up so fast, she thought. Eleven now. Physically, she resembled her father. The same high cheekbones. The same thick brown hair and dark eyes. The same wide mouth. Only in an occasional hand gesture or body motion, a tilt of the head or a cocked eyebrow, could Sheila see her own influence on her daughter.
"I'll keep Meg safe," Sheila said. She repeated the words, a trusted totem against evil.
She'd jumped at the opportunity to leave Milwaukee and move to a small town. She had known there had been two unsolved murders but accepted the job on the basis that she wouldn't be working on the murder cases.
In December she and Meg had moved to River Oaks. The third child was killed in January.
She'd questioned whether she'd made the right decision, but it was the murderer's pattern of targeting blond, blue-eyes girls that reassured her that her daughter was not in any immediate danger.
There were no guarantees in life, though. The killer could change his pattern at any time. Ultimately the only way to protect Meg and the other children of River Oaks was to find the killer.
Originally, she had been relieved that she wouldn't be involved in the murder investigations. Lindy Pottinger's death changed her perspective. When her daughter's friend had been killed, she couldn't remain on the sidelines. Knowing Lindy, Sheila felt she had an edge and might be able to make a difference. Besides, she had found a clue.
She'd gone to the Chief of Police, Hank Harker, with her suspicions. Harker had listened without comment then told her to pursue the theory and give him a report. She'd given it to him last week, but had heard nothing since then.
If her instincts proved correct, she planned to ask him to allow her more involvement in the investigation. Until then, she continued reading through the files to familiarize herself with the individual cases. She reached for the next folder with new resolution and opened the cover to the page of summary notes.
The first child had been murdered two years earlier. Janette Davis was ten, blond, blue-eyed and was living in the new development east of town called the Estates. Two months prior to her disappearance, she and her mother had moved to River Oaks from Green Bay, Wisconsin.
Janette had been reported missing late in the afternoon. The following morning, her body was discovered, partially buried, in a strip of woods between the road and an open field. The little girl's skull had been crushed by repeated blows from a rock found in the woods near the body. After she was dead, she had been raped.
It had rained heavily the day of the girl's death, wiping out most of the evidence at the crime scene. It was concluded that someone had given her a ride. Whether he had intended to attack her was uncertain but the murder had been committed out of panic rather than premeditation. Months of investigation had produced no solid clue to the identity of the killer.
Then months after Janette's death, another child had been kidnapped and killed. The body of twelve-year-old Tiffany Chastain had been found south of town in Worley Woods. The girls had been missing for several days.
No attempt had been made to hide Tiffany's body. The child had been laid on a blanket with her arms crossed over her chest. She held two red roses in her right hand, her lips had been painted with red lipstick and she was naked.
Once the autopsy reports were in, Chief Harker had been convinced the two children had been killed by the same person. Although the presentation of the body had been different, Tiffany, like Janette, had been raped after she was dead. It was highly unlikely that two killers with the same obscene tastes were preying on the children of River Oaks.
The autopsy revealed that she had not been bludgeoned like Janette. The cause of death was asphyxiation. Synthetic fibers had been found in her mouth, trachea and lungs. Something had been pressed over her nose and mouth until she stopped breathing.
Poor Tiffany, Sheila thought, staring at the girl's picture. Her death had occurred around midnight, thirty-four hours after she had been reported missing.
Eight months later, Meredith Whitford had been killed and six months after that Lindy Pottinger. Meredith had been eleven, Lindy ten. Like Tiffany, each girl had been missing for several days and had been found naked in the woods.
Meredith, the third victim, had held three red roses in her right hand and Lindy, the fourth, had held four red roses. Each childish mouth had been painted with lipstick.
Sheila brushed her fingertips across the comparison chart of the four murdered children. She shoved the summary aside. Staring up at the calendar, she checked the dates she'd jotted on a yellow-lined tablet.
Ten months. Eight months. Six months. The interval between each murder had been shortening and if the pattern continued four months would be the next logical progression. It had already been two months since Lindy Pottinger's death.
Time was running out. The cycle was beginning again. From the moment of Lindy's murder, the killer had begun the hunt for a new victim.
Sheila glanced up at the clock. It was close to three. Meg would be out of school in half an hour. Putting her briefcase on the desk, she dumped a pile of folders inside, returning the others to the file cabinets.
Downstairs in the locker room, she pulled out her purse and reached inside for her makeup bag. A touch of lipstick and some blush was all she ever used. She put on gold dangling earring, checked herself in the mirror and piled everything back in her purse.
She removed her gun, checked it and placed it on the top shelf of her locker. She was relieved that she wasn't required to carry it twenty-four hours a day. With Meg and other children around, she considered it too dangerous to keep it in the house.
Guns weren't standard issue in River Oaks; every officer bought his or her own. Chief Harker had recommended the Beretta .40 caliber. Only on the market four or five years, the reports had indicated it was well worth the higher price tag. After trying it at the range, Sheila bought one.
Upstairs, the bullpen was nearly empty. Sergeant Kinkelaar stood at the coffee machine and looked up as she hurried to her desk.
"I thought you'd gone home, Sheila."
"Just finishing up. Looks like you're in for a quiet night," she said.
"On a Friday? You've got to be kidding." Paul snorted when he saw her grin. "We just got a tip on a keg party over in the woods behind the high school. Most of them underage."
"Going to bust 'em?"
"Bet your ass." He flushed at his words. "No offense meant, Sheila."
"None taken," she said.
It was hard for the older cops to learn the new rules about sexual harassment. At fifty, Paul was always worried that he'd crossed some invisible line.
"Don't forget to throw some towels in the backseat of the car," she reminded him.
"Already took care of that. I don't want some punk, who can't hold his liquor, puking on the upholstery. I learned the hard way."
Chuckling, Sheila sat down and sorted through the papers on her desk.
"I never seen you with any jewelry on." Head tipped to the side, Paul eyed her. "I like the dangling sunflowers. They look good. You should wear them more often."
Sheila touched her ears. "Glad you like them. I had a trainer at the police academy who described a perp grabbing her hoop earrings and ripping them out. That kind of puts you off jewelry on the job."
"I guess so," he said with a shudder. He finished his coffee and crushed the cup before throwing it in the trash. "I better get my butt moving. See you later."
After locking her desk, she picked up her purse and her briefcase. Heading for the door leading to the parking lot, she said goodbye to the others in the open room. Her head was down and her thoughts were on dinner preparations as she opened the back door of the police station. She jerked back when a microphone was shoved in front of her and she raised her head only to be blinded by the bright lights of a camera.
Automatically, she thrust her arm up, palm outward as if to ward off a physical assault. She was so stunned by the appearance of the reported and cameraman that for a moment she couldn't do anything but stare at the lens and blink. Stepping back, she spotted the call letters of one of the Madison TV stations painted on the side of a news van in the parking lot.
"Get that damn thing out of my face," she said between clenched teeth.
"Turn the camera off, Julio."
The glaring lights disappeared and Sheila blinked to clear her vision. Able to see once more, she glared at the crooked smile of Melinda Lawson, one of the Madison reporters she'd gotten to know since she moved to River Oaks.
"Sorry to jump out at you like that, Sheila," Melinda said. "I usually don't sneak up on people but my boss is on my back for a different slant on the murders. Wants it for the six o'clock news. Can you do a quick interview?"
Over Melinda's shoulder, the cameraman twisted the settings on his shoulder camera, preparing to tape. The enormous lens drew Sheila's gaze and made it difficult for her to talk with any ease.
Shaking her head, she said, "Another time."
"It'll only take two minutes. Three at the most."
She shook her head again and Melinda reached out, fingers grasping her sleeve in a desperate grip.
"Give me a break, Sheila." She lowered her voice. "You know how tough it is for a woman in a man's world."
Sheila was annoyed at the emotional blackmail because in general she liked Melinda. She heaved a sigh and gave a quick nod of her head.
Melinda's flashing eyes were the only evidence of victory. She turned and positioned Sheila so that the town of them stood in a V to facilitate the taping.
"I really appreciate this," Melinda said. "We won't even do a set up. I'll ask a couple question and later we'll splice the tape together with an intro by yours truly. Now take a breath and relax."
When the lights came on again, Sheila tried to focus on Melinda. Far too aware of the camera, her lips felt stiff so she made no attempt to smile.
"It's been two months since the last child died. Chief Harker has announced no new developments in the murders, Lieutenant Brady. Would you say that the entire investigation is stalled?"
The abrupt question sounded like an accusation to Sheila.
"In real life," she said, "crimes aren't solved with the speed and drama of televised cop shows. No one element is the key to discovering the killer. Every day we resolve another aspect of the cases. It's the painstaking examination of every detail that leads to arrest."
Melinda's eyes widened in excitement. "Are you suggesting that the police are close to making an arrest?"
"I'm not suggesting anything. Such a statement would be premature," Sheila said, hoping she didn't look as annoyed as she felt. "Police work depends on building a strong enough case so that when we make an arrest we will be assured of a conviction."
"How long do you think that will take?"
"As long as necessary."
"Before another child is killed?"
Sheila could feel her tempter rising at the woman's baiting. The questions had little substance and the tone was clearly antagonistic.
"There's not a police officer who's not obsessed with the desire to apprehend the murdered and to prevent another death."
Melinda gave a solemn nod of agreement, then her expression hardened, eyes narrowed and mouth pursed in disapproval. Sheila braced herself for the next comment.
"Were you aware that some of the River Oaks Police are referring to the murder as the Goldilocks Killer?"
"That's ridiculous." Sheila could feel the heat of anger rise to her cheeks. "The media might use such a frivolous tag but never a police officer. Such a nickname trivializes the crimes. This is no fairy tale. Four children are dead. Killed by some lowlife scumbag. Call the man what he is. The man is a pervert. Committing heinous crimes against helpless little girls."
The interview was over. Sheila felt her heartbeat in her ears. She pushed forward, using her briefcase as a battering ram to force a path past Melinda and the onlookers who had been drawn by the lights.
She was shaking as she unlocked her car. Only when she was inside with the doors closed did she feel any measure of composure. She was furious at her own reaction to the reporter. Under pressure, she'd lost her temper.
A psychopath was loose in River Oaks. She had no idea how he would select his next target or what would set him off on his next murderous attack. It could be anything. A look. A glare. A word.
She drove home, pledging to be careful of everything she said until the murderer was caught. "Please God, let it be soon," she prayed.
He sat in darkness, illuminated by the cone of cold blue light from the television set.
Impatient, he forced himself to sit still, pressing the heels of his hands against the overstuffed arms of the chair. The six o'clock news started. His breathing quickened as he waited for any mention of the murders.
Restlessness overcame him and he reached for the glass bowl of sunflower kernels on the mahogany table beside the chair. He grasped a handful and raised them to his open mouth. Small roasted nuggets spilled down the front of his shirt and he brushed them away as he reached for more. His hand moved mechanically back and forth between his mouth and the dish until his craving subsided.
He chewed the last handful slowly, savoring the sharp crunching of the seeds and the nutty aftertaste. He licked the salt and the oil on his lips then methodically sucked each of his fingers.
Little girl faces flashed on the TV screen. They all looked alike with their golden hair and their blue eyes. They were so like Donna, but they never laughed. There was awe and fear on the little faces turned up beseechingly toward him. They had asked him to teach them and he had. In their eyes he had seen his own power.
His face reflected on the screen. It appeared as flat white planes and black hollows in the harsh light from the television. He sat motionless, but there was no respite from the uneasiness of his spirit.
Suddenly Sheila Brady's face appeared and he was instantly alert. She looked so young, almost childlike as she faced the camera. A grown up little girl. Her blond hair shimmered behind the glass and he could imagine the texture. It would slide silkily through his fingers.
Her hand was raised, blue eyes wide with fear above the splayed fingers. He leaned forward and reached out to touch the screen. His fingers trailed across the glass image of her cheek. He breathed through his mouth, a low rasp of sound, as he traced the movement of her lips. Oil from the sunflower kernels smeared on the lighted glass.
Her hair was pulled back in a braid and he was dazzled by the flash of gold when she turned sideways. A single gold chain hung from her earlobe and at the end was a golden sunflower, glittering and dancing against her neck.
She was a golden girl. Just like Donna.
When the news was over, he rewound the tape then fast forwarded to the interview. Suddenly he blinked his eyes and stared at Sheila's face. He grabbed the remote control and rewound, then pressed play. When he came to the closeup, he pushed the pause button.
It was there. A small raised scar at the outside corner of her right eye.
He remembered when Donna got the scar. She had fallen the week before the last day of school. They had been racing each other home. She usually beat him. He could have run faster but he loved to watch her hair lift and fall, flowing like a golden waterfall across her shoulders and back.
Her heels kicked up, almost touching the roundness of her buttocks. He could feel his privates expanding as he fantasized how the two globes of flesh would fill his cupped hands.
He was so mesmerized by the rise and fall of her buttocks that he sprinted forward, intent on touching her. Closer and closer he moved until he was just a foot away. Obsesses with the need to caress her, he stretched out his hand.
On contact, his body exploded with a jolt of pleasure.
Donna was so startled that she turned around to stare at him. She didn't even see the stone on the path. She tripped. He reached out to grab her, catching a wad of her skirt in his hand. He jerked backward. She lurched against him and they both tumbled into the field beside the path.
He lay on his back, Donna pressed against the length of his body. Winded but excited by the feel of her, he closed his eyes then groggily opened them. At the sight of blood on her face, he gasped for air, breathless with horror.
The zipper tab on his windbreaker had jabbed her close to her eye. He shivered to think what could have happened.
Donna started to whimper and he rolled up to a sitting position, grateful for the freshly ironed handkerchief his mother made him carry. Blood seeped from the trough of the wound but he could see that it was only a small cut.
She sobbed when she saw the blood, terrified that she'd be disfigured. He reassured her by saying it would only be a little mark on her cheek that would probably resemble a beauty mark like they'd seen on the French queen in the history book. She stopped crying and wiggled against him in her delight.
They lay together in the grass while Donna blotted the blood with his handkerchief. She rested her head on his chest and her groin pressed against his. He patted her back, then relaxed his fingers to massage her shoulders and neck.
His fingers kneaded the muscles of her neck then slowly moved downward. He ached to touch the flesh beneath her clothes and feel the naked skin against the sensitive pads of his fingers.
She stiffened when he reached her waist.
As if against his will, his hands slid across the twin mounds of her buttocks. He stroked in rhythmic circles, waiting in suspense for her reaction. SHe began to tremble. Barely perceptible at first, then as the movement increased, she squirmed against him, her breath coming in short little pants.
The sound of gravel slipped under foot brought him to his senses. He twisted out from under her and jumped to his feet. Seeing other children coming along the path, he pulled her up and they continued walking. He left her at her house, trudging on to his own place and spending the evening worrying about the cut beside her right eye.
It had left a scar. The mark gave him a curious feeling of possession.
The scar was still there, high on her cheek. He stared at Sheila Brady's face, her image held captive on the television. She could use the name Sheila but he knew she was Donna all grown up.
Tightness began to build in his groin. He was grateful that he'd found her. She had always belonged to him. The others had been merely pupils. Now it was time to teach Donna all the things he'd learned.
"Mom! Mom! Come quick!"
Hearing the cry, Sheila dropped the papers on her desk and ran to the patio doors. Her heart thudded until she spotted Meg waving to her from the back of the yard. She slid open the screen door and stepped outside.
"Look, Mom. It's a mourning dove," Meg said. She was bent over, hands braced on her knees, her eyes intent on the ground. "It's hurt."
Sheila bent down, moving a few branches of the boxwood in order to see the bird huddled at the base of the shrub. The long pointed tail stirred the dust in the garden as it struggled to get to its feet. Black eyes glistened against the pink-tinted down on head and breast. The bird flapped its wings, falling awkwardly on its side.
"I think it's his leg." Meg shifted from foot to foot in her anxiety. "Can we help it? Please?"
Sheila reached out her hand, grasping the plump body of the bird, clucking under her breath to reassure the quivering thing. She turned it over and had little difficulty seeing the cause of the injury. One spindly leg was bent at an awkward angle.
"Is it broken?" Meg asked.
"Looks like it. I don't see any blood so maybe that's all that's wrong with it." Upside down, the bird had quieted, lying limp across her hand with only an occasional flicker of motion to indicate it was alive.
"We could put a splint on it, couldn't we? And I could fed it until it got better."
Sheila could see that Meg was already envisioning her role as Florence Nightingale to the injured dove. For the first time since Lindy's murder, Meg's face was animated. Perhaps tending to a wounded bird would give her an opportunity to focus on something other than the death of her friend.
"Tell you what. If the bird lasts overnight, we'll take it to the vet tomorrow and see what he has to day. In the meantime we'll do what we can."
Sheila rose with the bird. Even at a distance she could see Meg's cat staring out the screen door, ears forward and eyes intent.
"Check Elmo," she said. "You'll have to keep the bird outside or he'll think it's his dinner."
"I've got a shoe box in my closet."
"It can't be cardboard or some animal will get it. And you'll need a cover so it won't hurt itself further trying to fly."
"How 'bout that old aquarium we found in the garage when we moved here? It's even got a top. It'll be perfect, Mom."
"Sounds good to me. You can put the bird in a wastebasket until the aquarium is cleaned out. Rip up some newspaper for the bottom. It'll make a soft nest for him."
Meg hurried ahead to open the kitchen door. Putting the bird in the kitchen sink, Sheila went in search of towels and additional supplies. Back in the kitchen, she wrapped the bird's body in a hand towel, holding it steady while she instructed Meg to cut up Q-tips for splints.
"You better do it, Mom," Meg said, as she stared at the crooked leg of the mourning dove.
"You can handle it, honey. First, cut some strips of the adhesive tape. Good. Now wrap his leg with gauze."
Meg, face screwed up in concentration, tentatively touched the sticklike leg. SHe jerked back when the bird twitched. Biting her lop, she grasped the leg, binding it with gauze.
"Now what?" she asked.
"Lay one of the splints along the leg and see if you can straighten out the bend in it. Then a little more gauze to hold it in position. After that the second Q-tip and some tape."
Meg fumbled in her nervousness but with Sheila's encouragement, she eventually had both splints in place. She wrapped tape around the whole leg as Sheila held the Q-tips steady. The bandage was bulky but secure.
"Nicely done. You make a first rate doctor," Sheila said.
Meg beamed with pride and reached out a finger to stroke the head of the towel-wrapped bird.
"Is your stuff all ready for Beth's sleepover?"
"It's all set and Mrs. L is picking me up."
"Good, then you'll have enough time to get the cage set up. You can put him in a wastebasket until it's ready."
Meg raced off down the hall. Returning with the bathroom wastebasket, she carefully lowered her patient inside then took it out to the patio.
Sheila cleaned up the kitchen, spraying disinfectant on the countertop. Standing in the archway leading to the family room, she watched as Meg bustled between the garage and the patio. At the brush of fur against her leg, Sheila jumped.
"Damn it, Elmo!" One of these days you're going to give me a heart attack, you miserable ball of fluff!"
Leaning over, she scratched the cat under his chin and felt the throaty tremors beneath her fingers.
"Go ahead. Suck up to me when Meg's not around. I'll remember that when it's time for your dinner."
The cat pressed against her leg, the tip of his thick tiger-striped tail flicking back and forth. Sheila rubbed behind his ears then pushed him toward the screened patio doors.
"Go keep an eye on Meg," she said.
As if Elmo understood her words, he ambled across the family room and sat down in front of the screen door. His head jutted forward, his eyes intent on the wastebasket as if he sensed the bird inside.
Beyond the screen door, the Indian summer evening beckoned. Signing, Sheila headed back to her desk, her mind still on her daughter.
She was pleased with how well Meg had done in ministering to the injured bird. It was important that her daughter learn to be self-reliant.
Too bad she hadn't been more prepared for life as a single parent.
The summer before her senior year at Marquette University, Sheila had discovered she was pregnant. She was engaged to Robbie Brady but they wanted to wait until they graduated to marry. For Sheila, abortion was not even a consideration and besides she'd wanted the baby. She and Robbie were married a month before classes started.
For a while Robbie thought it was fun playing house, but he wasn't ready for the responsibilities of marriage, lat alone fatherhood. Sheila remembered how often she had caught him staring into the mirror, a forlorn expression etched on his face. It was as if he watched his carefree life fading away in the reflection.
Robbie changed after they were married. He no longer laughed with the abandon that had drawn her to him in the first place. He'd taken a job after his classes and, as her pregnancy advanced, he sank deeper into gloom.
At first Sheila thought it was fear for her health that had him so depressed. Throughout much of the pregnancy, she had been sick. She was desperate to keep up with her studies, knowing if she dropped out, she would probably never graduate.
Meg obliged them by being born during Christmas break. Sheila hadn't even missed a class. She had a circle of friends, willing surrogates, who fought over the privilege of taking care of Meg. Even Robbie seemed to be delighted, frequently coming home with toys or other presents for the baby.
And now that baby was nearly grown, Sheila thought as she stared outside at her daughter. The girls sat on the flagstones, holding the injured dove in her lap, her dark head bobbing as she sang to the bird.
It made Sheila sad to remember that Robbie rarely held Meg. He ised to gaze down at her in the crib or watch as Sheila rocked her. His initial joy in becoming a father had faded with th4e day-to-day realities of taking care of a baby.
When Meg was five months old, Robbie and Sheila graduated. In the middle of the graduation party, Robbie walked out. The last time Sheila's heard from him since the divorce was five years ago. He was in California, working on the fringes of the movie business.
She was so deep in her own thoughts that she jumped when Meg slid open the screen door.
"Don't worry, Elmo, I still love you best," the girl said, scooping up the cat and rubbing her nose in the soft fur at his neck. "I think the bird might get better, Mom. He flopped around when I put him in but then he snuggled up in a corner. What should I feed him?"
"Don't birds eat worms?" Sheila chuckled at the small nose, wrinkled in distaste. "And maybe a bug or two."
"Ugh. That's really sick! come on, Elmo. Let's look in the fridge. We'll find something he'll like." Talking softly to the cat, Meg strolled into the kitchen.
Sheila wondered if the mourning dove would survive Meg's loving care. The aquarium was set against the patio doors and through the glass, she could see the plump bird nestled among the shredded newspaper.
A gust of wind swirled the first leaves of autumn across the patio. Despite the balmy weather, summer was over. She'd never liked the fall. The colorful flowers died, leaving behind the golds and bronzes and browns. As the sun lost its warmth, the bright hues faded. Soon the rich pigments of the landscape would be gone, dead until spring.
Turning back to the work on her desk, Sheila opened the next file and began to read. She continued working until Meg was ready to leave. When a horn honked outside, Sheila carried the sleeping bag to the car, said a few words to Beth's mother and then gave Meg a kiss and a hug. She stood on the front door step waving as the car pulled out of sight.
After Meg left, the house seemed unnaturally silent. Sheila forced herself to go back to work but as the evening wore on she found it hard to concentrate.
She should keep working, but she was restless. She reached for the beeper clipped to her waistband. No messages. She checked the batteries. It was September sixth. She put fresh batteries in on the first of every month.
She rose, walked into the living room to stand at the front window, staring out into the night. The great elms used to be lovely, but since murder came to town, the wooded neighborhood seemed dark with sinister shadows.
Reviewing the four cases had brought the murders closer. She tried to keep her personal life separate from the grim realities of police work, but after reading over the files, she had the distinct feeling that evil had slipped into the house.
"Good God! What's wrong with me tonight?" Sheila muttered.
She rolled her shoulders to release the tension in her back and neck as she walked back down the hall. She stopped in the archway between the kitchen and the family room.
The cat was motionless in the center of the room. Head extended forward, his eyes were riveted on the patio doors. Sheila thought he was watching the mourning dove in the cage outside but, looking closer, she could see his gaze was fixed beyond the patio into the backyard.
Goosebumps rose on her arms and she shivered as she looked out the glass doors.
Blackness. Only shiny, flat blackness. As a child, she'd been afraid of the dark, afraid of being pulled into the void beyond her bedroom windows. She had cried when her nightlight was taken away. To Sheila, it was the ultimate punishment.
As she grew older, her phobia changed. She preferred to be inside the dark. She drew it around her, clothing her fears in the safety of the black. In the lamplit room, she was surrounded by the shadows of the night. It pushed against the windows, searching for a crack to press through and fill the room.
Her voice sounded inordinately loud but the cat remained attentive to his watch. Determined to ignore her attack of nerves, she crossed the room and flipped on the outside light. The umbrella table and patio chairs sprang into view, the brightly colored cushions garish in the yellow light. Sheila could see nothing in the backyard that might have caught his interest.
"Satisfied?" she asked as she turned to the cat.
One of Elmo's legs stretched upright and he was busy washing his fur. With a final lick of his tongue, he raised his head and stared up at Sheila with unblinking gold eyes. She suspected he was smirking at how easily he had frightened her.
"Stuff it," she said.
She snapped off the outside lights, but knowing she wouldn't be able to concentrate with the void beyond the glass doors, she yanked the cord and the draperies slid across with a soft shushing sound.
The doorbell rang.
She jumped at the sudden sound. Elmo had been right. Someone had been outside. Her pulse leaped with the rush of adrenaline. Meg uppermost in her mind, Sheila hurried toward the door.
Elmo, cat radar intact, was already waiting on the rug in the front hall. Sheila looked through the peephole. No one was on the front porch. Cautiously she opened the door.
On the stoop was a cardboard box.
She looked up and down the street but could see nothing to indicate who had left the package on the doorstep. She shook her head as she shifted her glance to the object at her feet.
The box was a brown shipping carton large enough to hold a small appliance. The top wasn't sealed. The four sides had been folded in on each other. Sheila's name and address were printed with a black marking pen in block letters on one of the flaps.
Despite the way it was delivered, it looked harmless enough. Sooner or later, she'd have to deal with it, so she might as well bring it inside. She leaned over to pick up the box.
Beside her, Elmo let out a low, guttural moan.
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