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 Conspiracy of Silence


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Oceanview Publishing

November 2008

ISBN-10: 193351518X

ISBN-13: 978-1933515182




Clare Prentice sat on the edge of the examination table, the blue hospital gown tied at her neck. Her fingers folded the edge of the gown in pleats where it lay across her thighs. She shivered as the air vent above her came on and she pulled the gown closed where it gaped against her bare back.
     Although she was in the office for her scheduled physical, she was also waiting to hear the results of the needle biopsy. Ever since she found the lump, all she could think about was the death of her mother two years earlier of breast cancer. She didn't know how much heredity played in the disease, but she had to admit that there was a leaden feeling in her stomach when she thought about it.
     She twisted the engagement ring on her finger, trying to concentrate on happier thoughts, but fear crowded out any belief in the future. She was sorry she had insisted on coming alone when Doug had volunteered to come with her. Perhaps it was her need to feel in control that had made her refuse his support. In five months they would be married and then she would feel that he should be at her side, but for now she felt her medical problems were her own to solve.
     She'd waited a year after her mother died before she accepted Doug's proposal. He'd been so patient but now that she had agreed he wanted to move ahead so quickly that at times she balked. She had agreed to the big wedding even though she would have preferred something much more private. His mother had explained since Clare had no family to provide for her, she and Doug's father wished to welcome her into the Kitridge clan in great style.
     She wondered what her mother Rose would have thought of the lavish arrangements. Rose hadn't been pleased when she started dating Doug. She disapproved of the public lifestyle his family lived and was clearly upset after Clare's picture appeared in the newspaper when she accompanied him to some society function.  Despite her grumbling, Clare hoped Rose would be looking down on her with approval on her wedding day.
     Footsteps sounded in the hall and Clare straightened up as the door opened. Dr. Paula Craig squinted over her bifocals as she bustled into the room.
     "You look like the living dead." Dr. Craig dropped Clare's medical folder on the desk and settled on the stool facing Clare. "I don't mean to make light of this, but I can see you've worked yourself into a real panic. I have all your tests here and you're fine. You're absolutely fine."
     Clare didn't realize she was holding her breath until she heard the whistling sound of her exhale. "Are you sure?"
     "What kind of a doctor do you think I am?" the older woman grinned as she brushed a hand across her close-cropped gray hair. "Of course I'm sure. I've looked over all the reports. Mammogram, ultrasound, breast MRI and the needle biopsy. You have nothing to worry about."
     Clare sagged, pressing her knees together to keep her legs from shaking. It took a moment before she could speak.
     "You're right, Dr. Craig. I've been imagining the worst. I remember what mother went through and I was just plain scared."    
     "I suppose you couldn't help but think about Rose. She died so young. Fifty-seven. But in your case the news is all good." She reached out and patted Clare's knee.  "You'll make a beautiful bride and if you keep up your healthy lifestyle you'll live to be a crabby old lady like me. When's the wedding?"
     "In July." Clare could feel the joy beginning to seep back into her body as she thought about the possibility of a full life ahead with Doug. 
     "Five months. That's good. Before you get married I recommend you do a little research into your family history. It would be good to know if there are any medical issues in your background."
     "That could be hard," Clare said, biting her lip. "My father died before I was three and I have no memory of him at all. Neither he nor my mother had any family that I know of."
     "I don't mean your father and Rose, dear," Dr. Craig said. "You need to look into the medical history of your biological parents."


Chapter One

An hour 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. 
     She drove slowly down the hill, pulling into a parking space in the center of the town. Her hands rested on top of the steering wheel as she stared through the windshield at her surroundings.
          The park was a lovely rectangle facing the lake. A roped off section of water indicated the swimming area and on the sand was a tall wooden lifeguard platform with white slatted chairs, red and white buoys and a jet ski anchored at the shoreline. Brick walks crisscrossed the park. Benches, a fountain, and a small playground added to a sense of tranquility and peace.
     The main street ran along three sides of the park. At the east end was the City Hall and the police station, combined in a venerable but well-kept building. Beds of red, white and hot pink impatiens softened the otherwise austere exterior of the beige brick. Stores and office buildings faced the lake and at the west end of the park was Grand Rapids Public Library.
     Clare rolled down the car window, smiling at the sound of the children playing on the beach. The water looked inviting after her long drive in the car. She'd considered flying but for the most part had enjoyed the changing scenery as she drove north. When she left, it had been hot in Chicago, but the end of July was much more pleasant in northern Minnesota.
     Nothing looked familiar.
     Until that moment Clare hadn't realized how much she had counted on some sign of familiarity, a sense of deja vu perhaps, which would indicate she had come home. She closed her eyes and focused on the rise and fall of her abdomen as she concentrated on her breathing. Her fingers loosened their grip on the steering wheel and the muscles across her back relaxed against the car seat.
     And so it begins, she thought as she got out of the car and stared up at the library. The building was massive, towering over everything else in the area. It was a square, three-story building with triangular front sections on each side. On the second floor, rounded window arches flanked each central section on the four sides. The reddish beige brick glowed warmly in the summer sun and the darker trim between floors and around the windows made each feature stand out distinctly. All in all, a most impressive building.
     She brushed the travel wrinkles from her denim skirt as she walked through the park. The early afternoon sun pressed against the blue and white checked blouse. The breeze off the lake was welcome, cooling the sweat on her neck beneath the French braid. Every summer she swore she'd cut her hair, but somehow she put up with the inconvenience. 
     Doug had loved her long hair.
     Her sandal caught on the rough surface of the brick sidewalk and she stumbled. She settled her purse strap more securely on her shoulder. She glanced at her hand. Even though it had been two months since she'd broken her engagement, there was still a faint band of white around her finger. Perhaps as the mark faded, so would her misery. 
     Taking a deep breath, she straightened her shoulders and walked up the stone steps to the wide double doors.
     Despite the old fashioned look of the exterior, the inside was wholly modern. The interior walls had been replaced by glass partitions so that from the doorway, she could see into most of the rooms on the main floor. A wide stairway curved lazily to the second floor. The loft area was open to view through spindled balustrades. Over the central foyer, mobiles of all shapes and sizes were suspended from the ceiling.
     The soles of her sandals slapped softly as she crossed the cream colored marble flooring. A teenaged boy looked up expectantly from behind the information desk.
     "I have an appointment with Mrs. Grabenbauer," Clare said.
     The boy opened his mouth, but before he could speak, his eyes darted over Clare's shoulder. She turned to find a tall, white-haired woman bearing down on her. 
     "You must be Clare," the woman said, extending her hand. "One thirty. On the dot. I consider the courtesy of promptness a reflection of character. We should get along famously."
     Since she knew Mrs. Grabenbauer was well into her seventies, Clare was surprised at the sprightly look of youth in the inquisitive blue eyes studying her. The woman's hand was softer than calfskin, the handshake firm and brief.
     "Your directions left me with little chance to get lost. MapQuest couldn't have done any better."
     There was a moment of silence as Mrs. Grabenbauer continued to eye her. Then as if satisfied, she turned on her heel and beckoned Clare to follow her toward the back of the library. They passed a row of offices until they came to a lounge area behind a glass-paneled door.
     "Perhaps you'd like some iced tea while we chat a bit." Without waiting for an answer, Mrs. Grabenbauer pulled out a chair beside a small luncheon table. "Sit here and I'll get it."
     Clare followed orders, grateful to have a moment to observe the woman who would be her landlady for the next few weeks. Although Clare was tall, Mrs. Grabenbauer towered over her. Six feet, at a guess. Her figure was rather top heavy with wide shoulders, long arms and a very full bosom. Despite her build, she moved with a stately grace, actions and gestures precise.
       "Do you take lemon, sugar or milk?"
     "Just lemon," Clare said, reaching out for the glass of tea.
     Mrs. Grabenbauer carried her own glass and a dish of lemon slices to the table. "Now tell me. How is my favorite niece Gail?"
     "Since she's my best friend," Clare said, "I also know she's your only niece."
     "Busted." Mrs. Grabenbauer let out a deep throaty chuckle. "I'm sorry my brother didn't have a dozen more like her. Bright, articulate and full of fun."
     "Despite Gail's working too many hours at the clinic, she still manages to out-party me on the weekends. I hope she told you that she's leaving next week for a vacation in Hawaii."
     "Yes. We had a lovely talk on the phone." Mrs. Grabenbauer spoke briskly as if she'd decided it was time to end the social chitchat and get down to business. "I hadn't heard from her for a while when she called to say she had a friend who needed a place to stay for a week or two and wanted to know if the lake cottage was empty. I'd had several offers this summer, but no one I felt comfortable renting to."
     "I really appreciate your letting me take it on such short notice. Gail's pretty hard to resist when she gets an idea." Clare grinned. "I hope she didn't badger you on my behalf."
     "Nothing I couldn't handle." The dry tone was in sharp contrast to the twinkle in her eyes. "She said you had gotten an interview with our local recluse Nate Hanssen. How did you manage that?"
     "I work for a literary magazine in Chicago. Mr. Hanssen was the featured author at a fundraiser for literacy that my editor attended. Apparently they hit it off and, even though he usually refuses to do interviews, he agreed to do this one."
     "So that's why you've come to Grand Rapids?" Ruth asked. "Somehow Gail made it sound more mysterious than that. I realize she has a tendency to be dramatic but she said you'd explain everything when you got here."
     For a moment Clare was silent, wondering what to say. She opened her mouth but no words came out. Taking a deep steadying breath, she tried again.
     "I need your help to find out who I am." Clare could understand the surprise on Mrs. Grabenbauer's face because she was just as stunned by her own words. "I'm sorry for blurting that out. That's not what I intended to say."
     Clare sat quietly as the older woman took a drink of her tea, studying her over the rim of the glass. She could feel the heat rise to her cheeks and knew that she was blushing. The awkward silence was broken when Mrs. Grabenbauer set her glass of iced tea down with a sharp tap on the wooden table.
     "First of all, Clare, I'd like it if you would call me Ruth. Since we will be neighbors for a while" She smiled at Clare's nod of acceptance. "Sometimes it is difficult to explain things and blurting them out, as you put it, is the best way. Since I now have an idea where we're heading perhaps you'd like to start at the beginning."
     "My mother died two years ago." Try as she might, the emotions that she had experienced in the last several months rose and threatened to drown her. She swallowed several times and then she said, "Five months ago I discovered that I was adopted."
     Clare thought she had gotten used to the idea but her throat closed and she was unable to continue. She took several sips of tea while she pulled herself together. Ruth leaned across the table and patted her arm.
     "You had no idea?"
     "None." Clare shook her head. "The doctor who told me thought I knew, since it had always been in my medical file. My mother Rose told the doctor when she first brought me to see her."
     "Strange that your mother would tell the doctor and yet not tell you."
     "Rose was thirty when I was born I never questioned the fact that she loved me, but she was not a demonstrative sort of woman. Very private."
     "But after she died, you must have had access to all her papers."
     "Yes. There was the house and her will. Everything came to me. My name was on everything. Mother kept a very Spartan household. I used to tease her that we could be packed and out of town at a moment's notice. " Clare laughed but it was not a humorous sound.  "Now I begin to wonder if that wasn't partially true."
     Although there was a question in Ruth's eyes, she didn't ask for an immediate explanation. "Birth certificate?"
     Clare pushed her chair back and rose to her feet. She paced across to the window and looked out at the park. It was still hard to talk about something that hurt so badly.
     "I had one. There were several notarized copies in her safety deposit box. It said I was her child, but if she had adopted me legally in Chicago, the official birth certificate would show that she was the mother. When I began checking the details, I couldn't find verification for any of the information on it. The hospital listed had no record of my mother and none of my being born there. On the day listed as my birth date, three children were born. All three were boys."
     "Well, that bites."
     The slang term amused Clare and she turned back toward Mrs. Grabenbauer. She could read the empathy on the older woman's face and smiled through a sheen of tears.
     "You're damn right it does."
     "Anger is good, my dear. As the shrinks say, 'it's all a process.'  Often times there's truth in the most banal of psychobabble. I'm assuming there were no adoption papers."
     "Could you trace back through your mother's information?"
     Clare shook her head. She paced to the sink and back again. She felt better moving around. So much of what had happened in the last few months had been bottled up. It was strange how comfortable she felt speaking to Gail's aunt.
     "My mother's name was Rose Prentice. The birth certificate listed her date of birth and said she was born in Park Ridge, Illinois. When I checked into that, I couldn't find any record for that date or name. It was as if neither my mother nor I existed."
     "Extended family?"
     "It's funny, but when you're a kid there's so much you don't question. It just is. We had no actual family in the Chicago area. I called your brother, Uncle Owen, but I knew he wasn't a relative. Gail and her brothers were like cousins so I really never felt any lack of family."
     "Your mother must have had friends you could talk to."
     "Not really. My mother didn't socialize much. She went to PTA meetings and knew people at church and work but there was no one you would consider a close friend. At the time it didn't seem strange. It's only now when I look back I begin to see how isolated she was."
     "Marriage license?"
     "I didn't find one. Since my father was dead, their anniversary was never celebrated so I really had no idea when or where she was married."
     "When did your father die?"
     "Mother said he died in a train accident when I was three. No details, just said he was dead." Clare could feel her mouth tighten at the words.  "It wasn't that she made it seem like a secret. If she had, I might have been more curious. It was just a fact. Mother never talked about the past. When I asked her about her childhood, she said it was boring and changed the subject."
     "Didn't that seem unusual?" Ruth asked.
     "No. Mother wasn't very talkative."
     "I know people like that," Ruth said, "and I've watched how my niece and her brothers interacted with their parents. A child gets a sense that a subject is off limits. It's one of those nonverbal signals that always intrigues me. I never had children so my knowledge comes solely from my observations."
     "Gail said you were a very perceptive aunt."
     "That's because I spoiled her. That's the joy of being an aunt. None of the annoyances of raising children. When they misbehave you just pack up their bags and send them home. And if they grow up to be bright, articulate adults it's an added bonus in your life."
     Ruth paused and stared across at Clare. 
     "Did it occur to you that you might be Rose's illegitimate daughter and she just told the doctor you were adopted to cover her shame?"
     Clare nodded. "Actually that was my original thought. It would have explained why she changed her name and said my father was dead. I asked the doctor about that possibility and she went through Rose's medical files. She had had a miscarriage, but had never had a live birth."
     There was silence for a moment, and then Ruth asked, "So why have you come to Grand Rapids?"
     "I think my adoptive mother might have lived here." Clare opened her purse and took out a picture in a small wooden frame.  "This is a picture of Rose. I only have a few. She didn't like having her picture taken."
     She set it on the table in front of Ruth.
     "Gail said you were born and raised here in Grand Rapids.  Does she look familiar at all?"
     "I only lived here in Grand Rapids until my parents divorced. Then I moved to Duluth with my mother. My brother stayed here with my father. Except for occasional visits, I didn't come back here until after my husband died ten years ago."
     Ruth picked up the frame and concentrated on the face of the woman in the picture. She pursed her lips, then sighed and shook her head.
     "I don't believe I've ever seen her before. You think she was from Grand Rapids?"
     "She might have gone to school here." Clare reached into the pocket of her denim skirt and brought out a plastic bag. "When I went through her jewelry box, I found this."
     She opened the bag, placing a ring on the table in front of Ruth.
     "It's a class ring from Grand Rapids Senior High School.  At first I thought of Michigan, but when I did some research I found it was Grand Rapids, Minnesota."
     Ruth picked up the gold ring with the gold Indian in profile, turning it from side to side to examine it.
     "1962. My brother went to Grand Rapids, but he graduated five years earlier," she said.
     "Gail's father? The Judge?"
     "Yes," Ruth said. "And in 1962, I was thirty, married for six years and living in Duluth. Lordy where does the time go? So you think this was your mother's ring?"
     Clare shook her head. "According to my mother's birth certificate, she would have been fifty-nine this year. She would have graduated in 1965 or 1966. If the ring is hers then she might be four years older. To me she always seemed old. To look at Rose you wouldn't be able to guess her age."
     "So it could be hers." Ruth placed the ring on her finger. It was too large. "But at a guess I'd say it was a man's ring."
     "Mother had large hands," Clare said, her voice defensive.
     Ruth looked inside the band of the ring. "There are no initials or serial numbers to give a clue as to ownership. Without one or the other, we couldn't trace it through the manufacturer."
     Clare sat down at the table again, staring in dismay at the ring in the palm of Ruth's hand. "It's the only clue I have."
     Ruth placed the ring back in the plastic bag and handed it to Clare. She patted her hand.
     "And a very good clue, it is. What if your father gave it to her? Do you have any information about him?"
     Clare tightened her fingers around the ring. "No. His name, John Prentice, was on my birth certificate, but none of the information checked out." She sighed. "I spent endless hours on the internet going through adoption web sites. Finally one of the people I'd been corresponding with said that I might have been a black market baby and that was why none of the information was valid."
     "What about your mother's maiden name? It would have been on your birth certificate."
     "The name listed as my mother's maiden name was the same as her married name. Prentice."
     "Did you try the hospital birth records in Grand Rapids?"
     Clare nodded. "Yes. No records for either Rose Prentice or Clare Prentice. As far as the world is concerned, we never existed."
     Silence filled the room. Clare could see that Ruth was as mystified as she had been for so many months. She rubbed the back of her neck as she felt a headache form. Ever since she'd discovered she was adopted she'd been searching for answers and she was exhausted, both mentally and physically.
     "There's another clue to the fact your mother might have come from this area," Ruth said. "Did she give you that necklace?"
     Clare automatically put her hand up to cup the pendant around her neck. Her fingers stroked the polished surface of the stone heart. "Yes. She gave me the necklace for my sixteenth birthday.  How did you guess?"
     "I'm almost positive that the stone is Binghamite. It's a form of quartz found only up here in the Iron Ranges. It's pretty rare to find any now that the mines are closed. Your stone is particularly lovely since it has so many detailed markings in gold and brown. There's even some green."
     "It's my favorite piece of jewelry." Clare closed her fingers around it." Rose said it belonged to her sister who had died."
     "Well, it sounds like it's another piece of the puzzle. This will take some work to resolve." Ruth sat forward in her chair. "I'm glad you've come here. Libraries are the perfect places to do research."
     "What do you have in mind?" Clare felt a glimmer of hope at the sparkle in the soft blue eyes of the older woman.
     "Let's start with the class ring. It was either Rose's or was given to her by a graduate. We have the yearbooks for Grand Rapids and we'll start with 1962 and see if we can find someone who looks like Rose. I realize it's a slim hope but it's at least worth a try."
     "And it's someplace new to start." Clare sighed. "I'm ready."
     Ruth looked surprised. "We don't have to begin this minute. You've had a long drive up from Chicago. Don't you want to get settled in first?"
     "No. I stopped last night in Wisconsin so that I could get here early. I've had lunch and I'd just as soon get started."
     Ruth stood. "All right then. Come out to the study area and I'll get the yearbooks."
     Clare followed the older woman out of the room. She liked the openness of the main floor of the library and smiled up at the mobiles swinging above the desk area.
     "The high school art class studied and made mobiles this year and we offered to display them. It's been such a success that we're hoping to do it every year." Ruth tilted her head back. "There's something so enjoyable about watching the movement and trying to figure out how they created the balance."
     Ruth pointed her to an alcove by the far wall, and then disappeared between the stacks of books. The rounded windows looked out on the park and some of the shops along the street where people walked in the late afternoon sunlight. Clare settled herself in one of the cushioned armchairs and stared outside. For the first time in many months tension wasn't constricting every muscle in her body. Perhaps it was sharing with Ruth some of the feelings she had suppressed since learning about the adoption. She had talked frequently with Gail over the last few months, but there was something steadying about talking with the older woman that made her feel as if she finally might be able to get some answers.
     It was totally disconcerting to wake up one morning to discover the life she had been living was a sham. It had shaken her badly to not know who she was and where she had come from. And made her angry.
     The anger brought guilt. No matter the circumstances behind her adoption, she should have felt grateful to Rose for raising her. Although they weren't wealthy, Rose had sent her to excellent schools and fed and clothed her. Perhaps she was not the most demonstrative of mothers but she sat stolidly beside Clare's bed when she was sick, played games with her, celebrated all the holidays and attended all the school family functions. Although Rose wasn't social, she encouraged Clare to participate with her school friends. Rose had had many positive influences on her life, but Clare still blamed her for keeping such an important secret.
     "Well, my dear," Ruth's voice broke into her reverie. "This ought to keep you busy."
     Clare leaped up to take the stack of yearbooks from Ruth's arms and set them on the table.
     "I've brought yearbooks from 1962 to 1968. Since we're not positive fifty-nine would be Rose's real age now, I figured we should at least start with the year of the class ring." She reached into the pocket of her dress and pulled out a magnifying glass, handing it to Clare.  "This might help. Just take your time and don't get discouraged if you don't find any one who resembles her. People change. Different hairstyles, different clothes."
     "What if I don't find anyone who looks like her, even a little?" Clare bit her lip, staring down at the books.
     "There are other schools around Grand Rapids. She could have been living in Coleraine or Cass Lake and dated a boy from Grand Rapids. All sorts of possibilities. Don't despair. It's two thirty now. I'll check on you shortly." With a bracing pat on Clare's shoulder, Ruth walked back to the front of the library.
     Clare sat down in the chair. Her heart thudded noisily in her ears and she tightened her fingers around the black bone handle of the magnifying glass. For three months she had been searching and now when she had a real possibility of success, she was afraid that she would only find disappointment. Maybe some secrets weren't meant to be discovered. Tears clouded her vision and she blinked them away.  Setting the magnifying glass on the table, she made a decision. She didn't have to do this. She had the right to change her mind. She didn't want to know; she wanted to go home.
     She shoved the tissue in her purse and reached for the leather strap. The white skin on her ring finger caught her eye. She had run away from her engagement and if she ran away again, where would she go? Where was home? Without knowing who she was, could she ever find her place in this world?
     Her hand touched the topmost yearbook. Her fingers stroked the suede like cover, slightly gritty with dust. The title of the yearbook was the Tomahawk. She picked it up; surprised that it wasn't particularly heavy. She flipped to the back and checked the page count. One hundred fifty-five. She couldn't remember how large her own high school yearbook was.
     1962. She thought back to her history classes and tried to remember anything she knew about that year. She'd just seen a biography about John Glenn whose birthday was in July. Forty-five years ago he'd orbited the Earth. The only other thing she could think of was that '62 was the year of the Cuban Missile Crisis. She was a big Kevin Costner fan and had seen the movie THIRTEEN DAYS at least three times. She couldn't come up with any other events.
     Clare opened the cover and began to flip through the pages, passing the pictures of the teachers and other sections until she came to the pictures of the students. Each of the seniors had his or her own picture. There was a certain sameness to all of the students. The boys had short, slicked down hair, short sideburns, and faces turned either to the right or the left. They all looked neat and clean and, except for a few, uncomfortable. The girls looked fresh-faced with similar hairstyles and little make up. Hair curled and usually parted on the side. There was an innocence to these girls from long ago that spoke of a different moral climate than Clare had grown up in.    
     After she'd made a brief survey of the pictures, taking in what she could of the group in general, she turned back to study each one. She skipped the boys entirely, focusing on the girls. She studied each face, checking eyebrows, teeth and noses. When she had gone through each of the seniors without success, she picked up the magnifying glass and started on the smaller pictures.    
     It took forty-five minutes to get through the first yearbook.
     Carefully she placed it next to the original pile. She rubbed her eyes, trying not to think. Standing up, she walked across to the far wall where there was a water fountain. Her legs moved awkwardly, stiff from sitting almost motionless for so long. Her whole body ached. She would have to try to relax before she started on the next book. The water was refreshing and she returned to her chair, stretching several times before she sat down and reached for the next book on the stack.
     1963. Fifteen years before she was born. She knew that was the year Pope John XXIII died and John F. Kennedy was assassinated, because Rose had worshipped both men and reminded Clare of the two events. She had always been convinced that there was some conspiracy that the two had died in the same year. Civil rights were being fought for in the south. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his "I Have A Dream" speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1963. Beyond that she didn't know much about the year.
     A half hour later she closed the cover with a sigh. Her eyes burned and her head throbbed. The faces had begun to blur after awhile. Sometimes she thought she saw a resemblance in the smaller pictures of the underclassmen but even with the magnifying glass she couldn't really be sure. Those she marked with a piece of paper so that she could find them again if necessary. She placed the book gently on top of the first one and quickly reached for the next yearbook before she could think better of it. An hour later she looked up as Ruth approached.
     "By the look on your face, I can see it's not going so well," Ruth said as she sank down across from Clare. "You didn't think this would be easy, did you?"
     The comment made Clare smile. "As a matter of fact I did at one point but that's long gone after. . . ?" She looked at her watch. "Almost three hours."
     "I suspected you wouldn't get through the whole stack today. It's getting close to five. Why don't you start fresh tomorrow? I'm only staying another hour. That'll give you time to settle into the cottage. When Gail told me you were coming today, I had already committed to a supper at one of the churches in town. It's always a lovely affair. Not knowing about your mission of discovery and the emotional toll it might have taken, I also made a reservation for you. Do you feel up to it? It would give you a chance to get some feel for life in Grand Rapids."
     "I'd like that very much," Clare said. "And I don't mind waiting until you're ready to leave. I can do one more book before I lose my vision completely."
     Ruth chuckled. "Gail said you were stubborn. I'll leave you to it. Come to the front when you're done."
     She heaved herself to her feet and Clare reached for the next yearbook.
     1966. Twelve years before she was born. She couldn't think of anything she knew about that year. She thought the Vietnam War was still going on but she wasn't sure. This search, if it proved nothing else, proved that she should have paid more attention in her U.S. history classes.    
     Once more she opened the cover and began flipping through the pages. She was a third of the way through the senior class when she stopped, riveted by one of the pictures. Beneath dark hair and heavy dark eyebrows a young girl stared up from the page.  The moment Clare saw the photograph she knew.
     It was Rose, her adoptive mother.


 Death Angel


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Oceanview Publishing

October 2006
ISBN: 1-933515-03-1

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     He nosed the car into the empty parking lot and stopped when the tires touched the concrete curb. His head was motionless, but his eyes flicked along the bank of evergreens edging the forest preserve. Clenching both hands at the top of the steering wheel, he straightened his arms and pressed his back against the seat. The impulse was so strong.
     He expelled the air from his lungs in a slow steady stream, then opened his door and walked around the front to the passenger side of the car. Once more he eyed the empty paths leading into the woods. Aware of danger, his mouth was dry. His hand moved to the door latch. The sharp click of the car door shattered the afternoon quiet.
     The little girl slid out of the car. Her white sneakers scuffed the gravel and sent up a small cloud of dust. She tilted her head and squinted up against the glare of the sun.
     He held out his hand and smiled. With one hand she tugged at the strand of black hair alongside her cheek and then, placed her other hand in his. Turning, they walked into the woods.


Chapter One

     Kate Warner opened the door, flapping the towel to clear the clouds of steam from the bathroom. She'd raced home after work, looking forward to a long shower. The air conditioning at the library hadn't been turned on yet, so it had been hot and sticky working in the small conference room. She cocked her head, straining to hear any sound from downstairs. All was quiet. It must not be as late as she thought.
     She dried herself, dressed and turned on the hair dryer, using her free hand to pull on her canvas shoes. The steady stream of air blew her ash brown hair in a cloud around her head and she leaned closer to the mirror, frowning at the dry skin between her eyebrows. She'd have to start using a moisturizer. Thirty-one wasn't too old. She turned sideways, checking for signs of sagging breasts or buttocks. Satisfied that she hadn't deteriorated since the last time she'd looked.
     Shutting off the dryer, she brushed her hair away from her face, letting it fall straight, the curled ends grazing her shoulders. After putting on fresh clothes, she turned off the light and crossed the bedroom toward the upstairs hall on the way scooping up her watch and earrings. She slipped the gold hoops into her ears as she started down the stairs. A quick glance at her watch. Three ten. Five minutes before the school bus came.
     Richard hadn't wanted her to take the job but for once she had stood her ground. With Jenny in school, the demands of the household were cut in half and, since he had never approved of her going out to lunch or doing volunteer work, she was at loose ends. Besides, she felt as if her brain were atrophying. She hadn't worked since she was married and found the part-time job at the library a perfect way to ease back into the work force. Helping the senior citizens in the computer training classes, was something she really enjoyed. As she explained to Richard, she would only work when Jenny was in school.
     Opening the front door, she stepped outside. She shaded her eyes with her hand, squinting down the empty street, watching for the school bus.
     Last year Kate had walked to the corner to meet the bus, but since her eighth birthday, Jenny had insisted that only babies had their mothers meet the bus. Richard had agreed that Jenny needed to learn independence and what better place than in a small town like Pickard?
     Kate sniffed the air. It was already the middle of May but this was the first really beautiful day. Illinois had had a wet and chilly spring. She loved the balmy days before the summer heat and hoped this weather would continue.
     Down the block, the school bus came into sight, slowing for the stop at the corner. The doors opened and she could see Jenny in her yellow jacket standing inside on the top step.
     The phone rang. Kate waved to Jenny and, leaving the door open, she walked back through the hall to the kitchen. She listened to the recorded message announcing that her prescription was ready at the pharmacy. Hanging up, she returned to the front porch.
     The street was empty.
     The bus was gone and Jenny was nowhere in sight.
     Several times Jenny had stopped to play with one of her friends and Kate had to remind her that she needed to come home first, just to check in. Being the last house before the cul de sac offered too much temptation for distraction. Especially when the weather was fine.
     “You're in big trouble, Jennifer Louise,” Kate muttered.
     She left the front door unlocked and hurried down the stairs. Walking briskly, she checked the yards as she passed each house but didn't see anyone outside playing. She reached the corner and looked both ways. There were several children walking along the sidewalk on the next block, but she didn't see Jenny in her yellow jacket. Her chest tightened as she fought the uneasiness that filled her.
     Taking a deep breath she looked around. At the corner on the side street, a blue nylon backpack lay on the ground, pushed under the edge of the hedge that lined the sidewalk. She scooped it up, ripping open the Velcro flap to check inside. “Jennifer Warner” was written in block letters on the nametag. Where was Jenny?
     “Jenny!”  She shouted the name, turning her head from side to side as she scanned the area. She hurried along the side street, calling as she went. “Jenny!”
     Halfway down the block, Kate saw the watercolor.
     The paper was caught in the hedge. The wind pinned it against the leafless branches. Across the top, “Spring Is Here” was printed in bold letters. The contrast between the black letters and the red watercolor house with the crooked green roof was stark. Beside the house stood a brown animal, more llama than dog. Jenny always painted her dogs that way. Even when Kate had shown her how a dog should look, she continued to paint the llama-like creatures, because they looked funnier.
     Snatching up the painting, she stared at it for a moment, then opened her mouth as she gasped for air. Her heart pounded enough to break her ribs.
     Dear God, where was Jenny?
     Kate began to run, holding the backpack and the picture against her chest as she raced home. Stumbling up the stairs, she wrenched the door open and shoved it closed before running along the hall to the kitchen. She placed the picture on the countertop, lined it up against the edge and stroked her fingertips across Jenny's signature.
She bit her lip in indecision.  Shouldn't she call the neighbors or search outside. A sense of dread invaded her. Jenny never would have left her picture and backpack. She raised her hand and dialed 911.
     "Pickard Police Department."
     She opened her mouth, but the muscles in her throat refused to work.
     "Pickard Police Department," the voice repeated.
     "It's my daughter, J-Jenny."
     "Has there been an accident, ma'am?"
     "No. Something's happened to her. I saw her get off the bus, but she just disappeared.”
     “What do you mean, she disappeared.”    
     “I found her backpack. And her watercolor. But I can't find Jenny." It was an effort to speak. Her mouth trembled after each syllable so she tried to keep her answers short in order to maintain control.
     "All right, ma'am. Let me get some information." The male voice was firm and reasonable. "Nice and slow now.”
     "Oh God, I'm so frightened!"  Tears trickled down her cheeks, but the sheer act of speaking her fears aloud had a calming effect. She drew a shuddering breath. "Sorry. I'm OK."
     "I understand you're upset, but you'll need to stay. Now then, your name and address?"
     Please hurry, Kate begged as she rattled off the information.
     "How old is Jenny?"
     "Eight. She'll be nine in September."
     “Would you describe her, please?"
     "She has shoulder-length black hair. It's straight but it curls at the ends. Her eyes are blue. Her skin is sort of an ivory color."
     Kate put her hand just below her bosom in order to measure. Her mouth pulled tight in a grimace as she remembered Jenny hugging her before she left for school. For a moment she was unable to speak for the vividness of the little body pressed to her own. Voice hoarse, she spoke into the receiver. "She's about three and a half feet. Just little, very little."
     "O.K. I've got that. What was she wearing?”
     Kate closed her eyes, picturing Jenny at breakfast. "She had on a blue and gray plaid jumper. White short-sleeved blouse with an appliquéd pink rose on the collar. White sneakers with blue shoelaces and white knee socks." She wiped away the tears on her chin with the back of her hand. "And a yellow nylon jacket. Bright yellow."
     "Was she wearing any jewelry?"
     "Yes. A bracelet. Gold links with one guardian angel charm. The initials JLW are on the back of the charm."
     "All right, Mrs. Warner. Are you at home now?"
     "Yes. I'm here."
     "I've already dispatched a car and in the meantime we'll send this information out on the radio. I want you to go through each room of the house to see if your daughter might have come in while you were out looking for her. Be sure to check the closets and under the beds.  Attic and basement too, if you have them."
     "And I'll look outside, too."
     "Just inside, Mrs. Warner," directed the steady voice. "I know you want to run around the neighborhood and look, but we need you near the phone. In case your daughter calls. Do you understand?"
     "Yes, but please hurry."
     "Don't worry, Mrs. Warner. We'll find Jenny."
     At the last, she heard some warmth in the voice on the other end of the phone. Kate replaced the receiver and ran her fingers over the cold plastic surface as though to let go would break the tenuous bond she had to another person.
     She had finished searching the house when the police arrived.
     Kate explained to the two police officers how she had found Jenny's watercolor and backpack. Feeling a kinship with the female officer, she spoke directly to her.
     "I know something's happened to her." Kate's mouth trembled.
     Officer Gates nodded in sympathy. "I know you're worried sick but believe me, Mrs. Warner, this time of year we always get a lot of calls. It's the change in weather. The kids get to playing outside and lose track of the time."
     Kate turned to the other police officer for confirmation. His gray hair, potbelly and ruddy face should have reassured her but his expression was closed, giving nothing away. He reached in his shirt pocket for a pencil, cradled a clipboard in his left arm and without meeting her eyes began to ask questions, printing each answer awkwardly, as if he had just learned to write. At the end he sighed, returned the pencil to his pocket and asked for a picture of Jenny.
     “We have one of those child ID kits,” Kate said. She opened the desk drawer and reached inside for the folder. Her hand shook as she handed it to the older officer. “We put a new picture in a couple months ago when we went to the zoo. It was cold that day so her cheeks are too red but otherwise she looks the same.”
     “This'll be a big help, Mrs. Warner,” Officer Gates said.
     “She brought the kit home from school. We didn't think we'd ever need it but we filled it out anyway.”  Kate's voice trailed away and in silence she walked the police officers to the door.

* * *

     Move!  Get out of here!
     The words were silent, reverberating inside his head, but, numb to everything except the horror of his actions, his body refused to respond. A tremor started in his hands, advancing up his arms in a wave so strong he stared down to see if there was something traveling across his skin.
     His body shook and a cry started in his chest, bitten off when he ground his teeth together. The truncated sound broke through his inertia and he blinked, then turned his head from side to side to survey the area around the car. The picnic area adjacent to the parking lot of the forest preserve was empty.
     No witnesses. Thank God!
     Fear of discovery spurred him to action and with great effort he raised his hand to turn the key. He gripped the steering wheel with one hand and in slow motion eased the lever into reverse. The car lurched backward with a squeal of tires. He slammed on the brakes, choked back a curse and once more changed gears, this time accelerating slightly. Sweat broke out on his forehead as he struggled to control his speed. He wanted to mash his foot to the floor and tear away but knew such action would increase the risk of being seen and remembered.
     Slow. There's a car ahead. Turn your head as you pass.
     His brain issued commands and his body obeyed.
     Don't speed. Turn right. Slow for the light.
     When he left the forest preserve and entered the suburban streets the tension began to ease. The grid-patterned streets brought him a sense of balance and, with each turn, he could feel the muscles of his neck and shoulders relax. His breathing deepened, no longer shallow or gasping. He drove with no destination in mind, aware of a gnawing sense of urgency to distance himself from the forest preserve.
     No one must know. No one must know, no one must know, no one
     The words crescendoed in a jumble of unintelligible sounds until the noise made him sick to his stomach. He opened his mouth, inhaling to dissipate the nausea. 
     Gas station. Slow.
     He pulled the car against the side wall of the building, away from the front windows, which had a floor-to-ceiling view of the gas pumps. He shut off the engine and hurried toward the restroom. His movements were wooden, his knee joints frozen in an effort to keep his body upright. As he eased inside the bathroom, he risked a quick look around but there was no one in sight. He shoved the bolt across to secure the door.
     Bile rose, burning a pathway up his throat. He made it to the toilet just in time, bending over as the vomit spewed from his mouth and his nose. His stomach convulsed and he gagged, fighting to catch his breath before he threw up again. He wrapped his arms around his torso, hugging his body against the force of the spasms that ripped through his abdomen.
     Afterwards he struggled across to the washbasin. He turned on the tap and scooped up water to wash his face and rinse away the bitter taste. When his mouth began to feel cleaner, he cupped his hands and lapped at the water with his tongue, gulping and slurping to quench his raging thirst.
     He never should have stopped when the urges were strong. Just one touch had ripped away his control and by giving in to impulse, the ending was inevitable. He couldn't change what he'd done. What mattered now was that he get away.
     Hunched over the sink, he rested on his arms, letting the water run over his fingers. His eyes were closed and he rocked back and forth, willing his body to pick up the strong cadence of his heart.
     He heard a metallic clink and froze. He raised his head, but the sound was not repeated. As he leaned forward, he heard it again and looked down. A short length of gold chain was caught on the material of his jacket and struck against the porcelain with the light tinkle of a string of bells. In his mind, small hands pushed against his chest and he sucked in his breath at the instant reminder of the body squirming against his own.
     Disentangling the child's bracelet, he cradled it in his hand where it glistened against the wet skin. The clasp was broken, the opening bent at an angle, but the gold charm, a winged angel, was still attached.
     Holding the bracelet between thumb and index finger, he placed it in a paper towel and rubbed it free of fingerprints, then wadded it inside the paper and pushed the bundle down among the other trash in the wastebasket.
     The moment his fingers lost contact with the bracelet, he was struck by such a strong sense of loss that he rooted through the rubbish until he found it again.
     He knew the danger of keeping such an object. The bracelet was physical evidence that could destroy him, but perhaps it would be worth the risk if he used it as a reminder that he must never again give in to impulse. The gold links would become a sacred ring. His talisman.
     Sliding the bracelet into his pants pocket, his fingers rustled among the empty candy wrappers until he found a full one. His thumbnail forced its way beneath the cellophane to push the candy free. He pulled it out and pushed it between his lips, coaxing it into the center of his nested tongue. He sucked it, the pervasive butterscotch flavor banishing the acrid taste in his mouth.
     He straightened his back, dropped his shoulders and blew out two steadying gusts of air, like an athlete preparing for an event. His hands were steady as he unbolted the door.
                                                                                                                * * *

     When Kate heard the key in the front door, she remained in her chair. From the living room, she watched as the door opened and Richard stepped into the hall. For an instant she clung to her belief in miracles hoping that Jenny would appear behind his tall, slim figure.
     Richard's deep voice broke the spell that immobilized her and she sagged against the back of the chair with a sigh. The sound caught Richard's attention, and he flipped the light switch beside the door.
     "What are you doing sitting in the dark?"
     Although it was still light outside, the house was shadowed with the approach of evening. He dropped his briefcase beside the hall table and entered the living room, turning on lights as he came toward her. When she didn't speak, his expression changed to one of alarm.
     "What is it, Kate? What's wrong?"
     "Jenny's missing."
     “What do you mean missing?”
     In short blunt sentences Kate told him about searching for Jenny, finding her watercolor and calling the police.
     “Dear God, Kate, why didn't you call me?”
     Kate flinched at the tone in his voice then realized part of his anger was fear. “I tried calling you. Your cell phone was off.”
     Richard reached into the pocket of his jacket and jerked out the phone, eyebrows bunched together as he stared down at the display. “I don't remember turning it off. I'm so sorry.”
     He crossed to her, pulled her out of the chair and wrapped his arms around her. She rested her forehead against his chest squeezing her eyes shut as if she could block out the world. She felt a tremor in his body and pushed away before she lost any hope of composure.
     “Tell me what's happened. Start from the beginning.” 
     His voice was hoarse as he eased her back into the chair and he pulled up the ottoman so he could face her. When she finished, he rubbed her hands between his as if he sensed the chill that invaded her body.
     “She must be playing somewhere,” he said. “This has happened before. You need to impress on her again that she needs to follow the rules. Independence brings responsibility.”    
     Kate pressed back a spurt of anger at his comment and spoke firmly. “This is different, Richard. Jenny wouldn't leave her backpack on the ground and she never would have left her watercolor.”
     “You're right,” he conceded. “This whole thing scares the hell out of me. What are the police doing? When did you talk to them last?”
     “About an hour ago. I think it was five thirty or five forty-five. They said they'd call as soon as they knew anything?”
     “Have you called her friends from school?”
     “Yes. I even called the school and they checked the bus driver. He said she got off the bus but doesn't know what happened after that.”
     “Did you call Bethanne Peters' house? They always walk home together.”
     “Yes. Bethanne was sick today and didn't go to school. I called all the houses on both our street and on Corydon. No one saw Jenny.” 
     Kate's voice broke. She pressed her fist against her mouth to keep from screaming.
     “Nothing could have happened to Jenny in broad daylight. She's got to be somewhere playing,” Richard said.
     She stared up at him, stunned at his refusal to believe anything else. One look at the lines across his forehead and his tight mouth told her that despite his brisk assurances, he was as terrified as she was. The light outside had taken on a red-orange tint and she could feel the chill of evening reach into the room.
     "Look, Kate, I'm going to change my clothes,” Richard said. “Then if Jenny's not back, I'll call the police again. We'll find Jenny.”
     She followed him to the hall and waited beside the newel post as he went upstairs. She stared down at her watch. It was almost seven. Jenny had been missing since three-fifteen.
                                                                                                             * * *

     Walter Hepburn tried to pace his breathing to the steady thump of his running shoes on the cinder path of the forest preserve. Sweat trickled under the band at his forehead and slid down his temple, leaving the skin tight and itchy. His glasses began to fog as each damp puff of air rasped from his throat. He hated to stop when his rhythm was just beginning to gel. He raised his arm in front of his face and squinted at his wristwatch. Seven o'clock. A few more minutes and then he'd stop.
     The toe of his sneaker stubbed on a tree root. He stumbled and lost his balance. Throwing out his hands, he dropped to his knees and fell forward. His glasses flipped off into the shrubbery as he sprawled face down on the trail.
     The breath was knocked out of him and he rolled over on his back, gasping for air. Slowly he sat up and, still breathing heavily, felt along his legs, relieved to discover nothing but bruises. If he hadn't been wearing running gloves, the gravel would have scraped the palms of his hands.
     He stood up, gingerly shook out his legs, then bent at the waist. He wiggled his arms and turned his head slowly from side to side. Bunched muscles eased as he rolled his shoulders and scanned the edge of the trail for his glasses. Damn. Without them, he wouldn't be able to drive.
     "And for Christ's sake don't step on them," he muttered as he cautiously parted the bushes beside the path.
     He quartered the ground and cursed at the thick undergrowth. The sun was low in the sky and the shadows had deepened. He was afraid to move too quickly in case he overlooked the glasses in his hurry.
     Should've had orange frames. Should've carried an extra pair. Should've exercised more and then he wouldn't have gained weight and been forced to jog to get the lard off.
     He was about two feet off the trail when he spotted a glint ahead. Amazed that the glasses had gone so far, he parted the bushes, reached down and grasped the plastic earpieces. He spit on the lenses and rubbed them clean on the bottom of his sweatshirt. Putting them on, he smiled as his blurred vision cleared.
     The brilliant yellow color was stark against the greens and blacks of the early spring woods. Curiosity drew Walter deeper into the underbrush. His eyes focused on the bright material and grew wide as he pulled aside the last branches.
     She lay on her back, arms flung wide as if she would embrace the sky. The plaid jumper was bunched up around her hips, the image of innocent sleep marred by the smear of red on her inner thighs. The side of her head was misshapen and blood mingled with the black hair that covered her cheek. Her blue eyes were open, but the horror of her final agony was not visible in the glazed expression.
                                                                                                               * * *

     Light ricocheted off the wall of trees as the police cameras recorded the grim scene. The repeated flashes were like strobe lights creating the illusion of movement where none existed. Muted voices rose above the sound of snapping twigs as the photographers worked around the body.
     "It's all yours, Jamison. I'll do the rest when the paramedics arrive," the medical examiner said.
     Patrolman Jamison watched as the doctor moved away from the ring of lights. He nodded to the evidence technicians who approached the body. Seven thirty. Where the hell was Chief Leidecker anyway? The M.E. and the crime scene guys had gotten here, so what the hell was the hold up with the chief?
     His eyes shifted to the back of his squad car where the jogger was sitting, head resting against the back of the seat.
     "Did it have to be me he flagged down?" Jamison grumbled.
     When he'd called into the station they told him not to let the guy out of his sight. Until Leidecker arrived he was in charge, so he'd better do everything according to the book.
     "Leidecker'll chew my ass if I screw this up," Jamison muttered.
     Two months on the force hadn't prepared him for violent crime. Speeders and addicts, that's all he'd handled. But once he saw the yellow windbreaker, he'd known it was the missing kid. His eyes followed the movements of the two men working over the body. God, only eight years old. He shifted his feet and coughed to disguise his shudder of distaste as plastic bags were slipped over the little girl's hands.

                                                                                                              * * *

     Richard paced, moving back and forth between the living room and the kitchen then back again to the front door. Kate remained in the living room, clinging to the arms of the upholstered chair. If she let go, she knew she would lose any control she had over her emotions.
     Nothing in her life had prepared her to deal with this. It could not be happening. The police would find Jenny. It was a mistake. She had tried to be a good person. She and Richard and Jenny were a family and she had worked hard to make their world warm and loving and safe. They were protected from bad things. If she remembered that, everything would turn out fine.
     She prayed. Meaningless words. She wanted to bargain with God but was afraid to even think about what she could offer for the safe return of her daughter. She recited the prayers she had learned as a child, taking comfort from the familiarity of ritual.
     The call from the hospital came at eight-thirty.
     Jenny had been found.


 Bleeding Heart



Purchase Book Here!

tattoo.jpg (62760 bytes)

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.

Chapter One

     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 you survive?"
     "Actually it was a lot of fun," she said. "Once I realized the boys were having a great time and there was no hope of staying clean, I just sort of relaxed. It was like being a kid again. And the big finale at the jousting arena was well worth the aggravations of the day."

     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.

     "Thanks, Mom."

     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.



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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.

     Chapter One

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.

     "Psst. Elmo."

     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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