“I know where you live. I know who you love. You will do exactly as I say or your daughter and your grandmother will suffer. Do you understand?”
Ellie’s head bobbed as if her neck had no muscles.
“You’re going to find the Hamilton file and give it to me.”
Shock swamped Ellie. This was about the Hamilton case? “I don’t know where it is—”
“I don’t give a fuck. Find it or I pick one of them to hurt.” Reaching forward, he collected the pictures and envelope, tucking them inside his jacket. He pulled the gun away from her back, opened the sliding van door, and got out. Baggy black pants disguised his body, and a black hooded jacket shadowed his eyes. A scarf covered the lower portion of his face. Dressed differently, she could pass him on the street with no recognition. He’d whispered their entire conversation. She couldn’t even identify his voice. In fact, since he’d taken his pictures with him, she had no proof the event even occurred.
Hoodie Man leaned back inside. “Tell no one about this meeting. If you call the police, I will kill your daughter. You can’t hide from me. I’m watching.”
“How do I contact you?”
“You don’t. You’ll hear from me. If you find the file, I’ll know.” He closed the car door and walked toward the headlights.
Ellie’s reflexes short-circuited. She sat frozen for a few seconds before she startled into action. She needed to get the hell out of that parking lot. She jerked the gearshift into drive and pulled out onto the road. Keeping an eye on her rearview mirror, she made several turns until she was sure no one had followed her. Twenty minutes later she pulled into her driveway. The grocery store would have to wait. She had to see Julia and Nan. Now.
She got out of the car and scanned her street. Widely spaced streetlights gleamed on the snow. At least a dozen cars lined the curb on her block alone. How would she know if someone was sitting inside one of them, watching her? She squinted in each vehicle as she drove past, but black windshields gave nothing away. At the corner fifty yards away, Ellie could just make out the shape of someone walking two dogs. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary. The window of the house next door glowed, and Grant’s rental car was parked in the driveway of the Barretts’ house. Could Grant help? In a way, they were in this together. If her extortion was tied to one of Lee’s cases, the murders could likely be linked as well. Grant would focus on finding the man who’d killed his family members. Ellie wanted to keep hers alive.
Did that make them allies or adversaries?
She resisted the pull. She couldn’t trust a man she barely knew. Guilt burrowed in her belly as she started up the walk. Hoodie Man must be Kate and Lee’s killer. Ellie shouldn’t help him conceal his crime, but her family’s safety had to come first. She would do anything to protect her grandmother and daughter.
At the base of her porch steps, she paused, glancing over her shoulder. Wind gusted, sweeping snow from the roof and onto Ellie’s head. She shivered, her body shifting from nervous heat to cold as her adrenaline ebbed. Her gaze lingered on each car parked along the curb. Could someone be sitting in one of those vehicles?
I’m watching . . .
I slam the car door. Mom waves and drives off. Standing on the concrete apron in front of the ice-skating arena, I stare at the front of the hulking building.
Why do they hate me?
I scrape the toe of my black Converse on the cement. I’m in no rush to go inside. Mom is headed to the grocery store. I could just slip around back and wait for the free skate hour to be over. Before we moved here, I couldn’t wait to get to the rink. Now I really don’t care. I’m tempted to quit the team. It’s not like I’m going to be an Olympic star or anything. I only skate because I love it.
The rink is the one place I’ve always been able to forget my problems, and now they’re trying to take it away from me. At school, the hallways are covered with cameras, and teachers lurk everywhere. It’s hard for the Shrew Crew to do real damage to anything but my pride. The skating arena is where my tormentors choose to get creative.
I play with my lip ring. My mom will come into the rink when she’s done shopping to ask Coach Victor about my practice. If I don’t skate, she’ll ask questions. She’ll poke and pick at me until I bleed. Then she’ll blame me for my complaints. She won’t let anything ruin her new life. She loves New York State. Me and Dad, not so much.
Our new home sits on almost an acre of land in a small development. Big and yellow and white, the house has four bedrooms, two stories, and a porch that spans the whole front of the building. Behind the house is a meadow and woods. After living in a furnished shoebox in San Francisco for the last six years, my parents couldn’t wait to move to this country suburban bliss. A trail through the woods leads to my school, though I’m not allowed to walk. My parents don’t think it’s safe.
“Upstate New York will be green. We’re saving so much money, you can get a horse if you want. There’ll be snow in the winter.” They say all this as if it’s supposed to make leaving my friends and the city I love sound attractive.
I still don’t buy it.
What would I do with a horse? We’ve never even had a cat. The apartment was tight for the three of us. There was no room for a hamster or fishbowl, but to me, it was home.
We’ve been here three weeks. So far, the only thing that has been OK is the weather. To remind myself of this one and only high point, I close my eyes and turn my face to the afternoon sun. Its rays warm my cheeks and turn the inside of my eyelids blood red. So far, early winter has been mild. Unlike my parents, I’m not looking forward to ice and snow. I have no idea why my parents think this is such a BFD. It’s not like I’ve never seen snow. In California, we drove up to Tahoe a couple of times to snowboard. It wasn’t my thing. I spent more time flat on my face than standing on the board. On the bright side, if the lake down the road freezes, I’ll be able to skate outside. No need to come to the rink.
I dig my phone out of my pocket. No messages from Jose back home. I miss California and my friends with an empty ache, something like hunger, but it can’t be alleviated with food. No worries, though. Jose, best friend not boyfriend, isn’t home from school yet. It’s only lunchtime in Cali. He’ll text me later, and then maybe I won’t feel so alone. If the wireless signal holds, we can even Skype tonight.
I miss going to the Bay City Ice Rink with him every day after school to practice. Jose is a male figure skater. He knows what it’s like to be bullied. I just want to go home and get away from this nightmare of suburbia. I miss walking down to the wharf and listening to the sea lions bark. I miss everything from the steep streets to the fresh seafood. The sushi here sucks and so do the kids.
And on that note, I’d better get inside. Someone is coming out. A member of the advanced team and her mom. Their practice must be over. Maybe Regan and Autumn, my nemeses, will already be gone.
Smiling, the mom holds the door open, a gaping mouth waiting to swallow my will to live. I’m being overly dramatic, but that’s how it feels, this sense of impending misery that crushes my chest.
I pass through the lobby and walk down the hallway to the rink. Free skate has started. A dozen skaters are warming up. Watching them, Coach Victor leans on the rink half wall. He nods to me as I pass by. I scan the ice. No sign of Regan or Autumn. Oh, wait. Their dads approach Victor. The coach is trying to watch his skaters. I’ve only been here a few weeks, but I know the score. It’s not that different than back home. Regan and Autumn are the stars of the team. Their dads pay the arena a lot of money each month. They’ve bought and paid for Victor’s full attention. He gives it to them now. I catch a snatch of their conversation, something about Victor needing to step it up. If they don’t make nationals next year, they’ll be looking for a new coach.
I feel sorry for Victor. He’s been nice to me, but let’s face it. He’s been with the club for seven years and not a single one of his skaters has won a major event yet. I know some of this is luck. He can’t control who joins the club, but the parents will look for any excuse when their precious little darlings lose. Plus, there’s a rumor going around about Victor and one of the married skating moms, and that this isn’t his first indiscretion. Seems like Victor is a dog. Ew. I can’t even think about a guy that old doing it. I don’t know if it’s true, but a scandal won’t help him keep his job. He’s already one losing season away from unemployment.
Another door leads to the locker room. Sweat gathers in my armpits as I traverse the narrow hall and push through the door marked Girls. If Regan and Autumn aren’t on the ice, then they must be in here. What can I do? Victor saw me. I have to get my butt on the ice or he’ll tell Mom I’m wasting my practice time—and her money. He seems to have taken an interest in me.
Not that this is a biggie. He’s not the greatest coach in the world. But his praise feels good anyway.
Voices ricochet on cinder block walls and rows of metal lockers set up in four U-shaped sections. Six girls are changing in the first niche. No sign of Regan or Autumn yet, but I know they’re here. My pulse skips, and my stomach turns queasy. I walk past the second alcove, and there they are, dressed and packing their equipment into duffels. Five more minutes and I would have missed them.
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