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He dropped onto the sofa in the adjoining small family room. Picking up the remote, he turned on the TV. He flipped through channels until he came to a hockey game but barely saw the screen. Lee and Kate’s deaths seemed so senseless and surreal. Tomorrow the kids would be home. How was he going to manage a baby he’d never met and a grieving six-year-old he hadn’t seen in ten months?

Chapter Five

Donnie crouched behind the driver’s seat of his van and watched the big man and dog go into the Barrett house down the street. He lowered his binoculars. Who was that?

Fuck.

He did not need this shit. Yanking off his knit cap, he rubbed the stubble on his scalp with a brisk scrubbing motion. He couldn’t get lucky with this job. Three nights he’d attempted to get into the house, and all three times he’d been spotted. That bitch next door kept calling the cops. She seriously needed to be taught a lesson. With some hard-core punishment, he could teach her how to be submissive. There were so many different ways he could violate her body.

A memory intruded in his fantasy as he remembered his own lessons. He could still feel the concrete under his palms and knees and the blows to his face and body as he was beaten until he’d begged for it to be over. The humiliation of not only being forced to submit to the ultimate physical violation, but to have pleaded for it just to end the torture, had crushed his soul. Blood had dripped into his eyes and mouth. He was so fucked up now that the metallic taste or smell of it still gave him an instant hard-on.

When this job was over, he’d release his frustrations. He turned his attention back to the house he was watching. This whole job was backward. The killing was supposed to be the hard part, and the recovery easy. Instead, the murder had been almost effortless—beyond effortless—euphoric.

There had been so much blood spreading out across the icy street he’d needed to exorcise a few demons with his new girlfriend. Good thing she dug pain as much as he enjoyed inflicting it.

He chewed on a ragged cuticle that tasted like hamburger grease. The longer he sat here, the greater his chances of getting caught. Although, according to the news, the cops had nothing. Sure, they pretended they were embroiled in an “ongoing investigation,” but he knew that meant they didn’t have squat. His fingerprints and DNA were in the system. If he’d left any personal trace evidence at the crime scene, his mug shot would have been on the news. He didn’t shave from head to foot as a fashion statement.

He was clean on the murders, but his client was holding back the balance of payment until the whole job was complete. He couldn’t sit out here forever. The neighbor was bound to notice him. He copied the license plate number of the sedan in the driveway. Probably a rental, but he’d check. Then he could try to hack into the rental company’s website and get a name on the big bastard that was holding up his job.

He should have stuck with cyber crime. It didn’t require him sitting out in a cold van, freezing his nuts off. But after eighteen months in prison, violence called to him. Rage built up inside him, the internal pressure growing until his very skin grew itchy and tight. Killing the Barretts had released the tension. Hurting people was a need. He might as well get paid to do it.

Tugging the hat back on his head, he blew into his cupped fists. His breath fogged in front of him. Fucking March was still ball-shrinking cold. But running the van’s engine wasn’t an option. Nothing sucked worse than surveillance in the winter. But he didn’t have many options. He had to get into that house. And soon. He’d already blown through his retainer, and the client was freaking out.

At some point the Barrett place had to be empty.

If not, he was going to have to come up with another way to get what he needed. His gaze drifted to the bitch’s house next door, and he wondered how much she knew.

What would it take to make her tell him everything?

Chapter Six

Ellie’s second cup of coffee cooled on her desk as Detective McNamara exited her boss’s office. The detective had been at Lee and Kate’s house on Friday night. After the children had left, he’d asked her questions about Lee and Kate. The cop gave her a polite nod as he went out the frosted glass front door. Ellie swallowed the grief rising in her throat. On her lunch hour, she’d call Nan to find out if the children were home. She wondered how Grant was holding up. Even grief-stricken, the major seemed . . . solid, and she wasn’t referring to his impressive physique.

The cop hadn’t been out the door for more than two minutes when shouts blasted through her boss’s closed door.

“What the hell are you doing? You’re running my firm into the ground,” Roger Peyton Sr. yelled. “None of this ever happened when I sat at that desk. Do I need to take over?”

Murmurs followed as Roger Peyton Jr. tried to placate his father, who held on to the bulk of the partnership equity with greedy, Scrooge-like fists. Five more minutes of alternating yelling and mumbling followed before the door opened again and a remarkably spry eighty-year-old bustled out. The cane in his grip looked more like a potential weapon than a necessity. Ellie fixed her gaze firmly on her computer screen. Peyton associated her with his son. When he was angry at Roger, his irritation bubbled over to include her.

He turned a bony, hawkish face toward Ellie. “Good morning, Miss Ross.”

The deep gray of his eyes always surprised her. She half expected them to glow red.

“Good morning, Mr. Peyton.” Ellie returned to her typing. Looking busy was the best way to avoid any further discussion with the old crank. Nothing on this earth except hustling employees and tidy profits pleased the man. When he exited, the building exhaled in relief.

Her intercom buzzed. “I need to see you in my office, Ellie.”

Ellie picked up her steno pad and walked across the dark blue carpet into her boss’s expansive suite.

Roger was at the wet bar, pouring himself a generous shot of Glenfiddich.

Smoothing her skirt under her, she perched on a red leather wing chair facing his antique mahogany desk. She poised her pen over the notebook and waited. To her right, a bay window looked out onto First Street. Blue velvet curtains framed the view and puddled luxuriously on the floor. “If you keep drinking at nine a.m., he’s going to outlive you.”

Roger snorted. “He’s going to outlive me no matter what I do. I suspect he negotiated an airtight contract at the crossroads.”

At fifty-seven, Roger Peyton Jr., one of the three partners of Peyton, Peyton, and Griffin, was waiting for his father to die. Until Peyton Senior passed on, Roger had to run all major decisions past the old man, who mired the business in the traditions of the 1950s. There were no female attorneys and no male paralegals. The firm was small enough to slide eel-like under equal opportunity legislation. Men dressed in suits and ties. Women wore skirts, pantyhose, and pumps. Casual day was for the riffraff not lucky enough to be employed by this prestigious firm. Peyton Senior liked to drop by for surprise visits. Now that arthritis kept him from playing golf, fault-finding and yelling seemed to be his hobbies.

Half the office employees would pop a bottle of champagne when the old guy finally kicked.

Ellie had worked enough crappy jobs that she was willing to deal. If stodgy earned her a decent paycheck and medical benefits, then she could be as old-fashioned as the next girl, even if the job occasionally required sacrificing a tiny portion of her soul.

“Did you finish packing Lee’s personal items?” Easing back into his seat behind the desk, Roger adjusted his double-breasted suit and tugged his French cuffs into place. He took a long pull of scotch and stared at her for a minute, as if trying to make a decision.

“Yes,” she answered. “His things are ready for his family to pick up. I’ve started sorting his clients as well. This afternoon I’ll distribute his physical files to the other attorneys according to the list you supplied.”

“What would I do without you?” Roger studied the amber liquid in his tumbler. “We’re in big trouble, Ellie. Not just my dad ranting and raving at imaginary problems because he enjoys it kind of trouble.”

She straightened.

“Have you seen the case file?”

“No.”

Last month, the town had been rocked by a vicious case of bullying and the associated suicide of seventeen-year-old Lindsay Hamilton. The two alleged ringleaders of the campaign to torment Lindsay were members of the elite Valley Figure Skating Club, a competitive skating team Lindsay had joined upon her move from California to New York. The bullies were also in the top of the junior class, student council officers, and two of the brightest stars in the community. Their families had deep roots in Scarlet Falls. Lindsay’s parents claimed the bullying had driven their daughter to take her own life. The allegations were denied by the accused and their parents. No witnesses came forward. Threatening texts were sent from untraceable burner phones, and Lindsay’s phone had been wiped clean by a cell phone virus. The police had dropped the case due to lack of evidence, but Mr. and Mrs. Hamilton were determined to pursue their case in civil court. Last week, Lee had agreed to represent them.

The Hamilton case was the only case not reassigned. At some point, one of the senior partners would have to call Mr. and Mrs. Hamilton, but so far, Roger was playing the out-of-sight-out-of-mind card. Ignoring things and hoping they’d go away was his favorite business tactic.

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