A gust of wind rattled the windows and rustled the branches of the giant oak in the center of the yard. Hannah moved to the pantry, opened the door, and examined the alarm panel mounted on the inside wall. Round lights blinked in a steady and reassuring green line. The security system was armed; all zones were quiet. She closed the pantry door and glanced out into the darkness again. An intruder would trip the alarm, but out in the country, help wasn’t around the corner. It could take the police twenty minutes or more to respond to a call.
A lot could happen in twenty minutes, and the Colonel hadn’t raised a damsel in distress. He’d raised a damsel who caused distress.
Hannah retraced her steps. In the upstairs hall, she went into the master bedroom. In the walk-in closet, she located Grant’s gun safe and spun the combination. The heavy door opened to reveal a hefty collection of weapons. Three rifles, a shotgun, a few handguns, her father’s combat knife. Her Glock was in the bottom drawer. She grabbed her holster and a full magazine before closing and locking the safe. In her room, she dressed in jeans and a sweater. With her gun in hand, she went back downstairs. The dog was still growling at the sliding glass door.
Wind gusted again. Carson’s tire swing swayed. Beyond, in the darkness, movement caught Hannah’s eye. A large body bounded in the shadows. The deer flashed past, the light catching red in its eyes as it sprang through an open area and disappeared into the woods.
Hannah looked down at the dog. “Really?”
The dog pricked its ears forward and focused on the door. She emitted another low growl. Maybe it hadn’t been the deer. AnnaBelle whined.
“Oh, no. We are not going for a walk at dark o’clock.”
The dog kept watch for another ten minutes, then she yawned, stretched, and trotted across the room to curl up in her dog bed.
“At least one of us can sleep.”
Several hours remained until dawn. Too keyed up to go back to bed, Hannah returned to the door and stared out into the darkness. The lights had gone out. Whatever had been moving around in the backyard was gone. She went to the couch and sat down, setting her gun and holster on the coffee table. If the kids were home, she’d have secured her weapon. But this morning, she was very much alone.
The motion lights went out, leaving the yard dark again. The big farmhouse blotted out a chunk of night sky. From the cover of the woods, Mick raised the binoculars to his face and focused on the back door.
Hannah Barrett. Long and lean, with her fresh face and just-out-of-bed hair, standing in her designer-perfect kitchen, symbolized every woman who would never be his. She was staring at the spot where he’d been standing just minutes ago. It felt as if she could see him. As if their eyes were meeting. As if she knew what was coming. Despite the cold night, excitement warmed his blood.
Mick backed farther into the woods. A branch swiped his head. Cursing, he swatted at it. He’d forgotten how much he hated the outdoors.
She moved away from the window. He needed to go. Couldn’t be caught out here in the daylight. He skirted the property, staying just inside the trees, until he reached the road. He’d parked the car behind a clump of evergreens on the other side of the road. But watching from a distance hadn’t been enough.
He’d gotten too close, close enough for the dog to sense him and wake her. The motion lights had been a surprise. A security system was a possibility. He needed to case the place in daylight, but this wasn’t a neighborhood. People did not walk past houses in the middle of nowhere. Getting Hannah Barrett wouldn’t be easy like all the other women he’d grabbed. She was no dumb runaway.
Sunday had been a wasted day. He and Sam had dumped the body before dawn, then gone back to the house. The dogs in the kennel had been barking nonstop, so he’d tossed them some food and then crashed. He hadn’t woken up until night. But then, being up all night was normal for him, and the time difference between here and Vegas had screwed up his hours further. At home, it was one in the morning, and he wouldn’t be going to sleep for hours yet. It had all worked out for the best, though. He’d gotten here in time to see the family leave an hour earlier, everyone except the blond.
She was in there, and she was alone.
Patience was a virtue, but Mick wasn’t a virtuous man. He didn’t want to wait until the opportunity to grab her presented itself. He wanted her now. His fingers curled into a fist and punched his thigh.
If only he had something—or someone—to relieve his frustration.
At seven o’clock Monday morning, Brody parked his sedan in front of Jim’s News Agency. He went inside. The scent of tobacco hit his nose. Not cigarettes. He walked through the store. Rows of displays filled the long, narrow shop. Books and magazines occupied two aisles. The third was filled with tins of pipe tobacco. Brody picked up a red tin. Cherry-flavored. A whiff of the tin brought back memories of his grandfather. He carried it to the register.
An elderly clerk sat on a wooden stool behind the counter. Three people lined up to pay for their items. Brody waited while the clerk rang up their newspapers, coffees, and packs of cigarettes. Brody put the tin of tobacco on the counter and paid in cash. The clerk gave him his change and a receipt.
“Is the ink always red?” Brody asked.
“I’ve been working here five years. Been red that whole time.” The clerk’s dentures clacked.
Not the store where Jane Doe bought her cigarettes.
“Thanks.” Brody left the shop. He tossed the tin on the passenger seat of his car. Why had he bought tobacco? He didn’t smoke. He hadn’t thought about his grandfather in a long time, but today, he missed him.
He was midway down his list of local cigarette vendors where Jane Doe might have purchased her pack of smokes. He’d spent most of yesterday evening generating a list of newsstands, liquor stores, convenience stores, and gas stations that sold cigarettes within ten miles of Scarlet Falls. Following the receipt was a long shot, but for the moment, it was the only clue Brody had at his disposal.
He’d pared his initial list down to a dozen of the most likely possibilities. He crossed any large chain stores off his list. A large franchise would have its name at the top of the receipt. He’d already visited two independent gas stations and a convenience store. No matches.
He started his car and drove four blocks to park in front of Smith’s Food Mart. He stepped through the door and walked toward the register. The familiar smell of coffee and newsprint brought the vision hurtling through Brody’s imagination. He was transported back to another convenience store, when a simple stop for coffee changed Brody’s life forever, the day he learned a few important life lessons: Even a veteran cop can freeze like a rookie when confronted unexpectedly with an armed robber pointing a gun at a hostage’s head. Just because your partner has twenty-five years of experience in law enforcement doesn’t mean he’d ever drawn his gun in the line of duty. When wearing body armor, a bullet to the chest felt like being struck by a baseball bat. PTSD sucked, and having your spouse walk away while you’re dealing with the ugly fallout sucked more. Finally, killing a man, even in a justified shooting necessary to defend innocent lives, leaves a permanent stain on a man’s conscience.
“Excuse me, are you in line?”
Brody startled. His heart was sprinting, and the back of his shirt was damp with sweat under his jacket. A woman with a quart of milk in her hand stood next to him.
“No, you go ahead.” He grabbed a copy of today’s New York Times, tucked it under his arm, and stepped into line behind her.
He hadn’t thought actively about the Boston shooting in a long time. Between the close shave with Jordan Brown and the badly beaten corpse, it was no wonder his brain was revisiting the violence from his past.
At the register, he tossed a few dollars on the counter and picked up his change and small white register receipt. Black ink. Narrow tape. Could he have gotten lucky?
He went back to the car, pulled out his copy of Jane Doe’s receipt, and compared the two. The fonts and spacing were definitely different. He grabbed his list and marked off the two stores. This was pointless. He didn’t even know if the dead woman was a local. She could have bought those cigarettes fifty miles from Scarlet Falls. But what else was he going to do? He tossed the newspaper onto the passenger seat of his car.
The interior of the vehicle smelled like cherry tobacco, and the scent brought back bittersweet memories. His grandparents had been married for fifty-three years. In that time, they’d buried their only child and raised Brody. Despite their grief and the added pressure of unexpectedly being saddled with a young child, he’d never seen anything but love between them. Sure, they argued, but always with respect. They’d handled life’s traumas and dramas by supporting each other. In their eighties, they’d still held hands. Though Brody’s marriage hadn’t withstood the test, he knew what was possible. If he ever did it again, he wouldn’t settle for less.
Looking up, he stared at a Dunkin’ Donuts three doors down. Hannah Barrett and her supposed weakness popped into his head. She’d be alone today. After the incident in Vegas and that distressing e-mail, he should stop in and check on her. His desire to see her had nothing to do with the hollow space the Jane Doe case had left in his gut or the fact that he was suddenly, inexplicably thinking about his grandparents, his ex-wife, and the fact that he had no one on this earth to call family. But he knew instinctively that seeing Hannah would clear his mind of the violent reruns. So, what did that mean? Brody had spent most of the last eight years alone, but this was the first time he’d felt lonely.