“But why? From everything that I’ve heard, Malachi liked the teacher. And Peter Andres liked Malachi well enough—he hated Abraham Smith.”
“There’d been trouble, bad blood with Malachi,” John said. “God knows, maybe at one time, Jamie O’Neill might have been able to help him. I know that O’Neill kept trying—despite the system that gave the kid back to his parents without interference—and he might have had some luck with him. But, come on—the kids were terrified of him.”
“John, he was like the runt of the litter—picked on.”
“And, sometimes, Sam, when kids pick on another kid, there’s a good reason. Oh, come on, you know that the signs of a serial killer can be seen at a young age. Sickos who throw rocks at dogs and kill kittens.”
Sam stared at John. “And did anyone ever report that Malachi Smith killed a kitten?”
“Not actually?” Sam demanded.
“Do you know of a kitten that was killed?”
John opened his mouth, arched his eyebrows and then closed his mouth again. “No.”
“John, you persecuted that kid because of hearsay.”
“No, Sam, you weren’t here. Something really happened to the Yates kid—David. He was in agony. Whether Malachi Smith just has something about him that threatened the other kids or not, he’s strange.”
“I don’t think you can be tried for murder just for being strange,” Sam said.
“And I should ignore all the warning signs—not to mention the fact that the kid was covered in his family’s blood—and fail to make an arrest? He hasn’t been charged with the murder of Earnest Covington or that of Peter Andres. He was a person of interest, that’s all. And in the Covington case, Yates and his friend said that they saw him coming from Earnest Covington’s house.”
“And Milton Sedge said that the kid was in his store.”
“I just said that he’d only been a person of interest,” John told him.
Sam let out a long breath and knew that he needed to maintain control. John Alden was legally obligated to give him certain information vital to the case, but he didn’t have to go out of his way to be helpful. He couldn’t push the man too far; he was already basically questioning his police work.
“I’m sorry, John. If he was brought into court on the Covington murder, I’d rip the prosecution to shreds in a matter of minute. These days, I have to prove reasonable doubt, and in a he-said-he-said situation, I’d sure as hell have doubt.”
“Sam, you saw him the night I arrested him. What would you have done?”
“Arrested him,” Sam admitted after a long pause.
“I don’t judge. I’m not on the bench, and I won’t be on the jury,” the policeman said. “I try to maintain the law. I’m not out for Malachi Smith. Prove to me the kid is innocent, and I’ll be the first to tear apart the world trying to get at the truth. But right now, he looks like our man.”
Sam nodded. “Of course. And thank you, John.”
John nodded back.
“So, the killer came in by the door—without forcing it—and apparently came right at Earnest Covington, sliced him to death and left,” Sam said.
John nodded, watching him. Sam walked back to the front door, halfway closed it, pushed it open and walked into the hall. He looked to the right and left, and headed in toward the hearth in the parlor to the left. Earnest Covington must have been standing by his hearth. On the mantel, Sam saw that he kept a kept a metal receptacle for mail. Possibly he was looking through his bills when his killer entered. Sam took a closer look. There was a letter in the bin that looked as if it had been almost shoved back in, a letter postmarked Sydney, Australia. The sender was an Earnest Covington, Jr. Through the envelope, he could see the outline of photographs; Covington might not have owned a computer or a cell phone.
Blood spattered the cheap Rembrandt knockoff on the wall above the mantel. The floor in front of the mantel was still soaked with a dark stain.
“There’s one thing I should tell you,” John said.
“Another reason Malachi Smith came to mind—around here, folks aren’t great at locking their doors. Earnest Covington almost never did, according to his neighbors. He told them he didn’t have anything worth anything, and if some poor fellow walked in, he was welcome to take what he could.”
“Why did that make you think of Malachi?”
“Malachi lives in the neighborhood and he would have known that.”
“Was he supposed to have bad blood with Earnest Covington?”
“Not the kid—the old man. Covington was pretty vocal about the fact that he thought Abraham Smith should sell the house…and get out of the neighborhood. But, to be honest, I never heard about anything negative happening between Malachi and Covington—in fact, once, when Covington fell on an icy step, Malachi came over, dialed 911 and stayed with him until help came.”
“That really suggests murder,” Sam said quietly.
John shrugged. “Maybe the old man—Abraham Smith—killed his enemies, and his son freaked out and killed his father and family when he found out. You know, religious duty and all. Now, there’s a rational theory for you.”
“A rational theory—just as rational as someone else having committed all the murders,” Sam said.
John watched from the doorway. “Reasonable doubt—maybe you could prove that if Malachi had been charged with Covington’s murder. But reasonable doubt on his family when we found him bathed in blood? Sam Hall, you have a hell of an uphill road ahead of you!”
Sam suddenly wished that Jenna was with him. He wasn’t sure that he believed in “postcognition,” but he wasn’t getting a thing himself. It all seemed too simple.
“Mind if I walk around the house?” he asked.
“Knock yourself out. Covington has one son, lives in Australia. He’s a single father, twin two-year-olds. We’ve been keeping him informed on the investigation through Skype online. I’m sure if you think it will help solve the mystery of his father’s murder, he’ll be all for an explanation. You just promise me one thing, Sam Hall.”
“If we prove that Malachi Smith killed these people, and you do wind up defending him with the excuse that he’s crazy as all hell, you don’t demand that he be let out on the streets in a year!”
“I promise you, the actual murderer will be locked away for a long, long time,” Sam said with final authority.
Jenna saw John Alden’s police car on the street. Crime-scene tape hung from the door and the door itself was ajar. She hesitated before touching the knob.
“Hello?” she called.
John Alden came and opened the door for her. “Miss Duffy. What a surprise. Only it’s not a surprise—right? Sam probably just called you.”
“True,” she said.
“He’s upstairs. Come on in. Though why he called you, I don’t really know. You don’t seem to react well at a crime scene, and I’m damned glad. That makes you nicely human.”
He meant to be nice. She smiled. “I’m okay.”
“And you’re FBI, eh?”
She laughed. “Tougher than I look, I guess.”
“But you must get lots of blood and guts,” John said.
“I do, but—”
“No, no, sorry for being abrasive. You’re right—when it stops bothering us, we need to get the hell out of law enforcement.”
Jenna heard footsteps coming down the stairs and then Sam’s voice. “Jenna! You’re here.” He glanced at John. “We happened to talk. She was in the area.”
“Of course,” said the cop.
Sam grinned at him. He looked at Jenna again. His expression was grave and yet, he seemed relieved. Maybe he’d been afraid she would refuse to come, after the way they had parted. He had almost called her a charlatan.
“Jenna, here’s what I know, what I suspect. Earnest Covington was known to leave his door open. He wasn’t afraid of thieves. So, he either left his door open and the killer walked in—and caught him in front of the hearth—or he let his killer in, they came into the parlor together, and then the killer struck. I’ve a hunch it was the former rather than the latter. I think that Earnest Covington was just about to go through his mail, something he probably wouldn’t be doing with company. Plus, the first letter in the mail grate is from his son. There’s a picture in it, and he might have been about to admire his grandsons.”
Jenna looked at him and nodded. “Makes sense. I’m going to just take a look around, too, then.”
“Makes sense,” Sam replied, and began a conversation with the policeman that seemed more like a smokescreen for her than anything real.
She walked back to the door to let her mind encompass what had taken place, while she tried to let her heart imagine Earnest Covington. She closed her eyes and had an impression of an older man—the perfect grandfather figure. He’d had white hair, he’d been lean and weathered, a man who had worked through his prime, and was still fierce in his thoughts and opinions. His life was somewhat lonely, but he didn’t mind—his wife was gone, and he wanted no other. He lived to tell the occasional visitor what Salem had been like before they’d gone modern-day witch crazy, before they’d become so commercial and when the House of the Seven Gables hadn’t been blocked from view by a dozen gift shops hawking witch T-shirts.
As she thought these things, it seemed that a shadowy haze slipped over her, and the house. She had a sense of coming home and leaving the door open. Who would want his old stuff? The sofa with the upholstery that was all lumpy, or the TV that barely worked and certainly wasn’t attached to any newfangled gadgets. He walked into the living room, having just been for a stroll down the street. He smiled, thinking of the letter his son had sent. Wretched boy, falling in love with a foreigner, and heading off with her to Australia. It was with a heavy heart that he thought of the daughter-in-law he’d met at the wedding but never seen again. She’d died in a flash from a virus that no one had been able to stop. So now, of course, his son was still in Australia, but Earnest hoped that he’d come home soon enough, when the boys were a little bit older and his in-laws learned to live with their loss. For now, he had the pictures that Andrew sent, like these new ones….