“What have we here?”
Tony took out a handkerchief, bent and gingerly lifted a small pile of photographs. He broughtthem out into the light of the foyer and laid them on the hall table. The grim expression onhis face and furious glint in his eyes made a chill race up her spine.
“Tony? What is it?” Erin asked.
Tony turned to one of the police officers. “Call it in. This is a crime scene. We needforensics here stat.”
Erin stepped closer for a look at the photographs splayed across the tabletop. Her stomachtwisted in knots and her legs threatened to collapse. They were photographs of her.
At the grocery store. Coming out of work. Sitting on the porch. Playing with Jack in the yard.There were even pictures of her at the Easter picnic fundraiser.
And every picture had a black X over her face.
is the mother of two grown sons and the grandmother of three wonderful growing-like-weedsgrandsons. She has two daughters-in-law that have blessed her by their addition to her family.She lives in Florida, nestled somewhere between the Daytona Beach speedway and the St.Augustine fort, with Cocoa, her golden Lab, and Thea, her border collie. Thea and Cocoa don’tknow they are dogs, because no one has ever told them. Shhhh.
When she was growing up, her siblings always believed she could “exaggerate” her way throughany story and often waited with bated breath to see how events turned out, even though they hadbeen present at most of them. Now she brings those stories to life on the written page.
Her writing has earned her numerous awards, including a Daphne du Maurier Award of Excellence.
She would love to hear from her readers. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Even when I walk through the darkest valley, I will not be afraid, for you are close beside
To my siblings, Thomas Donahue, Michael Donahue, Cathy Joki, Brian Donahue, Brendan Donahue andLori Hoskins—each one in their own unique way helped shape me into the person I am today.
To Dan, Claudia, Jeptha, Jesse, Luke, Dave and Esther—the keepers of my heart.
To Sarah McDaniel and Tina James for their encouragement, patience and wisdom—you made thisstory the best it could be.
To Sergeant Eric Dietrich and retired detective John Foxjohn—who gave generously of their timeand wisdom.
To Connie Neumann, author, mentor, friend—at my side from beginning to end. Thanks so much.
To the KOD lethaladies critique groups—both groups helped me shape and grow this story. Thanksdoesn’t seem good enough.
To Bill Burke—you believed this day would happen long before I dared to hope. I wish you hadlived long enough to see it. But somehow I believe you already know. I miss you so very much.
And most of all, to my Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ—my shelter, my strength, my joy. Allpraise and honor is yours.
CHAPTER ONE CHAPTER TWO CHAPTER THREE CHAPTER FOUR CHAPTER FIVE CHAPTER SIX CHAPTER SEVEN CHAPTER EIGHT CHAPTER NINE CHAPTER TEN CHAPTER ELEVEN CHAPTER TWELVE CHAPTER THIRTEEN CHAPTER FOURTEEN CHAPTER FIFTEEN CHAPTER SIXTEEN CHAPTER SEVENTEEN CHAPTER EIGHTEEN CHAPTER NINETEEN CHAPTER TWENTY QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION
Friday, 3:30 p.m., Florida
His fingers tapped an angry rhythm against the handle of the scalpel hidden in his pocket.Where was she? He checked his wristwatch for the third time in as many minutes. Her shift hadended thirty minutes ago. She should be standing in that doorway by now.
A boom of thunder, like cannon fire, shook the ground. A stinging stream of water hit his face,but still he didn’t move from beneath the tree. He simply raised his umbrella and continued tostare at the entrance to the hospital.
A petite woman in her early thirties paused in the doorway of Florida Memorial and frowned atthe weather.
What kept you, sweetheart? What’s the matter? Afraid a little rain might hurt you? He chuckled
at the irony of his thoughts. He shoved his hand back into his pocket, grasping and releasingthe weapon. His pulse quickened. His skin quivered in anticipation.
From a distance, he watched as she rummaged through her tote bag and pulled out a magazine. Agrin twisted his lips. Like that’s going to protect you. Like anything could protect you now.
Eyeing the storm once more, the woman placed the magazine over her head and dashed to theparking lot.
He shadowed her at a discreet distance, not that it would have mattered. She was so busy tryingto save herself from the storm, she was oblivious to her true danger.
She fumbled with her keys and dropped them. Seeming to realize the futility of trying to staydry, she lowered the magazine, scooped up her keys and unlocked her car door. Her blond hair,wet and matted, hugged her skull.
He took out his own keys and slipped into the truck parked behind her blue minivan. Adjustingthe rearview mirror, he watched her back out of her parking space. Her brake lights glowed atthe stop sign before she signaled and turned into the late-afternoon traffic.
He turned the key in the ignition.
Hurry, little one, this way and that. None of it will matter because death is right behind you.
“I hate cops!” The kitchen door slammed shut behind Erin O’Malley. Seeing her aunt and sonsitting at the table, she grinned sheepishly. “Sorry.” She deposited the groceries in herarms on the counter.
Aunt Tess chuckled. “Sounds like someone got another speeding ticket.”
“Yeah, going forty-five in a thirty-five zone. I’m a genuine NASCAR driver.”
“Mommy, it’s not nice to say you hate cops,” Erin’s five-year-old son, Jack, mumbledthrough a mouthful of cereal. “Cops are the good guys.”
Good guys? One of those good guys had raised her, teaching her all she needed to know aboutsecrets, pain and loss. And Jack’s dad had been one of those “good guys,” too. But itdidn’t stop him from hightailing it out of their lives when Jack was diagnosed with cerebralpalsy. No, thank you very much. She’d had enough of those “good guys” to last a lifetime.
“You’ve packed so much cereal in your mouth that the pressure has clogged up your ears,little man. Mommy said she ran into some ‘great cops.’” She kissed her son’s forehead andruffled his hair. “Besides, what did I tell you about talking with food in your mouth?”
“Oh-kay.” Jack gulped and swallowed his last bite. “I’m ready. Let’s go.”
Erin was daydreaming about a day off and almost didn’t hear her son. A day of rest. Putteringaround in her garden. Reading a book from her growing to-be-read pile. Maybe even sneaking in abubble bath. The temptation to indulge herself brought a smile to her lips.
“Now, Jack, I think your mother might be a bit tuckered out.” Tess patted his hand. “Whydon’t you and I have a picnic in the backyard and let your mother get some rest.”
Jack turned to face her, his eyes wide. “But, Mommy, you promised.”
The urgency in his voice snagged her attention. She blinked and just looked at him while herbrain scrambled to get out of daydream mode and process what he said. She remembered now.They’d been planning to attend the annual Wish for the Stars fundraiser and today was the bigday.
This year it coincided with the upcoming Easter holiday. Carol Henderson, her best friend andmember of the planning committee, told them the opening ceremony included a parade led by theEaster Bunny and more than five thousand eggs hidden away for the hunt. Later, there’d bemusic, hot dogs, hamburgers, soda and chips. All for a nominal price of admission.
Jack grew more excited as the day approached. His excitement must have stemmed from the thoughtof having a whole afternoon to play with Amy, Carol’s daughter. Best of friends just liketheir moms, they had fewer play dates due to crazy work schedules now that the hospital wastransitioning to the new building.
Or maybe he was excited because he loved picnics.
Either way, Erin had to admit she was looking forward to the event herself. She’d been antsylately. Feeling unsettled. Wary. And not sure why. Probably because winter had clung longerthan normal to Florida this year.
Or maybe she felt unsettled because she hadn’t been sleeping well lately because of prankcalls throughout the night.
Erin’s gaze fell upon the small walker beside her son’s chair and her heart clenched. Nomatter how tired she was or how inviting a relaxing day at home might be she knew she couldn’tlet her son down. After all, asking to go on an Easter egg hunt wasn’t unreasonable. Sheglanced at her watch. If they hurried, they’d be just in time for the parade.
“Finish your milk and we’ll go,” Erin said.
Jack reached for his glass and knocked it over.
Erin grabbed a dish towel and started to sop up the liquid.
“I’ll get Jack changed,” Tess said.
Erin nodded. “Thanks, Tess. Don’t know what we’d do without you.”
“Never mind that,” she said, but blushed beneath the compliment. She shooed Jack toward thebedroom.
Erin glanced at the empty doorway and thought about how lucky she was that Tess had moved in tohelp after Erin’s father, Tess’s brother, had died. It had taken years for her father andErin to reconcile but she had been devastated when he was killed. She didn’t think she wouldhave made it through without Tess and her newfound faith to comfort her.
The phone rang.
Lost in thought, the trilling sound startled her. It rang a second time. She stood perfectlystill, staring at the instrument like it was a dagger poised to strike. Please, God, not
She hugged her arms to her body. Uneasiness crept up her spine. She was surprised she wasletting a few anonymous telephone calls make her this jittery. It had to be that boy down thestreet. He had harassed the neighborhood for days last year until his father discovered what hewas doing. He was probably up to his old tricks. She needed to get a hold of herself. And sheneeded to go have a chat with the boy’s dad.
Erin grabbed the phone on the fourth ring.
No reply. She’d answered at least a dozen calls over the past three days, half of them wakingher in the middle of the night.
“I know you’re there.” Erin pressed the phone tightly against her ear. Straining to hearsomething. Anything. The breathing grew heavier, but still, no one spoke.
“Quit calling here or I’m going to call the police.” She slammed the phone in the cradle.Yep, it had to be a bored teenager playing a prank. Absently rubbing her arms, she continued to
like a prank. She didn’t hear muffled giggles onfeelstare at the instrument. But it didn’t
the end of the line. She heard—She didn’t know what she heard. She only knew that herinstincts blared an inner warning that something was wrong and she had learned through theschool of hard knocks to trust those instincts.
“Ready, Mom?” Jack rolled his walker across the room and grinned up at her, wearing hisfavorite green-striped shirt with the dinosaur logo and a pair of jeans.
Shaking off her anxiety as the result of lack of sleep, she leaned down and hugged him. “Youbet. Let’s go.”
Less than an hour later, while they waited by the side of the parade route, Erin’s sense ofuneasiness returned. Crazy as it was, she couldn’t shake the feeling that someone was watchingthem. Goose bumps shivered along her arms. Glancing over her shoulder, her eyes roamed thecrowd. Children and adults formed two lines up and down the parade route. Some of the parentshad brought folding chairs. Others stood. Children sat cross-legged in the grass. A youngcouple chased a laughing toddler bent on escape.
Nothing sinister. Nothing ominous. Why couldn’t she shake this feeling?
Erin recognized many of her coworkers from the hospital. She couldn’t identify everyone byname, but she’d passed them in the halls or had ridden with them on an elevator. She waved tothe ones she did know and nodded to others. It seemed like half the hospital staff came. Dr.Clark and his family. Shelley from the cafeteria crew. Mr. Peters from housekeeping. EvenLenny, the lab tech, had come. But that was no big surprise. The hospital cosponsored the eventand all personnel had been encouraged to buy a ticket.
She turned her head and her eyes lit on her friend. She waved for Carol to join them. Erinbanished her anxiety when Carol elbowed her way through the crowd and stood beside her.
“Can you believe this?” Carol asked. “I knew we’d have a crowd, but this is twice as manypeople as I expected. Times are tough. Money is tight, but it didn’t stop folks from reachinginto their wallets to buy a ticket for a good cause, did it?”
Carol scooped Amy up into her arms. The child’s soft blond curls framed a little round facewhich held a smiling mouth and the slightly slanted eyes of a three-year-old Down syndromechild.
“You’ve done a great job, Carol.”
“Not just me. The committee worked hard and it looks like it paid off.” Music began playingand the excitement of the crowd became palpable. The sound of children’s laughter and yells ofexcitement tinkled in the air like wind chimes.
“The parade’s about to begin. Look,” Carol said, pointing to her right. “Here comes theEaster Bunny.”
He steadied the camera and clicked a picture. Then, he took another. He cursed when peoplemoved in front of him and obstructed his view of her. Move. All of you. Get out of my way. He
elbowed his way through the crowd until her image filled the camera lens again. Click. She