It was the murder that triggered everything. The moment Laurel Hodges—Vivian Stewart as of two years ago—heard of it, all that she’d been through, all that she’d done to escape her past, came rushing back to her. And it happened at a place where she’d felt completely safe only a heartbeat earlier. She was having highlights put in her hair at “Claire’s Salon,” which wasn’t much of a salon at all, just an add-on to her friend’s small home.
Although Claire had grown up here, Vivian had lived in Pineview only since she assumed her most recent identity. She’d chosen this place because it had such an extremely low crime rate, it was so far from where she’d been before and it was on the backside of nowhere in Montana. She’d never dreamed the people who’d been chasing her for four years would ever think to look here. And it’d been a long enough stretch of peace and quiet to believe “the terrible years” were over. She’d left her old self behind, adjusted, started her fledgling purse designing business and began to live again. She and her two children—Mia, seven, and Jake, nine—were finally starting to belong.
And now, in the blink of an eye, everything they’d created here felt threatened.
“What’d you say?” Lifting the bowl of the commercial hairdryer, the heat from which was supposed to aid in the color processing of her hair, she leaned out so she could hear. The postman, George Grannuto, had just walked through the doors Claire had flung wide so they could enjoy the breezy June morning while venting the fumes of the hair chemicals. “Pat Stueben’s dead,” he repeated, handing Claire her mail. “He’s been murdered.”
His face, drained of its usual ruddy color, made him appear years older than he was. Vivian new his exact age—fifty-five—because she’d attended his birthday party last month. His wife, Gertie, was part of her Thursday night book group.
Claire, only 5’3″ or so, leaned on the broom she’d been using to sweep up the hair. Vivian had wanted a sassy cut with which to embrace the freedom and happiness she’d been experiencing so often of late. She’d also gone back to being a blonde, which was her natural color. But going so short was a big change. Now she couldn’t help staring at the dark brown locks lying on the floor as if she’d just shed her skin or something else equally vital.
“How? When?” Claire pressed a hand to her chest. George’s words had knocked the air out of her, just as they had Vivian. With the disappearance of her mother fifteen years ago and the death of her husband after only one year of marriage, Claire had had more than her share of bad news. But that didn’t seem to take the edge off this. “Leanne and I saw him and Gertie at Fresh Ketch just last night,” she said. “They were in the booth next to ours.”
Tall and boney, George resembled a stork delivering a baby when he carried his bulging mailbag down Claire’s little dead-end street, and the shorts that went with his warm-weather uniform didn’t improve his appearance. They revealed stilt-like legs with knobby knees and varicose veins. But he always wore a smile.
“Someone called him,” he explained, “wanting to rent one of those cabins he owns over on north shore. So after breakfast he drove around the lake to show the property—and never came back.”
If he’d said that Pat had died of a heart attack, Vivian wouldn’t have found it difficult to believe. Pat was no longer as svelte as the picture posted on his real estate signs.
But . . . murdered? That couldn’t be. They still didn’t know what’d happened to Claire’s mother, but no one had ever been killed in this tranquil place, not in recent memory. Folks here didn’t even lock their doors at night. If the community had more than its fair share of death, it was because it had more than its fair share of seniors.
The old cloying fear welled up, making it difficult for Vivian to breathe let alone talk. After two attempts to clear her throat, she managed to find her voice. “Who discovered him?”
“Gertie.” The clicking sound George made with his tongue was shorthand for “this makes it even worse.” “When he didn’t come home, she drove over to see what was keeping him. You know how close they are. Were,” he corrected. “The scene that confronted her when she walked in was…” He shook his head.
“It was too late?” Claire asked this question; Vivian was still chasing words around the vortex of panic in her head.
George lowered his voice. “She found him lying in a pool of blood, beaten senseless. He died before he could tell her what happened.”
The hair on the back of Vivian’s neck stood on end. Beaten senseless? Who could hate Pat enough to kill him in such a violent manner? No one from Pineview. He was popular, jovial, well-liked.
Did this tragedy mean what she thought it might?
“Do they know who did it?” Claire beat Vivian to the question that burned uppermost in her mind. It was obviously important to Claire, too, and it wasn’t hard to guess why, not with a mother who’d been missing for nearly two decades.
“I don’t think so,” George replied. “Unless the sheriff has information he’s not sharing.”
Vivian considered that quite likely. Sheriff King happened to be her next door neighbor, so she knew him, at least a little. He wasn’t the type to divulge details until he was good and ready, especially if doing so might jeopardize a case. He was a by-the-book kind of cop. He was also a handsome widower with a thirteen-year-old daughter. He’d asked Vivian out on occasion, but she’d never accepted. Claire thought she was crazy for rejecting him, but she was still trying to get over Rex McCready, her brother’s best friend who’d entered WITSEC with them. Besides that, she was afraid to get close to anyone who was unaware of her real situation for fear her past would come crashing into her present, just like it seemed to be doing today.
“How do you know all this?” There. She’d found her voice again. She’d also come to her feet.
“My route covers the whole lake.” He gestured toward Crystal Lake, even though they couldn’t see it from this part of town. Claire’s house was sort of artsy, in a hippy sort of way, but it was located on the poor side of Pineview.
Claire started to speak, but Vivian plowed over her. “You were at the scene?”
“I was. So was the coroner, the sheriff, some detectives and forensic techs from the county. Boy, were they were a grim bunch; the sheriff was downright stone-faced.”
For good reason…
Heedless of the hair cuttings that remained on the floor, Claire set her broom aside. “Is he the one who told you about Pat?”
“No, C.C. Larsen did. When Gertie found him, she ran to C.C.’s to use the phone.”
“But C.C.’s house is a quarter of a mile from those rentals, at least,” Claire said. And she would know. Having lived here her whole life, she knew every street, every alley, every empty field and rental cabin. She’d searched them all, at one point or another, for her mother.
He adjusted his bag to redistribute the weight. “She didn’t want to knock on another rental for fear of who might be staying there. You can understand, considering.” Wrinkling his nose, he added, “C.C. and I watched them cart out the body.”
“This is terrible,” Vivian muttered, but she wasn’t really thinking about what she was saying. She was wondering if the panic adding to her sadness over Pat’s death was justified or simply an echo of an earlier time.
“I tried to get a few more details from the sheriff, but…it was a waste of effort,” George said. “He told me he’s investigating the incident and will know more later. He also said everything will be okay. But I don’t see how it can ever be okay for Gertie.”
The sheriff had answered without really answering. Vivian recognized such “cop-speak” because she’d heard it before. When her stepfather had been shot and killed, the investigators wouldn’t tell her or her family anything. Not knowing what was really going on had been almost as agonizing as learning that they were placing the blame on Virgil, her older brother, and prosecuting him, at eighteen, for murder.
“We’ve got a right to more information than that,” Claire complained. “It’s our community, too.”
“I know, right?” George agreed. “I see those shows on TV. I know what can happen when a serial killer gets started. Psychopaths don’t quit till someone stops ’em. And this sounds like a psychopath to me. Who else would beat a man like that for no reason?”
“Could it be that some drug addict wanted Pat’s wallet and he wouldn’t give it up?” Vivian grasped at any feasible explanation beyond what she feared.
“It’s possible, I suppose,” George replied. “No one said. But a bungled mugging would be better than a serial killer. Imagine someone like that Zodiac fella or—or BTK setting up shop right here in the Chain of Lakes.”
Vivian couldn’t imagine it. That was the problem. What’d happened to Claire’s mother fifteen years ago was the only blemish on this place, and most folks believed she ran off. This town, nestled so close to Crystal Lake, was picture-perfect. Safe. Close-knit. Stunningly beautiful. Untouched by the rest of the world. Apart from it, too. Pineview didn’t even have cell reception.
It did, however, have its first modern-day murder.
“The FBI would descend on us. The media, too.” George was expanding on the psychopath theory.
Claire checked the street, probably hoping to see her sister, Leanne, roll toward them in her motorized wheelchair. Crippled in a sledding accident when she was only thirteen, Leanne drove it everywhere, even through the ruts on her own road. “Maybe Chester over at the paper will get a letter from the killer, taunting Sheriff King.”
George staggered under the weight of his bag. “Or someone else will die.”
A real estate agent left beaten to death inside his own vacation rental spoke more of rage than of a stalking type murder, but Vivian didn’t say so. She preferred to fade into the background, didn’t want Claire or George to think she knew anything about the subject. No one here was aware that her stepfather had been murdered, or that her brother had served fourteen years in prison before being exonerated. They had no idea of the problems that’d started upon his release, either. Because all of that had happened to Laurel Hodges, not Vivian Stewart.
“If there’s a serial killer running around, the danger is far from over,” Claire said, but Vivian wasn’t so sure this perpetrator had killed just for the joy of killing. If the men inside the violent gang her brother had joined while he was in prison had caught up with her yet again, it could be that Pat had merely gotten in the way. Like that U.S. Marshal in one of the places she’d been before. The Crew slit his throat and left him bleeding out on the floor. They would’ve killed her, too, if not for—
She couldn’t even think of what’d almost happened, because it involved her children. The men who made up The Crew were ruthless animals who’d stop at nothing. They’d proven that, hadn’t they? They’d also proven that they could gain whatever information they wanted. Claire was convinced that someone in the very agency charged with their protection had been leaking information. That was the only way The Crew could’ve found them before, when they were all living in DC. So they’d left the witness protection program, assumed new identities yet again and separated. Other than Virgil, his wife, Peyton, and Rex, who lived in Buffalo, New York and with whom she was pretty much able to communicate only via email, no one knew where she was, not even their handler from WITSEC who’d helped them relocate the first time. After all that, what more could she possibly do to keep her small family safe?
Should she have changed her children’s names, too? Because children were so difficult to trace—they didn’t sign up for credit cards or get jobs or do any of the other things that left a trail—she’d opted to keep them innocent of the whole thing. They’d been young enough at the time, too young to really understand, which meant what they might say to someone could be far more dangerous than retaining their first names, especially with a different last name, which they understood happened occasionally because of her divorce.
“We need to look out for each other, report any strangers we see,” Claire instructed.
“But it’s tourist season,” George responded. “There’re always strangers this time of year, most of ’em young guys who’ve come to hunt or fish or canoe. And you know how rough some of ’em can look, with all their tattoos and body piercings.”
“Then we’ll have to keep our eye on all of them.” Claire glanced at Vivian, anticipating her full agreement, and did a double-take. “Oh my God! We’ve got to get you rinsed!”
* * *
She’d changed her hair. Drastically. Myles King noticed that right off. For one thing, she was now blonde. That suited her, but he couldn’t tell if he liked the cut, couldn’t see Vivian clearly enough. His neighbor waited just outside the dim yellow glow of his porch light as if she feared he might press her to come inside if she moved any closer. She always approached him as warily as she might a bear or some other dangerous animal.
What made her so skittish?
He might’ve guessed that he intimidated her. Police officers got that reaction sometimes. It came with the uniform. But at 6’2″, he had her only by four inches. And maybe she was slender, but she was fit. She didn’t seem like the type to feel easily threatened.
Besides, he’d been so nice to her! He rolled her garbage can to the curb if she forgot to set it out, mowed her lawn when he mowed his, bought enough fresh strawberries to share (he’d once overheard her telling her son that she loved nothing more than fresh strawberries). He couched it all as an attempt to be neighborly, and that’s what it was-being neighborly to the beautiful sun-kissed brunette, who was no longer a brunette, next door. But nothing he did seemed to break down her defenses. Her kids were always excited to see him, but she politely declined whatever he offered and refused every invitation.
Something told him he was better off not getting involved with her. But he could sense the chemistry between them, and that’s what confused him. He’d never forget the time he was working in the yard without a shirt and caught her watching him from where she was weeding her garden. It was as if a lightning bolt had gone through them both, incinerating them on the spot.
He knew desire when he saw it; she was as attracted to him as he was her. So why wouldn’t she let him take her to dinner?
“Can I help you?” Determined not to try any harder than he already had, Myles kept one hand on the door. It’d been a hell of a day. The last thing he needed was to top it off with another strong dose of sexual frustration.
“Um, yes…maybe you can.” She cleared her throat. “I think my fridge has gone out.”
The images of blood and death he’d seen earlier still filled his head, making it difficult to immediately comprehend her words. It’d been over an hour since he returned from the scene of Pat Steuben’s murder, but he’d carried the grizzly sight home with him. To think anyone would beat a good man, a friend to everyone, in Myles’s own backyard, so to speak, made him so angry he couldn’t think of anything else. “Did you say your fridge?” he clarified.
He felt his eyebrows go up. “Okay….”
“It went on the blink a couple of hours ago and…Claire told me you’re a better handyman than Byron Jacobs.” She flashed him a quick smile. “She said he had to call you when he couldn’t fix her stove last month.”
She was she here for a favor? She never darkened his door, except to drag her son away. Jake slipped over whenever he could. The kid liked to follow him around, even help do the yard work, so Myles had been training him to use the weed-whacker, the edger and the pruning shears.
But he wasn’t in the business of fixing other people’s broken appliances. He’d done Claire a favor. He wouldn’t mind lending Vivian a hand, too, but it’d taken him three days to screw up the nerve to ask her if she’d go out on the lake with him two weeks ago. And her response? She had to clean her house-an excuse that was almost as bad as telling him she had to wash her hair.
He opened his mouth to turn her away. He was about to say that the food would last until Byron could get to it in the morning. But he couldn’t make himself go through with it, which only proved how obsessed with her he’d become. His wife had died of cancer only three summers ago—but thirty-six months of celibacy felt a lot longer to his body than his heart. Not only that, this was the first time Vivian had invited him inside her home. From what he could tell, she didn’t ask anyone in. Except maybe Claire and Vera Soblasky, who watched Jake and Mia for her on occasion.
Too curious to miss the opportunity to see how she lived, he heard himself accept. “Sure. I can come over right now, if you want.”
“Marley won’t mind?” she asked hopefully.
His daughter had a friend over; they were watching a movie upstairs on the big screen in his bedroom. They wouldn’t miss him if he stepped out for a few minutes. “No. She’ll be fine.”
Vivian’s face lit up. “Great. Thank you so much.”
When that rare smile shot like an arrow to his groin, Myles cursed the testosterone that made him so…male. He had single women coming on to him all the time, but he wasn’t interested in them. Instead, he wanted this complicated neighbor who’d made it clear, plenty of times in the past, that she wouldn’t welcome him even as a friend.
But tonight she needed a hand. And he was planning to make sure she got it. Apparently, even the gruesome murder of an upstanding Pineview citizen couldn’t lessen her impact on him. “I’ll grab my toolbox and be over.”